Wednesday, September 30, 2009

media update: September

Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; your mileage may vary. Every movie this month got a star, although two of them made me want to lock up the sharp objects in my home.


1. I'm So Happy for You by Lucinda Rosenfeld: Wendy is a woman who's always been secretly delighted that her best friend, Daphne, is kind of a fuckup. But then Daphne gets engaged and starts renovating a gorgeous NYC townhome, and Wendy is jealous as hell. (If this is ever made into a movie, I certainly hope "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful" by Morrissey is on the soundtrack.) I didn't much care for it, since I found both main characters irritating, but if you plan on reading it, be warned that the blurb on the back cover includes a big spoiler.

2. Evil at Heart* by Chelsea Cain: Cop Archie Sheridan is languishing in a mental hospital after failing to catch charismatic serial killer Gretchen Lowell. They have a history together: Gretchen tortured him to the brink of death and then inexplicably turned herself in. But she's been on the loose for months, and when it looks like she's back to her old tricks, Archie checks himself out of the hospital and goes on the hunt. Then he discovers a cult devoted to Gretchen, and he begins to wonder if she's really at fault, or if her worshippers are taking their adoration to a whole new level. The first two books had me biting my nails to the quick, and this one is no exception. Chelsea Cain is one of those authors that makes me wish I read more slowly so I could savor her books longer. (And before you ask, no, I can't make myself read slower. Believe me, I've tried!) Tense, gory, gripping fun. I can't stress this strongly enough, though: absolutely not for the faint of heart. Chelsea Cain is one of the few authors who can give Karin Slaughter a run for her money as far as inventive bloodshed goes. Five words to help you decide if you can handle her books, or if you should run screaming in the opposite direction: swizzle stick in the urethra.

Side note: you don't have to have read the previous two books, Heartsick and Sweetheart, to enjoy this one, but I'd definitely recommend it. It helps to know the characters and their back stories.

3. Tethered by Amy MacKinnon: Clara is a mortician who has kept other people at arm's length her entire life. But then a strange little girl named Trecie starts hanging out at the mortuary, and when it turns out that Trecie is in big trouble, Clara has to choose between helping her or staying safe behind her wall of isolation. Even though it was awfully melodramatic, I really enjoyed it...until the final chapter, which was so unbelievably hokey I actually said "Oh, come the fuck on!" out loud. (Fortunately, I was reading on my couch at the time, and not in the break room at work.) Despite my disappointment, I'd still give this author another try; there's some definite promise here.

4. Huge* by James W. Fuerst: Eugene "Huge" Smalls is a teenage boy with a temper and a fondness for old detective novels. When the retirement home where his grandmother lives is vandalized, she gives him twenty dollars to solve the case. I have to quote the Kirkus Reviews blurb here, because it sums this book up perfectly: "Fuerst pulls off the same trick as the 2005 film Brick in making his protagonist's suburban surroundings and mundane foes seem as hard-boiled and corrupt as those in the Chandler novels Huge treasures." I loved Huge, both the character and the novel; it's one of the most original I've ever read. This is the author's debut, and if he's this good right off the bat, his next book will be amazing.

5. Wait Until Twilight by Sang Pak: A teenage boy learns about deformed triplets in his town, and when he goes to investigate, he becomes physically ill at the sight of the babies. But he can't stop thinking about them, and when he meets their sinister, much older brother, he decides that he has to save them. A compelling plot, but there's an awful lot of filler, so it was ultimately a bit unsatisfying.

6. Dexter by Design by Jeff Lindsay: Someone is leaving artfully arranged corpses all over Miami, and when Dexter tries to track down the culprit, he finds himself in a spot of trouble. This is the first new Dexter book I've read since getting into the TV series, and I have to say, the books are terrible compared to the show. Props to the author for coming up with the concept and all, but this book (and the last one, which was one of the worst books I've ever read) lead me to believe he isn't even trying anymore.


