Friday, 31 October 2014

Shutting down for November

If you're a long-time reader of our magazine, I'm sure you can guess what I'll be starting tomorrow. Yes, a new novel. And this is going to be my first good one. I'm so confident this time. There are going to be themes, and characters, and descriptions, and all the sorts of things that you might expect to see in a novel by a proper novelist.

So things may be quieter than usual on the blog for the next month, but never fear, there will still be something to read on here: a selection of my Interzone reviews from 2012 and 2013 will appear on Mondays, with reviews from recent issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction probably appearing on Fridays. And we'll have a blog post within the next week or so announcing TQF49.

Have a good month in my absence, and wish me luck!

If you are taking part in the event, here are links to some of the fascinating things I've written about it in the past:

Fifteen tips for completing NaNoWriMo

Thirteen things I learned (or was reminded of) during Nanowrimo 2013

Twelve things I didn’t like about doing Nanowrimo in 2013

Twelve things I liked about doing Nanowrimo in 2013

Back when John and I were the Birmingham MLs, long, long ago, we created a handout for our local writers, with achievements, graphs to fill in, bits of advice, useful websites, etc. We haven’t updated it for a while, but it’s still available to download and print out on our old website.

Someone new seems to be in charge of the Nanowrimo website this year, and the FAQs have been changed to say it's okay for participants to carry on with works-in-progress and co-write their novels. Madness! I think we can safely ignore such nonsense!

The challenge, as it still (at least for now) says on the front page of the website, is to "Write a novel in a month!" Not half a novel, or the beginning of a novel, or the middle of a novel, or the end of a novel, but a novel. A 50,000-word novel in a month, start to finish. Writing any old 50,000 words isn't the same thing.

Writing a novel in a month is a goal with cachet, something non-participants understand clearly as a worthwhile thing to do. Being challenged to do it licenses us to be selfish for a month. To stop doing the dishes, or overtime, or being an good friend, or an attentive spouse, or a top-notch parent. Being challenged to write any old 50,000 words doesn't give people the same licence.

Anyway, that's what I reckon. Bye!

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Ask Theaker's!

Is there anything you've ever wanted to ask the TQF staff? Why are we so mean to Howard Phillips? Is John Greenwood really a pseudonym? How ashamed are we of the cover art of issue 21? Now's your chance! In issue 50 we'd like to answer all your questions, about anything you like! And our answers will be honest. Or funny. To us, anyway.

Click here to submit your questions.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Theaker’s Fab Five: October 2014

My Panasonic five-CD changer stereo is still going strong, though I don’t use it as much as I used to since getting an iPod. Some of my recent purchases are still in their shrinkwrap, thanks to Amazon auto-rip. I still love my stereo, though – there are times when the iPod is out of power, and I just want to set a few albums going with a single button press, and not have iTunes grinding away at my PC’s innards. Last week my iPod got into a muddle after I duplicated a playlist and it made all the music on the thing invisible. Needs a reset but I can’t be bothered. So back to the stereo, and that means a new blog post. Here’s what’s in those five slots right now.

1. Syro by Aphex Twin

If you were to put an individual track on from this and ask me which Aphex Twin album it was from, I’d have no idea. But I’ve never listened to his music as albums, and I couldn’t tell you the names of more than half a dozen tracks. I just treat it all like one big album. Listening to this as a CD for the first time, it’s very similar to the Analord EPs I love so much: they’re pretty much my idea of perfect music. It’s what I imagined acid house would be like before I actually heard it. This won’t stay in my CD changer long, though, because of a bit of swearing. Tut, tut!

2. Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey

The same thing applies to this one: quite a few naughty words, so I can’t have it popping up in the rotation when the children are doing homework in my study! I only got interested in Lana Del Rey recently, I think because of all the chat about the possible return of Twin Peaks, and David Lynch seems to be a big influence on her music – it just clicked. The Lana Del Rey persona feels like she stepped out of a movie, or a novel, perhaps by Philip K. Dick. Maybe this will become a favourite album, even if it’s a bit too creepy for everyday listening, or maybe it’ll end up filed with the fads. (I can’t even imagine the thinking process that once led me to buy albums by Dido or Blink 182!) But right now I’m really into it. I love the wooziness, the character, the melancholy, the odd tempos and structures. Feels drunk and high, like an album made after most people are in bed. (That weird pattern on the CD in the photo seems to be the reflection of a bookcase.)

