Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Black Mirror

Oculus: written by Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard, and Jeff Seidman; directed by Mike Flanagan; starring Karen Gillan (Kaylie Russell), Brenton Thwaites (Tim Russell), Katee Sackhoff (Marie Russell) and Rory Cochrane (Alan Russell) (2014): Competent horror thriller that uses some fairly effective narrative tricks rather than 'found-footage' for its scares. It's not easy to make a seemingly haunted mirror into a worthy antagonist, but Oculus manages this feat.

The leads are all solid, the reality-bending games are sometimes startling, and the stupid decisions made by Karen Gillan's character are totally explicable within the cinematic universe. She has motivation for how she does what she does, and all motivation in the film is suspect: the mirror manipulates people subtly as well as through illusions. If only someone had brought a fire extinguisher. Recommended.

Land of the Dead: written and directed by George Romero; starring Simon Baker (Riley Denbo), John Leguizamo (Cholo DeMora), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie), Eugene Clark (Big Daddy) and Joanne Boland (Pretty Boy) (2005): George Romero's fourth Dead movie gave him a mostly name cast and a decent budget; Romero's own quirky muse caused him to use these things on what wasn't a horror movie at all, or at least not the horror movie the studio thought it would be getting.

Instead, Land of the Dead is part-satire, part-social commentary. The zombies aren't really the villains any more: indeed, they don't seem to have any interest in hunting humans until the humans piss them off. And piss them off, they do. I don't know that the movie benefitted from having known actors in some of the roles, though I am sure that this was necessary to secure funding. Dennis Hopper just seems miscast as a scheming businessman, but Leguizamo, Baker, and Asia Argento are all fine. But the real hero is the massive zombie (former) gas-station owner dubbed Big Daddy. He's the Robinson Crusoe of zombies. Recommended.

Lovecraft Again

Future Lovecraft: edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles, including the following stories and poems (2011):

In This Brief Interval by Ann K. Schwader
In the Hall of the Yellow King by Peter Rawlik
Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Nyarlathotep by Nick Mamatas
Tri-TV by Bobby Cranestone
Do Not Imagine by Mari Ness
Rubedo, an Alchemy of Madness by Michael Matheson
People are Reading What You are Writing by Luso Mnthali
Harmony Amid the Stars by Ada Hoffmann
The Comet Called Ithaqua by Don Webb
Phoenix Woman by Kelda Crich
PostFlesh by Paul Jessup
The Library Twins and the Nekrobees by Martha Hubbard
Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee by Molly Tanzer
Skin by Helen Marshall
The Old 44th by Randy Stafford
Iron Footfalls by Julio Toro San Martin
This Song Is Not For You by Avery Cahill
Tloque Nahuaque by Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas
Dolly in the Window by Robyn Seale
A Cool, Private Place by Jen White
Venice Burning by A. C. Wise
A Day and A Night in Providence by Anthony Boulanger
A Welcome Sestina From Cruise Director Isabeau Molyneux by Mae Empson
Lottie Versus the Moon Hopper by Pamela Rentz
The Damnable Asteroid by Leigh Kimmel
Myristica Fragrans by E. Catherine Tobler
Dark of the Moon by James S. Dorr
Trajectory of A Cursed Spirit by Meddy Ligner
Transmigration by Lee Clark Zumpe
Concerning the Last Days of the Colony At New Roanoke by Tucker Cummings
The Kadath Angle by Maria Mitchell
The Last Man Standing by Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso
Exhibit at the National Anthropology Museum in Tombouctou by Andrew Dombalagian
The Door From Earth by Jesse Bullington
The Deep Ones by Bryan Thao Worra
The Labyrinth of Sleep by Orrin Grey
Deep Blue Dreams by Sean Craven
Big Bro by Arlene J. Yandug

This really is a collection of short stories and poems, which explains why a 350-page book has so many entries jammed into it. No novelettes allowed, much less novellas! Most of the works appear here for the first time, with a few exceptions.

