Thursday, June 28, 2012

Galactus: The Hand of Fate

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007): Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao* is one hell of a novel. Junot Diaz may have complex and varied literary skills, but he also has a deep and well-read love of pop culture.

Partially this fluency serves the title character's interests -- Oscar de Leon is an unhappy, overweight geek. Partially this serves to create a synthesis that doesn't really remind me of anything before it, probably because one doesn't generally run into Magic Realism that abounds with meaningful allusions and references to Doctor Who, Star Trek, Galactus, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Jack Kirby's Fourth World of warring comic-book gods and demons.

In any case, this is the best new novel I've read in years (by 'new' I mean something that's five years old or less when I read it). The eponymous character's travails are embedded in a story that covers three generations of triumph and woe (well, more woe than triumph), first in the Dominican Republic and then in America and specifically New Jersey, where Oscar's mother moves in the 1960's.

You will learn scads about the horrible history of the 'DR', especially during the reign of its monstrous dictator Trujillo. You'll learn about monstrous curses ('fuku') and counterspell ('zafa'). You'll navigate a text as comfortable with Jack Kirby's Galactus as it is with social satire, drama, and tragedy. Frankly, you may need an annotated edition, though Diaz ensures that his references are understandable to the uninformed (a riff on the young Oscar's love of Doc Savage novels is especially funny).

And you'll get footnotes. Tons and tons and tons of footnotes. Shifts in narrative POV, though the book as a whole is ostensibly written by one of Oscar's friends. Strong female characters drawn with care and affection. Horrific tortures and reversals and acts of cruelty. Love that erases boundaries and refuses to quit.

And Oscar, sad and troubled, hopeful and geeky, working on his endless fantasy/science-fiction tetralogy while failing again and again at love. There are mythic figures (a faceless man and an occasionally helpful mongoose). And a weight of Dominican Republic history, moving, self-lacerating, horrifying and often bleakly funny. This is a great and startling book. Highest recommendation.

* 'Wao' means 'who.'

Nihilist Spasms

The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates (collected 2008): As prolific as a pulp writer, Oates has been lauded again and again for the quality of her prose. She is a fine writer, but don't go to her work to feel good. Or even to experience catharsis. There aren't any conventional happy endings here in these dozen or so stories and novellas.

The title novella deals with family secrets and long-standing conflicts, as do most of the other stories -- the heart in conflict with both itself and other hearts. There's suspense here, though it's of a peculiar sort, as one generally waits to see what horrors will unfold by the end of a story. Oates is a witty writer, but I wouldn't call her funny. Frankly, her fiction is mostly humourless. "The Twins: A Mystery" has wit to spare but unlike, say, Kafka or Thomas Ligotti, Oates doesn't generate absurdity that can be laughed at despite its attendant horrors.

The grimness can wear a bit. A lot, sometimes. One story, told from the POV of a serial killer, is a small gem of characterization that nonetheless casts no light -- human cruelty has been so well-documented in fiction and fact that the story seems to have been rendered superfluous by the weight of its antecedents. It's a perfectly rendered, perfectly hollow bit of nihilism.

Other stories let enough light in to succeed, though. "Feral", ostensibly fantasy, devastates on a number of levels with its tale of a child gone horribly wrong. "The Man Who Fought Roland LaStarza" allows Oates to indulge her love of boxing within the context of a family drama, though the final revelation of the story doesn't shock. The aforementioned "The Twins: A Mystery" strives mightily for some sort of absurdist effect, but it just sorta sits there -- the shock ending in this case undone by the absurdity of the protagonists. Three stories are essentially static depictions of the thoughts of serial killers and/or child murderers: more gestural than narrative, and even one is almost too many.

Overall, Oates is fine writer, and one well worth reading. One's reaction to her will depend on one's tolerance for a universe without much light, and a writer who can't be light without the effort showing. More light! Recommended.

Did you drove or did you flew?

The Strange Files of Fremont Jones by Dianne Day (1995): Breezy mystery set in San Francisco circa 1905. Fremont Jones is a suffragette who leaves her wealthy family in order to experience personal freedom on the other side of the States. She sets up shop as a freelance typewriter. She types letters, documents, poetry, memoirs, and short stories for people who cannot type themselves.
Day started her career as a romance novelist, and this shows through in a couple of sequences, especially a somewhat hilarious sex scene in which Jones loses her virginity. Not content with having her character solve one mystery, Day has her solve three over the course of the novel. It's such an oddity of structure that I wonder if the novel started life as three short stories.

The best of the three involves a young writer who has Jones transcribe his three creepy short stories. The writer claims the stories are true, and when he disappears, Jones sets out to locate the sources of the stories. She also gets involved in a Chinese tong war, an attendant mystery involving her boyfriend, the mystery of her missing landlady, and the mystery of her mysterious downstairs neighbour. Is that four mysteries? I enjoyed the story, though some anachronisms creep in from time to time. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

He Treats Objects Like Women

The Sure Thing: written by Steve Bloom and Jonathan Roberts; directed by Rob Reiner; starring John Cusack (Walter 'Gib' Gibson), Daphne Zuniga (Alison Bradbury), Nicolette Sheridan (The Sure Thing), Anthony Edwards (Lance), Tim Robbins (Gary Cooper), and Viveca Lindfors (Professor Taub) (1985): Fairly delightful though somewhat programmatic 1980's teen romantic comedy aided by unusually sharp writing and a high-calibre cast. Smart girl Alison and sarcastic goof-off Gib will eventually get together, thanks to a shared Christmas-time, cross-country trip from their East Coast university to Los Angeles.

Alison's going to see her law-school boyfriend; Gib's going to bed the eponymous "Sure Thing" his buddy Lance has set up for him. Anthony Edwards has a full head of hair and plays a goof-off! John Cusack demonstrates that he has his full John Cusack charms even in the mid-1980's! Tim Robbins cameos as a showtune-singing Young Republican! Nicolette Sheridan plays the Sure Thing as vapidly as one expects! And astronomy is important!

The film's DNA traces back to It Happened One Night and forward to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Here, it works like a charm, with the added charm of assessing the somewhat alien landscape of 1985, when not everybody accepted charge cards, bank cards were almost non-existent, and nobody had cellphones. Though Lance does get overly excited at using a cordless phone. Recommended.

Necessary Assassinations

The Debt, written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan; based on the Israeli film Ha-Hov, written by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum; directed by John Madden; starring Helen Mirren & Jessica Chastain (Rachel 1997/Rachel 1966), Tom Wilkinson & Marton Csokas (Stephan 1997/Stephan 1966), Ciaran Hinds & Sam Worthington (David 1997/ David 1966), and Jesper Christensen (Dieter Vogel - The Surgeon of Birkenau) (2011): Tense little thriller with a big name cast, adapted from an Israeli film. In late 1965, a three-person Mossad team was dispatched to East Germany to locate and apprehend Nazi war criminal "The Surgeon of Birkenau" so that he may be tried for his war-time crimes in Israel.

