October Horror Roundup

Some years it seems October passes me by before I realize it, and I find myself staring November 1st in the face with the startling realization that I neglected to watch any horror to get myself into the Halloween spirit. Granted, horror can (and should) be enjoyed all year long, but taking in some spooky stuff while the decorations are out is extra special.

This year I made it a point to not let one of my favorite holidays (shout out to Christmas) pass me by. I’ve been able to check out a handful of horror I hadn’t seen before, and it’s been wonderful. I tried to cover as much of the horror spectrum as I could, from over-the-top-bonkers gore spectaculars to more traditional creepfests. I lucked out in that none of it was especially bad, and some of it was incredibly good. So if you need a kick in the pants to rev up your Halloween spirit or want something scary to watch in the dark on All Hallow’s Eve, here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve seen so far this month. (All available on Netflix)

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Terrifier (2017) 

Terrifier is all about expectations. If you’re looking for subtle, nuanced fright, look elsewhere—subtlety is not to be found in this throwback to 80’s slasher flicks. Some have criticized the film for its derivative, paper-thin plot, but honestly, this film lets you know what you’re in for within the first five minutes. When you see a character’s eyeballs popped in their sockets, you should adjust your expectations accordingly.

Featuring a sadistic killer clown out on the town for a maniacal killing spree, the kills in Terrifier are straight up gnarly: decapitations, dismemberments, and one scene so shocking (featuring the world’s sharpest hacksaw) that it even got raised eyebrows from this gourmet of gore. There’s a degree of detachment to most of the violence thanks to its less-than-realistic effects work, which only serves to add to the campiness and pitch black comedy.

Bottom Line: If you’re into crazy, over the top gore and not looking to set the bar too high, this will be right up your alley.

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The Ritual (2017)

Based on the novel by Adam Nevill, The Ritual is very Blair Witch-esque, featuring some lost hikers in the hills of Scandinavia and a (seemingly) supernatural entity haunting them at their every turn. The film does a great job of mixing physical scares with psychological terror, and there’s a nice element of surrealism to keep you wondering exactly what the hell you’re watching.

Without getting into spoilers, once the men see the thing in the forest they have been running from, it’s one of the best reveals I can remember in a long time. A truly WTF climax, with about as satisfying an ending as a movie of this type can deliver. This one definitely surpassed my expectations.

Bottom Line: A nice take on a familiar story, well written and well executed.

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The Haunting of Hill House (2018) 

There’s not a lot about this 10-part series that hasn’t already been said. It’s probably the most buzzed-about thing Netflix has had since diving into original programming, and if you haven’t already seen it you might be wondering how something so critically lauded can possibly live up to the hype. All I can tell you is that it does, in spades.

Nearly every frame of Hill House’s ten hours is filled with a palpable sense of dread. You never know what’s going to happen at any given moment, and just when you think you’re safe something will catch you off guard. All of this done with very few jump scares (and excellent timing of the ones they do use), and practically no blood or gore.

The ending has been roundly criticized, but that is truly a nit being picked by people who should appreciate being given a piece of work this exceptional. When the worst thing people can say about a ten-part saga is that it’s not absolutely perfect, you know you’ve got something special.

Bottom Line: Believe the hype. A definite must watch.

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Oculus (2014)

In what turned out to be a double shot from director Mike Flanagan, Oculus has a few things in common with The Haunting of Hill House—namely how ghosts haunt and ultimately screw up an otherwise happy family, and some reverse storytelling to gradually reveal what really unfolded. Initially revealing a young boy killing his father after a dastardly bout of domestic violence, the film makes use of flashbacks to fill in the missing details, and show us how the adults were manipulated by a haunted mirror that had come into the family’s possession. (That sounds corny as I type it out, but it actually works in the movie, trust me.)

Now grown, the children are determined to document exactly what powers the mirror possesses before ultimately destroying it—but of course the mirror won’t go down that easily. The ending is quite satisfying, although a major part of the climax will be obvious to anyone who’s got even a basic knack for spotting foreshadowing.

