Category: neil gaiman

Bury the Lead

Last Vegas: written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Jon Turteltaub; starring Michael Douglas (Billy), Robert De Niro (Paddy), Morgan Freeman (Archie), Kevin Kline (Sam), and Mary Steenburgen (Diana) (2013): Relatively enjoyable, fairly tame senior-citizens’ version of The Hangover gets aided by its top-notch cast. A number of scenes play like ads for Las Vegas, LMFAO, and Red Bull (to name three of the most blatant). Coming off cancer surgery, Michael Douglas looks haggard and about a decade older than everyone else in the cast. Lightly recommended.

Stardust: adapted by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman from the novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess; directed by Matthew Vaughn; starring Charlie Cox (Tristan), Claire Danes (Yvaine), Mark Strong (Septimus), Michelle Pfeiffer (Lamia), Robert De Niro (Captain Shakespeare), and Kate Magowan (Una) (2007): Somewhat loose adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel originally and heavily illustrated by the great Charles Vess is a real charmer for those people looking for something to watch after watching The Princess Bride for the fiftieth time.

The cast is strong, and given enough decent lines and character bits to keep everything percolating in what may be a slightly too-long film. Michelle Pfeiffer is terrific as the arch-witch Lamia. Several transition scenes involving walking and riding are photographed pretty much exactly as these things are done in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies, possibly in the hopes of tricking some people into thinking they’re at a Lord of the Rings movie. The score also comes pretty close to Horner’s LOTR score at points. I do wonder whether these things were done at studio insistence — certainly the majority of the movie is lighter and cleverer than Jackson’s Middle Earth. Recommended.

The Fisher King: written by Richard LaGravenese; directed by Terry Gilliam; starring Jeff Bridges (Jack), Mercedes Ruehl (Anne), Robin Williams (Parry), Amanda Plummer (Lydia), Michael Jeter (Unnamed), Tom Waits (Uncredited) (1991): Gilliam and LaGravenese’s urban fantasy offers a sometimes sarcastic love letter to New York. Bridges, Ruehl, Williams, and Plummer all do terrific work, though only Ruehl (deservedly) won an Oscar.

Seen now, The Fisher King is a document of a much dirtier New York, one that hadn’t yet had Times Square turned into a food court at Disneyland. Williams manages to modulate manic and melancholy as he did in few other movies, and Bridges is his usual Jeff Bridges self, making the acting appear too effortless and invisible for him to be recognized for how good it always is. He’s probably the perfect fit for the role of a vain, self-centred, but potentially decent talk-radio shock-jock: he may be handsome, but he’s not afraid to look awful in a variety of ways.

This is probably Gilliam’s biggest commercial success (along with 12 Monkeys). He tones down his weirdness without ever losing it — his vision of New York suggests the medieval at the right points, and not the shiny medieval, but the crap-covered ground-level world we laughed at in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It isn’t Gilliam’s best film, but it’s certainly his sunniest. Highly recommended.

Stephen Leacock, Sherlock Holmes, Boobies

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: edited by John Joseph Adams (2009), containing the following stories:

The Doctor’s Case (1987) by Stephen King;
The Horror of the Many Faces (2003) by Tim Lebbon;
The Case of the Bloodless Sock  (2001) by Anne Perry;
The Adventure of the Other Detective  (2001) by Bradley H. Sinor;
A Scandal in Montreal (2008) by Edward D. Hoch;
The Adventure of the Field Theorems (1995) by Vonda N. McIntyre;
The Adventure of the Death-Fetch (1994) by Darrell Schweitzer;
The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland (2005) by Mary Robinette Kowal;
The Adventure of the Mummy’s Curse (2006) by H. Paul Jeffers;
The Things That Shall Come Upon Them (2008) by Barbara Roden;
Murder to Music (1989)   by Anthony Burgess;
The Adventure of the Inertial Adjustor  (1997) by Stephen Baxter;
Mrs Hudson’s Case (1997) by Laurie R. King;
The Singular Habits of Wasps (1994) by Geoffrey A. Landis;
The Affair of the 46th Birthday (2008) by Amy Myers;
The Specter of Tullyfane Abbey (2001) by Peter Tremayne;
The Vale of the White Horse (2003) by Sharyn McCrumb;
The Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger (1995) by Michael Moorcock;
The Adventure of the Lost World (2004) by Dominic Green;
The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Niece (2003) by Barbara Hambly;
Dynamics of a Hanging (2005) by Tony Pi;
Merridew of Abominable Memory (2008)  by Chris Roberson;
Commonplaces (2008) by Naomi Novik;
The Adventure of the Pirates of Devil’s Cape (2008) by Rob Rogers;
The Adventure of the Green Skull (2008) by Mark Valentine;
The Human Mystery (1999) by Tanith Lee;
A Study in Emerald (2003) by Neil Gaiman;
You See But You Do Not Observe (1995) by Robert J. Sawyer.

