Thursday, September 1, 2011

Imperial Bedrooms

Bret Easton Ellis is an acquired taste. He's a unique author with a unique perspective and manages to be one of those particularly unique people who has greatly influenced popular culture in without being a household name. Amongst my generation, his books are something of a novelty; an artifact from a decade or era that we either weren't quite old enough to fully "get," or weren't born into in the first place. It all started, of course, with his breakout novel Less Than Zero. More than two decades - and several books - later, Ellis released Imperial Bedrooms, the sequel to that wildly popular debut.

Imperial Bedrooms follows Clay from Less Than Zero; now in his mid-forties and returning to Hollywood to continue a career as a screenwriter. The book opens with a brief mention of the Less Than Zero movie, setting Imperial Bedrooms in the "real world," albeit a very meta-real world. The novel continues Bret's tradition of narrating in the first person; that minimalist, detached voice he's so famous for. Unlike Less Than Zero, Imperial is not simply an observation on the vapid lives of rich people in California - though it is that, as well. Imperial is most decidedly a mystery-thriller - with the Bret Easton Ellis brand of delivery - and as such plays out like a neo-noir of sorts. Without spoiling any details, I'll just say that the cover to this book very accurately summarizes what the book is about: the story of how the man unleashed the inner monster.


If you're already a fan of Bret's material, then you'll definitely "get" Imperial Bedrooms. Bret proved long ago that even when confined to limited vocabulary and simple diction, he can effectively paint vivid word-pictures and Imperial is no exception. Also in keeping with Bret's commitment to coherence, familiar motifs and devices - like a certain measure of surrealism and ambiguity - color this book with masterful craftsmanship. Dreams, deception, and drugs lay the foundation for what turns out to be something of a cat-and-mouse story. Bret does a fantastic job of sustaining an atmosphere of growing paranoia and unease as the book slowly follows its protagonist down yet another dark path of self-destruction. It's hard to go into more detail about the pros on Imperial, because one of its greatest strengths is how "Bret Easton Ellis" it is. So if you're a fan of Bret's books, this one will likely satisfy your need for another fix - like it did for me. As it's the latest book he's released so far, it also currently acts as a bookend to his entire bibliography. I'm certainly not saying that I hope he stops writing novels. But there is a certain symmetry to the way in which Less Than Zero and its sequel Imperial Bedrooms are his first and last books, respectively.


Being a huge Bret fan, I had to admit I was a little disappointed in the potential this book failed to live up to. By that, I mean that Bret's work is testament to how well he can see through the surface of popular culture to what lies beneath; be it benevolent or malevolent. His early books can generally be described as reshaping the appearance of modern life to reveal how vapid and empty it is underneath. Having made a tradition of "calling out" the 80s and 90s, I expected to see him really tear into social networking websites and the whole framework of trolling and narcissism in our post-Y2K world. Imperial definitely makes use of modern-day technology to accurately place it in time - and Bret does a great job of exposing the extent to which cell phones have reformed our lives. But only a handful of times is the internet mentioned, and the only social networking stabs occur in a single reference to MySpace. Now, being in his mid-forties and not "in the trenches" when it comes to Facebook and Twitter and all that, it's understandable that it didn't really occur to him to put that in his book because that's not really where he is personally. So, had Imperial come out maybe 8-10 years ago, it would have been a much more quickening social commentary. But Bret missed the boat by just enough to take a good deal of the sting out of his message.

Imperial is also a look at the "dark side" of Hollywood, and for all its honesty - it also comes a bit too late. Shows like the E! True Hollywood Story and a slew of entertainment news outlets have largely desensitized America to the depravity at the heart of Hollywood and the film industry at large. So to read about characters caught up in the "seedy underbelly" of the area wasn't nearly as shocking as Bret probably intended it to be. Again, had this book come out a few years earlier, it likely wouldn't have made so small a splash in terms of shock value.


Imperial Bedrooms is classic Bret Easton Ellis. But classic Bret already made his mark on previous decades and here, he feels a bit rehashed. The mechanics of the book work to perfection. Bret is an expert at fine tuning the gradual rise in panic that characterizes much of the narration. And he's still masterfully skilled at giving his characters unique voices. But without really "updating" his arsenal, he loses a good deal of his relevance.

It's hard for me to admit this, being as big a fan of Bret and his works as I am. But if Imperial Bedrooms is an indication of what's to come - it may be that Bret is largely passed his prime. I sincerely hope I'm wrong, and this certainly doesn't mean I won't buy his next book the day it comes out - whenever that may eventually be. But if Bret doesn't dig deep into the muck of popular culture and find something new in himself and/or the world around him, it looks like we've seen the best Bret has left to offer.

That may sound harsh. But given the breadth and depth of Bret's career over the past two decades, that's still allowing for the fact that his books are - and will likely remain - in a league entirely of their own.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fright Night

I promise this review will contain no ranting about the Twilight movies. In fact, from this point forward, Twilight will only be mentioned a total of three (3) times - including that previous one. Ok, glad that's out of the way.

