May 31, 2010

Getting Graphic: "The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes" by Neil Gaiman

Title: The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes
Author: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, and Dave McKean (covers)
Published: DC Comics, graphic novel (1995), originally as magazine series (1988)
ISBN 1-56389-011-9 (Trade Paperback)
ISBN 1-56389-227-8 (Hardcover)

I think a bit timely to read this graphic novel, as I believe it's been re-released this year. And had I any idea of just how good a story there was inside its pages, I'd have read it a lot sooner.

I've professed my love for Neil Gaiman's novels on this blog before, and I even had a chance to read his foray into the Marvel universe with 1602 (you can read my review of that graphic novel here), but now I can see why people hyped him up so much back in the 80s and 90s for his work in the comic book realm. The Sandman is a character that seems tailor-made for Gaiman's way of storytelling, with an otherworldly atmosphere and fanciful approach.

Being ignorant of the Sandman mythos within the DC Vertigo universe, the grim and graphic nature of the violence and gore took me by surprise. Here I was expecting a little dark fantasy and wound up with that and something that crosses the border into horror--and adeptly so at that.

The story begins in England during the early 1900s when a dealer in the black arts, Roderick Burgess, comes into possession of a book called the Magdalene Grimoire. He then uses it to summon and capture Death incarnate. But something goes amiss and he and his Order of Ancient Mysteries wind up enslaving Dream, Death's brother (aka the Sandman). As a consolation for failing to snare Death, the conjurer steals the three most prized possessions of Dream--his pouch of sand, his helmut, and his ruby amulet--only to have them stolen by defectors from the Order.

Things only get worse for them when Dream escapes nearly a century later and sets out to recover that which was stolen from him.

The graphic novel contains the first eight books of the Sandman series, and each one has its own indelible style that really shows when they're all laid out in succession. And while that's due in part to Neil Gaiman's writing, it is shown to much greater effect by the artists, Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III. "The Sleep of the Just" covers Dream's imprisonment and escape with an art style that hearkens back to the old weird comic book tales with disproportionate cartoon-like characters. "Imperfect Hosts" gives more of the same visually, but ups the ante with a deeper delving into the fantasy elements as the Sandman returns home to recoup.

The other chapters--"Dream a Little Dream of Me", "A Hope in Hell", "Passenger", "24 Hours", "Sound and Fury", and "The Sound of Her Wings"--gradually show a much more familiar yet sinister style, due I guess to the story taking the Sandman into the present day world and beyond his bastion in the dreamscape. And the color palette seems to be saturated in 80s boldness with such a penchant for purple I expected Prince to make a cameo.

The villain at work goes by the name of Doctor Destiny. I'm unsure if this is a preexisting DC character, but I do know that John Constantine and the Scarecrow are (they make cameo appearances in the story). And the elements of horror, through escalating scenes of violence and gore, really turn the tale from a hero-hunting-for-lost-treasure kind of story to one of humanity-is-royally-screwed-if-this-madness-keeps-up.

While there were moments when the story felt a bit pretentious, others were utterly charming, and others that just dropped my jaw because I didn't expect to see them in a DC comic book. Any Gaiman fans, like me who are late to the party, ought to check this seroes out. I'll certainly be doing what I can to read the other Sandman novels in the future.


May 30, 2010

Rabid Rewind: Tron

Title: Tron (20th Anniversary Collector's Edition)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, Barnard Hughes
Director: Steven Lisberger
Released: Walt Disney Pictures (1983?)
Genre: Science-Fiction

I haven't seen this movie in what must be twenty-five years. It's maintained a certain level of cult status among sci-fi fans and gamers, and now there is a sequel about to hit theaters ... in 3-D no less. I caught the trailer for the new movie, Tron Legacy, and spied Jeff Bridges. I'm not sure if he's in the actual sequel, but it reminded me that I ought to check out the first movie to see if holds up over time. Lord knows I can look back at some of my childhood favorites with rose-colored glasses. Transformers, I'm looking in your direction.

Tron, I am sorry to say, is not a movie that holds up well over time. It was pretty to look at, especially after watching the making-of DVD extras, but the story and dialog were pretty awful. It's not all the way bad, and that's due to some tremendous CGI and special effects that still jump off the screen like lightening bugs, as well as Jeff Bridges' acting. He was pretty much pitch perfect through the whole movie as Flynn, and even Bruce Boxleitner--a name I haven't heard mentioned in years--did an admirable job as the anthropomorphic computer program and title character, Tron.

Imagine a super computer, Master Control, slowly reaching its virtual talons out and subjegating computers and programs alike. Programs it has no use for it banishes to a virtual game world, like a computer's version of the Roman Coliseum. Jeff Bridges' character is the slighted software engineer who was cheated of his game designs by the man at the top of the corporate ladder and human servant to Master Control. When the computer realizes he's a threat, he very conveniently zaps him with a laser--literally--and imprisons him in the game world. Flynn then joins forces with Tron to try and escape the virtual world and also destroy Master Control.

Again, story is pretty sad. It was the 80s though, and movies of the time seem to be light on strong storytelling from what I've seen replayed on television over the years. What matters is the action, and for a movie of its time, the effects are pretty amazing. By today's standards, they look like a bargain basement Saturday morning cartoon, but the look is so stylistic and neon-drenched I considered it all eye candy.

