Saturday, 26 May 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

I just saw Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End tonight. And while I would have to see it again before I said it was necessarily better than the first two movies, I would say that it is at least as good. Director Gore Verbinski has achieved something rather remarkable for the genre of pirate movies. He has directed three of them in a row and every single one of them are of the best calibre of films.

Indeed, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End has everything a fine pirate movie needs. The plot is wonderfully complex; every single character has his or her agenda, and they don't always agree with the others (some critics will try to tell you the plot is convoluted, but as far as I am concerned anyone with an ounce of intelligence will have no problem following it). There is plenty of backstabbing and betrayal as the characters scramble to achieve what they want. Indeed, one cannot say that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End lacks for unexpected plot twists. These are true pirates, people for whom honesty is not always the best policy.

The nearly constant betrayals and jockeying for position on the part of the characters makes Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End a darker film over all than the first two. Indeed, with Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) and the East India Trading Company (which actually existed and really did try to create a monopoly on the seas, but not quite the way they do in the movie....) and Davy Jones Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End has some of the best villains of any pirate movie. Basil Rathbone would be proud. That is not to say that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is a film without humour. As usual, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow is good for a laugh. And inept pirates Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook) are back in this film with some of the best lines. Indeed, even inept Marines Murtog (Angus Barnett) and Mulroy (Giles New) are back to lend some comedy relief.

Of course, perhaps the most necessary ingredient in any pirate film is action and lots of it. And there is no shortage of action is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. This movie not only features some of the best swordplay in any movie, but some truly exciting ship battles as well. Indeed, the climax features what may well be the best ship to ship battle in any pirate or naval film. And as might be expected, Jack Sparrow gets his final showdown with Davy Jones in what is a sword fight worthy of Errol Flynn.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is helped immensely by its talented cast. There is one off key performance in the bunch. Indeed, it was good to see the great Chow Yun-Fat as Singaporean pirate Captain Sao Feng. OF course, the actors' jobs are made all the more easier by a well written script in which every character is very well developed and three dimensional. When taken alongside the complex plot, it can truly be said that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is a pirate movie with some actual depth. While Gore Vebinski may not top too many people's list of great directors, his direction more than fits the film, keeping it steady and on course.

Over all Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is a fine conclusion to a great trilogy of films. In a summer of threequels when two so far have been major disappointments (Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third), it is good to see one that finally delivers the goods. It's the most fun I've had at the movies all year.

Friday, 25 May 2007

The 40th Anniversary of Star Wars

It was thirty years ago today that Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was released simply as Star Wars. At the time no one expected for Star Wars to become the first film to break $300,000,000. Nor did anyone expect for it to become the second highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation (second only to Gone with the Wind, which had a 38 year head start...). No one certainly expected Star Wars to become a pop culture phenomenon.

Indeed, on that spring day in 1977, nobody really expected much from Star Wars. George Lucas's proposal for a "space fantasy" was rejected by both Universal and United Artists before finding a home at 20th Century Fox. Simply to make the film Lucas had to found Industrial Lights and Magic because 20th Century Fox no longer had a special effects department. The movie fell behind in production in its first week of shooting. The movie was originally going to be released during the Christmas season of 1976, but because of delays on the film its release date was moved to May 25, 1977 (it must be noted that the novelisation of the film was published in December, 1976).

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope did have groundbreaking special effects. It was also groundbreaking with regards to its use of sound. That having been said, the movie only cost $11 million, which was not an abnormally large budget even for 1977. The film was given very little promotion by 20th Century Fox, so little that Charles Lippincott, Lucasfilm Ltd.'s marketing director, was forced to find other ways of promoting the movie (the novelisation, comic books, and so on). Nobody could have predicted that Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope would become one of the most successful films of all time.

