Thursday, December 24, 2015

Holiday Grab-Bag!

Mars Attacks!: adapted by Jonathan Gems, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Martin Amis, and Tim Burton,  from the trading card series written and illustrated by Len Brown, Woody Gelman, Wally Wood, Bob Powell, and Norm Saunders; directed by Tim Burton; starring Jack Nicholson (The President/ Art Land), Glenn Close (First Lady), Annette Bening (Barbara Land), Pierce Brosnan (The Professor), Martin Short (The Press Secretary), Sarah Jessica Parker (Natalie), Michael J. Fox (Jason), Jim Brown (Byron), Natalie Portman (The President's Daughter), Lukas Haas (Richie Norris), Rod Steiger (General Decker), Pam Grier (Louise Williams), Jack Black (Bill Glenn Norris), Lisa Marie (Martian 'Girl'), Sylvia Sidney (Gramma), Tom Jones (Himself), and Janice Rivera (Byron's Busty Co-worker) (1996):

You may think Mars Attacks! is vicious until you see the insane 1950's trading cards it's based on. Holy crap! I wish the insanity got going a lot sooner in the film, or that ten minutes were trimmed from the first half. But it's still a triumph of a sort, a snarky 'FU!' to Hollywood blockbusters and good taste. Nods and homages abound, to the spinning flying saucers of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, to This Island Earth, to Dr. Strangelove.  It's a witty, pissy movie. No wonder it bombed. Jim Brown is terrific as a heavyweight boxer turned Las Vegas greeter, and the rest of the cast is a hoot as well. Highly recommended.

Airplane!: written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker; starring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Murdock), Lloyd Birdges (McCroskey), Peter Graves (Captain Oveur), Julie Hagerty (Elaine), Robert Hays (Ted Striker), Leslie Nielsen (Dr. Rumack), and Robert Stack (Kramer) (1980): Airplane! established that Mad magazine's rapid fire, kitchen-sink approach to satire could thrive in the movies. Don't worry if a joke fails -- there's already another one on the way. The movie also retasked former dramatic actors Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges as mostly deadpan comedians. For Nielsen especially, it was the start of a career resurgence. The movie also helped change NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's public image from that of a humourless, standoffish sourpuss. Highly recommended.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt; directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Adam DRiver (Kylo Ren), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), and Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke) (2015): Yes, it borrows a lot of plot points from previous Star Wars films. And there are a couple of sequences in which necessary explanatory dialogue seems to have been left on the editing-room floor. But it's still a great deal of fun. And the casting of the young leads, especially Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, is terrific. 

I'd rate it far ahead of the three prequels and somewhat ahead of Return of the Jedi. And I'm optimistic that subsequent installments may be better. For some reason, I imagine J.J. Abrams breathing an Admiral Ackbar-style sigh of relief once the box office and the reviews started coming in. He's not an original film-maker, but he's one hell of a pastiche artist. Highly recommended.

ESPN 30 for 30: Four Falls of Buffalo: directed by Ken Rodgers, narrated by William Fichtner (2015): Often mournful, sometimes humourous re-evaluation of the Buffalo Bills NFL teams that went to an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990's -- and lost all four in another unprecedented feat. The movie certainly highlights the unfortunate fact that for a lot of people, finishing second is far worse than finishing 32nd. That this bizarre, heart-breaking, triumphant series of seasons happened to much-maligned Buffalo seems weirdly apt. One of the best of ESPN's usually excellent 30 for 30 documentaries, with tons of new interviews and lots of interesting archival footage. Highly recommended.

Holes for Faces (2013) by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories:

"Passing Through Peacehaven" (2011)   
"Peep" (2007)
"Getting It Wrong" (2011)
"The Room Beyond" (2011)
"Holes for Faces" (2013)
"The Rounds" (2010)
"The Decorations" (2005)
"The Address" (2012)
"Recently Used" (2011)
"Chucky Comes to Liverpool" (2010)
"With the Angels" (2010)
"Behind the Doors" (2013)
"Holding the Light" (2011)
"The Long Way" (2008)

Excellent collection of horror stories from the 21st century, with the venerable Ramsey Campbell -- first published in the 1960's by Arkham House --  demonstrating that he's still a master of both terror and poignance. Many of these stories deal with the effects of childhood trauma as remembered and re-experienced by an adult. Sometimes the antagonist is a supernatural menace, though in many of the stories, the problem could actually be a delusion. Throughout the stories, Campbell's often near-hallucinatory descriptions of people, things, and events keep the level of unease high. 

The stories also deal with children facing supernatural and non-supernatural terrors, perhaps none more acutely than the increasingly confused 13-year-old protagonist of "Chucky Comes to Liverpool." Here, his mother's involvement in a community campaign against horror movies -- and her obsessive 'protection' of him from all evil media influences -- causes major psychological problems. It's a fine story that works even better if one has read Campbell's essays on some of the censorship 'debates' he attended during various English campaigns against horror movies, some of them hysterically focused on the Chucky franchise.

The effects of old age are the focus of several stories, sometimes aggravated by those recurring childhood traumas, sometimes twinned with a separate character facing new childhood trauma. There are parents inflicting psychological traumas on their children. And there are trains and train stations. Seriously. 

Sometimes the train is the problem, sometimes the station, sometimes both... and sometimes not being able to find a train station leads one into dire supernatural peril. Given the focus on (as the back cover says) "Youth and age," the emphasis on trains and train stations, on arrivals and departures, seems only natural. There may be non-human and formerly human monsters throughout the collection, but they're mostly seen only in vague half-glimpses of terrible import. Their occasional complete manifestations, when they come, can be shocking, but it's the reactions of the various characters to the supernatural, or the seeming supernatural, that makes the stories so strong. We may not all meet ghosts, but we all know guilt and fear and regret. Or a hatred of Physical Education classes. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Guinness Goodness

Kind Hearts and Coronets: adapted by Robert Hamer and John Dighton from the novel by Roy Horniman; directed by Robert Hamer; starring Dennis Price (Louis), Valerie Hobson (Edith), Joan Greenwood (Sibella), and Alec Guinness (Eight members of the D'Ascoyne Family) (1949): Blistering, oddly charming black comedy from England's Ealing Studios, the standard-bearer for black film comedy from the late 1940's through to the early 1960's. 

Alec Guinness doesn't play the protagonist -- instead, he plays the eight surviving members of the noble D'Ascoyne family whom the protagonist intends to murder. The protagonist, whose mother the D'Ascoyne patriarch disinherited because of her marriage to an Italian singer, seeks both revenge and an ascension to the title (and the associated lands and title) for himself.

Guinness is great as an octet of often ridiculous nobles, while Dennis Price plays protagonist Louis with the right mix of snobbishness and gentility. The murders are often quite funny, and it's difficult to feel much sympathy for any of the D'Ascoynes. Louis also finds himself caught between two love interests -- manipulative and scheming Sibella, a friend since childhood, and the prim and proper Edith, widow of one of the more haplessly sympathetic D'Ascoynes. It's all a very funny and sometimes extraordinarily cynical and bleak look at the British class system. Highly recommended.

The Ladykillers: written by William Rose and Jimmy O'Connor; directed by Alexander Mackendrick; starring Alec Guinness (Professor Marcus), Katie Johnson (Mrs. Wilberforce), Cecil Parker (Claude (a.k.a. 'Major Courtney')), Herbert Lom (Louis (a.k.a. 'Mr. Harvey')), Peter Sellers (Harry (a.k.a. 'Mr. Robinson)), Danny Green (One-Round (a.k.a. 'Mr. Lawson')), and Jack Warner (The Superintendent) (1955): Oddly charming and gentle black comedy from England's Ealing Studios, the standard-bearer for black film comedy from the late 1940's through to the early 1960's. The body count is high, but it's hard to argue with the choice of victims.