In 1997, the daughter of Rachel, one of the three Mossad, writes a book about the now-legendary operation. Her mother doesn't seem too happy about, and neither do the other two former agents, one the daughter's father, the other a wanderer who has just returned to Israel after twenty years abroad. And then things start happening.

As much of the pleasure of the film lies in the revelations of what is and is not 'real,' it's difficult to summarize the plot any further. The workings of the kidnapping plan seem realistically byzantine and thus prone to failure at every turn; the actors in both eras do fine work (though Jessica Chastain really doesn't look at all like Helen Mirren); the ambience of Communist Berlin is suitably wormy and dilapidated and devoid of sunlight. When the team returns to Israel, they're greeted by a burst of sunlight as they exit their military plane. But the difference between Israel and Berlin is not that ethically clear-cut. Recommended.

Fear and Loathing in Puerto Rico (Like That's Original)

The Rum Diary: adapted by Bruce Robinson from the novel by Hunter S. Thompson; directed by Bruce Robinson; starring Johnny Depp (Kemp), Michael Rispoli (Sala), Aaron Eckhart (Sanderson), Amber Heard (Chenault), Richard Jenkins (Lotterman), and Giovanni Ribisi (Moberg) (2011): Johnny Depp found Hunter S. Thompson's unpublished novel in Thompson's basement in 1997 when Depp was living with Thompson in order to research Depp's role in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The novel had been written in the late 1950's and never published; soon after Depp's discovery it was published, and Depp spent the next 13 years trying to get a film version made.

With Depp playing the thinly veiled Thompson role of reporter Kemp and Withnail and I writer/director Bruce Robinson handling those same duties here, The Rum Diary ends up being a pretty good film. It also works in a narrative sense, something that other Thompson adaptations and homages have failed to accomplish. It may have helped that the source is a straightforward novel and not something from Thompson's mature phase of gonzo journalism.

The Rum Diary is shaggy and a bit unfocused, but it also achieves moments of anarchic humour and social commentary as it looks at the stranglehold of American businessmen on Puerto Rico's affairs in the late 1950's. Kemp, drunk and occasionally disorderly, is initially apolitical when he's hired by a Puerto Rican daily as its horoscope writer (!). But things change.

Depp is fine and controlled (maybe a bit too controlled) as Kemp. Michael Rispoli's Sala, a newspaper photographer, is Kemp's rumpled, sweaty, well-meaning guide to life on the island. Giovanni Ribisi plays a perpetually drunk, perpetually crusading reporter who fills Kemp in on what's really going on in between belching fire and hallucinating. Aaron Eckhart is the Ugly American Sanderson, looking for real-estate deals and fencing off beaches from the natives who needs those beaches to fish and catch lobsters. Sanderson's wife, played by Amber Heard as a dissatisfied trophy wife, soon becomes a love interest for Kemp.

The newspaper, corrupt at the top, won't report on anything worth reporting; Sanderson wants Kemp as a glorified brochure writer to help seal a real-estate deal. Voodoo, drugs, and fist fights will soon result. Expensive hotels will rise where once people lived. Americans will flock to Puerto Rico to gamble and...go bowling? And Kemp will finally figure out what he's supposed to write about, and why, and most importantly how. Do you smell that? It's the smell of bastards. Also the truth. It's the smell of ink. Recommended.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

When Animals Evolve

Canada, now proud home to the Insect Revolution!

Jack Kirby's Kamandi Omnibus Volume 1: written and illustrated by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, and D. Bruce Berry (1972-74; collected 2011): In 1972, DC Comics' then-Editor-in-Chief Carmine Infantino gave up on getting the rights to do a Planet of the Apes comic book and turned to writer-artist Jack Kirby to create something similar. Kirby had never seen Planet of the Apes and wasn't initially supposed to do anything other than create the book. But with the demise of most of Kirby's Fourth World books for DC, Kirby got tagged to write and illustrate his Apes knock-off, which he called Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth.

Kamandi quickly became Kirby's most popular book for DC in the 1970's, one that would only get cancelled six years after its debut because of the infamous line-wide DC Implosion. But by that time, others were writing and drawing it -- Kirby returned to Marvel in 1976 for four years.

A double-paged splash in the first issue suggests that Kirby had been told about an iconic scene in the first Planet of the Apes movie -- the splash features the Statue of Liberty half-sunk underwater. And we soon meet talking apes. But Kirby quickly moved into a wilder, woolier universe than anything Charlton Heston ever encountered. This was the future after a nebulous Great Disaster redrew the maps and rewrote genetics. This was the world of Kamandi!

Kamandi, a scrappy blond teenager, gets forced out of the bunker he's been living in his entire life, a bunker called Command D (get it?), when the bunker is overrun by raiders and Kamandi's grandfather killed. No other humans survive in the bunker.

But the raiders are intelligent, bipedal wolves. In the world after disaster, a wide variety of animals are now intelligent and bipedal, while others (killer whales, snakes) are intelligent but not bipedal. Some will turn out to be Kamandi's allies and friends -- the Lions are civilized environmentalists; a giant grasshopper becomes a valued companion; and Tiger Prince Tuftan becomes one of Kamandi's few animal friends, along with helpful Doctor Canis. Some will be pains in the neck -- the thieving wolves and rats, the pirate leopards...

Conversely, much of humanity has reverted to a pre-civilized state and, furthermore, has become something of an endangered species in most parts of the world. Some humans are enslaved, some kept as pets and guards, others put in zoos. A few radically altered humans persist as tiny but courageous Mole People (!) who keep ancient machines running simply because the noise drives off a giant, voracious earthworm (!!).

Kirby shuffles and reshuffles the thematic and conceptual deck repeatedly. The book moves rapidly from story to story, from animal kingdom to animal kingdom, and from one devastated but familiar locale to another. Kirby soon indulges his ability to synthesize myth and popular culture into odd and rewarding combinations. I mean, pirate leopards working for a greedy but cultured talking snake who runs a piracy operations called Sacks? A 100-foot-tall talking ape dubbed Tiny who is caged by Hoover Dam? It's weird stuff. Improbable and enjoyable.


My favourite creations here (other than the Eater, that radiation-charged, Moleman-hating, gigantic earthworm) are the Fission people -- genetically altered humans whom Kamandi teams up with on several occasions -- and their floating, super-scientific city Tracking Site. Therein dwells Morticoccus, a giant germ that eats everything and anything biological or metallic, indestructible but caged forever. Or is it? Whee!

