MOVIE: Nightcrawler (2014)

February 26, 2015

nightcralwerLos Angeles denizen Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief with a nasty streak looking for his next big score. One night while out punching people and taking their watches, he comes across the scene of an accident, and is fascinated to see a group of freelance “newsmen” there with cameras, filming the carnage.  After a brief conversation with one of them (Bill Paxton), Lou learns just how lucrative the gig can be and quickly arms himself with a camcorder and police scanner.

Almost immediately, he manages to score some footage he’s able to sell to a blood-and-gore-thirsty news director, Nina (Rene Russo), desperate to raise her station’s ratings before she gets fired. She’s impressed enough to hand him a check for a couple of hundred bucks and thus a new career for Louis is born.

As it turns out, his life of not giving a crap about anybody else around him turns out to be a handy asset in his new biz, called “nightcrawling” because, it appears, everyone who does it is a big slithery worm only coming out after dark.  Methodical to the extreme, and a lover of self-help books and TED talk equivalents, Lou soon develops a complex business plan, which he begins to share in motivational poster-style quotables with his new “intern,” the hopeless Rick (Riz Ahmed), a homeless kid desperate and dumb enough to be willing to do just about anything for $30 a night.

Then one night, Lou crosses the line — he moves a body to get a better angle on the shot.  It ends up being so effective, he can’t resist going to greater and greater lengths to catch the perfect grisly footage, finally even breaking into a murder scene right after the killers leave and just before the cops arrive in order to get close-ups on the carnage. Meanwhile, Rick is growing first a set of balls and then a niggling sense of moral unease, just as Nina is starting to make the horrified realization she has joined forces with an absolute sociopath — one who is so outrageously good at what he does she doesn’t dare defy him lest he take his footage and its sky-high ratings somewhere else. Oh, moral complexity: why you gotta be so morally complex?

This was a pretty entertaining, well-crafted film, though it’s not one I’m likely to watch ever again.  Of the players involved, Riz Ahmed is by far the most interesting, both as an actor and in terms of his character in the story.   I have no idea if “nightcrawling” is an actual “thing” in TV news, especially since I thought the FCC had some pretty strict rules about showing real-life shotgun wounds in HD at 6pm. Then again, they don’t say “If it bleeds, it leads” for nuthin’, after all.  Still, I’m not entirely sure what the point of the film was, really, since the idea that American TV news watchers are all sickos who love seeing the suffering of others in technicolor is hardly revelatory.  Plus, there’s always something vaguely dissatisfying (for me, anyway) about a movie in which the yucky people win.

Nevertheless, this one is definitely worth a rental if you like crime thrillers — both my husband and I enjoyed it for what it was.  Solid entertainment on a Saturday night; you could do a lot worse for $3.99.

[Netflix it | Buy/Rent at Amazon]

Genre: Drama, Thriller
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed

BOOK: On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss (2014)

February 21, 2015

onimmunityEula Biss gave birth to her first child right as the H1N1 flu epidemic was freaking out the globe. As many new mothers do, she took to the Internet to try to learn more about the risk of the flu versus the risk of the flu vaccine for her newborn baby.  The information she found there was conflicting, confusing, and ultimately not all that helpful at resolving her myriad questions (welcome to my world as a research librarian, Ms. Biss!).

Ultimately, she erred on what she decided was the side of caution and ended up going along with her doctor’s recommendation to vaccinate her child (for the flu and everything else).  But that sense of overwhelming responsibility, confusion, and fear led her to rethink that choice more than once over the following years, as vaccines after vaccines were pumped into her child’s veins.

This book is what came out of her quest to get to the bottom of the truth about vaccine safety (i.e., that vaccines are vital and everybody who can get them should), and it’s a fascinating journey to take at her side.  Into this well thought-out combination of science and emotion, Biss mixes in a healthy dose of history, analysis of evolving cultural norms (changing notions of “filth” and “purity,” for example), a look at pop culture’s role (vampires, anyone?), and ideas taken from both literature and philosophy as well.

The trip is a wild ride all over the map, and as engrossing as it is, I confess I felt Biss’s writing wasn’t always up to the task.  At times, the book gets a bit bogged down by a tangent that isn’t quite worthy of the boggage, and begins to feel more than a little unfocused.