The original Fright Night came out in 1985 and was a surprise box office hit - given horror movies don't frequently have a reputation as blockbusters. While its sequel, Fright Night 2, was far less well-received (its subsequent achievement of cult-film status notwithstanding) the real gem of the Fright Night movies turns out - oddly enough - to be this summer's remake.

The plot is pretty simple, and even borders on derivative. If you've seen the trailers it's no spoiler to say that the story revolves around a high-school teen (played surprisingly well by Anton Yelchin) who lives in a remote suburb near Las Vegas. His new neighbor Jerry (Hollywood bad boy Colin Farrell) seems a little strange. And as with all cases of strange neighbors, he turns out to be a vampire; don'tcha just hate it when that happens? From there, the movie gleefully - if somewhat predictably - makes its way through a veritable treasure trove of laughs and scares to a satisfying conclusion.


Again, it's a pretty basic premise - even if the movie hadn't been a remake. And with the resurgence of vampires in popular culture via True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Twilight (reference #2), Fright Night stood an awfully good chance of getting lost in the white noise of pop culture.

What facilitated the exact opposite is definitely rooted in the film's performances. Yelchin is a bit of a step away from the traditional "jock" type leads that often populate movies of this breed. He's also not fully on track with the emergence of the more nerdy, awkward characters that have become a staple of the last 5 years or so - lookin' at you two, Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg! Yelchin falls somewhere in the middle, and consequently portrays a character who has an awkward streak but is confident enough to carry the film forward with a straight face. And while realism isn't the name of the game in a movie like this, Yelchin's portrayal is a more accurate representation of the high school every-guy and I think this leads to him being both more likeable and more relate-able.

Playing the menacing vampire neighbor to perfection, Colin Farrell is both sufficiently intimidating and seductive. It's really hard not to like him, even as he's gruesomely picking off characters left and right. Along with Yelchin and generally the rest of the cast, Farrell also brilliantly manages to play his character with just enough camp to make the movie as much fun as it is frightening.

David Tennant, who plays the "vampire" "slayer" (break in quotations intentional) Peter Vincent, provides the majority of the comic relief in the movie and is yet another solid score for the casting director. Tennant's presence and comedic abilities could have very easily derailed the movie and turned it into a wacky, one-liner exercise in silliness. But his performance adds just enough humor to give Fright Night a very well-rounded feel.

As evidenced through the casting and direction, Fright Night is a movie that walks a thin line between excess goofiness and excess gore. Several opportunities arose during the course of the film where you could almost feel the movie just about to lose its balance between the two. But it never does, and the result is a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, while taking itself just seriously enough.

Ramin Djawadi's score is pitch perfect, utilizing the back-and-forth string motifs that characterize most horror films and evoke classics like Jaws. The occasional presence of an organ also harkens back to earlier horror film scores while blending with elements of more modern orchestral arrangement. Like the film itself, the score confidently samples elements of different periods and genres and the resulting music is as finely tuned and balanced as the movie.


I saw the film in 2D, and I'll confess that had I known what I was going in for I would have paid the extra for the 3D. A handful of gags and moments bend the fourth wall (without completely breaking it) in favor of exploiting the 3D technology and without the 3D experience they feel just a bit out of place. The least subtle of these examples occurs during a chase scene in which the camera remains in a car with the movie's protagonists as Jerry attempts to run them off the road in his truck. As the camera pans around and the collision of vehicles sprays glass at the screen, I felt for a brief moment as if I were on a 3D ride at Disney World or Universal Studios. In 3D, the experience might have been a bit more thrilling and a bit less distracting - but such as it was the scene still didn't fully halt the film's momentum.

Toni Collette's performance as Yelchin's Mom just barely misses the mark, and in just a handful of scenes it almost feels like she's flirting with him. It's not distracting enough to ruin the movie at all, but whenever she's not screaming and fleeing in terror she has a strange grin on her face that just won't...can't...won't go away.


Fright Night plays out like a walk across a very high tight rope. And when the movie finally makes it to the other side without any slips or falls, the result is a very satisfying movie-going experience. I've never had so much plain ol' fun in a horror movie, as usually I enjoy horror movies purely as visceral thrills. Fright Night will probably draw its fair share of comparisons to Zombieland, insomuch that both films blended horror and comedy elements for a memorable movie-going experience. Fright Night resides a bit more on the horror end of the spectrum than Z-Land but for the effects it was trying to achieve that works to its advantage.

My personal feelings towards the recent vampire trends aside, Fright Night does a good deal to bring vampire movies "back." As Christopher Mintz-Plasse (who plays Yelchin's former best friend Eddie) states early in the film "He's a real monster and he's not brooding or lovesick or noble. He's the f***ing shark from Jaws!" As such, he obviously doesn't sparkle (we'll call that reference #3, shall we?), and not that I expected him to - but it was definitely fun to see a vampire that didn't show up in mirrors or on video cameras and couldn't come inside unless he was invited.

