31 March 2010

We need the Mary Celeste!

The title of this post is an exaggeration. I’m using need in the weak sense that “boy, it would sure be great for all of us if . . .” And it would be great for all of us if a sharp group of filmmakers made a new movie about the mysterious Mary Celeste.

In case you’ve never heard of this ship, the Mary Celeste was a brigantine sailing ship that was found abandoned in 1872 in the Atlantic about six hundred miles from Portugal. It had set sail from New York, bound for Genoa, with a cargo of alcohol destined for Italian wine merchants, a crew of eight, and two passengers. The ship Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste seaworthy, rigged, and undamaged—with nobody on board, and no apparent reason for the crew and passengers to have abandoned the ship.

The Wikipedia entry can give you most of the important details as well as the various theories, although the article contains more of those annoying [citation missing] tags than usual for a Wikipedia entry. The hypothesis that Captain Benjamin Briggs ordered the ship abandoned because of fear that the cargo might explode makes the most sense; by Occam’s Razor, this is the likeliest explanation. It has some holes in it, but far less than some of the other theories, like pirates attacking the ship. If pirates did raid the Mary Celeste they must have been both the kindest and stupidest pirates in history, since they didn’t upset anything on board and took only some standard navigation equipment with them, leaving the valuable cargo worth $35,000 untouched. They also took the lifeboat, for some reason. (Hey, could always use another lifeboat. Just ask the folks on the Titanic who didn’t make the cut.)

I’ve loved “real life mysteries” from a young age; I first encountered the mystery of the Mary Celeste in a World Book Enyclopedia volume for children that contained stories of the sea. The telling of this perfect “ghost ship,” where everyone aboard seemed to have simply vanished, was chilling and intriguing. Unfortunately, the book fed me some of the common myths about the ship, such as the old canard that the crew of the Dei Gratia found that dinner was laid out and uneaten, meaning the people aboard the Mary Celeste got up right before the evening meal and decided to leap overboard in a moment of collective mania and/or odd humor. Today, this gives me the hilarious image of Captain Briggs, right after saying grace, suddenly declaring to everyone at the table: “Hey, you know what would be really amazing? If we all went up top right now, got in a lifeboat, and sailed off to our doom. It would so mess with people’s heads!”

A few years after my first encounter with the Mary Celeste, I read another account aimed at juvenile readers which included the fictional “Fosdyk Papers” as actual evidence for the disappearances. Add another myth on the heap.

Legends aside, we’ve still have a very strange occurrence on the high seas of the Victorian Age and a goldmine of storytelling potential. Only one major has ever been released about the vanishing, the 1935 British movie The Mystery of the Mary Celeste. There is a short black and white British telefilm called The Wreck of the Mary Celeste from 2004 about which I can find little info. This was followed by another Brit TV project, called The True Story of the Mary Celeste, which is an hour long and aired in 2007. German TV had its own television version in 1972. It’s time for a full-length, high-profile feature. Television is probably the best venue, although an independent, limited-release theatrical version could also work. In a time with too many rehashes of material less than two or three decades old, here’s a great piece of public-domain drama and fascination waiting around for somebody to grab it and to do something with it.

There are a few directions that a Mary Celeste film project could take its subject, but it narrows down to two broad categories for me: period drama or speculative fiction. In the first choice, similar to the 1935 film, Mary Celeste’s mystery is treated in a realistic (if romanticized) fashion. Fictionalized or completely fictional characters have their drama aboard the ship, building up to the reason they either abandoned it or were taken off it. The second option . . . well take your pick: time travel, giant squid, alien attack, dimensional warp, sea zombies, Rod Serling, etc. All sorts of fun!

The Mary Celeste does have a presence in our pop-culture, but usually as a reference. I’ve done this myself, since I named a character in one of my novels—a woman trapped aboard a “ghost space ship”—Celeste. However, it’s time for the whole story to get back in the mainstream. I’d certainly pay money to see it. As long as it isn’t in retroactive 3D.

30 March 2010

I am a finalist in The Writers of the Future!

Update: I WON!

This is the other big writing news I received recently. I’ve had to wait for the official press release to go out before I could make an announcement—and keeping silent about this has really driven me to the edge of ecstatic madness. But the release went out today and I can at last shout out:

I am a Finalist in The Writers of the Future Contest!

The press release is here.

The Writers of the Future is the biggest competition for new writers in science fiction and fantasy. The judges for the contest are among the most prestigious writers in the field, and the award is highly respected. Getting listed as one of nine finalists (out of maybe a thousand entrants; they don't release the numbers) is an amazing honor.

