Monday, April 23, 2012



Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Creatures (Paragon Books; 2006) by John Malam: This fat little book is in the neighborhood of five-by-five inches, and perfectly pocket-sized. In fact, I kept it in my coat pocket for about a month or two, pulling it out to read whenever I found myself sitting in the car, ten minutes early for work, or waiting for someone to arrive at a restaurant and so on.

It’s a heavily illustrated guide to dinosaurs and some of their ancestors and contemporary creatures, broken up into chapters are particular kinds (Sauropods, predators, pteradons, etc). Each chapter begins with a couple science-heavy pages about the broad group and their characteristics, and it’s then followed by little profiles of various representatives, with about two dinosaurs per page. Each entry is illustrated, and features a little image showing how big or small the creatures would be in relation to a human being, and some facts and theories about their behavior or appearance.

It’s kind of like an Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe of dinosaurs, with much shorter entries.

Tracking The Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies and More (Promethues Books; 2011) by Joe Nickell: The title and sharp cover, featuring what looks like a werewolf paw-print in sand, sold me on the book, and it wasn’t until I began reading that I discovered that it's by the same author responsible for The Mystery Chronicles (reviewed in this previous entry).

This book is much like that earlier book, only the short articles are all related to paranormal or supernatural “man-beasts” of one sort or another, which Nickell investigates either for his magazine writing or at the behest of the History Channel’s Monster Quest television show (A show I liked quite a bit). He is always unconvinced about the existence of the man-beasts he tracks, and usually dismisses the claims of those who would say otherwise with various explanations that are usually easy to buy.

There is some overlap in the coverage between this and the earlier book—for example, there’s a chapter her in which he reinvestigates an aspect of the Mothman case, which he “solved” in the previous book as a misidentified barred owl—and he covers all of his subjects in such cursory fashion that a lot of the more interesting subject matter gets glossed over rather than explored.

For example, in the chapter “Man-Beasts Range Far,” in the section of the book dealing with “hairy man-beasts,” he discusses India’s rash of 2001 Monkey Man sightings, but devotes only two pages to the subject, which isn’t even enough to explain it, let alone share the more interesting anecdotes or provide context. His purpose is, of course, to simply knock it down as mass hysteria, but just because he concludes that the stories are all preposterous, that doesn’t make the tales about them any less fun to read.

I was also pretty surprised to see him tackle both The Flatwoods Monster (1952) and the Hopkinsville Goblins (1955), two pretty famous cases of alleged encounters with frightening alien creatures—extremely alien, compared in appearance to the now standardized version of what an alien is supposed to look like. His answer to both of these extremely cold cases—a good, solid decade colder than the Mothman flap—was that they too were caused by misidentifications of owls.

While a barred owl was responsible for Mothman, it was a barn owl perched in a tree that was responsible for the Flatwoods Monster, and a pair of Great Horned Owls that convinced a family of Kentuckians that their house was under siege by goblin-like creatures from outer space.

I’ll give him at least one of those three as owls, but that many famous cases being explained by the same misidentified type of bird stretches plausibility, even if I suppose that coincidence is still more likely than other possible explanations. (Although, truth be told, his recounting of the Hopkinsville event is the first I’ve read where it seems that the most likely answer was that it really was a hoax after all.)

In the section of the book devoted to extraterrestrials, he includes an “Alien Time Line” chart he drew, featuring the various appearances of aliens as those who have allegedly encountered them later described them. It’s a neat distillation of what people thought of aliens throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and it’s interesting to see how gradually the popular conception of the big-eyed, big-headed “gray” style alien took hold. It first appears in 1961 with the Betty and Barney Hill abduction, then only sporadically appears until 1990, after which point its pretty much the only alien you ever hear about.

Here’s the biggest version of it I can find online.

Check out the late 70s:
That whole decade’s aliens are pretty awesome, but I’m especially intrigued by the nine-foot-tall Michilen Man with a cat’s head labeled “Reptilian.”


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith: Having finished the audiobook that was keeping me company on car trips (see below) earlier than expected, I found myself at work one evening desperately searching for something to listen to as I drove 45 minutes home to visit my family that night.

I scoured the non-fiction section, as I’m not fond of prose fiction and, failing to find anything of interest that I hadn’t already listened to (or read in book form), I reluctantly turned to fiction, and was unable to find anything there either. (I was looking for something featuring Bigfoot, a giant sea creature or human beings contending with dinosaurs).

I finally settled on this silly-looking thing, as I knew there was a movie coming out soon-ish, and it at least it was faux non-fiction.

I was shocked by how good it turned out to be, perhaps in large part because of how greatly I had lowered my expectations.

The opening meanders perhaps a little too much, telling of how a ficitionalized Grahame-Smith first came into possession of the lost journals of Abraham Lincoln, which would be perhaps the greatest historical treasure in American letters even if those journals didn’t also happen to chronicle our greatest president’s stint as one of America’s most accomplished slayers of vampires.

Once that’s done, however, Grahame-Smith does an excellent job of aping the style of an exceptionally readable history book, liberally quoting Lincoln’s journals and consulting letters and other historical sources to put together a narrative that, for the most part, sounds completely authentic. Even though it does contain quite a bit about vampires.

Beyond Grahame-Smith’s accomplished imitation of a Lincoln biography, however, the most impressive aspect of the book might be how well he fits vampire-hunting into Abe’s life story (the bulk of the most hands-on hunting occurs during his youth, and it mostly peters off as he gets involved with government), and applying supernatural aspects wherever they might fit into that life story, even if it is sometimes a little forced.

I was most impressed, however, with the way in which Grahame-Smith made the two, incongruous halves of the title work together; that incongruity might have been the enticement to a reader, and something of a mercenary sort of inspiration to the author (What’s hot in book stores these days? Well, Lincoln books are perennial best-sellers, and Obama’s 2008 election brought a boom of interest in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and, thanks to Twilight, vampire books were more popular than ever), but by God he makes it work.

