captain marvel

Captain Marvel’s reviews are all in, and the arguments for and against her are in full swing. I’m not going to get involved in either, really. I have my own thoughts on the latest entry in the MCU. My standard disclaimer is that I am not familiar with the original (or multiply retconned) comic book version of the character. So this is the best chance for Captain Marvel to make a good impression.

***

While it is formulaic (and really, what expensive studio blockbuster isn’t?), it’s no surprise that Captain Marvel ticked all the boxes for me. It has well-drawn and well-played characters, an exciting, nicely-paced plot, and an emotionally honest core.

As a film, Captain Marvel is not as epic as I was expecting, yet it is still satisfying enough. Despite all the excitement and hype around it, this is, after all, an origin story. I think origin stories are by their very nature lower-key–especially when they spread out to cover multiple origins. In addition to the transformation of Carol Danvers, we get to see Nick Fury’s initial inspiration for the Avengers, and are given a glimpse of the little girl who will also, someday, be Captain Marvel. And since the Marvel machine is nothing but efficient at connecting dots, we’ll get a heaping dose of epic to make up for anything we missed when Avengers: Endgame opens.

But epic isn’t actually enough. To me, the reason the Marvel movies work so well is the casting. It’s A-list all the way. Brie Larson brings a convincing sharp humor, insouciance, and and appropriate arrogance to her Carol Danvers– a woman who does difficult things well, and knows it. Lashana Lynch exudes the same capability and confidence in her role as Carol’s best friend, Maria. Annette Benning is a pleasure to watch as both a force of mercy and a means of control. Samuel L. Jackson continues to be his remarkable self, and Jude Law turns in another reliably sturdy performance.

***

This is one superhero movie that passes the Bedchel test with flying colors, with the story driven by the relationships between Danvers, Mar-Vell/Lawson, Rambeau, and Monica. It is refreshingly free of romantic subplots or flirtations, and allows its female characters to exist simply as people.

I’m not entirely comfortable with how much that stands out for me–because what does it say about all the other MCU films out there that I’ve also enjoyed?

Another response I didn’t expect to have is to wonder how well Carol Danvers will handle Captain Marvel’s immense power. Maybe it was the Dark Phoenix trailer that triggered my train of thought, but it strikes me that many of Marvel’s most powerful superheroes are haunted by psychological issues, as they struggle to balance their humanity against their almost god-like abilities. Scarlet Witch, multiple X-Men, even Wade Wilson all wrestle with it. Perhaps the arrogance that comes of being a highly-trained, highly- skilled Air Force test pilot (or highly-skilled surgeon, in the case of Doctor Strange) overrides the expected mortal weaknesses.

***

So, in summation: It made me think, but not about the storyline or, specifically, the characters. Not much new to see but well worth seeing, if only for the questions it raises outside the limits of the MCU.

Hidden Folk

C.M. Muller’s debut collection, Hidden Folk: Strange Stories, is an enjoyably weird read. The volume  contains twelve small, finely-tuned stories of lives slipping quietly out of control, even when the characters are sure they still have agency. The inhabitants of these stories range from preteen children to desperate mothers, from recent immigrants to young women to lonely old men. The overall mood is dark and subdued as the characters struggle with loneliness, loss, and their own irrelevance. And that mood lingers long after the book is closed.

***

Muller’s writing style in Hidden Folk is deliberate, dreamlike, and formal. He creates a distance between the characters and the reader that enhances the sense of disconnect and unbalance inherent in the tales. Because of this quality, many of the stories remind me fondly of Rod Serling’s measured prose and of Steve Rasnic Tem’s disorienting  shifts in circumstances.

Besides the overall voice and tone, Hidden Folk also contains some lovely, evocative  imagery. “For the past week, the ride home had begun in semidarkness and ended in pitch” and “A dwelling situated at the worst possible angle to the sun” can both stand as examples of the rich and compact descriptions scattered throughout the stories.

***

My personal favorites in the collection are these three:

“Absconsa Laterna”, in which a father inexplicably loses his son at–or to– a mysterious outdoor art installation.

“Resurfacing”, where an unusual construction project in a stagnant neighborhood opens up strange new options to our reclusive narrator.

And “Omzetten”, an epistolary tale of three young women on a European tour who make the ill-advised decision to visit a quaint, isolated old town just a short train ride away.

