Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Xombi of the Stratosphere

Xombi: The Ninth Stronghold, written by John Rozum, illustrated by Frazer Irving (2011): David Kim (Xombi) is made of immortal, self-repairing, self-replicating nanomachines thanks to some lab accident or another. He fights supernatural and superscientific weirdness with the aid of such zany characters as Nun of the Above, Nun the Less, and Catholic Girl.

And things are weird. A jailbreak from a Roman Catholic supernatural prison leads Xombi into an adventure involving giant floating fortresses that look like skulls, secret histories of the world, and some really bizarre monsters made of dead wasps and other things someone left lying around the house.

Rozum is a fun writer who keeps things weird, and Frazer Irving's mix of photo-shopped images and 'normal' art grows more accomplished and fascinating with ever appearance. Alas, this book ran into the DC line-wide reboot after only six issues, and doesn't currently appear on the new comic-book roster. Too bad, because I really liked this initial six-issue arc, with its weird conspiracies and occult shenanigans. Recommended.

Legion Regained

Legion of Superheroes Volume 6, 1-16, Annual 1, Legion of Supervillains Special 1, Adventure Comics 521-529 , written by Paul Levitz, illustrated by Geraldo Borges, Marlo Alquiza, Phil Jiminez, Andy Lanning, Sean Parsons, Jeffrey Moy, Philip Moy, Ransom Getty, Rob Hunter, Francis Portella, Keith Giffen, Scott Koblish, Yildiray Cinar, Wayne Faucher, Daniel HDR, Bob Wiacek, Jonathan Glapion, and Raul Fernandez (2010-2011): DC's 31st-century superteam finally got most of its pre-Crisis, pre-Zero Hour history back a few years ago -- complete with a young Superman as a time-travelling member -- only to run smack-dab into yet another company-wide continuity reboot. What that means will become clear once yet another LSH#1 hits the stands in September. For now, a longtime LSH reader can at least bask in the enjoyment of a truly gigantic arc written by pivotal LSH writer Paul Levitz.

In the main book, the arc's events kick off with the destruction of Saturn's moon Titan, inhabited by a telepathic species of humans in the 31st century. This is masterminded by the Legion of Supervillains, the Legion of Superheroes' opposite number. A weird blue thingie materializes and starts giving orders before taking off for parts unknown. The LSV starts gathering new members. The LSH tries to stop their violence and discover what the masterplan happens to be. And on Oa, home planet of the lost Guardians of the Universe, the last Green Lantern looks to rebuild the Green Lantern Corps in order to help the LSH face this new cosmic threat.

Because the LSH has a cast of hundreds, characterization has to come in quick spurts as we jump from character to character within the overall structure of the plot. Smaller arcs play out as we go along, including the travails of the current crop of would-be heroes at the Legion Academy, the redemption of super-powered xenophobe Earth-man, and long-time Legion powerhouse Mon-El's acclimation to being the first of a new Green Lantern Corps.

The weight of villainy is carried almost exclusively by familiar villains, most importantly super-telepath Saturn Queen, who's basically the lieutenant of the mysterious blue thingie. The reveal of the blue thingie's true identity -- and indeed the climax itself -- seems a bit short and rushed, almost certainly because the arc ran straight into the Reboot Wall.

Still, this is an enjoyable return to glory for the Legion, with fine artwork from a lot of artists, most notably Yildiray Cinar (who, alas, will leave the Legion in September). I'll be interested to see what happens next after the relaunch, though I hope we're not stuck with the unfolding of yet another lengthy explanation of a new Legion's history. Recommended.

Wonder Woman Vs. Short Pants

Wonder Woman: Odyssey, written by J. Michael Straczynski and Phil Hester, illustrated by Don Kramer, Michael Babinski, Eduardo Pansica, Allan Goldman and Jay Leisten (2010-2011): The misshapen twin of equally misshapen Superman-arc "Grounded" also began life written by J. Michael Straczynski before rapidly being handed over to another writer (Phil Hester). And Hester pretty much did a hero's job of making this lengthy Wonder Woman arc interesting.

Some sort of time-travel thingie causes Wonder Woman to be erased as-is from the DC Universe, replaced by a younger, less powerful version of herself without any memories of having fought crime for years or being a member of the Justice League because she never was -- instead she's been kept in hiding by the last survivors of the Amazons, pursued by a mysterious, genocidal enemy.

Oh, and she gets a new costume. With pants!!! When Batman gets a revised costume, it's simply Wednesday. When Wonder Woman gets a new costume, it's an event because a lot of people want poor old Wonder Woman stuck in short pants forever. Can't she have at least one costume with pants, even Capri pants? No, she can't. And it's not like Wonder Woman originally wore short shorts. She started off with a relatively demure skirt. Basically, the costume problem is all Linda Carter's fault.

Anyway, Wonder Woman spends 15 issues (which is really a lot!) trying to get back her old history while also trying to stop a villain with nefarious designs on the universe. And then none of it actually matters because the storyline ends with the line-wide DC reboot a week away. Soon there will be a new Wonder Woman, and the promotional materials suggest that she's back in short pants. Hoo ha!

Phil Hester does terrific damage control here, patching up the story outline he's stuck with and keeping Wonder Woman interesting and sympathetic. The work by main artist Don Kramer is solid, as is that of his fill-in artists. This kept me reading Wonder Woman for 15 consecutive issues. That's a long time. And I would have kept reading it after Odyssey concluded. So kudos, Hester and Kramer. Too bad a new creative team takes over in September. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Crisis On Infinite Earths

Crisis on Infinite Earths, written by Marv Wolfman, illustrated by George Perez, Mike DeCarlo, Jerry Ordway and Dick Giordano (1985-86; collected 1997): I've never met anyone who was actually confused by DC's pre-Crisis continuity, in which superheroes existed on several different Earths with different "vibrational frequencies." On the other hand, DC was struggling in the mid-1980's to make up market share on Marvel, and the Crisis "maxi-series" did jolt sales and eventually lead to fairly successful reboots of characters that included Superman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman. Along with Marvel's contemporaneous maxi-series Secret Wars, Crisis ushered in the age of megacrossovers that mainstream superhero comic books -- for good and ill -- have existed within ever since.

From a (nominally) adult perspective, the main attraction of a collected edition of Crisis on Infinite Earths resides in the art by George Perez and several different inkers, colour-corrected and restored from the pulp-paper, four-colour original state of the original serialized issues. Perez pulls off one of the loopiest assignments in superhero history, as he basically draws every superhero and supervillain in DC history, making each unique (his Supermen of Earths 1 and 2, for example, have distinctive facial features to go along with their slightly different costumes). It's a Domesday Book of DC's history from 1937 to 1985. Pretty much everyone is here, lovingly rendered, unique, imperilled, shouting a lot.

The story is relatively simple. Entire universes (not an infinite number but apparently around 1000, we're told on several occasions) have already been destroyed by waves of anti-matter when the story begins. Five universes containing pretty much all of DC's major superheroes remain. The superheroes and their allies battle to save the remaining five universes. That's pretty much the plot, though obviously there are various successes, setbacks and subplots in the course of the 300 pages of the narrative.