Tron was made during a time when Disney's live-action ventures were pretty pathetic--Herbie the Love Bug, anyone?--so the fact that they found a hit with this film is commendable. After seeing this movie, however, and also witnessing some of the atrocious attempts by others at drudging up 80s franchises and giving them a 21st century spit shine, I'm not eager to see Tron Legacy for anything more than what special effects they have conjured up.

May 29, 2010

Rabid Rewind: 9

Title: 9
Voice Actors: Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connolly, John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer
Director: Shane Acker
Screenplay: Pamela Pettler
Producers: Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov
Released: Alliance Films (2009)
Genre: Animated; Adventure

Shane Acker created a short film in university involving burlap rag dolls come to life in a post apocalyptic world. He ended up getting an Oscar nomination for his efforts. After the likes of Tim Burton, Timur Kenmambetov, and others took notice of his talent, Acker found himself tasked with turning that short film into a feature length motion picture. He and his team did a great job by the looks of it.

9 is esthetically grim in appearance, but the film is charming all the same. With a motley crew of tiny burlap robots rummaging through a wasteland left in the wake of a war between man and machines, the film tells the story of how one--in this case 9, voiced by Elijah Wood--leads the ramshackle remainders on a quest to save themselves and stop the mechanical monstrosities that are hunting them down.

A single frame of the movie gives a clear view of why Tim Burton hopped on board this project. The whole look and feel of the film is right up his alley, and if not for learning before hand that this was the dream child of Shane Acker, I'd have bet anything it had sprung from Burton's own mind. That blending of macabre with the lovable is executed very well in the film. It helped keep me engaged during the few moments when the story didn't.

While the characters, at face value, seem simple archetype characters, the shallowness is mostly thwarted by the voice talents of John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, and Jennifer Connolly. Elijah Wood and Crispin Glover did well enough too, but with them I felt like they were doing cartoon voices of characters they'd already played in the past. Heck, I imagine Glover is the go-to guy in Hollywood when they want a weird guy to portray an even weirder guy.

To see a trailer for the movie, you might think it's a bit too dark and sinister for your little ones to watch. I'd say it'd be fine if you were watching it with them. It's only on the surface level that it might appear frightening, and I think the tykes will appreciate an animated movie that kind of stands out from the others. There's enough humor in between the melancholy and suspense to break the tension and the film as a whole proved to be a very fun thrill ride.

9 is probably the best animated movie I've seen since Wall-E, but I haven't seen a great many since then and I wonder if I'd be as into this film a second time around. Time will tell, I suppose.

May 28, 2010

My Five: Favorite TV Shows this Season

Thank television for helping turn me towards books again a decade ago. All that horrible reality television, sickeningly pat prime-time dramas, and god-awful degradation of sitcoms killed what used to be an enduring love for the idiot box. Oh, it still has its hooks in me, but less so. And if I had HBO and some of those other fancy-pants cable channels, this list of shows would likely look a lot different. But beggars can't be choosers, and I managed to find a few shows I could watch faithfully and not feel like I should hang my head in shame ... much.

So here are my five favorite TV shows from this past season:

#5: Smallville - This show is my guilty pleasure. It jumped the shark a few seasons ago, right around the time Clark Kent's dad died. Since then the show has managed to throw buckets of chum in the sea, attract a whole swarm of sharks, and systematically water ski over each and every one of them. And yet I cannot turn away. It's like the world's longest sustaining car pileup. No sooner does one minivan full of girl scouts slam into the pile of wrecked humanity and metal, then an SUV full of hungover beauty pageant runners-up careens right in behind it. And I think Zod wound up being the most ineffectual supervillain to appear on the show yet. It was like the writers forgot that the climactic showdown had to include a villain who wasn't a sniveling eunuch. Oh sure, Clark Kent finally got his Superman costume, courtesy of Mama "I'm the Red Queen--I know, it doesn't make sense to me either!" Kent, but feigned a cliffhanger death scene to finish the season. Great. Now the entire next season will probably involve a long-winded story arc of Clark's new nemesis: His tailor.

#4: The Cleveland Show - Honestly, you could just place any cartoon produced by Seth McFarlane here. It doesn't mater which one, I enjoy them all. "The Cleveland Show" is new though, so I give it a tip of the hat. When I heard the character was getting its own spin-off, I figured it was doomed to a six-show run before Fox pulled it, as it's done to so many promising sitcom over the past decade. It went a full season though, and I think among the three shows (this, "Family Guy," and "American Dad") it had the highest batting average for funny. The funniest episode may have been when Cleveland called child services on his hillbilly friend, then had to help him get his son back from the affable yet well-armed foster family. Good times.

#3: Lost - I don't think I can remember a TV show, a movie, or a book that has been so infuriatingly convoluted as "Lost." My sister got me started on this show at the end of the second season. I kind of dug it, so watched the recap episodes to get a feel for what I'd missed up until then. But when I got hooked on it, my sister quit because of the increasing subplots, loose strings, and vague allusions to things that had happened or would happen. This final season was refreshingly boiled down to its core elements, as the two previous seasons were like Rube Goldberg contraptions--but with less of a payoff. I have some peeves about how the whole thing concluded, but I can let that go and remember the show as a rare occasion when a TV drama really kept me coming back for more. As for the ending, I defer to Marge Simpson's wisdom: It's an ending, and that's enough.

#2: Fringe - I never really watched "The X-Files" that much, mainly because the times I did the shows were about the overarching U.F.O. conspiracy storyline, and I didn't have the patience to get caught up. But with "Fringe," I got in on the ground floor and have seen just about every episode. A good thing too, because the show has gone right out of "X-Files" territory into "Twilight Zone" country, and at its current trajectory could soar right into some psychedelic acid trip from the further reaches of Charles Manson's daydreams. Or maybe it'll just collapse under its own weight. The alternate dimension storyline is engrossing, but at this point I don't see them drawing in many new viewers. Still, it's a great cast with some exciting action and sci-fi goodness. I'm hooked.

