Thursday, May 7, 2015

My Take on 30 Days of Night (Graphic Novel 2002) by Steve Niles

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

“30 Days of Night is a three-issue horror comic book mini-series written by Steve Niles, illustrated by Ben Templesmith”- Wikipedia

Caveat: I do not even qualify as a graphic-novel novice. 30 Days of Night was quite literally the first one I’ve ever read. So, please forgive me if my ignorance of the medium shines through this review.

Strength of Character: C

At first I was going to blast this book for a dearth of character development. I still don’t think it was done exceptionally well, but I had to grant that the majority of the work is being done by the illustrations, and not any words that appear on the page. Eben and Stella Olemaun are our protagonists, and they are portrayed as a loving and couple that take endearing jabs at one another that win the audience over.

The vampires are almost entirely characterized by their art, as we are left in the dark about their origins/nature/limitations/capabilities etc. At one point we see a vampire climb on the roof, at another point one jumps up to a helicopter. So there seems to be some kind of levitation-ability, but it isn’t explored more than that.

The mother and son duo in Louisiana serve only as an elaborate red herring, sort of like the janitor character in Stephen King’s the Shining. We spend a considerable amount of pages in this small book following the son on his trip to Alaska to investigate the vampires, only to see him summarily slaughtered at his first encounter.

Genre Strength: C+

I was a big fan of the artistic aesthetic of this graphic novel. The dark tones splashed with whites and vibrant reds created a pervasively dreary atmosphere and mood. It felt like I was reading something dark and menacing throughout in a way that plain words on a page can seldom achieve.

Plot-wise I did have some quibbles, however. Eben injects himself with vampire blood so that he can do battle with the other vampires and save his wife and the other survivors. The huge problem is that another of the townsfolk had just changed into a vampire, forcing the others to kill him as he flew into a murderous rampage. Why does Eben think he’ll be different? Better yet, why is he different? How is he able to maintain enough clarity in thought to resist the other vampires? And how was he able to defeat the several hundred-year-old vampire, Vicente, anyway?

Thematic Poignancy: D+

Someone even liked it enough to make it into a forgettable film.
This story was mostly bereft of any thematic depth that I could find. Sure, our pair of character’s see their love put to the test, and we see the husband sacrifice himself to save his wife, but those are more like plot points than themes to me. The vampires are evil incarnate, and their subsequent cover-up only hints at the culture of their society. I suppose it might be difficult to explore a depth of themes in this medium, especially considering its brevity, but the fact remains that it doesn’t bring much to the table.

Entertainment Value: C

I found 30 Days of Night to be an enjoyable, if shallow romp through some vampire-filled pages. The characters weren’t much more than inkblots, although the vampires were stylish in a unique sort of way, more monstrous than their modern brethren in other popular works. I was taken by the illustrations and overall mood, but the ending to the story itself felt unearned and that left an overall dissatisfaction.

Random Notes and Final Grade: C

Look familiar?
*Marlow getting his ass handed to him by Vicente was a nice, if fairly unsurprising turn.

*I have to wonder if the vampires seen in Supernatural (TV series) that came about three years later were based off of this graphic novel. The vampires bear a striking resemblance with their piranha like teeth, albeit they are more frightening here than in the television series
*My favorite vampire was the unnamed man who orders raw hamburger then creeps from the jail cell. I wish he would’ve ended up more important to the story.

Friday, May 1, 2015

My Take on Relic by Douglas Prestion and Lincoln Child

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

Relic is a 1995 novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child and is the first in the Special Agent Pendergast series. As a techno-thriller, it commented on the possibilities inherent in genetic manipulation, while also being critical of museums and their role both in society and in the scientific community.-Wiki 

Strength of Character: B

The characters in this novel were generally strong. They were what ultimately drove the story, and it was the reader’s connection with them that entices the imagination. Vincent D’Agosta was an approachable, likeable, down-to-earth side to law enforcement that played well as a yin-and-yang to FBI agent Pendergast’s more calculating and elitist personality. Margo Green represented a relative novice to the science behind the creature, and we learn of the creature’s biology right alongside her.

I would argue that the cast was a bit too varied, and that some better economy might’ve helped the characters to be even more memorable. The character’s themselves didn’t have very dramatic arcs of personal growth, and the focus of the book is at first on solving a mystery, and then moves toward pure survival.

Wikipedia reveals that Pendergast is the protagonist of several future books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, so it is obvious that his character was compelling enough to warrant further exploration.

Give me a kiss.
Genre Strength: B

Perhaps more thriller than horror, the novel uses the seldom-seen creature to create fear and panic in the characters that can’t help but spill over into the reader. Tunnel-based terror of the groups at the end as they faced a final confrontation with the beast is a pulse-quickening goldmine. I have to assume that’s what Hollywood saw in it, and why it was developed into a major motion picture in 1997 called The Relic.

