Monthly Archives: December 2006

Cowboys & Aliens

I have a local comics-y friend who acquired a copy of Cowboys & Aliens and immediately thought of me. Of course, I had just started a reasonably large book, so there has been delay. But that’s alright, as I’m here now. Apparently, you can get this slim graphic novel at your local store just by buying something else, and they slip it into your bag as a promotional item, I guess? Or maybe vast quantities of overstock.

That last one fits pretty well. The art is fine, but the plot is uninspired at best: when aliens crash-land in somewhere in the Old West, cowboys, Apaches, and settlers drop their petty feud over land theft and genocide in the face of a common foe who, sheerly by coincidence and I’m sure with no thought to parallelism, hopes to steal land and commit genocide. Then they have a fight, in which people die and things explode. My favorite part (and I refer here to my least favorite part) is the opening screencrawl segment in which all of the parallels that I earlier lied were coincidental are spelled out in excruciating detail before the book proceeds to unsubtly (but much more forgivably) present them via the plot. Explicitly, at one point.

In case you’ve missed it, though, I’ll go ahead and mention it a fourth time, now. Whitey rampaged through North America during the 19th Century, not for the first time, but the most aggressively and rapidly of any post-Columbus period. It’s possible there was something morally questionable about that, as presented by the Golden Rule, aka alien invasion. There. Now you’re probably prepared to read this, in the manner the authors were hoping for you to be. To end on a positive note, though, the cowboy hero’s name is Zeke. Which you must admit is a pretty awesome name. (I mean that. Don’t make me get a court order.)

Lisey’s Story

It’s pretty much a coincidence that there are two Stephen King books in a row, as they were read concurrently rather than consecutively. Anyway, in its bid to prevent me from reading fifty books before the end of the year (well, really it’s more my job and move that have prevented that, but it gave me an opening, so, y’know, whatev), we have Lisey’s Story. It tells… well, I guess it’s kind of obvious what, right? Lisey is Lisa Landon, for two years now the widow of reasonably famous author Scott Landon, late 20th century literary darling who the world never really knew; that was Lisey’s job. It’s her story and his both, because every long marriage is the story of both people. But it’s also the story of how there’s only one of them left, and all the small and large ways in which that is hard, and all the small and large ways in which other people make it harder.

Lisey has a lot to deal with over the course of the hot summer of 2006. There’s the ongoing issue of her husband’s death, made concrete by her gradual attempts to clean out the office where he did his writing. There’s her mentally unstable sister, and the fact that the remainder of her sisters look to her as the solver of all problems, possibly because of the money but also because she’s long been the strongest of them. There’s the latest in a string of literary professors and critics who are salivating at the thought of Scott’s last papers being made public and being donated to this or that university, and there’s the man this latest professor has hired to “convince” her to speed up the process. And although his motives are far more dire than that worthy professor could have guessed, even he may not be as dangerous to Lisey as her recollections of Scott’s childhood and the secret world to which he would escape from time to time in those years and continue to visit throughout his life.

Although most all of King’s novels have some elements of horror to them, this one is not explicitly horror; it’s solidly entrenched in the dark fantasy genre. Everyone will tell you that it reveals the secret languages and shorthands that all long-lived marriages have, and explores the good parts and the bad with an equally objective spotlight. I’ve never been married, much less for a long time, so I couldn’t say whether they’re right. But it feels true.

‘Salem’s Lot

Sometimes you have to go out on a limb and say something is the best, even though you’re invoking a hotbed of controversy rivaled only by that of internet geeks arguing about who would win in a fight between Picard’s Enterprise and the Death Star. It’s an entirely different controversy, I’ll admit, but when you’re rating the best in vampire creativity, there are definitely people who will be every bit as passionate on the topic. For example, best vampire TV show? Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no question. But I know offhand of one person who reads this who will immediately disagree. Best vampire movie? I tend to put my money on Fright Night, despite the pretty terrible name. Then there are books. Blah blah blah Anne Rice cakes (and then there’s the Anita Blake vamporn I’ve been reading), but where I have a really hard time is with Dracula. Because that is a damn fine piece of literature. And yet, I must go where my taste leads me and pick my personal favorite. Thusly, ‘Salem’s Lot.

