Friday, January 25, 2008

Ghost Hunters International

Ghost Hunters International
Sci Fi Channel Wednesdays 9:00 EST
starring: Robb Demarest, Andy Andrews, Brian Harnois, Donna LaCroix, Barry Fitzgerald, Shannon Sylvia.

I’m starting this one off with another confession. I kind of believe in ghosts. There. I said it. It should come as no surprise. I grew up in the buckle of the bible belt, where every misfortune and unexplained event was regarded as evidence of demonic activity, especially after the Frank Peretti books became popular (that man has a lot to answer for). We all said we didn’t believe in ghosts, per se, but … we really did, at least a little. These days I can admit it. I don’t believe in them as much as some people do. I like to think of it as keeping an open mind, but yeah … I believe, at least a little. But it’s probably only because I really, really hope it’s all true.

So, recently my wife and I have become addicted to Sci Fi’s paranormal reality series, Ghost Hunters. Yeah, I know. It’s just always been a bit of goofy fun. We particularly enjoy figuring out the real-world causes for the “hauntings” before the investigators do. And on those rare occasions when they do find actual paranormal activity? Awesome! Yes, I kno it could all easily be faked. But if you’re going to enjoy a show like this, you just have to go along with the fantasy. Otherwise, what’s the point? Please know that I in no way see this is a serious documentary show. It’s just for fun.

Apparently getting a good response from those episodes of Ghost Hunters that went to Europe, Sci Fi commissioned this spin-off series, wherein a team of investigators made up of some veterans, some friends, and at least one newbie go to Europe to investigate ancient haunted places.

What works: The European setting brings a new epic, mythic feel to the proceedings that just is not possible in the U.S. The teams walks through castles and plazas and monasteries haunted by history, let alone by ghosts. That’s this spin-off’s strongest advantage over its parent show. Here, we’re looking for victims of the plague, of bloody torture, or religious persecutions and actual dead kings, not just 70’s suicide victims, civil war soldiers, and cowboys (not that those aren’t cool too). From a story perspective, this is gold. Looking for a ghost in an actual medieval torture chamber (with most of the equipment still intact)? Classic.

What doesn’t work: This show lacks the primary strength of Ghost Hunters, and that’s the presence of lead investigators Jason and Grant, as well as Tech Manager Steve. In their place, we have Robb, apparently a veteran who’s worked in the Paranormal Society’s Florida branch; Andy, a veteran of the US team; and Brian, Steve’s right-hand man in the tech department. Grant and Jason bring a friendly, skeptical, jokey vibe to the proceedings and have a parental chemistry with their team that is the result of a long bond. That atmosphere is completely absent here. Robb and Andy are all right as investigators, but clearly do not have that bond, and the gentle humor is almost completel absent. Brian continues his role as lovable doofus of the group. Everyone needs one of those, but without his mentors, its hard to take him seriously as an investigator or as any kind of authority figure.

Donna, US case manager, is here too, and she is fine, I guess, but fails to impress as she’s always been one of the more gullible team members and without Jason and Grant to hold her back, just gets more shrill here. Then we have new members Barry and Shannon. Barry actually appeared in the Ireland episodes of the original show, and there seemed just a little too invested in finding evidence of the paranormal, having a tendency toward the overly dramatic. This is even worse here. At any moment he may stroke his beard (not a euphemism!) and whisper “there’s an evil presence in this room.” And Shannon … sigh. Her storyline seems to be that she’s the inexperienced one who is getting stronger over time. That can’t come fast enough for me, as she’s usually the first to scream, to be shrill, to sit stooped in a corner with the night-vision camera turning her eyes into wide silver disks, raccoon-like. I honestly don’t know why she’s there.

Bottom line: It’s a lot of fun, still and the locations are wonderful. The team needs a lot to be desired. It would have been better to do an International Season of Ghost Hunters with the original team intact (yes, I know Steve won’t fly so we would have been relying on Brian anyway). So it’s good enough for what it is but I can’t wait for Jason and Grant to be back with new episodes of the original in March.

Anyone want to join me in forming PAPS: Pacific Alliance for Paranormal Studies? Seriously, email me. I’ll bring my digital video recorder and laptop, you bring the EMF detector and the motion-activated camera. There’s a spooky barn on the road back to my house that I think needs to be checked out.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Paramount Pictures
Directed by Matt Reeved
Written by Drew Goddard
starring: Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller

First, a confession. I was geeked out to see this movie in a way I have not been about any movie since Joss Whedon’s Firefly follow-up, Serenity. It’s important that you know that so you know how many grains of salt with which you’ll need to take the rest of this review. This is actually the first movie I’ve ever gone to see in the theaters by myself, since my wife refuses to see horror movies and everyone else I know was busy during the time I had to go (I decided that taking my daughter out of school or subjecting my five-year-old to this was just not a good idea. I’m devoted to the idea of passing the geekery down to the next generation but even I have my limits). So, there I was, opening day, noon showing. There were a lot of people in line at the box office, including a field trip from some sort of group home, but most of them turned out to be in line to see 27 Dresses (I know!) It was just me and some older couple in theater 9 to see Cloverfield. I was in front of them, so it was almost like a private showing.