As the title isn't Future Cthulhu, some selections have only a vague aura of Lovecraftian menace hanging about them. "The Last Man Standing," for example, is a nice little story that would perhaps be better found in an anthology called Future (Mary) Shelley.

Other stories pile on the references to the work of Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, and others of their ilk to such an extent that they read like hypermanic fan fiction -- "In the Hall of the Yellow King" probably most of all reaches a level of intertextual inertia that starts off amusingly and ends up in the Hall of Inutterable Goofiness (a female spawn of Cthulhu! With boobs! Seducing...oh, never mind).

There's some nice work here, whether the droll offering from Nick Mamatas, the documentary riff by Tucker Cummings, or the pitch-perfect "The Damnable Asteroid," whose author gets the fact that while most of Lovecraft's stories were downbeat, their endings were not necessarily so -- conditional victory over the forces of darkness was a recurring plot point, no matter how dire the overall situation. A lot of stories here instead go for the destruction or conquest of everything by dark forces; that gets pretty tiring after awhile.

I wouldn't call this a great anthology -- the poems especially are a real drag. But I've certainly read higher profile homages to Lovecraft that were worse, and the shortness of the works allows one to sample an awful lot of writers one may not have heard of. In general, though, I'd argue that homages to Lovecraft -- and the Cthulhu portion of his body of work -- are best attempted at novella length. Recommended.

Captain Canuck!

Captain Canuck: The Complete Edition: written by Richard Comely and George Freeman; illustrated by George Freeman, Richard Comely, and J.C. St-Aubin; Captain Canuck created by Ron Leishman and Richard Comely (1975-1981; collected 2011): Canadian superhero Captain Canuck originally appeared in 1975. He would ultimately star in about 15 issues of his own comic book before finally vanishing in the early 1980's; later, there would be revivals, but this volume collects that first run.

Richard Comely would write and draw the first published adventures of Canuck. In those issues we met a hero who'd gained super-strength from an encounter with mysterious aliens. As he was a Mountie at the time, he would end up becoming a sort of super-Mountie for the growing world power that was Canada in the far-flung future of...the mid-1990's!

OK, so the book got technological and social changes really, really, really wrong. So it goes.

Comely was (and still is, I believe) a One-World Conspiracy adherent, and some of that creeps into the pages of Canuck (though not nearly as much as it did into another Comely project from the same time, Star Rider and the Peace Machine). For the most part, though, the book sticks to superheroics, often in vaguely James-Bond-like situations in the first few issues.

Where Captain Canuck really takes off is with the addition of writer/artist/colourist George Freeman and artist/colourist J.C. St-Aubin to the creative team. The colouring on Captain Canuck was markedly better than the mainstream offerings of DC and Marvel right from the start; Freeman and St-Aubin would make the book look remarkably good from a production standpoint. Freeman was also a much better, cleaner cartoonist than Comely.

By issue 9 or so, Captain Canuck looked great, and the stories had begun to flow more smoothly -- and to 'pop' as well with odd situations and characters. Not many comic books in any time period would have had the desire and the skilful creators to pull off an homage to (Canadian) Hal Foster's Prince Valiant; Captain Canuck does.

All things end, of course, and given the difficulty in securing adequate distribution, Captain Canuck was probably always doomed -- especially in a world in which comic shops were just starting to become the primary means of comic-book distribution. The book ends on a cliffhanger. So it goes. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


The Steve Ditko Omnibus Volume 1 featuring Shade the Changing Man: all stories plotted and illustrated by Steve Ditko with additional writing by a cast of thousands (Collected 2010); The Steve Ditko Omnibus Volume 2 featuring Hawk and Dove: all stories plotted and illustrated by Steve Ditko with additional writing by a cast of thousands (Collected 2010):

Writer-artist Steve Ditko's quixotic nature was only amplified by the cruddy state of mainstream comic books for the people who actually created characters for the companies. His two most notable co-creations for Marvel Comics were Spider-man and Dr. Strange, though he also did character-defining work on Iron Man and the Hulk. Tired of Stan Lee's scripting and editing choices, Ditko left Marvel for more than a decade in the late 1960's. For the last 15 years, he's pretty much done his own, self-published thing, with very occasional short work for DC. He's famously reclusive.

