Monday, August 31, 2015

Men Under Pressure

Last Action Hero: written by Shane Black, David Arnott, Zak Penn, and Adam Leff; directed by John McTiernan; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jack Slater/ Arnold Schwarzenegger), Austin O'Brien (Danny Madigan), F. Murray Abraham (John Practice), Art Carney (Favourite Second Cousin Frank), Charles Dance (Benedict), Tom Noonan (Ripper/ Tom Noonan), Robert Prosky (Nick the Projectionist), Anthony Quinn (Tony Vivaldi), Mercedes Ruehl (Irene Madigan), Ian McKellan (Death), and Bridgette Wilson (Whitney Slater/Meredith Caprice) (1993): 

Much-maligned action-satire when it came out, hilarious Hollywood satire now (and then). Last Action Hero's main problem was that it bit the hand that fed it. If nothing else, it seems to show that action-movie fans are too sensitive to fully support a movie that savages action movies and their fans, albeit with a certain amount of affection. 

Last Action Hero may be uneven and even ragged at times (some of that seems to come from rewrites and reshoots ordered by a nervous studio), but it's really funny when it's on. And its Mad-magazine approach to crowded humour in foreground and background rewards careful viewing and careful listening. Some of the physical gags are great slapstick or maybe techno-slapstick, as so many of them involve the destruction of cars in hilarious ways, sometimes as throwaway background gags.

The cast is thick with cameos, but much of the heavy lifting is done by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Dance as the villain, and Austin O'Brien as the kid who loves action movies. They're all great, though O'Brien takes awhile to grow on one. That some of the movie's more developed gags involve Hamlet (a parody that seems to be poking Mel Gibson's 'action-Hamlet' of a couple years earlier) and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal may be one indicator of why it bombed. The world inside the movie universe ends up being as complicated and metafictional as Toontown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and almost as fun at times. Whiskers, where the Hell were you? Recommended.

A Most Wanted Man: adapted from the John LeCarre novel by Andrew Bovell and Stephen Cornwell; directed by Anton Corbijn; starring Grigoriy Dobrygin (Issa Karpov), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Gunther Bachmann), Rachel McAdams (Annabel Richter), Willem Dafoe (Tommy Brue), and Robin Wright (Martha Sullivan) (2014): Mournful spy procedural follows a covert German anti-terrorist agency led by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his second-last screen role. 

Hoffman's small group is after a seemingly charitable Muslim leader in present-day Hamburg, Germany who may have as-yet-unproved ties to Al Qaeda. The movie looks great -- worn and lived in -- and the acting is all high-end, though Rachel McAdams struggles a bit with her on-again, off-again German accent. As this is based on a John LeCarre novel, you can expect betrayal and ruthless competition among the various intelligence organizations involved. Hoffman is superb as a man who's seen too much but nonetheless goes on because he genuinely wants to protect people. But whether or not they need to be protected from terrorists or from the anti-terrorist governmental agencies or from both -- well, there's the problem. Recommended.

The Man Who Could Work Miracles: written by H.G. Wells and Lajos Biro; directed by Lothar Mendes and Alexander Korda; starring Roland Young (Fotheringay), Ralph Richardson (Colonel Winstanley), Ernest Thesiger (Maydig), Joan Gardner (Ada), Sophie Stewart (Maggie), and George Zucco (The Butler) (1937): Whimsical, comedic fantasy turns into a socialist polemic at the end. Not that there's anything wrong with that. 

An argument about humanity's potential among three gods (or perhaps angels) leads one of them (The Giver of Power, who likes humanity) to give an English store clerk the power to do pretty much anything except control human minds. What follows is a deceptively light-hearted story of escalating stakes, as the clerk initially uses his powers for minor tricks before seeking out others for advice on what do -- and then finally deciding to make his own decisions. I suppose it's the thinking person's Bruce Almighty

H.G. Wells adapts his own short story. The performances are all fine, especially those of Roland Young as newly super-powered Fotheringay and Ralph Richardson in heavy make-up as a blustery, upper-class twit of a Colonel. Fotheringay's epiphanic speech toward the end anticipates the concluding speech of Chaplin in The Great Dictator, among others. The visual effects are extremely well done for the time, especially a great bit involving the miraculous destruction of a mansion and subsequent erection of a much larger palace. Recommended.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Adam Raised A Cain

Frailty: written by Brent Hanley; directed by Bill Paxton; starring Bill Paxton (Dad), Matthew McConaughey (Meiks), Powers Boothe (Agent Doyle), Matt O'Leary (Young Fenton), Jeremy Sumpter (Young Adam), and Derk Cheetwood (Agent Hull) (2001): Bill Paxton's feature-length directorial debut should have resulted in more directorial opportunities. Set in a small town in Paxton's home state of Texas, Frailty is easily one of the ten best horror films of the last twenty years. It also features Matthew McConaughey in his finest acting performance prior to the recent McConnaissance. 

But even with praise before its release from Stephen King, James Cameron, and Sam Raimi, Frailty never got the audience it deserved (and still merits). This is a genuinely great work of very specifically American horror, with that American-ness expressed in everything from the details of small-town Texas life to the peculiarly literal-mindedness of American fundamentalist Christianity.

McConaughey narrates events to FBI agent Powers Boothe in the (then) present day in order to explain the identity and origin of a serial killer dubbed "God's Hand" who has murdered six people over the past few years. The bulk of the movie occurs in 1979, as McConaughey explains the role he, his brother, and his father play in the history of God's Hand.

McConaughey's widower father, a small-town auto mechanic, rushes into the boys' shared room one night to tell them that one of God's angels has appeared to him in a vision. The Apocalypse is close at hand, and Paxton and his sons have been drafted into the war. Paxton is to find three magical items and, having found them, await another vision that will tell him what to do next.

What comes next is a list of demons Paxton has to destroy (not kill but 'destroy'). But the demons live among humanity and look like people. However, as Paxton has been given their names and the ability to not only see them for what they are but to also see the atrocities they've committed, he can track them down and destroy them. And Paxton's character is convinced that his sons will also gain the ability to see the demons, as God's plan also involves the boys carrying on this new family business.

So clearly Paxton's character is a loon. And the revelation of the magical items -- a pair of work-gloves, an ax, and a length of pipe -- doesn't make him seem any more believable. One son believes him from the beginning; however, McConaughey tells us in the narration, he himself never believed his father, and would eventually either have to find the courage to stop his father's string of murders or at least run away.

Paxton's direction isn't showy, as befits the tone of the material: this is a tale of the normative surface of things under which, in men's minds, swim terrible creatures in dangerous depths. The actual killings are never shown in all their bloody detail; Paxton leaves it to the mind of the viewer to imagine what's happening just outside the frame. There's a verisimilitude to Paxton's depiction of the day-to-day lives of this strange family, a lived-in, working-class aesthetic to the way things look.

Everything would fail, however, without the performances of Matt O'Leary and Jeremy Sumpter as the two boys in 1979. Paxton gets terrific, believable performances from both of them. They anchor the movie. They also present the two sides of the mental conflict going on: one is convincing as a True Believer who loves his father, while the other is equally convincing as a horrified child who also loves his father, and thus finds it difficult to act against him at first. 

In the frame narration, McConaughey delivers a subdued, haunted performance, without a glimmer of that RomCom smarm that derailed his career for more than a decade. And as the initially skeptical FBI agent, Powers Boothe also shines. McConaughey's detailed story gradually convinces Boothe's character about the reality of the identity of the God's Hand killer, leading to a strangely convincing conclusion that's been carefully and fairly set up by everything that's been shown and told to us.

