Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, VA, June 2017 (2)

Pictured are Monroe Hall, Virginia Hall, Campus Walk, Lee Hall, and Trinkle Hall.

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The Mary Washington College Campus looked as beautiful as ever last week — it was only marred by the occasional sign bearing an embarrassing misprint.  (They perplexingly refer to the misnomer “University of Mary Washington.”)

At first I hesitated to visit the campus during my stop in Fredericksburg, Virginia on my way to Washington, D.C.  I asked my Alumbud if two men in their 40’s would look suspicious there, given the increased security on today’s college campuses.  He told me to relax — people would assume we were two fathers scouting the school for their respective offspring.  That made me feel really, really old.

 

Monroe Hall and The Fountain.  When I went to school at MWC, that fountain was occasionally doused with either detergent or dye as a prank.

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Virginia Hall.  In the early 1990’s, this was a dorm exclusively for freshmen girls; I don’t know if that’s still the case today.

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You can’t see it here, but beyond that hedge and beside Monroe is Campus Drive, curving down past the amphitheater to Sunken Road.  The long hill is still entirely wooded, and is still arguably the prettiest part of campus.

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Campus Walk and Lee Hall.

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This is cute.  I’m guessing it was a product of the recent remodeling?  But which way to Winterfell?  Metropolis?  Which way is Caprica City?  I have tickets for a Buccaneers game next week.

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Here is where the College Bookstore used to be (beside the Campus Police Station in the lower part of Lee); I’m told now that it’s in a vastly larger space upstairs.

And The Underground has returned!  It closed after my freshman year in 1990-91.  I met a lot of good friends there, and I heard my first live blues at The Underground, too, performed by Saffire, The Uppity Blues Women.  (I only just now learned that Saffire’s Ann Rabson sadly passed away in 2013.)

[Update: an alumna just told me that she can remember when The Underground was called “The Pub.”]

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Campus Walk and Trinkle Hall.  My Alumbud reminded of what seemed like a big issue back in the day — the students’ desire to have a 24-hour study hall.  They successfully petitioned the college administration for it, and at some point toward the end of my college career, Trinkle began staying open all night.  If that sounds incredibly nerdy, it was.  But it was also a pretty big quality-of-life issue for the dorms.  A lot of people needed a place to go to cram before finals, in order to keep the peace with a sleeping roommate.

The “computer pods” were also located here, downstairs, in a basementish-type space that was air-conditioned to the point where it felt freezing.  You always had to bring a jacket or sweater to do your work there.

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Looking south on Campus Walk, you can just barely make out the Bell Tower, a product of the campus remodeling.  You used to be able to see Bushnell Hall, my freshman-year dormitory.

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The bust of Dr. James L. Farmer, Jr. that the school erected opposite Trinkle Hall in 2001.  He was one of the nation’s foremost leaders in the Civil Rights movement, founding the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and organizing the “Freedom Rides” to desegregate interstate bus travel.  Dr. Farmer was my Civil Rights professor in 1992, and he was universally admired by his students.

Some weird old guy wandered into the photo here — sorry about that.

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A review of “The Conjuring” (2013)

I feel the same way about “The Conjuring” (2013) as I did about its prequel, “Annabelle” (2014) — it has all the earmarks of a bad movie, but it inexplicably succeeds anyway.

Seriously — this film has clunky exposition, cheesy dialogue and over-the-top plot developments (toward the end), not to mention a plot setup that’s in questionable taste.  (The movie suggests that the innocents condemned by the infamous 1692 Salem witch trials were indeed witches.  This feels a bit awkward to anyone who read Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in high school.)  “The Conjuring” also plays out like a love letter to Ed and Lorraine Warren, the controversial paranormal investigators who are largely the subject of the film (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).  This last offense is forgivable, I suppose — the film was made with the Warrens’ blessing, and Lorraine Warren was even present as a “consultant” during its production.

Strangely, however, these flaws were barely noticeable to me when I watched it.  I had a good time.  “The Conjuring” just happens to be a decent fright flick that delivers on the scares.

