Monday, June 29, 2015

Dark Gods Looming

Dark Gods (1985) by T.E.D. Klein, containing the following stories: Children of the Kingdom (1980); Petey (1979); Black Man with a Horn (1980); and Nadelman's God (1985): Despite his relatively small output, especially over the 30 years since this collection appeared, T.E.D. Klein remains one of our greatest living horror writers thanks to the novellas collected in Dark Gods, the early 1970's novella "The Events at Poroth Farm," and the epic 1984 horror novel The Ceremonies. One lives in hope that the second novel announced as being in progress in the mid-1980's will some day appear.

The novellas collected here are meticulous and cosmic, witty and horrifying, closely observed and broad in their ramifications. "Petey" is perhaps the most traditional horror work, a story about something wicked this way coming to a secluded house in the countryside. But it melds that horror with a conversational view of the upper middle class that owes more to writers that include John Updike and John Cheever than to H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe. The monster is coming -- to a house-warming party. 

Meanwhile, the house's previous owner gets more and more agitated in his new home at a psychiatric institution as the night goes on. It's a brilliant piece of work that rewards multiple readings (well, all four novellas reward multiple readings). There's something very droll yet grounded in the way that the horror gradually manifests itself, in the back-and-forth of the sometimes envious, often drunken conversations the guests have.

"Black Man with a Horn" is a triumphant piece of meta-Cthulhuiana, narrated by an elderly and somewhat self-pitying horror writer who still chafes at his description in genre circles as a "disciple of H.P. Lovecraft." It's 1980 and H.P. Lovecraft has been dead for 43 years. And then our narrator, mournful and sardonic, stumbles into what he ultimately realizes is a real-world equivalent of an H.P. Lovecraft story. The irony of being trapped in someone else's story doesn't escape him -- indeed, the horror of the situation lies partially in the fact that his literary fate of being subsumed into Lovecraftiana has now been replicated by his actual life's story being similarly removed from his own hands. 

"Children of the Kingdom" densely and deftly explores racism and urban decay in the rundown New York of the late 1970's. As with "Black Man with a Horn," this novella riffs on Lovecraft, though in a much more subtle fashion: blink and you'll miss the revelation of just what Lovecraftian race the strange, seldom-glimpsed underground invaders of Manhattan are based on. 

Klein's attention to an accumulation of telling, quasi-journalistic information as a means to create horror also owes a debt to Lovecraft (though HPL certainly didn't originate this sort of story-telling in horror circles). Klein, though, is a much better writer of normative characters than Lovecraft was (or intended to be). Here, as in all the novellas, cosmic horror infects the closely observed and described world of the ordinary.

Finally, there's "Nadelman's God." Klein makes brilliant use of the late 1970's and early 1980's media frenzy that hyped fears of Satanic rock bands and backwards-masked Satanic chants hidden on KISS albums. A comfortably numb New York advertising executive (pretty much all Klein's characters live in or near New York) finds himself pulled into the increasingly dire fantasies of a middle-aged heavy-metal fan who believes he can invoke the avatar of the true, malign God that rules the world. 

And that invocation lies within a poem written and published by the executive when he was in college, a poem a former friend of the executive handed over to the rock band (Jizzmo!) he manages when they needed a song to finish their recent album (royalties, of course, were paid, though the executive didn't know of the adaptation until after its release). So that avatar the fan constructs out of garbage and broken glass, that's just a pile of garbage. Right? 

But the executive, who has aged cynically out of all the things he once believed -- whether Judaism or marital fidelity or writing poetry -- is about to be forcibly reconnected with his past. It's like a tour down Memory Lane if Memory Lane led to Hell and involved a horrifying, ancient, cosmic evil that occasionally got its kicks from calling you on the telephone late at night.

Well, they're all brilliant novellas, aren't they? And it would be nice to have Dark Gods back in print after nearly 30 years, perhaps with "The Events at Poroth Farm" added to the roster. New novellas and novels would also be nice, but even if they never arrive, Klein has already established himself, permanently, in the first ranks of writers of horror. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Strange Heroes

Spy: written and directed by Paul Feig; starring Melissa McCarthy (Susan Cooper), Jessica Chaffin (Sharon), Jude Law (Bradley Fine), Miranda Hart (Nancy), Jason Statham (Rick Ford), Bobby Cannavale (Sergio De Luca), Rose Byrne (Rayna Boyanov), Alison Janney (Elaine Crocker), and 50 Cent (Himself) (2015): Hilarious spy spoof takes full advantage of Melissa McCarthy's out-sized comic talents by making her hyper-competent, if occasionally a bit over-matched. The supporting cast is pretty much uniformly well-served as well, whether it's Jason Statham spoofing Jason Statham or 50 Cent supplying a winning cameo. Paul Feig, who did similar writing/directing duties on previous McCarthy movies The Heat and Bridesmaids, has become a gifted comic voice with a particularly appealing manner with women. Highly recommended.


Defending Your Life: written and directed by Albert Brooks; starring Albert Brooks (Daniel Miller), Rip Torn (Bob Diamond), Meryl Streep (Julia), and Lee Grant (Lena Foster) (1991): Albert Brooks writes, headlines, and directs this delightful bit of afterlife satire. I think it's one of the great all-time satiric-romantic film fantasies. The efficient, vaguely sinister bureaucracy of the Afterlife is really a star itself. Brooks is great riffing on that neurotic Albert Brooks archetype. Meryl Streep is unprecedentedly funny and charming. Rip Torn and Lee Grant supply sharp supporting work as dueling attorneys at Brooks' post-death 'trial' that decides whether or not he moves on or gets sent back to be reincarnated again. Highly recommended.



Big Hero 6: adapted by Jordan Roberts, Robert L. Baird, David Gerson, Joseph Mateo, and Paul Briggs from the comic book written by Steven T. Seagle and illustrated by Duncan Rouleau; directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams; starring the voices of Scott Adsit (Baymax), Ryan Potter (Hiro), T.J. Miller (Fred), James Cromwell (Callaghan), and Maya Rudolph (Cass) (2014): Charming Disney adaptation of a little-known comic book is better (and more moral) than most of Disney-Marvel's live-action superhero movies. The writing is sharp enough for adults but soft on hands for children. 'Personal health-care' robot Baymax, voiced by 30 Rock's Scott Adsit, steals every scene. Wait until the end of the credits. This is a Marvel movie, after all, even though it pretends otherwise... except in that post-credits scene. Recommended.


The Boxtrolls: adapted by Irena Brignull, Adam Pava, Anthony Stacchi, Phil Dale, and Vera Brosgol from the novel Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow; directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi; starring the voices of Ben Kingsley (Archibald Snatcher), Jared Harris (Lord Portley-Rind), Nick Frost (Mr. Trout), Richard Ayoade (Mr. Pickles), Isaac Hampstead Wright (Eggs), Simon Pegg (Herbert Trubshaw), Dee Bradley Baker (Fish/ Wheels / Bucket), and Elle Fanning (Winnie Portley-Rind) (2014): Very, very English stop-motion animation film from the studio that brought you the weird and excellent Corpse Bride and Coraline. The first 20 minutes are a bit off-putting, but give the film a chance and the design, writing, and voice work ultimately make it well worth watching. A post-modern bit in the end credits is just icing on the cake. Or wheel of cheese. Indeed, The Boxtrolls is almost as obsessed with cheese as Wallace and Gromit. Recommended.








