Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

AGE OF THE DRAGONS (2011)

I can’t speak for every dude who writes about movies on the internet, but as for me, it’s not like I don’t have any options at all as to how to spend my free time. Sure, I fit the stereotype of single and brainy, but I also bring plenty to the dating pool. I’m generally considered to be sweet, thoughtful, loyal, and giving. Most people find me funny. I’m certainly presentable, even considered outright attractive from some angles. I’m currently regularly-employed and employable. I’m terrific with kids and I’ll make a great father one day. Animals also love me (though not always cats). The ladies reading this may be asking, What’s the downside?

Well ladies, the answer may be that I’m addicted to movies. Addicted. Big-time. I don’t know why, but I can’t go more than a day without one. And there’s only so many times you can watch GOODFELLAS or PULP FICTION or BOOGIE NIGHTS or whatever finite number of acceptable classics that normal guys my age watch, before you start sniffing around the outskirts of what’s out there in the great beyond, movie-wise. Sometimes that search can result in a great discovery, and most other times it doesn’t.

When I saw a preview somewhere for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, I knew I was in trouble. Somebody made a version of MOBY DICK starring PREDATOR 2‘s Danny Glover as Melville’s Captain Ahab, in the relentless and dangerous pursuit, not of a great white whale, no, but instead, of a great white dragon.

Aw hell.

I’m gonna have to watch that.

RIGGS!

MOBY DICK is often cited as The Great American Novel. Every author is out there trying to write one, but Herman Melville did it almost two hundred years ago. The book is its own Great White Whale. It has influenced countless writers and their works, been adapted to film multiple times, and has many obvious and less obvious descendents in movies such as JAWS and ALIENS. MOBY DICK is so many things — a historical document detailing the whaling industry of its era, a lierary allegory, a character study of obsession and madness, a rousing adventure tale… It’s really good! You should read it.

For a book of more than six hundred pages, the main plot of MOBY DICK is perfectly simple: A young sailor named Ishmael and his friend Queequeg, an intimidating foreigner, get a job on a whaling ship called the Pequod. They meet the first, second, and third mates on the ship — Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, respectively — but it’s a while before they meet the ship’s captain. When he arrives, he basically takes over the book. Ahab is a vengeful Quaker (which is an oxymoron, for the record) out to destroy the white whale who, in an earlier encounter, scarred him and took his leg. The only question is how many of the crew members will survive his deranged quest.

I love this story — it kind of has an elemental appeal to me at my center. It’s based on a true story! I love stories about sea monsters. As a kid my family took summer vacations to some of the areas described in the book. I grew up obsessed with the whale at the Museum Of Natural History in New York. And technically I’m half Quaker, so I even get that part of it. All of this is a run-up to say that I have more than a passing familiarity with the source material for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, which is why I found it to be even more of a bizarre anomaly than I figured it was going to be.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is so remarkably bizarre precisely because of its fidelity to MOBY DICK. There is no question that the people who made AGE OF THE DRAGONS have read MOBY DICK, which is both what makes it strangely admirable and what makes it so weird. Let’s look at some of the similarities and the differences.

Well, besides, the obvious.

MOBY DICK.

MOBY DICK is about a large angry whale.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is about a fire-breathing dragon.

In AGE OF THE DRAGONS, the action is shifted from sea to land. The dragons can fly, but the men who hunt for them travel on land. (Sky-boats would have been a little too crazy. Duh.) Still, their choice of vehicle is in fact a boat.

Boat.

The boat does have wheels, so I guess that makes sense, and the terrain they cover is generally coated with blankets of snow, so technically the boat is travelling over expanses of water, but again, let’s not mince words here: This is fucking weird. I mean, if you want to get all film school on it, you could possibly attribute the snow boat to being an extended reference both obliquely and literally to Werner Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO, another story of mad obsession, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fucking snow boat in a dragon-hunting movie.

Not only that, but the winter is apparently one of the utmost extremes, so you know what that means….

Ahab Snow Ninja

!!!SNOW NINJAS!!!

Snow Ninjas.

At every moment where I got anywhere near taking this movie seriously, somebody would show up dressed like a snow ninja and I’d have to chuckle. Which is totally fine. There isn’t anything at all wrong, from where I’m sitting, with a movie about dragon-fighting snow ninjas. But if you’re going to make a movie like that, you ought to have a sense of humor, and AGE OF THE DRAGONS is played for straights. It’s pretty dour and grim, missing the fact that Herman Melville had a satirical eye, having penned lines for MOBY DICK like “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

But I guess the makers of AGE OF THE DRAGONS figured, if they were going to take the sense of humor out of MOBY DICK, they’d better put something else in, and what they settled on was — you guessed it — a pretty girl. Her name is Rachel, which, despite there being no character like her in MOBY DICK, actually does mean something in reference to the novel. (I think the Rachel is the name of one of the boats.) Here the character is Ahab’s daughter, who he took in after her family was killed by dragons. Ishmael takes a shine to her, I guess because she’s a better bunkmate than Queequeg, which Ahab doesn’t like but what did he think was gonna happen, really. The actress doesn’t resemble Danny Glover much, which I guess is a virtue because let’s face it, she’s only really in the movie for stuff like this:

Girl.

Outside of Danny Glover, there’s no one in this movie you’ve heard of before, except for Vinnie Jones. My British friends know Vinnie Jones from his soccer — sorry: football — career, and my American friends know him from SMOKIN’ ACES 2, X-MEN 3, and GARFIELD: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES. He plays Stubb in this movie, but not for long. A dragon breathes on him and he turns into a pile of dust. Sorry if that’s a spoiler. I don’t think anything like that happened in the Melville text, but I guess they only had Vinnie Jones budgeted for a couple days on this shoot. It doesn’t feel like an organic storytelling decision, is what I’m implying.

Vinnie.

Anyway the main reason I wanted to see this movie was to see Danny Glover acting weird and talking a lot about dragons, and in this respect I did not walk away disappointed. Basically Danny Glover hates dragons because when he was a young Danny Glover, he and his sister were walking through the woods and a dragon showed up. The dragon turned his sister into a pile of ashes like it did to Vinnie Jones, and it also burned Danny Glover up pretty bad, to the point where he can’t go out in direct sunlight. On one hand that’s a bummer, but on the other hand….

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

As I was watching this movie, which has a lot of dull parts — really too many, for a movie that has dragons and Danny Glover dressed like a G.I. Joe character — I gave a lot of thought to Danny Glover, who is an actor I have a ton of affection for, but who has been really under-served by the movies, I think. He’s definitely a guy who has “important actor” status, but who hasn’t been in as many great things as he should or maybe could be.