It’s possible that, insofar as the story is about the town of Jerusalem’s Lot more than it’s about vampires, I am making an unfair judgment. Because, really, it’s an excellent study of a small town in decline far more than it’s a vampire story. (Well, I say that, but almost everything I know about small town New England I learned from Stephen King, so if he’s actually not an authority on the subject, then it would probably be impossible for me to be more wrong about my current related assumptions.) So, you’ve got this pleasant little town, not too much industry but enough to not dry up, most of the people know most of the other people, and most of them are friendly toward one another. It might be on the edge of the metaphorical cliff, but it’s got good balance, so long as nothing shoves too hard.

Of course the shove has to come, though, or you don’t have a story. More traditional books on the same basic topic might toss out, at this point, a contentious election cycle or a sudden land bust. Or, particularly luridly for the type, a kidnapping or a murder. In King’s case, we have something seemingly more innocent. Nothing more than two men that have been set on a collision course as if by the guiding hand of fate. (Ha ha, that’s my little joke, see? Because it’s a novel, and has certain plot requirements.) On one side, author Ben Mears is returning to the home of his childhood to exorcise some demons, answer some questions of himself, and put together his next book. On the other side, furniture salesmen Barlow and Straker, who would seem substantially less portentous if one of them was not a vampire. And in the middle, high on a hill overlooking ‘salem’s Lot “like some dark idol”, the Marsten house, site of a childhood trauma for Mr. Mears and, some decades earlier, site of a murder/suicide perpetrated by owner Hubert Marsten; most recently, it is the residence of choice for Mr. Barlow and his associate. After all, he was invited by Hubert Marsten, in the months before that fellow’s grisly demise. Well, and there’s also the kidnapping/murder. King has never shied away from the lurid. But that’s more an effect than a cause, really.

Provided players and a stage, all that is left is the determination of which people will choose a side and which people will have a side chosen for them by the rapidly spreading vampiric disease. And then, of course, the attempt by our heroes to fight back and save ‘salem’s Lot. And that part has a lot in common with the best of vampire literature, so really the only difference is the town itself. And the town is a place worth knowing, because, at least for now, it lives. And there aren’t a lot of settings that really live, for me. Anyway, it’s been out for thirty-one years. If you haven’t read it by now, don’t you think you ought to?

Black Christmas (2006)

Ah, December 25th, with its hour or two of presents around the fireplace starting at 7 AM or so, plus also some stuff about Jesus, maybe? Assuming you’re into the Jesus, that carries you until about noon. And now you’re left with a big long day full of a holiday feast, maybe some football, and not much else. Also, everything is closed. Everything except the movie theater! Which explains why just about everyone in three cities was piled up in front of the theater a block from my house. The part that warms my heart is that the majority of them were trying to see Black Christmas. Sure, it was only on one screen and long since sold out. But whether they got to see it isn’t especially my point. Just that they wanted to. Plus, no picketers trying to take back Christmas from those bad, bad people who are trying to destroy it by filming a movie set during the time of year. (But, y’know, with blood. And a few boobies.) Of course, by 10 at night, most such picketers are home in their beds, aren’t they?

Anyway, nothing to boycott here; they may as well have called it Black Holiday, for all the Christmasness that is explicitly involved. I mean, trees and presents, sure, but approximately nothing to do with Jesus. Of course, then they’d have to boycott the movie for having not been named Black Christmas, due to the War on Same. And I’m pretty sure even these people might spot that irony.

Well, okay, technically there are things to boycott, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t approve of sorority girls being murdered in a variety of increasingly gruesome ways and occasionally taking showers, or of bizarre families where the mother murders her husband, locks her son in the attic because of his rare liver disease (symptoms include yellowing of the skin, requiring a diet rich in eyeballs, being unnaturally hard to kill, and passing the latter trait to offspring), and eventually… well, that would be a spoiler. But let’s just say there’s such a thing as bad nudity and leave it at that.

The best was the deadly icicle, and the worst was the goofy chase through the drywall. But it completely knew that it was supposed to be a funny teen slasher movie, and it delivered admirably. I’m so, so glad this stuff has come back. The ’80s, after all, were finite.