DC would severely misuse Kamandi's world during its Countdown to Final Crisis/Final Crisis event a few years back. One measure of that failure would be that they made Morticoccus a normal-sized super-germ, which is way less awesome and creepy than a germ that can engulf an entire city and which is apparently highly intelligent AND EVEN APPEARS TO HAVE EYES. But DC has also finally made Kirby's entire run on Kamandi available in the Omnibus format, so kudos for that. It's Kirby's last lengthy run on a title, and one of the most enjoyable from his entire career. Also, it would make an awesome movie. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

My Long Zombie Nightmare

Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead, edited by John Skipp (2010) containing the following stories:

* ? Lazarus (1906) by Leonid Andreyev,
* ". . . Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields"(1929) by William B. Seabrook,
* The Return of Timmy Baterman (1983) by Stephen King,
* ? The Emissary (1947) by Ray Bradbury,
? A Case of the Stubborns (1976) by Robert Bloch,
* ? It (1940) by Theodore Sturgeon,
* Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed (2007) by Steve Duffy,
Bitter Grounds (2003) by Neil Gaiman,
* ? Sea Oak (1998) by George Saunders,
* The Late Shift (1980) by Dennis Etchison,
A Zombie's Lament (2010) by S. G. Browne,
Best Served Cold (2010) by Justine Musk,
The Dead Gather on the Bridge to Seattle (2010) by Adam Golaski
The Quarantine Act (2010) by Mehitobel Wilson
The Good Parts (1989) by Les Daniels,
Bodies and Heads (1989) by Steve Rasnic Tem,
* On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks (1989) by Joe R. Lansdale,
* Like Pavlov's Dogs (1989) by Steven R. Boyett,
* Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy (1989) by David J. Schow,
The Visitor (1998) by Jack Ketchum,
The Prince of Nox (1992) by Kathe Koja,
Call Me Doctor by Eric Shapiro,
* The Great Wall: A Story from the Zombie War (2007) by Max Brooks,
Calcutta, Lord of Nerves (1992) by Poppy Z. Brite,
God Save the Queen (2006) by John Skipp and Marc Levinthal,
Eat Me (1989) by Robert R. McCammon,
We Will Rebuild (2010) by Cody Goodfellow,
Sparks Fly Upward (2005) by Lisa Morton,
Lemon Knives 'N' Cockroaches (2010) by Carlton Mellick III,
* Zaambi (2006) by Terry Morgan and Christopher Morgan,
The Zombies of Madison County (1997) by Douglas E. Winter,
Dead Like Me (2000) by Adam-Troy Castro.

Six months later and I'm finally finished this anthology. Now I know how the survivors of a zombie apocalypse feel. There are a number of good and/or historically relevant stories here. I starred them. There are a number of stories that I wouldn't classify as zonbie stories because while they feature dead people walking, I wouldn't classify 'dead people walking' as the sole determinant of zombieism. I question-marked those.

The rest run the gamut from perfectly OK to dreadful, but being a nice fellow, I didn't indicate which ones are which. I must say, I'm exhausted by boundary-pushing hyperviolence, especially when it's linked to sex. I just don't care and I'm not scared. There's a surprisingly low 'fun' level here. Zombies are serious business. So serious that I don't remember what half these stories were about. They've all vanished into the eternal slurry of the walking dead, of what the walking dead leave behind.

But you know what? Zombies aren't a horror trope that can support all that much seriousness or social commentary. I think George Romero's Dawn of the Dead beautifully shows how much heavy lifting the zombie can do, and how much that heavy lifting must be leavened with humour and pathos. Not recommended except for the zombie obsessive.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Horn Blows at Midnight

The Horn Blows at Midnight: written by Sam Hellman, James V. Kern, and Aubrey Wisberg; directed by Raoul Walsh; starring Jack Benny (Athanael), Alexis Smith (Elizabeth), Dolores Moran (Fran), Allyn Joslyn (Osidro), Reginald Gardner (Archie Dexter), Guy Kibbee (The Chief), John Alexander (Doremus), and Ethel Griffies (Lady Stover) (1945): I don't say this often, but someone should remake this movie. An angel sent to Earth to blow the Doomsday horn at exactly midnight instead gets into a variety of shenanigans involving gangsters, hotel detectives, suicidal cigarette girls, large gangs of violent children, giant dill pickles, giant coffee cups, and fallen angels.

Jack Benny made fun of this movie -- which sorta bombed -- for decades thereafter on his radio show. But it isn't half-bad. I don't like the fantasy-negating frame story (it's all a dream), though even that supplies some laugh, including the inadvertant laugh at an advertising campaign for a coffee (Paradise Coffee!) that helps you sleep.

Either war-time shortages had replaced all the coffee in coffee with chicory (this was 1945), or the people of 1945 had an odd idea of how coffee worked. Well, or they smoked so many cigarettes that coffee actually did work as a sedative. Who knows?

The main body of the story presents some surprisingly deft visual effects work, some impressive sets, some funny comic setpieces, and lots of fish-out-of-water comedy. Benny plays the angel Athaniel as an innocent -- indeed, a couple of scenes seem to anticipate Pee Wee's Big Adventure. The supporting cast is strong and fairly funny, and the whole thing is only 78 minutes long. Theologically speaking, the presentation of Heaven's bureaucracy is funny but underlyingly sinister. The Coen Brothers could have a field day with this stuff. Recommended.

Sam Squanch and the Colossal Bellyache

Sasquatch/Bigfoot by Don Hunter with Rene Dahinden (1992): Oh, Sasquatch, favoured monster of my youth. I actually read the original version of this book back in the 1970's. I realized this fact only because I remembered the famous snuff-box incident when I came across it here.

The snuff-box incident involves a hunter in the 1920's escaping from a family of Bigfoot by tricking the father into eating an entire box of snuff (that is, powdered tobacco). Once Dad fell over with a paralyzing bellyache, our resourceful prisoner ran away from the other Bigfoot. Frankly, it reads like a rough draft of a Trailer Park Boys scenario. Just substitute 'pot' for 'snuff.'

Don Hunter does a competent job of arguing the case for the existence of Canada's favourite cryptid (sorry, Ogopogo), focusing on long-time (and now deceased) Sasquatch hunter Rene Dahinden and his decades-long accumulation of interviews and field experience. Could a relatively large number of 800-pound omnivores remain mostly hidden from humanity in the tens of thousands of square miles of forest of the Pacific Northwest? Maybe.

But problematically, Sasquatch makes repeated forays into civilization through the years: walking down highways, shambling around 5 minutes from downtown Vancouver, accosting skiiers, running around construction sites, knocking on car windows...none of this sells the isolationist argument for a cryptid. What it sells is an 800-pound raccoon with no discernible fear of people.

