Wednesday, September 25, 2013

World War Z

directed by Marc Forster
starring Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, and Daniella Kertesz
Skydance Productions, June 21, 2013, 123 minutes
Rated PG-13

United Nations employee Gerry Lane traverses the world in a race against time to stop the zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to destroy humanity itself.

Okay, before we go any further, I want to say this up front, get it out of the way and then never bring it up again: as an adaptation of Max Brooks’ seminal (and amazing) zombie novel, this movie is awful. However, as a zombie film that stands alone apart from anything else, this is an excellent film. Now, until I write up my review of Brooks’ book (which is coming, I promise) let’s not speak of World War Z the novel here in this review.

That’s out of the way.

Now, World War Z the film. I actually loved this film. I have to say, as a zombie-action-thriller it did not disappoint. The storyline is just plausible enough (if you accept the zombie MacGuffin) to keep me interested across two hours and while Forster’s directing style in this case leans a little heavy on what seems to be a Michael Bay influence (the action scenes are cut and edited very fast and at times it gets difficult to follow what is happening), overall it is not too distracting. What really pulls the fat out of the fire, so to speak, in this film is that the characters act with, what seemed to me to be, a very realistic attitude. There is a flat, fatalistic look in most of their eyes that one might expect people thrown into this kind of situation might have. There is a real dead-eye (if you’ll pardon the expression) that everyone carries with them and for me that adds to the realism of the film, or at least helps me to suspend my disbelief for those two hours. This is especially true of the South Korea scenes, the soldiers at Camp Humphreys, they all carry a heavy and bleak tone to their performances that is pitch perfect. Pitt’s Lane is believably weary and frustrated and scared. I wish they had dealt more with his family that is left behind (as he is called back into action), especially since the characterization and development that is delivered in their escape from Philadelphia in the opening scenes is handled very well. There are a number of little quirks and glimpses of his family’s personalities (I’m thinking specifically of the daughter’s and the one’s asthma attack and the other’s insistence on having her stuffed rabbit and blanket with her) that seemed to be pointing in specific directions in terms of their character arcs, but once Lane leaves to hunt Patient Zero, the family pretty much drops out of the picture and is only brought back occasionally but ultimately it is unsatisfying. This also means that Mireille Enos’ performance as Lane’s wife Karin is wasted. There is some steely and dangerous motherhood (think mother bear and her cubs) in the character that is hinted at but never fully developed and that is a shame.

As for the zombies in the film, I cannot say I am a fan of the so-called “fast zombie.” I enjoy such films, but call me old-fashioned, I prefer a zombie that would outlast me rather than outrun me. I find that idea much more frightening. That said, I did enjoy the insectile manner in which the zombies acted, particularly in the Jerusalem section of the film. You know the scenes, the ones from the trailers where the zombies look like ant swarms?



Being overwhelmed by zombies is just as frightening, to me, as the implacable, relentlessly shambling variety. The hoard outside the Winchester in the final act of Shaun of the Dead is a good melding of these two ideas.

The other aspect of the zombies in World War Z that I highly enjoyed was their mannerisms when they weren’t running through the streets in massive swarms. In particular the habit of biting the air and the monotonous and repetitious looping of small actions were especially chilling (this is best seen in the W.H.O. facility scenes at the end of the film).

Overall, I really enjoyed this film, and in all honesty I would even watch it again. Am I disappointed that it does not closely follow the plot of Brooks’ novel? Yes. Would Brooks’ book even be possible to translate to film? Probably not. Do either of these facts disappoint me? No. Not in the least. World War Z is a stellar film, and a really chilling and thrilling way to spend two hours. It definitely deserves a place at the adult table this Thanksgiving.

A fun little geeky side note: in the final act of the movie, Peter Capaldi puts in an appearance as a World Health Organization doctor at a research facility in Cardiff, Wales to which Gerry travels in an attempt to find a vaccine for the zombie virus. Peter Capaldi is better known to geeks everywhere as the Twelfth incarnation of the Doctor in the BBC’s long running sci-fi series Doctor Who (which, incidentally, is filmed in Cardiff). So this means that the Twelfth Doctor in Doctor Who which films in Cardiff, Wales plays a W.H.O. Doctor based in Cardiff, Wales. That’s like serious Inception-style, dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream level there.

