Monday, June 24, 2013

EVERYTHING ELSE:

BOOKS

Monsters of West Virginia: Mysterious Creatures in the Mountain State (Stackpole Books; 2012) by Rosemary Ellen Guilley: The cover, featuring a very moth-like, very mannish version of The Mothman is obviously what first attracted me to this book, but if you've slogged through very many of these massive not-comics posts in the past, then you know I'm pretty interested in monsters, real, imaginary or, in the case of creatures like Mothman and most of those covered herein, somewhere in-between.

In addition to being a researcher of ghosts, UFO, Forteana and suchlike paranormal phenomena, Guiley has published some 50 books, and I imagine she's had plenty of time to come to her own conclusions.

In her introduction, she explains West Virginia's rather impressive CV regarding the supernatural or paranormal—"Although the Native Americans hunted there, they made no permanent settlement in West Virginia," she wrote, "They considered the land cursed and full of bad spirits." It's also a mountainous state, almost all mountain, filled with hollows and valleys called "holllers," and at least partially bordered by the Ohio River, home to several famous supernatural creatures.

And she lays out her own theory to explain all sorts of paranormal activity, that UFOs monsters and the like are visitors from different dimensions, which sometimes stumble into our reality in places where the borders between dimensions are more porous. It's not too far removed from John A. Keel's theories, particularly as regards "ultraterrestrials," and, indeed, she mentions Keel in her intro, and the fact that she knew him.

Her book's 12 chapters are devoted either to well-known monsters capable of carrying their own chapters, like cover boy Mothman and The Flatwoods Monster (which she calls by the name The Braxton County Monster, and notes its other names as The Green Monster and The Phantom of Flatwoods) and visitor from Maryland The Snallygaster (who apparently had a beverage named after it in the 1960s; a float made out of Mountain Dew and vanilla ice cream) and the local variant of Bigfoot (The Yayho), and broader groups or categories of monsters like "Monster Birds, Thunderbirds, and Flying Reptiles," "Mystery Dogs, Demon Dogs, and Werewolves," and "Strange Felines."

My favorite chapter was definitely "White Things and Sheepsquatch," which described two creatures I've never heard of. The former come in the shapes and sizes of various quadrapeds (only sometimes they have more than four legs), and they are covered in long, white, shaggy hair and have large, fang-filled mouths. Their cries are "chilling screams like a woman being raped or murdered" and, most curiously, they ferociously attack, but while the pain inflicted on human victims is real, the wounds are not. They're afraid of graveyards, and won't enter.

Sounds kinda like a random collection of traits, which is, of course, part of what makes 'em sound pretty cool.

The latter is a particular, bipedal White Thing with a long, hairless tail and single point goat-like horns. As described, he sounds like something from Where The Wild Things Are, and I really like compound words applied to monsters, like giant owl Big Hoot or bat-winged hairy hominid Batsquatch.

Her chapter on Mothman seems to hit all of the highlights, and to summarize the phenomenon well (Her bibliography features plenty of Keel, other popular Mothman books and Gray Barker's The Silver Bridge which, like everything else Barker reported on, should probably be taken with a huge grain of salt, given his known proclivity for hoaxing). She connects Mothman to earlier sightings of a Birdman, and also extrapolates the idea of Mothman as a widely accepted portent of doom seen around the world before disasters, something I've heard asserted, but never explained outside of the (not very good) 2002 Mothman Prophecies movie.

Maybe that's in The Silver Bridge...? That's about the only Mothman book I've never been able to get my hands on yet.


Searching For Ropens: Living Pterosaurs in Papua New Guinea (WingSpan Press; 2007) by Jonathan David Whitcomb: I've heard the term "ropens," used to describe reported relic populations of pterosaurs, in other reading on cryptozoology and the paranormal in the past, but it was Jerome Clark's Unexplained! (reviewed in a previous installment of this column) that brought this particular book to my attention. It took some looking, but I finally found it at an Ohio library that shares books with my library, and upon getting my hands on it, I immediately detected something a little off about it.

First, it had the look of a cheaply-made, self-published book, with a particularly dull cover for a book about possible surviving pterosaurs. Secondly, the blurbs on the back weren't from authors or experts or critics, but "From readers of the first edition," all of whom went not by their names, but by initials (Sample blurb: "...a talented writer..." T.B.). Third, while the library that owned it had it shelved at 567.9 in the Dewey Decimal System (specific dinosaur types), the back of the book itself suggests the three following categories, in this order: Spiritual, Inspirational, True Life Adventure.

