Saturday, December 28, 2013

Time Well Wasted

Admission: adapted by Karen Croner from the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz; directed by Paul Weitz; starring Tina Fey (Portia Nathan), Paul Rudd (John Pressman), Gloria Reuben (Corinne), Wallace Shawn (Clarence), Nat Wolff (Jeremiah), and Lily Tomlin (Susannah Nathan) (2013): So-so romantic comedy centered on the admissions process at Princeton. Yes, you read that right. The cast is strong and there are some funny lines and situations, but Tina Fey really needs to start producing her own film comedies: she`s much, much better than the movies she`s been in over the past few years. Lightly recommended.

The Colony: written by Jeff Renfroe, Svet Rouskov, Patrick Tarr, and Pascal Trotter; directed by Jeff Renfroe; starring Kevin Zegers (Sam), Laurence Fishburne (Briggs), Bill Paxton (Mason) and Charlotte Sullivan (Kai) (2013): Competent Canadian sci-fi horror flick sees Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton struggle manfully to bring heft to the proceedings before we find out that the Big Bad is a seriously underwhelming and stereotypical post-apocalyptic threat. It`s an OK time-waster, and you really have to watch the closing credits. For reasons unknown, the producers try to turn dull shots of the Colony`s grubby interior into some sort of cool dance video. Watch those wire-enclosed ceiling bulbs strobe, baby! Lightly recommended.

Identity Thief: written by Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten; directed by Seth Gordon; starring Jason Bateman (Sandy Patterson), Melissa McCarthy (Diana), and Jon Favreau (Harold Cornish) (2013): Rote attempt at Planes, Trains, and Automobiles road-trip wackiness undone by sloppy writing, a waste of good actors such as Morris Chestnut and Robert Patrick, and a sudden personality change for Melissa McCarthy`s eponymous character, who goes from dangerous psychopath to loveable schlub at about the one-hour mark. Some funny set-pieces, most of which rely heavily on slapstick, can`t save the movie. Not recommended.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Super-heroes in Limbo

Superman: The Phantom Zone: written by Steve Gerber; illustrated by Gene Colan, Tony DeZuniga, Dick Giordano, Rick Veitch, and Bob Smith (1982, 1986; Collected 2013): Steve Gerber was both the oddest mainstream comic-book writer of the 1970's and, with the benefit of hindsight, far and away the best and most interesting superhero writer of that decade. His work on Man-Thing and Howard the Duck for Marvel Comics remains legendary, and unlike a lot of decades-ago legends of the superhero-writing game, compulsively readable and rewarding to this day.

This volume collects a 1982 Superman miniseries and a 1986 follow-up story. It also marks, I think, Gerber's first work for DC Comics. In a perfect world, the miniseries might have led to Gerber getting a full-time gig writing the Man of Steel's adventures. In this world, this volume is pretty much Gerber's entire Superman output. It's still a gem.

The Phantom Zone, introduced during the 1950's as the planet Krypton's extra-dimensional jail for criminals, was originally a handy source of enemies for Superman because within it were held Kryptonian criminals who would have the same powers as Superman should they be released on Earth. Oh oh! Over time, though, the ramifications of the Phantom Zone became stranger and more disturbing.

For one, Krypton (and Superman's father, Jor-El, specifically, for he had invented the Phantom Zone projector) had allowed dozens of dangerous criminals to survive the death of Krypton. For another, the non-physical, telepathic state the Zone put prisoners into did not seem to encourage anything resembling rehabilitation. Actually, the criminals just seemed to get angrier and crazier over the years. For a third, the Zone actually allowed the criminals to telepathically influence people in the normal universe to, I don't know, let them out? What a prison system!

Gerber explores these problems and others in his Phantom Zone work, while coming up with an explanation for what the Phantom Zone really was that's completely bonkers and genuinely disturbing. And as he runs Superman through a gauntlet that becomes increasingly surreal and nightmarish, Gerber gives the Man of Steel some of his greatest comic-book moments.

