Saturday, November 28, 2009


Frost/Nixon starring Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, written by Peter Morgan, based on his play, directed by Ron Howard (2008): Neither Sheen, who plays TV personality David Frost, nor Langella, who plays Richard Nixon, look much like their real-world counterparts. In a way, this helps the movie, as we're not stuck comparing faces and mannerisms. The movie -- originally an award-winning play starring the same two actors -- follows the making of the Frost/Nixon television interviews of 1977 from first inspiration to ratings success.

Solid writing that never really does more than skate along the surface is aided immensely by Sheen and Langella's nuanced performances. Langella is especially good in delivering a portrait of an immensely flawed but strangely sympathetic Nixon who, in the movie's conception, has been left alone and brooding by his resignation from the Presidency, realizing that his ego-fulfilling public life is now over. Ron Howard doesn't screw things up, which is a triumph for the Howard school of blatantly telegraphed film-making, though there's some business with Italian shoes that I think we're supposed to view as metaphorically profound. Whatever. Like last year's Doubt, this is a movie carried pretty much entirely by acting and, to a lesser extent, writing, and the acting is dandy.

If These Are The Chosen, I'd Rather Be Damned...

Movie (Spoilers!!!:

Knowing starring Nicolas Cage and Rose Byrne, directed by Alex Proyas (2009): When this movie goes completely off the rails with about 30 minutes to go, what results is one of the most laughable 30 minutes in bad movie history. And it's not like the first 90 minutes were all that great. Mysterious numbers left in a time capsule from 1959 accurately predict major disasters from 1959 to the present. Can widowed astrophysicist Cage save the world?

Well, no, but he does give a lecture on randomness vs. determinism to his astronomy class that doesn't actually explain either principle correctly. And he does reconcile with his pastor father approximately 30 seconds before a solar flare destroys the Earth. And angelic aliens do save his son and a few other people and animals to populate another Earth-like planet somewhere else. See, it's the story of Noah and the flood. Or maybe Sodom and Gomorrah. Or Adam and Eve. Or something. But the angels travel around in UFOs and, for reasons never explained, disguise themselves as people who can't talk and who drive around in what look to be 1970's era Crown Victorias.

There's a great moment when the aliens take Cage's son, a little girl, and two rabbits onto their spacecraft. Cage isn't allowed to go because he isn't one of the Chosen. Anyway, if this movie had had Captain Kirk in it, I imagine Kirk would have argued the angel-aliens into stopping the solar flare. Given that these beings have a fleet of spaceships and premonitory abilities, I have to figure they could stop a solar flare if they wanted to. So I imagine Kirk giving a rousing speech to the aliens/angels, at the end of which one of the beings says, "OK, we'll stop the solar flare. But we're keeping these rabbits!"

Apparently, Heaven exists, so the six billion people who die go to a better place. I don't remember the people left behind by Noah getting that sort of deal, Heaven not having been invented yet, so there is that. The whole thing ends up playing like one of C.S. Lewis's demented Christian science-fiction novels (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, for those who know only Lewis's Narnia books) in which aliens are actually angels. The aliens also travel around in a ridiculously complex looking spaceship that suggests they had a lot of free time to pimp out their ride while they were waiting for the apocalypse.

For all that, the movie is worth watching. There's a spectacular plane crash about 45 minutes in, and the whole thing becomes so ludicrous that it's enjoyable in a pompously, pretentiously overblown way. It's like an episode of the X-Files reimagined by Jack T. Chick.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sports Norts

Sports Illustrated writer names Toronto Blue Jay outfielder Vernon Wells 'Least Valuable Player of 2009.'

Fall-out from 'The Call' in the New England/Indianapolis game.

The Devil's Bride

Sarah Palin is fascinating, I'll give her that. Not endlessly fascinating, because while there's a certain shrewdness there, her brain seems to be generating a lot more heat than light. But fascinating.

Politically, all she says are the most basic of talking points sprinkled with Aw-Shucks, cornpone imaginary American-ness...small towns good, cities bad. Government bad, business good.

Noting that some of the deepest roots of quasi-socialist American populism lie in the small towns and farms of America now seems pretty much unbelieveable. A portion of the Republican Party seeks to appeal to the descendants of people who organized against them. And succeeds. America's imaginary rural past has replaced the real one. I don't mean to say that there weren't Republicans in small towns and farming communities. But not universally.

Populist candidates on both sides of the American political divide have always tended to be anti-intellectual, anti-big city. Palin's not new -- she's just far less experienced as a political operator than most former prominent populists, and her goals are very high, very soon: a presidential run in 2012.

