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Wednesday, 6 September 2017

DREAMCHILD AND VAMPIRES AND HOBBITS, OH MY! - (MINI-)REVIEWING THE MOVIES: SOME THOUGHTS UPON A SELECTION OF RECENTLY-WATCHED FANTASY FILMS


'Orfeo Negro' – Brazilian publicity poster for 'Black Orpheus' (© Marcel Camus/Tupan Filmes/Lopert Pictures)

Over Christmas last year and the early part of the New Year, I fulfilled a longstanding promise to myself and watched all eight of the Harry Potter movies, one a night for eight consecutive nights, on DVD, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of them – which has in turn inspired me to indulge periodically in further film-watching binges ever since.

The eight 'Harry Potter' films on DVD (© Chris Columbus/Alfonso Cuarón/Mike Newell/David Yates/Heyday Films/1492 Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Consequently, during the past few months I've finally succeeded in watching a number of fantasy-themed movies that I've long wanted to see but had somehow never got around to doing so, plus a few new releases. I've posted my own mini-reviews of some of them on my Facebook wall, containing my thoughts, opinions, various related if somewhat random facts, and other allied ephemera. As these generally have attracted quite a degree of interest from FB friends and other movie fans, it seemed worthwhile gathering them together and preserving them in my Eclectarium. So that's what I've done, and here they are.

NB - All illustrations included in this blog article are copyrighted to the respective directors, film studios, and distributors that released and distributed them, and are included here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only.


22 March 2017: KONG – SKULL ISLAND

'Kong: Skull Island' publicity poster and film still (© Jordan Vogt-Roberts/Legendary Pictures/Tencent Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Another cinema visit today, this time to see 'Kong: Skull Island'. Whereas I felt that Tom Hiddleston (playing a British SAS captain leading the expeditionary party to Skull Island) had been unfairly panned by the critics, the monsters were zoologically implausible to say the least (but in any film featuring a gorilla the height of the Empire State Building or thereabouts, this fact was never going to be unexpected), yet thoroughly entertaining nonetheless.

My own particular favourite - other than Kong himself, naturally - was what initially appeared to be a fair-sized algae-covered hillock mysteriously rising above the water surface of a huge lake but which soon revealed itself to be the humped back of a truly humungous amphibious yak-like ungulate - a veritable bovine behemoth, in fact, but which proceeded to stare impassively at an armed-and-ready Hiddleston with cud-chewing indifference. I've been (semi-)reliably informed that it is officially known as a sker buffalo.

The giant Kong-sized skullcrawler (© Jordan Vogt-Roberts/Legendary Pictures/Tencent Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures)

As expected in all the best monster movies, there were the obligatory giant invertebrates (squid-octopus combo critter, spider, parasitised stick insect), mostly lurking unseen for much of their screen time but with murderous intent aplenty, and also some very weird giant flying beasts called leafwings. However, Skull Island's principal monstrous villains this time round were a grotesque two-limbed reptilian lineage known as skullcrawlers that lived underground but surfaced periodically to wreak havoc and horror upon their human victims, with the skullcrawler numero uno being a colossal monster of comparable proportions to Kong himself. Morphologically, the skullcrawlers were truly bizarre, looking something like what might be the macabre outcome if ever a gigantic tatzelworm (ask a cryptozoologist what that is) or a ginormous lindorm (ditto a dracontologist) and an immense wingless pterodactyl ever got it together - but without these latter beasts' charm!

The film purists have scoffed, are scoffing, and no doubt will continue to scoff, but I never go to monster movies to expect zoological reality, I go for awesome special effects and escapism, and this film more than delivered on both counts for me. Click here to check out this action-packed trailer, and see for yourself. As for the plot: look, guys, this is a monster movie - you weren't really expecting a plot, surely??


24 March 2017 – 'LORD OF THE RINGS' TRILOGY (2001, 2002, 2003)

The extended DVDs of the 'LOTR' trilogy (© Peter Jackson/WingNut Films/The Saul Zaentz Company/New Line Cinema)

I spent last weekend box-setting (lo, a new verb is created!) all 12 hours or so of the extended DVD versions of Peter Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' film trilogy.

I loved the books and the three 3-hr cinematic-release versions of the films, but the extended DVDs each contain about an extra hour's worth of footage that helped to fill in a few notable gaps in the cinema versions, most notably showing what happened to Saruman (played by Christopher Lee) after the ents flooded Isengard and marooned him there.