#1: Supernatural - I'm starting to wonder if I should chalk this show up as a guilty pleasure too. Why? Well, I found out this year that there is not only a Supernatural magazine designed just for all the slobbering fangirls who fantasize about those two sacks of man candy, Sam and Dean Winchester. But beyond that, I also found out there is erotic fan fiction dedicated to the incestuous exploits of those two characters, which may be even creepier than the fact that there is Kirk & Spock erotica fan fiction out there somewhere.

Getting back to the actual show, this past season was a protracted experience as it was all a slow burn towards the impending duel between Lucifer, destined to possess Sam, and the archangel Michael, destined to possess Dean. After being tricked into unleashing the Devil upon Earth at the end of last season, this season created a lot of foreboding and the most tension and conflict between the Winchester brothers yet. Plus, there were some interesting explorations with the supporting characters too--Castiel's antics were especially entertaining at times. The season finale was a bit of a dog's breakfast though, as the big showdown wasn't that big and wasn't that showdowny.

Despite the disappointing ending to the season, the season as a whole was fun and action-packed. The show has always been able to keep that balance between suspense and self-deprecation. And while I have some doubts as to how great the next, and likely final, season of the show will be, I am going to stay on the bandwagon.

On My Radar: The American Remake of "Let the Right One In"

I haven't seen the original Swedish film adaptation to Let the Right One In, and it's not likely that I will in the near future, but there is a consolation of a sort hitting theaters this fall: an American remake of the acclaimed vampire movie, retitled Let Me In.

I can't help but be skeptical about the movie sight unseen, however, since I tend to hold a cynical attitude towards movies that I feel are unnecessary remakes. The Swedish film is only two years old, I think, and it did manage to garner at least a niche audience on this side of the Atlantic where the other 99% of movies from Europe go ignored by American/Canadian audiences. Unlike a Japanese horror film that gets zero attention, I believe there was a built in audience for the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In, because of the novel's English translation (Side note: If you haven't already, you can read my review of the book here).

Regardless of an audience demand for a remake, we're getting one, and the director Matt Reeves is on the defensive. I think he'll successfully diffuse whatever impotent animosity there is by horror fans and bloggers about his Americanization of a heralded film. Between now and the fall, he and the studio Overture Films will have plenty of time to quell critics--at least until it hits theaters, then all bets are off.

I'm not overly familiar with Matt Reeves' track record in Hollywood. I do know that I disliked Cloverfield considerably, which he directed, and was never a fan of "Felicity" (he co-created it with J.J. Abrams). But I should be able to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, as the story in Let the Right One In is a different beast altogether from the kind that Cloverfield was. Plus, I think the casting choices could turn me around, as Chloe Moretz (from Kick-Ass) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (from The Road) strike me as strong, apt casting choices.

Bah, time will tell. My humming and hawing is merely a public display of imploring and hope that the movie does justice to the book. And that's the key for me. I really liked the book and I worry just how much Hollywood's influence will pollute the adaptation. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

May 27, 2010

Getting Graphic: "Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (Vol. 1)" by Bryan Lee O' Malley

Title: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life Vol. 1
Author/Illustrator: Bryan Lee O' Malley
Published: Oni Press (2004)
ISBN 1-932664-08-4

I guess I can thank Hollywood for peaking my interest in graphic novels, because ever since they stopped pretending they had any ideas of their own and started turning every comic book under the sun into a movie, I've been interested in seeing what is so great about all this source material. After I saw the trailer for Scott Pilgrim, starring Michael Cera, I was dazzled and decided I had to read the book(s).

The premise sounds easy enough, as Scott Pilgrim falls for a girl and then discovers he's going to have to fight--make that defeat--her seven evil ex-boyfriends in order to do so. Ah, to be young and in love ... and skilled with wicked fighting techniques.

The book starts off very unassuming and off-beat. Scott's a poor Torontonian (that's a person who lives in Toronto, Ontario, in case you aren't into Geography) schlub mooching off his roommate, Wallace Wells, while he tries to meander his way through life. He's in a fledgling rock band and is dating a high schooler, Knives Chau. It's all great ammunition for his friends and little sister, Stacey. Then he meets the woman of his dreams. Literally.

After reading only the first volume of this series, I'm already a fan. I have three reasons to love this book: 1) It's a Canadian setting with characters that have that Canuck vibe without leaping off the page adorned in maple leafs and hockey skates; 2) the irreverent style and low-key humor make a perfect match to give Scott Pilgrim and company an instantly likable personae; 3) the illustrations have a manga quality that doesn't hit me over the head with how "awesome-o" it is--it's just a fun, cartoonish reflection of real life.

Oh, and the names of the characters are a treat all on their own. As soon as Knives Chau is introduced, I liked her, but when she went ape-crazy fangirl for Scott's garage band, I loved her. Honestly, the whole cast of characters is great and each strike their own chord despite the art style making them all look so damned similar--like Peanuts cartoons, but with body piercings and hipster t-shirts.

For the first three-quarters of the book, I was content with the rather contemporary plot of Scott trying to avoid confrontation with Knives, while at the same time pursuing a relationship with his dream girl, Ramona Flowers. Then, when her first ex-boyfriend enters the stage, the story goes right off into left field. Had I not been expecting the arcade-like climax, I might have been put off by its divergence from the rest of the book. But I knew what I was getting into and actually thought it was a slow burn to the ending scenes.

