Friday, September 25, 2015

EVERYTHING ELSE:

FILM

Big Eyes: While possessing a sensitive, outsider artist as its protagonist, and at least one scene of deep, cheesy weirdness, this is the rare Tim Burton film that doesn't look, sound or feel much like a Tim Burton film. Not only is it based a true story (only his second film to have such source material, following 1994's Ed Wood), it features neither Helena Bonham Carter nor Johnny Depp!

Playing the lead roles instead are Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Adams is Margaret, 1950s housewife, mother and amateur artist who one day packs a bag and runs away from her husband with her daughter, winding up in San Francisco. At an outdoor arts festival there, she meets Waltz's Walter Keane, who is immediately enamored with both her paintings and with her. After a very short courtship, the pair marry and, after a chance misunderstanding, Walter takes credit for Margaret's work. Theirs is a strained and strange symbiotic relationship, as the shy and retiring Margaret has talent and a unique style with a unique subject matter, while Walter is an incredible salesman and promoter.

If you're not familiar with the Keanes–God knows I wasn't before watching this–you're probably familiar with the art that was assigned to one or the other of them at differing times...or the work of their imitators. Margaret created images of big, sad-eyed children (hence the title of the film) staring imploringly out at the viewer. The art world of the era rejected the work as hackneyed kitsch, but the public embraced it, so much so that the Keanes became incredibly popular and saccharine "big eyes" work became, as Jason Schwartzman's art dealer decries dryly at one point, "a movement." (My aunt had a Keane knock-off of a puppy on a beach hanging in her upstairs hallway when I was a child; it used to creep me out).

In a remarkably serious and straightforward manner, Burton tells the story of the pair and their extremely dysfunctional relationship, the climax coming in a courtroom scene that offers the film's best, strongest and practically only source of comedy (save for Schwartzman's characters occasional commentary to Waltz's character, or the audience). In that respect, the film feels a little disjointed, as its tone is so consistently one thing, until it starts being another thing for 20 minutes or so, and then ends. It would be very easy to make this very same film, with the very same script and cast, into an an all-out farcical comedy. That probably wouldn't have made for a better film, but it would have made for one with a more consistent tone, as the final film seems to cast about for an identity far too often.

The principals are both fine, although Adams doesn't have too much to do, or at least, not as much that is as showy as what Waltz gets to do. Her character's emotions are set on simmer for much of the film, so all her anger, fear, desperation, determination and embarrassment simply roils under her tight face until the film nears its climax and she finally starts to rebel.

Waltz, by contrast, plays a character who is himself always acting, and he has big, broad passionate displays throughout the film, although even at his most reserved he's lying, glad-handing and wheedling. It's a fun movie, if an uneven one, and probably not what a lot of fans of Burton's more expressionistic films will be expecting.

Krysten Ritter plays a small role as Margaret's friend; I always like seeing Krysten Ritter.

In fact, let's all all see Krysten Ritter, together:


Big Hero 6: My friend and I immediately headed to Wikipedia after we got home from the theater in order to see how much of this actually came from the comics, and how faithful they were the source material, as it looks and feels like nothing from any Marvel comics I've ever read, and, well, Big Hero 6 was a 1990s Marvel comic about a state-sanctioned superhero team.

I was pretty shocked to discover how much the filmmakers did take from the comics, although they put it through an incredible alchemical process to turn the base source material into cinematic gold.

I laughed out loud every time Baymax tried to make the appropriate fist-bump noise, and while so much of the film was very funny, it was one of those perfect, all-ages films that has a little of everything–comedy, drama, action–that it offered a full, movie-movie experience, rather than just being a polished genre exercise, like the "real" Marvel movies in the so-called "Marvel Cinematic Universe." Though based on a Marvel comic, this doesn't count as part of the "Marvel Cinemtatic Universe," you see, and that's probably a good thing. It's so much better than the other MCU movies that it would screw up the grading curve for those.

Exodus: Gods and Kings: There was a point in this rather weird Biblically-inspired film, which in Hollywood tradition actually takes the name of a book to put in an adaptation that deviates widely and wildly from that book, where I started to worry that maybe it wasn't going to be an adaptation of the Moses story. That maybe it was actually going to be one of those ill-considered movies where the filmmakers try to dramatize the rather mundane goings-on of what might have actually happened in real life that inspired the more famous, more interesting version of the story, eliminating anything remotely fantastic in the process (See, for example, the last two Hollywood Hercules films).

Around the time that Christian Bale's short-bearded Moses was training Hebrew rebels in archery and launching a guerilla military campaign against the Egyptians my heart sank, and I feared maybe that would be all this film was; maybe there would be no plagues, no Red Sea-parting. It turned out that I needn't have worried...at least, not about that.

We do see the plagues, even if they are somewhat truncated (they're certainly not given as much space as all the made-up bullshit background story about Moses' relationship with his brother, adoptive pharoh father and military victories as an Egyptian general and a Hewbrew rebel). Interestingly, the filmmakers do try to find some logical, real-world, not-God explanation for them, at least to the extent that most of them build upon one another, and the first one gets an explanatory twist. That plague is the Nile turning to blood. How did that happen, exactly? Well, it begins with dozens of large, ferocious crocodiles plunging into the river, eating people and each other in a shark-like feeding frenzy.

There are so many crocodiles at the outset that I wondered if director Ridley Scott and his four writers didn't just invent a new plague for the film, thinking that frogs or bugs weren't bad-ass enough, that they decided to replace one of those plagues with a plague of crocodiles.

The film is therefore coy in its commitment to a world-view, at least in terms of whether God is really actively intervening in history in order to free the Israelites from Egypt, or if he's simply a delusion of Moses' and the strange behavior of the natural world is just coincidentally lines up in a way that supports the reading that God is acting.

Like I said, it's a weird way to make a Moses movie–weirder even than a faux-Diseny musical–but it's interesting. Scott and his screenwriters excise much of the familiar story, and rejigger it, often in ways that harm the dramatic arc (Moses' murder of an Egyptian slave driver beating an Israelite is changed in such a way that all drama is drained from Moses killing a supposed countryman to save an actual countryman, for example).

Moses first sees God/Yahweh/"I am who am" when he climbs a mountain, is literally hit on the head with a rock and then almost buried alive. God appears to him as a petulant child, speaking in a world-weary, often spiteful tone of voice. Moses is the only one who ever sees or hears this God, as is made clear in a scene where we see Bale and the actor playing God in conversation and then we see the scene from the point-of-view of another character, who merely sees Bale's Moses talking to himself, and wonders if Moses is crazy.

Even the parting of the sea gets a natural-ish explanation, as Moses glimpses a star seemingly falling into the ocean from a great distance in the middle of the night and then, when he awakes, the sea has simply completely receded, allowing he and his followers time to cross; it naturally rushes back at the appropriate time (This is as close to an actual, honest-to-God miracle as the film gets, although it could also be read as a meteor affecting a strange tsunami...or it could also be read as God performing a miracle through the means of a meteor affecting a strange tsunami in order to part the sea for his people and drown their pursuers. Like I said, it's weird). Well, there's that and the death of the first born, which is specific enough to be supernatural, although with all the shit going down in Egypt, the fact that a large part of the population would die one night is also semi-natural-ish in the world of this film.

Exodus is nowhere near as bananas as Noah, nor is it anywhere near as satisfying. It's basically a long, boring slog through revisionist Bible history, a head-shaking attempt to take one of the oldest, most influential and most enduring stories ever told and improve upon it with typical Hollywood hubris. With a handful of awesome scenes involving miracles. Personally, I found it more interesting, in terms of what particular choices were made, than enjoyable; more intellectual exercise than entertainment, really.


Hercules: It's almost too bad that the previous Hercules film, the terrible one starring Kellan Lutz, already used the title The Legend of Hercules, as it suits this film far better. Based somewhat loosely on the Radical Publishing comic book series Hercules: The Thracian Wars (which I read the early issues of, but don't recall finishing...or much of anything about, actually), the premise of the film is that Hercules and his campaign party more-or-less invented the legend of Hercules as an elaborate scam which they can use to score good mercenary gigs (The Bronze Age, sword-for-hire equivalent of lying on your resume). That, and they can often scare foes into submission on the basis of the legend alone; you don't really want to throw down with the Son of Zeus, do you? That guy strangled snakes when he was an infant and wrestled Cerebus itself into submission!

It's an interesting premise, although it means this is one more Hercules movie that doesn't actually adapt the Hercules story for film–has anyone ever did a straight adaptation of the Twelve Labors? It's kind of too bad that they don't do so here, because the actor playing Herc in this film, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, is perfect for the role, and what glimpses they give at his Labors all look pretty amazing (These glimpses come when Herc's hype-man talks up his past adventures, and we cut away to scenes in which the character, his face in shadow, is seen fighting a lion or giant boar or what not). The downside? It puts the lie to the trailer, which is full of those scenes. The trailer, in fact, plays the same scam the characters in Hercules do, meaning there were probably an awful lot of disappointed folks who went to the theater to see this thing, which was likely a factor in its overall poor reception.

Judged for what it is, rather than what it might have been, or what it was sold as, however, it's not bad; not bad at all. Johnson's Hercules is appropriately imposing and charismatic; he looks capable of winning just about any fight, even those against armies of human beings he's set against in the plot, and those against monsters in the stories told in the movie. He also seems like the kind of guy you wouldn't mind hanging around; he's not quite the big, dumb, fun-loving oaf that Marvel's Hercules is (I've been wondering if Marvel Studios will ever get around to introducing their Herc into the MCU, but mostly because of my own impossible dream of Champions and Defenders movies), but he's capable of smiling, quipping and laughing, in addition to grimacing and grunting and groaning.

His team looks like it was put together by a set of die and a role-playing game source book, including mute barbarian Aksell Hennie, athletic archer Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, sneaky story-teller Reece Ritchie, world-weary prophet Ian McShane and Her's second-guessing second-in-command Rufus Sewell (I think I got them all right).

The action is decidedly old-school, in several scenes eschewing the post-300 camera and computer gimickry for good old fashioned stage-fighting and stunt-men hitting one another. There's an interesting, unexpected reversal of the film's premise, which amounts to a version of the Hercules story in which Hercules isn't really the son of Zeus–OR IS HE?! By far the better of the two Hercules movies released last year, its amiable cast makes for a fun movie to hang out with, even if it's not necessarily a great movie or anything (But by the standards of movies with the name "Hercules" in the title? It's one of the best).


The Hobbit: Battle of The Five Armies: I've lost track of how many times I've re-read Tolkein's The Hobbit, which was the first novel I ever read and by far the novel I've read the most times in my life, but I guess I haven't read it enough times, because I sure as hell don't remember most of what occurred in this film taking place in the book. In fact, I'd guess a good 75%-80% of this film was unfamiliar to me from my many readings of the book.

I kid, of course. You don't turn a 300-page novel into a trilogy of 2.5-hour films without filler, and lots of it. On the one hand, I'm all for such radical deviation from the source material, given that the source material already exists in its original form, so an extrapolation is welcome, particularly when it gives characters like Thorin and actors like Richard Armitage so much more to do than they might have otherwise gotten to do. But with this, the third film, the filmmakers really pushed it as far as it could go, not only turning the Battle of The Five Armies into a massive battle scene of the sort seen in The Two Towers and Return of The King adaptations, but filling it with fantastical creature combatants and a bunch of fights that have no basis in the source material, dealing as they do with characters original to these adaptations (Or, given how much the films deviate from the book, should these Hobbit movies be called "adaptations," with quotation marks?).

It's ironic that this Hobbit trilogy–two rather long movies would have done it better, as a five-hour adaptation would have been thorough without ever being tedious, the way a seven-and-a-half-hour film is–turned out so bloated and unwieldy. Firstly, because this means there have been two different attempts at film adaptations of The Hobbit, the more faithful 1977 Rankin-Bass animated film that had to cut out several large sections to achieve its desired run time, and now this three-film version, which had to invent at least an entire film's worth of filler to achieve its desired franchise status. So we have one adaptation that's too short and one that's too long–a Baby Bear film version of The Hobbit, one that's just right, remains to be made.

The other irony is, of course, that the "prequel" trilogy all comes from a single, short book, while each of the three Lord of The Rings films, as long as they are, had to be trimmed of a great deal of material. If The Hobbit alone merits three long films, than The Lord of The Rings trilogy of books would need nine or twelve films. Maybe they'll next go back and make Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring Part 2, and like so...?

That said, I enjoyed the movie just fine. My favorite parts were the weird-ass steeds. I liked the Dwarf battle-goats that just showed up out of left-field, and the Elven King's battle elk was all kinds of awesome.


Jurassic World: Having now actually watched the film, the weird plotline introduced in the trailers for this fourth Jurassic Park film makes some amount of sense. The execution is wanting, but the basic shape of the story and the filmmakers' intent can at least be glimpsed through the tinkering of its four writers and affectionate call-backs to the 22-year-old original.

Despite all the people killed in the previous films, and the utter disaster of attempting to open a dinosaur zoo for tourists, the re-branded Jurassic World is finally humming along smoothly as a successful tourist attraction (that rebranding is one of the film's many attempts at meta-commentary, in which live dinosaur entertainment is bluntly equated with blockbuster summer movies in general and the diminishing returns of the 1993-2001 Jurassic Park franchise specifically).

People are apparently getting sick of seeing real-life dinosaurs (box office for Jurassic World would seem to suggest our appetite for fake dinosaurs, so its hard to imagine real ones becoming passe, but whatever), so B.D. Wong's geneticists cook up a new dinosaur. And that's "new" not as in "new to the park," but as in "it never existed in nature."