Writer Marv Wolfman goes slightly bananas here with declamatory speeches, many of them involving heroes talking about themselves in third-person, and many others involving characters telling us what we're already looking at. Judicious editing might have increased the grandeur of certain situations and the poignancy of others, especially the deaths of Supergirl and the Flash. Any editing, maybe -- in one awe-deflating caption, Wolfman uses "zillions" as if it's a real number.

And even as superhero science and logic goes, Crisis is something of a mess -- antimatter somehow destroys positive matter without being destroyed itself, and appears to come in several different flavours. When a character lives in an antimatter universe where everything material is made of antimatter, does his big gun really have to be described as an "antimatter cannon"? Wouldn't it just be a cannon? And how exactly can a being who's fed off the energy of entire universes be hurt by a handful of heroes, no matter how super? I don't really know. The pictures sure are pretty, though.

Because the actual changes to the DC Universe hadn't been entirely decided upon by the end of Crisis, we're also faced with a story which seemingly requires yet another Crisis to make it dovetail with what would come after. People still remember Supergirl at the end of the series even though she never existed in the new DCU. Superman's Fortress of Solitude still has that giant golden key sitting out front. And problems with the history of characters that include Wonder Woman, Hawkman, and Power Girl would persist for decades. In many ways, the series seemed to create more headaches than it cured.

There's a certain nostalgic thrill in the writing -- along with X-men's Chris Claremont, Wolfman was pretty much state-of-the-art circa 1985 when it came to large groups of superheroes doing large things. And there's still some feeling here that superheroes are for kids and, at the oldest, teenagers. Hearts are worn on sleeves, and everyone says the right thing. A lot. If the DC Universe somehow managed to become more confusing fairly soon after the catastrophic events of Crisis -- well, that's not Wolfman's fault. And the art is, as noted previously, completely and utterly bonkers, a high watermark of gigantic-cast mayhem and destruction. Recommended.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lucifer 1 2 3

Lucifer Volume 1: Devil in the Gateway, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross, Dean Ormiston and others (1999-2000): Lucifer resigned as ruler of Hell, got Morpheus to cut off his wings, and moved to Los Angeles to open an upscale piano bar called Lux in the pages of Neil Gaiman's Sandman in the early 1990's. Then Vertigo Comics decided to bring him back in 1999, with then up-and-coming writer Mike Carey at the helm.

Lucifer being Lucifer, the piano bar business seems to have become a bit boring. So when an angel comes calling with a mission from God, Lucifer accepts. Primal, prehistorical gods threaten to undermine Creation, so off Lucifer goes, at a price, to save the world.

After that, the Lightbringer heads off to Hamburg to get a divination. As the magical colony organism that is the world's first Tarot deck has escaped its prison, things get pretty hairy there, too.

As Lucifer is a manipulative, scheming creature whose saving grace is that he never lies, a lot of the weight of interest in these stories falls on the supporting characters, human and otherwise, whom we meet along the way. Lucifer's loyal servant Mazikeen returns from Sandman, while a host of one-off and recurring characters also appear. Lucifer, tricky as ever, has an audacious plan that will ultimately unfold over the book's seven-year run.

Carey already shows a deft hand for weirdness and drama amidst supernatural beings and humans, one that would only grow greater as his career progressed. The series gets off to a dandy start, reminiscent of Sandman at times but nonetheless possessed of its own nasty, metaphysically probing edge. Recommended.

Lucifer Volume 2: Children and Monsters, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross, Dean Ormiston and others (2000-2001): Lucifer puts his plan into action, and it's a doozy. But then he needs to visit one of the Japanese Hells, where he has no powers (being from a different religion as he is) but where he needs to recover his lost wings from the ruler of that realm.

And that's only the beginning.

Carey and main artists Gross and Ormiston takes us through both mystic and mundane realms, sometimes at the same time. Magical beings and humans are being drawn like moths to a flame to Lucifer's piano-bar Lux, wherein Lucifer's grand plan unfolds. Hosts of angels plan a massive attack on Lux, with Los Angeles itself caught in the crossfire. And for some reason, a little girl who can see dead people is a major part of Lucifer's plan.

This second volume of Lucifer's wacky adventures also gives us an ancient and horrible curse, the fate of the Sumer-Babylonian gods (who are themselves weirdly and creepily rendered), and the further unfolding of Lucifer's plan. The archangel Michael, the fallen angel Sandalphon, and a variety of other gods and monsters also make appearances, including a particularly nasty pair of proto-Djinns who really, really want to get out of the 'normal' universe they've been trapped in for millennia. Recommended.

Lucifer Volume 3: A Dalliance with the Damned, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross and others (2001-2002): The secret of the nominally Christian Hell imagined by Neil Gaiman in Sandman and expanded upon herein by Mike Carey is that it isn't really Hell as we normally understand it: damned souls can leave at any time if they can stop believing themselves to be damned. But that rarely happens.

The three major arcs of this volume follow Lucifer, a magical little girl and the denizens of one of Hell's provinces as various plans and counterplans proceed apace. Very bad things happen. A human released from torment manages to outwit his tormenters. Lucifer continues to be his grumpy, sardonic self. And his companion Mazikeen, bizarrely maimed in a successful attempt to save its life, begins to rise up the ranks of the Lilim, those demonic beings born of the union of Adam's mostly forgotten wife Lilith and the demons of Hell.

As always, there's a nice mix of zany but 'real' mythological material and Carey's occasionally post-modern musings on gods, angels, redemption, and damnation. The demons and devils are loathsome, but so too are some of the angels opposing Lucifer. Strange, heady stuff. Recommended.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Walk Like A Kryptonian

Superman: Grounded, written by J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Roberson and G. Willow Wilson; illustrated by Eddy Barrows, John Cassaday, J.P. Mayer, Amilcar Pinna, Jimal Igle, Leandro Oliviera, and others (2010-2011): Much fanfare accompanied J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Spider-man) coming to DC to take over the writing chores on Superman in 2010. That fanfare didn't last, and neither did Straczynski, who soon left the scripting chores to Chris Roberson so as to concentrate on creating original graphic novels for DC.

Feeling that he's lost touch with humanity, Superman decides to walk across America. I guess he didn't feel like riding a motorcycle alongside Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. What precipitates this decision is a woman complaining to Superman that he wasn't there to help when her husband was dying of brain cancer.

Now, this is indeed a shocking development because neither I nor pretty much any other Superman reader was aware that Superman could be held responsible for not operating on a brain tumour with his heat vision. Seriously, WTF? Did Superman cancel his regular shift at the Metropolis cancer clinic or something? He doesn't even have a medical license !!!

So off sad, Epic Cancer Treatment Fail Superman goes to have a series of infuriating adventures in cities other than Metropolis. The low point comes when Superman dares a woman attempting suicide to jump off the building she's attempting suicide from. Seriously, WTF? This is such an awful, stupid, insensitive, ham-handedly written scene that I'm going to pretend that it was a dream sequence.

