Book Review: Lace & Pyrite by Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Lace & Pyrite:  Letters from Two GardensLace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A short chapbook of beautiful epistolary poems between Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay. Ostensibly about their individual gardens, the scope of these poets’ poems frequently expands in breathtaking ways.

Nezhukamatathil is reading at the University of Arizona Poetry Center next week and I wanted to sample some of her work before then. Pleased to discover in the process a new favorite poet. I also read her Lucky Fish collection tonight and it was equally as wonderful.

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Book Review: Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Lucky FishLucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s most recent collection of poems (I think) concerns itself with autobiography, genealogy, geography, relationships, motherhood, and nature, among other topics. I love her sense of humor; poems like “Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill” and “The Mascot of Beavercreek High Breaks Her Silence” include unexpected humor along with more serious, lonely, and heartbreaking observations and revelations. I know when poems are working for me when the images suddenly erupt in vivid virtual reality in my mind and I gasp; several poems in this collection had those effects on me. It took a few readings of the first stanza in “A Globe is Just an Asterisk and Every Home Should Have an Asterisk” before the asterisk-shape of a flat cut-out of a globe in manufacture that would later be “pressed into a sphere” arrived in my mind’s eye, and I immediately loved that image. I was also really impressed by how she taught me to read with early poems poems later in the collection. For example, there’s a description of witches as wearers of eel-skin in an early poem that I recalled when a woman in a later poem was described as wearing eel-skin.

Nezhukamatathil is reading at the University of Arizona Poetry Center next week and I wanted to sample some of her work before then. Pleased to discover in the process a new favorite poet. I also read her collaboration with Ross Gay, Lace & Pyrite, which was also fantastic.

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Movie Review: Everything is Free

[This movie was removed from YouTube. If it goes back up, I’ll update the links. The video he added soon after, How to be a Slut in America – Part 1, is every bit as interesting [and has also been taken down.]]

When I say that Brian Jordan Alvarez’s new queer film Everything is Free—now available for free but age restricted on YouTube—is not afraid of penises, I mean that as high praise, and this is your opportunity to bail out of this review if this isn’t subject matter you’re comfortable with. You also might want to bail if you don’t want anything spoiled; come back after you’ve watched the film.

And when I say this film is further evidence that we are in more than just the Golden Age of Television, I mean that there are so many great web series and independent films and really video content of any kind. There’s a lot more crap out there because it’s easier than ever to capture and edit video, the price of software and hardware has plummeted, the number of platforms has multiplied, and many more people from many different backgrounds are releasing their video visions to the world, but the good stuff is better than ever, too.

[Spoilers ahead.]

Everything is Free comes from the brilliant mind of Alvarez, who wrote, directed, edited, starred in, and composed some of the music for his film. Alvarez is known for his comedy, and his latest effort is really damn funny, but it’s also full of drama, art, surrealism, and heat. Like really fucking hot moments of sensuality and nudity doing more than just titillating the viewer. The unexpected appearance of an erect penis in a YouTube video is a proclamation, a vulnerable character moment, kinda funny actually, hot, and happens as the drama escalates into homophobia and violence.

Ivan (played by Alvarez) is a gay American artist living in Colombia. His best friend and his friend’s brother, Cole, both straight, come to stay with him. As they begin to meet other Americans in Colombia, Ivan finds himself attracted to Cole, and is surprised by Cole’s tentative interest in return. As the relationship sputters and halts to a start, Ivan and Cole soon face an unexpected obstacle that adds a lot of tension and takes the film in unexpected directions.

What I find refreshing about Alvarez’s work is his unapologetic approach to depicting queer experience. I didn’t realize how much I hide and apologize for my own queer sense of identity until I started watching Alvarez’s YouTube videos. I also didn’t recognize  how much I have normalized on heterosexual ways of being, including monogamy and nuclear families. Ivan crafts a family of friends around him, and experiences his sexuality without apology, even to the ostensibly straight brothers who drop into his world. He expresses attraction, tests limits, has multiple partners, and isn’t afraid of being in love and lust. There’s a line late in the movie when Ivan asks why he’s the one being made to look crazy because he’s in love with a straight man that really resonated with me. I have also found myself in love with straight guy friends, relationships made all the more confusing by a level of intimacy and dependence that developed between us that straight guys don’t talk about and frequently end up lashing out unprovoked as they struggle to understand and set their own limits. It’s so refreshing and comforting to see this explored in Everything is Free.