Surely they should have tried resurrecting all the real dinosaurs first, right? I mean, I didn't see any Therizinosaurs knocking around the park and hey, once they've done that, there are marine reptiles to get into, like pliesosaurs and ichthyosaurs, and dinosaur-like creatures like dimetrodon, and hell, then it's time to start thinking Cenozoic Park and get to work on mammoths, megatherium, saber tooth cats and all the awesome prehistoric, mammalian megafauna!).

This is the part that the plot hits a conceptual glitch, as it's not like zoos go out of business when people get sick of seeing live wild animals–and, Jurassic World is the only place on earth that people can see these particular animals–or that zoos start figuring out how to breed griffins and unicorns to boost ticket sales.

Naturally, the people at Jurassic World decide to make a new apex predator, the Something-or-other Rex, which looks a bit like a Spinosaurus without the sail (that species, which was the main predator in Jurassic Park III, is a no-show, by the way), or a Tyrannosaur with long, grasping arms ending in raptor-like claws. Also, they give it super-powers, like incredible intelligence and the ability to camouflage itself like a chameleon and even mask its heat signature.

You may not believe this, but this super-dinosaur then escapes! Havoc is wreaked, as it runs around the park, killing other dinosaurs, smashing open the aviary to unleash a flock of pterosaurs on park-goers (sadly, I saw no Hatzegopteryx or Quetzalcoatus or, if they were in the flock, they didn't walk around on their knuckles all awesomely).

It's up to hunky leather vest-wearing, Coke-drinking, motorcycle-working-on man-of-action Chris Pratt, who has trained a small pack of velociraptors using the Cesar Millan clicker method, and workaholic administrator Bryce Dallas Howard (whose wardrobe shreds smaller and smaller, whose severe hairstyle gets frizzier and frizzier, and whose alabaster skin glistens more and more as the adventure winds on...although she never kicks off her heels, even when attempting to outrun a Tyrannosaurus Rex) to rescue Howard's imperiled, neglected nephews (the youngest of who cries about their parents' upcoming divorce to his initially colder older brother; as if that's something people want to see in their dinosaur movie) and navigate a never-really-explained conspiracy in which Vincent D'Onofrio wants to recruit raptors as soldiers (the new, super-predator species' existence would have made more sense were it a biological weapon created for the military, but if that's going on, it's never addressed; there is a dangling thread or two left for intended sequel, however).

The final, climactic battle borrows from the climactic dino battles of the previous films, but piles them all on top of one another, so that at the end (which I now spoil) the real dinosaurs all team-up to take down the upstart, designer dinosaur.

Despite the almost decade-and-a-half since the last film, and all of the advances in both special effects and dinosaur science (Wong's character almost explains why the dinosaurs lack feathers or fuzz, if you're wondering, when he says none of them actually look like real dinosaurs would have), Jurassic World is ultimately simply as adequate a film as its three predecessors.

Director Colin Treverrow doesn't even attempt to evoke the sense of wonder that World's executive producer Steven Spielberg in the 1993 original, and there isn't a single scene in this as suspenseful, thrilling or memorable as set pieces in the original three. That makes the attempts at meta-commentary grating, as of course the audience is jaded when the filmmaking is this poor.

That said, it's still a dinosaur movie, and that's generally all I need to sit still and stare at a screen for a few hours. The film includes the first ankylosaur vs. theropod on-screen battle (at least, the only one I can remember at the moment), and the mosasaur is fairly cool (maybe try Jurassic Ocean next time, guys?), but it's nothing that I haven't seen before, nor seen rendered better, in more dramatically satisfying and all-around-better bits of prehistoric creature filmmaking, like the Primevals or the various Walking With... series or Peter Jackson's King Kong.


Mad Max: Fury Road: This was definitely a singular cinematic experience, to the extent that I'm still uncertain of how good a film it actually is, or how much I actually liked it. I've never seen anything quite like it before (even though it's part of a franchise; I've never seen the previous Mad Max films), nor have I ever seen another movie where almost the entirety of the run-time was devoted so intensely to a single subject matter, showing a single type of scene, bent on evoking a single emotion. The only other time I've left a theater having spent my entire time in there with a single feeling like that was probably seeing The Blair Witch Project, although that was on the opposite end of the spectrum as this, in terms of production value and filmmaking techniques.

After a few minutes of not-really set-up, it is essentially one long multi-vehicle car chase in one direction, pausing only briefly and occasionally for repairs and moving certain obstacles to those cars, for two acts, after which point the vehicles turn around and head in the other direction for the rest of the film.

Car chase: The Movie, then, albeit with infinitely inventive ways for people in motor vehicles to catch, hurt and attempt to crash one another. I appreciated and enjoyed the way in which director George Miller and his co-writers, including comics' own Brendan McCarthy, did nothing in the way of hand-holding, to the point that there is little dialogue, and less still that makes much if any sense. It's all goofy jargon and funny names, and if the whole film were in a different language, or you took out all the dialogue, it wouldn't affect the comprehensibility of the plot one bit.

There's this group of evil dudes trying to get this group of women, apparently the only attractive human beings left in the world, who have been smuggled away by the only other attractive people in the world, taciturn, mush-mouthed Tom Hardy and bald, robot-armed Charlize Theron. Explosions ensue for...well, hours really. I liked that last stretch of the chase, where the old lady bikers get involved; I've seen a lot of movies in which people fight on top of moving vehicles, but I don't think I've ever seen a semi-serious action movie in which old ladies play such an active role.

Is that why everyone was championing this as a feminist movie? Because having an attractive Hollywood lady shave her head and kick ass seems very Alien 3 to me, and the whole "we are not property" bit was really just using ladies as a maguffin, wasn't it? When The Brides, who are all young and flawlessly beautiful in an extremely conventional way and remarkably scantily clad and clean, are first introduced, their hosing one another off for the male gaze, in a scene barely removed from the car wash scene in Bring It On. (Did this pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? I guess the biker ladies talked about seeds for a while, but Max was there, dude-ing up the scene, as he was in all the scenes, wasn't he?)

I hope the movie helps popularize Charlize Theron's hairstyle in it, as I think girls with shaven heads are super-hot (Bald attracts bald, as the saying goes).

Oh shit: was that sexist?

Terminator: Genysys: I didn't see set-in-the-future, Schwarzenegger-less 2009 Terminator: Salvation (despite the man vs. machine war of the future being the Terminator film I wanted to see ever since I watched the original on VHS as a child), nor did I watch more than half an episode or so of the short-lived 2008 TV show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (although I do remember the Internet being mad at an ad for it that ran in comic books, because it reduced actress Summer Glau to a sex object, even though the sexy actress was cast was literally playing a sexy object on the show).

So suffice it to say I'm not up-to-date on my Terminator canon and continuity, and I'm therefore not sure to what degree this film over-writes the other films in the franchise. TIme travel paradoxes plagued the franchise from its very humble (but effective) first film, and only got worse as time went on, more films were made and more time travel was involved and, time marched relentlessly forward, so that the once futuristic 21st century, machine-ruled world crept ever closer and closer, until it was no longer a half-century away, but, like, a few years away.

So here we have more time-travel shenanigans, and ones that reference events of the other movies, with human resistance hero Kyle Reese (played by Jai Courtney, the fourth actor to play the role) being sent back into the original Terminator film, where the villains robots from both that film and T2: Judgment Day there to meet and kill him and Sarah Conner, now played by Emilia Clarke (the third actress to play the role, and the first other than Linda Hamilton to play her on film). Grown-up John Conner (now played by Jason Clarke, since Salvation's Christian Bale apparently passed or got too expensive) is also involved, appearing both in the future and in the past/our present.

The incredibly complicated plot begins in the future, on the night that grown-up John Connor charges Kyle with the mission to go back in time and...well, they were going to stop Skynet from going online, but when a killer robot (in impressive special effects, a young Arnold Schwarzenegger) goes back to kill John's mom, to stop that. But when Kyle lands, things are...weird.

There's an Old Man Terminator, played by Schwarzenegger, waiting to fight the young Terminator, a liquid metal one there to also kill Sarah. Apparently, a bunch of weird shit went on in the future, and at some point a re-programmed, heroic Terminator (like the one that protected Edward Furlong and Linda Hamilton in Judgement Day), arrived to start protecting Sarah when she was still a little girl (As for why Schwarzenegger has aged, it's explained that the organic material disguising the Terminators is real, and ages in real time). This Terminator, nicknamed "Pops," then sends Sarah and Kyle into the "future" of our time, trying to stop an operating with the dumb-named "Genysys," which is why the movie has that dumb sub-title, from going live, as that's apparently the new version of Skynet or whatever.

Grown-up John Conner is there waiting for them, but he's not as he seems, and there's another new, silicon Terminator introduced, but it's dumb, essentially just nanobots, and isn't the exciting introduction that the liquid metal Terminator was.

The skipping through the various time periods of the previous film's was interesting, almost inpspired, although it's somewhat disappointing that the "greatest hits" approach was limited to the settings and types of robots, rather than the actors; it would have been nice to see an appearance by Hamilton, other Terminators Robert Patrick and Kristanna Loken, and/or Edward Furlong or Nick Stahl, who were the young Johns in the second and third films, respectively (Furlong is now 38 and Stahl is 35; at 46, Clarke is older than both, but not by that much, and certainly either of them could have just as convincingly played a middle-aged Connor. It's not like Clarke is all that convincing as a charismatic war hero or anything).

I was more disappointed by the fact that this Sarah Conner has apparently been training her entire life to fight killer robots, but Emilia Clarke doesn't look particular tough or grizzled, and the T2 Linda Hamilton looks like she punch right through Clarke. But more disappointing still was that we're living in an era when there are literally flying death machines controlled by the military and intelligence services patrolling our skies, and the military using computers to track and store information on everyone, and this film doesn't even attempt at commentary, or even relevancy.

It's just explosions and robot-fighting, and not even the first film of the summer about that particular subject matter. The nostalgic appeal of the franchise, this film's call-backs to the previous films and some appealing cast-members made it, if not fun or good, at least an okay way to re-soak in Terminator time-travelling robotic nonsense.


DVDs


Birdman (2014): I don't see as many movies as I used to (and if you peruse the list of films I've seen in the last few months either in theaters or on DVD, then you'll notice I don't exactly tend to see a lot of what one might consider quality, non-genre cinema), nor did I see many of the films that were honored with Academy Awards earlier this year, but I'm glad this one got some recognition, because I did see it and it was a good film.

There are three main pleasures to it, really. The first is the way it was made; I've heard it said repeatedly that it was filmed as if to seem like it was all one big, long take, and, while I don't think that's quite accurate, a feature film that tries to replicate that walking through the kitchen scene in Goodfellas or that hallway fight scene in (the Korean) Oldboy for its entire running length? That's something I want to to check out.

The second is the performances, particularly that of Michael Keaton, who has been somewhat ill-served over the last, oh, decade or two, I think, but here gets a career-changer of a role of the sort that previously turned Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson into the stars of serious films in their later years...and it is only partly, maybe even mostly, but not entirely because of the fact that he played Batman in a couple of the earliest superhero films, spearheading a genre that is apparently eating filmmaking and pop culture in general. You've also got Edward Norton in there, and that guy doesn't really do much in the way of poor acting, and big-eyed Emma Stone, who, like co-star Naomi Watts I just enjoy staring at, but also gets some neat scenes.

The third is all the stuff to ponder that the film offers up, without ever really sermonizing about it. It suggests a lot of thinking on art, pop culture and criticism and what's really important in life, but it doesn't really provide the answers, so, unlike a lot of films, one can't easily say "Yes, I agree with that" or "No, I disagree with that." I suppose that makes it challenging...at least by the standards of modern American cinema.

If you haven't seen it, here's the story. Michael Keaton plays Michael Keaton analogue Riggan Something-or-other, who became fabulously wealthy and famous for playing the superhero Birdman in a quartet of Birdman films (unlike Keaton, this guy apparently didn't flee the franchise after two films).

He's trying to prove to the world that he's more than just the guy who played Birdman, and is therefore writing, directing and starring on a Broadway production of an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Riggan mght be a little insane, as he hears the voice of Birdman (unlike Keaton's Batman, Keaton's Birdman sounds a little bit more like a toned-down version of Christian Bale's Batman) in his head more-or-less constantly, and seems to have god-like abilities like flight and telekineses, which he generally only uses when no one's around...or they're imaginary.

The four-person cast of his show includes Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough (who must be a luminous beauty, as she still stands out as beautiful even when sharing scenes with goddesses like Watts and Stone). Zach Galifinakas plays Riggan's best friend and attorney and Stone plays his daughter/personal assistant. Riggan's ex-wife shows up occasionally (played by Amy Ryan, I think), and there's an evil New York Times theater critic as well.

The set-up is that of a comedy, in that these are the last few days before the show opens, and everythign that can go wrong does go wrong, and, in the traditional definition, it may be a comedy...once it journeys through tragedy, anyway.

As I said, it does a lot more evoking than telling, and various characters have very, very strong points of view about what art is and what gives life and/or art any meaning at all, and, as for the characters themselves, they tend to be equally wrong and right about everything. The film seems to add up to a sort of equivocation, that human endeavor in general is ultimately meaningless, so what's it matter if you're making superhero trash films or adapting Raymond Carver for Broadway (which um, isn't exactly the most avant garde source material or setting in 2014, is it?).

At least, that's my reading. If Alejandro González Iñárritu really wanted to say something different, he probably shouldn't have chosen a cast that's at least 50% People From Superhero Movies (You know Norton was Bruce Banner in the least bad of the two Hulk movies, and Stone's been Gwen Stacy twice; you didn't forget that Watts was Jet Girl in Tank Girl, did you? Galafinakas and Riseborough are real outliers here, but it's really only a matter of time before the two of them end up in a superhero movie). He gets a pass on Keaton's casting, though; that bit of stunt casting is the film's whole hook, really.

