30 January 2008

Back from Vegas again

I spent the weekend in Las Vegas for my birthday, staying at the Imperial Palace. The accommodations were fine, considering the age of the hotel, and you can’t beat that “center strip” location, with Caesar’s Palace, the Venetian, Harrah’s, and the Flamingo all within short walking distance. Imperial Palace itself has only a decent casino with poor ventilation that makes the smoky atmosphere harder to take, but their population of “dealertainers” (celebrity impersonators who work as dealers at a central pit) is amusing for a stretch, and it did allow me to see a performance from an Elvis impersonator, which makes any Las Vegas trip complete. Imperial Palace also lifted thirty bucks off me at craps, not a bad loss when compared to the $200+ my father lost at the same table.

The trip had a thrilling start, since we arrived on January 25th, the day a fire started in the Monte Carlo Hotel. The top floors caught on fire and the entire hotel was evacuated. No one was killed, but as of this writing the hotel remains closed (all the guests were moved to the Monte Carlo’s sister resorts of the Mirage and Treasure Island). Coming in on a taxi from the airport, we were treated to the grisly view of the burned upper floors of the hotel, which looks like a giant monster took an enormous bite out of the structure. Our taxi driver thought it was amusing that the fire took out the luxury and expensive rooms of the hotel. Here’s a time when the cheap seats are actually much safer.

I gambled very little, in general. I’m not much of a gambler, although I find the games and the odds interesting. But I don’t like losing money, and if you gamble long enough you will lose money. I might drop a few twenties in poker machines during a trip to Vegas, and play a table game with low enough minimums once (craps on this trip, because I never found a decent blackjack table), but that’s my limit. I played some slots at Bill’s Gambling Hall & Saloon (the former Barbary Coast) and did well, and enjoyed the “100 Hand” poker machines at the Venetian, which let you get a lot of time for your money. Just hanging out in the beauty of the Venetian is worth it—that’s my favorite of the big resort hotels.

Friday night I went to the main nightclub at Caesar’s Palace with my friend Maja, Pure. This is one of Vegas’s prime nightspots, and apparently makes the tabloid news regularly because of its celebrity patrons. I say ‘apparently,’ because I never pay attention to that sort of gossipy sludge. Nightclubs aren’t my scene, and the crazy Mammon-obsessed Las Vegas versions are really not my scene: velvet ropes, hour-long wait while the “VIPs” waltz let right in, surly bouncers who expect to be bribed, discriminatory policies (women free, men pay $30), and a million extra ways to fleece money off customer once they are inside. The concept of Customer Service simply is not in the vocabulary of nightclubs. However, I still had a good time: it was my birthday, I just relaxed and enjoyed this rare occurrence of nightclub life in the city with no memory. Maja and I started to dance in one of the rooms, and people walked up to us to ask if we were professional dancers. No, but we play them in nightclubs.

Saturday night we saw Penn & Teller at the Rio. This was the first time I visited the Rio, and unfortunately the line was too long for their famous Carnival World Buffet. I enjoyed the show—I’m a long-time Penn & Teller fan—especially a gag involving knife throwing that isn’t actually a trick but a deception pulled on one audience member for the enjoyment of the rest of the audience. I would tell you more, but Penn threatened all of us not to tell. He’s a big guy who can juggle broken bottles, so I’m going to obey his orders here. Teller pulled a great stunt involving goldfish and also performed his classic “Shadows” illusion where he cuts the roses from a shadow of a rose plant, causing the roses to fall from the actual plant as well. Penn did some mentalist stunts, and of course took time to explain to the audience that anyone who claims psychic powers is only indulging in the same sort of trickery. The show concluded with their signature “bullet catch” trick, which completely baffles me. I can conceive of ways that most tricks can be done, but not this one.

Coming home on Sunday ended up a prolonged affair when poor weather across the country caused massive delays. Our flight ended up leaving at 11 p.m., when it was originally skedded for 7:30 p.m. The airport was insanely crowded and uncomfortable, and not the best place to spend a long delay. Maja and I, however, started practiced dancing and ended up teaching dancing to a crowd of junior high school girls coming home from a soccer tournament.

So I’ve taken two trips to Vegas in five months. That ought to hold me until… well, the Lindy Exchange in October.

24 January 2008

Reminiscence on Rambo

I’ll be in the Las Vegas this weekend, so I won’t be around to see Rambo in the theaters. You may wonder why I would want to see it all. I’m not a Rambo fan, but the character’s history has always intrigued me, and he came from good stock. Regardless of what we may think of the “Rambo” series overall, the original First Blood (from my beloved 1982) was a very good movie, based on an even greater book. If you’ve never read David Morrell’s First Blood, it’s high on my recommend list; if you only know Rambo from the movies, the book will shock you.

I barely remember Rambo III from 1988, except that Stallone got in a stick fight, went to Afghanistan (apparently to help the rebels who became the Taliban—spooky), and drove a tank into a helicopter. I’ve seen the other two films multiple times. First Blood continues to be powerful movie, and hasn’t aged poorly at all considering the subject matter of a returned Vietnam vet. Morrell had imagined the story through the lens of the classic Western, where the vet comes back home as “the baddest gun in the West,” and I think that contributes to the timelessness of the film. Rambo: First Blood, Part II, on the other hand, is a pure World War II-era propaganda flick set against the backdrop of recent politics. It’s a Reagan ‘80s museum piece—but that’s why I like it. Macho, brainless, posturing, reactionary, but so undeniably itself that it is impossible not to enjoy the big loud dumb thing. The Russian villain played by Steven Berkoff (a duplicate of the character he played two years earlier in Octopussy) is such an outrageous stereotype that you have to love him. Rambo’s constant monosyllabic overkill turns into weird art. The action is nonstop, and reminds you of the days when videogames weren’t sophisticated enough to warrant comparisons to action movies. Its cheese to the nth degree, but it sure won’t bore you.

Now we have a fourth film, with the confusing title Rambo. The title inconsistency on this series is bizarre, starting with First Blood, changing to the logical Rambo: First Blood, Part II, but then jumping to Rambo III even though there’s technically no Rambo II, and then just using Rambo even though there already is a film with that title, but not using the First Blood subtitle. To be strictly true, the new film’s title should be Rambo III: First Blood, Part IV. Or maybe Rambo: First Blood, Part II, Part III, this being the third part of the second movie, or… oh forget it.

What was I saying? We have a fourth film, and even if it is an insulting over-the-top piece of dreck, I’m interested in seeing what Rambo has to say to us twenty years after he last appeared. It’s also interesting to see what Sylvester Stallone has to say about him, since this is the first of the movies he directed himself. I should also mention my interest in the Burmese setting because of my late grandmother’s background there.

One key player in the Rambo mythos is gone, however. Jerry Goldsmith scored the first three films—superbly—but he died in 2004. Brian Tyler, who ironically replaced Goldsmith’s music on one of his last films, Timeline, when Goldsmith was too ill to continue with a re-score, provides the music this time out. It just won’t be the same without Goldsmith’s magnificently gritty and recognizable music style. Perhaps Tyler’s score will reference the piece “It’s a Long Road,” which Goldsmith used in all three of the ealier films.

23 January 2008

Aftermath of Heath Ledger

The shock is over, and now we have to accept the facts: Heath Ledger is dead at 28.

