Archive for November, 2010

BOOK: House Rules by Jodi Picoult (2010)

November 30, 2010

Emma Hunt is a middle-aged single mother struggling to raise her two sons: teenager Theo and 19 year-old Jacob, who has fairly severe Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism).  Jacob is highly intelligent and fascinated by science, especially forensic science, but any change to his routine and his reaction can be extremely volatile.  Serve yellow food on blue food day, for example, or make him miss his favorite TV show, a true crime forensics program called Crime Busters, and he may suddenly become violently aggressive or, worse, completely withdraw for days, practically comatose.

Once Jacob begins working with a young woman named Jess, a teacher helping him learn better social skills, he improves dramatically.  But when Jess goes missing and is later found dead — wrapped in Jacob’s old quilt, no less — the police latch onto Jacob as their chief suspect.  Thinking he’s helping solve the case, Jacob immediately confesses to having tinkered with the crime scene in Jess’s house, without explaining WHY.  The police, not understanding the way Jacob’s brain works, assume he’s confessing to killing her, and an hour later, Emma learns her emotionally-challenged son has been locked in jail, pending trial for murder.

This novel is incredibly gripping and fast-paced (I devoured it in two days while on vacation).  Though I had the whodunnit figured out pretty early on, it was still entertaining to see how and when — and IF — the truth would come out.  The book also provides a lot of insight into what it’s like to parent a child with Asperger’s (hint: damn hard), and since it was recommended to me by a friend with a son with Asperger’s, I assume it’s fairly accurate in that regard.

Picoult is an author who is usually pretty hit-or-miss for me; this is about the third or fourth novel of hers I’ve read and I never find them as well-written as I want them to be (the stories are good, but the writing itself is fairly lack-luster).  This one is definitely the best of the bunch I’ve read, though, and I really enjoyed it a lot.  Recommended!

[MYSTERY]

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

MOVIE: Cold Souls (2008)

November 30, 2010

Cold SoulsNew Yorker Paul Giamatti (played by . . . New Yorker Paul Giamatti) is a middle-aged stage actor working on a new production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.  The role is emotionally intense and dark, as Russian plays are wont to be, and the more Paul sinks into his part, the harder it becomes for him to shake off the darkness after hours.

Concerned, his agent steers him toward an article in the latest issue of The New Yorker he thinks may hold the solution.  It’s about a new organization, the Soul Storage Company, that, for a hefty fee, will extract your soul and store it for you, either temporarily or permanently.  Freed of your soul, your cares will float away, leaving life a fluffy piece of cake.

At first, Paul finds the very idea ludicrous — not to mention completely unbelievable — but curiosity and his deepening depression get the best of reason and he soon makes an appointment.  The extractionist, played by the ever-soothing David Strathairn, makes it seem so obviously the cure for all that ails him that it’s not long before Paul is sitting in a chair holding his soul in his hand.  A soul he’s rather disheartened to discover looks exactly like a garbanzo bean.  He was expecting something . . . a bit more. . .  substantive, I guess.  A bit less bean-like, I suppose.  Though he’s somewhat hesitant to leave it behind, Paul finally locks his soul away in the storage facility and heads for home, relieved to find himself feeling lighter already.

Alas, as it turns out, being soulless isn’t as great as it sounds.  Without his soul, for example, Paul can no longer act, and his inability to empathize with others begins to cost him friends and strain his marriage.  So, a few weeks later, Paul returns to the Soul Storage Company to retrieve his bean, where he’s horrified to discover it’s been stolen.  Apparently, you see, there’s a huge black market in Russia for American souls, and that goes double for the American soul of Al Pacino, which Paul’s has been passed off as erroneously.

Panicked, Paul demands that the extractionist, clearly in on the game, reveal the name of the “mule” who smuggled his soul across the ocean, and when he finds her, she quickly offers to help him get it back.  She’d worn his soul for a few days herself — that’s how the mules get them out of the country — and she’d become rather fond of it, and of him by proxy.

Working as a team, they begin a quest that, in essence, ends up saving both their souls, changing their perspectives on life forever.  Awwww!  How nice!

This dark comedy is loaded with elements of social satire:  the lengths to which modern humans will go to avoid feeling anything too complicated being but one of them (I can relate, and am now picturing my soul as a piece of sea glass, dulled by rocking waves and time.  Helas pour moi).  Giamatti is, as usual, absolutely delightful — it’s a character drawn perfectly for him in more ways than just the name (though writer/director Sophie Barnes says the inspiration for the film was a dream she had about Woody Allen’s garbanzo bean of a soul).  And, of course, I never say no to anything starring David Strathairn, which is why I’ve seen the movie Twisted.  More’s the pity.