Danny Glover High Points:

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (Clint)

WITNESS (a rare villainous turn)

THE COLOR PURPLE (probably, I haven’t seen it)

LETHAL WEAPON (obviously)

A RAISIN IN THE SUN (Bill Duke version)

LONESOME DOVE

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER

THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS (funniest part of the movie)

DREAMGIRLS

Personally, I liked SILVERADO, PREDATOR 2, PURE LUCK, and BE KIND REWIND also, but I don’t know if those roles necessarily go on the highlight reel. (PURE LUCK is pretty bad, actually, but it’s a Martin Short movie, so.)

I guess the point I’m making is, for such a prestigious actor, there sure are a ton of movies like OPERATION DUMBO DROP, GONE FISHIN’, LETHAL WEAPON 4, and SAW, on that resume, which also includes an unfair amount of shitty TV shows. Of course Danny Glover has been in some great stuff, but not enough. He needs some Fincher or Mann or Spike or Spielberg in his future. I mean, of course I enjoyed seeing him like this —

Riggs!

— but there aren’t too many of me. I’m a guy who will spend this much time thinking about a version of MOBY DICK that has dragons: Through me does not necessarily pass the road towards Oscars and widespread critical acclaim. And even with that said, I’d probably rather see a sincere version of MOBY DICK than a silly one which I can only watch in the middle of the night when there’s no female presence around to stop me. There’s no reason why Danny Glover couldn’t be given a movie where he can play Captain Ahab for real. He shouldn’t be stuck playing some weird groaning Gollum-esque character lurching around in a cave in Utah at computer-animated dragons.

Seriously, you should see the part when he fights the great white dragon at the end and gets his leg caught in the harpoon — if only for a textbook definition of anti-climax. I mean, I haven’t said much about the effects of the movie: The production value is actually rather good — I liked the sets and the costumes and even a couple of the scenes of the dragons. The actors all take it as seriously as they’re asked to, and the music by J Bateman (either Jason or Justine, I’m not sure which) is better than average for a movie of this type.

But the movie’s pace is slack and all the good dragon bits all happen early on — it’s like the production blew their dragon wad early, and like a bad lover with no follow-through, skimped on the effects in the final scenes. Even Danny Glover turns into computer animation, a cluster of pixels being dragged away on the tail of a fake monster. If it wasn’t enough that he was asked to overact through the entire movie, he doesn’t even get to leave it with any dignity.

So AGE OF THE DRAGONS, sadly, probably not a thing I can recommend. But at least I learned a thing or two about myself.

I learned that all you have to do is say the word “dragons” and I will watch your movie. It’s a foolproof method of advertising. Everyone and their grandma use more common sales pitches such as “boobs” “monkeys” and “explosions” to lure me in, but not everyone promises “dragons” and that brings my eyes over, every time.

The other thing I learned is that if I had any brains at all, I would have just watched JAWS for the 57th time. So maybe strike “brainy” from that list of datable qualities I listed up top in reference to myself.

@jonnyabomb

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In the realm of faceless people writing about movies from the safety of the internet, I like to think I’m one of the more reasonable you’ll find. But I could be wrong. (See?) It’s a point that’s come up before, but it bears repeating: Unlike most people who write about movies online, I’ve spent A LOT of time working in all corners of the film and television industries in virtually every position there is. I know well how hard people work, around the clock, to bring every show to an audience. I try not to take that hard-earned knowledge lightly. Besides, I have friends who still work in film and TV, and I’m not even all the way out myself. I try mighty hard not to put anything on a computer screen that I don’t feel ready to say to someone’s face. On top of all of that, I grew up with movies. I love this stuff as much now as I did when I was young — if not more. It doesn’t make me happy to be unkind. I’m in this to share my enthusiasm, plain and simple.

All of that said, and try as I might, it’s way harder to find new ways to be nice. It’s certainly harder to be funny that way. And sometimes, a movie is put in front of me about which I just can’t find much nice to say and still remain honest.

These are the movies that forced me to be unkind.

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There will be a particular breed of smartass who chooses to refer to Tim Burton’s new Alice In Wonderland project as “Tim Burton’s Avatar.”

A different breed of smartass may prefer to think of it as “Tim Burton’s Lord Of The Rings.”

Personally, I happen to be both kinds of smartass.

It’s reminiscent of Avatar because it’s longer than it needs to be, because there are dragons flying around all over the place, because there are weird computer-generated forests, and because the 3-D element is still new enough to make it feel like an event, which has led huge audiences to happily overlook its story flaws. (Avatar is a much better movie, for the record.)

It’s reminiscent of Lord Of The Rings because it’s longer than it needs to be, because characters who look ridiculous in body armor are forced to wear body armor, because it has charmingly pudgy little men skipping through scenes, because the great Christopher Lee plays a villain (even if he only gets one line, in voiceover, here) and because there are more walking scenes in it than there are in the average episode of Lost.

It’s a little disappointing that my smartass tendencies were roused by Alice In Wonderland, because Tim Burton’s movies generally dispel cynicism and invite enthusiasm, particularly from a daydreaming wackadoo like me. Tim Burton’s movies imagine worlds of darkness which are always strangely populated by optimism. Tim Burton is one of my very favorite directors and there are no shortage of proclamations to that effect all across the internet, but the main reason is that his movies celebrate all the things I’ve always been most captivated by: Skeletons, shadows, monsters, ghosts, freaks, aliens, pretty girls, old horror movies, heroic acts of stupidity, stupid acts of heroism, love, death, and monkeys.

Alice In Wonderland has a couple of those things, but not many of them, and while it wouldn’t be accurate to say that he has been sticking to re-envisioning exisiting properties of late (he’s always done that – only a fraction of his movies began from his own original concepts), it could fairly be argued that Tim Burton as a ‘cover artist’ is getting somewhat stale. For one thing, Alice In Wonderland as source material isn’t really a good match for Burton’s sensibilities. The original Lewis Carroll stories and most of the subsequent interpretations are all about maddening nonsense, verging on insanity. They’re somewhat nightmarish, honestly. By story’s end, Alice wants to get the fuck out of Wonderland. In contrast, Burton’s best movies have a playful sense of fun that you’d love to visit, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.