The first hours after the news broke were filled with journalistic misinformation as people scrabbled to know “why” and “how.” Pills were found scattered around his body. False. He was discovered dead in an apartment owned by Mary-Kate Olsen. False. Police suspect suicide. False. The only 100% certainty is that Heath Ledger is gone, his promising career ended, and his two-year-old daughter Matilda will have to grow up without a father. Horribly sad.

And what does this all mean to me, personally? I didn’t know Heath Ledger, never met him, never knew anybody who knew him. To me, he was an actor, a person who appears on a screen to provide dramatic entertainment. I also don’t follow celebrity gossip or care one bit about the personal lives of the stars. I knew Ledger was involved with actress Michelle Williams only because they showed up to the Oscars together the year he was nominated for Best Actor for Brokeback Mountain. But his death has had a strong effect on me for a very simple reason: Batman.

I have invested a lot of interest in the upcoming The Dark Knight because I’m a Batman fan and I loved Batman Begins. I kept close watch on the casting of the Joker, the new film’s pivotal role. Once Ledger was cast, I was personally invested in his acting career, and the more hints I saw about his performance, the more thrilled I became about it. Suddenly, Heath Ledger was one of my favorite actors—and I already knew he was one of the bright young stars in a business that sure could use a couple more like him.

Jett, in his eulogy for Heath Ledger at Batman-on-Film, nicely summarized the fan attachment to the actor:
I didn’t know Heath Ledger, but I know the character he plays in The Dark Knight very well. It’s a character near and dear to my heart, and because of that, Heath Ledger became near and dear to my heart. That’s how it is with fans.
True, that is exactly how it is with fans. But yet I will admit that when Ledger first started appearing in films, I didn’t think that much of him. His first U.S. film was 10 Things I Hate about You, a teen revision of The Taming of the Shrew. A decent film for what it is, but to me Heath Ledger was just heartthrob-import-of-the-month for the teen girls to swoon over. My opinion didn’t change much with The Patriot and A Knight’s Tale. Ledger himself has commented that he got shoved into these leading man roles before he had a chance to grow as an actor, and I think he does look a bit bewildered in these parts.

But then something happened. He started to make savvy choices to avoid ‘pretty boy’ roles and play up dramatic possibilities. And then along came Brokeback Mountain, where I was stunned at how great a performance he turned in. I can’t fault Philip Seymour Hoffman for winning Best Actor that year, but I think Ledger turned in the superior performance and should have gone home with the golden statue.

Even considering Ledger’s new acting credentials, my initial reaction to his casting as the Joker was a touch skeptical. I wasn’t alone; many other Bat-fans were confused. Ledger wasn’t on any of the lists of possible actors for the role. But after a minute of thinking about it, I decided that 1) I trust director Christopher Nolan to make the right casting choice, and 2) Heath Ledger’s Joker would at least be something different.

In the months since, Ledger has done the incredible feat of making the role his own, and the film hasn’t even come out yet. The people who predicted that Daniel Craig would be the best Bond ever before Casino Royale came out were jumping the gun (and ended up wrong), but I think with the Ledger-Joker I am on pretty safe ground in saying that it will be freakin’ amazing! The trailer released in December was all I needed to know: this guy was going to blow the roof off the theaters in July when he plays the the Clown Prince of Crime! After seeing the trailer, I was more psyched than ever to see this film.

And now… with six months left before the film comes out… Heath Ledger is dead.

Is it no wonder I feel a mixture of sadness and apprehension when I think about The Dark Knight now?

I still eagerly anticipate the film. I know it will be incredible. But it will have a strange resonance now, knowing that whatever crazy brilliance Heath Ledger puts on screen will be the last performance we ever see from him.

22 January 2008

Heath Ledger is dead?

I am completely stunned. Shocked speechless.

No way, this didn't happen. No way. It's gotta be a prank by the Joker. No way...

No way is Heath Ledger dead!

But... he is.

This is horrible. Such a promising young actor.

Now when we see The Dark Knight this summer, it will be morbid in a way no one could have forseen.

Condolences to his friends and family.

Academy Award Nominations... I guess

I have to say somethng about the Academy Award nominations, which were announced today. But for the first time in many years, I'm not that interested in them. Perhaps it's because I think the ceremony will be canceled due to the writers' strike, or because I wasn't that thrilled with the crop of films at the end of the year, or because I spent more time at the close of 2007 reading and working on writing projects. I've only seen one of the nominated films, Michael Clayton. I do want to see Juno. Perhaps I'll see some of the others. But there's so much else to work on right now and events that demand my attention that the Oscars just aren't a priority.

21 January 2008

The greatness of 1982

When Ain’t-It-Cool-News did a retrospective on the year 1982 as the “Best Genre Year,” I remember thinking, “Yes! Finally somebody gets it!” I’ve always looked back on this year fondly, since it contains some of my favorite films of childhood (I was nine and just becoming a regular movie watcher) and many films that would become favorites as an adult.

Just at a glance, look how many gems came out in 1982: Poltergeist, Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Crystal, First Blood, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, The Thing, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Road Warrior, The Secret of NIMH, Tron, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Man from Snowy River.

The only thing 1982 didn’t have was a James Bond film.

Looking at the list, I’m astonished how many of these films had, or would later have, a major effect me.

Tron: On just the basis of effects alone, the most important film of the year. The CGI revolution started here. But also a movie that defined the new computer generation, an expression of the Internet culture that now rules the world. This blog itself is a growth of that. Key line: “This isn’t happening. It only thinks it’s happening.”

Blade Runner: Like Tron, it was not a success at the time, for it was too far ahead of what people expected from futurism. (Wow, an odd phrase now that I think of it.) A foundational work of cyberpunk, and one of the most literate science fiction films ever made. It would take years to finally get the director’s true vision on video, but it was worth it. Key line: “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

The Secret of NIMH: The favorite movie of my childhood. I obsessed about it so much as a nine-year-old that it annoyed my parents. They had no idea how many other fannish things I would obsess over in the coming years, so this was really just “training.” Although I can now objectively critique the movie—it has its flaws—I still think it’s the best animated film of its decade, and it’s a frequently dark and frightening tale that dodges many clichés of “family” animated movies. Key line: “None of the girls I meet want to get serious.”

Conan the Barbarian: ‘Cuz this how I first heard about this Robert E. Howard fella. This would really screw me up later. Key line: “Let someone else pass in the night.”

Poltergeist: E. T. made more money, but the other Spielberg project of the year ended up the long-run cultural winner. A genuinely great way to make a modern haunted house story, even if it goes somewhat illogically over the top in the finale. Key line: “Go into the light!”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Is this the high point of the franchise? Not only is it great Trek, it’s plain great science fiction all around. Key line: “You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I am and ever shall be yours.”

The Dark Crystal: I adore the Muppets and the spirit and humor that Jim Henson put into them, but I think this serious fantasy story is his masterpiece (and Frank Oz’s, who co-directed). Another movie that had a tremendous effect on me when I first saw it in the theater, its imagery has remained with me. Henson’s early death was a great blow to my childhood memories. Seventeen years later I still can’t believe he’s gone. Key line: “She is part of you, just as we are all a part of each other.”

