Sunday, November 16, 2014
Ann Leckie's debut novel Ancillary Justice
was a huge breakout novel that vanquished all comers during awards season. It racked up wins from Locus, the BSFA, the Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula, and Hugo Awards. As you might imagine, the recently published sequel, Ancillary Sword
, was eagerly awaited. I enjoyed the first book despite some reservations, so I was really hoping this one would shore up some of the lacking elements of its predecessor. What I got was completely unexpected.
This is a really odd novel. It picks up where the first book left off, with Breq accepting a commission as an officer in Anaander Mianaai's fleet and leading an expedition to... a space station with some minor strategic importance. There she butts heads with the local forces, led by one Captain Hetnys, and otherwise gets embroiled with various bits of local politics.
Like it's predecessor, this book is somewhat lacking in plot, though I will say that it does become somewhat tighter as a result. Unlike it's predecessor, many of the interesting things about the first book have been jettisoned. The complex non-linear narrative is gone. The first book's heady mix of hard and soft SF has shifted much more to the soft SF side. Many of the most intriguing things about the first book, particularly the ambitious exploration of hive minds and what that means for identity, while present, aren't really expanded upon in any real way. When Anaander Mianaai's condition is revealed in the first book, it opened up many tantalizing opportunities... that are almost completely bypassed in this sequel. The mysterious alien presence of the Presger was hinted at in the first book, and while the Presger's ambassador plays a significant role in this book, we still don't really get much in the way of information on the Presger. Even some of the softer ideas, like the way Radch culture doesn't distinguish between the sexes, calling everyone by female pronouns, aren't really expanded on at all. I suppose we get some closer looks at Radch society, but little beyond what we already knew.
It's a decidedly low-key approach that is not entirely unwelcome, but which makes me wonder where Leckie is trying to go with this series. It started off as a series filled with interesting ideas and an epic scope, and yet, it's all shaken down to this rather simple story that doesn't seem to really advance the series all that much. I suppose the implication is that the events of this book are happening all over the Radchaai Empire, which would make sense. And it's not really bad per say, it's just unexpected. Conceptually, I think this is something that could have worked really well, lots of crunchy ideas on a smaller, close-up scale. Alas, all of the interesting ideas originate in the first book and aren't expanded upon very much in this sequel.
The book has a more episodic approach than its predecessor, and many of the individual episodes are quite good. The opening reveals Breq to be a capable leader who immediately recognizes the deception of one of her officers. There's a great sequence where a pissed off Breq goes to the armory for target practice. Since she is a thousand of years old AI, she's pretty good at it, leading to some slackjawed crew members (Seivarden memorably notes: "Fleet Captain is pretty fucking badass.") Some of the incidents at the space station are less successful, though there are plenty of interesting bits about the formality of Radch society. There's a decent enough courtroom drama at one point, and several other interesting tidbits here or there. Leckie's not particularly great at action, but there's not a ton of action here anyway and she gets the job done. Many of the new side characters are pretty fantastic. Alas, when you add it all up, it's merely the sum of its parts, nothing more.
So I have mixed feelings about this. There are many bits to like, and I will say that it seems to be aging well in my head, but I don't think it's quite the equal of its predecessor either. It's almost certainly going to appear on the Hugo ballot next year, but I'm doubting that it will win. One other side note: I listened to this on audio book, and I hated the reader. She was fine most of the time, but for certain characters, particularly the ones we're not supposed to like, she puts on this ridiculous, high pitched, exaggerated cockney accent (I think). That wouldn't be a disaster if she didn't use the exact same voice for multiple characters, and if the story weren't so talky (which it really is, and it gets kinda weird when Breq is speaking with two of the weirdly accented people). Just a fair warning, you'd probably be better off reading this one rather than listening.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
As per usuals, lots of interesting things on the internets for yous to checks out:
- Lightning Round: We Finally Have a Trailer for "Furious 7. - Let's Drive Some Fast Cars Out of Planes! - In Grantland's summary of the trailer for furious 7, there's a brilliant bit about what the trailer for Fast/Furious 8 (a crossover with Gravity) will look like:
INT - A CARGO HOLD CONTAINING NUMEROUS MUSCLE CARS
I would watch this.
