Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bonhoeffer (Review)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a name with which I was familiar, but the little I read of him seemed more than interesting. Hence getting this book, a biography of the man by Eric Metaxas.

For those of you who don't know, Bonhoeffer was German theologian and pastor before and during the second world war. He took part (very distantly) in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler which resulted in his execution by hanging (via piano wire) in the closing days of that war. He helped found the Confessing Church, a kind of alternate to the more-or-less Nazified Lutheran/Protestant Churches under the Third Reich. His twin sister and her Jewish husband fled the country. One of his brothers died with him, executed by the SS.

His story is of courage and idealism, of fierce faith and covert action in the face of a cruel, often psychotic tyranny. Alas, the book captures none of this save what one gets from a bare reading of the facts. A startling amount of background is simply ignored--not minute details but actual context that allows you to understand the subject of the book! One is never transported to the Imperial Germany, nor to the Weimar Republic nor even to Hitler's Reich. Nor do we ever get a sense of the other places Bonhoeffer visited and lived, like Portugal or Rome or New York City in the 1920s. Even more critically, the writer never brings the people to life. Enough surface detail is there to provide hints, but no more. Instead we get descriptions of surface with little depth. We are assured, for example, than Bonhoeffer was not arrogant although he could come across that way. Frankly, in the book arrogance is one of the few human traits he does indeed seem to possess (although exactly what form this took is left frustratingly vague).

We read of a romantic relationship he had for years, yet in which neither partner realized they were in love until too late. One would imagine this be important in a biography. Yet it gets less than five pages out of 542. As for the young lady's personality or history--nothing.

Likewise--and this is frankly more damning--the author seems not so much interested in telling the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as in using him as an example to promote a specific agenda. The biography of a theologian, for example, might be expected (as I certainly did) to include a detailed but objective discussion of Bonhoeffer's ideas, especially in the context of other beliefs. Instead we get all kinds of hints, subtle and otherwise, about what we are to agree with. The book routinely decries certain movements and ideas without discussing them at all--and by that I don't mean things like Nazi Racial Theories. Pietism, for example is mentioned and dismissed without any exploration. Likewise the idea of the "goodness of the world" is simply referred to as a dangerous notion. Why? And amidst all this, a perfectly specious reference to so called Intelligent Design (i.e. Creationism) appears for no good reason I can see. That at any time someone might disagree, honestly and reasonably, with the parts of Bonhoeffer's ideas the author finds so attractive seems a premise never seriously considered.

Plus I should mention an awkward turn of phrase here and there that makes me wonder at the Metaxas' skills. "Wonderfulness" and "Evilness" are not words I look for in good writing. And then there are the factual errors. For example, the Nazi Regime was not tolerant of homosexuals, using the excuse of their new draconian laws against same to persecute for other reasons. While some leaders of the Third Reich more-or-less ignored the issue, it was Himmler (accurately described as the most Anti-Christian of the bunch) who insisted upon trying to stamp out male homosexuals (lesbians were generally ignored). One has to wonder at such agenda-specific inaccuracy.

Interesting subject. Not a good book. In this case, the author got in the way of the subject.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Discrete Charm of the Nosferatu

Some names keep popping up. Edward Cullen. Bill Compton. Erik Northman. Mick St. John. Henry Fitzroy. Spike. Angel, formerly Angelus and formerly Liam. Nicholas Knight. Barnabas Collins. The brothers Salvatore. The vampire as love interest has become a cliche, so much so that Guillermo del Toro's The Strain as well as 30 Days of Night have been welcomed as a much-needed relief from an overabundance of saccharine.

Methinks there's something missing from all of this, though. I would posit that for a vampire love interest to succeed, a particular balance is almost always needed. Almost.

Allow me to point to two names in the above list. Henry Fitzroy and Mick St. John, the undead hunks of Blood Ties and Moonlight respectively. Both have their fans, to be sure, but neither lasted overlong. For my own tastes, the former was a damn shame (although in my review of the series I pointed out a few inherent flaws). Honestly, I tired to get into the latter but failed. But watching a few episodes did crystalize something in my own mind that led to this post. Quite simply, Mick St. John was a wimp. Not that he wasn't brave or gallant or generous or good-looking or all that. No, he was a wimp because he agonized all over the place about being a vampire. But look at his life. He doesn't need to kill for blood. His "victims" often seem to enjoy the experience. Sunlight is uncomfortable but hardly debilitating. No holy symbols seem to impact him one way or another. He feels intense guilt over crimes he's never committed, urges he seems to be able to control with no effort, inconveniences that are only that. At no time does he come across as religious. His secret is easily kept, and when his love interest discovers it that really doesn't seem to be much of a problem, not really. So what is with all the angst?

