2001: A Space Odyssey (IMAX) / *****

Poster.jpgWhat is there to say about a movie like 2001 that hasn’t been said before, and said better? Here’s a film celebrating its 50th anniversary, and even all these years later, it stands wholly unique and unlike anything else I’ve seen – a film that broke from every tradition and was never truly duplicated afterward. It’s a film that shouldn’t work in any conventional sense, but does, standing as an unparalleled example of craft, atmosphere, and immersion. But more than that, it’s a film that has been written about and analyzed to death. What can I possibly bring to the table?

Nevertheless, it’s been a week since I saw 2001 on an IMAX screen, immersing me in this film in a way that had never happened before. And even a week later, I can’t stop thinking about the experience, nor wanting to talk about it. Because, in the end, 2001 is a film that all but demands to be written about, and who am I to deny that urge?

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Of course, it’s not really surprising that any reaction to 2001 finds people discussing it; famously, the film has little to no interest in explaining itself, unfolding for long stretches without any dialogue at all, and even that bit often obtuse and unfolding largely through implication. It’s a film intensely committed to its world and without any desire to clutter that world with exposition or hand-holding, right down to the fact that the central arc of the film – which seems to follow mankind’s evolution from apes all the way to post-physical forms – is never explained, clarified, or even directly mentioned, instead relying on the audience to infer the necessary information from the cinematic techniques and implications.

(I’ve always felt like 2001 isn’t as obtuse as it’s made out to be, but then I think about the fact that I read Arthur C. Clarke’s “novelization” of the film long before I saw it, thus meaning that I never got to experience the film without Clarke’s narrative already in my mind. Combine that with the way 2010 goes into explaining away the film’s murky depths, and you end up with a film that’s far less oblique and inexplicable than its reputation would suggest…but even with that being said, I can’t get behind giving someone assigned reading to understand a movie, either.)

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But when the film is as well-crafted as 2001, I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with relying on cinematic skill to convey a story through visual means only. That’s only more evident if you get the chance to see 2001 on the scope of an IMAX screen, where the scale of everything is undeniable, the sound intimidating, and the immersion complete. From the barren landscapes and simian wars that open the film to a dizzying (literally, on that scale) docking sequence, from a brutally brief and unsentimental death to a land beyond space and time, 2001 creates its world in such a way that it feels to extend far beyond the boundaries of your screen. Those opening images, for instance, are only still photographs, nothing more…and even so, within moments, we know the state of the world around us, the stage of development in which we are. And while the prehistoric apes we see have no dialogue, the full-body performances and framing neatly tell us all we need to know, showing us the evolution of tools all too clearly without a single line of explanation.

And yet, what’s so easy to forget is the darker core at the heart of 2001. Yes, this is a film in which we evolve to use tools – but we use them as weapons, to brutally beat a fellow creature to death. Yes, we have colonized the moon – but the paranoia and secret keeping between nations is still present. Yes, we’ve built artificial intelligence, but at the first sign of its malfunctioning, we begin to plot its slow, horrific death. It’s no accident that the film’s famous match cut goes from a bone used as a club to a satellite used as a nuclear platform – throughout our evolution, we remain violent and obsessed with being on top of our proverbial mountains.

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Which brings us, inevitably, back to the moments of beauty throughout the film. Yes, we may be violent creatures, but there’s no escaping the majesty and grace of the docking sequences, which finds us surpassing human limitations to create something akin to visual poetry (as so expertly underlined with our choice of “The Blue Danube” as backdrop to the sequence). Kubrick doesn’t just immerse us in a world of space travel; he finds the transcendent in it, inviting us to realize what science could allow us to become if only we could allow it. At our finest moments, we overcome our human limitations, becoming something more – something smarter, something more capable, something more than human, depending on where in the film you are.