The Native Canadians who named Sasquatch (though that term is an approximation of several different terms from several different tribes) maintain that it's been out there in the Pacific Northwest causing trouble forever. And it really, really likes Vancouver Island (its apparent ability to swim would make it a member of humanity's branch of primates and not those of chimps or gorillas -- they can't swim, though they do sink beautifully).

Still, the book is fun -- Dahinden's narrative isn't exactly Ahab-like (he doesn't want to kill Bigfoot), but he certainly devoted the last 40 years of his life trying to track the big fella down. Yet even now, 20 years after the publication of this revised edition, the sum total of useable Sasquatch footage remains those 20 seconds or so of fuzzy film shot in Northern California. Hunter tries to make the case that the film is authoritative, to such an extent that I started to wonder if there was another high-resolution version of the film that only Sasquatch hunters are allowed to see.

But it's a better world with the possibility of a Sasquatch wandering around somewhere in it. It's a nice mystery, one that doesn't seem to get anyone hurt. Just remember to keep your snuffbox handy. Recommended.

Bazaar of the Bizarre

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: adapted by Howard Chaykin from stories by Fritz Leiber; illustrated by Mike Mignola and Al Williamson (1991; collected 2010): Lovely adaptation of several of Fritz Leiber's terrific, seminal sword-and-sorcery tales featuring Northern barbarian Fafhrd and Southern thief Gray Mouser having adventures in and around the imaginary city of Lankhmar in an unknown time and an unknown place.

Leiber's stories were unique for their sense of humour at a time -- the series started in the 1930's -- when sword and sorcery tales were in their infancy, the rules of the game having just been codified by Robert E. Howard in his Conan stories. And Conan wasn't a barrel of laughs. These stories often are, though they also contain sinister magic and mayhem, sorrow, ghosts, monsters, and literally cut-throat businessmen.

Obviously, one should read the originals. Leiber was one of the true greats of the Golden Age of American science fiction and fantasy, with a career stretching from the 1930's up until his death in the early 1990's. He was probably the best prose stylist in the entire field for decades, while his eccentric and encyclopedic tastes and interests made him a major figure in American horror, science fiction, and fantasy.

Howard Chaykin, one of comicdom's wittiest scripters, does Leiber proud here in distilling the stories down into dialogue. A young Mike Mignola approaches his later Hellboy form, aided by legendary inker Al Williamson. Mignola's art shows when it should and suggests when it should. The monsters are creepy and the women gorgeous.

Teeming Lankhmar itself becomes a seedy, crowded warren of strange houses and temples and dim alleys. The countryside, when we see it, is filled with menacing space. Williamson makes Mignola lighter in the lines than Mignola-inking-Mignola later would, which fits the material -- there's no character here as massive and gravitic as Hellboy. These characters are light on their feet; so, too, both writing and art. Recommended.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Unreal Estate

Dream House: written by David Loucka; directed by Jim Sheridan; starring Daniel Craig (Will Atenton), Rachel Weisz (Libby), Naomi Watts (Ann Patterson), and Elias Koteas (Boyce) (2011): A talented director (Sheridan directed Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot) and a solid cast result in a major stinker. Studio tampering fingerprints this production, though I'm not sure how much better the film would have been without interference. The grim lifelessness of many of the scenes doesn't seem to have anything to do with the whims of focus groups.

Daniel Craig quits his job and moves his family (a wife and two daughters) into a dream house in a small town. He's going to write a novel. But a family was murdered in that house, a fact the real-estate broker didn't tell Craig. The father apparently killed the mother and two girls but got shot in the head by the wife in the process, a head wound that put the father into a mental asylum for five years. But now the father's out, never convicted of the crime. And a mysterious watcher lurks outside the windows at night, scaring Craig's wife (Weisz) and children. A divorced neighbour (Watts) seems to know more than she's telling.

And then, 45 minutes in, the movie implodes with a twist that really needed a lot more build-up. The movie wanders off into the woods, bumping into trees. There's a half-hearted attempt at another twist in the final scene, though the scene is ambiguous enough to explain away as just another plot development and not another reversal.

You can at least add Dream House to that long list of films in which fire is only dangerous if it actually touches you, even when it surrounds you. These movies exist in a universe in which air doesn't transmit heat, and what a marvelous universe that would be.

Craig acts a lot like late-career Harrison Ford here, joyless and withdrawn. He looks like he's ready for a brawl with the key grip at any second. Watts's character seems to have had all her character-development scenes edited out of the movie: she's all plot device. Weisz is fine in a thankless role as a loving yet sexy wife. Sheridan pretty much disowned this film, and I can see why -- it's not even bad in an enjoyable way. It induces 80% boredom and 20% rage. Avoid! Not recommended.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Withnail and I

Withnail and I: written and directed by Bruce Robinson; starring Paul McGann ('I'), Richard E. Grant (Withnail), and Richard Griffiths (Monty) (1987): A cult movie that seems now to be embraced by the mainstream, Withnail and I is quirky, funny, and occasionally self-indulgent. Cult movies often are self-indulgent -- that's partially how they become cult movies.

A certain type of person in his or her early 20's is going to discover this film and see so much of himself or herself in it that it will become a signpost for that certain time of life when some people don't entirely know what's coming next, but do know that what's going on now has to end, and soon.

Withnail is a very, very unsuccessful actor in London in his late 20's; 'I' is a slightly less unsuccessful actor and Withnail's roommate. It's autumn of 1969. They're drunk a lot and stoned a lot. Their apartment is overrun with dirty dishes, rats, and the occasional loveable drug dealer. Withnail cons his uncle Monty (a flaming Richard Griffiths) into giving them the keys to his country cottage. They go off for a restorative weekend in the country.

'I' narrates the film -- writer-director Bruce Robinson based the events on things that happened to him over a five-year span -- with a paranoid, puzzled elan. Withnail, perpetually drunk and perpetually, outlandishly over-sized in speech and gesture, is both frustrating and magnetic. Griffiths's Monty, initially a caricature, grows into a sympathetic character without losing his own out-sized charm. A lot of the humour of the country sequences springs from the utter incompatibility of the two leads with country living -- they might as well be trying to vacation on the moon without spacesuits.

Grant's Withnail is the flamboyant, self-destructive, untrustworthy showpiece of the film, while McGann holds down the fort with his befuddled, panic-attack-prone protagonist. To some extent, it's like a Sherlock Holmes movie with no crime.

There's a certain sadness to the end of the film that I imagine a lot of people identify with the end of their college days, and an end to spending huge amounts of time with friends one will soon lose touch with, forever. I can imagine a lot of people hating this film, but those who will like it, will probably end up loving it. Highly recommended.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Crazy, Stupid, Love: written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; starring Steve Carell (Cal Weaver), Ryan Gosling (Jacob Palmer), Julianne Moore (Emily Weaver), Emma Stone (Hannah), Analeigh Tipton (Jessica Riley), Jonah Bobo (Robbie Weaver), Marisa Tomei (Kate Taffety), Josh Groban (Richard), and Kevin Bacon (David Lindhagen) (2011): Enjoyable, simplistic trifle that seems even better than it probably is when compared to the dire state of the modern cinematic romantic comedy. Also, neither Katherine Heigl nor Jennifer Aniston are anywhere to be found.