I might go into deeper detail on each of these films later… the year’s films certainly deserve deeper attention.

End of Line, Time to Die, Go Into the Light, KHAAAAAAAAAAN!

20 January 2008


Cloverfield (2008)
Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Michael Stahl-David, T. J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel.

What kind of camera is the POV character in Cloverfield using? It’s indestructible! The military should forget about all their heavy weapons trying to halt the monster—they should just use that camera!

Tired as everyone may be of hearing about how Cloverfield mixes Godzilla and The Blair Witch Project, those two films were unambiguously on the filmmakers’s minds. The Blair Witch Project comparisons are numerous, with indentical structure and finale. The only difference is Cloverfield has a giant monster. That, to my mind, makes it the superior film.

Cloverfield is a fine, intense time in the theater. “Intense” is the operative word, since the moment the film ended someone in the back of the theater where I was seeing the film shouted “intense!” See, you don’t have to take my word for it.

Getting on to the more cerebral part of the review… Cloverfield restores some of the power and dignity to the giant monster flick that the horrendous American version of Godzilla, which has nothing to do with Godzilla in any meaningful way, utterly trashed. At their best, giant monster films combine outrageous and eye-popping fantasy excitement with a broad-use metaphor. Cloverfield is an Ishiro Honda film imagined for the world of YouTube and paranoia about urban disasters. It doesn’t harp on post-Katrina, post-SARS, and post-9/11 comparisons—that might get in the way of the B-movie enjoyment—but at least it lets you make the connections yourself if they make the film a better experience for you.

The story involving a coterie of young Mahattanites trying to survive the assault on the city by a really big nasty thing (that’s actually how the characters describe it; nobody wants to use the word “monster” for some reason) provides enough motivation to drive our heroes through the nightmare without getting sentimental or letting character moments get obtrusive. The screenplay and the performances remain invisible, and only in rare cases does the artifice of the presentation come through. The cast of unknowns helps sell the realism.

And then there's the monster. Yes, we do get to see it. Get to see it rather close, at one point. Even though shots linger on it, it’s still hard to make out its bizarre shape. It has spindly legs and an enormous tail, an all-over fleshy appearance, and a strange-shaped maw. It isn’t a awesome monster, and it lacks the beauty of many a classic kaiju, but it does manage to act pretty scary as it levels most of Manhattan. Scarier are the “lice” creatures that fall from it and which look like rejected beasties from the spider-pit sequence in Peter Jackson’s King Kong or extra-sized face-huggers from Alien. These critters appear to be a direct borrowing from The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985), where radiated sea lice from Godzilla’s body kill the crew members of a boat that witnessed the monster’s rebirth.

Fitting its documentary approach, Cloverfield has no music score. Songs play in the background of the going-away party at the opening, but otherwise the only music runs over the end credits. But what a great piece it is! Michael Giacchino, who has collaborated before with producer J. J. Abrams and who penned the killer score for The Incredibles, delivers an old-fashioned 1950s overture (called “Roar!” in the credits) with thundering military themes and a wordless wailing female chorus. It is the most unlikely choice for a post-modern monster movie—and that’s why it works so well. Great job Michael, and I can’t wait to hear what you do for Star Trek in December. (Update: Uh, make that next summer. And his score is a major disappointment.)

A special warning: If you have a problem with motion sickness, you might want to skip the theatrical showings and wait for the DVD. That way you can hurl in the privacy of your own home… because this movie will make you sick from the uncontrolled camera movements.

Although this “leaked” image below of the monster is a hoax (and was specifically revealed as such before the movie opened), I would just like to say how cool I think it looks. It’s a perfect homage to a classic Japanese “suitmation” monster, and I would love to see this thing appear in a movie as well. Maybe in a Cloverfield sequel, the two monsters get in a great kaiju smack-down?

18 January 2008

Print on-demand does have some downsides

Print on-demand publishers have the advantage of keeping “in print” older books that other publishers wouldn’t choose to invest in. However, on-demand publication has to sacrifice some of the aesthetics of book-making… cover and interior design.

For example, today I received in the mail a new copy of Michael Strogoff. One of Jules Verne’s most respected novels in France, it is seldom read in the U.S. The cover leaves something to be desired:
A generic cover for books from 1stworldlibrary. The back is also generic, and explains nothing about the book, only information on the publisher:
The inernal text contains some oddities as well. Straight ("") quotes are used rather than smart quotes (“”), as you would expect in most books; double-spacing between paragraphs with no first line indents; and a strange border around the page:
No, not an elegant edition. But at least I can hold a bound edition of Michael Strogoff in my hands and file it on my shelf, rather than printing it myself from the Project Gutenberg version.

Update: Read my review of the novel.

Hope for Cloverfield

The reviews for Cloverfield are stronger than I anticipated. The last movie with a unique viral marketing campaign, Snakes on a Plane, seriously underperformed, and I thought that Cloverfield might follow suit. But the critics seem to be enjoying the new film from producer J. J. Abrams, based on the current summary from RottenTomatoes.com.

However, I planned to see Cloverfield from the time it was a title-less project designated only by its release date, 1-18-08. The potential quality of the film didn't matter. All I needed to know were two words: "Giant Monster."

Although Cloverfield has made an issue of its cinema-verite stylings, and all the critics have used the handy label of Blair Witch Meets Godzilla, when you come right down to it this is still a kaiju movie: a big mosnter smashes a city. I don't need any other reason to go see it. J. J. Abrams doesn't need to convince me that the film takes a new slant on the old genre. Reviews don't need to tell me that it uses post-9/11 fears to delve back into the terror that the Japanese originally found in radioactive metaphor of the 1954 Godzilla. I'll deal with all those issues when I see the movie and blab about it on this blog. But as far as luring me into the theater...

All I need...



I'm a complex man. But not when it comes to big damn monsters. I like 'em. Don't need an excuse. Giant monsters are their own reward. Here's wishing we could all be a little bit more like them.

I yield the remainder of my time.

Thoughts on A Clash of the Titans redux

An announcement came in December that Stephen Norrington (Blade, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is attached to helm a propsed remake of the 1981 fantasy film Clash of the Titans, with a script from Lawrence Kasdan.

I don’t understand this—the need to use the name Clash of the Titans. Why not just create a new version of the Perseus vs. Medusa myth? The original film is inextricably linked with special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen and his stop-motion monster effects. Clash of the Titans is a “Ray Harryhausen” film, and a remake using CGI effects will not be Clash of the Titans, but a new version of the original myth. Except for name recognition among Harryhausen fans like myself and the original's enormous Gen-X appeal, calling the new movie Clash of the Titans is deceptive. Just title it Quest of the Gorgon or Legend of Perseus or one of a hundred other appealing possibilities.

I am all for a new mythological adventure movie. I’ve loved Greek myths since I was in second grade (actually, since seeing Clash of the Titans; I owe the film a lot and I told Mr. Harryhausen as much when I met him once at a signing). I also I think that Norrington is a fine choice for director; I thoroughly enjoy The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in spite of the critical and fan-trashing it received back in 2003. But I believe the original Harryhausen classic—his swan song before retirement—should be respected and left alone, and any new version of the myth of Perseus needs to distance itself from the legacy of its masterful creator to make its own identity.