Prior to his fame-creating Marvel superhero work, Ditko did thousands of pages of horror and monster work for many companies, honing his skills until he'd pretty much reached his impressive peak in the 1960's at Marvel and on B&W horror stories for Warren, and superhero work for DC and Charlton in the late 1960's.

These two omnibuses collect all of Ditko's output for DC other than his work on The Creeper in the 1960's and 1970's. In total, the collection spans several decades, offering the great, the good, and the very occasional indifferent sides of Ditko. He plotted many of the stories here (though not all), wrote a few, and either fully illustrated or pencilled the rest. It's a really great, broad look at one of the most important, influential, and fascinating American comic-book creators.

Ditko's unique ability to depict ordinary looking people in fantastical environments was at its best in Dr. Strange, but the Shade stories reprinted here are a very, very close second. They're utterly bizarre and engaging, and Ditko finds in dialogue-writer Michael Fleisher a kindred spirit when it comes to odd dialogue and description. Many of the pieces fully scripted by others take advantage of Ditko's strengths as well.

The pieces penciled but not inked by Ditko offer a fascinating look at how different artists approached Ditko's art. Romeo Tanghal, an excellent inker of George Perez on New Teen Titans in the 1980's, does a really solid job on the Starman adventures reprinted herein. The masterful Wally Wood doesn't always completely work on the four issues of Stalker he and Ditko did together, sometimes overpowering Ditko's distinctive faces, but it's still worth looking at.

There are a few duds in the inking department, but they're few and far between. And while Ditko's Legion of Super-heroes stories aren't an artistic high-point for him, they do accomplish something that a lot of artists on LSH failed at: they make the characters look like teen-agers.

The peaks collected here are really high, and the valleys (mostly horror shorts) still offer some of that Ditko magic. One also gets the only time Ditko drew Batman in a comic-book story (albeit as a guest-star in the first issue of the short-lived Manbat series), and Ditko's crouching, weirdly endearing take on Jack Kirby's Demon. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Bash and Pop

The Purge: written and directed by James DeMonaco; starring Ethan Hawke (James Sandin), Lena Headey (Mary Sandin), Max Burkholder (Charlie Sandin), Adelaide Kane (Zoey Sandin), Edwin Hodge (Bloody Stranger), and Rhys Wakefield (Polite Leader) (2013): Efficient little dystopic pot-boiler that would probably have benefitted from having a no-name cast. Still, the actors are fine in this story of an America that purges its violent tendencies every year with 12 hours of state-sanctioned violence. Yes, it's the Red Hour from the original Star Trek episode "The Return of the Archons." Rich people either hide behind fancy security systems or go out hunting the poor; the poor run around and hide. The allegory is so transparent that I'm not sure it qualifies as allegory. Less than 90 minutes long, though, including credits! Huzzah! Lightly recommended.

Pacific Rim: written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro; directed by Guillermo del Toro; starring Charlie Hunnam (Raleigh Becket), Idris Elba (Pentecost), Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori), Burn Gorman (Gottlieb), Charlie Day (Geiszler), and Ron Perlman (Hannibal Chau) (2013): Still fun the second time around, even on the home screen. About the only problem is that on a smaller scale, a couple of the giant robot-armour fighters are virtually indistinguishable from one another in the final battle scene. Or maybe I'm just getting old. Still, pretty much the modern gold standard for giant robots punching giant monsters. Highly recommended.

Screen Cap

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; based on characters and concepts created by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Ed Brubaker, and others; directed by Anthony and Joe Russo; starring Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/ Falcon), Georges St-Pierre (Batroc), Toby Jones (Arnim Zola), Emily VanCamp (Agent 13) and Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill) (2014):

Having Georges St-Pierre play long-time Captain America foe Batroc as a monosyllabic murderer pretty much encapsulates the Marvel movie approach to its comic-book properties. It's all business. Batroc is a Chatty Cathy in the comic books, a mercenary with a comical French accent who generally avoids killing people. Here, he's a surly plot device -- the first guy Captain America has to punch out on his way to the showdown with the Big Boss.

