30 August 2009

Harryhausen Goes Panavision: The First Men in the Moon

The First Men in the Moon (1964)
Directed by Nathan Juran. Starring Lionel Jeffries, Edward Judd, Martha Hyer.

I recently re-read H. G. Wells’s 1901 classic The First Men in The Moon, and that combined with reviewing The 3 Worlds of Gulliver made me eager to re-watch the Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer film version of The First Men in the Moon. Like The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, it hasn’t received as much attention as some of Harryhausen’s other classic stop-motion animation pictures; it must have been at least a decade since I sat down to watch the whole thing from first frame to last.

Harryhausen, who is also credited as Associate Producer along with his effects work, wanted to do an H. G. Wells movie for a number of years and did some development for a possible version of The War of the Worlds. But it was Wells’s deeply satirical tale of two Englishmen—a classic absent-minded professor and a greedy, myopic lout—who journey to the Moon and discover an underground civilization of creatures they call “Selenites” that really seized Harryhausen’s attention. When great British SF screenwriter Nigel Kneale (also responsible for The Abominable Snowman) came aboard as a writer, the project got the rights for the novel from Wells’s son Frank and funding from Columbia. Nathan Juran, who had directed The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 20 Million Miles to Earth took the director’s chair for his third outing with Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer. Schneer insisted on Panavision, and the anamorphic process ended up causing Harryhausen numerous headaches. According to Harryhausen’s biography:
I argued against its use, knowing there were going to be major complications for the Dynamation sequences. Charles simply reminded me that I’d resisted colour for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and that scope was simply another technical advance audiences expected. In the end I had to give way to the commercial arguments and began redesigning the Dynamation process…. When the picture was completed, even Charles conceded that “the extra time we took to do it didn’t seem to merit the use of the process.”
They were both right. Because of the Panavision switch, many of Harryhausen’s planned animation sequences were eliminated in pre-production, and only three major ones ended up in picture. Later classics like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Clash of the Titans didn’t require an anamorphic screen size to tell a great yarn—it just wasn’t a necessary technical step for this series.

27 August 2009

“The Boy Cried Murder” a.k.a. “Fire Escape”

The Lightning Bug’s Lair recently posted a review of the classic Hitchcock film Rear Window, which is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, My Favorite U.S. Author™. This got me itchin’ to re-read one of Woolrich’s similar tales, “The Boy Cried Murder,” which is better known under the reprint title “Fire Escape.” It was also made in a very great, but sadly mostly unknown film.

“The Boy Cried Murder” is one of Woolrich’s finest works of pure suspense. He combines his skill writing from a child’s point of view (“If I Should Die before I Wake,” “Through a Dead Man’s Eyes”) with a plot similar to “It Had to Be Murder” ( “Rear Window”’s original title), right down to a body cut up and packed into a case. Taking a cue from the Aesop fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” Woolrich crafts the story of young Buddy, who, while sleeping on a fire escape to get away from the horrid July heat in the city, witnesses the couple living upstairs on the sixth floor stab to death a man while trying to rob him. But Buddy can’t convince his parents that he’s telling the truth because he has a history of making up outrageous stories. Not only do his parents refuse to believe his tale, but his father beats him for “lying.” Buddy sneaks out to go to the police, but this is the Woolrich Universe, where cops are basically callous thugs. They don’t believe Buddy any more than his parents do.

Then the story drops the suspense hammer. When the cops take Buddy back home, his parents force him to apologize to the couple upstairs—apologize to a pair of murderers. Then his parents lock Buddy in his room—even nailing shut the window—and leave him for the night. “He was alone now. Alone with crafty enemies, alone with imminent death.”

The tension that follows is among the best orchestrated that Woolrich ever wrote. But what really stands out about “The Boy Cried Murder” is its unflinchingly bleak view of childhood. Buddy is a sharp and imaginative boy, but to all adults he’s a troublesome liar. This is a world in which no adult is on your side: strangers, police, even your own parents. The scene of Buddy begging his father not to leave him alone during the night when he knows the murderers will come for him is almost unbearable to read because of the father’s cold disregard for his son’s impassioned pleading. “Wasn’t there anyone in the whole grown-up world who believed you? Did you have to be grownup yourself before anyone would believe you, stop you from being murdered?” Woolrich never wrote a better story from a child’s view, and never a grimmer one.

(I also would like to suggest that would-be murderers never try to dismember a corpse with a straight razor. Just don’t waste your time. Hey, hafta have one whopper in a Woolrich story, right?)

