Amazon SearchBox

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

But there's no danger/it's a profession, a career/ though we could be erased/ with just a word in Cardinal Wolsey's ear

So I'm watching Henry VIII, enjoying it but feeling somewhat underwhelmed (feels a little bit like it was assembled from bits and pieces of other history plays) by both the actual play and the performances.

But then, towards the end of Act III, the actor playing Cardinal Wolsey (Timothy West) just blew me away. For most of the film, he's underplayed the part, coming off as scheming and manipulative. Then his former servant Cromwell comes to visit him after his arrest. At first, Wolsey plays at the penitent great man, rehabilitated and ready to return to society (Nixon comes to mind as a good example). All very weighty and eloquent.

And then Cromwell says that he'll serve the king, but he'll keep his prayers for Cardinal Wolsey. And for the first moment in the play, we see Wolsey as vulnerable. The text bears out this interpretation: the language gets simpler and there are a lot more pauses and breaks. West keeps it understated, but you suddenly see his sadness. He's spent his whole life raising and destroying people based on his needs, and he only now realizes the power and beauty of friendship.

It lends an amazing power to his closing lines: "Had I but serv'd God with half the zeal/I serv'd my king, he would not in mine age/ Have left me naked to mine enemies." Rather reminiscent of the Kissinger quote about how much Nixon could have accomplished if someone had loved him. Just an amazing moment of empathy that staggers me as a would-be actor and writer.

Monday, December 29, 2008

This wooden Oooooh this is awful!

For discussion: Is King Henry VIII Shakespeare's worst play? If so, produce one memorable quote or moment. Cite specific productions as needed.

(I just started watching the BBC version produced by Cedric Messina and thought, "it's a bad sign when your prologue all but says, go elsewhere if you're looking for fun.")

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Quick movie reviews/recaps...

Long time, no update, in which I watched a lot of films. Here are what I thought of them:

Hogfather: A made-for-TV adaptation of the Terry Prachett novel. Hogswatch is Discworld's version of Christmas, and this year Death has to take over when a member of the Assassin's Guild takes on a contract to kill their version of Santa. The problem is that Prachett's style is wordy, precocious and digressive. Unfortunately, in a film (even one that goes over three hours), the intricate plotting comes off as diffuse, the wordplay is cut down and cleverness gets replaced with boring CGI. Also, the filmmakers can't decide if Ankh-Morpork is medieval or vaguely Victorian or steampunk. True, Prachett doesn't always make this clear either, but the disparities aren't so apparent on paper and his style links everything. That said, Ian Richardson as Death (and whoever did Death's effects work) are consistently hilarious, and the tone manages to balance cynicism with sentimentality quite well.

Hard-Boiled: John Woo's last Hong Kong film. Supercop and undercover cop go after Triad gun runners who hide their stash in a hospital. Utterly ridiculous and over-the-top. The plotting is rather episodic, the characterization simplistic. But the set-pieces are fantastic and moving even sixteen years later. And all the actors are still better than Jean Claude Van Damme in Hard Target.

Postal: Uwe Boll's comedy, very loosely based on the notorious video game. After a tasteless but hilarious opening, the rest of the film is downhill. Zach Ward initially captures the hopelessly put-upon nature of his character but falls apart when called on to be the bad-ass action hero. Dave Foley puts in an effortless, sleepwalking performance that has just the right comic timing. Everyone else is flailing in a cast otherwise made up of minor character actors and has-beens . Boll's trying to make fun of America, but he has no actual idea of what America is like. Imagine Strangelove with a budget cast, untalented screenwriters, bad cinematography and helmed by a bizzaro auteur. Still, it hits one or two comic moments, and is otherwise perversely bad when it fails. Worth renting to watch with friends, perhaps?

Pitch Black: A tight sci-fi thriller that mixes Aliens with Stagecoach. Wonderful cinematography, a clever script full of subtle and sparing characterization, and the pacing is top-notch. Vin Diesel is suitably threatening as an almost sociopathic outlaw, Keith David gets to stretch his range as a faithful, suffering Imam, and Radha Mitchell finds new ground for tough female heroines not covered by Sarah Michelle Gellar or Linda Hamilton.

Brothers Grimm: I love Terry Gilliam, but the film's tone can't strike the right balance for tragicomedy. Gilliam does a great job in showing both the beauty and the terror of fairy tales. But the story drags on while still containing odd transitions, and all the characters are too passive. Heath Ledger's performance as Jakob Grimm, a man lost in dreams and fantasy, understands the pity and wonder in such a person. The fairy tale flashbacks and some of the production design are quite beautiful. The CGI monsters, less so.

Twentieth Century: Hilarious portrayal of scheming theatre types (take it from me, since I'm one of them), with Barrymore exceptionally convincing as a vain director who is at heart a ham actor. On the other hand, for all the hilarity, the main characters are such awful, despicable people that their reunion (and the promise of it) fill me with nothing but dread. As a result, this screwball comedy leaves me disappointed.

P.S. I read some James Agee reviews last week. I hope it doesn't show too much in my prose.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I accepted a ruthless logic, and I can never get away from it!

Just watched The Damned, Luchino Visconti's movie about a German industrialist family destroyed when it attempts to harness National Socialism for its own benefit. Still digesting it, though I think that the best thing about it is the way the family's most fervent Nazi is also the most charming and self-assured person in the family. He rarely threatens or raises his voice. He just gets people to sign away their souls by convincing them it is in their best interest. That's real evil for you.

But the reason for this post is not the film itself. The DVD also contains the original trailer which is hilarious. It takes most of the material from the final hour of the film, spoiling a large part of the plot (making the earlier part of the film seem extraneous), and cuts from melodramatic moment to melodramatic moment. And of course, there is that Movie Announcer Guy voice, shouting, "These Are the Damned!" and all the other "in a world gone mad" stuff. Heaven knows what the audience that saw the movie based on this ad thought.

I envision them walking in, expecting exploitation and melodrama, and then they get hit with glacially-paced, long tracking shots. And most of the exciting sequences are separated by long stretches of time where people talk or stare or do nothing.

It's a good and worthwhile movie, and those artistic choices I list above make sense.  But it is certainly not a mix of Mommy Dearest and The Night Porter.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"We're gonna win an Oscar for this": Cannibal Holocaust, the film that devours itself

Cannibal Holocaust, directed by Ruggero Deodato, (1979, not released until 1984)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you one of the most disgusting movies ever made. I hesitate to call it the most vile, both because other films might show more atrocious activities (I have yet to see Salo, for instance) and because the moral agenda of the film is a little too complex to dismiss as mere nihilism or some awful form of grindhouse pandering.

Still, this is a film notorious for showing scenes of live animal cruelty. Cannibal Holocaust's director, Ruggero Deodato, was actually accused of murdering his cast for this film, something that, as far as I know, has happened with no other film. This is a film bookended, on DVD at least, by a real warning and a fake meta-warning and both seem legitimate. Of all the "video nasties" banned in Britain in the 1980s, this has to be the ultimate example.

The short version of Cannibal Holocaust's plot is that, a few months prior to the events in the film, an American documentary filmmaker named Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) went to South America to shoot footage of some never-before-seen tribes. He and his crew never returned and so an NYU anthropology professor sets out to find out their fate and possibly retrieve their remains and their films. A pseudo-travelogue ensues as Professor Monroe (Robert Kerman) and his guides travel through the Amazon and discover the crew's gruesome fate and retrieve the film. The whole thing seems rather par for the course for an Italian cannibal film, if more tastefully done than, let's say, Hell of the Living Dead or Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals.

