Racking up library fines: Best fiction of 2019

This blog hopes we’re all doing our part to stop the spread of the coronavirus out there by staying in here–wherever our respective “in heres” happen to be. Luckily for me, one of the last places I visited before everything locked down was the local library, so I’m holed up with a few thrillers. They are unquestionably late by now, but I’m going to assume the late fee policy will be relaxed when everything opens again.

At the moment, I’m reading Michael Connelly’s “The Night Fire.” It describes itself as a Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch novel, but it also guest stars Mickey “The Lincoln Lawyer” Haller. It’s actually a smart move on Connelly’s part, since it allows the novel to span three different crime genres: police procedural with Ballard, pulp detective with Bosch and courtroom drama with Haller. Nothing feels underdeveloped or overlong. Toss in a solid plot and smooth prose and it might be one of the best thrillers of the year, although I am only halfway done.

As for the stuff I have actually finished, keep reading. As for the stuff I haven’t actually finished… Well, keep reading. Everything will be accounted for. Like always, best toward the top and worst toward the bottom.

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura: I can’t say that this was the best book of 2019–it was translated from German, and I’m always wary of translations since I can’t read them in the original prose–but it was easily one of the most interesting. More like a psychological fairy tale than psychological thriller, Christine Wunnicke’s short novel about (the real life) Dr. Shimamura investigating kitsune phenomena in turn-of-the-last-century Japan manages to examine relationships between East and West, male and female, and sane and insane all on one long hook.

The Heavens: I found the conclusion a little weak in its attempts to explain everything, but the majority of Sandra Newman’s mashup of many-worlds and end-of-the-world literature is quite satisfying. The prose is good, the characters are well sketched and the dialogue is sometimes quite funny. There’s also a wealth of themes, including mental wellness, destiny and the difficulties of utopia, although you might see something different.

The Memory Police: Almost the opposite of “The Heavens,” Yoko Ogawa’s novel starts off like no more than a clever take on “1984,” but it evolves into its own creature, sort of a dystopian slice of life that even morphs into something metaphysical as it moves along. More of a fantasy than a thriller, although the low key translation fits it well.

String City: What can I say? The more I thought about “String City,” the more I realized I liked it. Graham Edwards’ pulp thriller with a fantastic edge was clever, well paced and asked some big questions along the way. Its questions were bigger than its characters, but I’m sure the book’s unnamed gumshoe would be the first to admit that nobody’s perfect.

Cari Mora: I’m going to put this high on the list, if only because it was the first Thomas Harris novel in a while, but it was far from the best book I read all year. It’s a crime thriller that dances around the grotesque rather than embraces it (or, admittedly, trips in it). It’s well written and has interesting characters, but it never achieves its potential and frequently disappoints.

The Secrets We Kept: A novel about spies, women in the workforce and how “Doctor Zhivago” got to America. It’s also a love story and it’s about identity, mid-century politics, and… Well, Lara Prescott’s novel is about a lot of things. Maybe too many. The myriad plotlines and perspectives make up a structure that never quite gels. However, the prose is good, and there’s tons of interesting research for those who like their Wars Cold.

The Need: A decently composed parental nightmare thriller that starts strong, with solid prose and pace, and ends up being just a bit predictable.

The Institute: Stephen King shows his age. There’s plenty of cute Stephen King-isms, and it gets better as it moves along, although the concept–psychic children kidnapped by the government–isn’t all that original, even for him. It also doesn’t help that many of the characters are those children, and that they don’t sound like real children. Still, it’s King-style prose, so it’s sometimes fun and definitely readable.

Cold Storage: A science thriller with some science and some thrills, “Cold Storage” is easy to read and has interesting information for people into plagues (not an unpopular topic as of this writing, perhaps). It’s also populated by some pretty lame characters throughout. Writer David Koepp is touted as the guy who wrote the “Jurassic Park” screenplay, so it’s not too hard to see where he gets his authorial inspiration.

The Reign of the Kingfisher: An acceptable attempt at a “if superheroes were real” story, once again posed as a sort of crime thriller. It reads OK, but it feels like it misses the chance to ask the pertinent questions along the way.

The Silent Patient: A very readable psychological thriller with some twists and turns and a lot of lapses in psychiatric ethics. The result is an increasing loss of believability and a big reveal that falls a little flat.

Antiques Ravin’: It’s a cozy mystery about a long-suffering daughter and her kooky police chief mother. I don’t think I’m the target audience. I read it because it had Edgar Allan Poe on the cover.

The Long Call: I’m going to say I finished this, but that’s kind of a lie. It’s a new detective from Ann Cleaves, the author of the Vera novels. I found the detective dull. I was more interested in the background characters, who obviously got less attention. When I had about 50 pages left, I made a guess about who the killer was. I looked at the last chapter. My suspect was still there, so I guess I guessed wrong. I didn’t read any more.

Actually, since I’ve already introduced a book I didn’t finish, and since it’s my blog, here’s the rundown of books I have yet to complete:

Imaginary Friend: Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A child with latent psychic powers has to stop an evil entity–called “the hissing woman”–from breaking into our reality via a small American town. Also, there’s a sheriff hero and a bad case of the flu. Stephen Chbovsky, who wrote “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” tries his hand at Stephen King fan fiction. Except there’s already a King book about psychic children this year (also, where’s the alcoholic writer character?). OK, this is more literary than King, but it’s also much less snappy. At one point I realized I was more than 300 pages in and still not halfway through. I stopped. But I will finish it. Probably. Someday.

Quichotte: Sort of a psychological drama/immigrant narrative by way of a Pinocchio/Don Quixote fantasy? Maybe it was too scattered. It never quite engaged me, and the oh-so-clever tone didn’t help. I’m glad the book was so fond of itself because I never warmed up to it.

Bunny: I read the first chapter, and I realized the characters were all MFA candidate types. This was billed as a “Heathers” experience. “Heathers” was a fun murder drama that took place in high school. I went to high school. I’m not an MFA candidate. Sorry, and I’m sure this is my fault, but I didn’t think this one was for me.

Last, perhaps because short fiction has become my medium (two published, three upcoming, I swear!), I’m allowing myself to pretentiously end with some short story anthologies.

