Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Against the Sun-Eater

Legion of Super-heroes: The Life and Death of Ferro Lad: written by Jim Shooter; illustrated by Curt Swan and George Klein (1966-67; collected 2010): Once upon a time in the 1950's, a group of 30th-century, super-powered teenagers invited the 20th century's Superboy to join their super-team, the Legion of Super-heroes. The rest was history. Future history.

The Legion quickly acquired a relatively vast number of heroes, especially for superhero comics of the time, reaching more than a dozen members by the early 1960's when new-born teams like the Avengers or the Justice League were puttering around with six or seven. Due to their roster size and the future milieu they inhabited, the Legion heroes soon also acquired a rogue's gallery that might have given any other team, teen-aged or adult, pause.

And then...well, and then, a 13-year-old kid decided in the mid-1960's that he could write comic books. So he sent off some stories to the editor of the Legion at DC Comics. And lo and behold, at the age of 14, Jim Shooter became the regular writer of the Legion in 1966. Marvel's surge in popularity among teenagers at the time probably contributed to the hiring decision -- certainly, Shooter's Legion was far and away DC's most Marvel-like book, except actually written by a teenager. Most refreshingly, it offered a surprisingly vulnerable Superboy. The enemies the Legion faced were so powerful that even the Boy of Steel needed help.

This volume collects most of the Legion stories that featured one of the characters Shooter created when he first took over the book, Ferro Lad. Like the later Colossus of the X-Men, Ferro Lad could turn into metal when the need arose -- in his case, solid iron that nonetheless remained mobile and super-strong. Perpetually masked because of a facial disfigurement that came along with his mutation (yes, Ferro Lad was a mutant -- one of DC's first so-named, as far as I remember), Ferro Lad fought the good fight for a year before the apocalyptic events that introduced both the members of the Fatal Five (the worst super-criminals of the 30th century) and the Sun-Eater (exactly what it sounds like) to the DC universe.

The depleted Legion's desperate battle against the Sun-Eater is just one of the pleasures of this volume. We also see Earth under siege by the villainous Khund empire, a glimpse into the Legion's future as adults, and a threat to the Legion from what seems to be the ghost of one of its fallen members. Shooter's writing is fun and pulpy and melodramatically epic.

Curt Swan's art is terrific, managing the difficult feat of portraying both the ridiculously over-scaled (the Sun-Eater can engulf entire suns, after all) and the intimate and human. His Legion actually look like teenagers, while the design of the members of the Fatal Five was instantly iconic and endured for decades. Swan was Superman's quintessential artist for decades, but he was also the defining artist for the Legion. No one was ever better than he was in the 1960's on this book. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Crime-fighting Horse of Newfoundland and the Mummy That Sank the TITANIC

The World's Strangest Mysteries by Rupert Furneaux (1962): I bought this paperback on a lark, figuring it would be chock-full of loopiness. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that for books of this type, it's surprisingly even-handed. It's certainly no Cosmos, but neither is it like modern-day History Channel stupidity.

Obviously, much of the material explored here has become dated -- the book is more than 50 years old, after all. Nonetheless, sections on Kaspar Hauser, the Man in the Silk Mask, Anastasia, and other mysterious figures lay out and evaluate the various cases for who these people were or weren't.

We also get some stories of things that would turn out to be hoaxes after the book's publication (the infamous Brass Plate of California being one of them), or that were always hoaxes if one knew where to look for decent information (Welcome to Oak Island, suckers!). The book may be wrong in its conclusions about some of these things, but there is an argumentative process at work: Furneaux isn't completely gullible and accepting.

Well, OK, sections on the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti seem to have been thrown together, though Furneaux at least explains the overall reasoning for why they may exist (which is to say, cryptids were still showing up in 1961 with some regularity).

His section on the Shakespeare authorship (non)controversy is solid, though he appears ignorant of the simple fact that we know more about the life of Shakespeare than we do of virtually any other person of his socioeconomic class from the same time period: his was not a mysteriously under-chronicled life, and Furneaux repeats some misinformation about the Shakespeare statue in Stratford-Upon-Avon (and seems ignorant of the fact that the "second bed" was actually the best bed to will somebody -- as the guest bed, it hadn't been used).

Overall, fun stuff, with some interesting mysteries to follow up from other sources. Worth picking up if you see it lying around in a used bookstore for a fair price. It's also deceptively long, hailing as it does from a time when the paperback publishers tried to save money on paper by printing everything in tiny, tiny type. Recommended.

The Strange and Uncanny by John Macklin (1967): I'm pretty sure I read this unsourced compendium of weird, 'true' stories when I was about ten. And ten is pretty much the Golden Age for this sort of book. Now we can just download these strange sorts of tales directly from the Internet into our neocortexes. Truly this is a disturbing universe.

One can assess the probably verity of its contents by noting that it rehashes the completely fabricated story of Princess Amen-Ra and her mummy's role in the sinking of the Titanic, a story that still pops up a lot in stories about unexplained mysteries. Alan Moore even offered a version of it in the graphic novel From Hell.

However, more because of the ridiculous claims of the book than despite them, there's a lot of fun to be had. I can see how some of the stories creeped me out when I was a lad (including that of the malevolent Egyptian mummy). Others are actually reined in a bit too much for maximum enjoyment. If a story tells me that a demon killed someone, I'd like to discover that the guy was ripped apart by an invisible assailant. I don't want to learn that he was found with a single gunshot wound to the head. Pistol-packing demons would be cool in certain circumstances, but they lack a certain oomph in this situation.

Some of the 'true' stories here bear remarkable resemblances to fictional ghost stories I've encountered. And there's absolute no sourcing here -- no notes, no bibliography. Ah, well. You get to read about the telepathic, precognitive Newfoundland horse called Lady Wonder, who helped police in that province solve a couple of missing persons cases. Is this true? I'll have to look it up. Recommended.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Snark Fest

Ghost World: written and illustrated by Daniel Clowes (1996): Clowes' episodic graphic novel became a much-praised movie that took some liberties with the source material in order to give it more of a defineable narrative. You won't find a big role for the character played by Steve Buscemi in the movie (indeed, that character is an expanded composite of two characters from the graphic novel, and, (spoiler alert!), neither of them sleeps with the Thora Birch character). However, Clowes co-wrote the screenplay, so the choices were at least partially his to make.