What we get is a group of interlocking love stories. Steve Carell's character becomes estranged from wife Julianne Moore; Carell's 13-year-old son obsesses over the 17-year-old babysitter; the 17-year-old babysitter obsesses over Steve Carell; scoundrel Ryan Gosling takes the separated Carell under his wing to teach him how to pick up women; Julianne Moore tries to continue the fling she had with Kevin Bacon; Gosling finds himself falling in love with Emma Stone's recent law-school graduate. Whew!

If you believe in soulmates, you'll probably like this movie a lot. Thankfully, there's also a lot of unforced, generally believeable humour stemming from romantic success and heartbreak, including some nice slapstick at a backyard party -- several scenes take the film unflinchingly into screwball comedy territory, and Carell is good at that sort of thing.

The rest of the cast is game -- Stone and Gosling especially -- and the whole thing goes down pretty smoothly. You may get creeped out a bit by the babysitter/son plot thread. It really walks the line between funny and creepy. Or clever and stupid. Recommended.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Naked Pictures of Famous People

Naked Pictures of Famous People by Jon Stewart (1998): Before Jon Stewart was the host of The Daily Show, he hosted a number of other things while also maintaining a stand-up act and writing occasional humourous prose pieces for high-profile magazines that included George and The New Yorker. This slim volume collects 19 of those pieces.

The obvious comparison is to Woody Allen, whose finest humourous prose pieces were collected in Without Feathers several decades ago. While Stewart's pieces are, like Allen's, absurdist short fictions and faux-essays, they owe as much to televisual influences such as SCTV as they do to Allen's generally more literary-based absurdism.

A good example of Stewart's technique would be a piece which gives us Larry King's interview with Adolf Hitler, who has emerged from hiding in the 1990's to publish his memoirs and do the talk-show circuit. Hitler spouts psychobabble and touchy feely aphorisms that ultimately seem only slightly beyond belief. Other pieces include a satiric explanation of how to retool Judaism to be cool in the 20th century, a fable about Bill Gates and the Devil, and a blackly comic series of letters exchanged between Princess Diana and Mother Theresa.

Helpfully, none of the pieces weighs in at more than 12 large-type pages, so this could make for some intelligent bathroom reading. Highly recommended.

Beware, Caesar, March 15th!

The Ides of March: adapted by George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon from Willimon's play Farragut North; directed by George Clooney; starring Ryan Gosling (Stephen Meyers), George Clooney (Governor Mike Morris), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul Zara), Paul Giamatti (Tom Duffy), Evan Rachel Wood (Molly Stearns), Marisa Tomei (Ida Horowicz), and Jeffrey Wright (Senator Thompson) (2011): I figure George Clooney can just pick up a telephone, call five randomly chosen actors, and sign them to whatever project he's working on by the end of the day. Certainly The Ides of March has an All-Star cast. They've all got something to work with, too, in this smart political thriller.

To a Canadian born and raised in a parliamentary democracy, the Byzantine U.S. federal system will always possess a certain alien charm -- and, frankly, a simmering alien horror. The Ides of March lays out the joys and horrors of this overly moneyed, often paradoxical system of democracy without ever seeming preachy or too laden with politicobabble.

Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, 30-year-old second-in-command of Governor Mike Morris's campaign to win the Democratic primaries. We follow the campaign during a tumultuous week in Ohio, as deals and double-deals and betrayals and potentially career-ending events swirl in and around the campaign. The dialogue is mostly sharp, the performances lived-in and solid. No one here plays a dummy. And the actors are all up to playing smart.

Gosling shines in playing someone who's both savvy and idealistic. Honouring the audience's intelligence, the final scene leaves it to the viewer to decide how much that idealism has been shattered by the events of the film. It's a quiet, subtle, Oscar-quality performance.

Indeed, there isn't a weak performance in the movie. Clooney is utterly believeable as a charismatic candidate promising hope and change; Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti make for crafty and rumpled long-time backroom opponents; even Evan Rachel Wood nails her role as a pretty, connected intern who gets caught up in the undertow of dangerous political depths. Highly recommended.

Giant-Size Movie Thing

Beginners: written and directed by Mike Mills; starring Ewan McGregor (Oliver Fields), Christopher Plummer (Hal Fields), Melanie Laurent (Anna) and Goran Visnjic (Andy) (2011): Set mainly in 2003, Beginners tells us the story of Oliver Fields as he recovers from his father's recent death and tries to forge a lasting romantic relationship.

Fields's father (played by Christopher Plummer, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role) came out of the closet after his wife's 1999 death, and the movie jumps around in time to show us Oliver reacting to his father's public embrace of his sexual identity, his father's lengthy battle with cancer, and Oliver's own search for meaning.

The movie's skillfully structured and maintains a nice, organic balance of sorrow and joy throughout. There's a very cute Jack Russell terrier with some killer dialogue (!), a very cute French actress, some nice little comic moments involving Hallowe'en parties and graffiti, and some beautifully written scenes between Oliver and his father, young Olilver and his mother, Oliver and his father's much-younger lover (ER's Goran Visnjic, bouncy as a spaniel), and Oliver and the actress.

The direction is accomplished without being too showy, and Mills comes up with an effective recurring structural motif that comments on Oliver's state of mind while also reflecting his career as a visual artist. Plummer certainly deserved his Oscar win; McGregor could have at least used a nomination, as he convincingly portrays a withdrawn character in the grip of powerful emotions. Highly recommended.


50/50: written by Will Reiser; directed by Jonathan Levine; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Adam), Seth Rogen (Kyle), Anna Kendrick (Katherine), Bryce Dallas Howard (Rachael) and Anjelica Huston (Diane) (2011): Seth Rogen plays Seth Rogen in a movie about how Seth Rogen's friend battles cancer, based on a true story about how Seth Rogen's friend battled cancer.

Surprisingly dramatic, 50/50 's strengths lie with Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performances, which generally feel as fresh and realistic as perhaps any movie with Seth Rogen can feel. The writing tries to avoid cheap laughs, and the make-up department actually makes Gordon-Levitt look awful as his character undergoes chemotherapy.

Little movie bits do intrude throughout (and even if they, too, are based on reality, they nonetheless become movie bits because we've seen them in movies too many times). Older cancer battlers dispense hard-fought wisdom and hash brownies. A cute therapist becomes a possible romantic partner.

