Monday, December 26, 2016

Please Hammerhead, Do Hurt Them!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016): written by Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, and Gary Whitta; based on characters created by George Lucas and others; directed by Gareth Edwards; starring Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso), Diego Luna (Cassian Andor), Alan Tudyk (K-2SO), Donnie Yen (Imewe), Wen Jiang (Malbus), Ben Mendelsohn (Krennic), Forest Whittaker (Gerrara), Riz Ahmed (Bodhi Rook), and Mads Mikkelsen (Galen Erso).

Rogue One is better than any of the Star Wars prequel films. That doesn't make it a great movie, but it has its moments. Director Gareth Edwards (with seamless, inset reshoots from writer-director Tony Gilroy) manages some sublime visual moments among the frantic battles and travels.

The first 20 minutes or so are jumpy and in desperate need of streamlining. They play like a series of videogame cutscenes being fast-forwarded through by a low-attention-span gamer. Things then calm down, especially once we've bid a not-so-fond farewell to Forest Whitaker's mumble-mouthed Rebel freedom fighter. 

Felicity Jones and Diego Luna play the two leads, and it's a good thing they've got charisma because Rogue One has no interest in characterization except as it pertains to plot and motivation. Chewbacca and R2D2 playing holographic chess would be a Godsend to this film. There are no quiet moments of humour or pathos: everything serves The Plot.

The visual effects are impressive and sometimes overwhelming. The performances are solid, excepting the eccentrically unintelligible Mr. Whitaker, who also summoned mumble-mouth as a U.S. soldier in this year's Arrival. The climax goes on forever, and features about two too many sub-climaxes. The movies Rogue One pays homage to aren't always old Hollywood classics -- besides the other Star Wars movies, Rogue One nods to Serenity and Deep Impact, The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone

And, in the droid voiced by Alan Tudyk, Marvin the Paranoid Android from all the iterations of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Is it fun? Yeah, once it gets going. One never feels much for anyone -- there are too many characters and not enough lines. But it's a competent, mostly bloodless war movie. Brief stretches are spent trying to convince us that the Rebellion is more morally complex than it appeared to be in previous Star Wars films. These moments never really 'stick.' The Star Wars Universe doesn't play all that well with moral complexity. Love the Rebel Hammerhead Ship, though! Give that ship its own movie! Recommended.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Apes and Avengers

DC Goes Ape Volume 1 (1959-99/ Collected 2008): edited by Bob Joy; written by Otto Binder, John Broome, and others; illustrated by George Papp, Wayne Boring, and others: The story goes that 1950's DC Comics editors noted a sales uptick whenever primates appeared on a comic-book cover. And so primates readers would be given, mostly gorillas and apes (and one Kryptonian super-monkey!). Well, and Detective Chimp.

This volume collects some of DC's finest, freakiest tales of super-apes and criminal gorilla criminals. The material from the 1950's and 1960's shines the brightest, giving us mainstays such as Titano the giant super-ape, the gorilla crime boss of Gotham, telepathic Flash villain Gorilla Grodd, a super-monkey to annoy a young Superboy (or was it Superbaby?), and several others. Wonder Woman even gets changed into a gorilla by an astronaut gorilla from another world. Hoo ha! Recommended.

Avengers: Assault on Olympus (1987/ Collected 2011): written by Roger Stern and Bob Harras; illustrated by John Buscema, Bob Hall, Tom Palmer, and Kyle Baker: Roger Stern's tenure as writer of the Avengers in the 1980's stands as one of two or three high points for Marvel's superhero group. And the art by John Buscema and finisher Tom Palmer was more than solid as well. 

In the aftermath of the epic siege on Avengers mansion story arc, the Avengers find themselves plunged into the world of the magical and mythic. Avenger Hercules got beaten into an unbreakable coma during the siege. Now, Zeus blames the Avengers for Hercules' condition -- and seeks vengeance. It's fun stuff, with one of the more powerful Avengers line-ups when it comes to brute strength (She-Hulk, Thor, and the Sub-mariner). An off-beat standalone story about Avengers' butler Jarvis rounds out the collection. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Past Isn't Even The Past

Scrooged (1988): written by Michael O'Donoghue and Mitch Glazer; directed by Richard Donner; starring Bill Murray (Frank Cross), Karen Allen (Claire Phillips), Bobcat Goldthwait (Eliot Loudermilk), David Johansen (Ghost of Christmas Past), Carol Kane (Ghost of Christmas Present), and Alfre Woodard (Grace Cooley): Bill Murray is on record as being displeased with the choice and work of Director Richard Donner. And he's right. Donner wasn't a comic director. How did he get this assignment? 

The best parts of Scrooged lie in the performances and a sharp script by Michael O'Donoghue and Mitch Glazer, the former a legendarily bleak original member of the Saturday Night Live writing team. But Murray's criticism -- that all Donner knew how to do in comedies was get everyone to 'go' louder and louder -- is valid. Putting the twitchy, adenoidal Bobcat Goldthwait in a role that called for finesse and an ability to generate sympathy really didn't help either. Karen Allen is welcome as always as the lost love of Murray's Scrooge-like TV executive, and Carol Kane also does some violently funny slapstick. Lightly recommended, for it could have been so much better with a lighter, funnier hand on the helm.

Elvis & Nixon (2016): written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes; directed by Liza Johnson; starring Michael Shannon (Elvis), Kevin Spacey (Nixon), Alex Pettyfer (Jerry Schilling), and Colin Hanks (Krogh): Fizzy, funny imagining of just what went on in December 1970 when Elvis met Nixon. Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey nail the voices and mannerisms of Presley and Tricky Dick, respectively, despite not particularly resembling them physically. It's funny stuff, with maybe a bit too much sentimentality attached to the friendship of Elvis and Jerry Schilling, the latter being what we in the business would once have called The Narrative Focalizer (TM). But when Elvis and Nixon are in a scene, the scene shines, with Colin Hanks offering capable back-up work as one of Nixon's staff. Recommended.

Arrival (2016): adapted from Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" by Eric Heisserer; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams (Louise Banks), Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly), Forest Whitaker (Colonel Weber), Michael Stuhlbarg (Agent Halpern), and Tzi Ma (General Shang): The first half-hour could have used some strenuous advising from someone in the military so as to lose all the military-movie cliches and counter-factual errors that arise. Once we're inside the alien ship, however, things start to sing in this tale of First Contact. 

It's really Amy Adams' show as an actor -- she's great, conveying both intelligence and heartache as the linguist drafted by the U.S. military to figure out the language of the aliens that just parked their giant contact lens in  Montana. More scenes with the aliens would have been appreciated. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve does some nice work with visuals and sound design here, though once again he's made a movie that seems just about 10 minutes longer than it ideally should be. And the sound design occasionally buries the dialogue, suggesting that Villeneuve may be attempting to emulate the sonic garble of Christopher Nolan.  Recommended.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Unstranger Things

Dr. Strange (2016): based on the character created by Steve Ditko; written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Scott Derrickson; starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange), Rachel McAdams (Rachel Palmer), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), Benedict Wong (Wong), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), and Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius): A bit of a boiler-plate Marvel Movie (think Iron Man with magic instead of technology and you've pretty much got it) enlivened by some ambitiously loopy visuals, albeit some of them riffing on Inception and not anything in the Dr. Strange comic books themselves.