17 January 2008

Warner Bros. heroically takes down Justice League

Finally! Warner Bros. pulled the plug on the live-action Justice League film. Or, in more precise language, the studio put the superhero adaptation on “indefinite hiatus.”

From the start, this project was a bad idea and destined for getting axed. And not just because of the Writers’ strike. It simply was a case of poor timing and poor decisions. Rushing a major project like Justice League is an easy way to make a lousy movie, and that would taint all of DC Comics’ potential film properties. The Batman franchise is back with a vengeance, and there’s still a strong possibility for more Superman (hopefully better Superman)—why derail both by having different renditions of the characters appear in a hastily-made sideline project? And Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman could all support their own movies, and slapping them into a Justice League pic could damage that potential.

On top of this all, director George Miller’s casting choices weren’t getting anyone excited: a pack of young, mostly unknowns guaranteed to put the comic book pundits into cryogenic sleep. Warner Bros. could see the flop a’ coming, a black stain on other potential franchises, so they finally did what I saw coming back in November… they disbanded the league

The Dark Knight is safe now. Christian Bale is the only actor playing Batman, and that’s the way all of us fans like it. Please, DC and Warner Bros., keep up this attitude and let director Christopher Nolan complete his Batman trilogy before you introduce any other live-action takes on the character. And I would like to see Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman in their own movies, and Superman needs a second shot. (Can he please fight a super-powered opponent this time?)

I’d like to see a Justice League movie one day. But not now, not under these conditions.

Update: Looks like Jett over at the venerable Batman-on-Film is in total agreement. Tell me Jett, why so serious? HAHAHAHAHAHA!

16 January 2008

When a translation is not a translation

Having to read a book in translation is rotten. But you can’t know every language in the world, so sometimes you must settle for a mediator—and hope he or she manages to do justice to the original.

With older books, there’s often a bewildering variety of translations available, and that places the reader in a bind: which one to choose? The story will be the same, the general words the same, but a bad translation can change the entire feel of book.

Watch out, I’m going to talk about Jules Verne again.

Verne suffers from some creaky English translations that have infected book shelves since the days of Queen Victoria. New versions are finally getting out there, but the cobwebby translations refuse to go away. A good rule of thumb is to stick to the more scholarly looking versions from reputable publishers of classics, like Penguin and the Oxford World’s Classic series. For most Verne books, look for William Butcher’s translations. For Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, the restored and annotated version from the Naval Institute Press with a translation by Walter James Miller and Frederick Walter Paul is a major revelation. Avoid “bargain” copies or omnibuses, which often stick to Victorian translations that are not only outdated and flat-out incorrect, but that often shave off a quarter of the original manuscript.

But be especially careful about Journey to the Center of the Earth. Allow me to elucidate the dilemma around this classic.

For your perusal, here is a comparison of the first paragraph of the novel as it appears in some of the most commonly available translations. I’ll start with Verne’s actual French text to Voyage au Centre de la Terre as it appeared on original publication:
Le 24 mai 1863, un dimanche, mon oncle, le professeur Lidenbrock, revint précipitamment vers sa petite maison située au numéro 19 de König-strasse, l'une des plus anciennes rues du vieux quartier de Hambourg.
Our first Anglicization is the earliest one available in the public domain, done by Frederick Amadeus Malleson for publishers Ward, Lock, & Co., Ltd., London, in 1877, and published under the title Journey to the Interior of the Earth:
On the 24th of May, 1863, my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, rushed into his little house, No. 19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the oldest portion of the city of Hamburg.
I wonder why he dropped un dimanche, “a Sunday” from the date. I’m not fond of that double “oldest” either, since anciennes and vieux aren’t exact synonyms. Lidenbrock also “rushes” into his house, instead of “rushing back toward(s)” as the French indicates. And why does Malleson feel it necessary to identify it as “the city of Hamburg”? I think the suffix “-burg” sort of tells that on its own, and Hamburg is a well-known German city.

Some of these problems disappear as we move forward to the 1965 translation of that same paragraph by Robert Baldick, which appears in Penguin editions. This is the translation I first read in elementary school.
On 24 May 1863, which was a Sunday, my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, came rushing back toward his little house, No. 19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the old quarter of Hamburg.
Baldick has found the words missing from the earlier translation: “Sunday” and “rushing back toward.” There is still the double “old,” although now it’s “oldest” and “old,” which isn’t so obvious. Also, Verne’s French just says “a Sunday,” not “which was a Sunday.” I think it’s interesting that Baldick uses the American “toward” instead of the British “towards.”

Next, the the Oxford World’s Classics translation (using the very British “Centre” in its title) from William Butcher, the most recently published version to receive wide distribution:
On 24 May 1863, a Sunday, my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, came rushing back towards his little house at No. 19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the historic part of Hamburg.
This is why I like Butcher’s translations so much. He gets all the French literally right, keeps Verne’s word flow, and makes it sound crisp and readable in English. The contrast of “oldest streets” to “historic part” is right on the money, and it conjures up a far more vivid portrait than the “old quarter/oldest portion.”

And finally, another translation of this paragraph commonly found in modern paperbacks (such as Signet’s):
Looking back to all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures. They were truly so wonderful that even now I am bewildered when I think of them.
Hey, wait a minute! What in tarnation is this? That doesn’t sound like the other three translations. And you don’t have to know any French at all to figure out that it doesn’t match the original. It doesn’t even sound like Verne; it’s sort of “gee whiz” dopey. What in the . . . ?

Dear gods of high Olympus, it’s the “Hardwigg” version of the novel, still available on bookstore and library shelves to confuse poor readers into thinking they are actually reading Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. They aren’t; they are reading a complete revision of story. Same plot, mostly different text, and with the characters’ names changed. (“Lidenbrock” is now “Hardwigg.”) And I guarantee that the blurb on the book cover and introduction won’t bring up this unpleasant fact.

I first came across this version in a book store soon after I re-read the novel. I plucked up the Signet edition to see how its translation compared to the one I had read. I was curious because I had only recently become aware of the need for new “ground-up” English versions of Verne to replace the stodgy older ones, and I wanted to know if some of the mass market editions still had out-of-date translations. I discovered that the Signet edition seemed to have nothing to do with the one I had read. It couldn’t be translation error—the two editions had to to come from completely different sources. So which was one was correct?

I soon found out that I had, fortunately, read the correct version. Signet—and other publishers—for some reason were still using the 1871 Griffith & Farrar re-write of the book for English-speaking audiences. This re-write has been reprinted so many times with Verne’s name slapped on it that it still sits out there to lure the unsuspecting to it. Why do publishers keep putting it out there? Do they perhaps not know that it isn’t Jules Verne’s novel?

So if you ever buy a copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth, check the first paragraph before you lay your money down. If it mentions Hamburg, Prof. Lidenbrock, and Königstrasse—good. If not—bad. (Of course, with an actual translation, you’re still at the mercy of the skill of the translator. But at least he or she is looking at Verne’s writing.)

15 January 2008

Why so much Jules Verne

Welcome to the All-Jules Verne, All the Time blog.

No, not really, but you might wonder at the preponderance of posts about M. Verne that have cropped up at the beginning of the year. I’m on a bit of a Verne-reading binge right now to inaugurate my official 2008 Reading Season, but there’s more to my blog’s current “Vernicity” right now than just that. There’s some philosophy behind it as well.