In the cinema version, that incident happened at the end of 'The Two Towers', and nothing more was seen of him afterwards. But in the extended version of 'The Return of the King', Saruman is seen still at Isengard but treating his lackey Wormtongue badly there, who responds by stabbing him to death in the back. Why this pivotal scene was cut from the cinema version of 'The Return of the King' (and hence meaning that Lee never appeared in this third film at all), I shall never understand (true, it deviates from the books, in which they are in the Shire when Wormtongue stabs him, but at least it provides a resolution of sorts that was absent from the cinema version).

Anyway, glad to have seen these at long last. Next on my movies to-do list: box-setting the three extended DVD versions of 'The Hobbit'!


7 April 2017 – 'MALEFICENT' (2014)

'Maleficent' publicity poster (© Robert Stromberg/Walt Disney Pictures/Roth Films/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Many months ago, knowing that I've always been a massive Disney fan, a friend lent me her DVD of the 2014 movie 'Maleficent', which tonight I've finally got around to watching. It's the Disney live-action reworking of their earlier animated feature film version of the classic Charles Perrault fairy tale 'La Belle au Bois Dormant' ('Sleeping Beauty').

In 'Maleficent', the eponymous fairy is evil only because she had previously been grievously betrayed by her human lover (father of the future Sleeping Beauty, Princess Aurora), so she is actually misunderstood rather than malevolent. Yeah, right. The special effects are spectacular, as you would imagine from Disney's CGI department, but there is only so much reworking possible with anything, and I'm sorry but in the classic tale, and especially in Disney's original animated film, Maleficent is the absolute embodiment of evil. There is not a glimmer, not the slightest scintilla, of goodness in her, so for me it was impossible to suspend disbelief and pretend that she's really not that bad after all.

Having said that, it was an enjoyable romp, with Angelina Jolie playing Maleficent superbly (especially in her more sinister scenes), wonderful visuals, and a most unexpected twist on who actually wakes Sleeping Beauty with true love's kiss. Oh yes, almost forgot: a beautiful Tchaikovsky-based song and the vocals of Lana Del Rey really don't go together, honestly - just sayin'...

Anyway, if you haven't seen the movie, click here to view an eye-popping trailer for 'Maleficent'.


15 April 2017 – 'DREAMCHILD' (1985)

'Dreamchild' in VHS videocassette format (© Gavin Millar/PFH Films)

Last night I watched 'Dreamchild' on DVD, a classic 1985 British movie giving a fictionalised version of how the original Alice who inspired Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking Glass' books visited New York when she was 80 years old to receive an honorary degree from Columbia University in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Carroll's birth.

That did happen, but in the film it is interspersed throughout with flashbacks to when she was a child and also with several fantasy sequences in which Alice both as a girl and as the elderly lady (the latter played superbly by Coral Browne) encounters some of the Wonderland characters.

The characters are played by life-sized human-containing puppets produced by muppet creator Jim Henson's Creatures Workshop, but if you're expecting cute Kermit/Fozzie Bear-type creatures, think again! Instead, they're grotesque, sometimes hideous, monstrous entities that look, speak, and behave as if they've escaped from a Stephen King nightmare, most notably the March Hare and the (very) Mad Hatter.

Disney this ain't, that's for sure! But bearing in mind that the film was written by Dennis Potter, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by that.


16 April 2017: 'SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES' (1983)

'Something Wicked This Way Comes' publicity poster (© Jack Clayton/Walt Disney Productions/Buena Vista Distribution)

Back in my student days I devoured sci-fi and fantasy novels in innumerable quantity, and among my favourites was Ray Bradbury's mesmerising 'Something Wicked This Way Comes'. Now, after years of seeking it, courtesy of YouTube I've finally succeeded in viewing the sumptuously sinister, consummately creepy Disney film version (inexplicably all but unobtainable in Britain either on VHS videocassette or on DVD), and it was well worth the wait.

Jonathan Pryce is a superbly malign Mr Dark, carnival owner and leader of the Autumn People who grant greedy or unsuspecting visitors to the carnival all that they desire, then feed upon the fear and misery that their desires inevitably generate. Click here for a taster of what to expect.


27 April 2017 – 'EVENING PRIMROSE' (1966)

'Evening Primrose' on DVD (© ABC TV channel)

Not a movie this time but instead a one-off TV special. Just tracked down another long sought-after fantasy rarity. Ever since hearing Sarah Brightman singing the haunting song 'I Remember Sky' on her album 'The Songs That Got Away', I have always hoped that one day I'd get to see the obscure 1960s made-for-American-TV musical 'Evening Primrose', by Stephen Sondheim, from which this song originated, because it had such a weird storyline, yet had never been made available commercially (a DVD of it now exists) and never shown at all in Britain.

