Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Comedies Bleak and Light

Six Degrees of Separation (1993): adapted by John Guare from his own play; directed by Fred Schepisi; starring Stockard Channing (Ouisa Kitteridge), Donald Sutherland (Flan Kitteridge), Will Smith ('Paul'), Ian McKellen (Geoffrey), and Anthony Michael Hall (Trent): John Guare's excellent adaptation of his own play resonates as much now as it did in when it first appeared in 1990, after the greedy 1980's of American neo-capitalism. 

It's a snarky, often bleak look at the lives of the nouveau-riche in New York, embodied in the persons of art dealer Flan Kitteridge and his wife Ouisa (even their first names seem arch). Into their world comes Will Smith as the charismatic son of Sydney Poitier. But nothing is as it seems. All the principals are good, and Smith (and, in a minor role, Anthony Michael Hall) is stunningly good. Highly recommended.

The DUFF (2015): adapted by Josh A. Cagan from the novel by Kody Keplinger; directed by Ari Sandel; starring Mae Whitman (Bianca Piper), Robbie Amell (Wesley Rush), Bella Thorne (Madison Morgan), Bianca Santos (Casey), Skyler Samuels (Jess), Nick Eversman (Toby), Ken Jeong (Mr. Arthur), and Alison Janney (Dottie Piper): Bright, occasionally moving, and often very funny high-school comedy about Bianca Piper, who discovers one day that she's seemingly the DUFF to her two popular gal-pals -- the Designated Ugly Fat Friend who makes the lives of the pretty (or handsome) easier by being approachable without being a romantic rival. 

Mae Whitman (Michael Cera's fundamentalist Christian girlfriend on Arrested Development) is excellent as Bianca, as is the amiable Robbie Amell as her jock-male frenemy Wesley. The movie ultimately goes pretty much where one expects it to, but it does so in a pleasing and generally sharply written way. There's a pointed critique of high-school cliques and stereotypes at one point that seems like a necessary rebuke to that reductive high-school chestnut The Breakfast Club. Recommended.

Juno (2007): written by Diablo Cody; directed by Jason Reitman; starring Ellen Page (Juno MacGuff), Michael Cera (Paulie Bleeker), Jennifer Garner (Vanessa Loring), Jason Bateman (Mark Loring), Alison Janney (Bren MacGuff), J.K. Simmons (Mac MacGuff), and Olivia Thirlby (Leah): Enjoyable teen-age pregnancy comedy helped put director Jason Reitman, writer Diablo Cody, and break-out star Ellen Page on the Hollywood map. 

The script and its odd turns of phrase (Diablo-Codyisms?) doesn't seem as fresh and insightful now as it did in 2007, but the performances from everyone involved remain fresh and sympathetic. The weird anti-abortion scene seems even more disturbingly neocon now, after a further decade of restrictions to abortion access in many U.S. states. Olivia Thirlby still delights as the sunny, jailiest-teacher-obsessed jailbait a high school ever saw. Recommended.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988): written by John Cleese and Charles Crichton; directed by Charles Crichton; starring John Cleese (Archie Leach), Jamie Lee Curtis (Wanda Gershowitz), Kevin Kline (Otto), Michael Palin (Ken Pile), and Patricia Hayes (Mrs. Coady): Pretty much a perfect 1980's attempt to replicate the complicated heist plots and black English humour of the famous Ealing Studios comedies released primarily between 1948 and 1955. 

Those landmark comedies included The Lavender Hill Mob, directed by A Fish Called Wanda's co-writer and director Charles Crichton and clearly an inspiration to co-writer and star John Cleese. Crichton and Cleese put forth a terrific cast giving terrific comic performances -- Jamie Lee Curtis was never funnier or more pragmatically winsome, and Kevin Kline plays so far against type as "Don't call me stupid!" hitman Otto that he seems to be reincarnating Peter Sellers. Cleese is also good (and cleverly gives himself the girl). Set-pieces that involve incompetent stutterer Michael Palin's attempts to murder a witness and Otto's torture of Palin still have the power to shock and delight. Highly recommended.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988): written by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro, and Paul Henning; directed by Frank Oz; starring Michael Caine (Lawrence Jamieson), Steve Martin (Freddy Benson), Glenne Headly (Janet Colgate), Anton Rodgers (Inspector Andre), and Ian McDiarmid (Arthur the Butler):  Released the same year as A Fish Called Wanda, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels attempts the same sort of black, English comedy without quite succeeding. Michael Caine's con man is a bit too nice, and Steve Martin never seems invested in his con man as a viable character. The only time one believes that Martin could con anybody comes when he's mugging it up as Caine's half-wit brother. There are still laughs throughout, but the movie's let down by its length (a ponderous 110 minutes that needs a trim of at least 15), the writing, and Steve Martin's frenetic, flailing, utterly unconvincing performance. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Most Foul and Horrible

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008) by Kate Summerscale: The 1860 murder of three-and-a-half-year-old Saville Kent in the County of Wiltshire in Southwest England became the crime story of the year. It would echo in fiction and fact for decades afterwards in everything from pulpy mysteries to Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." Saville Kent's murder had it all -- a locked-room mystery, family secrets and grievances, possible sexual improprieties, class resentments, and the dead and befouled body of a child stuffed mercilessly into the holding tank of an outdoor water closet.