3. Lost Sirens by New Order

My first reaction to this – eight songs that were originally planned to form part of their next album proper – was that it’s woeful. The lyrics aren’t great (“You’re one of a kind, high on my agenda”). The music is a bit MOR. And I still think that, but it’s growing on me. I’ve caught myself singing bits of it while doing the dishes. And at eight songs it has as many tracks as some of their proper albums. I’m not one of those people who ever wishes their favourite artists would just stop releasing records. Even a sub-par album can produce a great track – I doubt I’ve listened to Get Ready more than a dozen times, but “Crystal” is one of my favourite songs ever. Tentatively looking forward to their next record – Hooky’s left, but Gillian will be back, and they said in Mojo a while back that they had been looking again at Power, Corruption and Lies, which is my favourite studio album of theirs. I liked them best when they were being weird and cool, the tracks that were about noises and moods rather than verses and choruses.

4. The Virgin Years: 1974–1978, Disc 1, by Tangerine Dream

It was late at night, I had internet access because I had been doing an online thing for work, and I’d been listening to Phaedra by Tangerine Dream and been surprised by how good it was. I noticed two Tangerine Dream compilations on Amazon, The Virgin Years: 1974-1978 and The Virgin Years: 1977–1983, compressing all their albums from that time onto eight CDs, for about twenty quid in total. I’m a sucker for omnibus editions, so now I own far more Tangerine Dream albums than I really need to. Some of the later stuff sounds (at first listen, at least) to be abysmal, but this first CD is Phaedra plus side one of Rubycon, and it’s very good. I like space music. (And I reserve the right to change my mind about the later stuff once I’ve given it a better listen.)

5. Indie Cindy by Pixies

One of only a handful of albums I’ve reviewed for our magazine, I like it no less now than when I wrote the review. Super stuff. Black Francis never stopped writing great songs, and I never stopped buying his records (Teenager of the Year, Fast Man Raider Man and The Golem are all excellent), but songs on albums like Bluefinger and Petit Fours felt like they had been written for the Pixies, and I’m so glad they finally got it together. Just wish it had come in a proper jewel case. And it feels odd that “What Goes Boom” is first on the album when it was last on the EP. How can it be both a final track and a first track? It boggles me.

What next?

I’m looking forward to the new album from Public Sector Broadcasting. The War Room EP was great, their album too, and I hoped they might one day apply their dialogue-sampling techniques to old science fiction films. They haven’t quite, but it’s close enough: their new album is about the real-life space race. I think that’s going to be a real treat. But will I be writing about it in the next Theaker’s Fab Five, whenever that may be? Will the five-CD stereo survive another year? Will I ever find anywhere to keep all these bloody CDs? There’s only one way to find out: keep reading our magnificent blog.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Tripods / review by Jacob Edwards

Challenging the rule of three.