I'd say that if you go out to theaters and catch Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World and enjoy it, you might want to consider checking out the graphic novels too. I'm already committed to the next couple of volumes.

May 26, 2010

Wish List Wednesday #48: A Dark Matter

If there's a new book on the shelves that has the strongest potential to knock Dan Simmons' Black Hills off the top of my list for favorite read of 2010, Peter Straub may be the author who penned it.

A Dark Matter sounds like one of those psychological thriller/horror novels steeped in the kind of tense and foreboding atmosphere that's right up my alley. And if it's half as good as Shadowland, I'll enjoy it thoroughly.

The story deals with the former members of a 60s cult, as they navigate through their present day lives and attempt to piece together what really happened one fateful night at the hands of the then-cult leader. That's all the incentive I need to put this book on my wish list. That, and the litany of positive reviews I've read for it.

You can check out one such review at Dead in the South. Does this sound like the kind of novel you'd be interested in reading too?

May 25, 2010

Killer Kitsch: Living Dead Dolls

Imagine waking up Christmas morning, running down to see what Santa gave you, and you see one of these sinister lookin' things sitting under the tree. Living Dead Dolls are just about the creepiest looking dolls I've seen in years. About the only dolls I can remember that beat it were my sister's--those derelict ones she had that had the eyes that closed when you laid them down, but they were so old only one eye worked, so they'd give you a lunatic wink. Bah, creepy.

The ones pictured above are some of the company's more recent license acquisitions. Each iteration is derived from the franchise reboots. That Michael Myers one on the right takes the cake, as far as I'm concerned. Makes Chucky look like a G.D. Care Bear.

And if you think those are creepy, I dare you to visit their website and check out some of their other creations. They range from morbidly cute like the Beetlejuice doll to an unsettling Twisted Love series with two dolls paired with a broken heart charm necklace.

It looks like the company is an offshoot of Mezco Toys, which has a whole list of licensed doll lines, including Hellboy, the Goonies, South Park--and I kid you not--Miami Vice. There's something I'd like to know: what kind of person would be demented enough to want a Miami Vice doll?

It takes all kinds.

Oh, and if you were wondering if Living Dead Dolls have a Jason Vorhees doll based on last year's movie reboot, they got you covered.

May 24, 2010

Rabid Reads: "Let Me In" (Let the Right One In) by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Title: Let Me In; originally titled Let the Right One In
Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist; translated to English by Ebba Segerberg
Published: Thomas Dunne Books (2007); an imprint of St. Martin's Press; originally published in Sweden (2004)
Pages: 472
Genre: Horror
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-35528-9
ISBN-10: 0-312-35528-9

It's fair to assume you have not read a vampire novel quite like this one before. And if you have, let me know.

Actually, it might be a little misleading to call this strictly a vampire novel because this isn't a vampire's story, but a story of a young tormented boy who meets and ultimately befriends a vampire--a young girl named Eli.

Set in early 80s Sweden, nestled in a dreary apartment complex in Blackeberg, we're introduced to Oskar. The kid has a rough existence. His parents are divorced, he has no friends to speak of, and his hobby is shoplifting. And he's the constant recipient of bullying from some real bastard classmates at school. On top of that, a killer has emerged in the city, dubbed the Ritual Killer. The only bright spot in Oskar's life comes from meeting a strange young girl who lives in the apartment across from him. Eli only comes out at night and appears to be living in poverty with a creepy man named Håkan.

The novel follows Oskar's in the fall of 1981. While the adults are either worrying about the Ritual Killer or a Russian nuclear sub off the coast of Sweden, Oskar becomes fascinated by Eli. She's uninterested in him at first, but a friendship of sorts blossoms between the two. The tell-tale signs of her true nature aren't stamped out in bold, but are apparent to any reader, while Oskar only finds her as puzzling as the Rubik's Cube he shares with her--a toy she is ignorant of but very adept at.

Beyond Oskar's story, Lindqvist delves into the lives of supporting characters. There's Håkan, the man with whom Eli lives. He's the Ritual Killer the authorities are looking for, but the killings aren't ritual but procurement for Eli's thirst. While questions loom about Eli's true nature and the danger she may pose to Oskar, there is no doubt of how depraved and dangerous Håkan is to everyone around him ... especially the young.

There's also Tommy, a teen with a penchant for sniffing glue and acts of vandalism. His mother's relationship with a police officer only further strains Tommy's emotions further, especially as the police go on the hunt for the Ritual Killer and Tommy seems to have trouble deciding who to root for.

If that's not enough, we're given a glimpse into the lives of Lacke and Virginia. Two middle-aged drunks engaged in a bleak love affair wind up having their lives turned upside-down following the disappearance of a friend, only to further suffer when one of them falls victim to a bloody attack.

I expected a rather intimate story of a boy and a girl with this novel. And while I got that, I got a lot more with the diverging storylines dedicated to the other characters. There were moments when those subplots distracted me from Oskar's tale, which I was engrossed in the whole way through, but as the story reaches its end I appreciated how they each offered their own texture to the main story. I still feel a couple of moments were disjointed from the main story, but it's forgivable since I really got sucked into the novel from cover to cover.