In all, this is a great movie of horror and madness and the bonds of family. While much of the film plays out with growing, horrific inevitability, Frailty also presents some startling surprises, including a scene of awful pathos involving the family and the arrival of the town sheriff at the one boy's request. Brent Hanley's script is terrific, and there's an attention to period detail that makes 1979 seem like 1979. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Lace: The Final Brassiere

The Theory of Everything: adapted by Anthony McCarten from the non-fiction memoir by Jane Hawking; directed by James Marsh; starring Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), Maxine Peake (Elaine Mason), and Charlie Cox (Jonathan Hellyer Jones) (2014): Eddie Redmayne's Oscar-winning performance as ALS-afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking really is remarkable, on par with Daniel Day-Lewis's break-out Oscar-winning portrayal of Christy Brown in 1989's My Left Foot.

Unlike Day-Lewis, Redmayne portrays a man who gradually becomes immobilized by his disease. Like Day-Lewis, Redmayne avoids going for mawkish sympathy from the viewer. Felicity Jones is excellent as Hawking's first wife -- as Jane Hawking, Jones may actually be on-screen more than Redmayne. She makes Jane brave and sympathetic, more sympathetic than Stephen by the end (the movie is based on one of her memoirs, after all). 

The movie's relatively faithful to reality, with the requisite condensing and conflating of events. The direction is competent, workman-like. When it strives for the cosmological sublime, it looks like a Discovery Channel show on space-time that's been stripped of Morgan Freeman's narration. Brief explanations of Hawking's importance to physics occur throughout, accurate though truncated. 

Hawking's atheism (counterpointed throughout with Jane's devout Roman Catholicism) isn't addressed honestly, though, or accurately in relation to his best-selling A Brief History of Time. The movie makes that non-fiction work in which Hawking posits a model of the universe that he explicitly states leaves God nothing to do as a love letter about faith to his wife, by omitting the whole 'nothing to do' thing from discussion and instead focusing on Hawking's metaphoric bit about "reading the mind of God" as if it were literal.

Titles to keep the viewer aware of when things happen would have been nice, especially as the make-up people seem to have forgotten to age Felicity Jones over the 30 year span of the film's events. And the first half of the movie, which deals with the first two years or so of Hawking's ALS and marriage, is far stronger dramatically than the increasingly montage-like later scenes, as we rush through three decades like a careening space probe being sucked into a black hole. Recommended.

Animal Men

Point Blank: adapted from the Donald Westlake novel The Hunter by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, and Kate Newhouse; directed by John Boorman; starring Lee Marvin (Walker), Angie Dickinson (Chris), Keenan Wynn (Yost), Carroll O'Connor (Brewster), Lloyd Bochner (Carter) and John Vernon (Mal) (1967): God knows John Boorman has his flaws as a director, but lack of ambition isn't one of them. Here, he takes a straightforward novel of revenge by Donald Westlake and makes it burningly trippy and subjective without losing the narrative momentum or bleakness of the original work. Lee Marvin is great as the lead, a master thief and burglar betrayed and left for dead by his partners. The rest of the cast is strong. Many read the movie as being borderline supernatural -- is Marvin's character really alive or is he a vengeful spirit? -- and the film supports both the supernatural and natural interpretations of events. Remade as Mel Gibson's Payback. An essential 1960's thriller. Highly recommended.

The Fly: written by George Langelaan and adapted by James Clavell; directed by Kurt Neumann; starring David Hedison (Andre Delambre), Patricia Owens (Helene Delambre), Vincent Price (Francois Delambre), and Herbert Marshall (Inspector Charas) (1958): I'll be damned if I know why this is set in Montreal. I guess the original short story was. Only one of the leads attempts a French-Canadian accent, and the maid's attempt at a French-Canadian accent occasionally slips into a Hollywood Irish brogue. One of the big-budget horror hits of the 1950's, The Fly now seems unthrilling and painfully slow. The spider-web sequence is great, though, and the Fly prosthetics still possess the ability to startle. Lightly recommended for historical reasons.

Ant-Man: based on the character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd; directed by Peyton Reed; starring Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Michael Douglas (Hank Pym), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Corey Stoll (Darren Cross), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), Anthony Mackie (The Falcon), and Michael Pena (Luis) (2015): Jolly heist film masquerading as a superhero origin story. This would make a terrific pilot for a TV show -- indeed, it's a much more suitable TV project than Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. The large cast is affable, some of the writing is cleverly non-stereotypical, and the 'shrunken' sequences are nicely imagined. A brief scene showing the 'original' Ant-Man and Wasp in action against a nuclear missile is actually the most spectacular and interesting effects sequence in the movie. More of that! Recommended.

The Day of the Jackal: adapted by Kenneth Ross from the book by Frederick Forsyth; directed by Fred Zinnemann; starring Edward Fox (The Jackal) and Michael Lonsdale (Lebel) (1973): Tense, documentary structure and tone make this fictional account of a 1963 assassination attempt on then-French President Charles De Gaulle seem like a docudrama, to the extent that its events have often been confused with reality. This is one of the great thrillers of the 1960's, on par with The Manchurian Candidate. Edward Fox makes a suave cipher as the paid assassin who goes by the moniker 'The Jackal,' and French actor Michael Lonsdale is excellent as the police detective who leads the efforts to stop him. Old-school Hollywood director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here To Eternity, Oklahoma!) was never better. Highly recommended.

The In-Laws: written by Andrew Bergman; directed by Arthur Hiller; starring Peter Falk (Vince Ricardo), Alan Arkin (Sheldon Kornpett), Richard Libertini (General Garcia), and Ed Begley, Jr. (Barry Lutz) (1979): Hilarious comedy from a co-writer of Blazing Saddles sends Alan Arkin and Peter Falk on a spy odyssey around New York and New Jersey and ultimately to a (fictional) Central American banana republic whose dictator collects Black Velvet paintings and practices ventriloquism with his 'talking' hand. Falk's character is a CIA agent who is also the soon-to-be father-in-law of Arkin's daughter. Arkin plays a high-strung dentist who gradually comes unstrung as the plot unfolds. The film juggles verbal comedy and slapstick with great elan, and the actors all succeed marvelously. A young David Paymer shows up as a helpful NY cabdriver, while Ed Begley, Jr. plays a CIA wonk. Dreadfully remade in 2003 with Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks in the Falk and Arkin roles. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Toad in a Hole

The Abyss by Jere Cunningham (1981): Cover-blurbed by Stephen King as "almost great," The Abyss presents a Christian apocalypse along the lines of King's own The Stand, only with more flying demons and coal mining. 

Our male protagonist, Seth, returns home to Bethel, Tennessee in the Appalachians after 20 years to get a job in the coal mine that's been re-opened after six decades. Seth didn't return for this express purpose -- he just needed a job. And the coal mine, believed by children for decades to be haunted, supplied that job.

Do things start to go wrong? Yes. Yes, they do. And you know that if you read any of the paperback versions of The Abyss because the jacket copy reveals a pretty major plot point. Suffice to say that Hell is Real. And it's apparently located several thousand feet below Tennessee.

Cunningham's and-the-kitchen-sink tendency to throw stuff into the narrative doesn't increase whatever terror or dis-ease the novel seeks to generate. There are surprisingly few scenes down the mine, and these quickly shift away from claustrophobia and darkness to increasingly dire and goopy supernatural shenanigans. Cunningham does nice work in depicting life in a dead-end, one-industry town isolated from the mainstream, though. His evil characters tend to the banal, but the sympathetic characters really are finely drawn at points. 