When setting out to make The Tripods for BBC TV, producer Richard Bates faced the daunting prospect of having his work judged against two veritable institutions. Firstly, there was the source material: the critically and popularly acclaimed trilogy of books by John Christopher (the SF pen name of prolific author Sam Youd). Secondly, there was Doctor Who, in whose traditional Saturday evening timeslot The Tripods was to be broadcast, and against whose ailing ratings it would be measured as a successful (or otherwise) purveyor of children’s SF drama. Working in Bates’s favour was, of course, the strength of Youd’s post-apocalyptic, historically regressed invasion-cum-resistance adventure narrative, but also a budget of unprecedented splendour and the opportunity to shoot on location across England, Wales and Switzerland. Composer Ken Freeman – who’d previously played keyboards on Jeff Wayne’s musical interpretation of The War of the Worlds – synthesised a classic score full of portent and menace. Veteran Doctor Who director Christopher Barry was brought in to direct. The battle lines were set.
“This was when Richard Bates was making The Tripods. He scrupulously sent advance scripts and asked for comments and thanked me for them, but took no notice.” – Sam Youd, interviewed by Colin Brockhurst in 2009.
Series 1 of The Tripods comprises 13 half-hour episodes (although these appear to have been edited down to 25 minutes for commercial broadcast and, frustratingly, at least some editions of the DVD), and follows The White Mountains, which is the first book of Youd’s trilogy. Screenwriter Alick Rowe clearly set out to closely capture the spirit and much of the detail of the original book, and at first any deviations reflect merely the disparity that necessarily must exist between a written first-person narrative and a more visual depiction of context and conflict. That the adaptation becomes looser as the series progresses can largely be explained (and was, by Bates to Youd) as a different sort of necessity: that of having used up the allotted portion of location work and thus having to extemporise new material for a studio setting. Despite any affront this might have caused to those who read first and watched second, the narrative and its realisation remain compelling. The eponymous tripods are used sparingly, but to good purpose, and where The Tripods overtly broke from Doctor Who’s mould in allocating more of its budget towards realistic settings and effects than towards a high-profile principal and guest cast, nevertheless the acting stands up. The three main characters (Will, Henry and Beanpole) are adolescents, and the actors (John Shackley, Jim Baker and Ceri Seel), though largely inexperienced, were rigorously auditioned – there were 400 applicants for the role of Will – and play well off each other in carrying the story forward. (Many viewers today would be genuinely surprised to learn that none of the three went on to establish an acting career subsequent to The Tripods.) The cliff-hangers are less forced and certainly no less effective than the pantomimic “end of episode” howlers that seemed de rigueur of John Nathan-Turner’s Doctor Who at the time, and perhaps the worst criticism that can be made of the first series of The Tripods is that some of its more extreme moments of character imperilment are, upon resumption, glossed over with little or even no explanation proffered. Notwithstanding such liberties, the production as a whole succeeds admirably in portraying both the subjugation of mankind and the three boys’ at times harrowing quest to find the free men living in the white mountains. The Tripods averaged somewhere in the vicinity of 6.3 million viewers across the 13 episodes of its lustrous debut. A month later Doctor Who returned to Saturday evenings after its dalliance with midweek broadcasts, and in comparison averaged 7.1 million for the season.
“After the reasonably faithful book-replication at the beginning, I was probably bound to find the increasingly wide divergences irritating. My guess was that someone thought he could improve things by following a more orthodox science-fiction path. … I just thought it silly. The second series got so far off my path that I just couldn’t recognise it.” – Sam Youd, ibid.
Series 2 of The Tripods comprises 12 half-hour (or 25-minute) episodes, and ostensibly is based on The City of Gold and Lead – the second book of Youd’s trilogy, in which Will and newcomer Fritz (Robin Hayter) infiltrate one of the tripods’ cities and encounter the beings who have enslaved mankind. The acting remains very good, as do the special effects in fashioning an alien environment that successfully walks a tightrope between the bedazzlingly futuristic and the fuzzy electrobuzz of Plastic Bertrand’s music video for Ça Plane Pour Moi. The story adaptation, however, in the second series comes not from Alick Rowe but rather courtesy of Christopher Penfold, who had made numerous contributions to Space: 1999 and seems to have taken this as some sort of creative licence to senselessly pervert Youd’s original work. With no obvious impetus for doing so, Penfold cuts the casual brutality of the alien masters and pastes it (along with a recurring, fetishist riff) onto privileged macho men guards whose function is inexplicable within the world setting and who present more as a sadistic clique of collaborationists than the docile, mind-controlled slaves of the book. By spurning not just the physical but also the textual gravity of Youd’s scenario, Penfold strips the series of much of its narrative weight, thereby rendering The Tripods in much the same faux dark, yet garish and rather discordant shades that ran through mid-eighties Who. Considered as an unfolding adventure, series two of The Tripods still holds the viewer’s attention, but there are jarring ups and downs, and by the point where Penfold has invested his version of the city of gold and lead with a kitsch synth-sleaze nightclub and a wholly manufactured, manifestly unnecessary second race of alien beings, audience figures were starting to drop, averaging out at 5.1 million across the twelve episodes. This, as it turned out, was more than the next season of Doctor Who would manage (4.8 million), but it was at best a Pyrrhic victory. Michael Grade (then controller of BBC1) had little time for SF that didn’t pull its weight, and so Doctor Who was sent into hiatus, Colin Baker uttering the bitter parting words “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice”. The Tripods was axed altogether, and what had been intended as an Empire Strikes Back-style purgatorial ending that would leave people pining for the third series (“Has it all been for nothing?” Will laments), turned out to be the proverbial it: a most sombre and unsatisfying conclusion indeed.

