Saturday, October 13, 2012

EVERYTHING ELSE:


FILMS

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012): This appears to be a feature film adaptation based solely on the title and cover to Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel of the same name, a few seconds of which captures the gag of the title—a scene of Lincoln swinging his axe around in some sort of 19th century American kung fu kata—perfectly. The rest of the film? It seems to have been written, designed, acted and directed by folks who never read the book and only had a passing familiarity with who Abraham Lincoln was (had a beard and wore a top hat, right?).

To be fair, Grahame-Smith’s book wasn’t really written to be easily made into a film; the overall conceit is that it was a non-fiction history that was assembled by a writer who had come into possession of a set of secret diaries belonging to the long-dead president.

The film, being a film and not a book, can’t mimic that conceit, and thus doesn’t bother with the prologue, but it goes a lot farther in not adapting the book than it would need to: It is a very, very, very different story, one that excises all of the history and replaces it with generic, B-movie bullshit, so that while Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: The Book was a surprisingly great read that transcends its mash-up gag title, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter The Movie lives up to the lame promise of that title...and does absolutely nothing more.

The book is always better than the movie, they say, but the movies are rarely this much worse.

Vampires are mostly removed from American history—no mention of Europe and Asia, of colonization, of Roanoke, etc—and removed from Lincoln’s own history (his grandfather was no longer killed by a vampire, for example). Its not vampires that spur Lincoln’s destiny to become the great emancipator (first by teaching him not to judge a book by its cover, later by their conspiracy to enslave all humanity as cattle, starting with blacks in the American south), but a fictional black bestie played by Anthony Mackie,a character, who, curiously, stays with this Lincoln throughout the movie, as does a composite character of two of those in the book played by Jimmi Simpson. Both apparently have cabinet-level positions in the Lincoln administration.

Given the crazy amount of historical inaccuracies—did you see the Washington Monument in the trailer, something the book itself notes wasn’t yet built?—which even includes something as basic as the number of Lincoln’s children, the liberties taken with the story are perhaps understandable, although in each case they are less-intersting, less-dramatic creative choices.

The biggest concern Lincoln’s relationship with his vampire-hunting mentor and vampire himself Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), and the fact that the United State’s vampire troubles all come down to a single, super-villain “boss” vampire character played by Rufus Sewell, rather than something more existential. That and, I suppose, Lincoln’s fate in the book versus his fate in the film…the book's sequel-ready ending was changed to something rather nonsensical, suggesting a Barack Obama: Vampire Hunter sequel which…well, it’s easiers to insert vampires into a story with as many gaps in it as the life of a 19th century president, rather than that of a 21st century present.

Oh, and the climax is entirely different, with Mary Todd Lincoln (played in a welcome but insane casting choice by super-hot former Ramona Flowers Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) save the union by smuggling silver along the underground railroad while Lincoln and his homies fight vampires on a flaming train on an actual railroad.

Hell, they don’t even make the vampires as cool as the jagged-toothed, coal-eyed, semi-immaterial, ghost-like wraiths of the book. Rather, they just make ‘em fairly generic movie vampires.

It’s a pretty awful movie, made more awful by the fact that it came from such smart, rich source material, which offered so much more filmic, cinematic goodness that didn’t make it to the screen. Maybe this will end up like Lord of The Rings, where they make a very trunctuated, shitty adaptation first, and then a few decades later do a very faithful, very awesome version…? (Maybe Dark Horse or IDW or someone can get the rights to adapt the novel into a comic book series that’s awesome…? A lot of comics adaptations of modern, fantastical prose tends to be super-shitty, but those are two publishers with pretty alright track records for adaptations in general).


The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953): It’s somewhat surprising how greatly superior the visual effects are in this film compared to those of many of the more popular giant monster movies to follow, many of them rather directly influenced by this one, which, according to the DVD bonus material, is apparently the very first film in which atomic weapons awaken a prehistoric monster and send it seeking revenge upon a major city (the formula that would eventually power the Godzilla franchise).

Credit is due to Ray Harryhausen, who handled the visual effects, and made the title monster the most life-like aspect of the film, which is filled by a fairly forgettable cast stiffly playing stock characters.

The monster is identified as a “Rhedosaurus,” an invented species of dinosaur unique to the film. It’s got the size of a large sauropod, the head of a T-Rex, the teeth and tongue of a snake, and the stock, splayed-legged body of a large lizard. It’s also a quadraped, which would make it pretty unusual for a carnivorous dinosaur of its size. No matter; the stop-motion is convincing enough that the beast looks real enough, no matter how impossible it might seem to 21st century science, and it has a look all its own among movie monsters.

After some particularly portentous build-up to the atomic testing, we get our first glimpse of the monster, which was apparently in suspended animation, frozen in arctic ice (just like Captain America!) until the bombing freed it.

