Ah, the excitement in the theater is palpable as we near the end of our journey and today’s eleventh chapter in The Adventures of Captain Marvel, “Valley of Death,” begins to flicker across the screen. Because the seats are largely filled with sweaty elementary school children, something else is palpable too — whew! Baths and showers are definitely called for when you get home, kids…
Today’s title cards summarizing Chapter Ten will, as always, enlighten the enlightenable and confuse the confusable. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.) “Malcolm — Is shipwrecked on a reef off the coast of Siam.” “Captain Marvel — Rescues Malcolm’s party and the crew from the S.S. Carfax.” “Betty — Is left aboard ship by the Scorpion.” Now it’s time for the word we’ve come to know so well, though I’m sure only a few of you remember exactly what the letters mean. Me? Of course I know… but, uh, we’ve no time to waste with trivia… Shazam!
A flashback to the previous cliffhanger puts us with Billy and the unconscious Betty on board the sinking Carfax (and if the title card says it’s the Carfax, that’s good enough for me). As the ship goes down and water pours into Betty’s cabin, Billy gets himself and Betty off the doomed vessel (a judicious cut ensures that we don’t quite see how) and manages to swim to shore with the buoyant secretary in tow. It’s a good thing he decided to skip band camp last summer and take those swimming lessons at the YMCA.
Once on dry ground, Betty relates how an unknown assailant struck her from behind. “Why would anyone want to kill you?” Billy asks. “He must have been after my section of the map; he took my handbag,” Betty replies. Everyone seems satisfied with this explanation. This is 1941 and it won’t do to entertain the idea that the Scorpion just wanted the purse. But what of the map? It wasn’t in the bag — “It’s in a waterproof envelope pinned inside my jacket.” At this news Bentley looks like a kid who wanted the big new Hot Wheels set for Christmas and instead got one of those last-resort toys that isn’t even really a toy, like a grip-strengthener.
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I’ve mentioned before that the Fantasia Festival has, logically enough, programmed what look to be their most popular movies in the big Hall Theatre. That often means unabashed genre movies — movies that aim at telling a certain kind of story a certain kind of way. A genre’s a set of conventions, and a storyteller can play against those conventions or use them to get at whatever they want, as they see fit. And, especially as genres become better-known by audiences, there’s a natural inclination to mix conventions, to set genre against genre within a single story. The trick, of course, is that whichever angle you take you should try to do it well.
Last week from Monday (the 21st) through Wednesday I saw three genre movies at the Hall: Cold in July, directed by Jim Mickle from a prose story by Joe R. Lansdale; The Fatal Encounter (originally Yeok-rin), a dark, violent period piece from Korean director Lee Jae-kyoo; and The Huntresses (originally Joseonminyeo Samchongsa), a much brighter period piece from Park Jae-hyun. They all aimed at a certain target, and to various degrees hit what they were aiming at. They were all working in different genres, producing different effects. But they were all intensely conscious of how genre worked.
Monday was Cold in July, scripted by Mickle and Nick Damici from Lansdale’s 1989 novella. I haven’t read it, so I can’t speak to the faithfulness of the adaptation; but the story on screen did some interesting things, starting out as a certain kind of thriller, then changing tones, then changing tone again. It begins with a man in a small town in Texas in the late 1980s, a picture-framer named Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), who surprises an intruder in his home and accidentally shoots him dead. This leads to the dead man’s ex-con father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) swearing revenge. But then Dane makes a discovery that throws into question what he thinks happened, and suggests that the authorities are lying to him and Russell. A private investigator (and pig farmer) named Jim Bob Luke (played with tremendous humour by Don Johnson) enters the picture. The plot thickens. Ultimately things resolve in a violent third act mission.
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If you saw the 1963 version of Jason and the Argonauts, you probably remember this scene. It’s classic Harryhausen: stop-animation work that was looks cartoonish now but was state-of-the-art at the time.
Like some of the other episodes in this movie (Skeleton battle!) you may have thought that this was all Hollywood. But Talos, the gigantic bronze guardian of Crete, was described in the Argonautica as well. Apollonius tells his readers that Talos was the last of the race of Bronze (mythical predecessors of modern humans), and that Zeus had set him to guarding Crete as a favor to his lover Europa. Since he was made entirely of metal he was completely invulnerable, except for one spot on his heel where a thin membrane of skin covered his vein.
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Last Sunday, June 20, I saw four movies. I’ve already written about one of them, Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, which deserved its own post. But that’s not to say that all the other films I saw that day were poor. It was in fact an odd mix; out of the three other films I saw, I’m quite glad to have seen two of them, while the third at least had points of interest.
