Wednesday, November 5, 2014

[Movie Review] The Howling (1981)

[Warning: this review contains mild spoilers, but probably nothing you couldn't have figured out from the fact that it's a 1980s movie about werewolves. There are only so many ways it can turn out for anyone involved.]

The Howling is a good werewolf movie, but the script doesn't really stand up as well as the special effects do. Don't get me wrong though: the fact that the special effects are still creepy and disturbing even today, over thirty years later, shows just how groundbreaking they must have been in 1981. This was the first movie to feature werewolves transforming onscreen, in full view of the moviegoing public, without resorting to what amounts to stop-motion animation of hair being glued to an actor's face and hands. The viewer can, in special-effects designer Rob Bottin's words, "see the body really stretching, the nose breaking and twisting, the ribs starting to burst out."
Archive footage from the days before werewolves 
were considered even remotely sexy

The Howling also deserves bonus points for being (the first?) movie to feature werewolves as something other than poor, tortured souls who spend a month or two guilt-tripping themselves over their monthly rampages until a loved one puts them down like a rabid dog. These werewolves are in full control of their transformations (which can happen at any time, including during full daylight), and they never ask anyone to chain them up for the night: in fact, they fully enjoy their condition (going so far as to call it not a condition, but "the Gift"), and they chafe at even the relatively minor restrictions they must undergo in order to avoid detection. As one grizzled old werewolf angrily proclaims, 'humans should be our prey [not our livestock]".

My real problem with The Howling is with the flailing ineptitude of the main female character, Karen White (played by Dee Wallace). For someone who seems so utterly incapable of defending herself, or even standing up for herself, it beggars belief that she would survive as long as she does, particularly when more self-possessed characters bite it before her. She spends the whole movie getting pushed around, threatened, herded, cajoled, frightened, stalked, attacked, and even backhanded at one point (to which her immediate reaction, rather than fighting back or getting angry or leaving, is to collapse on the bed and start crying). I get that it's draining to have to spend eight hours a day in a state of frightened agitation, but Dee Wallace doesn't even convince me that she's scared in a lot of scenes: sometimes, she just looks sad, or like she's having stomach cramps. Maybe if the director gave her something to do besides screaming and crying, his leading lady wouldn't have been so drained by the experience that she'd still have the energy to act.

Pictured: a woman in the grip of utter terror

I realize that The Howling is a product of its times, when people paid for tickets to horror movies specifically so they could see a pretty young woman being menaced by terrifying monsters, but watcing this makes me really appreciate how far we've come in thirty years, and how much broader the range of options are for female characters in general, and for the female protagonists of horror movies in particular.

Monday, October 27, 2014

[Movie Review] Dear White People


If you're a white person who was hoping that Dear White People would tell you how you should feel (or even how black people feel) about affirmative action, randomized housing for students, or even race-relations in general, then I'm afraid you've got another thing coming; this isn't a movie about answers, it's a movie about questions. Like everything related to race (and sex, and gender, and sexual preference, and politics) in America, this film is thorny and complex, full of pitfalls, and doesn't really give us a sense of closure, or that anything has been "resolved".

It's also pretty funny and very smart , though I got the impression that if I were black, or knew more about black culture, that it would have been even funnier (judging from the number of times that half the audience laughed uproariously while the other half sat there with a blank look on their faces). I caught a few words and phrases that I remembered from my African American Lit class (like "the talented tenth"), and a few I knew on my own ("mulatto", "HBCUs"), but some were totally unknown to me ("redbone"), and by the time I had realized that I didn't have a clue what they meant, the actors were already two sentences ahead of me, and sometimes this meant that I lost the thread of the conversation entirely. Everyone in this movie is very smart and well-spoken, so dialogue moves along at a steady clip, not waiting very long for anything to sink in.

Dear White People does an excellent job of calling people out on their BS, but it also refuses steadfastly to pick a side. No viewpoint in this movie is presented as "right", and even the de facto "villains" of the film (the mostly-white student satire magazine editors who throw a 'hood-themed Halloween party) raise a few points which, while crass, are still difficult to dismiss outright. In the end, we're left to draw our own conclusions about what really happened, who did what, and what we should do next.

