Monday, August 21, 2017

Ultimate Karnak

Karnak: The Flaw in All Things (2016/ Collected 2017): written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Gerardo Zaffino, Roland Boschi, and Antonio Fuso: A six-issue miniseries disguised as a quickly cancelled title, Karnak follows the adventures of the only one of Marvel's Inhumans to lack a superpower caused by the Terrigen Mists. Instead, Karnak, created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the late 1960's along with the other Inhumans in the pages of the Fantastic Four and now destined for a 2017 TV series, can see "the flaw in all things." Hence, you know, the title. 

Of course, this originally meant that Karnak could pinpoint the physical weak spot of anything so as to attack it. Writer Warren Ellis expands Karnak's ability to include everything from personalities to entire ideologies. It's an interesting idea that could bear more development -- the 'need' for fight scenes repeatedly stops the interesting stuff for yet another fight scene. And none of the credited artists (three for a six-issue run!) are anything more than mediocre at drawing and choreographing fight scenes. Indeed, one late battle is about six pages of boredom and confusion. Karnak is better than most things Marvel because of Ellis's writing, but this is far from great Ellis. Lightly recommended.

Ultimate Fantastic Four Volume 1 (2004/ Collected 2004): written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar; illustrated by Adam Kubert: If it weren't for the art of Adam Kubert, Ultimate Fantastic Four Volume 1 would actually be worse than the 2015 movie it served as a template for. It's certainly just as boring, and it certainly supplies the world with an unlikable group of teens who become the FF. Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar seem to be clueless as to how to write the Fantastic Four, so they graft them onto a Professor X/Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters template and spin their wheels from there. 

And if you thought the original 1961 FF villain Mole Man was a little over-determined by looking vaguely like a mole, wait until you meet Bendis and Millar's version -- he looks like a mole, he has the word 'mole' embedded in his last name, and he's covered with moles! Truly, Bendis and Millar are great creative talents! Not recommended.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Hitchcock, Affleck, and Ford

Lifeboat (1944): written by John Steinbeck and Jo Swerling; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Tallulah Bankhead (Connie), William Bendix (Gus), Walter Slezak (Willi), Mary Anderson (Alice), John Hodiak (John), Henry Hull (Rittenhouse), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley), Hume Cronyn (Stanley), and Canada Lee (Joe): Hitchcock's 'Bottle Show' movie remains a surprisingly prickly delight to this day, with terrific performances and tense direction. The survivors of a U-Boat attack on a freighter are stuck in a life boat with a survivor from the U-Boat, also sunk during the exchange. The set-up is a lot like the earlier Stagecoach, if you couldn't get off the titular stagecoach without drowning.

Various class issues play out, as do issues of bigotry and vengeance. People die. The dialogue crackles, especially when spoken by Tallulah Bankhead in one of her rare film appearances. She's a quick-talking female reporter who could be played by Rosalind Russell a la His Girl Friday. Lifeboat defies current Hollywood stereotypes and plot points by not killing the black guy first: nope, Lifeboat kills a baby first. A baby! And the black guy turns out to have the warm family life that all the white characters lack! Good old Hitch. If only we had more like him now. Highly recommended.

Presumed Innocent (1990): adapted by Alan Pakula and Frank Pierson from the novel by Scott Turow; starring Harrison Ford (Rusty Sabich), Brian Dennehy (Horgan), Raul Julia (Sandy), Bonnie Bedelia (Barbara Sabich), Paul Winfield (Judge Larren Lyttle), Greta Scacchi (Carolyn Polhemus), John Spencer (Det. Lipranzer), and Bradley Whitford (Kemp): Veteran screenwriter Alan Pakula's turn as a director wowed people in 1990 with this courtroom thriller. The heavyweight list of actors helps a lot, with stand-out turns from Raul Julia, Paul Winfield, and Brian Dennehy. Harrison Ford is fine, though his haircut is weirdly ridiculous.

Presumed Innocent succeeds or fails on the basis of how well it plays 'Whodunnit?' with the audience. Accused of murdering a colleague he'd had an affair with (Greta Scacchi), Harrison Ford's Chicago-based Assistant District Attorney has to survive a wealth of circumstantial evidence. Or did he do it? Scacchi's ADA Carolyn Polhemus is about as distilled a version of a femme fatale/career-bitch as one ever gets, while Bonnie Bedelia gets stuck with the role of the weepy, wronged wife of Ford's ADA.

The movie holds up pretty well, though it would hold up better if the film-makers had kept the novel's coda, which contextualizes the ending in a way that makes logical sense and adds depth to certain performances. Of course, the movie leaves everything in that leads to this coda, so you can just pretend the coda is there once you discover what it is. Recommended

The Accountant (2016): written by Bill Dubuque; directed by Gavin O'Connor; starring Ben Affleck (Christian Wolff), Anna Kendrick (Dana Cummings), J.K. Simmons (Ray King), Jon Bernthal (Brax), Cynthia Addai-Robinson (Agent Medina), and John Lithgow (Blackburn): Ben Affleck plays an autistic accountant who's also a super-assassin philanthropist. Basically, he's BatRainman. The Accountant is a competent, entertaining thriller. Don't ask more of it. Lightly recommended.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Ten Graphic Novels for People Who Don't Read Comics

There are dozens of others that could fit this list. Note that I avoid super-heroes and their fellow travelers science fiction, fantasy, and horror in this list because all these things put some people off.


