Monday, April 29, 2019

Nightflyers (1987) by George R.R. Martin

When bad covers happen...
Nightflyers (1987) by George RR Martin, containing the following stories:

  • Nightflyers (1980): Martin's acclaimed novella of horror and first contact was badly mangled by the recent SyFy Channel series, mercifully canceled after one season. Set thousands of years in the future, "Nightflyers" follows the efforts of an interstellar archaeology team to make First Contact with the mysterious Volcryn. The Volcryn fly between the stars at normal spatial velocities, avoiding star systems and faster-than-light travel. Why? And why have they been doing it for at least tens of thousands of years, flying outwards from the Galactic Core? Martin balances cosmic horror, a bit of grue, a sense of wonder, and a keen sense of irony once the final revelations arrive.

  • Override (1973): Enjoyable, minor Corpse-handler story. Martin's walking dead do so with artificial brains in their heads, all under the control of that handler. Yuck!

  • Weekend in a War Zone (1977): Dystopic, bleak satire of corporate outings. Would make a good half-hour Twilight Zone episode if they still made such a thing.

  • And Seven Times Never Kill Man (1975): Another story set in the Thousand Worlds universe shows us aliens vs. humans. And not just any humans, but the horrible sect of humans who are Martin's parody of/commentary on Gordon Dickson's militaristic Dorsai.

  • Nor the Many-Coloured Fires of a Star Ring (1976): The Star Ring was an FTL gateway created by dumping massive amounts of power into a pre-existing spatial rift. But in this story, the rift seems to open on a parallel universe.

  • A Song for Lya (1974): One of Martin's cleverest, most affecting stories. Again set in the Thousand Worlds universe, "A Song for Lya" follows the efforts of a telepathic duo to discover the secrets of a planet of aliens that has lived in peaceful cultural stasis for thousands of years -- and whose attractions now seem to be wooing humans to have brain-eating blobs put on their heads. Yes, it's the most melancholy episode of Futurama ever!!!

Once upon a time, George R.R. Martin was a writer of terrific short stories and novellas. His first novel, written with Lisa Tuttle, was a fix-up of previously published stories, as was a later novel, Tuf Voyaging

These stories all come from about two decades or more before Game of Thrones hit the book-stands. Some of them are from different universes Martin created -- the Star Ring universe, the Corpse-handler universe, and the Thousand Worlds of humanity thousands of years in the future. They all make for fine reading. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991)

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) by David Simon: Once upon a time, a Baltimore crime reporter managed to get a year 'embedded' with Baltimore's Homicide detectives. The year was 1988, the reporter was David Simon, and the result wasn't just this terrific book -- ultimately, the result was David Simon's entry into the entertainment industry, resulting in the TV shows Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner, The Wire, and so much more.

For those like myself coming to the non-fiction book after the assorted TV series about crime in Baltimore, some of the fun is spotting things that would appear in somewhat different form on TV. The murder that inspired the haunting Adena Watson story-line on Homicide: Life on the Street is here, heart-rending and awful. So too a number of other homicides. I'll leave you to play spot the crime. And spot the detectives who inspired Simon and Company's fictional detectives!

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is a terrific, gripping, moving book. It's also a corrective to any number of cop-show cliches and misrepresentations. Simon also lays out the departmental and city politics that provided the background to any number of episodes of Homicide and The Wire, and the foreground too.

But it's probably the characterization of the homicide detectives and their highers-up that makes Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets so memorable. These are men as interesting as any of Simon's fictional creations. We see how different detectives detect differently. We see some of them become obsessed by unsolvable cases. We definitely see the coarse, obscene badinage that marks most homicide detectives. In the face of death, a certain measure of dark levity is often necessary.

Amongst all the horror, there's even a weird sort of comedy in one case involving insurance scams and a lot of dead bodies. The case as it plays out is both grim and so outlandish that it seems impossible to fictionalize -- no one would believe it. In all, this is a truly great piece of non-fiction, as gripping as any novel or any of Simon's fictional work. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Kagemusha (1980)

Kagemusha (1980): written by Masato Ide and Akira Kurosawa; directed by Akira Kurosawa; starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Shingen Takeda/ Kagemusha), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Nobukado Takeda), Ken'ichi Hagiwara (Katsuyori Takeda), and Jinpachi Nezu (Sohachiro Tsuchiya):  

Kagemusha occurs in 16th-century feudal Japan, with financing to complete the film arranged by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.  Kagemusha literally means 'double' or 'shadow warrior.' It tells the tale of a thief who replaces the first-injured and then-deceased Lord Shingen Takeda so as to keep the Lord's many enemies convinced that this military genius still lives.

The American financing came about because of the scale of the final battle sequence, though even that sequence surprises us in how all that money is deployed on the screen. Akira Kurosawa was a master of surprise, among many other things. The cinematography is terrific throughout, whether for that doom-laden final battle or for an eerie dream sequence experienced by the thief or for the shadows-and-silhouettes used to indicate battle throughout.

Kurosawa also pulls off the difficult feat of giving us a movie with only one truly likable character, the thief -- and even he is a flawed creature. There's a certain elegiac quality to the proceedings as we see the warfare of the Middle Ages give way to gunpowder and cannons. But Kurosawa undercuts his elegy with both the brutal realities of combat and with the characterization of those lords and retainers still committed to the old ways: in the end, they are deluded and, in their conduct towards the thief, an ungrateful lot of upper-class pricks.

