Tag Archives: Outcasts and Misfits

The Imitation Game (2014)

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Being a genius ain’t easy. However, being a latently homosexual genius with undiagnosed Asperger’s in a time where being different was not just detrimental to your social status, but dangerous is damn near impossible. “The Imitation Game” is a (sorta) true story of Alan Turing, who saved thousands of lives by cracking the Germans’ enigma code during World War II and may have cut the war short more than two years.

Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, your go-to guy for Brit quirkiness without going too off the radar. Just look at the guy. He looks like he was born to play an eccentric-slash-asocial genius. And while many found “The Imitation Game” to be generic Oscar Bait, I was thoroughly engrossed by the troubled life of Alan Turing. Tragic, yes. But also fascinating.

My interest was largely based on Benedict Cumberbatch’s amazing acting job (it should also be mentioned that Alex Lawther, who played young Alan, also gave an outstanding performance) and the fact that I had reasonably low expectations. A drama about codes and mathematics? Bor-ing! Everybody who knows me knows perfectly well that math is not my strong suite. But a fascinating lead and an arresting storyline? That I can get behind.

If this movie is true at all to the real man, Turing had a brilliant mathematical mind, but he was not someone you’d invite to a squash game. In fact, he most likely isn’t the kind of man you’d associate with at all. He’s a genius, yes, but he knows he’s a genius, and that makes him all but insufferable. He’s actually a bit of an arsehole, but you still can’t help falling a little in love with him, as some (not me) were endeared to Sheldon in “Big Bang Theory.” Turing is a much better written character, but he possesses the same offhand arrogance, somewhat effeminate softness, and distaste for the common man. Not to mention his lackluster (to say the least) social skills.

When Alan Turing is hired to break a German code under almost unbeatable obstacles, he is convinced he can do it himself, aided by nothing but his big old brain (not to mention one hundred-thousand pounds government funds.) But he finds an unlikely ally in Joan Clarke (the lovely, if worryingly thin, Keira Knightley,) a girl who seems rather ordinary on the outside, but who possesses a keen mathematical mind.

Flash-forward to Turing being interviewed by a skeptical officer (Rory Kinnear) afted he is arrested for sexual indecency (i.e. homosexual acts.) Turing recounts to the policeman his efforts working for the military cracking codes as well as his childhood bullying at the hands of the other students and hopeless crush on his schoolmate Christopher (Jack Bannon.)

The film itself  is apparently fairly historically inaccurate. This has bothered some purists, but I say, so what? Sometimes biographical honesty is the best policy, and sometimes the story just turns out better when you take it in a different direction altogether. And yes, sometimes the story does feel conventional, with characters having dime-store epiphanies when the plot requires them to, but any occasional  lack of depth the script is overtaken by the fantastic acting. If  nothing else, this movie will make you think about the liberties we take for granted today concerning our sexual practices.

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere Cover

For mild-mannered office drone Richard Mayhew, stopping to help an injured stranger has a multitude of consequences- some good, some bad, but all undeniably bizarre. The stranger in question is Door (yes, that’s actually her name,) a waif of many talents who resides in the underground wonderland of London Below, and is on the run from the duo of thugs who killed her family. Door’s special ability is that of ‘opening,’ i.e. the ability to open any door or simply conjure one into being just by concentrating.

Richard has a big heart but is a bit of a pushover and is totally out of his element while scurrying after Door, who feels obliged to protect him, through the cavernous kingdom of the Underside, a realm that exists beneath London. Together they meet a plethora of odd characters- the beautiful and icy Hunter, the smooth-talking Marquis de Carabas, and the predatory but lovely ‘Velvets,’ to name a few. On the run, from sinister antagonists. Richard must find his inner strength if he is to survive.

This is my first book by Neil Gaiman (shame!) and I found it to be a quite captivating work. With a mind-blowing fantasy world full of shady characters and a pair of uproariously weird villains such as Mr. Vandemar and Mr. Croup, how can a novel fail to be supremely entertaining? I liked Richard as a protagonist, but I often found him to be a bit of a burden to the group, such as when he blindly allows himself to be bested by a seductive female creature and falls to pieces when his fear of heights is tested.