Oddly enough, Eli's character is explored very little by comparison. She becomes a fully formed character by the end, but when so much time is spent on secondary characters like Tommy and Lacke, I have to wonder if a few more scenes from Eli's perspective could have enriched the novel even more. Still, realizing who she is through the eyes of Oskar and Håkan is satisfactory.

I think any fan of horror or vampire literature would be doing themselves a favor by reading this novel. Or watch the film adaptation, which I hope to do someday. I'm not sure what to expect from the impending American remake, but the Swedish film has been given nothing but praise. That praise is well founded given the source material was such a great read. It was depressing at times, and downright uncomfortable during specific scenes--Håkan's metamorphasis from one kind of killer into another is especially disturbing--but the book is too good to ignore.

You can find other reviews of this novel at: Matchstick; TV and Book Addict

May 23, 2010

Rabid Rewind: Angels & Demons

Title: Angels and Demons
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer
Director: Ron Howard
Written by: David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman; adapted from the novel by Dan Brown
Released: Columbia Pictures (2009)
Genre: Thriller

I've never read a Dan Brown novel and I don't have plans to start. I watched The Da Vinci Code a couple years ago and thought it was okay--seriously over-hyped, but okay. I guess Dan Brown and Ron Howard can thank the Catholic League and other Christian protesters for turning the Robert Langdon adventures into must-read books and must-see films. Otherwise, it'd be treated as pretty average stuff.

And I think average is an apt description once you strip away the veneer of controversy. Angels & Demons, in particular, is your basic run-and-gun style of movie. There's a bomb hidden somewhere in the Vatican and it's up to Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to find it before it's too late. Throw in four kidnapped cardinals and you've got yourself an action movie.

While Da Vinci Code got its notoriety on the whole Jesus-made-a-baby thing, thus whipping up accusations of heresy, Angels & Demons steers pretty clear of that. Oh, there's a little bit of creative license taken with the inner workings of the Vatican, but it's hardly enough to constitute boycotts and the like. Langdon spends far too much time explaining the plot while either running or riding shotgun in a car chase to bother blaspheming against the Catholic Church.

It's kind of funny to read the blurb on the back of the DVD case: "The twist at the end will blow your mind!" - Larry King.

Bear in mind that it's Larry King--seedless grapes probably earned equivalent praise from that jabbering geriatric. The so-called twist was foreshadowed quite plainly, as near as I could tell. I won't be joining Mensa anytime soon, but I called the ending with about a half-hour to spare. I'm sure many others figured it out sooner than me.

Okay, it's Ron Howard directing, so you expect a lot of attention paid towards the aesthetics and design. Done. It's a gorgeous movie and it's easy to get swept up in the action. And it's Tom Hanks in the lead role, so at least you're not having to endure the plainly bad acting of some assembly-line leading man. There's shouting and gunfire and fast cars and explosions and plenty of those "Mother of God!" moments--and a couple of death scenes that would get a tip of the hat from Jigsaw.

But in the grand scheme of things, Angels & Demons didn't sway this cynic. It's a good movie, but it's not a great one.

May 22, 2010

Rabid Rewind: Moon

Title: Moon
Starring: Sam Rockwell and Dominique McElligott; voice acting by Kevin Spacey
Director: Duncan Jones
Written by: Nathan Parker; story by Duncan Jones
Released: Sony Pictures Classics (2009)
Genre: Science-Fiction

How in the hell did Sam Rockwell's performance in this movie get passed over for an Oscar nomination? That's the first question on my mind after watching Moon. For crying out loud, he's on screen--by himself or next to himself--for the entire run of the film. Aside from the voice acting of Kevin Spacey, as the moon base's artificial intelligence, Gerty, this movie is carried entirely by a single actor.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the sole custodian of a mining moon base for Lunar Industries, who is coming to the end of a three-year contract and looking forward greatly to returning to Earth so he can reconnect with his wife and young daughter. Gerty isn't much of a companion, and the live feed is disabled and still scheduled for repair, so Sam has to get by with recorded messages. The lack of live interaction with other people for so long has taken its toll--his physical and mental health have deteriorated more than a little bit.

The real weirdness comes after Sam gets into an accident while inspecting one of the Helium 3 (the resource now providing most of Earth's energy needs) collectors outside. It turns out that he might not be the only one on the moon base after all, and Gerty has been keeping more than one crucial secret from Sam the entire time he's been working for Lunar Industries. And the fact that the other "person" he discovers looks exactly like him just throws in all kinds of questions.

I really want to avoid spoiling this movie for people who haven't seen it. The integral parts of the movie's mystery come into the light surprisingly early and add a very trippy dynamic to the unfolding story. Concepts of identity, individuality, and reality are touched upon with scenes that walk a tightrope between comical and tragic. There are moments, particularly in the last half of the movie, where you might feel it drag. You think the big reveal has been revealed already, so why should the director tease things out any longer. Well, there's a pay-off, and while it's not an explosive one, it's one I found very satisfying.

It's pretty neat that this whole movie came about because Sam Rockwell told Duncan Jones he'd be interested in doing a sci-fi movie. I find it even neater that there is a possibility of seeing a sequel to this film down the line. I'll keep my fingers crossed on that one.

The aesthetics really are gorgeous with regards to set design and costumes. The salutes to sci-fi films of yore are apparent and appreciated. The tips of the hat to Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey are especially nice. The duality of Sam Rockwell's performances may feel a little stilted in a way, but he sells it all so well that you hardly notice it.

And kudos to the people who made some fantastic scale models of the space vehicles. It's amazing to think a finished product like this cost little more than five million dollars to make. How much did it cost to make Solaris? 'Cause this movie has that one beat.