Angst can be fun. Angst is good from a story-telling perspective. But something needs to be at stake. Something real.

Probably the single biggest problem with Blood Ties is that the vampire in and of himself offered very little real threat to the heroine. Henry was a fascinatingly cool guy, and his very existence indicated a whole world of threat Vicky had never even considered. Yet he himself was no threat, even against his will.

Compare that to Angel of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fame. Here was a guy possessed by a demon, a demon forever longing to break free and commit unspeakable cruelties. The episode where someone slipped Angel a drug to make him "relax" demonstrated just why Angel is by his very nature a ticking time bomb. More, he was someone only too aware of how dangerous he was. Bill Compton on True Blood spent decades wallowing in darkness, before reaching a point of such despair he preferred death to remaining as he was. He has spent even more decades trying to regain his humanity and let us face facts--he has not been completely successful. Ask Sookie's Uncle. Likewise Barnabas Collins of Dark Shadows (scheduled to be remade by Tim Burton with Johnny Depp) ended up wiping out most of his family and the woman he loved due to his undead nature.

Do you see the correlation yet? You can boil it down to a rule of thumb: The more inherently romantic or attractive a vampire, then the more dangerous they should be for the sake of drama. Methinks this helps explain some of the popularity of Twilight. Edward really is in most ways too good to be true. He's dashing, gallant, just emotional enough to be interesting, supremely loyal, handsome as a god, generous beyond words, patient and devoted, courageous and poetic. He's virtually invulnerable (Buffy and Blade and Van Helsing combined would not stand a chance). Edward's bite not only kills but causes torturous agony (no swooning in rapture with his lips at your throat--more like begging for death at the top of your lungs). And he's fighting for self-control all the time (which makes him a rare duck in the vampires of his world--mostly they just devour whoever catches their fancy). Whatever else you may think of the series (both books and films) it captures this dynamic very well.

Barnabas Collins--virtually no control over his hunger at all, with his bite destroying the free will of his victims, turning them into his slaves. Nick Knight--ragged self-control striving against centuries of self-indulgence, with his bite nearly always killing. Eli in Let the Right One In--an eternal child who must kill to survive and who cannot always control herself, being very used to wielding deadly force. Jessica in True Blood--a repressed teenager suddenly given powers and bloodlust, at the same time robbed of almost every pleasure in life save maybe violence (really, how much more dangerous a combination could one ask for?).

Vampires need not be psychopaths to be dangerous. They just need some metaphorical fangs.

"The Losers" (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

An advantage to living in Los Angeles is the opportunity to sometimes see movie premieres. Case in point--The Losers which I saw at the famous Grauman Chinese Theater in Hollywood. A very good friend got some passes after seeing a sneak preview, insisted it was (in her words) "awesome" and suggested I come along.

Was it awesome? Parts of it, yes. For the most part, I would simply describe it as very, very good. Although this isn't the kind of movie I usually review on this blog, nor is it a genre I usually seek out, my hope is that this will prove a success. After all, the more often good movies do well, the more likely good movies will be made, yes? Its a viable theory, anyway.

In essence the plot involves a US Special Forces Team. They are framed and almost murdered during an operation, on orders from a mysterious CIA figure known only as "Max." In the process, about two dozen small children are killed and the Losers (they are never actually called such in the film) assumed to be dead. Months later, their leader is contacted by a beautiful woman named Aisha who wants to bankroll their destruction of Max.

Sounds like a more-or-less straightforward action adventure flick. But what makes a real difference here is the acting, the writing and the directing. It helps that the cast is uniformly excellent at their roles--from Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Clay (commanding officer of the Losers) to Zoe Saldana as Aisha, and Jason Patric as the spectacularly ruthless Max (who would make a superb Bond villain incidently--very old school including a mangled hand). Probably my own favorite character was Jenkins (played by Chris Evans), a computer hacker extraordinaire with a truly wacky sense of humor that never seems to turn off. His t-shirts alone almost make the character.

The Losers offers no insights or deep questions without answers, nor does it explore issues and its drama is formulaic. I was not emotionally moved. But I was entertained--and methinks it is important to recall this movie doesn't really seem to be aiming at much else. Nor is that a bad thing! I enjoyed it very much.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dorian Gray (2009)

Spoilers ahoy!

(Note: This film has not yet been released in the USA)

Even if you haven't read the original book, or seen any of the film versions, odds are the name conjures the story. Dorian Gray, the beautiful young man whose portrait ages instead of him. As time goes by, the portrait shows not only age but also moral decay and disease, the ravages not only of time but of a sinful life.