The narrative stabilizes somewhat when Chris Roberson takes over as scripter, though he's still stuck with this whole asinine 'Superman walking across America' thing. He shakes it up a bit with some flashback stories and some more typical Superman team-ups with Wonder Woman, Flash and The Batman. The Big Bad of the story, who looks weirdly like a mid-1980's Whoopi Goldberg, fizzles out at the end, as does Superman's depression, as the creators rush to finish the story before DC reboots its entire line at the beginning of September 2011.

Roberson comes up with some interesting ideas, and the art by Eddy Barrows and company is generally solid, but writers and artists are still stuck with the inherent crappiness of the story arc's underpinnings. Not recommended.

Hungry Like The Wolf, Man

The Wolf Man, written by Curt Siodmak, directed by George Waggner, starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Larry Talbot), Claude Rains (Sir John Talbot), Bela Lugosi (Bela), Maria Ouspenskaya (Maleva), Evelyn Ankers (Gwen), and Ralph Bellamy (Colonel Montford) (1941): One of the high points of the Universal monster movies of the 1930's and 1940's. Trimmed to the bone (70 minutes of running time) and smartly suggestive rather than explicit, The Wolf Man follows Lawrence Talbot,an affable Americanized second son returning to the family estate somewhere in England after 18 years away because of the death of his brother at the paws of...a werewolf!

Shape-changing hilarity soon ensues as Talbot gets bitten by a Gypsy werewolf named Bela, played by Bela Lugosi. Soon, Talbot is turning into a werewolf and threatening new gal pal Gwen and pretty much anyone else who goes outside during a full moon. For the purposes of the movie, a full moon lasts three days. Werewolfery isn't super-precise.

The Wolf Man pretty much invented many of the werewolf tropes that writers and film-makers now treat as myth-based, including the bipedal, clothes-wearing version of the werewolf, which bears no resemblance to any man-wolf of the past. We also get the famous werewolf rhyme, and an iconic performance by Maria Ouspenskaya as an old Gypsy woman who knows a lot about werewolves.

Lon Chaney Jr. wasn't a great actor, and he was always overshadowed by the achievements of his 'Man of a 1000 Faces' father, Lon Chaney Sr.. He's a bulky, affable presence, though, and the film plays to that, making him a bewildered innocent doomed by chance. Well, sort of doomed. There were still a lot of sequels to be made. Claude Rains is nifty as always playing Larry Talbot's father, whose telescope gives us a comedy scene that's probably a lot funnier and creepier now than it was in 1941. Recommended.

Condor, Man.

My Soul to Take, written and directed by Wes Craven, starring Max Thieriot (Bug), John Magaro (Alex), Zena Grey (Penelope) and Emily Meade (Fang) (2010): Buried in this mostly-mess of a slasher movie are some interesting bits about the condor in Native American mythology and the idea of multiple souls being housed in one body. Unfortunately, neither of these concepts get developed satisfactorily by old warhorse Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream), as by-the-book teenager slashing occupies way, way too much screentime.

One of the oddly jarring things about this movie is that it confuses schizophrenia and multiple-personality disorder in its tale of a schizophrenic serial killer with multiple personalities, one of which is a serial killer. Frankly, it's sorta dumb. Seven teenagers born the night the serial killer -- blandly named the Ripper! -- died in the small town of Riverton are now 16. Apparently, that means they're of legal age to get slaughtered.

But is the serial killer dead? Is one of the teenagers possessed by the evil spirit of the serial killer's serial-killing personality? And why is there an entire subplot about the evils of high school that plays like a bush-league version of Heathers?

Yes, there are many mysteries here, including how a slasher film ended up with a jaunty cartoon for its end credits. The abrupt tonal shifts and ridiculous developments kept me interested, though not in a way that would make me say, 'This is a good movie.' Too many rote killing scenes and too many characters one doesn't care about. Not recommended.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get On

Rise of the Planet of the Apes; based on Monkey Planet by Pierre Boulle and the movie Planet of the Apes, written by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson; written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, directed by Rupert Wyatt, starring Andy Serkis (Caesar), James Franco (Will Rodman), Freida Pinto (Caroline Aranha), John Lithgow (Charles Rodman), Tyler Labine (Robert Franklin), Brian Cox (John Landon), David Oyelowo (Steven Jacobs) and Tom Felton (Dodge Landon) (2011): Superior popcorn entertainment.

This second reboot of the long-dormant Apes franchise begins at the beginning, as a Big Pharm companies Alzheimer's research inadvertantly creates a drug that permanently (and genetically) creates super-intelligent primates. Dr. Will Rodman raises the first chimp 'accident' secretly at his home; Caesar (impressively motion-capture-performed by Andy "Gollum" Serkis) loves his human family but eventually starts to chafe at being a chimp among humans.

Various shenanigans put Caesar in a nightmarish animal sanctuary with a bunch of normal primates and Franco on the verge of creating a more stable anti-Alzheimer's drug. Cue more animal testing! Disastrous, disastrous animal testing. For people, not animals, because Franco has now created a super-chimp drug that can be aerosolized. Huzzah!

I was happily surprised to see a summer blockbuster that builds to its big-CGI climax, that gives us characterization (albeit much of it focused on a CGI chimp), and that gives us at least something vaguely intellectual to chew on. The whole thing is a bit of a throwback to both its grandparent, the original Planet of the Apes, and to science-fiction movies of the 1950's, before visual effects overwhelmed the story sense of much of Hollywood.

The primates -- all, so far as I know, CGI and not animal actors -- are really nicely created by Peter Jackson's WETA effects shop. Caesar and several others -- especially Maurice the oranguatan (the name is an homage to the actor who played evolved orangutan Dr. Zaius in the original movie series) -- look startlingly real.

More importantly, they're given the sort of personalities that CGI creations usually lack in any movie not made by Pixar. This isn't a great movie. The science and logic lapse at points, Franco and Pinto don't really have a lot to do, and the ending is 'Wait for the sequel!' abrupt. But after several dismal summers of blockbusters, this movie is the real deal, and almost as refreshing a reboot as 2009's Star Trek. I want more apes! Recommended.

Road Trip

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story by Chuck Klosterman (2005): Klosterman's second full-length non-fiction look at rock and roll sees him travel across America in a Ford Taurus (which he dubs "the Tauntaun") to visit the deathplaces of an assortment of rockers, musing on his own troubled love life all the while. He also gets in a lot of fascinating observations about celebrity culture, rock and roll, and assorted bands major and minor along the way.

The major problems here are two-fold. The relationship material started to wear on me after awhile, as funny and rueful as some of Klosterman's observations may be. Like a lot of writers, Klosterman spends a lot of time inside his own head, but not everything going inside that head works all that well on the printed page. He may be self-puncturing and self-deprecating, but he's also self-obsessed. Self-obsessed, and intensely self-aware that he's self-obsessed.

