Wednesday, June 29, 2016

I Can't Think of a Title...

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003): adapted from the Patrick O'Brian novels by Peter Weir and John Collee; directed by Peter Weir; starring Russell Crowe (Captain Jack Aubrey), Paul Bettany (Dr. Stephen Maturin), Billy Boyd (Coxswain Bonden), Lee Ingleby (Midshipman Hollom), and James D'Arcy (1st Lt. Pullings): Only the prohibitive expense of filming on water kept Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World from being the intended start of a series of adaptations of the naval adventures of Patrick O'Brian's Captain Jack Aubrey and Surgeon Stephen Maturin -- this movie was a hit, but not a big enough one. It's a bracing, detailed, and beautifully photographed and directed naval story set in the Napoleon era of the early 19th century. 

Russell Crowe's Aubrey pursues a much-more-powerful French ship across half the world, ending up near the Galapagos Islands. There, some comic business with Dr. Maturin nearly discovering evolution before Darwin reminds one a lot of some of the business in the film version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

The naval battles win the day, giving one a sense of strategy and tactics on the high seas with only sails and oars to rely upon. Crowe and Paul Bettany shine as the two leads -- Crowe's beefiness seems perfectly suited to playing a hero of a bygone era. The supporting cast is fine all the way through. Are there any speaking parts (or indeed parts) for women in this movie? Well, no, not really. A female South Sea islander appears on screen for about ten seconds. Otherwise, manly men do manly things on the manly waves. Highly recommended.

Warcraft (2016): adapted from the video game by Charles Leavitt and Duncan Jones; directed by Duncan Jones; starring Travis Fimmel (Lothar), Paula Patton (Garona), Ben Foster (Guardian Medivh), Dominic Cooper (Llane Wrynn), Toby Kebbell (Durotan), and Ben Schnetzer (Khadgar): Not the worst fantasy movie I've ever seen. The talented Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code, and son of David Bowie) stages some decent set-pieces and also manages to make the Orcs of Warcraft into compelling beings. What plotting the movie has, however, makes it resemble an assembly of cut-scenes. 

And the game-based musculature of the Orcs looks ridiculous, a problem no amount of CGI money could possibly fix. 

The truly striking problem lies in the casting of the human forces, though. While Paula Patton is fine as a human-sized female Orc and the motion-capture actors do decent work as the rest of the Orcs, the humans are not so fortunate. Never have a couple of mages, a king, and a mighty warrior seemed so lame. I mean, Ben Foster in the Gandalf/Saruman role of Guardian? Seriously? The best thing in the CGI is the giant griffin one character flies around on. Get that beast its own movie. Still, not nearly as annoying as those three godawful Hobbit movies. And hey, China likes it! Lightly recommended.

The Visit (2015): written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; starring Olivia DeJonge (Becca), Ed Oxenbould (Tyler), Deanna Dunagan (Nana), Peter McRobbie (Pop Pop), and Kathryn Hahn (Mom): A decent thriller from M. Night Shyamalan... with a twist! This movie only cost $5 million, which is why it was considered a financial success despite grossing almost exactly the same amount of money domestically as the universally reviled M. Night Shyamalan bomb The Happening, a.k.a. The One where Mark Wahlberg Runs Away from Wind. 

The Visit is blessedly short and gifted with four out of five decent actors in the main roles. The non-decent actor playing grandson Tyler isn't necessarily a bad actor -- he's just been burdened with a cutesy rapping obsession that probably looked a lot better on the page than it plays on screen. 

The plot is simple -- the two children of a mother estranged from her parents since before the kids were born go to visit the grandparents for a week, mostly against their mother's wishes. Meanwhile, Mom goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend. The oldest grandchild, the granddaughter, is filming everything because she's obsessed with film and hey, this is yet another 'found-footage' horror movie. Shyamalan wrings a few new shocks out of the first-person camera. Certainly not a great movie, but enjoyable. Recommended.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Crisis after Crisis

JLA: Tower of Babel (2000/ Collected 2001): written by Mark Waid, D. Curtis Johnson, John Ostrander, and Christopher Priest; illustrated by Howard Porter, Drew Geraci, Eric Battle, Ken Lashley, Prentis Rollins, Ron Boyd, Mark Pajarillo, Walden Wong, Steve Scott, and Mark Probst: Mark Waid began his run on JLA [Justice League of America] back in the year 2000 by pitting the League against its greatest enemy yet. 