The story is so good that within a few days of its publication, RKO purchased the film rights and turned it into a minor-classic film noir called The Window. Released in 1949, it was directed by Ted Tetzlaff and stars Barbara Hale, Paul Stewart (playing one of the killers, of course), Arthur Kennedy, and tragic child actor Bobby Driscoll (he died from a drug abuse soon after his thirty-first birthday). I had an opportunity to see this film a few years ago at a special Woolrich double feature at the Egyptian in Hollywood (the other movie was the middling adaptation of Deadline at Dawn) and was amazed by it; it’s as good as some of Hitchcock’s suspense films and stays very faithful to the story—although the parents are made more pleasant people in the film version. The entire audience was riveted and gasping out loud during the tenement finale. Barbara Hale was present at the screening and talked to us about it afterward. Unfortunately, The Window has yet to make it to Region 1 DVD. Someone ought to get on this.

The story has gotten re-filmed a few times. The 1984 film Cloak & Dagger was originally going to be a straightforward adaptation of the short story, but was changed so significantly during scripting that Woolrich’s name only appears in the legal disclaimer in the end credits.

24 August 2009

The “Other” Harryhausen: The 3 Worlds of Gulliver

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)
Directed by Jack Sher. Starring Kerwin Mathews, June Thorburn, Grégoire Aslan, Basil Sydney, Jo Morrow, Sherri Alberoni, Peter Bull.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

First there was the Dynamation spectacle of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Then there was Mysterious Island. Then the miracle of Jason and the Argonauts, and… wait, I seem to have skipped one. Oh yes, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, made right after Sinbad. Now how did that one slip away?

Among the “Core Ten” Harryhausen films, the ten color fantasy and period science-fiction pictures he made between 1958 and his retirement in 1981 (all but one produced with Charles H. Schneer), The 3 Worlds of Gulliver gets the least amount of love now. For most of the 1980s, it was probably the unfortunate The Valley of Gwangi that suffered the most neglect, but that was because of its unavailability on video. (The weird name wasn’t helping it either; it certainly wasn’t the filmmakers’ first choice for the title.) Today, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver has turned into something of “the other movie” in the list of Harryhausen classics, even though it came out in 1960 fresh after the smash global success of The 7th Voyage Sinbad and featured that movie’s star, Kerwin Mathews, and its composer, Bernard Herrmann. In fact, Herrmann’s score is well-loved and appreciated among music fans through multiple re-recordings, but those same music lovers often haven’t watched the movie that inspired the music.

As a Harryhausen fanatic, even I’m guilty of ignoring The 3 Worlds of Gulliver. Although I saw it a number of times as a child and then as an adult enthusiast of fantasy and visual effects, it’s the only Harryhausen film I didn’t own on DVD. I decided it was time for a re-evaluation of the “missing” film of the catalogue, so I at last purchased the disc and took a good look at Ray Harryhausen’s visit to the Jonathan Swift classic.

Mt. Vesuvius’s 1,930th anniversary

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears… (O amici, O Romani, O cives, audite me…)

During this decade, we’ve had the opportunity to celebrate or commemorate many thirtieth anniversaries of events from the ‘70s. The 1970s, to be exact, since the apostrophe before 70s implies missing digits, and we all assume we really mean the 1970s. For example, just this year we’ve had the thirtieth anniversary of the Shah fleeing Iran, the accident at Three Mile Island, Greenland getting home rule, Margaret Thatcher’s election, the SALT II agreement, the “Night Disco Died” at Comiskey Park, the death of John Wayne, the emergence of home video, the release of Alien and The Muppet Movie, and many other events both for good and ill.

But, today we can actually strip away that apostrophe, and stick a “one thousand nine hundred and” onto that “thirtieth anniversary.” Because today is the anniversary one of the most import events of the 70s. The genuine 70s: not the 770s, 1570s, 1870s, or 1970s. The 70s. (Okay, to be perfectly specific, 70s C.E. There’s also a 70s B.C.E. I don’t know if anything important happened on August 24, 79 B.C.E.)

Today is the One Thousand Nine Hundred and Thirtieth Anniversary of the notorious eruption of Mount Vesusvius (Mons Vesuvius) in Italy, which wiped out the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. A nineteen-hour rain of ash and rock and a pyroclastic flow followed, killing an estimated 30,000 people. Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder provide us with the only reliable eyewitnesses to this tragedy.

As horrible a disaster as it was at the time, the event’s greatest importance is what it offers for posterity: it left two Roman towns of the early empire preserved in ash and solidified magma for archaeologists to later uncover. The remains of the town, and the bodies preserved freakishly in ash (the image of the dead dog has always stayed with me), have provided an incredible amount of data about the daily lives of Roman citizens in the early Imperial era. These finds have ignited the imagination of many future historians, archaeologists, sociologists, writers, and geologists. It’s also brought in huge tourist dollars for Italy, since the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum are major attractions in the country. It was a bizarrely fortuitous disaster for the distant future—although no comfort for the people and their pets who died then, certainly. But, as a former history teacher of mine said when I mentioned the anniversary to him: “a bad day for Pompeii, a pretty grand day for archaeology.”

