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Monday, October 31, 2016

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016) – Review

When kids of today think of Batman most would draw upon the versions produced Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder, but there is one iconic version that should never be forgotten; in 1966 television producer William Dozier cast Adam West as the world renowned Caped Crusader, and not as a the Dark Knight detective known to comic book readers, but as a straight man to an array of camp villains and goofy criminal capers. The series sadly only lasted three seasons but now Warner Bros. Pictures has given this classic show a little bit of a comeback with an animated movie called ...

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Basing an animated movie on a decades old television show, one containing a version of Batman far from the grim vigilante today’s audiences are familiar with, could be considered a bit of a gamble, but if anyone has seen Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice I’d say the world is in need of a nice jolt of fun lighthearted Batman. The studio deciding to go the animated route allowed three of the cast members to return; Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as Robin and Julie Newmar as Catwoman are the only actors to reprise their roles, most of the other cast members have sadly passed away, and as Adam West is no newcomer when it comes to voice acting things on that score are pretty safe. As to who provides the voices for the other members of the rogue’s gallery, Julie Newmar being the only original villain returning, Warner Brothers decided to just use hard working voice actors from their rooster of animated shows.

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Notice the classic “Dutch Tilt” from the original series.

The Joker is voiced by Jeff Bergman who does a pretty good impression of Cesar Romero, as does Wally Wingert with his Frank Gorshin impression for the Riddler, but William Salyers doesn’t even attempt to mimic Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. That may have been for the best because as good as Bergman and Wingert’s impressions were they never quite capture the manic intensity of either Romero or Gorshin, and when their impressions occasionally slip it makes the fact that these aren’t the original actors more noticeable. On the positive side the character designs are bang on, making this movie really look like a big budget version of the original show, and with the scintillating tones of Adam West it does seem like a trip back in time.

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The basic story this time out deals with the Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman stealing a type of replica ray gun that can multiply anything that it hits. Joker and The Riddler pooh-pooh Penguin’s prosaic notion of using it to, “Multiply money, diamonds…females” as they have a grander scheme in mind, but of course standing in their way is the Dynamic Duo who are still able to solve any riddle, using the most convoluted train of thought possible to lead them to their opponent’s next move, and then *Bam* *Socko* *Ker-Plow!* Batman and Robin duke it out in their classic camp style.

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With a nice nod to Golden Age Batman comic book artist Dick Sprang.

Now Batman: Return of the Caped Crusader isn’t a straight up animated copy of the 60s television as it throws in quite of few nods and winks to some of the goofy conceits that have both puzzled and delighted fans of the show. Aunt Harriet is still questioning Bruce and Dick’s frequent “fishing trips” but now alluding to her having figured out their “Big Secret” which is of course that they are gay and not secret crime fighters. In the original series Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara never seemed to actually worry about dealing with crimes themselves, much easier to just make a call on the Batphone, and in this outing it’s made clear that the police can’t even manage to handle the average shoplifter if Batman isn’t around. All the visual trademarks from the show make an appearance here; the Batmobile is still the customized 1955 Lincoln Futura, the Batcave is entered by triggering a switch in a bust of William Shakespeare (though the cave itself includes the large dinosaur statue from the comics and a different looking atomic pile), and of course the show has the standard deathtraps for our heroes to escape.

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“Holy last meal, Batman!”

This animated movie is both a beautiful nostalgic trip to a time when Batman had a bit of a sense of humor, and a loving jab at the direction in which the character has gone in the recent years, director Rick Morales even pokes fun at the ridiculous Paris epilogue in The Dark Knight Rises, but overall it is a love letter to a show I adored when I was a child. This is a movie that I can recommend to any fan of the Batman, young or old, as its art direction is fantastic, Adam West is in full comic deadpan mode, and the caper that the villainous fiends attempt to pull off is a real doozy. So my advice to you is to rush out and snatch up the Bluray of this beauty as soon as possible.

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“Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed.”

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Chessmen of Mars: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

ar220218Congratulations John Carter, it’s a girl!” In the fifth Barsoom novel we are introduced to another Princess of Mars in the form of Tara of Helium, daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris, and a girl voted most likely to be kidnapped. The Chessmen of Mars was first published in serial form in the page of Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1922 and continues the adventures of the Carter family, but where Thuvia, Maid of Mars was more about John Carter’s son than its titular character The Chessmen of Mars spends a good deal of time with Princess Tara, and not just the male hero bent on saving her.

This book strangely begins with Burroughs going back to the story narrative device of having John Carter telling this adventure to his earthbound nephew, this made easier as he’s now learned to teleport between planets. His nephew had been playing chess so Carter decides to describe the Barsoomian version of chess called jetan, and this leads to the story in question where we learn that aside from their son Carthoris our hero had a second child in the form of Tara of Helium, a woman whose beauty even rivals her mother’s. Tara is your standard princess, one who has been raised in privilege and becomes quite put out when things don’t go her way, and when her betrothed Djor Kantos, son of her father's best friend, spends too much time flirting with another woman she becomes rather irate. Then to make matters worse a gorgeously dressed Gahan, Jed of Gathol asks her to dance, and when this overdressed popinjay boldly proclaims, "Tara of Helium, I love you!" she is offended by such effrontery.

Now I’m all for the notion of love at first sight but dude maybe wait until the second dance before announcing the fact. Thus begins the “will they won’t they” love story that runs through The Chessmen of Mars; Tara proclaims to her slave, “I hate him!” but we know eventually love will conqueror all, even over the piqued ire of a princess, but before we get into further discussion of the love and adventure that enfolds in this book lets address one strange issue, and that is she has a slave. In Burroughs books the concept of slavery is often dealt in peculiar fashions; in the Tarzan books slave traders were constantly grabbing natives to sell into slavery but Tarzan himself only really got involved if it was in his territory or he had a personal connection to the enslaved, and in the Barsoom books John Carter is warlord of a society where slavery is a way of life.