Rather than the post-Jaws/Alien slow reveal that those films made semi-mandatory, director Eugène Lourié has it simply stroll onto screen in the background for the first time, a pretty effectively shocking introduction, and the kind that only really works when your monster is so convincingly animated that you’re thoroughly confident in its appearance and effect (2006 Korean flick The Host similarly just threw its monster out there).

After the heroic lead has difficulty convincing anyone he’s actually seen what he says he’s seen—everyone assumes he’s hallucinated the creature, even the paleontologist he visits—he eventually wins the female lead over by identifying the Rhedosaurus from a collection of drawings of prehistoric life. Everyone else comes around when the monster kills and destroys its way down the Atlantic coast, eventually climbing ashore in New York City to kill hundreds.

The black and white film certainly helps Harryhausen make his monster look so compelling, and he and Lourié carefully stage shots for maximum visual impact, like one of the beast attacking a lighthouse in silhouette, or peeking around corners and darting out of alleys in the city, the edges of the buildings making perfect natural borders with which to stage stop-motion animation within the live footage.

The drama and the human performances are about what you’d expect for such a movie from such an era, but that monster…!


The Crater Lake Monster (1977): A paleontologist working near the titular lake discovers a cave painting showing human stick figures fighting a dinosaur, providing evidence that dinosaurs and humans may have co-existed! (Speaking of which, how come Christians with a) hardcore, fringe beliefs, b) an interest in film and c) the money to finance films only devote themselves to making shit like Kirk Cameron Rapture dramas instead of awesome human vs. dinosaur movie Creationist propaganda? Any wealthy Creationists in the reading audience who wants to write me a check for a few thousand bucks to write comics about humans and dinosaurs co-existing, I would totally be into that! Noah versus dinosaurs on the eve of the flood, liopleurodons and pliosaurs all trying to eat them off the ark, Adam and Eve wandering through an antedeilluvian world of prehistoric monsters, whatever! Call me!)

Unlikely scientific discovery follows upon unlikely scientific discovery! A very small meteroid falls into the lake, warming the water enough to de-frost a plesiosaur egg that’s been at the bottom of it! And, months later, a full-grown plesiosaur is eating all of the indigenous wildlife and then turning its attention to the humans around the lake!

It’s an almost unbearably terrible movie—watching it, it became a bit more clear exactly why Star Wars was such a huge hit in 1977—although the stop-motion animation most-often used to create the monster is better than that of all the direct-to-DVD Z-movies I see (like Dinoshark, reviewed in the inaugural installment of this feature, or Sharktopus, reviewed below). That animation is used rather sparingly, and in other scenes the dinosaur is affected by what looks like a big rubber head and jaws; in one scene where it eats a person, the illusion is attempted by having the actor force his way into its mouth, and using his hands to open and close the beast’s jaws on himself, pretending like he’s fighting it off.

The humans include a couple of scientists, an incredulous sheriff and a couple of “comic” “relief” hillbilly stereotype characters (They even drink moonshine at one point!). Everyone has huge sideburns.

Despite a town argument over whether its better to kill the greatest scientific discovery of modern history, or to preserve it as the ultimate tourist attraction, the “kills” eventually have it, and the Crater Lake Monster meets its end when the sheriff clambers into a bulldozer and gently rubs the blade up and down over the monster’s red-painted stomach a few times.

You may have noticed I said it was a plesiosaur, whereas the movie poster above clearly is not a plesiosaur, but rather some kind of theropod. Don't believe the poster; whoever created it was apparently just told "dinosaur" and drew the first thing that came to mind.


Dark Tide (2011): Let’s see, based on the cover of the DVD I see this is a movie about…Halle Berry in a bikini and sharks or something…?

I am only human.

It’s the work of director John Stockwell, who somehow figured out a way to turn his career of making movies into an endless excuse to hang out in exotic places with scantily-clad, beautiful people: Dark Tide follows horrible torture-porn flick Turistas (set in Brazil, featuring very long underwater swimming sequences), Into The Blue (Jessica Alba-in-a-bikini/shirtless Paul Walker movie about diving for treasure or some such) and surfer girl movie Blue Crush, set and filmed in Hawaii.

The mode of this particular film is that of a thriller, and it opens with the dissolution of Halle Berry’s shark expert/shark tour guide business and life: Her mentor is killed by a shark and her lover Olivier Martinez, a filmmaker with dreams of making her into the Jacque Cousteau of Great Whites, leaves her.

Years later, she’s sworn off sharks…until Martinez returns with a very wealthy asshole willing to pay a ton of money if she can take him out to swim with sharks before he dies of cancer.

Things go wrong.

The drama is all pretty stock and predictable, but, as usual, Stockwell’s underwater scenes are beautiful and nicely done, and the shark business is realistic enough to be genuinely thrilling (unlike, say, those in Shark Night). Not nearly enough Halle Berry in a bikini though; I think the poster and DVD rather oversells that aspect of the film, but whatever sells tickets/gets a library patron like me to pick up the DVD case, I guess.