Louis Riel by Chester Brown

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse


Kings in Disguise by James Vance and Dan Burr


Maus by art spiegelman


American Splendor by Harvey Pekar and many artists


The Book of Genesis by God and Robert Crumb


Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez


Can't Get No by Rick Veitch


From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell


Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Junk Bonds

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969): adapted from the Ian Fleming novel by Simon Raven and Richard Maibaum; directed by Peter Hunt; starring George Lazenby (James Bond), Diana Rigg (Tracy), Telly Savalas (Blofeld), and Gabriele Ferzetti (Draco): George Lazenby remains a mostly baffling choice to replace Sean Connery as James Bond. I say 'mostly' because I assume his status as an unknown fashion model caused the producers to believe that they would have much more control over him than they would over a more established actor.

Lazenby is terrible: wooden and totally absent of charisma. However, he isn't much helped by the movie. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is painfully long and slow.  It's also got some of the most ridiculous scenes in Bond history. A few problems...

  • It wastes its best asset -- Diana Rigg as Bond's love-of-his-life Tracy -- by sidelining her for the middle third of the movie. 
  • It gives Blofeld his least cinematically interesting Doomsday Plot (seriously, there's no way to dramatize a biological attack on the global food supply, so the film-makers don't even try). 
  • It gives Blofeld his most pathetic Doomsday Goal (to be made a titled nobleman and be granted amnesty for all previous crimes).
  • It dresses Bond up in a frilly shirt that's clearly the model for Austin Powers' frilly shirts.
  • It puts Bond and Tracy through a car chase that puts them inside a car race inside a tiny oval, thus leading to Tracy asking not once but at least twice 'How do we get out of here?'. The way you came in, maybe?
  • It involves not one (fine) but two (enough already!) downhill ski races.
  • It involves a climactic bobsled race because Blofeld uses a bobsled to escape his mountain-top HQ and Bond chases him in another bobsled. What is this, the goddamned Winter Olympics? Eventually, the two of them end up in a wrestling match in one bobsled. OK, that would be an interesting Olympic event.
  • It keeps the downbeat ending of the Ian Fleming novel for no apparent reason other than to see how a downbeat ending played with movie-goers, I guess.

Sean Connery would replace George Lazenby for the next Bond movie, (plus ca meme chose!) Diamonds are Forever, before giving way again to a new Bond. That would be Roger Moore, who would have a much more successful career than George Lazenby as 007. This stinker is not recommended except for its awfulness.

Becoming Bond (2017): written and directed by Josh Greenbaum; starring George Lazenby: Part documentary, part broadly acted docudrama, part George Lazenby's 77-year-old talking head. Becoming Bond tells the story of how Lazenby won and then intentionally lost the role of James Bond after only one movie (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), ostensibly because he refused to sign a 7-picture contract with the Bond producers. 

The Bond material is interesting but somewhat scanty -- the viewer will have to endure nearly an hour about Lazenby's pre-Bond life, which writer-director Josh Greenbaum seems to find nigh-endlessly fascinating. Your results will vary depending on how many scenes of Lazenby having sex, getting the runs, having sex, selling cars, taking LSD, and having sex you can tolerate. 

As another reviewer noted somewhere, you may also be distracted by the fact that the actor playing Lazenby looks and acts a lot more like Sharlto Copley than Lazenby. On the bright side, there's a lot of female nudity, if you look for that sort of thing in documentaries about George Lazenby.

If you're interested in the Bond movies, the movie is interesting though frustrating. Greenbaum spends perhaps 20 minutes on the material about On Her Majesty's Secret Service, far too little in a movie that clocks in at about 95 minutes. Lazenby himself comes across as a bit of a lucky yob, and the film itself strongly implies that he stopped acting after On Her Majesty's Secret Service, an implication belied by his dozens of IMDB screen credits after the Bond movie, including a stint as Superman's biological father Jor-El on the early 1990's Superboy TV series. The film also makes much of how popular Lazenby was as the new Bond, which seems like at least a bit of a stretch given that even adjusted for inflation, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the 21st highest grossing Bond film in North America out of 25. Lightly recommended.

The Living Daylights (1987): adapted from the Ian Fleming short story by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum; directed by John Glen; starring Timothy Dalton (James Bond), Maryam D'Abo (Kara), Jeroen Krabbe (Koskov), Joe Don Baker (Whitaker), and John Rhys Davies (General Pushkin): Competent, occasionally bland movie introduced the world to Timothy Dalton as James Bond. He's fine, for the most part, though he and the film-makers strand Bond between Sean Connery's grimly mocking Bond and Roger Moore's self-mocking Bond. Like Rambo in Rambo III, Bond gets help from the Afghanis who would become the Taliban. Oops. Jeroen Krabbe and Joe Don Baker make for an underwhelming pair of Bond villains, while Maryam D'Abo is fine but a bit bland as Bond's (only) love interest. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Price and Nesbo, White and Red All Over

The Whites (2015) by Richard Price: Richard Price's newest crime novel is a delight from start to finish, a pungent look at police and criminals and New York City. Our protagonist is Billy Graves, a Manhattan night-shift detective whose past as a member of a group of patrol cops who called themselves the Wild Geese may finally be catching up with him.

Billy is a flawed, wounded, introspective protagonist. He's also a very good detective who finds himself in two parallel situations that may not be so parallel. Someone seems to be stalking Billy and his family in pursuit of vengeance for some unknown wrong. And the lives of perpetrators investigated by Billy and his former Wild Geese are being snuffed out -- these perpetrators were never convicted for their crimes and are thus known to Billy and company by the slang term 'Whites.'

Price deftly draws the characters and their relationships, presents cop life in all it sordid details, and presents page after page of note-perfect dialogue. It's the sort of novel that someone who loved The Wire would love. Highly recommended.

The Redbreast (2000/ Harry Hole#3-Oslo Trilogy#1) by Jo Nesbo, translated into English by Don Bartlett: The Nazi Occupation of Norway supplies the back-story for this, the third of Jo Nesbo's detective-thrillers about Norwegian police officer Harry Hole and the first of the 'Oslo trilogy'-within-a-series. Harry gets caught up in trying to track down an assassin who was one of the Norwegians who fought alongside the Nazis during the Siege of Leningrad during World War Two.

