It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon, and I had notes to type, so I scanned Netflix for a movie to put on. I wanted something that would not be involving, something that could function as background noise. I spied Jupiter Ascending. I had never seen the movie, but I knew its reputation--oh, boy did I know. A $176 million dollar bomb by the Wachowskis, it was eviscerated by critics and audience alike. I had already read a long and snarky, point-by-point summary of it and seen enough parodies to know the general plot, so I figured it wouldn’t take up too much of my attention.
I should have known better.
Jupiter Ascending is the story of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a poor Russian immigrant living in Chicago, who finds herself unwittingly caught up in a power struggle that spans the universe. A powerful race of advanced humans have discovered a way to keep themselves young and beautiful forever by using other humans to create an immorality serum. This is a lucrative industry, with the Abrasax family “seeding” planets with humans and “harvesting” them when the population reaches its peak. Earth currently belongs to Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), the eldest of three siblings, who plans to decimate Earth’s population in the near future.
But there’s a wrinkle. Jupiter Jones is the genetic match of the now-deceased matriarch of the Abrasax family, the matriarch’s “reincarnation,” so to speak. As such, she can stake a claim to the Earth--provided she can survive the plotting of the three Abrasax siblings. Aided by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetic “splice” of human and dog DNA, Jupiter Jones learns what makes her special (her genetic code), finds love, and learns to appreciate the miserable life she has on Earth.
Jupiter Ascending is an uneasy mixture of Star Wars and Twilight, with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey and dollop of Cinderella. It has way too many ideas and most of them are under-baked. It doesn’t know what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Without a core to hold it up, it stumbles from one incident to the next. The characters are cardboard-thin. Jupiter gets the most development and the most sympathy, but also spends most of her screen time being a damsel in distress, getting tricked, and/or trying to flirt with Caine using cringe-inducing banter. The action and cinematography have the glossy competence of a Hollywood blockbuster, and the sets and costumes are absolutely beautiful. It’s not good, but it’s also harmless and forgettable fluff.
What ended up tearing my attention from my typing and forcing me to watch the film was not so much the movie itself, which, for all its explosions, was pretty boring. No, it was the meta question: “What went wrong?” Because skimming the surface of the film, it seemed like a pretty standard movie. A high concept idea, generic action set pieces, a forced romantic subplot, pretty visuals. About midway through, I started getting into it. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie, but it’s a movie I had some affection for, unlike, say, The Meg, which I found generic, dull, and unambitious. Yet Jupiter Ascending was ridiculed and reviled. Why?
(From this point on there will be spoilers. I will not be doing a point-by-point summary, but I will give away the ending. You have been warned.)
Title: House of Echoes
Author: Brendan Duffy
Genre: Fiction, Horror
Life in the city has become strained for Ben and Caroline Tierney, so when Ben’s grandmother dies and leaves him property in the remote New England village of Swannhaven, they decide that this is the place for a fresh start. They sink their savings into the Crofts, a magnificent old house they hope to renovate into an inn. But their new beginning is marred when dead animals start appearing in the forest--and on their front porch. Strange cries erupt from the house when the wind blows, and their eldest boy, Charlie, spends more and more time alone in the woods. As Ben, a novelist, begins researching the town, he finds a troubling history of tragedy: mysterious fires, missing children, and a terrible winter of starvation from the time of the American Revolution. It is a history deeply linked with his own family. Alas, Ben is about to discover that not everything in the past stays buried.
I picked up this book at Barnes and Noble, because I was interested in reading a horror book, and I liked the idea of an old inn in a (possibly) haunted woods. After skimming the first chapter, I noted that the prose was smooth and clear, and the strained family relationship intrigued me. I bought House of Echoes, and I’d read a chapter or two in the evening, while taking a bath or before going to sleep.
Titles: An Abundance of Katherines, Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns
Author: Jonathan Green
Genre: YA, Coming-of-Age
An Abundance of Katherines
Colin has a habit of dating Katherines. They have a habit of dumping him. But Katherine #19 has done a real number on him. On top of that, Colin is a child prodigy who is quickly not turning into a genius adult. To distract him from his woes, his friend Hassan suggests a road trip. They wind up in Gutshot, Tennessee where Colin runs into a girl named Lindsey Lee, gets a head wound, and has a revelation--an idea that will certify him as a genius and possibly win back Katherine’s love. He will create a mathematical theorem for figuring out exactly how long a relationship will last.
Looking for Alaska
Miles Halter’s life in Florida is boring, so he convinces his parents to send him to a prestigious boarding school in Alabama. There he meets his roommate Chip “the Colonel,” who gives him the nickname of Pudge. More importantly, Miles sees Alaska Young, a gorgeous girl with a room full of books and a lust for life. He falls for her instantly. Between the Colonel, Alaska, and the other friends he makes, Miles has the chance to live the life he’s always dreamed: studying, pulling pranks, drinking, and smoking. But something is about to happen, which will change Miles’s life forever.