Never repeated by the BBC, yet fondly remembered and in sufficient demand as to be released 25 years later on DVD, The Tripods remains an engrossing SF adventure drama that will appeal to today’s young adult audience every bit as much as it did to that of the mid-1980s. Though relatively sedate in terms of plot, none of the episodes feel slow-moving. In fact, viewers may well find themselves swept along, watching several instalments at a time and caught up in events until the bad penny drops and suddenly, confoundingly, the adventure is cut short. It is impossible now to say whether the unmade third series would have done justice to The Pool of Fire – the concluding book, in which Will, Henry, Beanpole and Fritz head a last-ditch attack to overthrow the masters and save the Earth from the deadly terraforming that has been planned. It could perhaps have been as rousing and poignant as Youd’s own dénouement. In the wrong hands it could have been a fiasco. Without the act of observation, we’ll never know; but if the series’ cancellation hangs dourly over television history, clouding our appreciation of the BBC, at least in this instance there is a silver lining: very few people who watch The Tripods will be content to finish off where Michael Grade drew his bottom line; many will turn to the novels, and in doing so will come to know Sam Youd’s enthralling trilogy (plus prequel) in its written form, and also, hopefully, the wider canon of his John Christopher output and thence the enduring lure of imaginative and well-crafted science fiction.

DVD release: 23/9/2009 (2|entertain / BBC Worldwide). Original broadcast: 15/9/1984 – 8/12/1984 (Series 1); 7/9/1985 – 23/11/1985 (Series 2).

Friday, 17 October 2014

Star Wars: Maul – Lockdown by Joe Schreiber / review by Jacob Edwards

Blowing the horns of dilemma.

When the first Star Wars prequel, A Phantom Menace, was unveiled with grandiose, heraldic fanfare across cinema screens in 1999, the lightsaber thrum of expectation was always likely to sputter and fizzle. Disappointed, we were, and not just with Jar Jar Binks. There was also Darth Maul: the red-skinned, horned and tattooed, mad-eyed, devil-modelled Sith Lord, whose agility and snarling savagery promised a danger no less than that of the dark, prowling power of Vader, but whose ultimate delivery – standing non compos mentis while an erstwhile-dangling Obi-Wan springs up and out of the reactor shaft, force-grabs Qui-Gon Jinn’s lightsaber, somersaults over Maul’s head and cuts him in half – proved utterly, almost insultingly flaccid. This was someone with the Force aptitude to wield a double-bladed lightsaber and take on two Jedi simultaneously. To die with such ineptness… It was a dramatic let-down, the emotionally hollow like of which could only be achieved by such clumsy scripting as having Obi-Wan Kenobi, rather than allowing Darth Vader to strike him down in A New Hope, instead merely tripping on his own robes and accidentally impaling himself on Vader’s lightsaber. To have Maul dispatched in so undignified a manner was to reduce a martial virtuoso to the level of an extra from Japanese fight-fantasy Monkey, and pratfalling along with him went any aspirations the prequelogy might have harboured to match strokes with the original Star Wars saga.

Vale, Darth Maul: the true phantom menace of the film.

