28 January 2009

The thrilling first read-through

It’s such a bizarre, surreal, scary, and wonderful experience reading the first draft of one of your own novels for the first time.

Today, a bit less than two months since I wrote THE END on my first draft of Orphans of Fenris, I sat down to read the book. The whole book, all 75,000 words, in one day. I always try to make a time for the first read that will allow me to get through the whole piece in a single day. Normally, I don’t read other books in this fashion—I just don’t usually have the blocks of time sitting around—but with a draft of my own novel, I want to absorb it all in one massive dose. This way, I get the emotional feel of the story, the overall effect, without letting the more nit-picky and critical aspect of my brain start trying to re-write it already. I’ll have plenty of time later to let my editorial brain start to dissect, hack, slash, and re-do. Right now I just want the feeling of the story. What did I end up writing? Is it something like what I set out to write? If it isn’t, do I like the different directions it went? Do particular aspects strike me, certain passages leap out? Does it read fast, do I find myself pulled along?

I felt very unhappy after reading the first draft of the previous novel I had written. This time, I had much different emotions.

I’m pleased to say that I think the first draft of Orphans of Fenris is the best first draft of any novel I’ve written so far. (This, by the way, is the fifth novel I’ve written through to complete first draft.) It has many problems, of course. I have much labor ahead of me. But… it’s the story I had hoped to see, it moves at the right pace, the characters mostly work, and I don’t think that the revision will involve having to gut huge pieces of it.

I think this draft went so well for a couple of reasons. The most important is that I was “warmed up” when I started. Sometimes I’ve written novels after a period of writing inactivity or laziness. But in the time leading up to writing Orphans of Fenris Take #1, I had done some extensive short story writing and spent time every day doing “automatic” writing, where I would simply let myself go on paper, experimenting with words and ideas, and doing the best to shut down my internal censor that always tries to double-think me and slow me down. When it came time to write the actual book, my writing muscles were in good shape.

The second reason is National Novel Writing Month. The encouragement from this event helped me get that internal censor under control, and gave me more freedom in writing the draft. I ran into fewer hang-ups using the “power through” method of NaNoWriMo. I’ve written all of my previous novels in the constant rush style, but with NaNoWriMo I had specific goals that let me push through but also pace myself so I never got overwhelmed. I could even take off a day here and there for a “battery recharge” and not feel I was slouching or find my momentum cut down.

Now I’m looking toward the editing process, which is slow but has many of its own joys. I hope to get the second draft finished by the end of March, and I’m planning to make it a very clean and polished second draft, one that I might feel comfortable showing to people for critiques.

27 January 2009

Bela Lugosi Collection: The Invisible Ray

The Invisible Ray (1936)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Starring Boris Karlof, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Walter Kingsford, Beulah Bondi.

I’ve had a short break from The Bela Lugosi Collection after the killer one-two combo of The Black Cat and The Raven. Now it’s time to move into the shadowy realm between the First and Second Age of horror movies at Universal Studios.

The era of the Laemmles at Universal came to an end in 1936 when they defaulted on a loan for funding the James Whale-directed Show Boat. The Standard Capital Corporation seized control of the company, and a new period of management started for the studio. Horror films had already lost appeal with the public, and the genre was temporarily on the outs with the studio that had made its name with gothic terrors.

The trend away from horror had already started, however. The Invisible Ray was one of the last films released under the Laemmles, hitting theaters in January of 1936. Although it starred the two biggest horror names of the day, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, it veered away from horror and into science fiction with a dash of adventure serials.

The movie also shows the changing fortunes of Bela Lugosi’s career. In The Black Cat and The Raven, he had equal time with co-star Karloff, even though billed second. But in The Invisible Ray, Lugosi finds himself in the supporting role.

26 January 2009

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Today on Black Gate, I bring you another movie review, and this one brings me back yet again to that Jules Verne bloke. It’s the recent adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth, which also happens to be my favorite novel from the amazing Frenchman. (Just watch out for those fake “translations.”)

I didn’t see this film in theaters, and so missed out on the RealD 3D experience… and now I regret it. The movie comes on DVD in either 2D or 3D, but Netflix only has the 2D one, so that’s what I ended up watching. My review takes into account that I’m seeing the film in a lesser form than the moviemakers intended.

You might find my opinion of this movie surprising. It certainly surprised me.

You can read the review here.

The Last Night at the Derby

It was a special but sad evening last night at The Derby—the last night of swing, and the end of a twelve-year era for me. The place was jammed by 9:30 (the photo of me above was taken at about 7:30; I arrived early to get some photos of the décor), and many people who I hadn’t seen in a long time showed up. My friend Navah, once a regular, came back at last:
Photos in front of the old Derby sign were very popular. Here’s two, with our bodies strategically blocking the graffiti on the sign. First my friend Jason and I show off our zoot styles, and next Manuel and I hold up Katrina:
I got interviewed by the local ABC news station, and it popped up on TV that very night. My mother turned on the news, having no idea I had been interviewed, and shocked her when I suddenly showed up on the screen in a zoot suit holding a martini talking about the movie Mildred Pierce (it was filmed at the Derby).

My best friend Kim took a long drive up from San Diego to be there. It wouldn’t be right not to have her there:
Unfortunately, my dance partner Laurel was unable to make it because of a snowboarding injury. She told me to say goodbye to the place for her.

