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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Tarzan’s Quest: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

TarzansQuest-C1Originally published as a six part serial called Tarzan and the Immortal Men, and released in Blue Book Magazine through 1935 and 1936, this book would be the last time we see Jane as a major character. We hadn’t seen much of Jane since her appearance in Tarzan and the Ant Man, and like many of her appearances they often come across as glorified cameos, but in what would later be titled Tarzan’s Quest this book is more about Jane’s adventures than it is her husband’s. Tarzan may be on a quest but its Jane’s plot thread that is easily the more fun.

The book opens with Jane and her old friend Lady Hazel Tennington, who we’d first encountered way back in The Return of Tarzan, running into another old friend of theirs, Kitty Krause. Only their friend no longer goes by Kitty as she is now Princess Sborov because she has recently married Prince Alexis Sborov, and it becomes quite clear that Kitty married him for the title while Alexis married Kitty for her millions. Kitty is worried about her age, Alexis is quite a bit younger than her, and when she learns from American gangster about a witch-doctor in Africa who has secret formula of youth and longevity, she decides to bankroll an expedition. As Jane is intending to meet Lord Greystoke/Tarzan in Nairobi she agrees to accompany them to Africa.

This expedition consists of the Neal Brown, the American gangster and pilot for the trip, the vapid Kitty and her gigolo husband Alexis, and along with them is Kitty’s maid Annette and Alexis’s personal valet Tibbs. Jane would have been better off joining the crew of the Minnow for a three hour tour than to spend any time with these misfits. While on route to Nairobi their plane encounters a ferocious storm and due to the extra weight, provided by the Sborov’s extensive luggage, the plane is unable to get above the storm and Brown is forced to crash it on top of the forest canopy. This is the point in the series that Jane finally really gets to shine as, much to the shock of her fellow passengers, Jane nimbly exits the plane and proceeds to move through the treetops with surprising agility. You don’t spend that much time living with Tarzan and not pick up a few things. Not only is Jane shown here to be an amazing athlete and survivalist, but she is also incredibly clever.

She tells the group that their best bet is to march into the jungle until they can come across a local tribe that could aid them in finding civilization, and that it would be best if a man was to lead the group. When I first read that my reaction was, “Are you bloody kidding me, just because she is a woman Jane can't lead?” But Jane was actually using clever psychology for when the group discuss which of the men should take the job it’s clear that it can’t be either Brown or Alexis because these two had been snarking each other since they first met. Alexis blames Brown for their current predicament, even though Jane informs them that without Brown’s incredible piloting skills they’d most likely be dead, and Brown hate’s the arrogance and basic dickishness of this supposed prince. When Tibbs is offered the position he quickly declines and suggests that Jane seems to be the most capable person to get them out of this predicament, and they all agree. Jane’s response is basically, “I was hoping you’d all see it that way.” Jane knew that if she just took charge the two alpha males would have had their noses bent out of shape, so she let them come to the only proper conclusion on their own. Jane is just damn awesome in this book. Not only do we see her travelling through the treetops with a skill only rivaled by Tarzan, but she also fashions weapons, hunts and provides the party food, and even holds her ground against a charging leopard. It was at this point I wanted to read a Jane solo adventure, but alas Tarzan does make an appearance in this book.


While Jane and company are trying to find their way through the treacherous dangers of the African jungle Tarzan is on a quest to find a mysterious tribe of savage white men known as the Kavuru. This much feared tribe is known for stealing young women from several different native tribes, and their grasp has finally reached the home territory of Tarzan’s Waziri warriors. It’s while investigating these rash disappearances that Tarzan and Nkima encounter Muviro and nine Waziri warriors, and it’s from them that Tarzan learns that Muviro’s daughter is the latest victim of these jungle kidnappers. The key problem with this investigation is that the local tribes are so terrified of the Kavuru that they won’t even give the Ape Man a hint as to what direction the Kavuru village could be in.
What follows is a lot of the standard Tarzan stuff with the Ape Man entering a hostile native village, getting into a fight, getting knocked unconscious, tied up and held captive until eventually being freed or escaping. The biggest departure here is that upon “escaping” the natives he comes across one of the mysterious Kavuru and saves him from a lion, but unlike passed times when Tarzan saves a person this man is grateful, but he does not befriend Tarzan and lead him to his village. His idea of gratitude is in not killing Tarzan…as if he could, though to be fair this guy does eventually aid Tarzan and company when it comes to them escaping the Temple of the Kavuru high priest.


And just who are these mysterious white savages that steal women, who wear human teeth as accessories, and apparently have the secret to immortality. Well Burroughs doesn’t really get into the origins of these people; they aren’t some lost outpost of Rome or England, but just a group of fanatical priests who believe women were put on Earth to tempt and corrupt men, and they also have the ability to hypnotize their victims into walking straight into their clutches. So maybe they are a lost outpost of Franciscan monks.

When Jane is captured by them, of course she's captured because even as badass as she is in this book she is destined at some point to become a damsel in distress, she is shocked to learn that the leader has led this cult of celibate priests for a thousand yeas, a cult who have achieved immortality with an elixir made from pollen, spinal fluid of leopards, and the glands and blood of young women. Though things get shaken up when Jane’s beauty stirs the loins of the High Priest, her being so hot that he decides that a thousand years of celibacy has been enough, and he will now take Jane as his mate. Needless to say things don’t go all that well for him.


Tarzan’s Quest is top notch adventure storytelling, and seeing Jane as this awesome jungle girl makes this a standout book in the series. The Tarzan stuff is fun, and Nkima’s antics are always worth a laugh or two, but it’s Jane’s story that really grabs you. There is danger, murder, love and mystery in the jungle and Jane can handle it all. That this was the last book to feature Jane as a primary character is sad for if given the chance she could have become an equal to Tarzan in the jungle hero category.


