Monday, December 30, 2013

EVERYTHING ELSE:

BOOKS

The Big, Bad Book of Beasts: The World's Most Curious Creatures (William Morrow; 2013) by Michael Largo

This big, fat book is nothing less than a modern bestiary, with articles on various animals arranged alphabetically in chapters devoted to each letter (although X,Y and Z share the final one). As was the case with the ancient and medieval bestiaries that inspired Largo's work, the author covers animals both real and imagined, although he distinguishes between them, and his interest is scientific, or, occasionally, folkloric, while he eschews attaching any moral or religious lessons to the animals within.

These are mostly real animals, which are, frankly, amazing enough in their adaptations, abilities and behaviors that one really need not resort to using fantasy animals at all; the more we learn about the real animals we share a world with, the more amazing many of them turn out to be. Ants, baboons, capybaras, ground hogs, kinkajous, lions, ravens, zebras and so on fill the book, with Largo focusing on the more amazing facts and interesting anecdotes about them. They share the pages with several prehistoric creatures (Tyrannosaurus Rex, Microraptor, Archaeopteryx, etc),  a few more recently extinct animals (Dodo, Elephant Bird, etc) a few cryptozoological creatures (The Chupacabra, Sasquatch, "The Loveland Frog") and plenty of mythological creatures (Dragons, Unicorns, Aspidochelone, Leucrota, etc).

In the case of the latter, Largo generally tries to offer suggestions of what might have been behind belief in the creatures, if there were real animals who might have been mistaken or embellished upon to create the fantasy beasts, or if fossils might have been mistaken as the bones of such creatures.

It's an all-around fascinating book, whether you're simply browsing or if you read straight through. Making it doubly so are the fantastic illustration work of Jesse Peterson and Christopher David Reyes, who offer elaborate drawings and pair photos and extant illustrations into new images wonderful works of art that are generally every bit as interesting as the articles they appear with.


Monster Files (New Page Books; 2013) by Nick Redfern

The long, unwieldy sub-title of this book lays out what separates it from other, similar books on monsters, "A Look Inside Government Secrets and Classified Documents On Bizarre Creatures and Extraordinary Animals!" It also establishes its tone, through that extraneous exclamation mark: Excitable, credulous and emphatic.

Redfern has a somewhat liberal interpretation of "government secrets" and "classified documents," and what he really means is any connection at all to some sort of government official or agency, no matter how tenuous. Many of the monsters of the most familiar—Bigfoots, sea serpents, the Loch Ness Monster, Britain's Alien Big Cats, wolf-men—but the premise of the book gives him a new angle from which to address them, and a new spin on stories involving them. Some of these are old stories, some of them are new (or just new to me).

Redfern organizes his 27 chapters, many of which have clever-ish, newspaper headline-like titles—"Weird and Wacky Winged Wonders of War," "The ABCs of a Royal Conspiracy," and "Something Dwells Down Under"—into roughly chronological order, so the book jumps from subject to subject and government to government, but tells a history of government interaction with cryptozoology.

He begins at the dawn of the 20th century, in a chapter entitled "The President's Bigfoot," which isn't quite as exciting as it sounds, nor as official, recounting only a story of a Bigfoot encounter that was told to President Teddy Roosevelt by another party, who himself had the encountered (Here told in breathless, gory detail). From there, there's World War II and Cold War sightings of mysterious creatures, lots of sea-going creatures, Nazi, Soviet and CIA science gone a little mad, a sighting of an ABC through the scope of the rifle of a Royal Marine guarding Princess Diana while she was conducting an affair, and so many Bigfoot stories, including one of a massive forest fire in which the U.S. government drove about rescuing Bigfoots from the fire in jeeps and another of a Bigfoot being dissected right here in Ohio.

The story I found most fascinating personally was that of 1952 Flatwoods Monster, which appears in the chapter "How The Pentagon Made A Monster." The theory is that the bizarre creature might have been the creation of the U.S. Military, and the whole sighting a test of using such a creature as a form of psychological warfare.

Part of the theorizing comes from a 2010 declassification of a 1950 RAND Corportation report entitled The Exploitation of Superstitions for Purposes of Psychological Warfare. Let me quote from Redfern at some length here:
One particular item that [report writer Jean M.] Hungerford focused a great deal of her attention on was a book titled Magic: Top Secret. It was penned back in 1949 by a mysterious and controversial character named Jasper Maskelyne. Maskelyne was both a highly skilled magician and an employee of the British Army. His job during WWII was to come up with alternative ways and weapons with which to decive and defeat the Nazis...

According to Maskelyne, while fighting the Nazis in the mountains of Italy at the height of the War, the British Army came up with a brilliant but undeniably strange idea. They built was was essentially, in Maskelyne's very own words, "a gigantic scarecrow, about 12 feet hight" that would "stagger forward under its own power and emit frightful flashes and bangs." The idea was to have those Italians who were not sympathetic to the Allies believe the strange contraption—complete with "electric blue sparks jumping from it"—was none other than the devil himself, working hand in glove with the Brits in some terrible, Faustian pact to defeat teh Axis powers.

The result: Terror, chaos, and calamity broke out wherever and whenever the flashing reature made its unearthly appearance.
(Once again, that's Magic: Top Secret, by Jasper Maskelyne, a British magician Nazi-fighter who claims to have crated a mechanized Satan scarecrow to scare Italian villagers from sympathizing with the Axis Powers during World War II. Hollywood screenwriter, actual and aspiring, you should probably track that book down, read it and get to work on your adaptations).

Redfern finds parallels between Maskelyne's plan and the Flatwoods Monster case, making much of the "Ace of Spades" shape of the creature's head and its bizarre appearance and movements.

Despite my tone here, I actually had a blast reading Redfern's book, and while it probably won't win over any converts or anything to belief in any of the subjects, if you're already somewhat engaged in cryptozoology, the paranormal or the attendant body of modern folklore surrounding the subject, you'll certainly find a lot to enjoy in these pages.


Traces of the Grassman: The Search for the Ohio Bigfoot (Publish America; 2010) by Joedy Cook

A UFO researcher-turned-Bigfooter, Joedy Cook founded the Ohio Center for Bigoot Research, is a member of the American Bigfoot Society and participated in an mid-90's investigation into some Akron-area Bigfoot sightings that yielded the name "Grassman," which was then popularized in the 2008 "Ohio Grassman" episode of The History Channel's goofy but addictive MonsterQuest series (If you watched the episode, Cook is the silver-haired guy who found the mysterious skull that turned out to belong to a baboon, tried to rebuild a Bigfoot "nest" similar to the one he found in Akron in order to see if kids might have been able to build it and tried to use a Bigfoot decoy and motion-sensitive cameras in an attempt to get a Bigfoot on film).

This slim, 85-page book rehashes much of the information that has previously been shared elsewhere. There's a longer, more detailed, better-written recounting of the investigation that Cook and two other researchers performed in the Kenmore-area of Akron (the one at the heart of Christopher L. Mupphy's 1997 book Bigfoot In Ohio: Encounters with the Grassman) and a chapter on the MonsterQuest episode (expanding on Cook's role and explaining at least one point of contention from his point-of-view).

The book also contains a final chapter listing several media reports of Bigfoot in Ohio, a cursory—but-thorough-for-these-purposes—exploration of Ohio's natural history and geography and a chapter of fellow researcher Matt Moneymaker's investigation of deer kills attributed to Bigfoot in Ohio (If that name sounds familiar, you've probably seen Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot series, as Moneymaker is part of the show's four-person Bigfoot-finding team).

Cook also shares his own, original Bigfoot sighting, which he says he kept to himself for a long time for fear of appearing biased. While in the army, he says he and a few fellow soldiers encountered a Bigfoot in the woods in the next state over, Michigan.

The book is certainly of interest to, say, people like me, who are interested in Bigfoot and the monsters Ohio might have to offer, but it's a light, not terribly engaging or well-written read. I suspect this comes down to the the desire to appear as objective as possible, and to offer up a book of speculative science that reads scientific-ish.

(I noticed the conspiracy theory regarding the army, UFOs and the Bigfoot nests mentioned in Murphy's 1997 edition of his Bigfoot in Ohio book do not appear here...and were also apparently subtracted from Murphy's updated 2006 version of the same book, Bigfoot Encounters in Ohio: Quest for The Grassman, which I also recently read. Nor does the photo which Murphy and Cook say contains a trio of strange creatures, which seem to be a family of Bigfoots, one of which appears to have a bear head; Cook describes it, but doesn't include it. I remember staring at it forever in Murphy's 1997 book, and not really being able to figure out what the hell they were talking about. You can see shapes in the trees, but only in the same way you can see shapes in clouds).

I suspect, Cook, like many Bigfooters, has an extremely interesting story to tell, including what turned him on to the outre in the first place, and his own Bigfoot encounter, and what it's like to spend so much time in the woods looking for a creature that most people think doesn't exist, and the interesting characters one in that field might meet, and how he feels about the stigma attached, and what it was like to see himself on TV in MonsterQuest, and how his family and friends might feel about his hobby (or is it an occupation at this point?), but nothing vaguely memoir-like appears, nor anything more autobiographical than the brief, sparse recounting of his sighting in the introduction.

Ah well.


FILMS
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: The brief visit to were-bear Beorn was the only really noteworthy plot subtraction Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin had to make when adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's rather fleet children's adventure novel into their even fleeter still 1977 animated adaptation (Which, for the record, clocked in at under 80 minutes, total). In Desolation of Smaug, the second, 160-minute installment of a three-movie adaptation of the same novel, the Beorn scene is included, but it's a fairly brief scene in his rustic ur-mancave—he doesn't even fight any orcs, which is the default time-stretcher in these films!—and in including Beorn, Peter Jackson also adds a great deal of apocryphal filler material, most of it to the detriment of every aspect of the film save its runtime.

