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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Tarzan the Untamed: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

Tarzan_the_UntamedTarzan declares war on Germany. That could have been an alternate title to this book as a good portion of it has Tarzan go all Rambo on the invading German forces during World War I. This story was released in serialized form as two separate stories in two different pulp magazines; "Tarzan the Untamed" (AKA "Tarzan and the Huns") for Redbook Magazine in 1919, and as "Tarzan and the Valley of Luna" in All-Story Weekly in 1920. This is a grimmer and more brutal Tarzan than we have seen in the past books, and for a very good reason, his wife is murdered. If one was to make a list of things not to do I’m betting killing Jane, Tarzan’s most beloved wife, would probably appear near the top. There are certainly easier ways of killing yourself.

The book begins with a group of German soldiers, and their native porters, approaching the Greystoke estate in British East Africa. The “War to End all Wars” has broken out but unfortunately that information had not yet reached Tarzan or Jane. Tarzan is away doing Tarzan stuff so it is Jane who welcomes these Germans in with open arms. Things do not go well. When Tarzan learns of the outbreak of war he ditches his civilian garb and races across the land with the speed and manner only Tarzan could accomplish, but he is too late. Much of the estate is burned to the ground; he finds one of his most trusted Waziri warriors crucified, but worst of all he finds the charred remains of Jane. Tarzan declares a silent oath that the men responsible for this will pay, and pay dearly.

The first half of the book is pretty much all about a wrath filled Ape Man wreaking holy hell on the German forces while he tries to locate the men directly responsible for the atrocities he found at his home. He would grab a native porter for interrogation, scarring the living crap out of him, and then once he has gained what information he can get Tarzan would then crush the life out of the man. One German officer is left stuck in a tree with a hungry lion waiting for a meal, while others meet brutal if not as sadistic ends. At one point Tarzan takes the aforementioned lion, which he has leashed and beaten into submission, and forced him into the German trenches. When the hapless German soldiers flee the trenches Tarzan is there waiting for them, with a machine gun, and he rakes them with a deadly hail of bullets.

His hunt for Captain Fritz Schneider runs into a few snags when he learns that the Schneider he left for lion chow in a tree was actually just the brother of the man who led the attack on the Greystoke estate. His continued hunt for the correct Schneider leads Tarzan to cross paths with Bertha Kircher, a woman he has seen in both the German and British camps, and who he believes to be a German spy. When Tarzan discovers that Kircher has in her possession his mother's locket, which he had given as a gift to Jane, he is less than impressed with her. He decides to take her back to British headquarters, where he assumes that she will be executed for being a spy, but she manages to escape. This is not one of Tarzan’s finer moments. He basically told Bertha Kircher that he was going to personally escort her to her doom.   Yet for some unearthly reason he lets her walk behind him, and with her still in possession of her gun. I know grief can make you do stupid things but that is a bit ridiculous. The only reason she doesn’t shoot him in the back of the head as she can’t bear the idea of killing such a magnificent specimen of manhood. So she just coldcocks him with the butt of her pistol.

It’s at this point that Tarzan decides he has had about enough of civilization and will spend the remainder of his days deep in the jungle, living as he did as a young man, and far away from the supposed civilized world. What is strangely never mentioned is anything to do with John Clayton, Tarzan and Jane’s son. We know he went off to live with Miriam but wouldn’t it have been nice of Tarzan to maybe send his kid a letter, “Dear Son, going back to live with the apes. PS Your mom is dead.” I believe the death of Jane, and the lack of their son’s appearance in this book, has more to do with Burroughs’ desire to have Tarzan free to run off and have adventures than it is about his bestial nature. A tied down Lord of the Jungle isn’t as fun as one that can rush off to investigate the latest lost city.

tarzan book 7

 And this book does have a lost city. In the first six books we’ve only had a couple of short visits to Opar, the lost outpost of Atlantis, but following this book lost cities will become so numerous one will start to question if there is enough jungle in Africa to hide them all. The second half of the book has to do with Tarzan trying to make a life with a new group of Apes, and maybe venturing to the coast and the cabin his father built, but his attempt at ditching civilization is constantly interrupted by the Bertha Kircher, the German spy. She is captured by black deserters and Tarzan is forced to rescue her. He is complete and utter hatred of her wars with his inability to leave a white woman in danger. He even lets her live with him and the apes. Yeah, that’s swell of him. Eventually another character enters the picture in the form of downed British pilot Harold Percy Smith-Oldwick. One of the great moments in the book consists of Tarzan and Percy about to be burnt at the stake by a group of cannibals when Bertha leads a rescue attempt consisting of the Great Apes. Tarzan repeated tells himself that he hates Bertha with every fibre of his being, but he also can’t help but acknowledge his growing respect for her.

Poor Percy falls almost immediately in love with Bertha, even after Tarzan informs the British aviator that she is a German spy, but Berth does not return his love, she has eyes for another. You get three guesses as to who that person is, and the first two don’t count. This is a sprawling epic with Tarzan wiping out German soldiers, traveling desert wastes, battling cannibals, befriending lions (two of them in this book), and of course he finds a lost city. Only the inclusion of Bertha and Percy in the second half of the book, which is mostly jungle adventure and lost city finding, connects it to the first half, which is all about war and revenge.

As I’ve mentioned this book does have a lost city, and it’s a doozy. The lost city of Xuja, hidden in a secret desert valley, is populated by inbred madmen who use lions for cattle and security, and worship parrots and monkeys. Bertha and Percy are of course captured by Xujans so it is up to Tarzan to stage another rescue. Will the Ape Man be able to sneak into a city of madmen, can Percy win the love of Bertha, will Tarzan actually desert civilization for good, and most importantly of all, “Is Jane really dead?


 Tarzan the Untamed is bit lopsided at times and Tarzan constantly going on about how much he hates the German’s gets a bit grating. He did write this during the war so the anti-German sentiment is not surprising, but what he didn’t quite take into account was how sales of his books in Germany were going to suddenly plummet. I guess some people can’t handle being called cowardly, vile, despicable and evil. I mean seriously, who could possibly take that personally?

