Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"Ghost Rider" Ignites The Popcorn Movie Season

Do you hear that revving, low and loud enough to shake your bones out of your skin? Is it the sound of the hell cycle lashing the pavement in the distance, or the start of the big budget, big action, popcorn movie season?
My wife and I took my parents’ teenaged godchildren to see “Ghost Rider” on Friday, and while it flickered for the first 30-45 minutes, once it caught, it was smokin’.
Admittedly, I’ve got a bit of a bias. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, back when I was collecting comics in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the revamped “Ghost Rider” was my favourite in the superhero genre. It even led me to a grudging appreciation of the original 70’s series. To be sure, the original was pretty cheesy at times, what with the bone-headed biker demon slugging it out with evil clowns and other third-rate bad guys, but it had its moments. But the second series had a tougher look and an edgier plot that left the original eating its dust.
So it was with cautious optimism that I went to the screening last week.
The story combines elements of both series, with the look of the 90’s version – definitely a good call. I did think the hell cycle, with its skeletal face on the front end, looked a little more like its interstellar incarnation presented in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” issue where the Ghost Rider of the future makes a guest appearance (ah, there’s nothing like a crossover with a hot title to try to boost the sales of an obscure ‘book!).
To some extent, my caution was justified. The movie suffers from backstory tedium right off the top, liberally spiced with corny “young lovers” dialogue and shots. Scenes like the heart-broken, rain-soaked girl staring wistfully at her troubled lover fleeing into the distance leave you wondering whether you should wince in disgust or laugh. Then there’s the gaggle of demons, who we’re told can’t tread on hallowed ground, but who don’t seem to have a problem waltzing into a church to light a votive candle or two and push a priest around (unless, of course, this is a deliberate potshot at the Vatican from the writer/director and producers). Then there’s Eva Mendes, who does an admirable job of showing her… journalistic integrity? No. Depth of emotion and intellectual turmoil as she struggles to make sense of a suddenly re-appeared love interest and the supernatural terror that follows? Nope. How about her ability to adapt to unprecedented demands on her courage? Still cold. What about showing off her… attributes? Yep. That’s it. There’s no relationship angst or physical danger that can’t be dealt with by pushing her breasts as close to the camera as possible (although I’m not sure if that was her decision or writer/director Mark Steven Johnson’s call). Not that I’m complaining or anything… I just wanted to see a little more. Of the acting, people! Sheesh! And naming the devil’s son “Blackheart” was pretty unoriginal. Then there’s the ongoing debate about Nick Cage’s hairpiece.
But none of this is out of line. It’s all perfectly reasonable for a comic book movie because it’s standard comic book fare (except for the hairpiece). Sure, the film could’ve been great instead of merely good if they would have corrected these and other problems with better writing, editing and acting/directing, but keeping these little flaws keeps the movie true to the original source.
And there’s lots that make the story a real blast. Great special effects for starters. The Ghost Rider looked amazing (in transformation, as well as final presentation), as did the hell cycle. Okay, the quick demon-face shots on Mephistopheles and Blackheart looked like they could have been cut-and-pasted from the Dracula face shots in “Van Helsing”, but at least they were CG’d well. I was quite impressed with the way in which the infamous penance stare was presented; that was about the best way to illustrate a criminal’s mind being crushed by the pain he’d inflicted on others without the filmmakers losing their PG-13 rating or swinging too far the other way and making it dumb.
Sam Elliot was perfect as “the caretaker”. You just can’t find another actor with that voice, look, and all-around aura of tough old cowpoke.
The fight sequences were great eye candy. And, like any popcorn blockbuster, there were a lot of laughs amid the action. Despite being an integral part of the film’s trailer, the line with the goth girl mumbling about how her flame-headed benefactor managed to pull off his “real edge look” is still a hoot. Much like Bill Murray’s famous “he slimed me” line from “Ghostbusters”, if a joke can still be funny after the audience has seen it a million times in commercials ahead of time, you know the writers are on the ball.