Night Movies

The Killers: adapted by Anthony Veiller, John Huston, and Richard Brooks from the short story by Ernest Hemingway; directed by Robert Siodmak; starring Burt Lancaster (Swede), Ava Gardner (Kitty Collins), and Edmond O'Brien (Jim Reardon) (1946): Burt Lancaster managed to get first billing in his first movie, but it's Edmond O'Brien's investigation of the death of Lancaster's character that drives the plot. And that plot owes more to Citizen Kane than to the Hemingway story that inspired the movie. Capable direction and a sharp script make this a fine early example of film noir. Recommended.



Bullitt: adapted by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner from the nove Mute Witness by Robert L. Fish; directed by Peter Yates; starring Steve McQueen (Frank Bullitt), Jacqueline Bissett (Cathy), and Robert Vaughn (Walter Chalmers) (1968): On the plus side, Bullitt has its iconic, 10+ minute car chase and a stoic, macho yet sensitive leading turn by Steve McQueen. On the negative side, the plot is a bit thin, Jacqueline Bissett is wasted in the thankless role of McQueen's girlfriend, and certain aspects of the police work in the movie stagger the imagination. Only three officers total assigned to witness protection? And how the Hell does McQueen get to stay on the case after the literally explosive (and improbably dead-innocent-bystander-free) result of that iconic chase? Oh, well. For those who enjoy film continuity errors, count the number of times Bullitt passes the same slow-moving green car during the car chase. For those who enjoy standard transmission, listen to all the shifting! Recommended.


Night Moves: written by Alan Sharp; directed by Arthur Penn; starring Gene Hackman (Harry Moseby), Jennifer Warren (Paula), Susan Clark (Ellen Moseby), James Woods (Quentin), Kenneth Mars (Nick), and Melanie Griffith (Delly) (1975): Grungy, sun-bleached, almost quintessentially 1970's film noir. Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) directs in a fast-paced manner that requires quick wits to keep up with at times as he leaps from scene to scene. Gene Hackman is suitably grumpy and world-weary as our private detective whose unusual (for the genre) back-story is that he was an NFL player. Early turns from James Woods and Melanie Griffith and a remarkable amount of casual nudity are some of the highlights. Recommended.



Stranger on the Third Floor: written by Frank Paros and Nathanael West; directed by Boris Ingster; starring John McGuire (Mike), Margaret Tallichet (Jane), and Peter Lorre (The Stranger) (1940): RKO B-movie burned off the last two days of Peter Lorre's contract with the studio -- top-billed, he only has one speaking scene. Instead, the protagonists are reporter John McGuire and plucky girlfriend Margaret Tallichet. There's murder afoot in New York! An extremely expressionistic nightmare sequence made me wonder if director Boris Ingster was yet another German director who had fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood. He wasn't, but the sequence sure suggests such a conclusion. Lightly recommended. Also, only about an hour long.


The Loneliness of the Long-Buried Runner

Finders Keepers by Stephen King (2015): The year is 2014 and the mismatched detectives of last year's Mr. Mercedes are back in a new mystery set three years after the conclusion of that novel -- and, as a sub-plot, there's also an odd continuation of the events of the previous novel that seems to be setting up the events of the third novel.  

Our protagonist, retired police detective Bill Hodges, continues to run his private detective agency with the help of hyper-intelligent, socially challenged Holly Gibney, with an occasional assist from now-college-student Jerome Robinson. But the scene of carnage that began Mr. Mercedes has helped deliver another case. I'll let you find out how. Suffice it to say that injury and the economic collapse of 2008 will soon put a young man on a collision course with an unusual treasure buried near his house since the late 1970's. And one collision will set off many others.

This is really an odd novel, at least for King. We spend a lot of time with that kid -- Pete Saubers -- and his economically wounded family. And we spend a lot of time learning about that treasure and the terrible man who buried it. But the money in that treasure -- about $30,000 in cash -- is the smallest portion of the booty. 

See, back in the late 1970's, a lousy guy in his early 20's was obsessed with a novelist named John Rothstein, who in King's world combines the attributes of John Updike, J.D. Salinger, and Philip Roth. In the 1950's and 1960's, Rothstein wrote a trilogy of novels subsequently dubbed The Runner Trilogy. Those novels featured a protagonist who seems to combine the personality traits of Updike's Rabbit Angstrom and Salinger's Holden Caulfield. 

One day in the 1960's, Rothstein stopped publishing and essentially became a hermit overnight on a farm outside a small New England town. Years later, a young reader (and aspiring writer) named Morris Bellamy went looking for Rothstein. He told his two accomplices that they were looking for money. But Bellamy was really looking for Rothstein's unpublished work. And he found it. And, while fleeing from the police, buried it. Arrested and jailed for more than 30 years for a crime unconnected to the Rothstein home invasion, Bellamy finally gets out and goes looking for that unpublished work. But it isn't there -- Pete Saubers dug it up.

Morris Bellamy is one of King's more interesting antagonists, a self-pitying fan who believes he has more right to his favourite author's work than that author. The characterizations of the other characters are all solid, especially of the slowly blossoming Holly Gibney and the intelligent, thoughtful Pete Saubers, whose love of reading is ignited by the contents of that box of treasure. There's not a huge amount of detection in this second Bill Hodges volume, but the material on Rothstein, and on the used book trade (seriously), is highly enjoyable. Recommended, though keep in mind this is a mystery-thriller (mostly) and not a horror novel.

Warring on Worlds

The War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches: edited by Kevin J. Anderson (1996), comprising the following stories: 

The Roosevelt Dispatches by Mike Resnick; Canals in the Sand by Kevin J. Anderson; Foreign Devils by Walter Jon Williams; Blue Period by Daniel Marcus; The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James by Robert Silverberg; The True Tale of the Final Battle of Umslopogaas the Zulu by Janet Berliner; Night of the Cooters by Howard Waldrop; Determinism and the Martian War, with Relativistic Corrections by Doug Beason; Soldier of the Queen  by Barbara Hambly; Mars: The Home Front by George Alec Effinger; A Letter from St. Louis by Allen Steele; Resurrection by Mark W. Tiedemann; Paris Conquers All by Gregory Benford and David Brin; To Mars and Providence by Don Webb; Roughing It During the Martian Invasion by Daniel Keys Moran and Jodi Moran; To See the World End by M. Shayne Bell; After a Lean Winter by Dave Wolverton; The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson's Poems: A Wellsian Perspective by Connie Willis.

About as enjoyable an homage-anthology as I can remember. The War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches gives us the adventures of a wide variety of historical figures during the great Martian invasion chronicled in the novel by H.G. Wells. We visit the invasion on many fronts and on many continents and in many countries, with a side-trip to Mars itself so that Edgar Rice Burroughs can report on what John Carter did to halt the invasion from the Martian end.

The shifts in tone and subject matter from story to story can be a bit jarring, as the stories run the gamut from meditative tragedy to a loopy satire of academia from Connie Willis. But that range is part of the volume's charm: you really don't know what's coming next. Maybe it's Tolstoy and Stalin teaming up to create a refugee camp in late-Tsar-era Russia. Maybe it's a bunch of rootin', tootin', shootin' Texas folk taking on the Martians. Maybe it's an H.P. Lovecraft pastiche pitting Boy Lovecraft against the Martian invaders of Providence like some moody, glum, but plucky Hardy Boy.