Almost everyone has read Jules Verne at some point; he’s easily the most read French author in English, and probably around the world. You did a book report on him in sixth grade, I know you did. You’ve seen the Walt Disney 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. You know that he’s one of the three “Fathers” of science fiction. (Can you name the other two?*) and had a monumental impact on the genre.

But I think that Verne is also an author that we take for granted, and it’s probably because the last time most folks picked up one of his books was in elementary or middle school. There’s a tendency to think of Verne as a children’s author. Because he was a progenitor of a major popular genre, people also tend to see him as a gateway to more mature work. Once you’ve got Verne out of the way, you can “get on” with the science fiction that followed him, and you don’t come back to him or explore his non-genre work.

Children do often enjoy Verne, and it’s wonderful that a French Victorian writer of travelogue novels has such appeal to the young. But that doesn’t make Verne specifically a children’s author. And his work is not lesser because it was the first of its kind. The style of the Victorian novel is long out-of-fashion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t comparable on the level playing field of literature. In fact, Verne’s more ‘quaint’ techniques, like using an authorial third person voice and halting the story to give a lecture about tropical fish or the fascinating religious customs of an African nation, have a tremendous appeal to me because they could not be done today without painful irony and critics screaming “infodump!” (the hobgoblin of all SF workshops). Reading one of Verne’s infodump chapters is a thrilling experience, much like listening to a chummy and friendly high school teacher who knows how to make learning fun.

And that’s why I’m giving Verne plenty of love right now… he’s taken too much for granted in Western literature even though we know how superb he is and his importance to genre writing. Our culture embraces so much that’s mediocre and brain-dead, but we still read Jules Verne, and it would be great if we would acknowledge that occasionally and say, “This Jules bloke is one amazing entertainer.”

So skip tonight’s American Idol. Ephemeral pop, soon gone. Read some Jules Verne instead. You know you want to.

*H. G. Wells and publisher Hugo Gernsback. “Fathers of Science Fiction” isn’t an official designation of course, but these are the three most often mentioned.

Look Kids, It’s a Watermill Classic!

Here’s the awesome Jules Verne quote of the day:
“Nothing is impossible, Mr. Ward; what we face here is merely a question of expense.”
This is closely paraphrased in the film version of The Prestige, from the mouth of Nikola Tesla (David Bowie): “Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you ask is simply expensive.”

The Verne quote comes from the second chapter of Maître du Monde, known to us English speakers as Master of the World (or The Master of the World; I don’t understand why some translations choose to slap on a definite article where none exists in the French original). Published in 1904, it is the eighteen-years-later sequel to the Verne novel I just completed, Robur the Conqueror.

I originally planned to read Master of the World in the plain-text version from Project Gutenberg, but then I found online at ABE Books an inexpensive paperback version from the 1980s. And it wasn’t just any ol’ paperback, but a “Watermill Classic,” a publisher of which I have fond elementary school memories. Watermill Classics were inexpensively produced editions of classic literature often read by juvenile readers and found on many a school room’s bookshelf, in the school’s library, or at the monthly book fair. They were unassuming editions, with a solid color cover, unimpressive illustration (the one for Master of the World doesn’t match the events at all and seems like a space opera), and identical fonts. No introductions or notes, just the text. I first read The War of the Worlds, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, and Alice in Wonderland in Watermill Classic paperbacks when I was in fifth grade, so even if they aren’t eye-popping critical editions, they have immense nostalgia value for me.

And as far as Master of the World goes, there aren’t that many paperback editions from which to choose!

13 January 2008

Clark Ashton Smith's birthday

Today is Clark Ashton Smith’s birthday! Had the grand old man of weird fantasy stories been alive, he would have reached the Malygris-like age of 115 today. Doubtless, on some other planet, he turned 4 million years old today—surviving as an animate, verdigris-encrusted mummy with necromantic powers. He would have loved it.

12 January 2008

Robur the Conqueror

Robur the Conqueror
by Jules Verne (1886)

As I began reading Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror (a.k.a. The Clipper of the Clouds; A Trip around the World in a Flying Machine), I found it impossible not to make comparisons between it and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. The plots are nearly identical, only the individual elements have changed. The first chapter details mysterious sightings across the world that suggest a strange animal or unusual phenomenon. One scholar suggests it is a vehicle, but nobody buys into that. Then two men and a servant are abducted by the mystery object, which is a vehicle. A trip around the world begins, and the three prisoners wonder about the enigmatic nature of the chilly genius at the helm of the great vehicle.

The difference? Switch the submarine the Nautilis for the propeller-driven airship the Albatross. Change the names. Make the servant character an unfortunately stereotyped black man. And there you have it: Robur the Conqueror.

Oh, you’ll also have to drain much of the intense mystery and suspense. Robur the Conqueror is an enjoyable piece of Victorian steampunk fantasy, but it can’t compete with Twenty Thousand Leagues. Robur lacks Nemo’s charisma, and his mystery feels shallow in comparison. Robur doesn’t have the obsessive quest of Captain Nemo, only a megalomania to fly around the world and look impressive. He does look impressive—the Albatross is boss—but he can’t back up his inventiveness with the force of personality.

The racist attitudes around the black servant, Frycollin, are upsetting to discover in Verne, and I would wager that the reason Robur the Conqueror shows up infrequently today has to do with this. Modern readers are used to viewing the great Frenchman as a progressive thinker, far ahead of his time; but this stereotypical racism reminds us that Verne was still mired in the society of his day. (He also politically took a very conservative turn at the end of his life.) H. G. Wells was the master of the sociologically forward-looking science fiction, but Verne here exercises technological innovation only. Frycollin is portrayed as simple-minded and a coward, and the relentless “comic relief” at his expense won’t sit well with anybody except klansmen. (And they aren't going to read anything by a Frenchman, for pity’s sake. I doubt they’ve progressed pass second grade reading level anyway.)

The two "heroes," Uncles Prudent and Phil Evans, have a cavalier attitude toward Frycollin's life as well—although here are least Verne pops in some of his dry cynical humor:
“And Frycollin,” said Phil Evans, “have we the right to dispose of his life?”

“He must die with the others,” responded Uncle Prudent.

Frycollin would doubtless have styled this reasoning defective.
Really, ya' think?

The Albatross is an irresistibly cool invention, however. It's an ideal example of how Verne could foreshadow the technology of the future, and yet create a strange and uniquely Victorian rendition of it that retains its charm long after the innovations have become commonplace. Most of Verne's "scientific marvels" are speciously uninteresting today: an airplane, a submarine, a rocket to the Moon, a fast boat. But his sense of awe in these inventions and their period idiosyncrasies still can inflame the imagination. The Albatross is a massive ship shaped like an aquatic clipper made from hydraulically pressurized paper (?) that keeps afloat by masts topped with propellers both above and below, and is powered on an electric turbine. Robur can send it down from the clouds close enough to harpoon a whale or disrupt a savage sacrificial ceremony. Verne explains all this in detail in a chapter hilariously titled: "A Chapter Which Both Scientists and Dunces Had Better Omit." Because it won't make sense to either. For the rest of us, it sounds nifty and we'll just go with it.