Then Professor Monroe retrieves the footage and takes it back to NYC in preparation for some prime-time sweeps airing (the "Pantheon Network", his sponsors, crow about the ratings they're going to get).  After watching said footage, however, he balks. When the network heads complain, he makes them (and us) watch it too. And what is in that part of the film is going to disgust pretty much everyone short of a war criminal.

A couple of days ago, political pundit and cultural commentator James Poulos posted something regarding the need to shut down Hollywood's nightmare factories, which are destabilizing our culture. And if he thinks Hardboiled represents some rough beast crawling towards Bethlehem to be born, he ain't seen nothin' yet.

Because this is a (fictional) film about a documentary film crew going off the reservation and staging the savagery they supposedly came to observe (and film). That's what's so vile to the character of Professor Monroe and he implicates us by making us watch this. And sure, the expected and annoying arguments about, like, what if the savages were civilized and we were really savages, dude, rear their head. So too does the idea that the media makes us violent (while showing us teh sex and violence!). And of course, there's blatant anti-Americanism (with the Professor's parting words about us being the real cannibals, the camera pans over to the street sign for the Avenue of the Americas). But you can't dismiss this film as easily as, for example, hyperstylized action films which apologize for their violence while defending the hero's violence as necessary (or un-hypocritical).

That's because this is a film which makes violence too hyper-real to be cool. The acts of violence committed on screen are comprehensible, but they are crudely shot, as if by someone trying to frame the picture in the moment. The camera lingers too long at the wrong angles, the action is blocked by the perpetrators, and other similar problems emerge. Realism is a style as much as any other, it's true, but here the style is used to deflate the violence and make it register in a new way. In a rare instance, even as the characters are fascinated by their own cruelty, the viewer is disgusted. Think of how many movies work the other way around.

The movie begins with us seeing the wreckage of the crew's adventures: the fearful villagers, the ruined buildings, and the mutilated corpses. Only after seeing all these artifacts of their journey are we permitted to see what they did, so that their cruelty holds no novelty or surprise. Instead, the viewer awaits each new torment with dread, knowing what's coming but powerless to stop it.

Now, needless to say, I don't think we need any more movies like this. I think one viewing is all I can stand. But it is a movie that takes violence as horrific, that is honest about its own nihilistic tendencies. By merely existing, it renders further exploration of hyper-violence unnecessary. 

After all, this is a film about American film-makers, armed with curiosity and technology (both an exposition-y newscaster and the Yates himself say something similar), who set out to make a name for themselves. They think they know how to manipulate real life in such a way to become famous (they provide the post title quote during a massacre they carry out) and instead they get hypnotized and then destroyed by their own manipulations. In the film within the film, we get glimpses of the film crew filming themselves filming themselves. By the last shot of the "found" footage, we get a dropped camera filming the bloody head of the lead film-maker rolling on the jungle floor. As both the "found" footage and the ending supertitles make clear, the movie outlives its own directors.

For two other thoughful and somewhat differing takes, see Jog the Blog and 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. Neither of them enjoyed it, per se, but they also see something more complex than a Saw film. Jog also points out the context of the "mondo" films, which were accused of doing what this film pretends to do. I don't think that exculpates what this film does, but it does show that they're exaggerating (and satirizing) already existing tendencies, instead of making them up their own object of criticism. None of those reviews really tease out the obvious political dimensions of this film (partially also a commentary on American imperialism), but that's because those dimensions are the least developed and least complex.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The War on Christmas, the Continuing Crisis

Muppet Christmas Carol, despite being in print and for sale, is unavailable on Netflix.

However, it is available on Blockbuster.

Guess which one I have a subscription too?

Sorry...

but posting has been light, I know. It seems like I go to sleep thinking of things, but by the time I get back from work, I have no energy or remaining thoughts.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Two updates in two days? This is not change you should believe in...

In a mostly "eh" week of comics, Secret Six #3 reminded me why I read monthly superhero comics.

After an acceptable but not overwhelming issue, our six supervillains, hired by a mysterious benefactor to retrieve former metahuman Tarantula and a Macguffin, find out what the Macguffin is. And suddenly, an issue filled with (seeming) non-sequiturs from supervillains on all the evil stuff they've done makes sense and a bunch of discussions/thoughts on redemption throughout the series take on extra narrative weight.  Simone mixes the mystical and noir elements of the DCU to great effect, 

If it wasn't rather heavy on DCU-continuity, I'd say it would be the kind of comic Eve Tushnet would love to read and discuss. It might still be, at that.

[SPOILER]
In a well-handled scene, tears trailing down her face, Tarantula reveals that the card she took was created by Neron, the DCU's version of the devil. Written on it in Aramaic is "get out of hell free."

It's adding a religious spin to noir. Instead of everyone wanting one big score or wealth or safety, everyone wants heaven. And they don't care what they have to do to get it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"Some sort of madness... I just don't understand"

Who Can Kill a Child? a.k.a. Island of the Damned (d. Narisco Ibanez Serrador, starring Lewis Fiander and Pruella Ransome, Spain, 1978)

Just finished this and I can't really do a full review of this, if only because I don't know how to do justice to this without giving too much away or ruining it. This is a horror film, but not a gory film. There is a little bit of blood, but you're not going to see any eyeballs gouged out or guts munched. This is more in the mode of The Shining, where careful cinematography, meticulate design, and natural performances build a slowly unsettling world. 

If you need a plot description, Tom and Evelyn (Lewis Fiander and Pruella Ransome, a couple of English actors whose other screen credits are mostly BBC series appearances) are a happily married couple on vacation in Spain, enjoying a last vacation away from the kids before the heavily-pregnant Evelyn gives birth. They're not too happy with the crowded, noisy city of Benavis. I wouldn't blame them, because dead, mutilated bodies are washing up on the beach the day they arrive.

So they head over to Almanzora, where Tom spent some time twelve years ago. When they arrive, they find the town pretty much deserted except for some children. In fact, if it wasn't for the children, they might think that everyone had disappeared...

If this sounds a little cliche, don't worry. Serrador does an excellent job of building tension without resorting to those cheap "cat jumps out of a room" kind of tricks. Once again, like "The Shining", this is a film that plays with silence and a pared-down soundtrack, that carefully frames shots for subtle effect. Most important, this is a movie where every single death registers (and I do mean EVERY SINGLE DEATH), saddens and horrifies. This has to be one of the few horror movies I know that starts with a news montage about (at the time) contemporary political atrocities without seeming pretentious or cheap.

Fiander and Ransome also deserve from credit. They play a married couple that argues and has problems without making them bickering or forgetting their love for each other. And when they make poor or selfish choices in the film, it's not because of stupidity or script contrivance, but because of everyday human emotion.

In fact, the only problem I had with the film is that the last forty minutes lack the sense of originality the first seventy had. There are still some great scenes (the first time the titular question is answered, for instance) and every moment is competently done and believable, but it moves into territory both Romero and Hitchcock have already explored. And the very last few minutes are guilty of dialogue that is a little too on-the-nose... 

