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Monthly Archives: December 2011

In Ghostly Company

December 29th, 2011 - 11:20 am

I bought Amyas Northcote’s “In Ghostly Company” along with half a dozen other samples of the Wordsworth Mystery and Supernatural collection. Cool editions with excellent covers. In fact, the cover of this book was so scary I had to hide it from my wife when I was reading in bed. (Well, just look at it.)

Not much is known about Northcote (1864-1923). He was an English contemporary of M.R. James, loved America, lived there a while and married an American; served as a Justice of the Peace—that’s about it. This slim volume of ghost stories is his only book.

He gets compared to M.R. James a lot and suffers by comparison, as who wouldn’t. His stories are nowhere near as inventive, chilling or creepy as the master’s—as whose are? But some of Northcote’s tales do have some staying power. I found myself remembering them, and sometimes getting spooked out after the fact.  Especially good and original was the last one “Mr. Oliver Carmichael,” about a rather wan and effeminate civil servant who is haunted by a malevolent woman he meets in a shop. I would’ve preferred a different ending, but the bulk of the story is haunting. “Brickett Bottom,” “In The Woods,” “The Late Mrs. Foulke,” and a few others are also quite strong. Just about every one of them is at least an interesting read, especially for fans of the ghost story genre.

Northcote’s best trait as a storyteller is his willingness to sacrifice innocent characters to the evil purposes of his ghosts. There’s no moral explanation for why a rejected suitor gets to come back and claim his reluctant bride—which makes it all the scarier when he does. The author’s understanding of sexual psychology is also strong, giving his stories a very basic, foundational feeling—almost like blueprints for ghost stories. Some of them may well have served that turn. It wouldn’t surprise me if Elizabeth Bowen read “The Steps” before writing her far more terrifying classic “The Demon Lover,” for instance. I could think of a few other writers who also may have found inspiration here.

All in all? This is a compelling, entertaining and educational read for ghost story buffs. Not always scary enough on the page, but haunting all the same.

Oh, and a criticism about these Wordsworth editions. They could use better copy editing. There are a lot of typos, which is very annoying, especially at tense moments. One I remember said something like, “He felt as if he had been plunged into the very depths of bell.” He should count himself fortunate. It could’ve been hell. As Coleridge might have said: Do a better job, Wordsworth.

Five Worst Op-Eds

December 28th, 2011 - 11:02 am

Really enjoyed this Washington Examiner column by Gene Healy naming the worst op-eds of 2011. I’m sure he had a lot to choose from, but he seems to have selected well.  I especially liked his knock on David Brooks for his New York Times column, “The Modesty Manifesto:”

This piece from the Times’s resident “National Greatness Conservative,” won largely on the strength of one line: “Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation.” What can you say? Sounds better in the original German?

Probably does, at that. But read the whole thing here.

Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol

December 27th, 2011 - 7:41 pm

Off his meds and ready for action!

Whenever you hear a movie star say he did his own stunts in a picture, you can be sure he’s lying like a network anchorman. Before the cameras can roll, a film has to be insured and no one will insure you if you put your star in danger. A Tom Cruise hangnail costs the production millions. You just cannot allow the guy to hang off a moving car—or even walk out of his trailer without strewing his path with feathers.

But the thing I like about Cruise is that he now looks so totally crazy that you really can believe he would hang off the window of a 100-story building or jump off a ledge onto a moving truck. Only when he’s sitting still, speaking ordinary dialogue, do you start to wonder why he was let out of the padded cell.

Cruise brings that crazy guy intensity to the latest Mission Impossible entry and holds the whole thing together by force of personality. It’s a fun flick, if you don’t mind the silliness, and I didn’t. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it delivers huge, innovative action set pieces that are a pleasure for their own sake. Most of the time you’re thinking more about the second unit team than the plot and characters—not so much Oh no, our hero’s in danger! but rather, Cool—I wonder how they did that? Still, I had a good time and so, by all appearances, did the cast and crew.

Clearly someone—the studio, director Brad Bird, the writers or maybe Cruise himself—committed themselves to giving the audience that good time first and foremost and you just can’t help but appreciate that. If the punters liked Cruise climbing a mountain in MI2, well, he can climb the outside of the largest building on earth this time! If we have two pretty girl characters, by golly, we’ll put them in a chick fight—dudes love that! There’s even a scene where statuesque Paula Patton strips to her push-up underwear in the middle of a car chase! My wife thought it was absurd and I, you know, agreed with her, ahem. No, really. Absurd. Really.

With the exception of the weirdly mesmerizing Cruise, who may not have known he was actually in a movie, and Simon Pegg who does a good job with the thankless role of comic cut-up, the actors seem to be memorizing rather than speaking their lines, but when it comes time for action, they all do a great job kicking and punching, and that’s where the money is.

So yeah, if you like the Roger Moore James Bond films, but think they’re dated, this is a jolly good time. (Great title, too, which actually makes sense in context.)

Film: Contagion

December 26th, 2011 - 2:13 pm

From filmofilia.com.

