Sunday, September 29, 2013

It's 9:11 somewhere

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 second Trek film from J.J. Abrams and company plays better on second viewing, I think. It's still too action-packed for its own good, and it needed to create new scenes rather than re-mixing old ones, but its heart seems to be in the right place. Though the redesigned Klingons really seem to be heavily into piercings. Recommended.

Cloverfield: written by Drew Goddard; directed by Matt Reeves; starring Lizzy Caplan (Marlena Diamond), Jessica Lucas (Lily Ford), T.J. Miller (Hud), Michael Stahl-David (Rob Hawkins), Mike Vogel (Jason Hawkins) and Odette Annable (Beth) (2008): I'm not entirely certain why I enjoy this movie so much. I think I just like seeing annoying yuppies pursued through Manhattan by a 500 foot-long gecko.

I do think viewers who thought the annoying nature of the protagonists was accidental miss the point of the whole film: these are some of the annoying, self-absorbed New Yorkers whose actions would contribute to the financial meltdown several months after Cloverfield was released. Hell, the movie's prescient! The handheld camerawork throughout makes this the only giant monster movie I can think of which is overwhelmingly claustrophobic rather than spacious and sublime, especially in a great scene in which giant shrimp-spiders pursue the protagonists down a dark subway tunnel. Recommended.

Argo: adapted by Chris Terrio from work by Tony Mendez and Joshuah Bearman; directed by Ben Affleck; starring Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O'Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), and Victor Garber (Ken Taylor) (2012): In 1979, the Canadian embassy in Iran secretly sheltered six American diplomats who'd escaped the hostage-taking of the rest of the American embassy staff by Iranian militants. It was a wild true story, told in Best-Picture-Oscar winner Argo as a thriller in which Americans are actually almost completely behind the escape of those escapees from Iran.

OK, historical inaccuracies and omissions make Argo only slightly more fact-based than your average Aliens Invented Thanksgiving documentary on The History Channel. And I think backing off a bit on some of the thrillery additions and alterations to the real story might have made this feel a bit less contrived and Hollywoodesque.

Absolutely none of the tense moments of the last 40 minutes of the film, as CIA agent Affleck rushes to get the six American diplomats hidden at Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor's residence onto a plane and out of Iran before their cover is blown, really happened. By the time Iranians race to catch an ascending plane with their cars and jeeps, the artificiality of the whole exercise seems to mirror the bizarre artificiality of the central premise of the escape plan: that the six diplomats pretend to be part of a film crew scouting Iran for locations for a science-fiction film named Argo.

Well, so it goes. Canada at least comes across better than New Zealand and Great Britain. Argo claims they refused to help the escaped embassy staff when in reality Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand all took part in the dangerous months-long ordeal -- to the extent that in real life, New Zealand diplomats, and not Ben Affleck, drove the escapees to the airport during the events that conclude the film. And Jimmy Carter didn't have to authorize the purchase of airplane tickets in the nick of time, as the movie shows -- Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor's wife had already bought those tickets. Oh, well. I was entertained! Recommended.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Short Rounds

Ten Tales Calculated to Give you Shudders (1972): edited by Ross Olney containing the following stories: Sweets to the Sweet (1947) by Robert Bloch; The Waxwork (1931) by A. M. Burrage; Used Car (1932) by H. Russell Wakefield; The Inexperienced Ghost (1896) by H. G. Wells; The Whistling Room (1910) by William Hope Hodgson; The Last Drive (1933) by Carl Jacobi; The Monkey's Paw (1902) by W. W. Jacobs; Second Night Out (1933) by Frank Belknap Long; The Hills Beyond Furcy (1966) by Robert G. Anderson; and Floral Tribute (1949) by Robert Bloch.

This little reprint anthology was a staple of my childhood, and probably the childhood of a lot of other Americans and Canadians, given that it was a Whitman book for older kids, or 'Young Adults' as the publishing industry now names them.

And it's a very good ten-story assortment, though the inclusion of two Robert Bloch stories, the second one a bit of Bradburyian supernatural nostalgia that won't make anyone shudder, seems odd. Maybe Olney and Bloch were buddies. Other than that oddity, the selection can stand beside that of pretty much any decades-spanning anthology I can think of. It's certainly still relevant today. I wonder if Wakefield's story is the first haunted used-car story? Recommended.


Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks (1987) by Richard Christian Matheson containing the following stories: Third Wind; The Good Always Comes Back; Sentences; Unknown Drives; Timed Exposure; Obsolete; Red; Beholder; Dead End; Commuters; Graduation; Conversation Piece; Echoes; Incorporation; Hell; Break-Up; Mr. Right; Cancelled; Mugger; The Dark Ones; Holiday; Vampire; Intruder; Dust; Goosebumps; Mobius; Where There's a Will; and Magic Saturday.

Horror and fantasy great Richard Matheson's son Richard Christian Matheson is no slouch either, having carved out a prominent career for himself in television, movies, and short stories by the time he was 30.

Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks is the younger Matheson's first collection of short stories (and one teleplay for Amazing Stories). As he pretty much specialized in very short stories, there's quite a range of stories included here, with supernatural horror, realistic horror, science fiction, and gentle whimsy all showing up. And one disturbing narrative that doubles as a poem ("Vampire").

The impact of such short stories requires a certain type of writer: terse and concise in his style, imaginative and unusual in the subjects he deals with and the POV he uses to view those subjects. Matheson is astonishingly good at these things at a very young age, an engaging mutation from the schools of O. Henry and Dennis Etchison (who provides one of the two glowing-with-praise forewords, the other coming from a similarly enthusiastic Stephen King). Recommended.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Last Whispers

Whispers VI: edited by Stuart David Schiff (1987) containing the following stories:

The Bones Wizard by Alan Ryan: Supernatural musical shenanigans. Extremely subtle to the point of attenuation, with little actual horror.

Leaks by Steve Rasnic Tem: Quintessential Tem: mysterious, disturbing, rooted in the real.

Everything to Live For by Charles L. Grant: Almost a Philip K. Dick science-fiction horror story both in execution and in its treatment of its themes.

Bogy by Al Sarrantonio: Poetic, Bradburyesque piece with the sort of nasty ending that Bradbury specialized in back in the 1940's.

The Fool by David Drake: Lengthy novella echoes the regional dialects and themes of Drake's friend, horror legend Manly Wade Wellman, but with its own peculiar spin on magic and justice. Really a good, convincingly regional piece, and quite different from much of Drake's other output.

Repossession by David Campton: Enjoyable ghost story with a couple of interesting concepts. Would probably work better if it developed the narrator more.

The Years the Music Died by F. Paul Wilson: Bleakly humourous conspiracy tale about Rock-and-Roll.

The Woman in Black by Dennis Etchison: Typically elusive Etchison tale of mysterious horrors in the suburbs turns into an almost surreal freak-out at the end. This is not an ending you will see coming. Disturbing.

My Name Is Dolly by William F. Nolan: Concise, ably narrated in the first-person by a child, straddles psychological and supernatural horror.

Toad, Singular by Juleen Brantingham: Well-written but intensely unpleasant story in what I generally find to be an unrewarding sub-sub-genre of horror: the tale of a sympathetic nebbish who's been brutalized by the normal world...and now gets further brutalized by the supernatural! It all feels awfully sadistic.