Bottom Line: Not great but by no means bad, Oculus proves Hill House was no fluke for Flanagan.

***NOTE: Oculus is only available on Netflix until Nov. 1st, hurry if you want to see it.

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Tales of Halloween (2015)

In the mood for a string of campy mini B movies with gore galore and enough cheese to make fondue? Friend, meet Tales of Halloween. Made up of ten horror comedy shorts from various writers and directors, Adrienne Barbeau of Creepshow fame plays a local DJ who serves to string the tales together in a style reminiscent of old HBO favorite Tales From the Crypt.

The shorts run the gamut from amusing to decent to bad; a couple of them border on good, and some stink outright. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter—the stories are so short that the next one is on before you can complain about the last one. Gallows humor and corny comedic violence abound, making the fact that the content is not exactly top notch easier to swallow. Another reason to sit through it is the plethora of cameos, including horror directors John Landis and Mick Garris, The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Barry Bostwick, Greg Grunberg of TV’s Alias and Heroes fame, and one of my all-time favorite comedians (and former writer on The Simpsons), Dana Gould.

Bottom Line: Worth watching if you are in the mood for total silliness but still want gore and violence. Willing to bet it would be 100% better with alcohol.

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Apostle (2018)

Quite different than the other ones I’ve mentioned, Apostle is a period piece set on a remote Welsh island in 1905. Our protagonist Thomas Richardson’s sister has been kidnapped by a religious cult, and is demanding ransom for her release. Traveling to the island amid followers and infiltrating the cult, Thomas sets out to find his sister and rescue her from the clutches of the madman ‘prophet’ and his disciples. Of course, there is much more to the story which it’s better not to know going in. Suffice to say, belonging to the cult involves bloodletting, and there’s a wicked bit of medieval torture involving a device called The Heathen’s Stand.

Apostle is a slow burn compared to much of the contemporary horror put out nowadays—it’s almost like a mashup of The Wicker Man and The VVitch. The dialogue and many of the finer points of the script are a bit slow, but the chills and violence more than make up for it.

Bottom Line: Could be better, could’ve been a lot worse. It’s easily good enough to stick with it until the very cool ending.

Well, there you have it! Let me know f you end up watching something I mentioned above, and don’t hesitate to let me know of any good horror you’ve seen recently that you’d recommend to close out October!

Happy Halloween, people!

 

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I Am A Killer (Netflix, 2018)

From the doubt-casting phenomenon Making a Murderer to the excellent serial killer series Mindhunter, Netflix is up to its ears in crime shows. Now they’re out to prove that there is apparently no such thing as crime fatigue with the release of 10 episode docuseries I Am A Killer.

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Using a bit of a broad brush, each episode of I Am A Killer focuses on a different death row inmate. All the men on the show have been convicted, sentenced to death, and fully admit to their crimes (although to what degree some of them admit to being involved is called into question) and they all discuss their crimes frankly, in their own words. While some episodes are more compelling than others, even the weaker ones are still interesting and easily watchable for fans of true crime.

One of the better episodes of the series tells the story of Justin Dickens, an addict who killed a customer during the attempted robbery of a jewelry store. He claims the customer charged him and fought for his gun—he shot the customer once in the torso, then the customer yanked on the gun once more, causing the gun to go off and deliver a fatal head shot. The prosecution in the case presented a vastly different version of events, and painted Dickens as a cold-blooded, calculated killer, claiming forensic evidence proved Dickens was lying. The other victim from the jewelry store, however, provides an eyewitness account that matches up exactly with Dickens’ version.

Why does this matter? Because in a crime of this type, if the victim provokes the perpetrator, the death penalty is taken off the table. The prosecution claimed Dickens shot the customer without a struggle, and succeeded in getting the death penalty for  Dickens.

Another standout is the story of Kenneth Foster, Jr., who received the death penalty after a friend he was riding in a car with shot and killed a man; he was convicted and sentenced under Texas’ Law of Parties, which states a person is equally responsible in the committing of a crime if they are believed to have solicited, aided, or encouraged the person who physically committed the crime.