But what guides that evolution? Kubrick, wisely, never explains much, letting only the simplicity of the monolith stand in for whatever intelligence – be it malevolent or benevolent – that shapes our lives. How he manages to bring out such ominous tones, such unsettling power, out of something as simple as a black rectangle…well, it’s beyond me. However he did it, though, it’s impossible to come away from the film without thinking of the utterly alien, incomprehensible nature of this item, and what it’s done to us – and why. And by the time we see Dave Bowman moving “beyond the infinite”, there’s a sense that we are looking at a version of ourselves that will one day see us as every bit the primitive creature that we see the film’s apes as being.

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And even with all of that, I haven’t even touched on so much about the film. Like the way its design for ships and space exploration hasn’t aged a bit, apart from some 60’s decor influences. (I spent so much of this viewing thinking about how much Ridley Scott’s Alien owes to the ships of 2001.) Or how it gives us one of the great, most compelling characters in all of cinema, and does so without giving us anything to look at but a red dot and a circle, and a calming voice to listen to. (I have somewhere in me another thousand words about the tragic, fascinating character of HAL 9000, perhaps the most complex – and ironically, the most human – character of the entire film.) Or those dizzying shots as Bowman jogs around the circular track. Or the way that every single one of these fifty-year-old effects still have every bit of the impact they ever did.

I could write for days, and never quite capture the ideas this film fills me with, or the way it reminds me of what cinema can accomplish, or the stunning beauty of its craft. All I can tell you is that seeing it again, especially on this scale, was a breathtaking, astonishing, beautiful experience on almost every imaginable level, and it left me reminded of why I fell in love with movies in the first place. And that, in of itself, apart from all the greatness and richness and complexity, is a joy all its own.

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The Friar’s Lantern, by Greg Hickey / *** ½

51gyqzurkbl-_sx331_bo1204203200_The hook of The Friar’s Lantern is an undeniably great one: biochemists are running an experiment to see if people’s actions can be determined to a narrow degree simply based off of chemicals and brain scans. You go in, you get an MRI; a week later, you return and are presented with two boxes. Computers have attempted to guess whether you will pick one box (which possibly contains a million dollars) or both (one may contain a thousand dollars, and the second may either have that aforementioned million dollars or nothing at all). Based off of the outcome, and how accurate the experiment is, you could come away very rich – but what will that say about your free will?

Author Greg Hickey explores this idea in all of its rich, fascinating complexity, allowing his characters to debate the differences between free will and determinism, exploring the disconnect between the agency we feel and the science that underlines our day to day choices and lives. More than that, The Friar’s Lantern finds other ways to take on these ideas, ranging from minor conversations with a devoutly Calvinist street preacher to a murder trial where the question boils down to “how much free will can we exert over our emotions?”

But most notably, Hickey chooses to make The Friar’s Lantern into a “choose your own adventure” novel, with choices throughout, branching narratives, and a second-person narrative that puts the reader in control of the story. It’s an interesting decision, but one that makes sense, given the questions raised by the book – how better to explore the ramifications of “free will” than by giving the reader a sense of free will to explore the novel?

This is an ambitious structure for a novel, and it’s not hard to come away from The Friar’s Lantern impressed by what Hickey has taken on. That will go doubly true if you re-read the book, following the different branches and seeing how they unfold. (I ended up mapping out the book’s choices to make sure that I didn’t miss any of them, since I felt like I needed to do that in order to review it.) Hickey does some interesting things here, essentially “guiding” the reader like a magician forces you to pick a certain card without you ever realizing the games he’s playing. And as you read the different branches, it’s fascinating to see how Hickey unfolds conversations in parallel, finding odd branches and details that make them stand out, or sometimes reversing perspectives.

My problems with The Friar’s Lantern, really, came down to the ending, which felt cheap in a way the rest of the book really didn’t. Without getting into spoilers, there was a sense that “the house always wins” that came along with the ending, and took away a bit from the way the book so often seemed to play with notions of free will and shaping the world around you. It’s not that I mind the sense of the inevitable, but Hickey doesn’t quite stick the ending, and it ends up feeling like a shrug rather than a moment where you see how all your paths have led you here. (I couldn’t help but compare this to the incredible story by Richard Salter called  “Your Choice,” which used a “choose your own adventure” format to explore the inevitability of death and the way our fate is inescapable, and did it with grace and elegance, nailing the ending and giving the story an impact that Hickey never quite does. If you want to read it, it’s in the incredible collection This is How You Die.)