My connection to the eruption of Vesuvius starts in elementary school. I lived in the Pacific Palisades at the time, a Los Angeles suburb near Malibu and the original Getty Museum, now known as the Getty Villa. That museum is a recreation of the Villa of the Papyri that was excavated at Herculaneum. This was the popular field trip destination for elementary school classes in the area, and I remember listening in fascination to the story of the volcanic eruption and the way the cities were preserved in the tragedy. Walking around the museum was my first “physical encounter” with the ancient world, and it merged with my growing love of Greek mythology. It also gave me a sense of the power of the earth, and gave me an understanding of the force of the recent eruption of Mt. St. Helens.

A thousand nine hundred and thirty years ago today…

By the way, the Getty Villa is currently displaying the famous Chimera of Arezzo. Don’t miss it if you’re in town.

22 August 2009

Movie Review: Grizzly

Grizzly (1976)
Directed by William Girdler. Starring Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Richard Jaeckel, Joan McCall, Joe Dorsey.

There is Jaws, there are Jaws imitators, there are Jaws copycats… and then there’s Grizzly.

In the sub-genre of Jaws rip-offs, a rich vein of crappy horror/adventure filmmaking that has been our constant companion since Spielberg’s Great White classic of 1975, none gets more attention for the sheer audacity of its plot-Xeroxing than Grizzly. The film was almost titled Claws fer’ crying out loud! It might be possible to write a critique of Grizzly and ignore the Jaws connections, but I doubt it. The hit shark movie is the reason that director William Girdler got the script into production; Jaws is the source of Grizzly’s existence. It is impossible to watch the film and not think of Jaws at almost every moment.

But is it an enjoyable Jaws-with-a-bear flick? Will it make you scream “Don’t Go into the National Park!”? It has undeniable drive-in movie pleasure, but most of the fun comes from ironic enjoyment, not genuine thrills. Unlike the far superior Alligator, the movie doesn’t know how to play the unintentional irony, and the script and performances can’t compensate. Grizzly is mostly toothless.

Fall Cleaning in Blog-Land

I made my first post on this Blog in March of 2007; I already had about two years worth of “blogging experience” at another—and now to my mind completely worthless—blog service. None of that was very serious, and I’m embarrassed at much of it now (which is why that blog is completely closed down and sealed off and I’m never linking to it and we have always been at war with Eurasia). Still, that time posting away without much consideration at least gave me practice at finding out how I wanted to blog, and what I wanted to blog about. I decided to start The Realm of Ryan (known at first as “The Blog of the Realm” because it was embedded in my website “The Realm of Ryan” but has since taken on the entirety of the site and the domain name) to make a much more professional-appearing digital journal. I used what I learned and found a better focus. I aimed to make my posts as well-written and polished as I could.

21 August 2009

In which I discuss my Jerry Goldsmith obsession

I first turned into a Jerry Goldsmith fan in November 1990 when I listened to the score to The Omen—without the film to accompany it. This event was a musical lightning bolt to the brain for me. I had already started to collect film scores, in a neophyte high-school kid way (I was just starting my senior year) and enjoyed the populist scores everybody knew from John Williams, John Barry, and Ennio Morricone (and, believe it or not, Bernard Herrmann). I even had a few Goldsmith albums, and knew he was one of the most important of film composers. But the Satanic Majesty of The Omen twisted my mind around. It was flat-out terrifying, and I had never had a piece of film music actually collide with me as if I had stepped in front of a speeding Mack truck.

At that point, aside from realizing I was now officially a film music fan and not just some kid who liked the music he heard in Spielberg and Ray Harryhausen films, I decided I had to get as much music by this Jerry Goldsmith fellow as I possible could.

Here I am, nineteen years later and five years after the death of the composer, and I can make a full digital survey of my Goldsmith collection that came from that initial impulse. I’ve finished uploading my complete Goldsmith collection to my iTunes and then onto my iPod, where I have specially catalogued, dated, and organized them. I can now see, in cold data, my near twenty-year obsession with the greatest composer in the history of the medium of the film score.

I own 125 distinct soundtrack albums, each one consisting of a single score (some are the original recordings, others are re-recordings, but each contains the majority of the music heard in the specific film). Factoring in anthology re-recording albums that include only Goldsmith’s music as well as his concert music like Christus Apollo, the total play-length of my Goldsmith collection is ninety-four hours long, a touch under four days. If I counted all the Goldsmith tracks scattered over other anthology albums, I’m sure I’d get well into the fourth day.

Jerry Goldsmith remarked that he didn’t think that every thing he ever wrote should be available on album. I understand his reticence (all artists have done work that they later disliked), but nevertheless I certainly have made an effort to get all that’s available.

