The Way of the Word

28. May 2011

Awesome Ideas That Will Never Be

Okay, if the right chain of unlikely coincidences should happen, this one has a very slim chance of not being completely impossible. If someone who knows Cassandra Peterson happens to see this and likes it and points it out to her and she likes it…

But, yeah: awesome idea that will never be.

I like Elvira (Cassandra Peterson). The character is funny, bizarre, over the top, sexy and, well, funny. I own her first movie, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, on DVD. I’ve seen the second one, Elvira’s Haunted Hills, but I don’t like it nearly as much as the first. The reason is simple: Elvira is an over-the-top comedic character. But unlike the first movie, where Elvira began as the odd woman out and the situation became progressively more bizarre, the second movie had a scenario where everyone was so bizarre that Elvira fit right in.

A good Elvira movie needs to quote heavily from the horror genre, and it has to have Elvira as someone who stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. If everyone is as bizarre as she, then it’s overkill.

So what can we do to make a good and fun Elvira movie? It’s really quite simple:

Elvira Knows Why You Screamed on Friday the 13th.

Let’s quote heavily from the slasher genre, with some liberal sprinkling of Evil Dead and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

A busload of teenagers, returning home from a sports event (or going to a sports event) finds themselves trapped on a small islet. They had only planned to pass through, but a flash flood tore down both bridges, effectively isolating them. There is only one house on the islet, a mansion actually, so the teenagers turn there for help.

The only person in there is Elvira, who, being her normal friendly and helpful self, offers the kids shelter. But something is weird about the entire set-up. Curious as teenagers are, they discover that Elvira is engaged in some strange magickal rituals that might involve the Necronomicon.

As soon as they discover that, they start dying. Since Elvira is the odd woman out, they of course immediately suspect her as the Slasher, and try to kill her in return. Which doesn’t work, but plays a part in establishing that Elvira is not the killer. As the outsider looking in, her help does turn out to be instrumental in uncovering the real killer. And about the magickal experiments she performs in her basement? Yes, it is the Necronomicon, but she’s not trying to call up demons. She’s trying to materialize Bruce Campbell.

At the end of the night, the bridges are being repaired, so the surivors can look forward to continuing on their trip. But what about Elvira? Will she get lucky? Will her summoning of Bruce Campbell succeed? Only his agent knows for sure…

25. May 2011

Review: X-Men First Class

USA/GB 2011. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon. Runtime: 127 Minutes

The year is 1962. Concentration camp survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) has become a Nazi hunter. He is specifically after one person: Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). His quest seems to come to an end when he discovers that Schmidt now calls himself Sebastian Shaw and is in Miami, FL.

The year is 1962. CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating the mysterious Hellfire Club, which is run by Sebastian Shaw. When she discovers things that are patently impossible (how can a man have red skin and a tail, and transport someone else 3000 miles within a few minutes?), she seeks out the help of a geneticist who specializes in mutation: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).  He agrees to help her out in this case, and they track down Shaw.

Arriving at the same time as Lensherr. Despite Erik’s best efforts, Shaw escapes. But Charles has a plan: Shaw has a team of superpowered mutants on his side. The obvious conclusion is that Xavier assembles his own team to deal with it. And so, Xavier and Erik find and gather a group of young, powerful mutants to fight Shaw’s group.

The situation becomes desperate when Xavier discovers that Shaw plans to manipulate the USA and the USSR into starting a nuclear war, which will reduce the world to ruins — but ruins that Shaw will rule. The newly formed, barely trained and still unnamed X-Men dash to Cuba to stop Shaw.

X-Men: First Class is technically the fifth movie in the series (after the original trilogy and the Wolverine movie). This is usually the point where I wonder: does the world really need another (insert franchise name) movie?

In this case, the answer is a resounding YES. X-Men: First Class easily outshines and outclasses not only all the previous X-Men movies, I would rate it second only to The Dark Knight. The movie does everything right.

Instead of a superhero movie, X-Men: First Class is a thriller where the protagonists happen to have superpowers. The stakes are high: the survival of the world. And the events actually happened, sort of: the Cuban missile crisis is an historic event, and it almost did cause a total nuclear war. The difference between the movie and the real world was that there were no mutants involved in the real world event. (That we know of. 😉 ) The movie does not rely on big, splashy special effects. Which means that when they do present a big splashy special effect (yes, I’m talking about Magneto raising a submarine from the ocean), it packs quite a punch. The chilliest and scariest moments, however, involve Magneto and a small coin.

