Archive for December, 2010

BOOK: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest (2010)

December 31, 2010

This delightful adventure, the second in Priest’s Clockwork Century series (steampunk zombies, yo!), is set during the same era as the first book, Boneshaker, but takes us all the way across the country to Richmond, Virginia.  There, a nurse at a Confederate hospital, Mercy Swakhammer, learns in a single day both that her husband has been killed in Andersonville, and that her estranged father is on his deathbed in Seattle, Washington and desperately wants to see her.

Reeling from the loss of her husband of only a few months, Mercy decides to quit her job at the hospital and set out on the long journey to the Pacific Northwest, in the hopes she might get to talk to her dad one last time before he dies.

The first part of her trek involves an overly-exciting ride on an airship (can’t have a steampunk novel without a Zeppelin, after all), one that takes the passengers and crew right into the middle of a Civil War battle.  But it’s the second part that really makes the trip an adventure.  As it turns out, the only train going to the Northwest is the infamous Union battle train the Dreadnought.  And not only will Mercy have to hide her identity as a Rebel on board, but the train features a mysterious caboose with all its windows blackened, a dodgy scientist so protective of that mysterious car he’s willing to shoot anyone who goes near it,  and a whole host of Confederate soldiers hot on the Dreadnought’s tail, having heard a rumor the train is packed with bars of gold.

While I will confess that I found sections of this novel a bit of a slog, once Mercy boards that train, the story becomes one a hell of a ride.  The scenes that featured train-vs.-train shoot-outs were so exciting I kept staying up WELL past my bedtime to push through them, and I appreciated that while the sap-infected zombies from Boneshaker played a role in this story as well, it was a fairly minimal one.  Zombies are fun, sure, but they can be easily overdone, and this novel just wasn’t really about them — it was about a young woman on a dangerous journey, and the people she encounters on her way (both helpful and not).  A young woman who has, I might add, three times the balls of half the men she meets (wait, what?  Oh, you do the math).

I’ve had a soft spot for novels set during the Civil War ever since becoming infatuated with William Faulkner when I was a kid, and though this series is science fiction (for one thing, the Civil War in the Clockwork Century has been going on for decades), the setting still feels very realistic and alive to me, packed with all the complexities inherent in any tale about a warring nation.

Priest may not a brilliant writer — I’ll give you naysayers that much — but she’s a damn fine storyteller, and her characters have a way of really sticking with me after all is said and done.  Can’t wait for the next book in this series, which I hope will continue to feature Mercy in a starring role.  I loved her.  LOVED HER.  (And thanks again to my bookseller friend Steve, who introduced me to this series last year and continues to supply me with autographed Priest novels every time a new one comes out!  With friends like that, who needs libraries?  Wait, pretend I didn’t actually just say that.)

Highly recommended!

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MOVIE: Easy A (2010)

December 30, 2010

Sorry the blog has been so quiet the last two weeks or so:  holiday MADNESS followed by madness-induced STOMACH FLU!  Fun for the whole family!  But the upside of that latter element was a couple of days of bed-based confinement that resulted in my watching a film AND finishing a novel that are both about to appear on my Top Ten Favorites lists for 2010 (coming next week, by the way!).

Juuuuust under the wire there, Easy A!

I had heard many great things about this comedy, a John Hughes-style take on The Scarlet Letter, back when it was in theaters, and was cranky when it disappeared before I had a chance to see it.  Luckily, though Netflix won’t have it for a few more weeks, it was available on DirecTV’s pay-per-view system this week, and Monday after my fever broke, I snuggled under the covers and flipped it on.

The story focuses on a high school girl named Olive (Emma Stone) who, as the story opens, is trying to get out of having to join her best friend Rhiannon and Rhi’s weird parents on a weekend camping trip she knows will be hellish.  To dodge the invite, Olive tells Rhi she’s got a hot date with a college guy and when, Monday morning, Rhi drags her into the school loo and begs her for details, Olive makes the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad mistake of juicing her lie up into a dramatic two-day sexscapade, in part because she’s tired of being ragged on all the time for being so straight-laced.

