Sunday, August 19, 2018

Theater Review: "Arcade Fire: The Redemption of Billy Mitchell" directed by Casey Ross

In 2007, a documentary came out chronicling the seemingly life or death struggle to obtain the highest score on Donkey Kong, and now, 11 years later, a local musical has been produced here in Indiana that does sincere justice to the incredible true story and to at least one of the subjects involved. Full disclosure, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is my favorite documentary. Beyond its surface level silliness and people who make it hard for viewers NOT to mock them is a classic study in what drives us, who we tend to gravitate toward and the fickle nature of success and failure. Playwright Casey Ross’s story understands it and plays right to it, with an absurd opening where Billy Mitchell, played confidently by local actor Luke McConnell gives a blunt, Darwinian speech into a large, cumbersome video camera held by a clearly uncomfortable cameraman. It showcases a few things: Billy’s high opinion of himself, his lack of knowledge toward technical advancements (with some of the play’s biggest laughs being his reactions to what people are saying about him online) and the shaky foundation of his reputation, bolstered by his hot sauce empire and a few reliable underlings. The one-hour musical concerns the accusations that Billy cheated to get the high scores on all of the games he holds records on, such as Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Burger Time. Into this chaotic maelstrom comes Billy’s old rival Steve Wiebe, played with relish by local actor Anthony Logan Nathan. Obsessive, strung out on Red Bull and a constant source of derision for his wife, played by local actor Kayla Lee, who brings the play a welcome, singular sense of levity. The crazed Wiebe, in an effort to dethrone Mitchell, manipulates the malleable and soft Brian Kuh, played by local actor Jim Banta, who imbues Brian with enough tenderness (as well as a not so subtle crush on Mitchell) to make him the musical’s sympathetic heart. Local actor Ryan Powell rounds out the cast as Walter Day, whose role and persona were not as fleshed out and pinpointed as I would like, his status as a sort of monk-like sage uninterested are glossed over rapidly in a few quick, albeit witty lines of dialogue, but Powell’s performance provides another wrinkle to the real world nestled just outside of this cloistered setting. The songs are sickeningly catchy; with the opening song “King of Kong” and “It’s a Kong Off” are guaranteed spots in your mind whether you want them there or not. The stage setup is minimal, with two blocks in the center of the stage and two arcade games on either side and it is seems very appropriate, especially when he sings “Second Place, First Loser”, why Steve’s arcade machine is Donkey Kong Jr. and Mitchell’s is the original Donkey Kong machine. And I can’t end this review without talking about my one major issue, which is the characterization of Steve. It will be hard for anyone familiar with the documentary to separate the movie with the Ross’s vision, which places much more emphasis on Billy’s struggle and tries to make him into a heroic figure, evidenced by a crucial act of altruism at the end. But what I found so interesting about the movie was how Steve and Billy were almost total opposites, with Billy this type-A go-getter whose ego-driven approach to life, hot sauce and video games garners him fame and fortune but to an outsider sometimes verges on the monstrous and Steve being this man who could have exceled toward greatness if it weren’t for his lack of confidence and a crippling sense of humility, which was brilliantly characterized by his account of choking at the baseball championship, set to the tune of The Cure's "Pictures of You". I know I should view the play for what it is, but Nathan’s maniacal Steve was distracting at best and inaccurate at worst. But for what the play is, a fun and timely romp tinged with nostalgia and heart, it is a success and should provide some comedic relief for some of the more self-serious shows at the Fringe. The audience I saw it with ate up, and there is a good chance you will too. 
Rating: 4/5

