Disappear in ‘The Blinds’

If you want to disappear (from the latest sexual harassment scandal, Trump tweet, breaking news push alert, or _______ ) for six hours, pick up Adam Sternbergh’s sci-fi western mystery thriller “The Blinds.” It’s the type of book you get lost in and end up finishing in one sitting.

The name for the book comes from the nickname for Ceasura, Texas — a shoebox type of town in the middle of nowhere where nothing bad ever happens. That changes when someone’s shot dead in a trailer.

To realize how strange that is, there’s a few things you have to understand about Ceasura. First off: it’s in the middle of a desert.

Second off: no one has guns.

And lastly, The Blinds isn’t your normal town.

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“The Blinds”
By Adam Sternbergh.
HarperCollins Publishers. 382 pp. $26.99.
2017.

The Blinds is the place where people go to disappear from the world when they have exhausted all their other options and have nowhere else to go. It’s a place where there’s no cell phones, no Internet, no guns (except the one the sheriff carries). A place where it’s rude to ask someone about their past.

Since The Blinds was built as a safe haven when a select few can start over without a past, anonymity is key. Everyone is given a new name in The Blinds — even the sheriff and his deputies. (The formula for creating new names is to mash-up first and last names from recognizable celebrities and forgettable vice presidents.)

With these new names and identities, the residents of The Blinds are told they can never have any visitors and they cannot contact or return to the outside world.

This arrangement goes relatively well for a while — until a homicide becomes the catalyst for the town’s unraveling.

Most of the 48 residents in The Blinds don’t remember their lives before The Blinds — even if you asked. A total or partial memory wipe which took away your worst memories was one of The Blinds’ entrance fees. The only people who know their past are Ceasura’s sheriff (whose not actually a sheriff even though everyone calls him one), Calvin Cooper (whom I imagine as Sheriff Hopper from “Stranger Things” — a generally good guy with a few skeletons in his past); and Cooper’s two deputies, Robinson and Dawes.

These three are in charge of figuring out who or what killed a man they don’t even really know.

 

 

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The scariest part of the new ‘It’ movie

The scariest part in Andy Muschietti’s film adaption of Stephen King’s novel “It” was never Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård).

It’s the eyes you feel staring at you in the dark. It’s the feeling of frantically reaching for something you need, but can’t seem to find. It’s the voices telling you that you’re not good enough.

It’s knowing that no one can help you from the missing brothers, abusive fathers, or psychopathic bullies.

Not even the adults.

That’s where the new “It” film succeeds. It transcends the horror genre because most of these boggarts are things that we fight everyday. Those dark and suffocating feelings of powerlessness that keep us from pursuing what we really want. Those thoughts that linger even after our racing hearts have settled from the jump scares. Those voices that tell us to hide and to cower and to keep our secrets hidden in isolation so that they begin to grow and gnaw away at us, picking us apart from the inside.

These fears is where “It” thrives. Whatever “It” is. The fact that they’re nameless give them power.

But when we talk about “It” — we realize that we’re not alone. And that others might be living with “It” too.

Why you should be watching ‘American Horror Story: Cult’

The main reason: Evan Peters.

Yes, he’s great — transforming himself every season with Ryan Murphy’s anthology horror T.V. series “American Horror Story.” But “AHS: Cult” takes it on a whole new level. Peters carries the whole show as the charismatic psychopathic cult leader and Donald Trump supporting Michigan common council leader Kai Anderson.

What’s more: Peters embodies a host of other historical cult leaders in flashbacks.

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He’s scary good. We pinky power promise. But the season doesn’t get really good until about episode 9 or so.

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‘What happened to Monday’ is good, but could have been better

I’d like to think that Tommy Wirkola’s new Netflix original film, “What happened to Monday” (2017), is the product of a 48-hour film project — as if the writing and directing team were given four mandatory prompts to work with and were ordered to produce a film in a relatively short time frame. 

Written by Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson, “What happened to Monday” feels like the type of caffine-fueled delusions produced under these hypothetical circumstances. 

