Friday, May 31, 2013

Brought to you by UFC

Here Comes the Boom: written by Kevin James, Allan Loeb, and Rock Reuben; directed by Frank Coraci; starring Kevin James (Scott Voss), Salma Hayek (Bella Flores), Henry Winkler (Marty Streb) and Bas Rutten (Niko) (2012): Pleasant movie comedy which also seems to be a 90-minute advertisement for Ultimate Fighting, with various UFC fighters, organizers, and promoters showing up throughout the film.

Kevin James is a less-schlubby-than-usual high school biology teacher who's lost his teaching mojo until the buget-cutting plight of fellow teacher Henry Winkler leads him to become a Mixed Martial Arts fighter to raise money to save the music program. I can't believe I just typed that.

James is very good at slapstick, and while this isn't a great comedy, it certainly isn't a terrible one. James really needs to hook up with a better movie production team than the guys at Happy Madison, though. He's always a lot better than his movies. Lightly recommended.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Behind the Candelabra: adapted by Richard LaGravenese from the non-fiction book by Alex Thorleifson and Scott Thorson; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Matt Damon (Scott Thorson), Michael Douglas (Liberace), Rob Lowe (Dr. Jack Startz), Dan Aykroyd (Seymour Heller), Scott Bakula (Bob Black) and Debbie Reynolds (Frances Liberace) (2013): Enjoyable but slight HBO outing by Soderbergh which features a fairly stunning bit of acting by Michael Douglas as Liberace. Soderbergh says he couldn't get funding for this picture from movie studios because it was too gay, hence its production by HBO.

But as even I only vaguely remember Liberace as a performer, probably from The Muppet Show in the 1970's, I wonder if the studio redlight on this production was also a result of executives wondering if anyone in the younger movie-going populace would have the faintest idea who Michael Douglas was playing. Brokeback Mountain this isn't. The love story here is pretty creepy, as Liberace gets Thorson to undergo plastic surgery so as to look more like a young Liberace. Eww.

Douglas pretty much nails Liberace's voice, though the pitch is a bit lower than I remember it. Damon is perfectly adequate as Liberace's late-in-life love Scott Thorson, whose book the movie is based on. I'm not sure why Soderbergh didn't do more with lighting values, as he's done on so many other films: this seems like a movie that needs to look much more stylized, but except for a few oversaturated scenes, it's actually about as conventionally photographed and edited as a movie of the week. As the film's major intertext is Sunset Blvd., black-and-white photography might have been nice. But I think we're supposed to feel much more sympathy for Liberace than we do for Norma Desmond, and I can't say as I felt it. It's like being asked to feel sorry for a Dick Tracy villain.

Rob Lowe, though. Holy Moley! His plastic surgeon character actually looked worse than the filmmakers have Lowe made up here. He looks like he got caught in a face-stretching machine from Brazil or possibly Star Trek: Insurrection. In any case, I'd guess that Douglas is a mortal lock for a least a best acting nomination in next year's Emmys. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King (1993)

Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King containing the following works: "Dolan's Cadillac" (1988), "The End of the Whole Mess" (1986), "Suffer the Little Children" (1972), "The Night Flier (1988), "Popsy" (1987),"It Grows on You" (1982), "Chattery Teeth" (1992), "Dedication" (1988), "The Moving Finger" (1990), "Sneakers" (1988), "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" (1992), "Home Delivery" (1989), "Rainy Season" (1989), "My Pretty Pony" (1988), "Sorry, Right Number" (1993), "The Ten O'Clock People" (1993), "Crouch End"(1980), "The House on Maple Street", "The Fifth Quarter" (1986), "The Doctor's Case" (1987), "Umney's Last Case" (1993), "Head Down" (1990), "Brooklyn August" (1971), and "The Beggar and the Diamond" (1993) (Collected 1993):

Nightmares and Dreamscapes is Stephen King's third and, to date, largest collection of short pieces by about 100,000 words. If it weren't for King forgetting that "The Cat from Hell" had not been collected, Nightmares and Dreamscapes would have completely cleared King's published back catalogue of stories he intended to collect.