And yet Palin is also set up to be a victim of this new world of lightless political heat. Polls show she appeals to a much smaller fragment of the right-wing than one would gather from all the attention she gathers in the media. Regardless of what problems Obama faces in 2012, if Palin runs for President, I'd bet $20 Obama wins the biggest landslide for an incumbent since Reagan in 1984.

She may even succeed in splitting the Republican Party in two, as the Palin-led Republicans who'd gladly suck the devil's fiery, pus-jetting cock to seize and hold power break off from Republicans of good conscience. We'll see.

Reagan and Bush I were a lot of things, but I never got a feeling of supreme, gormless malignity from them. For some people (myself included), Palin exudes that sort of malignity -- a self-pitying person who blames everyone else for any of her failures, who seems possessed only of a desire for power and a desire to crush her enemies one way or another.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Surfer, a Puritan, a Doppelganger and a Sundial walk into a Bar...


The Saga of Solomon Kane Volume 1 by Roy Thomas, Doug Moench, Don Glut and about 50 other writers and artists (1974-1994; collected 2009): Dark Horse Comics turns its attention to reprinting the adventures of one of Robert E. Howard's non-Conan heroes. The adventures, originally published as back-ups in various Marvel B&W comics magazines of the 1970's, 80's and 90's, adapt pretty much every Howard story, poem and fragment about Solomon Kane, and also add several original stories to the mix.

Kane was an English Puritan of the 16th and 17th centuries who pledged his life to fighting supernatural evil wherever he found it. In Howard's original double-handful of stories and poems, these adventures take place in Africa, England and Western Europe, though there are references to adventures in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the New World as well. An extremely muscular Christian, Kane does battle with vampires, werewolves, Cthulhoid monstrosities, genocidal last outposts of Atlantis, ghosts, demons, dragons and even Dracula herein. The art is for the most part solid 1970's Marvel style, with one really nice piece illustrated by the great Howard Chaykin and a number of nice 'pin-ups' by artists that include John Byrne and John Buscema scattered throughout.

The overall effect isn't quite as much fun as Howard's original prose pieces, due in part to the cramped nature of a number of stories that try to tell an entire Howard short story in too few pages. The two Dracula encounters embody one of the problems of having an established hero fight an established villain prior to that villain's chronicled 'demise.' Kane, who otherwise bats 1.000 against supernatural menaces, can't dispose of Dracula 300 years prior to the events of Bram Stoker's Dracula, so he doesn't -- Dracula must survive. So the writers content themselves with having Kane defeat Dracula on every other level, including a humiliating pummelling during a sword fight.

All in all, though, this is a lot of fun, and as I believe there's enough Marvel material for another volume, hopefully that volume will be forthcoming in the future as a 'sideline' to Dark Horse's new, more expansive Solomon Kane adventures like "The Castle of the Devil."

The Essential Silver Surfer Volume 1 by Stan Lee, John Buscema and Jack Kirby (1968-1970): The Silver Surfer started comic-book life in the pages of Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four as the herald of Galactus, Galactus being a universe-wandering devourer of the life of 'living' planets. When Galactus came to Earth, the Fantastic Four fought him long enough for The Thing's blind girlfriend Alicia Masters to convince the Surfer that humanity didn't deserve to die, leading the Surfer to switch sides and fight Galactus. After various twists and turns, Galactus left Earth without eating it, exiling the Surfer to our world as punishment for his betrayal. The Surfer's own series picks up where that and a couple of subsequent FF adventures left off, with the cosmically powered Surfer trying to understand humanity.

The Silver Surfer was pretty much a cosmic naif in his early FF appearances, suggesting that he had indeed been created by Galactus sui generis to search out living planets. The Surfer's own magazine quickly altered that concept, giving the Surfer a backstory as a self-sacrificing alien named Norrin Radd from the planet Zenn-La who bought his planet's survival by agreeing to aid Galactus in his search for living planets.

Lee really lays on the bathos and sermonizing with a trowel in the Surfer's own magazine -- this may be the preachiest comic-book on the topic of man's inhumanity to man ever published by a major comic book company. That preachiness works insofar as one pretty has to read the book as a series of late 60's moral homilies spruced up by cosmic action and adventure.

And because the book was originally a double-sized bimonthly, artist John Buscema really gets to cut loose with the art in that more expansive format because the plots themselves aren't really any more detailed than a typical 20-page Stan Lee opus. Thus, with loads of single and double-page spreads and a preponderance of 4-panel pages, we get what I think is probably John Buscema's best artwork. Certainly his most epic, anyway, as the Surfer battles various threats to Earth, the universe and even his own immortal soul at the hands of Mephisto, the Marvel Universe's version of Satan introduced for the first time in the pages of the Silver Surfer. The sermons get a little tiresome, but the whole thing moves quickly.