The changes to Dr. Strange's character make him a twin for Robert Downey Jr.'s snarky Tony Stark. That's faithful for pre-magic Dr. Strange, not so much for post-magical-training Dr. Strange, possibly early Marvel's least quippy hero -- even Reed Richards (or Sue Storm, for that matter) got off more zingers than Dr. Strange in the 1960's. Created by writer-artist Steve 'Spider-man' Ditko, Dr. Strange's non-quippy gravitas probably makes him the Marvel character who would most benefit from a trade to DC Comics for, say, the Legion of Super-heroes.

Benedict Cumberbatch is fine as Dr. Strange, and Chiwetel Ejiofor does nice work as a seriously reworked Mordo. Mads Mikkelsen plays the least interesting Marvel Movie villain since Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 2. Rachel McAdams is stuck playing Natalie Portman in the Thor movies, only moreso.

The movie's visuals fail spectacularly at the end even as they also succeed admirably in translating Ditko's surreal comic-book visuals of the Dark Dimension into the movie world. To say that the visual redesign of Dr. Strange's greatest foe is regrettable is about the most praise I can offer. The poor bugger has been biggie-sized into a giant floating head that looks an awful lot like what would happen if you painted the Tron visuals for the Master Control Program onto an accordion.

As to the white-washing in regards to Asians... yep, one of Marvel's first prominent, 'good' Asian characters is no more. Doc's mentor, the ancient Asian known only as the Ancient One, is now the surprisingly spry Tilda Swinton, a.k.a. The Whitest Actress Ever. And the other tweaks made to the Ancient One's character don't help much either. 

In other areas, the magic training Strange endures now has all the length and rigor of selecting icons off a computer screen. Really, it makes the Harry Potterverse seem like a world teeming with educational rigor by comparison. Doctor Strange just has to make funky Kung Fu moves -- no pronouncement of spells required. And the mystical doodad Strange and friends need to travel through space-time? It's there to be dropped at a crucial moment, as these things always are. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


Wind Chill (2007): written by Joseph Gangemi and Steven Katz; directed by Gregory Jacobs; starring Emily Blunt (Girl), Ashton Holmes (Guy), and Martin Donovan (Highway Patrolman): A car-sharing ride from Pennsylvania to Delaware for Christmas Break goes horribly awry thanks primarily to the fact that the driver is a stalkery loner who has a crush on passenger Emily Blunt. 

However, the movie's more interested in the supernatural than in stalkery, slashy real-world goings-on, and that makes Wind Chill worth watching. The generic title doesn't help matters, especially as wind chill isn't much of a factor -- it's really just cold and snow and a crashed car, within which about 50% of the movie's scenes take place.

The writers go a couple of times too many to the Well of Dreams That Seem To Be Real, but things are otherwise quite, um, chilling. Portions of the story play effectively with various Urban Legend tropes concerning stopped cars and sinister cops, with a nod to the movie's Urban Legend qualities coming in the unnamed status of our two principals, who remain simply 'Guy' and 'Girl' for the movie. Emily Blunt and Ashton Holmes do decent work as the 'couple,' and the outdoor scenes manage to be sufficiently chilly and forlorn. Recommended.

JeruZalem  (2015): written and directed by Doron and Yoav Paz; starring Danielle Jadelyn (Sarah Pullman), Yael Grobglas (Rachel Klein), Yon Tumarkin (Kevin Reed), and Tom Graziani (Omar): Loopy found-footage film with an anomalous 'Z' in the title. Yes, the 'Z' is there to cater to World War Z fans. But the monsters in this Israeli production aren't zombies. Jerusalem itself is really the on-location star of this film. 

The two Jewish-American 20-something women who visit Jerusalem on holidays have a good time at first before all Hell breaks loose, though not before the protagonist has taken off her footage-filming iGlasses so that we can get a look at her nekkid. Hoo ha! 

The whole thing ends up being a plea for people of different faiths to get along set against a background of apocalyptic destruction. I enjoyed it, especially its non-zombie components. More nudity might have been nice. Recommended.

Quarantine (2008): adapted by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle from the movie Rec, written by Jaume Balaguero, Luiso Berdejo, and Paco Plaza; directed by John Erick Dowdle; starring Jennifer Carpenter (Angela), Steve Harris (Scott), Jay Hernandez (Jay), and Johnathon Schaech (George): Effective Americanization of the Spanish horror movie Rec throws out Roman Catholicism in favour of a more bioterroristic explanation for the horrors that await the cops, paramedics, film crew, and residents in an L.A. apartment building within which they're trapped under quarantine. 

It's another found-footage movie, and as such it plays better on a small screen (or at least less vertiginously). Jennifer Carpenter's character gets annoyingly reduced to screaming, Fay-Wray stand-in for the last third of the film. Admittedly, who wouldn't scream while being assailed by blood-thirsty, super-strong plague victims at every moment? The original was superior, though not by as much as horror cognoscenti like to pretend. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Calling Elvis ... Is Anybody Home?

The Last Detective (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike #9) (2003) by Robert Crais: LA private detective Elvis Cole and occasional partner Joe Pike deal with a problem close to home this time after the son of Cole's girlfriend is abducted from outside Cole's house by someone who claims to have a grudge against Cole for something that happened during Cole's Tour of Duty in Viet Nam.

The mystery plays pretty much fair this time out, though the reader will probably know what's really happened before Cole and Pike. As with many Cole/Pike adventures, this one ends with a violent, cinematic, and thrillingly choreographed action sequence. It's Hardboiled Action in the Mighty Crais Manner! It's all fun and diverting, if a bit shallow. Recommended.

Taken (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike #15) (2012) by Robert Crais: LA private detective Elvis Cole and occasional partner Joe Pike again deal with a problem close to home as a kidnapping case suddenly results in Cole himself being kidnapped. Mighty, laconic Joe Pike springs into action with the help of nearly-as-mighty good-mercenary Jon Stone as the clock ticks on the lifespans of Cole and the young couple he was searching for.

The set-up for Taken is really interesting. The logistics and practice of illegal immigrant trafficking on the U.S.-Mexico border come in for scrutiny. Real-life horrors are exposed, along with real-life hypocrisies. Pike and Stone make the world's most competent rescue team.

Taken is also Robert Crais' most complex novel from a structural standpoint. Several narratives running at different times and with different POV's converge at the climax, seamlessly. It's really a triumph of plot. Recommended.