ROMAN SITS AT THE WHEEL OF ONE OF THE CARS. HE IS WEARING A SPACE HELMET.
ROMAN: "Dom, are you sure about this?"
LETTY (V.O): "Nervous, Roman?"
DR. RYAN STONE: "Don't worry, Roman. I've done this in my underwear."
CARGO DOORS OPEN, REVEALING THE SURFACE OF EARTH FRAMED BY STARS.
CLOSE-UPS OF VEHICLE IGNITIONS AND STICK SHIFTS. THE MUSCLE CARS BACK DOWN THE RAMP AND BEGIN PLUMMETING THROUGH SPACE. ORANGE AND YELLOW RE-ENTRY FLAMES LICK AT THE CHASSIS.
- William Gibson Has No Idea How the Future Will See Us - An interview in which Gibson speculates how the future will see us (spoiler: nothing like we see ourselves):
The one constant, it seems to me, in looking at how we look at the past, how we have looked at the past before, is that we never see the inhabitants of the past as they saw themselves.
Heh. I'm looking forward to checking out Gibson's new novel, The Peripheral. Potential Hugo nominee? Time will tell!
We have a very detailed idea of what the Victorians were like. They're not really very far away, but they were different. Their view of themselves is nothing like our view of them. They probably didn't think they were puritanical and kinky. They probably didn't think that conditions of child labor were that problematic. I'm sure they didn't think that colonialism was a problem - it was a feature, not a bug. Their whole business was based on it. We see them very differently, and I think that the future won't see us as anything like we see ourselves to be.
- I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup - An interesting take on the tendency to politicize everything, and that the lines aren't necessarily as clear cut as we think.
Compare the Nazis to the German Jews and to the Japanese. The Nazis were very similar to the German Jews: they looked the same, spoke the same language, came from a similar culture. The Nazis were totally different from the Japanese: different race, different language, vast cultural gap. But although one could imagine certain situations in which the Nazis treated the Japanese as an outgroup, in practice they got along pretty well. Heck, the Nazis were actually moderately friendly with the Chinese, even when they were technically at war. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Nazis and the German Jews - some of whom didn’t even realize they were anything other than German until they checked their grandparents’ birth certificate - is the stuff of history and nightmares. Any theory of outgroupishness that naively assumes the Nazis’ natural outgroup is Japanese or Chinese people will be totally inadequate.
- Windows 93 - What would Windows 95 have looked like if it were released two years earlier? Probably not this, but it's a goofy exercise and fun to check out anyway.
- Interview: Bud Webster - An interesting interview with a guy who works for the SFWA's Estate Project, basically a place that tries to keep track of copyrights after an author's death (a non-trivial task):
CARL: What constitutes due diligence when determining whether a story is public domain?
BUD: A good question, but one that doesn't have a simple answer. You can't just Google a name, not find anything on the first screen, and assume that the estate is dead. Nor can you find one source offering the work for free and claiming it's PD and not look further. That ain't no way diligence, due or otherwise. For me, due diligence is looking for as long as it takes to find an answer one way or another. If that means asking a few people, fine. If it means checking the Copyright Office website for specific renewal notices, searching for the possibility that the magazine that originally published a story may not have registered copyright then looking further to see if the author did at a later time, then that's equally fine. I will point out here, though, that to my direct knowledge the information at the CO website is not always accurate; in one specific case, an e-publisher checked the status of a novel there, found no notice of renewal, and issued the book. When the author - still alive and writing, I'll point out - found out about it, he was able to show the publisher his paperwork proving that the rights HAD been renewed. To the publisher's credit, they immediately issued a check in the amount the writer asked for. So, due diligence? It's whatever it takes. Now I know that's not terribly responsive, and it's certainly NOT a legal definition by any means, but it's what I do.