Harry is on pretty good behaviour in this novel as he fights his demons (alcoholic and otherwise). Section dealing with the Norwegian collaborators of World War Two and the war's aftermath fascinated me -- it's not an area of history I knew anything about beyond the name 'Quisling.' The depiction of Harry's detective work is also top-notch. Norway itself fascinates, in the past and present, in Nesbo's depiction of Neo-Nazis and apologists and unctuous civil servants and historians and many others. Recommended.

Chaplin on Chaplin

My Autobiography (1964/ This edition with new introduction 2007) by Charlie Chaplin: The first third of Charlie Chaplin's autobiography was excerpted and sold as its own book, My Early Life. This suggests that Chaplin (or someone in his estate) knew that his autobiography was excellent pretty much right up to the point that he became the most famous person, film star or otherwise, on Earth -- in 1916, roughly speaking.

The first third details Chaplin's Dickensian childhood in London, England. And it is detailed, and marvelously described. Chaplin didn't use a ghost writer -- the prose is all his, with some corrections for spelling and grammar. He's a gifted memoirist, at least until he becomes famous. Then he becomes an anecdotalist, with the narrative switching to an exhausting string of Chaplin's encounters with famous people.

The first third of My Autobiography, though, is dynamite. Chaplin draws a picture of late Victorian England that is grimy but often full of life and heartbreak. His early adventures on the stage as a member of a travelling acrobatic troupe, as an actor, and ultimately as a dance-hall comedian are memorable and informative.

The introduction to this edition -- written 40 years after the initial mid-1960's release -- notes some of Chaplin's curious omissions. Unless his long-time collaborators are actresses, he omits them almost entirely. He also omits almost any mention of the process of making his films, especially once he's on his own. His first two wives get less than a page's worth between them. He does deal with his 1940's trial and subsequent exile to Switzerland, along with his last marriage, to the then-18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill when Chaplin was in his mid-50's. He fails to mention his last movie -- A King in New York -- at all. 

Oh, well. Some of the anecdotes are interesting, depending on your tolerance for name-dropping, especially when many of those names have faded into history. The several pages devoted to Chaplin's relationship with William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies are probably the most rewarding of the lot.

One thing is certain -- Chaplin was no Communist, even if he did get branded as such for some of the speechifying he did in person and on film. He really, really loves money and he lets it show. Given his impoverished background, it all makes sense.

In all, My Autobiography is immensely rewarding for the first 150 pages or so. After that, one really must proceed at one's own risk. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Austin City Limits

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): written by Mike Myers; directed by Jay Roach; starring Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil), Elizabeth Hurley (Vanessa Kensington), Michael York (Basil Exposition), Seth Green (Scott Evil), and Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina): The first and by far the freshest of the Austin Powers movies was a moderate hit in theatres and a giant hit on home video, thus paving the way for two sequels.

Canada's Mike Myers indulges his love of many things English and a few things Scottish (and a few thing Canadian) in creating his groovy hero -- the glasses are a nod to Michael Caine's bespectacled spy in The Ipcress File and others, while the film parodies James Bond movies and The Avengers spy series while also homaging Our Man Flint and a lot of other previous comedies, including The Pink Panther movies. The distinctive, Quincy Jones "Austin Powers Theme Song" (not its real name -- that would be "Soul Bossa Nova") originally came to Myers' attention when it was used as the theme song of the El Cheapo 1970's Canadian game show Definition.

Anyway, Myers just gets in there and keeps swinging with physical comedy, body-horror comedy, puns, and winks to the audience. It works beautifully for the most part, as does co-star Elizabeth Hurley, who's funny and fresh and seems to have real chemistry with Myers. Myers' Blofeld-parody Dr. Evil is also funny here, possibly because Myers doesn't have him do a parodic rap number as he will in the subsequent two movies. Highly recommended.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999): written by Mike Myers and Michael McCullers; directed by Jay Roach; starring Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, and Fat Bastard), Heather Graham (Felicity Shagwell), Elizabeth Hurley (Vanessa Kensington), Michael York (Basil Exposition), Seth Green (Scott Evil), Verne Troyer (Mini-Me), and Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina): More of the same, only louder and grosser. Verne Troyer still steals scenes as Mini-Me all these years later, and Mike Myers continues to be a gamer, this time playing three characters. 

Sending Austin back to the 1960's jettisons much of the first movie's 'Fish Out of Water' comedy. And Heather Graham, also a gamer, just isn't all that funny as the perpetually wide-eyed Felicity Shagwell. Myers' comic grotesque Scotsman Fat Bastard grows on you, especially his repeated verbal riffs on eating babies (and Mini-me). That he wears a delivery-man outfit with an 'FBD' patch on it (Fat Bastard Delivery, I presume) cracks me up with its attention to detail. Recommended.

Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002): written by Mike Myers and Michael McCullers; directed by Jay Roach; starring Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, Fat Bastard, and Goldmember), Beyonce Knowles (Foxy Cleopatra), Michael York (Basil Exposition), Seth Green (Scott Evil), Verne Troyer (Mini-Me), and Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina): The Austin Powers franchise runs out of steam pretty quickly here. An opening piece of meta-comedy doesn't play as funny as it sounds, while the celebrity cameos now seem like something of a drag. 

The funniest bits all seem to involve Michael Caine as Austin's swinging spy daddy in a nod to Caine's formative influence on the glasses-wearing Austin as a glasses-wearing superspy in 1960's spy films The Ipcress File and Billion-Dollar Brain. Beyonce and Myers have no chemistry, which at least allows Beyonce to escape the movie with her dignity intact (unlike Heather Graham in the previous installment, stuck in bed with Fat Bastard).

