Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sports and Spectacle

42: Written and directed by Brian Helgeland; starring Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson), Harrison Ford (Branch Rickey), Nicole Beharie (Rachel Robinson), Lucas Black (Pee Wee Reese), Alan Tudyk (Ben Chapman) and Hamish Linklater (Ralph Branca) (2013): Enjoyable biopic of Jackie Robinson -- the player who broke major league baseball's colour barrier in 1947 -- stays mostly faithful to the facts. Other than a bit of swearing, 42 could have been made in the early 1960's by Stanley Kramer.

Chadwick Boseman is fine as Robinson, selected by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to become the first African-American major leaguer of the modern era in part because his character suggested that he could take the stress that would result without beating the crap out of somebody or breaking down himself. And Harrison Ford probably deserved an Oscar Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work as Rickey -- he's very good in a movie for the first time in a long time. Alan Tudyk also shines as the virulently racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, and Nicole Beharie is also solid as Jackie's wife. Recommended.

Monsters University: written by Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, and Robert L. Baird; directed by Dan Scanlon; starring the voices of Billy Crystal (Mike). John Goodman (Sullivan), and Helen Mirren (Dean Hardscrabble) (2013):

What's apparently the first prequel from Pixar (to Monsters, Inc.) is a fairly breezy, light-hearted affair that isn't the equal of Up or Wall.E in terms of emotion of inventiveness, but is nonetheless a much more enjoyable and smoothly engineered movie than Brave or any of the Cars movies. A relative lack of engagement in what happens to anyone led me to a number of moments in which I spent more time scrutinizing the animation than engaged with the characters, but the animation is terrific, so as an aesthetic experience, Monsters University doesn't disappoint. Why Disney doesn't have Pixar do a Marvel movie is beyond me. Recommended.

Thor: based on characters and situations created by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Walt Simonson; written by J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich, Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne; directed by Kenneth Branagh; starring Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Natalie Portman (Jane Foster), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig) and Colm Feore (Laufey) (2011):

One thing we inadvertantly discover during the first Marvel Thor movie is that the movie's Asgardian gods/super-aliens/whatever have apparently never read any of Earth's mythology about them. If they had, the plot of this film would be about 20 minutes long. Oh, well. On TV, Thor plays like a handsomely mounted made-for-TV movie, the movie style of Marvel Studios movies being that there's almost no style at all. The actors are all quite likeable, Odin is as dopey here as he is in the comic books (and as prone to going into regenerative comas at the worst possible moments), and the whole thing goes down smoothly. Lightly recommended.

White House Down: written by James Vanderbilt; directed by Roland Emmerich; starring Channing Tatum (John Cale), Jamie Foxx (President Sawyer), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Agent Finnerty), Richard Jenkins (Speaker Raphelson), James Woods (Walker) and Lance Reddick (General Caulfield) (2013):

Holy Moley, is this movie 40 minutes too much of an action movie. There are more false climaxes than a dozen porn movies. The dominant structure is Die Hard; scenes and shots are synthesized from more films than I can think of. I bet you never thought you'd see an homage to Nick Cage's emergency flag-waving in Michael Bay's The Rock. Well, you will. Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx do a lot of work to sell this, and it's certainly interesting, if only as a look at some of our current action-movie obsessions and their larger real-world implications. Also, tucked in amongst the 2+ hours of sturm-und-drang is a really bizarre use of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Identity and Loss

Lost Angels by David J. Schow collecting the following stories: Red Light; Brass; Pamela's Get; The Falling Man; and Monster Movies (Collected 1990): The horror boom of the 1970's and 1980's helped make the 1980's and early 1990's the Golden Age of horror short-story collection released in mass-market (as opposed to specialty house) paperback. This continues to be something of a boon to this day, as used copies of some of the finest collections in horror history still show up in used bookstores and on-line for purchase in situations where the collections haven't been re-published.

David J. Schow has been immortalized as one of the founders of the Splatterpunk sub-genre of horror that came to prominence over the course of the 1980's. He's a writer of diverse interests, however, and this collection doesn't feature anything in the Splatterpunk genre. Instead, it features four novellas or novelettes that are indeed described in different ways by the collection's title, and a concluding non-horror story that's nonetheless deeply concerned with horror, its history, and those who love it in its many forms.