Carrying this perspective fifteen years into the future, the more casual Star Wars fan could be excused for greeting Joe Schreiber’s latest book with a Binksian droop of scepticism and ambivalence. Maul: Lockdown (Century) is set pre-prequelogy and in the main features no familiar characters other than Maul himself, with only fleeting appearances by Jabba the Hutt and a nascent Darth Sidious. The story takes place in a diabolical prison, to which Maul has been sent to track down a spectral arms dealer, and begins with a six-page fight to the death that blends horror motifs with comic book sensibility. These two elements interplay throughout the novel, and as each short chapter unfolds and Schreiber demonstrates himself to be neither squeamish nor overly concerned to remove action scenes from their still-frames (indeed, one particularly casual sequence jump on page 128 sees Maul, who is under a moratorium on Force use, physically grab hold of a Chandra-Fan who just previously had scuttled up a ladder and thus was nowhere near him), those of us whose readership is grounded in the big-screen revelations of 1977 will quickly realise that Schreiber’s manifestation of Star Wars is not the rousing space opera that we signed up for. Sweeping, swashbuckling and fanciful are set aside in favour of confined, gruesome and humourless. In fact, with an amoral protagonist pitted against foes who remain almost entirely unmitigated in their respective evils, Maul: Lockdown could well be repudiated as holding no substantial connection to the Star Wars canon. As the publishing industry continues to spawn its offshoots, George Lucas’s vision seems to be receding into the long time ago and the achingly far away. This is not Star Wars at all. It’s the garbage compactor of A New Hope magnified beyond all proportions and left to its own dark devices.

Divorced from its origins, it’s also rather good.

Maul: Lockdown is built around a seemingly unpromising premise, and is made by both cover and blurb to seem literature-poor and pulpy. Schreiber, however, though unashamedly engaging the comic book action/horror hyperdrive, transcends this red-blurred veneer and delivers a surprisingly substantial payload. His prison setting is far from typical – a Rubik’s penitentiary in space, its design constantly subject to reconfiguration – and the inmates are free to wander the complex, limited only by failsafes implanted in their hearts and an obligation (thus warranted) to return to their cells for televised death matches: grist to the mill for the prison warden and the gambling underworld. This floating pocket of the Star Wars universe is depraved and grotesque yet suitably fleshed out, the dramatis personae falling within a broadly malevolent swathe but given sufficient individuality both to defy stereotype and to foster genuine intrigue. Schreiber writes in a series of vignettes – 76 chapters squeezed into 330 pages; caged restlessness giving way to pent-up release – yet the story builds across three broad acts and the overall pacing conveys something not unlike that hallmark epic quality, manifest throughout A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, that might well be thought lacking in many of the freestanding Star Wars novels, and indeed in the prequelogy arc spanning The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Schreiber also deserves credit for successfully presenting an antihero, allowing the reader to engage with Maul’s ignoble mission while remaining unsympathetic to him within a broader Star Wars context. Maul is relentless, and though his deadly prowess – which is to the fore, even sans any recourse to the Force – does give rise to the unfortunate side-effect of accentuating the limpness of his demise in The Phantom Menace, his developing backstory in Lockdown is at least representative of the formidable figure we see up to that point. The character lacks depth and is inherently odious, but the same could be said of Anakin Skywalker as he goes through his contrived metamorphosis to become Darth Vader. Schreiber’s portrayal of Maul was the more difficult task, and though the reading is not always pleasant, we should take some grim satisfaction that as warden of the dark side he has kept his charge believable and consistent.

Second time around the trilogy bush, that’s more than George Lucas managed.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 50 Magical Stories / review by Stephen Theaker

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: 50 Magical Stories (Archie, ebook, 349pp) provides a cheap, comprehensive introduction to one of Archie’s most famous characters, a peppy teenage witch who, much as she did in the successful television series, usually lives with her aunts, Hilda and Zelda, and their talking cat Salem. Salem is an uncle who tried to conquer the world (or, in other stories, broke off his engagement with the head witch) and felinisation was his punishment. Sabrina is a good-hearted girl, but isn’t above using her powers selfishly. She’s usually an agent of karma (turning chauvinists into pigs, for example), at other times its victim.