Sleeping Booty by Richard Wilson: Droll short-short: black comedy, not horror.

Privacy Rights by J. N. Williamson: Really disturbing bit involving rape and abortion. Verges on the exploitative, and the madness of the main character doesn't seem fully earned by the story.

One for the Horrors by David J. Schow: Great, nostalgic piece about old movies and lonely people. Not horror.

The Black Clay Boy by Lucius Shepard: Super-duper creepy tale of sex, death, magic, and what I'd describe as Hagar Shipley goes to Hell.

Where Did She Wander? by Manly Wade Wellman: The last John the Balladeer story by the then-recently-deceased Wellman. Lovely and somewhat mournful.

In all: highly recommended.


Fears Unnamed by Tim Lebbon (2004) containing the following stories:

Remnants: A really lovely combination of eerie, cosmic, Time-Abyss adventures in a mysterious lost city and psychological realism, as the problems and disappointments of two life-long friends -- one an adventurer and archaeologist, the other a sedentary writer depressingly disappointed by the choices he's made -- are examined and evaluated during a descent into the unknown.

White: An apocalyptic story of the 'Ten Little Indians' variety. Several acquaintances become snowbound in Northern England while the world rapidly plunges into chaos and mysterious destruction, and the snow keeps coming. And weird, weird, half-glimpsed creatures prowl the snow. Or are the gruesome murders being committed actually the work of someone inside the house?

Naming of Parts: Lebbon takes what initially seems to be a zombie plague observed by a 12-year-old boy and turns it into an apocalypse in which everything -- humanity, one's family, all of nature -- seems to be afflicted by entropy and rapid, irreversible decay. The ending in this one is a bit of a dud, as the story seems to demand some sort of closure that is instead given up to mysterious ambiguity. Nonetheless, very good and very sad.

The Unfortunate: Occasionally almost surreal weird-out about the sole survivor of a plane crash, and the supernatural forces behind his survival. The weirdness of the supernatural universe could use more development -- to the extent that this novella would probably make a wonderful novel -- though the bleakness of the material is never less than daunting. All four of these novellas evade and confound catharsis in a manner peculiar to the best horror fiction: there is no satisfying purgation here, only greater mysteries and sublime abjection.

In all: highly recommended.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

World's Fair

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: written and directed by Kerry Conran; starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Polly Perkins), Jude Law (Sky Captain), Giovanni Ribisi (Dex), Michael Gambon (Paley), Bai Ling (Assassin), Omid Djalili (Kaji), Angelina Jolie (Franky), and the digital ghost of Laurence Olivier (Dr. Totenkopf) (2004): Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow creates a coherent world based on the comics and movie serials and science-fiction covers and cartoons of the 1930's, along with the New York World's Fair of 1939, itself dubbed The World of Tomorrow. It's gradually becoming a cult favourite, possibly because it uses CGI and digital compositing and virtual sets in the service of something retro and weird and wholly authentic in its own way.

Unfortunately, Paramount's decision to dump it in September 2004 with a baffling marketing campaign pretty much sealed its box-office doom. This is really too bad because writer-director Kerry Conran is much better at creating a digital movie-world than most famous directors have proven to be. The whole thing makes Georges Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy look visually dim-witted by comparison.

There's real character and charm in the designs, and in the performances by Gwyneth Paltrow as crusading reporter Polly Perkins and Jude Law as private air-hero Sky Captain, with a nice, relatively straightforward supporting performance from Giovanni Ribisi as gadgeteer Dex.

Along the way, the film drops into a number of locales that allude to forebears such as the 1930's film version of Lost Horizon, any number of Lost Worlds and Skull Islands, the Krell world-machine from Forbidden Planet, Thunderbirds, and brief visual homages to the 1930's King Kong and to the original Godzilla. All in all, it's swell. Highly recommended.

Mother's Day

Mama: written by Andy Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti, and Neil Cross; directed by Andy Muschietti; starring Jessica Chastain (Annabel), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Lucas/Jeffrey), Megan Charpentier (Victoria), Isabelle Nelisse (Lily), Daniel Kash (Dr. Dreyfuss) and Javier Botet (Mama) (2013): Produced by Guillermo del Toro, Mama has some of his tropes scattered throughout, most notably the linkage of insects with the supernatural. It's not the most brilliant of horror movies, as at least two characters do really stupid horror-movie cliche things, and a sub-plot turns out to exist because it makes the main plot run more smoothly towards the end.

On the other hand, the movie looks great. The set design is impressively functional insofar as it's atmospheric while also serving the plot and not being ridiculous. Jessica Chastain is never less than fully invested in her lead character, almost unrecognizable in a black short-cut wig and raccoon eye make-up. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones) has an oddly thankless dual part as twin brothers, both of whom disappear for the middle of the picture so thoroughly that one wonders if he was called away to do reshoots on that HBO series. And the two little girls do about as good a job of playing semi-feral girls abandoned in the woods for five years as one could ask.

The movie really succeeds or fails, though, on how one feels about the eponymous monster. Or ghost. Or ghost-monster. There are a couple of really nice aspects to the visualization of Mama: her hair perpetually seems to float as if she's underwater (and metaphorically speaking, she is). And she occasionally comes at people while almost completely submerged in the floor, with only her ghostly hair marking her approach like some ghastly shark's fin. There's more imaginative CGI in her creation than in all of Peter Jackson's last three films put together.

And there are also several imaginatively shot dream/memory sequences from Mama's standpoint that are seriously disturbing. It would be lovely if as much care had been taken with the story as is taken with the visuals, but at least the movie is neither found-footage nor 'based on a true story.' Recommended.

Lincoln Tempermental

Lincoln: written by Tony Kushner, based partially on Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Daniel Day Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Straitharn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), James Spader (W.N. Bilbo), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens) and Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair) (2012): Spielberg and Kushner put together a movie that would have made Stanley Kramer (Judgement at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind) proud, as it engages history in a most Kramerian way: it deploys an all-star cast playing real, or at least based-on-real, people; and the movie positively bristles with lengthy, literate speeches in the service of explaining historical events, political gamesmanship, and ideological viewpoints.

Lincoln focuses on a couple of months towards the end of the American Civil War, as Lincoln jockeys to get the anti-slavery 13th Amendment passed by Congress before the war ends, and brings dozens of pro-slavery Southern congressmen back into the U.S. government. To do so requires pretty much every political trick available to Lincoln, most notably the appointment of out-going Democratic congressmen to governmental patronage jobs in exchange for their 'Yes' votes. With the November elections over, but the new congressmen not slated to take over their seats until March, much of Lincoln's strategy relies on these lame-duck political opponents.

Lincoln also knows that the war is all but over: the industrial North has begun to overwhelm the South. And a diplomatic party of Rebel politicians is on its way to negotiate a peace settlement. And so the need for speed and expediency increases, as does the need for political shenanigans in the service of a greater good.

Lincoln does a fine job of laying out the various factions in this fight. The radical abolitionists of the North want more than just the 13th Amendment, and they want it now. But trying for more will almost undoubted cause the anti-slavery movement to lose everything. And so Lincoln has to create a temporary voting coalition from disparate parts.