The band played their hearts out, and concluding with “One O’Clock Jump,” my favorite swing piece of all time. It was the right way to end:
Here’s a few more odds and ends: The Derby’s dance instructor for many years, Roscoe; pictures of me with some good dancing friends, Brina and Bridget and Sam.
And so we say goodbye… for the moment. Dancing goes on, and I will find somewhere else to wear this silver-striped zoot suit.

24 January 2009

The Dark Knight Redux

My parents asked me what I most wanted to do on a Saturday afternoon to celebrate my birthday with them. The answer was easy: I want to see The Dark Knight in IMAX again.

The Dark Knight, 2008’s #1 grossing film, went back to theaters, both in IMAX and standard 35mm this weekend for a limited run. I imagine it was meant to connect with the film’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture… which really, uhm, didn’t happen. The film received numerous nominations, mostly technical, and the expected Best Supporting Actor nod for the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. (Ledger has a lock on it at this point.) But, in the Best Picture Category, The Reader somehow sneaked in, shocking pretty much everybody. I don’t mind that The Dark Knight didn’t get a nomination, at least not at the level that some of the fans are screaming about. The film has had a huge cultural impact, and if a smaller film that needs the exposure wins Best Picture—like favorite Slumdog Millionaire, which deserves all the honors it’s getting—than I have no argument.

But… couldn’t The Dark Knight have gotten snubbed by WALL·E or Gran Torino? Why The Reader? That annoys me enough to write about, but not lose any sleep. When it comes down to it, I don’t care much about the Academy Awards that any more.

This was the third time I’ve seen The Dark Knight in a theater. I saw it opening weekend in IMAX (the same theater I saw it in this time) and then next week in a standard 35mm showing. I also have it on DVD, and have watched it all the way through on that format at least once. I think I liked the film the most on this showing: I now have a solid grasp on the intricacies of the story, the various themes, etc., and now can get it once more in the enormous engulfing IMAX format. All the movie clicked into place for me, and I let the enormity of the format sweep me away.

The difference in the film in IMAX and on 35mm and DVD is astounding. It’s a great film in any format, but those twenty-five minutes of footage shot in IMAX have the explosive impact of a scud missile. The Hong Kong extraction is especially weakened cropped onto regular film. If you have a chance to see it these next two weekend on IMAX and haven’t had the chance before, do it. It’s a great experience, and gives you a feeling of what the early days of Cinemascope and Cinerama were like.

It also gave me great pleasure to see my mother react with cringing during the finale with Two-Face threatening to kill Commissioner Gordon’s son. She really thought that Two-Face was going to whack a little boy right on screen. That’s a great compliment to Christopher Nolan and Co.

We didn’t have many images of Two-Face on-line because Warner Bros. had tried to keep the make-up a secret. So here’s some Two-Face for you:
And remember, if you’re good at something, never do it for free:
Finally, here’s a message from the Joker to the Academy, courtesy of NightWatchRadio.Com:
The Joker should calm down a bit. After all, the guy who played him is up for one of these suckers—and he’ll probably get it.

Batman-on-Film has a nice tribute to Heath Ledger, one year after his death and with an Oscar looming.

21 January 2009

Movie Review: Black Angel

Black Angel (1946)
Directed by Roy William Neil. Starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford, Constance Dowling

Wow, I’m reviewing an old black and white Universal film that’s not a horror movie!

But it’s a movie version of a recently re-published Cornell Woolrich novel, The Black Angel, so it isn’t far off-course for me.

Black Angel (Universal hacked “The” off the title of the book for some reason) is the best movie adaptation of a work by Cornell Woolrich. Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a better movie, but it’s distinctly a “Hitchcock movie,” while Black Angel is 100% a “Woolrich movie.” It displays better than any other movie how the author influenced the entire genre of film noir.

19 January 2009

The Return of the King ‘80

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen, Orcs and Trolls, the longest blog entry I’ve posted so far on Black Gate. It’s a massive overview of the 1980 animated telefilm The Return of the King, being a simplified last third of The Lord of the Rings, but situated more as a sequel to the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit. This film had a big effect on my childhood love of fantasy and growing interest in Tolkien before I had come of age to read The Lord of the Rings. However, I’m surprised how many positive things I have to say about it even away from the nostalgia.

Read it all here.

And remember, “Where there’s a whip, there’s a way!”

Jules Verne in Siberia: Michael Strogoff

Michael Strogoff (1876)
By Jules Vern

A new year, and it’s time to head back to Jules Verne for some old-fashioned thrills with the fellow who showed ‘em all how it was done. The book is Michael Strogoff, and no, the cover to the left isn’t the edition I read—that is a ‘50s comic book adaptation. But the edition of the book that I have has a featureless, generic front, so I dug up this cover from a comics database. And yes, the wolf-stabbing event depicted does occur in Michael Strogoff… as do a million other things.

I have written plenty about Jules Verne during 2008 and how much I’ve come to appreciate his literature in my adult life, decades after reading him in elementary school. This quote from Verne scholar William Butcher is a nice summation of my current attitude toward the famous French writer. (Butcher’s whole article is worth reading.)
At first sight, to choose to write about a popular author like Jules Verne in a learned journal may seem strange. Didn’t we all see through Verne at the age of ten or eleven? Haven’t all his predictions happened long ago?

