Monday, June 30, 2014

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

Major SPOILERS BELOW for the novel From Russia With Love.

I’m confused about how much time has passed between Moonraker and From Russia With Love. That’s a weird problem to have, I know, because it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, but Fleming is so specific about it and his dates don’t match up. At the end of Moonraker, M says he’s sending Bond away for a month until the heat blows over, and Bond decides he’s going to France. Then, as Diamonds Are Forever opens, Bond says that he’s only been back from France for two weeks. But in From Russia With Love, the Soviets discuss Bond’s recent career and date Diamonds as “last year” and Moonraker as three years ago.

The obvious answer is that Fleming simply forgot that he’d placed Diamonds so close to Moonraker. He said at the beginning of Moonraker that typically Bond has only one or two big, dangerous cases a year – and of course the novels were being published once a year – so that’s probably what Fleming was thinking as he wrote Russia. That’s not very satisfying, so my own No-Prize theory is that the France trip mentioned in Diamonds isn’t actually the same as the one at the end of Moonraker. Fleming obviously intended them to be, but if we say they aren’t, then those adventures can be a year apart and we’re back on track again.

The timeline isn’t the only problem the Soviets cause in From Russia With Love. The biggest one sadly isn’t their plans for Bond, but how much of the novel they take over. Stephen King is famous for dedicating pages and pages of background to minor characters, but Fleming did it first. Every contributor to the Soviets’ plan gets at least a paragraph of personal history and most of them a page or two. Red Grant the assassin gets multiple chapters. If I was reading the series a book per year as they were released, this wouldn’t be that big a problem. I might still have been a little put out, but I could perhaps admire the risk Fleming took more than I do now. Marathoning a book a week, I want to keep moving and I had a hard time slogging through the first half of Russia before Bond shows up.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)

Who's In It: Michael Caine (Batman Begins), Sally Field (The Amazing Spider-Man), and Telly Savalas (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)

What It's About: The morning after the Poseidon disaster, the broke captain (Caine) of a cargo tug discovers the wreckage and takes his crew (Field and Karl Malden) aboard to look for salvage. At exactly the same time, a wealthy doctor (Savalas) also goes aboard, claiming he wants to assist survivors. But is that really his goal or does he have something more sinister in mind?

How It Is: Once Caine and his crew get into the ship and their entrance route is cut off by shifting debris, there's a lot about Beyond the Poseidon Adventure that's a straight repeat of the first film. You've got the brave, headstrong dude (Caine replacing Gene Hackman) leading a group through the unstable, waterlogged vessel, and it doesn't stay the three of them for long. They collect survivors along the way, increasing the size of their party beyond that of the first movie, but including some of the same tropes. Instead of Ernest Borgnine's grouchy cop, we've got Peter Boyle's (Young Frankenstein) grumpy sergeant. And Jack Warden's (All the President's Men) blind man slows the group down as opposed to Shelley Winter's overweight woman.

But these are superficial similarities and they work (in Warden's case) or don't (in Boyle's) about as well as their counterparts did in the original. There's just enough similarity to make me feel it was worth coming back for more, but lots of difference to make it a new experience.

For one thing, Beyond really focuses on the adventure part of Poseidon Adventure. The original was exciting, but it's strength was the human drama. The sequel is all about action, from the treasure-hunting motives of its lead characters to the mysterious mission of whatever Savalas is really up to. It's not just humans against disaster; it's humans against disaster and other humans.

And they're quite likable humans too. I can take or leave Malden's performance, but Caine and Field are as charming as ever and make a wonderful team. I also got a kick out of the interactions between Boyle and Warden (who played best friends in While You Were Sleeping). Shirley Jones (The Partridge Family) plays a nurse and Mark Harmon (Summer School) is a young man who rescues Boyle's daughter (Angela Cartwright from Lost in Space) and is resented by her father for it.

Meanwhile, Telly Savalas is essentially reprising his role as Blofeld and Beyond could easily be as much a sequel to On Her Majesty's Secret Service as it is to The Poseidon Adventure. It's certainly a better OHMSS sequel than Diamonds Are Forever.

