Monday, 31 October 2016
Friday, 28 October 2016
Y: The Last Man, Vol. 4: Safeword, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Parlov, and José Marzań, Jr (Vertigo) | review by Stephen Theaker
Wednesday, 26 October 2016
The Hounds of Hell, Book 1: The Eagle’s Companions, by Philippe Thirault and Christian Højgaard (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker
Monday, 24 October 2016
Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra and José Marzán, Jr (Vertigo) | review
Friday, 21 October 2016
Jessica Jones, Season 1, by Melissa Rosenberg and chums (Marvel/Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker
Jessica is played by Krysten Ritter, from Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23 and Veronica Mars (fans of that show may also enjoy this darker take on the same genre). It’s not the most obvious casting, since she’s best known for comedy, but she’s very good, conveying all the moods and troubles of her character perfectly. Everyone in the programme is equally well cast, and it’s well directed, and always interesting. Overall, I enjoyed it, but it drove me up the wall, the longer it went on. Some people might see the problems I had with it as nitpicking, but to me they were fundamental flaws. Jessica and her friends are trying to defeat an enemy who can order anyone to follow his instructions, but they don’t use earplugs, they don’t wear noise-cancelling headphones, they don’t do any of the perfectly obvious things you would do to cope with someone who has those powers. And they can’t convince anyone to believe he has powers, even though SHIELD, at the very least, know of an Asgardian with the same gimmick, and everyone would know about the superpowers of Thor and the Hulk. It might have been better if Kilgrave and his powers had been brought to the fore a bit later in the series, coming in for the finale rather than being the main antagonist for the whole thing, because, much as I like David Tennant and love his portrayal of this repellent character, his powers don’t stand up to twelve hours of scrutiny – even if the show does find interesting ways to use them. I’m looking forward to season two, though. ***
Wednesday, 19 October 2016
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, by Thomas Ligotti (Penguin Classics) | review by Rafe McGregor
Penguin have overcome the problem of the public’s preference for substantial volumes by compiling Ligotti’s first two short story collections for their series. Songs of a Dead Dreamer was first published in 1985 and contains nineteen stories and a curious (but fascinating) lecture; Grimscribe was first published in 1991 and contains thirteen stories and an (also curious but fascinating) introduction for a total of thirty-four short works preceded by a foreword from Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer is best known for his Ambergris and Southern Reach series and, with his wife Ann, as the foremost anthologist of weird fiction in the twenty-first century. The foreword is everything one would hope from a preface: laudatory without being slavish and informative without being pedantic. VanderMeer is quick to mention “the author’s unique way of seeing the world”, which is precisely the reason I differ from him in my description of Ligotti as a writer of weird tales. VanderMeer sees Ligotti as “always passing through” the weird to the literary, but I do not consider classification as both weird (understood as a subgenre of horror) and literary as incompatible, even if Ligotti’s work is uniquely classified as such.
In my previous review, I focused on two themes explored by Ligotti: the difference between things as they really are and things as we perceive them and the sinister implications of the meaning of “demoralization”. The first story in the collection, “The Frolic”, evinces both of these, but it is the former that has the greater resonance in Ligotti’s oeuvre. In my review of David Tallerman’s The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories (2016) in issue fifty-five, I mentioned S.T. Joshi’s definition of weird fiction as embodying a distinctive world-view by the author. There is a sense in which Ligotti’s distinctive world-view is one that explores the deconstructive criticism that was so popular and so infamous towards the end of the last century. There has been a great deal of nonsense written about (and some would say by) Jacques Derrida, who popularised the approach in the sixties, but the basic idea behind deconstruction is simple: human beings (subjective experience) can only gain access to the real world (objective reality) through concepts, which are articulated through language. The worry, which stems from curiosities such as the fact that languages not only use different words for the same concept, but have different concepts that cannot be translated in their entirety, is that no human language and therefore no human conception maps perfectly on to reality. There is obviously plenty of overlap – otherwise we would not be able to build bridges, cure diseases, invent the internet, and fly to the moon – but there is no identity relation between concept and reality. The space that this opens up is the difference between the world as we think it is and the world as it really is, where aspects of the latter are understood to remain permanently inaccessible to us. Ligotti takes this difference and scrapes away at it, making it larger and more frightening. In “The Frolic”, a prison psychologist states of his paedophile patient: “He says he just made the evidence look that way for the dull masses, that what he really means by ‘frolicking’ is a type of activity quite different from, even opposed to, the crimes for which he was convicted.” The actions of the patient are even more horrific than they initially appear for they are not only a form of torture, but a reminder that we live in a world that we are incapable of fully understanding.