The subtle difference in slavery on Barsoom versus slavery on Earth is that on Barsoom it doesn’t involve an oppressed minority, any of the numerous races Barsoom can be enslaved, and slaves are mostly obtained as spoils of war. How the slaves in a particular city or country are treated is apparently the important thing for the reader to know. In the palace of John Carter slaves are treated simply as unpaid servants while later we visit other countries where slaves are forced to fight in cruel barbaric games or worse. Of course Tara’s maid is your standard slave who loves her mistress so much she actually turns down freedom to stay with her, Tara is very much a proto-Scarlett from Gone with the Wind, and Gahan of Gathol, this books male protagonist, and Tara’s Rhett Butler, talks about how the slaves of his country work in the mines but they can eventually earn their freedom. I guess that’s better than nothing, but I think for most readers the kneejerk reaction to slavery being “It’s wrong and evil” will be at odds with heroes laissez-faire attitude towards such concepts.

Note: The Chessmen of Mars was published in 1922 containing a spirited slave owning protagonist by the name of Tara, while Gone with the Wind was published in 1936 and the slave owning protagonist in that book lives on a plantation called Tara. Coincidence, or was Margaret Mitchell a fan of Burroughs?

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What makes this book stand out as one of the best of the genre are the two different societies our heroes run into; the first being the horrifying Kaldane. When Tara decides to take her personal flier up to explore some threatening storm clouds, not something I’d consider doing but then again I’m not a princess, she is quickly caught up in the turbulent winds and is carried to the far off land of Bantoom where she encounters the horrific race known as Kaldane. When she lands her damaged flier she first spots headless “humans” bumbling aimless around, but then she sees two figures emerge from the nearby cities, but though the bodies of these creatures match the headless one in appearance these ones have hideous heads that are out of proportion to their perfect bodies. We later learn that the heads are a separate entity and belong to the race called Kaldane, they are almost all head but for six arachnoid legs and a pair of chelae.

The Kaldanes have a symbiotic relationship with the headless bodies that Tara first spotted; known as Rykors this species is composed of a body similar to that of a Red Martian but lacking a head, when the Kaldane places itself upon the shoulders of the Rykor a bundle of tentacles connects with the Rykor's spinal cord, allowing the brain of the Kaldane to control its motor nerves and sensory nerves. Should the Rykor become damaged or die the Kaldane simply leaves that body and climbs upon another. The Kaldane are all about the mind and use the Rykor as both a mode of transportation and food. They have no emotions as they’ve achieved pure intellect, but when a Kaldane by the name of Ghek hears Tara sing something is awakened in this one particular Kaldane.

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Tara is a unique Burroughs female character as she is much more involved in the story than her predecessors, even though Gahan is the hero who will slay dozens of enemies with his flashing sword to save the woman he loves, we don't get Tara just sitting around waiting to be rescued. When she learns her singing could win over one of the Kaldanes she uses this knowledge to prevent herself from being turned into dinner. On numerous occasions in this book a villain will try to “taste” her wares and instead die at the end the blade she keeps hidden on her person. Thuvia of Ptarth may have had the cool ability to control Barsoomian lions but Tara being able to keep her virtue intact with nothing but a hidden knife is more impressive in my opinion. If it wasn’t for her strength of character, and the friendship she develops with Ghek, when Gahan eventually arrives to save her they would never have escaped.

It’s when Tara, Gahan, and Ghek flee Bantoom that we encounter the titular characters of this book; when our heroes land in the hopes of finding food and water they are eventually captured by the inhabitants of the isolated city of Manator. This society consists of regular Red Martians but their culture isn’t as scientifically advanced as say that of say Helium or Gathol, but this hasn’t stopped them from developing a civilization based heavily on slaves taken from those places. As they don’t have fliers or ray guns this means that they have to be sneakier when it comes to taking slaves, thus they rely on hit and run raids on caravans from Gathol, leaving no survivors to say what happened. They then use these slaves for the various usual purposes one would have for a slave, but also to be pieces in their notorious living chess games. In their version of jetan/chess they use game not only for entertainment but for settling disputes as well, but because this game is played with people it is a rather dangerous and bloody affair.

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The people of Manator are also big on mind games, when Gahan and Ghek are imprisoned the two awake to find themselves in cells with open doors, but with one leg manacled to a wall and the key to the manacle sitting on a table just out of reach. Unfortunately for the Manatorians you really shouldn’t try playing head games when opponent who is just a head. Ghek has a lot of fun screwing with his captors; at one point he detaches his head to scurry down a rat hole looking for food and when one of the jailers looks into see a headless groping body around he totally freaks out, but when the guard returns with help they see Ghek back on his “body” calmly waiting for them. Ghek continues to mess with these guys until eventually they believe him to be an evil spirit, unfortunately this results with his companions being painted with the same brush and they are all sentenced to death.

Note: Another interesting aspect to Manator life is their treatment of the dead. When our heroes are first brought into the city they notice crowds of people looking on from numerous balconies, but for crowds they all seem very still and very quiet. In the halls of the palace there are even more nobles and soldiers that stand perfectly still and completely silent. Later Tara and Gahan discover that these “people” are actually corpses and have been expertly preserved by a taxidermist. Why a society would populate its streets and palaces with cadavers is beyond me, but it's vaguely similar to Lotharians, from the previous book Thuvia, Maid of Mars, who populated their streets with mental projections.

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The Chessmen of Mars is has all you could expect from a planetary romance story; a beautiful but feisty princess (the king of Manator sentences her to be gang raped in the games for being too outspoken and being “She-banth” as he called her), the hero is honorable and unbeatable in combat, and once again the woman cannot proclaim her love for the hero because she is betrothed to another. In fact for the bulk of the book Tara doesn’t know that the man she is with is the selfsame popinjay she spurned at the beginning of the book. When she first sees Gahan within the walls of the Kaldane city he’s no longer resplendently garbed, having fallen overboard from his flier while looking for Tara during the same storm that sent her on her way, so he decided to take on the nom de plume of a mercenary to win her love that way as she’d earlier rebuffed the advances from him when he was a prince.