There are also some pretty spectacular special effects scenes, which also take the imagery of superhero movies, and Transformers-like tentpole action movies in general, to make a point.

And then there's the ending, which can be read multiple ways. I genuinely like the way the film asks a bunch of tough questions, and then doesn't really answer them, as it's a film that leaves one with plenty to think about in the hours or days or even weeks to follow.

Oh, and I really liked the way Watts' character said "We're sharing a vagina" when someone asked how she knew a character she was sleeping with. I don't think I've heard that expression before; clever wordplay, that.


Camp X-Ray (2014): I know Kristen Stewart has taken a lot of heat for her portrayal of Bella Swan in those Twilight movies (of which I've only half-watched parts of the second one over my sister's shoulder, while writing in the next room), and, reviewing her filmography on IMDb, I see I've only actually seen four films she's been in, but shut up, Everyone Saying Shit About Kristen Stewart, that girl can act. She's the main character and most bankable star–in this little film about one of the biggest geo-political blunders the United States has made in my lifetime, the establishment of a murky, parallel justice system for international detainees who were at some point suspected of, accused of or, in some cases, actually terrorists, but, regardless of provable innocence or guilt, can be held indefinitely without trial.

Stewart plays Amy Cole, a young soldier who enlisted in order to escape her small town and see the world, but ended up pulling what seems like the worst fucking duty in the armed forces, spending hours at a time walking up and down a small hallhway, regularly glancing in the cells to make sure the detainees haven't transformed into Harry Houdini or MacGeyver since she last looked at them a few seconds previously. Peeling potatoes and cleaning latrines seem awesome by comparison.

Stewart eventually, reluctantly strikes up a strained and forbidden friendship with one detainee, played by Peyman Moaadi, one of those swept up for being in the wrong place–and being the wrong nationality and having the wrong relation–at the wrong time. It's no wonder she finds a sort of kinship with him, as she too feels extremely out-of-place at Camp X-Ray. Turns out being a woman in the military can have many of the same drawbacks as being a woman in, um, every profession, I guess.

Writer/director Peter Sattler, Stewart and MOaadi have made a pretty powerful film with a climax that hits a viewer like a slap: After spending so much runtime establishing parallels between the leads, and demonstrating the way in which both prisoners and guards are in prison, regardless of which side of the cell doors they might be on, they subvert what seems to have been the message they were feinting toward, as despite the similarities,which side of the cell door you're on is in no way a small distinction.

There's also a neat little bit about a zoo animal as a metaphor for a prisoner...or "detainee," I should say.

This is a very interesting film to watch along with Rosewater (discussed below), as they both depict prisoners and jailers in quasi-legal places created by a sort of institutional sense of injustice and loss of perspective (or, less charitably, insanity). Both prisoners and both jailers are sympathetic in varying degrees, although ironically the occasional humor in Camp X-Ray may exceed that of the film directed by the famous and acclaimed comedian: There is an extensive bit of business regarding Moaadi's desire to read the last Harry Potter book, which the prison library never seems to have in stock, despite his continually requesting it. The penultimate book ended on a cliffhanger, and he's been kept in suspense ever since. No one seems to have any sympathy even for this extremely minor form of unahppiness he's being subjected to. Also, it's funny to hear people talk about Harry Potter in such a context; Stewart's character, like me, has never read Harry Potter and doesn't know what the hell he's talking about in his urgent, heavily accented, somewhat angry and accusatory dialogue.


Dario Argento's Dracula (2012): The pairing of famed horror director Dario Argento with the most iconic horror character of all time is quite the occasion, and while the resultant film–a multi-national production originally released as Dracula 3D or Argento's Dracula 3D but making it to DVD under the above title–isn't that great a film, it does offer a lot of what one might expect from an Argento Dracula. In other words: Lots of nudity, lots of gore, awesome music and innovative, inventive tweaks to one of the oldest horror stories there is.

Argento, who co-wrote the screenplay with two collaborators, adapts the Bram Stoker novel. I'd call it a rather loose adaptation, but on the spectrum of Dracula adaptations, this one is actually probably one of the more faithful (Which says more about the liberties taken again and again with the novel than with the fidelity of this particular production, of course).

The most notable change is that Count Dracula never leaves home, all of the other characters come to him. This seems to be more of a budgetary concern than anything else, as the film apparently only has one location–geographically speaking–and less than 10 different sets in and around that location.

So in this story, which actually opens with Dracula preying upon a post-coital young peasant woman who plays his bride character, not only does Jonathan Harker visit Dracula in his castle, but so too does Harker's new bride Mina (Marta Gastini). Mina's best-friend Lucy, played by Argento's own daughter Asia Argento, is a native of Transylvania, and it is there that Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer, the only actor other than Asia Argento who will be familiar to most American viewers) arrives to help Mina with her vampire problem.

As for Lucy's suitors, they are briefly mentioned by their number, but they don't actually appear in the film at all. It's one of the ways in which the story is compressed, beyond the tweaks in setting and reduction of travel. The major story beats are mostly all still there, however, and the only other real changes involve a more romantic plot in which Mina is pursued by the title character because she reminds her of his lost wife (now a standard part of the story, I guess) and the fact that seemingly the whole town is a town of Renfields. If they don't all actively work for and support the Count, they at least keep quiet out of fear and desire for his patronage.

The main problem with the film, at least as I can diagnose it, seems to be the tension between Argento's admirable interest in old-school, almost schlocky horror and gore and the digital effects. The latter are cheaply done which, rather ironically, makes them look even cheaper and less effective than a scene done with, say, more traditional filmmaking trickery. A good old-fashioned squib pack delivers better-looking blood splatter than digitally created fake blood, especially if the digital artists don't have too terribly much money to work with.

So while so much of the film looks like an Argento-ized version of an old Hammer movie, it has a made-for-SyFy Channel level of digital effects. A scene of Dracula turning into a wolf, for example, looks far faker and chintzier than it might were the transformation done with sped-up time-lapse photography, or with an animated shadow on a wall turning from man-shape to wolf-shape.

It's too bad, because Argento does have some nicely imagined Dracula attacks in the film. As with 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula, one of the more widely-seen and most faithful adaptations (although still a loose one), this Dracula evinces new "powers" not seen in the book or the earliest films. Not only can he turn into mist or a wolf, but he appears in one scene as a swarm of flies that eventually coalesce into a person (not unlike the swarm of rats in the Francis Ford Coppola version), during his first appearance he is a huge white owl (scarier than a bat) and, in the most unexpected scene, he enters Lucy's house and slays her father in the form of a giant preying mantis.

In terms of sheer things I have never seen, that was a bravura few seconds of film.

The special effects were likely dictated to a certain degree by the apparent 3D format, although trying to recall now, I don't remember all that much in terms of things coming out at the viewer, just the swooping owl, and the last second, post-death appearance of Dracula as a wolf-shaped cloud of ash and dust.

The acting is all pretty much beside the point in a film such as this. Thomas Kretschmann plays the title character, who wears a fancy, Nosferatu-style coat, and is convincing as a handsome but not seductively so older gentleman, of the sort Bela Lugosi's first film Dracula evinced. Gastini, who plays Mina, is, on the otherhand, supernaturally beautiful, and seems to become more and more so throughout the film. Asia Argento makes a fine Lucy, although I found myself wondering over how weird it must be for a father-daughter, director-actress team to do so much nudity together, particularly Asia's one sex scene with Dracula. It's very short, and in fact the film cuts away before they actually have sex, but not before Kretschmann's Dracula gets to second base.

The painted cover art is pretty awesome (the left half of the image is seen on the poster above; the right half has Hauer's Van Helsing making a cross of sticks while the even more buxom bride character strokes herself and bares her fangs; Mina is edged off the cover art in favor of the sexy vampire ladies) , as is this music video, which has plenty of key, spoiler-y scenes from the movie embedded among the images of the band being awesomely, self-serious and goth-y (The score in general is pretty great, I thought).


Dinosaur Island (2014): Don't confuse this little Australian film about a prepubescent boy who finds himself Bermuda Triangled to a mysterious lost world with the other Dinosaur Island from 20 years ago, the one with all the naked ladies and terrible special effects in it: The two share nothing but their name...and the fact that they both have dinosaurs and islands in them, of course.

That boy, played by Darius Williams, is a whip-smart kid with an interest in geology, and a no-nonsense mum that refuses to indulge his sentimentality or imagination. When he's packed on a plane to go...somewhere, a mysterious chain of events involving the crystal he found at his crazy old aunt's house, vibrations and a billowing black storm cloud land him on the titular island.

There he meets a pack of blue-feathered raptors, and a slightly older teenage girl from the 1950s (Kate Rasmussen), who has somehow built an elaborate treehouse that the Tarzans would have envied, and has devoted herself to studying the local fauna, as she dreams of being a paleontologist when she grows up. Her only companion is some sort of little, four-winged dinosaur that can fly and is an excellent mimic. For fun, she reads the letters that she finds in the ships and planes that occasionally crash-land on the island in the storms, always devoid of people.

When the new friends, who bicker in a rather annoying, junior high screwball comedy fashion, set off to investigate the latest crash, they swept up in a series of misfortunes that will ultimately help the boy figure out the mysteries of the island and get them off of it.

This involves a hostile tribe of little black boys (it's unclear if they're natives, or if they too are from elsewhere; they're presented a bit more like outsiders gone Lord of The Flies), a magical negro aborigine, a carnivorous plant, a flight on the back of a pterosaur, carnivorous centipedes, a T-Rex-like theropod, those raptors again and an active volcano.

Written, directed, produced and featuring visual effects spearheaded by a Matt Drummond, it's a pretty great dinosaur movie. Some obvious pains are taken to minimize the interaction between the two human leads and the many dinosaurs, including keeping them off screen at the same time, or confining the dinosaurs to a plane behind the humans in the foreground (somewhat like what was done with the stegosaurus in the original King Kong, but much more smoothy and convincingly), but there are a rather large variety of dinosaurs, and they are very well rendered, executed and in-keeping with more current thinking of dinosaurs.

So the raptors and even the huge theropod have brilliantly bright proto-feather "dino fuzz" (turns out a T-Rex covered funzzy blue down is still scary after all), and the pterosaurs walk on all four like freakishly weird quadrapeds. Other dinosaurs appear in a brief montage that the girl narrates over, which I would suspect of being composed of stock footage, if it wasn't of, you know, dinosaurs (I suppose it could have come from elsewhere, but I have no idea where). Perhaps the most striking scene of dinosaurs in action is when the kids open a pen that the stick-wielding black boys have filled with captive pterosaurs, and there's a stampeded of the creatures galloping on all fours towards a cliff, which they leap off of and instantly start to glide effortlessly and gracefully upon the winged limbs that were just using to support their massive size as they ran.

While one can't tell from the superior special effects, the movie certainly seems like a small and cheap one, lacking in the little touches that would make Dinosaur Island feel lived in (the girl is remarkably clean, without a smudge on her clothing, for example), and it seems like there are probably many more interesting things to explore that are passed over in order to move the relatively short plot along (it's only about 75 minutes long).

Some of the acting leaves a lot to be desired, as well, but it's still an all-around solid dinosaur film and, if I'm being honest, probably an all-around better-made dinosaur film, with better and more convincing dinosaurs, than this summer's Jurassic World. The focus of the films is obviously different, though, as this is more about the wonder of the creatures than their deadly, human-crunching potential (there's no dinosaur-on-dinosaur battles, and the kids can usually escape danger by running).


The DUFF (2015): Twenty-eight-year-olds Mae Whitman (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World's Roxy, the voice of like half of your favorite female animated characters) and Robbie Amell (TV's Ronnie Raymond) star alongside actual teenager Bella Thorne (sorry, no comics connections yet) in this fairly-typical high school comedy based on a YA novel of the same name written by Kody Keplinger when she was only 17 (must...suppress...professional...envy). Regarding that name, it stands for "Designated Ugly Fat Friend," and if you say to yourself upon hearing Whitman is the star, "Hey, Mae Whitman's not ugly or fat...not even when compared to the girls who play her best friends in the movie, or the disturbingly-attractive Thorne*!"...well, that's kinda sorta the point.

"DUFF," Amell's dense-headed school alpha male tries to mansplain to a horrified Whitman, trying and failing to dig himself out of a quicksand hole, isn't necessarily meant to be literal, and can simply mean the most approachable in a particular group (And the film does take pains to make Whitman's character, who has no fashion sense, seem normal compared to her two besties, and always making weird choices to make her seem stubbornly, willfully un-attractive whenever possible...like when they were little girls and chose to dress up as Charlie's Angels for Halloween, she unexplicably chose to be Bosley, event though there were three angels).

With the idea firmly implanted in her head, Whitman can't un-see herself as the DFF, and seeing DUFFs everywhere. She decides to cut-off all communication with her two best friends–you can't be a DUFF in a group of one, after all–and start reinventing herself in order to ask out the object of her affection, a cute boy who plays guitar. Naturally, she turns to Amell's character, who is her next door neighbor and kinda sorta brother-like best friend (and the on-again, off-again boyfriend of Thorne's mean-girl, queen bee).

So the film rather quickly takes on aspects of a predictable teen movie Pygmalion of sorts (all the social media references being the main, well, only thing differentiating it from similar movies of my youth), with the various turns all readily apparent before they occur. Cliches are cliches for reasons, as the saying goes, though, and I liked this quite a bit...even the rather overwrought ending in which Whitman's character (and the world at large decide to adopt and own the term "DUFF," thinking everyone is someone's DUFF).