But please, please, please add this to your Netflix queue. The only place I've ever seen this reviewed was on Fangoria, and it does not deserve that level of obscurity. It's not even gory! Just terrifying on a moral and spiritual level.

Friday, October 24, 2008

...But it has zombies in it. How can I not like zombies?

I read Marvel Zombies by Robert Kirkman and Sean Phillips in Borders today and was glad I didn't pick it up either in singles, hardcover or trade. It was competently executed, with one or two good gags (emo zombie Spider-man and "Hulk is the Hungriest Man there is") and a few good disturbing notes (the idea of the zombie Avengers faking rescues to lure out survivors, for example).

But it neither teased out any societal analysis as the best zombie media does (Romero films, Walking Dead, World War Z) or went for all out tastelessness that the most enjoyable gut munchers do (almost any Italian zombie film not made by Fulci, Dead Alive).  The only thing approaching subtext was the title: this was a book for Marvel obsessive or zombie obsessives. Unfortunately, I count myself as a zombie obsessive (I've watched Hell of the Living Dead, people. That is not something a sane person undertakes lightly) and I found it as unsatisfying as the morsels of human flesh that fall out of the zombies' own rotten gullets.

Pondering a couple post topics soon:  A Defense of Lucio Fulci, a write-up of Act of Violence (with Robert Ryan and Van Heflin) and Mystery Street (with Ricardo Montalban and Charles Laughton's beard), or maybe something about Who Can Kill A Child? (if Netflix comes through).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Woyzeck" (Vesturport Theatre) at Brooklyn Academy of Music

If I made it to heaven, I'd have to help out with the thunder. "Woyzeck" by Georg Buchner

So I wanted to visit friends in NYC and I decided to schedule it around the production of "Woyzeck" playing for one weekend at the BAM, because Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (not the comic book writer but the violinist behind the Dirty Three and a member of the Bad Seeds) had written original music for it.  I'd already seen Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform live within the past month, but I figured that this music was unlikely to be recorded any time soon and wanted to see how it would fit into the context of the play. 

First, a caveat: its been a while since I've read "Woyzeck", so I remember the broad plot and the fact that Buchner never finished the play before he died (or at least, there is no "finished" version of the play) and so different productions will rearrange the scenes in different orders.

For those of you unfamiliar with the play, Woyzeck is a poor soldier who supports his lover Marie by participating in strange medical experiments. Marie has an affair with the Drum Major in his unit and Woyzeck kills her over it.

The story sounds like it should be the basis for a Nick Cave song anyhow (like "Where the Wild Roses Grow"), so I figured it would be a good fit. And it was. The four or so songs that showed up in the piece were a brilliant mix of absurdity and emotion, whether an off-key Tin Pan Alley love song Woyzeck warbled for Marie (underlining his instability and insecurity) or the swaggering blues rock of the Drum Major's entrance (that has him bragging about being six foot seven in bare feet!), the songs made sense of a play that sits on the razor's edge between Dreiser and Beckett. And the cast had some good (or at least appropriate to the character and song) voices. The Drum Major (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) occasionally ventured into the territory of bad heavy metal vocalists, but otherwise could have been a (non-annoying) Broadway singer.

Unfortunately, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' music really only shows up in the first half.  And the show only clicks when everyone is singing. Because (oh god!) this play was directed by a pretentious European director with A (cough*bullshit*cough) CONCEPT.  There is nothing more dangerous in the world of theatre than a director with a bit of acclaim and A (cough*bullshit*cough) CONCEPT.

See, Gisli Orn Gardarsson decided to set his production of "Woyzeck" at a water factory that looks like a cross between playground equipment and the Nostromo in Alien. Oh, and there are also water tanks that the actors will swim in, like people would if they were making drinking water.  And a trapeze and a climbing rope, just like in all water factories. The design is well-executed, but I never felt that this set, even in the abstract, was a place where people worked. It was a cool-looking place that the actors could do circus tricks on.

You know, I am breaking my "No Snark" vow, but geez, High Concept directors must be stopped!

Moment of fairness: water is talked about a lot in "Woyzeck". But except for a bit of inconsistently altered dialogue (Herr Gardarsson also "adapted" the script), three vague lines in the director's notes and the water tanks to play in, there wasn't a sense that the water factory itself was that important to the world of the play that Herr Gardarsson conceived.  It could have been any factory or any physical labor site or even the army.  So perhaps someone could still do a water factory "Woyzeck" that would work, but it would at least have to use the concept to inform the actual play.

Unfortunately, there were no performances that suggested even that charitable view. Every character spoke/shout (in English) in the exact same inflection. In all fairness, I'm not sure if it was the fault of acting in the performers' non-native language or a directorial choice, but I will say that when they sang, the performers seemed to use the proper kind of phrasing you would expect from an American pop song. I was sitting in the balcony, so I might have missed some physical subtlety, except the default setting for physicality was clumsy slapstick. Woyzeck (Ingvar E. Sigurdson) pissed on the Doctor's face (Harpa Arnarsdottir), the Captain (Vikingur Kristjansson) tried to rape the Doctor, etc. (In retrospect, a lot of brutality was visited on the Doctor, played by a woman, in a way that is not borne out by the play. It had no place in the play and it added undertones of misogyny where none existed before.) "Woyzeck" is not a comedy, but if it must be, it shouldn't feel like one of those sub-Three Stooges comedies that PRC films cranked out by the dozens in the 1940s.

These are just the major issues that struck me during the play. It is hard to believe that this company performed a critically acclaimed Romeo and Juliet at the RSC and in New York!

The one thing I will give this awful production is that it illuminated a religious side of "Woyzeck".  The frequent references to water, the Captain's bourgeois discussion of morality, Woyzeck's disbelief that sin should leave no mark on Marie's face, and the quote that starts this post seemed increasingly significant in this tonally dissonant piece where finding a director's meaning was like reading a hack detective novel missing half the pages. I thought that "Woyzeck" focused on the dehumanizing ways of the modern world in the manner of Georg Kaiser or Arthur Schniztler. But in my state of alienation, it seemed to represent the dehumanization of the poor in a world where bourgeois conceptions of religion consider morality to rely on money.  Thus the Captain can say Woyzeck is good but not "moral", the Doctor can conduct cruel and manipulative experiments on him, and the Drum Major can take his wife with no consequences. Woyzeck is without friends to help him (Andres is merely a gossip, Marie is his betrayer, the other men watched the Drum Major beat him without helping) and there is no chaplain or priest to offer comfort. As such, he can only commit a brutal murder against the one person less powerful than him. 

I'd need to read the play again to verify if this could be a valid interpretation. But other than Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' compositions, it was the one interesting thing I took from the evening.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

And sometimes I feel that life's a movie/ but I don't like the film

So, all this talk of Kenneth Branagh directing Thor (which is an inspired choice for an action picture, but who thought Peter "Dead Alive/Meet the Feebles" Jackson would work out for Lord of the Rings?) has reminded me of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, where he stunt-cast the film to within an inch of its life.

Some of those choices worked out well (Charlton Heston as the Player King!), others barely registered (poor Gerard Depardieu as Reynaldo), and some were incredibly misguided [Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger ("and tell me, what's the deal with the Adam as the first gardener?"), Robin Williams as Osric?]. So in the spirit of William Shakespeare's Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, I have come up with a new game:

KENNETH BRANAGH'S [Blank]

The way you play Kenneth Branagh' s [Blank] is pick a stage play and come up with an ideal cast based on people outside the chosen genre. So if you're casting Antony and Cleopatra, no (primarily) Shakespearean  actors. Other than that, they can be anyone, living or dead, from any era of their career.  Of course, you can play fast and loose with that last part, but still, STUNT CASTING!

