Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Halloween Movies Part 2

Well, late with this one as well. As expected I never got to 31 horror movies in October – the count was 18 though if I hadn’t spent time watching other movies and TV probably could have made it. (And as it turned out Red State is marketed as a horror film but it isn’t, not really.) So onward:

The Horde (Yannick Dahan & Benjamin Rocher 2009) - So many zombie movies look pretty much the same and while this one is from the same template (group trapped in an enclosed space) it does most things right. For one thing it’s quite grim, almost excessively so, without the joking or in-references that fill (and dilute) other z-films. The set-up of a group of quasi-rogue cops forced to band with Nigerian & Eastern European gangsters is an unusual set-up and the film follows the logic of the story to the bleak (though expected) end.

Pontypool (Bruce McDonald 2008) - Another zombie movie but about as far from The Horde as possible. Pontypool could almost be a play since with one minor exception all the action takes place in one location and there are only a few characters. (Maybe horror films are one of the last bastions for the dramatic unities.) While The Horde is almost an action film at heart, Pontypool is an intellectual puzzle leaning towards artfilm. In fact the source of the zombie outbreak is utterly unique and so unpredictable and so completely appropriate to the nature of Pontypool as a film (and maybe even cinema itself) that it had me laughing out loud. But the whole thing is anchored by two burrowing performances by Stephen McHattie as an arrogant radio host trapped in a small town trying to make sense of the senseless and Lisa Houle as the exasperated producer wanting to keep the whole show going.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Hold 1971)- Another late Hammer film like Vampire Circus but unlike that one this is mostly plodding. If nothing else there’s no mummy in it – a preserved Egyptian priestess yes but she’s not mummified. The story moves along far too slowly and completely predictably with mostly in-it-for-the-paycheck actors (though Valerie Leon seems to have been hired for the impressive cleavage she displays).

I Married a Witch (Rene Clair 1942) – A light supernatural comedy from Clair’s American period most notable for Veronica Lake’s bubbly performance. Films like this and Topper haven’t received the attention of say the Universal horrors perhaps because they aren’t at heart horror films and quite likely because they’re also so spread out chronologically that it’s a tad tricky to make genre connections (though such clearly exist). And you can’t rule out that mostly male horror fans are likely to dismiss anything that’s to a large extent a romantic comedy. This one may be predictable but it’s fairly clever and the cast puts a lot into keeping the proceedings swift and the dialogue crisp. Sometimes that’s really all you need.

Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura 2008) - That title will tell you this isn’t any light supernatural comedy though I suppose it is more or less comic in approach. Which is probably just as well considering that it’s possibly the most violent or at least bloodiest film I’ve seen and at times one of the most imaginative. There’s some stuff here that is unique and if that’s a lot of effort for something of this nature well hey at least it keeps the filmmakers off the streets.

The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm 2010) - Yet another fake documentary, this time about an exorcist who’s realized it’s all a scam and decides to take one last job. As you could guess nothing turns out quite right though the way it doesn’t turn out quite right keeps the film from being dull with some plot twists and a few effective Blair Witch-styled spooky scenes. A couple of problems though. First is that nobody seems to have a cell phone which while I realize this was done to keep the story on track (can’t have them calling the police all the time can we?) it does seem odd. Especially when it would take only a very short bit of dialogue to explain that phones aren’t working, either because they’re so far out in the country or for more mysterious reasons. The other issue is the ending which I’m not going to reveal except to point out that since the film exorcist spends time at the start showing how he fakes demonic effects then at the end shouldn’t we also think there’s a strong possibility that what we’re seeing was also faked? The ending is presented so bluntly that I think we’re supposed to take it at face value but the film itself raised the question of falsifying appearances so it’s not unreasonable to take that approach. Still, if the description of The Last Exorcist sounds like your kinda movie then it almost certainly is.

