30 April 2009

History Book Review: The Hundred Years War

The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337–1453
Desmond Stewart (1999)

I guess I have an obsession with wars that have numbers in their titles. I find the Thirty Years’ War, The Seven Years’ War, and The Hundred Years’ War all fascinating, with the first receiving the unofficial title of “My Favorite War.” But it’s the title of the last that most grabs people’s attention: “A hundred years? How in the hell did somebody drag out a war for that long?”

Some qualifications:

First, the war didn’t last a hundred years. It lasted a hundred and fifteen years. Round down past a hundred, please, must be the historian’s rule. Second, those 115 years weren’t sustained, endless combat. The war moved in phases with periods of peace in between. Finally, no one recognized the concept of a “Hundred Years’ War” until the late nineteenth century. It is something that later historians created as an umbrella for a century-plus of British intervention on the French territory. As the author of this book says after the conclusion of the Battle of Castillon: “. . . nobody seems to have recognized that the Hundred Years War was over.”

So, admitting a certain artificiality with name “The Hundred Years’ War” (and for some reason, Seward drops the apostrophe from ‘Years’), why does it capture so much attention? Because it contains one of the most archetypal conflicts in world history: English vs. French. Because it contains two of the most astonishing battles ever fought: Crécy and Agincourt. Because some of the most incredible figures of the Middle Ages strode across its stage: Henry V, Edward III, Edward the Black Prince, The Bastard of Orléans, Lord Talbot, and a teenage girl named Joan. That’s why.

28 April 2009

Memories of Ultima IV

Today on Black Gate, it’s back to the computer era of adventuring with some memories of one of the most influential of all computer role-playing games, Ultima IV: The Quest of the Avatar.

I don’t have strong memories of any of the previous Ultima games—all top-down gamers where you had to vanquish a dark lord—but I remember when Ultima IV came out for the Apple //e in 1985 and that everybody was playing it. The “Defeat the Dark Lord” element was gone, and now it is an adventure of self-improvement. I’ve never liked another computer RPG as much as this one; in general they don’t interest me. But Ultima IV, which broke the mold on games of this type in so many ways, still holds up in my memories.

Read the overview here.

27 April 2009

Frankie Manning 1914–2009

Frankie Manning, one of the legends of swing dancing, a foundational force on Lindy Hop, died this morning at age ninety-four.

If you are part of the swing dancing scene that emerged in the mid-‘90s, you owed a lot of it to Mr. Manning, who was still actively dancing and teaching all during this time. Many of the major instructors working today learned how to Lindy Hop from Frankie himself, and the first videos that most of us learned from were Frankie’s personal instruction series. He remained a vital part of the scene, traveling the country and world as an ambassador of Lindy Hop, one of the great traditional North American dances, almost to the end of his life.

Frankie Manning was one of the great dancers in Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom during the 1930s when Lindy Hop was developing. Although no one can take credit for truly “inventing” Lindy Hop, Frankie Manning certainly deserves a title as one of it’s “fathers.” Many famous moves and styles came out of his work in this golden age of t swing dance and music. He was so important to the dance and the music of the day that he was one of the interview subjects in Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz.

L.A. dance instructor Rusty Frank, who worked with Frankie on many occasions, had this to say about him: “It’s simple for me, Frankie Manning had the best hug ever! His smile lit up the room. And his laugh rocked your soul.”

I’ve been in the swing dance scene for over a dozen years now, so I got to see Mr. Manning in person many times over those. He was a sweet-natured, friendly man who expressed his love of dance and music to everyone. All of us who love swing dancing owe an immense amount to the giant of the style, and we’re thankful that he stayed around so long to share it with so many of us. And that fellow could dance like nobody I’ve ever seen.

Watch this video of Frankie dancing in the movie Hellzapoppin’ (he’s the one in the overalls) as part of the legendary dance troupe “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.” He also did the choreography:

23 April 2009

Movie Review: The Cassandra Crossing

The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
Directed by George P. Cosmatos. Starring Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Burt Lancaster, O. J. Simpson, Lee Strasberg, Martin Sheen, Lionel Stander, Ann Turkel, Ava Gardner, Ingrid Thulin.

My adoration of composer Jerry Goldsmith has occasionally brought me to some odd corners of cinema that no one else visits. I’ve collected many obscure Goldsmith scores, which often makes me want to watch the films that accompany that awesome music. And thus, The Cassandra Crossing, an Italian-produced all-star disaster film about which I’ve heard almost nothing since I first bought the imported CD of Goldsmith’s score in the early 1990s. For years, the only solid data I had on it came from the hilariously poor translation into English of the liner notes for the CD. (Exact quote: “Some film stars play the role of main and second characters. Tower above them an unpleasant BURT LANCASTER…”) The growth of the Internet gave me more access to the information about the film, but it remained an obscure piece of ‘70s cinema and not something I actively pursued until I found out I could simply press a button on Netflix and watch it instantly on my computer monitor.

The Cassandra Crossing combines the celebrity disaster movie with the international thriller. One half is the soap opera of the star actors brought together on a vehicle in the midst of a crisis—the same Grand Hotel device that defined the ‘70s disaster flick since Airport. The other half is military and government officials panicking calmly in “war rooms” as they try to avoid a fiasco.

22 April 2009

A Sound of Thunder (The Movie)

When I wrote my list of favorite comedies of the 2000s, I made mention of a few hilarious films that I didn’t put on the list because they actually weren’t meant to be funny. I did a full review of one of these hilarious disasters three years ago for my older, lamer, blog. I dug up that review and have revised it and polished it a bit to give you . . .

