Saturday, May 22, 2010

Reality Invaded

Movies:


Trailer Park Boys: Countdown to Liquor Day
. Starring Robb Wells, John Paul Tremblay, Mike Smith, Pat Roach, John Dunsworth, Jonathan Torrens, and Alex Lifeson as Undercover Prostitute#1. Written by Mike Clattenburg, John Paul Tremblay, Mike Smith, Timm Hannebohm and Robb Wells. Directed by Mike Clattenburg. (2009): The Trailer Park Boys franchise has managed to balance lowbrow comedy and biting social satire in a way unique to Canadian television. Maybe all television. The satire all aims upwards: at the hypocrisy of institutions, the willingness of governments to profit from people's addictions to gambling, the glaring flaws in the education system, and a host of other social ills. The comedy gets many of its laughs from violently slapstick moments -- never has a TV series (and subsequent movies) gotten so much profitable comic mileage from characters discharging handguns, for instance.

In this second TPB movie, nothing much has changed. Ricky, Julian and Bubbles get out of jail at the beginning, having served their time for yet another failed criminal enterprise. Mr. Lahey and rotund, unshirted Randy now run a new trailer park, the old one having been boarded up and abandoned. The boys come up with various schemes. Mr. Lahey falls off the wagon. Julian carries a rum-and-coke with him everywhere. The usual criminal hijinks ensue. Disaster looms. Oh, and Ricky studies to get his Grade 12 diploma.

As it's a movie, there's more money for car chases and location work. If nothing else, TPB:CTLD presents the world with an unprecedented twist in car chases, one which I won't explain here because it's quite funny -- and completely in keeping with the spirit of the series. I'm not sure what someone who had never seen a TPB movie or TV episode would get out of this movie. . There's nothing here as funny as the TV escapades of Mountain Lion Steve French, or satirically complex as the episode, "If I Can't Smoke and Swear, I'm Fucked," but I'd still say Highly Recommended.


Sanjuro, starring Toshiro Mifune, directed by Akira Kurosawa (1962): Mifune's wandering, crabby, justice-restoring samurai returns from the classic Yojimbo, this time to prevent an evil Superintendent from taking over a town. Kurosawa stages this as more of a comedy than Yojimbo, which makes the sudden shifts into serious drama quite startling. Like most of the great heroes of Hollywood Westerns, the samurai is doomed to save societies which he can never feel comfortable within. Highly recommended, but only if you've already seen Yojimbo.


Books:


The Last Coin by James Blaylock (1988): Along with the great American fantasist Tim Powers and several others, Blaylock was a friend of Philip K. Dick's. When a group of writers are friends, one calls it an Affinity Group. If there's any influence of Dick on Blaylock, it's in the realms of plot structure and character. The plot veers again and again into unexpected territory; the heroes are normative, faintly ridiculous, but well-meaning.

In this novel, Blaylock presents the reader with a present-day historical fantasy based on equal parts Christian fantasy and eclectic speculation. The 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Christ are potent magical items which have never been collected all together since Judas attempted suicide after Christ's crucifixion. At that time, Iscariot discovered that he couldn't die: assembled, the coins conferred immortality and great mystical powers upon their owner, though that mystical power was evil and debilitating for most humans. Fully repentant of his sins, Iscariot dedicated his immortal life to keeping the coins -- apparently forged by Satan -- from ever being fully recollected. Animals -- including a giant sea creature and a giant pig -- are naturally disposed to help protect the world from the coins; various humans take on the job of storing one or more of the coins; a sinister magician named Pennyman seeks to reunite them so as to gain complete power over the Earth.

And that's really just the backstory. In 1980's California, a somewhat hapless fellow who runs a hotel for some very peculiar people tries to get ready for the grand opening of his restaurant. Around him and his friends (and his mysterious uncle), the whole plot wheels. This is really a delightful romp with a cast of eclectic characters and a supernatural premise that's a lot more interesting than, say, The DaVinci Code. Highly recommended.


The Penguin Book of Horror Stories, edited by J.A. Caddon (1984): Any time I run across a survey anthology with a 50-page historical introduction, I figure the publisher was hoping for textbook sales. Caddon's selection of stories bounces from interesting to wonky and back again throughout -- I'd say about a third of the stories fail the Horror Test, which is to say I can't imagine anyone actually being horrified by them.

However, there are good and unusual selections from high-end, non-genre writers that include Faulkner, Kafka, Zola and de Balzac. I'd actually have been more interested had the editor tried to create an entire horror anthology out of horror excursions by non-genre writers -- the more traditional genre examples often fall short, though there are nice (albeit overly familiar) stories here by William Hope Hodgson and M.R. James and a few others. Recommended.


