Tag Archives: Isolation

Book Review: This Census-Taker by China Mieville

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Rating: C+/ I’ll start out by saying that I probably wouldn’t have read this novella all the way through if I wasn’t a big believer in finishing something before you review it. Even at just over 200 pages with absurdly large print, this book felt like a chore. There were entire scenes in which I really had to struggle to figure out what was happening, and This Census-Taker’s pretentious and vague narrative ensured that many readers would go through the whole book frustrated and unsure of what the book was actually about. Continue reading Book Review: This Census-Taker by China Mieville

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

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   The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a very strange movie that raises more questions than it answers, confounds even the most open-minded viewer, and is insistently vague throughout. That said,  it is worth watching for it’s unique portrayal of it’s titular hero and, by extension, the whole of the human race. It’s a secular fable for the cinematically adventurous, written and directed by the king of weird and polarizing art house films, Werner Herzog.

I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with Herzog’s directorial work. I’ve seen a couple of his films, but I mostly know him as the weird guy in Julien Donkey-Boy who chugs cough syrup while wearing a gas mask and sprays Ewen Bremner down with cold water while bafflingly screaming “Stop your moody brooding. Don’t shiver! A winner doesn’t shiver!” As you might have guessed, my experience with Herzog has been strange and surreal, and while Kaspar Hauser does not reach the heights of outlandishness of Julien Donkey-Boy, it’s got plenty of unnerving to go around. It’s allegedly inspired by a real case that took place in the 19th century, very closely based upon a series of letters written on the subject around that time.

Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) is a misfit. He’s spent his entire life in the basement of a man (Hans Musäus) who calls himself his ‘daddy,’ where he is only given a toy horse to play with and is beaten frequently. The only word he knows is ‘horsey.’ He eats nothing but bread and water and is virtually unable to walk or move in a typical human manner. I immediately drew parallels between Kaspar and Nicholas Hope’s character in Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, but poor Kaspar has it even worse than the titular Bubby, having been shackled to a wall for seventeen years.

Even more disturbing is the fact that it is never explained why the man is keeping him there. Is he incarcerated for sexual purposes? Is his captor just batshit insane? Is the sick appeal of keeping a man chained to a wall his whole life a turn-on in of itself? We really don’t know. And that makes the final moments of the movie even more insanely cryptic. But for whatever reason, the man gets sick of having Kaspar around and dumps him in a small German town to fend for himself, standing stock still and without purpose with a letter in one hand and a holy book in the other.

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When Kaspar is ‘rescued’ only to be placed in a local jail for lack of anything better to do with him, they assume he is both utterly mentally deficient and incompetent. A kind man named Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast) gets custody of Kaspar for the time being and begins to teach him how to function in society. The irony in this is that Kaspar soon begins to seem wiser and more genuine than any of the hoity-toity high society dandies who superficially observe his story.

He’s prone to be a bit of a philosopher, despite his odd appearance and slow halting speech. Kaspar is a delightful character, because he makes all the religious and moral authorities angry by taking all the demands that he be a proper human and a God-fearing Christian at face value. He’s a wise fool, someone whose ignorance actually lends him a less biased, more realistic view of life. He displays a soul by weeping at music that strikes him as beautiful, yet his elders can’t put him in a tidy box or clearly define him.

I have several problems with this movie, including the lead actor being portrayed as a teenage boy. Seventeen years old? More like a middle-aged Hobbit lookalike! (in fact, Schleinstein, a bit of a social outcast himself, was forty-one at the time of filming.) Jests aside, though, Scheinstein gives a effective, if somewhat one-note, performance. I also have to say that I was simply baffled by the ending. It was quite sad and, furthermore, was totally out of the blue. I think I would have preferred an ending that wasn’t so infuriatingly cryptic.

This is my favorite Werner Herzog (having seen My Son My Son What Have Ye Done and Signs of Life, neither of which struck me as particularly outstanding or memorable.) I don’t love this movie, but for better or worse, I think I’ll remember it.

In creating a unique and memorable character in Kaspar Hauser, the movie allows us to see life through an unbiased, unprejudiced lens- a lens truly untainted by worldly experience. Kaspar is like a blank slate onto which other characters try to project their beliefs and opinions, but, as inert and seemingly mindless as he is, he refuses to be a sheep for other people to control. He’s strong in a way that seems unlikely for someone of his kind, someone without influence, experience, or familial love. And we love him for it. Unsentimental and brazen, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is, in essence, an enigma, and one that might warrent repeat viewings. It might not be a particularly palatable film for the mainstream, but it has it’s astonishing moments.