In truth, the best fiction of 2019 I read might have been in “Orange World and Other Stories,” a collection of recent work by Karen Russell. I’ve liked Russell since the novel “Swamplandia,” but I’ve gotten to really like her through her short stories, and “Orange World” collected some great ones. The tales assembled here are all nicely literate and either intriguingly fantastic and delightfully weird. The best might be “The Gondoliers,” which is one of the most creatively set post-apocalypse stories I’ve read. It thrillingly combines the mystery of sisterhood and family with the psychic rush of the end of world.

Coming up just behind that collection was Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation,” which was exactly what readers of Chiang should expect: sci fi that’s both well-composed and highly intelligent, almost guaranteed to give you something to think about after you’ve finished reading. It’s the perfect book for genre fans to meander through, even if they don’t hit all the stories cos it has to go back to the library…

Finally, I also buzzed through a couple of crime fiction anthologies, but all I can remember was there was a disappointing Dean Koontz story in one of them.

So that’s about everything with a 2019 tag I read. What did I miss? What should I be reading in 2020? Give me something to look forward to when the library opens again.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 12: A critical analysis of “A Requiem”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging, the uncanny and other themes. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the 12th episode: “A Requiem.”

In many ways, the previous episode was the final episode of the show called “Boogiepop Phantom.” It had was subtly tied to the first episode, with a reappearance of the character of Moto Tonomura, with its questions about the worthiness of living, and its resolution to the narrative’s challenges that mirrored the beginning: a burst of light.

By contrast, the chronological last episode of “Boogiepop” literally looks like a different series. The sepia tone has been dropped, and the corners are not darkened with a vignetting effect. This is dramatically introduced by the first scene, in which a recently awoken student throws the curtains of a hotel room open, flooding the screen with light and bright colors. The first third of the episode follows these students, Kazuko Suema and unwitting Boogiepop medium Touka Miyashita, as they prepare for an end-of-year exam. It’s more like a slice of life anime than psychological horror, as if we accidentally stumbled onto a completely different series.

This episode is entitled “A Requiem,” and a requiem is a mass for the dead. Requiems typically have a musical dimension, as a solemn chant or dirge for the dead, or a composition in honor of the dead. Titling this episode “A Requiem” is interesting because it initially says more about “Boogiepop Phantom’s” strange narrative than its philosophy. Requiems, by necessity, can only come about once the subject of them is dead. The only way that this episode can act as a requiem for the series is if it’s already over, and in a way, it is. If episode 11 was the real conclusion, then episode 12 is its afterward.

It’s only in the middle that the episode returns to a horror vibe. It’s not sepia stained, although it is dark and tense, with slit window blinds providing film noir lighting as an unreal human with tentacles bursting from its mouth constricts a woman. Boogiepop, blocking the only light source, returns to save the day, although the Boogiepop personality notes that it did Touka a disservice by making her miss her test. The final loose end seems tied up, and the series returns to looking like a slice of life. As a whole, it’s strangely satisfying way to end a strange series. It feels genuinely complete.

The final scene sees three students, Kazuko, Touka and Nagi Kirima, gazing out over the nameless city where we’ve all spent so much time. They are contemplating the past, of course, how they each experienced the same time from different perspectives. It’s a natural conversation for the end of the school year, as well as for the end of a series like this. And “Boogiepop” has always delighted in musical references, so a requiem is an appropriate expression of a remembrance of things past.

In their dialogue, Kazuko says she thinks she hears music. It’s the same piece of music that Boogiepop whistles, although it sounds off to our ears. Her perception is different. “It must be the city’s memories weaving into a melody,” she states. “The memories of the time we spent in this city.”

This notion of the city weaving its own memories together seems to tie into the earlier suggestion of a city as a mind with the people as its memories: some buried, some lost, most interacting with each other in the waking world and creating the reality the city perceives. Earlier in the episode, the evolved humans still sealed, dreaming, underground are described as having nerves that stretch across the city, likening it to a nervous system.

One by one the girls leave, and the image that closes the series is first the whistling, then a girl alone, then the city.

At the beginning of the episode, a title card read: “A sleep changes everything.” What sleep it refers to is unclear. It could be as simple as the sleeping girls who opened the episode; it could be the sleep of those still lost under the city; it could even be the eternal sleep that a harbinger of death like Boogiepop brings. What’s unambiguous is change. In “Boogiepop Phantom,” change is inevitable. Those who cannot perceive that suffer for it, but those who can move forward into the future.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 11: A critical analysis of “Under The Gravity’s Rainbow”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging, the uncanny and other themes. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the 11th episode: “Under The Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Although many episodes of this series have had pop music references, there have been literary ones as well. The first episode is named “Portraits From Memory,” which is also the name of a collection of short essays by the philosopher Bertrand Russell about, appropriately enough, a variety of seemingly unconnected people. The last episode referenced Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” a novel about madness and grotesquely misplaced purpose.

This episode, “Under The Gravity’s Rainbow,” almost shares a name with Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern novel “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Again, rather appropriately for this series, that novel is a maze of characters and interweaving plots. The novel likewise almost shares its name with a physics theory that suggests different wavelengths of light are impacted by gravity, which, with its notions of light, multiplicity and the way reality is constructed, also seems appropriate for this series.

The word “rainbow” appears to be the most important in the title. About three minutes into the episode, the focus shifts from a group of students–including Moto Tonomura, which ties this episode into the first episode–to Manaka Kisaragi, the mysterious young woman surrounded by butterflies who can only repeat the words she hears. This shift is announced by a title card, not unlike the ones that have introduced “scenes” throughout the series. Unlike those, who usually state a time or place, this one simply says: “Rainbow.”

Rainbows have been a quiet theme of this series stretching back to the third episode, when characters debated whether the dirty brown sky. an expression of the haze that deadens the colors of the entire series so far, was actually a rainbow.

Rainbows are often popularly considered a positive image, representing the end of a storm and the return of light. However, rainbows can also symbolize a glorious but fruitless pursuit–the gold at the end of the rainbow–and mythologically they represent a higher cosmic order or a communication from the divine.