Beyond the mismatch of filmmaker to material, there are problems with the new Alice In Wonderland movie. To begin with, the script credited to Linda Woolverton is a mess. The story is nonsense, and not in that compelling, affecting, memorable Lewis Carroll spirit of nonsense. Just try to describe the plot of the finished movie in any coherent way. Can’t be done! The script tries to weld a heroic, Lord Of The Rings type of fantasy structure onto the original story and it just doesn’t work. Johnny Depp, as the Mad Hatter, has some fun and is fun to watch as usual, but his role, beefed up and altered from the original stories, is more noble warrior than infuriating troublemaker. That’s not just disloyal to the original story; it’s boring. The most memorable thing Depp gets to do as the Mad Hatter is breakdance at the end, and that’s more because it’s incongruous and bizarre than enjoyable. Depp is one of the great impish rogues of the modern cinematic age, but he’s confined by weak dialogue, off-putting make-up, and an ill-defined role here.

With a couple exceptions, the rest of the cast is similarly ill-served. The great weirdo Crispin Glover is wasted in a humorless villain role. Anne Hathaway, as the White Queen, gives a wispy performance lighter than air, which drifts from the memory as soon as she steps off-screen. Maybe one of the movie’s biggest problems is that its Alice isn’t particularly interesting to watch. I don’t know the actress Mia Wasikowska from anything else – it’s possible she’s a very lively actress elsewhere, but I wasn’t interested in her at all here, and I didn’t think she brought anything that hundreds of other girls could do just as effectively. The cinematography, by the otherwise fantastic Dariusz Wolski, is uncharacteristically dingy and unpleasant, and the 3D element is totally useless.

To me, a Tim Burton movie is never less than watchable, although this one comes closer than any before. What turned me off is that it’s unrelentingly grim, which isn’t what I expect or need from a Tim Burton film. There was enough that I enjoyed to make the time spent feel worthwhile – I loved the freakish character design and execution of The Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee & Tweedledum. Those characters in particular, and Helena Bonham Carter’s giant head, were fairly awesome. Alan Rickman, as The Caterpillar, is always a welcome presence, on camera or in voice alone. And I liked the dragon, but I’m notoriously easy to please that way. Still, it wasn’t the most impressive dragon I’ve ever seen, to say the least.

Long story short, I’m very glad to see that Burton’s next project is a feature-length retelling of his early Disney short, Frankenweenie. It may be another retelling of a pre-existing property, but at least it’s one of his own! What the world needs right now is not Tim Burton, big-budget interpreter. The world needs Tim Burton, modern-day imagineer.

Disagree somehow? Hit me here: @jonnyabomb

True Grit was my favorite movie of 2010.  There wasn’t much hesitation there.  I saw it and I made that decision right quick.  Normally there’s a fair amount more deliberation in my mind over such declarations, but movies so impeccably mounted and  raucously enjoyable on a simultaneous basis are rare enough that it gave me the instant courage to say so.  I admit it’s a tenuous climb out on a slender limb to advocate for the greatness of a Coen Brothers movie, but that’s just me.  I take the big risks. 

In True Grit, the great Jeff Bridges plays Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a grouchy slob of a drunk with an eyepatch over one eye and a burning enthusiasm for frontier justice in the other.  True Grit was originally a novel by Charles Portis, and then it was a movie in 1969, in the cool-down phase of John Wayne’s long career.  I regret to admit that I haven’t seen that earlier movie, but I have read the book so I can tell you that the Coen Brothers’ rendition is eminently faithful to Portis in both spirit and text.

True Grit is the closest we’ve come so far to a mainstream, crowd-pleasing Coen Brothers movie.  It has all the virtues and eccentricities and technical brilliance that the Coens have taught us to expect from them, but it also is just a bit more conventional than usual.  The heroes are actually heroic, for one thing.  There’s the aforementioned Jeff Bridges, as charismatic and ingratiating as ever, even when he’s playing a character that often looks as lousy as he often acts.  There’s Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef”), the uptight lawman who ends up as a reluctant teammate.   Matt Damon is hilarious in this movie, toning down his impeccable way of making an audience believe he can do anything, until he appears to be a total dunce, only to end up surprising you all over again.

But before these two guys enter into the story, and after they leave it too, there’s Mattie Ross, played by the young Hailee Steinfeld.  Mattie’s father was killed by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and she wants him brought to justice. She hires Marshall Cogburn, because she’s heard he has “true grit,” and insists that she get to accompany him in the pursuit.  (For a pre-adolescent in a man’s belchy, farty world, she’s ridiculously, brilliantly persuasive.)  LaBoeuf, already in pursuit of Chaney across state lines, joins them.  Nobody gets along. 

The confrontational banter between the three main characters is some of the most pure joy that movies can provide.  Obviously the Coens provide some of the most distinct and musical dialogue of any writers around, but it should be said that a lot of the dialogue in this film comes directly from Portis’ novel.  The Coens, as one of the most unique filmmaking forces to emerge from America in the past thirty years, aren’t exactly known for their skillful facility with adaptations, but they should be — it is a part of their resume.  Their planned adaptations of James Dickey’s To The White Sea and Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre have yet to be realized, but of course they reached new heights with their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.  They also know their detective fiction; as their debut, Blood Simple, referenced the work of Dashiell Hammett, and their most popular movie, The Big Lebowski, is essentially a take-off of The Big Sleep, originally a Raymond Chandler novel.  The Coens know how to enliven the work and the influence of others while bringing their own individualistic stamp to it.  They know their pulp literature and they know their film history, and they bring all of it to bear in True Grit.

Did someone say “bear”?

Bear!

Yeah, there’s a lot of humor in True Grit, both ridiculous and profound.  The trailers and promotional materials have emphasized the pure badass-ness of the movie – and that’s there, no mistake – but it’s a wonderful surprise to discover how hysterical it is.  It’s funny even in its most tragic moments, just like real life.  There’s a black humor and a sharp tang to the unsentimental nature of the movie, and it’s totally refreshing to experience, particularly at a time of year that can either go too sweet or too sour.  The tone of True Grit isn’t too treacly and it isn’t too harsh.  It’s just right.  (There goes that bear reference again…)

True Grit is really kind of perfect, from the imagery captured by the legendary Roger Deakins, to the wonderful score by underrated Coen regular Carter Burwell, to the two memorably uglied-up and weirdly compelling villains of the piece, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned.  It should get repetitive to note how dependably watchable Matt Damon and the Coens are, but it really doesn’t.  They’re that good.  Everyone involved in this project is working at the peak of their respective craft. 

But in the end, if there’s a defining feature of this movie, it will be that unusual, indelible relationship between the two riding companions, Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, and there are no two more ideal actors on the planet (or in the throughways of time and space) to play them than Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld.  There’s something both truly real-world relatable and movie-perfect that happens in the alchemy of casting and characters here.  The magic that occurs between the two of them make True Grit something truly special, even by the absurdly high standards that the Coen Brothers have set for themselves and for the rest of us. 