Thankfully, the movie remains capable of giving us non-movie bits as well -- Gordon-Levitt's character really is debilitated by his cancer and its treatment. No character is rendered completely unsympathetic. And Gordon-Levitt himself has become a fine, nuanced actor. With sharper writing, this could have been a revelation rather than simply a surprise. Lightly recommended.


The Most Dangerous Game: adapted by James Ashmore Creelman from the short story by Richard Connell; directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack; starring Joel McCrea (Bob), Fay Wray (Eve) and Leslie Banks (Zaroff) (1932): Short, sweet adaptation of one of the most reprinted, most adapted, most imitated short stories ever. 63 minutes!

OK, the movie originally clocked in at 78 minutes, but preview audiences got freaked out by some (then) graphic footage, and the pre-release chopping frenzy ensued. Made before the Production Code but released afterwards, The Most Dangerous Game also featured too much skin (you won't notice), and so wasn't re-released for years after its debut.

On an island with a surprisingly diverse landscape, an evil hunter who has grown bored with hunting animals now hunts the most dangerous game -- man! And he keeps trophies! Can shipwrecked big-game hunter Joel McCrea defeat evil Count Zaroff at his own game?

Well, that's the plot of the movie.

This is a lot of fun in a short package, and you'll probably spend a few minutes marvelling at the bizarre yet effective sets (and trying to spot the King Kong sets -- this movie was filmed at the same time as King Kong, with the many of the same actors and production staff). Recommended.


The Rite: suggested by a book by Matt Baglio, written by Michael Petroni; directed by Mikael Hafstrom; starring Colin O'Donoghue (Michael Kovak), Anthony Hopkins (Father Lucas Trevant), Ciaran Hinds (Father Xavier), and Alice Braga (Angeline) (2011): A good-looking, moodily directed movie that has a dumb script, The Rite offers us The Exorcist for Dummies. That young male lead Colin O'Donoghue bears a striking resemblance to Evil Dead 's Bruce Campbell really doesn't help the suspension of disbelief.

A young American priest with faith issues gets sent to the Vatican's Exorcism school. Hilarity ensues as he gets sentenced to do field work with super-Exorcist Anthony Hopkins, playing Anthony Hopkins.

Cats and frogs strike sinister poses -- Hopkins's Father Trevant lives in what looks like a cross between a student ghetto and a small-animal zoo. Are the demons Trevant labours to cast out real? Will faith be restored? Will a character with the name 'Angeline' play a pivotal role? Will possessed people get all veiny, do weird gymnastical tricks, and talk in spooky voices about things they couldn't possibly know? Will there be a demonic, red-eyed mule? Wait, what? Yes. Yes, there will be.

The movie spends a lot of time talking as if it's smart without ever exhibiting much intelligence. It does look good, though, and the director wrings about as much shock and horror out of a pedestrian script as almost anyone could. All of this is ostensibly inspired by a true story. Not recommended.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Jersey Devils

Buddy Does Jersey: written and illustrated by Peter Bagge and others (1994-98; collected 2007): Peter Bagge has consistently been one of America's greatest cartoonists for nearly thirty years now, from his days on the acidic Neat Stuff in the 1980's to his new series Retro today.

He's written and drawn the adventures of New Jersey's Bradley family for much of that time, first in Neat Stuff and ultimately in the 1990's in Hate, which focused upon slacker son 20-something Buddy's adventures in Seattle and then his return to Jersey. It's one of the ten greatest sustained comics narratives, a bildungsroman about the sarcastic, undermotivated Buddy and all his screwed-up friends and family.

Buddy Does Jersey returns Buddy to his hometown with squirrelly girlfriend Lisa. Stuck living in his parents' basement, Buddy and Lisa squabble within the greater squabblings of Buddy's father, mother, alcoholic younger brother, and angry single-parent sister. People say and do small, terrible things to one another, though there are grace notes scattered throughout. The whole thing seems sarcastically realistic, with Bagge's jagged cartooning portraying the angry inner lives of these characters in various hilarious and startling and sympathetic ways.

By definition, Bagge is a 'Big Foot' cartoonist -- his characters stretch, spindle, and fold for comic and dramatic effect; by inclination, he's a kitchen-sink dramatist. The characters may live lives of desperation in a decaying America, but they're not lives of quiet desperation: everyone sounds off, repeatedly, often while under the influence of various and sundry drugs and alcohol. As funny as much of this can be, it remains fundamentally dramatic: the situations that occur may sometimes stretch credibility, but they never break it.

And throughout, the art shines as both a dramatic and comedic tool: the death of one character is about as horrific as it gets without in the least being realistically graphic; a running visual gag that involves a broken-down Monster Truck Buddy buys to use as personal transportation never stops being visually funny. This is one of the great comic narratives that people are thinking of when they try to recommend comics to people who don't read superhero comics: brilliant, sad, cynical, dementedly funny and pointed as all hell in its depiction of the dynamics among dissatisfied people of all ages. Highest recommendation.

Conan: Beginnings and Endings

The Chronicles of Conan Volume 1: The Tower of the Elephant and Other Stories: written by Roy Thomas, based on stories and fragments by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp; illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith and others (1970-1971; collected 2003): Marvel's long-running affair with Robert E. Howard's mighty barbarian begins here, with the first few early-1970's issues of the Conan colour comic book (a B&W magazine, The Savage Sword of Conan, would soon follow).

Roy Thomas was always a bit of a wet blanket as an adapter of Howard's stories. He buffed away all the sharp edges of Conan for the Comics Code Authority while indulging in that peculiar sin of 1970's comic books, the endless description of things one can already see in the comics panel.

Nonetheless, the strength of Howard's original stories still shines through, especially in the title adaptation of what I'd say is Howard's finest Conan short story. "The Tower of the Elephant" offers us a thieving young Conan, a seemingly impregnable fortress, a wicked sorcerer, a giant spider, and a surprisingly sympathetic character who allows Conan to showcase his rough-hewn Cimmerian honour. Other stories introduce such Conan staples as giant snakes, wicked Set-worshipping wizard Thoth-Amon, and an endless string of slave girls, prostitutes, and thieves.

Main artist Barry Windsor-Smith, a Kirby knock-off artist before his stint on Conan, grows with astonishing swiftness from issue to issue. He maintains the dynamism he learned from Kirby while coming quickly into an early version of his fluid, evocative style. He's the only comic-book artist I can think of whose two main artistic influences are Jack Kirby and the Pre-Raphaelites. It's neato. Recommended.

The Chronicles of King Conan Volume 1: The Witch of the Mists and Other Stories: written by Roy Thomas, based on characters created by Robert E. Howard and stories by L. Sprague de Camp, Bjorn Nyberg, and Lin Carter; illustrated by John Buscema, Ernie Chan, and Danny Bulanadi (1980-81; collected 2010): Writer Roy Thomas's decade-long affiliation with Conan at Marvel Comics would end fairly early into this early 1980's spin-off series, which gives us a 50-something Conan ruling the Hyborean Age's greatest kingdom, Aquilonia.