The Dictator (2012): What if Sacha Baron Cohen used his gift for character creation, and his ability to disappear into those characters, to come up with a funny composite version of the third world’s worst dictators, and then built a sort of Coming To America homage around the character? Would that be funny?

Sort of. His film definitely has its moments, and is superior to his other solo feature film efforts, excepting the brilliant but unrepeatable Borat.

There’s a really nice moment at the climax where he delivers a searing, sharp monologue about how great dictatorships can be, using examples chosen to illustrate the fact that the post-9/11 United States is pretty much already a dictatorship (or at least a country that has a surprisingly sizable overlap on the Venn diagram between “constitutional democracy” and “dictatorship").

Most of the best bits made it into the trailer, however, and the faux news package that runs at the beginning of the film to introduce us to Cohen’s Aladeen and his Republic of Wadiya. What remains are a few funny sketches, the best of which deal with language, a lot of tiresome sketches and attempts at gross-out humor, embedded in a too-rambling fish-out-of-water comedy with predictable romantic comedy elements.


Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos (2011): I didn’t much care for the previous Fullmetal Alchemist anime movie, Conqueror of Shamballah, which posited a sort of alternate reality featuring a few of the characters, so I was quite pleasantly surprised at how well this film turned out.

The Elric Brothers’ basic story—alchemists searching the world for a Philosopher’s Stone or other means through which to restore parts of themselves lost during an ill-considered childhood experiment with alchemy—is such that even after it’s over (manga or anime), it’s easy to fill in adventures that took place between the significant events of the series.

This is one such adventure, in which the boys become embroiled in a political struggle with no clear good guys or bad guys (like real political struggles, really), in which several of the players want to use their world’s ultimate weapon to resolve the conflict once and for all.

The moral ambiguity and narrative complexity is welcome—the boys’ own country of Amestris is complicit in the dire conditions of the people of Milos, and their conflict with their neighbors—as is the way the film manages to take everything good about the manga and anime series and highlight, even occasionally magnify those aspects, within this film. The bad guys of the FMA story are naturally absent here, but there is more than enough conflict and several new characters to fill any void left by the absence of the homunculi.

It’s difficult for me to tell, having read the manga and seen so many of the anime episodes before watching this standalone movie, but I think this would serve as a fairly strong entry point into the world of Fullmetal Alchemist, and the pleasures of Hiromu Arakawa’s epic comics series.


Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012): Is this a movie in which The Rock rides a giant bee? Yes, this is a movie in which The Rock rides a giant bee, as you can see from the cover of the DVD, which really emphasizes the bee-riding in a way the original movie poster did not.

The weird title sort of obscures the fact that this is a rather loose sequel to 2008’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, although all it really has in common with that film is the presence of Josh Hutcherson, who was the little boy in the previous film and is the angsty teenage boy in this one, and the fact that it’s not a direct adaptation of a Jules Verne story, but set in a world where “Vernians” know that what their idol wrote as fiction were really true accounts of real places that the devoted can journey to.

Hutcherson’s character is one such Vernian, whose obsession with finding his long-lost explorer grandfather (and fellow Vernian) Alfred Pennyworth puts a strain on his relationship with his new stepfather, The Rock (You’d think most teenage boys would be really excited to have The Rock be their dad, but not this kid!).

After a credibility-destroying, National Treasure-like scene where the pair crack a literary mystery in a few seconds, finding a map of and to the so-called mysterious island, they plan a trip there, joined by Luis Guzman and The Disney Starlet Who Texted Naked Photos of Herself to the Internet.

There they encounter a giant iguana, giant ride-able bees (controlled like personal airplanes by…I don’t know, telepathy…?), giant birds, the lost city of Atlantis, a now Nemo-less Nautilus and a giant eel.

The Rock is pretty good at movies like this, which allow him to be both an affable, game presence and a credible action hero in alternating scenes, and he carries this goofy movie ably.

I wish he were costumed in a different shirt, though. The one he wears throughout is super-tight and semi-sheer, so his nipples are visible throughout much of the film. And they’re…not where I thought his nipples would be. Like, if you were going to draw a picture of a shirtless muscle man, you’d put the nipples slightly higher and closer to the center of the torso than The Rock’s nipples look in this shirt, perhaps due to the tightness of the shirt, the size of The Rock’s pectoral muscles, or simply the fact that his nipples aren’t where the nipples of the Platonic ideal of a muscle man’s nipples are.

The Disney Starlet’s nipples are concealed (in the movie, not on the Internet), but she is costumed in a low-cut, tight tank top and tighter-still shorts, the latter of which are the compositional focus of a few frames in which she crawls through a tunnel, the camera presumably chasing her ass.

It’s a pretty good movie, I suppose. I’ve seen better films based on this particular Verne story (one of which I review below), but I’ve also seen much worse ones. I’ve never seen a movie in which The Rock rides a giant bee before this one, however, and I’m glad that’s something I saw in my lifetime.