Overall, however, I greatly enjoyed her perspective on this.  There’s an awful lot of anger on both sides of the vaccine “debate” these days, and one of the things that puzzles me the most about that is the way in which it’s often coming from parents against other parents.  This despite the fact that parents on both sides of the issue are acting out of identical, powerful, and innate motivations — the goal of protecting their children from harm.

This exploration of a real mother’s real fears in trying to figure out the best thing to do for her own child adds a level of humanity, empathy, and understanding to a conversation I have long felt, as a health educator of sorts myself, has been sorely lacking in all those elements. The result is a refreshingly compassionate approach to the subject, and one far more likely to make a difference to parents who are still wary of vaccinating than the insults and rage I so often see thrashing about on social media whenever the topic comes up.  You can’t get someone to change their mind by calling them an “idiot,” especially when their chief motivation is fear. What you can do is try to approach them from a mutual desire to keep their child safe from harm, and to educate them patiently but persistently from that perspective instead.

Highly recommended to people on both sides of the conversation; this is a book I wish more people would read.

[NON-FICTION]

[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

January 30, 2015

guardiansThis movie was terrible. Terrible!  Terrible. Forced, trite, strangely lacking in any heart whatsoever, and featuring dialogue clearly written by a 13 year old boy (a precocious one, to be sure. Nevertheless).

THAT SAID, if LEGO Baby Groot ever comes to fruition, I will be first in line for purchase.

(p.s. TERRIBLE!)

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Sci-fi, Crap
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, yer mom.

 

MOVIE: World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

January 29, 2015

worldsRecently, I saw — and loved — the horror movie Willow Creek, written and directed by, of all people, goofy 80s comedian Bobcat Goldthwait. I’ve always been a Bobcat fan, but it honestly had never once occurred to me that he might be such a brilliant, not to mention deeply thoughtful, filmmaker.  Seeing that film really surprised and intrigued me, and I’ve been working my way back through his (short) writer/director catalog ever since.

This film, made in 2009 and also written and directed by Bobkitty, was, to be honest, a bit difficult to watch so soon after the loss of its star, the great Robin Williams.  It’s a film about death, you see.  A film about suicide, even (sort of).  Even harder, it’s a film about feeling negligible, a particularly poignant sensation for me, as well as the crazy-making impact of being a negligible person suddenly found necessary (knowing all along that it is a find both illegitimate and temporary).  Push your way through those emotional challenges, though, and you will be rewarded with a truly poignant dark comedy pumped up with so much effusive, legitimate heart it’s practically beating while it rolls.

Williams plays Lance, a high school English teacher, failed writer, and single father to a single teenage son, Kyle.  Kyle is essentially an outrageous asshole, and not just because he’s 17. You’ll try — you’ll try to write it off as a boy simply being 17 — but Kyle will not let you. He’s selfish, he’s judgmental, he’s snide, and frankly, he’s downright mean. Even worse, especially for his father, he’s also not all that smart.

Lance, on the other hand, is one of those people who feels things a little too much, painfully skulking away in a shy, dark corner way over on the opposite side of the empathy spectrum from his son.

When Lance gets home one night to find Kyle dead in his room from auto-erotic asphyxiation gone bad, his first thought is. . . well, his first thought is gut-wrenching grief. But his second thought is to protect his son from what he feels is a shameful, undignified death. The idea of his boy becoming even more of an outcast, a mockery, is so painful a notion he cannot bear it. So, he strings Kyle up from a pull-up bar in the closet (you see, then, why this was hard to watch in light of what happened to Williams) and fakes a poignant suicide note on his computer.

Though devastated by the loss of his son, the instant attention and affection Lance gets in the wake of his loss,  from the very people who used to make him feel so terribly, agonizingly invisible for so long, is utterly addictive. And while at first it’s easy enough to ride along, when Kyle’s “suicide note” is leaked to the school paper, things kaboom out of control.  Thus ensues a dark, satirical look at the way we humans so, so love revisionist history (as long as it’s revised in our favor, of course), as students and teachers galore begin claiming close, personal connections to the lovely, brilliant, and misunderstood Kyle. Latching onto Kyle suddenly makes them all feel less invisible too, of course, as they seek each other out for memorials, cry-fests, memorabilia swaps, and deep conversations with the poor dead boy’s lovely, brilliant, and misunderstood father. The world’s greatest dad.