A group of people secretly live their entire lives inside a large department store, remaining hidden from all customers and staff during the day by posing as store mannequins, coming alive as it were only at night when the store is closed. None is ever allowed to leave this enclosed community in case they betray its presence in the store, and if anyone ever does try to escape they are visited by the fearful 'Dark Men' who transform them into mannequins permanently. One day, a very disillusioned-with-life poet (played by Anthony Perkins of 'Psycho' fame) decides to stay in the store after hours, whereupon he unexpectedly meets the closeted community, who accept him into it, but he also falls in love with one of its members, a young woman who has been there ever since she was accidentally separated from her mother while shopping there aged just 6 years old. She sings 'I Remember Sky' to the poet, in which she recalls memories from her life in the outside world, before she became part of the store's secret community all those years ago. The poet and the young woman plan to escape, to make a life for themselves outside the store and in the real world, but what happens? Do they succeed?

Now, like I've done, you can find out for yourself, by clicking here to watch this fascinating 51-min-long curiosity, originally screened as part of ABC's ABC Stage 67 anthology TV series, but currently accessible online courtesy of YouTube (it is in English but has Spanish subtitles). There is also an excellent webpage devoted to 'Evening Primrose' here.


29 April 2017 – 'KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN' (1985)

'Kiss of the Spider Woman' publicity poster (© Héctor Babenco/Embrafilme/Island Alive/FilmsDallas Pictures)

Finally watched another film that I've long promised myself I would – 'Kiss of the Spider Woman', a joint Brazilian-American production released in 1985, starring William Hurt (who won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in it) and Raul Julia.

Not a super-hero(ine) movie, lol, but instead a somewhat stark, prison-based, politically-themed film and hence not the genres that normally appeal to me, but its decidedly strange, surrealistic nature, interspersing reality with fantasy, drew me in and maintained my interest throughout. Pity the eponymous spider woman played such a very minor part in it, but it's certainly a one-off film wholly unlike anything that I've seen before.

It would be interesting to see the musical based upon it, and learn how such a singular, decidedly dark film (featuring as it does the torturing of political prisoners) has been transformed into a stage show with songs.


7 May 2017: 'BLACK ORPHEUS' (1959)

'Black Orpheus' English publicity poster (© Marcel Camus/Tupan Filmes/Lopert Pictures)

Friday just gone was a day from hell for me (major car trouble - don't ask!!), so to chill out and put it all out of my mind, I devoted Friday night/Saturday morning to watching a very special film that I'd wanted to see for many years – 'Black Orpheus' ('Orfeo Negro'), the celebrated, award-winning Brazil-set musical from 1959 offering a modern-day interpretation of a classic story from Greek mythology, Orpheus and Eurydice. It is in Portuguese, but a few days ago I was able to purchase an official DVD of it dubbed into English and also with English subtitles. So I sat back and watched it twice, once the English-dubbed version, and once the original Portuguese version with English subtitles.

A fascinating film, blending the wild samba-driven gaiety of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro with life in one of this city's famous favelas (much of the movie was filmed in a real favela), full of melodic music and colourful dance, with eerie supernatural overtones as Death stalks and ultimately claims Eurydice, followed by Orpheus's vain attempt to win her back by participating in a Macumba ritual taking place within an Underworld-redolent setting complete with a ferocious guard-dog called Cerberus (albeit only one-headed here).

In the English-dubbed version, the movie's most famous song 'Manhã de Carnaval' is sung in direct English translation from the original Portuguese, and was the first time that I'd ever heard these beautiful lyrics, as the two more famous English versions ('Carnival', and 'A Day in the Life of a Fool') are not translations from the Portuguese version but are entirely new lyrics, so that was a very pleasant surprise.

As a longstanding fan of musicals and Greek mythology and as someone fortunate enough to have visited Rio, I thoroughly enjoyed this most unusual but spellbinding film, and can readily recommend it to anyone seeking something very different and totally captivating in the world of movies.