As the inaugural edition of Kenneth Branagh's [Blank], I present, 
Kenneth Branagh's Richard III

Richard III - Richard Baseheart played two fascinating psychopaths in the early part of his career for Anthony Mann (Robespierre for Reign of Terror, cop killer Roy Morgan for He Walked by Night) and it would have been great to see him essay one of theatre's most famous psychopaths at that stage in his career. I doubt he would have fallen into the campier vein that so often afflicts Richards.

Edward IV - Sterling Hayden (in his 1950s heyday) might seem an odd choice for a dying King, but in his best roles, Hayden was able to simultaneously embody solidity and fatalism. In Johnny Guitar, as a figure of denial and impotence helpless before Joan Crawford, in The Killing, a careful, reasonable man doomed to fail by human nature and coincidence. And Edward is supposed to be prematurely aged by years of relentless drinking and womanizing anyway. So slap some old age make-up on him and I bet he would have done well as a once-mighty warrior undone by guilt and his own over-indulgence. (P.S. No need to mention the impotence at the heart of Jack D. Ripper in Strangelove, is there?)

George, Duke of Clarence - one of my favorite renditions of Clarence was an incredibly flawed Chicago Off-Loop theatre production where the actor playing Clarence saw him as a weak-willed, burnt-out slacker who always relied on his charm to bail him out. Jeff Bridges is able to portray sons of privilege (Winter Kills, Iron Man) and burnt-out slackers (The Big Lebowski, for starters). Plus, he would add complete a trifecta of York kids who look powerful but all fail as men of strength in one way or another. 

Buckingham - when you've got a cold, chilling Richard, you normally need a Buckingham who is smart, charming with tinges of malice. I've always felt that Buckingham is best as an up-and-comer who thinks he's too smart to suffer any consequences for his actions. Gene Kelly in his prime could always balance cleverness with charm and moments of aching vulnerability, always useful qualities in a con man. At the same time, in films like It's Always Fair Weather and What a Way to Go!, he was able to delve into toxic levels of self-loathing, contempt and egotism that would be a near-match to Richard more private scenes.

Lord Hastings - Another theory on Richard's conspirators: Hastings is someone who's got to be ambitious but too weak to carry out Richard's worst acts. Eric Roberts in Star 80 did a terrifying job of burrowing under the skin of an incredibly unlikeable person who did awful things and making him pitiful without apologizing for him, a difficult task for any actor. Hastings is not as horrific, but there are similar issues of someone capable of doing manipulative acts of evil but still oddly naive.


Catesby - Lee Marvin always held the coiled intensity of a snake waiting to strike, even in old age, and I love the image of Catesby as an older retainer of Gloucester's, one who came up through the ranks in the War of the Roses by his bravery and cruelty. And Marvin always finds a way to own the screen whether he's on screen for five minutes or fifty.
 
Marquis of Dorset and Lord Grey - Relatively minor roles, but after all the time travel to Nineteen Fifty Something and morally conflicted people, I'll go with a game changer and pick James McAvoy and Simon Pegg. With the former, you'd understand why you'd need Richmond to come back (beyond the obvious bloodline issues), while the latter points out Elizabeth's annoying, unpopular family. Also, this Richard III shaping up could use some comedy that wouldn't be wack-a-doo.

Henry, Earl of Richmond - Christian Bale. And yes, he's already been in one Branagh Shakespeare history. But Richmond is a cipher, someone with connections to the throne but removed enough from the original fray to sweep in as a unifier. I don't know what else Bale can do, but he can play a cipher, the mask given human form.

And, since I don't want this to be a three thousand page post, onto the women:

Queen Elizabeth - Nicole Kidman. Because you should be able to see why people are annoyed by this nouveau rich aristo being Queen, while seeing how she could charm Edward into marrying her (no small feat when she was up against a French princess) and noticing the sheer cold steel in her spine that allowed her to hold her squabbling, fractured family together as long as she did. I don't think there's any question that Kidman is good at being alluring (in the psychological sense, not just the obvious aesthetic sense) while also being calculating and manipulative. Elizabeth shouldn't be evil, I should clarify, otherwise there is no point in that long scene with Margaret and the Duchess of York about teaching her to curse her enemies. But Clarence and company need someone who is off-putting, if only so we understand why everyone bickers and turns in on each other as Richard knocks them off one by one.

Margaret - Leslie Easterbrook, if only for Mama Firefly in Devil's Rejects. By this point in tetralogy,  the character has lost whatever claim to nobility (in all senses of the word) and merely possesses an epic hatred for the world. She is only queenly in her grotesquerie. And what are her confrontation scenes except slightly more elevated versions of Easterbrook's interrogation by William Forsythe in Devil's Rejects?

Anne - Anne needs to be both incredibly sexy and deeply conflicted about that. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain her acceptance of Richard on any level. She must be the first one to call herself a fraud if Richard is to succeed. Naomi Watts, in I Heart Huckabees and Mulholland Drive, did an excellent job of being pretty and charming, seeming innocent yet wrapped up in tons of neuroses and self-awareness. Richard has got to persuade her that she is guilty of Prince Edward's death (and it is an amazing feat), but she has to take the first step herself. 

Duchess of York - This is hard because the Duchess of York strikes me as resigned and quietly sad until maybe the very end of the play (where she denies Richard her blessing). I feel like she's got to have some strength (otherwise, how could she survive all her many losses and still try to comfort Elizabeth) but she's not a figure of rage. Can I propose (alternate reality) Jane Fonda? Ignore Monster-in-Law and Georgia Rule and pretend that the brilliant actress from Klute and the like somehow matured keeping that same sense of gravity. Her performance in Klute has to be a masterwork of subtle touches, a mix of resignation types stoic and suicidal, turning a stock character (a prostitute that needs to be protected and rescued) into a living human being with a mess of contradictions relating to issues of control and performance of self.

I'm calling this here because otherwise I'd be writing this post until Kenneth Branagh made Thor. However, I tag Leigh, Helen and Zev to carry on the meme, if they so wish it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Captain Clegg, or, Night Creatures (1962)

This is a strange film to talk about, if only because it's a Hammer film that only pretends to be a horror film. The US title of Night Creatures , the presence of Peter Cushing and the opening scenes suggests another Hammer period horror piece.  But it seems like an attempt for Hammer to move beyond the horror genre, an attempt that had little success...

We start off in 1776 on Captain Clegg's ship, where his bosun is reading off the punishment of a crewmember (Milton Reid) who apparently raped Captain Clegg's wife, for which crime the man will have his ears sliced off, his tongue cut out and marooned with no food or water on a deserted island. Did I mention we only saw the Captain from behind and in shadow?

Almost immediately we jump to 1792, to the Romney Marshes, where an old geezer (Sydney Bromley) has made the mistake of taking a late night walk. Unfortunately, a bunch of ghostly, skeletal horseman (watched over by a scarecrow with human eyes!) have also decided to go out tonight and frighten the man to death.

