Son of a Liche, by J. Zachary Pike / *****

sonofalichecover-mdI get a lot of review books to read these days. Some are good, some are bad, but if I’m being honest, there aren’t that many that are so good that not only do I love them, but that they make the leap from “I enjoyed a free copy of this” to “I would actually buy this for myself.” But J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics really was that good, blowing me away and giving me a truly enjoyable, fun, smart, clever read. Orconomics drew on the tradition of Terry Pratchett to write a satirical novel about the economic bubble, pre-collapse, all in the guise of a fantasy story about a crew of washed-up heroes on a “fetch quest”. (That Orconomics also served as a fantastic riff on RPG’s only made it all the funnier and more enjoyable.) Even better, not only was Orconomics very funny and very exciting, it managed to be genuinely moving and engaging, giving the reader characters that they could truly care about and find themselves invested in.

Now, after four years, we finally have the second volume in The Dark Profit Saga – and it was worth the wait and then some (and also worth me buying it for myself this time). Son of a Liche picks up a few months after the end of Orconomics (it’s all but essential to read Orconomics first; I re-read it in preparation, and was glad I did), and things are bad. Our heroes are largely hated by almost everyone; a necromancer is amassing an army of the dead to assault the most prosperous city on Arth; and that economic collapse is getting more and more likely, as investors find a new way to gamble on policies that are almost guaranteed to fail.

That may sound like a weird disconnect, or like a book that’s too ambitious, and it doesn’t help pre-conceptions that Son of a Liche is nearly double the length of Orconomics. And yet, somehow, Pike makes every bit of the novel work, juggling incredibly inventive action sequences, satisfying fantasy worldbuilding, gleeful silliness, and incisive economic satire, and makes it all work, giving every single aspect of the book time to breathe and the tone it needs to thrive. That’s even more true for Pike’s ability to give his characters development and genuine emotions – the ability to slide from wordplay and RPG trope spoofing to painful, earnest emotional beats is no small thing, and there’s any number of authors who can’t handle those tonal shifts. But Pike makes it look easy, sometimes even sliding in and out of humor in mid-scene, while never detracting from the honest humanity of his characters (even the non-humans, but you get the idea).

So, yes, Son of a Liche genuinely moved me at times – there’s much here about the importance of hope in dark times, or why it matters to do the right thing even when it won’t help the big picture, or why sometimes saving one life is more important than changing the world, and those are lessons we all need at any time, and maybe more so these days. But none of that would matter if Liche wasn’t as exciting, engaging, and as funny as it was. And trust me, this is a legitimately hilarious book, with necromancers running focus groups to better understand how to appeal to their targets, universal laws of irony and bad timing, undead middle managers finding the best spot in the org chart to do nothing, and so much more. Pike peppers his book with silliness and great banter, giving it all a sense of self-awareness and sometimes trenchant observation, while never neglecting his overarching story.

And, oh, that overarching story is outstanding. Like I said, Liche is almost twice as long as Orconomics, but it earns that length and wears it well, never lagging for a moment. There’s a lot more going on here – a tribe of Orcs reeling from the events of Orconomics, a former investment banker coming to terms with his past actions, royal intrigue, and more has been added to the already complex dynamics of our party of heroes, which in turn has grown since the last novel. But Pike juggles it all well, and there’s not really a plot thread that feels underserved nor extraneous. He weaves them all together seamlessly, delivering a genuinely exciting and riveting piece of fantasy that also happens to be very, very funny, and surprisingly heartfelt. Doing any one of those things is hard; doing all of them at once is nearly impossible.

In short, somehow – and I wouldn’t have thought this was possible – Son of a Liche is even better than Orconomics. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s richly detailed, it’s moving, it’s smart, and it’s just plain fun. It’s impossible to go a page without reading something funny, or having a nice character beat, or smiling as Pike demonstrates how good he’s been at building this world and constructing his tapestry. That a book this good is self-published is nearly unheard of to me, and I’ve read a lot of them. If there was any justice, this would be on bookshelves across the country, and fantasy fans would be all rushing to buy this and join in the wait for the third volume in the series. Because let me tell you, Son of a Liche isn’t just “good by self-published standards” or “good by fantasy standards” or even “unexpectedly good” – it’s great, plain and simple, and stands on its own merits as one of the best fantasy series going today. If you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett, this is essential reading for you, but even if you’re just a fan of fantasy, read this and fall in love with Pike’s wonderful imagination and style.