The writers tend to gravitate towards writers as protagonists, including Mark Twain, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and H.G. Wells himself. Highly recommended, and I'd really like to see a full-length novel version of John Carter vs. The Martians by George Alec Effinger. 


The Mysterious West by Brad Williams and Choral Pepper (1967): Fun and surprisingly fact-based assortment of weird stories of the American (and, in a cameo, Canadian) West. The essays examine everything from Romans and Phoenicians in places where one wouldn't expect to find them to the odd adventures of various outlaws, miners, ghosts, and lost expeditions. A good time-filler, especially if one follows up on some of the stories to check their truthiness. Recommended

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Epic is the Name

Dreadstar Omnibus Volume 1: written by Jim Starlin; illustrated by Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, and Josef Rubinstein (1983-84/This collection 2014): The Golden Age of long-form science fiction/fantasy came for American comic books in the 1980's with such great series as Grimjack, Nexus, Time Spirits, Aztec Ace, American Flagg, and Dreadstar. Writer-artist Jim Starlin's Dreadstar first appeared in serialized form in Marvel's Epic magazine before getting its own book from Epic Comics once that first storyline had been completed. So while this is the first omnibus reprint, there is a real first volume also available that one should start with unless one is familiar with the story.

There are certain boilerplate elements in Dreadstar's story -- evil galactic empires, heroes with energy swords, masked villains. Starlin manages to transcend them as he goes along. The fight scenes are often quite nicely choreographed. The supporting characters are sympathetic and interesting. Dreadstar himself remains a mournful piece of beefcake throughout the series, but the aforementioned supporting characters keep us from dwelling too much on his limitations. Starlin did much the same thing at Marvel in the 1970's with Warlock, whose supporting characters supplied the characterization while the protagonist supplied the cosmic angst. 

One of the better issues included here gives the background to the villain of the piece, the Lord High Papal, leader of the genocidal, church-based empire named the Instrumentality (a nod to the science fiction of Cordwainer Smith). Starlin also shows more of a sense of humour in this series than he generally did, and a lighter hand when it comes to speechifying. His choices in names are still halfway-hilarious sometimes: an evil race named the Zygoteans still cracks me up. 

The 12 issues collected here really are enjoyable, certainly moreso than the vast majority of superhero comics from the same era. Beware, though -- the story doesn't really end with the last issue, and the next omnibus isn't due until next year. Though you could always go looking for back issues. Recommended.


The Avengers: The Kang Dynasty: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Alan Davis, Kieron Dwyer, Ivan Reis, Brent Anderson, and others (2001-2002/Collected 2002): Writer Kurt Busiek ended his late 1990's/early oughts run on Marvel's The Avengers with a gigantic bang -- nearly a year-and-a-half arc pitting the Avengers against their time-traveling foe Kang the Conqueror. It's mostly a blast, though a muted one towards the end as the events of 9/11 overtook the events depicted in the story, leading to a final-issue requiem for those fallen to Kang's invasion that reflects the sorrowful poster-boards of post 9/11 Manhattan, with photos of the lost and missing.

Otherwise, Busiek and his rotating band of artists keep an astounding number of characters and situations in the air. The Avengers comic book has always had a luxury the Avengers movies never will have -- the space to develop a long list of characters, rather than a core group of six or seven. You may not like the minor heroes of this Avengers line-up, but Busiek does a fine job of making them important within the epic scope of the story. Whether it's the big-time Thor or the little-known Triathlon, everyone has a part to play in saving the Earth. It's too bad that the saga couldn't have gotten one or at most two artists for its entire length. Nonetheless, Alan Davis, Kieron Dwyer, Ivan Reis, and Brent Anderson do stand-out work on their portions of the saga. Recommended.


Justice League United: The Infinitus Saga: written by Jeff Lemire; illustrated by Neil Edwards, Jay Leisten, and Keith Champagne (2014-2015): Mostly fun six-issue Justice League United arc that brings the 'real' Legion of Super-heroes (LSH) from the 31st century back into action in the DC Universe. Each issue, the head-shots of featured characters surrounding the title page become more and more numerous in what must have been a conscious bit of fun. And it works, among other things.

That Lemire and company make the new DCU's reboot of classically kitschy Silver Age hero Ultra the Multi-Alien into something compelling is amazing enough. That they manage to link him to a re-imagined Infinite Man (an LSH foe originally from the 1970's) is really quite clever. There's maybe about 20% too much fighting, but it's fun to see such oddball-yet-effective LSH members such as Bouncing Boy back again, bouncing for justice. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Red Skies at Night

Convergence: written by Jeff King, Scott Lobdell, and Dan Jurgens; illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver, Jason Paz, Carlo Pagulayan, Stephen Segovia, Eduardo Pansica, Aaron Lopresti, Ed Benes, Andy Kubert, and many others (2015): As a standalone miniseries, the weekly, 9-issue Convergence is something of a disaster. It did tie into a seemingly endless group of two-issue miniseries focused on various DC heroes from a wide range of 'abandoned' universes, and some of these two-parters were very good (especially Shazam!). The 9000-page Convergence Omnibus edition should be half-killer, half-filler.

However, Convergence is important for company-wide reasons at DC as it establishes a new/old status quo in its final issue. Unfortunately, while we see the build-up to the important, universe-shattering battle in that final issue, and while we see the aftermath, we do not actually see the battle itself. Either that or my copy of Issue 8 (the series begins with Issue Zero, btw) is missing several dozen pages.

In a way, this makes Convergence the perfect capstone to 30 years of universe-shattering, forest-consuming, million-issue crossover events at DC and Marvel. It's a story so big they couldn't fit the story in. Wait for next year's Convergence: Crisis War Blues Explosion mini-maxi-series, I guess.

And while there are moments of interest interspersed throughout the miniseries (most of them in issue zero, illustrated with snap and verve by Ethan Van Sciver) , a lot of space involves fighting, more fighting, and pointlessly and brutally killing off characters from a Warlord comic-book series that most readers probably weren't born to read when last it breathed life on the comic-book racks. I mean seriously: we spend what seems like half the miniseries in the world of Warlord. And we're mainly there to kill off all the characters in terrible, futile situations. Did Warlord creator and writer-artist Mike Grell poop in somebody's punch bowl over at DC recently?

So while the outcome of Convergence is mostly fine by me, the execution of this miniseries is surprisingly dreadful for long stretches. Pick up the beautifully illustrated Issue Zero and Issue 8 and forget the rest of the minieries. Oh, and track down Convergence: Shazam 1-2.  Not recommended in its entirety.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Extinction is Extinction

The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch (1965): It's 1980. Earth has been under siege for nearly eight years by giant, fast-growing plants. The cities have fallen. The environment is collapsing as the plants destroy all other plant species and the animals that rely upon them as a result. Basically, humanity has become a rat hiding in fields of 600-foot-tall corn. And now whoever or whatever sent the plants has sent out the exterminators.