Most of that comes in the form of elaborate action scenes, staged in ways that suggest video game inspiration, with multiple "player" action occurring on several levels or planes, and much of it depending on jumping at a certain time, avoiding a particular obstacle, defeating a boss villain, and so on.

Not only are the giant spiders of Mirkwood fought, but a small army of orcs invade the kingdom of the wood elves, in which Orlando Bloom's Legolas and Evangeline Lilly's original-to-the-film's Tauriel are inserted, creating plenty of opportunities for amazing feats of archery* and light-footed Elf Fu as the dwarves' barrel escape is turned into an elaborate chase scene involving the elves and orcs.

Not only does the ring-wearing Bilbo confront Smaug, but most of the dwarves join Bilbo in trying to slay the dragon, a Plan B that makes the plot's entire premise of hiring a hobbit burglar to avoid having to fight a dragon suspect.

A sub-plot involving the politics of Lake Town and a band of invading orcs is added. Gandalf goes off to take another meeting, and ends up fighting not only another band of orcs, but also Sauron himself, who both appears in a physical form and bandies about dialogue, both of which seem...wrong. There's also a rather unexpected romantic sub-plot between Tauriel and one of the dwarves (Well, if you're going to go to the trouble of having a hot dwarf in your film, I guess you might as well use him as such).

Personally, I don't really care. I've read the novel a half-dozen times and seen the animated film at least as many times, and don't mind the expansions created for the film in order to give fans more of a pretty good thing, even if, objectively, it's probably way too much of a good thing, in terms of good filmmaking (Forget Mae West; here too much of a good thing isn't wonderful, but dreadful). Jackson could have made an incredible single pushing-three-hours film out of the book, and possibly a pair of rather strong but flabby 120-minute plus films, but a whole trilogy doesn't do any aspect of the films any favors.

This is most evident as the film reaches its climax, and just as our unlikely hero Bilbo is coming face-to-face with the gigantic, monstrous, beautifully rendered and realized dragon**, the natural climax of the book and, one would therefore imagine, the plot of the films, the action continually, constantly cuts away to check in on the other plots, Gandalf vs. Sauron and the drama in Lake Town, involving the orcs, the wood elves and a few dwarves who couldn't make the trip to the mountain, due to complications also inserted into the plot.

Because there are so many plates spinning, Jackson doesn't let us concentrate on any one of them long enough to admire the skill or grace that set and kept them spinning, to stretch the plate-spinning metaphor about as far as possible.

It ends just as the previous film did, stopping rather than concluding, and I again found myself wondering how on earth they're going to milk another two-and-a-half hours out of what little book they have left (Smaug flies into town, Bard shoots him, there's a brief race war over the dragon horde, the end). I suppose they'll manage it with resolving all the sub-plots added in this movie, including killing off Tauriel (they have to kill her off to explain why she wasn't in the first trilogy, right?) and adding an incredible amount of connectivity between Hobbit 3 and The Fellowship of the Ring, given how much energy has already been exerted on foreshadowing the rise of Sauron, the awakening of the Black Riders and so on. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if Hobbit 3 ends with 30-45 mintues worth of seven endings, like Return of The King did, and cameos of all the characters of note (Here's where Gollum's at, this is what Saruman was up to, etc).

Beorn, by the way, has some awesome facial hair, standing out even among all of the awesome facial hair on display between Gandalf and the dwarves.

Machete Kills: The silly 2010 action movie Machete began life in the most unlikely of ways, a parody trailer of 1970s ethnic hero exploitation flicks, starring Danny Trejo, that was but one of several such trailers for imaginary films that ran during Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's 2007 Grindhouse double bill. Apparently too good not to make, writer/director Robert Rodriguez (with both a co-writer and a co-director) reverse engineered an actual movie from that trailer, filling it with an ideal action movie cast...and Robert DeNiro, of all people.

It didn't quite live up to its own potential, but it was pretty fun nonetheless.

The overdue sequel, Machete Kills, fittingly opens with a trailer for its own sequel, Machete Kills Again...In Space!, a patently ridiculous film that makes the trailers for Machete and Machete Kills look like ones promoting Oscar-baiting Christmas prestige pictures. And then, slowly at first, but with increasing speed and certainty, Rodriguez and Trejo spend the film's entire running time barreling toward that completely insane fantasy third Machete movie, transitioning from at least semi-serious into something more akin to an R-rated Spy Kids, without any kids in it (Well, original spy kid Alexa Vega, now 25, shows up as a prostitute/assassin wearing only a bra, g-string, chaps and guns and made me feel...weird).
Skinny little Carmen Cortez. She grew up. She filled out.
The plot is mainly an excuse for a parade of interesting performances, many of which fall closer to cameo than anything else: Pro-gun, pro-pot United States President Rathcock (played by Charlie Sheen, billed as "Carlos Estevez") recruits Machete, still recovering from the violent loss of his girlfriend Jessica Alba, to return to Mexico and take down a maniacal Bond villain named Mendez (Demian Bichir) who has a nuclear missile pointed at Washington D.C. It's a difficult mission made more difficult still by the fact that Mendez has multiple personalities, a gigantic martial arts henchman (Marko Zaror), and has wired the missile to his own heartbeat, so that if his heart stops, it launches.

Machete is pursued by madam/assassin Sofia Veraga (who Vega's character works with) and skin-shedding assassin El Cameleon (played by Cuba Gooding Jr, Lady Gaga and others), crosses paths with characters played by Vanessa Hudgens and Amber Heard and ultimately needs help from Michelle Rodriguez and her network when taking on the film's big bad behind the big bag: Mel motherfucking Gibson, in a performance that reminds you just how good he can be at playing crazy, and winks at the fact that he actually kinda sorta is a lunatic in real life too.

It holds together much better than the original film, and is funnier as well as a more satisfying action movie (I would probably have been okay with 45 minutes of Zaror fighting, to be honest; one of the most disappointing aspects of the original was its anti-climatic fight between Steven Segal with a samurai sword versus Trejo with a machete), having apparently completely embraced the fact that it's more parody than homage, more Spy Kids cycle than Mariachi cycle.


DVDs

Finding Bigfoot Vols. 1-2 (2013): I suppose Not Finding Bigfoot would be a more accurate title, as would the more neutral sounding Looking For Bigfoot, but either of those three-word titles would lack the punchier, more efficient two-word title, even if "the team"—energetic and occasionally cranky researcher Matt Moneymaker, affable Cliff Barackman, big galoot and official Bigfoot stand-in Bobo Fay (Who a family member I know who watches the show on TV insists is high all the time) and least-credulous and increasingly fetching Ranae Holland (the more episodes one watches, the more alluring she becomes)—never actually find Bigfoot.

Each episode is structured nearly identically, with some tantalizing bit of evidence reaching the team—police camera footage of a large, dark figure running across the street in front of them in the middle of the night, for example—and sending them to a particular area. They then scout about using high-tech gadgets, which often generate rather creepy images, as they also wear cameras filming themselves in night vision—and they then hold a town meeting where witnesses share stories. From there, they split up to investigate the sightings, which generally includes Bobo playing Bigfoot, cheesy recreations using a cheap but fierce-looking CGI Bigfoot, and, in the climax, employing some particularly promising-looking Bigfoot sighting plan (a decoy goose mounted camera, riding a camouflaged canoe down a river, a drone-mounted heat-sensitive cameras, etc), finding some suggestion of the possibility of a Bigfoot in the area (sometimes no more than a reply to one of their Bigfoot vocalizations, or an unidentified heat or light signature), and then they pack up and move on.

So no episode ends with them actually ever finding anything, but all offer a possibility, with some of the calls so close that one wonders why they don't just stay in the area a few more days and follow that lead to its conclusion. The answer is, of course, that there's not really anything to it, is there? (Like other reality shows, it sort of lulls one into forgetting there are also a bunch of other folks with cameras and microphones all around them, so when they see a man-shaped heat signature and the four of them each discount the fact that it's not one of them, well, why can't it be one of their camera men?).

It's good television, but terrible science, and I often found myself wondering how the series is received among other, non-celebrity Bigfooters. Are they glad the show is bringing so much popular attention to their community and their quest, or are they irritated that it makes them seem a bit dim and lazy (Just stay one more night in camp, guys!), and the search for Bigfoot even more quixotic? (More specifically, I wonder what they think of the show's composite image of Bigfoot, which is a scarier rather than more peaceful Bigfoot, and one that is repeatedly referred to as an omnivore that hunts and feeds off of deer, which I recall being a point of some controversy).

I know the show, and others like it, have dealt a pretty profound blow to my own belief in even the possibility that there's a real animal behind the sightings, as the fact that pretty much everyone on earth now carries a handheld camera on them at all times makes the lack of photographic evidence pretty troubling. And when one thinks of all the tech poured into these searches but turning up nothing, well...

My favorite part of any episode on these two collections was undoubtedly when Fay, without a trace of irony in his voice, says of the "'Squatches" that, "They're probably the rarest mammal in North America."

Yes, so rare that there are exactly zero of them.

(They didn't make it to Ohio yet in any of the episodes I've seen, but I assume they'll have to come here eventually. Are any of you television-owning, Finding Bigfoot-watchers in the reading audience aware of a visit to Ohio on the show yet...?)

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013): The box next to another fairy tale gets ticked off, as Hollywood continues to try and turn them all into action-adventure films. Like the recent Red Riding Hood and Snow White and The Huntsman, this movie butches the proceedings up quite considerably, and wanders far, far from the supposed source of inspiration (note that sub-title); unlike those films, though, it lacks any sort of romantic element, at least not within the narrative foreground (Jeremy Renner's "The Only Good Witch is a Dead Witch" Hansel does develop a relationship with actress Pihla Viitala's white witch).