Early in his life, Abe meets a good vampire, and learns not to judge all of a certain kind of…person?…the same.

But, more importantly, Abe realizes that America has become a magnet for Old World vampires because it was one of the few countries where it was still perfectly legal to own living human beings, to raise and trade them like livestock. It was southern slavery that helped vampires flourish in 19th century America, and as long as slavery was legal, there would be no ridding the continent of vampires.

As the novel unfolds, this conflict grows more pitched, as Abe learns that one group of vampires supports the south and are even pushing for war over slavery; their long-term plan is to turn the U.S. into a vampire nation, and keep all men and women as slaves, not just the African-Americans. Black slavery was simply their first step in enslaving mankind.

Grahame-Smith slips up a few times in maintaining the conceit of the book, sharing information that he couldn’t possibly have gleaned from anywhere other than his own head, including, in some instances, the thoughts of characters or, in the most glaring example, words from a prophetic dream that Abe recorded in his journal…words that Abe writes he himself forgot when he awoke.

Oh, and then there’s vampire John Wilkes Booth’s death scene, which wasn’t caused by the firing of an over-excited soldier after all.

I forgive him. Zora Neale Hurston slipped up in Their Eyes Were Watching God, too.

This was an extremely fun alternate history of Abraham Lincoln’s life, perhaps more so if read (or listened too) at some point after reading (or listening to) real histories of it, of which there are some 14,000-15,000 in print (I liked James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, which I listened to in audiobook last year).

Sometime later my sister read the book, and she didn’t care for it. I wonder if maybe it’s more enjoyable being read to you than if you read it yourself?

The book does have some cheesy, Weekly World News-level quality doctored photos in it.

Re-watching the trailer for the film adaptation after listening to this, I was struck by how little in it I recognized from the book. The first time I saw the trailer, my main thoughts were “Wow, they made that awfully fast” and “I don’t remember Mary Todd Lincoln being anywhere near that level of hotness." Now I searched for scenes from the book, and things I know weren’t in the book, like that fight on the stampede and another on a burning roller coaster or something…?

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens: I felt somewhat ghoulish pulling this off the shelf a week or so after its author had died, but I’m glad I did. Hitchens is a hell of a writer, and this book is full of examples of what an amazing writer he is.

It is, as the subtitle says, a collection of essays, many of them in the form of long reviews of various histories or British authors whom I had never heard of before encountering them here—or that I knew by name and reputation, but not from firsthand experience with their work—and yet despite ignorance and/or occasional disinterest in the subject being discussed, each of the essays is fairly fascinating.

That’s how good a writer Hitchens is—he’s the sort who can write about anything and make it interesting, even entertaining, by virtue of his way with words and powerful rhetoric.

This was most noticeable to me whenever I would reach an essay with a thesis I thoroughly disagreed with.

I agree with Hitchens about a lot of things, but part ways with him on several subjects.

He’s a famous atheist, and while I am not (famous or atheist), he usually destroys anyone arguing the matter with him, but he’s yet to convince me that there is no God (even in his God Is Not Great), as negatives can’t be proven, and it is therefore a fruitless—if often fun—argument to have.

I think he went a little overboard when it comes to discussing Islam, and while his discussions are always nuanced enough to separate Muslims from Muslim terrorists, and he is one of the few people to talk loudly about such things to regularly point out that every religion has its murderously insane adherents, he supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (at least that they needed waging, if not their conduct), whereas I think neither was necessary, the latter spectacularly unnecessary.

And his piece “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” well, it’s right there in the title, isn’t it?

There are also some particularly silly essays dealing with particular rich man concerns, like waiters pouring wine at a fancy restaurant for you instead of leaving it up to the host.

That said, there are 107 essays in this particular collection, so I suppose it would be more surprising if I did agree with them all, or like them all, or relate to them all (No matter how strongly I disagree with Hitchens, however, I’d never want to argue with him; Jesus, he was good at that!)

The topics range far and wide, though they are somewhat broken up into sections by American history, literatue, word usage, and so on.

He writes about Thomas Jefferson, Abrham Lincoln, Saul Bellow, John Brown, Graham Greene, Rebecca West, W. Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse and Harry Potter and Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

He writes about applying the death penalty to minors, the fate of the Euro and wars from Vietnam to Iraq, and he writes about the differences between Brisith and American usages of the word “fuck,” the use of the word “like” and about blowjobs (That last one in a piece entitled “As American as Apple Pie).

What impressed me most about the book, beyond the writing itself, is this very variety. One of the fun, and most challenging, parts of working as a journalist and/or a writer is that you have to become an expert in a topic for the amount of time it takes you to research and write a piece and, more often than not, move immediately on to something completely different.

Hitchens didn’t just write about English literature, or American history, or language, or international politics, or travel, or religion, or fucking wine table etiquette—he wrote about everything and, if he didn’t know everything, he was fairly unparalleled in his ability to fake it.

Here’s on example, which has little to do with any of the other subjects I mentioned while glossing over the contents of the book.

In a 2008 Vanity Fair piece entitled “Believe Me, It’s Torture,” Hitchens arranges to have himself abducted and waterboarded in order to better write about that vile practice (which he notes that, until recently, something that Americans did to other Americans solely to train them to resist it should the enemy capture and torture them; it wasn’t something Americans did to prisoners).

I thought this bit was strong enough that I scribbled it down while reading:
You may have heard by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates" the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure.
Rest in peace Hitchens, and thanks for leaving us all these great pieces.