Of course, that enemy was a founding member of the League itself who came up with secret contingency plans to take out every member of the League in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, that founding member's security wasn't as secure as the member believed. A super-villain gets the information and uses it, crippling the world's mightiest heroes as part of a plan to wipe out as much of humanity as possible so as to save the Earth.

Who is that member? Well, technically it's a spoiler. All I'll say is that it isn't Aquaman.

Waid's contemporary Silver-Age grooviness and knack for superhero characterization and plausibly implausible super-scientific threats make this particular story arc sing. Departing JLA penciller Howard Porter handles most of the art duties in his usual craggy, energetic style. 

The fill-in issues and stand-alone stories by other hands collected here are all very enjoyable as well, especially the opening story penned by D. Curtis Johnson, which reads like a lost JLA story from the Denny O'Neil era of the 1970's. Highly recommended

JLA: Syndicate Rules (2004-2005/ Collected 2006): written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Ron Garney and Dan Green: Among other things, the Syndicate Rules arc is a sequel to JLA/Avengers, also written by Kurt Busiek. This is never stated completely outright because DC doesn't have the rights to actually name the Avengers in a DC-only book, but there it is regardless. And it's really a fine sequel to that gigantic, over-stuffed, bombastic, hyper-enjoyable DC/Marvel crossover. We even get two artists then mainly associated with Marvel, Ron Garney and Dan Green, on the art duties. 

This is also a follow-up to Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's JLA: Earth-2 graphic novel, which introduced new versions of the evil, alternate-Earth Crime Syndicate of Amerika to the early-oughts DC Universe. They're evil, anti-matter versions of Superman, Wonder Woman and company first introduced way back in the 1960's when Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky did the Justice League of America.

Anyway, Busiek is one of the masters of extrapolating and expanding and expounding upon comic-book continuity without making that continuity ponderous or onerous. And he's an expert at the necessary short-hand of mainstream superhero characterization. Syndicate Rules rings some interesting variations on old JLA/CSA stories while also adding new dimensions to this inter-dimensional tussle. Busiek also manages to give Silver-Age Green-Lantern-foes The Weaponers of Qward an interesting back-story while also making them a real threat to villains and heroes alike.

Ron Garney and inker Dan Green do nice work on what for them were unfamiliar characters at the time. This is an extremely action-packed saga, and Garney and Green render the action in convincing, epic fashion throughout. An enjoyably rousing, clever, and beautifully plotted story arc. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Gone (DCI Jack Caffery #5) (2010) by Mo Hayder

Gone (DCI Jack Caffery #5) (2010) by Mo Hayder: Morose DCI Jack Caffery returns along with Sergeant 'Flea' Marley to once again do battle with the forces of crime in and around Bristol, England. As in other Caffery novels that include the later Poppet and the earlier The Treatment, Gone involves horrible things happening to children. 

This time around, Caffery's Major Crime Investigation Unit and Marley's underwater unit (a unit used for things besides fighting underwater crime) team up to track down a serial kidnapper of children before he kills -- or kidnaps again. 

Caffery is his usual tortured, dogged, intuitive, hyper-competent self, still estranged from dogged, intuitive Marley due to a misreading of an event in a previous novel. The strengths of the two characters will ultimately need to combine in order to save the innocent and stop the guilty.

Hayder goes all-in on the details and minutiae of the police procedural here. She occasionally over-does the exactness (you'll never read a novel in which the term 'fuller's earth' appears more in a 50-page span unless there's a novel in which 'fuller's earth' is the protagonist). But for the most part, this is detailed thriller that establishes a sense of verisimilitude when it comes to both police work and the anguished reactions of the parents whose children have been stolen.

The plot twists and turns and twists again. The identity of the kidnapper may occur to you before it's finally revealed, so don't spoil it for anyone else. Only Hayder's occasional desire to slip into the quasi-mystic mars the novel -- a final necessary revelation seems to arrive by psychic fiat, and the recurring character of The Walking Man is a straining for mysterious effect that Gone neither needs nor benefits from. But overall, highly recommended.