Ghost World focuses on perpetually snarky teen-aged girls Becky and Enid in the summer after their last year of high school. They roam the city trying to find horrifically non-cool things to experience in an unironic way, whether that's retro diners or simply the people walking by them on the street. Things will change for them, in part because Becky seems to be becoming weary of Enid's overwhelming ability to seemingly hate everything and everyone around her.

Moving through the episodes are a gallery of supporting players, grotesque cameos, and pointed discussions about what's cool and what is not. Enid's imaginative world orients itself around perpetual, detached irony, and around amused pity at virtually everyone and everything she experiences. Enid is performing, of course, but it's not a performance she seems capable of turning on and off.

Clowes' art is clean and evocative throughout, balancing the grotesques that wander through with the more normative people and places of the narrative. He's a fine cartoonist. The dialogue is eclectic, eccentric, and beautifully modulated. And for all the irony flying thick and fast, Ghost World leaves one with a poignant feeling of loss at the end. For some of the characters? For the world? Recommended.

The Amazing Bill Everett

Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives Volume 1: written and illustrated by Bill Everett; edited by Blake Bell (1939-1941; this edition 2013): Artist and occasional writer Bill Everett's two best-known comic-book creations or co-creations are probably the Golden Age's Sub-mariner and the early Marvel era's Daredevil. This Fantagraphics series, edited as is the similar Ditko archive project by Toronto's own Blake Bell, offers a selection of Everett's early comic-book work for companies other than Timely (which would eventually become Marvel).

The Sub-mariner was one of two of Timely's first ultra-successful comic-book heroes. But that first explosion of super-heroes in America from 1938 to about 1944 would offer Everett a lot of chances to work on other heroes as well. None of them would become all that famous in the long term (though several had decent runs in those early years), but many of them offer stories well worth reading thanks to Everett's fast ramp-up to comic-book greatness.

While we get a smattering of science-fantasy, Western, and crime heroes in this first volume, Everett's finest work comes on the superheroes included here. Best of all is Amazing-Man, trained by Tibetan monks to fight crime with a host of amazing powers, including the somewhat bizarre ability to turn into a green mist. The other stand-out is Hydro-man who, thanks to a secret formula, can turn himself into water!

Everett was much-praised by other comic-book artists that include Gil Kane for his keen sense of in-panel lay-out and overall pacing and dynamism. Most of the stories here are action-packed, and they flow beautifully. Everett's character work is traditionally heroic, but with a pleasing grunginess and seediness to his criminals and their environment. All in all, a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone interested in the development of the American comic book, and a fitting tribute to an often-overlooked, seminal artist in the field. Recommended.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Spider: The City That Paid to Die!

The Spider: The City That Paid to Die! (The Black Police Trilogy Volume 1): written by Norvell Page under the pseudonym Grant Stockbridge (1938): Pulp-action-hero The Spider's crime-fighting disguise was so bizarre that it was only depicted on two of the covers of his 1930's and 1940's magazine. Basically, he dressed up to look like a hideous vampire. Most of the time, the cover artists depicted him as a generic masked crime-fighter, similar to The Phantom and a legion of others.

The Spider's adventures were no worse than the second-most apocalyptic pulp-hero sagas in history (Operator 5 may have been moreso, but it was set in a vague near-future America under siege by a host of foreign powers both real and imagined, which is to say both the Japanese military and The Purple Emperor laid waste to North America). The death toll was often in the millions, with New York often being depopulated in every issue by building-destroying death rays, plague-carrying vampire bats, and endless armies of criminals, madmen, and enemy fifth-columnists.

The City That Paid to Die! is the first part of what's now known as the Black Police Trilogy. In this first novel, fascist criminal forces basically trick New York's population into voting for their political proxies. That done, the forces of evil -- led by a mysterious Master -- enact legislation that allows them to terrorize and enslave the population of New York State. Even the federal government is helpless, we're told, because everything is legal and above-board!

Enter Richard Wentworth, The Spider, unmasked and forced to fight with his secret identity in shreds, his property and weapons seized, his friends and allies in perpetual mortal danger. But his ties to the benevolent inhabitants of Chinatown allow him to escape New York City just ahead of the forces of The Black Police (their uniform colours, not a racial bit, by the way).

In the wilderness of upstate New York, the Spider must build an army from those he's rescued from the murderous clutches of the New New York Order. But the Black Police number 100,000 or more dangerous criminals made legal by the machinations of their Master. Can the Spider prevail? Can he even survive? Two more novels tell the story. Recommended.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Dark Brotherhood

Goodfellas: adapted by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese from Pileggi's non-fiction book Wiseguy; directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Robert DeNiro (James Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), and Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero) (1990): One of Martin Scorsese's three or four masterpieces is also the last truly great film he directed, though he's remained interesting to watch and more accomplished than the vast majority of American directors. It's also far and away his most popular film, though that sometimes seems to be because some people respond to Goodfellas as if it were a light-hearted comedy despite the seemingly endless wave of brutal, unglamourous killings in the movie.

Goodfellas works as a groundlevel, non-romantic response to Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films. It's also clearly the father of The Sopranos: David Chase's great HBO gangster epic goes where Goodfellas went before, only with a lot more time and space to flesh out its often toxic but recognizably human characters.

For the most part based on a true story, Goodfellas follows the New York crime adventures of half-Sicilian, half-Irish Henry Hill from his childhood in the 1950's to his exit from the Mob life in the early 1980's. Ray Liotta is terrific as Hill, who acts as co-narrator of the movie along with his wife, played by a sharp and sympathetic Lorraine Bracco. The rest of the main cast gives us a focused Robert De Niro, an award-winning Joe Pesci, and a quiet and brooding Paul Sorvino as Hill's three main Mob connections.

Among all the supporting actors who would go on to roles in The Sopranos and later mob movies and TV shows is a young, skinny Samuel L. Jackson; Scorsese's mother also appears with a winning cameo as the doting Italian mother of Joe Pesci's monstrous but loving son.

Pesci's showy role steals a lot of scenes -- he's the world's most dangerous clown, a sociopathic chatterbox with almost no fuse at all. De Niro's role is quieter and trickier as the seemingly genial James Conway who, though valuable to this segment of the Mob, can never become a "made man" because, like Hill, he's not fully Sicilian. Joe Pesci can be made, though. Boy, can he be made.