Note: Our heroes do acquire a jar of pills that will give the user immortality, and the survivors of the book divvy them up amongst themselves, but whether Tarzan and Jane take them is never divulged. This certainly would have allowed Burroughs to never have to worry about his hero getting old and feeble, but as the series only went on for five more books he never had to use it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

These Final Hours (2013) – Review

Life is stronger than death,” states one of the characters from writer/director Zak Hilditch’s end of the world movie These Final Hours, but as a meteor has hit the Earth, and all life will be soon extinguished, that may be a nice sentiment but not all that accurate.

these final hours poster

There is no shortage of apocalyptic films dealing with man’s last moments, from nuclear holocaust of On the Beach to similar a meteor threat in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, filmmakers have been exploring man’s reactions instant mortality. This movie takes place in Australia, which is no stranger to apocalyptic mayhem but this film is on a much lower budget than say Mad Max: Fury Road. This story follows the adventures of James (Nathan Phillips), a drug using wastrel, as he tries to decide what to do with his last moments on Earth. We first see him having passionate sex with his lover Zoe (Jessica De Guow), which wouldn’t be out of place on anyone’s bucket list, but though he loves her and even learns that she is pregnant with his child, he ditches her to run off and find his current girlfriend Vicki (Kathryn Beck). This certainly makes our protagonist hard to sympathize and is not helped by his reasoning of, “I don’t want to feel a thing. I just want to get fucked up.” Of course this is a story about redemption, so we will join James on his journey of self-discovery.


“Don’t mind me, I’ll be fine.”

James wants to make it to the home of Vicki’s brother Freddy (Daniel Henshall) where the “Party to End all Parties” is taking place. There he plans to hook-up with Vicki and ride out the firestorm in a drug and sex infused stupor. As plans go I’ve heard worse. Unfortunately James has a few bumps along the away with the first being losing his car to a machete wielding lunatic, but it’s while looking for another vehicle he comes across this film’s other main character, a young girl by the name of Rose (Angourie Rice). James spots two pedophiles dragging a screaming girl out of their van, and at first it looks like James is just going to steal the van, and to hell with the poor child, but even such a self-centered asshole cannot ignore the screams of a child in distress, so he rescues her.


Then he proceeds to try and get rid of her for the remainder of the film.

The key problem with this story of redemption is the whole “What’s the point?” It’s great that James eventually does try and do the right thing, but unless he is trying to earn points for the rapture it fails to make much impact. What does work in this movie is how awesome Angourie Rice is as Rose, she has more dramatic chops than many Oscar contenders I’ve seen. There is a great scene where while at the home of Freddie, during his end of the world orgy, Rose encounters a deranged woman (Sarah Snook) who thinks Rose is her lost little girl. Rose agrees to take a pill (that turns out to be ecstasy) if this woman will help her find her dad. Something James has so far failed to do. Rose is that desperate.


And James is not the model of good decision making.

James eventually does come to terms with the situation and decides to help Rose, and we do get several nice moments where he isn’t being a self-obsessed asshole, but once again it’s the end of the world so not being a jerk for twelve hours shouldn’t be that hard. There isn’t much originality to be found here, but there are some nice dramatic turns by the cast, and even a few surprises. On what is obviously a fairly low budget writer/director Zak Hilditch manages to convincingly portray society during its final hours, and though this isn’t a great movie if you spot in on Netflix or On Demand give it a look, if only for Angourie Rice’s performance.


And not so much the cliché disaster moments.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Harbinger Down (2015) – Review

When is a film an homage and when is it a blatant rip-off? This is a question most viewers will be pondering when viewing director/writer Alec Gillis and producer Tom Woodruff Jr.’s independently funded film Harbinger Down. Both men are masters in the art of practical effects; their animatronics, prosthetic makeup, stop motion and miniature effects have appeared in such films as Aliens, Tremors and Starship Troopers just to name a few, but it’s when their practical effects work for the 2011 The Thing prequel got replaced with CGI effects that they decided to take matters into their own hands. Part Kickstarter funded this movie was a thank you to fans who love this classic approach to monster making, but sadly it turns out that as a director/writer Alec Gillis is an exceptional effects man, with the end result being a blatant rip-off of John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing, and to add insult to injury it’s not even a very good rip-off either.


The movie opens with visuals of a Soviet moon lander crashing into the sea circa 1982 (a nod to the date Carpenter’s movie was released), and then we jump ahead to current day where we meet Sadie (Camille Balsamo) a graduate student who has got her grandfather Graff (Lance Henriksen) to allow her and her fellow scientist to tag along on his latest crabbing mission, aboard the fishing trawler Harbinger, so that they can study what global warming has done to the migration and biology of whales. One night her tracking device notifies her that they are near a pod of whales but when she goes to investigate she is surprised to find the whales circling a chunk of ice that has something blinking inside it. She convinces her grandfather to haul the thing aboard and things begin to go badly after this point.


“I’ve seen a horror movie before, who votes we toss it overboard?”

Of course the ice is allowed to melt and the monstrous organism is let loose on the ship, but unlike in Carpenter’s The Thing we don’t have any characters to give a shit about. The script to this movie isn’t just guilty of being a blatant rip-off of Carpenter’s movie it’s also got some of the worst written dialog I’ve come across in quite some time, and it’s not helped by the fact that it’s delivered by a cast consisting of fairly terrible actors. I love Lance Henriksen but even he is not conveying any believable emotion throughout this film’s 82 minute running time. Gillis tries to excuse his film theft of ideas by constantly referencing Carpenter’s film; one character comments that this is “Voodoo shit” much as Kieth David did Carpenter’s film, and we also get a glimpse of the old Chess Master computer that Kurt Russell called a “Cheating bitch,” as if including these nods to that film excuses the theft of everything else.


I kept waiting for this guy’s head to detach and grow spider legs.

Instead of using flamethrowers the “heroes” of this movie use liquid nitrogen, but as they never put the remains they freeze anywhere secure or cold it just makes one wonder, “Just how dumb are these guys?” Now one character does take out an infected shipmate with a flare gun stating, “Freeze melts, fire is forever,” but apparently no one was paying attention because they all continue to run around carrying buckets of liquid nitrogen like idiots. Sure, I doubt that commercial trawlers are known for stocking flamethrowers but anything has to be better than running around with a bucket, one that has contents that if slopped over on your hand would be less than pleasant.