Padding the movie are lazy parodies of British boarding schools (and perhaps the first Harry Potter film), The Silence of the Lambs, and possibly Myers' dramatic turn in the film 54. Beyonce is charming and cute as a bug. Roller-skating Dutch egomaniac Goldmember (Myers again) is grotesque without being particularly funny. There are enough laughs for an Austin Powers completist, but the subtitle of this third film in the Austin Powers 'trilogy' could very well have been So Very Tired. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Passengers (2016)

Passengers (2016): written by Jon Spaihts; directed by Morgan Tyldum; starring Jennifer Lawrence (Aurora Lane), Chris Pratt (Jim Preston), Michael Sheen (Arthur the Android Bartender), and Laurence Fishburne (Gus Mancuso): There was a lot of (rhetorical) hand-wringing when Passengers hit theatres last winter over a particular decision made by Chris Pratt's character. And yes, it's a terrible decision. And the ultimate reaction of Jennifer Lawrence's character is going to be disturbing for a lot of people. But Passengers was still a lot more entertaining than I expected.

The film-makers even tried to go for a certain level of scientific accuracy, at least as we know it now. The Starship Avalon is a colony ship delivering 5000 passengers in some form of suspension to a colony world roughly 60 light years from Earth. The ship rotates those sections that require artificial gravity, as would we. And it's restricted to slower-than-light travel, as would we be. So kudos for that, though implausibilities creep in throughout as to how spin-generated AG would work.

The trip takes 120 years, so everyone onboard sleeps for most of it. Except something happens and Chris Pratt, a lovable mechanic, wakes up with 90 years to go. He's increasingly lonely. Then Jennifer Lawrence, a lovable writer, wakes up. Then some other stuff happens.

Passengers goes pretty much everywhere I expected it to go. But the set design and the CGI are actually interesting, and Lawrence and Pratt make for an engaging pair (along with lovable android bartender Arthur, played by Michael Sheen). There are a number of Idiot Plot moments, but not enough to destroy the viewing experience. And at least this is neither a superhero movie nor a giant epic. Jennifer Lawrence gets top billing, possibly because the plot requires her to strip down to her underwear or bathing suit every 20 minutes. Next time, make her the mechanic and Pratt the writer. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

More Movies About Androids and Food

Office Space (1999): written and directed by Mike Judge; starring Ron Livingston (Peter), Jennifer Aniston (Joanna), David Herman (Michael), Ajay Naidu (Samir), Diedrich Bader (Lawrence), Stephen Root (Milton), and Gary Cole (Bill Lumbergh): Mike Judge's cult favourite about the dehumanizing effects of office work remains a mostly masterpiece nearly 20 years later. Now as then, only the limp, comedy-killing dishrag that is Jennifer Aniston in romantic comedies strikes a sour note. Otherwise, the cast and writing are impeccable. Nearly highly recommended (Damn you, Aniston!).

Deli Man (2014): written and directed by Erik Anjou: Thoroughly enjoyable documentary about the rise and fall of the Jewish deli in North America (well, Canada and the United States, anyway). Extremely tasty and surprisingly nourishing, though Montreal is a no-show (but Toronto does show up). The story of present-day Deli Man Ziggy Gruber, who "co-owns a large deli in Houston and is also the grandson of the original owner of the Rialto Deli, the first Kosher deli to open on Broadway in New York City in the 1920s," (IMDB) unifies the documentary's narrative. He's an interesting fella. Highly recommended.

Becoming Cary Grant (2017): written and directed by Mark Kidel and Nick Ware: While this documentary gets a bit too arty at times (and could use a lot more captioning to explain who people are in photographs and home-movie clips), it's still a captivating look at the life and work of Cary Grant (born Archie Leach in England). While there are interviews with critics, historians, friends, and family members, most of the heavy lifting is done by Jonathan Pryce reading sections from Grant's never-published autobiography. It's fascinating stuff, augmented by the fact that Grant found success in LSD-aided therapy. Recommended.

Morgan (2016): written by Seth Owen; directed by Luke Scott; starring Kate Mara (Lee Weathers), Anya Taylor-Joy (Morgan), Rose Leslie (Amy), Toby Jones (Ziegler), Paul Giamatti (Shapiro), Michelle Yeoh (Dr. Cheng), and Boyd Holbrook (Skip): Or, Ex Machina for Dummies. Nothing in this 'AI seeks to escape its creators by any means necessary' film makes much sense if examined too closely, from the convenient;y breakable glass skylight in the AI's cell to the idea that a major corporation would have scientists developing super-dangerous, super-expensive super-soldiers without having lots of supervision and security on-site. Kate Mara elevates the material with her performance as a security wetwork specialist sent to clean things up at the rustic mansion of a lab, as does Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as the eponymous Morgan. But it's pretty dumb, though it marks the directorial debut of Ridley Scott's son, Luke. Not recommended.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Scaramouche (1952)

Scaramouche (1952): adapted by Ronald Millar, George Froeschel, Talbot Jennings, and Carey Wilson from the Rafael Sabatini novel; directed by George Sidney; starring Stewart Granger (Andre Moreau), Eleanor Parker (Lenore), Janet Leigh (Aline), Mel Ferrer (Marquis de Maynes), and Richard Anderson (Philippe): My favourite swashbuckler of the Technicolour era features several dazzling sword fights that influenced the lightsabre battles in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in much the same way that the aerial assault in The Dambusters influenced the Death Star assault in Star Wars.