Madhouse (Jim Clark 1974) - I’m not entirely sure how Vincent Price got to be such an icon. He always seems to be if not quite mocking his roles and the genre then at least to be unserious about it. This approach works to advantage in his Corman films and a few like Theatre of Blood but then you get things like Madhouse that isn’t comic but is certainly a bit too loose for its own good. Price playing a disgraced horror film icon (more or less like Dr Phibes) is self-reflexive and pairing him with Peter Cushing must have seemed like a great idea during pre-production. And certainly there are some unusual characters like the spider-loving wife or the greedy parents of a murder victim but overall the murder mystery aspect overwhelms any sense of suspense or even sometimes even plain old storytelling. Price fans will probably get more out of this than the rest of us.

Giant from the Unknown (Richard E. Cunha 1958) - I love these 50s b-movies that seem tossed together in a week. The location filming adds a bit of documentary feel (I suspect those old general stores and cabins were real and not sets) and the idea of a resurrected Spanish conquistador is unusual. B-Western vet Bob Steele appears as a suspicious sheriff.

Session 9 (Brad Anderson 2001) – David Caruso stars as an asbestos remover working on an abandoned psychiatric hospital. Just that one sentence tells you about everything you need to know. The attempt is towards spooky and psychological but really it just sort of wanders along with a bit of is-this-real and a tad of is-he-crazy. Ken Loach vet Peter Mullan does a good turn but there’s just not much to work with. Doesn’t help that this was shot in a form of digital that ends up blurring the image a bit too much (though I suppose if I liked the film this could be justified as adding to the ambiguity).

I Sell the Dead (Glenn McQuaid 2008) – An attempt at horror-comedy that doesn’t work either way. The basic idea of 18th century graverobbers who discover that reanimated corpses bring more money than plain ole nonanimated ones has some potential but there’s not a real story. Instead this is closer to a collection of short films, not smartly done enough to be called picaresque and not episodic enough to make me suspect it was a failed TV pilot. I’m not really sure about the story's date because the film is a bit unclear about that and about exactly where it happens (Scotland? England?) though there’s a good chance I was just snoozing when this was explained. I do wonder if the guillotine was ever used in the British isles – seems wrong.

Grace (Paul Solet 2009) – A pregnant woman whose husband died in a wreck must deal with medical complications, an intrusive mother-in-law and a baby that might be Something Other. There, I just saved you an hour and a half so use it wisely.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Brad Meltzer's Decoded

I really should have known better. When I heard that there was a show called Brad Meltzer’s Decoded and they were tackling legitimate historical mysteries I thought this would be worth watching. In case you aren’t aware of the show in it writer Meltzer oversees three investigators as they tackle such mysteries. They include a lawyer, an engineer and a journalist so right away you can see the problem – no historian. But since The History Channel has little to do with history any more this probably isn’t surprising but it is a big tipoff that Decoded isn’t particularly serious. The other tipoff looking back is that Meltzer was responsible for Identity Crisis, one of the worst comics stories in years being both incredibly stupid (the murderer was discovered by teeny tiny footprints left on the victim’s brain presented just as seriously as anything Ed Wood did) and blatantly offensive (rape as entertainment).

The first episode is about the missing cornerstone at the White House. Holy cow! The cornerstone is missing? Why haven’t we heard about this? Well the reason is simple – because it’s not missing. The cornerstone is there it’s just that nobody knows which stone it is. So yawn right but Meltzer and crew have to get a full episode out of this so they start fudging the “missing” to suggest that maybe it really is gone. And Meltzer even tries to claim that the physical cornerstone is somehow a cornerstone of democracy when in fact even the entire White House isn’t. You could move the president into a large condo and that wouldn’t change democracy.

So off the crew goes to figure out the cornerstone mystery. The biggest mystery is why anybody thought this would be an appropriate choice for the first episode. Now when I say the crew goes out into the field that’s because Meltzer is really just a figurehead. He lends his name, does a bit of narration, appears for one segment but is otherwise not really involved with the events. The show is structured as reality TV with each investigator giving talking-head interviews about whether they’re progressing faster than another investigator. Needless to say not much history here.