Bride of the Gorilla (1951): The selling point for this Curt Siodmak-written and -directed film was apparently the salaciousness of the title, with its intimation of interspecies intimacy. Check out some of the original movie posters:
If there’s a statue of limitations on claims of false advertising, I suppose that it’s much shorter than the 61 years that passed between the time this movie was released in theaters and the time I watched it on DVD on my laptop.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t complain about it! Not only were there no scenes of the beautiful blond woman being carried off into the jungle in skimpy and/or torn-off bedclothes, there’s not even a gorilla in the movie.

Oh, um, spoiler warning.

The film begins with a few scenes that seem like a vaguely sweded version of 1932’s Red Dust. Barbara Payton plays the attention-starved wife of a South American rubber plantation man, carrying on an affair with Raymond Burr, the plantation manager.

When the two men argue, Burr’s character kills her husband and marries her, but not before engendering the wrath of an old voodoo woman, who curses him to become a beast.

Is he really transforming into an ape at night, or is he just going mad, and it’s all in his head?

It’s all in his head. He only thinks he’s a gorilla, and a guy in a gorilla suit appears on screen a couple of times, but the curse is merely a form of madness.

Lon Chaney Jr. also co-stars, playing a local policeman, rather than the guy who turns into a monster, which would seem the more natural role for him (Of course, he lacked Burr’s good looks at that point, and it would be hard to imagine Payton and Chaney locking lips passionately).

Ultimately, it’s not much more than a curiosity in a couple of fairly famous film folks’ careers—Siodmak wrote 1941’s original The Wolf Man, and a mess of other horror and monster movies—but it’s got a great, grabby title, and that coupled with the advertising campaign was enough to get my attention six decades later. I’m sure it would have seemed even more shockingly transgressive in the early 50s.

Broken (2006): I was a little surprised to find that director Alan White didn’t also write this film—Drew Pillsbury scripted it, from a story by himself and a Jeff Lester—as there’s something so indie about it that it’s practically film school.

The cast is very, very small, consisting mostly of the customers and employees in a small L.A. diner. The action is set almost entirely in that diner, save for the flashbacks that chronicle the protagonists relationship and her ex’s movements during the night the film occurs on which, uh, don’t really make much sense, and there’s a big, showy twist at the end that is simultaneously bag-of-hammers dumb and somewhat clever, likely depending on the viewer’s generosity and mood while watching.

It’s the sort of twist/premise that probably seemed brilliant when conceived of—very late at night, while high, while 19-years-old, or some combination of the three—but is actually kind of silly and obvious, and doesn’t bear up under much scrutiny.

The film also seems to assume that heroin addiction is in and of itself interesting, which, well, I assume it is certainly interesting (to put it one way) to those living that lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean it’s interesting to watch. Even when the people addicted to the heroin are so good looking.

The film stars Heather Graham as Hope (Aha! That name is probably a metaphor!), a young woman who leaves Ohio in order to pursue her dream of becoming a successful singer/songwriter in LA. She meets the charming Jeremy Sisto, who hooks her on drugs, pimps her out to their dealer, knocks her around and eventually would like to murder her to death.

That really bummed me out, as I like Jeremy Sisto, and don’t like it when he plays an a-hole. I first encountered him when Waitress played at the inaugural Columbus Film Festival (which sadly only lasted two years, I think) in 2005. He was a no-good fellow in that film, and it took a good half a season of Law and Order before I was able to love him. Now he’s all slapping a lady around! And they canceled Law and Order, so I don’t have easy access to a Good Jeremy Sisto with which to counteract my exposure to this Bad Jeremy Sisto!

The film also features Jake Busey, who was in Starship Troopers and played the villain in the direct-to-DVD Road House 2: Last Call (starring Johnathon Shaech as the son of Patrick Swayze’s legendary bouncer Dalton!), but the reason I went to the trouble of hunting it down at all (it will surprise no one who has closely read all of these past columns) was that it also features Jessica Stroup.

She plays a party girl high on ecstasy and in the company of two young men who want to take her home and have sex with her who comes into Hope’s diner and appeals to her for help. She also makes out with Graham.

It’s not a bad way to spend 90 minutes or so, and there are enough charismatic actors involved that they help sell the forced nature of the plotting, which I am not spoiling here, despite some temptation to do so in order to make fun of elements of the film with specific citations.

Burning Bright (2010): The murder plot that sets-up the genuinely thrilling sequence of events in this movie is so complicated that it’s just this side of the one in Snakes on a Plane in terms of practicality: The would-be murderer waits for a hurricane, then buys a vicious, partially-starved tiger and seals it in a house with his intended victims, boarding up and nailing shut all of the doors and windows in order to keep the storm out (and the tiger and the victims in).

The set-up may be a bit convoluted, but director Carlos Brooks, working from a script by a trio of writers, wastes little time fussing with it, instead efficiently setting up the board so that when Briana Evigan wakes up early one morning and heads down the stairs of her home, she sees a flash of striped orange cat flesh pad quickly past her field of vision.

The college-aged girl is trapped in her own home with her autistic, 10-year-old brother (played by Charlie Tahan) and with a killer tiger, and even if she did manage to break through a sealed door or window, there’s still the matter of the hurricane outside.

Brooks gets a rather incredible amount of juice out of using a real-life, completely familiar animal as a sort of monster here. In many of the more tense scenes, the tiger itself is only barely glimpsed—a second of its striped coat as it paces quickly in and out of view, the sudden juxtaposition of its huge, clawed paw landing inches away from Evigan’s bare toes, a close-up of its tongue as it licks a drop of her sweat from the floor.

I was fairly shocked by how effective the set-up was, and how Brooks and his writers continually found new ways to dangle our protagonist and her brother in front of the tiger’s jaws and claws, only to snatch them away temporarily and continue the game of cat and mouse with a new round.

It’s an extremely well-made film, and Evigan’s performance, like almost every other aspect of Burning Bright, isn’t just effective, but surprisingly so.