End of Watch (2016) by Stephen King

End of Watch (Bill Hodges #3) (2016) by Stephen King: Intrepid but decidedly unhealthy retired police detective Bill Hodges returns in this conclusion to a trilogy that began in Mr. Mercedes and continued in Finders Keepers. Still set in a never-named U.S. Rust Belt city somewhere on one of the Eastern Great Lakes, End of Watch pits Hodges against the seemingly brain-damaged spree killer of Mr. Mercedes.

King manages to pull off something that looked a bit dodgy when it first became manifest in Finders Keepers -- namely, the introduction of the paranormal into the world of Bill Hodges. Brady Hartsfield, the Mercedes Killer of the first Hodges novel, was left with a brain made of mush at the climax of Mr. Mercedes. Hodges' soon-to-be-partner-in-private-detection, Holly Gibney, bonked Hartsfield on the head just before he could blow up an auditorium filled with thousands of boy-band-loving teenagers.

However, experimental drugs and the vagaries of the brain have slowly granted Hartsfield mental powers. He fakes being non compos mentis to avoid prosecution for his crimes while he gains strength and lethality. 

Hartsfield is a return to one of King's favourite types, the Outsider with Wild Talents. Unfortunately, this psychic wants to kill people -- as many of them as possible. King combines a quasi-scientific mind-control premise that stretches back to at least Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Parasite" with an antagonist who's one of Thomas Harris' serial-killing grotesques writ larger and with super-powers. 

Brady Hartsfield doesn't just want to kill people -- he wants to find ways to trick them into killing themselves. And with his powers, he now can. King's heroes have to engage Hartsfield on multiple fronts to stop him, from the Internet to the real world to the nebulous world of the mind. 

Somehow, it all works. Even the bit where a character survives a gunshot because of something in her pocket. Well, OK, that doesn't quite work. 

Otherwise, End of Watch works in part because Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney are carefully drawn characters. Hartsfield is a terrible, pitiful antagonist. There's also an immensely clever plot device involving video games and hypnotism. And there's a snowstormy climax that recalls the closing chapters of The Shining. In terms of tension and pleasure of reading,  Mr. Mercedes remains the best of the Hodges trilogy, but End of Watch runs a close second. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Too... Much... Horror... Fiction...

The Manse (1987) by Lisa W. Cantrell: After a somewhat surprising Bram Stoker Award win for Best First Novel of 1987 for The Manse (it beat out the superior Slob by Rex Miller and Damnation Game by Clive Barker, and those are just the two novels on the nomination list I've read), Lisa Cantrell published three more novels over the next ten years and then seemingly vanished from history during the Great Horror Collapse of the early 1990's. 

So this is an award-winning novel, The Manse.

I've certainly read worse. I've definitely read better. The novel at points seems to have been assembled using a Stephen King Plot-and-Character Generator. An ancient house of secrets looms over a small town. Something evil is coming. An old African-American woman with vaguely defined psychic powers knows that Something evil is coming. Newspaper clippings fill the reader in. People, children especially, go missing or get killed. A lawyer, a reporter, and a black dude nicknamed Dood walk into a bar. A monster eats fear! Small-town intrigues and politics occupy many while Something evil comes.

There are a few well-imagined scenes sprinkled throughout The Manse. I like a bit in which a character gets pulled into a fireplace by tendrils of ghost-fire, for instance. And there's a nicely described eye-monster.

However, there's also a sense of either a novel that's been cut down from something longer and more detailed or a novella not quite expanded to the right length. One of the places the stitching shows comes in the first long section of the novel, a countdown that takes us from one October to the next. Except that Cantrell's narrative suddenly jumps from March to October. I guess The Manse sleeps through the Spring, Summer, and early Fall.

Other problems include a nebulously defined evil that does whatever the plot requires of it, from creating illusions to sucking people into another dimension. And Cantrell's major characters, realistically skeptical while the horrors approach, for the most part have become passive idiots by the time the story climaxes. This is a horror novel in which people are acted upon to such an extent that only the Manse's incredible stupidity allows anyone to survive the climax.

(But there will be a sequel.)

Oh, yes. Very lightly recommended.