9 May 2017: 'THE MONKEY KING 2 – JOURNEY TO THE WEST' (2016)

'The Monkey King 2: Journey to the West' publicity poster (© Cheang Pou-soi/Filmko Entertainment)

I've just watched the spectacular 2016-released Chinese fantasy movie 'The Monkey King 2: Journey to the West', with English subtitles. The special-effects were truly out of this world - not in any of the countless sci-fi/fantasy films that I've viewed down through the years have I ever seen anything to compare to them.

The monsters are as varied as they are numerous - everything from a pair of bloodthirsty aerial mermaids, an Oriental mothman lookalike, and a colossal white tiger that effortlessly defies the laws of gravity when attacking our heroes, to  skeletal wraiths, a pig demon, an immense Eastern dragon, and, as the film's villainess, a mercilessly evil female demon whose aerobatics, shape-shifting abilities, and chilling yet mesmerising malevolence renders the likes of Maleficent, Cruella De Vil, and Ursula the sea-witch mere toe-dippers in the deep, dark waters of evil.

And if you don't believe me, click here for a taster of what to expect from this stupendous film - there's certainly never a dull moment in Oriental mythology, that's for sure!


27 May 2017: 'INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE' (1994)

'Interview With The Vampire' film still (© Neil Jordan/Geffen Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Weather too sultry for sleep tonight, so exactly 30 years after reading the original Anne Rice novel it seemed to me to be the ideal night for finally watching the 1994 Brad Pitt/Tom Cruise movie version of 'Interview With The Vampire' - so I did.

Although I much prefer the novel (Rice's flowery to the point of decidedly mauve if not entirely purple prose in places may not suit everyone but in relation to its subject matter I enjoyed it), the film certainly holds its own - though my all-time favourite vampire movie remains 'The Lost Boys' (overlapping as it does the rock'n'roll and biker genres guarantees that!).

Tom Cruise and horror was something new for me, but his Lestat was undeniably and wickedly malign, and a young Kirsten Dunst as the vampire world's answer to Shirley Temple was chillingly good too. Brad, conversely, seemed rather less enamoured by it all, which accords well with media accounts claiming that he was not overly enthusiastic about his role. And so, another long-promised-to-watch movie duly watched!


28 May 2017: 'NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE' (1979)

'Nosferatu the Vampyre' publicity poster (© Werner Herzog/Werner Herzog Filmproduktion/20th Century Fox)

I've just expanded my vampire movie night of last night into a double vampire movie night double-bill, because tonight I've just watched the 1979 film 'Nosferatu the Vampyre' - Werner Herzog's art-house remake of the classic 1922 silent movie 'Nosferatu'.

As I expected from an art-house film, it's visually stunning, but with the very notable exception of Klaus Kinski, who is quite mesmerising in the title role of Nosferatu (i.e. Count Dracula), the acting is rather stilted and laboured, and I confess to being somewhat mystified by certain aspects of the plot. In particular, am I correct (or not) in assuming that the rats and the plague are merely a cover created by Dracula to conceal his vampiric activity? But if so, surely the death count is too high for even the most bloodthirsty vampire to achieve? Conversely, if this is all a misapprehension on my part, and the spreading of the plague via the rats was truly real and not a subterfuge, what was the point of it?

Also, the physical appearance of Nosferatu/Dracula is so grotesque, so unearthly, that how could Jonathan Harker not realise instantly that he was indeed a member of the undead rather than merely a castle-bound eccentric?? Such plot-holes aside, however, and suspending disbelief in relation to them, it is unquestionably a fascinating film, and yet another long-awaited one finally ticked off my list.


30 May 2017: 'PAN'S LABYRINTH' (2006)

'Pan's Labyrinth' publicity poster and film still (© Guillermo del Toro/Telecinco Cinema/Estudios Picasso/Tequila Gang/Esperanto Filmoj/Sententia Entertainment/Warner Bros)

I've just watched the Spanish fantasy/war movie 'Pan's Labyrinth', directed by the highly-acclaimed Guillermo del Toro, with English subtitles, and I can honestly say that it has been some time indeed since I have been so emotionally involved in a film, but this one incorporated so effectively and so evocatively such a diversity of universal themes that it would have been impossible for me not to have been.

It contained strange magic and dark fantasy (including a huge Pan-like faun, shape-shifting fairies that reminded me of Ray Harryhausen's winged homunculi in 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad', a gigantic subterranean toad, a screaming writhing mandrake root, and a hideous child-murdering humanoid monster known as the Pale Man); beauty and barbarism; the futility of warfare (it features bloody aggression in 1944 Spain between Franco-supporting Falangist nationalists and a forest-protected outpost of Maquis republican guerilla rebels); self-sacrifice for the greater good of others; plus haunting music; and profound sadness, so much profound, pervasive sadness (as you'd expect, the traumatic scene in which the young heroine's mother died is one that I could scarcely even look up at, let alone watch).