What exactly Robur plans to do with the power that his magisterial galley bestows on him isn't made clear, but perhaps that will wait until the sequel, Master of the World, written almost twenty years later. Here Verne leaves Robur as a symbol of science too advanced for the minds of the day to grasp, both the promise of the future and the menace of the future:
“My experiment is premature. Science should not precede the mental capacities of the times. There should be evolution, not revolution. I have come too soon and find that the time is not yet ripe for my work. I therefore take my leave of you, and I bear my secret with me. But it will not be lost to humanity. It will be found when the world is wise enough to profit by it and prudent enough never to abuse it.”
* * *
The future of aerial locomotion belongs to the air-ship and not to the balloon, and it is for the Albatross that the conquest of the air is definitely reserved.
Once again, Verne was dead-on in his prediction. (Goodyear Blimp excepted, of course.)

11 January 2008

Spider-Man breaks up, and I give up

The news has now reached mainstream sources that Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane Watson has come to an end with the conclusion of the "One More Day" crossover event in the Spidey titles. Comic readers have seen this coming for a while. But not only is the marriage over, it never happened. A deal with Mephisto, a sort of Satan stand-in who runs rampant over the Marvel Universe whenever the writers need a supernatural solution to a plot quagmire, to save Peter's Aunt May from mortal injuries sustained from a sniper's bullet requires the utter sacrifice of Peter and M.J.'s nuptials. Now, as many Marvel editors and writers have desired for years, Spidey can fight crime and cope with dating troubles.

I would also like to announce that I no longer currently reading any new superhero comic books. I have given it up. No more, I won't take the pain and disappointment.

This is not a direct reaction to the Peter-M.J. break-up. I haven't been reading new supers comics for a few months, with the exception of Captain America and the MAX Punisher (which isn't part of the mainstream Marvel Universe). I object, strongly, to the end of the marriage: I dislike the tendency in comicdom to destroy marriages, as if somehow heroes can't have dramatic storylines while enjoying nuptial unity. Marvel's Mephisto solution is ridiculous and lazy, and smacks of desperation. I always liked M.J. as a character, and geeky Peter's marriage to her is definitely a fantasy fulfillment. Finally, Peter Parker is a man centered on family, a man who wants to make love work. Put it all together, the break-up emerges as a rotten decision.

But this fiasco isn't the specific reason I've surrendered reading new superhero adventures and instead turned to the collections of back-issues now available in print and on DVD and to more independent comic series in different genres, like The Lone Ranger. The Spider-Man separation is only a single symptom of the general disease of "event" storylines that go for headlines and new readers without providing decent stories or well thought-out drama. Plenty of great writers are working in comics now, but with Marvel and DC hammering one big event after another on the writer and artist teams, like "Civil War" and "Infinite Crisis" and "Back in Black" and etc., no one seems to have a chance at developing momentum and getting some great work put out there.

I hit this "event horizon" once before, in the late 1980s when I was reading comics as a high schooler. A flurry of ludicrous and nonsensical crossovers suddenly made reading about superheroes a chore. And who wants that? I dropped comics, and only came back to them on a regular basis a few years ago. Some energetic work kept me intrigued: the Brubaker Captain America, the interesting start on New Avengers, and a few excellent periods on Batman. But the joy is gone once again, and I found myself dropping more and more titles from my list of must-buys. Spidey and Batman clung on the longest; my affection for the web-slinger is hard to let go, and Batman still had the terrific Paul Dini run on Detective Comics that showed you could still have awesome Bat-tales without tying in to "Crisis Mania."

It doesn't help that the easy access I have to back issues through cheap collections and these addictive DVD sets has made the confused current work look even shoddier. Reading two volumes of the original Moon Knight series is enough to spoil you on anything hitting the stands today. This is some heady, clever stuff, and it doesn't need guest-stars and crossovers with the Hulk trying to conquer the world to make it click. Ditto with those Steve Englehart Captain America issues, and the Batman Chronicles recording the Bat's earliest capers. If only Matt Wagner were allowed to run free with his "Dark Moon Rising" series for Batman, which is probably the best comic line I've read in the last five years, instead of setting up yet another crisis, superheroes might be fun to read again.

Until then, make mine…

Old Marvel, Old DC, and whatever crazy things Dark Horse and Dynamite and Image develop.

Update: Spiderfan.org has an excellent open letter to Marvel regarding the end of Spider-Man's marriage that closely reflects my own opinion.

10 January 2008

Verne ephemera in the clouds

I decided that this year (and please don’t mistake this for a resolution; even if it was, it’s a petty one) I would read a number of Jules Verne’s lesser-known works. Of course I’ve gone through, often more than once, his classics like Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and Around the World in Eighty Days. New translations that have superseded the creaky Victorian ones that have held sway for more than a century have made it invigorating to return to some of these classics many years after I first read them late elementary school. (I believe I first read Twenty Thousand Leagues in fifth grade.) But my few encounters with Verne’s other novels have been very rewarding, and so I want to delve deeper into this obscura.

Verne published an enormous amount of “fantastic travelogues” for publisher Leon Hetzel’s Voyages Extraordinaires series, but only a select few remain widely available in English. More of these rarities are starting to break back into print, but you have to make an effort to find them. A few are even getting new ‘from-the-ground-up’ translations, but for the most part I’ll have to be satisfied with the first—and often only—English translation made back during first publication in the U.K. and the U.S.

Take, for example, the book I started reading last night, Robur the Conqueror. It was first published by Hetzel in 1886 as Robur-le-Conquérant. The initial U.K. edition renamed the book The Clipper of the Clouds, perhaps to make the central conceit of a “flying machine” more obvious. The first U.S. edition, which didn’t come out until 1900, further changed the title to A Trip around the World in a Flying Machine, which not only obsessively nails down the plot for the ignorant reader, but also does homage to the massive success of Around the World in Eighty Days. The recent English print edition that I have (seen to the right) is a cheaply produced paperback from Holland that gives the book the strange cover title of Robur the Conqueror: Master of the World, misleading readers into thinking that it might also contain the later sequel Master of the World. The interior is a facsimile of the 1887 U.K. edition, a bit splotchy to read and suffering from the standard faults of the Victorian English translations (poorly handled colloquial phrases, deletions, measurement inaccuracies). The cover isn’t anything to get excited about: a thick black-and-white illustration of an early aircraft that looks similar to the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk airplane. It comes from the cover of a 192os U.S. edition of the book published by M. A. Donohue. The vehicle isn’t exactly a match for Robur’s magnificent aerial creation. Perhaps the publishers wanted to show Verne’s prophetic powers in predicting the future of air travel lay in heavier-than-air vehicles—but most likely it was an economic decision.

(If you want to read an excellent book that predicts the opposite trend in the future of aeronautics, toward the dominance of lighter-than-air vehicles, please read H. G. Wells’s 1908 work The War in the Air. He got the technology wrong, but his vision of a broad, destructive world war that starts from European colonial ambition is—unfortunately—dead on. Where Verne was the master with tech-prophecy, Wells was dishearteningly accurate about social trends.)

Despite all these deficiencies in the English edition, Verne’s magic still speaks through. When I finish reading the novel, I’ll report back about that.