X-Men: First Class focuses on the characters. This is mostly an ensemble piece, so it’s clear that not all the characters get equal time. At the center are the relationships between Xavier, Erik and, to an extent, Shaw. Vaughn doesn’t forget the X-Men, however. Each of the young mutants has their own storyarc, which is compellingly told and actually brought to a conclusion. The young actors who play the X-Men sell their roles completely. As the audience, you invest feelings into all of them, you want to see what happens to them, what becomes of them. Even in those cases where you know, such as Magneto and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), you can’t help an emotional investment in the outcome. Taking, for example, the moment when Mystique discovers that the boy she likes is just like everyone else and considers her real form ugly, that the only one who actually accepts her for what she is is Erik… you, as the audience, can actually feel her heart break.

It’s the bad guys who get the short end of the stick here, Riptide for example doesn’t get any lines at all. But it doesn’t really matter, because they only exist as foils for the heroes. The only villain who matters is Shaw — and that is because of his personal connection to Erik.

If Michael Fassbender weren’t already a star, I’d call this his breakout performance. His portrayal of Erik Lensherr/Magneto is compelling, conflicted, nuanced. His relationship with Xavier is a mutual brotherly love, two men who want the same thing, but because of their opposite pasts see the future differently. Xavier is a sheltered rich kid, who sees people as inherently good. Erik, as the concentration camp survivor, has seen humanity at its worst, and his views are colored accordingly. At the end, when the X-Men reveal themselves to the world, one man’s views will be proven right.

And the audience will see where Magneto’s coming from. Because Erik Lensherr is a thoroughly sympathetic figure. He doesn’t trust humans, and when the proverbial chips fall, he’s the one who is proven right.

The movie also manages to balance all that gravitas with a lot of humor. It’s a good kind of humor, though, the kind where you laugh with the characters and not at them. One of the funniest scenes is where the kids are in the CIA compound, showing off their powers. Kids will be kids. And let us not forget the cameos. One in particular had the entire audience howling with laughter. “Go f**k yourselves.” You’ll see what I mean, and you can’t tell me you didn’t laugh.

In summary: X-Men: First Class is an extremely well written, well acted and well-directed thriller with superpowered protagonists that manages to get the audience involved in the destinies of each of the characters. It ties neatly into the other movies (only two minor continuity quibbles remain unresolved), but stands out as the best of them. As a matter of fact, X-Men: First Class sets the blue-gold-standard for this year’s superhero movies — and frankly, I don’t think the others can beat it. Among all the other superhero movies, I rate this second only to The Dark Knight.

Verdict: extremely recommended.

24. May 2011

Novel in Progress: Die Young

I was rewatching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service yesterday evening, and I wonder: in both the novels and the movies, Marc-Ange Draco never shows up again. But he should. For those who don’t know the story: in OHMSS, Bond marries a woman named Tracy. Tracy is the daughter of Draco, who happens to be a major figure in international organized crime. At the end of the story, Bond marries Tracy, who is just afterwards murdered by Bond’s arch enemy Blofeld.

Yet neither in the novels or in the movies does Draco become involved in hunting down Blofeld to avenge the death of his beloved daughter. Sure, it’s Bond’s stories and Bond’s enemies, but I find it very much out of character of this kind of person (who earlier in the story staged a major assault on Blofeld’s fortress to rescue his captured daughter) that he just, well, seems to shrug it off.

Right now, you probably wonder why I talk about that instead of my progress on Die Young, which is what the NiP posts are about. Oh, it’s simply: it made me realize that I need to kill Amy Mason.

What, huh? Or rather, what, who? Isn’t this novel about who killed Diana Young, Teh SexKitteh?

Yeah, sure. The problem was that I needed a stronger hook for Shaw to remain involved after the first 20 pages, so I added a missing person quest.

Now, some pages later, I’m stuck. I didn’t know how to advance the story. Which is why I started to watch movies instead of working on Die Young. Distract myself, let my subconscious work on the problem. I was getting so desperate that I was considering doing a Hammett. You see, there is something that Dashiell Hammett does in his stories that I don’t like: he relies too much on coincidence to move the story forward. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart. One thing that happens over and over again in the story (the novel too) is that Sam Spade’s investigation gets stuck, and then someone comes in out of nowhere, drops a clue and vanishes again. Without Spade having to do anything for it. I hate that. But I was starting to think that perhaps I needed to do something like it as well.