My contention is that the answer to each of these questions is “no.” Jules Verne has always been considered a children’s writer in the English-speaking countries. My aim… is not to argue against such a view; but to argue that he is also, perhaps above all, a writer for adults. I shall also claim that by placing this writer in a category that is often looked down upon, Verne has been unjustly neglected. In my view, Verne’s public reputation hides works of considerable literary merit, which can be read with great pleasure at any age.
Cheers to that.

Now, on to the Courier of the Czar. Or, to paraphrase Baldrick from Black Adder Goes Forth, “Michael Strogoff, who used to be bizarre.”

Michael Strogoff was published in French and English the same year. In France it was a two-volume installment in Verne’s enormously popular Voyages extraordinaires series from publisher Hetzel. My edition is a print-on-demand copy from 1st World Library that lists the title on first page as Michael Strogoff, or The Courier of the Czar. It credits no translator, but my research uncovered that it is the 1877 U.S. edition from Scribner, Armstrong & Co., translated by W. H. G. Kingston—or, more likely, his wife using his name—and revised by Julius Chambers. You can read it for free at Project Gutenberg. Kingston (or his wife) did a number of early English translations of Verne, most of which creak like coffin lids today. Unfortunately, I don’t have many translation options when it comes to one of Verne’s less popular novels outside of his home country.

However, Michel Strogoff (that’s the French title) has immense popularity in France, and Verne scholars and critics hold it up as one of his finest works. Verne adapted it for the stage with Adolphe d’Ennery and it turned into a huge success. But its lack of science-fiction elements gives it a low-profile in the U.S. The novels in the Voyages extraordinaires series were travelogue adventures at the core, which sometimes used speculative science as their catalyst. Michael Strogoff is more typical of the series than better-known works like Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. It’s essentially an espionage-adventure tale, the sort of populist thriller that crowds our bestseller shelves today. Except it’s done with Verne’s wit, flair for characters, and his nineteenth-century vogue for dropping enormous amounts of travelogue information into the story wherever he could leverage it. You will learn gobs about Russian geography and central Asian people, at least from a nineteenth-century French perspective, as you follow the adventures of Michael Strogoff into the war zone of Asiatic Russia.

From his palace in Moscow, the Czar learns of a crisis. A rebellion of Tartars (used in its broader older meaning of all Turkic Central Asian people) under the leadership of Fedor-Khan, Emir of Bokhara, threatens Siberia. Fedor-Khan’s chief lieutenant is a traitorous and vengeance-minded former Russian colonel, Ivan Ogareff. The Tartars have cut off the single telegraph line that runs into Siberia from Muscovy, and the Cazr desperately needs to send a message to his brother, the Grand Duke, in Irkutsk to warn him of Ogareff’s treachery and plans to seize the city. The Czar entrusts the job to a native Siberian, our hero, Michael Strogoff! “[I]f anyone could accomplish this journey from Moscow to Irkutsk, across a rebellious country, surmount obstacles, and brave peril of all sorts, Michael Strogoff was the man.”

And he has three thousand four hundred miles to travel to reach his destination. Verne likes to throw the impossible at his characters, doesn’t he? Michael will travel incognito on his trip, and like Phineas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, he will need to use every mode of transportation available to complete the trip.

The Czar is Alexander II, so we can assume this is meant to be a contemporary adventure; Alexander reigned from 1855 until his assassination in 1881. During the opening chapter at a celebration in the New Palace in Moscow, Verne uses the device of having two journalists narrate events to help set the scene; this was a time when “Rod & Don” conversations, where two characters tell each other information that they both know for the benefit of the reader, weren’t strictly forbidden and torn apart in writers’ workshops. Verne leaps into his lectures with the next chapter, laying out the Russian political scene in the 1870s and detailing for European and American readers the broad sweep of ethnicities in the landscape of Russia.

Verne makes the interesting point that traveling through Russia in winter is easier than doing it during warmer parts of the year. The uninterrupted sheets of ice make sledding across obstacles a snap, and the cold keeps the Tartars from mustering in large numbers. Michael Strogoff, unfortunately, isn’t making the journey during the winter, but starts out in mid-July.

Strogoff also has companions of which he isn’t at first aware. The French and English reporters, Alcide Jolviet and Harry Blount, get on the first train heading toward the rebellion region to find a story. A mysterious Livonian girl also boards Strogoff’s train—the first leg of the journey—and she plans to go all the way to Irkutsk. Michael uses his traveling permit to allow her to accompany him, and learns that she is Nadia Fedor, on her way to Irkustk to join her father in exile now that her mother has died.

The journey of Michael Strogoff, his female companion, and the two competing journalists moves up the Volga river, then via carriage over the Ural Mountains. Michael faces a storm and a bear attack during this traverse (the comic book versions of the story love the bear attack scene for their covers, the cover at the top excepted), and helps the two reporters repair their wagon so they have an excuse to tag along with the Czar’s courier until they pass into Asiatic Russia.