Good-Bad Cops

Birdman (1999/ Jack Caffery #1) by Mo Hayder: Glastonbury region police detective Jack Caffery makes his first appearance here in a strong though flawed first novel from Mo Hayder. Caffery is of that ilk of police detectives who really should be private eyes -- like Luther or Jo Nesbo's Norwegian Harry Hole, his ability to stay employed by the police often shreds suspension of disbelief. But not so much here in his first adventure.

Caffery, as wounded a presence as almost any fictional detective I can remember, is, seemingly like all wounded detectives public or private, also the Best Damn Detective on the Force. In his first novel, Caffery faces a puzzling case that begins when a building project results in the discovery of several female bodies buried in a mass grave. They all have similar mutilations and surgery scars. What does this mean?

Well, we'll find out eventually. Caffery has to deal with a racist fellow detective whose beliefs send the investigation careening off course. He has to deal with his unsatisfying girlfriend. He has to deal with what must be the world's largest Scotch bill at the liquor store -- seriously, Caffery drinks single-malt Scotch the way other people drink all other liquids consumed in a normal day. And Caffery must wrestle with the demons of his own past, a brother abducted and never found when Caffery was just a boy. 

Hayder skilfully creates the mystery and its halting solution over the first 90% or so of Birdman. Alas, the perilous stereotypes of the thriller in the age of the Hollywood blockbuster make the climax somewhat disappointing, as it gives us yet another absurdly competent serial killer and yet another sidekick imperiled by the stereotype of the dead partner (See: narratives going right back to Gilgamesh). These things seem rote and boring. But the rest of the novel is very good, and Hayder and Caffery will get better as they go along. Recommended.

The Devil's Star (2003) (Harry Hole #5) by Jo Nesbo. Translated by Don Bartlett 2005: Harry Hole (pronounced HO-LEH) appears in his fifth adventure here. The Norwegian police detective's adventures weren't originally available in publication order in English translation, and the three I've read have lacked any overt explanation of when they occur. That's a bit annoying until one can get onto the Internet and discover publication order. So it goes. I still have no idea how Michael Fassbender can play the gaunt, weathered Hole in the movie of The Snowman.

This time around, Hole grapples with alcoholism, a fellow detective whom he suspects of being a criminal, and his relationship with his girlfriend. Oh, and there's a serial killer. Plot-wise, this is a satisfyingly complex and engaging detective thriller -- and the red herrings really work beautifully and surprisingly. 

Harry remains a somewhat improbable figure throughout. The novel deals with the probability that he will either quit his job or be fired at pretty much any moment, but Harry's superhuman detection skills pretty much ensure that that will never happen regardless of what stupid things he does in the course of an adventure. And boy, does he do stupid things in every novel.

It all fits into what some might call The House Paradigm -- the story in which someone's ability at one's job makes him or her impervious to criticism for other failings, no matter how grievous. That's sort of tiring, though at least Harry doesn't kill anyone in a drunk-driving accident this time around, only to escape all punishment because Everybody Looks Out For Harry.

I've read three of Jo Nesbo's Hole novels now, and I'll note one other problematic recurring plot point: once again, one of Harry's loved ones is imperiled by the killer. If this happened as often in real life as it does in novels, TV shows, and movies, no one would be a police officer. Enough already. Create suspense without the repeated threat of horrific violence to a woman or child. So it goes. Recommended.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Trekking to the Oldies

Star Trek: Gold Key Archives Volume 1 (1967-69/ This edition 2014): written by Dick Wood; illustrated by Nevio Zeccara and Alberto Giolitti: Oh, those loopy Gold Key Star Trek comics of the 1960's and 1970's! The first six issues collected here were originally written and drawn by people who had never seen an episode of Star Trek and had been handed what seems to be the briefest of Show Bibles. 

The artists had photo references, but no idea how big the Enterprise was (a cutaway illustration makes it seem about as big as a B-52 bomber) or what James Doohan looked like (Scotty is unrecognizable). The stories themselves are generic space opera, albeit with a few clever moments. The first story is pretty much full-blown scifi horror, an area the real Trek delved into very infrequently. And as a piece of horror, and body horror, it's actually pretty effective, though unrecognizable as Trek

Subsequent stories gradually move closer to Trek, with a clever story about rogue machines endlessly building cities being the strongest, Trekkiest of the stories. Why Dark Horse devoted a fairly pricey Archive series to these books is a bit of a mystery: these things are best enjoyed on cheap paper, preferably in a massive, inexpensive collection. Recommended.

Godhead: New Gods/ Green Lantern (2015): written by Robert Vendetti, Charles Soule, Van Jensen, Cullen Bunn, Justin Jordan, and others; illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver, Billy Tan, Dale Eaglesham, and others: DC tried to reinvent Jack Kirby's iconic Fourth World characters for its post-Flashpoint, rebooted superhero universe of the 'New 52' in this crossover event with the Green Lantern books. It's pretty much a failure on every level, burdened with a plot that's mostly massive battle scenes and a lot of fussy, often confusingly laid-out art. And oh so many Lanterns! 

The leader of the 'good' forces of the 'New Gods,' Izaya the Inheritor, has gone from reflective philosopher-king to violent imperialist. So, too, such previously peaceful New Gods characters such as Lightray, who's now just another soldier in a Cosmic Cold War. Design-wise, nothing of Kirby's has been improved upon. Metron and his Mobius Chair are now a fussy, over-rendered mess. Orion now wears an outfit that makes him look like a bellhop when his helmet is removed. Izaya is just another guy in over-rendered armour.

The 'event' involves the New Gods, self-appointed defenders of the entire multiverse,  discovering the existence of Green Lantern rings, oh, about 5000 years into the existence of those Green Lantern rings. That's some nice universal monitoring, boys. Of course, this is the expanded universe of Green Lantern rings. Which is to say, there are also thousands upon thousands of humans and aliens flying around not only with Green Lantern rings, but with Red and Yellow and Orange and Blue and Indigo and Violet Lantern rings. And there are collector's item, one-of-a-kind White and Black Lantern rings as well. Plaid rings are surely on the horizon.

Izaya decides some combination of these rings will allow him to defeat cosmic menace Darkseid once and for all. Or maybe he just needs the White Lantern ring to do that. Whatever. Much fighting and blowing things up ensues. There's about enough plot here for maybe 50 pages of a comic book, extended to fill 300 increasingly interminable pages. Now that DC has executed a soft line-wide reboot again with the Rebirth event. one can only hope that this dismal bunch of Fourth-World wannabes has been consigned to the ash-heap of continuity resets. Not recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?

Time Out of Joint (1959) by Philip K. Dick: The geniuses at Vintage who packaged up the 2002 reprint of this Philip K. Dick novel put a major, mid-novel plot reveal in the back-cover synopsis. Way to go, guys! One can enjoy Time Out of Joint while already being aware of its major plot twist, but the thrill of that discovery, painstakingly built up to by Dick, should be part of the experience of reading the novel. In a perfect world, anyway.

