29 July 2009

Movie review: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos. Starring Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, Rhona Mitra.

In Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, you get to see Tony Blair transform into a werewolf.

Actually, you get to see British actor Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in The Queen, transform into a werewolf. Yes, he appeared in the two earlier “Underworld” films, but he wasn’t yet then Michael Sheen the Respected Actor Who Played Tony Blair (and David Frost) and Whom the Academy Awards Seem to Be Ignoring. If seeing a muscled, long-haired, furry-chested Tony Blair going ultra-wolf and tearing out throats amuses you, by all means you will enjoy Rise of the Lycans.

I’ve never had much interest in seeing the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom do such a thing, but I still enjoyed the movie. In fact, I think it’s the best of the trilogy of “Underworld” flicks, although this isn’t a stunning claim since I thought Underworld was merely okay and Underworld: Evolution lame. But the new film goes into prequel mode and pulls the story of vamps vs. weres back to the Middle Ages, and thus dumps the modern Gothic posing for genuine dark fantasy sword-and-sorcery goodness. That’s seasoning to my tastes. To the people who hatched the prequel idea, I thank ye.

The Middle Ages in the “Underworld” are as much a fantasy world as the modern ages, taking place in a no-where and no-when, although with a resemblance in style to a mix of the early Anglo Saxons with the medieval Slavs. Try to imagine Anglo-Saxon raiders invading and taking over twelfth century-Slovakia and you might get close. As a design, it looks superb; all the Gothic designs of the first two films make sense here, where nobody drives a truck or pulls out a pistol. It’s also the goriest of the three films because of the setting: long sharp pointy metal things make a much bigger mess than bullets.

The story isn’t far different from the earlier (or later, chronologically speaking) movies, with a war between vampires and werewolves, and a cross-species romance at the core. The werewolves are against called “Lycans,” but the hell with that. No reason to invent a name for something that already has a perfectly good one. I’m surprised in the original Underworld that the vampires weren’t re-named “Sanguions” or something equally silly. Vampire lord Viktor (again played by Bill Nighy) has enslaved the werewolves and breeds more of them as a military force, but keeps one elite member close to the throne, Lucian (Tony Blair/David Frost), the first of these beast to find his way to human form. However, Viktor’s daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) is grinding hips with the occasionally hairy fellow—and she’s going to need to keep that from dear ol’ Dad.

The story moves in a straight line: you know a werewolf uprising is coming, and you wonder how the vampires are so ignorant of it. In fact, it’s a wonder the vampires were ever effective against the werewolves, who just rip them to shreds here. This always bothered me about the first two Underworlds: the werewolves should have had the constant upper hand. I’m biased because werewolves are my favorite of the classic movie monsters, and vampires are so overexposed right now that it’s a surprise the whole race hasn’t turned to dust and shriveled away. The werewolves get to carve up the bloodsuckers in a big way in Rise of the Lycans, culminating in a massive battle assault on Vincent’s fortress that is the most exciting sequence to come out of the trilogy. It plays it a bit like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, but the previous two “Underworld” movies had already worked The Matrix into the bloody ground, so I’ll take the change.

The werewolves, at least in their wolf-forms, sit out most of the middle of movie, probably to save some money. As it’s a short film, this isn’t as dire as it sounds, and I always had Michael Sheen for drama or the unbelievably campy performance of Bill Nighy for amusement. And there’s Rhona Mitra to stare at, but that’s another tale entirely. Too bad she isn’t around more.

The effects are the best so far in the series, with some occasional werewolf CGI-clutziness. The full-motion werewolf suits look fantastic, and they get used a surprising amount for a mid-budget movie that would normally rely on computer effects whenever possible.

