Wednesday, September 30, 2015

media update: September

Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; double asterisks are reserved for the absolute creme de la creme.  Your mileage, as always, may vary.

FICTION

1. Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica:  Softhearted Heidi keeps seeing a homeless teenage girl and her baby around town.  One day, she impulsively invites them to move in with her and her family, and it doesn't turn out so well.  The book jacket calls it "unpredictable", which is true only if you've never read another book in your life.

2. The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon:  Piper is horrified when she receives a call from her sister Margot telling her that their childhood friend Amy murdered her family.  Before Amy kills herself too, she writes a message that says simply "29 Rooms".  Piper knows immediately that Amy is referring to a motel in the town where they grew up, but the motel only had 28 rooms.  Is there a 29th room, and if so, what secret does it hold?  Well, lemme tell you: the stupidest fucking secret you can imagine.  It's not a badly written book, and it's good until the big reveal, but that reveal actually made me laugh out loud...which I'm pretty sure was not the author's intention.

3. Diary of a Haunting by M. Verano:  After her parents divorce, Paige moves to Idaho with her mother and younger brother.  Their new house is infested with bugs, but it soon becomes obvious that there are even bigger issues with living there.  Meh.

4. The Creeping* by Alexandra Sirowy:  When she was 6 years old, Stella and her friend Jeanie disappeared, but only Stella came back.  The police tried to question her, but she just kept repeating "If you hunt for monsters, you'll find them."  Now, 11 years later, Stella's life is disrupted when the fresh corpse of another little girl is discovered, and she tries to recall what happened to her and Jeanie in hopes of preventing yet another tragedy.  The title and cover are kind of cheeseball, but if you like atmospheric mysteries, it'll keep you engrossed until the very last page.

5. Slasher Girls and Monster Boys:  Like all anthologies, this collection of horror stories by popular YA novelists features some standouts and some duds.  My favorites were "Verse Chorus Verse" by Leigh Bardugo, "Sleepless" by Jay Kristoff, "On the I-5" by Kendare Blake, and "The Birds of Azalea Street" by Nova Ren Suma.

6. X by Sue Grafton:  Private investigator Kinsey Millhone has her hands full with several cases, so she's not too happy when she's tasked with going through the files of a now-deceased coworker.  But she finds something interesting that opens up a big and very dangerous can of worms.  Not one of the better entries in this series, largely because a major chunk of it was taken up with information about water conservation.  Timely, I guess, but boring.

7. Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray:  In this sequel to The Diviners, Evie has reinvented herself as the "Sweetheart Seer" and is basking in her newfound fame.  Meanwhile, her friend Henry meets a girl named Ling who has the same Diviner power as he does: walking inside dreams.  But, of course, not all dreams are good ones.  I liked The Diviners much more, but this was still quite enjoyable.

8. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman:  A lives with her roommate B, who's starting to go Single White Female on her.  A also has a boyfriend named C, who's obsessed with porn and a creepy reality show called That's My Partner!  A spends a lot of time watching TV as well, and she's particularly fascinated by commercials for Kandy Kakes, a completely artificial dessert that's more sinister than it seems.  This book was very surreal, and I'm still not sure if I liked it or not, but it certainly was different.

9. Queen of Shadows* by Sarah J. Maas:  This is the fourth book in the Throne of Glass series, and as such, I can't give it a proper review lest I ruin its predecessors.  It continues to be great, though.

10. Bird Box by Josh Malerman:  When mysterious creatures appear that cause people to go insane at the mere sight of them, Malorie finds sanctuary with a group of other survivors.  But when shit goes down and she needs supplies, she blindfolds herself and her children and heads downriver in a small rowboat.  Very creepy, but I would have liked to know the origin of the creatures (although the fact that nobody knows what the hell they are is more realistic) and I'm not sure why it's called Bird Box.  It's not totally out of left field---the survivors keep a box of birds outside as an early warning system---but it doesn't factor into the story enough to give it that title.  I think Blindfolded would work better, but that sounds 50 Shades of Grey-ish so maybe not.  

