Sunday, July 31, 2016

Horror on the Links

Severed! The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft! Outcast!

I'm not formatting this twice for two blogs! Screw you Cabellero!

Mary Wept

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in The Bible (2016): written and illustrated by Chester Brown: Canadian writer-artist Chester Brown (Louis Riel, Ed the Happy Clown) continues his love affair with prostitution in Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus. Brown's previous full-length work detailed his years of hiring prostitutes in Paying for It while also offering a lengthy and detailed argument for why prostitution should be decriminalized (but not legalized) in Canada.

Here, the eccentric and occasionally infuriating genius looks to the Bible for support of his belief that prostitution is spiritually sanctioned by the Judeo-Christian God and Jesus. He does this in a series of adaptations of Old and New Testament stories, all supported by a whoppingly big appendix/afterword outlining his argument, primary sources, and secondary sources.

Along the way, Brown also argues that God and Jesus were both highly supportive of rebels -- specifically, those who were religiously disobedient. It's all very interesting, and the stories themselves are beautifully and simply drawn. Brown's art has never been so perfectly and deceptively simple.

As a religious and philosophical argument, though, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus could be used to teach a specific type of fallacious reasoning. Brown's arguments about religious obedience basically require him to focus exclusively on the instances in which God or Jesus act in such a way as to support his argument -- incidents in which this is not so are either skimmed over or avoided entirely. Scholars who disagree with him are cited in the appendix only as straw men to be demolished. It's a rigged game of argumentation, and seductively convincing until one twigs to it.

Brown's unstinting support of prostitution can almost go without comment here -- it's the same one as in Paying for It, now deployed with Biblical support for the spiritual awesomeness of paid sex, all of it channeled through Brown's deployment of a long-standing theological argument that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was a prostitute and that Christ was conceived during an incident of purchased sex. 

In Brown's world, sex shouldn't be regulated in any way by the government -- hence decriminalization and not legalization. And all problems associated with prostitution, most prominently all the physical dangers to prostitutes from STD's to sex slavery, are a result of the criminalization of prostitution and not prostitution itself.

So here we are with yet another brilliant, frustrating, infuriating comic from Chester Brown. I'd actually have liked more comics -- the graphic-novel portion is almost equaled in length by the appendix, and as much as I enjoy Brown's appendices, it's his cartooning I want.

One of the other philosophical oddities of the text comes with Brown's argument that God/Jesus want people to disobey him. As Brown expands upon this concept in the appendix, complete with a bonus adaptation of the Book of Job, something weird happens. A concept that has its roots in Liberation Theology (thanks, Paul Meahan) mutates in Brown's argument into something almost Satanic: God's message to humanity, like Aleister Crowley's message, is 'Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law.' Though Brown's God (like XTC) probably appends 'unless you hurt someone.'

So go out and buy this book. It's great. It works even better if one has read Paying for It, but that's not a necessary read -- just another good one. Whether or not one agrees with Brown in whole or in part, he's a talent who delivers fine cartooning and thought-provoking arguments. Long may he run. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 28, 2016


Or Clark Kent when Lester wears glasses
The Trouble with Girls Volume 1 (1987-1988/Collected 2006): written by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones; illustrated by Tim Hamilton:

The Trouble with Girls Volume 2 (1988/Collected 2006): written by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones; illustrated by Tim Hamilton:

Apparently, one of my local dollar stores just got a crate of 10-year-old comic-book collections from Checker Publishing. And lo, the two collections of late 1980's/early 1990's superhero satire The Trouble with Girls  were among them!

The two volumes collect most of the initial B&W run of The Trouble with Girls from Malibu/Eternity. Only an annual is missing, which is a shame. But what's left, while occasionally a work of reprinting ineptitude (somebody dropped a slip of paper on more than one page...), is also a lost work of comedic comic genius from writers Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones and artist Tim Hamilton.

The Trouble with Girls (the name riffs on an early Elvis Presley movie) features the adventures of globe-trotting superspy/superguy Lester Girls, who is hyper-capable in everything he does, from sex to combat to protecting the world from a wide variety of super-villains and secret cabals.

