Friday, June 9, 2017

The Five - A Book Review

The FiveThe Five by Robert McCammon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tough to review this one. I've enjoyed many other MacCammon books and "Boy's Life" is an all-time favorite of mine. This book is well-written, almost poetically so, and thoughtful and introspective and life-affirming and ultimately inspirational.

And yet...

It's too goddamned long.

The audiobook was 20 hours, and waaay too much of that time goes pretty much nowhere. The basic plot is simple - 5 bandmembers on their farewell tour fall afoul of a deranged ex-military sniper who begins stalking them across the American heartland. What initially looks to be the act of a lone gunman gradually takes on larger, possibly supernatural proportions.

There's a whole lot of insight and exploration here into the world of the indie rock band, playing from club to club and just making enough for gas money. Our heroes have been at this for years without ever getting The Big Break, and a lot of the meat of the character and world-building comes from their burned-out, seen-it-all attitudes toward the music they used to love. The fact that their Big Break comes in the form of media attention because a maniac is trying to kill them, that only adds an extra level of bitter irony to the situation.

So, we've got cool characters, some soulful observations on art and commerce, some great thriller moments when the badguy strikes, and what I felt was an absolutely wonderful ending that nearly redeemed the entire book... and yet I'm still giving it a 3. My main complaints are that it just takes too long for anything to happen (I was something like 6 hours+ into the book - the full running time of many other audiobooks - before the plot even started) and it drifts too wantonly in too many different directions that ultimately go unresolved. If I want endless random side quests and distracting situations that lead me nowhere and leave me frustrated, all I have to do is get up in the morning.

It was a good book. I don't regret reading it. However, I think it needed a lot more editing and tightening to become a great book. If it had run 10 hours instead of 20, I bet it would have been another 4 or 5 star joy.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Purging John Carpenter

Warning - This post is rife with spoilers!


I'm a big fan of the Purge movies, and am looking forward to seeing the newest one, Election Day.  When I watched the first film, I remember thinking, "This is the most John Carpenter-like film I've seen of the new John Carpenter wannabes."  I thought the same thing about the even-better sequel.  They carry on Carpenter's great strengths - pounding synth scores and completely batshit-insane, yet brilliantly simple, central concepts.  On reflection, though, I realized it wasn't just the music or the stories that reminded me of Carpenter films... They're actually remarkably step-by-step remakes, with new titles. 


Assault on Precinct 13 - A traumatized man seeks shelter inside a fortified station which comes under waves of attacks from subhuman gang members. There is a focus on race relations as the black captain and the white convict must cooperate to survive, gaining mutual respect in the process.

The Purge - A traumatized man seeks shelter inside a fortified home which comes under waves of attacks from subhuman Young Republicans. There is a focus on race relations as the white family must decide whether to sacrifice the black victim to save themselves.  

In neither movie do we learn much of anything about the primary target - He's simply there as a magnet to draw down the wrath of the horde.  Assault gives us a middle-class Average White Guy, who attracts the gang's attention by shooting one of their members in anger over the death of his daughter.  We don't know who he is, why he was there, and he's virtually mute for the rest of the film.  The Purge is even simpler - We're given zip about the main target except that he's a black man of lower social class, and presumably that's all that's needed to make him a target for the rich kid psychopaths.  

The interesting thing is the total inversion of the villains. In Assault, it's two working class men defending the middle class against the zombie-like attacks of a subhuman street gang - Characterless, near-mindless killing machines that are invading the safe neighborhoods. In Purge, it's wealthy people with consciences defending the lower class and themselves from the psychotic attacks of... their own young. Assault fears the street gangs consuming the working class, Purge fears the upper class consuming itself and the lower class both.  It's a testament to the times and the decades between the films that there simply is no middle class in the Purge movies.  Everyone is either the wealthy or the working poor or homeless. 

Also diverging are the final messages - Assault is ultimately a much more positive film, despite its grimness.  In Assault, the black guy and the white guy, the hardworking policeman and the "gentleman criminal", come together in understanding and realize that their values are far closer than the creatures they're fighting.  When Bishop insists that Napoleon not be chained, and that they walk out to meet the dawn together, it's a triumphant moment.  The values of hardworking decency have been defended, and even though Napoleon is going back to jail, you understand that the day is won for civilization, for the moment.

Purge is very similar in structure - The black man sides with the white family and in the end, saves those who sheltered him.  The victorious survivors walk out to meet the new day in an almost identical ending scene, except... in Purge-Land, there is no victory.  The chasm between the wealthy family and the poor guy remains, and now the wealthy family realizes the depth of the hate and loathing and jealousy that their own "kind" have for them also.  They've survived the night, but they're living in a nest of people who all want to kill them, just because they're perceived to have a little bit more than the next wealthiest household.  There's no real victory, and only a thin veneer of icy smiles and cocktail parties will cover the seething violence that's being held in check until the next Purge Night.