And boy, they're great duels, especially the lengthy final battle between our hero Andre Moreau and his nemesis the Marquis de Maynes. Stewart Granger is a witty, surprisingly light piece of beefcake as Moreau, who ends up hiding out in a commedia dell'arte troupe in pre-Revolutionary France as the titular character. Eleanor Parker, lovely and funny, is his actress love interest while Janet Leigh is his noblewoman crush. As Moreau's best friend, Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man, has been murdered in a one-sided duel by the evil Establishment swordsman Marquis, Moreau must seek instruction in fencing while avoiding the government's search for him.

It's all frothy and colourful as Hell, with the sword-fight choreography allowed to play out in surprisingly long takes that often actually involve the actual actors. No quick-cutting, modern action movie gibberish for this film! Both Granger and Oscar Goldman seem to be about ten years too old for their parts, but then that was often the case in the 1940's and 1950's. In all, Scaramouche is genuinely rousing and fun. Highly recommended.

Denzel, Denzel

The Magnificent Seven (2016): based by Nic Pizzolato and Richard Wenk on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni; directed by Antoine Fuqua; starring Denzel Washington (Chisolm), Chris Pratt (Faraday), Ethan Hawke (Robicheaux), Vincent D'Onofrio (Horne), Byung-hun Lee (Rocks), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Vasquez), Martin Sensmeier (Red Harvest), Haley Bennett (Emma), and Peter Sarsgaard (Bogue): 

The film-makers wisely go on a much different track with this new adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai rather than simply ape the classic, elegiac 1960 Western of the same name. Now, the villagers are American, the enemy is a land-grabbing businessman (putting this version more in line with Shane or Pale Rider than the 1960 film), and the Magnificent Seven of the title are a veritable United Nations of noble mercenaries.

The cast is pretty much uniformly terrific, from Denzel Washington in the steely eyed Yul Brynner role to Martin Sensmeier as a Ninja Comanche. Vincent D'Onofrio is also great as an 'Indian fighter' who looks like a disheveled grizzly bear. And Peter Sarsgaard is oily and nutty as the evil businessman whose speeches sound an awful lot like the Republican Party platform of the 21st century. He's hired his endless orc-army of mercenaries from a company whose name echoes that of infamous current-day military contracting firm Blackwater, though the company is also a nod to the Pinkertons of the 19th century.

The main problem with the film is that unlike Yul Brynner's cowboy, Denzel Washington's character requires personal motivation for his defense of the village. Oh, well. None of the other characters require such motivation. Hollywood 101! But it's nice to see a multi-ethnic, multi-racial band of heroes. Director Antoine Fuqua, who has worked with Denzel Washington before on Training Day and The Equalizer, stages a number of effective battle sequences and also does nice work with the characterization of the Seven. It's a fairly engaging and occasionally rousing bit of popular entertainment. Recommended.

The Bone Collector (1999): adapted by Jeremy Iacone from the Jeffrey Deaver novel; directed by Philip Noyce; starring Denzel Washington (Lincoln Rhyme), Angelina Jolie (Amelia), Queen Latifah (Thelma), and Michael Rooker (Cheney): Solid, atmospheric thriller features Denzel Washington as a quadriplegic forensics expert and Angelina Jolie as the beat cop who becomes his on-site eyes and ears. They track a serial killer who seems to be playing a game with them involving old New York homicides. Things go well until the ridiculous revelation of the identity of the serial killer and his motives at the end. Worth watching despite the letdown of the last ten minutes, as Washington and the young Jolie are both charismatic and believable in their roles. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Now I'm All Outta Elvis and Pike

Stalking the Angel (1989) (Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike #2) by Robert Crais: The theft of a priceless Japanese book from the Los Angeles home of an American businessman sends PI Elvis Cole and kick-ass pal Joe Pike up against dark family secrets and Japanese organized crime. Pike's character begins to come into focus in this, the second Cole/Pike novel, though the blurb on the back still refers to him as a sociopath (he isn't). 

The mystery is a bit thin. The climax is an inspired, epic shoot-em-up that seems to have been written with the movie screen in mind. And for foodies and lovers of brand names, Cole's obsessive recounting of the foods he eats and the brands of clothing people wear is at full-throttle. Recommended.

Lullaby Town (1992) (Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike #3) by Robert Crais: Elvis Cole and Joe Pike head to Connecticut in search of the son a famous Hollywood director abandoned years ago before he was famous. Well, his ex-wife took the son with her and disappeared, and the director didn't care then. Now, he wants to reconnect. 

The detective work leads Cole to the missing woman quite quickly... and into yet another big mess quickly after that. There's a certain amount of stereotypical fuzzy-mindedness about the Mafia along the way, along with another massive action climax. Crais, who's worked in TV and movies, seems to enjoy skewering Hollywood pretensions and pretenses here without turning the director into a completely unlikable cliche. Recommended.

Free Fall (1993) (Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike #4) by Robert Crais: The estranged fiancee of an LA cop comes to PI Elvis Cole in search of answers as to why her high-school sweetheart has become furtive and distant. And of course it's not simply another woman. Soon, Cole and best friend Joe Pike are fighting both the police and LA gangs as they search for answers. Things lead to a tightly choreographed, bloody climax. Recommended.

Voodoo River (1995) (Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike #5) by Robert Crais: A Hollywood celebrity hires Elvis Cole to track down her birth mother back in Louisiana. Nothing is ever simple in an Elvis Cole adventure. 

Along the way to an explanation, Cole runs up against small-town crooks, the world's worst PI, a 200-pound napping turtle, a Lurch-like enforcer, and a whole lot of Louisiana cooking. This novel also introduces the series' one major drag, love-interest Lucy Chenier, who will spend the next few Cole novels boring the bejesus out of the reader even as she entrances Cole. Recommended.

