Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Lost Zeppelin (1929)

Based loosely on the loss of the Airship Italia over the North Pole the year before, 1929's The Lost Airship is a rather stiff early talkie, as many early talkies tended to be. The loss of the Italia and the subsequent rescue efforts, including the death of polar explorer Roald Amundsen in the attempt, created an international sensation that was easily exploitable for film. The Lost Zeppelin even replicates several of the voyage's incidents, though transposing the misadventure to the South Pole.

Though the film has many nice set pieces and matte paintings, the actual Antarctic portions in its latter half are underwhelming and victim of some bizarre plot holes ("Okay men, let's split up so we can get rid of all this supporting cast!"). Unfortunately this is not very well offset by the dramatic plot, which is a love triangle between the expedition's captain, his wife, and the first mate. Just sheer enjoyment of the genre, time period and setting go a long way in my book, and even I found this one a bit of a slog. You can decide for yourself...

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger is director Joe Johnston's prequel to Marvel's The Avengers, with all the faults of being an extended prologue. While it has some sexy pieces of World War II-era Sci-Fi hardware, even that much is undone by the meaninglessness of the setting. It's a shame because there's a couple ways in which Captain America could have been a more interesting film.

Johnston was a logical choice for helming this project, for besides directing Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, he is probably best known for The Rocketeer. The latter is a consummate bit of period adventure though itself does not aspire to the best of the genre, like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. There were quite a few nods I appreciated, including a cute dig at Raiders, and I admit that the growth of Captain America from a celebrity into a hero was well-played. The World's Fair scenes were particularly nice, and Hydra's Tessaract-based technology was attractive (though it mainly just wanted to make me play Wolfenstein again).

While I could nit-pick at a few designs I didn't like (Captain America looked more authentic in his leather jacket and blue helmet than in his costume, Red Skull would have looked better in a straightforward SS uniform), there was a greater overall problem with the setting: an inability to commit to it. This film was very obviously designed as the prequel to The Avengers and it's sole purpose was getting us to that point. The device from Thor's Frost Giants ends up in the hands of Captain America's Red Skull so that it could be passed along The Avengers' Loki, with the ancillary benefit of introducing us to one of the characters that apparently has to be in the team of so-called “Earth's Mightiest Heroes” (I'm primarily a DC Comics guy, so my money is on the Justice League in that fight).

Johnston does probably as good a job as he could given this circumstance... A problem faced by every director handed a Marvel project and likely the cause of auteurs like Edgar Wright leaving films like Ant-Man. Say what one will about DC's attempts to craft their own cinematic universe, at least they are willing to take risks on directors with substantive creative visions, like Zack Snyder. Johnston manages to pack the legend of Cap as well as he can into this. Nevertheless, all the sequel bits are in place, from the Tessaract to Bucky's impending return as the Winter Soldier to Cap's absurd sacrifice and preservation. Nevermind that apparently Hydra's flying wing had an auto-pilot, but someone who drowns in the Arctic and is discovered 70 years later should be a very dead ice mummy. It's always some little silly thing like this that breaks the suspension of disbelief. Were it some freeze-drying property of the Tessaract, I could have accepted that. It comes from Frost Giants after all. Alas no.

These flights of fancy are underscored by how utterly unnecessary this setting was. The freezing and thawing of Captain America was originally a device to bring a character from the Forties into a comic from the Sixties without having to reboot everything the way DC Comics was doing with Green Lantern, The Flash and the rest of its cohort. When adapting an entire universe to a new medium almost from scratch, there was no need for Captain America to be set in WWII. Any potential for exploring themes like the difference between America's ideals then and now was totally missed in the low ambitions of this film and probably could have been done better in one set in modern times. Was there really no place for a Captain America in a post-9/11, “War on Terror” world? A propaganda machine invented to give a positive face to one of the most questionable and ambiguous of America's military actions? It is not without precedent, considering Iron Man.

Though I love period Sci-Fi and liked many of the particular designs in Captain America, I nevertheless found myself wishing it had foregone the setting I love to become a better movie.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Jolly Top Hat (2006)

The Plimptons explain Victorian economics and class warfare through a giant robot...