The artists chosen for the miniseries and the follow-up augment the oddness of the proceedings. Gene Colan and Tony DeZuniga supply art that one would have found much more normal on Batman or Dr. Strange or Dracula, three characters whom Colan is best known for drawing, along with Daredevil. DeZuniga, who spent years on various Conan properties at Marvel and on Western anti-hero Jonah Hex at DC, inks the miniseries with satisfying heft and murkiness. The follow-up issue brings Rick Veitch, best known in the mainstream for his art and writing on Swamp Thing, into the fold. It may not be his best work, but it's still pretty swell. In both cases, Superman remains heroic despite being faced with horrors and weirdness more suited to a Master of the Mystic Arts.

Could Gerber have kept going at this level of weirdness and excitement on a regular Superman series? Well, we'll never know. But a man can dream. Highly recommended.


Harbinger: Perfect Day: written by Joshua Dysart; illustrated by Barry Kitson, Clayton Henry, Riley Rossmo, and others (2013): The new Valiant Comics universe is a dangerous place. So when super-psychic Peter Stanchek and his friends get a chance to rest and relax after their disastrous Las Vegas confrontation with the super-powered forces of both older super-psychic Harada's Harbinger Foundation and the anti-psychic soldiers of Project Rising Spirit , they take it.

And then stuff happens.

Writer Joshua Dysart and artists Barry Kitson and Clayton Henry continue to create great stories in what was, back in the early 1990's with the original Valiant, a universe that basically copied the X-Men. They've grounded the super-heroics by trying to establish a sense of verisimilitude. These psychics (called 'psiots' in the Valiant universe) possess basic human weaknesses. They can be killed. They can be distracted. But they can also cut loose in horrific ways.

Besides the sharp characterization of Stanchek and his friends, the book also makes its main antagonist, the world-conquering/world-saving Harada, an unusual comic-book villain insofar as he not only sees himself as hero and saviour, he may very well be humanity's best hope: his desire to save the world from itself is never written as anything other than genuine and heartfelt. But the means to his ends aren't so good for everyone involved, and the ends may ultimately not be either. He's a saviour who's likely to turn into Sauron by the end.

By any standard, this is a great and affecting superhero comic book, already one of the best quasi-realistic superhero books ever published. It manages scenes of spectacle that aren't empty of concern and horror, and it's remarkably generous to even its most minor and fleeting of characters. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Wrong Man

12 Years a Slave: adapted by John Ridley from the memoir by Solomon Northup; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Paul Giamatti (Freeman), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ford), Paul Dano (Tibeats), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Lupita Nyong'o (Patsey), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw) and Brad Pitt (Bass) (2013): A terrific film with terrific writing, directing, and acting throughout. This should really win Oscars for director, picture, adapted screenplay, actor (Ejiofor), supporting actor (Fassbender), and supporting actress (a harrowing Lupita Nyong'o). Will it? Probably not. Nonetheless, I think this is probably the best drama of at least the last five years. Certainly the most affecting, harrowing, and moving movie.

Really, there's not a lot more to say. There's a lot less on-screen violence and blood than most reviews lead one to believe. It's the skill of the writing and direction that make this so. In a weird way, Ejiofor's Solomon Northup, a free Northern African-American kidnapped and sold into slavery in the early 1840's, is the ultimate real-world Hitchcock hero, the ultimate Wrong Man. And McQueen deploys the principles perfected by Hitchcock to augment our identification with Northup, our horror at his situation, and our loathing of the system he's trapped within.

There's a nearly wordless scene involving the aftermath of a near-lynching that is as perfect a visual metaphor for the horrors of slavery as anything in any film I can think of -- and the metaphor remains a literal scene of horror as well, one focused on the suffering of a character we've grown to admire and the brave kindness of one person.

There are a lot of other great scenes. There's a soundscape that sometimes menaces the viewer-listener in a manner reminiscent of the non-diegetic industrial-slaughter-house sounds of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though the sounds here are those of a steam engine heard from within the hold by the kidnapped men and women.