Amazon |

Incredibles 2 / ****

i2Pixar has, in recent years, been a victim of its own success, to no small degree. When your studio launches with a nearly uninterrupted streak of greatness, and then takes a break from some (pretty good but not great) sequels to release Inside Out…well, you’re not making things easy for yourself. And then Incredibles 2 makes things even harder, by being a very long-awaited (14 years!) sequel to one of Pixar’s most beloved films. In other words, there’s almost no way it could possibly live up to the expectations set for it.

And in some ways, Incredibles 2 definitely suffers from the comparison. From a plot perspective, Incredibles 2 is functional, but not much more, following Helen/Elastigirl as she gets the chance to fly solo as a hero for a bit, while dad Mr. Incredible has to take care of the kids. Are you thinking, “wait, did they really revisit one of the most hoary and painful tropes of an 80’s sitcom?” Oh yes, they did, and does it feel weirdly dated and out of touch with anything approaching modernity? Most definitely. (Yes, The Incredibles is clearly set in an alternate 60’s era, but that doesn’t make this plot thread any better.)

That’s a bit of a creaky foundation on which to build a movie, and while the rest of Incredibles 2 works and holds together, there’s just not much there. Incredibles 2 so often feels like a bunch of half-constructed threads and ideas tossed together to make something that works and delivers a movie, there’s no substance to grab onto. Every time the movie seems to be coming up on some central thesis, some universal theme, it gets distracted and wanders off. There’s a central villain called the ScreenSlaver who worries about people living through their devices and screens; there’s Bob and Helen’s marriage adjusting to the shifting roles they each have; there’s the change in society as supers fight for recognition; there’s Violet’s efforts to date…on and on, and none of it ever coalesces into something focused and trenchant.

But for all of that, you can see the rating I gave Incredibles 2, and that’s because as empty as it might be, none of that keeps it from being as much fun as it is. Oozing style in every frame (Bird’s embrace of the 60’s retro, mod style is a joy, and suffuses the whole movie), anchored by great vocal performances, and delivering action sequences to die for (more on those in a moment), Incredibles 2 is a popcorn movie done right; there’s not much to chew on, but there’s no big flaws, and style to spare.

And, oh man, are there those action sequences. Brad Bird has long had an eye for fluid, inventive action sequences that leave your jaw dropped – look, for instance, at his incredible (heh) work on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, especially that closing parking garage sequence. Bird’s mind incorporates all of the moving parts in a scene, all of the abilities, and weaves them together in dazzling, creative ways that are a joy to watch. In an era saturated by superhero movies that shoot every fight the exact same way, Incredibles 2 reminds you that superhero fights should never be the same, and can flow together in mind-bending, wild ways. (The best aspect may be Bird’s use of a minor superhero who can create dimensional portals, an ability that Bird finds new uses for constantly and inventively, leaving me in awe of how creatively he paired them against each new opponent.) More than that, there’s the way Bird helms them, giving us long, fluid, moving shots that follow the action seamlessly, allowing the audience to take it all in and just keep up with it.

Look, Incredibles 2 isn’t the original, and it’s not going to be in the top tier of Pixar films. It’s a bit empty, from any thematic perspective, and under the surface, it does its job and not much more. But as stylish summer spectacle, it’s a joy to watch, and reminds you of what a gifted director Brad Bird is when it comes to giving us that spectacle. Set your expectations right, and you’ll have a blast.

The short film: As per tradition, there’s a short film attached to Incredibles 2; this time, it’s the beautiful and heartfelt Bao, about a Chinese woman who’s surprised when one of her dumplings comes to life as a little baby. Bao is incredibly sweet and simple; without a line of dialogue, it tells a story of parenting and motherhood that both draws on Chinese tradition and taps into something universal and beautiful. There’s a sharp swerve about 2/3 of the way through the film, and one that hit me hard in the heart for a variety of reasons. I loved it; it’s sweet, funny, and gets at something that hits a bit close to home these days.

IMDb: Incredibles 2 | Bao

Vacation Reads: Part 4 (The October Country / Jane Eyre / Re-Reads)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each. This will be the last in the series, covering my last couple of reads and including some brief capsule reviews of some re-reads I did.

the-october-countryRay Bradbury’s The October Country is often held up as the closest Bradbury ever came to doing a horror anthology, and while not every story here is a dark one, there’s no shortage of nightmares here. There’s “Skeleton,” in which a man becomes horrifying aware of the bones within his body and becomes convinced that they’re trying to take over his life; there’s the surprisingly nasty ending of “The Man Upstairs,” in which a young boy becomes convinced that the lodger living upstairs in a vampire; and there’s “The Small Assassin,” about a possibly murderous infant, and a story that has one of the nastiest last lines in memory. In other words, there’s plenty of darkness here, and while Bradbury isn’t going to be mistaken for the full-fledged horror of a King or a Barker, there’s some wonderfully dark, Gothic material here.