Possibly the most thought-provoking episode features Joshua Nelson, who, at two months past his 18th birthday, teamed up with his 17 year old best friend to brutally murder a mutual friend in order to steal his car. Now 40, Joshua makes a compelling argument regarding the notion that he, despite what he’s done, is on some level deserving of forgiveness, and that he is redeemable. It’s an argument the victim’s mother (who still vividly remembers the chilling smirk Nelson gave her in the courtroom during the trial) doesn’t buy for a second.

And that’s exactly what makes the show so interesting. The team behind it does their best to show each case from all angles: the prosecution and defense, the victims’ families, even the criminals’ families and friends. Some may argue this makes it an attempt to humanize people who deserve no sympathy. I would argue that the only ones humanized in the series are the ones who can be.

James Robertson, for example, featured in Episode 1, comes off as an unfeeling monster as he recounts coming to the conclusion that the only way to improve his situation in prison was to murder his cellmate. His reasoned that the act would move him out of the unsatisfactory living conditions and frequent solitary confinement he’d been dealing with, and get him what he considered an upgrade by putting him on death row.

The show is not perfect; the weakest episodes come close to being boring, and the good ones leave you wishing they’d have spent more time examining their subjects. Either way, while I Am A Killer may not change anyone’s view on capital punishment, it is almost certainly guaranteed to make you stop and think.

Behold My Dirty Little Secret

I need to confess something. I recently found out I’m into something kind of taboo. It’s something that’s generally frowned upon in popular society, but after stumbling across something on the internet recently I grew curious, and eventually realized I had to give in to my strange desires. And it all comes back to this woman:

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Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!

When I was a wee lad, I loved Happy Days. Arthur Fonzarelli was my favorite character on TV, but I loved anything and everything related to the show, including its spinoffs, Mork & Mindy (RIP Robin Williams) and Laverne & Shirley.

Played by now-famous director Penny Marshall (Big, Awakenings, A League of Their Own, less impressive things after 1992) was co-titular character Laverne DeFazio, a tough-talking Brooklynite living in Wisconsin who, along with the embroidered ‘L’ on all her clothes, had one memorably odd trait: she enjoyed a beverage that churned the other characters’ stomachs—Pepsi and milk.

I know what some of you might be thinking, but hang on a minute—just hear me out. Do you like root beer floats, or as an old relative of mine used to make, Dr. Pepper floats? As was pointed out in the Reddit thread I recently stumbled across, it’s the same concept, just with a slightly different form of dairy.

As a matter of fact, what I found when I did a little research into the unusual concoction is that it’s not entirely uncommon on the East Coast, and similar to a drink from Latin America in which condensed milk is added to malta (a carbonated beverage sort of like cola). Thailand uses condensed milk in it’s version of iced milk tea, and the Vietnamese commonly add condensed milk to coffee—adding milk or cream to stuff is not as weird as it seems, honest.

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Cha Yen, Thailand’s iced milk tea

Always one down to try new beverages, I decided to give it a shot and see how odd it actually was. It turned out to be pretty good! It took a little tweaking to get it just how I liked it, but nowhere near the stomach-churning gagfest that Lenny and Squiggy made it out to be on TV. I was all in, and before long I was hooked.

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Back when this photo would’ve been taken, who would’ve guessed the marvelous actor Michael Mckean would become?

As for my own personal recipe? I’ve spent the last couple weeks experimenting, and here’s what I’ve come up with: I use Pepsi Zero Sugar (Coke Zero Sugar is good too) and almond milk (vanilla almond milk would be great) in about a 60/40 ratio, topped with a splash of cream and a trickle of almond extract. Absolutely delicious.

If you’re (perhaps understandably) skeptical, start slow—try some root beer with a splash of cream. If you like it (which you should, it’s basically a melted root beer float), get bolder. Try some milk, or almond milk, or soy milk, whatever you desire. You can even switch up the soda you use. Like Sprite? Do it. Orange Fanta? That’s a liquid creamsicle, baby! Go for it—you may just end up with a new favorite drink. ***Side note: what kind of booze can be added to take this beverage to the next level is yet to be determined.

