Literacy 2023: Book 1: Ghost Story

Peter Straub’s great big take on a Salem’s Lot-style small-town novel works best when it’s sticking to the stuff promised by its title

Book
Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Synopsis
Four elderly men, long-time friends from a small town in New York, have a tradition of meeting regularly to tell ghost stories. After the death of one of their club’s founding members, they begin to have shared nightmares, foreshadowing the arrival of an evil entity that wants to destroy the entire town.

Pros

  • Much of the book is masterfully written, with scenes that, like the best ghost stories, are filled with inescapable dread from just a sighting or a fleeting thought.
  • Adept at changing tone and voice as the story is told from the perspective of different characters and an omniscient narrator. The effect is subtle, but you can absolutely sense the different characterizations coming through.
  • Stella Hawthorne is a charming and interesting character.
  • Comes to a satisfying conclusion that’s far less bleak than you’d expect from the dismal prologue.
  • Particularly good at foreshadowing: the narration will matter-of-factly tell you about something tragic that will happen soon, letting the idea hang in your mind until you read how it actually happens.

Cons

  • Overlong. While individual passages are well-written, the book as a whole has too many of them. I respect the desire to have a story that impacts an entire town of characters, but Ghost Story stays on the surface of all of its side characters, never giving enough detail to make their appearances feel like more than wasting pages.
  • There’s a feeling of repetition as we hear what is essentially the same story happen to different characters. It’s especially frustrating because the characters seem oblivious to clues which have been mentioned over and over again.
  • The supernatural aspects of the story are either insufficiently described, or inconsistent; the villains have powers that would seem to make them omnipotent, but much like Roger Rabbit, can only do it when it would be spooky.
  • Dated. The book feels very much of the late 1970s, not just in the technology but in the attitudes. There’s a seeming fascination with adultery, and a tinge of causal misogyny that seems to linger behind everything. It’s difficult to just say “it’s a product of its times” because so much of the book seems to need to feel contemporary, contrasting the modern world with that of the old men in the Chowder Society.

Verdict
I’ve wanted to read Ghost Story since I was in high school, and I’m glad I finally finished it. It made for some excellently creepy reading at bedtime, and it made for some late-night marathon reading sessions where I wanted to find out what happened next. But ultimately, it felt like it was lacking something at its core, the core thematic idea and statement-of-purpose that was present in most of Stephen King’s novels around the same time. Ghost Story was strongest when it stayed true to its title, but ended up a bit of a disappointment for me when it turned into something else.

Mario M Likes To Keep It Clean

Dispatches from Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood

Yesterday we went to a soft opening (“technical preview”) of Super Nintendo World on a very rainy day at Universal Studios Hollywood. It seemed like everything was conspiring to give me a lackluster or even bad first impression of the land, but I still had a lot of fun and came away impressed. So I think they’ve done a fantastic job with it.

When I say that “everything was conspiring against us,” here’s what I mean:

  • Over-hyped: Ever since I started seeing the early construction photos from Osaka’s version of the park, I’ve been looking forward to being able to go. My expectations have been so high that they’d be impossible to live up to.
  • Self-spoilage: Not only have I been watching videos from Chris Nilghe at Tokyo Disney Explorer, but Hollywood’s version has been running previews for a week, and I’ve been watching every video from the locals. (Ordinary Adventures in particular). I did the same thing with Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, where my very first impression of everything was from watching a video instead of seeing it in person.
  • Lack of build-up: There’s been so much hype around the opening that I just assumed that there’d be no way we’d be able to get even close to it until at least a month after the official opening. I had thought that we were going to Universal just to make use of our new annual passes and check out the new Nintendo shops, and it honestly hadn’t even occurred to me that we’d be able to actually get into the new land.
  • Bad weather: There’s been an unusual amount of heavy rain in Los Angeles for the past few weeks. Saturday wasn’t one of the heaviest days, but the rain was constant. (And cold). (And windy). My shoes and pants were quickly soaked through, and after a couple of hours, I was in too foul a mood to do anything outdoors, which is most of the land.
  • My anti-Universal bias: I fully admit that I tend to judge Universal parks unfairly, and it’s not all deserved. Much of that comes from years of comparing the Orlando parks to Walt Disney World, which isn’t really appropriate. But my biggest gripe these days is that they don’t seem to care much about accommodating larger guests, they know that it’s an issue, and they still keep building stuff that excludes much of their audience.

I only mention all that to stress that I was predisposed to have a bad-to-mediocre experience, and I still had a lot of fun, and I went away very impressed. There’s no question that we’re going back every chance we can get, and I’m already looking forward to seeing it again in better weather.

More impressions and a photo gallery

Deadstream

Deadstream is a ridiculously fun horror movie that delivers jokes and scares across every possible channel

I loved Deadstream.