King Solomon’s Mines (1950): I kept forgetting the title of this movie while watching it, so little does it actually have to do with King Solomon and/or his mines. Even H. Rider Haggard’s explorer character Allan Quartermain, whom I’m more familiar with as one of the characters re-created by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill in their League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics than from his original prose portrayal), seems rather generically played by Stewart Granger—he’s a one-dimensional male explorer/hero who gradually comes to realize that not only does he not mind being around a beautiful woman like Deborah Kerr’s Elizabeth Curtis character, he actually kind of loves her/wants to do her.

The Mines are basically just the maguffin goal of the film—actually, the real goal is to find Curtis’ long-lost husband, who disappeared while looking for them—and she and her brother hire Quartermain to take them deep into unexplored Africa in search of him. They face the regular Hollywood-African dangers, and their team is gradually whittled down to just the three of them.

It’s all decently well done, but there’s nothing that really stuck with me as exceptional, or that I hadn’t seen done better in other films of its sort.


Louie Season 2 (2012): Louis C.K.’s television show-as-a-series-of-short films is just as effective in its second season as it was in it’s first, and if anything the awkward, uncomfortable humor is even more so. The scene where a supporting character moves out of the country, putting our hero smack dab in the airport farewell scene from the end of far too many romance movies is just excrutiating to watch.

I liked the way the young girl playing Louie’s daughter pronounces the word “Daddy,” and laughed out loud when Pamela Adlon’s character exclaimed “Kick a Jesus in the face!” upon tasting a particularly delicious bowl of soup. (I don’t know; something about multiple Jesuses always makes me laugh).

Guest-stars this season include Chris Rock, Bob Saget and, in a particularly intense episode, Dane Cook, but I could have used some more Ricky Gervais as the doctor with the incredibly inappropriate sense of humor, which was a highlight from the first season.

I don’t follow comedy closely enough to know if the Cook/CK conflict over joke-stealing was at all based in reality or not, but it certainly felt real while I was watching and it was, I should perhaps point out, the first time I saw something involving Dane Cook that made me laugh.


Mirror Mirror (2012): The fact that this Julia Roberts vehicle turned out to be by far the best of this years big Snow White films is due almost entirely to the presence of Tarsem Singh, who always brings a unique and energetic sense of design and visual style to his work, regardless of the particular project, its genre or its intended audience.

This one, for example, is a family-friendly—PG-rated, even!—comedy adventure with a Princess Bride/Ella Enchanted tone, whereas his previous films include last year’s Immortals, 2006’s The Fall and 2000’s The Cell.

Roberts plays the wicked stepmother queen, while gorgeous newcomer Lily Collins is Snow White. In addition to the gorgeous design work that went into everything from the costumes to the set design to the creature at the climax, Singh and company bring a few particularly idiosyncratic touches to the table, including accordion-powered stilt-suits that allow the acrobatic, Robin Hood-like dwarven thieves to appear as unsettling-looking giants, a pair of magical marionette monsters that look like giant artists’ dolls and a monster in the climactic scene that looks like…well, like a whole bunch of other monsters smoothly blended and synthesized into something new and unique.

I was pretty surprised that this movie boasted much better action scenes and monster-design than the marketed-to-teens, action/adventure-take of Snow White and The Hunstman, but that is indeed the case: This is raven-haired head and snow white shoulders above the Kristen Stewart/Charlize Theron flick.


Miss Minoes (2001): This Dutch children’s movie stars Carice van Houten (yes, that Carice van Houten!) as the young woman a cat somehow turns into after being exposed to mysterious toxic waste. That is, Minoes (pronounced “min-oose”) has the mind of a cat trapped in the body of a young woman.

Confused and frightened by the human world, she is quickly befriended by a shy but good-hearted cat lover who is on the brink of losing his job as a reporter for his small-town newspaper, on account of being too shy and ineffectual to be a reporter.

That quickly changes when Minoes enters his orbit, however, and she feeds him scoops through her vast network of feline informants (Minoes is able to speak both Dutch and cat, you see), and soon the pair and a little girl friend of theirs find themselves the last line of defense between their town and a corrupt factory-owner who has everyone else fooled into thinking he’s the nicest guy in town.

The film, based on a book by “the most famous and popular writer of children’s books in The Netherlands,” is relentlessly charming, particularly if you’ve got a soft spot for fish-out-of-water comedy and people-acting-like-cat gags, and is performed mainly on very effectively artificial sets, which gives it a sort of carefully-crafted, almost surreal quality, particularly during the rooftop scenes.


Mysterious Island (1961): This much (much, much, much) more faithful adaptation of Jules Verne’s original story is mostly notable for its stop-motion monsters, provided by Ray Harryhausen.