Let’s not forget Nick Cage’s tribute to Johnny Blaze and pretty much every lone-wolf-style superhero. Cage plays the trope with respect, but never takes himself too seriously, mugging for the camera in all the right places. And how could you not love the decision to make Blaze a militant fan of “The Carpenters”? Not only is it a perfect counterpoint to the fearless stuntman/bountyhunter-of-hell image, but it shows a real courage in the character to openly insist on being allowed to listen to the 70’s crooners, where pretty much anyone else would quietly regulate this fetish to their secret guilty pleasures files (I still remember times during my early childhood in the 70’s when “The Carpenters” were played around the house, and I have to admit, while I’m not a fan, Karen did have quite a beautiful voice).
Last but not least: a soundtrack capped-off by a rip-roarin’ version of “Riders in the Sky”. A very worthy rendition of the old Stan Jones tune indeed - second, of course, to the masterful performance of the late Johnny Cash (and maybe that nice tribute done a few years ago by The Blues Brothers in “Blues Brothers 2000”).
Ultimately, the sign that “Ghost Rider” is entertaining is that it passed muster with the uninitiated. My wife and the 14-year-old boy (who admitted with a little embarrassment that he’d never heard of Ghost Rider until the trailers hit the airwaves) and 12-year-old girl (who knows even less about comics) all said they’d had a lot of fun.
“Ghost Rider” is certainly worth seeing on the big screen, but I’d suggest going to a matinee or a cheap night.
Is “Ghost Rider” an intelligent and deeply moving film that will resonate through the ages? No. But as a solid comic book movie, it’s done a worthy job of starting us down the road of big SFX popcorn flicks through the spring and summer. Pass the butter, would ya?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Self-Help Superhero Style - "From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain"

Minister Faust is at it again.
Three years ago the Edmonton, Alberta author unleashed his hilarious, frightening and poignant “The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad” upon the speculative fiction scene. It was an epic tale of two regular guys with big dreams trying to understand their lives and come to grips with their relationships with each other and those around them, and who, along the way, just happen to stumble into the roles of superheroes as they’re thrust into an adventure that would make Jack Burton or Indiana Jones think about throwing in the towel.
Now Faust spins us a different yarn: that of superheroes cast into the relatively normal realm of people in need of counseling… with a civil war thrown in for good measure. And it’s all taken “From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain”.
I’ll whole-heartedly admit that I couldn’t get into Faust’s latest book fast enough when it hit the shelves last month. And it didn’t disappoint. “From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain” tickles the funnybone even as it “punches you in the soul” (to borrow from Faust – and his sister). True, the city of Los Ditkos and its alternate version of Earth are populated with “hyperhominids” who, on the face of it, are often so silly in their names, costumes and powers that they should be rubbing shoulders with The Tick, the Mystery Men or the denizens of the old Normal Man comic. But this book isn’t just a 387 page comic. Rather, in true comic fashion, it’s a crossover. It’s a collision of the comic with popular, flavour-of-the-week self-help books (or “self-hurt books” as an old friend of mine once wryly observed), and more subtly, it’s very much a Shakespearean tragedy.
Presented as a self-help book written by Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman (foremost psychiatrist for the extraordinarily abled, headquartered at her Hyper Potentiality Clinic) for superheroes battling psychological and existential issues, the story introduces us to a group of ubermensch tossed into group therapy by their organization, the FOOJ (Fantastic Order of Justice), in a last-ditch effort to exorcise their disruptive behavioral traits. To make matters worse, one of their most respected allies has been murdered, they’re at the centre of a criminal and political plot whirling towards a civil war among superhumans, and one of them is the arch-villain behind it all.
There are a lot of reasons why this novel excels with all the force of a spandex-clad, genetically-enhanced vigilante.
The heroes themselves are brilliant caricatures of classic pop culture stereotypes: the Super Man, the angry black man, the cut-throat industrialist, the frosty goddess, the jive-talking hipster and the pop-star airhead. But while it’s fun to laugh at their flaws, there is something sympathetic about their suffering. Despite the psychobabble labels slapped on them and the supernatural means that they came about, these people’s problems (like substance abuse, relationship issues, coming to grips with sexuality) are very real and very common.