The more I think about The Friar’s Lantern, the more I come away impressed with what Hickey took on, though. He takes on complex themes and finds a compelling way to explore them, using the form and structure of his novel to immerse the reader in his debate without ever making that obvious. That the story doesn’t really stick the ending all that well and left me a bit disappointed shouldn’t really take away from the craft and interesting approach that Hickey mostly pulls off; this is a fascinating experiment, and it stands out from the usual crowd simply by virtue of its ambition and unique ideas.

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Christopher Robin / *** ½

christopher_robin copyI watch a lot of movies, as should be obvious from this blog. And as you go through a lot of movies, you start to become familiar with formulas, with movies that you’ve seen hundreds of versions of. The romantic comedy based off of a wacky misunderstanding; the two mismatched buddies who learn to respect each other as they go through trials and tribulation; the reluctant hero who turns out to be The Chosen One…you get the idea. And one of those formulas that we all know is the “adult who grew up and lost his sense of wonder”. You know the movies – he’s too busy to make it to his kids’ events, he’s constantly working, he wants his kids to focus on work and being successful, but then some free spirit comes along and reminds him of what’s really important.

So when I tell you that Christopher Robin is basically this movie to a T, you know what you’re getting. You know that Christopher Robin has grown up and become a workaholic; you know that he’s not smiling enough, and he doesn’t know how to play with his daughter; you know that by the end, he’s going to be playing happily with his family and will have learned his lesson. And the movie does that throughout, never really doing anything original or unique from a story perspective.

And yet, I didn’t hate it. I kind of wanted to, and deep down, I know there’s nothing new here. But the instant I heard Jim Cummings’ iconic Winnie the Pooh voice attached to this tactile, soft, charming version of a stuffed bear that I grew up loving, the movie had me and never let go.

Is that a cheap tactic? Undeniably. Christopher Robin is well-made enough, but nothing special (which might as well be the motto for director Marc Forster), apart from the perfectly textured and lived-in feel of the stuffed animals; Ewan McGregor is his usual reliable self; but in the end, this is fine, and little more. But for a movie about adulthood to appeal so directly to something that defined not only the main character’s childhood, but mine…it’s hard to escape the way that hit me so hard. There’s something unrelentingly warm and comfortable in these characters, and the movie steers into that, absolutely nailing the voice and mood of Winnie the Pooh and his world – a tone that’s unironic, kind-hearted, and appealingly simple in all the right ways.

And so, as the movie becomes about a man reconnecting with his childhood, it’s hard for me not to find the appeal, because, hey, that’s my childhood up there! So every beat about giving yourself over to this world and getting away from the complexity of the modern world…well, there’s no denying the appeal of all of that.

Does Christopher Robin compare to maybe the best children’s movie in years, Paddington and/or Paddington 2? Not even close. But I can’t deny that, for all of its formula, for all of its familiarity, it couldn’t be calibrated more perfectly to work for me. I feel silly about it, but trust me – if you, like me, embraced that world when you grew up, you’ll be just as caught up in it.

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White Fire, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child / ***

994_large_1powfr_6oeh08For a long time, I was a pretty devoted fan of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s books, which captured everything I loved about The X-Files in fun, escapist books – supernatural horrors anchored in semi-scientific explanations; criminal investigations that go in unorthodox directions; a mixture of folklore, history, and horror that makes for great adventure reading; and more along those lines. But as the series went on and started moving out of stand-alone adventures and into extended dives into its own mythology (and the family tree of main character Pendergast), I started to lose focus on it, finding the sagas less compelling and missing the mixture of weird science and horror that made books like Relic so compulsively readable.

So when I found out that White Fire represented a return to the standalone adventures that made the series so much fun for me, I decided to skip the rest of the “Helen trilogy” (which I wasn’t all that interested in) and see if Preston & Child could still deliver. The verdict: a bit, but they’ve definitely lost some of the restraint (especially in their main character) that used to give the books their tightness.