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Will true love win out over such adversity? Can our hero survive in the arena of the deadly Martian chess game? How many attempted rapists will Tara have to stab? All these answers and more can be found in the action packed pages of fantastic tale called The Chessmen of Mars

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Beware! The Blob (1972) – Review

One of the seminal monster movies of the 50s was 1958’s The Blob, produced by Jack H. Harris and starring 27 year old Steve McQueen as a "teenager" leading a group of rebels without causes against an amorphous creature from outer space; that film was a classic example of the genre, and fondly remembered by many, not so much it’s late coming sequel Beware! The Blob aka Son of the Blob. Produced and written by Anthony Harris and directed by I Dream of Jeannie star Larry Hagman this film was quite the tonal shift from the original as it veers from light to broad comedy at times. This is not surprising when you consider much of the cast consisted of improv or stand-up comics; and though Anthony Harris and Jack Woods are credited with writing the screenplay it’s quite clear that most of the actors involved were not working off a script but improvising to their heart’s content. It’s this free flowing goofiness that puts off most viewers but to me this is what gives the film its charm. So let’s take a peek at the return of cinema’s most famous gelatinous monster.

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The original film ended with the heroes discovering the Blob’s weakness was the cold, that freezing it was the only way to stop it's unceasing appetite, and then the Air Force dumped it high up in the arctic where it would stuck forever, "Yeah, as long as the Arctic stays cold." The words "The End" then morphed into a question mark.  Basically your standard "Gotcha" ending.  The sequel opens with oil pipeline layer Chester Hargis (Godfrey Cambridge) returning home after three months working in the Arctic, with him is a container enclosing a frozen sample of the Blob. His wife (Marlene Clarke) isn’t happy about finding this frozen glop in her freezer and she sits it on the counter, which of course allows the thing to thaw. These two will then die horribly, but not before the Blob eats their adorable kitten.

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When strawberry jam attacks.

Killing an animal in a film is always a dicey move; audiences can handle dozens of teenagers being hack to pieces by machete wielding lunatics but hurt on furry little animal and they lose their shit. Director Hagman doesn’t help the situation by having the opening credit sequence consist solely of the kitten cavorting in a green meadow as if he was auditioning for Milo & Otis. Spending the opening five minutes of your movie showing us how cute a kitten is, and then killing it in such a horrifying manner, is not the way to win over an audience. The attack scenes with the Blob are all well executed, and will make anyone a little uneasy (getting dissolved alive has got to be one of the worst ways to go), but then it would cut to wacky hi-jinks with a group of stoners, and it’s these tonal shifts from horror to comedy that may cause a bit of a disconnect with the viewer.  One minute we have Scoutmaster (Dick Van Patten) trying to corral his boy scouts into setting up camp and the next we’re seeing someone horrifyingly consumed by the Blob, and though the attacks in this film are unsettling they are certainly outweighed by the comic bits, whether intentional or not. One particular hilarious bit, and one I’m guessing was unintentional, is when the film’s female protagonist Lisa Clark (Gwynne Gilford) walks in to see Chester being devoured by the Blob she quietly stammers out the stupidest question in the history of stupid questions, “Chester, what’s wrong?

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“I’m being eaten by the Blob, what does it look like!”

What follows is the standard “No one will believe her” shtick that was in the original movie; her boyfriend Bobby (Robert Walker Jr.) tries to be supportive but he clearly thinks she’s just being hysterical, and bowling alley/skating rink owner Edward Fazio (Richard Stahl) wants her charged with dangerous driving because she ran him off the road during her panicked fleeing from the Hargis homestead. Sheriff Jones (Richard Webb) just sends her and Bobby on their way as he more important things to deal with, like getting drunk one assumes. Beware! The Blob is a very counter culture movie as the oblivious and incompetent police force are on one side while pot smoking hippies are on the other. As many of these children of the 60s are eaten by the Blob I’m not sure just where Larry Hagman stands when it comes to authority.

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One stoner gets his hippy length head of hair shortened quite gruesomely.

We do know that Hagman had a very interesting casting process which was basically a case of him walking down to the beach from his Malibu home and asking whatever actor or actress he came across if, “They’d like to get Blobbed.” This process landed him the likes of Carol Lynley, Cindy Williams, and Burgess Meredith, and with that kind of eclectic cast it brought a level of high energy to the movie that it otherwise would not have had.

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It also gave us Gerrit Graham in an ape suit.

The movie’s structure is a bit on the rough side with random comic scenes popping up without much rhyme or reason only to be interrupted by a Blob attack; the aforementioned haircutting scene is a prime example of this as improv comedian Shelley Berman takes advantage of a stoned hippie in need of a haircut, it’s a very funny bit but it’s roots in sketch comedy are a little too blatant and out of place in a movie marketed as horror film. At one point the Blob interrupts pro-wrestler Tiger Joe Marsh during bath time leading to a fun and bizarre sequence when he is forced to run down the road naked.

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And makes us wonder if we are in a Fellini movie.

Beware! The Blob is not a particularly good movie, and it's the only film that Larry Hagman would ever direct, but neither should it be discarded as a crap sequel, and though it followed the basic story structure of the original, right up to the heroes being trapped until the accidentally uncover the Blobs weakness and freeze the creature, it’s collection of oddball characters keeps the ninety minute movie bouncing along at a nice pace. Relegated to haunting Drive-Ins and Midnight Creature Features over the years this movie has been by now forgotten by most, but I'd like to think that if remade today it would be directed by Christopher Guest and star the cast of Waiting for Guffman, so one could almost say that Beware! The Blob was just ahead of its time.

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"Beware of the blob, it creeps, and leaps and glides and slides."

Monday, October 24, 2016

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016) – Review

If you’ve heard of the historic sinking of the USS Indianapolis there’s a good chance you first learned of the event from Robert Shaw’s stirring monologue in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws; and now decades later we get another, and vastly longer, retelling of the story by director Mario Van Peebles. Why any studio thought the star of Jaws: The Revenge was suitable for such a project is beyond me.

