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Here is a universal truth some people often forget: all writing has form.  It doesn’t matter whether the writing in question is poetry, drama, essay writing, or fiction, everything has a shape in how it’s crafted.  Quite often, many of those forms and shapes are consistent and frequently used.  It’s a charge often seen when a critic/reviewer charges that a book is “formulaic.”  More often then not, that’s meant in a negative way.  However, it doesn’t have to be.  Being “formulaic” or “by the numbers” in popular fiction, for example, is not a terrible thing.

Think of this way:  cooking usually tends to be formulaic.  If one is baking a cake, there are always going to be similar ingredients used, whether it be flower, butter, and sugar.  One is hardly going to bake a cake using baking soda, rock salt, and organ meat.  Even if one did, however, I wouldn’t eat it — its value as a cake becomes highly suspect.  A highly skilled chef, on the other hand, would take the familiar cake ingredients, cook close to the recipe (form), but would provide personal enough personal variations so that the result ends up being uniquely theirs.

Skilled genre writers often approach fiction the same way a master chef approaches a recipe.  Let me put it this way.  Lets substitute “Detective novel” for “cake.”  Lets say the ingredients were 1) a broke private eye, 2) A beautiful, but mysterious woman, 3) Cops who are either wrong or three steps behind the PI, and 4) dastardly villains.  There’s likely more, but lets say these are the butter, sugar, salt, and flower of the cake recipe — that is, the basic building blocks.  One can mix them and follow the usual recipe to get the most standard and widely consumed results.    Yet, it’s the variations and embellishments that separate the common and mediocre from something that is a little more special and interesting.

So, lets say you have those basic mystery building blocks mentioned, and you start begin to add occult magic, Lovecraft’s elder god, tentacle monsters, and a few other things.  All of a sudden, you don’t have the standard noir novel anymore.  You have something a little more unique.  And that, in my long winded way, finally brings me to William Meikle’s The Midnight Eye Files: The Amulet.

Sure, it’s a noir/detective/private eye mystery.  Meikle isn’t content to just leave it that way, as adds a strong touch of Lovecraftian horror.  The result is not that inedible rock salt cake I mentioned earlier.   The result has the best of both worlds — it’s a credible mystery, and it has enough of the supernatural to land it squarely in the horror camp.  It plays so well in both worlds, it really is a pleasure to read.

Basically, the story follows a detective in a story that starts in the standard noir way.  The detective is sitting in his office, wondering about the state of his career when I strange woman walks in promising a lot of money.  She wants him to find an old artifact from the Middle East — an amulet.  Apparently, it’s been stolen.  The PI takes the case, and the world begins to slowly unravel around him.  The amulet has mystical properties, and the people who stole it want to use it to acheive a nefarious objective.  The shit hits the fan — to use a cliche, and the fate of the world remains in the balance.

As I said, earlier, the story meets a basic starting formula, but Meikle actively makes that formula his.  The writing itself is crisp, filled with good description and strong dialogue.  The Scottish setting, while not prominent, grounds the reader in a sense of place.  The characters, while themselves variations on noir tropes, are beleivable, and more importantly, likable.    All of this, taken together, makes for a smooth, enjoyable read.  In that regard, I have Meikle’s sequel, The Sirens, and I look forward to reading that soon.

If one were to take a look at the current spate of zombie films and books, three things pop up: the zombies themselves are the results of either mutation, viral infection, or other-worldly possession. It’s the mutation and infection one routinely sees in either Romero’s films, or in the Resident Evil movies. As for other worldly possession, that seems to come almost exclusively, these days, in Brian Keene’s three best selling zombie books, The Rising, City of the Dead, and Dead Sea. There is, however, a much older tradition, one that predates Night of Living Dead. Zombies used to be province of voodoo films, where outsiders and/or tourists come accidentally traipse into a mess of indigeneous culture.

That’s certainly the case with All Souls Day. Basically, the director, writer, and producers of the movie sought to buck the current zombie trend and harken back to the sort of film Lugosi made with White Zombie. The resulting story places an American couple driving through Mexico. They end up in a desolate little town, and unbeknowst to them, they interrupted a human sacrifice. All Souls Day, a post-halloween holiday in Mexico, is a day where the dead routinely rise. But do they only savagely want to eat people? Or is the issue more complicated?

I’m not going to go there, at this moment. Basically, the acting is so-so. The characterization strikes one as a little trite, and the story, with it’s shocking twists and turns, is workable. In short, All Souls Day is a mediocre film, but it’s one that’s not a bore to watch, at least.

