"So Bryant, where the hell is your review of End of Watch?" I can theoretically imagine someone asking. "It came out last week, so surely you've finished it by now...?!?"
And the answer to that is no, no I have not. I haven't even begun it, in fact. Nor have I read Joe Hill's The Fireman yet, and that came out in mid-May. For that matter, I have yet to crack open Owen King's Intro to Alien Invasion, which came out in the unbelievably-distant past of September 2015. The casual observer -- or even the intent one, for that matter -- would be forgiven for assuming that my Stephen King (and King-family) fandom has waned significantly over the past year.
That's not the case, though. I got my copies of Intro to Alien Invasion, The Fireman, and End of Watch on their release dates. In the case of the Owen King book, its release fell during the time when I'd decided to dedicate some time to reading my way through H.P. Lovecraft's bibliography. I'd planned to read Intro to Alien Invasion immediately thereafter, but it ended up not happening. In fact, I've only read one book in the entire time since finishing that Lovecraft project last fall. The casual/intent observer would be forgiven for assuming that H.P. Lovecraft broke me of my love for reading.
That's not the case, either. I'll tell you this, though (and I spoke about this to some extent in my posts about Lovecraft's fiction): I've driven into some sort of cul-de-sac in which my love of reading still exists as a hypothetical thing, but in which I am not currently interested in -- or good at -- actually sitting down and reading a book. During my Lovecraft exploration, I branded this phenomenon as reader's block. Does such a thing exist in a commonly-accepted sense? Beats me, but I've got it, so as far as I'm concerned it exists.
You don't care about any of this. Why would you? I get that. The temptation to be self-indulgent in these posts is always present, and I'm going to try and rein back on that horse a bit now. The particulars don't matter much, the end result is the same. This book...?
It shows no signs of being read any time soon. I apologize for that, because it means that there's going to be no review of it here any time soon; and that arguably makes this blog a place where the readers can no longer count on me for timely discussion of the wide world of Stephen King. That's a bummer. Timeliness has never been my goal, but a decent amount of it happened nevertheless, and I don't like the extent to which it's fallen away.
Sadly, it's nothing new. Over a year later, and I've not reviewed Finders Keepers, so visitors here may already have squinted at me a bit in disapproval. I did read that novel, though, and I even began writing a review of it.
I shall now present to you what exists of that review:
Finders Keepers is a solid novel, one which is maybe a hair or two above or below Mr. Mercedes in quality but essentially on the same level. So goes my opinion, at least.And there you have my review of Finders Keepers. So if that was what you wanted to know, I have duly informed you.I have other things to say about the novel, too, of course, but I feel as if I need to warn you of a couple of things right up front: (1) there will be copious spoilers; and (2) I'm going to be doing a lot of writing about myself. I'm all the way up my own ass these days, which isn't exactly a new thing; however, in this particular moment, I'm not interested in suppressing that side of things. So it's going to be taken off the leash and allowed to run around and bark for a little while. Yes, tonight, we're going to dip our toes into the pool of self-indulgence.It often (though by no means always) annoys me when bloggers do that, and I won't be offended if it annoys you.Anyways, I thought I'd mention it.Finders Keepers was released on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. It is 434 pages, and I did not finish reading it until early in the morning of Monday, June 22, 2015. That's a few hours shy of three weeks, which averages out to something like 21 pages per day.Never in my life have I taken that long in reading a new King novel. I read 11/22/63 in three days; Under the Dome took me (if I remember correctly) four. I've been buying new King books on release day for at least fifteen years; and that streak may go as far back as 1991's Needful Things, although I can't be sure. I know that was when I began buying the books as soon as I could get my hands on them.In all that time, there are three moments when I did not immediately begin reading the books: (1) Faithful, simply because nobody in town had a copy for whatever reason; (2) Bag of Bones, because for some obscure reason I decided to listen to the audiobook -- which I did immediately -- rather than read the novel; and (3) Hearts In Atlantis, which I put off for several months because I was in a very, very bad and/or distressed mood and just didn't give a shit about a new King book.I got very close to similarly delaying Finders Keepers for a few weeks or even months, and for much the same reason. Hey, what can I say? For their mid-life crisis (assuming that's what this is), some guys have affairs with younger women, and some guys buy a sports car. Other guys consider waiting a while to read a new novel by their favorite writer. Let's all be assured that I know where I fall on the lameness spectrum.