Rainbows were omens, and they could be bad–as in Homer’s “Iliad,” where Zeus sends a “lurid rainbow” as a sign of war–or good–as in the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, where a rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant that the earth will never be flooded again. Interestingly, the bow in the flood story is interpreted as specifically a rainbow, but it is simply a “bow” in the text. Jewish philosophers for centuries have contemplated the double meaning: a bow hung in the sky, like the weapon of an archer hung on a wall to symbolize the end of a war.

Despite all this complex symbology, the element of a rainbow that appears most tied to this episode is one that is quite physical. A rainbow, despite all its cosmic weight, is a startlingly temporary thing. It lasts only as long as the conditions–whether dictated by water and light or by the divine–see fit.

Manaka Kisiragi seems particularly tied to the rainbow. Much about her genesis seems touched by the cosmic. She was born without a father. Not a virgin birth, but born to a single mother who was, according to Manaka, deceived, dumped but perhaps still in love. Nevertheless, her grandmother said that both the child and her absent father were “the devil.”

Manaka was born when her mother was mad and feverish, as if under the influence of the divine. After her birth, Manaka’s mother lost all memory. She is Mayumi Kisaragi, the character we have seen who, like the real world H. M., cannot form new memories. It’s another sign that this birth was something special.

Manaka grows curiously fast. Because she is so different from other children, or perhaps because of her shameful heritage, her grandmother hides her from society. Manaka is forced to learn about the world through glowing butterflies that she perceives. These butterflies represent memories of the past, and by interacting with them, Manaka picks up pieces of the past to build her concept of reality.

In her own words, the world is: “A distorted rainbow where the past is folded on top of itself. It lies between order and chaos. Sadness. Pain. Hope. Happiness. Agony. Loneliness. Dreams. Smiles. Tears. A rainbow that gathers it all and fluctuates.”

For Manaka, the world is a multiplicity, many parts that make up a whole, rather than either a single unit or disparate parts. Everything suggests the many that make up the one for her. When her grandmother tries to strangle her–a kind of mercy killing–it happens in front of a bathroom mirror, with the rest of the room concealed in darkness. The killing is staged to be reflected, two images in one. When Manaka recalls dying, she says it felt “hot and cold at the same time.” And Manaka, like a deity, miraculously returns from the dead when her broken body is hit by the blast of light that began the series. She is alive and dead at the same time.

Manaka was revived by the light of the dying Echoes, an evolved human that could only repeat the words it heard to stop it from communicating. A tautology, repetition, echoes, reflection. A multiplicity that makes up a one.

Light makes up a rainbow, and light makes up the butterflies that provided Manaka with her glimpse of the world, the “real truths of this universe,” in her words. Light also makes up the butterflies that show those who interact with Manaka their glimpses of the past.

Light can be both what we see and how we remember, in part because humans are visual creature that remember much in images. Manaka’s grandmother considers a photograph of her and her strange granddaughter as it is taken. “This will become a memory,” she says of the light captured on the photo paper.

But memories, light and reality can all fade. Manaka ages drastically, especially after the events of the last episode. She grows older by the second, and Boogiepop follows her through Paisley Park in a neatly edited chase sequence. “I don’t want to die!” she cries, a stark contrast from her earlier, more distant and philosophical attitude toward death.

Manaka ends up in a hall of mirrors, where her image is repeated back to her. Multiplicities again. “I’ll become light,” she finally says, accepting her fate. “That’s not death. That’s forever.” She does indeed become light, shedding the memories and releasing them into the atmosphere around the city. Finally, she herself evaporates into expanding light, and with her death, all the ghosts in the city disappear, from the Boogiepop Phantom to the image of Echoes that takes her hand.

If that sounds New Age-y, that’s fair. This is easily the most New Age-y episode of “Boogiepop Phantom,” with its notions of light and cosmic life after death. However, the episode is still grounded in its own symbology and its themes of reality, perception and memory. It could even be reality, perception, memory and reality, since, in “Boogiepop Phantom,” we perceive reality; we remember our perceptions; and our perceptions govern our reality. It is a repeating and self-reflecting system. A tautology.

But what of the rest of the title? While Manaka, as well as the themes of “Boogiepop Phantom,” seem tied to the rainbow, why does the title refer to “Gravity’s” rainbow? And why is anything “Under” it?

Gravity, as well as being a physical force, refers to importance or seriousness. Likewise, under is both a physical position–to be underneath something physically–and a subjective position–to be effected by or controlled by something.

If the rainbow as light is our reality, perception and memory, then we are certainly under its influence, as surely as we’re under gravity’s influence. And since light translates into that vital multiplicity, it is the most serious, the most grave, thing in the universe. At least, it is for us.

At the start of the episode, one of the students returns to her room and contemplates slitting her wrists. At the episode’s end, she is stopped by her own “ghost” as it reappears then vanishes, along with the other ghosts, with Manaka’s burst of light. The student puts her blade away. Ultimately, a title card reads: “And then… The rainbow.” Two of the same students from earlier are out walking, and they see a real rainbow. Perhaps the colors are a little brighter now. Compare this to the first scene in the episode, where Moto Tonomura was momentarily abandoned by her peers and surrounded by darkness.

It is light that allows us to perceive each other, and therefore, to remember and influence each other for better or for worse. Light can be fickle, but it’s what gives us the power to reflect.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 10: A critical analysis of “Poom Poom”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging, the uncanny and other themes. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the 10th episode: “Poom Poom.”

What is a Poom Poom anyway? For a show that’s so invested in pop culture references, there does not appear to be much there. Outside the world of Boogiepop, its most prominent appearance is as the title of a Prince song, where it refers to vaginas or sex. Obviously that has little to do with a story about childhood nostalgia and identity death. Linguistically, “poom poom” does not appear to be a word in Japanese or any language. The closest this blog could find was an old Germanic word “poom,” which meant “tree,” and also does not appear particularly related to the imagery of this episode.

In-universe the name might spring from a children’s book, there is scant information to glean from that. We will have to begin by allowing Poom Poom itself–a supernatural figure that takes the form of a little boy in a Pied Piper costume–to explain things to us.