To say that Thomas Disch's first novel is an astonishingly bleak end-of-the-world novel is an understatement. We begin in terrible shape. Things don't get better. The plot focuses on a small Minnesota farming community on the shores of Lake Superior. Well, not so much shores. The plants have been relentlessly draining the Great Lakes for years.

So the town of Tassel, much of its original location overrun, has moved to the newly draining bottom of Lake Superior. There, Anderson, the Christian fundamentalist patriarch of the town, attempts to push back the plants and feed his town by growing corn. Just keeping the corn going requires a maximum effort by the village. Anderson believes they are being tested by God. But if they are, then God has gone silent. Or his answer is simply 'No.'

Disch invests this short, terse novel with effectively chosen moments of Biblical imagery and language and the occasional quote. But The Genocides is about the failure of all of humanity's institutions in the face of a sublime and indifferent menace, not a world in which a Christian God actually exists. Or any other gods. 

The occasional scene of terror gives way to scenes of fumbling, racing panic. Our protagonists can only flee or die. Or flee and die. It's a rich, full life. Their numbers dwindle. Winter comes. Internal tensions begin to destroy Tassel almost as effectively as the invasion. Will whatever is behind all this ever show its face? Good question. 

Even at this young age, Disch was a skilled stylist and an occasionally sardonic chronicler of human frailties. Some of Anderson's choices as a leader are understandable yet almost unspeakably grotesque, none moreso than a sort of Uber-Calvinist imitation of communion. We may become invested in whether or not some of the other characters survive, but it's an investment kept at a remove: it's doom alone that ultimately counts.

Disch was never known as a technically inclined science fiction writer, but the science of The Genocides still seems ruthlessly pragmatic and sound. The plants, devoid of personality and agency, nonetheless become an extraordinarily effective foil for humanity's own inhumanity, and for humanity's world-reshaping mistakes. The Earth is at the mercy of the ultimate invasive species. The crops must grow. The weeds and the vermin must go. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Evolution and Extinction

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953/This revised edition 1990): Arthur C. Clarke's most famous novel still seems impressive more than 60 years after its initial publication. It's a novel about guided evolution, and evolution as a 'progressive' system, that yields a conclusion that's simultaneously depressing as all Hell and lyrically triumphant.

It's an early image in the novel that stays with people, and has been intentionally or unintentionally copied in such TV and movie works as the original V miniseries, Independence Day, and Skyline. Absolutely enormous alien spacecraft show up one day over the major cities of the Earth. And then the aliens start to talk to us, though they refuse to show themselves to anyone.

The aliens are soon known as the Overlords. With their guidance and technological expertise, Earth soon enters a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, though there are a few growing pains. The first section of the book explores these early stages through the person of the United Nations President who becomes the only liaison with the Overlords allowed to enter their ships. But even he doesn't know what an Overlord looks like. When he finds out, he keeps the secret. But even that secret will turn out not to be what it seems.

Once the Overlords finally start mingling with humanity, 50 years after their arrival, they continue to help run the Earth. And while they're at it, they keep humanity from pursuing anything like a space program. Why? Are the stars really not meant for Man, as one character opines? And why are the Overlords so curious about tales of psychic phenomena?

Well, eventually we'll learn. Some very cold winds begin to blow as the novel approaches its end. One of the oddities of the original publication, Clarke notes in his afterword to this revised 1990 version, was that Clarke put a disclaimer at the front to note that he didn't agree with one of the book's central tenets (The stars are not meant for man). And he also notes that by 1990 he no longer really believed that evolution would feature some of the paranormal powers shown here. Clarke had been hoaxed by that great hoaxing spoon-bender Uri Geller in the interim, and subsequently learned how he had been hoaxed.

When people talk of cosmic science fiction, this novel would be one of those things they'd be talking about. It's a novel about the fate of humanity and the fate of the Earth. It's also a novel about evolution and extinction -- including the extinction of the individual consciousness. And watching over it all, those enigmatic Overlords, who have become by the end peculiarly sympathetic and perhaps even heroic in the face of their own insignificance. Highly recommended.

Ghost-busted

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum (2006): The afterlife was a big concern of the 19th century in Europe and North America, especially ways to prove its existence with newfangled scientific methods. And the occult had risen to new heights as religion began to recede, in a manner that looks an awful lot like our world. 

But former science reporter Deborah Blum's focus here is on the great American philosopher William James and a small group of American, British, and Australian scientists who took it upon themselves to investigate psychic phenomena between the 1880's and the early 20th century.

For all its flaws, this is a fascinating book. And even the flaws are fascinating because they seem to replicate the flaws of the investigations of James and others without Blum realizing it, or acknowledging it. Overall, James and his friends demonstrate what would eventually become a fact in skeptical circles: scientists are not very good at investigating the paranormal. 

If you want to test a psychic or a medium or a spoon-bender, you need people with training and expertise in prestidigitation and in the area of "cold reading" and assorted other psychological ploys used to get information out of people without those people being aware that they've given that information.

Nonetheless, these scientists did some interesting things. Their "Hallucination Census" has, if nothing else, a great name. And they did uncover a wide variety of spiritual and psychic frauds. That they seem to have been hornswoggled by a few mediums and psychics isn't surprising: confronted by the deaths of loved ones, tormented by lost loves, far too many of these investigators wanted to believe. Just like Fox Mulder. And it left all their research in question.

One of the oddities completely missed by Blum is the fact that virtually all the major psychics of the time were women, in a world that mostly barred women from professional and academic work. Hmm. How strange. And while Blum touches briefly upon a few scandals attached to the investigation of mostly female psychics by mostly male researchers, she doesn't go into detail about how many of these investigations worked. 

Keep in mind that the scenes set in some of these psychic testing rooms look like something out of a porn movie: the female psychic naked and supposedly immobilized by the hands of several men; the tendency of some female psychics  to perform in the nude; the covert sexuality of many of the mediumistic sittings (one medium painted a baby's face on one of her breasts and had mourning parents kiss this 'face' of their lost children); the full-body searches enacted again and again; and the extreme sexual assertiveness of many of the female mediums.

James didn't conduct the enquiries himself, though he was an ardent and public supporter of them. Some of the investigators did pretty solid work. Others were, in the carnival parlance, rubes. Still, this is an interesting and often moving exploration of people seeking for new answers to old questions, even if I think the author ultimately falls into many of the same traps as her subjects. 

One of the fundamental problems with the text is that Blum never explains fully to the reader how one of the favourite mediums of James and his investigators actually conducted her sessions. Was she randomly spouting out impossible-to-know information without prompting, or was there a dialogue going on? In truth, it seems that there was a dialogue going on, and that the infallible psychic was at the very least doing some form of reading of her questioners. 