Whitcomb is an adventurer—or, at least in this case, someone who went on an adventure. And he's something of an amateur cryptozoologist, in that he traveled to Papua New Guinea on a quest to find and film a ropen (His day job is a forensic videographer). But he's also an ardent and faithful Christian and, relevant to this adventure, a Creationist who doesn't believe in evolution.

I'm pretty sure I've talked about this at several points in the seven or so years I've been writing Every Day Is Like Wednesday, but I'm a mixed-up Catholic whose entire formal education, from kindergarten to college, was at Catholic schools, and at no point in that education was I ever subjected to Creationism, Intelligent Design or even the "teaching of the controversy," beyond the settling of that controversy in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

I can't even wrap my head around Creationism or Intelligent Design, as I don't see anything mutually exclusive in belief in an omniscient, omnipotent God and an evolutionary process that takes millions and millions of years. If God can do anything, why can't he be the force and author behind evolution? The only reason to doubt that, as far as I can see, is a fundamentalist, literal belief in every word of the Bible, which I find even harder to understand: The story of the Earth's seven-day creation, after all, would have been orally passed down until it was recorded in Aramaic and/or Hebrew, translated into Greek, translated into Latin and German and English, and then smoothed out in different versions of different Bibles before it was preached and read here in America in our lifetimes. I'm okay with "day" being a metaphor. (Jesus gets called "the lamb of God" and that's taken metaphorically; why do fundamentalists insists on a 148-hour creation process, but none insist that Jesus sometimes turned into a baby sheep? Why is the understanding of the use of metaphor in the Bible so selective?).

So I'm skeptical of Creationist thought, which is as perplexing and alien to me as the tenants of any religion on Earth, past or present, that I've heard about, despite the fact that most Creationists and I were raised within different sects of the same broad religious tradition.

Now what's that have to do with pterodactyls?

Well, you see, a large part of the reasons Whitcomb went looking for them is that he believes the discovery of surviving pterosaurs would deal a staggering blow to the theory of evolution. How it would do so, exactly, is unclear to me (There are few books I've read—at least that I've made it all the way through—where I wanted to talk to the author to ask for clarification so often as I did while reading Ropens).

Whitcomb thinks that finding a living dinosaur would prove that the dinosaurs did not all die 65 million years ago or evolve into birds. I see no reason why this would be the case. Whitcomb himself brings up the Coelacanth, the existence of which was quite astounding, but didn't do away with the theory of evolution. And there are actually a fairly large number of animals that lived with the dinosaurs that also survived—crocodiles, turtles, sharks, various insects and fish—and their existence hasn't been seen as a rebuke of Darwin or evolution (In fact, they sort of support the theory of "survival of the fittest").

Discovering a ropen would indeed be amazing, but I can't imagine it would cause many scientists to turn from science to a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, and a belief in a young earth (Many Creationists calculate the age of the Earth at around 6,000 years, by adding up the lifespans of all the dudes whose lifespans are included in the Bible; Whitcomb differs from them by noting that there's no reason to believe that when the authors of the Bible calculated Adam's life-span, they began with his creation, as he was technically immortal until he got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. We can't know how long he lived there—hundreds of years? Thousands of years?—before the 900 and change the Bible says constituted his life. Whitcomb also believes the 6,000 years + Adam's Garden Time figure applies only to Earth, not the entire galaxy or universe, which he allows may have existed before Earth).

So Whitcomb's quest to film a living ropen is as much a spiritual quest as a scientific one, and as he himself reveals (and, I imagine, would be the first to admit), he was looking for evidence to support his belief, not objective evidence to prove or disprove a dispassionately held hypothesis. He's convinced the ropen is real, and wants to find the proof to convince others. Naturally, this makes him awfully (overly) credulous, and willing to err on the side of accepting secondary evidence as more compelling that it should be.

And so second and third-hand reports of ropen sightings are cited as proof, and if one scoffs at eyewitness testimony, given to him first-hand or second-hand, then one must doubt the sincerity or sanity of the witnesses, and he can't find any reason why any of them would lie about it, going into some detail as to why this might be (Of course, by that standard, UFOs are real, aliens abduct people regularly for medical and sexual experiments, Bigfoot is real and at least as populous as some species of bear in the continental United States and there's a lake in Scotland which is filled to the brim with huge aquatic animals of all shapes).

Even more gallingly, Whitcomb counts the sighting of ropen lights as sightings of ropens, which is, obviously, a bit problematic.

But let's backtrack a bit. What is a ropen? Well, it's a large, winged, flying reptile, likely a relic of dinosaur times. They differ in size from fairly large to titanic, with wingspans approaching 17 meters long. They seem to live on mountain tops, fly by night, and hunt for coral reef fish or large oysters, although there are reports of them carrying off people and scavenging corpses from graveyards.

