Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952)

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952): adapted by Edward Rose, Wells Root, Noel Langley, and John Balderston from the novel by Anthony Hope; directed by Richard Thorpe; starring Stewart Granger (Rudolf Rassendyll/ King Rudolf V), Deborah Kerr (Princess Flavia), Louis Calhern (Col. Zapt), Jane Greer (Antoinette de Mauban), Lewis Stone (The Cardinal), Robert Douglas (Michael), and James Mason (Rupert):

Stewart Granger had quite a run of box-office hits in the early 1950's, most notably King Solomon's Mines, Scaramouche, and this film. He's an amiable presence, though once one realizes how much like Bruce Campbell he looks, things can get a bit distracted.

Here he's both the crown prince of fictional European country Ruritania and that crown prince's identical cousin. Yep, identical cousin. When rivals of the prince kidnap him on the eve of his coronation, the cousin must imitate the prince until the prince is found and rescued. OK!

Things remain light throughout, and the film clocks in at a totally reasonable 96 minutes. It's a bit slow to begin with, as pretty much all the sword-fighting and derring-do occurs in the last half-hour. Granger had quite a year for lengthy cinematic sword fights -- the superior Scaramouche was also released in 1952. 

The Prisoner of Zenda is a genial, Technicolour-bright costume drama with winning performances from Granger, Louis Calhern, and a particularly oily James Mason as the mastermind behind the kidnapping and attempted coup d'etat.  Deborah Keer sparkles as the love interest, Princess Flavia. Recommended.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Divided States of Hysteria (2017): written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin

The Divided States of Hysteria (2017): written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin: Legendary comic writer-artist Howard Chaykin stirred up controversy when The Divided States of Hysteria came out in single-issue form in 2017

Much of the flack came from the Left, an odd turn of events because Chaykin is vocally left-wing and has been for decades. But he's also been an expert at making readers uncomfortable for decades now. 

For example, he caused the late Harlan Ellison to have a world-class freak-out with his revisionist Shadow miniseries in the mid-1980's, a book which logically pointed out that the Shadow was a fascist sociopath and then ran with it all the way to awesomeness.

The Divided States of Hysteria is a near-future dystopia in which much of the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government died in a terrorist attack before the book's narrative begins. Rather than offer a bipartisan fantasy of a perfect President within this scenario, as Designated Survivor does, Chaykin instead offers more chaos, horror, incompetence, and a group of "heroes" who make the Dirty Dozen look about as scary as the goddam Goonies.

At the heart of a lot of complaints, I think, is Chaykin's ability to make violence and fascist tendencies look attractive. It's sort of the point -- as some wag once pointed out, a lot of comic-book superheroes are fascistic, anti-government sociopaths. Or would be, if they were real. But isn't fun to watch them solve things with punches and explosions?

At the heart, though, of those complaints is also the inability of many people, left or right, to separate the representation of something from advocacy of that same thing, along with a a pronounced and escalating ability to take offense at anything that isn't pablum. Bland, inoffensive pablum. You're mean, Early! How dare you draw the aftermath of a completely plausible 21st-century American lynching AND PUT IT ON YOUR COVER! 

Identity politics also requires that one of the two people closest to being a hero in The Divided States of Hysteria, as a trans woman, SHOULD NOT BE REPRESENTED BY A HETEROSEXUAL WHITE MALE CARTOONIST!!!

But she is a great character. And dead sexy.

At one point, female terrorists detonate dirty bombs they've had implanted in their wombs. This is not a pretty scenario. I imagine Tom Clancy vomiting with rage somewhere. So too someone on the Left. Chaykin has decided to find ways to horrify the reader, and the same old beheadings and IED attacks and marathon bombings have lost the power to shock. They're becoming background noise.

In order to stop America's enemies -- and redeem his own devastated reputation, and avenge the deaths of his mistress and wife and family in a terrorist attack  -- a disgraced CIA operative puts together a team of four convicted murderers. They're up against a cadre of terrorist leaders and a Russian operative and the incompetence of their own country's government. The President they're working for, a replacement from the Cabinet's lowest levels, is a compromised hack. 

So five misfits.... well, 'misfit' is a bit of a misnomer. Besides our CIA protagonist, our heroes are a trans man who killed three clients in self-defence, a mob hitman with a serial-killing hobby, a criminal accountant who murdered a couple of dozen rich people with poison, and an African-American serial-killing sniper who's a really good shot and loves shooting white civilians in the head.

The Challengers of the Unknown these are not. Challengers of the Unthinkable, maybe.

The violence is horrifying. The art is slick and gorgeous and horrifyingly clinical at atimes. The 'sound-design' from letterer Ken Bruzenak is fascinating enough that it gets its own 4-page explanatory essay at the back of the volume. Over it all hangs a question Chaykin has been asking and answering for a long time in his work -- are these the heroes you want? Because this is what they would really look like.

I mean, there are other questions. And the whole thing, complete with the cynical 'voice' of an omniscient narrator running along with the narrative, is a compelling action narrative, blood-soaked and morally dubious. But it's also a compelling examination of the heroism people love when it's sanitized in everything from James Bond movies to daily news reports of Seal Team 6 and Our Brave Black Ops Boys in Afghanistan. 