In its own words, Poom Poom comes from heaven as “a messenger of happiness” who hands out “balloons of happiness” while traveling the world in search of adventures. These phrases, which sound like they’re ripped from a storybook, are accompanied by images that look like they’re taken from a storybook as well. Cryptically, some of the images include black-and-white images of live action adults trudging through urban streets, an image somewhat reminiscent of “Serial Experiments Lain.” All this should indicate to us that we should not trust what Poom Poom says.

That Poom Poom comes from heaven is debatable, and it does not travel the world. It hangs out in Paisley Park, the abandoned play park in the middle of town, with its
“friends,” all those childish spirits who have taken balloons and become separated from their adult selves. However, the park is introduced in this episode by an almost black screen, which indicates isolation rather than camaraderie. Likewise, while its balloons do seem to bring happiness, that happiness comes at a tremendous cost, up to suicide by self-immolation.

Even Poom Poom’s costume hints at its poorly formed identity. It is unoriginal, coming from either a young woman who wanted to be a writer or a boy who was supposed to be in a school play. It’s also a misrepresentation. In the legend, the Pied Piper only took the children of Hamelin because the city fathers went back on a deal. Poom Poom has made no deals, and it is not righting any wrong. It is simply taking advantage of people who feel regret, a susceptible population indeed.

Later, during the climactic showdown with Boogiepop (notably the actual Boogiepop this time and not the fading Phantom copy), we get another chance for insight into Poom Poom’s character. It is one of the most thrilling and startling scenes in the anime. Boogiepop rescues Nagi Kirima from a horde of violence-hungry children and corners both Poom Poom and a young woman on a Ferris wheel. We have seen this woman before but, like Poom Poom, her identity is mysterious. We know she seems simpleminded, is surrounded by glowing butterflies, has the power to make people psychologically revisit the past and is apparently able to only repeat the words of others. She also seems innocent. Boogiepop tosses her off the Ferris wheel.

At the bottom of the Ferris wheel, Poom Poom plays the sympathy card, claiming it was created out of a sense of abandonment or that it saves people from themselves. Boogiepop counters that Poom Poom is as much a victim as a victimizer, feeding off the ills it claims to cure.

“You make people think what they lost is everything,” Boogiepop says. “They can regain what they’ve lost. Your existence blinds them to reality, and in the end, the result is…” The image cuts to a montage of the dead.

“What a terrible Pied Piper you are,” Boogiepop finishes.

Poom Poom cannot disagree, admitting it is deviant, but denying any wrong doing. “Human nature denies the past in order to justify the present, but do you believe there is anything in the present worth justifying?” it says. But eventually, denials turn to confusion. “Revenge was not my purpose here,” Poom Poom concludes. “I just don’t understand any more.”

Perhaps there was never anything to understand. Just as there was no particular pop culture correlation for “Poom Poom,” perhaps the entity Poom Poom itself is a non-entity, an ultimately hollow thing. Poom Poom is not lost childhood, but rather, it is the space that can remain after childhood–any kind of childhood–is lost if we cannot confidently move into the future. Poom Poom is not childlike innocence. It is the hole that can remain when we put away childish things, and it is the empty and self-destructive fate that awaits those who try to recapture something that never existed to begin with.

We’ll beat “Sekiro” eventually: Best video games of 2019

I guess a lot of us are staying inside now, but inside does not have to the end of the world. It can be a chance to brush up your cooking skills, get to work on that novel or pick up the ukulele, and, of course, clearing your backlog of video games.

Believe it or not, this blog made an effort at playing all the best new games in 2019. It was not nearly as successful as clearing our cinematic backlog was, but we did play a few while they were still relevant. The results should surprise no one, but we’re happy being fashionably late and a little repetitive. Like the film list, these will be ordered roughly best to worst, with the best at the top and the worst at the bottom, and the general placement more important than specific placement.

Serkiro Shadows Die Twice: I have a confession. I have not finished “Sekiro.” Further, I may never finish “Sekiro.” But my ability to finish it has little to do with it being one of the best games of the year. Pretentious in the initial setup but largely straightforward when it gets to it, you play as a ninja trying to recover his master, and you’re going to die. A lot. The game’s bold visual design and tense, tightly paced swordplay gird a simple story that’s surprisingly deep, seeming to touch on notions of agency, memory and immortality. It is as hard as you’ve heard, but it’s not utterly unforgiving, and it’s definitely worth a deeper look at a later date.

Bloodstained Ritual of the Night: All right, I didn’t technically finish this game either, but so-called metroidvania games aren’t usually my thing, especially not retro ones. You play as a vampire kinda woman who is trying to…well, I don’t remember the details. Maybe I bought the game largely for its Hammer horror name and corset related box art, but I stayed for the simple-to-learn-difficult-to-master gameplay, the stylish design and the game’s overblown sense of humor. Maybe I got as far as I wanted to for now–I think I’m at the double jump, and I have no idea where to go next–but I enjoyed getting there more than I expected.

The Sinking City: Just so we don’t have three games I didn’t finish in a row, let’s put this guy here. OK, it was a pretty good game, especially for Lovecraft mythos fans who don’t mind a little modern adventure gaming. You’re Charles Reed, the world’s worst detective, and you’re utterly unfazed by the reawakened gods and monsters that are plaguing the titular sinking city as you run errands for local cultists and mob bosses. Spooky atmosphere and a good story balance the occasionally odd dialogue and far too occasional scares. The gameplay is more repetitive than I’d like, but I can’t say the game didn’t give me a few things to think about in the end.

Ailment: Pixel art style mobile game with a lot of shooting. Shooting zombies. In space. The plot feels very “Event Horizon”/”Pandorum,” for those into the horror-sci fi hybrid genre. The combat is twitchy and tricky, but it’s also pretty fast and–when the ads work–surprisingly forgiving. That’s nice, considering how clunky the shooting feels to a console man like myself, but it can also remove too much tension, so I end up not feeling too invested and…yes, I didn’t finished it either. What do you want?