Curiously, when published the short novel by Oscar Wilde was seen as immoral. Myopia in the extreme. Like all too many works that portray sin, past and present, it stood condemned even while clearly teaching a moral lesson. But moral critics often focus on minutia. Wilde was extravagantly, deliberately decadent and he wrote a novel about sin. Prudes condemned it and could not see the work for what it was. Much as some fundamentalists cannot get past the trapping of magic in Harry Potter to even notice the profoundly Christian values embodies in the series.

But all that is background...

The latest motion picture of Dorian Gray stars Ben Barnes, and he is one of the two weakest elements in this entertaining-but-hardly-deep adaptation. Each scene that Barnes plays is well enough in and of itself, but doesn't seem to have a through-line. They don't feel connected somehow. Previously best known as the title character in Prince Caspian, Barnes does however capture some of the dichotomy of Gray (possibly the most aptly named character in English literature). In this version, he is a boy pretending to be a man, and one who sadly never really grows up. He longs to be moral and successful, popular and beloved, welcomed and satiated. In a word, he is hungry. Or so the script would have you believe. Barnes does a workmanlike performance (I've seen plenty of professional actors who'd've done not as good a job) but we never feel the inner fire of this (eternally) young man.

Alas this is made a bit worse by the script. Not a bad adaptation, to be sure, but one that falls into some fairly obvious traps. The most obvious is to show Dorian's excesses, because these days you can get away with it. In practice, this means sex and drugs. And in the end, isn't that fairly blase? Much more troubling (as in other versions) is his treatment of other human beings as props. Is not blackmail a far worse act than visiting a brothel? Really? Just as cruelty makes a more vivid impression than drunkenness or promiscuity. But instead of cruelty, what we see is a kind of callousness. Murder, yes, but more in a fit of emotion than a coldly calculated action just to feel what it would be like.

Barnes' Dorian is neither wicked enough, nor repentant enough to make the story work. And much of that fault lies in the script.

On the other hand, the script also manages to be fun. There's an amusing thrill to see Dorian seduce his way through a circle of polite society ladies (and in one very amusing instance, daughter as well as mother). Colin Firth does his usual magnificent job as a deliberately decadent nobleman, Lord Wotton, one who says much but does very little and is hoist on his petard upon finding an acolyte who takes his ideas seriously. Most particularly this shows up in a new character, Emily--a daughter played by Rebecca Hall who (to Lord Wotton's horror) falls for Dorian as he does for her. One cannot help but think this is something of a cheat. In the original story, Dorian feels increasing despair as he realizes his own inability to love, to feel anything save boredom and nagging guilt. If in offering a way out, the author felt an extra element of tragedy added to the tale, I can only say the idea failed. Poignancy was substituted for power. Hall did as fine a job as one could ask for in the role, but the plot got in the way (Hall is an excellent actress and I highly recommend seeing her in The Prestige as well as Wide Sargasso Sea).

Likewise the lovely Rachel Hurd Wood does a fine job of playing Sybil Vane, Dorian's sweet and doomed first love. Again, though, the script gets in the way. Unlike any other version of this tale, I just did not understand her suicide. We simply don't get to know her well enough, and what we do see is a frankly a strong, brave young woman. The implication was that she felt her life to be ruined because she surrendered her virginity to Dorian. But that didn't ring "true." Again, returning to the original, she needs to have a much more vast emotional investment in Dorian than the one we see on film (and it frankly feels like a cheat that she drowned herself instead of swallowing lye).

The climax, with Hall's character included, is as special-effects-laden as one would expect in this kind of tale, albeit without a huge amount of point. Do we really gain anything by watching Dorian age and the painting youthen? At the same time, much of what it attempts to do works well enough--we are left with an idea of a genuine love destroyed by circumstance. Likewise the story of Lord Wotton himself is left in an interesting place, paradoxically more ethical yet ruthless.

Yet it doesn't really work as a version of Oscar Wilde's story, the one that has survived the test of time.

Friday, April 16, 2010

"Kick Ass" (Review)

A dear friend of mine won tickets to the premiere of the motion picture Kick Ass last Tuesday. Today, it opens nation-wide. This review will contain spoilers but only later. And I will warn you...

Some folks seem a tad confused about the premise, but here it is. This teenage guy with a lot of idealism and a lot of imagination decides to try and become a superhero. No, he has no powers (well, he ends up with an advantage, but well within the realm of the possible). As you can see from the trailers, he dons a costume and starts helping people. This is captured on video, ending up on YouTube where he becomes a massive "thing". Along the way he stumbles onto a much more serious variation of the same trope--a father and daughter team (Big Daddy and Hit Girl) out to take down a major crime lord. They are hardcore, and take a liking to the other nascent superhero.