And that's all for now...
Sunday, November 09, 2014
I read a fair amount, but there are only a few authors whose output I eagerly await. Longtime readers already know that Neal Stephenson
and Lois McMaster Bujold
are the ringleaders, but John Scalzi is also among their ranks. Scalzi rankles a fair amount of folks because of his politics (which have been getting more and more pronounced over time), but in general, I've found his novels to be enjoyable pageturners. Being "easy to read" also rankles a certain element of fandom, those who seek "literary" status as opposed to entertainment and good old fashioned storytelling. Scalzi won a Best Novel Hugo award last year for Redshirts
, which produced much teeth-gnashing from a wide range of people. It was an odd novel, but it's one that seems to have aged well in my head (my only issues with it were meta-issues). I suspect I would not have ranked it #1 that year, but like this year's Ancillary Justice win
, I can't really fault people from voting for what they like - the Hugo is a populist award, after all. So it's with this baggage that I come to Scalzi's latest novel, Lock In
. In short, I found it disappointing. Not bad, per say, but I have trouble mustering up much enthusiasm.
takes place in the near future, after a global pandemic of something called Haden's Syndrome that mostly presented flu-like symptoms, but for about 1% of the population, resulted in locked-in syndrome
. This is a real condition that is thankfully pretty rare, but in the world of the novel, the amount of locked-in patients (called "Hadens" in the book) exploded. The world adapted and developed a whole suite of solutions, including a Haden-only virtual reality space, embedded neural networks, and robot-like machines that can be "driven" by Hadens. This is all worldbuilding though, and the story proper is a pretty straightforward police procedural, following FBI agents Chris Shane (a Haden himself) and Leslie Vann as the investigate a Haden-related death.
Science Fiction is perhaps infamous for its reliance on exposition and info-dumps, but the first chapter of this book is a pretty egregious example. It baldly lays out the worldbuilding, encyclopedia-style, and as near as I can tell, it's completely superfluous. You get a lot of the same information through context as the story unfolds. I may be griping a little too hard about this, but it started me off on the wrong foot, and it took a while to recover.
While I'm complaining about things, Scalzi's politics are showing. Of course, an author's politics are always showing in one way or another, and Scalzi's past novels were no exception, but this time around there are completely unnecessary tangents on things like, for example, gun control. These are disappointing tidbits, but fortunately, they aren't pervasive. On the other hand, Scalzi's concern with gender is much more successful. Agent Vann is great, a smart, tough, hard-drinking veteran agent who reminded me of the well connected smuggler at the heart of Polar City Blues
(another SF mystery that, alas, I wound up enjoying more than Lock In
). If you are paying attention, (and if you read Scalzi's blog, how could you not pay attention to this stuff?) you'll notice that Chris Shane's gender is not specified. This apparently blew some people's minds, but I was expecting this sort of thing from Scalzi. Of course, it's pretty easy to pull off when your character is represented by a featureless robot 99.9% of the time in the novel, which did make me wonder much more about the lives of Hadens. Again, this is a detective thriller, so there's not a lot of time given to exploring these aspects of a Haden's life, but as tangents go, that would have been a welcome one.
The overall mystery is well done, but nothing particularly special. There aren't any grand revelations, but it's more satisfying than your typical episode of [insert CBS procedural here]. It took me longer than usual to be hooked (perhaps because of that clunky opening chapter), and while Scalzi normally excels at snappy dialogue, it wasn't quite as snappy as his other recent efforts.
I ultimately did enjoy the book, but I found myself nitpicking, which I generally attribute to some deeper dislike (though I'm having trouble pinpointing that). It has been getting pretty good reviews though, so I'm fully expecting that it will be nominated for a Hugo next year (it will not, however, be appearing on my nominating ballot). Apparently Lock In
was also optioned for a television show, and a SF police procedural might actually work really well. So I wasn't totally on board with this book, but regardless, I'm very much looking forward to the second Human Division
novel (er, collection?), as I really loved the first installment
(even if it ended on an unexpected cliffhanger).