Close to the Sun: This feels like an attempt to cross Nicola Tesla fan fiction with “Bioshock” (all of them). It’s also practically a walking simulator. You are Rose, an intrepid reporter in the early 20th century, you’re looking for your sister on a big abandoned science boat, and you’re clearly late to the murder party. The atmosphere is good, but there’s no sense of direction or agency, which is curious because “Bioshock” was all about exploring agency. In fact, there ends up being next to no introspection in “Close to the Sun.” There’s too little on the line for the player to feel threatened gameplay-wise, and I can’t entirely warm up to Rose as a character. I like her voice actor’s delivery, but how much can you like someone who goes looking for her sister on an abandoned ship full of monsters and murderers without a gun? Or at least a flashlight?

Sorority Rites: “The Last Yandere” was a simple horror game for PC and mobile and whatnot. It was largely a choice-based visual novel, with a couple of endings and a section of retro sidescrolling tossed in. “Sorority Rites” is a follow up by the same studio, a familiar slasher setup involving a young woman spending a night in a haunted house in order to join a sorority. Both games have a pleasant, minimalist anime visual style, but that’s mostly it. “Rites” has no choice options, and its sidescrolling section feels forced where “Yandere’s” felt organic. Also, while “Yandere” was slightly surreal in a goofy sorta way, “Rites” is just plain goofy. In case it wasn’t clear, I’m recommending you play “Yandere” first, “Rites” later and only if you still feel the itch.

Wolfenstein Youngblood: Given the franchise name–let alone the budget–that was behind this, one would expect it to be at least OK. But no, this was honestly one of the worst games of the year, made all the worse by that name and that budget. It has no excuse. The plot–involving B. J. Blazkowicz’s heretofore unseen daughters coming to save him in Nazi-occupied retro-future France–is legendarily bad, most of it explained rather than acted. All characters were gloriously unsympathetic. The villains were Saturday morning cartoon characters with no more motivation than “because Nazis.” The heroes were at best made of cardboard and at worst gleefully shallow, without reflection or redemption. I kept playing to see if everything was going to end up being a dream or an episode of a badly written in-universe TV show. It wasn’t. Yes, of all the games to finish, I picked this one. Such simplicity might have been acceptable if the game  itself had been fun, but it wasn’t. The shooting was repetitive, the puzzles were overly safe, the HUD was needlessly cluttered. Some people liked the music. I thought it was just OK. Many people found the humor out of place. I agree.

And that was everything I mostly played. On my tablet, I still have you-should-never-manage-a-spaceship game “Alien: Blackout” and who-else-liked-“Madoka”? RPG “Magia Record,” but neither of them worked, so I can’t say whether they’re among the best games of the year or the worst. Oh well. At least they cannot disappoint.

Still to play? “Disco Elysium,” I guess, but I’m going to be a bastard and wait for the console version. Stay tuned.

Two months too late: Best films of 2019

I will confess, there are still movies on my “watch me” list that I haven’t seen. Be aware that this list won’t include the whodunnit throwback “Knives Out,” the art house war flick “1917,” the big budget horror “Doctor Sleep” or the neo-noir “Dragged Across Concrete.” And no, I haven’t seen “Parasite” yet. However, I’m more surprised I haven’t seen “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot.”

But that’s the problem. There were so many good films this year, including quality thrillers, that the there was no issue hunting for the best films. It’s been trying to order the damn things.

This blog was going to run best books and games first, and end the month with a bang by saving the best movie list for last, but, whatever. Games are hard, and nobody reads no more. Let’s do this before this list gets any longer. As always, the best movies will be at the top, and the worst ones will be at the bottom, and the general placement of films is more important than whether X comes before Y.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Not quite a show biz biopic and not quite a true crime thriller, this is something more spectral than that, like a psychoanalytical biography of the era or the city itself. Great performances, smart script, cool atmosphere, clean photography, snappy editing, beautiful horse riding. I can’t even remember ever thinking that during a movie. Best of 2019? Probably.

The Lighthouse: Brooding, atmospheric and formalistic to the extreme, writer-director Robert Eggers’ sophomore effort succeeds in just about every way. What begins as a dark and slow psychological drama seems more interesting than good, but it gradually evolves into the one of the weirdest, and best, horror films of the year, thanks in no small part to the engaging performances of the two leads.

Under the Silver Lake: Fans of weird conspiracies and convoluted film noirs will find a lot to appreciate in this hauntingly photographed and dynamically scored thriller, which was not the second film by writer-director David Robert Mitchell (it’s his fourth). Andrew Garfield is great as one of the most dysfunctional detectives in recent cinema. A few minutes too long, but that’s about the only complaint I have.

The Fanatic: This bargain bin thriller is almost mindless–Hollywood Boulevard is apparently only three blocks long, and it takes days for cops to notice a corpse in a Beverly Hills front yard–but it has a subtle sense of its visuals and John Travolta’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink performance to put it above the rest. One of the most entertaining films of the year, although its opinions like that that keep Idols and Realities from being invited to the grown-up reviewers table. Whatever.

Joker: Maybe this was the best comic book movie of the year, although it feels more like a psychological thriller than a superhero flick. It doesn’t always have the most original story, but doles out its narrative in an intriguing way. Its moral outlook is refreshingly complex rather than tidy. Well cast down to the bit parts, and plenty of clever references for Bat-fans. Atmospheric soundtrack and formalistic photography, for those into that sorta thing.

Glass: Or maybe this was the best comic book movie of the year. Beautifully photographed, pitch perfect performances from all the leads and a few intellectual thrills keep it going, despite it being a couple minutes too long and a little preachy at the end. Low key, offbeat and no, I didn’t see Avengers anything either.

Arctic: Man vs. nature survival thriller with nothing you haven’t seen before, except the nature is the arctic, which is beautifully photographed, and the man is Mads Mikkelsen, who is an absolute beast as always. The movie doesn’t say much, but with visuals like this, maybe it doesn’t have to.

Bliss: Maybe this is a little high on the list, but it’s my list. A bloody good take on the LA art scene. Not slick but stylish to the extreme. I think it takes its time effectively, although maybe I’m biased cos it feels like I’ve been in a lot of those dive bars for the same reason: go to friends art projects so they’ll go to yours. Occasionally goes from grotesque to just gross, but groovy when it sticks to trippy thrills. Dora Madison is killer as the lead. Special thanks to The Missing Reel for pointing this one out.