That having been said, something strange happened upon the release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. There were long queues of people at nearly every theatre which showed the film. The movie was breaking box office records. In its first weekend alone it grossed $307,263,857--a king's ransom by Seventies standards. And the success of Star Wars was not limited to the movie. Marvel Comics had bought the rights to the comic book adaptation of the film, little realising how big it would really be. They sold out of the first print run of the six issue adaptation, forcing them to publish even more editions. That Christmas, Star Wars action figures and other toys would swiftly sell out. Since then there have been literally tons of Star Wars merchandise, from commemorative glasses to books (not just novelisations of the film, but original material based in the Star Wars universe as well.

Of course, Star Wars would ultimately become a whole saga rather than one film. Its success guaranteed that there would be sequels. Initially, Lucas thought of doing nine to twelve films, the first few films detailing the rise of the Empire and the second part detailing its fall. Eventually, however, he would settle on six films. The original trilogy was continued with Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and concluded with Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi in 1983. Lucas retired Star Wars for more than a decade before the first film in a trilogy of prequels, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999.

Ultimately, the success of Star Wars is perhaps not best measured by the amount of merchandise it has sold or even the fact that there are now two trilogies of films, but the degree to which it has infiltrated Anglo-American pop culture. Its characters, at least from the original trilogy, are as recognisable as Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion. Indeed, even people who have never seen the film can recognise the characters (especially Darth Vader). Over the years there have been so many pop culture references to and parodies of Star Wars that it would take a large book to list them all (everything from Rescue from Gilligan's Island to The Simpsons).

As a pop culture phenomenon, Star Wars would naturally have an impact on motion pictures themselves. That having been said, there are two things for which it is often credited which it should not be. The first is that it legitimised science fiction movies. In truth, the process of legitimising sci-fi films had started in the Sixties with such films as Planet of the Apes and 2001: a Spaced Odyssey. It continued in the Seventies with movies such as Silent Running and Soylent Green. by the time Star Wars was released, science fiction was no longer considered juvenile fare. Second, Star Wars has been blamed for the rise of the summer blockbusters. In truth, summer blockbusters have been around nearly since the beginning of feature films. By way of example, The Wizard of Oz, The Great Escape, and Dirty Dozen were all released in the summer. What Star Wars might have done is encourage summer blockbusters with lots of special effects and appeal for younger crowds.

Of course, the biggest impact Star Wars would have would be upon science fiction movies. Prior to Star Wars the sleek look had been the rule for sci-fi films, typified by the TV series Star Trek and the movie 2001: a Space Odyssey. Everything was clean, pristine, and hardly looked like it had been used. For Star Wars, however, George Lucas chose to give the films a "used" look, in which spaceships and other technology would show signs of wear and tear. This look would inform such science fiction movies following Star Wars as Alien. Star Wars would also revolutionise special effects, making realistic space battles possible.

Star Wars would also serve as an inspiration for future filmmakers. The story goes that after James Cameron saw Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope he quit his job as a truck driver and entered the film industry. Other filmmakers inspired by Star Wars include Dean Devlin, Roland Emerich, John Singleton, and Kevin Smith. As an epic space fantasy, Star Wars would influence epic movies that would follow in its wake. In making the Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson looked to Star Wars for inspiration. The irony of this is that Lucas himself had been influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Indeed, in some respects Star Wars was nothing new. What George Lucas did was take various inspirations from pop culture and blend them into something new and unique. The most obvious influence upon Star Wars are Akira Kurosawa's samurai films. To some degree the Jedi Knights are drawn from the samurai of medieval Japan. And the plot of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope bears some resemblance to Kurosawa's classic film The Hidden Fortress (indeed, C-3PO and R2-D2 are based on the two peasants who serve as comic relief in that film). The first film also shows some influence from Yojimbo, particularly in some of the fight scenes. Star Wars also inspired by such earlier space operas as the Flash Gordon chapterplays, particularly in the serial like structure of the films (complete with opening crawl). The climax of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was inspired by the British film The Dam Busters.