The deal with that is, I guess, that I find myself a 40-year-old man who is single, likely to stay that way on a permanent basis; childless, and likely to stay that way on a permanent basis; pushing 350 pounds, and increasingly likely to keep right on a-sailin' in that regard. I wouldn't by any means describe myself as friendless, but it's becoming more difficult by the year to find time to actually hang out with any of those friends. Will this continue to be the case on a permanent basis? Unclear.My point is this: I find myself firmly in the grip of middle age with very little to distinguish myself. I just don't have all that much going for me. I say that not to be self-pitying, but simply to state a fact, so that I can then allow it to serve as context for the statement of another fact: I'm not a husband, and I'm not a father, and I'm only occasionally a friend. So...what am I?One thing I'm not is alone in having to answer that question; this is something that many people struggle with, and I'd say that the vast majority of them fill in that blank with their job title. Even people who are husbands or fathers have a tendency to identify themselves by what they do for work. I have steadfastly refused to do that for the majority of my life.So...what am I?
That's as far as I got. The increasingly-hypothetical observer would be forgiven for assuming that I have become distraught by politics, and that's that is why I got no further. No, that's not it. I mean, yeah, sure, I am distraught by politics, and brother, that's SO much worse in June of 2016 than it was in July of 2015 when I wrote that partial draft. Who isn't distraught by American politics these days? Those in comas, and I can't even be sure of that.The answer is simple: I am what I enjoy. I'm a Stephen King fan. And I'm a James Bond fan, and a Disney World fan, and a Steven Spielberg fan, and a Bob Dylan fan. I'm a John Williams fan, and a Star Trek fan, and a Game of Thrones fan; I'm a fan of movies in general, and I'm a fan of buffalo wings, and soda pop, and sleeping, and cats. I'm not a fan of spiders, or (increasingly) of politics.
But no, that's not the reason for the reader's block. Instead, I'm fairly certain it's just your run-of-the-mill middle-age crisis. I can remember the impetus for the Finders Keepers post well enough to know that I intended to use it as a vehicle to discuss identity; I'd become convinced that I no longer felt sure of who, exactly, I was. Not in a paranoid/delusional sense, but in the general existential sense.
I don't think it's that any longer, though. I now think it's that I don't quite know how to proceed in terms of trying to continue down the path of personal progression that I have in mind. To be fair, it's a loosely-constructed plan of progression (at best), and so establishing and achieving goals is therefore somewhat difficult. I do a lot of self-reflection, though, and I'm quite certain that the key factor here is the weight issue. 350 pounds and counting, baby. You don't know what that's like unless you've done it. It's not the worst thing in the world; I've got good health (for now), and all things considered, my lot in life is so vastly preferable to that of so much of the rest of the world that my complaining about it would be silly at best and demented at worst. I'm under no illusions to the contrary.
And yet, the fact is that I no longer feel like myself. By "myself," what I really mean is my conception of my self. In my mind, I think I'm probably still about 22 years old, and that would put me at about 215 pounds. There's no going back in regards to the first part of that sentence, but the second part is theoretically achievable, and achieving that would at least make the mental illusion of the first part a bit more palatable.
Is this crazy-talk? Nah. Everyone goes through shit like this. I'm not egotistical enough to think that I'm experiencing anything special or unusual here. So why dwell on it? Let's not. However, I bring it up so as to explain what's going on with me reading-wise. The fact is, I think it's mentally become more important to me than anything else to try and figure out a
And the way I live my life has a lot to do with who I am. As mentioned earlier, I am what I enjoy. So in order to lose weight, I have to make some changes to who I am, and that means -- by definition -- that I have to make some changes to the way I enjoy the things I enjoy. In some cases, I may need to say goodbye to them.
I'm convinced that this "reader's block" has been my mind's way of trying to force that issue. I've been a reader for as long as I can remember being alive, so if my mind has decided to try and press pause on that button, it's got to have had a good reason for doing so. A cry for help? Let's not be melodramatic. The subconscious-Bryant's way of saying, "Hey, dude, you might want to look over here for a while"? Yeah, that seems about right.
So here I am, stockpiling Intro to Alien Invasion and The Fireman and End of Watch, passionately purchased but intently unread. What's that about? With End of Watch, I think I'm actively taking pleasure in NOT reading it. That's no reflection on the novel itself, except maybe it kind of is. I think I'm mentally using it as a goad: it's a carrot on a stick, and if I'm the horse, it means my mind wants my body to run again. Maybe not literally, but hey, maybe literally.
I think, then, the deal is this: I'm using my Stephen King fandom as a means of getting myself back on track. "This is who you are," my mind is whispering to itself; "don't you think it's time you remembered that?" That may or may not mean that I don't read any of the books we've been talking about for quite some time. As Elvis says, it's now or never, but it's not book-reading that needs the benefit of my urgency; it's my identity overall, and I think I've spent too long focusing on my mental identity at the expense of my physical identity. Time to get those scales back in balance somewhat.