In this case, perhaps they were given the line: “Seven minds are better than one.”

The character: Karen Settman, a woman who works in finance.

Genre(s) to choose from: Sci-fi/Action.

And prop: Sauce pan.

The result is good — if they were working under these hypothetical constraints that probably didn’t exist. Without these limits though, it’s much easier to see “What happened to Monday’s” imperfections. The confusing and rushed plot. The underdeveloped characters. The way the film feels like many books or movies that came before it. (Think: Margaret Peterson Haddix’s “Shadow Children” books meeting the movie “Blade Runner” meeting an extra long “Black Mirror” episode.)

The world Botkin, Williamson and Wirkola envisions is that of the future. The year is 2073, when the world’s biggest threat is overpopulation.

For the past 30-plus years, politician Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close) has attempted to control this problem by strictly enforcing the one child policy. Any siblings are seized and put to sleep indefinitely by the One Child Allocation bureau.

But Terrence Settman (Willem Dafoe) couldn’t separate his seven identical septuplets grandchildren (all played by the wonderful Noomi Rapace). Instead, he raised them to follow three basic rules:

  1. The girls could only go out one at a time on the day of the week in which they were named after (i.e. Monday would go out on Monday, Tuesday on Tuesday, and so on and so forth).
  2. The girls would each share the identity of Karen Settman when they left their flat.
  3. The girls could never mention they had siblings.

This ruse kept all seven siblings alive well into their thirties, but one day, Monday goes missing.

The rest of the movie revolves around the siblings trying to find out what happened to Monday without being discovered by the One Child Allocation bureau.

There’s at least seven things to like about “What happened to Monday.” Rapace is phenomenal as all seven Settman sisters, who share the same name, face and screen time, but also have very distinct haircuts and personalities. They’re the reason you like “What Happened to Monday” and why the sisters are more than Sporty Sis, Sexy Sis, Responsible Sis, Techie Sis, Rebellious Sis, Boring Sis and Spiritual Sis. Thanks to Rapace’s acting and some creative special effects from editor Martin Stoltz, you have no trouble believing that there are seven Settman sisters, who squabble and tease each other as sisters do. Without Rapace’s acting (which includes many scenes involving clever green screen work), “What Happened to Monday” would be just as forgettable as its title.

That’s not to say that this movie isn’t good. (I still gave it a thumbs up on Netflix.) But you can’t help wanting this movie to be better — to be one of those things that takes up more brain space and changes the way you think. That’s what you expect from a good sci-fi movie.

Instead, the movie feels a little stiff and off — as if the writing and directing team were also trapped within the confines of the rules they’ve created.

“What Happened to Monday” was directed by Tommy Wirkola and written by Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson. 

Why a story about a garbage can being thrown from a parking ramp injuring a tourist made me think of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Babel’

This is your gut reaction when you hear this story: 

It’s your outrage if a boy shot a bullet at a moving vehicle filled with foreign tourists.

It’s what you’d think if a woman left two children alone and unattended out in a desert.

It’s the disgust you’d feel if one of your patients tried to kiss you while you were cleaning her teeth at a dental office.

Five innocuous little words. What is wrong with you? Assigning blame without knowing everything.

But while the boy/woman/patient (and whoever might have thrown a garbage can at a tourist) were clearly at fault here, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning film “Babel” (2006) humanizes these actions and shows us that actions have consequences — no matter how good the intentions initially were.

The boy/woman/patient are not bad people, even though they might have all done bad things. They’re not monsters. They didn’t shoot at a tour bus, leave children alone in a desert, or attempt to sexually assault you out of hate, but rather love and pride. Iñárritu’s film explains the tower of confusion or misunderstandings that led to these situations in about 143 minutes.

The boy, woman and patient are all distantly connected in this story, which circles round and round like a kaleidoscope.

The patient is a teenage Japanese deaf girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who found the dead body of her mother after she committed suicide on their balcony. If that isn’t alienating enough, the girl finds it impossible to find love — especially when boys realize she can’t hear or speak. Her attempt to kiss her dentist was a perversion, yes, but it was also a very misguided attempt to find love.