And there, things get really bad. An attack crossing a river separates Michael from Nadia. The Tartar forces under Ogareff have taken the town of Omsk, where Michael Strogoff’s own mother lives. Dedication to his cause leads Michael to a heartbreaking scene where he has to deny his own mother so his identity as the Czar’s courier won’t be revealed. The plot doesn’t work, and soon Ivan Ogareff identified Michael as the courier taking the letter to warn Irkutsk of its approaching danger. Meanwhile, the two reporters compete viciously to report the best story back to their homelands; Verne lumping some comedy/satire into the tale. They eventually team-up and provide some extra-Russo commentary on the action.

Michael Strogoff is essentially a “one-damn-thing-after-another” yarn; the pace never relinquishes as Verne tosses his hero from one escape or danger after another, reaching a furious climax that would satisfy any fan of sword-swinging action—although Verne pulls out an unbelievable plot twist in the conclusion that he doesn’t explain to my satisfaction. In many places, Michael Strogoff feels like something Edgar Rice Burroughs might have written, where the hero pursues a kidnapped beauty and often falls into wildly coincidental meetings to push the story along. The exotic central Asian setting with its variety of peoples and clashing armies trying to wrest away towns from each other often gives it the flavor of a heroic fantasy. Verne himself even mentions that it’s a scene fit for a romantic painter. Strogoff is a dashing and implacable hero, while Ivan Ogareff and his female gypsy spy Sangarre make a pair of wonderful melodramatic villains.
A painting of Irkutsk around the time of Michael Strogoff
Despite all these qualities, Michael Strogoff urgently needs a new, from-the-ground-up English translation, preferably in an edition with a lengthy introduction to provide context and annotations that explain Verne’s ethnic descriptions of the many peoples discussed in the novel for a modern audience. I thrilled to an exciting story, but I could often sense that the translation’s failings even without the French on hand. And in my edition every appearance of the word “resume” is mis-typed as “r,sume.” The find-replace function went awry there.

The Derby requiem

To have something stay in your life as a constant for twelve years is an amazing thing. So I feel a sense of thankfulness for a special consistency, even as I have to say a tentative “goodbye.”

I learned tonight that The Derby, the original site of the explosion of the swing dancing scene in the late ‘90s (partially thanks to the movie Swingers, which was filmed there) will close its doors as a nightclub indefinitely as of the end of this month. The management has made it clear through the last few months that they have no interest in running a nightclub or serving patrons; after all, here it is the 18th of the month and they still haven’t updated the monthly calendar from December 2008. There’s been no upkeep on the property, with graffiti allowed to stay on the outside walls, the front sign, and the mirrors in the bathroom (come on, show some pride of damn ownership!) and huge gouges lefts in parts of the walls. Booking and payment of bands has been abysmal, promotion nonexistent. I have gone to The Derby as a regular patron for twelve years, and I started to sense back in September that the great club was on its last legs, and with no one to blame but the management.

Tonight, which was a well-attended night because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day tomorrow and the excellent Jonathan Stout and His Campus Five playing, I learned that The Derby will cease functioning at the end of January. The immediate reason was an incident on a non-swing night, a Saturday, where somebody pulled a gun on somebody else. Nice job, dickweed. Ever think that other people come here to have a good time? And we don’t need to carry frickin’ guns to do it? This is why I’ve always loved the swing scene. Nobody flashes a piece. Nobody has any aggressive attitude. We love each other.

But, unfortunately, this was the moment the lazy management needed to leap out of the lease and shut the place down. And thus was it done. Next Sunday is the last Swingin’ Sunday, then it all ends.

This could have been avoided a long time ago. If the management had booked swing on either a Friday or a Saturday, gotten the good bands (instead of alienating them by stiffing them on payment), and actually promoted the night—I know, what a nutty idea—this could have continued to be a vital and important part of the L.A. music scene, not just some other bar with the same music every other bar plays. The management can try to blame the dancers for not drinking, and maybe this was true back in the late ‘90s, but not so now. The management has no one to blame but their absolute stubborn incompetence and shrill and insulting attitude toward their own patrons. Swing isn’t “bandwagon” music. It’s a part of the the American musical tradition, and if treated right is as profitable as any other form of music. Be good to it, it will be good to you.

Of course, the brainless idiot who flashed a piece one Saturday night deserves bit of the blame. The hell were you thinking?

However, this isn’t necessarily the end. If someone purchases The Derby from the current owners, they could turn the place around. Next time I post about this, I’ll go on the positive attack, and provide my advice on how to make The Derby culturally relevant again.

But, until I know that someone with the money will make the effort, I must bid the place goodbye for now. After next Sunday, the day of requiem…

14 January 2009

Masterpiece: The Black Angel

The Black Angel (1943)
By Cornell Woolrich

I have shouted about the upcoming new printing of this novel since back when I heard about it in a personal email from the publisher. (I had inquired if the company planned to print more Woolrich to follow their edition of Night Has a Thousand Eyes.) By this time, you’re probably tired of having me remind you about The Black Angel, but I’m a supporter of the “Cause de Cornell”: I feel one of my purposes in life is to make certain everybody knows about this astonishing author. This long review is but the next step in my on-going crusade to promote the Literary Master of Despair.

But please don’t expect me to go back to the Woolrich well too frequently. My nerves and tolerance for utter despondency can only handle so much.

The Black Angel was first published in 1943 from Doubleday. It is the fifth full-length novel from Woolrich’s “main period” (1934–1948), when he wrote the majority of his suspense fiction. His previous novel, Phantom Lady, was published under the “William Irish” pseudonym, but all the novels in the “Black” series continued to carry Woolrich’s name on the dust jackets. (To this day, Woolrich is still known as “William Irish” in France, where he is rightfully considered a major American author. The French are always ahead of the curve.)