Rating: Four out of five Alfred/Aunt May team-ups.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

With three of the Bond novels behind me – four counting this one – I feel like I almost know what I’m doing, so I’m going to try a new format. For one thing, in order for me to stay on target and wrap this project up in eighteen months, I’ve got to read faster, so no more breaking novels into multiple posts.

But also, I’ve kind of figured out what themes I want to focus on, so I’m going to try out a standardized structure to see if that keeps me organized. I’ll briefly summarize the plot and any interesting details from Fleming’s life that may have contributed to it, then talk about Bond’s character development in terms of his tactics, psychology, and relationships. Finally, I’ll mention any building that Fleming does of Bond’s world and offer closing thoughts on the book as a whole.

Mission Briefing

Two weeks after the Moonraker affair, M asks Bond to investigate a diamond smuggling pipeline that’s threatening Britain’s control over the world’s diamond markets. Bond’s job is to ascertain the extent of the operation so that it can be shut down. To do this, he replaces an arrested smuggler named Peter Franks and meets Franks’ contact, a woman called Tiffany Case who gives him diamonds to sneak into the United States.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Who’s In It: Gene Hackman (Unforgiven), Ernest Borgnine (Escape from New York), Shelley Winters (The Night of the Hunter), Red Buttons (Pete’s Dragon), and Pamela Sue Martin (The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries)

What It’s About: An ocean liner flips over when hit by a tidal wave, forcing a small group of passengers to make their way up towards the bottom of the ship where they hope to find rescue.

How It Is: I watched this as a kid and hated it. I don’t know if it was my first disaster movie or what, but I had a hard time watching a large cast of characters get whittled down to a handful. Not that my memory of it is at all faithful, because I could have sworn that certain characters lived when I’ve just seen that they didn’t.

More than simply refreshing my memory though, I’m glad I gave it another shot as an adult because it’s a heck of a movie. A lot of people die, but it’s not the disaster porn that modern filmmakers like Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, and Zack Snyder are famous for. The deaths in Poseidon Adventure are meaningful, from the biggest of its stars to the most nameless background character. There’s not a ton of sobbing and wailing over every single character of course, but the movie made me feel the weight of all the death. It means something that these people are perishing, which makes it even more important to see some of them survive.

Most of the main characters have something that kept me invested in their continued existence. Ernest Borgnine's grouchy cop is probably my least favorite, but even then I couldn't help but love his devotion to his wife, a former prostitute played by Stella Stevens. She has less to do, but still contributes to the weirdly sweet relationship. Easier to like are the brother and sister played by Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea. They're unaccompanied minors who do a lot of bickering before the disaster, but immediately drop that to take care of each other.

Also very sweet are Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson as an older couple on their way to see their grandchild for the first time. I'm always a fan of the affable Albertson and this is one of my favorite Winters roles. She's constantly concerned that her weight is going to be a problem in the escape, but she's so courageously game to try that I fell quickly in love with her.

Red Buttons is equally lovely as a supposed bachelor who's never found time for love, but takes a young singer (Carol Lynley) under his protection. I say "supposed" because though he never admits it explicitly, he's got a line that implies he knows what it means to lose someone close to him. That could be a parent or sibling, but I like to think that he's a widower who finds it easier to pretend he's never been married than to talk about his deceased wife. Either way, it's wonderful that his relationship with the singer never turns creepy. I never got the sense that he's helping her because he's attracted to her. He just seems to genuinely care about her and goes to great lengths to make sure she's okay.

The most fascinating character though is Gene Hackman's unorthodox priest. The movie reveals early that Hackman's a believer in the adage, "God helps those who help themselves." That's not a Biblical quote and I'm not even convinced it's supportable theology, but the film never actually claims that it is. Hackman makes an excellent point about taking action versus expecting God to do everything for you, but there's a powerful scene that calls his point of view into question.

After the wave hits, most of the passengers elect to stay in the ballroom and hope for rescue. Hackman's convinced that it's a doomed proposition and desperately wants his old friend the chaplain to come with him. He gives his usual speech about taking action, but the chaplain points out that Hackman's gospel only helps those who are already strong. The chaplain sees his role as ministering to the weak, which strikes me as the definition of strength. As much as Hackman preaches about strength and action, he comes at it from a place of fear and his adventure up into the bowels of the ship brings that out in a potent way. The chaplain on the other hand stays in the ballroom not because he's afraid, but because he knows that he's needed there. The film never explicitly judges either man (and to be perfectly fair, Hackman does save some people who would've been doomed without him), but offers them in contrast to each other and it's a beautiful, provocative juxtaposition.