But Lester doesn't want any of this. He just wants to settle down with a nice woman in suburbia, have kids, and maybe finally get the last page of John Steinbeck's The Red Pony read. But this is never to be. Whether it's a high-school reunion or a trip to the store, Lester's life will always erupt into high-action pandemonium.

Tim Hamilton really was a pleasing cartoonist, capable of comic moments with just enough superhero sheen to keep the satire running. And Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones are very funny writers, especially once they expand the satire from spy movies to pretty much Anything Goes. 

You'll almost certainly wince at some of the jokes, at least a few of which may seem somewhat sexist, though I'd argue that the sources they're satirizing are sexist and the commentary in The Trouble with Girls attacks the sexism of superheroes, Hollywood blockbusters, and the James Bond universe by foregrounding the absolute horror certain action-loving fans (and writers, and creators) have of the female body when it's de-objectified. I'd have loved to see the comic's take on the recent Ghostbusters kerfuffle that ignited fandom's terrible constituency of the He-Man Woman-Hater's Club.

There's more than a whiff of Seth Macfarlane's much-later American Dad! in the DNA of Lester Girls. But Lester is funnier, more charming, and weirdly sympathetic in his endless quest to save the world, discover his secret origins, and read the last page of The Red Pony

There's also a special guest appearance by James Joyce's Stephen Daedalus at Lester's high-school reunion, among other literary characters that also include The Great Gatsby's Daisy Buchanan. But then we're right back to the nefarious, miasmic depredations of the super-villain known only as The Wind-breaker. It's that kind of humour. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Arkham - Scouse

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961-1971 (2014): edited by S.T. Joshi: Essential, informative, and educational reading for any reader of horror, and especially for those who admire both H.P. Lovecraft and Ramsey Campbell.

August Derleth was a fantastically important editor and publisher in the realms of the weird. He kept H.P. Lovecraft in print, in book form, for decades until the rest of the world started catching up with the Cthulhu Mythos. And he also published the first book by Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell after Campbell started corresponding with Derleth back in 1961.

In 1961, Campbell was 15. His first collection -- The Inhabitant of the Lake -- would come out from Arkham in 1964. And while the precocious Campbell's early works would be Lovecraftian pastiches not-dissimilar to some of Derleth's own work, Campbell's growth curve as a writer was startlingly steep. By the late 1960's, his voice was uniquely his own and he'd helped pioneer a new approach to visionary horror.

Derleth and Campbell carry on a lively, wide-ranging correspondence for ten years, though the last three years are a bit spotty because many letters have gone missing. While thoughts on horror are the main attraction, Letters to Arkham also offers a glimpse into the cottage industry that was Arkham House. We also learn just how prolific Derleth was as a writer. And a lover, though some of that may be taken with a grain of salt.

As Campbell notes in his afterword, he was something of a fan-boy in his early letters. But that element gradually slips away, leaving the reader with a dialogue between two friends who never met in person. Their debates on the merits of everything from Peter Sellers to Samuel Beckett are lively and fascinating. Derleth functions as a mentor figure for Campbell throughout their correspondence when it comes to writing and, more generally, living. 

And we find out that Derleth took to the Wisconsin woods where he lived every May to collect morel mushrooms. Thousands of them, their number dutifully reported each year. Fungi from Wisconsin. How Lovecraftian is that? Highly recommended.

The Inhuman Condition

The Inhumans: The Origin of the Inhumans: written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; illustrated by Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, and others (1965-68/ Collected 2013): Fun, 400-page collection of the first four years of Marvel appearances of the Inhumans by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. The mainstays of the Inhumans are here, the characters who would become the Royal Family of the group -- Black Bolt, Medusa, Gorgon, Karnak, Triton, Crystal, and super-giant-teleporting dog Lockjaw.

Medusa, with her crazy stretching prehensile hair, first appeared as a villain in Fantastic Four. Bigger things awaited, as she was eventually revealed to be an Inhuman and one of the good guys. What's an Inhuman? The result of an ancient attempt by the alien Kree Empire to mess with human genetics in the interest of... well, as presented here, simply because. Later retcons would make the Inhumans a weapons experiment, an idea that persisted on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this season. But here, the Kree are basically interested in the science of genetic engineering for its own sake,

So are born the Inhumans, who form a highly advanced society of super-powered beings while humanity still lives in caves. They'd eventually hide from the rest of humanity until they encountered the Fantastic Four and gradually came out of that hiding.

