Thursday, November 3, 2016

7 thrillers in 30 days: The Gift

Halloween is over and I didn't watch a single horror film except A Nightmare On Elm Street on the big screen, which counts but isn't terribly scary. It's more of a campfest, but I love it. Neon Demon doesn't count, either - I watched that, and while my library catalogs it under "horror," I disagree. It was something else entirely - eerie, colorful, strange and dark. Seriously not horror, but odd and without category. I could go on about it, but I think I still need to process it further first. It's one of those movies you need to watch twice - maybe with commentary the second time around.

November is the month for...well, mid-terms and Thanksgiving. But it's also the month where I watch 7 psychological thrillers (not horror, but kind of creepy in their own way) and blog about them. If you like this idea and want to recommend a film, leave it in the comments.

To begin, I watched the Joel Edgerton film The Gift last night and had to look it up again. I have no idea where I'd heard that it was a remake of the Haneke film Caché, because it is clearly not the same movie at all. The plot is completely different, although they do have a similar feel (psychological thriller with a childhood vendetta at the center). That said, both movies are completely worth watching, so if you have seen and enjoyed one, I would recommend seeing the other.

The Gift was a genuinely unsettling, uncomfortable experience - which doesn't make it sound so appealing, but there were surprisingly outstanding performances from the director himself and from Teen Wolf, Too...I mean, Jason Bateman.

(Rebecca Hall was no surprise; she's always fantastic and lovely).

The characters were complex, the story was gripping and the whole package was rather Hitchcockian in its power to make you bite your nails and stay glued to the edge of your seat. 

If you have watched and liked The Gift, check out Caché and/or my previous blog (blah-g) discussion of that movie

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Something Mindless: In which I mock the straight-to-DVD sequel of 1983's War Games

I am watching an atrocious bit of straight-to-video cinema - a little-known sequel to the 1983 movie  War Games. It's called...War Games: Dead Code

It starts off looking like a music video, opening on a bunch of people - making out, drinking, putting on lipstick - in what looks like a moving vehicle. Suddenly, it stops and everyone gets out at what looks like an army base in a foreign country. Everyone is dancing, kissing...unloading large weapons from aforementioned vehicle. Then some of the guys start shooting their guns into the sky...but everyone is still dancing, too. There really doesn't seem to be any music. One bullet keeps going. Close up of bullet as it goes further and further into the clouds...and oh, it's the opening credits. 

There is a teenager's room - except it looks like a basement computer lab. We see the teenager and his friend - you know, that friend. The snarky, funny one. The one who looks older than a teenager and not bad-looking, although we're supposed to believe he's a total outcast and a weirdo. The teenage computer whiz is Will Farmer and Comic Relief Friend(TM) is Dennis. Then it's the next day. Will and Dennis are going to school, but  a neighbor stops Will to ask if he will come and fix his computer. I feel like Will needs this t-shirt my brother has. But Will agrees to help, although it sounds like the neighbor has already f***ed up his computer before so that Will had to do a complete wipe of the hard drive. Then Dennis and Will are off to school, but not before they notice that a bully has played a prank and put something (Vaseline? Lube?) on the windshield of the car Dennis is driving. Just so you don't forget that Dennis and Will are weirdos

At school, we meet Will's crush, Annie. She's a chess whiz. Her team is going to Montreal. Will manages to score some money through his neighbor via mysterious circumstances that I won't spoil for you. He gets to go to Montreal now, too - skip ahead to the trip. 

Apparently Dennis was supposed to go, too. Even though Will and Dennis don't play chess. Bored now, but Annie has really pretty eyes. However, she is wearing an open coat and low-cut top during winter in Montreal. I mean, there is a scarf and a trench coat, but it seems like it would still be the outfit to freeze to death wearing in the cold Canadian winter. 

Oh yeah, Will's mom and Dennis have been kidnapped or apprehended or...something. They are being held in a room somewhere they can only see each other through the glass. Mrs. Farmer is in a Hazmat suit. What?

