Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Most Wonderful Time

Wishing everyone a wonderful Hallow's Eve, Hallowe'en, Samhain, or whatever name you call the blessed 31st of October! It's been a busy season, full of horror movie-watching, pumpkin-carving, and walking around at night inspecting the tombstones in people's front yards.

II'm particularly excited about the post-Halloween season since I'm the "next week on" guest on classic horror movie expert Derek M. Koch's Monster Kid Radio. (I'll update with details). Not only did we discuss Robert E. Howard and the fine 1965 film The Beach Girls and the Monster, but we talked about my Halloween stocker-stuffer novella, The Jack-o-Lantern Box. You can see that over on the right. It's something I wrote for love, wanting to preserve the feeling of an old-timey 1970s Halloween, so it was gratifying to hear that someone whose work I have so much respect for was able to relate to it and appreciate it as much as he did.

Next up, I'm starting to look for a home for a full-length novel (equally non-commercial, huzzah!), and have various projects, fiction and nonfiction, in various states of disarray. There may be a 19th-century Christmas coming up next, but I'll let you know once there's something to tell.

In the meantime, enjoy everything the thinning of the veil has to offer.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Lair of the Cove

Expanding a 1,171 word Internet story into a 6-hour TV miniseries was bound to present some challenges. So it’s probably no surprise that Channel Zero: Candle Cove, the 2016 SyFy Channel adaptation of the 2009 creepypasta, struggles a bit to pad out the plot.

A renowned child psychologist visits his sleepy hometown, which had suffered a series of child murders, including the disappearance of his twin brother. He believes the crimes were connected to a barely-remembered TV puppet show, but when new strange incidents occur, his former schoolmates suspect he’s the one responsible.

Although the leads didn’t make a huge impression, it’s good to see Fiona Shaw get some substantial screentime; even if much of that is made up of looking pensive, she’s certainly able to make the most of that. Luisa D’Oliveira is also good as a level-headed deputy thrust into authority by the mysterious goings-on.

The series aims for something between Stephen King’s It and American Horror Story, but more slow-paced and low-key. I was underwhelmed by the tooth monster, and the show in general might be more unsettling to a parent with small children, or who is particularly creeped out by puppets. But frankly, that wasn’t all bad. I mean, we’ve had Hereditary sitting on the DVD player for about three weeks, but real life is so harsh we haven’t watched it yet. If you’re looking for something with a creepy ambience that you haven’t already watched a bunch of times, well, this was perfectly acceptable.

The "Candle Cove" puppet show-within-a-show is the best part –especially after my honey likened it to the Binkley and Doinkel series of Canadian PSAs he saw as a kid. There's a whole series watchable on YouTube, and the hand-melting stuff is CRAZY.

“Slither in.”

When I first saw Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm (1988), I totally loved it. About a decade later, I thought: I dunno, this is maybe too over the top. Clearly I was crazy, because it is exactly the right amount of over the top. The Bram Stoker novel it’s based on doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: for example, it contains a number of social calls that turn into intense hypnotic stare-downs for no apparent reason. In retrospect, Russell’s changes shaped it into a fairly satisfying narrative, and their visual flair and (often) outrageousness is a happy bonus.

A pair of plucky village lasses (Sammi Davis and Catherine Oxenberg) are putting on brave faces after their parents’ mysterious disappearance. When an archeological student digs up a large snake skull in their backyard, secrets are uncovered that go back to the time of the Roman occupation, which may explain why their sexy neighbor is so obsessed with Snakes and Ladders.

Today, of course, this is a two-Doctor film, since Peter Capaldi starred in the new Doctor Who’s 8th – 10th seasons, and Hugh Grant appeared as a short-lived Doctor in Steven Moffat’s comedic Curse of Fatal Death. Come to think of it, if the show had gone the Missy route in the ‘80s, co-star Amanda Donohoe would have been great in the role! The young Capaldi is memorable with his kilt, curly perm, and wrangling of snake people with the bagpipes. As the young lord of the manor who doesn’t think giant snakes and the related carnage should get in the way of drinks at the pub with “the girls,” it’s probably Grant’s most likeable performance (his least likeable being the Mircea Eliade character in The Bengali Night. Ew). His dream sequence with the phallic felt-tip pen is an all-time camp classic.
And while everyone mainly, and justly, remembers the D’Ampton Worm song, the snake charmer music is also pretty amazing, and I enjoyed that it was accompanied by the vaguely lascivious butler’s reminiscences about belly dancers.