Plot-wise, Cunningham keeps a lot of pots boiling (and one of his minor characters keep a pot of water eternally boiling on her stove to throw at unwanted trespassers!). The female protagonist, Bethel's only medical practitioner, confronts various health-related issues that suddenly arise from the mine's re-opening. She also deals with nightmares about her childhood as the daughter of a stern, self-denying, violent, fundamentalist preacher. 

And a traveling revival show appears in town under its own tent near the mine. And some people start looking and acting like zombies. And a science whiz from Boston shows up because some really sketchy scientific stuff seems to centre on Bethel. People get blowed up with dynamite. Giant thorns menace everybody. An old woman direly prophesies what's coming. A fat woman is mean and evil and eats a lot of junk food and takes three plates at the church picnic. Everyone with a beehive hairdo gets turned into a demon. Dogs and cats turn into monsters. The statue of the Madonna starts disintegrating, as does everything in town. We check in with a Soviet spy satellite.

Well, you get the idea. There's so much stuff here that it suggests a longer draft that's been hacked at by an editor trying to fit the novel into a too-low page count. At twice the length, this might actually be a great horror novel of dark Christianity. At its published length, it's still fun and jumpy and, as the end draws near, surprisingly true to its core principles: it goes all the way, and everyone has to get off the boat. 

That the ending seems to riff on Tolkien's Sauron as much as any religious representation of evil isn't a bad thing at all, though some are also going to find strong echoes of a scene in King's The Stand. But boy, does it all end in a rush. Anyone want to fund a Director's Cut of this thing? Recommended.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bottled Up

Darkness at the Edge of Town by Brian Keene (2010): Enjoyable but slighter and less juicily pulpy novel from the reliable Keene, who's made a fascinating career out of combining cosmic horror with splatterpunky, visceral violence. 

Walden, Virginia wakes up one morning to find itself surrounded on all sides by an almost solid darkness. Some people drive to work. Some stay home. Landlines and cellphones won't connect to anything. All the utilities are out. And when you walk up to the darkness, you start to hear voices and see visions of your loved ones. This is only the beginning.

While not part of one of Keene's acknowledged series, Darkness at the Edge of Town nonetheless fits into the larger schemata of most of Keene's novels, which deal with one or more cosmic threats to life on Earth. Well, life on Earths: each Earth is part of a larger multiverse. While one novel may depict the destruction of all life on one Earth by, say, giant earthworms, another novel may depict the salvation of another Earth by a recurring character such as Keene's Amish magician, Levi. And Levi, too, is duplicated across countless Earths.

Mysterious symbols drawn at points along Walden's town boundary coincide with the line where the darkness stopped. A mysterious homeless man -- Walden's only homeless man -- may have something to do with the symbols. Or did he summon the darkness? Our narrator, an underemployed pizza delivery guy in his 20's, will try to find out. Because the darkness very rapidly starts to make people more and more violent and crazy.

There are elements of metatext here -- a character notes at one point that our narrator's plan to explore the darkness comes right out of Stephen King's The Mist and should thus be avoided because of the dire results of the tactic in both novella and movie. The title comes from a Springsteen song. Many of the group dynamics are reminiscent of both The Mist and King's Under the Dome, though any resemblances to the latter would simply be a case of shared sub-genre, as the two novels came out within a handful of months of one another. 

The dire violence and madness that quickly infect the town are solidly depicted, with several stand-out moments of gross-out horror. The cosmic elements don't work so well, in part because Keene's narrator simply isn't written as a character capable of describing dread or terror. Dez, the homeless madman, manages to Basil Exposition us for several pages near the end, but this seems both too little and much too late. We've seen towns disintegrate under crisis in horror novels before. What makes this narrative different?

Well, utter helplessness, a well Keene goes to repeatedly in his novels, though it's usually leavened with a group of characters doing their best to stave off the apocalypse, even if they fail utterly. Here, though, our narrator and his friends just aren't up to taking on the darkness. And they seem to miss one glaringly obvious thing that a competent person might at least try, given that we're stuck inside the bottle of this narrative for what the narrator estimates is at least a month. I don't need a Heinlein hero in my horror, but the readerly frustration that attends the nihilistic helplessness and pettiness and dim-bulbedness of our heroes leaves one longing for death after awhile. Their death, that is. Go darkness!

Now, this frustration seems to me to perhaps be the point. Keene has given us a novel with an even less bright, less competent, less heroic cast than usual, and has set them against an unbeatable foe. But it's all too much. As T.E.D. Klein noted, himself quoting another critic, I don't see what the point of the point is. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Crooked Tree by Robert C. Wilson (1980): I'll buy almost any horror paperback with a lurid cover if the price is right. At 50 cents, and with the luridness hidden inside the cut-out cover (and a cutout cover with a full-page illustration inside just screams 1970's and 1980's), Crooked Tree fit that bill. I also thought it was an early novel by Canadian SF writer Robert Charles Wilson, but it wasn't. This Robert C. Wilson is a Michigan lawyer with three published novels over the last 35 years.

Well, would that he published more. This is really a terrific little horror novel. Set in and around the Crooked Tree State Park in the northwestern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, Crooked Tree sees ancient evil resurrected and set loose. Yes, this actually is the 'Indian burial ground' trope in action. It works here -- as does any tired trope -- because Wilson invests time and sensitivity in exploring the Native-American culture of the Ottawas whose burial ground it was, and in making Native Americans non-stereotypical characters in the drama.

For the most part, the novel's descriptions of the natural landscape work, with only a few slips into the purple. A real sense of menace builds, and the supernatural menace, once revealed, is fully worked out and logically combated within the rules Wilson has created for this particular manifestation of the supernatural. The tiredness of the Indian burial ground trope also loses its exhaustion by making the unburied menace something that once threatened the Ottawas as well. This puts the whole thing more in line with the mainstream of supernatural literature, in which danger comes from Something Awful that was buried, and not from the vengeful spirits of once peaceful beings.

Wilson doesn't go as far as Martin Cruz Smith did in the excellent, nearly contemporaneous Nightwing: Crooked Tree's protagonist is still a white American and not a native. But the plethora of well-realized native characters makes the novel something special. So, too, the sensitive use of black bears as the main weapon in the menace's revenge: the novel explains many of a black bear's more dangerous attributes while also making it clear throughout that their danger to humanity in this novel has also been caused by humanity. Or the once-human, anyway. The bears, unlike the shark in Jaws, explicitly are described as acting against their nature in their attacks on humans. Naturally, they are shy and only dangerous in very specific interactions with human beings.

There are flaws. The climax could use a few more pages. As in many Stephen King novels, characters with viewpoints contrary to the author's -- in this case pro-leisure-hunting white men -- are drawn as gross, completely unlikable caricatures who meet their just rewards in being killed. They're as bad as the hillbillies in Deliverance, but the hillbillies in Deliverance were at least competent and sketched-in as being resentful of these rich(er) suburbanites vacationing in the place they called home. And Wilson's protagonist travels around so much in the concluding pages to assemble the necessary information to combat the evil that these pages start to feel like a Michigan travelogue.