White Fire splits its time between Pendergast and his protege Corrie Swanson, now a grad student studying forensic pathology who’s working to create a unique thesis that will make her stand out from the back. Swanson discovers a great story about a series of miners killed in the 19th century by a rampaging bear, and sets out to do a study of the remains. But when she gets there, she finds that there’s a lot more to the story than what history would have you believe, and the town – a retreat for the rich and prosperous – doesn’t want the reality to be put on show for the public. Oh, and there’s the matter of an arsonist who’s burning down some of the nicest houses in the area – with their inhabitants still inside.

Preston and Child juggle threads expertly, unfolding White Fire in lots of different directions but keeping the book moving. There’s the connection to Arthur Conan Doyle and a lost Sherlock Holmes story; there’s the local police chief and his desperate attempts to keep panic under control; there’s the descendant of one of the original victims, who comes to town to see what’s happened with the remains; and, of course, there’s Swanson’s pursuit of the truth, which is rapidly revealing itself to be far darker and more disturbing than you’d expect.

All of this is a lot of fun, but the book ultimately sags under the weight of doing too much, and that goes doubly when it comes to Pendergast, whose quirkiness and idiosyncrasies have only increased over time to the point where he’s getting a bit insufferable, even for fans, and his deductions and abilities strain credulity. (This is maybe most visible in a scene in which Pendergast uses his memory palace to reconstruct a historical event based off of notes he’s found, but then follows the characters to a second event that he has no evidence of whatsoever, and watches as it all unfolds – yes, in essence, he time travels using the power of his mind, which…sure.) The reveal of the arsonist, too, is over-the-top to a disappointing degree, and while there’s an in-book explanation for the excess, it doesn’t help the usual sense of “how did this person hide their delusion so well?”

I enjoyed White Fire a lot as I read it; Preston and Child know how to tease out a plot and keep you reading, and the slow reveals of exactly what’s going on are a lot of fun. But the series is starting to go the way of its hero – excessively quirky, less grounded and more bizarre, and just a bit strained. I had fun with it, and I’m not entirely done with the books, but I’d be lying if I didn’t come away from this a little let down at how much it fizzled for me by the end.

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Cemetery Man / ****

51xy1qd0u2lOne of my maxims of moviegoing is that I would always rather see an interesting failure than a boring success – in other words, I would rather see a film that experiments and pushes the envelope than something that plays it safe but does nothing new. It’s a rule that undeniably comes into play in Cemetery Man, which feels like one of those movies in which the filmmakers tossed in every single idea they had just in case they never got to make anything else, and yet is so entertaining and fun that it’s hard to complain too much.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that, for all of its horror elements – this is, after all, a story about a man who lives in a cemetery where part of his duties include dispatching the dead when they arise as zombies – Cemetery Man mixes in liberal amounts of comedy, bits of melodrama, and a whole lot of surreal weirdness, giving you a film that’s nothing if not unpredictable. The early going, with its slightly overbearing narration so focused on a life surrounded by death, might lead you wondering where the fun of this is going to be, but by the time the film features a ludicrous car accident that leads to a) an absurdly violent death, b) an equally ridiculous escalation that involves a busful of children and nuns exploding, and c) a reaction shot by a horse, you’ll realize that Cemetery Man is about to go for broke and never really look back.

Director Michele Soavi was an acolyte of Dario Argento, and it shows in the film’s sumptuous, shadowy style and sharp eye, which give us a film that often sneaks up on you with its artful, occasionally over the top shot composition. But while Argento often had just enough plot to string together a few great sequences, Soavi’s film has the opposite problem, tossing out so much plot that it’s easy to forget what all is going on. By the time there’s a supremely unlikely romance going on in the basement while our hero is still pining over his (once alive, then dead, then alive, then) dead girlfriend as the police are wondering if he’s randomly murdering civilians in the town, all while a motorcycle-riding zombie is being chased after by his secret girlfriend…well, you just sort of give yourself over to the chaos and let it all wash over you.