The direction and acting are fantastic, but I am also impressed by Alvarez’s editing and color choices. There are surreal and artsy moments that make the film even more fascinating, and will lead me to watch it again to derive additional meaning. There’s a lot to think about here. I thought the end felt slightly tacked on and more hopeful than necessary, except it’s also really funny and satisfying in it’s own way.

If you’ve seen previous web series and shorts by Alvarez, then you have seen many of the other actors in this film. It’s always wonderful to see Stephanie Koenig, Jason Greene, Jimmy Fowlie, and the rest of the gang. They all work so well together, with a style that’s part improvisational, part pure joy.

So when I say I’m looking forward to seeing more of Alvarez’s films, it’s because he has matured into one of my favorite writer-directors, and I’m learning a lot about myself in the process of appreciating his art. This is a Golden Age of Creativity and of diverse voices describing experiences that haven’t been explored enough.

Movie Review: Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World)

I have been eager to see Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World) from my favorite director, Xavier Dolan, for so long, and yet I somehow missed that the film has been on Netflix for months. Stupid, stupid…

My goodness is this a rich, complex, brutally emotional movie that I need to watch a hundred more times. The director’s framing of most of the shots is so claustrophobic, a parallel to the angst and hurt that lies within this family on the day the middle 34-year old son returns home after a twelve-year absence to tell them he is dying. The film builds tension through Louis’ one-on-one conversations with each of his family members, which really are monologues as each family member fumbles to express their hurt and confusion about why Louis chose to distance himself from them and eagerness to have him back in their lives. By the end of the movie, the tension is so painfully high as we wait to find out if Louis will utter the words he’s there to say.

As Louis, Gaspard Ulliel is a master of expression, his wet eyes, grimaces, and small smiles conveying how all the things he really wants to say are bottled up behind his face and his two and three-word responses to his family members’ monologues. I was also moved by Marion Cotillard as the sister-in-law that Louis has not previously met. The actor plays against type as a shy woman attempting to navigate the deep waters of this dysfunctional family. Nathalie Baye, Léa Seydoux, and Vincent Cassel are also fantastic. Cassel’s character is particularly unlikeable, but his story arc is fascinating even while he is so brutal. Seydoux broke my heart. The matriarch, played with such life by Baye, and the relationship between mother and son were less of a focus in this film, which was unexpected based on Dolan’s previous films.

Xavier Dolan continues to surprise me with his evolution as a director (and writer and actor.) He has always had a mature eye despite his very early start and success. As he approaches his late twenties and a new chapter in his career, I’m running out of superlatives to describe his work. If you haven’t seen his films yet, I highly recommend them all:

  • J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother)
  • Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats)
  • Laurence Anyways
  • Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm)
  • Mommy

Now I am even more eager for his highly anticipated English-language film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.

Book Review: In Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine

In Another Country: Selected StoriesIn Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Constantine’s short stories in this collection are fascinating. They are full of images and thoughts and they meander across beautiful landscapes while their characters contemplate death and life. I loved several of the stories and the rest, though somewhat opaque to me, were generally thought-provoking, evocative, and beautifully written.

Let me start with my favorites. I picked up the collection specifically for the short story “In Another Country.” I had read an article about how it was loosely based on a tragic true story and was being adapted into a movie titled 45 Years. The idea is immediately compelling: a long, apparently happy marriage is abruptly threatened by news that a body has been found in the ice. What follows is the deterioration of mind and marriage. “In Another Country,” in addition to being a compelling drama, is also a very tense read, somewhat like a thriller or horror even without those trappings.