Things began with Takashi Murakami’s children’s fantasy Jellyfish Eyes (Mememe no Kuragi in the original Japanese), which was followed by The Zero Theorem, both at the Hall Theatre. Then I went across the street to the De Sève to watch an utterly fascinating silent film from 1914, Edward Curtis’ In the Land of the Head Hunters, which mixed an early attempt at anthropological documentary into a fantasy adventure. My day concluded with Dan Bush’s intelligent low-budget sf film The Reconstruction of William Zero. Put them all together, and it made for a memorable cinematic experience.
That said, Jellyfish Eyes was something of a disappointment. Murakami’s an internationally-renowned artist, known in particular for creating or identifying the ‘superflat’ style of art — the word’s meant to refer not only to Murakami’s own style, but to the Japanese artistic tradition in general. Which emphatically includes popular art. Anime and manga artists have been exhibited in ‘superflat’ gallery shows, and Murakami’s own art has been said to be inspired by anime. The impression I get from what I’ve read is that it’s almost a take on the idea of pop art, combining Japanese popular culture with certain aspects of graphic design as a way of critiquing consumerism. So all in all it’s perhaps not entirely suprising that Murakami’s first film was an anime-inflected mash-up of Pokémon, kaiju, even a bit of Spielberg; nor surprising that its potential is largely nullified by a bluntness of approach.
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Last week, I made the prediction that Han Solo will die in the new Star Wars film. I have no evidence; it’s just a theory based on a confluence of random speculations and gut instinct. Here I’ll lay out, in no particular order, some of the thoughts that led me to posit this guess.
My premise begins with the knowledge that Han apparently plays a fairly major role in the plot, given that Harrison Ford’s recent injury shut down the entire production schedule for two weeks (an indication that his is much more than just a “cameo,” which easily could have been filmed around, with some scenes rescheduled for later in the shoot).
Some critics decried the rescue of Han from Jabba in the first act of Return of the Jedi as a cop-out, contending that his death would have provided a dramatic catalyst for the other characters. Of course, Lucas wasn’t going to go there (he’s George Lucas, not Joss Whedon); even Han’s blindness following his release from carbonite was temporary. Such characters in traditional heroes’ tales often suffer a permanent physical loss, such as blindness, that is compensated for by new wisdom or insight. Han’s blindness wore off pretty fast, and by the end of the movie he was back to being good ol’ Han Solo, the wise-cracking pirate with a heart of gold. So maybe J.J. Abrams and company will want to make a big end for the character this time out.
For all we know, Harrison Ford — who just turned 72 this month — stipulated that while he’d gladly reprise the role that made him famous, it would be just this once, and that he didn’t want to be running around playing a space pirate at 75. Even if he made no such stipulation, the age of the actor is a big factor. Which leads me to…
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As a screen presence, Sherlock Holmes was essentially a dormant property from the nineties until 2009. Sherlock Holmes and the Vengeance of Dracula was a hot script in 1999, with Christopher Columbus set to direct. But screenwriter Michael Valle died unexpectedly and Columbus went on to make some movies with a bunch of kid wizards in a pig school or something like that.
In 2009, Robert Downey Jr. breathed new life into the great detective in the global smash, Sherlock Holmes (worldwide gross: over a half a billion dollars! The sequel did even better).
Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat, writers on the successful Doctor Who series, decided to bring Holmes back to television, but with a twist: the setting would be modern day London. It was a HUGE success, artistically and commercially.
With references to the original stories by Doyle all over the place, including updatings of the original tales (the pilot, A Study in Pink, was a retelling of the first story, A Study in Scarlet), it was a fresh take on an old subject. And with Benedict Cumberbatch playing an obnoxious, young Holmes and likeable everyman Martin Freeman as his trusty sidekick, Watson, the three-episode series was a hit in the UK, America, and all over the world.
Season two was just as good, updating The Hound of the Baskervilles and turning The Woman, Irene Adler, into a dominatrix. Personally, after season two ended, Sherlock was one of my top five all-time favorite shows and even in a battle with Justified for the top spot.
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Graham Greene once said that the books that influence us the most are not the ones that we “seriously” or systematically read in adulthood, but are rather those first books we seek out in our youth and that we read for the simple love of reading.
He wrote, “In later life, we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already.” But when we are children, “all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune-teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future.” This has been true of my own reading, and I would also assert that for those who love film, it equally applies to the movies that they watched early in their lives.
Movie buffs come in countless varieties; there’s a great variation in their degrees of passion and in the objects of their devotion. Some bring offerings of ice to the shrine of a Kubrick or an Antionioni, and others make blood sacrifices on the altar of a Scorsese or a Peckinpah. Some soar with Hawks while others go to Welles for their refreshment. One group bows silently before Buster Keaton and the next sings songs of praise to Judy Garland.
Now, I am a movie buff and I have been given tremendous pleasure by the artists I just mentioned and by many others. I love Lubistch, would stay up late for Sturges, have been beguiled by Bunel, am wild for Wilder… but none of these immortals occupy the place closest to my heart.