Of course, Olive neglected to check the bathroom stalls for feet before launching into her yarn, and tucked away inside one of those stalls is the school’s gossip girl, Marianna (Amanda Bynes).  Within an hour, the fantastic and completely invented tale of Olive’s loss of virginity is all over the school.  And. . . well?  It’s kind of fun, go figure.  Suddenly Olive’s gone from being completely invisible to turning heads, and living a lie no longer feels so terribly problematic.

A few days later, however, Olive finds herself in detention along with a kid named Brandon.  They get to talking and she admits to the lie behind the rumor.  This gives him a great idea — what if Olive pretended to have sex with HIM too?  Then people would stop beating him up all the time for being a closeted homosexual.  AND Olive would get to perpetuate the rumor that she was a sexy sexpot of sex.  Win-win, right?  Olive can’t find a reason to say no, so she and Brandon stage the big event at a party the next night where all their fellow students can listen in.  Brandon is immediately popular, and Olive’s reputation continues to grow.

When Brandon tells a few of his fellow outcast buddies about Olive’s “service,” though, she soon she finds herself trading fake sex for gift cards to a lot of the school’s loser set.  It seemed like a good idea at the time — she’s helping underdogs, right? — but the more word gets around, the more her own friends start to turn against her, and soon the entire school is picketing for her expulsion.

Having just read The Scarlet Letter in English class, Olive takes a stand against the hypocritical sexual ostracization from her Puritanical peers by coming to school dressed as a harlot, wearing a red A pinned to her chest (never mind the fact she hasn’t actually committed adultery; semantics are not the point here).  This stand catches the eye of her super-cool English teacher (Thomas Haden Church) and his significantly less-cool guidance counselor wife (Lisa Kudrow) — with disastrous effect.

How Olive ends up cleaning up the mess she’s made and schooling her peers on the perils of judgment and rumor mills, I’ll leave for you to discover.  But this clever, engaging movie had me laughing out loud more than once, and I was mad-crazy for Olive from the second scene (not to mention her ridiculously awesome, though wholly unbelievable, parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson).  All that buzz you’ve been hearing about Emma Stone?  COMPLETELY DESERVED.  She’s phenomenal in this film, and I can’t wait to see her in whatever she does next.

Easily, EASILY the best comedy I saw this year.  BAM.  Nailed it.  Sorry, Scott Pilgrim — you just lost position one to a faux-ho.

DO NOT MISS THIS MOVIE!

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Genre:  Comedy
Cast:  Emma Stone, Alyson Michalka, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Dan Byrd, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Lisa Kudrow

MOVIE: Ludlow (2010)

December 18, 2010

Last weekend, I finally had the 70-some-odd minutes of free time needed to sit down and watch this short film, written and directed by amazing Renaissance woman Stacie Ponder (she’s an artist! she’s a writer! she’s a filmmaker! she can juggle chainsaws!) (okay, I don’t know for sure about the chainsaw thing, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest, is what I’m saying).

Over the last year or so, Ponder’s been blogging regularly at Final Girl (her terrific horror movie site) about the trials and tribs encountered while making this film, which I gather is her first feature-length-ish production.    I studiously avoided ALL of these posts, because I wanted to wait to get the backstory until I saw the actual story.  When she finally posted a month or so ago that Ludlow was at long last available on DVD, I emailed to beg her for a copy.

That’s right, I BEGGED.  And I feel no shame whatsoever in admitting that, either.  You know why?  Because I knew that even if there were something dramatically wrong with it — maybe the film quality would suck, maybe the actors would be insufferable, or maybe, well, any other of the wide variety of flaws you sometimes encounter in low-budget indie films — I knew at the very least, it was going to be SMART.  And smart is the one thing that will make up for almost every other thing in my book.  You could shoot it on an old iPhone, cast it with maudlin high school drama nerds, and use synthesizer musak for the soundtrack, and if it had a smart script, I’d still love it.

Lucky for me (and you, and you, and that guy over there), if I had to pick something to complain about when it came to Ludlow, it would be the fact it’s not twenty minutes longer.  I was sorry to see it end;  I wasn’t really ready for it to end.  More stuff could’ve happened.  More story could’ve been told.  I was totally in for a longer ride.  I was THAT engaged.