Blum dismisses in a few lines what happened with this favourite medium when a new team of investigators tested her: she failed utterly, inventing intimate details about fictional family members the investigators created for the purposes of the test and failing to do much of anything when it came to the past lives of real dead people. Beyond this, there were apparently (mostly unmentioned by Blum) endless sessions with the medium that generated false information. When it comes to selection bias, why did Blum select this counter-material almost completely out of the book? Hidey ho. So it goes. Recommended.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

American Lives

The Great Gatsby: adapted by Francis Ford Coppola from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald; directed by Jack Clayton; starring Robert Redford (Jay Gatsby), Sam Waterston (Nick Carraway), Mia Farrow (Daisy Buchanan), Bruce Dern (Tom Buchanan), Lois Chiles (Jordan Baker), Scott Wilson (George Wilson), Karen Black (Myrtle Wilson), and Roberts Blossom (Mr. Gatz) (1974): Faithful, somewhat plodding adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age masterpiece. Mia Farrow makes for a somewhat weak Daisy, but Redford as Gatsby and especially Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway are pretty much pitch perfect, as is Bruce Dern as the almost Mr. Hydesque brute from old money, Tom Buchanan. Coppola parachuted in to save a hated, unfinished Truman Capote adaptation in about three weeks. It's too bad they couldn't have had him direct the film as well -- I'd imagine it would have had a lot more bounce and zest than what it got from the workmanlike Jack Clayton. Recommended.


The Last Picture Show: adapted by Peter Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry from the novel by Larry McMurtry; directed by Peter Bogdanovich; starring Timothy Bottoms (Sonny Crawford), Jeff Bridges (Duane Jackson), Cybill Shepherd (Jacy Farrow), Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion), Cloris Leachman (Ruth Popper), Ellen Burstyn (Lois Farrow), Eileen Brennan (Genevieve), Sam Bottoms (Billy), and Randy Quaid (Lester Marlow) (1971): Often found on 100 Best Movie Lists either All-Time or All-American, The Last Picture Show is a gritty, minutely observed look at life in a small Texas town in the early 1950's.

Naturalistic and episodic though carefully structured, starkly black-and-white, beautifully acted by newcomers like Cybill Shepherd and old-timers like Ben Johnson, who would win a posthumous Best Supporting Oscar for his role as Sam the Lion. Cloris Leachman would also win an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the haunted, lonely wife of the town's high school's coach and phys. ed. teacher. A young Timothy Bottoms is the protagonist, while a young Jeff Bridges plays his best friend, Duane. Well deserves its place in the upper reaches of the pantheon of American movies. Highly recommended.


Malcolm X: adapted by Spike Lee and Arnold Perl from the book by Malcolm X and Alex Haley; directed by Spike Lee; starring Denzel Washington (Malcolm Little/X), Angela Bassett (Betty Shabazz), Albert Hall (Baines), Al Freeman Jr. (Elijah Muhammad), Delroy Lindo (West Indian Archie), Spike Lee (Shorty), Lonette McKee (Louise Little), Tommy Hollis (Earl Little), James McDaniel (Brother Earl), Kate Vernon (Sophia), and Theresa Randle (Laura) (1992): Spike Lee's epic biopic towers over most movies of the 1990's, and should at the very least have earned Best Picture and Best Actor (for Denzel Washington as Malcolm X) Oscars. But Hollywood really loved Al Pacino chewing the scenery in Scent of a Woman that year. So it goes.

The movie takes surprisingly few liberties with the facts of the story, primarily in creating compound characters to streamline the narrative. As Malcolm X (nee Malcolm Little), Denzel Washington gets to travel from hustler and hood to questing intellect over the 3+ hours of the movie, and all of it convincing. The rest of the cast is superb, with stand-outs including Angela Bassett as Malcolm's wife, Betty Shabazz, and Al Freeman Jr. as the manipulative, charismatic Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam.

Lee's direction conveys gravitas, lightness of tone, and impending disaster with equal surety. One can see the energetic, bombastic director of previous films that include Do the Right Thing, but that director can now give the viewer a moving, often very formal biopic in which the didactic moments are dramatically satisfying. Lee also plays with film stock and other factors to simulate period-specific 'real' footage from the time in as deft a manner as anything Oliver Stone had managed in JFK the previous year (and Malcolm X actually uses footage from JFK for the Kennedy assassination in this film, as Stone was one of many who helped Lee get the long-delayed Malcolm X made).

Washington, Lee, and the screenwriters credited and uncredited make Malcolm X into a sympathetic figure on an almost unbelievably rich and complex journey of spiritual growth. One misses him when he's gone from the film, while the film brilliantly shifts from its depiction of events to actual footage of the real Malcolm. The two-part conclusion to the film, with Ossie Davis's 1965 funeral oration followed by contemporary footage shot for the film, is a stunner. So too the movie. Highly recommended.

Unhappy Families

This Is Where I Leave You: adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his own novel; directed by Shawn Levy; starring Jason Bateman (Judd Altman), Tina Fey (Wendy Altman), Jane Fonda (Hillary Altman), Adam Driver (Phillip Altman), Rose Byrne (Penny Moore), Corey Stoll (Paul Altman), Kathryn Hahn (Annie Altman), Connie Britton (Tracy Sullivan), and Timothy Olyphant (Horry Callen) (2014): Affable, sitcomesque family dramedy with a likable cast and some sharp writing. It's a good time-filler, and the first time I've ever actually liked Adam Driver. Lightly recommended.


The Judge: written by David Dobkin, Nick Schenk, and Bill Dubuque; directed by David Dobkin; starring Robert Downey Jr. (Hank Palmer), Robert Duvall (Joseph Palmer), Vera Farmiga (Samantha Powell), Billy Bob Thornton (Dwight Dickham), Vincent D'Onofrio (Glen Palmer), and Jeremy Strong (Dale Palmer) (2014): Robert Downey Jr. plays Robert Downey Jr., the quick-witted heel with a heart of gold, in this family drama. Robert Duvall plays his stern, distant father, a county court judge accused of a murder that occurred on the same day as the funeral for Duvall's wife of 50 years. Family secrets and old resentments surface: Downey Jr. hasn't returned to his small Indiana hometown since college. Does he have an old girlfriend? Yes! The acting is pretty much uniformly superb while the writing comes and goes. But wow, does Indiana ever go to trial quickly! No backlog there! They're already in the courtroom before anyone's looked at security footage from a relevant gas station! Lightly recommended.


Space Station 76: written by Jack Plotnick, Sam Pancake, Jennifer Elise Cox, Kali Rocha, and Michael Stoyanov; directed by Jack Plotnick; starring Patrick Wilson (Captain Glenn), Liv Tyler (Lieutenant Jessica Marlowe), Marisa Coughlan (Misty), Matt Bomer (Ted), Jerry O'Connell (Steve), Kylie Rogers (Sunshine), Kali Rocha (Donna), and Keir Dullea (Mr. Marlowe) (2014): Extraordinarily odd mix of satire and relationship drama that takes place on a space station, and in a future, meant to resemble the worlds of Space: 1999, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and perhaps a touch of first-season Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Everyone's got a problem, from a Captain struggling with his own closeted homosexuality to a little girl struggling with a mother hamster that keeps eating her own babies. This is not the laugh-out loud parody its own ads seemed to be selling, though I did laugh out loud several times (Matt Bomer's klunky 70's robot hand keeps stealing the show). The stars are all quite charming. Oh, and I also laughed out loud when the standard 1970's tri-colour hologram showed up. That's attention to historical detail! Recommended.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Epic

The Korvac Saga: written by Roger Stern, Jim Shooter, Bill Mantlo, and David Micheline; illustrated by George Perez, David Wenzel, Sal Buscema, Klaus Janson, Pablo Marcos, and many others (1977-78; collected 2011): Enjoyable, sometimes absurdly wordy 1970's Avengers epic that introduced the nigh-omnipotent and nigh-omniscient Michael Korvac to the 20th century. A man-machine hybrid from the 31st century, where he was an enemy of the original Guardians of the Galaxy (the ones without a raccoon or a talking tree in their ranks), Korvac would give the Avengers fits. 