Constantine doesn’t use quotation marks or separate dialogue into separate lines. He also uses lots of run-on sentences and incomplete sentences. In the stories I enjoyed the most, this didn’t bother me in the slightest. In more opaque stories, I struggled. The effects of these techniques are the frequently disturbing proximity of thought and speech and a blurring between characters. In “In Another Country”, I would say the lack of quotation marks heightens the emotions of the characters and the mood of the story. These are characters who have been married many decades, who can practically finish each other’s thoughts, and are only now confronting something that poses a real danger to their marriage. Their dialogue and the growing madness and the unsettled past blur together in a frightening way. When the cliff of emotions and sanity is finally breached, it’s because of a small but important detail that comes to light. “In Another Country” is an incredible story, masterfully crafted, and well worth the price of this collection.

“The Mermaid” is another favorite of mine. In addition to a strong sense of setting, a compelling domestic drama, and sharply drawn characters, “The Mermaid” stands out because of the metaphors Constantine chooses and the way he brings back objects mentioned earlier that have even greater import later in the story. A nativity scene carved out of pieces of wood stands out in particular. There are many lines I love in this story. Speaking about wreckage the protagonist hopes to salvage from the shore after a storm: “the breakers coming in like friendly hounds with timbers in their mouths.” To describe the loss of his sense of time: “the sky outside either lightening or darkening.” To describe losing himself in his art: “After such work he came into his own house like a stranger.” I found the ending a little strange, and I’m not quite sure what parallels Constantine was working with, but “The Mermaid” really stood out for me.

My cynical mind suggested to me that “Strong Enough to Help” would turn out to be a horror story, but it was really a sweet story about being drawn out of isolation and finding love. I also really enjoyed the darker “Under the Dam” with its vivid descriptions of a viaduct and a dam and complex relationships. And the last story in the collection,”Mr. Carlton”, left me with tears in my eyes and a strong sense of place.

I think the stories that worked best for me were those that really focused on setting and pulled back occasionally from the dialogue and thoughts of the characters. Stories I struggled with were often close to stream of consciousness, ended abruptly after little forward movement, or described people and settings I couldn’t immediately identify with or picture. “Asylum” was one of these. It’s set in a mental asylum but I couldn’t get a good sense of the place and the characters didn’t really have an arc, though I think the end was supposed to be hopeful. “Wishing Well” seems to be tracing the start of new love, but I didn’t really understand the characters or why one in particular was telling the stories she was telling. I couldn’t quite grasp what was important about this story.

In revisiting these stories for this review, I find I appreciate all of them very much, and some I struggled with are beginning to make more sense now that I’ve had some time. Some of the difficulty could be because I’m American and Constantine is a British writer. The relationship between his characters and the landscapes seemed decidedly European to me, though I’m not really sure what I mean. I also think he is making very complex and adult observations about people and their relationships, and perhaps I’m a little too immature and inexperienced to grasp these details.

Reading what is difficult is such a powerful way to learn, though, and I loved the experience of reading this book. There are some books that are fine to give up on (sorry, The Complete Cosmicomics) and there are others that reward you after you struggle with them. I will want to return to “In Another Country” and the others stories someday, to see what they have to say to me then.

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Book and Movie Reviews: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body SnatchersInvasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s this moment after watching one of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies (there are four and I’ll have more to say about them later on in this review) when I think to myself “I really should read the original novel by Jack Finney.” Well, after watching all four adaptations again recently, I finally read the book, and what a surprise it turned out to be.

You know the story: seed pods from space arrive in a small town on Earth and begin replacing people while they sleep. What surprised me about the 1955 novel was how faithfully it was followed by the 1956 film adaptation starring Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Miles Bennell and Dana Wynter as Becky Driscoll. The first half is essentially the same between novel and film. About halfway through, details and plot points begin to diverge slightly, leading to a different ending. To be honest, the book’s climax seems a little silly, and it’s much less horrifying than the fate of the main characters by the end of the film. The film has its only silliness, in the shape of a framing device tacked on when the studio decided the ending was too dark, but what I view as the film’s real ending is absolutely bone-chilling.