During the Civil War, three union soldiers, a Confederate hostage and a war correspondent travel by a storm-tossed stolen hot air balloon to an uncharted island, and there they discover dangers far greater than the usual ones encountered on deserted islands.

Mostly of the giant-animal variety. Here it’s a giant crab, a giant, prehistoric bird (is this the first Terror Birdto make it to film, long pre-dating those in 2008’s 10,000 B.C.?), a tentacled monster that dwells within a nautilus shell and, of course, some giant bees. Rather than the friendly giant bees of Journey 2, these ones are pretty hostile to our heroes, at one point trying to seal them up in a honeycomb with some sort of regurgitated wax.

As with a lot of Harryhausen’s work, these sequences still seem vital, even thrilling. The rest of the movie? Well, it didn’t age quite as well.


Sharktopus (2010): The title tells you almost everything you need to know about this movie. It is about a half-shark, half-octopus created by some mad scientist types to serve as the U.S Navy’s greatest weapon, able to stalk and kill pirates and drug-runners at sea, with maximum deniability (How easy would it be to laugh off accusations that a government-controlled half-shark, half-octopus killed an enemy of America? It would be kind of like our drone missile program, if instead of using remote-controlled airplane-like drones to fire missiles at victims from above, the CIA sicced griffins on their targets).

That is, if you hear the word “sharktopus” and you think, “Cool!”, then you might want to see this movie. If you hear the word “sharktopus” and think, “Wow, that sounds stupid,” then you won’t want to see this movie.

Now, what the title doesn’t tell you about the movie is that it completely terrible, in every way that a movie can be terrible. Basically everything I said about the rather similar Dinoshark in a previous installment of this column can also be applied to this movie.

The title creature is a giant cartoon shark from the waist up, if we count the middle of the shark as its waist, and a giant octopus from the waist down, and it uses its tentacles to walk around on land or across the decks of boats (you know, like an octopus), and uses the razor-sharp tips of its tentacles to stab and impale its victims to death (you know, like an octopus).

Its creators have decided the best way to control it involves a metal explosive collar around its neck, and, when the propeller of a boat motor knocks the collar off, the monster is free to kill its many, many, many victims—mostly female and scantily clad, but never partially nude or engaged in any activity that might be even generously be described as “erotic”—for the remainder of the film’s interminable length.

Only the personality-free hero and the personality-free heroine, a war vet who worked for the mad scientists and the attractive daughter/genetics expert daughter of the main mad—stand in the sharktopus’ way.

The animation is the cheapest, least-realistic computer generation imaginable. I found myself squinting at various scenes, trying to re-imagine them with a differently-created sharktopus—spliced-in traditional 2D animation, stop-motion, Claymation, a guy in a rubber suit, a Muppet, a sock puppet—and every other available option seemed like it would have been better than what they ultimately came up with.

So even if you see the word “Sharktopus!” and think, “Cool!,” don’t be fooled—as cool as that inspired portmanteau word might be, as cool as the idea of a government-created sea monster used to assassinate the America’s sea-going foes might be, Sharktopus is, sadly, just not a very cool movie. Don’t see it.


The Valley of Gwangi (1969): If this film were made today, it would have been called Cowboys Vs. Dinosaurs, as that tells one everything one needs know about the plot, and today’s audiences seem to enjoy such dull, blunt, obvious titles: Even after the disappointing performance of Cowboys Vs. Aliens, of which all I can remember at this point is that Olivia Wilde is a goddess of beauty and that Harrison Ford is old, Barry Sonnenfeld is still collaborating with Grant Morrison on something called Dinosaurs Vs. Aliens.

Set “somewhere south of the Rio Grande at the turn of the century,” the film refers to “The Forbidden Valley,” where dinosaurs still live, ruled over by a Tyrannosaurus Rex that the few gypsies who know of the valley’s existence refer to as “Gwangi.” I guess the word is Hollywood Gypsy for “dinosaur,” or something.

All-American, condescending douchebag Tuck Kirby (played by James Fransiscus) visits a run-down Mexican circus whose star attraction is his former flame T.J. (the lovely Gila Golan) and Omar the Wonder Horse, whose wondrous ability is to transform both himself and T.J. into clay models when it comes time for him to leap off of a high diving board into a pool of water below.

Kirby wants to buy the circus for some reason, but T.J. has a knock-out act she’s sure will save it: She plans to exhibit the world’s smallest horse, an Eohippus or “dawn horse,” which has, of course, been extinct for millions of years.

Eventually gypsy thieves steal the little horse and attempt to return it to the valley, as they believe it bears a curse that will bring ruin upon the outside world, and Kirby, T.J. and a motley crew consisting of a couple of cowboys, an old paleontologist and a little boy follow them and it into the valley, where they discover a bizarre landscape filled with a Ray Harryhausen designed and animated dinosaurs.

