17 December 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars, Part 11: John Carter of Mars

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

So it ends here, not with a climatic epic, but with a bit of house cleaning almost fifteen years after the author’s death. The final book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s career-spanning Barsoom saga is a slender volume containing two unrelated novellas.

I’ve called this review series “Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars,” but that title is a smidgeon deceiving when discussing the two stories here. One doesn’t take place on Mars, and the other was not written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. My apologies going forward.

Our Saga: The adventures of Earthman John Carter, his progeny, and sundry other natives and visitors, on the planet Mars, known to its inhabitants as Barsoom. A dry and slowly dying world, Barsoom contains four different human civilizations, one non-human one, a scattering of science among swashbuckling, and a plethora of religions, mystery cities, and strange beasts. The series spans 1912 to 1964 with nine novels, one volume of linked novellas, and two unrelated novellas.

Today’s Installment: John Carter of Mars (1964)

Previous Installments: A Princess of Mars (1912), The Gods of Mars (1913), The Warlord of Mars (1913-14), Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916), The Chessmen of Mars (1922), The Master Mind of Mars (1927), A Fighting Man of Mars (1930), Swords of Mars (1934–35), Synthetic Men of Mars (1938), Llana of Gathol

Secret Origin

Edgar Rice Burroughs died in 1950, two years after the publication of Llana of Gathol. Two novellas from the Mars series remained orphaned, having only appeared in magazines: “The Skeleton Men of Jupiter” and “John Carter and the Giant of Mars.” It wasn’t until 1964 that Canaveral Press published them together under the deceivingly archetypal title John Carter of Mars.

04 December 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars, Part 10: Llana of Gathol

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Back on Mars, and closing in on its finale, after my short sabbatical… What can I say? It seems Synthetic Men of Mars will suck out the desire to keep trudging forward from even the most dedicated ERB enthusiast.

Llana of Gathol is the first of the two story collections that close out the published Barsoom epic: it contains four novellas chronologically linked together to produce an episodic novel… one that hopefully improves upon the failed previous book.

Our Saga: The adventures of Earthman John Carter, his progeny, and sundry other natives and visitors, on the planet Mars, known to its inhabitants as Barsoom. A dry and slowly dying world, Barsoom contains four different human civilizations, one non-human one, a scattering of science among swashbuckling, and a plethora of religions, mystery cities, and strange beasts. The series spans 1912 to 1964 with nine novels, one volume of linked novellas, and two unrelated novellas.

Today’s Installment: Llana of Gathol (1941)

Previous Installments: A Princess of Mars (1912), The Gods of Mars (1913), The Warlord of Mars (1913-14), Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916), The Chessmen of Mars (1922), The Master Mind of Mars (1927), A Fighting Man of Mars (1930), Swords of Mars (1934–35), Synthetic Men of Mars (1938)

17 November 2012

Finishing Up John Gardner’s Bond: COLD (a.k.a. Cold Fall)

COLD (1996)
By John Gardner

Four years ago this month, a James Bond film came out in theaters, Barack Obama won the presidential election, and I reviewed the second-to-last of John Gardner’s James Bond novels, SeaFire. In fact, all that happened in the space of one week. This month, a James Bond film came out in theaters, Barack Obama won the presidential election, and so I have to complete the cycle and review the last James Bond novel from John Gardner, COLD. (The title is an acronym; I am not shouting at you.)

This has been a long journey. When I reviewed SeaFire, I expected to finish up the Gardner series within a few months. But then I just couldn’t make myself do it. I read my first Gardner novel back in eighth grade, the mid-1980s, and it has taken this long for me to finish them all. The completist drive within me insists seeing this through to the end—and that means I may have to finish the Raymond Benson 007 novels as well. At the current rate, I’ll be through those in twenty years, and probably have re-read all of Fleming’s books three times over, and Charlie Higson’s “Young Bond” novels. (Which completely embarrass Gardner and Benson, by the way.)

08 November 2012

Ranking the James Bond Teaser Sequences

Tomorrow is the premiere of Skyfall in the U.S. I have my ticket, I am ready to go… and in the waiting period I wish to stop and reflect on the Bonds of the past and ask the most important question: “Is that opening scene thingy any good?”

The “Teaser” or “Pre-Credits Sequence” is a 007 tradition since From Russia with Love, and quickly evolved into their own mini-movie. The best of them combine action and mood and give the viewer the sense of meeting James Bond for the first time, every time. Here is my rundown on all the teasers from the films, rated on a scale from “000” to “007.” I think you know which ranking is the high one.

29 October 2012

National Novel Writing Month: A Five-Year Vet’s View

November is almost here, which means for tens of thousands of people spanning the globe the time has come to crunch numbers over thirty days to maximize their ability to write at least fifty thousands words of a novel. It is called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and by this point most of you with any connection to the world of books—whether writing, reading, wholesaling, or propping up the couch—have heard of this social creative writing event. In fact, I expect “NaNoWriMo” and “WriMos” to enter the Oxford American Dictionary within a few years.

Three years ago I wrote a lengthy post explaining NaNoWriMo and why I started doing it; if you want a longer explanation from a participant about what the month entails, check out that hoary article. Or you can look at the official site. Last year, I again offered my evolving thoughts on NaNoWriMo.

16 October 2012

Universal Classic Monsters on Blu-ray

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

This year, the home video divisions of all the major distributors banded together and plotted a full-scale assault on the wallets and bank accounts of Blu-ray owners during September and October. Only the wealthiest could possibly survive an attack that began with the first Hi-Def release of the Indiana Jones films. But the supreme weapon, the ultimate October Surprise, is Universal’s huge ebony slab of fear, nostalgia, and latex make-up: Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection. Spanning twenty-three years and nine films (advertised as eight, sorry Spanish Dracula), the long-anticipated set brings the Masters of Halloween into glorious 1080p for the first time, and in perfect seasonal position to drain your money before you waste it on a Jack Sparrow costume that forty other people are also going to wear to that same party.

Few movie series have had such an impact on filmmaking and popular culture as Universal’s stable of ghouls. They are as much a part of Halloween as Pixie Styx and pumpkin carving. I can’t imagine there are Blu-ray owners with any shred of geek cred out there who won’t want to add this to their shelves. When I received mine in the mail, I rejoiced at the anticipation of a week full of evenings revisiting some of my favorite movies in beautiful restored editions. The box set did not let me down—except for the one film that doesn’t really belong on it, but I anticipated that.

10 October 2012

Lost Scene from Bride of Frankenstin: The Script Pages

A recently recovered copy of the shooting script for James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein revealed a previously unknown scene from the last third of the movie between Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Dr. Praetorius (Ernest Thesiger) in the watchtower set. It is unknown if the scene was ever filmed, or if it was scrapped before production:

FRANKENSTEIN: Say, Dr. Praetorius—what’s this here on the laboratory list?

PRAETORIUS: Please read it to me, dear boy. My eyes are weary from watching the electricity crackle.

FRANKENSTEIN: “$200 for destruct switch.” What is that?