Baby It’s Not Cold Outside

Sometimes I feel like an absolute heel living in Los Angeles during the deep winter. While cold weather torments the rest of the country, I’m in short sleeves today. It’s a beautiful seventy degrees and sunny. Too bad I have to be inside at work.

But to everybody suffering the cold snap, I have been there. I went to school in Minnesota, and I was there for that Halloween ’91 blizzard. So I know what you’re going through.

Just not right now.

13 January 2009

Movie review: Death Race

Death Race (2008)
Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Starring Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez

Jason Statham looks like the sort of man who could actually walk the streets, inconspicuous, then turn around and snap your neck at a moment’s notice. That makes him one of the more realistic action heroes to appear in a time when the old-style muscley hero in the Schwarzenegger-Stallone mold has largely disappeared. Statham is newest of an old breed, but the fellow can actually act and doesn't seem like an entity genetically groomed in a Hollywood hit factory. He brings an edge even to the lamer material he selects, like Crank, Transporter 3, and Death Race.

Death Race is nominally a re-make of the low-budget 1975 exploitation film Death Race 2000, produced by the king of cheap exploitive schlock, Roger Corman. Corman serves as executive producer on this movie, which probably has a budget twenty times the size of anything else he ever worked on. The original film has drive-in movie charm. The re-make is standard mid-level, late-summer action fare, which is the particular niche of writer/director Paul W. S. “not-to-be-confused-with-the-other-one” Anderson.

Anderson has changed the premise of Death Race 2000 from a cross-country gladiatorial sport to an arena-based cars vs. cars race, with elements of videogames tossed in (drivers can run over lit-circles to gain “power-ups”). Also borrowing from Escape from New York (which inspires the title-card opening as well), the story takes place in a prison-based world, where the inmates of Terminal Island participate in auto-duels to-the-death for the amusement of millions of pay-per-view watchers around the globe. The movie has almost zero interest in social satire, so don’t expect to see much about this viewer fascination with death aside from mentions of how many viewers have signed up and the graphics advertising it. It’s strange that anyone has money to spend on the pay-per-view, considering the enormous spike in unemployment mentioned in the opening titles. (The titles claimed this happened in 2012, off by about four years.)

Statham plays Jensen Ames, former racer and now a laid-off worker. He gets framed for his wife’s murder and sent to Terminal Island. His wife’s actual killer gives him a specific hand-sign before Jensen falls unconscious, a sure sign that Jensen will eventually recognize him again. Strangely, this plot element gets resolved in the middle of the movie, leaving Jensen to vent the rest of his wrath against Terminal Island’s warden and mogul of the Death Race sport, Hennessy (Joan Allen, collecting a paycheck, but earning it).

Hennessy wants Jensen to replace “Frankenstein,” a popular driver whose face remains hidden under a Jason Voorhees-like mask. The real Frankenstein is dead in the noisy prologue, and Hennessy offers Jensen his freedom if he wins one more race posing under the mask. The movie then follows the three stages of the race, as Jensen and his sexy co-pilot Case (Natalie Martinez) try to beat the thuggish other racers, with help from master mechanic and scene-stealer Coach (Brit actor Ian McShane, best known from the mystery series Lovejoy).

The movie starts on a prologue chase, and I wished modern action filmmakers would ease off the pedal in throwing me into an action scene as soon as possible. Why not some build-up? Quantum of Solace is one of the worst examples of this abrupt and senseless overkill at the beginning. Death Race, in only a few minutes, already shows most of its devices, and that means Stage One of Jensen’s race is stale. And, of course, it’s edited with a cuisinart. Stage Two is the best, since some more drama has built-up—Jensen has started to figure out the warden’s game—and it brings out the Dreadnought, a super-tanker fortress that immediately calls to mind “Mega-Weapon” from The Warrior of the Lost World, a classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.

Death Race is dumb, but it isn’t rotten. It seems about standard for Paul W. S. Anderson, who never promises you more than competent science-fiction goods, and usually delivers them. I’ll even admit that I like AVP: Alien vs. Predator—especially after suffering through AVPR: Aliens vs Predator: Requiem. I cut Anderson’s some slack; he’s not Joel Schumacher, and he’s not Uwe Boll, and on an unambitious actioner like a re-make of a Corman film, he was the best choice.

But you want to know a really damning fact? I liked this movie more than Speed Racer. A lot more.

A Mummy Bonus! The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
Directed by Rob Cohen. Starring Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, John Hannah, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, Isabella Leong, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Here’s the surprise that I promised yesterday. You thought my “Mummy” reviews were over. Wrong! I’ve got a review of the recent DVD release of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, last year’s third/fourth entry in Universal’s latter-day Mummy franchise. (Numbering depends on how you classify The Scorpion King. I classify it as lousy.) Actually, there aren’t any mummies in the film, but that didn’t stop Universal from trying to drag out the series for one more go. Don’t dream that you’ll see any more of those.