The Poseidon Adventure isn't quite making me want to dig out The Towering Inferno and Airport to re-evaluate '70s disaster movies as a genre, but it's a much deeper - pun intended - movie than I expected. Makes me want to watch its sequel and remakes for comparison.

Rating: Four out of five soggy Nancy Drews.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Long John Silver, Volume 1: Lady Vivian Hastings

A note at the end of Long John Silver, Volume 1 says that it doesn’t claim to be a sequel to Treasure Island, but merely an homage to it: an attempt to “find again a bit of stardust from the great dream that Robert Louis Stevenson sparked.” I don’t doubt the sincerity of that comment, but whatever Xavier Dorison and Matheiu Lauffray’s intent, they’ve created as good a Treasure Island sequel as any and a better one than most.

The connection to Stevenson’s novel isn’t immediately apparent. Dorison and Lauffray’s story opens with a beleaguered expedition up the Amazon River and then switches quickly to England where it introduces Lady Vivian Hastings. She’s the unfaithful wife to an absent nobleman and is quite pregnant with the child of another man. She’s let off the moral hook a little though when it’s revealed that her husband is not only just as disloyal to her as she is to him, but that he’s also selling off her inheritance to fund his search for a lost, Amazonian city rumored to be filled with treasure.

Lady Hastings is a deeply flawed woman, but her wits and survival instincts are strong enough to make her a compelling character. With no other ally than her less-than-loyal maid Elsie, Lady Hastings is forced to come up with a plan to endure the destitution that her husband is forcing on her. She decides that she’s due a cut of whatever her husband finds in the Amazon, but she’ll need help to claim it. Fortunately, Elsie’s heard that the local doctor Livesey is rumored to know a man: “a sailor with a peg leg … the kind of man who would follow you into Hell for the promise of gold.”

Unlike Treasure Island, Dorison and Lauffray’s graphic novel is extremely short on noble characters (Dr. Livesey is pretty much the only one), but that’s part of what makes it so interesting. It’s Pirate Noir, a genre that I’m surprised isn’t more popular since the age of piracy is a perfect setting for morally ambiguous crime stories. Making the Macguffin a hidden, jungle city is even cooler and so far Long John Silver is so far in my wheelhouse that it’s keeping a toothbrush there and has taken over my remote.

Lauffray’s lush, detailed art is spectacular and makes the story even more immersive. He was a concept artist on Brotherhood of the Wolf and gives Long John Silver a feel that’s similar to that awesome movie. Whether he’s depicting a snowy landscape, a magnificent ship, or a passionate woman, Lauffray creates a world and characters that feel utterly real. That means that when the peg-legged sailor does show up, he feels real too; as real and morally hazy as he did in Stevenson’s original story. Long John Silver isn’t just a worthy homage to Treasure Island, it’s also an ideal continuation of that story and I can’t wait to read the other three volumes.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Moonraker by Ian Fleming, Chapters 13-25

It was the end of March when I covered the first half of Moonraker and it's ridiculous that it's taken me this long to follow up. I've come up with a plan though to keep me motivated: a deadline by which I need to have this project completed. It's over a year away, but it's still extremely ambitious and includes all the non-Fleming novels and even the Young James Bond series. I fear for my sanity.

We're at the end of Moonraker now, so SPOILERS BELOW.

In the last half of Live and Let Die, I talked a little about the idea of Bond as a "blunt instrument." That's what Judi Dench's M will call him and it refers to the movie Bond's technique of getting captured and shaking up the villain's operation from the inside. In Live and Let Die, Bond is captured, but it's not a crucial ingredient to his success the way it becomes in a lot of the movies. His mission's already going to succeed; his capture simply complicates the plot by questioning whether or not Bond will survive. The literary Bond isn't quite a blunt instrument at that point.