“Neverwhere” is witty and fun and has a weird and wonderful mythology behind it. I found the writing to sometimes be alternately repetitive and vague (so that I had trouble picturing the characters and situations) and the author tended to use extremely strange similes that didn’t really work in the context. The last chapter went on too long as well, compared to the fast paced majority of the book.

Apparently the television series “Neverwhere” (1996) came first- Neil Gaiman wrote the book in order to add the extra substance that couldn’t be featured in the series. I’m torn about watching the series- on one hand it’s tempting to see the origins of the book, on the other hand I have read it was an extremely cheap (and some say badly-acted) production, and part of me wants to imagine the story rather than see it played out on screen.

I love how ambiguous and odd the beings who inhabit the Underside are- if they agree to help Richard and his friends it will be entirely for their own reasons, not out of loyalty or nobility or any moral-based traits. With the odd exception, the creatures of London below are not really good, nor very bad for that matter. The just are. They want to be left alone, and they’ll provide help when it’s in their best interest. But do the people of London above, our world, really support Richard and his moral center either?

When you look at mankind’s reaction to discord (Richard’s fickle girlfriend, Jessica, futilely tries to coerce him to leave the bloodied Door in the middle of the sidewalk to get to an important dinner,) the unwashed underground wackos don’t seem so otherworldly after all. “Neverwhere” might in part be a commentary on London’s less privileged classes, but it doesn’t feel like a lecture. It’s unabashedly imaginative, vibrantly alive, and just as wildly original as a modern fantasy novel should be.

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The Way, Way Back (2013)

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After a rocky, strident beginning, “The Way, Way Back” straightens itself into a pretty darn lovable movie, which also has the honor of giving a decidedly dark and against-type role to funnyman Steve Carell. Carell plays Trent, the verbally abusive, passive-aggressive boyfriend of needy Pam (Toni Collette.) The abuse perpetrated by Trent is not directed towards Pam but towards her self-conscious 14-year-old son, Duncan (Liam James.)

Duncan is in that awkward stage of youth where just about every phrase uttered by him is monosyllabic and he’s at a loss to talk to anyone, especially girls. Trent is frequently hostile and bullying but plays nice in front of Pam, who doesn’t seem to notice the behavior. Trent takes Pam, Duncan, and Duncan’s bitchy daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin) (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I suppose) to vacation home for the summer.

Surrounded by unbearable adults, including an alcohol-guzzling floozy (Allison Janney) and Trent’s insufferable friends (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry,) angst-ridden Duncan loiters at the theme park Water Whizz, and is befriended by the park’s wise-cracking manager Owen (Sam Rockwell.) Owen recognizes a kid in need of support in Duncan and offers him a job. The summer proves to be empowering and life-changing for Duncan, who even falls in love for the first, with the floozy neighbor’s attractive and similarly disaffected daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb.)

The beginning scenes are a little bit on the overcooked side, as we are introduced to an assortment of dingy grown-up’s, each with the apparent identical goal of making Duncan’s life as awkward as possible. It’s hard to believe anyone could be this stupid, or at least with such a lack of subtlety, even Kip and Joan, who we are led to believe are incessantly high.

There is a definite improvement in storytelling and substance about thirty minutes in, when Duncan breaks away from Trent’s asinine friends and neighbors and starts spending a numerable amount of afternoons with Owen. Owen might be a bit childish and hedonistic, but he’s exactly what Duncan needs to develop a sense of self-worth and confidence.

Owen also knows that strictly verbal abuse can be as harmful as physical blows, and he tries to help Duncan move past Trent’s taunts. Duncan’s conversations with Susanna are cute not because of what he says but because of what he doesn’t say, which is basically anything of discernible value. So paralyzed by shyness is Duncan that he is reduced to mumbling “I guess” and “I dunno” and babbling about the weather. We’ve all been there, but what makes  the duo so charming is that the incredibly patient Susanna still likes Duncan, still LIKE likes him, not I-want-to-go-to-the-movies-as-friends likes him. For a kid who barely even likes himself, that’s a small miracle.

