Recently Experienced: Thumbnail Reviews of Books, Movies, Music, TV

I’ve been hoarding up little thumbnail reviews of books, movies, TV, and music experienced over the past few months—offered up to you here in a long post that hopefully has something for everyone. There’s not as much in the books section just because of all of the sampling I do for Omnivoracious features, the editing (so I’ve been reading manuscripts, really), and the writing. I’m too lazy to provide links—and too busy—but all of this stuff is easy to find.

If a movie or TV show is starred **, we saw it on Netflix On Demand.

Books

(Just a note that I’m currently reading and enjoying the hell out of the 1970s novel The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith—so far, I’d recommend it most highly. I’m also half-way through Chiina Mieville’s Railsea, and I think it’s his most relaxed novel yet—he’s clearly enjoying himself, and I think that helps the reader enjoy the book even more, too. Definitely recommended thus far.)

THE CRONING by Laird Barron. Alas, although I like Barron’s short fiction, this first novel wasn’t that good. From my review on the Amazon sales page: “Unfortunately, this novel is a mess. The main character is tediously boring, the main situation relies on the main character being something of an idiot, and there are chapters and chapters of family history that display very little talent for knowing what is useful and interesting. The rituals described are right out of old pulp fiction. Allusions to Machen et al only spotlight the problems. The last chapters, which are meant to be epic horror, are instead pretty unintentionally hilarious, with a portal described as being as big as a bowling ball and then a hula hoop not helping the atmosphere much. Opening scenes set in Mexico that feature a fairly cliched-sounding university rep and generic detail don’t help. The other problem is that the novel could’ve been written in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s, and the author wouldn’t have had to change more than a few words, really. The writing on a sentence level is often good, but can’t save the novel. It’s a real disappointment, as I went in wanting to like this novel very much–I am a fan of much of Barron’s short fiction. I hope the next novel is better.”

VLAD by Carlos Fuentes. I enjoyed this one a lot, with a review forthcoming, so I won’t say too much here except that he manages to mix satire and dark humor with something also very serious and Grand Guignol, and refreshes the vampire trope rather nicely. Creepy and hilarious.

GONE by Mo Hayder. A surprisingly emotional and twisty detective story from a writer who is hit-or-miss for me. Hayder can be great, as in Birdman, or just plain effed up as in Pig Island, which plays out as a horrendous bait-and-switch (first half great, second half from some other novel). Here, she’s done a great job with the characters and writing, and it’s a riveting read but had depth as well.

THE VANISHING by Heidi Julavits. Ann read and really liked this weird fusion of the uncanny and other elements. Psychic attacks. Mysteries from the past. Lots of layering-in of elements from different genres.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I think it’s no surprise to anyone given prior blog posts that I loved this one to death (with a review forthcoming). As I said commenting as a reader on the Amazon sales page, “2312 is an amazing feat of the imagination: a plausible view of our solar system three centuries from now, one that combines genre and mainstream literary influences to create a rich tapestry of adventure, intrigue, and extrapolation, with strong, strong characters. What holds the whole thing together is the love story—yes, I said it. A love story. As brilliant an interesting a love story as you’re likely to find in all of science fiction. I thought this was the best SF novel I’ve read in the last few years.”

I HOTEL by Karen Tei Yamashita. This book is beyond brilliant. I can’t believe it didn’t win the National Book Award. I could rave about this novel all frickin’ day. It’s a nuanced fusion of both traditional and experimental approaches to fiction, detailing the experiences of Asian American characters and others during the time of social upheaval in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s. Composed of ten novellas, each one unique, each one amazing, I Hotel is notable in part for how adroit Yamashita is at negotiating such a complicated landscape with such ease. Despite the weight of the subject matter, there is a lightness to the book, and a clarity, that is remarable. What it illuminates about race, culture, class, and other important issues—and how it takes the didactic and renders it in artistically compelling ways—is stunning. And it beggars in its complexity and its sheer exuberance and compassion and…well, in every other way just about any SF/fantasy novel dealing with similar issues over the past decade. It really underlines for me why it is so toxic and so inbred to just, as a writer or reader, read only SF/fantasy, or only any one kind of approach to fiction. It’s like walking around with only part of your brain engaged. Or walking around with blinders on. Such balkanization leads to all kinds of missed opportunities for cross-pollination and for understanding.