There’s a rapid succession of surprisingly convincing and even thrilling encounters, including a pteradon seeking to carry one of their number off (and being punched to death!), attempts to lasso an Ornithomimus, a bravura sequence in which the mounted cowboys attempt to bring down the Gwangi using only their lariats and a Gwangi vs. Styracosaurus battle.

They eventually bring down the Gwangi, which is either a T-Rex or an Allosaurus (the bonus material says Harryhausen referred to it as both at different times, and it certainly bears characteristics of both), and decide the best thing to do with it would be to bring it back to civilization and exhibit it in the circus. It goes over about as well as Carl Denham’s plan to exhibit King Kong, and, after a fight with a stop-motion animated elephant, Gwangi rampages through the streets of a Mexican city, finally meeting his death in a burning cathedral.

While there’s not a whole lot to the film beyond the accomplished animation and dinosaur action, what’s there is there is golden. Even the sound effects, which include various roars and growls and heavy, labored breathing on the part of the beasts, are very well-executed.

The movie doesn’t seem to enjoy the reputation of some of Harryhausen’s other films, but I see no reason for that in the film itself.

While watching, I found myself wondering why Hollywood chose to remake 1981’s Clash of The Titans rather than this movie, as there are never enough dinosaur movies being made in post-Jurassic Park Hollywood for my tastes, but given the way the 2010 Clash remake turned out, I suppose that’s for the best (By the way, Dell adapted Gwangi into a pretty awful-looking comic book; maybe IDW or someone will get the rights to movie to produce an awesome version and miniseries expansions…?)

And hey, speaking of that shitty Clash of the Titans remake…


Wrath of the Titans (2012): Perhaps the most amusing aspect of this quickie sequel to the 2010 Clash of the Titans remake is that, though its based on classical Greek mythology, when it came time to think of more story to build 3D monster fights and action sequence around, the writers and producers didn’t go to the deep and rich well of pre-existing material, but decided to just make some dumb shit up.

It’s ten years after the events of the previous film, and Sam Worthington’s Perseus has given up his life of Kraken-slaying demi-god adventurer, grown his hair out and decided to raise his son as a humble fisherman, after the death of his wife Gemma Arterton, who didn’t want to be in this stupid movie.

Meanwhile, the Greek gods are losing their power as mankind ceases to have faith in them for some reason (this despite them all walking around and fighting and shit just ten years ago), and, with their powers fading, they are losing their ability to keep “The Titans” jailed within Tartarus.

(This raised a few questions for me. First, I was wondering if anyone knew where the gods-of-mythology-derive-their-power-from-the-faith-of-humanity device first came from; I first encountered it in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, but it’s so prevalent I’ve begun to wonder if it doesn’t pre-date Gaiman’s comics. Second, and actually having to do with the movie, how is it that if the Olympians are losing their powers due to the lack of humanity’s faith in them, the Titans aren’t? After all, they pre-dated the Olypmians, so shouldn’t their weakness or strength remain proportional to that of the Olympians?)

Perseus stubbornly refuses to help his dad Liam Neeson out, an doesn’t get involved until a pretty cool-looking chimera lands on his fishing village and almost kills his son. The chimera is probably the best design in the movie, and this is also probably the climax of the movie, despite the fight occurring and ending before the first fifteen minutes have passed—it’s imagined as the sort of real animal that might have inspired stories of a chimera, and it’s given a weird biological explanation for breathing fire, with the goat head (a dragon head with a massive horn) spitting gasoline drool, and the lion head (a dragon head with a mane and two little horns) spitting a spark.

Perseus gathers some allies, including the half-son of Poseidon and Andromeda (who is now being played by the pretty Rosamund Pike, and is a warrior queen rather than the naked sea monster sacrifice she’s usually depicted as) and, eventually, dad Liam Neeson and some other gods (Oddly, Neeson’s Taken character still seems more unstoppably bad-ass then his Zeus, who is all, like, shooting lightning bolts and creating force fields and shit).

The intended climax of the film, in which Kronus—a speechless, barely sentient giant—takes the place of the Kraken for a more-or-less identical sequence, is pretty dull, especially after the chimera fight and a pretty neat-looking labyrinth, with only the monsters identified on the movie posters as “Makhai,” and as “The Titans” in the movie, bringing life to the final battle scenes (These are big, four-armed humanoids with smaller, second torsos with its own head and set of arms coming out of their backs).
You can’t really tell from that poster image, or even their earlier appearances in the film, but at the end, when they run around all spider-y, they’re kind of cool.

That’s the whole film in general, actually—some kinda cool things in an uninspired, generally generic film that is nevertheless of some interest if you’re curious about the way familiar characters and creatures are designed and redesigned by different creators.

Still no Calibos or mechanical owl Bubo, though. Maybe for the rumored third film in the series….?


BOOKS


Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith (Grand Central Publishing; 2012) It has now been so long since I actually read this book—I read it in the spring—that I’m afraid it’s not as clear in my head as I would like it to be before I said much of anything about it.