From 1986 until Goldsmith’s death and his last two released scores, Looney Toons: Back in Action and the unused music to Timeline, I am missing only one score: the 1994 I.Q. And the reason for that is the score was never released. Last week, looking over the list of what I had, I realized I never got the score to Not without My Daughter, which amazingly slipped through my hands when it came out. I immediately ordered a copy of it in the limited edition expanded version and uploaded it about an hour ago. So now, except for I.Q., I’ve got an uninterrupted Goldsmith catalogue from Poltergeist II: The Other Side to Looney Toons: Back in Action.

Earlier scores are a sparser in availability, of course. My ‘70s collection—Goldsmith’s best era, I believe—is very full, and only missing the scores that have never received an official release. My earliest albums are the only ones that are available to collectors: Studs Lonigan, Lonely Are the Brave (released last month for the first time), and Freud.

With such a long and prolific career, it’s natural that Jerry Goldsmith would produce some lesser work. Still, looking over my collection, it strikes me that there are only a few albums that I think are duds. I’ve explored a few of the albums that I hadn’t paid much attention to over the years, and re-discovered some hidden classics. I’ve had The Russia House score since it was first released (that December after I became a Goldsmith fan), but I never realized how amazing it is until now. Likewise for The Cassandra Crossing.

Surveying the whole collection, I picked out the albums that I return to again and again, and put them in their own playlist. Here’s my “Perennial Goldsmith” list: Alien, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Basic Instinct, The Boys from Brazil, Capricorn One, Chinatown, Christus Apollo, Damien: Omen II, Hoosiers, L.A. Confidential, Legend, Lonely Are the Brave (yes, already!), MacArthur, The Mummy (1999), The Omen (1976), Outland, Patton, Planet of the Apes (1968), Poltergeist, Rambo: First Blood—Part II, Rio Conchos, Rudy, The Sand Pebbles, The Secret of NIMH, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Supergirl, The Swarm, Timeline (unused score), Total Recall, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Wild Rovers, and The Wind and the Lion.

Yes, obsession. But I’m a Fan. I make no apologies.

I’m going to go listen to Rio Conchos right now: got a Goldsmith Western hankerin’.

20 August 2009

Young Bond #1: SilverFin

By Charlie Higson (2005)

I’ve dealt with Ian Fleming’s James Bond (I’d love to re-visit all of his books to review on the blog eventually), and a bit with John Gardner’s and the one-shot from Kinglsey Amis. I’m overdue to discuss the rather unusual departure in Bond books that started in 2005—perhaps the biggest gamble in the world of the literary 007 since the death of Ian Fleming in 1964. With Raymond Benson gone after six mostly uninteresting novels, Ian Fleming Publications (formerly known as Glidrose Ltd.) changed its publishing strategy to more heavily promote Fleming’s original Bond books, bringing them back to print in beautiful trade paperback editions. Hallelujah! It was about time the focus returned to the original and still the best. However, that wasn’t the risky move. IFP still wanted to produce new Bond novels, so they developed a non-competitive series designed to penetrate into the crowd of young adult Harry Potter-readers: teen Bond… at boarding school.

My immediate reaction toward this when I heard it proposed was outrage and despair. What an asinine idea, I thought. I had visions of the awful 1990s animated series James Bond Jr. running through my head, mixed with nightmares of a smart-aleck teen throwing around gadgets and acting hip in the high school halls, like Secret Agent Cody Banks (okay, maybe not quite that bad).

But what a surprise: SilverFin is superior to any of the Benson and Gardner adult 007 novels. Although I cannot consider it a one-hundred percent Bond adventure because of its borrowing from other genres and the prequel nature of the character, SilverFin is the most accomplished fiction writing about the character that I’ve come across since Ian Fleming’s death.

19 August 2009

Book review: The Terror

The Terror
By Dan Simmons (2007)

Interested to know where I dredged up the idea for my recent essay on scurvy in fiction? Here it be, mateys…

Once upon a time, and a not very good time it was, two ships filled with British, Scottish, and Irish explorers set out from sunny England to find the Northwest Passage. None of them returned. And to this day we really don’t know what happened to these poor souls. They probably froze to death, starved, perished from scurvy, or ate each other. The End.

Oh, and possibly a giant ice-monster stalked and killed some of them. The End.

Ah, but such a mystery never “The Ends,” at least not when we have historical and speculative fiction to fill in the gaps for us.

How many human lives total were thrown away in the pursuit to find the Northwest Passage? Incalculable, I’m sure, but with the famous Franklin Expedition that left England aboard two ships in 1845, we at least have the specific number of one hundred and twenty-nine dead. But other specifics remain elusive to this day. Numerous recovery expeditions from 1848 until the present day have crawled over King William Island in northern Canada trying to unlock the mystery of the doomed sailing of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror of the Discovery Service. The recovery of artifacts, journals, and bodies has revealed some of the fate of the crews of the two ships after they were locked into the ice near Ross Strait, but of course we will never know the full details. After suffering through two consecutive winters aboard the ships without a thaw, the men abandoned the vessels (both of which were most likely no longer sea-worthy and therefore bound in sink in a thaw) in April 1848. Dragging boats overland, they tried to get to open water over King William Island. A mixture of exposure, scurvy, tuberculosis, tainted tinned food, and starvation most likely killed every single one of them. Knife-marks on some of the recovered bones from a 1992 excavation of one of the campsites suggest that cannibalism played a part near the end. (The Wikipedia article contains a good summary of what’s known about the lost expedition.)

