Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Xombi: The Ninth Stronghold, written by John Rozum, illustrated by Frazer Irving (2011): David Kim (Xombi) is made of immortal, self-repairing, self-replicating nanomachines thanks to some lab accident or another. He fights supernatural and superscientific weirdness with the aid of such zany characters as Nun of the Above, Nun the Less, and Catholic Girl.
And things are weird. A jailbreak from a Roman Catholic supernatural prison leads Xombi into an adventure involving giant floating fortresses that look like skulls, secret histories of the world, and some really bizarre monsters made of dead wasps and other things someone left lying around the house.
Rozum is a fun writer who keeps things weird, and Frazer Irving's mix of photo-shopped images and 'normal' art grows more accomplished and fascinating with ever appearance. Alas, this book ran into the DC line-wide reboot after only six issues, and doesn't currently appear on the new comic-book roster. Too bad, because I really liked this initial six-issue arc, with its weird conspiracies and occult shenanigans. Recommended.
Monday, August 22, 2011
Lucifer Volume 1: Devil in the Gateway, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross, Dean Ormiston and others (1999-2000): Lucifer resigned as ruler of Hell, got Morpheus to cut off his wings, and moved to Los Angeles to open an upscale piano bar called Lux in the pages of Neil Gaiman's Sandman in the early 1990's. Then Vertigo Comics decided to bring him back in 1999, with then up-and-coming writer Mike Carey at the helm.
Lucifer being Lucifer, the piano bar business seems to have become a bit boring. So when an angel comes calling with a mission from God, Lucifer accepts. Primal, prehistorical gods threaten to undermine Creation, so off Lucifer goes, at a price, to save the world.
After that, the Lightbringer heads off to Hamburg to get a divination. As the magical colony organism that is the world's first Tarot deck has escaped its prison, things get pretty hairy there, too.
As Lucifer is a manipulative, scheming creature whose saving grace is that he never lies, a lot of the weight of interest in these stories falls on the supporting characters, human and otherwise, whom we meet along the way. Lucifer's loyal servant Mazikeen returns from Sandman, while a host of one-off and recurring characters also appear. Lucifer, tricky as ever, has an audacious plan that will ultimately unfold over the book's seven-year run.
Carey already shows a deft hand for weirdness and drama amidst supernatural beings and humans, one that would only grow greater as his career progressed. The series gets off to a dandy start, reminiscent of Sandman at times but nonetheless possessed of its own nasty, metaphysically probing edge. Recommended.
Lucifer Volume 2: Children and Monsters, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross, Dean Ormiston and others (2000-2001): Lucifer puts his plan into action, and it's a doozy. But then he needs to visit one of the Japanese Hells, where he has no powers (being from a different religion as he is) but where he needs to recover his lost wings from the ruler of that realm.
And that's only the beginning.
Carey and main artists Gross and Ormiston takes us through both mystic and mundane realms, sometimes at the same time. Magical beings and humans are being drawn like moths to a flame to Lucifer's piano-bar Lux, wherein Lucifer's grand plan unfolds. Hosts of angels plan a massive attack on Lux, with Los Angeles itself caught in the crossfire. And for some reason, a little girl who can see dead people is a major part of Lucifer's plan.
This second volume of Lucifer's wacky adventures also gives us an ancient and horrible curse, the fate of the Sumer-Babylonian gods (who are themselves weirdly and creepily rendered), and the further unfolding of Lucifer's plan. The archangel Michael, the fallen angel Sandalphon, and a variety of other gods and monsters also make appearances, including a particularly nasty pair of proto-Djinns who really, really want to get out of the 'normal' universe they've been trapped in for millennia. Recommended.
Lucifer Volume 3: A Dalliance with the Damned, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross and others (2001-2002): The secret of the nominally Christian Hell imagined by Neil Gaiman in Sandman and expanded upon herein by Mike Carey is that it isn't really Hell as we normally understand it: damned souls can leave at any time if they can stop believing themselves to be damned. But that rarely happens.
The three major arcs of this volume follow Lucifer, a magical little girl and the denizens of one of Hell's provinces as various plans and counterplans proceed apace. Very bad things happen. A human released from torment manages to outwit his tormenters. Lucifer continues to be his grumpy, sardonic self. And his companion Mazikeen, bizarrely maimed in a successful attempt to save its life, begins to rise up the ranks of the Lilim, those demonic beings born of the union of Adam's mostly forgotten wife Lilith and the demons of Hell.