The Marvel Studios movie model has been, for the most part, breathtakingly efficient in its approach to making money from competent superhero movies. And it sorta has to be efficient: the two biggest draws on the Marvel Comics card, Spider-man and the X-Men, were optioned to other studios prior to the creation of Marvel Studios. It's as if Time Warner were stuck making DC Comics movies without recourse to either Superman or Batman.

Cinematic style is very much secondary in these movies. Perhaps tertiary. The Winter Soldier's directors are veterans of TV (including Community!). The plot chugs along from Point A to Point Z. There's a fight every 10 minutes or so, or an explosion, and a climax that goes on for the last half of the movie. You will be entertained if these are the things you seek in an entertainment. The 1940's-infused visuals that previous Captain America movie director Joe Johnson worked with are gone, replaced by an occasionally murky, thoroughly contemporary movie palette.

The biggest plus the Captain America movies have is Chris Evans as Cap, and if someone had told me this would be the case when he was cast four years ago, I'd have laughed. However, asked to assay a character as tricky as DC's Superman, Evans has delivered. It's not easy being a superhero whose primary attribute is Goodness. Evans sells it, partially with humour, partially by looking like a Jack Kirby Captain America as inked by Dick Ayers come to life. The rest of the acting is competent as well. Every time Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow talks, though, I marvel at how the character apparently erased all traces of a Russian accent from her delivery. That's committment to your adopted homeland!

So, you know, it's sorta fun. There's nothing epic or poetic here, just a solid franchise film meant to get you to the next franchise film. Given that Marvel Studios does such an efficient job of making blockbusters that are essentially big-budget TV episodes, its failure with its actual TV show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., seems doubly baffling. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Guns of Summer

The Lone Ranger: written by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio; based on the character created by Fran Striker; directed by Gore Verbinski; starring Johnny Depp (Tonto), Armie Hammer (John Reid/Lone Ranger), William Fichtner (Butch Cavendish), Tom Wilkinson (Latham Cole), Ruth Wilson (Rebecca Reid), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Harrington) and James Badge Dale (Dan Reid) (2013): Based on an 80-year-old character originally created for radio, The Lone Ranger was last year's much-ridiculed mega-bomb. Like another recent mega-bomb, John Carter, it came from Walt Disney Studios.

The two movies share another affinity, insofar as neither movie is really terrible -- indeed, The Lone Ranger is fairly entertaining despite its ridiculously protracted length. As well, both movies have an overly long framing story that does nothing to improve the viewing experience. But when a movie has the backing of the people who brought Disney the hugely profitable Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and is a labour of love for Johnny Depp, certain things will remain in the picture.

Per: star power, Depp's Tonto is the comic-grotesque centre of the film, the Lone Ranger (gamely played by Armie Hammer in a role that's mostly thankless until the last half-hour) a gormless, even-more-comic sidekick. William Fichtner's outlaw Butch Cavendish is a monstrous cannibal, he and his band of outlaws seeming to have sprung out of a spaghetti Western by way of a Rob Zombie movie. It's like the movie is a crossover among several different movies. Or a teleporter accident.

Unevenness of tone also does some very odd things to the narrative. One minute the movie's making grade-school poop jokes, the next it's asking us to seriously contemplate the aftermath of a massacre of Native Americans. Then it actually shows us a lengthy massacre of another group of Native Americans. Mmm, genocide! A nice light snack!

Some of the action set-pieces are spectacular, though so far divorced from the laws of physics that they exist in their own cartoon world. It's not that more successful blockbusters aren't equally divorced -- it's that The Lone Ranger seems almost giddy at times with the prospect of highlighting its own artificiality. This may be a bad thing for the box office, but it gives the action scenes a charm lacking from the usual sturm-und-drang summer explosion-fest, especially the ones in which Silver the horse repeatedly demonstrates that it's a spirit horse by running around on roofs or on the tops of speeding trains.

