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Media Review – January 2019

Posted in Blog, Media Review

I totally forgot that I wanted to do this, so I’m doing it a couple of weeks late.

Welcome to Media Review, where I talk about the things I read and watched and played that month! It’s been a little bit so let’s see how much I remember…

Books/Novellas: The Annotated Big Sleep, The Glass Key, Double Indemnity, Red Wind, Blackmailers Don’t Shoot, I’ll Be Waiting

Movies: Double Indemnity; Murder, My Sweet

Games: Into the Breach, Overcooked! 2, Beat Saber

So let’s get into it.

Books

The Annotated Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, annotated and edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto (2018)

I didn’t actually go out of my way to read this one–I visited the bookstore after going downtown to buy new handlebars for my bike, and I was looking through the mystery section out of curiosity to see if the Raymond Chandler books were there. Generally speaking, they were not, but this book was there. I thought about whether or not I wanted to buy it, but obviously I ended up buying it. Not just because I love the Philip Marlowe books (which I do) and not just because I thought it would be useful for research for my book (which it was) but because I also love reading annotated versions of books and analyses in general. And of books to examine and add context to, Raymond Chandler’s occasionally opaque prose and very contemporary flavor to it is something that can really be helped with some context.

I enjoyed re-reading The Big Sleep, which was always kind of a funny story to me (I say ‘always’, but I only read it once last year) because the main plot, as it’s presented at the beginning, gets solved like 60% of the way through the book, and the last 40% is about Marlowe going around and telling people he’s not looking for the person every single other character thinks he’s looking for, while looking for the person every single other character thinks he’s looking for.

The annotations definitely help elucidate some of the period-specific idiosyncrasies and it helps break up the text a bit, which makes it all a bit easier to swallow. I’ve definitely had issues in the past reading the Philip Marlowe books because they’re dense books and the slang and language makes it a bit hard to read more than a few chapters at a time. I didn’t have that issue with The Annotated Big Sleep, so maybe it was easier to read The Big Sleep a second time, or maybe the annotations helped.

The Big Sleep is still as good of a book as it was the last time I read it. I’ve said before and I’ll say again that Philip Marlowe is the best character ever written, and a big part of that is Chandler’s narration, which is pretty much the narration that codified the noir genre, and even then, it’s as refined and poetic as it ever was. Chandler had a way with words, being classically trained and having a background in poetry and all, and it really shows through. One of the things about the Philip Marlowe books is that there’s this atmosphere. There’s a profuse feeling of melancholy in all of the books, all the way through, and it’s a sort of heavy emotion that squeezes in the chest, centered on this private detective who’s tired and cynical but still cares too much and is, at the base of it all, a man of great integrity.

My point is, The Annotated Big Sleep was a good excuse to go back to the Philip Marlowe books for a bit, and the historical and cultural context adds a lot to the experience. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m glad I have a physical copy of it to read again some other time.

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett (1931)

So this is a book that I downloaded onto my Kindle a long, long time ago because it’s considered one of the best mystery stories of all time, or at least so Wikipedia tells me. To be honest, I found it a bit of an underwhelming experience, and I think the main reason for that was because I had a hard time keeping track of the thread of the story. I wasn’t sure who the characters were–whether they were politicians or straight-up criminals–and I didn’t even know if they were actually trying to solve the murder that occurred at the start of the story for a significant portion in the middle. If I read it a second time, I’d probably understand it a lot better, and I’d probably enjoy it more, but it was definitely a bit of a weird read.

Also, reading this book after reading Philip Marlowe gave me major whiplash, because there’s a section where Ned Beaumont, protagonist extraordinaire, just gets a gun and shoots someone, and I went, “okay, I guess that’s what we’re doing now”. I know that in general Dashiell Hammond writes characters who are way more dickbagish, but it’s such a jarring difference from cynical but an actually good person Philip Marlowe.

Besides that, The Glass Key’s writing style is, uh. Dashiell Hammett doesn’t quite have the same way with words that Raymond Chandler does, to say the least. The Glass Key features such scintillating prose as, “Her eyes were dark and angry, her face white, except around her eyes, and angry,” and “His eyes were humid with sympathy,” and “The District Attorney’s desk trembled under a blow from the District Attorney’s fist,” which makes me think that writing standards were slightly different back in 1930.

I was also very confused about the title of the book, which isn’t explained until about 97% of the way through the book, where it turns out the titular glass key is a reference to a dream some character had, which is kind of disappointing. I’d never say I’m good at titling books, but I feel like there could have been something that was a bit more relevant.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about The Glass Key. I might read it again and like it much more the second time, but it’s definitely not a book that I would say is the greatest anything ever.

Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain (1943)

Double Indemnity is a book that I decided to read because it was mentioned in The Annotated Big Sleep as a movie that Raymond Chandler worked on. By which I mean I had absolutely no idea what Double Indemnity would be about before I started reading it except that an insurance scam was involved, so finding out that Double Indemnity was about actually committing the murder and subsequent insurance scam was wild as hell.

It was definitely a new experience, because I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that’s been so much about committing the murder and trying to get away with it, and through the whole thing I wasn’t sure whether I wanted Walter to get away with it or not–he doesn’t, of course, but I felt like the book could have gone that way…though that probably wouldn’t have gone over well with the publishers.

I really enjoyed the book. I read it all in one day (which isn’t saying much, it’s more of a novella than a novel, clocking in at less than 30k) in a couple of sittings because I wanted to know what happened next. I wouldn’t say I love the characters in the way that I love Philip Marlowe, but the story being told of a guy who’s been enchanted by both a sexy lady and the idea of committing the perfect murder is one that’s got me interested.

There’s definitely some skeevy stuff, murder aside. The fact that Walter is seduced by Phyllis, then later falls in love with her daughter Lola, who’s explicitly said to be 19 and fifteen years younger than he is, is not great. The fact that Lola’s boyfriend ends up hooking up with Phyllis for a while is weird too. I try not to think too hard about that. It’s also a bit weird reading these old stories because when I think of a big murderer femme fatale, I’m definitely not thinking of a name like Phyllis. That’s like a grandma or great-grandma name these days.

The writing style is definitely a lot different from Chandler’s, being a bit less refined, a lot less poetic, but no less compelling for it. The frankness of the narration and the treatment of murder is refreshing, and Walter Huff is a murderer, sure, but he’s got humanity in him–not enough to redeem him, obviously, but he’s not some cold unfeeling psychopath. I sympathize with him, but not enough to think he deserves to get away with the murder, and the book doesn’t try to say that the murder was okay, or the attempted murder that happens later. I do wish that Cain would use a few more dialogue tags so it’s more clear who’s talking, because it’s really hard to keep track in a lot of sections.

Nirdlinger is still one of the dumbest names I’ve ever read. No fucking wonder Chandler changed that in the movie.

Red Wind (1938), Blackmailers Don’t Shoot (1933), and I’ll Be Waiting (1939) by Raymond Chandler

So I finally decided to sack up and start reading some of Raymond Chandler’s short stories (this is slightly inaccurate, because I’ve read Killer In The Rain as well). It’s…an interesting experience reading his shorter stuff, because the plots are way more straightforward than his Philip Marlowe books, which are about as easy to untangle as a bag full of earbuds.

Red Wind has kind of the same flavor as Philip Marlowe, and John Dalmas is probably the closest proto-Marlowe to actual Marlowe that I’ve read so far. He goes to a bar and a dude gets shot up in front of him, and there’s a missing girl and some missing pearls and later he almost gets shot up by a goon. There’s corrupt police and Dalmas gets his ass saved by this girl who he never sees again. It’s a good look into how a hardboiled story is structured in a much smaller word count, which is useful to know for when I get into some short story writing (which may be soon, but who knows).

Blackmailers Don’t Shoot was Chandler’s first short story, and it kind of shows in that Mallory could not be further from Marlowe in that he’s kind of a huge dickbag. I’ll admit that Blackmailers Don’t Shoot was kind of a confusing story even when it was short because Mallory starts out being a blackmailer, but then he’s actually baiting some real blackmailers, then he’s working with a blackmailer, then he’s actually a private detective from Chicago…and a lot of guys get shot on the way. I still can’t exactly say what happens in Blackmailers Don’t Shoot.

I’ll Be Waiting is a really short story–so short, in fact, that I had to look up the title. It’s about a guy who’s working as a hotel investigator and there’s a lady who’s waiting for a different guy who’s just gotten out of prison. The guy who’s just gotten out of prison shows up, then leaves. There’s probably a bit more nuance than that, but that’s how much I remember.

I’ll keep reading the Chandler short stories, so maybe you’ll see more of these next month.

Movies

Double Indemnity (1944)

So like I said, I read Double Indemnity and enjoyed it immensely, so pretty much the same day I went and watched the movie, too. And the movie is also very good! It’s a very good adaptation, in my opinion.