In fairness to this review, I really didn’t have to go to the movie, or anything. It was offered, and I said yeah because the only other thing I want to see that was out didn’t really fit the multigenerational family demographic. So during my split holiday weekend we went out to see Eragon. I had heard nothing particularly positive about the book, and the previews left me cold. On the other hand, I’m hardly one to fault my grandmother for being into the fantasy genre. Wow, though, does it fall short now and again.

Complaint number one: bad opening exposition. This is the kind of thing naysayers have in mind when they complain that fantasy is a bunch of non-existent animals held together by made-up country and race names. I know I read these things all the time, and none of them have countries that are any less made-up and fake-sounding, but for some reason this one grated. On top of which, no more than half of the exposition was necessary; most of it was retold during the movie anyhow. Complaint number two: Eragon. How can anyone, good guy or bad guy alike, fail to realize that he’s the new dragonrider? For crying out loud, his name is a typo of dragon! Complaint number three: non-novel. I understand that there’s a reason why Joseph Campbell wrote books about this stuff, but now that it’s in the public consciousness, you have to try to be a little different, or it still feels like plagiarism. I mean, farmboy chosen for greatness, uncle killed while bad guys were looking for the farmboy, crazy old local man turns out to have knowledge to pass on, pretty girl in the clutches of evil must be rescued despite the risks, join up with that rebellion the farm boy has heard about? I’d be worried about spoilers, but society has spoiled this movie for everyone, 20 years ago or more. I’ll be kind of astonished if Eragon and Arya (the pretty girl) don’t turn out to be siblings by the third movie. (Eragon, after all, has mysterious parentage! Shocking.)

The good stuff did exist, but even most of it was tainted. Beautiful Hungarian countrysides, check. But why do fantasy movies always have wide panning shots of people riding along admittedly awesome ridgelines? Because it’s a great shot, I know, but you have to consider, at some point, that people who are fleeing from pursuing armies a) are unlikely to find a path that happens to run along a ridge and b) wouldn’t want to if they could, because you could literally not be easier to find than outlined on the highest point of surrounding land as you gallop for mile after mile. Plus, way too many of those shots where you zoom in while moving the camera backward (or possibly the reverse of that). They already get a little overused to convey shock or terror in horror / suspense movies, but that’s genre-wide; this film by itself used enough such shots to fill up an entire year of movies from those genres.

Huh. I was supposed to be talking about good things, there, and it got away from me. Which I suppose says something, but I’ll soldier on. Lessee. There was the scenery, and the effects were more often good than bad, and the baby dragon was nearly as cute as Sienna Guillory was hot. (Did I mention those cheekbones? And the form-fitting leather armor was also of the goodness.) I’m reminded of another complaint at this point, though: some people made a set of armor for the dragon, right? Sure, that’s reasonable. And they said they worked through the night to do it. Fair enough, if you have the materials and manpower, I’m not going to kvetch about whether that’s reasonable or not. And… all of the pieces had patterns tooled into them. Despite having been made over a 12 or so hour span. Would it have been that hard to say we made them a long time ago, hoping that the prophecy of the dragonrider would come true? Or for the costume people (well, no, let’s be honest, the CGI people) to have them be plain beaten metal, no pattern included? ‘Cause that’s just too ridiculous for words.

Anyway: the movie has convinced me not to read the book, but I’ll probably see the sequels, in hopes that John Malkovitch eventually wins. Oh, and speaking of good things, the misunderstood rogue that may or may not be a traitor, and contrariwise may or may not have a heart of gold? He was alright. Plus, cool red sword. Well, and the dragon was alright too, but I feel sorry for her that she had to be involved. Hoarding treasure and hunting the occasional deer would have been a much better life. Or she could’ve picked Sienna to be her rider. (Can I call you Sienna?)

The Return (2006)

The one thing cooler than seeing a fun movie on opening day with a like-minded crowd is having the theater to yourself. You can speak amongst yourselves at volume, spread out, and otherwise enjoy the experience as if you were at home, but with the improved theater experience. (Well, okay, some theaters and some homes result in home being better. But this is rare, so let’s assume it’s the other thing.) In fact, both of the movies I saw on Monday night were in empty theaters. I’ve had maybe one other empty theater experience in my life, so this was quite a surprise. Naturally, then, I didn’t have anyone with me to really enjoy it.

I’ve missed only a couple of horror movies so far this year, and considering how revitalized the genre has been lately, I feel pretty good about that. In this case, Sarah Michelle Gellar is involved, and except for the Grudge claptrap, I’ve seen all her horror. So that much more incentive. Speaking of whom, am I the only person excited about Alice, for which there inexplicably was no preview? It occurs to me, though, that I’m drifting a little afield of the topic at hand, considering I’m already two paragraphs in. Pleasant I don’t have a word limit, then, innit?

The Return is the story of Joanna Mills’ return home after a long absence. Not very scary, eh? Except, why did she leave home in the first place? Tell me that! Oh, right. That’s my job. So, there was an auto accident when she was a little girl, and then a creepy guy was stalking her at a county fair. And then… well, next thing you know, she’s a successful travelling salesman in her twenties who has been avoiding her father and the rural area outside Austin where she grew up for years and years now. And even she can’t exactly explain why, to herself or anyone else. One thing about it, though: you can’t say she was wrong, after the titular return leaves her seeing a second face in the mirror and remembering a town she’s never been to.

I expected a fairly lame horror movie that I’d get to giggle at a lot and then promptly forget about by the time I get around to seeing Turistas next week. (And, ooo, Black Christmas.) Instead, I got a thoughtful, moody, and once or twice downright scary ghost story, with equal parts atonement and revenge. I should point out that the competition guy from her job made no sense whatsoever. But ten minutes of subplot out of an otherwise surprisingly good movie, I can forgive that. Meanwhile, that house (in case I failed to mention, there’s a spooky house in the mix) reminded me a lot of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre house, though I couldn’t specify whether I mean from the original or the remakes. Also, it was fun watching a movie be set in and around Austin, since I know so much of that area and could recognize things. It must be the same way for people from Vancouver and basically every other movie ever. (Not the people from LA, though, they’re too above-it-all to admit to enjoying stuff like that.)

The Prestige

Always awesome: double feature night. Even when I have to drive to different theaters to accomplish it, because I’ve waited until the end of a run and am completely behind the curve of everyone else seeing the same movie and having their opinions entrenched well before I thought of planning a night out, much less presenting an otherwise stunningly coherent and insightful review of said film. Luckily, I do that with books all the time and am used to the feeling.

First, I saw The Prestige. The prestige is the part of a magician’s trick where the magic occurs. (I assume that is an actual real term, even though I’ve never heard Gob refer to it.) Reasonably, then, the movie is about the rivalry between two turn-of-the-century magicians; subtly in the background, it’s also about the rivalry between two non-fictional magicians from the same period, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. I have a feeling that the book on which the movie is based renders that second rivalry completely awesome. But it’s about a lot more than that. Revenge, chases, escapes, true love, miracles… all this, and it’s not a kissing book.

Okay, but seriously. There are solid doses of the nature of identity (which I’m beginning to believe is requisite in all fantasy/science fiction, and possibly in all fiction, full stop), obsessions, mad (but usually legitimate) science, and a non-stop series of… well, twists isn’t exactly right, because there’s not really a moment where everything changes and your understanding of the movie clicks into place and makes it a completely new movie, like twist endings usually imply, but there definitely is a non-stop series of dramatic reveals and escalations. My especial favorite theme is on the topic of whether obsession trumps identity, and the consequences of either choice.

Spoilers below the cut! For the remainder, this has made me really interested in a good biography of Tesla, and I welcome any and all discussion about the movie, because of the greatness of it. Well, I mean, it was pretty great, but the greatness I’m referring to is how discussable it is.
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This graphic novel thing has gone pretty well. Enough so that I’m definitely getting more. There are, as nearly as I can tell, piles upon piles of awesome stuff out there. Most of it, stuff that doesn’t consist of the superheroes and things that everyone has heard of and about whom so many movies have been made, although there’s certainly a fair share of that as well. Alternatively, I’m a reasonably easy audience, as long as the art is comprehensible (and non-ugly: I hate the ones where every edge is jagged and impressionistic and melty and drippy) and the subject matter more than mildly entertaining, or if it happens to fall within my niches, which comics nearly always do. It would not be the first time I’ve been accused of being easy. Audience-wise, I mean.

