John Dies at the End | David Wong

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Remember those bygone days when you would actually have to spend a modicum of effort seeking out a cool book or movie you heard about? As opposed to now, where from the comfort of my bed on a late Sunday night when all the physical stores were closed I not only instantly accessed and watched a HD copy of Don Coscarelli's adaptation of David Wong's John Dies at the End, but also downloaded the book? Which also happened to have links taking me to the website for the book, the film, and a 50-page excerpt of the just released sequel?

Ah, technology. Spoon feeding our desires since 2006 with no end in sight (thank goodness).

Anyway, John Dies at the End was my first and most likely last time reversing my standard practice of always read the book first. Chalk it up to being sick and wanting a couple of hours to pass the time, as well as the fact I was still about 100 pages from finishing the book I was currently reading. So watch the film I did (it was great in that twisted, gleefully sick and ridiculous way that only Don Coscarelli can do), and then sat down just after the New Year to read the book.

Not a lot of self examination required in divining what drew me to the material: John Dies at the End (hilariously shortened to JDATE) is the story of two directionless best friends, John and David (as in David Wong, the author), caught up in an inter-dimensional invasion involving horrific Lovecraftian beasties, shadow men, ghostly jelly fish, and a ridiculous amount of dick jokes. It's up to John and David to save the world, but besides a dog named Molly who can seemingly drive a car and survive exploding into tiny dog chumps, their only real asset is the fact that they're able to ingest the mysterious black drug known as the Soy Sauce, an alien chemical granting strange visions and powers to those who survive its ingestion. Told from David's perspective, JDATE traces their initial exposure to the drug, the bizarre occurrences in their small Midwestern town of [Undisclosed], and the events that led to two losers saving the entire world.

Having watched the film right before starting the book, it's surprising how much of the book was transferred directly to the screen, and how much of it worked in both mediums. What the books really allows is for a closer look at David and John, and Wong the author shines at allowing his characters to look stupid, make bad decisions, and generally screw up in ways that make them more endearing and fully realized than they could ever be in a movie. What starts feeling fairly episodic (the book has 3 distinct story lines, 4 if you count the epilogue) slowly begins to build a rhythm until everything rushes together in a way that by the book's end not only are you surprised everything help together but that it held together well enough that it could continue in future books.

The hardest thing to pull off in horror, whether it's a film or a book is humor, and not the witty "oh isn't that clever" humor but actually belly laugh humor. So it's no surprise to learn that David Wong is actually the pen name of Jason Pargin, senior editor of Having plenty of experience in figuring out what makes people laugh, he posted JDATE in chunks on his blog for free prior to getting a book deal, and that experience of fine tuning a joke works great here. John's ability to discuss the grandness of his penis at length (ha!) is so over the top it becomes endearing, and his friendship with the much more troubled Dave feels sincere without ever going overboard into schmaltz. It all balances nicely with the other-worldly horror, allows for some pointed criticisms at video games and teenage violence, and feels very much a book written for the horror fans of the 21st century, while at the same time providing enough meat for those of us who grew up before the time you could download every H.P. Lovecraft story on your phone in a matter of minutes.

Red Lights | 2012

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Red Lights, the follow-up film from Buried director Rodrigo Cortés, manages the singular task of bringing together a number of terrific actors - Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Jones, and Robert De Niro - all in the service of demonstrating a key truth in movies: all the acting in the world can't help a muddling mediocre film that seemingly exists only for the "twist" ending that does nothing to shed light on what came before or invite a second viewing.

Weaver and Murphy play Matheson and Buckley, a pair of scientists/professors out to debunk false psychics and paranormal events.  There's an easy chemistry between the two, and Sigourney Weaver in particular is great, playing her relationship with Murphy with just a hint of the playful, sexual tension that I suspect any woman would exhibit in the presence of...well, Murphy.  The majority of what enjoyment there is in Red Lights comes from the scenes where we see them in action: in the classroom demonstrating how to levitate a table and in a brisk, Ocean's 11 sequence where they investigate and expose a psychic/faith healer in the middle of his act.  Soon the White Whale of Weaver's Dr. Matheson arrives back on the scene:  Simon Silver (De Niro), a Yuri Geller-type returning to the public after 30 years of self-imposed exile stemming from the mysterious death of a skeptical reporter at one of his shows.  Dr. Matheseon refuses to investigate him due to their past history; Buckley is adamant they expose him for the fraud he believes Silver is.