And yet that’s not enough to propel these people (and the story) beyond the comic book level. What’s more interesting than the details of their alleged conditions or the roots of their personal pains, is the decisions they make outside of the therapy sessions that result from the fundamental natures of their personalities, rather than from their mental illnesses or social defects. It may seem clumsily obvious to state that the book would not have ended the way it does if the heroes’ personalities were not fundamentally predisposed to make the decisions they do. If some would have been less narcissistic or distracted or petty the balance of power might have shifted, if personal ambitions and grudges had not led to brinksmanship and scheming, and most tragically, if the person cast as the canary-in-the-coal-mine was less of a boy-who-cried-wolf, more would have paid attention to the warnings and evidence and the slaughter of the civil war might not have happened. But as much as these people live in a fantasy world of super powers, these are the very flaws that make their actions inevitable despite the tantalizing hope of something better, making them three-dimensional humans and making the novel a work of substance.
But of all the characters in Faust’s novel, it is the narrator herself, the “author” of the “notebooks”, Dr. Brain, who really gets inside the reader’s head. She is more worthy of study than her self-help book.
Faust takes us down a winding, contradictory track over the course of this novel in his portrayal of Dr. Brain. The reader is at times suspicious of her, in agreement, forgiving, dismissive and unsettled. And it is this difficulty in pinning her down, in labeling her the way she labels others, that makes the doctor human and dangerous.
Right off the bat, this character is overtly sinister because of her name: Eva Brain-Silverman, generally shortened to either Dr. Brain or Eva Brain. Eva Brain being disturbingly (and deliberately) close to the monicker of Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun. The Silverman part of the last name may initially take the edge off, but the sourness of the Nazi connotation never goes away. Dr. Brain sounding like the tag of some mad scientist from an over-the-top 50’s sci-fi flick about giant beerbugs manufactured in a lab to corner the market on pilsner; reminiscent also of “The Brain”, an intellectually-enhanced lab mouse bent on world domination (from “Pinky & The Brain” by Spielberg’s crew – one of the best cartoons ever). “Dr. Brain”, as a title, also has an elitist ring to it, as though the person possessing the name were trying to put herself in a superior, judgmental position above others – which Eva Brain does as she probes and evaluates her subjects.
Dr. Brain’s job also imbues her with a fair share of untrustworthiness. In general, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, therapists and others in the mental health field are, in fact, trustworthy and do an admirably job assisting people in overcoming their emotional challenges. But Dr. Brain isn’t some clinician in a hospital psychiatric ward or a dedicated school counselor. No, she’s a mover and shaker and outright promoter of psychological quick-fixes in the cult of therapy that’s latched itself onto western culture in recent decades, a fad-book-of-the-week and live-analysis-on-TV movement that’s cheapened the image of legitimate practitioners.
More to the point, Brain’s professionalism is questionable at best. She is all cold intellectual dissection and no empathy as she badgers her clients, drops them into potentially emotionally dangerous confrontations which she fails to resolve or include support or final safety check, and, horrifically, she ignores clients when they reveal serious trauma (such as sexual abuse) which is not part of her therapeutic agenda. This often leads her to completely misinterpret why one of her clients has made a comment or done something, and by extension, she doesn’t place appropriate value on that comment or action. One gets the sense that “healing” to Dr. Brain is a mechanical function leading towards validation of her own “expertise” and allowing her greater self-promotion.
And in the end, it is Dr. Brain’s single-minded drive to demonstrate her expertise to the world that is most chilling. She closes her book by explicitly choosing self-promotion over what’s right. Dr. Brain does not call attention to the facts of the final battle, they are stated and left behind, much like the afore-mentioned sexual assault revealed by one of the heroes during a therapy session. She does not emulate what are supposed to be the finest qualities of her patients – she does not make a call for truth to come out and justice to be done. She fails to do what she has constantly pontificated about throughout her narrative – she has not exposed the ugly truth in order to bring it into the light to study and overcome it so that it will cease to be a problem. No, the truth behind the civil war is not as important to Dr. Brain as her closing claims of how much she’s helped her patients overcome their emotional obstacles. By allowing the politically convenient story of the winning side to go unchallenged, Dr. Brain is complicit in a murder and its cover-up, and a lie to the public and the damage it will do to society by allowing the wrong people to run the show.