“Could somebody find me a Pulse Rifle? Oh hell, a big stick would be safer than this.”

The creature itself never veers from the look of it’s much better cousin; Rob Bottin’s practical effect work in The Thing is still superior to anything we see on screen here, and Carpenter's film was made decades ago. I’m not saying the effects work by Gillis and Woodruff is terrible (though at times it's not all that good) it’s just that the similarities are so flagrant that it just begs comparison, and it just doesn’t quite measure up. Adding a glowing element to the “Things” tentacles is not enough of a change to call your monster original. The lead character is more or less a carbon copy of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character from The Thing prequel, and spoiler alert, she is the sole survivor. The only interesting thing in the script was the reveal that the organism isn’t extra-terrestrial but was a Soviet experiment to make their astronauts more resistant to cosmic radiation, but then I remembered that Soviet experiments creating a mutating monster was the plot of the 1989 sci-fi horror film Leviathan, which also a rip-off of Carpenter’s The Thing. So not only was Alec Gillis basically just remaking Carpenter’s movie but he was also ripping off movie that had previously ripped off Carpenter. Its wheels within wheels of bullshit here.


Note to Gillis: Keeping all the monster shots dark does not hide the fact that this is the same creature design we saw in Carpenter’s 1982 movie.

I really wanted to like this movie, I agree with Gillis and Woodruff that practical effects still has a place in movies today, but if this film was supposed to be some kind of demo reel to prove to Hollywood that CGI isn’t the only way to go, well they've probably caused more harm than good. This is a poorly written, amateurishly acted film, and the effects themselves are barely better than what you’d find in a SyFy Channel made-for-TV movie. So my advice to anyone out there who is curious about this film is to skip it and watch or re-watch Carpenter’s sci-fi classic.

Other obvious Comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing:
• Arctic setting, only on a boat instead of a weather station.
• Organism attacks people when they are alone.
• The creature’s blood scurries around on its own.
• Everyone is paranoid about who could be infected.
• One victim is grabbed by the head and lifted into the air by the creature.
• Explosives are set to destroy the creature.


Note: Gillis kills off both black characters and leaves only one white person alive. So that’s a difference…sigh.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Tarzan and the Leopard Men: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

TarzanAndTheLeopardMen-C1Tarzan has taken on many villains over the years, and in most cases they are fictional creations from lost cities or are villainous treasure hunters, but in Tarzan and the Leopard Men we get our hero tangling with a secret cult that actually operated in West Africa in early-to-mid 20th Century. Published as a six part serial in The Blue Book Magazine from 1931 to 1932 Tarzan and the Leopard Men not only has the jungle man take on a dangerous cult but he also must deal with his old nemeses amnesia and gravity.

The book opens with a violent storm wreaking havoc through the jungle, and it’s this storm that sets key dominos in motion. A young white woman, who we will know simply as Kali Bwana for most of the book, is almost raped by one of her native porters. She manages to wing him with a shot from her revolver, but being almost raped will consistently be a problem for her. While this is going on Tarzan and Nkima take shelter in a large tree, but unfortunately it’s not large enough to survive a tornado; thus Tarzan is knocked from his perch and pinned by one of its branches when the tree is uprooted. This leads to him being found by Orando, the son of a local chieftain. At first Orando thinks of immediately killing this white stranger but when he discovers the trapped man has no memory he decides to free him from his predicament. Shortly the two come across the brutally murdered body of Nyamwegi, a close friend of Orando, and he vows revenge. From the inhuman wounds found on the corpse even an amnesiac Tarzan can deduce that the culprits are those of the sadistic cult of the Leopard Men.

That Tarzan has no memory of who he is, and that Orando sees this stranger communicating with a little monkey, the superstitious native at first believes Tarzan to be a demon but soon comes to believe that he is in fact must be his muzimo (a guardian spirit) and that the monkey must be Nyamwegi's ghost. With no other memories to contradict this Tarzan goes along with it. Later Nkima tries to convince Tarzan of his true identity as lord of the Apes, but why the little monkey waits that long could only be understood by Nkima. Of course during a major battle with the Leopard Men Tarzan will get hit in the head and regain his memories as that how amnesia is always cured in fiction.

The other key players in this tale are two white men, known only as Old Timer and The Kid, who are down-on-their-luck ivory poachers. Having no luck finding elephants to kill the two split their safari in the hopes of bettering their odds, and because Africa is such a small place Old Timer runs into Kali Bwana, who had been deserted by her native guides. Old Timer is a “Woman Hater” and he came to Africa to escape some horrible romantic tragedy, which causes him to hold all women accountable for, but even a woman hater can’t leave a white woman all alone in Africa so he decides to become her guardian. After being curt and rude to the poor woman he leaves one of his native porters to guard her while he goes off to find an elephant to shoot, but while stewing in jungle he comes to the conclusion that she owes him for the pain his woman caused him, and so he decides to go back and rape her. He becomes enraged when he returns to the camp to discover the native porter brutally murdered and the girl gone. The Leopard Men have stuck again.


The character of the Old Timer is certainly a strange protagonist, and easily one of Burroughs’s more complicated ones, we never find out exactly what the woman in his past did to him that caused such hatred of all women, but I can’t see many readers finding his justification of rape all that palatable. That the woman in question is constantly being abducted by one group of villains or another is the only reason he isn’t able to act on his base desires, and that these two actually end up falling in love is really bizarre. Too be fair Kali Bwana only knew Old Timer as a rude and dirty jungle bum, and being rescued can make one overlook such flaws, but she is not able to read his mind or intentions so she never learns that she is going to marry a guy that at one point had planned sexual assault on her person.


Old Timer seen here getting interrupted again.