In the book The Beasts of Tarzan Burroughs allowed us to spend more time with characters other than Tarzan, and Tarzan the Untamed is really where that element of the series kicks into high gear. Following the adventures of people like Bertha and Percy bring a fresh to the story, and of course this allows Burroughs to get in some fresh love interests as it’s hard to make that work with a married Ape Man. Overall Tarzan the Untamed is a fun if uneven story, but made a little extra awesome by having Tarzan going on a rampage. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Midnight Special (2016) - Review

There is something nice about seeing a small science fiction film, so full of wonder and magic, that it almost makes up for all the Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich special effects extravaganzas that we are subjected to. Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is such a film, and along with last year’s Ex Machina by Alex Garland I’d like to believe we are on a new wave of smart and heartfelt science fiction movies. Many directors have tried to capture the awe and mystery of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kinds or even his more whimsical E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, J.J. Abrams certainly gave it a shot with Super 8, none quite hit the mark but Midnight Special is easily the closest.

midnight special poster

 Midnight Special begins with an Amber Alert being issued for eight-year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who is believed to have been abducted by one Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). What the authorities don’t know is that Roy is the boy’s biological father and that they are on the run from a religious cult known simply as The Ranch.  Along with Roy’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) this small group must cross America, to some mysterious coordinates, before the cult tracks them down.   The cult's leader is Calvin Meyer (Sam Sheppard), who had raised the boy as his own, and desperately wants him back at all costs, but what is so special about Alton? Well it seems he is able to speak in tongues, which Calvin had integrated into his sermons, and they all believe that if Alton is with them they will be spared when the coming Rapture happens.


Oh, and he can shoot light out of his eyes and give you visions.

The government are also very interested in Alton as the sermons he’s been “dictating” contained classified government information. The F.B.I. swoops in to interrogate the members of The Ranch to find out how they came by this info, but Roy and Alton are long in the wind, on a dark and scary road trip. The more we learn about Alton the more intrigued one gets; he constantly wears goggles and at night wears sound suppressor earmuffs (a strange fashion statement to say the least), but it’s when he rips a spy satellite out of orbit that we start to really get a grasp on just how different Alton is. It’s this very strangeness that brings NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) in on the case, and Driver is clearly stepping into the shoes of Francois Truffaut from Close Encounters.

adam driver 

“Hey wait a minute, you don’t have an outrageous French accent.”

This is not a fun road trip, with religious nuts and the full weight of the American government hunting them, our little bands seems quite out of their depths. They eventually do hook up with Alton’s biological mother, Sarah Tomlin (Kirsten Dunst), and surprisingly she doesn’t reveal that she was knocked up by God or probed by aliens. So what is Alton’s story? Where did his powers come from and where do the co-ordinates that were buried in those sermons lead to? The answers to this may not satisfy all viewers, as it’s left purposely vague, but the movie isn’t about the destination but the journey itself, and the decision to focus the narrative mostly through the eyes of concerned father Roy (who is certainly a better dad than Richard Dreyfus’s Roy was in Close Encounters) makes this a unique film. Both Roy and Sarah clearly love their son and they are terrified that all this weirdness is going to lead to them losing their son.

midnight special 2 

E.T. you can totally suck it.

Though this movie will be classified as a science fiction movie, and rightly so, it’s more about the responsibility of parenting and an overzealous government. Now I've compared Midnight Special to Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind but it actually has more in common with Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain than it does its big budget brother.  They are both road trips with decidedly twisty endings.


Is he from the Village of the Damned or Neo Tokyo?

The biggest flaw is the cult itself, which consists mainly of cardboard caricatures designed to simply force our heroes into action, but that's just a quibble and overall this is an excellent flick.  This is certainly a movie that fans of the genre should check out, though it isn’t without flaws the pluses easily outweigh them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Mask (1961) – Review

When one thinks of a man putting on a strange mask, one that turns him into a dangerous Mr. Hyde like character, most will immediately think of the Jim Carrey movie or the comic it was based on, but Canadian director Julian Roffman was there first with his 1961 movie also called The Mask. Roffman is considered by most as the godfather of genre filmmaking in Canada, and The Mask has the distinction of not only being the first Canadian horror but for being the only Canadian 3D feature film as well. Though the film has only three 3D sequences, totaling roughly 14 minutes, they are truly remarkable and are what makes it the cult classic it is today.

the mask 3d

 Borrowing from the gimmick master William Castle the film opens with Jim Moran, a popular television personality at the time, informing the audience of the mysterious history and power of The Mask, explaining that when you see someone put on The Mask you would then put on the cardboard mask that was provided to you, “Then you will share in an adventure in the darkest recesses of the human mind.” This is very reminiscent of William Castle’s 13 Ghost which had the audience don “Ghost Viewers” when prompted, and it came out only a year earlier.


“I’m totally not William Castle, now put on those Ghost Viewers…I mean Masks.”

After the films infomercial like prologue we jump right into the action as we see a poor woman being chased by a deranged man. The man is Michael Radin (Martin Lavut), a professor who works at the local museum, and he isn’t chasing this woman in some strange way to get tenure. He had taken a South American mask home to study (Do museums really allow that?) upon donning the mask it had opened his mind, expanding the evilness deep down in his soul, and turned him into a murderous bastard. After brutally murdering the woman Radin goes to see Dr. Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens), a psychiatrist that Radin hopes can free him from this living nightmare. Barnes is the film’s main character and clearly falls into the category of people that are “Really bad at their jobs” for though he chalks up Radin’s ravings about The Mask to stem from some deep seated psychological issue, and not from some form of mystical possession, but what he doesn’t do is notify the police. Radin tells him of his dreams of committing murder, and he has the defensive wounds on his face from his last victim, but Barnes puts that down to probably self-inflicted.


“And then you felt the need to write Helter Skelter in pig’s blood?”

A mentally distraught Radin leaves Barnes’s office, goes home, and blows his brains out, but not before packing up The Mask and having his landlady mail it to Barnes. This is certainly a nasty way at getting back out your skeptical shrink.  It’s here that the film introduces police detective Martin (Bill Walker) who is investigating Radin's death to insure that it was in fact a suicide and not murder, and after discovering that Radin had a valuable mask on loan from the museum (Again, really? I know us Canadians are known for politeness but letting someone take a valuable artifact home seems rather odd), and now that it's missing he amps up his investigation. Barnes tells Martin about his patients strange obsession with The Mask, but has no idea where it us.


“It’s definitely not in that unopened package on my desk.”

When Detective Martin leaves Barnes opens the package and discovers The Mask, he first tries to get his secretary to stop Martin from leaving, but he’s too late, so he then sits down and reads the packages accompanying note from Radin. The note basically goads Barnes into putting on The Mask, and as Radin knows what is most likely going to happen this quite the “Fuck you for not helping” note from beyond the grave. It’s here that we get out first of three nightmare sequences as a booming voiceover orders, “PUT ON THE MASK NOW!" This sequence is as if Salvador Dali had dropped acid while watching Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Ghastly figures in hauntingly tortured death masks parade through one visual nightmare after another, and the 3D effects just add to the otherworldliness of the scene.


If I’d seen this as a kid I’d have been under my seat with my eyes covered in record time.

The rest of the film's running time is divided between Detective Martin trying to find The Mask and Barne’s fiancée Pam Albright (Claudette Nevins) and her desperate attempts to get The Mask away from the man she loves. Barnes tries to explain to her the importance of The Mask, how it can further man’s understanding of the psyche like never before, but she clearly sees that he is being driven insane by the damn thing. That Barnes later seduces his secretary, and later tries to kill her, kind of bears out Pam’s worries.


I totally understand the psyche on display here.  Barnes is batshit crazy.

Even with just 83 minute run time some people may find some of the police procedural stuff a bit of a slog, but the acting across the board is fantastic, and those nightmare dreamscapes will most likely haunt long after you’ve turned off your player. With The Mask Julian Roffman brings a visual flair to what could have been just your average thriller, and added to that is the excellent electronic score of “Electro Magic Sound" provided by Myron Schaeffer, which just makes those nightmarish vision even spookier. This is a must see for fans of the genre, and really makes me proud to be a Canadian.

mask poster 

Note: The film had several re-releases and sometimes billed as "Eyes of Hell."

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Jungle Tales of Tarzan: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

Jungle-Tales-Of-TarzanThe Jungle Tales of Tarzan is the sixth book in the Tarzan series but chronologically it actually takes place during the first Tarzan novel, Tarzan of the Apes. This book consists of twelve short stories that deal with Tarzan's days prior to meeting Jane but after the death of his foster mother Kala. These twelve short stories ran monthly in Blue Book magazine before eventually be published in book form in 1919, and though each chapter can be considered as individual stories they as a collection are connected with one major theme, Tarzan realizing that though he is surrounded by numerous jungle residents he is in fact quite alone.

It’s in the opening story "Tarzan’s First Love" that sticky topic of bestiality is danced around. Tarzan has been raised by apes since he was but an infant and so his views on beauty are a tad different than what most English Lords would have had. The young female ape Teeka catches Tarzan’s eye for she is quite beautiful, by ape standards, and Tarzan does his best to win her love. Clearly love is in the eye of the beholder and to Tarzan this she-ape is everything one could want in a mate, but unfortunately the feeling isn’t actually mutual. Tarzan may have grown-up thinking the Great Apes of the Tribe of Kerchak bestial appearances are normal but that also means Tarzan’s appearance are not the norm. Tarzan is a hairless ape, and without even a decent set of fighting fangs. That Teeka would prefer fellow ape Taug over Tarzan is no surprise, but then when Tarzan saves Teeka, from the savage claws of Numa the lion, Teeka chooses Tarzan.  Sadly fickel is the heart of a she-ape for when Tarzan roams off into the jungle to hunt he later returns to find Teeka grooming Taug. You can practically hear Tarzan’s heart breaking.

When Tarzan finds Taug trapped by the local natives he at first thinks finally Teeka will be his, but when he breaks the news of Taug’s capture he notices Teeka’s wistful expression of sorrow, and when the sad Teeka snuggles up to Tarzan he puts his arm around her he finally notices, “The strange incongruity of that smooth, brown arm against the black and hairy coat of his lady-love.” This causes an epiphany within Tarzan as he realizes that all the other species of the jungle have matching mates but him, that even though, “The males and the females differed it was true; but not with such differences as existed between Tarzan and Teeka.” Tarzan screams at the heavens, beating his fists against his breast, railing against the unfairness of his life.


 Tarzan eventually rescues Taug from the natives, and later he becomes godfather to Teeka and Taug’s child, but still Tarzan is alone. It’s seeing the bond between Teeka and her baby that leads Tarzan to one of his more questionable decisions, the kidnapping of a ten year old native boy. He quickly realizes that taking care of a child that is constantly terrified of the creatures in the jungle may have been a mistake as even Tarzan’s ape companions want this kid dead. In the end Tarzan comes to grips with the fact that Kala loved him, Teeka loves her baby, and that the mother of this poor snatched kid is now living in grief because of his actions.  So Tarzan returns the child.

For Teeka there is Teek’s balu,” he soliloquized; “for Sabor there are balus, and for the she-Gomangani, and for Bara, and for Manu, and even Pamba, the rat; but for Tarzan there can be none – neither a she nor a balu. Tarzan of the Apes is a man, and it must be that man walks alone.

The central theme of these stories focus on how even though Tarzan may be “Lord of the Jungle” he is still a lonely figure, aching for someone to share his life with, but that’s not all on offer here; Tarzan is no tragic figure moping around the jungle like a half-naked Hamlet, we still get plenty of jungle fun. Tarzan hangs with his pal Tantor, the elephant, murders the shit out of anyone or anything that stands in his way, hunts for god, plays practical jokes, and even rescues the moon.


The Jungle Tales of Tarzan give us a great glimpse into the youthful days of Tarzan and really shows us that this creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs was a lot more deep and complicated than many people thought. A man raised by apes would certainly have different set of morals, and his personal code was something he developed overtime. Tarzan is one cruel bastard, many of his practical jokes involve killing some hapless sap, but you can see in these stories the seed of the man that Jane will eventually meet and fall in love with.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016) – Review

Back in 1967 Disney released an animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s stories from The Jungle Book, which was also the last animated film to have the personal touch of Walt himself as he passed away in1966, and this is what the Disney Studios have tried to remake here today. Now in 1994 Disney did make a live action version of The Jungle Book, which was also pretty good and starred Jason Scott Lee, but this isn’t so much Disney doing another remake of the stories by Kipling but more of a remake of the animated version, only with a live action Mowgli and CGI everything else. This is all part of Disney’s current plan to make live action versions of all their classic animated films.

jungle book poster 2016

The original 1967 animated film took many elements from the Kipling stories but Walt Disney was not keen on the darker tone of the source material, so we got a much more upbeat movie with singing bears and dancing monkeys, but in this “live action” version director Jon Favreau had decided to adopt that darker tone found in the books. This will make the film a bit off putting for some parents as elements of this movie could scare the little ones. I had no problem with the tonal change, but I did have a problem with it being inconsistent. Making a gritty and dark fantasy world is all well and good, and I did like that Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is shown to be dirty and scarred from his life in the jungle, but then when we have him later helping Baloo (Bill Murray) steal honey or lazily drift down the river singing “The Bare Necessities” it’s a bit jarring.


Not helped by the fact that neither Neel Sethi nor Bill Murray can carry a tune.

The basic story structure is the same as the original, which is often the problem when adapting Kipling's books as they are not what one would call “plot centric” as they are really just a series of episodic adventures in the jungle. The movie begins with us seeing Mowgli playing with his fellow wolf cubs and the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), but then drought strikes and all the animals gather at “Peace Rock” for a truce where eventually Shere Khan (Idris Elba) shows up to threaten Mowgli. Shere Khan really hates man, he has a burnt face because of an encounter with a fire wielding man, and he wants this man cub dead. We later learn that Shere Khan was the one who orphaned Mowgli, and it’s also possible that he may have killed Bruce Wayne’s parents as well.


“Have you ever eaten a man by the pale moonlight?”

Shere Khan demands that the animals of the jungle turn over the man-cub or else many will die, which does not go over well with Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), Mowgli’s adoptive wolf mom, who wants to protect her son. When the wolf pack later tries to decide just how they are going to handle the situation Mowgli interrupts their debate by telling them that he will leave. This is a nice departure from the original which had the wolves getting Bagheera to take Mowgli away for his own good, but then the film screws that up by still having Mowgli decide to still stay in the jungle, but maybe with the crocodiles. Mowgli is a bit of an idiot in this film, except when he is showing off his amazing inventor skills, then he is a jungle genius. Being human Mowgli has the creative ability to craft tools that would make his jungle life a tad easier, he makes a water gathering device and multiple rope gadgets, but both Bagheera and Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), Mowgli’s foster dad and head of the wolf pack, give him shit for not doing things the wolf way.


The apes didn’t give Tarzan this kind of crap.

This is an odd theme for the movie to toss out there. Why would animals give a crap if one of their own was using his abilities differently, especially if it could help out the pack? It comes across as a false and unnecessary conflict, we already have Shere Khan demanding the death of Mowgli, do we really need more drama than that? Overall I hated the wolves in this movie as not only do they give Mowgli grief for not acting more "wolf-like" but they come across as complete cowards who almost immediately give into Shere Khan’s threats. In the original story I always felt that the wolves knew that there was no way they could protect Mowgli one hundred percent of the time if Shere Khan was hunting him, so the little tike was sent away for his own good, but here it's clear that wolves are more worried about their own hides than Mowgli's, and they show their bellies to the big cat right off the bat.  I'm not sure the filmmakers understand pack mentality at all. Regardless Mowgli leaves with Bagheera and his jungle adventures begin, and by that I mean they begin to check off moments from the animated film.


Trust in me, it doesn’t get any better from here on in.

Mowgli runs into Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), who uses her snake like charms to mesmerize Mowgli, and for some reason this gives him flashbacks to his father being killed by Shere Khan. Baloo shows up to rescue the kid, but only so he can help him get honey as this version of Baloo is more of a con man than a lovable jungle bum. It’s here that we see that Mowgli can invent the hell out of anything as he devises an elaborate rope and cable system for getting honey that would put the Swiss Family Robinsons to shame. Bagheera eventually shows up again so that we can move onto the King Louis (Christopher Walken) portion of our movie. A group of monkeys and apes snatch Mowgli on behest of their king who really wants man’s red flower (that's fire for you non jungle folk). This scene is just bizarre. King Louis here is more akin King Kong than orangutan from the original, he’s bloody huge and lurks in the shadows mimicing Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now. This is certainly a strange reference to make in what is marketed as a kid’s film.  Though a massive and scary looking King Louis singing “I Want to be Like You” was kind of awesome, and a little freaky, I found the decision to incorporate some of the songs from the animated film to be a major misstep as they constantly fought against the tone Favreau seemed to be aiming for.


Note: Walken is a better singer than Bill Murray but he’s no Louis Prima.

Now I must say the look of this film is simply gorgeous. Though shot onstage with green screen technology Jon Favreau gives us an amazing jungle that one easily gets lost in just by looking at it. The CGI for all the animal characters is universally excellent, and the action sequences with them are beyond reproach, but by god is Neel Sethi ever a terrible actor. I hate to slam a young kid in his first movie role but he was horrible, not one line of dialog was convincing. All he seemed to be doing was reading lines of dialog at different decibels with no emotion whatsoever. Though to be fair he was working in a completely green screen environment, starring at green tennis balls can't aid ones acting, and he certainly wasn’t helped out by the script as for much of the film’s running time I was wishing Shere Khan would eat the irritating little shit. I know many will like this film based on the nostalgia factor, and how visually stunning the whole project looks, but it failed to engage me on any emotional level. Shere Khan is trotted out way too early which diminishes his onscreen power, Mowgli’s motivation changes like the wind, and his friends are almost as annoying as he is. If you are going to see this movie see it on the big screen because on a television set it will lose most of its positive elements.


