31 May 2009

“Turning 79 Isn’t Tough for Men Like Us, It’s Living That’s Hard”

Just a quick post here to wish a Happy 79th Birthday to one of my favorite actors and writers in the history of moving pictures, Clint Eastwood.

29 May 2009

Twilight Zone: Walking Distance

Welcome back to continuing coverage of The Twilight Zone’s first season in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary.
Episode #5: Walking Distance
Directed by Robert Stevens. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Gig Young, Frank Overton, Ron Howard.

“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six. Occupation: Vice President, ad agency, in charge of media. This is not just a Sunday drive for Martin Sloan. He perhaps doesn’t know it at the time, but it’s an exodus. Somewhere up the road, he’s looking for sanity. And somewhere up the road, he’ll find something else.”

With its fifth aired episode, The Twilight Zone produced the first inarguable classic of its library, and one of the most emotionally moving moments in the show’s storied history—and the history of television. “Walking Distance” is twenty-four minutes of televised magic.

The story has a similar initial premise to Episode #1, “Where Is Everybody?” Man enters a town and discovers that something very odd has started to occur. But for Martin Sloan, a ruffled businessman whose short attitude toward the gas station attendant shows he doesn’t really know how to enjoy life any more, the trip to the small town of Homewood is a return to his roots, and not a trip to an empty netherworld. He grew up in this small town, but has not visited in twenty years. But once he enters the town—on foot while his car gets repaired, and after looking at himself in a mirror—he discovers that nothing about Homewood had changed from his childhood… right down to himself and his family.

Today we tend to remember The Twilight Zone for its clever twists, surreal premises, and aura of weird suspense. But many of the great episodes are deeply moving and sentimental without scares or trick-endings. “Walking Distance” is one of the best of that kind, never falling into the maudlin that often marred the lesser episodes that aimed too directly at the heart. The story feels akin to many of Ray Bradbury’s stories, particularly the ones collected in Dandelion Wine, in the way it explores the wonders and regrets of vanished childhood. The episode doesn’t conclude with any real “twist”—except maybe a glancing reference to a knee-injury—but Zone episodes don’t always require an O’Henry slant in every episode. “Walking Distance” leaves the viewer with a sense of both sorrow and hope: the wonder years are gone, but perhaps in our adult lives we might find time to recapture parts of them. The discussion between adult Martin Sloan and his past-father (Frank Overton) is a stirring exchange about how adults might find a way back to those merry-go-rounds of decades thought lost. The merry-go-round, as Ray Bradbury demonstrated in Something Wicked This Way Comes, is a potent metaphor for lost innocence. (And they’re sort of scary, too. Sudden Impact shows how they can turn into deadly weapons.)

The score is an original work from Bernard Herrmann, the composer most closely associated with the show, and widely considered the best movie composer in the history of the medium. Herrmann’s work here is a gut-twisting accompaniment to what’s on screen, and has deservedly seen many CD releases and re-recordings.

Catch the very young Ron Howard as the little boy with whom Gig Young discusses playing jacks on the suburban street.

Joe Dante, in his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, makes reference to this episode when character Helen Foley says she’s from the town of Homewood. All the towns mentioned in the movie’s diner scene are from the show, such “Willoughby,” from the episode “A Stop at Willoughby” from late in the first season (which might be viewed as a companion piece to this episode). Oh, the name “Helen Foley” comes from another first season episode, “Nightmare as a Child.” The Dante segment is loaded with these kind of references.

Twilight Zone: Where Is Everybody?

As I mentioned in my review of Twilight Zone: The Movie, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Twilight Zone, which premiered on CBS in 1959. So why not review some episodes from that fantastic first season, which is available on a superb, extras-laden DVD set? And why not start with the very first (if you don’t count “Time Element,” the unofficial pilot TV special) episode of the show’s run?
Episode #1: Where Is Everybody?
Directed by Robert Stevens. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Earl Holliman.

“The place is here, the time is now, and the journey into the shadows that we're about to watch could be our journey.”

27 May 2009

Book review: The Day of the Barbarians

The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire (2007)
By Alessandro Barbero, trans. by John Cullen

The year of the fall of Rome is 476 C.E. Unless you happen to be an historian.

Although some counter-debate has started over this topic during the last few years, the standard position among medieval and classical historians about the end of the Roman Empire is that it never actually “fell,” and the ouster of Romulus Augustulus, last emperor of the Western Empire, was hardly marked by any commentators of the time. Nobody thought it was important because the change to the era of Late Antiquity had already occurred. Rome didn’t fall, it just shifted.