Ad Astra: Leisurely, thoughtful science fiction is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve rarely found fault with it. Good looking and well acted—particularly by Tommy Lee Jones, who looks absolutely haunted—this film’s answers might be a little shallow and slow coming, but its questions are elegantly presented for anyone interested.

The Art of Self Defense: Something between an existential thriller and a coming-of-age drama, this film can be read as an examination of toxic masculinity, cult-like leadership and finding self-worth. Or maybe it’s just about what it means to be a man who can punch with his feet. If you can dig slow moving and bone dry black comedy, it’s worth a watch.

VelociPastor: Maybe this is really a 2018–or a 2017. Or 2010–production, but it’s a horror-comedy about a priest who turns into a dinosaur to fight drug-dealing ninjas. How could this blog not cover it? While its grasp of Catholic theology is spotty at best, and its special effects won’t win any awards, it was made with a great deal of heart, lovingly shot in a schlocky style, acted with a sense of fun and, surprisingly, more than its high-as-a-kite concept.

The Banana Splits Movie: Wait, what? First “Fanatic,” then “VelociPastor,” now this? All right, I promise, no more stoopid surprises in the line up. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this tie-in horror flick might not be as good as it could be, but it’s better than it should be. Paradoxically both flat and stylish, it’s worth more than the average curio piece.

John Wick Chapter 3: A good-but-not-great stylish shoot ’em and punch ’em up. The fights range from the fun–the first few, in a library, an antiques shop and a stable–to the contrived–the dogs. Pulpy and stylish as ever. Are you mad, John? A little, but not much.

Crawl: A by-the-numbers killer gator thriller that grows increasingly ridiculous over its 90-ish minutes, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thoroughly thrilled for some of them. Tight editing and believable performances in the face of an unbelievable script. And maybe I just have a soft spot for creature features.

In the Tall Grass: Not bad, but hardly memorable, Stephen King whackiness. Watchable for Vincenzo Natali’s atmospheric direction and Patrick Wilson’s pulpy performance, and no longer than it ought to be. Just don’t stare too hard or it’ll look seem like “Children of the Corn: Another One.”

Escape Room: A better than expected locked rooms thriller, very much in the “Saw” or “Cube” vein. High concept for sure, but effective psychological thriller that only falls into unnecessary conveniences in the third act.

Us: I’m probably the only reviewer who put this in the middle of the list, but I find this takes a step forward from “Get Out” and a step or two back. It’s better as a comedic horror film, since it only bothers being a serious thriller for the first act rather than most of the picture, and it seems to be more thematically impressionistic, which can be more fun to talk about. However, its narrative suffers by losing any cohesion or sense of focus. Still looks and sounds great, and sports an amazing cast. At least its more watchable than…

Midsommar: A movie of “could haves,” like: it could have been great. It could have used some editors, both to trim the film and doctor the script. It could have been less than two-and-a-half hours long. It could have avoided at least one of the every-single-cult-cliche that appears on screen. But it didn’t, so focus on the masterful sound design and intriguingly daylit atmosphere instead.

Serenity: Weird island noir that is not as bad as was reported. Well photographed, fine presentation by a good cast, although the pacing is odd and the result is never entirely engaging. Certainly thoughtful, if that makes a difference to you.

The Hole in the Ground: A fine Irish supernatural thriller about fine Irish spirits. A touch of Poe-like atmosphere and well presented, but probably nothing horror fans haven’t seen before.

Shazam: A solid superhero flick, largely because it knows when not to take itself too seriously. It’s well directed, and it’s performed with a good sense for the material. Too bad it’s too long.

Hustlers: Decent caper picture for everyone who thought that “Showgirls” needed more true crime in it. Solid photography, good soundtrack and casting. Can’t quite decide what it wants to be though. It does fine as psychological drama and surprisingly well as a black comedy, less so as social commentary. Jennifer Lopez is good and Constance Wu is great.

Pet Semetary: Perfectly presentable Stephen King movie with a decent cast and a decent take on the source material. Not as focused as “Tall Grass,” but don’t pass on it just because it’s a remake–or because it’s one of the four Stephen King movies that came out in 2019. That’s right. Let that sink in. Four of them.

Hellboy: About as good as it could be, with the best cast and director it could conceivably have at the moment, although utterly unnecessary. Nothing much to add to the Hellboy fandom, and ultimately overstuffed. At least it’s photographed with a sense of fun.

The Curse of La Llorona: Nice camera work and occasionally atmospheric, but more often jump scary. The tone is a little uneven in the third act, but the film does try to remember that la Llorona isn’t just scary–she’s sad. Does a serviceable job recreating 1970s Los Angeles, but honestly, how different is LA now than it was in the 1970s? Or the 1870s for that matter?

Godzilla King of the Monsters: I’m surprised a studio actually green lit this. It’s practically a 1930s adventure picture, with square-jawed heroes and hands-wringing mad scientists, which not a bad thing for pulp fans. A solid cast gives it their honest best and the monster fights look and feel good. Weaknesses include everything that kills the action: a clueless human drama, ending fatigue and an overall murkiness that obscures the big animals punching each other.

Alita Battle Angel: More spectacle than cinema, this one’s whacky, and while whacky is good for a while, this whacky does suffer from multiple ending syndrome. Tries to strike a balance between kool and stoopid. Whatever. For the most part, I’m happy as long as I get to see Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali do their thing.

Kill Chain: Fine Latin flavored crime thriller with an OK performance by Nicolas Cage. Starts out interestingly paced, but the narrative grows increasingly average as it goes on. Photographed like a knockoff “John Wick.”

A Nasty Piece of Work: Tight psychological thriller with an appropriately pulpy cast–I do love me some Julian Sands. Starts intriguing, but becomes increasingly rote, despite piling on the twists. Too many endings for its own good.

Secret Obsession: Perfectly accepted, if unremarkable, amnesia thriller. The plot and playing-it-safe direction feels very Lifetime original, and indeed writer-director Peter Sullivan has produced a bunch of psychological thrillers for Lifetime. Not sure why the obsession is secret though, given how the movie spoils its twist almost immediately.