I think James Wan’s skilled directing has a lot to do with that; the film works visually.  (I could name specific instances where it works especially well, but I want to avoid spoilers.)

The acting helped a lot too — Wilson and Farmiga are both damned good, as is Lili Taylor as the afflicted family’s mother.  (I’ve admired Taylor’s acting since her long ago 1998 guest appearance on “The X-Files,” and she was equally good as a bad guy in 1996’s “Ransom.”)  Ron Livingston was also quite good in the role of the father — if you have trouble placing his face, as I did, he also played Captain Nixon in HBO’s “Band of Brothers” (2001).  He seems to have a talent for playing the likable everyman — he’s great here as the somewhat feckless father, and functions well as a kind of viewer surrogate.  I should also mention the young Joey King as one of the family’s daughters — she played the role of a terrified child to perfection, and really raised the stakes emotionally.

Despite really enjoying most of the movie, some of my enthusiasm for “The Conjuring” flagged a bit toward the end.  The denouement here includes an exorcism, and those are almost always boring.  There are only so many ways that scenario can play out, and we’ve seen them all — and I shouldn’t even need to name that certain 1973 film that did it best.  Furthermore, we see our story’s demon do some pretty extraordinary things, even by demon standards.  It can apparently transport itself great distances (using an inanimate object as a kind of fax machine?), and can manipulate both the laws of physics and the area’s wildlife.  It was all a little too much for my willing suspension of disbelief.

Again, though — this was a good movie.  I’d give it an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good scare.

 

Publication notice: Poetry Pacific to feature three of my poems.

I received some great news this afternoon — the editors at Poetry Pacific have kindly agreed to publish three of my poems in the e-zine’s next biannual issue.

The poems selected were “This Windy Morning,” which appeared Friday here at the blog; “Redbud Leaves,” which appeared last summer; and “Delaware Sheets,” which was published in 2013 by Every Day Poets.   Poetry Pacific’s autumn issue will be released on November 5.

Poetry Pacific endeavors to publish and promote the best contemporary poetry in English it can find, and its emphasis is on shorter poetry.  Its Editor-In-Chief is nine-time Pushcart-nominee Yuan Changming.

A few quick words on”Now You See Me” (2013)

I ought to pan “Now You See Me” (2013), but I just had too much fun with it.  It’s a smile-inducing heist film that barely qualifies as a thriller, given its upbeat tone.  It held my attention and made me laugh, so I’m giving it and 8 out of 10.

Much of it is preposterous, especially if you stop to think about it.  The comedians over at Cinema Sins really skewer it here, for example.  (Spoilers.  Do not watch the linked video until after you’ve seen the movie.)  But if you take it as an escapist fantasy, it’s a good movie — like maybe one of the Roger Moore-era James Bond films.  It’s got a terrific ensemble cast, it’s funny, and it makes great use of its novelty story device — famous stage magicians using their skills to commit high-profile crimes, and incorporating those crimes into their show.

I’d definitely recommend this.

Quick note — if you’re a movie buff and you haven’t checked out the Cinema Sins Youtube channel, then you’re cheating yourself.  Their “Everything Wrong With” and “Honest Trailers” series are two of the best things on the Internet.

 

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A short review of Season 1 of the “Wolf Creek” TV series (2016)

“Wolf Creek” (2005) and “Wolf Creek 2” (2013) are among the most chilling and effective horror films out there.  (They can be difficult for even seasoned fans of the genre to watch.)  And last year’s follow-up television series faithfully channeled so much of their mood, tone and atmosphere that it should have been just as effective.  What a shame that its first season falls short due to tremendous problems with pacing and story structure.  I’d rate it a 6 out of 10.

The six-episode arc has the feel of the films.  It was written, directed and produced by Greg McLean, as they were.  Once again, the forbidding Australian outback is itself a central character, gorgeously captured and lovingly presented by the show’s cinematography.   I think it’s been a long time since I saw a horror film or series so successfully project a mood.  Also returning, of course, is John Jarrett in his perfect and perfectly frightening portrayal of the serial killer Mick Taylor.

