Saturday, December 28, 2013

Time Well Wasted

Admission: adapted by Karen Croner from the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz; directed by Paul Weitz; starring Tina Fey (Portia Nathan), Paul Rudd (John Pressman), Gloria Reuben (Corinne), Wallace Shawn (Clarence), Nat Wolff (Jeremiah), and Lily Tomlin (Susannah Nathan) (2013): So-so romantic comedy centered on the admissions process at Princeton. Yes, you read that right. The cast is strong and there are some funny lines and situations, but Tina Fey really needs to start producing her own film comedies: she`s much, much better than the movies she`s been in over the past few years. Lightly recommended.

The Colony: written by Jeff Renfroe, Svet Rouskov, Patrick Tarr, and Pascal Trotter; directed by Jeff Renfroe; starring Kevin Zegers (Sam), Laurence Fishburne (Briggs), Bill Paxton (Mason) and Charlotte Sullivan (Kai) (2013): Competent Canadian sci-fi horror flick sees Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton struggle manfully to bring heft to the proceedings before we find out that the Big Bad is a seriously underwhelming and stereotypical post-apocalyptic threat. It`s an OK time-waster, and you really have to watch the closing credits. For reasons unknown, the producers try to turn dull shots of the Colony`s grubby interior into some sort of cool dance video. Watch those wire-enclosed ceiling bulbs strobe, baby! Lightly recommended.

Identity Thief: written by Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten; directed by Seth Gordon; starring Jason Bateman (Sandy Patterson), Melissa McCarthy (Diana), and Jon Favreau (Harold Cornish) (2013): Rote attempt at Planes, Trains, and Automobiles road-trip wackiness undone by sloppy writing, a waste of good actors such as Morris Chestnut and Robert Patrick, and a sudden personality change for Melissa McCarthy`s eponymous character, who goes from dangerous psychopath to loveable schlub at about the one-hour mark. Some funny set-pieces, most of which rely heavily on slapstick, can`t save the movie. Not recommended.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Super-heroes in Limbo

Superman: The Phantom Zone: written by Steve Gerber; illustrated by Gene Colan, Tony DeZuniga, Dick Giordano, Rick Veitch, and Bob Smith (1982, 1986; Collected 2013): Steve Gerber was both the oddest mainstream comic-book writer of the 1970's and, with the benefit of hindsight, far and away the best and most interesting superhero writer of that decade. His work on Man-Thing and Howard the Duck for Marvel Comics remains legendary, and unlike a lot of decades-ago legends of the superhero-writing game, compulsively readable and rewarding to this day.

This volume collects a 1982 Superman miniseries and a 1986 follow-up story. It also marks, I think, Gerber's first work for DC Comics. In a perfect world, the miniseries might have led to Gerber getting a full-time gig writing the Man of Steel's adventures. In this world, this volume is pretty much Gerber's entire Superman output. It's still a gem.

The Phantom Zone, introduced during the 1950's as the planet Krypton's extra-dimensional jail for criminals, was originally a handy source of enemies for Superman because within it were held Kryptonian criminals who would have the same powers as Superman should they be released on Earth. Oh oh! Over time, though, the ramifications of the Phantom Zone became stranger and more disturbing.

For one, Krypton (and Superman's father, Jor-El, specifically, for he had invented the Phantom Zone projector) had allowed dozens of dangerous criminals to survive the death of Krypton. For another, the non-physical, telepathic state the Zone put prisoners into did not seem to encourage anything resembling rehabilitation. Actually, the criminals just seemed to get angrier and crazier over the years. For a third, the Zone actually allowed the criminals to telepathically influence people in the normal universe to, I don't know, let them out? What a prison system!

Gerber explores these problems and others in his Phantom Zone work, while coming up with an explanation for what the Phantom Zone really was that's completely bonkers and genuinely disturbing. And as he runs Superman through a gauntlet that becomes increasingly surreal and nightmarish, Gerber gives the Man of Steel some of his greatest comic-book moments.

