Maleficent Fails in an Unexpected Way

Saturday, May 31st, 2014 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

maleficent posterMaleficent (2014)
Directed by Robert Stromberg. Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Ella Purnell.

Sometimes, we need the fictional villains in our life to just stay evil. Forget sympathy for the Devil: I don’t want sympathy for the Red Skull, the T-1000, Michael Myers, the Joker, Auric Goldfinger, the Dark Lord Sauron, or King Ghidorah.

I especially don’t want sympathy for the Mistress of All Evil, Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. So few movie characters so relish evil for evil’s sake like she does. And Maleficent executes this vileness with such stylish vigor!

Maleficent is the unofficial ruler of Disney’s dark parallel to their Princess line, the Disney Villains. And hoo-boy, does Maleficent do a great job at the top of the wicked food chain. This is a creature so evil that getting a birthday party snub hurls her into a generational revenge plot that consumes a kingdom and all her free time. Her design (courtesy of legendary Disney artist Marc Davis) and voice (Eleanor Audley) emphasize the beautiful allure of evil to make the Middle Ages proud. As bonuses, she has a crafty raven sidekick and can transform through a mushroom cloud explosion into a black and purple dragon that blasts green flames. Give the dark lady a hand!

So what worse way to foul up Maleficent than to try to explain in a feature length film how she got so evil?

Amazingly, Disney found a worse way.

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Godzilla (2014) Is a True Godzilla Film and a Unique Blockbuster

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

IMAX-poster-for-Godzilla-smallNew to Godzilla? Read my 5-part history series.

To all of those who saw the new Godzilla this last weekend who have never before fully understood the obsession fans have for this monster … now you will get it. Welcome to our weird world!

Godzilla isn’t just a massive monster that stomps stuff, confronts the military, and grapples with other monsters. Any giant beast can do that without much thought put into it. Godzilla is a character and a legacy. Even when playing the straight-up villain in films like 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, the Big G is beyond larger than life and something you cannot help but gape at in awe and then salute. What a piece of work is a giant radioactive reptile! In apprehension how like a god(zilla)!

Director Gareth Edwards’s 2014 take on Godzilla, only the second film from a U.S. studio featuring the monster (or, if you ask most fans, the first), is a genuine Godzilla movie. Edwards’s creature isn’t the greatest incarnation to grace the silver screen, something I’m sure he would admit, as nothing could re-capture the cultural magic and hands-on effects work of director Ishiro Honda and special effects creator Eiji Tsubaraya from the classic series. But the Edwards Godzilla is a legitimate and superb version that achieves the gravity of the 1954 orignal Godzilla and the thrilling monster-vs.-monster mayhem of the films that followed it through three eras and six decades. For Godzilla fans, this movie contains the sheer ecstasy of a dream realized that brings spontaneous cheers, gasps of admiration, and watery-eyed moments of recognition. I could not imagine a better way to craft a U.S.-made Godzilla film, and it is to the immense credit of Edwards and everyone involved that, until now, I could not have foreseen how such a feat was even possible.

Even for those with scant knowledge of the great monster except what comes from the pop culture mill, Godzilla ‘14 is as an unusual Hollywood blockbuster. Gareth Edwards and Co. crafted a movie that stands apart from the stateside summer thrill machines as much as the Japanese films of 1960s did from their U.S. counterparts. Godzilla plays at the slow build, purposely restraining the sprawling spectacle until unleashing the finale. During the first two thirds, the suspense centers around scenes where the monsters remain glimpsed, their masses emphasized to drive the action without making them the centerpieces. Godzilla doesn’t receive a full reveal until an hour in, and the movie immediately leaps away after the unveiling. Instead of signaling the opening of the mayhem, the moment switches into the next step of the gradual climb to the plateau. Where many blockbusters pummel audiences with as much noise and pixels as they can afford until viewers feel only numbness for the finale, Godzilla wants to make them breathless in anticipation for the climax so that when it arrives, it means something.

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An Open Letter to Amy Farrah-Fowler, Ph. D.

Sunday, October 13th, 2013 | Posted by eeknight

Puzzled Indiana JonesDear Dr. Farrah-Fowler,

Regarding your erroneous conclusion that Indiana Jones played no role in the outcome of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I can only express disappointment that your usual disciplined reason failed you in this instance.