So… no mummies appear in this “Mummy movie.” The film earns the first part of its title because it features ongoing characters from the two legitimate Mummy flicks that proceeded it, The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001). But there’s no Egypt aside from a bar called “Imhotep’s,” and no mummified anything. We instead have an immortal Chinese Emperor/Wizard who breaks free from a terracotta shell, but that isn’t a mummy in my definition. The visual effects try to give him a mummified appearance when he’s still in his clay-like form, but sorry, still not a mummy.

But then, the second series of Universal mummy movies were never about the particulars of the classic horror-movie undead Egyptian, but about copying Indiana Jones, old adventure serials, pulp magazines, and adding wiseacre humor to attract the widest audience possible. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is perhaps the most pulpish of the four films in the series (I’m including the 2002 sword-and-sorcery spin-off The Scorpion King), and fans of pulp fantasy will find it interesting.

12 January 2009

Movie Review: The Mummy’s Curse

The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
Directed by Leslie Goodwins. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Coe, Kay Harding, Martin Kosleck, Virginia Christine, Dennis Moore, Kurt Katch

Now, O Ra, Sun God, look down in favor upon this, your humble servant’s review of the last of the classic Mummy films from Universal. And beknowst, O Ra, I invoke “classic” only in an era-defining sense, not as a cry of praise—which I reserve only for You and Karl Freund.

The mummy of Prince Kharis didn’t stay down in the swamp for long. The Mummy’s Curse came out only nine months after The Mummy’s Ghost, and it spelled the end of Kharis series. By the mid-‘40s, Universal’s top brass stood ready to ditch its old monster franchises. After cramming their frightful stars into movies with each other in the famous “Monster Rally,” Universal then dutifully marched them before Abbott and Costello, and finally tossed them into the celluloid dumpster until the late ‘50s, when TV syndication packages revived interest in the classic horror days.

But I shouldn’t sing the funeral song yet. I’ve got a final mummy film to ponder. And to my relief, The Mummy’s Curse marks a vast improvement over The Mummy’s Ghost. I think it’s the best of all the Lon Chaney-starring mummy sequels, and a nice surprise coming at the tail-end of a franchise that the studio had churned out without much enthusiasm.

11 January 2009

Book review: Patient Zero

Hello, welcome to another installment in LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Patient Zero
By Jonathan Maberry (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009 / Softcover $14.95)

Imagine the TV show 24 and its ceaseless suspense against ticking-clock terrorist threats, then mix it with Resident Evil. That’s what you’ll find in Jonathan Maberry’s science-fiction-themed thriller Patient Zero. It would be easy to invoke the specter of Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later (the book itself does that), but the “gun down all ‘em zombies” style is more akin to the videogame and movie series Resident Evil, so I’m sticking with that comparison.

Now that you’ve imagined this scenario, imagine that it’s all entertaining and fast-moving, and you’ll have a solid conception of what to expect in Patient Zero. It surprised me despite my initial misgivings about the cliché sound of a yet another zombie apocalypse story. “Anti-terrorist squad vs. mindless dead.” Seen it before, but Maberry is a fine-tuned mystery writer, and instead of delivering the dry and dull objective style of a Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton, he digs deep into the first-person POV of our hero, Joe Ledger, Baltimore PD turned member of a black ops groups called the DMS (Department of Military Sciences).

The novel switches between the point of view of Ledger and his work with the DMS against a new prion disease that can create a sort of re-animated corpse known as a “Walker,” and the third-person view of the villains behind it: a Middle Eastern extremist group in collusion with English billionaire Sebastian Gault and the resources of his company Gen2000. Combining first and third-person narration presents a risk for an author, and the chapters with the terrorists and Sebastian Gault are weaker than the time spent with Joe Ledger, but this isn’t a large enough flaw to dim the exciting, headfirst action. Gault’s story can also turn very interesting when it isn’t interrupting the flow with the DMS’s hunt to clean out the Walker infection.

The storyline is a simple one. The enigmatic Mr. Church tries to recruit Ledger into the DMS, a process that takes the first quarter of the book, so he and the DMS team can get to work on the present threat of the “living dead” disease that might zombify the whole country at any moment. Ledger and the tough hombres on his Echo Team have gruesome face-offs with the infected Walkers, and learn a traitor squirms somewhere in their midst. Meanwhile, the terrorists and their corporate backers put the pieces in place for the ultimate horrific attack, but are both groups actually working together for the same goal?

The thrills comes almost nonstop, so even though most of the DMS team consists of a faceless bunch of grunts—Ledger excepted—it’s hard not to hop on for the ride. Mr. Church and Ledger’s friend Rudy Sanchez are well-sketched characters, but the rest of the DMS cast takes on stock roles, especially romantic interest Grace Courtland. Maberry won’t give readers much time to worry about this, as he throws Echo Team into another grisly fight to the death with the living dead. The “first-person-shooter” aspect of these fights sometimes overwhelms the reader (you feel you should save the game and up down the controller for a while), but I’d rather have an author risk over-entertaining me than slack off and put me into a coma.

Horror fans who don’t usually read military thrillers will probably enjoy Patient Zero, since the author clearly has done his homework on the zombie genre. It may not sit as well with straight thriller readers, since Maberry has no hesitation in pouring on the blood and cannibalistic fury of the Walkers. The science involved in creating non-supernatural walking corpses get a few explanations from the scientists talking-heads, and none of it is satisfactory to please a hard science-fiction lover, but it’s “fuzzy” enough and filled with the right buzzwords to keep the story going for everybody else, and Maberry doesn’t lean too hard on on the medical science involved.