As always, there's a nice mix of zany but 'real' mythological material and Carey's occasionally post-modern musings on gods, angels, redemption, and damnation. The demons and devils are loathsome, but so too are some of the angels opposing Lucifer. Strange, heady stuff. Recommended.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
The Wolf Man, written by Curt Siodmak, directed by George Waggner, starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Larry Talbot), Claude Rains (Sir John Talbot), Bela Lugosi (Bela), Maria Ouspenskaya (Maleva), Evelyn Ankers (Gwen), and Ralph Bellamy (Colonel Montford) (1941): One of the high points of the Universal monster movies of the 1930's and 1940's. Trimmed to the bone (70 minutes of running time) and smartly suggestive rather than explicit, The Wolf Man follows Lawrence Talbot,an affable Americanized second son returning to the family estate somewhere in England after 18 years away because of the death of his brother at the paws of...a werewolf!
Shape-changing hilarity soon ensues as Talbot gets bitten by a Gypsy werewolf named Bela, played by Bela Lugosi. Soon, Talbot is turning into a werewolf and threatening new gal pal Gwen and pretty much anyone else who goes outside during a full moon. For the purposes of the movie, a full moon lasts three days. Werewolfery isn't super-precise.
The Wolf Man pretty much invented many of the werewolf tropes that writers and film-makers now treat as myth-based, including the bipedal, clothes-wearing version of the werewolf, which bears no resemblance to any man-wolf of the past. We also get the famous werewolf rhyme, and an iconic performance by Maria Ouspenskaya as an old Gypsy woman who knows a lot about werewolves.
Lon Chaney Jr. wasn't a great actor, and he was always overshadowed by the achievements of his 'Man of a 1000 Faces' father, Lon Chaney Sr.. He's a bulky, affable presence, though, and the film plays to that, making him a bewildered innocent doomed by chance. Well, sort of doomed. There were still a lot of sequels to be made. Claude Rains is nifty as always playing Larry Talbot's father, whose telescope gives us a comedy scene that's probably a lot funnier and creepier now than it was in 1941. Recommended.
My Soul to Take, written and directed by Wes Craven, starring Max Thieriot (Bug), John Magaro (Alex), Zena Grey (Penelope) and Emily Meade (Fang) (2010): Buried in this mostly-mess of a slasher movie are some interesting bits about the condor in Native American mythology and the idea of multiple souls being housed in one body. Unfortunately, neither of these concepts get developed satisfactorily by old warhorse Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream), as by-the-book teenager slashing occupies way, way too much screentime.
One of the oddly jarring things about this movie is that it confuses schizophrenia and multiple-personality disorder in its tale of a schizophrenic serial killer with multiple personalities, one of which is a serial killer. Frankly, it's sorta dumb. Seven teenagers born the night the serial killer -- blandly named the Ripper! -- died in the small town of Riverton are now 16. Apparently, that means they're of legal age to get slaughtered.
But is the serial killer dead? Is one of the teenagers possessed by the evil spirit of the serial killer's serial-killing personality? And why is there an entire subplot about the evils of high school that plays like a bush-league version of Heathers?
Yes, there are many mysteries here, including how a slasher film ended up with a jaunty cartoon for its end credits. The abrupt tonal shifts and ridiculous developments kept me interested, though not in a way that would make me say, 'This is a good movie.' Too many rote killing scenes and too many characters one doesn't care about. Not recommended.
Monday, August 15, 2011
The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the novel by James M. Cain, written by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, directed by Tay Garnett, starring John Garfield (Frank Chambers), Lana Turner (Cora Smith), Cecil Kellaway (Nick Smith), Hume Cronyn (Arthur Keats), and Leon Ames (DA Sackett) (1946): It took more than a decade for Hollywood to figure out how to adapt James M. Cain's scandalous, banned-in-Boston bestseller about two dumb people who are really, really bad at staging a murder, and even worse at getting away with it.
It's pretty much of a piece with Cain's other two major novels, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, in depicting how the quest for material comfort and success can drive people to do almost anything, and can poison almost any relationship.
Gone are the sadomasochistic elements in the adulterous relationship between drifter Frank Chambers and young trophy wife Cora Smith (Cora Papadakis in the novel -- the Greekness of Cora's husband has been excised along with the sexual kinkiness). And the ending goes for an upliting 'Crime Does Not Pay' message not entirely supported by the novel, wherein law enforcement can be as creepy and tricky as any criminal.