I submitted my story to the contest in December, and was notified by phone last week that I was a finalist. The nine finalists’ stories will now go to four of the judges (we won’t know who until afterwards) and they will name the First, Second, and Third Place Winners at some point late next month. Those winners will then have their stories published in the annual anthology and will get to attend an award ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (where the first Academy Awards Ceremony was held). Three other periods of judging will occur throughout the year.

The lowdown is that I have a one-in-three chance of getting one of the main honors and making it into a major anthology. However, even if I don’t place in the top three, I am now and forever a Writers of the Future Finalist, which is a Big Damn Deal. It’s certainly the best news I’ve gotten in my writing life so far. However, if I do win, I’ll have to worry about how to get to the ceremony in Hollywood. It’s a ten-minute drive from where I live, but sometimes with traffic it can’t take a whole half hour to get there.

(I have not posted the name of the story because the judging is done blind.)

29 March 2010

Movie review: How to Train Your Dragon

I’m getting contemporary with my posts on Black Gate: a review of a movie that came out on Friday! Watch out, because next week’s post will also be a new movie review. (Easy to guess what it will be.)

How to Train Your Dragon has gotten some glowing reviews.

Mine is not one of them. Read the dissenting opinion here.

I’m not fond of comic fantasy in general, and when it comes to CGI movies, the “not Pixar” curse continues at full effect. How to Train Your Dragon is better than most computer-animated films, but this is not saying much.

Oh, wait . . . Godzilla! Godzilla! Yeah, Godzilla! (Sorry, really can’t get myself over that wonderful news.)

Godzilla! Godzilla! Godzilla! Oh yeah, Godzilla!

Godzilla’s coming back and this time he’s gonna set things a’right.

In the biggest movie news for me personally since Tron Legacy got greenlit, Variety has announced that Legendary Pictures is a go for a new U.S. version of Godzilla to rise from the ocean depths in 2012. (See, all that Mayan stuff was really just a prediction of Godzilla returning. Nice how that works out.) This time, they’re going do it right. Forget that thing in 1998 (okay, forgotten), as Tom Tull, CEO of Legendary, says:
Our plans are to produce the Godzilla that we, as fans, would want to see. We intend to do justice to those essential elements that have allowed this character to remain as pop-culturally relevant for as long as it has.
In other words, screw you 1998 version. This is going to be the Godzilla that people really want to see. No tiny egg-laying wimpy iguana with bad breath.

Yoshimitsu Banno, director of the weirdly wonderful Godzilla vs. Hedorah, is listed as one of the Executive Producers. Oh yeah, they’re working on our side this time. This time, we get to win.

As long as the Big-G beats the hell out of another monster, I’ll be happy.

A director will be announced shortly. But you can start partying now.

27 March 2010

The Mad Max Trilogy

Mad Max (1979)
Directed by George Miller. Starring Mel Gibson, Steve Bisley, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Tim Burns, Roger Ward, Geoff Parry.

The Road Warrior / Mad Max 2 (1981)
Directed by George Miller. Starring Mel Gibson, Michael Preston, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells, Kjell Nilsson, Virginia Hey, Max Phipps, Emil Minty.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) (Longer Review)
Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie. Starring Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Bruce Spence, Frank Thring, Angelo Rossitto, Robert Grubb, Helen Buday.

I’ve idolized the Mad Max films (the first two, anyway) for years, but last night was the first opportunity I’ve ever had to watch all three of them in a row in a movie theater. Any triple-feature is a trippy experience—a weird fatigue and exhilaration sets in around the last movie—but when dealing with the classic Aussie trilogy of motor-mayhem and post-apocalyptic weirdness, it’s a helluva a head-trip.

On top of the blunt effect of all three movies, I had the strange experience of walking out of the Egyptian Theater and right into downtown Hollywood at 1 o’clock on Saturday morning. It was like I left the movies and accidentally walked right back into them. Tina Turner’s Bartertown isn’t so strange as Hollywood and Highland on the weekend nights.

The three Mad Max films are vastly different beasts, which is one of the reasons they make such a fascinating trilogy. Seeing them in close proximity makes the sharp dividing lines between them all the clearer. It started with a low-budget biker flick, and somehow turned into Spielbergian fantasy six years later. Let’s drive along this 293-minute road trip into the bleak future. . . .

26 March 2010

Movie review: Downhill Racer

Downhill Racer (1969)
Directed by Michael Ritchie. Starring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Karl Michael Vogler, Dabney Coleman.

