Monday, September 17, 2018

Never Too Late

Too Late Blues (1961) was John Cassavetes’ directorial debut. He regarded it as a failure, which might be why it was so hard to find prior to its DVD release in 2012. Critics didn’t agree with him then, and most still don’t, but I see his point. The film looks very much like a determined effort to reproduce the dissolute grittiness of ‘40s noir that emerges so naturally in films such as Singapore, Gilda, and The Killers but updated to 1961. The “effort” shows far too much in Too Late Blues, which is to say the movie’s style comes off as affected, and never more so than during attempts to be socially edgy: attempts that miss  in any number of ways even by 1961 standards. Regardless, the movie is not without merit. The themes are interesting and there are some good acting turns. The movie stars Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens.

Stella Stevens is a better actress than most of her vehicles give her any chance to show. Sometimes she is the only redeeming element in a movie, as in The Silencers, a spy “comedy” from 1966 in which she provides the only genuine humor. My favorite movie of hers is The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), but she is probably best known from The Poseidon Adventure (1972). In Too Late Blues (1961) she has an early (and, as it would turn out, rare) chance to show some mettle. She also looks stunning in the picture. I’ve met Stella Stevens a few times at conventions in years past. She is charming and unpretentious. We talked about her fun novel Razzle Dazzle with its very Elvis-like protagonist (Stella worked with Elvis in the movie Girls! Girls! Girls!), but we also touched on this film.

I never met the versatile performer Bobby Darin (1936-1973), who recorded a number of hit pop singles starting in the late 1950s, but I nonetheless have a Bobby Darin story. My father was a builder, and in in 1962 he was building houses in Brookside NJ. Mostly they were ranch houses of somewhat less than 2000 square feet (185 square meters) on one acre lots; they sold in the $30,000 to $35,000 range, which was on the higher end of moderate at the time – nice but not extravagant. (The same houses today resell mostly between $400,000 and $500,000 unless upgraded significantly.) One evening my dad came home and said “This guy came on the tract this morning saying he was looking for a new house for his mother. He had a real chip on his shoulder. He said, ‘I’m Bobby Darin.’ I held out my hand and told him, ‘I’m Dick Bellush.’ He said again, ‘I’m Bobby Darin, the singer.’ I shrugged and told him ‘I’m Dick Bellush, the builder.’ He got all huffy and insulted.” My dad, of course, had no clue who Bobby Darin was. My sister, however, who was 12 at the time, was losing it at this point. My dad shrugged again. Bobby Darin never did buy one his houses.

The plot (minor *spoilers*): A jazz musician who calls himself Ghost (Bobby Darin) takes his music seriously. He won’t compromise his artistic integrity for commercial success even if it means he and his band play charities, festivals, parks, tiny clubs, and old age homes for scale or for free. When offered a chance to record, he insists on playing only what he wants. Ghost meets Jess “Princess” Polanski (Stella Stevens) at a party where hears her sing; she is more than the floozy she chooses to be, but doesn’t have the self-confidence to act like anything else. She and Ghost have the same agent: a weasel of a man named Benny who deeply resents Ghost for being a better musician and for effortlessly winning the interest of Jess. He arranges for Ghost to be humiliated in front of her, after which Ghost acts like such a jackass that he ruins things with Jess. Ghost breaks up the band and pursues the dollar by acting as a gigolo to a wealthy woman who likes and supports jazz musicians, though he insists he still doesn’t compromise his music. There are other losses of integrity one can have than artistic ones, however, and perhaps those are the more important ones. When Ghost begins to suspect this, it might or might not be too late for him and for Jess, who has abandoned singing in favor of picking up middle age men in bars for a living.

Despite its flaws the movie is worth a look, not least for its glimpse into that strange period of time when the ‘50s were over but the ‘60s, as we usually think of them, had not yet arrived. As for its central question of whether it is ever too late to recover from our past decisions, sometimes it really is. Sometimes not. Knowing the difference can be tricky. So is knowing whether or not to try.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Roller Derby Recap: JDB vs. Suburbia

In an exciting match last night the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) on its home track in Morristown took on Suburbia Roller Derby visiting from Westchester. Last November JDB scored a convincing win (254-161) against Suburbia, but a lot can change in 10 months and it did.

