Kanopy Review: Robert Pattinson Double Feature!

Many of us currently find ourselves in our homes most of the day, if not all of it, working and attending class from home in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. It can be difficult to find things to do for entertainment without spending money on rental or subscription fees. However, if you are currently a student, staff, or faculty member at the University of Memphis, the streaming service Kanopy is offered without charge through our library’s databases. And it has some truly excellent choices on tap. So, if you are in need of a movie night, I aim to post several movie recommendations in the coming days that I hope you enjoy. (Also, if you are new to the blog, scroll back through some of my earlier Kanopy suggestions; I particularly enjoyed writing the Halloween Spooky Scary post!)

First up in this series is a Robert Pattinson double feature. Yes, the same Robert Pattinson that became famous because of that one Harry Potter movie and, more notably, the Twilight saga. If you haven’t watched a film starring him in a while, you are likely in for a surprise. He has developed from a teenage heart throb into one of the most interesting young actors working today. Pattinson has specialized in making under the radar independent films in recent years. Both of these features are on offer from the outstanding A24 movie studio, which specializes in making daring films outside of your typical blockbuster fare.

High Life

What could possibly go wrong with launching a group of death row inmates into deep space on a mysterious mission to find alternative energy sources by exploring a distant black hole? Answer: Everything. The film starts with Pattinson’s character taking care of a toddler on his own while struggling to keep a destitute spacecraft from falling apart. Things only get more bizarre from here, as the plot jumps around in time, a theme of the movie. One of the ‘crew’ holds strange fertility experiments with both the male and female prisoners on board. As the group hurtles further and further from Earth, it becomes an impossible struggle to maintain purpose and sanity. This film tackles a lot of deep philosophical issues, such as the value of life, what it means to be human in the worst of circumstances, and the morality of doing questionable things to further advance society. Not everything works here: some of my favorite scenes involve a central garden in the spacecraft that the crew tends to, but it is unclear if there is an environmental message that perhaps fell by the wayside. Either way, there are some beautiful visuals in this film, and the performances from Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and Andre Benjamin (notable for being half of the music group Outkast) make this a thought-provoking watch.

Who will like this one: Fans of weird sci-fi in the vein of Annihilation that feature slow burn character studies and nonlinear timelines.

Good Time

Second up in the Robert Pattinson double feature is this high-octane New York City crime thriller, a film that is essentially nonstop chaos. Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, a narcissistic petty criminal that convinces his brother Nick, who is developmentally disabled, to help him rob a bank. The caper, predictably, goes horribly wrong, with Nick being arrested, badly beaten in jail, and sent to a hospital under police guard. Connie spends the night that most of the plot covers desperately trying to scrounge up enough money to bail his brother out of jail, an attempt which morphs into trying fruitlessly to break him out of custody. It is easy to guess from the synopsis that this is a wild ride from start to finish. It seems intentionally left unclear what Connie’s motivations are throughout besides vague mentions of family strife involving the two brothers’ grandmother. However, the movie felt extremely real, with a constantly building tension as one thing after another descends into pandemonium. Late in the movie, Connie describes another character as being a drain on society, a burden to others; however, it is either the least or most self-aware moment his character displays, as he was essentially describing himself perfectly. His list of dirty deeds in the movie include: trying to manipulate his girlfriend into paying his brother’s bail; getting a teenager arrested who he had earlier tried to seduce; and sending a security guard at an amusement park to the hospital while trying to find a hidden stash of drug money. At one point, I thought, ‘At least he hasn’t gotten anyone killed yet.’ But, there was twenty minutes left in the movie, and I will just leave it at that.

Who will like this one: Fans of nonstop action and of gritty films that focus on realistic characters instead of caricatures of the classic movie criminal.

Viewer warning: Both of these movies are rated ‘R’ and contain adult themes that may be offensive to some, including violence and sexual content.

Book Review: There There by Tommy Orange

Tommy Orange

Though a work of fiction, Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is steeped in history. And not just one kind. Entire chapters deal directly with the history of Native peoples in the Americas and their largely tragic encounters with European colonizers. It can be argued that the entire book, set in modern day, permeates with the centuries old theme of searching for identity in the face of cultural destruction. On a different level, it also explores the private histories that shape the everyday actions of all people. Orange expertly weaves together numerous personal stories into one greater tale, one where the individuals he follows, all with at least some Native lineage, make their way towards a sprawling powwow event in Oakland, California. And like much of the history that Orange touches upon throughout the novel, this book turns into a tragedy by the final pages. However, like in all tales, there are moments of beauty and sadness and humor that give the novel its soul. Individuals are the driving force of being human, and that is no different here. Eventually, these vignettes all come crashing together to create a complex story where multiple strands eventually connect into a heartbreaking tapestry.