Ragle Gumm (there's a name!) is a man living in a small, Western American town in 1959. He doesn't have a job, exactly. That's because he's the world champion solver of puzzles in the local newspaper. Specifically, a daily brain-teaser called "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?". Ragle Gumm has an innate gift for recognizing and exploiting patterns. And that's what the newspaper contest offers, day after day, year after year.

He's also single, living with his sister and brother-in-law, and half-in-love with the flirtatious wife of his annoying, intrusive neighbour. Ragle is also getting tired of spending hours every day on the contest. But what's a guy to do?

Time Out of Joint is stellar, fairly early work from Dick. Its characters are nicely drawn, illuminated with a level of psychology Dick hadn't used before in his long-form works. The mystery is a satisfying one, satisfyingly handled. And as often happened in Dick's novels, there really aren't any "bad guys" per se, simply confused people orbiting around the central confusion of Life Itself.

The novel's also an interesting look at 1950's nuclear paranoia as reflected and refracted through Dick's uncommonly odd perceptions and interpretations. When Time Out of Joint first appeared in hardcover in 1959, it was billed as 'A Novel of Menace' on its front cover. That's a pretty good description -- but it's also a novel of recognizable, human characters caught up in the machinery of an absurd, cruel world, trying to make sense of things, trying to make the universe be just a little bit kinder. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Detectives in La-La Land

The Underground Man (1971/ Lew Archer #16) by Ross Macdonald: The fickle Santa Ana winds bring wildfires to Los Angeles as a preamble to murder and sorrow in this late-career Lew Archer hard-boiled-detective novel from Ross Macdonald. It's one of a handful of Macdonald's best-reviewed novels, and one can still see why: it's about as mournful and minutely observed a psychological study as one could ask for.

Lew Archer was certainly one of the most rueful detectives in American detective fiction, haunted by his own personal failures and by the seemingly endless sea of woe that each and every one of his cases plunged him into. This time around, Archer gets pulled into the disappearance of a neighbour's young son. Murder soon follows, along with the possible revelation of much earlier murder: there's more than a whiff of Greek tragedy in the ways in which the past shapes the present in Macdonald's novels. But there's also a sense of Existential randomness -- the effects often seem to have no moral relation to the causes.

This is a fine novel, detective or otherwise, shot through with cynical wit and sharp observations about character and landscape. While the hills around Los Angeles burn and then suddenly shift to life-threatening mudslides when the rains finally come, Archer searches for the best available solution to the case. Highly recommended.

The Monkey's Raincoat (1987/Elvis Cole #1) by Robert Crais: The first of Robert Crais's nouveau-noir novels about Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole and his laconic partner Joe Pike sets the model for many of Cole's subsequent adventures. Cole narrates in a snarky, cynical, but often heart-felt first-person voice. 

Cole minutely (frankly, too minutely) details everything he does: you'll know what he had for lunch, where he bought the ingredients, and what beer goes best with it. It's Crais's way of showing that as dippy as Cole's comments seem, he's always observing and evaluating everything around him in detail. Or maybe of offering the reader sandwich-making tips,

Hollywood coughs up a missing father-and-son case for Cole. But things quickly go bad. The Monkey's Raincoat shows Los Angeles at its best and worst, and Hollywood at its corruptive nadir. Guns and drugs and femmes fatale show up. There's an incompetent agent to be reckoned with, and an extremely sleazy producer.

There are a few flaws. Crais doesn't quite have Pike's character down yet -- a flaw only apparent in comparison to later novels. Cole's ability to sleep with every woman in a narrative is in place here, though Crais would later remove this element from the series. And the climax is almost hilariously "cinematic" -- which is to say that it's a blood-soaked, bullet-popping Assault on the Impregnable Fortress. Was it written with a movie deal in mind? Hey, Crais lives in Los Angeles too! Recommended.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Two by Aickman

The Unsettled Dust (1990/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "Bind Your Hair" (1964); "No Stronger Than a Flower" (1966); "Ravissante" (1968); "The Cicerones" (1967); "The Houses of the Russians" (1968); "The Next Glade" (1980); "The Stains" (1980) [Winner, 1981 British Fantasy Award] ; and "The Unsettled Dust" (1968); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Graham and Heather Smith: 

The Unsettled Dust is a bit of a curiosity in Faber and Faber's recent four-volume reissue of Robert Aickman collections as The Unsettled Dust is a posthumous reprint collection that duplicates one story from both F&F's Dark Entries AND The Wine-Dark Sea reissues ("Bind Your Hair") and two more from just The Wine-Dark Sea ("The Stains" and "The Next Glade"). Given that the F&F volumes are now the only Robert Aickman short-story collections available in mass-market editions, little or no duplication among collections would be ideal.

Nonetheless, any in-print, readily available Aickman is good. He's the master of a fairly rarefied type of ghost story, one for which he preferred the term "strange story." His stories will enthrall a (relatively) small readership. Most of Aickman's stories are too subtle for most readers, leaving them unmoved and confused as to Aickman's importance. And that's fine. He's one of the Boss Levels of horror/weird fiction. 

Those who like him, like him a lot -- but not liking him doesn't make one a 'bad' reader. Indeed, Aickman's hypercritical views caused him to dislike or dismiss many stories and writers considered by many (including myself) to be classics and masters -- almost the entire oeuvre of M.R. James, much of Henry James, all of H.P. Lovecraft, to name three writers whom Aickman found seriously wanting. So if you find Robert Aickman seriously wanting, you're just following in the footsteps of... Robert Aickman.

The stories here are mostly excellent. The one misfire is "No Stronger Than a Flower," a strange story about female vanity that seems both dated and obnoxiously sexist. But that's more than offset by the strange and disturbing wonders of such stories as "The Cicerones." That story is almost a short model of the Aickman approach: the events of the story are rendered clearly and precisely, but no emphatic explanations are offered as to why things are happening. It's immensely disturbing. So, too, "The Stains," in which horror, romantic rapture, and erotic fixation combine in a story about a recently widowed man who falls in love with... well, that's a good question.

In all, this is probably the best Faber and Faber volume to introduce yourself or others to Aickman, covering as it does more than a decade of Aickman's best stories. And when you've read them, please explain to me what the Hell is actually going on in "The Stains." Or "The Cicerones." Highly recommended.

Dark Entries (1964/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "The School Friend" (1964); "Ringing the Changes" (1955); "Choice of Weapons" (1964); "The Waiting Room" (1956); "The View" (1951); and "Bind Your Hair" (1964); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Ramsey Campbell: This is Faber and Faber's reissue of weird-fiction master Robert Aickman's first solo collection of short stories, novelettes, and novels. 

Aickman amazes insofar as it's very difficult to distinguish between stories written in 1950 and stories written in 1979: his style and subject matter emerge seemingly fully grown and developed. Obviously, they didn't really -- Aickman started publishing in his 30's, after years of work on his art.