Catherine Oxenberg has been in the news lately for unfortunate reasons, discussing her daughter’s involvement with the Nxivm cult. It feels exploitative to follow that up with a note that the film contains nudity and some violence – but we should all know the difference between movies and life. If you don’t mind a little R-rated kink and crazy, and feel like something vampire-esque, this is well worth a gloomy evening.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Girl Walks Home Among Us

Getting in the spirit of the season, our movie watching has begun to take on a theme: those things in some way macabre. What are the odds? Here's a few selections that have kicked off autumn at the Octoberzine house.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014):

Very Important Spoiler:
Don't worry about the cat.

This Farsi-language film, shot in California with Iranian-American actors, is very much an art film, and parts of it reminded me of interviews with the director of A Ghost Story, where he talked about deliberately trying the audience's patience with very slow scenes. It's beautiful to look at, full of stunning imagery (like the vampire, luminous Sheila Vand, on a skateboard), and it has a great soundtrack. I also enjoyed its idea of the unnamed vampire as both an immortal avenging angel and a perpetual teenage girl: I wondered if that Bee Gees poster had been on her wall since their heyday, and her checking to see if a victim had any CDs worth taking was a nice touch. Also, that's Dominic Rains -- the sadistic Kree administrator Kassius from Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- as the drug dealer! The weak link was the romantic subplot, although it made sense, given the character's obvious longing for human connection. Worth watching, but you better be in the mood for a tone poem.

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956):

This was also fairly slow-paced, especially in the first half. An expedition goes to find the Creature from the Black Lagoon and perform research that will help mankind evolve to live in outer space. Yup! He gets burned, mummified in surgical bandages, and then forced to breathe through his rudimentary lung system, all of which turns him more Man than Gill Man. He also seems to have bulked up considerably since the first movie, and when he's put in hospital pajamas, he bears a strange resemblance to Tor Johnson. Meanwhile, the head scientist's lovely wife is trapped in a #MeToo nightmare: surrounded by condescension, would-be rapists, and worst of all, a controlling and probably abusive husband. Her introduction made me think she was going to be an unsympathetic character, written in to generate conflict among the crew, but the movie shines a light on her limited options, equating her situation with that of the imprisoned Creature, although it didn't go in the Shape of Water-lite direction it might have. It's unlikely to supplant the original in anyone's affections, but it does prove that WTF?? sequels aren't a new invention.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Thus Autumn Begins!

It's always weird for me to talk about so-called real life, but I do have some updates I've forgotten about. Been too busy ranting about Marvel movies -- believe me, I spared you some deep thoughts on arguments that I decided to walk away from -- plus reading a bunch of Star Wars novels for the first time, and listening to podcasts again, thanks to some adjustments at my day job that enable me to do that. Yay, day job!

So what's new with me?

This is available for purchase at all the usual online sources, from McFarland Press:  Giant Creatures in Our World: Essays on Kaiju and American Popular Culture. I'm sure you'll enjoy it, especially “We are eating Gamera”: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Consumes the Kaiju." I did one panel at a local sci-fi convention as a kaiju expert, so that's something that would be on the bucket list, if I knew it was a thing that might happen. If you want more thoughts on either Gamera or MST3K, I've got 'em, so just let me know.

A poem sequence called "Masque: Chicago" appeared in the 2017 issue of Moveable Type, on the theme of "Metropolis." I wrote them some years ago, and always hoped they'd find someone to appreciate them, so that was nice!

In June, I went to Cross Plains, Texas, for Howard Days, and was thrilled to tie for the Cimmerian Award for Best Online Essay with the esteemed Bobby Derie in the Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards. The essay, "Queen by Fire and Steel and Slaughter: Bêlit’s Hymn," appeared as a guest post on the blog On an Underwood No. 5. Since Howard Days, two more of my essays have been published there: "By the Phoenix on This Sword I Rule!" (about the revisions that turned Kull into Conan) and "Swanson of Dakota," which contains as much information as I could find about Carl Swanson, a North Dakota bookseller who corresponded with Howard, Lovecraft, and others in an attempt to set up his own fantasy magazine.

Upcoming are an essay on hoodoo in the work of Ishmael Reed for a McFarland anthology (title TBA), and a local presentation on Arthur Machen and the legend of the Angel of Mons.

So that't that. Whew! Next up I will talk about people OTHER than me, swear to Rishi.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Letter to an Aggrieved Star Wars Fan

No, not a specific one. It's a literary device!

