Sunday, February 13, 2011

My Bloody Valentine

In honor of Valentine's Day, and in celebration of romance, the best friend (dubbed 'HoneyBaby' for the evening) and myself ('HoneyBear') convened at my platonic love nest to consume adult beverages and a horror movie marathon.

Somehow it began with the Return of the Pink Panther. I was about to start the programming when it was pointed out that HoneyBaby had never been introduced to Inspector Clouseau, which seems criminally negligent, hence the horror detour. We laughed, we chuckled, and we even found a little fright in his Quasimodo impersonation.

The scares began with Splinter. A well-written, evenly paced and minimally shot (by which I mean they didn't zoom in on the monster and ruin the tension) survival flick and creature feature. A boyfriend (PhD nerd) and girlfriend (outdoorsy tomboy) are carjacked and taken hostage by a felon (heart of gold) and his girlfriend (meth head with an expiration date) before they are attacked by a parasitic, growing, splinter creature and confined in a gas station.

The three main characters were fully realized from the first scenes, and their attempts at ingenuity and self-defense throughout the flick were believable. The science/backstory behind the creature was a bit flimsy at times, and I could certainly do without the hint that a nearby oil plant of some kind was responsible followed by a global warming comment, but in the end I think it was a successful piece of horror. The monster, as I said, was not shown fully which was a help to the mood, but the blood splatters and the death of the cop who comes to their aid were both a bit heavy handed. However, best improvised amputation scene ever. And not everybody died, which is a big factor for me when it comes to liking a scary movie.

The second one we consumed was Shutter, starring Joshua Jackson and a blonde chick. They move to Tokyo for his fashion photography job and realize they are being haunted by a Japanese girlghost who is unhappy. The emphasis on images and photography/visual scares is so overdone that you have reached a limit, or at least lost any suspension of belief, before the opening credits have ended. However it's pretty enough to maintain some interest and the blonde lady keeps moving around so you feel obligated to follow her.

There was a relatively good twist, and even though neither HoneyBaby nor HoneyBear turned out to be considerably talented at deducing clues or guessing endings (despite a solid amount of commentary, theory sharing, and the relief of stating the obvious, i.e. "That was terrifying.") it went a couple steps further than we would have expected. The end was slightly gruesome, but also appropriate, and mostly anti-climactic. The least favorite of the evening.

At this point, after a decent amount of $3 wine (truly, a respectable vintage) and the relative gentleness of Shutter, we felt bold and adventurous enough to tread into the critically acclaimed world of Korean Horror. Thus we embarked on Bloody Reunion (or To Sir, With Love) while thanking Free Movies on Demand for their unexpected selection. And thus we procured the purest moments of terror felt all evening. A group of old schoolmates reassemble in a beautiful house hidden between beach and forest to reconnect with their old and supposedly beloved teacher, now in a wheelchair and not far from death.

Slowly each of them reveal the sadistic actions of the teacher during their childhood that led to the individual ruination of their lives, as well as her own life story that involved the birth of a deformed monster child and her husband's suicide. In the meantime, a shadowy, ruthless figure in a bunny mask (supposed to be the grown up monster child) picks them off one by one, devising insanely painful and graphic tortures for them in the basement. In the end it turns out to be part horror, part beautiful nature shots, part dramatic character interplay and part mystery. The twist is prodigious if slightly obvious (again, mostly in retrospect) and when all stands revealed, the discomfort and fear of the story lingers.

In fact it was rather necessary for us both to sit with the lights on for a period of time, making each other laugh so as to ensure falling asleep was a successful and nightmareless process. (I also added a few pages of Aubrey/Maturin before passing out, just to put some friendlier thoughts in my brain before letting the subconscious take over.)

All in all, a successful V-Day celebration, chock full of adrenalin jolts, laughter, and rocking back and forth in the fetal position. My Horror Movie Rating Guide, informally assembled since college days and then abandoned, added a few more titles to its list, and inches closer to being presented on this blog for the edification of all.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

If Tim Drake is a Sacred Cow, I'm a Hindu

Over at Comic Book Resources, a site I thoroughly enjoy and check almost daily, they recently put up an article, or rather a small post with many comments, about Tim Drake, the third Robin.