The boy Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), who lives in a poor and rural community in Morocco, was driven by a bet with his brother Ahmed (Said Tarchani). Ahmed bet that his brother couldn’t hit the moving bus. Yussef proved he could. They never intended to shoot Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett), an American touring Morocco while on vacation with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt).

And Richard and Susan Jones, never intended to extend their stay in Morocco. Because they did and because they didn’t have anyone else to watch their children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), their babysitter Amelia (Adriana Barraza) faced an impossible choice: watch the children in San Diego or miss her son’s (Robert ‘Bernie’ Esquivel) wedding in Mexico. 

Amelia opted to shoot for the moon and brought the children she was babysitting to Mexico with her for her son’s wedding, but as an undocumented immigrant, Amelia had trouble returning to the states after the festivities.

It didn’t help that her nephew and driver Santiago (Gael García Bernal) got drunk at the wedding before he drove her to the U.S. border.

It didn’t help that they tried to cross the border with two kids that weren’t theirs.

Santiago, Amelia, Mike and Debbie do make it over the border, but in an attempt to shake the U.S. Custom and Border Control agents from their tail, Santiago left Amelia and the children in the middle of the desert with a promise to return for them. Santiago didn’t return. And Amelia briefly left the children to save them — to find someone who could give them food, water and shelter — even if it was one of the CBC officers they were running from.

Was that wrong?

And if so, what was wrong with that? That Amelia thought with her heart rather than her head?

Could that also be how the garbage can which hit a tourist got thrown from a parking ramp?

“Babel” makes us question what we see and second-guess what we value.

Meanwhile, a question like “What is wrong with people?” might not be so easy to answer.

“Babel” was written by Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film was directed by Iñárritu. “Babel” won an Oscar for “Best Original Score.”

Surviving ‘Chemistry’

Weike Wang’s debut novel “Chemistry” begins with a boy and a girl. The boy asks the girl the same question over and over hoping to get a different answer. And the narrator can’t quite make up her mind.

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“Chemistry”
By Weike Wang.
Knopf. 211 pp. $24.95.
2017.

Both are intelligent. The boy has a Ph.D. and the girl is working toward one in chemistry at a Boston college. (That’s where they met and started dating).

And the decision should be easy. It’s the next logical step.

The boy Eric is smart and thoughtful, gentle and easygoing. He cooks. And cleans. And walks the dog. But —

But his self-esteem is still in tact. And he isn’t a Chinese American riddled with a bad case of anxiety and imposter’s syndrome.

He’s a ginger.

If Wang wasn’t a scientist (who graduated from undergrad with a chemistry degree from Harvard) or a writer (who’s penned an impressive first novel), she could probably be a comedian or a psychologist.

In many ways, “Chemistry” is like a prescription for what’s wrong with me. Too insecure. Too indecisive. Too anxious. Too nice. Too Asian. Not Asian enough. Not good enough. Not good.

Wang, a Chinese immigrant herself, acutely articulates things I’ve felt that I’ve never told anyone else. (Like how “I don’t remember ever seeing my parents hold hands, or hug, or kiss. I wonder if this is why when I hear affectionate words, I want to jump off tall buildings despite crippling fear of heights”; or how “It might be true that I was raising my hand at nine months. It has become so instinctual to always still be polite. Like now, at this bar, where I have raised my hand a dozen times to ask a question. Can I have another drink? Another drink? Another?”; and how “It is the Chinese way to not explain any of that, to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.”)

She has a knack for making you simultaneously laugh and ugly cry into your pillow.

Just reading the staccato sentences in “Chemistry” makes you anxious — as if your phone notifications were blowing up with messages like: “Your biological clock is ticking” and “And you have X days to find someone to spend the rest of your life with.”

Then the alarms go off — blaring louder than the ones before. You can’t seem to put life back in “Snooze.” Instead, things blow up in “Chemistry” — both slow and sudden, leaving a gaping hole.