So, was it worth it? After all the online build-up, the viral marketing campaign, the title-less trailer in front of Transformers (I know!) featuring the decapitated head of the statue of liberty … did it live up to all of it in a way that other recent internet phenomena have not (looking at you … Snakes on a Plane)? For me? Absolutely. In fact, I loved this movie in a way I have not loved a movie since Serenity. It’s not perfect, by any means. In fact, its almost imperfect enough to be perfect, for the experience it provides. But I’ll get to the flaws later.

What Works: This film is shot, and presented to the audience, as if it is footage found by the military at the sight of a disaster. And it really does look like a videotape you’ve popped into your VCR. There are snippets of old footage interspersed with the new, a couple newly in love sharing one perfect day, but the bulk of the movie starts at a party being thrown for the guy in the couple who’s going away to take a job in Japan. He’s also blown it, big-time, with the girl of his dreams. This just happens to be going on the same night what can only be described as a GIANT FUCKING MONSTER attacks New York City. We follow these characters as they try to survive the attack, first attempting to get out of the city, then heading back to the disaster to save someone. It does not turn out well. Do not get attached to any of these characters.

What I really liked about this film was how it presented the events from the perspective of the normal people caught up in them. Another movie would have given us, Independence Day style, the broad picture, characters ranging from Scientists to soldiers, probably the nuke-ordering president, a couple of civilians in New York (most likely family or love interests of the other main characters) telling this story from beginning to end, finding out what the monster was as how it could be defeated, eventually someone coming in at the last minute, finding an ingenious device to kill the monster before the entire northeastern seaboard has to be destroyed. And that movie would have been fine, I guess. Depending on the writing and the performances, it could have been fantastic. It would also have been tired. If there is one that this movie isn’t, is tired.

The device, some would say conceit, of the camcorder puts the viewer right there in the middle of the action, living, dying, running, screaming. I felt like I had survived the monster attack myself (actually, survive is too strong a word). Another thing that works is the monster itself. We do eventually get a very good look at it, but for most of the movie is it glimpsed through dust, around corners, it is felt more than it is seen, which makes it scarier. It gets no less scarier when you do actually see it. And yes, as you make have heard, the camera work is a little sick-making at first. But unless you are especially prone to motion sickness, you will get used to it.

What doesn’t work: Horror movies aren’t really great at creating really compelling characters, and this one is no different. These people are fodder, and there are attempts at depth that fall flat somehow. Still, there is enough there that you do end up caring about these people and what happens to them. It’s saved by some of the performances, especially Lizzy Caplan as Marlena and Michael Stahl-David as “main character” Rob. There also some logical problems. We’re never shown that the Monster is that incredibly fast-moving, but it goes from decapitating the statue of liberty to stomping mid-town Manhattan is about twelve seconds. (I guess you could say it was just kicking it around, but still…) And whoever manufactures this video camera should use this film as an advertisement because this thing provides a great picture and extremely loooong battery life despite being kicked, dropped, rolled over, monster-stomped, and crashed in a helicopter. This product is highly recommended.

Bottom Line: People are either going to love or hate this movie. I loved it. The older couple behind me hated it. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and that’s going to make a lot of people leave the theater unsatisfied. But the ending is not the point. The experience was the point. And I had a great experience watching this movie.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles

Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles
starring: Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau, Richard T. Jones
Fox Mondays 9:00 est.
I wasn’t expecting to like Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles as much as I did. In fact, when I first started hearing about this project, months ago, I had almost zero interest. It felt like a step backward for the series, and in many ways it still is, but it’s a step backward that makes sense. For once.

This series takes place between the movies Terminator 2 and Terminator 3, and its events effectively wipe Terminator 3 from the record, either ignoring it completely or making it so those events never take place. This suits me just fine, as I’d never seen T3, so it significantly flattened my learning curve. It is, in short, the story of Sarah and John Conner running from killer robots, protected by a defender sent back from John’s future as the leader of humanity against the machine race. Sounds a lot like T2, and it is, but there’s a key difference. Now that the T-101 is governing California, the future needs a new defender, and here the producers make a really interesting choice.

