Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Of Inhuman Bondage

The Bojeffries Saga: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Steve Parkhouse (1983-1991, 2013; Collected 2013): At less than 100 pages, The Bojeffries Saga is a short collection that's a lot of fun. The original series of short stories about the Bojeffries clan appeared in the early 1980's; it wasn't until this volume in 2013 that writer Alan Moore and artist Steve Parkhouse finished up these adventures with a final (for now) 24-page story. Parkhouse is a winning, droll cartoonist. He's perfectly suited to Alan Moore in satiric-comic mode, as he is here. 

The Bojeffries are a very English riff on the Addams Family or the Munsters, a family of freaks and monsters living mostly unnoticed among normal people. Their ranks include a werewolf, a vampire, a nigh-omnipotent woman, and a Lovecraftian thing that used to be Grandpa living in a well in the backyard. 

Moore was already experimenting with comics form in the early 1980's -- there's a 'musical' installment, and one structured as a series of photographs with captions. The humour is cutting when it comes to racial and social issues, but there's an essential sweetness to the proceedings, especially when it comes to the malaprop-spewing, poodle-devouring werewolf. Recommended.

Golden-Age Wonder Woman Archives Volume 6: written by William Moulton Marston, Joye Murchison, and Robert Kanigher; illustrated by Harry G. Peter (1945; collected 2010): The adventures of Wonder Woman in the 1940's were often whimsical fantasies with an edge and with barely disguised kinkiness. Wonder Woman tells us on more than one occasion in this volume that people need to submit to love. And there is of course a whole lotta bondage going on. So much bondage. So very much bondage.

Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marston, was in increasingly poor health by the time of the stories in this volume, and he only writes a handful of stories. But the volume does bring us stories written by one of the first female writers in the history of the American comic book, Joye Murchison. And they're a lot of weird fun, immeasurably aided by the odd, almost Art Nouveau cartooning of WW co-creator Harry G. Peter. Peter was one of the most distinctive and original artists of Golden-Age American superhero comics, and his off-beat style made for a perfect fit with the off-beat writing.

Wonder Woman's mix of science fiction, fantasy, and war-time adventure continues in this volume. A grenade-tossing Nazi agent invades the world of Fairy and starts terrorizing the leprechauns. Killer plants stalk the streets of Washington. The garden of Eden waits beneath the ice of the North Pole. Mermen from Neptune invade the Earth. It's all fanciful, odd stuff, and a lot more interesting than the concurrent adventures of the male super-heroes of the Golden Age, with the exception of the equally fantastic and whimsical original Captain 'Shazam!' Marvel. Though Etta Candy, Wonder Woman's Jar Jar Binks, takes some getting used to. Recommended.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Starring the Breasts of Jamie Lee Curtis

Cyrus:  written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass; starring John C. Reilly (John), Jonah Hill (Cyrus), Marisa Tomei (Molly), and Catherine Keener (Jamie) (2010): Sad-sack John starts dating sad-sack Molly, only to encounter problems with her 22-year-old live-at-home son Cyrus. An enjoyable mumblecore comedy-drama got pitched for its brief theatrical run as a wacky comedy, which it assuredly is not. Indeed, the rhythms of many of the scenes featuring a fish-eyed Jonah Hill are those of horror and not comedy. Marisa Tomei is a lot more striking now that she's aged out of cuteness -- she projects an occasional tiredness of adulthood that's extremely affecting. John C. Reilly is also good as a guy with his own dependency issues, while Jonah Hill exudes menace and hostility hidden behind platitudes and false bonhomie right up to the final scenes. Recommended.

Kill Bill 1 and 2: written by Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman; directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Uma Thurman (The Bride), David Carradine (Bill), Vivica Fox (Vernita Green), Lucy Liu (O-Ren Ishii), Michael Madsen (Budd), Daryl Hannah (Elle Driver), Sonny Chiba (Hattori Hanzo), and Gordon Liu (Johnny/ Pai Mei) (2003-2004): Quentin Tarantino was forced by Miramax to split Kill Bill into two movies, primarily because it was impossible to sell a 4-hour movie of any genre to theatre chains. This looked for a time like it would be Tarantino's Heaven's Gate -- filming went on forever, the budget kept rising, and Tarantino was forced because of budget issues to come up with a different final confrontation between the Bride and Bill than he originally intended. But the two movies ended up making a lot of money.

It's a fascinating movie (s). It's a triumph of synthetic style over substance; so many different film styles, so many different homages, so little substance. It's a piece of film entertainment that's ultimately about nothing but the indiscriminate love of movies and the cool things that happen in them, the cool way they can look and move. The cast is almost uniformly perfect, with Uma Thurman as the vengeful Bride (we only learn her real name towards the end of Volume 2) and David Carradine as the malign, soft-voiced Bill the stand-outs. It's a love letter to Kung Fu movies, spaghetti Westerns, different film stocks, and pulp of all types from a half-dozen countries. Highly recommended.

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers: inspired by the non-fiction book by Donald Keyhoe and written for the screen by Curt Siodmak, George Worthing Yates, and Bernard Gordon; directed by Fred F. Sears; starring Hugh Marlowe (Dr. Marvin) and Joan Taylor (Carol Marvin) (1956): The looming inspiration for Tim Burton's Mars Attacks in both UFO design and anti-UFO weaponry (sound waves, albeit not those generated by the golden throat of Mr. Slim Whitman). The writing, direction and acting are competent, but the star is stop-motion guru Ray Harryhausen, whose UFOs look great and are generally very well integrated into the rest of the footage. Joan Taylor gets a much larger than normal role for a woman in this sort of movie. Recommended.

Trading Places: written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod; directed by John Landis; starring Eddie Murphy (Billy Ray Valentine), Dan Aykroyd (Louis Winthorpe III), Denholm Elliott (Coleman), Ralph Bellamy (Randolph Duke), Don Ameche (Mortimer Duke), Jamie Lee Curtis (Ophelia), Paul Gleason (Clarence Beeks), and Jim Belushi (Harvey) (1983): Eddie Murphy's second movie was a comedy hit in 1983. It still shines today, though certain routines will make a person cringe. Originally intended to be a Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor vehicle, Trading Places is the only comedy I can think of that hinges on the commodities trading of frozen orange juice concentrate on the floor of the Stock Exchange. Murphy is young, thin, hilarious, and charismatic. Aykroyd is very good as an upper-class twit. The supporting cast is also good and fairly well-served. Jamie Lee Curtis, trying to change her image as the virginal good girl in slasher movies, does a couple of brief topless scenes. They appear to be real, and they're spectacular. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Men in Flight

The Game: written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris; directed by David Fincher; starring Michael Douglas (Nicholas Van Orton), Sean Penn (Conrad Van Orton), Deborah Kara Unger (Christine), James Rebhorn (Jim Feingold), Peter Donat (Samuel Sutherland), and Carroll Baker (Ilsa) (1997): A twisty and enjoyable 'What's reality?' plot derails towards the end for reasons I'll leave to you to discover. Still, it's fun getting there in what was director David Fincher's third feature film (after Alien 3 and Se7en). Michael Douglas is suitably flustered, though the character's anti-social tendencies and rigidity needed more development at the beginning to make the the ending work the way it seems to have been intended to work. This initial softening of the character helps make an improbable ending almost intolerable. Lightly recommended.