JDB got off to a good start with #3684 Californikate putting 14 points on the board. Firm blocking maintained JDB’s lead for the first several minutes, but a 15 point power jam by Suburbia’s #41 Harm’n’Hammer flipped the lead to Suburbia. #64 Madeline Alfight flipped it back to JDB with a 13 point jam. #1979 Smashing Pumpkin soon took it back for Suburbia and #1952 Queen Elizadeath II then expanded the lead. #21 Piña Collider showed a special knack for exploiting holes in JDB defenses. Suburbia blocking was also solid with #1234, #555, and #92 working well together in formation. Despite strong JDB efforts, including a nice apex jump by Californikate, the first half ended 82-112 in favor of Suburbia.

In the second half the score tightened several times only to see Suburbia widen it again. The trend of the second half suddenly shifted when a power jam by Californikate closed the gap to 4 points. With 9 minutes remaining, a successful jam by Madeline Alfight took JDB into the lead 177-170.  Queen Elizadeath II soon tied up the score and then flipped the lead to Suburbia once again. The score stood at 180-192 with 4 minutes remaining. Piña Collider put Suburbia over the 200 mark and Suburbia’s Smashing Pumpkin scored the last points of the game in the final jam.

Final Score: 184-207 in favor of Suburbia

Suburbia Roller Derby:
#1952 Queen Elizadeath II (jammer)
#275 Ramma Jamma (blocker)

#3684 Californikate (jammer)
#221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes (blocker)

Monday, September 10, 2018

Mars Rocks

Notes on a 2018 novel set on Mars and a 1956 movie so far removed from current realities that it might as well be:

One Way by S.J. Morden

Since the early days of science fiction there have been hard scifi aficionados, who prefer the science and technology in the stories to be correct or at least credible, and soft scifi fans who don’t really care very much so long as the story has other merits. There are writers for each. A few scifi stories clank with severe techno-accuracy while others are pure fantasy. Most fall somewhere in the middle with at least one crucial improbability driving the plot, but they still tend to lean one way or the other. The planet Mars has been the setting for plenty of both types, including the soft scifi The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and the hard scifi trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson starting with Red Mars. The latter is almost a terraforming textbook. Hard scifi has gotten a boost recently from the success of Andy Weir’s The Martian, which was made into a movie starring Matt Damon. S.J. Morden, a planetary geologist by training, is very much in the hard camp with his novel One Way, even though it is as much murder mystery as scifi.

Frank Kittridge is a murderer. He isn’t the ordinary sort of murderer if there is such a thing: he killed his son’s drug dealer. Nonetheless, he was sentenced to life without parole. The parent company of the private business that contracts to run the prison where he is incarcerated, however, makes him an offer: go to Mars and build a permanent laboratory base and living quarters for future NASA scientists. There is no coming back. He will serve out his sentence on Mars maintaining the facility even after it is built. At least technically it won’t be prison, but, of course, where can he go? Seven other life prisoners get the same offer. The six men and two women – most guilty of worse crimes than Frank’s – will work under a non-convict company supervisor who will return to earth after the construction. Frank understands that the eight prisoners are chosen for being cheap and expendable, but he accepts the offer.

After rigorous but rushed training in the desert they are off to Mars. The details of the Mars facility design and how it would be constructed are accurate and based on actual proposals. The plot thickens during the construction on Mars when prisoners start to die in accidents that to Frank don’t seem to be accidents.

The book’s biggest weakness is that the only sympathetic character is Frank, which is why he is the only one I’ve bothered to name in this brief review. Of course, that makes all the others, including the officious company supervisor, credible suspects if in fact the accidents are murders. This helps with the mystery though not with the human aspects of the story. Still, it is creditable hard scifi, and in other respects the book works at least well enough for an overall Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Rock Rock Rock! (1956)

Produced on the extreme cheap by early rock promoter Alan Freed, Rock Rock Rock! (1956) is a bad movie (it really is) that I like to revisit once a decade or so, partly as nostalgia, partly because it is unintentional camp, and partly because some of the music isn’t bad at all.