Of course, not all of the inspiration for Star Wars was cinematic. Some of it was literary. Lucas was inspired by such legendary heroes as Beowulf and King Arthur. He also looked to J. R. R. Tolkien and Lord of the Rings for inspiration. In particular, Obi-Wan Kenobi seems similar to Gandalf, and there is marked resemblance between Gandalf's fight with the Balrog and Kenobi's final battle with Darth Vader. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope also shows influence form Dune, particularly in the desert planet of Tatooine. Perhaps Lucas's chief inspiration for Star Wars was mythologist Joseph Campbell's Hero wuth a Thousand Faces. Lucas made conscience use of Campbell's "heroic journey" with regards to Luke Skywalker's transition from farm boy to Jedi in training. Lucas also made use of Jungian archetypes (Jung having heavily influenced Joseph Campbell).

The various influences upon Star Wars might well explain its phenomenal success. On the one hand, Star Wars seems very familiar. Its stories evoke the legends of old, with the Jedi Knights playing the role the Knights of the Round Table or the Japanese samurai. Its heroes are made of the same cloth as the heroes of old, facing many of the same battles as they did. As to pop culture, Star Wars evokes the serials of old, as well as space operas from the past. In some respects, it was Flash Gordon for the late 20th century. With its mythic tales of Jedi Knights and princesses, it also evokes the old medieval epics, both from the UK and U. S. and from Japan.

At the same time, however, that Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope offered audiences something familiar, it also offered them something new. Never before had a filmmaker offered audiences a space opera that had nearly the scope, spectacle, and epic nature of Lord of the Rings or The Gormenghast Trilogy. Arguably, short of 2001: a Space Odyssey, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was the first epic science fiction movie. Indeed, perhaps no other movie series in the history of film had as complex and as deep a back story as the Star Wars films. The very fact that the movies created an Expanded Universe that includes books and animated series demonstrates that Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was more than a simple film.

Star Wars has proven to have a lasting impact on pop culture and film. And it is difficult to say that any other movies will have ever match that influence. The Matrix trilogy fell short of Star Wars influence. It is possible that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise will have similar influence, but only time will tell. Regardless, I doubt Star Wars will ever be forgotten short of an apocalypse. Even then, I have to wonder that it won't be enjoyed by other civilisations in a galaxy far, far away.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

The Technorati Redesign

I've been a member of Technorati since September of 2004. And I have always thought that Technorati was the best blog search on the Web, even after the introduction of Google's blog search. The past few days saw them introduce a redesign of their website. And I must admit that I have very mixed feelings about it.

The new design certainly looks snazzier than the old one. And it is fairly easy to navigate. I can't say it's a dramatic improvement over the old design, but it is certainly better.

That having been said, there are other things that I dislike about the redesign. One of them is the ticker at the top of the page, which displays various subjects being written about in various blogs. To me the ticker is just annoying. And it's not particularly useful.

While the ticker is annoying, it is not my major complaint about the new design. That would be Technorati's introduction of what they call an "everything in the known universe" search. Whereas in the past when one performed a search from the Technorati homepage, it delivered results from various blog posts, now it delivers results from blog posts, visual media, and audio. According to the Technorati blog, the need for this "everything in the known universe" search grew out of the fact that the Web has changed and there are now different types of user generated content than there was a few years ago. This includes video, pictures, audio, games, and so on. To be of service to its users, then, Technorati introduced its "everything in the known universe" search.

Perhaps unfortunately, I am one of those people who uses Technorati to search blogs. I really am not interested in searching for videos and pictures, and on those rare occasions when I am, I tend to use Google. I rather suspect that most of Techorati's core users are people like myself who use it to search blogs. I then think that it is a big mistake on Technorati's part to not have a blog search on their homepage. Okay, they still have a search for blogs alone (you can find it here), but there isn't a link to it on the homepage. To me this is hardly a suitable solution.