PRAETORIUS: Would you prefer I convert it to British pounds?

FRANKENSTEIN: No, that’s not the bother. But what in God’s name is a “destruct switch”?

28 September 2012

Solomon Kane Movie Needs More Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane (2009)
Directed by Michael J. Bassett. Starring James Purefoy, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Pete Postlethwaite, Jason Flemyng.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane is my favorite of Robert E. Howard’s serial characters: a fascinating mixture of obsession, religion, righteousness, history, and dark fantasy awesomeness. However, it’s the character I love, not necessarily the stories in which he appeared. With the exception of “Wings in the Night,” the Solomon Kane stories are mid-range pieces in Howard’s canon, not at the consistent level he delivered later with Conan, King Kull, or many of his one-shots. Solomon Kane appeared early in Howard’s short professional pulp career, with the first published story in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales. Perhaps if Howard stayed longer with the Puritan hero while his storytelling skills increased, he might have equaled the Conan series in quality.

But a great character is always an excellent starting point to make a great movie, and in concept a Solomon Kane film should be an easy third-base hit for any talented filmmaker. The 2009 British-French-Czech Solomon Kane, which finally received its limited U.S. theatrical release today (also on VOD if you can’t find a local theater), showed many hints of not only getting on third, but possibly stealing home: Tonally, it captures the 1930s version of Weird Tales. The violence is graphic and bloody without falling into the slapstick idiocy of Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian. The production design is top-tier for a mid-budget movie and feels saturated with the benighted European dreariness of Kane stories such as “Skulls in the Stars” and “Rattle of Bones.”

21 September 2012

Dredd Sentences You to a Bloody Good Time

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The Charge: Attempting to re-start a film adaptation of a classic comic book character.

The Verdict: Guilty.

The Sentence: Director is hereby ordered to make more Judge Dredd Movies.

Any Last Words: I am the law.

The upcoming re-make of RoboCop now feels even more unnecessary than it did before. Dredd has just handed us an over-the-top violent buddy cop SF flick that fills up that niche for the next year, maybe two. Dredd is an old-style Paul Verhoeven film in feel, although missing much of his satirical glee, and hits perfect for a September action movie, trading in any “mainstream” credentials for hard-R blood and guts on a narrow budget. It’s a wet blast for action fans and dark SF junkies.

12 September 2012

Movie Review: Commando

I feel like writing a movie review in the format of CHUD’s “Movie of the Day.” Since Expendables 2 put me into a mood to reminisce about the action days of yore (i.e. my adolescence), I’ve got a perfect Movie of the Day in mind. And the Blu-ray on hand.

Commando (1985)
Directed by Mark L. Lester. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Vernon Wells, Alyssa Milano, Dan Hedaya, Bill Duke, David Patrick Kelly, James Olson.

The Premise: Villains kidnap Arnold’s daughter. Arnold kills them all, gets daughter back.

Slightly longer version: Retired Delta Force butt-kicker Colonel John Matrix tries to make a peaceful living with his adorable daughter Jenny (future hottie Alyssa Milano). But someone starts picking off the former members of his team, and General Kirby (Amityville II: The Possesion’s James Olson) comes to warn Matrix and provide him protection. But… that’s what the bad guys were hoping for! They follow Kirby right to Matrix’s mountain paradise, where they make off with Alyssa. It turns out that Matrix’s former Delta Force buddy Captain Bennett (The Road Warrior’s Vernon Wells) has switched sides and made a deal with ousted dictator Arius (Dan Hedaya from, well, everything). If John Matrix goes to the fictional South American nation of Val Verde (future Predator hunting site) and kills the president who replaced Arius, they’ll let his daughter go free. But this plan is no bueno for Matrix, who head-snaps the poor sucker escorting him on the plane to Val Verde, slips off through the cargo hold, and goes on the hunt for Bennet and Co. before any of them realize he’s slipped the noose—which will happen in eleven hours when the plane lands in Val Verde and the crew discovers the dead guy slumped over in first class. Or until they hand out the complimentary champagne. Massive amounts of superhuman death and macho weaponry ensue, and Matrix gets an assist from an eager flight attendant and semi-pro pilot (Rae Dawn Chong, who also starred in The Color Purple that year).

09 September 2012

04 September 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars, Part 9: Synthetic Men of Mars

Greetings, late 1930s ERB! How have you been? Oh, not that great? Yes, I know how it is. I’ve read enough of your output from these days.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

In this long trip across Burroughs’s Mars, I have now reached the conclusion of Phase #3 of the Barsoom books, with the last work of the 1930s. Synthetic Men of Mars is also the last novel Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote in the series; he turned to novellas after this, resulting in two collections, one posthumous. So the ninth book of Barsoom is a eulogy of sorts.

And “eulogy” is the appropriate word: let’s pause to remember the good times, because the good times are gone.

Our Saga: The adventures of Earthman John Carter, his progeny, and sundry other natives and visitors, on the planet Mars, known to its inhabitants as Barsoom. A dry and slowly dying world, Barsoom contains four different human civilizations, one non-human one, a scattering of science among swashbuckling, and a plethora of religions, mystery cities, and strange beasts. The series spans 1912 to 1964 with nine novels, one volume of linked novellas, and two unrelated novellas.

Today’s Installment: Synthetic Men of Mars (1939)

Previous Installments: A Princess of Mars (1912), The Gods of Mars (1913), The Warlord of Mars (1913-14), Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916), The Chessmen of Mars (1922), The Master Mind of Mars (1927), A Fighting Man of Mars (1930), Swords of Mars (1934–35)

28 August 2012

Remembering Jerry Nelson: Robin the Frog Sings “Someone to Watch over Me”

In the beginning, there were five. The original Muppeteers: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz. They were the puppeteer team that carried the famous characters of The Muppet Show and in the Henson projects that followed. And, very importantly, each one played a member of the five-person band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem: Dr. Teeth (Henson), Sgt. Floyd Pepper (Nelson), Janice (Hunt), Zoot (Goelz), and Animal (Oz).

As of this week, there are only two left of this Majestic 5. Jerry Nelson died at age 78 on August 23. Now only Frank Oz and Dave Goelz remain.

Jim Henson’s death was a sudden, shattering blow when it came in May 1990. I was a junior in high school at the time, and was part of the first generation to grow up with Henson’s magic. I recall exactly where I was the moment I heard that Henson died. It was, I think, the first time I felt the mortality of celebrity and artists. It was painful, and my mind yelled out, while my voice spoke a bit softer: “No, no. Jim Henson can’t be dead. He can’t be dead.”

27 August 2012

Solomon Kane Coming to U.S. Theaters in September

Next month, we colonials will finally have the chance to view Solomon Kane, the film version of Robert E. Howard’s famous puritanical hero, in movie theaters. It has been a long sea voyage over the Atlantic: the movie, directed by Michael J. Bassett and starring James Purefoy in the title role, and co-starring Max von Sydow, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and the late Pete Postelthwaite, was released in England and other territories in 2009, but lacked a U.S. distributor. I almost gave up on the movie getting any kind of theatrical release, and expected it would one day find its way to the straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray market.