Thematically, the movie also moves itself out of lock-step with contemporary mores by depicting the U.S. military as genocidal boobs. Which, of course, they were during the time in question. There's no supporting the troops here -- they're in bed with corrupt governmental officials, corrupt businessmen, and cannibal outlaws. It's very much a 1970's touch. All in all, an odd, frustrating, but occasionally rewarding movie best not watched in one sitting. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Name of the Game is Talking Heads

My Dinner with Andre: written by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory; directed by Louis Malle; starring Wallace Shawn (Wallace Shawn) and Andre Gregory (Andre Gregory) (1981): Legendary and dazzling in its simple premise: two characters talking at a table for nearly two hours. And the conversation itself carries the film, bizarre and far-ranging and probing the nature of reality.

Both Shawn and Gregory have repeatedly noted over the years that the characters aren't them, but are characters based on them, and one wishes that Shawn's suggestion that the next time around they switch roles might some day be implemented. The film's play with reality extends to the restaurant itself, which wasn't a real restaurant, though it looks convincing enough; the interiors weren't even filmed in New York, where the movie is set.

You may find, as I did, that the film works especially well in two or three doses over two or three nights. There's a lot to digest here, strange ideas and strange comedy. Memorably homaged many times, perhaps most effectively in an episode of Community. Highly recommended.

Mazes and Monsters

The Devil's Labyrinth by John Saul (2006): John Saul's horror-thriller writing career spans about 35 years (and counting). Somehow I've avoided him until now, primarily because there are only so many hours in the day. This mid-to-late career novel is an entertaining dandy, however, a slice of Roman Catholic horror that manages to wring some new scares and concepts out of the nearly exhausted sub-genre of possession and exorcism.

Be aware that Saul works very much in the plain style. His strengths lie in plot and characterization, with style being pretty much kept as quiet as possible. This works for Saul because he indeed does have strengths in those two areas. A couple of plot twists truly do surprise, and the characterization, especially of the teenagers trapped in the titular labyrinth, rings true throughout.

Bullied and beaten at his regular high school, a 16-year-old boy gets sent to a private Roman Catholic high school in Boston by his mother on the advice of her new boyfriend. St. Isaac's sprawls across several acres, and its underground rooms and tunnels, built and rebuilt-upon over a couple of hundred years, form one of the meanings of the 'labyrinth' of the title.

The new kid, still suffering over the death of his soldier-father in Afghanistan several years earlier, soon begins to see that something odd is going on. And as the oddities and sinister activities increase, so too does the Vatican's interest in St. Isaac's. One of the new pope's main interests is the history of exorcism in the Roman Catholic Church. And when one of the priests at St. Isaac's send the papal office a videofile of what appears to be an ancient, near-mythical ritual involving demons, the Pope's interest is piqued.

But the kids are not all right. To resurrect an old phrase yet again, this novel is a page-turner and a humdinger. The climax gets a little bit too gimmicky, but otherwise a solid read. Recommended.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Man vs. The Gods: The Road to Victory

Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Volume 3: written and illustrated by Jack Kirby with Mike Royer, Roz Kirby, and Vince Colletta (1971-72; collected 2008): Jack Kirby's grand, ahead-of-its-time, multi-title epic moves towards its truncated conclusion with three of the strongest stories of Kirby's long and distinguished career.

Volume 3 also features a misguided two-parter in which DC foisted C-lister Deadman upon Kirby and The Forever People. It's interesting to see Jack try to figure out a new direction for the character, but the whole thing shows how DC didn't seem to have much of a clue in the early 1970's.

Marvel had finally passed DC in comic-book sales, which didn't stop DC from imposing its Superman house-style on Kirby and having other artists redraw the heads of the Man of Steel and his significant supporting characters whenever Kirby drew them. Kirby had co-created much of the Marvel universe that had surpassed DC in popularity. You'd think the heads he drew had at least a bit to do with that.

Long-term cross-continuity between four different titles hadn't been attempted in comic books before. Volume 3 sees DC dialing down the links among New Gods, Forever People, Mister Miracle, and Jimmy Olsen. The galactic war between the planets of New Genesis and Apokolips, fought in part by proxy on Earth, would cool down; decades later, it would become the mythopoeic backbone of the DC Universe, but for now, Kirby's New Gods would move towards cancellation.