Scorsese's camera swoops and dodges and sometimes comes to rest, unflinchingly, on the grotesque aftermaths of assorted murders. Popular hits of the times rise and fall on the soundtrack; different singers at the favourite hang-out mark the passage of time.

Scorsese even nods to a famous scene from his Taxi Driver which the censorship board required him to overlay with a red filter because the violence was deemed too bloody. Here, that overlay now comes from something within the film world -- the tail-lights of a parked car. And there's very little blood to be seen. That all comes without colour overlay in other scenes, without any masking of the ugliness.

One of Goodfellas' great accomplishments was to make the appeal of crime as visceral as its horrors, and then to up-end all the chummy associations as the movie comes to its climax. Henry Hill's love of organized crime may come from the camaraderie and the financial benefits, and from the way it makes him a man who can get into any show or any nightclub whenever he wants. But the movie strips all that away as things tighten up. In the end you're a man alone, with everyone gunning for you. The honour of thieves is an illusion born of good times.

Is this Scorsese's best film? I suppose my other candidates for that position would be Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Goodfellas offers a more expansively novelistic world than either of those movies, and it certainly offers a slightly lighter touch in many scenes. Really, it's a toss-up -- the films supply such markedly different experiences that it's almost impossible to judge them in relation to one another.  Highly recommended.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Grand Pulp Railroad

The Great Pulp Heroes by Don Hutchison (1996): Canada's own long-time genre historian, editor, and writer Don Hutchison gives us a book on the two decades or so in which single-character pulp-hero magazines flourished in America. It's a fun, breezy, and informative read. For some reason, ChaptersIndigo once had about a million copies of these things in stock at $2 a pop. So, they're out there.

American pulp(-wood, for their cheap, acid-heavy paper) magazines followed a peculiarly evolutionary path. They started off in the first decade-and-a-half of the 20th century as generalists. Magazines that included Argosy and All-Story published stories from every genre (including the first serialized Tarzan and Mars novels from Edgar Rice Burroughs).

Then the magazines specialized in terms of genre (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, Western, et al.) and then sub-genre (flying adventure stories, 'spicy' detective stories). Finally came the magazines devoted to individual heroes. The Shadow, simultaneously a radio hero, was the first hero to get his own magazine. The sales success of the Weird Avenger of Crime swiftly led to imitators (Phantom Detective, The Spider) and slightly different types of heroes from the same company, Street & Smith (Doc Savage, The Skipper, The Avenger).

This was a world in which sound movies had just appeared, and in which radio and the pulp magazines dominated the day-to-day entertainment business. There was no television, much less the Internet or computer gaming. Even electricity had not yet been supplied to all Americans. Or indoor plumbing. And the problems of the Great Depression seemed to fuel a desire in a lot of readers to see heroes who took up arms against gangsters, murderers, evil rich people, and crazy dictators.

Of course, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a recurring character in The Spider and the Operator 5 series), most heroes were rich people who fought for the common good. That trope, which predated the hero pulps, still persists in such comic-book superheroes as Batman and Green Arrow today, in whatever media in which they appear.

The pulp adventure heroes had a time of about 22 years from the first appearance of The Shadow in magazine form to the last issue of the last surviving hero-magazines in 1953. Subsequent decades would see reprints and revivals, though only The Shadow and Doc Savage have proved to have any staying power in the popular imagination.

While it lasted, though, the adventures -- especially in the 1930's -- ran wild and wooly. The Spider and Operator 5 probably had the most apocalyptically destructive adventures, with whole cities and indeed countries (including all of Canada in the case of Operator 5) being wiped out in every issue. Doc Savage and The Shadow did a better job of keeping most of New York standing, which may be why they were the gold standard for heroism.

The pulps in their entirety even managed to arouse censorship flaps from time to time. New York's Mayor LaGuardia threatened all the pulp publishers based in New York (which is to say, all of them) with expulsion if they didn't clean up their act. Pulp magazines were blamed for youth crime. Of course they were.

Hutchison's book performs its most valuable service in giving plot synopses of many of the most outlandish adventures of these heroes. The Spider, Operator 5, and G-8 stories often seem like fever dreams of ultraviolence and desperate heroism. Even the failed magazines deliver some truly bizarre moments, none moreso than the single issue of a magazine devoted to a super-villain rather than a superhero, The Octopus. That guy was bananas.

So if you can track this down, go forth and do so. Only some glaring typos and a lack of colour illustrations disappoint, though the B&W cover reproductions are still swell. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Le Massif Attack

The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison (1992): If you've read Harrison's novella "The Great God Pan" in the 1988 horror anthology Prime Evil, then you've read a chunk of this novel, though the characters' names differ. The novel also makes the title of the novel, an homage to the classic Arthur Machen story of the same name, abundantly clear in a way that the novella itself did not.

Machen's novella, first published in 1890, essentially involves a series of encounters with either Satan himself or with an amoral avatar of the natural world. Opinions differ. I tend to side more with the latter than the former, as Machen's story seems to me to foreground the possible metaphysical implications of the seemingly Godless natural universe being revealed to scientists in the 19th century. More than any other Machen work, "The Great God Pan" gestures forward towards H.P. Lovecraft's mathematically malign cosmos.

Harrison's novel deals with similar cosmic issues, though Harrison has always been one of the most mysterious and difficult to quantify of all writers of horror and dark fantasy. If that's even what he's writing. The movement to come up with a new way of categorizing certain stories that led to the concept of the 'New Weird' in the early 21st century oriented itself around Harrison and his body of work, at least initially. He is really a one-off: no one writes like him.

In The Course of the Heart, three British university students and a self-styled Gnostic magician conduct some sort of ritual back in the early 1970's. 20 years later, they're still dealing with the consequences of that ritual. Strange, seemingly supernatural events plague the three students. The magician himself has plunged further and further into the world of magic, though whether or not magic works remains a question throughout the novel.

Harrison can frustrate people in his short stories with the lack of answers to the questions his stories seem to pose. At the length of a short novel, that mystery grows accordingly. The Course of the Heart isn't exactly a horror novel -- it is, instead, a novel of Something Sublime interacting with the human world, and the multitudinous consequences of that interaction.