But just like the original, this Pandora's Box also contained hope, sometimes faint but always flickering, and with that the viewer is ultimately sustained. A spellbinding masterpiece of a movie, and one whose images and emotions will remain with me, I'm sure, for a long time to come. Check out this trailer for it here, and you'll see what I mean.


10 June 2017: 'THE WICKER MAN' - The Director's Final Cut (1973/2001)

'The Wicker Man' – Final Cut publicity poster (© Robin Hardy/British Lion Films)

Just watched the Director's Final Cut (2001) version of the cult 1970s British horror movie 'The Wicker Man', containing 15 minutes of restored footage that had been cut from the original theatre-released version. Nothing spectacular in that additional footage, but it enhances the continuity of certain scenes.

It's a fascinating movie, unquestionably, but, ironically for such a famous horror film, there is a conspicuous lack of horror until the climactic 10 minutes or so, when all suddenly becomes hideously clear to the poor deluded police sergeant (played by Edward Woodward) from the mainland as he witnesses the gigantic Wicker Man awaiting him, in which he is to be imprisoned and then burnt alive within it as a human sacrifice. The people, and most especially the Lord (played by Christopher Lee), of the remote Scottish island of Summerisle, have been playing him for a fool, in every sense, ever since he arrived there in search of a supposed missing child. There was no missing child - she was simply the decoy to lure him, because he was the perfect sacrifice needed by them in their bid to gain the benevolence of the nature gods and thus procure from them a bountiful fruit crop next year - or at least, this is what they hope.

Prior to that dramatic scene, however, the film had played out in a very tongue-in-cheek, nudge-nudge wink-wink manner throughout, even veering dangerously towards 'Carry On'-style farce on occasions (particularly those featuring the gorgeous and frequently disrobed Britt Ekland as the pub landlord's voluptuous daughter, Willow) - but the truly horrifying Wicker Man scene fully vindicates what would have otherwise been an outrageously unwarranted 15 certificate.

So, not so much a movie of two halves as one of 9/10ths vs 1/10th, or thereabouts. Nevertheless, it is certainly a unique, enthralling film, totally compelling throughout, but above all in those scenes featuring Lee's suavely sinister Lord of this pagan dominion - think a Scottish Saruman, and you'll get the picture. Highly recommended.


11 June 2017: 'GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY' (2014)

'Guardians of the Galaxy'  publicity poster (© James Gunn/Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

I recently watched the original 'Guardians of the Galaxy' movie, one of my ever-increasing collection of videos and DVDs waiting to be viewed, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, not least of all because of the refreshingly-unstuffy Chris Pratt's engagingly laconic portrayal of the hero/anti-hero Peter Quill as a would-be (but in reality not always) ultra-cool, hip dude. Unlike so many po-faced 'what is my motivation?' actors currently purveying their thespian wares in Hollywood, Pratt never takes himself too seriously, actually seems to be enjoying himself, and therefore avoids mirroring his surname, unlike a fair few of his contemporaries whom I could (but won't) mention here. Unfortunately, the same cannot, I feel, be said of this film's leading actresses, whose character portrayals were, I felt, way too portentous, and pretentious (lighten up, ladies, it's only a super-hero film, it's not Citizen Kane!).

As one expects, nowadays, from any super-hero genre film, the story was ludicrous, but who watches this kind of film for profound plotting and lyrical depth anyway? What we want are spectacular special effects, and there were plenty of those throughout - which leads very neatly to two of my favourite characters, both CGI-generated. One was a genetically-engineered talking raccoon called Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the other a huge sapient tree called Groot (not so talkative - his entire vocabulary consists of 'I am Groot', albeit enunciated very effectively in innumerable variations by Vin Diesel).

The soundtrack includes a wonderful selection of 1970s songs, including two that, inexplicably, were hitherto new to me (as a 1970s teenager), but which are now massive favourites of mine – 'Hooked On A Feeling', by Blue Swede, and 'Come And Get Your Love', by Redbone.

