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2018-8-5 Mea WebVersion

This is what I’m into at the moment: single page comics. Other than a handful of three-panel strips, this is my first stab at sequential art since about ’98, when I attempted an ongoing comic on notebook paper (it was terrible). Obviously there’s a strong Jack Kirby influence on this one. I’ll be posting more of these one-pagers in the near future so subscribe to this blog if you’re interested (the button’s on the right for desktop users and on the bottom for those browsing on mobile).

Cold Moons and Back-Alley Abortions

I’ve got some bad news which is probably good news in the long run: I’m pushing back the release date for Corpus Evil. There are a hundred reasons for doing this, but the best reason is it’s simply going to be a lot better. I think I was also on the road to a nervous breakdown.

So consider the bevy of memorable characters Michael McDowell has introduced to me so far: the dimwitted Dean Howell, whose rifle explodes in his face shortly before he’s shipped off to The Vietnam War; he somehow becomes a dreadful presence in The Amulet even though he spends the entire novel in a coma, his face wrapped in bandages. His wife Sarah, who was too good for Dean to begin with, has to suffer the wrath of her lazy, gluttonous mother-in-law, Jo Howell. Jo blames everyone but herself for what has happened to Dean and it just so happens she has the means of making them pay.

Cold Moon Over Babylon introduced Jerry and Margaret Larkin, downtrodden siblings who were raised by their tired grandmother after their parents happened upon a sack of rattlesnakes. The family dynamics here feel like McDowell Lite, as if he were practicing for the larger and much more endearing cast of characters he would put on parade in The Elementals, which includes the comically cynical Luker McCray and his mischievous teenage daughter, India; I especially enjoyed the moments in which India’s foul-mouthed nature conflicted with her alcoholic grandmother, Big Barbara McCray, a southern aristocrat who dazzlingly skims the surface of Predictable Stereotype.

Gilded Needles

So it was inevitable I would read Gilded Needles this week, having no idea who or what McDowell would introduce next. (Summaries be damned, I’ve been going into his stories blind ever since I read the first one.) How do you top the Howells and the McCrays? How could it possibly get any better?

For the first time in my experience, McDowell moves his setting out of Alabama and into the dark, depressing streets of 1800s New York. Opium dens. Whorehouses. Highly illegal abortion operations. It’s the characters who live in this fully realized squalor who become the morally ambiguous heroes of Gilded Needles. The story pits Black Lena Shanks against Judge James Stallworth, the latter of whom has sentenced three of Lena’s family members to death. In retaliation, Lena’s family of misfits send the judge and his family invitations to their own funerals.

The supernatural elements are gone, but the gleeful absurdity of The Amulet kind of returns as the two families square off. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as fun as The Elementals, but it’s pretty damn close and it’s a helluva lot darker. There’s something especially satisfying about the huge cast of ruthless characters and how far they’ll go to exact their revenge on people who simply disliked them because they weren’t born into the same social class. Why so many of McDowell’s books stayed out of print for so long, I’ll never know, but let’s hope they’re here to stay.

Because I read and unexpectedly enjoyed Michael Crichton’s Sphere last week, I thought I’d check out the movie which was based on it. This was a mistake. I can’t remember the last time I watched such a dull, mediocre movie. I find it amazing that an actress as talented as Sharon Stone can appear in movies like this and appear to be both bored and incompetent. Samuel L. Jackson, who’s almost always interesting, also disappoints.

How do you make a story about a giant squid boring? By reducing the squid’s role almost entirely, that’s how. I’m sure it was probably because of budgetary reasons, but the film supposedly cost around $80 million, long before that kind of budget was the norm, so it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that it should feel so cheap and small. This is The Abyss re-imagined without any of the awe, excitement, or groundbreaking special effects.

Doomed Boy Scouts and Alien Objects

Here’s everything I knew about Nick Cutter’s The Troop when I started it: it was a horror novel which people seemed to like. That’s pretty much it.

I thought it was going to be about a viral outbreak and, without giving too much away, it kind of is, but it’s more parasitic in nature… and kind of gross, too. In other words, it was right up my alley. It was a bit of a stretch to believe such a thing could find itself on the same island as a character like Shelley (this little fucker deserves a cell next door to Hannibal Lecter), but it was worth suspending my disbelief. If, like me, you had trouble enjoying Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, this is a much better version of that story.

The Troop

Growing up, I was inexplicably drawn to the cover of Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee’s Rama Revealed when I saw it sitting on the shelf of a book store one day. When I realized it was a sequel, I convinced my mother to order the first in the series, Rendezvous with Rama, at Steve’s Sundry (R.I.P.). The rest is history: I annihilated the series and I’ve been a fan of Clarke and science fiction ever since. I even loved the sequels as a kid (though I’ve never been able to get into them as an adult) and I’ve been forever chasing the high that first book gave me.

I love superstructures and I love big science fiction. The harder the better. I’m increasingly turned off by the self-aware geek-chic SF of today, which seems to be suffocated by pop cultural references and nostalgia. I want academic characters talking about real world theories and all the known unknowns and unknown unknowns, and everything in between.

Sphere

Over the years, the itch has been scratched here and there. Asimov’s Foundation (though I somehow never read beyond the first book) did the trick. Larry Niven’s Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers did okay, too (let’s just pretend the series ended there). More recently and unexpectedly, however, Michael Crichton’s Sphere kicked all kinds of ass for me, mostly because I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Crichton’s work… also because I have no idea what possessed me to read it. It’s kind of like Rendezvous with Rama if it had been written by James Cameron.

I’ll take it.

The Last Jedi (2017) [Midnight Movie]

A lot of people thought The Force Awakens was too derivative of the original trilogy. Starkiller Base notwithstanding, I disagree, but I can see where those people are coming from. I just thought it was a smart move to give us a healthy dose of familiarity in order to make sure the new trilogy got off to a solid start. (But yeah, I could have easily checked out during that final assault.)