***

Hidden Folk is a fine reminder that the weird can be internal as easily as it is cosmic, and that fear can be as simple as familiar circumstances. I recommend it.

kingdom

My relationship with zombies is conflicted. I find the whole zombie genre fascinating, but also too scary to indulge in very often. I never could watch The Walking Dead. But Kingdom, the new South Korean series streaming on Netflix, definitely has my attention.

Set in Joseon Korea sometime in the later Middle Ages, Kingdom is as much a sweeping historical costume drama as a horror series. The zombies here are called simply “monsters”, and despite the medieval setting they are approached with scientific rigor. The reason they exist is known. Their capabilities are being observed and noted. Variations in how the infection is transmitted are recognized. And the race is on to find the cure before they overwhelm the nation.

***

Giving a new twist to the old saw “a fish rots from the head down”, Kingdom’s threat begins at the top with a weak king and a treacherous minister willing to use unnatural tactics to gain power. The first words spoken in the series are “You must never look inside His Majesty’s bedchamber,” and they serve as a warning of both the political consequences and the supernatural danger involved in disobeying. But what is inside soon escapes.

As so often happens, the poor bear the brunt of the suffering that follows. Starved by war and heavy taxation, the peasantry have resorted to cannibalism to simply survive– an act of desperation that allows a new disease to spread with terrifying speed. The noble classes think they can outrun the disease, or wall it away.

We all know how that goes.

kingdom
***

Kingdom is beautifully shot, with dramatic lighting and fierce action, serene architecture and monumental landscapes. It’s plot is elaborate, full of court intrigue, dynastic jockeying, and the scars of a recent war. The characters are well-acted and of all the familiar types, with a brave prince, a scheming nobleman, a loyal warrior, a smart and plucky woman, and a mysterious man drawn into the fray. And, of course, ravenous zombies. It is compelling stuff.

Kingdom’s first season ends, expectedly, in a cliffhanger. Season two is already in production. As long as the zombies don’t get too rotten, I’m ready.

Twice-told

I’m pleased to announce that my story “One Last Mile” will appear in Cthonic Matter’s new anthology Twice-Told; A Collection of Doubles, alongside twenty-one other tales of doppelgängers, twins, and disturbing duplicates.

Coming face to face with yourself can be comedy gold, but it is just as often an unsettling, unnatural thing. We are used to thinking of ourselves as unique individuals–which makes the idea of encountering our own double both fascinating and deeply creepy. Doppelgängers have long been harbingers of unhappy things. Twins are suspected of having opposite natures, one good and the other pure evil. Imposters steal our very identities for their own ends.

Twice-Told; A Collection of Doubles taps into this deep well of unease. And as you can see from the table of contents, my story and I are in some very fine company.

“The Last Salvador” — Tim Jeffreys
“Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to Shadow” — Clint Smith
“Zwillingslied” — Patricia Lillie
“Static” — Chris Shearer
“Stuck With Me” — Shannon Lawrence
“The Fifth Set” — Charles Wilkinson
“Murder Song” — Craig Wallwork
“The Final Diagnosis of Doctor Lazare” — David Peak
“Endangered” — Jason A. Wyckoff
“The Half-Life of Plastic” — Esther Rose
“Eidetic” — Steve Rasnic Tem
“They Are Us (1964) : An Oral History” — Jack Lothian
“Birds of Passage” — Gordon B. White
“The Half-Souled Woman” — Nina Shepardson
“Released” — Timothy B. Dodd
“As With Alem” — Farah Rose Smith
“The Fall Guy” — Tom Johnstone
“Scordatura” — Jess Landry
“Stringless Puppetry” — C.C. Adams
“The Bath House” — Tim Major
“Picky Yunn” — J.C. Raye
“One Last Mile” — Erica Ruppert

Twice-Told; A Collection of Doubles will be released on February 22. You can pre-order your hard copy of the book here, or pre-order the kindle edition here.

true detective

I waited a long time for True Detective to get to Season 3, and after seeing the first two episodes I’m glad HBO took three and a half years to let it brew. After the dark and weird phenomenon that was True Detective’s first season, and the muddled disappointment of its second, the third season is back in fine, grim, wrenching form.

The main cast is outstanding, as expected. Mahershala Ali is quiet and guarded as Detective Wayne Hays. His reserve strikes a comfortable balance with Stephen Dorff’s more outspoken Roland West, Hays’ partner. Carmen Ejogo is poised and warm and sharp as Amelia Reardon, a schoolteacher who becomes involved, and then absorbed, in the central mystery. The supporting players are equally strong, with Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer as the raging, grieving parents of the lost children and Ray Fisher as Wayne’s caretaker son.