I plan to see 'Guardians of the Galazy 2', but meanwhile, click here to view my favourite scene from the original film, introducing to the audience during its opening credits the all-dancing all-butt-kicking adult Peter Quill, in which Chris Pratt showcases his character in the delightfully tongue-in-cheek, devil-may-care manner that continues throughout the movie, and all to Redbone's afore-mentioned, insanely-catchy 'Come And Get Your Love'. Enjoy it, and, btw, no small alien carnivorous bipeds were harmed during the making of this scene.


17-18 June 2017: 'THE HOBBIT' TRILOGY (2012, 2013, 2014)

The extended DVDs of 'The Hobbit' trilogy (© Peter Jackson/WingNut Films/New Line Cinema/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Heaven help me but I've started ploughing through the extended DVDs version of 'The Hobbit' trilogy. Only viewed the first 2-hourish DVD of the 2-DVD extended version of 'An Unexpected Journey' so far, but I can see already that the compelling, close-knit Tolkien novel that I read with such pleasure back in my childhood has been turned into a vastly over-blown, mind-numbingly staggered pseudo-epic, which the original novel's storyline simply cannot sustain. Ah well, only another five 2-hour DVDs presumably featuring Martin Freeman's irritatingly-excessive mannerisms of confusion, fussiness, and displeasure throughout to go, plus nine DVDs of extras - Lord have mercy upon my soul!

Ok, I've now watched the extended DVD version of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey', and the second half was certainly better than the first, especially when the gargantuan roc-reminiscent eagles appeared. But a camp goblin king rapping with the voice of Dame Edna Everage (or at least her alter ego Barry Humphries)?? I don't remember reading that in 'The Hobbit' novel!! Ah well... - bring on 'The Desolation of Smaug'.

The Goblin King and Dame Edna Everage - separated at birth...? (© Peter Jackson/WingNut Films/New Line Cinema/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Warner Bros. Pictures / Wikipedia)

Now watched the first of the 2 discs comprising the 2-disc extended DVD version of 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug'. Some memorable horror: the gargantuan spiders of Mirkwood, the ferocious wargs, Beorn in his rampaging ursine form, plus the biggest horror of them all - but that's enough about Stephen Fry's acting... Yet what about this movie's eponymous reptilian star? So far, 'The Desolation of Smaug' has been notable for the decidedly desolate, i.e. non-existent, presence of the Benedictine Cucumberpatch-voiced wyvern in question, but no doubt he'll set the scenes aflame when he does finally deign us with his appearance in this film's second half, otherwise it is really going to drag on (sorry, couldn't resist!).

Ok, I've now seen both halves of 'The Desolation of Smaug' in 2-disc extended DVD version, and I can see why Smaug as a wyvern (two wings, two legs) has attracted criticism. Basically, it just doesn't work, morphologically - especially as Smaug is also portrayed as exceedingly serpentine. It has to use its wings as a pair of legs in place of the pair that it should have had, in order to sustain terrestrial locomotion effectively with such an elongate yet only two-legged form. A shame, because its presence is so powerful, but let down by its form. Incidentally, is it just me or does Smaug's head and face look extraordinarily similar to that of the T rex in the 'Jurassic Park/World' series?

Smaug (© Peter Jackson/WingNut Films/New Line Cinema/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Warner Bros. Pictures)

I've now watched 'The Battle of the Five Armies' in extended 2-disc DVD version, the third and final film in 'The Hobbit' movie trilogy, which certainly lived up to its title and was a marvellous spectacle of CGI brilliance. However, as Tolkien purists will definitely confirm, apart from a few minutes here and there following the death of Smaug its storyline bore little resemblance to anything in Tolkien's original novel, constituting instead a sprawling wargame spawned by the fusion of the film-makers' own imaginations and notes written by Tolkien but contained in appendices at the end of 'The Return of the King', the third 'LOTR' novel. If the film-makers had faithfully adhered to 'The Hobbit' novel, it could have been told, as originally planned, in just two films, rather than in three, but of course three films make more money than two...

That aside, there were some very nice (crypto)zoological touches in this third hobbit instalment, notably the Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus serving as a most noble, imposing steed for the elven leader Thrandull, the giant wereworms that resembled Mongolian death worms writ very large indeed (click here to read a ShukerNature blog article of mine concerning this intriguing cryptozoological link), and the huge white bipedal anthropoids that looked like the misbegotten offspring of King Kong and the Great White Apes battled by John Carter on Barsoom.