Caught in the undertow of his own wave, Lance is astonished by the power his faked note has on the people around him, and can’t resist digging himself ever-deeper, next writing and releasing Kyle’s “journal.”  It’s the first time in his life his writing has ever gotten anyone’s attention, and that attention, to this poor ol’ underachieving big-heart, is painfully, agonizingly consuming — and, ultimately, painfully, agonizingly consumptive.

This is an incredibly smart, sharp, clever, witty, beautiful film.  It’s also a powerful reminder of the broad-achieving talent of Robin Williams, and his ability to play a wide range of moving characters, both inside and outside of comedy. (Extra irony here too, of course, because of the intense outpouring of love and support for Williams after his own death by many whom, I would imagine, actually barely knew and hardly liked his work. In my own defense, I was a completely unapologetic fan of Patch Adams, even, and so my aim here is true.)

Anyway. Dudes. Highly recommended, and DO NOT MISS.

[Netflix it (streaming) | Amazon Prime streaming (or DVD)]

Genre: Comedy, Drama
Cast: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Morgan Murphy, Naomi Glick, Henry Simmons.

MOVIE: The Babadook (2014)

January 6, 2015

The-Babadook-PosterGuys, I totally did it again. I DO NOT LEARN!  You know the thing where a horror movie gets great critical reviews and I get all excited and can’t wait to see it and then I finally sit down for it and by that time my expectations are the size of China, and then, wah wah wah, it sucks?  Yep. That happened.   Well, “sucks” is a little too strong here.  But definitely a major disappointment.

I’d actually been wanting to see this film, an Australian independent, since last spring, when I bought a ticket for it at the Seattle International Film Festival and then failed to make it to the showing.  Oops!  After that, I forgot all about it until it opened last month in limited release and I started to see raves galore about it all over the Internet.

What I kept reading was that it was a smart, unique, and truly terrifying horror movie.  So, I was expecting some clever, satisfying scares.  As it turns out, though, The Babadook isn’t a horror movie at all.  If I had to sum it up in a phrase, that phrase would be “cautionary tale about the perils of single parenting.” In other words, it’s only “scary” if the thing you fear most is exhausted, angry moms yelling at tantrum-throwing kids.  And if that’s the case, you probably get enough shivers in your week simply by shopping at Costco; you don’t need a movie for more.

The Babadook is about a middle-aged mom named Amelia whose husband was killed in a car accident while he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their first child, a boy named Samuel. Cut to about six or so years later, and Samuel has grown up to be a challenging child, to say the least. And understandably so: the story of his father’s death has clearly unsettled him since he was old enough to understand it, as has the emotional lability of his mother.

In response, Samuel has become obsessed not just with the usual monsters of childhood, but more specifically with protecting his mother from those monsters (because she is in what seems to him to be constant peril) — to the point where he has begun to devise elaborate weapons to combat them, which he frequently smuggles into school.

Finally, his school’s administration has had enough and they expel him, sending Amelia into a rapid downward spiral.  Right about that same time, a mysterious children’s book about a top-hat-wearing, black-clad monster called Mister Babadook appears in their house.  When Samuel asks Mom to read it, she begins, only to find it horrifically violent and terrifically creepy just a few pages in — the story of a monster that, as soon as you learn of it, will appear in physical form and torment you until the end of time.  Before she’s even a third of the way through, Samuel has a terror-fueled panic attack, screaming inconsolably in fear.  She slams it shut and later burns it in the backyard, hoping that’ll be the end of it.

But then the book reappears, and shortly after that, the Babadook himself shows up — just like he said he would.  Or does he?  Remember how I said in my recent review of Willow Creek that it’s important for monster movies to offer a plausible alternative narrative, one that doesn’t involve monsters?  That makes a monster movie all the more terrifying, because it allows you to maintain your logical disbelief in Sasquatch while still relating completely to the fear expressed by the characters.  You aren’t sure what’s going on, really, or what to believe anymore, and that mistrust of everything inside and out is what can make for a pretty satisfying chill.

This movie does a great job of presenting that alternative narrative — is it the story of an actual monster or the story of an exhausted, grief-stricken mother’s rapidly dwindling sanity (and/or the dwindling sanity of her son; hard to tell who was the driver, there).