In this, “From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain” is Faust’s timely warning to the reader about the responsibilities of citizens (whether they be heroes or normal people) to care about what happens to each other, to make sure the truth is known, and to question those in authority and hold them to account.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

How Cell Phones Are Preparing Us For Virtual Reality

It seems there has been a lot of discussion these days about the ramifications of virtual reality. George Dvorsky’s been heralding possible “perils of a digital life” on his Sentient Developments blog. Over at SciFi.com’s “Sci Fi Weekly” page, Michael Cassutt worries that massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) like “World of Warcraft”, “Second Life” and others will cause people to start turning their backs on books and film, (which present a finished story), in favour of these other existences online where they can create idealized versions of themselves and not only seek out their traditionally favourite types of stories (be they high adventure or complex personal relationships), but actually take part in them and affect their outcome. Even SouthPark has recently taken a crack at the virtual reality phenomenon and its effects on relationships, personal priorities, the issue of whether the “real world” has primacy, and hygiene with an episode where Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Kenny and their pals have to save the world of “World of Warcraft” from a seemingly unstoppable delinquent player.
In fact, while the issues surrounding alternate/virtual reality, of which the current MMOs are the first significant step (the equivalent of homo erectus on the long evolution towards modern homo sapiens sapiens, which might be technologically analogous to a fully sensory-immersive and interactive artificial reality where the user can create complex features and companions without the necessity of outside programming), gained popularity with the general public in the 90’s with movies like “The Matrix” and widely-publicized predictions by high-tech firms looking to make names for themselves, the phenomenon is well-worn territory in the world of speculative fiction. Take your pick of the cybernetic torture chamber of Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, the datumplane of “Neuromancer” and William Gibson’s other books, movies like “Tron” or “The 13th Floor”, the Disney-like holodeck of the recent Star Trek series, or any of a hundred others.
But in all the explorations of the dangers and delights of these optional parallel worlds, it seems that there isn’t a lot of exploration of how human beings will prepare for the experience. Most stories generally either present a situation where a character is literally dumped into the new reality (“Tron”) or knowledge of its existence (“The Matrix”) and has to adapt like Alice in Wonderland to an alien environment. Or we’re offered a character living in a world where virtual reality and its issues have been around for some time – a person who’s adapted to his environment (or fighting against it) naturally since he/she has always been a part of it (take your pick of the Gibson books). I haven’t seen any evolutionary-style alternative to the “surprise, you’re in a different world” trope - nothing that tells us how people initially adapted to the long-established alternate consensual reality. I’d be interested to see if there are stories, shows or movies dealing with the possibility of gradual, subtle cultural adaptation to the new optional life. If there’s something out there, let me know.
That being said, I think there’s something that’s already preparing our culture in some ways for the virtual-versus-real/virtual-interfacing-with-real experience, though inadvertently. That’s the cell phone.

(Sorry, folks. I know it took me a long time to get to the point. As a former radio news dog, I’m kicking myself for burying the lead, but I thought the set-up was necessary this time.)

More to the point, it’s the evolution in conversational etiquette driven by the cell phone, and most obviously in the young.
It doesn’t take the greatest observer of detail to look around and see that, in the industrial nations of the world at least, most young people (teens, people in their early 20’s, and even some kids younger than 10) have got cell phones and are more than willing to use them. In fact, it’s highly likely that Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter are right on target in their prediction in the “A Time Odyssey” books that it won’t be long before every kid in the world has a cell phone.
And it’s this complete willingness of the young (and even some middle-aged business and information junkies) to answer the cell phone call or text message right away, regardless of the task or person in front of them, that’s been infuriating older folks for the past few years (in fact, ever since production of the devices got to the point where they could be sold cheaply and in many cases given away free with a connection agreement, prompting wide-spread use – this in combination with the increasing emotional need of parents to be able to reach increasingly independent kids anywhere, any time). There are many people who get intensely annoyed when talking to a younger person who hears the ringtone/feels the vibration, reaches for the cell faster than a gunfighter drawing his piece on a dusty, tumbleweed-strewn street at high noon, and instantly diverts his/her attention to the call display, putting the conversation completely on hold until they’ve dealt with the call/text message/email. To the older person forced to wait, this is a highly insulting and invalidating experience.