Orange’s technique of highlighting a wide variety of characters proves to be both the strength and weakness of There There. The ones that hit truly hit. They make you feel both the huge theme of the Native American experience in the United States, particularly the one born in urban areas, while also exploring the pain that is both common and unique to all of us.  A young man named Edwin Black was one of my favorites. In his first featured vignette, he is awkward, overweight, and self-isolated, totally unsure of where he fits in the world. Which brings up a question: what is it like to feel ostracized within a larger group that is already largely excluded from the society it exists in? Eventually, though, his arc transforms into one of cautious hopefulness. He becomes deeply involved in the planning of the powwow and contacts the man he believes to be his father through his mom’s Facebook account. Another character that helps bring true emotional depth to the book is that of a woman named Jacquie Red Feather. Her devastating story of family strife, abandonment, and alcoholism is perhaps the most powerful among several worthy contenders. A speech she gives at an AA meeting led by the long-disappeared father of her first child perfectly encapsulates the struggles felt throughout the novel, those of regret and tenuous optimism for the future. Continue reading

Halloween Book Review: From Hell by Alan Moore

The “Jack the Ripper” murders of the 1880s in London have long held the imagination of popular culture in both England, where they occurred, and the United States, where a fair number of people hold a fascination with famous serial killers. The graphic novel From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, proved to be an interesting read this Halloween season for these very reasons. It would probably be a stretch to define it as work of horror, but there are certain elements present that make it a prime example of unsettling and weird fiction.

Moore uses his fictionalized telling of the murders of several prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London to posit a theory about who Jack the Ripper may have been. It would be impossible to talk about all of the truly massive cast of characters in this graphic novel, but two certainly stand out: Sir William Gull and Fred Abberline (Spoilers ahead). Gull is the royal physician to Queen Victoria and a high-ranking member of the Freemasons in London. After her grandson has an illegitimate child, Victoria tasks Gull with essentially making the problem go away. Thus begins the action of the story, as Gull sets out to kill the women who know about the scandal in order to protect the royal family. However, he also begins to see the murders as a spiritual experience, having visions of the future during which we as modern readers know to be actual truth. Continue reading

Spooky Scary! Spend Halloween with the Films of Kanopy

Have you been looking for a few films to give you chills during this year’s spooky season? Are you wanting to put together a movie marathon in a pinch for your Halloween night celebration? Luckily, there is a wide variety of horror selections offered on Kanopy, currently available through the University of Memphis Libraries. Here are a few that I recently viewed that may be good additions to your fright night watch list. Everyone have a safe and spooky Halloween!

The Witch

The first movie on the list will satisfy any potential cravings you may have for historical scares. It follows the sufferings of an English family banished from the Puritan Plymouth Colony in New England as it struggles to survive in an unforgiving wilderness. This atmospheric gem from A24 (which has produced some excellent horror movies, several available on Kanopy right now!) is a slow burn of existential fear, but the final fast-paced act makes the payoff that much better. As the family deteriorates both mentally and physically, they must determine if there really is a witch in those dark and unforgiving woods. And, if so, who is it? And does that wicked goat Black Phillip have anything to do with the family’s impending doom? It is worth a watch to find out their fate. Continue reading

Book Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

cover of the book Milkman

Anna Burns’s 2018 Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman is a unique account of one girl’s experience with sexual menace in a hyper specific time and location. The narrator is a teenage girl in 1970’s Northern Ireland, when the country was torn by the Troubles, a nationalist conflict that brought division and violence to the region for decades. The unnamed Irish city (possibly Belfast) and its community is revealed through her. The city is divided into sides, with paramilitaries controlling and threatening both sides based on “the right religion” or “the wrong religion,” but the issues of the conflict itself are alluded to rather than explained (check out our reference sources for that!). Community members are divided and categorized based on their rightness or wrongness related to religion, and further categorized based on their ability to (or lack thereof) to amalgamate, to weave themselves without notice into the fabric of daily town life, or be deemed “beyond-the-pales” and socially isolated. 

