Monday, November 11, 2013

"Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Taken from many sources, this collection of stories provides an introduction to the sometimes surprising genre writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, best known as the author of "The Scarlet Letter," the arch-enemy book of my high school years.

"Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" reads like notes for a longer science fiction work that never came to fruition. Four elderly people gather at a scientist's home to sample something that might change their lives. There is very little characterization, despite some detailed introductions, and the story plays out unsatisfactorily.

"The Birthmark" reads better, a story about scientist Aylmer's efforts to rid his wife Georgianna of a birthmark on her cheek. Hawthorne is very visual here, and while the dialogue is melodramatic, I could imagine everything he wrote. The author is making a comment about science, and how new discoveries blind the scientist to the bigger picture.

Aside from the obvious metaphor of "Young Goodman Brown" (his name is Goodman, and he's a GOOD MAN), this tale of a young husband trekking into the dark woods to attend a meeting of a coven of witches, made up of the godly folk of his village, is pure paranoid horror. This tale has been copied many times, but it is quite effective and creepy.

"Rappaccini's Daughter" is a densely worded tale of a young man falling for a beautiful woman who is literally poison to those around her. It is high melodrama, and contains an odd prologue that isn't essential to the story, but all in all, it is still good.

My favorite tale of the collection has to be "Roger Malvin's Burial." The story of two wounded soldiers in the wilderness, and one dying from his injuries, spans a few years. You may begin to figure out what happens to the survivor, but the climax is both emotional and heartbreaking. A great story.

"The Artist of the Beautiful" is a well-written but meandering tale about a watchmaker's life-long project. He gives up and is re-inspired one too many times, but Hawthorne says a lot about artists and their work.

The suspense built in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" isn't menacing, but still interesting. A young country boy scours a large city looking for his benefactor, and eventually finds him. I really enjoyed this story, too.

I hated "The Scarlet Letter," having read it in high school. I didn't read any Hawthorne again until "Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories," and now think I might have to pick up his famous novel again...after I go through a few other books in my library. I do recommend this collection, however. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

An Almost Perfect Independent Film: "Theresa Is a Mother" (2015)

Theresa (C. Fraser Press) is an unsuccessful singer in New York City freshly evicted from her apartment with her three daughters. She drives back to her hometown, and stays with her parents Roy and Cloris (the excellent Richard Poe and Edie McClurg), and tries to find work in the small town. There is a family tragedy that haunts Theresa, and has never really been addressed by her parents. As her daughters try to fit in, and Roy and Cloris' lives are disrupted, Theresa tries to balance responsibility and her rebellious attitude.

This is not one of those "I don't need a man to stand on my own" stories. Theresa is, in fact, a mess. Her punk-inspired songs are atrocious. Her relationship with her parents is so strained, they don't recognize their own granddaughters. She does finally get a job mowing lawns by under bidding the only local Jewish boy (Matthew Gumley), and is later hired by the boy's clueless father to write a song for a bar mitzvah. Part of the charm of the film is that Theresa and her family are so flawed.

The cast is outstanding, across the board. The Press daughters are professional and turn in actual performances. McClurg and Poe have a great chemistry, and play the broad comic scenes (the hot tub parties) as well as the dramatic very well. C. Fraser Press wrote the screenplay, knows Theresa inside and out, and triumphs in the role. It's a very fine line between sympathy and quirky, and Press walks that line well. I did not find any of the characters irritating, they all have a charm of their own- even the minor ones like the prostitutes hanging out in front of her apartment building, and the TV preacher/cook.

The Press' direction and use of widescreen is lovely. The scenes of Theresa riding around on a child's bike looking for work in the small town are nothing short of classic. Daughter Maggie's (Schuyler Iona Press) forced friendship with the Jewish boy, Seth, is well written. The editing is quick for a story that isn't all plot all the time, some of the best scenes are the interaction between Theresa and either her daughters or her parents.

The Press family does an incredible job in "Theresa Is a Mother." One or two scenes don't work, but as a whole, the film is funny and I liked all the characters. What more could I ask for? (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mike Wiley's Tour de Force: "DAR HE: The Lynching of Emmett Till" (2013)

The senseless 1955 murder of teenager Emmett Till marked a turning point in the civil rights movement in the southern United States. Mike Wiley turns the story into a one man show, literally a one man show- playing almost two dozen speaking parts, male and female, himself.

Till was a fourteen year old boy from Chicago visiting relatives in the small town of Money, Mississippi. While hanging around with some cousins, the boy was dared into talking to a white store owner, and either made some inappropriate comments and touched her, or what he said to her was misinterpreted (he had a stutter he sometimes solved by whistling). The woman's husband and his half-brother kidnapped Till a few days later, beat and killed him, and dumped his body in a local river. His mother famously held an open casket funeral, showing the world the torture Emmett went through, and the two men responsible for his murder were found not guilty, and later told a reporter about how they did in fact murder the youth. They could not be retried thanks to double jeopardy.

According to the end credits, this film is an adaptation of a play written by Mike Wiley, and I assume it was a one-man show. Director Underhill opens up the story, and through the use of some unobtrusive yet effective special effects and editing (well done by Larry J. Gardner), Wiley is able to play off himself in scenes from Till's life and the aftermath of his death. This is not a photographed stage presentation, Wiley puts on costuming to play all the characters on location.

Watching a man in drag play a woman in such a serious film is disconcerting at first. Also, Wiley portrays the white murderers without any makeup to look Caucasian (thank goodness). He is a versatile performer, slightly changing his voice to fit the role without too much effort. His best scene, ironically, is as Emmett's mother Mamie, as she describes examining the body of her dead son. You forget this is a man telling the story, as the mother's love comes through.

I am still waiting for Hollywood to make a definitive version of the events that happened, and I am surprised they have not yet. In the meantime, while it is not perfect, "DAR HE: The Lynching of Emmett Till" is a very good telling of those sad, stupid events, done with a passion for the subject and for the craft of acting and film making in general. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"H.N.I.C." by Albert "Prodigy" Johnson with Steven Savile

Albert "Prodigy" Johnson, of the rap duo Mobb Deep, creates a short readable piece of crime fiction with Steven Savile.

The novella is brisk, and introduces the reader to Pappy, a computer whiz looking to get out of his bleak inner-city existence for a better life in...Detroit? He is friends with the seemingly unbalanced Black, and they commit petty crimes trying to fund their drugs-and-women lifestyles. A bank job goes wrong, and Black kills a man, forcing Pappy to hang around longer to make some money to start a new life. Pappy is also concerned for Tonya, the beaten addict Black claims as his own. Following the tried-and-true formula, Black talks Pappy into committing "one last job," which is rife with double-crosses and senseless murder.

What Johnson has written here certainly feels modern (there is an Obamacare reference), but the plot has been around since the days of the Old West. I don't think you are supposed to root for the criminals, but I did sympathize with Pappy's plight. The writing style spends no time on physical appearances or setting, and instead quickly throws the reader into the action. There is no "Ocean's Eleven"-type minutiae about the two robberies in the novella because the planning that goes into them are haphazard.

Full of profanity and bloody violence, Johnson tells his story efficiently. Like I said, the plot has been done before, and that is the book's main drawback. I wanted something unexpected to happen, but familiarity was outweighed by the suspense of what would happen to Pappy. Maybe because of who Johnson is, the story felt very realistic, and you know this has happened before in real life.

I don't know gangster rap from plastic wrap, every time I try to type Mobb Deep, my fingers want to spell out "Mos Def," but Johnson's story is a brutal and quick read. "H.N.I.C." is also a cautionary tale, custom-made for the big screen. (* * * *) out of five stars.