Movies

Reminder: the ** means I saw it on demand; those stars aren’t a reviewing scale or anything.

AND SOON THE DARKNESS. A cult British film about two women biking through France who make a series of increasingly stupid decisions with a serial killer on the loose. The annoying thing about this movie is that it holds your attention for the first third, with a kind of growing tension and great use of the landscape…and then it just becomes dumber and dumber until it becomes Super Dumb. Avoid.**

ANTIBODIES. A pretty absorbing German serial killer movie, with the right weight and emphasis given so you care about the people involved. It, however, decides on a kind of semi-mystical ending that involves CGI deer that don’t look real and don’t fit the rest of the flick. Just turn it off right when you see the first deer, and maybe that experience won’t scar you.**

BAJO DEL SAL. A great-looking Mexican serial killer murder mystery that I haven’t finished yet due to deadlines. Also because it looks like it’s setting up one particular individual to be the killer, and he’s not particularly interesting. But definitely worth a look-see, depending on what you want from this kind of movie.**

CABIN IN THE WOODS. Joss Whedon can renovate rather brilliantly at times, but he’s not good at subversion. So in tackling horror movie tropes and putting his subtext on the surface in a ham-fisted attempt at social commentary or satire…all he winds up doing is perpetrating the same clichés he’s trying to make a comment about. The fact is, any bad horror movie already parodies the horror genre, things have gotten so bad in that regard. Whedon would have been better off just trying to create a horror movie that renovated and riffed off the genre instead of this meta-mess.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS. This documentary by Werner Herzog actually wound up not being our favorite, as it seemed to go on a little long and end with white crocodiles for no reason, but the core of it has some breathtaking visuals of the prehistoric cave painting, and Herzog’s ruminations are always great. Worth it for that alone. See it back-to-back with Prometheus. Heh.**

CEMETERY JUNCTION. Featuring Felicity Jones, a heart-warming little comedy about growing up in the UK in the 1960s. It’s nothing particularly amazing, but has good performances and the director knows what he’s doing. If it had been set in a more familiar place to us, like somewhere in the US, it might not have been as interesting. **

COLD WEATHER. A strange little Northwest mystery that’s a kind of shoe-gazer noir in a sense. You have to let it creep up on you, but it’s worth it. **

DARK CORNERS. Starring Thora Birch, I couldn’t get past the way the first scene was shot and the general vibe and gave up.**

DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING. An Italian horror film. Never, ever rent this. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever. Never. No. Don’t Do It. No. No no no no. **

DOWN TERRACE. Brilliant and dark and icky thriller about a crime family when the patriarch comes back from prison. Everything starts to go wrong and people start dying. Really great slow-burn script, and plays through right to the end. **

EVERYTHING MUST GO. This story about a down-on-his-luck man based on fiction by Raymond Carver and starring Will Ferrell is nicely understated and works pretty well all the way through. Definitely recommended. **

GOOD NEIGHBORS. This Canadian film, about the lives of neighbors in an apartment complex while a serial killer is on the loose was somewhat mesmerizing, even if we figured out a couple of things pretty early. It’s kind of a mystery story, but also about the dynamic between the neighbors. It also features some amazingly cute cats (although if you cannot differentiate between cats being harmed in a film as opposed to real-life, don’t see this movie).**

JIM GAFFIGAN: MISTER UNIVERSE. This hilarious stand-up comedian’s latest routine lives up to the general excellence of prior films. His bit on Subway is particularly gut-busting. **

THE HUNTER. Starring Willem Defoe, this is a merciless Australian film about Defoe’s character being hired to track down the last tiger and get tissue samples (basically kill it) for a corporation into biomedical research. It doesn’t go where you expect it to go, and there are no Hollywood-ish tendencies. It’s devastating, but it’s also real, and it’s brilliantly shot, acted, etc. It’s one of a spat of recent Aussie films that to me signal a new wave of talent beginning to shine. (Well, actually, since about 2005.) (Saw this on Comcast cable on demand—not yet available on Netflix.)