The plot dips and spins across thirty five years, following the 1980 abduction of two young siblings in Arkansas. We are already being wrapped up in three painful timelines, inconstant memory, and the stain of ritual sacrifice. There are hints of the coming Satanic Panic that spewed over the early eighties, and constant reminders of the just-past Vietnam war. There is blunt recognition of the subtle and pervasive racism that lies behind almost every interaction. And in the main characters, there is still the urge to do something good, to help someone, to stop someone from being hurt any more.

It’s a heady mix. It’s hard to wait for the next episode.

I admit I was a little disappointed at the end of True Detective Season 1, when the creeping supernatural elements evaporated into the swamp. This time out I am braced for such an outcome. But it doesn’t mean I’m not hoping for some very dark magic along the way.

Here’s something to start the year off right: A pair of charity anthologies from Planet X Publications to benefit author Christopher Ropes.

Edited by Duane Pesice, 32 White Horses on a Vermilion Hill: Volume One and Volume Two are full of a wondrous assortment of sixty-four stories and poems contributed to the cause.

My story, “Triumph of the Skies”, appears in Volume Two.

If  you wish to donate directly, here is Christopher’s GoFundMe.

32 White Horses on a Vermilion Hill 32 White Horses on a Vermilion Hill


Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is absolutely delightful. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, the 2010 Finnish comedy-horror film has a sly sense of humor, a creepy troupe of monsters, and a youthful sense of wonder. Based on his somewhat grimmer 2003 and 2005 shorts, the full-length version of Rare Exports plays like a children’s movie that took a left turn at Albuquerque and just kept on going.

rare exports

***

Rare Exports’s plot is quite simple, resembling nothing so much as a strange, silly fairy tale. It is set just before Christmas, on Korvatunturi Mountain at the Finnish-Russian border. Legend has it that the mountain is a vast grave where ancient Laplanders buried the frozen body of a gigantic demon.

A foreign mining company is excavating there, looking for the legend. They uncover something big, and dangerous–especially if you misbehave. Pietari, a young boy who still believes in Santa Claus, accidently sees what the miners have dug up and realizes that he will need to work fast to keep his family safe.

No-one believes Pietari’s warnings. But when his father captures a bloodthirsty, not-so-jolly old elf and tries to sell him back to the mining company, they discover that the elf is not the real problem at all. And so Pietari takes control of the situation, ordering his father and the other men around according to his own clever plan and ultimately saving the day.

rare exports***

The cast is outstanding. Onni Tommila and his father, Jorma, play the heroic Pietari and his father, Rauno. Ilmari Järvenpää plays Pietari’s slightly older and cooler friend, Juuso, while Tommi Korpela plays Juuso’s English-speaking dad Aimo. Rauno Juvonen rounds out the group as Piiparinen, Rauno’s friend and sometime village Santa Claus–the traditional kind.

rare exports***

Rare Exports’s horror element is not exactly horrifying. The dirty, feral, naked old elves are as ridiculous as they are dangerous. They are Santa’s helpers, all right, eating gingerbread, sniffing the air for children, killing anyone who curses, drinks, or smokes, and working to release their master from his imprisonment. Wisely, Rare Exports’s monster-Santa is left to our imaginations, showing up as illustrations in various old books and as a huge pair of curved horns jutting out of an enormous block of ice.

The comedy is rather gentle, as well. Pietari, his father, and their friends tend toward goofiness rather than cruelty, and they are all basically honest people. But that does not mean there isn’t a lot of blood. Pietari’s dad butchers reindeer for a living. Somebody loses an ear. The elves do their killing with shovels and pickaxes. Gore happens, but somehow the movie manages to keep the mood light and playful.

I think the never ending supply of gingerbread has something to do with it.

***

Will Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale become a holiday staple like It’s a Wonderful Life, or Gremlins? Maybe. It certainly has plenty of family warmth, charm, and the magic of the season to go with its murderous elves and commercial aspirations.

And really, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

nightflyers

Nightflyers is a beautiful and ambitious ten episode series currently unfolding on SyFy. Unfortunately, while the show is visually striking it is extremely derivative, without the focus or attention to detail to be a proper pastiche.

***

The titular ship looks like a blend of inspirations from Alien, Event Horizon, and Silent Running. Various flourishes from Don’t Look Now, The Amityville Horror, The Haunting, and Psycho are also pressed into service. It does not entirely gel.

