Monday, December 28, 2009

Sherlock Holmes 2009!

The new movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law opened Christmas Day and I was only able to get to see it today. Now I will be giving a run down on the film, but I will do my best to leave out spoilers. But, dear reader, you have been warned!

Sherlock Holmes of course is the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The character of Holmes originally appeared in The Strand Magazine, then novelizations of those serials and short stories. Later he would appear on the stage, screen, radio, and cartoons. Countless pastiche have been written about Holmes, and it is said that the character holds the record for appearing in the most films.

Doyle himself did not like the detective, feeling that his historical fiction should have garnered the lion’s share of praise and royalties. Even his attempt to kill off Holmes was met with black arm bands as Londoners mourned the fictional hero. The all mighty need for cash kept Doyle writing the pipe smoking sleuth.

Sherlock Holmes, the world's first consulting detective, not to be confused with a private detective; a cerebral hero, so great was his deductive reasoning he could solve crimes and mysteries from his sitting room at 221B Baker St. His adventures great and small were chronicled by his Boswell, Dr. John Watson, formerly a captain in Her Majesty’s army in the Afghanistan wars.

In the canon of Doyle’s work Holmes and Watson protected the honor of royalty, brought murderers to justice, and even let some go. They worked as agents of the Empire, averting war, or keeping military secrets out of enemy hands, even facing ghostly hounds upon dark moors.

Sherlock Holmes, the new Guy Richie film, brings these two characters to a new audience, with Downey standing beside a long and distinguished line of men to have played Holmes. Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Roger Moore, Jeremy Brett, and the immortal Basil Rathbone are only a small sampling of well known actors to wear the deer stalker.

The new film takes a fresh look at Holmes and Watson, as each incarnation adds something to the detective. The movie takes place in the late 1880’s based on the character’s ages, and Watson leaving the Baker Street flat to start his marriage. Such events are noted in cannon, as Watson appears to have been married two or three times, having only lived with Holmes early in their friendship.

Events in the film lead Holmes and Watson across a lavishly produced London with its coal smoke and industrial age grime, hansoms clattering along the cobbles. It is a beautiful movie, the period coming to vivid life. The story itself revolves around ritual murder, resurrection, black magic, and an allusion to the Masons.

I found the story engaging, from the mystery to the interpersonal relationships between Holmes, Watson, Irene Adler, and Mary, Watson’s fiancĂ©e. Fast paced and action oriented, this is a Guy Richie film! The action stays within the Victorian realm to me. Holmes martial prowess was noted by Watson in Doyle’s stories, as well as Watson’s own fighting ability. This movie shows the action that Doyle did not think were important elements in his stories. Downey’s Holmes is a methodical fighter tearing his enemy down with well timed blows that are thought out like chess moves. Watson is also a brawler that any military company would like to have in a hand to hand confrontation.

Downey’s Holmes is eccentric and quirky but not distracting or overly comical, many idiosyncrasies falling in line with Doyle’s own work. Jude Law’s Watson is long suffering, but like any true friend he is there through thick and thin, drawn by his own love of the chase and mystery as well as his friendship with Holmes. The story, as action oriented as it is, does not slight Holmes’ investigative ability or his deductive reasoning. The mystery is one Doyle himself might have conceived. (A side note, Jude Law actually had a part in an episode of the Grenada made for TV Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett.)

The only element that I could nit pick, and I think it would be a heated debate among Holmes fans, is Irene Adler’s place in the film. Irene Adler, played by Rachel McAdams only appeared in one Holmes story: A Scandal in Bohemia. In the film she is the femme fatale, Cat Woman to Holmes’ Batman. I would have to re-read this particular story, but this was not how Adler struck me. She is Holmes’ love interest in the film. In the Doyle story Adler beats Holmes at his own game, earning the detective’s respect. As Watson was to say she was always the Woman. I never took this that Holmes had a romantic inclination toward Adler , but rather one of professional admiration. But McAdams plays an interesting character, and the chemistry between Adler and Holmes is great, so I am willing to let that one slide without too much effort.