Kate Summerscale does a nice job of structuring her non-fiction book as if it were one of the British mysteries that the events actually helped shape. The murder brought one of Scotland Yard's first eight detectives, Jack Whicher, to Wiltshire to investigate the murder. Unfortunately for Whicher, not only had two weeks passed since the murder by the time he arrived, but a startlingly inept local constabulary had allowed key pieces of evidence to disappear.

The result would be a failure of investigation and prosecution that ultimately caused Whicher to retire and a murderer to walk free. But that's only the beginning of the story. In 1865, a new twist in the case would emerge to enthrall and disgust Great Britain again. And things didn't end there. By the conclusion of her book, Summerscale has unearthed more evidence to shed further light on the awful murder.

Summerscale's prose is mostly workmanlike as she keeps the focus on the facts of the case and the various historical and literary events swirling around it. At points, she actually works a bit too hard to keep from being academic: the text buries illuminating observations about the classic English mystery from Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin in the end-notes. 

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher argues convincingly for the murder and its aftermath's effect on English attitudes towards detectives, and for the shaping of the evolving English mystery novel itself. The 19th-century English legal system also offers some strange moments. And as Summerscale follows various people well into the 20th century, a mystery that seems to have been solved instead offers up more mysteries.

At the centre of the narrative is Detective Whicher, a brilliant man who is one of England's pioneers of investigation and forensics. Around him are arrayed gutter journalists and well-meaning constables, devastated family members and family members with something to hide, a governess whose odd behaviour on the morning after the murder almost ruins her life, a washerwoman who inexplicably hides evidence from the police, a publicity-seeking vicar, a rebellious teenager, and Charles Dickens. It's a rich story, convincingly told. Highly recommended.

Nevermore (1996) by William Hjortsberg: The 1990's paperback version of Nevermore was clearly designed to resemble the paperback of The Alienist, Caleb Carr's riveting 1990's murder mystery set in New York that combined real people (most notably Teddy Roosevelt and William James) with fictional characters in pursuit of a serial killer. The interior front cover/two-page illustration actually seems to have come from the same photograph as the cover of The Alienist. Hmm.

The resemblance mostly ends there: Hjortsberg does combine fact and fiction, but the mystery and the serial killer are only a part of what the novel explores. As with Hjortsberg's more famous Falling Angel (made into the controversial 1987 movie Angel Heart starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro), Nevermore is invested in mysteries and morality and the oddities of human nature, not in the prime importance of the aims and methods of detection.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrives in 1923 New York to begin his United States lecture tour on the Spirit World and his many attempts to communicate with the dead. Meanwhile, with vaudeville dying, Harry Houdini searches for a new money-making model for his magic shows while also waging a very public war against the mediums and spiritualists whom he views as being dangerous frauds. Despite their radical disagreement on spiritualism, however, Houdini and Doyle were friends. 

And a mysterious string of murders, each based on a different work by Edgar Allan Poe, soon seems to be working its way towards either Houdini or Doyle as the final victim.

Hjortsberg does a marvelous job of combining fact and fiction. He deploys a lengthy and detailed set of historical events and personages while keeping the novel light on its feet and often movingly dark and poetic. But Nevermore is also very funny at points. Nevermore's depiction of Houdini and Doyle makes them lively, fascinating individuals. And the sexy spirit medium who has dubbed herself Isis -- what's her game?

Nevermore is more of a novel with a mystery than a mystery novel. Still, it's satisfying in its fictional and factual elements. And you'll find out how a couple of Houdini's famous tricks were accomplished (though not all of the ones depicted in the novel). Hjortsberg even throws in a climax that's wittily movie-like. All this and the morose ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, visible only to Doyle. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Magicpuncher: His punches have the power of magic!

Mmmm... Cloak of Levitation
Doctor Strange: The Last Days of Magic (2016): written by Jason Aaron, James Robinson, and Gerry Duggan; illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Mike Perkins, Leonard Romero, Danilo Beyruth, Kevin Nowlan, and many others: The five-issue build-up to The Last Days of Magic was pretty good. The Last Days of Magic itself, not so much. Chris Bachalo's artwork throughout the story is nice, magicky stuff, conjuring up images of Bachalo's work on Neil Gaiman's Death miniseries in the Sandman universe. 