If you like the sound of the recipe I came up with above, by all means give it a whirl and let me know how you like it. I call it the DeFazio.

Thanks, Laverne.

 

 

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Movie Review: Harry Benson—Shoot First [2016]

There’s a chance you may have never heard of photographer Harry Benson, and if it were up to him, he probably wouldn’t have it any other way. But if you do a quick Google search of the man, you’d probably recognize many of his photos.

Harry Benson is responsible for some of the most iconic images of the last half of the twentieth century, perhaps most notably for a photo of The Beatles in a rambunctious pillow fight the night they found out I Want to Hold Your Hand hit number one in the US. That assignment to shoot the young band in Paris (which he hadn’t originally wanted) led to not only a decades-long friendship with The Fab Four, but to a prominent career—as a portrait photographer of celebrities, photographing every living president from Eisenhower to Obama (as well as a pre-presidential run Donald Trump), and award-winning photojournalist. The 2016 documentary Harry Benson—Shoot First takes a look back at the legendary Scot’s career and the stories behind some of his most famous images.

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Beatles, Paris 1964

To say Benson’s career has been remarkable is an understatement. At times it seems the man has had an almost Forrest Gump-like knack for being in the right place at the right time, capturing one historic moment after another (a photo of Robert Kennedy’s wife in the moments after his assassination is another of his most iconic photos; famous photos of the reclusive Greta Garbo and a couple passionately kissing at a bar relied almost entirely on luck). But what a family member states, and what becomes more clear as the film goes on, is that Harry Benson worked harder than most of his peers, and many of his iconic shots exist only because he made them happen. He had to do whatever it took to get the confidence of whoever it was he wanted to shoot, and once he got in the room with them he had to make them comfortable enough to let their guard down so he could capture them as they really were, not the posed, stiff photos many studio photographers got (Benson famously hates studio photography).

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Bobby Fischer, Iceland 1972

He has a knack for making people feel at ease, evidenced by the fact he has photographed some of the most private people in the world at some of their most private moments: Quarterback Joe Namath at home in his legendary bachelor pad; Chess champion Bobby Fischer nude in the shower; Elizabeth Taylor in her hospital bed before and after surgery to remove a brain tumor; Michael Jackson in his Neverland Ranch bedroom; and possibly my favorite of all his photos, a backstage shot of country legend Dolly Parton in silhouette, “putting on her face.”

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Dolly Parton, Nashville 1977

Shoot First is not a hard-hitting, warts-and-all documentary—rather, it’s pretty adoring of its subject. But it’s not hard to realize he’s earned the admiration he’s received over the years. The film takes us back to Harry’s roots as a tabloid photographer on Fleet Street in London (where Benson says he got the ability to snap photos quickly and find perspectives other photogs might miss), as well as a look at the gut-wrenching work he did in Somali refugee camps—he has always maintained that he is, first and foremost, a photojournalist—reminding us that hard work paid off for him, and, when looking at his portfolio, he truly has an eye for outstanding photos.

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Dr. Milton Avery with refugee family, Somalia 1981

The film doesn’t touch on any technical aspects of his work—the type of camera Harry uses or any settings he used for a given photo are barely mentioned, if at all—and he would probably tell you that’s because that stuff largely doesn’t matter. What matters most is being ready and anticipating the shot before it presents itself. And to that end, Harry Benson is a master. He’s also extremely affable and self-deprecating to boot, which makes listening to him tell the stories behind his photos a joy.

If you have even a passing interest in photography, pop culture, or landmark moments of the 20th century, there’s a good chance you’ll like this film. You can stream Shoot First on Netflix, or check out some of his iconic images here and here.

 

Movie Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99 [2017]

I’ve long contended that many comedians (or at least comic actors, if not stand ups) have the potential to be outstanding dramatic actors. Once seen as an unusual casting choice, comic actors have repeatedly proven their chops in dramatic roles, from Robin Williams and Will Smith to Will Ferrell and even Adam Sandler. I still stand by my theory that Dave Chappelle has at least one (possibly mutltiple) award-winning dramatic performance in him—that is, if he wants to do it, or if the right director can convince him to step up to the plate.