This is a great film that is overshadowed by the technological wonder that is Avatar. Having not seen that film yet I could not comment further. I will say a Holmes fan will find plenty of Easter Eggs in the film to make them giddy. Despite reviewers comments this was a great film, not Shakespeare, but I was not looking for that. I got what I wanted, a great escape with one of my all time favorite heroes, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Monday, December 14, 2009

10,000 B.C. Fang and Spear on the Big Screen

I have been on a pulp movie kick here lately. See my Time Forgotten post. So among the films that I love for the pulp style goodness is 10,000 B.C. from 2008 starring Steven Strait and Camilla Belle; written and directed by Roland Emmerich.

Set in a nebulous pre-history, the story centers around the hero journey of D’Leh, a young hunter who lives under the stigma of being the son of a man that had been the head warrior yet abandoned his people. He is guided by Tic Tic, his father’s friend and the village’s leader. After a mammoth hunt D’Leh kills one of the great beasts by himself, earning the white spear, the mark of the lead hunter, from Tic Tic. But the mammoth’s death was an accident of opportunity, so D’Leh does not feel that he has earned neither the spear nor the hand of his love Evolet.

Raiders come on horses, with iron/steel weapons, and take Evolet and many others as slaves. D’Leh and Tic Tic set off in pursuit, guided mystically by the Old Mother, the village’s shaman. The adventure takes the heroes through the lowlands and encounter giant flightless birds that attack the raiders and pursuers alike. Meanwhile the leader of the raiders falls in lust with Evolet, singling her out for special treatment after a slashing with a whip leaves her with a telling mark.

D’Leh passes a hero test by freeing and friending a saber-tooth cat the indigenous people call Long Spear. Through this friending D’Leah makes allies of the savannah tribes that are encountered. He discovers his father did not abandon his people but rather left to find a better way for the tribe. But he too was taken by the raiders to a great city beyond the desert.

D’Leh gathers warriors to him from the surrounding tribes to pursue the raiders, missing the villains as they board the “red birds” which are red sailed ships that pass up the river. So the gathered warriors pursue their quarry across the vast desert, following what I take to be the planet Venus on the horizon, the Morning Star.

At the head of the river the primitive army discovers a society of advanced builders similar to ancient Egypt, where slave labor and mammoths used as beasts of burden to build what appear to be pyramids. Through stealth and guile D’Leh enters the city and learns of his father’s fate and plans a slave revolt to free his friends and over throw the enemy. Meanwhile the leader of the raiders attempts to take Evolet for his own and is taken by the priests for his treachery. The marks from the whip upon Evolet are noticed by the priests of the city and taken before the leader, for such a mark is prophesized to be the god-like leader’s end. Of course it is her presence that causes his down fall as D’Leh leads the revolt causing massive destruction and ruin to save her.

The adventure ends with the hero’s journey completed, D’Leh returns with Evolet and a bag of seeds provided by his new friends. The seeds will provide a new way of life for D’Leh’s people and fulfilling his father’s quest.

This movie was panned by critics, but in reality, this was a great story and the stuff of the serials. 10,000 B.C. is a fantasy story in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s Spear and Fang and many others. You have primitive man, savage yet, noble, and the decadent advanced culture that tries to dominate and enslave them. There is magic and ritual, great action, and the classic hero’s journey as I noted above. It was not supposed to be an accurate depiction of pre-history; it is a fantasy in a fictional past as much as Howard’s Hyboria. The movie succeeded in telling the tale with an underlying complexity.

The city of the builders, who are not really named in the film, seem to be its own architecture, but meant to evoke Egypt or Babylon. To me, it made me think: is this supposed to Atlantis, a remnant of that society after its fall? Regardless, that was the image it created to my mind and took me back into those other stories by Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs, and Moorcock.

The story has elements seen time and again, but it is presented in such a setting that the hero quest is fresh and engaging to me. This movie should not be looked at as prehistory… Clan of the Cave Bear attempted to bring that epoch to life with varied success. 10, 000 B.C. should be viewed with an eye toward fantasy and the enjoyment of a story that unfolds in the best tradition of heroes.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Buck Rogers: Science Fantasy Before Star Wars

I have a list of swash buckling space heroes and none of them ever flew an Apollo mission. Not that these men weren’t heroes, but would they have become those heroes without the inspiration of those that came before them? Just as many scientists and space explorers now give credit to Star Wars and Star Trek for their pursuits, how many were influenced by Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers?