The plot barely rises to the level of simplistic. A young Tuesday Weld as Dori needs money for a strapless gown for the prom. Despite a singing voice dubbed by Connie Francis, she doesn’t win (or enter) a contest for the money even though a friend urges her to enter one. (I suspect the initial draft of the script had her do just that, but the contest was written out in a revision.) Instead (do I really need to warn of *spoilers* in a movie such as this?) she bamboozles daddy for the cash. Meantime she breaks up with her boyfriend but then makes up with him at the prom. During the quick makeup kiss, her boyfriend Tommy looks very uncomfortable and standoffish, as well he should: though both are supposed to be in high school, he (Teddy Randazzo) is 21 while Tuesday Weld is 13 (maybe 12 at the time of filming).

None of that matters. The plot is a bare excuse for Alan Freed to host musical acts on a TV show and (as happens only in the movies) at Dori’s prom. The acts include Chuck Berry, LaVerne Baker, Jimmy Cavallo House Rockers, Cirino and the Bowties, the Coney Island Kids, the Flamingos, and Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers. This film requires a high tolerance for low budgets, bad scripting, and bad acting, but with that tolerance it’s an amusing peek at a moment in time when rock’n’roll was getting its footing in popular culture.

Trailer: Rock Rock Rock!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

A Late Summer Night’s Screen

When I was still a grade-schooler, Max Reinhardt’s lavish 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream played on TV frequently. (Television was very different then; due to a shortage of content, old movies got a lot of air time on the independent TV channels.) I watched it multiple times. I had only the slightest clue what was going on. I grasped that Puck was messing with the dreamers by using love potion eye drops and magic, but the details escaped me. It didn’t matter. The whole thing was such a weird spectacle with prancing bats, goblin musicians, flying fairies, and a man with the head of an ass that I watched it anyway. In the years that followed, however, I didn’t bother to revisit it precisely because I had seen it before. But of course in a significant sense I hadn’t – not with an adult’s eyes and ears and with a familiarity with Shakespeare’s written words. With some trepidation last week, I decided to spin up a DVD and take another look.

It is more bizarre than I remembered, not least because of the casting choices from the stable of Warner Brothers, which was a studio best known at the time for gangster movies and comic musicals. Jimmy Cagney as Bottom, Hugh Herbert as Snout, and Joe E. Brown as Flute? Cagney looks completely out of place, though he appropriately plays his character as a ham. Surprisingly, Dick Powell isn’t bad as Lysander even though (or perhaps because) he plays the part the same way he does any other role in a romantic comedy. A very young Olivia de Havilland does well enough as Hermia. 14-year-old Mickey Rooney’s enthusiastically cackling Puck is annoying, but that also works for the character. Several of the other actors put the lignin in wooden, but they are overwhelmed by the ballet-style (I hesitate actually to call it ballet) dances of fairies and woodland creatures to a score by Mendelssohn. The movie starts, by the way, with a 6+ minute overture for no explicable reason. The special effects are impressive and laughably hokey in equal measure.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is complex and freaky enough as written. As the reader likely knows, several subplots intertwine. There are the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, the forbidden love of Hermia and Lysander, the unrequited love of Helena for Demetrius, the three common laborers who struggle to perform a play about Pyramus and Thisbe, the dispute between fairy royalty Oberon and Titania over her abduction of a comely young boy, and the fairy Puck who causes mischief. It’s no wonder I lost track of the details as a boy.

We are unlikely to see anything like this version attempted again, and perhaps that’s a good thing, but if you can handle Shakespeare on screen at all (I do know people who can’t) this is in my top five of ones you should see. That does not mean it is one of the five best. It isn’t. It only means it is one you should see. I’m glad I finally did…again.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Dinner and a Show

As a single man, I find cooking for myself to be impractical as an everyday practice. I’m quite capable of it: I host Thanksgiving at my house for at least a dozen (often more) guests every year as well other seasonal get-togethers and summer BBQs. But that is the point: what is practical for a group is not necessarily so for an individual. Oh, I’ll make a sandwich or warm up something ready-made, but seldom anything more ambitious than that when I’m home alone. So, most days I’ll eat out for one meal; it can be any one of the usual three, but most commonly lunch. It doesn’t cost any more than eating at home – there is always substantial unintended waste when grocery shopping only for oneself – and the meals are better. Naturally, these aren’t expensive restaurants, but modestly priced diners and coffee shops. Fortunately, NJ has more independently owned non-chain diners than any other state, so they aren’t hard to find.