Yes, Virginia, there are published King stories that have never been collected because King thought they sucked, from the 1960's to the 1980's. "The Cat from Hell" (adapted in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) would finally appear in 2008's collection of otherwise recent stories, Just After Sunset. But other than that accidental omission, King's two collections after this one contain material published after 1993.

Besides being the longest of King's collections, this is also the broadest by about four genres and one non-fiction essay about King's son Owen's Little League baseball team. King was a much more nuanced writer by 1993 than he was earlier in his career, and that generally shows up in places like that excellent baseball essay, mainstream pieces that include "My Pretty Pony", straight-ahead suspense stories such as "Dolan's Cadillac," and homages to hardboiled detective fiction ("Umney's Last Case") and Sherlock Holmes ("The Doctor's Case"). There's also a nifty Cthulhu Mythos story from 1980, "Crouch End."

Where the collection falls down is in the area of horror. The best pure horror story here is the earliest story in the book -- "Suffer the Little Children", from the late 1960's, is a marvelously nasty story. "Chattery Teeth," from the 1990's, is a fun mirror-image of the much-superior "The Monkey" (collected in Skeleton Crew). "The Moving Finger" and "Rainy Season" are both enjoyable duds as horror, with concepts that are simply way too over-used, or that are much funnier than they are scary. "The Night Flier" and "Popsy" are both pretty terrible, vampire stories without any bite.

King's career really is interesting if one now takes completely seriously the concept that the gigantic 1986 horror novel It really did represent King's summation of his fictional concern with horror. There hasn't been much straight horror since, and much of what there has been has been awfully scattershot.

King's best post-It long work of horror fiction, The Library Policeman, is itself essentially a condensed retelling of It. He may always be a horror writer in the popular imagination, but I don't think King's best work has been in horror for decades. In any case, this is a solid collection. Maybe too solid. It's thick as a brick. Recommended.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Great White Space by Basil Copper (1974)

The Great White Space by Basil Copper (1974): The recently deceased Basil Copper gives us a splendid homage to H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, with perhaps a smidgen of Moby Dick, in this tale of an expedition into a mysterious cave system located beneath mountains somewhere in Asia. The exact location is never given because the narrator doesn't want anyone to follow in his expedition's footsteps for reasons that become abundantly clear as the narrative progresses. He only is escaped alone to tell thee.

Narrated decades after the (thankfully fictional) attempt of the 1932 Great Northern Expedition to penetrate the mysteries of that cave system, The Great White Space goes not into the southern polar regions (as Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, Jules Verne's The Sphinx of the Ice, and Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym did) but beneath the Earth.

Copper devotes a lot of space and detail early in the text to explaining the technical and logistical preparations for the descent and then the long voyage to 'The Black Mountains', where the entry to the cave system exists. Along the way, two different and somewhat odd Asian tribes are met, and possible taboos about entering the caves encountered. The natives do not go in there, through an artificial cave mouth that stands several hundred feet high.

Once inside the system -- which is, to use a favourite Lovecraftian adjective, cyclopean, as in monstrously huge -- the expedition soon discovers that the entire cave system is artificial, carved or somehow otherwise scooped out of the rock through unknown technological means. Something lurks, of course, though much of the terror of the novel lies in what comes before the Big Reveal.

Unnerving details and an attention to both the squeamish and the Sublime build to the revelation of what waits in the region of The Great White Space, a region paradoxically located miles beneath the Earth. There are things in bottles, a library, and great forms glimpsed in the distance, coming closer. And there comes occasionally from far off the sound of enormous wings.

Some may find this brief novel a tad slow -- the horrors come on-stage fairly late in the game, and explanations are abandoned in favour of mystery and dread. I quite liked the modulation of this novel -- it's quiet and it demands concentration, but it's a page-turner nonetheless. Highly recommended.