The problem was, I felt like it ended up going too far in that alternative direction — there wasn’t a single, even-fleeting moment in which I wondered if the Babadook might be real, better judgment or not. And that lack of doubt essentially stripped away any potential for this film to be truly scary.  For me, anyway. It made it flop lifelessly to the ground, when, really, there was a lot of potential in this story for flight.

The acting, for example, especially of the little boy, is incredibly powerful and good.  Essie Davis, the mom, is also at her best here, though in a few places she kind of overdid the hysterics for me. Despite the lack of scares, though, this should’ve, at the very least, been a very moving drama about a struggling single mother who had experienced a traumatic loss — only, it wasn’t. I knew I was supposed to align with her, worry about her, and care about what she was going through. But, instead, I grew impatient with her quickly, largely because she was so viciously and ineptly harming her child, who had suffered just as much, and possibly even more (since he clearly felt the death of his father was his fault for being born).  If this had been a film more focused on their relationship, minus the excess monster gimmickry, it could’ve been so much more powerful. The monster element should’ve been a tool, not a major story line. Instead that shared, and thus blurred, focus made the film seem very muddled in genre very quickly, unsure what it was actually trying to accomplish and, in so doing, accomplishing very little at all.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a terrible movie — not at all. It’s intelligent, beautifully made (the visuals are wonderful, especially the book itself), and well-acted, etc. But it’s also not all that special, making the critical raves particularly puzzling. There’s nothing terribly unique about this story — the crazy-parent/crazy-child emotional conflict felt so tired to me, and even the Babadook himself looked strangely familiar (though I can’t place this image I have in my head, which is driving me nuts; I’ll keep looking).

In any case, if what you’re really looking for is an authentically scary movie, with authentic characters you authentically root and despair for, I’m going to send you right on back to the surprisingly effective Willow Creek, which was definitely the best such movie I saw all year.  On the other hand, a lot of people really, really liked this film, so it’s worth checking out for yourself. Then again, on the other hand (yes, I’ve got three hands; what of it?), I’ve noticed most of those people were mainstream film critics or the people who tend to agree with them; the avid horror fans whose blogs I follow seem to have been more disappointed than impressed. In that way, The Babadook kind of reminds me of The Conjuring — which brings me right back to my first paragraph: will I never learn?

[Amazon buy/rent | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror (except: no)
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman

BOOK: Does Not Love by James Tadd Adcox (2014)

December 13, 2014

doesnotlovI picked this book up on a whim while I was at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago — I’d never heard of it, but was intrigued both by the look of the cover and the blurb on the back, which described it as a story about “domestic terrorism” and an “alternate reality Indianapolis overrun by Big Pharma.”

Those are both phrases I won’t be using again in this review, because, as it turns out, they’re the smallest, least interesting elements of the entire book. I can’t even remember, only a few weeks later, what role Big Pharma played in the first place. I have a vague notion it was some sort of blurry commentary about anti-depressants, but I couldn’t tell you anything more than that, and even that is a suspect recollection.

Instead, this is really a novel about a young couple struggling to overcome loss and not doing a very good job of it.  As the story opens, Viola and Robert are at the doctor’s office, where they are being told Viola has just lost another baby.  They’ve been trying to conceive for a while, and she’s miscarried multiple times.

This latest — this last — loss is the one that finally takes Viola down. It starts with her suddenly overcome with rage over the gentle nature of her husband, who does nothing in response but love and attempt to comfort her.  It’s not your fault, he tells her over and over. Of course it’s not. She tells him her womb has become a grave. Of course it hasn’t, he replies. In bed, he is kind and tender. And no, no, no more, Viola finds herself completely unable to stand even one more second of kind and tender.

In a desperate attempt to feel something — anything — she begins to lash out at him, demanding things she knows he can’t accommodate.  Wanting him to hit her during sex, largely. Wanting him to hurt her the way she feels she deserves to be hurt. He struggles to understand and comply, even watching videos on S&M to try to learn how to do what it is she wants him to do, but he can’t do it.  It’s so far beyond his nature, it’s completely incomprehensible.