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Tackling a true story outside of a documentary setting is always a bit of a balancing act when it comes to Hollywood’s depiction of historical events; it can either be powerful and thought provoking like Schindler’s List or mostly fabricated white-washing of the facts like in Mel Gibson's Braveheart. As both of those films earned Best Picture Oscars it’s clear that either method is quite viable.  Then you have USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, a film that depicts the greatest sea going tragedy in the history of the United States Navy but with all the nuance and deftness of a Lifetime movie of the week. One tip future filmmakers may want to consider is that when you're making a film based on such a tragic incident you may want to avoid casting Nicholas Cage. In this film he’s not as entertainingly bad as he was in The Wicker Man remake, but he’s far from the level we saw in Leaving Las Vegas.

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You’re just never sure which Nicholas Cage you’re going to get.

For those few of you not familiar with the events surrounding the sinking of the USS Indianapolis the basics of the story is that the Navy needed a fast ship to deliver key components that would make up the atomic bombs that would be dropped on the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it was a top secret mission so that when the Indianapolis was sunk shortly after delivering the bomb it was never reported missing. Some 300 of the 1,196 crewmen went down with the ship leaving the survivors to the mercy of the sea. With few life rafts, and many without life-jackets, the remainder of the crew were set adrift where over the next four days they had to survive the elements as well as shark attacks. These facts the film covers quite well, but then to fill out its bloated two hour and seven minute running time we get lots of extraneous crap we really didn’t need.

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Case in Point: One pointless love story with a dash of swing dancing.

Of course it’s important for a movie to explore the characters prior to the horrific event that will be central to the story, so that we will care more about them when the shit hits the fan, but in this case all we get is fifteen minutes of two dimensional caricatures that includes; a love triangle between two sailors and a pregnant girl, a racial fight between a white and black sailor that lands the two of them in the brig together, and finally a wheezily gambler who needs money to cover his gambling debts. None of this are particularly interesting and none of it adds anything much to the story, and certainly not helped by the community theatre level of acting…strike that, I’ve seen community theatre actors with ten times the level of talent than what is on display here. When this film isn’t trying to force a love story into a film that clearly doesn’t need one Mario Van Peebles tries to reference the biggest grossing love story/disaster movie ever made, Titanic. When the ship is struck by several torpedoes we see its stern rise high into the air before the ship eventually breaks in two, just as we saw in James Cameron’s movie but not something that actually happened to the Indianapolis. Peebles even throws in a shot of a CGI sailor falling from the stern to bounce of the guns on the way down, much as Cameron did with one of the Titanic passengers bouncing of the ship’s propeller.

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"I'm king of the world!"

The movie also throws in completely unnecessary information about the Japanese use of Kaiten, manned torpedoes that were basically aquatic versions of the Kamikaze pilots that Japan used towards the end of the war. The fact that at no point were Kaiten torpedoes used against the Indianapolis is apparently unimportant, but padding this film’s runtime is. In one of the many useless scenes we get USS Indianapolis Captain Charles B. McVay III (Nicholas Cage) explaining to his second in command that he isn’t bothering with the standard protocol of piloting the ship in a zigzag pattern because with these types of torpedoes it would be a useless gesture, and that making the best possible speed is their best course of action. This was not the case at all. In fact McVay orders were to "zigzag at his discretion, weather permitting" and at the time of the sinking he felt it was unnecessary. He was also under the impression that there was no submarine activity in the area because Naval Command failed to inform him that a ship had been sunk in the vicinity just six days prior.

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The real villain of the piece, government ass covering.

The last third of the film deals with the court-martial of Captain McVay; citing his failure to evacuate the ship in a timely fashion and endangering the crew by failing to follow the “zigzag” protocol. This was basically a kangaroo court set up to land the blame on a hapless scapegoat because the Navy screwed the pooch in so spectacular a fashion that resulted in the missing ship not being reported. Declassified records later showed that three stations received the S.O.S. distress calls from the Indianapolis, however nobody acted upon the call. One commander was drunk, another had ordered his men not to disturb him and a third thought it was a Japanese trap.

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The prosecutor even brings the commander of the Japanese sub that sank the Indianapolis to testify, but that man actually backs up McVay’s case stating that zigzagging would not have saved his ship, the Japanese sub was just too close. The film eventually ends with McVay committing suicide, a tragic end to a man and a career that deserved so much better, but the film does leave out the fact that McVay’s was re-instated, eventually achieving the rank of Rear Admiral, and that his suicide didn’t take place until 1968 after his wife had died of cancer. All understandable changes under the “dramatic license” statute, but what the film fails to do is make us really care, which is the real crime here.

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We do get Tom Sizemore overacting with his severed foot.

But what about the sharks, isn’t this movie supposed to be about man versus sharks? In this the film is pretty accurate as it depicts the fact that most of the deaths were attributed to exposure, salt poisoning and thirst, with the dead being dragged off by sharks. The amount of sailors actually eaten alive by sharks was fairly low, and this movie probably handles that aspect fairly well; now as for how the sharks look in this movie, well that’s another matter completely. Some shots of the sharks gliding effortless among the floating sailors look pretty good, but then when we do get an attack it often looks like cut scenes from the Jaws Unleashed video game.

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We’re talking Sharknado levels of bad CGI here.

Where USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage fails is in that it never really captures the scope of the tragedy; out of the 880 men who survived the sinking only 317 were rescued and at no point in this film did I ever get the feeling of that number. At most we see a couple dozen men floating around, nothing suggesting the real scale of the disaster. So between the poor characterization of the people, the level of bad to terrible acting, and the godawful CGI effects on display here, there isn’t really much to recommend. It’s not even entertainingly bad as I found myself checking my watch much too often. The drama and pathos that Robert Shaw managed to convey in few short minutes in Jaws Mario Van Peebles failed to achieve in two hours.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Thuvia, Maid of Mars: Edgar Rice Burroughs - Book Review

as160408aWinning ones true love is a difficult thing, if you find yourself in a story written by Edgar Rice Burroughs it’s about four times as hard. In the fourth of the Barsoom books Burroughs sets aside the heroic John Carter and instead we have his son Carthoris fighting across the desert lands of Mars. First published in 1916, in the pages of All-Story Weekly, Burroughs drops the first person narrative device that he utilized in the previous three books and adopts the standard third person narrative as we follow the adventures of Carthoris and the beautiful Thuvia of Ptarth.