Hector and the Search for Happiness: adapted from the Francois Lelord novel by Maria von Heland, Peter Chelsom, and Tinker Lindsay; directed by Peter Chelsom; starring Simon Pegg (Hector), Rosamund Pike (Clara), Jean Reno (Diego Baresco), Ming Zhao (Ying Li), Christopher Plummer (Professor Coreman), Stellan Skarsgard (Edward), and Toni Collette (Agnes) (2014): Well, the whole thing is a bit gooey. Or perhaps mushy. But Simon Pegg is Simon Pegg, and much of the writing in this picaresque film is light enough to keep things from bogging down in First-World Problems. 

The cast is first-rate throughout, though Pegg's character is somewhat unbelievable as a psychiatrist: just imagine he's the comic-book-shop employee/comic-book illustrator he played on Spaced and the whole movie makes way more sense. Funded by what seems to be about nineteen different countries, supplied with an international cast, and seemingly only released to about three theatres, the film almost seems to have been some sort of tax shelter scam. Oh, well. Recommended.

Unstoppable: written by Mark Bomback; directed by Tony Scott; starring Denzel Washington (Frank), Chris Pine (Will), Rosario Dawson (Connie), Ethan Suplee (Dewey), Kevin Dunn (Galvin), Kevin Corrigan (Werner), Kevin Chapman (Bunny), and T.J. Miller (Gilleece) (2010): Denzel Washington and the new Captain Kirk strive to stop a runaway train from blowing up half of Pennsylvania. This film was indeed inspired by real-life events which are crazy enough -- both reality and film involve a train on the same tracks chasing down the crewless runaway. The movie pumps things up with helicopters, explosions, and domestic drama for Captain Nu-Kirk.

Still, the late Tony Scott was in his wheelhouse for this action/chase movie. He keeps things tight and tense, brings the movie in under 100 minutes, and supplies the viewer with enough train technobabble and real-world stunts to make the whole thing an engaging, old-school diversion. One could imagine this movie being made almost verbatim in the 1950's, albeit with Humphrey Bogart in the Denzel Washington role and John Derek in Chris Pine's position. The supporting cast is surprisingly deep and well-served by the movie, with Rosario Dawson as a female lead who isn't required to fall in love with either of the male leads. I guess that's progress. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Horror Comix Anthologies: The Big Book of Taboo

Taboo Issue 4 (1990): edited by Stephen Bissette and Nancy O'Connor, containing the following comics: Text pieces, interviews, and bios by Steve Bissette with Jean-Marc Lofficier; Front cover by Moebius; Back cover by Brian Sendelbach; Frontispiece by Nancy O'Connor; "Dreaming And The Law" written and illustrated by Phillip Hester; "1963" illustrated by Dave Sim; Untitled written and illustrated by Charles Burns; "Babycakes" written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Michael Zulli; "Cholesterol" written and illustrated by D’Israeli"; "Davey’s Dream" written by Mark Askwith and illustrated by Rick Taylor; "Eyes Of The Cat aka Les Yeux Du Chat" written by Alejandro Jodorowsky and illustrated by Moebius (originally printed in France in 1978); "El Topo" written by Alejandro Jodorowsky and illustrated by Spain Rodriguez (originally printed in Europe in 1979);  "Retinal Worm" written and illustrated by S. Clay Wilson; "La Fugue {The Escape}" written and illustrated by P. Foerster;  "Blue Angel" written by Tim Lucas and illustrated by Steve White; "Morrigan Tales" written by Elaine Lee and illustrated by Charles Vess; "These Things Happen" written and illustrated by  Rick Grimes; "Neither Seen Nor Heard" written by L. Roy Aiken and illustrated by Mike Hoffman; From Hell, Chapter Three: Blackmail or Mrs. Barrett written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbell; From Hell Pin-Up illustrated by Alan Moore.

The fourth oversized paperback issue of the late, much-lamented Taboo contains a wealth of great horror and weird comics material. The high point is a reprint of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius's 1978 collaboration "The Eyes of the Cat," a lengthy weird horror tale made up entirely of gorgeous and occasionally disturbing full-page panels by Moebius. Combined with interviews with the two, it makes for quite a treat. Spain Rodriquez's odd 'tie-in' to the Jodorowsky film El Topo completes this part of the package.

The rest of the anthology is excellent as well, from the third serialized chapter of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's epic graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, From Hell, to a horrifying bit of insect craziness from underground comix mainstay S. Clay Wilson. Elaine Lee writes a fascinating new-wave fairy tale illustrated by Charles Vess in his old-school, Hal Foster by way of N.C. Wyeth style. Most of the short pieces are genuinely horrific, and it's interesting to see relatively early, non-Sandman Neil Gaiman as illustrated by the fine, overlooked Michael Zulli, and very early Phil Hester writing and drawing. Taboo was very much cutting-edge horror for its time, and rewards reading now if one can find issues of it. Highly recommended.

The Big Book of the Unexplained: written by Doug Moench; illustrated by Russ Heath, Sergio Aragones, Brent Anderson, Joe Sacco, Steve Leialoha, and many others (1997): Another enjoyable entry in Paradox Press' 'Big Book of' series of single-author, multiple-artist comics anthologies from the 1990's. This foray into the world of UFO's, cryptids, and general all-around Fortean madness (indeed, a cartoon version of Charles Fort is our narrator) is fun stuff with a wide variety of artists working in a wide variety of styles to alternately creep the reader out and make the reader laugh while, perhaps, thinking a little, at least about the credulity of the human animal. Recommended.

Robert Crumb and Jack Jackson: Horror Comix, Funny Comix

God's Bosom and Other Stories: The Historical Strips of Jack Jackson: written and illustrated by Jack Jackson (1967-1992; collected 1995): The late and much lamented Jack Jackson was a Texas cartoonist of terrific ability with an unusual-for-comics interest in history. Much of his best work from the 1960's onwards, including several novel-length comics works, examines the history of Texas and some of its most famous and infamous characters.

God's Bosom collects the eponymous piece and more than a dozen other pieces devoted to history. These include cartoon op-eds on then-current Texas problems, comic strips about why Texans hate Yankees, and brief histories of Zap Comix and Apex Novelty Press. The bulk of the volume comprises lengthier historical pieces that range from G-rated histories of famous Texas highways and the Colt revolver to graphic treatments of both fictional and factual horrors of the past.