But more than that, there’s the imagination and heart that Bradbury was so known for, and no story better unifies those ideas than the wonderful “Homecoming.” A favorite of Neil Gaiman’s (and the influence on Gaiman’s world is evident), “Homecoming” tells the story of a family of monsters – vampires, ghosts, and more – coming together for a family reunion, all told from the perspective of the one “normal” child in the family. It’s sweet, heartbreaking, and ends on an optimistic and heartfelt note that made me smile. Or take “The Emissary,” about a young boy, confined to his room because of sickness, who experiences the world entirely through his roaming dog and the visitors he brings home – a story that opens with wonder and heart, slowly turns to heartbreak, and then becomes terrifying. And that’s not all – once you add to the collection some stories that show off Bradbury’s rich sense of humor – the elderly woman who refuses to die in “There Was an Old Woman,” or the ridiculous satire of trend followers that is “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” – and you have a wonderful collection that reminds you what made Bradbury so special. Rating: **** ½

492864909As an English major, I’ve always felt a bit bad about the fact that I had never read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It didn’t help that I knew – or, at least, I thought I knew – most of the story already, having absorbed it through references, parodies, English classes, and other books (most notably Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which is a must read for any literature fans out there).

Of course, I should have known better; stories, of course, are not about what they’re about, so much as they’re about how they go about it (to paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert). And while I knew a lot of the basics of Jane Eyre‘s plot, what I didn’t know about was the book’s assured, confident narration throughout, turning Jane not into a passive participant in her own life, not into the socially conscious protagonist of a Jane Austen novel, but into someone unique and complex – a woman who demands to set up her own life and be beholden to no one, a woman not defined by her looks but by her mind, a woman who dedicates her life to others who are in need of help, without regard for what it does for her social standing. The argument that Jane Eyre is an early feminist work is an easy one to make, but that doesn’t make it any less valid; Jane is a complex, enjoyable, intelligent, witty, and kind-hearted character, but one who feels fiercely independent and well ahead of her time.

For all of that, I still struggled with Jane Eyre at times; it features that most romantic (the literary movement, not the emotion) of traits: bloat and verbosity. The book has a tendency to belabor things sometimes, with dialogue scenes particularly tending to go on for a bit. In general, there’s a sense that Jane Eyre could probably lose about 10% of its words and improve greatly, but that’s not the fault of Brontë, who was merely writing in the service of her times, and whose book suffers the same faults as some other iconic works. On the whole, though, Jane Eyre lives up to its reputation, feeling groundbreaking and interesting, and giving us a lead character for the ages – one that feels relevant and compelling even now, after so many years. Rating: **** ½

And finally, some brief thoughts on some re-reads I did over the vacation, each of which I’d give an easy five stars, for very different reasons:

  • As I mentioned in my review of The Woman in the Woods, John Connolly’s novella “The Fractured Atlas” (featured in his anthology Night Music) is worth re-reading before you pick up that book. But it’s also a novella worth reading for any fan of horror. Composed of five separate stories, all of which flow together in different ways, Connolly’s novella tracks the history of the titular occult manuscript back for hundreds of years – and the mysterious forces it unleashes around it. From shadowy figures to nightmarish creatures in drains, from faceless children to demonic soldiers, Connolly’s imagination has rarely been allowed to roam this freely, nor has it allowed itself to go this dark. Indeed, the fourth piece of the novella, entitled “The Wanderer in Unknown Realms,” is perhaps the most frightening thing Connolly ever wrote – and that’s not something you say lightly. I’m a Connolly fan anyways, but if you’ve ever been curious, you could do far worse than starting with this incredible piece of horror. Just don’t go in expecting something too light and fluffy.
  • J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics is one of the best review copies of a novel I ever received – a book that wasn’t just “good by self-publishing standards,” or “better than I expected,” but honestly, truly, legitimately great. There’s no small amount of Terry Pratchett here, but Pike succeeds by using Pratchett not as a pure model, but as an inspiration. Yes, he crafts a fantasy world that closely mirrors our own in many ways; yes, he uses the plot of his novel to satirize elements of modern society (in this case, the inflationary bubble caused by investment capital, as well as RPG video game tropes – yes, he does both of those, and does them both ably). But Pike does it in a way all his own, interweaving humor with rich character depth, social commentary with fantasy action, delivering great comic prose that can shift to heartbreak when you least expect it. That Pike gets compared to Pratchett is no big deal; that he holds his own in that comparison, and delivers one of the richest, funniest, most satisfying pieces of fantasy I’ve read in years – well, that’s no small thing. (I’ll have more to say about Pike when I finish his long-awaited second book, Son of a Liche, within the next few days. Short version: it’s every bit as good, if not better, than Orconomics.)
  • What is there to say about Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that hasn’t been said before? It doesn’t matter that I’ve read this book a dozen times or more; it doesn’t matter that, between the book, the TV version, the film, the computer game, and especially the radio series, I could all but recite the story and most of the gags. Every time I open Adams’ pages, I find myself caught up in his weird, hysterically funny world, and I laugh anew as though I’ve never read it before. Even now that its familiarity has dulled its impact among fans, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary this book felt – and still feels, after so many years. Its imagination is incredible, its comedy is hilarious, its writing is sharp and trenchant, and its plotting surprisingly tight. There’s a reason it casts such a long shadow over the world of humor and science-fiction.
  • I think I’m supposed to hate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye now – or, at least, I kind of expected to. Yes, I loved this book in high school, when I empathized so much with Holden Caulfield’s feelings of isolation, loneliness, anger at the world, and disdain for the hypocrisy of the people around him. But I expected to find him whiny and mopey as an adult…and instead, couldn’t help but have my heart break for him all over again. Maybe it’s the way that Salinger’s rambling, easy prose so accurately captures the tumult of emotions that comes with adolescence; maybe it’s the constant sway of emotions that nails the feelings that come with depression and anxiety (I say, from experience). Maybe it’s just the constant sense that the world is broken, and that the innocent need protecting, and that justice isn’t being served – a feeling that hits home all too well. But whatever the case, The Catcher in the Rye worked for me as an adult every bit as well as it did as it did in high school – maybe more so. It’s hard to think of another book that so accurately captures the feelings of adolescence and the pain of depression so universally, even though it’s inextricably linked to a place and time.