Ideas and characters come bursting out of Jack Kirby here, most of them still in use by Marvel today in comics and other media. Some issues of Fantastic Four have been carved up so that just the Inhumans sequences are reprinted. That's a good idea in this case -- in several cases, the Inhumans material is a B-plot that only gets a couple of pages in a comic.

Kirby's storytelling is action-packed and occasionally poignant. Two of the great under-rated Lee/Kirby superhero battles appear here, as the Fantastic Four battles two of the Kree, first the long-slumbering Sentry and then the 'public executioner,' Ronan the Accuser. Ronan got burned off in somewhat altered form in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Too bad -- he's a much more interesting character when he's not Cuckoo.

If one owns a collected Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four in some form, this volume isn't necessary (though it also includes Inhumans stories from the back pages of Thor). But even then, this is a pretty good way to encounter the Inhumans, who are sorta like mutants except that they're not. And as always with the Fantastic Four under Lee and Kirby's direction, there's a pleasing and almost unique blend of low comedy, soap opera, action, and cosmic moments. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Detectives East, Detectives West

Careless in Red (Inspector Lynley #15) (2008) by Elizabeth George: Well, if nothing else, I'd suggest that the first of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mysteries you ever read shouldn't be this one. It was mine. Nonetheless, there's stuff to admire in this over-sized, over-stuffed mystery set in coastal England among the surfers and locals and tourists. George is a solid and detailed writer of characters, even when those characters slowly move from interesting to boring to intolerable, as they so often do here.

Another reason not to make this one's first Lynley would be the after-effects of a tragedy that afflicted Lynley at the end of the previous novel. It might be better to start with Lynley the upper-class Lord who joined New Scotland Yard and not sad Lynley walking the coast and avoiding everyone he knows.

Jesus, though, this is a long novel (and all of George's mysteries seem to be of similar lengths). Do people really want mysteries that are this long and this melodramatically stuffed with a long list of characters whose lives are explored in exhaustive detail? I guess they do. I think mysteries generally work better at shorter lengths, perhaps 60,000 to 90,000 words for  novel (Careless in Red looks to be about 200,000+ and feels like a million by the end).

Well, and the ending is stunningly unsatisfactory. It partially exists to show that Lynley was right all along and that the investigation of one suspect was pointless, but the attendant lack of closure leaves a sour taste. You will learn a lot about surfing, though, and you will marvel at the ridiculous, comic-relief detective-sidekick Barbara Havers. George is an American who's made a successful writing career out of these giant British mysteries. Anglophilia never gets old. Not recommended as a first Lynley adventure.

Chasing Darkness (Elvis Cole #12) (2008) by Robert Crais: A typically zippy Elvis Cole detective novel set in and around Los Angeles, this time during Fire Season. That cynical knight Cole and his occasional crime-fighting partner Joe Pike seek to unravel the mystery of a dead serial killer who shouldn't be able to have been a serial killer. Cole's relationship with the police is typically rocky, the mystery fair and nicely plotted, and the climax slightly less bloody and body-count-intensive for Crais. 

Ignoring the tricks played with large print and line spacing in this paperback, one notes that Chasing Darkness clocks in at just about the typical length for a 1950's or 60's hard-boiled detective novel -- it's short and to the point. There's a lot of police procedural this time around, as Cole follows the LAPD's investigation with one of his own. Solid entertainment. Recommended.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Horror Out of Space

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001): written by Larry Sulkis and John Carpenter; directed by John Carpenter; starring Natasha Henstridge (Lt. Ballard), Ice Cube (Desolation Williams), Jason Statham (Sgt. Jericho), Clea DuVall (Kincaid), Pam Grier (Commander Braddock), and Joanna Cassidy (Whitlock): Grungy, grimy sci-fi horror-Western from the great John Carpenter. It's worn really well, possibly because it's the antithesis of today's PG-rated, CGI-heavy action movies. The cast is a hoot. Teaming up the Amazonian blonde Henstridge (Species) with Ice Cube is all sorts of awesome. 