Sure some–okay, a lot–of the awkward huor goes on a bit too long, particularly Whitman and Amell's makeover scene, but the smaller bits of awkward humor all work rather well. Having only seen her in her small roles in Arrested Development and Scott Pilgrim (and having heard her as April O'Neil for a few DVD sets worth of the excellent current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon), this was my longest exposure to Whitman, and she's a fun, funny, charming film presence. Amell, who I've only seen playing an amnesiac or a scientist trapped in a hot young body in a few episodes of The Flash (an extremely dumb, but sometimes fascinatingly so, superhero show, which bears the meaningless distinction of being the best live-action Flash television series ever made) is similarly surprisingly charming; comedy suits him better than super-human angst, I guess.

Over-thirties Ken Jeong and Allison Janney appear as Whitman's school paper advisor and acronym-wielding, self-help seminar mother, respectively, but it's Whitman and Amell's movie. It's no She's All That or anything–hell, what is?**–but its got similarities, and the climactic naming of the prom king and queen had at least a hint of that level of melodrama.

I'm a good 20+ years out of the target demograhic of this film, and I liked it, so I imagine it must be pretty good for, like, actual high-schoolers and ironically-watching 20-somethings.

Here's hoping this is the cast of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2:
Robbie Amell can play Casey Jones instead of his cousin Stephen, but only if he grows his hair out.


Frozen (2013): I finally watched this recently, as I had meaning to do since...well, since it was first released on DVD, I guess. My hand was forced when I was in a restaurant where the proprietor put it on, and I was thus forced to at least half-watch the first few scenes without really being able to hear them too clearly. At that point, I either had to watch the film within a few days, or risk it turning into one of those films that I only saw pieces and parts of at various times.

It was really rather good, and it was quite easy to see why it became so instantly, widely and deeply loved, striking a pretty good balance of comedy, romance, adventure, spectacle and satisfying musical numbers. It was rather refreshing to see a Disney movie depart rather drastically with the gender politics of the Disney ouvre, to the point that they deliberately teased the old saved-by-a-kiss climax, only to go in a completely different direction. And hey, it passed the hell out of the Bechdel-Wallace test! Also, the black-and-white, good-versus-evil fairy tale morality was similarly diminished, as it was in Tangled, to the point that adding a true villain in a twist near the climax seemed as much an afterthought as a pre-meditated story surprise.

The superhero comic book use of a superpower as a bombastically obvious metaphor for pyschological difficulty was a nice touch, too. There's probably some uncomfortable suggestions in Elsa's various decisions and reactions regarding repression, anxiety and being herself, and the sudden resolution was perhaps cartoonishly simplistic, but, well it is a cartoon, and it was nice to see a big-budget kids movie that at least attempted to be about something, other than making hella bank—which it did anyway, of course, and will probably continue to do so for, like, ever.

I was quite surprised to see a credit reading that it was inspired by "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Anderson; I had heard that it began as a an adaptation of such, but it was so far removed to be barely recognizable. There are, of course, some elements in common with Anderson's story: Two childhood friends artificially grown apart, with a young woman seeking to reunite with her lost friend; a lady in an ice castle to the north with influence over snow and ice; a shard of ice/devil glass embedded in a person causing negative consequences; the presence of a reindeer.

But these all fall into either very vague and abstract similarities, or tiny surface details. It lacks the Christian themes, it makes the Snow Queen a hero more than a villain, and combines her with Kai in its conception of Elsa. It is so different that it makes Disney's wholly secular, Broadway-inspired Little Mermaid seem a faithful adaptation of Anderson's religious and tragic story, and I found it directly adapted more scenes from King Kong than The Snow Queen (The scene in which the giant snow man pulls up Kristoff and Anna as they try to escape over the cliff is straight from King Kong...although King Kong lifted it from The Lost World, so I suppose stealing something that was stolen isn't such a crime).

Pretty good movie though, and it made me hopeful for society at large that this hit as big as it did instead of, I don't know, Despicable Me 2 or Penguins of Madagascar or some such.


God Help The Girl (2014): Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch makes his directorial debut with this film about three very young, very attractive people who are brought together as a band and as friends by a shared desire to make pop music, although each has a very different relationship with music. Unlike Murdoch's own music, God Help The Girl isn't so perfectly tight and precise, but rather has the looser, more undisciplined feel of an amateur rock band at a live show, which I suppose can be attributed to this being Murdoch's first film (In addition to directing, he also wrote it, and, in fact, the film seems to be based on songs from a Murdoch side project with the same name...and at leats one Belle and Sebastian song is featured in the film).

The film's looseness comes mostly in the form of tone, which can vary wildly from Help!-like silliness to deadly serious bits about the lead character's potentially deadly eating disorder and, to a lesser extent, genre, as it's not exactly a musical, but it does have musical-style musical numbers, in addition to the more expected sorts of musical scenes one might expect in a film about a band.

Emily Browning plays Eve, who escapes from the hospital to attend a show one night, where she meets Olly Alexander's James (shortly after he loses a fight to his own drummer...on stage). Together with James' slightly younger student Cassie (Hannah Murray), who he is tutoring in music, they form a band. Meanwhile, Eve struggles with her mental issues and James struggles with his unrequited, unspoken-of (but at least oncerather prettily sang about!) love for Eve.

Costumed and art-directed so stylistically that the entire film occupies an ill-defined space between cool, cute and maybe too-cute, it is perhaps best seen as a suite of music videos for a concept album. I enjoyed it immensely, but then, Belle and Sebastian is my favorite band, and the film was in many ways like a dramatization of Belle and Sebastian songs.

I don't know I'd go so far to say that I love the movie, but I definitely have something of a crush on it.

(Here's the portion of the film that accompanies my second, maybe third favorite track, "I'll Have To Dance With Cassie." In it, James and Eve stop in at some kind of rec center where there are some old people doing old people stuff, and Eve gets on stage, and Cassie's little dog goes to get her, communicated in barks and telepathy, and a musical number breaks out. The title track is my favorite; the video for it gives you a good idea of the imagery of the film, but likely spoils a lot of content).


Godzilla Vs. Hedorah (1971): The eleventh Godzilla franchise film was also the most overtly message-oriented, at least since the very first one (if one doesn't count the more vague anti-war messages that occasionally surface). The message isn't a terribly political or controversial one, particularly when encountered in 2015, although I'm curious how it played in Japan in 1971, or in America the following year when it was released under the title Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster, which ought to offer a pretty good clue as to what the message of the film was.

It's also one of the more visually inventive of the films, as Godzilla's opponent is a shape-changing monster that evolves various forms, and his exact origins are explained in a quirky animated sequence. As for that origin, Hedorah is a tiny alien life form that's come to Earth, and found it replete with its own peculiar food-source: Pollution.

Scientist Toru Yano and his young son, one of those annoying Japanese kids who are convinced that monsters like Godzilla and Gamera are their pals, are both injured by pollution, and take a keen, personal interest in Japan's pollution problem, and its effects on the bizarre new monster. Hedorah starts as a sea-going tadpole-shaped creature, then get's big and bipedal(and turns into a man in a suit) and takes to land, where he approaches smoke stacks and huffs their belching black smoke, powering him up still further. (And trashing a Japanese night club playing irritating music along the way; Go Hedorah!)

As usual, it's up to Godzilla to protect Japan (and Earth) from a still-worse monster visiting from space, and he makes a valiant effort, but he gets his ass pretty thoroughly kicked left and right by Herodah, who, despite the solidity of the costume, is essentially just toxic glop, and thus hard to beat up.

The very long climactic battle is a team-up between Godzilla, human science and military can-do-it-iveness, as Godzilla tries to push Hedorah and hold him between a big, weird dehydrating ray array (which makes H. solid enough to destroy). In the film's single goofiest scene--and do note that this battle occurs after a candle-light acoustic guitar sing-a-long vigil upon Mount Fuji in which the young people sing about peace and environmentalism--Hedorah adopts his other, flying form, which looks like a flying saucer with menacing red eyes, to escape. Godzilla gives chase by breathing his atomic fire so hard that it acts like a rocket booster, propelling him backwards through the sky as he tucks his tail and legs up.

What, you didn't know Godzilla could fly? Of course he can. I mean, that's just physics.

Godzilla naturally wins the day, destroying the dried-out Hedorah, and buying mankind a temporary stay of execution from our own slow-motion genocide via poisoning, and when he storms off at the end, he does so by casting a dirty look at the people, indicating that he doesn't want to have to go through all that again. He doesn't have to--at least, he doesn't have to fight Hedorah in another film***--but we're still polluting a lot more than we should be.

In addition to being the most visually inventive of Godzilla movies in a time, this one was particularly fun to parse. If Hedorah is the political cartoon-style stand-in for "Pollution," what is Godzilla? Nature? The Earth itself? Or the collective dreams and wishes of the young people given powerful form?


Godzilla Vs. Gigan (1972): The translation of the original Japanese titles always sound better than the ones that eventually get used in the English-dubbed, American releases. This 12th Godzilla movie was entitled Chikyu Kogeki Meire: Gojira tai Gigan, or "Earth Destruction Directive: Godzilla Vs. Gigan." Regardless of language, both titles leave out half of the monsters: In addition to the King of the Monsters and his newest foe, mentioned in the title, the film's climax involves a tag-team kaiju fight, with Anguirus in Godzilla's corner and King Ghidorah in Gigan's.

Our human heroes in this adventure are lead by a well-meaning, but not-that-talented manga artist played by Hiroshi Ishikawa, who lands a job designing monsters for a "World Children's Land," a children's theme park devoted to promoting world peace...the centerpiece of which is Godzilla Tower, a huge building in the shape of Godzilla, who, when not killing people and destroying cities, is defending them through acts of incredible violence.

The park is lead by a mysterious—and mysteriously young—Chairman, who has a lot to hide. Like, for example, that he is really an insectoid alien from Nebula M, who has taken the form of a young man who has died (The Nebula M aliens' plan to take over Earth involve their first infiltrating humanity by taking over the lives of dead humans; their true forms, which resemble giant, wiggly cockroaches or crickets, can be seen in their shadows, and in a couple of cool scenes near the climax).

Step two is to sic giant space monsters on humanity, monsters the aliens can control through the sounds emitted by their special "Action Signal Tapes." The space monsters include the aforementioned King Ghidorah, returning to the franchise after sitting out the previous two entries, and the new monster Gigan. Gigan is a terrible, terrible monster, almost as bad as the ones Ishikawa's artist character comes up with (Like a Homework Monster, which he conceived of on the theory that monsters should reflect the things that frighten children the most).

Part chicken, part dinosaur, part hardware store, Gigan has giant metal scythes for arms, smaller metal scythes for feet, metal scythlike mandibles on either side of his beak, a single red eye that looks a bit like the visor worn by Cyclops of the X-Men, a row of spikes that starts atop his head and runs down his back, a pair of tiny vestigal-looking wings that somehow enable the bulky creature to fly, and, most strikingly, what appears to be a huge-ass table saw protruding from the front of his body. And yes, it does work, and is sufficiently strong enough to cut even Godzilla's tough hide.

Gigan is probably the first of the monsters in a Godzilla movie that I felt embarrassed for upon meeting.

Infiltration and monster-siccing are common elements of the plans of alien invaders intent on taking over the world in the Toho-iverse, however, and they always fail. So the Nebula M bug-men also have a Step Three: Kill off Godzilla by shooting him with a giant laser beam weapon they have ironically placed within the head of Godzilla Tower.

You won't be surprised to learn that this gambit fails, and Godzilla, Anguirus and a handful of heroic humans save the day and the world...but not before Godzilla gets a good ass-kicking, thanks to all those sharp, metal, pointy parts festooning poor Gigan.


Nothing at all resembling this post actually occurs in the film, as the monsters never visit America, but I still really like this version of the post for the U.S. release.
Godzilla Vs. Megalon (1973): The unlucky 13th Godzilla film has the distinction of being by far the worst of the series up until that point. It was, in fact, the second and final Godzilla film upon which an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 was built to ridicule (Note that Team MST3K could have similarly vivisected just about any Godzilla flick with riffs, of course; the two most memorable quips about the flick that still stick in my mind is their description of the new monster in the title as a Christmas tree monster, with arms that look like the Chrysler building, and Joel Hodgson declaring during a car chase, "Action sequences filmed in Confus-o-vision!").

Part of the blame may be due to the fact that this was another Godzilla film in which Godzilla wasn't actually meant to star during the initial phases of development; it was first conceived as Jet Jaguar Vs. Megalon, and meant to star the size-changing robot heroically fighting the weird-looking bug-monster thing. Godzilla and his foe Gigan were added later on to make it more marketable. It's probably for the best. Neither Jet Jaguar nor Megalon are very compelling characters; their designs are uninspired and uninteresting, and the special effects used to affect their various powers and abilities are shoddy at best.

Our heroes consist of genius inventor Goro Ibuki, his friend race car driver Horishi Jinkawa, and Goro's little brother Rokuro, a pint-sized inventor in the de rigueur tiny little Japanese boy shorts. Their picnic--which is something I guess Japanese bros used to do together in the 1970s?--is disturbed by a strange off-coast earthquake that drains whatever body of water they're on, presumably part of the fall-out of the latest underground nuclear testing (Just before that, giving us a look at the title star before the movie is even two minutes in, we see the earthquakes pissing off the monsters of Monster Island, the earth swallowing up poor Anguirus—limited to just a cameo—and making Godzilla scream and holler).

The Japanese bros speculate that underground nuclear testing is pretty bad for the world, and that we should probably stop it before we destroy the world, the film's only stab at a message. No one is more threatened by such testing than are the oddly-dressed people of Seatopia, a sunken civilization akin to Mu and Lemuria and not, in fact, a marine theme park, despite its name. To strike back against the surface dwellers, the hairy, caucasian leader with a tiara calls upon the Seatopian god Megalon who, well, let's just say he's no Mothra.