Since The Last Jedi came out, there's been a lot of talk online about the way Disney and Kathleen Kennedy have been dealing with the Star Wars world (I refuse to use words like "franchise" or "property.") There's a lot of angles to this, and I'm not going to discuss any of the really crazy stuff. This is about the people who seem to feel legitimately concerned that the current team at Lucasfilm are destroying the legacy of Star Wars, and are even openly hostile to it. A search for the phrase "Lucasfilm hates Star Wars," for example, brings up a lot of responses.

You think you have it bad? Want to talk about sequels that completely, callously disregard a story's basic continuity, established world, and, most damningly, the integrity of beloved characters? Let's talk about being a fan of the Terminator movies.

I describe my relationship with the first two films as a "deep-seated religious feeling." I can't count the number of times I've seen them, and can quote pretty much all their dialogue. AndI have endured three films plus a TV show which have used the Terminator name, but have shown little to no concern with the legacy of James Cameron's original work.

After the third film, I signed up with IMBD for the sole purpose of writing a review called "Basic Math Shows Contempt for the Audience." And you want to compare nitpicking? I was trying to give the Sarah Connor Chronicles show a chance. I gave myself a whole lecture about accepting that network tv was going to force a softening and a simplification of the characters, and I tried to roll with it. We didn't get too far in before there was a plot point about how John didn't know how to drive a stick, and I was like, "That's it! We're done!" and I couldn't bring myself to watch any more of it. That's probably not fair, but it's true.

The fourth film was particularly frustrating because Christian Bale and Anton Yelchin were such good casting for the older John Connor and the younger Kyle Reese, but they were utterly let down by almost every aspect of the movie around them.

In the case of Star Wars, the truth is, in order to make enough money back to justify paying for expensive blockbusters with state of the art special effects, Disney has to take a lot of different audiences into account. That means every individual fan just isn't going to love everything or agree with everything. But that's not even my point. Lucasfilm has a dedicated team of Star Wars enthusiasts who work to keep the timelines and continuity intact, something which almost no other pop cultural world has ever bothered to do.

Some people spend all day harassing Lucasfilm's Pablo Hidalgo, with his encyclopedic dedication to the lore, for -- I'm not even sure what, even though I see their tweets. But after James Cameron's run with the original and T2, the Terminator world has apparently NEVER had anyone looking out for any interest beyond "Hey, if we make another Terminator movie we can make some money off it!"

Okay, I do imagine there's a frustrated junior executive somewhere whose blood was boiling, but who couldn't fight the machine. Wow, kind of meta!

So really, it could get so much worse. It's perfectly fair to comment on the films. I agree that Last Jedi didn't totally work, despite having some stuff I really liked. But it's weird that fans are spending so much time, energy, and vitriol without realizing that there could be real, honest-to-god bean counters in charge, who really DO only want to squeeze Star Wars for the quickest buck. That would look a lot different from the time, detail, and loving care a lot of the Lucasfilm folks are putting into the new films and shows.

Bonus: Here's my IMDB review of Terminator 3. I'd probably go even further now. Try re-watching T2 with the idea that John is in the midst of his first love. Oy vey. All of this contortion so that Claire Danes could be introduced by a truly ridiculous coincidence: that John would break into a business looking for medicine, and run into this girl he knew when he was "13." And wait, the Wikipedia tells me her father was involved in the creation of Skynet? Are you KIDDING ME? I totally blocked that out. There isn't enough eye-rolling in the world.

Basic Math Shows Contempt for the Audience (Spoilers) 
14 July 2003

Many things bothered me about T3, which to describe would probably take more than a maximum of 1,000 words. One little nitpick really stood out for me, however, and seems indicative of everything wrong with the movie. T3 insists upon John Connor's being 13 years old and in the 8th grade during the events of T2. I went back to my DVD, and he is clearly identified during T2 as being ten years old. I was willing to let that go, and say it wasn't really a big deal, but then I realized there's a bigger problem. The original Terminator film clearly and unambiguously takes place in 1984. John Connor is clearly and unambiguously born in 1985. Judgment Day, before the events of T2 change the course of the fictional history, was clearly and unambiguously going to take place on August 29, 1997. (T3 still accepts that date as correct, with the whole gratuitous leukemia thing, which I won't get into).