The Postman Always Rings Twice nonetheless represents one of the high points in the development of American film noir, showing that the American West Coast and its highways and byways can be as menacing as any city landscape. Lana Turner is beautiful and a bit flat as Cora, while Garfield is suitably dumb and lovestruck as her lover Frank. Cecil Kellaway plays Nick as vaguely Irish comic relief, which really neither suits the novel nor the tone of the movie, but there it is. Hume Cronyn does a nice, oily turn as a manipulative defense attorney. Remade far more explicitly and far less effectively with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Recommended.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Donovan's Brain, written by Hugh Brooke and Felix Feist, based on the novel of the same name by Curt Siodmak, directed by Felix Feist, starring Lew Ayres (Dr. Patrick Cory), Gene Evans (Frank) and Nancy Davis (Janice Cory) (1953): This movie demonstrates why one should never take a brain out of a dying man's body and keep it alive in what looks like a fish tank, a lesson as true today as it was in 1953.
Lew Ayres's Dr. Cory secretly removes a dying industrialist's brain from his body after a plane crash (this would be the eponymous Donovan) and uses it in his bodyless brain experiments. Unfortunately, Donovan was a strong-willed asshole. And apparently removing a brain from its body gives the brain mind-control powers. Cory finds himself being taken over by Donovan's brain, while his wife (Nancy Davis would later become Nancy Reagan, by the way) and alcoholic doctor-pal Frank find themselves repeatedly prevented from killing the ever-more-powerful, and ever-larger, evil brain.
One of the charming things about this movie is that much of the middle action involves financial shenanigans, as tax-evading Donovan uses Cory as a proxy to round up hidden monies and then punish Donovan's enemies. You'll thrill to scenes which show how inter-state banking worked in the early 1950's! The proposed method of stopping the brain is inspired, to say the least. An enjoyable, understated sci-fi B-movie with better acting than the norm for the time. Recommended.
Saturday, August 6, 2011
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984): Prolific Banks's first published novel is a doozy -- a first-person narrative with an obsessive-compulsive, sociopathic 16-year-old Scot as the narrator. Our narrator Frank lives with his dotty, obsessive-compulsive father on a small island connected by a landbridge to the nearby mainland. He doesn't go to school and, indeed, believes that he doesn't legally exist as his father has told him that no record of his birth was ever filed with the government.
Frank enjoys making explosives, killing animals, making fetishes out of the dead bodies of animals, building dams, getting drunk with a friendly dwarf and, oh, killing relatives -- three of them, to be exact, from when he was six to when he was about ten. He's a barrel of laughs, our Frank, though his somewhat demented consciousness can sometimes make a reader doubt the veracity of, well, everything in the novel -- the means of Frank's murders are so odd and so baroque and, in one case, so reliant on chance that one really does wonder just how reliable a narrator Frank really is.
Oh, and Frank's external genitalia were torn off in a violent childhood incident. Truly this was the feel-good novel of 1984.
Frank and his father await the return of Frank's institutionalized older brother, who went mad years ago and now, having escaped the institution, is moving inexorably towards home, leaving a trail of fires and dead, partially devoured dogs along the way. Frank consults the oracular rituals that he himself has invented (including the eponymous device, which we don't actually see in operation until very late in the novel), sets up defenses both psychic and real, and repeatedly tries to gain entrance to his father's locked office, in which he believes the answers to all the mysteries of his life reside.
Banks's troubled yet oddly sympathetic teenaged narrator evokes similar highly intelligent, ultra-violent narrators, perhaps most notably John Gardner's Grendel in Grendel and Anthony Burgess's Alex in A Clockwork Orange (though 'Frank' could also be an homage to the equally screwed-up, equally high-intelligence creation of Victor Frankenstein, the original first-person narrative of misanthropic creations and creators).
The violence and graphic horror are shocking, enough so that I ended up musing that this is the novel the kids of South Park thought they'd be getting when they were instead handed the "shocking and controversial" A Catcher in the Rye, which subsequently bored the kids so much that they concocted their own shocking novel, The Tale of Scrotty McBoogerballs. Highly recommended, but certainly not for the squeamish.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
Pulse, written by Wes Craven and Ray Wright, based on the Japanese film Kairo by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, drected by Jim Sonzero, starring Kristen Bell (Mattie) and Ian Somerhalder (Dexter) (2006): Horror movies involving emerging technologies can often be hilariously overwrought, especially when those emerging technologies aren't understood by the makers of the film. In Pulse, life-stealing thingies that ride the cell-phone and wifi network invade a college campus. Hilarity ensues.
The colossal dumbness of this movie is really quite invigorating. It starts as a horror movie, turns into a global apocalypse around the 45-minute mark, and ends with five minutes cribbed almost verbatim from the end of The Terminator. All that, and it's based on a Japanese horror film. Hoo ha! And as it turns out, this is all the result of a telecommunications project that tapped into hitherto "unknown areas" of the electromagnetic spectrum. Um, OK. And get this: the thingies are afraid of red duct tape.