Despite my enjoyment of Awakens, I went into The Last Jedi hoping for a lot less familiarity. The good news is I’ve never seen a Star Wars movie that looks like this outside the expected space battles. The bad news is I was seventeen minutes late (the first time I’ve been late to a movie since 1997) due to the fact I’m kind of a complete idiot. I’ll tell you this, though: I never knew how important the opening crawl was until now.

So yeah, I was a little too annoyed with myself (and the theater playing it at a criminally low volume) to really lose myself in the movie. There’s not a whole lot I can say until I see it under proper viewing conditions. I will say the visuals topped the previous movie.

Oh, and I was neutral on porgs before the movie, but they seemed kind of pointless. I’m kind of glad JJ’s coming back because he leans towards the weird more than the cute.

December 16th update. I’ve seen the movie again, distraction-free, and confirmed what I already suspected: this isn’t a great Star Wars movie. It feels like JJ had a good idea where the story was going and Rian Johnson abandoned it all in the interest of making sure all of the fan theories were wrong. The problem is the fan theories were working with what had been established. This movie doesn’t.

One or two (or even three or four) of these surprise moments would have been perfectly acceptable, but the movie’s plot takes numerous hard turns and, in doing so, fails to give us anything we would want or expect from a Star Wars film. Meanwhile, Finn’s subplot ends up nowhere, the new characters fall embarrassingly flat, and although there are sparks of excitement, they’re nowhere near as potent or sustained as they were in previous films.

I can’t say I saw any of the surprises coming, but none of them felt very… surprising. In fact, it was more like unwrapping a gift and discovering socks inside. When the twists fly in the face of what you’ve established, isn’t that just cheating? This feels like a child telling a story: “And then this happens, and then, and then….” It just doesn’t really connect.

Some of this playing with expectations would have worked in a different kind of movie, particularly the adult-oriented movies Johnson is known for, but hardened sentiments do nothing positive for a fairy tale set in space. Fairy tales work because of the tropes, but most of all because they ultimately give us what we want to see. Jedi is a remarkably pulpless fantasy for a series about laser swords and princesses, good and evil. It feels like fan fiction written by someone who genuinely loves the source material, but now I’m left with the desire to see the official version.

And what they’ve done to Luke is probably the blandest, most disappointing aspect of it all. Unfortunately, this is a canon Disney will stick to like glue, which means there are no redos. There were blips, in the beginning, in which he felt and acted like the Luke we know and love, but those moments were brief. It’s funny that a movie that blabbers on and on about hope would effectively kill the hope for future films.

I think the biggest takeaway from The Last Jedi is that the honeymoon period is officially over. Now we’re stuck with Disney til death do us part. I can’t believe we’ve waited two years for this. I would have rather gotten Star Wars 1313 than one good movie and two mediocre ones. And that’s yet another reason to resent Disney’s acquisition of the property: we almost got a game which looked like a masterpiece, but instead we got EA’s Battlefront 2.

I still think it’s one of the best looking movies of the year and some of the new locations were more appealing than anything in Force Awakens. But, as with the prequels, I think the hardcore fans are going to be pretty disappointed when the new wears off. I’m not the biggest fan of the prequels myself, but I appreciate ’em a helluva lot more than this one. Come to think of it, I don’t think any of these bad guys are as interesting as General Grievous. (Speaking of which: why are there so many bad guys in the new trilogy?)

Even after writing all this I feel like I’m still in the denial I was in after seeing it the first time. I can’t help but think, “Maybe I’ll like it when I see it again in the future,” and “maybe it’ll all make sense after the third one’s out,” but I think it’s more likely that JJ’s going to have an even harder time getting the series back on track than he did the last time.

Blade Runner 2049 is the best belated sequel I’ve ever seen

This isn’t really a review, I’m just stoked I finally saw the movie.

I just saw Blade Runner 2049 and even though I’m deep into 31 Days of Gore, I’ve kinda gotta talk about it. Luckily, I knew next to nothing about the sequel and was surprised almost immediately. I knew Ryan Gossling was in the movie and he played a blade runner, and I knew Harrison Ford showed up for at least a cameo, but that’s pretty much it. I saw the teaser trailer, but nothing beyond that.

I’m not going to spoil anyone else on the minor plot or character details, either. I will say I love what was revealed two or three minutes in and it’s something I’m guessing the more recent trailers gave away. It’s also nice how they handle the question at the end of the original. I wasn’t in the mood for a three-hour movie when showtime came around tonight, but it certainly didn’t feel like three hours. I somehow completely forgot just how tired I was until the credits rolled and I stood from my seat.

So many modern sequels look at odds with their 80s counterparts. This one not only looks like it was cut from the same cloth, there’s about thirty years of technology added to the futurism we got the last time around, which is so well done it makes the world seem that much more convincing. I’m also glad they kept the Atari billboards in, too… there’s just something appealing about that logo. As far as belated sequels go, this one’s the absolute best. (Yes, I even enjoyed it more than Fury Road.)

The original Blade Runner wasn’t an instant favorite for me; it took several years and multiple versions until The Final Cut unexpectedly blew my mind one night. Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, is an instant favorite. I may not like it quite as much as the original, but it’s pretty damn close and seems to incorporate more Phildickian themes than Ridley Scott did.

The best part is I’ve got a few years to let it grow on me. I’m dead tired right now, but if I could, I’d drive back to the theater and watch it a second time. I guarantee I’ll be speaking about it more in depth in the near future.

Okay, back to the regularly scheduled blog feature… my Chucky marathon went live about an hour ago and I’ll be featuring Two Evil Eyes at midnight tonight, Central Time.