I hardly watched a moment of the 2010 Winter Olympics. And yet a few weeks after they ended, I decided to watch a dramatic presentation of a Winter Olympics event, one that concludes at the Winter Olympics. Why is this? Can’t I get my thrills from the real thing?

In a word, “No.” I have scant interest in sports. Approaching nil. I’m only interested in sports when talking to my brother, who knows how to fill me in on what’s going on in the athletic world in an entertaining way that I—a SF&F geek and writer—can understand.

However, I do like sports movies. Sports contain inherently great cinematic drama (and comedy) material. Most recent sports movies are pretty terrible, but there are many classics that I love. I’d rather watch Bull Durham or Hoosiers than watch a baseball or basketball game. Because real basketball games don’t come with a Jerry Goldsmith score or Gene Hackman or a completely wasted Dennis Hopper. Imagine the inflation of ticket prices just for adding Dennis Hopper alone.

And speaking of Gene Hackman, the Winter Olympics this year didn’t come with him either. Which is why I preferred to watch Downhill Racer.

None of this makes much sense, but I’ve never made it a personal goal to make sense a hundred percent of the time.

24 March 2010

My story “The Last Refuge of Piyamaradu" will be in Roar of the Crowd

I received some great writing news last week. Actually, two great pieces of news. However, I’ve held off on revealing them on my blog until the other sides made their official announcements. One was made about an hour ago, so I can finally spill it on my blog. (I’m afraid to tell you that the second item of news I still have to hold back on for a few days. I hope you can endure the suspense. I’m going crazy, but I imagine you’ll hold out.)

So here it is: my story “The Last Refuge of Piyamaradu” will be published in the Rogue Blades Entertainment anthology Roar of the Crowd later this year. It’s a cornucopia of 150,000 words of heroic fantasy based on ancient sporting events, edited by Jason M. Waltz. And you’ll be able to order it through Amazon.com and other fine online retailers.
“The Last Refuge of Piyamaradu” is a story I’ve wanted to write for ages: a tale of the Hittite Empire in the late Bronze Age. Because I have this inexplicable thing about the Hittites. The sporting event is chariot racing, and it happens during an historical event that may have connections to the actual Trojan War. I put a lot of research behind this, and I’m very proud of the results. I hope my readers will enjoy it as well.

Here is the table of contents that Jason has released on the RBE website. This is more or less random order; I have no idea what the eventual order will be, as these things take careful consideration to create the right flow and balance.
  • Foreword by Michael Ehart
  • “Mbogo Returns” by Milton Davis
  • “Carcass and Mallet” by Ty Johnston
  • “Race to Dragonhead Rock” by Bill Ward
  • “For the Light” by Gustavo Bondoni
  • “Spirit of the Maya” by Robert Waters
  • “Winter’s Game” Kate Martin
  • “The Last Refuge of Piyamaradu” by Ryan Harvey
  • “Up the Gladiators!” by David Bischoff
  • “Panathenaic” by Bruce Durham
  • “Naumachia Magic” by Alva Roberts
  • “Hard Crossing at Luhinmov Ford” by Adrian Simmons
  • “Love and Revolution” Jeff Draper
  • “The Turul Spreads its Wings” by Boglárka Takács
  • “Whispers of the Goddess” by David J. West
  • “Ulemet’s Wager” by Lyn Perry
  • “The Dream Horn” by Howard Andrew Jones
  • “Shini-tai” by C.L. Werner
There are some friends of this blog in the anthology with me, people whose acquaintance I’ve made through these here electronic transmissions. Bill Ward helped me proof and clean up “The Last Refuge of Piyamaradu,” so it’s great to share the contents with his story “Race to Dragonhead Rock.” I haven’t read it yet, but I’m sure it will be terrific; I’ve read plenty of Bill’s work. I’m also honored to be sharing a table of contents with Howard Andrew Jones, managing editor of Black Gate and a man who has been generous with his time in helping my own writing career. I guarantee you that when my first novel gets published, Howard will get the dedication. It’s the least I can do. I’m also thrilled to see I’ll be in the same book with David J. West and Bruce Durham.

Roar of the Crowd will be published late in the year, post-September some time. Be assured, I’ll keep you up to date with ordering info. Annoyingly so.