However, last week, Michael J. Bassett announced on his blog that the Weinstein Company’s new division, Radius Films, had acquired Solomon Kane and would release it first on premium video-on-demand (already available if you want to spring for it) and then give it a theatrical release on September 28th. So mark the date and sharpen your rapier, people of the New World.

No word yet on how wide a release this will be, but I expect it will be “limited”: select theaters in major US cities. As a Los Angeles resident, I’d confident I’ll have it within easy driving range (I live in one of the most heavily theater-populated places in the city, and I can even guess right now which theater it will show at.)

21 August 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: The Expendables 2

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Two years ago I walked out of a theater showing The Expendables shaking my head in mild bewilderment. I don’t just have a high tolerance for ‘80s action cheese; I actively embrace it. I was nearly as excited about the release on Blu-ray last week of Death Wish 3 as I was about Jaws’s simultaneous hi-def debut. (Well, not really, but that’s my way of drawing your attention to what an over-the-top great/stupid movie we have in Death Wish 3.) But 2010’s The Expendables pushed none of my buttons: it was dull, the action flat, and Stallone seemed to think audiences would care about the tangled romantic lives of he and Jason Statham’s characters at the expense of the rest of the cast. Stallone also seemed ignorant of the premise’s goofy appeal and played too much of it straight. The film ended up wasting most of the names on the marquee and couldn’t live up to its modest goals. It was also badly tarted-up with occasional post-production blood to get an R rating after it was shot for PG-13. It was a misfire for what looked like a simple shot.

Yet it made enough money for them to take a second shot, and when I left the theater after seeing Expendables 2, I felt they hit the target. I won’t go so far as to say “they got it right,” because “right” isn’t something a movie like The Expendables 2 would even know how to define, but the folks aboard this go-round sure “got it better.” It’s the best dumb fun movie of the summer for fans of the old-school testosterone actions pics.

13 August 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: The Bourne Legacy

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The Bourne Legacy, Paramount’s attempt to extend their successful Jason Bourne franchise—based very loosely on the novels of Robert Ludlum—does give the impression of the first film of a trilogy. It feels like The Bourne Identity (2002), the inaugural movie of the Matt Damon trilogy: it’s a starting point with some excellent sections, but also the nagging sense that all the finest moments are yet to come. Overall, there is something slight about the enterprise, making it a minor disappointment for a film I hoped would salvage August. Will Expendables 2 be this year’s “August Surprise”? I never thought that might be a possibility at the beginning of the season.

Doug Liman directed The Bourne Identity, but it was Paul Greengrass sitting in the folding green chair for the next two films, The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and it was his work that shoved the series into the high octane world of dazzling foot pursuits, close-quarter pummelings, shaky-cam car chases, and earnest people trying to get control of the world by walking fast while talking on cell phones. And audiences loved it. Those two films are the defining spy movies of the decade, easily besting the re-boot of James Bond (in the Jason Bourne mold, natch).

The Bourne Legacy, under the direction of Tony Gilroy, who wrote all three previous entries and made an impression as a director with Michael Clayton in 2007, collects the elements that made its predecessors work: whipcrack action with jittery cameras, raw global espionage, and top-level actors playing the gray-shaded manipulators attached to their phones and computer displays. What it doesn’t have is a compelling enough character story at the center to hold it together, or a resolution that satisfies beyond the need to signal a sequel.

07 August 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Total Recall (2012)

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

In a charming case of movie irony, the new Total Recall has already been mostly forgotten, even though it only came out on Friday. The Dark Knight Rises, in its third week, handily crushed the Len Wiseman-directed remake. I’m writing this on Tuesday, and it already feels as if the movie was never even released: it was a dream implant that never took, and the original memory of the 1990 Paul Verhoeven-Arnold Schwarzenegger summer blockbuster has already taken back all the cerebral space. Nonetheless, I’ll still perform this brain autopsy on Total Recall ’12 to see why no one bothered to show up except for people writing reviews.

If you were to pick the right approach to remaking 1990’s Total Recall—aside from simply not remaking it at all—you would want to try it “straight,” focusing in on the everyman aspect of a protagonist in a cyberpunk future who discovers that his whole life is a false memory implant, and in truth he’s a dangerous double-, possibly triple-, secret agent. It is, after all, a nifty SF-noir concept, delivered courtesy of the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” and refashioned into a feature film concept by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who also created the original screenplay for Alien.

And this re-make of Total Recall does that: it plays the movie as a straightforward science-fiction adventure film done in the current style. But… it was handed to Len Wisemen to direct. And he turned out the same film he always turns out: broadly competent but utterly dull, slick and superficial, ultimately disposable. Producer Neil Moritz, responsible for the “Fast and Furious” franchise, should probably shoulder a good part of the blame as well, because the by-the-numbers execution here is what he does best unless he gets a director who clicks with the material.

30 July 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars, Part 8: Swords of Mars

“But my memories of that great tragedy are not all sad. There was high adventure, there was noble fighting; and in the end there was—but perhaps you would like to hear about it.”

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Guess who’s back? John Carter, who for the twenty years of real time since The Warlord of Mars has only served the role of a cameo character, is once again the hero and narrator of a Martian novel. And for the first time, he goes off-planet—although only as far as one of Mars’ two miniature moons.

Our Saga: The adventures of Earthman John Carter, his progeny, and sundry other natives and visitors, on the planet Mars, known to its inhabitants as Barsoom. A dry and slowly dying world, Barsoom contains four different human civilizations, one non-human one, a scattering of science among swashbuckling, and a plethora of religions, mystery cities, and strange beasts. The series spans 1912 to 1964 with nine novels, one volume of linked novellas, and two unrelated novellas.

Today’s Installment: Swords of Mars (1934–35)

Previous Installments: A Princess of Mars (1912), The Gods of Mars (1913), The Warlord of Mars (1913-14), Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916), The Chessmen of Mars (1922), The Master Mind of Mars (1927), A Fighting Man of Mars (1930)

19 July 2012

“A Poem for Mareike” to Appear in Aoife’s Kiss

I found out yesterday that my story “A Poem for Mareike” will be appearing in the September 2013 issue of print speculative fiction magazine Aoife’s Kiss. This is exciting news for me because not only have I always wanted to get into this particular magazine since I read stories from it in a few “Year’s Best” anthologies, but because this is one of my personal favorite of my own short stories. I’m always afraid that the stories I like the most are the ones least likely to sell—so this comes as a great relief.
Munich during the Thirty Years’ War
“A Poem for Mareike” is the second piece I’ve sold that takes place in historical Bavaria. (The first is “The Shredded Tapestry.”) It takes place in Munich during the decades before and after the Thirty Years’ War, 1618–1648, during two phases of the life of an unlucky magician. The name “Munich” never actually appears in the story, but anyone who knows the city will recognize it from the names of the towns around it and some of the landmarks. Munich is the city I know best after my hometown of Los Angeles, so I found it was easy to sink myself into the city as I wrote about it, even if it was Munich of almost four hundred years ago.

