Thursday, September 30, 2010

Up from Earth's Centre

Precious, directed by Lee Daniels, based on the novel Push by Sapphire and adapted for the screen by Geoffrey Fletcher, starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, and Mariah Carey (2009): High-octane melodrama in the Dickenisan mode, complete with complicatedly awful situations piled one on top the other and characters with improbable, descriptive names.

Terrible things happen or are described every few minutes, but the arc of the story is always upwards, to redemption or, to be all psychobabbly, to self-actualization. One can see why Tyler Perry and Oprah co-produced the movie: it's a feel-good story done in the broad strokes of a popular memoir; a schematic, life-affirming roller-coaster. Or maybe Haunted House ride.

Clareece Precious Jones (Sidibe) is an illiterate, overweight, sexually, emotionally and physically abused NYC teen. She's sorta like Little Nell or Little Dorrit, though she doesn't have to die like the former or be married like the latter to reach some sort of transformative apotheosis at the end of her story.

Pregnant with a second child created by incestuous rape, Precious finds hope in remedial schooling, a sympathetic teacher (Blue Rain [!], played by Patton) and a helpful counselor (Carey, deglammed to the point of unrecognizability). Lenny Kravitz wanders through as a sympathetic nurse's aide, to little effect, while Sidibe's classmates (all female) are cleanly and simply drawn, like Archie Comics characters -- each has a couple of defining character traits, but they aren't really characters.

The performances of Sidibe and Mo'Nique, as Precious's sad monster of a mother, sell the movie. Mo'Nique gets a couple of 'Big Speech' moments that helped earn her the Supporting Actress Oscar. She's a terrific, occasionally terrifying monster of a woman, her moral failings surpassed only by her Cyclopean self-pity. Sidibe's got a harder acting job that she pretty much pulls off, getting us to care about a character who initially shows almost nothing on the surface, her emotions hidden behind a mostly impassive face that will become more mobile and demonstrative as she gradually lifts herself up and out of her Dantean Inferno of a life.

Sidibe gives a marvelous performance -- she has the actorly reserve to pull off breakdowns without chewing the scenery. This is about as good as melodrama gets. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

These Zombies Are Making Me Thirsty

World War Z by Max Brooks (2007): Oh, zombie, where is thy sting? Brooks' novel was a sensation a few years back, in part because it unfolds the story of the great Zombie war within a fictionalized oral history modelled on Studs Terkel's structured oral histories of World War II, the Great Depression and other major American events. It's a clever conceit, though moving from narrator to narrator (and country to country) works against the development of suspense at points, much less horror.

More than 40 years after George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead started our never-ending fascination with zombies, the rightness of some of Romero's choices related to the wrongness of some of the choices of other zombie chroniclers only stands out more. Brooks goes with what's now become the almost cliched viral/rabies model of zombieism -- zombieism is spread by bite or by zombie body matter getting into an exposed cut or otherwise somehow getting into one's bloodstream. This probably seems like a good idea, but the number of pandemics in human history spread through these means is, roughly, zero. It's just not that effective a means of viral or bacterial propagation, which is why we don't all have rabies right now.

Romero, of course, never explained what was actually causing zombies in his first two zombie movies. More importantly, there was no 'Patient Zero' style beginning point -- one day, everyone who ever died and had enough flesh left on his or her bones to allow for mobility rose from the grave. And everyone who died after that, regardless of cause of death, would also rise from the dead. Now that's a disease vector that could overwhelm civilization!

Brooks' viral model, on the other hand, doesn't bear too much hard thinking because one realizes that between the limits of propagation and the modest limits of his zombies' intelligence (they are, if anything, much stupider than Romero's slow-moving hordes), most of the book's apocalyptic scenarios would be impossible. How do these slow-moving hordes which have a tendency to fall off, into or over any obstacle in their way manage to form up into gigantic masses of tens of millions of zombies in the American Midwest and other locations? I have no idea. It seems to me that these zombies would probably end up at the bottom of every cliff, hill, overpass and canyon in the world. So it goes. Several weeks into the zombie war, one would imagine the Grand Canyon would be full of zombies.

There are a lot of pleasures in this book, and the verisimilitude Brooks achieves with his technical research into weapons and various survival issues is impressive, but the whole thing falls apart if one thinks too hard about those million-zombie armies. So don't. Recommended.

The New Lovecraft Circle, edited by Robert M. Price (1996): Gleaned from thirty years of the second wave of Lovecraft-inspired horror writing, Price's anthology is sort of Fundamentalist Lovecraft. Many of the stories follow the same first-person narrative model of many of Lovecraft's major Cthulhu stories, with one man recounting the zany events and evil tomes of forbidden knowledge that led him to some terrible revelation or other. I tend to prefer somewhat looser interpretations of the Cthulhu Mythos, but there are some genuine thrills and chills here, along with some early Ramsey Campbell Lovecraft pastiches that I'd otherwise have to pay a couple of hundred bucks to read in his out-of-print first collection.