For all the strange and disturbing mystery of Aickman's stories and the cool, detailed nature of his prose, Aickman nonetheless often took tired horror tropes and rendered them fresh and new by re-investing them with that unexplained mystery rendered so cleanly and clearly that one feels as if one has simply missed an explanation somewhere in the story: Aickman doesn't create mystery with obfuscations of prose style. You're watching a magic trick performed without smoke and without mirrors.

Take "Ringing the Changes." It's a zombie story. But what a zombie story! Or "The School Friend": is it a Jekyll and Hyde story? Sort of. "The Waiting Room" seems like a traditional ghost story until one gets to the ghosts, whose behaviour is both inert and cosmically threatening. "Bind your Hair" makes witchcraft scary and mysterious. 

These are great, mid-career stories from one of weird and horror fiction's prickly, mysterious greats. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 11, 2016


The late, great Canadian poet Alden Nowlan wrote my favourite poem of war and remembrance, "Ypres 1915."

"Sometimes I’m not even sure that I have a country.
But I know that they stood there at Ypres 
the first time the Germans used gas, 
that they were almost the only troops 
in that section of the front 
who did not break and run, 

who held the line."

Monday, November 7, 2016

Eight is Enough

Dracula (1931): adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston from the play by Garrett Fort adapted from the novel by Bram Stoker; directed by Tod Browning; starring Bela Lugosi (Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing): This stagey, bloodless Dracula was a big hit in 1931. It has the hallmarks of early sound film -- that super-heavy, static sound camera pretty much necessitated a nearly immobile, stagey shot. 

Bela Lugosi is great, especially in the first section set at Castle Dracula. Dwight Frye is a hoot as Renfield, the foundational figure for so many crazed characters to come in horror movies. Once the action moves to England, things become a bit tedious. And the censorship people ensure that Dracula dies off-screen with barely an "Argh!" to mark his passing. F.W. Murnau's bootleg Dracula, Nosferatu (1922), is a far superior work, as are many of the later adaptations. Still, Lugosi remains a bracing presence. Recommended.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998): adapted by Don Jakoby from the novel by John Steakley; directed by John Carpenter; starring James Woods (Jack Crow), Daniel Baldwin (Montoya), Sheryl Lee (Katrina), Thomas Ian Griffith (Valek), Tim Guinee (Father Guiteau), and Maximillian Schell (Cardinal Alba): One of John Carpenter's crappier offerings. Oh, sure, it has its moments. But it's crippled by a totally uninteresting vampire antagonist (Thomas Ian Griffith), sloppy writing, and the perplexing choice to have Daniel Baldwin play a character named 'Montoya,' complete with dyed-black hair to, I suppose, trick the audience into thinking Baldwin is Hispanic. The treatment of women is a bit... problematic, given that women in this movie are either prostitutes or vampires (or in Sheryl Lee's case, both).  I was entertained, but not a lot. Lightly recommended.

Krampus (2015): written by Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields, and Todd Casey; directed by Michael Dougherty; starring Adam Scott (Tom), Toni Collette (Sarah), David Koechner (Howard), Emjay Anthony (Max), and Conchata Ferrell (Aunt Dorothy): Michael Dougherty's ode to Gremlins isn't as good as Gremlins (which was also set at Christmas), which may be more an indictment of studio interference than anything else. Krampus, which visits the Germanic anti-Santa Claus on a small American town that has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, needs sharper editing in its first half, which seems to run on forever while we wait for Anti-Claus to show up.

Thankfully, Krampus and his twisted minions -- horrible snowmen, horrifying toys, homicidal gingerbread men, and a really nice looking evil Christmas-tree Angel -- do arrive to scare and stalk Adam Scott's family, who are too angry and fractious for The True Meaning of Christmas to take hold. There are some lovely effects both mechanical and CGI animating the various monsters, including Krampus itself. And there's a real sense of menace as things roll towards the end.

Depending on one's interpretation, Krampus either manages a treacly happy ending, a slightly menacing happy ending, or a refreshingly bleak ending in which not even a baby is safe from damnation. Seriously. At 100 minutes, Krampus feels about 15 minutes too long and two sugar packets too sweet for some stretches. But I still enjoyed it. I also enjoyed that it offers an odd commentary on this year's U.S. election: Republican or Democrat, Krampus is taking none of your self-serving bullshit if you're committed to a world where only money matters. Recommended.

The Forest (2016): written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai; directed by Jason Zada; starring Natalie Dormer (Sara/ Jess Price) and Taylor Kinney (Aiden): Dull film set mostly in Japan's 'Suicide Forest' (but filmed in Serbia) wastes a solid turn by Natalie Dormer as twin sisters. That this movie is actually inferior to the straight-to-cable, bafflingly titled The Last Halloween/ Grave Halloween is an extraordinary feat of wasted opportunity. Among other things, features characters following a river by walking away from said river at a 90-degree angle. OK! Not recommended.

Joy (2015): written by Annie Mumolo and David O. Russell; directed by David O. Russell; starrimg Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Robert De Niro (Rudy), Bradley Cooper (Neil Walker), Diane Ladd (Mimi), Edgar Ramirez (Tony), Virginia Madsen (Terry), Isabella Rossellini (Trudy), and Dascha Polanco (Jackie): Another enjoyable David O. Russell/Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper movie, not up to the standards of American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook but still solid, quirky drama. 

It's all expressionistically based on a real person, nearly broke new Jersey housewife Joy, who's suppressed her creative and financial acumen for much of her adult life until she invents a new type of mop. With some aid and a lot of the exact opposite of aid from family members and friends, she eventually becomes a home-shopping success. 

The acting is fine -- fine enough that it sometimes takes time to register what utter dinks Joy's father (De Niro), his new girlfriend (Rossellini), and Joy's half-sister can be, and are, most of the time. A story of female empowerment through engineering and financial acumen is a pretty unusual thing. And the legal ins and outs of patent law end up being pretty gripping. The ending needs more work, and the partial-flashback-with-narration structure never quite seems to gel. Nonetheless, Lawrence is splendid, as is most of the supporting cast. Recommended.