I can think of two recent novels -- Peter Straub's A Dark Matter and Joe Hill's Horns -- that seem to me to be much less successful attempts at what Harrison has succeeded in creating here: an existential mystery, a Sublime whodunnit, a Mysterium Tremendum. It might actually be a great novel. It might be an ultimately pompous and non-committal mess (though beautifully written in either case). I'm still digesting it. Or being digested by it. Highly recommended.

Orbital Revolutions

Elysium: written and directed by Neill Blomkamp; starring Matt Damon (Max), Jodie Foster (Delacourt), Sharlto Copley (Kruger) and Alice Braga (Frey) (2013): Elysium's somewhat more enjoyable a second time on a smaller screen. The implausibilities can now safely be ignored, for the most part -- you already know they're coming, and they're still ridiculous. The telegraphing and over-explaining still grate at points. Do we really need to be reminded twice about things we saw at the beginning of a 100-minute-long movie? And does every hero have to turn into Jesus Christ?

On the other hand, Neill Blomkamp possesses a rare eye: the movie looks great even when it depicts an over-crowded dystopia. And the action sequences make sense: you can follow them, and they have moments of horror and beauty within them.

Blomkamp even gets real pathos out of Matt Damon and leering menace out of Sharlto Copley, the meek hero of his first movie. Jodie Foster seems pitch-perfect as the refined defense minister of the orbital habitat that gives the movie its title: she's impeccably mannered and viciously inhuman.

With his left-wing attitudes now enshrined in two science-fiction movies (this and the superior District 13), Blomkamp needs someone in Hollywood to figure out the obvious and put him in charge of a Star Trek movie. His science-fiction-as-action-allegory approach could give us a Trek adventure more in line with the original series without sacrificing fist-fights and space-battles. Recommended.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Lord of Illusion

F for Fake: written and directed by Orson Welles; starring Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Joseph Cotten, Clifford Irving, and Elmyr de Hory as themselves (1973): F for Fake is the last movie written, directed by, and starring Orson Welles that the great film-maker completed in his lifetime. Neither wholly documentary nor wholly fiction, its rapid-fire use of found footage, interviews, and staged events looks like a primer for future documentarians that include Michael Moore, though at no time does Welles claim to be telling the truth all the time.

The movie is "about" two hoaxers. In the 1970's, late-middle-aged Elmyr de Hory claimed to be one of the world greatest art forgers. Clifford Irving wrote a book about him. But then Irving claimed to have interviewed the reclusive Howard Hughes. And that, too, turned out to be a hoax. A hoax exposed by Hughes himself. Maybe. Hughes replied to Irving with a press conference that Hughes attended only in voice, through a microphone. He was a recluse, after all.

Elmyr's story allows Welles to branch out into the an interrogation of the nature of 'reality' vs. illusion. Elmy claims that his sketches and painting hang in major galleries across the world, billed as the real deal. And as we watch him effortlessly produce Modigliani sketches and Monet paintings, we start to believe that he may be right. Elmy observes that without a cult of experts in the art world -- experts who have approved his work as being authentic -- there could be no fakers. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship.

And then the Irving hoax comes into the story. And along the way, Welles stages several scenes to illustrate the nature of fakery and illusion (Welles himself, no surprise, was an accomplished magician). And Welles talks about his infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, a non-fake that people took as being a real Martian invasion and then as an intentional hoax, even though a large portion of that broadcast consists of dramatic scenes complete with clearly fictional narration. But even the story of that broadcast has been partially faked by popular history: there was no widespread panic. Or was there?

Sophisticated, fast-paced, droll at times and oddly mysterious at others (in several interviews with Clifford Irving, he has a small monkey on his shoulder, to which I can only add, WTF?). I don't know if this is a great film, but it bursts with wit and energy and the possibilities of film-making. If only there had been more. Highly recommended.

Unfunny Games

Kick-Ass 2: adapted and directed by Jeff Wadlow from the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.; starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Chloe Grace Moretz (Hit Girl), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Chris D'Amico), Jim Carrey (Colonel Stars and Stripes),  and Clark Duke (Marty) (2013): Wow. This isn't the worst superhero movie ever made, but it certainly tries to be. But what's weird is that the abrupt tonal shifts, from quasi-satirical bloodbath to schmaltz and back again, aren't that unusual in modern action movies. The modern blockbuster is often half-sentimentality, half-affectless spectacle.

I do wonder how much studio re-writing and re-editing occurred. The movie doesn't build to anything. Moreover, it has an awful lot of scenes in which people endlessly explain their motivations. Jim Carrey is only in the movie for 8 minutes. Earnest scenes of sentimentality butt up against a badly written riff on Mean Girls or Heathers. Schmaltzy death scenes and funeral scenes abruptly give way to scenes of carnage played strictly for laughs.

The 'comical' violence gets a bit jarring when one 'comical' Russian super-villain kills ten police officers in assorted 'hilarious' ways. But then we're back to nominal hero Kick-Ass telling someone that this "isn't a comic book." Well, no, it isn't. It's a terrible, terrible movie. And yet it's strangely symptomatic of a lot of action movies. It's a mess, and everything about it rings completely false.

The first Kick-Ass was an over-praised but enjoyable parody of super-heroes that turned into a bombastic superhero movie by the end. This is all bombast, even the ostensive satire. Michael Moorcock might call it "deadly jolite," and he'd be right. Not recommended unless you're writing a Ph.D. dissertation on superhero movies.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Enemy of My Enemy

Riddick: written and directed by David Twohy, based on characters created by Jim and Ken Wheat; starring Vin Diesel (Riddick), Katee Sackhoff (Dahl), Jordi Molla (Santana) and Matt Nable (Johns) (2013): Vin Diesel loves his anti-social space fugitive very, very much. Thus this film, which he and writer-director Twohy basically financed themselves before finding a distributor.

After the bizarre bollocks that was 2004's Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick returns its titular anti-hero to the more familiar, monster-fighting ground of the first Riddick movie, Pitch Black. Diesel and Twohy also give Riddick lots of people to fight, with bounty hunters lining up on the planet upon which Riddick is stranded to collect the price on his head, and double the price if Riddick is dead.