More in line with what The History Channel has become are the various kooks that are interviewed. One guy claims that the cornerstone was stolen, something for which there is not only no evidence but absolutely no reason to consider. Of course that doesn’t stop Meltzer from picking up on this. But that’s just the start. We get somebody claiming about how evil Masons are planning to take over the world and then even more bizarrely a man suggesting that there’s an alternate version of the Constitution hidden in the cornerstone which would destroy our country if found. Why would this guy even be aired? He completely invented this story and even shows that he has no idea what he’s talking about with the destruction claim – an alternate version of the Constitution would have absolutely no political effect.

Meltzer does get to indulge some Mason conspiracies and even puts a few on camera who try their best to be mysterious and hint that they know deep secrets. Meltzer even claims how Masons are the guardians of ancient secrets but if you’ve ever met a Mason or read anything about them you know they aren’t guarding diddly.

So let’s see, we have a pointless non-mysterious mystery (at the end of the show they point out that the cornerstone is there where it’s always been), some hack TV personalities (they auditioned instead of being chosen for any accomplishments), a sloppy writer who’s almost literally phoning it in and interviews with people who should have been left alone in their basements. Not much to decode here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

DCnU Weeks Three & Four

Over two months late so I almost left this post as yet another of the countless projects I started but never finished. But bits were already written so stray comments:

* The new DC makes so few changes or at least the big changes are almost in unimportant areas that all the Flashpoint stories will fade away faster than expected. They were already considered as Elseworlds books in all but name though at least Elseworlds books were expected to stand on their own - these seem like a temporary diversion. As pointless as, say, the House of M stories were at least they provided a rationale for the big change at the end. In this case we get merely a cosmic glitch (as best I understand it and honestly I haven't tried very hard).

* The Flash and Wonder Woman were better than I'd expected. I, Vampire got a lot of commentary but there's not much in the first issue. Batman has far too much padding - these are comics writers not philosophers. I've already started to forget most of the others though I'm sure they'll come back up when or if I get to the next issues. (And one thing from this vantage point is that following issues can make a difference - Stormwatch seemed misconceived in its first issue but the next two connect a real story and as a bonus includes a laugh-out-loud panel that casually explains a loose plot point.)

* There's been some praise for DC's genre mix but really that's hard to see since most are done if not like superhero books then as somehow connected. So a Western book gets moved back to an East Coast city (Gotham of course) and treated as more some kind of serial-killer procedural. The war books have superheroes flitting through and are more techno-thrill than any kind of war-is-hell story. And it's not like we were getting comedy or romance or even some kind of artsy book.

* Which of course now seems like the relaunch's biggest missed opportunity. Imagine if DC really had started an ongoing version of Bizarro or brought back Solo. Or even more plausibly brought in outside talent even if only for the launch. They already have an in with Stephen King - let him do Swamp Thing for a year. Or imagine Charles Stross or Jonathan Lethem or Quentin Tarantino just to pick writers who might actually do it. Heck why not even go after somebody like Joyce Carol Oates or Pynchon or John Banville.

* For books that are supposed to have a wider appeal there's sure an awful lot of extreme violence here. Green Lanterns sliced in half, a complete genocide, a room full of body parts, a man's face peeled off, an exploding baby. Did DC think the popularity of James Patterson or True Blood indicates a cultural shift in this direction? The problem isn't that the stories are violent but that they're unnecessarily so - we'd get the point even if the Lanterns had merely dropped down. And the body-part room doesn't convey any sense of the horrors of African politics but just comes across as almost comic in its excess. (The inherent lack of understanding in using superhero comics in relation to such real-world issues is a topic for another time.)