When alone, I usually sit at the counter in the places that have counters – and most of the ones I frequent do. There is a curious thing about being a “counter guy.” Counter guys are apparently invisible to anyone but the waiters and waitresses. People in booths within easy earshot of the counter stools will have the most remarkable personal conversations. Mind you, I don’t go to these places to eavesdrop. I go there for a burger, omelet, or Reuben or something, but when someone four feet away is complaining about a philandering spouse at a volume louder than the background music, short of slapping hands on one’s own ears and humming, it is hard to shut out the words no matter how much one would like to do so. Invisibility is not deafness.

I’m often the only person at the counter. Nowadays, most single patrons opt for booths, but counters were much more popular when I was younger as one veteran waitress confirmed to me. (Some counter waitresses – to whom I’m usually “hon” or “sweetie” even if they know my name – are chatty when business is slow; the waiters just ask if I want a refill of coffee.) “Twenty years ago,” she told me, “there was still a counter culture.” (I’m not sure if she intended her own pun.) “The counter guys were very regular,” she said. “They came in at the same time every day and had the exact same order.” She pointed at my Western omelet and said, “If it was a Western, it was always a Western. I would tell the cook to put it on as soon as he walked in the door.” I had the feeling I was a disappointment for never ordering the same thing twice in a row.

Except to the diner employees, however, my invisibility seems to engage as soon as my posterior hits the stool. From that moment, none of the other customers seem to care (or notice) if their voices project counter-ward. (I don’t know any of them, of course, which no doubt is a big factor in their insouciance.) There is a noticeable gender difference in conversation among customers as well as among servers. It is not true that men don’t talk about personal or emotional matters. They do. Often excessively. I know this for a fact. For whatever reason though, they don’t seem to do it much in diner booths, at least not audibly unless they are telling their kids to behave. Mostly I hear them talk about road trips and expenses and work deadlines and home maintenance and so on. Sometimes there is a remark that some business associate is a jackass, but without illuminating details. The less discreet conversations are almost always among women. I’ve heard an older woman give a younger one advice on how to deal with the latter’s fiancé who is being manipulated by his ex by means of their kids. I’ve heard about difficult relatives at funerals, about break-ups, about evil bosses, about bad dates, about faithless friends, and about aggravating mothers. I heard two decide to walk out without paying because they didn’t like the Caesar salad. (I’ve had that diner’s Caesar salad, which tasted to me like every other Caesar salad I’ve ever had, but de gustibus.) Once again, I don’t go there with the intent of listening to conversation. It’s simply like the music out of the diners’ speakers: it’s just in the air and hard not to hear without making a spectacle of oneself – and that would create another topic of ambient conversation.

According to biolinguist and author John Locke in Eavesdropping: An Intimate History, humans are hardwired to listen to surrounding conversations, and he says that the habit makes us better people. He means passive hearing, which is a kind of situational awareness. He doesn’t advocate active eavesdropping such as phone tapping, hacking, peeking through keyholes, or Jimmy Stewart’s version of voyeurism in Rear Window, though he does say the impulse to do so is a product of evolution “because there is no group of people in the world, no society that doesn’t do this, and that hasn’t been doing this for recorded history.” Children learn much about how to behave not just by direct experience but by overhearing other children and adults around them. Adults continue to adapt to social expectations in different environments the same way. So the invisible counter guy can’t really help overhearing all that, but at least (if Locke is right) it will make him a better person, so that is something.

Linda Ronstadt - Girls Talk

Monday, August 27, 2018

Changing Minds

The title of Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind sounds like a self-help book of a type much needed in an age when we are far too apt to make a virtue of being closed-minded toward opinions that differ from our own. In a sense it partly is, but not in the way one might think. The subtitle explains the change the author intends: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Pollan’s book is an informative compendium of the modern history and current state of psychedelics.

It has been 80 years since Sandoz chemist Albert Hoffmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which he called his “problem child.” It is 50 years since LSD became illegal in the US. It is classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule I drug, which by definition is a drug that has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use, and is unsafe to use even under medical supervision. Possession and sale are federal crimes and penalties can be severe. (Marijuana is still a Schedule I drug, by the way, though the feds at present are choosing to ignore intrastate sales in states that have legalized the substance at the state level.) A thing is not so just because government officials say it is, of course. LSD does have medical uses, though the nonmedical ones are just as intriguing.