Hugely entertaining and lengthy anthology, mostly consisting of reprints, of Sherlock Holmes stories from the two decades previous to the anthology’s publication. Many of the stories involve either science fiction or the supernatural, hence the ‘improbable’ part of the title. That itself riffs on Holmes’ famous quotation, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth.”

Some stories expand upon brief mentions of unchronicled cases in the original Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle (“Merridew of Abominable Memory” by Chris Roberson and “The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland” by Mary Robinette Kowal both reference the original mention in their titles). Others pit Holmes against the supernatural (“The Horror of the Many Faces” by Tim Lebbon, “The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Niece” by Barbara Hambly, and “A Study in Emerald” (2003) by Neil Gaiman memorably riff on H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic horror).

Writers also bounce Holmes off the works and characters of other writers (“The Things That Shall Come Upon Them” by Barbara Roden puts Holmes into a sequel of sorts to the classic M.R. James ghost story “Casting the Runes”) or Doyle’s own non-Holmesian works (“The Adventure of the Lost World” (2004) by Dominic Green). Mrs. Hudson and Doctor Watson get chances to solve crimes before Holmes does. Alternate worlds and science-fictional devices appear. Conan Doyle himself appears as a character. Holmes’ childhood and college years are speculated upon, as is his family history. He even teams up with Stephen Leacock! In Canada!

There are a few duds here, but very few. One doesn’t need to be a Holmes expert to enjoy the stories, and a concise history of Holmes included in the volume will aid those with too little knowledge of the World’s First Consulting Detective. Highly recommended.

The Witchcraft Reader: edited by Peter Haining (1969) containing the following stories: Timothy (1966) by Keith Roberts; The Witch (1943) by A. E. van Vogt; The Warlock (1960) by Fritz Leiber; All the Devils in Hell  (1960) by John Brunner; From Shadowed Places (1960) by Richard Matheson; One Foot and the Grave (1949) by Theodore Sturgeon; Broomstick Ride (1957) by Robert Bloch; The Mad Wizards of Mars (1949) by Ray Bradbury.

Another of the voluminous Haining’s fascinating anthologies. At his peak, he seemed to be releasing one of these a week. OK, he wasn’t THAT prolific. Still, his selections are often immensely valuable because they’re often way, way off the beaten path for this sort of thing.

The best character study here is John Brunner’s  “All the Devils in Hell .” It’s a marvelous exploration of a man in conflict with occult powers that ultimately can be opposed. Fritz Leiber’s story puts a modern spin on witchcraft, while Robert Bloch’s story deals with ancient witchcraft during a future era of interstellar travel. It’s a solid little anthology. Also, there are naked boobies on the cover of the paperback. Huzzah! Recommended.

A Game of Hellboy

Hellboy: Masks and Monsters: written by Mike Mignola and James Robinson; illustrated by Mike Mignola, Scott Benefiel, and Jasen Rodriguez (Collected 2009): Short volume collects two Hellboy miniseries team-ups with three other characters — DC’s Batman and Starman in one adventure and Dark Horse’s own Ghost in the other.

A good time is pretty much had by all. Though I’m not familiar with Ghost — a two-gunned female ghost fighting crime — Hellboy’s adventure with her makes a certain amount of sense given their supernatural backgrounds. Mignola’s script presents an interesting mix of mythology and the mundane as organized crime gets mixed up with ancient gods who want Hellboy’s giant hand for something nefarious. The art by Scott Benefiel, from Mignola’s layouts, is fairly smooth, though perhaps a bit too representational for Mignola’s blocky, occasionally impressionistic Hellboy.