Knowing any “buff-guy” type is going to live forever in Schwarzenegger’s shadow, they replaced him with former Ballerina and Firefly psychic commando Summer Glau. Glau’s casting is inspired. She’d already proven her action-hero chops in Joss Whedon’s Serenity, so whether or not she could handle the action sequences was never in doubt. But while her River Tam was a wreck of brilliant tics and undulations, she could summon a stiff coldness and directness of purpose that Glau brings back here in her Cameron. It works really well, and not just because “hey, it’s a pretty little girl who can kick ass” because I would hope, as a culture, that we are past that now, but because no one questions it.

With Glau and Lena Headey, as Sarah Conner, as the characters protecting a teenage boy acting as the “damsel in distress” in most situations, it could easily be a self-conscious “girl power” statement, which would be just fine. But the fact that its not presented that way, that it’s just that these two characters happen to be women and no one, absolutely no one, in at least the first two episodes, questions their credentials to do so, is completely refreshing.

I also love Headey’s Sarah Conner. She’s significantly less buffed-out than Linda Hamilton in T2, but that doesn’t make her less tough. It’s a quieter strength she brings to bear hear, born of hope and passion, a passion to make the world a better place than she knows it is otherwise going to be. The fact that she knows she’s coming off as a paranoid schizophrenic, and that any ping they make on the system of the world can bring down Armageddon, makes her more than a little bit guarded. But she’s not cold.

Thomas Dekker, center of the gay-not gay Heroes’ Zack controversy steps in for Edward Furlongas fifteen-year-old John Conner, the future savior of humanity. He and Headey have great chemistry together, and he walks a fine line between petulant teenager and heroic young man in a way that completely fits that part. There’s not much else to say about him, as Headey bears most of the first two episodes’ emotional weight.

Bottom Line: Much better than it should be, and a welcome addition to the schedule especially in the Strike Era. I have a few logistics/plot hole problems (no i.d.'s, but they have cel phones already?), but for right now, I’m in. I’ve always a sucker for a band of plucky rebels.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
by Michael Chabon
Harper Collins
There’s a certain moment in some books, a moment when you’re reading along, perfectly content with the story, interested in what happens next, enjoying the language, and then … something happens. A moment, a scene that lets you know that you’re not reading the book you thought you were reading, there is more going on here, not just in the plot, but in the atmosphere, there are metaphysical gears clicking into place around the space the reader occupies in the story and you know the author is definitely up to something.

And it’s glorious.

In Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union that moment comes in chapter 14, about 120 pages in. Up until this point the book is totally fine, brilliant in places, beautiful in the rest, but in chapter fourteen as an elderly Yiddish boundary maven narrates the story of his child chess prodigy and the way he helped a certain woman in his life, the author brings in such larger things that you definitely know Michael Chabon is up to something. And the book transcends.

It’s not like there’s not already a lot going on. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is, on the surface, a murder mystery set in an alternate history venue. Branching off from history during the middle of World War 2, a certain congressman is run over by a car and killed. This congressman is notable in our history for being the primary legislator responsible for killing a bill that would have allowed Jewish settlers fleeing the holocaust to settle in the panhandle region around the city of Sitka, Alaska. In our world, of course, this did not happen. But in this one, it did, and a great many things have changed.

Chabon is not, however, out to give us a review of the intervening sixty years of History. This story is set in the modern day, a day in which the Jewish region is set to revert back to Alaskan hands. There is notstate of Israel, and the Jewish people are once again about to be set free into the world, with no place to go, and not many prospects. A lucky few will be allowed to remain, but for our main characters, their fate is far from certain.

And in this world a man is murdered. The simplest of tragedies weighed against the rest. But like all meaningful things in life, it is connected to the others in ways no one can imagine. Because living in his building is a certain detective, a broken man, weary from the many mistakes he’s made in his life, the people he’s pushed away, the lost loves and lost chances, and this case may – just may -- be his last shot at redemption.

I will say no more about the plot because the reader should have their own chapter fourteen moment, as I did. Let’s just say Chabon, already a Pulitzer prize winner (and one of my favorite novelists of all time) for his 2001 book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, is up to something. He’s using the tropes of the 40’s detective novels to do it. The language is more spare than his earlier works, written is present tense, the sentences clipped and sometimes terse, but buried within them are metaphor and wonder and the choppier rhythm begins to mimic the waves outside Sitka, the waves the lost jews will soon have to ride in order to find new lives.