17 August 2009

Concerning Scurvy

Sometimes while thinking up a post for Black Gate, I go off in a very weird direction and ride it. Like, for example, writing an essay about scurvy. Yes, the disease. And what does the disease scurvy have to do with fantasy literature? Glad you asked: go read the essay, and bring a glass of orange juice with you.

I imagine the ship in this painting by Caspar David Friedrich has had a bit of a problem with scurvy. It also reminds me of the novel that got me pondering Scruvy in the first place, The Terror by Dan Simmons. Expect a review of that book fairly soon—once I get off the ice.
And speaking of orange juice, I’ve drank gallons of the stuff over the last two days while writing the essay. I think the orange growers associations of the country should use this as an advertising tool. Nothing like a freaky illness such as scurvy to make people dash for the fresh juice section of the grocery store.

15 August 2009

Movie review: District 9

District 9 (2009)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Robert Hobbs.

If there’s a better film to come out in the remaining four and a half months of 2009 . . . well, that’s going to have to be one helluva great film. Because, folks, this is the one to beat.

In fact, the combo of District 9, Observe and Report, and Up makes me think that we’re pretty much done for the year. Yes, I’ll see other films. I’ll enjoy some of them, I’m sure. But we’ve hit an apex; I don’t see how anybody can top this. Keep trying though. Films that set the bar this high should drag everyone up to the next level.

Yeah, I loved District 9. It’s not truly a summer movie, but acts like one. It feels like Children of Men getting a Memorial Day Weekend release. When people crow about a movie coming along and giving “good-old fashioned summer movie thrills” without too much hoopla and stupidity, they usually mean the movie fulfilled the premise of straightforward entertainment without being, say, a Michael Bay flick. But District 9 is a miraculous hybrid: an intelligent, mid-budget movie produced with the mentality of the independent filmmaker, yet delivering on the thrills that should have come from movies like Terminator Salvation and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. And those are appropriate comparisons, considering that all three movies have big bipedal machines blowing the bejeepers out of things. But only in District 9 does that sight exhilirate me. By the time the action finale comes around, director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp, actor Sharlto Copley, and the VFX people had so sucked me into their story and its reality that I couldn’t help but get sweaty palms and gasp and cheer along with the rest of the audience to the blood n’ thunder.

Movies that make you feel that bizarre loss of time, the utter immersion, the reality warping when you leave the auditorium: those are the reasons I keep going back to theaters, hoping to get that sensation again. It’s a fix. District 9 is my new dealer.

The allegory of the movie is obvious from the moment the faux-documentary footage detailing the last twenty-eight years since a spaceship settled over Johannesberg, South Africa, starts playing. Yes, we’re looking back at Apartheid. I was in high school during the final age of Apartheid, and I graduated the year Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. I vividly recall seeing footage of the riots and shootings in the townships, and this came back to me immediately when I saw the aliens, known as “prawns” (either derogatorily because they are “bottom feeders,” as one interview subject suggests, or because “they look like prawns,” another claims), struggling in their shanty villages where the humans have moved them. Certainly, director Blomkamp knows all of this from much more immediate experience: he was born in Johannesberg in 1979. But by looking at South Africa of the 1980s through the lens of science fiction in 2009, we are also looking at debates today with immigration, refugees, and paranoia of the “Foreign Other.”

District 9 isn’t subtle about these points. But its story works so well built on this unsubtle allegory that it doesn’t harm the film at all or make it heavy-handed. In fact, I won’t bring up the social text of the film again, because it speaks so well for itself.

The film’s narrative is split between source footage, such as the documentary that opens it, live news feeds, security cameras, and interviews; and the traditional objective third-person camera. This is a tricky balance for a filmmaker, and the movie weaves between the two styles constantly. But the confidence on display makes the styles virtually seamless. Unless you are really watching hard, you won’t notice when the film at last commits to the objective style after relying on the documentary style for most of the early scenes.

I won’t give away much of the story—I want viewers seeing this as fresh as possible—but here’s what I think I can safely explain. Aliens have landed over Johannesburg, apparently sick and unable to operate their own mothership so they can leave. The live trapped as third-class citizens, misunderstood by most humans as trash, in their ghetto of District 9. The film even goes out of the way at first to show the insectoid “prawns” as wretched and disgusting. The aliens’ presence is monitored by a corporation called the MNU—and if a corporation is working on this, there must be a profitable motive behind it all. Yet humans cannot manipulate the alien technology because it requires an organic component. Most of the money made from the aliens goes to Nigerian gangs that sell them food (cat-food, actually) in exchange for their various devices.