One problem with the book is that it zags around from one period to another of the comic without a nod to continuity, which will presumably baffle readers who haven’t had the benefit of reading an overview of the series (like the one in Slings and Arrows). In one strip Sabrina’s aunts are green-skinned hags, in another human-looking and pretty, so dateable they end up double-booked. In one strip Sabrina’s dating Harvey and going to school in Riverdale with Archie, Betty and Veronica, in the next she’s at a monster school, her boyfriend is a vampire, and her best friends are an invisible girl (Cleara!) and a genuinely disconcertingly eyeball-headed girl (Eyeda!). The very first story says Sabrina mustn’t fall in love or she’ll lose all her powers and become human, and in the second she’s smooching Harvey on the sofa.

I’ve read a lot of Archie comics on Comixology over the last couple of years. A lot. For one thing they’re cheap and plentiful, which is how I like my comics. (Compare with DC, who not so long ago had only single issues on Comixology, and Marvel whose Comixology collections are often extremely expensive.) And they are ideally suited to digital reading. The lovely bright colours look wonderful on digital displays, and the simple layouts and square panels work perfectly in Guided View on any device. Almost any given panel of an Archie book looks like a pop art masterpiece when zoomed to fit an iPad screen.

But this Sabrina collection was not my favourite of them, and my daughters didn’t find it as appealing as I expected either (they adored other digital collections such as Betty’s Story Time and The Archie Wedding, and have become much bigger fans of the Josie and the Pussycats movie since realising that it’s part of this comics world). The stories here are readable enough, and there are a lot of them, but Sabrina in these comics just doesn’t have the zip that Melissa Joan Hart gave her on television. She lacks any strong personality traits – unless being able to cast spells counts as one – and she doesn’t face any real challenges in the stories.

If you’re looking for an Archie comic to hook children into reading, go for Betty, Veronica or Jughead instead.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Penny Dreadful, Season 1 / review by Stephen Theaker

Penny Dreadful is a new television take on an old idea: the out-of-copyright crossover. Here we have young Doctor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his monster (a marvellously melodramatic Rory Kinnear); Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), father of Mina; and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney); plus four apparently unfamiliar characters: Josh Hartnett as gunslinger Ethan Chandler; Billie Piper as Brona Croft, the dying prostitute he falls for; Danny Sapani as Murray’s fighting manservant, Sembene; and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, whose prim comportment conceals an ongoing inner battle with the forces of darkness.

The plot of this first series is driven by Murray’s attempts to rescue his daughter Mina from Dracula. The cowboy’s pistols come in handy as they root out vampire nests, and when the fighting is done Doctor Frankenstein performs autopsies on the monster’s bodies. As the series proceeds, there are complications. Dorian Gray works his seductive way through the cast. Frankenstein’s creation demands a bride. Vanessa Ives begins to lose control of her dark passenger, but without its gifts Murray would never find his daughter.

This is a well-made series that I probably wouldn’t have watched to the end were it not for Eva Green’s gob-smacking performance; in control she’s riveting, out of control terrifying. The production values are exceptional, and the special effects terrific, but there is little pay-off on the storylines, too much being held back for a second series that might never have come (though we know now that it will). The vampires are a bit too easy to kill, and seem disinclined to bite; their grand plan is a bit hopeless. Season two will need more compelling antagonists.
Brilliant moments, but not yet a brilliant programme.  ***

Friday, 3 October 2014

Indie Cindy / review by Stephen Theaker

The return of the Pixies with Indie Cindy (PIAS, CD) has not been universally welcomed, coming in for particular scorn from those unhappy that Kim Deal is no longer involved. Her absence is certainly a shame, and there is a space on the album where her backing vocals should be (as there was on Trompe Le Monde), but it’s a bit hard on the remaining members to hit them with that stick. They did wait a decade for her to agree to recording new material, and she only pulled out after the studio was booked and the gear transported to Wales. You can’t blame them for pressing on in those circumstances – and I’m glad they did, because we now have a new Pixies album.