Our young, male heroes are involved in the Seatopian plot because Goro has created a robot that looks suspiciously like a dude in padded, totally-not-metal suit that he's named Jet Jaguar, apparently just to irritate his fellow Japanese (Have any Japanese friends for whom English is a second language? Cool. Ask them to say "jaguar," would you?). A pair of Seatopian secret agents want to take control of the robot, using it to guide Megalon to particular targets (Which seems pretty excessive; "the surface world" is a pretty big place, after all, and basically consists of everything that's not underwater).

The Japanese Self Defense Forces arrive to throw their lives away in the always-futile attempts to repel a giant monster using conventional weaponry (toy planes, fire crackers, model tanks, those trucks with satellite dishes that shoot lighting), while our heroes regain control of Jet Jaguar and send him off to Monster Island to recruit Godzilla to defeat Megalon for them. That is, apparently, everyone's answer to a giant monster problem: Throw more giant monsters at it.

Since Jet can fly faster than Godzilla can swim, he returns to Japan—which was apparently very thoroughly evacuated off-screen before Megalon got there, as there are no people shown in the entire country save army guys and Goro and the gang—and then Jet grows to enormous height in order to hold off Megalon himself. With his fists.

The sub-titles on the DVD version I saw had Goro explain Jet was able to do this through sheer determination to stop Megalon, the android having previously gained a degree of free will. The dubbed version that was the basis of the MST3K episode, however, has Goro explaining he built that ability into the robot, and it's a sort of self-defense measure.

The Seatopians, seeing Megalon stopped in his tracks, call up the Nebula M aliens from Godzilla Vs. Gigan and ask if they can borrow their giant monster, and before long Gigan and Megalon are double-teaming and pretty much kicking the shit out of Jet. The two monsters have a lot in common, in that they are the two dumbest-looking monster designs in a Godzilla film we've seen up until this point, and both of them are strange hybrid monsters with built-in power tools—Gigan's got that giant, spinning saw blade in the middle of his torso, while Megalon's hands are giant power drills.

Oh, and neither can do anything with their hands except wreck shit, as Gigan, of course, has only gigantic hooks there. That doesn't stop the pair from high-five-ing one another, though.

Eventually, Godzilla enters the field, strutting and pumping his fists like a professional wrestler. Indeed, this is the most professional wrestler-esque battle of the franchise up until this point, the only thing really separating the battle that follows between the two tag-teams is the lack of a wrestling ring with turnbuckles to jump off and ropes to throw opponents into, and the fact that they are wearing more elaborate funny costumes than most professional wrestlers do. Oh, and they occasionally breathe fire or spit biological grenades and suchlike.

A brutal but stupid-looking battle ensues—the scene where a flying Gigan saws open Godzilla's left shoulder, eliciting a brief fountain of blood is re-used from their last encounter—and the good gargantuans win, with the heel monsters retreating, Godzilla shaking Jet's hand and then swimming on home, and Jet himself shrinking back down to human size. The android hero has helped save the day, and walks off with his three human friends, to never, ever appear in another Godzilla movie again (He did make it into some of the Godzilla videogames though, and recently made his comic book debut in IDW's latest Godzilla ongoing, Godzilla: Rulers of Earth).


The Interview (2014): It's ironic that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's foul-mouthed film, scripted by Dan Sterling from a story by the trio, apparently so infuriated North Korea that the country launched an unprecedented hack attack against studio Sony Pictures, an attack which will likely long overshadow the film itself.

Ironic because while yes, the premise of the film is that bumbling "journalists" Rogen and James Franco (playing only slight variations on their Pineapple Express characters) are tasked by the CIA with assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, the character of Un is a surprisingly complex, nuanced and even somewhat sympathetic character. Unlike Matt Stone and Trey Parker's cartoon villain portrayal of Un's father in their Team America: World Police, Golberg, Rogen and company invest their North Korean dictator with depth; in fact, he may be the most well-rounded character in the whole film.

The main conflict of the story, after all, revolves on the schism between life-long friends, TV journotainment interviewer Dave Skylark (Franco), whose onscreen coups including getting Eminem to come out as gay on his show, and Skylarks's producer Aaron Rapaport. They score an interview with Un—turns out, he's a big fan, and Skylark is vapid, shallow and clueless enough to go through with it—and quickly agree to the assassination attempt. But once they arrive in North Korea and Skylark spends the day with Un, he starts to have second thoughts.

Skylark sees a lot of himself in Un, he seems to have more in common with Un than he does with his supposed best friend Aaron and, ultimately, he agrees with Un that his nasty reputation is mostly due to a media conspiracy. Over the course of a couple of scenes, Skylark decides that there's no way he can go through with killing his new best friend.

Obviously, the film doesn't take that exact same view and—spoiler alert!—Un does die by the end of The Interview, but it's a sympathetic enough of a portrayal that one can sort of see Skylark's point, particularly if one is open-minded enough to look at the fucked-up life of Kim Jong Un and the fucked-up worldview he must have been born into. It certainly helps that the character is played with such gusto by Randall Park, who, for the most part, plays Un as a big, emotionally vulnerable kid seeking approval.

In fact, a large part of the film is spent addressing the idea of whether or not Un is a normal human being or a god (as his government maintains). It's played for laughs, of course—the people of North Korea, we're told, don't believe Un needs to pee or poop and, therefore, he doesn't even have a butthole—which can't help but humanize him by showing that he is, you know, a human being. Honestly, if North Korea hadn't objected so strongly to the film prior to release, I imagine a lot of folks in the U.S. would object to it for being too soft on North Korea and its leader.

The politics of the film aren't nearly as sophisticated as those so crudely expressed in Team America (you remember, how nations and world leaders are divided into three different categories—dicks, pussies and assholes—and only a dick can fuck an asshole?). It is, however, a far funnier film, and one with a great deal more sophistication in its junior high lunchroom level sense of humor. And, as so many of Goldberg and/or Rogen's projects are, it is more concerned with the friendship of its leads than any other conflicts, a friendship often expressed as love for one another buried under joking sexual innuendo (Skylark's Tolkein obsession is pretty funny, too; I liked the "That's such a Boromir thing to say" when Rapaport says he has no idea who Boromir even is).

I could have done without the several jokes involving traumatic injury to the asshole—I guess that's just not my thing?—and the ultraviolence that occasionally occurs seems at odds with the verbal and situational humor that makes up most of the film, but I was honestly surprised how much I ended up enjoying the film.

Certainly casting Lizzy Caplan as a CIA agent who may or may not be honeypotting Skylark and Diana Bing as Un's media specialist with an air of the dominatrix about her helped a lot, and there's a predictable but pleasing use of music throughout. Well, with the exception of the huge role played by a particular Katy Perry song. I honestly didn't think that would figure into the climax as strongly as it did.

I suspect the story behind the film, and its aftermath, will prove even more interesting than what's on the screen—if Goldberg and Rogen aren't too busy, they really oughta hire a couple researchers and get to work on a book about the making and impact of The Interview—but I liked it pretty well, and probably laughed aloud during it more than I have the last couple Rogen-centric movies I've seen.


Jupiter Ascending (2015): Wow. Props to The Wachowskis for trusting their audience enough that they never felt the need to stop and, like, explain anything, anything at all. But I think they trusted their own storytelling abilities a little too much, too, as this was one of the most bizarrely convoluted film stories I've encountered, as close to gibberish and nonsense as a film can get without actually being The Lady In The Water.

Additionally, the lush production and costume design and inventive visuals often completely overwhelm the story, to the extent that it's hard to understand, let alone care, what words are coming out characters' mouths, when Mila Kunis' wedding gown looks so amazing, you know? This is a film in great need of a harsh, kill-The Wachowskis'-darlings editor to take a machete to it (The entire prologue? Pointless, with no bearing on the film that follows. And I'm not sure what the point of repeating the same exact basic conflict, with Channing Tatum's dog-man racing against the clock to interrupt a transaction involving Kunis from handing over her ownership of Earth to one of her conniving past-life sons, twice in a row).

There's an interesting story in here, and some neat scenes, but it's communicated unintelligibly; I eventually made sense of the basics by the time the film reached its climax, but I remained unclear about some of the major players, a shipfull of which seem to exist to simply move Tatum and Kunis' characters from place to place, and what precise tone they were going for. There was a lot–a lot–of sci-fi action with crazy technology, weird-looking alien combatants; there are some scenes that look like they were meant to be funny but weren't; there's some honest-to-God horror in here; and then there's an extremely clumsy romance, which actually provides all of the comic relief (although it probably wasn't meant to).

I found myself thinking about what made this seem so silly to me, while I'm able to take a Star Wars movie (with its similar number of aliens, ships, planets, space politics and flights of production design fancy) seriously, or how I can follow the plots of those dumb-ass Transformers movies so easily. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I grew up with them both, and, in the case of the former, our culture was so gradually eased in to the crazier Star Wars universe of the prequels (Outside of the cantina scene in the original Star Wars, that first film was practically alien-free; and even when the prequels came out, their most confusing action scenes still involved things a large portion of the audience had grown to take as part of their understanding of such films, including The Force, light sabers and droids).

It probably doesn't help that this film's crazy aliens exist in a universe which we are thrown into, rather than gradually introduced to, and they exist side-by-side with gene-spliced characters who look human but share more genetic similarity with dogs or bees or whatever. So when we see winged dragon-men, or a spaceship pilot with the head of an elephant, or a dude who looks like a mouse and a lady combined, what do we make of them? Are they aliens, or gene-spliced creations of the immortal humans?

In a good example of just how confused the film is, Channing Tatum's character is a dog-man lamenting the loss of his wings. He gets them back in the end, so that he has giant, angel-like bird wings, which don't seem to fit with his dog-man origin, powers or characterization at all. What's the deal there? Why not just make him a bird-man from the beginning? (He also has some sort of super-boots that allow him to fly around as if he has invisible speed-skates, roller-blades or a flying skateboard attached; it's unlcear why he'd even need wings).

There's an interesting point in here regarding corporations, ownership and the value of human lives, but it's all but lost, and it would take a very patient viewer to seek this film out, and try to make sense of it to find any moral or point in it at all. Which is really too bad, and it made me lament the career trajectory of The Wachowskis; just as The Matrix's point got lost not only by its popularity and influence, but also by its inferior sequels, which overwhelmed the original with expanding mythology and often goofy visuals, now they're compressing whole trilogies into single films, so their stories don't even have a chance.

Like the far superior Speed Racer, this is probably going to go down in film history as either a completely forgotten footnote, or a not-very-good-film that is only of interest for its visuals. While I can't say it was a good movie, I do hope the horrible reviews and its terrible reputation won't scare you away if you're curious about it. Yeah, it's no damn good, but it has moments of great visual interest, and it is pretty hilarious...just in all the wrong parts.


Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014): This computer-animated family film is, of course, a feature-length extrapolation of the old Peabody's Improbable History segments from producer Jay Ward's 1959-1964 Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. These were story-less, five-minute shorts in which an ingenious talking dog took his adopted boy back in time via the time machine he invented specifically because he lived in a penthouse apartment, and felt growing boys needed "running room." Each short anachronistic adventure/series of jokes merely built up to a bad pun.

As charming as the character of Mr. Peabody may be, and as strong as the writing may have been on those original cartoons (particular for the time period), it remains a rather flimsy premise to draw out too long, but Hollywood has certainly tried to adapt flimsier and less worthy material in the past. The resultant film—directed by Rob Minkoff from a screenplay by Craig Wright—doesn't really work, mostly because of its attempts to bring character arcs to intentionally one-dimensional, 2D-animated characters, but it does have its moments.

The backstory, rather breezily presented at the opening of the film, is an almost direct adaptation of the first installment of Improbable History, the one devoted mostly to introducing Peabody and Sherman, right down to the viewer walking in on Peabody while he's doing his yoga (The main deviation here, aside from some more timely jokes, is that Peabody finds Sherman as a baby, not as a bullied orphan boy). Here Peabody invents The WABAC Machine—a high-tech vehicle with an elaborate launching bay, rather than the simple doorway with scientific doo-dads around it that the original was—to help Sherman study history.

As conflicts are needed to drive a narrative for 90 minutes, the filmmakers present a pair of them, neither of which fit very well. Sherman (voiced by Max Charles) is about to start school, and Peabody (Ty Burrell, doing an excellent take on the voice originated by Bill Scott) is a bit melancholy about his child growing up so fast, and is a little unsure of the proper way to let him go. Sherman doesn't fit in well at school and, on the first day, he is bullied by a little girl in his class, who repeatedly calls him a dog (because he was raised by a dog, you see), until he ultimately bites her.

With Sherman at risk of being kicked out of school and taken from Peabody's custody if our canine hero can't convince the girl's parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) and a mean lady from child services or whatever (Allison Janney) that, dog or not, he's the best possible parent for Sherman. So he throws a dinner party, but things get complicated when Sherman is bullied by the little girl into revealing the WABAC and taking her with him on a ride into the distant past.

Sherman, meanwhile, falls in love with the little girl, and just as Peabody must come to terms with letting his son go, his son must come to terms with becoming his own person and pursuing romantic love.

That Sherman and the little girl, Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), are five-years-olds makes both of these conflicts seem misapplied. Perhaps they'd work better if Sherman and Penny were about 13 years older.

The trips back in time are rather accomplished expansions of the sort that used to appear on the TV version, albeit packed with more action. The animation is so slick compared to the extremely flat and cheap early '60s animation, it's difficult to really compare the two; Mr. Peabody is a dead on replication of the original design, Sherman is slightly tweaked for realism, and...they're the only reoccurring characters from the TV iteration, really. The often random historical figures are all comical exaggerations.