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Baby Blues (2008)

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This movie made me want to take a hot shower. A soulless, brainless slasher pitting a group of prepubescent siblings against their homicidal, postpartum mother with the worst twist ending since “Orphan?” Who thought that was a good idea? Okay, I admit, a good movie could have been made with this subject matter. Why do you think I rented it? In hope of an edgy, subversive good time.

But that would require the film to maintain a somewhat serious attitude. Instead, the kid-mangling mama (Colleen Porch) at the center of this sick little horror film shoots off one liners like fucking Freddy Krueger while dispatching of  her clan. “Playtime is over,” she snarls while tracking her ten-year-old son Jimmy (Ridge Canipe, who admittedly does a great job with the material he’s given.)

And later, after slaughtering Jimmy’s younger brother like a pig, “When are you kids going to learn that this hurts me more than it hurts you?” A satire of family values, you say? But it just feels so cheap. Meanwhile, the kids run around the family farm covered in blood and pissing themselves in fear and the filmmaker’s ugly, nihilistic vision comes full circle.

Postpartum Psychosis is a real and terrifying condition, and offering it up to the masses as a cheap schlock-fest isn’t doing anyone anyone any favors, especially those affected by the disorder. The way the filmmaker blithely beats you with a blunt, ridiculously kitschy ending only makes the film more of a failure. I know, I know, any good real-life horror and thriller film is a exploitation of something. Don’t be so sensitive, you say?

There was just something so sleazy about the proceedings. If the director has at least tacked this slaughterfest with an honest, true ending, the worst transgressions might have been forgiven. But the ending is so bad- so irredeemably, utterly, inconceivably bad- I have to be honest with you. This one is a dud.

I’ll admit, there’s something luridly fascinating about watching a child take an adult role under extreme circumstances- Daddy (Joel Bryant)’s away on business, and Mum’s cracked under the burden of mental illness and is determined to kill her kids- what will the newly appointed “man of the house'” do? What is he capable of in order to protect his siblings? But that’s where the fun ends.

Visually “Baby Blues” isn’t bad for a low-budget film. The richly saturated, intense color can be jarring, but ultimately doesn’t distract from the story too much. The sound is questionable, but still audible. I many ways, it is technically well-made. The set-up of the terror is pretty standard. Everything fits together a little too easily- if something is mentioned early on, be assured that it will very obviously come into play later into the film.

There are scenes- the ending, the sequence where farmhand Lester (Gene Witham) does the unthinkable and turns his back on the killer to examine the injuries of a freshly killed dog, exclaiming, “Some kind of animal…” that the film reminds us that it is just that- a movie.

A cynical, small-minded movie that is determined to make a profit on viewers’ morbid curiosity. Don’t buy into the urge to watch a movie sporting an ‘extreme’ premise. After a questionable build-up, the payoff is worse, cheaper, lamer than you can readily imagine.

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Foxcatcher (2014)

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A grim psychological study of co-dependency and decompensation, “Foxcatcher” features two profoundly against-type performances from Hollywood A-listers.  Steve Carrell, star of light comedies like “Get Smart” and “The Office” and occasionally slightly darker fodder like “The Way, Way Back” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” portrays the real-life millionaire aristocrat John Du Pont, an exorbitantly rich man-child pressed under the thumb of a domineering mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and struggling with his own demons.

When Du Pont offers to endorse up and coming wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, in another unusual performance,) it seems to Schultz, the strong, silent type, like a match made in heaven- at last he will make a name for himself and stop being regarded merely as an extension of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo,) who also wrestles competitively. To the viewer, it seems weirdly abrupt… Du Pont spirits Schultz off to his mansion to and introduces him to ‘Team Foxcatcher,’ a group of fighters that Du Pont plans to shape into an unbeatable team and send to the nationals.

For a greasy, apparently limited individual, Du Pont sure can be a manipulative sonofabitch, and Carrell plays him with a mix of childish mania and snakelike bile. “Foxcatcher” is arresting in it’s build-up. You watch Carrell, muscles tensed, waiting for him to snap like a brittle branch, but up until the finale you are unsure of why you feel this way. Schultz has serious issues of his own, and anyone who dismissed Channing Tatum as a vacuous pretty boy  up until now will be wowed by his powerhouse performance.

I’ve never seen such duel performances exuding desperation since Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan in Paddy Considine’s “Tyrannosaur.” I couldn’t help see somewhat homoerotic overtones in the relationship between John Du Pont and Mark Schultz. The way Du Pont treats Schultz is reminiscent of an abusive marital relationship, with Du Pont manipulating Schultz with promises of greatness and cutting him off from the only person who loves him, his brother Dave.