I think this is a very good movie about the pragmatic idealism of Lincoln and, by extension, other great politicians. Daniel Day-Lewis disappears into the role, his Lincoln a somewhat high-voiced man who slouches a lot because he's taller than everyone around him. The other actors, especially Tommy Lee Jones as a radical abolitionist whose influence is needed and Sally Field as the distressed and vitriolic Mary Todd Lincoln, deliver fine performances.

Spielberg keeps his showiness to a minimum in service to the story: the chief stylistic device here is the abundance of low-lighting scenes that show just how physically dark the mid-19th century was after the sun went down. Metaphorically speaking, the characters are all submerged not only in the fog of war, but in the crepuscular world of political manuevering, a world where the sun never rises or sets completely.

One of the interesting things that comes out, in terms of parallels to today's politics, is that small land-owning farmers were often against slavery because the slave plantations were the original Factory Farms. Their cheap labour allowed them to steamroll small farmers. It's funny how circumstances change and remain the same in certain areas. Well, not funny 'Ha ha.' Recommended.

Friday, September 20, 2013


Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories: edited by Gary Groth, written by Harvey Kurtzman; illustrated by Harvey Kurtzman, Gene Colan, Ric Estrada, Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Dave Berg, John Severin, and others (1951-54; collection 2012): Harvey Kurtzman was one of the giants of American comics and American cartooning from the late 1940's until his death in the early 1990's. His most wide-ranging, influential creation was Mad magazine (originally an EC comic book) in the early 1950's, which he edited and wrote and partially drew over the first five increasingly popular years of its existence.

And then there were the dramatic stories for EC, contained in the other two comic books Kurtzman edited for EC at the time -- Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. The focus of these comics tended towards historical and contemporary stories of war.

Kurtzman would be labelled an obsessive micromanager if he edited a comic book today. He drew the covers. He spent immense amounts of time researching these short tales for narrative and artistic accuracy. He gave immensely detailed instructions to the artists. And he drew a number of stories himself.

The result was extraordinary. This volume brings together two seemingly disparate story streams from those two EC titles in an instructive way. These are the stories Kurtzman both wrote and illustrated, and the stories illustrated by artists, many of them to become famous later, whom Kurtzman didn't judge good enough at the time to become regular artists for his war books.

Interviews included in this volume give some of Kurtzman's reasons for not making certain artists regulars (Alex Toth eschewed detail for shadowy suggestion, thus driving the detail-oriented Kurtzman nuts; Joe Kubert was sloppy and occasionally imprecise). Keep in mind that Toth and Kubert are critically lauded giants of the American comic book. Kurtzman isn't necessarily "right" or "wrong" in his judgment -- they just didn't fit his aesthetic ethos. Nonetheless, their stories included in the volume are excellent.

More excellent, though, are the stories Kurtzman both wrote and drew. His command of both detail and shadow is extraordinary -- the stories look absolutely terrific in black-and-white, so much so that colour would seem a distraction from the artistry, though the colour covers included here show the sort of effects Kurtzman's colourist, Marie Severin, could achieve with the limited palette available to comic books at the time.

While a couple of stories descend into patriotic goofiness that Kurtzman himself derides in the interview, most are concerned more with the horror, and the horrific decisions and subsequent results, of war. The Korean War raged during Kurtzman's time at EC, and the three most striking, essential stories -- "Big 'If'", "Corpse on the Imjin", and "Air Burst" -- all focus on incidents during that war. But Kurtzman's sensibilities are more Ambrose Bierce than Sgt. Rock.

Kurtzman's best stories are thick with absurdity and sorrow, beautifully observed and executed, haunting as Hell. These are the best stories about war that American comic books would generate for decades afterwards, and really should be read by anyone who doubts the ability of comic books to be 'adult.' They're adult, without a trace of profanity or graphic violence; short, concise, laden with meaning and metaphysics. Highest recommendation.

Remember the Monsters?

Four Color Fear - Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950's: edited by John Benson and Greg Sadowski; written and drawn by Wally Wood, Bob Powell, Joe Kubert, Jack Cole, George Evans, Al Williamson, Basil Wolverton, and others (Collected 2010): The early 1950's were the heyday of the American horror comic book, at least those specializing in five-to-eleven-page stories. EC Comics was the gold standard.

But there were many, many more during this period when the American comic book strove to become mainstream entertainment for adults and children alike, just prior to governmental scrutiny in the U.S. and Canada motivated by the juvenile delinquency scare of the time lobotomized comic books for decades.

This Fantagraphics Books anthology collects non-EC stories from the post-WWII, pre-Comics Code era, that time that was too short a season. The stories range from good to great, and a fair number are extraordinarily disturbing. Basil Wolverton's art could make anything freaky -- he was a true American original of the comic-book grotesque. So, too, was Bob Powell. And many others collected here, ranging in art style from primitive to baroque.

So if you want to sample this lost and truncated time when comic books in the U.S. and Canada almost made the transition into being mass-cultural entertainment as they still are in Japan, buy this book. The historical essays and cover gallery are swell, too.

With stories ranging from the deeply disturbing (Wolverton's "Swamp Monster") to the bizarre and surreal (Powell's "Colorama") to the WTF (a beautifully cartooned entry from Nostrand about an anthropomorphized germ (!)), the range is terrific, the material is terrific, the total package is handsome and scrupulously produced. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Wasted Lives

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths: written and illustrated by Shigeru Mizuki, translated by Jocelyne Allen (1973/English edition 2011): A seminal Japanese manga in terms of dealing with World War Two and Japan's role in it, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is certainly one of the most depressing, emotionally draining graphic novels I've ever read. It marked something of a departure for its creator, Shigeru Mizuki, who previously had been best known for much more fantastic, whimsical manga work.

Mizuki does one of those things I tend to associate most with manga, in that he juxtaposes cartoony humans in the foreground with backgrounds that are often clearly copied from photographic material. This methodology can obviously have an awful lot of meanings. Here, it tends to highlight the transitory state of any human being when set against nature itself, and the world in its sublime giganticism. At points, though, photorealistic depictions of the dead whom we'd previously seen only as cartoons hammer home their basic, shattered humanity.

The book follows the horrifying adventures of Japanese soldiers trying to defend one of the islands in what is now Papua New Guinea from an invasion by the Allies during the waning days of World War Two. Mizuki himself survived such a scenario, and draws on his experiences and others for this bleakly comic look at the horrors of war, and the horrors of being an enlisted man in the Japanese Imperial Army.

If you thought your war was bad, keep in mind that suicide attacks were considered a terrific idea by many of the officers in the Japanese army. So, too, were regular beatings and absurd orders. Part of the plot hinges on a Catch-22 that makes most Western military Catch-22's look positively benign. A pointless suicide charge has been reported as complete, with all men nobly lost, to the island's central Japanese command.

But in reality, several dozen men didn't die in the assault for a variety of reasons. But their deaths have been reported. In order to save face at the command level, they have to die one way or another. The two surviving officers in charge of the group are expected to commit ritual suicide. The rest, including the grieviously wounded, must march back into enemy fire that they have no chance of surviving.

Good times!

