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Sunday, Apr 6, 2008

Splatter offers its own unique brand of cinematic satisfaction. When done correctly, within the context of a tightly scripted narrative, it looses most of its geek show sensation. In turn, it forms the basis for some ballistic shivers, an all guts and no glory groove on our most primal of fears. Thanks to the so-called ‘torture porn’ genre however (blamed for everything from the death of movie macabre to the demoralization of society), blood has gotten a bad name. Film snobs now view gore as a motion picture pariah, the equivalent of toilet humor in comedy or the disease of the week in drama. The latest foreign fright film, Inside, may just change that onerous opinion.

It’s been five months since a car accident took Sarah’s husband, and while the external scars have healed, the internal pain is very, very real. Still, the couple’s unborn child remains safely in her womb, and with Christmas just around the corner, things are looking up. The doctors are ready to deliver and it should be a happy time for the former photo journalist. But instead, she is swept up in memories of the past and an unending depression - that is, until a mysterious woman shows up at her house. Unable to recognize who she is, Sarah calls the police. The threat grows real. Sarah is all alone. Without warning, the slaughter begins.

Wow! The French have really figured this out. Looking over the landscape of horror this past decade, these particular European proponents of terror have delivered some devastating turns. From Haute Tension to Ils, France has forged a new wave of nastiness that has redefined the genres and styles of their continental countrymen. Inside (new to DVD from Genius Products, The Weinstein Company and their Dimension Extreme label) is no different. Like watching the ultimate collaboration between Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (with some nauseating originality thrown in for good measure) this sluice-filled sensation is one of the sickest, most gratifying gross out efforts in quite a while. But this isn’t just gore for the sake of shock. Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury have combined the visceral nature of childbirth with the mandates of the slasher film to forge a brilliant, ballsy bloodbath.

There is a clear connection to the joys of motherhood and the physical brutality of the process on display here. Both Sarah and the woman after her baby are desperate to hold onto the life such procreation provides. Death is then suspended right alongside, illustrating in the same personally intrusive manner a stunning juxtaposition. While Inside is not the first film to explore the link between parenthood and dread, biology and the blood-soaked, Bustillo and Maury have made the logical leap into Grand Guignol glorification - and the results are as repugnant as they are dazzling. Fans of films featuring a certain Mr. Voorhees while wonder why Hollywood has been so ‘anemic’ when it comes to this kind of iconic terror tale. The answer is literally splashed across the screen.

We gratuity-loving gorehounds really do need to rejoice. This is the kind of film where faces are blown off, limbs are pierced and prodded, and bodies are violated with an imaginative mayhem one associates with a Savini or a Bottin. The link to the previously mentioned Italian maestros is also obvious, especially in how Inside‘s filmmakers add arterial spray to the most stylized or mundane situation. The use of a single setting is also crucial to the film’s success. Instead of moving us around the Paris suburb, turning the craven cat and mouse into some sort of failed action adventure, Bustillo and Maury keep the killing to one house - actually, one internal hallway from bedroom to living room. Such a logistical limit really ratchets up the tension while remaining totally rational and real.

And the acting definitely needs to be mentioned. Alysson Paradis has the kind of dour, dejected expression that has us hating her almost immediately. While we understand her post-accident misery, it grows grating…that is, until the slashing. It’s a genius move by Bustillo (who helmed the screenplay). By lulling us into a sense of complacency, by making us almost hate our heroine, it turns the slice and dice into something meaningful. The violence elevates our emotional responses, changing and challenging our perspective. By the third act, when Sarah has suffered beyond all rational means, we get the impression of a battle well fought, a victim about to be victorious. It’s the ultimate conquest. Yet as with all slasher films, that’s not the final beat.

On the other end of the performance spectrum is Béatrice Dalle, who becomes an instant classic movie monster with her turn as ‘the woman’ (she is listed as La Femme in the credits). Unrelenting in her pursuit, heartless in the way she meters out jagged blade justice, she’s reminiscent of Lucy Butler, the memorable psycho from the Chris Carter series Millennium. But Dalle is much more maniacal. With a gap-toothed smile that seems to symbolize the bubbling dementia in her mind, she toys with Sarah, saving her most disturbing murder moves for the ancillary bystanders who come to her rescue. Even better, when given the chance to end the pain, to stop the suffering of all involved, she drags it out, hoping to instill the kind of torment in her prey that she’s felt ever since…sorry, no spoilers here.

All of this was planned out purposefully by Bustillo and Maury. In the only substantive bonus of the DVD, the duo speak openly about trying to find a property that would address old school horror ideals while bringing forward a new sense of fright. The omnipresent offal was merely a means of achieving a very tasty and terrifying ends. It is also clear that the artistic ambitions the directors tried to achieve required a great deal of technical expertise. The behind the scenes footage included as part of the Q&A indicates as much. Together, the vision matches with the mechanics to produce a satisfying scarefest.