2015 tally so far: 69 (uh huh huh huh)

NONFICTION

1. Voracious* by Cara Nicoletti:  Part cookbook and part memoir, this is about the author's favorite books and the food contained within.  It's very charming, with lovely watercolor illustrations, and it brought back lots of great memories of some of my favorite books too.  Props for not spoiling Gone Girl, too, unlike everything else ever.

2015 tally so far: 18

MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

1. Say I Love You vol. 9 by Kanae Hazuki

2. Attack on Titan: Before the Fall vol. 5 by Ryo Suzukaze and Satoshi Shiki

3. Wraith by Joe Hill and Charles Paul Wilson III

4. Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

2015 tally so far: 61 volumes of manga and 14 graphic novels

MOVIES

1. Skin Trade:  An investigation into human trafficking takes NYC detective Nick Cassidy (Dolph Lundgren) to Asia, where he teams up with a Thai detective (Tony Jaa).  It's not exactly a high quality movie, nor does it rank among inimitable ass kicker Tony Jaa's best, but it still features some great action scenes.

2. Fury:  During WWII, the odds are against a sergeant called Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) and his small crew as they undertake a mission behind enemy lines.  I was really bored for the first 30 minutes or so, but it picked up and became a solid war flick.  Pre-freakout Shia LaBeouf is surprisingly good in this.

3. The D Train:  Dan (Jack Black) is working as committee chairman for his 20th high school reunion, and it's not going so well.  But one night he sees his old classmate Oliver (James Marsden) on TV in a Banana Boat ad, and he gets a great idea: if Dan can convince Oliver to come to the reunion, maybe everyone will finally think he's cool. So he flies out to LA to track Oliver down, and things get complicated.  This movie did NOT go where I was expecting at all.  I can't get more specific due to spoilers, but during a certain scene, I was just stammering "um...uh...WHAT." 

4. Boulevard:  Nolan (Robin Williams in his last starring role) is a married man who impulsively picks up a male prostitute named Leo, and he tries to come to grips with the sexuality he's been suppressing for his entire life.  Not a particularly cheerful movie, and I kept laughing every time Nolan would offer to pay Leo more and then ask if that was okay (because a prostitute, or anyone else for that matter, is going to say no to more money), but Robin Williams is excellent.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road*:  In a post-apocalyptic world, a dictator called Immortan Joe controls all of the water.  Furiosa (an incredibly badass Charlize Theron) rebels against him by taking his sex slaves on a road trip to freedom.  Along the way, they meet up with Mad Max (delicious Tom Hardy), and he helps them on their quest.  Filled with gleefully anarchic action that's over the top in all the best possible ways.

6. Inherent Vice:  "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator who manages to drag himself out of his drug-fueled haze long enough to look for his missing ex-girlfriend.  It's based on a Thomas Pynchon novel, so you know what that means: lots of dense dialogue and headscratching moments.  G-Vo put it best when he said it's like Elmore Leonard on horse tranquilizers.  I didn't hate it, but I could have used those 148 minutes in a much better way.

7. The Overnight:  While at the park with their young son, Alex and Emily (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) befriend Kurt and Charlotte (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche), who have a little boy of their own.  They accept a dinner invitation, but as the night drags on, they realize Kurt and Charlotte have some ulterior motives.  It's pretty funny, but mostly in a squirmy kind of way.  Bonus points for using a Sparks song ("Tryouts for the Human Race") on the soundtrack.

Side note: sorry, Jason Schwartzman fans, but that's a prosthetic.  Fortunately for you Adam Scott fans, he's wearing one too!

8. True Story:  After being fired from the New York Times for fudging some facts, journalist Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) gets a strange call and finds out that a man named Christian Longo (James Franco) had been using Mike's identity while on the run.  Christian has been arrested for killing his wife and 3 kids, and he wants to talk to Mike about the crime.  It's pretty engrossing, and the performances are very good.

9. The Theory of Everything*:  This biopic of physicist Stephen Hawking focuses primarily on his relationship with his first wife, Jane.  I thought it was going to be "mind broccoli", i.e. something that was good for me but not enjoyable, but it turned out to be really good.  Eddie Redmayne won the best actor Oscar for his role as Hawking, but more importantly. he also redeemed himself for his cringeworthy "whisper like an old man then SHOUT" performance in Jupiter Ascending.