There's Fassbender, as a horribly explicable monster; and Benedict Cumberbatch, as a slave-owner who knows that what he's doing is wrong; there's Lupita Nyong'o, making dolls from corn-husks, whose unsurpassed excellence in picking cotton protects her from exactly nothing in the way of Fassbender's monstrosity. There's Brad Pitt as a Canadian who is just good enough without being super-heroic or being made the focus of the film's goodness, the White Saviour.

There's a scene at the end that Spielberg and most other modern film-makers would have botched with over-length and crushing mawkishness, but which everyone involved here gives us sparingly and underplayed and movingly perfect because the movie knows how to pull back just that little bit to give its characters and its world their necessary emotional space. This is as about as good as a serious movie gets. Highly recommended.

His Dark Materials

Psycho: adapted by Joseph Stefano from the novel by Robert Bloch; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), and Martin Balsam (Arboghast) (1960): Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece still shines undiminished, a sinister puzzle-box. Taken from an already strong source (Robert Bloch's novel of the same name), Psycho improved upon it by making hotel-owner and mother-aficianado Norman Bates thin and sympathetic.

It's the movie's generation of sympathy for Norman I'll deal with here. Anthony Perkins should have won some sort of acting Oscar for this performance. Jittery, occasionally creepy, put-upon, repressed: and a lot of other emotions, all of them pitch perfect.

Camerawork amplifies the greatness of the performance, again and again staging Norman Bates in an inferior position to other male characters. One great blink-and-miss-it moment shows Perkins flinching almost unnoticeably as Martin Balsam's private detective deliberately leans into Norman's envelope of private space. The camerawork runs parallel to similar set-ups involving Janet Leigh's Marion Crane, her space invaded by lecherous oil-men and looming, sun-glass-obscured cops. Crane and Bates are twins in many ways, light and dark.

Oh, and it's the first American movie to show the inside of the bowl while a toilet flushes. Really, how much more do you want? A nearly subliminal use of a skull superimposed on a major character's head? One of the most distinctive scores of all time? Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Goodbye to All This

The Last Revelation of Gla'aki by Ramsey Campbell (2013): Academic librarian Leonard Fairman travels to the small English coastal town of Gulshaw to collect the rarest set of books in the world -- a complete set of The Revelations of Gla'aki, a mystic narrative thought to have been lost. The curiously...puffy townspeople are fairly cheery and helpful, but they will lead Fairman on something of a tour of the town in order to retrieve each volume from a different townsperson.

The precocious Campbell's first published volume, The Inhabitant of the Lake, came out from Arkham House in 1964, when he was 18. Nearly 50 years later, he returns to Gla'aki, one of the Lovecraftian entities introduced in that book and mentioned in many of his stories and novels over the years.

While Gulshaw is a Town With A Secret, one of the most venerable of horror tropes, it's the sort of weird town that happily welcomes the outsider. Welcomes him so much that everyone he meets seems to know his name and his mission. The food must be good in Gulshaw because everyone seems to have developed a weight problem. But everything Fairman eats has an odd sort of consistency. It's not often that mouthfeel comes into a horror story.

The horror here builds gradually -- like the attentions of the town itself, to quote a Stephen King title, it grows on you. And in you. There are echoes of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" here, but as noted above, the people of Gulshaw aren't inimical to visitors. Indeed, they're very friendly to everyone who visits. There's so much more to see in Gulshaw, you see. Or sea. Recommended.

 

The Pretence by Ramsey Campbell (2013): According to a New Age cult dubbed 'The Finalists,' tonight is the last night of the world. But that won't stop Paul Slater from flying home from his ailing mother's rest home to see wife Melanie and children Amy and Tom. And the world isn't going to end just because a cult says it is. And Paul does make it home.

While the philosophical backbone of this novella is the nature of belief, it's the increasingly fragile and desperate hold Paul Slater has on his family life that supplies the emotional engine of the whole thing. There are explanations for what happens as the story proceeds, but none of them could be considered authoritative.