But the Hair is Fantastic

Brave: written by Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, and Irene Mecchi; directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell; starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald (Merida), Billy Connolly (Fergus), and Emma Thompson (Elinor) (2012): I wanted to like Pixar's first foray into the long uncharted realms of a female protagonist. And the first 40 minutes or so of Brave are decent enough, though there are points where I became convinced that they created a female protagonist (Scottish teenager Merida) just to show off their increasing proficiency at CGI hair.

Merida has a lot of hair. And it looks pretty realistic. If you want to see what top-shelf CGI could do with hair just 15 years ago, take a look at Malebolgia in the live-action Spawn movie. See how terrible it looks? So we've mastered computer-generated hair. It's not a Mars colony or an end to world hunger, but it's something.

But Holy Moley -- did Pixar's first female protagonist have to get saddled with Mother issues that ultimately swallow the entire plot? And was the last 40 minutes of the movie even plotted out? Because everything in the second half of the movie revolves around two female characters accomplishing...a repair job on a tapestry. Specifically, repairing about a two-foot-long tear in a tapestry.

So a movie in which three of the four major speaking roles are for women has as its McGuffin...the ability to sew. Well, and forgive. It's as if Aladdin came down to whether or not a tinsmith could fix the Genie's lamp. And the amount of Idiot Plot running-around in those last 40 minutes is something to behold. It makes the chase sequence at the end of Star Trek: Into Darkness look like a model of narrative economy and plain good sense.

So hopefully Pixar will give a female protagonist a movie as good as the Toy Story films or Up or Wall*E. This one, muddled and burdened with voiceover homilies that don't seem to have any relation to what the film showed us, isn't it. Not recommended unless you're a scholar of CGI hair.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek: Into Darkness: written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof; based on characters created by Gene Roddenberry, Carey Wilber, Gene L. Coon, Harve Bennett, Jack B. Sowards, Samuel A. Peeples, Nicholas Meyer, and Ramon Sanchez; directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Chris Pine (Captain Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Mr. Spock), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Karl Urban (McCoy), Simon Pegg (Scotty), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Bruce Greenwood (Pike), Peter Weller (Admiral Marcus), Alice Eve (Carol Marcus) and Benedict Cumberbatch (John Harrison) (2013):

The Abrams et al. Star Trek reboot focuses on action to a much greater extent than anything in the original series, movies or television. It's a canny choice in today's action-blockbuster market, though it does render the movies occasionally somewhat unTrekkish. Something blows up every five minutes or so, and it's not just the control panels.

Here, the writing team goes where pretty much every iteration of Trek has gone before, into the realm of science-fiction-as-allegory for current political issues. The most obvious example of this sort of writing from the original series was probably "The Enterprise Incident", a fairly schematic take on the Gulf of Tonkin incident, only with Romulans and a cloaking device and the "Vulcan death grip."

Into Darkness goes broader and longer than that, squeezing in everything from 9/11 to the morality of drone strikes on U.S. citizens to the second Iraq War. The relentless plot machine keeps everything fairly light, despite the attempts to portray this as the Trek universe's version of The Dark Knight. It's also less politically toxic than the last two Nolan Batman films -- the superman here is something to be avoided, as are vengeance and secret political shenanigans for the greater good.

The cast is solid, and most of the actors portraying classic characters are given at least one acting set-piece to please the fans. Nonetheless, the film clearly belongs to Spock and Kirk -- as it usually does -- along with the somewhat manic Scotty of Simon Pegg and adversaries played by Peter Weller and Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch has a lot of fun enunciating and sneering and doing uncanny physical stuff, while Weller is convincingly wormy as a Starfleet Admiral with more than a touch of Dick Cheney about him.

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have become pretty adept at suggesting the original Shatner and Nimoy performances without imitating them. Kirk is suitably cocky at this point in his career, and Spock occasionally baffled by his captain's brash emotionality. There are several lovely action setpieces both on the ground and in space, and the day is won by cleverness and self-sacrifice, not by who has the biggest guns.