I expected I’d at least enjoy it, since its premise is entirely my kind of thing: a “found footage” movie in which a disgraced internet personality known for tasteless, extreme stunts tries to restore his name (and monetization) by locking himself into the most haunted house in the world and live-streaming everything that happens inside. What I hadn’t expected was that it would be hilarious and genuinely scary and relentlessly imaginative and clever.

Based on the core gimmick, I expected it to be similar to other “found footage” horror movies like Paranormal Activity, which always struck me as low-effort, to be honest. (Plus I didn’t think it was scary in the slightest, which is damning because I’m about the easiest person in the world to scare). Or, it’d be like Host, which I haven’t seen, but gave me the impression that it relied heavily on its premise for its scares.

Instead, Deadstream feels more like the filmmakers — Vanessa and Joseph Winter — chose to make a horror comedy in the style of Evil Dead 2, while also making it immensely harder for themselves by committing 500% to their gimmick. The entire hour and a half is presented as if it were one continuous take being broadcast in real time, with every edit, every camera angle, every cut-away for exposition, and every piece of music being given an in-world explanation.

Continue reading “Deadstream”

Top 6 Movies of 2022

Yeah, I can do end-of-year lists over a week into the new year

I don’t watch that many movies any more, and hardly ever see anything first-run unless it’s Marvel or Star Wars. I’m hoping to address that in 2023, both by virtue of living in Los Angeles, and paying for AMC’s “A-List” subscription. So far, though, being on the A-List has just meant seeing a lot of C-List movies I wouldn’t have otherwise. (At least I’ve nearly memorized Nicole Kidman’s monologue at this point).

In any case, I saw my friend Rain post a list of her top five movies of the year, and it occurred to me that I actually saw enough movies in 2022 to be able to make my own list! I couldn’t even limit it to just five! Here they are, in reverse order:

6. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Not quite the slam-dunk I’d been hoping for, but still pretty spectacular and full of some great character interactions. What impressed me the most was how it maintained all of its franchise obligations but still had plenty of imaginative, creepy flashes that marked it clearly as a Sam Raimi movie.

5. Nope

I still don’t think the movie holds together all that well, but it has moments of brilliance, plus the pure joy of seeing Keke Palmer bringing the full force of her charisma to the screen. Highlights were the unforgettable, disorienting, and disturbing sequence showing what happens to Jean Jacket’s victims; and Gordy’s attack, a near-perfect sequence of surreal suspense.

4. Barbarian

This wasn’t the goofy fun that I expected it to be, but it was a much better movie as a result. It thoughtfully tears apart decades of horror movie conventions and reminds jaded audiences that the main reason horror movies are horrifying is because most people aren’t self-obsessed sociopaths.

3. Encanto

(Released in 2021, it turns out, but I didn’t see it until 2022 on Disney+)

I’d expected this to be a mid-tier Disney animated feature, but the “Dos Oruguitas” sequence alone [spoilers for the entire movie!] might be the most potent five minutes of any movie, animated or otherwise. If you’re not ugly-crying by the end of it, you might very well be a robot. And I understand how people could be suffering from Lin-Manuel Miranda fatigue, but after Moana and now Encanto, I think he’s preternaturally suited to animated musicals, and kind of a super-hero. “The Family Madrigal” is the catchiest song of the movie, and it introduces the entire premise and cast of characters in just a few minutes.

2. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Maybe the highest praise I could give it is that it exceeded my impossibly high expectations after Knives Out. I love that the two movies are unmistakably related, but the sequel isn’t just an attempt to copy the formula of the first. And Janelle Monáe is brilliant, embodying the impossibly beautiful “rich bitch” while also being endearing and funny and fun. I hope the Benoit Blanc mysteries never, ever end.

1. Everything Everywhere All At Once

Not just my favorite movie of 2022, but instantly one of my favorite movies ever. It pays no regard to genre, and is action-packed and introspective, vulgar and sentimental, hilarious and heart-breaking, ridiculous and sublime. It has all the feel of a loose, scrappy indie movie that can do whatever it wants, but also has some gorgeous sequences that feel timeless. My favorite contradiction is that it explores the idea of infinite universes with infinite potential, all to stress the beauty of living in the moment and appreciating the one life you have. It’s a masterpiece.

Honorable mentions: Confess, Fletch, Orphan: First Kill, Prey, and the Ugly Sonic scenes from Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers.

1 Thing I Like About M3GAN

M3GAN is a PG-13 horror movie filmed entirely on location in the Uncanny Valley

There’s a scene mid-way through M3GAN where our protagonist has driven her troubled niece Cady to the first day of an alternative school. It seems necessary, since Cady has gotten overly attached to her robotic friend M3GAN, and she needs to socialize with other human children. The school’s teacher comes up to the car and cheerfully and kindly introduces herself to Cady, then asks if she’s come with her sister, at which point M3GAN turns to look at her, causing the teacher to involuntarily shout “JESUS CHRIST!”