There is "danger music" playing so we know Annie and Will are about to be chased down the streets of Montreal. Weren't they supposed to be somewhere playing chess?

Suddenly, they are underground and up against a wall because a train is coming.

Back to a secret room where official-looking people are talking about "level 3 alerts" and some very terrible actors are reciting lines about "bio-chemical warfare" that literally sounds like they are reading aloud. But with very serious looks on their faces so we know it's a dire situation. Which is why they are following a teenage boy around Montreal. 

Why does all the music in this movie sound like the Gin Blossoms? This movie was made in 2008. Not 1993. Whyyyyyyyy?

Will and Annie are still running around Montreal. Running scared. Scared enough to...stop for hotdogs? Oh, and kissing. Such palpable nowhere to be seen in this movie. They see themselves on a TV: WANTED in connection with bioterrorism. The old man who ran into Annie in the airport earlier taps her on the shoulder. He's not just anyone...he's the one who designed the computer program that got Will in trouble. It's called RIPLEY. It was just a game to Will, but apparently it's not. The old man, Professor Falken, almost started World War III with it. He tells the story in the archetypal "wise, knowledgable old man" way...Annie can't believe he is alive and no one, not even his family, knows. His story makes little sense and no one in my living room -not me nor my cat - can muster a damn to give. 

Some guy who works in the secret room is jogging with a young colleague and the young colleague is hit by a car. It's a hilarious scene - it may be the most fake scene I have ever watched. Shot of guy's startled face. Shot of oncoming car. Shot of guy's face. Car. Now his glasses are on the ground. We see the GLASSES. And then, the body. The older guy runs to the body's side...and suddenly, there is also blood on the ground and the older guy is looking around at all the cameras watching him. It's RIPLEY. She is after them! She is trying to kill them! It's never quite clear why he would think this, much less why it would happen.

Back to Falken, Annie and Will...Falken is saying they are his only family now. Because they have been through so much what? I don't even know. Good heavens, this is awful. They break into a building and there is the original computer that Falken created. They all look on in awe at the...gray block with all the lighted buttons. 

Some other stuff happens and we're the room where all the secret government agents (or whatever they are supposed to be) are looking on as their computers malfunction. Then, back to Falken, Will and Annie...and some other old guy (where did he come from? I missed something...). They are looking onward as the computer tells them that they are in danger (it speaks! In a very robotic voice...a la all 1980s computer movies...except this movie was made in 2008, despite what the entire '90s-esque soundtrack would have you believe). Falken is calling this computer Joshua (after his dead son) and he asks how the game will end. It tells him: OBLITERATION. I crack up.

Back in the secret government room, their computers are commencing countdown. They are watching on their screens as an airplane headed toward the warehouse Annie, Will and Falken are at descends. Annie and Will run out of the warehouse, but Professor Falken stays behind. Annie looks in horror as the plane comes closer and calls out "Professor Falken!" because he is like family to her. Now. Apparently. The bomb drops. The warehouse blows up and Will, Annie and Other Guy (who is this dude?) drop to the ground. The smoke clears and suddenly, Will and Annie are surrounded by men in black with big guns.

Next, they are in another room that looks like a basement and they are being held there. Looking at each other across a table, neither of them handcuffed or anything, they speak in hushed, worried whispers. Will has his laptop. He contacts Dennis, who is back home and safe somehow, through an open Stargate game and they talk about how to stop RIPLEY. He has to figure out how to get all the IP addresses of everyone who has ever played RIPLEY. The government guy who watched his colleague get hit by a car is standing behind them and says "No problem."  In a few minutes, he has opened up a database for Will and Will starts mansplaining to Annie about RIPLEY's system and how they are going to tie up her servers in order to "loosen her grip on the city." 