A Sound of Thunder (2005)
Directed by Peter Hyams. Starring Edward Burns, Ben Kingsley, Catherine McCormack.

A friend told me back in 2005 that I should go see the movie A Sound of Thunder during the two weeks it actually played in theaters. I asked him why. The film had gotten nothing but scathing reviews. It had suffered from numerous delays—originally slated for a 2002 release—and had “bomb” sketched all over it. Did he actually think it was good? This is a friend who, on occasion, has gone against the flow of critical opinion, so maybe there was something about the film which I should know. No, he answered. The film really was flat-out awful. But he promised me that I would never forget the experience of seeing it.

Good enough for me. But not good enough to get me to part with eight to ten bucks of my own money to see the movie in a theater. I’m not that starved for entertainment. So I patiently waited, and for approximately two bucks through Netflix (that’s the average price of a DVD rental for me based on my level of rental activity) I eventually watched A Sound of Thunder.

Yes, I certainly won’t forget it. It isn’t Battlefield Earth or Batman and Robin bad, but it was as good a shot as theater audiences got in 2005.

Right before seeing the movie, I asked my friend what exactly he thought was wrong with the film. He couldn’t pick out anything particular. He simply told me that everything on every conceivable level was wrong with it, and it would feel unfair to pick one or two. I have to sternly disagree with his assessment for two reasons:

First, not everything in the film is wrong. In one scene, two of the characters wear really nice fedoras. So one thing is right with the movie. Or do the two hats each count as something right with the movie? Oh hell, let’s give the flick a break: there are two things right with it.

Second, the visual effects are so above and beyond execrable that it seems incredible not to pick them out as deserving mention. Yes, everything else is awful (except for those two hats), but the visual effects attain a level of phoniness absolutely stunning for an A-budgeted picture.

There is so much I could complain about concerning A Sound of Thunder: the ludicrous science (no matter how much biological history changes, somebody remembers to build Chicago), the half-assed performances from a cast that apparently knew the film was destined for the bargain bin, the who-gives-a-crap script, and Ben Kingsley’s hairpiece.

But how can I possibly get over these visual effects? Cripes, if the actors had stood in front of a blue-screen projection of somebody’s game of the first Grand Theft Auto, it would have looked substantially better. The dinosaur in the opening scene has no shading anywhere on it. It’s like a smooth-moving kid’s toy, and the moment I saw it my jaw unhinged so that I looked like a snake about to eat an egg. Then I started yelling “You’ve got to be kidding me!” at the screen. The mix of live action and digital effects is pathetic. The actors appear completely removed from their environments, just two-dimensional cut-outs placed in front of shallow CGI images, and sometimes clumsily walking along on obvious treadmills. Any made-for-Syfy movie does far better than this . . . and with significantly more imagination.

At a certain point the VFX just start turning into insults. I’ve enjoyed plenty of films with poor special effects because the filmmakers did the most they could with their limited means. They were at least trying. But the folks here, with $80 million with which to play, couldn’t be bothered to give a damn.

Is it any wonder that the film’s production company, Franchise, went out of business before the movie’s release (thus delaying it for three years)? Franchise’s record of mediocrity is quite stunning, and owner Elie Samaha got in deep legal trouble for skimming off the top of the budget of many of his films. Perhaps Samaha raised $80 million to make the film, kept $79 million for himself, and let director Peter Hyams see what he could do with the rest of it. Most of it must have gone to Ben Kinglsey, who probably ponied up millions just to keep the movie from ever getting into theaters. Which means that Ben Kingsley’s money ran out after three years.

If you have a yen to see exactly how bad CGI can actually get in this day and age, A Sound of Thunder should get on your must-see list.

A few days after I originally posted this review, I ran into another online review of this film that made this interesting observation: “Ray Bradbury must be rolling over in his grave at the effort put forth in making his short story into a movie.” Well he isn’t, and I can tell you why: he was then and as of this writing is still alive. Believe me, if Bradbury had died, I would have heard about it. But if he were dead . . . yeah, he’d be doing some rollin’. I later returned to the review and noticed the reviewer had changed this description; he must have gotten a flood of negative emails.

Bradbury’s short story is a classic, and definitely worth your time. I also recommend the similarly-themed “Rivers of Time” stories by L. Sprague de Camp.

21 April 2009

Movie Review: The Public Enemy

The Public Enemy (1931)
Directed by William A. Wellman. Starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Donald Cook.

If I’m going to do a build-up to the upcoming movie Public Enemies, I have to make some mention of the film that popularized that term, even though it predates the “Public Enemies Era” by two years. It also deals with prohibition mobsters instead of bank-robbing and kidnapping spree criminals and the Federal Agents chasing them.

However, I don’t have much to say about The Public Enemy. It’s a classic. And it’s a film that already has plenty written about it, so I don’t see much I can add. Let’s run through the basics: It made James Cagney a superstar. It played twenty-four hours a day in some theaters because of demand. It annoyed censors. It has a bleak, grim ending. Cagney smashes grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face. Cagney shoots a horse in a vengeance killing (really). And it forms part of the unholy trilogy of gangster films from the early thirties, the third face of the triangle along with Little Caesar, also from Warner Bros., and RKO’s Scarface.