Quentin (Q) Jacobsen has admired his neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman, since they were kids. But she’s a beautiful, popular, daring girl that is totally out of his league--until one day when she spirits him away in an epic adventure of revenge, breaking and entering, and pranks. The next day, Margo disappears. But she leaves behind a series of clues. Quentin is convinced he can solve the puzzle and find her--but to do so, he’s going to have to go beyond admiring Margo and understand her as a person.
One of my favorite yearly family traditions involves going out with friends and cousins, having a big picnic in Los Angeles's Griffith Park, and watching some free Shakespeare courtesy of the Independent Shakespeare Co. We arrive early, stake out our blankets on the grass, roam the old zoo cages near the stage, eat spam musubi and chicken salad sandwiches, and hang out until the show time. The play is always awesome, and it's a good way for us to bond as a family.
(Shakespeare by the Sea also puts on good free shows, too, but my family tends to prefer the less traditional interpretations that the Griffith Park players act out.)
This year, we saw Twelfth Night, a cross-dressing comedy with one of the most bizarre love triangles (squares? pentagons? shapes?) put to pen. We rolled with laughter. My 3-year old niece, Leilani, got a crush on one of the actors, and even my 1-year old nephew swayed to the songs and dance.
I never thought that this would turn into a tradition. When this started, I was just a Shakespeare geek with no car, grabbing along whoever I could find to give me a ride. But little by little, it started to become an event. I'm glad.
I think that supporting and even just going out and enjoying the arts is important. It creates a connection, a shared experience, a memory. For me, personally, it lets me share one of my passions with my family. Above all else, it just makes me really happy. And who doesn't like to be happy?
After being burned by Legion, I decided to watch a horror movie that I hoped might turn out to be good. I went with The Ritual on Netflix, which has a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes and a pretty nice trailer.
Four friends, grieving their lost buddy, go backpacking across the Scandinavian Mountains. One falls and hurts his ankle. The men to decide to go off the trail, taking a shortcut into the woods. Weird things happen. A dead animal, impaled on high on the branches, drips blood. Strange letters appear on the bark of trees. Something is about to go horrifically wrong.
The Ritual is well-crafted and beautifully shot. The actors all do a good job of making their characters seem believable. They’re everyday blokes who find themselves in an increasingly horrific situation. I bought into the premise from the start, and because of that, for the first half hour of the movie, I was genuinely unsettled and frightened. But the longer the movie went on, the less it scared me.
On a purely visual level, the antagonist is unique, creepy, and even occasionally beautiful. But the story failed to develop the antagonist’s motivation and mythology. This caused the final act to collapse in on itself. The Ritual turned a simple premise into a complicated, muddled mess. It remained beautiful and well-crafted until the very last shot, but by then, I had stopped believing in it. I left the movie with mixed feelings and vague sense of disappointment.
Why is that though?
(Warning: From this point on, I will be a LONG, scene-by-scene summary, that will SPOIL every plot point of the movie. If you haven’t seen The Ritual, read on at your own discretion.)
I thought I liked bad horror movies, but it turns out not all bad horror movies are created equal. Some I just hate.
Back in 2010, while living in a small town in Japan, I saw the trailer for Legion. In a small, greasy spoon diner, a group of strangers find themselves in thrust into the apocalypse. An old woman turns into a demon and attacks them. A fallen angel declares that humanity’s only hope is a pregnant woman’s baby.
This seemed like an interesting premise. But the movie scored dismal reviews (19% on Rotten Tomatoes) and a pretty poor opening ($17 million, for an eventual $40 million domestic, $67 million worldwide). That’s a pity, I thought, and moved on. But I have a weird memory which can inexplicably remember obscure movie trailers from 9 years ago. So when Legion popped up on Netflix, I thought I’d watch it.
I am so glad I didn’t see this in theaters.
There are few bad movies which have actively pissed me off as much as Legion. I absolutely hated the anti-hero, fallen angel protagonist, who managed to be both holier-than-God self-righteous and a soulless, compassionless jerk. The antagonists were non-threatening cartoons with no brains. The ending was anti-climactic, and the themes were a mess. Legion spouted faith while ripping out its foundations. It sacrificed a basic understanding of good and evil in an attempt to be edgy. This movie did not know what it wanted to be and juggled action, fantasy, and horror set-pieces that might look cool, but had no tension, suspense, or emotion.
It wasn’t that nothing worked. There were characters I liked, there were ideas that could have been developed, and certain elements did genuinely hold my interest. However, the story as a whole was so muddled and soulless, it soured even the parts I liked.
(Warning: From this point on, I will be giving a SUPER LONG point-by-point summary of the movie and spoiling everything. If you feel you must watch the movie first, go ahead. Personally, I don’t recommend it.)
It’s officially summer. I want to relax and watch movies. But not necessarily the Hollywood-appointed summer blockbuster. In fact, not necessarily good movies. For whatever reason, I’m in the mood to dig up some older, more obscure, potentially bad horror movies.
Hey, I like bad horror movies. I watch Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’ve seen “Manos” the Hands of Fate over twenty times. My tolerance is pretty high. Heck, sometimes if I watch them often enough, I end up liking them. They may not be perfect or even make sense, but there is something that draws me in.
So I picked up a copy of The Apparition.