Klosterman's second problem, his tendency to generalize from personal experience, sometimes runs out of control herein. It can be quite fascinating and thought-provoking, but generalizing that, say, every man in history has at one time or another thought Led Zeppelin was the greatest band doesn't actually ring true. I can think of a lot of men for whom it isn't and never was, and I can think of a lot of women for whom it is or was. Is Klosterman self-fashioning what manhood really is around the question of Led Zep's greatness? I'm not sure. I think he's just making a sweeping generalization. On the other hand, Klosterman passive-aggressively pushes his heterosexual cred throughout, like a teenager worried someone's going to call him gay because he reads and writes too much.

If you're going to enjoy Klosterman, you're going to have to put up with the generalizations. You're also going to have to put up with a relentlessly intelligent writer whose aversion to the 'highbrow' and to 'high culture' often leaves him over-analyzing and over-emphasizing the merits of pop culture. I'd be interested in seeing Klosterman analyze something challenging, but I don't think that's likely to happen anytime soon. He's got a great brain, but all that brain wants to chew on is the popular and the junky. Sometimes this results in fascinating, populist musings about the importance of Kiss; sometimes this results in over-intellectualized wankery about, well, the importance of Kiss. I'm not sure any music critic has ever worked so hard to justify the musical tastes of his youth.

Nonetheless, there are brilliant observations and some very funny stuff here. If you're like me, you'll nod in recognition at the rewriting of critical and popular taste that occurred just after Kurt Cobain's death, as In Utero went from interesting but off-putting semi-failure to signature artistic statement. You may even laugh out loud as Klosterman discusses his deep-seated disappointment at discovering that while he likes blues-based rock, he can't stand the actual blues. Recommended.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fools in Love

The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the novel by James M. Cain, written by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, directed by Tay Garnett, starring John Garfield (Frank Chambers), Lana Turner (Cora Smith), Cecil Kellaway (Nick Smith), Hume Cronyn (Arthur Keats), and Leon Ames (DA Sackett) (1946): It took more than a decade for Hollywood to figure out how to adapt James M. Cain's scandalous, banned-in-Boston bestseller about two dumb people who are really, really bad at staging a murder, and even worse at getting away with it.

It's pretty much of a piece with Cain's other two major novels, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, in depicting how the quest for material comfort and success can drive people to do almost anything, and can poison almost any relationship.

Gone are the sadomasochistic elements in the adulterous relationship between drifter Frank Chambers and young trophy wife Cora Smith (Cora Papadakis in the novel -- the Greekness of Cora's husband has been excised along with the sexual kinkiness). And the ending goes for an upliting 'Crime Does Not Pay' message not entirely supported by the novel, wherein law enforcement can be as creepy and tricky as any criminal.

The Postman Always Rings Twice nonetheless represents one of the high points in the development of American film noir, showing that the American West Coast and its highways and byways can be as menacing as any city landscape. Lana Turner is beautiful and a bit flat as Cora, while Garfield is suitably dumb and lovestruck as her lover Frank. Cecil Kellaway plays Nick as vaguely Irish comic relief, which really neither suits the novel nor the tone of the movie, but there it is. Hume Cronyn does a nice, oily turn as a manipulative defense attorney. Remade far more explicitly and far less effectively with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Recommended.

Cowboys & Idiots

Cowboys & Aliens, written by a committee, directed by the guy who directed Iron Man, starring James Bond, Indiana Jones and the hot woman from House, M.D. and Tron: Legacy (2011): Intermittently enjoyable though repeatedly frustrating. With that title, it should be a dizzy romp. It isn't. It's really sort of a slog, strangely self-serious and numbingly dumb. It was written by a committee, and as with a lot of committee end-product, the good seems to have been thrown out in favour of the bad and the mediocre.

Harrison Ford's performance could have earned the movie the title Dead Man Walking: it's one of Ford's worst late-career sleepwalks. Though Harrison Ford would be a very angry sleepwalker based on his performance here: he pretty much alternates between looking constipated and looking like he wants to kill everyone on the set, possibly because they're on his lawn.

Giant alien leprechauns come to the American Old West in the 1870's to mine gold and kidnap people for insidious experiments aimed at determining how best to eradicate humanity. Daniel Craig plays a stagecoach robber who's lost his memory and now has an alien wristwatch/energy weapon attached to his wrist. The aliens kidnap a bunch of townsfolk. Craig and angry-granpa rancher Ford lead a ragtag group against the aliens, aided by an alien from a different race who's currently cosplaying as Olivia Wilde.

Thankfully for humanity, these aliens are even dumber than the aliens in Skyline. Also, they belong to the gigantic sub-category of advanced interstellar races who are also nudists (see: Skyline, E.T. , The War of the Worlds, Independence Day, ad infinitum, ad nauseum) who despite possessing devastating energy weapons prefer to get it on like a man and beat you down with their hands and bodyslam you in the Wild Wild West! Not recommended.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Brain Cloud

Donovan's Brain, written by Hugh Brooke and Felix Feist, based on the novel of the same name by Curt Siodmak, directed by Felix Feist, starring Lew Ayres (Dr. Patrick Cory), Gene Evans (Frank) and Nancy Davis (Janice Cory) (1953): This movie demonstrates why one should never take a brain out of a dying man's body and keep it alive in what looks like a fish tank, a lesson as true today as it was in 1953.

Lew Ayres's Dr. Cory secretly removes a dying industrialist's brain from his body after a plane crash (this would be the eponymous Donovan) and uses it in his bodyless brain experiments. Unfortunately, Donovan was a strong-willed asshole. And apparently removing a brain from its body gives the brain mind-control powers. Cory finds himself being taken over by Donovan's brain, while his wife (Nancy Davis would later become Nancy Reagan, by the way) and alcoholic doctor-pal Frank find themselves repeatedly prevented from killing the ever-more-powerful, and ever-larger, evil brain.

One of the charming things about this movie is that much of the middle action involves financial shenanigans, as tax-evading Donovan uses Cory as a proxy to round up hidden monies and then punish Donovan's enemies. You'll thrill to scenes which show how inter-state banking worked in the early 1950's! The proposed method of stopping the brain is inspired, to say the least. An enjoyable, understated sci-fi B-movie with better acting than the norm for the time. Recommended.

Tramp the Dirt Down

Modern Times, written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, starring Charlie Chaplin (A Factory Worker) and Paulette Goddard (A Gamin) (1936): Stubbornly, Charlie Chaplin somehow made a mostly silent movie that got released 7 years after the advent of sound pictures. Some characters do intermittently speak, though Chaplin's Little Tramp relies on title cards and one nonsense song to communicate. A luminous Paulette Goddard plays the only other major role, an orphaned teenaged runaway whom Chaplin's character takes under his wing.

Chaplin's main targets in Modern Times were the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and the social effects of the Great Depression. Thanks to one slapstick sequence in which the Tramp accidentally leads a Communist Workers Rally, Modern Times would be used as proof of Chaplin's Communist sympathies, allegations which would force him to leave the United States in the late 1940's.

Chaplin's late-period silent comedy features were expertly choreographed, big-budget productions. Gigantic sets and set-pieces dominate the early stages of the film, as the Tramp's problems working in a factory are highlighted. The later stages don't paint on so gigantic a canvas, turning instead to Chaplin's English dancehall roots in scenes set in a cafe where the waiters perform elaborate musical and comedy numbers for the patrons.