HOTEL SPLENDIDE. This great little movie, with lushly decaying sets and nice cinematography and storyline, featuring Toni Collette and Daniel Craig—quirky, funny, and surreal, and definitely underrated. Hard to describe, but you have to see it.**

HUNTER PREY. Avoid this turd of an SF movie. Crash-landed on alien planet. Escaped prison. Annoying talking through helmets. Long stretches where we fast-forwarded and didn’t lose any sense of the plot.**

LAKE MUNGO. Hands down our favorite horror film of the last few years. About a daughter who goes missing and then seemingly reappears to haunt the grieving family. Uses a lot of found footage, and hand-held cameras, but, for once, to good effect. Another great Aussie film. Truly brilliant. Go rent it NOW.**

THE LAST LULLABY. A noir thriller involving a hit man drawn into a tangled web of familial relationships and a crime from twenty years ago. The film takes some familiar elements and refreshes them, due in large part to an intelligent script that provides enough space to flesh out characters and the excellent performances by Tom Sizemore and Sasha Alexander.**

LIMITLESS. This film about a struggling writer who gets his hands on an experimental drug that exponentially increases his brain power has a really smart script and good acting. We’d avoided it for fear of another crap Hollywood movie, but it’s actually pretty clever. It’s not without a couple of hiccups, but well worth watching.**

MOONLIGHT KINGDOM. Directed by Wes Anderson, this is a gem of a film. Just pitch-perfect, with Anderson’s trademark whimsy working on all cylinders for the first time in a long time. A boy scout goes AWOL to meet up with the love of his life so they can run away together. The boy is nerdy, the girl is a kind of giantess next to him, which is a great touch. The dialogue is first-rate, and I think there’s something to be said for the kind of hermetically sealed setting of the island the bulk of the movie is set on. It seems to give Anderson focus and more chance at depth. I think there was a similar effect in Mr. Fox. When he goes farther afield, he can’t seem to handle the elements—or the whimsical elements grate against the details of the real world, and the whimsy comes off not as charming or insightful but as insufferable. To give you an idea of where I fall on the Anderson Appreciation Meter, I loved Rushmore and Mr. Fox. I tolerated the Royal Tenebaums. I hated Darjeeling Express and The Life Aquatic. But I loved this new movie. Loved loved loved.

MY JOY. This film from Russia (or the Ukraine?) follows a truck driver making a delivery cross-country, and the mis-adventures that befall him. This is possibly my favorite film of the past few months. The director has a roving eye, so we leave the truck driver’s perspective for stretches to inhabit the lives of the people he meets…and then comes a game-changing event a little before half-way through and we go back in time to an isolated cottage/house and the events that happen there before coming forward to the present, in a move that seems bewildering, until you realize the setting in question is where the truck driver has, after the game-changing event, come to reside in. The event I keep alluding to, by the way, is a truly gutsy move by the writer and director, and something you rarely see anyone do. From there, the narrative moves outward, attaining further breadth and scope, while keeping the truck driver more or less at the center of it all. The whole thing is mesmerizing and the ending both brutal and unexpected, and somehow fitting. The conversational scenes are rather striking, including one in which the truck driver is himself hitching a ride, and he sits there silent while the guy who picked him up just keeps talking and talking. Rather brilliant stuff. **

THE OBJECTIVE. Directed by the guy who did the Blair Witch Project, but whether you hated that movie or not is immaterial, since this is totally different in scope. A special unit infiltrated Afghanistan to investigate strange phenomenon. A very lithe script and good use of limited special effects. Pretty chilling. Definitely worth checking out.**

THE PERFECT HOST. Starring David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame, this crazy little movie about a bank robber stumbling into the wrong house to seek refuge is both funny and disturbing, and also over-the-top. We enjoyed it even though it gets perhaps too nuts at times.**

THE PERFECT AGE OF ROCK AND ROLL. Featuring Jason Ritter, this film, in which a reporter is called by a rock star who has been a recluse for 20 years to finally tell why their famous band suddenly fell apart after only two albums…is actually pretty good. I’d even go so far as to give it four stars. With a nice role in it for Peter Fonda. Yes, there are some of the usual rock-and-roll clichés, but the script is fairly smart. **

PETE SMALLS IS DEAD. Something of a mess, with a screenwriter well-played by Peter Dinklage seeking money to rescue his kidnapped dog. A dead director who stole the rights to the Dinklage character’s script plays a big role in the proceedings. The voice-over narration by Dinklage’s character is somewhat stilted, and individual scenes sometimes shine, but as a whole, it didn’t quite have the right energy or something. **

PROMETHEUS. I think it’s impossible for anyone to see this movie for what it is due to the rampaging debate across the internet. We thought it was visually stunning movie that wasn’t without flaws, but that it also had serious strengths. It’s somewhat exhausting to continue to say “Yes, but…” to some of the criticisms, which don’t always seem to be based on fact. So I’ll do just two “yes, buts”. One: the medical table is clearly male because it’s for the selfish use of one particular person. Two: anyone who thinks this movie is an affirmation of intelligent design or superstitious religious beliefs is nuts. I’ll have a long post on the movie in the next few weeks.