Pollan didn’t initially intend his research for this book to become personal, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it did. His inquiries into the history, chemistry, and applications of psychedelics led to his own supervised (not officially supervised, but supervised) trips on LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT (toad venom). The lengthy chapter on his trips is the least interesting section since such experiences are by their nature personal and difficult to communicate verbally except in banalities. (My own short story on the subject, however, can be found at Brown Acid.) The reaction to these substances is highly context-dependent and is also dependent on the predispositions of the user; religious people are likely to interpret their experiences as religious, for example, while secularists are more likely to speak of a more generic “one with the universe” sensation. The chapter is still useful, however, for understanding the author’s own mindset and biases.

Timothy Leary was the face and voice of LSD in the 1960s, but according to Pollan he did psychedelia no favors. His antics merely scared the straight establishment into outlawing the substances. The more interesting First Wave research, some of it notoriously for the US military, was done not at Harvard by Leary in the 60s but by others in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Civilian researchers included Humphrey Osmond, Abram Hoffer, and Al Hubbard. Osmond supervised Aldous Huxley’s experiments with mescaline in 1953; Huxley wrote the influential The Doors of Perception the following year and later would experiment with LSD and befriend Timothy Leary. Studies conducted up through the early 60s showed real promise in treating alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression, mostly by changing the perspective of the subjects. LSD binds to serotonin receptors in the brain, which is what SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: standard pharmaceutical treatments for depression) do, though the effects are more radical. Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, credited his insights to a 1934 experience with belladonna (which has hallucinogenic properties) and he experimented with LSD in the 50s. Research largely halted, however, with the Schedule I designation.

Leary was certainly antic, but there is no denying his popular influence, much as Pollan would prefer not to dwell on it. So, I will make one point regarding his most famous dictum, even though Pollan doesn’t, since it relates to the change of perspective at the core of the therapeutic and transcendental uses of psychedelics: “The only way out is in. Tune in, turn on, drop out.” He was not urging people to crank up the stereo, drop acid, and give up. As he explained whenever asked, he meant that the way to personal freedom is through inner space: tune into yourself, expand your mind (yes, he advocated psychedelics to help with that), and drop out of the rat race so many of us mindlessly run. Be free instead create your own destiny. That’s not the same as saying “be a lump on a couch,” though I suppose one’s destiny could be that; some people achieve that destiny without psychedelics. Some past users are very hardworking indeed. Steve Jobs attributed his creativity in part to his experience with LSD. He gibed Bill Gates for not having tried it, though Gates said he in fact did.

Since 2000 there has been a renaissance of experimental research into psychedelics (psilocybin and LSD in particular) at legitimate facilities, including at NYU, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins. (Even Schedule I drugs can be grudgingly granted legal exceptions for some experimental studies.) Once again the substances are proving useful in combatting addiction and depression. They also are proving valuable for relieving anxieties in terminal patients. Whether the trips of the dying are felt as spiritual or simply as the loss of ego, they seem to help bring peace of mind.

Substances as powerful as these can be dangerous (as is alcohol), of course, and the risks must be acknowledged. They expand most minds but have been known to shatter a few. That is reason enough in the minds of many to continue to outlaw them. So, it is anyone’s guess whether they ever will regain a legal status even if just for (non-experimental) therapeutic uses. It seems unlikely, but back around 1900 the notion that it could be any business of government to restrict at all what people chose to put in their bodies also seemed unlikely: cocaine and laudanum (opium and alcohol) could be bought over the counter at the time. Times change. Perhaps Hoffman’s problem child may again be allowed to come out and play.

