Movies: A Cure for Wellness

There's a genre of movie—I suppose it's a subgenre, really, of horror or thrillers or something—that I call "Hotel California" movies. These are movies in which a central character goes to a place, and spends the rest of the movie trying to get out of that place, but instead gets sucked further into whatever mystery is involved in said place. There are always a number of strange characters involved, and usually one really bad person (who might have a henchman or two). Almost always the main character's sanity comes into question, and there can be an ambiguous ending that leaves the audience wondering.

Done well, you get great movies like The Haunting (1963), though maybe we can thank Shirley Jackson's fabulous novella for that. But most movies in this genre are middling at best, laughable and predictable at worst.

Shutter Island is a Hotel California movie. Crimson Peak kind of is, too. And A Cure for Wellness fits this genre as well.

In this movie, Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, an ambitious New Yorker sent by his (financial? hardly matters) firm to Germany to fetch back one of the CEOs from some weird health spa he's practically moved into. The spa is situated in the rebuilt remains of an old castle, so of course there is some crazy story to go with it. Two hundred years before, a baron married his sister because she was the only one "pure" enough for him to breed with. The sister got pregnant and the peasants hauled her out of the castle, cut the baby out of her, and tossed it in the river. They burned the sister alive and set fire to the castle. Cuz what else did they have to do back in those days? (Actually, the peasants were just angry because the baron was doing experiments on them and killing them all off.)

From there, the movie takes a predictable course. There is a strange young "patient" named Hannah who likes Lockhart because he's younger than all the usual old people who come to the wellness center. Lockhart, meanwhile, spirals into madness as he tries to (a) find the CEO and convince him to come back to New York, and (b) deal with snakes or eels or whatever is in the water.

Seriously, though, the movie could have been called Something in the Water. Cuz that sums it up pretty well.

A Cure for Wellness is pretty much exactly what I expected. You wouldn't have to know Gore Verbinski directed it to guess it was his work; it's just very Verbinski. Trigger warning, though, for people who might have trouble with rape scenes. And also: that's not how menstruation works. I mean, really, the water doesn't turn into the Red Sea when we get in the bathtub or shower, dude.

I'll admit a liking for these kinds of movies. If you like them, too, you'll probably find this one moderately diverting.


Books: Help Me Name A Character!

cross-posted from PepperWords

All right. I recently ran a poll on my Facebook page, but for those who didn't see it, here is the summary. I'm trying to decide on the name of the Felidae Clan leader in Changers 2. This character is gender fluid, and I picture xem as Black + Asian. Not that culture really makes a difference in this world, but that's just my mental image of what the character looks like.

In any case, the name needs to be unisex/gender neutral as well.

After the first round of voting, here are the current standings (in order of votes):
  1. Narcisse
  2. Kit
  3. Duri
  4. Fen
  5. Kevyn
The names possibly lean masculine because I think this character is biologically masculine, or was at least born a biological male. But Narcisse in French is used for both girls and boys.

One person commented (okay, the person was my mother, but still) that "Kit" is maybe too obvious/on the nose. But it did receive many votes, so I think it must be popular.

So here's your chance to give me some input! Which of these names do you like most? Or if you have other suggestions, I'm open to hearing them. Let me know in the comments!


Movies: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna
Directed By: Luc Besson
Written By: Luc Besson (screenplay); Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (comic books)
Europa, 2017
PG-13; 137 minutes
2.5 stars (out of 5)


Look, it's not . . . terrible. It's just not amazing, either, and movies like this need to be amazing.

I haven't read the comic books, so I can't speak to whether this film does them justice. I can only comment on how this movie does on its own. And that is: okay.

First, the story: 30 years after the destruction of the planet Mül, Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline are given a mission to confiscate a Mül "converter" which is really a cute little creature that, if you feed it things, it poops out lots more of whatever you just fed it. So people are mostly interested in feeding it things like money and jewels. And with the Human economy in the toilet, the government could really use something like that. Cuz I guess just printing more money or something isn't an option.

Converter acquired (after a certain amount of fuss, of course), Valerian and Laureline take it to Alpha, the titular City of a Thousand Planets. Strange things are afoot there as Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) tries to suss out why a radioactive area has suddenly appeared in the center of this station.

Nothing in this movie comes as a surprise; it's fairly rote, a kiddie roller coaster that stays on its tracks and doesn't even go very fast. My eight-year-old loved it. The remainder of my family walked out shrugging. Meh.

Problem areas include:

  • Zero chemistry between the two leads.
  • Clunky, poorly written banter between the two leads.
  • Lack of tension in any scene—action or otherwise.
  • Valerian's "arc" feels fake; we're supposed to believe he's a changed man by the end of the movie, but he doesn't seem any different from when we first meet him.
  • Aforementioned predictability.
  • Lost opportunities that I will discuss under the spoilers heading below.