PUNCHING THE CLOWN. Comedian Henry Phillips plays a version of himself in this tale of a satirical songwriter kind-of hitting it big in Los Angeles. It’s absolutely hilarious and brilliant and you should go rent it immediately. **

RED STATE. This Kevin Smith movie is pretty much like every Kevin Smith movie—there are good things and bad things. In general, the good outweighs the bad, though, and this tale of religious fanatics and a stand-off is definitely very watchable, even if much of it fades in your memory pretty quickly. **

THE SKEPTIC. A haunted house movie that features Tim Daly, this one was both good and perplexing. Which is to say, the script had some really good moments, but the direction was subpar, while Daly’s performance was excellent. So a bit of a mixed bag but worth checking out. **

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. Wow. This was about as bad as a movie can get. The Huntsman is played by an actor who’s like a fourth-rate Kurt Russell. The lead actress—best-known for Twilight—is just terrible. The dwarves are cringe-worthy, and you know which one is going to die: the one who tries to hear the sea by putting his ear up to Snow White’s chest. The magical forest is stupid and the answer to where we are in various scenes is “Generic Landscape.” And I could go on and on. They should’ve called it Things That Disintegrate into Smaller Things, because that’s basically the only special effect, repeated over and over again. What a steaming pile of crap, redeemed only by Charlize Theron doing her best to act her way out of the bad script.

SUBMARINE. A UK coming-of-age film that got a lot of critical attention, but to us had several “don’t believe that” moments. It was watchable but definitely not essential.**

THE TUNNEL. Wow. A truly intelligent hand-held camera flick about something in the tunnels beneath Sydney that allows for some character development before the horrors start. The ending can’t possibly live up to the set-up, but it tries damn hard. Go rent it now if you want a creepy horror flick. **

WAKE WOOD. Grieving parents move to a small community and discover they might be able to have their daughter back for a short time, with, of course, horrible consequences. We both thought this was an above-average movie, with good direction, acting, and cinematography. Give it a try.**

THE WARD. Eh. John Carpenter, working on a small scale, and it doesn’t screw up too badly until later in the film. But it’s nothing you’d jump over your grandmother’s grave for.**

WRECKED. Great set-up, with this guy played by Adrian Brody waking up in a wrecked car at the bottom of a ravine in the wilderness. Except except except. It just gets stupider and stupider. Half-way through you think it’s going to be amazing…and then it becomes dumb. Don’t fall into the same trap we did!**

Music

Since it’s so easy to sample music and tell if you’re going to like it or not, I’m just going to list a few releases I’ve particularly enjoyed over the past months, in no particular order—definitely check them out.

The Black Keys—El Camino
Eleni Karaindrou—Elegy of the Uprooting
The Kills—Midnight Boom
Magnolia Electric Company—Josephine
Ringside—Lost Days
Shearwater—Animal Joy
Tindersticks—Something Rain
White Rabbits (all three CDs)
Three Mile Pilot—The Inevitable Past Is the Future Forgotten
Lloyd Cole—Broken Record
Black Angels (all CDs)
The National (all CDs)

Television

GAME OF THRONES. We’ve generally enjoyed season 2, although we’ve debated the use of female nudity—it’s all been problematic and creepy, and it would be nice to think that this is precisely the intent, to not allow the viewer to be comfortable with it, but who knows? (And, where’s the male nudity? The imbalance seems odd, if the idea is a generally raw depiction of this particular milieu.) Last season there seemed to be unnecessary nudity too, but as I recall most of it had more of a consensual feel to it—I might be wrong, as those prior episodes are all a blur. Anyway, it’s a definite entry point to all kinds of possible debate, and I think that’s a good thing. I think it also helps with an understanding of how this element is handled in the books, although I haven’t reached any conclusions about what that means. Also, there’s the issue of fragmentation. For the first couple of episodes being whiplashed all over the continent and beyond was great, but then it began to make the material seem thin at times. Having read the books, I have the extra layering built-in, but I don’t know what I’d think if I came to the series without that. It seems to me GoT would benefit from 90-minute episodes.