I like making banners for my stories:

22 March 2010

The Weird of Cornell Woolrich: “Speak to Me of Death”

Most pulp writers of the 1930s were itching to break into the hardcover book market. Since reprints of pulp stories in book form were rare at the time, these writers did not expect that their work for the newsstands would survive past an issue’s sell-date. They felt comfortable re-working and expanding on them to create novels. Raymond Chandler famously called his process of novelizing his already published work as “cannibalizing.” He welded together different short stories, often keeping large sections of text intact with only slight alterations. Other authors took ideas that they liked, or else felt they could do more justice to in the novel format, and enlarged them into books without text carry-over. Robert E. Howard used “The Scarlet Citadel” as a guide for The Hour of the Dragon. And Cornell Woolrich turned many of his short stories into novels. “Face Work” became The Black Angel. “Call Me Patrice” became I Married a Dead Man. “The Street of Jungle Death” became Black Alibi. And “Speak to Me of Death” became Woolrich’s most depressing novel (which is really saying something), Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

In most of these cases, Woolrich made major changes from the short version to the longer one. “Face Work” is a minor piece and only remains as an incident within The Black Angel. “Street of Jungle Death” is a pretty wretched piece of junk, and yet Woolrich took this silly “big cat on the loose in Hollywood!” and fashioned it into a grim classic—one of his best novels—set in the web-ways of a South American city.

But in the case of “Speak to Me of Death” and its growth into Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Woolrich changed little of the story. He instead deepened this examination of fate, psychic powers, and police work so it lasted over three hundred pages. The short story is a classic, and so is the novel—it’s merely a matter of the length of the author maintains the effect. If Night Has a Thousand Eyes is the superior work, “Speak to Me of Death” might be better for your nerves because it ends much sooner.

Chris Evans is Captain America

So speaks The Hollywood Reporter, “Sources tell us the actor has not only accepted Marvel’s offer, first detailed on Friday, but that the dealmaking moved so fast it’s now all about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.”

The actor being Chris Evans, and Marvel’s offer being the role of Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger.

Come on, would you turn that down? Of course he accepted the offer!

As Evans was strongly said to be in final talks with Marvel for the part a few days ago, I think we can now safely assume that Hugo Weaving will indeed play the Red Skull, as he is in the same position with the company. (And director Joe Johnston wants him to play the part.)

I’m excited about this. I had fears of Marvel lousing up the Cap casting with some of the uncharismatic and un-Cap choices they were tossing about during the last month, but I think Evans can pull it off. Hugo Weaving will help, of course. Let’s hope the script can give them both something interesting to do, and we’ll have the movie Cap fans have hoped for through decades.

Update: It is 100% official for Evans. Weaving still “in talks.” Whatever. He’s the Skull. (And that is now official as well.)

20 March 2010

Chris Evans is this close to being Captain America

Update: Evans has accepted the offer.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Marvel has offered Chris Evans the role of Steve Rogers/Captain America in the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, which begins filming in April.

This isn’t a lock, of course. But it looks likely that if Evans says “yea,” than we and director Joe Johnston have our Cap. Evans is also scheduled to shoot a romantic comedy this summer with Ana Faris, which may complicate the choice.

Evans is best known for playing Johnny “Human Torch” Storm from the two recent Fantastic Four movies. I wasn’t crazy about either (I sort of enjoyed Rise of the Silver Surfer, but got nothing from the first movie), but Evans was good in the part. He’s far better than the other choices for Cap that have kicked around for the last two weeks. I think he’ll work out in the part—and he’ll be going up against Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull.

16 March 2010

No Mere Nostalgia: The Original Clash of the Titans

Clash of the Titans (1981)
Directed by Desmond Davis. Starring Harry Hamlin, Judith Bowker, Burgess Meredith, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

On April 2nd, “Titans Will Clash!” Which is perhaps the worst tag-line I’ve seen since “The Story That Won’t Go Away” for JFK. I wonder why the tag-line on director Louis Lettier’s previous film wasn’t “This Summer, The Hulk Is Incredible!”

And the Titans will also clash in 3D. But not real 3D; this is a post-production fix designed to cash-in on the success of another 3D movie. Clash ‘10 wasn’t shot with the extra dimension in mind, so don’t expect me to shell out extra cash for the polarized goggles.

I would feel a bit easier about the upcoming re-make of Clash of the Titans if it weren’t for the attitude of some online movie sites and critics who seem to take pleasure in putting down the 1981 original in their anticipation of the new film. I should feel nothing but excitement; who am I to object to Greek myth and big beasts on the silver screen? But I have this discomfort with those critics who normally object to re-makes but somehow feel that the Ray Harryhausen classic is going to get improved in a re-do because the original is only “cheesy nostalgia.”