The next day, Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) and about a dozen British sailors show up in Romney Marshes to investigate a smuggling ring. They've timed their visit so that the villagers are in church and won't have time to hide their smuggled French alcohol. However, the normally verbose Reverend Dr. Blyss (Peter Cushing) decides to cut his sermon short and gives a signal to certain churchgoers to leave early. It looks like Captain Collier might be up against more than the normal crude smuggling operation. On the other hand, Captain Collier brought along a certain tongueless, ear-less gent with a good memory of old comrade.

As you can imagine from that description above, Captain Clegg is more of a crime thriller with horror touches. If I had to be that annoying high concept movie pitch guy, I'd suggest The Untouchables meets Tombs of the Blind Dead. The story is very loosely based on Dr. Syn by Russell Thorndike, which was also the basis for the 1937 film Dr. Syn and the 1962 Disney tv special (!) The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. The character is also referenced in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels.

I can easily see why Hammer would make this film. It looks like horror, but allows them to move into less heavily exploited territory and explore beyond the normal horror pantheon.

And the movie is quite fun. Cushing does a good job of jumping between the poses of the goodhearted Reverend Blyss and the colder, more pragmatic Captain Clegg, without making it easy for the viewer to decide which one is the "true" man. Allen is also fascinating as an iron-willed naval officer who can be as vicious, if not more so, than his quarry. Oliver Reed shows up as the male ingenue and manages to find a little depth to an under-written character.  The "marsh ghost" costumes are creepy and effective while remaining credible as homemade outfits.

On the other hand, Clegg doesn't really come together. The cat-and-mouse game between Allen and Cushing is well done, but too much of the movie is about the sailors and smugglers sneaking around rural England.  It's pretty easy to guess at Cushing's former identity early on, so there is no mystery. And while Oliver Reed does a good job with what he has, he barely registers as a character for the first half of the film and he doesn't get to do that much afterwards. And the "ghosts" only show up twice for a few minutes each time.

I wouldn't be surprised if horror fans left disappointed and no one else showed up. When Hammer films are discussed in books or websites, Clegg gets left out (even when someone will go so far as to cover Dracula AD 1972!). If anything, it seems like the story would do better now that Pirates of the Carribean has opened the door for pirate/thriller hybrids, although the supernatural elements would need to be seriously ramped up.

Thematically, the movie keeps raising ideas like the way the government regulation is more likely to hurt common people than help or the games people play with identity or the secrets hidden beneath the surface of idyllic rural life and then casting them away to focus on an uninteresting mystery.  I certainly didn't expect a fifteen minute speech on Milton Friedman or John Keegan, but there were certainly relationships and plot points which would have delved deeper and that got rushed through or ignored.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Jesus was no zombie, God was no necromancer

Okay, I have no idea if anyone finds my MBotF liveblogging interesting, but this post is just using that as a starting point. So bear with me and I'll be in broader territory soon enough...

Right now in Toll the Hounds, there is a lot of to do over a newly created God called the Redeemer. A few books back, a human soldier basically took all the sins of one of the undead demihuman races upon himself, died in the process and was reborn as a good.

However, since this is a fantasy novel, filled with cruel, distant, vengeful, whimsical or semi-retired gods, some of the characters are wondering what sort of god takes all his followers' burdens upon himself without demanding anything of them.

This is a weird development, since the universe these characters exist in is unrelentingly pagan in outlook. A few people get a pleasant afterlife, but a lot of them (including some of our heroes) end up as ghosts, or chained to an endless rolling wagon pulled by the souls of the dead or utterly annihilated from existence (even in a metaphysical sense). Just like the tragedy of King Lear is worsened by the fact that, in pagan England, Lear and Cordelia won't even face a better fate in the afterlife, so much of the death and destruction in the Malazan Book of the Fallen becomes more powerful. 

This is also a strange step because when I think of sword and sorcery or epic fantasy, there is either no religion or a bunch of pagan religions that might superficially resemble modern day faiths (but only superficially).

I wonder how much of this is down to the influence of Tolkien. After all, despite his deeply held faith, he refused to inject Christianity into Lord of the Rings (or at least overtly). Contrast this to C.S. Lewis, his contemporary and sometimes friend, who has Santa Claus show up in Narnia to accompany Thundercats Jesus. [I'm sorry, I think Lewis is a enjoyable writer and I have fond memories of the Narnia Chronicles, but only a child would find Aslan a subtle stand-in for Jesus].

I'm also sure that some of this is fallout from the 80s, when anything that smacked of darkness and magic (heavy metal, Dungeons and Dragons) was accused of satanism. I doubt that it was only religious parents that felt this way (even some agnostic or mildly religious families probably thought Ozzy Osbourne and Gary Gygax were encouraging suicide or the occult) but you merely have to surf the RPG blogosphere for five minutes to hear stories about church ladies taking Keep on the Shadowfell away from high schoolers. And as for metal (or punk or anything that wasn't "She Loves You") ...just watch a couple Behind the Music segments on Ozzy or Judas Priest, or listen to Jello Biafra's monologues on the PMRC.

I think it's pretty apparent that people suffered scorn from other sources than adults (parents, church leaders, teachers) for their hobbies, but bullies or girlfriends or peers can't actively keep you from playing a game/reading/listening to music. I also think that this is why so many people involved in speculative fiction or RPGs or alternative/metal/punk are dismissive of religion in general. Their development as adults and fights for independence are tied up in what they see as a struggle against religion. There's nothing like over-bearing, un-Christianlike Christians for creating overbearing, contemptous atheists/agnostics (and vice versa, I'm sure). 

And frankly, I think it has hurt both sides, poisoning discussion, turning bright and creative people against their faiths, and depriving lonely and misunderstood people of a place that is supposed to be a shelter for the lonely and misunderstood. 

I know I didn't feel the sting of this so much, personally. I didn't get into RPGs until college and my parents were fine with me checking out whatever books I wanted from the adult section at the age of 10 (including Stranger in a Strange Land). I have had conversations about the music I listen to and (weirdly enough) the Simpsons, but they've usually worked out well. *

It probably also helped that I was Catholic and our church (i.e. St. Francis of Assisi in NC) was not obsessed with the Bible as a literal Word of God.  I get the impression that all the Evangelical churches that obsess about the Earth being created in six days forget the fact that the Bible is full of metaphors, allegories and parables. 

More later, probably...

*I still remember getting Nas' Hip Hop is Dead and Sweeney Todd: The Original Cast Recording when I was home for Christmas a year ago. I was listening to Nas in my old bedrom when my mother came in to ask me something. She immediately said something along the lines of, "I can't believe you like that". I put in Sweeney Todd and she was fine with that.  Once again, Nas album about rap moving beyond drugs, violence and acquisitiveness = no. Musical about cannibalism, murder, and rape that suggests the world as a charnel house untouched by God = yes. The medium is the message, I guess.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Annihilate this week...of comics

Urgh... such a disappointing week of comics. A lot of stories where everyone is going through the motions and not really delivering. Warning: snark might follow. You have been warned.

War Heroes #2: As much as I enjoy Tony Harris as an artist and even though I can enjoy Mark Millar, this whole issue felt like it was hitting required beats without really making an impact. Even the cliffhanger, which should have shocked me, made no impact. I don't really care anything for the characters, so I'm not hurt by their betrayal. No one's actions have actually had consequences yet (the few possible places where the exercise of powers could have gone too far, they were treated comically). And I haven't even seen enough of this future America to decide whether or not this threat would be good or bad. This isn't like any number of dystopias, where the awfulness of the nation is established as permeating everything, nor does it feel close enough to our world to feel much at this America's fall. Please, Millar, stop being so "badass" and start actually feeling things, okay?