The Warlord of Mars ended with John Carter being granted that title of Warlord by the four main ruling races of Mars, and with Dejah Thoris needing a break from being kidnapped the job of damsel in distress fell to Thuvia of Ptarth, who Carter had earlier rescued in Gods of Mars, and who by the end of the last book Carthoris had become rather enamored with. This book begins with Thuvia in the gardens of her father Thuvan Dihn, Jeddak of Ptarth, while there she is aggressively wooed by Astok, Prince of Dusar. She rebuffs his advances, but as he is your Snidely Whiplash type of suitor he doesn't take no for an answer, and when he dares to lay hands on her the shit hits the fan. Thuvia calls out for her guards but its Carthoris, the son of John Carter and Dejah Thoris, who arrives first and punches out the man who had the audacity to touch this fair princess. Later Carthoris professes his love for the princess but is shocked when she tells him that she cannot return his love for her hand has been promised by her father to Kulan Tith, Jeddak of Kaol, who is a friend of John Carter. This is your standard romantic fantasy stumbling block, with our hero having to prove to all that he is the one most worthy of her hand.

Raise your hand if you think Prince Astok is going to have her kidnapped, and then give yourself a cookie because of course he is. This general plot line has shown up in dozens of Burroughs stories; from the jungles of Tarzan to the depths Pellucidar to the distant forests of Venus, but it’s not these clich├ęd romance plots that make Burroughs the king of the genre it’s the worlds and the creations that populate them that bring readers back for more and more adventures. The Barsoom series stands head and shoulders above all others for its massive tapestry of races, creatures and startling inventions, and Thuvia, Maid of Mars is no exception. We learn that Carthoris had been visiting Ptarth to demonstrate one of the Barsoomian anti-gravity fliers that he had equipped with an auto-pilot of his own invention. With this new device the pilot can just plug in his destination, go and take a nap below, and the ship would fly and land safely without anyone at the helm. It even has anti-collision capabilities that will steer it around oncoming or pursuing aircraft. What’s really impressive is that Burroughs came up with these idea decades before they would find themselves aboard actual aircraft here on Earth.

Unfortunately when he explains that its system is tamperproof because of a unique key, which is required to access the navigation system, he is explaining it to a spy working for Prince Astok. The spy is able to make a copy of the key allowing the villains to rig Carthoris’s ship to fly out into the middle of the desert near the ruins of ancient Aanthor. When he awakes to find himself in such a strange location he doesn’t have much time to ponder what went wrong as he quickly spots Thuvia being carried away by a Green Martian. This wrinkle came to pass because Prince Astok planned to frame Carthoris for Thuvia’s kidnapping and had Thuvia brought to this location only to have his men set upon by a horde of Green Martians. The Kidnappers fail to stop the Green Martian and then they fail to stop Carthoris running off after her. Prince Astok had a bad plan and he should feel bad.

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Of course Carthoris will eventually catch up with Thuvia’s latest abductor, and when he spots her in the clutches of Hortan Gur, Jeddak of Torquas, a particularly large and rather nasty horde of Green Martians, he decides rushing into to attempt a rescue would be suicide, and no help to Thuvia in the long run. Then he sees Hortan Gur strike Thuvia across the face and no son of John Carter could let that stand, so the young man charges across the desert to rest her from the vile Jeddak’s clutches. Lucky for him this particular horde of Green Martians was on one of their routine siege/attacks of the ancient walled city of Lothar located in a lost valley, and before Carthoris can be cut down by their superior numbers a massive army of bowmen storm out of the walled city. The residents of Lothar are fair-skinned humanoid race, but unlike the white Therns the Lotharians sport hair, and they also have a very unique gift, and is what makes this book really stand out. After the Green Martian Horde is driven away a much surprised Carthoris and Thuvia, who were sure they going to die caught between these two forces, enter this mysterious city and its there that they learn that the residents have the ability to create lifelike phantasms from pure thought, and that the army of bowmen they saw were mere creations of Lotharian’s imagination. The mounds of dead Green Martians attest to the lethality of these “phantoms” that can be felt, as well as kill.  That is for as long as the opponent believes them to be real.

If any of you have seen the 1970 Beneath the Planet of the Apes you will remember that James Franciscus and Linda Harrison found themselves in the clutches of a group of mutants who lived in the underground ruins of old Earth, and that they used their mental projections and mind controlling ability to keep others out of the Forbidden Zone. If the writers of that movie had read Thuvia, Maid of Mars I would not be the least surprised. But that isn’t even the most interesting thing about the Lotharians, there are two factions with different beliefs on how their powers work; one of them believing that eventually if you create something enough times it will eventually exist on its own, while the other faction thinks that idea is insane. Unsurprising the insane group turn out to be right for at one point Carthoris runs into Kar Komak, a bowman who was part of the "imagined" army that chased off the Green Martians, but when his brethren vanished he found himself still existing, if a little naked and unarmed. He of course teams up with Carthoris to help rescue Thuvia from whom ever had kidnapped her last. Kar Komak even discovers he has the same power to create deadly armies with his mind, which really comes in handy. I really hope this guy appears in further adventures.

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I shouldn’t be too rough on Thuvia, though she does suffer from the same kind of kidnapping problems that plagued poor Dejah Thoris, because she has one very unique ability of her own that makes her stand out. Back in The Gods of Mars we learned that for some unknown reason she can control the banths, the great cats of Mars, and when her and Carthoris are tossed into a pit to be eaten by the god the people of Lothar worship she is pleasantly surprised to find out this particular god is just a very, very large banth. Having a monstrous cat as an ally certainly makes her a little less of a damsel in distress, well for as long as the big cat is around that is.

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"Bad kitty, stop hogging all the glory!"

Thuvia, Maid of Mars may not have the most riveting story structure, and the villainous kidnapping plot against Thuvia makes little to no sense and goes nowhere, but the third act pit-stop in a city where they meet people who can mentally create anything they can think of, even to point of being able to survive on food that they mentally generate because the illusion is so good it fools the body, is just delightfully cool. Though the ridiculousness of that lends credence to the belief of one of the Lotharians in that maybe they are all just illusions, and that the last resident of Lothar had died years ago. I would have gleefully read a whole book based on these bizarre people and it's certainly well worth the time to read.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968) – Review

When one thinks of pirates today the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movies readily leap to mind, and that swashbuckling viewpoint on piracy is certainly nothing new; from Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow Hollywood has glamorized the pirate life, and today we will look back at a film that took light-hearted pirate antics to a whole new level with Disney’s Blackbeard’s Ghost.