Jack Reacher (2012): adapted by Christopher McQuarrie from the novel One Shot by Lee Child; directed by Christopher McQuarrie; starring Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Richard Jenkins (Rodin), David Oyelowo (Emerson), and Werner Herzog (The Zec): Surprisingly fun thriller with 5'7" Tom Cruise playing novelist Lee Child's 6'4" hero Jack Reacher. The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie knows how to write a decent script and how to direct it. A long cameo appearance by Robert Duvall is a bit wonky. Surprisingly for a modern thriller, there's neither any real development of a love interest for Reacher -- he and Rosamund Pike remain platonic pals -- nor any touchy-feely character development for Cruise's character. He's just a hyper-competent guy living off the grid. Recommended.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014): written by David Koepp and Adam Cozad, based on characters created by Tom Clancy; directed by Kenneth Branagh; starring Chris Pine (Jack Ryan), Keira Knightley (Cathy Muller), Kevin Costner (Thomas Harper), and Kenneth Branagh (Viktor Cherevin): Paramount attempts to reboot the Jack Ryan franchise by moving the characters about 40 years forwards in time and turning Ryan from a naval expert to a financial wizard. The first half actually goes pretty well, with Chris 'NuCaptain Kirk' Pine playing Ryan as a sort of Captain Kirk of the banking system. Indeed, the relationship between Pine and his CIA recruiter-turned-controller Kevin Costner plays an awful lot like the Kirk/Pike relationship in the 2009 Trek reboot. Kenneth Branagh, slumming again, does an able job. But the script goes completely awry in the second half, degenerating into an endless car chase that satisfies not at all. And let's face it -- computer-based financial warfare just isn't as interesting in a cinematic sense as a submarine chase. Ultimately, not recommended.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): adapted by Peter Bryan from the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle; directed by Terence Fisher; starring Peter Cushing (Sherlock Holmes), Andre Morrell (Doctor Watson), Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville), Marla Landi (Cecile Stapleton), Ewen Solon (Stapleton), and Francis de Wolff (Dr. Mortimer): Zippy, relatively faithful Sherlock Holmes movie casts an energetic though diminutive Peter Cushing as the great detective and Christopher Lee as the target of the Baskerville curse. This came from Hammer Films, generally best known for horror in the 1950's and 1960's -- indeed, the interiors of Baskerville Hall previously served as Dracula's home in Horror of Dracula. As usual for Hammer, the movie looks great and moves with great pace to its conclusion. It's a shame Hammer didn't make more Holmes movies. Recommended.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Where Monsters Dwell

The Thief of Broken Toys (2011) by Tim Lebbon: This lovely, lonely, haunting short novel is a thing of disturbing beauty from Tim Lebbon. There's a Ray Bradbury quality to some of the story elements (especially that eponymous being). But it's the leaner Bradbury of the 1940's, the one capable of horror. 

The loss of a son to an undiagnosed genetic disorder has left the novel's protagonist, the boy's father, in an emotional purgatory as The Thief of Broken Toys begins. His wife struggles to move on -- in part by having left him. He stays at home, for the most part, where he's been for the most part of a year. And then, on one of his nightly walks on the English sea coast, he encounters the eponymous being -- an old man who offers him the ability to heal. Beware strangers bearing supernatural gifts, no matter how seemingly benign!

I don't know that all of the elements work. The occasionally intruding narration speaks to larger things outside the events of the novel, but it never entirely convinced me, or at least convinced me that it was necessary to the tragedy and horror of the story itself. Nonetheless, this is stellar work from Lebbon. 

Technically this is 'quiet horror,' but it's horror nonetheless. And the final catastrophe horrifies without any blood being spilled or tentacled monster making an appearance. Actually, a tentacled monster would probably have been comforting. Highly recommended.

The Keep (1981) by F. Paul Wilson: F. Paul Wilson's first 'big' novel is also his best. A dreadful movie adaptation in the mid-1980's, directed by Michael Mann, got pretty much everything wrong about Wilson's original. The Keep is a clever synthesis of vampire novel, cosmic horror, and high fantasy, though that last bit doesn't become evident until the last 50 pages or so. Its best horror moments come in its first half, while the full nature of the adversary remains hidden from reader and characters alike.

The Keep would soon be folded into Wilson's 'Adversary Cycle,' a six-novel arc that is itself part of a much larger body of work dubbed 'The Secret History of the World' that includes Wilson's multi-volume Repairman Jack series. My version of The Keep ends without any sort of cliffhanger or 'stinger' ending, but this may not be true of later editions of the novel. Wilson rewrote a number of novels to eradicate inconsistencies within both the Cycle and the Secret History.

The genius of The Keep lies in its use of the Nazis as foils to the greater evil growing inside the Keep. It's 1941. Much of the action occurs in an isolated part of Romania where German infantry have been entrusted with taking control of that mysterious Keep. The name itself is a misnomer -- there was never a castle surrounding the structure, and the name was simply attached as a matter of convenience. Why are there unusually designed crosses embedded in the walls of the Keep? Why does anyone who tries to sleep there awake from nightmares of confinement? Who's been paying to maintain the Keep with a long line of well-recompensed villagers from an adjacent village for the last 500 years? And why has the German Army Captain in charge of the Keep telegrammed High Command to ask for help because "something is killing my men"?

Well, there's the novel. Wilson's strongest character work involves the fraught relationship between the German Army Captain and the SS Major sent to deal with the problem. The Captain hates the Nazis, but he's also a loyal soldier. The SS Major is a coward and a sadist who dreams of the money to be made once he takes control of Nazi preparations in Ploesti for the coming Romanian Holocaust. As problems at the Keep continue despite the SS presence, they agree to summon a Romanian-Jewish scholar who's the world's only known authority on the Keep. As the scholar has been crippled by a wasting disease, along with him comes his bright, unmarried daughter.

Props where props are due: that daughter makes for an interesting and unusual character in a horror novel written by a young man in the late 1970's and early 1980's. She becomes the focus of the third-person narrative, and Wilson makes her a compelling figure who wants a life of intellectual achievement in a world where both her gender and her ethnicity stand against any such achievement. While this character is put in jeopardy on numerous occasions, Wilson never makes her a stereotypical female victim. By the climax of the novel, she's one of the two most important characters in terms of opposing the ancient, dark force inside the Keep.

As noted, the strongest moments of horror come in the first half, as a mysterious, unseen force stalks the Keep. But the revelation of the horror doesn't immediately deflate the narrative of its mystery: the creature explains what it is, but there are odd gaps and curiosities in its story. And the discovery of a cache of Lovecraftian banned texts points the way towards an explanation that has nothing to do with vampires or werewolves or ghosts. And they are literally Lovecraftian texts, the Necronomicon and a number of other fictional 'banned' books mentioned by H.P. Lovecraft and his fellow Cthulhuists over the years in a nod by Wilson to his American horror forerunners.

Once the novel passes that midway point, elements of a more conventional thriller begin to blend with elements of both dark and high fantasy. There are even riffs on the sort of material made popular by The Lord of the Rings and Robert E. Howard's Conan series. But Wilson also keeps things rooted in the historical setting of 1941 Eastern Europe, with the seemingly unstoppable Nazis about to embark on their betrayal of the Soviet Union. It's a relatively long novel, but it's briskly told in Wilson's competent, unflashy prose.  To nod to an old chestnut, if you read one novel by F. Paul Wilson, it should be this one. Highly recommended.

The Black Country (2013) by Alex Grecian: Enjoyable mystery set in England's coal country in 1890. The characters are engaging, though the central mystery will be familiar to anyone who has read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008) by Kate Summerscale. Grecian adds a second mystery to the mix, albeit one linked to the first. Apparently not finding the generally well-portrayed oddities of the coal-mining town and its superstitions to be diverting enough, he also throws in several sections set at the horrifying Andersonville POW camp run with murderous efficiency by the Confederacy in one of those historical foreshadowings of the Holocaust. 