The two masterpieces of the collection are "God's Bosom" and "Nits Make Lice." The first is a partially fictionalized retelling of a Spanish shipwreck in the New World in the early 16th century. The survivors undergo a harrowing quest for safety that goes almost as badly as such a quest can go. It's a graphic, stomach-turning tale of survival and death. "Nits Make Lice" is, if anything, even more graphic and disturbing. It tells of the massacre of a band of Cheyenne in pre-statehood Colorado by the U.S. military in the late 19th century. It's as tragic and awful as it sounds in its indictment of America's genocidal foundation. The other pieces don't come up to these levels, but very few short works in comics do. 

Throughout the collection, Jackson's art -- mostly realistic, but with a clever gift for caricature and 'cartoonyness' when appropriate -- shines. It's beautiful stuff even when it depicts the horrible, with a sure command of line and an attention to telling detail. Jackson was a master with an unflinching eye. One can't unsee some of the things he depicts here. Highly recommended.

Complete Crumb Comics Volume 5: written and illustrated by Robert Crumb (1968/Collected 1990): It took four volumes for Fantagraphics to get to the public beginning of Robert Crumb's career in cartooning. Volume 5 of the Complete Crumb Comics offers a grab-bag of Crumb's late 1960's "Hippy Comix," with such familiar characters as Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat making early appearances. And the infamous Angelfood McSpade. Can't forget her. And the cover to that Big Brother and the Holding Company album.

This is a series for completists, after all. It's all fascinating stuff, and while much of it really is for completists only, Crumb is such a towering talent in the history of cartooning that even his throwaway material is worth pondering. Some of the material here is graphic and disturbing, and Crumb's problematic 1960's and early 1970's use of violence (sexual and non-sexual) towards women is on full display. Never has one cartoonist so unapologetically, exhaustively and fearlessly exposed the contents of his own Id, to such great and disturbing artistic effect. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 20, 2015

J.G. Ballard and the Decaying Future

The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (1978) by J.G. Ballard (Introduction by Anthony Burgess), containing the following stories: "The Concentration City" (1957); "Manhole 69" (1957); "The Voices of Time" (1960); "Chronopolis" (1960); "Billennium" (1961); "Deep End" (1961); "The Overloaded Man" (1961); "The Subliminal Man" (1962); "Thirteen for Centaurus" (1962); "End Game" (1962); "The Cage of Sand" (1962); "The Garden of Time" (1962); "The Drowned Giant" (1964); "The Terminal Beach" (1964); "The Atrocity Exhibition" (1966); "The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D" (1967); "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (1966); "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" (1967); and "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan" (1968)

The great British writer J.G. Ballard had a writing career that spanned more than 50 years before his death in 2009. He turned some of his experiences as a boy in a WWII Japanese internment camp in China into the 1980's novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in the late 1980's. His odd late 1960's novel Crash, about people who are sexually aroused by car crashes and the wounds caused by them, was oddly filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996. Well, there's some range right there. He also wrote more than a dozen other novels in a variety of genres.

Ballard was also a prolific and terrific short-story writer, beginning in the 1950's. This volume, originally published in the 1970's, obviously omits Ballard's later work. There is a two-volume Complete Stories in print for those who want more.

Ballard was one of those nominally science-fiction writers who really transcended genres because of his stylistic, thematic, and structural complexity. The stories included here would be in many cases classified as 'Weird' now, or even as horror in a couple of cases. Absurdism, cut-and-paste, dystopia, fable, fin de siecle fantasy -- they're all here, often in the same story. Philip K. Dick and M. John Harrison's works are probably most like Ballard's, and as those two writers aren't much alike at all... well, you get the idea. These are J.G. Ballard stories, and they're mostly terrific.

Ballard's concerns throughout these stories touch upon certain things again and again. Many of the futures he depicts are run-down, sometimes to absurdly satiric and telling degrees. The stories set in the then-present-day, or the then-near future, often portray increasingly mechanized and bureaucraticized societies. "The Subliminal Man," for example, may not be a perfect prediction of the future as seen from the early 1960's, but many of its observations and extrapolations of the future of cars, advertising, and industrial America are somewhat harrowingly spot on. 

Certainly many of these stories qualify as science fiction. Some of them even have rocket ships in them! Though generally those rocket ships are either shams or occupied by dead astronauts. Strange ideas bubble and bend. 

But as weird as some of the ideas get in the stories that are science fiction, most contain enough actual science to seem plausible, if not possible. Ballard wasn't a writer of 'hard science fiction,' but he had a broad knowledge of both the hard and soft sciences. And when dealing with science and technology, his interests remained focused on the personal, social, and cultural effects of changed circumstances caused by scientifically enabled innovation and exploration. Many of the stories go beyond the initial effects of innovation and exploration all the way to the other end -- to the exhaustion of an idea, its depletion, or in a couple of cases (most notably in "Chronopolis") to humanity's Bartleby-esque decision to not do a thing, or to stop doing it.

The more apocalyptic science-fiction stories show worlds slowly grinding out in decay and over-population, in new diseases, in infinite ranks of urban development, in the loss of all water on Earth. There aren't really many heroes in Ballard's work -- if so, they're supporting characters, and they're either already dead or about to be. His people are set off against the Sublime Giganticism of Time and Space; so, too, is humanity so set off. They are all dwarfed. They are not going to win. But they may not lose, either.

As downbeat as the stories can be, they're not depressing. Ballard's wit keeps things from bottoming out, as do the cleverness of his ideas and the occasional stubborn refusal of some of his characters to simply lie down and die. They keep going, seeking understanding, until they're overwhelmed or finally gifted with some chance out from a terrible situation. Some of the stories are funny -- "Billennium" is a surprisingly jaunty story about over-population and the ways in which human concepts of spaciousness and privacy are endlessly malleable. 

Striking images abound, whether of infinite cities or cloud-carving gliders or Martian dunes brought home to Florida. "The Drowned Giant" seems more like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story than anything else, but with a British spin. "The Garden of Time" seems like a less baroquely written Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance story set in a weirdly magical, decayed, medieval setting of the far future's Dying Earth. An endless wave of barbarians advance on a beautiful house, a beautiful garden, a beautiful couple. 'When' and 'why' aren't questions that the story will answer. The imagery and the melancholy of the story, a melancholy for the dying future, set the Sublime and the nostalgic against each other.

And the late 1960's stories that end the volume, including "The Atrocity Exhibition" (1966), "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (1966), "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" (1967), and "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan" (1968) see Ballard moving into the fragmented, cut-and-paste, self-reflexive world of post-modernism (and William S. Burroughs). They're also very funny at points. Especially the one about Ronald Reagan, the image of whose head, affixed to female bodies, inspires elevated lust in Republican loins. And when you replace an image's genitalia with an image of Reagan's head -- well, watch out! Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Men Without Women

The Various Haunts of Men: Simon Serrailler #1  by Susan Hill (2004): Prior to reading this novel, I knew Susan Hill's work solely through The Woman in Black. That 1980's novel was a pitch-perfect tribute to 19th-century ghost stories. This novel is the first of seven DCI Simon Serrailler mysteries. It's very long. Very, very long. And while the development of the large cast keeps the reader guessing as to the identity of the serial killer in the English cathedral town of Lafferton for the first three-quarters of the novel, the last quarter of the novel disintegrates in what I think was meant to be a 'realistic' way. 

