Sunday, June 26, 2011

Welcome to Perry Como's Nightmare


The Last Temptation, written by Neil Gaiman and Alice Cooper, illustrated by Michael Zulli (1994; this edition 2001): Neil Gaiman in a very minor key, collaborating with Alice Cooper on a comic-book tie-in to Cooper's 1994 concept album of the same name. It would probably help to own and listen to that album prior to, or contemporaneously with, this comic book. A 12-year-old boy gets tempted by a malign supernatural being called only the Showman (who looks like Alice Cooper in full make-up). Is the Showman a serial killer of children, the ghost of a serial killer of children, or the Devil himself? And what will happen on Hallowe'en?


Song lyrics are somewhat awkwardly wedged into various sequences in the comic. Both the Showman and David, the12-year-old protagonist, previously appeared in the 1970`s Cooper concept album Welcome to my Nightmare, which itself indirectly spawned a Marvel comic book starring Alice Cooper. Historically speaking, comic books and musical stars have never been a great fit, though the Superman comic book in which Lois Lane falls in love with Perry Como is hilarious.


The whole thing seems underwritten -- David, the protagonist, isn't so much unsympathetic as he is so sketchy a character as to be unidentifiable with on any but the most nebulous terms. Zulli's B&W art is lovely, but would look better reproduced at at least normal comic-book size, rather than the trade paperback size of the available Dark Horse reprint volume. Very lightly recommended for Cooper fans, Zulli fans, and Gaiman completists.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Kirby!


Kirby! King of Comics, written by Mark Evanier, introduced by Neil Gaiman (2008): This loving, lovingly illustrated biography of comic-book writer/artist Jack Kirby -- creator or co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Galactus, Magneto, the original X-Men, Darkseid, the Mighty Thor, the Incredible Hulk, the Boy Commandos, the entire sub-genre of romance comic books, the Red Skull, Nick Fury, the Challengers of the Unknown, Professor X, Cyclops, the Beast, the Thing, Ice-man. Mr. Fantastic, the Mole-man, Machine Man, the Avengers, the Newsboy Legion, the Guardian, OMAC, Etrigan the Demon, Mister Miracle, Big Barda, the Cosmic Cube, the Negative Zone, the Boom Tube, the Forever People, the Source, the Omega Force, the Astro Force, and literally thousands of other heroes, villains, concepts and supporting characters -- is a joy to read. And it's a teaser for a much longer Evanier biography promised sometime in the next few years.


A limited business sense and the cut-throat nature of the comic-book business in the 1930's and onwards meant that Kirby never got adequately compensated for all the work he did, and that attention-grabbers like longtime writing collaborator Stan Lee got far more credit for their work with Kirby's than they merited. Kirby was there nearly at the beginnings of the American comic-book industry, and he was still occasionally drawing work when he died at the age of 77 in 1994.


Kirby's characters continue to form the backbone of the Marvel Comics Universe; his visual language is there in pretty much every superhero artist who ever lived, as early on Kirby pioneered techniques such as 'breaking' the panel, tilting the 'camera', one- and two-page spreads, and always action delivered by operatically enhanced heroes and villains. No one threw or took a punch like a Kirby character.


Evanier, who knew Kirby for more than 20 years, supplies both a broad historical context and a rich supply of anecdotes both by and about Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg in New York in 1917 -- he changed his name to Jack Kirby because he thought the name sounded more powerful and successful, and not because it was a Jewish name). The book is copiously illustrated with both the expected (comic book covers, panels, and character designs) and the unexpected (a sketch Kirby presented to Paul and Linda McCartney at a 1975 Wings concert in L.A., Kirby's sketch of what should have gone on the Pioneer and Voyager space probe plaques).


Kirby and wife Roz become vital characters; Kirby's treatment by the comic-book companies, and especially Marvel, could form the basis for a tragedy if it weren't for the fact that Kirby essentially refuted tragedy with his outlook, embodied by many of his heroic characters. Those writers, artists, editors, publishers and animation-studio executives who'd come to love him, sometimes only through his work, were able to supply something of a happy financial late Golden Age beginning in the late 1970's and continuing until Kirby's death.


As the American superhero-based comics industry sputters into oblivion, one notes how much it could use someone like Jack Kirby now -- and how little the beancounters and coat-tail-riders deserved him when they had him. Hail to the King, baby! Highly recommended.

The Mightiest Man in the Universe


The Shazam! Archives Volume 3, written by Bill Parker, C.C. Beck and Rod Reed, illustrated by C.C. Beck, Pete Costanza, George Tuska and Mac Raboy (1941-42; collected 2002): Another dandy volume of Golden-Age Captain Marvel (Shazam!) stories, though a bit light on the epitomal 1940's version of Captain Marvel as drawn by C.C. Beck. Blame the good Captain's popularity for that -- Fawcett Publications was rushing out Captain Marvel material in response to fervent public demand, and that required artists and writers other than the then-standard Bill Parker/C.C. Beck team.

George Tuska supplies a surprisingly light line in the stories he illustrates here, and the writers keep the fantastic adventures -- always more fantastic than those of Superman during the 1940's -- rolling along. There's some surprisingly metafictional stories here, along with attempts to mesh the mostly inconsistent worlds of the comic book and the recent Republic Captain Marvel serial, which offered an origin for Captain Marvel much different than that of the comic book.