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Grimm's Ghost Stories: The Aliens and the Captain (1972)

Grimm's Ghost Stories was Western Publishing/Gold Key's tamer answer to EC Comics, hosted by a Cryptkeeper-like figure named Hephzibah Grimm. Its stories varied wildly from setting to setting, but each had some spooky twist to them. Stories from the series were comparable enough in tone that Gold Key included the following in a digest of its Twilight Zone comics (Mystery Comics Digest #9). In this weird tale, we have a meeting between cowboys and aliens that only gets weirder after that. Click on each image to embiggen it.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Justice Riders (1997)

DC Comics already has a strong showing when it comes to Western themes. Enjoying a good run through the 70's with Weird Western Tales and characters like Jonah Hex, El Diablo and Bat Lash, the company has been working hard to retcon their line-up to provide something even more unique in the Western genre. Under the pen of writer Joe R. Lansdale and DC's mature "Vertigo" imprint, Jonah Hex fought zombies. More recently, in DC's New 52 phase, Hex spent the better part of his time in Victorian Gotham City, laying out groundwork for plotlines resolved in concurrent Batman comics. Meanwhile, El Diablo transitioned from a straight imitation of Zorro to a cross between him and Ghost Rider.

The Weird West - a genre given a name by DC - was also an irresistable lure for DC's Elseworlds titles. In Justice Riders, the famous Justice League gets a makeover as Sheriff Diana Prince gathers a gang of oddball gunslingers to take down the murderous railway baron Maxwell Lord. Joining her are the preturnatually fast Kid Flash, flying Native shaman named Hawkman, screwy inventor Blue Beetle, riverboat slickster Booster Gold, and the shadowy Martian Manhunter. Complicating matters is a Pinkerton named Guy Gardner who is on Kid Flash's trail.

As a Western, it is a serviceable tale. Like most Elseworlds, it is more abreviated than it really ought to be. When putting together a super-powered Magnificent Seven, it needs an epic print run to do it full justice. Official DC continuity has the world of Justice Riders as being Earth-18 of the 52 parallel realities. The door is open for a revisit.

As a superhero comic, Justice Riders is a lot of fun. To anyone who read Justice League International during the 1980's, under the helm of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire, the line-up reads like a yearbook full of old chums. Not only are Booster Gold and Blue Beetle back, suffering Guy Gardner and Maxwell Lord, but even Oberon makes a cameo. Behind Lord's unearthly technology is an alien menace from one of DC's earliest company-wide crossovers. While lacking the same sense of humour as JLI, it is enjoyably nostalgic to see these characters again.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Batman has had a long and storied history. Bob Kane originally conceived of him as a bright and airy masked acrobat with a domino mask and a red suit. It was Bill Finger who invented the more familiar costume, the tragic history, the Zorro-like alter-ego, the Batmobile, Bat Cave, and everything else quintessentially Batman. During the Fifties and Sixties, the adventures of Batman took a more absurd turn culminating in the infamous Sixties television series starring Adam West. Under Frank Miller in the Eighties, Batman returned to his darker roots. First Tim Burton followed suit, then the crew of Batman: The Animated Series (creating what is arguably the best version of Batman ever made, including the comics). Christopher Nolan took a shot at what may be the most realistic portrayal of Batman possible. The current TV show show Gotham is another more realistic take at a Batman prequel. A character as mythic as Batman is able to endure and enjoy many different interpretations.
One of his most recent is Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which took more cues from the Sixties series than the Dark Knight of  Eighties and Nineties (sometimes to the chagrin of fans). Back in a uniform more familiar to fans of the Super Friends, this Batman teamed up with a smorgasbord of heroes in a series of often very absurd plots. Some of those adventures took him into the 19th century, where he teamed up with such luminaries as Jonah Hex and Abraham Lincoln.

Batman and Abe Lincoln vs. John Wilkes Booth
Batman rides with Jonah Hex

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

JLA: Age of Wonder (2003)

Despite the caterwauling of posturing Steampunks trying to mark off territory by dismissing "mere neo-Victorianism" as something trivial, Victorian and Retro-Victorian Scientific Romances has a robust capacity to address social, economic, and environmental issues that isn't reducible to a petty, egocentric critique of mass society. The "rebellions" of the enfranchised bourgeoisie, from Beatniks to Social Justice Warriors, ultimately orients itself towards the one-note conclusion that "I am a special snowflake and the world doesn't treat me right." That is itself trivial when placed next to fiction with the capacity to engage a wider range of  experiences, emotions, and drama. It's why H.G. Wells is a much less interesting author than Jules Verne, and why the literati is so compelled to dismiss Vernian adventures as trivial children's lit while celebrating Wells' pessimistic view of life and fascistic prescriptions for mass society. Certainly there are fantastical adventures to be found in Scientific Romances - which is totally okay - but it is also (and because of that) strong enough to bear the weight of respectable social critique. Even in stories of Superman.