This is the first film in the series without director Len Wiseman, who has moved into co-writer and co-producer status. Instead, production designer Patrick Tatopolous makes his feature debut behind the camera. I have a bit of a bone to pick with Mr. Tatopolous over his design for the creature who appeared in the 1998 movie titled Godzilla. The creature is called Zilla and is mistaken for the real monster (this is actually the official Toho Studio stance as of the movie Godzilla: Final Wars). The years and more genuine Godzilla films have taken some of the edge off my anger… but I still recall the pain of first seeing that impostor back in ‘98, and it will never go away completely. However, Mr. Tatopolous, you did a good job here, so congratulations. I don’t know if it was your choice to let Bill Nighy go so completely bonkers with the madman glaring performance, but I enjoyed it in spite of itself.

I think this will probably be the end of the “Underworld” series—I don’t see any further ways Screen Gems can mine the franchise, and it was lowest grossing of all—but at least it leaves us at a high point, with swords and arrows and werewolves kicking blood-sucking butt. That’s how all film series should end.

Memories of the Lou Ferrigno Hercules ‘83

Update: You can now read my full review of Hercules here, based on a fresh DVD viewing.

The world of genre movie-fandom is always filled with this persistent question: “When are they going to put ——— on DVD?” (A variant: “When are they going to put ——— on Region 1 DVD?”)

I remember the primitive days of the DVD format during the late ‘90s, when this question applied to many films, not only the strange genre stuff folks like me adore. People were screaming mad that The Godfather, the Star Wars films, Stanley Kubrick’s movies, and the Indiana Jones series hadn’t made it to DVD, when Home Alone 3 had. Understandable rage. Some of this had to do with the studios who were slow to embrace the new medium—mostly because of that cursed Divx scam—and some with studios trying to put together genuine premium releases of the best quality. The wait for the original King Kong was a lengthy one… but it was worth it when the special disc finally came out.

Now most of the complaints about holes in the DVD catalog circle around lesser-known masterpieces, most of them foreign-made, and TV shows that have to run a legal gauntlet to get a release (a.k.a. the 1960s Batman series).

28 July 2009

Book review: Conan the Free Lance

Conan the Free Lance (1990)
By Steve Perry

The Conan pastiche novels are sort of like a review “home base” for me: I always find myself occasionally returning to throw out some more opinions of the many, many, (many, many) novels and stories about the famous Barbarian by somebody other than Robert E. Howard. Today for my weekly post at Black Gate, yet another one: Conan the Free Lance by Steve Perry.

You may wonder, of course, why not review some actual Robert E. Howard? Good idea, may do it someday. But there’s already a lot of critical material out there about R.E.H., and honestly I feel a bit overwhelmed sometimes when I try to approach one of The Great Ones of the genre, the man who is pretty much the God of Sword-and-Sorcery Fandom. I always feels anything I say about his work will seem pretty . . . puny. I read one of his classics, think about writing a few pages about it, and then think, “Nah, I’ll let it be. It’s enough for me that it’s awesome and it’s there.”

Okay, eventually, I will do some Howard reviewing. I think an article, a short one, on my favorite of his short stories, “The Pigeons from Hell,” might be in order.

Anyway, go here to read my latest Conan review at Black Gate.

21 July 2009

Movie Review: “Z” is for Zulu

I realized that I haven’t reviewed a movie that starts with the letter “Z” yet. Every movie reviewer has to have at least one Z-movie. So here’s mine. And no, I never at any point considered reviewing Zardoz.

Zulu (1964)
Directed by Cy Endfield. Starring Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, James Booth, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee.

The year 1964 was a good one for England’s film biz. At least four movies from the U.K. that year have gone on to eternal cinematic fame (and three to the BFI Top British Films List): Goldfinger (#70), A Hard Day’s Night (#88), Dr. Strangelove (a U.S. co-production, otherwise BFI might have made it #1), and Zulu (#31). While the first three are forward-looking films, creating “The New Look” and still imitated endlessly today, Zulu belongs to that special group of movies “that they just don’t make anymore.” Because, in today’s political climate, you simply could not make a film where the colonial power is the hero.

But Zulu stands up incredibly well today, with the exception of its pacing, despite the “British Empire vs. Justifiably Angry Natives” theme that would otherwise doom it to the subject of graduate thesis papers. The reasons for this are that Zulu manages to avoid overt racism or colonial preachiness, instead focusing on people making a last stand just to stay alive; and that it’s really, really, really good. It not only influenced later filmmakers in the war genre, but also sparked “isolated last stand” movies like Night of the Living Dead and Assault on Precinct 13.