One of the features of deconstructive criticism is that it undermines commonly accepted logic and Ligotti’s tales follow suit. A basic principle of logic, for example, is the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot be both true and false at the same time, but the narrator of “The Frolic” demurs: ‘“It’s as if I know something and don’t know it at the same time.”‘ He is subsequently shown to both know and not know – knowing where the evidence points and also knowing that his grasp of reality is subjective rather than objective. And later, from “Dream of a Manikin”: “Accredited studies notwithstanding – as I’m sure you would contest – suppose the dreamer is not a man or butterfly, but both … or neither, something else altogether.” This is the most distinctive and the most disturbing element of Ligotti’s horror, the way it deconstructs reality in the philosophical sense. Even if we have good mental health, reality is revealed only through fallible conceptions and this lack of fit between words and world is a frightening subject of contemplation, a gap through which monsters of all kinds can enter. It is not that Ligotti’s monsters are more frightening than those of other authors, but that he exposes our world as a place that remains essentially – necessarily – unknown to us and, as H.P. Lovecraft proclaimed in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), there is nothing more frightening than the unknown.
The influence of Lovecraft is strongly felt in many, if not most, of these stories – but this is a genuine influence, of his cosmic futilitarianism rather than his strangely named gods and books. Occasionally, it is explicit: the end of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” reveals the story’s dedication to Lovecraft and is a re-writing of “The Festival” (1925) without that story’s flaws (and also acknowledges the influence of Edgar Allan Poe with mention of “the Conqueror Worm”). Mostly, the influence is implicit, from the suggestion of an alien presence in “The Frolic” to the distant similarities between “The Dreaming in Nortown” and “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936) and the more obvious similarities between “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” and “The Colour Out of Space” (1927). The latter story by Ligotti, the last in Grimscribe, is particularly interesting in that it throws up one of the two major differences between Ligotti and his predecessor: Ligotti is not only a much better writer than Lovecraft, but where Lovecraft was fascinated by rural and far-flung locales, Ligotti’s focus is on urban settings. This choice makes his writing even more unnerving for it is in the towns and cities, where we have self-evidently shaped reality to our own ends, that we should feel most at home in the world – but where the cracks between perception and reality are at their widest.
Monday, 17 October 2016
Though this is a very modern series of Doctor Who in most ways, the special effects, writing, sound design, direction and acting always excellent – I’d say film quality at times, if more films were actually this good – it feels like Steven Moffat’s stab at writing a traditional season of the original show: split these episodes in two and you could have five four-part stories, a two-parter, and a six-parter. It’s exciting throughout, different again to Moffat’s previous seasons, always looking for new ways to test the format, expand its possibilities, and hammer at the Doctor’s weaknesses, while also giving children new playground games to play and good advice for life: next season may well focus on the ramifications of the Doctor’s mistakes this time around, but an episode in there about the importance of brushing your teeth would be very helpful. And it is immensely generous, leaving galaxies of room for future writers of novels, comics and audio adventures to explore. Moffat’s plots wind up into tight little knots, but there’s always a thread left for others to follow.
That the new programme is still going a decade on is an incredible achievement, that’s it’s still so brilliant is unbelievable. A credit to everyone who worked on it. Stephen Theaker *****
Friday, 14 October 2016
American television has a lamentable tendency to suck the vitality out of any successful television programme by creating licensed rip-offs and copycats. For every worthwhile Xena or Angel there are a dozen NCISes: LA or CSIs: New York that overstretch the premise or divide the writing staff. Fear the Walking Dead spins out of a programme that itself has sometimes been spread a little thin, despite its quality, having to ration the appearances of some cast members. But this spin-off has one big selling point: where the usual colonates just show us slightly different people doing a slightly different job under a slightly different colour filter, Fear the Walking Dead can show us a crucial part of its parent’s story, one that viewers missed while Rick Grimes was sleeping in hospital: how the apocalypse went down. Part of the reason we didn’t see that before was that it had been shown in so many films, so why repeat it? Get to the stuff we don’t know! But that world means more to us now. We know how bad it is going to get for these people, we shout at the screen as they waste batteries, and cringe at their pitifully small fences!