A good test of a new album by a long-established band is whether any of the songs would make it onto a Best Of. Indie Cindy passes that test standing on its head: it’s impossible to imagine a Best of the Pixies without “Greens and Blues”, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Snakes” and “What Goes Boom” on there either. (The latter is surely destined for a long life of soundtracking sporting montages and movie trailers.) An aspect of the band’s success not often mentioned is here in spades: these songs are immense fun to sing along with! Impossible to sing “I’m the burgermeister of purgatory!” (“Indie Cindy”) or “felt a burning in my solar plexus” (“Blue Eyed Hexe”) or “I’m the one with all the trotters” (“Bagboy”) without enjoying yourself.

My biggest grumble about the album is that it is really just a compilation of the previous EPs, or to put it another way, it’s now clear the EPs were just the album doled out a bit at a time. Every song from the EPs is on here, so buying this meant buying most of the tracks a second time over (and the other three appeared on EP3, not available at first in MP3 format) – though that does make it feel like a greatest hits in itself. I hoped, and I wonder if the band hoped, that Deal might return by the album’s release to add her vocals to the previously released tracks. That didn’t happen, but “Bagboy” at least is a slightly different version to the original MP3 release, with the “Cover your teeth” chant coming in much later. It makes the song somewhat sleeker and meaner.

The most exciting thing about a new Pixies album having been released – apart from the existence of the album itself – is knowing that Black Francis never stops writing and recording, so there will probably be another one pretty soon. If it’s as good as Indie Cindy, let alone better, expect lots of articles and reviews applauding their return to form, because everyone loves to tell that story. By then Indie Cindy will be part of the landscape, another part of the back catalogue, maybe not a Doolittle (how many albums are?), but certainly the peer of Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde, and maybe their better. And if the Pixies don’t make another new album, at least they’ve said a proper goodbye: the album’s last song, the jolly “Jaime Bravo”, ends “Goodbye and goodnight / Goodbye”.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Tusk / review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Juvenile premise spurs tour de force of eccentricity, turns contemporary horror film formula on its head
As I walk out of a horror film, I’m typically thinking one of three things: great, so-so, or crap. However, every once in a while, there is another thought: did I like this film? Such was my initial reaction to director Kevin Smith’s Tusk (2014), a film whose premise involves a madman who wants to physically and psychologically transform another man into a walrus. Yes. You read that correctly.

Obnoxious LA-based shock jock Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), stuck in the “frozen shithole” of Canada, wants to find a “weirdo” interviewee to ultimately make fun of in his popular Not-See Party podcast.

Wallace ends up on the doorstep of Howard Howe, a reclusive ex-seafarer who has a boatload of adventure tales, and a few skeletons (human and otherwise) in the closet. Howe seeks to rekindle the bond he once developed with a walrus he named Mr. Tusk while stranded after a shipwreck. His strategy: make Wallace a walrus.

Directors of recent horror movies tend to manipulate their predominantly unmemorable characters through frightful settings (e.g., catacombs, haunted houses, etc). There’s nothing wrong with that. However, Kevin Smith, the brains behind Mallrats (1995), Dogma (1999), and Clerks (1994), tends to create talk-heavy films with quirkier characters. Tusk follows this strategy and in so doing, departs from—or maybe I should say, in tusk lingo, protrudes discernibly from—the current body of horror films.

One is often hard-pressed to identify something original that characters say in horror movies. Tusk, with its extended scenes of two or three characters talking, offers a smorgasbord of quotable gems. “You want characters?” Smith seems to ask those who consistently blast horror film casts. “You got them!” In Tusk, there are three such characters: the self-involved victim, the astute madman, and the comically eccentric detective.

The Self-involved Victim
Wallace Bryton, with his walrus-like name and moustache, is the type of guy who snaps at convenience store clerks and uses strangers’ backs as desks. He looks down on Canadians (“I don’t want to die in Canada”) and cheats on his girlfriend. His growing fame has gone to his head. This is most apparent when he interviews Howe. Wallace, “not-seeing” the threat inherent in Howe’s anti-human sentiments, examines the odd specimens Howe has accumulated and expresses (loudly and tactlessly) his observations. “Who are you? Rudyard fucking Kipling?”