Buck Rogers was given life back in the 1920’s in a pair of stories Armageddon 2419 A.D. and The Airlords of Han by Philip Francis Nowlan in Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine that focused on science fiction. 1929 saw John Flint Dille reinventing William “Buck” Rogers for a serialized comic strip and the Saturday Serial soon followed.

Buck Rogers was originally conceived as a fighter ace from the Great War named Anthony Rogers, who was trapped in a mine on Earth, overcome by a gas that put him in suspended animation. He awakens five hundred years later to help save what is left of America from the Han, an Asian aggressor with disintegration rays and anti-gravity technology. His military experience is crucial to the victories over the Han. Only later would he be the scourge of space pirates and fifty years beyond that to make his appearance against Princess Ardala and the Draconian Empire.

Buck Rogers saw many incarnations in radio, comics, movies and television, back in the 1950’s and again in 1980. The constants seemed to be Buck and his lady friend Wilma Deering. Dr. Huer would make his appearance when Buck Rogers was reinvented after Nowlan’s stories. The version of Buck Rogers I grew up with was the one created by Gil Gerard in 1979. This was swash and buckle stuff at its best. The series that followed was of course hugely influenced by the fashions and styles of the disco era and the adventure fun that seemed to be the formula of the 1980’s T.V. programing. Watching the series on DVD now is a guilty pleasure.

Now there is another incarnation of the hero that was so lovingly parodied by Warner Brothers and Daffy Duck; Cawley Entertainment Company is working on a retro-envisioning of the Buck Rogers for the newest media outlet the internet. The teaser has been getting some buzz, showing a sepia sky filled with mocha clouds, a sleek rocket-ship ducks and weaves among the nebulous fluff, the golden tail fins flashing in the defused light. The ship slides into the foreground, giving the viewer a close up of the nose art and the pilot’s name: Buck Rogers!

The beautiful marriage of the Net and the technology to create a series like Buck Rogers with the science fantasy of eighty years ago is not lost on me. A lot of folks on the web are all ready prejudging the series, or claiming that is a fake. I don’t care! If all I get is the teaser trailer, then I am happy. Because the teaser gets it, the promise of space travel before it was even thought possibly. This series, should it come to fruition, is an expression of the imagination from an era lost on most people today. The serials of that bygone era were Star Wars and Star Trek, they were the expression of “imagine if” the rocket ships, the ray guns, and the giant robots. These guys didn’t care about science, they were telling an adventure story. Without those adventure stories to inspire them, how many kids that applied themselves to science never would have?

The speculative fiction of every generation is a reflection of the times: the original stories of Anthony Rogers’ war on the Han to the serials that followed. The social questions raised in Star Trek and the speculation of George Lucas’ message when he created the Star Wars prequels. From a historical stand point these works from the 20’s and even the 80’s hold significant meaning for us. As adventures they are a rollicking good time. I think as long as we need heroic icons like Buck Rogers someone will breathe new life into him.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Time Forgotten! Classic Pulp from the 1970s’!