Unfortunately, two events that occur in the novel's closing pages have never, so far as I know, occurred in the history of the world. The effect feels cheap and unpleasant with the first shocking event and completely ridiculous with the second. And I was gripped enough by much of the novel that the denouement felt like the worst of cheats, one that will for now ensure I don't read another Simon Serrailler novel, or Susan Hill novel for that matter, until the bad taste is out of my brain. Not recommended.

The Descendants: adapted from the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash; directed by Alexander Payne; starring George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Nick Krause (Sid), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Michael Ontkean (Cousin Milo), Robert Forster (Scott Thorson), and Matthew Lillard (Brian Speer) (2011): Winner of the Oscar for the Best Adapted Screenplay, The Descendants gives us George Clooney and director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways) in top form. Clooney's super power as a movie star is a grace note of vulnerability. Here, that vulnerability goes up to 11, and Clooney's performance is all the better for it. 

Payne has always had the knack of making rich people likable and closely observed drama imbued with sharp-witted melancholy and mirth. The performances are all fine, with special fineness in the  work of Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as Clooney's character's two daughters. The paradoxes of Hawaii become part of the narrative, with visuals doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to portraying the island-state as part urban sprawl, part natural wonderland, part bland suburb, and part tourist over-build. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Gnostic Jesus and the Murderous Owl

The Little Man: Collected Short Pieces 1980-1995 written and illustrated by Chester Brown (1973-2006/ This revised edition 2006): Canada's most lovable, prickly, occasionally misanthropic cartoonist collects a decade-and-a-half of short pieces here, along with new notes on the origins and meanings of those short pieces. 

Chester Brown also spends a fair bit of space writing about the significance of Doug Wright's Family in the End Notes. Truly, Chester is Canadian, born and raised in an Anglo Montreal suburb but more identified with Toronto, his home for much of the last 35 years.

The Little Man offers a pretty useful guide to the changes in Brown's cartooning interests over the 15 years covered by the book. His early work consisted of often grotesque, boundary-pushing fantasy and absurdism, embodied by his Ed the Clown series. Shorter pieces included here show that grotesque cartoony portion of Brown's body of work, with some very funny pieces and some of the more disturbing short horror pieces to ever appear in comic form. 

Indeed, the horror pieces involving funny animals Gerbil and Bunny become even more disturbing (as Brown acknowledges in his notes) when one discovers that 'Gerbil' and 'Bunny' were the pet names Brown and one girlfriend had for one another at the time the pieces were created. And around the same time, Brown was working on an illustrated story of Jesus from which we get an outlier -- a Gnostic story of Jesus and his twin. This is range, folks.

Brown would get bored with fiction as the 1980's waned, turning instead to often painfully honest and closely observed chronicles of his own life. But he'd also become interested in comics as a vehicle for historical and social observation. Sometimes he melded general discussions with the personal. Here, Brown discusses theories about schizophrenia in concert with a discussion of his own mother's struggles with schizophrenia; we would see this structure again in the graphic novel Paying For It. Brown would also do a relatively 'straightforward' historical graphic novel in the oughts, Louis Riel, but even that meshed at points in the text with the piece about his mother's schizophrenia through Brown's discussion in the notes of his theories about madness, whether that madness was Riel's or his mother's.

In the short pieces, one also sees the changes in Brown's artwork. He becomes looser and more adept at a simplicity of linework as time goes by. Nonetheless, it's all of a piece artistically, even the very early stuff. The Notes are generous in their contextualization of the works, and in Brown's deadpan, prickly self-evaluation. He will pick his nose. He will eat it. He will draw it. He will publish that drawing. And you will go, 'Eeww!'. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mickey Mantle Vs. The Waste Land

The Natural: adapted from the Bernard Malamud novel by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry; directed by Barry Levinson; starring Robert Redford (Roy Hobbs), Robert Duvall (Max Mercy), Glenn Close (Iris Gaines), Kim Basinger (Memo Paris), Wilford Brimley (Pop Fisher), Barbara Hershey (Harriet Bird), Robert Prosky (The Judge), and Darren McGavin (Gus Sands) (1984): 

Bernard Malamud's much more downbeat bit of American Arthuriana becomes instead a whimsical myth of a movie, filled with out-sized moments, signs, portents, lightning, and destiny. I like it a lot. If you're looking for a realistic baseball movie, look elsewhere. The cast is terrific throughout, including the curiously unbilled Darren McGavin as gambler Gus Sands, who probably fixed the World Series in the universe of The Natural

Set in 1939, The Natural follows one miraculous season in the life of 36-year-old rookie Roy Hobbs, a phenom who vanished for 16 years after being shot by a woman who went around shooting great athletes, usually fatally. Hobbs gets signed by the New York Knights, whose crusty old manager/part-owner Wilford Brimley is reluctant to play him despite the fact that the Knights are super-terrible. But eventually Hobbs will play. Birds will sing. Lightning will strike.

Malamud loaded up the original novella with a mash-up of mythic elements. The movie also plays with the stories of King Arthur, the legend of the Fisher King, and the journeys of Odysseus. Or in other words, that dug-out water fountain that Pops Fisher complains about early on has mythic significance. His name is Fisher, he's the king of a baseball team named the Knights, and he's having trouble getting decent water. Oh, go look it up. 

Is there a never-healed wound in someone's side? Is there a temptress whose name keeps getting pronounced so as to rhyme with 'Nimue'? Will someone at last set his lands in order? Oh, watch it. It's great, and Barry Levinson keeps things just light enough and goofy enough at times that the viewer doesn't choke on all the allusions and portents. 

Robert Redford was perfectly cast as Roy Hobbs, who is in many ways the Light Side of Jay Gatsby, whom Redford also played. And it's bracing to see Robert Duvall play a complete jerk as reporter/cartoonist Max Mercy -- it makes you realize that he seems to have spent the 30 years since The Natural playing lovable curmudgeons. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Terminator: Genisys: written by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, based on characters and situations created by James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd, some of which were inspired by Outer Limits episodes written by Harlan Ellison; directed by Alan Taylor; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Guardian), Jason Clarke (John Connor), Emilia Clarke (Sarah Connor), Jai Courtney (Kyle Reese) and J.K. Simmons (O'Brien) (2015): Oh, what a terrible movie. About all one can charitably say about Terminator: Genisys is that it's competently directed and that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a few good moments as the old good-guy Terminator.

Otherwise, the movie makes a terrible hash out of the first two movies with a time-travel plot designed to negate all the significant events of the previous Terminator films and replace them with new, shoddier versions. It also gives us a strange, far-flung future of, um, 2017 in which everyone from the U.S. military to adolescent boys are ga-ga about a Cloud-based app that, umm, integrates all your computer-based systems. This is Genisys. Hoo ha.