Alec Guinness, sporting some pretty crazy fake teeth, plays Professor Marcus, the ringleader and chief planner for a quintet of thieves planning a big heist. Their plan hinges on Marcus taking rooms at the house of a deceptively lovable old lady (Mrs. Wilberforce, played wonderfully by Katie Johnson) for reasons I'll let the movie show you. 

Guinness and his fellow actors -- including a young Peter Sellers and his police nemesis from the later Pink Panther films, Herbert Lom -- are terrific as their plan goes increasingly awry. Mrs. Wilberforce's ability to sow chaos wherever she goes without ever being affected by it herself repeatedly screws up the gang's plans. And their own somewhat English politeness makes the whole problem of eliminating Mrs. Wilberforce into an increasingly elaborate series of attempts and apologies. 

The Coen Brothers remade The Ladykillers in 2004. It's not as bad a movie as some critics said, though it's also nowhere near the film that the original was. Alec Guinness trumps Tom Hanks. And the Coens didn't have Peter Sellers around to do uncredited work voicing Mrs. Wilberforce's two maddening parrots and a cockatoo. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Satan's Six!

Satan's Six: written by Tony Isabella, Batton Lash, and Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Jack Kirby, John Cleary, Armando Gil, Steve Ditko, and others (1993): From the dark days of the 1990's collector's boom in American comic books comes this oddity. Topps, the sports card people, published comic books for a time in the 1990's because everyone else was doing it. They also created collector's card series tied into the comic books they published. 

And round it went until the industry collapsed into a black hole.

Satan's Six comes from the Topps Kirbyverse line, which consisted of titles and characters created and owned by comics legend Jack Kirby. Kirby wasn't drawing or writing anything at the time, only a few years before his death, mainly because of problems with his eyesight. However, other creators extrapolated entire series from various sketches, uncompleted stories, and the occasional Kirby-owned character who'd actually been published (Silver Star, for one). The results were uneven but generally fun. The Kirbyverse wasn't the grim and gritty place that much of mainstream American comics had become in the early 1990's.

Kirby supplies eight pages and a cover in the course of this four-issue miniseries, with a Who's Who of comic-book artists inking his work, including Todd "Spawn" Macfarlane and Frank "Dark Knight" Miller. I always love seeing Kirby's art regardless of its provenance, so these nine total pages make me happy. Satan's Six are six souls confined to Limbo who've been tapped by Satan to round up souls on Earth who should be in Hell. However, none of this is played seriously -- Satan's Six: The super-team is tremendously incompetent.

The rest of the comic book, all of it written by veteran scribe Tony "Black Lightning" Isabella, is a bit more uneven. Isabella's writing is fine, surprisingly funny, and maybe a bit too Meta at points. Penciller John Cleary strives for jagged, grotesque, cartoony style that seems to be heavily influenced by Todd Macfarlane's distorted grotesques in Spawn, though Macfarlane always set those grotesques off against his more conventionally, quasi-realistically rendered characters. Cleary's pretty much all-cartoony here. One gets used to it after awhile, though his story-telling sense in terms of coherent panel-to-panel flow is still clearly a work in progress. Still and all, I've read a tonne of early 1990's comic books I didn't enjoy as much as this one. Recommended.

Nexus: Space Opera: written by Mike Baron; illustrated by Steve Rude, Gary Martin, Al Milgrom, and Bob Wiacek (2008-2009; collected 2009): For more than 30 years, Nexus has been the crown jewel of its creators' careers -- those being the estimable comic-book careers of writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude. 

The bulk of Nexus came out in the 1980's. This was a time when science fiction and space opera flourished in American comics, mainly thanks to the rise of a number of new comics publishers that included Capital, First, Eclipse, Comico, and Dark Horse. Nexus stood at the top of the great science fiction titles that graced the comics world thanks to this explosion in publishing, perhaps only equaled at the time by Howard Chaykin's terrific American Flagg! and John Ostrander and Tim Truman's Grimjack.

Since the second on-going Nexus series ended in the early 1990's, getting a Nexus fix has involved long waits and at least two different publishers (Dark Horse and a brief time as the only publication of artist Steve Rude's creator-owned RudeDude Comics). Space Opera came out from RudeDude Comics in 2008-2009 and was collected in 2009. 

Rude and Baron are in vintage form for much of the miniseries. Is it worth reading for someone new to Nexus? Maybe. I can't really judge that. But it's great to see most of the major characters of the Nexus universe back in action. Nexus himself, born Horatio Hellpop, still tries to act as the conscience of humanity by executing murderers and tyrants with the help of his telekinetic FuskionKasting powers. He's still married to Sundra Peale, former spy for EarthGov. The imminent arrival of their first child drives the plot of Space Opera.

That's because the homicidal, genocidal, and extremely rapey Elvonics, religious fanatics with an Elvis obsession, have a prophecy that the Son of Nexus will destroy their god Elvon. So they launch a series of escalating attacks on Nexus's home planet of Ylum, a libertarian-democratic haven for refugees from across the galaxy. But there are assassins hired by someone else as well. And Ylum also continues to seek full recognition from the United Worlds.

So things are complicated, wiggy, action-packed, and occasionally satiric. Perhaps one long-time character or two will die. Perhaps a long-dead character or two will return from the dead. Perhaps not. It's all great fun, marred only by an insufficient number of pages over the course of the concluding chapter. A massive space battle involving Nexus and the Elvonic Warfleet ends almost perfunctorily, which is a shame. But there are enough good things for the series to be Recommended.

Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom Archives Volume 3: written by Paul S. Newman; illustrated by Frank Bolle; covers by George Wilson; Introduction by Mike Baron (1966-68/ Collected 2014): The strange 1960's adventures of Western Publishing's Doctor Solar, a one-man race of atomic supermen, continue here. Capable of a whole host of energy-based feats, Solar has to deal with arch-nemesis Nuro and his hilariously named henchman Uzbek (!!! -- is a crossover with SCTV's Hey Giorgi imminent?) on several occasions. 

Solar also splits into millions of microscopic selves to battle bacterial space invaders, takes on an evil robot doppelganger, threatens the world with his own terrible nightmares that become real because his radiation is 'out of balance,' and fights a giant lava monster from the Earth's core. 

The interior art by Frank Bolle isn't flashy, but his characters are indeed full of character and his matter-of-fact, low-key, realistic cartooning makes many of the weird events seem even weirder. Writer Paul S. Newman, who literally wrote thousands of comic-book stories, keeps things moving along and often shows a flair for super-scientific strangeness that's the equal of anything DC Comics writers invented during their Silver Age of the 1950's and 1960's. And boy, cover artist George Wilson is swell -- his paintings are an artistic delight from issue to issue. Recommended.

Batman Incorporated Volume 2: written by Grant Morrison and others; illustrated by Chris Burnham and others (2013/Collected 2014): Writer Grant Morrison concludes a Batman epic that spanned seven years, several Bat-titles, dozens of artist (including the excellent Chris Burnham on most of the art herein)  and at least one company-wide DC Comics reboot. 

Batman's Batman Incorporated (a Bruce Wayne company!) brings together masked crime-fighters from around the globe to defeat the equally globe-spanning Leviathan organization. The climax is crowded and occasionally hyperviolent and features at least one endless combat sequence too many. Maybe two. 