2015 tally so far:  80

VIDEO GAME OF THE MONTH



(NOTE:  This review does not contain any story spoilers except for the basic setup.)

A group of teens is partying at their friend Josh's parents' isolated mountain lodge when they decide to play a cruel prank on Josh's shy sister Hannah.  She's so devastated that she runs out into the cold night, and her twin sister Beth goes after her, but they both disappear.  One year later, on the anniversary, Josh invites everyone back to the lodge for a weekend of fun and remembrance, but they're not alone on the mountain, and they have to survive until help arrives at (you guessed it) dawn.

LOVED

  • Your decisions actually matter in this game.  If someone dies, they're dead for good.  And even the tiniest choice you make can affect things down the road in both good and very bad ways.  I can't give a specific example lest I spoil anything, but one helpful hint:  be nice to Mother Nature and her creatures.  
  • Lots of replay value, and like Heavy Rain, it's almost as much fun to watch as it is to play.
  • As Kotaku put it, if you've ever watched a horror movie and screamed at the characters to do something, here's your chance to actually MAKE them do something!  It's incredibly immersive, and it really is like playing a horror movie.
  • Between chapters, "you" (with "your" back to the camera and wearing a baseball cap and gloves so you can't tell who it really is) have sessions with a shrink, and your answers to his questions can affect the gameplay.  This mechanic is similar to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and it's really fun.
  • Mike and Jessica's raunchy banter is really entertaining.  All they want to do is bone without some cockblocking killer getting in their way, GOD.
  • Gorgeous graphics, including some excellent mocap (and voiceovers) by "real" actors including Hayden Panettiere, Brett Dalton (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot). 
  • The lighting effects are terrific.  Sometimes (assuming I wasn't being pursued,  of course) I'd just stop and wave my flashlight around to admire them.
  • It has plenty of jump scares, but there are some tense and legitimately creepy moments as well.
  • The script was written by horror vet Larry Fessenden, and the dialogue proves that he's actually met a teenager or two in his time.  Sometimes they're a bit more clever than "real" teenagers, but the way they interact with each other is overwhelmingly realistic.
  • I liked most of the characters and wanted to see them live until the end.  (There's a huge exception in the "loathed" section.)  I failed in this mission, though, as four of them died during my playthrough, including my favorite.  :(
  • The controls are great.  One of the most innovative uses is when the screen says "DON'T MOVE!" and you have to remain perfectly still until the warning goes away.  If you accidentally jiggle the controller, well...say goodbye to whichever character you're playing at the time.  Another cool feature: if you have a Playstation camera (which we don't), it will take pictures of your face during certain key moments.
  • The cover art is fantastic.  It reminds me of the glory days of VHS, when I'd go to the video store and sneak into the horror aisle and look at those huge video boxes with the lurid art.

LOATHED

  • It's not particularly challenging, at least if you're familiar with the Playstation controller.  (Full disclaimer: I often mix up the positioning of the circle and square buttons, but I still didn't have much difficulty with this game.)
  • Although the facial animations are generally excellent, they do suffer from occasional "rubber lip" and eyes that are way too shiny at times.
  • One of the characters, Emily, is the WORST HUMAN BEING ALIVE.  She was so bitchy that I kept hoping she'd get killed, but of course she lasted until the very end.  Fucking Emily, man! When Hannah runs away at the beginning, Emily calls out "It was just a prank, Han!" and her voice made me want to leap through the screen and stick a fork in her jugular vein.  Kudos to her voice actress for making her so loathsome that she makes Idi Amin look like a more acceptable dinner date.
  • Whenever the characters are inside, there are tons of dust motes floating around, which is kind of distracting.
  • Did we REALLY need to have Hayden Panettiere in a towel throughout the vast majority of the game?  This didn't bother me so much from a feminist standpoint as it did a practical one, because it must be one magical fuckin' towel to stay on while she's fleeing from a killer.  Shit, I can barely keep a towel wrapped around me for the two minutes it takes to comb out my hair after a shower!  Plus G-Vo has a thing for Hayden P., so I came down with a terminal case of the hmphs every time she appeared in her towel.  (And yes, I know you're saying "How is that fair when YOUR tongue flopped out of your mouth every time Lafayette came onscreen in The Order: 1886?" to which my reply is, "Shhhhh, this is MY blog.")