Prose Books:

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (1958): Jackson was a master (well, technically mistress) of a sort of understated, sarcastic Gothic/horror style that no one else has ever really done. Her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, managed to present both a terrifying (and pretty much terrifying in an unprecedented way) haunted house operating as both the setting and another character within a novel about the extent to which various types of people can delude themselves, and how those delusions can flow naturally out of a character's social class as much as from individual psychological quirks.

Here, Jackson pretty much eviscerates the American rich of a certain type, possessed of a superiority complex derived from money and station, isolated literally and figuratively from the townspeople nearby, and deluded about what those townspeople really think of them. All this is set against a plot driven by a supposed ghostly warning of the End of the World granted to Aunt Fanny of the O'Hallarn clan. Everyone, Fanny says she is told by the ghost of her robber-baron father, will die except for the O'Hallarns and anyone else inside their massive house on the Night of Judgment. And so the family and its guests set out to prepare for the apocalypse.

Horror lends itself to social satire, and the satire here is about as bleak and black as it gets. Jackson always had a flair for allowing a reader to understand the forces that drive flaws and errors in certain characters without necessarily making one feel sympathy for that character, in part because self-pity is a dominant character trait in so many of here wealthy, pampered protagonists. By the time the end of the world arrives, if it does, there won't be a wet eye in the house.

This Rage of Echoes by Simon Clark (2004): Clark is one loopy horror writer. The central premise of this novel is a concept I've only encountered once before, in a Philip K. Dick story called "Upon the Dull Earth", and there the concept was deployed to much different effect. Basically, a bizarre plague starts transforming people into copies of certain other people. Then these copies try to kill the originals. And other stuff. And the plague starts spreading while also eventually centering on copies of one man, the narrator, who has no idea why this is happening. And then things get weirder, with covert government agencies, aliens and the apparent ghost of a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy being added into the mix.

Clark knows how to write an action scene, and while the novel is bloody and contains some graphic sex, it doesn't resort to the stomach-turning grotesqueries of a lot of post-splatterpunk horror. The plot twists (and the Final Plot Twist) are often so bizarre that they stagger one's suspension of disbelief. It's as if Stephen King worked up a novel based on a Philip K. Dick outline. I enjoyed the novel, but I enjoyed the other two Clarks I've read (Vamphyrric, Stranger) more, though this novel shares with Vamphyrric a certain spottiness of editing that leads to too many repeated phrases and descriptions. I'd almost think the novel had been serialized and then compiled without having the necessary repetitions and reiterations of something in serial form edited out.

Irony, Thy Name is Homophobia

I think this goes under the category of 'Oops.'

Thursday, November 12, 2009


The original 'V' miniseries was an interesting but severely flawed bit of sci-fi paranoia that lifted its central, defining image (a massive flying saucer hovering over a city) from Arthur C. Clarke's chilly evolution-is-progressive classic novel Childhood's End. By the time the second miniseries came around, humans on horseback were outrunning spaceships, and the short-lived series just made things worse -- and diluted creator Ken Johnson's 'aliens as Nazis/Soviets' central metaphor.

The new 'V' gets one thing very right -- it's got a terrific cast, led by Elizabeth Mitchell as a Visitor-fighting FBI agent, Morris Chestnut as a good, rogue alien, Morena Baccharin as alien High Commander 'Anna' and Scott Wolf as a smarmy but smarter than he looks TV anchorman. The rest of it is compromised by a couple of dumb ideas that scientists in the universe of the show would have immediately jumped on, chief among them the ridiculous premise that aliens with gigantic interstellar spaceships would need to go to a planet to pick up water, a bit of idiocy that's also showed up on Battlestar Galactica, Stargate Universe and Star Trek: Voyager, to name just three. Obviously the aliens aren't really here to drink our water, but the show should at least address the fact that a billion scientists would call 'bullshit' on this pretext.

Other problems? Well, are we really going to believe that aliens, even aliens that look exactly like us, are going to have names like 'Anna' and 'Lisa'? Or that aliens going to break up a resistance cell are going to follow up their nifty little floating bomb with...crowbars and knives? Who are these guys, Vinnie and the Jets? The attack on the resistance cell is a good scene in the pilot, though I enjoyed it more when it was a scene in Stephen King's "The Ten O'Clock People."