There are mental workarounds to make the plot work, though they involve positing things the film doesn't seem to have thought of yet. And it's not an enjoyable enough film to give the benefit of fannish thought to. It's also perhaps the worst-cast big-budget movie I've seen in, perhaps, ever. Jason Clarke is vaguely serviceable as John Connor, who's now been played by almost as many different people on screen as Sherlock Holmes, but there's nothing in him to suggest the charismatic leader of the human resistance to Skynet and its machine army. Emilia Clarke (no relation, so far as I know), Daenerys in Game of Thrones, seems to have invested so much effort into creating an American accent that she can't reliably furnish adequate line readings.  And Jai Courtney is utterly without charisma or interest as Kyle Reese. 

The script compounds the problem by giving them almost nothing to work with. The movie spits out the famous lines from earlier Terminator movies in different forms and coming from different characters. This is what passes for wit. 

What also passes for wit is that Arnold's old Terminator (the 'Guardian' of the credits) now repeatedly plays Mr. Spock to Courtney's Dr. McCoy. Well, Star Trek and The Terminator ARE both Paramount properties. The action sequences are competent except in situations that give us cartoon physics. Oh, cartoon physics. How many human characters would die in action movies without you?

This being what looks to be a failed attempt to generate more Terminator movies, I feel obligated to warn you that the ending is conditional. Well, if you watch until about halfway through the credits, anyway. It's just one more bad taste in a movie full of them. The film-makers even seem to crib an explanation of how time works from a Star Trek episode penned by Harlan Ellison, who once got an out-of-court settlement based on the original film's similarities to two Outer Limits episodes he penned in the 1960's. Is another Terminator lawsuit in the works? Not recommended.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Weird Detective Stories

Solomon Kane: based on the character created by Robert E. Howard and scripted by Michael J. Bassett; directed by Michael J. Bassett; starring James Purefoy (Solomon Kane), Max von Sydow (Josiah Kane), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Meredith), Pete Postlewaite (William), Alice Krige (Katherine), and Jason Flemyng (Malachi) (2009): A second time through, and I again concluded it's a damn shame Solomon Kane didn't get at least a couple of sequels. Writer-director Michael J. Bassett plays a bit fast and loose with Robert E. Howard's quasi-Puritan demon-hunter to give him an origin story with a redemptive arc, but as a whole the movie is fairly true to the character. 

For a fairly low-budget fantasy film, Solomon Kane looks great, is jam-packed with good actors who seem to be invested in their roles, and has a suitably haunted James Purefoy as Kane. In terms of both sword-and-sorcery movies and Robert E. Howard adaptations, I might actually rank this over the original Conan the Barbarian, if only because its lack of pomposity hews much closer to Howard's writing than John Milius's bellicose sturm-und-drang. Highly recommended.

Marlowe: adapted by Stirling Silliphant from the novel The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler; directed by Paul Bogart; starring James Garner (Philip Marlowe), Gayle Hunnicutt (Mavis Wald), Carroll O'Connor (Lt. French), Rita Moreno (Dolores Gonzales), Jackie Coogan (Grant Hicks), Bruce Lee (Winslow Wong), and Sharon Farrell (Orfamay Quest) (1969): Enjoyable, typically twisty Raymond Chandler mystery gets updated by 20 years to late 1960's Los Angeles. James Garner is his typically low-key self as Philip Marlowe -- you could see this as an audition tape for the later Rockford Files. Bruce Lee shows up as a mob enforcer; what happens to him is actually pretty hilarious. Recommended.

The X-Files: Goblins by Charles L. Grant (1994): The first original X-Files novel has its pleasures. Released midway through the second season of the series, Goblins was written by veteran horror scribe Charles L. Grant. As with Grant's own work, Goblins is quiet horror for the most part, implying a lot and showing very little. Unfortunately, the 'monster' in Goblins would barely support an hour-long episode of the series, much less a nearly 300-page novel. Grant does a nice job of capturing the Mulder/Scully dynamic and the paranoid tone of the series. Suffice to say, though, that as in the dreadful movie Hollow Man, 'invisible' apparently means the same as 'invincible.' Lightly recommended.

Department 18: Night Souls by L.H. Maynard and M.P.N. Sims (2010): Night Souls tools along for its first three-quarters as a fairly soapy occult procedural that's light on horror and originality and really long on really short chapters, I assume because it was meant to be read in installments during every trip to the bathroom.

Alas, with about 75 pages to go, it completely craps the bed. Despite the fact that its climax is rushed and sketchy and amazingly satisfaction-light, Night Souls nonetheless finds the space for back-to-back chapters in which major female characters are raped, murdered, and dismembered in graphic detail. Then it throws in the dismemberment of an old homeless guy in a subsequent chapter because the writers seem to have lost all interest in the procedural aspects of their own narrative. As we've already been shown how bad the antagonists can be, these chapters don't tell or show us anything we don't know -- and the later fate of the rapist-murderers comes and goes with so little effect that there's no sense of catharsis or justice or really much of anything.

Oh, and one of the women is raped by a lizard-like monster which we're told on more than one occasion has a foot-long penis with giant barbs on it. Hooray! As the only other horror-novel rape scenes involving monsters with barbed penises that I recall happen in terrible Richard Laymon novels (yes, more than once, barbed-penis-rape-scene fans!), I can only assume this is a grotesque tip of a grotesque hat. There are horror novels that effectively portray rape scenes; Night Souls is not one of them unless you're a rape fetishist or a connoisseur of unusually large barbed penises. Not recommended.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

There Is Strength In A Union

On the Ropes: written by James Vance; illustrated by Dan Burr (2014): The late-1980's graphic novel Kings in Disguise was also written by James Vance and illustrated by Dan Burr. It was an unapologetically Steinbeckian work set during the Great Depression in the United States. Realism and melodrama combined in that graphic novel to make for one of the lesser-known great graphic novels ever produced in the medium. 

It took about a quarter of a century, but Vance and Burr return here to the Great Depression, and to the youthful protagonist of Kings in Disguise, the now-17-year-old Fred Bloch. And it's great to have them all back.

The main narrative takes place in 1937, though Bloch narrates the events from an undisclosed but seemingly distant future time and there are also copious flashbacks. Fred Bloch now travels through the American Midwest with a carnival funded by FDR's federal Work Projects Administration to provide both work and entertainment in Depression-era America. 

Across the country, workers are unionizing. And across the country, businesses are hiring people to break up strikes, unions, and attempts to unionize, often by any means necessary up to and including murder. That last part isn't melodrama -- violence and even murder was often a tool used by businesses and the State against unions in 19th- and early 20th-century America. The Pinkerton Agency, for example, was at least as well-known during that time for its union-busting activities as it was for anything remotely resembling detective work.