It is quite easy to do, since the Victorian Era either substantially echos many of the problems of our own, or is directly antecedent to these problems. Colonialism and Victorian sweatshops mirror, and may even ultimately be responsible for, the globalism and sweatshops of today. The problems they faced with an increasingly mechanistic age are ones we face with an increasingly cybernetic one. These make Scientific Romances a useful and vital way of looking at ourselves and our society.

One example of this sort of thing is DC Comics' JLA: Age of Wonder. Age of Wonder is a two-issue miniseries under DC's "Elseworlds" imprint, which transposes familiar superheroes from their modern setting to countless others, from the future to the Victorian era to the ancient world to pure fantasy. This time around, the rocket bearing the infant Superman crashes to earth in around the 1850's, setting in motion a string of events culminating in an atomic WWI in the 1910's.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Superman's Metropolis Trilogy

For most people in the West, the word metropolis conjures three images. The first is the dictionary definition of a metropolis as a large, busy city. The second is the classic 1927 German Science Fiction film of that title by Fritz Lang. The third is the home of the greatest of all superheroes, Superman. Superman's Metropolis, a 1996 DC Comics Elseworlds one-shot written by Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficer and Roy Thomas and drawn by Ted McKeever, finally unites the latter into a single industrial age fairy tale.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

Imagine a superman forced to protect his art deco home of Metropolis from a madman's robot... A man dressed as a bat haunting the Victorian London underworld... A wonderful woman sherif in the American West... This was the premise of DC Comics' Elseworlds imprint, which took familiar heroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman and transposed them into unfamiliar settings and eras. They can be a pantheon of Greco-Roman gods, the Knights of the Round Table, or a true League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

After my review of the freshly released Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I realized that I hadn't gotten around to reviewing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter yet, which is a terrible oversight. Released in 2012, this Seth Grahame-Smith penned adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's novel exposes the secret life of the 16th President of the United States of America and the terrifying truth underlying the American Civil War. Well, even more terrifying than how terrifying it was in reality.

As a modern supernatural action movie in which monsters have replaced terrorists or robots or whatever, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has a very similar style to the others of its kind. Overdone CGI with lots of slow-motion and speeding-up, inhuman feats of strength by the titular hero, and that sort of thing. Some of those scenes are well done and inventive within the confines of the trope. Some are as ridiculously over-the-top as one would frankly expect from a film called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. My favourite is when Lincoln is pursuing his quarry admist a stampede of horses, when the vampire grabs a horse, throws it at Lincoln, who gets hit by the horse but then flips around and starts riding the same horse, after which he and the vampire start running across the horses, hopping from horseback to horseback. Because that is exactly how horses work, you see.

The great conceit that sets this apart from the Underworlds and Resident Evils of the world is, of course, Abraham Lincoln and his historical setting. The costume drama parts are actually quite satisfying, especially when the scene shifts to Louisiana. The bayou, plantations along the mighty Mississippi, and New Orleans herself are a rich but underutilized setting for horror films. That may be the old Goth in me with nostalgia for Interview with the Vampire. Or it may just be that I'm susceptible to any film set in that time and place, from Gone with the Wind and Song of the South to Wild Wild West and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It may also have contributed to the Haunted Mansion's soft place in my heart.

Perhaps it is a bit funny that I can accept vampires but not horses and wagons and trains doing things that horses and wagons and trains can't do. I maintain that you can sustain one incredible element so long as everything else is credible. Vampires, yes of course. An axe that houses a rifle, perhaps. Chasing down a vampire who is running across the backs of stampeding horses, with an axe that turns into a gun, while riding a horse that had just been thrown at you is a bit of a stretch. A cool scene if you don't consider physics, but sometimes the oddest things derail you.

What was a stroke of genius, however, was tying Abraham Lincoln's vampire hunting into the American Civil War. Vampirism becomes symbolic of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the "battle for America's soul" becoming very literal. Such a premise has a risk of beating you over the head, and thankfully it comes just shy of doing so. If anything, there is almost a risk of being too sympathetic to the vampires as Rufus Sewell's vampiric progenitor explains how he wants his people to have their own homeland. Thankfully the brutality of their abattoirs are sufficiently demonstrated so as to dispel that fleeting sympathy.

That interesting conceit belays how ridiculous the whole idea of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is. I could have done with a more straightforward horror film or a more overtly corny one, rather than the almost immediately dated supernatural action movie. Nevertheless, the conceit does make it more watchable than its kith and kin. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is not an exceedingly great film, but it is enjoyable in the beleaguered genre of Weird Western, Southern Gothic type stories.