That starts to change though as Moonraker moves into its second half. Having looked around Drax's operation and not finding any immediate clues to the murder of the previous head of security, Bond decides to try a different approach. There are enough details of the case that make Bond suspicious, but he needs to be diplomatic in his investigation and not tick off Drax in case Drax is innocent. There are limits to what Bond can do and it's in Moonraker that we learn that if he has a license to kill, it's a limited one. As his suspicions about Drax grow, he thinks about his options and realizes that he can't just kill the man without risking hanging himself.

Going to bed on Tuesday night though, Bond decides not to be too diplomatic. "If his actions aroused suspicion he would not be dismayed," Fleming writes. "One of his objects was to attract into his orbit the same forces that had concerned himself with Tallon, for of one thing he felt reasonably certain, Major Tallon had not died because he loved Gala Brand." Bond is questioning the official motive for the murder and believes that if he can tick off the same people responsible for Tallon's death, then maybe they'll come for Bond, too. That's totally a blunt instrument approach.

He says it more explicitly later to Brand - the Scotland Yard officer working undercover at Drax's facility - after a dramatic attempt on their lives. She's nervous and uncertain, but Bond is pleased that his plan is working. "Can't you see what we've done this afternoon?" he asks her. "Just what had to be done. We've made the enemy show his hand. Now we've got to take the next step and find out who the enemy is and why he wanted us out of the way."

One final example is late in the novel when all masks are off. Drax is revealed to be the mastermind, not only behind Tallon's death, but of a larger conspiracy to destroy London with a nuclear warhead on the Moonraker missile. Bond and Brand have in turn blown their cover and are in danger of blowing the mission if Drax is given time to think about his next moves. So Bond intentionally goads Drax into a rage, even though it means Drax will take it out on Bond physically.
With every word Drax's face had become more contorted with rage, his eyes were red with it, the sweat of fury was dripping off his jowls on to his shirt, the lips were drawn back from the gaping teeth and a string of saliva had crept out of his mouth and was hanging down from his chin. Now, at the last private-school insult that must have awoken God knows what stinging memories, he leapt up from his chair and lunged round the desk at Bond, his hairy fists flailing.

Bond gritted his teeth and took it.
This is what makes Bond a great hero. I said at the end of Live and Let Die that he's an extremely dark, tortured character, but that that's what makes him so perfect for his job. He's willing to endure enormous punishment in defense of his country. I suspect we'll see this more and more as the series progresses and he realizes the effectiveness of the blunt instrument approach.

Because of Bond's change in tactics, Moonraker abandons the murder mystery plot that got it going. Bond doesn't know the details at first, but he's convinced that Tallon's murder was simply collateral damage in a larger plot involving the Moonraker missile. That becomes his focus and Brand becomes his partner in the investigation. And a remarkably capable partner she is, too.

When Brand supports Bond's suspicions to Drax of one of Drax's scientists, Bond reconsiders his childish reaction to her initial coldness towards him. He begins to think of her positively and professionally, noting at one point that she's "an extremely efficient policewoman. She knows how to kick, and where; she can break my arm probably more easily and quickly than I can break hers." He still totally wants to sleep with her, but unlike the way he was thinking the night they met, he realizes that's not her only value.

Her defenses towards him come down as well when he invites her to walk down to the beach and inspect the facility's defenses there. Fleming shows off his gift for prose as he paints a lovely picture of the scene from the cliff:
Between the sands of the coast, along the twelve-fathom channel of the Inner Leads, there were half a dozen ships beating up through the Downs, the thud of their engines coming clearly off the quiet sea [...] As far as the eye could reach the Eastern Approaches of England were dotted with traffic plying towards near or distant horizons, towards a home port, or towards the other side of the world. It was a panorama full of colour and excitement and romance and the two people on the edge of the cliff were silent as they stood for a time and watched it all.
The quietness and beauty of the experience eases the tensions between the two characters and from that moment on they're inseparable allies. Brand is no Bond Girl in the classic sense of the term. Even before this scene, Fleming has started writing sections of text from her point of view (bringing up the Hoagie Carmichael comparison again, by the way, in reference to Bond's bone structure). He shifts easily from her POV to Bond's and back again, writing Brand as a tough, resourceful woman who ultimately comes up with a plan that will save not only the day, but also her and Bond's lives. Moonraker is almost as much her story as it is Bond's.

There's an awesome scene after their mission has been discovered by Drax and they're hiding from him. As it looks like Drax is about to find them, Bond "felt that Gala was waiting for him to explain. To do something. To protect them." But that's Bond's own imagination at work. As he tries to give her some patronizing advice about remaining hidden, she whispers angrily to him to shut up. She still follows his advice though, because it's not his solution she objects to, but the way he delivers it. I got a real sense of equality and partnership in that scene, not so much from Bond, but from Fleming, which was a welcome change after Solitaire in Live and Let Die.

But if Brand is a vast improvement over Solitaire, Drax suffers in comparison to Mr. Big. Drax's offensive arrogance makes him an intriguing personality, but it also makes him careless. Big was a brilliant criminal who used his large organization to increase his own power and wealth. Drax is a blowhard with delusions of grandeur; in many ways the prototype for the over-the-top Bond villains of the movies. He's the first monologuer of the series (though he has a believable reason for doing it and plans to release his explanation to the press the following day anyway) and his scheme to nuke London creates much larger stakes than simply funding Soviet espionage. It's also his own hubris that causes his death when he could have simply and quietly escaped.

It's precisely Drax's overbearing pride though that make it so wonderful when Bond puts him in his place. In the first half of the book, Bond's victory over Drax at cards is so sweet because Drax is such an insufferable dick. And there's a great callback to that towards the end when Drax simply has to know how Bond could have possibly discovered the manner in which Drax had been cheating. Bond just shrugs and says, "My eyes."

But though Bond gets the best of Drax, one of the things I love most about Moonraker is that he never gets the best of Gala Brand. He may fantasize about going away with her after the case, but that's because he never stops to consider that she may have other plans. He ultimately learns that she's clearly attracted to him, but not so much that she's willing to put aside her own interests or previous commitments. If that does anything to forward Bond's character development in relation to women, Moonraker doesn't reveal it. The book simply ends with him and Brand going their separate ways. But I have to think that it's healthy for Bond to realize that - unlike Solitaire - all women can't be his prize for a job well done. Maybe in Diamonds Are Forever we'll see if that notion sticks.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fortress of Solitude reviews Kill All Monsters

Another great review of Kill All Monsters, this time by Jarrod Saunders of the Fortress of Solitude. Jarrod writes, "While the idea seems straightforward, Michael May manages to surprise the reader with a great scrip that takes this concept in a whole new direction."

He has even nicer things to say about the art, starting with, "This is a black and white comic that leaves little room for errors in art. The line work in Copland’s illustrations is impressive and makes the most frantic of battles easy to follow and pleasing on the eye."

Thanks so much, Jarrod!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

SKJAM! reviews Kill All Monsters

Kill All Monsters got a nice review from the man known as SKJAM! I met him at SpringCon last month where he picked up a copy of the book and I'm thrilled that he liked it. He offers a nice recap that doesn't spoil anything and finishes by recommending the book for kids who enjoyed Pacific Rim or this year's Godzilla.

He also mentions having some difficulty getting into the opening scene, which I think is totally fair. Starting in the middle of a fight and then letting it play out for a while with zero exposition was a gamble. We answer a bunch of world-building questions by the end of Volume 1 and folks all seem able to put it together as the volume progresses, but I do get that we're asking readers to play catch up during the opening pages.

Thanks so much, SKJAM!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Two Page Spread interview

I met this guy at C2E2 who was awesomely dressed as Kevin Matchstick from Mage and also runs a Tumblr called Two Page Spread where - among other comicsy things - he's done a bunch of short interviews with people who make comics. We talked for a minute and you can hear the whole thing in the Soundcloud track above.

I was apparently trying to set some kind of speed-talking record though, so I apologize about that.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Nerd Lunch and 75 Years of Batman

It was about this time last year that I joined the Nerd Lunch fellas and Thom Holbrook for a discussion of all things Superman in celebration of the Man of Tomorrow's 75th anniversary. That was so much fun and I was thrilled when they asked me back this year to talk through Batman's 75th with them and Batfan Extraordinaire, Jay from the Sexy Armpit.