Fred works for an escape artist with a tragic past, romances a fellow young carnival worker, gets a WPA-funded reporter interested in labour's battles with Big Business, and covertly helps organized labour by acting as a 're-transmitter' of union communications through the post. Mail was often intercepted if it were believed to be union-related (yes, this is also historical fact and not melodrama), so Fred's help is invaluable so long as he remains the unknown link in a chain of communication. Unfortunately, two murderous thugs hired by a steel company are on his trail. And one of them has a history with Fred's escape artist.

Vance's writing is solid, involving, and certainly heartfelt. If the climax of the story strikes me as being melodramatic -- well, it is sometimes nice to see a battle between good and evil in a graphic novel that doesn't involve bright costumes or muscular hyper-competence. Fred, navigating now more intellectually between the problems of the mundane world and the communal aspirations of socialism, remains a finely drawn and sympathetic character. 

Burr's art suits the material perfectly -- it's nicely rendered, skilfully laid out, and refreshingly normative in its depiction of the Depression era and all its characters, good or bad or humanly in the middle. Like Kings in Disguise, On the Ropes is work of admirable and quietly beautiful craftsmanship. Highly recommended.


Hitchcock: adapted by John J. McLaughlin from the book by Stephen Rebello; directed by Sacha Gervasi; starring Anthony Hopkins (Alfred Hitchcock), Helen Mirren (Alma Reville Hitchcock), Scarlett Johansson (Janet Leigh), Danny Huston (Whitfield Cook), Toni Collette (Peggy Robertson), Michael Stuhlbarg (Lew Wasserman), James D'Arcy (Anthony Perkins), Jessica Biel (Vera Miles), and Michael Wincott (Ed Gein) (2012): While it plays somewhat fast and loose with the facts, Hitchcock is an enjoyable look at the making of Psycho. The movie was a gamble at the time, which is why Hitchcock funded it himself. And he would ultimately reap the benefits: adjusted for inflation, Psycho would have a $350 million North American gross in 2015... on an adjusted budget of $10 million.

Anthony Hopkins, fat suit and all, makes for a relatively fun Hitchcock, and Helen Mirren is also good as his wife Alma, who worked on all of his films though often without credit. Scarlett Johansson doesn't look much like Janet Leigh, but she's fine in the role. The movie mixes the personal travails of Hitch and Alma with the challenge of adapting Robert Bloch's Psycho when the film censors will allow neither nudity nor graphic violence. Even showing the toilet in Marion Crane's hotel room was a scandalous deal at the time because apparently Americans had never seen toilets before. Oh, censorship board!

As with most films about artists, we never really get a particularly good sense of what made Hitchcock great other than Following His Gut and Believing In Himself. We do get a montage of Hitchcock performing montage at the end (which is to say, editing), as he whips Psycho into shape in the editing room. The artistic process is otherwise pretty much glossed over, which is a shame given Hitchcock's meticulous nature when it came to the technical aspects of great film-making. Virtually all great directors are great technicians. But if you want to know how Hitchcock actually thought, pick up Hitchcock/Truffaut. Recommended.

Night Shift: written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; directed by Ron Howard; starring Henry Winkler (Chuck), Michael Keaton (Bill), Shelley Long (Belinda), Gina Hecht (Charlotte) and Richard Belzer (Pig) (1982): Ron Howard's first comedy as a director pretty much introduced both Shelley Long and Michael Keaton to the world. It also gave the Fonz one of his few good lead roles in a film, as the introverted, nebbishy night shift supervisor at a New York morgue who almost inadvertantly ends up running a prostitution ring out the morgue. Cue the montage of money rolling in, women trying on clothes, and Michael Keaton being zany.

Michael Keaton plays the Wacky Spirit of Life and Shelley Long plays the Hooker with a Heart of Gold. It all holds up pretty well. It should be shown whenever someone wants to make a case for legalizing prostitution. That Richard Belzer plays a gangster named Pig is pretty funny. And Kevin Costner wanders through as a frat boy at a party. Howard and his screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel would follow this with their break-out hit Splash. In any case, be prepared for casual nudity. And yes, underground sex clubs were and are a thing in New York. Recommended.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Victorian Secrets

Gaslit Nightmares: An Anthology of Victorian Tales of Terror (1988): edited by Hugh Lamb, containing the following stories:

  • The Undying Thing (1901) by Barry Pain
  • The Serpent's Head (1886) by Lady Dilke
  • The Phantom Model(1894) by Hume Nisbet
  • The Black Reaper (1899) by Bernard Capes
  • The Accursed Cordonnier (1900) by Bernard Capes
  • The Vengeance of the Dead (1894) by Robert Barr
  • The Beckside Boggle (1886) by Alice Rea
  • Maw-Sayah (1893) by Charles J. Mansford
  • In the Court of the Dragon (1895) by Robert W. Chambers
  • The Old House in Vauxhall Walk (1882) by Charlotte Riddell
  • The Drunkard's Death (1836) by Charles Dickens
  • Luella Miller (1902) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
  • A Psychological Experiment (1900) by Richard Marsh
  • The Mystic Spell (1899) by Dick Donovan
  • The Late Mr Watkins of Georgia (1898) by Joel Chandler Harris
  • The Ghost in the Mill (1870) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • A Derelict (1895) by J. A. Barry
  • The Haunted Mill (1891) by Jerome K. Jerome
  • An Unexpected Journey (1893) by J. H. Pearce
  • The Pride of the Corbyns (1875) by Isabella Banks
  • The Page Boy's Ghost (1896) by The Countess of Munster
  • Mysterious Maisie (1895) by Wirt Gerrare.

'Late Victorian Tales of Terror' would be more accurate, as the 1836 story by Charles Dickens is an outlier by nearly 40 years. This is the sort of anthology that I think would appeal more to someone with a historical interest in the horror genre. The stories aren't great for the most part, but I had only encountered four of the 22 stories before (oddly enough, those include the two worst stories in the anthology, by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Jerome K. Jerome, and the best, Mary Wilkins-Freeman's terrific all-timer "Luella Miller").

There's no general introduction, but editor Hugh Lamb is generous with the introductions to the individual stories, giving brief bios of the writers and publication information. You might be surprised how rare both those things are in anthologies. 

Some stories are barely vignettes masquerading as 'true' stories, representing the vast array of such ghost stories that appeared during the Victorian era, especially once the whole medium craze kicked off in the second half of the 19th century and ghosts were everywhere, pretending to be real.

Other than "Luella Miller," which is a great and unusual and under-stated vampire story that deservedly gets reprinted a lot, my favourite stories tend towards the pulpy and baroque. "Mysterious Maisie" by Wirt Gerrare(!) is fast-paced and pulpy as Hell, filled with monsters, a monstrous medium, and a 4-foot-long crocodile guarding the kitchen. It's the sort of story in which the ghost is the good guy. Or good girl, in this case.