That’s one of my favorite moments in this surprisingly good movie, because it perfectly captures the confidently silly and relentlessly sinister tone that makes the movie so much stronger than its premise would suggest.

Blumhouse and Universal have gone all-in on marketing the movie as a campy, creepy, successor to the “evil doll” subgenre of horror movie like Child’s Play and Annabelle. That’s a good call, since the promise of something silly and fun is what got me into the theater in the first place.1There’s not nearly as much creepy dancing in the movie as the trailers suggest, though, which felt like a bit of a bait and switch. But what makes M3GAN so unexpectedly clever is that it doesn’t settle for being a self-aware rehash of its too-familiar influences; nor a winking deconstruction; or even an undeservedly high-minded re-examination of them. Instead, it takes all of its familiar elements and uses them at face value, but combines and re-contextualizes them to make them just as uncanny and eerily not-quite-real as its villain.

Continue reading “1 Thing I Like About M3GAN”
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    There’s not nearly as much creepy dancing in the movie as the trailers suggest, though, which felt like a bit of a bait and switch.

Turns Out the Walrus Was Paul (Making Sense of Glass Onion)

Answering (most of) my own questions about Glass Onion

After I saw and loved Glass Onion, I had a lot of questions. Now that it’s more widely available on Netflix, and I’ve gotten the chance to watch it a second time — with subtitles, and without audience laughter obscuring much of the dialogue — I think I’ve got a better idea of the answers to most of them.

To manage expectations: I haven’t hit on any particularly deep insights or re-interpretations; I’m just better able to make sense of the basic plot.

I was glad to see that it still holds up on a second watch, although (and I hate to say it) it was indeed more entertaining watching it in a theater crowded full of an enthusiastic audience. I’m hoping that for future installments, Netflix will consider extending the theatrical run for another couple of weeks, if not indefinitely.

And this is all still major spoilers, so please watch it on Netflix and then come back!

Spoilers for Glass Onion

Literacy 2022: Recap

A failed reading challenge that’s encouraged me to pick up the habit again in 2023

Thanks largely to a day job that’s consumed most of my free time over the year, I didn’t meet my reading goal for 2022. However, I didn’t read any real duds over the course of the year, which is a first. And trying to cram in a few over the Christmas-to-New Years break has reminded me of how much fun it is to get completely lost in an entertaining book. That’s a nicer takeaway than my usual, which is just, “I don’t read enough and am a bad person because of it.”

Goal
20 books in 2022

Final
15* read. (My Kindle ran out of power, forcing my to finish up the last book on New Year’s Day instead of Eve)

Favorite Book of Literacy 2022
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. It’s got such an interesting main character, and is so stylistically clever at re-interpreting and re-contextualizing time-worn elements from gothic horror, that I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

MVP of Literacy 2022
Anthony Horowitz. I’ve only read two of his novels this year, but in addition to being unfailingly entertaining and engaging, they’ve also spun off into recommendations for other mystery authors, as well as renewing my interest in reading Agatha Christie books I haven’t read before, or re-reading some of the classics from a new perspective.

Goal for Literacy 2023
Sticking with my modest goal of 20 books for the new year, and cautiously optimistic that I’ll have more time to exceed it. Two books a month might be a little too ambitious for my pacing.

Sub-Goal for Literacy 2023
To finally finish The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. I started this one back in 2021, I think, and probably had unreasonably high expectations since The Night Circus is one of my favorite books of the past decade. But it’s been a slog that never holds my interest. I’ve just read a glowing review from a friend, so I’m hoping I can power through it.

Call to Action
I’ve already got a huge list of books in my Want-to-Read section, more than I’ll be able to read in my lifetime, but I’m always looking for more suggestions!

Literacy 2022: Book 15: By the Pricking of My Thumbs

A short, pleasant Agatha Christie mystery to finish off the year

Book
By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Series
Book 4 in the Tommy & Tuppence mysteries

Synopsis
While visiting an irascible aunt in a retirement home, Tuppence Beresford has an odd conversation with one of the residents, suggesting that something sinister is going on, and the other residents’ deaths might not be of natural causes after all.