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Edward Teach aka Blackbeard was a notorious pirate who struck terror into the hearts of many a sailor, and he certainly sent more than his fair share of them to Davy Jones’s locker, but he was not the most blood thirsty of pirates, he was actually known for not harming hostages, it was his combat visage of a black beard braided with lit cannon fuses that surely made some men think of a career change the moment they spotted his ship Queen Anne's Revenge.  So basically not a character one would expect to see in a family friendly Disney movie. In 1965 American artist, illustrator and author Ben Stahl penned the novel Blackbeard’s Ghost which dealt with two young boys who accidentally conjure up the ghost of Blackbeard.  If I had a dollar for every time that happened to me...

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In Stahl’s book Blackbeard was killed after failing to go legit, he got a pardon from the local Governor by offering to collect tolls from any ship trying to make port but when his toll collecting turned into basic pirating, and after much of his loot went into building his own tavern he named Boar's Head Inn, he was cut down in a massive battle with the navy. The Governor awarded the tavern to the man responsible for Blackbeard’s defeat and it was passed down through the family over the years until it was about to be torn down to make way for a new gas station. Two friends sneak into the ruins of Boar’s Head Inn and find a secret room that contains a spell book that unleashes the spirit of Blackbeard on the sleepy town of Godolphin. The boys didn’t use quite the right ingredients when they performed the spell and thus only they can see the ghost. The boys split their time hiding from the terrifying specter and trying to stop him from murdering the descendants of Blackbeard's enemies. None of this is in the Disney movie. The book reads like a Hardy Boys ghost story, with some nice historical context, while the movie it is “based” on is more of a series of wacky antics with the name Blackbeard attached.

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Enter the ever affable Dean Jones.

Actor Dean Jones became a Disney staple with such classic films as That Darn Cat and The Love Bug and his appearance as the hero of Blackbeard’s Ghost is another of his roles where he plays that reasonable man caught up in some very unreasonable events. The movie follows Steve Walker (Dean Jones) as he arrives in the seaside town of Goldolphin to take up the position of track coach for the college’s incredible inept track team; he meets the lovely Godolphin professor Jo Anne Baker (Suzanne Pleshette), who is manning the kissing both for a charity bazar to raise money to save Blackbeard’s Inn, and he ends up winning at auction an antique bed warmer that has the spell to resurrect Blackbeard hidden in its handle.

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I wonder what kind of rent they charge for staying in a matte painting.

We learn that Blackbeard’s then wife Aldetha was a witch, and for his philandering she cursed him to an existence in limbo unless he can perform a good deed. This is very different from the book where Aldetha Stowecroft was a local witch but she was not Blackbeard’s wife; she was befriended Blackbeard and his pirate crew while everyone else in the town shunned her. She ran the inn and her spell was not with evil intent but with the hope that someday he would return. So here we have Disney defaming witches again, it will be years before Disney tries to show them in a good light in such films like Maleficent. So the movie has your standard evil witch but then it also has your avuncular fun pirate in the form of Peter Ustinov’s Blackbeard.

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“I’m the fun loving drunk pirate, not the murdering looting kind.”

What’s interesting is that Steve learned from the legend that Blackbeard (Peter Ustinov) had his wife burned at the stake but Blackbeard denies it, “I never put a taper to her, never! On a dull day I may have keelhauled a wife or two or else walked one of the edge of plank, but I never did it for spite. I might have done out of jest, to keep the spirit of my shipmates up.” Only someone with the acting caliber of Peter Ustinov could spout off such things and still manage to come across as goofily charming, and Dean Jones makes a great straight man. So the basic structure of the movie is that of a buddy comedy with Blackbeard trying to perform a good deed so as to escape limbo while Steve tries to get his track team ready for the big meet. It’s no surprise that the two goals will collide.

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Blackbeard is full of team spirit.

The movie’s plot does have two conflicts; first is the fact that Steve doesn’t want Blackbeard’s help as that would be cheating, and secondly is the Daughters of the Buccaneers, elderly descendants of the pirate's crew led by the great Elsa Lanchester, are trying to raise enough money to pay off the Inn’s mortgage and prevent local crime boss, Silky Seymour (Joby Baker), from building a casino where Blackbeard's Inn stands. These plot threads meet when Blackbeard secretly takes the money earned at the charity auction and places it on bet for the Godolphin track team to win the meet. Steve at first tries to prevent Blackbeard from “assisting” the team but his ethics get sidelined when he realizes that a “greater good” is at stake here. They win the meet, much to a surprised crowd, but Silky isn’t too keen to pay up on the wager.

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Goodfellas meets Disney’s Central Casting Department.

Blackbeard’s Ghost is your standard Disney family fare with a wonderful collection of talented character actors in service of script that if a little silly is at least a lot of fun. Much of the entertainment hinges on the chemistry between Dean Jones and Peter Ustinov and they do work of each other beautifully, and the love interest between Jones and Suzanne Pleshette is treated more as an annoyance to the plot than as something anybody really cares about.

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Steve Walker has the standard boorish rival for the pretty professor's heart.

We get great comic moments with Blackbeard trying to drive a car and gleefully interfering in the track meet, and Dean Jones makes for a perfect foil to such antics. There is nothing ground breaking in this movie, but that isn’t surprising because at the time Disney Studios had a formula for their live action comedies that they rarely strayed from. This is a movie I can easily recommend for people of all ages, though the special effects may be considered rather quaint by modern standards, and I do hope that someday Hollywood decides to remake this one and base it closer to the source material. With the popularity of films like Super 8 and the Netflix series Stranger Things a new Blackbeard’s Ghost adaptation, with kids in the starring roles, could do rather well.

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And they lived Happily Ever After.