The story focuses on a young woman, Krista (Shannon Lark), who, as the movie opens, is pulling into a cheap motel in the middle of the deserty nowhere.  Once inside her room, she makes a phone call to her sister that tells the audience everything it needs to know about her situation — she’s on the run from an abusive boyfriend and has plans to connect with her sister in a few days to start over.  In the meantime, she’s gonna hole up in her motel room, hide from said boyfriend, drink to excess, and wait for her sister to come get her.  But as the days go on, strange things begin to happen: she starts bleeding for no discernible reason, she is beaten by her boyfriend only to discover he’s not really there, she finds a dead body outside the hotel.  It looks like her.

At first, we aren’t sure what we’re really seeing — what is real and what isn’t.  But as the film continues, it becomes more and more clear that what we’re seeing is this:  madness.

Shannon Lark is an actress I’ve never seen before, but man, is she ever ready to go major places, if you ask me.  Her portrayal of Krista is so real it was hard for me to disconnect from her and from the film after it was over.  The way she talks is so authentic somehow — the sentence fragments, the pauses — the way she cries, the way her face changes with emotion or fear.   She totally blew my mind in this film, and I can’t wait to see her in whatever she does next (or, for that matter, whatever she’s done before).

I also loved the way this film was shot, using a grainy film quality that made me feel like I was spying on the characters from another room, as well as a series of camera angles and lighting tricks that subtly but effectively conveyed a sense of disconnect from reality.  Every time Krista opens the curtains or the door of her room, for example, the sunlight outside — the light of the real world — is blindingly white.  It’s painfully white, in fact.  It reminded me of one of the most powerful scenes of Haneke’s The White Ribbon from earlier this year, in which a man is sitting in a small room grieving the death of his wife, and all we can really see is the eye-boring blast of white sunlight coming from the window over his head.  That contrast between the darkness of one character’s reality and the blinding light of the world outside them is so effective when it’s used correctly, as it is in both these films.  I love subtleties like that — things your brain picks up on that paint a fuller picture without your conscious involvement.

I went back this week and read all of the making of Ludlow blog posts at last, and now that I’ve got the backstory stored away in my brain, I’m extremely excited to watch the film again, knowing I’ll be picking up on even more nuances in both the script and the cinematography stuff the second time around (I’m also planning to rent Roman Polanski’s Repulsion soon, because it’s been forever since I last saw it, and Ludlow reminded me of it in a few places — watch for a review of that one here next week).

If you’re intrigued, you can get a copy of Ludlow yourself by heading over to http://stacieponder.com/?page_id=417 (it says preorder on the site, so it may not be available quite yet, but you can at least get in line — $11 is a steal for it, too, if you ask me, especially since you’ll be helping to support future Ponder projects).

Anybody who appreciates smart, original horror will find much to appreciate in this film, and I’m not just saying that because my name is in the credits.  Although, that too.  (A lovely surprise, I might add.)

Highly recommended!

Genre: Horror, Psychological thriller
Cast:  Shannon Lark, Elissa Downing, Ned Christensen

BOOK: Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER by Julie Holland, MD (2009)

December 14, 2010

I’m a bit of a sucker for memoirs written by doctors.  I’ve read a ton of them, and almost always really enjoy them.  This is the first time I’ve read one written by a psychiatrist, though, and while I was intrigued by the idea of a memoir about life on the front lines of a psychiatric emergency room, I didn’t end up getting much out of it, I’m afraid.  In large part because this is one doctor who is clearly a much better doctor than storyteller.

One of the things that makes a medical memoir so fascinating (to me, anyway) is the way in which the doctors telling the stories about their training and patients manage to make those stories relatable to the average reader.  I may not have gone to medical school, and I’ve definitely never had a super-duper bizarre illness, but somehow I am almost always able to feel some kind of empathetic pull.

