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.

13 February 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars, Part 4: Thuvia, Maid of Mars

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

John Carter’s story appeared finished with The Warlord of Mars. But readers wanted more, and Burroughs was fired with productive energy. Less than a year after “ending” the Martian novels, he launched into the second phase of the series, with a new hero, new heroine, and new point-of-view style.

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: Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916)

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

08 February 2012

Robert Bloch’s Psycho

Psycho (1959)
By Robert Bloch

“We’re all not quite as sane as we pretend to be.”

Spoilers. Lots of them lay ahead. To write about the novel Psycho in any depth requires writing about the legendary Hitchcock 1960 film adaptation and its various twists. Which are also the novel’s twists. So if for some reason you either haven’t seen Psycho or have managed to avoid finding out the basics of its story—and I don’t understand how either situation might come about—you might wish to read no further. And you might also wish to go see Psycho, and I envy the shocks you are about to receive. (Also, in what hermetic order have you been living?)

Psycho the novel is an excellent thriller, shocker, and examination of a diseased mind. It’s pulpy, but so is the movie. Five decades have given the movie the patina of a classic, but in the 1960s critics considered it shock schlock that cheaply exploited the audience. It surprised me how much I enjoyed Psycho, because even though I should know better, I can fall into the trap of believing that Hitchcock adapted all his cinematic masterpieces from poor source material that he magically improved. There is some truth to this. But the exceptions are impressive: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and “The Birds” are great works. So is Cornell Woolrich’s short story “Rear Window.” So why shouldn’t Psycho, from the typewriter of one of the great horror and crime authors of the century, be impressive as well?

06 February 2012

Movie Review: The Woman in Black (2012)

The Woman in Black (2012) 
Directed by James Watkins. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Watching The Woman in Black was the first time in my life that I got to see a Hammer Horror movie first run in a theater. That is just kind of totally amazing. Hammer Film Productions is responsible for nearly half of the horror movies I would list as my favorites, and just the name of the studio summons up delicious visions of Gothic wonder the likes of which live in a distant realm, a dream-state, along with the great Universal monster classics.

Hammer was a studio of the past: it released its last horror film, To the Devil, A Daughter, in 1976, and its final theatrical film, a re-make of The Lady Vanishes, in 1979. But Hammer resurrected itself as a working production company in 2007, and with The Woman in Black it returns to the genre that made it famous: Gothic Victorian horror.

The giants walk the Earth once more!

Oh, how’s the film? It’s fairly good.

02 February 2012

Why Groundhog Day Is a Great Holiday

This is pitiful. A thousand people, freezing their butts off, waiting to worship a rat. Groundhog Day used to mean something in this town. They used to pull the hog out and they used to eat it! You’re hypocrites, all of you!

And with those furious words, spoken by a time-loop drained Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) from Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, PA (played by Woodstock, IL), we know it’s once again one of the great holidays of the year: Groundhog Day.

I never cared much about Groundhog Day, aside from acknowledging that it existed, until the film came out. After twenty years, it seems safe to say that this is one of the great American movie comedies, an almost perfect film. The U.S. government agrees, since in 2006 it inducted the film into the National Film Registry. This is a movie I never tire of watching, usually on February 2nd with my father, who loves this film more than any other. This year, I saw it a few days early, when the New Beverly Cinema showed it on a double bill with Ghostbusters. But I still celebrate in little ways on the day itself, texting my friends with weird wishes combined with movie quotes.

01 February 2012

Book Review: The Waters of Eternity

The Waters of Eternity (2012)
By Howard Andrew Jones

Howard Andrew Jones (website) moved into the fantasy and sword-and-sorcery scene with his stories of Dabir and Asim, a heroic team of scholar and swordsman adventuring in a fantastical version of the Middle East of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (regined 786–809 C.E.). Starting in 2000, the stories appeared in various magazines, building up Jones’s reputation as a fine author of old-style adventure fantasy tinged with mystery. He then went wide in 2011 with his first published novel, The Desert of Souls, which took Dabir and Asim into the long-form. The Desert of Souls attracted rave reviews and made Barnes & Noble’s list of the “Best Fantasy Releases of 2011.”

The Waters of Eternity, available as an e-book, collects together most of the Dabir and Asim stories that bolstered Jones’s career. Along with a new prologue, “In Bygone Days,” there are six stories: “The Thief of Hearts,” “The Slayer’s Tread,” “Sight of Vengeance,” “The Waters of Eternity,” and “Marked Man.” Missing are “Whispers from the Stone” (folded into The Desert of Souls), “The Dream Horn” (part of the upcoming anthology The Roar of the Crowd, which will also feature one of my stories), and “An Audience with the King” (the first story written, and not one of the author’s favorites).