It's a massive discussion covering the Caped Crusader's appearances across various media. We talked favorite comics stories, artists, writers, villains, actors, TV shows, movies... pretty much everything. Pax did an awesome job leading the discussion and guiding us through Batman's lengthy history. Gasp while CT and I explain why Batman and Robin is a better movie than Batman Returns. Thrill as Jay helps me extol the virtues of the underrated The Batman cartoon from the mid 2000s. Wonder to the sound of me and Pax grooving on Jim Aparo. It was a really fun conversation and you should totally check it out.

Nerd Lunch is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and Feedburner, or you can just settle back and listen to the episode right here.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Crossbones, Episode 1: The Devil's Dominion


Last Friday was the series premier of Crossbones, the new pirate show on NBC starring John Malkovich as Blackbeard. The show takes place after Blackbeard's historical death, which the notorious pirate somehow survived. He no longer goes on raids (if the example in this episode is representative), but commands his people from a base on a secret island.

It's too soon to make any solid predictions about the show (including whether or not I'll be able to blog about each episode as it comes out, but smart money there is on "not"). I'm not even confident that I understand where its primary focus will be. At least for this season though, it looks to be a cat-and-mouse game between Malkovich's Blackbeard and British spy Tom Lowe (played by Richard Coyle). Lowe has allowed himself to be captured by Blackbeard's crew in order to get close enough to assassinate the pirate king, but learns at the last minute that Blackbeard has something going on with the Spanish. Lowe changes his plan in order to learn more about what the villains are up to, saving Blackbeard's life in the process and perhaps earning some measure of respect and trust.

Based on this first episode, the draw of the show is going to be the relationship between Blackbeard and Lowe. Lowe is a cool and competent hero, but Blackbeard is menacing enough to suggest that Lowe may possibly be in over his head. Malkovich is bringing it with this role, mostly playing Blackbeard as a calm, rational man who knows how to build a legend around himself, but also convincing Lowe (and me) that he's capable of enormous cruelty in pursuit of his goals.

Adding to the intrigue are Blackbeard's crew and other colleagues, including a crippled scientist and his wife (who is herself some kind of disgraced noble). There already seems to be something going on between the wife and Lowe and there are lots of opportunities to explore shifting loyalties and power struggles among the large cast. And then there's the mysterious Lady in White who appears to Blackbeard at one point and immediately vanishes. Is she an actual ghost or just a sign that he's going crazy? It's too soon to tell.

The look of the show is great. David Slade (30 Days of Night) directed the episode and gives it the same cinematic look he's given the Hannibal series. The costumes are gorgeous and the sets are awesome. There's a newness to everything (especially the ships) that prevent the world from looking fully lived in, but that could be intentional. Crossbones isn't going for historical accuracy (already changing some of the details around Blackbeard's supposed death); it's a fantasy version of these characters. But I'm A-Okay with that.

Honestly, they had me at "pirates," so I know I'm not an objective critic for this kind of thing, but I know a crappy pirate story when I see one and this isn't that. There's a lot to love about Crossbones and more than enough to get me back tonight as I tune in for Episode 2.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie (2008)

Who's in it: Pirate vegetables.

What's it about: A flawed trio of servers at a pirate-themed dinner theater are pulled back in time and asked to help a princess rescue her brother from their evil, pirate uncle.

How is it: It's impossible for me to review this objectively. I'm hugely fond of writer/filmmaker Phil Vischer and the VeggieTales DVD series he co-created with Mike Nawrocki in the '90s. They're hilarious, the songs are great, and the retellings of Biblical stories are inventive and fun. One of the best features of each DVD was the "Silly Songs with Larry" segment in which Larry the Cucumber comes out and sings a silly song. And the best of these was "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything."

The animation was crude - especially by today's standards - but it was hugely popular and when Vischer and Nawrocki finally made the big screen feature film, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie in 2002, they included the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything in the supporting cast. It didn't come as a surprise that several years later the trio got their own movie a year after the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy concluded.

Despite the fact that TPWDDA seems sort of genetically engineered to appeal to me, I not only didn't see it in the theater, but I didn't even see it at all until this past week when I got the hankering to start watching some pirate movies again.