Richard II

Richard II (ca. 1595)
By William Shakespeare

Pardon me for getting gonzo academic on you here. My blog occasionally likes to fly off in odd directions. But one of my great loves in life is William Shakespeare, and I don’t tend to talk about his work that much on my blog . . . or in real life, now that I come to think of it. I fell madly in love with his plays when I was in junior high school, which probably set back my social development by marking me as some freakish bookworm, but whatever. What’s done is done, and cannot be undone.

However, I don’t actually think of Shakespeare as “academic.” I think of him as populist. He did not craft his plays only for the mighty of the realm, the learned scholars. He wrote plays to appeal to people who wanted entertainment. Shakespeare is one of us, the genre lovers, the movie fans, the thrill-seekers, people who just like great stories and cool dialogue. His language seems removed from our own only because of the span of time, but once you get used to the vocabulary and the rhythms, it’s astonishing how directly his work speaks to us today.

I haven’t sat down and re-read one of the plays in a while (I got through the whole corpus for the first time back in high school—yeah, I earned the “nerd” title). I also rarely watch the plays staged, but considering all the post-modern tweaking and toying done with Shakespeare in production today, I would much rather just read him. Just he and I, no intermediary. I don’t think he needs one.

So why pick up Richard II? The main reason is that I’m currently reading a book on the history of the Hundred Years’ War (you can expect a review of that soon), a time period that Shakespeare covered in a number of his history plays. After finishing the section in the book on Richard II, who actively tried to remove the English from involvement in war on the continent, I had an overwhelming desire to rush back to Shakespeare’s dramatic version and relive the king’s tragic downfall.

20 April 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

You’ve waited two months for it, and now it’s here…

My review of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies over at Black Gate.

The book, which takes Austen’s text and inserts a zombie plot by Seth Grahame-Smith, surprised me in couple ways. For example, it made me appreciate Jane Austen more, even though this sort mish-mashing usually ends up as a parody of the source material.

You can get my take on the zombie-less version here.

19 April 2009

My favorite comedies of the 2000s

The 2000s aren’t quite over yet, but I’m already itching to start doing “Best of the Decade” lists. After seeing what I feel certain will stand as my big comedy love of 2009, Observe and Report, I have more confidence in providing a list of my favorite film comedies of 2000–2009.

I put no upper or lower limit on the number of movies on this list. If I think I’ll continue to watch a movie and laugh for years to come, I put it on the list. I ended up with fifteen.

Usually, a Woody Allen film would appear here, but his best movie made during this period, Match Point, isn’t a comedy by any stretch of anybody’s imagination.

Although I was tempted to include a few films like Battlefield Earth, A Sound of Thunder, and Eragon that left me hurting from laughter, I made the decision to only list movies that intend to be funny. I also made a choice not to include any documentaries (I don’t consider Borat a documentary), even though they were some hilarious ones, like Super Size Me and Who the #&*! Is Jackson Pollock?. I also decided against including Lost in Translation, a superb and often funny movie, because I decided it belongs on a “drama” list.

The films are listed in their U.S. theatrical release order:

1. Meet the Parents (2000)
The 2004 sequel was wretched, and that hurt my chances of putting Meet the Parents on this list. But divorced from that debacle, this is one of best straightforward good-times at the movies of the 2000s. As a comedy, it’s nothing particularly inventive, but it maintains the right balance of laughs based on the confrontation between Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro (easily his best comedy role) to avoid a turn to more ludicrous slapstick that other filmmakers might have taken with this material.

2. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
It’s interesting that as Disney’s traditional cell-animated films went into a decline, they managed to pull out two wonderful comedies in the format that owe much more to classic Warner Bros. than Old Man Walt. This film was originally planned as a massive, musical epic based on “The Prince and the Pauper” and set in the Incan Empire. Somehow, it turned into a wacky, weird gag-fest—and thank the God of the Sun for that! The film fires jokes constantly, and almost all of them hit. Goodman and Spade make a great team (I can only take Spade in animated form), but it’s Patrick Warburton’s dunderhead Kronk who steals the show. I also found the “Izma Kitty” in the finale outrageously funny; it’s such a dead-on parody of so many Disney villains.

3. Rat Race (2001)
I think this is my favorite pure slapstick farce of the decade, and a pleasant throwback to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World—only shorter. I think it’s the film least likely to appear on other people’s top comedy lists. It helped cheer me up immensely in the unpleasant days after the second week of September. A lot of actors whom I don’t like elsewhere surprised me here. And Jon Lovitz’s accidental Hitler impersonation is one of the funniest scenes to hit screens during the 2000s.

4. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Although The Incredibles and WALL·E are my favorite of Pixar’s CGI output, they belong to other genres before they belong to the comedy genre. Monsters, Inc., on the other hand, I have no hesitation calling a comedy and slapping it down here. One Pixar flick has to be on this list, and why not one of the best “buddy comedies” I’ve ever seen? It’s certainly one of the most creative conceptions from the company, and it mines enormous laughs from each scene while still having the touching quality that’s the company’s trademark.

That Shrek beat this for Best Animated Film at the Oscars is just more proof that the Academy rarely knows what it’s doing. (But still, I have to thank them for Unforgiven and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. They do occasionally get it right.)

5. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
A lot of animated films got on this list, and Lilo & Stitch is another case of Disney going the Warner Bros. route. Stitch is one of the more wonderfully anarchic cartoon characters ever, a bit like the Bob Clampett Daffy Duck. The film reaches it’s humor climax when the tiny alien destructor picks up a VW Bug and uses it as a bludgeon, screaming “Punch Buggy!” Yeah, that’s what Disney films need more of: crazed Elivs-loving aliens going nuts on Kaui with chainsaws and used German cars. How could this not be funny? And it’s fun as a space opera comedy as well.