This film has essentially one storytelling trick, but it’s such a good trick that it makes for very good viewing. A plague hits and heroic doctors and others race the clock to find a cure before the outbreak devastates mankind. The trick is that the film is shot in a po-faced documentary style and kills off its characters without any regard whatsoever for the fame of the actors playing them. It’s sort of like the shower scene in Psycho—where the biggest star in the picture is suddenly slaughtered—taken to a new level. The result in terms of narrative is that you never know who’s going to buy the farm. The more important result in terms of emotional depth is that it really impresses upon you the fragility of life and the flesh. I mean, if someone as famous as so-and-so can wind up staring through the plastic of a body bag then it could happen to anyone.

Director Steven Soderbergh keeps tight control over the sentimentality, going for deeper emotions: a sense of panic, frustration, invisible danger and heroism. He also shows a lot of restraint when it comes to disgusting special effects. Normally a film like this would insist on showing a lot of vomiting and bleeding to produce its horror, but Soderbergh understands that the effect is even stronger without such unpleasantness. Indeed, the more watchable a movie is—the less it turns the stomach—the more power it has to get inside you and grab you where you live.

Good cast—but I have to give a special mention to the wonderful, beautiful and underused Jennifer Ehle, who understands exactly how the picture works and delivers an absolutely mesmerizing and understated performance while surrounded by flashier names. If you’ve never seen her perfect turn as Elizabeth Bennett in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, check it out.

Two cavils: a rather goofy sub-plot concerning Marion Cotillard—who is now apparently to appear in every single movie made—is given short shrift. And a final scene meant to be ironic undercuts the terrifying sense of randomness that pervades the movie with a moment of idiotic environmentalist finger-wagging. Childish Hollywood nonsense spoiling an otherwise excellent moment.

Other than that: really good film. One of the best of a bad year.

TV: Bag of Bones

December 22nd, 2011 - 9:42 am

I'm taking my talent and swimming for shore!

Boy, this blew. And while I haven’t read the 1999 Stephen King novel on which it was based, I have read a lot of King and I’m pretty sure this one isn’t his fault. In fact, while the two-part, four-hour A&E adaptation can’t escape King’s generally minor weaknesses (I mean, does EVERY protagonist have to be a horror novelist?), it manages to utilize none of his amazing strengths. Because, unlike a lot of very popular novelists I can think of, King is really good. His writing is gripping and innovative, his timing is brilliant. And he’s scary. Like, really scary. By which I mean, he has scary ideas that don’t depend on tricks or gore or shock—even if he occasionally augments them with that sort of thing. I remember reading Tommyknockers, a lesser King that goes on for some 800 pages about how something really, really scary is in the shed in back of the house. By the time I got to the end, I was thinking, All right, brother, what’s in that shed better be pretty damned scary. Then they opened the shed…  and I thought, Yup, that’s scary. I’m scared now. Should never have opened the shed.  I mean, that takes real talent, skill and imagination and King’s got it every which way.

Director Mick Garris and writer Matt Venne, on the other hand, have nothing to offer here scare-wise except for repeated boos and startles and rotting skeletons jumping out at you from various directions. Which is actually NOT scary. It’s startling. It’s annoying. But who cares?

As a result, a summary of the mini-series plot would look something like this:

The hero was the most famous horror novelist of his generation. And then a skeleton jumped out at him! And the skeleton was the most popular horror writing skeleton of his day. And then a skeleton jumped out at him! And there was a spooky-looking moose on the wall. And the moose wrote some of the best horror novels of any moose around. And then a skeleton jumped out at him!!!

Dreadful. Pierce Brosnan phones in the starring role long distance. In fact, as far as the acting goes, only talented 7-year-old Caitlin Carmichael and the achingly appealing Anika Noni Rose make it out more or less alive. And then a skeleton jumped out at them!!!

DVD: Super 8

December 20th, 2011 - 11:41 am

This is kind of a strange film.  It’s good—well written and directed, appealingly acted. It’s just…  odd. Basically, sci-fi bigwig J. J. Abrams (Lost, Cloverfield, Fringe) has made an old Steven Spielberg film. Spielberg produced and helped develop the story. It’s even set in 1979, for no reason I can think of except that that was the heart of Spielberg’s glory days when he was making great films like E.T., Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark instead of “great” films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

So in Super 8 we’re in a small town and there’s a bunch of outsider kids with bikes who make movies and deal with childhood tragedies and then some strange stuff happens but we concentrate on the human story instead of plunging right into the sci-fi and everyone ends up with their heads tilted back gazing up at the night sky, all very much ala Spielberg. Only, because Abrams is Abrams and not Spielberg, it’s all a little darker than it should be and the touching resolution feels a little more tragic than uplifting and the childlike wonder stumbles over an understanding of evil that Spielberg simply has never developed.

So…  I liked this film. I loved the kids. Elle Fanning was wonderful. The human story was really involving. The sci-fi stuff was fine. But when it was over, I was sort of left thinking, “Why did that happen?” By which I mean: why did J. J. Abrams make a Steven Spielberg film instead of a J. J. Abrams one? Strange.

Gears of War 3

December 19th, 2011 - 7:05 am

Gears of War: Where Even The Girls are Men!