Indigo Slam (1997) (Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike #7) by Robert Crais: Three kids aged 8 to 16 hire Elvis Cole to find their father, who's gone missing from their LA home. As Cole feels sorry for them, he takes on the case rather than calling Child Protective Services. But what seems simple isn't, leading Cole and hyper-competent partner Joe Pike into a Battle Royale between Viet Namese and Russian organized criminals. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Secret Origins of Super DC Heroes

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: The Ultimate Edition (2016): written by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio; directed by Zack Snyder; starring Ben Affleck (Batman), Henry Cavill (Superman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), and Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor): Much more satisfying than the theatrical version, the Ultimate Edition increases Batman's lunacy and develops Luthor's plot. It even adds scenes of Superman helping people and puts Jena Malone's scenes as STAR Labs' Jenet Klyburn back into the movie. Even at 3 hours, it moves better than the 2 1/2 hour theatrical version. Recommended.

Wonder Woman (2017): based on characters created by William Moulton Marston, H.G. Peter, George Perez, and others; written by Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder; directed by Patty Jenkins; starring Gal Gadot (Diana), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Connie Nielsen (Hippolyta), Robin Wright (Antiope), Danny Huston (Ludendorff), David Thewlis (Sir Patrick), and Elena Anaya (Dr. Poison): Director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg go back to Richard Donner's first Superman movie for inspiration (among other sources). 

The result is a crowd-pleaser with a female superhero. It may go on just about one climax too many, but overall Wonder Woman is a delight, as is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. A relative unknown, she shows the star power and charm of that other relative unknown, Christopher Reeve. The film-makers even figured out how to make WW's boy-pal Steve Trevor interesting. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Super Ambassador

I crush your head!
Wonder Woman by Greg Rucka Volume 1 (2002, 2004/ Collected 2016): written by Greg Rucka; illustrated by J.G. Jones, Drew Johnson, and others: Greg Rucka's first writing stint on Wonder Woman is both a high point in mainstream adult superhero comics and emblematic of the problems of mainstream superhero comics in the 21st century. It's all rendered pleasingly and straightforwardly by J.G. Jones on the graphic novel included here (Wonder Woman: The Hiketia) and mostly Drew Johnson on the regular series.

The good is that aside from the George Perez days, this is Wonder Woman's best writer you've got here. Actually, Rucka is a better writer than George Perez and his collaborators -- Perez has the edge in redefining Wonder Woman for the 1980's and beyond. Some of that flows directly to this. Wonder Woman, per: Perez, is now the Ambassador to Man's World from the island formerly known as Paradise. Princess Diana no longer has the civilian ties to the American military that persisted from her Golden-Age creation into the mid-1980's. 

However, being an ambassador makes the book way too adult for kids. There are probably more pages devoted to Diana's book tour than there are to fights. There's nothing wrong with that exactly, except I'll be damned if I know where new readers were supposed to come from. Maybe all the kids who enjoy Model U.N. Clubs.

In any case, Diana's personality is something of a delight. Rucka has also pushed certain attributes to their logical conclusions: Diana can talk to the animals, so she's a vegan. She protects the whole Earth in naturalistic terms, so she stops the Flash from putting out a forest fire because forest fires need to burn to preserve the natural order. There's more than a whiff of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing to Rucka's Diana. What a team-up that would be! What a movie!

The Hiketia graphic novel, ably rendered by J.G. Jones, sees mythic rituals necessitate Diana beating the bejesus out of Batman. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Recommended.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Marked by 9/11

Can't Get No (2006) written and illustrated by Rick Veitch: Manhattan CEO Chad Roe has a bad day when complainants launch lawsuits against his company and its signature product -- a truly indelible marker. Stock prices drop into the Zero range. Angry victims of the truly permanent marker want Roe's head. It's September 9, 2001 in New York.

Can't Get No is a surreal, often grotesque piece of left-wing agit-prop from writer-artist Rick Veitch. It's also brilliant and, in my comic-reading experience, unique. I've never encountered a comic before in which the odd, often vague blocks of text (no word balloons or, for that matter, directly attributed quotations here) interact with the occasionally grotesque but also splendidly, comically rendered art so as to induce a sort of trance state in the reader.

Pages go by, and the text seems to vanish from one's memory before it can be stored. Veitch has conjured up a graphic novel that reflects the mass-culture wasteland of America and its cancerous hold on individuals and on the planet. I'd hate to see what this book would do to someone truly stoned.

This is a quest narrative in which images carry the weight while the text noodles away in the background, strange and elusive. There's a Theme Park one probably won't forget. And there's Chad Roe, whose body is turned into a canvas early on for a couple of artists interested in those permanent markers. 

Don't look for epiphanies or life-changing revelations at the end, though. It seems to me that the point of Can't Get No is that some people simply cannot permanently change. They've already drowned in the toxic, memoryless, money-obsessed melting pot that is America, melting. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Mournful Combat

Blazing Combat (1965-66/ Collected 2010): written by Archie Goodwin and others; illustrated by Reed Crandall, Joe Orlando, Wally Wood, Alex Toth, and others: Having made its mark with B&W horror comics in a magazine-sized format with Creepy and Eerie, Warren Publishing turned to war comics with Blazing Combat. Freed from the constraints of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), Blazing Combat was, like Eerie and Creepy, a return to the more studied and downbeat comics publications which EC Comics towered over aesthetically in the early 1950's prior to the implementation of the CCA.

A young writer-editor named Archie Goodwin wrote or co-wrote all the Blazing Combat stories that exist. Only four issues appeared, as sales were direly affected by a military PX boycott because it was felt by TPTB that Blazing Combat was anti-American. A lot of that weight fell on the single finest story in Blazing Combat's brief but potent run, "Landscape" by Goodwin and artist Joe Orlando. It's a brilliant, sad, reflective piece about the Viet Nam War and it stands as one of the ten great short-form American comic-book war stories.