I also enjoyed "The Pride of the Corbyns," a somewhat racist story set in the Barbados that involves angry white people rising in their mausoleum to protest the burial of mixed-race bodies among them (!!). "The Undying Thing" isn't quite as great as its title, but it still works. "The Accursed Cordonnier" is a bit of an oddity, dealing as it does with the Wandering Jew. Or is it the Anti-Christ? This being 19th-century England, we first encounter him in a Gentleman's Club.

If you're looking to be consistently scared, I'd probably look elsewhere. But if you're interested in a wide variety of approaches to horror, some excellent and some a little stinky, Gaslit Nightmares is well-worth seeking out. As should be the case, a decent number of female writers are represented here, as ghost stories were one of those genres in which women writers could successfully seek publication during the Victorian era. Oh, and that Dickens story, written when Dickens was a young writer, still packs quite a wallop. Recommended.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Under the Sea

Harbor [Manniskohamn] by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2008/Translated Marlaine Delargy 2010): On the fictional island of Domaro in the Stockholm archipelago, strange things have been happening for centuries. And all of those things have some relation to the sea that surrounds the island.

John Ajvide Lindqvist became an "overnight sensation" when the Swedish film adaptation of his terrific 2004 coming-of-age/vampire novel Let the Right One In appeared late in 2008, right around the same time as this novel appeared in Sweden. And the hype was well-deserved: Let the Right One In is a bold and inventive vampire novel that became a bold and inventive Swedish movie (and, later, a so-so American movie). 

The comparisons to Stephen King came thick and fast and just kept coming, though I think Lindqvist resembles other English-language horror writers as much if not moreso. Some of the supernatural creatures in Harbor remind me of the idiosyncratic magical beings and events in Clive Barker works, most notably The Great and Secret Show. The calculated, Sublime vagueness of the climax of the novel, in which things are explained but not to the extent that one is entirely certain what happened, made me think of similar endings in Ramsey Campbell novels that include Midnight Sun and The Long Lost

I realize that the King comparisons occur because a lot of mainstream reviewers have little or no experience reading horror -- King may be their only touchstone for what Lindqvist does. It's annoying, but there it is. Ignorance of a particular literary genre has never stopped a mainstream reviewer from generalizing ponderously about that same genre.

But Lindqvist is his own writer, not simply  a synthesizer of influences. Harbor isn't a great novel of horror and dark fantasy, but it kept me reading to the end of its not-inconsiderable length. That everything is constructed on the Not Without My Daughter template makes the successes of the novel even more remarkable. It even manages to make a fairly late-in-the-text revelation of False Memory Syndrome (yes, how 90's!) work dramatically, if not entirely convincingly.

In the present day of Harbor (the mid-2000's), we follow Anders, the alcoholic father whose daughter Maja disappeared without a trace near Domaro two years earlier. We also follow Anders' grandmother and her lover of 40 years, Simon, a retired magician/illusionist, both of whom live on the island. Anders' father, a deceased herring fisherman, was also born on Domaro; his mother having divorced his father and gone to live in Stockholm soon after Anders was born, Anders himself is a man of two worlds, having spent portions of every vacation on Domaro with his father. The novel stresses the liminal nature of both Anders and Simon throughout, their status as Men of Two Worlds. Make of that what you will.

Two years prior to the main narrative, Anders, his wife Cecilia, and Maja were visiting Domaro from their home in Sweden, as they often did. Maja vanished during a visit to the nearby lighthouse, leaving no clue as to her whereabouts in the snow and ice. Anders fell apart and Cecilia eventually left him. With nowhere else to go, Anders returns to Domaro to live in the house his immediate family was using as a vacation home when on Domaro, the warped structure known as The Shack. It's close to the homes of both Simon and Anders' grandmother, who have been lovers for decades but choose to live apart.

Both Anders and Simon (who wasn't born on the island and is thus considered a tourist by the residents despite his own decades-long residency) gradually begin to re-investigate Maja's disappearance. Strange things have begun to happen: the body of a year-lost resident washes up one day, dead for only 24 hours or less. People aren't acting like themselves. Anders is having nightmares about his daughter. And Simon has begun to assemble a hidden narrative from a number of odd incidents over the years involving disappearances, deaths, storms, and strange creatures.

The stories about Domaro's past are the most interesting things in Harbor, mixing documentary-style exposition with confabulation and myth and anecdote in an effective way. The present day has its problems, although I (unlike a lot of reviewers) don't think the self-pitying Anders is one of them. Instead, Simon is the weakest part of the narrative. He's a magician who does stage one important escape act on Domaro several decades before the main narrative. And he does think about the crippled current state of his limbs and joints a lot. 

But he's also got a thing in a matchbox, introduced early in Harbor, which ends up being an underdeveloped key to the resolution of the story. It's there, and if anything in the text requires a lot more exposition, it's the thing in the matchbox. Several times, it acts as an almost-literal Deus ex Machina, never moreso than during the climax. What is it, and what is the antagonist? Well, while I appreciate Lindqvist's desire to avoid the pitfalls of too much horror-draining exposition about the meanings and origins of things, he goes too far the other way. The climax raises more questions than it answers, leading to a certain amount of readerly frustration at the end of 500 pages.

The Smiths are to Lindqvist as Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band were to a young Stephen King. One of the novel's initially charming oddities lies with two characters who speak almost entirely in Smiths lyrics. This works both amusingly and poignantly for much of the novel, though by the time someone has said "Please, please, please" for the second or third time, the welcome has been worn out and the horror replaced by irritation. Strangeways, here we come, indeed.

Overall, Harbor is flawed but enjoyable, rewarding but occasionally frustrating. Like Stephen King, Lindqvist has a real talent for normative characterization in the midst of abnormal events, though I do think many reviewers overstate his status as "Sweden's Stephen King." There are a lot of other influences, and, at least this (relatively) early in the career of Lindqvist, he shows a greater interest in supernatural elements that are more personal, idiosyncratic, and self-created than what one saw in King's work prior to It, which appeared about 20 years into King's writing career. Here, we're less than a decade into Lindqvist's. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

We Must Imagine That Sisyphus Is Lex Luthor

What If? Classic Volume 7:  written by Peter Gillis, Alan Zelenetz, and Mark Gruenwald; illustrated by Butch Guice, Marc Silvestri, Ron Frenz, Sal Buscema, Ron Wilson, Kelley Jones, Dave Simons, Joe Sinnott, Sam Grainger, Mel Candido, Ian Akin, Brian Garvey, Sam de la Rosa, Mark Gruenwald, Jack Abel, and Bill Sienkiewicz (1983-84; Collected 2014): This collection of the final issues of Marvel's first run of What if? is a blast. Peter Gillis writes all but two of the stories included herein, and while he may have been a young writer at the time, he was already a very good one.