Our narrator, unnamed, is a daughter and sister, a maybe-girlfriend to a young mechanic, a runner, and a reader of pre-20th century literature. She is known for long-distance solo runs and for reading while walking. Her reading while walking is an issue for the community, because it isn’t possible to melt seamlessly into the fabric of the community while reading rather than, say, looking at your surroundings. She is desired by, and targeted by, a local paramilitary bruiser known as the Milkman, who finds ways to isolate her and threaten her well-being, leading her to be increasingly paranoid and anxious. This story, as relevant today in our contemporary #metoo moment, was explored with a depth not often seen in literature describing sexual assault and menace. I was most compelled at the infrequent but utterly fraught encounters between our narrator and the Milkman. 

I know next to nothing about this particular conflict and found the world-building to be fascinating, and the narrator’s voice completely unique. The issue I had with this novel was the dizzying prose that Burns builds into towering paragraphs that go for pages. Any facet of the community could be a topic for lengthy diversions from the main thread. For example, passages detailing the creation and history of a small outsider sect of feminists, the unusual media literacy of the narrator’s many sisters, and the sublime realization that sunsets contain many colors, typically invisible to the community’s myopic eye. Burns loves constructions of threes, much like the previous sentence of this review, a tactic that feels fresh at first, then increasingly meandering and stale. 

The community itself is examined for its levels of outsiderness, each member having no real name (naming conventions are also thoroughly critiqued) but for having an illness, a death, an occupation, something to separate them and name them. Some of the nicknames: maybe-boyfriend, tablets girl, Somebody McSomebody, real milkman. (For more about the naming and the not-naming, see this review at NPR.) The divergence from the central thread of the story to include many overlapping and interwoven stories felt burdensome at times. However, it was a richly-realized portrayal of the communal anxiety of life during wartime, where boundaries and hierarchies are created among people to make the inflicted boundaries of “peace-walls” more bearable. 

The voice of the narrator is specific, rich, unique to her sense of self and her community. But it also, often, felt like a vehicle for oblique references I didn’t understand. At times, I wondered if the narrator was really the voice I was reading, or if it had somehow merged, chorus-like, with the community’s. The stream of consciousness was self-conscious, and didn’t always feel like a teenage girl, even one who read 19th century novels. I can’t help but draw similarities to the stream-of-consciousness of a Virginia Woolf character, which so often switches and subsumes another voice, or group of voices. I felt very aware of the writing, and the machinations of the author (the names, the digressions, the things said in threes), and never once sank into the narrative voice of the girl. That said, the book is intellectually challenging and colorful. I do recommend it, especially if you have an interest in Ireland, the Northern Irish conflict, the life experience of teenage girls during wartime, or sunsets.

 

Book Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications:

Esi Edugyan, with the highly acclaimed novel Washington Black (one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2018!), has written a harsh but touching story of a runaway slave and his journey to find identity and his place in the world. The title character, Washington Black, or Wash as he comes to be known, is a field slave early in life on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Watched over by a female slave named Big Kit, his world is one of unceasing labor and vicious treatment at the hands of the plantation owner and overseers. Erasmus Wilde, whose family owns Faith Plantation, rules over it with brutality, displayed in his almost casual violence towards the slaves, viewing them truly as mere property. Sugar plantations were historically notorious in the Caribbean for their awful and inhumane working conditions. Therefore, it is not unrealistic that Erasmus treats his slaves in such a manner, something he explains to his brother Christopher: ‘My language cannot offend her. She has no sensibilities to offend . . . They are not the help, Titch. They are the furniture.’ Continue reading

Kanopy Movie Review: Throne of Blood

Throne of Blood logoFog rolls across a desolate landscape. A chanting song gives an ominous command to the viewer: “Look upon the ruins / Of the castle of delusion.” Thus begins Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film ‘Throne of Blood,’ a retelling of William Shakespeare’s infamous play ‘Macbeth’ set in feudal Japan. Kurosawa, considered a master of Japanese cinema and samurai films, provides a haunting portrait of ambition and the corruption of power. So, if you like murder and betrayal, prophecy and the descent into madness, this is one you should check out. Continue reading