Get me away from the art house, put away the beautifully illustrated coffee table book on the Masterpieces of Swedish Cinema, send home the educated — but dull — guest whose favorite Woody Allen film is Interiors (please!) or who saw The English Patient three times, and leave me alone in my sanctuary — my darkened living room at 2:00 am, lit only by the restless images that pass across the television screen, images selected for no one’s pleasure but my own, and the truth will at last emerge. I am a Cormanite.
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Over at Tor.com, occasional Black Gate blogger Alex Bledsoe has written a Love Letter to Carl Kolchak. As brilliantly portrayed by Darren McGavin in a single season of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), Carl Kolchak was one of the greatest supernatural sleuths of all time — and a personal hero of mine when I was 10 years old. (And for much of my 30s and 40s, now that think about it.)
So get your eyes off him, Alex. He’s all mine.
I already had vague notions of writing my own stories, but as a lonely geek in small-town Tennessee, being a writer seemed about as likely as getting a date.
But when I saw Kolchak, everything changed. So what if girls ignored me? I could ignore them just like Carl did. What did it matter if there was nothing in my small town to make me look forward to the future? The Truth, long before the X-Files, was out there somewhere, in a big city like Chicago where monsters could lurk with impunity. All I needed were a few pieces of gear, like a portable cassette recorder (these were cutting edge at the time), a 110 camera … and that most glorious of inventions, the typewriter, featured in the show’s credits.
Alex Bledsoe is the author of five Eddie LaCrosse novels (including The Sword-Edged Blonde, and the latest, He Drank, and Saw the Spider), Blood Groove, The Girls with Games of Blood, and the Tufa novels, The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing. His last article for us was Pacific Rim and the Culture of Rip-Off Vs. Homage.
Read the complete article here.
Before continuing my Fantasia diary with a look at the movies I saw last Sunday, I want to focus in on one specific film that struck me as an utterly brilliant piece of science-fiction satire. I think it divided the audience; I’ve heard and seen reactions from people who were left cold by it as well as from people who loved it as much as I did. Perhaps that’s not surprising. The movie is The Zero Theorem, directed by Terry Gilliam from a script by Pat Rushin, and it is as idiosyncratic and persistently individual as you’d expect from Gilliam.
Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is an eccentric solitary in a hyperconnected future. He works for a corporation, Mancom, plugging numbers together — which he does by manipulating blocks on a screen with a joystick, effectively playing video games. A chance encounter with Management (Matt Damon) allows him to work from home, a deserted church, trying to put together the zero theorem, a mathematical proof of the pointlessness of life — which Management believes can be leveraged to make money. Qohen’s pleased, since what he wants more than anything else in life is a phone call he believes will come out of the blue and grant him enlightenment, and now he can sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. But his solitude’s plagued by outsiders, including the seductive Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), and Management’s son Bob (Lucas Hedges), an even sharper computer whiz than Qohen.
The Zero Theorem is visually startling, steampunk gone day-glo. It’s a perceptive, idiosyncratic take on the Wired World Of Today, here depicted as Brave New World gone berserk. In fact, Gilliam considers this movie part of his ‘Orwellian trilogy,’ along with Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, but it certainly feels more like Huxley. It depicts a world commercialised and infantilised, where ads for the Church of Batman the Redeemer float above the street. It’s a sharp criticism of easy escapism, but seems to question as well where contrasting meaning is to be found, whether religious transcendence is valid or whether belief is just another form of escape. The movie’s more interested in questions than answers, even questioning itself and its own metaphors on occasion. Days later, I’m still thinking about it, arguing with it, astounded by it.
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To my mind, if you’re a critic of any integrity, sooner or later the criticism you write will lead you to challenge your views of yourself as well as your views of the art you experience. That’s the nature of much truly effective art: it makes you look at yourself and think about yourself in new ways. If you’re trying to articulate your reaction and assessment of such a work, honesty will compel some self-examination as well. Powerful art requires an acknowledgement of one’s subjective response.
I mention this because the films I saw at the Fantasia festival last Saturday evening both did this in different and complementary ways, leading me to similar conclusions. The first was a South Korean movie called Han Gong-ju, written and directed by Lee Su-Jin. The second was Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, directed by Josephine Decker from a script she co-wrote with David Barker; Decker’s earlier short feature Butter on the Latch screened afterwards.
The eponymous lead of Han Gong-ju is a Korean schoolgirl who, as the movie opens, is being transferred from her old high school to another school in a different city. Why? We don’t know; but it’s clear that something grave has happened. The mother of one of her teachers takes Gong-ju in, and the movie alternates between showing Gong-ju’s new life and flashing back to slowly answer the question of what caused this sudden and massive change.
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