Velvet Buzzsaw: Another thriller about the LA art scene, this feels like it should have been a long episode of “Twilight Zone” or “Night Gallery” rather than a feature. Fantastic cast does its best with an uncertain narrative. Watch “Bliss” instead, or the “Pickman’s Model” episode of “Night Gallery” if you’re feeling retro.

Ready Or Not: A fun murder movie that grows goofier as it goes on. It wants to be a horror-comedy, a psychological thriller and social commentary all at once. That’s a tall order, and while it definitely succeeds at the first, it just does OK at the second and sorta fizzles on the third. At least the design is good.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Oddly balanced to be an average film. The story has some interesting ideas, but it’s not atmospheric or sad enough to be truly tragic in a Gothic kinda way. The design is great, based on the great Stephen Gammell illustrations from the books, but the lighting is so bad you can’t see them half the time (love the red room though). Dark yes, and they are stories, but scary is debatable.

Hobbes and Shaw: A fun cast and excellent chemistry between the two leads makes this comic actioneer very watchable for its first 90 minutes or so, but did it have to be two-and-a-half hours long? I’ll save you the trouble. No.

Motherless Brooklyn: A not bad, but far from original, period detective drama. Great soundtrack and solid cast (like first-time director/long-time actor Edward Norton would have any trouble securing one), but it’s very long and too pedestrian in its noirish surreality. Feels like it’s overshooting for a New York City version of “Chinatown.”

Ma: A very by-the-numbers psychological thriller with a high-ish concept. Fine photography, but nothing you haven’t seen before. Mostly effective cast, with Octavia Spenser particularly excellent in the title role.

Hellgirl: Was this named to cash in on “Hellboy”? Doesn’t matter. It’s not the best script or the cleanest photography, but it is lovingly presented, more like an 80s slasher than a haunted house movie. Some interesting images. Not bad for indie pulp.

Polar: A stylish flick about Mads Mikkelsen as an eye patch wearin’ super assassin forced out of retirement? This should have been great. It wasn’t. For one, it could not decide on a tone. Is it gritty? Cartoonish? The movie doesn’t know, and I don’t either. The awesomely pulpy premise fails to gel.

The Professor and the Madman: Good cast and solid recreation of the period, but this historical drama never takes off and is ultimately kinda dull. What’s that? A movie about writing the dictionary doesn’t move very well? What a surprise.

Holiday Hell: Four directors and Jeffrey Combs playing a character called “the storekeeper”? It must be an indie horror anthology. This very budget production is solidly photographed and edited, but the plots range from cliched to very cliched, and the acting rarely rises above “stiff.” The third story fares best, actually capturing the pulpy EC comics vibe, mostly thanks to an enthusiastic performance by Joel Murray.

Poison Rose: Why did these people sign up for this? Great cast wasted in boring detective movie with unrealistic characters saying terrible dialogue. At least Brendan Fraser elevates his part from just stupid to delightfully eccentric.

The Dead Don’t Die: What is this? Is it horror? Comedy? A message picture? A meta-movie? Why not kinda all of them without any commitment and just sort of wallowing around then instead? Another great cast wasted on a pointless project. It’s as if writer-director Jim Jarmusch has never actually seen a horror film. Maybe he needs another cup of coffee.

Second Act: If this is a raunchy comedy, why are the laughs so few? If this is a serious melodrama, then why is it so contrived? No, it is neither, and the focus and pacing suffer accordingly. Jennifer Lopez does the best she can, but if you’re jonesing for J. Lo, you’d be better off with “Hustlers.”

The Parts We Lose: Truly beautiful photography and interesting lighting can’t make up for the fact that this movie is slow, boring and nothing you haven’t seen before narrative-wise. A coming of age crime thriller with no thrills. Fine performances and interesting touches, like the sound going out for the child’s POV, if you decide to stick around.

Captain Marvel: Absolutely forgettable superhero movie. Nothing is particularly original, and what does come off as novel feels forced. Go dump your money on some other overproduced action flick.

Ring Ring: A “locked basement” thriller that largely lacks thrills and grows increasingly air-headed as it goes along, which is too bad. The first act is genuinely funny, and the film maintains its sense of humor throughout. Malcolm Goodwin is effective as the lead, and Lou Ferrigno is as affable as ever.

Axiom: I never thought I’d say something was a “routine cosmic horror movie,” but this is an utterly routine cosmic horror movie. Crisply photographed and often atmospheric, but rendered tedious by uneven acting and a script that offers increasingly inexplicable characterizations.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate: I can’t guarantee this is the worst film of the year, but we started with the Manson family, so we might as well end with them. Anyway, it’s about as bad as you think. Anachronistic murder thriller that’s trying to say something about time and destiny, but ends up feeling repetitive instead. Toothless script and performances. Dull soundtrack and photography.

That is approaching 50 movies up there. I guess I can blame my lack of social life on that for a while. We were a bit more ambitious this year, which perhaps explains why there were more good and bad films on the list this time.

Of course, there’s always room for more. Other than the films in the first paragraph, our watch me list includes psychological horror “Daniel Isn’t Real,” indie horror “Hex,” Ethan Hawkish meta-Western “The Kid” and “Dumbo.” Yes “Dumbo,” but I’ll watch anything with Tim Burton’s name on it. What are we still missing? Did we hit your favorite? Screw up royally? Does anyone still care? Comment below.

“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 9: A critical analysis of “You’ll never be young twice”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging, the uncanny and other themes. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the ninth episode: “You’ll never be young twice.”

When dos childhood end? It’s not a question that can only be answered by saying one has passed 13 or 18 or any number of ages. There are also more ritualistic responses–religious ceremonies, academic graduations, first jobs or first loves–that can be offered. All of them are arguably arbitrary.

In fact, the only concrete definition of childhood’s end is that time has passed and things are different now. Perhaps it is simply your awareness of the passage of time for you that shows one has passed childhood, an idea cribbed in part from the writings of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Aging is something that happens to you and those around you, but one doesn’t see it in real time. It is effectively recognized through reflection, not experience.