This isn't a great movie -- indeed, it could have slowed down and offered a bit more nuance at times, more compelling dialogue and argument. Cumberbatch, playing a classic Trek villain, is characterized much more harshly than that character was originally, making things a lot more clear-cut as to the character's pre-existing villainy (attempted genocide against humanity gets added to the character's resume, something not originally on the books for someone who was originally a warmonger, a tyrant, and a slaver). Oh, well. An action movie that comes out in favour of justice and due process is rare enough. Recommended.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Not After Nightfall by Basil Copper (1967)

Not After Nightfall by Basil Copper, containing the following stories: "The Spider", "Camera Obscura", "The Cave", "The Grey House", "Old Mrs. Cartwright", "Charon", "The Great Vore", and "The Janissaries of Emilion" (Collected 1967): Basil Copper, who just died in the past year, was a stand-out British writer of horror and detective stories (primarily the Solar Pons series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches in the latter category) for 50 years.

This is Copper's first collection, and it contains several stand-outs, though none of the stories moves particularly far into the neo-Lovecraftian cosmic horror he would practice later in his career that would lead to such indispensable works as The Great White Space and "Shaft Number 247." Instead, Copper's first collection reminds me of a variety of different writers at certain points, though it also establishes Copper's gift for building suspense and mystery through the patient and increasingly unnerving accumulation of detail.

"The Great Vore" gives us a Holmesian occult investigator, while "Old Mrs. Cartwright" nicely evokes the nasty horror shorts of Saki. The cool Copper tone is already evident, though later stories would seem more of a totality and less suggestive of homage ("Charon", for example, reads like a British version of a gentle Bradbury fantasy or even a Twilight Zone episode).

"The Great Vore" is tense and detail-packed as it follows Professor Kane's attempts to thwart the murderous operations of an occult cult in Great Britain some time in the middle of the 20th century. "The Grey House" is the story most reminiscent of LeFanu, while "The Cave" suggests some of Algernon Blackwood's traveller's horrors of wandering into dark places in Europe.

"Camera Obscura," an interesting fantasy of justice, was filmed for the 1960's TV show Night Gallery. "The Janissaries of Emilion" is reminiscent of some of Lord Dunsany's and Lovecraft's dream stories, but it achieves its own nasty bit of unsettling business through the patient accumulation of detail -- it's not 'dreamy' but rather very specifically described. Really a very fine first collection of stories. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Oh, Cooter

Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer (2000): Sawyer enjoyably stacks the deck to create a fictional universe where the existence of God is scientifically proveable.

A sarcastic, vaguely spider-shaped alien shows up at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto one day and asks to see a paleontologist. Cancer-stricken Thomas Jericho answers the call, and he and alien Hollus of the Forhilnors begin a three-way collaboration with another alien race, the Wreeds, to figure out what God is up to -- and why technological civilizations keep disappearing.

This isn't the God of any human holy text, admittedly -- neither the Wreeds nor the Forhilnors believe that the creature is all-knowing or all-loving, but rather that it's a massive intelligence from a previous universe that set the parameters of the current universe to allow life to develop.

Basically, God's a lot like Galactus, but without all the planet-eating and cool-helmet-wearing.

The best parts of this novel are the lengthy sections of dialogue in which various scientific theories are debated. A sub-plot involving abortion-clinic bombers is mostly unfortunate (especially as Sawyer comically names one of them 'Cooter').

The conclusion starts off interestingly cosmic and then comes up with something that answers a biological puzzle without necessarily making sense once one thinks about it for awhile. Still, a fast-paced, enjoyable read, set pretty much entirely in Canada and in space. Recommended.

Bad Ghost

The Apparition: written and directed by Todd Lincoln; starring Ashley Greene (Kelly), Sebastian Stan (Ben) and Tom Felton (Patrick) (2012): This is a truly awful horror movie with some pretty nice shots of power lines criss-crossing the desert. Young scientists release Something from Outside. It enjoys killing dogs and cactuses. Then it gets ambitious. Tom Felton seems to be trying; the other two leads look like they should be posing for a catalogue or, at most, a music video. Not recommended.