And I understand what Marvel and Jason Aaron are attempting in the writing of Doctor Strange. Strange has often been a great series going back to his creation by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee in the early 1960's and continuing through such great writer/artist teams as Steve Engelhart/ Frank Brunner to Roger Stern/Marshall Rogers in the early 1980's and on to Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin's terrific The Oath miniseries from a few years back.

But Doctor Strange has never been a popular character, which is why he keeps getting cancelled. Aaron writes Doctor Strange as much more fallible and self-doubting than previous efforts, making him almost into a Spider-man, with magic. It doesn't work for me because it doesn't link up with previous versions of Strange. Maybe it will be popular. But between that and the gigantic ret-cons Aaron works into the narrative, I found myself reading a Doctor Strange story that didn't seem to have Doctor Strange in it. 

And at the point that Doctor Strange first thinks and then exclaims at the villain, "I'm literally punching you with magic!"... well, that was really enough to cure me of any desire to see what Aaron and Bachalo have up their sleeves for future issues of Strange. But if you always hated Doctor Strange as written by virtually everyone who has ever written Doctor Strange, maybe you'll like this revised version. For me, not recommended.

John Constantine Hellblazer: Damnation's Flame (1993-94/reprinted 1999): written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Steve Dillon, Peter Snejberg, Will Simpson, Glenn Fabry, and John Totleben: DC's scabrous, Liverpudlian Sorcerer Supreme John Constantine takes a nightmarish voyage through the shadow realms of the American Hell in this volume, which would now be collected in the Rake at the Gates of Hell collection (if you're looking to buy this story in a new printing). 

Garth Ennis is suitably pissy and cynical, especially once the horrifying ghosts of Abe Lincoln and JFK come into play. Ennis' long-time artistic collaborator Steve Dillon is in fine form, rendering all the horrors in his nuanced, straightforward, mostly realistic drawing style -- the clean-ness of Dillon's rendering was always a plus on Hellblazer and with Ennis also on Preacher. The horrors of Ennis' writing always needed to be undersold visually. Three nice standalone Constantine tales supplement the Damnation's Flame arc. In all, if one finds a used or remaindered copy anywhere, Damnation's Flame could almost work as an introduction to the Constantine experience. Highly recommended.

John Constantine Hellblazer: The Red Right Hand (2006-2007; collected 2007): written by Denise Mina; illustrated by Leonard Manco and Cristiano Cuchina: Novelist Denise Mina wrote 13 issues of John Constantine Hellblazer in 2006-2007. She wasn't generally well-received by Constantine fans, though I like her work. It was, however, somewhat misleading to collect her issues in two volumes (the previous volume was Empathy is the Enemy): the two volumes actually form one 12-issue, novelistic story, with one standalone fill-in issue in the middle of things. 

I like the 12-issue arc overall, but it's a John Constantine story that seems awfully padded. The concluding issues in this volume go in circles for about 60 pages before finally stumbling to an end. That the fate of the world hinges in a hilarious way on the outcome of a World Cup match involving England is probably the best moment in Mina's run. Lightly recommended.

Enigma (1993): written by Peter Milligan; illustrated by Duncan Fegredo: This wild, woolly, postmodern superhero tale from the first year of the DC Vertigo comics line's existence is a gem, albeit a somewhat padded one -- it's a tight six-issue story running at a somewhat attenuated eight issues. Duncan Fegredo's art is scratchy and scary and often intentionally confusing -- when the superhero fights comes, they're confusing and bloody, which is sort of the point. 

Peter Milligan writes an involving tale of childhood superhero fantasies and grown-up repression. And the final revelation of the narrator's identity is all sorts of funny. Enigma also seems prescient in that it deals frankly and non-stereotypically with homosexuality. In 1993! Kudos to line editor Karen Berger and DC for releasing such a book at the time. Recommended.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Real-life Adventures on Land and Sea

The Last Waltz (1978): directed by Martin Scorsese; starring The Band (Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson), Martin Scorsese (The Interviewer), and many other musicians and writers that include Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, and others: Martin Scorsese's brilliant, occasionally problematic concert movie combines live footage of The Band's last performance with a whole lotta guests (including the jarring appearance of Neil Diamond) with interview sessions with the five members of The Band.

Scorsese clearly had a man-crush on guitarist Robbie Robertson, who dominates the interviews and seems to be in almost every shot of the concert, an impressive feat for someone who never sings lead vocals. The four non-Robertson members of The Band seem fed up with Robbie at times -- and they'd reunite as a foursome sans Robertson several years after The Last Waltz. Hmm. 

You can see why Scorsese fixated on Robertson -- he's the most conventionally handsome of the group, and he's also the most loquacious. In any case, the film itself is essential viewing because of the performances of The Band, the anecdotes, and the astonishing array of guest players and vocalists. And even Neil Diamond is fine and, in the context of the movie, a reasonable choice to represent a particular type of music (Tin Pan Alley and its songwriters) on the movie's journey through an almost comprehensive list of musical influences on The Band. 