And yet it’s one done, for the most part, in total innocence by the young person.
To be sure, in some cases, there is some degree of insult (or at least indifference) intended in giving the phone a higher priority than the person/task physically in front of them. It’s also equally reasonable to say the young person’s reaction can also be an inability to focus on one thing at a time and ignore distracting stimulus.
But I think for the most part, it’s something entirely different: it’s really a modified version of party socialization. Think of it this way: when you’re at a party, you may, in addition to all the other typical activities, engage in group discussions. But you’ll also have several one-on-one interactions with other guests. Now, at some point during one of these tête-à-têtes, it’s a given that some other partygoer will mosey up to the both of you and attempt to horn-in on the conversation. Like him or hate him, you can’t ignore this third wheel. Your interaction with your initial conversational partner must be either suspended while you deal with the interloper, or adapted to include him. I’m convinced that’s what happening with youth and cell phone calls/text messages/emails: they’re not differentiating the physical communication in front of them from the electronic, these are assigned (at least initially) the same value and the new communicator (the cell) is seen as something that must be acknowledged as much as another physical person would have to be.
In all the years since the popularization of the cell phone among the young, this behaviour has not fizzled out. It has become the norm and there is no reason to expect that it will change. In fact, as today’s youth become older, it will be a culture-wide standard for conversational etiquette. Conversational etiquette is evolving.
And herein lies the key to how the cell phone will lay the foundations for society’s ability to handle the coming reality-artificial reality interface.
I suspect this change in behaviour that puts electronic communication on an equal footing with physical communication will allow people in future years to interchange the physical world with its custom-made, electronic parallel dimensions without much anxiety. Going from interactions and sensations in the physical world to interfacing with one of the many man-made consensual realities at the flick of whatever proverbial “switch” used will be to them the same as saying “Just a sec.” in a conversation and picking up the cell, or turning to the third partygoer and acknowledging him.
To bring the evolution metaphor back for a second, if today’s MMOs are the homo erectus of virtual reality and total sense-immersion electronics/software the equivalent of modern man, then the cell phone would be the ape coming down from the trees considering whether to shamble across the savannah.
Because it is a consumer product that’s affected this change in personal interaction, one might wonder whether this points to some sinister global social-engineering program run by high-tech manufacturers aimed at smoothing the transition, acceptance and acquisition of new consumer goods. I would say definitely no. That kind of conspiracy theory doesn’t wash because it wasn’t a given at the advent of the popularization of the cell that young people would behave this way. Certainly they would have been tempted to, but any number of factors, such as role-models showing a disdain for the quick-fix of the cell phone’s demand, or direct education by elders, the annoyance of distracting ring-tones or vibrations, detrimental effects of increased communication on school grades or job performance, or a desire for more private time, could have spurred youth to view the cell phone as an inconvenience rather than an essential extension of natural communication abilities. However probable, it was never a given that this change would happen.
In the end, as alternative realities become more pervasive, and perhaps even necessary in some circumstances, and the march towards fully immersive custom-made options continues, there will be many opportunities and dangers that individuals and society will forced to stop and consider. But the societal changes already wrought by the cell phone mean that, for the most part, the up-and-coming generation probably won’t be too concerned about the journey itself.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

When To Throw In The Towel - A "Gormenghast" Groan

It’s been eating at me for a while now, this great shame of mine. I thought I was tough – one of the toughest, but I’ve been confronted with an adversary I just can’t overcome. I’m not normally a quitter, but this is just too much. It’s time to throw in the towel. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” novels have gotten the best of me.