And I haven't even delved into the sexual and racial politics explored throughout! The Divided States of America delves into an America besotted with sex and violence, sometimes at the same time, sometimes as the same thing. 

Along with the narration comes a recurring series of images of death and horror from various American sites. The terrorist groups themselves are a mixed bag too -- an All-Star, Dream Team-up of White Supremacy and Black Power and Islamicism, coordinated by a Russian operative who's also a Hollywood movie producer. It's doom alone that counts, all moving towards a final attack on a telethon for a wounded America, complete with the President, to be destroyed by the same groups who are also the event's public donors.

It's not so much that the satire and the violence both blister. It's that the entire book seems entirely plausible. Chaykin's been examining the puritanical, pornographic nature of American culture for decades. The American love of violence as a solution, and the attendant separation of the world into Good and Evil, Us and Them. Now all accompanied by the eternal chatter of social media.

Bang bang, screw screw, shoot shoot. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Captain Canuck Season 1: Aleph

Captain Canuck Season 1: Aleph (2015-2016): written by Kalman Andrasofszky with Jason Loo; illustrated by Kalman Andrasofszky, Leonard Kirk, Jason Loo, and Adam Gorham: Created by Richard Comely and Ron Leishman, Captain Canuck's first comic book appeared in 1975. This reboot's first issue arrived in 2015. 40 years!

The first storyline offers competent and sometimes inspired storytelling without throwing out the original series' idea that Canuck works for a non-partisan peace-keeping agency (here dubbed 'Equilibrium') or that Canuck tries to use non-lethal force when battling his foes. 

The comic also emphasizes the Captain's reliance on his team, with more focus on those coordinating things back at the Nunavut base and on fellow operative Kebec, now a female French-Canadian sharpshooter.

Kalman Andrasofszky offers a solid script and occasionally shaky but mostly solid art, with Leonard Kirk taking over art duties a couple of issues into the run. Kirk is also perfectly competent, though there are a few pages in which it's somewhat unclear what's happening in some panels, a problem that may lie at either the script or art level. I'd prefer sharper inking of both artists in the mode of classic X-Men Terry Austin on John Byrne. The story seems to cry out for a crisp line.

Many of the enjoyably wonky aspects of the original Captain Canuck return here, including super-villain Mr. Gold (now with vastly enhanced powers!) and the Captain's alien origin for his more-than-normal strength (a crashed UFO in the Arctic). This is still a comic of the moment, however, complete with an opening rescue mission/battle set in Alberta's tar sands.

Captain Canuck is his usual humble, hyper-competent self. His brother is now much more of a factor in the story, his motivations questionable for much of the book. Some of the back-and-forth between Canuck and the non-super-powered members of his tactical team recall Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.. And like Hellboy, Canuck really doesn't want to let people die, even his enemies. The Deadpool-like hilts on Cap's back aren't swords -- they're non-lethal Taser batons. Cap's major other power, besides enhanced but not ludicrous super-strength, is a personal force field. Yep. A CANADIAN SHIELD!!!


The back pages of the graphic collection reveal that Chapterhouse, the Captain's new publisher, has ambitious plans for him and a number of other Canadian superheroes new and old. None of these new books are out yet, however, though the creative teams for the books appear in the back of the volume. Too ambitious? We'll see. 

Shared universes are fine, but it's good to get the first book off the ground, and promptly, before plotting out a whole group of interconnected titles. While the second story-line (Season 2) of Captain Canuck has begun in the 'floppies.'* it has been two years between series and counting.

But I hope Captain Canuck, at least, is a success. Chapterhouse may be too ambitious, but at least it has a comic-book-loving Canadian celebrity as its front man (Jay Baruchel). Recommended.

* Traditional 32-page comic books.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Normal (2016) by Warren Ellis

Normal (2016) by Warren Ellis: In Normal Head, Oregon exists a recovery center for futurists who've gazed too long into the abyss of the future and gone mad. The center's population divides itself into camps of civilian and military predictive experts. Into this strange place is dropped Adam Dearden, who's worked both sides of the street and finally had a massive nervous breakdown.

Normal is a short, pithy novel about the Surveillance Earth we all live in now and the many repercussions physical and mental of always being observed and recorded. Ellis has his moments of satiric fun, especially with energy drinks (seriously). Normal's a dead-serious novel, though, populated with eccentric characters who seem less and less eccentric as the novel goes along.

A 'locked-room mystery' drives most of the plot, with Dearden the man who has to solve it --and why it happened. The explanation lies in whatever drove Dearden over the edge, an incident that Dearden can barely start to ponder without collapsing into a weeping wreck on the floor.

The futurists are a fascinating bunch. Ellis has spent a lot of time dealing with such forward-thinkers. Their (former) jobs here run the gamut from theories of water and waste management in the face of global warming to how best to deploy killer-drones in an urban environment. Along the way, one realizes that New York City will be destroyed by its own water and waste management problems should the city ever get hit with a hurricane above Category 1. And it will.