No. It’s. Not.

15 March 2010

International “Stab a Roman Tyrant Day”

Around this time of year, most people are excited about St. Patrick’s Day. Since it’s an excuse for me to wear my green sport coat (which I originally purchased just so I could make a Riddler costume for Halloween), I’ve got no problem with the Holiday. But I’m much more excited about another mid-March event . . . the literal mid-March event. The annual observance of the Ides of March, when Julius Caesar learned that he should have listened to the warnings and worn his Kevlar toga to the Senate, and Will Shakespeare got a killer tag-line: “This summer at the Globe kheater . . . BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH!”

Yes, it’s International Stab a Roman Tyrant Day. Caesar deserved to get stabbed. He was ambitious. I know this because Brutus told me he was ambitious. And Brutus is an honorable man. So are they all, all honorable men.

Actually, I don’t recommend any of you go out and stab a Roman dictator today. You’ll have a hard time finding one, first of all, even before we consider the legality issue. You can’t just go around knifing a high-ranking official today and expect that Cicero will get you off with clever Latin word constructions. I instead recommend that you celebrate the day by either reading Shakespeare or taking a plastic knife and jabbing the guy at the office who hogs the copy machine. If he doesn’t yell out “Et tu, Brute?”, then you really need to give him a history update. He will thank you for it next year at this time when somebody again lunges at him with a plastic knife in mid-March.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of H. P. Lovecraft. He, however, wasn’t stabbed to death by furious pro-Republic senators. It was just Bright’s Disease, which is a lot less tragically romantic. Lovecraft's last writing was a description of his symptoms. A writer to the end.

Since today is an excuse to read Shakespeare, I’ll just post a chunk of “The Speech” so you have shortcut to enjoyment. Ah, the joy of public domain!
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,—
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men,—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.

13 March 2010

Movie review: Kill Them All and Come Back Alone

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1968)
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Starring Chuck Connors, Frank Wolff, Franco Citti, Leo Anchoriz, Gianfranco Cianfriglia.

I’ve decided to interrupt my series on the Westerns of Sergio Corbucci for the moment and turn my gaze on a few other Italian Westerns, and perhaps some of the stateside ones that influenced them (I'm thinking mostly of Vera Cruz). I have reached the middle of Corbucci’s filmography at this point, with three more movies to go, so it seems the appropriate time for an intermission.

First, I present you a movie from the peak years of the Italian West, 1967-1968, when the film industry of Italy produced over a hundred westerns. And this is one of them: Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (Ammazzali Tutti e Torna Solo).

Let’s be honest, a title like Kill Them All and Come Back Alone puts genre junkies like us into heat. We know it can’t be as good as its title, but if it can deliver even half of it, the “Kill Them All” part perhaps, then it’ll be worth it.

And it is worth it. And no, it doesn’t fully live up to its title.

Book review: Conjure Wife

Conjure Wife
Fritz Leiber (Lion Books, 1953)
Oh, it was a wonderful day all right, one of those days when reality becomes a succession of such bright and sharp images that you are afraid that any moment you will poke a hole in the gorgeous screen and glimpse the illimitable, unknown blackness it films; when everything seems so friendly and right that you tremble lest a sudden searing flash of insight reveal to you the massed horror and hate and brutality and ignorance of which life rests.
Here comes that flash of light. . . . (I mean, you wouldn’t be reading the book if it didn’t happen.)

Although it isn’t as well known as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or Carrie, Fritz Leiber’s short novel Conjure Wife is a fundamental part of the evolution of the modern horror novel. As Ira Levin, William Peter Blatty, and Stephen King would visit supernatural horrors into contemporary and naturalistic environments, so does Fritz Leiber take witchcraft and magic and place it among the mundane world, where it exists aside psychology and science, between bridge games and faculty meetings, living under the surface membrane of the almost absurdly bland little world of a small college town with the slightly awkward name of Hempnell. Leiber’s sardonic sword-and-sorcery stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are his most read works today, but Conjure Wife is his most influential opus. It does suffer from its age because it dwells in a world of gender relations that is now antiquated, but the theme of seeing your world suddenly reversed remains potent, regardless of what that world is.

