Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Round-Up#46

Film Review: Sucker Punch: Ever since his directorial debut, the 2004 remake of Dawn of The Dead, Zack Snyder has established himself as a visual stylist of the first order. Just take a look at his next two films, 300 and Watchmen; two pieces of marvelous eye-candy. And pieces of candy they were, with superficial characters, convoluted plots, and unsteady paces. Snyder's fourth film, Sucker Punch, is more of the same. For better or for worse.

The story: A young woman gets locked up in an asylum by her stepfather, an evil and abusive man, who, after her mother's death, wants to take control of the family fortune. To ensure that the young woman never leaves the asylum and challenge him, he bribes a corrupt orderly to make sure that she receives an unnecessary lobotomy, thus ensuring her silence forever. Seconds before the lobotomy is performed on her, the young woman lapses into unconsciousness and into a fantasy world where she is a dancer in a whorehouse serving the rich and powerful, and where, like in the real world, she has to fight to survive. What follows is a series of incoherent, yet visually dazzling action set-pieces, that combine eye-opening CGI with masterful choreography.

I can't go into detail about the plot, because, frankly, that's all I got. The rest, a lot of fancy-schmansy talk about the power of imagination and one's inner strength, was lost on me, as I was too busy watching scantily clad attractive actresses fighting and strutting their stuff, while creatures straight out of a steam-punk novel filled the screen every five minutes.

So, is it a good movie? Not by a long shot. It's a loud, mostly mind-numbing film, with bland performances and a bleak, uninteresting story that goes nowhere. While the soundtrack, which mostly consists of atrocious hard-rock numbers and an annoying Bjork track that is replayed ad nauseum, is truly awful. But the visuals alone are worth a look, while Abbie Cornish proves that she is an actress to watch out for, delivering a nuanced performance that becomes one of the film's few redeeming features.

So if you're in the mood for some loud, mindless entertainment that pretends to be something different, Sucker Punch is the ticket.

Book Review: Helltown by Dennis O'Neil: Part of the DC Universe line of novels that came out a few years ago, Helltown focuses on the origin story of one of DC Comics' lesser known but most intriguing characters, The Question. But that's not all this book is about. No. This is a damn fine novel that combines action, pop philosophy, atmosphere and strong, smooth writing to produce something truly enjoyable.

The story: Vic Sage returns to his hometown, Hub City, in search of his parents' identity (he was brought up in an orphanage), to discover that it has become a cesspool of violence and hatred run by criminals and corrupt politicians. Soon after his arrival he attracts the attention of the mayor and his thugs, which leads to him being beaten almost to death and rescued by a mysterious warrior who calls herself Shiva. He is then taken to an enigmatic mentor named Richard Dragon, who, at the request of Shiva, begins to transform Sage into a warrior. But Sage feels that something is missing in his life, questions that need to be answered. So he decides to return to Hub City, and, as a vigilante named The Question, find those answers, no matter what the cost.

The Question, as envisioned by veteran comic book writer Dennis O'Neil, is a complex, enigmatic character, that is both unique and reminiscent of the greatest characters to ever grace the pages of comic books. He is a conflicted character on a dark quest, an intriguing, norish hero. But what truly sets him apart are his flaws, his humanity, and his background. Here is a character that's neither rich nor formally educated, has no sidekicks or friends, no gadgets other than his costume and mask (that change color at will). He is human, has no superpowers, and isn't really a great detective. But that's what makes him interesting. O'Neil, who also penned the ground-breaking comic book series about The Question back in the Eighties, has a masterful command of the complex nature of the character and his inner struggles. He also anchors the story in reality, giving the book a gritty, somewhat bleak feel, which suit the character and his quest. And despite the appearance of Batman, who plays a major role in the story, he doesn't overshadow Vic Sage/The Question, which is a testament to O'Neil's strong writing.

Although the main villains of the book are borderline caricatures and the main mystery is so slight it's almost a McGuffin, this is a multi-layered, well-written, compelling book that is a must for fans of DC Comics, comic books, and mysteries. An overlooked gem.

Extra! Bring On The Night by Jay and Don Davis: This edition's Extra! selection is the horror novel Bring On The Night by Jay and Don Davis, a superbly entertaining vampire novel from the 80's, with plenty of atmosphere, well-drawn characters, and one hell of a villain in Kane, a ruthless vampire stalking the streets of Chicago. Worth re-discovering.