* And of course the sex stuff is already almost forgotten. The whole Catwoman thing was just a strange what-were-they-thinking moment. It's almost like instead of the real script somebody accidentally sent the artist a couple of pages of slash fiction and that's what we got. And while the writer's claim that Starfire's dialogue was meant as a kind of playful taunt is at least plausible we're still left wondering why none of the people who read the script or saw the drafted artwork realized that it didn't come off that way. It's stuff like this that sometimes makes me wish mainstream comics weren't written by comics fans.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vast Narratives

In the library catalog I ran across something called Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (edited by Pat Harrigan & Noah Wardrip-Fruin in 2009). Naturally this sounded like something worth exploring but you never can tell with these kinds of things. A check of the contents showed pieces on Dr. Who, Cerebus, RPGs, more Dr. Who, the Cthulhu mythos, superhero comics and yet more Dr. Who. Now certainly more my kinda thing (even though I had successfully resisted Dr. Who until a couple of years ago) but this being an academic library I had to wait a full year for whoever had it out to feel inclined to tote it back.

Unsurprisingly the book is something of a mixed bag. The contributors range from academics to genre novelists to computer programmers (in fact the library shelved this with the computer gaming books - again it being an academic library nearly all the books are theoretical instead of practical). This does generate a bit of the (hold on metaphor alert) illuminating friction that was clearly intended. Chris Sim's account of Cerebus is useful as a corrective to standard critical approaches, David Kalat's piece on Fantomas as substantial as most of his work is, a couple of Dr. Who novelists on the place of those books in the canon is indeed surprising (this sort of stuff is usually sidelined but they make a case that indeed there could be more here than the TV episodes), an account of the development of Black Lightning shows some of the multiplicity in mainstream comics.

But there's a lot of filler. Sean O'Sullivan's piece on Deadwood and third seasons is odd, at least partly because it's unclear how the show could be considered "vast" and in any case a mere third season would argue against that. And odd would be acceptable but not dull, unimaginative and using unnecessary newly coined terms. Robin Laws and Scott Glancy drone on about games in pieces that really needed an editorial hand. Respected TV academic Jason Mittell investigates The Wire but sounds more like an entertainment critic than somebody who supposedly thinks for a living - lots of superlatives and nothing to make me reconsider having given up on the whole show as too cliched after two discs. Michael Bonesteel writes about Henry Darger's In the Realms of the Unreal as a "literary masterwork in the rough" but anybody who's read excerpts of this extremely long work would surely doubt this. I'm a little unclear whether Bonesteel has read the entire thing or even most of it - Darger's book has never been published which is hardly surprising considering how monumentally tedious it seems to be. And a piece about Mann's Joseph and His Brothers apparently drifted in from another anthology.

What's unusual for a book at least partly from academics is how little theorizing there is. There's no real attempt to even define "vast narrative" though a sidebar in the introduction says they're doing more by example - fine to a degree but a bit more boundaries (or is that too contrary to vastness) would have prevented things like the Deadwood misstep. Which may be just as well - we hardly need more smug references to Bourdieu or Baudrillard (though Bahktin maybe). Third Person manages to skip what might be the most familiar vast narrative in our culture - soap operas. The geeky tone of the book is likely one reason, and also likely why there's so little mention of more conventional high culture.

For instance, easily considered as vast narratives:
Trollope's novels
Musil's The Man Without Qualities
Henry Williamson's A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight
the Trojan epics (even if most no longer exist)
the Mahabharata
Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films
Rivette's Out 1
modernist maxi-poems like Pound's Cantos, Olson's Maximus Poems, Zukofsky's A, etc
duration-breaking documentaries like the Up series, Shoah or Phantom India
Wagner's Ring cycle (though Berlioz's Les Troyens was so long that it was actually replaced by Tannhauser)
Shakespeare's history cycle (even if not intended as a group)
Ken Jacobs' Star Spangled to Death
even things like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or James Branch Cabell's Poictesme

And the SFF worlds of course abound in vast narratives though admittedly many are merely just very long. Perry Rhodan is little known in the US but the series is over 2600 (nope, not a typo) novels and novellas - the English translations are a mere fraction at about 120 books. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga is about twenty overlapping books. Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion cycle/structure/whatever is pretty much a unique case of vastness as it echoes, interrelates, skips among, shares pieces and whathaveyou among dozens of books. For even more fun many are long out of print and quite unlikely to be in your local library.