Of those three stories, though. In New Gods, "The Pact" explains the history of the war between New Genesis and Apokolips; more importantly, it explains the forging of the fragile peace that is only now coming apart. It's one of Kirby's most consciously mythic tales, like something out of The Silmarillion as filtered through Kirby's superheroic, day-glo, New-Deal-liberal sensibilities.

Kirby also mythologizes in Mister Miracle's "Himon." But while telling the story of the leader of the Resistance on Apokolips with more than a nod to The Scarlet Pimpernel, Kirby also shines a light on the day-to-day realities of life on the Hell-world of Apokolips. Most of the citizenry have been ground down to a cowed philosophical masochism by the endless oppression and lies of Darkseid, Kirby's fascistic overlord of darkness. But hope endures: Himon refuses to leave, but he inspires the future Mister Miracle to escape Darkseid and flee to Earth.

Darkseid's redeemed son, Orion, may be foretold by prophecy to kill Darkseid, but Mister Miracle represents the direct counter to Darkseid's obsession with control. In Kirby's cosmology, the Anti-Life Equation that Darkseid seeks to complete, that will give him control over every sentient being, is countered by Freedom -- the Life-Equation represented by the being who will become the super-powered escape artist known as Mister Miracle.

The third giant would be "The Death Wish of 'Terrible' Turpin," one of the rare superhero stories of the first 30 years of superhero stories to portray the terrible, humanity-destroying effect that the mere existence of superheroes would have on ordinary humanity. Turpin, a human police officer caught between the warring factions of god-like beings on Earth in the New Gods, vows to take down one of these beings using whatever resources the police department can muster.

Kirby makes Turpin's quest into a cry of resistance from humanity itself -- resistance to the dehumanization that gods and superheroes, light or dark, bring to the world of the normative. The story, just a bit over 20 pages, supplies the sort of ending that an enlightened Hollywood movie about superheroes could really use: human beings, kicking ass, while the gods themselves stand down. In all, for all the stories (even the wonky Deadman story), highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


The Conqueror Worms by Brian Keene (2005): Brian Keene enjoys ending the world. A lot. And while he's a very specifically American horror writer, many of his novels fall more comfortably into the disaster-horror sub-genre perfected by writers like Brit James Herbert, with his apocalyptic rats and fogs and crawling dark. Keene's scenarios tend to involve the supernatural far more than Herbert's, but their love of squishy, brutal scenes of ultraviolence -- and the occasional sex scene -- cause me to link them, if only in my own mind.

Keene's fictional multiverse contains many of his novels, along with a multiplicity of Earths, many of them under siege by the forces of darkness, all of them apparently working for one of several demon-kings exiled from the physical universe(s) eons ago by, I guess, God. Or gods.

It's a Lovecraftian set-up that touches at points upon real-world mythologies. Earth is under siege, anyway. A lot. And the cause in many of the novels (though not all) is generally hopeless. What the horror novels explore is grace, and the lack thereof, under supernatural pressure: the human heart in conflict with giant monsters, if you will.

In The Conqueror Worms, a seemingly supernatural rain devastates the planet. And it won't stop. Coastal cities fall to tsunamis; humanity flees to the hills. And then the mountains. And then, entire houses start disappearing into what look like sinkholes, but are not. While land-based humanity comes under siege by increasingly giant, carnivorous worms, sea-based humanity faces sea monsters that seem to have swum right out of mythology.

Keene keeps our sympathy throughout with his narrators -- an 80-year-old man whose West Virginia mountain residence has endured 41 days of rain when the novel opens, and a much-younger man and woman who endured the terrrors of flooded Baltimore for several weeks. Along the way, the reader can piece together the probable cause of the apocalypse, but there's never a moment of epiphanic exposition. This is a worm's eye view of the end of the world, not one from from the heights (or narrative centre) of understanding.

There's brutality here, and grandeur, and a lot of WTF? Boy, those worms are cranky. Recommended.