I will give one warning. This is a murder mystery and in the end we know the truth about that crime. But the ending may not provide the proper sense of closure some readers may demand. Most of the key issued are resolved, but for many of the characters we have come to love, things have not been tied up with a bright, shiny bow. The future remains an open, uncertain thing, even if some have learned how they might begin to get through whatever is coming next.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier

by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

DC Comics/Wildstorm/America's Best Comics

$29.99 Hardcover

I was a big fan of Alan Moore’s first two League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. The idea of taking various 1890’s British adventure heroes (Alan Quatermain from the H. Ryder Haggard novels, Mina Murray from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man) and putting them together into what amounts to a turn of the century Justice League had obvious appeal. And like the Harry Potter series, its obstinate British-ness was a large part of the appeal. When, at the end of the second series, the team split up (well, two of them died, Hyde heroically and the Invisble Man … less heroically, is all I’ll say) it seemed like Moore might be done with the concept.

Except he said that he wasn’t. What followed in the real world was an acrimonious split with the publisher DC Comics over the Wachowskie’s V for Vendetta movie. That really seemed like the nail in the coffin. Work had already begun on this current volume and it was under contract, so it continued and was released as the last of Moore’s DC/America’s Best Comics works. Unlike the previous volumes, this one is not the collection of a mini-series. This is a stand-alone graphic novel

Art: I can’t say enough about Kevin O’Neill’s meticulous artwork for this volume. Moore has said he would continue this series with no other artist and it’s easy to see why. Its first impression is one of sketchiness, messiness, which fits with the incredibly outsize, bizarre, glorious but undeniably messy world these characters inhabit. But when you really look you can see how clean the artwork is, not a line wasted. It’s the only way O’Neill can fit the vast level of detail, the little throwaway artistic asides that Moore calls for. And he calls for a lot. Every page, nearly every panel, has some little intricacy that can reward the alert, or well-educated reader. I am not always alert and lack the study in British esoterica that is demanded to understand everything here. But O’Neill is the only reason it works at all. Without O’Neill, this thing would be a complete mess.

Story: And a complete mess it is. That’s not fair, actually, there is a pretty clear throughline. The plot, to summarize, is this. Mina Murray and Alan Quatermain Jr. (I’m just going with what’s claimed. It’s pretty obvious who is really is) return to 1950’s Britain to claim the titular Black Dossier that contains all the information British intelligence has of the various Extraordinary teams Murray and Quatermain have belonged to, as well other counterparts assembled by the French, German, and British governments (but not the Americans, which actually surprised me). Along the way, the are pursued by just vague enough to avoid copyright laws versions of James Bond and Emma Peel. These two do not come off well. We are given a much different view of the history of the 20th century, culminating in a version of Orwell’s 1984 coming to pass in the 40’s and Rockets launching people and robots into space in the 50’s. The worldbuilding is brilliant, and the story really just serves as a way to show all of that off. On that level, it worked.

Interspersed with the graphic novel story, are sections of the Black Dossier itself, which includes intelligence reports, an 18th century pornographic novel, a comic strip history of Orlando, and other bizarre jewels. One of my favorites was the beat novel written by Sal Paradise, hero of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road battling (I think) the Triffids. Just go with it.

And that’s actually my advice to enjoy this story. Just go with it. It’s not actually supposed to make sense, actually. In many ways it is Alan Moore at his most obtuse and self-indulgent. If you understand that going you, you’ll enjoy it just fine. I did. I’m not sure it’s the work of staggering genius Moore and his defenders seem to think it is. There’s a lot of sex, and while I’m not offended it becomes tiresome after a while, especially when the Golliwag and his “friends” show up (just go with it).

Bottom line: I liked it. But it would have been elevated by an actual story to go along with all the histrionics and asides. You’ll probably not understand much of it unless you are a Brit of Moore’s generation or have done some serious study. I had to consult Jess Nevin’s comic book annotations to understand most of it. But it’s rewarding for those willing to do the work. I’m just not sure it’s rewarding enough to pay off the man hours involved.

Meet the new Random Avenger

After a long absence, I've decided to start taking this site much more seriously. That means, in possible defiance of its title and purported purpose for being, this site is about to get a lot less random. I will soon be posting actual reviews and critical commentary, not just my random reactions and geeky freak outs (don't worry, I'm sure there'll be plenty of those too). I will also be posting occasional essays about current events in pop culture and maybe even (gack!) politics.

What it will not be is my personal life blog anymore. I have myspace for that (yes, I know everyone says Facebook is cooler, and that's probably true. But all my friends are on myspace. See also: reasons we are also still with ATT wireless).

Coming soon: A reviews of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and even Ghost Hunters International.

Yes, really. I didn't say it would be totally non-random.