In fact, the movie it reminded me most of was Terry Gilliam's malformed 2005 The Brothers Grimm, as both share a general aesthetic and infatuation with anachronistic, 17th century weaponry to be employed in the extermination of a powerful boss hag disguised as a beautiful Hollywood actress (Here, it's Famke Janssen; in Brothers, it was Monica Bellucci). So interested in the various (admittedly pretty cool) guns that the title characters use to shoot witches with are the filmmakers that the closing credits are dedicated to showcasing them all. Along with the semi-animated opening credits, its one of the more energetic, vital-feeling parts of the movie.

It begins departing from the source material almost immediately, as the child versions of the characters are lead out to the woods by their woodcutter father and abandoned there, and this Hans doesn't leave a trail of bred crumbs or pebbles, and receives no supernatural help from any birds. The kids eventually find a gingerbread house, and there things play out in an unedited, gritty telling of the original: Hans is being fattened up on candy (which, in a bizarre twist, gives him some form of diabetes he must treat with shots every so often as an adult, or he will die), but before he can be cooked and eaten, the kids toss the witch in the oven and lock the door.

That begins their career as leather-clad, exotic weapon-wielding celebrity witch-hunters, played by adults as Renner and Gemma Arterton (Who played Tamara Drewe in the Tamara Drewe adaptation, comics fans). They come to a particular dark, muddy town just as "The Blood Moon" approaches, which something something something worldwide sabbat of witches something something.

The town seems particularly bedeviled by a witch played by Janssen, at least when she's wearing her "glamor" spell...in the world of Hansel & Gretel, you can pretty much judge books by their covers: Evil witches are scary old crones with long noses, warts and wrinkles, while good witches and good mortal girls are all beautiful young women. This can lead to some weird visuals, as even when the witches are fighting our heroes with magical spells and moving around with Exorcist-possessed martial arts moves (and accompanying sound effects), there's no getting around the fact that we're watching Renner and Arterton beating up and killing old ladies.

By film's climax, our brother and sister heroes have learned the truth about their childhood and their own lineage (truths that are so thoroughly telegraphed viewers will be a good five steps ahead of them), conquered a huge sabbat of witches from all over the world (some of which are pretty cool-looking) and then established for themselves a newer, bigger witch-hunting posse that includes a few of the movie's supporting cast members, and set off on a pre-credits, sequel-baiting hunt. I wouldn't mind a sequel, if only to see Hansel and Gretel take on Baba Yaga, but somehow it seems unlikely. I'm not sure how much money the movie made or anything, but I have to assume Renner's got more Avengers movies to make, and might not be as interested in a second, less-lucrative franchise.


The Hole (2001): This little millennial British suspense film from the pre-Bend It Like Beckham days, when both Thora Birch and some guy named Desmond Harrington commanded higher billing than Keira Knightley, features a claustrophobic setting, and an equally stressful plot when it ventures outside "the hole."

That hole is abandoned bomb shelter near the grounds of exclusive British boarding school, known only to a brilliant but creepy student played by a Daniel Brocklebank (a surname so British sounding it seems like it must be made up). As a class trip nears, Brocklebank plans to share the secret and use his computer skills to excuse a few of the richer, more popular students and, as a favor to his best friend Birch, her too, so she can attempt to spend the weekend winning over crush object Harrington. So Brockelbank locks four teens in the hole and then...disappears, and they find themselves stuck, with high emotions, dwindling supplies and no hope of rescue.

The film opens after whatever happens in the hole, as police try to figure out exactly who's to blame for the deaths that inevitably occur, with three different sets of flashbacks from different perspectives telling the story of what really happened.

It's cheap enough to look like a particularly artsy and expensive episode of a Law and Order, but it's rather well-acted, and the premise is effectively scary. But I imagine it will remain best-known for being a movie in which Knightley flashes her breasts for, oh, a second, possibly a second-and-a-half.

The Hole (2009): I only watched it because Haley Bennett, the beautiful and unusual looking lead character in the somewhat silly The Haunting of Molly Hartley (which I had only watched because it had not one, but two actresses from 90210 in it) was in it, and I was curious to see what she's been up to since.

It turned out to be a pretty good movie though, with a lot more to offer beyond an an hour and change of an opportunity to stare at Bennett.

Directed by Joe Dante (The Burbs, The Howling), and quite similar in tone to his suburban, family-friendly horror/fantasy films like Gremlins and Small Soldiers, it's essentially an all-ages horror movie, with some particularly scary scenes that would have kept young Caleb up late and afraid of the dark for weeks after watching.

Single mother Teri Polo moves her two young sons, teenager Chris Massoglia and little boy Nathan Gamble to a new house in a new small town, hoping to start another new life after many similar moves in the past. There's a great deal of friction between the older brother and the younger brother, but the two start to bond when they meet their beautiful next door neighbor Bennett and discover a strange, securely locked trapdoor in their new basement.

While they attempt to figure the hole out, things gradually start to escape from it and endanger the lives of the kids. These things are all representations of their greatest fears, including a creepy little clown doll, a dead little girl and a big, mysterious stranger.

The kids keep the hole secret from their families, and attempt to deal with the apparitions it unleashes on their own—the only adult they reach out to being a crazy older guy played by Bruce Dern, who used to live in the house before the boys moved in—giving the conflict and the movie around it the shape and feel of a kids game.

They ultimately conquer their fears by just conquering their fears, and doing so bring the boys closer together. It was a surprisingly charming film, and surprisingly effective in both its dramatic and horror elements, particularly given its family film feel.



House on Haunted Hill (1959): A classic, low-budget haunted house movie directed by William Castle, the infamous director of B-movies renowned for gimmickry and hype (he was the man behind The Tingler) that production company Dark Castle Entertainment was named after (Among their early works were remakes of Castle films, and similarly low-budget, low-quality horror flicks, including remakes of House on Haunted Hill and Thir13en Ghosts, Ghost Ship, Gothika, House of Wax and then I stopped working as a film critic, so I stopped paying attention to them).

I found its opening, in which screams are heard over a still-dark screen, somewhat unsettling, and from there the taut premise is quickly launched into. A mysterious millionaire played by Vincent Price has rented a notoriously haunted house in order to give an unusual party for his wife, a young, beautiful woman played by Carol Ohmart, who he may or may not be trying to kill (and who may or may not be planning to kill him). He's invited five perfect strangers to spend the entire night in the house with he and his wife, and, should they successfully stay in the house and survive its allegedly supernatural dangers, they will each be awarded $10,000.

Seemingly randomly selected, they are mostly the sort of guests who are ideally suited to such a party: A skeptical psychologist, a test pilot with nerves of steel, a gossip columnist, the paranoid owner of the house well-versed in the various grisly murders that have occurred there and a beautiful young woman who can scream really, really well.

The film is an obviously cheap one, but Castle makes that cheapness work, as the small cast and claustrophobic setting—much of the film takes place within one of six rooms or so—serve to ramp up the psychological drama. There's some conflicting accounts of who is really responsible for throwing the morbid party, which if any of the guests really know one another and, if so, under what circumstances and, once a character is seemingly killed under mysterious circumstances, who is the real killer...or are the ghosts really responsible?

At the risk of spoiling the ending (You've had almost 55 years now!), it turns out that multiple characters want to murder one or more of the people in the house, and are essentially trying to scare someone else into doing the deed for them, with the two sides essentially trying to Scooby-Doo each other to death, with the other ghuests caught in the middle.

It's a pretty fun movie, and not bad considering its limitations. I imagine a pretty great remake could be made out of it, either in film or in comics (And apparently someone tried to do the former; read on). The version I watched was in color, and seemingly colorized (the bright, pastel-like colors didn't do much to help establish a scary atmosphere), and included a special feature I wish every movie had: Commentary by Mike Nelson (Of MST3K and RiffTrax fame), riffing on the film solo. It was a little weird to hear Nelson's voice without also hearing those of Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett or Trace Beaulieu responding or chiming in, but, on the other hand, I'm so used to watching movies with Nelson's voice, that I got used to it pretty quickly).

So how is it that the poster from 1959 is both scarier and sexier than the one from 1999?
House on Haunted Hill (1999): How generic and forgettable was this film, a 40th-anniversary remake of the Vincent Price-starring original, which still enjoys a reasonably good reputation? Well, I watched it on DVD with my roommates in the early 00's—part of a short-lived plan to watch all of the movies all of the actors who appeared in Buffy The Vampire Slayer had made (we previously and more successfully did so with the filmographies of the cast of Twin Peaks)—and I completely forgot ever having seen it until I sat down to watch this shortly after seeing the original for the first time.

Even re-watching it, the only parts I remembered were 1) The scene featuring Buffy's James Marsters, where he plays the barely-there role of a cameraman working with Lisa Loeb's also-barely-in-it TV news reporter, in which they interview Geoffrey Rush's amusement park mogul in a malfunctioning ride and 2) Chris Kattan's line, which made me laugh just as much this time as the first: "You don't get it, do you? This house is pissed. It has no morals. Because it's a fucking house!"

So yeah, this isn't very good, and extremely generic. The cast of characters have all been renamed, but are more or less identical-ish to those in the original, only each is more crass and poorly drawn.

Geoffrey Rush is the Price character, here outfitted with a more John Waters-y mustache and given a well-defined occupation as a sort of Walt Disney of horror and special effects that make the premise a bit more believable. Famke Janssen is his wife, who may or may not be plotting to kill him, and who he may or may not also be plotting to kill. Peter Gallagher is the psychologist who doesn't believe in ghosts. Bridgette Wilson-Sampras is the greedy "older" lady, here someone trying to get on reality TV rather than a gossip columnist. Kattan is the technical owner of the "house," driven to hysterical alcoholism by his belief in its evil reputation (Here he's also supposed to be "comic relief," although the house line is really the only funny part of the film). Taye Diggs is the Male Hero, and Ali Larter is the Lady Hero, who, in this version, gets a lot more to do than simply scream.

Not content to simply remake the film with better special effects, a new setting and to try and improve on it with some scarier imagery, the filmmakers William Malone (a TV director making his first feature film here; he would go on to make a few more horror movies I never saw) and the late screenwriter Dick Beebe (who also wrote Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows), amp things up quite a bit, and in premise-breaking directions.