I would give this film a higher rating, because I really wanted to like it (and I did!), but the fact is that I was confused at several points in this movie. Part (maybe even most) of this was due to my own lack of familiarity with the signals and lexicon of black culture, but I feel like I can't be held entirely responsible if the movie wasn't highly comprehensible to its audience.

And that's another thing: it's not totally clear to me who the intended audience of this movie is supposed to be. Obviously it can't be entirely directed at black people if the title itself explicitly addresses white people, but it felt more like the director was trying to start a conversation within the black community about how it relates to white culture and to itself (and in particular, LGBT black people and interracial couples), rather than trying to build bridges to the white community.

 Then again, I feel like I'm a little more well-versed in the various arguments that are floating around out there in Black America's shared consciousness (and White America's, for that matter), so I guess that Dear White People accomplished its goal after all.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

[Graphic Novel Review] The Stuff of Legend, Volume 2: The Jungle

The Stuff of Legend, Volume 2: The Jungle
Th3rd World Studios, 2009
Writers: Mike Raicht, Brian Smith
Penciler: Charles Paul Wilson III
Colorists: Michael DeVito, Jon Conkling
Editors: Michael DeVito, Jon Conkling

The second volume gets off to a strong start, and the plot is solid up until the genuinely shocking plot-twist near the end of Act II (a disturbing revelation about the past actions of one of our own heroes!) and even right on through to the end (which is truly unexpected and even a little heartbreaking). Characterization continues to be solid, psychological, and interesting, adding the the complexity of the growing relationship between Jester and the Princess.

However, despite the promise of the first volume (and its excellent concept), there are a few things about the series so far that bug me:

  1. The Princess isn't the badass we were promised. In one of the extra features of Volume 1, "The Colonel's Journal", he comments that The Boy may have made a mistake not using her in the frontlines of more imaginary battles, since she's proving so tough and strong. Yet even by the end of Volume 2, we have still yet to see her do anything that's truly badass. We hear a lot about how well she fights, but she does most of that fighting off-camera, and it's not really any more spectacular than the fighting that other characters do. It's a little insulting to insert a "strong" female character, tell us what a BAMF she's going to be, then have her spend the first volume existing solely as a love-interest for a male character, and the second volume either injured, slowing the party down, teetering on the verge of death, and needing medical attention from everyone else. I really hope that the Princess turns it around in Volume 3 and displays some of her fabled battle-prowess.
  2. There are some embarrassing errors of spelling and word-choice mistakes. Mixing up fair with fare is a common word-choice mistake, and easily forgivable in everyday writing, but it's the kind of mistake that one expects not to see in a professionally-published graphic novel which has crossed the desk of at least one editor. There are several examples of poor word-choice in this book (counsel vs. council, for example), and as an English major they bother more than they might for others.
  3. "The Boy" still doesn't have a name. I understand that the author was trying to make The Boy a little more universal by not giving him a name, so he could seem to be anyone, but by Volume 2 it's getting kind of weird that nobody refers to him by name, not even his parents or little brother in flashbacks. I would have thought they'd go with "Johnny" or something, but that's already his kid brother's name, so no dice on that option. Perhaps we'll find out in Volume 3?
  4. Use of dialect is spotty and inconsistent. At one point, the escaping Boy and his mysterious companion jump a train and meet with a friendly conductor and his talking steam-engine. The two of them speak a version of American English which is slightly more dialectical than what the other characters speak, but only by a hair; it feels like the author filled in their speech-bubbles with a rough approximation of the dialogue of Yosemite Sam (sans the profanity), but never bothered to go back and make sure that it actually sounded like real people speak, or even like they speak in Western movies. The same thing applies to Jester, come to think of it: he gives the impression of being vaguely British and medieval, but nothing more.
  5. The characters' expressions don't always match the action at hand. The artwork is gorgeous and atmospheric (I'm still loving the 'sepia-toned photo album' layout and the extensive use of chiaroscuro), but sometimes - let me reiterate: only sometimes - the facial expressions and body-language just don't match the action at hand. I feel like I'm not watching someone react to a thing, I'm looking at an artist's rendition of how an actor might react to that thing. It puts an extra layer of distance between me and the characters, like I'm watching them through a layer of Saran-wrap. for I feel like this happens with The Boy in particular, but it happens to most characters in at least one panel.
Overall, The Stuff of Legend continues to be a highly enjoyable series, based on one of the most original and intriguing concepts I've encountered in a long time. Unfortunately, in execution it still falls a little short of the high promise of said concept; here's hoping the author and artist can still wow us in Volume 3!