The tangential stories included after the main narrative are quite a bit jollier, as writers mostly other than Morrison tell stand-alone tales of such Batman Incorporated agents as El Gaucho, Red Raven, The Knight, and the Japanese Bat-man. And Bat-cow! 

There's absolutely no point to reading this compilation unless you've at least read the earlier Batman Incorporated volumes. Even then, a number of plot developments cast all the way back to the beginning of Morrison's tenure on Batman in 2006. The whole run is one seven-year, 100-issue story. The whole is superior to this part, though not to some of the arcs contained within it. Recommended, but not on its own.

Grimjack: The Manx Cat: written by John Ostrander; illustrated by Tim Truman (2011): This prequel to the 1980's science-fiction comic book Grimjack explains the significance of several elements in that series. John Ostrander's writes as pungent a science-fantasy swashbucker as ever, and original artist Tim Truman is in fine, grim, and occasionally grotesque form. This would certainly work as a gateway to the original series. 

This time around, there's more than a hint of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion to protagonist John 'Grimjack' Gaunt as he tries to stop an invasion of alien gods that he himself has inadvertently set in motion by stealing the 'Manx Cat' of the title. Like the Maltese Falcon, the statue of the Manx Cat is something that dreams are made on. Only literally and to increasingly dire consequence. 

Very solid science fiction/ science fantasy. Truman's art only disappoints on the way, way too digitally composed cover of the compilation -- thankfully, it's all pen and ink inside, or at least looks that way. Recommended.

Global Frequency Volume 2: Detonation Radio: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Lee Bermejo, Gene Ha, Simon Bisley, Chris Sprouse, Tomm Coker, and Jason Pearson; covers by Brian Wood. (2003-2004/ Collected 2004): The second half of Global Frequency by Warren Ellis and a relay team of 13 artists isn't quite as weird and wonderful as the first, but it's still both an enjoyable read and a great concept. 1001 operatives across the planet work for Global Frequency, a massive, private organization that rescues the Earth from problems the normal authorities can't handle. The threats are a bit more prosaic this time around and the artists a bit more uneven. Still, this is a nifty Mission: Impossible for a crowd-sourced age. Recommended.

Friday, December 11, 2015

One of These Things Doesn't Belong

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2: written by Kevin James and Nick Bakay; directed by Andy Fickman; starring Kevin James (Paul Blart), Raini Rodriguez (Maya Blart), and Neal McDonough (Vincent) (2015): A terrible comedy that has just enough laughs and more than enough unbelievably bad ideas to keep one watching, at least if one is a masochist. 

Kevin James is peculiarly unappealing in this movie, the Paul Blart character transformed into a self-pitying, unpleasant creature who unfathomably once again has some form of sex appeal for an attractive woman. Produced by Adam Sandler's Happy Madison company, this is nonetheless funnier than any Adam Sandler movie of the past 15 years.  Raini Rodriguez as Blart's plump, smart daughter is an appealing actress who deserves to get better roles. Not recommended.

Great Expectations: adapted from the Charles Dickens novel by David Leane, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Kay Walsh, and Cecil McGivern; directed by David Lean; starring John Mills (Pip), Tony Wager (Young Pip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Jean Simmons (Young Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe), Finlay Currie (Magwitch), Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Ivor Barnard (Wemmick), and Francis L. Sullivan (Jaggers) (1946):

Excellent adaptation of the Dickens novel skimps a bit on the middle sections in order to concentrate on the exciting parts at the beginning and ending of the source text. It also makes an ending even happier than the one Dickens tacked on after people were disappointed with his original downbeat ending. So it goes. 

This is the much looser and warmer David Lean of the 1940's and early 1950's, before his desire to film epics caused him to calcify. The performances are all top-notch, especially those of a young Alec Guinness as Pip's friend Herbert Pocket and Francis Sullivan as the fascinating, ambivalent Jaggers. Joe is a humble, comic charmer, while John Mills does nice work as Pip, though the movie's compression of the middle section omits quite a bit of Pip's unsympathetic, snobbish period prior to the revelation of just who has been funding Pip's gentlemanly lifestyle.

The set design, cinematography, and direction heighten the Gothic elements of the novel when we're searching the marshes for escaped convicts or lingering in the decayed and sinister dining room of Miss Havisham. Otherwise, Lean alternates between the bustle of high society and the homey touches of Pip's childhood home in the English marshes.

Estella's adult character comes across as quite a bit warmer than that in the novel, setting up that revised ending. This may simply be the result of an actress who herself is too warm a presence for the role, though the ending perhaps makes this warmth a necessary part of the character development: this Estella hasn't entirely been emotionally neutered by the malignly self-pitying Miss Havisham. Highly recommended.

Barry Lyndon: adapted from the William Makepeace Thackeray novel and directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Ryan O'Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Marie Kean (Barry's Mother), and Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon) (1975): Stanley Kubrick takes the static shot just about as far as it can go without breaking a movie, from lengthy establishing landscape shots inspired by period painters such as Gainsborough to tableaux involving large groups of actors immobilized by either Kubrick's aesthetic decisions or the necessities of film-making in the early 1970's while attempting to use only low levels of natural light.

Thackeray's novel is often cited as being the first English novel featuring an anti-hero, one specifically designed to be an unappealing and often monstrous creature set up as the antithesis of such lovable picaros as Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. Kubrick takes this idea and runs with it. Ryan O'Neal's Barry Lyndon is often inexpressive and almost always a terrible, terrible person. 

However, pretty much everyone in the movie is a terrible person, or an unsympathetically weak or cowardly one. This isn't accidental. Kubrick clearly means this as a critique of the overwhelmingly terrible society of 18th-century Europe in general, and the godawful gentry in particular.

The end result, as someone once observed, is an awful lot like watching a science-fictional docudrama about an alien culture. Kubrick's movies had been dealing with the inescapability of violence in human culture since at least Paths of Glory, and Barry Lyndon is, among other things, yet another examination of the dark heart of man. 

It may be the most tedious great movie of all time, and that certainly is intentional. John Fowles had to explain the boredom of the gentry in the 18th and 19th centuries in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Kubrick shows it, along with the brutality and general indifference to human life that walked hand in hand with that tedium, punctuating 95% boredom with 5% horror.

There are chilly, funny moments throughout. The drollest touch comes with the narration, which is the warmest piece of acting and writing in the movie. The disjuncture between that narration and what we see and hear in the narrative itself is ironic as all get-out. So, too, the gorgeous, painterly shots of the landscape. Kubrick seems to be looking for intelligent life and finding it nowhere. But Jesus, can he frame a shot! Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Fathers and Sons

House of Windows by John Langan (2009): John Langan's first novel is terrific, an erudite ghost story informed by Langan's knowledge of the horror genre and by his experiences in academia. It's a first-person tale within a frame -- a perennial structure in horror. It's a novel of academia. And its main narrator would seem utterly persuasive if it weren't for brief, gem-like moments throughout her narration that seem to highlight a pronounced lack of self-knowledge. Or do they?

Over the course of two long nights, SUNY-Huguenot graduate student and sessional instructor Veronica Croydon tells the story of her husband's mysterious disappearance to a narrator who seems to be John Langan. She does so because Langan writes horror stories and thus may be a good choice to hear the tale. During the day between the two nights, Langan and his wife discuss the possibility that he may also have been chosen for his perceived gullibility when it comes to the supernatural.