The title, by the way, comes from a William Blake poem (You know, “Tyger tyger, burning bright/ In the forest of the night”; Marvel named an X-Men villain after the same poem, and Batman: The Animated Series referenced it in one of my least favorite episodes).
It’s an awfully pretentious title—as great a thriller as the movie is, as incredibly suspenseful and well-made it is, it’s hardly poetic—but I can’t think of a better title, and would prefer an allusion to Blake then something horribly vague, cliché and meaningless like, I don’t know, Easy Prey or Tiger Hunt or The Lady Vs. The Tiger or Tiger Storm or Maneater or whatever.

Conan The Barbarian (2011): Jason Momoa certainly looks the part of Robert E. Howard’s iconic, ur-barbarian character, and in his first few scenes of this not-really-a-remake remake of the 1982 movie of the same name shows signs of real wit and charm.

Stacked up against Arnold Schwarzenegger, he makes for a better Conan, but, unfortunately, this Conan the Barbarian doesn’t fare nearly as well when compared to Arnold’s Conan the Barbarian.

The film opens with a voiceover by Morgan Freeman, in which he tells pretty much the same story background as that of The Lord of The Rings, only here it is a magical mask instead of a magical set of rings.

(By the way: Morgan Freeman?! If you were going to have a golden-voiced older black actor do the voiceover at the beginning of your Conan The Barbarian movie, why not get former Thulsa Doom James Earl Jones…? Maybe they’ll make a sequel and cast Freeman as Thulsa Doom…I’d love to see a movie where Morgan Freeman transforms into a giant snake monster).

We then cut to a kinda-sorta adaptation of Kurt Busiek and Greg Ruth’s Conan: Born on the Battlefield comic, in which a heavily-bearded and perfectly-cast Ron Perlman raises little boy Conan up right…at least until chief bad guy Stephen Lang and a mini-300 coalition of the conquered decimates Conan’s village, condemning him to a lifelong mission of vengeance upon Lang.

Grown-up Conan crosses paths with the thoroughly lovely Rachel Nichols (last seen by me miscast as Scarlet in the awful G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra movie that miscast….pretty much everyone, except maybe Cobra Commander and Snake-Eyes), who functions as something closer to a sidekick than a love interest. At least for a handful of scenes; then they totally do it.

Together they and Conan’s other allies—who come and go as needed—try to stop Lang and his witch daughter with incestuous desires (played by Rose McGowan, in some unfortunate costuming) from resurrecting his late witch wife and taking over the world or whatever.

In addition to the dark, ripped Momoa’s casting, much of the look of the film seems quite right and, again, heavily inspired by Dark Horse’s recent Conan revival. This Conan wears the big, long skirt that Cary Nord drew him in,
and the credits for the film include lots of ladies with the character name “Topless Wench.”

The settings are fairly fantastical, but also obviously digitally inserted, giving the proceedings an uncomfortable disconnect between the sweaty, emotional actors and the cold, lifeless backgrounds that look more like desktop screensavers than exotic cities and kingdoms…or even skillful backdrop paintings.

The action scenes are all fairly inept in their execution, with too many, too-fast cuts robbing even the more simple sword fights of the pleasures of watching decent fight choreography (the more complicated sequences, like Momoa fighting a bunch of magical made-of-sand ninja dudes, or an underwater tentacle monster, border on visual gibberish). Combined with the completely generic quest plot and an anti-climactic dispatching of the main villains, this Conan doesn’t even seem worthy of its name.

Fright Night (2011): Playing a villain in the remake of a 1985 vampire movie is one of the last places I would have expected to see Colin Farrell, but thank God he showed up—his performance is by far the best part of this surprisingly engaging horror-drama.

Farrell plays Jerry, a dark, handsome, sexually magnetic stranger in a tank top and leather wristbands who has moved into a remote and isolated Vegas suburb. Right next door, in fact, to divorced-and-looking mom Toni Collette and teenager Anton Yelchin, who recently (and mysteriously) graduated from the lowest social caste of his high school to the highest, where he’s dating Imogen Poots.

When classmates and neighbors start disappearing, Yelchin’s character reluctantly follows the lead of cast-off former friend and amateur vampire hunter Christopher Mintz-Plasse, ultimately hooking up with a Vegas magician to destroy Jerry and free his many thralls.

It’s one of the better vampire movies I’ve seen in recent memory, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it ended up being, given rather low expectations.

There’s an extremely effective opening, highlighting the isolation and even the inherent unnatural-ness of living in the desert. The film jumps from set-piece to set-piece perhaps a bit too quickly, early on setting up an almost Rear Window-like relationship between Farrell and Yelchin’s characters, switching very briefly to a house-siege (Farrell’s is the kind of vampire who can’t enter homes without being invited), a vampirized, lower octane version of the car chase from Children of Men, and then moving the action from Vegas and back to the suburb.

There’s a really neat scene where Farrell gets staked, but not to death, and skitters about like a spider with a few legs plucked off, but none of the action scenes or vampire effects are nearly as neat as the scene where a jittery Farrell stands in the threshold of Yelchin’s kitchen, desperately trying to get himself invited in.

While Farrell may be the best part of the movie, it’s all–around well-cast, and none of the performances are poor, with the second best probably being David Tennant (the star of one of those nerd shows that everyone I know online likes but that I’ve somehow managed to never see), who plays Russell Brand playing Aldous Snow playing Criss Angel.

Immortals (2011): The greatest fault I can find with this blandly-titled and mostly blandly-acted Greek myth-fueled film is its choice in naming its protagonist: Theseus.

If you found yourself perplexed by his appearance in the trailer, which seemed devoid of a minotaur and/or a maze, he makes a bit more sense in the actual film, where his people’s elaborate crypt is referred to as “the labyrinth” and he battles a man in a bull-mask in its center at one point.