As slowly becomes clear, there is another difference: while the characters on The Walking Dead have generally made the right decisions, have usually been the good guys, these people aren’t. They aren’t the kind of people who think to close the door behind them after they escape a zombie hideout, not all of them would rush out to warn people in danger, and some of them don’t care about the consequences of their actions at all. This first season is only six episodes long, and while the first couple are more about junkies and family drama than the undead, it gets better as it goes on, and from the beginning it has a undeniable heft, borrowed from its parent show, admittedly, but very real nevertheless. It doesn’t yet have a central performance to match Andrew Lincoln’s in The Walking Dead, but neither do any other programmes, and these characters haven’t yet been stripped so raw as Rick Grimes. It will come. ***
Wednesday, 12 October 2016
In his helpful guide to the series on the Crime Fiction Lover website, David Prestidge writes that: “The books are peopled with genuinely mean human criminal types, but Connolly introduces supernatural foes in the novels as well.” The books are billed as dark crime fiction in the same way that dark fantasy is now a distinct subcategory of the fantasy genre. To sacrifice accuracy for brevity, dark crime fiction is crime fiction written by a horror writer or a mystery told as a horror story or crime fiction that gestures towards but does not quite cross over into horror fiction… basically, a crime fiction series that is situated just this side of the crime–horror border. The two genres are, of course, complementary to a great extent and it is no surprise that Edgar Allan Poe was such an important figure for both, that Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is billed as both a great crime story and a great horror story, or that may of H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tales take investigators of some sort as their protagonists. Prestidge continues: “Yet he never uses the paranormal to explain away loopholes in the plot.”
The issue isn’t using the para-normal to fill normal loopholes in the plot, but rather integrating the mystery and horror elements of the narrative such that they complement rather than counteract one another and this is where several weaknesses emerge. First, the books are longer than most mystery novels, the length exacerbated by the often slow and leisurely build-up to the main plot. This would not be problematic were the denouement worth the wait, i.e. a clever or original mix of mystery and magic, sleuthing and the supernatural. But, as Prestidge correctly notes: “There aren’t any [loopholes], and the Charlie Parker books all offer solid and original mysteries. He is a PI, after all.” Crime fiction readers, particularly those who prefer “thrillers” to “mysteries” are accustomed to fast-paced plots and the slower the action, the more drama they demand in the climax. The fact that all supernatural elements are always (at least in the four I have read and according to Prestidge) peripheral to the main plot – always, in other words, a subplot at best – makes me think of the series as crime-dressed-up-as-horror – in a pejorative sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing sense. Parker’s living daughter (Sam) can see the dead and sense evil and the spirit of his dead daughter (Jennifer) communicates with both him and Sam in A Song of Shadows. There are at least two events in the novel – a young girl sleepwalking and the earth opening up under a villain – that are presented as supernatural, but then quickly rationalised (as the dream of a young girl with a neurological disease and as a rare but not improbable geological phenomenon respectively). I found the subsequent debunking of these at times gripping supernatural scenes something of an anti-climax and that term really sums up my whole experience of the book.
Connolly takes a big risk with his villains in using war criminals from the Second World War. Assuming that the events of the narrative are supposed to be contemporary (there is nothing to suggest otherwise) and that National Socialist Germany in extremis may have used sixteen-year-olds as concentration camp guards – and granting that the camps were maintained until the very end of the war – the youngest possible war criminal would be eighty-six. Given the separation of the supernatural from the main plot, the criminals involved are men rather than demons and eighty-six-year-old men are not very frightening – unless, of course, they are million- or billion-aires at the head of a new evil empire. The Nazi-turned-businessman is something of a cliché, but in avoiding the cliché Connolly presents his readers with a group of evil old men doddering around New England, unworthy antagonists for super-sleuth Parker even if he is recovering from the multiple wounds sustained in his previous case. What makes this even worse for me is that the revelation of the main villain occurs relatively early on (for a mystery, that is), which once again creates a sense of… anti-climax.