Overall, it was a nice bit of monster-fiction and worth a read for anyone interested in such a thing. If you have a scientific mind you may find it appealing in that way as well, since an inordinate amount of time was obviously spent in research on the part of the authors.

Thematic Poignancy: C-

The evil of greed and bureaucratic corruption are on display, as without the original cover-ups much of this novel’s events could’ve been prevented. The novel takes shots at the intellectual elite, but doesn't go so far as to condemn them outright, striving more to humanize them than mock. 

The creature itself represents an ancient unknown, a dominant predator that humans don’t have to face any longer. The novel asks the question, “What will humans do when they are no longer at the top of the food chain?” This ground is already well-trodden territory for monster movies like Jaws and Jurassic Park, and the Novels that inspired them. Relic does a commendable job following in their footsteps, but doesn’t bring anything particularly fresh to the table.

Entertainment Value: C+

This was a fairly entertaining thriller, couched with a nice attention to realism that helps to convince skeptical readers that no corners are being cut, and that the authors are determined to make a believable monster. Without the strength of the central characters, some of the bureaucracy of the museum and the slog through scientific terminology that dominates the first half of the novel would’ve been more of chore than entertainment. But the second half brought things to a nice, exciting climax that rewards reader perseverance.

Random Notes and Final Grade: C+

*Coffey is entertainingly detestable. I enjoyed rooting against him as I watched him make poor decision after poor decision.

*I liked that the mayor was shown to be a natural leader, and not a complete waste of space, which I believe is the more expected route to take. 

*The twist at the end that reveals the true origin of the creature was nice, if predictable. 

*The authors have an frustrating obsession with adverbs. I use them myself, but I favor a light dusting over a deluge. He said enigmatically, looking casually at the ordinarily unassuming novel.

Friday, April 24, 2015

My Take on The Blob (1988) by Chuck Russell

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

My review breaks down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

The Blob is a 1988 monster movie directed by Chuck Russell and a remake of a 1958 film of the same name.

Strength of Character: D-

Let’s count the tropes: Jock football-player nice-guy with a friend who’s a Jock football-player asshat. There’s a cheerleader prom-queen with more mettle than expected and a hobo miscreant with shoddy dirt-makeup. Let’s not forget the outsider-badass-mulleteer (“Mulleteer” copyrighted by Luke Elliott 2015) (Not really). Throw in the little boys as the meta-horror-movie fans and the ineffectual sheriff and you’ve well on your way to a baker’s dozen of jelly-filled character tropes.

At least Meg kicked a little ass.
Genre Strength: C

Sorry, you aren't the protagonist. Mullets are required.
Ok so Mr. Nice Paul going early was a clever choice. And this is the first of several money-shots of the film, AKA what we paid to see, and that’s people get swallowed up and dissolved by The Blob. A lot of the effects were effective in these moments, although they were reminiscent of The Thing (1982), and not quite on par, so it’s hard to award too many points. Another stand-out scene was the woman barricaded in the phone booth, surrounded by the blob. The voice on the other end of the line informs her that the sheriff should already be there, and up he floats, complete with identifying badge-shot.

The bigger shots of The Blob, especially in motion, were mostly awful/silly/ridiculous, with the one exception being the blob splayed out in the theater digesting movie-goers. The bits of cheese-ball comedy were sprinkled in that reminded us that this movie isn’t to be taken seriously.

Thematic Poignancy: D

These are the themes I picked up on: Cops, authority-figures, and adults in general, can’t help you. They’re just people too. The government isn’t just untrustworthy, it’s nefarious. The arms race with Russia is out of control, and the folly of the men who first split the atom is doomed to be repeated.

None of these are particularly fresh or even that interesting. In fact, they felt like a shoddy knockoff of the themes of a lot of the other major 80s movies.

Entertainment Value: C-

Somebody really thought motorcycles were badass. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why we were subjected to all the flimsily-setup motorcycle stunts. There’s a lot of that sort of flimsy plot devices being put to use, like the catch in the zipper, hiding in the freezer, etc.

There were a few nice twists, I admit. Especially when The Blob seems to be an alien hitchhiking on the back of a meteorite, but it’s revealed to be man-made.

The scenes involving the two boys, where they discussed horror movie tropes and dealt with the obnoxious guy behind them in the theater, were some of the most entertaining of the film. There is a certain element of fun to the movie. A sense that it knows what it is, a fairly predictable monster flick, and harbors no illusions of grandeur, and decides to be playful with these scenes. The Blob knows it’s no better than the slasher-movie the kids saw at the theater and that any clever movie-goer can predict the outcome of all the major plot points.

Random Notes and Final Grade: D+

* *Slaps newspaper down, revealing face* “Ribbed!”

* I spent half the movie believing the actor who played Brian Flag was a young Ethan Hawke. It was Kevin Dillon, in case you’re wondering.
* What exactly is the purpose of a snow-maker truck equipped with a bulldozer on the front? Is snow-making a sought after service I’m unaware of?