Then a smiling bureaucrat at MNU, a pleasant fellow named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), starts to execute the company’s plan to re-locate all 1.8 million aliens to a new camp. Something goes very wrong… or it goes very right, depending on whom you ask. A battle is coming, and the first strikes will come from unexpected places, and unusual heroes will appear.

The final thirty minutes of District 9 is the most thrilling thing you will sit through this year, I guarantee. The action is tied into an emotional battle, and you’ll be amazed at how differently you view the prawns by this point. The movie isn’t afraid to splatter blood and less loose with mayhem either. Although the fight occurs on a smaller scale than in the usual summer blockbusters, it feels like the Battle of Waterloo in the impact it makes.

About the “prawns”: Imagine Engine has crafted CGI figures into real characters better than anyone has done since Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The growth of prawns into the co-stars with actor Sharlto Copley is a slow but beautiful process.

Poor Sharlto Copley will be ignored come Oscar time, and it’s a crime in the making. The arc of the character he traces in Wikus is enormous, and he turns into the most unusual hero I’ve seen on film this year. (I don’t count Ronnie in Observe and Report as a hero.) Wikus is one of us, but he also goes places we wouldn’t dare. He’s not larger than life, but manages to make us wonder if we could rise the way he does and finally make the decisions her does. Copley, I’m watching out for you… when the Oscar noms come out and your name isn’t on the list, I’ll do some shouting. (Yeah, I’m sure you fell completely relieved now.)

I’ve thanked Peter Jackson for many things, especially The Lord of the Rings films and the cool-kids-with-toys re-make of King Kong. Here’s another thank you: Peter Jackson, thank you so much for giving Neill Blomkamp the chance to make this vision come to life on screen. And Neill Blomkamp, thank you for just being so damn awesome. You have a great career ahead of you, and I’ll be following closely.

14 August 2009

Another U.S. Godzilla film in the works?

Update: Yes, it’s happening. And now I’m just ridiculously happy about.

File this under “maybe / maybe not / good / not so good”:

According to the site Bloody-Disgusting, Legendary Pictures (the production company behind Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, 300, and Superman Returns) wants to take a crack at doing another U.S.-made Godzilla film. And this time do it, you know, right.

It would be hard to do it worse. The 1998 Godzilla was not only an insult to anyone who loves Godzilla and other kaiju films, but pretty much a sharp jab in the face to anybody who walked into the movie. We could argue about whether the creature in the ‘98 Godzilla is really Godzilla or not until we start to breathe radioactive fire, but the film stinks no matter where you stand on the identity of the creature. (Toho has officially declared the monster not to be be Godzilla, but a different monster called “Zilla,” and I’ve made this my stance as well.)

After the relative failure of Godzilla: Final Wars, the 2004 Japanese film that crammed nearly every monster in history into its running time, along with kung-fu mutants and aliens, I thought we wouldn’t see a new Godzilla film for at least a decade. Toho Studios had indicated as much, and they had even said so before the release of Final Wars. However, with re-boots coming fast these days—just look at the brief span between Hulk and The Incredible Hulk, the idea of a shorter span between Big-G films seemed possible. But I had not expected that a U.S. company wanted another shot at a huge-budget version of Godzilla.

At this point, I have no idea if anything will come of this. There are no details, except that this will be a re-boot and have no connection with the ‘98 film. Of course it won’t; who would want any connection to that franchise-killer? But will it be any good?

I say . . . what the hell. Can’t hurt at this point, and filmmakers will have learned a lesson from the failure of the first U.S. Godzilla that you can’t simply ignore forty-plus years of iconic character history and do your own thing, and then expect audiences to go for it. People expected a Godzilla movie in ‘98—and they just got Sony’s attempt to make their own version of Jurassic Park using a somebody else’s brand name. So if the people who make this potential film at least have an upright walking gray fifty-meter radioactive behemoth who belches radioactive flames and can smash a line of tanks flat in three seconds (and doesn’t lay eggs), then they will already be far better than the old film.

Oh, and if possible, could you please have Godzilla fight another monster? People like that, you know. Remember how people complained that Superman never fought another super-powered adversary in Superman Returns? Same thing. Just FYI. Now please go make the movie.

12 August 2009

Movie review: Lonely Are the Brave

Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
Directed by David Miller. Starring Kirk Douglas, Walter Matthau, Gena Rowlands, Michael Kane, William Schallert, Carroll O’Connor, George Kennedy.

Kirk Douglas appeared in many A-list films, but his personal favorite from his canon is Lonely Are the Brave, a movie that the general public never embraced with the same enthusiasm. It only got a DVD release this year after Steven Spielberg pushed Universal Pictures to take it out of the files, so maybe a wider general audience will get to appreciate it at last.