It took me all of a few seconds to see what was wrong with this picture. If John Connor was conceived in 1984 and born in 1985, he wouldn't turn 13 until a year AFTER the world was destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. The world looked in pretty good shape in T2 considering, huh? And if Sarah was supposedly diagnosed with cancer three years before 1997, John would have been nine years old -- younger than he originally was during T2, while Sarah would probably have been in Pescadero.

Why is this important? In the course of sequels, things are going to get tweaked to make the new movie work. Certain things may get re-written or reinterpreted. But the anchoring dates of 1984 and 1997 are basic and important facts about the world the Terminator series is set in. The filmmakers were paid incredible amounts of money to make this film, and either couldn't be bothered to do simple math that an elementary schooler could do, or they did do the math, and decided to arbitrarily ignore it, to make a change that really has no pay-off and adds no meaning to the film. I paid $5 to see this film. They're getting back millions. And I offhandedly know more about the world of the film, and care more about it, than they do. This shows a casual contempt for anyone who cared enough about the first two movies to actually bother paying attention to the plot. The exact same people whose money they anticipated taking when they decided to make another sequel in the first place. This isn't a movie with any meaning: it's a cynical cash cow.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

"You Expect Too Much of Him": Blaming the Victims in Infinity War (major spoilers, obviously)

Reading all the articles about Avengers: Infinity War, including one about "the secret villain," Peter Quill, "the guy whose idiocy and selfish behavior ineluctably leads to the extermination of half of all life in the universe." While Thanos is temporarily subdued, two other characters try to wrestle off the gauntlet that will give him universe-destroying powers. Unfortunately, Quill finds out that Thanos just murdered the woman he loves, and attacks him, freeing Thanos from the trance.

Quill has been well-established as an immature person with severe abandonment issues, in this situation completely over his head. He's explicitly not a superhero; he's just a "dude" who wound up in a weird situation and made the best of it. In a scene not long before his one, he had held back his teammate Drax, who's been on a years-long quest for similar vengeance against Thanos, from attacking the Titan. He got him to stand down, so they'd have a better chance of defeating him. Faced with his own fresh grief and anger, though, he viscerally reacts just like Drax, and ruins the plan.

Sure. But would Tony have been so cool if Thanos had just literally just murdered his own fiancee? Would any of us writing about the movie be so cool if someone murdered the person we love most, minutes ago? Would we be able to think past the immediate fact of that loss?

In fact, variations of this behavior is a running theme in the movie. If Quill is a villain for letting his emotions get the better of him, isn't Gamora a villain too? Thanos has no clue where one stone is, and he gets it from Gamora by torturing her sister -- despite the sister, right there, clearly giving Gamora the expression "don't you dare, bitch!"

(As a fan, though, I'll say that since Nebula was introduced trying to kill Gamora, the fact that this movie includes Gamora risking the universe to save her, and Nebula risking her life to rescue Gamora in turn, is awesome!)

And isn't Wanda similarly a villain, since she could prevent Thanos from getting his power by killing her boyfriend? Okay, that's rough, but again: choosing one's own loved one, and one's feelings about it, over a strategy that will save the entire universe. Steve and the others support the choice that could end the world, and, at best, will probably destroy Wakanda.

Oh, and Loki also handed over a stone to save one life: Thor's. (Although that did give the other heroes a tactical advantage down the line).

Quill's actions aren't exactly the same as theirs. He's reacting to the death after the fact, rather than preventing the death. The AV Club writer says that the other characters "were in impossible situations; their decisions directly saved lives," while Quill acted out of "personal retribution." However, in Quill's case, we don't know that the plan would have worked anyway. They kept saying the gauntlet was budging, but they hadn't gotten it off him yet, and they knew they couldn't hold him much longer. Quill blew their chances, but Loki's and Gamora's and Wanda's choices, to save one person over the lives of the entire universe, directly put the doomsday stones into Thanos' hands.

The foolhardiness of those choices are made clear by the example of the dwarf Eitri, who created the gauntlet that gives Thanos control of the stones. He cooperated to save the lives of his people, but Thanos killed them all anyway. That's the fate that was likely always in store for the loved ones Loki and Wanda and Gamora chose, if Thanos got the stones.

Of all these characters, until Wanda agreed to take the stone from Vision's head it at the last moment, Quill was the only one who had been willing to do make the devastating choice, and kill Gamora to prevent Thanos from getting a stone. He pulled the trigger, but Thanos's other powers turned the shot to bubbles. So not only did he face the "impossible situation" and do the impossible right thing, but she died anyway, and died in vain

So are Loki and Gamora and Wanda the villains?