From here Red Lights devolves into a series of tired beats as strange, unexplained phenomena plague Buckley as he becomes obsessed with debunking Silver.  Electronics explode around him, birds smash into windows, and spoons inexplicably bend in coffee cups.  Unfortunately, none of this serves the story except to say, "Hey!  Here's some weird-ass stuff that's only here to provide some spooky atmosphere!  Let's all watch De Niro act mysterious some more!"  This type of thing continues to escalate until the very end, where the veracity of Silver's claims are finally revealed, and we're left with the obligatory montage of prior scenes of wackiness that are supposed to reinforce the revelation but instead reinforce the fact that the entire movie doesn't hold up as a narrative at all, but simply an excuse to get to ending Cortés (who also wrote and edited Red Lights) probably came up with before anything else.  

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As the kickoff film to my Year of Self Examination via My Consumed Media (YOSEvMCM) Red Lights isn't totally worthless.  It reinforced the maxim that movies with twist endings have to work as more than just an excuse to get to the ending - the litmus test is do you have any desire the see the film again once you know the ending (in Red Lights case, no)?  It's a shame because the premise of scientists debunking psychics is solid, and the cast is more than capable of running with this type of material.  My hope going into this was the type of Hitchcock tension Cortés displayed in Buried on a larger scale.  But after the third smashed bird and bent spoon I should have seen where this was going and dropped it.  Which brings up the interesting question of why continue to watch when you know it's going to end badly?  In this case I think it was very an excuse to verify that the film was indeed going in the direction I suspected, which really when there are so many thousands of other more worthwhile things to do out there doesn't seem like reason enough.  

I'll have to work on that.

The Movies of 2012 (sort of)


Forget the debate as to whether 2012 marked the end of movies or not: on a personal front it was the absolute worst year in memory for getting out to see anything in the theater.  Watching at home wasn't much better - I've been trying to really think about why I'm deciding to watch something, and "because it's new and you should review it" is no longer something I have any interest in.  One major theme I want to explore in Stranded Below Nirvana is why I'm consuming the media I am.  If we're made up of our experiences, and the vast amount of what we experience (at least in my case, something I want to change) is passively consumed via books, music, and especially movies, then it begs a close examination.  When you go on a diet the first thing you do is take a good, hard look at what food you put in your body - why wouldn't you do the same thing with the visual stimuli you're zapping into your brain at 24 (or 48 if you happened to catch the HFR version of The Hobbit in theaters) fps?

I'm not going to say the films below were subjected to the rigorous examination I want to do in the future (nor, I suspect, will many of the things I will wind up watching in 2013, but let's cross that bridge when we come to it), nor should they in any way be taken as the best 2012 had to offer - I've seen far too few movies to have any authority on that.  Instead, please think of these selections as examples of things that left their mark on me long after the screen went black. In alphabetical order:


Beasts of the Southern WildBenh Zeitlin's polarizing debut film is a gorgeous slice of magical realism that presents the Louisiana Bayou community known as "The Bathtub" through the eyes of six year old Hushpuppy.  Constructing her own mythology in between the damage of the storms and the violent striving of her drunk and angry father, Wink, as he tries to build a life for the two of them in the Bathtub, Zeitlin accentuates every moment with a sledgehammer of bright visuals, sweeping music, and powerhouse acting by the two unknown actors (Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry as Hushpuppy and Wink).  Beasts may wear its heart on its sleeve, but its storytelling and visual feast was among the best of the year.


The Cabin in the Woods:  Yes, Marvel's the Avengers made more money than some nations at the box office this year, but The Cabin in the Woods was the Joss Whedon movie of the year.  Refusing to stoop to parody, Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard instead turn the horror genre on its head, crafting a hilarious and horrifying homage to everything that scares us, inverting each trope and cliche while reminding us that horror can be fun without being dumb.