One of the problems a lot of the writers have is their overwhelming desire to roll out one of the Big Guns of Lovecraft's evil pantheon of alien gods, especially sea-dwelling Cthulhu, who's supposed to be in the South Pacific but who pays visits to New England and California prior to being vanquished by the usual dodgy means. A lot of the stories fall more into the August Derleth Cthulhu mode, in which the Cthulhu Mythos becomes a source for modern high fantasy and not for horror. There's nothing technically wrong with this approach, but it does mean that wonder and terror are a bit thin on the ground at times. Recommended for completists.


Daredevil: Born Again, written by Frank Miller, illustrated by David Mazzuchelli (1986; collected numerous times): Miller (300, Sin City) came to prominence as writer and artist on Daredevil in the early 1980's. After a few years away, he returned to team with Mazzuchelli on what remains one of the great 'reset button' narratives in superhero comics history. Basically, criminal mastermind Kingpin discovers Daredevil's secret identity and proceeds to destroy his life. And that's just the first issue.

There are small story-telling glitches here and there that the editor should have fixed at the time (why Miller makes super-soldier Nuke blind like Daredevil but without the radar senses makes sense metaphorically but not literally), but overall this is 'the' Daredevil story, or at least 'the' Frank Miller Daredevil story. The hero gets stripped down to his basics, losing a lot of accumulated psychological baggage along the way, and even gets his first girlfriend back (Karen Page), albeit in dire straits herself.

One can see Mazzuchelli's art develop from issue to issue, sloughing off standard super-hero tics and moving towards the more European style he'd use when he soon hereafter collaborated with Miller on Batman: Year One. It's really all about faces and mood with Mazzuchelli at this point in his career, suiting a book that has a lot of explosions but which relies on character development for most of its major kicks.

The Kingpin has never been more demonic, and Miller also manages the neat trick of making the Avengers god-like again when he briefly drops them into the narrative -- they don't really belong in Daredevil's urban vigilante world, and that's the point, though a world-weary Captain America does lend Daredevil a helping hand in the last two issues. This is grim and gritty stuff from a time before endless dark reimaginings of superheroes had made "grim and gritty" a pejorative. Highly recommended.

El Diablo, written by Brian Azzarello, illustrated by Daniejel Zezelj (2001): This four-issue miniseries sees Azzarello reimagine one of DC's obscure Western characters as a possibly supernatural avenger. We don't really know, in the end, because El Diablo (if it is him) is only onstage for about three panels and never speaks, though he does hiss. And kill a whole lot of people. Or does he? Yes he does.

The narrative provides us with two big shocks and a lot of little ones, playing out like an expanded version of an old EC or even Jonah Hex morality tale, complete with a blackly comic (and just) ending. Zezelj's artwork is suitably murky throughout, sometimes to the point of resembling woodcuts more than pencil-and-ink. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Songs and Portents


Songbook by Nick Hornby (2003): This is a dandy little book of short essays by the author of High Fidelity, Fever Pitch and About a Boy. Hornby takes 31 songs he likes and explains why he likes them, with music and autobiography pretty much running neck and neck throughout. There are a lot of observational gems that will work pretty well with anyone who loves music, especially pop music in all its forms.

For example, Hornby observes at one point that his tendency to listen to a new song he likes over and over again amounts to an attempt to "decode" the song -- once the mystery has been solved, he can move on. My most recent foray int obsessive relistening was Arcade Fire's "Ready to Start", so I can relate, though unlike some people I've known, I generally don't subject others to my repetitive song-solving. That would be cruel.

Hornby also notes that if someone's favourite song is the song that was playing when some life-altering event occurred, that someone probably doesn't like music that much. You like the songs for the songs; all the other stuff is secondary or perhaps even irrelevant in most cases. If you've ever spent uncounted hours trying to make perfect mixed tapes/CDs/playlists, you'll understand a lot of what Hornby describes here. Highly recommended.

Shadows 7, edited by Charles L. Grant (1984): Grant's Shadows series of original horror-fiction anthologies were one of the high points for readers of dark fantasy in the 1970's and 1980's, each one crammed full of fine short horror fiction by writers well-known and unknown. This volume seemed half-familiar to me, but that's because at least half the stories herein have been anthologized elsewhere since their first appearance here.

Standouts include Tanith Lee's subtle, tragic "Three Days"; Ramsey Campbell's deceptively jolly take on the terrible boredom of watching other people's slide shows of their travels abroad, "Seeing the World"; and Dennis Etchison's cautionary tale about the dangers of meeting a writer one admires, "Talking to the Dark." There are some minor stories here, but no duds. Highly recommended.