This new, slender volume (originally published in Italy as 9 Agosto 378: Il Giorno dei Barbari) belongs to this “Late Antiquity” school of Roman history. Italian scholar Barbero describes a key event that throttled the empire and ended the old order forever—nearly a century before the infamous year of 476 C.E. According to Barbero, the Battle of Adrianople on 9 August 378 C.E. sealed the fate of the Roman Empire and changed the history of the world. “It is not a famous fight like Waterloo or Stalingrad; in fact, most people have never heard of it. And yet some believe that it signified nothing less than the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the Middle Ages. . . .”

26 May 2009

Risus: The Anything RPG

Yes, it’s Black Gate Tuesday again. And I’m taking on another review of a “beer-and-pretzels” role-playing game, following up on Kobolds Ate My Baby!

Risus is the most rules-lite of all rules-lite games. It’s so simple, it takes up only six PDF pages, which you can download for free. Read the rest here… I promise it isn’t longer than the rules themselves.

22 May 2009

Movie review: Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation (2009)
Directed by McG. Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Michael Ironside, Common, Helena Bonham Carter.

This movie has robots in it. Lots of ‘em. Big and small, versatile, with plenty of ways to make life unlivable for the human resistance fighters who have banded together in the wake of Judgment Day, the nuclear nightmare visited upon the planet at the end of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The robots of Skynet are a pretty damn awesome group of movie gadgets and bad guys. They’re the best part of this fourth movie in a franchise that should have stopped when creator James Cameron waved “hasta la vista, Baby” after the second film.

Terminator Salvation at the least improves on the third film, which was a tired effort that simply went about the same old business of the previous two movies: robots hunting down a Connor in modern-day Los Angeles, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the combatants. The new film makes the logical leap to the future war between humans and machines shown briefly at the start of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and in flashbacks in The Terminator. When I first heard the proposal for the new film, I nodded my head in agreement: if you want to carry this series on, this is the right way to go.

Then they put McG, director of the two Charlie’s Angels films, in the director’s chair, and I retracted my previous assessment. I knew James Cameron wouldn’t come back to the series—there was no reason to even hope that he would—but why McG?

20 May 2009

Never compromise, even in the face of Halloween being months away…

It is never too early to start Halloween costume-planning—at least for me. Long before the film version of Watchmen came out, I knew I wanted to go as objectivist vigilante Rorschach for Halloween. (It was reading the graphic novel that made me eager to don a ink-blot mask, trenchcoat, and fedora.) There are already a number of commercially available Rorschach costumes for purchase, but I think they look awful. Besides, I already own a trenchcoat, brown fedora, and white scarf, so I am ahead on the costume developing. But today, in the bookstore of all places, I came across a high quality commercial Rorschach mask—far better than the cheap ones that come with the complete costumes. So I purchased it (on sale!) and here is the first photo test:
As you can see, the mask has large eye-holes in it, which I darkened digitally for the picture. For the full costume, I’ll darken my eyes either with make-up, or I’ll sew thin black fabric across them (I like the last option better).

The wait for Halloween is always so difficult…

19 May 2009

Plums deify a Mercedes-Benz

Today’s post at Black Gate is a strange one. I think the title of the post sort of says it at all, without saying anything at all.

Essentially, this is a post describing a writing exercise involving making no sense at all. So go ahead and read it.

I also make a comparison between George Carlin and Bertrand Russell—who have a lot in common, something I discovered today through accident.

And remember: “Mary bankrupted her favorite orangutan’s discotheque.”

16 May 2009

Intelligence and stupidity at the bookstore

One of my favorite “writer” activities is to walk next door to the major mall and go through their Borders Books and Music. Living beside a large bookseller, even if it is a chain (I like to support independent bookstores when I have the opportunity) makes constant purchases a serious danger, but I’ve learned through these frequent walks not to give in and go on a buying binge. I have it much worse when I take a trip up to Portland and go to Powell’s, but that’s another story.

However, I have another reason to circumambulate a large bookstore aside from purchasing books, researching popular titles and trends, and simply absorbing a literary (mall literary, but still literary) atmosphere. Bookstores, you see, have some of the most interesting conversations going on throughout them. I imagine that nightclubs might compete with them in this arena, but the music is so damn loud there you can’t hear anything. A bookstore is neither the tomb silence of the library, nor the clashing utensil din of a restaurant, and because the inhabitants are surrounded with the world of ideas, they start to get into intriguing conversations.