Thrandull astride his Megaloceros steed (© Peter Jackson/WingNut Films/New Line Cinema/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Warner Bros. Pictures)

All in all, if taken out of the context of being supposedly based upon Tolkien's novel and viewed instead merely as films in their own right, the three Hobbit movies unquestionably make compelling viewing (albeit a little tedious and drawn-out at times for those of us who are not rivetted by extended battle scenes), but for Tolkien purists I can see why they were greeted with less than enthusiasm, unlike the 'LOTR' movie trilogy, which did largely stay true to their source material and were all the better for having done so.


Also requiring a (very) honourable mention:

17 March 2017: LA LA LAND (2016)

'La La Land' publicity poster (© Damien Chazelle/Summit Entertainment/Black Label Media/TIK Films/Imposter Pictures/Gilbert Films/Marc Platt Productions)

This afternoon I watched 'La La Land' at my local cinema. I've read very different comments re it, but I absolutely LOVED it - wonderful music and songs, beautiful colours throughout, a great storyline well acted by its leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and some bewitching fantasy scenes - dancing in the sky, a tantalising "what if..." imaginary alternate plot-line at the end, etc.

All in all a thoroughly delightful, charming homage to the golden age of MGM-style technicolor musicals, which if made 50 years ago would have probably starred Gene Kelly and Lesley Caron. Modern-day films rarely move me, but something about this one really resonated deeply within me, reviving distant memories of younger days, both happy and bittersweet, so many what had beens, what could have beens, what should have beens, and what never would have beens. An enchanting afternoon.

Click here to check out an excellent 'La La Land' trailer. And for anyone in heartfelt reminiscing mood who wistfully sighs: "Ah, the good old films, they don't make them like that any more" - yes they do, and here's the proof.


And finally: a short mini-review of the film, a longer mini-review of the book:

22 November 2016: 'FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM' (2016), the film

'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' publicity poster (© David Yates/Heyday Films/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Today I saw 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them', which I thoroughly enjoyed, although I must confess that for me the plot was definitely secondary to the afore-mentioned Fantastic Beasts, all of whose CGI engenderings were truly spectacular. My personal favourites were the giant four-winged griffin-like creature that turned out to be a thunderbird and the turquoise winged serpentine dragon called an occamy. I also liked the graphorns, as seen in the film still below. Highly recommended for cryptozoologists and magizoologists alike.

An adult female graphorn with her calf (© David Yates/Heyday Films/Warner Bros. Pictures)


18 June 2017: 'FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM' (2017), the book (updated, expanded edition)

From Tolkien to Rowling: A couple of days ago, I purchased the updated hb edition of Newt Scamander's 'Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them', which I'm reading through now, and finding to be a very enjoyable mix of entirely fictitious beasts invented by J.K. Rowling (such as the niffler, jarvey, kneazle, and graphorn), bona fide mythological creatures (e.g. unicorn, manticore, griffin, sphinx), and even some cryptids (yeti, sea serpent, the Loch Ness kelpie aka Nessie), plus at least one fantastic beast that is ostensibly invented yet may well have been inspired by a cryptid.

Namely, the nundu, described in this book as being a gigantic and very ferocious leopard from East Africa, which is very reminiscent of the similarly-named nunda, a feline cryptid from Tanzania said to be a huge brindled cat of ferocious demeanour that was blamed for the killing of several people in that East African country (or, to be precise, the region that subsequently became Tanzania) during the early part of the 20th Century. I've documented the nunda (aka the mngwa) in my two mystery cat books and also here on my ShukerNature blog.

Returning to 'Fantastic Beasts…': it's a delightful book, full of tongue-in-cheek descriptions, some very wry and arch, and amply supplemented throughout by exquisite line-drawing illustrations. A great companion to the film, which again I very much enjoyed when viewing it at the cinema last November.

'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them', the updated, expanded 2017 edition (© J.K. Rowling/Bloomsbury)




Wednesday, 6 May 2015

THE PORCELAIN TOWER OF NANKING - REMEMBERING ONE OF THE LOST WONDERS OF THE MIDDLE AGES


Hand-coloured 19th-Century engraving of the Porcelain Tower of Nanking (public domain)

Most people can name at least some of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Far less familiar, conversely, is the list that designates the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. Chronologically speaking, its medieval time-scale is interpreted very loosely, bearing in mind that among those monuments included in this list are Stonehenge, the Colosseum of Rome, and the Great Wall of China.

Even so, the term 'wonder' is undeniably appropriate, not only to those three already named here, but also to their four fellow marvels. Namely, the Mosque of St Sophia in Constantinople, the Catacombs of Alexandria, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and - perhaps most incredible of all - a now all-but-forgotten but incomparably exquisite pagoda known as the Porcelain Tower of Nanking (now Nanjing).