This is a harrowing book, spiced with moments of humaneness and humanity, spiked with horrific, sometimes oddly funny moments of trauma and death. The translation could have used a defter hand at points. Anachronisms like "Meh." appear throughout, and there's no poetic ability shown in the recurring translations of popular Japanese songs that the soldiers occasionally sing. But the power and pathos of the narrative survive this, as does the deceivingly simple cartooning. But be warned: there is no catharsis here. There is ultimately no point to the deaths, no redemption. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

More Whispers in the Dark

Whispers IV: edited by Stuart David Schiff (1983) containing the following stories:

A Night on the Docks by Freff: One of the oddest vampire stories I can think of, with echoes of the classic tale "Call Him Demon" by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore

Into Whose Hands by Karl Edward Wagner: Terrific, moody piece that draws on Wagner's experiences as a psychiatrist working in public mental health facilities. Maybe Wagner's most subtle piece.

Out of Copyright by Ramsey Campbell: Droll bit of supernatural revenge by Campbell, working in a very literary version of his EC Comics revenge mode.

Elle Est Trois, (La Mort) by Tanith Lee: I think this is the prolific, multi-talented Lee's crowning achievement in short works. It's really an essential piece of dark fantasy/horror.

Come to the Party by Frances Garfield: Fun short from the writer also known as Mrs. Manly Wade Wellman.

The Warrior Who Did Not Know Fear by Gerald W. Page: Odd choice, as it's really a piece of a longer work of heroic dark fantasy, a piece without an ending. Still enjoyable.

Fair Trade by William F. Nolan: Another short exercise in the EC vengeance mode, with Nolan doing spot-on dialect for the first-person narrator.

I Never Could Say Goodbye by Charles L. Grant: Mysterious.

The Devil You Say! by Lawrence Treat: More humour than horror.

Diploma Time by Frank Belknap Long: Interesting ghost story from long-time writer Long, with one of his typically jarring moments in which he eschews transitions, though here it's intentional.

Tell Us About the Rats, Grandpa by Stephen Kleinhen: Minor bit of gross-out horror.

What Say the Frogs Now, Jenny? by Hugh B. Cave: Unpleasant insofar as the female victim of sexual harassment is somehow made out to be the antagonist of the piece. I don't think that was Cave's intent, but it's a really ugly, somewhat cliched story.

The Beholder by Richard Christian Matheson: Unusually supernatural story for the master of shocking short-short stories.

Creative Coverage, Inc. by Michael Shea: Bleak comedy about corporate malfeasance. Really, really, really bleak.

The Dancer in the Flames by David Drake: Evocative piece draws on Drake's time in Viet Nam, but uses a somewhat clumsy 'footnote' ending to fully explain what has happened.

The Reflex-Man in Whinnymuir Close by Russell Kirk : Lovely period piece/pastiche by the always elegant Kirk.

In all: recommended.

Toads and Snakes and Ghostly Apes

Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors: written by Robert E. Howard; edited by David Drake (1987); containing the following stories and poems: Arkham (poem); The Black Stone; The Fire of Asshurbanipal; The Thing on the Roof; Dig Me No Grave; Silence Falls on Mecca's Walls (poem); The Valley of the Worm; The Shadow of the Beast; Old Garfield's Heart; People of the Dark; Worms of the Earth; Pigeons from Hell; and An Open Window (poem).

Nice little collection of Robert E. Howard horror stories, some but not all of them additions to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Howard added Nameless Cults, another evil tome of lore that should have been forgotten, to the Mythos, along with a few creatures, characters, books, and quasi-gods.

Among the Mythos tales, "The Black Stone" is by far the strongest. It places the action in Eastern Europe rather than North America, where much of Lovecraft's work was set. Besides introducing some of the poetry of Justin Geoffrey, who would be driven mad by the cosmic horrors he experienced and die screaming in an asylum, the story also gives us an extremely unpleasant toad-thing. It also introduces Muslims as, if not heroes, then not as villains -- their sweep into Hungary results in the destruction of a particularly horrible witch-cult. And in the Cthulhu universe, witch-cults aren't worshipping anything as mundane as Satan.

The other stories include a desert adventure into a lost city reputed to be guarded by something awful ("The Fire of Asshurbanipal") and a couple of heroic fantasies with major horror elements ("The Worms of the Earth" and "The Valley of the Worm"). "The Worms of the Earth" also ties in with "People of the Dark", as both present a subterranean race of reptilian 'men' driven underground by humanity some time in the dim past. These stories echo some of Arthur Machen's prototypical dark fantasies about the 'Little People', but with a typical Howard flavour (snakes and snake-like beings were one of Howard's most-favoured tropes).

"The Thing on the Roof" and "Dig Me No Grave" are fairly standard Mythos stories, although the former doesn't really achieve shock in its final revelation. "The Shadow of the Beast", one of Howard's many posthumously published stories, conjures up some nice atmospherics in a haunted house. The thing doing the haunting turns out to be quite interesting, partially because Howard's hard-bitten narrator shows some pity for its plight.

And then there's "Pigeons from Hell," adjudged by Stephen King to be one of the scariest stories ever written. It is quite a creep-out, and may be made even more creepy by the heavy lifting required to make a story with that somewhat goofy title legitimately scary.

Here, Howard seemed to be riffing on Lovecraft's repeated use of whippoorwills as psychopompic omens of death and the supernatural in the New England states, substituting pigeons for the Southern United States. It's the only thing about this horror story that doesn't quite play -- otherwise, this is a masterpiece of building tension and repeated shocks. It's Howard's finest horror short story, and one that stands up well against anyone else's horror stories, anywhere, anytime. In all, recommended.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Bond 1

Dr. No: adapted by Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkely Mather, Wolf Mankowitz, and Terence Young from the novel by Ian Fleming; directed by Terence Young; starring Sean Connery (James Bond), Ursula Andress (Honey Ryder), Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No), Jack Lord (Felix Leiter), and John Kitzmiller (Quarrel) (1962): More than 50 years after its debut, and about 30 years since I last watched it, Dr. No still seems pretty refreshing.

In this first movie of the series, the Bond mythology hasn't accreted around the central concepts yet. Connery is young, though already in a toupee. And the movie is fairly faithful to the original novel, though it replaces Dr. No's fertilizer factory with one of the most ridiculous nuclear reactors in the history of cinema.

Well, I can see why the fertilizer factory -- the Jamaican front for No's nefarious enterprises -- was dumped. After all, it involved the collection of an awful lot of bat guano for the fertilizer, bat guano which would assume tremendous importance by the end of the novel.

Bond teams up with the CIA and the first of a seemingly endless array of actors to play CIA operative Felix Leiter (here it's Hawaii 5-0's Jack Lord) to thwart shenanigans aimed at disrupting America's space program. Bond romances three women, including the stunning Ursula Andress as this movie's main Bond girl, Honey Ryder.

And Bond's universe is nastier here than it would be again until Daniel Craig's first outing in Casino Royale. One sequence in which Bond empties his gun into an already dead man lying on the floor was trimmed to accommodate censors. And one Bond compatriot (it never pays to be a Bond compatriot) meets with a truly gruesome and abrupt death, one we hear but don't see.

As to the nuclear reactor...well, generations of Bond viewers with a modicum of reactor knowledge have noted that the reactor operates contrary to normal reactor protocols, as lowering the control rods into Dr. No's reactor somehow causes it to blow up rather than cool down. True. But my question is, why did Dr. No put the computer control room for his entire enterprise inside the actual fission reactor? He sure is crazy! He probably lost his hands from radiation exposure while typing!