Douglas is right to have such pride in this movie. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and sports one of legendary screenwriter and blacklisted author Dalton Trumbo’s finest scripts. It is also one of the first great scores from Jerry Goldsmith (ah Ryan, so that’s why you’re reviewing this film!), a composer who had started to emerge from television scoring into features; Lonely Are the Brave, combined with the Academy Award-nominated score to Freud the same year, established Goldsmith as one of Hollywood’s great music talents. (And would somebody please release Freud on disc?)

10 August 2009

Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell”

I’ve decided that if I ever form a motorcycle gang (not really an “if” situation, I confess), I’m going to call it Hell’s Pigeons. And if any other gang laughs at the name, I’m going gut-punch their leader, smash his thick skull against the handlebars, and say, “Why are you disrespecting my man REH?” Then I’d force him to drink the Black Brew and make him a zuvembie.

Need an explanation for the above weird paragraph? You can get it from my post today at Black Gate, which is a review of my favorite short story from Robert E. Howard, “Pigeons from Hell.” It’s not a heroic fantasy or an historical adventure, but an Americana horror story with some extremely interesting subtexts.

Head on over and read it.

These are like Pigeons . . . from hell!
Image adapted from a picture in the Wikimedia Commons

07 August 2009

Colonel Sun: A Forgotten James Bond Novel

Colonel Sun (1968)
By Kingsley Amis writing as Robert Markham

I’ve tackled some of the James Bond novels by the late John Gardner, and even took a very lengthy look at one of Bond-creator Ian Fleming’s more unusual 007 adventures, The Spy Who Loved Me. However, I don’t hear enough about Colonel Sun, a one-off novel that has fallen off the edge of the world-map of Bond in the decades since its publication—and which doesn’t deserve the dishonor of tumbling through the void.

It was a mere four years after Ian Fleming’s death and two years after the publication of his last book, the anthology Octopussy and The Living Daylights. In the midst of 1960s spy mania, the literary rights holders to James Bond, Glidrose Ltd., published the first work to continue the adventures of 007 in print. After rejecting the manuscript of Geoffrey Jenkins’s novel Per Fine Ounce for reasons that remain unclear today, Glidrose inaugurated a new series of adventures that would be written by different authors under the house pseudonym “Robert Markham.” The experiment lasted all of one volume: Kinglsey Amis’s Colonel Sun. Glidrose wouldn’t try another Bond for thirteen years.

06 August 2009

Book Review: The Revised E. V. Rieu Iliad

The Iliad (2003)
By Homer. Translated by E. V. Rieu. Revised and updated by D. C. H. Rieu and Peter Jones.

There are probably now more translations into English of the Iliad than there are character names in it. Since the days of Chapman and Pope, every scholar of the classics seems to have taken a crack at the epic poem and its “sequel,” the Odyssey. The first two works of Western literature, and still two of the best… of course there will be legions of translations.

This puts the English-language reader into a conundrum about which translation to pick up. Right now, there are three popular verse translations that you can purchase in almost any bookstore: Robert Fitzgerald (1974), Richmond Lattimore (1951), and Robert Fagles (1990). There’s a recent verse translation by Stanley Lombardo that I think is stunning, and I hope it soon gets as much exposure as these other three. The Fitzgerald translation is my personal favorite; I’ve read through it quite a few times. It was the standard edition at my college when I attended. Currently, the Fagles translation appears to be the most popular on bookstore shelves.

Prose translations aren’t the rage in Homer studies at the moment, but a few still kick around. Since Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation is in the public domain, it often pops up in budget and “gift” editions—like the Dover Thrift Edition. W. H. D. Rouse’s 1938 version was popular when I was in elementary school because the inexpensive Signet/Mentor printing was the easiest to get hold of. I first read the Odyssey in Rouse’s rich prose, so it has currency with me and I find it more readable than Butler’s.

This brings me to E. V. Rieu, who released a prose translation of the Iliad in 1950—the second book released from Penguin Classics, and therefore of great historic importance. (The first Penguin Classic was—surprise!—Rieu’s translation of the Odyssey.) Rieu served as the general editor of the Penguin Series until 1964. The first time I read the Iliad was from Rieu’s translation.

In 2003, Penguin—which also publishes Fagles’s verse Iliad—decided to dust off and update their standard prose telling of the Wrath of Achilles. Rieu’s son D. C. H. Rieu and Dr. Peter Jones oversaw an extensive revision of the elder Rieu’s work. (Rieu died in 1974.) Having spent many years reading verse versions of the Iliad, I decided to revisit it in prose, and see what the re-booted E. V. Rieu the Iliad had to say.

04 August 2009

Ferrigno Fights On: The Adventures of Hercules

The Adventures of Hercules (1985)
Written and Directed by Luigi Cozzi (as Lewis Coates). Starring Lou Ferrigno, William Berger, Milly Carlucci, Sonia Viviani.