The idea seems to be that this is the “real” story that gave rise to the myth of Theseus, but it also makes for some mythological gobbledygook that makes 1981’s Clash of the Titans, or even 2010’s loosey-goosey remake, seem like Bullfinch’s Mythology.

If the adaptation aspect is going to be so loose, why suggest that it’s any kind of adaptation at all?

The story posits the existence of a human king Hyperion, played by Mickey Rourke in a series of increasingly elaborate headgear, whose genuinely threatening screen presence easily accounts for the best performance in the film.

Like Xerxes in 300, he’s conquering the known world, only he’s doing it in order to uncover the Epirus Bow (don’t worry about having never heard of it; it’s original to film), the key weapon in the war between the Olympian gods and the Titans, which looks a lot like the magic bow the ranger character in the old, shitty Dungeons & Dragons cartoon used.

With it, Hyperion plans to free the Titans and destroy the gods he doesn’t actually believe in or…I don’t know. Something.

Standing in his way is the peasant Theseus, who was trained in the art of combat by a disguised Zeus. He allies himself with a cynical, hunky thief played by Stephen Dorff and an oracle played by the ridiculously attractive Freida Pinto.

The film more than earns its R-rating on violence alone—the sole nudity is a shot of Pinto or her body double’s butt, and an extreme long shot of her or her body double’s breasts—and copious amounts of CGI blood (human, divine and Titanic) is spilled, often in quite brutal, flinch-inducing ways.

As an action movie, it’s a great one. There’s a lot of jumping and spinning, but its incredibly well-staged, and there are at least three striking scenes where we follow Superman-to-be Henry Cavill’s Theseus and he fights through a series of opponents in what appears to be long, uninterrupted, scrolling shots (although they almost certainly aren’t). Judged solely on its hand-to-hand combat, it’s one of the better Western action films I've seen in a good long while, and it’s head, shoulders, torso and knees above the combat seen in other recent-ish sword-and-sandals affairs like 300, Troy, Alexander or the aforementioned Clash remake.

Like director Tarsem Singh’s previous films, it’s also a strikingly beautiful affair, and well worth watching for the sumptuous visuals alone.

Elements of the story he’s telling have been committed to film repeatedly, but I’ve never seen Titans like these, trapped like these ones are, or Greek gods like these, or an Olympus like this: For set design and costuming, it’s a pretty brilliant film, and there’s a highly appealing weirdness to his gods, the way they look and move and fight.

Many of the settings are as alien-looking as anything in the second Star Wars trilogy, but as cool as most of them look, the majority of them also look exceedingly fake (the oasis where Theseus meets his traveling companions for the first time providing a rare exception).

Given its many strengths, its quite unfortunate that the various elements of the film never quite congealed. It seemed just a few more rewrites—or perhaps a few less rewrites—away from being as compelling a whole as its various parts.

Have you seen the trailer yet? If not, you should watch it; that scene at about the 40-second mark featuring the war in the heavens is beautiful.

Island of Lost Souls (1932): I imagine the science in this film wouldn’t have been quite so distracting in the early 1930s, let alone in 1896 when The Island of Dr. Moreau was written, but while I had an easy enough time ignoring the understanding of evolution that posited all animals were evolving towards human beings, regardless of their species, and that surgery could help ‘em get there, my mind did keep wandering back towards it. Particularly during a key scene in which Edward Parker’s realizes that he had just made it with a surgically evolved panther (This being 1932, by “made it” I of course mean “kissed on the lips”).

On the other hand, because the science is so divorced from what we know of the real world now, it becomes easier to resist the film as escapism, as a drama seeking to pull you in, and instead enjoy the craft with which it was created and ruminate more seriously on it’s message about mad science, playing God and, as I saw it, animal experimentation (Although it was based on a Victorian novel, so maybe it was meant to be about the evils of Brits intermarrying with the Irish; I don’t know).

That is, because the science of the premise now seems like something from a child’s imagination, the story of the film functions more purely as a myth or fairy tale.

Surely you know the story: A man finds himself trapped on an island lorded over by a grandiose exiled scientist named Moreau, whose specialty is turning animals into human beings.

This version has a less prosaic, and more evocative title, and the best of the three versions I’ve seen (The 1996 version starring Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer and Caleb crush Fairuza Balk is awesome, of course, but not exactly what one might call a “good” film, in the traditional sense).

The make-up effects are, of course, in a pretty primitive state, but the black and white film, the use of shadows and torch-light, and the sheer number of scenes that occur at night hide them enough to let the viewer’s imagination improve upon them, and Charles Laughton’s performance as the doctor similarly suggests depths of depravity that is only barely implied in the script and in the images on the screen.

The copy of the DVD I saw was the Criterion Collection version, and it is, as one might expect, a beautifully designed package.

The original movie poster is pretty nice too, though:
And here's The Panther Woman in the flesh:
That flesh remains covered throughout the film, much moreso than it is on the original movie poster.

King Kong Escapes (1967): This is the second of Toho’s King Kong licensed films, following the risible 1962 King Kong Vs. Godzilla, and a collaboration between that venerable Japanese kaiju studio and the U.S. Rankin/Bass company.

In it, the villainous Dr. Hu builds a robot based on a model made by a submarine captain/scientist who got his measurements from studying the legend of Kong; Hu plans to sell this “Mechani-Kong” to an Asian government, who will use it to mine Element-X, a sort of super-plutonium (Why didn’t Catepillar think of this?).

Meanwhile, the submarine captain’s submarine docks on Mondo Island—not quite as portentous a name as “Skull Island”—where they discover the real King Kong after a short, uninspired recreation of some of the scenes from the original 1933 King Kong, including a Kong vs. therapod battle over the fate of a blond gal.

That blond gal is Linda Miller’s nurse/sub lieutenant, who can control Kong by speaking slowly and loudly, as a stupid person might speak to someone who doesn’t understand their language.