Clever, weird, funny, and thought-provoking, this is definitely one to check out.  Highly recommended!

[Netflix it | Buy it from Amazon]

Genre: Comedy, Drama
Cast:  Paul Giamatti, Armand Schultz, Dina Korzun, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Lauren Ambrose

MOVIE: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

November 24, 2010

I was expecting the worst from this movie, especially after having seen both the remake of Friday the 13th (terrible!) and the one of My Bloody Valentine (only marginally better!) last year.  Remakes of 80’s slasher classics?  Not going well, my friends.  (Though I did like Rob Zombie’s Halloween, I will confess.)

But while I was on vacation last week (house-sitting for my sister in California), my husband and I rented a stack of movies to watch, and I picked this one up for the early morning hours when I’m awake and he’s not (he’s no fan of the slasher genre, more’s the pity).  I was expecting to just have it playing in the background while I did other stuff around the house, but I ended up getting surprisingly sucked into the story from the beginning.  Go figure!

The plot is essentially the same as the original, with a few minor changes that, in my opinion, actually made it stronger (for example, we aren’t sure until the end, really, whether or not Fred Krugar, before he was Freddy Krugar, was really guilty of the crimes he was accused of, and that added an interesting dynamic to everything that was going on between the kids and their parents).  The acting was decent as well, though I thought Freddy would’ve been a lot scarier had they just left Jackie Earle Haley’s voice alone instead of amplifying it into that weirdly loud, gravely, “scary movie” voice.  Unnecessary, and the less real you make the bad guy sound, the less scary he’s going to end up being (have we learned nothing yet, American filmmakers?  Must I continue to make this point in all its various ways?  Apparently, I must.).

It was nice to finally see Rooney Mara in action as well (she’s been in the news a lot lately as she’s starring as Lisbeth Salander in the American versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and I was having trouble picturing her in that role until I saw her in this).  And, well, Clancy Brown, of course, humina humina. ‘Nuff said.

Overall, not bad.  Not bad at all.  Definitely worth a rental if  you like these sorts of things.  Probably NOT worth the extra buck for Blu-Ray, but then again, most things aren’t, I would imagine.  Hi-def, hi-schmef.

[Netflix it | Buy it from Amazon]

Genre: Horror
Cast:  Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker,  Clancy Brown, Connie Britton

BOOK: The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter (2009)

November 18, 2010

A financial newspaper reporter for over a decade, Matthew Prior quit his day job a few years back to start his own business, a (ridiculous) web enterprise called “Poetfolio.com” in which he planned to offer readers daily stock and economic tips in the form of poetry.

No big surprise (especially since he’s a lousy poet — each chapter starts with a sampling of his verse, which was pretty wretched for the most part), the site went belly-up in no time, leaving Matthew broke and jobless.  After some groveling, he managed to get rehired at the paper . . . only to get laid off a few months later when the newspaper industry took a dive.

Now, struggling to find work that isn’t completely demoralizing, Matthew spends his days taking care of his elderly father, job hunting, and struggling to hide what his accountant has dubbed “fiscal ebola” from his wife and kids.  Making matters worse, he’s missed so many mortgage payments the bank is going to take the house.  He’s also just discovered his wife is on the verge of starting an extramarital affair with her old jock boyfriend from college, a lumber salesman named Chuck.  Ouch.

Up late one night, swimming in self-loathing, Matthew decides to make a midnight run to 7-11 for some milk.  There, he runs into a group of 20-somethings who offer him a few drags of marijuana.  Initially reluctant, Matthew gives in after some good-natured ribbing, takes a few tokes, and immediately experiences one of the best highs of his life.

And then he gets this great idea, see?  He’ll spend the last $10K he has on as much of that amazing pot as he can get, sell it to people he knows and trusts (he does, after all, have a solid “in” with the mid-life crisis demographic), and make enough money in just a few weeks to save his house.  Which, in turn, will save his marriage.

Brilliant!

Um.  Until he gets caught by the cops before he even gets started.  Whoops!

Though it took me a while to get into this novel (starts off a bit sluggish), I ended up really enjoying it.  It’s got a quirky sense of humor, and though I found the characters a little weakly drawn (not to mention the fact they do all kinds of unbelievable stuff — not even William Carlos Williams could’ve made a site like Poetfolio.com succeed, and Matthew (and by turns author Jess Walter) is nooooo William Carlos Williams), I was definitely entertained.  Will be looking for more by this author soon — anybody got any suggestions on where to go next?  Citizen Vince?

[FICTION]

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

Senceless Pie??