Just to lighten things up, Grecian adds a lot of low-level comedy to the relationship of the two Scotland Yard detectives sent to the coal town. He even throws in a lovable, mentally handicapped giant. And a scar-faced mystery man. And an abandoned baby magpie which first one detective and then the giant try to nurse back to health. And village superstitions attached to a mythical monster called Rawhead and Bloody Bones. And a mysterious disease sweeping the village. And a cinematic climax, first above and then below the ground in the village as it is wracked by subsidence caused by over-mining. 

We even get a final few lines that will remind the reader of either the forced comedy that seemed to end every 1960's and 1970's American TV drama no matter how dire the preceding events -- or the parodic endings of every episode of Police Squad (a.k.a. the TV show that the Naked Gun movie series continued). It's a diverting novel, though the setting seems under-served by the novel's pedestrian yet over-stuffed ambitions. Lightly recommended.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World (2006) by Steven Berlin Johnson: Enthralling, sweeping examination of England's last major cholera outbreak in London's Broad Street neighbourhood near Soho in 1854, and how two men ensured that England would never suffer from a cholera outbreak again. Medical Doctor John Snow and Anglican curate Henry Whitehead, both of whom lived near the outbreak, would form a somewhat unlikely Dynamic Duo whose detective work and scientific acumen would convince the medical and civil authorities of London that cholera was a disease spread by contaminated water and not, as then-standard wisdom had it, by 'miasmic' gases.

Much of the book is marvelous and humane, explaining the rise of cholera to being one of the world's great killers over the course of the last 200 years. Along the way, The Ghost Map also delves into the development of epidemiology, safe sewer and water-supply systems, and the toxic Social Darwinism that helped blind Victorian England to the true cause of cholera in its cities. The book also offers a tour through London's underground economy of night-soil men and cat-meat men and coster-mongers and 'pure' collectors (pure was a euphemism for dog shit), and their roles in keeping the 'above-ground' world running.

You'll also visit the horrifying cess-pits and cesspools and streets of 1854 London. You'll discover why alcohol, tea, and coffee were all integral to the urbanization of the world. But mostly you'll deal with these two heroes of science and rationality, Snow and Whitehead, as they individually and then dually seek an answer to the Broad Street Outbreak. Only in the last 20 pages or so does Johnson waver, as he suddenly takes the book so wide as to attempt to convince the reader that the world will be a better, more environmentally friendly place when everyone lives in cities (not suburbs -- cities proper). It feels like the beginning of a different book, one whose enthusiasm for urban living and disdain for rural living comes gushing straight out of its author and onto the page. All it really lacks is the line, "Since the beginning of time, man has longed to evacuate the countryside!".

But other than the writer's book-derailing, evangelical rant about the Great Goodness of Cities, The Ghost Map is terrific, informative, sad, and hopeful. Lift your glass of clean drinking water to Snow and Whitehead, who defeated an invisible enemy 30 years before humanity could reliably find cholera under a microscope. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Oscars and Monsters and Poor Career Choices

The Revenant (2015): adapted by Alejandro Inarritu and Mark L. Smith from the novel by Michael Punke; directed by Alejandro Inarritu; starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass); Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald); and Domhnall Gleason (Captain Henry): Set in early 19th-century Montana and South Dakota, The Revenant is an odyssey of survival and revenge for guide Hugh Glass, played almost silently by Leonardo DiCaprio in a role that won him his first Best Actor Oscar

There's nothing wrong with that acting -- boy, does Glass suffer, and boy is he covered in filth and wounds for most of the movie! Alejandro Inarritu won his second straight directorial Oscar (the first was for the previous year's Birdman), and he certainly puts on a grimy, Sublime, haunting show of photography. Vaguely based on a true story, The Revenant is the Western as horror movie with more than a hint of a Republic serial re-imagined as being deadly serious yet, through the sheer accumulation of unfortunate events, almost comic as it reaches its end. 

Glass is a Beckett character, crawling through the muck, transforming into the vengeful 'dead' man of the title. Tom Hardy has never been better as pragmatic trapper Fitzgerald, Glass' nemesis in the movie (though not in real life). Some trimming might have helped -- by the time Glass and the horse go over a cliff, my suspension of disbelief had been exhausted. Recommended.

The Thing (1982): adapted by Bill Lancaster from the novella "Who Goes There?" (1938) by John W. Campbell Jr.; directed by John Carpenter; starring Kurt Russell (MacReady); Wilford Brimley (Blair), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Copper), and Donald Moffat (Garry): Alien (1979) was a great screech of cosmic horror mingled with body horror in the best Lovecraftian tradition. The Thing is its thematic sequel, taking fears of bodily invasion and transformation and making them even more horrifying and goopy. 

The Thing was adapted previously by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks in the 1950's as a sort-of Cold War paranoia thriller with an evil carrot rather than an evil, well, disease. This version is truer to John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1938 novella in terms of location (Antarctica, not the Arctic of the 1950's version) and monster (a body-invading, endlessly replicating Thing rather than a vampiric, Frankensteinian Creature). The Hawks film was much truer to the character dynamics of Campbell's novella, where manly, competent men met a terrible threat with overwhelming, intelligent, manly camaraderie.

Here, our heroes are fractious as per the model of the Nostromo's crew in Alien. Given that the Thing could be any one of them (or even all of them -- it's just that invasive!), their paranoia is understandable. But they still team up to battle an alien invasion. One of the things that makes The Thing stand out even more now is the lack of references to the characters' lives outside Antarctica: one imagines that, remade today, there would have to be some motivations assigned to the characters for their resistance to the invasion. 

Because people don't do things in NuHollywood unless there's a wife or child involved. This lack of 'personal motivation' makes The Thing bracing in my estimation -- the men are trying to save the world with no possible hope of rescue or survival. And even the most grumpy among them realize the scope of the Thing's danger and set to work. It's almost like people can do things for the common good without specific personal motivation!

The actors (what a cast!) are great, the creature effects still chilling and awful, the scenery still Sublime, the whole thing still rousing and disturbing. What's weird is that The Thing is hopeful about humanity in a way few horror movies allow themselves to be. But avoid the dopey 2011 prequel! Highly recommended.

Misery (1990): adapted by William Goldman from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Rob Reiner; starring Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes); James Caan (Paul Sheldon); Richard Farnsworth (Sheriff Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Deputy Virginia), and Lauren Bacall (Paul's Agent): Kathy Bates deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes, self-proclaimed "number-one fan" of historical romance writer Paul Sheldon. And James Caan is really good as Sheldon in a role that confines him to bed and wheelchair for much of Misery's running time. 