Seriously. A particular type of red duct tape is a colour that blocks the thingie-signal. Did Red Green script-doctor this movie?
In a better, wackier movie (one probably starring Bruce Campbell), the efficacy of the red tape would cause our protagonists to wrap baseball bats, tennis rackets and golf clubs with duct tape so that they can do some serious supernatural ass-whupping. Unfortunately, the smartest characters in this movie, played by the eerily good-looking Kristen Bell and Ian Somerhalder, aren't that bright. Thankfully, the thingies have serious trouble walking through walls, so escape is always an option. No one in this film had heard of a cellphone jammer, though.
I'll leave you to figure out the crowning stupidity of the last five minutes. It won't take long. Earlier, though, there's a great sequence in which a thingie emerges from a non-working college-dorm clothes dryer. Did someone leave her cellphone in her pants? Does the clothes dryer get great cellphone reception on its own? And why is this movie called Pulse? Oh, for a roll of red duct tape. Really not recommended unless you need a good laugh.
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Teatro Grottesco, written by Thomas Ligotti (2006): Ligotti is an unusual American writer, a unique voice with echoes of Lovecraft, Borges, Kafka, Robert Aickman and Poe. He doesn't write novels, believing them unequal to the task of writing horror. And in terms of his horror -- metaphysical and unnerving, terrifying, and deeply weird -- he may be right. The longest story in this collection runs about 40 pages, and that's almost too much.
A Ligotti protagonist from a story not in this collection wanted to "stand among the ruins of reality." That's often where a Ligotti story begins, in a landscape subtly altered, or in a situation that makes no rational sense, a situation the characters often react to with just a bit too little surprise. People vanish. Towns die. The very notion of the self gets destroyed by a spiritual revelation brought on by acute gastrointestinal distress. Strange buildings loom over dead cities. Failed artists confront...what? The abyss? Factory workers build parts for mysterious machines. Ligotti's vision is apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic. Something has torn apart the illusions of the world, leaving deep unease everywhere.
Which isn't to say that the stories aren't funny at points. Ligotti deals as much with absurdity as he does terror (actually, absurdity and terror are often the same thing in these stories). For example, in one story a character recounts childhood visits to "gas station carnivals" at which no rides ever worked and only one performer ever appeared at the sideshow, and that sideshow performer usually the gas station attendant in a costume. In great detail, these visits are recounted, along with the character's reactions to them then and now. And these things, these gas station carnivals, are just the set-up for what comes next.
After awhile, one notes that Ligotti uses repeated phrases, phrases repeated by his characters throughout a work, as a musical ordering principle, or possibly an incantation. Late at night, this is the sort of horror fiction that can worry one because the fiction itself may seem to be acting against reality. Or for something beyond consensus reality.
That's a high order of horror, the sort of thing TED Klein used Arthur Machen's "The White People" for in Klein's novel The Ceremonies: as a fiction that had unintentionally tapped into fundamental principles. Woohoo! The forbidden books are always being written. The conspiracy against the human race is ongoing. Is Ligotti a great writer? Yes -- his stories demand concentration and deliberation, and they affect the way one sees the world. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Horrible Bosses, written by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, directed by Seth Gordon, starring Jason Bateman (Nick), P.J. Byrne (Kenny), Jason Sudeikis (Kurt), Kevin Spacey (Dave), Jennifer Aniston (Julia), Colin Farrell (Bobby) and Jamie Foxx (Dean 'MF' Jones) (2011): Enjoyable 'gray' comedy that spins off from Alfred Hitchcock's (herein-acknowledged) Strangers on a Train. Three friends with, well, horrible bosses decide to kill one another's bosses. But the friends are pretty inept, so problems ensue.
This must be a pretty good comedy because it makes Jennifer Aniston watchable, primarily by having her play a 'bad' character with pretty much the same bland lack of affect that Aniston brings to all acting projects. Somehow it works, though Spacey and Farrell -- as the other two horrible bosses -- are a lot funnier. Farrell, buried under make-up and prosthetics, is a true comic grotesque.
The movie makes light of the idea that a man -- even an unconscious one -- can be raped by a woman, a joke only a really, really black comedy would make if the genders were reversed. The trod-on employees, especially Jason Bateman's Nick, are played as nice nebbishes. The movie gets a surprising amount of comic mileage out of an OnStar-like car navigation-and-monitoring device. Where Horrible Bosses falls down is in its committment to nastiness -- I'd have liked things to go a lot blacker when instead they veer into the sitcommy at the end. Recommended.