6. Shanghai Knights (2003)
This is the inclusion on the list that I believe will surprise the most people. I found 2000’s Shanghai Noon only moderately amusing—who woulda thunk a sequel would be so much damned fun? This is my favorite of Jackie Chan’s stateside films after his American mainstream “discovery.” But it’s also the funniest I’ve ever seen Owen Wilson. As an action-comedy, it’s pretty much exactly what I want to see, and the purposeful anachronisms of Wilson’s dialogue (“This country blows,” “I hear England is ass-soup”) are priceless. Great martial arts scenes as well, better than in many other of Jackie Chan’s American films. The filmmakers really see his connection to Charlie Chaplin (who has a part in the film as a street urchin) and Buster Keaton and use it.

7. Bubba Ho-Tep (2003)
Stuck making the festival circuit, this horror-comedy should have opened on at least a thousand screens considering how outrageously funny it is. It deserved at least that level of limited theatrical release. Elvis and a wheel chair-bound black man who thinks he’s JFK (maybe he is?) take on an Egyptian mummy in a retirement home. Possibly the best high concept line ever. And the movie manages to pull it off and make it sound every bit as good as its description! As Elvis impersonations go, I think Bruce Campbell does the best—and least flattering—I’ve ever seen.

8. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
It too quickly turned into an Internet joke and easy Halloween costumes, but I can’t deny that I laughed hysterically at Napoleon Dynamite when I first saw it and still do whenever I take another look at it on DVD. A great sense for small town banal normality gets manufactured into hilarity through some great characters, and although it sometimes seems on the verge of getting serious, it fortunately never does. Unfortunately, director Jared Hess’s follow-up, 2006’s Nacho Libre, didn’t make me laugh once. Oh well, I’ll always Vote for Pedro.

9. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
I love genre blending, and so slapping together zombies and a British romantic comedy looked like a slam dunk. What really surprises me is that Shaun of the Dead takes both its genres completely at face-value. Is it a horror film with a romantic subplot, or is it a romantic comedy that happens to have a flesh-ripping zombie invasion complicating it? It’s hard to say for sure, and that’s the great appeal of the movie. I think what I loved the most about Shaun of the Dead is how it shows the conventions of a horror movie unrolling while the main characters seem not to notice them because they’re too busy with the necessities of troubled relationships. Genius.

10. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Yep, another animated film. Do we take animated comedy for granted? Well I don’t. The claymation geniuses at Aardman started the decade with the excellent Chicken Run, but they had to turn to their original stars of tinkerer Wallace and his wiser partner, the silent dog Gromit, to really strike the laughter gusher. This is the most magnificent use of claymation I’ve ever seen, the star duo recall some of the best comedy teams of all time, and it makes an awesome Halloween film to watch with the kids. And so it makes the list.

11. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
This is arguably the most “dramatic” of the films here, but it’s still unquestionably a comedy. And the Rick James finale is one of the funniest bits of the decade. I think that scene alone would make me list it. Carrell has never done better work than his subdued and morose uncle, and I would never have thought Greg Kinnear capable of such humor. But Amber Breslin and Alan Arkin steal the movie as the plotters—one innocent and one conniving—out to wreck a freaky underage beauty pageant.

12. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
Satire at its funniest and most unnerving. Sometimes we need to have comedy that challenges us with its laughter. Borat is often frankly disgusting, almost like Jackass, but none of its comedy exists just to make us chuckle: it’s confrontational about contemporary American attitudes. Sasha Baron Cohen digs up unpleasant truths from the mouths of the people who run into his “Borat” figure. I was glad I was able to laugh at the antics… otherwise I would have gotten terribly depressed.

13. Knocked Up (2007)
2007 was the goldmine comedy year of the decade. Had I lowered the bar a bit, a few more films might have sneaked in, like Hot Fuzz and Simpsons: The Movie.

You’re wondering why I didn’t put The 40 Year Old Virgin on this list, aren’t you? Because while I liked it, I didn’t love it. It seems more like a set-up for Knocked Up, the cultural moment when the U.S. threw off the shackles of Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, and Will Ferrell, and embraced Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Judd Apatow. It was when we, as comedy-watching citizens, finally became free. Free to love comedy that is crude, outrageous, and yet still about real human beings.

The strange thing is, not only was Knocked Up not the best comedy of the year, it wasn’t even the best comedy with Seth Rogen. Which leads me to…

14. Superbad (2007)
“I assume you all have guns and crack!” My favorite comedy of the decade? I’m starting to think so. Maybe I need more time, but at the moment, yeah. It’s my favorite. Few high school comedies feel so real while still acting outrageous. It’s gross and adorable at the same time. That’s me up on screen, played by Michael Cera. And I met one of the actresses at a dance one night!

15. Observe and Report (2009)
Mean, nasty, repulsive. Nice to see a comedy embrace all that. Destined to be one of this year’s classics, and talked-about long after the top-grossing films of 2009 have fallen into dusty bargain bins. Seth Rogen officially rules American comedy.

17 April 2009

That’s Not The Spirit, Frank

The Spirit (2008)
Directed by Frank Miller. Starring Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson, Dan Lauria, Paz Vega, Louis Lombardi, Jamie King, Arthur the Cat.

I couldn’t resist putting Arthur the Cat on the cast list. He’s in it more than Jamie King, after all. And he does fine work.