GIRLS. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed this HBO series—it has some of the best writing on TV, and the series creator is fairly brilliant. A protracted argument between roommates in the penultimate episode was a masterpiece.

MADMEN. Just a brilliant, shocking season—their best so far, I think. Any viewers who thought they just settle in to enjoy the bad behavior on display without feeling too uncomfortable…well, think again. Some stunning episodes, including one where the characters are at a table for an awards show, all gradually drift away, and when they come back, they’re essentially all different people. Some other stunning stuff, too.

THE KILLING. Very few complaints with this slow-burn of a series, which came to a complex and good conclusion, although the lead female detective was somewhat subsumed by the drama, before coming back into focus near the end. We liked how they kept going past the solving of the central mystery, and added additional layers and closure to the case. The actor playing the politician running for mayor did a great job, as did the whole cast, really. Everybody was messed up and everybody wasn’t messed up.

PEEP SHOW. This show from the perspective of two dysfunctional, totally wrong and horrible British blokes, one of whom is a manager in a corporate business and the other of whom is in a failed band….is so unutterably filthy and terrible and wrong wrong wrong…and one of the most hilarious, well-written things I’ve ever seen. The reliance not just on the regular dialogue of a scene but on the two main characters’ inner thoughts is carried off with marvelous self-assurance. The show also sends up all kinds of things, including workplace politics and relationships. **

SHERLOCK. This modern-day reboot is pretty damn brilliant, with both leads doing a great job, and some really smart scripts. With the exception of the Chinese smugglers episode, which relied on clichés and hackneyed stuff, and parts of their attempt to update the Hound of the Baskervilles, which was great at times and stupid at others. Highly recommended otherwise.**

TERRIERS. This amazing California noir series was canceled after only one series, but someone should use it as an example of how you build great TV scripts that are fulfilling episode by episode but also build to a greater whole. The layering and the pacing are phenomenal, as is the acting. Go rent this immediately, and let it build—it might take getting to episode three before you get addicted.**

VEEPS. A hilarious, edgy HBO sitcom by the same people who did the movie In the Loop. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is great as the vice-president and the supporting cast is appropriately sleazy and fawning.

Comments

  1. says

    Terriers – My love for this show knows no bounds. We did a series of articles about the show over at Spinetingler when it was airing to try and generate some love for it in the mystery/crime community.

    The Killing – The mystery/crime community seemed to really have strong dislike for this show, me included. I know a lot of people who didn’t return for the second season after feeling jerked around by the first.

    I think that The Death of the Detective is the great lost crime novel. I love this book. I tracked Smith down because I’d like to bring an affordable ebook reprint out through Snubnose Press. Fingers crossed. This is also the rare crime novel that I will just grab off the shel, open to a random page, and just read passages from.

  2. says

    Thanks for that. The crime community has to get over itself on this one. Just because the publicity made it seem like it would end after season one is no reason not to enjoy the show.

  3. Stephen Winer says

    Cave of Forgotten Dreams (full disclosure: the producer is a good friend of mine) benefited enormously from the use of 3D. It brought you fully into this world. Anyway, you have to love any movie that ends with albino alligators.

  4. Kai in NYC says

    Wow. I don’t think I’ve seen you go all brick bat and steel-toed boots on a book before–I’d actually decided you just didn’t *do* that. And I bought the damn thing in hardcover too…

  5. jeff vandermeer says

    Oh, I do, actually, fairly often. But perhaps you’re thinking of the features I do for Omnivoracious. There, I’m just taking a dip into the book and featuring new releases.

  6. says

    Looking forward to I Hotel, based on your description, and this “It really underlines for me why it is so toxic and so inbred to just, as a writer or reader, read only SF/fantasy, or only any one kind of approach to fiction.” I struggle a lot with the artificial distinctions between genre and literary. When I was studying literature and writing nobody ever talked about that. Good literature was good literature (I give credit to my professors for that) but the downside is that I was also missing a lot of great books and writers that had been shoved into various genre ghettos… and I’m still trying to catch up. Guess there are also people missing great mainstream literary books because they only read genre fiction…?

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