A lot of the problems of the show can be ironed out. My overarching complaint is that the show revealed the perfidy of the aliens way, way, way too early -- about 35 minutes into the pilot. That pretty much eliminated any suspense attached to 'are they or aren't they?' and dumped it all on 'what are they up to and how do we stop it?' It's as if the X-Files series finale was its pilot.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

77% of Republicans Have Had Sex with at least One Parent

I see that right-wing US politicians and pundits are now calling Obama's decision not to attend the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall the worst decision of his presidency.

Given that we just got the last 'worst moment' late last week when Obama addressed the conference he was at prior to discussing the Fort Hood shootings, and that I'm sure the next worst moment is only days or even hours away...well, so it goes.

To borrow an old joke, should Obama walk on water, Fox News will use the event to lambaste the President's inability to swim AND his Messiah Complex.

Hidey ho!

Oh, the title was an homage to the Lou Reed anti-Republican song, "Sex with your Parents", btw.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Beware of Exploding Vampires


Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days by Neil Gaiman, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Mike Hoffman, Mike Mignola, Dave McKean and others (1988-2005; collected 2005): I'd imagine that someday soon this slim, over-priced collection of Neil Gaiman's non-Sandman, non-miniseries DC work will be replaced by a larger volume that will also include the missing Poison Ivy piece mentioned herein, the lost-and-found Superman/Green Lantern team-up that was initially meant to be the final issue of the abortive weekly Action Comics experiment of the late 1980's, and Gaiman's recent "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?"

As is, this is an interesting volume of Gaiman's American comics baby-step, highlighted by the terrific John Constantine one-off "Hold Me" illustrated by frequent Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean. More for completists than anyone else -- you wouldn't want to introduce someone to Gaiman through this stuff, no matter how interesting I might find the Mike Mignola-illustrated Floronic Man short or the Swamp Thing annual featuring Brother Power the Geek.

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity; How the Whale Became by Mike Carey and Peter Gross (2009): This is great metafantasy in any medium. Over the first five issues of the series (which I'm assuming will be collected forthwith), Carey and Gross begin an epic fantasy involving readers, writers, vast conspiracies, children's literature, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Mary Shelley, Frankenstein's creature, Internet message boards, the nature of fandom, messiahs, and one confused man who thinks he's the adopted son of the long-missing author of a best-selling, beloved children's fantasy series about a magical boy named Tommy Taylor. The writer apparently named this son after his famous creation. Or did he?

Gross's art is sharp and deft in its ability to shift across the comics art spectrum from cartoony to mimetic and back again. Carey's been writing much-praised comics for more than a decade now, but I think this his best work by far -- his Invisibles, Sandman or Preacher, if you will. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

When Captain America Sucked AND Blew

Heroes Reborn: Captain America by Jeph Loeb, Rob Liefeld, James Robinson, Joe Phillips, Joe Bennett and others (1996-97): In 1996, Marvel was floundering around somewhat beneath the increasing weight of X-Men mythology and a dearth of 'hot' writing and drawing talent. A lot of that hot Marvel drawing talent had taken off in 1992 when a group of writer-artists -- including Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Todd MacFarlane, Whilce Portacio and Jim Valentino -- formed their own comic-book company, Image. 1996 saw yet another giant X-Crossover (the Onslaught Event) lead into a quasi-reboot of many of Marvel's core non-X-titles, as Marvel contracted out the production of four titles -- Iron Man, Avengers, Captain America and Fantastic Four -- to most of the creators now at Image.

The basic concept of Heroes Reborn was that Onslaught, a bizarre ultra-powerful amalgam of the minds of Magneto and Professor X, seemingly killed most of Marvel's non-X-heroes (with the exception of Spider-man) in a giant rumpus. However, the heroes were actually reborn in another universe where their adventures could start over again unburdened by continuity. Or X-Men, for that matter. The result, however, was a critically and fanboy savaged group of books that didn't survive beyond the year-long mandate for the test run of this 'new' continuity. A Heroes Return storyline brought the banished characters back to normal continuity, and pretty much everyone agreed to Never Speak Of This Again.

Rebooting continuity-heavy characters isn't an inherently bad idea -- John Byrne's Superman reboot cleared the hero's continuity up for another 20 years, Marvel's Ultimate line (with new versions of familiar characters in their own universe) has produced some notable sales and critical successes, and DC's Silver Age presented shiny new versions of various cancelled Golden Age heroes such as the Flash and Green Lantern. The Heroes Reborn line, though, was plagued by some awfully dodgy writing and conceptualization. Characterization for the 'new' Captain America in these books is almost non-existent.