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
As per usual, interesting links from the depths of the internets:
- The Uber for Gentleman Companions by By Julieanne Smolinski - As with everything Julieanne writes, you should read this. It's about a service that provides male companions that are totally not whores. Sample awesome:
You can also give him whatever name you want, and enumerate any crazy things you might want him to do via a special requests section.
Umm, slightly NSFW, I guess. But brilliant and hilarious.
Don't get too excited, though, as suggested special requests include "feeds you grapes while fanning you," and not, say, "defecates on a glass coffee table while you lie underneath furiously masturbating."
- These previously unseen Star Wars posters look absolutely awesome - Indeed they do.
- Ask Andrew W.K.: Pizza Is Healthy - "Pizza is more than just food; it's a genuine physical and spiritual pleasure. Anyone who says that money cannot buy happiness has clearly never spent their money on pizza."
- How facts backfire - This is mildly disturbing, but also gives credence to the notion that politics are to be avoided:
Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
(emphasis mine) If you ever wonder why people decry the inclusion of politics into previously serene areas of culture (recent examples include the SF community and nerdy communities in general), this is why. Politics engender misunderstanding in even the most benign situations, and at worst, creates a toxic environment.
- An Easy Choice? Dream On - On the perils of buying a mattress:
Is there any home purchase more confusing and fraught with anxiety than buying a mattress? Study after study points to sleep being vitally important to our health and happiness, and it stands to reason that a mattress is a foundational component of a good night’s rest. And yet to choose the right one, shoppers must navigate a Kafkaesque maze.
And that's all for now. Party on.
Sunday, November 02, 2014
6WH: Speed Round and Halloween
Six weeks sounds like a long time, but time flies when you're cowering in abject terror. As per usual, I have not actually written up every movie I saw during this festive Halloween season. Sometimes a movie just doesn't fit with a given week's theme, or perhaps I only caught a portion of it on television, or I've already written about it, or sometimes I just don't have much to say about a movie. So every year, I close out the marathon with a quick roundup of everything I saw that hasn't already been covered.
- You're Next - This was one of my favorite movies of 2013 and revisiting it reveals that it gets even better when you know where it's going. Much of the initial portion of the film, which I didn't particularly love the first time around, becomes more palatable when you know where it's going. And where it's going is a whole lot of fun! ***1/2
- Blood Glacier - Unquestionably the worst movie of the marathon, and will probably be the worst 2014 movie I've seen. The premise is ok, a group of scientists studying a glacier notice a quickly emerging red color on the glacier and find that it's.... ALIVE! Or something like that. They don't really go anywhere with it, instead focusing on some terrible creature effects that wouldn't be a problem if the characters and dialogue and general story weren't so awful. Stay away from this one! *
- Hellraiser: Inferno - Since all of the Hellraiser movies are on streaming, this was a potential marathon this year, but I only ended up watching this one. This may tell you something, but on the other hand, while I wasn't particularly taken with this, it was fine. It had some pretty good ideas to it, an expansion of the role of the Engineer, some fanciful dreamlike imagery, and the makings of something pretty interesting. There's promise here, but it's lacking in execution. It might have been better if the protagonist was someone we could be a little more sympathetic towards, or indeed, care about at all. He's a bit muddled, such that you don't even get the sort of vicarious revenge feeling when he gets his comeuppance. That being said, I may have to revisit some Hellraiser next year... **
- How to Be a Serial Killer - Another movie that had the makings of a pretty interesting and fun horror comedy, but unfortunately, it feels like the filmmakers didn't really know where to go with it, so it just sorta devolves into boringness. The premise is kinda fun, a serial killer who addresses the audience directly about the ins-and-outs of serial killing as a hobby. Or something. It starts out well enough, but it loses energy about halfway through and never really regains it. Also, while the guy seems charismatic and confident at the start, the way the film plays out contradicts that, which makes this less fun. Not the worst way to spend 90 minutes, but you could probably do better. **