@jonnyabomb.

True Grit is now playing at MoMA, since it has been officially added to their library of notable and classic films.

  

  

As something are a bonus, here are some random thoughts and observations that passed through my head as I watched True Grit on subsequent occasions and couldn’t settle on how to edit into my main review:

  • One thing that cracks me up is that this is the Coens’ idea of a kids’ movie (*).  I completely approve, don’t get me wrong, but it brings to mind the notion of a Clint Eastwood Preparatory School For Girls.  (Actually, that very thing happened once, in The Beguiled, and it didn’t work out too well for anyone.)

 

  • True Grit is as close as the Coens will probably ever get to convention, but it’s still as unusually wonderful as any of their original creations.  It is, actually, aside from all the talk of killing, not unsuitable for younger folks.  There’s a keen moral streak running through this movie, distinctly and typically contradictingly American.  And it’s an absolute celebration of language.

 

  • Between the first and second times I saw the movie, I read the original novel by Charles Portis.  It’s striking to see how closely the Coens stuck to the original text in their adaptation.  Some of the stuff you’d swear they invented were already there, although some, like the bear suit guy and the hanging man, were Coen additions.  Much of the dialogue is spoken verbatim from the book, and how wonderful that is.

 

  • Mattie doesn’t shed a tear when presented with her father’s dead body.  She doesn’t shed a tear, until later on, when she’s handed his gun.  Then the water trickles down.  This is a distinctly American touch.

 

  • In both the book and the film, the major setpieces are more often structured around language than incident.  (The haggling over horses, the courtroom scene, the campfire scenes, etc.)  In other words, the conversations are as important and as thrilling, if not moreso, than the shootouts.

 

  • J.K. Simmons vocal cameo as Lawyer Daggett!  (Daggett is a  character with slightly more of a presence in the Portis book.)

 

 

  • The climactic snakepit scene is very strongly foreshadowed, the closer you watch the movie.

 

  • Barry Pepper (as the badman Lucky Ned) is such a great, unfairly-unheralded actor.  Just always good.

 

  • The guy who makes all those crazy animal sounds, believe it or not, is in the book.  The Coens didn’t make him up, although I would’ve sworn to it.

 

  • Tom Chaney turns out to be exactly the way Mattie had him pegged, a wretch and a whiner.  Dumb: “I must think on my situation and how I may improve it.”  And mopily repetitive:  “Everything is against me.”  (Pretty cool of leading-man-type Josh Brolin to be willing to play such a lame-ass.)

 

  • Speaking of which, again I say, how ridiculously consistent is Matt Damon?  Does that dude have to be so good at everything?  Obviously Jeff Bridges and little Hailee Steinfeld are totally incredible in this movie, but don’t take what Matt Damon does here for granted.   He lets himself be the butt of the joke, almost until you forget that he isn’t.  So well done, this supporting act.

 

  • The valiant end of Mattie’s horse just guts me, every single time.

 

  • In fact, the end of the movie is so damn sad.  Bittersweet, I guess, but seeing as it’s about how quick life can go, even leavened with humor and optimism as it is, that’s a sad topic.

 

  • Some of the all-time great lines in literature are in this movie:

“Fill your hand, you sonuvabitch!”  [Bridges’ reading trounces Wayne’s, I venture to say.]

“The love of decency does not abide in you.”

“I’ve grown old.” [Best part is the Chewbacca sigh that Bridges does right after he says it.]

“Time just gets away from us.”

“This is like women talking.”

The last one is how I plan to end most of my conversations from now on, by the way.

This is like women talking.  Just watch this movie already.

David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens with an intense, aggressive, dynamic, pansexual, twisted credit sequence.  It’s a series of appealingly grotesque images; inky silhouette figures mixing and morphing and blending into each other, scored to the wild industrial howl of Karen O and Trent Reznor’s urgent cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”  Check it out:

This credit sequence is disturbing and exciting and in my opinion the only thing to match it in the nearly-three-hour film that follows is Rooney Mara’s ferocious, revelatory performance.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is based on a lengthy novel by Swedish muckraker-turned-fictioneer Stieg Larsson, who famously died before seeing the international phenomenon that became his posthumously-released trilogy of mysteries featuring the now-famous team of disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist and disturbed hacker prodigy Lisbeth Salander.  The books were turned into a successful series of films in Larsson’s native Sweden, with the role of Lisbeth Salander going to a woman named Noomi Rapace who will soon be seen in the lead role in Ridley Scott’s PrometheusI haven’t seen any of the Swedish Salander films, but I’ve read the first book, and that’s where I was coming from when I saw the high-profile American version last winter.  I was excited when I heard David Fincher was directing from a Steven Zaillian script, although I had a nagging sense of disappointment that such a uniquely talented director was covering such well-trod ground.  And I don’t like it when my misgivings are proved correct.

To be fair to Fincher’s movie, the problems I have with Dragon Tattoo the movie are the same problems I have with Dragon Tattoo the book.   So we’re not here all day, I’ll just list the prime notions of debate:

1)  There’s not enough story here to justify the movie’s length.  The book is 480 pages.  The movie is 158 minutes, well over two-and-a-half hours.  There’s not quite as much Swedish politics and magazine publishing day-to-day and white-collar crime and expansive geneology in the movie as in the book, but there’s still plenty more than any one movie needs.  Good drama is about incident, not details, and with respect, Larsson’s work was far stronger on the latter than the former.  Which ties into the second point.

2)  There’s plenty of atmosphere, but not that much mystery.  This is a testament to the cinematic mastery of Fincher.  The man is incapable of shooting a movie that looks and feels anything less than impeccable, precisely-mounted, and absorbing.  He makes movies that look better than most movies, yet his images have texture and mood and momentum, all of which make his films feel weightier and realer than just a moving coffee table book of pretty photography.  But all the grace in the world can’t lift a story that is lacking.  Dragon Tattoo is a mystery at its core — Blomkvist and Salander are hired to investigate a decades-old cold case involving the disappearance of the niece, Harriet, of the mega-wealthy Henrik Vanger (played by the formidable Christopher Plummer.)  It’s an Agatha Christie whodunit, a parlor mystery.  But rarely in a film of this pedigree (and length) is the list of suspects so limited.  Was it Henrik’s nephew, Harriet’s brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgard)?  Was it Dirch Frode, Henrik’s attorney (Steven Berkhoff)?  Was it Henrik himself?  It’s fairly obvious in the book and it’s very obvious in the movie.  Casting, baby, casting.  Anyone who’s seen a few movies before will quickly pick out the bad guy — which isn’t necessarily a problem, if the story hadn’t spent so much time building to the monumental — and in fact, anti-climactic — reveal.