What if? spun stories off from (mostly) major events in the Marvel Universe while also serving as a showcase in many issues for up-and-coming artists. Early work from artists Butch Guice, Kelley Jones, Marc Silvestri, and Ron Frenz appears here, and it's generally quite good. Indeed, Guice's work really shines in a sometimes over-rendered way on the first (and best) story in the volume, "What if Doctor Strange never became Master of the Mystic Arts?", written by Gillis. This isn't just a great What if?, it's a great Doctor Strange story.

The other two stand-outs, also written by Gillis, involve Captain America not being thawed out until the (then) present day of the Marvel Universe, and the terrible effects of Sue 'Invisible Woman' Richards dying in childbirth. Both stories are quite grim without slipping into the occasional death-for-death's-sake nihilism that was always the Achilles Heel of the What if? series, as both end on a note of hope and redemption. Unfortunately, an overly complicated set-up for a story about the Hulk "going berserk" leads into just such a work of grim pointlessness, but it's the only real failure in this volume. Recommended.

JLA Deluxe Volume 4 : written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Howard Porter, John Dell, Mark Pajarillo, Drew Garaci, Frank Quitely, Ed McGuinness, and Dexter Vines 4 (1999-2000, 2004-2005; collected 2010): Grant Morrison's late 1990's run on JLA (Justice League of America) ends in this over-sized volume which also includes Morrison and artist Frank Quitely's terrific JLA: Earth-2 graphic novel from the same time period and a JLA three-parter from 2005 that ties up a couple of loose ends from Morrison's JLA run while also serving as a prologue to his excellent and somewhat wiggy Seven Soldiers of Victory miniseries.

The JLA's final arc is World War Three, the culmination of a plot set in motion in the non-Morrison-penned JLA: Midsummer's Nightmare story that immediately preceded Morrison's relaunch of JLA in the mid-1990's. An ancient super-weapon capable of destroying the galaxy is on its way to Earth, and the super-heroes of Earth are the only people who can stop it. However, the weapon -- Mageddon, a "weapon created to kill gods!" -- sows chaos and war in advance of its arrival. It's also controlling a number of people on Earth who've been charged with destroying the JLA before Mageddon even arrives.

So we fight, on land, in the sea, in the air, and in space. Morrison's greatest contribution to the relaunched JLA was a commitment to epic menaces that only a group composed of Earth's greatest heroes (Superman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Batman at the team's core and dozens of other heroes at various times during Morrison's run, from Catwoman to Plastic Man) could possibly defeat.

This time, even all the heroes of Earth may not be enough. But before it's all over Morrison and the pleasingly craggy regular JLA penciller Howard Porter will give readers an epic inversion of the usual 'small elite group of heroes saves poor old defenseless humanity' scene that almost always plays out at the end of any superhero story on the page or in the movies. 

Of the other two stories included here, JLA: Earth-2 is a delight. Frank Quitely's weirdly pleasing gallery of gods and grotesques is always fun to look at. Morrison riffs with obvious Silver Agey glee on long-time JLA foes The Crime Syndicate of Amerika, fun-house-mirror versions of the JLA from an alternate, anti-matter universe where Good is Evil and Evil is Good. It's far and away the most satisfying story about the Syndicate since writer Gardner Fox and artist Mike Sekowsky introduced them in Justice League of America back in the mid-1960's. It even spares a melancholy moment for an anti-matter Lex Luthor who is that alternate Earth's only hero as Wonder Woman contemplates his Sisyphean, never-ending failure against the forces of Evil.

Morrison's three-part story from 2005 with artist Ed McGuinness isn't the same sort of success: there's an unpleasantness about the Geoff-Johns-reimagined Gorilla Grodd, now a super-gorilla who actually eats brains rather than telepathically draining them, that pollutes every Grodd appearance since he became a carnivore. Oh Grodd, what have they done to you? Overall, though, highly recommended.

Solitary Men

John Wick: directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch; written by Derek Kolstad; starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov), Willem Dafoe (Marcus), Dean Winters (Avi), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), and John Leguizamo (Aurelio) (2014): Fun revenge-action movie directed by a former stunt man/stunt director takes full advantage of Keanu Reeves' low-key charms. 

The action sequences, whether car chases or hand-to-hand combat or lengthy shoot-outs, are all splendidly choreographed. This is in its way as pleasingly low-tech and old-school as Mad Max: Fury Road, and almost as much fun. There's also a refreshing amount of wit in the film's Hotel for Assassins, complete with strict house rules (Rule#1: No business on the premises!). The cast is top-notch, with Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones' Theon Greyjoy) as a suitably puerile and squirmy object of Keanu Reeves' wrath. Highly recommended.

The Lady in the Lake: adapted by Steve Fisher from the novel by Raymond Chandler; directed by Robert Montgomery; starring Robert Montgomery (Philip Marlowe), Audrey Trotter (Adrienne Fromsett), Lloyd Nolan (Lt. DeGarmot), Dick Simmons (Chris Lavery), and Leon Ames (Derace Kingsby) (1947): As an experiment, The Lady in the Lake is interesting in theory: much of the movie is told in the first person (which is to say, with a first-person camera) by Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Robert Montgomery both plays Marlowe and directs.

Alas, Montgomery simply isn't a good enough director to find ways to make the first-person camera work visually interesting, especially since the technology of the time severely limits the amount and speed of movement a camera was capable of. Montgomery's also woefully miscast as Marlowe, whose greatest portrayer will always be Humphrey Bogart but who has also been memorably played by Robert Mitchum, Eliot Gould, and James Garner, among others.

The four types of shots we see again and again include people talking to Marlowe without moving, Marlowe getting knocked out, Marlowe looking in a mirror, and Marlowe looking at his hands so we can see what he's doing with them. The Lady in the Lake does seem to have been watched by the Coen Brothers: a sequence in which Marlowe is chewed out in a police station by Bay City cops really seems to loom in the background of The Big Lebowski, though Marlowe escapes without taking a coffee mug to the head. Not recommended.

I Confess: adapted by George Tabori and William Archibald from a play by Paul Anthelme; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Montgomery Clift (Father Logan), Anne Baxter (Ruth Grandfort), Karl Malden (Inspector Larrue), Brian Aherne (Willie Robertson), and O.E. Hasse (Otto Keller) (1953): Quebec City co-stars with Montgomery Clift in this moody, expressionistic Hitchcock thriller. Hitchcock's shot selection when it comes to Quebec is perhaps the most impressive thing about this movie, with looming churches, the nigh-cyclopean Chateau Frontenac,  cramped streets, and all the shadows that night can provide. 

Clift is striking and mournful as a Roman Catholic priest accused of a murder he didn't commit. But his Father Logan is royally screwed: not only did he hear the confession of the murderer, thus binding him with the Seal of the Confessional, but the murderer decides to frame Father Logan for that murder. And Logan's pre-priesthood romance with the now-married Anne Baxter has supplied stupid-but-stubborn cop Karl Malden with a motive for Logan to murder. The cinematography and editing make this a movie to study. The ending goes a bit cuckoo and a whole lot abrupt. Recommended.