Torments (1990) by Lisa W. Cantrell: 

"It was like an erection, slick and hard and deadly."

So muses Vince Colletti in Torments. Colletti is one of the few minor characters to survive the events of Cantrell's The Manse. He's thinking about his handgun. 

What kind of erections did Cantrell deal with in her personal life in the 1980's, one wonders. 

And who the hell puts the claim that "she [Cantrell] is a tireless self-promoter" in the Torments author bio on the back inside cover? As Torments doesn't seem to have been republished since it first came out in 1990, I can only assume not tireless enough.

The stunning ineptitude of Torments makes The Manse look like The Haunting of Hill House by comparison. The most interesting thing about the novel, other than that erection quote, is the stylistic debt it owes to a combination of Stephen King and A Need to Pad a Too-Short Novel.

From Stephen King comes...

(Things inside brackets)

(Brackets! Brackets!)


From the world of Padding the Novel comes...

A lot of

Short paragraphs.

(There's also...)


(And even baffling "quotation marks" around "things.")

Boy, it's a mess. The high point plot-wise comes with about fifty pages to go as Cantrell suddenly throws a snuff film into one character's back-story, I'm assuming because she'd heard of them and wanted to have one in the novel. This allows for several pages of back-story for a character rather than, I don't know, maybe developing the central horror of the Manse. Oh well.

Luckily, there's an African-American with magical powers to take on the now-ghostly Manse. Unluckily, people immediately started building a condo on the site of the Manse, which burned down and killed 37 people in the process at the conclusion of The Manse but which has returned in ghostly form more powerful than before. Sort of like Obi-Wan Kenobi in evil mansion form.

The nominal hero of things gains mental strength by thinking of a line from The Empire Strikes Back right after he's mused on his prostitute mother's death in a snuff film when he was ten.

He sought vengeance on the man who set his mother up, training and preparing...

... until he was 12-years-old. Yes, 12. It's Death Wish: The Home Alone edition.

Jesus, what an awful novel. Not recommended (except for hilarity).

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Strange Bedfellows

The Intern (2015): written and directed by Nancy Meyers; starring Robert De Niro (Ben) and Anne Hathaway (Jules): A mostly enjoyable piece of fluff set in the alternate, upper-middle-class universe of Nancy (Father of the Bride, It's Complicated) Meyers, who's basically Nora-Ephron-Lite. 

Robert De Niro plays a retired 70-year-old businessman who takes an unpaid internship for seniors at Anne Hathaway's Internet clothing business and soon teaches everyone how to live, love, and tie a tie. Probably the most startling thing in the movie (other than two more of modern Hollywood's drinking scenes written by people who have apparently never had a drink) is the uncanny resemblance the actor playing Hathaway's stay-at-home husband has to writer Chuck Klosterman. Lightly recommended.

All the Way (2016): adapted by Robert Schenkkan from his own play; directed by Jay Roach; starring Bryan Cranston (LBJ), Anthony Mackie (MLK), Melissa Leo (Lady Bird Johnson), Bradley Whitford (Hubert Humphrey), Frank Langella (Senator Russell), and Stephen Root (Hoover): Tony award winner for best play and best actor (Cranston) gets adapted for HBO. It's a dandy drama detailing President Lyndon Baines Johnson's attempts to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed while also winning the presidential election later that year. 

Cranston is superb portraying the canny, volatile, profane Johnson. Supprting turns from Melissa Leo and Anthony Mackie are also superb, as is Frank Langella's nuanced, wounded portrayal of Dixiecrat Senator Russell. Bradley Whitford is excellent and almost unrecognizable as Hubert Humphrey. The narrative becomes a bracing examination of the seemingly lost Art of political compromise, as LBJ must work Republicans, Democrats, and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement to achieve something compromised by lasting. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

PREACHER. The whole goddamned thing pardner.

The Saint of Killers

Preacher: The Complete Series (1995-2000): written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Steve Dillon, Carlos Ezquerra, Richard Case, Steve Pugh, John McCrea, and Peter Snejberg; covers by Glenn Fabry; available in ten volumes, six volumes, or three Absolute editions as well as in the original comics:

Ah, Preacher. Irish-born comics writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, with whom Ennis forged many a fine John Constantine Hellblazer story prior to Preacher's debut in 1995, gave the world a comic-book series that combined splatterpunk, Westerns, dark fantasy, low comedy, satire, social commentary, and a lot of speeches. It's super. 