Friday, August 17, 2018

Review: "Early Work" by Andrew Martin

Early work, author Andrew Martin’s debut novel, will send shivers up the spines of aspiring writers, this one included. It does not tread new ground or present any new ideas readers haven’t seen in countless permutations, but it really acts as a kind of update to the “writerly” novels of the mid-20thcentury, where overly educated, mostly white men used their hyper intellect to justify their terrible, childish behavior. It’s easy to see echoes of Updike and Roth in certain passages. I’m still wondering where its heart lies though, whether it is lampooning such behavior, the narrative voice guiding the protagonist laughing behind his back, or if it has a little more sympathy for those involved, who have overthought their way out of any kind of enjoyment, quick to always improve their situation and unable to happy where they are. It concerns a man named Peter, a man who wants to be a writer more than he wants to put forth the work to do so. He is out of college and teaching at a women’s prison. His girlfriend, Julia, a pre-med student, is overworked and both slowly fall into a habit that does not include regular sex. That all changes for Peter when he meets Leslie, a woman he assumes he has a connection with, and from there, he begins an affair with her with the expected consequences. Like I said, this book is very familiar but well written and knowledgeable, and its tendency toward self-abasement makes some part easier to swallow, evidenced by the character of Molly, a cinephile whose self-seriousness is the book’s most humorous aspect. My qualms are minor, like a sections devoted to Leslie’s previous sexual history hindering what was a rather engaging narrative and an ending that lacks profundity, at least it did for me. Far from the best novel I have read this year, but one with an interesting perspective on a formula I thought was entirely tuckered out. 
Rating: 4/5

Friday, August 10, 2018

Review: "My Year of Rest and Relaxation" by Ottessa Moshfegh

It was easy to tell from her first novel, the chilling Eileen, that author Ottessa Moshfegh was a burgeoning force to be reckoned with. She further proved that with her short story collection, Homesick for Another World (her debut book, the novella McGlue, is creepy but flawed) and proves it once again with her second full-length novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Much like her first novel, it plumbs the depths of the female psyche in ways you have not seen before, harkening back to writers like Flannery O’ Conner and Shirley Jackson, other authors with a keen eye for the macabre and the beauty in grotesque and aberrant behavior as well as a sympathetic ear for these people, caught between feelings they know to be destructive and societies that will never, ever understand them. Reading this, and seeing it done, right made me think of other book with similar stories with women on the verge of collapse and what they got wrong. I couldn’t help but think about books like Liska Jacobs Catalina and Jade Sharma’s Problems, books that presented a woman’s downfall in stylized, almost pretty ways, where whether by their environment or the other people around them, we feel pressured to admire them. That isn’t the case here, with an unnamed narrator, whose visage and breakdown are equally ugly. Told from her perspective, it showcases a year in her life in New York City where she figuratively and literally tunes out the world. Financially stable after her parent’s deaths, she spends most of her days in her apartment, watching VHS tape after VHS tape (this is the early2000’s, years before Netflix), swallowing all different kinds of pills and sleeping for long, stretched out periods of time. Others pass through her life, whether in real time or flashback, like her friend Reva, a holdover from college who clings to the narrator out of a sickly desperation and need to coddle someone and her on again off again cold boyfriend, Trevor, who the narrator is obsessed with to disturbing degrees. It creates kind of a blur, like a ore personal version of Bret Easton Ellis’s early work, where we don’t know what is real, what is perceived correctly or incorrectly and what is a total fabrication, with long sections where the narrator describes, in great detail, something she is imagining. Moshfegh has a real talent for the morbid of the Lynchian variety, with scenes involving what she does when she is fired from the art gallery she worked at and the one where her most important appliance breaks are tense, brutally rendered and creepy as hell (as is her idolization of Whoopi Goldberg). It is a disquieting book, but one filled with an odd sense of hope in individual freedom, the perverse, sometimes good side effects of cutting yourself off from the world and how important it is to survive and value life, evidenced by its ending, which is easy to predict given its time period and location, but is no less perfect. This is a wild ride through the mind of someone hell-bent on destroying themselves, and thankfully it comes from a talent as rigorous and ingenious as Moshfegh. 
Rating: 5/5

Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: "A Lucky Man" by Jamel Brinkley