It's all competent stuff, and the assorted CGI landscapes and monsters are entertaining enough. As in Pitch Black, we appear to have an ecosystem that produces an endless number of predators without there being any naturally occurring prey in the vicinity. Stupid planet! One's enjoyment of Riddick, which runs a bit long, mostly depends on how much one likes Vin Diesel. I like him fine, but I really wish he'd get better dialogue. Lightly recommended.

Thor: The Dark World: based on characters and concepts created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, and Walt Simonson; written by Robert Rodat, Don Payne, Stephen McFeely, Christopher Markus, and Christopher Yost; directed by Alan Taylor; starring Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Natalie Portman (Jane Foster), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Christopher Eccleston (Malekith) and Kat Dennings (Darcy) (2013): Five credited writers and Odin knows how many more uncredited script doctors (including Joss Whedon, I'm pretty sure) manage to turn writer-artist Walt Simonson's terrific Thor comic-book Surtur Saga of the early 1980's into an ungodly mess.

The whole thing remains enjoyable because of the performances of its leads -- Hemsworth and Hiddleston in particular, squabbling as reluctant brothers-in-arms Thor and Loki. Unfortunately, the writers have dumped a giant crap-load of ridiculous exposition on top of the movie. Where originally one had a comic-book epic derived from Norse mythology's end-times and Thor's desperate attempts to prevent the last battle, now we have pseudo-scientific babble derived from too many viewings of The Lord of the Rings.

Yes, Tolkien. Because once upon a time, a bad dark lord made a thing which he could use to conquer the universe. But Thor's mighty ancestors defeated the Dark Lord. They didn't destroy the weapon, though -- they just buried it. Will someone find the weapon, thus drawing the dark lord into the light so he can grab the weapon for himself? Will we get a fiery, boat-riding Viking funeral for somebody? Will everybody speak in vaguely British accents? Why the hell do the dark elves all speak in a language that has to be sub-titled?

I hope Christopher Eccleston got paid a lot for the role of the dark elf Malekith, because between the whole not-speaking-English thing and the heavy slathering of make-up and prosthetics, he's completely unrecognizable. So, too, the actor who played Adubisi on Oz and Mr. Eko on Lost -- as Malekith's right-hand man, he was so unrecognizable that I only realized it was him while I was reading the credits.

But, you know, superhero fun! Whee! I actually think the ponderous, often nonsensical fake mythology expounded upon in Thor: The Dark World may be worse than the similar gunk we had dumped upon us in Man of Steel. Hemsworth is noble as Thor, anyway, and Tom Hiddleston actually invests Loki with something resembling human motivation. Someone get these guys a better movie. Lightly recommended.

The Family: based on the book by Tonino Benacquista, written by Luc Besson and Michael Caleo; starring Robert DeNiro (Giovanni), Michelle Pfeiffer (Maggie), Dianna Agron (Belle), John D'Leo (Warren) and Tommy Lee Jones (Robert Stansfield) (2013): Vicious black comedy from French action-auteur Luc Besson plays with audience expectations and sympathies. As a New York mobster in Witness Protection in Normandy, France (!) with his family because he ratted out his comrades, DeNiro is surprisingly loose and funny. He's also playing a near-psychopath, as are all the other actors playing his family.

What is for much of its length a seemingly jolly (albeit violent) comedy takes a surprising turn with about half-an-hour to go. I don't think it's entirely effective, but the violence does serve a thematic and cultural point. Recommended.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Killer on the Road

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (2014): The uberprolific Stephen King tries his hand at a non-supernatural mystery thriller this time out. It's pretty good. It's also reminiscent of some of Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder mysteries in its cast of characters, but not in an overpoweringly odd way.

In an unnamed Ohio city which could be either Cleveland or Cincinatti (or even Columbus), 62-year-old retired police detective Bill Hodges increasingly finds himself contemplating suicide. But then a spree killer he didn't catch before his retirement six months earlier sends him a letter taunting him. And we're off.

The killer has new plans in mind; Hodges finds himself both reinvigorated and haunted by the belief that he and his partner screwed up during their investigation of the person the press has dubbed 'The Mercedes Killer.'

Hodges is very much a quintessential King protagonist, one of those flawed, grey knights going up against the Darkness. King supplements him with a couple of interesting partners in investigation and a few better-than-normal plot twists. King also gets in a lengthy scene that seems like an update of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, complete with an overt reference to that novel of the Great Depression.

The novel's greatest achievement is its antagonist, the Mercedes Killer. He's tech-savvy and fairly clever. But he's also fallible, over-confident, and occasionally just plain lucky. He's certainly a more believeable killer than all the legions of hyperintelligent aesthetes spawned by Hannibal Lecter. And the novel evokes a certain level of pity for him. It's a much better portrait of a killer than we got in We Have to Talk About Kevin, for instance, but as it's Stephen King and not a literary writer, I doubt the mainstream press will shower praise upon him for psychological verisimilitude.

There are a few minor missteps. I'm pretty sure I could live the rest of my life without reading another sex scene written by Stephen King (your results may vary). But the novel rings true in enough cases -- whether in its depiction of how a well-meant police investigation can go wrong because of the smallest of understandable but incorrect assumptions, or in its mirrored portrait of not one but two intensely screwed up families and the mentally damaged children that have resulted -- to make it a tense, worthwhile summer read. Recommended.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

'Old' Books

The Dark Man and Other Stories by Robert E. Howard, edited by August Derleth (1963): Eclectic collection of non-Conan stories from Robert E. Howard, originally published in hardcover by Arkham House. Magazines of the 1920's and 1930's originally published everything included here, including the wonderfully named Oriental Tales. Boy, those were the days. Was Edward Said the editor?

Basically, one gets some contemporary horror stories, of which "Pigeons from Hell" is the marvelously titled best, and at worst Howard's second-best pure horror story. Howard's ancient Pict leader Bran Mak Morn shows up a few times, even after he's dead. Some Lovecraftian horrors show up, as do a few ghosts and demons and one malevolent magic snake.

Roaming freebooters of the Middle Ages, Turlogh O'Brien and Athelstane, have a couple of adventures involving lost civilizations and massive bloodshed. And a couple of (then) modern-day Americans suddenly flash back to past lives of adventure, as happens a lot in Howard's stories. Viva reincarnation! Recommended.