And 20 years after it first appeared, Preacher still has the ability to shock and amaze. It's one of a handful of truly great, epic-length fantasy comic book narratives.

There's really no point to giving too much away about the narrative. That narrative's ability to go roaring off in various unexpected directions is one of the charms of Preacher (and perhaps the occasional frustration). The world of Preacher is a nightmarish, bloody, tragic one. 

And Dillon, along with the occasional guest artist for the Preacher mini-series and one-shots that explain things outside the main narrative, renders all the horror and grace in his clear and elegant and straightforward art. It's the right take for this sort of thing: Preacher is as straightforward and straight-shooting as its titular hero Jesse Custer.

And it's one of the marks of Ennis' ability to take the piss out of himself that late in the narrative Jesse's one true love mocks the fact that he shares his initials with Jesus Christ.

But anyway, pardner...

Jesse Custer is a conflicted preacher in the small, crappy Texas town of Annville when thing begin. Something happens to give him the power to compel anyone to do anything with the power of his voice. And when he learns the truth about God, he sets out to find God.

For God has abandoned his Throne in Heaven, apparently because He fears Jesse's newly created power. And He fears Jesse's mission: to bring God to justice for all the pains and horrors God has inflicted on his Creation.

With Jesse will be the love of his life, sharp-shooting Tulip O'Hare, whom Jesse abandoned to become a preacher five years earlier to save her life from an imminent threat. But she doesn't know that when she runs into him again, so she starts off right pissed at him.

With Jesse will also be a roguish sidekick and newly met best friend, Cassidy the nearly century-old Irish vampire. Cassidy has the strength of 50 and an addictive personality to match -- not to blood, which he's not all that happy about needing, but to whiskey and beer and cigarettes and hard drugs. He comes along because Custer gives him a new sense of purpose and a chance to be a Good Guy for once. Or does her? Well, therein lies one of the threaded plots of Preacher.

Against Jesse are the hosts of Heaven and Hell. More dangerously on Earth, there is the most powerful secret organization on Earth: the Grail, dedicated to preserving the bloodline of Christ (whose death on the cross was faked) and orchestrating a global apocalypse that will put it in charge with Christ's descendant as the world's leader. Controlled and managed entirely by the Grail, of course.

Leading the Grail forces against Jesse and company will be Herr Starr, a German-born, power-mad grotesque. And there will be other grotesques arrayed against Jesse, though it's their spiritual grotesquery that's the problem. There will be innocent grotesques and heroic grotesques as well. 

Chief among the lovable grotesques will be the young man Cassidy dubs Arseface, who has a permanently disfigured face from the plastic surgery that came after his unsuccessful suicide attempt on the day Kurt Cobain died to inspire he and his more ultimately more successfully suicidal friend to kill themselves.

And there's the mysterious Saint of Killers, a seven-foot-tall cowboy whose guns bring death to anyone and anything in the universe, and whose story is a tragic one of redemption undone and Hell unleashed. Will he be Jesse's enemy or ally in the search for God and answers?

The 70+ issues of Preacher travel America, with a brief foray to France. For the most part it's the American South, and Texas in particular. Ennis has noted that he wanted to write a modern Western with some elements of the Westerns of Clint Eastwood, but with a hero who's as much John Wayne as Eastwood. All of this wrapped up in supernatural horrors, natural horrors, human horrors, and the occasional moment of Grace, too.

Are there flaws? Sure. But when the story ends, one wants more even as one is satisfied at a good story, well-told. So far, the AMC TV adaptation of Preacher seems to have thrown away everything from the comic except the names of the characters in search of its own lesser vision. But the comic is the real stuff. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Further Investigations

The Drowning Pool (Lew Archer #2) (1950) by Ross Macdonald (pen-name of Kenneth Millar): The second Lew Archer detective novel presents a twisty, psychologically weighted mystery for PI Archer to solve -- and that's before the bodies start piling up. Hired to discover who's blackmailing a Southern California heiress, Archer soon finds that the blackmail is just the beginning. Of vengeance? Of business shenanigans? Of old family grievances? Well, that's what Archer has to discover before everyone ends up dead. 