The day that Bonebreaker posted his review of The Spirit coincided with the day it arrived in the red Netflix folder in my mailbox, so it seemed the right time to finally watch and review a film that nobody saw when it actually hit theaters. Even someone like me, a comic book-reading pulp fan who likes to wear fedoras.

Comics artist and writer Will Eisner created the character of The Spirit in 1940 as the lead feature in a sixteen-page Sunday supplement that appeared in twenty major American newspapers. Eisner had free reign to what he liked in the format, and created many of the artistic conventions of comic books that we take for granted today. He also brought comics to an adult audience—during much of the Golden Age, comic books were thought of as strictly children’s fare.

Although Eisner has enormous status in the world of comicdom, the average citizen doesn’t know much about The Spirit, which could partially explain why Frank Miller’s movie adaptation of it failed at the box office in December. The crowded holiday season was also a rotten time to release the movie. And coming after a summer with Iron Man and The Dark Knight, The Spirit simply had poor timing. It seemed more like a superhero film from the 1990s, despite its CGI-tech.

The film may have also confused a few viewers. A lot of promotion tried to make the film look like Sin City 2, since it uses the same “virtual studio” method and came from writer/director Frank Miller on his first outing of actually directing. But aside from the noir stylings and technology, The Spirit is lighthearted and comic in tone, more fitting the source material.

13 April 2009

Arneson redux at Black Gate

Today’s post at Black Gate will consist of old news for any of you who already read my blog. It’s a quick notice about the death of Dave Arneson, co-founder of D&D. I included a photograph of a letter I sent to his family (or actually, to him, since the family directed mail to his address and I figured I should speak directly to Mr. Arneson, even though he’s dead and therefore unable to read it), so you can check that out if you feel inclined.

Arneson’s death isn’t generating anywhere near as much attention as Gary Gygax’s last year, which saddens me. Arneson always was the more quiet of the two.

Update: I found this wonderful cartoon tribute to Dave Arneson at Dork Tower.

11 April 2009

Dear Signet Classics: Stop the Jules Verne fraud

I was walking through my local Borders bookstore today when I noticed that a copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth was sitting in a special hanging display along the Science Fiction/Fantasy section. Some employee at the bookstore wanted to bring this book to the attention of the casual browser. Great idea. It’s my favorite Verne novel and I applaud anyone making it noticed over a lot of middling recently published treacle.

Except . . . the edition placed in the display was the Signet Classics one. Which isn’t Verne’s novel at all, but another resurfacing of the dreaded “Hardwigg” version of the book, an 1871 American re-write originally published from Griffith & Farrar with only tenuous connections to Verne’s French text.

The Signet Classics cover and publishing info make no indication that the book isn’t the real Journey to the Center of the Earth, so I can’t blame the bookstore employee for grabbing it and putting it on display. I checked the shelves and found three copies of the Signet non-version, and only one of an actual translation, the Bantam (an outdated translation as well, but at least the translators were actually translating). That’s really sad. This means someone who came to that store to purchase Journey to the Center of the Earth would have a 75% chance of buying a bogus book, a complete fake. That Leonard Nimoy’s name is attached to it (he wrote the Afterword) would only increase the feeling that this is a legitimate translation.

To Signet Classics: stop it now. There are other public domain translations that, while not anywhere near the level of William Butcher’s great translation for Oxford World’s Classics, at least present the book they claim to. For example, you can use Frederick Amadeus Malleson’s 1877 U.K. translation for Ward, Lock, & Co., Ltd. It’s free. Discontinue this fraud. Calling this book Journey to the Center of Earth by Jules Verne is false advertising.

To Leonard Nimoy: Are you aware that Signet Classics is putting your Afterword on a false version of the book? I would feel pretty angry if I were you. I would feel abused. Betrayed. Give Signet Classics a quick call and request that they pull your Afterword unless they use a real translation. This volume is deceiving poor school children!

Movie review: Observe and Report

Observe and Report (2009)
Written and Directed by Jody Hill. Starring Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Ray Liotta, Michael Peña, Collette Wolfe, Celia Weston.

Update: Now on DVD!

I’ll get right to the point. Two points actually.

First: I think Observe and Report, the tale of mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt trying to crack the case of a flasher and get taken seriously as a law-enforcement officer, is genius. It’s daring comedy gold. It will make my short list for best films of 2009 no matter what else comes out this year.

Second: Viewer, beware. Observe and Report is not Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It isn’t a semi-Judd Apatow human comedy. It isn’t another “Seth Rogen: Appealing Goofball” film. No, this is Taxi Driver as a comedy, and not even in the King of Comedy style. It is dark as hell, meaner than a shotgun to the face, and frequently repellent. Think about what kind of comedies you enjoy the most before you make the decision to see this. In Seth Rogen’s own words: “There’s heroin, an alcoholic mom, and some seriously grim sex.” He should also have mentioned the copious violence.

This is the second film comedy to blind-side me this week. First was the excellent Adventureland, which turns out to have only low-key comedy and instead focuses on realistic character drama. And then this thing comes along, making me laugh hysterically while causing my skin to crawl.

I guarantee that this film will turn into a beloved classic for a small population of viewers… and everyone else will loathe it. I can already see this happening in the reviews, where some critics lambast the film for its cruelty, and others embrace its demented tone and approach to the material.