Cinder and Ashe: written by Gerry Conway; illustrated by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Joe Orlando (1988): Solidly written thriller from Gerry Conway, Cinder and Ashe follows private detectives Jacob Ashe and Cinder DuBois as an enemy from their shared past in Viet Nam long thought dead suddenly turns up in a case they're working in 1988.

This miniseries, from that long-lost era when DC Comics regularly released non-superhero work under the main DC banner (as opposed to under the Vertigo banner) has never been collected into book form so far as I know, so you'll have to check out the back-issue bins.

Conway's writing does the job -- you can see how he would seamlessly transition from writing for comics to working for the Law and Order franchise in the years to come .

And the art, by longtime DC mainstay Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, is fantastic -- beautifully detailed and fluid. Because Garcia-Lopez works here on normal people and not super-heroes, his artistic similarity to the great Milton Caniff and other comic-strip giants really shines through. Not only does the art alone make a case for permanent collection, it makes a case for oversized permanent collection so that the often exquisite linework becomes fully visible. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

H.P. Lovecraft's "One Froggy Evening"

Weird Shadows over Innsmouth, edited by Stephen Jones (2005; this revised edition 2013), containing the following stories: Another Fish Story by Kim Newman; Brackish Waters by Richard A. Lupoff; Discarded Draft of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" by H. P. Lovecraft; Eggs by Steve Rasnic Tem; Fair Exchange by Michael Marshall Smith; From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6 by Caitlin R. Kiernan; Raised by the Moon by Ramsey Campbell; Take Me to the River by Paul J. McAuley; The Coming by Hugh B. Cave; The Quest for Y'ha-nthlei by John S. Glasby; The Taint by Brian Lumley; Voices in the Water by Basil Copper.

England's Titan Books seems to have gotten into the H.P. Lovecraft business. Gratifyingly, their first two releases are the long-out-of-print tribute anthologies Shadows over Innsmouth and Weird Shadows over Innsmouth, both of which riff on Lovecraft's novella "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (which was retitled "The Weird Shadow over Innsmouth" for one American collection of the 1960's). A third anthology, Weirder Shadows over Innsmouth, came out in hardcover in late 2013, though Titan hasn't yet reprinted it in paperback.

I eagerly await Completely Normal Shadows over Innsmouth.

Most of the stories were original to the volume, with a couple of exceptions. Lovecraft's early 1930's novella about a New England coastal town inhabited by human/man-sized-frog hybrids really seems to strike a chord with a lot of writers. It's not my favourite Lovecraft novella, but it is a good time. And with the sea containing an awful lot of volume to contain multitudes of sinister, intelligent servants of the malign Great Old Ones, the novella offers a lot of avenues to explore. Or canals, to keep with the aquatic theme.

The Deep Ones are Lovecraft's ancient race of sentient amphibians, worshippers of Dagon, a demi-god-like lieutenant of the Great Old One Cthulhu, one of many beings with designs on Earth that don't include leaving humanity in charge. Or alive. The Deep Ones can produce viable offspring with human beings. Which is unusual, but so it goes. They apparently want some stuff they can only get from land-dwellers, so a pact is struck with a Yankee South Seas trader named Obed Marsh. He comes home to Innsmouth in the late 18th century having struck a pact with Deep Ones.

Consequently, Innsmouth goes to the frogs.

The stories riff in a fairly wide variety of ways on Innsmouthian horror and miscegenation. Some, like "From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6" by Caitlin R. Kiernan, cleverly offer stories seemingly set in the same universe as Lovecraft's original novella without slavishly imitating that novella in form or content (though Kiernan's non-linear approach to the narrative seems to me a bit of a mis-step). Others offer what could be called parallel situations, or variations on an aquatic theme -- Ramsey Campbell sends an English student-teacher on an ultimately unfortunate (though bleakly comic) detour into a mysteriously deserted village by the sea, while Paul McAuley offers up a terrifically entertaining story about a Bristol music festival where the bad drugs do a lot more damage than Woodstock's brown acid.

There are a couple of questionable inclusions here, but the problems are minimal compared to a lot of Lovecraft-themed anthologies. And the delights, whether a history-twisting, metafictionally tinged outing from Kim Newman or Brian Lumley's bleak "The Taint", are many. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Oh Dracula, What Have They Done to You?

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2006): This first novel from Kostova ignited a major bidding war among publishers back in 2005. I think that's because it bears a certain resemblance to the books of Dan Brown, only four times as long and with Dracula in it. Honestly, that should be the blurb on the front cover: "Like Dan Brown, only four times as long and with Dracula in it!"

The Historian's what I'd call a horror novel for people who don't read horror novels. And that's not praise, as it also reads like a horror novel from someone who's never read a horror novel (with the possible exception of Bram Stoker's Dracula). Actual frights are few and far between.

Between those frights loom lengthy stretches of travelogue and food tour (food-o-logue?) as the novel slowly and deliberately takes us through Istanbul, France, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, England, Greece, and an unnamed city in America. Much landscape description, cultural tidbits, and assessments of local food and drink are to be had. If you've always wondered what would happen if Rick Steves fought vampires in every foreign country he visited, this may be the book for you.

The Dan Brown apparatus comes from the novel's quest for Dracula through information gleaned from various archives, libraries, churches, history books, local historians, and local legends. Dan Brown gave us a dashing symbolologist; Kostova gives us two dashing historians and a fetching, tough-minded anthropologist. And for about 900 pages, we follow Dracula's trail all over Europe.

And by Dracula, the novel means Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, the historical ruler of Wallachia whom Bram Stoker based his vampire character upon. Did he really become a vampire after his death in battle against the Turks in the late 15th century? Is he still up to vampiric shenanigans now? Where is he really buried?

Well, over the course of 900 pages, perhaps you'll find out. I started skimming much of the landscape description by about the midway point, primarily because there's so bloody much of it, but also because It pretty much is just landscape description: it doesn't attempt to summon up dread or horror. It's just there to take you on a little trip.