However, despite its flaws, Crooked Tree is a surprisingly good horror novel from a little-known writer. It skilfully weaves together supernatural horror with natural horror (the menace must work through living beings to get its vengeance). Some segments suggest Jaws on land, but with animals that have become much more dangerous with a human will guiding and manipulating them. And a couple of the carnage-laden set-pieces are startlingly well-done and refreshingly unsentimental about who will die without being exploitative. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Threed Murray

The Sting: written by David S. Ward; directed by George Roy Hill; starring Paul Newman (Henry Gondorff), Robert Redford (Johnny Hooker), Robert Shaw (Doyle Lonnegan), Charles Durning (Lt. Snyder), Ray Walston (Singleton), Eileen Brennan (Billie), and Harold Gould (Kid Twist) (1973): The Sting won 7 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, while also making a ton of money (domestically and adjusted for inflation to 2015, it sits $100 million or more ($2015) above The Dark Knight and Jurassic World as of August 2015). A twisty caper/scam comedy pits grifters Robert Redford and Paul Newman against New York mobster Robert Shaw in a complicated con game involving race tracks, gambling, poker, Western Union, assassins, and vengeance. 

The actors are all terrific from the leads to all the fine character actors like Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, and Charles Durning who fill out the roster. They don't really make Hollywood blockbusters with clever scripts like this any more -- it's a relic of a more elegant age, the early 1970's... Highly recommended.

Groundhog Day: written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis; directed by Harold Ramis; starring Bill Murray (Phil), Andie MacDowell (Rita), and Chris Elliott (Larry) (1993): One of the more philosophically interesting of all comedies past or present, and a fantasy-comedy bracingly buttressed with despair and existential anomie. Of all the great comedies Harold Ramis wrote, co-wrote, and/or directed, this is probably the greatest. That Bill Murray didn't get a sniff of a Best Actor Oscar is yet another example of the ridiculous lack of respect the Academy has for comedy. Highly recommended.

Mad Dog and Glory: written by Richard Price; directed by John McNaughton; starring Robert De Niro (Wayne 'Mad Dog' Dobie), Uma Thurman (Glory), Bill Murray (Frank Milo), David Caruso (Mike), and Mike Starr (Harold ) (1993): Enjoyable dramedy sees introverted, lonely police photographer Robert De Niro save gangster Bill Murray's life and in return receive Uma Thurman as a "friend" from Murray for a week. Richard Price's screenplay is surprisingly pungent yet humane (which sounds like the description for the worst wine ever made). 

Murray conveys a fair bit of menace in his handful of scenes as a mob guy who dreams of being a stand-up comic. De Niro is painfully withdrawn, and Thurman charming. The movie doesn't avoid the tougher issues raised by its premise, though it does sugarcoat them -- and anyone tired of the massive age gaps between male and female leads in Hollywood movies could use this one as Exhibit A. Recommended.

St. Vincent:  written and directed by Theodore Melfi; starring Bill Murray (Vincent), Melissa McCarthy (Maggie), Maomi Watts (Daka), Chris O'Dowd (Brother Geraghty), Terrence Howard (Zucko), and Jaeden Lieberher (Oliver) (2014): One can see how this movie won the People's Choice Award at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival. It's a crowd-pleasing dramedy with a fine performance by Bill Murray as the grumpy Vincent of the title, a hard-drinking retiree who's just been either blessed or cursed with new next-door neighbours for his Brooklyn home, Melissa McCarthy as newly divorced Maggie and 12-year-old Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver.

Everything stays just enough on the comedy side of things to forgive the movie some of its improbabilities, not to mention its occasional resemblance to Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. The leads are all winning. Murray is irascible but occasionally serious and haunted. McCarthy seems to be relieved to be playing an actual sympathetic character instead of a caricature. Jaeden Lieberher is extraordinarily good as the small but feisty Oliver -- it's a totally non-annoying kid performance. Hallelujah! Naomi Watts is funny in the somewhat thankless role of a wacky, malaprop-spewing, pregnant Russian prostitute with a heart of, perhaps, copper. You'll see most of the prop beats coming, but they are well-handled, and Murray's character is never forced to undergo a complete domestication of his often unlikable character. Recommended.

Manhattan Murder Mystery: written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman; directed by Woody Allen; starring Woody Allen (Larry Lipton), Diane Keaton (Carol Lipton), Jerry Adler (Paul House), Alan Alda (Ted), and Anjelica Huston (Marcia Fox) (1993): Amiable, somewhat overlong mid-career Allen comedy sees bored married couple Woody and Diane Keaton fall into investigating what Keaton believes to be the murder of one of their Manhattan apartment neighbours. Happily, pursuing a murderer spices up their marriage. The narrative spins its wheels a lot for the first 45 minutes before getting traction, at which point it becomes something of a romp recalling Allen's earlier, funnier work. Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston offer humourous supporting work. Recommended.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Shaper of Worlds

He is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson (2009), edited by Christopher Conlon with an Introduction by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories:

Throttle by Joe Hill and Stephen King
Recalled by F. Paul Wilson
I Am Legend, Too by Mick Garris
Two Shots from Fly's Photo Gallery by John Shirley
The Diary of Louise Carey by Thomas F. Monteleone
She Screech Like Me by Michael A. Arnzen
Everything of Beauty Taken from You in This Life Remains Forever by Gary A. Braunbeck
The Case of Peggy Ann Lister by John Maclay
Zachry Revisited by William F. Nolan
Comeback by Ed Gorman
An Island Unto Himself by Barry Hoffman
Venturi by Richard Christian Matheson
Quarry by Joe R. Lansdale
Return to Hell House by Nancy A. Collins
Cloud Rider by Whitley Strieber 

Award-winning, enjoyable anthology celebrating the late, great Richard Matheson, whose horror and suspense work in print, in movies, and on TV helped define horror and suspense for two generations of readers and viewers.  Duel; The Shrinking Man; Hell House; I Am Legend; What Dreams May Come; Stir of Echoes; Somewhere in Time; episodes of The Twilight Zone, including the William Shatner-on-a-plane "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" remade with John Lithgow in The Twilight Zone movie; adaptations of Poe for Roger Corman's film studio: these are just some of Matheson's contributions to pop culture. 

The stories include homages, sequels, revisionist takes, and riffs on Mathesonian ideas. "Cloud Rider" by Whitley Strieber is the wildest riff in the anthology, inspired as it is by Matheson's entire Collected Stories. The other stories are a bit more specific.

Standouts include Nancy Collins' novella-length prequel to Hell House, that inspired haunted-house story of the 1960's. Collins shows us the events that preceded those in Matheson's novel, to good effect. Mick Garris also offers a prequel in "I Am Legend, Too," and it also offers a revisionist take on the original Matheson novel's vampire-fighting protagonist from the POV of his vampiric next-door neighbour. "She Screech Like Me" by Michael A. Arnzen effectively extends Matheson's stunning debut story, "Born of Man and Woman," while "The Diary of Louise Carey" by Thomas F. Monteleone retells The Shrinking Man from the viewpoint of his increasingly beleaguered, non-shrinking wife.

The venerable William F. Nolan offers a short, brutal sequel to another Matheson horror story, while Joe Lansdale presents a sequel/sidequel to Matheson's "Prey" -- a.k.a. the Matheson story adapted for the TV movie Trilogy of Terror, in which Karen Black does battle with a tiny, violent, highly animated African fetish doll in her own apartment. And Stephen King and son Joe Hill (King) collaborate on a story for the first time, a riff on "Duel" that involves a motorcycle gang and a transport truck instead of the original's station-wagon-driving salesman and a monster of a truck.