Overall, Lost Angels is a dynamite collection. Schow sets all the stories in Los Angeles (another reason for the title). The city insinuates itself into every narrative in all its weird, night-bright oddness. Hollywood players, hangers-on, and bystanders populate the stories. Schow integrates the supernatural with this Hollywood Babylon in sinister but sometimes comic ways -- one supernatural being wants its story told on film, for example.

The thematic concerns of the stories firmly place Schow within the legacy of Fritz Leiber. Like Leiber, Schow searches for supernatural situations that fit the contemporary world, or even grow out of it, per Leiber's seminal 1940 story "Smoke Ghost." Indeed, one story here is a brilliant companion to Leiber's "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" -- or an inversion, in some ways.

Aside from that search to create new ghosts and monsters, Schow explores the loneliness of the modern urban and exurban world through romantic and familial relationships, quests through bars and parties and decaying sections of Los Angeles, and keenly observed set-pieces in very specifically imagined locations that include strange, junk-filled warehouses, topless bars for ruthless businessmen, studio offices, and occult shops with sarcastic clerks. Love, identity, and loneliness inform much of this collection. It's not that Nothing Is What It's that Some Things That Seem, Aren't. Highly recommended.


Suspicion: adapted by Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, and Alma Reville from the novel by Anthony Berkeley; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Cary Grant (Johnnie) and Joan Fontaine (Lina) (1941): With the only Oscar-winning performance in a Hitchcock film -- Joan Fontaine for Best Actress -- one might imagine that this is first-rank Hitchcock. It isn't.

There's some question as to whether or not Hitchcock really was over-ruled by the studio about the ending. Whether or not he was, the movie makes absolutely no sense with the ending it has. The possibility that Hitchcock always intended the film to suggest that one character is delusional only makes sense within a framework in which either a number of events never actually occur, in which case the character is insane, or the events do occur but are coincidental, in which case the entire universe is insane.

Suspicion was a big financial success and gave Hitchcock a lot of creative control thereafter, as this was also the first film he produced as well as directed inside the Hollywood system. Regardless of the ending, the gender dynamics in Suspicion have dated so poorly that it's agonizing for repeated stretches, and not in a way that's enjoyable unless you're writing a paper on gender dynamics in Hitchcock films. Fontaine certainly gives some sort of performance, as she's on-screen for almost every minute of the movie. Grant is uncharacteristically menacing, which is interesting in and of itself.

There are the usual bravura Hitchcock touches, including a host of scenes in which shadows suggest spider-webs enveloping the characters, and the famous Glowing Glass of Milk Scene, which comes almost at the end of the picture if you're waiting for it. But for a 99-minute movie, this is awfully draggy, with almost schematically unlikeable characters made completely baffling by that godawful ending. But it's Hitchcock, so it's still lightly recommended.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Magical Thinking

Now You See Me: written by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yachin, and Edward Ricourt; directed by Louis Leterrier; starring Jesse Eisenberg (J. Daniel Atlas), Mark Ruffalo (Dylan Rhodes), Woody Harrelson (Merritt McKinney), Isla Fisher (Henley Reeves), Dave Franco (Jack Wilder), Melanie Laurent (Alma Dray), Morgan Freeman (Thaddeus Bradley), and Michael Caine (Arthur Tressler) (2013):

Surprisingly enjoyable heist film involving four magicians of the prestigitation variety, a possibly imaginary secret society, the FBI, Interpol, and two unpleasant old men played by Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Harrelson, Eisenberg, Fisher, and Franco play the Four Horsemen, a new Vegas act that becomes (in)famous by design as they seemingly pull off an impossible bank heist in France while performing on-stage in Vegas. And then things get more complicated.

The actors are all perfectly fine, and Eisenberg's performance here, as a super-arrogant nerd, suggests that Lex Luthor may be fine in his hands. Morgan Freeman's debunking character doesn't actually make a whole lot of sense -- I know of a lot of people who debunk psychics and faith healers in the media, but none who debunk magicians. So the movie takes place in a somewhat odd alternate universe. Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent are charming as the pursuing FBI and Interpol agents, respectively.