While Jamel Brinkley’s skillset as a writer is unquestioned, after reading his debut collection of short stories A Lucky Man, I’m left hoping that talent would have been put to better use by making the stories a little more interesting, carried themselves with a little less gravitas and by god, not be so long. That is the big issue with this whole collection: the stories are way too long; going on 15 or 20 pages more than they really should. This might be colored by my recent habit of reading the great works of short fiction. These are far from terrible stories, and two or maybe three are quite good, but I’d like to think their ideas could be conveyed and its impact more substantial if they had left before their presence became unwelcome. Like I do with all short story collection, I will pick out a few that I really liked. The first one, “No More Than Bubble” follows two friends as they engage in a long form sloppy seduction of two women they met at a party, with intermittent flashbacks to the narrator’s lecherous father. The two ideas come together beautifully, but again, it is about 10 pages too long. “A Family” is another gem, where a man released from prison struck up a shaky romance with his late best friend’s wife, finding comfort in imperfect relationships. Another odd issue was how homogenous the narrators all were. It might not be fair for a short story collection, but each of the narrators could be the same callow, irresponsible young man. A lot of the time, they are overshadowed by a stronger character, like Fat Rhonda in “Wolf and Rhonda” or the spiritual ladies man Micah in “Infinite Happiness”. If it was meant to be that way, I can’t say it helped much with these stories. But I still enjoyed reading them. Despite being little more serious than fun, they still pack a heavy punch. 
Rating: 4/5

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Top Ten Films That Should Get the Criterion Treatment

Ever since I picked up the Criterion edition of Slacker after hearing Kevin Smith discuss it, I have been hooked on this company and their efforts at making international and obscure films widely available (although not at a user friendly price discounting the months of July and November) with loads of special features. I’ve been wanting to do this list for a while now, and I have a few rules: no prior release that have gone out of print or have yet to get a Blu-Ray release, and I will try to steer clear of titles that have already been given a quality release by another North American company (Shout/Scream Factory, Arrow Video/Academy, etc.) known for stacked editions. Also, I'm steering clear of directors synonymous with Criterion, so no Bergman, Kurosawa or Wes Anderson. Those director's films will make it to Criterion whether you like it or not. But first a few honorable mentions: 
·          Audition (1999) dir. Takeshi Miike: This is more of a job for Arrow Video, since they released their own version a while back, but if they are able to get the movie rights, I’d love a scholarly commentary, an overall look at the resurgence of Japanese horror in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and a new interview with a critic like Tony Rayns or Kim Newman. 
·         The Beyond (1981) dir. Lucio Fulci: Fulci’s masterpiece is another film that will more than likely get an Arrow release, but I’d love a retrospective look at Fulci’s career, maybe an interview with FX artist Gianetto De Rossi, and a movie like this is begging for a video essay of some kind, possibly by Kat Ellinger.
·         One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) dir. Milos Forman: I just think it would be cool for Criterion to have all three films that swept the Oscars in its collection. I could see a new piece on the book and Kesey himself, a look at the history of mental health facilities and maybe a documentary on Forman’s career. 
·         Out of the Past (1947) dir. Jacques Tourneur: I also tried to steer clear of older movies, because I am sure a lot of them, like this one, will get the treatment sooner than later. I’d like to see a commentary track by Eddie Muller, a scholarly look at Mitchum’s career and a few archival interviews with cast and crew. 
·         The Pusher Trilogy (1996-2005) dir. Nicolas Winding Refn: Why this is an honorable mention can be seen in my lit, but I’d like to see commentary tracks on all films, a substantial making-of feature and possibly a new transfer of Refn’s film Bleeder, not widely available in North America. 