In response, she begins a brutally physical relationship with a secret agent who has been monitoring her workplace, a local library.  And here’s where the “domestic terrorism” and “Big Pharma” things  sort of come into play, but only sort of, and with so little intent or weight they mostly feel like an idea the author had for another book he decided not to write, instead trying to roll the loosest version of that concept into this one at the last minute. It doesn’t exactly not fit. But it doesn’t exactly fit, either.

As their relationship starts to come apart at the seams, both Viola and Robert fight to keep it stitched, only managing in the process to tear it apart even more.  Eventually, though, they manage to come to this:

Viola thinks, Okay. Robert thinks, Is that all? Is it as cheap as that? I come back, she comes back, I come back? Viola thinks, Okay. That’s something.

And then they have sex in the kitchen, get dressed, go outside, sip lemonade on the porch, and talk about the weather.

Whether this is a happy ending or an utterly devastating one depends on the way you perceive marriage, I suppose. I could go either way — and I did, about 9,000 times a minute while I read this.

This is the second novel in about five months I’ve read that has so gut-punched me, so painfully, so to-the-core, I could hardly breathe while I read it. (The other one, incidentally, was Three Delays by Charlie Smith.) For very different reasons — and for all the same ones. Viola’s sense of betrayal from her own body, her compounding losses, and her resultant rage at both herself and anybody who dares to care about her — these were all things I related to on such a deeply personal, deeply indelible way I kept flipping to the front cover to remind myself: No, I did not write this and forget I’d done it. In fact, a MAN wrote this. A man wrote it. How is that even possible? That a man could write this? Every other line in this book made my heart crack and pop like a bum knee haunted by an old injury.  I kept thinking as I read, “I should put this down.”  And then I kept thinking, “I never want to read anything that doesn’t make me feel exactly like this ever again.”

Highly, highly recommended, though I have a feeling your mileage is going to vary dramatically. God, to write a thing like this someday — a thing that has this kind of impact on even one human being. Living the dream, Mr. James Tadd Adcox. Living it.

[FICTION]

[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: Willow Creek (2014)

December 5, 2014

willowcreekI’ve been incredibly, insanely busy lately, and also haven’t been sleeping well, which, wrapped together, turns me into this big buzzing beehive of unceasing energy. That makes it extremely difficult to sit down and watch a movie, read a book, or do just about anything else that requires focus of a relaxed variety.  I’m not really doing “relaxed” very much these days. Maybe in January. We’ll see.

That said, two weekends ago I had some time to kill by myself at home, and I wanted to use it to watch a movie. A friend on Facebook had recently posted that this flick was fun, so I figured I’d give it a shot and see how long I lasted before I had to get up and clean something I just cleaned two days ago. (Upside to exhaustion-fueled mania: clean house!)

As it turned out, Willow Creek sucked me in right away and kept me thoroughly sucked-in throughout. For a rip-off of The Blair Witch Project about a mythical monster I find not-even-remotely scary, this movie was surprisingly effective for me.

It’s a “found footage”-style horror flick about a young couple, Jim and Kelly, who decide to head off on a road trip in search of Bigfoot for a documentary.  Jim’s been a Bigfoot fanatic since he was a kid and knows everything there is to know about the subject; Kelly’s a skeptic.  He seems to really believe there’s something to find out there in the woods; she loves him enough to be willing to go camping for a few days where there are no bathrooms. (I wonder what it’s like to love someone that much? I’ll probably never know. . .)

Similar to Blair Witch, they start out with an exploration of the small town outside the woods where the most famous Bigfoot sighting of all time took place (I have forgotten the details of that sighting, but apparently it’s legit lore).  There, they interview a few locals, get some advice on where to go, and film a few scenes for color — eating a “Bigfoot burger” at the local diner, smooching a giant wooden S’quatch statue, etc.

The next day, they head out in their car for the spot where they plan to park and hike in, only to be stopped on the access road by a man who threatens them aggressively, forcing them to turn around, and establishing nicely the possibility that what is about to follow is carried out not by Bigfoot but by a crazy local guy with a grudge against tourists (useful tool of reasonable doubt, always necessary in these sorts of things).

They manage to find another way in and start their hike, stopping periodically to film some scenes for their movie.  They don’t find much — some dubious-of-origin scat, a footprint — until night rolls around and they are awakened by a series of strange hoots and cracks from the woods (Blair Witch fans: sound familiar?). Something bashes against their tent.  A bear?  A giant, hairy man-beast? Nobody seems willing to venture out to check, surprise surprise, and not much sleep is had, to say the least.