Connolly’s fans – and there are dozens, probably hundreds, of thousands of them – may well think I haven’t read the book because Goodreads (to name but one forum) has many reviewers writing about the suspense being maintained to the last page and the jaw-dropping conclusion. I think I know what they have in mind, but I am baffled that it should generate such excitement. And yes, I have read all four books carefully from first page to last. Parker is a likeable sort of chap who leads an interesting sort of life, but neither Parker nor his life justifies the many hundreds of pages that each case generates. As mystery stories, the series is far too slow-paced; as horror stories, the continual and continued relegation of the supernatural to the side-line is disappointing; as a combination of mystery and horror, I can’t help but feel that a writer of Connolly’s undoubted skill could have merged a hardboiled PI with a setting that is both gritty and realistic on the one hand and populated by the angels and demons which the series often promises but never delivers on the other. It is only the worry that I have missed some obvious virtue of the novels that kept me coming back, but I’m afraid I’ve decided that life is too short to attempt a fifth… I’m sure Parker and Connolly will both do fine without me.
Monday, 10 October 2016
Friday, 7 October 2016
Wednesday, 5 October 2016
Obstreperous test pilot Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) volunteers for a miniaturisation experiment that should see him and his ship injected into the bloodstream of a laboratory rabbit. Instead, thanks to some industrial espionage gone badly wrong, he finds himself inside hypochondriac no-hoper Jack Putter (Martin Short). Aided by Pendleton’s ex-girlfriend, journalist Lydia Maxwell (Meg Ryan), and guided from within by Pendleton himself, Putter must overcome his inhibitions, thwart the villains and recover the microchip necessary to extract the ship before Pendleton’s oxygen runs out.
Steven Spielberg virtually owned the 1980s, and as executive producer added a tenuous sort of clout to several films in which he had no real involvement. Innerspace was one such production, its title invariably being sandwiched between the words “Steven Spielberg presents” and “a Joe Dante film” (this combination having in 1984 brought Gremlins to the cinema and thus being judged likely to wow prospective viewers into the right frame of mind). But Innerspace was no Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It was, rather, an unabashedly silly reworking of Fantastic Voyage (1966), the cold war SF-adventure that provided Raquel Welch with her breakout role and by way of its novelisation added considerably to Isaac Asimov’s renown. Although Asimov did his best to make the written version more palatable, Fantastic Voyage sacrificed science for adventure and presented audiences with several indigestible, illogical dollops of plot tripe. Innerspace proved equally loose in favouring comedy over accuracy, and despite winning an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects – the internal landscape of Putter’s body is impressively realised – clearly made no effort at all to keep the scale of miniaturisation either believable or consistent. (Hence, in accordance with industry standards for advertising, the tagline: “An Adventure of Incredible Proportions”.) But this should come as no surprise; after all, the entire movie is a paean to the culture, filmmaking and associated extravagances in kitsch of the 1980s, where over-quirky meets over-the-top and the minor characters are served up as a layered profiterole cake of coiffured oddballs. Fans of The Blues Brothers (1980) may take some heart in seeing Henry Gibson (Nazi leader) cast here as Putter’s affably anxious boss, but whereas there was a dreamlike quality in the Illinois Nazis having driven past the back-flipping Bluesmobile and off an unfinished highway ramp, thence to fall over a hundred storeys and land directly in front of that same speeding Bluesmobile, the incongruity throughout Innerspace tends more towards that of an overt, in-your-face surrealistic slap. Recently contemporaneous comedies such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Running Scared (1986) had shown what could be achieved by injecting a measure of absurdity into real character types, but Innerspace writers Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser clearly missed this point and instead merely jabbed themselves, their butterfingers ensuring that the inherent craziness of the film becomes blurred, rather than put into sharp focus, by an extraneous excess of background weirdness. This may have been less evident to moviegoers at the time – there still being, needless to say, Martin Short jangling prominently in the foreground – but it is jarring in retrospect, and becoming more and more so as the eighties continue to recede, the perky novelty of the decade fading away amidst a Cyndi Lauper-load of bangles, leg warmers and erupting hairstyles into the nostalgic embarrassment of history.