Veronica's narrative voice is sharp, self-assured, and intermittently unsympathetic. She's a great creation. Overall, her story of the supernatural seems convincing. It's the sudden revelations of a pronounced lack of self-evaluation spotted throughout the text that raise the possibility that her narration is flawed or possibly confabulated in its entirety. But these moments are few and far between, and subtle enough in most cases to sneak by.

Langan's depiction of academic life rings utterly true to this former academic. Veronica reminds me of a handful of graduate students I've known without in any way being a stereotype. The 40-years-older, married professor she herself marries within about a year of starting her graduate studies is also familiar without being a type. But we learn of him (and everything inside the frame) only from Veronica's point-of-view. Do we trust her? Do we trust any first-person narrator? Do we trust any narrator at all?

I don't know. In general, the discontinuities in the narrative include moments in which Veronica engages in stereotypical gender constructions of the male while at other points bristling at such constructions being attached to the female. She denigrates Herman Melville for being a detail-obsessed windbag while occasionally relating such a list of minutiae that the narrative almost bogs down in soporific descriptions of making dinner or sitting in a living room. She may have become her near-future husband's favourite student in the space of one class, with their out-of-class socializing beginning immediately thereafter, but she doesn't believe in being familiar with her own students. The failure of the earlier marriage was all the fault of the first wife -- but we learn of the first wife only through Veronica's narration. Well, we learn almost everything only through Veronica's narration. And a story that details the tragically flawed relationships of at least two sets of fathers and sons -- as commented upon throughout by Veronica -- also features Veronica's distant, annoyed relationship with a mother with whom she goes years between conversations. 

The major characters filling out the novel's pas de quatre are Ted, Roger's 30ish son from his previous marriage, and the house the Croydons have lived in for decades, Belvedere House. It's an old house. And it's about to become haunted. Or something.

Langan's vision of the supernatural in this novel bridges a gap between the cosmic, impersonal, non-traditional horrors of the Lovecraftian and the more traditional wonders and terrors of a ghost story, with psychology hanging over all. It helps to have read Fritz Leiber's great Our Lady of Darkness before reading his novel, but one doesn't need to: Langan lays everything out that the reader needs to know. Knowledge of the Leiber novel enriches one's enjoyment of House of Windows, though. And it's a swell novel.

As is this novel. The horrors here are both gross and subtle, supernatural and strictly human. There may not have ever been a haunting. But whether or not there was, there's a story of a haunting and the haunted -- there's horror and sorrow. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Swearwolves and Other Outcasts

Roxanne: adapted by Steve Martin from the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand; directed by Fred Schepisi; starring Steve Martin (C.D. Bales), Daryl Hannah (Roxanne), Rick Rossovich (Chris), and Shelley Duvall (Dixie) (1987): Steve Martin's charming, slapstick romantic comedy riffs on Cyrano de Bergerac, albeit with a much happier ending. 

Martin plays C.D. Bales, the fire chief of a small mountain town in the state of Washington. He falls for Daryl Hannah's astrophysicist, but she keeps him in the Friend Zone after falling for a dim-witted fireman in Martin's company. Problems ensue. Fred Schepisi does a nice job with both the romantic and the slapstick elements, as does a fine assortment of supporting players. Martin's nose prosthetic and stunt man both do a lot of heavy lifting. Recommended.

Jason and the Argonauts: written by Jan Read and Beverley Cross; directed by Don Chaffey and Ray Harryhausen; starring Todd Armstrong (Jason) and Nancy Kovack (Medea) (1963): Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion wizardry gives various scenes in this mythological adventure movie the quality of a dream -- or a nightmare. 

The actors may not be great, the plot may meander, but the film's stop-motion/live-action integration achieves remarkable effects. It's not that the creatures look realistic. It's that they look just realistic enough while maintaining a look that also suggests their otherworldly nature within the narrative.

Jason and the Argonauts contains two of Harryhausen's greatest achievements -- the giant bronze 'robot' Talos and the great skeleton battle. We also get a nifty battle between Jason and the Hydra and a somewhat disappointing sequence involving Harpies, who never seem to be integrated as effectively as the other stop-motion creatures. Oh, well. 

Jason and his crew of merry Greeks search for the Golden Fleece, Hercules screws up, and many great battles are had with monsters while the Greek gods help or hinder Jason in his quest. The battle between Jason and several reanimated skeletons occurs at the end of the film, and it really is a show-stopper. Highly recommended.

Freaks: written by Tod Robbins; directed by Tod Browning; starring Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), and Rose Dione (Madame Tetrallini) (1932): You really don't watch Freaks for the acting or the writing or that static, early sound-era direction. You watch it because the disabilities and deformities are real, because the story has the crude power of a fable, and because Tod Browning does manage a couple of effective scenes in the dark and the rain, when he's able to stage something that doesn't require camera movement.

So far as I can tell, the longest restored version runs 64 minutes, lacking about 20 minutes of lost footage that were cut from the film after its first couple of weeks of release. The lost footage apparently deepened the horror while also making the 'Freaks' of the travelling carnival more sympathetic and the 'normal' people much less so. What's left is still stunning, and surprisingly sympathetic in its treatment of the carnival grotesques who are simply trying to make a living in a world where the best they can hope for is life as a sideshow attraction.

Besides the unnerving night-time attack scene and the late-movie revelation of what revenge the carnival folk took on the homicidal trapeze artist, other scenes also achieve a sort of Grimm's pastoral. A scene involving 'pinheads' and their protector playing in the woods near the village they're visiting has a grace to it, and a grace note of kindness involving one of the townspeople's treatment of the frolickers. 

Only a coda added to the movie after its bowdlerization rings absolutely false. The rest is crude and powerful and impossible to imagine being made today. The horror of the movie begins as a contemplation of distortions of the human form and ends as a classic tale of horrific revenge in the manner of EC Comics or Poe's "Hop-Frog." The viewer's identification moves inexorably towards that of the 'Freaks,' and away from those who would harm or kill or even just mock them. Highly recommended.

What We Do In The Shadows: written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi; starring Jemaine Clement (Vladislav), Taika Waititi (Viago), Jonny Brugh (Deacon), Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick), Stu Rutherford (Stu), Ben Fransham (Petyr), and Jackie van Beek (Jackie) (2014): Hilarious fake documentary from the people who brought you Flight of the Conchords centered on the exploits of four vampires rooming together in the Greater Wellington Area of New Zealand. There are jarring moments of violence throughout, but the movie overall is surprisingly genial in its portrayal of the vampires and their kith and kin. 

One of the things that makes the movie so enjoyable is its rigorous attention to the details of living as a vampire, spun at most points for maximum hilarity. It's hard to groom when you can't see yourself in a mirror, for instance, and for a young vampire, learning to fly can be a real hassle. The vampires are aware of fictional constructions of their habits -- they even crib one bit of hypnotic shenanigans from The Lost Boys, all the while mispronouncing 'spaghetti' as 'basgetti.' 

The laugh-out-loud moments are often truly gross -- Dandy vamp Viago's problems with tapping the vein of a victim lead to an awful lot of spurting blood, while new vamp Nick learns the hard way why vampires shouldn't eat chips. Meanwhile, 8000-year-old Petyr lurks in the basement listening to his headphones and refusing to attend house meetings. But he's a good listener!