The government guys come stomping in to stop him, even though they just helped him. This movie is so confusing. The computer (RIPLEY?) is warning of "Decontamination in 44 minutes" whatever that means and Annie realizes that Falken did something to the computer when he went back into the warehouse before it exploded. The government folks start arguing, someone shoots the computer, Will tries to log onto the computer using Joshua, but can't. Annie reminds him of Max, Falken's son's teddy bear (clearly she was paying way more attention to Falken's back-story than I was) and he logs in using that name. It works! And then they are all playing RIPLEY for $100000000 and Will wins and stops the "decontamination." Everyone cheers. But something is wrong. RIPLEY has changed targets - to Washington, D.C., which is a little too close to home for them. Because that's exactly where they are. Annie comes up with an idea about teaching Joshua to play a kind of Russian Roulette which will somehow stop it from firing weapons...oh, I don't even care. Someone wrote this script. Someone green-lighted it. What is this life?

Ending scene. World has been saved. Will is "talking" to Joshua, and he types: "Would you really have launched those missiles if RIPLEY hadn't stopped you?" Joshua says: "YES. THE HUMAN RACE IS FINISHED." Will looks scared. Then Joshua says: "THAT WAS HUMOR. HAHAHA." Will laughs. He goes out to get into a cab with Annie. They kiss and ride off. There is a panning out, all the way into space and then, into a computer hard drive. THE END. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Movie Review: Gloria (2013)

For my library's summer reading program, staff are encouraged to participate as well. Our theme this year is a camp theme and you can earn badges for each "camp" by completing 5 tasks on that camp's list. I just moved on to Travel Camp but last week I was in Camp Hollywood. That meant that two of the five tasks I could tick off were (1) ask a librarian for a movie suggestion and (2) check out and watch a foreign film. I've always hated the expression "kill two birds with one stone" because all I can imagine are these poor, bludgeoned instead I will say that I decided to knock out two tasks at once and asked one of our librarians for a foreign film suggestion. She recommended the Spanish language film Gloria.

I should preface this by the disclaimer that I rarely watch movies lately. I love film - I'd say that it's my second love after literature, with my tastes ranging from French New Wave classics to B-movie campiness. But it's hard to get the time to sit still for nearly two hours or more when one is juggling two classes, two jobs and life itself. I haven't watched a lot of film lately - once in awhile, while on vacation or during a semester break, but mostly I stick to Internet videos related to school projects or catching up on Game of Thrones at midnight, after I am tired of listening to lectures and writing papers for the day. So there is a possibility that my enjoyment of a lovely little Spanish film called Gloria is due to the fact that I am starving for good movies. However, I'm inclined to think that it's just a really good film.

Gloria stars Paulina García, (a Chilean actress I had never heard of but whose other films I will definitely be seeking out for more of her work) as a divorced woman in late middle age who gets involved with an older man, only to find she's more mature than he is. She has grown children of her own, but they have their own lives and while she loves them, she doesn't over-nurture them. Rodolfo, however, not only coddles his grown daughters but regularly allows himself to become entangled in the constant drama of his ex-wife as well. There is push and pull between the two aging lovers, but ultimately, Gloria finds that she is the truly strong one between them and she doesn't need to be held back from enjoying her life by a man who can't take the reins in his own.

There's more to it than that, of course - plenty of great scenes I won't spoil here. Some are infuriating, some are hilarious. I will say, however, that I was most impressed by the way the film did not shy away from the sexuality of a woman in her 50s. There are some truly racy scenes here and a lot of nudity, some of it of the full-frontal variety. Yet Gloria and its titular character are sexy and superb, even with the realism of wrinkles and sagging skin. Outside of the bedroom, García portrays Gloria as vulnerable with a quiet intelligence, so many of her emotions subtly playing across her face. It's a simple film, but thought-provoking and if it seems a little slow-moving at first, it's worth sticking with for the wonderful revelations. The most important of these, of course, is the revelation that Gloria may be lonely, but she has a lot of life left ahead of her and there is still joy worth chasing.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Movie Review: Copenhagen

It's been awhile - a LONG while - since I have posted here. Here I am, though, ending my prolonged hiatus with  a movie review. Copenhagen made me want to travel, want to fall in love, and want to believe that either thing is possible. Readers can find the film on Amazon, Vudu, and YouTube's new streaming service. It's also available on Netflix, but only until Sunday.