  • This jungle has “Peace Rock” instead of “Pride Rock” so that’s original.
  • Mowgli gets caught in Simba’s wildebeest stampede.
  • How has Mowgli lived in the jungle all these years yet had never met an elephant until now?
  • Mowgli also seems unfamiliar with Kaa, so this seems like a case of bad parenting.
  • Why some animals have language yet others don’t is never explained.  The apes and monkeys minions don’t talk but King Louis does.
  • Mowgli has magically disappearing bee stings.
  • By the end of the film most of the animals should be siding with Shere Khan as Mowgli is clearly the greater threat.
  • The end credit sequence was my favorite part.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Donovan’s Brain (1953) – Review

The mad scientist is truly one of the most beloved tropes of early science fiction stories, and I particular love the whole “brain in a jar” subgenre. Now the story that really started all this was the novel Donavan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak, who also wrote the screenplay for the 1941 Lon Chaney The Wolf Man, but this novel isn’t about a man fighting his animal nature, this is about a doctor trying to see if a brain could survive outside of the body. I’ve seen this film twice now and I’m still fuzzy on the medical value of living brains in jars, but then again I'm not a mad scientist. This 1953 movie was not the first adaptation of Donovan’s Brain as director George Sherman first took a crack at it in 1944 with The Lady and the Monster. That title was a bit misleading as most audience viewers wouldn’t expect the titular monster to be of a metaphorical nature. Curt Siodmak was to direct this 1953 version but studio politics nixed this and the job went to Felix E. Feist, who with a name like that should really be fighting Wonder Woman.

donavons brain

 The movie follows the work of Dr. Patrick Cory (Lew Ayres) as he tries to figure a way to get a brain to survive outside its host. His wife Janice (Nancy Davis who will later become First Lady Nancy Reagan) is a bit distressed that they’ve killed four capuchin monkeys in his attempt to prove his theories, and would really rather keep this latest monkey as a pet, but science must march on. When the brain of this latest monkey survives its removal and dumping into an aquarium things start looking up.


Janice is also no longer keen on keeping it as a pet.

This amazing breakthrough is interrupted by a phone call informing them of the nearby crash of a small business plane. This kind of medical emergency should be handled by the local on call doctor, but Dr. Frank Schratt (Gene Evans) is a bit of an alcoholic and was sleeping off a bender at Dr. Cory’s home and wasn’t able to field the call. So to save lives, and possible Frank’s job, Cory heads to crash site where the only survivor is millionaire William Donovan. The millionaire is seriously injured, and no one expects him to survive, but regardless they rush him to Cory’s place as it is the nearest medical facility. When Donovan does die Cory decides to check for brain waves and discovers that the brain can in fact survive after the body dies. He quickly cuts open Donovan’s head and plops the brain in a jar.


“I expect a Noble Prize and five years in jail for this.”

Both Cory’s wife and Frank question the ethics of all this but they are quickly convinced by Cory’s rhetoric on how this will explore man’s ability to understand emotions, thought processes, and the like. Unfortunately things get a bit complicated when Donovan’s heirs want to know if there was a last will and testament, and worse when a yellow photojournalist Herbie Yocum (Steve Brodie) wants to photograph the operating room were Donovan died. For some baffling reason, something about not wanting to arouse suspicion, he allows Yocum into the operating room to take pictures, with bloody jar containing the brain in plain sight. Yokum “accidentally” takes a picture of the brain which allows him to later blackmail Cory. Unfortunately for Yokum the brain eventually uses its telepathic powers to force him to drive off a cliff.


“Must kill self, and maybe pick up some milk on the way home.”

You see it turns out that when you take a brain out of a person and plop it in an electrified saline solution it’s going to develop telepathic powers, and this isn’t even the least believable element, no that would be Doctor Cory immediately ordering Frank to get ever crackpot book on psychic phenomena. Cory goes from average everyday obsessed scientist to a complete wackadoo scientist in record time, and the fact that he’s right does not lessen the stupidity of this. Worse is the fact that Janice and Frank are completely complicit in all the weird shit that goes down. That when they first fully realize that brain is controlling Cory, and don’t immediately run into the lab and smash the jar, makes them just as guilty as Cory. Frank does offer to Janice his services in “accidentally” tripping the breakers thus cutting off the power to the brain, but she of course turns him down as this would upset her wonderful husbands work.  When Frank does eventually get the balls to cut the power the brain has become too powerful.

vlcsnap-2016-03-26-22h47m02s214“Sorry Frank, the brain is totally making me kill you.”

The bulk of the film deals with Donovan’s brain telepathically taking over Cory’s body so that he can continue to rip-off the IRS and build another financial empire through graft and blackmail. These scenes are all handled beautiful by Ayres as he is basically playing two roles in this movie; scientist and loving husband and Donovan, a ruthless man who will let nothing, even death, stop him from amassing money and power. We can tell when the brain is manipulating when he begins to exhibit Donovan's personality traits such as smoking cigars, using ruthless personal manipulation, and walking with a limp. All traits Donovan was known to have.  These scenes where we see him begin to rebuild his fortune, through almost sheer force of will, are quite impressive. The only problem is that Donovan is still just a brain in a jar, and rather vulnerable because of it, despite being able to control people from miles away.


The brain eventually gets a fiery end when God steps in with some lightning.

Donovan’s Brain is classic B-movie science fiction, and should be heralded as the forefront of all killer brain movies; from Fiend Without a Face to Steve Martin’s The Man With Two Brains, countless lobes of terror owe a debt to Curt Siodmak.


And the brains just keep on coming.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Review

jewels of oparIn Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar we find our favorite ape man wandering around Africa with amnesia. This will not be the last time Tarzan suffers from this malady as it certainly makes it easier to explain his absence from Jane, “Wife, what wife?”  Also of note is that in this fifth installment of the Tarzan series, published in 1916 in the pages of All-Story Cavalier Weekly, Burroughs has moved from the serialized continuity he had with the first three books and settled down to making more standalone adventures, though some continuity between books will remain.   Jane is still a key character here but unlike the later books the aforementioned amnesia allows Tarzan a little more freedom from marital bliss. And don’t ask me what happened to Korak The Son of Tarzan as he’s not even given a mention in this book. I guess we can assume he moved back to London so he could show Meriem the sights.

In Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar we are first introduced to Lieutenant Albert Werper, a Belgian officer who instead of being court-martialed for various infractions, family connections spare him this, was sent to an outpost in the Congo. Werper does not like this direction his life has taken and after a little brooding he ends up killing his commanding officer. To escape the firing squad Werper runs off into the jungle where he meets up with Achmet Zek, an Arab raider that is not a fan of Tarzan (this because Tarzan tends to stop villainous acts in his part of Africa), and they decide to team-up to kidnap Jane for ransom. This seems only slightly less idiotic than people who try and kidnap Lois Lane. In fact they only succeed in the kidnapping because Werper was able to infiltrate the Clayton household in the guise of a white hunter and while there he learns that Tarzan is planning a trip to the lost city of Opar to get some more gold (some kind of financial calamity having wiped out their fortune), and this allows Achmet Zek and his men to hit the homestead while Tarzan and many of the Waziri warriors are away.

Now having overheard Tarzan talking of the fabulous riches of Opar Werper decides to follow Tarzan and the Waziri so that he can learn the location and then return later with Achmet Zek and his men so they themselves can rob the vaults of Opar. Things do not go exactly according to plan. After carrying out a hundred ingots of gold from the vaults an earthquake strikes and this is where the amnesia comes into play. Tarzan is hit in the head from falling debris and loses all memory of his life beyond his early days of living with the apes. The Waziri try and dig out their master but after uncovering several of their own dead they come to the conclusion that Tarzan must be dead as well, but of course he is quite alive and now wandering around the dark corridors of Opar, and this is also where he comes across the titular jewels (which he thinks of as just pretty pebbles). Unfortunately for poor Werper he was also trapped by the Earthquake and while trying to escape is captured by the Atlantean priests. Soon he finds himself tied to the altar of the Flaming God and about to be sacrificed by the High Priestess La, but Lady Luck decides to make an appearance (she makes many appearances in the Tarzan books) for just as the knife is about to come down and remove his heart a lion enters the chamber and proceeds to tear apart the priests. Before the lion has a chance to munch on either Werper or La the mighty Tarzan makes an entrance and he spears the lion. La, who had swooned at the approach of the lion, awakes, spots Tarzan and proceeds to profess her undying love for the ape man. And who can blame her?  It's not like she has many marital options in Opar.

The High Priestess La is one of my favorite reoccurring characters. She is at once a villain of the series but also a tragic figure. She has lived her entire life amongst ugly ape-like priests who she will one day have to mate with. A godlike Tarzan is certainly a better option than that. He had spurned her advances in The Return of Tarzan because even though Jane and he had not officially hooked up he was still in love with her, but now even with amnesia Tarzan still cannot say “Yes” to the beautiful La. So somewhere in his subconscious he must still remember his true love and thus is able to turn down this appealing offer of La’s. Yet even after being spurned again La can’t seem to shake the love she has for this jungle god. After Werper and Tarzan escape Opar they are followed by an enraged La and her gnarled ape-like minions and they are captured. Tarzan once again finds himself under the knife of the High Priestess who at the last minute still offers Tarzan life if he will just chose her as his mate. He says no. You got to give Tarzan props for his sticktuitiveness.

Lady Luck makes another appearance this time in the form of Tantor who is currently suffer from some form of animal sexual insanity (Elephants in heat are apparently very dangerous even to Tarzan). Despite La’s actions Tarzan can’t stand the idea of her dead beneath the feet of Tantor and he rescues her while the elephant stomps the hell out of her priests. He even brokers a peace between her and her disgruntled priests (they are kind of upset at her constantly wanting Tarzan over them), and sends them all back to Opar. Here is a nice excerpt that sums up Edgar Rice Burroughs’  view of the high priestess La quite well...

“A strange anomaly was La of Opar – a creature of circumstance torn from conflicting emotions. Now the cruel and bloodthirsty creature of a heartless god and again a melting woman filled with compassion and tenderness. Sometimes the incarnation of jealousy and revenge and sometimes a sobbing maiden, generous and forgiving; at once a virgin and a wanton; but always a woman. Such was La.”

But what of Jane you ask? Well Achmet Zek attacks the Clayton homestead and despite the valiant stand of the remaining Waziri she is captured. In this book Jane is still much a “damsel in distress” character but occasionally we will get a glimpse of her badass self that she will later become. During this attack Jane does not cower behind her husband’s warriors but stands on the veranda firing round after round from her rifle at the horde or Arab raiders. Unfortunately the brave Waziri are outnumbered and one by one they fall, and Jane’s badass image is tarnished a tad when she ends the fight by swooning. Women tend to swoon a lot in books by Burroughs.


 The remainder of the book could be considered a game of musical chairs as characters are constantly running around the jungle searching to kill one another, rescue each other, or escape the clutches of one or the other. Jane escapes and is re-captured several times, by more than one villain, before eventually being reunited with Tarzan. Werper spends most of his time trying to figure out how to get the jewels of Opar away from Tarzan and then to keep the knowledge of their existence away from Achmet Zek. Brain addled Tarzan spends much of his time trying to track down Werper for stealing his “pretty pebbles” and chasing after men or apes who steal this “blonde woman” who holds some strange attraction to him.

Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar begins the formula that will pretty much carry itself throughout the series with but a few exceptions, and as formulas go it is a good one. Lost cities, villainous bastards, beautiful woman and a hero with muscles of iron, what’s not to love?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Last Witch Hunter (2015) – Review

It’s no secret that Vin Diesel is a fan of the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which is seriously cool, so it’s no surprise to learn that Mister Diesel would produce a movie based on one of his D&D characters, and to be fair what gamer wouldn’t love to see one of his D&D characters brought to life? I just wish he’d picked a more interesting one for this production.

last witch hunter 

Beware spoilers lurk in the caverns below.