Of Kurosawa's many films involving pre-20th-century Samurai culture, this may be the least. It's certainly the most intimate, despite that giant battle sequence. Even if the least, it's Kurosawa, which beats the best of most everyone else. Kagemusha haunts one in a more mundane way than the supernaturally tinged Throne of Blood, in a less spectacular way than Ran or Seven Samurai. But it definitely haunts, especially in its last tragic, absurd shot. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

The Equalizer 2 (2018): based on the TV series created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim; written by Richard Wenk; directed by Antoine Fuqua; starring Denzel Washington (Robert McCall), Pedro Pascal (Dave York), Ashton Sanders (Miles), and Melissa Leo (Susan Plummer): 

Denzel Washington's Robert McCall  is more like a Golden Age superhero than anyone in a superhero movie in The Equalizer movies. He's like the Spectre reconfigured as a hardware-store Batman, or maybe Steve Ditko's The Question (or Watchmen's Question stand-in, Rorschach) without a cool mask.

There's not as much crazed hardware-store action involving Washington killing evildoers with nail-guns and improvised pipe bombs as in the first movie. Oh well. The film also suffers from a slightly underwhelming antagonist for Washington's character. An extended set-piece set in a deserted town as a hurricane descends is nicely staged. And the running 'gag' that McCall works as a Uber driver is sort of hilarious. Recommended.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Skyscraper (2018)

Skyscraper (2018): written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber; starring Dwayne Johnson (Will Sawyer) and Neve Campbell (Sarah Sawyer): Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno meets the Age of Social Media in this preposterous, vaguely enjoyable piece of crap. 

Duane Johnson is the one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, security consultant to the world's newest tallest building in Hong Kong. Criminals take over! His family is imperiled! 

Virtually every heroic action Johnson's character takes is applauded wildly for by hordes of onlookers nearby with their smartphones raised to the air, and by what I assume is one hell of a worldwide TV audience. It's like Skyscraper included its own audience in the movie! Jesus, there's probably a paper in this! 

As seems to happen in every movie starring that former Rock, the human antagonists are underwhelming. Arnold Schwarzenegger was willing to be pummeled by T-1000's and Predators for his Art. The Rock only faces inferior humans, earthquakes, giant fires, giant monsters, and Egyptian gods. Is Duane Johnson insecure? Because this seems like the insecure choices of an insecure man. Get beat up by a Predator already, Rock! Not recommended.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Deadpool 2 (2018)

Deadpool 2 (2018): written by Paul Wernick and Rhett Rheese and Ryan Reynolds; based on characters created by Fabian Nicieza, Rob Liefeld, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Len Wein, David Cockrum, Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and others; directed by David Leitch; starring Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson /Deadpool, Josh Brolin as Nathan Summers /Cable, Zazie Beetz as Neena Thurman /Domino, T.J. Miller as Jack "Weasel" Hammer, Brianna Hildebrand as Negasonic Teenage Warhead, Stefan Kapičić as Colossus (voice), Julian Dennison as Rusty Collins /Fire Fist, Morena Baccarin as Vanessa Carlyle, Shiori Kutsuna as Yoiki, and Terry Crews as Bedlam:

Deadpool 2 pretty much picks up where Deadpool left off, sarcastically and metafictionally trashing superheroes in general and the X-Men in particular as it follows the adventures of super-assassin Deadpool. The X-Men's Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are back, along with characters familiar to comics fans and unknown to the general public from the time-travelling Cable (Josh Brolin, relaxing after playing Thanos) to such early 1990's Marvel superhero duds as Bedlam and Shatterstar. 

Is it better than Deadpool? Probably, at least for people acquainted with much of the source material. It's still desperately sentimental when it comes to the love story involving Deadpool and Vanessa despite all the sex-toy jokes. On the other hand, it makes better use of time travel than most movies, though all the really good use comes in the credits sequences at the end of the movie. 

The whole project suits the ineffable weightlessness of Ryan Reynolds. Atlanta's Zazie Beetz makes a nice impression as the super-lucky Domino, while a mostly CGI Juggernaut helps us forget the terrible use of that iconic comic-book villain in X-Men: The Last Stand, in which Vinnie Jones played a Juggernaut in a goofy foam helmet. Recommended.

The Wandering Earth (2019)

The Wandering Earth (2019): written by Gong Ge-Er, Frant Gwo, Liu Cixin, Junce Ye, and Yan Dongxu; directed by Frant Go; starring Wu Jing, Li Guangjie, Chuxiao Qu, Ng Man Tat, Jin Mai Jaho, Qu Jingjing, Mike Sui, Arkady Sharogradsky, and Lei Jiayin:

A somewhat lunatic Chinese blockbuster mashes together the apocalyptic world-saving shenanigans of films that include Armageddon and Deep Impact with many micro-lessons in being a good Communist.

The sun has gone crazy, so the people of Earth team up to build 11,000 11-km-high rockets to push the Earth out of the Solar System to safe haven in the nearby Centauri system. OK! 70 years into this escape attempt, the Earth starts getting pulled into Jupiter's gravity well because Jupiter's gravity has "spiked." What is the deal with gravity in this movie?

Much heroic action on the part of Chinese soldiers, scientists, and Common People must be taken in order for Earth to escape Jupiter and get out of the Solar System. The CGI is pretty good, especially in depicting the space scenes.

You really can't subject The Wandering Earth to even a cursory scientific analysis. It's ridiculous. Oddly, in the midst of all the astronomical and physical impossibilities, the film uses the term 'Roche Limit' correctly. Hurray for science! Recommended.