And, most remarkably, they are apparently bioluminescent. That is, they glow. Accounts on the source of the light—the whole beast, just the tail—and the coloration of those lights vary. As does the intensity of that light (whether it lights up the environment around the ropen, or is used as a searchlight, or if it just makes the ropen itself glow), and then there's the matter of the usage of the glow—if they subsist as fishers, it's possible it's used as a lure to trick fish closer to the surface in the night.

Oh, and in some accounts, the ropen light gives off sparks, and can burn human flesh that touches it, so that whatever makes them glow seems to be some kind of liquid secretion.

Whitcomb doesn't get into the obvious questions scientists would consider regarding the possibility of such creatures' existence. For example, how does bioluminescence work, exactly? What is the largest animal to ever exhibit bioluminescence? (The only ones I can think of are insects and aquatic life).

Is there enough food on the mainland, the islands and other places ropen might exist to support the one or two or handful of ropens that Whitcomb believes live there? (I'm pretty sure a breeding population would have to be fairly large).

And is it physically possible for creatures that large to take flight? The biggest birds we have today are all remarkably light (none are capable of lifting a human, even a small child), and even the biggest pterosaurs we know of—Hatzegopteryx and Quetzalcoatlus—are generally estimated to have 11-meter wingspans and to weigh less than 200 pounds, although some have estimated they could potentially have grown as large as Whitcomb's ropens (in which case, they'd weigh around 500 pounds).

As I recently learned from Planet Dinosaur (also covered in a previous installment of this column, these creatures were so large, scientists weren't sure how they could fly, and assumed they could only glide, until it was theorized they moved around on the ground in a quadrupedal fashion, and perhaps could have pushed off the ground using their powerful forelimbs as well as their hind legs.

But Whitcomb doesn't get into the biology and physics of glowing and flying animals.

Another problem? Those known giants all lack tails, whereas the sightings Whitcomb reports and investigates, like the composite creature he comes up with, have a very, very long tail, like much smaller pterosaurs in the fossil record (Sidenote: Do you know where Creationists think fossils come from? The deluge that Noah's Ark floated over. That is what did all the dinosaurs in...with the possible exception of the ropen, although I'm not sure why the deluge would have spared some giant flying reptiles while killing all the others*).

His theory to explain this is that the smaller pterosaurs that sport tails in the fossil record may actually just be juvenile versions of the super-pterosaurs like the ropen.

So while he and his expedition fail to find a ropen, and the subsequent expeditions also failed to find one, he and other Western explorers do see and record ropen lights, which would simply be objects emitting light seen from a great distance. He does go about eliminating various explanations—it couldn't be a plane or a comet or a meteor because of the longevity, or the angle of flight, or the types of movement—but that doesn't explain that they are ropen and not, say ghosts like those seen after the containment unit is shut down at the climax of Ghostbuster or Cobra trouble bubbles painted with glow-in-the-dark paint or glowing robotic pterodactyls created by a Scooby-Doo villain who heard the legend of the ropen and wants to scare snooping teenage mystery-solvers from finding his smuggling operation based in the islands off the mainland of Papua New Guinea.

Whitcomb's book is sort of all over the place, with major digressions into criticism of the theory of evolution, the nature of belief as applied to science and faith, the results of an expert analysis of films of the purported ropen-lights and, most weirdly, a computer program he created which he purports disproves creation. To me, it's all a moot point: On the one hand, I don't think belief in God and belief in natural science are mutually exclusive and, for another, they are two entirely different conversations with little bearing on one another. You can't disprove science and assert a tenant of faith just because; well, you can, but you're unlikely to convince anyone who doesn't already share your belief.

One more point of criticism, before I say something nice about the book, which I honestly did enjoy reading and which did fire my imagination, even if I found myself shaking my head while doing much of that reading.

The appendix includes a section entitled "Living Pterosaurs in the Bible," which I was quite excited to read, as I've read the Bible, and have no memory of a pterosaur, or a dinosaur of any kind (unless you count the description of Behemoth) in it.

Whitcomb picks up on a mention of "fiery serpents" and writes this:
Take your pick whether "fiery" refers to their color, to the burning produced by their venomous bite, or to a bioluminescent glow at night (The glow of the ropen causes some eyewitnesses in Paupua New Guinea to compare it to a fire.) What were these "serpents of the Old Testament? Were they snakes?
No, they were ropens.

Whitcomb believes the Middle East was home to "a small venomous Rhamphorynchoid pterosaur," noting that a long-tailed reptile with its wings folded would look like a snake, and desert-dwelling Israelites would have been easy prey to a flying, poisonous reptile.

He also mentions John 3:14, translated variously, but let's go with good old King James: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up."