Not necessarily intelligent conversations, although that does sometimes occur, but conversations that at least veer off of sundry topics and that make for interesting eavesdropping. Everything from fascinating to hilariously stupid—the bookstores bring it all out.

I overhead examples of both today as I walked the wide corridors of Borders Books and Music. (I wish they would bring the shelves closer together and get more books on the shelves, but the reason for this is to make the shelves accessible to the handicapped, so I can’t argue with that.)

First, I came across a parliament of high school students, probably freshmen or sophomores, who had parked on the floor at the intersection of the Eastern Philosophy and Christianity shelves with the U.S. History shelves. I don’t like it when people clog the aisle like that, sprawling entirely across the floor, but I’m not going to act the part of the irritable grouch and tell the kids to move—especially when I don’t need to be in that section for anything specifically. I was a teen once too, and know the bizarre temptation to sprawl across a hallway with good friends, even when there are perfectly acceptable chairs a couple feet away. (Someone should write a thesis on “teen hall sprawling.”) I moved past the teen parliament and stood at the Philosophy section. While I pretended to find fascination in a copy of Wittgenstein, I listened to the four teens—two boys, two girls—talk about theology and history. It wasn’t an erudite academic argument they were having; it fit with their level of education. But they were making a debate about the existence of deity and expressing their leanings toward the agnostic position (although none of them used with word “agnostic”). It was uplifting to hear teens talking about serious philosophical topics, especially teens who didn’t appear to be the sort who would gather around for this sort of symposium. As I said, bookstores have this sort of power.

Now, on to the stupid. And let this be a lesson to all book consumers about how to phrase a query to a bookstore employee. I walked past the central Information desk, where a middle-aged woman and her husband walked up to the pleasant clerk with the aspect of a kindergarten teacher who was currently working the desk. The customer kindly asked: “I recently read this book that I really loved. I was wondering if you could recommend another great book.”

This is the point when Terry Gilliam in medieval knight armor comes out and whacks the customer over the head with a rubber chicken.

Customer, come on! “Recommend a great book?” Okay, how about A History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides? Maybe Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy? Perhaps The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald? Or Fast One by Paul Cain? All great books. But all over the map, and perhaps nothing like what you might want to read. Could you please narrow the focus?

This leaves it up to the be-trodden clerk to have to start asking questions like “Well, what do you like?” and play detective in a frustrating game of Twenty Questions. But customer, you should make your likes clear from the start. Asking for a “great book” is completely useless as a query. And, most dangerously, if the clerk is busy (or not well-read), you might just get recommended whatever is most popular at the time—and clerks should make sure to guide you to what isn’t the big seller. Clerks (the good ones, at least) want to guide you to the more out-of-the-mainstream awesome authors who need your readership. So give them some help, and you might leave the store with something unusual and beyond whatever the bestseller lists are trying to force-feed you.

So, I recommend a rubber chicken over the head. Next question.

15 May 2009

Movie review: Changeling

Changeling (2008)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore, Jason Butler Harner, Michael Kelly, Amy Ryan.

In the middle of of 2008, movie critics and film-goers would have viewed the upcoming Gran Torino as the other Clint Eastwood film. The media and potential audiences attached prime importance to The Changeling as Clint’s big movie for the year. Now everything has flipped around. Gran Torino turned into a huge hit, a key “Eastwoodian” moment, and Changeling is the other film. Not that this stopped Angelina Jolie from getting a Best Actress nomination.

Changeling tackles three different stories combined into one canvas and stretches it over the tent poles of a social-commentary. First, a mother searches for her vanished son. Second, the city of Los Angeles in the late 1920s deals with the immense corruption within its police force. Third, detectives hunt for a serial killer. The mixture of these three isn’t always a harmonious one, and Eastwood works better as a director when he works with social commentary on a smaller, more individual scale… like Gran Torino.

However, Changeling is an almost-great film. For the first hour and twenty minutes I think it’s a phenomenal, a gripping message film noir showing a life spiraling out of control in the hands of a heartless police force, decorated with the beauties of the 1920s Los Angeles (the city never looked better in its history than during this decade). I think one of the reasons that Eastwood chose to direct the movie was the chance to plunge into the period setting—which he does with his usual sober enthusiasm.