And it may have all been in a good cause, as Korvac has reformed by the time he gets to the 20th century (and has absorbed all the knowledge in Galactus' computer banks). He just wants to make the universe a better place. Or maybe he wants to eliminate all free will. As knowledge is power in this story-line, Korvac is seemingly all-powerful. A surprisingly equivocal ending to the epic is somewhat undone by an odd epilogue added nearly 20 years later for an earlier reprint edition than this. 

As seems to have been the case with The Avengers for long stretches of their history, a regular artist is hard to come by, and the art on the book varies wildly: George Perez is great, Sal Buscema is perfectly fine, and David Wenzel seems to have been dropped into the deep end without warning. Occasionally shaggy but highly enjoyable. The inclusion of the apocalyptic early 1980's What If? story that pondered a different ending to the saga would have welcome. Recommended.




Multiversity: written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Ivan Reis, Frank Quitely, Chris Sprouse, Cam Stewart, Jim Lee, and others (2014-2015): From the metafictional mind of Grant Morrison comes the DC miniseries Multiversity, a multiverse-spanning adventure with an Ultimate Villain who may be a nigh-omnipotent Hollywood Executive charged with turning fun superhero comics into dreary but popular superhero movies. I'm not kidding.

DC's then-ostensibly-52-universe-large Multiverse (and by 'then, I mean, 'from about 2006 to just last month') comes under attack from a mysterious group of hyper-powerful monsters who call themselves the Gentry. And they want to Gentrify all the universes of the multiverse. They are not fun. Instead, they bring madness, despair, and destruction to the universes they attack.

And so called into action is Nix Uotan, last of the Multiverse-defending Monitors, and his trusty partner Stubbs the Talking Chimpanzee. Worlds will live. Worlds will die. Specifically, Morrison's thinly veiled version of Marvel's Ultimate Universe will die, to have all but one of its heroes resurrected by the Gentry to fight against the forces of Good.

Morrison creates an unusual structure for this 9-issue comic-book epic. The main storyline starts in Multiversity #1, is touched upon midway through the overall narrative in the Multiversity Handbook, and concludes with Multiversity #2. Along the way, we get six comic books set in six different universes under siege by terrible forces. These single issues tie into the overall storyline, but they also stand alone. 

In them we see a world of super-heroes conquered by super-Nazis; the world of Shazam's original Captain Marvel; a riff on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen involving the original Charlton Comics superheroes whom Watchmen was originally supposed to involve; a pulpy world protected by Doc Fate and the Society of Superheroes; a world of disaffected, millennial offspring of the original superheroes; and our world, a world protected by a superhero who is himself a comic book. Not a comic-book hero. A comic book. Ultra Comics.

Yes, comic books. They also allow for communication between multiverses. And they may carry a thought-virus that is destroying the Multiverse, thanks to the nefarious Gentry and their terrible hidden master. Or they may also carry the key to defeating the Gentry. 

And so superheroes from dozens of Earths must team up to beat back the invasion. But not everyone is what she or he or it seems. And I'd also say that the redesign of Captain Carrot is sort of awful. Now drawn as the world's tallest and most muscly super-rabbit, his cartoony charms have been subsumed by the contemporary, non-cartoony super-marketplace. Or is this too part of the commentary on the pollution of superhero comics by the modern multi-media-platform marketplace? I don't know. But it was fun getting there in yet another cosmic-comic Grant Morrison extravaganzapalooza. 

And kudos to the artists on the various chapters. The different worlds are well-matched with their artists. Chris Sprouse's pulp world of Doc Fate and Cam Stewart's Captain Marvel and friends are especially pleasing and refreshingly, suitably Old School. Ivan Reis does solid work on the frame tale, with its army of superheroes from dozens of different realities. Though I'm still not happy with that weirdly muscled, 8-foot-tall Captain Carrot. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Before The Exorcist, There Was The Case Against Satan

The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell (1962): Published nine years before William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist became a best-seller, Ray Russell's The Case Against Satan bears a marked similarity to that far better-known work. A doubting Roman Catholic priest finds himself called upon to investigate what may be the demonic possession of a teen-aged girl. Soon, he'll be forced to perform the Rite of Exorcism in concert with an older bishop whose faith is far more secure. But is the doubting priest's faith up to it?

Russell was the fiction editor for Playboy in the 1950's and 1960's. But he was also a skilled writer whose legacy lives on primarily because of his clever horror stories, most notably "Sardonicus," which spawned a William Castle movie but also remains a triumphant homage to the writing style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Russell often seemed more at home in the skin of other times, as a period piece ("Sanguinarius") about the bloody Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, was also a model of how to stay true to the style of an earlier era.

The Case Against Satan isn't an homage or a pastiche, however. It's a pretty thoroughly modern novel -- for 1962 America -- with a thoroughly modern protagonist, Father Gregory Sargent. He's plagued by doubts and drink and an abiding lack of faith in the existence of evil as a being, Satan, rather than simply a random, mindless thing. 

Russell allows for more ambivalence than Blatty did: even at the end of the novel, some doubts could conceivably remain about who or what Father Sargent has been exorcising. Real-world psychological trauma seems to have instigated the possession. Human evil is at work in the life of 16-year-old Susan Garth. Is it all simply human?

The possession and exorcism scenes are effective and often chilling. Indeed, one of the most chilling moments comes when the Bishop acknowledges that the exorcism might kill Susan -- and chooses to go on anyway because the alternative is far worse in his eyes. Anyone who's heard of the deaths of people being exorcised, even in the past ten years or so, will probably find this decision to be extremely disquieting. But this is a novel, not a pro-exorcism pamphlet or a news story: demons can exist with certainty here. Perhaps.

The characters and situations sometimes tend towards the melodramatic. This is a novel about exorcism, after all, the most potentially melodramatic Catholic rite I can think of. Father Sargent is skilfully drawn, however, as a sympathetic and flawed figure whose doubts seem to have been designed to mirror the doubts of the casual reader. Susan Garth is a little more sketchily drawn -- our sympathies for her emanate from the terrible things she's being put through far moreso than they do from any development of her character. Only an almost stereotypical housekeeper (seriously, I swear she's Mrs. McCarthy from the BBC's current Father Brown series) needs greater depth and clarity; that she's also there to provide a miraculously well-timed anecdote about exorcism in the small (Irish?) town of her birth does not help one's suspension of disbelief.

Of course, our priest and our bishop also ponder the coincidences required to set up the events of the novel, and decide that God has been putting things in place. Metafictionally, that God is of course Ray Russell. 

The Case Against Satan also brings in a brusque but ultimately sympathetic homicide detective; an inquisitive Roman Catholic layperson who's a pillar of the Church community and knows it; a squirmy widower as Susan's father; and a former priest of the parish, Father Halloran (Stephen King, take note!), with something to hide. Only an anti-Catholic pamphleteer seems like a complete misstep. He serves a plot function that could probably have taken care of itself. He also seems anachronistic to us now, which couldn't have been helped: this was an America of 1962 that had just gotten used to the idea of its first Roman Catholic president, after all, with all the debates and acrimony over the suitability of such a religionist for America's highest political post. How time flies. American Roman Catholics were yesterday's American Muslims.