By 1987 Martin Short already was familiar to television audiences as a performer on seasons 4–5 (1982–1983) of Canadian sketch comedy programme SCTV and season 10 (1984–1985) of America’s Saturday Night Live. His big screen breakthrough had come in 1986 alongside Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in ¡Three Amigos! while an effortless penchant for physical humour and a seemingly endless supply of woebegone expressions would later see him teamed up with Nick Nolte in Three Fugitives (1989) and then Danny Glover in Pure Luck (1991), the spirit of the times being to cast Short several times over as the hapless victim of some great cosmic irony. Innerspace, however, was very much his film and his alone, and all things told he succeeds quite splendiferously in carrying it along. The persona of Jack Putter has been scripted with a heavy hand, established only in broad caricature and then prodded to walk jerky steps along the plank and dive off into an ungainly character arc, while the plot map bears evidence of that same hand carefully marking out big Xs in crayon. Dennis Quaid’s Tuck Pendleton is not merely a ne’er-do-well, roguish stereotype, but in fact a shameless attempt at reprising (in all but name) Harrison Ford’s Han Solo (in fact, the Pendleton-Putter-Maxwell love triangle is so manifestly the same as that of Solo-Skywalker-Leia that one wonders if even today the writers are washing off stains from the carbon paper). The movie is overly manipulative in its music (Jerry Goldsmith), underwhelming in its attempts to build tension, and then again over-reliant for its impact on peak moments rather than sustained, coherent storytelling. But what moments they are: pratfalls and injuries à la Short; madcap stunts sans modern effects but heavy on flailing, panicking, Chaplinesque Short; facial transmogrifications that if played out in the political arena would have seen a Martin Short puppet battling to exorcise itself on British satire show Spitting Image; and, of course, the Jack Putter dance – that iconic, joyous, elastically uninhibited flailing about and letting loose of the inner hallelujah, Short’s comedic chutzpah burning as red-hot-poker-bright behind retinas today as it did back in 1987, and indeed having gained some extra kudos along the way through dint of blueprinting a few of Mike Myers’ moves in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). This, in short (ha!), is Martin Short in his finest hour (and fifty-five minutes), and his performance is enough to make something eighties-memorable out of what otherwise would have been merely an over-long piece of second-rate children’s television.
Prior to Innerspace, Dennis Quaid featured in paranormal thriller Dreamscape (1984) and SF drama Enemy Mine (1985). Kevin McCarthy (head villain) had starred in SF classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Vernon Wells (psychotic henchman) played in the post-apocalyptic Mad Max 2 (1981), while Wendy Schaal (disinterested second love interest) survived an Alien-spawned turkey, Creature (1985). Robert Picardo (ostentatious latin cowboy) had a minor role in Ridley Scott’s dark fairy-tale Legend (1985), as did William Schallert (confounded scientist) in SF thriller Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970). Even William Bean (Lydia’s editor) had warbled his epiglottis in the waters of fantasy, voicing Bilbo Baggins in an animated version of The Hobbit (1977). Nor were writers Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser entirely without spec-fic experience, the former having adapted Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983) and the latter having co-scripted Iceman (1984). Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo had worked on horror movie Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), as had composer Jerry Goldsmith, who also scored dystopian classic Logan’s Run (1976) and SF horror masterpiece Alien (1979), among many others. But, of course, none of that made a scrap of difference to Innerspace, which remained steadfastly a comedy, its science fiction elements having little raison d’être beyond providing an idiosyncratic vehicle by which to convey Martin Short’s virtuoso performance to the silver screen. Yes, the bunny rabbit schematic is a nice touch, but when the history books are written Innerspace might just warp blithely past the SF chroniclers and instead stooge its way into the tome dealing with humour, banging heads with the silent comics and going, “Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!” as the first film ever to deliver a poke in the eye from the inside.
Monday, 3 October 2016
Showcase Presents Ambush Bug, by Keith Giffen, Robert Loren Fleming and friends (DC Comics) | review