I mean, really one wishes a 'serious' vampire movie would be this well-thought-out. The writers know their vampire mythology. But they also work some ridiculous changes on their sources, whether it's through Vlad's problems with shape-shifting or the eternal war between vampires and werewolves. What We Do In The Shadows is a sheer delight. Leave your reflection at the door. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Funny Books

Plastic Man: On the Lam!: written and illustrated by Kyle Baker (2004/ Collected 2004): Kyle Baker's brilliant, hilarious run on Plastic Man begins here. He won the comics industry Eisner Award for best new series back in 2004 for his take on the Golden Age's stretchable FBI agent. That didn't keep the book from being cancelled after 20 issues despite it getting a rave review from Entertainment Weekly as well. 

But you should buy this. Really, you should buy anything by Baker. He's a swell writer-artist, never sweller than when he's writing his own stuff. He can draw pretty much any way he wants to, though the fallback on Plastic Man is anarchic cartooning that pays homage to Plastic Man creator Jack Cole's zany work even as it also nods to a host of other influences, including Warner Brothers cartoons. 

One of the ten or 15 greatest things DC Comics has published in the 21st century, it even manages to make its metacriticism of superhero tropes and stereotypes and oddities specific without being an in-joke inaccessible to non-expert comic-book readers. The Baker Plastic Man deserves an Absolute hardcover edition, stat! Highly recommended.

Airboy: written by James Robinson; illustrated by Greg Hinkle (2015): James Robinson's comic-book writing career has been distinguished by many superhero series, most notably the Cold War Justice Society miniseries The Golden Age and his terrific, lengthy run on his legacy version of the Golden-Age DC hero Starman, the reluctantly heroic son of that now-retired hero.

Here, Robinson takes the almost-forgotten Golden-Age comic-book aviator Airboy into the realm of metafictional, quasi-autobiographical, scatological satire. 

And it's terrific. To describe too much would spoil things. But suffice to say that versions of Robinson and artist Greg Hinkle are characters along with Airboy and friends. But 'Robinson' is drug-and-alcohol-addled, self-destructive, and despondent over what he feels is his failed career as a writer. Poor old Hinkle and his gigantic, often-displayed penis come along for a story session that turns into a Bacchanal that turns into a trip into the realms of comic-book-land. 

It's very funny, completely NSFW, and politically incorrect -- a scandal erupted over Robinson's use of trans characters early in the series, though the last issue recontextualizes that use in such a way that the complaints seem to be fully addressed. That didn't stop Robinson from having to issue an apology/justification before the last issue ever came out. So it goes. This is terrific stuff in terms of both Robinson's writing and Hinkle's funny, cartoony, and often grotesque cartooning. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

By Jove!

Jupiter Ascending: written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski; starring Mila Kunis (Jupiter Jones), Channing Tatum (Caine Wise), Sean Bean (Stinger Apini), and Eddie Redmayne (Balem Abrasax) (2015): The Wachowski Brothers serve up a frenetic, boring science-fiction movie that plays out as if Dune had been adapted for Heavy Metal magazine in the 1970's by someone who had been repeatedly dropped on his head as a child. 

The fight scenes whiz by at such a pace that they're mostly unfathomable, as are a couple of the ship-to-ship battles. The Wachowskis lift concepts from a long list of better movies, novels, and comic books. They might still be able to produce and direct if they stopped drinking so much espresso, but no one should let them write their own scripts ever again. Ever. Again.

The borrowings often become so odd and mismatched as to become hilarious. A concept lifted from Men in Black bleeds into an entire sequence meant as an homage to Terry Gilliam's Brazil. And in case you miss the fact that this is an homage to Gilliam, here's Terry Gilliam playing a bureaucrat! Now back to the super-serious space opera, in which it turns out that the Death Star is a factory producing Soylent Green! Hey, is that Hawkman? Are those weapons named after the game Warhammer

The absurdities mount. Does a movie with a character named Jupiter have several scenes set inside the clouds of Jupiter? Did you know that bees are genetically engineered to recognize space royalty? Did you want to know where crop circles come from? Hey, did you know that human life on Earth came from somewhere else? Do you want to see Mila Kunis in a hospital gown and gynecological stirrups while a pitched laser battle goes on all around her? Of course you do! The true reality of life on Earth has been hidden from you: you're the power source for strange, hidden overlords. Why does that seem so familiar?

Channing Tatum is hilariously miscast as a gruff warrior who seems like the result of the Wachowskis' fannish desire to see Wolverine ride the Silver Surfer's flying surfboard. Sean Bean plays the Sean Bean role. Mila Kunis plays Neo, The Chosen One... I mean Jupiter Jones, The Chosen One. Eddie Redmayne plays the evil space nobleman in a way that should probably get his Best Acting Oscar revoked. There are moments of beauty and splendour amongst all the junk, but they're few and far between. Not recommended.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The King's Road

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015) by Stephen King, containing the following short stories:

Mile 81  (2011): Jaunty, fairly basic horror collaboration between the King of 2011 and the college student King of the late 1960's. Kids, cars, and a monster.

Premium Harmony  (2009): Rueful, comic slice of life.

Batman and Robin Have an Altercation  (2012): Rueful, comic slice of life.

The Dune  (2011): Minor dark fantasy piece... with a twist!

Bad Little Kid (2015 first English publication here): Great horror story is also quintessential King in the way it puts an almost homey, American 'pop' spin on a long-standing horror trope while also making a completely innocuous object into a source of gradually earned terror.

A Death  (2015): Mildly ironic bit of Old West existentialism.

The Bone Church  (2009): Interesting, not entirely successful poem.

Morality  (2009): King's much creepier take on the premise of something like Indecent Proposal.      
Afterlife  (2013) : There's a sinister underlier to this post-mortem fantasy that makes it work. More in the vein of Charles Beaumont than Ray Bradbury.

Ur  (2009): A good modern riff on an old fantasy chestnut gets derailed about 2/3's of the way through by the introduction of another chestnut that makes the whole thing seem like King's 11/22/63 writ very small. 

Herman Wouk Is Still Alive  (2011): Another slice of life with a horrifying conclusion.

Under the Weather  (2011): Return of the Unreliable Narrator.

Blockade Billy  (2010): King's 1950's novella about baseball and madness is a mostly understated gem.

Mister Yummy (2015 first publication here): One of those later King stories that seems as if it should be about half as long. An interesting idea drags on and on.

Tommy  (2010): Another interesting, not entirely successful poem, this time meditating on the 1960's and loss.

The Little Green God of Agony  (2011): Supernatural 'gotcha' story ends several paragraphs too early for me.

That Bus is Another World  (2014): It's the set-up to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novel 4:50 from Paddington...on a bus! But without an ending!

Obits (2015 first publication here): Interesting, overlong horror-fantasy sort of trickles out at the end.

Drunken Fireworks (2015): Intermittently funny piece seems like a sort of Stephen Leacock Mariposa piece for a much more scatological millennium.

Summer Thunder (2013) : Rueful, dire end-of-the-world story seems like a much lesser book-end to King's 1974 gem "Night Surf" -- and the book-ending includes the use of men in their sixties in this story as opposed to the teenagers of "Night Surf." Will the circle remain unbroken?

Overall grade: Recommended. It's not up to the quality of King's first two collections (Night Shift and Skeleton Crew and very few horror collections by anyone are), though it may almost be as good as Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and seems to me to be superior to Everything's Eventual and far, far superior to King's previous short-story collection, the mostly skippable Just After Sunset

The best story (and best horror story King's written in a very long time) is "Bad Little Kid," which is a deft and very much quintessentially Kingian reimagining of a horror trope that's been seen in such all-time classics as Sheridan Le Fanu's "Green Tea" and "The Familiar" or M.R. James "Casting the Runes" and "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," among so many others.