Dr. Hu then forgoes the robot Kong in order for the real deal, and he and his forces decided to pressgang the giant gorilla into doing a mining job.

The special effects are of the toys, miniatures and guys-in-suits variety, and not terribly effective; as with 1976 King Kong, its remarkable how much more (relatively, naturally) modern special effects fail to improve upon the visceral visual power of ancient black-and-white stop-motion animation.

In addition to the aforementioned therapod throwdown, in which Kong suffers some devastating dropkicks from the reptile before breaking its jaw, 1933-style, he also fights a giant snake, which entails a guy in a gorilla suit putting on and taking off a scarf in the shape of a snake, and battles his robot duplicate atop the Tokyo Tower.

None of that is as inspired as the look of Dr. Hu though:
I wish he could have grown to giant size to fight Kong at the climax, as that would have been more visually interesting than any of the proceedings.

Nabonga (1944): An 18-year-old Julie London made her debut in this film, although I have a feeling the late singer and actress would rather be known for her voice or her discography or one of her later, better roles than for playing “The White Witch” who commands the beasts of the jungle in this cheap back-lot adventure.

Once upon a time, a crooked character robs a Cairo bank and packs the loot and his young daughter onto a plane to make his escape. They fly into a storm, which downs them in the jungle. Afraid of being caught, the crooked character murders the pilot for some reason, and thus lives out the rest of his days in a godforsaken jungle with only his daughter, his ill-gotten gains and a gorilla his daughter befriends and names Samson for company.

Years later, after the girl has grown up to be Julie London, Buster Crabbe seeks her out, intent on clearing his father’s name, as his dad was framed for the robbery by her dad. Following Crabbe are a pair of still more crooked characters, who also want the lost fortune.

Crabbe must figure out a way to separate the naïve young lady from her gorilla protector long enough to separate her from the money.

The gorilla is a man in a gorilla suit, and the other animals appear via stock footage, the bulk of the jungle scenes seemingly set on a soundstage full of potted plants. It’s a slight film, the action scenes accounted for by a pair of rousing fistfights between Crabbe’s character and his rival, and the gorilla-on-man violence occurring off-screen, with some very suggestive screams filling in the blanks.

As with Bride of the Gorilla, the selling point here seems to be the combination of a girl and a gorilla, but this girl and this gorilla are best friends, ala and the title character in 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, rather than victim and aggressor ala King Kong, although the movie poster certainly implied otherwise:
The title, by the way, is apparently a native word for “gorilla,” although I can’t account for the accuracy of that claim. Rigorous fidelity to reality isn’t exactly a hallmark of the film…or others of its genre.

The People Vs. George Lucas (2010): Writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe hasn’t quite made a documentary about filmmaker Lucas’ biography, filmography and legacy, although that’s in here. And he hasn’t quite made a documentary about Star Wars fan culture, although that’s in here as well.

Instead, the real focus of the film is on the relationship between Lucas and his fans, with talking head interviews accounting for the bulk of the film, with the fans—many of them rather expert fans who have gone on to work professionally or semi-professionally on Star Wars-inspired endeavors of their own—seemingly telling the story. Well, Philippe tells the story, but he tells it through the people, or the people tell it through him telling it through him, or something.

Perhaps regardless of your own relationship with Star Wars—I was born in 1977, so the second two films and their many multi-media spin-offs and merchandise tie-ins played a pretty large role in my early cultural education—the film is full of some pretty fascinating observations.

Phillipe traces the Star Wars story from Lucas’ childhood, to his first few films, to the trilogy, to the long, fallow, Star Wars-less time in which the kids who grew up with the original trilogy became adults in time for the highly anticipated second trilogy…and the dashing of their hopes.

While The Phantom Menace, with it’s Jar-Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd and its focus on galactic economic policies, is a well-known disappointment, and popularly viewed as the crisis point between Lucas and his fandom, the film revisits other, earlier disappointments, including the remastering of the original trilogy, its several inexplicable changes (including Greedo shooting first) and Lucas’ refusal to make the original versions of the original films available.

Lucas doesn’t exactly come across as a bad guy, although his journey fits easily into a metaphor involving Anakin Skywalker’s journey into Darth Vader-hood. All of the anger and disappointment fans level at him comes from an affectionate place, and by film’s end I got the sense that, for many fans, Lucas is like a family member: He might do some things you virulently disagree with, he might make terrible choices, he might make you sooo mad sometimes, but you still have to love him, because that’s just the way it is.

Among the more interesting tidbits, I thought, were these:

1.) Someone referred to Star Wars as the dawn of “participatory culture”, which has long since become the default mode of the majority of our pop culture.

2.) I wrote down the quote, but not the person who said it, but how’s this for a blurb regarding a man’s body of work: “That guy, and his work, unlocked a generation’s imagination.

On the subject of the participatory aspects of Star Wars—which, it should be stressed, Lucas has long encouraged—one interviewee had this to say: “There’s a lot of things I enjoy, but it doesn’t make me want to do it. You know, I love Reese’s peanut butter cups, but I never entertained the idea of, you know, being a candy maker.”

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people expressing their desire to be able to get the original, undoctored versions of the first three films, so they could rewatch them as they remembered them.

The argument is generally that they prefer those versions, because they are better films—the aforementioned who-shot-first question, the fact that it doesn’t make sense for Jabba to be slithering outside the Cantina and letting Han go scant seconds after one of his assassins almost blasted Han, that they are free of the weird slapstick elements of the cut-in scenes like that singing alien in Return, etc.

An argument I have not heard, which is actually a pretty compelling one, is that Star Wars was inducted in the National Film Registry in 1989, but the version of Star Wars that was inducted no longer exists, or, at least, can’t easily be seen anymore. When a film reaches that level of cultural importance, doesn’t it, in a sense, belong to everyone, at least when it comes to consumption?