Overall, this is a fittingly strong anthology to honour such a major figure in the modern history of fantasy. As Ramsey Campbell notes in his introduction, Matheson helped move horror out of Gothic castles and into suburban bedrooms and America's endless blacktop highways. And because Matheson worked in television and movies so much after 1960, his works reached much larger audiences than those generally afforded writers of prose. Recommended.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Those Amazing Robots

I, Robot (1950) by Isaac Asimov, a short-story cycle/paste-up novel consisting of the following stories:

  • Introduction (I, Robot)(1950)
  • Robbie (1940)(aka Strange Playfellow)
  • Runaround (1942)
  • Reason (1944) 
  • Catch That Rabbit (1947)
  • Liar!   (1941)
  • Little Lost Robot (1944)
  • Escape!   (1945) 
  • Evidence   (1946) 
  • The Evitable Conflict   (1950)

Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics have infiltrated human consciousness, known at least partially even to people who've never read Asimov or even seen the Will Smith movie loosely based on this paste-up novel. Asimov's editor at Astounding in the 1940's, the great John W. Campbell, Jr., helped Asimov formulate the Three Laws. And the first publisher of this paste-up lifted the title from an Eando Binder story that helped inspire Asimov, against Asimov's wishes.

However, Asimov codified for many a rational approach to robots and computers that defied the way artificial creations had generally been depicted all the way back to Frankenstein. Robots were created by humans and could thus be made safe. It was all a matter of programming. In a world in which cars didn't have seat-belts, it was actually a weirdly gigantic cognitive leap.

While we don't have helpful, anthropomorphic robots yet, we do have smartphones and smarthomes and smartcars. And Asimov's robots still work as a stand-in for any technological marvel become mundane through overuse, or potentially sinister through technological evolution. Many of these stories detailing the rise of the robots work as mystery stories, as the intrepid investigators and robopsychologists of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. try to figure out why a new and improved robot is acting screwy.

Screwy as they may act, though, only one of our robots comes to pose a threat to humanity, and that's thanks to the military changing its programming, to the horror of the closest thing this novel has to a human protagonist, the brilliant robopsychologist Susan Calvin. Calvin is one of science fiction's first female protagonists to also be a scientist and not, say, the wife or girlfriend of a scientist. This is quite a leap for Asimov and the genre. Calvin's oft-cited asexuality can get a bit annoying -- can't smart girls have romance? -- but it nonetheless works as a welcome tonic to standard portrayals of women, in or out of the science-fiction genre, in the 1940's.

The world Asimov postulates hasn't come to be, though portions of it may, if we have any sense. And as the stories progress, the larger robot brains become stationary -- become computers. The last 'robot' in the story, dubbed The Machine, is a benevolent world-organizer. I'd guess that Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan, working on an adaptation of Asimov's Foundation, was tipping a hat to Asimov with that series' benevolent A.I., known only also as The Machine.

Asimov's robots, in all their endearing solicitude and helpfulness, may endure in some form or another forever. Certainly the work will, and its continuing influence on almost anyone who writes about artificial intelligence. The stories also tackle anti-robot prejudice (people on Earth fear that human-form robots will take their jobs, and so only non-human-form robots have the run of Earth... which wouldn't save anyone's jobs, now that I think about it, though that's partially the point about irrational fears). Asimov even intuits the rising tendency of modern tech companies to 'lease' rather than sell their products (albeit those products tend to be songs and software, not helpful robots) -- U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men lease their robots but never sell them.

Like many older works of science fiction, I, Robot has its moments of comically wrong-guessing and wince-inducing characterization. But it holds up beautifully as both a fast-paced series of adventures and as an exploration of how humanity and technology inter-relate over time and progress. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Gateway to the Stars

The Gateway Saga 2: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl (1980): Frederik Pohl's first Gateway novel won pretty much every major SF award after it came out in 1977. This second book didn't, though it's still a fine piece of work, especially for those who want psychological depth in their Space Opera. 

We pick up the story 20 years after Gateway, with that novel's protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, now a comfortable millionaire on an increasingly resource-starved future Earth. He now funds space expeditions to find more of the technology of the Heechee. The Heechee were an extremely advanced alien race that left technology lying around the solar system (and the galaxy) after they disappeared half-a-million years ago.

Humanity started exploiting that technology after the first Heechee artifacts were found in artificial tunnels on Venus about 50 years before this novel. But humanity doesn't know how much of the technology works, especially the faster-than-light stardrives on the remaining Heechee spacecraft. 

These spacecraft, mostly housed at the carved-out asteroid dubbed Gateway, can be programmed with unknown destinations and sent out into the galaxy. Desperate 'prospectors' pay into the Gateway Corporation for a chance to ride on these ships. Sometimes they come back with new artifacts or useful locations; sometimes they come back with nothing; sometimes they don't come back, or come back dead.

Robinette's fortune was made by the disastrous but lucrative discovery of a non-rotating black hole, a discovery that dropped everyone but Robinette into said black hole. Now, he's sent an expedition to a newly discovered Heechee vessel in our Oort cloud. It seems to be a Heechee food factory, using carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and trace elements found in the cometary halo around our solar system to make a nearly inexhaustible supply of food. It could solve Earth's food problems. But where is the factory periodically shipping its food?

Well, there's the question. The Gateway books are the much smarter father to such SF series as Stargate SG-1 and Babylon 5 in which humans seek out ancient alien technology, often using it without any idea how it works. Broadhead and the other sympathetic characters of this novel, including Wan, the most lost of all Lost Boys, and an ancient machine consciousness that was once a living, non-human (is it a Heechee?) being, are skilfully drawn. 

There's less sense of the unknown in this second book, as Pohl begins to answer more questions than he asks. But the big questions, Where Did the Heechee Go and Why Did They Go There?, only begin to be answered here. The answer is a big one, but it awaits the sequel. Recommended.

The Gateway Saga 3: Heechee Rendezvous by Frederik Pohl (1984): The original Gateway Trilogy wraps up here as the mysterious Heechee finally put in an appearance 500,000 years after they seemingly vanished from the universe. The action of the third book picks up about 20 years after the second, with trilogy protagonist Robinette Broadhead beginning to show the effects of old age despite having a really terrific health plan.

Among Pohl's achievements here is a prediction of our current Cloud-based computer world, though in Pohl's world processing comes from a gigantic global pool upon which all computers can draw. That's some network! This future Earth's health care, though, hasn't been so predictively accurate, perhaps because Broadhead's health problems are such a key part of the narrative.

Many of the mysteries first posited in Gateway back in 1977 are solved here, most notably the reason for the Heechee's long disappearance. Unfortunately, the narrative bogs down again and again with Robinette Broadhead and his improbably beautiful, hyper-intelligent, and financially successful wife. She's part wish fulfillment and part comic relief, the latter because of her Boris-and-Natasha manner of speaking English. What larks, Pip!

Indeed, the trials of Broadhead and Wife seem to fascinate Pohl a lot more than the science fictional mysteries he himself created. The ending, when it comes, is rushed, somewhat perfunctory, and clearly left open-ended for yet another sequel. There would be three more Gateway novels, if you're counting.

The novel really is a must-read if one has read the first two Gateway books, despite its immense and multitudinous flaws. The tendency of the narrative to spin off into interpersonal whoopsy-cutesiness reminds me of similar problems in Robert Heinlein's later-career novels; Pohl composed the Gateway Trilogy between the ages of 57 and 64, along with a boatload of other novels. 

The going never gets as bad as it does in Heinlein's worst moments (see: The Number of the Beast), but the going, she is rough at times. Pohl's decision to transform a character from the previous novel into an annoying sociopath doesn't much help things, though it does pose an interesting question as to why he did so. My guess would be that he had a conversation with a psychologist who suggested that the character's upbringing, as constructed by Pohl, would almost certainly create a near-monstrous sociopath. But it's too bad -- and the scenes with that character are almost unreadable.