10. Pi (1998) dir. Darren Aronofsky: Why Aronofsky hasn’t made it in the collection is kind of a surprise, but this film would be a good fit. Porting over some of the features from the DVD, new interviews with Aronofsky and Sean Gullette along with a look at the film’s editing style would be interesting. 
9. A Serious Man (2009) dir. Coen Brothers: I could see Criterion releasing Miller’s Crossing or even The Big Lebowski instead of this film, but I’d rather see this one in the collection. New interviews with cast and crew, and it would be fascinating to hear a Jewish theologian dissect the movie and some of it's cryptic undercurrents. 
8. Sideways (2004) dir. Alexander Payne: I love this movie immensely and would love to see it in the collection. I can see new interviews with Payne and all four key cast members, a look at its status as a road movie and of course, a feature on California Wine country. 
7. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) dir. John Hughes: If they can put out The Breakfast Club, this isn’t too farfetched of a release to hope for. I’d like to see a new interview with Martin, archival footage/interviews with Candy and Hughes and possibly, like they did with The Breakfast Club that famed deleted footage that pushed the film past the 2 hour mark. 
6. After Hours (1985) dir. Martin Scorsese: The true underrated gem of Scorsese’s unparalleled career would be a welcome addition to the collection. I’d love to see a new interview with Scorsese about the process of making the film, especially as it pertains to his hardships with The Last Temptation of Christ, a new interview with Griffin Dunne and a real in depth look at the possible theories about the film’s many interpretations. 
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) dir. Tobe Hooper: After The Night of the Living Dead release, another iconic horror film joining the collection would be awesome, and I can’t think of a better one than this. I’d like it to skew more toward the scholarly route, with pieces on the filming, it’s reflection of the time in which it was made and its overall influence would make this an easy upgrade. 
4. Magnolia (1999) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson: While it was nice to see Punch-Drunk Love get a nice release a few years ago, this is the one I think people wanted more. I could see a massive 2-disc Blu-Ray packed with interviews, maybe a commentary track or two and a nice look at the film’s hidden meanings. 

3. Cache (2005) dir. Michael Haneke: One of the best movies of the 2000's deserves a really nice Criterion edition. I'm thinking new interviews with Haneke himself, Binoche and Auteuil, plus some critical material in the form of a commentary track, video essays and appreciations. 
2. The Vengeance Trilogy (2002-2005) dir. Park Chan-Wook: Easily my favorite trilogy of the 21st century would look real nice in the collection. I’d love to see new and archival interviews, more critical analyses of each film and in-depth making of features ported over from other editions. 
1. Drive (2011) dir. Nicolas Winding Refn: My favorite movie of the century so far and the film that inspired this list, I am really surprised that this doesn’t have a really good home video release, let alone one from Criterion. I’d hope to see a commentary track, interviews with Gosling and Refn and a look at the film’s relationship with other film genres (80’s romance, noir, etc.). 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Review: "Sweet and Low" by Nick White