Ross Macdonald's writing is crisp and nuanced, mixing often elegant metaphors with clear and straightforward attention to making the mechanics of a complicated plot seem inevitable. Archer is already a rueful, committed PI at this point, and his first-person narration can alternatedly sing and sear with insight and pithy observations. Adapted in the 1960's into a movie starring Paul Newman. Recommended.

I love this cover
The Far Side of the Dollar ((Lew Archer #12) (1964) by Ross Macdonald (pen-name of Kenneth Millar): About as dark as the always dark Lew Archer hardboiled-detective novels get, all of it under those sunny Southern California skies. A rebellious teen-aged boy (hey, it's the 1960's) escapes from the psychiatric facility/ reform school his parents have just committed him to. Archer is called in, and soon descends into the underbelly of the family's upper-class American dream. Memorable characters and a fascinatingly twisted path of murders make this Archer novel especially good. Highly recommended

The Sentry: A Joe Pike Novel  (2012) by Robert Crais: Crais takes Joe Pike, sometime-second-banana to his other Southern California PI hero Elvis Cole, out for a mostly-solo spin. A random stop by Pike to check his Jeep's tire pressure leads him, chaos-theory style, into a rapidly escalating series of events centered around an imperiled LA sandwich-shop owner and his niece. Elvis Cole shows up to help Pike solve the mysteries that seem to keep erupting as the novel hurtles along, but much of The Sentry devotes itself to a third-person examination of Pike's thoughts and actions. 

As Pike is pretty much a hyper-competent pulp hero, one's interest in the novel depends on how much one likes hyper-competent pulp heroes. I do, but Pike's abilities tend to pull the Cole novels out of the realms of believability when he's just a supporting character. As the lead, he might as well be Doc Savage's occasionally melancholy grandson. The plot hums and whirs like a beautifully constructed machine, and the plot twists are about as twisty as they can get without becoming self-parodic. As seems to be a trope in later novels involving Elvis Cole, at least one female police detective dies. Hmm. An enjoyable entertainment. Recommended.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Devil Insider

1988 collected edition
Grendel: Devil's Legacy (1986-87/ Reprinted in Grendel Omnibus 2: The Legacy/ 2013): written by Matt Wagner; illustrated by the Pander Brothers, Rich Rankin, and Jay Geldhof: Approximately 50 years after the death of first Grendel Hunter Rose comes this Grendel story. It chronicles the tragic fall of journalist Christine Spar, dubbed "Grendel's grand-daughter" by the press because while she's not biologically related to Hunter Rose, she is the only daughter of his adopted daughter Stacy Palumbo.

Devil's Legacy occurs some time in the late 2020's or early 2030's -- Hunter Rose died in 1982. Besides her mother's relation to Rose, Spar has also written an acclaimed and popular non-fiction book about Grendel. But now she's about to get sucked into the underworld which Hunter Rose so briefly but completely dominated.

Originally published in 12 issues in the late 1980's, Devil's Legacy saw creator Matt Wagner hand the artistic duties over to the Pander Brothers. They really suit the story (though I also assume Wagner crafted elements of the story to suit them). Stylish, sharp cartooning gives way to a gallery or grotesques and grotesque poses and representations as the story proceeds and Spar assumes the mantle of Grendel. 

She begins by using Hunter Rose's stolen costume and weapon to seek answers about her missing son. 

She ends in conflict with almost everyone.

The art by the Panders really is nice, whether in the cleaner-lined, prettier early sections or in the distorted faces and bodies of the later stretches of the narrative. Matt Wagner's writing is sharp and expressive as well. Spar's tragic descent is narrated by Spar herself at points, an unreliable narrator becoming more unreliable by the moment. Despite the personal nature of the early stages of her assumption of the Grendel identity, Spar rapidly grows to share the obsessions and urges of Hunter Rose. 

There are flaws in the narrative. The most glaring is the representation of the reaction of the New York police to a missing-child case. Their indifference seems entirely artificial, necessary for Spar's descent into Grendel-hood but never made believable. And that's despite the fact that the police have been privatized in this future of flying cars and an immigrant Eskimo problem in the United States. 