Another, even more compelling argument in the film is that Star Wars and its first two sequels were incredible technical accomplishments, with special effects that approached honest-to-God film magic in certain respects. To go back and overwrite all of those special effects with computer effects betrays the contributions of all of those other people who made those epic space battles happen, and who may or may not have been on board with Lucas’ touching them up, but, whatever their opinions, weren’t in the same position of power that Lucas was.

Among the many interviewees are a couple of comics folks, including Neil Gaiman, Tony Millionaire (who is shown drawing Jarjar Binks) and prose author and The Plain Janes writer Cecil Castellucci.

Primeval Vol. 2 (2009): I haven’t really talked about Primeval on EDILW before, due mostly to the fact that I strive to only talk about comics and comics-related stuff here and, to my knowledge, no one’s done a Primeval tie-in comic yet. Which is fine by me; I’m sure I’d want to read it, and I’m just as sure it would turn out to be terrible.

Are you familiar with the show?

If so, feel free to skip ahead.

If not, it’s a very expensive-looking British television adventure drama created by the dudes who did the Walking With… series of documentaries…you know, Walking with Dinosaurs, Walking With Prehistoric Beasts and so on…watching DVDs of those specials remain some of my fondest television-watching memories.

The premise is that two scientists have discovered portals through time that allow them to visit different points in pre-history, and that occasionally allow creatures from different epochs to visit the present and wreak havoc. One of them is a bad guy, the other one is a good guy, and the good guy assembles a team to deal with the anamolies and their creatures.

At the outset it starred handsome dudes Douglas Henshall and James Murray, Andrew Lee Potts as a the geeky audience identification characters, the beautiful Lucy Brown and dream girl Hannah Spearritt.

It was basically Walking With Prehistoric Beasts fighting a British drama. In other words, it’s basically the best thing ever.

Actually, if you’re not familiar with the show, you should probably stop reading this and go borrow the DVD from your local library.

I watched the first two seasons of the show on a DVD labeled Primeval Vol. 1 back in…2007 or 2008-ish…?

This DVD, which contains the third season, but is labeled Primeval Vol. 2, has actually been out for a while now, but I didn’t get around to watching it until this March because I saw “Vol. 2” and thought “season 2.” Labeling DVD collections of TV series, like labeling trade paperback collections of comics series as accurately as possible is very important, because if it is at all confusing, it will keep the very dumb, like me, from being able to consume the media product.

This third series is a very strange, somewhat uncomfortable one, as so much of the cast is in flux. Three of the main characters exit the show—two of them violently and finally, another more peacefully and with the ability to return later—and new characters are added. These include Ben Mansfield’s straight-laced military guy Captain Becker, who is in charge of all the black-clad military guys who assist the scientists and more-or-less replaces Murray’s Stephen Hart character as the young alpha male character; Laila Rouass’ lovely Egyptologist and-all-around humanities expert Sarah Page; and Jason Flemyng’s craggy-faced ex-police detective and man-of-action Danny Quinn, who falls into an important role on the team despite not knowing anything about dinosaurs and suchlike( aside from how to fight them).

One of the main characters dies quite early in the season, which accounts for some of the unsteadiness in this arc of stories, as other characters are introduced and transition in importance in order to fill the dramatic vacuum left by that character’s exit. Early on there’s an attempt to look at the anomalies in a new light, as a historical reality which may have accounted for many of the myths and legends about fantastical animals, although this is abandoned rather early, and another round of bureaucratic fighting between the noble Anomaly Research Center staff and their administrator, Ben Miller’s James Lester, and the military industrial complex, which wants to weaponize the most deadly creatures to come through the anamolies.

The creatures in this season include Terror Birds, a Dracorex (accompanied by a medieval knight), a herd of Embolotherium, a scary futuristic “Gremlin” that can camouflage itself to the point of invisibility, a Gigantosaurus or “G-Rex”, humanoid fungus creatures, some giant insects from the future, and far too many of the effective but over-used “predators” or “future predators” from the pervious season.

If the death in this season was unfortunate, it did increase the drama of the series ten-fold. Combined with the death at the climax of the second season, it made for about 40% of the original cast of protagonists being killed off, and from that point on pretty much any time a major character was put in deadly peril, the stakes seemed high. After all, if they killed off Character A in the third episode of a ten-episode season, why couldn’t they kill of Character B in the fifth episode? And so on.

The season ends resolving the threat of season’s (and the series’) main villains, but with a pretty ballsy cliffhanger in which the majority of the primary heroes are left abandoned in different points of pre-history with no way of escape.

Primeval Vol. 3 (2009): This DVD contains the fourth and fifth (and, at this point, final seasons) of the series, and brought even more and bigger changes. With three of the main characters trapped in the past at the end of the previous season, the show picks up as if we’re joining it in progress, with plenty of changes at the Anomaly Research Center (ARC).

Another of the main characters has died off-screen between seasons, and the ARC staff now includes Ciarán McMenamin’s mysterious team leader Matt Anderson, who harbors a devastating secret; Ruth Kearney’s Jess Parker, a big-eyed beauty in miniskirts who can do anything with computers by banging on multiple keyboards really fast and functions as the team’s Oracle; and Alexander Siddings’ Philip Burton, a Richard Branson-type genius entrepeneur who assumes partial control of the ARC as part of a public/private arrangement with the British Government. He becomes Lester’s main bureaucratic rival in this season.

There’s an awful lot of plot going on in this season, with several seemingly distinct sub-plots all coalescing into an apocalyptic climax that isn’t necessarily higher-stakes than that of the previous season—when the series villain was going to poison the first humans and thus stop human evolution before it even began—but feels that way, thanks to more explosions, lights and fighting. It’s a bigger, showier end of the world than that of someone simply sneakily poisoning the water source of some prehistoric monkey men, you know?