They focus particularly on his origin, and posit that Drake, who figured out Batman's secret through mere persistence and attention to detail, and whose first real action was to try and convince former Robin Dick Grayson to return to his role, is the very model of a fanboy. A fanboy, you see, is apparently obsessed with the minutiae of stories and characters, and often longs for, both silently and vocally, whatever period of time they consider to have been the salad days. Being a template of the majority of comic readers, they assert this is why Tim has a sort of 'sacred cow' reputation on the internet, whereas the new Robin, Damian Wayne, is not yet as beloved.

While it was obviously not the creators' intent to make him a 'fanboy' and thus accessible to the readers (this was pre-internet comment threads,) except in the way Robin-as-youth was considered to be inviting to the audience, the idea is interesting, if too facile.

For one, looking at the origin alone is not enough. The status Tim enjoys on the internet doubtlessly is related to the recent and current activities of his character, and while he still is characterized by an attention to detail unparalleled by either anyone in his age group or by his predecessors, a desire to return to the "good ol' days" is not a driving motivation for him.

Sure, he'd love (and some of the readers are right there with him) to turn the plot-clock back a couple years, so that his father wasn't dead-by-boomerang, all his best friends, ex-girlfriends, and adopted fathers hadn't died-and-come-back-after-a-lengthy-brooding-period, and Darkseid hadn't anti-life'd the will to live out of him.

However Tim Drake is still defined by his forward momentum, almost more so than Batman himself. He asked and trained and fought to become Robin. He studied and trained and logged the hours to become the best Robin he could be. He made friends and trained and philosophized to become a good Titans leader. He maintained faith in the future, and in Batman's return. He set up networks of heroes and allies. He, before Bruce returned and used his idea for the hugely popular Batman Inc., began to turn the localized crimefighting of the Bat-family into a well-funded, well-staffed corporate program that would have global influence.

The idea that fanboys in general argue and beg for a return to old stories, old tones, old characterizations is maybe not wrong. But it certainly implies a resistance to change. Tim Drake is a modern man(boy) who can use Instant Messaging as a crimefighting tool, and wants to be better than Batman at fighting crime and planning ahead. As for attention to detail, he certainly has that. Though sometimes overlooked by writers, he is the best detective of any of Batman's trainees, and thus one of the best in the DC universe.

Obviously I'm a big proponent of Tim's. While I have yet to love his new Red Robin costume, the idea of him flying solo and in his own title is one I love. However it wasn't his origin that hooked me (though it's incredibly awesome he wasn't formed by tragedy and instead inserted himself into the mythos via his own intelligence.) My first exposure to Tim, as far as I can recall, was in his mini-series where Batman sent him to Paris to study with an old Sensei. He ends up training with Lady Shiva and taking on King Snake. Successfully. The allure of him was his struggle to become better at his chosen profession and, knowing his own physical limitations, finding his own way to take down opponents. That is what makes him one of the best heroes in the DCU. He'll be confronted by bigger enemies, better fighters, unpredictable psychopaths, and know, without shame or modesty, that he cannot beat them. At least not at their own game. So he always finds a different way.

He uses modern technology, detailed plans with contingencies, subterfuge, and the help of friends. He is more like Batman than any other Robin, making sure victory is as guaranteed as possible, and yet he goes a step beyond Bruce by his willingness to use and ask for help. Dick Grayson, though big on the allies, relies mostly on his acrobatics and considerable physical prowess. Damian Wayne relies on his bloodthirst, training and his big honkin' sword. Tim is not only a fully-realized character, but one with weaknesses, hopes, fears, and a constant progression.