3)  It’s ironic that Daniel Craig plays the role of Blomkvist, since, like James Bond, Blomkvist manages to bed just about every female character in the story.  (The movie actually does the service of removing one of the love affairs from the novel.)  In the book, since Blomkvist is a crusading journalist like Larsson was in real life, this romantic track record reads like wish fulfillment on the part of the author.  In the movie, it’s troubling in a different way.

As in the novel, Blomkvist and Salander become romantically involved.  In both the novel and the film, this feels false.  Salander is a troubled victim of sexual abuses whose mutable sexuality sees her at an early point in the story having a fling with another young woman.  The fact that Salander isn’t resolutely a lesbian does make her interesting, but the fact that she quickly hooks up with the traditional male hero figure makes her far less so.  As dreamy as Daniel Craig may be, and as altruistic and intelligent as Blomkvist is meant to be, it’s difficult to buy this man in particular, let alone any man, as the type to attract Lisbeth Salander.

Salander is by far the most intriguing element Larsson’s novel has to recommend it, and she’s by far the strongest part of Fincher’s movie.  Rooney Mara had a small but pivotal role in Fincher’s The Social Network, but here she tears into the central protagonist role with a nearly-animalistic fury.  It was one of the oddest, most bruising, most unpredictable female performances to come out of any movie last year, and it should have been more widely recognized and rewarded.  The most thrilling and violently compelling scenes of the movie are when Mara, as Salander, avenges herself and her gender against a patrician society full of debased pigs in jackets and ties.  Blomkvist is comparatively a good guy, but he feels like a civilian when she’s more of a symbol.  It’s a little like how Wonder Woman used to date regular dudes without superpowers and it didn’t feel right.  It’s a little worse than that, actually.

The romance angle in Dragon Tattoo quite frankly isn’t worthy of the Salander character.  At best, it plays more like Chasing Amy (where a straight man “converts” a gay woman), really, and I expect more nuance out of David Fincher than I do of Kevin Smith.  At worst, it lazily discards all the character work that would make the story original.  The final scene of the Dragon Tattoo movie, which I have little trouble spoiling as it spoils the movie all by itself, shows Lisbeth Salander, awesomely vicious warrior of the internet age, excitedly buying a gift for Blomkvist.  She goes to give it to him, but instead spots him reconnecting with his longtime paramour, Erika Berger (Robin Wright).  Upset by the sight, Salander spitefully tosses the present in the trash, like a jilted schoolgirl, without ever confronting Blomkvist about the betrayal.  It’s an egregious end, considering how the fierceness of this character has until this development been the best and (frankly) the most active part of the movie.  The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is much too well-made a movie to have that flawed an ending.

Bottom line:  Good character, good screenwriting, great acting, great direction, bad story.  The last undoes the rest.  To make a great movie, as Fincher has done before and will do again, you need all of the elements working in concert.  A false note played that loud spoils the entire symphony.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let’s hear it, below or on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

Book Review: THE PASSAGE.

Posted: April 10, 2012 in Books, The Future, Vampires

I’m revisiting this piece I wrote on The Passage because the next book in the projected trilogy is due out in a month.  There’s not much chance I’ll re-read the first book before then (it’s long, and besides, I gave my copy to someone else to read), so my summary will have to do.  If you haven’t read it yet though, please read the following:  It’s a pretty friendly recommendation. 

The other night, I finished all 766 pages of The Passage, the gigantic new horror novel by Justin Cronin.  That’s a heavy load of dead trees, and it seems to me that the longer the story, the greater the risk:  When an author asks his or her audience to commit to a book or a movie or a series, they’re making an implicit promise that the time spent will be worthwhile. With The Passage, Justin Cronin delivers fully on that promise.

The most striking thing about The Passage, before the plot even gets going, is the quality of the writing.  Cronin’s prose is impeccably rendered, so that even the most traumatic incidents have a beauty to them.  This helps captivate interest from the start, because the story takes some time to build, before it hits its crescendo, and from then on, refuses to let up.

Technically speaking, The Passage is a vampire novel, but when I say that, it probably creates all kinds of genre expectations in your mind, and The Passage defies them all.  The monsters in this story don’t go by the name – the word “vampire” is scarcely used, save for a couple of references to Tod Browning’s Dracula.  Cronin takes great pains to ground the familiar myths in believable reality, but either way the creatures are generally peripheral players in a much wider, much more human story.  There are long stretches between the attacks and the action scenes, in which you get to know (and care about) a wide range of characters.

This is a story about how bad things can truly get, and about what humanity is capable of once things get down to it.  The Passage will be compared to the best of Stephen King (specifically The Stand), and that’s not inaccurate.  It also has a spiritual kinship with I Am Legend.  But it reminds me even more of The Lord Of The Rings, as far as the massive scale of the story and the generational sweep of it all.  To say any more would be to spoil the surprises, and that would be criminal.  Just know that The Passage is ambitious, impeccably written, and never predictable.  On the very last page, just as the story seems to be winding up, something happens that calls out for a sequel, and it’s to this big beautiful book’s credit that I can’t wait to read it.  Somehow, I’ve been convinced that all those trees didn’t die for nothing.

Find out more at: http://enterthepassage.com/

And from me here: @jonnyabomb

I once read an interview with the author of Twilight where she proudly claimed to have never read Dracula.  In case you’re wondering why people like myself who are normally more open-minded about junk culture have no respect for the Twilight phenomenon and won’t bother to read the books, this is one very strong reason why.

Openly admitting to having written a book featuring vampires without having bothered to read Dracula is like making a movie about the Italian-American mafia without having seen The Godfather, like making a movie about vengeful great white sharks without having seen Jaws, and [sure, I’ll go there] like telling the story of Jesus Christ without having ever read the Bible.

When you’re a writer at that level, there simply must be enough time in your day for you to make it a priority to do the minimum and most basic groundwork – otherwise don’t get in the ring with the heavyweights. To me, it’s blatantly offensive to work in a genre without having the decency to credit the works that created that genre. Frankly, it’s a kind of plagiarism to use someone else’s ideas without acknowledging the debt. Of course, Twilight isn’t a true vampire story to begin with, instead it’s just the most popular example of an improbably popular genre that should be called “vampire romance.”   It belongs on the shelf with the romance novels rather than in the horror section, but that’s another rant for another time.