Other setpieces make use of a dilipidated shack in which the Tramp and the Gamin play house, a jailhouse cafeteria in which the Tramp inadvertantly does a whole lot of cocaine and subsequently becomes manic, and a gigantic department store. Chaplin's skill at choreographing and executing physical comedy is unparalleled; the concluding scene is a real tear-jerker. Highly recommended.


Lost Horizon, written by Robert Riskin and Sidney Buchman, based on the novel of the same name by James Hilton, directed by Frank Capra, starring Ronald Colman (Robert Conway), Jane Wyatt (Sondra), Edward Everett Horton (Lovett), John Howard (George Conway), Thomas Mitchell (Barnard), Isabell Jewell (Gloria), H.B. Warner (Chang), Margo (Maria) and Sam Jaffe (High Lama) (1937): Frank Capra's utopian 1937 epic holds up pretty well today as a populist film of ideas, though women and non-Caucasians are given a bit of a short shrift. The ideas of pacifism and shared property espoused by the perfect society of Shangri-La in this film would give Red-baiting American politicians plenty of reason to accuse Capra of being a dirty Communist. Yay 1950's!

But in 1937, this was far and away the most expensive movie the young Columbia Pictures had ever made, primarily because of its massive and elaborate sets. And Shangri-La, that hidden utopia somewhere in the Himalayas, still looks striking (and Art Nouveau) today.

Released at 132 minutes in 1937, Lost Horizon lost a full half-hour over the decades. In 1970, a major restorative effort by the American Film Institute yielded all 132 minutes of dialogue but ony 125 minutes of surviving film. Still photographs make up the last 7 minutes, with the dialogue playing. It's a fascinating restoration because besides the stills, decreased film quality in some scenes clues the viewer in to what got cut over the years. The answer? Well, a lot of Commie stuff and a lot of character development.

While supervising an evacuation of non-Chinese from a revolution-plagued Chinese city in the 1930's, British renaissance man Robert Conway, his brother George and three evacuees get kidnapped and flown into the Himalayas. There, they're taken to the secluded paradise of Shangri-La, where workers and intellectuals live in harmony with nature and themselves. Why Conway has been brought there, and what his decisions will be, make up the central plot of the movie.

This really is an unusual big-budget movie for any Hollywood era -- there's action and peril, but the central portion of the film is an idyll and a philosophical parable set in the vast sets that portray Shangri-La as an Art Nouveau paradise on Earth. Ronald Colman is earnest and convincing as the battered idealist, and the supporting cast -- including Mitchell and Horton as Laurel-and-Hardyesque comic relief -- is also solid. This is, quite simply, a movie that Hollywood would never make today, but in its time it was a box-office success. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Red Helmet

Batman: Under the Red Hood, written by Judd Winick, directed by Brandon Vietti, starring the voices of Bruce Greenwood (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Jensen Ackles (Red Hood), Neil Patrick Harris (Nightwing), and John DiMaggio (the Joker) (2010): There have been four 'in-continuity' Robins in Batman history, with Jason Todd being the second, following Dick Grayson after Grayson graduated to college and became the costumed hero Nightwing.

Todd's history was bizarrely twisted. DC's post-Crisis revamp of continuity in the mid-1980's turned Todd from a circus kid like Grayson before him to a surly street punk. Looking back, it seems obvious that Todd's ultimate fate was years in the making post-Crisis, thanks in part to a bit in Frank Miller's ostensibly out-of-continuity The Dark Knight Returns in which Todd's death is one of the defining moments of an aging Batman's retirement from crime-fighting.

And so, in the late 1980's, DC held a phone poll to decide whether or not Jason Todd would be killed by the Joker. By a vaguely suspicious margin of 72 votes, death won, and Todd got bludgeoned and exploded to death in A Death in the Family, a horrifyingly bad story arc in which Iran names the Joker as their ambassador to the U.N. because...well, because it's a really stupid storyline.

Either that or we were about to find out that the Joker had been a Muslim terrorist all those years.

So the Joker, in his new role as U.N. ambassador, brings a nuclear missile to the United Nations and threatens to blow it up. Yes, the Ayatollah Khomeni was even loopier in the DC universe than in ours. A couple of years later a new, more loveable Robin -- Tim Drake -- debuted, and Jason Todd seemed to be consigned to the dustbin of Bat-history.

Cue the mid-oughts. Todd returns. And from that return comes this animated movie, well-made but depressingly similar to the depressing, doom-haunted Batman comics of the late 1980's and early 1990's. The animation, voice-work and writing are all solid, and writer Judd Winick wisely drops the whole Iranian connection for a slightly more workable plot involving super-terrorist Ra's Al Ghul's bone-headed decision to hire the Joker to distract Batman. The overall effect of this dark, violent movie, though, is pure Debbie Downer.

The Red Hood also offers one of the more curious naming choices in comic-book history -- in this new incarnation, as in his original 1950's first appearance, he doesn't actually wear a hood. It's a red helmet. I guess Red Helmet sounded too goofy even in the 1950's, though no goofier, ultimately, than Green Lantern. Or Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man. And would someone just kill the Joker already? Lightly recommended, and not for kids.

Here Comes the Sun King

All-Star Superman, based on the graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely and the characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, written by Dwayne McDuffie, directed by Sam Liu, starring the voices of James Denton (Superman/Clark Kent), Christina Hendricks (Lois Lane) and Anthony LaPaglia (Lex Luthor) (2011): In a perfect world, a new Superman movie would be based on the same graphic novel this animated movie is. And it's amazing -- and a testament to late screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie, who died one day before All-Star Superman was released -- how much of that graphic novel makes it into this 75-minute-long adaptation.

Something disastrous happens to Superman in the first few minutes, leaving him with a year to live. The movie then follows the course of that year as Superman tries to accomplish all the tasks he'd failed to accomplish previously. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor plots and preens in jail as he awaits execution. New menaces arise. And Solaris the Sun-Tyrant, a computerized sun-destroyer with a hate on for organic lifeforms, lurks somewhere out there, waiting.

Freed from the constraints of any one particular Superman continuity, Morrison threw in tons of things that either hadn't been seen for decades (Silver-Age time-travelling, pain-in-the-ass heroes Atlas and Samson; the original cloud-like Sun Eater) or hadn't been seen at all (the chronovore, alas, doesn't make it into the movie while the League of Supermen makes only a cameo appearance). This adaptation wisely keeps a lot of the dialogue from the comic while also mimicking to a surprising extent the style of artist Frank Quitely.

The ultimate enemy is Luthor, presented here closer to his super-scientist version of the 1960's and 1970's rather than the super-businessman of the 1980's and 1990's. By the time a frustrated and regretful Superman says, "Luthor, you could have saved the world a long time ago," you'll pretty much agree. And a dying, increasingly depowered Superman will need both brains and brawn to save the world that Luthor has spent decades trying to conquer. Highly recommended.