The Starman/Batman team-up, plotted by Mignola and scripted by Starman’s James Robinson, is really serious fun, with Mignola handling the art. Batman and Hellboy team up to fight magical Aryan Nation types in Gotham. With Batman temporaily sidelined by a re-appearance of the Joker, it’s then up to Hellboy and second-generation Starman Jack Knight to rescue the Golden-Age Starman (who’s also Jack’s father Ted Knight) from a Nazi base in South America. There, the Nazis have supernaturally coerced Ted into helping them bring a very large, evil God back to Earth.

Oh, Nazis! Mignola’s Batman is shadowy and bulky, while his Starman is quite a change from the more representational art generally seen in Jack Knight’s own title. The whole volume goes down nicely, and is also an enjoyable break from the increasingly labyrinthine continuity of Hellboy’s own adventures. Recommended.

The Sandman Volume 5: A Game of You: written by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, George Pratt, Stan Woch, Dick Giordano, and Bryan Talbot (1991-92): The fifth volume of Gaiman’s now twenty-year-old+ Sandman adventures presents a mostly self-contained tale concerned with gender, identity, race, and childhood dreams. Minor characters from previous story arcs do reappear here, along with the Lord of Dreams and his attendant (wise)-talking raven Matthew.

The six issues focus on one minor character from an earlier story arc, Barbie, whose previous encounter with the world of the Dreaming destabilized her marriage to Ken (!), along with her own carefully constructed self-image, and sent her to New York to figure out who she is. That previous interaction with the world of Dreams also had an unintended consequence. She’s stopped dreaming.

However, somewhere in dreams, a ragtag group of talking and sometimes imaginary animals continue to search for the vanished Princess Barbara, who is the only person who can defeat the all-devouring Cuckoo and its conquering hordes. But she’s going to need the help of her neighbours — the lesbian couple Hazel and Foxglove, the transvestite Wanda, and the mysterious Thessaly — to negotiate an increasingly unstable fantasy world.

The real world and the dream world are, of course, connected, in both obvious and less-than-obvious ways. Things do not necessarily go well for everyone involved in this adventure, with its echoes of Narnia and Tolkien and The Wizard of Oz‘s game-changing tornado. We also learn an awful lot about the life-cycle of the cuckoo bird. Why did someone put these awful things in clocks to begin with? Recommended.

Fox Hunt

Sandman: The Dream Hunters: written by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano (1999): For the tenth anniversary of the first issue of his critically and commercially gigantic Sandman comic-book series (which ended its run in 1995), writer Neil Gaiman wrote a novella set in the Sandman universe and illustrated by acclaimed Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano. It’s not a comic book, but rather an illustrated story, as Amano wasn’t comfortable trying to draw a comic book.

We see several familiar characters again, chief among them Morpheus, also known as Dream, one of the seven Endless in Gaiman’s comic book (the others being, circa 1989, Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium, the last once having been Delight before something changed).

Set in medieval Japan, The Dream Hunters ostensibly retells a Japanese folk tale. Gaiman’s afterword in which he somewhat puckishly and straight-facedly describes this (imaginary) folk tale led a lot of people to believe there really was a folk tale to begin with. There wasn’t. That thinly veiled versions of DC Comics’ Cain and Abel make an appearance, along with the Dream King’s raven, possibly should have tipped people off.

The story begins with a bet between a fox and a badger about who can force a young Monk to abandon his lonely mountain-side shrine so that either the fox or the badger can live there. As foxes and badgers have considerable abilities in the realms of shape-changing and illusion, this is a bet it seems one or the other must win. But things don’t go the way either plans.

It’s a very enjoyable story, and Amano’s illustrations offer a new look at Gaiman’s Lord of Dreams and his kingdom. I do think that Gaiman is a better comic-book writer than a writer of prose, however, and P. Craig Russell’s comic-book adaptation of this novella, from 2009, is superior to this work. In either case, one doesn’t have to know the backstory of Sandman to enjoy the book. Recommended.