Kostova also sets up a mystery near the beginning that the book doesn't really address at any point until near the end, at which point the solution is tossed off as if unimportant. But in a novel in which we're told and shown again and again how clever everyone is, that mystery seems to be the first thing everyone should be addressing as it should affect the entire rationale of the search for Dracula. Don't worry. If you read the novel, you'll quickly figure out what I'm taling about -- and become increasingly frustrated by the novel's increasingly unbelievable skirting of a fundamental plot question.

In any case, just read Bram Stoker's Dracula. Or if you want revisionist Dracula material, Fred Saberhagen's Dracula series is excellent. Though if you want a tour through a huge swath of Eastern Europe -- not to mention a bed-and-breakfast in rural France and several historic spots in Istanbul -- you could do worse than this novel. Not recommended.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cities in Fright

R.I.P.D.: adapted from the Peter M. Lenkov comic book by Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, and David Dobkin; directed by Robert Schwentke; starring Jeff Bridges (Roy), Ryan Reynolds (Nick), Kevin Bacon (Hayes), Mary Louise Parker (Proctor), and Stephanie Szostak (Julia) (2013): One of 2013's biggest box-office busts, R.I.P.D. isn't awful -- indeed, I've seen a lot of hits that were worst. That doesn't mean it's good, however.

The Rest in Peace Department (R.I.P.D., get it? ha ha!) enlists dead police officers to apprehend escaped dead criminals, or 'Deados' as they're colloquially known. Newly dead Ryan Reynolds partners with 19th-century Western lawman Jeff Bridges to protect the streets of Boston. Nefarious doings are afoot, related to Reynolds' death during a drug bust.

The movie's premise echoes previous entries in the dead-cop subgenre that include the TV shows Reaper, Brimstone, and G. Vs. E. (all of which are a lot better than this movie, by the way). But it's most closely modelled on Men in Black, with a third act right out of Ghostbusters.

There are some clever flourishes throughout -- weird little bits and strange production design. Jeff Bridges is the most interesting thing in the movie, as he so often is. The peculiar speech pattern of his lawman seems so specific and odd that it seems like a private joke. I have the feeling he had to keep himself interested amidst all the green-screen work and rote police shenanigans. Lightly recommended.

Godzilla: written by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, based on the Toho Studios character; directed by Gareth Edwards; starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Serizawa), Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody) and Elizabeth Olsen (Elle Brody) (2014): The newest version of Godzilla begins in murky menace and ends in metropolitan mayhem. I enjoyed it a lot, despite the Spielbergian family stuff that every blockbuster now seems required to carry around. Does every hero have a family he wants to get home to? Must he? Must she? Must they?

The first 40 minutes play like a horror movie. Indeed, they play a lot like director Gareth Edwards' only previous directorial effort, Monsters, which was that rarest of rare birds, an Indy giant-monster movie, and a pretty good one. Edwards did all the visual effects for that one at home on his computer over the course of a couple of years. Here, he's got a much bigger budget to work with, and much bigger commercial expectations to satisfy. Hence the Hollywood 101 family quest.

The acting is mostly fine, with nice turns from Kickass Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the narrative focalizer (ha ha!) and Ken Watanabe as a New-Agey Japanese scientist who apparently has a Ph.D. in Monster Studies. The monster work gives us the currently de rigeur gray behemoth look. I prefer my Godzilla bright-green, thank you.

But anyway, much monster mayhem ensues. The movie balances scenes of civic destruction with a few set-pieces filled with dread and the Sublime. The best of these set-pieces, a high-altitude paratrooper drop into the middle of a monster-devastated San Francisco, manages a feeling of cyclopean, Lovecraftian Sublime horror that one sees very rarely in movies of any era. It's a show-stopper. Recommended.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Hello, Walls!

The Legend of Hell House: adapted by Richard Matheson from his own novel; starring Roddy McDowall (Ben Fischer), Pamela Franklin (Florence Tanner), Clive Revill (Dr. Barrett), Gayle Hunnicutt (Ann Barrett) and Michael Gough (Belasco) (1973): The late, great Richard Matheson adapts his own haunted-house novel here in effective fashion, especially given what couldn't be shown in a movie of the time. The whole thing even manages to make an impossible-not-to-laugh cat-attack scene work without the benefit of CGI.

Where Matheson's I Am Legend gave vampires a scientific rationale for existing, The Legend of Hell House offers a quasi-scientific exploration of an extraordinarily dangerous haunted house. There's certainly a tip of the cap to Shirley Jackson's monumental haunted-house novel The Haunting of Hill House starting with the title and the four-person psychic investigation team.

But whereas Jackson's novel offered no real antagonist other than the house itself, Matheson's work gives us a malign human -- Emeric Belasco, builder of the house and a Satanic presence who would have made Aleister Crowley look like the Church Lady.

Back in the 1920's, Belasco built the house and then sealed it away from the outside world with its two-dozen or so inhabitants inside. When the house was opened, everyone was dead and Belasco had vanished. One of the subtle drolleries of Hell House is that the most haunted house in the world is less than 50 years old: it was built to be haunted.

Teams investigating the house have been devastated by Something, to the extent that the only one of a dozen previous investigators to survive both physically and mentally is Roddy McDowall's Ben Fischer. Fischer was a teen-aged medium when he entered Hell House with the last group to investigate it before the events of the novel. Now, he's the middle-aged Voice of Doom with a new team which ultimately aims to use technology to dissipate Hell House's restless spirits. Good luck with that.

The performances here are all fine, and suspense builds to a satisfying conclusion. McDowall is especially fine as the withdrawn and wounded Fischer. The book fleshed out Fischer's personality by describing his thoughts and experiences. Here, McDowall has to build his wounded psychic without the benefit of voice-overs. I think he succeeds admirably, as does the movie itself. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Needs More Quicksilver

X-Men: Days of Future Past: adapted by Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman from the comic-book story by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin; directed by Bryan Singer; starring Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), James McAvoy/Patrick Stewart (Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender/Ian McKellan (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven/Mystique), Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), Peter Dinklage (Trask), Shawn Ashmore (Iceman), Halle Berry (Storm), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Omar Sy (Bishop), Evan Peters (Quicksilver), Daniel Cudmore (Colossus), Bingbing Fan (Blink), Adan Canto (Sunspot), and Booboo Stewart (Warpath) (2014):

A relatively sprawling movie adapted from a 34-page comic-book story from the early 1980's which itself took its title from a Brian Eno album, X-Men: Days of Future Past follows up the good work done by X-Men: First Class in making X-Men movies enjoyable again after the debacle that was the Brett Ratner-directed X-Men: The Last Stand and the twin thuds of the solo Wolverine movies.