Official trailer
World War Z on IMDb

Leetah


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar

by Robert Lebling
(New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2010)
eBook, 272 Pages, 2364 KB, Nonfiction

When Westerners think of a genie, the first image that comes to mind may be Barbara Eden in her pink harem pants or the illuminated blue buffoon from the animated Disney film Aladdin. But to the people of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the picture is dramatically different. Legends of the Fire Spirits looks beyond Westernized caricatures to immerse the readers in the vibrant lore of the jinn—the wondrous, often troublesome, and sometimes terrifying spirit beings of ancient Arab and Islamic tradition. Robert Lebling delves into long-lost accounts, medieval histories, colonial records, anthropologists’ reports, and travelers’ tales to explore the origin and evolution of legends that continue to thrive in the Middle East and beyond. He cuts through centuries of Orientalists’ cultural presumptions to craft a study that stands apart from the overwhelming body of literature concerned with religion in the Middle East. A captivating synthesis of history and folklore, this is the most diverse collection of jinn lore ever assembled in one volume. From ancient scriptures to The Arabian Nights and beyond, and with a foreword by acclaimed filmmaker Tahir Shah, Lebling has constructed a comprehensive account that not only transcends geographical borders and also spans some four millennia.

I first heard about this book listening to the Monster Talk podcast (a podcast which I highly recommend, by the way, as it is a scientific, rational skeptic and generally fun look at monsters and other paranormal, supernatural, cryptozoological phenomena). They interviewed Lebling on their December 7, 2011 episode (I only discovered and started listening to the podcast last year), and it was fascinating so I decided to pick up Lebling’s book and learn more about Jinn. I also learned that there are really only two books out there on the topic of Jinn, this one and The Vengeful Djinn: Unveiling the Hidden Agenda of Genies by Rosemary Ellen Guiley and Philip J. Imbrogno and I can only endorse one of them and Lebling’s book. Guiley and Imbrogno’s book is a collection of half-truths, new age mysticism, unsourced claims, and misinterpretations with a healthy dose of racism and xenophobia. Lebling’s book, on the other hand, is an academic look at the world of Jinn that relies on primary documents, researched sources and first-hand accounts of dealings with the jinn.

What unfolds in Legends of the Fire Spirits is a fascinating look at the world of jinn and all their many variations and permutations, and how each of these types of Jinn fit into the Arabic and Islamic worlds. It covers the history of jinn, as well as the demons and spirituality that predates Islam and how those ideas and beliefs were then, possibly, folded into the beliefs of Islam, as well as surveying Muhammad’s own dealings with Jinn as detailed in the Quran and other contemporary writings of the Prophet’s companions.

Given the tensions surrounding Islam in the world today, Lebling handles this potentially sensitive topic very well. He grounds his book in evidence (as I stated above) and cites his sources extensively and does both of these very well spanning across the millennia and looking at cultures from North Africa, into the Middle East and reaching further into Malaysia. He quotes Arabian, Islamic, and even Western studies that have come before him all the while claiming that he merely hopes this will help others continue research. That claims serves him well since he has no degree in any academic field we'd expect of such a study, only a career as a journalist that gives him the ability to research and to write in an engaging fashion.

I went into this book just looking for an interesting read, and ended up finding inspiration for my own horror novel, which was a very pleasant surprise. Whether you want to research jinn academically and need a starting point, or if you just want to learn more about a little-known topic, or if you just need something to fill the time, I can recommend this book to you without reservations.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

“The See-Saw Section”

In December of 2007, I read an interview J.K. Rowling stated that pre-Hogwarts (or Durmstrang, or Beauxbatons, or wherever) wizarding children are homeschooled by their parents. This got me to thinking what other “crunchy,” or attachment parenting, or natural family living practices the wizarding world would engage in. That led to the thought of homebirth, which in turn led to this piece of fanfiction:



The clock in the corner ticked inexorably toward nothing.  The hands didn’t tell time, five of the six hands stood at HOME, while the other pointed to WORK.  A redheaded woman stood in front of the stove, Christmas dinner bubbled over the fire.