16 July 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars, Part 7: A Fighting Man of Mars

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Back on Mars already?

I’ve now crossed the equator of the eleven-book Martian series, and A Fighting Man of Mars is the first volume of “Phase #3” of Barsoom. Phase #1 is the original John Carter trilogy of the early ‘teens. Phase #2 comprises the three books where Burroughs tried new heroes. Phase #3, which covers the three books published in the 1930s, has John Carter return as the protagonist, and shows ERB spreading out the time between the books until he eventually quits writing them altogether. (Synthetic Men of Mars is the last actual novel of the series; the two following books are compilations of novellas.) Even though the first book of the new phase still features a hero other than John Carter, a new decade has arrived, and with this book it seems that ERB is seeking to re-capture the excitement of the first trilogy.

Our Saga: The adventures of Earthman John Carter, his progeny, and sundry other natives and visitors, on the planet Mars, known to its inhabitants as Barsoom. A dry and slowly dying world, Barsoom contains four different human civilizations, one non-human one, a scattering of science among swashbuckling, and a plethora of religions, mystery cities, and strange beasts. The series spans 1912 to 1964 with nine novels, one volume of linked novellas, and two unrelated novellas.

Today’s Installment: A Fighting Man of Mars (1930)

Previous Installments: A Princess of Mars (1912), The Gods of Mars (1913), The Warlord of Mars (1913-14), Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916), The Chessmen of Mars (1922), The Master Mind of Mars (1927)

11 July 2012

Take the Ultimate Western Film Challenge!

The website Bloody-Disgusting recently posted the “Ultimate Horror Challenge” (and expanded it) to gauge readers’ level of horror fandom. My immediate thought was: this needs to be done for Westerns as well!

And since nobody else will do it, I guess it is up to me.

As with Bloody-Disgusting’s List, this is not meant as a list of “Every Western Ever Made” or “The Greatest Westerns Ever Made,” but a “broad sampling from key films of the genre.” Bloody Disgusting calls their list “a compendium of films that we feel—in one way or another—are essential viewing for every horror fan.” I don’t want to press that far and declare the films I’ve put below as essential viewing for all Western movie fans. You can easily see only half of what’s here and count as a fan in my eyes—not to mention being just a great goddamn human being. But if you really love Westerns, you should make an effort to see all of these. (And more.)

10 July 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: The Amazing Spider-Man

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

With directing great superheroes comes great responsibility. I wish director Marc Webb knew this. Or perhaps directing superheroics on screen isn’t something the man is capable of.

Webb’s re-boot of Sony’s Spider-Man franchise is not an utter elevated train-wreck. If all you want is a bit of comic book action during the summer between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, then The Amazing Spider-Man is adequate to the task. I certainly can’t give it a worse rating than something like Battleship or Dark Shadows. It’s not a Batman and Robin. There’s that.

But as a Spider-Man film, and me speaking as a Spider-Fan, the The Amazing Spider-Man is a huge disappointment. It’s even a bit depressing. I’m glad I have the Sam Raimi films to bolster me, knowing that somebody has already done Spider-Man right, because otherwise this very unnecessary (except for keeping a lock on film rights) re-do of Spidey’s origin would be… okay, an elevated train-wreck. And to hear Sony, and even some fans, try to do revisionist history on the Raimi films as if they were off the mark—that’s painful. Yes, Spider-Man 3 had many problems, most of which were forced on Raimi by the studio, but it is still a better “Spider-Man film” than this one. The first Raimi film is an well-crafted, dead-on origin story, and Spider-Man 2 is just a goddamn great film. Raimi balanced Spidey’s drama with the crisp fun of his comics.

The Amazing Spider-Man is an overall mess, but there are two major problems that injure it. Before getting into that, here’s a fast rundown on its many other problems:

03 July 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars: The Master Mind of Mars

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

I maxed out on Barsoom back in March. After reviewing the first five Martian novels over a span of two and a half-months, I switched over to writing about the movie John Carter of Mars. (That is what I’m calling it, dammit, because that’s what the end title card says.) I love that movie, but the box-office and the box-office pundits did not, and although I struggled to keep a positive view, I realized after all of this that I needed a break from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s red planet.

But during a brief pause between my summer movie reviews, the opportunity to zap my Earthly body back to Mars offered itself. So my overview of ERB’s Martian epic resumes at Book #6, with a new Earthman hero, a return to first-person, and the Barsoomian equivalent of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Our Saga: The adventures of Earthman John Carter, his progeny, and sundry other natives and visitors, on the planet Mars, known to its inhabitants as Barsoom. A dry and slowly dying world, Barsoom contains four different human civilizations, one non-human one, a scattering of science among swashbuckling, and a plethora of religions, mystery cities, and strange beasts. The series spans 1912 to 1964 with nine novels, one volume of linked novellas, and two unrelated novellas.

Today’s Installment: The Master Mind of Mars (1927)

Previous Installments: A Princess of Mars (1912), The Gods of Mars (1913), The Warlord of Mars (1913-14), Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916), The Chessmen of Mars (1922)

25 June 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Brave

Who would think at the start of the summer that Brave was concealing more of its plot and themes than Prometheus? Strange days, my friends.

Ninety percent of the trailer for Brave comes from the first twenty-five percent of the movie. And to continue with percentages, fifty percent of Brave is a great film, and worthy to stand beside earlier Pixar classics. But except for a few flashes in the trailer, Disney and Pixar have revealed nothing of this later-running time greatness to you. The marketing department and directors Andrew Jones and Brenda Chapman have even specifically asked reviewers to hide what the center of the movie is about.

This is not a case of concealing a twist ending or a mid-movie shocker, but disguising the core of the film. Imagine a trailer for Pinocchio that never reveals that the puppet comes to life: it’s the story of a sad woodcarver and his pets who meet a blue fairy, and later on an enormous whale may peep into the plot. Or a trailer for King Kong that not only never shows the eighteen-foot gorilla, it never hints that there might be a giant monster of any sort in the film. According to this trailer, King Kong looks like the tale of a young woman who goes on a voyage with a film crew, possibly to find (dinosaur- and gorilla-free) adventure and romance away from dreary Depression Era New York.

18 June 2012

Conan the Barbarian (2011) Blow-by-Blow & Play-by-Play

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

I have a week-long break between summer movie reviews—the gap between Prometheus and Brave—so I have chosen to return to Ghosts of Summer Pasts. Not long past. Just last year. Ladies and gentlemen, Hyborians and Hyrkanians, the 2011 Conan the Barbarian! [Insert tepid Monty Python and the Holy Grail “yeah” here.]

Many movie websites do play-by-play reviews, essentially a one-post blog-thru of a film, providing comments along with time stamps. I’ve wanted to try my hand at this for years, and this short summer break opened up the opportunity to exercise this review format on an awful film that sword-and-sorcery fans don’t want to talk about. But if I can find a way to wrench some entertainment from the Blu-ray of this movie (yes, I bought it—but used at a bargain price), then let it be so.