From my personal politics perspective, Maberry plays the paranoid patriotic and anti-Arab card too strong. I managed to stomach most of it; it isn’t a novel I would have selected for myself, but the targeted crowd will no doubt love it and will demand more from the DMS. According to the publicity material, more is already on the way.

Readers interested in a preview of the book can read a free online story, “Countdown,” that elaborates on the opening of the book but does not contain spoilers.

Patient Zero has a street date of 9 March 2009.

09 January 2009

“Uncle, I have avenged thee…”

I guess there’s something about becoming an uncle that makes certain phrases strike you with more force. I’m working right now on an essay about the 1980 TV movie The Return of the King, a different view of Tolkien, to be certain, but one with some merits. I was always moved by this line that Éowyn speaks in the movie, which isn’t in Tolkien, mostly because Éowyn collapses into unconsciousness after slaying the Lord of the Nazgûl. The addition of the tear is a great touch. So through the magic of photoshop, here’s a little preview of what you can expect from my Black Gate blog coming up in two weeks. (I’ve already finished my post for this week.)

08 January 2009

Dance performance tonight

Okay folks, late notice for all of you in the Los Angeles area, but tonight I will be performing at Harvelle's in Santa Monica at The Jook: event details here. I'll be the between-set entertainment, blues/swing dancing with "Roller Girl," the band's mascot (known to me as Bridget). Bridget usually does these events with her husband David, but due to a suddenly scheduling conflict, David isn't able to make it tonight, so Bridget gave me a shout last night to ask me if I could do it. Harvelle's isn't far from me, and I've hung out there before—it's one of L.A.'s oldest nightclubs, running since 1931—so I said "yes" immediately. Bridget and I will start swingin' at 9 pm while the band gets ready, and then swing more between the sets to keep people entertained. Should you be in the area, come on by!

Book Review: Dead Lines

Dead Lines (2004)
By Greg Bear

Greg Bear is my favorite of the current crop of hard science-fiction authors—most of whom have names starting with “B.” In general, hard SF isn’t my cup of silver nitrate; in the realm of SF I prefer the brand that’s either sociological and introspective with less emphasis on science, or else has aliens blowing the beejesus out of things with ion cannons. But Greg Bear is not only skilled with making the science of his hard science-fiction interesting, he also does what often eludes most hard SF authors: create viable humans at the center of his stories.

He also has a wonderful geeky strain in him, dropping Ray Harryhausen and Edgar Rice Burroughs references into his novels. We’d probably get along great if we met.

If you’ve never read Greg Bear before, I can best describe him to you as Michael Crichton if he a) knew how to create a three-dimensional human being on paper, and b) didn’t let his politics twist his science. (Another big difference between them is that Bear is currently alive, which Crichton is currently not.) Bear’s work tackles the same sort of contemporary science-meets-the edge of science thrillers that Crichton made into his meat and potatoes. A good place to start reading Bear is either his breakthrough novel Bloodmusic or his award-winning tale of the next step in evolution, Darwin’s Radio. I think his masterpiece is The Forge of God, but that might get a touch on the heavy side for some new readers. Regardless, that gets one of my highest recommendation among modern SF.

07 January 2009

Bela Lugosi Collection: The Raven (1935)

The Raven (1935)
Directed by Lew Landers. Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Irene Ware, Lester Matthews, Samuel S. Hinds

The Production Code was about to slam down on Hollywood horror ghastliness, but The Raven got under the falling portcullis. The huge success of The Black Cat made Universal hungry for another festival of Poe-madness with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and they got it. It’s not at the artistic level of The Black Cat, but The Raven is another classic of Universal’s First Age of Monsters.

There isn’t much material to adapt from Edgar Allan Poe’s oblique poem “The Raven,” so the screenplay from David Boehm uses a Poe-obsessed main character, a chamber of Poe-inspired torture devices, an interpretive dance done to a recitation of the poem, and a plethora of spooky raven shadows cast from a stuffed bird sitting on the villain’s desk. The screenplay takes more from Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum” than from “The Raven,” but the latter fits so much better on a marquee and meshes with with the previous year’s The Black Cat

For the only time in a Universal film, Bela Lugosi receives the prestige single-name credit of LUGOSI to pair with KARLOFF. (In the end credits, Lugosi would switch back to both names—and whoever wrote the cast list misspelled the name of the character played by Lester Matthews and swapped two of the supporting actors’ parts. Look at the IMDb cast list to see what went wrong.) And although billed second, Lugosi has the meatier role of Dr. Vollin. Karloff plays the underling/monster character, Bateman, but it was his ugly made-up visage that snared most of the space on the film’s original poster.

06 January 2009

Clint slays bus with his bare hands

Today’s post at Black Gate presents something a bit different for me. No talk about books, or writing, or even fantasy. I’m instead jawing about a movie poster. An awesome movie poster. The poster to The Gauntlet, Clint Eastwood’s 1977 film about the most indestructible bus in history.

And why talk about the poster? Because Frank Frazetta painted it, that’s why. And I’ll take any excuse to talk about Clint Eastwood. Have I mentioned how awesome Gran Torino is? (Uhm, yes, turns out I have.)