The most surprising thing about it is that - like the "Silly Songs" segment of the original show - it's pretty secular. TPWDDA teaches values, but they're not specifically Christian values. The flaws that the heroes have to overcome are things like fear and laziness, issues that everyone can relate to. And they succeed by deciding to embrace adventure and do the right thing regardless of the consequences. There is a weird bit at the end in which the princess and prince's father presents himself as sort of an Aslan-like character who may be an analog for God, but it's a speedbump in an otherwise fun, piratey adventure.

The animation has come a long way since the DVD series, but it doesn't stand well next to Pixar, DreamWorks, or really any of the major animation studios. And while the story is romping (lots of shipboard adventure, island hopping, and killer cheese curls!) and the songs are great (I especially love the "Rock Monster" parody of "Rock Lobster" over the end credits, but there are fun, original songs too), it's neither as meaningful as WALL-E or as raucously awesome as Kung Fu Panda, both of which came out that same year. As a movie for VeggieTales and ocean adventure fans though - of which I am both - TPWDDA is thoroughly enjoyable.

Final Grade: B

Sunday, June 01, 2014

White Elephant Blogathon | Eegah (1962)

For the past three or four years I've participated in the annual White Elephant Blogathon (generously coordinated and hosted this year by the Diary of a Country Pickpocket blog), where participants submit movies for other bloggers to watch. It's all random, so you have no idea who will get/have to review your submission or whose submission you'll have to review. In the past couple of years there's been a push for participants not to just submit the most awful movie they could think of, but also consider underappreciated movies that may be legitimately good. I've pretty much continued to foist terrible films on other people (this year it was 1981's Tarzan the Ape Man starring Bo Derek), but I'll probably change that next year. Eegah has taught me a lesson.

Who's in it: Arch Hall Jr. (The Sadist, The Nasty Rabbit), Marilyn Manning (The Sadist), Richard Kiel (The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker), and William Watters (The Sadist, The Nasty Rabbit).

What's it about: An enormous, primitive man (Kiel) wanders out of his cave and encounters a young woman (Manning). When her father (Watters) goes missing while searching for the giant, the woman and her boyfriend (Hall Jr.) go looking as well.

How is it: I was going to try and be all hardcore about this and watch the movie straight, but about ten minutes in I realized that I was going to need Joel and a couple of robots to help me through. I switched to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode and it went down much easier. I'm going to review just the movie though, not the MST3K performance.

The problem is that the whole thing is a vanity project by Arch Hall Sr. (as are follow-up films The Sadist and The Nasty Rabbit). He came up with the story after meeting 7'2" Kiel and directed the film himself under the name Nicholas Merriwether. He then adopted another alias - William Watters - to play the role of Robert Miller. Miller's daughter Roxy was played by Hall Sr.'s secretary and her boyfriend Tom was played by Hall Jr. To be fair, the movie was much more a vehicle for Hall Jr. than for Dad. Tom is the hero of the story and there are a few musical interludes as Tom plays guitar and sings with his band, Arch Hall Jr. and the Archers.

The music's the best part of the movie, but that's a really low bar to get over. Hall Jr. has a pleasant voice and the musicians are competent, but there's nothing remarkable about the generic '60s surf tunes and love ballads they're playing.

The only professional actor in the group is Kiel and he does a nice enough job in his quieter moments as Eegah the caveman, but he's no action star and never poses a convincing threat as he lumbers after the younger, faster characters. There are some genuinely creepy moments when he captures Roxy and her dad and then sniffs and paws the girl while her father doesn't just helplessly watch, but actually encourages her to make nice with Eegah as a distraction until they can escape. There's a moment where it looks like Eegah's going to go too far and Dad looks legitimately horrified, but it was too long in coming. The rest of those scenes in the cave unsuccessfully tried to blend humor with the horror and turned the whole situation into a farce.

That said, the cave scenes are among the most interesting in the film, the rest of which are mostly Roxy, Tom, and Roxy's dad walking around or driving in the desert. Or Tom singing. There are some cool images towards the end though when Eegah follows Roxy back to civilization and we see the gigantic, beastial man invading homes as he looks for the girl, but again, it's too little and far too late. There are some good ideas in Eegah, if only the film's makers knew how to bring them to life with any skill.

Final Grade: D-


Related Posts with Thumbnails