Dr. No also sets the early standard for changing the villains from Soviets to the criminal agency SPECTRE because the producers wanted the Cold War to end and thus didn't want to irritate the Soviets by making them the villains in 90% of all Bond adventures. The more you know. Recommended.

Apatow Descending

This is 40: written and directed by Judd Apatow; starring Paul Rudd (Pete), Leslie Mann (Debbie), Maude Apatow (Sadie), Iris Apatow (Charlotte), Jason Segel (Jason), Megan Fox (Desi), Graham Parker (Himself), Chris O'Dowd (Ronnie), Albert Brooks (Larry) and John Lithgow (Oliver) (2012): This movie feels like it's 40 hours long. And not a good 40 hours.

Writer-director Judd Apatow's greatest weakness (other than the colour yellow) has been his inability to trim even his best movies, leaving the viewer with comedies that seem to always clock in with about 20 minutes too much footage. Here, that inability to edit really infects the entire film. This entire movie could be deleted from the space-time continuum without any harm being done.

My two favourite review titles for this movie are 'First-World Problems' and 'Here's a Bunch of Things That I've Been Thinking About, In No Particular Order.' We follow a week in the life of some supporting characters from Knocked Up, primarily married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann). Pete runs his own failing record label. Debbie runs her own clothing boutique. They have a giant house in Los Angeles. They are having marital problems. I don't care.

I suppose part of the problem is that Paul Rudd really needs to either get back into television or start playing supporting roles again. He's an amiable actor with a gift for improv, but he can't carry a movie.

And Leslie Mann, who in the real world is Mrs. Judd Apatow, is fine as a supporting actress but also becomes quite irksome quite quickly as a lead actress. I think part of it is that she has a character actor's face, which is to say she has a distinct and permanent look to her face, in her case that look being 'comically aggrieved'. And it just doesn't work when she's expected to emote in ways that aren't supposed to embody comic aggrievedness. She just looks constipated.

Much of the writing here is lazy, whether it was actually improvised (as happens a lot on Apatow films) or written down beforehand. The characters are flat, their problems weirdly attenuated, possibly because they're too upper-middle-class to be sympathetic without the movie working a lot harder to give them character traits other than 'whiteness' and 'permanently aggrieved.' Pete and Debbie are written as increasingly tiresome whiners, but almost always in a comic mode. The moments in which we're supposed to feel genuine sympathy -- or in which the film expects us to engage with what's happening as if it were a well-written drama -- fail utterly.

And then there are Judd Apatow's daughters. Because his daughters played the daughters of Pete and Debbie in Knocked Up, Apatow has them reprise their roles here. But Knocked Up didn't have the two on-screen in every other scene. The actual child (Iris) is passable in the way child actors can be, though her line readings in certain scenes are stilted.

Poor Maude, playing 13-year-old Sadie, is terrible. Sofia Coppola in The Godfather III terrible. The writing presents Sadie as an angry, screaming young teen. Indeed she is. So she's very yelly and jumpy, in the manner of young actors in middle-school theatrical productions everywhere. Shrill. Even more yelly. Why do this to your daughter? She can't act!

So anyway, this is a crappy movie. There are funny lines and situations scattered throughout, and a number of funny performances break through the crap, the always charming Chris O'Dowd and the always entertaining Albert Brooks chief among them.

There's also a shamefully, embarrassingly tone-deaf sequence in which Pete mocks the accent of an East Indian doctor. And there's a dreadful waste of Melissa McCarthy's talents, not because she isn't funny, but because the movie uses her size and brashness as objects of ridicule, and then has her character comment upon this ridicule as if to defuse the problematic construction of fatness and brashness as being funny when set against the much better looking and more socially acceptable Pete and Debbie.

But all McCarthy's meta-commentary does is make it clear that Apatow is well aware of what he's doing -- and apparently thinks the situation is funny anyway. See, she's fat and obnoxious! And she wrongly accuses Pete of touching her breast! Ha ha, what fun! What a moment of familial triumph when Pete and Debbie make her look stupid!

Oh, and Megan Fox plays one of Leslie Mann's clerks at her boutique. And of course Fox's character also moonlights as a hooker. Sorry, escort. And the other clerk turns out to be addicted to Oxy. And in Judd Apatow's world, Oxy makes you speak like the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist and makes you an object of simple ridicule as well. What larks, Pip, what larks! So, a terrible movie, and an intermittently odious one. Not, not, not recommended.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Most Peculiar Mummy

Whispers (1977) edited by Stuart David Schiff, containing the following stories:

"Sticks" by Karl Edward Wagner: One of Wagner's four greatest stories, "Sticks" is a terrific piece of Cthulhu Mythology, with an absolutely riveting first half.

"The Barrow Troll" by David Drake: Typically tough-minded piece of revisionist historical fantasy from Drake.

"The Glove" by Fritz Leiber: Blackly humourous San Francisco-era piece from Leiber, set in a familiar apartment building for Leiber fans.

"The Closer of the Way" by Robert Bloch: Droll bit of meta-fiction from the creator of Psycho.

"Dark Winner" by William F. Nolan: Fascinating bit of Bradbury-tinged horror-nostalgia that would have been right at home on The Twilight Zone.

"Ladies in Waiting" by Hugh B. Cave: Solid haunted-house riff.

"White Moon Rising" by Dennis Etchison: A non-supernatural psychological thriller from Etchison. Stylistically precise, thematically mysterious.

"Graduation" by Richard Christian Matheson: Epistolary creep-out.

"Mirror, Mirror" by Ray Russell: Fun, minor piece.

The House of Cthulhu by Brian Lumley: Lovecraftian sword-and-sorcery.

"Antiquities" by John Crowley: Mummies wreak havoc in England in a most peculiar way.

"A Weather Report from the Top of the Stairs" by James Sallis and David Lunde: Adaptation of a famous Gahan Wilson cartoon ("And then we'll get him!") with two different endings.

"The Scallion Stone" by Basil A. Smith: A very M.R. Jamesian horror story from a writer who avoided publication until after his death.

"The Inglorious Rise of the Catsmeat Man" by Robin Smyth: Very much an Ambrose Bierce/Roald Dahl-like exercise in gross-out horror-comedy.

"The Pawnshop" by Charles E. Fritch: Entertaining deal-with-the-devil story.

"Le Miroir"by Robert Aickman: An even-more-ambiguous-than-usual story from the eternally ambiguous Aickman.

"The Willow Platform" by Joseph Payne Brennan: Nice bit of regional Maine Lovecraft-tinged cosmic horror in the backwoods.

"The Dakwa" by Manly Wade Wellman: The Southeast backwoods play host to a particularly gruesome Native-American monster.

"Goat" by David Campton: Really solid, evocative piece of particularly British small-town horror.

"The Chimney" by Ramsey Campbell: Award-winning story of childhood horrors that may or may not be real.

The first anthology of stories from Schiff's semi-prozine Whispers really almost bursts with heady goodness. In all: Highly recommended.

Mad Lives

The Mad Reader: written by Harvey Kurtzman; illustrated by Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and Basil Wolverton (1952): This 50th anniversary edition of the first paperback collection of comic-book stories that originally appeared in Mad still has the power to amuse and amaze.