You already know which side I belong to. I appreciate a comedy that dares to do something different, to try a tact that assures many people will hate it. I came out of Observe and Report exhilarated; I love it when a movie shocks me. I love that the people making it knew they could surprise me. And I think Seth Rogen is now one of best actors in the business. I’ve never seen him like this before. At first, you think he’s just another overbearing, somewhat delusional character, similar to some other types that Rogen has played, but also very similar to a Will Ferrell character. But Ronnie, “Head of Security” at a bland mall in an unidentified city (the film was shot in New Mexico), isn’t a goofball. He’s sick. And he’s dangerous. He doesn’t need to be on the Klonopin he’s taking—he should be on anti-psychotics. He should be locked up in an institution. This man should never be allowed within a hundred feet of mace or tasers or nightsticks, let alone a gun.

We’re not supposed to like Ronnie either, the same way we’re not supposed to root for Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. But he’s fascinating, and he’s funny even as he drops deeper and deeper down the mental-illness well because Seth Rogen and writer-director Jody Hill hit the right notes. They provide a few comfortable chuckles, then push and jab at the exact point to where as viewer I didn’t know if I should laugh or cringe. And I often laughed, just because I felt aware of that tension. Date rape, drug abuse, and brutal beat-downs. Observe and Report walks a thin line, but that tension, that stress between comedy and tragedy that makes the very best dark comedies what they are, is something that Hill, Rogen, and everybody else involved executes so perfectly.

About that “everybody else”: with one exception, the other characters in Observe and Report are also extremely unpleasant folks. Ronnie’s mother (Celia Weston) is a drunk whose big triumph is the decision to switch to beer. Ronnie is “in love” with cosmetics counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris), a conspicuous consumption slut with no respect for anybody. She’ll probably be dead in a few years, a victim of domestic violence or ODing on abused perscription medication. The police detective (Ray Liotta) who crosses Ronnie’s path during the investigation into the string of flashings and thefts at the mall thinks nothing of stranding Ronnie in the worst part of town, hoping maybe he’ll get himself killed. Ronnie’s “partner” in the rent-a-cop business, Dennis (Michael Peña, making a great turn from straight drama to demented comedy), commits some despicable things behind mall security’s back. The other shop owners and clerks at the mall are a crew of mean-spirited, foul-mouthed haters.

The film’s only pleasant person is Nell (Collette Wolfe), a counter worker at the food court who has an injured leg and gets nothing but hell for it from her boss (Patton Oswalt). Nell is sweet and genuine—and obviously has a few problem in her past that she doesn’t openly discuss—and Ronnie’s interactions with her are the closest he comes to touching normal humanity. It’s clear that Ronnie has feelings for Nell buried inside, but such feelings are too regular and healthy for someone like him. He can’t even talk to her without digging down into hurtful remarks that he thinks are what somebody wants to hear. That great tension that suffuses the film emerges in this relationship: we want Ronnie to end up with Nell, but we also don’t want this lunatic anywhere near someone as sweet as her.

I can’t say enough about how amazing Rogen is as Ronnie Barnhardt. He tackles the material with ferocity. I doubt many comic actors would have the nerve to take on a role like this. I can’t wait to see what other developments we’ll encounter in Rogen’s future as a comic/dramatic actor, but at this moment I can say without hesitation that I think he’s the best comedy performer on the planet. If I were an Academy voter, I’d mark him down to remember around award season for Best Actor. (There’s no way he’ll get a nomination, of course; but wouldn’t it be killer if he did?)
I’ve always liked Anna Faris, an actress who usually gets the straightforward hot-girl parts in awful and unambitious comedies. I could sense her talent in many of her roles, even in the bad films, but she really shows what she’s capable of here. Like Rogen, she’s playing a character without anything redeeming, and Faris goes to the wall with it to make Brandi the second most despicable person in the movie. Faris is a gorgeous woman, but she turns so ugly on screen as Brandi that sometimes she’s hard to watch.

All the other actors give spot-on performances, and each gets their scene to “shine” with their ugliness. And as Nell, Collette Wolfe does truly shine. She’s so sweet you want to scream at her to get out the film before somebody date rapes or shoots her.
Observe and Report is a film I’m going to talk about for years. I’ll purchase the DVD the week it comes out. At the same time, as I feel about Requiem for a Dream, I will caution some people away from it. It will make many viewers feel simply rotten, and I wouldn’t want them to experience that. I accept that this film isn’t for all tastes. No film is for all tastes, but this an extreme example. But I do know it’s my tastes.

And it got made by a major studio! I can’t believe that! And they put it up against a Hannah Montana movie! Warner Brothers, right now I love you.

I should also point out that New York Times reviewer Manhola Dargis didn’t like this movie. That should send many of you rushing out to see it now.

Take some time to read this interview with Seth Rogen and Jody Hill about making the film. Enlightening, to say the least.

10 April 2009

The other half of D&D, Dave Arneson, has died

I bring sad news. Remember last March, when Gary Gygax died? The co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, a source of fantasy love for many us (even for those of us, like me, who no longer like the game as an RPG and prefer other games)?

Well, the “co” part of “co-creator” just died. Dave Arneson has perished after a two-year fight with cancer at age sixty-one.

Arneson is the less well-known of the two men, probably because he left TSR early, in 1976. He was a hardcore table-top war-gamer, the gaming style popular through the ‘60s and ‘70s (and still today) that would eventually lead to developing Dungeons & Dragons and the table-top role-playing game. Before D&D, he developed Blackmoor, which contains many innovations that would become part of RPGing. He later filed lawsuits against TSR over royalties, and settled out-of-court with Gygax. Arneson started his own game company and continued to teach game design in this later life.