Conjure Wife also the quintessential story for Unknown, the fantasy magazine that John W. Campbell started as competition for Weird Tales, and where the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories debuted. As per the dictates of editor Campbell that his authors deliver fantasy and horror with a contemporary feel, Conjure Wife unveils its fantasy elements from a logical and scientific slant, an approach sometimes called “science fantasy,” but “nuts-n-bolts fantasy” is probably the better term in this case. Conjure Wife first appeared in the April issue of the magazine, which at that point had undergone a slight title change to Unknown Worlds. In 1953 Leiber expanded the shorter work to novel length for its book publication. It has often been paired with his 1978 short novel Our Lady of Darkness. The edition I own is a Tor Double with both novels. A later Tor edition would gather the two under the collective title of Dark Ladies.

12 March 2010

Hugo Weaving Is the Red Skull

The news from The Hollywood Reporter is that Hugo Weaving (a.k.a. Agent Smith from The Matrix, Elrond from The Lord of the Rings, and V from V for Vendetta) is in talks to play the Red Skull in the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger. (Update: And now it is official.) Director Joe Johnston wants him to play the role, and at this point I would say it’s about 90% certain he’ll play the most famous Cap villain of all, the masked Nazi madman whom Hitler personally trained to be the ultimate enforcer for the Third Reich. (That’s the official Silver Age version of his background that was detailed in 1984—there are alternate versions.) The deal still has to go through, and Marvel has been known to low-ball actors for the movies. Just ask Mickey Rourke.

We’ve known for some time that the Red Skull would be the villain. Not only did Joe Johnston announce that he wanted the Skull as the baddie, but any big-screen adaptation of Captain America without the Skull is unthinkable. He’s not only the best-known of all Cap’s rouges gallery, he’s really the only one that the general public might know. Cap has some great villains: Baron Zemo I & II, Arnim Zola, Crossbones, Doctor Faustus, the Serpent Squad, HYDRA, the Viper, the insane ‘50s Captain America, and the various adversaries who threatened the Avengers under Cap’s leadership, like Kang and Ultron. But the Red Skull is the big one. He’s the Lex Luthor, he’s the Joker, he’s the Green Goblin. Actually, he’s more than those, because he dominates Cap’s rogues gallery in a way the others don’t. If you know one villain from Captain America comics, you know the Red Skull.

09 March 2010

Movie review: The Hellbenders

The Hellbenders (1967)
Directed by Sergio Corbucci. Starring Joseph Cotten, Norma Bengell, Júlian Mateos, Al Mulock, Aldo Sambrell, Ángel Aranda, Gino Pernice.

Prelude Paragraph: The Italian title of The Hellbenders is I Crudeli, which means “The Cruel Ones.” Usually, I defer to the official English title of a foreign film in my reviews, but in this case I can’t resist the beauty and clarity of the title I Crudeli. So from this point on, that’s what I’m calling the movie.

Colonel Jonas (Joseph Cotten) is angry that the Confederate States of America lost the Civil War. But he’s going to do something about it. He has a vision to start it all over again—and let the South win this time. He and his three sons rob a Federal money shipment, and then head north to the Hondo river with plans to reorganize the Confederate Army and strike back to win the war. They stash the money in a coffin, and Kitty (Maria Martin), Jonas’s kept woman, pretends she’s a widow on her way to bury her dead husband so they can slip past government patrols. However, the hard drinkin’ Kitty doesn’t last long in the job, and Jonas’s crazed and rape-hungry son Jeff (Gino Pernice) kills her when she makes an impulsive run with the money. They need to find another woman to play the widow, and Jonas sends his most reliable son, Ben (Júlian Mateos), to the nearest town to find a candidate. After some rough poker and saloon fisticuffs, Ben corners the perfect replacement in Claire (Norma Bengell), a card hustler. Claire soon learns she’s trapped among murderers in a doomed enterprise, and only Ben is watching out for her. As the false funeral wagon passes through hostile territory and risks discovery with every encounter, Ben begins to turn against his father’s mad quest and side with Claire.

08 March 2010

Two blasts from a 70 mm

I spent Oscar Weekend with two grand old films from the days of 70 mm. I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, and Lawrence of Arabia at the Egyptian in Hollywood. (Less than twenty-four hours and two blocks away from where District 9 wouldn’t win anything.) It was an experience worth reporting, even for two films I’ve seen before. And in the case of 2001, many many many times before.

So here I am, reporting on it at Black Gate.

Remember, “Nothing is written, and I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”

Somebody else reviews Conan the Hero

I'm glad to see that I'm not the only person willing to pen reviews of Conan pastiche novels. The esteemed Charles Saunders, author of the Imaro stories, has posted an excellent review of Conan the Hero by Leonard Carpenter on Black Gate. Charles actually asked me in December if it was okay for him to write a Conan pastiche review, as it was something only I had done so far in my "Pastiche 'R' Us" series. Of course it was all right: not only is anybody free to hop on the Conan-reviewing bandwagon with me (I've always hoped for some company) but Charles Saunders is free to do whatever he wants, as far as I'm concerned.