“The Way, Way Back” might have a little bit of the “Juno” syndrome, where witticisms are a bit too pithy to be natural (nevertheless, haters, I still love “Juno”) and the script might have some sitcom-y moments, but it is still a charming coming-of-age story for those whose movie tastes run toward the quirky and the droll.. There should certainly be more Owens in the word, who can see the  good and the worthy in the most gawky adolescent. If that were the case, my teen years might have been a Hell of a lot less miserable.

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Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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This is one of those rare cases where the book can not compare artistically with its movie adaptation. Sure, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In” has more detail, and even works to a certain extent. But I actually think the movie was improved somewhat by being stripped down to its bare essentials, and eliminating extraneous subplots. The book is a pretty good read, but it hardly seems to be in league with the masterpiece the Swedish film version was.

Twelve-year-old Oskar Eriksson is a bullied misfit kid who wants to get back in a big way at his cruel tormentors. He is a overlooked resident of Blackeberg, whose surrounding areas have been plagued by a series of ritualistic killings. Oskar is fascinated by the sense of unease and the corresponding murders and even keeps a scrapbook containing clips of violent crimes. Neither Oskar’s fragile mother or his alcoholic, divorcee dad seem to notice Oskar is harboring a Antisocial streak. But when you’re afraid to go to school every day, life can do that to you.

Then Oskar meets Eli, a strange, thin, androgynous child who encourages him to fight back against his bullies. Eli’s frail façade hides an insatiable bloodlust, but Oskar finds himself strangely drawn to her. How far will Oskar go to protect Eli’s secret? “Let the RIght One In” is a compelling take on vampire lore, but I think it tries too hard to scientifically explain vampirism. Some things are better left unsaid.

The book also offers descriptions of what it feels like to be bitten by a vampire and to turn into a vampire, which is pretty cool. However, it also contains too many characters and feels unnecessarily long. Some passages better explain things left ambiguous in the film, like the role of Eli’s caretaker, Hakan, or the relationship between Oskar and his dad.

In the film, Oskar had a certain innocence and vulnerability that mad him very compelling, despite the indisputable fact that he was a very troubled little boy. The child actor gave that innocence creditability. In the book, Oskar is mostly creepy, someone you don’t want to meet in a dark alley despite his youth and small stature. In this novel, Oskar harbors a fantasy of seeing someone executed in an electric chair and even sets some desks in his classroom on fire (okay, his bullies’ desks, but still, that’s a big safety hazard!)

Oskar still certainly isn’t a completely unsympathizable character, but maybe you have more of a propensity to feel for him when you aren’t looking into that troubled little mind of his. Eli, however, is as compelling as ever, and you get a better sense of who she is the novel, as well as get a more complex look into the grey areas in between the elements of her ambiguous gender.

There’s is some interesting further development of the side characters, but mostly the wealth of detail on the supporting players seems a little ‘meh.’ Despite my quibbles, this book may be still worth reading if you want a more complete picture of a story that proves the vampire genre is not dead. The murderous, predatory class of vampires, not the sparkling one.

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God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin (AKA Out Backward)

God's Own Country

The unreliable narrator. How much of what he says is true? What does he hold back? Is there ever a time you should take his word on a given event, or is the wisest thing to do turn around and accept the opposite as given truth? As these kind of characters go, nineteen-year-old misanthropic oddball Sam Marsdyke is a whopper of of an unreliable narrator. Even as his soul turns dark and sour, you want- desperately need- to believe this troubled boy’s story.

Sam swears he didn’t try to rape schoolgirl Katie Carmichael in detention as a teen, but his parents- nay, the whole Yorkshire community, believe different. The incident has made Sam quite the outcast, and, maybe because of it, he has developed a revulsion for his peers and people in general. Sam is the farmer son of a cowed mother and an abusive, gruff father, and he develops a rapport with the animals on the farm- Sal, his sheepdog puppy, and even the livestock.