In any case, I’ve reached the last of my carefully doled out graphic novel birthday extravaganza. From here on out, I’m on my own. (Except that some of them are series, and I can just keep getting more. Plus now I’ve got a few authors to reference. It’s all good.) This most recent one was written by Joss Whedon, a guy you may have heard of who has been involved in a few TV shows and a couple of movies. This was his first foray into comics, though I hear he’s become a big name in the X-Men series in the time since. Fray is set in the Slayer mythology, although there are hints in the linguistic drift that indicate the Firefly world is the same one as well.

Eponymous Melaka Fray is living the hardscrabble life of a have-not in a dystopian future where the line between rich and poor is every bit as stark as we’re used to seeing in Bladerunner, Neuromancer, and other examples of the genre. Unusually good reflexes and strength have given her the edge to be a pretty good thief, so she does alright, at least until her past and her fate conspire to catch up with her during the same long weekend. Because Melaka has been Chosen, the one girl in her generation with the abilities to fight the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness, who had been banished from the world for centuries. Until now.

Dramatic, huh? Anyway, it’s pretty good, and explores some of the same themes as Buffy: finding one’s place in the world, the nature of family, and so forth. I was a big fan of the art, especially the bold, heavy inking. And of course the dialogue and pacing. The biggest problem was that the themes were shallowly explored. It could have been a much deeper story if it had been spread out over two or three novels instead of all crammed into one. And this despite a dangling ending that implies a lot more could have been written. In short, frenetic plot equals good, rushed theme resolution equals bad. And I know for a fact he can do better than this. Interestingly, I think this would have made / could make a good movie in which the pacing of the theme would not seem nearly as much out of place.

The Historian

It has taken me, wow, over a month to read a book. It was a big book, yes. But the real issue was the moving. I am astonished, nevertheless. The next few should be faster, though I’m still pretty sure I won’t reach fifty for the year. (For reference, I’m at … huh. I’m at forty, with two more partials in the works. (Or forty-one and three more, if you count a couple of novel sized and quality fan fictions I’ve read over the past month. I haven’t yet decided whether to review them or not.) So maybe I’ll reach fifty after all. Who knew?) But I’m done moving, and I’ve finally made good unpacking progress, so even though it will still eat my time, it won’t be nearly as bad anymore, and that means that I’m going to stop using it as a crutch. Yay!

Anyway, there’s this book, The Historian, and I totally judged it by its cover. I was in Half-Price Books and there were stacks of it sitting at the end of a row. Cool name, right section, I looked at the back cover and read the line, “My dear and unfortunate successor,” and I was convinced it was the book for me. Then I didn’t read it for a while, because that’s almost always what happens. Then I finally did, and read it for so long that a Stephen King book has been out for weeks, completely untouched by me. That’s a weird feeling. Be that as it may, though, the point is I read it, and discovered that it kind of was the book for me after all.

A girl and her diplomat father are living in Cold War Europe, and one day she accidentally discovers some of his private papers. Completely forgivably, considering the above-referenced opening line of the letter she found, she reads through them to discover that her father has a past that pre-dates his current state department career. Over weeks and months he gradually unfolds to her a history of himself and his grad school adviser that hints, nay implies, nay outright states that they were on the trail of vampires and possibly even Dracula himself in the years before she was born. And then one day, her father disappears.

Despite an almost entirely fictional tale, a lot of historical research went into the book, and it shows. Europe in the late 15th and mid 20th century alike is a vibrant place, full of knowledgable allies and dastardly foes. And that’s without even paying heed to the vampires. I’ve reached the point in my life where there are some actual European and American histories that I ought to read, because I’d find them nearly as fascinating as I do the ubiquitous fiction I surround myself with. But until I get up the gumption to do research and pick and choose what books have the highest quality (that is to say, ask some people), it’s nice to know that there are reasonably solid history books out there masquerading as fiction to trick me into learning things.

As far as the fiction part, it was solidly okay. Good story. Mid-book pacing problem that either eventually resolved itself or I eventually got used to. Compelling characters and a mystery that was doled out entertainingly. The biggest single problem was just how anti-climactic the climax was, especially relative to the build-up. In a way, though, the subject matter made it a really difficult task, so I can forgive that. As I said, the rest of the book was solid, and that makes the anti-climactivity of a nearly inevitable conclusion fairly forgivable.