Some of the grimmer and grittier details show promise (a nearly complete SOB Nick Fury would later be recycled for the Ultimate line), but the book backpedals away from 'mean' Nick Fury as the Reborn storyline nears its conclusion/reintegration with the 'original' Marvel universe. All in all, this is an astonishingly quick read that leaves very little behind in the mind. Frankly, I feel like I just ingested a comic-book enema. Things do pick up a bit in issues 7-12, when James Robinson and a variety of artists took over for writer Loeb and artist Liefeld, but by this point it seems clear that the storyline is simply going through the motions of wrapping up prior to the restoration of the 'real' Captain America and the 'real' Marvel Universe.

As to Liefeld's art...well, Liefeld is probably the most divisive super-hero artist of the last 20 years. He had/has a lot of fans (he couldn't have become hot on the X-books without that) and a lot of detractors. I find his work deeply irritating without completely crossing the line into vomit-inducing, but so far as I can tell, the art here is about as good (or bad) as Liefeld gets. The high cheekbones and teeny tiny legs on every character do start to crack me up pretty quickly. Of often-reliable Jeph Loeb's writing, the less said, the better. This is a pretty good snapshot of the comics industry circa 1996, but I definitely wouldn't recommend paying full price for it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Boo Radley was a Hero to Most

Inconsequential Tales by Ramsey Campbell (Collected 2007): This was never meant to be a great collection of Campbell's stories, as it's a small-press collection of uncollected stories from throughout his five-decade career. Campbell delivers a typically self-deprecating introduction in which he describes the genesis of each story and his current feelings towards it (usually embarassed or amused). Some of the stories are still better than what most horror writers are ever capable of delivering, and one also gets pretty much all of the science fiction Campbell ever got published in the 1970's. The illustrations don't add much, but this is a somewhat essential collection for any Campbell reader, as one can see his unique prose style developing in fits and starts in the earlier work.


Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein (Collected 1985): Klein is both a terrific and a terrifically slow horror writer -- we've been waiting for that second novel since The Ceremonies appeared in 1985, and there's only one other collection of short stories (Reassuring Stories) on his resume. This collection of four novellas probably deserves a spot on any 'Best 100 Horror' list. It may even deserve a mention on Great Fiction About New York, as all the stories deal in one way or another with the metropolis H.P. Lovecraft came to hate back in the 1920's.

The four novellas manage to rework some fairly potent 20th-century horror tropes (and specifically Lovecraft-derived tropes in "Black Man with a Horn" and "Children of the Kingdom") into occasionally brooding, occasionally sardonic 20th-century nightmares. "Children of the Kingdom", with its blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to Lovecraft's alien Mi-Go, evokes the crime, racism and paranoia of 1970's New York in what could be seen as a brilliant reimagining of Lovecraft's paranoid musings on miscegenation and inbreeding. "Nadelman's God" bounces off Fritz Leiber's seminal urban nightmare "Smoke Ghost" with a new (or is it?) god. "Black Man with a Horn" pits a (fictional) friend of the late Lovecraft's against some of the source material for Lovecraft's malign Tcho-Tcho people. "Petey" imagines an Updikean house-warming party imperilled by a large, gooey something that may turn out to be an unlikely punishment for...real-estate fraud?

Brilliant, witty, creepy stuff.


Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (2004): Showtime's mostly enjoyable Dexter series started as an adaptation of the first Dexter novel, though the two Dexter streams have mostly diverged by now. Lindsay's breezy, first-person novel about a serial killer trained to kill only bad people by his cop foster father is an enjoyable page-turner until the last twenty pages or so, at which point Lindsay gets a bad case of sequelitis and decides to keep one villain around who should really bite the dust. Much of the interest of the novel lies in Lindsay's attempts to create a narrator who's essentially Hannibal Lecter trying to be Batman. It all works, sort of, but Lindsay's reductive approach to serial-killer psychology (everyone traumatized in a certain way in childhood will become a sociopath) would realistically leave us with a global serial killer population that should have cut the general population number to 3 billion people by now and falling fast. An enjoyable waste of time, but I don't think I'll be going back to Dexterland anytime soon.


The Compleat Werewolf by Anthony Boucher (Collected 1962): Boucher was the brilliant co-editor of the influential The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1950's and early 1960's before his ealy death from a heart attack. Prior to being an editor, he was a prolific fantasy and science fiction writer himself, and Werewolf collects most of his best work, primarily from the 1940's. "The Compleat Werewolf" is a fairly jolly werewolf novella, in which the typical bloodthirstiness of the werewolf is dropped in favour of a more humourous exploration of what being a wolf with a human mind would be like. Most of the other sf and fantasy stories here operate on the same somewhat amused level with the exception of "They Bite", Boucher's best short story and one of the creepiest horror stories ever written.