As plots go, that sounds fine but let me assure you there's a lot more to this than a cool-sounding plot. For one thing, there are the characters. Nicholas Cage's Big Daddy comes across as a blend of two Batmans--that of Adam West and Christian Bale. Think about that for a moment. Now add a dash of Mr. Rogers. I'm not kidding. And it works. Brilliantly. Most folks I spoke with agree that Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl steals the flick, not only with incredible (and very, very violent) fight scenes but with the attitude that carries it off. Frankly, this role easily lends itself to gags but instead came across as a real person. The central character, however, remains Aaron Johnson's Kick Ass. Without him, the story just doesn't hold together at all. That it does is a fine testimony to his abilities as an actor as well as the quality of the script.

Kick Ass is also a comedy, one quite dark at times and more than a little violent. In this respect it more closely resembles Watchmen rather than The Dark Knight. If anything it has a sense of fun akin to the Iron Man or Spiderman movies. People die in this flick. Blood goes flying, sometimes spraying, and there are guts to be seen. Some are tortured. More, the whole flick manages a tricky balancing act between the complementary tones of fierce and inspiring humor.

Okay, the spoilers are now ahoy. You have been warned.

After watching (and if case you hadn't guessed, roundly enjoying) this film I looked up the comic book online--which was developed more-or-less at the same time. Interestingly, I found the one totally off-note in the whole thing was a change from the book--one of the relative few such. Quite simply, Dave (aka Kick Ass) has a bit of a crush on one of the popular girls at his NYC high school. Been there, done that. His first outing in his new crime-fighting outfit results in a trip to the hospital--which incidentally gives him metal plates on his bones and enough nerve damage to withstand more pain than usual. It also sparks a weird rumor at school--namely, that he is gay. Katie (played by Lyndsy Fonesca) turns out to have something of a "lost dog syndrome" and befriends him precisely because she believes the rumors. He understandably (being a teenager and stoopid that way as most of us were) goes along with this in hopes of spending time with her.

What strikes the vastly false note is that when he finally tells her the truth, she forgives his deceit in about seven seconds. Uh, no. I'll buy that she might have a change of heart later, but not so soon and frankly not without something serious to change the paradigm. Teenage girls are not as a rule much more mature than teenage boys, if at all. This feels like the equivalent of a brownie served atop your medium-rare steak. Ick.

It stands out even more when you consider how many chances this film takes!

When Kick Ass and Big Daddy are betrayed, with Hit Girl left for dead (except we know she survived because she's wearing kelvar), the Crimelord's goons stage a gruesome execution for the two heros. We know Hit Girl will rescue them. What shocked me was that she wasn't able to save her father. He dies from wounds suffered after being set on fire! A very effective scene, and not a little daring. Especially amid the copious humor amid the rest of the movie (but then, real tension and danger and suffering makes humor funnier if you do it right). Keep in mind the writer of the comic book is none other than Mark Miller, creator of Wanted.

All in all, I would give this movie a B+ and put it among the very best superhero films made so far. Kudos to the filmmakers!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gothic Fiction: What to Look For

Behold my second guest blogger and her post about Goth fiction...Bethany North (as gothic a personal name as one could ask for, in my humble opinion...)

Gothic Fiction: What to Look For

If you are a Gothic fiction fan, you may be realizing that its popularity is having a serious comeback. If you're new to the Gothic fiction genre, you may be wondering what characterizes Gothic fiction, and exactly what to look for in the Gothic fiction genre.

In short, Gothic fiction is the popular choice of the horror genre, and it was born in the late 18th century. It is under the hood of the Romantic movement that hoped to evoke strong emotions within the reader, especially in the case of fear based on the supernatural. The main distinction to Gothic fiction is its atmosphere, where it will build suspense throughout the novel to create apprehension and anxiety within the reader. Much of this can relate to mystery, the supernatural, and even family curses. Of course, Gothic fiction wouldn't be quite as popular without the romantic element, which is why readers of both genders are often attracted to this fiction genre.

Gothic fiction is also an ideal choice for anyone interested in the past eras, especially explored historically through a novel. This can often create a dark and oppressive feel to Gothic fiction, especially if it takes place in medieval times. Many modern Gothic fiction novels still follow this trend of being set in past eras, especially in Victorian or medieval times. These same Gothic settings are often expressed in film and music, making the Gothic fiction genre a popular leader in the media industry.