Do all the twists and turns make sense? No, not exactly, but in a heist film that's also a magical puzzle-box (more Sleuth than The Prestige, though it does share some attributes with the fine Edward Norton/Paul Giamatti vehicle The Illusionist), these problems are almost inevitable. One just has to assume a level of hyper-competence and luck that the heroes of straightforward action movies are habitually accorded. Recommended.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Justice League of Amnesia

Justice League of America: The Greatest Stories Ever Told: written by Gardner Fox, Denny O'Neil, Martin Pasko, Gerry Conway, J.M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Joe Casey; illustrated by Mike Sekowsky, Dick Dillin, Kevin Maguire, Doug Mahnke, Howard Porter, Terry Austin, and others (1962-2005; collected 2006): Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales' popular and controversial Justice League miniseries Identity Crisis had just come out when this volume was assembled. The selection criteria for this 'Best-of' collection thus became slanted to earlier Justice League stories that led somehow into Identity Crisis. It would have been a much better idea to create some sort of Justice League: Prelude to Identity Crisis volume, but no one ever accused DC of being sensible.

This assortment of Justice League stories is enjoyable, but very, very, very heavy on the Identity Swap trope that Identity Crisis would explore. And the first story seems to have been included because it introduces the handy element Amnesium to the Justice League (the memory-erasing substance had previously appeared several times in Superboy and Superman comics). Good old Amnesium. Lightly recommended.

Superboy: The Greatest Team-up Stories Ever Told: written by Leo Dorfman, Frank Robbins, Cary Bates, and others; illustrated by Kurt Schaffenberger, Dave Hunt, Bob Brown, Murphy Anderson, and others (1951-1981; collected 2011): Herein lies the template for Smallville and Arrow: early stories of a hero's career in which he meets pretty much everyone we thought he met much later. Aquaboy! Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and Batman before they were Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and Batman! Young Lex Luthor! Young Jor-El! Young Lori Lemaris! Time-travelling Jimmy Olsen!

The 1950's and 1960's material is especially breezy and occasionally very, very odd as it attempts to have its earlier meet-up cake and eat it too, or whatever. So teen-aged Jor-El gets his memory erased by Amnesium so that he doesn't remember meeting his own son on Earth. Superboy gets his memory erased so that he doesn't remember Supergirl's visit, a story which seems to also have a disquieting level of protosexual longing by Superboy for (first) cousin Supergirl. Lori Lemaris, Lana Lang, and Superboy all get their memories erased by Atlantean super-hypnosis so that none of them remember their earlier meeting. DC really should do a volume of the greatest memory-erasure stories ever told! Recommended.

Prodigy Lost

Night Ride and Other Journeys by Charles Beaumont (1960) containing the following stories: The Music of the Yellow Brass (1959) ; A Classic Affair (1955); The New People (1958); Buck Fever (1960); The Magic Man (1960); Father, Dear Father (1957); Perchance to Dream (1958); Song for a Lady (1960); The Trigger (1959); The Guests of Chance (1956) (with Chad Oliver); The Love-Master (1957); A Death in the Country (1957); The Neighbors (1960); The Howling Man (1959); and Night Ride (1957):

Charles Beaumont's career output would be good for someone who'd lived to be 80. As he died before he was 40 from what appeared to be Pick's Disease and/or Alzheimer's Disease, that output becomes even more impressive given that his last few years saw many of his friends 'ghosting' for him so that he could meet his writing commitments.

Beaumont (born Charles Leroy Nutt) became one of Rod Serling's go-to writers on The Twilight Zone, credited with writing or co-writing 22 episodes. Much of Beaumont's short-story output was in the fantasy genre, with forays into absurdist science fiction and suspense stories with twists. But not all. This volume, collected in 1960, consists almost entirely of stories from Beaumont's breakthrough years into the well-paying slicks, specifically that new magazine on the block, Playboy.

And one can see, in several of these stories, a writer pushing at his own comfort zone, moving away from a strict genre construction of things. "Buck Fever" seems like an homage to Hemingway, but an homage inverted in its view on hunting and the modern man. "Night Ride" and "The Neighbours" have twist endings of a sort, but neither is even remotely a thriller or a fantasy story. And "The Music of the Yellow Brass" seems like a melancholy tip of the hat to Ray Bradbury in his Mexican phase, with a twist that only increases the mournful quality of the story.

It's the genre stories here that seem slight; the much-anthologized "The Howling Man," adapted for The Twilight Zone, seems like something of a gimmick next to the more realistic rhythms of "A Death in the Country." "The Neighbours," while something of a 'preachy,' nonetheless provides strong characterization and much more satisfaction than the similarly structured "The New People."