There's some smarts in the movie's back-story, and some thrills in the various explosion-heavy battles with the monsters on Mars. One sometimes wishes for better monsters. So it goes. The premise works as a weird sort-of-sequel to Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit (a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth). Carpenter worked with Kneale while producing Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, for which Kneale wrote a screenplay that he then took his name off because of concerns about the film's violence. Hmm. Recommended.

Alien: 2003 Director's Cut (1979/2003): partially based on the stories "Black Destroyer" and "Discord in Scarlet" by A.E. Van Vogt; written by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shushett; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), and Yaphet Kotto (Parker): As a restored, director's cut on BluRay, Alien looks terrific. It's like a whole different movie, with the looming alien ship and surrounding wasteland dominating the proceedings (and dwarfing the puny humans) in the first half. One forgets how gradually things build: it's nearly an hour before the real horrors erupt, but once they do, they come in a flurry. 

The cast is uniformly fine. The Director's Cut adds in several scenes in which the cast interacts, countering the crew's isolation from one another in the original cut. Yaphet Kotto's Parker benefits most from the restoration -- he's clearly the second protagonist now after Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Like her, he's also the voice of Reason throughout the film. 

The set design and Ridley Scott's shooting of it is another character in the movie. The future has never looked like such a combination of the Gothic and the industrial. And there's the Alien itself in its various manifestations, kept off-screen or only partially glimpsed until the climax. It's still a masterpiece of design based on H.R. Giger's creepy ideas. 

The re-insertion of a scene that prefigures the colonist-stocked alien 'nursery' of Aliens is the most gratifying addition, especially for those of us who first encountered the scene in Alan Dean Foster's novelization of Alien way back in 1979. A Lovecraftian, haunted-house-in-space masterpiece that's probably still Ridley Scott's best movie. No sequel or prequel has surpassed it in terms of a horror movie that combines the cosmic with body horror. Highly recommended.

Bedfellows of the Strange

Brooklyn (2015): adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Toibin; directed by John Crowley; starring Saoirse Ronan (Ellis Lacey), Fiona Glascott (Rose Lacey), Jane Brennan (Mary Lacey), Emory Cohen (Tony), and Domhnall Gleason (Jim Farrell): Pleasant, nicely acted melodrama got a couple of Oscar nominations for Saoirse Ronan (Best Actress) and Nick Hornby (Best Adapted Screenplay). Montreal also does fine work pretending to be a town in Ireland in 1952. This is the sort of immigrant's story that makes me think of Golden Age Hollywood and earnest CBC movies. But the cast is charming and the low-key writing and characterization fine except for a bit involving an eight-year-old boy writing love letters for his writing-challenged older brother that seems to have wandered into the movie from some lame 1970's Disney comedy. Recommended.

The Sitter (2011): written by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka; directed by David Gordon Green; starring Jonah Hill (Noah), Sam Rockwell (Karl), Ari Graynor (Marisa), Max Records (Slater), Landry Bender (Blithe), Kevin Hernandez (Rodrigo), and JB Smoove (Julio): Jonah Hill plays Fat Jonah Hill for the last time (to date) in a movie that's a lot funnier than it should be. One thing that helps is that the movie isn't simply foul-mouthed -- it's intermittently perverse, which is actually rare. It's also short and surprisingly tightly plotted and directed. Recommended.

Date Night (2010): written by Josh Klausner; directed by Shaun Levy; starring Steve Carell (Phil Foster), Tina Fey (Claire Foster), Mark Wahlberg (Holbrooke), and Taraji P. Henson (Detective Arroyo): A bit of a mess into which I assume Tina Fey and Steve Carell were parachuted so as to improvise some laughs. This bullets-and-cops-and-fish-out-of-water comedy seems to have been written in, oh, 1985. It wasn't, but it seems like it. A short, perfectly adequate time-waster that would have been even better with a Giorgio Moroder soundtrack and star turns from Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn. Lightly recommended.

The Watch (2012): written by Jared Stern, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg; directed by Akiva Schaffer; starring Ben Stiller (Evan), Vince Vaughn (Bob), Jonah Hill (Franklin), Richard Ayoade (Jamarcus), and Rosemarie DeWitt (Abby): The Trayvon Martin tragedy saw the studio re-title this film (from Neighbourhood Watch). I don't know if some scenes were removed as well. The movie seems to lack a transitional middle section, but that may just be sloppy writing and/or editing. 