Pros

  • Charming and extremely British, exactly what you’d expect from Christie’s stories of upper-middle-class English people solving murders with curious detachment
  • The now-middle-aged married duo of Tommy & Tuppence, who I thought were extremely dull when I first read Christie’s books, now seem genuinely endearing, a kind of lower-energy Nick & Nora Charles without all the alcohol
  • The idea of solving a cold case with literally no information apart from a painting, a vague memory, and a railway map, is an intriguing one
  • Resolutely middle-aged, hinting at scandal and adventure without straining plausibility
  • Short but not too slight, has the feel of the hour-long televised mystery stories that somehow Christie might’ve predicted would be made from her works

Cons

  • Meandering and roundabout, and unlikely to be palatable to anyone who isn’t charmed by Tommy & Tuppence’s married-couple banter
  • Not really much of a detective story, since there are a few interesting bits of actual deduction, but most of the case is solved by the protagonists just asking various people to provide exposition

Verdict
Charming and comfortable, if you’re in the mood for a more languid and lackadaisical detective story. I believe that this is one of the few Agatha Christie books I didn’t read in middle and high school, and I only picked it up because it was mentioned in one of Anthony Horowitz’s mysteries, as an example of a detective story that accomplished a lot in a brief space (227 pages). Very well-suited to cramming in last-minute entries for a reading challenge.

Literacy 2022: Book 14: A Line to Kill

Anthony Horowitz’s third book casting himself as Dr. Watson to a brilliant but abrasive fictional detective

Book
A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz

Series
Book 3 in the “Hawthorne and Horowitz Investigate” series

Synopsis
To promote the first book in the series, The Word is Murder, the author and former detective Hawthorne are invited to a literary festival on a small English island. As tends to happen, they’re pulled into a murder investigation, in which the other writers and the island’s close-knit community are all prime suspects.

Pros

  • Horowitz has proven himself to be a master craftsman when it comes to old-fashioned murder mysteries, and this one might be the most accessible and satisfying of his that I’ve read so far.
  • The meta-gimmick of this series — in which Horowitz casts himself as Watson to a fictional detective Holmes — isn’t as overpowering and distracting as in the previous books, being used instead to establish the premise and then mostly fade to the background.
  • None of the clues are artificially obscured or dropped onto the reader at the last minute, there’s a satisfying sense that observant readers had everything they needed to solve the mystery.
  • Breaks free of the template of the first book, which had already started to wear thin in the second: there’s no need to artificially introduce an action-packed climax into every detective story.
  • I was able to guess the identity of the murderer, but it was neither too obscured nor too obvious, and I felt like if I’d been reading more slowly and carefully, I would’ve been able to piece together the relevance of all the clues.
  • Very cleverly uses the format, and the idea that Horowitz is thinking in terms of writing a murder mystery as the mystery is playing out, as a way to sum up information and throw in red herrings.

Cons

  • Hawthorne is still an abrasive and unlikable character by design, but I still haven’t reached the point where he’s more fascinating than just plain annoying.
  • Horowitz’s self-deprecating comments are still in full effect here, as he casts himself as the eternally disrespected and under-appreciated second fiddle to a brilliant detective. The charm is wearing a little thin. It invariably comes across either as a humblebrag, or as someone who’s not hapless so much as spineless.
  • I welcomed the fact that the metatextual gimmickry was played down in this book, but it did have the side effect of making it seem more like a traditional murder mystery without the novelty in The Word is Murder.

Verdict
Another satisfying, old-fashioned murder mystery that’s a lot of fun to read. It does feel less experimental and innovative than the first two books in the series, but avoids feeling like a repetitive formula while still using its clever premise to its advantage.

Literacy 2022: Book 13: Spook

Mary Roach applies her accessible and funny style of non-fiction writing to the topic of ghosts, reincarnation, and the afterlife.

Book
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

Synopsis
Roach looks into the history (and present) of varying attempts to prove the existence of the afterlife around the world, including researches attempting to document and verify cases of reincarnation in India, the history of Spiritualism and mediums in the UK and US, and recent research into electromagnetic fields and ultrasound to explain ghost sightings.

Pros

  • Roach’s introduction establishes herself as a skeptic who needs verifiable proof, but still intends to approach the subject with a fair an open mind instead of dismissing people outright.
  • Very funny throughout, Roach is on-point with her asides and tangential observations about the details she finds delightful.
  • Extensively researched but never dry, Roach includes a complete bibliography, acknowledges when the more scientific material made no sense to her, and interviews people directly involved wherever possible.
  • Roach’s template for these books — magazine article-length essays on various topics with segues leading into the next topic — works perfectly here, giving full accounts of her time “in the field” drilling down on a single subject, while still feeling more like a unified work than a collection of loosely-related essays.
  • Extremely accessible and fun to read

Cons

  • The mission statement of the book is in the introduction: find some verifiable, repeatable evidence. As a result, it feels entertaining if not particularly deep. This is not likely to be a book that will change anyone’s perception of life or the afterlife, because it’s not necessarily intended to.

Verdict
Excellent, and it’s solidified me as a fan of Mary Roach. (Even though I might be a bit too sensitive/squeamish for her other topics, like Stiff and Bonk). In my opinion, this is exactly the right way to combine humor with science/nonfiction writing.