- Oculus - I was surprised at how effective this movie wound up being, though again, it feels like it runs out of steam right at the finale, which is exactly what you would expect from the beginning of the movie. Fortunately, along the way, we're treated to lots of creepy happenings and a rather fantastic premise, that of a mirror which toys with your perceptions. The ways in which the characters explore the powers of the mirror is quite effective, all the moreso because the mirror seems to be working despite their efforts. There's some flashback sequences that are also pretty effective, and the movie is overall well done. Not quite a classic, but certainly worth checking out. **1/2
- The Exorcist - I liked this movie the first time I saw it, but it's become more effective every time since then, and this time was no exception. I do still think the book is a better experience, but the movie is nevertheless a classic. ***1/2
- Eye See You - Hey, you remember that time Sylvester Stallone made a slasher? Yeah, me neither, and that probably tells you something. This is paint by numbers stuff, and in truth, not much of a slasher (more of a body-count thriller or serial killer movie), but perhaps worthwhile due to a pretty great cast. **
- A Nightmare on Elm Street - I've obviously seen this a few times before, and it holds up reasonably well, thanks mostly to it's pure horror premise of a monster that can get you in your dreams. The thing that differentiates these movies from the throng of other slashers, of course, is Freddy. He talks, he's got a personality, he's sadistic, and one thing that struck me this time around is how much of the horror he delivers by performing some sort of self mutilation.
It's all in dreams, so he can do whatever he wants. And the dreams in this original installment are the most effective. I find that a lot of movies use dreams as a crutch, and while it's often imaginative, it takes something special to make the dreams tangible enough to be horrific. Wes Craven really structured these dreams well, and later installments somehow don't manage to capture that X factor that I'm having a hard time describing. There are some things that don't hold up that well, but they're far outweighed by the premise and effective and very creepy visuals. ***1/2
- The Fly (1958) - After watching Cronenberg's exceptional remake, and given the earlier theme of the Remade, I decided to rev up Netflix and check out the original. I had completely forgotten about the framing narrative, where the wife is telling the story we all remember in flashback form, and that was the part I liked the best. The actual core of the story isn't nearly as effective as the remake, but it has its hokey charms, and the symmetry of the two creatures created is pleasing in its own way. **1/2
- Curse of the Demon - Caught this one on TV, a Jacques Tourneur joint, and as such, there's a fair amount of decent suspense in a story we've all probably seen before. A skeptic man investigates the mysterious death of a colleague who was cursed by some sort of occult practitioner.
It's one of those things about once you receive the parchment with the mysterious symbols on it, you will be killed by a demon exactly 7 days later. There's perhaps not enough here for the full run-time, but it has its moments, and when you get towards the end, there's some mildly clever machinations to get out of the curse (or, as is usually the case in these movies, transfer it). It's clearly an influential film, and stuff like Ringu/The Ring or Take Me to Hell are kinda remakes or more accurately, reimaginings, so it's worth watching for that, though it's clearly not as effective as more modern takes. **1/2
- House of Wax - Another film watched because of the whole original/remake theme that was the general throughline of this year's proceedings. This is mildly effective, and of course, you've got to love Vincent Price, but on the other hand, it's quite old-fashioned and with a couple of notable exceptions, not quite as effective as it must have once been. I'd put the remake about on par with this one, maybe a slight edge to this, simply for the originality factor. Worth checking out. **1/2
- Urban Legend - I originally wanted to include this on the Neo-Slasher week, but I was foiled by Nextflix and had to fall back on reviewing both of the Cold Prey movies... It's mildly fun, but falls down on a lot of the slasher conventions. That being said, the notion of staging the murders like urban legends is a reasonably good idea that is reasonably well executed. It's not quite as tight as it needs to be, but it has its moments. **1/2
- Halloween - I watch this every year on Halloween night, and I can't get over how effective it remains, despite having seen it so often. It is truly a classic. ****
- Trick 'r Treat - Another movie that's becoming an annual tradition, for good reason. Really looking forward to the sequel, apparently due next year!