If you are ready to take a dive into Gothic fiction, here are some of the top choices to get you started:

And that is just the tip of the iceberg! Gothic fiction encompasses a strong genre with a number of novel choices, so whether you are hoping for mystery, horror, or the supernatural, you can expect all of that and more.

Bethany North's specialty site for all coffee needs and Bunn coffee makers filters can be found at The Coffee Bump.

Friday, April 9, 2010

April 2010 Chain: Meeting Noelle

This is my entry in the Absolute Write Water Cooler Blog Chain April 2010. This month's theme is "What would it be like to meet your novel characters?" And I'm going to cheat. I'm going to "meet" Noelle, who is certainly novel but right now is not a character in a novel. Rather she's one of the two leads in the web series I'm developing with my writing partner Annie LeFleur. And I should explain that since Noelle hasn't been cast yet, in this writer's mind's eye she keeps shifting appearance. Sometimes she looks like Felicia Day, others like Melanie Lynskey or Amber Benson.

Okay where is this?
If I said "my apartment" would that suffice?
Not at all.
Understandable. Well, I suppose one could say this is the real world, but that probably doesn't help. For that matter, it might not even be true, or at least not the total truth.
That is not any kind of an answer.
I'm your creator. Well, one of them. (pause)
Soooo...which one? The Father? The Son? The Holy Spirit?
None of those. Lets just say this is a dream, and one or both of us is dreaming it. In this dream I'm one of the authors who have created the fictional character Noelle. You.
How nice.
No, really. At least from my perspective. Case in point--try to use your powers on me.
Just so you know--those words coming out of your mouth make less and less sense.
Noelle, I know. Really. Your birthdate in Bristol, the names of all three siblings, where you went to work, who who met, what happened to you there, where you went afterwards and when you returned to London. I know all about Cecily, about the Mayor and what happened in Paris.
So you know everything?
Not everything. That's part of what makes you alive and not my puppet. I'm not sure precisely what you'll do, nor do I have every detail. As far as I'm concerned, you're a mystery I'm still trying to solve--and like any real person that mystery cannot be completely solved. Hopefully.
Well, this has been a fascinating conversation but we seem to have reached an impasse so...
Please don't go.
I'm sure you think you can make me stay, but...
No, I don't. Please, stay. I cannot make you, not really.
Which means you're not my creator then. So bye-bye!
I know why Cecily is in town. (long pause)
Bravo. You have my attention.
But I cannot tell you.
Which makes your words a bluff.
Look--the elements of your life are the stuff of a story. That story has its needs, its requirements. One of those is the timing of when and how you learn Cecily's intentions. From those proceeds your actions.
That you already know?
In general.
Okay, lets break this down. You claim to be a writer or a god or something and that I'm one of your characters? So every single bit of pain I've suffered, all the losses and mistakes and accidents and the like--those are your fault. Right? RIGHT?
I was going to mention my writing partner Annie, but--yeah. More or less.
Sounds like mostly more to me.
You know, even if I didn't write you, if I'm just a deluded fool or figment of your own imagination, that wouldn't take away the fact that for you to exist at all there will always have been pain as well as pleasure. Always. Just like me. And Roy.
Leave him out of this.
He's actually central to...
I said--leave him out.
For the sake of courtesy, I will refrain from mentioning him. But leaving him out is not an option. Your stories are entwined.
Why? He's just this guy, a little too friendly and a little too nice. Somebody I
know. A friend. Whatever f*ck*d-up sh*t you have planned for me doesn't have a damn thing to do with Roy!
Sorry. Not something I can discuss. But...no, I cannot say.
If you really do know as much as you say, that was not a smart thing to say out loud.
You and I are between worlds. Seems unlikely you can harm me.
Not a good bet.
Well, you can't physically harm me. Not for real.
Time to find out...
Doesn't the bitter always come with the sweet? How can there be light without some shadows? Without pain and loss, we cannot appreciate the pleasure or the finding. Please believe me. Please. I know. Too well.
Hey, if I'm not even real...
But you are real, that's the point. Maybe not real in the same way I am but the fact you threatened me is proof of the truth of you. I didn't expect that.
Then again, maybe this really is just a dream, eh?
Why not?
No reason I can see. In which case, you made me instead of the other way around.
How does it feel?
A little disorienting. A tiny bit giddy. But--if you created me then using your argument I should blame you for a lot.
Not interested.
I'm going.
Can I at least thank you for dreaming me up?
No. Good riddance.
(Long, long pause)
That didn't go the way I thought it would. Probably should have just shut up.


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