The cast of “Boogiepop Phantom” is mostly high schoolers. To an adult audience observing the show, it barely looks like they’ve exited youth and childhood, if they’ve exited it at all, and are presumably still carefree. However, in adulthood we can forget how deterministic youth can feel. And certainly an existentialist like Sartre would be intrigued by this episode, with its notions of youth and apparent freedom, of adulthood and societal expectation.

The title of this episode is “You’ll never be young twice,” immediately suggesting time, regret and longing. But before we get into that, note the lack of capitalization. It’s interesting. It recalls a childish, youthful ignorance of (or disregard for) the works of spelling and grammar, like a childsh misppelling. It also neatly separates “You” from the rest of the thought. Not only will “You” never be young twice, “You” are already removed from it.

The first character we’ll observe is Saki Yoshizawa, a piano student who thinks that music is her future. Much of her story is grounded in time. “I envy her,” Saki says of another student. “She’s still in first year. She can relax.” Time here is connected with responsibility. Later, Saki and a friend encounter Mayumi Kisaragi, the woman with chronic amnesia, a reminder of the relationship between time and memory. Again, at a restaurant, they watch a man gleefully burning paper at his table. Saki suggests it is to take away bad memories by writing them down then burning the paper.

After this encounter, time is connected to regret. Saki remembers how a piano instructor–given chilling authority by low angles and an icy voice actress–told her that her musical ability would never improve, that music playing could be her hobby but should not be her profession.

At some point in her childhood, Saki’s dreams of being a professional musician and her family’s expectation that she become one became inextricably mixed, to the point where it’s hard to say whether her current motivation is personal, familial, societal or all of the above. The constant in her memories of childhood, depicted as fixed images, is that Saki is happy. In the animated present, she is not.

All this sets the stage for Saki’s encounter with Poom Poom, a familiar looking figure in a Pied Piper costume who offers to return her to the carefree state of childhood by giving her a red balloon in unfinished Paisley Park. When she accepts the balloon, Saki splits into two: a child self, who scampers into the park to play eternally, and her high school self, who reverts to a childlike state of mental simplicity. It is the latter self we follow as she shirks her duties (except her duty to bring her friends to the park to meet Poom Poom), forgets her table manners and ultimately commits suicide.

Death is never far away in “Boogiepop.” Midway through the episode, a chorus of high school girls huddle in a classroom’s dim light talking about the rumors of missing students. “But if you go [to Paisley Park], Death might come and take you,” one notes. Time is here connected to death, and one more sign that you might have left childhood is that you have been forced to confront death.

The other characters we watch interact with Poom Poom include Akane, a friend of Saki’s, who dreamed of being a writer before being told that she should go into the sciences for her education and career. Disappointed but accepting of her fate, she burns her writing, which she describes as “fairy tales,” until she hears Poom Poom is offering red balloons in the park.

Part of growing up is making a deal with your future, balancing who you want to be with who can be and are expected to be. Of course, making a deal doesn’t always happen cleanly. No less an authority than Sigmund Freud suggested that mental illnesses could occur when individual desires classes with societal expectations. You can hardly blame Akane when, despite her attempt to commit to a direction she didn’t want, she considers retreating to childhood, recalling Freud’s theory of regression.

The final student we observe is Yoshiki, who doesn’t want to play piano or write fairy tales. What he wants is to be accepted by his peers. But when he gains the ability to spontaneously read minds, a side effect from the light that burst out of the first episode, he can’t seem to use the power to improve his life. Instead, he learns that his friends keep him around to pick on him and take advantage of his bank account. Perhaps another definition of childhood’s end is when we learn that other minds–along with their agendas and motivations–are truly separate from our own.

Yoshiki is happy to take Poom Poom’s offer of red balloon, not because he fears the future but because he hates the present and wants a chance to start over. He’s happy to find himself in a state where the opinions of his peers don’t matter to him, where all he has to do is get more students into Paisley Park with red balloons in their hands.

Critically, his story is the most underbaked. He gained an intriguing power with plenty of potential for examination, but the episode gives his character no time to develop. He does, however, allow the episode to end on an optimistic note. The Boogiepop Phantom confronts Yoshiki before he can get other students to Paisley Park. “The powers that give me life are slowly fading away,” it tells him. “It looks like you’re the last one I can save.”

It’s a surprising statement because it reminds us that the Phantom is fading away, dying, or as close to dying as something like the Phantom can come. It is on the polar opposite end of psychological childhood from these other characters we’ve observed. It’s also surprising because it indicates that nostalgia is something one can be rescued from.

Nostalgia, the nostalgia that Poom Poom offers, is like a parasite or infection that spreads from student to student before killing the host. We’ve seen this before in this series. Dwelling in the past without acknowledging the future is dangerous in the world of “Boogiepop Phantom.” Although nostalgia seems like a simple escape, it’s not. Like other escapes–ignorance or forgetting–it is yet another trap.

Pleading the fifth: News March 2020

Greetings tonstant weader. It is here, the time of year few are waiting for and fewer know exist. It’s the “Idols And Realities 2019 in review” month.

In the past, this blog has posted a round up of movies from the previous year in March, but this time around, we’re going to add a post with video games and a post with books. Of course, we haven’t finished actually looking at everything we want to review–if nothing else, this blog delivers procrastination like nobody’s business.

Which reminds me. We’re still Boogiepopping along, but we’ll be doing some double posts in the weeks to come. Nothing too unexpected about that.

The movie list is mostly set. As for books and games, we have a kind of reverse “order of ease” strategy in place. The harder something is to finish, the more likely it’ll be put up, since that’ll free up time to focus on the simpler things.

So what should you expect to see first? Here’s a clue. At the moment, I’m staring down Stephen King’s “The Institute” and a giant monkey in “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.” Anyone who’s played “Sekiro” and read Stephen King will know which one goes faster.

One side effect of this mad rush in March is that it forces this blog to live in the past for a while. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be watching (or reading or playing) right now in 2020. Instead of waiting for next March to decide, why don’t you give me some feedback, tonstant weader. Any thoughts on something new I should review next? Comment below, if you’re so in the mood.