Until Dawn is a solid and thoroughly enjoyable entry into the survival horror genre, which just happens to be my favorite.  If you've got a PS4 and love horror movies, check it out!  I give it 8 butterfly tattoos out of 10.





Thursday, September 03, 2015

media update: August + some other stuff

I thought I'd updated this blog with news about my dad, but turns out I didn't, so here's the scoop: he has Hodgkin's lymphoma, and if that isn't shitty enough, it's a rare strain.  (Because god forbid anyone in my family have something NORMAL, right?)  He's already had several chemo treatments, and despite the sheer suckiness of the whole s(h)ituation,  he's got a really good attitude and is looking forward to getting better and getting on with his life.  I'm so proud of the way he's handling this, and I'm especially grateful for my stepmother, who's taking good care of him and has been an amazing advocate for his care.  She used to be a lawyer for a major hospital---if you live in the US, you've heard of it---and she is NOT the one to fuck with on this kind of thing.

Good thoughts on his behalf are very much appreciated.  Throw in a few for me and my brother too, if you wouldn't mind.  Not to be whiny, but we've had more than our fair share of this kind of shit and it fucking sucks rancid hobo ass.

In more pleasant news, the reason this media update is a couple of days late is because I was in Las Vegas for a short stay.  It was just me, since G-Vo hates Vegas about as much as I love it, and I don't mind traveling by myself.  I was only there for 3 days, but that's my Vegas limit anyway; after that, it becomes way too difficult to resist the temptation to gamble too much, and because I'm too miserly to waste money on cabs (to/from airport excepted, of course), I hoof it everywhere and my feet are basically sashimi by the end of my Vegas trips. 

I got a lot packed into those 3 days, though:  lots of eating (highlights: my first Shake Shack experience, Pink's, a swanky steak dinner followed by vanilla buttermilk pannacotta for dessert, and best of all, french toast dipped in creme brulee batter), quality time with my dear friend J, a comedy/magic show by Mac King, a 4 hands massage (i.e. two therapists working on me at the same time; pricey as hell but deliriously awesome), and Britney Spears' show "Piece of Me".  Yes, I am a closet (not-so-closeted now, I guess) Britney Spears fan, and I have a soft spot for her because she went through a horrible struggle with mental illness in the public eye and seems to have come out ahead.  The staging was terrific, she did all of my favorite songs (and followed my favorite one, "Toxic", with my second favorite, "Stronger"), and goddamn the woman is fucking HOT.  Tabloids that claim she's fat can fuck off out of here with that bullshit. 

Anyway, I had a great time, despite a very crappy travel day back (flight delay, long wait for the flyaway bus, traffic to the flyaway station, traffic HOME, and then my much needed nap being interrupted by extremely loud work on the roof; seriously, I almost cried) and the fact that, despite winning some decent jackpots here and there, I wound up in the hole.  Not by much, though, so whatever.

On with the media update!  Southern California had a brief respite from the heat, but then it came back full throttle, so I got a LOT of reading done since I was doing that in air conditioned comfort rather than walking 3+ miles every weekday, as is my wont. 

Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; double asterisks are reserved for the absolute creme de la creme.  As ever, your mileage may vary.

FICTION

1. Local Girls by Caroline Zancan:  Longtime friends Maggie, Lindsey, and Nina are hanging out at their favorite dive bar when movie star Sam Decker walks in.  They strike up a conversation with him, and to their astonishment, he sits down at their table.  Over the course of several hours, long buried resentments rise to the surface, and nothing is ever the same for anyone at that table again.  I wanted to like it more than I did.  It certainly isn't bad, but it wasn't what I was expecting, and not in a good way.

