Friday, December 26, 2014

Screen Saver

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film
by Patton Oswalt

4 out of 5 bags of stale popcorn.

(I received a free advance copy of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)

Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt wrote this unflinching account of his battle with addiction during the late ‘90s, but he didn’t spend his days cooking meth with bikers or whoring himself out for crack.  Poor Patton was a movie junkie who found plenty of dealers to get him high in the theaters of Los Angeles.

A double feature of Billy Wilder films at the New Beverly Cinema was the gateway drug that led Patton down a relentless path of devouring movies and cataloging them in a diary as well as notations in several film books he had. His work and his relationships suffered as he became unable to relate to other people’s every day interests that weren't related to movies, and he rationalized his behavior by thinking that it would eventually give him the insight to make a great film of his own.  His descent continued until he hits bottom shortly after seeing Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.  Which is understandable because a lot of us never felt like seeing a movie again after that one.

Ah, but seriously folks…

I noted in my review of  Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland that I found the darker elements of that memoir intriguing, but that he’d seemed a little scared of making it  too personal and sincere so he’d inserted segments of pure humor  in it as deflections.  Here we have him recounting a period when he feels like he let his love of movies of get the better of him, and how coming to terms with that changed the way he approached his own career as well as what was really important to him as a person.  Since this is a professional comedian telling the story, it’s still funny, but it doesn’t seem like he’s using humor as a shield like it did in his previous book.

Here’s the tricky part for me about reviewing this:  I’m a Patton Oswalt fan who finds him not only hilarious but also an actor capable of great work in both TV and film.  I love reading about what creative people think about the process of actually turning ideas into something that can be shared.  I’ll also confess to being a movie junkie.  While I’ve never chased the dragon as hard as Patton did, I am the kind of person who is perfectly happy to kill an afternoon at  a special showing of Seven Samurai or spend the better part of a day in a Marvel movie marathon.  When Patton tells a story about seeing Last Man Standing and subjecting the friend he was with to the whole history of how it’s actually the same story as A Fistful of Dollars which is pretty much a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo which was heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, it made me cringe because I said the same exact thing to the person I saw it with, too.

So this book obviously hit a sweet spot for me, but I could see another reader (Someone who doesn’t have their own custom I HATE!  I HATE! coffee mug based on Oswalt’s Text routine.) maybe not liking this book quite so much.  Such a person might point out that Patton is essentially berating his younger self for the time spent on his movie obsession rather than creating his own work as well as lamenting the time he didn’t spend with friends and family.  And they’d have a valid point.

Because for all his self-criticism here, it’s a little odd that Patton doesn’t give himself more credit for what he was accomplishing at the time which was turning himself into a top-notch comedian by performing relentlessly as well as landing regular work in the movies and on TV.  Yeah, maybe he was on King of Queens for years instead of making his own Citizen Kane, but that helped him get to a point where he’s got to do other things like his great and disturbing performance as a sports nut in Big Fan.  And now he’s married and has a daughter that he loves dearly so he figured out that whole work/life balance thing, right?

So what exactly is this guy bitching about?  That he wasted a lot of time in the ‘90s watching movies?  Hell, we all did that.

However, it the book works for you, then you‘ll find a lot more than that.  It’s hard to break down the stew of events and small epiphanies that make us who we are, and that’s what Patton has tried to do here.  He’s describing a period when he wasn't satisfied with what he was doing and was flailing around for answers by immersing himself obsessively in something he loved.  He did finally learn something from all his time watching movies, but it wasn't what he went looking for.  Maybe he didn’t become Quentin Tarantino, but he did grow into being Patton Oswalt.  And like a lot of his fans, I’m happy it worked out that way.

Hey, I just got an email from Alamo Drafthouse telling me that they’re having a screening of The Apartment this weekend.  Maybe I should check that out….

Also posted at Goodreads.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fresh Mountain Air

The Abominable
by Dan Simmons
Little, Brown & Company

3 out of 5 miracle ropes didn't snap.

This book certainly isn’t abominable, but it doesn’t exactly soar to the height of the peak of Mount Everest either.

In 1925 young Jake Perry is an American mountain climber who has been knocking around the Alps with his new friends, Richard Davis Deacon and Jean-Claude Clairoux. Deacon is a veteran English climber who had been on a previous expedition to scale Mount Everest. After the men hear about the deaths of several people attempting to summit Everest, Deacon comes up with a plan to get funding for another Everest expedition by telling the mother of a young English lord that they will try to find and recover his remains

With Deacon’s experience and several new climbing innovations, the three men hope to become the first  to climb Everest, but the addition of a new member to their party is just one of many surprises they’ll get as they try overcome all the obstacles that come with a high altitude climb.