The movie is sometimes reminiscent of Haneke in it’s minimalism (without the utter clinical iciness of Haneke’s films,) with a touch of Hitchcock by way of “Psycho,” but the story it tells is all too real. I ended up feeling for all the characters and despairing for their extreme loneliness.

I’m frankly surprised this film played at the theater; it doesn’t have near the mainstream appeal of something like “The Dark Knight Rises” or “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It’s the kind of movie that would probably barely get a release if not for the big names who agreed to play in it. Nonetheless, it is a must-watch for independent film fans and people who like think during a movie rather than just react to the obvious implications of what’s on screen.

Don’t watch “Foxcatcher” for the wrestling; there isn’t as much as a fan of the sport might like to think. Ultimately it’s almost as much about the death of the sport as it is about isolation and desperate circumstances. Watch the cage match at the end of the movie and you’ll see what I mean. “Foxcatcher” is a surprising movie with outstanding performances, and while it’s not a film you would, say, take your kid to, it’s very worthy of praise and deserves all the awards it gets.

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The Quarry by Iain Banks

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“The Quarry” is a novel focusing on the slow-paced exploits of an appealing narrator, eighteen-year-old Kit, and seven exasperatingly mean-spirited nincompoop side characters, whose rants and abrasive political views take up a copious amount of the book. Kit, a high-functioning Autistic with an avid video game fandom, lives with his abusive, foul-mouthed (and dying) father Guy in a ramshackle house on the edge of a quarry. The house is scheduled for demolition as soon as Guy kicks it and the government vacates Kit, who is wondering seriously about the probability of supporting himself after his father’s death.

Guy has cancer and isn’t expected to make it much longer. To accompany Guy in his final days- or drive him to an early grave, the more likely outcome (with friends like these, who needs enemies?) a group of Guy’s university friends come over to the water-damaged wreck of a house. I won’t go into great detail describing them for you; suffice to say they are horrible people, intellectual wannabes/ vacuous losers who aren’t really there for Guy at all.

No, what these self-righteous pricks want has nothing to do with altruism- they have their sights set on a missing videotape that allegedly contains shocking footage that nobody wants found. I was initially sucked in by the mystery of the tape, but the resolution of this plot thread was disappointing to say the least. I hate to say bad things about this novel- writer Iain Banks was dying when he wrote it and it was obviously a very personal project to him. Indeed, “The Quarry” has some very good qualities- just not enough.

You’ve got Kit’s story for starters. If you focused on Kit and cut out all the extraneous bullshit (i.e. the side character’s political crap,) you’d have one hell of book. Kit has a unique way of seeing the world due to his condition, and for every moment he was self-absorbed and painfully immature, there was another where he was charming and likable. And that’s as it should be- people with disabilities aren’t saints, and pretending they are is nothing less than careful, calculated nonsense. I’ll never look at traffic jams the same way again after hearing Kit’s wonderfully quirky take on their spiritual dimension.

Sadly, about 25% percent of “The Quarry” is simply unnecessary- long, pointless tirades haranguing the bureaucratic bullshit of just about everything. None of the characters besides Kit are remotely likable, and even the only one who serves as a friend to Kit, film critic Holly, ends up betraying him in the end. Kit wants to believe in Holly, and convinces himself she cares about him and has his best interests at heart. That’s not the point. We don’t believe in Holly. If anything, we believe she should get her free-loading ass out of Kit’s house.

The creepiness of Kit’s indecent  interest in mom-figure Hol didn’t even bother me. I just found parts of the book terribly dry and didactic. The character’s scathing monologues are more exhausting and annoying than affecting- does anyone actually talk like that? And do we really want to have anything to do with these terrible, and more to the point, completely uninteresting people?

Iain Banks’ first novel, “The Wasp Factory,” was great, and there really are moments that shine in “The Quarry.” I like Kit’s way of dissecting the fine points of the  everyday niceties that don’t come naturally to him, although sometimes he seemed more socially intuitive than most neurotypical  people. I just see a lot of filler that would be better off in the writer’s paper wastebasket. It’s a shame that he didn’t write a better book with his last time on earth.