In all, The Case Against Satan is a brisk and entertaining read. Some intellectually interesting questions arise as the plot progresses, most interesting a discussion about the Seal of the Confessional. Russell works for the most part in a plain style, putting the ideas and characters at the forefront. The Case Against Satan may be a better novel than The Exorcist. It certainly got there first. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

October 2015: Ligotti!

Finally back in print from Penguin this October, along with selected stories of Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell's The Case Against Satan...


Calling All Super-villains

Forever Evil: written by Geoff Johns; illustrated by David Finch and Richard Friend (2013-2014; collected 2015): I guess if you ever wanted to see Bizarro-Superman kill Otis from Superman: The Movie, then this is the Event Series for you. The Crime Syndicate of an Earth parallel to that of the Justice League figures out how to take the Justice League off the board without actually fighting them. And then they invade and conquer the Earth. But they hadn't reckoned on Lex Luthor putting together a team of super-criminals to... save the world? Yep.

David Finch's artwork is suitably gloomy for this crossover event. Writer Geoff Johns does love the ultraviolence from time to time. Moreover, the seven issues collected here seem awfully padded in the middle, a classic case of gear-grinding so as to get the maximum number of crossovers from the entire DC line (there were about 200 Forever Evil issues of other comic books in addition to the core miniseries). Competent series but not all that much fun; the Crime Syndicate was a lot more interesting when introduced in the wacky Silver Age or re-introduced by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely in a late 1990's Justice League graphic novel. Lightly recommended.


In Search of Galactus: written by Marv Wolfman; illustrated by Keith Pollard, John Byrne, Sal Buscema, Joe Sinnott, and others (1979-1980/collected 2010): From the sometimes fun, occasionally broody, and always wordy Marvel of the late 1970's (very late, given that we move into 1980 in the course of this collection) comes this collection of nearly a year's worth of Fantastic Four comics penned by Marv Wolfman.

Wolfman decided to wrap up the major plot-lines of his just-cancelled Nova series in the Fantastic Four comic, thus pairing the team with Nova and craptastic D-List superhero group New Champions for part of this adventure. The main adversary is the Sphinx, a super-powerful, immortal human with a yen to blow up the Earth. Outgunned, Reed Richards decides to find Galactus and get him to beat up the Sphinx. Why would Galactus do this? Because Reed will then waive the promise he received from Galactus to not eat the Earth. OK! This is a cunning plan.

There are also Skrulls, an aging virus that's going to kill all the members of the Fantastic Four not named the Human Torch in about three days, and a brief solo foray for the Human Torch with his buddy Spider-man at an evil college run by a forgotten FF villain from the later issues of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Fantastic Four. It's all enjoyably wordy, has some nice artwork -- especially from the John Byrne/Joe Sinnott team, who do a mean Galactus -- and goes down smoothly. 

Though why Galactus wants yet another Herald, given the 100% failure rate of the first three (beginning with the Silver Surfer, natch), is a great question. As we learn in this series that Galactus has a zoo on board his spaceship, perhaps his recurring need for a Herald is just an expression of his deep-seated but unacknowledged need for... a friend. Recommended.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Satire is a State of Mind

Being There: adapted by Jerzy Kosinski and Robert C. Jones from the 1971 novel by Kosinski; directed by Hal Ashby; starring Peter Sellers (Chance), Shirley MacLaine (Eve Rand), Melvyn Douglas (Ben Rand), Jack Warden (President 'Bobby'), Richard Dysart (Dr. Robert Allenby), and Ruth Attaway (Louise) (1979): 

The last great performance of the inestimably great Peter Sellers should have nabbed him a Best Actor Oscar. But the Academy hates comedy. Hal Ashby's film, adapted from Jerzy Kosinski's partially plagiarized 1971 novel, was a pet project of Sellers for years. Only the success of the later Pink Panther films secured him the clout to get it made. And boy, is it dandy.

Sellers plays Chance, the live-in gardener for a Washington recluse known only as the Old Man. Chance is... well, simple. Very simple. Amiable and harmless and simple. And boy, does he love TV! And having apparently never left the Old Man's house, no record of Chance's existence seems to exist. When the Old Man dies, no provisions for Chance exist in the will. So he's cast out to walk the streets of Washington, DC.  

Almost everything Chance knows about the world comes from the mediated world of television: he wants to watch TV all the time, if possible. And as he watches, he'll sometimes imitate what he sees. He imitates the gestures of people around him.  He parrots back what people say to him (along with the occasional 'I understand,' which for Chance really means 'I don't know what you're talking about, I'm just being polite'). And when pressed, he'll talk about gardening. There's almost no there there. So of course some people view him as wise and insightful.

Sellers modeled some of his performance on the screen persona of Stan Laurel. It's absolutely winning in any event, ranging from subtle bits that modulate Chance's affably blank stare depending on the situation to moments of absurd slapstick. Chance reflects back to people what they want to see in him. None of his utterances are cryptic or wise, but people -- and especially the rich people he falls in with -- take his comments on proper gardening as wise thoughts on the U.S. economy.

Being There is a surprisingly bleak satire of American politics, sweetened by Chance's utter simplicity and sweetness. He's a holy fool who has fallen in with the Illuminati. And the Illuminati just aren't all that bright. Indeed, the rulers of the world pretty much all seem to be idiots made idiotic by their own narcissistic self-involvement. Chance's former housekeeper knows what he really is; as she observes when she sees him on a talk show, just being white in America can get a person almost anything.

Being There is in many ways the mirror-image of another great satire of the 1970's, Network. But here, the sinister Cabal that really runs things is made up of people who've willed themselves into perfect blindness. What the last scene of the movie, made up on the set by director Ashby and Sellers, means to the overall movie is something for the individual viewer to decide. Me, I'm still not sure. Highly recommended.




Best in Show: written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy; directed by Christopher Guest; starring Parker Posey (Meg Swan), Michael Hitchcock (Hamilton Swan), Catherine O'Hara (Cookie Fleck), Eugene Levy (Gerry Fleck), Bob Balaban (Dr. Theodore W. Millbank, III), Christopher Guest (Harlan Pepper), Michael McKean (Stefan Vanderhoof), John Michael Higgins (Scott Donlan), Jennifer Coolidge (Sherri Ann Cabot), Jane Lynch (Christy Cummings), and Ed Begley Jr. (Hotel Manager) (2000):

Maybe the high point of movies made by Christopher Guest and his merry band of co-writers and performers, though some prefer Waiting for Guffman. I don't include This is Spinal Tap because it has Rob Reiner directing. This one, focused on several people whose dogs are competing in a dog show based on the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, is a comic gem. 

While the characters all verge on being comic grotesques, they're invested with enough warmth and sympathy to make Best in Show a rarity -- a gentle satire. The performances are superb, the direction smoothly negotiates the faux-documentary approach, and the writing absolutely sparkles with wit and goofiness. Best in Show is an all-timer. Highly recommended.