Kurtzman was the rare comic-book writer-artist-editor who was proficient at both comedy and drama. EC Comics created Mad to take advantage of Kurtzman's comic and satiric abilities, and the result was Mad -- first a comic book, later a magazine so as to escape the censorship of the Comics Code Authority. Kurtzman, along with his artistic collaborators, pretty much invented the entire language of Mad that would continue to this day, spilling out from the magazine into movies, television, and the Internet. The Airplane and Scary Movie movies are clearly the children of Mad. So is The Onion. So is SCTV.

The artists were really co-writers at certain points, especially Elder and Wood, who crammed the backgrounds and sides of the panels with various visual and linguistic jokes that weren't in Kurtzman's scripts or lay-outs. Those crammed panels became one of the hallmarks of Mad for generations of readers. How much stuff was going on in the margins?

Elder and Wood also set the artistic tone for decades to come. Wood could be an astonishing mimic of other artists when he wanted to be, but he also brought his own comic sensibilities (and Va-va-voom women) to the proceedings. Kurtzman and Wood's parody of Superman still stings today -- it could almost be a commentary on the recent Man of Steel movie.

Bill Elder could also parody the style of others, but he was really the exemplar of the crowded, kitchen-sink panel. While the main comedy goes on in the foreground, comedy and satire also pop off everywhere else in the panel, often with little or no relation to the main plotline. It's a brilliant stew that rewards repeated reading. Whole lotta squinting going on.

While the parodies here are of specific 1950's targets -- the radio and TV shows Dragnet and The Lone Ranger, Superman, Archie Comics -- some of those targets persist today, and even the Dragnet parody has its own relation to the present in its parody of jargon-heavy police procedurals. Parodies of print ads and a parody of the McCarthy-Army hearings (!!!) fill out the volume. This is really an essential bit of 1950's popular culture. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Hotdog Diplomacy

Hyde Park on the Hudson: written by Richard Nelson; directed by Robert Michell; starring Bill Murray (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Laura Linney (Daisy), Samuel West (King George VI), Olivia Colman (Elizabeth), Elizabeth Marvel (Missy), and Olivia Williams (Eleanor Roosevelt) (2012): It's 1939, and the newly crowned King George VI and wife Queen Elizabeth (aka The Queen Mum) visit President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his New York State family estate in hopes of securing some promise of American aid to Great Britain in the event of the inevitable war with the Axis.

While this meeting is the centre of Hyde Park on the Hudson, it's told within the story of Daisy, a distant cousin of FDR who became his confidante and lover around that time, a fact ultimately disclosed decades later when her diaries and letters were discovered after her death.

Laura Linney is terrific as Daisy, who combines pragmatism and naivete as she and FDR carry on their odd little romance. Bill Murray remains fully under control as a convincing FDR, though the accent isn't quite there. The rest of the cast is also solid. The tone of the movie remains fairly light throughout -- this is either a comic drama or a dramatic comedy, take your pick.

One of the nice touches is FDR's eternal battle with his teetotaling mother -- who still runs the estate and tries to forbid drinking thereon. FDR hides booze in his desk, but the question of public drinking finally comes to a head during the early stages of the Royal Visit. Cocktails are soon being served.

Part of the movie deals with the PR manuevering around the King's visit. George VI was the first British king to visit the United States, and anti-Royal (and anti-British) sentiments still had quite a foothold in the United States. As FDR already knew that the United States would have to come to Great Britain's aid, the Royal Visit would be a chance to humanize the Royals and publically make Great Britain likeable again. And whatever else FDR was, he was a consummate politician. Hotdogs would also be served. Recommended.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Star's End

Starman: Grand Guignol: written by James Robinson; illustrated by Peter Snejberg, Paul Smith, Tony Harris, and Andrew Robinson (2000): The career of second-generation Starman Jack Knight moves towards its close as his Opal City plunges into darkness at the hands of frenemy The Shade. Or is it The Shade? Writer Robinson takes 13 issues to tell the story of what is Jack Knight's greatest battle, as he and his allies must face a veritable army of criminals, super-criminals, and whatever it is that the mystically powered Shade has become.

While there's a certain amount of violence and death in this tale, Robinson manages to keep things from becoming overwhelmingly grim and gritty throughout. Peter Snejberg really delivers some fine superhero art here, clean and almost minimalist at times, with a lovely fluid line.

The battle for Opal City draws in a number of DC's lesser-known heroes whom Robinson pretty much has carte blanche to play with. The space-faring Adam Strange may be the most welcome odd appearance, though Robinson also places a couple of DC's long-ago Quality Comics purchases, Phantom Lady and the Black Condor, into Opal City.

Robinson even manages to make good use of DC's company-wide crossover event of that time, Underworld Unleashed, to explain the return of some of the Golden-Age Starman's (Jack's still-living father) greatest foes. In all, this is a fine penultimate chapter to the Starman series. Highly recommended.

Starman: Sons of the Father: written by James Robinson; illustrated by Peter Snejberg, Tony Harris, and Andrew Robinson (2001): The saga of Starman Jack Knight comes to an end as loose ends are tidied up and a long-simmering mystery (Who was the Starman of 1951?) is finally solved. Obviously, the final Starman arc is best read by someone who's already read the rest of the series. Snejberg's art shines throughout, as do Robinson's grasp of character and love of Golden-Age superheroes. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Dark Knight is Home Alone

Skyfall: written by Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan; based on characters created by Ian Fleming; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Daniel Craig (James Bond), Judi Dench (M), Javier Bardem (Silva), Ralph Fiennes (Gareth Mallory), Naomie Harris (Eve), Berenice Marlohe (Severine), Albert Finney (Kincade), and Ben Whishaw (Q) (2012): The new 007 is certainly enjoyable, though it also imparts a sense of deja vu...for Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. Javier Bardem's Silva is the most Joker-like of all Bond movie villains, ever, and even turns out to have a horrifying smile hidden behind dentures. He's all dyed-blonde, giggly, sexually ambiguous menace.

A very convoluted plot starts off like the non-canonical Never Say Never Again, with an aging Bond running into trouble in the field, and ends up like Home Alone, with Bond, M, and Alfred the Butler....errrr, Kincade the Groundskeeper...fixing up Bond's abandoned boyhood home so as to hold off an army of terrorists bent on killing Judi Dench's M. In between, Bond does battle in a Shanghai skyscraper that seems to have beamed in from Blade Runner; in a Macau gambling den complete with its own pair of Komodo dragons; and on a deserted island stronghold right out of Life After People.

Craig is taciturn and business-like as usual, certainly the closest thing to Ian Fleming's original secret agent of the novels. The occasional quips fall like lead balloons in certain places: there's no way to interpret Bond's "waste of good Scotch" quip after a woman's death as anything other than dismayingly misogynistic, one of those moments in which the 'deadly jolite' of the Bond film (thanks, Michael Moorcock) is about as unfunny as a blockbuster can get.

Many action sequences occur on trains, above trains, in subways, on desolate Scottish moors, and underwater. Very few gadgets appear, though a new, young, sarcastic Q does appear. It all moves very quickly for its nearly 2-1/2 hour length, though like most modern action movies, its climax goes on forever. And if you're going to set your climax in an abandoned church, you're going to have to live with somewhat unfair comparisons to John Woo's masterful The Killer. Recommended.