Oh, and there are black holes, weird black holes, artificial black holes, and various space fleets and space whales and thingamajigs. Despite all the lavish praise heaped by the novel on Broadhead's wife, the novel also posits two alien species with major downsides for females: Heechee women go into heat and, if they don't have sex while in heat, have a pronounced tendency to die; a second race not only has non-sentient females, but non-sentient females who are a food source for the (sentient) males as well as breeding stock. Well, alrighty, then! Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Surrealism and Abject Realism

Ed the Happy Clown: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (1982-2002; This edition 2012): The absurd, weird, violent, and disturbingly funny graphic novel Ed the Happy Clown got Canada's Chester Brown critical raves almost from its beginning as a self-published mini-comic. Brown would eventually get a publisher (Vortex Comics) and then another publisher (Drawn and Quarterly) as the strip wound down in the pages of Brown's Yummy Fur comic. 

Ed the Happy Clown may not be Brown's most nuanced or artistically complex work, but it may be what he's remembered for 100 years from now, if people still read comics then. It's a horrifying, absurdist comedy, or maybe a comic, absurdist horror work. Or something. Brown was interested in the psychology of surrealism at the time, and so he tried to go with whatever his Sub-conscious and his Id spewed forth. The result is an arresting, page-turner of a nightmare.

Ed is a lovable figure who pretty much defines "acted upon, rather than acting." In a Toronto that vaguely resembles our Toronto, only with more malevolent disembodied hands, vampires, and evil pygmies, Ed finds that Ronald Reagan's head has replaced the head of his own penis. This Reagan is from a world where the people are much smaller, so, um, the head fits. And talks. And vomits. 

This is neither the oddest nor the potentially most offensive thing in Ed the Happy Clown. It's also hilarious, the hilarity augmented by Brown's choice to not make the head look like Ronald Reagan (and when then-Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney shows up, he doesn't resemble his namesake either, though he is rocking a gnarly beard that makes him look like a somewhat lumpen version of Thomas Mulcair). 

Brown would leave this sort of weird horror comedy behind for the most part in the early 1990's, turning instead to memoir and Canadian history in his subsequent graphic novels. I understand his decision, but lament it too. Ed the Happy Clown is just so gigantically, monstrously weird and entertaining, one wants more when it ends.

Of course, there actually was more. Brown continued the story for several more chapters after this graphic novel ends before abandoning Ed for autobiography. This definitive edition omits those last chapters and adds a new ending, as Brown decided that Ed's story had reached a natural conclusion. I've got no problem with Brown going all Wordsworth's Prelude on us, though I'd like an edition that at least puts the other chapters in an appendix. These aren't easy comics to find at decent prices.

This 2012 edition does give us a lengthy appendix written by Brown. These notes range from explaining emendations to apologizing for the somewhat racist caricatures that are the pygmies (though the pygmies are so ridiculously out-there that it's hard to view them as racial; some, including Brown, would disagree). 

Some of the notes are quite hilarious in and of themselves. For example,  former national NDP leader Ed Broadbent was originally supposed to be the head on Ed the Happy Clown's penis. Others show how much Brown's politics have changed over the decades. When he opines that Ronald Reagan was actually the second-best 20th-century U.S. President after Calvin Coolidge, one wishes that this were just more absurdism. But like Brown's oft-stated belief that mental illness is not an illness and only exists because the medical establishment wants it to be an illness, this is all dead-serious. In any case, highly recommended.

I Never Liked You: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (1991-93; collected 1994): Chester Brown's second attempt at long-form comic-book memoir is a much sadder, self-lacerating work than his first (that first being The Playboy). Completed and collected in the early 1990's, I Never Liked You follows Brown's relationships with girls from Grade 3 or thereabouts to the end of high school. 

While there is an overarching structure to the book, it's very faint -- I Never Liked You is as much a series of vignettes as it is a graphic novel. Brown's style is relatively naturalistic for him, though there are some physical exaggerations for some characters. As in The Playboy, Chester Brown as a character has a head that looks an awful lot like an orange on a toothpick. And the girl who utters the title line has gigantic Bambi eyes. 

Most of the vignettes will pack more of a punch for those readers who've consistently felt like outsiders, especially when it comes to gender relations as a teenager. Threaded through the tales of Brown's missteps with girls is the story of his mother's encroaching madness, mental illness that will periodically lead to her hospitalization. 

Brown-the-character's inability to show empathy to his mother (or be nice at all) is an integral part of the book's depiction of his social awkwardness. A scene set in a hospital room as Chester, his father, and brother visit his contorted, near-catatonic mother is the novel's best. That Brown's version of himself at that age makes the moment all about himself and his inability to simply tell his mother that he loves her ties beautifully into the book as a whole, and into the larger body of Brown's autobiographical work. Brown's work often functions as a caustic evaluation of what he perceives as his own consuming self-involvement at various points in his life. But creating a memoir is by definition to be self-involved. There's something of a closed loop involved. 

That Brown would turn to a combination of history and historical biography in his next major work, Louis Riel (Collected 2003) certainly indicates a shift outwards from his contemplation of himself. However, one who reads Brown's Appendix to Louis Riel discovers that part of Brown's interest in the controversial rebel came from Riel's own audio and visual hallucinations, things which reminded Brown of his mother's madness. I Never Liked You is a solid piece of graphic storytelling, unsentimental and almost morbidly self-revelatory. Recommended.

Spawn Fun

Spawn Origins 3: Written by Grant Morrison, Todd McFarlane, Andrew Grossberg, and Tom Orzechowski; illustrated by Todd McFarlane and Greg Capullo (1994/ This collection 2009): Oh, remainders. The six-issue compilations of Todd McFarlane's reluctant hero Spawn continue here with only one issue actually written and illustrated by Todd McFarlane. I guess the Dreaded Deadline Doom was upon him. Grant Morrison writes a three-parter that is about as bland as anything Morrison has ever written. This despite the ridiculous Anti-Spawn, some angels on a space station, and a portion of Hell that's erupted onto an American armed forces firing range. 

Greg Capullo is already a capable penciller, though, somewhat more realistically inclined than McFarlane but still capable of some magical lunacy. The two-parter penned by Tom Orzechowski and Andrew Grossberg is more fun, introducing as it does Houdini (yes, that one), Master of the Mystic Arts, in a team-up with Spawn to stop a nuclear detonation in the heart of Manhattan. As a piece of superhero entertainment, superior to most of the stuff from DC and Marvel at the time. Recommended.

Spawn Origins 4: written by Todd McFarlane; illustrated by Todd McFarlane and Marc Silvestri (1994-95; This collection 2010): Spawn creator/writer/artist Todd McFarlane returns to full writing and art duties for five of the six issues reprinted here. Marc Silvestri, one of McFarlane's contemporaries when they were at Marvel, draws the sixth issue in a grittier, less cartoony style than McFarlane. Spawn battles various problems caused for him by Hell, the Mob, and demonic antagonist Violator. Some of the people who knew Spawn's alter ego, assassinated Black Op Al Simmons, finally start to clue in about who Spawn is, while comic-relief cops Sam and Twitch also start to realize that Spawn is on their side. Recommended.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Four of the Fantastic: Serling, Ramis, Austen, Sondheim

Caddyshack: written by Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, and Douglas Kenney; directed by Harold Ramis; starring Chevy Chase (Ty Webb), Bill Murray (Carl Spackler), Rodney Dangerfield (Al Czervik), Ted Knight (Judge Smalls), Michael O'Keefe (Danny Noonan), and Cindy Morgan (Lacey Underall) (1980): A classic comedy of improvisation built over a stereotypical teen coming-of-age comedy. Harold Ramis and company quickly realized that the adults were far more interesting than the teens, and that the improvisation of Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield was the real star of the movie. Well, that and the special-effects gopher. Recommended.