It’s a pretty impressive movie in that it came out while the Hays Code was still a thing, and I’m still astounded that they let a movie about literally committing murder hit the screen. I won’t say I understand that much about the Hays Code, but I do get the impression that people weren’t allowed to actually show gruesome stuff–like the actual murder happens directly off camera, and the shots obscure the actual corpse afterwards. I also imagine that there’s something in the Hays Code about no bare feet being allowed, or maybe in 1940 people didn’t know how to practice shoe etiquette and not put their goddamn shoes on the couch.

Obviously, not everything is the same. The dynamic between Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson is portrayed a bit differently from how it is in the book, and obviously the relationship between Barton Keyes and Walter Neff is greatly expanded upon in the movie, much to the movie’s benefit. I think that the changes made were well thought-out and the cuts that were made from the second half of the book make sense and were well stitched over. It’s a good proper condensation.

Raymond Chandler wrote or co-wrote the screenplay and it kind of shows. I only say ‘kind of’ because it’s a bit hard to tell, in my opinion, that something’s written by Raymond Chandler when it isn’t in text form. There’s some wisecracks and sharp dialogue, but probably the main thing that shows it’s a Raymond Chandler thing is the fact that Walter lights a match with his thumbnail like six times throughout the movie, because Chandler fucking loves it when people light matches with their thumbnail. He likes it as much as he likes writing about teeth and pearl-handled revolvers.

I’m not going to say much about the cinematography because that’s really not my area of expertise. I will say it’s a very different film to the kind of films that would be produced today–the whole monologue narration thing isn’t something that really happens anymore, and the framing is a lot more static than you’d expect from a movie these days. It’s definitely weird to hear someone say the word ‘dame’ without the slightest hint of irony, and the dialogue is general isn’t what I’d consider ‘realistic’ in all cases in the same way that book dialogue isn’t ‘realistic’, but I think the level of expected verisimilitude in films was much lower then.

The internet tells me that Double Indemnity is one of the most significant film noir films of the classic Hollywood era, and I’d say it definitely still holds up now. It was a good movie, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

I’ve actually been meaning to watch Murder, My Sweet since the summer last year as part of my research into film noir and the general era, but I never got around to it. It’s an adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely, which is the second Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler, and Wikipedia tells me that it’s considered one of the best adaptations of a Raymond Chandler book.

So I guess I should address Dick Powell, the actor who plays Philip Marlowe. I personally think that Dick Powell is too cute to be Philip Marlowe, but he did a really good job with the character. He does a good job of being sarcastic and light-hearted but also getting loose and going off on people. He did a real good job of looking like shit in that one part of the story where he’s drugged up to the gills. It’s a definitely different performance from something like what Humphrey Bogart would do, who’s kind of a more stoic, aloof actor.

This is the film that made me realize how high the waistline was in the 1940s. It’s absurd how short ties used to be, and it’s also absurd how loose clothes used to be, because in that section where Marlowe’s drugged up to the gills, he’s in a bed with his shirt cut up and only his boxers, but he’s still wearing his socks and shoes in bed, which is absurd on its own. But then he puts his pants back on while still wearing his socks and shoes, which is something that breaks my suspension of disbelief instantly.

Speaking of the scene where Marlowe is drugged off his rocks, it’s also interesting to see how special effects were done in the 1940s, because obviously there’s a lot of stuff that’s not possible with analog methods, but they were able to pull some stuff together with superposition of film (or at least that’s what I assume they were doing). It’s an effect that you’d never see today because we have digital editing and CGI and stuff now, but there’s something charming about seeing how people managed to make things work back when the tools were more limited.

As an adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely, it’s good. A lot of stuff was taken out and tightened up by necessity, because like I said, Philip Marlowe plotlines are about as transparent as a bucket of mud. I don’t honestly remember that much from my reading of Farewell, My Lovely except that one chapter where Marlowe’s high as a fucking kite and having a real bad time of it. But I feel like with how dense the Philip Marlowe books are, they’re not books that are easy to take in in one sitting, whereas with Murder, My Sweet, I had a pretty good handle of what was going on the whole way through.

I’d definitely recommend Murder, My Sweet, and I’ll probably be watching some other Philip Marlowe adaptations sometime in the future.

Games

Into the Breach (2018)

This is kind of cheating because I actually got this game in December, but I’ve been playing it so much in the last month that I feel like it counts.

Into the Breach is a puzzle-strategy game that’s kind of in the vein of Fire Emblem but on a smaller grid and leaning a lot more on the puzzle part of the puzzle-strategy. The plot is nearly nonexistent–you have a set of three mechs sent back in time to prevent the apocalypse from the Vek, which are a bunch of kaijuu-sized bugs. You run a number of missions on each of the four islands which have different environmental hazards/effects, and try to achieve more specific missions to gain corporate reputations that you can use to buy weapons and upgrades so that you’ll be strong enough to take on the final battle when you get there. Meanwhile, you have to protect buildings or lose grid power (and score), and when you hit zero grid power, you lose.