This is one of my favorite series of video games. More than anything, it was the amazingly intuitive controls that made the first one such a leap forward. Once you mastered the buttons, you could run, duck, cover, fire and reload seamlessly, creating what video game reviewers are always calling an “immersive experience.” No doubt.

As for the story…  well, as I began this final piece of the trilogy, I played the video that reminded you of what happened in the first two games. To paraphrase only slightly, the narrator essentially said, “The aliens invaded and we killed them; then they invaded again and we killed some more of them. Now they’re back!” Fair enough. Let’s do it.

While I had a great time playing this, I’d probably rank it the least of the three, the first being the best. The makers, I thought, were resting on their laurels. The first one had those great new controls. The second one had some creative new combat situations. This one was essentially a reiteration of the others—still great fun, but nothing new.

Still, there were all the usual GOW pleasures. Ugly monsters that blow up good when you kill them, beautiful scenery, and relationships so macho that even the girls had deeper voices than I do.

Sorry to see this story end, but hoping Santa brings the new Batman and Uncharted games for Christmas. Love Santa.

Christopher Hitchens, RIP

December 16th, 2011 - 8:34 am

My friend Peter Robinson has written a moving tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens on the website Ricochet and Christopher Buckley has written another in the New Yorker (hat tip to Gregg Hurwitz, who sent it to me). Both these men knew Hitchens and so their remarks are worth reading. I met him once, so I’ll be very brief.

Both Robinson and Buckley resort to poetry to express their feelings about their lost friend. I think this must say something about the man, because a poem immediately came to my mind too when I heard about Hitchens’ death. It was some lines that Auden ultimately deleted from his wonderful memorial to the poet William Butler Yeats:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives…

Hitchens wrote so well, so wildly well. Buckley reports that some people chided him for once calling Hitchens ”the greatest living essayist in the English language.” To which he responds: “O.K., name a better one.” And yes, I was trying to think of a better one last night or one even close to as good, and couldn’t.

I’m talking about pure prose here, the pure beauty of language, greater to me than music. And while I think I know why Auden cut those lines from his poem, they do express something in my heart as I think they must’ve expressed something in his. I would rather spend time reading good prose than right thinking or fine sentiments. It’s a joy when they all come together—as they sometimes did in Hitchens’ work—but if I have to choose one, I’ll take the prose. If this is sin in me, and it may well be, I think of it as Auden thought of his homosexuality: a sin I’m going to continue committing. Maybe—to be kind to myself—it simply reflects my understanding that beauty and truth are one.

Anyway, there are people who lost in Hitchens a loved one or a friend, and I’ll leave the real memorializing to them. All I lost was a wonderful, wonderful writer…  but I do take that rather hard.

Smackdown: Conan Vs. Spartacus!

December 14th, 2011 - 8:33 am

You like movies about gladiators…?

Actually, I do.  Is that so wrong??? In fact, Starz’s over-the-top gladiator series, Spartacus:  Blood and Sand, was capable of reducing me to an emotional 12-year-old every week. I would stare at each new gore-and-nudity-laden episode in a sort of mindless rapture, thinking, “Look…  breasts…  sword fights…  also breasts…”

Hoping for a similar experience of ecstatic regression, I tried out the recent remake of Conan the Barbarian a few days ago. And let me add that I’m a big fan of Robert Howard’s original Conan short stories, which really are excellent entertainment. And let me also add that there was no shortage of beautiful naked women and good sword fights here as well. But the movie’s a dud. Conan the Disappointment. Not terrible or anything, just sort of flat and ho-hum.

What’s the difference between Spartacus and Conan? It’s the story, brother! In Spartacus—the first season more than the second, but the second too—the writers had a knack for stating genuinely interesting moral dilemmas in terms of sword fights and sex. That’s what hits that 12-year-old spot—because when you’re a 12-year-old…  Okay, when I was a 12-year-old, I sort of thought all moral dilemmas should be solved through sword fights and sex. I mean, how cool would that be?

So—in the spirit of the final fight between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis in the original Spartacus film—the TV Spartacus would, for instance, show friends forced to fight one another, posing issues of loyalty, duty, survival, etc. It would put people in situations where they had to be unfaithful to their loved ones in order to save their loved ones’  lives. And so on. Silly at some level, I understand, but massively entertaining and involving and…  dare I say it? Tons of fun! Which is what I was watching for.

The Conan movie, on the other hand, regurgitates one tired plot point after another. A childhood grudge, a magical sacrifice, a princess who must be tamed and yet who earns the hero’s respect…  Really, who cares? Sounds like some producer or executive read Joseph Campbell or some book called “The Eight Essential Plots,” and thought he’d figured the whole thing out. Big mistake.

I wanted to love the Conan film cause I dig this sort of stuff. But if you want to do the sex-and-swordplay thing, you gotta make it matter. You gotta tell a good story.

Good Question

December 13th, 2011 - 9:35 am

My talented pal Bob Parks—at one of my favorite websites, Media Research Center, produces this mini-documentary asking, “Why are American Jews liberal?”

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