The artists chosen for the miniseries and the follow-up augment the oddness of the proceedings. Gene Colan and Tony DeZuniga supply art that one would have found much more normal on Batman or Dr. Strange or Dracula, three characters whom Colan is best known for drawing, along with Daredevil. DeZuniga, who spent years on various Conan properties at Marvel and on Western anti-hero Jonah Hex at DC, inks the miniseries with satisfying heft and murkiness. The follow-up issue brings Rick Veitch, best known in the mainstream for his art and writing on Swamp Thing, into the fold. It may not be his best work, but it's still pretty swell. In both cases, Superman remains heroic despite being faced with horrors and weirdness more suited to a Master of the Mystic Arts.

Could Gerber have kept going at this level of weirdness and excitement on a regular Superman series? Well, we'll never know. But a man can dream. Highly recommended.

Harbinger: Perfect Day: written by Joshua Dysart; illustrated by Barry Kitson, Clayton Henry, Riley Rossmo, and others (2013): The new Valiant Comics universe is a dangerous place. So when super-psychic Peter Stanchek and his friends get a chance to rest and relax after their disastrous Las Vegas confrontation with the super-powered forces of both older super-psychic Harada's Harbinger Foundation and the anti-psychic soldiers of Project Rising Spirit , they take it.

And then stuff happens.

Writer Joshua Dysart and artists Barry Kitson and Clayton Henry continue to create great stories in what was, back in the early 1990's with the original Valiant, a universe that basically copied the X-Men. They've grounded the super-heroics by trying to establish a sense of verisimilitude. These psychics (called 'psiots' in the Valiant universe) possess basic human weaknesses. They can be killed. They can be distracted. But they can also cut loose in horrific ways.

Besides the sharp characterization of Stanchek and his friends, the book also makes its main antagonist, the world-conquering/world-saving Harada, an unusual comic-book villain insofar as he not only sees himself as hero and saviour, he may very well be humanity's best hope: his desire to save the world from itself is never written as anything other than genuine and heartfelt. But the means to his ends aren't so good for everyone involved, and the ends may ultimately not be either. He's a saviour who's likely to turn into Sauron by the end.

By any standard, this is a great and affecting superhero comic book, already one of the best quasi-realistic superhero books ever published. It manages scenes of spectacle that aren't empty of concern and horror, and it's remarkably generous to even its most minor and fleeting of characters. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

His Dark Materials

Psycho: adapted by Joseph Stefano from the novel by Robert Bloch; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), and Martin Balsam (Arboghast) (1960): Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece still shines undiminished, a sinister puzzle-box. Taken from an already strong source (Robert Bloch's novel of the same name), Psycho improved upon it by making hotel-owner and mother-aficianado Norman Bates thin and sympathetic.

It's the movie's generation of sympathy for Norman I'll deal with here. Anthony Perkins should have won some sort of acting Oscar for this performance. Jittery, occasionally creepy, put-upon, repressed: and a lot of other emotions, all of them pitch perfect.

Camerawork amplifies the greatness of the performance, again and again staging Norman Bates in an inferior position to other male characters. One great blink-and-miss-it moment shows Perkins flinching almost unnoticeably as Martin Balsam's private detective deliberately leans into Norman's envelope of private space. The camerawork runs parallel to similar set-ups involving Janet Leigh's Marion Crane, her space invaded by lecherous oil-men and looming, sun-glass-obscured cops. Crane and Bates are twins in many ways, light and dark.

Oh, and it's the first American movie to show the inside of the bowl while a toilet flushes. Really, how much more do you want? A nearly subliminal use of a skull superimposed on a major character's head? One of the most distinctive scores of all time? Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Last Revelation of Gla'aki (2013) by Ramsey Campbell

The Last Revelation of Gla'aki (2013) by Ramsey Campbell: Academic librarian Leonard Fairman travels to the small English coastal town of Gulshaw to collect the rarest set of books in the world -- a complete set of The Revelations of Gla'aki, a mystic narrative thought to have been lost. 