Does a snake on a pole (this refers to something in the book of Numbers), represent Jesus? Not as well, Whitcomb argues, as a "a copper figure of a small long-tailed pterosaur attached to a pole...outstretched wings to the sides, doesn't this better represent a man's outstretched arms on a cross?" He goes on to discuss how the pterosaur cold be a potent symbol for Christ, "If pterosaurs flew above earthbound snakes in Egypt and Arabia over two thousand years ago, it could symbolize the power of Jesus Christ over Satan."

Now, I find the thought of pterodactyl as a symbol of Christ intriguing, and at least as intriguing as a fish or lamb; it's certainly a more bad-ass symbol, isn't it? (Although visions of a church with a pterodactyl on a cross at the front sure brings to mind some sort of pagan faith from a sword-and-sorcery story doesn't it? The sort of place Conan might bust up?)

But my mind is quite thoroughly boggled by the fact that Whitcomb takes the Bible so literally that he believes in a 6,000-ish year-old earth and a flood that killed all life on earth save that which Noah gathered on a boat, but can extrapolate pterosaurs out of a pair of references to serpents in the Bible.

(The Bible is also full of references to unicorns: Numbers 23:22, Pslams 22:21, Deuteronomy 33:17, Isaiah 34:7, Job 34:9-12 and Pslams 22.21, 24:6, 92:10. There's more Bibilcal evidence for a unicorn than a ropen, but I've yet to encounter Searching For Unicorns. According to Chris Laver's excellent The Natural History of Unicorns, the "unicorn" of the Bible most likely comes down to a translation and/or transcription quirk, and actually refers to the extinct auroch; looking up translations online, I see that many Bibles have translated King James' "unicorn" into "ox" or "wild-ox.")

So my own beliefs and worldview differ quite strongly from those of Whitcomb, and while I enjoy hearing stories about ropens and relic dinosaurs, I'm completely unconvinced by the scant evidence he gathers, and disappointed in his efforts to present such lacking evidence as evidence, and am somewhat bewildered with his arguments for the existence of ropen and their importance in refuting evolution, which I always thought of as fairly settled science but is actually apparently some sort of insidious superstition.

I still liked reading his book, and his strange, barely-supported beliefs. Parts of the book read like a travelogue to an exotic place, and there are glimmers of a fascinating story in there of an open-minded man going on a dinosaur hunt for quixotic reasons. Whitcomb's book is poorly organized, but he's not a bad writer, and his style is engaging; better still, he has a sense of humor, which always goes a long, long way.

Whitcomb has a fascinating book in him, but I'm afraid this isn't really the book that Searching For Ropens hints exists in there somewhere.

And speaking of fascinating books, I do hope some excellent objective writer out there with an agent and a publishing house goes about crafting an exhaustive book about the intersection of Creationism and Cryptozoology, as it's a fascinating area full of fascinating stories.


Tracking The Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore (University of New Mexico Press; 2011) by Benjamin Radford: Among all the cryptids and/or urban legendary monsters to haunt our hemisphere, the Chupacabra is perhaps the most fascinating in that we've been able to see it's birth and spread in our lifetimes, and it seems to be a creature of our lifetimes—The Bigfoot phenomenon, for example, might have kicked off in earnest in the 1950s, but roots going back to the tales of indigenous people supported it. The Chupacabra, on the other hand, just sort of appeared and spread like wildfire.

In his book, Radford gives the creature an incredibly thorough going-over, tracking the origins of the sightings—which happened to line up with coverage of previous sightings rather nicely—investigating them as thoroughly as possible, examining and eliminating various theories to explain (and/or explain away) the Chupacabra, going over cases of captured or killed "Chupacabras" in the Southwestern United States (those hairless, mange-stricken canids you occasionally see videos of on the Internet) and ultimately exposing what he believes (and presents a pretty strong case for) the unlikely genesis of The Chupacabra: 1995 horror film Species, sensationalist media and media-induced mass hysteria.

Works for me, but your mileage, of course, may vary. I really liked a lot of aspects of Radford's book, in which I learned an awful lot of both science junk (like how vampire bats actually "suck" blood) and cultural hisotry.

There's a rather nice long section discussing The Chupacabra in pop culture, which mentions Tom Beland and Juan Doe's Fantastic Four special Isla de la Muerte, the plot of which heavily involves Los Chupacabras, and a whole list of films I kinda wanna track down some day.


AUDIOBOOKS

The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Mark Bowden: This is at least the third book I've listened to on the subject, following Mark Owen's No Easy Day and Peter Bergen's Manhunt, but despite that fact, I'm not, like, obsessed by the story or anything. I blame the popularity of the story, in that it keeps generating new books, which keep getting recorded as audiobooks, which my library keeps ordering, which are always on the new audiobook shelf when I reach for something non-fiction to listen when I have a long-ish drive ahead of me.