Re-Zoning: Another Twilight Zone film?

I had a suspicious feeling—not one of sight or sound but of mind—that something like this would happen. This year is the big Five-O anniversary for The Twilight Zone, which means that somebody, somewhere in the Hollywood machinery would get the idea that the time had come to do another film version of the famous show.

And Variety is reporting just that. Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company has hired writer Rand Ravich to script a new Twilight Zone film. Which tells me pretty much nothing, since a Twilight Zone-inspired anything could be . . . well, anything. A single story movie? An anthology movie? Adaptation of old episodes? Something new? Going to break some more prescription glasses, or does Talking Tina want to kill you?

The Variety article of course makes mention of the 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie, although it doesn’t mention that one of its lead actors died on-set during a filming accident. The announcement from DiCaprio’s company makes it sound as if they aren’t aware there was a movie . . . or maybe DiCaprio doesn’t want to invoke the ghost of actor Vic Morrow and end up killed in a mishap during the filming himself.

I have an affection for Twilight Zone: The Movie—or at least half of it plus all the music—but it still ought to be a lesson that this idea didn’t exactly fly high at 20,000 feet when it was done before, even with the best directors possible on it. I don’t see much point in a new movie, or even another revival of the television show, aside from simple money-making (admittedly, the only reason Hollywood really requires to snap it into action) and because all other TV shows are getting turned into movies, so why not this one? (Again.) The Twilight Zone inspired countless shows, movies, and authors, and we have plenty of its legacy to entertain us—as well as great DVD sets of the show itself—without having to drag it out into daylight and force its ghost to perform for us in a pale shadow of itself. Serling gave us the dreams and nightmares, let’s try to keep them fresh for his sake.

(I would also like to point out that I do like the 1985 revival of the show, but the 2000 revival was poor and shows that we no longer live in an age that needs re-hashed Zone.)

More disturbing library trends

Last week was the first in which I didn’t place up my regular weekly post on Black Gate. I was on vacation without easy Internet access, and that’s the way it went.

But I’m back, and I’m going to complain about the Public Library. Again.

There are some disturbing trends going on our public libraries, and I’m worried. This post goes into a recent trip to my closest library branch, where I learned about an extremely unpleasant change in policy.

Read about it here. You are not permitted to bring coffee or any kind of food or drink with you.

20 July 2009

Movie review: Taken

I’m back from vacationing in Oregon. Let’s watch a movie.

Taken (2008)
Directed by Pierre Morel. Starring Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace.

The French film Taken turned into one of the surprises of 2009 when it showed enormous staying power in January and February at the North American box-office. It ended up grossing over $144 million in the U.S. and Canada; with its foreign money factored in, it took in the sum of $220 million in movie theaters. Considering the initial price tag of $25 million, Taken will easily rank as one of 2009’s most profitable movie ventures.

Pretty good for a film that opened in France in Febuary 2008, and didn’t get to the U.S. until almost a year later.

It’s obvious looking at Taken that it was supposed to reach the English-speaking world eventually. It was shot mostly in English, doesn’t have a particularly Gallic feeling, and sports two well-known faces stateside: Liam Neeson and Famke Janssen. But if the wait to reach U.S. theaters was spent thinking out a good marketing strategy, it was time well spent.

Taken is a meat-and-potatoes espionage thriller; nothing about it is surprising, it avoids going any place unexpected, and it never delivers a “great scene.” But it’s also pretty good entertainment, and better than most films released in January have any right to be. Its lack of pretension is one of its selling points. However, the biggest selling point is its star.