While I can understand why Technorati developed their "everything in the known universe" search, I think they really should have kept the blog search on their homepage. Indeed, I think perhaps their best bet would have been to follow Yahoo's lead. On both the Yahoo homepage, one can search for web sites, images, video, and so on. One just clicks on the category one wants to search and then types in the search terms. Technorati could have done the same thing, setting it up so that one can search for blogs, visual media, audio, or "everything in the known universe" from the homepage. In this way they would appeal to new users, while not alienating their core users.

At any rate, I certainly won't stop using Technorati, although I will probably be visiting the homepage less (I'll being using the blog search instead). As a long term member and user of Technorati, I wish they would make it so one can search for blogs from the homepage again. And I hope they do away with that ticker!

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Tomahawk

Today when most people think of comic books, they tend to think of superheroes. At most, if they are older, they might think of the old EC horror titles. But when I was very young comic books published more than just superheroes. Comic books covered several different genres, among them Westerns, horror, war, romance, and, of course, funny animal books. But there was one title which I read loyally not long after I learned to read that was unique in its choice of genre. Tomahawk followed the exploits of a man originally called Tom Hawk in his first appearance, but also referred to as Tom Haukins in some accounts, but better known by his nickname, "Tomahawk." If I had to define its genre, it would be "frontier drama," the same genre as James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumpo novels and Walt Disney's Davy Crockett mini-series.

Tomahawk was an adventurer who often served George Washington against British, French, and Iroquois forces in the decades prior to the American Revolution. He typically dressed in a coonskin cap and bucksins, his trusty rifle never far from his side. His sidekick was Dan Hunter, a youth modelled after such sidekicks of superheroes as Robin and Bucky (Captain America's sidekick). The series was created by writer Joe Samachson and artist Edmund Good, although it would be artist Fred Ray who would give shape to the character more than any other man. Ray was a fervid Revolutionary War buff and more than suited to his work on Tomahawk. In some respects Tomahawk was ahead of its time. It predated both Disney's Davy Crockett mini-series (which wouldn't appear until 1954) and the old Daniel Boone TV show (which debuted in 1964--both starred Fess Parker).

Tomahawk first appeared as a back up feature in Star Spangled Comics #69 (June 1947). Batman's sidekick Robin was the cover feature at the time, but it was not long before Tomahawk's popularity would allow him to push Robin from the cover. His first cover appearance was in Star Spangled Comics #96 (September 1949). Tomahawk remained the cover feature until Star Spangled Comics #121, (October 1951) when he lost out to a new character called "The Ghost Breaker (long since forgotten)." With its 131st issue (August 1952) Star Spangled Comics would become Star Spangled War Stories and Tomahawk would cease appearing there at all. By then, however, it hardly mattered. Tomahawk also appeared in World Finest Comics starting out in 1948 and it would continue to appear there until 1959. He received his own comic book, Tomahawk, with an issue dated September/October 1950.

Sadly, like many of DC's titles from the Forties to the Sixties, Tomahawk would stray from being a serious frontier drama into outright silliness. This started early, with a Tomahawk story in Star Spangled Comics #83 (August 1948) called "The Lost Valley," in which Tomahawk faced dinosaurs! Tomahawk #46 (February 1957) featured story called "The Valley of the Giant Warriors," in which Tomahawk faced giant Native Americans. Tomahawk #103 (March/April 1966) featured the Frankenstein Monster in a story called "The Frontier Frankenstein." Eventually, when the Silver Age of comic books made superheroes hot again, Tomahawk would feature its own superhero. In Tomahawk #81 (July-August 1962), the patriotically themed Miss Liberty made her first appearance. She would continue to appear in Tomahawk until nearly the end of the run of the series.

Fortunately, Tomahawk would eventually swing back towards more realistic stories. Robert Kanigher assumed the writing of the series in the late Sixties. Best known for his work on DC's war titles (he is the man who created Sgt. Rock), Kanigher brought Tomahawk back to being a straight frontier drama. Complimenting Kanigher's scripts was art by two of the best artists in the business--Frank Thorne and Joe Kubert. The cast of characters was also expanded in Tomahawk. Tomahawk's Rangers were introduced. This colourful band of adventurers often assisted Tomahawk in his exploits. It is at this point where I was first introduced to the character and it is a run that I remember particularly fondly.