The story opens with a bunch of warriors, who look like they are auditioning for season three of Vikings, and are led by a priest and a badass witch hunter named Kaulder (Vin Diesel) across a desolate winter landscape. They arrive at an enormous evil looking tree that we learn is the source of The Black Plague, and it is up to this band of heroes to enter it so they can kill the one behind this horrible act. The Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) is of course the one responsible for the plague, and the resulting deaths of Kaulder’s wife and child, so before anyone can even say "She turned me into a newt," they rush in with swords flashing.  Now a group of mortal men from the middle ages against a being of immensely powerful dark magic may not seem like a fair fight, but they did bring Vin Diesel.


 As the band of warriors enter the caverns of the Witch Queen things immediately go from bad to worse as one by one the men are attacked and turned into monsters themselves. Kaulder is able to fight his way through to the Witch Queen because he has a flaming sword (not sure how medieval blacksmiths pulled this off), but just as he is about to end the Witch Queen’s reign of terror she curses him with immortality.


 Yeah, I’m not sure just how good an idea the cursing of a badass witch hunter is. Sure it's later revealed that she linked her own immortality with his so that someday she could return but this also results in 800 years of Kaulder kicking the shit out of evil witches. I'm betting there are a lot of witches out there who’d wished she’d just taken one for the team and died. Given a closer look her plan is even dumber than it first appears as it hinges on the priest that came with Kaulder to notice the still beating heart of the “dead” witch and that it is somehow tied to the very burnt but surprisingly not dead Kaulder. I’m not sure what Dark Age priest would pick up a beating heart from the withered corpse of a witch and think, “We should totally save this for later.”


 This is all from a flashback we get towards the end of the movie where Kaulder finds out that the organization called The Axe and Cross, which he has been working for all these centuries in his endless war against witches, have had the Witch Queen's heart hidden all these years without telling him. Sure if they had destroyed the heart good ole Kaulder would have died as well and they’d have lost their best fighter, but at the time the priest held up that beating heart Kaulder was basically a burnt skeleton screaming in agony. So severing the connection would have seemed like the merciful thing to do at the time. They certainly had no idea he’d heal up and become an immortal fighter for Truth, Justice and the Catholic Way.


 After the opening the movie then jumps those 800 years into the future where we see Kaulder still keeping dangerous magic in its place. Over that time period he has had a series of priests named Dolan (named after the one who entered the original Plague Tree with him), and they’ve spent their time playing the part of Alfred to Kaulder’s Batman, which would explain why they cast Michael Caine to play one of them. After serving at Kaulder’s side for fifty years Dolan the 36th is retiring and to be replaced by Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood), but before he can enjoy even one day of retirement he is tortured and cursed by an evil witch named Belial (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). Belial is one of the film’s key failures as not only does he look like a low rent Russian mobster but he never once comes across as scary or even remotely a threat to Vin Diesel’s Kaulder.


 To undue the curse Kaulder gets help from Chloe (Rose Leslie) a witch who owns a bar and specializes in magic mind altering spells. He needs her abilities to unlock the memories of his “first death” and much of the film is the two of them trying to pull this off while Belial tries to stop them. Basically it’s a side quest to pad out the film’s running time. Eventually there is a showdown beneath the church owned by The Axe and Cross where Kaulder will face off against a resurrected Witch Queen, and it’s just painfully dull. The fight between the two comes across like a video game boss level fight if you were playing it on the easy setting.


 Directed by Breck Eisner, and written by Cory Goodman, The Last Witch Hunter is guilty of one of the greatest crimes that can be leveled at an action/horror film and that would be the crime of being boring. I’ve seen more magical threats in episode of Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch. The action sequences are uninteresting and the CGI for the magical attacks aren’t even on par with an average episode of Supernatural. Vin seems to be trying here but everyone else looks to be wishing they were anywhere else. Oscar winning actor and Hollywood legend Michael Caine is clearly in “Boat Payment Theatre” mode, and Elijah Wood just seems lost and confused in any scene he appears in.


 This is one of those films that you know they were hoping to hit franchise gold with, but alas that was not to be.  The only claim to fame The Last Witch Hunter has is that it beat Jem and the Holograms on its opening weekend (a feat in itself still more daunting than the Witch Queen we got here). If you are big fan of Vin Diesel it may be worth checking out, but if you want to see a good witch hunting movie I suggest giving Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters a spin.

Monday, April 11, 2016

My Science Project (1985) – Review

In the 50s science fiction movies featured pipe smoking scientist devising ways to get to other planets while square jawed heroes battled aliens and atomic enlarged insects but in the 80s teenagers took over the genre. High school kids were creating life with Weird Science, traveling Back to the Future with a borrowed DeLorean, and almost starting World War III by playing Wargames on their computer. Those were great times to be a kid. Today we will look back at one of these 80s teen-sci-fi flicks that’s not as well remembered as the others, and that film is...


 Strangely enough this 80s science fiction comedy begins in the late 50s as an alien spacecraft has crashed to Earth and the United States government has sequestered the wreckage in what I’m assuming is Hanger 18 in Area 51. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robert Beer) is brought in to see the craft and is told that the alien crew had died in the crash and but a team of scientist are currently studying the ship’s engine. Eisenhower’s immediate reaction is, “Get rid of it.” And the ship is destroyed by a laser canon the scientists happened to have lying around. I know Eisenhower was afraid of the whole idea of the “military–industrial complex” but ordering the Air Force scientists to destroy proof of alien life, not to mention the possible advancement in technology, seems rather odd even by Cold War paranoia standards.


And when did we get alien ship destroying laser technology?

The movie than jumps to 1985 where we meet our hero Michael Harlan (John Stockwell), a high school senior who is more interested in cars than girls which results in his current girlfriend breaking up with him. But being dumped by his girlfriend for failing the Cosmo-romanti-scope test is the least of his problems because if he doesn’t hand in an awesome science project he will not graduate. Enter Ellie Sawyer (Danielle von Zerneck), a bookworm who is afraid of graduating high school as the class spinster. She asks Harlan out on a date and he agrees, but unfortunately for her the date involves breaking into an Air Force salvage yard to find something for his science project.


Who says romance is dead?