Sense and Sensibility: adapted by Emma Thompson from the novel by Jane Austen; directed by Ang Lee; starring Emma Thompson (Elinor Dashwood), Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood), Hugh Grant (Edward Ferrars), Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon), Gemma Jones (Mrs. Dashwood), Harriet Walter (Fanny Dashwood), Imelda Staunton (Charlotte Palmer), Hugh Laurie (Mr. Palmer), Imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele), Greg Wise (John Willoughby), Robert Hardy (Sir John Middleton), and Elizabeth Spriggs (Mrs. Jennings) (1995): Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's visually lush adaptation of Jane Austen is a winning combination of romance and pointed social observation. The adaptation won Thompson a well-deserved screenplay Oscar. The performances are uniformly strong. Lee's direction is painterly in composition without becoming too static in the manner of some period productions. Highly recommended.

Requiem for a Heavyweight: written by Rod Serling; directed by Ralph Nelson; starring Anthony Quinn (Louis 'Mountain' Rivera); Jackie Gleason (Maish Rennick), Mickey Rooney (Army), Julie Harris (Grace Miller), and Cassius Clay as Himself (1962): Adapted by Rod Serling from his own 1956 Playhouse 90 TV movie, the first original 90-minute drama ever shown live on American TV. Serling may have a didactic point to make about the boxing business, but he also gives his actors line after line of terrific dialogue. 

As aging tomato-can boxer 'Mountain' Rivera, veteran character actor Anthony Quinn embodies wounded, almost inarticulate pride along with a sense of honour that may yet get him killed. Jackie Gleason is also terrific in his best dramatic role, as Quinn's beloved, treacherous manager. Mickey Rooney also surprises as Quinn's corner-man, and Julie Harris does delicate work as an employment agency worker trying to find Quinn a job after boxing. At less than 90 minutes, this is a terse and sorrowful work. Highly recommended.

Into the Woods: adapted by James Lapine from the musical by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim; directed by Rob Marshall; starring Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), James Corden (Baker), Emily  Blunt (Baker's Wife), Tracey Ullman (Jack's Mother), Meryl Streep (Witch), Johnny Depp (Wolf), Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel's Prince), Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel), and Chris Pine (Cinderella's Prince) (2014): Enjoyable screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1987 meta-musical gives us a movie-star cast that can, mostly, sing. OK, Meryl Streep occasionally moves into under-enunciated mumblemouthedness at times, especially in her climactic song. 

The cast and the songs are witty and involving, and the musical's exploration of fairy-tale logic hits the light and dark notes of real fairytales while also commenting on Disneyfied bowdlerizations of those fairy tales (weirdly, this is a Disney movie, with the opening logo itself commenting on the difference between Into the Woods and more normally sunny Disney fare. So much meta!). For some reason, the scenes with the vengeful giant are murky and difficult to follow, which is not necessarily a good thing when this is your climax. A couple of gruesome deaths have been either eliminated or toned down from the stage version, and the original Narrator is nowhere to be heard, so be forewarned if you're a theatrical purist. Recommended.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

I Remember PLAYBOY

The Playboy: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (1990-91; collected 1992): Canadian national treasure and cartoonist Chester Brown shifted to autobiographical comics in the early 1990's after a decade of mixing the surreal, the grotesque, the comic, and the just plain weird in the pages of his brilliant independent comic book Yummy Fur. The Playboy, originally serialized in several issues of Yummy Fur, was his first long-form attempt at memoir.

Brown takes us back to a time when teenagers read Playboys, hid Playboy around the house or in the world outside, and occasionally even bought Playboy at convenience stores rather than just stealing them from someone's father or older brother. Chester's relationship with Playboy magazine began in the mid-1970's when he was a teen-ager. He charts that relationship's ups and downs over the subsequent 15 years or so, autobiographical vignettes interspersed with a narrator's commentary.

By Brown's standards, The Playboy is fairly tame and contemplative, and lacking in didacticism. Oh, sure, there are graphic scenes of masturbation. This is an autobiographical comic, after all, and a Chester Brown comic. Money shots are mandatory. The cumulative effect is surprisingly gentle and nostalgic -- an elegy for a lost world of pillowy soft-core boobs, of a small cache of porn magazines and not the endless naked lunch of the Internet. 

It's also quite funny at times as it details Brown's attempts to hide his magazines from his parents, leading at one point to burying pornography in a nearby meadow. In another scene, he bikes across his small town to buy Playboy at a convenience store as far from his hosue as possible; of course he meets adult neighbours as he exits the store with his bagged Playboy in his hands. What to do?

Coming out as it did during the height of McKinnon-Dworkin anti-pornography rageaphobia in the early 1990's, The Playboy seems contextually brave. It's not an indictment of pornography, regardless of what one of the back-cover quotes says. It's also not major Brown. Nonetheless, The Playboy is still a nice piece of work, interior-cover cumshots and all. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: written by Sidney Buchman, Lewis Foster, and Myles Connolly; directed by Frank Capra; starring Jean Arthur (Saunders), James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Claude Rains (Senator Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor), Thomas Mitchell (Diz), and Harry Carey (President of the Senate) (1939): When the forces of political evil and chicanery in the far-flung year of 1939 in America order the police to turn fire hoses on peaceful protesters and the police happily comply, when the bad guys start attacking and injuring children trying to get the truth out and the authorities do nothing to stop them, one is reminded that the authorities have been knobs for a long time in America.

Frank Capra's beloved classic is a winning combination of Juvenalian political satire and gentle Horatian optimism -- Jimmy Stewart's character has a naivete that's funny to begin with before experience (and the love of Girl Friday Jean Arthur) gives him the power to defy corruption. If you thinks it ends abruptly, well, boy does it ever! A 15-minute epilogue that tied off every loose end was cut by the studio before release, and I think the movie's better for it. Capra's usual cast of supporting actors, along with the always great Claude Rains as a senator gone wrong, are terrific, as are leads Stewart and Arthur. Highly recommended.

The Big Heat: adapted from the William P. McGivern serial novel by Sydney Boeham; directed by Fritz Lang; starring Glenn Ford (Sgt. Bannion), Gloria Grahame (Debby), Jocelyn Brando (Katie Bannion), Lee Marvin (Vince), and Alexander Scourby (Lagana) (1953): Almost the Ur-Text for every movie in which a heroic cop turns in his badge and goes it alone (or with one loyal partner) against the forces of Evil. Ford is terse and violent as Sgt. Bannion, who's up against the Mob in an unnamed East Coast city. Gloria Grahame plays a mobster's mistress who ends up siding with Ford. A young Lee Marvin plays Grahame's gangster. This movie deals with many of German expatriate director Fritz (Metropolis, Fury, M) Lang's dominant tropes, most notably the corruption of the Elite and the heroic efforts of a few to combat that corruption. As was always true of Lang's direction, the movie looks terrific -- it's a dandy piece of police noir. Recommended.

The Mouse That Roared: adapted by Roger MacDougall and Stanley Mann from the novel by Leonard Wibberley; directed by Jack Arnold; starring Peter Sellers (Grand Duchess/ Prime Minister/ Tully Bascombe), Jean Seberg (Helen Kokintz), William Hartnell (Will Buckley), David Kossoff (Professor Kokintz), and Leo McKern (Benter) (1959): Peter Sellers plays three characters delightfully, with able supporting work from Leo McKern, First Doctor Who William Hartnell, and others. 