Let me set the stage of the L.A. of the period for you, something I’m more than happy to do because I love the history of my city. During the ‘20s, the police department in L.A. swung violently between two extremes. Police chiefs were either reformers or undisguised gangsters, and usually alternated from one chief to another. A reformer would never last long because he would step on too many toes, and the corrupt crook would eventually ignite public outcry. Police Chief August Vollmer (1923–24) tried to scrub-up the department’s nasty reputation by introducing a level of professionalism to the force. But James Edgar “Two Gun” Davis (1926–29, played in the movie by Colm Feore) left his mark on L.A. history as one of the most corrupt chiefs ever. Under his control, the LAPD essentially made itself the toughest gang in the city, wiping out the actual criminal competition so it could run the graft show. (Depressingly, his successor, “Strongarm Dick” Roy E. Steckel, arguably exceeded him in corruption). Changeling is the story of Davis’s fall.

Well, only in the macro-view of the story. But it’s Davis’s tainted force—a pack of bullies only tangentially interested in law-enforcement—that places in motion all the pain of the tale. Police Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) is Davis’s tool in the LAPD’s war against Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a woman whose son has disappeared; a war that the department hopes will boost its collapsing reputation in the press.

Collins is a strong, single mother, and Jolie plays the part perfectly. When her son Walter vanishes, she seeks help from the police but gets little aid. Suddenly, the police locate her son and return him to her in the middle of a media circus. Except… the boy isn’t her son. Clearly not. But the police and their paid specialists have a simple message for Christine: he is your son, so shut the hell up if you know what’s good for you. When Christine fights, the LAPD pulls out their secret weapon. They have Christine abruptly declared insane and tossed into a psychopathic ward. Due process? Never heard of it.

All of this the movie handles expertly. The sense of frustration, alienation, and helplessness that make the best films noir. Even the social protest angle, embodied in John Malkovich’s crusading pastor, has a connection with the “Ripped from the Headlines” noirs that Warner Bros. made in the 1940s. Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) push the viewer deeper and deeper into a nightmare that culminates in two amazing sequences. First, Christine’s torment in the asylum, where anything she does the keepers use against as evidence that she’s insane. Second, a shivery flashback a boy narrates about how a madman (Jason Butler Harner) in rural Riverside forced him to help him kidnap and gruesomely murder more than twenty young boys. (For people who have difficulty handling movies that deal with cruelty toward children, you might want to skip this.)

But once the movie gets past the mid-point, it starts to deflate into a routine courtroom drama. Actually, two courtroom dramas. The police stand trial in one, and multiple-murderer Gordon Stewart Northcott in the other. The social message part of the film now struggles to the foreground, and once again I see why adhering to the “True Story” parts of a true story can get in the way of telling the most compelling story.

A few scenes in the latter half still manage to work, but they’re the exception, not the rule. There’s too much heroic grandstanding and melodramatic arm flailing, and the wrap-up feels maudlin and trite; it’s the only place where I didn’t believe Jolie’s performance as Collins.

Eastwood’s direction stays with the somber and restrained style that has dominated most of his work since Unforgiven put his career back on track. Even when he directs a problematic movie like this, I still love how he directs it. “Dignity.” That’s the word for Eastwood’s directorial style. If Ron Howard had directed the movie, as originally intended, it would have worked far less effectively. The arm-flailing would have dominated the whole movie.

Under the camera of Tom Stern and the production design of James J. Murakami, Changeling is undoubtedly one of the best looking films of 2008. I love seeing old Los Angeles come to life, and Eastwood does it in a glowing but realistic style. Even when I felt my interest slide in the second half, and I could always absorb the wonderful art deco buildings and the beauty of the costumes. Jolie has never look better than under the shadow of a cloque hat. Eastwood thought the actress’ face fit the time period, and he was right.

Gran Torino ran Changeling over, so Eastwood stands guilty of sabotaging himself with his own talent, but I think I might find a place on my list of favorite films of 2008 for Changeling.

11 May 2009

Star Trek post-game analysis

Oh great, Ryan is going to talk about Star Trek again.

Hey, I gave you a short break with that Twilight Zone: The Movie review, didn’t I?

So even though I have already given you a full review of the new movie, I do owe the folks at Black Gate some discussion of this key movie for genre fans. But for today’s Black Gate post, I decided it wasn’t enough to write up another review of the film. Instead, I’ve done a bit of post-game analysis. Now that the film has had its boffo-socko opening ($76.5 million), and all the reviews from professionals and bloggers have come together, as well as word-of-mouth from the common citizens who don’t own complete sets of Star Trek: The Original Series, I think I can do an interesting analysis on what the new Trek film means.