Speaking personally, I don’t currently have any plans to write a vampire novel or to make a vampire movie. I only have one vampire story in me so far, and that one is most likely a short subject. But you can be damn sure I’ve read Dracula before, and if I hadn’t, you wouldn’t ever catch me making a point of it publicly. Honestly, vampires aren’t even my favorite movie monster. They’re fairly low on the list, in fact, but to the rest of the world, they’re unquestionably the most popular. Having been keeping an eye on horror product for a while now, my informal observation is that the majority of it feels like it’s been vampire stories. Which is cool, since there are plenty of great vampire stories that have been told, and yet may be. But, as I say, at some point you have to go back and start at the beginning…

So I read over Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 novel Dracula once again. Not that I’m anybody, but I’d say it’s fairly well deserving of its reputation and its influence. There have been tales of vampires (or their equivalents) in the majority of cultures in the majority of corners of the world for the majority of human existence. What Stoker did with Dracula was to marshal together some clear-cut rules and common traits of vampires, inject some amount of research and historical reference, and utilize his own character-building ability to create the most clearly defined vampire character of all time in Count Dracula.

If Count Dracula wasn’t such a commanding, imposing, ominously memorable figure in the novel bearing his name, then Dracula couldn’t have been the touchstone that it is in horror literature. In other words, Stoker’s greatest achievement was to distill all of that cross-cultural mythology into one iconic character. Creating a true icon is one of the most difficult things a writer can do, because it can’t be forced and it has to come from a genuine place of character impact, but when it happens, an iconic character can lift the entire genre around him/her to prominence. (Maybe that’s why werewolves are perennial also-rans – there’s no one iconic werewolf character to center the genre.)

A couple observations struck me as I made my way through the book this time. One was the intense ruthlessness and cruelty of the Dracula character. There is no trace of humanity or sympathy within him; he wants what he wants and has no reservations about taking it. This, more than anything, is where today’s “vampire romance” trend diverges from its roots in horror. The vampire mythology has a natural eroticism to it – the act of feeding has always had a sexual element in its description – but Dracula, as portrayed in in Stoker’s novel, is hardly a romantic figure. If anything, he’s a sexual predator. While his conquest of young Lucy Westenra has clear sexual overtones in its description, it is disturbing at its core and its results are clearly tragic. Count Dracula is by far the dominant character in Dracula, but you don’t read it wishing for anything other than his demise at the hands of the novel’s heroes.

Another interesting observation to me is that very few visual interpretations of Count Dracula have come particularly close to his appearance as described in the book. There have been so many wonderful and unforgettable Dracula designs, but strangely, none of them have looked much like this: “…A tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.” So in Stoker’s mind, Count Dracula would look like James Coburn with the wardrobe of Johnny Cash.  I kind of love that.  This drawing by the great John Cassaday comes the closest to that description of any I can recall, but of course it’s still great to have all of the different looks that cinema, television, and comic books have afforded us throughout history, from Bela Lugosi’s iconic caped slickster, to Gene Colan’s ferocious drawings, to Gary Oldman’s “Aunt May” rendition.

I was also surprised to be reminded of the way that the story is structured. Dracula is an epistolary novel, which means that it is made up of fictional correspondences and communications – a common storytelling choice that used to be popular in antiquity but was way out of style in the past century, until the current horror boom with books like World War Z which use a comparable “oral history” format.  It’s a fascinating choice on Stoker’s part to have Count Dracula’s personality and exploits recorded and reported by a group of protagonists, including Jonathan Harker, his fiancée Mina Murray, close ally (and initial courter of Mina’s friend Lucy) Dr. Seward, and of course that infernal Van Helsing. It’s also intriguing to see how the book is split up into phases; the first chunk of the novel is largely drawn from Harker’s journal, and depicts his initial encounter with the Count in Transylvania; the next chunk involves Mina’s correspondences with Lucy, wherein her concern about Jonathan is expressed, and where we also first hear about Lucy’s suitors (Seward, Quincey, and Holmwood, who later become Van Helsing’s vampire-hunting squad). Then the ship’s log of the Demeter is invoked – the Demeter being the cursed vessel that brings Dracula to England. When the action shifts to England, the story structure shifts again, and the novel’s exchanges toggle between Mina Murray, Dr. Seward, the returned Jonathan Harker, and – not as much as could be expected – Professor Van Helsing.

Abraham Van Helsing is absolutely another key to the success and longevity of Dracula. Harker shows real pluck and resourcefulness and Mina is no precious flower but just as willing to fight as the men, but Van Helsing is the Count’s true opposite number. He is a haunted and determined adversary of vampires, and it’s no surprise that he pops up nearly as many times as Count Dracula in the many iterations of the tale that have transpired throughout fiction and film over the years. (The most memorable was Peter Cushing in the Hammer horror films, the most recent in my generation’s memory was Anthony Hopkins in Francis Ford Coppola’s version in the early 1990s.) The creation of Van Helsing is another of Stoker’s masterstrokes – just as a good hero is best defined in opposition to his worst enemy, so too is the greatest villain best tested by a strong hero. You need a Captain Ahab to pursue Moby Dick, you need a Joker to forever plague Batman, and you need Van Helsing to constantly thwart Count Dracula.

However, the character that stuck with me this time around was the poor, unfortunate Renfield. Renfield is a patient of Van Helsing’s friend Dr. Seward, who runs a lunatic asylum. Renfield acts as kind of a predictor of Dracula’s comings and goings; his ravings increase or subside depending on what the vampire is up to. Renfield is a tragically memorable wretch who eats spiders and flies and figures into some of the most sad and disturbing passages of the book. It’s funny; when I read The Lord Of The Rings, the most resonant character to me was Smeagol, a.k.a. Gollum, a.k.a. that freakish creature who’s obsessed with and tormented by power. It’s just so perceptive on the parts of Stoker and Tolkien, as they conjure characters of the most abject evil and the most resolute virtue on either side of the central battle, to acknowledge those pathetic figures who face similar trials and fall short of either extreme. Not everyone can be purely good or powerfully bad; in fact few are – most of us, when placed into such apocalyptic scenarios, would fall somewhere in the middle, and the weaker among us would be ruined by the experience. Some of the more famous portrayals of Renfield throughout Dracula history have been Dwight Frye (from the James Whale Frankenstein), Klaus Kinski, and Tom Waits.  That’s one interesting dinner party.