Monday, July 7, 2014

[Graphic Novel Review] The Monkey King (Saiyū Kiden Daiʼenō)

Katsuya Terada's The Monkey King (Saiyū Kiden Daiʼenō)

Behold, the face of awful.
I like to think of myself as a fairly positive dude, so most of my book reviews tend to be fairly positive and upbeat, even when I'm not crazy about a particular work. But this week, we're gonna take a bit of a departure from my normal style. I'm gonna take this opportunity to warn you all away from a really, really awful graphic novel.

I'm vaguely familiar with the outline of the Wu Cheng'en's classic novel Journey to the West (in terms of sheer size of its readership, it ranks as one of the most popular works of fiction ever written in any language), but I had never read the whole thing from start to finish. But I'm pretty sure that the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, the guy who frees the Monkey King from his prison and initiates their pilgrimage to India for the holy scriptures of the Buddha, A) was a man, and not a large-breasted woman with a penchant for bondage and ball-gags, and B) the Monkey King never violently fingered her while grunting excitedly to himself. But that happens in this book.

This adaptation is definitely NOT for children, clearly not for adults, and not for teens who've gotten over their adolescent fascination with sex. But even the randiest teen would probably have their ardor spoiled by the high-resolution ultra-closeups of creepy fetus-demons and severed children's heads.

The moral of the story: whenever you see any Japanese graphic novel with a warning on the cover warning you that it contains content which is considered graphic even by Japanese standards, you should believe them.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

[Book Review] 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Charles C. Mann (2005)

Where to even begin?

I don't think I've ever read anything that completely shifted my perception of the world as many times as '1491' did. In more ways than I can count, this book has fundamentally altered the way I think about the continent that I've lived on for my entire life, and the people who lived here before my own ancestors arrived, and how shamefully little I was taught about those first Americans in school and college.

I honestly had never given any thought at all to what Native Americans did with the 15,000 years between coming to North America and making contact with Europeans. I assumed, based on the fact that it had never been brought up, that they basically made war, gathered herbs, used every part of the buffalo, and basically didn't change single a thing about two entire continents for up to fifteen millennia.

I could not have been more wrong.

When Europeans first arrived in the New World, they kept going on and on in their early accounts about how green and fertile this new land was, how lush and full of game; almost like a garden, or a game preserve. WELL, THERE WAS A REASON FOR THAT: Native Americans, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, made enormous changes to their environments, mainly through the use of controlled burns to clear forests and create open fields which were attractive to game animals like deer and rabbits. In Mesoamerica, they built complex societies with advanced mathematics, architecture, and philosophy; in the Southwest, they built entire cities into the sides of cliffs; and in the northeast, the Iroquois League created a representative democracy which would later serve as the basis for the Constitution of the United States. The list of their accomplishments goes on and on.

Possibly the greatest of Native achievements (at least within the territory of what is now the United States) was the sprawling merchant-city of Cahokia, near modern-day St. Louis. In the 1250 A.D., it was larger than London. As Mann describes it (emphasis mine):
"Anyone who traveled up the Mississippi in 1100 A.D. would have seen it looming in the distance: a four-level earthen mound bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Around it like echoes were as many as 120 smaller mounds, some topped by tall wooden palisades, which were in turn ringed by a network of irrigation and transportation canals; carefully located fields of maize; and hundreds of wooden homes with mud-and-straw plastered floors and high-peaked, deeply thatched roofs like those on traditional Japanese farms. Located near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, the Indian city of Cahokia was a busy port. Canoes flitted like hummingbirds across its waterfront: traders bringing copper and mother-of-pearl from faraway places; hunting parties bringing such rare treats as buffalo and elk; emissaries and soldiers in long vessels bristling with weaponry; workers ferrying wood from upstream for ever hungry cookfires; the ubiquitous fishers with their nets and clubs. Covering five square miles and housing at least fifteen thousand people, Cahokia was the biggest concentration of people north of the Rio Grande until the eighteenth century."
Cahokia at its peak in the 1200s A.D.
What's even more shocking about Cahokia is the fact that YOU'VE ALMOST CERTAINLY NEVER EVEN HEARD OF IT. We're not taught about it in school, even though it's enormous, and part of our own country's history. Before I read 1491, I had no idea that any Native society north of Mexico had produced any settlement larger than a pallisaded village. Even though I knew about the cliff-dwellings of the Anasazi and Pueblo peoples, I didn't even think to include them in that broad and sweeping generalization: that's how little I knew about Native Americans.