Solomon Kane #1: I might as well admit I bought it for the Joe Kubert cover. I did hope that I'd get something as good as Conan the Cimmerian, which is not deep but which is well told. But the story is too decompressed (the cliffhanger is Solomon Kane praying!), the storytelling is poor (tell me what went on in the opening action sequence without charts and graphs, please) and very little is done with the concept.  Let me put it this way: Solomon Kane, the Puritan punisher, stays in a castle built on a ruined abbey, that is ruled by a possibly evil Catholic Baron and his Muslim wife. And the only tension I brought to this situation was created by my own knowledge of history and religion instead of anything in the actually comic. Next issue, Solomon Kane naps and reads the Gideon Bible in his room!

Ambush Bug Year None #3: I really enjoyed the first issue of this series. I loved the way it took the misogyny and gratuitous adult-ness of Identity Crisis and ran it into the ground. And then, it contrasted it with the absurdity and stupidity of 60s DC. But with 2, it started getting unfocused. It was back to making fun of the continuity cast-offs and broad parodies of Countdown to Infinite Crisis (and the tie-ins). Fleming and co. were pushing too much into one issue with few returns.

And now we hit #3, which is partially about Infinite Crisis but not only tries to fit in too much, but is more miss than hit. Ambush Bug has always been about non sequiturs and "inside baseball" jokes, but they came so fast and furious that there wasn't enough time for the fizzles to drag it down. On top of this, there was usually some sort of straight man to work off or vice versa. This issue is like a burnt-out comedian making cliched jokes and lazy impressions. The few sequences that made me grin were those that positioned AB as the straight man (the buddy-buddy Darkseid and the multi-cultural OMACs, for example). I think I might have to find a new superhero parody.

Godland #25: Not much to say and a comic from last week at that, but this is the one comic which got more than an "eh" out of me. The origin of the Earth as a giant cosmic battle with time travel as an integral part of it! I can already see three exclamation points coming after every line of dialogue.  This is the kind of insanity that superhero comics should be full of.  And that is all that needs to be said about this comic.

Monday, September 22, 2008

"Love has no honour": Liveblogging Toll the Hounds

Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson, pages 46-317

Expect a post on religion in high fantasy and sword and sorcery in another couple of days. The past couple hundred pages have given a lot of interesting materials for those speculations. Perhaps also another post on the point in the venn diagram of literature where epic intersects with purpled prose and why that might be necessary.

However, for the moment, I do want to make a point about Erikson's push and pull (stealing his own terminology for fate) of characterization.  Towards the end of this chunk of TtH is a scene where Lady Challice Vidikas sits down to dinner with two of her husband's political allies, knowing that her husband expects her to carry on an affair with one of them.  Even worse, he sees this as merely one more political marker he can call in later. Most of Challice's thoughts prior to this have been of the coldness of her marriage and her very life. From her point of view, everyone in her circle seems contemptible. Previous books and other scenes in this one has reinforced this impression of the trio of young turks made up of her husband Gorlas Vidikas, Hanut Orr and Shardan Lim. Or rather, the reader sees the first two as dishonorable and manipulative and assumes Shardan is of a piece with them.

He still might be, in fact. But following Hanut Orr's exit in high dudgeon, Shardan Lim becomes disarmingly honest and romantic.  And every time Lady Challice confronts him on a contradiction in what he says, he admits the contradiction, leading to this post's title quote. He even offers to walk out and duel Hanut Orr for offending her, though he admits it will do nothing for her reputation.

In a book where most characters lie to either help themselves or protect those around them, such a moment of honesty wins over not only Challice but this reader. This ability to both see his own foolishness as he is swept away by it... suddenly this novel's Lepidus is suffused with tragedy and reluctantly I hope for his escape from the doom that is sure to come whether their plot succeeds or fails. Well played, Mr. Erikson. Well played.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

All Toll the Hounds, all the time: Liveblogging MBotF

A few pages after I left off is a great example of Erikson's humor. Darujhistan's greatest alchemist reads a couple pages of an ancient mythological text, then complains to his companion, who served the text's subject, that this story is ridiculous and inconsistent.

"So what? Show me a written history that makes sense, and I will show you true fiction." (45).

What makes it even funnier is that the text he reads is in the style of a faux-classical epic.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Surrender to the years of struggle that was life's own chorus": Live-blogging Toll the Hounds

Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson, pages 1 to 35

So I think it's pretty obvious that I'm not going to get through the entire Malazan Book of the Fallen before Toll the Hounds comes out and I lack the restraint to hold off on TtH until I'm done with the seven previous books (at least two of which are not even here in Chicago with me). However, once I'm done with TtH, I probably will go back and reread again. 

Partly that's because Erikson is trying to wrap up the series (I think there might only be one more book after this), so this book echoes the first book in eerie ways. In general, Erikson has always been wicked (in a good way) about leaving characters alone. One book will see a set of characters off into the sunset with a happy ending...only to run into them out of the blue two books later falling to pieces. 

Call it the "nothing ever ends" philosophy of literature. Whereas other series seem to jump the shark when they bring back fan favorite characters that disappeared years ago, it usually happens because they're trotted out to face the exact same threat as before or a less impressive one.

To Erikson's credit, that's not an issue because of the variety of nested threats this series is filled with. Characters might fulfill their ultimate goal, but the world is still going to intrude in interesting way.  The new threats might be even worse because they threaten the equilibrium the character had established. Erikson doesn't do this to just drag characters down into the muck, the outcomes usually end up more complicated than that.

And of all the happy endings to come back and disrupt, Darujhistan has to be the ultimate one. For the last few books, we've seen a few glimpses of Krul's Bar and the Deadhouse as a refuge from the chaos elsewhere. I had a tendency to think of Darujhistan as safe from the problems sweeping the world of MBotF. However, just because they've solved problems in their neck of the woods doesn't mean new ones won't come up (how like real life!).

So after a thematically linked prologue that deals with dogs, especially the Hounds of Shadow, we're back in Darujhistan. And pretty quickly we see *SPOILER* a new assassination plot on the city's inhabitants (as in the early Darujhistan sequences in GotM!), a new cult that has sprung up around the "dead" Rallick Nom (who we know from GotM isn't dead at all), and the murder of a very jaded Murillo (one of the Daru heroes of GotM).

Probably the last is the most shocking since Murillo was one of the good guys and one of the winners in Gardens of the Moon. Now he's seducing alcoholic rich widows and realizing how purposeless his life is. And as this realization starts to register in his mind (as per the post title's quote), he gets killed immediately post-coitus by an over-zealous and clumsily drunk romantic rival.

The effectiveness of this sequence is helped by the way it contrasts with scenes of old, retired Malazan soldiers getting the drop on fresh, young professional assassins (cue PJ O'Rourke quote re: old age and guile versus youth and a bad haircut). It also helps that, in literature, we are trained to expect an epiphany to bring with it salvation and protection from the world's forces. The sufferer of the epiphany might suffer some more, but that new perspective allows them to survive whatever they face and maybe even rise above it.

Unfortunately, in MBotF and in the real world, those epiphanies frequently come too late, on the very edge of death. I'll leave it to someone else to append the moral to this.