Four red-haired children were asleep in front of the tree amid a pile of torn wrapping paper, chocolate frog cards and spent crackers.  Molly smiled at her sleeping children then winced as the baby kicked.  She patted her belly.  “Shush now Ronald,” she whispered to her mid-section.  “Shush now.”  She began to sway back and forth, crooning a lullaby to the unborn baby as she stirred the sauce that had started boiling.

Behind her, the one stray hand of the clock clicked suddenly to IN TRANSIT and then, as green flame erupted in the fire grate Arthur’s hand slid into place with the rest of the family’s at HOME.

“Arthur,” Molly said warmly and turned.  “So it didn’t take long, did it?”

“No Molly,” Arthur said, wiping his glasses and stripping off the threadbare traveling cloak.  “Not at all.  Not long at all.  You wouldn’t believe what some people believe is fun to do on Christmas.  The rotters had charmed a Muggle Christmas tree in Brighton to devour presents.  Took five of us to subdue the tree and then there were memory charms for nearly a hundred people—”

“ONE HUNDRED?  Arthur, why so many?”

“Well,” said Arthur “It was a Muggle orphanage Molly.  All those little children.  Nearly ruined Christmas for them … poor little blighters.  Made me sad to see them like that,” Arthur shrugged and dipped his head away from Molly.

“Arthur,” Molly said, brandishing the dripping sauce spoon, “what did you do?”

Arthur busied himself straightening plates and flatware on the table.  “Nothing really,” he said into his chest, “just a small charm really … no one will hardly notice …”

ARTHUR!

“Now Molly, what’s done is done, and there’s no use fretting.  How’s the baby doing?”

Molly softened immediately, her hands finding her belly.  Arthur came to her and placed his hands over hers and kissed her nose.

“Ronald was squiggling around early, but I think he’s gone to sleep now.  The midwitch was by after you had gone and left me some tea she wants me to take.”

Arthur took his wife into his arms and squeezed her.  “Molly,” he said looking into her eyes, “I want to talk to you about the baby.  While we were at the orphanage in Brighton, I was talking to the Muggle head of the place and she told me about the most wonderful thing that Muggle women are doing to give birth.  You, you simply won’t believe this Mollywobbles, and I know we have Hannah Hather as midwitch, but I want you to consider this Molly, as a favor to me.  It, it just is simply amazing what those Muggles do without magic!”

Arthur let go of Molly and started pacing the length of the kitchen gesticulating wildly as he spoke.

“These women, Molly, these women go into the doctor – I believe they’re called an Obbgynne – and this Obbgynne will examine the woman and her baby without any sort of magic.  They use a device called an uddersound and they can actually see the baby Molly.  Inside the woman … without any magic, mind you.  And then, when the woman goes into labour they go with the Obbgynne and see the sturgeon and the sturgeon will cut the woman’s abdomen and they’ll pull the baby out through that cut.”

Arthur stopped and looked at Molly expectantly.

“Arthur.  Absolutely.  NOT!  Whatever gave you the idea that I would ever agree to do something so completely ridiculous and reckless.  I will not put our baby’s life in danger by placing in the hands of some Muggle cutter-nutter who wants to slice into perfectly helpful women in order to rip a perfectly healthy baby from them.  Next you’ll be telling me Muggles still circumcise”

“But Mollywobbles—”

“Don’t you ‘Mollywobbles’ me Arthur.  Absolutely not!”

“But Molly, they have anastasia.  It’s a gas that puts you right out and you won’t even know it happened!”

“Won’t even— Arthur, tell me, what is the point of not knowing that a birth happens?  Tell me that Arthur.  What is the point?”  She took the sauce from the stove and tasted.  “There now, see what’s happened?  You’ve gone and gotten me so upset that I’ve burned the sauce and the Potters and Sirius will be here any minute now.”  She thrust the saucepan at Arthur.  “Fix this, and I don’t want to hear another word about this crazy Muggle tradition.”