Without Liam Neeson to give it gravitas, I doubt if Taken would have gotten far out of the gate in North America. The premise is so basic—angry father goes after the men who kidnapped his daughter—that it needs an actor who can hunker down and really play the damned thing. Neeson is that sort of fellow. He’s done some terrible films before (you don’t remember Gunshy, and you are better off because of it), but he does bring an austerity and dignity to whatever he does. Well, almost. His characteristic presence was strangely absent from The Phantom Menace, even though he was ideally cast as a Jedi Knight. However, he made up for it with his “dark mentor” version of Ra’s al-Ghul in 2005’s Batman Begins. Liam Neeson is the sort of actor who can hammer down a line like: “You burned my house down and left me for dead; consider us even.” He can play grave without looking like he’s trying—a great accomplishment.

In Taken, Neeson plays the part of an ex-CIA agent named Bryan Mills, who puts himself into retirement so he could be near his teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), in Los Angeles. Kim’s mother Lenore (Janssen) has remarried to a filthy rich corporate fellow. Thankfully, the film doesn’t show Kim’s stepfather as some sort of despicable cad, but a respectable man who offers a stability to Lenore that Mills never was able to provide. There are a few hints that Kim’s stepfather has gotten involved in some shady dealings, but this is a point that the film oddly drops. When Kim gets abducted on her vacation in Paris, it seems almost a forgone conclusion that it’s a ransom or vengeance kidnapping against her stepfather. Mills assumes it is, and I did too. Actually, it’s a random event: Albanian sex slavers have grabbed Kim and in ninety-six hours—the film’s arbitrary ticking clock—no one will ever be able to find her.

As I mentioned, this isn’t a film keyed for big shocks. That Kim’s abduction isn’t tied to her stepfather’s past is one example of Taken shrugging aside complicating possibilities and going for the straight-ahead thriller. Bryan Mills makes his declaration that he’ll find his daughter and kill her kidnappers, and he then flies off to Paris to do it. No points for guessing if he accomplishes the task or not.

Although it has the dross of the Euro-thriller, pretty hard to avoid in a French-made film, Taken is essentially a revenge movie where the victim isn’t actually dead yet. These kinds of films provide two standard visceral thrills: 1) Watching the hero beat and kill really nasty bad guys. 2) Watching a skilled hero put everything he has to use . . . so he can efficiently beat and kill really nasty bad guys. Taken delivers on both points. It’s handles Point #2 so smoothly, and with such help from Neeson, that the one time the villains get the drop on him is completely unbelievable. The filmmakers apparently knew it, and cut away from it as fast as possible.

However, Taken lacks a key element to push it from “good” territory into something better. It doesn’t have the one knockout action set-piece that all great thrillers need. Compare it to another thriller that came out at the same time this year, The International, and you’ll understand what I mean. The International isn’t a classic, but I will remember it more than Taken simply on the basis of the intense and astonishing Guggenheim Museum shoot-up. Taken has okay action, with the stand-out as a car pursuit along the shore of the Seine, but nothing roof-raising. Director Pierre Morel executes all the shootings and fisticuffs adequately, but when the lights in the theater go up or the DVD menu returns, there isn’t anything you’ll keep thinking about.

Hey, the popcorn was tasty, the film was only ninety minutes, and it was a good time. I’ll take it. Thanks, France and Liam.

11 July 2009

Vacation

Starting tomorrow, I’m going to be on the Oregon coast relaxing for about week, and I probably won’t have much in the way of Internet connectivity. (Or even a working cell phone—don’t know what kind of coverage Rockaway Beach had…) So expect things to be a bit sparse around here for a bit. I have the last of The Twilight Zone reviews to do (for the finale episode of the season, “A World of His Own”), and followed by a huge Zone Fiftieth Anniversary wrap-up on Black Gate (right before the actual anniversary of the first broadcast). See you then.

Twilight Zone: The After Hours

As we near the end of the first season of The Twilight Zone, we come across another of the show’s classic episodes.Episode #34: The After Hours
Directed by Douglas Heyes. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Anne Francis, Elizabeth Allen, James Millihollin.

“Express elevator to the ninth floor of a department store, carrying Miss Marsha White on a most prosaic, ordinary, run-of-the-mill errand. . . . Miss Marsha White on the ninth floor, specialties department, looking for a gold thimble. The odds are she’ll find it, but there are even better odds that she’ll find something else, because this isn’t just a department store. This happens to be the Twilight Zone.”