We also get what is probably the first in-story 'franchising' of a superhero, as Captain Marvel 'drafts' the three similarly powered Lieutenant Marvels. This stuff is all so much more fun than most modern superhero comics, it isn't even funny. Michael Uslan supplies a pointlessly continuity-obsessed introduction. Yes, it's true, Michael -- there's a certain lack of consistency in the presentation of a variety of things in the Captain Marvel stories. That's because no one gave a shit about that stuff in 1941, though one day an obsession with continuity would begin to crush the life out of superhero comics. Highly recommended.

Tarantula!


Tarantula!, written by Robert Fresco, Martin Berkeley, and Jack Arnold, directed by Jack Arnold, starring John Agar (Dr. Hastings), Mara Corday ('Steve' Clayton, and Leo G. Carroll (Professor Deemer) (1955): Giant ant movie Them! was such a hit, it kicked off a slew of giant insect movies. The law of diminishing returns soon held sway, though Tarantula! is one of the best of these movies, primarily because of the skill of longtime science-fiction and comedy director Jack Arnold. Arnold knew how to sell a threatening landscape, and indeed it's the desert -- and not the giant tarantula -- that looms most menacingly in this film over the puny humans.

Professor Deemer and his scientific cohorts are working on some crazy-ass, radioactive food supply to make things grow really big without them having to eat anything other than the radioactive food supply. As the film opens, giant rats, guinea pigs and a tarantula the size of a Great Dane attest to the success of the experiments. Then all hell breaks loose, and it's up to the always affable John Agar as a small-town doctor to figure out what's killing cattle, horses and people. Oh, right. It's a tarantula the size of a ten-story apartment building. Or maybe large -- there are some scale issues with the tarantula.

The tarantula looks surprisingly good. There are only a couple of model shots of the spider, with most of its appearances combining real spider action with shots of the desert, houses, what-have-you. The spider really is a jerk -- it seems to go out of its way to knock down telephone lines, power lines, and the occasional transformer tower, for reasons only a giant tarantula could know. The ending is abrupt, and features a young Clint Eastwood as a jet pilot. Good times! Recommended.

Them!


Them! , written by George Worthing Yates, Russell Hughes and Ted Sherdman, directed by Gordon Douglas, starring James Whitmore (Peterson), Edmund Gwenn (Dr. Medford), Joan Weldon ("Pat" Medford), and James Arness (Graham) (1954): Giant insects are fun to think about and essentially impossible thanks to very basic laws of physics and biology. Insects don't have lungs -- they breathe through their skin. But basic math tells us that as surface area increases as a square, volume increases as a cube.

A 12-foot-long ant (like the ones in this movie) would need lungs, which supply a gigantic amount of oxygen-processing surface area, or it would suffocate. It would also need a major structural and/or chemical redesign to allow its body, which evolved to be a teeny, tiny size, to support its cubed-increasing mass. Of course, hyper-dense endoskeletons or exoskeletons can explain a lot in science-fiction movies -- King Kong's necessary bone density and skin thickness might very well make him nearly impervious to bullets. A giant ant that actually could walk around without essentially crushing itself would be a pretty tough hombre.

In any case, this is a great movie, and several scenes pretty clearly indicate that it was on James Cameron's mind when he conceived Aliens. American atomic testing of the 1940's has created a giant, mutated strain of ants living hitherto undiscovered in the desert until they run out of food and start going after people. And sugar. Because first you get the sugar, then you get the power, and then you get the women. Or something like that. There's a nice, stark moment of cinematography when we come across the entrance to the anthill and see the human and animal skeletal debris littering the ground around it.

Scientists, local police, the FBI and the military soon must band together to find and destroy the anthill (and what an anthill!) before new queens hatch and go forth to be fruitful, multiply, and wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. A young Leonard Nimoy even shows up briefly to operate a teletype. All hands on deck!

Sharp, suspenseful writing and surprisingly good special and visual effects help lend an aura of verisimilitude to the events. The giant mechanical ants are kept off screen for the most part, appearing in glimpses except in major scenes, and the addition of a truly annoying 'ant noise' helps distract one from thinking too much about whether or not the ants look all that convincing.

The cast is terrific as well -- this was a big-budget science-fiction movie when there were almost no ig-budget science-fiction movies, and James Whitmore, James Arness (soon to be Marshal Matt Dillon on TV's Gunsmoke), Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street) and Fess Parker (soon to be Davy Crockett on TV) help sell these improbable events. I'd suggest a remake with modern CGI, but I fear that the sensibilities of most modern filmmakers would put impersonally rendered, reductively literalized CGI ants front and centre, stripping any such remake of tension and suspense. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Superman's Dead


Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?: Deluxe Edition, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Curt Swan, Dave Gibbons, Rick Veitch, Kurt Schaffenberger, George Perez, Murphy Anderson and Brian Bolland (1984-86; collected 2009): Once upon a time, in the farflung past of 1985, DC Comics decided to streamline their comic book universe by putting all their heroes on one Earth, rather than the half-dozen they then occupied. In the aftermath of this, a number of heroes got new, substantially revised origins. One of those superheroes was Superman. The Superman of Earth-One, who'd been kicking around since the late 1950's, would be no more.

Alan Moore (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell) was just then beginning to reach the height of his popularity in 1986 when he begged then-Superman-titles editor Julius Schwartz for a chance to write the last adventure of the Silver and Bronze Age Superman. Longtime Superman penciller Curt Swan would draw the two-issue story, with inks from super-hot artist George Perez, longtime Swan collaborator Murphy Anderson, and longtime Superman family penciller Kurt Schaffenberger.