There’s a lot more to say about Into the Breach that I can’t really say in a short entry like this, but one of the things I like about Into the Breach is that despite its nearly nonexistent plot, there’s a lot of character to it. All of the pilots have dialogue lines every so often, the special pilots all have unique dialogue and reactions to certain events, and while it’s not a story or even trying to be, it adds a personal flavor that really makes the game better.

Of course, the main puzzle gameplay is rock-solid, too. You get perfect information about the upcoming turn, knowing where each Vek will attack and in what order and how much damage they’ll do, and it’s your job to push them, damage them, or shield your targets to avoid getting bodied. The goal of each mission varies, but you’ll always have to survive a set number of turns, not necessarily kill all of the Vek (which would be basically impossible on a lot of levels). Additionally, you’ve got eight different teams, (plus the random squad and custom squad and the secret squad) which all have different weapon loadouts and strategies. There’s also progression through the game of pilots gaining experience and getting increased movement or health or grid defense, which incentivizes not killing your pilots.

The main thing I really love about this game is that it’s a very fair game. You won’t always win, and there isn’t necessarily always a way to win, and usually if you start losing it’s really hard to make that ground back up again, but the game is a lot more fair than say, FTL: Faster Than Light which is a game I never managed to beat. There’s a definite learning curve in Into the Breach of figuring out how to best prioritize certain buildings and mitigate damage when you can’t avoid it completely, or working through the different strategies and enemies that are best to face off against.

It’s probably one of my favorite games right now, and I’ve already gotten all of the achievements (which isn’t exactly easy, but not nightmarishly hard either). I’m currently in the process of getting victories in Hard difficulty. We’ll see how that goes, but I have faith.

Overcooked! 2 (2018)

Okay, this one is also kind of cheating because I bought this game around Christmas, but I want to talk about it because it’s a good game.

A lot of stuff has changed since the first game, which I played and beat with my good old couch friend. There’s a lot of different recipes, for one thing, and also you can now throw ingredients at each other and into pots and other stuff. Also, online co-op! Which is great because I’m not in a position to have people physically come over and play games like I used to be.

Overcooked! 2 is a co-op game about cooking food. And one of the things that they added into this game is a tips combo system, which makes it so that you make way way way more money if you complete orders in order instead of picking whatever the fuck. I managed to beat the game playing with someone who was not very good at games (not very good at using a controller), which took a while, but I think it means the game is a pretty reasonable difficulty all the way around–not too hard to beat for the casual player, but still a very hefty challenge.

You can play Overcooked! 2 on your own, controlling 2 chefs that you switch between, but I can’t imagine why you’d want to. It’s a lot more fun to play with two people (or three, though it’s really hard to play with more than two people in my experience because the score goals increase with the number of people you have playing), and it’s definitely a game that needs good communication. It’s also definitely a game that’s easier to play with a partner who is good at the game, because couch friend and I have been going through the second one and it’s been going much, much smoother than it was with the other partner I was playing with.

Beat Saber (2018)

All right, I admit it, I cheated on all three of these games, but in my defense I don’t buy games that often. I bought Beat Saber the first day it came out back in May, but I put it on this list because they added some significant updates lately, including adding a couple more songs.

So if you’re not aware, Beat Saber is a VR rhythm game where you have two lightsabers and you slice boxes in time with the music. The soundtrack is very strong, the gameplay has multiple difficulties with a mostly reasonable difficulty curve, and it’s a good way to get some movement in your life and also make your arms and shoulders very sore.

Rhythm games in VR are really good in general, and Beat Saber’s got a very visceral funness to it because slashing beats is fun and cool, and if you look a little, you can find modding custom maps really easily (which I haven’t). I won’t say that I’m the best at the game, but I’m pretty good at it–I usually play on expert mode and I’m in the process of getting SS scores in all of the levels.

They recently added a few songs, which are a lot of fun to play. Here’s some of my gameplay if you don’t believe me:

The update also changed the appearance of some stuff, reset the scores, added some more gameplay options, added an expert+ difficulty which is frankly absurd, and a learning mode that lets you change the speed of the game. If you have a VR headset, I’d definitely recommend geting Beat Saber. If you don’t, then maybe you’ll be able to find an arcade with a Beat Saber cabinet. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a very strenuous game.

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