Here is the official release from Arneson’s family:
Shortly after 11pm on Tuesday, April 7th, Dave Arneson passed away. He was comfortable and with family at the time and his passing was peaceful.

The Arneson family would like to thank everyone for their support over the last few days, and for the support the entire community has shown Dave over the years.

We are in the process of making final arrangements and will provide additional details as we work them out. We will continue to receive cards and letters in Dave’s honor. We are planning to hold a public visitation so that anyone wishing to say their goodbye in person has the opportunity to do so.

Cards and letters can continue to be sent:
Dave Arneson
1043 Grand Avenue
Box #257
St. Paul, MN

Visitation will be on April 20th
Time: yet to be determined
Bradshaw Funeral Home
687 Snelling Avenue South
St. Paul, MN 55105
Not much I can say here except that Arneson, like Gygax, had an enormous impact in the development of my imagination at an early age. Enjoy Valhalla, Mr. Arneson.

I’ve already mailed a letter to the address to let his family know how much his work meant to many of us. I’m sure they already know this, but one more can’t hurt.

08 April 2009

Movie Review: Dillinger

Dillinger (1973)
Written and Directed by John Milius. Starring Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Michelle Phillips, Cloris Leachman, Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Dreyfuss, Frank McRae.

The next stop on my “Public Enemies” tour is the film that will receive the most comparisons with the upcoming film Public Enemies: the explosive 1973 low-budget biopic of John Dillinger. Until the premiere of Michael Mann’s film in July, this is the most famous on-screen depiction of the 20th century’s top bank-robber. It brought director John Milius to the world’s attention, paving the way for Big Wednesday and Conan the Barbarian, and gave supporting actor Warren Oates a rare chance to tear up the screen in a lead role.

Dillinger was released through American International Pictures, a specialist in low-budget exploitation fare. The immediate influences on the film are the success of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and the films of Sam Peckinpah. The movie’s two stars, Oates and Ben Johnson, were favorite actors of Peckinpah’s; Oates’s other great lead role was in Peckinpah’s notorious Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Let’s not skirt the facts: Dillinger most certainly is an exploitation movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great one… which it definitely is. In the crazed, palsied hands of an aggressive young filmmaker like Milius, coupled with a dream-cast of great actors, Dillinger becomes lovely sweetmeat of violent, sensationalist, pseudo-history.

06 April 2009

You are standing at the end of a road . . .

I’m really trying to cover all the bases over at Black Gate, moving from book reviews to movie reviews to technology reviews to personal mutterings. This week I’ve jumped over to the world of classic computing. This is not a frequent subject you see on a fantasy literature websites, but I think the world of interactive fiction, “adventure games,” has a great importance in the way I developed my own love of fantasy. I’ve dabbled in adventure game programming as well, and with the appearance of the language Inform 7, a “natural English” programming language, it’s even simpler to get involved with this unusual form of storytelling.

So go enjoy a rambling disucssion about old adventure games and the new generation of adventure game designers.

If you want to hear a bit more of my thoughts on IF, read my Transylvania review.

05 April 2009

The Maltese Falcon: Take 1 (1931)

The Maltese Falcon (1931)
Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Starring Bebe Daniels, Ricardo Cortez, Dudley Digges, Una Merkel, Robert Elliott, Thelma Todd, Otto Matieson, Dwight Frye.

When Warner Brothers green-lit the 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon, they were placing their bets on a first-time director (John Huston) and an unproven leading man (Humphrey Bogart). Yeah, we can laugh about it now. But what the studio did feel certain about at the time was the material, Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 detective novel—because they had already filmed it twice.

The John Huston/Humphrey Bogart incarnation of The Maltese Falcon is so iconic a movie, as “classic” as Classic Movies with Capital Letters get, that it has almost wiped away the existence of the earlier two movies; only film enthusiasts and Hammett fans know about them. In the case of Satan Met a Lady, a 1936 comedy re-working starring Bette Davis, that’s no loss. It has minimal connection to Hammett’s novel, and feels more as if it were trying to act like another of his works, The Thin Man. But the straight adaptation in 1931 starring Ricardo Cortez as detective Sam Spade is worth visiting for anyone who loves the 1941 version, or who wants to see the change in the American crime film over the decade between them. It’s a middling picture on its own, however, and almost impossible to talk about without comparing it to the 1941 movie.

04 April 2009

I have been laid-off

I love the 1930s. The movies, the music, the literature. And now I am living the 1930s. Because an economic crisis caused me to get laid-off from my work this week.

Yes, that’s correct. I’m making a rare foray into “personal info” to tell all my dedicated readers that, after a six year stretch, I am once again among the unemployed.

It happened on Tuesday. I simply didn’t feel like telling anyone about it at the time. Instead I inflicted an immense review of the history book Public Enemies on my small coterie of readers. But the event was not a surprise to me. I had expected something like it to happen during the last three months. The economy isn’t in the most robust shape (although I see some evidence of improvement), and when you work for a commodities firm, you know that downsizing is inevitable. Especially in a branch office. I knew in December that time was running out… and also that I needed the change and should start looking into getting back into teaching. That won’t make for the easiest task, but six years is the longest I’ve stayed at any job, so I needed a forced change.

Plus, my employers gave me three months severance pay. The generosity of this absolutely floors me. I didn’t love my job (that’s an understatement), but in the end the people who employed me were more than fair. I respect that. Actually, and I told this to my boss, it was touching.

Now… onto the next phase of life.


Or teaching English and History.