The enigmatic nature of the narrative echoes some of Robert Aickman's more mysterious stories, though with some decidedly contemporary imagery. Cell phones and texting assume a great amount of importance as the novella proceeds; so too do Slater's musings on the nature of digital information as a reduction of the mediated universe to a fragile and infinitely malleable storm of bits. Love may keep a person grounded, but what happens when the idea of ground gives way? Recommended.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Starship Truthers

Starship Troopers: adapted by Ed Neumeier from the novel by Robert Heinlein; directed by Paul Verhoeven; starring Casper Van Dien (Johnny Rico), Dina Meyer (Dizzy Flores), Denise Richards (Carmen Ibanez), Jake Busey (Ace Levy), Neil Patrick Harris (Carl Jenkins), Clancy Brown (Zim) and Michael Ironside (Rasczak) (1997): Like Neumeier and Verhoeven's Robocop, Starship Troopers bites the hand that feeds it: it's a corrosive satire of action movies disguised as an action movie. That it took a beloved novel by a beloved sf author (Robert Heinlein) and turned it into such a satire antagonized some of its intended audience. So it goes. 16 years after its release, it's more relevant than ever as both a critique of action blockbusters and as a critique of American society.

Because here's the toxic brilliance of Starship Troopers: it asks you to cheer for the Nazis. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof, an Earth Federation with military uniforms closely modelled on those of the Third Reich, a Federation established by a military coup where only people who've served in the military are full citizens with voting rights. An Earth Federation at war with an alien race dubbed 'The Bugs.' 'Vermin,' 'bugs,' and 'insects' were all standard racial epithets directed at Jewish people by anti-Semites of the early 20th century. Would you like to know more?

So Earth faces an enemy about which its citizens can righteously cry, "Kill them all!" without guilt. Because who likes bugs, especially giant ones? Did the bugs really manage to hit Earth with an asteroid to provoke all-out war, given that the galactic map we're shown puts the bug home-world on the other side of the galaxy? And given that every bug-occupied world we're shown is a desert wasteland, why is humanity in competition with them for living room?

Because, as Internet wags have noted, the plot of this version of Starship Troopers bears a marked resemblance to the dark fantasies of 9/11 Truthers. A devastating strike on civilians. A sudden ram-up to war. An inhuman enemy. Endless propaganda. War without end.

It's downright creepy. Verhoeven endured a childhood under the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and a fascination with repulsive levels of violence and the fascist authorities that love such violence has informed much of his work. This is a satire of a fascist society addicted to violence and spectacle. And much of the spectacle of the movie's visual effects still delivers -- the bugs look terrific and unearthly, and remain one of the great CGI triumphs of the 25 years or so of CGI effects.

Does an audience's love of on-screen violence and spectacle, and of heroic, larger-than-life characters, spring in part from the fascist within? The on-going onslaught of lavish, apocalyptic superhero movies suggests an infatuation with violence as a solution to all problems, and a waning belief in the ability of puny humans to solve problems. Better to let the engorged, armored, superheroic penises solve everything. Normal isn't exciting enough. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

They Eat Babies, Don't They?

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Collected 2013) containing the following stories: Blackwood's Baby (2011); The Redfield Girls (2010); Hand of Glory (2012); The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven (2011); The Siphon (2011); Jaws of Saturn (2012); Vastation (2010); The Men from Porlock (2011); and More Dark (2012):

As his fictional cosmos becomes denser and more awful with each new story, Laird Barron's sense of humour has become more apparent. One of the jokes is in the collection's title. Look at the contents. "The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All" is mentioned in the collection's final, blackly satiric "More Dark", but it's a work by a thinly veiled parody of horror writer Thomas Ligotti. Hunh?

Barron certainly hasn't transmogrified into a laugh-riot, but nonetheless assays one semi-parodic roman a clef ("More Dark") and one warp-speed, semi-comic, ultra-cosmic cruise through the Cthulhu Mythos ("Vastation") in this new collection. Lurking somewhere in each story is at least the shadow of Barron's space-born, Earth-afflicting creation, the Children of Old Leech. As always, their sense of humour only amuses themselves.