In 48 pages, Moore and his artistic collaborators got to tell the last Superman story...sort of. Thereafter, the Superman titles would cease publication for a few months and then return with new writers John Byrne and Marv Wolfman telling stories of a 'new', less powerful, younger Man of Steel.

DC seriously pissed off Alan Moore in 1987, resulting in him never working for the parent company again. And so DC has packaged and repackaged Moore's 1980's output for decades, milking a long-deceased cash cow quite handily. This time around, DC packaged together the last Superman two-parter with the two other Bronze Age Superman stories Moore wrote -- the Superman Annual double-length story "For the Man Who Has Everything" and the Superman/Swamp Thing team-up "The Jungle Line" -- into an oversized hardcover package. It's a lovely package, reproducing the art at close to the size it was actually drawn.

All three stories are terrific adventures of the Man of Steel, causing one to wonder what would have happened had Moore accepted DC's offer to write a rebooted Superman full-time. Moore refused on the grounds that he couldn't imagine his outre sensibilities being able to sustain a viable Superman book without major weirdness creeping rapidly in. Maybe he was right, though it's nice to dream.

The core story here -- "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" -- takes us to the then-future of the late 1990's. A reporter for the Daily Planet has come to interview retired and married reporter Lois Lane on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Superman's last battle with all of his enemies. Superman disappeared thereafter, and has been presumed dead ever since. What follows is one of those nice counterpointed stories Moore did so well -- Lois's narration gives us her reaction to the events, while the art and dialogue occasionally shows us things Lois didn't know about, or at least couldn't have known about at the time.

Sometime in the 1980's, Superman and the other heroes of the world had, if not eliminated crime, at least curbed superhuman crime enough that Superman was in semi-retirement. He returns from a space mission for NASA to discover Metropolis under siege by...Bizarro-Superman, a hitherto harmless, defective copy of Superman who lived on his own, weird, cube-shaped world. But now Bizarro has come back as a genocidal killer. And this is just the beginning, as former nuisances like the Prankster and the Toyman come back as homicidal maniacs. What happens when the big guns -- especially Brainiac and Lex Luthor -- return?

And so Superman fights his last, weird battle in the North, at his Fortress of Solitude, trying to keep his remaining friends and loved ones safe while under attack by all his remaining foes. The Legion of Supervillains from the 30th century appears to inform the other villains that this is Superman's final stand -- he will be destroyed by his greatest foe, though history doesn't record who or what that foe is. An impenetrable force field surrounds the fortress, preventing the league of heroes who've arrived to help Superman from being able to offer that help.

All in all, this is a great Superman story, expertly told. Moore manages to throw in almost every Superman villain, trophy, knickknack and ally over the course of 48 pages without making things seem overcrowded, and without resorting to several pages of Basil Exposition. On the waste snows, in the ruins of the Fortress, surrounded by the bodies of dead friends and dead foes, Superman will meet his end. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Forever Stand the Stones


Ghost Walk by Brian Keene (2008): Our world continues to exist because stones with the right sigils and signs on them sit in the right places, keeping evil out. It's amazing how often this trope repeats itself in fantasy and horror fiction -- it's even a key component of the final season of Lost. To some extent, this all derives from Stonehenge and other standing stones, filtered through the sensibilities of writers that include H.P. Lovecraft. Dangerous holes in reality lurk everywhere, behind which terrible things wait to erupt into our reality. Everything you know is wrong! Don't touch that rock!

I really like Brian Keene. He's one of the very, very few practitioners of ultraviolent horror who doesn't make me either vomitous or bored (or vomitous with boredom). He's a terrific synthesizer of the mundane and the fantastic, and his cosmogony really is an interesting piece of work. Maybe Ghost Walk delivers too much exposition when it comes to explaining the supernatural order of things in this particular fictional universe, but that exposition is pretty fascinating. Lovecraft would have approved.

A grieving, small-town Pennsylvania widower decides to honour his wife's memory by doing something charitable. He hits upon the idea of creating a Ghost Walk, a horrifying (for fun) stroll through the woods, with the dark forest's own after-nightfall fearsomeness augmented by various manmade scares along the way. Proceeds will go to charity. What could possibly go worng?

Well, the woods the widower uses for the Ghost Walk border on LeHorn's Hollow, a creepy place burned out by a recent forest fire, a creepy place where murders and disappearances have taken place over hundreds of years, including a recent slew of murders attributed to a cult. Now, if any town really had a place with this bad a documented reputation, I'm pretty sure someone would cough up the bucks to fence it off. But the bad place, no matter how bad, is never fenced off in a horror novel. It is there to fuck you up! Maybe we'll even build a golf course on it!

Almost needless to say, soon a small, disparate group of people will have to come together to stop an ancient evil from breaking into our universe. I like what Keene does with his cast of characters, as he's shown here and elsewhere that he's not interested in giving us the same cast of heterosexual Caucasians so many genre writers do. Here, a lapsed Muslim reporter and a lapsed Amish magician (!) carry a heavy burden of responsibility for saving the world.

The supernatural menace is sublime in its ambitions and powers, and deftly sketched by Keene with the smaller, sad horrors it inflicts on people (and animals) in pursuit of its own world-destroying pleasures. To make universe-annihilating evil truly disturbing, it helps a lot to clearly define the small awfulnesses it enjoys -- such things are viscerally graspable in a way that 'it's going to eat the world' aren't.