05 January 2009

I’ve got my Black Angel, but . . .

I received in the mail today my new printing of Cornell Woolrich’s 1943 noir masterpiece, The Black Angel. (It’s not the cover to the right, obviously, which is a lackluster ‘60s paperback printing. If you want to see the new cover, go here and buy the book while you’re at it.) I’m eager to dive into the book again; a few years have passed since I read it. I could have easily picked up my 1940s printing of it (first edition, but no dust jacket) or my 1980s Ballantine mass market paberback, but there is something about getting a fresh new copy of a book that inspires you to get into it again. Also, I want to support Pegasus Books and hope they will give us even more Woolrich later on. Come on, Black Alibi, come on!

I’ll deliver a lengthy analysis of the book after I finish reading it, but I have another book to read before that: Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry. Normally, that could wait, but it was sent to me as part of LibraryThing Early Reviewers, so I do have an obligation to read it and post a review for the publisher. They sent me the copy for free, so I do owe them. The book has a street date of March 3rd.

After finishing my reviewing duty, I’ll return to Woolrich land. I’m very excited that I have two “old friend” novels to revist this month. After The Black Angel, I’m going to take a new tour of The Land That Time Forgot, my favorite Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, for an article on Black Gate.

Movie Review: The Mummy’s Ghost

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
Directed by Reginald LeBorg. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Robert Lowery, Ramsay Ames, Barton MacLane, George Zucco.

A year and a half passed between The Mummy’s Tomb and this next installment, but five passed in the Mummy’s universe. Time for a new priest of Karnak to bring the speed-inhibited mummy of Kharis back to life to wreck slow-moving vengeance.

From the first scene of The Mummy’s Ghost the continuity already goes completely kablooie. George Zucco plays the same elderly High Priest Andoheb who died in the last movie. And in the one before that. He had passed on the high priest mantle in The Mummy’s Tomb, but it turns out he didn’t need to because he wasn’t dead. He starts to explain the story of Kharis once more for the new new High Priest, Yusef Bey (John Carradine, yeah!), but instead decides not to bother and lets a dissolve to Professor Norman (Frank Reicher) at Scripps University to take over the re-hash of the last movie. At least it means no more re-played footage. (Although the image of Carradine walking up the steps of the temple is actually footage of Zucco from The Mummy’s Hand. Reduce, recycle, re-use.)

Should I really try to explain the helter-skelter timeline? If we take the progression of time at face value as the movies state it, it’s currently 1975. But it sure looks like 1944 to me.

In other words, never mind. I’m sure I’ll bring up this taffy-pull of time when I review the next movie, which nominally takes place in 2000. Again, face value interpretation.

03 January 2009

King Ghidorah watches over Diego—and us all

Well, Diego Martin, a.k.a. The Spaniard, a.k.a. my nephew, goes back to Germany tomorrow. However, I know the King Ghidorah, the great golden dragon of Japanese cinema, watches over him, spreading his glittering wings…
Diego gets to play with King Ghidorah while awake as well…
And with his uncle Ryan, who gave him King Ghidorah for a Solstice present…

Mechagodzilla Chronicles: Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I present the final film in my overview of the Mechagodzilla Chronicles!

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)
Directed by Masaaki Tezuka
Starring Noboru Kaneko, Miho Yoshioka, Mitsuki Koga, Hiroshi Koizumi, Akira Nakao

The individual Godzilla “Millennium films” have no connection to each other and take place in alternate timelines, each establishing its own continuity with older films from the Classic era of kaiju films. The sole exception to this is Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (or, if you wish to use the hefty Japanese title, Gojira X Mosura X Mekagojira: Tokyo S.O.S.). The success of Godzilla against Mechagodzilla in 2002 catalyzed Toho Studios to assign the same creative team to make a direct sequel starring the robotic counterpart to Godzilla. A wild card slipped into the deck: Mothra, Toho’s most popular monster after Godzilla. Thus we have a three-way conflict between a villain (Godzilla), a Human-built hero (Kiryu, the proper name for the Mechagodzilla robot), and a mystical mediator (Mothra). Mothra’s presence is a strange one in this science-fiction tale; a creature of spiritualism and peace, but capable of great destruction in its quest to pacificy the savagery of other monsters and restore nature’s balance to the world.

Mothra is the most Japanese of all kaiju. Its first appearance in Mothra (1960) marked a turning away from the American style of docu-science fiction and toward the wilder and more colorful style peculiar to Japan. Mothra’s first appearance launched a new era of gorgeous Japanese fantasy, and “her” (the creature is often described in feminine terms) first confrontation with Godzilla in Mothra vs. Godzilla (U.S. title, Godzilla vs. the Thing, and on video as Godzilla vs. Mothra) gave us arguably the greatest Godzilla film ever made. I hold it up as the high-water mark of the original series. Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. sometimes feel like a semi-remake of Mothra vs. Godzilla. The finale of that movie appears here almost intact. You might expect this from a G-fan like director Tezuka.

Since her first two films, Mothra has resurfaced many times in the Toho Universe: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Ebirah, the Horror of the Deep, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. Mothra (titled Godzilla and Mothra: Battle for Earth in the U.S.), a string of three solo-movies, and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Even though she had appeared as recently as 2001, Mothra’s popularity made her an easy choice to add an extra hook to the new Mechagodzilla story.