It was August of ’11 that saw the release and immediate flop of the Marcus Nispel-directed Conan the Barbarian. Critics savaged the movie, but most fans of Robert E. Howard saw the dire writing in the ancient language of Acheron on the wall long before the release. I gave up hope for the movie when I heard that Nispel was attached to it. Nothing I had seen of the man’s previous work indicated he had any notion of theme or subtlety—or even how to stich together a comprehensible action scene. The guy came across as a refugee from an awful ’80s metal band who decided to get into directing so he could show “awesome!” stuff on screen. In other words, he was picked for the job because of a superficial resemblance to sword-and-sorcery, not because the man has any affinity for filmmaking or Robert E. Howard.

08 June 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Prometheus

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

If you plan to see Prometheus this weekend, know that you are in for an endless buffet of visual astonishment, especially if you spring to see it in IMAX 3D. Ridley Scott belongs to the breed of filmmaker who can justify the use of the 3D gimmick. He poured everything at his disposal to make his new science-fiction film worth the extra dollars, euros, pound notes needed to watch it in an immersive environment. Prometheus is visual and aural splendor for the cinema.

Know also that you will meet flat characters who often do idiotic things (“Don’t pet the freaky alien snake-thingy! You call yourself a scientist?”) and more idiotic things (“Don’t take off your helmets, you morons! You call yourselves space-explorers?”) and more idiotic things (“Don’t go down into the basement alone!” Well, that doesn’t specifically happen, but many equivalent things do); a script that turns its initial concept into a shapeless mess by the halfway point; and the general disappointment of watching what promised to be an amazing return for Ridley Scott to the Alien universe he helped create end up as standard science-fiction thriller pulp.

Does this add up to a good film? Uh, I’m willing to say it does. And whether “good” is enough for you when it comes to Prometheus will depend on how much you anticipated its release and how much you devoured of its brilliant promotional and viral campaigns.

04 June 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Snow White and the Huntsman

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Summer movies, like boxes of Crackerjacks (does anyone still eat those? I never see them for sale any more), come packed with surprises. And, like Crackerjacks toys, often they are lame surprises. Let-downs. Occasionally—and it usually happens only once per summer—the toy you dig out of the same-old same-old carmel and peanut glop is a Hot Wheels car with flame details and killer sci-fi spoilers that somebody in the Crackerjack plant accidentally dropped into the box while leaving hastily for a smoke break.

Snow White and the Huntsmen is one of those positive summer surprises. I hope it isn’t the last “Hot Wheels” shock of the season, but in the month-long lull that followed the boffo fun of The Avengers, I’ll take it and cling to it.

A high-fantasy film like Snow White and the Huntsman (the ampersand only appears on publicity material) should not be a hard-sell to my usual readers. But the marketing and trailers pushed hard to get the Twilight fan-base to show up, so fantasy lovers pegged it early on as “not for us.” But it is! The Twilight viewers will love it, but they’ll like it for the same reasons other viewers will: it’s a broad-appealing, well-constructed, marvelous-looking, fun fantasy romp.

28 May 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Men in Black 3

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Before getting into Men in Black Part the Third, I must retract a promise made in an earlier post, where I vowed to review eighteen of this summer’s genre movie releases. But the blame rests with Paramount, not with me. In a move that can best be described as a vote of “less-than-zero confidence” in their own product, Paramount has delayed the release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation from next month to March 2013. With only a month to go before its originally slated release, and with a promotional campaign already going full throttle, G.I. Joe just got banned from the summer leagues. The excuse: “3D conversion.” Uh huh. I can’t imagine how terrible the film must actually be if Paramount chose to ditch it this late and swallow a few million bucks of promotion. I estimated that The Amazing Spider-Man would viciously pound G.I. Joe in its second frame, and Paramount apparently decided that G.I. Joe’s first frame would be so poor that they didn’t want to go through the embarrassment. I wonder how much Hasbro’s Battleship flop affected Paramount’s decision to drop the toy company’s other movie of the summer?

Anyway, Men in Black 3, a.k.a. MIIIB, pronounced “Mieb” and known on Arrakis as “Mi’i’d.” The film that, whatever it else it may achieve, has the distinction of taking down The Avengers from the #1 box-office slot after reigning for three weeks.

21 May 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Battleship

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

You sunk my interest.

And so The Avengers gets another week at #1. Welcome to the Billion Dollar Club. Have a seat next to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and watch that The Dark Knight doesn’t try to steal your popcorn.

The question burning my mind as I left the theater after watching Battleship was: “Why ‘Fortunate Son’?” At the close of two hours of a rah-rah, fist pumping, pro-military glamor parade, why play one of most famous and angriest protest songs ever over a montage of alien ships getting smithereen’d? Did no one involved in the movie listen to the lyrics? “Some folks are born made to wave the flag / Oh, they’re Red, White and Blue. / And when the band plays ‘Hail to Chief’ / Oh, they point the cannon at you.” Maybe the music supervisor thought, “Oh, hell ya! People love Creedence Clearwater Revival. Let’s crank it up!” Perhaps director Peter Berg was trying to allay blame for the film, screaming “It ain’t me! It ain’t me!” Or maybe Berg filled his Navy vs. Aliens blow-em-up flick with a subversive anti-military/industrial complex message that I failed to find on my radar.

However, I will never know for certain, because there’s no way I will ever watch Battleship a second time. This is the essential Stupid Summer Movie, a Michael Bay film without Michael Bay’s obsession with disaster porn that at least gives his junk a crazy edge. If you thought the idea of adapting a strategy guessing game was a poor choice for a blockbuster movie, you were right: stick a red peg on your upper tactical screen.

14 May 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: Dark Shadows

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Dark Shadows is the first victim of The Avengers. Next up is Battleship.

Contrary to the horrified reactions to the trailer, the state of Tim Burton’s creative career, and Warner Bros. willful promotional ignorance of the movie, Dark Shadows is not a massive disaster. It’s merely a dull flick that suffers from the most standard of bad-movie flaws: an uninteresting story. A few flashes of something better appear—although it is hard to determine what that something was—but this latest attempt to revive the 1966–71 Gothic daytime soap opera seems to drift in clouds of weed, lazily resorting to some broad yet humorless gags while forgetting that it has multiple plot strands that require attention. The film’s slogan really should’ve been: “We were going to make a compelling story for Dark Shadows, but instead we got high.”

Dark Shadows also isn’t much of a comedy; the reviled trailer sells the film as outrageous culture-clash humor, but these kind of jokes makes up only about a third of the film. The rest of it consists of stilted scenes of characters sitting down and talking about what isn’t happening in the rest of the movie.

At least there’s a great soundtrack, a surprisingly smooth meld of one of Danny Elfman’s better scores in recent memory with pleasing early ‘70s pop and rock. Another plus is a production design that feels more natural and sensuously subdued than what Tim Burton usually produces. If Burton was consciously experimenting with an understated Gothic décor and a more realistic vision of the 1970s than people expect of him, I applaud him for it. It works, and it’s one of the few aspects of Dark Shadows that does.