So read some of plumbing of logic as I look at the Star Trek ‘09 phenomenon.

Even though logic is only the beginning of wisdom.

And Karl Urban rocks. De Forest Kelley lives again! Boffo, Lenny. Socko, Lenny.

Movie review: Twilight Zone: The Movie

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller. Starring Vic Morrow, John Lithgow, Scatman Crothers, Kathleen Quinlan, Dan Aykroyd.

Look at me! I’m writing about a movie revival of a classic ‘60 speculative-fiction television series that has a connection to Jerry Goldsmith—and it’s not Star Trek! Illogical.

The inspiration for re-watching Twilight Zone: The Movie, however, isn’t from Trek at all. I just received on my doorstep my copy of the freshly-minted expanded release of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the movie. I own an old LP, and transferred that to CD and my iPod long ago, but the score has never had a domestic CD release—and this new one from Film Score Monthly contains the entirety of the music. It occurred to me as I listened to the album that I hadn’t watched the film in probably a decade. Time for another trip through the Doorway of Imagination. . . .

09 May 2009

Star Trek: The Ultimate Computer

The nostalgia waves from the new Star Trek have had a powerful effect. Seeing the new/old crew today made me reach for my complete season sets of the classic series, pick an episode I haven’t watched in a while, and enjoy the magic of seeing these characters in their original versions—now given a new life in the wider world. It’s a thrill to feel so good about Star Trek again. So here’s a quick drive-by review of an oldie but goodie from the second season.
Episode #53: The Ultimate Computer
Directed by John Meredyth Lucas. Written by D. C. Fontana. Guest starring William Marhsall, Barry Russo.

Kirk vs. the Supercomputer turned into one of the great Trek clichés—four episodes feature it—but this is the best of them all, although “The Changeling” might give it competition. Kirk manages to easily overcome through argument the M-5, the war-game computer installed on the Enterprise to see how efficiently it can run a ship with a minimal crew. Of course M-5 seizes control and turns the war games into mortal battles, leaving Kirk to convince the computer to execute itself.

These episodes usually hinge on Kirk’s climactic philosophical debate with the thinking machine, but here the dramatic focus lies elsewhere. The computer’s creator, Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall, who would play the title character in Blacula in 1972), has his own personality tied into the M-5, and getting control of the Enterprise from M-5 before Starfleet decides to wipe the rebellious ship off the starcharts requires more an investigation in Daystrom’s mind than into the wiring of the computer. Kirk also discovers that knowing men, and their capacity for passion, is as powerful a tool as a supercomputer.

Marshall gives a magnetic performance as an apparently rational man who hides a deep irrational secret. His conversation with his “child” is a more intense scene than Kirk’s later tricking of the computer. Daystrom’s mental breakdown is queasily convincing. The casting of Marhsall also displays a perfect example of the equality that Star Trek brought to televion: Marshall is a black actor, but no one brings any attention to his race or treats him any differently because of it. In 1960s television, this simply wasn’t done: the race of non-white characters were their roles. But in the progressive 23rd century, the human race is simply the human race.

Spock provides some character surprises. He feels empathy toward M-5 and its quest to create complete efficiency—but he eventually rebels against it and sees that a biological crew provides benefits that a computer never could. He also identifies the M-5 as displaying “illogical” behavior, the first clue that the computer’s malfunction goes beyond its circuits and back to its creator.

The strength of the drama (and the building tension, complete with genuine space-battles and destroyed Federation ships) shouldn’t come as a surprise with D. C. Fontana at the typewriter. She is one of Star Trek’s finest writers, perhaps my personal favorite, and her episodes usually have perfectly tuned characterizations and moments for everyone to shine. McCoy gets plenty of chance to grumble and berate Spock, such as when Spock first observes the M-5 in operation: “Did you see the love light in Spock’s eyes? The right computer finally came along.”

I can’t believe I haven’t watched “The Ultimate Computer” in so long; it’s one of the best episodes of Season 2. I must have simply forgotten its quality in the haze of “Darn, Kirk’s going scream philosophy at a glowing ball again.”

08 May 2009

Movie review: Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (2009)
Dircted by J. J. Abrams. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder.

My relationship to the Star Trek franchise is chronicled here. Now let’s get on to this movie.