Amazon: The October Country | Jane Eyre | Night Music | Orconomics | The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy | The Catcher in the Rye

Vacation Reads: Part 1 (Space Opera / The Boy on the Bridge / Abbott)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.

51b-76sogglIt would be hard to talk about Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera without mentioning Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a debt Valente acknowledges in her afterword). After all, both are science-fiction books that serve more as comedic works than something serious; both orbit around humanity suddenly discovering that they’re no longer the only life in the universe; both follow human representatives as they make their way into a very strange universe; and both even feature a wise guide to interactions that’s universally adopted and beloved. Both even have the same issues, in which the plot often feels like an afterthought tacked on to tie together the lunacy of the rest of it.

It’s to Valente’s credit, then, that Space Opera finds its own voice and emerges from Hitchhiker‘s shadow to become its own thing, even as Adams’ DNA is evident throughout. Inspired by Eurovision, of all things, Space Opera revolves around an intergalactic music competition in which new races are invited to compete to prove their own sentience. After all, if you can’t produce art, can you really be said to be sentient?

That’s a great hook for the novel, and it gives Space Opera some heft, allowing it to meditate upon the power of art, the way music is all about emotional connections and pain, and so much more. But in the end, Space Opera is a comedy, and it’s a genuinely funny one, one that’s often as funny for the way in which it talks as it is the elaborate gags being set up around it. (That being said, my favorite gag in the entire book is the slow realization of what persona the robotic race has adopted to communicate and aid the humans.) I had some issues with Valente’s writing – she has a tendency towards very long sentences, anchored by too many dependent clauses, that have a way of losing the reader – and her plotting is occasionally so loose as to be nonexistent. But there’s a lot of fun to be had here, and the fact that the books holds its own in the comparisons to Adams is praise enough. Rating: ****

41il3qwezjlI was a fan of M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, but I wasn’t sure that what we needed was a prequel to that book. Did we really need a story about how we got to the zombie apocalypse that Gifts plunged us into? Luckily, The Boy on the Bridge turns out not to be the story of how we got there; instead, it’s the story of the first expedition that sets out into the wilderness – an expedition whose vehicle we stumble across during Gifts. In other words, yes, technically it’s a prequel to Gifts, but it’s more of a second story in that same universe, one that unfolded more or less parallel to the one we already knew.

In some ways, that holds back Bridge, as the characters slowly come to realizations that we’ve already made about the effects of the disease and how it’s transmitted. Thankfully, Carey avoids that sort of dramatic irony where he can, instead, letting the books play off of each other, with our knowledge supplementing the events of Bridge and deepening our understanding of why things are happening. That also allows Bridge to play out on its own terms, rising and falling not as a companion to Gifts, but on its own terms.