When I turn to the sequel, Master of the World, I’ll use Project Gutenberg’s online version. I’ve only once before read one of these e-texts in its entirety, but Project Gutenberg’s extensive library of Jules Verne books—all available for free—is too good an opportunity to pass up. And considering the meager quality of my copy of Robur the Conqueror, printing up a vanilla text version of a Verne book and reading it that way will actually be an improvement. (Plus, Verne would have approved of this use of technology.)

Also on my Verne list: Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon and Michael Strogoff.

09 January 2008

The Idiot's Guide to Spelling for Spammers

I wonder…

Do spammers who send out reams of X-rated email enticements have to take special classes to learn how to best misspell terms so that email filters won't catch them? And if they don't, why hasn't someone made a bundle offering such classes?

Like I said, just wondering.

(It has nothing to do with my frustration that these slime balls are getting increasingly good at getting through the filters into my inboxes on both my SBC and Gmail accounts. No, not at all.)

07 January 2008


You didn't think I was going forget about the reviews for One Missed Called, did you?

The inaugural film of 2008 ended up in fifth place with $12 million, which is better than I expected and probably will count as a success. But it still won't impress anybody.

And when the reviews finally came in today (understandably the movie wasn't screened for critics)... ouch! RottenTomatoes currently lists the film with a whopping 0% positive rating. Which means the film has yet to garner a single positive review.

But enough of that. I'm more interested in critic puns based on the film's "glutton for punishment" title. Here are just a few:
"If you missed the first One Missed Call, made in Japan in 2004, you can now miss the American re-make."

"As annoying as a busy signal."

"Give this call a miss."

"One Missed Call is totally disconnected."

"In Missed Call, plot is hopelessly disconnected." [Double-word score!]

"Let this one go to voicemail."
And, of course, the classic no-brainer comeback:
"This call's worth missing."
Note to filmmakers (or the marketing folks who slap on titles): Do not give your critics such potent ammo. They will have their review finished before they see a frame of the film.

WriteRoom experiment

Last week I started to experiment with a word processing program from my Mac OSX called WriteRoom. Over the weekend, I decided to pay out the credits for the registered version (supporting Shareware!) and start using it regularly. I didn't come to the decision easily, but after weight the various pros and cons of the program, I decided to give it a long-term test.

WriteRoom's site describes it as a "full screen writing environment," not strictly a word-processor, "for people who enjoy the simplicity of a typewriter, but live in the digital world." I myself do not 'enjoy' the simplicity of a typewriter; I like typewriters strictly for their nostalgia value, and acknowledge that with computers I can get much more done much more efficiently, especially in the realm of revisions. However, what WriteRoom tries to achieve is a 'no-frills' writing experience where it is only the writer and the words on the page. As the site describes it:

Walk into WriteRoom, and watch your distractions fade away. Now it's just you and your text. WriteRoom is a place where your mind clears and your work gets done. When your writing is complete, exit WriteRoom and re-enter the busy world with your work in hand.
No menus, no pop-ups, no extraenous features. Just you, blank page, and words you put on it. Just prisoners and the worlds they have made. The whole screen fills with the writing environment, rendered in colors that lovingly recall a green monochrome Apple II:

You can manipulate the appearance, of course. I've set mine to appear larger, and made Courier New 12-point the default font (this is the standard fonts for manuscripts, and although it isn't elegant, I've found it reads the easiest on the computer screen: clear, unambigious, uncrowded). You can even change the screen colors, but I wouldn't recommend an orange screen with lavendar letters; the soothing green-on-black is miraculously easy to work with. Documents either save as text or rich-text, and therefore any other word processor can open them.

At first I wasn't sold on WriteRoom because I knew I would have to switch back and forth between it and Microsoft Word, which has essential features I need like page numbers, style types, formatting, etc. Microsoft Word is much easier for doing revisions as well; WriteRoom doesn't skip around documents that well and text manipulation isn't as smooth as Microsoft Word.

However, I did notice a distinct difference when I used WriteRoom to produce first draft work, the part of writing where I'm just hammering down new words. It really is distraction-free, and I found I much more easily entering an ‘author trance’ in the black screen/green words mode. It does have a way of focusing you on nothing other than the words.

So I decided to implement WriteRoom and divide my writing between it and Microsoft Word. For first drafts it's WriteRoom, but then I'll transfer those documents into Word where they will be formatted for printing and revisions. Over the next year I'll see if WriteRoom turns into a benefit or just an interesting idea.

Update: A deeper look at WriteRoom over at Black Gate.

04 January 2008

A false press release for kaiju classics on DVD

This is my attempt to start an Internet rumor. What follows is a lie (although the movies mentioned are real):
Anchor Bay Announces DVD Release of Two 1970s TV Classics

Fans of giant monster movies and '70s nostalgia were given a huge boost today when Anchor Bay announced plans to release on a single DVD two rarely seen television movies that have managed to pick up a cult following despite—or perhaps because of—their rarity.

The two films are The Last Dinosaur and The Bermuda Depths. Both were directed by Tom Kotani and written by William Overgard as part of joint production deal between Rankin/Bass and Japan's Tsubaraya Productions. Although giant monsters are the main feature of the movies, they also have intriguing human action and a cast of solid performers, including Richard Boone, Connie Selleca, Joan van Ark, Carl Weathers, and Burl Ives. The effects work was done by Tsubaraya Productions, which made its name in the 1960s with the hugely popular Ultraman series.

The two films were originally intended for a theatrical release in the U.S., but the changing market for lower-budgeted science fiction moved both to television release on The ABC Movie of the Week. After a few re-runs, both vanished from the airwaves—but left a significant impression on young viewers who had seen them. Many people who were elementary school age when the movies first showed on television can still vividly recall images, plot details, and music, often with a dream-like haze that makes the films even more intriguing. The nostalgic strength of these memories led to campaigns to have the films released on DVD. Anchor Bay has finally responded the demand with plan to manufacture the double-feature DVD.

The Last Dinosaur uses the "hidden prehistoric land" premise of classics such as The Lost World and King Kong. A millionaire and big-game hunter (Richard Boone) rides in a drilling machine into a natural Cretaceous reserve to hunt the Tyrannosaurus-like carnivore that lives there. Bermuda Depths ties romance and supernatural elements into its story of a giant turtle in, obviously, Bermuda.

Anchor Bay also announced that both films will be preserved in their original 1:1.85 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen TV. Although both films skipped theatrical showings in the U.S., they were photographed for 'matted' presentation, and the DVD will reflect this. The disc will contain no extras aside from a handful of contemporary TV spots, but Anchor Bay promises the transfers will be "excellent," taken from original negatives provided by Tsubaraya Productions. Both films are ninety-eight minutes long and easily fit on one layer each, so there will be no compression problems placing both onto a single disc.

Anchor Bay hopes to have the disc on shelves by mid-summer 2008. However, since Ryan made up this whole press release, don't expect it.
Well, I can dream, can't I?

I don't know if I ever saw The Bermuda Depths as a child—but the plot sounds damn interesting. But I definitely know The Last Dinosaur and it has stayed with me for years. I recently saw it on video, and even if the visual effects no longer seem too hot (watch the moment when a boulder strikes the titular dinosaur's head, which then dents in and pops back out) it holds up as a pleasant adventure. I'd love to have it on DVD, and get a chance to watch Bermuda Depths at the same time.