The movie also scores MAJOR points as a horror movie on account of the fact that the main characters don't end up doing the stupid things that lead to most horror movie deaths. I hesitate to use the word "realistic" but it's very refreshing to watch a set of characters NOT forget to pick up those weapons and NOT always "go investigate" every suspicious noise. (Even whey they do, they're relatively smart about the way they go about that, as well!)

Fright Night is everything a solid remake should be, referencing just enough of the original (Chris Sarandon, who played the villain in the original, makes a brief appearance) while exploring new territory of its own as well. Moreover it's a solid horror movie and a solid comedy, in its own way. I'll definitely be getting this when it comes out on DVD. Scratch that, BluRay. And I'll probably go see it again in 3D, because I don't remember having that much fun sitting by myself in a movie theater in a long time.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Born of Osiris - "The Discovery"

Born of Osiris is a band that has wholly accomplished one of the greatest challenges in the market today: individuality. To be sure, their brand of progressive deathcore isn't without its fair share of "comparables" - but Born of Osiris as a band has managed to hollow out a distinct territory for themselves and create a sound that is uniquely theirs. It's difficult to mistake a Born of Osiris album or song for something from, say, label-mates Veil of Maya or After the Burial. The journey to that achievement spanned 2 albums and their first EP released in 2007 under the name Born of Osiris (previously known by the moniker Rosecrance). But their latest release, The Discovery, is the piece that solidifies their accomplishment.


Just about everything. Yeah, it sounds like a cop out but from the moment lead vocalist Ronnie Canizaro growls "Follow the signs!" and the band comes in full on the opening track called, well, "Follow The Signs" - it's clear this album is going to (for lack of a less cliched phrase) BRING IT.

The increasingly intricate and flawless musicianship from previous releases is back with a vengeance. Albums like this are the ones you can push in the face of people who don't believe metal is actual music because it's impossible to deny, whether you like the music or not, that this album is filled to the brim with near-virtuoso levels of musical mastery. Born of Osiris makes extensive use of their keyboardist, Joe Buras; a decision that only adds to the greatness of their music and to this album specifically. Whole instrumental tracks/interludes are dedicated to a keys-only approach. This is in keeping with subtle musical "hints" on previous albums The New Reign and A Higher Place, with each giving more room, respectively, to the dominance of the keyboard. On A Higher Place, this was best showcased during the outro to the fourth track "Now Arise" in which an almost hip-hop beat was overlaid with eerie and ethereal choir and bell effects while Canizaro screamed the song to conclusion. Another similar moment (incidentally also on the fourth track) appears on The Discovery; "Devastate" concludes with a bassline and drum loop that sounds like something off of some gangster rap album. But the accompanying keyboard effects and musicality evoke something more akin to the soundtrack for a Tim Burton film. It's one of the most fun moments on the album.

The other great strength of the album is how it was mixed and mastered. Where The New Reign used a kind of raw approach to mixing for effect and A Higher Place favored less bass-oriented mixing for a leaner sound - The Discovery finds a perfect harmony between the two. Combining a slick and professional mixing job with the thunderous force of (what must be) every instrument turned up to 11, The Discovery feels like Born of Osiris has arrived at a complete and confident balance.

A few tracks of note are the previously mentioned opener, "Follow The Signs." Amidst the crashing of cymbals and the collision of double-bass and palm-muted guitars, the melody is still clear and discernible. "Devastate" is my personal favorite from the album, as it showcases all the best bits of Born of Osiris in a single track. I live for musical moments like those in the midst of "Devastate," where a doom-like melody and choral effect backs up the phrase "System Failure" screeched at the top of both Canizaro and Buras' lungs while the accompanying breakdown literally sounds like the walls of a skyscraper collapsing down upon the listener's ears. In keeping with Born of Osiris' experimental spirit, one of the instrumental interludes ("The Omniscient") sounds like something from an Enigma album...or ambient spa music...or a porno from the 90s. Either way, it's something markedly different for the band overall; but coupled with the band's musical confidence and presence, the track still doesn't feel out of place and only contributes to the achievement of the album as a whole.


There really aren't any, and I'm not being hyperbolic. The Discovery has a run-time that's just a couple of minutes shy of being as long as their previous two releases combined; but when the music is this satisfying, that's a very good thing. There are a handful of spots that bring the word "repetitive" to mind, but they're few and far between enough to be easily ignored. Apart from that, there's precious little I can think of on the negative side - and I've listened through the entire album several times. The flip-side of such an accomplishment, though, is that the next release has that much more of a hurdle to overcome.


The Discovery is the best Born of Osiris release to date. The album very much feels like a culmination of efforts for the band. As such, it may be difficult for the band to top this release without straying too far from their sound. But even if this is as good an album as Born of Osiris ever releases, it will still remain to prove that Born of Osiris is one of the greatest bands on the scene today. And in a scene that's inexplicably sprinting towards higher levels of mediocrity and bafoonery - that's not only an accomplishment, it's a borderline miracle.