This cast and these writers should have managed something at least mildly great. They don't, but the movie improves noticeably about 45 minutes in as it finally gains some traction and leaves the sad-nebbish comedy behind for loopier stuff involving an alien invasion of suburbia centered on the local Costco, of which Ben Stiller is the manager. Richard Ayoade (Maurice Moss on The IT Crowd) is mostly wasted, though he manages to put an amusing spin on some of his lines. Stiller and the newly thinnish Jonah Hill are also fine. Vince Vaughn is a comedy-killing machine, as is mostly always the case. He's the place where jokes go to die. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Widening Gyre

Grendel: Black, White, and Red/ Red, White, and Black (Mostly 1998-2002) (Collected in Grendel Omnibus Volume 2 (2013): written by Matt Wagner; illustrated by Matt Wagner, Duncan Fegredo, Kelley Jones, Ashley Wood, Michael Zulli, Mike Allred, David Mack, and many others: Writer-artist Matt Wagner would return several times to the first incarnation of his villain-hero Grendel over the decades, early 1980's crime boss and novelist Hunter Rose. This made a lot of sense, as the initial story devoted to Rose was only about 60 pages long.

And yes, these stories are black, white, and red: those are the only 'colours' used, and the effect is mostly smashing. 

Black, White, and Red and Red, White, and Black saw Wagner writing short tales of the early Grendelverse for an astonishing list of artists. Even if one doesn't like the writing, one can find a lot to love here in these often wildly disparate artistic takes on the world of Hunter Rose.

Me, I like the writing fine for the most part, though a couple of Wagner's forays into poetry and doggerel fall pretty flat. Helping things is Wagner's decision to focus most of the individual tales on the supporting cast. A little of Hunter Rose's glib, smug nihilism goes an awfully long way. But Grendel as instead a terrifying secondary character in most of these stories works very well indeed.

I wouldn't recommend reading the two collections in one sitting. Grendel's world is a grim one, albeit often laced through with gallows humour. With the sharp writing and art here, the whole thing is highly recommended. Look for it in-print in the first Grendel omnibus from Dark Horse

Grendel: God and the Devil (1988-89/ Collected 2013 in Grendel Omnibus 3): written by Matt Wagner; illustrated by John K. Snyder III, Jay Geldhof, Joe Matt, and Bernie Mireault: Matt Wagner re-situates the epic Grendel narrative in early 26th-century America in this ambitious work of dystopian science-fantasy. I think it's swell.

Climate change and a limited nuclear exchange have left large stretches of North America uninhabitable, with most of the continent's population now living in the Western states. That's also where the newish North American Vatican, Vatican Ouest, is located -- in New Mexico. The various levels of government in North America have been replaced by corporations which battle for dominance with the Vatican and the Confederacy of Police (C.O.P.).

Wagner and artists John K. Snyder III and Jay Geldhof make this installment of Grendel a dense work of science fiction and political satire. But they also manage to stage fine, sometimes harrowing sequences of action and horror. 

What's changed in the Grendelverse is that now the body-hopping demonic entity finds itself fighting on the side of life itself. The Pope -- who will quickly be revealed to be an old nemesis of Grendel -- has a plan that's not going to do humanity any good. And so the new Grendel and Orion Assante, an ambitious but principled corporate type, find themselves extremely unlikely allies, with the full power of Vatican Ouest against them.

There's action and horror and world-building galore in what was originally published in ten issues of defunct Comico's Grendel back in the late 1980's. It's an interesting case study in how Wagner saw the future back then, or at least the future as a metaphor for the present. His world pits the mercenary  private police of C.O.P. against anyone they're paid to deal with. And the 'commmisioner' of C.O.P., the brutal and pragmatic Pellon Cross, becomes the fourth side of the triangle of Grendel, Orion, and the Pope. 

Oh, and there are animal metaphors galore, including a running joke about an extremely hard-to-kill rat. You'll be reminded of Wagner's Canadian-ness when 1980's Canadian band Jerry Jerry and the Sons of the Rhythm Orchestra make a guest appearance. And you'll laugh at some of Wagner's inspiration for names (his new Grendel is named for Margaret Thatcher, for one). 