1. Untangling My Chopsticks by Victoria Abbott Riccardi: The author spent a year in Kyoto learning how to prepare kaiseki, the beautifully arranged food that accompanies tea ceremonies. Reading this reminded me of how much I loved Kyoto, and only my finances kept me from hopping the next plane to Japan. Osaka was fun, Tokyo was amazing...but Kyoto was one of the most beautiful places I've ever been in my life.

2. Tattoo Machine by Jeff Johnson: A memoir about the author's career as an artist at Sea Tramp Tattoo Company, Portland's oldest parlor. Some of the writing is seriously florid ("[Tattooing is] an art form that has undergone a rebirth and is shaking the natal mucus from its drying wings"), but it's an interesting look behind the scenes. Man, between this and Kat Von D's reality show LA Ink, I am really jonesing to get another tattoo.

Speaking of Kat Von D, I picked up her new fragrances at Sephora. I like Sinner a lot, but Saint makes me want to nom my fuckin' arm off. It's like an orgasm made of caramel.

3. Homer's Odyssey* by Gwen Cooper: The author already had two cats, but her vet managed to talk her into adopting a tiny black kitten whose eyes had become so seriously infected that they had to be removed. She named the kitten Homer, and he wound up teaching her a lot about life and love. Even though all of the cats are still alive at the end (I don't consider this a spoiler, since the author blurb mentions that she lives in Manhattan with her husband and the cats), I was crying through most of this book. The chapter where she's trying to get back to her apartment and rescue the cats after 9/11 is especially heartbreaking.

4. The Guinea Pig Diaries* by A.J. Jacobs: A hysterical collection of essays on the author's many experiments, from posing as Shine actor Noah Taylor at the 1997 Oscars to adhering to the Radical Honesty movement, in which you're not supposed to lie about anything, even if it hurts someone else's feelings or gets you into trouble. My favorite was "My Outsourced Life", in which he hired virtual assistants in India to help him with complaints to the Colorado Tourist Board, buying birthday presents for his son...and arguing with his wife.


1. A Perfect Day for Love Letters by George Asakura

2. Asterios Polyp* by David Mazzucchelli: I was kind of meh on this until the middle, when it took a turn for the brilliant. As one reviewer put it, imagine that someone gave John Updike blotter acid and a box of colored pencils, and you have this book.

3. The Walking Dead* vol. 10 by Robert Kirkman

4. Love Com vol. 14 by Aya Nakahara

5. High School Debut vol. 11 by Kazune Kawahara

6. All Nippon Air Line by Kei Azumaya: That acronym is no accident; this manga is about an airline staffed exclusively by gay men. Oh, Japan!

7. Delivery Cupid* by C. J. Michalski


1. Watchmen*: Based on the incredibly awesome graphic novel by Alan Moore (who, as always, refused to have his name attached to the movie; he's a genius, but he's also a bit of a crankyboots), this film is set in an alternate 1985, where Nixon is serving his fifth term. When a former superhero is murdered, his colleagues start investigating. We weren't expecting too much from this because the reviews were so bad, but it turned out to be really good! It's visually dazzling, and although I cried foul when I heard they'd changed the ending from the book, I think it actually worked better. Most of the acting ranges from serviceable to wooden, but as the deeply disturbed Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley is Oscar-worthy. If you watch this, be sure to pick up the director's cut and not the shorter version that ran in theaters. For once, the extra footage makes a difference.

2. Duplicity*: Clive Owen and Julia Roberts play spies working for rival pharmaceutical companies. When they hear about a new product that promises to make hundreds of millions of dollars, they decide to steal the formula and retire in comfort, but things don't go quite as planned. A twisty flick with a truly surprising ending. Bonus: Clive Owen in glasses!

...what? I has a fetish. Clive Owen sans lunettes is sexy as hell...intimidatingly so. Clive Owen in glasses says, "I may be sexy as hell, but I have weak eyes just like you. Come to me, kitten, and let us be myopic together."