Fighting American

The Fighter, written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington, directed by David O. Russell, starring Mark Wahlberg (Micky Ward), Christian Bale (Dicky Eklund), Amy Adams (Charlene Fleming) and Melissa Leo (Alice Ward) (2010): Micky Ward, a real boxer who fought in the Junior Welterweight and Welterweight categories in the 1980's and 1990's, starts off the movie as a mismanaged stepping-stone for younger up-and-coming boxers.

He's managed by his mother (Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Melissa Leo) and crack-and-meth-addled older half-brother Dicky (Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Christian Bale), the latter of which was once a contender but who is now, basically, a bum living off his reputation in Lowell, Massachusetts. Micky chafes at his mismanagement -- as the movie opens, he's about to get pummelled by a boxer 20 pounds heavier than him -- but remains passively bound to his family, despite management offers from high-profile boxing promoters.

Then along comes Charlene Fleming, a bartender who quickly falls for Micky and starts trying to get him to take command of his own life. It takes awhile (actually in real life a lot longer than it seems to in the movie), but Micky finally gets someone else to arrange boxing matches for him, and he starts winning again. But he still loves his incredibly loopy family. When a now-clean Dicky gets out of jail after serving time for assaulting a police officer, Micky seems to be stuck with deciding between girlfriend and family. Or has Dicky changed?

The film remains pretty true to its true-story roots, though it ends at a curious place -- just prior to the three fights with Arturo Gatti that would cement Micky's reputation as one of the toughest boxers to ever fight. Bale and Leo are solid in their award-winning roles, and Wahlberg and Adams are fine, too, in their less showy performances. David O. Russell's direction is also solid, though a framing narrative of characters speaking directly to the camera is underused and, frankly, not necessary. Recommended.

Newton Sleep

Sleeper, written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, directed by Woody Allen, starring Woody Allen (Miles Monroe) and Diane Keaton (Luna Schlosser) (1973): Allen's early days as a comedic filmmaker showed as much influence from the slapstick end of film comedy as they did from the word play of the Marx Brothers or the neurotic, sometimes surreal musings of Allen's own stand-up act.

Sleeper is a lovely comic dystopia set in the New York of the late 22nd century. 20th-century health-food-store owner Miles Monroe goes in for an ulcer operation and awakens 200 years later, having been frozen after something went wrong with the operation. The Resistance, who thawed him, needs him to help overthrow the Big-Brother-style dictatorship of the U.S. Miles agrees, and the rest of the movie follows him through various misadventures aimed at toppling The Leader.

The Leader's dictatorship isn't too threatening, its soldiers and police mostly being bumbling boobs. The Resistance isn't much better. Along the way, Miles falls in love with 22nd-century poet Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton), whose poetry is amazingly awful. Allen gets in zingers against himself and various other targets, including the health-food industry (in the future, scientists have discovered that sugar, fat, chocolate and cigarettes are the real health foods. "Have some tobacco. It's the best thing in the world for you!", one scientist tells a flabbergasted Monroe.

The sybaritic dystopia of Sleeper (one of Neil Postman's "pleasure-based dystopias", the Ur-model of which is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World) occasionally looks a lot like our world. Then again, often it doesn't. The movie barrels along through its 90-minute length, throwing jokes and pratfalls at the audience and thankfully eschewing sentimentality or a sudden speech about human destiny. The young Keaton is as cute as a button. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Scottish McBoogerballs

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984): Prolific Banks's first published novel is a doozy -- a first-person narrative with an obsessive-compulsive, sociopathic 16-year-old Scot as the narrator. Our narrator Frank lives with his dotty, obsessive-compulsive father on a small island connected by a landbridge to the nearby mainland. He doesn't go to school and, indeed, believes that he doesn't legally exist as his father has told him that no record of his birth was ever filed with the government.

Frank enjoys making explosives, killing animals, making fetishes out of the dead bodies of animals, building dams, getting drunk with a friendly dwarf and, oh, killing relatives -- three of them, to be exact, from when he was six to when he was about ten. He's a barrel of laughs, our Frank, though his somewhat demented consciousness can sometimes make a reader doubt the veracity of, well, everything in the novel -- the means of Frank's murders are so odd and so baroque and, in one case, so reliant on chance that one really does wonder just how reliable a narrator Frank really is.

Oh, and Frank's external genitalia were torn off in a violent childhood incident. Truly this was the feel-good novel of 1984.

Frank and his father await the return of Frank's institutionalized older brother, who went mad years ago and now, having escaped the institution, is moving inexorably towards home, leaving a trail of fires and dead, partially devoured dogs along the way. Frank consults the oracular rituals that he himself has invented (including the eponymous device, which we don't actually see in operation until very late in the novel), sets up defenses both psychic and real, and repeatedly tries to gain entrance to his father's locked office, in which he believes the answers to all the mysteries of his life reside.

Banks's troubled yet oddly sympathetic teenaged narrator evokes similar highly intelligent, ultra-violent narrators, perhaps most notably John Gardner's Grendel in Grendel and Anthony Burgess's Alex in A Clockwork Orange (though 'Frank' could also be an homage to the equally screwed-up, equally high-intelligence creation of Victor Frankenstein, the original first-person narrative of misanthropic creations and creators).

The violence and graphic horror are shocking, enough so that I ended up musing that this is the novel the kids of South Park thought they'd be getting when they were instead handed the "shocking and controversial" A Catcher in the Rye, which subsequently bored the kids so much that they concocted their own shocking novel, The Tale of Scrotty McBoogerballs. Highly recommended, but certainly not for the squeamish.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

No Pulse

Pulse, written by Wes Craven and Ray Wright, based on the Japanese film Kairo by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, drected by Jim Sonzero, starring Kristen Bell (Mattie) and Ian Somerhalder (Dexter) (2006): Horror movies involving emerging technologies can often be hilariously overwrought, especially when those emerging technologies aren't understood by the makers of the film. In Pulse, life-stealing thingies that ride the cell-phone and wifi network invade a college campus. Hilarity ensues.

The colossal dumbness of this movie is really quite invigorating. It starts as a horror movie, turns into a global apocalypse around the 45-minute mark, and ends with five minutes cribbed almost verbatim from the end of The Terminator. All that, and it's based on a Japanese horror film. Hoo ha! And as it turns out, this is all the result of a telecommunications project that tapped into hitherto "unknown areas" of the electromagnetic spectrum. Um, OK. And get this: the thingies are afraid of red duct tape.

Seriously. A particular type of red duct tape is a colour that blocks the thingie-signal. Did Red Green script-doctor this movie?

In a better, wackier movie (one probably starring Bruce Campbell), the efficacy of the red tape would cause our protagonists to wrap baseball bats, tennis rackets and golf clubs with duct tape so that they can do some serious supernatural ass-whupping. Unfortunately, the smartest characters in this movie, played by the eerily good-looking Kristen Bell and Ian Somerhalder, aren't that bright. Thankfully, the thingies have serious trouble walking through walls, so escape is always an option. No one in this film had heard of a cellphone jammer, though.