This one differs from the other two in, I think, its more recent vintage, meaning facts have settled a bit, and myths about the events have had time to emerge, which Bowden (author of Black Hawk Down) can therefore research and either dispel or uphold.

Among the myths he explores near the end are exactly how heroically bold a decision of President Barack Obama's it was to go after bin Laden—while it's true not everyone agreed with the raid option, it's also true Obama wasn't alone in supporting it (Bowden notes that two-time Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney once specifically ruled out going after a high-value target in Pakistan—and whether or not torture had anything to do with finding bin Laden—it may have, in that one of the dots that would eventually be connected came from someone who was tortured (It certainly wasn't as cut and dry as an American interrogator yelling "Tell us where The Sheik is!" between rounds of water-boarding until the torture victim gave up the address in Abottabad).

No sign of the Jessica Chastain character from Zero Dark Thirty in this account, although someone not unlike her shows up in Owen's account.

The audiobook is read by James Lurie, whose voice occasionally sounds uncannily like Casey Kasem's to me.


DVDs

The Dinosaur Project (2012): In this found-footage take on the The Lost World concept (from Ireland, if you're wondering why you never heard of it), the incredibly respectable British Cryptozoological Society is setting out on an expedition to the Congo in search of Mokele Mbembe, to a great deal of straight media fanfare (It's a science fiction film, then). It is presented as the cut-together results of all the film found in a backpack floating down the river, and while director Sid Bennett cheats a bit with the found-footage concept, giving the character's all chest-mounted mini-cameras that allows them to record just about anything as if he wasn't using the premise, it works remarkably well for a low-budget way of making a dinosaur film.

So, for example, instead of having to spend the money to either convincingly render a cool-looking sea-going reptile (or just have a very cheaply-made computer effect appear on-screen), he can offer a glimpse of a neck, some static, screaming and shouting.

Not that the dinosaurs all appear off-screen or anything. Those that appear—including some large pterosaurs that accidentally crash into the expedition's plane, smaller, carnivorous pterosaurs, a juvenile theropod the lead character tames with candy—are all rather well-rendered. It's just a nice, organic shortcut.

The project is lead by a swashbuckling, well-respected crytpozoologist (again, sceince fiction), his envious organizer, a cute girl medic who doesn't survive long, some camera men (including a "funny" one), a native guide, and the neglected son of the project leader, who stows away on the trip.

After their plane is downed, they follow the river, having several dinosaur sightings of various degress of danger, before discovering a secret entrance to a lost world where dinosaurs still exist.

The inter-personal drama is broad and predictable, and the son's rapid friendship with a dinosaur a little cloying, but I found it a nice, modern take on Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World, and it was refreshing to see a film dealing in part with a cryptid seemingly having the first idea about it and even the method by which the pocket of dinosaurs was separated and isolated from the rest of the world made a sort of sense.

Found-footage filmmaking is understandably meeting more and more resistance from a lot of quarters, but it worked quite well here. Considering the quality of most modern cheap dinosaur movies, Dinosaur Project is, relatively, kind of brilliant.

It's no Trollhunter, though.

Django Unchained (2012): Finally, a movie where Quentin Tarantino can use the N-word all he likes and kinda sorta get away with it, given the setting!

Seriously, I liked this an awful lot, thought Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leondardo DiCaprio all did kick-ass jobs on it, and were I given final cut of the film for some damn reason, the only things I might change were chopping out the Jonah Hill cameo (because, at that point, all I could think was, "Hey, what's Jonah Hill doing in this movie all of a sudden?") and re-casting Tarantino's small role, because holy shit, that sucked...and I kinda like his acting once in a while! (I even liked Destiny Turns on the Radio! Granted, I haven't watched it since that first time in the theater when I was 17, but I do remember liking it).


An Idiot Abroad Series 1 and 2 (2012, 2013) Being an American, and not an especially savvy one when it comes to Things That Are Popular On The Internet or Things that Are Popular In England, I had never heard of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's podcast, nor had I any idea who Karl Pilkington was, or what his precise relationship was with the two well-known comic presences, when I borrowed the DVD collection of the first series of this unusual travel program.

The idea is simple and inspired. Gervais and Merchant take their friend Pilkington, a "typical Little Englander" who is very set in his ways and doesn't like deviating from his comfort zone, and send him around the world with a camera crew in order to see The Seven Wonders of the World. In the opening, Merchant is quoted explaining, "I've been to many exotic places, I genuinely think travel broadens the mind." Gervais, on the other hand, says, "I want him to hate it. I want him to hate every minute of it for my own amusement. Nothing is funnier to me than Karl in a corner, being poked by a stick. I am that stick...this is one of the funniest, most expensive practical jokes I've ever done."