That can make Bridge frustrating, though, because of how much Carey seems to be mirroring Gifts and using it for structure. Once again have a divided group of survivors out in the wilderness; once again, we have an outcast within that group (this time, it’s an autistic young man instead of an infected girl); once again, we have a lead scientist who’s not trusted by the rest of the group; and once again, there’s the rift between science and the military. It all can seem a bit familiar, to be sure. Luckily, Carey makes the characters strong enough, and their interactions different enough, that Bridge feels like a companion, and not a rehashing, of Gifts. In other words, it’s a way of exploring some of the same big themes – knowledge versus morality, compassion versus fear, community versus isolation – in a different story. And if it doesn’t quite give you the perfect ending of Gifts, there’s still a satisfying conclusion here, one that recontextualizes what we know from the first novel and gives us something more. I prefer the first novel, but fans of Gifts will find much to enjoy here, and a generally satisfying read – just one that you may want to read with some distance from its predecessor. Rating: ****

unnamed-22I’ve raved about Saladin Ahmed’s writing – especially his magnificent swashbuckling fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon – enough over the years that it should be no surprise that I made a decision to follow him wherever he went. And while I’m a bit disappointed that he seems to have paused his career as a novelist for now, the fact that Ahmed is writing comics hasn’t hindered his abilities one bit, at least not based on the evidence given by Abbott, a limited series story written by Ahmed and illustrated by Sami Kivelä. Set in 1970’s Detroit, Abbott follows its titular character, reporter Elena Abbott, as she investigates a series of strange killings that finds her dipping into a supernatural mystery involving dark forces, mystical hippies, occult rituals, and much more.

Ahmed has pushed himself out of his comfort zone to create a protagonist utterly unlike himself – an African-American bisexual woman – but shows how to do it right, making Abbott not a symbol or an archetype but her own unique, idiosyncratic person first, one shaped by all of those things but not pigeonholed by them. Abbott is a great protagonist – funny, outspoken, intelligent, dangerous, and fiercely independent, and I’d be lying if I didn’t finish this five-issue run disappointed that this was all I had of this character – I’d read her for years, easily. (Ahmed has hinted on Twitter that he’s not done with the character, and I hope that’s true.)

But equally part of this series is the way it uses its setting and characters to flesh out its story – the choice to make this a 1970’s story is no errant, thoughtless choice. It allows Ahmed to interweave relevant issues of the time – racism, police brutality, class warfare, the control of the media by the wealthy – into his story effortlessly, making Abbott not just the story of this mysterious case, but about this moment in America’s history. (Any resemblance to current day America are, of course, coincidental, and not depressing proof of how little we’ve changed, despite our pride in how “evolved” we are on these issues.)

And did I mention that it’s also a great story of occult powers, demonic entities, and supernatural conflict? If there’s a knock on Abbott, it’s that I wish it was basically one issue longer than it is; there are aspects of Abbott’s role in all of this that feel rushed and underexplained, and that goes doubly when it comes to the final conflict, which feels a little underdeveloped (even though the artwork, paneling, and pacing give it an incredibly satisfying and riveting feel that I can’t forget). But none of that should hold you back from reading Abbott – it’s an absolute treat from a writer who I’m glad to have back in my “to be read” stack, no matter what his current medium. Rating: **** ½

Amazon: Space Opera | The Boy on the Bridge | Abbott

It Devours!, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor / ****

185741If you’ve read this blog long enough – or browsed the archives – you probably know that I’m a fan of the wonderfully weird and bizarre podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which takes the form of public radio broadcasts from a small desert town that’s just like yours…if yours had lights in the sky, and vague yet menacing government agencies surveilling everyone, and a dog park that served as a gateway to another dimension, and blood matter storms – you know, a typical small town. Anyways, I enjoy Night Vale quite a bit, and I liked co-writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s first attempt to turn their podcast into a novel.

Now comes It Devours!, the second Night Vale book, which finds Fink and Cranor telling a story of religion (here, represented by the Church of the Smiling God, who will one day come in the form of a monstrous insect and devour our sins) and science (with a major supporting role by everyone’s famous handsome scientist Carlos). How all of this connects to the pits opening up under houses and business in Night Vale is best left for the reader to discover; suffice to say that, as always, Fink and Cranor have a wonderfully meandering but carefully plotted approach to their world, one that allows lots of doodling and imagination around the edges, but never forgets the story it’s telling.

In that, It Devours! is a bit more successful than the original Welcome to Night Vale novel, in which Fink and Cranor felt a bit more scattered (a la the original podcast). Here, they’ve managed to capture the silly side observations that make the podcast great, but keep the book more focused and streamlined. The fan-service feels cut down; the nods to existing continuity are there (and enjoyed), but It Devours! feels like it would be more accessible to non-fans, as long as they could embrace the weirdness of Night Vale.