It’s the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter author’s re-telling of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus, a fast-paced action-adventure story in which Balthazar is a thief who breaks out of a prison with two other criminals disguised in the robes of holy men, and find themselves protecting the Holy Family from the forces of Rome (lead by a young Pontius Pilate) and the decadent, decrepit King Herod.

It’s noteworthy how well Grahame-Smith is able to expand upon the basic story without contradicting much of what’s in the historical record (basically, in The Bible), and the way he approaches the existence of God and the divinity of the infant Jesus. Balthazar and his fellow wise men aren’t believers, to say the least, and come down pretty hard on Mary and Jesus…and yet, the baby doesn’t act quite like a baby in such circumstances should act.

Some of Grahame-Smith’s plotting is a little too precise, particularly when it comes to the fate of two of those wisemen, but it’s a pretty good, Hollywood-ready adventure story, with enough Biblical allusions and rethinking to elevate it above a simple genre exploration.

What first attracted me to the book, however, was that incredible cover design, which is the main reason I’m talking about it at all here, so many months after reading it.

That is a lovely evocative cover, and in addition to the mysterious blocky, hunched, slightly spooky figures of the wisemen, I was particularly drawn to the white star-shape in the center of the image, which doubles as a sword being held by the middle figure and the traditional image of the star of Bethlehem.

It's a pretty good book, and a pretty great book cover.


AUDIOBOOKS

Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to bu Ghraib by Seymour M. Hersh: This is a collection of articles, essays and original reporting from Seymour Hersh, seemingly the last living old-school investigative journalist, dating from the Bush administration. Much of it is concerned with the U.S. shameful mistreatment of prisoners of war, terrorist suspects and just plain prisoners, and the official actions taken to cover up that mistreatment. The expression “read ‘em and weep” wasn’t created to refer to Hersh’s articles, but it might as well have been—there’s hardly a more appropriate one.


Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden—from 9/11 to Abbottabad by Peter L. Bergen: As the Obama administration has sought to trumpet their success in finally doing what the Bush administration couldn’t in finding and dispatching Osama bin Laden, there’s been a weird but perhaps predictable pushback from Obama’s political rivals.

Deciding to go after bin Laden was a no-brainer, the talking point goes, who wouldn’t decide to shoot Osama bin Laden in the face if they were in Obama’s shoes at the time?

Bergen’s book puts the lie to that. As it turns out, finding bin Laden and making damn sure that he was where they suspected he was going to be and that they weren’t going to screw it up at all was never really a slam-dunk, no-brainer sort of decision.

Even knowing ultimately how it will all turn out, the most tense parts of Bergen’s book is the long stretch during which intelligent analysts have zeroed in on the Abbottabad compound, but can’t come to any consensus degree of certainty regarding whether or not it’s really bin Laden dwelling there, they’re estimates given in wildly varying percentages, and few of them coming up with the same numbers.

When the trigger is finally pulled, for example, there are estimates as low as 30% and others as high as 80% that its bin Laden living there, but even the most certain are a long way from 100%, and, even if were 100%, there was enormous risk of something going wrong with the mission or word leaking out and Obama or whoever was there slipping away.

It’s a pretty gripping read, full of a surprising amount of detail about what the last decade or so of bin Laden’s life was like and the hunt for him was like inside the U.S. government.

Bergen’s book most certainly won’t be the last word on this subject, but these are certainly strong first words.


Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward: Well, I’ll say this for the Bush Administration: They were a hell of a lot more fun to read about, even in Bob Woodward books. President Obama’s administration has some colorful figures, particularly at the start when Rahm Emanuel was still chief of staff, but it wasn’t packed with the larger-than-life, outsized personalities and egos constantly at war with themselves and with each other the way the Bush administration was.

Woodward’s book about Obama’s wars—both of which were, of course Bush’s wars; one that Obama wanted to escalate, another that he wished we hadn’t even started—is really all about the conflicts of various factions of the people in charge of fighting those wars.

You know, the political people vs. the government people, the Chicago people vs. the Washington people, the military establishment vs. the new, results-focused leadership, and so on. Basically, this is a chronicle of the bureaucratic wars fought behind the scenes of the real wars and, as such, it kind made me miss some of the lunatics from the previous administration. Kinda.


Star Wars: Dark Empire: I grabbed this on a whim right before taking a 45-minute car trip. It’s not really an audiobook in the traditional sense of the term, although it was shelved with the aduiobooks at my library.

If I’m understanding it correctly, it is an audio dramatization of Tom Vietch’s comic book series for Dark Horse of the same name. That is, there’s no narration or anything; the story is told completely through the dialogue, which is here provided by a full cast, rather than a single reader, and there are plenty of sound-effects, including the oh-so-familiar sounds of light sabers, blaster blasts, R2D2’s tweedles and Chewbacca’s wookie roars.