* The girl almost saves the day, then oops, she trips, and our mulleteer has to rescue her. *Yawn* 

* Hey look guys, an “It Lives!” ending

Friday, April 10, 2015

My take on Godzilla (2014) Directed by Gareth Edwards

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

My review breaks down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

Godzilla is a 2014 American science fiction monster film directed by Gareth Edwards. It is a reboot of the Godzilla film franchise and retells the origins of Godzilla in contemporary times as a "terrifying force of nature" –via Wikipedia

Strength of Character: D+

Where to begin? I suppose I’ll start with what rescued this movie from receiving a solid F for strength of character, and that’s Brian Cranston. I assume his character had a name, but no one would remember him as anything but Brian Cranston. BC is fantastic here, milking the opening sequences and turning that milk into blue meth (Ok maybe not that part). The failing nuclear reactor scene where BC’s wife, played by Juliette Binoche, adds a weight and pathos to the narrative and sets the tone for the character-heavy drama that we are about to enjoy. BC is a man obsessed, a man against the world, and we are right there with him. Let’s do this.

And then he and all that pathos fall off a catwalk and get zipped up in a body bag.

Characters? Who are you kidding? This is an old-school monster movie, the only character you need to worry about is a little guy named GODZILLA. He’s basically Earth’s bouncer called in to kick the shit out of some unruly drunks trying to hook up before last call. Silly humans, thinking they are important.

And that’s the problem. The fatal flaw of this movie. It can’t decide what it is. It’s got a whopping case of dissociative identity disorder.

The bag of dirty diapers on top of the dumpster fire of this movie’s characters is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as “Sir Snorefest” himself, Ford Brody. AKA G.I. Joe Shmoe.  Who will ever forget the moment he spoke those immortal words, in a blip above a monotone, to the dying Brian Cranston?

“Hey, stay with me.”

I know, brings a tear to the eye even writing it. He’s all like, “hey,” in case BC wasn’t listening, and then he doesn’t want his dad to die so he adds: “Stay with me.” Legendary. (Sarcasm font, in case you missed it).

And let’s not forget Dr. Serizawa, who walks around the whole movie slack-jawed and mumbling “let them fight.” Take another bong-hit, Dr. S.

Genre Strength: B+

This is a monster movie. Forget what the previews told you, forget the all the implications that it was going to be about the characters, forget Brian Cranston.

Is that all forgotten? Good.

Now watch some old Godzilla films, I’m not talking about that runt from 1998, I’m talking some lizard-mascot fighting another mascot on top of a model city. That’s what this movie is, at its radioactive core.

And how does it succeed in that respect? It knocks it out of the park, and then Godzilla steps on the park. This movie rips open the jaws of Godzilla (1998) and breathes a blue laser down its throat. This is modern CGI at its finest, and the genuinely awe-inspiring sequences of the Thunder-From-WAY-Down-Under, Big G, are near-flawless. The only thing keeping me from giving this movie an A+ for genre is the aforementioned identity crisis.

Thematic Poignancy: C

Man vs. Nature. More specifically, man vs THE LEATHERY BOOTHEEL OF NATURE OH MY GOD IT’S CRUSHING ME. This film brings Godzilla back to center. Big G is an incarnation of a natural disaster, as immense and unstoppable as a category 5 hurricane. The MUTOs are the “villains,” but even they aren’t given some sort of human-intelligence. They are big animals just looking to mate and feed. It’s even sort of cute when the winged one defends big momma.

The raw power of nature becomes the focus and theme of the movie, yet it feels a bit hokey for my tastes. Probably because Dr. S spells it out for the audience every other time he’s on screen.

Entertainment Value: C-

After you stub your toe, amirite?
So, entertainment-wise, this was a mixed up bag of radioactive monster eggs. On the one hand, this movie rocked my entertainment system. You should’ve heard that patented roar on my woofer, seriously. The action was fun. The tension? Generally tense. The monsters delivered an epic performance.

The movie uses subtlety well, keeping the creatures obscured for most of the film, barely glimpsed on the small television screens, or behind a cloud of dust or smoke. Director Gareth Edwards deftly uses a quiet before the roar. (I said roar instead of storm, see what I did there? DID YOU SEE?)

Unfortunately that wasn’t enough. They had the right idea, in my opinion, to try and go the character route. Their mistake was in letting BC and basically that whole angle die off early. By the time I saw Sir Snorefest predictably reunited with his family I’d completely jumped off that poorly-positioned ship.

Random Notes and Final Grade: C

*Godzilla is the real protagonist here, we’re just led to believe he’s the villain. It was an interesting move, but one I think leaves the audience at a loss for something to root for until the very end.

*The skydiving scene is visually awe-inspiring and gorgeous. And those seem like paltry adjectives to describe it. The look of that scene alone sold millions of tickets, and they were smart to use it so prominently in the trailers. 

*I’m actually intrigued by the potential confirmed sequel. I would go into the movie in the right mindset next time, looking for Godzilla vs New Monster and disaster-porn, but little else.