Garth Hudson and Rick Danko don't speak much. Richard Manuel and Levon Helm do get some interview time, and both -- especially the charismatic, soft-spoken Helm (aka The Only American In The Band) -- are fascinating. Highly recommended.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015): based on the non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick; written by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver; directed by Ron Howard; starring Chris hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (Captain Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Brendan Gleason and Tom Holland (Old/Young Thomas Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), and Michelle Fairley (Mrs. Nickerson): Ron Howard turns the astonishing true story of the early 19th-century Nantucket whaleship Essex's losing confrontation with a pissed-off male sperm whale into an intermittently faithful, intermittently ridiculous movie. The performances are all solid but unspectacular, hampered by the often stilted and/or dogmatic dialogue that often seems shot through with jarring linguistic anachronisms.

A frame narrative set 30 years after the Essex lost a TKO to the whale is historically ridiculous. And the movie creates a false dramatic narrative in which the Nantucket powers-that-be want to hush up the whaley cause of the Essex's sinking (in reality, they didn't) and the cannibalism in the lifeboats necessitated by being adrift at sea without food for weeks (again, no cover-up -- cannibalism was pragmatically acknowledged by sailors as something that could very well happen because of the realities of life at sea). Oh, well. History sucks! 

This is the sort of movie in which a cargo hold that should be filled with empty barrels to carry home all the whale oil is instead shown as empty throughout the movie so as to visually demonstrate how unsuccessful the whaling expedition has been. I guess in the universe of the movie, the whales bring their own barrels.

The portion of the film stretching from the Essex's departure from Nantucket to its first encounter with the angry whale is really pretty good. Unfortunately, Howard and the screenwriter veer sharply away from history after the sinking of the Essex to turn the movie into a high-toned version of Jaws: The Revenge with a bit of Castaway thrown in. Oh, well. 

The filmmakers also conflate the whale that sunk the Essex with another story about a partially white sperm whale from about the same time period dubbed Mocha Dick by whalers. Ace reporter (well, information-starved novelist) Herman Melville eats this stuff up in the completely fictional frame narrative. We also get some anachronistic environmentalist discussions. In the world of the movie, oil is discovered in Pennsylvania nine years earlier than it was in our universe. Hey, it's an alternate history movie! Lightly recommended.

Invictus (2009): adapted by Anthony Peckham from the non-fiction book by John Carlin; directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela) and Matt Damon (Francois Peinaar): Engaging sports movie about newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela's attempts to forge unity in his country with the nation's Springboks national rugby team and South Africa's 1995 hosting of the Rugby World Cup. Morgan Freeman as Mandela is excellent and convincing, and Matt Damon is Matt Damon with an Afrikaaners accent as Springboks captain Francois Peinaar. 

The movie is quite faithful to actual events. Clint Eastwood's direction is unobtrusive, and the whole thing goes down pretty smoothly as the earnest Stanley Kramer movie it would have been if it had been made in 1955. A cast of mostly unknowns does solid work in the supporting roles. Traditional and traditionalistic South African songs war with goopy, gloppy, awful Western-muzak-sounding songs on the soundtrack, to an occasionally jarring comic effect. Mandela's favoured 1875 English poem which gave the movie its title was by William Ernest Henly, by the way, though most of us think it was by Rudyard Kipling. The more you know! Recommended.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Haunted Toronto in the Me Decade

The Rosedale Horror (1980) by Jon Ruddy: This Canadian paperback original from defunct Canadian paperback imprint Paperjacks is shocking in its goodness. It's a haunted-house story with a twist, set in Toronto's tony Rosedale neighbourhood in 1974. Ruddy was a long-time newspaper reporter, and it shows: he grounds all the horror elements in detailed, specific, and often quite funny and illuminating glimpses of life at a failing Toronto newspaper in the 1970's. 

The specifics of newspaper work on a variety of fronts from daily news columnist to police reporter to freelance writer give the proceedings a real verisimilitude. That the book is often scathingly funny about life at a tabloid and about Toronto the Good really helps things.

Ruddy also carries off a difficult bit of structure. The Rosedale Horror is told in six sections, each focused in the third-person on a specific character, though there is also some first-person narration by way of a tape recorder. And it all works both as characterization and as a builder of suspense.

There are elements in the text which at times seem sexist. Some of them fall into the realm of a sort of R-rated Leacockian satire directed at certain men and women alike, including a female relationship columnist and a male news columnist. Ultimately, the novel isn't sexist, though some of its characters are sexist and, in a couple of cases, somewhat predatory.

Ruddy manages several scenes of horror shot through with the occasional bit of grotesque humour. That tape-recorded first-person monologue is one of the two deftest bits of horror, revealing gradually a mind both ill and toxically malign. A rape scene also manages to horrify without seeming exploitative -- no small feat in any novel, and Ruddy amplifies the effect by having the rapist himself under the malign mental influence of something awful.