The rest of the book is full of Tarzan and his dealings with the Leopard Men, and most of those dealings are with extreme prejudice. Now the cult of the Leopard Men consists of secret members, who if their own village members knew of their involvement it would result in an immediate and messy death, so much of the story is Tarzan exposing traitors in the midst of the native community, with either him or the villagers administering jungle justice. This is all great stuff, even when Tarzan gets his memory back the locals still work with him to defeat this hideous blight on their jungle home, and Tarzan does kick some serious butt. Often we have seen Tarzan using the local’s superstitious fears against them, but rarely do we see Tarzan actually becoming one of those mystical beings, even if it’s only in his head. Overall some really great stuff here.

Note: I did mention earlier that not only does amnesia once again plague our hero but gravity does as well.  Our jungle hero finds himself on an unstable branch (Are there any other kind in this jungle?) above the enemy, and when it breaks he falls into their clutches. I think Tarzan falls out of the trees almost as much as George of the Jungle.


Tarzan and the Leopard Man does have some great action, the Leopard Men are a suitably treacherous threat, and his time as a supposed Forest Guardian Spirit is quite fun, but the stuff with Old Timer and Kali Bwana teeters between creepy and interesting. Old Timer does heroically throw himself into danger in several attempts to save the woman, but his lascivious motives kind of taint the whole thing, and her finally declaration of love when she invites the man to return with her to America, “Because I love you, you will come” may be one of the series’ weaker endings. Still the great stuff with Tarzan battling the Leopard Men easily offset one of Burroughs’ worst love stories.

Star Trek Beyond (2016) – Review

The crew of the Enterprise has been exploring the “Final Frontier” for fifty years now, and have encountered countless dangers and bumpy headed aliens, but in 2009 J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise with a new cast and crew, and with this reboot Abrams created an alternate timeline.  In this alternate universe Kirk’s dad died on the day of his birth, which now makes Kirk’s birthday a bit of a bummer day, and now the way in which they crew all met up has been changed. Then 2013 Abrams gave us Star Trek: Into Darkness which was just a terrible retread of the much better Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, the 2009 movie may have had serious plot problems but it at least wasn’t a slap in the face to fans of Trek. Now with Star Trek Beyond J.J. Abrams has passed the directing torch to Justin Lin so that he could go and helm Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I couldn’t be happier.


Star Trek Beyond jumps ahead three years into the Enterprise’s five year mission and it finds James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) having a bit of an identity crisis, he’s seriously thinking of giving up the captaincy to Spock (Zachary Quinto) so he can take the position of Vice Admiral, but unbeknownst to him Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) has died and young Spock is planning on leaving Star Fleet to take up the mantle of Vulcan Ambassador. He’s also broken up with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) because he believes it’s his responsibility to pop out Vulcan babies to help his near extinct race. Being he is only half Vulcan this kind of makes his “sacrifice” a tad stupid.


“Sorry dear, I can’t risk diluting our race any further.”

Now that is some decent drama, and it was kind of interesting to see how long space voyages effect people in different ways, but that’s not really what this movie is about. It’s about things blowing up. And they blow up real good. The main plot of this installment has to do with an alien artifact that Kirk ended up with after a diplomacy mission went down the crapper. It turns out this little item is the key to a weapon of mass destruction and the villainous Krall (Idris Elba) needs it to wreak death and destruction upon the Federation. So basically a space terrorist needs a space McGuffin to do villainous space stuff, nothing we haven’t seen countless times before, but by god does Justin Lin do a good job with it. When Krall lures the Enterprise into a dense nebula, and unleashes his swarm of deadly fighters against the Enterprise, it is a visual feast of action not yet seen in this series. Seeing the Enterprise torn to shreds was simply breathtaking, and almost makes one forgive how generically boring the villains were.

swarm attack

Note: This is the third installment in the Trek reboot and so the destruction of the Enterprise can be considered and homage to the original movie series as it was destroyed in the third installment as well.

When the survivors of the doomed Enterprise make it down to the planet’s surface, deep inside the nebula and out of contact with the Federation, they find themselves split up and hunted by Krall’s forces. One of the common criticisms of the original movies was that most of the focus stayed with Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and the rest of bridge crew would occasionally get a bone thrown their way, but in Star Trek Beyond the screen time is divided up a little better. Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) are teamed up for some good action and laughs, Spock and McCoy (Karl Urban) capture the classic chemistry from the original series as Bones tries to keep his severely wounded Vulcan nemesis alive, Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) are captured along with the bulk of the Enterprise crew, but they briefly escape to try and call for help, and finally we have Scotty (Simon Pegg) who encounters Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a beautiful alien woman that has managed to escape and elude Krall’s soldiers while working to fix an old crashed Federation starship. And as boring and generic as the enemy Stormtroopers in this film are Jaylah is fresh and exciting. She is a total badass, and every moment she was on screen I was riveted. That Simon Pegg co-wrote the screenplay probably has something to do with Scotty being the one to pair up with her.

scotty jaylah 

“Would you like to see my engine room?”

It was kind of nice to see Scotty getting to hang out with the hot alien chick for a change, though Kirk does slide in there for a bit of a cock block rescue at one point, but if Jaylah does return in further installments I hope to see her hooking up with our favorite Starfleet engineer. There was certainly no time for romance in this movie, aside from the brief Spock/Uhura drama it’s all action-action-action, and Justin Lin is a proven hand at giving us some of the best cinematic action scenes out there. Gone are the J.J. Abrams lens flares, though at some points in the film I did miss them as we could have used the added lighting during some of the dark and murky night and underground scenes, but overall Lin did a masterful Job with both the look and structure of the film.


I saw this film in 3D, which is notoriously bad for dark scenes, so it may look better in 2D.

Now I stated earlier that the villain is just your generic baddie, but that is not exactly true, in the film’s third act there is a reveal that gives an interesting backstory to Krall’s motivations. It doesn’t completely redeem his character but it stops him from just being one of countless two dimensional Star Trek villains we’ve had in the past. Though there was one part where Krall spots Kirk’s ship approaching and he states, “There you are, my old friend.” I’m not sure what they were going for there as that’s more of a Wrath of Khan line than from a bad guy who only knows Kirk from hacking his Captain’s Logs. So Krall isn’t a terrible villain but I think they tried to make him more than he actually was.