Original Broadway Cast: Walking in Space

Monday, August 20, 2018

Vicious Mythic Parties: Three Reviews

Halestorm: Vicious (2018)
Vicious (2018) is the fourth studio album by Halestorm, not counting cds of cover songs. Their last album Into the Wild Life got mixed reviews, largely because it wasn’t what fans expected. Lzzy Hale’s raw vocals backed by guitar, bass, and brother Arejay Hale on drums have been delivering basic hardcore power rock’n’roll since 2009. A few tracks on Into the Wild Life fit that description, but the band also experimented with various other sounds including country and pop. It wasn’t bad, but much of the fan base wasn’t happy. Fans have no reason to complain about Vicious. “What doesn’t kill me makes me vicious,” sings Hale on the title track. The rock is back. From the opening song Black Vultures to the speed rock “Uncomfortable” to the melodic “Killing Ourselves to Live” to the final sentimental (acoustic but un-silent) “The Silence” and everything in between, the album keeps the edge in sound and lyrics that rock should have “just to make you uncomfortable.” Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Myth, Metaphor, and Morality by Mark Field
I didn’t watch Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer during its initial run of 1997-2003. Those years were tumultuous for me personally, and not in a good way. Even had I the time back then, I would not have been inclined to seek out a campy horror show that appeared to be aimed at teenagers. Only several years later did I idly give some reruns a view and find myself impressed. Yes, it is a campy horror show aimed primarily at teenagers, but it is intelligently scripted and funny. (The shoestring budget first season is admittedly shaky, but it was a 1997 midseason replacement, so there are only 12 episodes in Season One to get through.) It is a show adults can enjoy, and one soon notices that the monsters, demons, and vampires are metaphors for the challenges we all face growing up.

Lest one think that is reading too much into it, the reading is shared by cultural critics and by the creators of the show. There have been more academic studies (called Buffy Studies – really) on Buffy than any other TV show. Said James Marsters (who played the vampire Spike on the show), “I’m not at all surprised that the show in any form continues to live on. I don’t want to oversell this but it’s the same theme as Catcher in the Rye. It’s the same theme as Hamlet. How do you get through adolescence? ... I’m really glad Joss was able to find a metaphor to talk about something that is a serious subject with so much humor.” Whedon’s taste for existentialist philosophy informs the show (the vampire Angel, played by David Boreanaz, can be seen reading Sartre’s La nausée in one scene) along with the theories of Freud and Jung. Not always, of course. In the last episode of Season Four several main characters have meaningful metaphorical dreams; in each of them a fellow with slices of cheese makes a brief appearance. He doesn’t mean anything. Joss is just playing with the audience. Sometimes cheese is just cheese.

One of the more informative and accessible books on the subject is Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Myth, Metaphor, and Morality by Mark Field. In 682 pages he gives episode by episode analysis of the philosophical, psychological, and cultural references. I picked up the book mostly to see whether there was that much to say about a TV show. There is, because it is not just about a TV show but about philosophy, psychology, and culture. I sometimes find myself disagreeing with him, but always find his commentary thoughtful and perceptive. Whether you’re revisiting the show or seeing it for the first time, if you want, in effect, an annotated Buffy, this will do as well as any.

**** ****

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)
When writing about young people, authors often are tempted to set their stories in the places and eras of their own youth. It’s just easier to get the nuances right in everything from speech patterns to pop culture references. (A notable exception was Tom Wolfe whose ear for campus dialogue in the 2000s in I Am Charlotte Simmons was as on target as it was for 1960s hippiedom in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) It’s a bonus for the storytelling if that era happens to be a particularly vibrant one. This is the case for author Neil Gaiman (b.1960) whose How to Talk to Girls at Parties, originally a scifi short story and later a graphic novella, is set in punk-era London. The 2017 film version stars Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman, and Alex Sharp.

In 1977 Enn (Sharp) and his friends leave a Croydon punk rock club at closing time to find an after hours house party. Despite some wrong turns they find a house party, but it’s not the one they were seeking. These partiers are different. The boys assume they are some kind of cult from California, but they actually come from much farther away than that. They are manifesting in human form to accumulate certain types of data prior to “the eating”; the aliens have solved the population problem by consuming their own (adult) offspring. Gaiman’s original tale ends when the boys leave the party (“flee” might be a better verb), but this scene happens only 20 minutes into the 102 minute movie. The film’s plot continues as Zan (Elle Fanning), one of the aliens, asks Enn’s help to “further access the punk.” He is happy to comply with a little help from punk scene queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman).

Gaiman’s short story is a tightly plotted and themed one: Enn fears the alien siren song even as he is drawn to it. (The metaphor of clueless young men fumblingly attempting to interact with women is an obvious one.) The movie by contrast goes off in multiple directions at once: part romcom, part 70s retrospective, part youth rebellion, part scifi parody, and more. The result is messy, but not really a bad messy. This is not a great film, but it is agreeably weird. That’s enough to earn it a mild Thumbs Up.

Trailer: How to Talk to Girls at Parties