The novel has more room for exposition than the film, and in general this additional information is really interesting. The novel is told in first person by Dr. Miles Bennell, who is even more cheeky and self-centered in the novel than he is in the film. He’s also much more progressive in the novel, which I didn’t expect from a male character created in the 1950s. Dr. Bennell makes particularly incisive observations related to race and gender. The novel cannot avoid all stereotypes, though. Becky Driscoll is primarily a passive and emotional damsel in distress, but there are several great moments in the novel when she becomes much more active and heroic, including coming up with a particularly great escape plan from a seemingly impossible situation.

The pod people plot from the movies is one of my favorite delicious terrors from horror and that creepiness and consistently frightening progression is definitely there in the original novel. The only thing that really disappointed me about the novel was the ending. The film adaptions tend to lean toward darker endings and more ambiguity. They make me feel like the horror has only just begun. The book’s ending instead is lighter and conclusive. It just doesn’t pack the same punch. Until then, though, the book is genuinely creepy and frightening.

The first three of the four movies based on the novel are some of my favorite movies of all time. They work because they capture the fears of their time. The 1956 film directed by Don Siegel is perhaps the best, and the fear it evokes with its seed pods and pod people is the fear of communism, in which your neighbor might turn out to be a communist plotting against America. As I mentioned, the ending gets really dark, though the framing device undercuts this. All of the actors are fantastic, and there is a scene with McCarthy and Wynter near the end of the movie that is one of the great chillers of all time.  The film is a masterpiece of paranoia, the practical effects are still amazing, and the chase scenes are much more frightening on the screen than they are in the book.

The second adaption arrived in 1978, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland as the leads. They are joined by a great cast, including Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum, as well as a fun cameo by Kevin McCarthy from the original movie. The fear of the 1970s seems to be of pop psychology and the effects drugs like Xanax prescribed for anxiety and depression have on emotions. The 1978 film doubles down on the special effects and paranoia, and the scream-screech of the aliens when they spot humans will always be frightening to me. The film departs from the novel in many ways and changes the characters quite radically, but it retains the paranoia and creepiness.

The third adaptation from 1993, Body Snatchers, was directed by Abel Ferrara and stars Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth and Forest Whitaker. The movie departs from the novel in many ways. The protagonist here is a teenage girl dragged to a military base by her father, an Environmental Protection Agency agent investigating the impact of the base on the local environment. The fears of the early 1990s seem to be of the military, stepparents, and the environment impact of humans. While the plot is simplified quite a bit compared to the earlier movies and the novel, what elevates the movie in my opinion is just how frightening it becomes. Making the protagonist a young woman and part of a family with a stepmother and half-brother leads to truly horrific moments that make me jump in my seat every time I see them. Meg Tilly is frightening as hell, especially during a monologue in which she asks “Where are you going to go?”

One great novel, three great movies. And then there’s 2007’s The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig as gender-reversed versions of the novel’s protagonists. This movie is terrible! The fear of the Aughts seems to be of pandemics and bodily fluids. The invasion spreads by vomiting on other people; it’s even grosser on screen than it sounds. There are no pods, just gross skin effects. No other fears are that well developed. Veronica Cartwright is always great, but her cameo here is wasted. The movie isn’t all that frightening, there aren’t any particularly captivating or scary scenes, and the talents of all of the actors are completely wasted. Unlike the earlier movies, The Invasion doesn’t really seem to have much to say. It doesn’t offer any compelling parallels to the contemporary world. It just seems to exist as an exercise to distill the novel to the very basics; it fails miserably.

But three great movies out of four is an incredible track record for any franchise. I think this rate of success is the result of Jack Finney coming up with a timeless and frightening plot particularly worthy of film adaptation. It’s one novel I think should be adapted about once every decade, because pod people are a great device for reflecting on our changing times and fears. What would an Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie look like today, in 2017?

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