And that just about covers it. It's been a great year, I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. As always, check out fellow travelers at Six Weeks of Halloween
and Film Thoughts
for more (a lot more than me, and probably more insightful analysis as well)... Already thinking ahead to next year.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
6WH: The Ones That Got Away
The Six Weeks of Halloween is an ambitious undertaking. I've noticed that every year, I try to start with some sort of namby pamby, pretentious, usually historical theme. Stuff like Italian Giallos
, German Krimis
, Classic Universal Horror
, Silent Horror
, Kaiju movies
, and this year's Remade
. Invariably, I fall back on schlocky horror or slashers and the like, but I always find myself pining for films I don't actually get to during the actual six weeks of this marathon. It's a long time, but there are still plenty of movies I want to watch, but don't really get the chance to watch in time. Here's a sampling of some stuff I wanted to watch this year, but most likely, won't get to:
- Magic (1978) - A tale of a ventriloquist at the mercy of his vicious dummy, I really wanted to watch this because it stars Anthony Hopkins and is directed by Richard Attenborough (which, for the uninitiated, is a pretty interesting combo that doesn't normally gravitate towards horror).
- Torso (1973) - An Italian Giallo about a serial killer who wears a distinctive red and black scarf, sounds interesting, continually thwarted by Netflix this season.
- No One Lives - Just came in the mail, so I may get to this one yet!
- Cronos - An early Guillermot del Toro film about a vampiric device, I've wanted to check this one out for a while, but for some reason, it's never quite made it to the top of my queue.
- Basket Case - Added to my queue solely because it was on Netflix Instant, I may have to save this for a Frank Henenlotter marathon in years to come...
- The Gingerdead Man - Probably best saved for the Holiday season, but even now, it's on a "Very Long Wait" schedule...
- Raw Meat - I know little about this except that it takes place in a sorta subway setting in London. That being said, it has good reputation, so I'm in...
- American Mary - A somewhat recent film about a medical student who agrees to some more "freakish" procedures. Or something like that.
- Dead Silence - Mostly notable for being the movie James Wan made after the original Saw<, and thus I'd like to give it a chance (as several of Wan's most recent films have been quite interesting)./li>
- Haunter - Wait, so Vincenzo Natali released a movie last year? I guess I should watch it!
And there you have it, the top 10 films I didn't get to this year. Will I get to them later? Only time will tell...
Sunday, October 26, 2014
6WH: Week 6 - David Cronenberg
A fortuitous confluence of events lead to a mini-Cronenberg marathon this weekend. It started with the Criterion Collection
having a sale and then a long out-of-print film popped up on streaming. What's a Cronenberg fan to do? Snag a third film and make it a weekend. There's nothing quite like Cronenberg's early work. Famous for Body Horror
, but a very specific brand of body horror. Few imitators come close to what Cronenberg was doing in the late 70s and early 80s, and quite frankly, Cronenberg himself hasn't done much in this realm himself lately. Like fellow horror auteur Wes Craven, Cronenberg almost always manages to tap into something deeper, almost primal in his work, such that even missteps and failures wind up pretty interesting. Oddly, for someone who often portrays graphic gore on screen, it's what's not shown that really gets under your skin. As Matt Singer noted during a recent episode of the Filmspotting: SVU podcast, Cronenberg has a large number of tropes that he sorta mixes and matches in his movies. Things like "deep distrust of doctors", "completely invented wings of medical science", "mega-grossout climaxes", and the phrase "collapsed fleshy sack". My kinda director. This wound up being a highly entertaining week, perhaps my favorite of the year, but then, I'd already seen two of these movies and the third was one I'd wanted to see for quite a while (and it lived up to expectations). Let's get this party started...