“It’s called a see-saw section.”

“What?”

“Nothing,” Arthur smiled.  “Nothing Mollywobbles.  By the way, I ran into Dumbledore at the Ministry and he said if you could promise that you could conjure a pan of your chocolate fairy fantasy fudge, he’d stop by.”


Molly smiled and opened the oven and let the aroma of chocolate fill the kitchen.  “Now, Arthur, I believe I hear your sons stirring in the front room, you better go see to them before they pull down the tree again.”

Friday, September 6, 2013

Prince of Darkness

directed by John Carpenter
starring Donald Pleasance, Jameson Parker, and Victor Wong
Universal Studios, October 23, 1987, 102 minutes
Rated R

A research team finds a mysterious cylinder in a deserted church. If opened, it could mean the end of the world.

Up front I want to say that I am a big fan of John Carpenter’s films. If nothing else, they are refreshingly original and usually they are quite the visual treat. Also, his films are such a product of their time. They are like wonderful little time capsules from history with no effort made at timelessness. I love it.

I can’t say that it is Carpenter’s best. It’s certainly not The Thing. However, as an idea this film works in spades for me. You really have to give it up to a film whose central conceit is a complete retconning of the whole the history of Christianity. Also, you have to respect a religious film that deals with demonic possession and eschews the standard tropes of such a film in favor of quantum mechanics, theoretical physics, atomic theory, differential equations, advanced calculus and tachyon particles.

Honestly, there is nothing terribly “shocking” or “horrific” about this film, and as far as horror goes … it’s a little mundane. Subdued even. Even the actors are largely forgettable, aside from Donald Pleasance who chews his way through the scenery of this film and Victor Wong who will always be Egg Shen, I can’t see him in any other role. Even Alice Cooper’s cameo is not really worth mentioning and it is entirely gimmicky. He was cast in order to use his stage show’s special effect wherein he impales someone with a bicycle … and it’s not even that good of a special effect.

I really don’t have much else to say about this film as there’s not much to this film. Is it worth it … that depends. If, like me, you are bored of religious horror movies wherein the conflict is oversimplified and the outcome is predetermined (Jesus Good Devil Bad (I’m looking at you Devil) … then definitely give Prince of Darkness a chance. Sixteen years ago it certainly put a new twist on the religious horror film and bucked the genre’s conventions and it is always worth seeing the film that does that for the first time. Also it’s a John Carpenter film, I mean … c’mon! John. Carpenter.

Official trailer

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Pacific Rim

directed by Guillermo del Toro
starring Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, and Idris Elba
Legendary Pictures, July 4, 2013, 132 minutes
Rated PG-13

As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

Giant robots piloted by human beings beating the snot out of gigantic monsters coming up from the bottom of the ocean.

What’s not to like?!

Seriously?

If you go into this expecting something deep and meaningful and fraught with symbolism and metaphor, then you will be disappointed. This is motherfucking giant robots kicking the asses of motherfucking giant monsters. C’MON!

However, that does not mean that Pacific Rim is some mindless summer popcorn romp. This is a Guillermo del Toro film, after all, and that means that behind all the flash and amazing special effects amazing jaegers and super cool kaiju, there is in fact a story … and a pretty damn good one. Del Toro is a consummate storyteller (have you seen Pan’s Labyrinth or Cronos?) and the story here is one of human beings and their struggle to come to grips with a world that has changed beneath their feet (in that, it is much like The Walking Dead). This human element (to trot out the old cliché) is really the heart of Pacific Rim and it is what keeps the audience engaged between scenes of giant robots beating the shit out of giant monsters. This is not to say that the story is perfect. It would not pass the Bechdel Test by any stretch of the imagination (I think there are two women in the entire film and only one of them has any lines) and the action is mostly a testosterone-fueled male pre-adolescent wet dream, but at the very least Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) can hold her own in a world of men (even if she is strangely subservient to her adopted father Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) (and seriously, how great is that name? Stacker fucking Pentecost!)). I liked that she was intelligent, kick ass in her own right, and not overtly sexualized eye candy (I’m looking at you Alice Eve as Carol Marcus in Star Trek Into Darkness). Though, I could have done without the cutesy budding romance between Mako and Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and the unnecessary James Bond-esque kissing on a raft ending.