This book comes with my highest recommendations. This book should be on the required reading list for every person who lives in the New World, or whose life has been affected by their discovery and colonization.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

[Book Review] The Stuff of Legend, Volume 1: The Dark

Th3rd World Studios, 2009
Writers: Mike Raicht, Brian Smith
Penciler: Charles Paul Wilson III
Colorists: Michael DeVito, Jon Conkling
Editors: Michael DeVito, Jon Conkling

I like to think of The Stuff of Legend as a darker, more psychological cousin of Pixar's Toy Story trilogy. Though I picked up a free sample of the first chapter at Free Comic Book Day 2010, I only just got around to checking this series out via inter-library loan, and I'm kicking myself for not doing it years ago. The story is taut and highly psychological, while still clipping along at a brisk pace, interspersing combat with character-development and relationship-building. The dialogue is as clean and crisp as any prime-time drama, and I found myself laughing aloud on more than one occasion. The art which accompanies the story (and more importantly, enhances it) is darkly beautiful, portrayed in loving detail and a sepia-tone wash, reminiscent of an old, faded photo album.

The idea of living toys (warning: TVtropes link) is nothing new in literature, but the true depth of toy-psychology remains almost entirely unfathomed. What would it really be like to be a secret guardian to a young child, acting as their best friend, imaginary surrogate, and plaything, only to be discarded when the next, more interesting toy comes along? How would you react to that? Would you be sad? Jealous?Angry? Would you feel betrayed? Would you want revenge for being thrown away so carelessly? And what would you do if an evil, shadowy monster kidnapped spirited your master away into another world? Would you risk your life for him, a child who never truly appreciated you, and will - inevitably - abandon you as he grows up and puts away childish things?

For the toys belonging to an unnamed boy living in Brooklyn in 1944, the answer is "yes". One night, a creature known as the Boogeyman reaches from his world to our own, and drags a small boy into the world of "The Dark", for his own nefarious ends. Still numb with shock, most of the toys simply accept that the boy is gone, beyond their power to help or save, and that they will all pass to his younger brother. But The Colonel, a courageous WWI doughboy, forms a rescue party along with seven other loyal toys: Harmony, a windup ballerina; Quackers, a wooden duck; The Princess, a Native American warrior-maiden; Jester, a jack-in-the-box with a quick tongue and eyes only for the Princess; Percy, a cowardly piggy-bank with a head for facts; Maxwell, a teddy bear, formerly the boy's favorite toy; and Scout, a beagle puppy and the boy's new favorite.

Upon arriving in The Dark, the toys find themselves transformed: Maxwell becomes a hulking grizzly bear, Quackers is able to fly on real wings, and the human toys are now made of flesh and blood (except Harmony, who's more of an automaton anyway). Making a surprise D-Day style landing (highly reminiscent of the war which the boy's father is currently fighting over in Europe) on the shores of The Dark, the toys pit their might against the armies of the Boogeyman: forgotten toys, long ago consigned to the closet or lost under the bed, who now harbor deep grudges against their former master and the toys who come to rescue him. Here, cowboys and Crusaders fight alongside Roman centurions, Greek hoplites, Civil War soldiers, and Viking berserkers (Is the boy perhaps a tad obsessed with war?), all in service of the dreaded Boogeyman.

The Boogeyman is honestly one of the most genuinely frightening villains I've come across in a long time, possibly since Lord Voldemort himself! (And coming from a man who had a Harry Potter-themed wedding a few months back, that is very high praise indeed.) He's cunning and ruthless, frightening and unknowable, and seems to know everything that happens in his realm. Far from truly threatening him, the insurgency of the loyalist toys seems to amuse him, and he plays with them as a cat plays with a mouse before killing it.

I highly recommend The Stuff of Legend to anyone who ever played with a toy. This is a series off to an excellent start, and I will be eagerly reading and reviewing the rest of the books in this series, as soon as I can get a hold of them.