Let us explore your thesis and remove Indiana Jones entirely from the equation. The year is 1936 and the Nazis are exploring a sand-covered ruin of a largish ancient Egyptian city (Tannis, a major religious center, was comparable to Thebes) in search of the Ark of the Covenant. Without the headpiece to the staff of Ra, brute manpower would not have been equal to the task before them in the short time available to the Nazis. The only similar ancient city destroyed by catastrophe and quickly preserved in such a manner is that of Pompeii. As you are no doubt aware, Pompeii has been excavated and explored off and on since 1748, and intensively between 1924-1961, yet we still have not progressed much outside the main streets or into second floors and basements. The Nazis, in theory, would have until the outbreak of war in September 1939 at the very latest to carry out their dig, a span of 3 years. Unless you posit the British Army would have been willing to let a detachment of Afrika Korps poke around Egypt within spitting distance of the Nile in wartime. If you believe that, I have a piece of the True Cross made out of Georgia Sweetgum you may be interested in buying.

I think we can dispense with the idea that the Nazis would have found the Ark without the headpiece to the Staff of Ra.

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Pacific Rim Loves You. Love It Back.

Sunday, July 14th, 2013 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Pacific Rim PosterPacific Rim (2013)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Rob Kazinsky, Max Martini, Ron Perlman.

If you choose to see Grown Ups 2 this week instead of Pacific Rim, I will come after you. I know nothing about engineering, but I will find a way to build a titanic super robot and hunt you down. I know nothing about genetics, but I will find a way to grow a mutated giant monster and put it on your trail. And if you spent any money on any of the Transformers movies and you don’t go see Pacific Rim….


Pacific Rim is here for you, summer movie fans and science-fiction worshippers: an original, thrilling, no-bloat SF geek explosion. Every summer has that film, the one that reminds us what fun the warm season movies are supposed to be, and makes us leave the theater walking tall as a 50-meter robot and loving life like a thirteen-year-old kid who hit the bank with a lemonade stand and can now afford that new video game.

I’ll admit a strong bias here, which is the same one that director Guillermo del Toro has: a reverence for the cinematic marvel of watching giant monsters knocking crap over. Pacific Rim is a contemporary love poem to Toho Studios and Tsubaraya Productions in the 1960s, the folks who brought the eruption of outrageous fun kaiju cinema. (Kaiju as Pacific Rim’s title cards define it means “giant monster.” I’ll be nitpicky as a fan and point out that the literal Japanese meaning is “strange beast,” with no reference to size. Daikaiju means “giant strange beast.” However, in fan speak kaiju has come to refer to the entire genre of special effects films centered on giant creatures.) Del Toro creates a whole world where giant monsters and human-piloted robotic suits can slug away at each other in awe-inspiring set-pieces stuffed with hero poses and fist-pumping victory shots. It’s so damn gorgeous and it feels so good.

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Weird of Oz Dissects a Zombie!

Monday, July 8th, 2013 | Posted by Nick Ozment

world war zNow that zombie apocalypse has gotten its most mainstream imprimatur with a big-budget summer blockbuster starring Brad Pitt, I thought I’d take a break from my reading of Arak comic books this week to chime in on the trend. I’ll also revisit and share my original review of the book on which Pitt’s new star vehicle is “based” (and, for those of you who have read World War Z, you’ll know why I put that word in quotes).

I’ve been a fan of zombie films since I was a teen (back in the ‘80s, Barbara Mandrell sang, “I was country when country wasn’t cool”; I guess I could say much the same thing about zombies), ushered into the land of the undead by late-night viewings of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and White Zombie (1932, starring Bela Lugosi, and that’s way old-school).

Zombies are big business these days, the virus finding new vectors to infect untapped audiences and turn them into fans. This unprecedented outbreak began in the early years of the new century with some very well-done and popular films including 28 Days Later (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004 remake) and Shaun of the Dead (2004). Romero himself, the granddaddy of the whole genre, returned with Land of the Dead (2005) and a couple of subsequent installments in his ever-expanding zombie mythos.

walking deadMore recently, the comic-book series The Walking Dead became a big hit among readers, then went on to be adapted into the AMC series that is currently one of the most popular shows on cable television. Zombie novels have become so ubiquitous, they now constitute their own sub-genre, like vampire or werewolf novels. You might also say zombies have now “jumped the shark,” following the lead of Twilight into teen romance territory (Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, as well as, apparently, a slew of others in this latest fad. I haven’t read any of these, but I can only imagine: “Is that part of your lower intestine leaking from your abdomen, or are you just happy to see me?”).