3. Crank 2: High Voltage*: This sequel starts right where the previous movie left off, showing Jason Statham falling from a plane and hitting the ground. A van pulls up, and a group of men scrape him off the pavement with a shovel and take him away. They remove his heart and replace it with an artificial one that requires a jolt every hour or it will stop. Cue the jumper cables on the nipples, the sexing on a horse track, the old lady frottage, the grabbing of electrical wires...

Yeah, this is not the most believable movie. It's stupid and loud and crass and offensive and intensely violent. It's also one of the least boring movies I've ever seen. I think it was written by a 12-year-old boy who skipped his Ritalin and drank a 2-liter of Mountain Dew instead. ("Okay, I want some explosions and then boobies! Oh, and more boobies, heh heh, and then Jason Statham turns into Godzilla and fights some Asian dude, and skreeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, car crash! Okay, okay, severed head! Ron Jeremy! BOOBIES!") The star I gave it is not to be construed as a mark of quality, but considering how audacious it is, and how much it made me laugh, I figured it deserved one.

4. The Uninvited*: A teenage girl named Anna is released from a mental hospital, where she was receiving treatment after attempting to commit suicide. She returns home to her father and older sister, and to her horror, her dead mother's former nurse has started a relationship with her dad. Anna and her sister suspect that the nurse had something to do with their mother's death, so they decide to investigate. PG-13 remakes of foreign horror films are usually skippable (The Ring notwithstanding), but this was a suspenseful, clever surprise.

5. The Wrestler*: A dark portrait of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a washed-up pro wrestler who works at a grocery store during the week and wrestles on the weekends, even though his health is failing. After a heart bypass, his doctor tells him he has to quit entirely, but he can't seem to give it up. Be warned, it is almost relentlessly grim, but I gave it a star because of its excellent performances.

6. Antichrist*: Yeah, um, speaking of grim movies...this makes The Wrestler look like Toy Story. I've had kind of a hard-on against Lars von Trier ever since I saw Breaking the Waves, which is one of the most misogynistic movies I've ever seen. Reviews of his other films didn't do anything to change my mind; it seems like women in his universe exist solely to be raped and/or murdered. Antichrist isn't much of an exception, but in a bizarre way, it's got a fierce streak of feminism in it.

The first five or so minutes, shot in slow motion black and white and set to a haunting aria, are stunning. Shots of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg making love (including a graphic penetration shot, which I thought was unnecessary; not that I have a problem with sexy times, but it just seemed like the director was being all "Ooh, I'm so naughty!") are intercut with scenes of the window in their toddler's nursery blowing open in the wind. Snow begins to drift in, and fascinated, the child crawls out of his crib and onto the windowsill...and falls to his death.

The couple (their names are never revealed; in the credits they're just listed as "He" and "She") is drowning in grief, especially her. He takes her off the pills her psychiatrist prescribed for her, claiming that they're merely obscuring the root of the problem, and since he's a therapist himself, he decides that cognitive therapy is in order. He takes her to their cabin in the woods, but instead of getting better, she gets worse. WAY worse. She descends deeper into madness, and things get very, very, very ugly. You may think those three "very"s are overkill, but trust me when I say that I could kill off the character limit in this entry typing "very" and it wouldn't be enough. There are scenes in this movie that would make Eli Roth puke.

So where's that streak of feminism come in? Well, as the movie progresses, you learn more about the couple's relationship. She gave up on her thesis on gynophobia because he didn't support her; he took her off the drugs that kept her insanity at bay (though, to be honest, she's so profoundly disturbed that it was only a matter of time); he's condescending. Not that this remotely excuses what happens, but it makes it a little more understandable. I don't think Ms. is going to give von Trier a lifetime achievement award any time soon, but at least She isn't one of his typical martyrs.

I'll let the film school wanks untangle the massive snarls of symbolism in this movie. As for me, as much as I hate to admit it, I thought this movie was brilliant (a few groanworthy artsy fartsy touches aside, like a talking fox that's eating its own entrails), and Charlotte Gainsbourg is phenomenal. It's one of the most harrowing movies I've ever seen, and I'm still thinking about it days after watching it, but I never, ever want to see it again.