May 21, 2010

Book Vs. Movie: The Golden Compass

After seeing J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter receive the silver screen treatment in such admirable fashion, I had high hopes for Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy when word broke that The Golden Compass would be adapted into a motion picture. Goodness knows the trailer only amplified my expectations for the movie.

Pullman's story of a young girl's turbulent steps towards adulthood while surrounded by spellbinding events is a modern classic for very good reason. Forget all of the nonsense from uppity bible-thumpers who decry it as nothing more than a surreptitious attempt to propagandize children against Catholicism. Ignorance like that fails to take into account the intelligence and discerning nature of kids with their reading habits. Pullman is about as likely to turn a child into a godless heathen as Rowling is of recruiting a child into a witch's coven--or Tolkein convincing youths a better life is to be had as a garden gnome.

Lyra Silvertongue, as she's dubbed by Iorek Byrneson--the most bad-ass polar bear in literary history--starts out as a tomboyish scamp under the guardianship of Oxford, and matures as her best friend is abducted and she learns her uncle has discovered a mysterious particle known as Dust that is coveted by the Majesterium. Her adventure in the book is engrossing and mysterious, featuring characters and creatures that leap off the page. The Golden Compass seemed picture perfect as movie material.

The movie itself appeared gorgeous. And even what trouble there may have been with a suspension of disbelief towards either the CGI or the storyline, many scenes felt like watching a living portrait. As for the performances by the likes of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and others, they were the fatal flaw to the film. Kidman has been a hit-or-miss actor in my opinion and her role as Ms. Coulter was a swing and a miss. Where the character needed to display some distance and rigidity towards Lyra in their interactions, any display of emotion came off as a prerecorded message with about as much vitality as a glossy magazine cover. As for Daniel Craig, his role was minimal which was its own relief as he appeared as out of place as Megan Fox in a Victorian romance.

The real contrast between book and movie comes in the form of the ending. The book has one, the movie not so much. While Pullman's novel offered a cliffhanger in its own right, it also offered a clear piece of closure following Lyra rescue of her best friend. In the movie, the rescue occurs, but felt as cut off at the knees as the ending to Star Wars, with the villain spiraling off into space while the heroes celebrate a momentary victory.

Winner: The Book. Unfortunately, The Golden Compass was a sad and underwhelming exercise in film making. And thanks to the poor direction afforded to the first movie, there is practically zero chance that there will ever be a second. I recall listening to an interview years ago in which Philip Pullman voiced his pleasure with the movie. After seeing it for myself, I find he and are differ in opinion greatly.

May 20, 2010

Rabid Rewind: Gentlemen Broncos

Title: Gentlemen Broncos
Starring: Michael Angarano, Jemaine Clement, Jennifer Coolidge, and Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Jared Hess
Written by: Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess
Released: Fox Searchlight Pictures (2009)

Where did this movie come from? Honestly, it must have been hiding under a rock somewhere--or maybe I was the one under a rock. A boy from the sticks, it stands to reason there'd be some rocks around here too.

Gentlemen Broncos is a story about honesty, identity, and some of the more eccentric people in the sci-fi community. Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) is a home-schooled teen in a small town with a passion for writing science-fiction stories. He gets to attend a writing camp, which is guest-hosted by his idol, Chevalier (Jemaine Clement, of Flights of the Conchords fame). To make things even more exciting for Ben, all attendees are encouraged to enter their work to be judged with the winner receiving publication. Ben throws in his prized novel, The Yeast Lords.

Chevalier is on hard times creatively and upon seeing Ben's manuscript, he steals it and sells it as his own. Ben, unaware of the theft carries on in his life with doting and slightly oblivious mother (Jennifer Coolidge), his two new friends/pariahs, Tabitha and Lonnie, as well as his Guardian-Angel-of-sorts, Dusty (Mike White). It's through these relationships that Ben discovers just how aggravating his life is and how his creative life isn't quite where he wants it to be, ultimately leading him to seek advice from the very man who has plagiarized his work.

While hyped as "from the makers of Napoleon Dynamite"--and the movie definitely taps into the same quirky irreverence found in small towns--Gentlemen Broncos was so much funnier and memorable. Where I thought Napoleon Dynamite was just a thoroughly unlikable character--an amusing, unlikable character--Benjamin Purvis is a lot more sympathetic a protagonist. He's a bit on the bland side, but that's because he's so introverted and is playing straight man to an insane cast of characters.

Jennifer Coolidge is in top form as an ever-chipper mom with an unconditional pride in everything her son attempts. Jemaine Clement seems to channel James Mason in his voicing of Chevalier, and plays the egotistical prick to perfection. Mike White as Dusty is creepy on a level that circles the globe and comes all the way back to charming, which might be due to that amazing blond mullet.

And I would be remiss to not mention and praise Sam Rockwell's performance as Bronco in the intermittent cutaway scenes of The Yeast Lords and Chevalier's bastardization, Brutus and Balzaak. The scenes depicting the sci-fi story are so gloriously cheesy, every bad science-fiction atrocity I've ever seen or read came flooding back to me at full intensity. The ridiculous names, the odd obsession with sex as a subtext, and--oh my holy crap--surveillance does. I hate those.

And if there's one aspect of this movie that could out-awesome the Sam Rockwell scenes, it's the soundtrack. The Scorpions, Cher, Kansas, and Black Sabbath come together in a perfect storm of music that's candy for the ears. As a couple of bonuses for the DVD, there is a great collection of outtakes and a behind the scenes featurette.