As a fanboy myself, though not exactly the kind described by CBR, there aren't that many similarities I share with Tim. However, I am most definitely a fan. He is exactly the kind of hero I would put my faith in.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An Orson Scott Card Review

As I had intended, and mentioned in a recent post, I read Orson Scott Card's newest novel The Lost Gate.

I had very high hopes. Not only was it the first time I was seeking one of OSC's "new" books in a store (my entire experience with his work being already-published paperbacks that sat on shelves right next to their follow-ups) but the way he described it in interviews.

Apparently, the ideas behind the magic and the world of The Lost Gate have been in Card's head since he was in college, growing, taking form, being tweaked; never quite ready for the full novel treatment. And then suddenly, decades later, it all came together and sprang fully formed and long-loved into existence.

This backstory he provided before the book even came out hit a soft spot for me. As a ridiculously amateurish wannabe writer, I have a couple ideas of my own, some rooted in fantasy, that I have already cherished for years. One in particular, conceived during a round table discussion in college, though completely unrelated to the class, has stuck with me ever since. It has received much thought and crappy first attempts and, honest-to-God, multiple notebooks full of notes (I've always wanted to say that without lying.)

Thus OSC's explanation of The Lost Gate's origins felt to me not only like a validation ('As long as you grow old enough, Captain Elias, your idea will become a book. Probably on its own. Without any true, painful, sweaty-type effort. So basically just eat healthier.') but a guarantee that here was a foolproof new piece of fiction that I was definitely going to love.

Unfortunately it sucked. Truly. There were some good pages every now and then, even a compelling chapter, but it was very hard to believe this was written by Card. His highly anticipated Magic, with its theories and rules and origins, was simple and unoriginal. The magic in the Maker series had similar principles but was infinitely more interesting.

Again, as is his 'specialty', his main character is a young boy (Danny North) dealing with adversity, on top of that whole adolescence thing. Only this time, it is entirely impossible to like the protagonist. In fact, not only is it difficult to connect with the character, pretty quickly you find yourself actively disliking him. He is petty, jealous, rude, and after a few hours alone becomes a thief and then a full-on burglar. Sure, he resorts to such things to clothe himself, but then he does it repeatedly in the vain hope of making his partner-thief a true friend, which he's never had before. Not just because his family wants to kill him for being uber-powerful, but because he is selfish, arrogant, devoid of manners, and entirely convinced that the world owes him something.

Plot and characters aside, the writing itself was weak. Dialogue, where I had once known Card to shine, was clunky and unnatural. The pacing and descriptions felt as if he had actually handed in to his editor pages from his college notebook. Perhaps Card was short on money, and took the old idea that he had never really made work, and spit it out at last to fulfill a deadline. I obviously don't know, but its an awful feeling to suspect you're reading a cop-out, like when I eagerly went to the TV Tuesday night at 8pm to see the latest Buffy and slowly discovered it was a filler episode that no one really cared about.

Now don't misunderstand me. Yes, I hated the book so much I returned it (though, to be fair, that was in part due to my extreme poverty) but I love Orson Scott Card, hence my disappointment and confusion. I devoured the Ender series, and the Bean series as well, loving them even when they veered away from sci/fi adventure into multi-species/timeywimey philosophy. The Alvin Makers were astoundingly good, and I have a google alert email me anytime someone mentions the final, as-yet-unwritten book. I even read the Homecoming Saga, and while I didn't love them that was more due to the density of retelling the Books of Mormon than it had to do with his writing, which has, for years, been superb, incisive, and natural.

In fact, The Lost Gate was so poor that I needed to read OSC immediately after and get the bad taste out of my head. I was about to reread an Ender when I realized I had a standalone OSC that I had never gotten around to. Songmaster. I had found it online in one of those unfortunately-not-rare amazon weaknesses. It was unlike anything Card had written in the sense that it had an issue, and character(s), who were homosexual. Naturally there doesn't exist a sci/fi/fantasy book dealing with homos written by a Mormon that I won't eventually find, and while I expected that, like most remotely gay stories with or without a religious perspective, it would end tragically (except for Maurice, thanks E.M. Forster) it seemed like the perfect time to read it.