And so in each of the seven episodes of the first series, Pilkington walks into Merchant and Gervais' office and is shown a "wunder," and gives his immediate reaction. And then he's off to experience The Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal or Christ the Redeemer the culture surrounding it. An inveterate cranky old man of a 30-something, he doesn't exactly hate every moment of it, but he certainly doesn't love every moment of it either, and it's immensely entertaining to watch his often slack-jawed reaction to what he sees, particularly when it comes to certain Chinese cuisine, or the toilet facilities of various countries.

Gervais and Merchant check in constantly as voices on Pilkington's cell phone, and are forever setting him up with strange tasks that either they think will be funny or will make for good television, but don't have a whole hell of a lot to do with the chosen wonder, like a crash course in Mexican wrestling, for example, or riding in a rodeo.

The highlight of the series is the final episode, which is in part a clip show, but in larger part Merchant, Gervais and Pilkington sitting around talking about the show.

The second series, which I watched after this one (and after The Ricky Gervais Show, more on which will follow below), struck me as a much weaker one. The premise for this series is "The Bucket List," in which Merchant and Gervais present Pilkington with a list 100 popular or common items on a bucket list allowing him to choose any seven. He does so, and they sometimes radically alter them—swimming with dolphins in Australia becomes swimming with sharks, for example—and, as in the first series, force him into a variety of strange detours.

"It's making Karl do things that other people want to do before they die," Merchant says in the opening.

"This isn't his list," Gervais laughingly adds.

These include a few things that are right up Pilkington's alley, like meeting "freaks" like a magnetic man during a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway and a kingdom of Little People in China, and a bunch of monkeys.

The "Bucket List" concept is a little more fluid, and so the "little treats," as Merchant refers to them, seem a little more forced and random (that is, they're not as geographically convenient as those in the first series; for example, in the first episode of the second series, Pilkington chooses spending a night on a desert isle, but on the way they fly him to New Zealand and try to get him to bungee jump, which he wisely refuses—I would too).

Of special interest to us Americans, perhaps, are a pair of visits to the U.S. In one episode, he visits Alaksa to go whale watching, and in another he travels down Route 66. I also particularly enjoyed the Mount Fuji climbing episode and, as with the first series, the final episode in which the trio commiserate (and Gervais and Merchant trick Pilkington into getting a rectal exam in a room where they can watch.


Life's Too Short (2013): This one took me an episode or two to warm to, given how strange it was for me to see Warwick Davis playing Ricky Gervais playing a version David Brent from The Office. Another mockumentary-style sitcom from Gervais and Stephen Merchant, it follows a cartoon version of Davis around as he scrounges for acting jobs (while also serving as an agent for other little people in show business), works with a group for the advancement of little people in society, struggles to stay out of the debt his incompetent accountant has landed him in, navigates divorce proceedings with his wife and tries to start dating again.

Davis's filmography is rather ideally suited for the frustrated outlook of his fictional self, given that he's been in some of the biggest movies of all time (Return of The Jedi, some Harry Potter films), but always so thoroughly disguised you wouldn't recognize him. The one big film he played sans mask or make-up was Willow, generally regarded as a flop which, in an ongoing gag, no one in Davis' hometown seems to have seen (For the record, I loved Willow; my friend's dad took us to see it in the theater, I bought the paperback novelization with allowance money, and must have seen in on HBO somewhere around 5,000 times one summer).

In addition to the egocentric lead who makes everyone (audience included) slightly uncomfortable and the documentary format of The Office, it boasts celebrity cameos like Extras, including Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Carell, Sting and, the best of the lot, Liam Neeson, who goes to Gervais and Merchant for help honing his stand-up comedy routine (he wants to branch out from drama and action into comedy), and Johnny Depp, who hires Davis so he can observe him while preparing for the lead role in Tim Burton's Rumplestilskin, which Depp has the lead in (the job goes south when Depp learns Davis knows Gervais, and confronts him to avenge Gervais' controversial Golden Globes hosting).

By series end, it actually develops a heart, and one really starts to feel for Davis, despite the fact that some 90% of the problems and complications he has encountered throughout the series were of his own making. Gervais and Merchant are regular presences on the show, as Davis drops by their office about once an episode to ask for work, and it's there that several of the celebrity cameos occur. Davis apparently isn't the only former collaborator to do so—he was briefly in the Daniel Radcliffe episode of Extras—as others do so repeatedly. Rosamund Hanson plays Davis' lead-headed assistant, and is something of a joy to watch.