I didn't really have any expectations going in, so I can't say I was disappointed. I just failed to be wowed.


We spend some time on Mül before it is destroyed, and Valerian is then imbued with the soul of the dead princess Lïhio, something that is hardly utilized during the rest of the movie. At the very least, have Laureline call him "Your Highness" or something. Geez.

And after all the talk of the beach, the movie ends with them in some space capsule?

The best parts of the movie are the ones without Valerian, or at the very least the ones in which Valerian and Laureline are apart. What does that tell you? DeHaan seemed to be trying for "Discount Leonardo DiCaprio"? For all I know, he's a fabulous actor, but Valerian is not a particularly likable character (and maybe he's not meant to be, maybe the comic character is just as bad), and since, as I mentioned, Valerian's "growth" as a character feels nil in this film, I'm not sure how I'm supposed to feel about him or DeHaan.

In all, Valerian has very little energy behind it. It moves quickly enough from plot point to plot point, but there's no tension. I can't tell if it's the lack of chemistry between the actors, or the weak dialogue, or some combination thereof, but this movie needs a shot in the arm that never comes. Instead it just bobs along . . . Again, it's not the worst thing ever. It's just not all that exciting either.


Television: The 13th Doctor

I've pretty much actively avoided reading any comments or ongoing debate about the reveal of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor in the Doctor Who universe. I don't really care what most people think, I guess, and I don't particularly need the input to figure out my own thoughts and feelings about it. Which are:

  1. Yay! Not because it's a woman, specifically, but because at least it's not another white man.
  2. If people can change gender, why not the Doctor?
  3. I don't give a flying fig about "retconning" or whatever is being claimed. (Okay, yes, I saw at least that much fuss thanks to a friend's Facebook comment.) Moffat mucked up plenty, so it's all fair game now.
  4. I liked Whittaker on Broadchurch, but that was a very serious and dramatic role. Will this new Doctor be that serious? Or will I simply see Whittaker in a new light? Curious to find out.
  5. I'm confident in Chibnall's abilities, too, as showrunner. And I know he's worked well with Whittaker in the past, which is a good start.

So, yeah, I think this will be interesting.


Books: The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

I'm not sure how much of my enjoyment of this novel was heightened by my personal knowledge and experience of Salem, Massachusetts and its surroundings. I lived in Massachusetts for twelve years, half of those in Boston and the other half north of there, and so all the details of highways and such featured in The Fifth Petal make sense to me and add a level of veracity. However, if I were unfamiliar with Salem and/or Massachusetts, I do wonder whether those same details would simply be annoying and unnecessary.

The story itself is a good one, for those who like its ilk: at age five, Callie Cahill was found not far from the spot her mother and two of her mother's friends were brutally murdered. Twenty-five years later, those murders get dredged up yet again and force Callie to think about things she's avoided.

Besides Callie, The Fifth Petal offers an interesting cast of characters: a local witch, the chief of police, and a number of blue bloods whose pride in their deep roots gets outlandish at times. And though I saw the "twist" coming from early on, I still found the book mostly very compelling.

[spoiler below; skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know something specific about the book]

I only wish we'd been allowed to see a redeemed Paul since our final interactions with him as a character are of him being a drunken jerk.

[end spoiler]

This is a book about things hidden and buried. It's a book about the way we put a veneer on things to make them prettier than they really are. It's a book about root rot.

In short, it's a good summer-into-fall read, particularly ripe for the Hallowe'en season.

Television: Doctor Who, "Smile"

I've got all these DW episodes on my DVR. Class, too. Don't know when or if I'll ever get around to watching it all.

I mentioned liking Bill when she was introduced in "The Pilot." And I do still like her; I think she's a nice contrast to Capaldi's grumpy old man schtick. But I do also feel like Bill is something of a device. It's like the writers decided she would ask all the questions posed on the Internet about the Doctor/Doctor Who so that the show could pithily answer them. "Why is the TARDIS shaped like a police box?" "Why are you Scottish?" etc.

And this episode about killer emojis . . . more or less, anyway . . . Eh.

I suppose I should keep in mind that Doctor Who really is middle-grade television. It's meant at heart for pre-teens, I think, regardless of the adult following. When I remind myself that it's really more on par with something like The Librarians, it's easier to forgive a lot of the dumb. (Nothing against The Librarians, either, which is a lot of fun. The correlation just gives me more perspective.)

Still. The Doctor couldn't have "rebooted" the robots with his sonic screwdriver, like, first thing? Would have saved everyone some serious trouble.