I'd have liked a longer novel, but the relative brevity certainly keeps things rollicking along. The (real) spellbook The Long-Lost Friend puts in an appearance here, making readers of Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer series smile. The moral is, if you come across a mysterious grouping of rocks somewhere, don't move them. Or, frankly, go anywhere near them. Recommended.

Army of Dead Babies


The Revelation by Bentley Little (1989): I don't think dead babies have ever played such a prominent role in a horror novel before or since The Revelation. The book is literally crawling with them. Malevolent, mobile dead babies are Hell's shock troops in this novel, working to secure the release of an ancient evil from an ancient cemetery on the outskirts of a small Arizona town. Only a mysterious preacher and a handful of residents can stop something from doing something awful.

This is Bentley Little's first novel, and one can see why it helped propel him onto horror's A-list. He's probably the most Kingian of all post-Stephen King horror writers, with sensibilities pushed just a little further into the weird. And he came onto the scene when King had stopped writing supernatural horror for a few years. Good timing, that. Little's prose is clear and straightforward, and he never uses a description when a brand name will do, two other Kingian traits.

The Revelation won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers of America for best first horror novel. There's something a bit programmatic about this effort, but it's an assured first novel regardless. It started life as a creative writing dissertation, and there are times when it seems like a thesis on the commercial America horror novel. Unlikely fellowship of heroes brought together by an invading supernatural evil? Ancient yet sarcastic evil? Site of power within which that evil must be contained? Check on all.

A kitten gets purchased by a protagonist and then horribly killed in such short order that it seems almost like a parody of the horror and suspense genre's creakiest tropes. It's a horror novel with dead babies, so there's an obligatory scene involving a pregnant woman in peril. Little would get less derivative as his career progressed, but he already shows a deft hand here at relentless plotting and the sort of sympathetic, short-hand characterization that can make one care about even the shortest-lived cannon fodder. Not a great novel, but an enjoyable one. Recommended.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Soul Kaufman


Cold Souls, written and directed by Sophie Barthes, starring Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson (Claire), Dina Korzun (Nina), Katheryn Winnick (Sveta) and David Straithairn (Dr. Flintstein) (2009): Some reviewers gave this movie flack for being too much like a Charlie Kaufman film. I don't really see it. Kaufman's films (Being John Malcovich, Adaptation) tend to trade in multiple, meta-forms of reality, and to have a hard core of absurdity. About the only similarity here is that Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, just as John Malcovich played John Malcovich (or, somewhat similarly, Nicolas Cage played Charlie Kaufman in a Charlie Kaufman film...and his fictional twin brother).

Other than that, this movie is far more straightforward than a Kaufman film -- indeed, it actually works as science fiction in the Dickian comic inferno mode. I could see it appearing as a short story in a 1950's science-fiction magazine like Galaxy. That's a compliment.

Giamatti, playing Giamatti, is in rehearsals to play Uncle Vanya (in Chekov's Uncle Vanya) on Broadway. He feels that something's getting in the way of his performance -- his anxiety, if you will. An article in the New Yorker tells him about a new process which allows one to remove the soul from a person's brain and put it into cold storage. Intrigued, Giamatti visits Dr. Flintstein's office and ultimately gets his soul removed.

Giamatti's soul looks like a chickpea. Apparently, souls look like a lot of different things.

Into cold storage it goes, and off Giamatti goes to stink out the joint in his next few rehearsals. Back he goes to Dr. Flintstein, who rents him another soul -- that of a Russian poet -- for two weeks. Success! But when Giamatti goes to have his original soul put back in, it's gone.

Uh oh.

Cold Souls maintains a nice, and offbeat, mix of comedy, satire and drama throughout. The subtextual commentary (there are Russian black marketeers in souls, just as there are Russian black marketeers in human trafficking) is kept fairly basic; the parallels aren't forced. The science of the whole procedure almost seems to make sense, just as some of Philip K. Dick's odder pieces of technology had a strange sort of sense to them.

Giamatti is solid as usual, as are Straitharn as Dr. Flintstein and Dina Korzun as Nina, a sympathetic Russian 'soul mule' who brings black-market souls from Russia to the U.S. inside her own head. Sophie Barthes does a terrific job here as both writer and director, and I'll be interested to see if she continues in this offbeat, science fictional mode for later films. Recommended.

Jack Goes Boating


Jack Goes Boating, written by Robert Glaudini, based on the play of the same name by Glaudini, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jack), Amy Ryan (Connie), John Ortiz (Clyde) and Daphne Rubin-Vega (Lucy) (2010): You put Philip Seymour Hoffman's performances in, say, this film, Capote, Mission Impossible III, and The Big Lebowski side-by-side-by-side-by-side, and you get one hell of an actor. He's won an Oscar for his showy role in Capote, but it would be nice if he (or anyone else, for that matter) could win a Best Actor Oscar playing something more refined and more 'real.'

Yes, I know Truman Capote was real -- but the Academy now almost invariably rewards actors for imitating other people, not for acting per se. Ernest Borgnine would never win an Oscar for Marty now. He'd be beaten by either someone playing Abraham Lincoln, or someone screaming and flailing around the screen for 150 minutes. So it goes!

Hoffman plays Jack, a lonely limosuine driver whose best friends, the married Clyde and Lucy, set him up on a blind date with the shy Connie from Lucy's workplace. We've seen versions of this film a number of times before (including in Marty), so pretty much everything fresh and new comes from the odd little plot twists and turns of character (Jack really loves reggae, for instance, and not in that showy Will-Smith-in-I-Am-Legend sorta way), and even moreso from acting.