(Sorry, my love of the 1930s got the best of me there.)

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
Directed by Dave Filoni. Featuring the voices of Matt Lanter, Ashley Eckstein, James Arnold Taylor, Tom Kane, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson.

When the CGI-animated Clone Wars came out in movie theaters in August, nobody noticed. The film, a last-minute tweaking of the early episodes of the Cartoon Network television series for the big screen, blipped on the radar and then fell right off again. I had tossed the movie into my Netflix DVD queue and then, like everybody else on the Planet Earth, forgot about it. But while managing various films in my queue for the developing “Public Enemies Symposium,” Star Wars: The Clone Wars, like some sneaky Jedi using a mind trick, got to the top of the list and into my mailbox.

So I watched it. I think I did. In fact, I think I just finished watching it about ten minutes ago. But I can’t for the life of me remember anything about it.

Okay, I can’t dodge reviewing it that easily. Wish I could. But I have to do the review now, because I really will forget the movie tomorrow.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is really really really awful. It’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 ready, and it even makes Phantom Menace feel like Edgar Rice Burroughs at his height. It’s a film where you get the feeling that everyone involved didn’t care about it, emailed in sloppy jobs, grabbed a paycheck, and then went to see if Pixar and PDI were hiring. Everything about the film comes across as lazy, and that Lucas felt this should actually get released in theaters is one of the most depressing things ever to happen to animated cinema in years. I had problems with Monsters vs Aliens, but now I feel like I should apologize to everybody at DreamWorks animation after seeing how much LucasFilm Animation loused up CGI science-fiction. It doesn’t matter if you love the Star Wars franchise, hate it, or don’t care about it, you will find much to utterly despise about The Clone Wars . . . provided you recall anything about it aside from endless generic action scenes and a lavender slug given the voice of Truman Capote.

The plot was probably dashed out on a napkin in three minutes. Some time between events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi get an assignment to rescue Jabba the Hutt’s kidnapped son, a miniature Hershey Kiss called “Stinky,” from Count Dooku so that Jabba will allow the Republic to use Outer Rim trade routes. Anakin gets an apprentice he calls “Snips,” they banter with flat dialogue, and there’s lots of laser guns and repetitive lightsaber duels to the accompaniment of world-music rhythms and electric guitars. (I don’t mind trying to get away from John Williams-style music, but Kevin Kiner’s work here is distractingly awful.)

The CGI animation works adequately when dealing with the machinery and the technology—at the very least it’s smooth and in-focus—but the characters look like Gerry Anderson puppets, with all the facial expression that that implies. Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd have everybody in The Clone Wars beat in the mobility department.

Is there anything good I can say about The Clone Wars? Christopher Lee does add dignity to Count Dooku with his sepulchral voice, even though the character looks like something whittled out of a piece of driftwood. And Ziro the Hutt, Jabba’s traitorous pink-and-neon uncle, is hilarious with his Truman Capote-whine. This voicing decision must rank as one of the most creatively bonkers in Lucas’s career, but it’s so off-the-wall and “I can’t believe they did this!” weird that it’s more entertaining than anything else in this dreadful film. This isn’t meant as criticism of skilled voice-actor Corey Burton—he was only doing what he was told. I wonder if he did a double-take when informed that Ziro the Hutt was going to be done as if auditioning for a production of Tru.

I’ve heard some episodes of the TV show actually deserve viewing. But let’s just say the movie has made me immensely skeptical.

The best review of the film comes from Lucas himself, who described it as “almost an afterthought.” No kidding.

03 April 2009

Movie Review: “G” Men

“G” Men (1935)
Directed by William Keighley. Starring James Cagney, Margaret Lindsay, Ann Dvorak, Robert Armstrong, Barton Maclane, Lloyd Nolan.

I’m settling into a sort of Public Enemies symposium, running through the history of the “Public Enemies” phase of American crime (1933–34) and the films both from and later about the era. This will serve as a build-up to the July release of the Michael Mann film based on Bryan Burrough’s nonfiction book. “G” Men came out the year after the conclusion of the FBI’s first “War on Crime,” and the film has enormous historical importance for the Bureau itself. I’ll let Burrough give you the background:
It wasn’t Hoover or even [magazine author] Courtney Cooper, however, who created the G-man legend. It was Hollywood. Just days after the [Ma and Fred] Barker killings, word reached Hoover that Warner Brothers was developing a script called G-Men. The studio billed it as “The First Great Story of the Men Who Waged America’s War on Crime.” Neither Hoover nor Homer Cummings was wild about the idea. . . . G-Men was released that April with a massive publicity campaign. The movie, starring Jimmy Cagney as a young FBI agent battling a vicious band of kidnappers modeled on Dillinger, Floyd, and Nelson, was a smash. In just days it did what reality hadn’t, enshrining Hoover as the symbolic head of the nation’s crime-fighting forces. G-Men was so successful it spawned seven more FBI-themed movies by the end of the year. . . . Overnight, Hoover and the FBI were crowned the national’s supreme symbols of justice and strength. (Chapter 17, 517–18)
That’s a heavy historical responsibility for a movie to carry. “G” Men (that’s the actual on-screen title) also shows the change in Hollywood filmmaking because of the strictures of the Breen Code that cracked down on the wilder early gangster films like Scarface, Little Caesar, and The Public Enemy. Hollywood could still make gangster films with tough guys like Cagney, but the stars had to switch to performing as the tough-guy lawman instead of law-breaker. Suddenly, The Public Enemy himself was hunting down the public enemies.