In Star Trek ‘09 you get to see Spock beat the living crap out of Kirk. Me likes. Me likes a lot.

Now on to the rest of the review.

So there’s this Romulan guy named Nero (played by some tattoos with the backdrop of Eric Bana) who is very angry because somebody accidentally blew up his planet. Thanks to a singularity, he goes back in time to wipe out the United Federation of Planets one planet at a time using a “black hole gun” borrowed from Godzilla vs. Megaguirus so he can make everybody feel as rotten as he does. However, a certain someone else has also flown through the singularity to save the past through a manipulation that will create the famous crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise as we know it so they can confront the menace of Nero and his Really Big Drill Thingy.

I have to tell you right now, I’m having a blast writing this review. This is so much geek joy. I love that I’m having fun writing about a new “Star Trek” product. Cool. Neat-o. Warp Factor 10.

06 May 2009

Pre-Release Star Trek ‘09 Comments

The new Star Trek film, sporting the fascinating title Star Trek, comes out on Friday; it’s already picking up rave reviews, but I’ve felt excited about this project since its first announcement. I had already started to craft the first part of my review of the film in my head, a sort of prologue to explain my relation to the Star Trek franchise before getting into the details of the movie itself. Then I decided, “Why take up a large part of the review with a prologue that I can write and post before I see the film?” So here are my pre-Star Trek release comments as a preamble to my review that will appear this weekend.

Whenever I deal with the Star Trek franchise, I have to ask myself this question: “Am I a ‘Trekker’?”

05 May 2009

Movie review: Union Pacific

Union Pacific (1939)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Starring Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Ridges, Henry Kolker.

The year 1939 CE was the most important year for the American Western. During most of the 1930s, the genre was relegated to B-picture status, and the majority of the films churned out came from smaller studios like Republic, Mascot, and PRC as part of continuing series like the Three Mesquiteers. But in 1939, five A-budget Westerns from the major studios turned into smash hits that changed how filmmakers would handle the genre for the next twenty years.

Dodge City gave adult audiences a taste of great Western action and adventure, with deft direction from Michael Curtiz and a dashing performance from Errol Flynn as a different sort of Old West hero. Director Henry King’s Jesse James flipped around to the other side of the law, and kicked off a flood of outlaw-themed Westerns. Destry Rides Again gave audiences a different kind of Western comedy filled with parody. Stagecoach… well, what can you say about a film that revitalized the career of director John Ford, turned a B-movie performer like John Wayne into the biggest film celebrity in history, and has been called by film historians “the most important sound Western ever made”? (Gone with the Wind won the Oscar for Best Picture that year. But in my fantasy world, Stagecoach swept all the statues. Eat it, David O. Selznick! John Ford forever!)

Finally, there’s Union Pacific, the least-seen of the “Big Five” today. Its gift to the Western-viewing public of 1939 was that of an enormous scope they weren’t used to seeing in the genre. Cecil B. DeMille brought his customary sweep to the milieu; although not a great director, DeMille was a great showman and could handle big pictures in a way that appeals to audiences both then and now. Union Pacific is no exception, even if it looks a bit paler beside the other four movies of the Great Western drive of ’39. It remains a middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser.

Kobolds Ate My Baby!

I’ve decided to stay with RPGs for this week on Black Gate, except I’ve switched over to the tabletop variation of the hobby. Presenting a review of the Beer and Pretzels role-playing game, Kobolds Ate My Baby! Super Deluxx Edition.

“Beer and Pretzels” RPGs are rule-lite, designed for fast, fun, and silly gaming. KAMB! (as it is abbreviated) is one of the original Beer and Pretzels RPGs, and takes the idea of the weakest and most useless of all Dungeons & Dragons monsters, the cannon-fodder kobold, and makes them the heroes—with a dose of Chuck Jones cartoon insanity. It’s an, uhm, interesting gaming experience. The manual itself is worth it just for the humor value.

Read the full review here.

02 May 2009

Hadley Victoria Kuzara

Here are the first photos I took of Hadley Victoria Kuzara, daughter of my cousin Dean and his wife Audrey. She was born today at 3:49 p.m. PST, 6 lbs. 5 oz., 19 inches. The baby is healthy, beautiful, and already feeding.
With her Dad

World’s shortest update

My cousin Audrey is in labor with her first child.