2. The Three* by Sarah Lotz:  On a day that comes to be known as Black Thursday, four planes crash simultaneously.  Only four people survive: three children and one woman who dies shortly afterwards, leaving behind an ominous phone message.  Some people think the children are miracles, but others think they're signs of an impending apocalypse.  One thing's for sure, though: there's something wrong with them.  Utterly fascinating; I had a very hard time putting it down.

Side note:  I read the author's most recent book, Day Four, last month, and it wasn't until halfway through that I found out it was a sequel of sorts to this one.  You could read them out of order, but I wouldn't recommend it, as I think some foreknowledge of the events in The Three would add a lot to your reading of Day Four.

3. Little Black Lies by Sandra Block:  Dr. Zoe Goldman is a resident in training at a psychiatric ward.  She's put in charge of a new patient who murdered her mother, which makes Zoe start thinking about her own mother's mysterious death.  She begins to investigate, but she's not prepared for what she finds.  It was okay.

4. Mindwalker by A.J. Steiger:  Lain is a teenage girl who's in training to become a Mindwalker, a therapist who can access a patient's brain and delete traumatic memories.  Her classmate Steve asks her to help him off the record, and she agrees, but it turns out that he's linked to a government conspiracy.  The premise was better than the execution; I probably won't bother with any future installments.

5. In a Dark, Dark Wood** by Ruth Ware:  Nora is a writer who's a loner and likes it that way.  When she receives an invitation to an old friend's "hen do" (bachelorette party to us non-Brits), she really doesn't want to go, but she feels obligated.  It's being held at a creepy glass house set deep in the woods, and tensions among the group build to the point that Nora begins making plans to leave, but...well, I don't want to spoil it.  It's the kind of clever, excruciatingly suspenseful book that makes you want to call in sick just so you can read it in one sitting.  Keep your schedule clear before you start. 

Side note:  This is probably the fifth book I've read this year that has a comparison to Gone Girl somewhere on the cover, and I'm getting awfully sick of it.  It's just lazy shorthand, and it's almost never accurate.  (There was one exception to this rule, but I don't want to say what book it was because it's a bit of a spoiler.)  The only thing this book has in common with Gone Girl is that it's an excellent book written by a woman.

6. The Witch Hunter by Virginia Boecker:  Elizabeth Grey (wow, a heroine with a normal name in a YA novel!) is a witch hunter, tasked by her king to bring witches to justice.  But when she's accused of being a witch herself, she's thrown in prison.  A notorious wizard frees her under one condition: she has to break the curse that someone has placed upon him.  Decent enough that I'll read the inevitable sequel; I'm assuming it's a trilogy like all other YA books these days.

7. The Barter* by Siobhan Adcock:  Bridget gave up her job to stay at home with her baby daughter, and she doesn't regret it...until a ghost starts haunting her house.  Over 100 years ago, beautiful Rebecca married a childhood friend, but a careless remark she made to her husband on their wedding night changed their relationship forever.  What do these two women have in common?  Well, you'll have to read this book to find out, and I definitely recommend you do so, because it's really good.  I know the whole ghost angle sounds goofy as fuck, but it isn't, and it legitimately freaked me out when I was reading in bed late at night.

8. The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich:  When Morgan comes home one day, her blood-covered dogs greet her at the door.  She thinks they might have injured each other, but the truth is even worse: her fiance Bennett has been mauled to death.  She tries to track down Bennett's parents to tell them about his death, but in the process she discovers that he wasn't who she thought he was.  The mystery has a very unusual conclusion that I don't think I'd ever seen before, but a certain person in the story is so obviously involved that the author might as well have scrawled "[name] is a VILLAIN" on the page where they make their first appearance.

2015 tally so far: 59

NONFICTION

1. Fat Girl Walking* by Brittany Gibbons:  The author discusses her life, ranging from her unusual childhood (including an unfortunate use of Scotch tape) to her current role as a body image advocate.  It's refreshingly candid and often uproariously funny.

2. Down the Rabbit Hole by Holly Madison:  The former Playboy bunny spills the tea on her former life as one of Hugh Hefner's live-in girlfriends.  It's actually pretty interesting and loaded with juicy gossip.

3. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget* by Sarah Hepola:  A very well-written, thoughtful memoir about the author's struggle with alcoholism and how she tried to redefine herself once she was sober.

4. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:  I love octopuses, so I enjoyed this look at what makes them so smart and interesting.  One of the coolest facts:  the slits of their pupils always remain horizontal, no matter what position the octopus is in.  Their eyeballs have balance receptors that make them shift in response to gravity and motion.

5. You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day:  The "queen of the geeks" talks about her lonely childhood and how she found acceptance on the internet and through online gaming. 

6. Stir by Jessica Fechtor:   While she was running on a treadmill, an aneurysm burst in the author's brain and almost killed her.  As she slowly recovered from numerous surgeries and setbacks, she found solace in cooking.  A lovely little memoir filled with delicious recipes.

2015 tally so far: 17

MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

1. Ajin: Demi-Human* vols. 2-5 by Gamon Sakurai and Tsuina Miura

2. Citrus* vol. 3 by Saburouta

3. In Clothes Called Fat* by Moyoco Anno

4. Black Rose Alice vol. 5 by Setona Mizushiro

5. Spell of Desire vol. 5 (final volume) by Tomu Ohmi

2015 tally so far: 59 volumes of manga and 12 graphic novels

MOVIES

1. Run All Night:  When his estranged son is targeted by the mob, retired hitman Jimmy Conlon must try to save him.  Not remotely essential, but it's decent, and of course Liam Neeson and Joel Kinnaman (who will always be Holder from The Killing to me) are quite nice to look at.

2. Love Is Strange:  When the Catholic school where George works finds out that he's just married Ben, his partner of many years, he's immediately fired.  No longer able to afford their home, they're forced to sell and live separately with friends and family, since nobody has space for both of them to stay, and it takes a toll on everyone involved.  It's pretty slow and the ending is kind of WTF-y, but (of course) John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are terrific as Ben and George.

Side note: there's a scene where Ben is talking to his nephew's wife while she's trying to work on her new novel, and the expressions that flit across her face reminded me of when I'm trying to read in the break room and some oblivious twit natters at me.  Dude, take a fucking hint!

3. Insurgent:  Because this is a direct sequel to Divergent, I can't review it properly lest I spoil its predecessor.  It was pretty meh.

4. Faults*:  Ansel Roth is an expert on cults and mind control who's become jaded by his work and a string of personal misfortunes.  After giving a lecture, he's approached by a couple who are desperate to save their daughter Claire from a cult called Faults.  He agrees to take on the job, and he kidnaps Claire and keeps her in a hotel room to try to deprogram her.  This is a very hard movie to review without spoilers, so I'll just add that Leland Orser is absolutely fantastic as Ansel.  I haven't been that impressed by a performance by an actor I wasn't familiar with (though it turns out, after checking his IMDB page, that I'd seen him in supporting roles before) since Michael Parks in Red State.

5. Dracula Untold:  In a desperate bid to save his kingdom, Prince Vlad (Luke Evans) becomes a vampire.  Dumb but enjoyable.

Side note: there's a scene where Vlad's son hands him a food item, and G-Vo said "What the hell?  Is that a TACO?"  It was not in fact a taco, but I still couldn't stop laughing at the thought of Dracula chowing down on a fuckin' taco!

6. Adult Beginners:  After his company falls apart, Jake moves in with his pregnant sister  and reluctantly agrees to serve as nanny to her 3-year-old son.  Not bad, but not remotely essential.

7. Into the Storm:  A group of storm trackers gets caught up in one of the worst tornados in recorded history.  An entertaining slice of disaster porn.

8. Unfinished Business:  After Dan Trunkman (Vince Vaughn) quits his job, he opens his own company.  He and his two associates, horny older guy Tim (Tom Wilkinson, as ever stealing the show) and sweet but dim Mike (Dave Franco), go on a business trip to seal a major deal, but things go awry.

This had some of the worst reviews I've ever seen on Netflix, but it wasn't bad at all!  Sure, there are some touchy feely moments involving Dan's family that feel shoehorned in, but there are also some really funny parts too.  You could do far worse if you're just looking for a fun comedy that doesn't require thinking at all.

2015 tally so far:  71