The next day, exhausted and somewhat alarmed, they decide to hike back out and go home. Only they quickly get turned around, start looping back on themselves, and can’t find their way out (again, Blair Witch fans: sound familiar?).

And then the hoots begin again. This time in broad daylight. Something throws a rock at them.  They run. They’re still lost. They’re forced to camp another night. It does not go well.

Though the plot is obviously ridiculous, and not even remotely original, what makes this movie work as well as it does are the characters themselves and the script, which is very well-written. Jim and Kelly are an authentic, completely believable couple; it only took a few scenes for me to forget I wasn’t watching an actual documentary about two young dumb people on a quest to find Bigfoot.

There’s also a stand-out scene in the tent the first night (I think it was the first night, anyway) in which Jim proposes to Kelly and Kelly doesn’t exactly say yes. This was a surprisingly tender moment, thoughtfully approached. Did I mention the movie was written (and directed) by endearing weirdo comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, by the way?  That’s why I say “surprisingly tender;” who knew that was in there waiting to come out?

I went into this movie thinking Bigfoot was a pretty lame choice of villain, and I still mostly contend that it is. I mean, does anybody really believe in Bigfoot? And even if you do think there’s some giant, hairy man-beast in the woods no one has ever managed to get a good photograph of, why would you automatically assume it was evil?  I mean, a giant, hairy man-beast in the woods that was evil would probably be responsible for a lot more mysterious disappearances and dismembered bodies, right?

However, the last 15 or so minutes of this movie were effectively scary, to say the least.  For no good goddamn reason, I might add, because I DO NOT BELIEVE IN BIGFOOT.  There’s a long shot — maybe 8 minutes — that simply features Jim and Kelly sitting in their tent in the dark, the camera perfectly still, while she clings to him looking down, terrified, and he keeps his face up, listening intently to the sounds coming from outside.  Periodically, they both jump.  And then. . . Well.  Then things get a little nuts.  Something appears that has noooooo right being there.  No right at all, people The camera falls, there is screaming, and then we’re left to guess about what happens next.

All in all, this is a highly entertaining film, and I was really impressed by it.  I wasn’t expecting this to be as good as it was, especially with the aforementioned endearing weirdo comedian’s name attached to it. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Goldthwait’s directorial work (if anybody has a favorite, let me know in the comments!).

Highly recommended if you like scary movies, good writing, and giant, hairy man-beasts in the woods (well, who doesn’t?)!  Good clean fun.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Joe Swanberg, Kristina Klebe, Alexia Rasmussen

MOVIE: Virunga (2014)

November 27, 2014

virungaThis incredible documentary uses the story of a group of dedicated park rangers in charge of defending the land and wildlife — particularly the mountain gorillas — of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as a way to illustrate the heinous costs, in both human and animal lives, wrought by ruthless resource exploitation from the West. (Wow, that was a really long sentence. Sorry about that. Stay with me here; I’ll try to do better.)

It opens with a brief history of that exploitation, starting with colonization and running through the present day, where greed, particularly corporate greed, continues to fuel countless wars within and without. The latest round involves a British oil company called SOCO and what they believe to be a major source of untapped oil underneath the park.

Virunga National Park is the last remaining home for the world’s mountain gorillas, a population of about 800. The movie introduces us to several of the park’s rangers, including one of the men who helps run a gorilla orphanage that, at the time of filming, was the home to four young gorillas whose parents had been killed by poachers.  Poaching remains a huge problem in Virunga — not just of gorillas, but also of elephants and other creatures — and is very tightly tied to war on all sides.  Rebel groups in particular have long used poaching, as well as illegal mining and drilling (especially of metals used in electronics), as a source of revenue for weapons and supplies.

For this reason, as well as the obvious environmental ones, DRC long ago prohibited any sort of resource exploration/gathering within its national parks.  This lock-down, however, has intensified the frustrations of those desperate to exploit the valuable ores and wildlife believed to be in those parks, especially in Virunga. Many of them apparently blame it on the gorillas themselves, as well, another thing that has fueled continued poaching in the park. If protecting the gorillas is why we can’t drill for oil, the theory would go, then obviously all we need to do is make it so there are no more gorillas to protect.