The latest actor stepping out of his comedic comfort zone is Vince Vaughn. Since his breakout role in 1996’s Swingers, Vaughan has found success almost exclusively with parts in comedies like Old School, Starsky and Hutch, Wedding Crashers, and Dodgeball. He’s shown a yearning to “go legit” in dramas for years, most notably starring as Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s 1999 remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, but has now gone on a run of dramatic performances that has gotten him some attention: a lukewarm turn as Frank Semyon, the heavy in the critically-panned second season of HBO’s True Detective; hardass (but still slightly funny) Sgt. Howell in Mel Gibson’s acclaimed World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge; and what may be, depending on your tastes, either his best or worst dramatic performance to date—as an ex-boxer stuck between a rock and a hard place in S. Craig Zahler’s homage to 70’s revenge exploitation flicks, Brawl in Cell Block 99.

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Brawl features Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a man in the unique position of being a good man with a strong moral compass, while also being the ultimate badass. Working at a service station at the start of the film, Bradley is promptly laid off—only to drive home early and discover that his wife is seeing someone else. After a tantrum in which he destroys/disassembles his wife’s vehicle by hand (a glimpse of the violence he’s capable of), Bradley and his wife Lauren (played by Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter) admit their relationship hasn’t been the same since the miscarriage that rocked them to their core. They decide to recommit to each other and try for another baby, and Bradley decides to go back to running drugs for his dealer friend Gil, to which Lauren reluctantly agrees.

Fast forward 18 months and Bradley is driving a much nicer car to a much larger home after a day of making deliveries for Gil. We learn that Lauren is expecting again, and the loving couple couldn’t be happier—although we all know that can’t last.

Bradley accepts an offer he can’t refuse from Gil, who has partnered with a Mexican drug lord. The job goes south, and Bradley’s partners in the job end up in a shootout with police. Rather than escape scot-free, Bradley kills one partner and injures another, ending the shootout and saving police lives, before being arrested without further incident.

After being sentenced to 7 years in a medium-security prison, Bradley is visited by a henchman of the Mexican drug lord, who tells Bradley he is now indebted to the man to the tune of 3.2 million dollars to make up for drugs lost in the failed job. He can erase that debt, however, if he takes out a prisoner the drug lord wants dead. And if he doesn’t…terrible things will be done to his wife and unborn baby. The catch? The prisoner Bradley is to take out is in a different, maximum-security prison. Bradley must figure out a way to get himself transferred there, and his plan to do so is ultra violent.

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S. Craig Zahler’s first film, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, was a fantastic debut—an original concept (a mashup of western and horror) made even better with stunning cinematography, vivid characters, and exceptional dialogue. While these elements are also present in Brawl in Cell Block 99, they are there in smaller doses, and don’t quite match the brilliance that made Bone Tomahawk so great. That’s not to say Brawl isn’t good—it just has different ambitions, calling to mind the films of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson.

The biggest quality this film shares with Zahler’s previous effort is the deliberate pacing and slow build to a savage, intense climax. The director spends quite a while detailing how Bradley has everything of value taken from him until, despite the fact he was not the most likable character at the start of the film, you end up rooting for him to get some sort of justice against those who have put his back against the wall. Time passes quickly despite the film’s 2 hour and 12 minute running time, a testament to Zahler’s ability to grab the viewer’s attention and not let go. His next film is Dragged Across Concrete, re-teaming him with Vaughn and co-starring Mel Gibson, a film about police brutality and cops caught up in a violent underworld. I, for one, can hardly wait.

What will make or break this film for you is the incredibly graphic displays of violence Bradley uses to get transferred to Red Leaf, the maximum-security hellhole that houses the man he is to kill, and the subsequent acts he performs once he gets there. To call it unflinching is an understatement—a couple of scenes are absolutely jaw-dropping in terms of what they show you, on the level with some of the most over the top horror movies out there. And Brawl in Cell Block 99 is nothing if not over the top.