The curiously...puffy... townspeople are fairly cheery and helpful, but they will lead Fairman on something of a tour of the town in order to retrieve each volume from a different citizen.
Arkham House  released the precocious Campbell's first published volume, The Inhabitant of the Lake, in 1964, when he was 18. Nearly 50 years later, he returns to Gla'aki, one of the Lovecraftian entities introduced in that book and mentioned in many of his stories and novels over the years.

While Gulshaw is a Town With A Secret, one of the most venerable of horror tropes, it's the sort of weird town that happily welcomes the outsider. Welcomes him so much that everyone he meets seems to know his name and his mission. The food must be good in Gulshaw because everyone seems to have developed a weight problem. But everything Fairman eats has an odd sort of consistency. It's not often that mouthfeel comes into a horror story.

The horror here builds gradually -- like the attentions of the town itself, to quote a Stephen King title, it grows on you. And in you. There are echoes of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" here, but as noted above, the people of Gulshaw aren't inimical to visitors. Indeed, they're very friendly to everyone who visits. There's so much more to see in Gulshaw, you see. Or sea. Recommended.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

They Eat Babies, Don't They?

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Collected 2013) containing the following stories: Blackwood's Baby (2011); The Redfield Girls (2010); Hand of Glory (2012); The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven (2011); The Siphon (2011); Jaws of Saturn (2012); Vastation (2010); The Men from Porlock (2011); and More Dark (2012):

As his fictional cosmos becomes denser and more awful with each new story, Laird Barron's sense of humour has become more apparent. One of the jokes is in the collection's title. Look at the contents. "The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All" is mentioned in the collection's final, blackly satiric "More Dark", but it's a work by a thinly veiled parody of horror writer Thomas Ligotti. Hunh?

Barron certainly hasn't transmogrified into a laugh-riot, but nonetheless assays one semi-parodic roman a clef ("More Dark") and one warp-speed, semi-comic, ultra-cosmic cruise through the Cthulhu Mythos ("Vastation") in this new collection. Lurking somewhere in each story is at least the shadow of Barron's space-born, Earth-afflicting creation, the Children of Old Leech. As always, their sense of humour only amuses themselves.

He's still the reigning champion of stories about tough, competent men faced with overwhelming, horrific evil. "The Men from Porlock" is a modern classic about a hunting expedition gone tragically wrong; it bears comparison to that foundational giant in the 'Bad Camping Trip' sub-genre of horror, Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows."

I love this story. It's brutal and elegaic and startling. And its characters even manage to land a few punches on the snouts of those awful cosmic cancers, the Children of Old Leech, albeit at one remove. The day's coming when somebody's going to kill one of the Children of Old Leech in a Barron story, and that moment is going to be goddammed Christmas and New Year's all rolled into one.

Barron also continues to explore new voices and new approaches: all-female casts of protagonists in "The Redfield Girls" and "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven"; an extraordinarily unpleasant gangland stooge in "Jaws of Saturn"; a suicidal writer in "More Dark"; quite possibly the most disturbing vampires ever in "The Siphon." Along the way, we revisit old haunts, most prominently the demon-haunted forests of Washington state and the demon-haunted rooms of Olympia, Washington's Broadsword Hotel.

Well, really, the whole world is demon-haunted. But most of Barron's protagonists keep plugging along, heads down, trying to move forward against the blood torrent. There's a metaphysical lack of hope herein, but not complete hopelessness. Highly recommended.


The Croning by Laird Barron (2012): On second reading, Laird Barron's The Croning yields up more frights and more depth, along with a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of all of his fiction. What a frightful universe Barron conjures up, one in which the existential terror of his particular form of cosmic horror manifests itself in the simplest of human emotions and actions.

This terrific first novel touches upon almost everything Barron had written to this point, and on many things he hadn't written yet, but the novel doesn't require knowledge of those other works -- though knowing of The Black Guide or the events of "The Men of Porlock" certainly deepens one's understanding of the events related here.