His conversations with animals and even inanimate objects are offbeat and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. The Yorkshire dialect is difficult to wrap your head around, but it’s not really a very tough read- you can usually riddle out what a word means from the context. When Sam meets Jo, a newcomer to ‘God’s Own Country’ and also an off-limits fifteen-year-old girl, it’s obsession at first sight. Jo and Sam strike up a casual friendship, not so casual for Sam, who is completely enamored with her, but the fun doesn’t last long as Sam becomes increasingly obsessed and volatile.

This book has two main plot threads going for it- the modernization of rural farmlands all over (but specifically in England,) which exasperates Sam and his working man father, and Sam’s descent into madness, culminating in the arrival of Jo and her family. The narrative really reminded me of ‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe, in that you’re sucked into the world of a flippant, charismatic madman. The first-person narration really crackles and the psychology behind the character’s madness is pretty legit too.

The only real issue I have with “God’s Own Country” (re-titled “Out Backward” for its US publication) was it was so grim it left me feeling sucked dry by the end. Sam’s sardonic voice alleviates the misery for a while, but as he goes down the rabbit-hole mental health wise you’re left shaking your head in horror. One Librarything user discussed a ‘lack of redemption,’ and she’s absolutely right.

Sam never really learns anything from his experience, though he does manage learn to adapt to his increasingly horrid circumstances by the book’s end. Which may be realistic, but it’s a lot to swallow. “God’s Own Country” was in also unnerving in that it made me sympathize with an increasingly depraved personality. A very bad person, or a person who does very bad things? You can decide for yourself if an when you decide to read this troubling and brilliant book.

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.

Ben X (2007)

Ben X, Belgian director Nic Balthazar’s film debut, is an ambitious drama exploring the autistic mind and how far harassment can go before the victim loses control.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Ben (superbly played by Greg Timmermans), a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who lives with his well-meaning mother and younger brother. Ben spends all his free time playing Archlord, a fantasy role-playing game where he becomes Ben X and plays alongside Scarlitte, a teenage girl who is impressed by his gaming skills. The game gives him a sense of purpose in a world that becomes increasingly out of control.

Ben’s life at school, quite simply, is hell. He is relentlessly tormented by two repugnant teenage boys. His teachers try to help him but are ineffectual. The situation worsens when an embarrassing prank perpetrated on him is videotaped and posted all over the internet.

Feeling that he has no where to turn, he hides what happened from his family and teachers and becomes increasingly disturbed and suicidal. Finally, close to breaking point, Ben decides to meet with Scarlitte, who is interested in visiting him in real life. Together with Scarlitte, his divorced father, and his desperate mother, he comes up with a bizarre plan to get back at his tormenters.

I waited a long time for this movie, and as it generally is in this case, was disappointed. Which isn’t to say thatBen X is a bad film. On the contrary, it has many good qualities. The main thing that struck me was that this is one of the first times a character on the autistic spectrum takes center stage and is treated as a person, not a plot device. Often, the character with autism is used to evoke feelings from the other people in the movie or to teach them what is really important in life.

This film, without avoiding the family’s perception of the situation, concentrates on Ben and his reactions to what’s happening around him. Secondly, the acting in Ben X is top-notch, especially from Greg Timmermans and Marijke Pinoy, as Ben’s mother. Greg Timmermans has excellent facial expressions and mannerisms, and in his and the directors hands, the main character becomes a real person.

Many scenes and situations in Ben X, however, are very melodramatic and over-the-top, but the ending is its greatest weakness. Alternately bizarre and unrealistic, it detracts from an otherwise good movie. The director seems to think that neatly tying things up is more important than realism, and it shows.

The film builds up a great deal of suspense and a foreboding that something terrible will happen, but seems to wimp out toward the end. I don’t enjoy depressing endings, but I felt that the conclusion wasn’t believable at all. I am bound to cut this film some slack, because there are so few movies about high-functioning autism and because I waited a long time to watch it. Although I think it was ultimately disappointing, it also did many things right and tried to do what most directors haven’t done effectively before.