07 May 2012

I Go to the Summer Movies: The Avengers

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

So begins my long trip through the genre movies of the Summer of ’12. I’m glad that things got off to a tremendous start.

As in a recording-shattering $207 million dollar take at the U.S. box-office, for a total of $640 million globally—so far. Oh, what a menacing term: “so far”!

The Avengers is not the end product of five movies and five years of preparation from Marvel Studios. It’s a beginning. While the two Iron Man films (2008 and 2010) were smash hits, the other three superhero films in the Avengers roster (The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) were more standard successes, and they meant more to the comic book fan-base than to general audiences. Now, the general audience is pumped to get more from these characters. All the Avengers are now major public stars, and with this insane success, Marvel is poised to truly unleash their stable of heroes on a public than will be drooling and clawing to get more.

I have watched The Avengers twice in theaters on its opening weekend, something I haven’t done since The Lord of the Rings films. That’s a review in itself, but a since I am 1) a Marvel zombie and Avenger fan since childhood; and 2) inaugurating this series of movie reviews for the summer, I have an obligation to go in-depth on this stupendous piece of entertainment cinema. I will avoid big spoilers as much as I can, since this is technically still a “review,” but some tidbits about the massive set-pieces will leak out. But you’ve seen the film already at least once, right? Three times, anyone? (I know plenty who are “three times and counting.”)

Okay, let’s assemble and do this.

30 April 2012

Quoth The Raven: “Nevermind”

The Raven (2012)
Directed by James McTeigue. Starring John Cusack, Alice Eve, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Luke Evans, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

This is more of a funeral oration than a review: The Raven flew right into a car windshield this weekend and failed to crack either the windshield or the top five at the U.S. box office, instead pulling in a sad $7.2 million to flop down at seventh place. This coming weekend, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes will tread it into dust, from where its spirit will be lifted “nevermore.”

And that’s fine, because The Raven is a sad sack of a film. It’s bad, but instead of feeling resentful toward the filmmakers, you feel bummed that their good intentions and concepts never gelled—and they were apparently quite aware of it. The Raven knows it isn’t good, and that’s the saddest part.

23 April 2012

Five Genre Films to Look Forward to This Summer

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Summer is almost here, and the time is almost right, for dancing in the streets. Or sitting your butt down in a movie theater to watch a big green thing in purple pants beat up aliens.

As I more and more become “The Black Gate Movie Guy,” I’ve grown aware of my responsibilities regarding upcoming films. This summer I promise to review all the major genre releases on the site, which means that, yes, you will get to hear my thoughts on Snow White and Huntsman. Because you didn’t demand it.

Looking over the summer roster (posted below—yes, all shall be reviewed), aside from a few groans of anticipatory pain, there are five films that really have my geek adrenal glands turned up to the danger zone. Here are the films I hope will make summer worthwhile.

22 April 2012

“The Black Cat on the Feast of the Eclipse” to Appear in Beyond Centauri

Some excellent news on the publishing front: my fantasy novelette “The Black Cat on the Feast of the Eclipse” will appear in the January 2013 issue of the magazine Beyond Centauri. I found out today that editor Tyree Campbell accepted the story.

This will be my first appearance in a print periodical. Previously, I’ve either appeared in online magazines (now the dominant medium for short fiction) or print anthologies. I’m pleased to know we still have the old-style magazines around. I’ll eventually make the short story available in ebook format when I start putting together a collection of my non-Ahn-Tarqa short stories.

Beyond Centauri is a children’s speculative-fiction magazine and part of Sam’s Dot Publishing, which also releases one of my favorite magazines, Aoife’s Kiss (Tyree Campbell edits that one as well). Beyond Centauri is a magazine “for the next generation [ages 10 and up].” I’m not the first Writers of the Future winner from my year to get in the magazine: Patty Jansen had her story “From the Parrot’s Mouth” in Issue #29. Laurie Tom, the Grand Prize Winner from the year before mine (and with whom I’ve paneled!) was published in Issue #7. Rachel V. Oliver, who is part of the Miracle Mile Writers group that I attend, has quite a run in the magazine, with stories in Issue #33 (“Rachel and the Giant Tomato Worm”), Issue #24 (“Slow and Steady Wins the Race…”), and Issue #25 (“The Spider and the Crow”). Bruce Durham, a friend from Black Gate, got his story “Upstream” published in Issue #11. So I’m in superb and familiar company.

09 April 2012

Verona, Which Shakespeare Never Visited

I’m writing now from the porch of a bar on the Piazza Erbe (Vegetable Plaza) in Verona. I descended—with the rest of the family—from the high country of Alto Adige (South Tyrol) into Veneuto. At last I left behind the bilingual world of German-Italian and into a purely Italic world. With extra German tourists, but still purely Italian.
The Roman Arena of Verona
Verona is sometimes called “Little Rome” because of its Imperial importance. The city became part of the Roman Republic in 49 BCE. It has the third largest amphitheater, the Arena, and my hotel is only a block away from it, on the Piazza Bra. The Arena was built in the first century CE, but an earthquake devastated the outer wall in 1117 (damaging many other monuments in the city), and only a small portion on the outer circuit survives. Some joker thought it would be amusing to hang a bloody car commercial billboard off this only surviving piece of the magnificent outer wall. Stulti!*

Tyrol: Where Germans Get to Be Italians

I must again give great thanks to the Muses for inventing the Alphasmart NEO, the portable no-frills word processor that allowed me to write large parts of this post while seated in the back seat of a packed mini-van traveling through the Alps, or parked at a restaurant crowded in with two overactive young children. I could live in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space as long as I have my NEO.

A few days have passed since I posted last; Internet access isn’t easy to happen upon on the move in northern Italy. I am writing now from the town of Bolzano in Tyrol, a historic region that lies between the spheres of influence of Germanic and Italian cultures and states. Currently, Tyrol is divided between Austria (North Tyrol, East Tyrol) and Italy (South Tyrol). The pre-Roman inhabitants were called the Raetia, whom the Romans conquered in 15 BCE. For the next two thousand years, Tyrol shifted between different nations: the Ostrogoths, the Lombards, Charlemagne’s Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For much of its existence, Tyrol served as an important bridge between Austrian lands and Switzerland. Under Mussolini, South Tyrol underwent heavy forced “Italianization” to increase the population of Italian-speakers.
View from Oberbozen of the Alps
Today, Tyrol is a mixture of German, Italian, and Ladin-speakers. Ladin is a Romance language that only 5% of the population speaks natively, although there are efforts to keep the language thriving into the twenty-first century with special schools and newspapers. Around the capital of Bolzano live the majority of the Italian-speaking population, roughly 73%, a result of pre-World War II Italianization. Despite my ardent search, I never saw any evidence of Ladin anywhere in Bolzano. There are supposedly some tri-lingual signs, but not where I was looking.

03 April 2012

Return to the Alte Pinakothek

When I travel against the Earth’s rotation, the loss of a day throws me off. Where did April 1st go? What happened to all the April Fools’ jokes? The day never seemed to happen at all. I got on a plane on the evening of March 31st in Los Angeles, landed in Munich several hours later, went to bed, and woke up on April 2nd.