If you're a writer with a self-deprecating sense of humor, I think you'll like this one. If you're a sci-fi bookworm, you'll probably dig it too. For the rest of you, it may not be as funny for you as it was for me. Quirky little movies like this tend to get a hot or cold response from audiences. I think you ought to give this one a chance, though.

May 19, 2010

Do You Want to Win an E-Reader? I Know I Do

Bibliophilic Book Blog is hosting a great giveaway. Monica S. has been doing an admirable thing in sending e-readers to deployed soldiers overseas, because god knows that a soldier needs some way to get at the written word while protecting their country. But as an aside for all us cozy people on the home front, we have a chance to win an e-reader from her too.

To check out the contest, just click HERE to see the post and follow the instructions to get one step closer to an e-reader of your choosing. I'll be throwing my name in the hat, and I have my eye on that Aluratek Libre device. There's something about it that just appeals to me for some inane reason.

The contest is open internationally, but I'm unsure when it ends (EDIT: Monica was kind enough to inform me that the contest is running until July 15th), so if you're interested then you'd better hop to it.

Wish List Wednesday #47: Feed

The teaser line for this novel reads "The Good News: We Survived. The Bad News: So Did They."

Mmmm. A line like that conjures all kinds of monstrosities chasing scared innocents through the night. I also imagine it being uttered by one of those iconic movie trailer voice-overs. You know the kind: One of those throaty rasps that say a line like that then follow it up with "starring that guy from those action movies you like."

I suspect Mira Grant has written something a bit more substantial than Hollywood grist for the mill. Feed sounds like it could be a horror/action novel in a similar vein to The Strain by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo Del Toro. A virus infects humanity in 2014, following the medical advances that led to cures for cancer and the common cold. The virus compels its victims to do one thing above all others--feed. I'm will to bet infected vegans take a liking to red meat. The story doesn't deal with the spread of the virus, but the aftermath and a possible secret that could reveal its true source.

Yup, I could probably hop on that bandwagon. Does it sound like the kind of book you'd want to read?

May 18, 2010

Wag the Blog #14: Silent Hill Is a Real Place?!

I can't recall how I stumbled across A Rock to Tie a String Around,(a retweet on Twitter or something like that maybe) but there was an interesting blog entry called 3 Horror Stories Inspired by Earth Day. The one place that really caught my eye was the second location, Centralia, Pennsylvania. A fire pit inadvertently ignited a coal reserve underground ... and it's been burning for nearly fifty years. What the hell? What rock have I been under that I never knew this place existed?

Mark Chadbourn wrote a blog article on Jack of Ravens that kind of depressed me, mainly because of the title--I Pity New Writers. It's got some good advice for newbies like me and an interesting comparison between writers of old and the new school. I'm new, but I already feel like a dinosaur.

The Vault of Horror and Day of the Woman had a real interesting list of their picks for the Top 10 Penultimate Girls in horror films. I was glad to see Lambert (the female character in Alien that wasn't Ripley) made the cut. It's been a few years since I last saw that movie, but I can still remember Lambert's feckless attempts to maintain composure and stay alive. The lady in the #1 spot slipped my mind before seeing her name, but the choice made perfect sense.

BJ-C at Day of the Woman is on a roll too, as she also posted 15 Horror Locations You Should Avoid Like The Plague. Could Stepford really be so bad for the guys? Well, maybe. What town was Deliverance set in? I'd avoid that one too--definitely wouldn't want to go in the woods at any rate.

Over at Storytellers Unplugged, Brett Alexandor Savory wrote an interesting article called Don't Read the Label. It discussed an acclaimed literary author's past in the horror genre--I had no idea. And it kicks off the dust on the ol' Literary Vs. Genre argument. I just like good stories, so give me those by the bowlful.

Brian Keene gave a heads-up on his own blog that pointed me towards this interview he did with Dark Fiction Underground. It's a new site on my radar and I think I'll be checking out more in the future. In any event, you can read their interview with Brian Keene here.

Speaking of author interviews, Blog with Bite has a good panel discussion with a few authors, including Jonathan Maberry and Nate Kenyon, and the featured author Michael E. Stewart. Let's Talk Horror lets each author give their two cents on the genre and what it means to them.

Then, one author--namely F. Paul Wilson--felt compelled to cut a little diatribe about Word Thieves back in mid-April on True/Slant. Not done there, he followed it up with another blog entry about Word Thieves II on May 6th. Both entries sparked some debate among authors, readers, and pirates alike.

Author, Alan Baxter, didn't go on his own diatribe, but he clued me in to an Obscenity Ruling by The Onion. That's a site I admire but never visit. Oh how I wish something like that could take place in the real world--I'd nominate the judge for sainthood.

And it's not exactly blog stuff, but Slate has a couple of good articles about two of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, Mythologist of our Age, and Philip Pullman, The Gospel According to Philip. Read and enjoy.

What have you found on the blogosphere lately that you found particularly noteworthy?

May 17, 2010

Rabid Reads: "Sparrow Rock" by Nate Kenyon

Title: Sparrow Rock
Author: Nate Kenyon
Illustrator: Zach McCain (Bad Moon Books edition)
Published: Bad Moon Books and Leisure Horror (2010)
Pages: 358
SKU SKU20715 (Bad Moon Books)
ISBN-10: 0843963778
ISBN-13: 978-0843963779

If you're a little tired of horror stories that involve a group of teenagers running around scared and getting picked off by whatever soup de jour evil entity the writer(s) has concocted, and you aren't interested in reading or watching any more such tales, I'd suggest you give Nate Kenyon's latest novel a chance before you turn your back on those terrified teenyboppers altogether.