Indeed, horror geeks waiting for the next great gore flick will literally foam over Inside. It provides a level of vileness that few recent films have even tried to achieve while adding enough aesthetic support to keep everything from overflowing into offensiveness. It is not a movie for the squeamish. Even fans of the funkiest splatter rampages will see something here unexpected and disturbing. Let’s hope that Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury don’t wind up taking the same path to Tinsel Town talentlessness as Ils‘s David Moreau and Xavier Palud. Their remake of The Eye was painful to say the least. Inside‘s creative team deserves much, much better. Their film is a claret covered sensation.

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Saturday, Apr 5, 2008
by Monica Shores
1001 Books for Every Moodby Hallie EphronAdams MediaMay 2007, 400 pages, $14.95

1001 Books for Every Mood
by Hallie Ephron
Adams Media
May 2007, 400 pages, $14.95

I love books about books. You know the ones I mean—The Western Canon, Books of the Century—those indispensable tools for bluffing my way through dinner conversations with other English majors who paid more attention and probably more money during their education than I did.

These metabooks are so authoritative, so full of imperatives: Here are the greatest novels ever written! The poems you must read before you die! The short stories that changed life for every person on the planet! If these PhD holding gentlemen—they are almost always gentlemen—are to be believed, it’s unlikely that any of the world’s civilizations would have endured without Hamlet.

1001 Books for Every Mood blows a big raspberry in the face of every other book-on-books I’ve encountered. Author Hallie Ephron has taken the unusual approach of assuming that rather than being told what to read her audience might appreciate a bit of choice in the matter. And, furthermore, sometimes her audience likes reading crap.

Ephron’s is a goofy guide to one woman’s egalitarian library, where The Da Vinci Code is just as valid a selection as Lolita. The pages are smattered, too, with occasional “quizzes” to match fictional lovers or literary siblings. From its cerise color scheme to its convoluted symbol system, the whole endeavor is a bit of a mess, albeit a well-meaning one.

Still, some of Ephron’s choices and selections leave more than a bit to be desired. One thousand and one titles was not enough space to acknowledge works by Dostoyevsky, Edith Wharton or—ouch—Shakespeare. I don’t know quite what to make of Oscar Wilde’s exclusion, especially in light of a “Revel in Wit” section. (Mark Twain isn’t in that one, either.)

For those who want to rub salt in these wounds, know that Paul Coelho gets three out of four stars for literary merit, the same as Kafka and Orwell. Poor Henry James, who only gets two, could apparently could learn a few things from Dave Eggers’ “virtuoso performance” in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

With that kind of table talk, no English major will have the appetite for a meal.

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Friday, Apr 4, 2008

I found this NYT op-ed, by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, about strengthening one’s willpower incredibly creepy. Mainly, the experiments used to test willpower seem strange, obliquely laden with all sorts of ideological assumptions about what takes will and what doesn’t:

In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.

Who is signing up for these studies? Can they be considered representative if they volunteer for this sort of thing? Does it require willpower to do a pointless task a scientist demands of you? Isn’t personal incentive important in this context, or is the thrust of the study to suggest that willpower is most needed when a person is unmotivated, indifferent—that will has precisely to do with doing the tasks society demands?

That seems backward to me; I lack will precisely with the things that are important to me and threaten the possibility of deep-rooted failure, at the core level of my aspirations. If I failed to circle some e’s, what difference would that make? Willpower seems to me something that can’t be observed in a laboratory and could probably only be studied through a proxy, something like completing a dissertation or running marathons. But even then, the definition of willpower is problematic. Is it the will to resist temptation, or the will to complete unpleasant tasks, or the will to overcome obstacles presented by the wills of other people?

This semantic confusion leads to crazy sounding recommendations like this, where incomparable goals are all jumbled together as if they are all notions to be plugged into an algebraic equation: “In the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely. For example, if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford. Taking an alternative route to avoid passing the store would be a better strategy. On the other hand, if you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let the housecleaning slide to conserve your willpower for the more important job. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.”

Making goals into arbitrary variables is perhaps the purpose of framing philosophical ideas in this cryptoscientific fashion. The quotation reveals what seems to be the underlying consequence of research like this, to reify willpower, to change it from an active mental process to a commodity, something you stockpile and count. Only then can it be seen as an activity rather than an inert substance. It is troped as fitness, which is the biochemical correlative of consumerism: “Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.”