Woven together with the story of the gorillas and their protectors is the story of the latest round of war in the region, led by a rebel faction known as M23.  A reporter talking to an M23 leader learns the group is interested in partnering with SOCO — the suggestion is that M23 would be willing to combat the park rangers and secure access, however illegal, to the park, as long as SOCO promises to give them a share of any oil profits that come as a result.

Based on the reporter’s later (undercover) liaisons with a SOCO representative, it sounds as if SOCO is perfectly game, which might be the most horrifying part of this entire film.  The representative, as well as a British security contractor who works for the company, both suggest to the reporter that SOCO routinely pays contractors to work with local rebels, paying them off in order to keep going about their business without any trouble. In other words, SOCO is perfectly willing to break the law and help fund war, as long as they get to  grow ever richer.  As much as I struggle to believe a company as large and as Western as SOCO could get away with something like that, it gets depressingly a lot easier to do when it’s followed by the SOCO representatives talking about the locals, the rangers, and the gorillas themselves — expendable, all.

As the film progresses, M23 begins closing in on the region, and the documentary culminates with an incredibly tense final 20 minutes, in which we hear the bombs coming closer and closer, and then finally erupting in the park.  A young gorilla falls ill and a vet cannot be called in to help him. By the next night, the mountain gorilla population of DRC is 799 instead of 800.  (Watch the park ranger’s face as he describes this loss — see if you can keep your heart from breaking right along with his.)  The local villagers flee, but the park rangers grit their teeth, hoist their weapons, and prepare to defend to the death the land and the creatures they love — knowing full well that “to the death” is absolutely likely, because they will be both out-manned and outgunned by M23. Yet, there isn’t a moment’s hesitation in any of them; it’s what they were put on Earth to do, one of them says. He was born to serve a purpose; he was born to protect those gorillas from his own species, and that is what he will do until he can’t do it any longer.

While I was watching this incredibly moving film, I kept thinking one thing over and over: that mankind is both the worst and the best thing that ever happened to Planet Earth.  I suppose it could be argued it is merely the worst — after all, the examples of the “bests” in this film all come from men fighting the destruction wrought by other men.  But I couldn’t help but think: what a tremendous gift good people are.  So tremendous. I want to be good like that too. And if everyone in the world could watch this film and come away feeling the same thing, my god, what a difference could be made.

Virunga recently became available on Netflix streaming; I’m not sure you can currently find it anywhere else. Seek it out, though, because it’s not only worth watching, it’s worth supporting. Very highly recommended!

[Netflix it]

Genre: Documentary
Directed by: Orlando von Einsiedel

 

BOOK: The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia (2006)

November 16, 2014

peoplepaperThis fascinating, strange debut novel tells the story of a man named Federico de la Fe, a Mexican gent who wages a war against the planet Saturn as a way to combat his crushing depression. Except, as it turns out, the planet Saturn isn’t actually the planet Saturn.  It’s actually. . . Wait, hold on a sec — I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to explain this.

Abandoned by his wife Merced due to his chronic bed-wetting (we can’t all be winners), Federico discovers by accident the cure for both his sadness and his inappropriate urination: what he calls “burn collecting,” a self-harm technique in which he burns parts of his own body to a sear.  Sometimes he does this while hanging out underneath a giant mechanical turtle that speaks only in binary code and seems to . . .  Wait, hold on a sec — I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to explain this.

Wanting a change, Federico packs up his young daughter, Little Merced, and moves to California, where he enlists the help of a local gang of flower pickers in a battle against the malevolent influences of Saturn.  Only, as we soon discover, “Saturn” is actually Salvador Plascencia, the author of this novel, and he’s only being this evil in the first place because his heart, just like Federico’s, has recently been viciously broken. (For bed-wetting? He doesn’t say. Let’s go with “yes” for fun.)

Meanwhile, as the war rages on — well, it’s sort of a war, and it’s sort of raging on — Little Merced is slowly being lost to a lime addiction. Limes, I said. The fruit. There’s also a Baby Nostradamus, but he doesn’t seem to be all that much help. Additionally, and somewhat more compellingly, there’s a third Merced that is neither Federico’s wife nor his daughter, but instead a lady made entirely out of paper who is plagued, among other tings, by the terrible fact that every time a man has oral sex with her, his mouth ends up bloodied and raw from the paper cuts.