More than that, though, It Devours! embodies all of the things that have made Welcome to Night Vale such a hit: a committed approach to diversity and acceptance, a warm spirit and kind heart (even in the face of unimaginable horrors), a desire to be earnest and thoughtful, and a complex view of the world that tries to understand everyone in it. That comes most into play in the novel’s approach to the dichotomy between science and religion, with neither being dismissed, and both being allowed to find a place in the modern world – even as both take their lumps in the story.

It Devours! ultimately feels a little light and disposable, for all of that; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but like the podcast, it’s a novel that’s less about its story and more about how it tells that story. That means you sometimes get characters who don’t feel like your standard three-dimensional characters, or normal plot arcs, or usual pacing…but none of that is necessarily a bad thing, not when the book is as enjoyable and wonderfully odd as this one is. I can’t tell you whether or not you need to be a fan in order to enjoy It Devours!; what I can say is, if you are one, you’ll be more than pleased with it.



Chattanooga Film Festival 2018: Day Three

For the past several years, I’ve gone down to the Chattanooga Film Festival – it’s one of my favorite weekends for film every single year. (You can see my previous year write-ups since moving to this blog here.) A festival that’s in love with genre films, trash cinema, and embraces the weird and wild, CFF’s philosophy is that every film is worth watching in some way, and it’s an idea I can always get behind. This year, I managed to get back down there for all four days, which means there’s a lot to talk about.

Day one wasn’t that great. Day two was a lot better. But day three? Best day of the festival, with solid film after solid film, and my personal pick for Best of Fest.

the-big-bad-fox-and-other-tales-124523One thing I’ve always loved about CFF is the fact that Saturday morning always holds a family-friendly free screening that’s both in keeping with the film fest sensibilities and yet wholly appropriate for young audiences. That’s led to some great watches in years past, including Song of the SeaErnest and Celestine, and My Life as a Zucchini, all of which married lush/imaginative animation with rich storytelling and surprising amounts of depth and heart.

This year’s selection, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales, wasn’t quite as heavy on the heart and emotion. What it more than made up for that with, though, was its anarchic, absurdist streak of humor, lending a much needed comedic break to the film festival’s otherwise very dark offerings. A trio of tales put on as “plays” by the inhabitants of a barnyard, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is about nothing so much as it’s about rampant silliness and ridiculousness – and that’s far from a bad thing. One tale  involves some animals attempting to deliver a stork’s neglected charge to its family; the second, a fox that ends up raising some baby chickens in the hopes of turning them into dinner one day; the third, meanwhile, finds our cast from the first story attempting to play Santa Claus for the year. In all three cases, there’s a little bit of sweetness at the core, but largely, all three mainly function as joke delivery systems. Luckily, they more than succeed, leaving me cracking up and thinking about how much my two kids will love this one when they get a chance to see it. Rating: ****

mv5bndliztc3ogetzjgwny00otuwltkxmjmtmze1zwe2yjg2mzi5xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtmxodk2otu-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_One of the great joys of horror and exploitation film over the decades is the way that it’s allowed films to take the side of the marginalized and the victimized in the guise of “revenge” or horror films. Sometimes that comes in the form of films made by the oppressed; sometimes, it’s filmmakers smuggling in the subtext; but whatever the case, it allows for a richness to the films that gives them an added punch. Such in the case with Ted Geoghegan’s Mohawk, which takes place during the War of 1812 and follows a small group of Mohawk tribespeople caught between the British and the Americans. The British are attempting to arm the Mohawks and encourage them to fight the Americans; meanwhile, Manifest Destiny seems to be in full swing just under the surface of the colonial soldiers.

Mohawk feels like a film made in our modern era – there’s a lot of anger under its surface at how we treated the indigenous people of the land, of how white men treat everyone who’s not a white man, and how the fight for our own survival can tear apart our lives. It’s more of a thriller than an all-out horror film – though it comes close, especially in the great final act – but more than that, it’s a generally tense and intense affair. Geoghegan generally uses his low budget well, losing the viewer in the sprawling and unfelled forests and mining that lack of civilization for all the uncertainty he can. And when Mohawk gets violent – and it does – there’s no escaping the way that Geoghegan and co-writer Grady Hendrix are mining America’s fraught racial history – and present – for material. It’s an angry, nasty film, and there’s no denying that it lays it on a little thick at times (I honestly did think a character might say that we could “make this land great again,” but it never does happen). But sometimes, a bit of cathartic anger – and some historical revisionism – can make for a satisfying time at the movies. Rating: ****

mv5bnja5oti1mjgwml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdu2nzy2ndm-_v1_sy999_cr00676999_al_The only real problem I have about The Endless, the latest film from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (the duo behind Resolution and Spring, both of which I want to see but haven’t), is that it’s incredibly hard to describe, because you should really go into it as cold as possible. So all I’ll say is that The Endless is the story of two brothers (Benson and Moorhead) who, when they were much younger, escaped from what they describe as “a UFO death cult”. But now it’s years later, and they’re both in dead-end jobs, and the youngest brother, Aaron, asks if they can go back, just for a day. After all, he says, they never did kill themselves or anything. And maybe it would help him get out of this slump, and feel better about the choice they made to leave.

