Thursday, December 24, 2015

Holiday Grab-Bag!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2015

Guinness Goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Satan's Six!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2015

One of These Things Doesn't Belong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Fathers and Sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Swearwolves and Other Outcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Funny Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

By Jove!

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

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

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

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

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