–Rich Ristow

If you live in West Virginia long enough, you end up hearing lore and bits of history.  For example, one widely circulated tidbit suggests that the term “red neck” has Appallachian roots.   Striking miners during the many coal strikes wore red handerchiefs around their necks.  There’s one more thing West Virginia, though.  You live there long enough, and the you’ll eventually hear the bloody history of coal, too.  Strikes, at the end of the 19th Century consisted of more than just picket lines. Quite often, they were violent confrontations between the miners themselves and the thugs mine owners hired.  Simply put, the right to unionize and collectively bargain was a struggle that has gone on for more than a hundred years, and labor rights were paid for the lives of agitators.   And the coal miners went on strike for good reasons.  Mine conditions were hardly favorable.

It’s important to keep this in mind when watching a film like Wicked Little Things.   Sure, it’s a lower budget horror dvd, but the premise of the story builds off of the types of legends you’d hear in Appallachia.  Basically, Wicked Little Things is a movie about ghoulish, monster children.  The come out at night, and they eat people.   Their origin, however, comes straight from the earlier days of Apallachan coal mining.  Basically, before there were laws against child labor, kids worked in more than just sweatshops in cities like New York.  In the mountains, they were often working in the mines, going places in the rock where full grown adults couldn’t possibly squeeze into.  Due to the callous nature of the mine operators, many of those children died, becoming malevolent entities.

In the mean time, a widow and her daughters moves into the haunted hills, partly because they have no where else to go, and they think they’ved inherited property.  Slowly, but surely, the family comes face to face with these ghostly children — who now have a taste for human flesh.

All in all, not a bad film.  There are plenty of horror movies out there that trade in the same tropes, and for a change, it’s interesting to see that character and mystery play more of a fole in the film than mere gore and people eating.

–Rich Ristow

Or, perhaps, for better truth in advertising, perhaps the subject line should read, “Attack of the Rat People.” Regardless, After Dark’s Mulberry Street is a startlingly good addition to the zombie genre. Perhaps it would be best, first, to describe what the movie isn’t. It isn’t a George Romero knock off, and it certainly isn’t an attempt to clone 28 Days Later. It’s a movie that holds its own in its own right, and in a film sub-genre that’s rapidly becoming cliche, there’s enough here to keep the film fresh and interesting.

In that regard, perhaps one comparison to 28 Days Later is apt. Mulberry Street, like 28 Days Later, is firmly grounded in a sense of place. 28 Days Later gave the viewer iconic and apocalyptic images of London — so did the sequel, 28 Weeks Later. Mulberry Street is New York City through and through — there’s no possible way this film could be set anywhere else. Before the outbreak occurs, the viewer is experiences the cacophony that’s NYC. Car horns, people, construction, subways — New York is a loud, busy place. And not only does a movie viewer ample New York imagery, but the film also captures the place unique sound scape.

And there’s more. The characters are all believable New Yorkers, whether it’s Clutch (Nick Damici) as a gruff retired boxer or even some of the elderly men that live Clutch’s building. Every one of Clutch’s neighbors comes off as well drawn and not anything remotely close to a cliche. And that’s an important factor.

Mulberry Street is also about a group of renters facing eviction. Their building is deteriorating around them, and instead of making repairs, the new owner wants all of them out, so that he can tear the building down a build something a little more upscale. Given that New York has a fierce housing market, the renters don’t have a whole lot of options. Recently, New York City, as well as parts of Northern and Coastal New Jersey have undergone a sense of gentrification that favors the rich over the lower socioeconomic classes. For Mulberry Street, this is the problem the tenants face before the outbreak — and it’s necessary if the filmmaker wants to be true to his setting.

The whole outbreak phenomenon, also, is uniquely New York. It starts in the subway, as infected rats attack commuters. The Municipal Transit Authority tries to control the situation, but ultimately, fails. Both infected rats and people stream out of the subway and eventually sparks chaotic violence. For Clutch and his neighbors in their Mulberry Street walk-up, survival mean staying inside their tenement, and that can only go so far, as the walls are crumbling. As for the infected, once the contagion sets in, they begin to look more like rat-people then what one would traditionally call a “zombie.”

One more thing has to be said. For a film that wears New York City on it’s sleeve, there’s a bit of class displayed here. New York City, as most know, was the sight of real-life horror and terror on September 11th. There’s hardly a mention of it, and rightly so. Going heavy on 9/11 imagery would not only be off-topic, but it would come off as grossly exploitative. There’s a mention of Bin Laden towards the beginning, but that’s in how one of the characters reacts to the news. That’s believable because in recent history, whether it was the blackouts or crane collapses, terrorism has always been the first through in most people’s head. So, the one lone, quick reference to 9/11 adds to the sense of place without becoming a distraction.