Davis turns out to be quite a comedian, and I'm hard-pressed to remember a more physical comic performance by a lead in a TV show, but he makes and takes several rather spectacular pratfalls throughout.


Mighty Peking Man (1977): One of the highlights of reading Paul Woods' King Kong Cometh (discussed here) was learning of this movie for the first time (at least in any detail; I've heard the title before): A King Kong riff with a jungle girl character from the Shaw Brothers. It's like someone chose three elements at random from a bank of Caleb's Favorite Movie-Related Stuff.

It opens with the monster, a giant ape man portrayed by a man in a suit stomping on a miniature set, save for in close-up, where we're sown a striking, effective, somewhat freaky image of an animatronic ape-man face shrieking.

From there, an expedition is organized in China to seek out the Indian ape-giant, which leads to a sequence of foreign explorers and native guides in an expidetion of attrition to their goal (sadly, there are no dinosaurs, so that's one up for King Kongs '39 and '05), a sequence I've seen in plenty of old-school jungle adventure flicks, although here rather than white Englishmen and African porters, its Chinese guys and Indian guides.

By the time they reach the home of the title character, the only explorer left is handsome Johnnie Fang's Danny Lee, who is saved from the wrath of the giant ape by white goddess in an animal skin bikini so tiny it has a built-in nip slip; she's Samantha (played by Evelyne Kraft), who survived a plane crash that killed her parents when she was just a little girl, and she grew up a friend of the animals, particularly the huge ape (Shades of Jungle Goddess).

After time spent in the jungle, falling in love with Samantha and lolling around with fearsome jungle cats, our hero convinces Samantha to bring both she and The Peking Man, whom she calls Utam, back to civilization with him, where Utam is promptly put in one of those dumb, asking-for-a-rampage shows that seem more like turn of the century phenomenon than something that would be happening so late in the 20th century (Like, I could sorta buy them putting the dinosaur in Valley of Gwangi in a circus, because television hadn't yet been invented, but why put a monster of similar scale on display in a stadium full of innocent bystanders in the late 1970s?).

After a misunderstanding between Danny and Samantha sends her away from him and into the apartment of a man who tries to rape her—an apartment which, coincidentally, has an open window Utam can see in—the inevitable rampage begins, ending as it must with Utam being shot off the highest building in the city.

It's not quite as awesome as the "Shaw Brothers do King Kong" description might suggest (I admit that, even after reading it, I was holding out hope for some kind of Shaolin Versus Wu Tang vs. King Kong), or as awesome as the admittedly quite awesome poster suggests...
...but it's still pretty awesome (You'll notice it says "Goliathon" on the poster; that's one of the alternate titles for the film).

Of particular interest was seeing one of the foundational blockbuster films of U.S. cinema filtered through the lens of another culture's film industry, and the various ways in which it differed from its original inspiration, including the jungle home being a paradise rather than a hell and the beast already living quite happily with beauty in the natural world, until civilization came along and yanked them both out of that paradise and into the modern world for a mixture of moral and base purposes.


Pegasus Vs. Chimera (2012): This shitty made-for-TV movie takes the Clash/Wrath of the Titans filmmaking philosophy of ignoring readymade elements of a pre-existing classic (or, here, Classical) story in favor of hoary Hollywood cliches and pulled-from-someone's ass made-up nonsense.

The mythological creature conflict presented as a professional wrestling match in the title is, of course, already part of a pretty well-known myth: A fire-breathing female monster that was part lion, part goat and part snake or dragon, the Chimera was understandably terrorizing all around it, until King Iobates of Lycia charged Bellerophon with slaying the Chimera as a roundabout way of having him killed. Bellerophon managed to succeed, however, by capturing Pegasus. Astride the winged horse, Bellerophon was able to stay well out of reach of Chimera's flames and fangs and claws while showering her with arrows (and, in at least one version, choking her to death with the lead tip of a spear, that her flames melted). After a few more adventures, B. attempted to fly up to Olympus with Pegasus, at which point he was thrown from the horse by Zeus, who put Pegasus in the night sky as a constellation.

In this version?

King Orthos is an enormous douchebag, abusing his entire kingdom of like 37 subjects (extras cost money, you know), and having the fathers of young Belleros (who would grow up to be a blacksmith played by Sebastian Roche) and Princess Philony (who grew up into archery expert and warrior Nazneen Contractor). He escalates his quest to gain immortality and finally crush the last vestige of resistance by having his warlock second-in-command summon Chimera from the depths of hell to hunt down and kill his remaining enemies.