Monday, September 15, 2008

If it ain't baroque, don't fix it...

Topless Robot (that's the name of the site, really) posted a list of reasons why the G.I. Joe comic was better than the cartoon and Sean T. Collins disagrees, feeling that Cobra Commander was cooler as a mutant from the Ice Age than a pissed-off used car salesman. 

And while I'd normally agree that trying to make a cartoon series based on a toy line "serious" is going to destroy whatever charm said toy line said, I think that Sean might feel differently if he'd read the comics.

Now I'm not going to pretend that the G.I. Joe comic books have held up well or that Larry Hama, the man who wrote most of the series, doesn't sometimes betray his embarrassment at the source material. But G.I. Joe wasn't Watchmen by any means or even trying to be.  G.I. Joe was a paranoid, Peter Pinguid-style military fantasy tied to a fear of '80's conformity (and I mean that as a compliment).  Hama eschewed the ridiculous sci-fi trappings of the toys in favor of the ridiculous tropes of the spy thriller.  Cobra was actually paramilitary cult based on an Amway-esque pyramid scheme.  They made their top echelon, the Crimson Guard, get plastic surgery so that they all looked alike, then named them all Fred! This wasn't realism by any stretch of the imagination, even to an 8 year old

G.I. Joe was a great comic book to read, especially as a kid, because it located a towering battle between good and evil under the cover of suburbia.  A deadly pursuit for a Typhoid Mary footsoldier on Coney Island! A pitched gun battle in an anonymous small town called Springfield (eat your heart out, the Simpsons) populated totally with Cobra cover agents! A covert ops unit hidden under the Chaplain's rectory at a minor military storage depot! This was genius to a child to whom Metropolis and Manhattan were equally fantastic and fictional. I didn't recognize that the Kingpin was based out of the Flatiron building, but my family drove by a dozen towns like Springfield every time we went on a road trip.

Once again, this wasn't Winesburg, Ohio, but it put an amazing adventure around every corner in places just like my medium-sized Southern city, a city that rarely showed up in movies, TV shows or comic books (and only then as some podunk place that only the people in the Andy Griffith Show would find exciting). That's why I prefer pissed-off used car salesman Cobra Commander to the Himlayan mutant Cobra Commander. And it had everything to do with the fantastic.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Listening to Cursive's "Art is Hard" after watching vampire movies is surprising appropriate

Mostly because Cursive's The Ugly Organ gives us a view of the artist as vampire, sustaining himself on personal tragedy that "normal" people would try to bury. In fact, at one point in Shaw's Man and Superman, Tanner describes the artist as "half-vivisector, half-vampire" to would-be artist Octavius, since he'll leech off all the women he can both for artistic material and for support (financial and emotional) that will allow the artist to focus on his art alone.

An interesting thought, since vampires are traditionally presented as aesthetes (Dorian Grey also fits this trend). The sensuality of their life is seen as some sort of art in and of itself. In the romanticized, tragic formulation of the vampire, his "deep" suffering and ennui make the horror he inflicts on other people acceptable (I'm thinking of the conception of the vampire you get from modern day Goth). Compare this to the popular conception of the artist who inflicts every kind of horror on friends, family and business associates for the purpose of creating "art" (Vincent Minelli's The Bad and the Beautiful might not be the ultimate example of this, but it is one of the more persuasive). 

After all, vampires have no interest in families. At best, they have a place in their lives for their lost love, an idealized representation of their innocence. At worst, they have harems in place of love, groveling servants in place of friends. And don't get me started on the Tennessee Williams stuff that fills Brides of Dracula. A young vampire's best friend is not his mother.

The one exception I can think of right now is Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. (SPOILER ALERT!) I would love to see Helen at CSB unpack the vampiric family it suggests (if it doesn't fulfill). Perhaps this is the kind of "parents as peers" scenario idealized, with the parents occupying (in appearance at least) a place in the child's cohort. On the other hand, the Durwards are following ancient family tradition and the scions bear an obligation to take care of their forebears. And while I am making fun of Helen's interests a little bit, I do think that Captain Kronos does present a fascinating, (somewhat) desexualized version of the vampire legend. This isn't the old Old World decadent seducing beautiful, moral young girls. This is the mother/wife looking after her family as her family tradition suggests. 

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Stop talking about comic books or I'll kill you

So the first week of my blog and my haul of comics don't provide much in the way of review fodder. I just picked up Ex Machina #38 and Criminal (vol.2) #5, which are both mid-storyline. And while both are doing okay, there's not very much going on that I want to talk about. 

Ex Machina is getting more and more superhero-y with every issue and, frankly, I find Hundred's political tightrope act and relations with his staff more interesting. I understand neither my objection or my preference divide from the other neatly. But I find it very striking that a comic that was supposed to feel realistic now has time travellers from the future showing up with warnings and a new costumed anti-hero who makes the main hero uncomfortable. Throw in Alex Ross' dad and we're getting into Kingdom Come territory. I don't have so much of a problem with the Hundred as an inadvertent Beast of the Apocalypse because the low-key, modern take on it is much more fun than the normal mustache-twirling over the top take that Armageddon usually gets. But next issue, I almost expect for Trouble to get shot by a god-bullet or something and Mitchell forced to fight Skrulls. Still, I'll keep following it.

As for Criminal, while I'm not exactly loving this storyline, I see hints that there is more to it than has been revealed so far. There are hints that Iris is way more than she appears (I'm not sure that Danny was plotting to kill Jacob at all) and I'm sure Jacob is going to start going down into the abyss very quickly. Brubaker's had a habit of giving us characters in this series who seem less complicated and less interesting than they end up. Intrigued for the next issue, at least.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

"You have chosen...unoriginally": Liveblogging Malazan Book of the Fallen

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, pages 1 through 139

Towards the beginning of chapter 4, Ganoes Paran, one of the main POV characters and a noble-born officer involved in a conspiracy, has just been killed by a god's assassin and Death sends a representative to meet him. Of course, Death's servant is determined by the dead person's own preconceived ideas. Ganoes at first imagines him as a confusing mix of races and deaths before settling on a skeleton. Which provokes the title quote from Death's servant.

There was plenty in the book that, prior to this point, had signaled GotM as different from Tolkien-esque high fantasy. This was the first moment that I understood Erikson's annoyance with stereotype and interest in subverting cliche. As much as I enjoy George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice, Steven Erikson frequently goes him one better at throwing monkeywrenches in the machine of fantasy plotting. Where Martin gives a puzzling prophecy, Erikson will give us a puzzling prophecy, that has been garbled by centuries of use, put in the mouth of an unreliable narrator.

After all, in a later book, Erikson will give us a society that totally misunderstands its' own creation myth because of a major climate change. And it makes sense! In addition, it is only a secondary plot point. These kind of things are seeded throughout the books. Do I need to explain further the brilliance of this world-building?

In Gardens of the Moon (so far), we've got the Malazan Empire, under the control of Empress Laseen who deposed the former emperor and his right-hand assassin under nasty circumstances. Since then, she's been waging endless wars that help subdue the Empire's rivals and also dispose of some Imperials of dubious loyalty. Think of those Soviet penal regiments that charged across mine fields and you've got the idea. One of these regiments is the Bridgeburners, that's been deployed to a disastrous siege along with the remainders of the Imperial Mage Cadre.