This is dense storytelling -- perhaps a bit too dense on some pages for the reduced page size of the Grendel Omnibus series. So dig out your magnifying glass. This is one of the great comic-book narratives of the 1980's and 1990's. It can stand beside Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns without suffering by comparison. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Great Detectives with Unfortunate Names

The Snowman (Inspector Harry Hole#7) (2007) by Jo Nesbo (translated into English from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett): Say what you will about the Scandinavians, but people sure love their mysteries and thrillers. Especially publishers looking for the next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (or Smilla's Sense of Snow, going back a few years). That's why The Snowman is the first Jo Nesbo-penned Harry Hole (!!!) police procedural translated into English but the seventh overall: this Norwegian thriller is the most marketable of the Hole books.

Why? It's got a nigh-omniscient serial killer, the sort of serial killer who's nigh-omnipresent in movies, television, and novels but nigh-non-existent in the real world. Especially serial killers who actively seek out the cop hunting them for a showdown. So far as I know, this has never happened in real life, ever, anywhere on the planet. In fiction, though, it's such a common occurrence that one is surprised that there are any homicide detectives left alive on planet Earth.

But enough of my kvetching. The Snowman is a tensely plotted, satisfying twisty fun-machine that involves the horrible murders of several women over a 15-year period. Harry Hole, Oslo detective and possessor of a name that I personally would have changed for English-language publication, is an alcoholic trainwreck who is also the Best Damn Detective in Norway. He must stop a serial killer dubbed The Snowman, in part because The Snowman seems to have taken a personal interest in him.

One of the reasons The Snowman was selected as the first English-language appearance of Hole is, I believe, its cinematic touches. There are several set-pieces that seem to have been written expressly for film. And hey, Michael Fassbender has apparently been cast in the long-gestating Snowman film adaptation! He looks nothing much like the character described in the novel other than their shared attribute of Tallness, but so it goes.

Anyway, this is an enjoyable thriller. And Hole is an engaging character. The serial killer is ludicrous on a number of levels once revealed, but less so than a lot of serial killers (including every incarnation of Hannibal Lecter). And Nesbo makes Norway seem interesting in an odd way, like a small town masquerading as a country. The translation by Don Barrett seems solid to me. Recommended.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Bad Relationships

The Odd Couple (1968): adapted by Neil Simon from his own play; directed by Gene Saks; starring Jack Lemmon (Felix Unger), Walter Matthau (Oscar Madison), Monica Evans (Cecily Pigeon), and Carole Shelley (Gwendolyn Pigeon): Neil Simon's funniest play still holds up remarkably well in its initial film version. The direction is straightforward without seeming unduly stagey. 

It's Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau who elevate this farce to the level of comedy classic. Lemmon is twitchy and OCD as the fastidious Felix Unger, prototype of the new sensitive man who was just coming down the pike in 1968. Matthau's character, uber-slob Oscar Madison, is a nuanced slob, regretting his divorce. The supporting cast all do fine work while actually looking like real people. The Pigeon Sisters are a special hoot. 

The apartment Felix and Oscar share is like the prototype of every improbable Manhattan apartment to come in sitcoms and movies. It seems to have the square footage of a mansion. There's a refreshing darkness to the film that didn't necessarily translate to later TV incarnations -- it opens with Felix bungling his attempt to commit suicide, after all. Highly recommended.

Rachel Getting Married (2008): written by Jenny Lumet; directed by Jonathan Demme; starring Anne Hathaway (Kym), Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel), Bill Irwin (Paul), Anna Deavere Smith (Carol), and Debra Winger (Abby): Searing family drama nabbed Anne Hathaway her first Best Acting Oscar nomination. She does fine work, as do the rest of the cast. We're in the upper-upper Middle Class here as Hathaway's Kym gets out of court-mandated rehab for a weekend to attend her sister's wedding. 

Things don't go well, especially at first. Sydney Lumet's daughter Jenny delivered a fine and nuanced script that sometimes plays like a J.D. Salinger short story as rewritten by a perceptive woman. Jonathan Demme's direction makes the hand-held cameras work throughout. Alternately funny and horrifying, there isn't a false note here. Highly recommended.