The five double-length adventures reprinted here present King Conan's final, multi-issue battle with the wizard Thoth-Amon, owner of the most unwieldy hat in Marvel history. Conan's son Conn is a chip off the old block, already a decent fighter at the age of 13. Penciller John Buscema's Conan is stolid and solid and grim. Buscema is strong on humans and, as always, somewhat uninspired when depicting the fantastic -- unlike seminal Marvel Conan artist Barry Windsor-Smith, Buscema is too representative in his art to convincingly depict magic and monsters. It all makes for a good time-waster, but not much else. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hashish Dreams

The Hashish Man and Other Stories by Lord Dunsany, containing The Secret of the Sea, The Field, Where the Tides Ebb and Flow, In the Twilight, A Narrow Escape, The Three Sailors' Gambit, The Three Infernal Jokes, Thirteen at Table, A Story of Land and Sea, Bethmoora, Idle Days on the Yann, The Hashish Man, The Madness of Andelsprutz, Charon, The Guest, The Exiles' Club, A Tale of London, How the Enemy Came to Thlunrana, In Zaccarath, The Idle City, A Tale of the Equator, Spring in Town, Wind and Fog, After the Fire, and The Assignation (Collected 1996):

The stories collected here come from a small slice of Dunsany's career -- 1908-1916, to be exact. They offer a wide though not completely representative sample of the prolific Irish writer's once-popular and immensely influential body of work, a body that influenced both H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien, among others -- a number of critics mark Dunsany as the most influential fantasist of the first half of the 20th century, in part because in novels and short stories he seemed to arrive at every destination, if not first, then with the surest and most genre-defining hand.

Many of the stories here are more short prose poems than anything else, essentially plotless and dedicated to describing a fantastic mood or location or state of mind, often within the frame of being a dream vision or a vision inspired by opium or hashish (hence the title); Lovecraft would emulate this aspect of Dunsany's midway through his writing career, along with the dreamier, fey-er aspects of Dunsany's stories about fictional gods and fictional lands where Ireland is the fiction to the inhabitants.

Dunsany's work in horror and in the 'club story' are less well-represented here -- there are no Jorkens stories, probably Dunsany's most famous stories, set within a fictional men's club where the men tell fantastic stories over brandy and cigars, none more famous than the unincluded "Two Bottles of Relish" -- though there are nonetheless examples. The sameness of tone of some of the prose poems works against trying to read this in one sitting -- but dabbled within in three or at most four stories at a time, the collection is an engaging revelation. Highly recommended.

City of Fallen Angels

The Bible Repairman and Other Stories by Tim Powers containing "The Bible Repairman," "The Hour of Babel," "Parallel Lines," "A Soul in a Bottle," "A Journey of Only Two Paces" and "A Time to Cast Away Stones" (Collected 2011): Tim Powers is pretty much the best living American fantasist -- the only writer I'd say could contest him for this imaginary title would be Gene Wolfe. Longtime friend of Philip K. Dick, Powers may show Dick's influence in his eclectic choice of subject matter and in the intricate, sometimes byzantine complexity of his plots.

But Powers' other strengths -- his careful attention to historical detail and his ability to ground even the wildest of fantastic conceits in that detail -- are all his own. He writes fantasy as if he were a 'hard science fiction' writer.

Powers normally seems to prefer novels to spin out his detailed, involving tales, so short-story collections are rare and generally quite short. This is no different, but the density of imagination in the stories collected here makes this brief collection (less than 200 pages) seem much more filling than its length would suggest. All of the stories are filled with the wealth of invention and attention to detail that marks Powers' work; the general introduction and afterwords to each story supply fascinating insight into the inspiration for the stories.

Los Angeles, Powers' preferred locale when he's not travelling through time and space, is the setting for five of the six stories. The sixth and last, "A Time to Cast Away Stones," returns us to the horrifying early 19th-century world of Powers' novel The Stress of Her Regard, focusing on the fascinating Trelawny, a fellow traveller with Byron and Shelley who would live to be an occasional confidante of the Pre-Raphaelites, and who is noteable for almost wholly inventing a biography for himself that survived unchallenged for nearly 80 years. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Work for Hire

Alan Moore's Complete WildC.A.T.S.: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Travis Charest, Matt Broome, Jim Lee and others (1997-98; collected 2007): Alan Moore's work-for-hire years at Image and Image/Wildstorm before Wildstorm jumped from Image to DC offer interesting work, though certainly not essential work.

Created by Jim Lee and Brandon Choi in 1992, the WildC.A.T.S. (Covert Action Team, natch) are a bland, derivative bunch of knockoffs of popular DC and Marvel characters. Gathered by an alien to fight part of an alien war taking place on Earth, they somehow got a short-lived animated cartoon.

To understand the staggering depth and complexity of thought that went into this alien war, understand that the opposing sides are the good Kerubim and the evil Daemonites. The most notably knocked-off knockoffs include Majestic (Superman), Zealot (Wonder Woman), Maul (the Hulk) and Grifter (Wolverine with guns, but with a mask that makes him look like Bob Burden's great superhero The Flaming Carrot when drawn in profile).

Moore ups the angst and alienation quotient here, giving character to characters hitherto pretty much without character, but there's only so much anyone can do with most of these chumps. Along with Moore's work on other Wildstorm characters and his work on the Spawn portion of the Image universe, this is the Alan Moore material one can skip if one is going to skip Alan Moore material. It's a testimony to Moore's skill that he can make the Wildstorm universe, with some of the most ridiculous character names in the history of superhero comic books (Overtkill anyone?), seem at all interesting. Lightly recommended.


Rick Veitch and Alan Moore parody Superboy
Supreme: The Return: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Rick Veitch, Rob Liefeld, Chris Sprouse, and others (1997-99; reprinted 2004): Over in the Rob Liefeld corner of the Image superhero universe was Supreme, a Superman knock-off with elements of Captain (Shazam!) Marvel in his DNA depending on who was writing him that week. Then Alan Moore took over, given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted to the character.

What resulted were about 25 issues of metafictional lunacy. If one ever wondered what would have happened had Moore continued to write for DC -- well, Supreme looks a lot like an All-Star Superman that never existed. His origin rewritten by Moore to be a close, often satiric analog for that of Superman's, Supreme is made aware early in Moore's run that he's subject to periodic continuity revision. Different versions of Supreme and his supporting characters live in a pocket universe called the Supremacy.