As a matter of fact, it requires a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief to make this movie fly (why did he shoot his partners rather than escape? How is it this “ex-boxer” has a fighting style closer to Krav Maga? How in the hell does he have the stomping power of a hydraulic press?), but if you’re able to do so (and have the stomach for it)…you’re in for a wild ride.

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The Sisters Brothers—Patrick DeWitt [2011]

It’s been said that the best gift you can give someone is something they wouldn’t buy for themselves. Taking that into consideration, receiving a Christmas gift in the form of Patrick DeWitt’s second novel, 2011’s The Sisters Brothers, is made all the better. I’m not a huge fan of Westerns—I’ve never even read any from one of my literary idols, Elmore Leonard—and had I seen this on the shelf at my local bookstore I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought, and good grief, would that have been my loss.

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A pair of contract killers during the height of the gold rush, Charlie and Eli Sisters are both brutal and ruthless, yet very different at the same time. Charlie, the elder, is wild and cocksure, while younger Eli is more contemplative and soft—emotionally and physically, thanks to his ample gut—and it’s through his eyes we’re told the story.

The men work for The Commodore, a scrupleless businessman who hires the brothers to travel from Oregon City to San Francisco to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (if awards were given for character names, I’d bestow one upon DeWitt for this one). The Commodore has a scout in San Francisco, Morris, keeping tabs on Mr. Warm, whom the brothers are to meet upon arriving in town so he can provide them with Hermann’s whereabouts. On the surface it’s a simple plot about a hired hit, but there’s so much more to it than that. At its core, it’s about Eli’s yearning for a simpler, less violent life—maybe settling down with a good woman and becoming a shopkeeper—and the changes he and Charlie go through by the time they get back to Oregon City.

DeWitt does a marvelous job setting the tone for the novel from the outset: Having finished their last job, Eli sits outside on his new horse while Charlie is inside, discussing the pair’s next job with The Commodore. Both the brothers’ horses were burned up during their last assignment, and The Commodore has replaced them with new horses that show just what he thinks of the brothers—suave, dapper Charlie is given a fit, sturdy horse named Nimble, while Eli receives the “portly and low-backed” horse, Tub. While initially not fond of him, Eli comes to find he has a begrudging respect for Tub, sensing that the animal has “a desire to improve himself.” Over the course of the book we discover this applies to our narrator as well.

Comparisons abound for The Sisters Brothers, from the books of Cormac McCarthy to the classic westerns of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to the more off-kilter films from the Coen Brothers, even to legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller. I feel the best description is as a mash up between the brutal violence of McCarthy with the sometimes borderline absurdity of the Coen Brothers’ quirkier pictures. The picaresque nature of the story, as the brothers encounter one memorable, quirky character after another, calls to mind O Brother, Where Art Thou? (itself a loose retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey). It’s a bit of a shame the Coens aren’t involved in the film adaptation slated for release later this year, starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Riley as Charlie and Eli.

One absurdly comic scene in the book involves the brothers finding shelter in a small home occupied by an old woman who the brothers are convinced is a witch. When they rise the following morning to find the witch gone and what they believe to be a cursed garment blocking the doorway, Charlie climbs out through a window, resolving to get help and return for his brother, who is too rotund to follow Charlie through said window.

The first half of the book is made up of several such odd encounters, my favorite of which involves a teenage boy who has been abandoned by his father. After remarking that nearly every run in he’d had with people ended with him being hit in the head, Eli sympathizes with the boy, although after ceaseless pleading from the boy to join them on their travels, Eli almost takes the same action toward him:

“I do not know what it was about that boy but just looking at him, even I wanted to clout him on the head. It was a head that invited violence.”

Eli’s narration is strikingly eloquent and formal, a stark contrast to the contemporary novels I’ve spent the majority of my life reading, as well as a contrast to the story’s odd humor and occasional instances of brutal violence. Once Eli and Charlie reach San Francisco to make contact with Morris (and subsequently Warm), the plot shifts from somewhat absurd to slightly surreal, with a finale that’s in turns funny, somber, and touching.