November 13, 2010

Wondering what’s up with the new name of this blog?  Check out the comments on my old review of the SyFy movie Polar Storm (Peter’s comment from yesterday in particular).  Also, I was double-dog-dared to do this by several people, and you know what a sucker I am for the triple-d.

Plus, it’s kind of perfect.  Don’t you think?

Peter, Whoever you are, I adore you, you ass.  Love, Senceless Pie.

MOVIE: Cropsey (2009)

November 11, 2010

Growing up on Staten Island in the 70s and 80s, filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio often heard stories about a local boogeyman known as “Cropsey.”  The legend of Cropsey was typically evoked by parents trying to scare their kids out of doing things they weren’t supposed to, like playing in the woods, talking to strangers, etc.

Zeman and Brancaccio never really believed the stories.  That is, until the day a little Staten Island girl named Jennifer disappeared.

As police investigated the case, a man named Andre Rand, spotted in the area Jennifer had last been seen in, became their chief suspect.  He was a former resident of Willowbrook, a “state school” (more like mental institution) in the woods of Staten Island that had been shut down a decade earlier after horrific abuses of patients were exposed in a Giraldo Rivera special.  Patients of Willowbrook were then farmed out to local halfway houses and hospitals, but many ended up sort of instinctively migrating back to the area.  Andre Rand was one such patient and when, a few months later, Jennifer’s body was found buried near his campsite in the Willowbrook woods, it seemed obvious he was the killer.

Cropsey was real.

Or was he?  As the story spread and witnesses of an increasingly dubious nature came forward, some began to suspect Rand had either been framed or was being used as a scapegoat by the Staten Island police, desperate to appease the community by locking up a child killer.  For example, Jennifer’s body had not been found during previous searches of the area — instead, it was found just after a photo of a drooling, crazed-looking Rand was published in the local paper.  Forensic experts determined that she had been killed elsewhere and then moved to the discovery site later.  Possibly even moved there recently.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of physical evidence tying Rand to the case, he was convicted in the mid-1980s and sentenced to 25-to-life (for kidnapping; jurors were deadlocked on the murder charge).  Stories of “Cropsey” faded after that, until a decade and a half passed and Rand’s name hit the papers again.  He was being charged with another murder, one from 20 years prior — one of four additional Staten Island children whose disappearances police suspected Rand was involved in.  They had no evidence — not even a body this time — but again, Rand was put on trial, and again, convicted.

This fascinating documentary tells the stories of Willowbrook hospital, Andre Rand, the missing children, and the way media frenzy, public pressure, and fear can influence our criminal justice system.  While the film’s outcome isn’t terribly satisfying (did he do it or not? we’ll probably never know), the story itself is riveting and the filmmakers do a solid job in its telling.

Definitely recommended, and I also enjoyed (well, not enjoyed, exactly) an hour long documentary specifically about Willowbrook that I stumbled across online while looking for more information about Andre Rand.  That one, Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook (narrated by Danny Aiello), describes in greater detail the horrors patients institutionalized there experienced (within six months of admission, most patients suffered from parasites and pneumonia, and the incidence of hepatitis infection was 100% — broken bones, malnutrition, mental and physical abuse, and worse.  Unbelievable.).  You can rent it for $2.99 at Amazon.com, and it’s well worth your time, especially if you have seen or are interested in seeing Cropsey.

Recommended!

[Netflix it (available for streaming)]

Genre: Documentary
Directed by: Joshua Zeman, Barbara Brancaccio

MOVIE: Let Me In (2010)

November 11, 2010

I was definitely a little wary of this movie, an American remake of an absolutely stunning 2008 Swedish film called Let the Right One In.  As I’m sure all fans of the genre know, Americans who remake foreign horror movies almost always botch them, loading them up with extraneous gore and special effects, as well as tons of unnecessary exposition (cuz us ‘Mercans is too dumb for nuance, see?).  In essence, they take out all the brains and scares and replace them with guts and gotchas! instead.

Man, I hate it when that happens.

Nevertheless, despite my trepidation, I had to go see this film.  It had to be done.  Because. . . what if?  What if it didn’t suck?  What if it was good?

And hey, guess what!  It IS good.  I mean, yes, certainly, it commits all of the sins I listed above (man, that tunnel scene?  RUINED.).  But surprisingly, it only does it occasionally and not too terribly obtrusively, and balancing out the weak spots were two beautiful, talented young actors in the lead roles.  They make this film exactly what it ought to be:  sad and pretty.