Beginning in the year 1413 AD during the Ming Dynasty, this ethereal edifice's creation was commissioned by the Emperor Yung-Loh, as a peerless monument to the memory of his late mother. Indeed, as one bygone chronicler eloquently wrote:

"He determined that its beauty should as far outshine that of any similar memorial, as the transcendent virtues of the parent, in her son's eyes, surpassed those of the rest of her sex."

Porcelain Tower of Nanking, from Olfert Dapper's Gedenkwaerdig Bedryf der Nederlandsche Oost-Indische Maetschappye, 1670 (public domain)

Almost 20 years, and a fabulous sum of money (the equivalent of over a million pounds today) later, the emperor's Porcelain Tower was complete, and its magnificence surpassed even his own grandiose expectations. Standing 260 ft high, octagonal in shape, containing an inner staircase spiralling upwards for 184 steps, and consisting of nine storeys topped by a lofty spire, it was faced from base to apex with the finest glazed, coloured porcelain, bearing designs of animals, plants, and landscapes. It was also adorned with many Buddhist images. But that was not all.

At the summit of the tower's spire was a richly gilt pineapple-shaped sphere of brass, from which, like the tentacles of a gleaming metallic octopus, eight long iron chains extended to eight projecting points upon the roof - and from each chain a small bell was suspended, which hung over the tower's face. The same format was duplicated on each storey, yielding a uniquely delicate, fragile aspect contrasting pleasingly with the more formal upright outline of the tower itself.

This fairytale effect was heightened further by the presence of 140 lanterns in several specially-carved apertures round each storey's outer face. Quoting from the description penned by a long-demised Chinese chronicler, when these lanterns were lit each night:

"...their light illuminated the entire heavens, shining into the hearts of men, and eternally removing human misery!"

And as an act of veneration to the deities of Heaven, as well as a charm for warding away evil, two large brass vessels and a bowl were placed on top of the tower, and filled with priceless articles of countless kinds. Glittering precious gems, multicoloured pearls reputedly empowered with miraculous properties, quantities of gold and silver, and even a selection of silken wares, copies of ancient Chinese writings, and a box of the finest tea - all were present.

Porcelain Tower of Nanking, from Fischer von Erlach's Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture, 1721 (public domain)

The spectacular result was a radiant beacon of porcelain, emitting a dulcet paean of joy whenever the gentle breezes stirred its bright company of bells, and  proffering a myriad of treasures beyond estimation in decorous obeisance to the deities in exchange for their divine benevolence. How richly indeed did this dream-like monument in memory of a dear mother deserve its worldwide renown as an architectural wonder too.

Tragically, however, like all dreams and fairytales, it could not last forever. Four centuries passed by without incident, but in March  1853 the city of Nanking was captured by the Taiping Rebellion - a major uprising against the Qing dynasty. Even so, such was its spectacular, awe-inspiring beauty that for three years the Porcelain Tower quelled even the rebels' destructive impulses, as they single-mindedly annihilated everything else appertaining to Nanking's imperial heritage. By 1856, however, their anti-Imperialist fervour had at last focused its impassioned attention upon the final symbol of this city's historic past - the Porcelain Tower.

Having been created by an emperor, the tower was doomed. And so it was that this glorious triumph of inspirational human achievement was demolished - felled like a mighty oak tree, shattering its porcelain visage into an infinity of glinting fragments, stilling forever the tinkling laughter of its bells, and strewing its venerable offerings far and wide like cheap, discarded trinkets.

The victims of War have been many and multifarious, and one was the Porcelain Tower of Nanking. Truly a thing of beauty and a joy, if not forever, then certainly for several centuries - and perhaps even longer too, if we are able to recall and recapture its peaceful, timeless memory for a brief moment amid this hectic modern world.

Moreover, in 2010 Wang Jianlin, a Chinese businessman, donated the stupendous sum of 1 billion yuan (equivalent to 156 million US dollars) to Nanking to pay for this lost national (and international) wonder's complete reconstruction. So who knows – perhaps one day this city's magnificent Porcelain Tower may rise like a veritable phoenix from the ashes and rubble of erstwhile rebellion, restored to its former glory and destined to delight future generations right across the globe. May it indeed be so.

A second hand-coloured 19th-Century engraving depicting the Porcelain Tower of Nanking (public domain)