This is one of a handful of the sharpest adaptations of a novel by Stephen King, alternately funny and horrifying in a way that replicates King's prose. King signed off on Rob Reiner directing after the success of Reiner's previous King adaptation, Stand by Me, the movie from the novella that gave a name to Reiner's production company (Castle Rock). William Goldman and Rob Reiner tone down some of the novel's more gruesomely baroque moments (bye-bye lawnmower!), but there's still lots of body horror to go around. Bates' Wilkes is a menacing but at times oddly sympathetic character -- it seems at times that she's fully aware of what a monster she is. Highly recommended.

Sisters (2015): written by Paula Pell; directed by Jason Moore; starring Tina Fey (Kate Ellis) and Amy Poehler (Maura Ellis): What a dreadful movie, dreadfully wasting a talented cast in a misbegotten attempt to put smart comic actors Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a raunchy attempt to duplicate a Judd Apatow film. Or maybe Seth Rogen's Neighbours. It's awful. An immensely talented cast is awful. The writing is awful. The desperate mugging and improvising by the cast is awful. There are laughs scattered throughout, but it's agony to reach them. Possibly the worst 'major' movie of 2015. Not recommended.

Gods of Egypt (2016): written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless; directed by Alex Proyas; starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Horus); Brenton Thwaites (Bek); Elodie Yung (Hathor); Bryan Brown (Osiris); Chadwick Boseman (Thoth); Gerard Butler (Set); and Geoffrey Rush (Ra): That none of the major characters are played by Egyptian, Persian, or Arabic actors stirred something of a media firestorm. The moviemakers may have welcomed this -- Gods of Egypt wasn't going to get any buzz for actually being good. What the Hell happened to Alex (The Crow, Dark City) Proyas in the last 15 years? Great Osiris! 

The set design and CGI are the most interesting things in this movie which, like Disney's Aladdin, riffs without credit on those two old Thief of Baghdad movies by centering its story on a thief (Bek) who gets caught up in wacky supernatural adventures. The cast keeps a straight face. They should get awards for that. Not the worst big-budget, CGI spectacular ever made -- its dopiness is pretty much in line with about a hundred other gods-and-monsters movies from the 1960's and 1950's. 

The movie would be much more interesting if the Egyptian gods all had their animal heads for the entire running time rather than just when they're fighting. And given that the gods have gold running through their veins (and I assume arteries), what's their body temperature? For reasons unexplained, the great serpent Apophis looks an awful lot like a Dune sandworm on steroids, marking the sandworm's second unlikely cameo in an 18-month period (the first being in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies). Lightly recommended.

Churchill's Secret (2016): adapted by Stewart Harcourt from the novel by Jonathan Smith; directed by Charles Sturridge; starring Michael Gambon (Winston Churchill), Romola Garai (Nurse Millie Appleyard); and Lindsay Duncan (Clemmie Churchill): Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered at least two debilitating strokes in June 1953, two years after being re-elected in 1951. The public didn't know this until decades later, as it was covered up. This partially fictional film details Churchill's recovery, with the narrative focused through a fictional nurse who cares for Churchill at his ancestral estate while he convalesces. It's a typically fine BBC/PBS production with beautifully modulated performances throughout, most notably by Romola Garai as the fictional Nurse Appleyard and Michael Gambon as Churchill.  Churchill's warts -- especially his problematic family life -- are on full display, though the entire effort really serves to humanize him. Recommended.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): adapted from the Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai by William Roberts; directed by John Sturges; starring Yul Brynner (Chris); Eli Wallach (Calvera); Steve McQueen (Tanner); Horst Buchholz (Chico); Charles Bronson (O'Reilly); Robert Vaughn (Lee); Brad Dexter (Harry); James Coburn (Britt); Vladimir Sokoloff (Old Man); and Rosendo Monteros (Petra): By my count, this is the second major Hollywood MetaWestern (after Shane). That is, what seems like an elegy for the vanishing American West of the late 19th century -- so vanishing that most of the action takes place in Mexico! -- is also an elegy for the American Western movie. In 1960, Westerns were well on their way out. The Magnificent Seven celebrates their strengths while also pointing the way towards the relatively brief renaissance of the grittier, grimier, more morally ambiguous Spaghetti Western that would soon rise and then quickly fade.

These are still the clean-cut cowboys of the 1940's and 1950's Western. But the early scenes that introduce protagonists Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner focus on how these two gunslingers really have nowhere to go in the increasingly civilized American West -- the only job available for McQueen in the American border town at the start of the movie is as a grocery clerk. When three Mexicans from a village annually looted by bandido Calvera and his men meet with Brynner to offer him money to solve the Calvera problem, Brynner accepts. And has little problem rounding up the other six members of his merry band.

The rest, as they say, is movie history. There's almost no blood or gore in the film. However, Sturges stages the deaths of those Magnificent Seven who don't survive the final battle with Calvera in various, almost mournfully abject ways, never moreso than with one gunslinger who collapses into an upright fetal position against a wall. It's not that much of a cinematic leap from The Magnificent Seven to the more graphic and downbeat The Wild Bunch, set even later in the Western period and offering a continuation and an amplification of this movie's elegaic qualities while also offering a revisionist take on Western morals (and clothing styles).

This is a fine movie -- stylistically still very much a last gasp of classical Hollywood cinema. The cast does lovely work, from Brynner and McQueen as the greatest of the enlisted gunslingers to Horst Buchholz as a young gunfighter from Mexican heritage. The musical score by Elmer Bernstein is also pivotal. This is the rare remake of a foreign film (Kurosawa's Seven Samurai) that works beautifully on its own. Highly recommended.

Foul Play (1978): written and directed by Colin Higgins; starring Goldie Hawn (Gloria Mundy); Chevy Chase (Tony); Burgess Meredith (Hennessey); Brian Dennehy (Fergie); Dudley Moore (Stanley Tibbetts); and Billy Barty (MacKuen): Foul Play's writer-director Colin Higgins also wrote Silver Streak and Harold and Maude, and was writer-director of 9 to 5. That's a pretty solid resume for Higgins, who died at the age of 47 in 1988. And Foul Play is still a lot of fun. Foul Play was slightly retooled to be a star vehicle for both Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, the latter coming off his single, hyper-popular-break-out year on Saturday Night Live. I'm pretty sure Chase's pratfalls in this movie were written for him. 

The movie itself is quite charming, though there are a couple of jarring bits of violence amidst the goofball stuff. And there are Hitchcock homages galore. Burgess Meredith slathers it on a bit too thickly as Hawn's lovable Irish neighbour. Billy Barty and Dudley Moore have terrific supporting roles (this was Moore's American movie debut), with Moore's work pretty much getting him 10 and Arthur. I still think Dan Brown stole the Albino in The DaVinci Code from this film. I mean, there's even a papal assassination plot and an anti-Catholic organization in this movie! And Billy Barty! Goldie Hawn is super-cute. Chevy Chase is Chevy Chase. Recommended.