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“Hi-yo, Silver! Awayzzzzzz…” The Lone Ranger Defeats Insomnia!

Thursday, July 4th, 2013 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

TheLoneRanger2013PosterThe Lone Ranger (2013)
Directed by Gore Verbinski. Starring Silver, Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, Ruth Wilson, James Badge Dale, Helena Bonham Carter.

At the climax of the new cinematic exploit of the Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski finally busts out his skills at orchestrating thrilling and intricately choreographed action set pieces. He hits viewers with a top-notch closer aboard a train full of silver roaring around a Mousetrap structure of parallel tracks. The sudden eruption of “The William Tell Overture” on the theater sound system stirs listless audience members awake. For a few minutes, The Lone Ranger feels like The Lone Ranger: old-fashioned Western thrills starring one of the great Do-Gooder heroes. A few folks in the audience clap. Some notice they haven’t finished their popcorn.

Then everybody leaves the multiplex to go home and catch up on their nap times, which they never realized they needed.

That’s the most damning criticism I can lob at this new Lone Ranger: I nearly nodded off twice during my screening. I say this as a hardcore fan of the Western genre, a nostalgia monster, and a fellow who has never before fallen asleep during a theatrical showing of a movie. Not even Meet Joe Black. The only other time I came as close to the narcoleptic fit I experienced here was due to an unfortunate application of medicine that carried warnings regarding heavy machinery.

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The Summer Movies… Again: Iron Man (3) Three

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Iron Man 3 Poster MainIron Man Three (2013)
Directed by Shane Black. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall, William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Jon Favreau, Ty Simpkins.

For people worried that the individual Iron Man series within the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe was in trouble, have no fear: Iron Man is back on track because Shane Black has got your back.

Iron Man Three (yes, that’s what the end credits call it, and therefore it’s the official title) starts off the Marvel Movie-verse Phase 2 with a self-contained story that feels like a great five or six-issue comic book arc. You remember: the kind that Marvel used to pull off in the days before they “evented” everything to death with Skrull infiltrations and Norman Osborne conquering the world. I hear that currently the mad robot Ultron is doing the heavy lifting for Marvel’s crossover event. Maybe this means we’ll see him in Avengers 2.

This compressed approach for Iron Man Three was the correct choice coming off the huge success of The Avengers; the new Iron Man flick needed to show that Marvel’s individual heroes could still carry their own installments — their own magazine titles, so to speak — without the support of crossover mania. With Iron Man Three as the best of the Iron Man movies so far, it promises that Thor and Captain America will have superior returns in their own follow-ups. That will be quite a feat for Cap, considering how great Captain America: The First Avenger is. But it’s in the realm of the possible, as Shane Black shows everyone with Shellhead the Third.

This is a movie that will also ignite a huge debate over its changes to the comic canon. (Wait, what do I mean “will”? The battle has already started in a forum near you.) Although the script by Black and co-writer Drew Pearce uses the popular Warren Ellis Extremis storyline from 2005–06 as a starting point and features one of Iron Man’s main villains, The Mandarin, they have fashioned a story that stays true to its own internal character logic and freely jettisons major sections of Marvel Comics history both to goose the audience and give them unexpected thrills. It’s actually a touch annoying to write a standard “review” in the modern Internet spoilerphobe understanding for a film like this where I have to dodge talking about major plot points. The thrill in writing about a movie like Iron Man Three comes from getting geeky and detailed about how it toys with famous characters and undercuts expectations.

But I’ll play by the rules here — for now. You do deserve to see Iron Man Three knowing only as much as you’ve seen from the marketing. And that means I’ve negated the rest of what I am going to say. Nonetheless, onward…. and I do promise a minimum of “spoilers.” (I hate that word. Can we ditch it? I’ve found out “spoilers” before and yet not had the film “spoiled” for me. We need a better term. How about “twists”? There you go: we’ve already got a good word. Occam’s Razor Rules!)