Lucy Fry’s young American antihero, Eve, is the latest to face off against him, but there’s a twist — after surviving the slaughter of her family, she resolves to find and kill him.  Fry is just great in the role; Dustin Clare is well cast as the nice-guy cop who alternately pursues and tries to rescue her from danger.  The rest of the cast is also roundly terrific.  The soundtrack and scoring are beautifully atmospheric.

Unfortunately, though, all of these elements appear within a plot that moves at a snail’s pace.  We actually don’t see much of Mick for many episodes — the story focuses on Eve’s haphazard, calamitous odyssey through rural Australia, encountering criminals, good Samaritans and just plain lunatics.  McLean scripts a protagonist that is compelling and cool, and Fry is a good actress.  But many of the events of her journey are only tangentially related to the story’s central conflict, which is her duel with Mick.  I get the sense that fans might tune in to see a horror film, but might be disappointed by a moody, loosely plotted travelogue through McLean’s brutal fictional interpretation of the Australian outback.

I wondered how the screenwriter here could make such a major miscalculation.  Then I remembered that the “Wolf Creek” films, despite their brilliance, were also quite slow.  They contained what seem like lots of supporting or ancillary material connected with Mick’s victims, which were ultimately interspersed with the intense violence that made them terrifying movies (not to mention Jarratt’s flawless portrayal of a violent sociopath).

But those movies both had an hour-and-forty-minutes running time.  These six episodes add up to four full hours.  The slow pace of films was a forgivable flaw — it even came across as deliberate pacing.  It’s frustrating, though, for any onscreen story lasting more time than that.  I honestly think I would have enjoyed Season 1  much more if it had been edited down to half its length — into maybe three episodes or one feature film.

Oh, well.  This series is still remarkably well made, and I do think it will please many fans of the films.  If you enjoyed those, I would recommend giving this series a shot.

 

A quick review of “Wolf Creek 2” (2013)

Is “Wolf  Creek 2” (2013) a well made film?  Yes.  It’s exceptionally well made.  Would  I recommend it?  I’m not sure.

I’d rate it a perfect 10.  Its technical expertise in undeniable.  The cast is roundly excellent.  John Jarratt is absolutely perfect in the role he seems born for.  He’s so effectively menacing as this film’s serial killer that I think I’d find it unnerving even meeting the actor in real life.  The only other actor I think I can say that about is Ted Levine, who so indelibly portrayed Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991).

Ryan Corr is damn perfect, as are the actors in smaller roles.  I think Shannon Ashlyn portrays terror better than any other actress I’ve seen.  She isn’t just a horror movie “scream queen;” her performance was so skilled that she rises above such a trite label.  (And I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, people.)

It’s extremely well directed.  The conclusion of an action sequence involving a truck must have looked downright stupid on the page, but damn if Greg McLean doesn’t make it plausible and shocking.

The entire movie is gorgeously shot.  It was enough to make me want to visit Australia … if the story didn’t make want to stay the hell away from Australia.

I just get the impression that some movie studio planned to produce a generic, derivative slasher movie … but just inexplicably employed the best creative talent available for all aspects of its creation.

Now, about my reluctance to recommend this …  Please understand that this film is incredibly dark, even by horror movie standards.  At times it was just too much for me.  I actually stopped playing this on Netflix several times to “take a break with something lighter” by watching “The Walking Dead.”  Yes, you read that right.

The story depicted is just brutal.  There are very few movies that are too dark for me … I think I could count them on one hand.  (And one was 2005’s original “Wolf Creek.”)  And this film is just so masterfully made that its victims seem like real people suffering — something at which the “Saw” films and various other slasher movies rarely succeeded.

I honestly think it might have been so “good” that it went past the point of entertaining me.  Can I honestly recommend a movie that I felt the need to switch off?

You make your own call.  Again — this is exceedingly dark material, even by horror movie standards.  But if you think you’re up to it, watch it.