Typically, films are wise to shy away from obnoxious protagonists, but Wallace, with his crude comments and gestures, contrasted with the literary allusions and deviant philosophies of Howe, captivates the viewer.

Justin Long’s performance as Darry in the film Jeepers Creepers (2001) revealed his strong talent for expressing shock and fear. It’s a talent that he fully exploits in Tusk, whether he’s in a drug-induced stupour and coming to terms with what’s happening to him, making a hushed emergency phone call, or screaming as Howe taunts him.

The Astute Madman

It’s difficult to portray a villain who’s both off his rocker and intelligent. Michael Parks pulls it off admirably with Howard Howe. “I don’t understand,” he says. “Who in the hell would want to be human?”

One never knows what is coming from the misanthropic Howe. He might quote Tennyson or Hemingway, tell an adventure story, or mimic his victim’s screams. He might laughingly sing a nursery rhyme, or he might growl. Howe, the sufferer of egregious childhood abuse, stifles laughter when a horrified Wallace discovers he’s been severely mutilated.

In one of the film’s most off-the-wall scenes (a flashback), Howe stands on a porch with detective Guy Lapointe (more on him later). Howe, pretending to be a dim-witted assistant children’s hockey coach, tries to coax Lapointe inside ostensibly to shoot a brown recluse (spider), but more likely to try to turn Lapointe into a walrus.

Though it probably won’t get credit due to the film’s outlandishness, Parks’s performance puts him in the company of Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger’s Joker. Howe. What a perfect name for a film like this. How will this turn out? How could a man do something like this? “The walrus,” he says, “is far more evolved than any man I’ve ever known.” Howe indeed!

The Comically Eccentric Detective

The credits reveal that an unknown actor named Guy Lapointe plays himself, a French-Canadian alcoholic investigator on the trail of Howe. Though Lapointe’s time in the film is limited, his crooked eye, stilted delivery, and odd mannerisms make a huge impression. Lapointe is ridiculous, but we can’t look away.

Lapointe’s main scene takes place in a restaurant in which he dominates a conversation with Wallace’s girlfriend Ally and fellow podcaster Teddy. It may be a fast food place, but Lapointe’s audience sits dumbfounded as he treats them to an idiosyncratic feast that’s less about what he’s saying, and more about what he’s doing. He stands up and smashes down his burger, pours hard liquor into his milkshake, and engages in a slew of other fascinating behaviors all while describing his history with Howe. 

People often comment on how many of today’s films (and society in general) never slow down. Guy Lapointe does slow down. At one point, he actually breaks from his twisted monologue to suck from his spiked milkshake while his audience waits—he even comments on his shake’s thickness—for him to continue. And the porch scene with Howe is legendary. Never has so much been communicated with so many words and so little actually said.

Lapointe even offers a bit of intrigue to the film. When the viewer looks closely, he or she might notice familiarity in the eyes, and the voice. That’s because Guy Lapointe is none other than Johnny Depp. It’s as if Smith has transformed one of the most well-known actors into a sideshow act to reinforce what’s happening in the film. Brilliant.

An Opinion Transformed
With Tusk, we get humor, we get gore, we get surprises, we get scares, and we get sadness. Kevin Smith stitches the surgical splatterpunk film like The Human Centipede (2009), the “find the bad guy before he kills his captive” film (think The Silence of the Lambs (1991)), and the dialogue of, well, a Kevin Smith film. Tusk both entertains and gives one an appreciation for the finer things in life, like his or her legs.

During your life, you might encounter a handful of people who are true characters. Some of these people are profound A-holes, some offer a twisted view of the world, and others are so quirky that they are worthy of a movie. Tusk treats us to all three in just over an hour-and-a-half.

Back to my initial question: did I like this film? My opinion on it has metamorphosed, slowly, from one of uncertainty to a walrus-sized yes. – Douglas J. Ogurek