Hoffman, directing himself, appears to have no ego -- Jack is dumpy and blotchy; the rest of the cast looks about equally real. Stuff happens, though not much (the climax involves Jack cooking a dinner for Connie; I'm sure some sort of car chase at this point might have goosed the box office). Hoffman and the rest of his cast invest their characters with flawed and idiosyncratic humanity. This certainly isn't a great movie, but it is a good one. Recommended.

Let Me Out


Let Me In, written and directed by Matt Reeves, based on the Swedish film and novel Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, starring Kodi Smit-McPhee (Owen), Chloe Moretz (Abby), Richard Jenkins (The Guardian) and Elias Koteas (Policeman) (2010): The original Swedish version of this film, Let the Right One In (they're both based on a Swedish novel) was such an unexpected delight that anything other than a totally awesome remake would suffer in comparison.

And suffer we do.

There are still moments of shock and nicely modulated characterization, but there's nothing here that feels fresh or startling the way the original did. Moreover, writer/director Reeves (Cloverfield, The Pallbearer) seems to have been infected by American Mass-Market Screenwriting Virus#1.

How so? Well, he excises all the secondary characters, at least as characters and not plot devices. He throws in a 'shock' flashforward at the beginning of the film for no apparent reason other than to get a shock into the first part of the film. He makes explicit a number of plot and character points that the original wisely left implicit. And he casts the pretty, pretty-traditional-looking Chloe Moretz (Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass) as Abby, the mysterious 12-going-on-500 vampire who befriends bullied, lonely 12-year-old Owen. Oh, and Reeves omits one whopper of a plot twist because American films don't show certain things, even if they're R-rated.

One of the odd things about the original film was that while it was set in the 1980's, nothing much was made of this -- indeed, I didn't realize it was set in early 1980's Sweden until I watched the 'Making Of' documentary on the DVD. Here, though, Reeves goes with the Hot Tub Time Machine approach to period detail, in addition to the opening title that tells us it's 1983. By the one-hour mark, you'll be unable to forget it's either the 1980's or Retro Sunday at Call the Office. Were the filmmakers hoping to recoup costs with a soundtrack album? Fuck, it's annoying!

The result isn't a mess so much as a bore. Most of the best setpieces come almost verbatim from the original. Inexplicably, Reeves sets the movie in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which apparently looks exactly like Wisconsin during the wintertime. And maybe it does, but the cognitive dissonance of having New Mexico treated like Wisconsin (or Sweden, or Manitoba) kept getting in the way of my suspension of disbelief. Really? It's that cold and snowy?

Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Owen, gives a grave and winning performance, and Moretz does what she can with an underwritten part. This isn't really a bad film. It's just sort of there, filling time. Richard Jenkins also does what he can with his underwritten and yet overly explicit role as Abby's 'guardian', a role which Reeves apparently felt needed flashing neon lights around it so that we would 'get' the similiarities between Owen and Jenkins's character. Thank you, Matt Reeves. Your stolidly plodding command of film is hereby noted. Not recommended.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

This is your brain on evil!


The Brain from Planet Arous, written by Ray Buffum, directed by Nathan H. Juran, starring John Agar, Joyce Meadows and Robert Fuller (1957): Hilariously bad, blessedly short (70 minutes) D-Movie science fiction from the swingin' 50's. John Agar, the patron saint of bad actors, gives a command performance as Steve March, a nuclear scientist possessed by Gor, an intermittently incorporeal brain from, well, planet Arous.

Gor is an escaped criminal who intends to rule the Earth because he can blow stuff up by thinking about it. Also, he seems to be a sex addict. Maybe he should just run for Congress!

Steve and his friend Dan discover Gor inside one of those caves that are in every cheap movie and TV show made in California, in the heart of Mystery Mountain, which looks like a rocky hill in that valley that appears in every movie and TV show that needs a rocky valley (it's in the Gorn episode of Star Trek, I'm pretty sure). Gor kills Dan and possesses Steve. Steve tries to date-rape his fiancee, who is saved by her plucky dog and is surprisingly forgiving about the whole date rape thing. Steve emotes like a crazy man, with John Agar's superb acting being supplemented by wacky contact lenses and a surprisingly inspired shot of Steve's face taken through a water cooler.

Gor blows up a couple of model planes and demands that the rulers of the world bow down before him to so he can use humanity as a cheap labour force to build a space battlefleet and conquer the universe. Vol, apparently planet Arous's least competent police officer, shows up to stop Gor and, after telling the fiancee and her father that he has powers greater than Gor's, spends the rest of the movie hiding inside the body of the fiancee's dog.


But wait! Vol does tell us that Gor has to leave Steve's body every 24 hours to breathe. And when he does so he becomes solid, and can be killed with a blow to the part of the brain called the Fissure of Rolando. Huzzah! Is that a handy axe I see lying around Steve's living room?

Aside from wretched dialogue, terrible visual and special effects, and lousy acting, The Brain from Planet Arous also has hilariously off-beat voice acting for the character of Gor, world conqueror. And a plucky dog! And, so far as I could count, maybe two different sets, along with a lot of outdoor work, some stock footage of atomic explosions, and an inexplicably abrupt exit by Vol at the conclusion of the film. It's like the good brain suddenly remembers he left his car running. Recommended for sheer awfulness.

Extra points if you notice that the film seems to have loaned its plot to the 1980's sci-fi actioner The Hidden, starring Kyle MacLachlan and Claudia Christian's breasts.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Lesbian Witches! That is hot!