The house on Haunted Hill is no longer a house, but a big, huge, crazy, abandoned insane asylum, where an evil doctor (Jeffrey Combs) once performed sick experiments on those in his care, and a full-scale riot killed, like, everyone in there. This gives Malone an excuse for a neat opening, filmed in the style of an old school, 1940s news film (Good thing those camera men were there in the asylum with their huge, old cameras set up on tripods when the riot broke out!), one of several different locations used in the film before the party begins in the house (The original, obviously, was set entirely within the house).

Not only does this amp up the ghost-age, but it provides a better reason for the partiers to be trapped once the party begins (the "lock down" is somehow initiated, so there are steel plates slammed down over all the points of egress, and there's no cell reception, et cetera).

But wait, that's not all! This time, the ghosts are also real! So while the bickering older couple are still trying to scare and/or murder one another, there are also real ghosts prowling the grounds, particularly the scary basement full of bizarre, sci-fi-looking machines meant to cure insanity, some of which seem more grounded in reality than others. The ghosts of the house are given a great deal of responsibility for the proceedings, including assembling the guest list (And the house and/or the ghosts are given a somewhat silly rationale for inviting these particular characters).

Pretty much everyone dies, most of them gorily and horribly, and ghosts are totally real, and able to send email. The end!

There was a 2007, direct-to-DVD sequel, by a different director, a different writer and an almost all-new cast, with only Combs returning. Primeval's Andrew Lee Potts has a role in it, which at least makes me curious. I fully intended to watch this, and borrowed it from the library maybe two or three times since watching the remake, but never got around to it. Maybe I'll see it before the next time I do one of these way-too-big "Everything Else" posts.

Apparently there was talk of another sequel, but the poor reception of Return scuttled it. That's too bad; it would have made me happy to know there was a film that existed entitled The Return of Return to the House on Haunted Hill. That, or Return to the House on Haunted Hill Returns.

Jack The Giant Slayer (2013): Here's yet another attempt to turn a fairy tale into a action/fantasy film, the main strategy for lengthening a five-minute telling of "Jack and The Beanstalk" into a 115-minute feature film being plot padding, and lots of it (For comparison's sake, the 1947 Mickey & The Beanstalk is only about a half-hour long).

Four different writers (two credited with story, three with screenplay, with Darren Lemke credited for both) expand the plot, embedding an ancient fairy tale about a war between the giants and human beings within the retelling of this fairy tale. The fairy tale within the fairy tale is one that both young peasant Jack (the nowhere near dreamy enough to seduce the YA fairy tale film audience Nicholas Hoult...at least not all British peasant-ed up as he is here) and princess Isabella (Eleanor Tomilson) both grew up hearing.

After some faffing about with the princess' reluctance to marry the scheming advisor Stanley Tucci and Jack's chance encounter with her and a sect of monks that guard magic beans, the hero and heroine end up in Jack's cottage, which is being propelled up into the sky by the beanstalk, which was booted from the title.

After becoming separated, Jack volunteers to join dashing knight Ewan McGregor, Tucci, Tucci's toadie Ewen Bremner and some nameless soldiers on a trip up the beanstalk in order to rescue the princess and return her safely to her father, King Ian McShane.

Atop the cloud isn't a single giant, but a whole army of brutish giants, including a leader with a second, malformed head, a baker who tries to turn his captives into pastries, and subordinate giant soldiers named Fee, Fye, Fo and Fumm. After their adventures up there, our surviving heroes flee down the beanstalk, followed by the whole army, who besiege Castle McShane.

It's an engaging enough time-waster, and I personally find finding out the way certain stories get adapted into mass media, popular entertainment, particularly ones that have been adapted repeatedly, an interesting enough excuse to watch films like this. But I've little to say about it beyond "not bad." It was nice to see Ewan McGregor playing a hero who doesn't lose sword fights after seeing him play Obi Wan in a few films now, and the final fate of the magical giant-controlling artifact is interesting, but I'm not entirely sure if it's funny-interesting, cool-interesting or dumb-interesting. It does present the potential for a sequel in which giants attack modern day London, which has so many more buildings to topple with clubs and so many wonderful monuments to destroy, but somehow, I doubt that we'll be seeing that movie any time soon.

According to IMDb, Caleb film crushes Lily Collins and Juno Temple both auditioned for the role of the princess, and both lost out—that's a damn shame; either would have made for a more interesting-looking princess (Writing this a few weeks after having watched it, I can't even remember what the princess in the movie looked like), and either would have helped me like the movie quite a bit more. Also, a lady who appeared in Power Rangers R.P.M. auditioned as well.

Oh, and speaking of Juno Temple...

Kaboom (2010):  This is the latest film from Gregg Araki, the writer/director responsible for Doom Generation, Nowhere, Mysterious Skin and one of the best things to ever happen to film. Starting as a college sex comedy involving the sexual awakening of mostly gay student Thomas Dekker, who lusts after his witless, blond surfer god dormmate Thor (Chris Zylka) while hooking up with the free-spirited, funny-hat afficinado Juno Temple and a couple of other dudes. His bestie is a lesbian played by Haley Bennett, who is currently in a difficult relationship with an actual sorceress named Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), who doesn't deal well with rejection of any kind (Being evil and magic and all).

This being an Araki film, it's not all about comedy and doing it, of course; there's a weird sub-plot about a murder and a mysterious religious cult whose adherents wear disturbing animal masks, a sub-plot that gradually, Lynchianally takes on greater and greater prominence in the film, until it becomes something of a thriller, full of plot twists and an honest-to-God action scene, although it ends about as suddenly and anti-climatically—if not quite as bizarrely—as Araki's Nowhere did.

It's full of the expected beautiful young people, hooking up in most every combination imaginable—Bennett and Temple not sharing a sex scene seems a curious ommission—as well as funny names, strikingly, obviously arty sets and costuming choices and funny bad dialogue . I haven't seen all of Araki's films—my alien abduction phobia, which I'm actually making a comic book about now that should be available soon-ish, has kept me from Mysterious Skin, and the fact that he directed but didn't write Smiley Face has put that pretty low on my To-See list—but this is by far the best of those I have seen.

James DuVall (Doom Generation's "Nutlicker") appears, as do plenty of 90210 alum: Zylka appeared in two episodes (though you may recognize him as the new Flash Thompson from the Amazing Spider-Men), Carlo Mendez and Brennan Mejia appeared in one episode apiece and Dekker's mother Kelly Lynch played Ivy's mom Laurel in some 15 episodes.

The Lone Ranger (2013): The principal creators involved with this movie—director Gore Verbinski, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, star Johnny Depp, two-thirds of the writers—made mind-boggling amounts of money playing pirates, and after four Pirates of the Caribbeans, they decided to play cowboys and Indians. They even got a heck of an intellectual property, with built-in name recognition, catch phrases and maybe the world's most recognizable theme song, to play with in The Lone Ranger, an IP that was a damn sight better than those that went into making other special effects heavy summer blockbuster-bait Westerns like Wild, Wild West, Cowboys and Aliens and Jonah Hex.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, casting Johnny Depp as the Native American lead Tonto (You know Adam Beach, Hollywood's favorite Native American, must have been pissed about that), probably wasn't the best place to start, nor did putting a stuffed dead crow on his head and painting his face white with black to disguise his ethnicity help a whole lot. Casting Armie Hammer, who I had to look up before realizing he had actually appeared in a movie I had seen before (Mirror, Mirror), as the title character but having him do little more than play straightman to Depp in full-on, collection-of-tics mode maybe wasn't the greatest idea anyone's ever had either (Throughout, I kept wondering if the movie would have been better with Depp in the title role, or, more weirdly still, playing both Tonto and The Lone Ranger).

The film actually has a lot of enjoyable moments once one gets past the rather awkward start, in which an elderly Tonto tells the extremely complicated plot of the film like a story to a little boy dressed as the Lone Ranger in 1933, sort of like The Princess Bride with an extremely unreliable narrator, and one who doesn't narrate so much as appear now and then for...reasons (Verbinski seems to go a long time without referring back to the premise as well, as if that element of the film gets repeatedly forgotten and remembered).

I know Depp's comedic performances like this tend to grate on some, but I generally enjoy them, and he does a pretty good job of speaking in clipped Hollywood Indian cadence, and acting like a cartoon character, more Depp's Hunter S. Thompson than Depp's Jack Sparrow. The bird gag eventually grew on me, and he does have some pretty good scenes with Silver (In fact, his best acting is opposite Silver), who is here a weird spirit horse behaving strangely (all of nature is out of whack, due to the evil of the bad guys, you see), and in many scenes acting like a Disney cartoon horse might (In one instance, for example, our heroes look for Silver and find him standing on a tree branch in the distance, wearing the Lone Ranger's hat).

The film's plot, as I mentioned, is incredibly over-elaborate, involving the origin stories of our two leads, a woman and child in peril, a dastardly outlaw and his gang, a scheme to take over a railroad company, a secret silver mine and a manufactured war between the Comanche and the U.S. Calvary, all told, remember, in flashback.

The bigger problem, though, is the film's tone, as it's a little...well, genocide-y, with scenes of an elderly native chief talking about how his people are becoming extinct sandwiched between jokey, buddy comedy stuff, and another, elegiac scene in which the innocent Comanches are gattling gunned to pieces then followed by the heroes out-running and explosion scene and more gags. Like a lot of Bruckheimer productions, it seems like several movies for several audiences with several different tones, stitched quite awkwardly together (The prime example of this being 2003's Kangaroo Jack, one of the few films I walked out of a theater as the credits were finally rolling feeling extremely angry about).