All this aside, though, Pacific Rim is a great way to spend two hours. These are not complaints I had in the viewing moment, but have since come up in reflection. The kaiju in particular are stunning and unlike anything else I have ever seen on the screen. There is also some seriously great comedic performances delivered by kaiju researchers Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Ron Perlman’s black market dealer Hannibal Chau steals every scene he is in. I also highly enjoyed Max Martini’s turn as grizzled jaeger pilot Herc Hansen (SERIOUSLY!? How great are the names in this film?! Stacker Pentecost! Hannibal Chau!! Herc Hansen!!!) It was also nice to see major population centers other than New York City, London and Paris getting destroyed. Seeing such landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge, Sydney’s iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge and Seattle’s Space Needle getting trashed was rather refreshing, so to speak.

There are some flaws, but all things considered, I can think of worse ways to spend two hours, and if you’re going to shell out for theater tickets, it might as well be for something worth the price of admission, and Pacific Rim certainly delivers.

Official Trailer
Pacific Rim at IMDb

Friday, August 30, 2013

Trollhunter

directed by André Øvredal
starring Otto Jespersen and Hans Morten Hansen
Filmkameratene A/S, October 29, 2010, 103 Minutes
Rated PG-13

A group of students investigates a series of mysterious bear killings, but learns there are much more dangerous things going on. They start to follow a mysterious hunter, learning that he is actually a troll hunter.

Of late, I have been less than impressed with the offerings that the American horror market has released. Relying mostly on jump-scares and tired clichés (really, how many vengeful ghost or creepy little kid movies can there be?) these films have been lackluster at best. So, I turned my sights on the foreign horror market, and I have not been disappointed. The Scandinavians in particular have really brought their A-Game to horror and Trollhunter is a prime example of this. While not exactly horror, it’s more of what one might call a dark comedy (something like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland), this film really delivers.

In particular what Øvredal and his cast and crew have done is reinvigorate the tired cinéma vérité style. Horror films done with handheld cameras on flimsy premises (I’m looking at you The Last Exorcism and Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield) have done more damage to what is a venerable and often very effective genre trick. Don’t believe me? Watch 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust or even 1990’s The Blair Witch Project (a film, which in my mind, is severely underrated, mostly due to the hype that surrounded its initial release). These films show exactly what can be done when the vérité style is taken seriously, and is not reduced to a “gimmick” to sell tickets (I’m still looking at you The Last Exorcism). Trollhunter takes its cues from Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project and takes its handheld camera shooting very seriously, and as such, it works wonderfully and is integrated very organically into the storytelling.

Unlike other films (I’m looking at you Cloverfield) the handheld camera feels like it should be there and it delivers a degree of intimacy and authenticity to an otherwise fantastic idea. This also brings a feel of truth to the whole of the film, even the “non-action” scenes where we are getting back-story or mythology. Typically such scenes are handled with ham-fisted exposition, but Øvredal integrates the mundane with the amazing so well that hearing about troll lore is as fascinating as seeing the trolls in action. It is a very well-balanced pairing of subtle humor with physical tension, which results in the film’s striking naturalness.

This naturalness is helped, to a large degree, by Otto Jespersen’s stellar portrayal as Hans the weary government-endorsed trollhunter. Jespersen carries the film and much of the dry humor is found in Hans’ being fed up with the endless bureaucracy surrounding his job since reams of paperwork need to be filed after each successful hunt. Jespersen’s humor is counterpointed by Hans Morten Hansen’s portrayal of Finn, the put-upon bureaucrat from the Norwegian government’s Troll Security Agency to whom Hans answers. The stick-up-his-ass boss vs. the savvy and frustrated employee, while admittedly clichéd, works so well because of the outrageousness of the field in which Finn and Hans work.

