Film

The Other: The Deal with Dragons

With the anemic Eragon hitting DVD the week of 20 March, perhaps it's time to ponder the problem with dragons. Not as mythic beasts, mind you. No, few fictional entities are as intrinsically interesting as these winged lizards. From their symbolic battle with St. George to the numerous kid vid variations of same, the fire-breathing baddie should be a sensationally cinematic being. After all, it can fly, it has all the inherent horror of a dangerous dinosaur and – as long as you believe what fantasy fiction has to offer – can help guide the naïve and unappreciated toward the coming of age they're so desperately in need of. But when 2002's Reign of Fire is the best your beast can get, it's time to give the whole folklore a much needed kick in the creativity.

Actually, that's not wholly correct. Peter Jackson gave the terrifying creatures a decent cinematic shout out when he melded them seamlessly into his epic Lord of the Rings battles, and there are many who still have a warm place in their heart for Disney's 1981 effort Dragonslayer. Heck, even Harry Potter did a bang up job of bringing the fiend to the forefront. But thanks to fabulous disasters such as Dragonheart, Willow, and the notorious role-playing rot of Dungeons and Dragons, the rampaging reptile from tales of yore has become a snooze-inducing varmint that can't quite decide if it's cute, cuddly, sensible or just stupid.

Thanks to Christopher Paolini's pathetic Inheritance Trilogy, of which Eragon is the first installment, dragons have once again found themselves on the short end of the entertainment stick. In this case, our farmboy hero becomes one of his land's legendary 'riders', with an oversized Jiminy Cricket – a blue beast named Saphira – guiding him through the ins and outs of such a status. Naturally, there is a despotic king that requires overthrowing, an Alex Guinness like sage ready to test our hero's unmolded mantle, a wispy young elf girl that needs saving, and a rebellious horde desperate for a sign that there is some salvation from their present state of persecution. Along with a sinister sorcerer who resembles a granny gone gangrenous, Eragon stinks like a pile of oversized bat guano.

But it's the depiction of dragons in this dreck that really seals the deal. Paolini develops his own arcane mythology here, tying beast to rider in a weird, almost symbiotic way. If you kill a dragon, the human partner can live on. Kill the man, and the beast dies as well. This means that dragons, at least in this world, are not independent entities, capable of their own mindless mayhem. Instead, they are anthropomorphic weaponry, their potential majesty reduced to nothing more than a tank with wings. In addition, the narrative requires that the creature speak. Using the lamest of creative conceits – telepathy – the dragon is given a calm, cooing voice (provided by Oscar winner Rachel Weisz) and, as stated before, dishes out common sense platitudes in an attempt to direct her dimwitted charge.

Gone are the ferocious sequences of unbridled carnage. Missing are the moments when man succumbs to the beast's destructive talons of hate. In their place is the machismo version of a unicorn, a touchy feely monster with a head full of Confucius-like proverbs. It's the same thing that happened with the Dennis Quaid/Sean Connery cock-up Dragonheart. Again, another English speaking (or make that Scottish broguing) lizard is required to guide a disillusioned knight toward a final battle against – you guessed it – a demented and dictatorial king. Seems that whenever a ruler runs ramshackle over a meandering Middle Earth backdrop, geckos with the carriage of a DC-10 have to show up to set things right. Sadly, they also seem to require the less than helpful aid of a human sidekick to complete the deal.

As a one time wonder inducing work of fiction, dragons have never really gotten the cinematic celebration they deserve. Go back as far as Fritz Lang's Das Nibelungen, when special effects were in their infancy and even then, our scaly scallywags don't get the merit they warrant. In the sequence where the heroic Siegfried battles said legendary lizard, the mechanized monster looks more silly than sinister. Sure, it's a marvel of turn of the century engineering, but as a symbol of a Medieval mayhem maker, it looks like a theme park attraction about to throw a rod. Something similar happens in Bert I. Gordon's The Magic Sword. There, our creature is merely a mediocre flame thrower stuffed inside a pile of moldy carpet. It's sad but true – point to any example of the dragon in the last 100 years of motion picture history and you'll find something that's either stunted by stop motion, mocked by miniaturization, or inert thanks to a lack of ingenuity.

For some reason, dinos had the same dilemma. All throughout their theatrical track record, they remained lumbering and ludicrous. Either actual chameleons were cast in their roles, large plastic fins crazy-glued onto their backs for that perfect prehistoric look, or Ray Harryhausen and artists of his ilk painstakingly recreated the Mesozoic era with clay, metal armature, and months working on a scaled down set. But all that changed with Jurassic Park. Suddenly, what seemed old fashioned and flat was given a new computerized luster. Though revisionist history can and will carp about the film's flaws all it wants, no one can deny the wonder inspired by the T-Rex attack, or the superb suspense of the Raptor/kitchen rampage. Whatever its final merits, Steven Spielberg and his buddies over at ILM reconfigured the archaic creature into a new, 20th century star.

What the dragon needs is some of Mr. ET's filmic refashioning – and making them noble creatures with the tempting voices of a sexy superstar doesn't count. No, the ideal story needs to be melded to the perfect director, all of it filtered through a desire for invention and creative possibilities. As noted before, the closest anyone has come is Rob Bowman's Reign of Fire. Beginning with a brilliant premise – the mistaken discovery of ancient dragon eggs in London leads, very quickly, to a worldwide epidemic of the flying killing machines – it was an effort ultimately undermined by budgetary and demographic concerns. Still, the narrative follow through was intriguing, with the wasteland elements of the post-apocalyptic world nicely contrasted with the survivors' desire for an end to the mayhem. But again, the beast takes a backseat to Hollywood heavyweights (Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey) running around in expertly decimated art designed backdrops.

Certainly there are examples when, featured in a minor or meaningless role, the dragon has persevered. But the cruel fact remains that, as potential stars of their own fantasy or fright film franchise, the scourge of every knight and squire from Camelot to the land of Ilya Muromets, our wannabe fear factor is a dud. And thanks to pathetic examples of moviemaking mediocrity like Eragon, it's a fair bet that it will remain a wallflower in the world of creature features. How this can happen, with all that a fire-breathing terror with the ability to soar high above the populace has to offer, is a mystery that a wizard may not be able to solve. It is obvious that, by and large, writers and directors haven't.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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