I'll leave you to figure out the crowning stupidity of the last five minutes. It won't take long. Earlier, though, there's a great sequence in which a thingie emerges from a non-working college-dorm clothes dryer. Did someone leave her cellphone in her pants? Does the clothes dryer get great cellphone reception on its own? And why is this movie called Pulse? Oh, for a roll of red duct tape. Really not recommended unless you need a good laugh.


Firstwave: Doc Savage: The Fourth Day, written by Ivan Brandon and Brian Azzarello, illustrated by Nic Klein, Phil Winslade and J.G. Jones (2010-2011): 1930's and 1940's pulp-magazine hero Doc Savage has never had a lengthy comic-book run. The Firstwave line from DC was meant to rectify this problem by taking Doc more fully into the realm of alternate history and away from the unsuccessful replication of the format and content of his pulp adventures. Doc's amazing gadgets and amazing heroism have altered history since the end of the First World War, leading to a 1930's landscape in which cellphones and atomic weapons are common.

Alas, the first story arc in the Firstwave Doc Savage stunk to high heaven thanks to a writer who'd never written comics before and an artist unsuited to the project. Ivan Brandon and Brian Azzarello came on board for this, the second Firstwave story arc, and while they quickly got the quality of the book up, it was apparently too late -- cancellation is, so far as I know, now a sure thing.

Oh, well. The alternate history Doc and his amazing cohorts move through in this 7-issue arc really is pretty interesting. A war has left the Middle East all but destroyed and cut off from the world outside. But when a threat to the outside world is broadcast from within the wasteland, Doc and his men are sent by the U.S. government to discern the seriousness of that threat and to snuff it out.

Brandon and Azzarello do pretty well balancing Doc's superlative competence in every area of human endeavour with the mistakes an idealist can make when stuck in shades-of-gray situations. Nic Klein's art is solid throughout, though like a lot of contemporary comic-book art it could really use less full-process, painterly colour -- murkiness is not always a virtue.

The major flaw in the series is that things are deadly serious -- there's none of the loopy, sophormoric jauntiness of the pulp novels. This is serious business, and the grimness wears on one after awhile. Pulp novels were actually fun. Comic books, more and more, really aren't. Klein, like every comic-book artist other than Dave Stevens and Tony DeZuniga, has absolutely no idea how to draw "Monk" Mayfair. Is it so hard to look at the descriptions in the novels? Argh. Nonetheless, recommended.

Before the Fall

Marvel Masterworks: X-Men Volume 6, written by Arnold Drake, Roy Thomas and Denny O'Neil, illustrated by Neal Adams, Tom Palmer, Don Heck, Werner Roth and others (1968-69; collected 2001): Even soon-to-be-legendary comic-book artist Neal Adams couldn't quite save the X-Men when he drew several issues in the 1960's, though the sales results did bring the book back from cancellation and saw it turned into a reprint-only comic book until the mid-1970's. Nonetheless, the Adams-drawn X-Men looks like a template for the ultra-successful X-Men revival of the mid-1970's -- the one that would eventually make the X-Men the most successful comic-book franchise by the mid-1980's.

The writing, mostly by Roy Thomas, doesn't hold up so well -- it's too wordy and occasionally ridiculous. Not only does one villain gain his powers from a dinosaur bite, but he then chooses to name himself after Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. If only he'd been bitten by a giant white whale...

But it's the art that's the star. Adams was very much a work in progress at this early stage of his career, and it shows at times. His attempts to mix things up with diagonal panels and 'shattered-glass' layout miss as often as they hit. Nonetheless, the characters look great. Adams's hyper-realistic style was fully in place, and would be a key artistic influence on the artists that would appear in the 1970's.

His character design is also top-notch: he manages a much better looking costume for Angel than he'd had before, while the new hero Havoc has one of the niftiest looking costumes on the planet. Adams would soon go on to gorgeous, genre-redefining work on Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow, but the art here is also terrific and occasionally startling. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Rock of Ages

JLA Deluxe Edition Volume 2, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Howard Porter, Val Semeiks, John Dell and others (1997-98; collected 2010): DC's repackaging of previously reprinted works can sometimes seem almost comic (the repackaging of Alan Moore material is a whole side industry).

Here, though, it makes sense. Grant Morrison's late-1990's run on DC flagship super-group title JLA (for Justice League of America) was first reprinted in arc-specific books, leading to trade paperbacks which were in some cases barely 100 pages long. The deluxe editions pop the page count close to 300 pages, present the stories in a slightly oversized format, and include material that hadn't been reprinted before (in this volume, a JLA/WildCATS crossover). So it's a good deal.

Morrison's JLA first took the Justice League back to its early 1960's roots by reuniting as close an approximation of the original seven members as could be reunited in the mid-1990's when the original Green Lantern and Flash were dead, their legacies carried on by another Flash and another GL. And Morrison ramped up the cosmic, time-bending action with world-wide and even galaxy-wide threats. Penciller Howard Porter, who could be weak with the wrong scripter, delivered the best art of his career. The result was a JLA that sold well and got critical raves.

In this second collected volume, the JLA finds itself in the twisty labyrinth of the "Rock of Ages" storyline, which begins with a new Legion of Doom before veering off into a future dystopia in which evil has conquered almost everything. The JLA has to save the universe. Or maybe destroy it.

The second arc features new villain Prometheus, who's planned for years how to kill the entire Justice League and invades their lunar Watchtower to fulfill the plan. New members begin to fill out the roster, most notably Plastic Man (whom Morrison makes an incredibly useful addition), Steel and Zauriel, the last an actual angel of the Hawk Host of Heaven.

The collection ends with the aforementioned JLA/WildCATS crossover between DC's and Wildstorm's super-groups as they face upgraded Silver Age JLA villain the Lord of Time. Morrison's love of twisty plots and comic-book minutiae isn't for everyone -- a lot of readers will probably need to Google J'emm, Son of Saturn prior to giving themselves a refresher course on what the Philosopher's Stone actually is in the "Rock of Ages" arc and where this particular version comes from (Jack Kirby's New Gods comics of the 1970's, btw). But I love it. Highly recommended.


Teatro Grottesco, written by Thomas Ligotti (2006): Ligotti is an unusual American writer, a unique voice with echoes of Lovecraft, Borges, Kafka, Robert Aickman and Poe. He doesn't write novels, believing them unequal to the task of writing horror. And in terms of his horror -- metaphysical and unnerving, terrifying, and deeply weird -- he may be right. The longest story in this collection runs about 40 pages, and that's almost too much.

A Ligotti protagonist from a story not in this collection wanted to "stand among the ruins of reality." That's often where a Ligotti story begins, in a landscape subtly altered, or in a situation that makes no rational sense, a situation the characters often react to with just a bit too little surprise. People vanish. Towns die. The very notion of the self gets destroyed by a spiritual revelation brought on by acute gastrointestinal distress. Strange buildings loom over dead cities. Failed artists confront...what? The abyss? Factory workers build parts for mysterious machines. Ligotti's vision is apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic. Something has torn apart the illusions of the world, leaving deep unease everywhere.