Copenhagen is a movie about a lot of things, and most of them are love. Feature film directorial debut for Mark Raso and shot on location, Copenhagen gives audiences a glimpse of the beautiful Danish capitol city, with its colorful row houses and brick streets. It's the story of an immature young man with a chip on his shoulder, played to perfection by Gethin Anthony (who audiences will know as Renly Baratheon from HBO's Game of Thrones), who has been abandoned by his friend in his late father's childhood home of Copenhagen. In his search to find his estranged grandfather and give him a letter his dead father left behind, he finds himself falling for the wiser-than-thou teenager who has offered to help him find his way around. These kinds of inappropriate feelings between teenager and adult are likely to make some audience members uncomfortable, but it serves a purpose and is handled well within the film: Anthony's character, William needs to grow up and it takes a mature 14 year old to help him do that. Meanwhile, the scenes of their travels and blossoming friendship are like magic. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Queen Amarantha: An Otherworld Theatre Production

The last time I received free passes to see live theatre in Chicago, the play I attended was poorly thrown together with a cliché ending and unconvincing actors (the only notable player was the actor whose character turned out to be just a figment of someone else's imagination in the end). It was fun only because it was a venue I had never been to and I was there with a friend; otherwise, it was a travesty.

Therefore, I wasn't expecting much from this small theatre production when I was offered free tickets. So I was more than pleasantly surprised with the outcome: Queen Amarantha, a production of the Otherworld Theatre Company (whose website describes them as "a science fiction and fantasy theatre company"), was a triumph all around. The performance took place at the City Lit Theater and starred Moira Begale as the titular queen, who takes the throne following the death of her father but never feels like she fits in with the monarchy or in the conventional role of a woman. Instead, she likes to hunt, flirt with both men and women alike, and dress in commoner's (and men's) clothes in order to rub elbows with her people, She has a close relationship with her cousin, Roderigo, who has dreams of power without really knowing what it is.

The real peak of the story comes with the appearance of Amarantha's childhood friend, Thalia (a manic pixie nightmare of a girl, played to delirious perfection by Mary-Kate Arnold). Though Amarantha trusts her implicitly, the audience soon finds that she's got treachery in mind and at once, she sets to work to destroy the queen's reputation. In the aftermath of her friend's terrible betrayal, Amarantha flees with her lover in hopes of a different life; but while she is away, Thalia is wreaking mad havoc on the kingdom, using Roderigo as her pawn. When word reaches Amarantha, she has to choose between remaining free or taking back her kingdom, coming to her cousin's rescue, and clearing her name. I was completely enthralled by the story and the performances. And the set, though simple, was also versatile: it doubles as crumbling ruins and a lavish, shadowy throne. Meanwhile, the costumes were both extravagant and occasional props for comic relief.

Begale is compelling and believable as the tomboyish queen, and her performance never waivers. I actually recalled seeing her in a previous show, The All-American Genderf*ck Cabaret, back in 2012 at Mary's Attic, and the reason I remembered her was because she stood out as especially talented. Here, she is equally credible and I imagine her going places.

Similarly, of the remarkable cast, another stand-out performance was that of Arnold. She brings the devious Thalia to life in such a way that the character is, in equal part, charismatic and terrifying.

This show doesn't run much longer; if you get a chance to see it, don't pass it up!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Taking The Ferry Home

I first posted the following tribute to one of my very favorite books on an old book blog I attempted to run for awhile. If you Google the book, it's still one of the posts that come up on the first page of search hits. I'm re-posting it because I've been thinking a lot about younger days lately, when I was content with long stretches of time to read and write and daydream. I recently asked, on the ALA Think Tank Facebook group (i.e., the best, geekiest place to be if you're a librarian or aspiring librarian on the Internet), about other readers' favorite out-of-print books and found that I am not the only one with a literary love that no one else seems to know. Here's what I want to impart to readers about this lovely little book: 