The tiny European country of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick finds itself bankrupt, so its Prime Minister hatches a plan. They will declare war on the United States, quickly surrender, and then watch the aid dollars flow in from the United States to its vanquished enemy. In theory, this explains the Iraq War. There's some pointed satire here about atomic brinksmanship, but the whole thing is remarkably gentle and pleasant, with many laugh-out-loud moments. One of the early high points of the career of Peter Sellers, it wouldn't be the last time he played multiple roles in a movie. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Super-children of the 1990's

Judgment Day: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Rob Liefeld, Gil Kane, and others (1997/Collected 2003): One of those Alan 'Watchmen' Moore-penned volumes from the 1990's that always seem vaguely anomalous, coming as they do from Moore's time writing for Rob Liefeld's 'wing' of Image Comics that would spin off into its own separate publishing company during Moore's time writing for a couple of the Image 'wings.' This one involves Liefeld's superhero team Youngblood, there from the beginning of Image Comics in 1992. Moore's job seems to be to give the whole thing a veneer of artsiness unknown to Liefeld's output. Well, if not artsiness than at least metafictionality. 

The best parts of this series, which see a member of Youngblood put on trial for murder, involve flashbacks drawn by various artists. Most of the flashbacks are pastiches, often satiric in tone and content, of decades of comic-book titles and characters, from Old West heroes to Conan the Barbarian adaptations. And the whole plot revolves around a magical book that seems to prefigure Moore's really metafictional work in his own later title, Promethea. Moore was winning writing awards for his work on Liefeld's Superman homage Supreme at the same time, and Supreme shows up here as well. 

The whole thing goes down pretty smoothly, with some nice artwork -- especially that of Grandmaster Gil Kane on a couple of sections. This volume is both a curiosity and a harbinger of Moore work to come. Exaggerated claims of Watchmen-level relevance in the publisher's foreword  do seem both forced and gormless -- superheroes have been put on trial in one way or another prior to Judgment Day, from Batman in the 1940's to the Justice Society of America in the 1980's. Liefeld's art contributions are unusually awful and off-model at certain points -- his version of Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon is especially off, but the book is rife with characters with weird, up-turned nostrils and tiny, tiny feet. Recommended.

Spawn: Origins Volume 1: written and illustrated by Todd McFarlane (1992/ Collected 2009): Canadian writer-artist Todd McFarlane left Marvel Comics in 1992 along with five other creators to create creator-owned comic company Image. McFarlane, a popular Marvel artist on Spider-man and Hulk, soon launched Spawn. It rapidly became Image's best-selling title. Moreover, it became the best-selling superhero comic in North America for a few years, helping break the hold DC and Marvel had on the comic-book-buying public.

If you want to see what the fuss was about, these relatively recently released Spawn: Origins volumes are the way to go if you can find them remaindered. And boy, have I seen them remaindered for up to 80% off cover-price. They're certainly enjoyable in a pulpy way. McFarlane's greatest strength as an artist lies in full-page and double-page spreads; his weakness lies in panel-to-panel continuity, which sometimes degenerates to incomprehensibility. But the spreads are great. So too Spawn's cape and chains, which are less costume elements than they are design elements on a page. 

McFarlane isn't much of a writer, but it's at least competent superhero schlock. Spawn is basically a Marvel hero whose reasons to be angsty have been turned up to 11. A former heroic CIA Black Ops soldier, Al Simmons was killed by one of his own compatriots on the job under orders from his superior. Now he's back from the dead. Well, sort of. Really, he's still dead. He's just ambulatory and has super-powers. But he's also partially amnesiac. He's been gone for five years. And he owes Hell... something. Oh, and under his costume (which is actually a living supernatural symbiote), he looks like a mummy who stayed in the oven too long. Good times! And his widow married his best friend! And both Heaven and Hell keep trying to kill him! And he lives with a bunch of homeless people in New York's Bowery! Oh, Spawn. Spawn Agonistes! Recommended.

Spawn: Origins Volume 2: written and illustrated by Todd McFarlane with writing by Alan Moore and Frank Miller (1992-93/ Collected 2009): Todd McFarlane started to bring in guest writers with the issues collected in this second volume. Two issues that chronologically should appear herein but don't also included guest writers -- Neil Gaiman on one issue that would lead to more than a decade of legal battles between Gaiman and McFarlane, and Dave Sim on a metafictional odyssey co-starring his talking aardvark Cerebus. 

We do get Alan Moore and Frank Miller riffing on Spawn in issues that are much better written than McFarlane's efforts. So it goes. The whole volume entertains, McFarlane's art is very strong, and we get a storyline continued from the previous volume featuring antagonist Overtkill, one of the two or three most stupidly named super-characters of that baroque early 1990's age of super-powered characters with increasingly stupid names and increasingly cluttered costumes. Recommended.

Monday, August 3, 2015

One-Word Titles

Annie: based on the comic strip created by Harold Gray and adapted from the play written by Thomas Meehan by Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna; directed by Will Gluck; starring Quvenzhane Wallis (Annie), Jamie Foxx (Will Stacks), Rose Byrne (Grace), Bobby Cannavale (Guy), David Zayas (Lou), and Cameron Diaz (Hannigan) (2014): Pleasantly diverting remake/reimagining of the musical. Quvenzhane Wallis is terrific as Annie, while the rest of the supporting cast is also good. Well, with the exception of Cameron Diaz, who seems both miscast in a role played by Carol Burnett in the original movie and lacks anything resembling a workable singing voice. This is the sort of musical in which the director doesn't film people's feet when they're dancing. Songs written especially for this version are forgettable, but the songs remaining from the original book -- especially "Hard-knock Life" -- are excellent. Lightly recommended.

Laura: adapted by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt, and Ring Lardner Jr. from the novel by Vera Caspary; directed by Otto Preminger; starring Gene Tierney (Laura Hunt), Dana Andrews (Lt. McPherson), Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker), Vincent Price (Shelby Carpenter), Judith Anderson (Ann Treadwell), and Dorothy Adams (Bessie) (1944): You can think of Laura as one of the major intertexts with Twin Peaks. You can think of it as a movie starring a man with what's normally a woman's first name and a woman with what's normally a man's name. In any case, it's a fine mystery-thriller-romance film in which the police lieutenant investigating the murder of a bright young ad agency employee falls in love with the dead woman over the course of the investigation, all of this staged in the ornamentally baroque and fussy apartments of the cultural elite of 1940's New York. 

Clifton Webb drips acid as arch society columnist Waldo Lydecker, while Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews are both solid as the murder victim and the lieutenant. Vincent Price, looming over everyone with his tremendous height, is a little shaky as a smooth Southern boy-toy/cad. One of Hollywood's most psychologically perverse studies of romantic love and obsession. Recommended.

Ouija: based on the Hasbro board game; written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White; directde by Stiles White; starring Olivia Cooke (Laine Morris), Ana Coto (Sarah Morris), Douglas Smith (Pete), and Daren Kagasoff (Trevor) (2014): This wouldn't be the worst horror movie in the world if it were the first horror movie someone ever saw. The scares are pretty tame and the 'twist' ending stereotypically lame, but the young actors are surprisingly good. The direction underplays everything, leading to a bit of dullness. 

That Ouija is actually a licensed Hasbro board game is probably unknown to most people. What's surprising in a contemporary movie of this sort is that no one uses the Internet to research ghost-busting. What's divertingly stupid about this movie is that no one researches anything useful. One interesting tic of the script is that the teens are on their own in a world in which parents and helpful adults are almost as rare as in a Peanuts cartoon. As those ubiquitous Blumhouse horror joints go, far from the worst. Very lightly recommended.