The Kids are All Right, written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson (2010): Bening was nominated and Moore should have been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for this film, a surprisingly jolly trip through an eventful three months in the life of an 'alternative' family.

Bening and Moore play a suburban California lesbian couple with two children, the boy 15 and the girl 18 and about to leave for college. The boy becomes curious about the sperm donor -- the same man for both children, with Bening being the biological mother of the girl and Moore the boy. His sister gets in contact with him. He's Mark Ruffalo, playing a sort of hipster Zorba figure with committment issues. Things go swimmingly. Then they don't.

The movie's constructed so as to stress the similarities between 'alternative' and 'normal' couples -- Bening and Moore fight and make up, Moore feels underappreciated as the house-mother part of the pair, Bening is a control freak who's a bit too arrogant about her social class (she's a doctor) and her work ethic (she's never home). The other characters in the film have issues of their own, and people are realistically mean and judgmental at the worst possible times.

Ruffalo is groovy but dangerously casual about his interaction with his 'new family' -- which is to say, he's a bit of a bull in a china shop, though there's lots of blame to go around (sketched deftly and touched on in passing is the underlying contempt both Moore and Bening feel for anything resembling the physically labouring 'class,' though Moore's character hides her upper-middle-class prejudice much better than Bening's Nick.

The whole thing is surprisingly funny, and Wasikowska (Alice in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) gives a nicely modulated performance as a girl who's starting to chafe at parental controls perhaps a few years later than most teenagers chafe at them. My only real quarrel with the movie is that it doesn't really have an ending. It just sorta ends. I suppose there's always room for a sequel. Highly recommended.

Magical Mystery Tour


John Constantine: Dark Entries, written by Ian Rankin, illustrated by Werther Dell'edera (2009): DC's Vertigo Crime imprint releases black-and-white graphic novels in a normal (for print, not comics) hardcover-sized format. Technically, this isn't really a crime (graphic) novel, and would have made more sense as part of DC's normal Constantine releases. However, author Rankin is best known for his detective series starring Scottish hardcase Inspector Rebus, so I assume that simple fact went into the decision as to the proper format.

Rankin does a solid job here of giving us a standalone story about Vertigo's (and now and again the normal DC Universe's) jaded, working-class English occult detective/magician John Constantine. A British reality-show producer offers Constantine a wad of money to investigate why it is that the contestants on a reality show are being haunted by strange visions and occurrences. Constantine joins the cast, and weirdnesses multiply.

Rankin nails Constantine's bruised and damaged cynical heroism, that of a man who's opposed demons and angels in his day and knows enough to trust neither side. Artist Dell'edera didn't impress me much in colour on the short-lived Loveless Western series, but here black-and-white seems to have freed him up an awful lot -- there are hints of B&W hardboiled master Jose Munoz in the work here -- and the work remains grounded in a grimy reality regardless of how weird things get on the supernatural end. All this and Sawney Beane too. Recommended.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

'Kay, Cera, Cera


Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, written by Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, directed by Edgar Wright, starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jason Schwartzman, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, and Alison Pill (2010): With its disappointing box office take, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World became a cult hit pretty much the day it was released. Directed by perennial Simon Pegg collaborator Edgar Wright (Spaced, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) and based on the series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Scott Pilgrim is a zippy, meta joyride in which Toronto gets to stand in for...Toronto.

Pilgrim (Michael Cera) has to fight the League of Seven Evil Exes to win the hand of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a rollerskate-wearing, Amazon.ca delivering alt-chick from the United States. The battles play out as a series of homages to superheroes and third-person fighter games, with the loser turning into points (and coins) when defeated, and with extra lives occasionally being awarded for particularly good play.

Of course, Pilgrim has other problems. His band, Sex Bob-omb, is competing in a Battle of the Bands competition; his current girlfriend, 17-year-old Knives Chau, is blissfully unaware of Scott's love for Ramona; Scott's history of dating pretty much paints him as a thoughtless crud. Will Scott Pilgrim defeat the bad guys, break up with Knives, and learn a valuable life lesson that makes him a better person? Wright makes the whole thing poppy and zingy and fast, much like Spaced -- the pop-culture references proliferate almost as much as the T.O. references, making this a Wayne's World for the 21st century. Sorry, but that's the best comparison I can think of. Actually, the underrated Wayne's World 2. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 10, 2011

All the Darkness


DAW Year's Best Horror XIV (1985), edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1986):

Contents:

Introduction: Nurturing Nightmares by Karl Edward Wagner
Penny Daye by Charles L. Grant
Dwindling by David B. Silva
Dead Men's Fingers by Phillip C. Heath
Dead Week by Leonard Carpenter
The Sneering by Ramsey Campbell
Bunny Didn't Tell Us by David J. Schow
Pinewood by Tanith Lee
The Night People by Michael Reaves
Ceremony by William F. Nolan
The Woman in Black by Dennis Etchison
...Beside the Seaside, Beside the Sea... by Simon Clark
Mother's Day by Stephen F. Wilcox
Lava Tears by Vincent McHardy
Rapid Transit by Wayne Allen Sallee
The Weight of Zero by John Alfred Taylor
John's Return to Liverpool by Christopher Burns
In Late December, Before the Storm by Paul M. Sammon
Red Christmas by David Garnett
Too Far Behind Gradina by Steve Sneyd

By 1985, the horror boom that had begun in the late 1960's was starting to ebb, though it would be another ten years before horror fiction started to become really scarce on the bestseller lists. However, a rich list of small and large press horror magazines were still extant, giving editor Wagner a lot to choose from while assembling the newly expanded DAW anthology.