They make for a fascinating comparison, back to back.  If time and interest permit, look for a follow-up post to this on the virtually identical storylines of The Purge 2: Anarchy and Escape from New York.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mad Max - Fury Road

NetFlix NA
IMDB 8.2/10
My Rating: 6/10

The internets have been going crazy with gaga reviews of this for some time now, and I finally got to see it last night.  Sadly, I'm going to have to go with the counter opinion.  I thought it was entertaining but overdone, and like way too many modern movies, instead of presenting an absorbing story it just tried to pummel you into submission with constant action, which to me is actually boring when I don't really care much about any of the characters.  Which I didn't, really, because I thought Hardy's Max was a poor substitute for Gibson's, and I also wasn't particularly engaged by the fact that he was the sidekick in his own movie. 

Before I get into specifics, I want to point out that it seems like every review I've read has either been glowing praise about it for its theoretical "feminist narrative", or hostile MRA guys complaining that a chick was the star.  I don't give a shit about either of these political hoophole positions, I just wanted it to be good, but for me it was lacking.   Like, I don't care that Max took a backseat to a woman, but I was annoyed that Max had no arc, no skills, and basically contributed virtually nothing to the movie other than to be a victim and tag-along passenger, all to a secondary character who was not the character I sat down with popcorn to see.  It was like going to a Batman movie and having the whole movie be about Commissioner Gordon instead. 

My #1 complaint was the constant barrage of action.  Stuff happening constantly, all over the screen, and I just tuned out after a while.  Good action films have rhythm like music, with lulls and plot and just normal stuff that makes the action stand out when it happens.  This was all action, and the result was much like the hour long battle in Man of Steel - I just stopped caring much about what was happening because it was constantly "EVERYTHING IS EXPLODING AND EVERYONE IS ALMOST DYING IN ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME!!!"

It's entirely possible my opinion may be influenced because I just recently rewatched the original Mad Max and then Road Warrior, in anticipation of seeing Fury Road. 

Lots of spoilers to follow...

OK, I've often said the original Mad Max was kind of bleh, in that it's a generic revenge story and really only has two great action scenes, at the start and at the end.  On rewatch, though, it's disturbing in a way the sequels aren't.  It's apocalypse-in-progress rather than post-apocalypse, and there's something quite unsettling about the weird combination of society clearly falling apart at the edges, and normal people still trying to carry on normal lives.  Roadside diners are open, garages work normally, families go on vacation, etc, yet at the same time, the bikers are free to maraud and there are No-Go zones within easy reach.  Anyway, it was better than I remembered.  Also, it's all clearly about Max, whose arc IS the narrative.  He's the best driver in the MFP and a happy family man with friends untill things go bad and he becomes a cold-hearted killer.

Road Warrior still has Max as the central guide, and this time his arc goes from being an empty, soulless husk to actually wanting to help out other human beings again. 

The fundamental difference between Gibson's Max and Hardy's Max is that Gibson's has the skills to make him a heroic protagonist.  He suffers a lot of shit but ultimately he's still the best driver on the road, summed up handily in RW when, even mangled and battered and barely standing, he tells Papagello, "I'm the best chance you've got" for driving the rig.


Fury Road opens with a traumatized Max being immediately chased down, easily wrecked and captured and victimized.  He spend the first half hour of the movie tied to a bumper, and has no personality at all.

Road Warrior opens with Max being pursued by superior numbers, and using his excellent driving skills ("RE-flexes, that's what you've got!"), he dispatches every car that's after him.  Then, in the same running time, we see that he has a heart (buried) via the wind-up music box, that he's cunning (His encounter with the Gyro Captain), ruthless, very intelligent, and basically an all-around cool character. 

This is better Max:


By the point in the running time when Fury Road is still showing us big CG landscapes and vistas and constant action, Road Warrior has given us a relatable hero with a plan, a sense of conscience, and a lot of skill to back it up.  Fury Road's Max was a steering wheel holder, a guy who just got stuck in the middle of someone else's story and clung on for dear life, and didn't bring any particular skills to the story.  RW's Max was a guy with a plan who was the only dude who could help the refinery people, and his determination and stupid-fast driving skill ended up making him an accidental hero.  Like Eastwood's Man with No Name, he's in it for himself, but still gets the good guy job done.


Finally, I missed the humor.  RW is actually a fairly funny movie, often unexpectedly so, and yeah it's black humor but it still has laughs.  Particularly the Gyro Captain and the running gag with Max's shotgun:

Bottom line - I did enjoy Fury Road.  I didn't think it was as good as Road Warrior, though, nor was it "the ultimate action movie ever made" as many of the reviews have claimed.