It's not until just after the two-hour mark—this is a really long movie—that it actually gets awesome, not just intermittently interesting or amusing, but genuinely awesome. That's when we finally get the William Tell overture, The Lone Ranger on Silver and one of those elaborate, almost Byzantine sorts of action scenes with a ton of moving parts that Verbinski stages so well, here played on a pair of trains and featuring The Lone Ranger, Tonto, The Girl (Okay, her character has a name, Rebecca, and she's played by Ruth Wilson, but for all intents and purposes she's just The Girl) battling a trio of villains in a sort of roller coaster fight scene.

It lasts about ten minutes, and one imagines if they could have worked more of that into a shorter film, they might have really had something here. I sort of liked the final portrayal of the Lone Ranger/Tonto relationship that emerges, as problematic as Depp doing a "red-face" performance might seem in some quarters (I can sort of forgive it by looking at it from this angle: Tonto was never a "real" Indian, but a Hollywood construction, and having him be a character actor play-acting within the film as a Hollywood Indian, part Noble Savage and part Mystical In-Tune-With-Nature Construction feels like commentary, whether its meant to be or not), as the original bickering buddy cop team.

That's where they leave us, but, unlike the first Pirates, I didn't get a sense that this was either good enough or warmly-enough received to garner 1-4 more sequels.

The worst part? In the future, when someone says "The Johnny Depp Western," one won't immediately think of Jim Jarmusch's excellent 1995 Dead Man, but will have to ask for clarification. Worse still, given the bigger pop cultural footprint of Lone Ranger, one might not even ask for clarification, as chances are they'll have heard of Lone Ranger but never heard of Dead Man.

Stupid fucking white men.

Oz The Great and Powerful (2013): Oz suffers, like 1985's Return to Oz and the sundry, less ambitious filmic attempts to base another movie on L. Frank Baum's fantasy land, from the incredible success of the 1939, Judy Garland-starring original. That Wizard of Oz occupies such a position of power in our pop culture, that its shadow obscures all other straight attempts, and its gravity warps and deforms new movies (The best a filmmaker can hope to achieve, apparently, is to go for a weird and radical new riff, like adding Muppets or a young, singing and dancing Michael Jackson***). Viewers simply can't help constantly comparing and contrasting Oz movies to Wizard (and their own, likely fond, childhood memories of it).

And filmmakers are stuck doing the same.

Even an accomplished fantasist like Sam Raimi seems overwhelmed my his attempt at an Oz franchise expansion, despite almost 75 years of evolution in the field of special effects (The opening credits scene is dynamite, though!).

So, as with Wizard, Raimi opens in Kansas in black and white, and he also puts those Kansas scene in a smaller frame (This also showed in 3D in theaters, so I wonder if the opening was 2D, and the additional dimension was added once he arrives in Oz). There, James Franco is a two-bit, womanizing huckster of a stage magician nicknamed "Oz," working a traveling carnival circuit with a long-suffering assistant played by Zach Braff.

Things go bad in Kansas, where he meets with a fling who might have proven to be the love of his life if he allowed her to be (and I think she's Dorothy's mom?), played by Michelle Williams, and has a mini-existential crisis when a young girl with bad legs begs her to heal her with his magic, and the crowd turns ugly.

He ultimately escapes in a hot air balloon, which gets sucked into a twister, and deposits him you-know-where. As in Wizard, the characters of "the real world" appear in new forms in Oz, which is, of course, presented in brilliant color, the screen slowly growing until its being presented in full, widescreen format.

Braff now voices the creepiest fucking computer-generated monkey I've ever seen (You've been out-creepied as the creepiest fucking computer-generated monkey to play opposite of James Franco in a feature film, Andy Serkis of Rise of The Planet of The Apes).  Williams is now Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. And Joey King, who was the little girl in the wheelchair Oz couldn't heal, now voices the little China Girl. Together, these four are the core cast of good guys charged with saving Oz from the clutches of the two Wicked Witches, who, upon our first meeting of them, don't really seem all that wicked at all: Mila Kunis, in a really big hat, and Rachel Weisz, acting administator of the Emerald City.

I will here confess to knowing next to nothing about Baum's expanded Oz mythology; I've tried reading the book a few times as both a child and an adult, and they were far too twee for me (although I suppose I will try again someday), and I am thus more familiar with it through adaptations like the aforementioned movies and the comics work of Eric Shanower and his more recent work with Skottie Young for Marvel, so I don't know how accurate or faithful the movie is to that source material.

I can say that, regarding its faith to the movie it acts as a prequel to, it feels a bit like the Star Wars prequels, looking so much more modern while passing itself off as ancient history, and sort of ruining surprise elements of the original (Anyone starting here will see the man behind the curtain long before the curtain is even ever erected, and one of the big twists of original is thus sacrificed). There's also the matter of little, cosmetic changes, like the flying monkeys. The Braff one excepted, here they are horrifying baboon monsters. Oh, and The Wicked Witch of the West is, well, hot.

That's Kunis' character, and while there are a lot of attractive ladies in this movie, she stands out as the hottest. She begins a flirtation with Oz upon his original landing, and he's really only put-off by her talk of marriage. Her manipulative older sister comes between them, and eventually tricks Kunis into transforming into the green-skinned witch we're familiar with. She blames Oz for her current, "hideous" form, but, um, as far as I can tell all they did was 1) paint her skin green (Exotic!) and then 2)  point her chin, eyebrows and nose, like a Hollywood actress with too-extreme plastic surgery.

She still basically looks like Mila Kunis, albeit Mila Kunis on Halloween, and she's costumed with a low-cut, breast-lifting, tight black witch costume so that, chances are, Franco's Oz is going to be looking that closely at her chin or eyebrows anyway. It's a rather weird, Hollywood sort of thing, a "she's ugly because we say she's ugly" thing, like the gorgeous Rachel Leigh Cooke apparently being somehow unappealing in She's All That with long hair and glasses, while a haricut and contacts transform her into a princess or something.

Basically, what I'm trying to say here is that I'm Team Wicked, not Team Good, in this movie. (Kathleen Robertson's wicked witch, in the extremely strange 2007 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries The Tin Man, starring Zooey Deschanel as "D.G.", the Dorothy character, remains the most attractive wicked witch in film history, though).

Not-so-special effects and uninteresting creative choices aside (not presented as a dream, the way Dorothy's visit to Oz was, there's no reason for actors to appear in multiple roles in both worlds), Franco does a decent job heroically holding the movie together, and his character gets a satisfyingly convincing journey from selfish rogue to redeemed hero, with suspense over which side he's ultimately on lasting a surprisingly long time. Satisfying too was the conclusion, in which he embraces his reputation as Oz The Great and Powerful, and invents the giant head version of the Wizard that he'll inhabit in the future.

And maybe it's just me, but the sight of a giant, ghostly James Franco head, with a sinister goatee, screaming about his powers and spitting firecrackers strikes me as sort of hilarious. Not quite as hilarious as the James Franco of Spring Breakers (see below), and I did find myself sort of wishing the giant ghost head would bellow "Spring breeeeeaaaak foreeeeverrrrrr....!!!!", but hilarious nonetheless.

After seeing This is The End though (again, below; I can't escape James Franco!), I think I might have enjoyed this movie more if it was about James Franco, playing himself, journeying to Oz in a hot air baloon with some of his freinds, also playing themselves, rather than a Wizard of Oz prequel/sequel. Ah well, that's what daydreams are for, right...?

Primeval: New World (2013): This is the long-awaited (by me), North American spin-off to the five-season British sci-fi series about a group of scientists dealing with time-space "anomalies" and the creatures that come through them, often remarkably well-designed prehistoric creatures (The series was created by the guys who did those awesome Walking With... series of documentaries). In fact, it was so long-awaited by me, that I didn't even realize it had ever aired on television—and it apparently didn't do so long, being canceled with the firsts season until I saw the DVD in the library.

The connection to the original is fairly non-existant, save for Andrew Lee Pott's Connor Temple character showing up in the very first episode to warn the lead character away from investigating the anomalies and in the series' final (and, frustratinglly, cliff-hanging) episode (Some enterprising comic book company out there wanna do a Primeval: New World Season 2, to at least explain what happens after that last episode? The premise is sexy people fight dinosaurs...that's gotta be comic book gold, if not cable television gold), in part to help bring everything to a head and speak as a voice of experience that the anomalies really, really shouldn't be messed with as much as they're being messed with by the end of the series.

The premise also seems to walk back a bit from the conclusion of the British series, in which the anomalies/portals became so numerous at one point, and the creatures so many, that the secret of them was "out" on a worldwide scale; here the few characters in-the-know seem to be the only ones in-the-know, and treat them as a secret.

The cast and dramatis personae?  Niall Matter is Evan Cross, a genius inventor type who lost his wife to a dinosaur attack and devoted himself and his company to cracking the mystery of the anomalies, to the frustration of Miranda Frigon's Ange Fich, the business brains behind his science brains, that keep his company afloat while he becomes obsessed with the dinosaur-fighting.

Cross's team consists of Danny Rahim's Mac, a British import who is Cross' best friend and generally serves as the muscle; Sara Canning's Dylan, a predator expert; and Crystal Lowe's Toby, who handles communications and computer stuff. (If you've seen the British version, you can rather easily identify these new characters as hybrids of other characters; Cross is Nick Cutter crossed with Philip Burton; Toby is a mixture of Abby as alternative dream girl, Jess' communications/computer role and Connor's computer nerdery and tech specialty; Mac plays the Stephen/Becker role, but is Connor to Toby's Abby, and so on).

There are a few rather crazy mysteries simmering under the surface of the season-long plot, which finds the Canadian government gradually trying to assume control of Cross' crusade the more they learn of it (and not for necessarily evil reasons; one interesting thing about the show is that are really rather few bad guys, even when someone double-crosses someone, they generally do it with the best of intentions), but the basic episode-to-episode pattern is more-or-less that of the show it spins out of: A portal in time opens, a creature comes through—here, all of the creatures are from the past, with none coming form the future—havoc is wreaked, and the team must find away to get the creature back through without being killed, while sub-plots—romances and the fate of the world stuff—move ahead a step at a time.