Monday, October 17, 2016

PlayStation VR: Enter a New World of Console Gaming

With the PlayStation VR Sony has entered the ring of virtual reality, something we’ve only had access to in PC gaming with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, but with this new system from Sony we get a slightly more affordable unit, and if not as sharp and immersive as its PC rivals it’s damn close. So if you don’t want to spend a fortune updating your computer to handle the gaming requirements needed for either the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive the PlayStation VR is by far the cheapest option for good quality VR with motion control.

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When one unpacks the PlayStation VR system you have to be ready for a bit of a set-up time; the system hooks up with no less than six cables, one of which takes up one of the two usb ports in the front of your PlayStation, which is a bit annoying but I'll get into that later, and then you have your camera to place either above or below your television set, and the whole thing should take about a half hour tops to get up and running. Tidying up and cable management is another story; if you don't want entertainment unit to look like a rats nest it may take longer.  The PlayStation VR headset screen has a 1920x1080 image, which is split down the middle to display a different point of view for each eye, making reading text quite easy. This may not be as sharp as either Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive but while in game play I found the PlayStation VR picture more than adequate. What PlayStation VR offers that neither Rift nor Vive can is the ability to render games at 120Hz as well as 90Hz which allows for a much smoother virtual reality gaming experience.

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One of the nicest things about the PlayStation VR is the comfort factor; though heavier than its brethren the weight is balanced perfectly across your head so you don’t feel as if the headset is crushing against your face, and the only negative thing I can come up with about wearing this headset is that after a couple of hours of intense gameplay things get a bit sweaty. Now this could affect those gamers who tend play for six to eight stretches, but I doubt many people will try to pull off that amount of time in VR. I myself took several breaks during the day and thus suffered no eyestrain, headaches or derealization (the latter being the effect of the real world seeming unreal after long periods of being in VR), and thus a sweaty forehead was my only unfortunate side effect of my days of gaming.

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Well, a sweaty forehead and heart palpitations.

As for the gaming experience itself I was completely blown away; the headset fits quite snugly to your face to prevent most light leaking in and what little light that does get in from below can be minimized by gaming in a darkened room, but if the game is good enough, such as Batman: Arkham or Until Dawn: Rush of Blood was, you will probably even forget you are wearing a headset after a while. What you don’t want to forget is your actual surroundings; most of the games that were released at launch have you in a seated position, so the dangers of you punching a wall is limited (I did bash my knuckles against my end table once), but there are games where you do stand up and move around, thus it is very important that you have a clear playing area. With the headset on you are “virtually” blind to the real world so make sure there is no danger of pets or small children wandering in while you are playing.

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Suiting up as Batman will not protect you from falling over the coffee table.

I have a rather small gaming area, had to actually move my couch to the side to get back far enough to play Batman: Arkham, but with the ease of camera adjustment, and a little furniture rearranging, I was up and gaming with little to no problem. What is needed to play is a PlayStation Camera, the PlayStation VR system, and the PlayStation game controller, and though many of the games say that the PlayStation Move motion controllers are optional if you want a truly good gaming experience they are not.

Note: The PlayStation VR Launch Bundle includes the camera (which is required) and two Move motion controllers, and I'm actually looking forward to picking up the gun that is to be released next year, but speaking of accessories as I mentioned earlier one of the USB front ports is taken up by the processing unit which means you only have one port remaining to charge, and thus having a dedicated charging station becomes a must.

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I’ve only tried a handful of games but so far my reactions range from “Wow, that was really cool,” to “Oh my god, that was the most amazing thing ever!” I actually got to be Batman, and for me there isn’t much greater joy than that. The biggest thing I took away from the VR experience is the sense of scale; when a London gangster is threatening you with a blowtorch in VR Worlds "The Heist" you are sitting there with this thug literally looming over you, and riding down the elevator into the massive expanse of the Batcave was mind-blowing (it even had the Giant Penny and the Dinosaur statue), and when a ghost pops up in your face you will scream in fright; during my playtime with Until Dawn: Rush of Blood I screamed so much my family upstairs wondered what the hell I was up to.

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Horror games will be key to the success of virtual reality gaming.

So whether you want to solve a murder as Batman, battle one another in robot mech-suits, explore outer space in a variety of ships, or simply plunge into the depths of ocean to face killer sharks, the PlayStation VR will give you a gaming experience like no other. Now virtual reality gaming will never replace traditional gaming but what it does offer is an immersive experience that brings you not just closer to the action but in amongst it, and with a slew of great looking games in the wings I for one am excited with the direction console gaming is going.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Warlord of Mars: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

Warlord_of_Mars-1919To paraphrase Mario Bros “Thank you John Carter! But our Princess is in another castle!” That line pretty much sums up the plot for this final installment in the opening trilogy of the Barsoom series. Our hero runs from one pole of Mars to the next trying to recover his stolen princess, all while carving a path of death and destruction before him, but with his princess constantly just out of his reach. First published in All-Story Magazine as a four-part serial between December 1913 and March 1914 The Warlord of Mars does wrap everything up rather nicely, it just seemed to take forever to get there.

When we had last left John Carter he had overthrown Black Pirates of Barsoom (aka The First Born), who live beneath the Omean Sea, placed his new friend Xodar to the throne as the new Jeddak of the Black Martians, but after exposing their goddess Issus as the vile pretender she was you’d think it would all be smooth sailing, you’d of course be wrong. Prior to Carter tossing Issus to her people, where she was to be torn asunder by the angry mob, she had ordered Dejah Thoris, Thuvia of Ptarth, and the Thern princess Phaidor to be locked in the Temple of the Sun, a room that rotates so slowly that the entrance is only accessible once a year. Worse is the fact that just as the door rotated away John Carter saw the jealous Phaidor lunge at Dejah Thoris with a dagger. Would John Carter have to wait a whole year to find out if his beloved was alive or dead?