Ex Machina (2015): written and directed by Alex Garland; starring Domhnall Gleason (Caleb), Oscar Isaac (Nathan), Alicia Vikander (Ava), and Sonoya Mizuno (Kyoko): Critically acclaimed science-fiction film written and directed by the screenwriter of the underappreciated Dredd and the much-appreciated 28 Days Later. This is a nuanced, often creepy walk through Frankenstein territory, with a few nods to The Island of Dr. Moreau. But we're in the present day, in a world where building an Artificial Intelligence involves educating it with social media. Is it any wonder things could go wrong? Or perhaps 'worng'? 

The three principals are all very good. Domhnall Gleason is the young programmer brought to his tech mega-billionaire boss' gigantic Northern estate to help test whether or not the machine-intelligence Ava is truly self-aware. Oscar Isaac is the charismatic, mercurial, manipulative tech giant; Alicia Vikander is the the charming, inquisitive, and seemingly innocent robotic Ava. Weird things start to happen, all of them playing out in counter-pointed sterile interiors and Sublime exteriors filmed in Norway in glacier country. Hey, Garland actually seems to know the connection between Frankenstein and the Sublime! Ex Machina is very good science fiction and leaves one wanting more of its middle sections, in which ideas are debated and sometimes yelled about. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Heroes in Dark Places

Chronicle (2012): written by Max Landis and Josh Trank; directed by Josh Trank; starring Dane DeHaan (Andrew Detmer), Alex Russell (Matt Garetty), Michael B. Jordan (Steve Montgomery), and Michael Kelly (Richard Detmer): Josh Trank and Max Landis' fine, found-footage superhero drama led to Trank's horrible Fantastic Four movie, which really seems like a case of Unintended Consequences. 

Oddly, the means by which the three teenagers in Chronicle gain their telekinesis-based superpowers would have made for a good new origin for the Fantastic Four -- as indeed one character's descent into madness would have made for a reasonable take on Doctor Doom. So it goes. 

The found-footage premise works organically through much of the movie, especially once the characters can telekinetically fly the camera around on its own. Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan do fine, nuanced work as our three super-powered teenagers. And Chronicle, despite its (relatively) low budget, does a nice job of showing the wonders and terrors such powers would visit upon people while also creating actual, sympathetic, flawed characters. 

All this actual storytelling means that a concluding super-hero battle actually possesses the ability to shock and disturb. Easily one of the ten greatest superhero movies ever made because it's actually a movie and not an Ad for American Exceptionalism, Toys, and Fast Food. Highly recommended.

Spotlight (2015): based on true events and written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy; directed by Tom McCarthy; starring Mark Ruffalo (Mike Rezendes), Michael Keaton ('Robby' Robinson), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schreiber (Marty Baron), John Slattery (Ben Bradlee, Jr.), and Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian): Excellent, old-school movie which turns true-life events into the stuff of an intellectual thriller without sacrificing verisimilitude. 

A top-notch cast takes us through the investigation of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in and around Boston back in 2001-2002. The reporters of the Boston Globe's in-depth investigative unit (a unit named Spotlight, hence the title) eventually find not only widespread abuse but a cover-up that really does seem to go all the way to the top. It's a nicely modulated movie about why reporting matters, and how the most terrible crimes can be covered up by seemingly decent people for 'the greater good.' A deserved Best Picture Oscar Winner for 2015. Highly recommended.

Everest: based on a true story and written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy; directed by Baltasar Kormakur; starring Jason Clarke (Rob Hall), John Hawkes (Doug Hansen), Michael Kelly (Jon Krakauer), Emily Watson (Helen Wilton), Keira Knightley (Jan Arnold), Josh Brolin (Beck Weathers), Robin Wright (Peach Weathers), and Jake Gyllenhaal (Scott Fischer) (2015): Enjoyable movie based on the true story of a disastrous couple of days on Mount Everest in May of 1996. Journalist Jon Krakauer's terrific Into Thin Air (1997) documented the affair, and while the movie isn't based on that book, Krakauer does appear as one of the characters. The movie holds up well on the small screen, though one focuses more on the characters when one isn't being threatened with visions of the Sublime every five minutes. Highly recommended.