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Adventure on Film: Why Hollywood Gets it Wrong

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013 | Posted by markrigney

star-trek-game-beams-up-in-april-2013.jpgAs I write this, April is just around the corner, and now that Hollywood’s best and brightest studios no longer know how to calculate the beginning of summer, I smell blockbuster season ripening fast on the vine. Just think, in mere weeks, we can all flock to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Wolverine, Oblivion, Pacific Rim, Elysium, and Man of Steel.

What do nearly all of these movies have in common? I’ll tell you, spoiler-free: the fate of the world will hang in the balance.

Which is why I shall be staying home –– again –– for blockbuster season. If I have learned anything in all my forays into drama, it is this: cinema offers no more boring subject, no greater snoozefest, than global peril.

Heresy, I know.

But I’m right. Here’s why.

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What Writers Can Learn From Joss Whedon’s The Avengers Audio Commentary

Sunday, November 4th, 2012 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

theavengers2012posterAbout a month ago, The Avengers (Amazon, B&N) came out on DVD and Blu-Ray. My guess is that most avid superhero fans have probably already gotten their copies. Even if superheroes aren’t normally your thing, though, I recommend getting the film, especially for those who are writers or aspiring writers.

When the film came out in theaters back in May, I wrote an article “What Writers Can Learn From Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.” All of those points are still valid and if you haven’t seen the film, the writing is top notch. The bonus materials on the blu-ray, however, give you glimpses into more than just the film-making process, but a good glimpse into how to craft a good story. Some mild spoilers will be revealed below, if you haven’t yet seen the movie. has compiled a pretty good breakdown of the commentary, for those who want a more complete glimpse of what Whedon discusses.

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Adventure on Film: The Thief of Baghdad

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012 | Posted by markrigney

the-thief-of-baghdad-smallOn a recent Friday night, I sat down with my wife to watch The Thief of Baghdad (the definitive Korda/Powell version, from 1940). Thirty minutes later, my wife was fast asleep. When she woke up, she said, knowing I planned to mention the film to Black Gate’s readership, “What are you going to write about this?” Her notable lack of enthusiasm could, of course, be due to any number of factors, but only three reasonable alternatives present themselves: A) my wife is entirely lacking in taste; B) my wife has been replaced by a cantankerous alien entirely lacking in taste; C) this particular movie might well cause many a discerning viewer to harbor similar sentiments.

Let’s be clear: The Thief of Baghdad is one of the most universally acclaimed fantasy films ever made. Even my old (well-loved) copy of The Movie Guide gushes. “Perhaps the most splendid fantasy film ever made,” writes James Monaco and his various contributors, ending the review with “Film fantasy just doesn’t get much better than this.” Halliwell’s is equally enthusiastic, and they don’t like anything. Time Out raves. Coppola and Lucas cite it as a significant influence.

The story is crackerjack from start to finish. (Spoilers here: if you don’t want the plot, skip to the next paragraph.) Ahmed, the king deposed by Jaffar, his own Grand Vizier, falls in love with a princess whom no man can see, and of course vows to see her repeatedly. Ahmed is aided by Abu the thief, but of course Jaffar has designs on the very same princess. When Jaffar kidnaps her, Ahmed and Abu follow, but Jaffar conjures up a storm that separates our two heroes. In order to find Ahmed again, Abu must gain the reluctant help of a fifty-foot genie (the exceptional Rex Ingram), then steal the Eye of the World from a temple guarded by, among other things, a giant spider and giant octopi. Finally, with Ahmed captured and about to be beheaded, Abu swoops in on a flying carpet to save the day.

Given all this, how on earth did my wife (or some random alien) pass out?

The Thief of Baghdad has not aged gracefully. It’s essential viewing, yes, but only for buffs of either fantasy films or Old Guard Hollywood. The inconsistent special effects are the least of its problems; worse by far is what one might call presentational acting, but is in fact mostly just plain bad. Even Sabu, the Indian star who first made it big with Elephant Boy, is revealed to be a truly wooden performer. Conrad Veidt, as the cruel-as-an-adder Jaffar, comes off as a well-oiled villain, but he’s horribly miscast; he’s German through and through.

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