And it was fantastic. The best Card novel I have ever read. It was modern and ancient, exciting and philosophical, and beautiful throughout. There was a type of magic, but it was more human than mystical, a power of music and song described in a way to make you utterly believe. The requisite young boy character was raw but changing, with joy and pain and regret and hope. A genuine person striving for perfection.

Often it read as a historical narrative, and there are few things I love more than historical fantasy fiction (fictional historical fantasy?) It was elegant, detailed, fast-paced, beautiful, and yes, sometimes tragic. It eliminated any bad Lost Gate-related feelings within a few pages. I highly recommend it.

Wanting to recreate the emotions that Songmaster brought out in me, I searched for similar books (as I often do when I finish one I love.) Specifically fantastical historical fiction. However, because of that whole poverty thing, I stuck to what was hiding in piles on my bookshelf.

Thus I took myself back to C.S. Lewis' incredible Till We Have Faces.

Not enough.

I dug out my stash of Mary Renault novels, perhaps my favorite historical fiction writer of all time, except, of course, Patrick O'Brian. I reread Fire from Heaven, and was consumed with Alexander & Hephaestion.

Not enough.

I had to continue, and reread The Persian Boy, despite having worn down pages going through it so often. Suddenly I couldn't remember how intensely I envied and pitied and desired Hephaestion, it was only Bagoas' love that mattered.

Still not enough, but it's a comforting sort of insatiability. If anyone has similar recommendations, I would love to hear about them.

The important part? I hardly remember the details, and certainly not the sensations, of The Lost Gate. And that is a very fortunate thing.

Note: Naturally I bear no ill-will to Mr. Card, and hold him in high esteem, despite this stumble. Regardless, life and health have nothing to do with literary criticism. So I'd just like to say that while he is recovering from the stroke he had on New Year's Day, I wish him and his family all the very best luck, and a speedy, complete recovery. God bless.

Suggested Reading & Viewing Material

For some reason I had never read, or even know of, Warren Ellis' Freakangels. I had heard the name, and seen some of the art on Comic Con advertisements, but I never sought it out. However, a Comics Alliance post about it made me finally find it.

And Man is it good.

Freakangels is a free webcomic that Ellis has been doing for a couple of years now. It's about a group of 12 kids, born on the same day, with pale skin and purple eyes, who all have the same mysterious powers of telepathy and telekinesis. As teenagers their powers are revealed and, naturally, the government starts hunting them down. They make a stand, using their powers in unison to drive their enemies back, but instead they push too hard, causing an apocalyptic backlash. England gets flooded. Time gets altered. The world changes.

The story begins years after this event, with the group, who call themselves Freakangels, having created a settlement in Whitechapel, taking in refugees, and using their brilliance and natural abilities to enhance the lives of the people they protect. It's fantastic.

Considering how many main characters Ellis has, it's remarkable how fleshed out each of them are, how unique and interesting each one is. It's at times hilarious and dark and always compelling. And the art is gorgeous. Exactly the type of art and pacing I love in a comic.

I read the whole thing from the beginning online in just a couple of hours, but they've been collected into trades which I will be picking up as well. It's so good I want to support it with money, though it has already become a weekly tradition for me to check the site on Friday, when a new installment is posted. Check it out.

As for something to watch, I discovered Slings & Arrows during my college years, watching it on my computer in the library when I should have been writing papers.

It's a Canadian show, set in the fictional town of New Burbage whose claim to fame is a famous theatre festival that showcases the best Canadian acting talent doing Shakespeare.

Each season, and they only made three, focuses on the genesis, rehearsal, and performance of one Shakespeare play. (Hamlet first, then Macbeth, and finally King Lear.)

It is staggeringly well-written, with humor and intelligence, and full of layered and engrossing characters. Obviously one should start at the beginning, and as an added incentive the first season showcases Rachel McAdams' debut. However the entire run is wonderful. Watch it.