Now, I don’t admit defeat easily. In fact, up until now, I’ve never failed to finish a book. Oh sure, I’ve been known to take breaks in the middle of books sometimes when they were bogging me down: half-way through Homer’s “Iliad”, after what seemed like the hundredth roll call of the names of each of the six hundred zillion warriors trudging out to the field of battle for another day’s slaughter, I grew a little weary and put the epic down for a month or so. Not that I’m saying that it was a bad story, far from it, rather that the endless name-dropping interfered with the pacing a bit. But I picked it back up and finished it with relish. When I was a teen and blown away by Herbert’s “Dune” after reading it for the first time, I was so enthralled that I went out and bought all the other books in the series and tried to go through them all back-to-back. Bad idea. “Dune” was great. “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune” were good. The back three, though, were an exercise in suffering. So much so that I halted in the middle of “God Emperor of Dune” for several months and went on to other things before resuming. But I picked it back up and finished the series eventually. And those are the good ones. As an English major back in university, I had to slog through a fair amount of insufferably dull stuff as a rite of passage. I mean, if you’re ever looking for a cure for insomnia, having to plod through Mary Anne Evans’ “Middlemarch” is a pretty good start. I did manage to get through it though.
But “Gormenghast”, oh “Gormenghast”, that’s a whole other kind of beast. The first installment, “Titus Groan”, drags on for endless pages about the utter dank entropy of the great slouching hulk of a castle/fortress/uber-basement and the mouldering grotesques within. It drags us on an unending tour to meet this cast of wretches (like a carnival boat-ride tunnel of terror that you can’t climb out of) as they find out about the birth of a new baby and react to the news and the intrusion of other characters into their routines.
Sixty pages in, I’d had enough. I could take no more of this immense ode to decrepitude. I threw the book down in disgust and grabbed something, anything else off the shelf.
That was about eight months ago.
Since then, I’ve tried to pick the sucker up again a couple of times, but with no success. I’ve tried to keep an open mind (“Maybe it’ll get better in a couple of paragraphs. All I have to do is keep on plugging!” ) – I mean, after all, I like all kinds of SF and other types of literature, and a wide variety of narrative styles; I should be able to adapt to this presentation. But it only takes a page or two before I start to feel like I’m being mummified at the bottom of a peat bog.
I don’t think I can do it again. I fear I have met my match.
There are some who would say on a purely mechanical basis of reading that this is enough justification to put the book down. Some have a “100 pages rule” where if they’re not interested in the story by the time they hit that benchmark, it gets put down. Some have a similar 1/3 rule. Others are even more mercenary, pointing out that if a person has a backlog of other reading material which could in all likelihood be better, it’s okay to turn one’s back on a book at any point where one feels unreasonably overwhelmed with boredom. All of these approaches agree on a central premise: why waste time with something you don’t appreciate it, like it and are not getting anything out of it.
Nonetheless, the idea of retreat still annoys me to no end. Part of it is ego – I don’t like to admit failure when it comes to a book. Part of it is fear – I worry my literary spider-senses are getting near-sighted and that I’m missing something terribly profound that would be the key to understanding and enjoying this sprawling tome. And part of it is respect for the canon – how many respected elders have called this book brilliant? How many have raved on and on about the detail of Peake’s world-building or characterization? And what does that say about me as an SF critic if I am found wanting in my ability to wrestle my way through a classic of the genre, no matter how big and boring?
But the obeisance to canon argument is fraught with peril, because a person’s opinion isn’t worth much if they’re always following the pack, especially if the commonly-held opinion is flawed or flat-out wrong. It also demands that an individual’s literary preferences (no matter how heartfelt or rationally justified) kowtow to the dictates of some elite that were themselves based upon an individual preference. I’m not saying that a canon doesn’t have a purpose as a starting point for discussion, but to give it status as an absolute authority on quality is unwarranted hubris. We have to be wary of the canon, because it’s this kind of establishment snobbery that’s unjustly relegated SF to the literary ghetto for decades.
Which brings me back to my original position, which is that in my opinion, “Titus Groan” is so insufferably boring that it’s not worth finishing.
But my guilt still makes me reluctant to toss this omnibus onto the donation pile.
Help me out here folks. Please.
Tell me if I should be giving the “Gormenghast” novels a reprieve. Tell me what I’m missing. Tell me if it’s worthwhile to persevere. Tell me if there’s a wondrous new land waiting to be discovered beyond this ghastly mountain range of literary drudgery that’s reared out of the opening chapters. Or am I right to pass this pulp wad on to someone else who might enjoy it?