1. "Suck My Dick!" by Dickheadz

2. "Paparazzi" by Lady Gaga: Anybody else see her perform this on the Video Music Awards? Christ, if it wasn't for Kanyegate, I bet everyone would be talking about that instead. I think she would have been kicked out of the Weimar Republic cabaret scene for being too fucking weird.


...well, technically the last three months, because this one took a looooooong time to finish!

(The following review contains spoilers, though nothing relating to the ending or any major plot points.)

In this fantastic RPG, you play a Japanese teenager (you get to choose his name at the beginning of the game; I used my own, which made it rather funny when a classmate cooed "I...I love you, [CQ]-kun") who has just moved to the small town of Inaba. Your parents have transferred overseas for their jobs, so you move in with your uncle and six-year-old niece. Everyone at school is fascinated by you because you're from the big city, and you make fast friends with tomboy Chie, lovable klutz Yosuke, and shy beauty Yukiko. They tell you about the rumor sweeping school: if you watch the Midnight Channel at (duh) midnight when it's raining, you'll see the image of your soulmate.

Almost immediately after your arrival, weird things begin happening. The body of a famous newscaster is found hanging from an antenna, and soon afterwards, the corpse of a teenage girl turns up in a similar state. People claim that they saw the victims on the Midnight Channel shortly before their deaths, and you discover that you can enter television sets, where you wind up in a strange land populated by monsters called Shadows...and a cuddly mascot character named Teddie. It becomes evident that this place holds the key to the murders, and you and your friends set out to solve the mystery once and for all. Along the way, you add new members to your team: former idol Rise, misunderstood thug Kanji, and amateur detective Naoto.

Now, it may seem like an alternate reality populated by monsters would be a dangerous place for a group of teenagers, and it is, but you have a big advantage. Each character has their own "Shadow": a secret part of them that they're afraid to acknowledge. For example, Yukiko comes across as aloof, but her shadow is a monstrous princess who wants nothing more than to be saved by a man. And Kanji thinks he might be gay, so his shadow is a flamboyant, musclebound, rose-bedecked creature who purrs "Mmmm, give me more!" before pounding on you. Once the characters defeat their Shadows, they accept that part of themselves, and the Shadow becomes a Persona: an ally with special skills who will fight on their behalf.

But it's not enough to just collect Personas. (You're the only character who gets more than one.) You also have to develop social links, which allow you to make bigger and better Personas in a process so confusing that I left it entirely in G's capable hands. Social links are created by making friends and spending time with them. You can also form romantic attachments (though, unlike Fable 2 or Rockstar's brilliant Bully, you can't woo other guys, which is a shame), join clubs, and work at part-time jobs to earn money and boost your stats. It got a bit hectic trying to juggle school, extracurricular reading, three part-time jobs, basketball club, music club, chilling with friends, AND killing monsters, but that was part of the fun.

As you can tell from the fact that G and I sank almost 150 hours of our lives into it, we LOVED this game. The storyline is intriguing, and there are plenty of poignant and funny moments sprinkled throughout. My two favorite scenes are a cross-dressing beauty pageant and a school campout where Kanji gets a nosebleed over you and Yosuke in your bathing suits. (As any anime/manga fan worth his or her soy sauce can tell you, a nosebleed means the sufferer is having dirty thoughts. No, I don't know the origins of this myth.) The music can be repetitive, but it's so enjoyable that I didn't mind. And the voice acting is top notch, with the jarring exception of Chie. The other voice actors make up for it though, especially Yuri Lowenthal as Yosuke, Johnny Yong Bosch as bumbling detective Adachi, and Troy Baker as Kanji. (Anyone who watches a lot of dubbed anime should recognize those names!) Aside from fusing new Personas, it's a very user-friendly game, even for RPG n00bs like me. Even the instruction book is terrific; it explains the various honorifics used in the game and certain items which might confuse Americans, like the kotatsu (a heated table used during winter).

Will RPGs ever replace survival horror as my video game genre of choice? Hell to the no. But if more RPGs were like Persona 4, it would be a much closer race.