For a description of the story, you can go back and read my reviews of both the original film (here) and the novel it was based on by John Ajvide Lindqvist (here).  Elements of this movie are quite different from the original, but also, in a few places, more true to the book.  To me, all three feel like solid companions to each other, each one worth exploring.  My heart, in all three cases, was pulled painfully and immediately towards the young boy (Owen here, Oskar in the original), whose loneliness beats off the screen and pages with a pulse you can feel throbbing in you for days later (one nice touch in this film, which I didn’t remember from the original, is that we never once see Owen’s mother’s face.  She is as missing for us as she is for Owen — oof, *beat beat* goes my heart).

Though this version of the story is definitely not as good as the original, which I listed as one of my favorite films seen in 2009, it is still well worth your time.  Take in all three and I promise you these characters will become absolutely unforgettable.

A beautiful, wrenching story, told three times well.  Recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, Drama
Cast:  Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz, Richard Jenkins, Cara Buono, Elias Koteas

BOOK: The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009)

November 5, 2010

I’m not sure why I expected more out of this novel than I got.  I mean, Guillermo Del Toro is a brilliant film director, but it’s not like that gives him any novelist cred, really.  Still, I expected more than what is, essentially, just a badly written Robin Cook novel (redundant) about vampires.

I read the whole thing, sure (I’ve read numerous Cook novels, for that matter).  It was OKAY; it wasn’t unreadable.  I kind of liked the beginning — it starts with an airplane that lands safely despite the fact everybody on board is dead, which, whoa, that’s pretty weird, right?   But overall, it was badly written enough that I’m unlikely to bother with the second book in the planned trilogy.

Which is too bad, really, because after being disappointed by The Passage, I was kind of hoping not to be disappointed by this one too.  SO MUCH DISAPPOINTMENT!   SO FEW VAMPIRE BOOKS THAT DON’T SUCK!   (Read Let the Right One In instead, is what I’m saying.)

[HORROR]

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

BOOK: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (2009)

November 3, 2010

As this novel opens, 20 year-old Tassie Keltjin has recently moved from her parent’s farm in the rural Midwest to a moderately-sized college town.  Her first round of exams behind her, she decides to try to find a job to help pay her way.  Figuring the ideal gig would be a nanny position — flexible hours, nap time equals study time, etc.  — she works her way to the door of Sarah and Edward Brink, a middle-aged couple who, oddly enough, do not have any children.  As it turns out, though, they are planning to adopt soon, and because they are both busy professionals, they wanted to make sure they had a nanny lined up in advance.  It’s a move, Tassie realizes a few weeks in, that is very telling in terms of Sarah’s nature: cautious, measured, prepared, and all that tidiness calculated to hide something — some personality trait — that starts to feel kind of “off” to Tassie later on.

Yet despite the fact she finds Sarah a bit weird and Edward strangely aloof, Tassie takes the job and even joins the couple as they begin to interview birth mothers.  Eventually, Sarah and Edward adopt a mixed-race little girl they name Mary-Emma, and Tassie’s adventures into nannydom — and into the increasingly troubled (and troubling) Brink family — begin for real.

Though I enjoyed this novel for the most part, especially the sections about adoption and the almost comic social politics involved in being a wealthy white couple with a mixed-race child, I had the same problems with it I often have with Moore’s writing, problems here amplified by the fact this is a novel instead of her usual short story. Moore’s style — a meanderingness punctuated by wordplay I sometimes find awkwardly placed and jarring — works pretty well here as the voice of a 20 year-old farm girl.  But even thinking about it in those terms — the terms of a realistically drawn 20 year-old voice, I mean — didn’t change the fact it still struck me as not being quite as sharply written as it needed to be.

As usual, Moore turns incredible phrases frequently — when she’s on, she’s easily one of the best writers I’ve encountered in the last few years, my god — but those moments of gape-inducing awesomeness were often dampened by  frequent tangents that played little role besides, it seemed to me, that of supporting  Moore’s desire to be as witty as possible.

And don’t even get me started with the whole terrorist-boyfriend subplot:  so unnecessary and so awkwardly done.  I could tell what Moore’s goal was, given the story’s setting (about a year post-9/11), but she didn’t come even close to nailing it.  A good editor, in my opinion, would’ve chopped that whole chunk out, and, frankly, tightened this novel up into a novella instead.

I want to repeat that I think Moore is a mind-blowingly talented writer, and if you’ve never read any of her short fiction, you should stop reading this crappy blog right now and go dig some up (I reviewed her story collection Birds of America about a year ago — you can start there).  But I think she’s a much stronger writer when she’s writing under space constraints.  Somehow, this novel ended up feeling both overwritten AND underwritten to me.  I still enjoyed it quite a bit, but by the end I was ready to be done.   Never a good sign.

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