The rest of the volume ranges from excellent to pretty good. As Goodwin notes in a previously published  interview included with the collection (Goodwin died a decade before Blazing Combat was collected), his one major slip-up was a panel in which a character loads a mortar upside down (!). But otherwise the marvelous artwork and terse, only rarely too-preachy writing make this volume a must-own for readers of comics and war comics especially. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Alien Breast-feeding

Saga Volume 1 (2012-2013/ Collected 2015): written by Brian K. Vaughan; illustrated by Fiona Staples: Saga has become something of a sales sensation since its first appearance. It's the sort of half-dippy, star-spanning science-fantasy tale that owes more to allegory than astronomy. 

A race of horned aliens and a race of winged aliens have been at war across the galaxy for millennia. They've outsourced the business of war to many other races in a variety of places. But two soldiers from the opposing sides have fallen in love. And she's pregnant. And a galaxy-wide hunt has been kicked off to find them.

If you require hard science fiction, or at least scientifically plausible science fiction, avoid Saga. The first volume is fun and breezy in that often anomalously snarky Buffy the Vampire Slayer way, though both the writing and the pleasant artwork from Fiona Staples rapidly evaporate in one's memory. Maybe you'll enjoy it more. A volume made semi-famous by an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which the nerds get all hot and bothered by the mother breast-feeding her baby on the cover. Yeah, hubba hubba. Losers. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Railsea (2012) by China Mieville

Railsea (2012) by China Mieville. "On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt." So reads one of the publishers' blurbs for this Young Adult science-fantasy novel. Never let it be said that Mieville would dumb things down for a younger audience!

A 'moldywarpe' is a term for a whale-sized mole, by the way.

Set on a future Earth separated from ours by an unknown but Sublimely vast Time Abyss, Railsea follows the young Sham's voyage from doubtful surgeon's apprentice to a mostly confident explorer over the course of what seems to be about a year. 

All his adventures occur on and around the Railsea, the vast and interconnected web of rail lines upon which the engines of many countries and organizations 'sail.' Mysterious machines dubbed 'Angels' maintain the Railsea. Gigantic versions of many of our smaller land fauna -- moles, ants, carnivorous rabbits, spiders -- hunt humans and are hunted in turn.

The Railsea is a great and intricate thought-experiment that seems perfectly believable. Mieville has invested this world with his terrific imagination, making it a startling yet weirdly familiar place. There's a quest, but it's for knowledge. There is our nominal hero, but he's joined by many others, all of whom serve a purpose (and all of whom serve Mieville's socialistic bent as a collective hero when taken in total). 

It's really a marvelous book in terms of imagination, characterization, and style. One of the narrative conceits is that this tale is being told at some later date by a narrator who occasionally stops, starts again, explains some arcane bit of Railsea lore or language, or even apologizes for leaving one or another strand of the narrative for a lengthy stretch of pages until something important happens.

There's a long tradition of such novels as Railsea, set on a future Earth so distantly future that it hardly seems like Earth, from William Hope Hodgson's early 20th-century quest The Night Land through the works of writers that include Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, and Gene Wolfe. Railsea is a worthy addition to their ranks, for young adults or anyone else. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997) by David Foster Wallace

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997) by David Foster Wallace, containing the following essays:

"Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" (Harper's, December 1991, under the title "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes"): Wallace reviews his youthful tennis exploits (he was pretty good) within the context of the flat Midwestern landscape of his childhood and his own obsessive relationship with geometry. 

Interesting, but at this point in his writing career, he's still irritatingly obtuse at point, a man who's swallowed a thesaurus and isn't afraid to barf it up on the page. Also, on a personal note, Wallace's essays on tennis are the least interesting part of his catalog for me. It's his favourite sport, so beneath all the sarcasm and pith, one is still stuck with a writer telling one why the sport he or she prefers is also the greatest sport that ever was. 

"E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993): Wallace makes a number of fascinating and worthwhile critical observations about how TV influences contemporary fiction. 

As in a lot of Wallace's more theoretical work, the main flaw is his tendency to equate the tastes of himself and his friends with everyone's tastes, everywhere. Here, that means Wallace believes everyone in the late 1980's and early 1990's was watching TV in as cynical and 'meta' a fashion as the people in his living room, all of whom were graduate students in literature and creative writing. Um, no. Gross generalization.

"Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" (Harper's, 1994, under the title "Ticket to the Fair"): Wallace travels to the 1993 Illinois State Fair, and the trip gives us the first of Wallace's sublime pieces of reportage. A fine, funny, sympathetic piece.

"Greatly Exaggerated" (Harvard Book Review, 1992): A review of Morte d'Author: An Autopsy by H. L. Hix, including Wallace's personal opinions on the role of the author in literary critical theory. Boring but short.

"David Lynch Keeps His Head" (Premiere, 1996): Wallace makes a number of interesting observations about David Lynch's body of work. He also got to visit the set of Lost Highway, a fact that allow for observations about how Lynch's compulsive coffee drinking leads to a lot of bathroom breaks so the auteur can micturate. Really good work.

"Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" (Esquire, 1996, under the title "The String Theory"): Oh, God, more tennis. Though Wallace is at the 1995 Canadian Open, which at least allows for a lot of sarcastic culture shock, the Open being in Montreal. 

"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (Harper's, 1996, under the title "Shipping Out"): Wallace goes on a Caribbean cruise. Hilarity and misanthropy results. Wallace's ability to be agog at both the weirdness of others and the weirdness of himself is in full flower here, producing one the the great travel pieces I've ever read. 

Overall: David Foster Wallace is not for everybody, but those who like him, like him a lot. An uneven but rewarding collection, and "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All", "David Lynch Keeps His Head", and especially "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" elevate it to Highly Recommended. Even with those goddam tennis pieces.