While waiting for the door to become accessible again the throne of Helium is offered to Carter, he refuses it because the throne belongs to Tardos Mors, who along with his son Mors Kajak (father of Dejah Thoris) went missing while looking for Carthoris, who if you remember went missing while looking for his mother Dejah Thoris. I’m not saying the powers that be who rule Helium are irresponsible idiots, but they do spent much of their time getting lost or kidnapped. So John Carter sits his son on the throne as temporary Jeddak until his great grandfather can be found, he then returns to Kamtol, the capital city of the First Born, to await the day that will release his wife from the Temple of the Sun. While kicking back and waiting he spots suspicious activity from a First Born named Thurid, the man leaves the city in the middle of the night, not something any honest sane person would do, and because this a man that Carter had previously disgraced he decides to follow him.  After a long trek through underground passageways he discovers the man is meeting Matai Shang, the Holy Thern whose religion Carter had exposed as well. Carter overhears Thurid explain to Matai Shang that there is a secret entrance into the Temple of the Sun, and that they can rescue Princess Phaidor, who is Matai Shang’s daughter, and also get their hands on Dejah Thoris, their enemy’s one true love.

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Thus begins a long series of events that will constantly put Dejah Thoris just out of John Carter’s reach. The minute our hero thinks he will be reunited with his beloved princess defeat will be snatched from the jaws of victory, over and over again. Cater and his ever faithful hound Woola will track them into Matai Shang’s temple, which will quickly be revealed to be a trap, they will escape and Carter will perform several acts of daring do, but alas he will always be delayed enough to let the villains escape with his bride.

Matai Shang, Thurid and Phaidor will then escape with Dejah Thoris and Thuvia as their prisoners, with John Cater again hot on their heels in a stolen flyer, which will then get shot down into the jungles of the equatorial Land of Kaol. The Jeddak of this land is one Kulan Tith who still follows the old religion propagated by the Therns, but when Matai Shang seeks asylum here he keeps the fact that he has in possession two stolen princesses, and that they are being pursued by a man who has killed thousands for far less valid reasons then stealing his wife. When John Carter arrives, after disguising himself as a blonde Thern, he saves a group of visiting dignitaries from an ambush (saving random people that will turn out to monumentally helpful is kind of his thing), but John Carter has a bit of trouble understanding how disguises work. When Carter is presented to Kulan Tith, and his heroic deeds are described, it doesn’t take Thurid or Matai Shang long to figure out that a Thern who can leap hundreds of yards through the air to lop the heads off his enemies is probably not a Thern. Twice in this book he has a disguise pierced by his trademarked skills that are known across the planet.

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So Carter is unmasked but before his death sentence for heresy can be carried out Thuvan Dihn of Ptarth, who is Thuvia's father and was leading the group that Carter saved, stands up for Carter because he had learned of this Earth man’s heroic deed in saving his daughter’s life. When Carter informs him that Matai Shang is holding both Dejah Thoris and Thuvia prisoner Thuvan Dihn demands there release. Matai Shang of course denies the charges, but Kulan Tith promises their release if it is true. Because it is late Matai Shang does not want to wake up his daughter so he promises to hand over the girls in the morning. Everyone agrees to this. WTF? Why would Cater agree to wait one single second more to free his wife from the clutches of a mortal enemy? Well if he demanded her immediate release the book would be over, and that pretty much sums up the weakness of this novel. The drama surrounding this action packed adventure is contrived beyond belief.

And come morning it is of course discovered that Matai Shang and Thurid had snuck away with the girls in the middle of the night. Gullible thy name is John Carter. We are then treated to Carter and Thuvan Dihn racing off in pursuit where they will eventually cross the icy lands of the north and into the realms of the Yellow Martians, a race that was once a dominant species on the planet but who were chased into the icy wilds by the Green Martians. The Yellow Martians eventually reached the Carrion Caves located in the walls of an icy mountain range, defeated the Green Martians and left the millions of rotting corpses in the cave entrance to what would be their new home. These yellow skinned and black bearded residents of realm of Okar live in hothouse cities that are protected by invaders by a massive pillar that works as a giant magnet that draws any ship within reach to its doom. After a ship has been smashed against this massive device the survivors are quickly enslaved.

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Note: John Carter continues to fail at understanding how disguises work as at one point while made up with yellow make-up and a fake beard he spots Dejah Thoris in a garden below where he is locked up. He makes the sign of love to her and his heart is crushed when she snubs him. It takes him forever to realize she turned her back on him because to her it looked like just another lecherous Yellow Martian hitting on her. John Carter may be the greatest warrior on two worlds but he’s not always the brightest.

Will John Cater and Thuvan Dihn finally be able to rescue Dejah Thoris and the beautiful maiden Thuvia? And what of Tardos Mors and Mors Kajak who have been missing for almost two full books now? Can our heroes survive the slavering jaws of the Martian Apts, the six limbed beasts that prowl the arctic wastes? Where is ever faithful Woola and what of Tars Tarkas and Cathoris? Can they launch a rescue in time, and if they do will the Helium fleet be dashed pieces by the giant magnet? All these question and more are answered in the action packed pages of The Warlord of Mars.

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Note: As the book is written in first person one may find John Carter’s constant descriptions of his own amazing fighting skills to be a bit immodest, but there is one passage that kind of explains his attitude, “If sometimes I take too great pride in my fighting ability, it must be remembered that fighting is my vocation. If your vocation be shoeing horses, or painting pictures, and you can do one or the other better than your fellows, than you are a fool if you are not proud of your ability. And so I am very proud that on two planets no greater fighter has ever lived than John Carter, Prince of Helium.”  Who can argue with that?


Though this book does adequately close the trilogy the repetitive nature of the narrative is a bit tiring, and all the awesome action in the world can’t hide the fact that the basic story boils down to, “Women, what a headache, am I right fellas?” Dejah Thoris is depicted as a woman with spirit, and her love for John Carter is beyond question, but mostly it’s her unparalleled beauty that is her most dominant characteristic in these books as it’s the cause of her constant kidnapping, and the only reason she isn’t constantly being sexually assaulted by her captors every minute of the day is because they’re all too busy fighting amongst themselves about who gets her. That all said there is still a lot of fun to be had with this book, John Carter is still the charismatic action here we’ve grown to love, it’s just that the previous book was so damn good almost anything was bound to be a let done, and sadly this book is definitely that.