Each summer, from the time I was 13 and into my twenties, I found myself on an island:  Dune Island, populated by the kind of people who own summer homes and the kind of people who worked for summer homeowners. It's the setting of Taking The Ferry Home by Pam Conrad, a New York-born writer. I stumbled upon the book on one of my regular trips to the library in the next town over, drawn in by its almost mysterious cover: one girl with a faraway look sits on the grass in the foreground. Another stands at a distance in the background with the skirt of her dress blowing in the wind, a pristine Cape Cod-style house and shadowy trees behind her. To my thirteen year old self, the cover echoed with loneliness. It was electric with sorrow – I could just feel it – and it struck a chord with me. I had to read it.

It begins with a girl named Alison who has elected to join her father at a cottage he's rented as a writer's getaway – he's a novelist – and on her first night, she sneaks into the neighbors' pool. It's their summer home and Alison assumes they won't be arriving until later, so she can take one quick dip. There she meets Simone, their daughter, who is “beautiful, completely beautiful, and she wasn't even nice.” Their encounter leaves Alison “choked with jealousy,” but as the story goes, the rich girl gets what she wants and what Simone wants is for she and Alison to be friends. So begins the tale of a very “fragile friendship,” as the book's bright green back-cover declares.

Simone Silver is not a one-dimensional character, though – not the prototypical rich girl in the least. In fact, when I look back at all the times I've read Taking The Ferry Home, I am struck by Simone as the character whom I feel the most compassion for and kinship with. She's many-faceted: ravishing, privileged and yet, haunted by a traumatic event from her childhood. She reads Tarot cards and makes bracelets of shells, listens to Springsteen (even now, when I hear “Dancing In The Dark,” I think of it as her song). Darkly, quietly troubled characters have often bewitched me in a way that your run-of-the-mill dysfunctional protagonist could not quite pull off. Conrad manages to create a rich, engrossing character who mostly lives in her own head (something I've been trying to manage for close to a decade to little avail). I wanted to know Simone, let her read my fortune and string up shells for me.

The water was a character all its own. It churns, black and murky, beneath the ferry that takes Ali and Simone around Dune Island. The first summer I read it, I dreamed of being on that island – that island, with all its secrets and sadness. I dreamed of water and even had a bookmark with a picture of foamy waves lapping at the sand.

For me, my real passion for books – the kind of books I read now – begins with Taking The Ferry Home. Pam Conrad died of breast cancer in 1996, at the age of 48, but this one of her many books for children and young adults transformed my life. It will always remain in my list of favorites because it's one of those that formed who I am and how I want to write. 

Perhaps another re-reading is long overdue. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

At The Speed of Light: Lesbian Speed Dating in the City...

While I had heard of speed-dating before, I had never come across lesbian speed-dating until the day that, seeing an invite on Facebook, something wild possessed me and I found myself signing up for that very thing. I still have no idea, weeks later, why I paid the nominal fee that would commit me to participating in the topsy-turvy mess that was to take place at Chicago's Center On Halsted. Immediately after purchasing my tickets, I'll admit it: I felt a little nervous. Regret kicked in as I imagined myself floundering for something to say to whomever landed in front of me. I wondered how it would be arranged and who I would meet, what I would ask and what I would say. Before worry got out of control, though, I decided to stop thinking about it. My anxious brain would only envision the worst, anyway, and I'd made a decision to approach “Women's Speed-dating” as a positive new experience.   

Later, as the date inched closer, I discovered that a friend of mine had also signed up. The fact  that I would have at least one wing-woman, of sorts, to accompany me made my plan to neither worry nor regret the choice to attend that much easier. On July 31st, I hopped the train for the Boystown neighborhood and an hour later, I was waltzing into a room full of familiar and unfamiliar faces – familiar because Chicago's gay community is a small, nearly-incestuous little world and sure enough, I'd seen some of these ladies elsewhere before.