Friday, June 9, 2017


Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 (2017): based on characters created and/or developed by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Gerber, Bill Mantlo, Jim Starlin, and many others; written by James Gunn; directed by James Gunn; starring Chris Pratt (Peter Quill/Star-Lord), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Vin Diesel (Voice of Groot), Bradley Cooper (Voice of Rocket Raccoon), Michael Rooker (Yondu), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), and Kurt Russell (Ego the Living Planet): Family, family, family, family, family is great. Mawkish bathos and bathetic mawkishness provide about 20 minutes of dreadful slop that stalls this sequel dead at certain points, all of written, I assume, by the Universal Plot Overlay Generator. 

There's still some cosmic fun to be had, but this is really the sort of comic-book movie that needs to be lean and trim. An initially clever opening credits action sequence rapidly devolves into an ad for Baby Groot merchandise. I was entertained for the most part, but I'm not sure how much more of this Marvel shit I can handle. The actors do a thoroughly solid job of standing in front of green screens and looking surprised. Kurt Russell looks good, but he's totally miscast as Ego, a character who really needs the plummy pomposity of an older English actor. Lightly recommended.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): adapted by John Michael Hayes from a story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Jimmy Stewart (Dr. Benjamin McKenna) and Doris Day (Josephine Conway McKenna): Relatively late-Hollywood-spectacle Hitchcock has sprung rhythms that derail its thriller momentum throughout. I'm not entirely sure this is unintentional -- the movie does seem more like a critique of Ugly Americans Abroad than anything else, with Jimmy Stewart as the ugliest and stupidest of all. 

A much-longer remake of a 1930's Hitchcock film that was superior (especially insofar as the 1930's The Man Who Knew Too Much had Peter Lorre as the Anarchist villain). Doris Day sings "Que Sera Sera" and it's actually relevant to the plot. The Albert Hall assassination sequence is a marvel. Jimmy Stewart is about ten years too old for his character, a fact that Hitchcock would put to much more effective use in the subsequent Vertigo. A sequence set in a Marrakesh restaurant is extremely funny. Too long by 20 minutes, but boy, when it ends, it just ends. Lightly recommended.

I Love a Mystery! (1945): adapted by Charles O'Neal from the radio program created by Carlton E. Morse; directed by Henry Levin; starring Jim Bannon (Jack), Barton Yarborough (Doc), Nina Foch (Ellen Monk), and George Macready (Jefferson Monk): B-movie ports popular 40's radio show to the big screen, with loopy results. There's Orientalism, decapitation, prophecy, and comic-relief Southernisms from 'Doc,' sidekick to private detective Jack. Apartment mate too -- they sleep in separate beds in the same room. 

This film contains some of the funniest 'slow pursuit' material played straight in movie history, as a one-legged man repeatedly catches up to his two-footed prey despite clealry walking much, much slower than they. Extremely odd and, as with B-movies of the time, incredibly short. Lightly recommended.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016): based on a true story; written by Nicholas Martin; directed by Stephen Frears; starring Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Hugh Grant (St Clair Bayfield), Simon Helberg (Cosme McMoon), and Rebecca Ferguson (Kathleen): Delightful comic drama about the world's worst singer, New York socialite and philanthropist Florence Foster Jenkins. She thinks she can sing. Husband Hugh Grant humours her because he loves her. Actually, pretty much everyone humours her because she's a nice person who throws a lot of money around. 

This movie isn't quite the laugh riot it was advertised as -- it's also a bittersweet movie about folly and sacrifice. The cast is terrific throughout, Stephen Frears directs with unforced elegance, and the singing... boy oh boy that singing. Meryl Streep nails Jenkins' dementedly above-range 'coloratura,' as recordings of the actual singer played under the end credits demonstrate. Recommended.

Tom Hanks Playhouse

Inferno (2016): adapted by David Koepp from the novel by Dan Brown; directed by Ron Howard; starring Tom Hanks (Professor Robert Langdon), Felicity Jones (Sienna Brooks), Omar Sy (Bouchard), Irrfan Khan (Harry Sims), Ben Foster (Zobrist), and Sidse Babett Knudsen (Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey): I actually think this is the best of the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard/Dan Brown movies. Tom Hanks's Robert Langdon is tired and bleary for much of the film (for good reason). The historical clues are almost perfunctory, as if the film-makers finally admitted that the whole point of these things, like a James Bond movie, is the globe-trotting scenery. 

There's a decent twist at the two-thirds mark, the supporting cast is all solid, and Ben Foster finally gets cast correctly, as a squirmy, passive-aggressive billionaire who wants to kill 50% of humanity. Director Ron Howard even presents us with a couple of drug-induced visions for Langdon that are creepy enough to suggest that a Ron Howard-helmed H.P. Lovecraft movie wouldn't have been the botch that such a pairing initially suggested. A perfectly good time-filler. Recommended.

Sully (2016): adapted from the book by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow by Todd Komarnicki; directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Tom Hanks (Sully), and Aaron Eckhart (Skiles): "Sully" Sullenberger successfully landed a passenger jet on the Hudson River in January 2009. This film is excellent when it sticks to the landing and much less so when the screenplay tries to grind some ideological axe about how awful bureaucracies and government are, courtesy I assume of right-wing brain-trauma survivor Clint Eastwood. 

The National Travel Safety Board investigation (nay, witch hunt) of Sully after the landing is pretty much entirely invented. It doesn't even make much sense: wouldn't the owner and/or manufacturer of the airplane want to roast Sully if anyone, given that the financial loss would be suffered there? Well, no, I guess, because Corporations Are People Too, and good people at that. Good, good people. Bad, bad bureaucrats trying to protect us. Bad! Tom Hanks is fine, as usual, and the landing sequence is tense and thrilling. All the other stuff is right-wing wankery. Lightly recommended.