Monday, May 13, 2013


The Campaign: written by Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell, and Adam McKay; directed by Jay Roach; starring Will Ferrell (Cam Brady), Zach Galifianakis (Marty Huggins), Jason Sudeikis (Mitch), Dylan McDermott (Tim Wattley), Sarah Baker (Mitzi Huggins), Katherine LaNasa (Rose Brady), Brian Cox (Raymond Huggins), Dan Aykroyd (Wade Motch) and John Lithgow (Glenn Motch) (2013): It takes about half-an-hour for this broad political comedy to finally gain traction, which is a long time for a 90-minute movie. But when it does, it becomes pretty funny. It's also surprisingly foul-mouthed.

The overall point being hammered again and again in The Campaign -- that money has perhaps terminally damaged politics in America -- is a pretty obvious one. But when the two candidates, played by Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell, really start hammering each other in campaign ads and through other means, the film manages to go only a bit beyond the level of believability.

The recent, baffling federal Conservative attack ads on new Liberal leader Justin Trudeau could almost be something out of this movie -- and Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems as blank and pitiless as Will Ferrell's congressman is at the beginning of the campaign. Ideology in politics is whatever raises money and thus gets you elected. Otherwise, it's irrelevant.

If the movie were quicker in getting up to full comedic speed, and more sure of the fact that its satire doesn't actually require us to like either of the candidates, much less both of them, by the end of the movie...well, Dr. Strangelove or even Wag the Dog this isn't. But it is pretty funny at points, and darn short. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Hungry Moon by Ramsey Campbell (1986)

The Hungry Moon by Ramsey Campbell (1986): Real-world fears of nuclear apocalypse made the late 1970's and 1980's the high point for certain types of horror novels, including ones in which a town or village was threatened by evil that, while coming from outside, would take root in some way in the town itself, in the souls of its citizens. Reagan and Thatcher, nuclear war and the war on the poor, the era of greed and the era of Christian fundamentalism. Come to think of it, it was a lot like now.

The three high points of this particular sub-genre in the 1980's are T.E.D. Klein's The Ceremonies, Stephen King's It, and Ramsey Campbell's The Hungry Moon. All came out within 18 months of one another in the mid-1980's. All feature physically or metaphorically isolated pockets of humanity threatened by a terrible, cosmic creature from Outside that has nonetheless come Inside, to increasingly dire result. Campbell's novel most overtly deals with Thatcherism, Reaganism, and nuclear fears; it's also the most succinct of the three, though it's by no means short.

The small English Peaks District town of Moonwell has annually celebrated the coming of Spring with a flower-laying ritual around the entrance to a cave that gives the town its name. Once upon a time, something was vanquished there, though no one knows what, or if the story derives from a real-life event dating back to the Roman Occupation.

But then an American evangelist comes to town, vowing to descend into the cave to demonstrate that pagan rites have no place in Christianity, no matter how distanced they've become from their origins. As the evangelist prepares, the town begins to sink deeper and deeper into fundamentalist Christian hysteria.

As with It, The Hungry Moon posits a place subtly compromised over the centuries by a hidden heart of evil, gradually growing. And as in both of the other novels mentioned above, only outsiders to the place, either metaphorically or literally, are uncompromised enough to see the growing horror and act against it.

Campbell weaves together Lovecraftian cosmicism, English and Roman history, and the sort of real-world cultural artifacts that seem improbable but are actually real -- the songs about "Harry (or Hairy) Moony" are derived from real, traditional, disturbing songs. The Romans did indeed get completely freaked out by ceremonies of the people we (incorrectly) call in their totality the Druids, eliminating many of the people and most historical records of whatever it was that the Druids were doing that could disturb those hard-case, conquering Romans, who were no strangers to human sacrifice themselves. And there were indeed major protests in the 1980's about nuclear missiles on British soil: in this case, some of that soil is uncomfortably close to Moonwell, though most of the residents welcome the new base as a bulwark against godless Communism.