And so, they go back. And then things get…well…

Look: plain and simple, The Endless was my favorite film of Chattanooga Film Fest 2018, and it’s not even a contest. Part sibling relationship drama, part indie-feeling comedy, part suspense tale, part Lovecraft-inspired horror story, The Endless is completely wild in every imaginable way – it’s the kind of film that you could never be prepared for where it’s going to take you if I gave you hours to take your guesses. But what’s all the more remarkable is how well it handles all of the various genres above and more, shifting between them effortlessly – and sometimes, even within the same season. Low-key banter gives way to unease; horror gives way to heartfelt moments; quiet drama gives way to the utterly alien. And somehow, a) it all works incredibly well, b) it’s filmed beautifully, and c) it’s incredibly acted, grounding the story in the characters and their relationships, even as it gets wilder and wilder.

The Endless is the kind of movie that keeps me coming back to the movies year after year, because I always hope to find something like this waiting for me. Never playing it safe, never following any easy rules, never falling into the slightest chance of being predictable, The Endless glides in and out of every genre effortlessly, but somehow does it all while telling an honest, heartfelt, and strong story about siblings and how they so often work to help – and harm – each other’s lives. I loved every second of it, and can’t wait to start hearing from the many, many people I’m going to make watch it. Rating: *****

mv5bzmnmnwi4ndqtmdyyzi00mmq2ltliztatywi0mgmzmjk2otg5xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjg5otixmji-_v1_sy1000_cr007061000_al_Filmed in black and white that feels like it’s being used to cover up the low budget, often coming across like it’s little more than a talky play turned into a claustrophobic film, sometimes relying on cheap CGI that turns the movie into a bad FMV game from the 90’s – to put it simply, there are all kinds of reasons that The Laplace’s Demon shouldn’t work. A low budget Italian thriller that feels a bit like a Twilight Zone episode or Philip K. Dick novel turned into a movie, The Laplace’s Demon is about a team of researchers who’ve been working on predictive software – that is, software that can help to predict even the most chaotic of variables in any situation. But when they’re called to a small, isolated island to meet with a mysterious professor, the team begins to realize that they’re being used as pawns in an experiment themselves – one with much farther reaching implications than they would have guessed.

The movie I found myself thinking of often as I watched The Laplace’s Demon was The Man from Earth, another film that’s more successful because of its ideas and conversations than it is for its filmic qualities. Mind you, Laplace has some great visual moments that I loved, and its black and white noir style is pretty great, but there’s no way that what you remember about this film is the way it’s made. No, what makes Laplace so gripping is the conversations it follows – about free will, about mathematics, about the nature of the universe and our choices, about whether we have any true agency in the world. Laplace is one of those films that truly finds itself in conversations like this, and enjoys letting its characters be intelligent and speak intelligently, expecting that that’s enough for the audience. And while there are some thriller elements in there, this is definitely a film of ideas, for better or for worse; what’s gripping about it is not necessarily how it’s being told, but what it’s telling. Is it a great movie? Definitely not. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting or fascinating to watch play out, even if you wish it was more of a movie in the process. Rating: *** ½

mv5bmti5yjzmyjytyzdkyi00nmnilwi3ngitzmexmza5ztyzztjixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndm1nzc0mti-_v1_I’ll admit that, by the time I saw Let the Corpses Tan, it was very late at night on the third day straight of watching movies, and I was more than a little tired. And I definitely spent a little bit of the film’s running time fading in and out of sleep. That all being said, in some ways, I can’t help but think that that’s the best way to see Corpses – a little tired, a little bit out of it, and just able to soak in the film’s glorious visuals and atmosphere and not worry about that pesky plot – because, trust me, I’m not sure filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani worried about it at all. In theory, Let the Corpses Tan is the story of a criminal gang hanging out at a abandoned Mediterranean hamlet as they prep for a gold heist. But not long after the heist, the gang finds themselves in a violent shootout back at the house when the cops show up. And then…well, no. That’s really it, in terms of plot, because Corpses isn’t that concerned with what’s happening; it’s concerned with how stylish it can make it all look.

And my god, does it ever look stylish and then some. The closest I can come to conveying what Corpses looks like is that if you imagined someone threw Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and pretty much every iconic Italian genre director into a blender, you might get something like this. There’s not a shot that’s not calibrated for maximum “cool” – from slow motion to color correction, from Morricone-style music to saturated palettes, Cattet and Forzani are incapable of just giving you a standard medium shot – not when they can go showy.