The WABAC takes our heroes way back to the time of the French Revolution, Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance and The Trojan War, before they return to the present, breaking the rules of time travel in the process and nearly destroying the space-time continuum. At the climax, the characters from the past start landing in the present and encountering the modern world for what looks an awful lot like an extended Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure riff.

I liked the part where Peabody sneaks into the Trojan Horse using an even smaller Trojan Horse. That's where we meet Patrick Warburton's Agamemnon, and get some good grown-up jokes (like about how awkward holidays are at Oedipus' house). There's some other rather clever bits at the climax too, and interesting celebrity voice-casting, like Mel Brooks' Albert Einstein and Stanley Tucci's Leonardo da Vinci.

It's the sort of film which shamelessly rips off Spartacus, but then includes a Spartacus that looks exactly like Kirk Douglas to let audiences know that they know they're ripping off Spartacus, and they aren't trying to get away with anything. It's also the sort of film that will have people bursting out of the butt hole of the Sphinx in one scene, and then repeat the gag a few scenes later with the Trojan Horse.

I suppose it's a decent family film in that it has something for everyone—Classic film allusions! Butts!—but it's more well-made, juvenile-targeted juvenalia than a truly good, truly all-ages film. I do like the general premise of a dog who is the smartest guy in any room though, and Burrell plays the hell out of Peabody.


The One That I Love (2014): Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss star in--and comprise two-thirds of the cast of--this twisty, turn-y, weird little movie. They play a couple whose marriage is on the verge of falling apart, and seek help from a marriage counselor with a very unorthodox practice (played by Ted Danson). He sends them to spend some time away together in a nice house, and they immediately begin to encounter a mystery, with their memories of their time spent together at certain times there not quite matching up.

The film shares some similarities to traditional ghost stories, although there's nothing really supernatural going on within it. Nor would it be fair to classify it as science-fiction, exactly, as the fantastical elements aren't really scientific in nature, either...they're just fantastical (although "fantasy" doesn't fit the film quite right either, given the expectations of content that label would raise). It's really just a particularly complex relationship drama/mystery, one that makes for a particularly actor-ly movie, and one that demands a high-level engagement by the viewer. Duplass and Moss acquit themselves to their challenging roles quite well. I'm having trouble recalling the last time I saw a movie that was anything at all like this, to the point that I don't think I ever have.


Only Lovers Left Alive (2013): Were I to write a list of all of the things I like about film in general, it would include the words "vampires," "Jim Jarmusch" and "Tilda Swinton." So this Jim Jarmusch vampire movie starring Tilda Swinton? It's pretty much an ideal movie for me personally.

Written and directed by Jarmusch, it's an extremely Jarmusch-ian film about the day-to-day lives of immortals, and the various challenges they face in not only securing sustenance, but in keeping themselves busy, entertained and engaged in their never-ending lives. Tom Hiddleston (who, like Swinton, is an ideal person to cast as a vampire), plays a ultra-reclusive underground musician, who limits his contact with the outside world to a few very discrete relationships who provide him with the things he needs. Swinton is his wife, although they live very, very far away from one another.

Hiddleston's character named (ugh) Adam, is depressed enough that Swinton's (ugh) Eve is worried enough to come visit him, and their reunion is complicated by the abrupt and unwelcome appearance of Eve's younger sister (Mia Wasikowska). Despite the over-obviousness of some of the symbolism and characters (John Hurt plays another vampire friend of theirs, Christopher Marlowe, who never really got over that whole Shakespeare thing), Jarmusch and his small cast provide an eloquent, elegant exploration of the creative life, the life of relationships and life in general, through the prism of characters blessed/cursed with way too much life, and some unusual complications that arise when circumstance forces them to preserve it.

It's the rarest of vampire movies, one that isn't a genre film of any kind. It's not a horror film, it's not a comedy, and it's not a romance, although there are elements of each in here. It's just a movie, and if one must assign it a label, it would be simply "drama," and a particularly meditative example of such.


Rosewater (2014): Based on the results of Jon Stewart's directorial debut, the making of which lead to his taking an extended sabbatical from The Daily Show, leaving hosting duties in the very capable hands of John Oliver, I'd suggest he not quit his day job, but, well, too late for that.

It's not that Rosewater is a bad film at all, and is actually a pretty decent one for a first-time director tackling a pretty difficult subject based on a the unintended and practically unforseeable fallout of a Daily Show segment. It just scans very much like the work of a relative novice (and as a fan of Stewart's since the days of his MTV talk show, I take no pleasure in saying so; I so wanted to love this film), with tonal discordance between the drama and humor...most of which stems from the sheer absurdity of the situation the protagonist finds himself in, the result of a type of institutionalized, beuracratic insanity that makes victims of everyone involved...our protagonist being the most victimized, of course.

That protagonist is Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (he's a good actor, of course, and good in this, but the fact that he's not Iranian and this is 2015 and not 1968 naturally grates a bit). Regular Daily Show viewers will likely recall the field report segment in which Jason Jones visits Iran and and interviews Bahari (a segment partially reenacted here, with Jones playing himself). It was a very positive piece, about the similarity between the American and Iranian peoples as human beings, and the ignorance and xenophobia of Americans, but it didn't sit well with those in Iran's police bureaucracy, and so the real Bahari found himself imprisoned and questioned for months (Not just because of the Daily Show appearance, but that was certainly the inciting incident).

Much of the rest of the film involves Bahari's time in a prison, being questioned repeatedly by the same man, and trying hard not to lose his mind in the isolation, imagining visits from his late, political prisoner uncle. Then film occasionally cuts away to his in Britain, and Stewart has a showy--too showy--special effect scene representing the social media response to the incident.

It's a depressing story with comedy in it, and I'm glad it exists, as all the attention that can be brought to these sorts of stories is welcome attention, I just wish it was a better-made film: In part because I like Stewart so much and want him to succeed at whatever he does (Also? To not leave The Daily Show), and in part because it would make an important story more effective.


Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (2014): Talk of this second Sin City movie began almost immediately upon the release of the original in 2005, so I imagine the fact that the sequel finally arrived almost a full decade later may have a little something to do with the fact that it seemed to arrive and leave theaters with little fanfare...even in our circles. That, or maybe the fact that "based on a comic book series" doesn't excite the comics press the way it did in 2005, given the fact that there seems to be a comic book movie opening at least once a month these days, and comic book TV shows are reaching hard-to-keep-track-of status, with several even producing their own spin-offs.

The impact of the Sin City style has certainly been blunted, not only by the decade that's passed, but its application in other films (most notably Frank Miller's own The Spirit); the hyper-art directed, over-stylized black-and-white with occasional splashes of color still looks pretty cool, it just doesn't look as revolutionary as it did the first time around.

I'm not terribly familiar with Miller's Sin City crime comics, so I'm not sure which particular stories this film adapts--although Sin City: A Dame to Kill For seems like a good bet--or how faithfully or skillfully that source material is adapted by Miller and director Robert Rodgriguez, who again share directing and writing credits.

As with the previous film, Dame offers a suite of loosely interconnected stories, all sharing a setting and occasionally overlapping characters, crisscrossing sporadically and sometimes unexpectedly. Returning characters include Rosario Dawson's warrior queen of a band of urban Amazons, Mickey Rourke's unkillable killer with a heart of gold and face of prosthetics and Jessica Alba's stripper who never actually takes any clothing off at all (Well, I think she may doff a cowboy hat at one point). Most of them play relatively small, or at least supporting, roles, with new heroes and villains taking up the most screentime.

In the title story, Eva Green plays the nee plus ultra femme fatale, seducing good cop-turned-bad Christopher Meloni into not pursuing her for a murder she pretty obviously committed (they're both great in great roles; I like to imagine Meloni's character as Detective Stabler finally pushed over the edge), while ex-lover Josh Brolin is pulled into her web. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a hotshot poker player with magic hands and a vendetta, and there are shorter stories featuring both Rourke's Marv character and Alba's Nancy, as Marv cartoonishly killing people and taking punishment and Alba writhing around simulating sex with a stage floor are among the franchise's strongest selling points. A who's who of pretty ladies and character actors fill up the film, including Bruce Willis, Ray Liotta, Christopher Lloyd, Jeremy Piven, Lady Gaga, Dennis Haysbert, Powers Boothe, Alexa Vega and Juno Temple, who I totally have a film-crush on.

The film is literally more of the same, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a sequel, and the things you liked about the first are still here and still executed as well--as are all the things you didn't like. I didn't enjoy it as much as the first, and it wasn't exactly a hit at the box office, but I imagine that's because everything else changed around Rodriguez and Miller's Sin City Cinematic Universe, not that universe itself or their particular talents or abilities.

I enjoyed it well enough, I suppose, but it's hardly a film that needs to be seen. So maybe it was a film that didn't really need to be made. But I've yet to actually regret watching a Rodriguez film, as at their absolute worst, they tend to simply be not as good as other Rodriguez films, or not as good as they seemed like they could have been.


Sky Monsters (2015): One of a slew of new dinosaur-related documentaries making their way into the library as public interest in the extinct creatures has one of its occasional Hollywood-inspired upticks, this DVD re-presents a 90-minute film heavily (and badly) animated with repetitive computer-generated imagery.

Well, most of the graphics are pretty poor, but there is at least one sequence that works quite well, when a little pterosaur fossil comes to life, extricates itself from the stone it was embedded in and then flutters its skeletal form all around a natural history museum, weaving its way around the giant bones of a sauropod and other reconstructed skeletons.

The pterosaurs are, of course, the sky monsters of the title, and after first introducing the creatures via some basic facts of their discovery, evolutionary lifespan (150 million years) and wild varieties (including a wide range of shapes, sizes and apparent specialization in their feeding habits), two distinct tracks are taken for the bulk of the film.

The first, and most exciting, follows paleontologist Dino Frey, who thinks he has found a massive wing bone (one of the four of a pterosaur's wing) which, if real, would make for a pterosaur with a wingspan of some 70 feet–dwarfing the previous record-holder, Quetzalcoatlus, which had a wingspan of nearly 40-feet and weighed 300 pounds. It turns out not to be a bone, but instead an ancient piece of wood. There is hope for a new giant, however, or an "ultra-giant" as the film repeatedly refers to it. This comes in the form of a set of pterosaur footprints. The individual prints are 2.5-feet long, but that's not the amazing part. No, the scientists speculate that these prints are only those of the left foot and hand, and the right foot and hand are 15 feet away. The ultra-giant who made them would have therefore have had a perhaps 70-foot wingspan, and, using a few of the basketball metaphors the filmmakers seem so fond of, would have had an eyeball the size of a basketball and "wings so long it could almost dunk on both sides of the basketball court at the same time."

The other, and perhaps more valuable (if less cinematic) track, is a team from Stanford's ongoing quest to recreate a mechanical pterosaur, incorporating everything they learned about pterosaurs and the way they flied. They eventually sort of almost approximate it, but not without some spectacular failures.

Film fans will find some uncredited appearance of various "sky monsters" from popular films during one montage, including Rodan and the pterosaur from Valley of The Gwangi. If the giant imagined actually did exist, it would mean the next film adaptation of The Lost World could keep the pterosaur at the climax of the novel, but still include a monster sizable enough to wreak havoc in London, as in the climax of the film.

Interesting stuff, all around.


A Snowglobe Christmas (2013): I've become somewhat fascinated by the apparently vast entertainment machinery that is responsible for the dozens of new Christmas movies that appear in my library every fall, most of them either direct-to-DVD or made-for-TV-but-released-on-DVD-almost-simultaneously. I never watch the damn things, as they seem to be universally mediocre, although I generally pause to admire the titles—taken from Christmas Carols or riffs on some holiday catchphrase of some kind—and see who is in them, occasionally feeling a pang of sadness that so-and-so, who used to have a career of some prominence, has now fallen to playing opposite of this dog in a Christmas movie, for example, or the romantic lead in a risible-looking holiday rom-com.

This one had not one, but two actors I've an enormous amount of affection for: 1) Star Alicia Witt, the pale-skinned beauty with a wry delivery and interesting way of talking out of the upturned sides of her mouth whose short stint as Law & Order: Criminal Intent's Nola Falacci has her tied for the prestigious title of The Law and Order-iverse Police Detective Caleb Would Most Like To Marry, with Julian Nicholson's Detective Megan Wheller, and 2) Sub-romantic interest Trevor Donovan, who played the hunky, baby-faced Teddy on 90210 (a character first introduced as a rival for Adriana's affection before eventually coming out as gay later in the series).

Either's presence would be enough to make me take the DVD home from the library, but the premise seemed awesome/stupid enough to guarantee that I do.

Witt plays a cynical, harried television producer pumping out the sorts of treacly, sub-par Christmas specials that A Snowglobe Christmas itself is. Like an extremely toned-down and mellower version of the character Bill Murray played in Scrooged, she's hard on her employees, and she's more concerned with producing her shitty Christmas special on deadline than she is with the holiday it purports to celebrate. "Christmas is not for the elves," is her oft-repeated mantra, whenever it comes to shooting down an employee.

In the somewhat rushed opening, we meet various players in her life—including her boyfriend Donovan, her boss and some of her employees and, finally, a mysterious, magical negro played by Christina Milan (who played a different role in the similarly-premised 2007 ABC Family original movie, Snowglobe). During an argument with the know-it-all magical Milan, Witt's character Meg snatches up a snowglobe and throws it at the ground. It bounces up, konks her on the head and knocks her out.

She awakens in a wintry wonderland of a small town perfectly-suited to a Christmas special—her expertise in the creation of these films gives the entire proceedings a refreshingly meta, occasionally sarcastic edge—where she has apparently lived for years, having a wonderful husband in woodsman-with-a-thing-for-musical-theater Donald Faison (who, in her real life, she briefly dated in college) and a pair of beautiful children, whose casting she openly admires.