The Rosedale Horror certainly has its pulpy elements, but they never undercut the horror and the comedic in Ruddy's novel. As both horror and pointed, satiric social commentary, The Rosedale Horror is far superior to many, many novels I've read by far more celebrated authors. It's also hard to go wrong with a novel in which a character is murdered by being telepathically forced to urinate on the third rail of the Toronto subway line. Recommended.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Lowell Thompson Remembers... 1932

Task Force X!

Suicide Squad (2016): written and directed by David Ayer; based on DC Comics characters and situations created by John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell, Gerry Conway, Paul Dini, Bob Haney, Howard Purcell, and many others; starring Will Smith (Deadshot), Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Viola Davis (Amanda Waller), Jared Leto (The Joker), Joel Kinnaman (Colonel Rick Flag), Cara Delevingne (June Moone/ Enchantress), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Killer Croc), Jay Hernandez (Diablo), Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang), Adam Beach (Slipknot), Alaine Chanoine (Businessman/ Incubus), Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne/ Batman), and Ezra Miller (The Flash):

I'd love to see the David Ayer director's cut of Suicide Squad. Did it include as many music-video sequences? More importantly, did its first 45 minutes seem like the film adaptation of Who's Who in the DC Universe I've been waiting 32 years to see? 

Ayer is a solid, gritty director of manly men doing violent, manly things in movies that include Fury and End of Watch. And Ayer has definitely seen The Dirty Dozen, which did this sort of Rogue's Team-up with flair -- an early death in Suicide Squad bounces right off the first death in The Dirty Dozen in visual terms. Lee Marvin would really help this movie, or even someone Lee-Marvin-esque rather than Joel Kinnaman's somewhat bland portrayal of team leader Colonel Rick Flag. Was Stephen Lang available? Stephen Lang would be a killer Rick Flag.

Dismantled and reassembled by a team of panicked Warner Brothers executives after the widespread vitriol that attended Batman V. Superman back in March, Suicide Squad is a strangely enjoyable mess that seems to be missing vital connective tissue at several points in its narrative. The changes in mood -- from zippy to grim to sentimental to music video to Ghostbusters -- are striking and sometimes off-putting.

But like a lot of DC Comics movie offerings (and very few Marvel movie offerings, regardless of their box-office success), Suicide Squad is stylistically interesting and, at times, visually bold. The plot may sag or jump, but visually David Ayer manages a number of striking moments, along with some awfully good live-action visual adaptations of comic-book costumes. Say what you will about these DC movies, but they've yet to foist upon the viewing public as crappy a superhero costume as Marvel's lame-ass visualization of the Vision.

But people like plot. Plot, plot, plot. And I wish this one was more coherent. Hell, I wish they'd included a scene that actually named one of the two supernatural Big Bads (Incubus) rather than leaving that job to the closing credits. Hmm. Incubus. And another super-villain is named Slipknot. That's some weird musical stuff.

Everyone's already talked about Margot Robbie (pretty good as Harley Quinn, not so good as psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel) and Jared Leto (underwhelming and underused as the Joker, who really should be stuck trying to save the world at the climax because that really would be funny). I liked Jay Hernandez and his character Diablo, which visually is a crazy gang-banging stereotype but as written and performed is instead the movie's most noble and nuanced character. Viola Davis is pretty much on-point as Amanda Waller, who will do anything to save the world. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje  gets buried under a ton of make-up and a mumble-mouthed Cajun accent as Killer Croc, but he's still pretty good.

And Will Smith does that twinkly Will Smith thing as principled assassin Deadshot while wearing a mostly faithful recreation of Marshall Rogers' striking re-design for the character from the 1970's Batman comics. Why Warner wasted Smith here and didn't get him on-board the Justice League movie as Green Lantern John Stewart baffles me. It seems like a major missed opportunity. Oh, well. 

The last hour is pretty much that Ghostbusters reboot you didn't expect to see in a comic-book movie. And I liked a lot of the visual work on all the monstrous tentacles and crawly, misshapen, monstrous hell-soldiers running around a supernaturally invaded Midway City, (Midway City being the name for Toronto on Earth-DC, at least judging by all the recognizable Toronto locations that make cameos in Suicide Squad). The Enchantress looks creepy in her earlier appearances, though her later belly-dancer get-up underwhelms. Techno-organic hell-god Incubus also has some visual moments, along with an underwhelming death. 

That the movie should end with Harley Quinn killing the Joker seems like a real lost opportunity to freak out the Internet. But it would totally be a great idea. And clear the way to someone better than Leto playing the Joker because that guy never stays dead anyway! Suicide Squad straddles a line between lightly recommended and recommended. Your experience may vary. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Some Call It Sleep

Doktor Sleepless Volume 1: Engines of Desire (2008): written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Ivan Rodriguez: Interesting near-future dystopia from Warren Ellis that gets better and weirder as it goes. 'Doktor Sleepless' (re)names himself and takes up arms against normalcy in a weird, small city somewhere in America. Strange new cults and fads dominate the post-millennial streets. 