Plotwise, we are confronted from the beginning with a plague, quarantines, overpopulation, genetic engineering, body modifications, murderous telepaths, first contact, memory recordings and memory wipes. Nightflyers is stuffed to the gills with details meant as world-building, but they lack the context and connections that would make them work. Instead, we end up with a fairly standard horror movie drifting serenely through outer space.

***

Based on George R.R. Martin’s novella (which I haven’t read, so I cannot make a comparison), the series is unsatisfying. Set in 2093, Nightflyers takes place aboard a colony ship whose captain has agreed to bring a scientific crew into an area of space known as the Void with the hope of making first contact with an alien species. Things, predictably, go wrong.

The science fiction aspects of Nightflyers are frustratingly mushy. Genetically engineered for space seems to mean stunningly attractive, grossly self-absorbed, and able to withstand high doses of radiation for up to four minutes. Cutting edge psychology appears to be cutting out any unwanted memories and everything attached to them. Memory recordings are a thing, even if you don’t want the memories erased. Computers appear to be just this side of magic. Which would all be excusable, if the characters were compelling.

Alas.

***

Three of the actors in this ensemble manage to breathe life into their rote characters. Maya Eshet brings a convincing vulnerability and wariness to her portrayal of the cyber-enhanced Lommie which made me want to follow her every twitch. Angus Sampson’s Rowan, the xenobiologist, resembles a heavier Tim Curry and comes across as both charmingly irreverent and deeply committed to the mission. And Sam Strike’s performance as the tortured telepath, Thale, conveys depth and layers to the character that the thin writing does not.

However, not all the characters fare as well. Eoin Macken plays Karl D’Branin, a scientist with an overstuffed backstory now leading a team toward possible first contact. I think he is supposed to be driven, but he comes off as kind of a jerk. As Dr. Agatha Matheson, Gretchen Mol spends entirely too much time asking everyone around her to just trust Thale. Agatha, conveniently, both the overinvolved psychologist responsible for keeping the dangerous telepath in check as well as Karl’s ex lover.

Rounding out the main cast, Jodie Turner-Smith’s Melantha is manipulative and arrogant and without any explicit purpose on the mission, David Ajala’s Captain Roy Eris is intense yet clumsily motivated, and Brian O’Byrne’s Chief Engineer Auggie is written in a way that makes his role in the storyline obvious.

There is no sense of a chance of getting to know these characters. They exist to get the plot from beginning to end, with a few not-terribly-surprising twists along the way.

***

In the end, Nightflyers is no worse than many other science fiction shows. But its unmitigated seriousness wears thin very quickly. Characters and story this self-important belong in a sweeping epic, not in derivative space-horror.

My opinion of Nightflyers is based on the five episodes released over the course of last week. I will more than likely watch the second five, as well, if only for completeness’s sake. I don’t actually dislike the show. Aspects of it are quite good. I simply don’t find enough there to grow attached to.

don't look now

don't look nowNicholas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now has long been considered a classic of the horror genre. But it was the director’s recent death that inspired me to finally watch it. I’m glad I did. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s chilly short story, Don’t Look Now is not just a grim, ghostly tale. In fact, the supernatural elements are background to the central agony. Don’t Look Now is a study in two people crumbling under the weight of grief, and watching their pain is disturbing in a way that monsters cannot be.

Nothing Is What It Seems

Don’t Look Now is driven by the painfully direct performances of Donald Sutherland as John Baxter, and Julie Christie as Laura Baxter. Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania are more collected as the sisters Heather and Wendy. The rest of the cast manages a consistent, cool disconnectedness from the Baxters’ pain.

don't look nowThe story begins with a tragedy. John and Laura Baxter have moved to Venice temporarily, following the accidental drowning of their daughter, Christine. John is preoccupied with his work restoring an ancient church, while Laura is left at loose ends.

Laura is on the verge of a breakdown. John is distant. Their marriage is fraying.

When they meet a pair of sisters, one of whom claims to be clairvoyant, Laura attaches herself to them. They tell Laura that her daughter is there, with her parents, and happy. They also warn her that John is in danger, and needs to leave Venice.

Laura is thrilled to know her daughter is happy, and actively chooses the comforting fantasy while still urging her husband to go home until the threat is past. John believes the sisters are running a scam of some sort, yet he begins to notice a small, cloaked figure that he conflates with his daughter. As the film progresses, John’s and Laura’s beliefs see-saw between what is true, what is imagined, and what they want to be real.

don't look nowThe sense of dread in Don’t Look Now comes from the reactions John and Laura have to their daughter’s death. While Laura is heartbreakingly fragile, John too is coming apart at the seams. He tries to appease his wife, indulging her growing friendship with the sisters. But when he snaps at her that their daughter is “dead, dead, dead” she places the blame on him so blithely, so matter-of-factly, that its impact is stunning.