Yesterday I hurled an enormous hunk of a review of the 1983 Lou Ferrigno Hercules. The 1985 sequel appears on the flip side of the current DVD, but with all my labor given to the first movie, I can only offer you a brief look at the follow-up. There isn’t as much to say; most of the criticism stays in the same mode: too many lasers and science-fiction trappings, bad effects, poor acting, and who misplaced all the Greek mythology?

While Hercules ‘83 got a theatrical stateside release, it wasn’t a hot property in North America except as an object of jeers. It made enough international coin for the same Italian production team to mount a sequel, but The Adventures of Hercules went straight to video and cable in the U.S. and isn’t as well-known on this side of the Pond.

The Adventures of Hercules’s tighter budget is evident in the recycling of special-effects footage, the scant sets, and the limited use of stop-motion animation. Some of the scenes were apparently shot for the first Hercules but never used, and some footage came from another Italian-made Ferrigno film, The Seven Magnificent Gladiators. There is some astute use of actual ruins shot in a naturalistic style that gives a stronger sense of Heroic Age Greece than anything in Hercules. But the science-fiction aspects of the first movie remain in force here, with full laser-light shows and chintzy electronic sound-effects making the “Bronze Age” part of the story a bit hard to discern.

Hercules vs. The Giant Robots

As I promised a few days ago, here’s a complete—lengthy—review of the 1983 Italian-made Hercules film starring Lou Ferrigno. Cross- posted at Black Gate.

Hercules (1983)
Directed by Luigi Cozzi (as Lewis Coates). Starring Lou Ferrigno, Sybil Danning, William Berger, Brad Harris, Ingrid Anderson.

Last week I reviewed a silly Conan pastiche novel. Today, I offer a sequel of sorts: a review of a very silly Hercules movie. The 1983 Hercules, sporting former mean, green, grunting machine Lou “Hulk” Ferrigno and the best special effects the Italian film industry can sort of buy, is one of the grandly awful pieces of entertaining oddness ever to come from a Roman studio. And Rome has given us some odd stuff. Aside from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, of course.

I encountered this Hercules when I was eleven years old. I adored Greek mythology since I was in second grade and was well-read in the topic, for which I can thank Clash of the Titans for the initial push. One Friday night, a friend and I watched Hercules when it premiered on cable. It sounded like a sure-winner for kids still not old enough to go out on weekend nights: Greek mythology, monsters, and that guy who played the Hulk. (Plus girls in skimpy outfits, but at eleven we weren’t willing to admit that was already a motivation.)

I’m not certain what I expected from Hercules back then, but it certainly wasn’t what I ended up getting. I had this strange illusion, which only an eleven-year-old can sustain, that a mystical law forced filmmakers to adhere to their source material as closely as they could. When I saw this oddball Hercules film on television, my young boy’s illusions died forever. Which is safer for my sanity, although I still feel the pains from the American Godzilla and Jan de Bont’s 1999 demolishing of The Haunting [of Hill House]. The 1983 Hercules has only the most tenuous connection to Greek mythology, and appears like a mishmash of tiny bits and pieces of Hellenic legendary in a goopy stew of trendy science-fiction clichés from the SF-explosion of the late-‘70s. Welcome to Battlestar Hercules. Or perhaps Krull is the most appropriate comparison.

02 August 2009

Spaniard’s First Birthday

My nephew, Diego Martin, a.k.a. “The Spaniard,” turned one year old on July 26th. Here are two photos my sister—Diego’s mother—took of me and my nephew at his party:

01 August 2009

Another sale: “Stand at Dubun-Geb”

Today I got the confirmation of something I had known for a few weeks, but have waited to share until I got the official email: I’ve sold another short to story to Black Gate. I had previously sold editor John O’Neill the story “The Sorrowless Thief,” the first tale I finished in my science-fantasy setting of Ahn-Tarqa. “Sorrowless Thief” hasn’t appeared in the magazine yet—Black Gate is a bit back-logged, and once again closed to submissions—but it now has a companion piece to go with it, “Stand at Dubun-Geb.” The two stories have no plot connection to each other; they take place on the same continent, but hundreds of years apart and in different regions. I’m not sure which will appear first, but either is fine for a start. I envision the Ahn-Tarqa stories eventually building toward a common purpose, possibly a novel, but at this point they will stay as self-contained tales in the strange continent where… well, I’m not going to ruin the surprise.

I originally wrote “Stand at Dubun-Geb” with the intention of submitting it to the Rage of the Behemoth anthology; however, I eventually decided that it didn’t quite fit the parameters of the anthology’s purpose (too much science in the science-fantasy) and instead sent it to Black Gate.

I will keep everyone up to date about the future appearances of “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb.”

And, I forgot to mention when I first posted this, I’m greatly indebted to Howard A. Jones and John C. Hocking for helping me with advice on earlier drafts. Their suggestions were crucial in getting it to its final form.