Exorcist II: The Heretic, based on The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, written by William Goodhart, John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, starring Richard Burton (Father Lamont), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Louise Fletcher (Dr. Tuskin), Max Von Sydow (Father Merrin), Paul Henreid (The Cardinal), and James Earl Jones (Kokumu) (1977): Exorcist II is one of the most colossally botched sequels to a blockbuster ever made. William Peter Blatty, who wrote both the original novel and screenplay of The Exorcist, is nowhere to be found. Lucky him. Mysteriously, some sort of amnesia-bug causes everyone to forget about Father Karras -- the Jason Miller character who actually exorcised Regan in the original film -- and focus on Max Von Sydow's Father Merrin, whom the demon basically stressed to death in the first film (well, here we find out that the demon psychically crushed Merrin's heart, which is sort of overkill given that HE HAD A FUCKING HEART CONDITION HE WAS POPPING NITRO PILLS FOR THROUGHOUT THE EXORCISM!!!
The good thing about director John Boorman (Excalibur, Zardoz) is that when he's off, he can be spectacularly off in an entertaining way (see, well, Zardoz). There's a lot of boredom here, but there's also 10 minutes of Richard Burton's character flying around with a gigantic demon locust that keep buzzing the good people of North Africa. I mean seriously, Michael Bay would never come up with this shit. The plot involves Father Lamont investigating Father Merrin's death five years after the events of the first film. That seems pretty late-to-the-game to me, but apparently the Vatican bureaucracy has a lot of exorcisms to investigate. Lamont, though, suffers from a crisis of faith brought on by his own seemingly failed exorcism.
So Lamont goes to New York, meets Regan and her guardian (Regan's movie-actor mother is apparently off filming something, hopefully not The Exorcist II) and Regan's psychiatrist, Dr. Tuskin, who's invented a psychic dream machine that allows people to enter one another's dreams and memories. You'd think this would be headline news, but no one's heard of it outside her office. A bunch of semi-confusing flashbacks and visions ultimately reveal that the demon from the first movie is still around, and that, per: the original novel, that demon is the unfortunately named but 'real' Pazuzu, an Assyrian-Babylonian demon of the Southwest Wind.
Anyway, a bunch of stuff happens, a lot of it boring. James Earl Jones plays the time-tested Hollywood role of the Magical Negro. Locusts fly around and talk a lot. Well, one of them does, that being the loquacious Pazuzu. A house gets dismantled by demonic forces in truly spectacular fashion, given that this is pre-CGI and the filmmakers obviously had to destroy an actual house-sized set. Good triumphs over evil. Richard Burton looks like a great actor who had a lot of bills to pay. Not recommended.
Skyline, written by Joshua Cordes and Liam O'Donnell, directed by The Strause Brothers, starring Eric Balfour (Jarrod), Scottie Thompson (Elaine) and David Zayas (Oliver) (2010): I guess the directors of this film were originally visual effects guys, and the selling point of this movie was that it was made for the princely sum of $10 million despite having something on the order of 800 visual effects shots in it. Huzzah! Too bad about the writing.
Unlikeable couple Jarrod and Elaine visit friends in Los Angeles. The morning after a drunken party, aliens invade and start vacuuming people up into their garbage-pile-shaped ships. The aliens' primary abduct-humans machine is a hypnotic light that makes people develop black veins where there were no veins before just prior to their abduction. Various shenanigans ensue.
Did I mention that our unlikeable protagonists are in a high-rise apartment building so they can watch the invasion as it unfolds? Did I also mention that there's a hilarious anti-smoking scene at a point where only an idiot would be worried about somebody smoking? Or that nuking a large portion of Los Angeles doesn't result in clouds blocking out the sun?
Why are the aliens here? Well, based on what I can piece together from the movie, these aliens don't actually have their own brains. They steal them from other species. I'd love to know what ingenious alien genetic engineer thought that was a good idea. Even though the aliens we see only make 'gronking' sounds and various hisses and wheezes, they're apparently an advanced star-faring civilization. Either that or they stole a lot of spaceships and then got really lucky.
In any event, people do really stupid things and then either die or get vacuumed up. The aliens aren't much better, coming as they do from a civilization that's impervious to nuclear explosions but susceptible to fire, rocks, axes, car crashes and gunfire. One group of alien harvesters looks like the robot-squids from the Matrix movies; the other is essentially the StayPuft Marshmallow Man with a spider grafted to his face. To up the creative ante, the movie ends on a cliffhanger. Then you think the story's going to end in the series of stills played with the end credits. But it doesn't. That ends on a cliffhanger too. Yay! Maybe a Skyline 2 will come out! Recommended only for hilarity at the general ineptitude.