"From my evil spikey lair, I stab at thee!"

In conclusion Star Trek Beyond is a rousing space adventure with everyone's favorite space faring crew as they take on nefarious villains in their bid to keep the universe safe, and it's easily my favorite installment of this new series. It doesn’t really break any new ground but it also doesn’t piss all over the classic Trek like Star Trek: Into Darkness did. So load yourself up with popcorn, sit back and enjoy the ride, preferably at 2D showing, as this is helluva fun time and easily one of the better Trek movies.


Can I vote for a spin-off movie with Jaylah?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016) – Review

For years Sony had been trying to get a third Ghostbusters movie off the ground, mostly failing due to Bill Murray’s complete lack of interest, and when the reality that this project was never going to happen finally set in Sony switched gears into reboot mode. Now you can about count the successful remakes on one hand; for every John Carpenter’s The Thing you get a half dozen godawful Robocop remakes so when I heard they were going to remake Ghostbusters you could honestly say I was less than thrilled, but then it was announced that Sony was switching up the gender of the Ghostbuster team and I became interested. Putting some of the hottest female comics together could work, but then I saw the first trailer and began to despair all over again.  So with lowered expectations I stepped into the theatre to find out for myself, was the film as bad as that trailer led us to believe or was the negative hype unfair?  Let's take a look.

ghostbusters poster

The movie opens much as the original did with a haunting, but instead of getting a group of friends leaping into action the movie goes for an origin story as the film slowly assembles the team. Doctor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wig) is trying to get tenure at Columbia University, not an easy task when your boss is Charles Dance, and when she learns that a book she co-authored years ago, one that posited the existence of paranormal phenomenon, has popped up on Amazon she rushes off to confront her old friend and co-author Doctor Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) in the hopes she will take it down before it jeopardizes her career. She learns that Abby never gave up on the ghost hunting gig and is currently working at a bargain basement technical college with a kooky engineer by the name of Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and through some contrived writing they rush off to check out the ghost from the movie’s opening.


And the ghost then barfs slime all over Erin.

I’ll give director Paul Feig credit for not trying to make his cast of female Ghostbusters carbon copies of the originals, but then he kind forgot to give them much in the way of identifiable characteristics at all. Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann is just a walking talking weirdo whose zany antics you will either find funny or increasingly annoying, while Kristen Wig and Mellissa McCarthy were almost interchangeable with no real defining character traits. When we first met Erin she was all about living a life of straight academia but once she re-teams with Abby the two become indistinguishable from another. The only differentiating trait this movie gives Erin is that she likes moronic beefcake Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) while Abby seems oblivious to his charms. This leads to one of the film’s key failings. It’s no secret that Hollywood is a gender biased community; that there are more varied roles for men than there are for women has been a hard truth in the industry since its inception, but Paul Feig seems to be tackling the issue in all the wrong ways. You can have a movie where its primary characters are strong intelligent women without making all the men in the film idiots, jerks, or losers, and in this Ghostbuster remake that’s exactly what they do.


“Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful.”

In the original Ghostbusters the leads may have all been men but the supporting women in the film were not gender stereotypes; Annie Potts as the team’s receptionist was smart, competent and aside from a crush on Egon was a model of professionalism, but in this remake Feig has given us Kevin, a musclebound idiot who is so dumb he makes Steve Carell character in Anchorman look brilliant by comparison.  Sigourney Weaver was the original film's love interest, but she was also key component to the movies story, and she easily held her own against the likes of Bill Murray. In the case of Kevin he is just a mouth breathing joke machine that if removed from the movie would barely have any impact on the plot. He is briefly possessed by the film’s chief villain but as we really don’t give a crap about his character it has little to no impact structurally or emotionally.


Speaking of the remake’s villain; Rowan North (Neil Casey) is your stereotypical bullied nerd who has decided to take out his frustrations on the world by destroying it, and that is all the background we get on this character. He’s an angry little dweeb who is tired of being insulted so he wants to unleash Hell on Earth. Rowan is such an uninteresting villain that it made me long for Peter MacNicoll’s idiotic “villain” in Ghostbusters 2. How do the strong women of 2016 Ghostbusters handle such an opponent? They make cracks about his virginity and shoot him in the groin with their proton packs. The “Man Hate” in this film goes from subtext to just plain text. Even this movie’s mayor (Andy Garcia) is portrayed as an ineffectual buffoon and that it’s his female aid who is clearly running the show. I am all for having more roles for strong female characters in film, but making all the men in your movie idiots or incompetent does not help; it actually undermines your case as it’s basically saying that only way a woman can compete is if the men she's up against are ineffectual morons.

It is said that the stature of a hero is determined by the magnitude of the villain he or she must overcome, so what is it saying when you have four women armed with nuclear powered weapons and they’re having a hard time with this guy?


He certainly strikes terror into my heart.

Accusations of feminism and misogyny aside this film fails because it is simply not all that funny. The original film took a group of goofball characters and put them in a crazy situations; Paul Feig on the other hand has basically hung a collection of jokes and site gags on a thinnest frames and called it a movie. Characters come and go with almost no believable motivation; the three Ghostbusters are joined by Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) because she saw a ghost while at her job as a subway transit worker; why did she quit her job to hunt ghosts? Not a fucking clue.  She is just included because the previous film had a black actor join the group, and because this film lacks any originality she’s also your stereotypical sassy black woman. Leslie Jones is a fine comic actor but there is was nothing in this script for her to do that was even remotely funny. Though to be fair none of the leads are given much in the way of “good” comedic moments. This film even has the nerve to throw in a fart joke but because this is a comedy starring women they turn it into a quiff joke. *sigh*


Maybe later they will hook up with Terrence and Phillip.