Over all, for a straight to DVD release, Mulberry Street is worth it’s price tag. As a horror film, it works very well. Also, there’s enough here to keep the movie from venturing into cliched territory. So, while the themes and tropes may be wholly familiar, it uses them very effectively.

–Rich Ristow

A few weeks ago, I worked in warehouse and listened to a lot of podcasts, and so I posted reviews of them here. I got laid off. Went for a spell unemployed, and now, I have a job doing overnight stays in the human services industry. Rules of patient confidentiality dictate that I can’t say much about the job and the patients. Lets just say that after some house cleaning, I literally have hours to kill. There’s no internet connection, which means that I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I’ve also been watching lots of horror movies while drinking lots of coffee — falling asleep at 4am is grounds for getting fired. That’s largely why movie and book reviews will be posted to this blog with a greater frequency.

Anyhow, academic jobs seem few and far between these days. I just was assigned three classes for the fall semester, and Kean University called and said, “No, we don’t want you full time, but would you be willing to drive to Newark for adjunct pay? I really like your CV.” Um. No. At least the guy understood that part time pay wouldn’t even fill my gas tank to Newark on a regular basis. I interviewed for a computer based job in a library. But oh well, my luck in academia is not that bankable. So, at least I have a job now, one that’s largely immune to the economy sucking big time.

The rule of thumb, usually, with sequels, are that they usually never equal what came before. That’s the case with Brian Keene’s Ghost Walk. The novel follows Keene’s Dark Hollow, which might very well be Keene’s best mass market paperback to date — keeping in mind that this reviewer has yet to read Terminal or The Conquering Worms.

There’s a reason, though, why Ghost Walk really doesn’t even come close. Dark Hollow was an emotionally charged read from beginning to end. Adam Senft starts the book with a history of emotional trauma — a miscarriage has disrupted his and his wife’s desire to have kids, and Senft’s problems just spiral out of control. For most married men, a wife’s infidelity is always a secret fear, and Keene took it a bit further. Senft’s wife comes under the control of a satyr named Hylinus, and the implications, biologically speaking, litterally sends Senft over the edge.

Senft, all the while, remains a sympathetic character. Throughout Dark Hollow neither he nor his creator, Keene, ever step back and ask for people’s empathy. If they had, the result would have been rather pathetic. Instead, Senft blunders forward, doing the best he can, and one wonders, as a reader turns the pages, whether that would be enough.

Ghost Walk essentially lacks that emotional charge, and as a result, it also lacks the chaotic energy that propels the reader forward. Basically, it’s the story of a group of people who must make it to LeHorn’s Hollow before an ever-expansive darkness overtakes and snuffs out the world. None of the characters, really, have to look into themselves the way Senft did, and so the drama, here, is more mechanical than psychological. To be honest — and I hate saying this — the novel comes off as a little rote and paint-by-the-numbers.

Of Keene’s MMPB’s I’ve read, I’d rank this towards the bottom, right above Ghoul, which I didn’t like for one pestersome issue of writing. The usual things I look forward to in Keene novel, like characters facing the world surrounding them, was actually a little more pronounced in Ghoul. It’s just that novel had a lot of intruding exposition about the 1980’s that interferred with the flow of the story. Ghost Walk reads smoother, even if the characters are not as dynamic as one would hope for.

Still, it has to be said: a Keene dud, at the moment, is still far better than a lot of what’s floating around the horror genre. Ghost Walk is not a terrible novel, and in terms of writing craft, I wouldn’t classify it as a failure. It’s just not as good as what Brian Keene can do. Dead Sea and Dark Hollow set higher bars, standards, and expectations. Sadly, Ghost Walk doesn’t even come close.

–Rich Ristow

28 Days Later came at the perfect time. Post-911 jitters were at the extreme, and a rogue scientist, it seems, had sent a number of Anthrax laden letters through the postal system. Across the Atlantic, the UK had it’s own an outbreak of mad cow disease, which lead to the en-masse slaughter and burning of cows. In short, there wasn’t a proven appetite for post-apocalyptic entertainment, but the movie really tapped into the mood of the time. This, as well as other factors, like Brian Keene’s first couple of novels in mass market paperback, ushered a veritable boom in zombie projects.

I thought 28 Days Later was excellent for many reasons. However, one remains rather prominent. It wasn’t an American film. The events depicted take place in London, and once the patient wakes to find the world dead around him, the movie viewer was treated to eerie silent, empty shots of the city. It’s even eerier if you’ve ever been to London. Even on a slow day, the streets are crowded with people and cars, and in some parts, the mass of humanity can feel slightly overwhelming at times. I’ve never had that feeling in New York, Washington DC, Amsterdam, Brussels, Athens, Prague, or even Paris.