Brian Singer, who directed the first two X-Men movies that really kicked off the Marvel Movie Juggernaut starting in the year 2000, returns to the series with his limited colour palette and earnest tone. Well, mostly earnest. The best scene in the movie features some very funny super-heroics set to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle."

It's the best scene from any Bryan Singer movie, ever, and so show-stopping that the rest of the movie seems somewhat workmanlike by comparison. If anyone had said before the movie's release that the mutant speedster Quicksilver would steal the movie in a good way, I think that person would have been committed. But he's great. The movie needs more of him. Hell, the X-Men needed more of him by the conclusion.

Time travel drives the plot here. The original comic-book story predated both Back to the Future and The Terminator movies, so save your comments on who's stealing from whom. Wolverine, everybody's favourite veiny Canadian mutant, must travel from the dystopic near-future to the early 1970's to save mutants and humanity alike from a dire fate at the hands of a bunch of levitating sand-crawlers that disgorge endless streams of killer robots. Once in the past, Wolverine teams up with the young versions of Professor X and Magneto; in the future, they stand together despite their differences in the past.

Jennifer Lawrence is given a lot to do this time, as the plot hinges on what her character. Mystique, decides about her path in life. Sometimes she's in her scaly blue body-suit and sometimes she looks like Jennifer Lawrence. So it goes. Much super-heroing and angsting ensues, all of it in the mode that Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Dave Cockrum brought to those 1970's and early 1980's X-Men adventures.

Not everything works, and the plot could use about one fewer transAtlantic trip towards the end, but enough works to make things pretty enjoyable. Peter Dinklage is a bit wasted as a one-note villain, but he does what he can. And the design on the future Sentinels really is top-notch. They're actually scary. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Holidays in the Sun

Captain Phillips: adapted from non-fiction books by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty by Billy Ray; directed by Paul Greengrass; starring Tom Hanks (Captain Richard Phillips) and Barkhad Abdi (Muse) (2013): Solid hostage drama drags a bit towards the end, with one too many false endings, but nonetheless manages to makes its characters sympathetic. The movie shows the dreadful conditions that lead Somali pirates to hijack an American-registered cargo ship, though the narrative focus remains squarely on Tom Hanks' salt-of-the-earth common-man hero throughout.

As a thriller, the movie especially shines in the first hour, as the cargo ship attempts to repel the boarders before being seized. The second half alternates between the claustrophobia of the life boat the pirates have seized, along with Captain Philips as a hostage, and the U.S. Navy's efforts to secure the cargo ship, the pirates, and Captain Phillips. Trimmed by about 15 minutes, the film could have courted greatness. As is, it's eminently watchable, suspensefully directed and written, and strongly acted by all involved, especially the mostly untrained actors playing the Somalis. Recommended.

We're the Millers: written by Bob Fisher, Steve Faber, Sean Anders and John Morris; directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber; starring Jennifer Aniston (Rose), Jason Sudeikis (David Clark), Emma Roberts (Casey Mathis), Will Poulter (Kenny), Ed Helms (Brad Gurdlinger), Nick Offerman (Don), and Kathryn Hahn (Edie) (2013): I laughed a lot during this uneven comedy hit. I cringed sometimes. And I scratched my head at one incredibly off-base bit about giving a Mexican cop a blow-job that's both tremendously unfunny and painfully drawn out.

It's ultimately a studio comedy, so We're the Millers has to have its characters Learn Better. Thankfully, the cast is good enough to pull the movie through the bad parts. Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn help a lot in supporting roles as a loveable, right-wing couple whom the 'family' meets as they're trying to smuggle a couple of tons of marijuana from Mexico back to Colorado. As the fake family created to smuggle that pot, Sudeikis, Aniston, Roberts, and Poulter do some sharp work.

Freed from playing a nice lead, Aniston manages to be funny, and Poulter as the nerdy teen-aged 'son' may be the most consistently funny actor in the film. Sudeikis seems a bit miscast, possibly because his dialogue sounds as if it were all written for Danny McBride. Despite some rough patches, We're the Millers is that modern rarity, a funny studio comedy. Recommended.

Monday, June 2, 2014


Christine: adapted from the Stephen King novel by Bill Phillips; directed by John Carpenter; starring Keith Gordon (Arnie Cunningham), John Stockwell (Dennis Guilder), Alexandra Paul (Leigh Cabot), Robert Prosky (Will Darnell) and Harry Dean Stanton (Detective Junkins) (1983): Competent adaptation of King's horror novel never quite soars, possibly because of budgetary restrictions -- the epic car chases of the novel have instead become epic studies in stupidity, as people try to escape the homicidal car by running down the middle of the road. Because that always works so well.

The script also errs in trying to squeeze in the entire timeline of King's lengthy novel, resulting in the triumph of plot over character. Carpenter manages some nice set-pieces and one truly great image involving fiery cars and fiery bodies, and the whole thing isn't boring -- just a bit frustrating. The acting by the leads is fine, though Harry Dean Stanton is wasted as a police detective, and Robert Prosky and Roberts Blossom blow the young leads off the screen whenever they share a scene. Lightly recommended.

Zero Effect: written and directed by Jake Kasdan; starring Bill Pullman (Daryl Zero), Ben Stiller (Steve Arlo), Ryan O'Neal (Gregory Stark) and Kim Dickens (Gloria Sullivan) (1998): Jake Kasdan's first film as a writer-director is clearly a labour of love, complete with a certain self-indulgence when it comes to trimming the fat off the film.

A modern riff on Sherlock Holmes, Zero Effect follows Holmes-like Daryl Zero and his assistant Steve Arlo as they unravel a case of blackmail. Pullman does surprisingly well as the twitchy, weird Zero -- indeed, casting decisions even in 1998 would have suggested that Kasdan accidentally reversed the casting of the two leads. The result is the sort of detective movie that would have been right at home in the theatres of 1974, but which vanished without a trace in 1998. Which is too bad, because I'd have liked to see more weirdly titled cases of Daryl Zero. Recommended.