Moon (2009)

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“Moon”‘s success stems from Sam Rockwell’s terrific performance and filmmaker Duncan Jones’ ability to create a compelling and smart sci-fi thriller with a small budget and only a few actors. The story itself is a little bit “Blade Runner,” a little bit the “Doctor Who” episode “The Almost People,” with a little bit of “The Twilight Zone” for good measure, but has a sense of self and a style all it’s own.
Sam Bell (Rockwell) as nearing the end of a three-year stint on the moon base Sarang, harvesting energy to support the earth’s population, when he starts seeing and hearing strange things. Sam is completely alone, save for the company of GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey,) a rather disconcerting artificial intelligence computer with an on-screen emoticon for a face. Sam yearns to get home to his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott)  and small daughter Eve (Rosie Shaw,) and seems to have a lack of trust for the computer that calls itself his friend.

When Sam sees a phantom girl while doing a routine job and crashes his lunar vehicle, life quickly deteriorates from isolated and lonely to frenetic and batshit crazy. Faced with a double that says it’s Sam as well, Bell must overcome his distrust for the duplicate and uncover the secret Sarang hides. Is Sam going crazy? Or is the company he’s working for, Lunar, covering up an aberrant secret?

I better not tell you anymore about the plot of this film (don’t look at the forums, don’t research it, just watch it!) but I will say that, while sometimes slow-paced, “Moon” is extremely well-done science fiction. Sam Rockwell’s performance holds your interest throughout and he does a phenomenal job playing two versions of the same person, but putting a unique spin on both men. Some scenes could be a little silly (such as a physical altercation between two duplicates) but Sam Rockwell does such a good job that he seems to just make it work.

The conclusion is crazy and heart-tugging but very well-thought-out and the movie might take a couple watches to fully understand. Strangely enough, the filmmaker, Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son and was born Zowie (!)  He’s planning to make this the first in a trilogy of films set in the same universe, which I would definitely love to see. He also wants to make a graphic novel companion to “Moon,” called “Mute.” He’s got an abundance of imagination and I really hope he can make it happen.

Do not try to predict the twist ending of this movie. Do not look it up. It’s really one of those movies that are better when you go into them blind, so to speak. I will post the trailer here, but I highly suggest that you don’t watch it until you see the movie. I’m not ashamed to say that “Moon” is much better than “Inception” as a mind-fuck sci-fi thriller/drama and should have raked in the about a million awards “Inception” got for it’s mediocrity. Sam Rockwell is primarily a character actor but he has proved he can carry a full-length feature with practically no one else on screen. Like “Cast Away” or “Buried,” this is pretty much a one-man show, and Rockwell rises to the occasion spectacularly.

Watch it.

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The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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    Hands down, the craziest book I have ever read, an unnerving combination of Lord of the Flies and The Butcher Boy that never fails to appall and shock. You will hate Frank Caldhaume, the narcissistic, murderous, deluded, misogynistic teenager at the center of this slim volume, but at the same time you’ll be slightly in awe of his gumption; his refusal to live any semblance of a normal life. Frank lives with his weak, disabled father on their own personal island in rural Scotland.

Frank is by no means an ordinary boy. By the age of ten, he disposed of his younger brother Paul and two cousins without a blink of an eyelash. He wanders the island, engaging in bizarre ritualistic activities that invariably end in the destruction of of the wildlife. He mounts animals’ heads on stakes as sick trophies, and the eponymous ‘Wasp Factory’ is a contraption of singular brutality.

Frank’s half-brother Eric is, so they think, safe and sound in a mental hospital. At the beginning of the book, Eric escapes, leaving a trail of burned and eaten dogs in his wake. Meanwhile, Frank copes with his unusual disability that has made it impossible to live a normal life, not that he’d want to, mind you. Cheeky freak, Frank is.

The only two complaints I have with this book were that it ended rather abruptly, and also (though this was a minor quibble) the circumstances between the Frank Caldhaume’s murders were highly unlikely. I may have thought Frank was a despicable human being, but he made a dynamite narrator. He was brilliant, merciless, and cuttingly articulate. Many aspects of the book were horribly disturbing, but that would not dissuade me from recommending this great book, a brilliant first novel and a penetrating psychological thriller.

One scene in one chapter particularly turned my stomach and made me put down the book in disgust. However, there are moments of black humor that leaven the murky darkness. The telephone conversations between psychopathic Frank and madman Eric, in particular, had me laughing out loud. Frank is not your everyday, mundane protagonist, and you (and he, presumably) would not have it any other way.

The twist at the end of the novel is so relentlessly unmitigatedly weird that I was tempted to do a double take of the words on the page. Iain Banks had quite an imagination, but what a twisted, pitch-black psyche it was. I DEFINITELY will be seeking out more books by this author, with a sincere  hope that they will be every bit as tweaked and creative as this one. A glowing recommendation, weak stomachs need not apply.