A Study in Scarlet

Don’t Look Now has few secrets after forty five years, but its impact is still profound. Stylized and portentous, the story is doled out in intercut scenes and flashes of memory. Roeg’s technique keeps the viewer off-balance without confusing the narrative. The once-shocking sex scene has become tame over the years, but the graphic pain of Christine drowning will never dim.

don't look nowThe use of the colour red throughout is already well-known, as is the recurring motif of water–flowing, spilling, dripping. Onscreen the juxtaposition of colour and texture is absorbing, pulling the viewer into the subtly threatening world of the film. Close-ups of the actors create an uncomfortable effect. Rather than inspiring intimacy, they become alienating. We are shown things that may or may not exist outside the characters’ imaginations. We are left as lost as they are.

The muddy ugliness of the child’s death is echoed by the dank loneliness of Venice. The city is filmed as dim and full of echoes, with too many dark, empty alleys to get lost in. And although Laura and John are familiar with Venice and its old ways, they remain outsiders. There is a distance between the English visitors and the native city dwellers expressed through unreadable expressions and dismissive questions, and attitudes that treat the Baxters as difficult and troublesome.

Dead, Dead, Dead

Roeg’s film is a classic for a reason, and I recommend it for what it reveals. The horror infecting Don’t Look Now is not the supernatural. It is the inescapable pain of loss. Loss drives the characters to believe in the impossible, to follow leads they know are lies, to pretend everything is finally all right. None of it works. The only escape is, at last, to break with the real world and accept the ghosts.

art & arcana

art & arcana
Just getting started

Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a huge, gorgeous compendium of what helps make Dungeons &Dragons so wonderful. Leafing through it brings up so many memories that I can’t gush adequately about it. The art is all so familiar, evoking the glorious campaigns our DM ran, the several editions I played, and the characters I created. I recognized the covers of the paperbacks my friends and I read, and the box art for the coveted miniature sets which I still have, and still use.

***

“It all started with one thousand curious boxes marked with unfamiliar symbols and verbiage.”

***

This is not merely a coffee-table art book.  Art & Arcana fully lives up to its subtitle as a rich and thorough history of Dungeons & Dragons. Interspersed with and guided by the lavish artwork is the narrative of the rise and fall of Gary Gygax and TSR and the game’s renewal under Wizards of the Coast.

art & arcana
All you need to know

Art & Arcana incorporates the several attempts to portray D&D as some sort of Satanic cult into its history, and the changes made to the game’s art and advertising in order to counter those smears. This leads into the many attempts TSR made to branch out into the mainstream.

D&D was adapted into handheld electronics in the early 1980s, with all the wonders of that era’s graphics. Somewhat more sophisticated computer versions followed in the late 80’s. Along the way, Dungeons & Dragons ventured into records, candy, coloring books, Viewmaster slides, Colorforms, a Saturday morning cartoon that spawned a board game, and even a pinball machine.

***

Of course Art & Arcana is thick with profiles of the artists, from the early, often teen-aged illustrators to the professional artists TSR and later companies eventually hired as D&D grew. Some examples of my favorites include Erol Otus and his classic cover of the original Dieties & Demigods; Clyde Caldwell’s iconic original art for 1983’s Ravenloft; and Darlene’s epic map of Greyhawk. In addition to the instantly-recognized classic art, the beautifully realized D&D variations found in Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder, and Spelljammer are all included here as well.

art & arcana
Tiamat through the years

The development of the classic sets and modules, and how the maps and character sheets became refined over time, are explained as well. Two-page spreads detail the changes in how orcs, dragons, beholders, mindflayers, and other terrible beasts were drawn over the years, from the amateurish early versions to the vivid, polished monsters of today.

Even the influence of the indispensable miniature is covered, from the first cheap plastic monsters to the original MiniFigs and Grenadier figures, and on to TSR’s own official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons figures. There is nothing about how hard it is to paint the eyes, though.

***

“This game lets all your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil high priests, fierce demons, and even the gods themselves may enter your character’s life. Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!”

***

art & arcana
Behold! The Beholder

Authors Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer have done a spectacular job of showing the history of Dungeons & Dragons in all its colorful glory. Anyone who has played any of the editions or variations will find something in Art & Arcana to reminisce over. It is a beautiful book that I will be going back to, over and over again.