I suppose the difference between the King of 1975 and 2015 could be explained thusly: had he written "Bad Little Kid" in 1975, it could still have been a great horror story. However, it would have been half the length. And odds are that a relatively stereotypical supernatural ritual might have been tried by a character or characters to deal with the supernatural menace. Instead, there's a sorrowful, almost elegaic tone to the story as something terrible torments somebody again and again over the years. It's a terrific, terrific story: the old man can still bring it.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Old Heroes in New Gardens

Transmetropolitan Volume 3: Year of the Bastard: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Darick Robertson and Rodney Ramos (1998-99; collected 1999): The third collection of Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's searing science-fiction satire/jeremiad follows TechnoGonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem as he finally begins to cover a presidential campaign in a dystopic mid-21st-century America. Robertson's art is clean as it details very dirty goings-on, while Ellis' writing is furious and sarcastic, hopeful and cynical, as embodied in the often grotesque and occasionally substance-abuse-addled Jerusalem, who's like a cyberpunk version of Hunter S. Thompson.  

There's a certain amount of pulp/superhero in Transmetropolitan's DNA that can occasionally make it seem less like satire than wish fulfillment -- Spider is as hyper-competent and well-connected as Batman or Doc Savage when he needs to be. Great, scabrous fun that occasionally mirrors America's present-day political situation. Highly recommended.

Transmetropolitan Volume 4: The New Scum: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Darick Robertson and Rodney Ramos (1999; collected 2000): Gonzo journalist/hero of the future Spider Jerusalem continues to prowl the East Coast urban sprawl known only as The City, trying to decide which presidential candidate is worse. It really seems like a draw. Or does it? 

As Election Night some time in the mid-21st century approaches, Jerusalem digs for conspiracies and tries to change the way things are by writing.  It's probably a doomed effort. Bleak and often hilarious, scatological and profane -- The New Scum takes us places that sometimes seem like the places we've been, or are just in the process of going now. Ellis and artist Darick Robertson continue to make a hell of a team. Highly recommended.

Tarzan: Love, Lies, and the Lost City: written by Henning Kure, Matt Wagner, and Walt Simonson; illustrated by Peter Snejberg and Teddy Kristiansen (1992): Enjoyable revisionist, modern-day take on Tarzan is compromised by some really unfortunate choices in the lettering and colouring departments. The entire story comes to us via several different bits of first-person narration. That first-person narration is rendered as writing, not type, which becomes a bit of a problem once the decision was made to give Tarzan an almost illegible scrawl. 

Then some genius decided to colour the caption blocks differently to differentiate the speaker. But no one seems to have checked to see whether the dark green of one of the speakers was so dark that it made the black writing unreadable. On the production end, it's a mess. 

On the creative end, the main story is awfully low-key for what was Malibu's second Tarzan miniseries. The two back-up stories, written by Matt Wagner and Walt Simonson, adapt a couple of Edgar Rice Burroughs tales of the early life of Tarzan to very good effect. I really like the artwork of Peter Snejberg and Teddy Kristiansen throughout the stories. 

But Jesus, the colouring almost sabotages that as well, going too often several shades too dark. Infuriatingly incompetent on the production end though it may be, you can probably pick it up for a dollar or so complete at your local comic shop. So I don't feel financially ripped off or anything. And Snejberg does do a lovely job of drawing La of Opar and Tarzan's hyper-competent Jane. Lightly recommended.

Fighting American: Rules of the Game: written by Jeph Loeb; illustrated by Ed McGuinness, Nathan Massengill, Rob Liefeld, Larry Stucker, and Mario Alquiza (1997-98): Fun, breezy take on Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's loopy 1950's patriotic superhero. The original Fighting American started off fighting Communists in what was supposed to be a serious comic that nonetheless comes off as insane camp paranoia now. About an issue-and-a-half in, Simon and Kirby started shifting the tone to complete, intentional lunacy. Thus, Fighting American fought increasingly loopy Commies with names like Hotsky Trotsky and Double Header. It's brilliant, almost absurdist superheroics. 

Rob Liefeld, Jeph Loeb, and Ed McGuinness play Fighting American mostly straight here -- he's another retired patriotic superhero called back to the fold. McGuinness' art is just cartoony enough to keep the return of some of FA's absurd foes light-hearted. However, the take on these things needed to be a lot lighter and a lot more absurd. This could almost be a 1990's Captain America miniseries. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mars Needs Brando

The Martian: adapted by Drew Goddard from the novel by Andy Weir; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Matt Damon (Astronaut/ Botanist Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Mission Commander/ Geologist Melissa Lewis), Jeff Daniels (NASA Director Teddy Sanders), Michael Pena (Astronaut/Pilot Major Rick Martinez), Sean Bean (Flight Director Mitch Henderson), Kate Mara (Astronaut/ System Operator Beth Johanssen), Sebastian Stan (Astronaut/ Flight Surgeon/ Biologist Dr. Chris Beck), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor), Kristen Wiig (NASA Media Relations  Director Annie Montrose), Benedict Wong (JPL Director Bruce Ng), Aksel Henie (Astronaut/ Navigator/ Chemist Dr. Alex Vogel),  and Donald Glover (JPL Astrodynamicist Rich Purnell) (2015):

Zippy paean to engineering and science and those brave, stubborn humans takes the viewer to a (mostly) realistic Mars and the astronaut played by Matt Damon who inadvertently gets marooned there. While NASA tries to figure out how to save Mission botanist Mark Watney, Watney himself must figure out how to survive on a bleak and nearly airless planet. It's a movie (and a novel) very much of its time -- if that time were 1942 and this were a short story in Astounding magazine. That's a compliment. 

As in a lot of Astounding stories, engineering and rationality and a Can-do spirit are the only things that will save the day. Well, and stubborn human camaraderie. The principals are all fine in their roles, though Kristen Wiig's character could have been played by anybody and Donald Glover's math whiz should have been played by nobody without much, much rewriting. 

The Martian can hold its head up high in what is a very small sub-genre of film -- movies not based on real events that try to accurately depict space flight as it is known at the time. And it's far better than the two most notable films in that sub-genre, Destination Moon and Marooned. Somewhere, Robert Heinlein may be smiling, especially as his great YA novel Farmer in the Sky presented its hero with some of the same exo-agricultural problems experienced by Damon's astronaut here. Space farming is exciting!

The script is breezy but detail-oriented without being facetious or technobabbly, while Ridley Scott, in a return to form, lets the visuals support the story rather than overwhelm them. The Mars of this movie is a place of stark beauty and occasional terror. The final sequence goes  one problem-to-solve too far in its approach (and replicates a fairly annoying bit of unworkable physics from Gravity), but overall this is a splendid science-fiction movie that combines a sense of wonder with an appreciation of the hard work and intelligence required to be an astronaut. It's sort of the anti-Armageddon. Highly recommended.

Listen To Me Marlon: written by Stevan Riley and Peter Ettedgui; directed by Stevan Riley (2015): Haunting documentary edits together various audio musings and recollections by Marlon Brando recorded by the actor over a period of decades. Mixed in are some staged shots, a CGI head of Brando, personal film and stills, and snippets of media reports on the enigmatic actor. Brando's childhood can't help but elicit sympathy, while his expression of self-judgment makes him an increasingly tragic figure as the documentary unfolds. I'd like the documentary to have had a bit more formalism in its presentation of events -- would it kill someone to put dates on the screen? -- but as a tone-poem about Brando, by Brando to a great extent, it's a terrific piece of pseudo-documentary. Recommended.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Three by Four

Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses by R. Gary Patterson (2004): Breezy, enjoyable tour through some of rock-and-roll's odder moments. It may not necessarily be 100% accurate (or perhaps even 50%), and it's all farmed from books and articles by other people, but it's also an addictive read. At points, the back-stories are a lot more interesting than the stories about the musicians and bands. Aleister Crowley dominates one chapter, while the looming foundational figure of Robert Johnson is there throughout. But when it comes to strange luck, the saga of Buddy Holly and the Crickets dwarfs the other stories in the book. Recommended.

Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead Is Purely Coincidental: written by Josh Alan Friedman and Drew Friedman; illustrated by Drew Friedman (1980-1985; this edition 2013): One of the brightest of all the bright spots of alternative comics in the 1980's, Any Similarity collects the unique pop-cultural cartoons of the Friedman brothers. 

Drew Friedman's art approaches a sort of absolute photo-realism that makes the fantastic goings-on in these one-pagers and short stories completely and utterly ridiculous. Friedman's preferred subjects are show-business B- and C-listers and the characters they played. 

Emblematic, perhaps, are strips devoted entirely to Jimmy Durante cavorting with naked starlets and to the secret life of I Love Lucy's Fred Mertz, slum landlord and thuggish bon vivant

The nastiest piece in the book shows what happens when an African-American stops for gas at Goober's service station in Andy Griffith's Mayberry. More benign visions appear of monosyllabic Ed Wood favourite Tor Johnson out and about on New York's subways, or of William Bendix returning from the dead. 

The collection helpfully appends an explanation of who some of these people are. You'll almost certainly need it, but the humour and satire work regardless because show business never seems to change, even if Joe Franklin or Bendix have faded from memory. A vision of a dystopian future in which everyone male or female looks exactly like Ernest Borgnine, though -- that's just wrong. Highly recommended.

Plastic Man: Rubber Bandits written and illustrated by Kyle Baker (2004-2005; collected 2005): Writer-artist Jack Cole's Plastic Man was one of a handful of the greatest comic books of the 1940's and 1950's. It was such a tough act to follow that really no one did until Kyle Baker. Several attempts over 60 years (!) to revive Plastic Man missed the anarchic spirit of Cole's writing and cartooning. Baker got it while remaining his own loopy, anarchic self. 

Baker's Plastic Man works as both a general farce and a specific criticism of superhero comic books as they were in the early oughts (and remain to this day). In a better comic-book world it would have run for as long as Baker wanted to do it. In the American comic-book world of superheroes, its jaunty snarkiness and hilarious cartooning were both soon to be rejected. Highly recommended.

Mothra Not Included

The Mothman Prophecies: adapted from the novel by John Keel by Richard Hatem; directed by Mark Pellington; starring Richard Gere (John Klein), Debra Messing (Mary Klein), Will Patton (Gordon Smallwood), and Laura Linney (Connie Mills) (2002): I suppose there's an alternate universe out there in which Mark Pellington has been an acclaimed director of horror and suspense films for the past two decades. Here, he seems to have poured much of his energy into TV production after The Mothman Prophecies came out in 2002. More's the pity.

When the publisher of the mid-1970's 'true-life' book you've based your movie on classifies that book as a novel (as Tor did John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies), you might as well run with it. I suppose if this movie were advocating the dangerous practice of exorcism while purporting to be a true story, I'd find it repugnant. 

As it instead generates a cosmic thrill-ride that ultimately comes out against pseudoscience and occultism, and as it's extremely well-made and well-acted -- well, I think The Mothman Prophecies is just swell. Pellington's games with visual and audio distortion give the film the unnerving quality of cosmic horror. The script's intentional vagueness about just what the hell is going on also helps.

Basically, back in the 1960's, a bridge collapsed in a small town in West Virginia, killing 46 people. There had been a Mothman craze in the town, fueled by a character on the Batman TV show and by our old friend, the barn owl, which has been linked to erroneous reports of aliens and monsters ever since people invented artificial lighting and started walking and driving around at night.

Nearly 10 years after the bridge collapse came the publication of John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies, a surprisingly boring mix of facts, speculation, and loopy metaphysics. More than 25 years after that came this movie, which pretty much invents all its characters and moves the bridge collapse 30 years forward in time while oddly reducing the death toll by 10.

But while the 'true facts' of the case are a lot of Hoo-Ha, Pellington's movie is smart and ambiguous and clever on both the narrative and visual fronts. Richard Gere's perennial insularity as an actor serves the movie well, as his character is an obsessive emotional cipher following the death of his wife. The rest of the cast is also fine, with Laura Linney and Will Patton keeping things low-key. Even Alan Bates underplays the role of John Leek, a stand-in for writer John Keel. With Gere as John Klein, that's two author stand-ins for the price of one! Recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Spider Baby

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (a.k.a The Liver Eaters; a.k.a. Cannibal Feast): written and directed by Jack Hill; starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Bruno), Carol Ohmart (Emily), Quinn Redeker (Peter), Beverly Washburn (Elizabeth), Jill Banner (Virginia), Sid Haig (Ralph), Mary MItchell (Ann), and Karl Schanzer (Schlocker) (1967): The Merrye family has a problem: as they age, they gradually turn into cannibals. Then they turn into bipedal spiders. Then they turn into spiders. Yikes.

Made for the grand total of $65,000 in 1964 and unreleased until 1967, Spider Baby is a weirdly awesome piece of schlock cinema. It plays for the most part like a bleak horror comedy. The producers, perhaps not entirely sure of what to do with their movie, placed a jokey credit sequence at the beginning, complete with star Lon Chaney Jr. singing a title song in the vein of "Monster Mash."

Oh, Lon Chaney Jr.. He's a tribute to the working actor here, gamely playing the Merrye family's caretaker/butler/chauffeur with a sort of wounded, lunatic comic sympathy. He got all of $2500 for the role and earned every bit of it.

The actors playing 'normal' people are all pretty terrible, though that may be a matter of direction. The Addams Family-style farce they seem to be acting in doesn't seem to synchronize at all with the bleaker, blacker comedy of the merry mutating Merryes. Besides faithful Bruno, there are Virginia and Elizabeth, homicidal sisters, and Ralph, simple-minded devourer of cats. 

The production's cheapness and crudity serve it in good stead, though. There's a perverted sense of authenticity to the movie, along with moments of horror and revulsion. There's no graphic violence to speak of, but what's implied is generally more than enough. 

Whether or not later film-makers were actually influenced by the movie may be irrelevant -- though I"d certainly believe that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre shares more than a few DNA strands with Spider Baby. It's an authentic, primitive American horror original. Casual racism and what may or may not be a rape scene will almost certainly offend some people. Nonetheless, Spider Baby is a weird little masterpiece when taken on its own terms. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Mr. Andy Kaufman's Gone Wrestling

Man on the Moon: written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; directed by Milos Forman; starring Jim Carrey (Andy Kaufman), Danny DeVito (George Shapiro), Paul Giamatti (Bob Zmuda), and Courtney Love (Lynne Margulies) (1999): Terrific biopic of enigmatic, innovative 1970's comic Andy Kaufman, whose often surreal bits helped inspire such acts as Pee Wee Herman and about a thousand others. Jim Carrey shines as Kaufman, though he generally plays the classic Kaufman performances scattered throughout the movie a bit more broadly than Kaufman did as seen in existing recordings.

