Friday, July 29, 2011

The Round-Up#47 (Bumper Edition)

Film Review: Rob Zombie's Halloween II: While Rob Zombie's remake of John Carpenter's original was a fierce and stylish film, Zombie's second time out is, well, something else entirely. With Halloween, Zombie proved he could deliver one helluva an entertaining and scary film, and he managed to add enough new touches to the story to make it feel fresh and updated. But the fact remained that Halloween was, more or less, indebted to Carpenter's vision, and followed the same story, yet with what you might call revisions. What Zombie achieves with Halloween II is to make a film that's entirely his own, taking the Michael Myers mythos in a completely new direction, which is, for better or for worse, startlingly original.

The Plot: After barely surviving her battle with her brother, mass murderer Michael Myers, Laurie Strode tries to go on with her life. But her mind has been deeply scarred by her experiences, and after seeing visions of a still living Myers roaming about, continuing his killing spree, she begins to doubt her sanity. Meanwhile, Michael Myers, whose body was never found, turns out to be alive, and as he is haunted by visions of his dead mother and his younger self urging him to finish his work and "go home", he embarks on a journey back to Haddonfield and his sister, Laurie, whom he intends to kill in order for them all to be united in death as a family.

As the synopsis shows, Zombie takes the story in a bizarre direction, turning Laurie and Michael's tale into a twisted psychological drama, with hallucinatory visions and revelations that add an arguably supernatural bent to the story. But, in truth, one is never completely sure what Zombie is trying to do or say with this film, as the plot is confused, confusing and occasionally repetitive, and the tone of the film is unrelentingly grim.

But despite all that, Zombie succeeds in creating a stylish, visually lush, and narratively adventurous film that is unlike anything that has come before it in the long-running series. And the downbeat and disturbing ending packs a wallop and brings the story to a somewhat satisfying close.

Film Review: Dead Mary: This low-key, low-budget horror film is a strange creature. At a glance, it looks like an Evil Dead/Cabin Fever rip-off, with a bunch of young folk staying at a cabin in the woods for a long weekend, only to discover, after one of them is found brutally murdered in the woods, that there is an otherworldly killer amongst them. But as it turns out, Dead Mary is quite a bit more than that.

The film begins with a lengthy sequence introducing us to the cast of characters (which range from the unfaithful husband, to a guy who just broke up with his girlfriend, to the newbie girlfriend of one of the guys, who feels like an outsider, to the strong-willed young woman who flirts with the boyfriend of one of her friends), then shifts gears to become something similar to Invasion of The Body Snatchers, with a shape-shifting creature picking the characters off one by one. Then it shifts gears once more to become an apocalyptic thriller similar to The Thing. That's not to say that any of these aspects to the story is fully fleshed out or realized on a large scale. Far from it. This is a low-budget film, with almost no effects, and with minimal locations. So do the filmmakers pull it off? Yes. In spades.

Thanks to Robert Wilson's assured and stylish direction, which is pretty old-school, Peter Sheldrick and Christopher Warre Smets's solid script, and the young cast's earnest performances, the film turns out to be an effective and ambitious effort that manages to maintain the suspense throughout the whole running time, provide a couple of truly disturbing sequences, create an atmosphere of foreboding, and end on a darkly humorous and ambiguous note, things which many similar films with higher budgets fail to pull off (Cabin Fever, anyone?).

Although the plot is far from original, and the film has some pacing and script hiccups along the way, this is a minor classic, that is entertaining and fresh.

Book Review: The Criminalist by William Relling Jr.: Stories about psychics who help solve crimes have become a cliche. From numerous TV shows (most of which are lackluster) to dozens of paranormal romance series that feature psychic detectives, this sub-genre has been seemingly bled to death. But then comes William Relling Jr.'s The Criminalist to prove that there is life yet to this kind of tale.

The plot: Kenneth Bennet, a clairvoyant who is grieving for the recent loss of his wife, has a vision that provides him with vital clues to catching a serial killer preying on children in a small town. So, Bennet, who has been warned by his psychiatrist that he is on the verge of physical and mental collapse, drags himself to the small town afflicted by the murders to offer his help. But local law enforcement refuses his help, which leads him to try to solve the case on his own, while trying to come to terms with the loss of his wife and maintain his slowly dissolving sanity.

Describing the plot of this novel isn't easy, as it's multi-layered and centered on characters rather than events, which is somewhat peculiar for the genre. But Relling Jr. uses the genre and the psychic angle only as a McGuffin, and, instead, focuses on the lives and psyches of his characters, which are, for the most part, interesting and three-dimensional. Though on the surface the novel is a murder mystery, in truth it's a novel about grief and life choices. With the Kenneth Bennett character, Relling Jr. creates a living, breathing man who is flawed, devastated, almost paralyzed with grief, and who happens to be psychic, something which grounds the tale in reality and makes the proceedings much more interesting, with Relling Jr. following Bennett as he tries to gain control of a life spiraling out of control; and the journey is both tragic and touching. Relling Jr. also has a penchant for fleshing out almost every character, even ones that make a brief appearance, something which, while it doesn't always work, gives the novel a depth sorely lacking in many novels of the genre.

While the novel has its flaws (the pace is uneven, the plot meanders, the serial killer is never really fleshed out, and the ending is somewhat of a disappointment), this is a clever, touching, and engrossing book, and the best novel about psychics since Stephen King's The Dead Zone.

Book Review: The Last Days of Krypton by Kevin J. Anderson: Everybody knows the story of Superman and the planet Krypton with its red sun. Everybody knows that Superman is the only son of Jor-El and Lara, who shipped him off to Earth moments before the planet Krypton was blown to smithereens. But Kevin J. Anderson's novel The Last Days of Krypton proves that there is much more to the story. And what a story it is!

From political shenanigans, to sibling rivalry, to the plots of the evil dictator Zod, to the mute villain Nam-Ek, to the true nature of Brainiac, to earthquakes and flash floods, Anderson's Krypton has to be one of the most unfortunate planets in the universe. And that's what makes this book so entertaining and flawed at the same time.

With straightforward prose and a quick pace, Anderson tells the story of Krypton in an exciting, never-lagging manner, with one disaster after another and endearing characters that try to overcome those ordeals. The novel is full of adventure, romance, villains and action, which makes it an almost epic Sci-Fi tale that sheds new light on the whole Superman mythos.

But in trying to combine all the different mythologies that have been created over the decades, Anderson also creates a novel that doesn't leave the reader room to breathe and suspend his/her disbelief, as Anderson crams his 400+ pages with disaster after disaster, one alien visitation after another, that the story becomes more of a space opera than anything else, which, of course, might have been Anderson's intention in the first place (the book begins with a list of all the characters in the novel - Dramatis Persoane - as if it were an opera or a play). And, also, the stilted dialogue surely doesn't help.

But, overall, the flaws don't take away from the fact that this is a hugely entertaining book, with enough imagination and forward momentum to make it an addictive read and a must for fans of The Man of Steel. And on the long run, it's probably going to become the final word on the story of Krypton.

Extra! New York Dead by Stuart Woods: This edition's Extra! selection is the novel New York Dead by Stuart Woods, a superb, super fast-paced murder mystery, filled to the brim with sex, plot twists, and action, and one of the most fun books I've ever read. A must read.

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