A Game of Hellboy

Hellboy: Masks and Monsters: written by Mike Mignola and James Robinson; illustrated by Mike Mignola, Scott Benefiel, and Jasen Rodriguez (Collected 2009): Short volume collects two Hellboy miniseries team-ups with three other characters -- DC's Batman and Starman in one adventure and Dark Horse's own Ghost in the other.

A good time is pretty much had by all. Though I'm not familiar with Ghost -- a two-gunned female ghost fighting crime -- Hellboy's adventure with her makes a certain amount of sense given their supernatural backgrounds. Mignola's script presents an interesting mix of mythology and the mundane as organized crime gets mixed up with ancient gods who want Hellboy's giant hand for something nefarious. The art by Scott Benefiel, from Mignola's layouts, is fairly smooth, though perhaps a bit too representational for Mignola's blocky, occasionally impressionistic Hellboy.

The Starman/Batman team-up, plotted by Mignola and scripted by Starman's James Robinson, is really serious fun, with Mignola handling the art. Batman and Hellboy team up to fight magical Aryan Nation types in Gotham. With Batman temporaily sidelined by a re-appearance of the Joker, it's then up to Hellboy and second-generation Starman Jack Knight to rescue the Golden-Age Starman (who's also Jack's father Ted Knight) from a Nazi base in South America. There, the Nazis have supernaturally coerced Ted into helping them bring a very large, evil God back to Earth.

Oh, Nazis! Mignola's Batman is shadowy and bulky, while his Starman is quite a change from the more representational art generally seen in Jack Knight's own title. The whole volume goes down nicely, and is also an enjoyable break from the increasingly labyrinthine continuity of Hellboy's own adventures. Recommended.

The Sandman Volume 5: A Game of You: written by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, George Pratt, Stan Woch, Dick Giordano, and Bryan Talbot (1991-92): The fifth volume of Gaiman's now twenty-year-old+ Sandman adventures presents a mostly self-contained tale concerned with gender, identity, race, and childhood dreams. Minor characters from previous story arcs do reappear here, along with the Lord of Dreams and his attendant (wise)-talking raven Matthew.

The six issues focus on one minor character from an earlier story arc, Barbie, whose previous encounter with the world of the Dreaming destabilized her marriage to Ken (!), along with her own carefully constructed self-image, and sent her to New York to figure out who she is. That previous interaction with the world of Dreams also had an unintended consequence. She's stopped dreaming.

However, somewhere in dreams, a ragtag group of talking and sometimes imaginary animals continue to search for the vanished Princess Barbara, who is the only person who can defeat the all-devouring Cuckoo and its conquering hordes. But she's going to need the help of her neighbours -- the lesbian couple Hazel and Foxglove, the transvestite Wanda, and the mysterious Thessaly -- to negotiate an increasingly unstable fantasy world.

The real world and the dream world are, of course, connected, in both obvious and less-than-obvious ways. Things do not necessarily go well for everyone involved in this adventure, with its echoes of Narnia and Tolkien and The Wizard of Oz's game-changing tornado. We also learn an awful lot about the life-cycle of the cuckoo bird. Why did someone put these awful things in clocks to begin with? Recommended.

Atomicus Interruptus

Astro City Volume 3: Confession: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson, Willie Blyberg, and Alex Ross (2000): The third collection of Busiek, Anderson, and Ross's postmodern superhero opus brings us one previously introduced storyline (the imminent alien invasion of giant shape-changing cockroaches teased in a story collected in the previous volume, Family Album) and one major new one, the story of crime-fighting duo Confessor and Altar Boy, as told by Altar Boy.

Told from the POV of Altar Boy, who comes to Astro City looking to become a superhero and ends up being trained by the mysterious Confessor, an urban vigilante who may or may not have superpowers, Confession is a solid story of this odd world of superheroes. It hints at revelations about the past that are still to come, most notably the mystery of the Silver Agent and Astro City's Dark Age of the 1970's and 1980's.

Confession also sketches in some of the quasi-mundane details of life in a city teeming with superheroes and supervillains. Not only are there superhero bars and hangouts, but there are such bars and hangouts for specific types of superheroes and supervillains.

Tensions reminiscent of the Dark Age begin to multiply in Astro City as mysterious killings begin to occur periodically in and around the city's supernatural borough, despite the best efforts of heroes supernatural, super, and unpowered to apprehend the killer or killers. Some people begin loudly agitating about the failure of the superheroes. And Altar Boy begins to have doubts about his mysterious mentor. All the threads get tied up in a satisfying climax that sheds new light on the history of the city and its heroes. Recommended.

Astro City Volume 5: Local Heroes: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (2004-2005): After two straight collections of book-length stories, Astro City returns to one- and two-issue outings both in the city and far beyond it, in the present-day and decades in the past. There's a charming story about the sort of superheroes found in small towns and rural areas. Another story deals with retirement and aging by looking in on a former superhero who operated in the 1960's and 1970's, and his reasons for retiring.

And there's a sad but metafictionally astute story that riffs on the bizarre pas de deux of Superman and Lois Lane during the 1950's and 1960's, when it seemed like half of all Superman stories involved some combination of Lois trying to discover his secret identity and Superman doing weird and often dickish things to throw her off his trail. Busiek's writing and the art by Anderson on the interiors and Ross on covers and designs are all very satisfying. Recommended.

Friday, September 6, 2013

De Palma, Late and Early

The Black Dahlia: adapted by Josh Friedman from the novel by James Ellroy; directed by Brian DePalma; starring Josh Hartnett (Bucky Bleichert), Scarlett Johansson (Kay), Aaron Eckhart (Lee Blachard), Hilary Swank (Madeleine Linscott), and Mia Kirshner (Elizabeth Short) (2006): Apparently, postmodern crime-fiction writer James Ellroy, who wrote the novel this movie was based upon, really liked the 3-hour cut director Brian De Palma showed him. Unfortunately, the studio subsequently trimmed the movie by a full hour. What's left, Ellroy wouldn't comment upon.

Based on a real-life unsolved Hollywood murder mystery of the 1940's, The Black Dahlia looks great and contains solid performances by everyone involved, though Scarlett Johannson sounds way, way too modern for a period picture. De Palma gets in some of his signature camera movement, most notably in a long POV shot at a dinner party. But he's not overtly showy -- the more involved pans and tracking shots all serve the story, and there's a great, lengthy bit involving the discovery of the murdered, partially dismembered body of Elizabeth Short, the so-called 'Black Dahlia.'

What seems to have been cut are most of the scenes involving actual detection, along with at least a couple scenes fleshing out Detective Bleichert's growing obsession with the case. His partner, played by Aaron Eckhart, does become obsessed -- but Bleichert's later obsession seems to occur off-screen. And the revelation of the killer or killers falls somewhat flat, given that scenes introducing and explaining the role of that character seem to have been cut from earlier in the movie.

So instead we're left with a weirdly off-balance detective film more focused on the love triangle between Hartnett and Eckhart's detectives and Johannson as Eckhart's live-in love interest. The mystery comes and goes. In attempting to trim the multiple plot lines of a novel, the studio chose the wrong ones to trim. Lightly recommended.

Carrie: adapted by Lawrence D. Cohen from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Brian De Palma; starring Sissy Spacek (Carrie White), Piper Laurie (Margaret White), Amy Irving (Sue Snell), William Katt (Tommy Ross), John Travolta (Billy Nolan), Nancy Allen (Chris Hargensen), and Betty Buckley (Miss Collins) (1976): Wow, is there a lot of female nudity in Carrie. I'm pretty sure there won't be in the remake because in many ways Hollywood (and America) is far more prudish now than in 1976, at least when it comes to mass-market film releases. Nudity needs to stay in hardcore, niche pornography, where God intended it to be!