While Belleros and Philony set out to kill the king, his warlock and the Chimera, they get some help from witch Rae Dawn Chong, who summons the constellation Peagsus from the stars to aid them. This Pegasus appears as a plain white horse when not flying, thus allowing them to just use a SFX-free white horse onscreen most of the time, and has the power to heal wounds. The only catch is that if it's not returned to the stars at the proper time, the world will totally end.

And, um, that's pretty much the whole story. There's some fighting and mild intrigue, and eventually Orthos decides he'd like to kill Pegasus and drink its blood, granting himself immortality.

The production values are even more shoddy and spare than the plot and characters. The Pegasus' wings are rarely shown, and when our heroes are flying atop him, the shot is carefully constructed so that no part of Pegasus appears on-screen with them, we just see poor Roche and Contractor pretending to ride a flying horse, the former tugging on the reins, the pair of 'em bobbing and weaving in unison.

The true star of the production is the Chimera, the best and only real special effect, and maybe the most likable character. It's presented as a huge, male lion, a crown of four long, slightly-twisted horns stretching from the back of its skull. The backlegs seem somewhat goat or antelope-like, while the tail is long and reptilian and ends in a little club of spikes, and there seems to be the suggestion of scales on the hind-quarters.

It's not the Chimera I would have designed (If you told me it was supposed to be a Manticore, I'd believe you), as I prefer one of the three-headed versions, but it's a pretty good-looking one, and easily the best part. It's kind of a shame she gets such a bum deal in the movie, as I woulda preferred to see it climb atop the back of the TriStar Pictures logo (a far more convincing Pegasus than this one), and fly off to live happily ever after in a better movie together.

The Ricky Gervais Show: Complete First and Second Season (2011): This is the third and final of the Gervais/Merchant projects in this particular post, and by far the best. If you're completely unfamiliar with it, animators have taken episodes of The Ricky Gervais Show podcasts with the pair and Pilkington, and animated them in a super-simplified, old-school Hanna-Barbera style (Gervais, for example, looks like a composite of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble), animating both the trio as they sit around a table and talk and bringing to life the subjects of their conversations. Pilkington serves mainly as straight man, but also as the source of pretty much every topic of conversation (It's quite rare when, say, Merchant will tell a funny story about a holiday he took; it's generally just the pair questioning, laughing at or otherwise reacting to Pilkington).

There are recurring features, like Pilkington's "Monkey News," which are generally extended stories of chimpanzees showing up in unexpected places that Pilkington found on the Internet, and the hard to explain "Karl's Diary," in which Pilkington keeps a diary of his daily, mundane activities and opinions, which Merchant reads and Gervais laughs himself to death over. 

I love this show.



*On their podcast, which I've been spending a lot of time catching up on when and where I can, Steve Merchant and Ricky Gervais asked Karl Pilkington to present a report on the Bible for them. During the account of the flood, which Gervais believes is bollocks, he asks about the mixing of salt water and freshwater, as marine species that live in one such environment would die in another such environment. I never thought of that, but wouldn't mixing all of the water in earth kill off all marine animals on earth? Or did the fresh and salt water mix achieve a perfect balance, where it was just salty enough that the saltwater animals could survive, but not so salty it would kill the freshwater animals?

Also, what happened to all the sea-going dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles? Why didn't they survive the flood? Also, Megaladons.

5 comments:

Timothy23P said...

Caleb, The Silver Bridge is in print. I bought mine on Amazon. I just checked, it's still available.

Anthony Strand said...

Inglorious Basterds also had that weird cameo from Mike Myers, so apparently "Distracting appearance from a comedy star" is part of the Tarantino formula now.

David Charles Bitterbaum said...

I lived in West Virginia for around 3 years when younger and I never got to see any monsters. I guess I wasn't looking in the right places.

A Hero said...

"He's been in some of the biggest movies of all time (Return of The Jedi, some Harry Potter films), but always so thoroughly disguised you wouldn't recognize him"

Actually, if you check out imdb.com you will see Warwick Davis has been in all of the Harry Potter films as either Professor Flitwick or Griphook the Goblin. I suppose the fact that you didn't realize he was in every one of them kind of makes your point about how his makeup disguises him.

Caleb said...

The Silver Bridge is in print. I bought mine on Amazon

Yeah, I've seen it there before too. But it's expensive-ish. I've been looking for a library copy for years now. Because I'm cheap. I guess I'll eventually break down and buy it through Amazon...

I suppose the fact that you didn't realize he was in every one of them kind of makes your point about how his makeup disguises him.

I've only actually ever seen the first one (the weekend before release) and didn't remember Davis in it at all. I Googled "Harry Potter" + "movies" + "Warwick Davis" after watching "Life's Too Short" just to see what he looked like though. Not terribly Warwick Davis-y, but certainly more Warwick Davis-ish than in, say, "Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy."