Sunday, July 21, 2013

FILM REVIEW: The Conjuring (2013) - James Wan

The horror genre is one that suffers from weight issues. It's a genre that is difficult to find craft and balance in. Many of the films take themselves too seriously or not seriously enough. A tinge to the left can have the audience laughing at it's disingenuous, while a tinge to the right can have them groaning in disgust. In essence, in the horror genre, it's very easy to break the diving board.

Now, I've been a fan of James Wan's since his career began. As anybody who knows me knows, I am an avid fan of the Saw franchise, in particular, the first three films (the first directed by James, and the original trilogy all written by his longtime partner in crime, Leigh Whannell). With his second film, I thought Dead Silence took itself a little too seriously, but it established an almost vaudeville voice in horror for Wan that separated itself from Saw.

Wan's fourth film, Insidious, saw Wan finally being taken seriously outside of his Saw fame. While lightning doesn't strike twice, it was Wan's second horror film (the first being Saw) to be made for under $2 million and making back around $100 million. One of the selling points of Insidious is that it tries something new with horror, and where that is concerned, I give it all the credit. Personally, I felt Insidious lost it's traction in it's third act, mainly because of the decision made to CGI the demon, and the amount of horror that was lost to the imagination. 

James Wan's balance is perfected in The Conjuring.

While The Conjuring isn't the perfect horror film, it is by far and away one of the best in the last few years, and definitely the best in Wan's history to date. It continues to feature Wan's vaudeville-type demons that started in Dead Silence, but it doesn't go overboard by showing them too much, and it has just the right amount of humor to balance out it's darkness.

The film follows the story of the Warrens (portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), real-life paranormal investigators who researched several famous "hauntings" (The Amityville Horror, and The Haunting In Connecticut being two other media pieces based off their cases). In The Conjuring, they come to the assistance of the Perron family, who begin experiencing disturbing things at their new home in Rhode Island.

While I don't praise many horror performances, I have to continue to give Vera Farmiga (Orphan, Up in the Air, Bates Motel) the credit she deserves. She has been one of my favorite actresses of the past decade, and she definitely doesn't disappoint here. 

In contrast with Insidious, and for the sake of argument, The Conjuring isn't anything new. But where some see this as a detractor, I see it as a perfection of approach to styles and tropes within the horror genre, similar to how Alfonso Duralde defended the film with, "...but Fred Astaire didn't invent tap dancing," James Wan did not invent the ghost/demon/exorcism style, but he damn near perfected it. 

While James Wan is now moving on to doing bigger budget films (Insidious 2 comes out in September, but Fast & Furious 7 is next on his production list), I personally cannot wait to see what else he comes up with in the horror genre. I would love to see him move outside of ghosts and try a thriller, as he is quite on point with his techniques in building suspense. 

Go see this film and support well-done horror films. Or be stuck with remakes of When A Stranger Calls. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Buy This Land (2013) - Chi-Dooh Li

This book is the summation of the American dream - an incredible, unexpected unlikely journey that ends with giving back, with paying it forward for future generations. It is the autobiography of Chi-Dooh Li, a man whose beginnings were just as extraordinary as his achievements.

When he was just a baby, he was to be left behind in China, with his grandfather, while the rest of his family traveled for his father's new job. Chi-Dooh's stepmother kidnapped him and brought him with them just before the Chinese came under Communist rule. Had he been left behind, as his grandfather wanted, Chi-Dooh's life path would have been very, very different. The family traveled often as Chi-Dooh grew up, going through Sydney, Taipei, Guatemala, and Bogota before Chi-Dooh followed in his brothers footsteps and traveled to America for higher education. While here, Chi-Dooh got his degree as a lawyer, found God, and started a family of his own.

When an Argentinian pastor spoke at his church, Chi-Dooh felt called to find a way to help the poor in Central America. This is what led to the founding of Agros International. What started as an experiment in Guatemala blossomed and expanded to other countries. Focused on long-term sustainability, Agros buys a parcel of land and provides expertise to farmers who then gradually pay for their portion of the land out of the profits they make on their crops.

Anyone who has tried to fight poverty knows that this did not come easily, but Chi-Dooh's experience with founding Agros has proven effective. It changes the system which has kept people poor, and it motivates the poor to work for land of their own. Chi-Dooh does not summarize in his book, either, which is fantastic if you are someone who desires to take on such altruistic goals yourself. He details all of the steps, each foot forward that was met with several steps back, each victory and each frustration, before being able to make a difference.

If there's anything to be taken away from Chi-Dooh's story, it's that anyone can make a difference.  The news has been filled with a lot of depressing stories recently, but there is still good going on in the world. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to see how they can make a difference, who want to read about the good that is going on in the world, or to people who just want to read an inspiring, uplifting, true story.

Agros International still operates and expands today. More information here:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Way Of Men (2012) - Jack Donovan

What is masculinity? This book claims to have the answer, and Jack Donovan gives his version of the truth in a way that reads unbiased. He even prefaces the book with commentary, stating that the book is less about touting and self-pity, and is more geared towards answering the simple question: "If men are a certain way, and there is a way to be manly then 'What is The Way of Men?' While reading, I found truth in Donovan's words even when I didn't want to, and although the book claims to be a treatise on masculinity, it reads more like a commentary on modern Western society.

It delves heavily into the concept of alpha and beta males, and one of the more interesting epiphanies of the book is it's discussion of how most men who would have been considered alpha, and spread their seed successfully in primitive days are now the men behind bars.

Boys need to run, play, and engage in their environments in ways that offer danger, struggle, but most importantly, risk. Donovan describes how modern society has made war too dangerous, how technology has driven exciting jobs into safety and boredom, and how, for the first time in history, the average man can afford to be careless. "Would pornography lose it's appeal without the possibility of sex?" Donovan asks, and offers similar questions about war and survival. This isn't just about men, though, this is about our society as a whole. There is a world outside of the cubicles and boxes many of us find ourselves stuck in, a world full of danger, hope, and love, but because of that awful thing - comfort, many of us will not find it.

In regards to masculinity, this begs the question, can masculinity exist in an intellectual society? What I mean by this is, can we ever reach an equilibrium that offers a world where boys can experience life, in all of its danger, at the same time that we live in a world that maximizes efficiency? I remember going camping as a young boy, and my friend and I, much against the wills of our parents, would go climbing on the side cliffs above Lake Superior. If we fell, we would have most definitely died, but it was fun, exhilarating, and remains a fond memory. If we coddle and protect each other too much, we'll find ourselves lacking both experience, joy, and passion throughout life, which also affects efficiency. So, in essence, yes, masculinity is necessary in an intellectual society even though it is painted as a negative or is only socially acceptable when it's been emasculated or feminized.

The Element Of Women In Competetion

One of my favorite sections of the book talks about how placing women in competition with men changes men's focus from impressing other men to impressing women, or losing interest altogether and doing just enough to get by. Either way this inevitably ends up changing strategies. Being someone who doesn't particularly enjoy peacocking, I can relate to this apathy on the grounds that I've seen what a pair of breasts does to coworkers.

Yet again, though, this begs us to answer how to integrate masculinity into modern society. We live in a world where all jobs and careers are viewed as competitions between sexes (some more than others... see: Engineering and Nursing). This applies to college, especially. We say things like, "Oh, more women are going to college than men and getting degrees, that must mean that because we now live in a more feminized society that men are just becoming lazy." None of these answers strives to look at the "WHY," behind why men are dropping out of society, colleges, marriages, commitments, fatherhood, etc. and they only further attempt to say that the only way we can get them back is by teaching them "compassion" and "non-violence" and "how to be a good role model (as long as that role model is a feminized version of a man)" 

The Demonization

Here's the thing I think Jack and I both agree on - masculinity and femininity are not subjective things. You can't do one thing and say that that's your redefined definition of masculinity or that that's your definition of femininity. Life, biology, and history just don't work that way.

Masculinity has become something that is progressively demonized by modern culture, but is still heavily respected amongst men, which has lead many men into a depressing silence, where they feel they must comply with the expectations and demands of society in order to properly be integrated and accepted in the modern world. You don't have to look much further than the recent, "Don't Be That Guy," campaign to see that men are always the default aggressors and women are the default victims. Strange, how that seems so anti-feminist in and of itself.

The second half of the book spends much of it's time focusing on how one can stand up and be a paragon of masculinity in the modern world compared to the days of tribes. You might have to sacrifice comfort, especially since you're more than likely to deal with radicals claiming that by you acting a certain way that you're imposing on their rights, but it's worth it in the end, and you'll be a much happier man for it.

There's too much fantastic content in this book for me to review it all. I could honestly sit here all day, and type half a novel myself on all of the amazing points in gender topics that Donovan brings to light, but I'd be doing the book a disservice, so I'll just recommend it highly. It's a great book for men to know that they're not alone, and it's a great book for women to better understanding the modern male, how gender relations have worked in the past comparatively with how they work today, and how they benefit a lot more than they probably think from our current government.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Pieta (2012) - Kim Ki-duk

Each year, there's always a standout film that is easily my favorite film from that year. Last year it was Moonrise Kingdom, the year before that it was Melancholia, before that it was Black Swan, and before that it was Slumdog Millionaire. Pieta has given Moonrise Kingdom a run for it's money on that list, but inevitably does not succeed to usurp it.

The South Korean revenge drama by seasoned director, Kim Ki-duk, is about Kang-do, a young man who takes pleasure in the brutality he inflicts on debtors to loan sharks. One day, a woman shows up at his front door, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him when he was a boy. 

Whenever I recommend films for people, or I say, "We need to watch this movie!" a lot of my friends are accustomed to saying "No," not because they don't want to watch a movie with me, but because I've more than likely selected a brutal, depressing film, and people don't always like to watch that.  One time a friend suggested I watch "House of Sand and Fog," and that I'd like it, because "it's depressing." I disliked that film a fair amount because it didn't feel genuine. It was sad, yeah, but that's not what makes a film great. I felt like the director was standing over my shoulder, whispering in my ear throughout the entire film, "Are you sad yet? ...How about now? ...And now?" It felt like the director was trying to make me sad, and not trying to tell a great story.

Pieta is well done enough for me to be okay with what it gets away with it, but it was riding dangerously close on that line. There is lots of great symbolism, and forehsadowing, and I can't tell whether it was the film's brutal grit, or the ending that got to me. I think it was the ending, because this film is kind of split into two halves, and it's the second half where I felt this film kind of derailed. There is a significant point where the film stops being a psychological drama and instead becomes the revenge flick that South Koreans are quite well known for. While this is an interesting turn of events, and it flows quite naturally in the context of the film, it feels a hair too predictable, and by that point, it felt the writer/director had painted himself into a corner, and so the ending ends up feeling a little disingenuous.

This far from ruins the film, though. It is an extremely well done piece of cinema, and if you can handle all of the grotesque and sexually explicit situations that this film presents, I recommend it highly.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Ham On Rye (1982) - Charles Bukowski

I've read many of Bukowski's short stories and poems, but I figured I should start his novels with the one that's hailed as his best. Ham On Rye stars Bukowski's alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, who is seen throughout his other novels and short stories, following him from his earliest memories up until his first job.

The book continues Bukowski's straight-forward prose, but within his tales of teenage angst and budding sexuality, as with all of his work, there's a unique poignancy to the characters Chinaski encounters (and Chinaski himself). Perhaps the most telling thing of Chinaski is not how he thinks, but how he acts towards women.

Being able to get inside his head, we hear his intense attraction towards almost every woman he meets, yet every time he is offered sex, he refuses. One example is when a teacher of his offers him sex in order to get him to keep up with his studies. Another time, he stays at a friends place, and hits on his mom until she offers him sex (which he then refuses). It could be because his parents Christianity is so far embedded in him, that he feels shameful, although I doubt that, considering how vehemently he despises his parents (and religion). I think there's a romantic deeply engrained in Chinaski (as I believe the same with Bukowski) but he cloaks it behind his idea of stoicism in masculinity, and while he has the burning temptation to have sex, he wants it to be genuine and not something cheap, bartered with a teacher, or taken from an easy cougar.

The most telling part of this is Chinaski's love for literature, and writing. It seems to be the only thing that helps him escape this imprisoned idea of stoic masculinity, the bluffing, the fighting, the sport. And so he begins his own set of stories and poems, which his abusive father eventually finds. Disgusted by their content, he throws Chinaski out of the house, where Chinaski fends for himself, barely surviving hotel room to hotel room, living off of alcohol and writing.

One of the reasons why I love Bukowski's writing so much is that he finds beauty in the mundane, the poignancy in every day life that others would just write off as "boring." The same vein contains the equally passionate love I have for David Lynch's film work, and it's no surprise that Bukowski named Eraserhead as one of his favorite films (although he hated film, in general). Both Lynch and Bukowski explore the surreal, idiosyncratic nature of humans, but instead of it coming across as forced or simply done for the sake of being different, as many artists who try to imitate them come across, both Bukowski and Lynch have a genuine heart for their work, and it shows.

The story ends on an equally mundane and poetic note. Chinaski walks into a penny arcade and begins playing a boxing game with a young Mexican boy. He feels this drive to pummel the Mexican boy into the ground, this drive to win. He philosophically questions why it's so important to win a stupid boxing game, and he answers himself with, "...just because it is." Chinaski loses, and leaves.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

MUSIC REVIEW: Ice On The Dune (2013) - Empire Of The Sun

The follow-up to the successful Walking On A Dream, Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore return after 4 years of silence. They've been known for combining experimental electronics with groovy riffs to form their unique sound, but this time around sees them dropping the avant-garde experimentation for a more mainstream pop approach. As Steele said in an interview, they'd like to see some top 40 action with this album.

Album opener, Lux, and album closer, Keep A Watch are really the only two tracks that have some semblance of their earlier work. DNA is a nice transition from Lux into the rest of the album, as it's a sort of segue between the two sounds.

Where this album falters is that almost every song sounds the same, and each seems to be compressed to all hell. Each track has a set of sparkling, glossy synths that wash in and out and really drown out any specifics in many of the chorus', making many of the songs feel very one-dimensional, in spite of their layers.

The middle of this album is the best part of it. I could see myself jamming to Awakening through Surround Sound any day, and is where Steele's goal of top 40 action seems possible (although Old Flavours, Celebrate, and Disarm have practically the same chord progressions in their chorus). I do have to give Old Flavours credit, though, as it's been my summer jam. I've been blasting it out of my car every chance I get - I can't get enough of it!

Undoubtedly, though, the best track on this album is I'll Be Around. It's a modern take on the 80's; one of the few to actually make me feel like I'm in a time period prior to my conception. A very romantic slow jam that screams to be a single.

Overall, I really enjoyed Ice on the Dune, it's a lot of fun, but that's about it. Steele may be aiming for top 40, but Walking On A Dream did great for all of it's weirdness! I hope with their next effort, they bring back some of the avant-garde elements that make people say "What the hell?" Because that's what their best at, and I think that's what will get them attention. In their defense, though, everyone keeps comparing them to MGMT, and they probably just want to run as far away from that as possible.

Best tracks: Awakening, I'll Be Around, Old Flavours