And shopping in the Twilight Zone closes in another fifteen minutes. Please take your purchases to the front counter.

“The After Hours” is so well-known among The Twilight Zone’s canon that its surprise no longer feels like one—but it doesn’t matter, the episode is still powerful. It’s famous enough that Albert Brooks and Dan Ackroyd chat about it in the opening of Twilight Zone: The Movie, although they talk about it as a “scary” episode. Which it isn’t, at the core. It does have an intense suspense scene when Miss Marsha White walks through the empty department store after it closes—a still-life place any of us would find intimidating—and starts to hear the mannequins whispering to her. But all this fear is only Marsha’s willful misunderstanding of the nature of her life. All the strange activities around her, such as a trip to floor of the department store that the management claims doesn’t exist, and finding the exact thing she wants is the only object for sale on the floor, lead not toward terror, but a re-establishment of identity. Marsha White discovers what Serling’s narration calls “her normal, natural state.”

The emotion around this rediscovery is one of bittersweet and subtle longing. The strength of “The After Hours” isn’t in the twist, but its implications of a greater emotional tale that hangs around the edges of the one on our screen. It’s the sort of story that fits into twenty-four minutes, but spreads beyond it with questions and wonder. It’s one of the show’s most delicately presented tragedies; as Anne Francis returns to join her people, leaving behind her month-long vacation, she says she had “ever so much fun, ever so much fun” in her time outside. What did Marsha do in the real world? We never see her outside the walls of the store, never see anything outside of it, so we can only wonder what things happened to her that made her forget where she came from. Did she simply enjoy the pleasures of walking streets, riding buses, sleeping in a bed? Did she start to fall in love with someone? And who is this “mother” for whom she claims she needs to buy a gift? “Ever so much fun.” There’s tremendous weight in that statement.

Actress Anne Francis deserves huge praise for making the episode work. Serling’s script is wonderful, but it does need a performer willing to act beyond how the character appears from moment to moment. From the first time we see Marsha White moving through the department store, there is something unusual about her. She has a sharp tongue, and an insistence, even a coldness, that feels bizarre but at the end make complete sense. Her fear mixes with bewilderment in her walk through the apparently empty store, showing a deeper understanding of the situation that her surface terror thinly masks. And she handles the slow adaptation back to her real life, and the final “ever so much fun” so superbly that it’s no wonder nobody who sees this episode ever forgets it.

Also worth noting is the humorous performance of James Millihollin as an irritable floor manager, the stunning shadowy photography, and the excellent use of Bernard Herrmann’s music from “Where Is Everybody?”

09 July 2009

Carnosaur: The Novel

Carnosaur (1984)
By John Brosnan writing as Harry Adam Knight

Let’s turn on the Way-Back machine for 1993. It’s summer, and the most fiercely anticipated and over-marketed movie of the season is Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s science-fiction thriller Jurassic Park. Everybody knows the film will be huge, so why not rip it off before it comes out and save some time? Enter Roger Corman and his ultra-low budget film company New Horizons (where, by the way, I briefly interned in 1995 after graduating from college). Corman has made a career, first as director and then as producer, out of churning out cheaply made copycats of hit Hollywood trends; but with 1993’s Carnosaur he managed the nifty trick of getting his copy into theaters (a very few theaters) a week before the movie he was copying premiered.

Because of the tie-in with Spielberg’s mega-blockbuster, Carnosaur received a much higher profile in the media for a Corman flick that was otherwise destined to go straight-to-video. Carnosaur is an awful film, simply no fun at all for what could’ve been an enjoyable romp with old-style dinosaur effects; but as a piece of marketing it was genius and it turned a nice profit for New Horizons.