The beasts encountered include raptors, a pteradon, a Titanaboa, a flock of surprisingly intelligent, chicken-sized Daemonosaurus and, my personal favorite,  some Terror Birds. As leery as I was of a sort of re-do of the series on a different continent, I grew to like the characters pretty quickly, and I'm pretty bummed that it didn't last long enough to produce even a second season, particularly given what happened at the end of the series.

Rapture-Palooza (2013): Or, the other Craig Robinson-starring apocalypse comedy of the year. While undoubtedly smaller and less-seen than This Is The End (see below), it features a bigger and better role for Robinson, and, while the two films are different enough that calling one a winner and the other a loser is impossible, the poorly-titled Rapture-Palooza follows the actual Book of Revelation more closely and even takes care to note when deviating (I still don't know where The Rapture is in the Bible, though), and certainly gets much, much more mileage out of less. It has a much smaller, but just-as-talented cast, and fewer star-stars, and, despite being set in a few more locations than This Is The End, feels a lot more intimate and character-driven.

So the Chris Matheson-written story (You know, the Bill & Ted's writer) begins with Anna Kendrick and John Francis Daley's young couple witnessing The Rapture one day, and then, together with their families, struggling through apocalyptic life in Seattle. Both of their moms are raptured, but one of them is sent back from heaven. Flaming rocks fall from the sky. It rains blood. Undead ghouls called "wraiths" roam the world (including a neighbor played by Thomas Lennon in zombie make-up, making Bobcat Goldyhwait sounds under his breath). There are human-faced locust creatures (that one's in the Bible) and crows that caw obscenities (that one's not). And the Anti-Christ, played by Craig Robinson, has risen, although he insists on being called "The Beast."

As rough as things are, they get infinitely rougher for our young heroes when they join Daley's dad, played by a mustachioed Rob Corddry, on a trip to The Beast's mansion, where Corddry has a job as a "Beastly Guard." There, The Beast notices Kendrick and his growing interest in her—he previously explained on a newscast that he's looking to settle down with a girl next door type with a nice rack—is confirmed when he learns she's a virgin, and he decides she must marry him and bear his children, or he'll kill everyone she knows.

From there, the young couple must desperately work out a plan to stop Robinson's Anti-Christ that doesn't involve killing him, as apparently killing him will simply promote him from the Anti-Christ into actual Satan. Not to worry, it all ends happily enough, after an appearance by maybe the most unlikely character to play God since Alanis Morrisette in Kevin Smith's not-as-good Dogma, who kung fu-fights Robinson's devil, although the pro-humanist, pro-atheist message may trouble some believers. Or maybe not...the script leaves open the possibility that even the seemingly nonsensical ending may have been part of God's plan, since relatively little of the plan as revealed in Revelation and dramatized here makes a lot of sense anyway.

Despite her starring role, Kendrick gets a little less to do than I would have liked, spending maybe too much of the film's running time awkwardly accepting, shrugging off or trying to repel Robinson's lewd come-ons and dirty jokes, many of which end with, "I'm just kidding. But not really." (I am sorry, truly sorry, to admit that one scene, in which The Beast takes Kendrick's character for a walk around his grounds, reminded me of one of those icky Brian Wood stories circulating).
She does also spend a lot of it in the dress seen on the cover—"Wow, you look so slutty," Daley says admiringly, to which she replies, "Thanks"—the image that did, I must confess, sell me on bringing this particular movie home from the library one night instead of Kendrick's also-new-to-DVD Drinking Buddies (or Pitch Perfect, which, despite my crush on Kendrick, I can't bring myself to watch. I blame all the tweens I know doing that damn cup song thing, forever linking Pitch Perfect to annoyance in my mind).

Between Kendrick, Robinson, Corddry and Rob Huebel, who plays the head Beastly guard, there's a lot of comedic talent here, and I enjoyed a lot of the film, particularly the reactions to events from the Book of Revelations occurring literally (the cheap ones; no dragons or fucked-up looking lamb monsters, and only one of the four horsemen), and Corddry's sycophantic character's trying to justify his allegiance to evil.

Sadly, Robinson's Beast theme song, which he sings while looking at himself in the mirror and which also plays over the trailer—"Who is a sexy beast? / I am a sexy beast"—was stuck in my head afterwards, and that's a hell of a thing to get stuck in your head.

Sharknado (2013): You know, I remember seeing a lot of tweets about this film, presumably during its original airing or the announcement of its existence—its title being maybe the best awesomely dumb descriptive one since Snakes on a Plane, only having the benefit of being a portmanteau—but no one in my social media circles blabbing about it shared the most important aspect of the film: It stars Ian Ziering, Beverly Hills, 90210's Steve Sanders, as Fin Shephard, a retired surfing star and current bar-owner desperately trying to keep his family safe from the weirdest natural disaster imagined by a screenwriter since...Well, I actually can't think of anything weirder.

This is the sort of role that is perfect for Ziering, whose character grew more and more comedic as Beverely Hills, 90210 limped on past its prime (After a certain point, I was pretty much only watching for the Steve and Janet bits). I'm not quite sure why he's given second-billing to Tara Reid, who may technically still be a "bigger" "star" but nevertheless plays a more minor role than Ziering and a few other members of the cast (Guys, I don't know what's wrong with Reid, but she looked really rough in this movie; so rough, I was kind of worried about her. I think maybe she had some terrible plastic surgery or something...? One would think she would have learned to steer clear of plastic surgery after her incident, but, man, she doesn't look, sound or even act much like the actress of Josie and The Pussycats or American Pie).

You probably know the plot, as it's right there in the title. During a freak hurricane of some kind, tornadoes/water spouts pick up a bunch of sharks—If I could have watched this film with any person, alive or dead, I think I would pick Charles Forte, as his writing on "strange falls" like fish falling from skies leads me to believe that he'd have some interesting things to say about the likelihood of waterspounts selectively sucking up just the sharks—and as Las Angeles begins to flood with shark-filled waters, sharks are quite regularly deposited in the most unlikely places, generally falling out of the sky, mouth-first.

Fin and his pals Nova (Cassie Scerbo), Baz (Jaason Simmons) and George (John Heard) head immediately from the coast to try and save Fin's family—his ex-wife and daughter are holed up in his former mansion, his son in pilot school—while battling the sharks and stopping to save whoever they can along the way (and, of course, losing some of their number along the way).

The climax is a little ridiculous, even for this movie, as it involves flying a helicopter right up to the "edge" of the sharknadoes and throwing homemade bombs into them, which, it's explained, disperses them, since tornadoes are formed by by a combination of hot air and cold hair, and the bombs skew the temperature ratio or...something.

I'm no scientist, but I'm pretty sure that's not how either tornadoes or helicopters work, but then, everything I know about tornados I've learned from Twister and The Wizard of Oz (They're portals to dream worlds, for example, which, come to think of it, might not be a bad idea for Sharknado 3; "Just when you thought it was safe to follow the yellow brick road..."). Also, while we're on the subject of the plausibility of certain plot points of a movie entitled Sharknado, how long can these sharks live out of water? Because many of them are up in the air, spinning around, for much of the 80-minute film.

Anyway, after that, two super-awesome things happen.

As far as made-for-SyFy channel movies go, this is by far the best I've seen, and I know that's not saying much, since every single one I've seen has been pretty soul-crushingly terrible, but this one actually has a sense of humor, and that goes a long, long way. The special effects naturally look super-cheap, and most of the sharks don't look much like sharks, being terrible special effects (as is much of the gore, which looks like the red mist of a first-person shooter rather than something involving corn syrup and squib packs).

So I know its not saying much, but I'll say it anyway: The Greatest Made-For-SyFy TV Movie Ever Made!

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011): This special effects heavy, green-screen kung fu fantasy by Siu-Tung Ching (Chinese Ghost Story), stars Jet Li as the titular sorcerer (actually a demon-hunting abbot of a Buddhist temple). Based on a Chinese legend, a variation of the crane wife stories of human marriages to shape-changing supernatural creatures, it involves a snake demon (Shengyi Huang of Kung Fu Hustle) assuming a fully human form in order to pursue her love for handsome human herablist played by Raymond Lam. She and her sister Green Snake (Charlene Choi) descend to earth during a festival, crossing paths with Li's abbot and his comedic sidekick Zhang Wen as they hunt a vampire-like bat deamon.

The love story between the herbalist and White Snake is genuine and intense, played out as cinematic, operatic melodrama, but Li's stubborn abbot is naturally opposed, and things get complicated quickly. By the climax, Li finds himself battling two titanic snake monsters amidst an unnatural flood they've created to drown the temple.

It's all quite beautifully filmed, even if the special effects are mostly on the cheaper side of, say, D-War, and Li and his opponents do more fighting upon wires or posing while computer generated special effects added in post shoot out of their hands than they do good old-fashioned punching, kicking and blocking.

It's a remarkably religious film, with Buddha seemingly entering the climactic battle in a bit of Buddha Ex Machina, to the extent that it might seem like religious propaganda were it in the West and it was the hand of God rather than Buddha at work, but the exotic setting—both and time and upon the globe—gives it a feel of mythology rather than preaching.

The love story is ultimately a tragic one, but a lesson about the value of mercy and tolerance is learned by the abbot and, one imagines, those watching. Some of the demons, particularly of the bat vareity, look decidedly  generic and cheap, but the fox demons and snakes' original form, like that of floating, serpentine mermaids, are quite well executed.

I came for the exploitation. I stayed for the more exploitation.
Spring Breakers (2012): Here is absolutely everything I knew about Spring Breakers before bringing the DVD home from the library: 1) It was a spring break movie prominently featuring the sexy, baby-faced actress I'd seen increasingly posing in magazines that had a show on Disney or Nickelodean and dates or dated a popular teenage pop singer, 2) There were attractive young women wearing bikinis on the case, 3) The logo was really quite beautiful, 4) James Franco was apparently in it too...?