72 hours before the police will search for a missing nine-year-old boy? Um, no. Wagner might have been able to sell this idea by spending more time establishing the police as being completely useless and under-staffed, but these things aren't developed enough to make this particular bit of incompetency even remotely plausible. 

And not making the police interested in such a disappearance does make elements of Spar's later vendetta against the police seem far too Straw-Man-ish: the savagery and vindictiveness of Grendel is made to seem like a suitable response, and I don't think that's what Wagner was aiming for in his representation of Spar's late-life bildungsroman.

However, the rest of this future, while a little flying-car happy, is fascinatingly imagined. The characterization of the main characters, from Spar through her friends and lover all the way to the police who come to pursue her and the strange man-wolf Argent, is sharp and quite moving at times. Fine work all around. This part of the Grendel epic works nicely for the most part in the slightly reduced page size of the Dark Horse Grendel Omnibus series, though a few sections of text strain the eyes a bit. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Time to Murder and Delegate

Grendel: Behold the Devil (2007-2008/ Reprinted in Grendel Omnibus 1/ 2012): written and illustrated by Matt Wagner: Writer-artist-Canadian Matt Wagner's Grendel was one of the great, innovative comic series of the 1980's and early 1990's. And he's returned to it again and again over the years, ultimately building an epic that spans centuries. In 2007, he returned to both writing and drawing Grendel to present the world with the longest single narrative about the first Grendel (aka Hunter Rose).

The mysterious Hunter Rose, first created by Wagner in the very early 1980's, is a dark riff on characters that include Batman and The Shadow. He's a mysterious millionaire who dresses up in a costume. But instead of fighting crime, he wants to control it. Possibly all of it, but he starts with New York. And as he's possessed of greater-than-human intelligence and reflexes, he rapidly starts to take over all of organized crime after a brief career as a hired assassin.

Hunter Rose (an assumed name) is also a critically acclaimed writer and philanthropist. But it's as his alter ego Grendel that he shines as a genius of murder and organization. Behold the Devil fills us in on several months in Rose/Grendel's life not long before his final confrontation with the strange, ancient crime-fighter Argent, an articulate and hyper-violent man-wolf (no joking).

Wagner is in rare form in this 200-page graphic novel as both writer and artist. We learn a certain amount of new things about Hunter Rose, but much of the focus and sympathy lies with two characters trying to stop Grendel, the female cop in charge of the anti-Grendel task force and the reporter who figures out who Grendel really is. Both characters are beautifully drawn, and beautifully drawn. When horror comes, one really feels for them: Grendel is a monster.

But throughout Wagner's Grendel stories, Grendel is also a person possessed, quite literally. There's a sort of psychic comeuppance waiting for Hunter Rose in this story, one that is many ways even worse for him than the fate we've known since the early 1980's awaits him. This story is also set in the early 1980's, though subsequent Grendel stories move decades, centuries, and possibly millennia into the future. Grendel is a force expressing itself across time, wrecking lives as it goes along.

This novel is best read in the sequence of stories provided by Dark Horse's great four-volume Grendel Omnibus. The Omnibuses are great deals, though it's too bad the market can't support full comic-book-size reprints for these stories. The smaller trade-paperback-sized format doesn't affect this story too much, but other stories sometimes need either young eyes or magnifying glasses for some of the now-teeny-tiny text. Oh, well. Still, a great tale of an anti-superhero and the terrible things he does because he's bored. Highly recommended.

Cooties and Minions and Indians, Oh My!

Cooties (2014): written by Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan, and Josh C. Waller; directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion; starring Elijah Wood (Clint), Rainn Wilson (Wade), Alison Pill (Lucy), Jack McBrayer (Tracy), Leigh Whannell (Doug), and Nasim Pedrad (Rebekkah): Fun, uneven zombie-satire co-written by Leigh Whannell, who worked on the Saw and Insidious franchises and appears here as a loopy biology teacher. The semi-all-star cast is solid. The movie's tone shifts a lot, from satire to earnestness and back again. 