Movies: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau
Directed By: Jon Watts
Written By: so many people you don't even want to know
Marvel, 2017
PG-13; 133 minutes
5 stars (out of 5)


First, some context. (Stop groaning.) I saw the three Tobey Maguire movies, never saw the Andrew Garfield ones. Didn't love Tom Holland's turn at Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War and so wasn't even sure I wanted to see this movie. But I'm glad I did.

On the plus side, we skip the origin story this time. Since Spidey has already been introduced via the last Captain America movie, we're able to go to the head of the line here and assume Peter Parker's transformation and abilities are established. Hooray!

Instead, this film uses Peter's eagerness to help and be a real Avenger as the diving board. Happy (Favreau) is Peter's "handler" and Peter dutifully calls in regularly to let him know all the little things he's done to help his neighborhood: gave directions to a lost woman, kept a bicycle from being stolen. But as Happy—and by extension Tony Stark—continue to give him the brush-off, Peter's frustration mounts.

Then Peter stumbles across something bigger: someone selling really strong weapons. But again he's told to stick to the little stuff.

Of course he doesn't.

And, yes, the school's homecoming dance is a turning point.

Usually a movie written by committee (as, based on the long list of writers this one seems to have been) is a recipe for disaster. But somehow Homecoming bests the odds. It has the right amount of humor, and it's tight—nothing is wasted. Holland as Parker manages to be eager but not quite as obnoxious as I feared. Batalon as Peter's friend Ned is golden, too. And Michael Keaton as a Birdman of another kind . . . In fact, the whole film is incredibly well cast.

Up until now I had really enjoy Macguire's Spider-Man 2 the most, with his first one a close second. Homecoming gives them a run for their money, though. I'm not quite ready to say it's better, but it's at least equal to those. Possibly better. Probably. I don't know; it's been too long since I've seen the others.

I don't usually have the time to see a movie more than once in the cinema, nor the inclination to re-watch very many films, but I'd see this one again. That alone makes it pretty special. I may be tired of the typical Marvel/Avengers/superhero movies that have flooded the market lately, but this one . . . It's just different enough not to feel like I'm being fed reheated leftovers. That may be faint praise, but I'll count it as a win.

Movies: Logan

For what it is, Logan is a fine movie. Its tone sets it apart from the typical superhero blockbuster; instead it feels much more Terminator. But while the character depth is there, the development of these characters stays very much within the expected and predetermined. There is nothing new or interesting offered.

We all know Logan (aka Wolverine), or if you don't, I'm not sure why you're watching this movie. The future is here, and Logan is the last Mutant. He's got Charles X locked away and is dosing him up with stuff to keep him tame so that his powers don't go out of control. (Sort of like an old man's bladder, Charles can't always hold his powers in.) There's an albino aide named Caliban, too, helping Logan care for Charles.

Logan works as, for lack of a better current analogy, an Über Black driver. He's accosted by a Spanish woman who wants him to take her and a girl to North Dakota. She's willing to pay $50k. But of course this woman and girl are being pursued by a team of tough men because (surprise, not) the girl is actually part of a secret project to create and train mutant fighters.

As I said, it all goes as expected. Logan does it for the money, albeit reluctantly, but then finds himself caring about this girl. We go from action scene to action scene, soft moment to soft moment, until we come to the big finale fight. Shrug.

There are true moments of humor here, at least, that help elevate the otherwise somber mood.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, a bit. But I would have enjoyed it more if there'd been something a little surprising about it. As it stands, Logan is rather rote. Not for a superhero movie—it's better than most of those—but for any movie. It feels like a throwback, which makes it feel like something I've seen before. Maybe not recently, but that's beside the point.


Books: The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch

I've written often enough about how much I enjoy the Peter Grant books, even if I thought the last couple weren't quite as good. This little novella is a return to form, a streamlined and engaging tale set in the magical world of Grant, Nightingale, and the Folly, with Grant's precocious cousin Abigail along for the ride. While the story leans a little more heavily on Abigail than I 100% enjoy, it's such a quick, fun read that I can overlook that.

Short summary: ghosts are turning up to hassle riders on the Metropolitan Line and it's down to Grant to figure out why. Kinda difficult when the riders forget the interactions almost as soon as they occur. That is, spooked commuters call the police only to wonder why the police turn up because the can't even remember calling them.

I won't say more so as not to give anything away. In short, I can highly recommend this one, though if you aren't yet familiar with Grant some of it might sail past you in a blur. This is a series that really needs to be read in order.


Television: Riverdale

Was casting around for something to watch and settled on trying this one. (I'm not at any loss for things to watch, mind; my DVR is packed full of stuff that I just didn't feel like watching.)

Anyway, I used to live in the town Riverdale was modeled after. The local Applebee's was practically devoted to all things Archie. It really was this one town's biggest claim to fame. That and Rob Zombie.