Which brings us to the question of why I devoted nearly two hours of my life to watching Cell. Once again, someone would be forgiven for making an assumption: that I'm more interested in a new King movie (Cell) than I am in a new King novel (End of Watch). It's not the case; it's just that watching television is much easier a task than reading a novel, so watching Cell fits under the umbrella of this weird laziness I'm in the midst of currently, whereas reading a novel -- ANY novel -- does not. I've been watching plenty of tv, so it was no mental challenge at all for me to turn on my television, change inputs from the Blu-ray player to my Amazon Fire Stick, and then spend the $9.99 is cost me to rent Cell for 48 hours.
It had been stuck on a shelf (as discussed here) for over a year, which is rarely a sign of excellence. Sure enough, this movie is crapola. If you were to take a look at my due-to-be-updated Worst To Best ranking of all of King's movies and tv shows, I think my gut reaction is to put it at about #63, ahead of A Good Marriage and behind Dreamcatcher.
That's right, I said it: this is worse than Dreamcatcher.
In fact, it's worse than Dreamcatcher by a considerable margin; I think I've got A Good Marriage ranked too high, so there's plenty of room for Cell to sink even further than it is now.
I know one fellow King blogger who enjoyed it, but man, I'm here to tell you, this thing is awful in almost every aspect. A few moments here and there work, but we're talking maybe a sum total of thirty seconds in a movie that runs about an hour and thirty-six minutes.
Where to begin? The direction, probably. Kip Williams -- who (as Tod Williams) previously helmed the rather-good Paranormal Activity 2 -- directed this turkey, and I'd say the odds are good that he'll struggle to get another movie after this one. Maybe not; he'd previously made The Door in the Floor, which was okay. I don't think Cell is going to do him any favors, though. When you've got Samuel L. Jackson and zombies in the same movie and you manage to make both boring, you've got the wrong sort of talent.
His visual work is utterly mediocre here. Perhaps some of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of cinematographer Michael Simmonds, but I suspect Williams deserves the lion's share. His staging of scenes is also uninteresting. I don't need every director to be Stanley Kubrick, but I would like for there to be something interesting in the way the people in the frame are interacting. I can hear a few of this blog's readers now chiming in that as long as the story is good, stuff like that doesn't matter. This, to me, is like saying that the food doesn't matter all that much in a restaurant provided the seats are comfortable. Film is a visual medium, so when nothing interesting is happening visually, that's a problem.
I'd settle for the visuals not being outright tacky, though, and in Cell they frequently are. The special effects are stunningly terrible. I've never seen worse-looking CGI fire. It's bargain-basement stuff that would look iffy on Syfy Channel on Saturday night. Presumably this was due to a rock-bottom budget, but in a world where World War Z was a huge hit, you can't convince me there wasn't a market for a large-scale version of Cell.
So there's mistake #1, and it almost certainly explains everything about this project: the people who financed it didn't have enough faith in it to make it into a hit, but had a vague notion that if they cast John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson in it, that (combined with the Stephen King audience and the zombie audience) would be enough for them to make a few quick bucks. And hey, they got $10 out of me, so maybe it will work for them.
I remain infuriated that King is treated this way. He's a Cadillac among authors, but his movies routinely treat him like a Hyundai. I don't get it. Presumably it's because so many bad King movies have been made that most people assume they will be bad and don't bother aiming much higher than that. Perhaps that will change with The Dark Tower and It, but I'm not going to hold my breath waiting on that to happen.
Cell places King himself in the crosshairs of the blame-rifle, by virtue of the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay. He also wrote the screenplay for the dreadful A Good Marriage, and wrote a lousy teleplay for the dreadful second season of Under the Dome. Uncle Steve, I love ya, but the night-job ain't working out for you lately.
The screenplay for Cell condenses the ideas of the novel relatively well, and adds a somewhat Serling-esque element to the resolution that would have worked if a better director -- one with an adequate budget and a sense of how to film and edit a scene in such a manner as to elicit some emotion other than annoyance from the audience -- had been working with it. I liked the end of the novel, though, so it annoys me a bit to see King kowtowing to the haters and running away from the interesting ideas of the novel in favor of something more embraceable. I get why he'd do it; but, as with Under the Dome, I didn't see the need for it.
The screenplay isn't great, but it is at least competent. A good director, as I've said, might have been able to at least make a competent movie from it; a great director might have made a good movie from it. I don't want to go so far as to say Williams is incompetent. Peter Askin of A Good Marriage is incompetent, whereas Kip Williams is merely uninspired and mediocre. There is a difference. But the best a mediocre director is going to do with a merely-competent screenplay is make a mediocre movie. That's a best-case scenario.