Dead Man's Boots: A Felix Castor Novel by Mike Carey (2007): At some time in the recent past of Carey's Felix Castor novels, some supernatural cataclysm resulted in dead souls being released from Hell, and the dead on Earth often being able to stay on Earth in spiritual form indefinitely. One of the attendant effects of this cataclysm was to awake a buried ability in some humans to act as exorcists, capable of binding souls or even sending them back beyond the veil of death. Castor is one of these exorcists, narrating his adventures in the manner of decades of hardboiled detectives before him. Each exorcist has a unique method of dealing with souls. In Castor's case, the music he plays on a tin whistle (!) can summon, bind and/or exorcise spirits and other spiritual entities (there are demons running around the Earth as well).

Here, the apparent suicide of another exorcist helps lead Castor and his allies (primarily the reformed succubus Juliet) deeper and deeper into a mystery surrounding the apparent (and supposedly impossible) physical resurrection of an American serial killer in present-day London. Something strange enough to attract the attention of Hell is going on, and Castor soon finds himself the target of attacks both natural and supernatural. Carey does a lovely job of using the world-weary tone of most hardboiled detective narratives in a dark fantasy context, and the fantasy elements are consistent and 'rational' without too much exposition being used to explain the workings of this particular universe (and Castor isn't certain how or why certain things like exorcism work anyway). Highly recommended.


Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber (1940; rev. 1953): Conjure Wife is one of American fantasy Grandmaster Leiber's two or three best novel-length excursions into what I'd called 'hard fantasy-horror.' 'Hard' refers to the technical concern brought to bear on the 'laws' of magic, not to any prurient content. In this novel, a young American sociology professor is under the mistaken impression that his successes are solely the result of the hard work that he and his wife, Tansy, have put into his academic work over the past decade at staid Hempnell College.

They aren't.

Behind the scenes, the political wars of academia are fought by the wives of the faculty (this was written in 1940) through magic, an area all women are aware of but almost no men. When the protagonist finds his wife's store of magical items, he rationally assumes that his wife is suffering from a neurosis that must be addressed by getting rid of all the charms and wards she's been creating over the years to protect the two of them from magical academic intrigue. But when all the charms are gone, the professor soon discovers that witchcraft works.

Conjure Wife really is a model of suspense and 'rational' magic all the way through, along with a fair bit of horror. While the protagonist seems a bit dense at times, he is operating from the initial assumption that magic and the supernatural are imaginary, and that everything can be explained through empirical means. The portrait of academic life, while dated, still rings true in a lot of places. The book even nods to the old adage that the wars in academia are so nasty because the stakes are so low: and at Hempnell, the war gets very nasty very quickly. Highly recommended.


Comic:


Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol Volume 1: Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison, Richard Case, Scott Hanna, Carlos Garzon and Doug Braithwaite (1989): Scottish comics writer Grant Morrison's first foray into American comic-book superteams at DC in the late 1980's came on The Doom Patrol, one of DC's more marginal properties that had first appeared in the 1960's, been cancelled by the end of the decade due to low sales, and been revived twice after that. Morrison took over in the 19th issue of the second revival, and rapidly moved Doom Patrol into the realms of weird, adult-oriented superhero comics.

In their original configuration, the Doom Patrol were "the world's strangest heroes", fighting strange, quasi-scientific menaces throughout the 1960's. The initial line-up was brought together by wheelchair-bound super-genius Niles "The Chief" Caulder. Cliff "Robotman" Steele was the muscle of the group; Rita "Elastigirl" Farr could grow, shrink and stretch; and Larry "Negative Man" Trainor could release a bizarre "negative energy" duplicate from his body. They were easily the most misfit team in 1960's superhero comics -- compared to them, the original X-Men and Fantastic Four were exemplars of normalcy.

Morrison quickly ratcheted up the weirdness in what would ultimately by a nearly 4-year run on the title. The Chief became colder, more distant and more manipulative. Cliff Steele started to suffer grave psychiatric crises related to being a human brain stuck in a robot body. Rita Farr...well, she'd actually been dead since the late 1960's, and she didn't return. Larry Trainor and the energy being merged with Doctor Eleanor Poole to form a bizarre new hermaphroditic entity that called itself "Rebis", the "product of an alchemical marriage." Crazy Jane, a woman with 64 different super-powered multiple personalities, joins the group early in Morrison's run.

The villains also became weirder, though they'd always been weird (two of the Patrol's early nemeses were The Brain, a brain in a tank, and Monsieur Mallah, a hyper-intelligent, beret-and-bandolier-wearing gorilla). In Morrison's first 4-issue arc, reprinted herein, the Patrol face the Scissormen, shock troops of an invading, fictional reality created by a bunch of professors initially as a thought-experiment. Thus, Doom Patrol became the first superhero comic to have villains who were an homage to Jorge Luis Borges's short story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius." Later would come The Brotherhood of Dada, the Painting That Ate Paris, Hofmann's Bicycle, the SexMen, Flex Mentallo ("the man of muscle mystery!"), the Candlemaker, the Cult of the Unwritten Book, Danny the Street and a host of other weird and wonderful friends and enemies. Highly recommended.

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