Jan 27 2010

All My Sins Remembered

Whenever I was sick enough to stay home from school, my mom would make me stay in bed all day. I used to take that opportunity to read through a pile of torn-up old 60s era comic books my uncle had left for us. Since that time, sick days (when I haven’t been delirious with fever) have been perfect for reading. Today was no different. After three days of fever, cold sweats, sleeplessness, coughing, sneezing, congestion, and chest aches, I started and finished Joe Haldeman‘s 1977 book “All My Sins Remembered“. This happens to be the second Haldeman book I’ve read within the last year, the first being “The Forever War”. Both books struck the same chord in that having finished them, I had no clear idea how I feel about them. I liked them both, and yet…

“All My Sins Remembered” is about a self-avowed “Anglo-Buddhist” named Otto McGavin who is programmed to be a secret agent and undergoes a lifetime of multiple personality overlays and physical alterations for a secret organization known only as TBII (the initials are never explained). The book covers three of his life’s 35 missions and the terrible things his programming has enabled him to do. We’ve read (or more likely “seen”) plenty of stories about implanted memories and talents: 1969’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (Dick), 1987’s “When Gravity Fails” (Effinger), 1999’s “The Matrix” (Wachowski(s)), etc. All told, this one doesn’t stand out too far from the crowd. The story explores how the main character deals with the suppression of his own personality at the expense of his repeated missions, but you seldom get a sense of the underlying struggle (until the end). This is probably because parts of the book first appeared separately in Sci-Fi magazines in 1971, 1974, and 1977. While the alien worlds, cultures, and antagonists are interesting throughout, I wanted to care more about the main character. Upon finishing, I was left with an interesting story filled with interesting ideas tied together with a good ending and wondering why it wasn’t enough.

“Cold-blooded murderer of children, for hire. Well, maybe he had a good side. Kind to snakes or something.”

3.5 out of 5


Jan 23 2010

In Cold Blood

While waiting for a call from the garage on the status of my Jeep, I finished the last pages of Truman Capote’s 1966 novel, “In Cold Blood“. The story was published the year before in the New Yorker, a magazine for people that can make it through 1000s of words of literary self-masturbation without falling dead asleep. I need purpose in the poems and stories that I read. I can’t stand wading through a traffic-jam of words only to find that the words themselves were the only purpose for the piece. Capote wrote for the New Yorker long before I ever picked-up a copy (and fell asleep on the toilet) and delivers from the very beginning. Four shotgun blasts ring out on page three. The rest of the book tries to explain why.

“In Cold Blood” is a collection of many stories woven together, each stemming from the interviews of those affected by the 1959 quadruple murder. Truman Capote and Harper Lee (of “To Kill a Mockingbird” fame) traveled to west Kansas to write an article on the Clutter family murders prior to the identification and capture of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. The book outlines their subsequent incarcerations, trials, and sentencing. What sets this book apart is that Capote interviewed the murderers and was able to reconstruct their lives leading up to the night of November 15th and give insight into the minds of the condemned.

An interesting addendum to “In Cold Blood” are the criticisms of it. While the book has been lauded as a pioneer of True Crime stories, many have questioned the book’s veracity. Capote did not take notes or recordings during his interviews in Kansas, preferring instead to write quotes and summaries afterward (he claimed “over 90%” retention). There is also the question of whether Perry and Dick were in a homosexual relationship (some have suggested that Dick’s intentions to rape Nancy Clutter may have angered Perry and sparked the murders). Capote, a liberated homosexual himself, never addressed this in the book. His sympathetic handling of Perry’s character however has led some to believe that he developed a “fondness” for the young man awaiting the gallows. While these criticisms might pitch the balance from non-fiction to fiction, they do nothing to detract from the storytelling itself. A compelling book from start to finish.

“Then it was real quiet again. Except that dog. Old Andy, he danced a long time. They must have had a real mess to clean up…” “…The fact is, his heart kept beating for nineteen minutes.”