Let the Right One In (2008)


It’s no secret that “Let the Right One In” is my second favorite movie of all time, and was, in my opinion, in no need of a remake. The experience of watching this movie is akin to that of reading a great book — afterwards you want to recommend it to everyone, in hopes that they will feel the way you did watching it for the first time.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), an unhappy twelve-year-old boy, is bullied by his peers and fantasizes about making them pay, though for the time being the violence stays within the confines of his imagination. While outside his apartment complex at night, he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a strange twelve-year-old who offers him, for the first time, a chance to dream of a different life.

Eli is not like other girls. She goes outside into the bitter Swedish winter wearing no shoes. Occasionally she smells like a putrid corpse. Animalistic growls emanate from her gut. But she floors Oskar with her concern for him and her insistence that he must fight back, no matter what the cost.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, Eli is a vampire, which doesn’t stand by itself as a big spoiler, as it is alluded to in the first twenty-or-so minutes. Eli is not twelve, but rather thousands of years old, and her intentions toward lovelorn, nerdy Oskar are ambiguous throughout.

This is a extraordinarily well-shot film — the snowy, coldly beautiful backdrop is the perfect setting to tell this story, and the cinematography is gorgeous without being showy or pretentious. It is the kind of story that makes you fall in love with its characters. It doesn’t matter if Eli is a vampire or a zombie or even a robot — she is an undeniably real presence, and you root for her as she carries out what must be done.

Lina Leandersson is surprisingly good and carries most of the acting duties on her small, vampiric shoulders. Kåre Hedebrant is a little underwhelming at times but still makes a decent effort, and acts much better than Daniel Buttcliffe is the early HP years. He pulls off the mix of darkness and pain in Oskar’s heart combined with his ultimate naivete.

There’s a lot of symbolism in the second half of the movie (Oskar closing the doors of his toy cars, anybody?) which you may not catch if you are overly literal-minded or are not paying attention. The film never lets us forget the suffering of Eli’s victims, including Lacke, a local drunk she ensnares with a nasty trick and makes a snack out of.

The strength of “Let the Right One In” is that it cares as much about its characters as its blood and special effects. The small bit of controversy it earned with its content involving children is unfounded, and should not deter you from watching what is most certainly one of the all-time greats in modern horror.

Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006)

“Wild Tigers I Have Known,” Cam Archer’s visually striking but somewhat self-indulgent debut, is an abstract and meandering portrayal of teen angst and burgeoning sexuality. Its youthful protagonist, Logan (Malcolm Stumpf), seems perpetually caught between a daydream and and the harsh, uncaring real world.

Sounds kind of like Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Except that movie actually had substance. Oh well. This movie at least looks pretty, and art-chic-happy film students might find more to love in the film than I did.

13-year-old Logan is lonesome soul, given to walks on the beach and recording himself going on a abstract tangents. He also is in the midst of discovering his sexuality (gay as a maypole) while harboring a crush on Rodeo Walker (Patrick White), the most popular boy in school.

Does Rodeo feel likewise? Maybe so (“girls make me want to go to sleep,” he tells his youthful admirer), but whatever the case, Rodeo isn’t telling. Seeking Rodeo’s affection, Logan creates a female persona named ‘Leah.’ ‘Leah’ calls Rodeo up promising a wild night, but Logan’s naivete is apparent.

I “get” Logan’s inability to connect to, or even maybe occupy the same universe as, his junior high classmates. I go to a school of hundreds of students, and 99% of the time I feel like I’m off on my own planet.

But although Logan is intriguing, the film collapses under its own pretension, with scenes that have no clear dramatic purpose and dialogues that are laughable in their bloated sense of self-importance. And isn’t Logan’s mother’s response to the fallen groceries a little… psychotic? Nobody who’s still on the sanity wagon would react that way.

“Wild Tigers…” sports beautiful cinematography and a couple of well-known actors (Fairuza Balk as the mom, Kim Dickens as the school counselor,) but in the end, it hardly matters. Seeming long at 88 minutes, “Tigers…” ultimately seems like a bit of a chore, never a good  impression for a film to make. Logan entices us but the film keeps us at an arm’s length.