There are some elements of this season that begin to beggar belief perhaps a bit too far—particularly Potts’ Connor’s evolution into a super-scientist capable of inventing pretty much anything—but it’s quite tightly plotted, and the new characters are all rather welcome additions who are fun to hang around with.

There are a wide variety of rather inspired creature adversaries in these seasons—Jurassic Park dinos Velociraptor, Spinosaurus and Tyrannosaurus, a Kaprosuchus (or “boar crocodile;” basically a super-agile crocodile with tusks), a labryrightodont (giant-ass salamander), Hayenodons, more terror birds (they are my favorites), more Future Predators and future creatures that include giant beetles and “Tree Creepers,” which are essentially apes if apes had evolved from raptors.

These two seasons are much more tightly plotted than the previous one, perhaps because the cast is more secure, although it’s worth noting that the “anything can happen to anyone” spirit of season three remains, as only two of the three protagonists lost to time at the end of season three actually return at the beginning of season four.

I won’t be too terribly surprised if there’s no season six of Primeval, given how much the series has changed since its inception and the finality with which the last two seasons’ various plots threads are tied up and the out-with-a-bang nature of the climax—previously, the anomalies were kept a strict secret from the public, but the events of the climax revealed their existence to the entire world, which would necessitate a change in focus in any future season—but I must admit I’ll be pretty bummed out if there’s no more Primeval ever.

I like these characters, I like these actors and I like the opportunity the show affords to spend time with them. At this point, almost as much as I like seeing cool prehistoric creatures brought to life with such regularity. The Internet tells me there’s a Canadian spin-off Primeval: New World in the works, and rumors of a feature film, but if it doesn’t include these characters and this cast, I suppose it won’t be quite the same. (As of this writing, the Internet says New World is being filmed, and Potts is slated to guest-star in an episode, and that there's been no movement on a sixth season of the British original. Sad.)

Three Musketeers (2011): Like Dracula, Robin Hood, Tarzan, King Arthur and a handful of other especially sturdy old stories, The Three Musketeers is one of those that’s perennially, almost continually being adapted to film, with a new version generally guaranteed any time there’s some new advance or trend in movie-making that its producers feel make it the time right for reinvention.

The last version I saw was 2001’s The Musketeer, which starred Justin Chambers as D’Artagnan crossing swords with Tim Roth’s Man In Black, a pretty middling update notable for its incorporation of the sort of action choreography that began to grace Hollywood movies after the Hong Kong invasion of the late ‘90s.

This latest adaptation was made for the current (and hopefully waning) 3D craze, and for a post-Sherlock Holmes, “mash-up” fed audience who are more likely to whoop than to cluck at the sight of 17th century airships firing cannons at one another while flying high above the English channel.

It had a hell of a trailer, I thought, one notable for being almost unrecognizable as a Three Musketeers film for a bit, featuring so many Milla Jovavich-in-action scenes that I wondered if they didn’t make one of the Musketeers into a woman in this version and making sure that almost every character not played by Milla was sporting a totally awesome and distinct facial hair arrangement.

I’ve seen a lot of movies where I was impressed with the costuming, but this might be the first in which I was impressed with the grooming.

So smooth-cheeked, leather jacket-rocking D’Artagnan Logan Lerman journeys to Paris, where he manages to upset all three of the title characters in a single sequence (That’s Matthew Macfadyen, Luke Evans and Ray Stevenson); they are all a bit peevish and out of sorts because their last super-spy mission to Venice, in which they broke into Leonardo Davinci’s trap-laden secret vault in order to steal his plans for airborne war machines, were thwarted by their rivals, Milla’s “Milady de Winter” (who plays her character as a sort of 16th century Catwoman—Hey, I like Anne Hathaway as much as the next guy, but you know who woulda made a hell of a Catwoman…?) and Orlando Bloom’s Duke of Buckingham, who wins for the best all-around look, as he mixes his facial hair with a fucking pompadour, earrings and sometimes even wears a lacey color.

So it’s the Musketeers vs. Cardinal Richilieu (the perfectly cast, perfectly-coiffed Christoph Waltz) and/or Buckingham, with Milady taking different sides in different reels. Oh, and Mads Mikkelsen plays Rochefort, one of Richilieu’s lietenants. Oh! And D’Artagnan must also try and help Freddie Fox’s King Louis XIII romance his own wife, played by Juno Temple.

It’s a hell of a cast, really, and it’s a shame that there are so many great and colorful actors giving so many great, colorful performances that they end up competing with one another and the many action sequences so that the whole affair seems both rushed and overcrowded.

It’s directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, whose filmography is full of a films I hated, including a couple of Resident Evils, Alien Vs. Predator and the Death Race remake, so I am pretty surprised that the worst thing that I can say about this film is that I wished it were about an hour longer, or else better structured to somehow give us more time enjoying the many fine performances.

As often as they make Musketeers movies, they rarely let the same people keep making them, so the chances to play, say, Richilieu tends to be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, and it seems a damn shame that this is all we get to see of Waltz in one of filmdom’s best villain roles.

Of course, the film does end with something of a cliffhanger, and the three main villains remain thoroughly undefeated by the closing credits, so I was a little surprised when they started rolling. The Three Musketeers seems to have been made as the first episode in a franchise, although as far as I know no sequel has been announced.

I hope they hurry up and do so. This was a rare big Hollywood action movie that I wanted to see a sequel to ASAP.
I think Bloom must have picked up some tips from Johnny Depp during all those pirate movies they made together, based on how well he carries off the silly facial hair and wig look, and how fun his over-the-top performance is here.


LurkerWithout said...

I'm only part way thru this post ('cause man is it long) but Jeremy Sisto is currently in the ABC sitcom "Suburgatory" and he's pretty likeable in that...

Anthony Strand said...

Seconded on "Suburgatory." That's a much better show than I was expecting it to be.

You, sir, make Primeval sound pretty good.