I’ll get the day back, of course. But I’m unsure if getting extra time on April 14th is an accomplishment. Unless it’s your birthday on April 14th, what’s special about it?

Anyway, now it’s April 3rd (or it is in Germany as I write this) and I’m coming to the end of my second full day in Europe. Yesterday was primarily family time, as an adjustment day, I’m fine with it. When I’m in Europe I feel the constant urge to be out taking in the enormous mounds of history available, and wasting any of it hanging around someone’s house can get painful. Today I took in my cultural fill with the Alte Pinakothek, Munich’s most famous art museum.

02 April 2012

German–Italian Interregnum

Greetings from Germany!

I am currently on a two-week trip to Munich and Northern Italy (Bolzano and Verona), accompanying my parents. We’re here principally to see my sister Colleen, who lives here with her husband Armin and her two sons, Diego (almost four years old) and Axel (almost one year old). I’m still recovering from a terrible cold that slammed me hard this week, but waking up this first morning here it seems to be finally on the subdued side.

My previous trips to Europe received extensive day-by-day blog coverage. I don’t think I’ll manage as much this time, but I will try to post visits to major sites when I can. Amazingly, for someone who has loved ancient Roman history and the Latin language for so long, I have never been to Italy or visited a single Roman ruin. I’ll probably break down in tears of joy when I see Verona’s legendary amphitheater, the third largest one in existence.

Sure, I would love to get down to Rome, but it won’t happen this trip—we have two small children in the group, so travel from Munich will suffer some limitations.

Today is mostly an adjustment day for us. My parents and I are staying in a pleasant basement apartment below where Colleen and Armin’s apartment. They live in Starnberg, a pleasant suburb of Munich where people like to take day trips during the summer to visit its lake.

30 March 2012

Movie Review: Wrath of the Titans

Wrath of the Titans (2012) 
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Starring Sam Worthington, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell, Danny Huston, Ralph Fiennes, Liam Neeson.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Well, that was trivial.

A sequel nobody demanded from a re-make nobody cared about. There’s no John Carter of Mars “never gonna see a sequel” bitterness here at all.

But there is some Ray Harryhausen gloating. While watching Wrath of the Titans, I constantly thought of reverse-engineering the movie to create the Ray Harryhausen-Charles H. Schneer original from which it was re-made. I came up with a pretty entertaining film; not as good as Jason and the Argonauts or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, but right on the level of Mysterious Island, although lacking a Bernard Herrmann score. The scene of Perseus fighting the Minotaur in the labyrinth is one of Harryhausen’s most suspenseful an atmospheric stop-motion creations. In the re-make, the scene is sloppily tossed into the action without any tension, and then fought through without a moment of genuine excitement.

19 March 2012

Movie Review: Hercules in the Haunted World

Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)
Directed by Mario Bava. Starring Reg Park, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo, Giorgio Ardisson, Ida Galli, Marisa Belli.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

My most popular post I’ve written for Black Gate takes on one of the goofiest fantasy films of the ‘80s, the Lou Ferrigno Hercules. Two-and-a-half years later, I feel I should give the on-screen Hercules another shot with one of the better films to carry his name. Plus, I just pondered the news that a new Hercules film is on the way. Or maybe I’m just trying to repeat the search-engine magic of the name “Hercules.” So let’s leap back twenty-two years from the science-fiction cheesy glitz of Ferrigno’s film and take a kaleidoscopic trip to Hell on a shoestring budget with Mario Bava.

12 March 2012

John Carter of Mars Post-Game: Six Reasons to Feel Better

 Cross-posted to Black Gate.

John Carter of Mars (yes, I have chosen to flat-out call the film by that name going forward, as per its end title card) drew in approximately $30.6 million in domestic box-office over the weekend according to online tracker Box Office Mojo. This is better than some of the gloomier Cassandra predictions, and even superior to the lowered tracking numbers from the days right before the film’s release that pegged it at $25 million.

But I won’t sugarcoat this for fans or lie based on my long experience tracking box-office results: these numbers do not augur well. (If you want to hear a more objective—and therefore grimmer—analysis, read Box Office Mojo’s take on this. It isn’t pretty.) The new film couldn’t even best last week’s #1 film, The Lorax, which held over to take the top spot despite a standard 44% drop in attendance. It performed $5 million less than last year’s Battle: Los Angeles, a more modest film that cost a third of John Carter of Mars’s $250 million budget.

09 March 2012

John Carter [of Mars] Is a Perfect Edgar Rice Burroughs Movie

John Carter (2012)
Directed by Andrew Stanton. Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Dominic West, Samantha Morton, Ciarán Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, James Purefoy, Darryl Sabara.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

[This is a review from the POV of an unapologetic Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. You need to know this from the start, and much of what I say here relates directly to ERB. Since much of his great early work is in the public domain, and free to download for e-readers at Project Gutenberg, you too can start being an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan right now!]

Don’t expect the brackets in my post title John Carter [of Mars] to endure. People who have already seen John Carter will know what I mean: Walt Disney Pictures could not stop director Andrew Stanton from making John Carter of Mars the true title of his adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s century-old classic A Princess of Mars. Stanton, a fan of the Martian novels since he was a child, has given the perfect fan treatment to the material. If you’re a fan as well, then John Carter will carry you from the beginning until the end on a wave of childhood joy until you choke up at the final title cards.

If you’ve been reading my reviews of the Martian novels, then you already know my bias; I am also an Edgar Rice Burroughs fanatic from a young age. As with Captain America: The First Avenger, I am inclined to love this film more than most viewers. But, as with Captain America, I feel confident that the majority of viewers will enjoy this film, with a few caveats. Burroughs fans, however, may purchase with rock solid confidence.

08 March 2012

Get Ready for John Carter: My Quick Guide to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars

It floated there in space, fourth from the giant sun, slowly turning on its axis. Its rolling hills and blue waters were silent and empty. On that entire world only one spot pulsed with the mysterious spark of life. It was in the Valley Dor, and the stirring was within the Great Tree of Life.

All this was some twenty-three million years ago, when Dor lay across the equator.

A millennia passed.


—John Flint Roy, A Guide to Barsoom

Kaor! Tomorrow, John Carter [of Mars] opens across the country. (My review.) Most of you know how I feel about this, and my blogger-level fight to make it a hit. You may also know I’ve been reviewing all of the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s an important day for me tomorrow, and you can expect to see a review of the movie on the website by the afternoon. I plan to do a video review as well, which is a first for me.

For many viewers, going to see John Carter [of Mars] will be their first encounter with the Mars that Edgar Rice Burroughs first created exactly a hundred years ago in the novel A Princess of Mars, the source novel for the movie. (Based on what I’ve seen in the promotional material, the film will also contain elements of The Gods of Mars, the second novel.) I’ve provided below a short guide to what audiences may expect to see in the film: no spoilers; and of course and I’m guessing at some of this, since I only know what I’ve seen in the trailers and heard from interviews.

These are some of key races, creatures, and terms you will probably encounter in John Carter [of Mars], and I hope many of you enjoy having a bit of a “cheat sheet” on ERB’s amazing Martian world. I’ve included the names of the actors playing the various parts in parentheses.

Update: Now that I’ve seen the movie, I’ve added a few terms germane to what is on screen.

06 March 2012

It Is Up to Us: We Must Make John Carter [of Mars] a Hit

Update: Yes, I have seen it now! Read the review.

Update II: We tried, we tried . . . but the film did not hit like we hoped. But here are some reasons to feel better.

Friends, Heliumites, Martians. . . .

I am here before you now with possibly distressing news. This Friday, John Carter [of Mars] premieres in theaters nationwide. (Read about the novel!) This is the first “event film” of 2012. Early reviews and reports from viewers who saw sneaks of it are enthusiastic: “good” to “great” is the word from almost everyone. Yet tracking shows the film on its way toward a soft opening: $25–$30 million. The marketing machine from Disney has mishandled this film, and it may very well founder at the box-office despite the positive reviews and word-of-mouth.

Readers, we cannot allow this to happen. We must make this movie a hit. It has taken a hundred years to get to this point, the realization of one of the foundational science-fiction works from one of the genre’s towering authors. We must not only see the film (this weekend, if possible) but we must convince friends, relatives, co-workers, casual acquaintances, Starbucks baristas, and the other person standing at the crosswalk that they should see this film. We must become evangelicals for Edgar Rice Burroughs and Barsoom.

Normally, I would never push people to see a movie that I haven’t seen myself. I won’t see John Carter [of Mars] until it opens on Friday morning. In the past, I haven’t pushed for people to go see movies like Tron: Legacy despite my hopes for a hit. In the case of Tron: Legacy, it was getting poor reviews and I couldn’t in good conscience advise people to see something they probably wouldn’t like. Besides, I had the original Tron, whatever else might happen.

05 March 2012

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Play Hercules and Probably Kill a Lot of Stuff

I shall be briefer than usual for a Tuesday, since I plan to put up another post on Black Gate and this website this coming Friday: a review of the film John Carter [of Mars]. If I’m doing an overview of all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian novels to coincide with the release of this movie over a hundred years in the making (and in development hell since the mid-1930s, I jest not) then I certainly owe my readers a review of the movie delivered on the day of its release. I’ve already scored my ticket for the Friday morning IMAX screening at the Howard Hughes Center, a genuine six-story screen, not one of those false ones that have popped up around the country that are only squarer and a bit taller than a regular screen.

For today I planned to write a review of one of the old Italian Hercules movies as a long-delayed follow-up to the most popular post I’ve ever done at Black Gate, a joking review of the 1983 Hercules starring Lou Ferrigno. But right as I was planning to explore Hercules in the Haunted World, a piece of important movie news broke, and so I’ll delay my old Herc review to talk about this mythological tidbit from Tinseltown:

According to Variety, MGM is lining up a new live-action Heracles film. Ah, I mean Hercules film.

27 February 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars, Part 5: The Chessmen of Mars

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

“The squares shall be contested to the death. Just are the laws of Manator! I have spoken.”

After Edgar Rice Burroughs pulled the Martian novels in a different direction with Thuvia, Maid of Mars, he retreated from Barsoom for a spell to concentrate on other projects. Eight years passed between the writing of Thuvia and the publication of the next adventure, The Chessmen of Mars, which switched to yet another hero and heroine to hurl into the unknown regions of Mars. In the process, Burroughs gave science fiction a new board game to play.

Our Saga: The adventures of Earthman John Carter, his progeny, and sundry other natives and visitors, on the planet Mars, known to its inhabitants as Barsoom. A dry and slowly dying world, Barsoom contains four different human civilizations, one non-human one, a scattering of science among swashbuckling, and a plethora of religions, mystery cities, and strange beasts. The series spans 1912 to 1964 with nine novels, one volume of linked novellas, and two unrelated novellas.

Today’s Installment: The Chessmen of Mars (1922)

Previous Installments: A Princess of Mars (1912), The Gods of Mars (1913), The Warlord of Mars (1913-14), Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916)

26 February 2012

84th Academy Awards Live Tweet

People may have noticed that, while I did extensive blogging about last years’ Oscars, I’ve done almost nothing this year. Actually, this post is really it. Sorry, I have been 1) very busy, and 2) not as interested in this year’s awards. There were many films I loved this year, and my favorite, Hugo, is up for Best Picture. But taken as a whole, the nominations this year do not excite me the same way as last year. And there are two Best Picture nominees I haven’t even seen (yet): Extremely Loud and Incredible Close and War Horse. It just wasn’t a year for me to spend a huge amount of time writing blog posts about the Oscars. Maybe next year.

And… I will have my list of my personal favorite movies of 2011 up soon. One divorced from whatever occurs tonight.

However, I will be doing a Twitter commentary live during the ceremony, starting at 4 p.m. PST. Here’s the link. The hashtag is #RHOscars. Please enjoy responsibly.

Hugo for the upset! But I know The Artist will win, so never mind. I’m one of the few who was not wowed with The Artist, and that may be because I see a lot of silent films, including a recent wave of retro-silents, and so the novelty doesn’t strike me as much.

18 February 2012

Essential Blu-rays for New Owners

I’m now a bit past my first year as a Blu-ray owner, a member of the 1080 club. As with any advance in home video technology, I find it hard to believe I was able to survive without it previously. The visual revolution that the Hi-Def image offers is the most astonishing leap I’ve seen in home entertainment. It has altered the way I’ve looked at classic films, even ones I’ve seen numerous times.

My collection has gotten large over the last year—especially considering how frugal I am, but bargains are easy to find. My shelves include a panorama of cinema from the silent era to films that came out in theaters only a few months ago. Some discs have disappointed me. (Oh, Secret of NIMH, why did you forsake me?) Some have been adequate, steps up from DVD quality, but not astonishing. (The original Clash of the Titans.) And other have been so jaw-droppingly beautiful that it felt as if I were watching one of my favorite films for the first time. (Many examples coming up.)

This list isn’t of my personal favorite Blu-rays—although many of those are included. It’s a list of what I consider “essentials” for a Blu-ray owner. If you’ve just purchased a Blu-ray player and an HD TV, these are the discs you should consider purchasing to get the best experience for yourself and the people who will watch with you.

To give you a sense of my criteria for the list: I selected films that, for the most part, have a general viewer appeal and/or display Blu-ray technology at its best. In other words, these are the movies you can slap on to impress your friends. Many Criterion Collection discs are brilliant, but I can’t put their Godzilla disc here because it doesn’t have a very broad appeal, and even though it’s a great transfer, it doesn’t display Blu-ray at the height of its power. Airplane! is an endlessly re-watchable movie and great for parties, but it isn’t a piece of visual splendor. Captain America: The First Avenger is an fine Blu-ray and a fun film, but it isn’t at the complete mind-blowing level.

So here are the movies that I think you, as a current or future Blu-ray player owner, will get the most from in your library along with your particular favorite movies.