- Rabid (trailer)
- Horror Movie Daycare (short)
- The Exorcist (amazing unreleased trailer)
- Shivers (aka They Came from Within) - While not Cronenberg's first film, it is his breakout film. It has long been out-of-print, but a recent restoration by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has appeared on both Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming. The film opens with a sorta slideshow presentation of the ultra-modern (modern for the 1970s, that is) apartment complex, complete with all the amenities. Soon, we take a quick tour around the grounds, and meet the charming residents, like the old guy who strangles a much younger woman, cuts her open, and pours some sort of acid inside her. Oh, and then he cuts his throat with a scalpel. Finally, we meet our protagonist, a doctor who has set up his practice right there in the building. He starts to find people with strange growths in their gut, and once he finds out about the murder/suicide, he starts to find an explanation for all the mysterious happenings. It's an effective setup, and there's plenty in the way of creepy doctors, "completely invented wings of medical science", little crawly parasites (akin to those from Night of the Creeps or the more recent Slither), not to mention parasites of the more bulgy kind. The parasites spread through sexual contact, and they seem to increase libido in order to speed things along. This eventually turns the movie into a sorta zombie-like picture, though to my mind, much more effective than your typical zombie. There are plenty of Cronenbergian body horror gross out sequences, like one parasite who enters during a bath, or the guy who speaks almost soothingly to the bulging parasite in his gut. The ending is kinda one-note and lacks a bit of pizazz, but it works well enough. Definitely worth a watch for Cronenberg fans as it contains a lot of his themes (even if they're not fully developed just yet), and probably worth it for regular fans of creepy movies. Also makes a good companion to the Clive Barker story "The Age Of Desire", part of the collection I read recently. ***
- The Brood (trailer)
- Nightbreed (trailer)
- Videodrome (trailer)
- Scanners - This might be my favorite Cronenberg movie. Though perhaps not the best or most influential (see below), it's probably the most fun. There really aren't a lot of movies that really chronicle mind readers or people with mental powers. What's more, when they do, it seems so easy (think Professor X putting a couple fingers to his temple and closing his eyes). Not so here. Scanning seems like an incredibly painful activity for all involved, and when you've got an actor like Michael Ironside hamming it up and chewing scenery, you really see it on his face. The scanning scenes are genuinely effective, and with a couple of notable exceptions, most of it is portrayed by the actors and some excellent sound design (a sorta high pitch pulsing that slowly intensifies as the scan proceeds).
For the most part, this is a pretty straightforward thriller, but as per usual, Cronenberg taps into something deeper here, and while his general tendencies towards body horror are toned down a bit, we do get some rather exceptional set pieces. The most famous one at the beginning culminates in a head exploding (truly a splendid example, rivaled only by Savini exemplars like Dawn of the Dead or Maniac), and the one towards the end, well, we won't go into too much detail here. Let's just say that throbbing veins play a role. Lead actor Stephen Lack comes across as a little on the bland side, especially since he's playing opposite of Ironside, who is just fully committed to the more ridiculous aspects of this world. As a story, Lack's character also seems kinda like a blank slate. There's something interesting going on here, and in a more action packed movie, there might be more of a training montage or something. As it is, Lack's character is just sorta thrust into things, and we have to buy that he's suddenly learned to control his powers. Still, the movie is a lot of fun, and has a lot of great set pieces. The scanning bits, as previously mentioned, are very well portrayed. One of the more memorable things is when a character scans a computer system via a phone line. Pretty advanced stuff for a 1981 movie. Overall, it's a ton of fun, and the Criterion Blu-Ray looks fantastic. ***1/2
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VIII: Fly Vs. Fly
- The Dead Zone (trailer)
- The Fly (1958 trailer)
- The Fly - This remake of the hokey 1958 classic marks the culmination of all of Cronenberg's talents. He's firing on all cylinders here, tackling all of his tropes with gusto and executing nearly flawlessly. The skeleton of the original story is here (scientist messes with teleportation technology), but Cronenberg fleshes (pun intended!) it out considerably, and obviously the makeup and practical special effects here are top notch. Of Cronenberg's movies, this one is probably the absolute grossest, with a fair amount of gore and viscera, and one of the most horrific body transformations - made all the more effective because it happens slowly, and to a character who knows what's happening and yet, cannot stop it. The previous two movies we covered today had lackluster leading men, but Cronenberg eventually caught on and starting casting fantastic actors in the lead roles, and here Jeff Goldblum is perfect as the slightly awkward scientist, he can play the manic crazy scientist when needed, and he can also do the sad, decaying creature we see towards the end of the film.