The film, as alluded to earlier, was very well written. And, for the most part, I was glad the producers didn’t trip over themselves to rush out a sequel and turn it into a franchise. Recently, that has changed. However, calling 28 Weeks Later a sequel is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, it’s the same universe, the same rage virus, and the same fast running, arm flailing zombies, but the characters are all different. In short, the producers have taken a cue off of George Romero’s legendary zombie series, where anticlimatic events are depicted at various stages of the outbreak.

So, 28 Weeks Later sugests the rage virus has run it’s course in Britain. Humanity could do nothing to stop it, and the zombies all died off due to starvation. NATO forces, as spear-headed by Americans, swiftly move into the UK to clean up and repatriate survivors. Essentially, they start at the heart of London, building a “Green Zone” styled compound. It’s enclosed, and it’s strictly monitored by video camera and snipers posted at the tops of buildings. Basically, it looks like a life of comfort under the eyes of what seems like a benevolent American military.

More specifically, however, 28 Weeks Later is also more of a family drama. At the beginning of the movie, a husband and wife have been separated from their children. Their safe house is over-run, and the husband becomes separated from his wife. This leads to guilt issues, because instead of turning around and trying to save his wife, he runs away to live another day. The father and children are reunited in the new version of London, but curiosity gets the better of the children, and they sneak out of the perimeter to go look at their old house. There, they run into their mom — who has survived in a weird way. She’s infected with the rage virus, but has never turned. American scientists figure out that she’s a highly infectious carrier, and before they can kill her, all shit hits the fan, to use a cliche. The husband, who’s still racked with guilt, goes to visit his wife and beg her forgiveness. In a tear filled scene, all is made up, and they kiss. The wife, however, doesn’t know that she’s infectious, and that one mere kiss can be deadly.

Well, the rest of the movie is a standard outbreak, with one added dimesion. The father, out of instinct, still persues the children, as they try to escape the cramped streets of London. Even more, in the name of containment, the American military adopts a zero prejudice attitude regarding anybody on the street. Zombie or not, the soldiers are ordered to shoot anything that moves.

And here is another interesting difference between the first and second films. In 28 Days Later, the surviving British soldiers are psychotic, thinking more about sex and repopulating the world then actually helping people. Even when faced with the end of the world, human borne inhumanity surfaces. In 28 Weeks Later, the military starts off as benevolent, there to serve and protect survivors. The Americans turn to indescriminate bombings, shootings, and gassing only when there is no options left — and there’s even a scene that suggests that giving that pacification order takes a tool on the commanding officer.

So, 28 Weeks Later in no way stands up to it’s predecessor. It can’t. It was made in a different time, when the public had strikingly different, more terrified view. Still, that said, 28 Weeks later is a solid, well made movie. The story is tight and well written. The characters are all real and not cliche’s, and the action and suspense keep the viewer glued to screen. All in all, that’s more than good enough.

–Rich Ristow

When it comes to Andy Dick, most of my recent memory of him has been dominated by his work on MTV, not his glory days as a cast member of News Radio. Lets just say, given his TV Reality show antics, as well is some of the more scandalous gossip page column behavior with drugs and alcohol, I always thought it would be best to avoid the guy completely. Sure, I don’t know him personally, but if his on-screen presence has been unbearably obnoxious for many years, it’s certainly not to my taste.

That perception has changed, slightly. Recently, I caught Danny Roane, First Time Director on Comedy Central. My impulse was to change the channel, but before I could find the remote, I found myself wanting to give the movie a couple of minutes of leeway. I saw something I never expected: Andy Dick was actually “acting” — and not in a hyperactive comedic (read, wannabe Robin Williams or Jim Carrey) way. He was subdued, conveying emotion with his face. In short, he’d toned himself down for a role. That had me intrigued.

The concept of the movie looks simple at first. It’s a “mockumentary” in the vein of Reiner and Guest, but sadly, it doesn’t reach the masterwork level that “This is Spinal Tap” or “Best in Show” achieve. Basically, it tells the story of a director trying to make his first feature length film. Cameras are following him around so that there can be a “The Making Of…” documentary. The really intriguing part of the film comes in the character Dick is playing. Danny Roane is a recovering alcoholic, one that has had many public meltdowns on television. As an actor, he’s blackballed, and to save his career, he thought he’d try his hand at a different part of the entertainment industry — directing and producing.