Assuming she's simply suffering from amnesia from a snowball thrown a little too hard, her family and the rest of the town humor her, as she tries to acclimate herself to life inside one of her Christmas specials—or, more specifically, inside the snowglobe that knocked her out. Characters from her real-life appear within this life. Donovan plays the town's money-hungry mayor, who finds himself attracted to Meg's new (to him) cynical and cunning side.

Most every twist and turn is, of course, entirely predictable, to the extent that I'm sure I'm not spoiling anything by saying that Meg learns the true meaning of Christmas within the world of the snowglobe, and awakens in the real world positively possessed by that spirit. Now gifted with it, and some insider knowledge about various people in her real life that she learned during her dream state/magical journey, she goes about being a better person and improving the lives of others...everything coming to climax when she takes the broken snowglobe to the local snowglobe repair shop (I guess those exist?), to find proprietor Donald Faison, shocked—but happily so--to see his old college girlfriend Meg, who he hasn't seen since.

It's as cheesy and cloying as it looks, but I liked Meg's professional resistance to so much of the magic—including mentioning standards and practices when she's tempted to swear—but goddam is effective. I actually found myself tearing up a bit at the end, there.

So I guess now I understand what people see in these dumb movies...


White Bird in a Blizzard (2014): This is by far the least Gregg Araki movie of Gregg Araki's I've ever seen (I still haven't seen 's Smiley Face), perhaps because despite directing and writing the screenplay, it's an adaptation of another's work, Laura Kasischke's novel of the same name.

There are, of course, plenty of touchstones of Araki's filmography here, including nostalgia for the recent past (the film is set in 1988 and 1991), a good soundtrack, dim and disaffected teenagers and, of course, lots of young flesh on display. (I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but it wasn't until a surprise twist near the end that I thought to myself, "Oh, now it's a Gregg Araki movie!).

Shailene Woodley stars as Kat, our protagonist and narrator. She chronicles her strange relationship with her mother Eva Green, who seems to have rather gradually been driven a little insane by her unfulfilling life as a mother to Kat and housewife to milquetoast Brock, played by a severely mustached Christopher Meloni (who matches that enormous mustache with awesome wigs in various flashback scenes).

Kat becomes increasingly annoyed by her mother's constant creeping up on her, vacantly staring at her while she examines her naked body in the mirror, falling asleep in her bed, or seemingly flirting with her boyfriend, sexy but dumb neighbor boy Shiloh Fernandez (At 34, Green looks awfully young to play anyone's mother, let alone 23-year-old Woodley's, but then, Green's good looks are a plot point of sorts; "Not bad for 42, huh?" she says to Kat's boyfriend when she interrupts them in the basement one night).

Kat is so annoyed by her mother's behavior that she seems rather non-plussed by her mother's sudden disappearance one day. With no leads and no real proof that anything bad happened—Kat is fairly certain her mom just got sick of her life and left voluntarily—there's no way to find the missing woman, and so Kat and her dad just sort of get on with their lives.

Three years later, Kat returns home as a college student for a few weeks, and while grappling with the changes, eventually begins to realize that maybe her mother didn't abandon her after all. The resolution is fairly predictable, but, as I mentioned, there's a twist to it.

It may be the least Gregg Araki movie of Gregg Araki's I've ever seen, but it's also his most mainstream and, I imagine, best-received, as it seems like a "real" movie instead of a weird, cult one, even if that means it lacks a lot of what makes Araki's films so charming. It's only in a few dream sequences that there is anything approaching a visual flight of fancy here, although the entire film does look good, and its cast all do a fairly good job...even if many of them are playing unlikeable characters.

Given that it prominently features Meloni and Green in a relationship, I like to think of it as a sequel to their storyline in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For.


BOOKS


American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen (Feral House; 2014): It's hard to imagine a more compelling cover for a book than that of American Grotesque. There's that intriguing title, sure, but then there's that image, of a hulking, ape-like monster man—which looks a little like a Hollywood gorilla of the King Kong era, when few people seemed to know what a gorilla really was or how it really acted—hunching over a beautiful woman with luminous skin, her clothes ravaged. There's much more than a suggestion of violence here—note the big stick in the beast's hand, and the blood on the mouth of the woman in the ripped up (off?) clothes. The posing of the legs further suggests some horrible, unnatural congress. Speaking of King Kong, this single image distills that charged film's erotic, disturbing underpinnings. Here's beauty and the beast, a forbidden lust story that will never work, because women and beasts aren't compatible...although no one seems to have told that to the beast.

What is maybe the most interesting thing about the image, however, is that it's not a painting or a drawing. That's a fucking photograph, of William Mortensen's second wife Myrdith Monaghan and a guy in a gorilla suit.

The 1935 photo is the work of Mortensen, who, if you're anything like me, you've never heard of, despite his pioneering interest in bringing grotesqueries into the field of photography (still images and film), and his pioneering work in mixed media and photo manipulation (And, again speaking of King Kong, you would also not be aware of his early, strange relationship with the young woman he brought with him to Hollywood, who would later change her name to Fay Wray, one of the very first objects of lust for multiple generations of young males now; apparently Mortensen acted as her guardian for a while, and there was a scandal possibly involving nude photos of the young woman, which now sounds almost quaint, as it's difficult to think of an actress who hasn't had nude pictures of herself leaked or posted online for public consumption).

That Mortensen's name isn't a household one is no coincidence. There was, apparently, a concentrated effort by other photographers of his day to dismiss, shun and even erase him from history. That pull-quote by Ansel Adams on the cover isn't jovial hyperbole from an eminent photographer ribbing his peer for effect; Adams and others really did consider Mortensen the anti-Christ, at least in matters of photography.

These objections apparently rose out of Mortensen's early efforts in experimentation, as he blurred the line between photography and other media in order to achieve otherwise impossible images of the fantastic. He used make-up and masks to pose scenes he would then record, a bit like a filmmaker, and then he would manipulate the images in a variety of ways (an entire section of the book is devoted to his specific techniques) in order to further divorce the photographs from a documentary function. A bit of a filmmaker and a bit of a painter, he was a photographer whose photographs often didn't look like photographs, and certainly didn't look like many in his day thought they should.

The book is divided into several sections, including an 85-page biography by the book's co-editor Larry Lytle, a sizable essay by Mortensen himself ("Venus and Vulcan: An Essay on Creative Pictorialism"), the aforementioned section on his methods and, most importantly, some 100 pages devoted to his images. These come mostly from the 1920s-1940s, and are divided into sections ("Propaganda," "Character Studies," "Nudes"). Of these, perhaps the most intriguing is "The Occult," which includes the results of an ambitious project Mortensen embarked upon but ultimately abandoned—"A Pictorial History of Witchcraft an Demonology."

It's something of a coffee table book—that is, it's the sort you can sit on your coffee table, or use as a coffee table, given its size—and thus a bit on the expensive side ($45), but well worth your time, particularly if the grotesque, fantasy, horror and eroticism of the 1920s-1940s is of interest to you. There is a lot of stunning work in here, of interest artistic and, to be perfectly honest, prurient, and none of the images marvel as much as a handful that have been so manipulated that they become drawings.

I imagine it is also of interest to photographers and those interested in photography, and I suppose it's somewhat fascinating how much technology has changed that medium in the last few years. There are still people taking pictures the old-fashioned way among artists, of course, and photo-manipulation now is almost to be expected, even in what one would imagine to be a more pure, documentary form of photography (for example, any magazine cover), but photography of this sort, with film and light and chemicals rather than light and digital information, is becoming, if not a lost art, than a more and more rarified one, practiced almost exclusively by fine artists.


American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin; 2014) by Linda S. Godfrey: Godfrey is, her paragraph-long bio on the back of the book assures me, "one of America's foremost experts on mystery creatures," as well as being a fairly prolific author and expert regularly turned to by various TV and radio shows I'm familiar with and enjoy (MonsterQuest, Coast to Coast AM), am dubious of and actively dislike (Lost Tapes) and that almost instantly discredit her (Sean Hannity's America).

Her book is a good one. She takes the now familiar survey approach perfected by—if not pioneered by—celebrity cryptozoologists Loren S. Coleman and Jerome Clark, breaking the book up into three different sections, "Monsters By Air," "Monsters By Land" and "Monsters By Sea." The twenty-four chapters are split between these broad types of monsters, and while most of the monsters will be quite familiar to anyone who has read any books on the subject (or "pretty much all of them," as I have at this point), there are a few "new" monsters in her bestiary.

These include American dragons, what she calls "American gargoyles," Flying Manta Rays, "The Florida Gator Man" and examinations of monsters newer to the scene than those of the 1970s heyday of American monster sightings, like the "chupacabras" of the American southwest (i.e. strange-looking canines that don't fit the descriptions of the chupacabras of the mid-90s flap/mass hysteria outbreak south of the border) and the so-called Montauk Monster.

In fact, the address of modern sightings is a large part of what makes her book particularly interesting. She recounts a lot of sightings shared via the Internet or from witnesses that have contacted her personally, either by email or letter. These are, obviously, less trustworthy than reports filed by more conventional means—something with a police report and a newspaper article attached is obviously a bit more reliable than something simply posted online or emailed to someone, because it's easier to lie with the Internet as a buffer—but it also means there are a lot of newer and fresher sightings, so even if you scan through the table of contents and recognize most of the names, there are also sightings you haven't read about before contained herein.

She illustrates the book herself, opening each chapter with a little black-and-white line drawing. She's at least as good an artist as she is a writer, and, as you've likely noticed if you've been reading EDILW long, one of the aspects of legendary, folkloric and/or cryptozoological creatures I find most fascinating is the different ways different artists depict them.

Godfrey doesn't always go too deep into possible origins and explanations—there's little time, really, given the huge number of monsters covered—but she's not adverse to even the more preposterous theories, like portals that open between different times and dimensions.

She did offer one theory to the explosion of sightings of various monster birds—of the large, feathered variety and large, leathery variety that seem more like pterosaurs than bird-birds—that seemed fascinating.

The Trans-Amazon Highway opened in 1972, kicking off the ongoing deforestation of the formerly pristine and undisturbed rain forest. Godfrey says that Brazil is home to around 15 percent of all animal and plant life on Earth, contains the world's largest wetland and is suspected of being full of animals still unknown to modern science. Therefore, "If there were a pearfect homeland for huge birds anywhere on the planet, Brazil and the Amazon rain forest would probably be it."

She goes on to note that "One study found that as few as six passing vehicles per day on a given stretch of road were enough to cause birds to alter their normal flight paths."

She adds that all up to come up with an intriguing theory about the monster bird flap of the 1970s: "I'm only speculating here, but it doesn't seem such a large stretch to wonder if, when the big highway slashed through the rain forest ecosystem in the early 1970s, the disruption may have spurred a few flying creatures to head north in search of quieter surroundings. The fact that the sudden, large-scale displacement of South American wildlife (logically including birds) was followed almost immediately by the appearance of all sorts of unknown, giant flying creatures over Texas and other parts of the United States seems like the sort of coincidence that might be ripe for further study."

I'd buy that. South America is where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set his Lost World, after all...


Hail, Hail, Euphoria!: Presenting The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, Th Greatest War Movie Ever Made (It Books; 2011) by Roy Blount Jr.: You probably know as well as I or Roy Blount Jr. that the actual lyrics of the Fredonia national anthem are "Hail, hail Fredonia," not "Euphoria." So what's it doing in the title of a book on Duck Soup? Well, it will all make sense as you read, the very conclusion of the book explaining its title. It's a perfect callback and, it turns out, a perfect title for the book, as the film it concerns itself with is the greatest of the Marx Brothers films****, and the final and best to feature all four of them.

This slim, 144-page book was a fast, fun read. In fact, I read it straight through in a single sitting, almost against my will–I kept intending to stop at a certain scene in the film, but then remembered what was coming up, and wanted to read about that. In other words, I couldn't put it down, as the saying goes, and that owed not only to my affection for the subject matter, but also Blount's writing, which is as fast-paced, funny and insightful as the film.

The construction of Blount's book is unlike any I've read (although it's quite possible I'm just not reading the right books; if you read EDILW regularly, you know I read a good 50 comics for everyone 1 book I read...or listen to), and is in fact so straightforward and simple in construction that I feel like it's almost a cheat. People can write books like this? Why wasn't I made aware of this? I could have finished a similar book on She's All That or Empire Records a good ten years ago!

It begins with Blount going to a screening of Duck Soup at a New York City theater, and being shocked to find it full of parents and young children. He is later shocked to find that the children actually enjoy the 82-year-old, black-and-white film (I probably would be too, although I shouldn't be; my father introduced my siblings and I to the Marx Brothers when we were 12, 11 and 8, and we all enjoyed them, although I'm the only one of the three of us who became a lifelong fan).

From there, he essentially watches the movie while writing about it. He repeatedly refers to the fact that he has it playing on a window in the upper-corner of his laptop while writing about it. He is basically providing a commentary track for the film, although his commentary track comes in the form not of a couple of voices talking over a slightly muted showing of the film, but a very well-researched, carefully-written commentary.

Heeding a criticism of Groucho's regarding people who write about the Marx Brothers, Blount doesn't simply re-write the best jokes in the script, although he does refer to them, and explains the action. For example, in place of Groucho's rapid-fire attack on Margaret DuMont's character in the opening scene, Blount summarizes it thusly:
Suffice it to say that Firefly responds to the opening provided by his gracious hostess by accusing her of coming on to him, of being comparable to a large building (she is in fact quite a bit taller than he), and of murdering her husband. He tells her to leave the premises. Then he ascertains that she is very rich and says, "Can,t you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you."
Probably the greatest exception to this tactic is the four-minute vendor vs. vendor scene, in which Chico and Harpo's spys-posing-as-peanut vendors go to war with Edgar Kennedy's lemonade vendor. Blount describes all of the action in this short scene, to illustrate just how much content is in that scene, which he compares to classic tit-for-tat scenes in previous film comedies of the sort that Laurel and Hardy made, and the sort that Kennedy once performed in and Duck Soup director Leo McCarey used to make.