Which isn't to say that the stories aren't funny at points. Ligotti deals as much with absurdity as he does terror (actually, absurdity and terror are often the same thing in these stories). For example, in one story a character recounts childhood visits to "gas station carnivals" at which no rides ever worked and only one performer ever appeared at the sideshow, and that sideshow performer usually the gas station attendant in a costume. In great detail, these visits are recounted, along with the character's reactions to them then and now. And these things, these gas station carnivals, are just the set-up for what comes next.

After awhile, one notes that Ligotti uses repeated phrases, phrases repeated by his characters throughout a work, as a musical ordering principle, or possibly an incantation. Late at night, this is the sort of horror fiction that can worry one because the fiction itself may seem to be acting against reality. Or for something beyond consensus reality.

That's a high order of horror, the sort of thing TED Klein used Arthur Machen's "The White People" for in Klein's novel The Ceremonies: as a fiction that had unintentionally tapped into fundamental principles. Woohoo! The forbidden books are always being written. The conspiracy against the human race is ongoing. Is Ligotti a great writer? Yes -- his stories demand concentration and deliberation, and they affect the way one sees the world. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Not So Horrible

Horrible Bosses, written by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, directed by Seth Gordon, starring Jason Bateman (Nick), P.J. Byrne (Kenny), Jason Sudeikis (Kurt), Kevin Spacey (Dave), Jennifer Aniston (Julia), Colin Farrell (Bobby) and Jamie Foxx (Dean 'MF' Jones) (2011): Enjoyable 'gray' comedy that spins off from Alfred Hitchcock's (herein-acknowledged) Strangers on a Train. Three friends with, well, horrible bosses decide to kill one another's bosses. But the friends are pretty inept, so problems ensue.

This must be a pretty good comedy because it makes Jennifer Aniston watchable, primarily by having her play a 'bad' character with pretty much the same bland lack of affect that Aniston brings to all acting projects. Somehow it works, though Spacey and Farrell -- as the other two horrible bosses -- are a lot funnier. Farrell, buried under make-up and prosthetics, is a true comic grotesque.

The movie makes light of the idea that a man -- even an unconscious one -- can be raped by a woman, a joke only a really, really black comedy would make if the genders were reversed. The trod-on employees, especially Jason Bateman's Nick, are played as nice nebbishes. The movie gets a surprising amount of comic mileage out of an OnStar-like car navigation-and-monitoring device. Where Horrible Bosses falls down is in its committment to nastiness -- I'd have liked things to go a lot blacker when instead they veer into the sitcommy at the end. Recommended.

Demon Barf

Exorcist II: The Heretic, based on The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, written by William Goodhart, John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, starring Richard Burton (Father Lamont), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Louise Fletcher (Dr. Tuskin), Max Von Sydow (Father Merrin), Paul Henreid (The Cardinal), and James Earl Jones (Kokumu) (1977): Exorcist II is one of the most colossally botched sequels to a blockbuster ever made. William Peter Blatty, who wrote both the original novel and screenplay of The Exorcist, is nowhere to be found. Lucky him. Mysteriously, some sort of amnesia-bug causes everyone to forget about Father Karras -- the Jason Miller character who actually exorcised Regan in the original film -- and focus on Max Von Sydow's Father Merrin, whom the demon basically stressed to death in the first film (well, here we find out that the demon psychically crushed Merrin's heart, which is sort of overkill given that HE HAD A FUCKING HEART CONDITION HE WAS POPPING NITRO PILLS FOR THROUGHOUT THE EXORCISM!!!

The good thing about director John Boorman (Excalibur, Zardoz) is that when he's off, he can be spectacularly off in an entertaining way (see, well, Zardoz). There's a lot of boredom here, but there's also 10 minutes of Richard Burton's character flying around with a gigantic demon locust that keep buzzing the good people of North Africa. I mean seriously, Michael Bay would never come up with this shit. The plot involves Father Lamont investigating Father Merrin's death five years after the events of the first film. That seems pretty late-to-the-game to me, but apparently the Vatican bureaucracy has a lot of exorcisms to investigate. Lamont, though, suffers from a crisis of faith brought on by his own seemingly failed exorcism.

So Lamont goes to New York, meets Regan and her guardian (Regan's movie-actor mother is apparently off filming something, hopefully not The Exorcist II) and Regan's psychiatrist, Dr. Tuskin, who's invented a psychic dream machine that allows people to enter one another's dreams and memories. You'd think this would be headline news, but no one's heard of it outside her office. A bunch of semi-confusing flashbacks and visions ultimately reveal that the demon from the first movie is still around, and that, per: the original novel, that demon is the unfortunately named but 'real' Pazuzu, an Assyrian-Babylonian demon of the Southwest Wind.

Anyway, a bunch of stuff happens, a lot of it boring. James Earl Jones plays the time-tested Hollywood role of the Magical Negro. Locusts fly around and talk a lot. Well, one of them does, that being the loquacious Pazuzu. A house gets dismantled by demonic forces in truly spectacular fashion, given that this is pre-CGI and the filmmakers obviously had to destroy an actual house-sized set. Good triumphs over evil. Richard Burton looks like a great actor who had a lot of bills to pay. Not recommended.

Brain Candy

Skyline, written by Joshua Cordes and Liam O'Donnell, directed by The Strause Brothers, starring Eric Balfour (Jarrod), Scottie Thompson (Elaine) and David Zayas (Oliver) (2010): I guess the directors of this film were originally visual effects guys, and the selling point of this movie was that it was made for the princely sum of $10 million despite having something on the order of 800 visual effects shots in it. Huzzah! Too bad about the writing.

Unlikeable couple Jarrod and Elaine visit friends in Los Angeles. The morning after a drunken party, aliens invade and start vacuuming people up into their garbage-pile-shaped ships. The aliens' primary abduct-humans machine is a hypnotic light that makes people develop black veins where there were no veins before just prior to their abduction. Various shenanigans ensue.

Did I mention that our unlikeable protagonists are in a high-rise apartment building so they can watch the invasion as it unfolds? Did I also mention that there's a hilarious anti-smoking scene at a point where only an idiot would be worried about somebody smoking? Or that nuking a large portion of Los Angeles doesn't result in clouds blocking out the sun?

Why are the aliens here? Well, based on what I can piece together from the movie, these aliens don't actually have their own brains. They steal them from other species. I'd love to know what ingenious alien genetic engineer thought that was a good idea. Even though the aliens we see only make 'gronking' sounds and various hisses and wheezes, they're apparently an advanced star-faring civilization. Either that or they stole a lot of spaceships and then got really lucky.

In any event, people do really stupid things and then either die or get vacuumed up. The aliens aren't much better, coming as they do from a civilization that's impervious to nuclear explosions but susceptible to fire, rocks, axes, car crashes and gunfire. One group of alien harvesters looks like the robot-squids from the Matrix movies; the other is essentially the StayPuft Marshmallow Man with a spider grafted to his face. To up the creative ante, the movie ends on a cliffhanger. Then you think the story's going to end in the series of stills played with the end credits. But it doesn't. That ends on a cliffhanger too. Yay! Maybe a Skyline 2 will come out! Recommended only for hilarity at the general ineptitude.