Then I remembered that I had already set up a solution to it. Shaw had already talked with a contact at the NYPD’s vice squad. That one could come up with something, which meant that the information wouldn’t come out of nowhere.

But that raised another problem: once Shaw has Amy, he doesn’t have to continue to work the case. Problem solved, case close. I’d be back to square one.

That’s the problem with a MacGuffin: once the hero has acquired it, end of story.

The solution came over breakfast this morning. I was re-reading Maison Ikkoku and thinking about how I haven’t killed anyone in far too long. Which tells you far too much about how my mind works. (Although, to be fair, I mostly thought about how nobody has tried to kill Shaw yet in this novel, and realized that so far, noboy had any reason to.)  Anyway, it was then that I realized how to solve all my problems at once:

I have to kill Amy Mason. That would fix the dead end I’m currently staring at, it would provide a nice break in the story’s current lull, and it would give Shaw added incentive to get his ass in gear.

It’s like with comics. In comics, if you’re stuck, you blow something up. (Come to think of it, that’s also how they handle it in blockbuster movies.) Here, I’m stuck, so I’ll kill Amy Mason in order to move the plot forward.

22. May 2011

Vampires Don’t Sparkle!

If you like vampires (the scary kind that doesn’t sparkle in the daylight), you might want to consider spending 99 cents on Streets of Blood, my vampire novel. Only available for the Kindle.

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/jeNxaE

Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/j1e19E

Amazon Germany: http://amzn.to/jMhUdp

15. May 2011

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean 4 – On Stranger Tides

USA 2011. Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane. Runtine: 140 minutes

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is in London, and hiring a crew for a new expedition. When Captain Jack Sparrow finds out about that, he’s rather upset that someone is abusing his name. He has just found out who it is when he is shanghaied into that very crew — which turns out to be Blackbeard’s (Ian McShane). Blackbeard and his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) are looking for the Fountain of Youth. Just like everyone else, from the Spanish king to Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Jack’s arch-nemesis. And everyone thinks that Captain Jack Sparrow knows where it is.

I’m kind of torn regarding Pirates 4. On the one hand, I didn’t very much like it. On the other hand, I know exactly why: I’m too old for it. Pirates of the Caribbean is very much a children’s movie. If you’re under 18, you’re probably going to love it, for exactly the bits that seemed silly and contrieved (in other words: childish) to me. In that regard, it fails: while delivering the goods for the young target group, it forgets to add a layer for the adults. If you’ll compare recent animated movies like Despicable Me or Megamind, those had something for everyone to enjoy. Pirates 4 is only for children. Perhaps adults are supposed to marvel at the production values. It is, in a way, a pity, because Pirates 4 opens with a very clever and well-choreographed action sequence where Captain Jack escapes from the clutches of the king of  England. But it fades fast afterwards. There is still plenty of action, and a couple of scenes that might have been scary, but it is literally too bloodless to be effective.

Yes, Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is definitely aimed straight at children. In that, it falls short of the all-ages appeal of the first one.

Another problem is that the cast doesn’t bother to try to save the movie. Johnny Depp is by now so familiar with Jack Sparrow that he doesn’t need to wake up in order to play the part, and it shows. McShane’s Blackbeard tries his best to be menacing, but he doesn’t really succeed. There is no chemistry between Cruz and Depp, and their relationship doesn’t really hold water. Only Rush as Barbossa stands out. Rush chews his scenery with relish, and becomes the best thing about this movie.

The script is also rather careless. A bit more effort would have resulted in a layered all-ages movie instead of a pure childrens’s movie. And some plotholes would have required plugging. While there is a twist at the end that even I didn’t see coming, the ending had several problems. While some of it was predictable, there was one real “That character wouldn’t do that” moment, and the ending required ignoring some of the rules the movie set up.

Of course, this movie was in 3D. Compared to most, the 3D was not bad. Disney really knows how to do that. However, the 3D is in-your-face pointless, mostly it’s about objects being thrust into your face. You don’t lose anything by seeing this movie in 2D.

The final verdict? This one is difficult. As a movie for children, Pirates 4 is quite effective. As such, I render the

Verdict: recommended

For adults without children, it’s more difficult. Pirates 4 is better than Pirates 2 and 3, but that’s not difficult to accomplish. It’s not as much fun as the first one, though. For adults, I render the

Verdict: mildly recommended

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