We don't have a best-case scenario on our hands with Cell. So what we get is a horror movie with virtually no horror in it; even some of the solid gross-out moments fail. There's a scene in which Cusack and Jackson drive a gasoline truck over a football field full of sleeping zombies, squishing them to bits while soaking the rest with gasoline that is used to burn the horde up. Williams does nothing notable with this scene. Cusack and Jackson try to grimace a bit to liven things up, but they aren't putting much effort in, and so the net result of their efforts is weak. This scene needed to be one of several things:
- Hilarious in a Troma-movie sort of way. 9Given that Troma's main man Lloyd Kaufman has a notable cameo in a scene early on, you'd think Williams might have a modicum of awareness of how to accomplish Troma-esque hilarity via grossout. Kaufman would have been a better choice to direct this movie.)
- Tense. Perhaps have the truck drive around the zombies rather than over them, and have the tension come from the possiblity that what the characters are doing might wake up these hundreds of ghouls. (For the record: yes, I know these are not zombies. Nor, in fact, ghouls. I don't care. I'm calling them zombies the rest of the post.)
- Disturbing via gross-out. This could have created some sympathy for the zombies, who, after all, are not responsible for what has happened to them.
There are probably other appealing options, too, but these are the first three which some to mind for me. Williams goes for maybe just a smidge of option #1 mixed with a dash of option #2, but seems perhaps to have not had any money in the budget for makeup or effects, and so what ought to have memorably gross is gross only via implication and sound effects. And even THOSE aren't ambitious or effective!
I could go on in this vein for a good while longer, but I think I can stop short by merely saying that this scene is indicative of the whole movie. It just doesn't work.
The best scene is one in which Cusack, Jackson, and Isabelle Fuhrman are trying to get out of town. They walk past a house that has tons of signage indicating that its owner is a very proud gun-enthusiast. King, as some of you may know, is very much on the record as being a proponent of stepping up gun-control measures. He's not anti-gun, though, and is also on the record as seeing the value in both owning and being able to effectively use firearms. So while you might assume that this scene would be used to throw some jabs at Second-Amendment fans, it ends up being reflective of King's overall stance: measured, considerate. The signage brands the former occupant(s) as a bit nutso, but the be-prepared-for-whatever-might-come stance inherent in those folks' thinking is given some blatant respect: shit has hit fans, and Cusack's character is openly thankful to be able to add some firearms to his belongings.
In order to do so, he has to literally pry a handgun out of its former owner's cold, dead hand. It's such an obvious moment that I'd be willing to be actual money that King spelled it out in the screenplay. Thing is, Williams once again has no clue how to film a scene, so it lands with a complete thud.
The way I see it, you've got two choices with a scene/moment like that:
- Play it for laughs. It's a joke, right? Gun owners -- up to and including Charlton Heston -- have been saying that bit about the cold, dead hands for years, so turning the tablers in this way is a natural fit for a groan/chuckle in a Lloyd Kaufman type of horror/comedy.
- Play it for sentiment. If the movie was being made with some seriousness and some melancholy, there would be a very easy way to have either Cusack or Jackson bend over this dead body, say something about the "cold, dead hands" idea, and remark on how this poor soul lived what they believed in right up until the last moment. There's a good deal of honor to be found in that; all you've got to do is frame it that way.
King being who he is, I could imagine him being okay with going in either direction. Make it Maximum Overdrive or make it The Mist; he sees both as equally valid for filmmaking, and I don't think he's wrong about that. It's just that you have to pick one of those options and stick to it, and that's one of the most important jobs a director has on any project.
So, again, that's a massive failure on the part of Kip Williams.
The movie is full of scenes like that; that's one of the worst, but it's certainly not the only one. Perhaps the screenplay sent out mixed messages; without reading it, I don't know, but it's a strong possibility. Either way, Williams was unable to find a coherent and consistent tone, and that's a big part of what a movie is.
I've got a lot more complaining in me, but let's bring it to an end. Bottom line: it's a bad movie. Maybe you'll enjoy it, but if you do, odds are good you have a very different idea of what filmmaking is than I do. Good on ya for being able to enjoy some things that frustrate me; being critical doesn't always lead to having more fun.
Well, I don't know how long this reader's block is going to last. I'm inclined to let it run its course, though. I have every confidence it will snap eventually, and maybe I'll have gotten back to a more ideal version of myself when it does. Currently, though, I just don't want to rush it. Would I like to be reading End of Watch right now? In theory, yes. But I don't want to rush through it and fail to get the sense out of it simply because of some idea of what "fandom" is to me. I'd rather let it set for awhile; it'll be there when I'm ready for it. So will The Fireman, and Intro to Alien Invasion, and Emma Straub's new novel (Modern Lovers), and the forthcoming Alan Moore novel (Jerusalem, for which I certainly won't be able to bring my b-game as a reader, much less the d-game I've got right now).
Reading means more to me than that. So I'm okay with leaving a few gifts unopened; they can sit there waiting for me, calling me. Books emit a siren song, and when the time is right, I'll happily answer that call. Until then, maybe a bit more sailing; let's see if I can get where I need to go.