While Blount watches and writes, he fills the book with anecdotes, biography and history involving all the of the principals, betraying the great deal of effort that went into writing such a straightforward book in such an effortless-seeming style. That, or he's read a lot about the Marx Brothers and Golden Age Hollywood, and has a photographic memory.

It is therefore not simply a book-length essay on what may be the apex of the Marx's career, it is also a biography of the comic team and the real men of whom it consisted, with asides into the history of Jewish/Irish comedy, classic film and stage gags, charges of racism and/or misogyny in Marx Brothers film (Groucho refers to "darkies" at one point in the film, a reference to a popular song of the day forgotten today, during which the entire theater Blount mentions watching the film with was completely silent) and of the nature of war, war films and sibling rivalry as a sort of war.

Hail, hail Roy Blount; this was a brilliant book, and a fantastically fun read.


AUDIOBOOKS


Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan: I've found comedian Jim Gaffigan to be a pleasant travelling companion in the past, having listened to all of his comedy albums in the car while driving distances in the past, so I was happy when he started releasing prose books. The first of these, Dad Is Fat, focused on parenting, and as Gaffigan has many, many kids and lives in a small walk-up apartment in New Yok City, that naturally leads to some funny stories. Listening to it was a little like listening to a Gaffigan live performance--as he read the book himself for the audio version--just less tight. Some of the anecdotes were familiar, some less so.

With his second prose book, Gaffigan tackles a subject that's less unique to him than his living situation, but is certainly the subject so much of his stand-up revolves around: Food. (One tactic Gaffigan uses in his performances to adopt a voice that's meant to represent the audience members, and, using it, he discusses his own show as he imagines they must see it, and those voices often say things like, "Well, that's gotta be the last bacon joke; how long can anyone talk about bacon?" or "Wow, he really likes cake," and so on.) So he's on strong footing in terms of material here. The downside? The book seems mostly assembled from past comedy bits. There is new material acting as mortar, holding the chunks of familiar performances together as he builds a book out of them, but it seemed as if a good 80% of this was recycled material I had already heard.

Among the new--or at least new to me--20% was a bit of a foreword to his most famous routine, that on Hot Pockets. He gives some context and background on how he came up with the bit, and how it apparently captured some sort of zeitgeist of the moment, and the double-edged sword its proven for his career. Hot pockets jokes launched Gaffigan's career to its highest heights he had yet achieved, but is now a sort of albatross around his neck: It remains what he's best known for, so people in the airport will just shout "Hot Pockets!" at him, when he appeared on the news once, he was identified on the bottom of the screen as the Hot Pockets comedian and he worries about Hot Pockets dominating his obituary some day.

I'm not entirely sure who this book is for, as fans will already have heard almost all of it (and if you're reading the book, the jokes inevitably sound better performed by Gaffigan than printed out in black and white prose), whereas those with no prior Gaffigan experience might seem unlikely to pick up a book by him. Or maybe not; perhaps the title is funny enough, and the pretty great cover image striking enough, to entice someone to pick it up.


Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson: There are two kind of history books in this sub-genre that I guess is called "narrative non-fiction," of which publisher Crown calls author Erik Larson (The Devil In The White City, a whole bunch of other books I've never read) the master. There are those dealing with historical events of some import of which one has never heard before, and then there are the more exciting, second kind, those dealing with historical events of great import that one thinks one knows about, but couldn't be more wrong about.

This falls into that latter type, as it is the story of the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania in 1915 by a German submarine, an event that probably occupied all of two lines of notes in the spiral ring notebook of my junior year world history class, and was only there in the context of a causus belli for American's entrance into World War I, given the hundreds of American lives lost in the sinking.

There is, obviously, a lot more to it, and Larson spends the length of this book unpacking it all in a rich, novelistic style that establishes a cast of dozens of characters, several locations (which the book jumps to at each new chapter, re-stating where we're at) and connecting the events to world history in a dramatic and convincing fashion, as this single sinking was the biggest and most dramatic example of Germany's willingness to make civilians legitimate targets of war, and thus characterize the emerging world war and the one to follow it.

The story bears more than a passing resemblance to the more well-known one of the Titanic, as both involved the unexpected sinking of seemingly un-sinkable ships, but there's something far more compelling about this tragedy at sea. Part of it may be that it's simply less familiar, but I think a greater part has to do with the fact that this was done by men to their fellow man; it wasn't an accident but a pre-meditated attack.

Given the familiarity of the Titanic story via the film that bore its title, it was awfully difficult not to think of Larson's book in terms of a first draft for a movie script that would need chopped down before principal photography could begin. At one point, Larson even uses the word "cinematic" to describe the well-timed interruption of a conversation and, during the epilogue, there's a scene in which President Woodrow Wilson delivers a speech to congress asking them to declare war that includes one man clapping slowly and determinedly, followed by everyone else joining him a few seconds later, as has happened in, what, 3,000 films...?

Those locations are mostly the Lusitania, the submarine that sunk it(Unterseeboot-20), and Room 40, a top-secret British intelligence operation that had broken the German code. Characters include the captains of both vessels, many of the passengers (whose letters and diaries made excellent source material) and the rather unlikely inclusion of President Wilson. A melancholic figure, Wilson, when we first meet him, is so depressed at the loss of his wife he's wishing for death, but later meets, courts and falls in love with a new woman, and much of his "storyline" involves his personal life, which has some parallels to the world imperiled by warfare (his broken heart eventually healed, he's ready to plunge into war).

The character I found myself most fascinated by was Theodate Pope, a sinking survivor and ardent spiritualist and feminist at a time when the former were common and the latter almost unheard of. Born into a wealthy family, interested in art, a survivor of depression and an architect, Pope also hailed from Cleveland.

She's a character I found myself wanting to know more about, and I suppose that's a problem with history. You think you know something, find out how little you know about it, and the more you learn about it, the more you learn about other things you wish you knew more about.


Star Wars: Labyrinth of Evil by James Luceno: One of the many, many weakness of the second trilogy of Star Wars films, Episodes I-III, was the sudden heel turn that Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker had to make in the third film. George Lucas and company didn't even start suggesting that the character had a dark side until the second film was half over; his previous character flaws seemingly nothing more than being a perfectly healthy rebellious teenager.

So when he goes to slaughter the children in the Jedi Temple as the the third film nears its climax, it seems not only out of character, but practically random—he killed some children in Episode II of course, but that was during an insane fit of rage—and when he has his duel to the death with Obi-Wan, the dialogue suggests that this is a really big, emotional deal, but the films didn't earn the moment. When Ewan MacGregor croaks "You were like a brother to me," we've no choice but to take his word for it. The films themselves certainly didn't bear that out.

So that's one good thing about the "Expanded Universe" multimedia tie-ins then; they can flesh out the pieces of story and emotional beats wholly missing from the films themselves.

That seems to have been the goal of Luceno's Labyrinth of Evil, which serves as an immediate prequel to Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Actually, this is the first part of a three-book package called "The Dark Lord Trilogy," in which Luceno's novelization of Revenge of The Sith is the second-part. This, then, can be read as the first third of a very long film, in which Revenge was the middle section.

It does help sell the idea of Obi-Wan and Anakin as friends much better than the films did, and it additionally continually teases aspects of Anakin's displeasure with the Jedi Order and their treatment of him and Chancellor Palpatine, who he shares a mutual admiration with. It also helps flesh out the motives of Anakin's eventual turn to the dark side, like his over-powering fear of losing Padme to death like he lost his mother.

But, like most of the Star Wars novels I've read—and by "read" I mean "listened to, while driving"—it's more focused on plot than character or theme or anything else. And the plot is, by necessity, pretty much a bunch of running in place in anticipation of the events of the Episode III.

Obi-Wan and Anakin are on the trail of the separatist leaders Count Dooku, General Greivous and the mysterious Sith Lord, and they're chasing one particular clue around the galaxy. Meanwhile, Jimmy Smits and Natalie Portman are concerned that civil liberties are being sacrificed for the sake of security, and they are involved in some intense meeting action with Palpatine. And Mace Windu and some other Jedi think they have a lead on the Sith Lord.

I would probably have found it interminable in prose, but the audio presentation means we get John Williams' Star Wars music, and all the fun, familiar sound effects, like laser blasts and light sabers and droid tweedling and so on.

The book ends with Grevious and Dooku successfully kidnapping Palpatine during an attack on Coruscant (remember, the third film opens with Obi-Wan and Anakin rescuing him from their ship), and the details of the kidnapping sounded both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I know the micro-series verison of Star Wars: The Clone Wars—the awesome, 2D animation one by Genndy Tartaovsky that aired on Cartoon Network before Episode III was released, not the lame, 3D animated one that aired on Cartoon Network afterwards—also ended with Greivous capturing Palpatine, but it's been so long since I've seen in that I couldn't remember the details clearly and, sadly, my DVD copy of it was stolen during a break-in a few years back [Oh wait, YouTube! Okay, yes, it's extremely different, although the same basics are present in both—Greivous, space-trains, those elite droids with the vibro-lances or whatever. The book's version is more "realistic," while the cartoon version is more spectacular and all-around awesome...it's crazy how awesome Greivous is in those cartoons compared to the film).

Reader/performer Jonathan Davis does a superb job with the book—the overall production on these audiobook are always really well-done—but man is it weird to hear a guy slip into doing a Yoda voice all of a sudden. I mean, you can deepen your voice to sound like Sam Jackson (particularly Jackson's emotion-free delivery as Mace Windu), and you can heighten it and lilt a little to sound like Natalie Portman, but you can't just do a Yoda voice without sounding like you're doing an impression, rather than a performance.


Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno: Did you ever find yourself wanting to know all about the childhood, coming-of-age and military career of the particularly dour-faced Empire officer in the original 1977 Star Wars, the one who got disproportionately high billing on account of the fact that, while his character was minor, he was one of the two most famous actors to appear in it at the time? Me neither!

Ironically, it was the exact lack of importance and my own disinterest in the character Peter Cushing played, Grand Moff Tarkin, that made me excited to see that someone had apparently written a book all about him (That and, to be honest, "Grand Moff Tarkin" is one of my favorite random string of syllables in the Star Wars canon of gobbledygook names. I just like saying "Grand Moff Tarkin" out loud, and even after I learned what, exactly, a Moff was, it demystified the syllables, but didn't make me like saying or hearing them any less).

So I ordered the audiobook version of this specifically because I couldn't imagine an entire book about that guy, although I knew it was certainly possible: One of the most fascinating things about the Star Wars Expanded Universe is how every single character, no matter how minor, can and has been exploited for extrapolation somewhere.

Tarkin, not yet a Grand Moff, is our protagonist, if not exactly our hero. Apparently, a particularly radical band of rebels have stolen Tarkin's own private, customized space ship, which they plan to use as part of a sophisticated anti-Empire propaganda campaign (or, rather, anti-propaganda campaign). Emperor Palpatine pairs Tarkin with Darth Vader, and this marks their first real meeting and joint venture, which much is made of, given of the fact that the two hang-out in A New Hope, I guess.

Their efforts to hunt down and crush the rebes--these particular rebels, not any you may be familiar with from elsewhere--are interspersed with flashbacks to Tarkin's upbringing, as the scion of a cold, aristocratic family on a savage, jungle planet. As he approaches adolescence, he is forced to partake in a Tarkin family ritual, which involves living in the jungle with his uncle and a small band, fighting and killing predators, until he is a man, and has learned all the lessons about hunting, killing and fear that will make him such a great Imperial commander some day (although there's little to no evidence of this in A New Hope, as he goes out like a punk, and in all my many childhood viewings of the film never appeared as anything more than one of several underlings to Vader).

As always, the experience of listening to a Star Wars book seemed far superior to actually reading one (which I've never actually attempted yet, and likely never will), as it features the John Williams music, and all the familiar sound effects of light sabers, droid beeps, blaster shots and so on.



*At least, the fact that Bella Thorne is so attractive to me, as a 38-year-old man, despite not even being 18 yet, disturbs me. And would probably disturb Bella Thorne too, if she had any idea who I was.

**Nothing, that's what.

***Well, just in Final Wars, if that counts. I mean, Godzilla fights everyone in Final Wars. Even your mom. Hedorah's appeared in a handful of IDW's Godzilla comics too, including the excellent Half-Century War.

****To be honest, I go back and forth on this matter. Duck Soup probably is the best of the Marx Brothers films, but it's not my favorite, at least it's not always my favorite. It depends on what day you ask me, but it continually changes places with Animal Crackers and The Coconuts in my own personal ranking of Marx Brothers films, from most favorite to least favorite (Room Service is, of course, always at the bottom of that particular list).

2 comments:

culturewarreporters.com said...

I think my favourite thing about these posts is how you have the more mainstream stuff, like "Mad Max: Fury Road", etc., but also stuff I'd never heard of, like "Camp X-Ray", which is now on My List in Netflix. Probably checking out that book about American monster folklore, too.

And if it helps at all, I also think Bella Thorne is incredibly attractive. At twenty-four-or-so-years-old, though, I do feel slightly less creepy.

Evan Dawson-Baglien said...

When I hear the name "Bella Thorne" all I can think about is the Bel Thorne, the hermaphroditic starship officer from the Miles Vorkosigan novels. I'm sure the similarity in the names is a coincidence, as the first novel Bel Thorne was in came out in 1986.