Filmed on a shoestring (at least by Hollywood budget standards), Trollhunter is a film that offers up a fantastical premise and then delivers in spades on that promise. Most horror/monster films have the “Monster Problem” wherein the ambiguity and suspense surrounding the monster at the beginning of the film is dissipated once the creature is revealed. Greater directors than Øvredal have struggled and failed in this respect, and only a few have succeeded (Spielberg and Jaws comes to mind as does Ridley Scott and the xenomorph in the original Alien film). Øvredal manages to avoid the “Monster Problem” (chiefly, I believe) to the use of the vérité format) and his trolls are spectacular. They are fully integrated into the film and the actors never look like they are reacting to a green screen or tennis ball on a stick (which they almost surely are). The “Monster Problem” is further avoided by having a pretty standard creature rather than something hyper-fantastical (the spider-thing in It jumps to mind). As well as having a rich and already established lore, Scandinavian trolls have already been fully visualized through the works of such artists as John Bauer and Theodore Kittelsen. Perhaps most spectacularly, this vision is achieved in the final scenes when Hans and his tag-a-long film crew head into the mountains of Norway to find a Jötnar—a gigantic mountain troll well over 600 feet tall. The special effects here are simply amazing and worth the price of admission.

Overall, I highly recommend this film. The beginning drags on a bit, but once it gets going it really gets going.

Official Trailer
Trollhunter at IMDb

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Joyland

by Stephen King
(London: Titan Books, 2013)
Trade Paperback, 283 Pages, Fiction

College student Devin Jones took the summer job at Joyland hoping to forget the girl who broke his heart. But he wound up facing something far more terrible: the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and dark truths about life—and what comes after—that would change his world forever.

I approached Joyland with some trepidation. I have become quite disillusioned with Stephen King’s writing in recent years. Lisey’s Story, Duma Key, Under the Dome, Just After Sunset, Mile 81 … they’ve all not been quite up to snuff with King’s earlier works such as ‘salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, and Bag of Bones. With the approaching sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, I was justifiably worried. The Shining is, in my mind King’s best piece of writing, and to attempt to write a sequel for it nearly forty years later had me concerned. So, with all that in mind, I picked up Joyland to test the waters and see whether or not King still “had it.”

He does.

I was absolutely surprised by what I found in Joyland. There is not a single wasted word in this book, and King’s waning storytelling ability seems to have come back in full force. I absolutely loved every minute that I was in Devin Jones’ world. The story, while taking some time to get started, is gripping and compelling. It is a tidy little whodunit that succeeds in spite of itself.

What I mean by that is that there is a bit of the problem Under the Dome had, and that is King can spin a great yarn, but seems to have problems (in recent years) satisfactorily ending his stories. Under the Dome was anticlimactic, Duma Key was disappointing and Joyland has more than a whiff of the deus ex machine about it. And yet, in spite of the god coming down from the rafters at the last minute, Joyland could have been a lot worse than it ended up being. In fact, it is a lot better than it really has any right to be.

The more I think about it, the more I like this book and the tidy little story it tells. Really, nowadays (and Mile 81 and the stories in Just After Sunset notwithstanding) this is when King is at his best: 300 pages or less. Long enough to tell a really compelling and exciting story, but not long enough for the thread to get lost in the weeds (as happened in Under the Dome).

Joyland is also helped by the fact that its characters, especially those of Devin Jones and Lane Hardy are very well written and quite alive in their depiction. It helps that these two central characters are as alive within the pages of Joyland as it allows the reader to become lost in the story and let Devin and Lane as well as Annie and Mike and Erin and all the rest, carry you along and help you experience the events at the Joyland Amusement Park as they did.

In spite of its handful of flaws (which really are minor) Joyland is a welcome return to the Stephen King of The Shining, ‘salem’s Lot and The Stand and it gives me hope for Doctor Sleep and the return of Danny Torrance.