I've obviously seen this a few times before, and it's funny what scenes I actually remember, and which always seem to surprise me. For instance, I always remember the scene where he explains why he has 7 identical outfits in his closet, and I always remember Geena Davis' dream sequence (who doesn't?), but I always forget about stuff involving the ex-boyfriend (and the dissolvey hands, etc...) It's a big improvement over the original, and stands as one of the best remakes of all time, if not one of the best horror movies in general. Sadly, while Cronenberg has done lots of good work since this movie, he's never quite returned to this sort of horror, which is a real shame... ****
So there you have it. I'm debating on whether Wednesday's post will be the last 6WH, or if I'll extend it out to next Sunday. Time will tell! It's hard to believe we're already this far along, but it's been a fun 6 weeks...
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
6WH: Documenting Horror
Documentaries are not particularly scary, but there are a plethora of documentaries that are worth taking in during the Halloween season. Many of these are focused on chronicling the making of certain movies or a particular genre, and those are great for when you want to explore something in depth yourself (a good list of movies to tick). But the best documentaries really get at the heart of something and try to tackle the questions every horror fan asks themselves: Why am I watching this junk? Of course, those are few and far between, but it's worth seeking them out. Here are a few horror documentaries I checked out this Halloween season:
- Doc of the Dead - This doc covers the history of the Zombie movie, starting with the original voodoo zombies of the 30s and 40s (think White Zombie or I Walked With a Zombie) but quickly hitting the trope codifier of modern zombies, Night of the Living Dead. It covers a fair swath of zombie films after that, including all the typical debates (fast versus slow zombies, to eat brains, or not, etc...), and a solid cast of talking heads, and good production value, but it doesn't particularly achieve the breadth or depth that you would expect out of a documentary like this. It covers most of Romero's films, and the most obvious and famous zombie films, but not much in the way of obscure or underrated stuff. This doesn't make it hard to watch or anything, and I found it a good introduction, but considering that I'm not a particularly big fan of zombie films, even I found a fair amount of gaps in the analysis. Still, I imagine big zombie fans would get a kick out of it, and it would also make a good introduction for someone who wants to get into zombie movies. **1/2
- The American Scream - This movie follows three families in one town as they create haunted houses in their backyard for Halloween. This might sound a bit pedestrian, but these are serious people, ranging from one guy who seems to be better than the pros (and might drive himself or his family crazy in doing so), another that seems to have his priorities straight, and a third that doesn't seem quite with it. All in all, it's an interesting and well executed documentary. Movies like this have to walk a fine line between documenting what's going on while not seeming like they're being mocked for what their doing either. This movie hits the edge a few times, especially with that third guy, but it never goes overboard and it actually has an interesting and hopeful ending. I was ultimately rooting for all of these guys, so I think the movie accomplished what it set out to do. ***
- Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film - I watch this every year, so I have little else to say about it, except to compare it to Doc of the Dead. This movie doesn't go too deep into any one movie (possibly excepting Halloween, for obvious reasons), but really demonstrates a love for the sub-genre in the sheer breadth of films it covers, from popular stuff like Friday the 13th, to more obscure stuff, like The Prowler. It seems I find a new movie I need to catch up with every time I watch this movie, which says a lot. It's certainly not perfect, but it covers the full slasher story, which is more than I can say for most similar films. ***
And that's all for now. I think this weekend (sadly, the final weekend of the Six Weeks of Halloween) will have no discernible theme, followed by the usual Speed Round. It's hard to believe it's almost done.