That's it for me. Till next time, keep browsing those shelves.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Round-Up#45

Film Review: Thor: Take one of Marvel's least appealing comic-book characters, a mostly stellar cast who are in it for the paycheck, and a stylish director who doesn't know what kind of movie, exactly, he's trying to make, and you get Thor, a bizarre if entertaining near train-wreck of a film.

The story: a prince named Thor, who is next in line to become King of Asgard, a realm of demi-gods and magic, is banished to Earth after defying his father the king's orders and starting a war with a breed of monstrous being called the Ice Giants. After arriving to Earth without his powers or Hammer of The Gods, Thor unites with a meteorologist to try to find a way to get back to his realm, Asgard, which is on the brink of annihilation due to his treacherous brother's nefarious plans.

Director Kenneth Brannagh, who claims to be a huge fan of the comic-books, doesn't know how to handle the campy material and the thin storyline. And despite creating a couple of stunning action sequences, the second half the film devolves into a juvenile, over-plotted, incoherent mess, with over-the-top dialogue and failed attempts to turn the story into a sort of tragic fantasy.

So what is there to like about Thor? There is the previously mentioned action sequences, some marvellous production design, and the pleasure of watching a bloated, yet strangely naive, blockbuster directed by a talented filmmaker who is trying his best to turn what's basically a campy action-fantasy film into something better, and failing to do so. Next up for Thor, The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon. So let's hope he fares better in that one!

Book Review: Dracula: Asylum by Paul Witcover: Designed as a sequel to Universal's infamous 1931 film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, starring the immortal Bela Lugosi, Dracula: Asylum is a rare book, in that it took me by surprise. As a huge fan of the 1931 film directed by Tod Browning, I sought out the book primarily due to it being an official sequel to that film, expecting a fun, quick read, with a thick-accented Dracula roaming the streets of London, drinking blood and spouting one-liners. What I got was something else entirely.

Author Paul Witcover uses the 1931 film and Stoker's novel as a starting point and then proceeds to transcend both, with a novel so well-written, so ambitious in its complexity and ideas, that it becomes a masterpiece of dark fantasy that manages to achieve the impossible: Add a new twist to the Dracula mythos.

The book takes place in London during WWI, following Dr. Lisa Watson, a psychiatrist who is transferred to the Seward Sanitarium for shell-shocked British soldiers, hoping to help her fiancée get back his memory, which he's lost due to the traumatic experiences he suffered in battle. Now he thinks himself Sherlock Holmes and doesn't remember anything about his true identity. Meanwhile, in the catacombs of the asylum, Renfield, who is still alive, but has become a mentally damaged mute, discovers that the corpse of Count Dracula, his master, is still there, with a stake through its heart, waiting to be revived. So he pulls out the stake, reviving the dark Count, and all hell breaks loose, as Dracula, whose slumber for the past twenty years has strengthened his psychic powers, plans to destroy the world.

Although the above synopsis doesn't do the story justice, the less told about the twists, turns and revelations of the plot, the better. Suffice it to say that if you think you know where the story is going, think again, as Witcover has a multitude of ideas and surprises under his sleeve, and, with his rich, stylized Gothic prose, lays them out one by one, continuously delving into darker psychological territory. Witcover's Dracula is the most cunning, malevolent version of the Count since Bram Stoker's; an evil, shrewd master of darkness and manipulation who is much more dangerous than previously thought. This Dracula's evil is almost biblical in scope. While the main characters, Lisa and Denis, are three-dimensional and flawed, and Witcover allows us to go under their skin to see the light and darkness within them.

Despite the novel's overly dark tone and Witcover's lifting of a couple of ideas from the films They Might Be Giants and Dracula 2000, the writing is so rich, the attention to detail so admirable, the story so original and well-plotted, that this novel deserves to be called a masterpiece of dark fantasy that transcends genres. And, if there's any justice in the world, it should become a classic.

Extra! Dracula's Daughter: This edition's Extra! selection is the 1936 film Dracula's Daughter, the sequel to the 1931 classic film starring Bela Lugosi. Dark, disturbing, and surprisingly daring for its time, this stylish film directed by Lambert Hillyer is worth re-discovering.

That's it for me. Till next time, keep browsing those shelves.