01 May 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, William J. Adams, Lynn Collins, Ryan Reynolds.

Fox attempts to continue the “X-Men” film franchise past the obvious terminal point of 2005’s X-Men: The Last Stand with a set of “biopic prequels.” This first X-Men Origins film, tackling the most famous of Marvel Comics’ mutants—in fact, their most popular character after a certain web-slinger—has already received a large number of negative reviews, but I’ll admit that I enjoyed it on a standard “Welcome to the Summer Movie Season” level. It’s far superior to the empty X-Men: The Last Stand, and since it only has to worry about one main character, it can get the focus that the desperately rushed and overstuffed previous film lacked.

But Wolverine has added it’s own pack of secondary mutants into its main character’s origin, and not all of them belong there or make much sense. That’s one of my main complaints with the movie overall. For example, shoehorning Cyclops into all this simply doesn’t work.

Another problem with the film is that the basic premise means Wolverine gets a full history… and like the Joker in DC Comics, Wolverine benefits more from a mysterious background than a fully exposed one. So much of creating a story for him involves backtracking from the comics and specifically events in X2, the second and best of the X-Men films, that some parts don’t fit together, requiring the script sometimes do hand-waving distractions á la George Lucas.

People unfamiliar with the previous X-Men movies or the comics may find the story a bit confounding in places. The plot has Col. William Stryker from X2 (played there by Brian Cox, here by Danny Huston) as the main villain. Stryker sets up his “mutant project” that will lead to the creation of the hero Wolverine as we know him, and also establish the U.S. government’s future confrontation with “the mutant problem.”

But first… a prologue shows the youthful Wolverine, Jimmy Howlett (the movie sort of skips over how he picks up the name Logan—at least I didn’t catch it), and his half-brother Victor Creed discovering their mutant powers and running into the 1845 Canadian wilderness. It’s a clumsily acted and shot opening that doesn’t promise well for the rest of the movie, but the excellent credit sequence showing Logan (Hugh Jackman in his fourth appearance as the character) and Creed (a.k.a. Sabertooth, now played by Liev Schreiber) fighting in all the major U.S. wars that follow restores some hope. Both Schreiber and Jackman plunge into the roles with an energy that overcomes the staid dialogue. During Vietnam, Stryker approaches both men to ask them to form part of special force of other mutants, but Logan leaves when Creed’s sadism—and that of the team’s goals in general—gets too strong.

The events that follow show Stryker gaming Logan as part of his overall plot, one that eventually requires Huston to spout a bit too much exposition. However, Huston is one of Hollywood’s best villain actors right now, a man who oozes authority and slime at the same time, so even if his scheming gets a bit convoluted at times, it’s fun watching him go at it. I can’t tell who I like better in the role, Huston or Cox; I’ll have to re-watch X2 before I can make a decision on that.

A pack of bonus mutants pile-on via Stryker’s program. Ryan Reynolds appears early on during the strike force days, then vanishes until his reappearance as Deadpool (drastically different from the comic book character). William J. Adams, using his silly rapper name of will.i.am, plays a forgettable teleporter character who could have teleported right out of the film and changed nothing. One of my favorite mutant villains, the Blob, finally shows up in an X-Men film, played Kevin Durand, and he’s one of the film’s highlights; I wish we got to see more of him. Kinetic mutant Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) shows up as a plot device/afterthought, but he adds energy at a point when the film needs it.

The action in the film generally clicks, especially Wolverine’s confrontation with a helicopter and jeep attack in the Canadian wilderness. The attempts at comedy and tenderness, however, fall flat, such as the silly sequence that comes right before the helicopter battle, when Wolverine hides out with the most trusting pair of ol’ folks you’ve ever seen. Logan’s romance with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) also feels like dead-weight.

Based on historical references, the majority of the movie occurs in the 1970s. The climax, for example, most definitely occurs on 28 March 1979. (Click on the date if you want a mild spoiler.) However, nobody seems to have informed the production or costume design teams about the setting, since everything looks perfectly 2009. It isn’t even late-1990s, which would put it before X-Men. I can’t tell if this is laziness on the filmmakers’ part, or if they liked the idea of the “shifting timeline” in Marvel and DC Comics that makes everything that happens in the past rougly analogous with the present. Wait, I can tell. Laziness.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine won’t pose any threat to Iron Man as far as Marvel superhero movies go, but it isn’t the worst way to start the summer.

Best exchange:
“Your country needs you.”
“I’m Canadian.”
That’s probably the sharpest claw-swipe Jackman makes in the movie.