I’m happy that this article has become such an enthusiastic celebration of a classic work of literature. Dracula isn’t quite flawless; it does have its repetitive passages, particularly when Mia Murray and Prof. Van Helsing get into their mutual admiration routines. However, that is a small complaint when weighed against the harrowing Transylvania scenes, the atmospheric Demeter sequence, the tragic loss of Lucy Westenra, the inspiring gathering of the vampire hunters, and the still-affecting-despite-it-all afterword. Bram Stoker’s novel remains one of the most influential books ever written. Dracula casts a long shadow, and all of us who create and enjoy horror stories are still standing in it.

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The Wolfman was just on TCM.  What a fantastic way to lead off a Saturday morning!  Anyway it reminded me of this piece I wrote, all the way back in 2008, which remains one of the better things I’ve uploaded to the internet thus far.  But it hasn’t appeared on my own website, until now…

 

A couple Saturday nights ago I went to a midnight screening at the New Beverly of Never Too Young To Die.  If you somehow missed this thankfully unique artifact from the 1980s, this is a movie which stars John Stamos as a gymnast who discovers that his father (played by that guy who played James Bond only once) was a secret agent recently killed in action.  Vanity (my personal favorite Prince protégé) plays a gun expert and colleague of Stamos’s dad who arrives at the funeral to protect Stamos from his dad’s killer, who is naturally played by Gene Simmons of Kiss.  Gene Simmons is a terrorist and a master of disguise who also enjoys dressing up like a really, really ugly woman.  Cross-dressing experiments are an effective fear-inducing technique on Gene’s part, because I was only watching the movie and quickly found myself queasy with nausea.  

I’m sure it goes without saying at this point that this movie is unforgettably bad.  From the arbitrary plot to the demented dialogue to the violently-swerving tone to the flowery music to the flamboyant flannel-and-neon-wearing Asian sidekick, Never Too Young To Die is a real contender for the laughably-awful/ awfully-laughable hall of fame.

 

And in a weird way, the whole experience got me thinking about werewolves.  Again.

Every genre has its own highs and lows, its own share of beautiful badness.  But almost all of them have that balance apportioned reasonably fairly.  For all the crap, both the fun crap and the depressing crap, you can always find at least a couple high water marks.  Take the spy movie, for example:  For every Leonard Part 6, there is a Casino Royale.  For every For Your Height Only, there is a Bourne Ultimatum or three.  The genre can withstand Stamos, Simmons, and the rest of their over-the-top ilk, because there are enough serious filmmakers out there to elevate it.

I’m exaggerating of course, but not by much.  Every major strain of genre filmmaking, whether it be the war movie or the alien invasion/science fiction movie, the time travel movie or the samurai movie, the Western or the boxing movie or the comic book movie or the vampire movie – all these have their few-and-far-between classics that make sitting through all the more inferior efforts worthwhile.

The exception is the werewolf movie. 

In the realm of the werewolf movie, it goes this way:  There is only one indisputable classic.  One.  There are only a couple other movies that are any good at all; a few more that are promising but don’t quite get to good; and a metric ton of the turds that just stink out loud.  To my knowledge, this is the one genre with absolutely NO so-bad-it’s-good entries.  There is no werewolf equivalent of Never Too Young To Die.

The werewolf character is one of my favorite archetypes, so I hope to speak on the subject with just a little accumulated authority, and talk for a moment about why there are so few decent werewolf movies.  The overall reason, I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding among filmmakers of what has made the concept so interesting to so many cultures for so many centuries.  Either that, or a general lack of purpose.

In his invaluable book The Monster Show, David J. Skal writes about the way that werewolf and vampire legends are historically intertwined, citing the fact that in Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula is technically a werewolf in addition to a vampire, because he does turn into a wolf at one point in the story.  Very true.

But I think that the notion of connecting the two traditions has led far too many storytellers and filmmakers to miss the mark by a wide margin.  Cinematically, werewolves are treated too often like vampires with longer fangs and much more hair, and occasionally the reverse also occurs.  (The movie Underworld is notable for doing both – trying to borrow the coolness of both concepts, thereby cancelling both out, and achieving absolutely nothing of interest.)   

 

I believe that it’s much more compelling to look at the two legends as separate and fundamentally thematically different.  The way I have come to see it, vampires are about sex and power, lust, temptation and corruption.  Werewolves are about rage, plain and simple.  The werewolf story works best when depicted as a metaphor for uncontrollable anger, which is why so many people relate, yet also (hopefully) fear the idea.

Werewolf stories are also about loneliness, which vampire stories must never be about.  Vampire stories, by nature, have nothing to do with loneliness, because vampires are, by nature, always looking for company.  This is probably why so many low-budget vampire movies dip into the soft-porn realm.  Frankly the werewolf movies do that a lot too, and that tendency doesn’t make me one-thousandth as happy as you might think.  I watch more of this junk than you want to reckon, and all that sex stuff in monster movies is a little too much chocolate in my peanut butter.

   

So yeah, the loneliness of being different, of thinking different, of having done different – and terrible – things.  An interesting cinematic treatment of werewolves, to me, would be to consider the beast as the Travis Bickle, or perhaps the William Munny, of movie monsters.

 

I would still hope to see (or make) a werewolf movie of even half the quality of An American Werewolf In London – for my money, the only truly great (in all meanings of the word) werewolf movie.  Another day I will compile a more comprehensive list of the werewolf movies I’ve seen and where I consider them to fall, but the bottom line is that, from where I stand, there’s never been one as good (or better) since John Landis’s horror-comedy classic, and arguably there wasn’t one of nearly that consistently high quality beforehand either.  [The original 1941 Wolf Man, with its genre-defining screenplay by Curt Siodmak, is such an important movie, but it definitely has grayed noticeably with time.] 

Landis has a slightly different definition of werewolves than I have discussed thus far – in the pantheon of cinematic monsters, Landis affectionately considers the werewolf a “schmuck.”  The werewolf just can’t win.  He wants a happy life, he wants true love.  He really doesn’t want to be an animalistic killer, but come the full moon, he don’t got much choice.  He’s kind of a sad sack.  In the case of Larry Talbot or David Kessler, that’s certainly an apt description.  But I think my thesis holds, since there inherently is loneliness in the outcome of An American Werewolf In London.  Certainly it is sad to ponder the fate of the young nurse Alex Price (played by Jenny Agutter) after the film’s final scene.

So I guess what I’m saying is that another reason that I’m continually fascinated by the idea of werewolves in movies is because it’s almost entirely an untapped area.  One great movie, and very few decent ones to stand near it, means there is plenty of room for company.