The movie takes its name -- not to mention its musical lietmotifs -- from the 1992 R.E.M. song "Man on the Moon." The title refers to various conspiracy theories about the lunar landing as an oblique way to comment on conspiracy theories about Kaufman's death in 1984. Because of Kaufman's love of hoaxes and disguises, many believed that he faked his own death as yet another stunt. In an odd way, Kaufman's Hoaxy side put him in a proud American tradition dating all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe, another Hoaxy fellow whose early death seemed (and still seems) like a hoax to many.

At the very least, Carrey deserved an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Looking back at the 1999 Oscars, I find it hard to view Kevin Spacey's Best Actor-winning turn in American Beauty as anything other than ridiculous. It's not just that this is fine work from Carrey -- it's also tremendously funny work. The Academy may undervalue comedy, but in acting, comedy is the hardest thing to do.

Danny De Vito and Paul Giamatti are also great as Kaufman's agent and head writer, respectively. The movie plays a bit fast and loose with the order of events to create a more standard Hollywood narrative. However, the movie also mocks this rewriting of history in Carrey's opening monologue. So there is that. Milos Forman and the writers keep everything both brisk and information-packed. This is a surprisingly informative biopic. Certainly we get a much better grasp of Kaufman's life and work than we did of, say, Stephen Hawking's in The Theory of Everything

There's also a refreshing bit near the end that debunks New Agey mystical cures for diseases such as cancer, capping this film with a moment in which a dying Kaufman laughs at accidentally seeing behind the curtain of another performer's hoax. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Grim Scribin'

Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991/This edition 2015) by Thomas Ligotti, containing the following stories:

  • Introduction: Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991): Janus-like, the introduction peers toward pomposity and parody.
  • "The Last Feast of Harlequin" (1990): Almost certainly Ligotti's most-reprinted work, a novella that is both somewhat obliquely an homage to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Festival" and its very own thing, a striking, funny, droll, disturbing journey through a small town and its mysterious festival and the narrator who gets pulled into stranger and stranger situations as he investigates the town for anthropological reasons. Ligotti takes a number of horror tropes and makes them seem new and horrible again through the sheer force and inventiveness of his imagination and his narrative POV. One of the all-time great stories of cosmic horror, and perhaps Ligotti's most accessible major work.
  • "The Spectacles in the Drawer"  (1987): Quintessential Ligotti in its combination of reality-busting and extraordinarily idiosyncratic characters.
  • "Flowers of the Abyss" (1991): Another tale of a polluted reality and its peculiar attraction for people who should probably know better.
  • "Nethescurial" (1991): Another oft-reprinted piece of Ligotti's Major Arcana. Vaguely Lovecraftian in tone and content, but distinctly a working-through of these things from Ligotti's assured, unique perspective. Puppet alert.
  • "The Dreaming in Nortown" (1991): Reality breaks down in disturbing ways, all narrated by Ligotti's most Poe-esque protagonist.
  • "The Mystics of Muelenburg"  (1987): Oblique, bleak reality-bender.
  • "In the Shadow of Another World" (1991): Very strange and distinctive tale takes the haunted-house story and utterly scrambles it.
  • "The Cocoons" (1991): Very, very horrific piece of absurdism, or at least near-absurdism. One of Ligotti's stories that disturbs without offering anything in the way of an attempt to frame things within a rational explanation.
  • "The Night School" (1991): Worst night class ever.
  • "The Glamour" (1991): A trip to a movie becomes a nightmarish, inexplicable tour of some peculiar, horrible sights and sounds. One of Ligotti's stories that leaves one shaken without any real way to parse what has happened in the story.
  • "The Library of Byzantium" (1988): Sinister drawings, sinister priests, a sinister book, and a surprisingly traditional use of holy water.
  • "Miss Plarr" (1991): Nothing really terrible happens in this tale of a boy and his nanny, yet the story defies simple explanation while it constructs a world that alternates between claustrophobic interior spaces and fog-erased exterior spaces.
  • "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" (1990): One of Ligotti's more straightforward stories in terms of its construction of what Evil is and what position it occupies in the universe. Another horror trope (the scary scarecrow) becomes revitalized by Ligotti's imagination. 

In all: a great collection of Ligotti's late 1980's and early 1990's work with all its cosmic, absurdist, horrific, comic, infernal devices. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ghoulfriend in a Coma

The Klarkash-Ton Cycle: Clark Ashton Smith's Cthulhu Mythos Fiction: edited and with notes by Robert M. Price (Collected 2008):

Chaosium reprints the Cthulhu Mythos-related short stories of Clark Ashton Smith in three volumes, with this being the one containing stories that aren't set in the distant past when the Book of Eibon was being composed nor those Smith stories that focus on his quasi-tricksterish god Tsathoggua.

Despite the availability of Smith's work in multiple editions, this text is valuable because it reprints several variant versions of Smith's stories that aren't available that easily, along with a long story fragment -- "The Infernal Star" -- that is otherwise out of print.

'Klarkash-Ton' was the nickname H.P. Lovecraft gave Smith in their correspondence in the 1930's. The stories range from straightforward horror to science fiction to science-fiction horror, while Smith's prose style ranges from the relatively plain to the poetically baroque, almost arcane diction that one really either loves or hates. I love it, in part because there's clearly a sense of humour at work behind the occasionally loopy word choices.

One caveat: the stories have been proofread and copy-edited with mind-boggling ineptitude. You may want to grab a pen and correct all the errors for the next person who reads the collection. Think of it as a fun game!

  • "The Ghoul" (1934): Smith's ghoul isn't as idiosyncratic as Lovecraft's ghouls, though it sure loves to eat dead people. 
  • "A Rendering from the Arabic" (Variant of "The Return of the Sorcerer" [1931]): Slightly different version of the oft-reprinted "The Return of the Sorcerer." Lovecraftian references abound in a story about the walking, shuffling dead.
  • "The Hunters from Beyond" (1932): One of those Smith stories that plays with his own multi-talented career as a painter and sculptor as well as a writer of prose and poetry. It does seem a bit derivative of both HPL's "Pickman's Model" and Frank Belknap Long's "The Hounds of Tindalos."
  • "The Vaults of Abomi" (Variant of "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" [1932/1989]): A few hundred words flesh out the beginning of one of Smith's two or three finest works of science-fictional horror, set on his version of Mars and possessed of imagery and situations that anticipate such later horrors as Alien, The Thing, and The Puppet Masters.
  • "The Nameless Offspring" (1932): Well, we get the offstage rape of a woman in a coma by a ghoul, followed by the resultant offspring. One of Smith's most obliquely disturbing works.
  • "Ubbo-Sathla (1933)": Much-reprinted reincarnational horror story.
  • "The Werewolf of Averoigne"  (Variant of "The Beast of Averoigne") [1931/1984]): The variant is superior to the standard version, preserving as it does Smith's original multi-viewpoint epistolary format.
  • "The Eidolon of the Blind" (Variant of "The Dweller in the Gulf" [1933]): Another creepy science-fiction horror story set on Smith's version of Mars, which makes most other early 20th-century writers' versions of Mars seem like a goddam Disneyworld.
  • "Vulthoom" (1935): Another Mars story, much lighter on horror and, as Price comments in the notes, not that different from many other contemporary interplanetary stories involving humans and decadent, Orientalist civilizations.
  • "The Treader of the Dust" (1935): Excellent, concise horror story with a strikingly creepy evil god or demigod or whatever you want to call it.
  • "The Infernal Star" (Fragment) (1935/1989): Fascinating, long fragment of what was to be a novella-length dark fantasy involving reincarnation, atomic 'memory,' and a Sun made, basically, of Evil.

In all: highly recommended, though I do wish for an edition with better copy editing.