But as you and the nameless narrator girl learn: you can survive.

My ‘Wicked’ past 

Call me sentimental, man, but the 2017 National Touring production of “Wicked,” starring Jessica Vosk as Wicked Witch of the West Elphaba and Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda the Good Witch, made me cry because it reminded me of the time and people who left handprints on my heart, helping me most to grow.

You see, “Wicked,” the Tony Award-winning musical written by Stephen Schwatz and Winnie Holzman based on Gregory Maguire’s rewriting of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” was the anthem to my high school career. “For Good” was my high school class song. And my best friends literally sang “Loathing” and “Popular” in my ear since we were 13-year-old freshmen daring to defy gravity.

I’ve never seen the musical before, but my best friends were the Elphabas of my high school: smart, courageous, outspoken and different. (We all were in a way.) And perhaps that’s what united us. The fact that we were different.

I was never as brave as Elphaba or Glinda. As the child of immigrants with a funny sounding name, I’ve spent most of my pre-teen years trying to be invisible. But like Glinda at the Oz Dust Ball Room, they reached out, asking me to join their lunch table and included me. And that means the world when you’re young. It was brilliant.

They gave me my voice, and ignited my passions. We sang in streets and hallways; explored New York City, Disney and Cedar Point like they were the Emerald City; and listened to burned CDs of the original cast recording of the “Wicked” soundtrack even after it was scratched and skipping from overuse.

Together we were unlimited. Flying. Soaring. As we traded notes, books and secrets under stars.

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I wish everyone finds a friendship like Elphaba and Glinda’s — people who change you for the good. I know I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for them.

Looking for ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’

When I was 16-going-on-17, I did what Marina Keegan’s family and friends did — I put together a collection of my work until that point and printed it.

These 100-plus pages in total were edited (as much as they could be before deadline) and then stuffed into a Manila envelope and mailed to the Davidson Fellows Scholarship for Literature judges. I didn’t get the scholarship, but Marina Keegan’s posthumous collection of short stories and essays, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” reminds me of that body of work — how it was flawed but promising, hinting how I would still develop as a young writer.

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“The Opposite of Loneliness”
By Marina Keegan.
206 pp. Scribner. $15.
2014.

Keegan debut book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is full of hope, talent and potential, but you read it knowing that Keegan never told all the stories she could have. She died at 22 — five days after she graduated magna cum laude from Yale University.

The title of Keegan’s book is from Keegan’s essay of the same name, which was published in The Yale Daily News after her sudden and tragic death in 2012. After she died, her parents, teachers and friends compiled her fiction, non-fiction and journal entries into Keegan’s one and only book, “The Opposite of Loneliness.”

If I had died at 17 — five days after my high school graduation, I wouldn’t have wanted my friends and family to publish my work like this, mostly because I’m a perfectionist and I cringe when I re-read anything I’ve written before. The pages I had submitted in the scholarship application were filled with angsty poetry and undeveloped fiction. And while I love to see my name in print, I’m not sure if I would have wanted the world to remember me as imperfect.

Still, Keegan’s one and only book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is perfect in spite (or perhaps because) of its imperfections. Some of the stories and essays could have been more polished, but the fact that there are flaws makes the work that much more inspirational — like we, too, could achieve what Keegan did in her short, but full life.

There’s no denying Keegan’s gift. Her essays and short stories are full of life and human insight. In “Cold Pastoral,” she writes about the pain of knowing your partner was still in love with his ex-girlfriend; “Winter Break” is about falling in love as your parents’ relationship is falling apart; and “Hail, Full of Grace” is about encountering an ex years later and imagining what could have been. The most inspiring of these works is an essay which gives the book its namesake — the essay that tells us “how we’re young, so young, and how we have so much time to follow our dreams.”

I’ve never met Keegan, but through her words, I feel like I know her because she reminds me of the girl I was, am and could be — that girl who contemplated an English degree before she settled into journalism, that girl who spent her senior year in high school writing autobiographical essays for college applications, that girl who grew up with Shakespeare and Harry Potter and listens to NPR, that girl whose a writer with all the time to write and edit and re-write.