Sadly, following the Silver Age (the Seventies are often called the Bronze Age of comic books, but I tend to think of them as "the Plastic Age..."), comic book sales fell dramatically. This was no less true of Tomahawk. With sales in decline, the magazine which had borne Tomhawk's name for twenty years underwent a dramatic change. With issue 141 (November/December 1970) it was retitled Son of Tomahawk. It no longer focused on Tomahawk but on his son, simply called "Hawk." The setting was also moved up several years, closer to the days of the Old West. This was not enough to save the magazine. Issue #140 (May/June 1972) was the final issue.

Since then Tomahawk has rarely been seen. He made an appearance, along with nearly every other DC character, in DC's massive mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths (published from 1985 to 1986). Later a Tomahawk oneshot was published in 1998 under DC's Vertigo imprint. Sadly, that is about the extent of his appearances since 1970.

I have fond memories of reading Tomahawk as a child. And he was a fairly successful character, with an uninterrupted publishing history spanning twenty three years. While Tomahawk could fall into outright silliness, at its best it was a rousing frontier drama. Robert Kanigher's run on the series was particularly impressive, with beautiful illustrations by some of the industry's best artists. It seems to me that among DC's characters ripe for revival, Tomahawk is among them. Indeed, given that in the past thirty years comic books have expanded well beyond superheroes, I would say that he is overdue for a resurgence.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Lloyd Alexander Passes On

Writer Lloyd Alexander, best known for his fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain and other books for young adults, passed on May 17. He was 83 years old and had been fighting a long battle with cancer.

Lloyd Alexander was born in Philadelphia on January 30, 1924. His parents were not exactly supportive of Alexander's decision to be a writer at age 15. They enrolled him in a local college, where he attended for only one term. During World War II he served in the U. S. Army in intelligence and counterintelligence. While he was in the Army he was stationed in Wales, whose myths and legends would serve as the basis for many of Alexander's books. Following his stint in the Army, Alexander attended the University of Paris.

In 1955, Lloyd Alexander's first book, And Let the Credit Go, was published. Unlike his later novel, this novel was an autobiographical satire. Alexander would publish six more books before the first book in The Chronicles of Prydain, The Book of Three, in 1964 would make his famous. The Chronicles of Prydain would become his most successful works. He would even receive the Newbery Medal for the final novel in The Chronicles of Prydain, The High King. The novels are set in Prydain, essentially a fantasy version of Wales (although, as Alexander always emphasised, it is distinct from Wales). The protagonist of the series, Taran, begins as assistant pig keeper to Hen Wen, the oracular sow who originally belonged to the warrior Coll. The series draws heavily upon Welsh mythos, including such characters as Gwydion and High King Math. The Disney film The Black Cauldron was based on The Chronicles of Prydain.

Following The Chronicles of Prydain, Alexander would write The Westmark Trilogy. Taking place in the fictional kingdom of Westmark, the novels were heavily influenced by French existentialist writers and for the most part darker than The Chronicles of Prydain. He would also write a series of novels centred around the character of Vesper Holly, essentially a female version of Indiana Jones.

Although less famous than either J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, I always thought that Lloyd Alexander was equally talented. I read The Chronicles of Prydain while I was growing up and as a young adult, and they always impressed me as inventive and original. With Prydain Alexander created a world as complex as Middle Earth or Narnia. What set it apart is that while Middle Earth drew heavily upon Germanic myths and Narnia drew heavily upon Christian themes and classical myths, Prydain was based around the Welsh mythos. This gives it a different flavour from any other fantasy series around. In fact, I am rather surprised that in the wake of The Lord of the Rings films that no one has snatched up the rights to do a series of live action feature films based on The Chronicles of Prydain. Lloyd Alexander was certainly a talented writer and he will be sorely missed.