Cooties is at its best when it's throwing violence at the viewer. And as that violence is caused by children who've been turned into flesh-eating monsters by tainted chicken nuggets, there's a certain level of hilarity involved in all the gore. The lead characters are all primary-school teachers at Ground Zero of the great child-zombie outbreak in the Illinois town of Fort Chicken. Seriously. I've certainly seen much less convincing straightforward zombie movies and TV shows. Recommended.

Minions (2015): written by Brian Lynch; directed by Kyole Balda and Pierre Coffin; starring the voices of Sandra Bullock (Scarlet Overkill), Jon Hamm (Herb Overkill), Michael Keaton (Walter Nelson), Alison Janney (Madge Nelson), Jennifer Saunders (Queen Elizabeth II), and Geoffrey Rush (Narrator): The jolly yellow sidekicks of the Despicable Me movies get their own movie, a prequel that explains their origins and history. The opening history sequence is funny and inventive and involves evolution. Is there an alternate cut for the Bible Belt and other evolution-free zones? 

Minions really could use Steve Carell's reformed super-villain Gru for more than the 30 seconds he's in this one. Sandra Bullock's super-villainess Scarlet Overkill isn't nearly as funny as Gru. But the minions are pretty funny, and the movie zips along, buoyed on what seems to be some sort of record for most classic songs used on a soundtrack (the film is mostly set in 1968). Jennifer Saunders shines as the voice of Queen Elizabeth II. Recommended.

Ten Little Indians (1965): adapted by Peter Yeldham and Harry Alan Towers from the play and novel by Agatha Christie; directed by George Pollock; starring Hugh O'Brian (Lombard), Shirley Eaton (Ann), Fabian (Raven), Leo Genn (General Mandrake), Stanley Holloway (Blore), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Judge Cannon), Daliah Lavi (Ilona), Dennis Price (Dr. Armstrong), Marianne Hoppe (Frau Grohmann), and Mario Adorf (Herr Grohmann): So-so second movie adaptation of Christie's classic mystery (a.k.a And Then There Were None) has a wildly uneven cast and an uneven tone to go along with them. The movie relocates the action from an island to the Swiss Alps, to no really distinguished effect. Lightly recommended.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Fantastic Bore

Fantastic Four (2015): based on the comic book created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee; written by Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg, and Josh Trank; directed by Josh Trank; starring Miles Teller (Reed Richards/ Mr. Fantastic), Michael B. Jordan (Johnny Storm/ Human Torch), Kate Mara (Sue Storm/ Invisible Girl), Jamie Bell (Ben Grimm/ The Thing), Toby Kebbell (Victor Von Doom/ Doctor Doom), and Reg E. Cathey (Franklin Storm):

A truly misguided effort sucks all the fun out of Marvel's first family of superheroes. Writer-director Josh Trank got this gig on the basis of Chronicle, his found-footage film about teen-agers with super-powers gone horribly wrong. And there are moments in Fantastic Four that would make for a great superhero movie just so long as it wasn't about the Fantastic Four. Our heroes were some of the first whose origins were presented straightforwardly by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee as moments of Body Horror. Some of that remains here, and it's the best thing about the movie.

Unfortunately, the movie is slow, ponderous, and weighed down with characters who seem to have been written to be as annoying as possible. Following the lead of Marvel's revisionist Ultimate Fantastic Four comic book (not by Lee and Kirby), our heroes are all teen-agers now, while Doctor Doom is only a few years older. None of this helps. The actors, especially Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, do their best with the awful material. This isn't their fault. 

The movie pretty much throws away everything that made the original FF awesome, from the bickering, nearly soap-operatic melodrama to the low-comedy hi-jinks of The Thing and The Human Torch to the looming menace of Doctor Doom, here reduced to an angry crash-test dummy with ill-defined super-powers. The FF no longer get their powers by being heroic in a very early 1960's way (they want to beat the Soviets into manned orbit). Now they get drunk and take their goofy-ass transdimensional Stargate out for an ill-advised test drive. What larks, Pip!

It's all really pretty terrible, and as boring as Hell for long stretches. I think Josh Trank could do a great job on certain revisionist superhero properties -- or preferably on his own creations. This movie made me long for the goofy mediocrity of the early oughts FF movies. And I had to read 200 pages of classic Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four to get this movie out of my head. Also, whoever thought taking away The Thing's blue shorts was a good idea should be fired. Now. Forever. Not recommended.