The Great Old Ones seem to be in play. And an angel seems to have arrived in town on a hallucinatory wind. Ivan Rodriguez seems a bit bland and mainstream to be drawing this book, though that may be the point -- a tension between the art and the story mimicking the tension between consensus reality and le massif. Certainly worth reading. Recommended.

Annihilator (2015): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Fraser Irving: A self-reflexive, genre-mashing superhero story written by Grant Morrison? It must be Wednesday. This is another fun Morrison romp in which a writer and his creation hang out together. Well, go on the run together. But the created may have created the story that the creator now tells to save the created. Or something like that. 

If you like Morrisson, you'll like this. If you hate Morrison, you'll hate this. If you've never heard of Morrisson, this isn't a bad jumping-on point. It may be a bit wacky, but it's straightforward in its own way and isn't part of any larger superhero universe. Fraser Irving continues to grow as an artist, though his distortions of the human form sometimes make it difficult to recognize specific characters. Recommended.

Larry Marder's Beanworld Volume 1 (1981-1995/ Collected 1995): written and illustrated by Larry Marder: Reprinting stories from the early-to-mid 1980's, this volume has been supplanted by newer, larger reprint volumes. You should buy them. Larry Marder's Beanworld is a fantasy creation almost sui generis. There are a few things -- mostly old comic strips -- that it vaguely resembles in art style or writing, things that include Krazy Kat and the E.C. Segar Popeye from the 1920's and 1930's.

But it's also pretty much its own weird, half-funny, half-serious cartoon about a bunch of sentient, bipedal beans getting up to adventures on, um, Beanworld. A labour of love years in development by Marder when it debuted as an Eclipse Comic in 1981, Beanworld is one of the great comic-book achievements to come out of the 1980's in any genre, on any continent. It's strange, charming, funny, enthralling... and a fine piece of fantasy world-building. Highly recommended.

Madwoman of the Sacred Heart (1992-1998/ English edition 2011): written by Alejandro Jodorowsky; illustrated by Moebius; English translation by Natacha Ruck and Ken Grobe: Deeply odd graphic novel from long-time collaborators Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius. Sometimes stilted, sometimes passionate, sometimes grotesque. Moebius' art moves from realism through to a cartoony style at the end that resembles that of Tintin's Herge. 

Jodorowsky's writing rampages around from mysticism to erotica to body horror and shame, from androgynous Messiahs to high-living prophets and back again. A 60-year-old French philosopher-academic turns out to be the destined father of the new John the Baptist. Or that's what a sexy, nubile young female student of his believes. 

Indeed, she believes it so much she has sex with him in a confessional booth and then has a tattoo inscribed just above her pubic region indicating that her vagina belongs to the professor. And that's just in the first 20 pages or so of this ~200-page graphic novel. There's a lot more loopy, portentous and sometimes pretentious dialogue and monologue action than there is the sexy sex, though, so don't get too hot and bothered. Not for anyone easily offended, but recommended nonetheless.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Theory of a Dead Man

The Bat (Harry Hole #1) (1997/ Engish translation 2015) by Jo Nesbo, translated into English by Don Bartlett: The first of Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series about a Norwegian police detective wasn't released in English until after several other Hole mysteries were.  That's probably because this mystery/thriller occurs in Australia, where Hole has been sent to liase with Sydney police as they investigate the murder of a young Norwegian woman.

The great thing about the early goings-on in The Bat involve the revelation of the pronunciation of Harry's last name. Thank god for Australia, I say! It's supposed to be pronounced 'Hoo-lay' but the Australians keep calling him Harry Holy, both of which are preferable (to Harry and to me) to how his last name looks like it should be pronounced.

There's a pretty good whodunnit-and-why in The Bat, occasionally drowned out by Nesbo's attempts to hit every quadrant (or whatever) of commercial appeal, including a climactic scene that seems to be aimed straight at movie adaptation. And that scene is completely ridiculous. So, too, a plan put in place to catch the killer by Harry and the Australian police that's unforgivably stupid and stupidly implemented. I didn't believe it for a second, and neither should you.

We also get a lot of back-story for Harry and his alcoholic ways, a tour through some interesting Australian locales, a bit too much mystical-native stuff that verges at points on turning into a version of America's much-maligned 'Magical Negro' trope, and a not-entirely-believable serial killer. It's a fast-paced, enjoyable read, but one will pine for the Fjords by the time the climax arrives. Are there fjords in Norway? Well, whatever. Harry Hole is a cold-weather animal. Lightly recommended.