He's still the reigning champion of stories about tough, competent men faced with overwhelming, horrific evil. "The Men from Porlock" is a modern classic about a hunting expedition gone tragically wrong; it bears comparison to that foundational giant in the 'Bad Camping Trip' sub-genre of horror, Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows."

I love this story. It's brutal and elegaic and startling. And its characters even manage to land a few punches on the snouts of those awful cosmic cancers, the Children of Old Leech, albeit at one remove. The day's coming when somebody's going to kill one of the Children of Old Leech in a Barron story, and that moment is going to be goddammed Christmas and New Year's all rolled into one.

Barron also continues to explore new voices and new approaches: all-female casts of protagonists in "The Redfield Girls" and "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven"; an extraordinarily unpleasant gangland stooge in "Jaws of Saturn"; a suicidal writer in "More Dark"; quite possibly the most disturbing vampires ever in "The Siphon." Along the way, we revisit old haunts, most prominently the demon-haunted forests of Washington state and the demon-haunted rooms of Olympia, Washington's Broadsword Hotel.

Well, really, the whole world is demon-haunted. But most of Barron's protagonists keep plugging along, heads down, trying to move forward against the blood torrent. There's a metaphysical lack of hope herein, but not complete hopelessness. Highly recommended.

Broken-minded

The Croning by Laird Barron (2012): On second reading, Laird Barron's The Croning yields up more frights and more depth, along with a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of all of his fiction. What a frightful universe Barron conjures up, one in which the existential terror of his particular form of cosmic horror manifests itself in the simplest of human emotions and actions.

This terrific first novel touches upon almost everything Barron had written to this point, and on many things he hadn't written yet, but the novel doesn't require knowledge of those other works -- though knowing of The Black Guide or the events of "The Men of Porlock" certainly deepens one's understanding of the events related here.

There's tragedy here in the story of Don Miller, who in the present day lives in a rambling old house in small-town Washington state, is 80-something and still devoted to his curiously youthful wife, Michelle Mock, and their adult children, fraternal twins Holly and Kurt. But Miller has become almost paralyzed by fear of the dark, especially when Michelle is away on one of her curious, frequent anthropological expeditions. The very house Miller lives in is a source of recurring terrors, the cellar most of all. But they must be the nightmares of an aging man with the attendant mental-health problems of old age. Right?

Barron's concern with identity is a career-long one, and Miller represents a study in the limits of the continuity of human character. Don's memory is failing, possibly the result of incipient dementia or Alzheimer's. But it's been failing almost as long as Miller can remember. When he remembers. There are holes in his mind almost too many to count, and Don gets through the day by avoiding the most basic questions about his own past.

But memories sometimes flare up, in nightmares forgotten upon waking. And the absence of memories must also be dealt with or ignored. How, Don wonders at one point, can a person forget not only an entire language (Spanish, in this case), but that he ever knew that language at all?

Well, he's going to find out. And as we travel back and forth across the history of Don and the history of these strange, powerful monsters known collectively as the Children of Old Leech, we find out too. Barron's prose is brutal and beautiful. He links the cosmic and the personal and the visceral in fascinating and rewarding ways, in this tragedy of the losing and finding and losing of memory.

Besides the terror, there's sorrow for humanity here, as a whole and in its constituent parts. Don's a fascinating character, mentally wounded but pushing onwards towards knowledge that he knows at every step he probably doesn't want to possess. And the various manifestations of evil, human and otherwise, ring true. The humans who collaborate with the Children of Old Leech do so for power and money and immortality. The cost of these things is exceedingly high, but as in our world, people can do the most frightful things for the most basic of reasons. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dancing in the Dark

Silver Linings Playbook: adapted by David O. Russell from the novel by Matthew Quick; directed by David O. Russell; starring Bradley Cooper (Pat), Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany), Robert de Niro (Pat Sr.), Jacki Weaver (Dolores), and Chris Tucker (Danny) (2012): While not the most realistic depiction of mental illness in movie history, Silver Linings Playbook does have its heart in the right place insofar as Bradley Cooper's character really does need to take his meds. Jennifer Lawrence, not so much. And ballroom dancing isn't presented as a cure for all forms of mental illness, though at times it seems awfully close.