There's tragedy here in the story of Don Miller, who in the present day lives in a rambling old house in small-town Washington state, is 80-something and still devoted to his curiously youthful wife, Michelle Mock, and their adult children, fraternal twins Holly and Kurt. But Miller has become almost paralyzed by fear of the dark, especially when Michelle is away on one of her curious, frequent anthropological expeditions. The very house Miller lives in is a source of recurring terrors, the cellar most of all. But they must be the nightmares of an aging man with the attendant mental-health problems of old age. Right?

Barron's concern with identity is a career-long one, and Miller represents a study in the limits of the continuity of human character. Don's memory is failing, possibly the result of incipient dementia or Alzheimer's. But it's been failing almost as long as Miller can remember. When he remembers. There are holes in his mind almost too many to count, and Don gets through the day by avoiding the most basic questions about his own past.

But memories sometimes flare up, in nightmares forgotten upon waking. And the absence of memories must also be dealt with or ignored. How, Don wonders at one point, can a person forget not only an entire language (Spanish, in this case), but that he ever knew that language at all?

Well, he's going to find out. And as we travel back and forth across the history of Don and the history of these strange, powerful monsters known collectively as the Children of Old Leech, we find out too. Barron's prose is brutal and beautiful. He links the cosmic and the personal and the visceral in fascinating and rewarding ways, in this tragedy of the losing and finding and losing of memory.

Besides the terror, there's sorrow for humanity here, as a whole and in its constituent parts. Don's a fascinating character, mentally wounded but pushing onwards towards knowledge that he knows at every step he probably doesn't want to possess. And the various manifestations of evil, human and otherwise, ring true. The humans who collaborate with the Children of Old Leech do so for power and money and immortality. The cost of these things is exceedingly high, but as in our world, people can do the most frightful things for the most basic of reasons. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Time Wasters and Time Abysses

Horror Express: written by Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Zimet; directed by Gene Martin; starring Christopher Lee (Saxton), Peter Cushing (Wells), and Telly Savalas (Captain Kazan) (1972): Highly enjoyable 1970's Italian horror film in which those two Hammer Studios horror greats, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, get to fight on the same side for once.
Lee plays a British archaeologist of the early 20th century who unearths the body of a strange hominid from a Chinese cave and then bundles it up and puts it on the Trans-Siberian Express so as to get it home to study. Cushing plays a rival scientist who's curious about what exactly is in the crate Lee has in baggage. Needless to say, bad things start happening.

Lee and Cushing are both excellent as reluctant science heroes, as is much of the international supporting cast. Telly Savalas (!!!) shows up near the end to chew all the available scenery as a power-hungry Cossack officer. There's some real tension and horror here, effective special effects and make-up, and a loopy scientific explanation for things that fits right in with some of the loopy pseudo-science of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One supporting character seems to be based on the infamous Rasputin. Recommended.

Parker: based on the character created by Donald Westlake and the novel Flashfire; written by John J. McLaughlin; starring Jason Statham (Parker), Jennifer Lopez (Leslie Rodgers), Michael Chiklis (Melander), and Nick Nolte (Hurley) (2013): Mediocre time-waster does no favours to Donald Westlake's super-thief Parker. The two heists are handled so perfunctorily here that all of the joys of a good heist movie are neglected, probably because the film-makers wanted Statham to kick ass, which is really his strength as an actor. His weakness as an actor is playing anyone other than kick-ass Jason Statham. There's not a moment here in which he seems believable as a master thief. A section in which Parker pretends to have a Texas drawl while wearing a giant cowboy hat seems like something out of SCTV's 3-D Midnight Cowboy.

The film-makers waste Michael Chiklis, Bobby Cannavale, Wendell Pierce, and Nick Nolte in supporting roles, while Jennifer Lopez is game but far too well-coiffed and well-ornamented to be plausible as a desperate real estate agent with severe cash-flow issues. Perhaps worst of all for a heist film, it drags. Not recommended.