Also I love monsters, and werewolves are by far my favorite monsters.  They contain the potential for the most compelling ideas and relatable concepts.  Also and finally, they look like dogs.  If I have to explain here why dogs are the best of all the animals, I can’t expect to be the one to change your mind.  We’d have to agree to disagree, or I would have to agree that you are wrong.  Dogs are the greatest.  Werewolves usually kinda look like dogs, which is as good a reason as any to have them as a favorite movie monster.
By the way, I titled this entry “Part One” up above because you can be sure that as long as I am writing these essays, I will come back to this subject again. 

I imagine what I’ll do is, from time to time, cover a couple of the werewolf-related projects that I uncover as I trawl through the bookshelves, comic book racks, multiplexes, and horror aisles.  (And sometimes I’ll even share my own drawings…)

     

Today I will finish up this massive entry with the two most recent werewolf-related stories I have checked out.  One is a movie and one is a book.

 

1.  Skinwalkers

Skinwalkers is a werewolf movie that came out last year.  Thanks to better-than-average production value, a couple original concepts sprinkled into the more generic elements, and a generally good cast, it isn’t terrible.  And yeah, that is probably the highest possible compliment I can cobble together.  It’s not terrible, and is in fact passably entertaining. 

On the side of goodness:

The central idea of rival werewolf brigades with conflicting goals – one group wants to end the curse forever, the other wants to prolong the curse indefinitely – is a compelling one.  I’m not sure the movie that was made takes the concept as far as it deserves to do, but it’s a good idea.  Also, the ending, which I won’t ruin, isn’t exactly satisfying, but does at least leave things in an intriguing morally ambiguous place. 

On the side of badness:

I wish that filmmakers would get off the generic Native American angle in horror movies – it makes everybody in all directions seem stupid and callow at this point.  Thankfully, Skinwalkers doesn’t dwell too long on the usual Cliffs Notes exploitation of a long-exploited culture, but it is right there in the title.  Also lame:  The werewolves spend much more time in human form shooting guns at each other than brawling in wolf form, and the final confrontation completely visually evokes a similar scene in Terminator 2.  Such heavy “inspiration” in a movie is never not distracting.

The two leads in Skinwalkers are played by actors with familiar names to those familiar with credits outside A-list – as the mother of a 12-year-old boy who may hold the key to breaking the werewolf curse, Rhona Mitra; and as the cursed uncle who will do anything to protect the boy, Elias Koteas.  I always notice those memorable names because Elias Koteas (The Thin Red Line) is a reliable character actor who gives intensely genuine performances, like a kinder gentler Robert De Niro; and because, well, Rhona Mitra (Doomsday) is a spectacular looking woman.  Also helping out in the mission is a girl named Sarah Carter, who is also incredibly fun to look at.  Hey, I’m only a man, and you know how that goes.

 

The evil werewolf gang are led by that guy from Roswell who always seems like he’d be a friendly enough guy in real life, but to be generous, is never the most interesting thing about the movies he’s in (and we’re usually talking about problematic movies like The Grudge or D-War.)  Also in the gang are a familiar-looking character actor that even I can’t place, a girl who is so unrealistically hot that it’s actually kind of annoying, and a black guy who looks exactly like Brad Pitt circa Legends of The Fall.

The werewolf makeup, by the late Stan Winston and his studio, is interesting and thoughtful.  These werewolves exist in a state between human and canine, as opposed to so many other depictions which lean towards the latter.  It’s a good, creepy envisioning that would certainly come off as much more creepy, if they weren’t shot so brightly.  The Bruckheimer-esque cinematography does the monster no favors here.

Again, overall, as I say, “a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes the concept interesting.”  Here’s another example of that.  Still, this movie is worth a watch for anyone who digs werewolf movies as much as I do.  (You need to consume less sugar.)

 

2.  Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

The striking black-and-crimson visual design coupled with the title drew me in to this one.  I didn’t know it was a werewolf book, until the inside jacket head-nod from no less than David Mamet named it so.  I bought the book and it was a good read.

The story is about a lonely dogcatcher who meets a temperamental girl who happens to be a werewolf.  (The werewolves in this envisioning appear as slightly bigger, meaner dogs.)  He and she fall in love, and she leaves her pack for him just in time, because werewolf warfare is breaking out throughout Los Angeles, particularly in my personal stomping grounds of Silver Lake and Echo Park.  The book digresses consistently to follow the supporting players, such as the cunning pack leader who hides out as the newly-adopted dog of a kindly elderly woman, who finds that he likes the new surroundings more than he expected.  It’s a very episodic structure.

It’s also written in epic verse.  Scared yet?  Basically, this is an unusual way to go for such lowbrow material, but it works.  The format allows for more poetry than the genre usually is imbued with.  By poetry I mean descriptive imagery and thoughtful phrasing, not annoying rhyme schemes.  Once you train your eye to read this format, it’s pretty easy to get through.  While I wish the book spent more time with the central two characters and had a more hard-charging plot, I greatly respect it for bringing more art to werewolves than they usually get served.

I also need to add that the final line of one of the last chapters is one of the sharpest, awesomest sentences in the whole boo,k and would by itself be worth double what the book cost.  It’s the sentence that I would always hope to read in a book like this one.

And I just like any thriller that takes time out of the narrative for a passage like the following  (Read it and you’ll probably very quickly figure out whether or not this book is your kind of thing):

Page 97-98

Peabody the cop drives, thinking about the dogs.

An old conversation from years past drifts back to him.

On a stakeout that tested their sanity and bore no fruit,

his partner, the wise man who taught him the clockwork of the world,

said to Peabody, “You know why we domesticated dogs and cats?”

“Why?” asked Peabody.

“Well, see, some people think it’s because they’re carnivores,

and they’ll chase down rats and mice and other vermin for us,

keeping the campsite clean, so to speak.

But my particular theory is that we keep them around because,

well, they’re funny.”

Peabody remembers the tired smile they shared at this thought.

“Funny?” Peabody asked. 

“Yeah,” his partner said. “Cats chase their shadows,

hang on the curtain,

and dogs, well, they chase their tails

stick their nose in your crotch

and hump your mother-in-law’s leg.

They’re just funny.

Bunnies are cute, but they’re not funny,

so we left them in the wild.

But parrots talk funny, so we took some of them home too.”

Peabody had thought about this for a minute before offering up

what he thought was the perfect challenge.

“Monkeys.”

“What?” his partner said.

“Monkeys are funny,” said Peabody, “so, why didn’t we pick monkeys?”

His partner sighed and shook his head with sad dismay.

“Monkeys? Jesus.

Monkeys’ idea of fun is throwing their shit at you.

Monkeys always take the joke a step too far.”

 

Peabody misses his partner.