Center On Halsted's third floor waiting area and auditorium is large enough that we could spread out and only talk to each other in our little groups, which sounds like it would defeat the purpose of going somewhere specifically to meet new people, but actually, it made easing into the setting much smoother. My friend, L* and I gave the woman at the front our names and she gave us our numbers and our drink tickets, one each. Let me tell you, that drink was a godsend! L and I laughed at our awkwardness, drank our drinks and then laughed in the face of our awkwardness! People we already knew walked by and said hello, and then, time had passed and we were suddenly seated at a long table with strangers sitting across from us.

It began a bit awkwardly, and not just because I am awkward. In the role of hostess (or in this case, hostesses) were the ladies of a local comedy troupe, and they each performed a short stand-up routine before calling the event to order and attempting to explain the way things would work. It all seemed simple enough. We would talk to the person in front of us until one of the emcees called time and then we would all move to the left to talk to...the exact same person?

 One of my fellow participants raised her hand and one by one, questions arose and were answered -- but it all seemed very trial-and-error, as if even the hostesses were sort of making it up as they went along. That was okay, though, because they did eventually figure it out: only one side would move while the other remained stationary. But wait! Then people wanted to know how they would go about meeting someone in their own line, whichever side of the table they were on. "That's what the mingling session is for," the emcee announced. Fair enough, I guess, except the reason many of us came -- or rather, as I can only speak for myself, one of the reasons that speed-dating seemed like a cool idea to me was that I wasn't sure I could ever approach someone I didn't know without going utterly blank and forgetting to breathe. "Mingling" would require me to approach someone...if I wanted to meet her. It seemed like an oversight to me to not consider the socially anxious demographic, but it seemed like a small price to pay for the rules to be clearer and the "dating" to commence.

And so it did -- begin, that is. From that point on, with the exception of one other stop-and-start-again succession to clear up what the signal for "time to play musical dates" would be (in this case, the lights being dimmed was our cue to wrap it up and move on), the next 45 minutes (give or take) was spent with a new woman every two minutes. As anticipated, I found that my own difficulty lay in thinking of what to say on the spot. But there was no time to dwell on what thoughts I floundered with on the tip of my tongue -- and eventually, I found myself just jumping into a couple of regular questions: "What brings you here?" "Have you ever done something like this before?" or glancing down at the question suggestions placed at each seat: "If you were a super-hero, who would you be?" 

When it was all over and time for the "mingle" session, I went back to hanging out with the people I knew. I wasn't the only one. Many people seemed to gather into their same clusters. As for choosing which "dates" you would like to spend more time with, it wasn't as private as I had hoped it would be. Each lady had a number and each number, a corresponding envelope that sat along a table in the hall. If you liked someone, you could leave them a note in their envelope. But with everyone hanging around the envelope table, I felt a little exposed -- especially when someone I was leaving a note for came around the corner just as I was about to slip it into her envelope, which I proceeded to do anyway, but quickly, flustered and blushing like one does. I've read about other speed-dating events that allowed you to go online later and leave messages or choose the numbers or names you like via a web-survey, which the organizers would then use to potentially match people. If A liked B and B liked A, it would be a match and they would both be notified, but not if B liked A but A liked C, instead. Something like that -- but I suppose every event is different. 

Nevertheless, it was an interesting experience and maybe, with the promise of clearer instructions and a more private matching system, I would even do it again. During the mingling session, I even made a couple of new acquaintances who could potentially become friends. That alone is worth the price of admission.

A couple of other notes on the evening's pitfalls: With everyone sitting along the same table, close together and  in an enclosed space, the conversations ended up overlapping and the effect was that it sounded like a middle school cafeteria or a crowded nightclub, with us shouting our questions at each other and struggling to hear the answers. And finally, not really a con (but definitely not a pro): as my friend and I got into the elevator to leave the Center and the whole speed-dating shenanigan behind, one of the women I had left a message for got on the elevator...with another very bold woman from the event, who was already practically nibbling on and whispering in her ear. Um...awkward! Oh well. All in all, a multi-faceted experience that, in the end, makes for a good story. And that's really all I needed.