NO! The villain is THANOS, people. The guy who's trying to kill everyone is the villain, not the people who make mistakes when devastated by the choices he's forced  upon them. Human beings aren't machines. Some will act out of grief and pain, and others out of the desire to keep their loved ones safe at the expense of strangers. Is that particularly noble? Of course not, but it's understandable. The bad guy is the one who's putting them in this position! Who's torturing and murdering people! Always!

Dr. Strange saw a million possible outcomes, and in only one of them did all the actions of all the people involved lead to a positive outcome. So no one can know in the moment how all the chains of cause and effect will play out. Should you try to do the right thing, the kind thing, the helpful thing, or, in Quill's case, the smart thing? Of course! But when you're attacked, it's not your fault for not reacting perfectly. The blame is 100% on the attacker. If we can't even agree that the destruction of the universe is the fault of the person who wants to destroy it, and does in fact destroy it, I worry about our ability to prevent it.

(The title quote might not be exactly precise. I'll fix it after I see the movie next time).

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Quick S.H.I.E.L.D Chat

SPOILERS up to April 27, 2018 episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Just wait until I get to all my many, many thoughts about DC's Legends of Tomorrow!)

I was reading a review of last night's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and they said this about Daisy: "It’s funny to watch the series try to push the idea she’s ready to lead, while simultaneously playing out a narrative which undercuts that notion at every turn. Everyone wants to stop the destruction of the planet, but they’re working almost at cross-purposes in their efforts to do what they think is best in pursuit of that goal."

First thought was: I don't know that it's "the series" pushing this idea. And the second sentence made me think, gee, that sounds pretty much like real life, right? Which gave me some ideas about the first sentence, and this whole storyline.

Daisy was put in the charge of the team when Coulson was unable to, and there is evidence that she CAN be a good leader, but also that she may not be ready, today, to BE a good leader. She doesn't have the wealth of experience to handle all the aspects, especially in getting her team to buy in to her leadership. Important characters, like May, have questioned putting her in charge. But ready or not, someone has to be the leader, and this reflects real-life problems.

Coulson rose in the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. at a time when it was a stable, well-funded organization with clear leadership and career trajectories. He could spend plenty of time as a quippy underling, learning the ropes, being mentored by Nick Fury, gaining experience and maturity along the way. That's the traditional path of leadership. But that environment doesn't exist anymore. He doesn't have an equivalent person, who spent that time and that path preparing to eventually step into the leadership role. The most experienced agents -- May and Mack -- pretty explicitly don't want the job. They're valuable agents, and both are capable of leading missions or being in temporary command. Eventually, though, the sustainability of the agency (or any project, workplace, or organization) will require a more permanent leader.

With the information that Coulson is dying, the problem of future leadership is suddenly a pressing one. The reality is, Coulson could have died (for real) at any time in the past 5 seasons. What will hold the team together then? Who will step up, and how prepared will they be? Because of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s unique knowledge and resources for dealing with threats to the world, the fate of humanity, in this case, may depend on these choices. (Which, metaphorically, reflects the fact that the fate of humanity does rest in the choices we all make, and the future we create in the present, albeit in a more dramatic symbolic way). Many groups, like this one, have been held together by personal loyalty, and the skills of the current leader; Coulson, in this case. If there hasn't been time, or the will, to properly nurture new leadership, then the entire enterprise is extremely vulnerable to collapse. So while Daisy may have been thrown in before she's ready, someone has to do it, and they're going to have to learn fast.

This is our current situation. Traditional paths and structures have eroded, or been demolished. The jobs still need doing, and organizations are often held together by individual force of will. But that isn't a sustainable model. The old world is gone, and new people have to step up before a new one is built. Coulson had a whole career to prepare him for his vitally important job, but Daisy will never have that luxury, and neither will anyone else of her generation. She, or someone possibly less experienced, will have to learn to do the same job, but in the midst of chaos, without the support system Coulson had when he was learning how to be a leader.

Side note: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has definitely been reflecting current political realities in the past few seasons, so let's look at that sentence again: "Everyone wants to stop the destruction of the planet, but they’re working almost at cross-purposes in their efforts to do what they think is best in pursuit of that goal." Isn't that what we see on the news? Even from those who recognize that we need to stop the destructive trends? Here's hoping that the team will find the way to work together and save the world, just to give us some hope for the future!