The parallel here is obvious. Dick himself has rather struggled with alcohol and drugs. The parallel is further reinforced by one more: Danny Roane was once a bumbling character on a very popular sitcom. So was Dick (News Radio, starring the late, tragic Phil Hartman). Even more, Andy Dick directs, produces, and acts in this film. The levels of irony are astounding. As such, this movie comes off as an personal act of self perody, even as the Danny Roane character becomes unhinged and relapses into a crazed, insane alcoholic stupor. This is admirable for one reason: Andy Dick has learned to laugh at himself. That really takes a learned sense of humility and self awareness.

In that regard, it’s made me look at him with a less toxic vehemence. Still, as mentioned earlier, for a mockumentary as a genre or type of cinema, the question is always “Does it live up to Spinal Tap.” No, it doesn’t. There’s a lot that doesn’t work in this movie, and the humor can be hit or miss at times. Sometimes, it has that Reno 911! vibe of being over-improvised. And honestly, there’s still a strong sense of Dick’s outrageous behavior at work. It just seems a bit more channeled. Hopefully, Danny Roane, First Time Director speaks of new direction in Dick’s career: one of a thoughtful, sincere filmmaker who knows how to channel his demons, and not the reality-show-driven, drug-addicted asshole many have seen on TV.

There are those who idly listen to National Public Radio, tuning in for “All Things Considered” while driving, and then there’s the other type: the NPR enthusiast that listens all the time, to a variety of different shows. I count myself in the enthusiast category, but that doesn’t spread equally to PBS, though. I hardly watch it, but when I heard that the guys from NPR’s “Car Talk” were getting their own nighttime cartoon, I thought I had to check it out.

For those who may not know, “Car Talk” is hosted by two highly talkative New Englanders. Their jokes are quite often staler than week old toast, but their delivery is infectious. They fill the airways with boisterous, raucous laughter. And their own hyperactive amusement just causes one to smile, and they genuinely build great rapports with their callers. So, while their one liners and puns may appear stale on paper, it works very well on delivery. Most of their humor seems improvisational, as they routinely riff off their callers.

That spontaneity, however, just doesn’t translate well into a cartoon. It partly because the show is scripted, and not likely written completely by them. So, on the whole, they come off is restrained, and that doesn’t bode well. Sure, there are other nice points, like how the show readily pokes fun at NPR and PBS personalities, as well as the liberal demographic that listens/watches NPR/PBS — like, for instance, the appearance of a hippy in a Volkswagen van selling tofu ice cream pops. All of that, however, falls short — the two lead characters just don’t fit well into a more scripted format.

So, the cartoon doesn’t work out well like it possibly could. However, seeing that this is PBS, it’s likely not in danger of getting canceled anytime soon, like it would be if it were on FOX. So, the show has an opportunity to grow. Only, in the mean time, I won’t be waiting.

Click and Clack’s As The Wrench Turns airs Weds. 8/7c on PBS

Imagine this: Californians wake up one day and find that all the Mexicans have vanished. Not all Latinos, mind you — the Guatemalans, Costa Ricans, Salvadorians, and so on are still there. It’s just the Mexicans that vanish. Farms are forced to go without migrant workers, houses go uncleaned, children go un-nannied (is that even a word?), and much more. The economy goes into a free fall.

So, one wonders than, how did the Mexicans disappear? Where they rounded up by police-state type immigration officials and shipped south of the border? Genocide? No, nothing that extreme. They just simply vanished in an unexplained manner, and the whole state is surrounded by a mysterious pink/purple fog that has cut off communications.

On the whole, the concept is interesting. There’s an apolalyptic overtone there, as well as one that’s speculative. For instance, George Romero and his zombie filled social commentaries come to mind. The comparisions have to stop there. Romero made compelling films, and A Day Without A Mexican is — how shall I put this nicely? — a peice of political propaganda.

I don’t say that lightly. For the record, I agree whole hearted with the sentiment behind the film. I totally understand it’s political point of view and respect it. However, sometimes politics can trash and artistic medium and devalue it. Romero makes compelling films because he’s focused on the drama at hand. Not once, in Dawn of the Dead, does he stop or freeze the frame while a zombie is gnawing on an arm and insert, “You know, the average American consumer…” But that’s practically what a Day Without a Mexican does. It’s so intent on arguing and injecting demographic facts it’s case that it becomes a boring movie that’s tiresome to sit through. That even kills all possibility of humor and satire. If one wants to make an overtly political, banner waving movie, at least take a page from Micheal Moore’s oeuvre and film a cinematic personal essay.

–Rich Ristow