Friday, November 26, 2010

"My Year of Flops" by Nathan Rabin

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the fine folks at Scribner, particularly my Publicity point of contact Brian Belfiglio. I'm not getting paid for this, I just do it out of the enjoyment of reading.

Consider for a moment the art of movie making.  A writer had to dream up a story, a director had to dream up a way to tell it, and a studio had to dream up the possibility of said end result even being marketable to greenlight its production.  Up to this point, there are many careers on the line, reputations at stake, and of course the collective dreams of the three branches of film production.  So naturally, it feels like a nightmare when the public, the critics, even test audiences you bribed with pizza and a signed photo of Alec Baldwin grind their collective boot-heels on everyone's dreams and turn them into cinematic cannon fodder.  Some films (Gigli, Howard the Duck, and Battlefield Earth) deserve it, others ( Joe Versus the Volcano, Heaven's Gate, Ishtar) don't, and others still (The Rocketeer) shouldn't even be compiled in a list of "flops".  Though no matter what level of Flop Hell they belong on, there's one man who's brave enough to take them all on and give them the second opinion they so desperately needed...Nathan Rabin of The Onion A.V. Club.  This is his charge.  This is his ballpark.  This is his destiny.  This is "My Year of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man's Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failure."

For the 288 pages the book spans, Rabin takes the knife to the films he's chosen, while providing historical context and in some cases insight from those directly involved.  Each film is given equal time, each movie objectively evaluated equally, and each entry is an entertaining mix of trivia and snark.  Every film falls into one of three categories:  Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success.  (To clarify: a Failure just doesn't make the cut, no matter how you put it, a Fiasco fails, but does so with flying colors, and a Secret Success turns out to be a a gem that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.)  What's most interesting is when Mr. Rabin actually gets to interview someone that actually worked on the project he's just spent about a good couple pages either defending or eviscerating.  These interviews try to clarify somehow just what went wrong, who's to blame, and ultimately what lessons were learned in the act of flopping.  You might be surprised to see just what passes for a Secret Success, as well as just a mild "failure"; but the Fiascos are well screened.
Reading this book is a breeze, much like other anthologies I've read.  This one might have breezed by faster though because not unlike Mr. Rabin, I have a slight fixation with cinematic failure.  I've always wanted to riff a copy of Gigli, see just how horrible Ishtar was to have gained its reputation, and always take time to rip a new asshole in the remake of Psycho that should never have existed.  If you are a movie geek, or even fixated with just how bad ideas are created, this book is definitely your thing.  (Though if the relatively average length of this book makes you feel safe when it comes to films you thought most surely would make it onto the least, fear not...his entire archive/continuing adventures can be found here, and hopefully in 'My Year of Flops 2: Flop Harder'."

As if reviewing flops, expanding pre-existing reviews on his flops, and writing brand new "book exclusive" reviews for flops wasn't enough, Nathan does what only the brave have ever attempted...write a real time review of the Director's Cut to Waterworld.  This alone should be the reason you read this book, if anything to vindicate the author's dedication to his collection and destruction/redemption of such publicly neglected films.   (That, and it has a rather interesting anecdote about James Caan and his love of orally pleasuring females.)  Rabin uses his A.V. Club savvy and knowledge to tie together a collection of analysis that ultimately makes us think, just what films would we defend liking in public and which ones we leave in the dark corners of our DVD shelves.  

With another Holiday Movie Season approaching us, now is as good a time as any to read "My Year of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man's Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failure", if only to help us truly separate the wheat from the chaff.  Indeed, if this book were to have been released this Summer, we might have seen a Box Office where Scott Pilgrim Versus the World would have ruled, and Eclipse would have resided in its rightful position next to Gigli.  To put it in corny critic pullquotes: "It's no secret, this book is a success!"

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"An Abundance of Katherines" by John Green

Getting dumped makes a person look inwards just a little too much.  We wonder what we've done to draw this fate upon our person, we think about whether we really deserved it or not, but mostly we just can't help but wanting the person who dumped us back.  Maybe it's because our emotional investment isn't as easily forgotten as that of the person who dumped us, or maybe we're just fixated with how things work and how they eventually don't.  Colin Singleton is a little bit of both, and throughout his life he's had one major quirk when it comes to his dating life...all 19 of his girlfriends have been named Katherine.

An Abundance of Katherines tells Colin's story of introspection and fixation as he tries to make the leap from "Prodigy" (someone who can learn really fast) to "Genius" (someone who can create unique, intellectual  properties and ideas).  To do this, he's taken his introspective eye and started to plot out the relationships he's had with all 19 Katherines onto graphs that use a mathematical formula he's created to pinpoint where and when a relationship begins and ends.  More importantly, he believes his formula can figure out who will dump whom in the relationship, thus separating people into two flat categories: Dumpers and Dumpees.  None of this would have been possible if it weren't for his best friend Hassan and his decision to drag his best friend on a road trip to the South, but don't tell him that...geniuses are rather sensitive of their capability for independent thought.

I discovered this book, on happy coincidence, through a Barnes and Noble clearance sale not too long ago. Up until that point, I'd never heard of John Green or any of the books that he had written. However, the concepts intrigued me as they centered around similar premises: young man falls for a somewhat quirky girl and goes on a journey to find out more about himself and deal with said romance. The variation on the theme in An Abundance of Katherines: our protagonist is dealing with the absence of romance instead of the pursuit of it.

John Green has honestly and truthfully written a character I can believe exists in real life, particularly because I see shades of myself within Colin.  Ok, so I wasn't a prodigy in anything except reading, but I was considered a "smart kid".  As many "smart kids" know, once High School is over, the rest looks pretty competitive and downhill.  Colin is so ahead of the curve with his contemporaries that he sees what they won't see for a little while longer...High School, if your not careful, is where you peak.  The trick to not peaking is simple in concept, but hard in execution: do something that makes your name stand out.  It is this journey that Colin embarks on, mostly because it keeps his mind off of Katherine (whom we learn more about as the book goes on), that he tries to actually matter to the world.  His heartache, his longing, and eventually his rejuvenation at the prospect of a new love is all extremely human and extremely identifiable.  This book may be written as "Young Adult Fiction", but age the characters a bit and change the setting, and you've still got a story that's at times poignant and at times funny.

I might not have heard of John Green before discovering and reading this book, but I can see why all of his books have consistently high Amazon and Barnes and Noble customer ratings.  Green's characters are real people, with real experiences and journeys, thoughts, and hopes.  They just live in a world parallel to ours where things are slightly different.  For what it's worth, I enjoy that slightly different world quite a bit; where problems are solved with road trips, bravery is found during a hog hunt, and ultimately all of the answers reveal themselves to you through a piece of paper, a phone call, and a moderately adventurous trip down South. 

A read that should never have to be a "Bargain Book" (but is especially worth the effort of procuring should you find it at such a price)  An Abundance of Katherines is one of the highest recommendations I can give, especially for a piece of YA Fiction.  These are characters I can relate to, events I can remember dealing with myself, and happenings I kind of wish I could have had myself as a teenager.  I can't wait to read more of Mr. Green's work, because if it's as captivating as this book was, I won't have a problem buying the whole lot in an instant.