And, look, there’s no denying: it looks incredible. But it’s all style and basically no substance, and at a certain point, it definitely begins to drag and leave you feeling the empty calories. It looks amazing, but I can’t help but feel that Corpses is one of those movies that would be best served playing without sound on the screens in a trendy club, whether the visuals could be their own attraction. Yes, I may have been drifting off a bit, but honestly, I don’t think I was missing anything along the way – apart from more astonishing visuals. Rating: ***

Also on Day Three: I have yet to read Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, in which the horror author gives an overview of the horror boom of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, as well as the lurid pulp covers of the period. What I have done, though, is gotten to see Hendrix’s presentation form of the book, which is an absolute treat – it’s funny, engaging, wildly silly, and also done with a lot of love for the era. Hendrix’s presentation follows the horror boom from the big three books that kicked it off – The ExorcistRosemary’s Baby, and The Other – and follows it through the folding of some of the big horror publishers. But rather than giving a dry recapping of publishers and business, he covers Nazi leprechauns, the horrors of self-pleasing women, vermin storms in England, and so much more. I had a blast with it – I laughed throughout the entire thing, but also came away impressed with Hendrix’s affection and knowledge. Highly recommended if you get a chance; in the meantime, Hendrix’s fiction and Paperbacks have moved quickly up my “to read” list.

IMDb: The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales | Mohawk | The Endless | The Laplace’s Demon | Let the Corpses Tan

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett / *****

goodomens-hard-2006It’s been more than a decade since I last read Good Omens (full title: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch), the collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Since then, I’ve come to know and deeply love the work of Terry Pratchett, and I’ve become more familiar with the work of Neil Gaiman (who, at the time I last read Good Omens, had only had a couple of novels published). That’s made it a perfect excuse to revisit the book, and see how it holds up as a work by two of my favorite writers.

The answer: it holds up perfectly and then some, representing some wonderful union of the best of each author’s sensibilities, and creating something wonderful in the process.

Nominally, Good Omens is the story of the Apocalypse, brought about by the birth of the Antichrist. But, in typical Pratchett style, from the get-go, there are reversals and oddities, from the way that the Antichrist is raised by a family who doesn’t know what their child is and simply raises him normally to the way the book follows an angel and demon as they attempt to prevent all of this from happening. And through it all, Gaiman fleshes out the mythology and imagination of the piece, playing off of Pratchett’s wry social commentary and gleeful silliness.

The result is, first of all, laugh-out-loud, consistently, constantly hilarious, from page one until the end. From a hellhound trapped in the form of a little dog to four bikers who nominate themselves as the followers of the four true Horsemen of the Apocalypse (bikers who have given themselves names like Grievous Bodily Harm, Really Cool People, Things Not Working Even When You’ve Given Them a Good Thumping, and more), from the wonderful banter between a group of children to the running gag about how every cassette left in a car gradually turns into Queen’s Greatest Hits, Pratchett and Gaiman stuff the book with jokes and silliness, ranging from the profound to the absurd and childish. (My favorite throwaway gag involves a group of ducks that’s uniquely attuned to international politics because of all the “covert” meetings that happen at their pond.)

But what makes Good Omens great isn’t the sly parodies of The Omen or the wonderful silliness. No, what makes it great is what makes so many Pratchett (and Gaiman, to a different extent) books great: the way it uses the plot to get to something more meaningful and profound. What begins as a book about the end of the world becomes a study of human frailty (the demon Crowley’s thoughts about how human nature trumps anything he can ever come up with ring as true today as they did when the novel was first written), but also what makes life worth living. As with so many books by these two, the final confrontation doesn’t come down to an action sequence – it comes down to ideas, to optimism (or hope, perhaps) in the face of defeat and cynicism. That’s something both men have always been fascinated by, and always brought out in their work – that the world, and people, are so often horrible, and yet there is something magical and essential about life that’s impossible to ignore. That Good Omens turns that into the text of the novel is what gives is a surprising punch that hits home, even more than any scene of Crowley driving his rapidly disintegrating car or enjoying (what I assume is Gaiman’s work) the novel’s inspired modernization of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (and, in one case, one that has never changed, and never will).

It truly is the best case scenario for a collaboration – something that brings out the best aspects in both authors and plays them off of each other, creating something that feels like both of their work and yet feels totally of its own piece. It’s funny, it’s imaginative, it’s profound, and it makes you feel better about the world, even while we recognize the pain of it all. In other words, it’s typically brilliant Pratchett and Gaiman in every way.