The story is set shortly after the events of Return of the Jedi, and, while this will elicit a “No shit” from anyone who really follows the expanded universe stuff—that is, any of the many novels and comics and videogames that tell bits of the story that weren’t covered in the original three movies, the only ones made at the time this exists—the Alliance vs. Empire war didn’t really end with that Ewok victory song.

That’s…kind of strange, given the finality of the film, but, when this opens, the Galactic Empire has fractured somewhat, but is still fighting the Rebel Alliance and, even more surprising, the Emperor is still alive. Like a comic book villain, he survived his apparent death, and is back again, thanks to…clone bodies and Dark Side of the Force mastery and whatever.

This was kind of fun to listen to on a car ride; basically a fourth installment of the original trilogy, albeit one I imagined the imagery for to go along with the sounds. Where was this when I was in grade school?

The various voice actors all seemed to do a pretty decent job of affecting the voices of the actors who played the characters, with the sole exception of the guy playing Lando Calrissian. His voice was so over the top that it sounded like a comedian doing an exaggerated impression of Billy Dee Williams.

When it ended, I listened to the credits to see if I recognized any of the actors and imagine my chagrin when I learned the only member of the original Star Wars cast to lend his or her voice to this particular project was Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian.


Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Outcast by Aaron Allston: Following my experience with Dark Empire, I sought out another Star Wars audiobook, and my library system had dozens. I settled on this one simply because it was sent in the continuity closest to the original trilogy—that is, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and those guys were in it—and it was the first installment of a series, as there are apparently many long-running series of novels within the shared Star Wars universe.

The shared universe wasn’t the only thing that reminded me of the narrative experiences of reading comics set in the DC or Marvel Universes. I was almost immediately confronted with the fact that I missed a lot of story, story which was continually being referenced back to within this narrative, story that I was sort of expected to know in order to follow and/or enjoy this.

It’s set at least a generation after Return of the Jedi, with Luke, Leia and Han all parents with teenage or adult children. The plot here involves a mind-controlled or crazy-person Jedi lashing out, and the press and government blaming the Jedi Order. It’s probably part of a conspiracy to discredit the Jedi but, in order to find out, Grandmaster Luke Skywalker accepts the punishment of being banished, and he and his teenage son Ben go off to investigate the trail of a character from other novels I didn’t read, hoping to figure out what’s going on.

Meanwhile, Han, Leia, their granddaughter and the droids go to some spice-mining planet to help out Lando Calrissian with some weird problem of his. Particular sub-conflicts are resolved, but the greater conflict regarding the conspiracy and the Jedi standing in society is left unanswered by the end of the volume.

Like Dark Empire, there are sound effects, and some small part of me will always get a little happier and more excited when I hear the sound of a light saber or a blaster blast.

The book is read and performed by Marc Thompson, who does a pretty incredible job of affecting different voices…I enjoyed his interpretations of various alien species’ voices, which are extreme enough in variance form a “human” voice that it can be easy to forget this is a one-man show. Of the aliens, the best voice is probably that of Master Cilghal (I’m guessing on spelling here), a doctor and Jedi who is of the Mon Calimari aliens…those fishy, lobster-looking people of which Admiral “It’s a trap!” Ackbar belonged.

Thompson’s Lando voice was pretty funny, too, as he does an extreme Billy Dee Williams impression in which everything he says sounds like a self-consciously sexy come-on, or something a laconic cowboy would way, with the median result being Lando as sexy cowboy.

He does a newscaster who talks exactly like Tom Brokaw and, amusingly but perplexingly, he gave the character Master Kenth Hamner, who replaces Luke as the boss of the Jedi when our hero gets himself exiled, the voice of President Richard Nixon. I have no idea why he made this choice, but the visual it inspired was probably my favorite part of this weird-ass listening experience.

That, and hearing the space names given to the Star Wars equivalents for normal Earth stuff. Like, instead of coffee they “drink caff” and instead of showers they take “sanisteams” and instead of watches they have “chronometers” and instead of pork sausage they eat “bantha links” and so on.

I can’t say I’d recommend listening to this—although I imagine that it’s a lot more funny than reading it, as you’d have to do your own funny voices while reading—but it was interesting to see just how big the Star Wars story has gotten, and to experience it as a newcomer. I suppose it felt much like it must feel for people who, say, pick up a Green Lantern comic for the first time.

2 comments:

snell said...

The original series Star Trek episode Who Mourns For Adonis put out the idea that without humans to worship them, the gods (albeit aliens who served as the Greek gods way back when) would "fade away." So, the ideas been around since at least 1967...

David Jones said...

Gwangi has always been a favorite movie of mine, mostly due to constant airings on the CBS Late Movie when I was a teen in the 70's. I love the score, especially the opening credits theme, which has always sounded to me like Wagner mixed with Copeland, a bombastic valentine to old Hollywood B Westerns.