The result, however overly ambitious it might be, is never less than massively entertaining. Indulging in surreal silliness delivered in a matter-of-fact style, doling out gallons of blood and absurd gore shots, veering into art-film territory before becoming a broad comedy, Cemetery Man is so much fun that you can’t fault it for doing too much – after all, if it didn’t do all of these things, and do them generally well, the film wouldn’t stand out as much as it does. It doesn’t hurt that you have some truly fun performances here; it’s almost a shock that Rupert Everett is as drily witty as he is here, but the real scene-stealer is François Hadji-Lazaro as Everett’s somewhat mute, possibly brain damaged henchman/friend/companion/lackey. Bringing a cheerful positivity and a love of stray leaves to every scene, Hadji-Lazaro wonderfully odd performance makes a sharp contrast to Everett’s mopey, death-obsessed hero, and gives the film the chance to indulge in its weirdness while not making its protagonist act out of character.

It’s really no wonder that Cemetery Man became a cult classic; it’s too scattered and all over the place to become a mainstream hit (even without its bizarrely metaphorical, Italian art-film ending), but its blend of wildly clashing tones, splattery sensibility, and dark sense of humor all but guaranteed that it would attract passionate fans who latched onto its uniqueness. It’s not like anything else out there, it’s fun, it’s weird, it’s gory – what else do you need?

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The Blinds, by Adam Sternbergh / ****

32600769You couldn’t ask for a sales job more attuned to my interests than the one on The Blinds. Any novel described as being for fans of “Cormac McCarthy, Jim Thompson, and the Coen Brothers” and with a cover blurb by Dennis Lehane…how could I not pick it up? It didn’t hurt that The Blinds is written by Adam Sternbergh, whose blistering cyberpunk noir Shovel Ready so floored me a few years ago. So, yeah, I was on board with The Blinds, even before I knew what a wonderfully strange and unique premise the book had.

That premise, though, is a humdinger. See, there’s a small town in the middle of nowhere; its official name is Caesura (“rhymes with ‘tempura’,” they tell newcomers in the welcome speech), but everyone calls it The Blinds. The exact reasons vary from person to person, but here’s what it boils down to: this is a town where people come to hide, to peer out at the world from behind their blinds and not be seen. It’s a town full of people who have reasons for being here, but don’t know them – their memories and reasons for coming to The Blinds have been wiped. Some were horrible people exiled from society; some are here in an extreme form of witness protection; some ran from abusive relationships. But no one knows who is who, or why they’re here, or whether they’re victim or victimizer.

The exceptions are the few members of the town’s law enforcement, headed up by “Sheriff” (a self-nominated title, sort of) Calvin Cooper, who’s come to The Blinds hiding from his own demons. But when first one citizen commits suicide (with a gun that shouldn’t exist in the town) and another is killed, Cooper finds himself trying to contain the panic of a town of people who don’t want to be found, calm down the concerns of the agencies that are watching over them, and deal with his own personal fears and terrors.

Given some of those references above, you might have an idea of what to expect here – corrupt characters and twisted psyches (a la Jim Thompson), stark Western elements turned into something more symbolic (a la McCarthy), and twisty, shady plots that push things along and turn them on a dime (a la the Coens). But Sternbergh mixes and matches these elements seamlessly, twisting his narrative screws with ease and creating something compulsively readable. Every time you have your sense of how things are playing out, Sternbergh pushes us in a new direction, giving even the most seasoned of readers plenty of surprises. (There were a couple of plot developments I saw coming, but many that I didn’t, including a couple of absolutely wild ones.)

My biggest knock on The Blinds is that it’s not quite as metaphorically complex as it wants to be; there’s this fascinating subtext about facing our demons and coming to terms with the people we truly are, and at the book’s best moments, it steers into that beautifully, giving us some dynamite moments. But it sometimes sacrifices that for spectacle or “big” scenes that are thoroughly enjoyable, but feel like they lose some of the character focus that we’ve been enjoying. (There are also a couple of character arcs that feel a bit clunky and less seamless than some of the others, most notably one about a single mother whose glimmers of memory are triggered in some ham-handed ways.)