Lawrence, who won the Best Actress Oscar for 2012 for her role in this movie, is very good. She's developed some sort of weird muscle control that gives her a mask-like face at times, the features softening at others. Is it acting or is it Botox? I don't know. But it works with the character, whose depression precedes the death of her husband, after whose death things fall completely apart.

Cooper is also excellent. He nails the delusional rhythms of mania, the boundless delusional energy. And he conveys the subsequent exhaustion nicely as well. He's a sharp actor with surprising depths. He sells certain aspects of his mental problems without recourse to exposition, and rings true throughout. Robert de Niro is anachronistically measured and controlled as Pat's occasionally delusional, OCD-afflicted father, and Jacki Weaver shines as Pat's long-suffering mother, who seems to be the only fully sane person in the movie.

The fairy-tale quality of Silver Linings Playbook probably irked a lot of people who deal with mental-health issues on a daily basis. And it really is a fairy tale, though thankfully one with a certain measure of permanent darkness. Most of the comedy flows from plausible scenarios -- I especially liked Pat repeatedly waking his parents up at 3 a.m. to rant about a novel he'd just read. And Pat's obsession with his estranged wife's high-school English course syllabus rings true as well, something that's funny from the outside but also a symptom of deep mental distress.

Ultimately, Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy about severely screwed-up people, and if it's not truly realistic, it's still a more laudable portrayal of characters with mental-health problems than, say, the ludicrous A Beautiful Mind. Recommended.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Time Wasters and Time Abysses

Horror Express: written by Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Zimet; directed by Gene Martin; starring Christopher Lee (Saxton), Peter Cushing (Wells), and Telly Savalas (Captain Kazan) (1972): Highly enjoyable 1970's Italian horror film in which those two Hammer Studios horror greats, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, get to fight on the same side for once.
Lee plays a British archaeologist of the early 20th century who unearths the body of a strange hominid from a Chinese cave and then bundles it up and puts it on the Trans-Siberian Express so as to get it home to study. Cushing plays a rival scientist who's curious about what exactly is in the crate Lee has in baggage. Needless to say, bad things start happening.

Lee and Cushing are both excellent as reluctant science heroes, as is much of the international supporting cast. Telly Savalas (!!!) shows up near the end to chew all the available scenery as a power-hungry Cossack officer. There's some real tension and horror here, effective special effects and make-up, and a loopy scientific explanation for things that fits right in with some of the loopy pseudo-science of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One supporting character seems to be based on the infamous Rasputin. Recommended.


Parker: based on the character created by Donald Westlake and the novel Flashfire; written by John J. McLaughlin; starring Jason Statham (Parker), Jennifer Lopez (Leslie Rodgers), Michael Chiklis (Melander), and Nick Nolte (Hurley) (2013): Mediocre time-waster does no favours to Donald Westlake's super-thief Parker. The two heists are handled so perfunctorily here that all of the joys of a good heist movie are neglected, probably because the film-makers wanted Statham to kick ass, which is really his strength as an actor. His weakness as an actor is playing anyone other than kick-ass Jason Statham. There's not a moment here in which he seems believable as a master thief. A section in which Parker pretends to have a Texas drawl while wearing a giant cowboy hat seems like something out of SCTV's 3-D Midnight Cowboy.

The film-makers waste Michael Chiklis, Bobby Cannavale, Wendell Pierce, and Nick Nolte in supporting roles, while Jennifer Lopez is game but far too well-coiffed and well-ornamented to be plausible as a desperate real estate agent with severe cash-flow issues. Perhaps worst of all for a heist film, it drags. Not recommended.