As usual, his selections are excellent and wide-ranging, both in terms of source and in terms of sub-generic classification. Psychological horror dominates in stories that include the university-set "Dead Week", the mournful "Pinewood" and the creepy "The Night People." Short, Hitchcockian shockers are nicely represented by "Red Christmas" and "Mother' Day." The supernatural is mystifying in "John's Return to Liverpool", in which a resurrected John Lennon shows up at the house of the first Beatles fan, and in the lengthy and unnerving "Too Far Behind Gradina," about a British housewife's bizarre vacation in Yugoslavia.

More conventional supernatural horrors await in "The Weight of Zero", a dandy bit of cosmic horror in the tradition (and time-period) of Arthur Machen, the neo-William Hope Hodgson sea-faring terrors of "Dead Men''s Fingers", and William F. Nolan's "Ceremony", about a hitman who takes the wrong bus.

Writers who'd effectively created their own genres by this time, Dennis Etchison and Ramsey Campbell, weigh in with fine entries in which the psychological and the supernatural collide mysteriously and horrifically. Campbell's piece is one of a subset of his fine horror stories in which the problems of getting old are explored in ways that blur the line between the supernatural and the natural, all within that signature Campbellian landscape of off-kilter description and terrible things moving just at the edge of vision. All in all, highly recommended.

Monday, June 6, 2011

America vs. America: The Road to Victory


Freedom Fighters: American Nightmare, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, illustrated by Travis Moore and Trevor Scott (2010-2011): The fringe, C-list DC superhero group The Freedom Fighters (Uncle Sam, Dollman, The Ray, Phantom Lady, The Human Bomb, The Red Bee, Miss America, Firebrand and Black Condor, all of them Quality Comics characters from the 1940's purchased by DC some time in the 1970's) spawned two really entertaining miniseries written by Gray and Palmiotti over the past four years, and this (now-cancelled) ongoing series pretty much takes up where they left off, showing the team fighting governmental conspiracies and anti-governmental conspiracies while themselves being a governmental superhero team.

Here, a quest for a variety of magical American items gets a couple of team members killed as they try to stop, yes, a conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States through mysterious occult means. There are some nice bits inside the overall arc, as the Freedom Fighters battle their way out of a secret government maximum security prison for supervillains and try to stop the rise of ancient Native-American demons so powerful it took a thousand Native-American magicians to lock them away the first time. Things remain breezy yet labyrinthine; better luck in your next incarnation, guys! Recommended.

Dumb Show


Thor: The World Eaters, written by Matt Fraction with Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, illustrated by Pascual Ferry, Salvador Larocca and Mark Brooks (2010-2011, collected 2011): I've really enjoyed the 30 or so issues I've read of Fraction's run on Iron Man over the last three or four years. Unfortunately, Fraction's skills don't port over to the adventures of Marvel's Norse Thunder God.

The characters continue to deal with the early part of J. Michael Straczynski's run on the title, over a year since JMS left the title -- Asgard looms about three feet above a small town in Oklahoma, still reminding me of nothing so much as that Deputy Dawg cartoon in which a character ends up orbiting the Earth at a height of six feet. Balder continues to be a lousy ruler, but he's topped here by Thor, who decides to bring back his treacherous step-brother Loki from the dead. Loki only died one issue earlier, making this one of the quickest resurrections in Marvel history. Thor does this because he misses the 'old' Loki, which is to say Loki as a child, a child Thor resurrects using his incredible Asgardian Resurrection Power (TM), a hitherto unseen power introduced by JMS.

Now, in decades of Thor backstory from his first appearance as a Marvel superhero in the early 1960's, Loki has not to my knowledge appeared as a quasi-innocent, fun-loving kid. He has appeared as a treacherous, homicidal, cowardly kid on many occasions, most recently during flashbacks to JMS's run. Either Fraction has forced a completely unsupported version of Thor's childhood upon us, or Thor himself has suffered grievious brain damage. Whatever.

The bulk of the storyline involves shadowy gods from a collapsing universe trying to take over the 'Nine Worlds' of Norse legend (Asgard and Midgard [Earth] are but two of them). In yet another amazing Asgardian Resurrection Power (TM) scene, Thor brings Odin back, and then they do some crazy Asgardian magic involving giants made out of dead bodies that would make a good bit in Hellboy (actually, I think it WAS a good bit in Hellboy, with Mignola properly attributing the idea to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Colossus of Ylourgne") but which makes absolutely no sense in relation to 40 years of Thor comics. Stuff happens. I don't care. And Pascual Ferry's art seems chronically underfinished. He could really use a good inker, as opposed to a hyperactive colourist. Iron Man appears and does nothing for no reason I can really see. Not recommended.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Gas Crisis on Earth-One


Showcase Presents Justice League of America Volume 5, written by Mike Friedrich, Len Wein, Robert Kanigher, Denny O'Neil and Gardner F. Fox, illustrated by Dick Dillin, Mike Sekowsky, Neal Adams, Nick Cardy, Joe Giella and Dick Giordano (1971-73; collected 2011): The so-called Bronze Age adventures of DC's premier superteam continue here, as DC attempts to 'Marvelize' their big characters that include Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and the Flash by giving them personal lives, self doubt, and the occasional acid flashback. OK, I made that last one up.