The movie is based on a novel that appeared before Crichton’s own take on dinosaurs re-created through DNA, something that Corman’s publicity liked to bring up constantly. If the movie Carnosaur had much of anything to do with the 1984 novel, claiming this provenance might have meant something. But it veers so far from the original novel, adding in doses of Alien (chest-burster dinosaurs!) and the recent interest in virus films, that it is almost impossible to recognize anything from the book.

06 July 2009

iBrain and from Homer to Twitter

Today on Black Gate I get a bit rambling. Some of it is about a book I read two months ago, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. Some of it has to do with Homer (the poet, not Simpson). And some of it is connected to the death of certain pop-star on the 25th of June. I do like to melange in my posts sometimes, and considering that iBrain is often about the lack of focus we develop because multi-tasking, perhaps that’s weirdly appropriate.

Go ahead and read the post. But I also advise reading a good book as well. (I have problems with iBrain, as you’ll read about in the post, but I still think there’s much worthwhile inside it.)

04 July 2009

Twilight Zone: A Stop at Willoughby

Attention passengers, the next stop on The Twilight Zone First Season Express is Willoughby . . . next stop is Willoughby. . . .
Episode #30: A Stop at Willoughby
Directed by Robert Parrish. Written by Rod Serling. Starring James Daly, Howard Smith, Patricia Donahue, James Wingreen.

“This is Garth Williams, age thirty-eight, a man protected by a suit of armor all held together by one bolt. Just a moment ago, someone removed the bolt, and Mr. Williams’s protection fell away from him and left him a naked target. He’s been cannonaded this afternoon by all the enemies of his life. His insecurity has shelled him, his sensitivity has straddled him with humiliation, his deep-rooted disquiet about his own worth has zeroed in on him, landed on target, and blown him apart. Mr. Garth Williams, ad agency exec, who in just a moment will move into the Twilight Zone—in a desperate search for survival.”

“A Stop at Willoughby” seems like the companion piece to the earlier classic Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance.” Executives under the pressures of their hectic world find a bucolic escape . . . this seems a topic that Rod Serling especially liked. However, “Walking Distance” tells the story of a man after he has had a final breakdown, and follows his journey into the realms of the past. But “A Stop at Willoughby” shows the lengthy crack-up period, with Willoughby, the equivalent of “Walking Distance”’s Homewood, serving as the finale.

James Daly gives a fantastic performance as Garth Williams, the ad agency wage slave to a Boss from Hell (a very scary Howard Smith) and a social-climbing ice-box of a wife (Patricia Donahue), whose life unravels before our eyes. It’s amazing how similar the horrors of work-burnout appear in both 1960 and 2009—with the exception of the gender segregation between boardroom and secretarial pool. Parrish’s direction keeps building the pressure until viewers are about ready to snap apart with Garth Williams, and just as ready to leap with him into the temptation of the dream world called “Willoughby.”

Willoughby, “where a man can slow down to a walk, and live his life full-measure,” is an idyllic 1880s town that Williams seems to envision on each commuter train-ride home. He falls asleep, then awakens in an old-fasihoned train car on a summer day that has come to stop in a town that exists on no real train route. Williams eventually reawakens in reality—but maybe one day he actually will get off that train in that beautiful town from a Currier & Ives print. (Producer Buck Houghton recalls that the MGM set of Willoughby was built for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis.)

Serling’s carefully crafted and poetic dialogue style is particularly strong in this episode, although it isn’t as moving as “Walking Distance” because the character of Garth Williams never really interacts with the world of Willoughby, a less personalized place than Homewood. However, the episode has an excellent final sting—one that opens up some interesting questions—and even though “A Stop at Willoughby” doesn’t need that final sign on the back door of a car to make its full impact, it’s still a terrific closer, similar to and an improvement over the ending of the same season’s “A World of Difference.” Great performances, great script, and great production values . . . top-of-the-line Zone.

It’s also impossible not to wonder how much Serling was drawing on personal experience in the scene where Williams has to listen to his boss make endless demands about a new television show the agency is developing: “You know what I want, just a rough format with a few details about how we integrate the commercials into the body of the show.” I wonder how many times Serling had to listen to these sorts of speeches from extremely confused network execs.