Foundation (1942-1951/Collected 1951) by Isaac Asimov: The first Foundation novel (it's really a paste-up of novellas and novelettes) was written by Isaac Asimov between the ages of 22 and 24, with the exception of the opening story, written specifically for Foundation's first book publication in 1951. It holds up beautifully today as a tale of the far future modeled explicitly by Asimov on the Roman Empire as imagined in Edward Gibbons' late-18th-century historical work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

What Asimov helped to give to science fiction in the original Foundation trilogy was space opera without the opera. Instead, Asimov re-imagined all the space empires and clashing worlds that had been a fixture of science fiction from the late 1920's onwards in American pulp magazines. The precocious Asimov instead made his space opera into a Novel of Ideas.

Asimov also gave the world Psychohistory, the backbone of the Foundation series. Perfected by super-historian Hari Seldon, Psychohistory allowed Seldon to plot the future dynamic of the dying Galactic Empire so as to allow members of the two Foundation institutes to shorten the post-Imperial galactic Dark Age from tens of thousands of years to only a thousand. 

So the Foundation series generally works with a group hero, embodied in one or a handful of people in each section, as it jumps decades or even hundreds of years forward in each section. Sometimes the recorded hologram of Seldon shows up at various crisis points to offer suggestions to the Foundation members. Sometimes they figure out the crisis point themselves.

It's all handled with a minimum of violence, bloodshed, and Star Wars stuff. Most of the Foundation series involves dialogue and historical theorizing. Asimov and American science fiction were both young, which leads to the occasional exclamation of "Great galloping galaxies!". But the overall approach is cerebral and humanistic. 

Along the way, Asimov also gives us entries from his Encyclopedia Galactica, forebear of so many similar volumes in science fiction. And there's religion as an intentional instrument of state control, an idea that several of the writers who published in editor John W. Campbell's Astounding Magazine in the 1940's would tackle, writers that included Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, and A.E. Van Vogt.

Star Wars certainly borrows much of Asimov's set dressing (and more than one name) for its own Galactic Empire, framing them in a world mostly devoid of ideas, much less Ideas. This is the real deal, one that's sparked so many other writers to imagine their own galactic empires and their own millennia-long view of human history. Highly recommended.

Northern Frights 3 (1995): edited by Don Hutchison; contains the following stories:

Wild Things Live There by Michael Rowe
Silver Rings by Rick Hautala
A Debt Unpaid by Tanya Huff 
Imposter by Peter Sellers 
Exodus 22:18 by Nancy Baker 
The Suction Method by Rudy Kremberg 
Sasquatch by Mel D. Ames 
Grist for the Mills of Christmas by James Powell 
Tamar's Leather Pouch by David Shtogryn 
Snow Angel by Nancy Kilpatrick 
The Perseids by Robert Charles Wilson 
Widow's Walk by Carolyn Clink 
If You Know Where to Look by Chris Wiggins 
The Bleeding Tree by Sean Doolittle 
The Dead Go Shopping by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime 
Family Ties by Edo van Belkom 
The Pines by Tia V. Travis
The Summer Worms by David Nickle 

Solid third volume in Canada's Northern Frights series of mostly original anthologies has one moment of editorial fright early on -- not only is the Table of Contents regrettably centre-justified, but it lacks page numbers for the stories. What the H?

The stand-outs include "Wild Things Live There" by Michael Rowe, a dandy bit of horror that anticipates some of the horrors of Laird Barron's terrific series of stories about the Children of Old Leech while remaining steadfastly Canadian -- the story even involves a migration from Ontario to British Columbia by, well, some things. Oh, Canada!

Another fine story is "The Perseids" by Robert Charles Wilson. Wilson is known as a highly regarded Canadian writer of fairly 'hard' science fiction. Here, some of that scientific and astronomical 'hardness' is present in what is otherwise a subtle, unnerving piece of cosmic horror. Or at least cosmic weirdness.

"If You Know Where to Look" by Chris Wiggins is also a nice piece of dread set in the Maritimes and involving a Scottish legend that seems to have migrated to Nova Scotia along with the Scots. And yes, he's that Chris Wiggins, Canadian actor. And he really shows an ear for believable dialogue and dialect in this story.

None of the stories are duds, though there are a few bits of whimsy that don't work as horror, weird, or whimsy. Editor Don Hutchison does his normal good work, even without page numbers on that Table of Contents. Recommended.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Two Crappy Horror Novels I Wish I Had Not Read

The aura is the wrong colour!
The Strangers (1984) by Mort Castle: Depressing, nihilistic, pointless, nauseating, and a tad rapey horror novel that ends where it should have begun. Technically, Mort Castle isn't a bad writer. Indeed, just from this brief exposure I'd rate him above beloved horror writers that include Richard Laymon and Douglas Clegg. But this is one of those horror novels that some people might confuse with splatterpunk given the violence. It isn't -- sociologically, it's about as reactionary a thing as one can find in the horror genre. 