Fell Annabelle

Annabelle: written by Gary Dauberman; directed by John R. Leonetti; starring Annabelle Wallis (Mia), Ward Horton (John), Tony Amendola (Father Perez), and Alfre Woodard (Evelyn) (2014): With the budget of a TV movie (about $7 million, which is probably less than the catering budget for an Avengers movie), Annabelle was hellaprofitable both at home and abroad. And while reviled by many of the same critics who praised the first movie in this 'series' (The Conjuring), Annabelle seemed more than adequate to me. It also lacked the almost programmatic replication of The Amityville Horror that ruined The Conjuring for me.

Unlike The Conjuring, Annabelle is "completely fictional." Ha ha. That creepy doll drove its own sub-plot in The Conjuring. Here, it's the star! The film takes place in the studio's version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- a horror universe based on the career of the regrettable Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were at least pretty good at selling themselves as ghost-busters. They're referenced in this movie but aren't part of the main plot, which is instead an origin story for that creepy doll.

Ah, that creepy doll. In 'reality,' the creepy doll was a large Raggedy Ann. Such a representation would aid with my suspension of disbelief, but the copyright holders of the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls wouldn't allow the producers of The Conjuring or Annabelle to use their doll in the movies. So instead we get a doll which looks ridiculously malevolent even before it turns into a Hell-powered terror-machine. Anyone who wanted this doll would have to be insane. There is probably a better movie in that concept somewhere.

The plot revelations and narrative beats of Annabelle are familiar, though delivered with a certain level of competence. The lead actress (hilariously named Annabelle in real life) carries the weight of the often ridiculous narrative well; the other actors don't have a lot to do, though old pros Alfre Woodard and Tony Amendola do as much as they can with the material. I wish the creators of movies that use Roman Catholicism would at least take time to read Roman Catholicism for Dummies. I really do. Lightly recommended.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Creepshow!

Creepshow: written by Stephen King; directed by George Romero; starring Hal Holbrook (Henry), Adrienne Barbeau (Wilma), Fritz Weaver (Dexter), Leslie Nielsen (Vickers), E.G. Marshall (Upson Pratt), Viveca Lindfors (Bedelia), Ed Harris (Hank), Ted Danson (Wentworth), Stephen King (Jordy Verrill), and Joe Hill King (Billy) (1982): Is it an anthology movie when all the segments are written by the same person or a collection movie? Oh, well. This homage to the horror comics of the 1950's, written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, is a mixed enough bag that it almost feels like an anthology movie from several different writers.

Creepshow is enjoyable. And it was adapted by King and Bernie 'Swamp Thing' Wrightson as an even more enjoyable comic book, complete with a cover by EC great Jack Kamen, who also provides some of the comic-book panels seen in this film. But Creepshow almost succeeds in spite of itself: King and Romero's take on those horror comics, and specifically the great EC Comics of the early 1950's, is too campy and arch by about 50%.

The decision to play up the comic-book aspects of the production with odd frames and effects and shots doesn't help things either. As in Ang Lee's Hulk, the extremely comic-booky  visuals just look sorta stupid. And in the context of the illustration style of EC Comics, which tended to stick to a very strict grid pattern for the comic book panels, many of the visual choices made by Romero make no historic sense except in relation to the Batman TV series of the 1960's.

The final mistake is literally two-fold. Romero casts Stephen King as the lead actor in one segment and his son Joe Hill King as a child in the framing story. They're both terrible actors. Romero compensates for this terribleness in King's segment by making it the most archly comedic sequence in the movie and having King yuck it up like a Little Theatre actor who got all coked up for opening night. The result is cringeworthy and funny for all the wrong reasons -- it's like amateur hour at the Grand Guignol.

Other segments with actual professional actors in them fare better. "The Crate," the longest segment, is adapted by King from a short story of his that has never been collected in one of his collections (yes, there are stories by Stephen King that even Stephen King doesn't like). Nonetheless, it's an excellent piece of comic horror that's at its best when it's not being comic at all: only the decision to make Adrienne Barbeau's character, an annoying faculty wife, into a shrill, clueless Harpy almost undoes the rest of the segment. 

But Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver, old pros both, make one believe in the rest of the narrative. Tom Savini's monster design for this segment is pretty solid, though not as alien as the creature described in the story, and a little more alien might have been nice. Of course, he's limited by the visual effects technology of 1982 and the film's budget: the thing in the story couldn't have been a guy in a suit.

Really, the cast is terrific. Leslie Nielsen and Ted Danson shine in a tale of adultery and revenge from beyond the grave. And E.G. Marshall does nasty, blackly comic work as a squirmy, technocratic businessman (dig that early 1980's computer technology!)  besieged by an endless army of cockroaches in his Kubrickian white-walled apartment. A young Ed Harris is almost unrecognizable in the weak first segment, which offers as its main charm a really beautifully imagined walking corpse. Kudos again to Savini and his creature team. 

Overall, Creepshow is worth watching, or watching again. Other than the unfortunately arch comic-book visualizations, Romero's direction is effective throughout. "The Crate" creates real tension, while E.G. Marshall's segment offers a number of clever ways to send a cockroach skittering across the frame. The frame story is negligible, and the tone would better have been modulated towards the dramatic end of things. Even the Stephen King segment generates a certain amount of poignance by its end, though I'm not sure if one feels sorry for King's rural bumpkin or for King himself being exposed so thoroughly as a dreadful, dreadful actor and then being seemingly exhorted to overplay that terribleness. In all, recommended.

Monday, June 1, 2015

H.G. Wells vs. Jack the Ripper

Time After Time: adapted by Nicholas Meyer from the story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes; directed by Nicholas Meyer; starring Malcolm McDowell (H.G. Wells), Mary Steenburgen (Amy), and David Warner (Stevenson) (1979): It's 1893. After a 5-year absence, Jack the Ripper has returned. And only H.G. Wells can stop him!

In this charming, clever time-travel story, writer H.G. Wells is a scientist as well as a writer. And he's built a time machine. And Jack the Ripper steals the time machine to escape the police. Once the machine returns to Wells' basement on automatic pilot, Wells follows Jack the Ripper to the future. So it's now 1979. And we're in San Francisco.

Malcolm McDowell makes the most of one of his rare heroic roles, playing Holmes as alternately bewildered by the future and fascinated by it -- though with that fascination comes a mounting level of disgust at the violent world of 1979. Admittedly, in the real world, Victorian London was far more violent than 1970's San Francisco. But we'll leave that alone. In the real world, Wells didn't build a time machine, either.

Mary Steenburgen is charming in only her second major screen role, playing a bank employee who falls for Wells, as he does for her. David Warner completes the trio of actors who take up most of the screen time. He's Jack the Ripper, who in his 'normal' life was a physician and chess-playing friend of H.G. Wells.

Nicholas Meyer adapts and directs the movie. He's most famous for writing and directing Star Treks II and VI, and sharing screen-writing duties on Trek IV. Some of his interests, including Sherlock Holmes (he also wrote two well-regarded Holmes novels), show up in this film. As well, a paradoxical bit involving eye-glasses shows up both here and in Trek IV

Time After Time is a fun, fairly tight movie with a nice mix of comedy and suspense. Warner makes a good antagonist, especially as he towers over Wells (McDowell and Steenburgen are both 5'8", Warner 6'2"). The 'fish out of water' bits that involve Holmes are hardy comedy perennials, especially a trip to McDonald's and a climactic bit of business that forces Wells to drive a car. Thank heaven it's an automatic. Recommended.