It’s no surprise that a lot of money went into the special effects for this film, and we do get more ghosts than the previous Ghostbusters films combined, but they are your generic CGI fare that we’ve seen dozens of times before, and they often look more like entries in a Disney World Halloween Parade than anything that is supposed to be scary. Which does fit with the tone of this film as most of the humor is aimed at six year olds. Remember how funny it was when Bill Murray got slimed in the original? Well in this film Paul Feig has Kristen Wig get slimed multiple times because more equals better, right?


“Grinning ghosts come out to socialize.”

This isn’t the worst movie to hit theatres this year, which would be Independence Day: Resurgence and the sooner we forget that ever happened the better, but it’s not a very good one either. I’ll admit to chuckling a couple of times, and some of the action scenes where they bust an army of ghosts was well put together, but overall this film is a mess. It’s a shame that Sony tried to challenge gender roles with such film because all I can see is it making it harder for other actresses to headline big budgeted movies. This Ghostbusters reboot is guilty of wasting comic talent with a juvenile script and of setting back gender equality thirty years.

the Mask

Note: There is a moment when Kevin is possessed where he freezes all the law enforcement personnel in a dance pose, but then nothing happens.  I kept expecting them to break into a musical number, but they didn't.  I'm guessing somebody pointed out that this particular gag had already been done in Jim Carrey's The Mask and so it was cut, but if you hang around during the end credits the footage is included as a deleted scene, which is kind of new for cinemas.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Stranger Things: Season One – Review

Take the kids from E.T. The Extraterrestrial, give one of them the sister from Pretty in Pink, have one of them abducted by the Beast from Poltergeist, and then put them all in the vicinity of the government facility from Firestarter, next you put that all in a blender hit puree and the result is the latest Netflix series Stranger Things, brought to us by the Duffer Brothers. This is an eight episode series that is a clear homage to the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg that will easily delight fans of those two artists, as well as several other genre artists that Matt and Ross Duffer throw nods to.


The release model for the Netflix series is the real game changer with the medium as you can now watch a series in whichever way best suits your needs; check out an episode a week at a time or binge watch the whole thing in one sitting. I prefer the latter in the case of Stranger Things as for me it worked best when considered as basically an eight hour movie. I really enjoyed J.J. Abrams' love letter to Steven Spielberg with his film Super 8, but I did find that the ending resolution was a tad weak and it felt rather rushed.  Now with shows like Stranger Things a filmmaker can take more time with their characters, introduce interesting plot threads, expand the world they’ve created, and all without being worried about how many show times a theatre can fit in a day.


This is how I watched it.

The show opens with some standard science fiction thriller elements as we see a scientist madly scrambling down a dark hallway while something stalks him through the shadows, and in the classic Spielbergian method we don’t see the creature just the horrific look on the poor sods face as he’s grabbed by something off camera. Cut to a basement in small town 80s suburbia where the show’s true heroes are playing Dungeon & Dragons; Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) the stoic leader of the group, Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) the comic relief, Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) the sensible one, and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) the boy who disappears that night while returning home from their heated gaming session.


Points for no one calling somebody “Penis Breath.”

Devastated by the disappearance of her son is Joyce Byers (Wynona Ryder), who seems to be going off her rocker as she insists that her son is trying to contact her through the Christmas lights she strings all over the house, but we saw the creature chasing after young Will so we know things aren’t as cut and dried as they appear and that she is far from crazy. Her eldest son Jonathon Byers (Charlie Heaton) is a bit of a social outcast but it’s his search for his little brother that throws him in contact with Mike’s teenage sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), whose best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) has also gone missing, but surprisingly no one seems all that concerned about her.

stranger things 3 

Being the “Best Friend” is never a good gig in a horror show.

The handling of Barb's disappearance is one of the weaker elements of the show as she is introduced, hangs around for a couple of episodes and then she is gone without a sense of anybody but Nancy being worried about her. We get one shot of Nancy talking to Barb’s mother on the phone but then the mother is never to be heard from again. This is the 80s and a teen-age girl vanishing would still be a big deal, no matter how hard a shadowy government facility tried to cover it up. Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) reluctantly gets involved with the investigation of the missing Byer’s kid, he has serious emotional issues due to the loss of his own daughter, but apparently daughters belonging to other people are not as big of a concern to him so he doesn't give poor Barb a second thought.  Sheriff Brody he is not.


"We need a bigger donut."

Speaking of “Shadowy Government” it’s time to mention the show’s primary bad, and I don't mean the monster in the dark that is snatching children from their homes, but a monster of a more insidious nature, the Mad Scientist. Doctor Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) is your stock evil doctor and unfortunately the Duffer Brothers do nothing to flesh out this stereotype, and rely mostly on Matthew Modine's white hair to doing the work for them. One look at him and you’d scream, “Evil!” and run in the opposite direction.  When he tells Nancy's mom to "Trust him" I burst out laughing.


He’s a Mad Scientist with henchmen for Christ sake.

Not only does Dr. Brenner want to keep a lid on the whole “A monster has escaped from our facility and is preying on the locals” but he is searching for a second escapee who just so happens to be a little girl with extraordinary powers. She is known only by her designation “11” which is tattooed on her arm, and in case we hadn’t quite got the gist of how evil Brenner is we learn that Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is also his daughter, and she’s been treated as a lab experiment her entire life. After escaping the facility, keeping just one step ahead of her father's goons, she eventually runs into our group of young heroes who were out hunting for Will.  Much to the shock of the group Mike decides to take her home and hide her in the basement of his house. Now I couldn’t even keep a squirrel hidden in my house without my mom finding out about it so I'm not sure how they kept an almost autistic girl with superpowers hidden for days with no one noticing. Well maybe if my squirrel had super powers it would have been easier.


Think Firestarter meets E.T. with a dose of Carrie.

Stranger Things is all about movie nostalgia, and if you can get aboard the nostalgia train you are going to have fun, but if the constant nods and references to the works of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and others becomes a bit too obtrusive your level of enjoyment may vary.  I enjoyed the "homages" to the greats of the genre, but the show does have it's minuses as well as it positives. The time spent with the kids being the most fun, with them teaming up with Eleven (who they name Elle for short) as they try and locate their missing friend while avoiding her father and his passel of armed goons. On the other hand the time spent with the relationship drama between Nancy, Jonathon and Nancy’s boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery) I could have done with a little less of, but at least it does go in an interesting direction so that is just a minor peeve.