4 out of 5


Jan 12 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Last night (at the request of a friend), I went to see Terry Gilliam‘s new movie, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2010). This movie will be long remembered as the last project that the late Heath Ledger worked on before his death by “accidental” prescription drug overdose. He actually died during the making of the movie, so some of his parts had to be completed by Johnny Depp, Jude Law (who I enjoyed in “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004)), and Colin Farrel (who I liked in “In Bruges” (2008), and that’s about it). If it wasn’t for the tragedy and collaboration that followed, I think the movie would be shortly forgotten. As it is, it will probably be remembered only on Trivial Pursuit cards as: “What was Heath Ledger’s last movie?” to which everyone will answer, “Didn’t he play the Joker in The Dark Knight?” Do you see how I’m using my review to talk about other movies? Yeah, I just noticed that too…

About the movie. Ummm… What does it mean if I’m not sure what the movie is about? Let’s recap. Doctor Parnassus is an old man (like, Methuselah old) and rides around modern-day London with a small troupe of misfits putting on a sideshow. The sideshow isn’t particularly compelling, so most people just blow them off as kooks. Anyone who does accept an invite onto the stage is directed through a flimsy stage mirror and deposited into a fantastical world stemming from their imagination. The portal only works while Doctor Parnassus (an ancient monk) is on stage (or nearby) in a trance. Once in the fantasy world, the visitors are somehow “reborn” by this experience, exit the mirror on a giant swing, and happily give all their possessions to the traveling troupe. While all this is going on, Doctor Parnassus is trying to make good on a bargain he made with the Devil (played wonderfully by Tom Waits), who wants to claim his Betty Boop look-alike daughter Valentina upon her 16th birthday. That’s the set-up and we haven’t even got to Heath Ledger’s part… *deep breath* Heath’s character is initially an amnesiac that the troupe rescues from a hanging who (come to find out) is a great salesman, and is fine with being hanged so long as he’s swallowed a fife beforehand. He helps lure unsuspecting women onto stage to help Parnassus claim five souls per the bargain with the Devil. I think the only thing that Imaginarium and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988) offer are evidence that Terry Gilliam has far better drugs than the rest of us. Did I mention that the movie includes dwarf-actor Verne Troyer dressed in a monkey outfit, talking smack about midgets?!

The Imaginarium is in many ways like the freak show it portrays. You’re drawn in by beautifully painted panels and tapestries, promises of mystery and magic (or a friend who really, really wants to see the movie), and you leave feeling like you’re $10.50 poorer with nothing to show for it.

“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night.”  – Edgar Allan Poe, because the movie wasn’t particularly quote-worthy

2 out of 5


Jan 1 2010

Avatar

AvatarWhen I was a kid, my father took us to see a movie called “Star Wars” (1977).  This was before it was renamed “…A New Hope” and re-imagined (Han shot first!) as part of a larger work. I remember being awestruck by the movie’s effects, everything from the light-sabers to the first time the rebel fighters opened their wings. Great movie. Years later, I had a similar experience with “Toy Story” (1995) and was amazed at what could be done with computer animation. Another great movie. Last Saturday, we went to see James Cameron’s new 3D movie “Avatar” (it’s funny how I can’t find time to write this stuff while on vacation). Here again is another benchmark movie. While Avatar does not deliver on the 3D holographic immersion long dreamed-of by movie-goers (it has always been just 10 years away), it is a definite step in the right direction.

Equipped with clunky polarized glasses, the audience is treated to the Roger Dean-esque 3D bioluminescent world of Pandora and its New Age eco-sensitive Blue Man Group aboriginals, the Na’vi. The parallels between the Na’vi and American Indians cannot be a mistake. Here we have a 10-foot extraterrestrial race that embodies everything that modern-day Indians tell us about themselves: one with the land, peaceful co-existence between tribes, etc. None of which is true, but it makes for good storytelling. The movie opens with a human corporation preparing to open Pandora’s Box by mining Na’vi sacred sites for a material dubbed Unobtanium (lame, lame, lame). The stone-age natives know something is up, but don’t realize the full breadth of their troubles until the Na’vi avatar of Sam Worthington (i.e., Jake Sully) shows them the light, wins the heart of Pocahontas (i.e., Neytiri), and leads the rebellion against the evil Earthers (all of which can be gleaned from the trailers). Comparisons of Avatar to “Dances With Wolves” (1990) are not off-the-mark. Despite its damning thematic proximity to the spirit of Kevin Costner, the movie is actually worth seeing (if only for the effects).

“Just relax and let your mind go blank. That shouldn’t be too hard for you.” – Dr. Grace Augustine to Jake Sully

4 out of 5