Why ‘One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter’ matters

If the title of Scaachi Koul’s first book “One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter” sounds like the title of a new collection of David Sedaris essays, perhaps that’s because Sedaris is one of Koul’s biggest role models.

His essays inspired Koul to become a writer. (Now she’s a senior writer at Buzzfeed.)

“Every word he wrote crackled in my brain and he was a guy, sure, a white guy, but I knew he was different in a way that I felt different,” writes Koul. “It changes you, when you see someone similar to you, doing the thing you want to do yourself.”

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“One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter”By Scaachi Koul
241 pp. Picador. $25.
2017

But whereas Sedaris wrote about growing up gay in North Carolina, going to speech therapy for his lisp, working as a mall elf for Christmas, becoming a migrant worker for a summer and traveling all over the world with his boyfriend, Hugh, Koul writes about being cut out of a skirt she tried on at a department store, shaving the hair on her knuckles and being afraid of getting vein cancer.

Yes, embarrassing and traumatic experiences that are funnier in hindsight, sure, but Koul made me cry whereas Sedaris always made me laugh.

At the heart of many of Koul’s personal essays is the emotional throw up of what it’s like to grow up as brown girl in the white ‘burbs of Canada with a first name no one could pronounce without an instruction manual (Hint: The first “C” in “Scaachi” is silent).

“Fitting is a luxury rarely given to immigrants, or the children of immigrants,” writes Koul, an Indian Canadian writer based in Toronto. “We are stuck in emotional purgatory. Home, somehow, is always the last place you left, and never the place you’re in.”

Koul’s contemporary book, ironically titled “One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter,” matters because it does more than cover casual racism, online harassment, rape culture and the normalcy of alcoholism. Within the 10-essay collection in “One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” is a reflection of marginalized communities often not talked about enough in mainstream books, television, film or Western culture.

While Koul has written about identity and online harassment publically in the past, “One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” is a vulnerable and insightful portrait of youth, loneliness and alienation.

There are many passages that I’ve highlighted since Koul seemed to describe my own experience so perfectly — like the feeling that “before we’re taught anything, we’re taught to hide.”

As a first-generation Chinese American immigrant growing up in the suburbs of Western New York, I know what it’s like to not belong — to be asked where you’re from because of the color of your skin, to always feel crippling self doubt and to lose the language and culture of your ancestors but for it to somehow still define you. To read about these experiences shared by another human is empowering because it makes you feel less alone. And to read about these experiences from someone like you doing something you want to do? Well, it allows you to dream — to know that your goals are still tangible because someone else like you has done this before and so maybe you can too.

“One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” matters because of girls like me and girls like Koul, who somehow survive even when the world wants them dead.

“One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” is expected to be published in the United States on May 2, 2017.  

‘Captain America: Civil War’ is an allegory for American politics

You’d think that an ultimate showdown between superheroes would be funny and absurd as Lemon Demon’s “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny,” but Anthony and Joe Russo’s superhero showdown “Captain America: Civil War” isn’t funny.

The only part that’s remotely funny is the banter in an almost 12-minute battle sequence at an airport.

Other than that, the painstakingly long two-and-a-half hour film is mostly about what keeps bubbling up in conversations: politics.

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, “Captain America: Civil War” centers on a political debate America’s all too familiar with: the battle between whether governmental bodies should have more or less oversight. In it, the Avengers become an allegory for America and representatives within the organization aren’t willing to compromise on how the Avengers should be governed.

Armed in his red Iron Man costume, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) stands with democratic values, believing that the United Nations should oversee the Avenger team. Donning a red, white and blue shield, Captain America (Chris Evans) sides with traditional republicans beliefs, advocating for less governmental control and more freedom of choice.

The resulting arguments aren’t pretty. They’re nasty, vindictive and very, very physical (These are the Avengers after all). Plenty of people get hurt. And even after the battles are over, the fissure remains.

“Captain America: Civil War” was directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo. The screenplay was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.