One Missed Call jokes begin

I report with great sorrow that One Missed Call, this week's first epic January Movie!™, was not screened for critics, and therefore we will have to wait until Monday for the flood of negative reviews making bad word plays on the film's title. Standard shock horror movies and January detritus rarely screen for critics, so I saw this coming long before I even knew what was debuting in the first month of the year.

We do have a small trickle of reviews of One Missed Call coming from the few critics who got a peek at it. New Times gives us our first word play: "One Missed Opportunity." And Horror.com bravely pulls out the joke we all know is coming: "This is one call you should definitely miss." So the two big gags are now covered, and nobody else needs to bother reviewing the film.

Ah, the splendor of January at the movies!

02 January 2008

The Bombs of January

I am a fan of January movies. Even though I don't watch them. But every new year I wait in hushed anticipation to see what the major studios will dump out in the first weeks of the month. The holiday rush is over, the deadline for award consideration is passed, so studios do a little "house cleaning" and get the hopeless genre trash off their schedules. What films do they want to forget they ever green-lit?

In 2006 we had the Uwe Boll videogame flick Bloodrayne. Last year we were delivered Cedric the Entertainer (an ironic title if there ever was one) in Code Name: The Cleaner. This year, we get a re-make of a Japanese horror film (what an original concept!), One Missed Call.

I know that One Missed Call is the English title of the original film, but why in the world would Warner Bros. give movie critics such an open opportunity with a title like that? The snarky headlines write themselves: "One Missed Movie!" "The One to Be Missed This January" "If Only the Actors Had Missed Their Call." After all, nobody would name a film Failure to Launch. Oh wait, somebody did? Sheesh, who runs these marketing departments?

Enjoy not seeing One Missed Call this weekend, and get ready next weekend to love not seeing In the Name of the King… Uwe Boll's next gift to January films. It's shaping up to be an awesome January at the movies.

Who shot J. R.? Do you know? Honestly?

Speaking of TV of yesteryear…

While talking to my co-worker Martha this morning, she mentioned an actress on Dallas. Hearing the name of this most legendary of all prime time soaps forced me to ask, almost spontaneously, the question:

“Who shot J. R.?”

Martha didn’t know. I didn't know. It is perhaps the most famous question asked in the history of television (with “When are they going to put on new episodes of Moonlighting?” and “Why did they cancel Battlestar Galactica?” running close), but I had no idea who had actually shot J. R.

Admittedly, I was only seven when the cliffhanger and its resolution aired in 1980, so I wasn’t paying any attention at the time. But with such a crucial pop-culture moment, you would think I would know who was actually unveiled as the shooter who felled J. R. Ewing.

Now I was curious. I went through the office and asked everyone “Who shot J. R.?” Nobody knew. Nobody had any idea. One person unhelpfully suggested “Larry Hagman.” Which would make for a wonderfully trippy resolution: the actor who played J. R. shot J. R.! (The later “it was all a dream!” cliffhanger would instead win the Psychedelic Prize and seal the series’ fate.)

So, it seems that even though the phrase “Who Shot J. R.?” is a pop-culture monolith, the actual perp got away scot-free… because no one remembers who he/she/it is.

For the record, it was Sue Ellen’s sister and J. R.’s mistress Kristen Shepard (played by Mary Crosby). I had to look that up. It didn’t ring any bells. So from now on, IÆm going to claim that Jimmy Hoffa shot J. R. and see if anybody believes me.

01 January 2008

My favorite Star Trek episodes

Here it is, the first blog entry of the new year . . . and I’m going to talk about Star Trek. None of that resolution stuff, or wishes for a great trip around the sun, or reflections about the trip around the sun that was. Nope, I’m going to blab about a forty-year-old television show.

Look, I was going to have to talk about Star Trek at some point on this blog. I’m a speculative-fiction writer, for Odin’s sake.

I am not a “Trekker,” even though using this correct term (instead of the fan-disdained “Trekkie”) marks me as being too aware of fandom to deny a connection to it. But I do like the franchise. I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation regularly in high school, although I lost track of it in college. I never bothered with Voyager or Enterprise, but I came to really love Deep Space Nine from watching the season DVDs. I’ve seen all the movies, and even like some of them. And how can you not love Wrath of Khan?

But the original 1960s show is my favorite incarnation. It was trailblazing in its time, and it still has that feeling today, where the more modern versions have an aura of “comfort” to them. They were made in a time when adult-oriented science fiction was common, where the original show was an oasis in a desert. And there’s an all-or-nothing attitude to the original show (“SCOTTY! WARP FACTOR NINE OR WE'RE ALL DEAD!”) that you just don't find in the cautious programs of latter-day Trek. Maybe you get it a bit in Deep Space Nine with its anger and cynicism, but that’s why I like Deep Space Nine so much. Odo rules. But I digress.

The meat of this post, after making these ridiculous and damning excuses, is a list of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek. I am not going to include “The City on the Edge of Forever” because—well, duh—it is on everybody’s list of favorite Trek episodes. It takes up space for me to slot it in the list, so let's just say that it's one of the best episodes and get on with rest.

In broadcast order, my favorites are:

1. Tomorrow Is Yesterday
The first time-travel episode of the series—we’d see a lot of this in the years to come—and it’s loaded with terrific conundrums for the crew to face. This was the episode that sold me on the show when I was a child; it had me riveted from the beginning. Suddenly, Star Trek wasn't just a silly old program starring a guy with funny ears; it was genuinely great drama.

2. The Space Seed
It resulted in the best of the movies. Ricardo Montalban is the top villain in the franchise. ‘Nuff said.

3. Devil in the Dark
This is writer and producer Gene Coon’s finest hour. Shatner calls it his favorite episode, mostly for personal reasons, but it’s a solid choice. It demonstrates the adult nature of the show that moves past the “find monster and kill it” mentality of earlier filmed science fiction. And Spock gets to play a scene with a rock. Paaaaaaaain!

4. Mirror, Mirror
The crew of the Enterprise—but they’re eeeeeevil! This is an episode you can always get non-Trek fans to watch and guarantee a great time for all. The immense entertainment value aside (agony booth!), this episode’s vision of a Machiavellian Spock is immensely clever and “logical.”

5. The Doomsday Machine
The best action episode of the show, as the Enterprise takes on an invincible device on an endless quest of destruction. The drama aboard the ship is top-notch as well, as Spock must relinquish control to the vengeance crazy Captain Decker, who launches a suicide mission against the machine. As exciting as Trek comes.

6. Wolf in the Fold
This episode scared the hell out of me as a kid, and I still have a great fondness for it. The concept of discovering the entity behind Jack the Ripper is a superb one, even if “body hopping” baddies are an overused concept today. (But check out The Hidden for another fine use of it.)

7. The Enterprise Incident
The third season can’t be considered a complete train-wreck it includes a superb espionage caper like this one. Not only is it packed with suspense and makes the great use of the Romulans and their culture, but it also has an intriguing romance angle for Spock.

8. Specter of the Gun
No one else will agree with my praising this episode so highly, but I can’t help it: I love Westerns, and this surreal version of the Gunfight at the OK-Corral just gets my blood pumping.