Suffice it to say, it wasn't the spring break movie I was expecting. It was a surprisingly good, surprisingly entertaining and surprisingly strange movie, though.

Striking a strange balance between artsy and exploitive, writer/director Harmony Korine (writer of the rather noxious but-inspirational-to-teenage-Caleb film Kids****, and writer/director of 1997's Gummo), he packs the opening with scenes of the scantily clad circle of friends—Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine—frolicking melancholically, and dreaming of the college rite of passage of Spring Break, which they can't afford to attend and which they look to as an escape from the  various difficulties in their lives, whether real or imagined.

The three who aren't Selina Gomez—and I'll be honest, I had trouble keeping some of them straight at various points—commit a robbery in order to fund their spring break, and after more dreamy scenes, in which the girls are now bikini-clad (as they will be for most of the rest of the film), they participate in the various forms of debauchery expected of them, eventually winding up in jail and in debt to James Franco's local drugpin/aspiring rap artist, who has turned spring break into a lifestyle.

The girls slowly peel away, with top-billed Gomez the first to leave, and eventually the movie turns into some sort of brightly-colored, Florida-based Bonnie and Bonnie and Bonnie and Clyde.

It's a really weird fucking movie, to be honest, but a beautiful-looking one, with a nice colors and nice music and strange, strange conclusion that it seems like Korine found by writing and filming his way into and through a third act, more than anything else. But it's more a sensory experience than a story, a film version of a tone poem rather than a novella.

I wish I could get the sound of Franco's "Spring breeeeeaaaak foreeeeverrrrrr....!!!!" out my head though.

This is The End (2013):  An oddly sweet movie about male friendship that happens to be a lot funnier than some of the comedies made by some of the comic actors that make up the ensemble cast (perhaps in part because their various filmographies are held up to almost constant ridicule throughout), this is a movie about a Hollywood version of the Book of Revelation's apocalypse, as weathered by actors playing versions of themselves (a premise I never fail to find funny, and generally much funnier than when actors play characters; Curb Your Enthusiasm is maybe my favorite television comedy, for example, and I'm pretty confident in declaring Louis CK's best acting being on his Louie).

Written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (with Jason Stone getting an additional writing credit), it stars Seth Rogen as Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel as Jay Baruchel. The two old friends are experiencing some tension in their life, as Baruchel doesn't feel quite comfortable in Rogen's adopted town of Las Angeles, and among his new circle of friends, which includes Jonah Hill (played as "the nicest guy in the world," over eager to make Baruchel love him as Rogen does) and James Franco (played as something of an unhinged, narcissistic character).

Baruchel reluctantly joins Rogen for a huge party with a celebrity guest-list—Michael Cera, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Emma Watson, Paul Rudd and tons of little surprise cameos—meant to christen Franco's new mansion, when the Rapture occurs (Naturally, none of the party attendees are taken), a sinkhole opens up taking almost everyone into the bowels of the Earth, and shit gets real all over Las Angeles.

By the next morning, only Baruchel, Rogen, Hill, Franco, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride—in full-on foil mode, introduced late enough that one might forget he was supposed to be in the movie, and exiting the main narrative sooner than the others—left. They try to ride things out in Franco's mansion, dealing with one another's foibles, dwindling supplies and the pressures of the end of the world just beyond the walls.

It's pretty funny. With the possible exception of Baruchel and Rogen, the actors all play exaggerated versions of their screen personas, and bust on one another about their careers. Dubious creative choices are made when it comes to depicting the end of the world, including the extra-Biblical Rapture, a giant Satan striding about, and Hill become possessed by a demon via rape which, well, it's no funnier hear than that scene in Your Highness where the minotaur tries to rape our heroes, but it has plenty of moments (I think the only one I laughed out loud at though was the scene in which Baruchel and the others tie a possessed Hill to a bed and try to exorcise the demon within him. "The power of Christ compels you!" Baruchel barks, while Hill's demon responds dubiously, "Does it Jay?")

The conclusion is also a rather unexpected delight, although carefully, even somewhat subtly foreshadowed earlier in the film. Throughout, I kept being reminded of Kevin Smith and his troupe's Dogma, which similarly tried to infuse an apocalyptic, Christian fantasy with juvenile drug and potty humor and a surprisingly positive message about faith, and didn't quit work. This Is The End, like Rapture-Palooza (above), really makes Dogma seem like an even worse movie than the bad movie it was.

I also found myself wondering about stories that would be occurring while this one was. They made three Matrix movies; I sure wouldn't mind seeing a movie of Emma Watson fighting her way through post-apocalyptic L.A. with an axe, for example, or Rihanna, Aziz Ansari and Jason Segel's adventures in the bowels of hell, you know?


AUDIOBOOKS

Don't Know Much About History (Updated and Revised Edition) by Kenneth C. Davis:  I actually knew all this, so either I'm a genius, Davis' book was written for an audience still more ignorant of history than me (and believe me, I don't know much about much), or it was specifically designed to present basic American history as if it were some fairly exclusive, little-known body of arcanna with the express purpose of making readers/listeners like me feel smart...?

At any rate, it was a pretty good grab as far as "I'm driving an hour-and-a-half this weekend and need something to listen to" audiobook, a sort of refresher of what you hopefully learned about American history in high school and haven't yet forgotten.

Now, what I could really use is a Don't Know Much About Math. But then, I would find the title of an audiobook like that so boring I would never even think of listening to it while driving a fast-moving vehicle, which, I suppose, is why I don't know much about math in the first place...

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I started this my freshman year of college, but didn't make it all that far. As I heard reader Tim Robbins get to the bit where our protagonist Nick is first asked for directions, which makes him feel at home in his new home (a paragraph I remember whenever I'm asked for directions in one of the cities I've dwelt that wasn't the one I was born and raised in) or Jay Gatsby on the beach, I remembered reading those, and as I got past the first party or so, I realized I must not have made it all that far after all (Yet I still got an A in American Literature that semester! My professor never realized I never finished the book! Ha ha ha ha! I got away with it! And only at the cost at having missed out on a great work of American literature!).

Anyway, as you can probably tell from this "Everything Else" post and any others in the past you may have slogged through (or, more likely, just skimmed), I generally eschew prose fiction, either in book form or audiobook form, but I really wanted to see Baz Luhrman's film adaptation, and don't generally like to see films based on books without first reading the books. I checked Fitzegerald's remarkably thin volume out of the library at least three times since Luhrman's Gatsby was announced,  but never actually found time to read it, and eventually gave up and tried the audiobook.  (In addition to serving as a sort of homework to prepare me for watching the latest film adaptation, it also gave me an excuse to re-read and now better get Kate Beaton's Gatsby comics; The Great Gatsby is yet one more work I wish Beaton could do a full-length parody of...in a perfect world, there'd be a line of Classics Illustrated-like literary parodies written and drawn by Beaton).

Well, I don't know if anyone's ever mentioned this before or not, but it's really a very good book.

One reason I don't listen to a whole lot of fiction, beyond the same reasons I don't read a whole lot of fiction, as I don't really care for the way a lot of audiobook readers to the voices of the characters, which can be pretty grating if, say, it's a male reader, and he does a lot of female characters or, worse, children characters. Here Robbins does have to do Daisy and Jordan and even Daisy and Tom's little girl during her own brief appearance in the book. But he does an excellent Gatsby, who speaks in a dry, deep, slightly sad, mostly flat voice, and an even more excellent Tom, a loud, brash, barking character who is just fun to listen to.

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else by Michael Gates Gill: I remember reading a review of this book in a newspaper when it was originally released, and being somewhat intrigued by it at the time, but didn't get around to it until recently, when I found myself needing a book to listen to while driving.

It's a pretty focused memoir by the author, an old-school ad executive who spent his whole life working for a prominent ad company and living the life of a rich and successful middle-aged white guy, until he lost his job, essentially for being too old school and middle-aged.

After hitting rock bottom in several different aspects of his life, including emotional, financial and with his health, he chanced into an entry level job at a Starbucks, a place he had spent a lot of time looking for work on his lap top while sipping pricey lattes over the years.

As the title says, it kinda sorta saves his life, giving him a decent wage, health insurance, work he felt good at doing and valued for performing and exposure to people he would never have crossed paths with, including other members of the working poor and several black folks; in fact, Gill is quite up front about the fact that a few of the folks he worked with, including the young, well-built black man Kestor, and a young, white, wiry wannabe musician, are the sort of people he might have crossed the street to avoid in the past.

Throughout the book, he chronicles the many lessons he learns by his work and his new environment, and while a lot of them are of the sort that I suppose many of you don't need to learn—I don't know how many sons (or daughters) of privilege there actually are in EDILW's reading audience, nor in Gill's reading audience‚ but I imagine they're outnumbered by the people unafraid of young black men and who don't find barista to be a necessarily bad thing to be in life—but he writes about them in an engaging enough fashion that it's certainly not tedious to hear about them.

He writes quite a lot about the positive nature of Starbucks as a workplace and a company, and it took me some time to deal with the cognitive dissonance, as my whole adult life I've never heard anything positive about Starbucks, but usually only their negative impact on communities (which, to be fair, is the same as the negative impact of most big chains on small, local communities—driving locally-owned small businesses out of business or into more dire straights). After reading Gill's book, I actually went out of my way to patronize a few Starbucks, he so sold me on them—I generally try to patronize locally-owned coffee shops and, failing that, will settle for fast food coffee from somewhere like Dunkin' Doughnuts or, if I'm desperate, McDonald's, a far greater force of evil in the world than Starbucks could ever hope to be—and none of those in my current city (Mentor, Ohio) really fit the sort of environment that Gill described at his own New York City Starbucks.