Author Nick White made an auspicious debut last year with his gothic infused debut novel of gay identity How to Survive A Summer. It is a rich and textured look at one man’s reckoning with his past that effortlessly melds the past with the present, the grotesque with it’s emotional weight and the scary and the heartbreaking, But as good as that book is, it is surpassed greatly by his first collection of short stories, Sweet and Low. From the first page it is easy to see that Nick White is a Southern writer, with his eloquent descriptions of people places and things that are either beautiful, perverse or somewhere in the middle. And like most writers from the South, his feelings about his homeland are chaotic, recognizing both the history of his homeland and the ugliness that it upheld, participated in and was responsible for. And with the added layer of human sexuality, these stories straddle the good and the bad, the gross and pleasant in creepy and profound ways. Like I do with all short story collections, I will pick out my favorites, and with a collection like this, that is going to be very difficult. Divided up into two sections, that could be looked at separately if they were published as so, the first section, titled Heavenly Bodies features four stories that are unrelated. The first one, “The Lovers” concerns a widow who hosts a podcast and the young man who was her doctor husband’s lover. It intertwines both stories, highlighting their ignorance but coming together to tell a full story about both of the hurt they suffered from their careless mate. “Cottonmouth, Trapjaw, Water Moccasin”, the shortest story in the 290-page collection, sees a man fall off his lawnmower and get stuck underneath it, only to be taunted by a nearby snake who he is convinced is either the ghost of his abusive father or revenge for disowning his gay son. “These Heavenly Bodies”, the highlight of the collection, sees a teenaged boy whose reacting to his mother’s deaths by acting out violently and taking painting lesson. This all changes when a pair of female conjoined twins shows up in town and he is tasked with painting their portrait. It is a wonderful tale of forbidden desire, brutal rejection and devastating betrayal with a visceral ending as ambiguous as it is tragic. The next section, titled The Exaggerations, follow the character of Forney Culpepper, who may or may not be a surrogate for the author himself since he is a writer. Since only one of the stories is from his perspective (the wonderful “The Exaggerations), the image of Forney is a bit murky and that is too the book’s benefit. He is the sad-eyed son of his unreliable musician mother in the title story, the friend to a lost, bulky college freshman in “Break” and a paranoid, bird hunting writer father in “The Last of His Kind.” Together, these two sections make for a great study in secrets, confusion, sadness and the ever-long search for meaning in life from a burgeoning writer who is at the start of what I hope is a prosperous career.
Rating: 5/5

Friday, July 6, 2018

Review: "There There" by Tommy Orange

There There, the debut novel from author Tommy Orange is the kind of crazed, angry and passionate kind of novel I nearly beg for at the start of any given year. Filled with a string cast of memorable characters with webs of connection that run deep and ancient, it offers a different kind of story about indigenous people than what we are used too. Gone are all the trappings that might come to mind from the kinds of stories you’d read about Native Americans in school or college. This book is not about them, but in a way it kind of is, because while it takes place in the modern world, specifically Oakland, California which has a large population of indigenous people, it is intricately tied with the sins of the past and how, whether consciously or subconsciously, the people who inhabit the book’s pages are beholden to and burden by such a fraught and brutal history, both in personal histories and the overall history of Native Americans. But beyond its obvious contexts, this book is an exciting debut novel, filled with frenetic energy as the anger and resentment of the characters boils over into an unavoidable and tragic conclusion. It begins in a rather strange way with a dreamlike essay cataloguing historical injustices and really sets the stage for what’s to come and the undercurrents that will flow just below the surface of events. I had heard about it before I began the book, and I was worried it would be tiresome and overly didactic, but thankfully it is not like that at all. It has a dreamlike quality to it that blends fantasy and reality, and I couldn’t help but think of the voice as disembodied, much like the ghostly narrators of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. From there we are introduced to about 10 major characters that all take up the right amount of space in this relatively short 290-page novel. There is Tony Loneman; whose fetal alcohol syndrome (the Drome) hides his intelligence makes him a pawn in the violent plan of a few local gangsters, Dene Oxendene, a local artist whose grant money allows the Oakland Powwow at the center of the novel take place, Edwin Black, an overweight 30 year old with a useless college degree who sees his internship with the group organizing the powwow as a way to out of his rut and a path to finding out who is father is, Orvil Red Feather, a teenaged boy who will dance for the first time in the powwow and the decades long story of Opal Violet Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather (Orvil’s grandmother, two half sisters with worlds of hurt behind them that they must carry with them. The book contains many hypnotic scenes that bridge the real world and the spiritual, like the character Harvey’s encounter with the tall whites in the Arizona desert, the dark symbolism of finding spider legs underneath your skin and Edwin’s clunky yet poignant retelling of the what happened to Native Americans through one of his stories. And it all leads to the aforementioned powwow and a halfhearted plan to rob it. These final few pages are devastating and contain the emotional pay off of the whole story. It does not offer clear answer, but the ending is a thing of perfect beauty. If you want an exciting, fresh and new voice in 2018 literature, look no further than Tommy Orange and his first of what I hope are many more books. 
Rating: 5/5