And that’s where Holland’s book falls down on the job.  Instead of taking the time to tell intimate stories about the people (teachers, colleagues, or patients) who really had an impact on her during her nine years at Bellevue, she focuses instead of telling short vignettes about the most disturbed patients she encountered on the job.  While this was fascinating initially, if only because it’s hard NOT to be fascinated by stories about super-duper crazy people, especially when you are sometimes considered to be super-duper crazy yourself, eventually I got bored with Holland herself.  She seemed to find each case more a spectacle than anything else, and even says in the prologue she focused on her most radically ill patients because she figured those would be the stories that sold.  But I think she’s wrong about that, myself, and the fact most of the chapters are only 2-3 pages long meant there was never time to really connect with any patient or their plight.

I confess I didn’t even end up finishing this one — I had a hard time putting it down for the first fifty or so pages, thinking every short tale of illness was building up to a bigger story about Holland herself, but when it became clear she wasn’t headed in that direction, I lost interest.  I skipped most of the last hundred pages and jumped to the end — still hopeful, but ultimately still unsatisfied.

I suppose it’s about time I hit on a doctor memoir that stunk — I can’t think of another one I’ve read that didn’t enthrall me in one way or another.  But this is only the book for you if you like gawking at the mentally ill (not my thing, personally), not if you’re interested in learning something.  For far, far better works in this genre, dig up anything you can find by Atul Gawande, who is one of the best at this sort of thing I’ve encountered, or Oliver Sacks, who writes about neurology and mental illness in a far more personal and less clinical way.

[NON-FICTION]

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MOVIE: Winter’s Bone (2010)

December 9, 2010

Earlier this year, when this film was in local theaters, I kept meaning to go see it and then putting it off until, finally, I had missed its entire run.  Still intrigued by the story, I picked up a copy of the novel it was based on, by Daniel Woodrell, and then . . . never got around to reading it.  Hmmm.

The problem?  I think it was that I knew this was going to be a grim story — it’s about meth addicts in the rural Ozarks, after all — and I wasn’t sure it was also going to be a story great enough to warrant the bummer.

But man, was I ever wrong to doubt, because though this movie is definitely a serious downer, it’s also absolutely brilliant.

The plot focuses on a 17 year-old girl named Ree Dolly who lives in a very poor community in the mountains.  Ree’s been the primary “adult” of her household for years, taking care of her little brother and sister while her mother sits nearby, incapacitated by severe depression, and her father, Jessup, moves in and out of jails and meth labs, an addict and cooker who hasn’t really been a part of the family for years.

When a cop comes by the house one afternoon, Ree braces herself for the latest in bad news, knowing it’s probably got something to do with her dad.  She figured he’d been arrested again, but is stunned to hear that ain’t the half of it.  Not only has Jessup been arrested, the trooper tells her, but he put the Dolly house up as collateral for his bail — and hasn’t been heard from since.  The cop tells Ree if he doesn’t turn himself in within the week, she and her family will lose their home.  Ree pauses for a moment, letting the weight of the news sink her down, then quickly straightens up and declares with confidence, “I’ll find him.”

She immediately sets out to do just that, something that takes her into pretty dangerous territory.  Jessup’s circle of acquaintances, mostly all related to each other and the Dollys in one way or another, are also all criminals and meth heads, and none too keen on little girls asking nosy questions.

Ree’s uncle, Jessup’s brother Teardrop (powerfully played by ex-Boyfriend John Hawkes), tries to scare Ree into digging no deeper, leading her to suspect her father’s been the victim of foul play.  But when she continues to pursue the truth and is beaten severely for it, Teardrop finally takes a stand against the family himself — at great risk to his own life.

This story is heartbreaking on so many levels, not just because of the awful havoc wreaked by the combination of meth and poverty, but because of the incredible courage of this teenage girl who carries more weight of responsibility than I do, and does it with twice my strength and grace.  There wasn’t a single moment during this film when I doubted Ree could and would save her family, even as she was being kicked in the ribs repeatedly or forced to pull a corpse out of icy water with her bare hands.

New actress Jennifer Lawrence is stunningly talented (not to mention just plain stunning), and I can’t wait to see what she does next.  She brings Ree Dolly to life with a vibrancy I haven’t seen from a new actor in a really long time.

Beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, and brazenly authentic, this movie is absolute aces.  Do not miss!

[Netflix it | Buy it from Amazon]

Genre: Drama
Cast:  Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Lauren Sweetser, Isaiah Stone, Ashlee Thompson