Think Pretty in Pink meets Pumpkinhead.

For the most part these characters react and behave like believable people, I certainly hope I would handle myself as well against such threats as these kids do, but there were a couple of moments that did lose me as they strained credulity a bit too far. **Minor Spoilers** At one point Nancy and Jonathon are hunting through the woods at night for the monster that took Will and Barb (right there something I wouldn't do without heavily armed back-up), then while following a blood trail across the forest floor Nancy comes across a pulsating fleshy hole in a tree (something right out of a David Cronenberg movie), and without even calling out to Jonathon she crawls inside. Who in the hell would do that? I don’t think even a fully armed Navy Seal would have even considered such an insane action. The other moment I had a hard time swallowing was that Chief Hopper attempts to infiltrate the government facility twice! Does he have a plan as to how to pull off such a feat? Nope, and at least the Duffer Brothers treat his stupidity with the proper result, but I still felt it was a case of a character behaving in a way simply because “It’s in the script" and not for any logical reason.  Though this does lead to him ending up wandering around Silent Hill so I'll forgive it.


If you see Pyramid Head, run!

Stranger Things is a brilliant mix of nostalgia and dark mystery, with a good helping of horror that got woke the kid in me. I grew up watching John Carpenter’s Thing and Poltergeist where it seemed at any moment horror could strike and ruin your whole day whether you were in the Antarctic or in suburbia, and the Duff Brothers captured that feel brilliantly here. This is a show I can recommend highly and suggest you set aside time to binge watch it.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Tarzan and the Lion Man: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

Tarzan and the lion man book coverIt’s double the danger and double the fun.” If Tarzan and the Lion Man had been adapted into a film back in the 30s that would certainly have been the tagline. This is easily the most humorous of the Tarzan books, sure there is always a bit of humor to found in books by Burroughs but in this case Tarzan and the Lion Man is almost a straight out comedy. With all the insane coincidences and mistaken identities this could, at times, have been mistaken for a French farce. Originally released in serialized form in the magazine Liberty from November 1933 through January 1935, and at the time this book was thought by the author to be the weakest one in the series, but I for one think it is one of his best. Burroughs was not a fan of what Hollywood had done to his most famous creation, making the Ape Man into an illiterate savage, and this book works as a bit of an attack on the industry.
The story opens with Milton Smith, executive VP of B.O. studio (Could B.O. stand for Box Office or perchance Body Odour?) as he greets director Tom Orman who he wishes to direct a movie on location in Africa. Major White, big game hunter and technical advisor for the production, doubts the ability of moving 27 tons of trucks and equipment to the jungle location Milton has picked.

Note: The same year this story was first published producer Merian C. Cooper would release King Kong, a story about a film production shooting on location in dangerous jungles. Burroughs has an Ape Man instead of Giant Ape.

Milton’s brilliant idea is a movie about a man raised by lions, “You see fellow’s born in the jungle and brought up by a lioness. He pals around with the lions all his life-he doesn’t know any other friends. The lion is the king of the beasts; when the boy grows up he’s king of the lions; so he bosses the whole menagerie. See? Big shot of the jungle.” The director’s one comment is, “Sounds familiar.” Later in the book’s epilogue we learn that several other studios are working on a Tarzan film, and several characters consider Tarzan to be just a made up story. This book comes very close to being meta.

The chief cast of characters in this book consist of Naomi Madison, the star of the picture, Rhonda Terry, who is Madison’s double, Bill West the cameraman, who is sweet on Rhonda, and Stanley Obroski, a marathon runner who has been cast to play the Lion Man. Naomi is in a relationship with Tom Orman but is also having an affair Obroski; that he has the looks and body of a Greek Adonis being the only real factor in this relationship as he is a complete coward and everyone knows it.
When the production treks through the dangerous Bansuto territory, ritual cannibals who take umbrage against any trespasser, they are routinely ambushed by the natives. Several porters, and even Major White, are killed during these attacks, and during these attacks Obroski could be found hiding under a truck, which makes him a pretty good match for Naomi who constantly faints at any sign of danger. Naomi is your typical Hollywood diva, she frequently puts down Rhonda’s acting ability which is clearly based on fear that her double is actually the better actor of the two, and she treats pretty much everyone like dirt.


Things go from bad to worse when a final attack causes all the native porters to desert the safari leaving just the film production and a group of Arab horsemen, led by Sheykh Ab El-Ghrennem, who had been hired to provide security for the safari. Then things even go further sideways when the production crew wake up one morning to find Sheykh Ab El-Ghrennem and his people gone as well, and that they had also abducted Naomi and Rhonda. The girls were grabbed because Ghrennem believes that this whole safari is searching for a lost city of diamonds, and that the scripted dialogue he heard, and a prop map he saw being used in the filming are all real, and if the mythical diamond city doesn’t exist he can at least sell the girls to a Black Sultan to recoup some of his losses. Unbeknownst to the production cast and crew is the fact that the prop map is actually the genuine article; the screenwriter found it inside an old book and incorporated it into the script. Orman and West decide to try and rescue the girls while the remaining members of the safari push onto the planned location.


And what is Tarzan doing during all this? Not much actually. He and the Golden Lion Jad-bal-ja are just hanging out in the jungle together, living life footloose and fancy free, he does occasionally swing by to spy on the safari, but never makes his presence known or even offer aid when they are attacked. This is another prime example of Tarzan’s personal code.
He had seen something of the natives that inhabit this region. He had witnessed their methods of warfare against the whites who invaded their territory. His sympathies had been neither with one side nor the other. He had seen Orman, drunk lashing his black porters; and he felt that whatever misfortunes overtook him he deserved them.