Dan Simmons threw me for a bit of a loop by starting with an introduction in which he describes how he met Jake Perry as an old dying man who inadvertently inspires his Arctic horror storyThe Terror. This is supposedly an account that Perry wrote that Simmons received after his death and arranged to have a published. The inclusion of Simmons into his own story made me think for a minute that Perry was real until a bit of research showed that Simmons was doing his historical fiction thing again like The TerrorBlack Hills  and The Crook Factory.

If you’ve read any of those books and you know that a big chunk of this is about trying to climb Mt. Everest in the ‘20s then you might guess that there’s going to be a massive amount of detail about mountain climbing techniques and equipment from that era. And you’d be absolutely right!

Some people would probably be bored to tears by this, but most who have read any of those other books by Simmons probably had a pretty good idea that there would be long explanations of the terrain, food, clothing, equipment, etc. etc. The question for many readers will be is if the detail helps sell the experience of the book or if they think that it just turns into Simmons showing off his research skills.

The problem for me wasn’t so much the infodumps. I’m a Simmons veteran so I knew what I was getting into, and I knew that I’d be getting an education in mountain climbing by reading this. It was that not only did Simmons give you that much detail, he’s awfully damn repetitive about it. For example, Simmons writes that Deacon has come up with a new kind of rope and exactly how it’s breaking strength is superior to the other ropes of the time. OK, so they’ve got better rope. Easy enough to understand. Yet Simmons feels the need to repeatedly remind us every time a hunk of rope is used that the Deacon’s ‘miracle rope’ is much better the old ‘clothes line’ rope. I got it after the first 20 times, Dan Simmons. You didn’t need to keep telling me.

And it isn’t just the rope. Perry’s team has acute future vision because they manage to use groundbreaking new ice climbing methods as well as improved equipment in every phase of their expedition. Even their tents and clothing are such a quantum leap above the gear of the day that I was wondering why they bothered trying to climb Mount Everest when they could have just founded North Face and made a fortune instead.

Maybe this wouldn’t have been quite such an irritation to me if the main part of the story would have kicked in a little earlier and been a bit more believable. I was invested in finding out if they were going to be able to summit Everest when Phase Two begins late in the book, and everything goes in another direction.  WARNING - SPOILERS FOLLOW IN THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS:

King's Electric Guitar Of Horror In The Key Of E


by Stephen King

4 out of 5 rubes would buy this book at a carnival.

From the synopsis on Stephen King’s website:

"This rich and disturbing novel spans five decades on its way to the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written."

That’s a bold statement that sets the bar very high for Revival. So does it clear it?

Almost. I think. If it doesn’t then it comes damn close which still makes this a pretty impressive achievement for Uncle Steve at this point in his long career.

Jamie Morton first meets Reverend Charles Jacobs when he’s a 6 year old kid in Maine during the early ‘60s. Jacobs is a popular minister with a pretty wife and infant son, and he loves fiddling with electrical gadgets. Jamie and Jacobs have a bond from the moment they meet that is cemented later when Jacobs aids a member of Jamie’s family. After a tragedy drives Jacobs out of town, Jamie profoundly feels the loss, but time marches on. When he becomes a teenager Jamie discovers he has some musical talent and as an adult he makes a living as a rhythm guitar player in bar bands. But Jamie hasn’t seen the last of Jacobs as their paths cross again and again over the years and each strange encounter leaves Jamie increasingly worried about what Jacobs is up to.

I’ve seen complaints from some readers that this is too slow and that the ending doesn’t live up to the hype. I can understand why. The readers’ impressions of it are probably going to be determined by how well the punch King spends the entire book setting us all up for landed. If it was a glancing blow, then you’ll shrug it off. After all, there are no evil clowns or haunted hotels or telekinetic teenagers getting buckets of pig blood dumped over them. The book could almost be one of those VH1 Behind the Music bios about Jamie Morton if King doesn’t pull off the last act for you. 

But if that punch lands solidly… If, like me, King catches you squarely with that jab of an ending, then you’re going to be lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling with a bloody nose and spitting broken teeth as you mumble, “The horror….the horror…”

I’ll be thinking about this one for a while, and it could end fairly high in my personal ranking of King novels after some reflection. Probably not top five, but maybe top fifteen or even top ten. However, I think it’s got a serious chance of being the one I find the most disturbing of them all.

What made that ending so powerful?  WARNING - SPOILERS FOLLOW!