While wandering around the junkyard Harlan falls into a government fallout shelter and discovers the film’s science MacGuffin. He finds what looks like one of those plasma globes you can buy at Spencer’s Gifts but of course it’s the engine to the alien spacecraft from the film's opening scene. With the help of his best friend, and comic relief, Vince Latello (Fisher Stevens) he polishes up the device and powers it up. They are shocked to say the least when the gizmo turns out to generate a time warp field that not only makes an Egyptian suddenly vase materialize but moves the two of them a couple hours into the future.


Is it just me or does that look like a Romulan cloaking device?

The two knuckleheads, along with Ellie, show the device to Bob Roberts (Dennis Hopper), their science teacher and resident ex-hippie who is clearly Hopper just channeling his characters from Apocalypse Now and Easy Rider. When the gizmo drains the power from a battery Bob plugs it into an electrical outlet causing the device to go into high gear. Bob spouts a bunch of scientific gibberish and then in the midst of contemplating the wonders of the universe he vanishes in a flash of purple light. Harlan is unable to disconnect the alien device from the outlet so their only option is to destroy a power line tower and black out the town. Yeah, that sounds logical. They break into Harlan’s family hardware store to steal some dynamite, accidentally dropping Bob’s peace sign necklace that Vince had picked up for some reason, and they then race to get ahead of the alien energy before it can get out of town.


Does this make sense to anyone?

Why do they have to get ahead of the alien energy force? Destroying any of the electrical towers would cut the town off from the outside world thus robbing the device of any more power, so why do they have to get ahead of it? Now if we go with the idea that if the device even momentarily gets access to the States energy grid it will reach end of the world capabilities just exactly how does our group of yahoos intend to stop it in time? They had to exit the high school, go to the hardware store, get the dynamite and then race out of town to get ahead of the energy. When they manage to get ahead of it one has to ask, "Just how slow is this alien energy traveling?" Did it stop for coffee while they were stealing the dynamite? We see that Harlan has to engage his cars “Blowers” to get the car going fast enough to get ahead of the energy but then they have time to duct tape several bundles of dynamite to an electrical tower when we clearly saw that they were no more than a few hundred feet ahead of the oncoming energy. I know continuity isn’t an important thing for teen comedies but the writer of this movie clearly didn’t care enough to make this scene even remotely plausible.


"I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."

When Harlan gets home from their successful explosive venture he finds Detective Isadore Nulty (Richard Masur) in his bedroom waiting for him. Harlan and Vince are taken into police custody where we see them get printed and photographed. This shows that the writer of this movie is as familiar with police procedures as he is with science, as in not at all. The police believe the explosives were taken from the Harlan family hardware store, Bob’s peace sign necklace was found at the scene, and Bob is missing and witnesses place Harlan and Vince at the high school where Bob was last known to be. All good reasons for bringing them in for questioning but certainly not enough to book them, all they have is circumstantial evidence and most of that points at the missing Bob.


 Fisher Steven later charged with crimes against taste for his performance in Short Circuit.

Before being carted off to jail Harlan was able to call Ellie and ask her to go to the school and get the device as that would somehow clear them of all charges, but unfortunately when she gets to the school she finds Sherman (Raphael Sbarge), the chief nerd of the school, all ready there.  Sherman has been harboring a crush on Ellie, to the point of hiring jocks to harass Harlan, and he hopes the trouble Harlan is currently in will pave the way for his shot at Ellie. While studying the device Sherman is impressed with this it’s time warp capabilities so he plugs it back into the outlet.
Wait what, how is this thing unplugged? Our trio had to dynamite an electrical tower because they were unable to disconnect it, so why isn't still plugged in? Once the local utility works got the power up and running the device should have kicked back into gear and then we wouldn't have needed obnoxious nerd guy to do it. Irregardless this creates a massive time warp over the school and we can finally get to the good stuff.


It was stuff like this that got me kicked out of science class.

Lucky for Harlan and Vince this causes a city wide blackout allowing them to escape the incredibly inept police department and rush over to the high school. There they encounter Sherman and learn that Ellie is still inside. Now this is the point of the movie that we've all been waiting for, three high school kids venturing into a building where time and space are in complete flux. Harlan, Vince and Sherman must do battle with a Neanderthal, a Roman gladiator, the Viet Cong, and laser toting post-apocalyptic mutants. Now as cool as those encounters are, and their ability to take on such foes in hand to hand combat is impressive, nothing tops what happens when they have to flee the mutants by cutting through the gym.


“Is that the sound of thunder or me shitting in my pants?”

Eventually they make it to the science class to rescue Ellie, and Harlan is able to turn off the device. Excuse me, he does what? What was the point of committing several major felonies to cut off the gizmo’s power supply if Harlan could have just flipped the off switch? Sure Harlan is momentarily sucked into the time warp but then he comes right back as does Bob who we learn was given a trip through the sixties and allowed to revisit Woodstock. So as endings go this was rather anti-climactic and puts our idiot heroes in an even worse light, and even worse is that they get off scot-free while poor Bob is taken into custody for blowing up the electrical tower. That’s your happy ending?


“Hey, man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.”

Sure Harlan learns that maybe hanging out with girls is more fun than working under a car but that’s a lot of death and destruction to learn that life lesson, a lesson that most guys figure out about the same time they learn that girls don’t have cooties.
Aside from the weak ass ending, which includes Harlan returning the alien gizmo to the fallout shelter for possible sequels, this movie is rather fun with some nice nods to earlier science fiction films and televisionsshows; Vince is from Brooklyn and is clearly modeled off of the “Brooklyn Guy” comic relief character that appears in countless space adventure films of the fifties, Harlan’s dad is seen watching the George Pal’s The Time Machine, and Vince refers to Sherman as “Boy Sherman” clearly a reference to the animated time travelling duo of Mister Peabody and his Boy Sherman.


Though the film was critically panned it does hold enough entertainment value that I’m able to recommend it to fans of the genre, most of the characters are quite likable, even the nerdy Sherman is given a moment to shine, and if the low budget effects work is barely passable at times the stop-motion T-Rex fight is quite good and makes up for a lot. So if some night you are perusing Netflix and come across My Science Project check it out, there is worse ways to kill ninety minutes.