I’m sure if Jane was around Tarzan may have acted differently; done something to help them after getting a cold glare from his wife, but Jane is not around in this book so these poor saps are on their own for the first half of the book. Once again Tarzan’s moral code is neither human nor completely animal, and it often hinges on how bored he is. When Tarzan investigates a nearby Bansuto village, he likes to be well informed about the inhabitants of any territory he finds himself visiting, and he discovers a white man about to be ritually tortured and killed. This poor fellow turns out to be Stanley Obroski, who during one of the attacks on the safari fled like a coward into the long grass; unfortunately he ran straight into a group of Bansuto warriors and was captured. It’s here that we learn an interesting fact about Obroski, and that he is a dead ringer for Tarzan. If you can remember back in Tarzan and the Golden Lion we were introduced to Esteban Miranda, a Spanish actor/Tarzan lookalike, but where I found that character annoying and uninteresting I really enjoyed Stanley Obroski. He may have been a coward but not of the cruel variety, and when push comes to shove he does account himself fairly well. That Tarzan never remarks on the odds of two lookalikes arriving in Africa just goes to show you how bizarre and strange his life must be that nothing really surprises him anymore. That is until he eventually reaches the fabled city of diamonds and he meets talking gorillas.

One of the reasons for Tarzan intervening in the torturing of Obroski has to do with the Ape Man’s twisted sense of humor. When he sees this man, a man that is the spitting image of himself, he sneaks above the village and with a well thrown rope; he pulls the village chieftain up into the trees. The Chieftain is shocked to find himself in the clutches of the very man they were just about to kill below. That this man is in two places at once can only be explained by one thing, that he isn't a man but a demon. Tarzan uses this to good effect.

I tested you to see if were a good man and your people good people. I made myself into two men, and one I sent where your warriors could capture him. I wanted to see what you would do to a stranger who had not harmed you. Now I know. For what you have done you should die.
Tarzan is one crafty bastard. He is thus able to rescue Obroski without even having to throw a punch as the Chieftain is more than willing to let Obroski go, and he even promises to never harm another white person again. Tarzan tells Obroski that he had spotted Wells and Orman nearby, and leaving Obroski in the care of Jad-bal-ja, he goes off to find the man’s companions.

It’s here that we really see how much joy Tarzan has screwing with people. Earlier when he came across Wells and Orman, just as they were about to become lion chow, Tarzan dropped out of the trees and killed the lion, but then vanished back into the jungle without saying a word. This left Wells and Orman thinking they’d seen a ghost as they assumed Obroski was dead, and that coward certainly wouldn’t have attacked a lion let alone won the altercation. When Tarzan returns to Wells and Orman he continues to let them believe he is Obroski, for no other reason that it’s fun. Everyone who encounters Tarzan, thinking he is Obroski, are stunned with this change from coward to jungle god. This whole section of the book is brilliantly funny, and I haven’t even got to the crazy stuff yet.
So the aforementioned City of Diamonds is in fact real, and is populated by talking gorillas. Rhonda and Naomi escape from the clutches of the evil Arab horsemen, due to Rhonda’s spunky nature and smart thinking, but when a lion attacks the two are separated. Rhonda is captured by two gorillas that argue over whether to take her to Henry VIII, their gorilla king, or to their god. Needless to say she is a tad shocked to encounter gorillas that not only speak English but with a British accent as well, not to mention living in castles. More upsetting is that she learns Henry VIII will want her to be his wife.
Will Tarzan get to her in time? What has happened to Naomi, will she meet the same fate as her double? Can the production survive having all their cast killed or married off to apes? And just how exactly are there English speaking gorillas living in an Africa? Well if you’ve read H.G. Welles’s Island of Doctor Moreau you may have a good idea about that last one.

tarzan and the lion man 17

Much of this is Burroughs taking shots at the people in Hollywood, but not at the expense of the story or its characters. Naomi Madison moves from being a vein bitch to compassionate and strong character, and though Stanley Obroski is at first portrayed as an abject coward but later we learn more about him and gain some sympathy for the poor schmuck, not everyone can be Tarzan of the Apes. It’s in the book’s epilogue that we get the most satirical part of the story as Tarzan, in his John Clayton persona, visits Hollywood to find out what kind of place creates people like the ones he encountered. He even auditions for the part of Tarzan in a studio’s film production.

The casting director sized Clayton up. “You look all right to me; I’ll take you up to Mr. Goldstein; he’s production manager. Had any experience?”
“As Tarzan?”
The casting director laughed, “I mean in pictures.”
“Well, you might be all right for that. You don’t have to be Barrymore to play Tarzan.”
Sadly Mr. Goldstein is not impressed, “Not the type,” he snapped. “Not the type at all.”

The amused Tarzan does take a small part as the “Great White Hunter” that the movie version of Tarzan is to save from a charging lion, but when the supposedly tame lion goes after the actor playing Tarzan the real Tarzan is forced to kill it. Is he thanked for saving a man’s life? No, he’s fired for killing an animal worth ten thousand dollars.

Tarzan’s visit to Hollywood is only a few pages long but it's so entertaining that one wishes Burroughs had made more stories with the Ape Man venturing into the supposed “civilized world” as this small excerpt was brilliant. This may be one of the books that doesn’t feature Tarzan as predominantly as others but damn is it fun. The comedy is spot on hilarious, never going completely into farce and Tarzan’s dry sarcastic whit is once again a highlight. Tarzan and the Lion Man is a must read for Tarzan fans.


Science Note: The talking gorillas in the City of Diamonds are a product of a mad scientist who fled persecution in England for his heretical views on genes and evolution. He set up shop in darkest Africa where he started experimenting with gene therapy on the resident gorillas. The apes did get smarter, and their young even developed vocal cords and the ability to speak. When the “Mad Scientist” realized old age was catching up with him he started injecting himself with gorilla DNA. Unfortunately though this did increase his longevity it also started giving him ape like physical characteristics. When Tarzan and Rhonda are captured he planned to inject himself with their DNA as well as eat them because he had discovered that eating the glands of a human speeds the process. If you’ve seen David Cronenberg’s The Fly you may recognize that was kind of the same plan that Seth Brundle had to regain his humanity.