The biggest difficulty I had with the audiobook, though, was with the reader. It's actor Dylan Baker (The original Spider-Man trilogy's Dr. Curt Connors), whose voice was so familiar I had a hard time not imagining Baker for maybe the first few CDs worth of the book.

My biggest criticism is that I found it ended rather abruptly, when Gill gets a new job at a different Starbucks location than the one that he spends the entirety of this book, the one that saved his life. I wanted to know what happened to the other characters after he left, and what became of him...if he was still working at a Starbucks in the capacity he was, or if he was promoted into the advertising or management or executive ranks of the company (certainly this book is perfect PR for Starbucks), or if he made enough money from writing this book that he could retire in relative comfort.

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Here's another exception to my no-fiction rule, a book I had previously read, but didn't mind having someone re-read to me again. This is the original "Holy shit! Dinosaurs! Still living in our modern world!" story, the main inspiration behind and template for King Kong, maybe the greatest story ever told, made better still by the incredible character of Professor Challenger.

Reader Glen McCready does a fantastic job with Challenger and his foil and opposite number Professor Summerlee and the super-British, almost to the point of parody of British explorer character Sir Roxton.

It's been long enough since the last time I read the book (or seen the silent movie film adaptation) that I remembered the in plot in broad strokes—trapped on the plateau, pterosaurs, ape men, strange hopping carnivores, a lake with more evolved prehistoric humans living around it, racism, a touch of sexism, a pterodactyl in London—but not all of the specifics, so I had forgotten enough for it to be a treat to experience it again, especially with doing the voices.

I'd like to talk a little bit about The Lost World in the near future, perhaps at The Library of Calebxandria, however, since it's a mostly not-comics discussion (unless it's public domain? And someone wants to do a comic book adaptation that takes at least as many liberties as the film version?), but I do believe recent discoveries of new species of prehistoric animals have given us away to have both the original ending of the book and the city-smashing ending of the film).

Oh, and if there are any smart science writers with contacts in the world of paleontology casting about for good ideas for a non-fiction book to write, you know what book I'd love to see, but am not smart enough nor connected enough to ever actually write? One in which the science of The Lost World is rather rigorously examined, with the species of dinosaur encountered in it identified, and real experts of paleontology consulted to discuss what Doyle got wrong about the creatures he was writing about (based on how much science has changed and advanced in the decades upon decades since the book was written ) and what he might have gotten right.

Steve Martin: The Magic Years by Morris W. Walker: I picked this one up by accident, and actually got a few chapters in before I realized that the Steve Martin biography I had heard a lot of good things about a few years back was one that was actually written by Martin himself, 2008's Born Standing Up. This one is written by a childhood friend of Martin's, and pre-dates Born Standing Up by seven years or so; in fact, Walker mentions on several occasions that he hopes Martin will write the story of his own life or that an autobiography from Martin would be an excellent book, given how good a writer Martin is.

As a 36-year-old born two years before Martin's first film, I missed out on much of Steve Martin's career, including the entire period in which he was a stand-up comedian, his television work and his early movie career (I've never even seen The Jerk, for example). I have seen some of his films growing up, mostly on cable television, and mostly in fits and starts (Parenthood and Roxanne, for example, I've never seen al the way through, but remember them playing on HBO quite a bit). Looking at his filmography on IMDb right now, I see that I had seen him in The Muppet Movie, The Three Amigos, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Little Shop of Horrors and My Blue Heaven—that last of which was one of my favorite movies for a while, and when I worked in a video store, one I used to play near constantly as it was one I liked, could stand watching over and over, no one else complained about it being on and didn't have any nudity or terrible swearing—before reaching adulthood.

But the Steve Martin I am most familiar with is the one of the 00's, as that's the decade I spent half of as a film critic—maybe the best job in the world—among my other duties as an editor at an altweekly in the fifteenth biggest city in the United States (since sold off to the city's evil local media empire, although I guess they still do okay on comics coverage). So when I hear "Steve Martin," I think Bringing Down The House, Cheaper By The Dozen (both of 'em), Shopgirl (which creeped me right the hell out), Looney Tunes: Back In Action and Pink Panther. And yet as unflattering an image as that brief bit of filmography might suggest, it's always been clear he's a sort of interesting guy, writing (when he doesn't have to) and making straight, serious music (again, when he doesn't have to).

So Morris' book was interesting to me in that it covered a subject I sort of had some vague idea bout, and yet didn't really know all that much about, really. What makes Morris' book more interesting still is that he knew Martin best when they were in grade school and high school, and they finally started to drift apart, from inseparable best friends to more casual acquaintances, when they grew up and went into different fields of entertainment: Martin became a television writer and then a stand-up comedian and then everything else he's been and done, Morris married young and he and his wife became touring folk musicians (The former obviously became much richer and more famous).

The book then covers Martin's babyboomer childhood in California, his first meeting with Morris (on a grade school playground), some of their school boy pranks and shenanigans, their jobs at Disneyland, their aspiration to be a comedy duo and Martin's interest in stage magic, where the book gets its name. Morris does talk quite a bit about Martin's later career, which he sometimes saw via television and occasionally more intimately, but the book is really about the formative years of the comedian.

As such, it was pretty fascinating, particularly in the way Martin and Morris' childhoods seem so familiar—despite it being a generation removed from my own; I guess there are still a lot of universealities in American chilhoods and childhood friendships—and what might have made Martin who he ultimately became. Steve Martin's Adventures When He Was a Boy, as it were.

It's unclear to what degree Martin authorized the book; Morris let him read it before publication, and he does provide a blurb on the cover ("I loved this book and fell deeply in love with the central character"), but it's not exactly a hagiography...nor is it a warts-and-all portrayal. Morris notes a fight or two the pair had, one rather later in their lives, and talks about Martin's private nature, some friction with his parents and his keen interest in money (while noting several cases of generosity) in ways that one might not want one's friend to discuss with a bunch of complete strangers. That makes it at least feel very honest; Morris is obviously a fan and partisan, but he at least  appears to be calling it like it is.

Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? by Billy Crystal: And here's another comedian with whom I'm most familiar with via his later, not-very-good work, having missed his rise to fame. (I've seen some Soap on Comedy Central as a teenager, I've seen The Princess Bride about as often as I've seen any movie, but remember Crystal best from hosting the Oscars: Reviewing his filmography on IMDb, it looks like the Mel Gibson Hamlet, Monsters, Inc, and America's Sweethearts are his only non-Princess Bride films I've watched all the way through, although I've seen bits of random pieces of When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers out of order several dozen times, I'm sure).

Crystal's interview about the book with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and Stewart's effusive praise, is what really made me want to give the book a read—well, a listen, while I was driving and didn't really have anything better to do with my ears anyway—and the format of the audiobook is interesting. Crystal reads it himself, and several segments of it are read/performed in front of a live audience, in an attempt to evoke the feel of listening to old comedy records.

Those segments, by the way, are mostly essays about growing old—Crystal is turning 65 at the time of the writing of this book, apparently—and there are a lot of long passages about various bits of old man humor that aren't exactly my thing now, but I do actively dread getting later in life, of being able to think, "Oh, that's funny because it's true!"

Using oncoming old age as something of a springboard, Crystal tells his life's story—more focused on his career than the behind the scenes, personal life bits, which seem remarkably, admirably stable for someone with such a long career in Hollywood.

The one aspect of that life that really struck me is just how lucky Crystal has been, getting to not only meet his own childhood heroes like Ted Williams and Muhammad Ali, but then going on to form actual, long-lasting friendships with them (And, somewhat similarly, getting to meet his childhood fantasy Sophia Loren). Williams and Ali are, obviously, great characters, and Crystal does great impressions of both of them.

The ins and outs of his comedy and television careers were all news to me, and, as was the case with the Martin book, it was interesting to learn so much about a household name. As far as movies go, he spends the most time talking about the successful ones—City Slickers, When Harry Met Sally and Analyze This, for example; apparently Crystal was the one that really pushed for Robert DeNiro, and it was seen as a risky move at the time, as DeNiro hadn't yet done comedy...?—although some of his HBO Comedy Specials, The Princess Bride (in which he played a limited role), directorial debut 61  and his notable failure Mr. Saturday Night get some attention as well. Monsters Inc is discussed almost entirely in relations to 9/11, which is weird, as I certainly never connected the two, but I guess that's around the time the film was released.


*Compared to Legolas, Marvel's The Avengers' Hawkeye isn't really much of a super-archer, is he? Come to think of it, Tauriel and Bard also perform feats of superheroic archery in this film generally only seen in comics featuring Hawkeye or Green Arrow.

**One of the best I've seen in a "live-action" film, honestly, or film in general. I did like the cat-like Smaug of the animated Hobbit a bit better in terms of design, but I thought the natural history of this particular dragon was very well-realized, and it was a better dragon than those I've seen in, say, Reign of Fire or Dragonheart or Eragon or Dungeons & Dragons. I was sort of disappointed in the voice, though, which is just Benedict Cumberpatch speaking through an effects pedal...as rumbly as it is, they really didn't need to pay a famous actor to speak that dialogue, did they? When you think of Andy Serkis' Gollum's voice as a point of comparison, Smaug's voice seems more disappointing still. It won't stick with you the way Gollum's does.

***Oh hey, remind me to tell you about my kung fu movie adaptation, The Shogun of Oz, sometime, will you?

****Kids was one of two films I saw that year that I thought were so poorly written, and yet written in such a way with a very basic, almost generic formula, that writing fiction suddenly seemed easier than ever for me. I wrote a very, very terrible novel shortly after seeing Kids. While I'm glad no publisher was the least bit interested in that novel I wrote as a no-nothing 19-year-old kid myself, and am glad that no one but me has ever read more than a few pages of it, I still think it wasn't any worse than Kids was. 

2 comments:

Akilles said...

You kill me Caleb...

But anyway, I really appreciate the effort you put in to this blog. Mindboggling.

Rev'd '76 said...

You put yourself through some serious Franco this year, man.