I found reading this book a joy, with nary a misstep throughout. There was one brief passage I found myself flipping through, but I am notoriously impatient. The short chapters made for an easy, addicting read, and a book that I had a hard time putting down. I really can’t recommend it highly enough, so go pick it up and treat yourself to the gift of a good book.

***A final quote from Mr. Warm, one which I found highly relatable:

“Most people are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change things for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood—weak blood, diluted—and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing.”

Buy The Sisters Brothers here.

Big Mouth [Netflix, 2017]

A lot of words can be used to describe puberty: Awkward. Gross. Uncomfortable. Hilarious. These also pretty accurately describe the Netflix animated comedy Big Mouth.

The brainchild of comedian Nick Kroll and his childhood friend and Family Guy writer/producer Andrew Goldberg (plus Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett), Big Mouth debuted on Netflix in September 2017 and has already been confirmed for a second season coming (no pun intended*) later this year.

Big Mouth centers on the relationship between Nick (the aforementioned Kroll) and Andrew (superb comedian John Mulaney), and their friends—the eternally horny aspiring magician Jay (Jason Mantzoukas), the smart and cynical Jessi (Jessi Klein), and the endearingly nerdy and slightly naive Missy (Jenny Slate)—as they traverse the rocky terrain between adolescence and puberty.

Surreality and absurdism play a large part in the show, to both good and bad effect. The best of the good is represented by two things: first, the presence of hormone monsters (and a hormone monstress) that speak to the children (and at least one adult), usually giving them bad advice and encouraging them to give in to their weirdest, most depraved thoughts, and second, some of the musical numbers—especially when a sexually confused Andrew sings with the ghost of Freddie Mercury, or when a tampon resembling Michael Stipe sings a parody of Everybody Hurts called Everybody Bleeds. The worst of the bad can be seen in all its glory in Episode 6, Pillow Talk, where Jay goes on an emotional roller coaster with his sex pillow (later involving his bathmat). When the show crosses that line into the utterly absurd it can become a chore to finish (no pun intended*).

Despite the fantastical, ridiculous, and flat-out weird elements that permeate the show, Big Mouth actually manages to make the characters relatable in the way it handles the characters’ emotions and reactions to what’s happening to their bodies. It’s impossible to watch the show and not at some point be reminded of your own stumble toward adulthood in some way, be it wet dreams, accidental and sometimes confusing erections, exploring your nether regions for the first time, or having sexual relations with the severed head of Garrison Keillor.

The cast of Big Mouth is practically a comedy honor roll—scanning the names voicing the show’s many characters, it was easier to pick the names I didn’t recognize rather than the ones I did. Along with the excellent main cast, the show also features the talents of Fred Armisen, Andrew Rannells, Kristen Bell, Jon Hamm, Kirsten Wiig, as well as my two personal favorites: Maya Rudolph is phenomenal as the sassy and nasty hormone monstress, Connie, and Jordan Peele absolutely slays as the ghost of Duke Ellington, who lives in Andrew’s attic and says a plethora of immoral and outlandish things to the boys, as well as giving them generally terrible advice.

With a show this vulgar and gross, it’s definitely going to have its detractors. My friend Eric in California (Hi, Eric!) stated in no uncertain terms that a show featuring ejaculation, menstruation, and masturbation did not appeal to him whatsoever. To that, all I can say is, different strokes for different folks (no pun intended*). With that in mind, if you’d like to see a completely different take on the show, you can read this extremely negative review I found while doing some research to write my own. Ironically, it is far more graphic and detailed than mine, presumably in an attempt to offend anyone who reads it as much as the person who wrote it.

Although it takes jokes too far in places, for the most part Big Mouth is a solid comedy that will elicit steady chuckles and occasional big laughs. Just know you’re in for some depravity—if you expect any less, you’ve got another thing coming (no pun intended*).

 

*j/k all puns intended