One of the quintessential movies about high-school alienation and bullying, Carrie is really cut to the bone from the novel. We see scenes of Carrie's traumatization by fellow high-school students and by her Jesus-Freak mother (played with eye-popping, scenery-chewing gusto by Piper Laurie). Then things seem to get better. Then all Hell breaks loose because some bullies never seem to know when to stop.

It all works, pretty much, and only the red filter for some of the concluding scenes comes across as dated in terms of actual film-making (as it does in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver from the same year). And there's a real, chilling, accumulating horror to the scene directly before the fireworks start at the end, as the camera circles around a fairy-tale ending lurching inevitably towards horror. The editing in these concluding scenes is top-notch. De Palma could give good montage when he wanted to.

What of Carrie? Sissy Spacek is way too pretty for the novel's version of Carrie, and with Chloe Moretz playing her in the (second) remake, this doesn't seem like a trope that's going to change any time soon. In Hollywood, pretty people get bullied too because no one's putting one of the less-pretty ones at the centre of a movie. So is the dominant ideology reinforced and reinscribed. Here endeth the lesson. Recommended.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Allegorical Alien Alcoholics

The World's End: written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg; directed by Edgar Wright; starring Simon Pegg (Gary King), Nick Frost (Andy Knightley), Martin Freeman (Oliver Chamberlain), Paddy Considine (Steven Prince), Eddie Marsan (Peter Page), Pierce Brosnan (Guy Shephard), and Rosamund Pike (Sam Chamberlain) (2013): The third film in the Cornetto Trilogy (so named for the British ice-cream treat that appears in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and this film) is a lot of serious fun.

40-year-old alcoholic Gary King's greatest life moment was the night in June 1990 when he and his four best friends attempted the Golden Mile, a 12-pub pub crawl in their quaint English home town. Now, 23 years later, Gary wants to get the band back together so as to actually finish the crawl, which ended at pub 9. But he's a genuine toxic screw-up whose friends haven't talked to him in years. And he lives entirely in the past, still listening to the music and wearing the clothes of 1990. He's frozen in time, a Goth time traveller still decked out in dyed-black hair and a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt.

But primarily through skullduggery and guilt-tripping, he gets the crawl going. And then things go bad. Science fictiony bad. And it ends up looking like the fate of the Earth will rest on Gary's drunken shoulders, and the shoulders of his friends. All this in a small town whose main claim to fame, as a giant road sign tells us, is that it's the site of England's first roundabout (in 1909!).

The science fiction in The World's End holds up better here, in a comedy, than it does in pretty much all the 'serious' releases of the summer. It's a droll homage to science fiction British (Village of the Damned, Quatermass, and any number of Doctor Who episodes) and American (most pointedly the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but also The Day the Earth Stood Still, classic and remake). And the movie, while making something of a serious point about addiction and man-children, doesn't necessarily suggest any personal growth by the end of the picture. Or the hope of it.

As in other projects from Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost, The World's End teems with pop-culture riffs and references, though here they're as much to the music of 1990 as they are to science fiction and comic books. It's a great, fun piece of work, and maybe the most consistent in tone of the films in the trilogy. Highly recommended.

Elysium: written and directed by Neill Blomkamp; starring Matt Damon (Max), Jodie Foster (Delacourt), Sharlto Copley (Kruger) and Alice Braga (Frey) (2013): The allegory is thick as syrup in this second project from Neill Blomkamp, whose first foray into feature-film science fiction, District 9, was a bit lighter on its metaphoric feet (though admittedly not much). It's a film that could easily have starred Charlton Heston and been released in 1972. It's exactly that sort of science-fiction film. It's Silent Running, but the plants are made of people, and the people are jerks.

That this is a heavy-handed allegory about the Haves and Have-nots short-circuits an awful lot of plausibility in the film, which looks great but just has too many ridiculous moments crafted entirely to allow the allegory to lurch towards its endlessly telegraphed conclusion. To name just one, the air defences of the giant orbital habitat of the rich that gives the movie its title consist of...a guy on the ground with a rocket launcher. Seriously? And that goofiness occurs in the first 20 minutes. Further goofiness is to come.

The acting is fine, so far as it goes -- no one's really playing a character here, so there's only so much anyone can do. Damon is Christly as action-Christ Max, and Jodie Foster is cool and sinister as the power-hungry defence minister of Elysium. Sharlto Copley, who played the mutating nebbish-hero of District 9, seems really miscast here as Elysium's kill-crazy enforcer Kruger. It doesn't help at all that much of his snarled Afrikaaner-inflected dialogue is nigh-incomprehensible. He sounds a lot of the time like an Australian with marbles in his mouth.

In any case, this is an enjoyable action-allegory that doesn't bear any scrutiny for plausibility. And I wish filmmakers would assume that we could come to believe in a hero's actions by observing those actions, rather than telling us how someone (in this case, a loveable nun) tells the child who will become the hero how he someday will become a hero who does great things. Because, you know, foreshadowing or whatever. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

London and Mexico After Midnight

The Dark by James Herbert (1980): Herbert gives us an apocalyptic struggle between Good and Evil, though this time expressed in pseudo-scientific rather than religious terms. A somewhat Satanic cult leader commits mass suicide with his followers in a London (England) suburb. A year later, what appears to be a sentient cloud of pure evil begins to sally forth from the site of the suicide, corrupting many of those it meets to act on their worst impulses. And it's pretty much up to three paranormal investigators and a medium to stop the rising tide, as conventional methods prove insufficient.

Herbert seems to have a good time destroying large portions of London, with a cloud-fueled soccer riot probably the best set-piece. Herbert's protagonists have an astonishing ability to survive physical punishment (the oldest and wisest paranormal investigator seems to get strangled every ten pages), which is good, because they must endure a lot of it.

This is an enjoyable horror novel in which evil operates more like a plague than the sort of thing one normally sees in horror novels. The protagonists are sympathetic if somewhat broadly drawn, and the stakes convincingly high. While this is horror, the depiction of the civil authorities pitching in to fight a supernatural menace also contains echoes of an awful lot of the British science-fiction-disaster tradition seen in the Quatermass series, Doctor Who, and the novels of John Wyndham. The sudden ending is quite loopy. Recommended.


Tomb Seven by Gene Snyder (1985): Labelled a horror novel by its publishers, Tomb Seven contains almost no horror. It's really a pseudo-scientific, ancient astronauts archaeology thriller about a dig in Mexico that unearths a seemingly impossible array of artifacts...and one weird 8-foot-tall skeleton. There's an awful lot of telepathic woo-woo stuff, much of it in need of less woo and more plausibility (cited for the millionth time in a piece of fiction about archaeology is the [in truth non-existent] Curse of King Tut's Tomb).

The protagonists -- a handsome Welsh archaeologist and a sexy Hispanic-American telepath -- have sex because that's how these things happen. And she is the most beautiful woman in the world, because that's also how these things happen. The telepath promises the reader that something terrible is coming. It never actually does. Sort of a wet firecracker. Not recommended.