The 1970s’ saw a resurgence of the pulp/scifi genre. Movies heavily influenced by the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame and Arthur Conan Doyle. Most movies of this sort were low budget and frankly bad enough to make you cringe. But that is why they are classics in my mind. One of the actors that found work in these films with Doug McClure; he starred in The Land that Time Forgot, At the Earth’s Core, The People that Time Forgot (as a guest star), and Warlords of Atlantis. Unfortunately this rugged actor died in 1995 at the age of 59.
The movies he starred in were some great examples of pulp science fiction and pulp adventure in general. The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot are two films I just had the pleasure of watching again recently, thanks to a good friend of mine. Knowing my love of the genre he picked up the duo on one DVD and sent them on to me as a gift—thanks Ashy!
The Land that Time Forgot (1975), stared Doug McClure and John McEnery, with the screen play written by Michael Moorcock. Those of us that are fantasy novel readers know Moorcock from his creation of the Eternal Champion, and his most famous character Elric. Moorcock also wrote a series of “Mars” books in the Burroughs vein that I may have review in the blog. So for me, there is a lot of geeky goodness before the film even starts.
The movie is based on a novel by the aforementioned Edgar Rice Burroughs. The movie takes place in 1916 at the height of the Great War. The ocean liner that McClure is a passenger on is torpedoed by a German U-boat. He and a few survivors are lost at sea until they come upon the sub that sank them on the surface. McClure’s character, Bowen Tyler, is from a family of submariners, so he understand the vessel and convinces the surviving ship’s crew to aid him in taking the sub for their own use to reach a safe port. The above elements are staples in pulp fiction: the coincidence of running on the U-boat in vastness of the ocean to the one man to survive is the right man with the skills needed for the job.
The U-Boat is taken by force and guile, but the Germans are not willing to go easy, the executive officer Dietz, smashes the radio which makes it impossible for Tyler to contact friendly forces, and then sabotages the compass, so they become lost.
Lost in the south near Antarctica, the sub is low on fuel and supplies, the group come across a mythical land called Caprona, that the German captain recognizes from the writings of a 17th century explorer. Through expert navigation the sub is threaded through an underground river to the interior of Caprona. There, the ship’s crew discovers dinosaurs and cave men. So the crews both English and German agree to work together to refine crude oil so they can refuel and escape Caprona. During the refining process the German captain and Bowen’s love interest (Susan Penhaligon), both biologists try to puzzle out the mysteries of Caprona, with its dinosaurs of different epochs and cave men from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon, the evolutionary track seeming to follow the river inland becoming more advanced as the one goes deeper into the land.
The mystery is basically solved when the head waters of the river is discovered, where it appears all life originates within its waters. The girl is of course kidnapped by savages and Bowen fights to rescue her. Meanwhile the volcanoes decided that is the perfect time to erupt to destroy the island. McClure’s and Penhaligon’s characters race back but the U-Boat has all ready started to sail, with Dietz taking over. The couple of left stranded and the sub is crushed beneath rocks in its attempt to escape. So the movie ends with the couple heading north in to find a new life, with McClure’s character throwing a canister in the sea with the narrative of the events that had taken place.
The People that Time Forgot (1977) takes place a few years later, starring Patrick Wayne and Sara Douglas (Conan the Destroyer) with Wayne’s character searching for Bowen, a childhood friend. He is accompanied by Douglas’ character who is a strong willed reporter, Wayne’s war buddy, a mechanic, and a British scientist, making up the adventurous group. Once on the island they encounter a native woman who knows English because Bowen has taught her. So the group enlists her aid to find Bowen.
The film is filled with pulp daring do, with cave men taking the heroes to make a sacrifice out of them, to the discovery of a war-like, slightly more advanced race of men. Even the pudgy scientist turns out to be capable in battle, his cane concealing a sword, as any good British adventurer should have! There are daring rescues and fist-fights, with a guest appearance by Doug McClure. The escape from the island is sped up by the volcanoes that are once again erupting to destroy the land.
Both films fall under “low-budget”, models and matte painting supply much of the scenery and vessels used. Puppet dinosaurs make you wish for Ray Harryhausen claymation. (I love Harryhausen just in case one gets the wrong impression.) The stories are what make the films though, lost lands, exploring the unknown despite the dangers; the pulpy goodness of dinosaurs and sword wielding mutant types. The Kaiser’s boys standing in for Nazi’s, with beautiful, smart, tough women and the square-jawed men who love them, are what the best pulp fiction has to offer. The tales revolve around the characters placed in this situation, not the special effect monsters, as I have lamented about so many modern films. In The Land that Time Forgot, there is Captain Von Schoenvorts, played by John McEnery, who has a keen interest in biology. When challenged by Miss Clayton, Susan Penhaligon’s character, and McClure’s love interest, about his service and destruction of a British vessel carrying women and children, when he is such a student of life. The German replies that it is because of his study that his actions are justified, he understands the kill or be killed of survival. He tells her that the vessel would not have blown up as it had if it were not carrying war munitions; munitions that would be used to kill woman and children in his own homeland. The exchange is great—great story telling. In a conversation the German’s motivations are explained, without explanation and he becomes sympathetic, leaving villainy to Dietz the XO.
The action is cliff-hanger style without the fade to black, but the heroes are placed in precarious spots continuously, whether fighting the monsters, the cave men, or the island itself.
To say that I enjoyed these films is an understatement. I would recommend them, but I would caution the viewer: watch the story. Don’t worry about the implausibility of the tale that is part of the fun of pulp science fiction. Ignore the special effects value—or if you must at least laugh at it. This is pure Saturday afternoon entertainment.