I find that the main problem with teen protagonists in horror is that so often they are cardboard cutouts recycled by Hollywood screenwriters, crafted solely and feebly to target that young demographic. Look at the most uninspired horror movies of the last few decades, and I'll bet you any money the vast majority include a cast of pretty young white kids (and their one black friend) being stalked by a monster or serial killer.

Fortunately, Nate Kenyon employs a small cast of teens in a New England town that actually feel pretty genuine, acting and reacting for the most part as real people would be expected to. It's the situation they find themselves in that is so unbelievable that it borders on outright preposterousness.

Pete and his friends (Tessa, Dan, Jimmy, Jay, and Sue) are looking for a place to get high one evening. Sue suggests her grandfather's nuclear shelter out on Sparrow Rock, since it's secluded and she knows the access code to the door. Bingo-bango, a little while later they've got their very own underground hideaway with all the amenities they could ask for. The only hiccup comes when what appears to be a major nuclear attacks strikes the east coast, leaving the group trapped in the fallout shelter with no idea what's happening or why on the surface.

But that's just the start, because pretty soon they start to hear noises--scratching noises--coming from beyond the thick concrete walls of the shelter. Then they find a door hidden in those walls that they hadn't noticed before and things really go off the deep end for them all.

That's about all the plot you're going to get out of me. If you want more, you'll just have to read the book for yourself, because I don't want to spoil it. I had as much info from the synopsis of the novel before I read it and, believe me, there is a lot more going on in crazy ways, which only get crazier in the final chapters. When I finished the book, I just had to say to myself: Sonuvabitch. He got me. Kenyon got me.

The tensions and interactions between Pete (the novel's told in first person through his eyes) and his friends come off as quite believable given the unbelievable events that befall them. And despite wondering after each new twist if Kenyon is putting too many ingredients into his recipe, he manages to do it all in a very engaging way by keeping it in the perspective of a very frightened and openly flawed young man with doubts about his own fortitude and that of his friends, plus a residual guilt for his ailing mother being left to fend for herself out there in the fallout.

With a couple of the characters (Sue and Jay), their interplay through a few scenes sometimes felt artificially amplified for the sake of adding more tension to the story, but it didn't really take away from my overall enjoyment. Anything that came off as familiar or predictable was overshadowed by the things I wasn't expecting and that nearly dropped my jaw.

I think an honorable mention ought to go out to Zach McCain for some good artwork to go along with each new phase of the story, as well as the cover illustration. I believe he did some covers for Ron Kelly recently that were pretty darned good too.

I don't normally go back to reread a novel as soon as I finish it, but the unraveling of secrets and big reveals through the course of this book are going to make me go back to read some key passages again. Kenyon does a great job of hiding the answers out in the open. So, yeah ... read this book if you're up for a horrific thrill ride with more than one well crafted twist. You may still feel the whole thing is outright preposterous, but you will have to admit that Kenyon entertained you regardless.

You can find other book blog reviews of this title at: Brain Tremors; FantasticDreams of Pamela K. Kinney; Famous Monsters of Filmland

May 15, 2010

Rabid Rewind: 2012

Title: 2012
Starring: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, and Woody Harrelson
Director: Roland Emerich
Written by: Harold Kloser and Roland Emerich
Released: Columbia Pictures (2009)
Genre: Disaster Porn; Action

Okay, now that Roland Emerich has beset upon the world a film so saturated in special effects and cardboard characters it could be classified a video-game--now that he's done that, can we please stop making these horrible, horrible films?

Had I paid money to watch this, I'd be incensed. I'll give the man enough credit to state he directed a better film than Michael Bay could dream of making, but how low must the bar be set in order for movies like this to get a passing grade?

The plot is laid out early on to spare any scientists in the audience in wondering how plausible global destruction is. This is accomplished by basically throwing the law of physics out the window and saying: "Just go with me on this one." Earth is screwed, basically, as the crust is destabalized and every disaster movie you've ever seen converge on screen at the same time. Volcano, Dante's Peak, Poseidon Adventure, Twister, The Day After Tomorrow, and every movie of the month on SyFy. It's all there in 2012.

And there's something else. The allusion to the Myan calendar is only mentioned in passing once, maybe twice. It's a mild garnish to give a bit of flavor to this bland extravaganza. It doesn't matter how it's happening, why it's happening, or who predicted it would happen. This movie exists purely because a studio gave Roland Emerich a boatload of money to play in a very big sandbox.

For those who decide to see this, be thankful for the strong cast that's helmed by John Cusack, Oliver Platt, Woody Harrelson, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. If not for the ability of the actors to squeeze what little humanity exists inside the clichéd characters of the script, the movie would be utterly insufferable. The disposable heroes, the impetuous children, the crazy man who knew it all along, the nefarious politician, and others are all seemingly plucked out of a mad-lib scriptwriter's imagination.

If you like to watched CGI animation of things blowing up, falling down, or destroyed in some other manner, this movie is a tour de force. If you want a movie with the cinematic nutritional value of a Hostess cupcake, this movie is full of empty calories just for you. If you've seen any or all of the disaster movies that I mentioned earlier, you'll see very little to astound you and should be in no hurry to watch this film.

Roland Emerich has stated that he has no further plans to make another disaster movie. For all that is good in the world, I hope he's telling the truth.