How long will it be before someone monetizes this particular finding? “Weak-kneed and irresolute? Send your brain to boot camp! 50 Willpower Exercises to Transform Your Life and Bring Out the Determined YOU!”
1. Circle every e in the metro section of The New York Times. Why? To concentrate, silly!
2. Eat nothing but radishes for lunch. Yes, it’s icky, but how else will you develop the mental fortitude you need for the important tasks in life, like dieting?
3. Force yourself to look at page after page of shoes on Zappos, but wait, here’s the thing: Don’t buy any! It’s weird, I know, but then you will have the determination to buy only the shoes you really need.
4. Brush your teeth with your left hand (or your right if you’re a southpaw!). That will teach you to be determined about the really important things.

You get the idea. Maybe they can have mental gymnasiums where you can pay for the privilege of doing pointless things for a few hours. Make into an exclusive status product (make it expensive and have eligibility requirements) and it can really take off.

The will was once regarded as the essence of a person’s soul—“free will” reputedly had a lot of theological import at one time. One’s will was valuable for its own sake, as the mark of someone who had achieved some kind of self-determination, a purpose in life. Now, apparently, the will is to be regarded as just another resource, to be hoarded for special occasions—a big exam or when you need to turn down chocolate. Now I am going to see if I can muster up the determination to read the rest of the paper. Too bad all the e‘s are blotted out.

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Friday, Apr 4, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Jenny Owen Youngs loves the Beach Boys and Bach and can play flip cup like a pro.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Hmm… I definitely remember crying during the Simpsons movie. I am most likely to cry during any episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition... and that’s not a joke.

2. The fictional character most like you?
I don’t know how to answer, unless of course we are all not real, but rather characters in a novel that’s being written RIGHT NOW… in which case the answer would be me.

3. The greatest album, ever?
The Beatles: Revolver. Or, The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds. Or, Kate Bush: The Dreaming.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Firefly, thank you.

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Thursday, Apr 3, 2008

The mystery of the overpriced textbook solved
If you’ve ever questioned just how your college textbook bill tops $500+ each and every semester, check out Greg Eichten’s report at The Winonan. Eichten comments on a presentation by bookstore owner Chris Livingston on the high cost of text books.

In order to compete with used books, publishers employ tactics such as turning out several editions of a textbook that are only slightly altered, including websites and DVDs to accompany the textbooks, and printing smaller quantities of books on a need basis. All of these factors contribute to increased cost.

The article also offers a breakdown on just where that $100-a-book goes. How much does the author get, the publisher, the bookstore? I often wonder why students don’t revolt over book prices. This article makes the argument that students resist complaining because they know the books are so beneficial to their education. But what if you simply can’t afford them? I remember when I completed my MA, the textbooks were so far our of my price range that I was forced to use Amazon’s “search inside” tool for much of my research. It worked, opened the door to many other works not available in store, and barely cost a dime.

Student seeks books
Or there’s this idea… Check out this great bit about Mount Shasta students and their novel way of sourcing school texts. Mitchell Nesheim is the mastermind behind Books for Bears. The gist is this: Mitchell sends out a list of sought-after school texts (Jack London, Emily Bronte, etc) and if you happen to have the listed books on your shelf at home gathering dust, he asks that you donate them to the school. That way, libraries will be stocked and students won’t need waiting lists to get their reading done. Do it!

John Krasinski

John Krasinski

Adapting David Foster Wallace
Office star John Krasinski talks to the New York Times about his efforts adapting David Foster Wallace’s story “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”:

I know there are way bigger David Foster Wallace fans, but I found “Brief Interviews” at a time where I was expanding my brain in any way I could, and he was just one of the authors that really rocked things for me. I’m still reading all his stuff and still trying to understand him better and better, because it takes a long time.

Buy books from your phone
Amazon thinks of everything. First the Kindle, now TextBuyIt, which allows you to search for and buy books on your cell phone. The AC reports:

You can search by name or by using the products UPC code. Amazon will then send you a text back with information on the product, and its price. You then text back a reply. If you decide to purchase the item, will send an automated telephone call to your cell phone to give you full details on your Amazon purchase and let you confirm your order. This all takes place from the convenience and comfort of your cell phone.

Apparently, the benefits here are convenience and easy price-sourcing. If you’re wandering a bookstore and see something you like, just get on your phone and find out if Amazon offers it cheaper. That’s great, but I’m starting to think Amazon is an invention away from taking over the world.

Cycling author dies
Eugene A. Slaone, author of The Complete Book of Bicycling, has died. The Chicago Tribune looks back:

[Sloane’s book] come out in 1970. Covering everything from how to buy a bicycle to detailed explanations on maintenance and repair, it filled a void and caught on quickly with an American public just starting to embrace bikes in large numbers.

And finally…
Remember Bookworms with Ink? Well, one of the contributors there, LasciviousL, has posted his/her new tattoo, and it’s just gorgeous. Look at “State O’Maine”, from John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, here.


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