Chronicle:  In a year where you couldn't go 30 seconds without bumping into massive budget superhero spectaculars, it's easy to overlook Chronicle, unfairly lumped into the glut of "found footage" dreck arriving in the wake of the Paranormal Activity series.  But for my money Chronicle was easily the superhero movie of the year, balancing coming of age drama with superpowers and epic battles. Writer Max Landis and director Josh Trank make sure to ground their characters in a very real and painful world while simultaneously amping up the spectacle to offer characters we come to believe in even as they engage in unbelievable things.  "With great power comes great responsibility," Uncle Ben famously told Peter Parker (inexplicably missing in this year's Amazing Spider-man reboot) and nowhere was that message better spelled out than here.


Django Unchained:  Spike Lee aside, Quentin Tarantino's "Southern" paints the horrors of slavery in bold, bloody strokes, creating a avenging angel here to correct the ills of a bastard society with a six gun in his hand.  Or something like that - it's possible Tarantino thought it primarily a good setting for the type of violent genre splicing that is his specialty.  That shouldn't diminish the work done here:  The performances across the board are fantastic, particularly Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson as evil plantation owner Calvin Candie and his head of household Stephen.  The dialog is quintessential Tarantino and the film, beautifully shot by Robert Richardson, makes full use of the physical medium of film, utilizing different grains and lenses to get to the heart of each scene.  Provoking and controversial in the same way as previous film 
Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino is moving into the apex of his career.  The one weak spot?  He needs to stop casting himself in his films...immediately.


The Grey:  See that image right there?  The one all the crappy marketing sold the movie on?  Liam Neeson fighting a wolf with broken liquor bottles?  That's NOT what this movie is, and not why you should see it.  You want to see The Grey because, like 
The Cabin in the Woods and Chronicle, it uses genre as a template only to rise above it.  Liam Neeson is heart wrenching in this, as a grieving man searching for a reason to live and finding it in a situation that will almost certainly lead to death.  Directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan, The Grey feels much of the time like a dark poem, much like the one that bookends the film itself, and less like the Iron John pablum many critics leveled at it.  


Looper:  I know a lot of people that can't stand time travel movies because they get all caught up in the logistics of time travel rather than the movie itself.  Those people should calm down.  Looper uses the time travel conceit not only as a mechanism for a great crime thriller, but as a study how our past haunts us, and how our needs can destroy us.  Plus, Bruce Willis actually acts again in a movie.  What's not to love?


The Master:  When I left the theater I didn't get what I had just seen.  I still don't think I completely got it.  But over time more and more images and scenes from Paul Thomas Anderson's latest haunt me, and the characters of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) refuse to be easily categorized as surrogates for Scientology.  The Master is not an easy film to watch, but perhaps more so than There Will Be Blood it is an essential one.

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Moonrise Kingdom:  Wes Anderson finally makes a film that takes place in the time period all his other movies feel like they're in, and crafts his most heartfelt story about two troubled kids finding each other, and how that romance affects the adult world in surprising ways.  Once again we get a Bruce Willis performance that doesn't rely on tired mugging, a fantastic soundtrack and score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat (by way of Benjamin Britten), and that home-made dollhouse aesthetic that is a trademark of all of Anderson's films. 

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia:  Over the course of one night a group of policeman, a doctor, and a pair of brothers search the Turkish countryside for the body of a man the brothers are suspected of murdering.  Even with Kenan, the primary suspect's help, it's a difficult search - he admits he was drinking heavily at the time they buried the body, and in the dark much of the countryside looks the same.  Not much of a plot, but the beauty in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's film lies in the way we learn about each character over the course of the night, and the beautiful way every scene is lit, and the small conversations that carry you through the story and into the lives of everyone out that night, looking for a reason as much as a body.  Long and deliberate in its pacing, this is a film to savor on as large a screen as possible to take in every nuance.


Paranorman:  Not enough people saw Paranorman, and that's a damn shame.  Of all the films here, this one affected me the most.  Lovingly crafted by the folks at Laika (who also did Coraline), Paranorman also plays with convention, taking the tried and true zombie invasion plot and turning it on its head, giving us a tender story about bullying, fear, and accepting others' differences.  Plus, you know...zombies.