Saunders looks at the Vietnam allegory of the novel, as well as the partnership between Conan and Juma, a black warrior originally invented by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter for one of their pastiche stories. I've never read Conan the Hero, although I own a copy, and after reading Mr. Saunders's review of it, I'm not enthusiastic about getting to it. The Vietnam parallels just sound too "on-the-nose" for me. Carpenter's novels are very hit-and-miss with me, anyway. If it were John Maddox Roberts, I'd be onboard in a moment. He managed to do a complete re-write of King Solomon's Mines and make it work, after all.

Thanks to Charles Saunders for taking some Conan-reviewing pressure off my shoulders.

07 March 2010

Kevin Flynn has an Oscar (and other observations)

I love movies, but I don’t like watching the Academy Awards ceremony. For the three hours it drones on, it seems to suck the joy I feel toward the medium right out of me. I feel this way even if something I love is picking up a lot of awards. This year, I used various feeds and watched other blogs to pick up the news as it happened, then posted a slew of status reports on Facebook and commented on my friends’ observations of Oscar’s progress. I especially had a good time slinging around quips with T. L. Bugg of the Lightning Bugg’s Lair. I think I did more Facebook posts in three hours than I have the entire year and a half since I signed up for the service.

This weekend I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia in 70 mm prints in famous old cinemas. This distorted my view of this year’s Oscars, honestly. But you’ll hear more about this in my upcoming Black Gate post.

My observations on the awards for films actually released last year:

A very unsurprising pack of wins. One of the least surprising in my memory. Hurt Locker had it sealed up back at the DGA Awards, and the moment it took Best Screenplay tonight, which most pundits thought would go to Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds, I knew the lock (ahem) was in. Tarantino should have gotten the statue in that category, but Inglourious Basterds ended up with nothing except Christoph Waltz for Supporting Actor, and that was a Near Sure Thing. And Herr Waltz deserves it. Commence jokes about Bingo now.

I like The Hurt Locker. When I finally get my Favorite Movies of 2009 list together in a few weeks (still a couple of flicks I want to see before I finalize the list), The Hurt Locker will be on it. It’s an excellent film. But . . . I think that Up, Inglourious Basterds, and District 9 are much better. Particularly District 9, which managed to win nothing. It should have walked away with Adapted Screenplay, but nope. At least the winner was a film I can support, and the director somebody I can admire. The first female Best Director winner gets the award for a gritty, brutal, tense war drama . . . I think that’s quite amazing and beautiful.

And no question in my mind that The Hurt Locker deserved Best Editing.

Sandra Bullock, future footnote: “Widely considered one of the least deserving winners in the Best Actress category.” Less said about this, the better. Speed 3 is certain now.

But meanwhile . . . Jeff Bridges has an Oscar! One of my favorite actors of all time, and he at last gets his due recognition for a killer career. Not only a great actor, but an all-around awesome, cool fellow. And this means that Tron Legacy is headed toward major hit status, with Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges reprising one of his classic roles. Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges!

Up won Best Animated Film. No surprise, but even though this was a “boring” win because everybody knew it was going to happen, Up is genuinely one of the great movies of the last ten years. It’s the film from 2009 that I will probably re-watch more than any other. It also picked up Best Score, giving Michael Giacchino his first win. Giachinno is one of the most talented people working in the post-Goldsmith film music biz, and this is the first win in this category in years that I think is 100% deserved. And for some reason, Disney never released the score to CD, only to digital download. Time to release the CD, Disney. Because the music just won the Oscar, okay?

A Star Trek film won an Oscar! Wow!

Anything else? Oh, yeah, Avatar. It won Best Visual Effects. And some technical awards. And mysteriously stole the Best Cinematography award from the amazing Robert Richardson for Inglourious Basterds. But in general I think that Avatar suffered from backlash and envy and therefore walked away with nothing spectacular—except $750 million. I think Cameron can live with that. I know I can: I enjoyed the film as theatrical experience, but I don’t think it’s Best Picture caliber.

Nobody seems to have enjoyed the horror movie montage. I’m glad I didn’t have to watch it and bristle at all the films left out.

Okay, the Oscars are over, back to normal life watching and loving films. And if I ever feel bad that something I like didn’t win, I can always remind myself that not only did the following movie not win Best Picture in 1968, it wasn’t even nominated . . .