And so it begins. Moore and his artists (most importantly the magnificent Rick Veitch) take Supreme through stories and eras that straight-facedly satirize both the publishing eras and individual stories of Superman and the Superman family, with analogs for everyone from the Legion of Super-heroes to Krypto the Superdog to Brainiac and the Phantom Zone criminals. The giant, disembodied head of Jack Kirby puts in an appearance. It's that kind of book.

Along the way, Moore seems to be working out ideas that would be more fully fleshed out in his subsequent America's Best Comics work and titles that included Tom Strong, Promethea, and the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Fun and bizarre. Recommended.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Truth and Continuity

Captain America: Truth: written by Robert Morales; illustrated by Kyle Baker (2004): A jeremiad turned superhero comic book, Truth reminds me a lot of Spike Lee's Bamboozled in its audaciousness, its fierce satire, and its often distracting flaws. It's not a great graphic novel, but I read it in one sitting and it left me wishing for more both in terms of length and, more pressingly, depth and context.

Basically, everything we know about the origin of Marvel's Captain America is a lie because before there was (white) super-soldier Steve Rogers, there were a number of African-Americans experimented upon so as to perfect the super-soldier formula. Morales bases this idea in part (as he notes in the Appendix) on the Tuskegee Experiments, an infamous U.S. Public Health Service study in which several hundred African-Americans with syphillis were studied for 40 years without ever being treated for the disease. Eugenics programs throughout Europe and North America are also folded into the super-soldier ethos.

In short, the first Captain America ultimately turns out to be an African-American who has been erased from the white history books, though African-Americans all know about him. We follow several African-American men through the horrific program and on to Europe. They're a secret, even as the 'real' Captain America becomes famous.

There's a large-scale problem with the idea of creating African-American super-soldiers that somewhat undercuts the plausibility of the events. Many, many terrible things were done to people in the name of 'science' by Nazis and others, but I don't recall any experiments which could have turned a despised Other into a superhero. It seems awfully counter-intuitive, as there's a qualitative difference between letting someone suffer from untreated syphillis (or, for that matter, injecting gasoline into someone's veins to see what happens) and potentially turning someone who hates you into an unstoppable killing machine. It's really, really Mad Science, even for superhero comics. The satiric point may be that the U.S. government is arrogantly confident that its 'Negroes' would never rebel, but that satire isn't even borne out by moments of African-American civil defiance referenced in the story itself.

Morales keeps things moving at a blistering pace, so much so that character development and historical context often get skimmed over. I'd like more before, during, and after, but as with a lot of Marvel comics, telling detail gets repressed in order to show more battle sequences. I don't know how much editorial interference there was here -- the book did get painfully shoehorned into official Marvel continuity at some point after it had been started.

Still, though, this is a fascinating book. Kyle Baker's art is marvelous, cartoony and exaggerated when it needs to be, realistic and detailed when it seeks to place the reader in a real place and time. It's not 'normal' 21st century Marvel superhero art at all, as Baker's influences are as much cartoonists and animators as they are Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. Well, really moreso. The contrast between the nominally realistic and the outlandishly caricatured can be jarring at times, but it serves the story well, especially with the recurring character of one racist soldier who looks like a debased, flop-sweating Elmer Fudd.

Is this a great book? No, but it's certainly more interesting than most Marvel product and, for all its flaws, possessed of surprising and rewarding strengths. Recommended.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sullivan's Travels: written and directed by Preston Sturges; starring Joel McCrea (John Lloyd Sullivan) and Veronica Lake (The Girl) (1942): Sullivan's Travels seems weirdly unaged in its concerns. Hollywood comedy and musical director John Sullivan decides to make a serious social drama entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou?. His studio bosses aren't happy about it. Sullivan decides that in order to understand poverty in America, he needs to go on the road and pretend to be poor. And away we go.

The movie still seems fresh in its satiric targets because those targets are, if anything, more prominent in 2012 than they were in 1942. We've now had another seven decades of actors doing odd things to themselves so that they can get into a role. We've now had another seven decades of generally well-meaning celebrities trying to understand how the other 99% lives through various, sometimes unintentionally demeaning ways. Sturges's satire of a Hollywood in which charity and the almighty buck always walk hand in hand, sometimes with self-delusion as an unintended third, still rings true.

Sullivan's travels (and travails) come at us with great good humour and kindness, two hallmarks of a Preston Sturges satire. Joel McCrea is terrific as the handsome, well-meaning, and totally out-of-his element Sullivan. Veronica Lake is lovely and funny as the failed actress he meets along the way. There are also marvelous character bits from a host of actors in small roles. For a 90-minute movie, Sullivan's Travels packs a lot in. Highly recommended.

Porn, Kafka, and Talk Radio

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace, containing Big Red Son; Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think; Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed; Authority and American Usage; The View From Mrs. Thompson's; How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart; Up, Simba; Consider the Lobster; Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky; Host (1996-2005; Collected 2005): Brilliant, wide-ranging collection of previously published essays from the late Wallace, who remains best known for his massive modern classic of an American novel, Infinite Jest.

David Foster Wallace was something of a polymath when it came to his interests as both an essayist and a writer of fiction. In this collection, he assesses the American porn industry as a fly on the wall at its annual awards convention; John Updike's solipsism; Kafka; a new volume on Standard Written (American) English; the events of 9/11 as experienced while Wallace was living in Bloomington, Indiana; sports autobiographies; John McCain's 2000 run at the Republican preisdential nomination; the annual Maine lobster festival; a new volume of Joseph Frank's exhaustive literary biography of Dostoeevsky; and a conservative LA talk radio host. Whew!

Wallace may be the smartest man in the room, but he's also humane and sympathetic and often self-deprecating. His cultural insights will make one pause at points, especially his outsider's view of McCain's campaign experienced as a temporary insider on the campaign bus. It's not that McCain and his 'Straight Talk Express' were or were not 'authentic' in a way few politicians are -- it's the complex nature of 'authenticity' on the campaign trail that Wallace investigates both generally and in detail.

Wallace also deploys an encyclopedic array of facts about his topics like a discoverer describing the culture and habits of a new country. I learned more about the nuts and bolts of American talk radio in the early 21st century here than everywhere else; I learned way more than I really wanted to know about the history of lobsters as a foodstuff. Thankfully, I'm allergic to lobsters already or I'd be ideologically allergic to them as a menu item after the title essay.

Do any of the essays suggest the long-standing bipolar disorder that would eventually help cause Wallace's suicide only a couple years after this collection was published? No, not really -- Wallace seems fully engaged with the world, his demons almost completely hidden except for a September 12, 2001 panic attack in an Indiana convenience store as he realized he couldn't find an American flag to buy for his house, American flags having sprung up everywhere after the attacks. Otherwise, though, Wallace's accounts of his interactions with the broad spectrum of people and places in this collection suggests someone intelligent, highly analytical, earnest, witty, and thoroughly engaged with the world. Highly recommended.