 

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A review of “Goodbye World” (2013)

“Goodbye World” (2013) is technically a post-apocalyptic drama.  I say “technically” because this sometimes misguided movie contains little tension associated with its apocalyptic event.  (A cyber-attack destroys the technological infrastructure of America and possibly the world.)  Indeed, this catastrophe doesn’t even truly drive the plot — it’s more of a background subplot that fails to even affect the tone of the film.  (The poster you see below is misleading.)

Instead, the film scrutinizes the personal lives of a group of thirtyish college alumnae who have an informal reunion at a mountain cabin — one of their number is a plot-convenient intellectual-turned-survivalist.  They’re portrayed by an (admittedly quite good) ensemble cast.  I think a lot of my friends would smile at “Gotham’s” Jim Gordon (Ben Mckenzie) being a rather meek, feckless husband.  And Caroline Dhavernas here is no longer the alpha female we saw in NBC’s “Hannibal,” but is rather an insecure, overly sensitive young wife who immaturely pines that she was the student “everyone hated.”

And there lies a problem that the movie has … few of these characters are terribly likable.  Only Gaby Hoffmann’s surprisingly tough civil servant made me root for her.  And Kerry Bishe’s perfectly performed, chatty neo-hippy eccentric was also pretty cool … Bishe might have given the best performance in the film.  Finally, Linc Hand is a surprise standout, arriving halfway through in a menacing supporting role.  It’s a far smaller role, but damn if he doesn’t nail it.  (Please, Netflix, cast this guy as Bullseye in Season 3 of “Daredevil.”)

The others all seem either self-absorbed, self-righteous and preachy, or inscrutable and vaguely dumb.  Dhavernas’ character actually steals a child’s teddy bear (which she herself had brought as a gift) and … sets it free in the forest.  It was a belabored character metaphor when written.  Worse, it just seems jarringly weird when it plays out on the screen.

All the characters seem strangely detached about the watershed national or global crisis. Some cursory dialogue is devoted to the imagined welfare of their family, colleagues or other friends; the character interaction is devoted mostly to  marriage issues and personal emotional crises that I have mostly forgotten as of this writing.  And those seem maudlin and slightly selfish compared to the Fall of the United States.  The characters mostly failed at engendering viewer sympathy in me.

The screenwriters’ juxtaposition of personal matters and the end of the world also seemed tone deaf.  We follow what the writers hope are educated, successful and endearingly quirky fun people, and we’re asked to worry about their love triangles and spousal communication issues.  But … we’re then asked to view this in the context of a pretty frightening collapse of society, complete with plot elements that are interchangeable with those of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”  (One secondary character turns violent over the issue of resources, then charismatically justifies his violence to  a crowd using a half-baked ideology that seems to channel “The Governor.”)

I felt like I was watching two movies at once, and not in a good way.  The opening motif is brilliantly creepy — the virus causes cell phones everywhere to receive a text reading the titular “Goodbye World.”  Our laconic, uniformly telegenic protagonists kinda just shrug at it.  And even when suspicions arise in the group about whether one character is connected to the cyber-attack, there is dry, dialogue-driven humor instead of any real consequent tension.  It was like John Hughes wrote a thirtysomething dramedy, but then tried unsuccessfully to sprinkle in the human pathos of one of George A. Romero’s more pessimistic zombie films.

But don’t get me wrong.  This wasn’t even really a bad movie.  I didn’t hate it.  It held my interest, its actors gave good performances, and I am a shameless fan of Dhavernas in particular.  The cinematography was very good too, and the story’s tonal differences were occasionally interesting.  (This is definitely a unique end-of-the-world tale, if nothing else.)

I’d honestly give “Goodbye World” a 7 out of 10.  I think my expectations sitting down with it were just unusually high, seeing Dhavernas attached to what looked like an independent, cerebral, apocalyptic science fiction thriller.  I might even recommend it if you’re in the mood for a really unusual doomsday movie.  Just don’t expect “28 Days Later” (2002) or “The Divide” (2012), and you might like this.

 

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