Monday, March 17, 2014


I really don't understand how we got to the point where public, unexpected proposals are considered not only sound judgment on the man's part, but romantic. I mean really you're just forcing her to either accept your proposal while she's under enormous social pressure to say yes (which is a little creepy in the first place, but more on that later), or to look like a frigid bitch and have a long, painful walk out the door while every eye in the room is trained on her, wondering "Why didn't she accept? He seemed like such a sweet and non-extortion-y guy!"

Guys, just stop surprising women with public marriage proposals. It's a bad idea. No good can come of it. And what happens if you misjudged and she says no? Well, to make that possibility a little more real for you, here's an real-life example of how badly this could turn out for you. (Dude-in-this-video, I'm sorry to drag this out for you again, but it's for a good cause.)

I don't understand why people automatically assume that all public proposals should be accepted. Listen to that crowd; they LOVE this guy's proposal, and every one of them wants her to say "yes", without any of them knowing a single thing about their relationship, how long they've been dating, or even whether he would be a good mate for her (or vice versa)!

Imagine for a moment that you're at a coffee-shop. You turn to the guy at the next table over, and you say to him "Hey. Dude. Do you think that couple at the table by the window should get married?" His first reaction will probably be to look at you cross-eyed, but if you persist, he might spare them a glance and say, testily, "I've got no idea. Their relationship's none of my business," and go back to reading his Kindle.

...but as soon as the guy in that same couple you just pointed to goes down on his knee and pulls out a ring, everyone thinks that marrying him is a great idea, and that the woman should pledge the rest of her life to him on the spot.

It sets a bad precedent to set for the rest of your marriage, at the very moment of your marriage's "conception", to threaten your spouse with being made a social pariah if she doesn't agree on the spot.

Just don't do it. Seriously, guys. Don't.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Please Stop Shitting On Our Lawn

A warning for the sensitive and morally-upright: This post is going to include some frank discussion about the act of pooping. And I'm going to use some grownups-only words to talk about it. If this is a problem for you, then you may leave now.

After a long and bitterly,perhaps hatefully cold winter, the snow is starting to melt, and that means dog crap is everywhere. All winter long it's been building up, hidden by falling flakes, or buried under snowdrifts furtively kicked-over by lazy dog-owners to hide their shame and incompetence.

Believe me, I understand the impulse to just leave it where it lies. I've owned a few dogs in my time, and I know the embarrassment of seeing your dog pop a squat and realizing, to your horror, that you forgot to grab a plastic bag when you left the house, and now Fido is doing the deed on your neighbor's front lawn, and people are cruising through the neighborhood and you have to fumble in your pocket as they drive by, to send a clear message that I am being a responsible citizen and am picking up after my dog like a good dog-owning person should. Yep, that's totally what I'm doing, Mrs. Prius-Driver, just keep on driving by while I get this imaginary bag out of my pocket and you... drive past me... and turn the corner... aaaaannnnnd.... RUN AWAY!!!

I understand that feeling. And I understand that it's cold outside and that it'll be even darker by the time you get back to this spot and it seems like a waste of time and fossil fuels to drag your butt back all this way to where the Fido-bomb is situated and pick it up and have to carry it all the way back home in your car and then throw it away. But the difference is that when I forget to grab a bag before I leave home, I actually go back and do exactly that, because it's my job.

Frankly, there is no difference between letting your dog take a dump on someone else's property and dropping your pants in the middle of the street and doing it yourself. Both acts are equally disgusting, both are mortally-rude gestures towards the owner of the property in question, and either way it's still your fault that there's a steaming turd on somebody's front lawn.

I'm reminded of a sign I saw once on a small hill beside an apartment complex. It featured a dog holding a plastic baggie and wearing a disapproving scowl, saying "I would if I could,/ But I can't, so you should." To be fair, even if they could, they probably wouldn't (they'd just trot away over the next hill in pursuit of more caribou or something), but you're a human, you have the gift of sapience, and it's your job as a pet-owner to keep your pet clean, and that includes their living-space. Which just so happens to be the same space that the rest of us live in, thank-you-very-much.

A parent who was taking their child on a walk and allowed said child to remove their diaper and make a doodie on a neighbor's lawn could be reported to the State, and might have their child taken away from them because they're raising that child in an unclean and unfit environment. Maybe it's time we started doing the same thing for dog-owners.