The Apparition is a horror movie that came out in 2012. It bombed in theaters and was eviscerated on Rotten Tomatoes. The problem with The Apparition isn’t that it’s offensive or graphic or horrific. It’s not. It’s also not scary or emotional or interesting.
The Apparition is a lot of nothing. The plot, characters, and setting are so thinly drawn they disappear into vapor. If there’s a concept or meaning driving this movie, director/ writer Todd Lincoln didn’t choose to share it. In spite of this, I kind of enjoyed it. It was like playing in an empty cardboard box. Sure, there wasn’t much to look at on the surface, but if you use your imagination, it could be anything you want it to be.
(Warning: I will now be writing a LONG point-by-point summary of the movie and spoiling every plot twist. If you want to see the movie first--and you can find it--you may want to hold off on reading this article.)
Early in April, I signed up for the Local Author's Showcase, at the Cumberland Library in Fayetteville, NC. When it came time to go, I was nervous. I've only done a few of these events, after all, and I'm not exactly a social butterfly. (More like an introverted dragonfly.) But I told myself I was just going to show up, have fun, network, learn, and not put too much pressure on myself.
On Saturday, June 15, I attended the Local Author's Showcase, with a bagful of my books to sell, a box of business cards, and some freshly-made, framed signs. I was surprised (and a little intimidated) by the number of authors who set up booths in the room and how professional they were. Some had screens and toys and merchandise for sale. But I took a deep breath and got set up. Someone came up to talk to me. I started to feel better.
All in all, it was a fun day. People were friendly and open. I got hear author's stories and share my own story. I even made a few sales. It was a good reminder, for me, of the power of putting yourself out there.
Authors and Their Books
These are some of the local authors I had the pleasure of meeting as I made my way around the room:
One of the authors, Alison Paul Klakowicz (whose book I bought, by the way), wrote a tremendous article in the Hodge Podge Podcast and Blog with pictures of everyone and their books. If
you want to get a feel for the event, I suggest you check it out.
Title: The Shadow Club
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: YA, Contemporary
No matter how hard Jared tries, his rival always beats him. Bad enough that Austin is the best runner on the 9th grade team, bound for the Olympics, but he also has the nasty habit of rubbing it in Jared’s face. Jared’s best friend Cheryl understands the feeling. No matter how good of a singer she is, her younger cousin Rebecca always outshines her. While commiserating, Jared and Cheryl hit upon an idea: a club for people who always come in second place. The Shadow Club was just meant to be a place to vent… and maybe play some harmless pranks on the people who wrong them. But when the class weirdo Tyson overhears them, Jared fears everything they built may be in danger.
Since I’ve enjoyed other works by Neal Shusterman (Unwind, Everlost), I decided to pick up The Shadow Club when I found a copy at the used bookstore. Unlike other Neal Shusterman works I’ve read, The Shadow Club didn’t feature fantasy or science fiction elements, but it did carry the author’s signature blend of flawed but sympathetic characters, tight plots, and dark situations with a sprinkling of hope.
I have issues with heroes. Generally, I tolerate them. Sometimes I like them. Sometimes I hate them so passionately I start actively rooting for the bad guy, no matter how evil they are. But very rarely do I love them.
Yet I find myself drawn to stories about heroes. I like high fantasy, I like stories about good and evil. I want there to be dramatic, end-of-the-world stakes. I like my stories with a hero in them, I just never like the hero I’m given.
So, a few nights ago, after watching Avengers: Endgame, I was thinking about how Marvel has ten thousand heroes, and yet my favorite characters, are, unsurprisingly, Loki and Bucky. (I’m on the verge of liking Nebula, if they’d only give her a little more character development.) I like most of the heroes just fine, but I’m not always invested in their stories.
I began to wonder why I had so much trouble with heroes.
And then I thought about butterflies.
I used to hate butterflies. I’d dodge whenever one tried to touch me. I shuddered to see one. My family always thought I was afraid of them, but it wasn’t fear, so much as a deep disgust. You’d think I’d want them dead, but no, just the opposite. I hated dead butterflies worse than live ones, and I’d always spot the dead ones, a single wing lying on the ground.
I remember learning, as a kid, that a butterfly’s taste buds were on their toes and if they landed on you and you pulled your finger down too hard, their toes would rip off. I learned if you touched their wings, you’d rub off their scales and they couldn’t fly. I saw a nature documentary about a rainforest with a bird catching a blue morpho butterfly; the narrator explained that the bird had to rip off the wings before they ate them alive, and I covered my eyes. I remember going through a monarch migration and seeing butterflies smash the car window. I think I screamed.
I hated butterflies because they were fragile. Because they died.
I didn’t really hate them.
I hated seeing them get hurt.
And this logic translated to heroes. Maybe I didn’t hate heroes, per say. Maybe I loved them. Maybe what I hated was seeing them mistreated, misused, even mislabeled.
So I thought about what heroes I really, really loved and connected to. My idea was to first, figure out what made a good hero using my own personal examples, and then to figure out why I hated the current platter of heroes being served to us.
The results surprised me. As it turns out, I have ridiculously high standards.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.