And the drone theories make perfect sense. They may already be in place, set there by governments and corporations and think tanks. Whee!

As is usual for Ellis, he's written something both funny and deeply disturbing. One may start longing for a personal EMP generator after reading it. Is there no escape from Brother Eye? Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. (2007)

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. (2007): written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Stuart Immonen and Wade Grawbadger: Warren Ellis' brilliant, fractured satire of all things superhero somehow got 12 issues from Marvel in 2007, possibly because Ellis was and is such a popular, ostensibly sort-of mainstream writer of superheroes.

With Stuart Immonen on art, best known for fine work on Superman and other DC characters, Ellis crafts a Marvel book that feels more like a revisionist DC book -- Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol most specifically, from the late 1980's and early 1990's. Nextwave is a bit more Juvenalian in its satire, though -- the heroes are pissier and the metacommentary doesn't show much love for the weirdness of the characters it lampoons.

A lot of those weird characters -- Machine Man, Fin Fang Foom, Devil Dinosaur -- are oddballs from one of Jack Kirby's stints at Marvel. Some are riffs on 'real' Marvel characters from the pages of Dr. Strange. H.A.T.E. parodies S.H.I.E.L.D.. Ellis even brings characters previously seen only in the pages of Marvel's short-lived superhero parody comic Not Brand Ecch! on stage, with ridiculous results.

The Nextwave team itself consists of has-beens and never-weres, most prominently Monica Rambeau, Marvel's second Captain Marvel, then Photon, now just going by her real name. Machine Man also now goes by his civilian name. The Captain is one or another or possibly all of those lesser-known characters who used 'Captain' in their superhero monikers. There's a minor X-Men/X-Force superheroine with a major shop-lifting habit and the ability to make things explode by pointing at them. And there's Lady Bloodstone, daughter of a really minor 1970's Marvel monster-hunter and Doc Savage knock off.

It's funny and nasty if you know all the characters and situations Ellis chooses to pummel. It's hilarious if you don't. As Ellis pummels many of his own superhero writing tics, it all seems fair among the figurative and literal blood-letting. Immonen is an able collaborator, looser and more cartoony than I remember him, shining especially in stretches that parody the art styles of others and in a series of two-page action spreads that are both dynamic and completely ridiculous. Tik tik tik BOOM! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Running Man (1982)

The Running Man (1982) by Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman: Almost unrecognizable as the novel that spawned the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, The Running Man is a gritty, grimy, raw slice of action-dystopia. Poor people compete in a variety of televised game shows (my favourite is Swim With Crocodiles, actually). Our protagonist is a skinny malcontent. Definitely not Schwarzenegger material. He's way more interesting and heroic than that, hoping against hope that he can strike a heroic blow against the System. 

And thanks to one of the greatest coincidences in the history of Stephen King, maybe our Ben Richards, contestant on The Running Man, may get to be that heroic spanner in the works! A reality show in which contestants are hunted to death for the amusement of the masses seems more relevant today than in 1982. The ending is probably unfilmable. I'll leave you to discover why. Recommended.


The Trip (2010): written by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; directed by Michael Winterbottom: This hilarious fake-reality movie about British comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing themselves as they take a restaurant tour of the Lake District is a classic of partially improvised buddy movies. 

You'll quote, or at least try to quote, many moments of comic oneupsmanship in which Coogan and Brydon offer duelling versions of Michael Caine. Coogan will be a know-it-all. Brydon will memorize lines of poetry the night before they visit sites associated with Coleridge and Wordsworth. Coogan will bristle at the fact that Brydon is better-known than he is, despite Coogan's critical acclaim for characters that include Alan Partridge. 

The movie was boiled down from a 6-episode BBC miniseries, leaving about 20 minutes of further material out there for you to track down. As is, The Trip is one of the funniest dialogue-centered film comedies ever made, a definite Top 100 pick. And such great shots of gourmet food and scenery! You were only supposed to blow the doors off! Highly recommended.

The Trip To Spain (2017): written by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; directed by Michael Winterbottom: The third Trip movie (after The Trip (2010) and The Trip To Italy (2014)) finds British comedians and reluctant pals Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon touring restaurants in Spain for a week as part of both an article and Coogan's work on a memoir of his youthful sojourns through Spain. And such great scenery!

Things are a bit more melancholy this time around, with Coogan especially feeling the weight of age and Hollywood disappointment despite the critical and commercial success (including an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay) of Philomena, the Judi Dench movie he adapted and co-wrote and co-starred in prior to this film. As Brydon notes to Coogan's manager when she phones him to ask where Coogan has disappeared to at the end of the film, "Oh, he's probably found a nun and is telling her all about Judi Dench."

Despite that melancholy, there are still many moments of improvised comedy, dueling impressions of people that include Roger Moore and Mick Jagger, a reprise of their duelling Michael Caine bit from The Trip, some musings on dinosaurs and the Spanish Civil War, a call-back to Coogan's obsession with crampons, and a lot of shots of gourmet food and scenery. The last two minutes or so pay off as a riff on the biography of Miguel Cervantes, who has come up a lot in the movie because, you know, Spain. Highly recommended.