Friedrich, a very young gun at this point, sometimes goes off the rails into total loopiness, most notably in a story starring "jaded TV writer Harlequin Ellis," a thinly veiled homage to writer Harlan Ellison that includes Friedrich addressing the reader at the end. The cosmic adventures go down pretty smoothly, with the JLA facing big guns like Starbreaker the Cosmic Vampire and The Nebular Man and the somewhat overpowered Shaggy Man and Solomon Grundy. Solid pro Len Wein takes over the writing chores with issue 100, and things get a lot more cohesive and less loopy.

Of note here are new members Phantom Stranger, Elongated Man and Red Tornado, along with Friedrich's answer to a Marvel Avengers story by Roy Thomas that pitted the Marvel heroes against thinly veiled versions of DC's JLA. For all the occasional craziness, this is still enjoyable superhero storytelling in which plotting had precedence over decompressed longeurs and fanboy sexuality. Of interest is the fact that this covers the period in which DC had decreased the superpowers of Wonder Woman, Superman and Green Lantern in their own books. The move didn't increase sales, and so these three would soon be back to their previous overwhelming mightiness.

Another nod to Marvel seems to be the revamped Red Tornado -- like Marvel's The Vision, he's a superpowered, red-faced android looking for friendship and love and, for some reason probably born of nostalgia, my favourite B-list DC hero. He can generate massive tornadoes! How awesome is that! Recommended.

Friday, June 3, 2011

toy is a toy is a toy is a toy


Toy Story 3, written by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich and Michael Arndt, directed by Lee Unkrich, starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn and John Ratzenberger (2010): Pixar really 'gets' a certain type of storytelling, allowing it to turn grown men into blubbering silly putty when faced with the plight of a gang of toys or robots or even cars.

This paean to growing up and letting go rightfully won 2010's Best Animated Feature Oscar, its relatively simple story buttressed by great slabs of ingenious animation, characterization, and bizarre little blink-and-miss-it details popping away Mad magazine-like in the background of most scenes. A Pixar film generally represents the dramatic embodiment of "Chekhov's Gun" -- everything you're shown early in the movie will go off, one way or another, by the end of the movie, satisfyingly and with great panache.

There is an odd fastidiousness to the Toy Story universe -- most children, myself included, beat the shit out of their toys at some point in their lives; on Earth Toy-Story, that makes you the toy-using equivalent of a sexual predator (remember the kid who recombined the parts of his toys into groovy new configurations in the first Toy Story?).

I'm not sure if there's anything ideological behind this anal-retentiveness, or just a bunch of overly protective writers and artists. It's OK to burn your toys with a magnifying glass if you want to simulate Steve Austin's exposure to a death ray, kids. This does not make you a sociopath because TOYS AREN'T ACTUALLY ALIVE!!! Highly recommended.

Citizen Zuckerberg


The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, directed by David Fincher, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, Andrew Garfield, Rooney Mara and Rashida Jones (2010): If it's difficult to depict the act of writing onscreen in a way that can show the agony of some people who write to live, it's almost impossible to depict computer programming. The Social Network gives it a shot, especially in the early going, but it's still difficult to realize by the end of the film what a terrific programmer Mark Zuckerberg (and secondary character Sean Parker) was when he designed Facebook.

Sorkin's screenplay, sharp and flat at the same time, imposes a structure and a motivation on Zuckerberg's story that seems to have been lifted from Citizen Kane, with some modifications. Zuckerberg's Rosebud is Erica Albright (Rooney Mara, soon to be Lisbeth Salender in the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), the girl who got away and whose dumping of him, in the movie's logic, rocket-fuels Zuckerberg's programming engine. The facts of the founding and expansion of Facebook apparently bear almost no resemblance to this movie, but The Social Network does act as an interesting, albeit often one-note, character study and social examination. "It's all high school," the parents say in Heathers (1989): welcome to the operating logic behind Facebook!

Jesse Eisenberg gives a nuanced performance in what could have been a pretty dull role. He is stuck with the fact that the movie imagines Zuckerberg as being borderline autistic or, possibly, part-Vulcan. All of the performances are solid. I found myself empathizing with Zuckerberg more than perhaps the filmmakers intended because the people he may or may not have screwed over on his way to social networking history are written as such lazy, whiny idiots. Justin Timberlake captures the partyboy aspect in Napster-creator Sean Parker's personality, but we never get much of a sense of a keen programming brain at work inside Timberlake's noggin.

Zuckerberg's best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, playing a wronged nebbish) , who puts up the first $20,000 or so in financing and is rewarded with being Facebook's original Chief Financial Officer, steadfastly refuses to move to California with Zuckerberg during the time of the company's first great expansion, instead diddling around in New York failing (so far as we can tell) to sell advertising. When he's harshly removed from the company, one can see Zuckerberg's point: Saverin is a fool.

The hilariously privileged Winklevoss twins, who claim that Zuckerberg stole their idea for a Harvard-centric social networking site, are the comic highlight of the movie, bumbling Aryanesque Supermen who, in the funniest scene in the film, get castigated by the President of Harvard for essentially being whiny assholes.

And the Rosebud stuff...well, the way it's handled here, it's basically screenwriting 101, where every character has to have a simplistic motivation for everything he or she does. Awkwardly giving Saverin a crazy girlfriend he met because of his Facebook exacerbates the problems of the film's reductionism: Facebook leads to bad relationships! Give me a break. The Social Network is beautifully shot and edited, and the performances pretty much uniformly strong. Did it get robbed of a Best Picture Oscar? I don't think so. Recommended.