Meanwhile, two newly Ascendant gods named Ammanas and Cotillion have recruited a young girl from a fishing village in their bid to reenact The Manchurian Candidate (it seems) and placed her with the Bridgeburners. But the Empress has an inkling of what's going on and dispatched Ganoes Paran to take care of them. Then he gets killed and things start getting interesting...

That is a very long plot synopsis for 140 pages of story. But the story isn't confusing, at least, not to the extent of Dhalgren or Ada. Or, in more popular genre terms, the Urth of the New Sun series. Erikson's prose is clear and well-chosen and he's good at giving you enough info to get through until he lets something drop and makes the opaque translucent.

Also, a lot of this is stuff he establishes by showing the reader. You see a surviving mage figure out that, hey, that deadly blast of magic came from behind us, you see the Ascendant gods recruit the fisher-girl for their mysterious purposes. Often, the reader is figuring out these puzzles along with a character being introduced to this part of the world or society.

And what a world it is! While the Malazan Empire might come off as slightly familiar, Erikson is great at creating and establishing societies and traditions that make sense without feeling like warmed-over retreads of this fantasy trope or that real-world society. I don't read these books and say, "clearly this society stands in for medieval France or War of the Roses-era England." No offense to Guy Gavriel Kay or George R.R. Martin, but this capacity for invention is much closer to Gene Wolfe than anything.

So, as to the actual material in front of us:

  • The prologue does an efficient job of giving a taste of all the topics other characters will be discussing throughout the book (the Empire under the Emperor, Laseen's ambitions, the Bridgeburners' history pre- and post-coup, the fall of Dasseem Ultor), while not actually resolving them. The whole thing is told through the eyes of a young Ganoes Paran and Erikson is adept at the mix of naivete and keenness that a bright young teenager would bring to this strange encounter. Paran can tell the changes in Imperial bureaucracy and the strain in Laseen and the Bridgeburners' working relationship, but when he smells burning flesh in the air, he writes it off as an abattoir catching fire. Even though we know some incredibly vicious race riots are going on in that district.
  • Having read all seven books in the series, it's fun to reread the first one and see all the throwaway references that turn out to be really important. When Paran goes home on leave, we meet his sister Tavore, who speaks disparagingly of his more sensitive sister Felisin. First time through, I thought this was just to establish Paran's unhappy family. Now, knowing what's coming, I can't help but see Tavore and Felisin's tragic last encounter in Tavore's brusque (but not purposefully cruel) description of her.
  • On a slightly happier note, we meet our first Teblor (not Karsa Orlong, though) and hear characters wondering what the heck a Tiste Edur is and why they're so important? It'll take a while before we hear the answer, but when we do, oh boy...
  • In terms of invention, Erikson only starts showing how original this world is, often given glancing descriptions of races and civilizations that sound familiar to a fantasy fan, and only later delving into what makes them strange. The Moranth provide an excellent example. At first, the reader might think they're just a bunch of humans with flying machines and great ammunition. Once Paran gets on one of those flying machines, however, we start wondering if they're some ridiculously high-tech society that holds its' secrets close or intelligent humanoid insects.
  • And some of the other ideas in the book so far: a dying magician preserving his soul in a marionette doll, an immortal magician who travels around in his own flying moon, and teleportation pathways called Warrens that also channel supernatural energy and each have their own pantheon of gods! Some of these will get developed more than others, but the Warrens especially show Erikson's capacity for invention.
  • As far as characterization goes, I forgot that Ganoes Paran starts off as kind of a prig. Partly, that's because Erikson is careful to show qualities that will serve him well once he matures. And partly its because of the situations that he ends up being a prig in. If the guy who assassinated my country's former government ended up being my official escort to my new job, I'd be rude to him too. And then, just as he seems to shape up for tough times ahead, Erikson kills him! George R.R. Martin's best quality has always been his pull-no-punches plotting, but Erikson ties with him. Though in this case, Paran ends up sticking around. Death might not have been such a bad thing by the end of this book.
So, what thoughts do you guys have on the Malazan Book of the Fallen?


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Intro, Part II: The Geek Cornucopia Guarantee

Looking at yesterday's entry, I realized that I didn't make a few things clear about this blog. Here they are. This is the Geek Cornucopia Guarantee. I will try my best to hold to it, and if I decide to change parts to it, I will post a new GCG.

  1. Snark will be very limited. There are some much funnier snark-purveyors in this world on these subjects. Also, these are topics I love, and there is enough in my life that I do not enjoy for me to focus on things I want to mock. However, I do love the occasional bad movie as much as the next nerd. So, if I review The Apple or something of that ilk, it's because I like that film for those very qualities I mock. I'd rather watch a Cannon Group film that is over the top and awful but always exciting than a middle-brow Oscar-bait film.
  2. I'll post on topics that don't get discussed much. I have a different background than some geeks (which I'll probably explain in a few days) and some of the reasons that I enjoy my geeky hobbies also differ. I'm not going to post another Night of the Living Dead or D&D 4.0 review or comment on some hot blogosphere topic unless I truly think I have something new or different to say.
  3. I am interested in the following topics as they relate to my hobbies: performance, morality, criticism and theory, structure and aesthetics. These aren't going to be MLA-format essays, but I do want to be analytical here.
  4. I will not post the following: RPG campaign descriptions, political commentary, and "people who like ____ are stupid".
It's Mr. K's Geek Cornucopia Band, I hope you will enjoy the show!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Here's to evil *clink* : An Introduction

Hello everybody! Long-time nerd, first-time nerdblogger. 

*Hello, Mr. K!*

So, for the last couple of years, I've been slowly working my way through different nerd-o-spheres on the internet. Comic book blogs, sci-fi blogs, rpg blogs and sf & f movie sites. And while they've been entertaining or informative, none of them have quite spoken to me.  And that's perfectly understandable. Most of those bloggers had different backgrounds, different relationships to their hobbies and different interests.

So I'd read for a while and enjoy, but eventually feel a bit of an echo-chamber. And if something came up where I didn't agree with the general consensus, I might throw in a single, short comment or read and think and move on.

But I still had stuff I wanted to say. And rather than derail discussion or leave essay-long comments or come off as a troll, I decided to start this.

After all this, I guess I should say what this blog is about:
1. This is a blog about science-fiction and fantasy (and I do include horror under that genre umbrella). I'll touch on books, comic books and movies primarily, but I will post on rpgs occasionally. 
2. Of course, so do a ton of other people. However, I have a limited taste for high fantasy or "hard" sf, love literary fiction and art films, and read more superhero comics than art comics. I came to RPGs late (senior year of college) and classic sf very early.

As for regular features, I've got a couple of ideas in mind already:
Liveblogging the Malazan Book of the Fallen - Toll the Hounds comes out in a few weeks, so I'm going back and rereading them. I'll start with Gardens of the Moon and then move on.
Observations of a New RPG Player - I'm no grognard, I'll admit. I started playing D&D with 3.5 and think 4.0 is okay. I've just started checking out other systems and RPG theory, but I don't have as much nostalgia or baggage as some people do.  So my perceptions might be naive, but they'll provide a different POV than other people.
Live Brains: Zombie and Cult Film Reviews - A lot of the movies I enjoy or watch don't exactly have a lot of fans or reviews. I hope to at least start a discussion about some of them and get people interested
See you soon!