Bad things happen because a small percentage of people are Strangers -- bloodthirsty psychopaths who pretend to be normal people as they await The Time of the Strangers. While waiting, they account for pretty much all human atrocity in the world. Luckily, you can spot them by their Auras! Well, not luckily, because no one's going to do much of anything productive in this novel who isn't a Stranger. If you enjoy a pointless catalogue of atrocities and boring characters who are either monsters or victims, this is the novel for you. Not recommended.

Under the Lake (1987) by Stuart Woods: Jesus, what did Stuart Woods have on Stephen King, Pat Conroy, and Andrew Greeley to get the glowing back-cover quotes this novel received? Woods still writes, so far as I can tell, in the thriller genre. That's probably a good idea. Ostensibly a Southern Gothic ghost story, Under the Lake wanders off into ill-advised thriller territory when it should be developing its more gothic elements. Why pay off on atmosphere when you can have a couple of pitched gun battles and an exploding plane? Why indeed. 

There are brief moments of interest here, but the horrific revelation towards the end lands with a dull thud. After all the perfunctory murders, seances, incest, and mopey drunk writers, this is all there is? An unpleasant bit in which a 12-year-old girl is presented as a sexual predator really, really, really doesn't help things. Not at all. Not recommended.

Sequels, Blockbusters, and Brain Trauma

Star Trek Beyond (2016):  written by Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, Roberto Orci, Patrick McKay, and John D. Payne; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Simon Pegg (Scotty), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Idris Elba (Krall), and Sofia Boutella (Jaylah): The jolliest, most Trek-like of the reboot movies -- which probably explains why it's lagging behind the first two in box office, given its relative lack of sturm-und-drang. The NuTrek cast is in fine form and the script gets in a lot of zingers and a certain amount of drama, along with the biggest Starbase we've ever seen. 

Director Justin Lin delivers a few too many Fast-and-Furious chasey moments, but otherwise does solid work. The movie misses its chance for a true Star Trek moment late in the game involving the villain, Krall, whom Idris Elba tries to invest with the menace the script mostly leaves out. Given Trek's normal box-office levels pre-reboot, Paramount really needs to find this series its own Harve Bennett before it prices itself out of existence: these need to be $100 million movies that look like $200 million movies, not the other way around. Recommended.

Concussion (2015): based on the Jeanne Marie Laskas article "Game Brain"; written and directed by Peter Landesman; starring Will Smith (Dr. Omalu), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Bates), Albert Brooks (Dr. Wecht), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Prema), and David Morse (Mike Webster): Excellent, factually solid docudrama about the unlikely doctor behind the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players. Will Smith returns to actually acting as African-born forensic pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu, who encounters a whole lot of resistance from the NFL as he attempts to find an explanation for the horrifying dementia of several deceased NFL players. It's a grim picture of football in America, perhaps never moreso than when it shows actual footage of six- and seven-year-old players engaged in full-contact games. Because you're never too young for chronic brain trauma. Recommended.

Avatar (2009): written and directed by James Cameron; starring Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Augustine), and Stephen Lang (Colonel Quaritch): Dumb as a post and lovely as a 1970's Roger Dean album cover. James Cameron understands pacing and editing to achieve dramatic effect, and he's always utterly invested in the ideology of his own movies, no matter how much they lift from other sources (Avatar is essentially a New Age version of John Carter of Mars). When a villainous Colonel tells someone to "Shut your pie-hole!', you know you're in the hands of a great writer of dialogue. Still visually stunning a whole seven years after its release, and at least possessed of a pro-environmentalist message, no matter how simplistic. Recommended.

Sinister 2 (2015): written and created by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Ciaran Foy; starring James Ransone (The Deputy), Shannyn Sossamon (Courtney Collins), Robert Sloan (Dylan Collins), and Dartanian Sloan (Zach Collins): Any and all name actors having been eradicated in the first movie (or in between the first and second movie in the case of Vincent D'Onofrio's literally phoned-in performance in Sinister), Sinister 2 comes across as comfortably anonymous. 

That's a good thing for some horror movies, this one included. Bughuul the demon still remains regrettably visualized from the neck down, the scary, half-glimpsed face of the early scenes of Sinister still burdened with a blazer-and-pants combo that suggest the Sumerian boogeyman just got off his yacht. But the performances by the kids are pretty good, Shannyn Sossamon has a sweet desperation to her character, and James Ransone brings a goofy charm to the hero of this one. Yet another stupid 'stinger' ending ruins some of my good feelings towards this movie. Stop it, horror movies. Stop it right now. In a demonstration of 'less is more' in horror, the scariest scene in the movie involves a ham radio. Recommended.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014): 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): Despite some flaws, this is the best X-Men movie, though its emotional beats will resonate a lot more if one has watched X-Men, X-Men 2, and the horrible Brett-Ratner-helmed X-Men: Last Stand. Bryan Singer keeps the acting low-key, which helps when delivering lines of sci-fi portentousness. Highly recommended.