Bruce Wayne Is Batman Is Solomon Kane!

The Source has revealed the upcoming covers by Andy Kubert to the DC miniseries Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne. The six-issue series will have Bruce Wayne return to the role of Batman after the events of Batman R.I.P. turned him into a caveman and put Dick Grayson under the cowl. It’s complicated, and I haven’t really been following Batman in comics recently, so I can’t give you a detailed explanation of this. Nonetheless, the idea of “Batman” coming up through the ages in different history periods is intriguing. Especially after I saw the cover to issue #2:
Solomon Kane-ing a bit, aren’t we?

Of course we are. Author Grant Morrison is the sort of man who would know Solomon Kane and Robert E. Howard extremely well. He’s said that each issue will be a take on a different “pulp hero” genre. I think that closes the case. This is going to be Grant Morrison’s Solomon Kane.

I may not read any other issue of Return of Bruce Wayne, but I may well read this one. And possibly report on it in Black Gate.

Issue #1 comes out in May.

03 March 2010

Movie Review: Navajo Joe

Navajo Joe (1966)
Directed by Sergio Corbucci. Starring Burt Reynolds, Aldo Sambrell, Nicoletta Machiavelli, Fernando Rey.

Have you ever wondered where that bizarre but hypnotic “screaming music” in the Kill Bill films comes from? If you have, then please make the acquaintance of Navajo Joe. But watch him with that knife.

Navajo Joe was Sergio Corbucci’s first film after Django turned into a wild hit. Django came out in April, and Navajo Joe followed in November. Sergio Corbucci, the Great Italian Western Director, had arrived. Navajo Joe isn’t one of his classics, or at the level of Django for iconic power—but if you want wild action, here you go.

The Indian-centered Western was a popular theme in the earlier Eurowesterns, such as the “Winnetou” series in Germany and most Italian-produced films before 1963. Although Navajo Joe has a Native American lead character, it is much more a revenge/lone gunfighter film than any of the earlier Indian-themed Westerns. It was producer Dino De Laurentiis who fixed onto the idea of an Indian hero, in which Corbucci wasn’t that interested, and it shows. The movie has little to say politically about the plight of Native Americans. White killers scalp them, and Joe gives a speech to a sheriff in a saloon about how he is much more a “true” American than a man whose parents were born in another country. Otherwise, Corbucci sees Joe as essentially another lone avenger character.

02 March 2010

Book Review: The Howling

The Howling (1977)
By Gary Brandner

My copy of The Howling was a birthday gift this year from a friend who is a serious “Howling Franchise” fan. He’s read all the novels and seen the numerous films, most of them straight-to-video. I’ve only seen the 1981 Joe Dante-directed and John Sayles-scripted The Howling, but it’s one of my favorite ‘80s horror films, and I hold it up as one of the best werewolf movies ever put on celluloid. That it came out the same year as An American Werewolf in London, another lycanthropy classic, is a sign from the Film Gods of their general approval of werewolves. (And then there’s Wolfen, the third wolf-flick of ’81, which is a whole other rambling post I might do some day.)

I knew that the 1977 novel The Howling is significantly different from the movie adaptation because of the commentary and special features on the DVD release. My friend decided to satisfy my curiosity about the source material, and confident that I wouldn’t pass up a werewolf novel, presented me a used copy with a tie-cover from the movie. “A Terrifying Novel of the Occult—Now a Blood-Curdling Motion Picture from Avco Embassy.”

01 March 2010

Forgive Me, Solomon Kane

Today’s post at Black Gate is something of a confession. I’m going to take you back in my immediate post-college years, back to the mid-‘90s, and discuss one of the screenplays I wrote then. I never talk much about the scripts (six of ‘em) that I wrote between 1995 and 1999, because 1) I’m not a screenwriter—just not my medium; and 2) they aren’t good. They were an apprenticeship, however, and put me onto the path of discovering I was a fantasy/science fiction/young adult novelist. After I wrote the first draft of my first novel in 2000, I knew I had finally found what I really wanted to do as an author.

But, with a Solomon Kane movie now in release in the U.K. and awaiting U.S. distribution, I think it’s time to come out of hiding and admit that in 1996 or so I wrote a Solomon Kane script. It was my third script, following a Western and a romantic comedy. (I can’t believe I wrote a romantic comedy! I did not know myself very well, did I?) I changed some names, but the original intent was to do a Solomon Kane screenplay.

You can hear all about what I did, why I did it, and why I did nothing with it, right here.