Many have noted that Beaumont may be one of the most influential fantasy writers of the 1950's and early 1960's because of his naturalistic prose style, concerns with suburban fantasy, and high-profile Twilight Zone output. This collection also suggests a writer in the process of growing despite the commercial success that had already come his way -- it, too, is melancholy, a gesture towards a later career and a later man that never was. Recommended.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Levels of the Tomb-World

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick (1965): Before there was virtual reality, Philip K. Dick spent a lot of time mulling over virtual reality in a wide variety of ways, from the machine-produced to the religiously derived concept of Maya, the physical world of illusion. Dick himself noted on more than one occasion that the two main concerns of his vast body of work seemed to be 'What is reality?' and 'What is a human being?', and this mid-1960's novel explores both issues on a number of levels.

Dick certainly didn't aim to predict the future; what increasingly disturbs in his work is his ability to predict the attitude of the future, our present. Various forms of mediated realities, dream-states, trance-states, and constructed environments play a part in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, with the boundaries blurring between them throughout the novel.

Things on Earth and in Earth's colonies in the Solar System are pretty grim as the novel begins. Earth is getting hotter, to the extent that nobody goes outside unprotected during the day-time. Earth's colonies on various worlds and moons are such a grim slog that the United Nations forces people to relocate there -- and once there, almost all citizens quickly become addicted to the drug-enhanced game of Perky Pat, which I am not even going to try to explain at length here. It involves a virtual reality and a form of mind-sharing.

From Proxima Centauri returns the explorer Palmer Eldritch. And he's got a new drug. One that seems to promise an endless ability to reshape one's own past, perhaps in a virtual state, perhaps for real. But what does he get from this, other than money? A handful of people will try to find out, or possibly die trying. Or something.

It's a deceptively dense novel with a nicely defined group of protagonists, or antagonists, depending on the situation. Dick's wealth of invention is at full burn: the pervasive use of precognitive humans to predict what new products will sell is one such touch, and there are many others. It doesn't look like our future at all, except that it looks exactly like it. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Bit of the Dark World

Night Monsters by Fritz Leiber (1974) containing the following stories: The Black Gondolier (1964); Midnight in the Mirror World (1964); I'm Looking for Jeff (1952); The Creature from Cleveland Depths (1962); The Oldest Soldier (1960); The Girl with the Hungry Eyes (1949); and A Bit of the Dark World (1962) .

Leiber was probably the best writer of all those science-fiction and fantasy writers who collectively formed the 'Golden Age' of science fiction (basically, the 1940's) and went on to continue to define the genre(s) in the 1950's and 1960's. Indeed, his cynical, often dystopic takes on the future in his 1950's and 1960's work make him more at home in the company of writers who came of age in those decades, when Leiber (born around 1910) was already middle-aged and older.

Leiber came from a theatre family, and while that isn't much of a factor here, it was in other stories. He also corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft in the 1930's. He wrote several Lovecraftian stories over the course of his career, some pastiches, some revisionist takes that explored what one could do with cosmic horror.

"The Black Gondolier" was written for an Arkham House anthology, and it pays homage to Lovecraft in structure (and concluding italics) while nonetheless situating the horror within Leiber's expert, long-time evocation of terrible horrors with new, modern incarnations and meanings. Here, that places a strange and creeping horror somewhere in or below California's Venice (Beach) in the early 1960's, that odd and rundown simulacrum of Italy's Venice, but with way more oil wells.

Leiber ranges far throughout this collection, which samples Leiber's dystopic, sarcastic science fiction ("The Creature of Cleveland Depths," which somehow manages to satirize the current culture of the Smartphone), and his grimy urban twists on traditional horror tropes (the Ghost in "I'm Looking for Jeff" and the Vampire in "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes").

We also get cosmic horror that seems closer to Algernon Blackwood in "A Bit of the Dark World," all of it occurring in the sun-drenched hills above Los Angeles, a sort of cosmic Noonday Devil. Leiber's affection for mathematical problems and chess manifest in the oddly moving ghost story "Midnight in the Mirror World." Finally, we visit the time-spanning, reality-changing war of his Changewar series in "The Oldest Soldier," as the war between the time-travelling groups known as the Snakes and the Spiders wanders into a neighbourhood bar.

In all, this is a fairly representative sample of the breadth and depth of Leiber's decades of writing, with only his seminal and the career-long influence on sword and sorcery fiction being truly neglected. Highly recommended.