As for Riverdale, it's so corny and self-aware that I couldn't help but enjoy it. The pilot, that is. Jughead as the narrator . . . It's really all pretty ridiculous, and of course all the characters are turned up to eleven. The mean girl is not just mean but MEAN. Betty isn't just sweet, she's SWEET. And layered under it all is the drama and decay. Nothing simply is in Riverdale; it's all extreme. A breakup leads to someone being institutionalized, and of course there's MURDER.

I dunno. I guess I was just in the right mood for this amount of silly. It's sort of like if the Archie comics went slightly Twin Peaks.

And of course I grew up reading Archie. They were some of the only comics my mother felt were clean and wholesome enough to allow. But Riverdale seems to be making a concerted effort to skew the other direction. No one wants to watch wholesome. So let's go salacious instead and have Archie bonk a teacher.

Yeah, okay.

Archie isn't entirely likable here, but then again, at least from what I recall, he wasn't all that likable in the comics either. Kind of a chowder head. But in innocent ways, whereas here he makes more egregious errors in judgement. Makes for better drama, I suppose. In any case, while Archie is central, he doesn't come across as the main character. As far as the pilot goes, Betty gets the focus and the sympathy. Maybe that changes as the show goes along.

I'll probably watch more. Don't know yet if I'll get through an entire season though. Will largely depend—as tonight's outing did—on my mood and viewer appetite.

It's IWSG Time Again!

Cross posting from PepperWords:

It's time again for the Insecure Writer's Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

I recently completed a writing retreat and workshop in France. As idyllic as it sounds, I was insecure about it! Six writers, all strangers (at least to me), in an intimate setting . . . But of course it went beautifully and was a wonderful experience. Now my insecurities are based on living up to all their faith in me and my work! I've been given a deadline for Hamlette, which is actually good for me; I work so much better under deadlines, particularly ones imposed by someone other than myself. I'm glad to have people to hold me accountable.

Question of the Month: What is one valuable lesson you've learned since you started writing?

I've learned so much over the years, so it's tough for me to narrow it down to just one lesson. I will say that it's important to set goals. Realistic ones. Bite-sized ones. Know what "success" looks like to you, whether it's landing an agent and a major publisher, or self-publishing and selling X number of books. And don't let anyone tell you your personal version of success is wrong. That is, don't let them tell you what you "should" want. That's their idea of success; it doesn't have to be yours. (This is the whole point of my screenplay 20 August, btw.) Anyway, be sure and clear about what you want. Then break that goal into steps and start taking them.


Books: Peter on Sale on Smashwords

My publisher has put my spy novel The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller on sale on Smashwords for the month of July. So if you haven't already grabbed it, this is a great time to pick it up at a discount.

1960’s London: British Intelligence agent Peter Stoller is next in line to run the Agency—until he falls in love with cab driver, Charles, and his life goes off the road. When Charles is accused of treason, Peter is guilty by association. Peter manages to extract them both, but the seeds of doubt have been planted, putting Peter’s mind and heart at war. Is ignorance truly bliss or merely deadly?


Movie: Bridget Jones's Baby

This was a stupid movie. Which is maybe all it was meant to be, but still. Just really dumb and rote.

I only watched it because I was captive on a 10+-hour long flight and the movie options were really pathetic. There was stuff I'd seen and had no particular desire to see again and stuff I hadn't seen and mostly had no interest in. Which is surprising since there are plenty of movies I want to see but haven't had the opportunity to yet. Somehow this airline didn't have any of them. So I was forced to settle for something that I thought might be mildly entertaining.

This was . . . not. While watching I constantly debated whether to just turn it off and stare into space for a few hours rather than continue the movie. Seriously.

Okay, so I saw Bridget Jones's Diary, like, years ago. Way back when. Can barely remember it. Never saw the second one at all. And then there was this. Bridget celebrates her 43rd birthday, gets a hip new boss who wants to rebrand the television show Bridget works on, gets dragged to (a) a memorial service for the Hugh Grant character because he apparently couldn't be talked into returning to this train wreck, (b) a music festival where she hooks up with the American equivalent of Hugh Grant (aka Patrick Dempsey), (c) a christening where she hooks up with Colin Firth's character. And then of course she's pregnant and isn't sure which of these hook-ups produced the baby. Everything then goes on at a predictable clip until the equally predictable ending.

Colin Firth is the only good thing about this movie. The fact that he's able to do anything with the material is a flat-out miracle, but his reactions are priceless.

If you have time to waste, as I did, I'm still not sure I'd recommend you do it with this movie. It fails to be funny at all, instead leaning on really old and used bits of humor. It's almost painful to watch. Skip this one.