Special Honorable Mention to Girl Walk//All Day, the music video/movie set to the great Girl Talk record which, while not released theatrically, still provided more pure exuberant joy than should be allowed and ranks among the best visual experiences I had all year.  Best of all?  It's available to watch for free right here:

Good Day to You, 2013


I had very little in the way of demands for the beginning hours of 2013: my son not waking up until at least 8:00am, and a damn fine cup of coffee. Fortune apparently favored the meek, because my son bounded into the bedroom at 8:04am and that first cup of coffee bordered on the sublime.

Today will spent as it always is, with more people in my house than I think can possibly fit, cooking and eating more food than we could possibly ever need, and hopefully looking forward to a year with which to fill in with new experiences, new joys, and in my case, new words.

Normally at this point I would list out my various resolutions, things like dropping down to 200 pounds, documenting every movie and book I consume this year, getting a final draft done on the novel I've been working on since 2009, re-dedicating myself to zazen, and all the multitude of family things I want to accomplish.  But the reality is that all I want to is be at a place in my life where I can look around and be proud of the person I am.  Maybe some of those concrete things will help get me there.  Maybe something new will come along if I allow myself to be open to it that will put me on the right path.  So in lieu of a standard resolution list this year, I'll sum it all up in one:

  1. I resolve to take the breaks off of 2013 and live it to the fullest I possibly can, making sure that I am ready to meet every challenge head on, grow stronger by it, and look back on those things that are most important to me and be comfortable in the belief that I did right by them.

Alright.  I've got about 20 Italian people cramming into a tiny house in Long Island expecting wine, cheese, meat, pasta, shrimp, fruit, breads, pastries, espresso, cappuccino and about 1,000 other things, including my presence.  

Good day to you, 2013. 

Let's do this thing.

Where We've Been, Where We're Going


Were this a cheap paperback mystery I'd be at my desk, in the dark,  the neon of the city signs outside lighting the office purple and red, imperfectly reflecting off the glass of cheap scotch I never bring to my lips, the better to gaze into its buttery glow as I ponder the past year...

Instead I'm home, sweat pants, t-shirt and a robe in my living room, nursing a hot cup of tea to alleviate a case of bronchitis, and the only neon I can see in the bright light of the early afternoon are my son's crayons in an old mayonnaise jug.  There is the fantasy, and there is the reality, and a large part of 2012 was accepting the reality of my situation at home, at work, and in my own mind and body.  It was dealing with my son's eye surgery and the constant work we have to do to ensure his vision gets stronger and doesn't deteriorate to where he needs more.  It was confronting my dissatisfaction with my job and making a conscious decision to change it.  It was realizing that, at the rate I was going with regards to my health and specifically my weight, I would die before I could see my son do all the things he chooses to do.  It was coming to the realization that I was turning away from the things I loved, and that turning away was really putting a strain on my wife, my family, my entire life.

Much of that came to a head in June, and I began the slow process of reversing the engine, turning the machine around.  I dropped about 35 pounds, changed management and took on more responsibility at work, and - perhaps most importantly - started reading and making tentative steps towards writing again.  And while I admit I probably put back on about 10-12 pounds and have a hell of a lot more to do, I think I can see a point on the horizon, where before there was only the wavy lines of an unending desert.  In 2013 I'll turn 40, and although in the past I've never cared about age there's something about hitting that milestone that makes me strive to reach it as true to my heart as I can.  This isn't the stereotypical "drive a convertible and wear a Rolex and date a supermodel" mid-life crisis I'm sure the national networks are struggling to get to pilot as we speak (check your local listings); I have always and still to this day disdain the ridiculous signs of status other people use to measure themselves against others.  What it means is looking at myself in the mirror, knowing who that person is, and how he came to be.

And hope the smile on his face is genuine.

If this site is anything it's a place to document that process, to evaluate how each thing I do, whether by choice or circumstance leads me closer or further away from that sense of recognition.  And while I'll endeavor to make it as entertaining to anyone happening to come across it as possible, I can also promise unfortunate navel gazing as par for the course (along with bad metaphors, apparently).  Over time it'll work itself out, and I hope you choose to ride along and see where we end up.