Even so, I couldn’t put down The Blinds when I was reading it; it’s got enough substance and thoughtfulness to make it feel satisfying, with a pure noir plot and high concept premise that sucked me in quickly. It loses its way a bit at times, but I was gripped by it throughout, and love how much it gets out of this fascinating premise and the reveals contained within. Is it as good as McCarthy, or Thompson, or the Coens? Definitely not. But is it still a great read? Oh, yes.

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Christine, by Stephen King / *****

hardcover-viking-press-1983I’ve been a fan of Stephen King since the first time I opened one of his books (The Eyes of the Dragon, for what it’s worth, and yes, that’s a very odd first book to have read) all the way back in high school. At the time, I would devour pretty much any King books I could find, thanks to the power of used bookstores where you could always find numerous cheap copies of his work; as such, it’s been decades since I read a lot of “classic” King of the 70’s and 80’s. Among the ones I haven’t read in so long is Christine, often remembered as “that one book with the killer car.” What I remembered about Christine was a) that it was a killer car book, b) a few specific scenes, but mostly c) that it was fine; of a piece with a lot of King at the time that was solid and well-made, but not among his best or most memorable.

And yet, I have a close friend who’s long sworn that Christine is his all-time favorite King novel, and something more special than I remembered it being. That, combined with another viewing of John Carpenter’s (pretty solid) film adaptation, got me to pick up my old, beat-up paperback copy of Christine…and I have to tell you, he’s pretty much right about how great this book is. I wouldn’t put it among the all-time best King novels, but it’s far more thoughtful and haunting than I remember – and much, much stranger.

First, there’s that “killer car” log line. That’s both accurate and wildly inaccurate; yes, Christine is about a young man who becomes obsessed with an old Plymouth Fury – and then people who’ve angered him start dying in horrible car accidents. But what King’s actually delivering here is something much, much weirder than just “a malevolent car”. Part ghost story, part vampire tale, with just a sprinkling of werewolf myth, it’s a tale of a horrible human being who’s unable to let go of his most treasured possession, even in death; it’s the story of an entity that latches onto an angry, outcast young man and encourages him in his darkness; and it’s the story of that darkness, which lurks under the skin of so many of us and wants a way out. As with so much King, the supernatural horror is just a way of exploring the horror within humanity, and his “villain” here is among his most sympathetic – a nerdy, disliked boy who gets the chance to be popular and successful, and finds a passion that no one around him understands. Who could blame him for being frustrated…even if the people around him are right.

But what really lingers about Christine isn’t the horror of it all. No, what makes Christine special is the way that it takes the trappings of a horror story and uses it to tell a tale of when friends grow apart. It’s not a coincidence that the novel takes place in the senior year of high school, right before people move away to college and start losing touch. Nor is it incidental that the novel is so much about first love, that point in male friendships where you start to see your friends change and wonder if anything will be the same. That King frames all this by having one character narrate a few years after the event – just far enough for some perspective, but not so far that the wounds have healed – gives Christine a surprisingly painful, wounded tone that’s hard to shake, and gives the novel’s tale of a friend changing into something monstrous a rich subtext (that’s barely even SUBtext, honestly).

Yes, Christine has some minor issues; it’s odd, for instance, to lose the rich first-person narration for the middle third of the book, and hurts the emotional heft the book had been building so well. (King never did this again; he often would use the “I heard about all this later, so let me tell you about it” card to keep his narrator intact but allow the story to unfold without them, and while that’s a bit of a cheat, it helps with the emotional throughline.) But those issues are minor, and detract nothing from all of the joys. The sharply written characters (our heroes, of course, but few supporting characters can bring me joy the way that Will Darnell does, with all of his colorful dialogue), the genuinely unnerving scares, the bizarre story…but really, it’s that feeling of an adult looking back at when life was simple, before everything changes and people grow up. And if that doesn’t hit home with you – it didn’t when I first read it – come back to this in a few years, and see if it doesn’t ring true.

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