This isn't a perfect novel, though I think many of its faults are due to a need for a bit more length (though not It-level giganticism). The deliberate pacing and gradual introduction of horror give way to a mad rush at the end. But its depiction of evil and weakness in a variety of linked, interdependent forms is terrifically well-thought-out, as is the central monster. It's a humdinger. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Intolerable Cruelty

Intolerable Cruelty: written by Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, John Romano, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring George Clooney (Miles Massey), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marylin), Geoffrey Rush (Donovan Donaly), Cedric the Entertainer (Gus Petch), Edward Herrmann (Rex Rexroth), and Richard Jenkins (Freddy Bender) (2003): A mediocre Coen Brothers movie (of which this is one) is still better than the vast majority of all other movies.

This trifle is certainly the glitziest of their big-star productions, those Coen Brothers movies starring George Clooney or, once, Tom Hanks, in roles that seemed to be intentionally crafted to either mock them or at least test their capacity to mock themselves. Both Hanks and Clooney have been game, though Clooney's much better at it -- Hanks's go at embodying Southern-Fried tomfoolery in The Ladykillers was overshadowed by most of his co-stars, including a cat.

Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, who's worked with the Coens a lot, shoots Catherine Zeta-Jones like the most radiantly golden of Golden-Age movie stars. Clooney's character, meanwhile, repeatedly obsesses over how white his newly whitened teeth are. Various eccentrics and grotesques get most of the good lines and good physical comedy. An ex-con turned assassin seems to have wandered in from Raising Arizona, while the hideously geriatric head of Clooney's law firm seems to have arrived fresh from The Hudsucker Proxy via Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Is it good? Not exactly, but it's neither boring nor stupid. For a movie the Coens say was in development for eight years (originally with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere attached), it seems weirdly underdone, especially in the dialogue department, though that may be a result of having been rewritten too many times. One of the oddities of the production is that Clooney's character seems like a prescient lampoon of his later characters in Michael Clayton and Up in the Air. Recommended.

The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell (2002)

The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell (2002): This novel, deliberately paced and filled to the bursting with unnerving, telling detail, is Campbell's most (Arthur) Machenesque long work, firmly in the tradition of that seminal horror writer's "The Great God Pan" and "The White People." There are cosmic, Lovecraftian elements as well -- Machen was one of the great influences on H.P. Lovecraft's conception of horror, after all.

30 years prior to the main events of the novel, biologist Lennox Price attempted to discover and contain whatever psychoactive agent had been mentally crippling generations of people unfortunate enough to encounter it in the small, ancient grove of Goodmanswood in the Severn Valley near Campbell's fictional city of Brichester.

Lennox apparently succeeded, but at the cost of his own sanity. Now, he and other similarly compromised men and women live in a mental hospital in Goodmanswood. His eldest daughter, wife, and grandson live nearby.

But a widening of the highway around the wood -- and the destruction of several of the trees therein -- seems to have awakened something. Or maybe it was never asleep. And while his younger daughter, wife, and grandson all seem to have been mentally influenced by the wood, it's eldest daughter Heather who will ultimately have to piece together what's been going on in the woods since before the Romans came. Birds fly over the wood, but they refuse to land anywhere in it, and wildlife has always been strangely absent.

This is Campbell's most densely descriptive novel, one with a fairly straightforward plot but an immensity of destabilizing descriptions and things almost but not quite seen. The wood itself was planted by the Romans to obscure or erase something that was there before, something the people we call the Druids either worshipped or feared. Or both.

Campbell's cheeky sense of humour occasionally shines through -- there's a particularly funny bit about religious book-burning -- but for the most part this is serious stuff. As Heather discovers early on, the Devil was often placated by being referred to as 'The Good Man.'

Readers who require subtext will certainly find some here (some of the effects of the thing or things in Goodmanswood closely resemble global warming, while others evoke the impact of non-indigenous plant and animal species on new environments). But the horror here is ultimately the Thing itself, and the price required to acknowledge it, much less stop it. Highly recommended.