Wait, hold on a sec — I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to explain this. . .

In case I have failed to make this clear, this is a very strange novel.  I’m not entirely sure it works, to be honest, but it’s so fascinatingly written it’s hard to put it down even while you’re scratching your head wondering what the hell the author is trying to accomplish.  Narrators come and go, sometimes getting whole chapters, sometimes only a few paragraphs in a column next to a series of paragraphs in columns by other characters.  Sometimes, those paragraphs are blacked out — if the narrator has successfully managed to hide their thoughts from Saturn, also known as the author, using sheets of lead. Baby Nostradamus seems especially keen on making that work, and then sort of doesn’t seem keen on anything much at all. Babies: what can I say?

At its heart, this is a novel about sadness and love, and the power of words (“paper”) to either mitigate or exacerbate the agony of both those things. I think that’s what it was about, anyway. Think, for example, about the metaphor of paper cutting up the tongue of a man who only wants to bring pleasure to a woman he loves.  The sharpness, the bloodying impact of words, or of love itself.  Saturn’s girlfriend, Liz, periodically interjects to beg him (the author) not to hurt her with his novel; another character, Smiley, begs Saturn/the author to explain to him his role in the story, only to be disappointed when it turns out the author barely knows he exists.

I don’t exactly know what it all means, and, to be honest, about 3/4ths of the way through, I was kind of over trying to figure it out.  And that right there’s the problem, really:  this is a fascinating novel full of fascinating things, but ultimately, nothing quite compelling enough to turn it into a real powerhouse in the world of magical realism or metafiction. Which is too bad, because it has some engaging ideas and characters , as well as some truly evocative writing. This kind of “tight concept, loose execution” problem isn’t uncommon in first novels, however, and so I have some hope that whatever Plascencia does next will be similar but better.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book and I recommend it to anyone else who enjoys writing that tries to do something a little different. You may end up scratching your head at the end, but I think the journey will make the ultimate tinge of dissatisfaction worth it.

[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: Veronica Mars (2014)

October 16, 2014

veronicamarsI’d been waiting to watch this movie until I could watch it with my mom, who was also a big fan of the series.  Neither one of us was sure what to expect from it, but we were both pretty happy about what we got, I’d say.  Not only was this a great movie for diehard fans of the show, but I think it works really well as a stand-alone mystery too.

As the story opens, Veronica is living in New York, having just gotten her law degree. She tell us she’s grown up, she’s changed, she has no interest in all that filthy snooping business she was into in her youth.  She is, in fact, about to land a high-powered job at a high-powered legal firm. . . when she gets a phone call from her old flame Logan.

Logan tells her he needs her help — he’s about to be put on trial for the murder of his girlfriend, a famous pop singer, and he didn’t do it.  Initially, Veronica, now living with the ever-charming but overly-“nice” Piz, plans to return home to Neptune just long enough to help Logan vet a few criminal attorneys.  But, of course, once she’s back in the world of private investigation, it turns out the lady had doth protested too much (that surely is not the proper way to conjugate that verb, but just roll with it); the lady’s no lawyer, she’s a class-A, snoop-lovin’ shamus.

The gang’s all here, from her dad (Enrico Colantoni, whom I was excited to see in The Mysteries of Laura until it became clear he wasn’t sticking around past the pilot, boo!) to her nerdy gal-pal Mac.  It’s great to see them all again, and the banter is as sharp as ever.  Additionally, the cameo from James Franco made me laugh out loud. TWICE. (Mom: “Who’s James Franco?” Me: “He’s like this super stoner dude who’s really, really smart. Except for the part where he tried to turn As I Lay Dying into a movie, which was really, really dumb.” Mom: “That does sound dumb.” Me: “I knew you’d understand.”)

Overall, they did a great job with this one, funded through a Kickstarter campaign.  And, they left it very clearly open to a sequel, which I’d definitely be on board for.  Recommended for fans of the show — big duh — but even if you never tuned in, you’ll find a lot to love here if you’re a fan of light, easy-going mysteries and solid writing.

[Netflix | Amazon]

Genre:  Drama, Comedy
Cast:  Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Chris Lowell, Tina Majorino, Percy Daggs III, Enrico Colantoni


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