Sunday 31 July 2016

The Legend Of Tarzan by Burroughs, Cozad and Brewer

I briefly discussed Tarzan's literary origins in last week's post. Now we come to the latest film incarnation of Edgar Rice Burrough's immortal jungle lord. 

There isn't any shortage of movies about Tarzan — certainly over fifty exist. Some other interesting ones are Tarzan and His Mate (1934) and  Tarzan Escapes (1936), which was partly directed by William Wellman and is surprisingly erotic when our hero is welcomed to Jane's jungle. 

And then there was 1984's Greystoke, which interestingly was subtitled "The Legend of Tarzan", and was the work of the great screenwriter Robert Towne... although he was so disgusted with the result he signed it with the kennel name of his dog.

Well, The Legend of Tarzan could easily be the best of all of them. It's not perfect but it is very, very good. It's directed by David Yates, who did a slew of Harry Potter movies and drafts of the script were done by Craig Brewer (Black Snake Moan) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit).

I liked the genuine African feel to the movie, and the engagement with colonial evils (although that involved rolling the story back a few decades). I also liked the fact that our hero was covered with scars, as he would be if he'd been scampering around the jungle for a large segment of his life.  (And there's a great scene where he gets bitten and uses ants to suture the wound.)

The dialogue is admittedly a bit dodgy in its modernity (use Ngram, guys!) and there are some other flaws in the screenplay The basic threat — 20,000 unseen mercenaries moored offshore in CGI ships — remains utterly abstract and is a basic failure of screenwriting. 

But it doesn’t matter. This is personal — it's about our hatred of the villain -- and Christoph Waltz makes a terrific villain, although his Samurai worry beads are utterly ludicrous – and about the kidnapping of the wife – which is absolutely classic Burroughs. 

The presence of Samuel L. Jackson ameliorates the White Man Saves Africa aspect of the story – although when you think about it, the solution (give the guy a black sidekick) is as bad as the problem. 

But it works, not least because Jackson is so damned likable. His encyclopaedic knowledge of firearms becomes a bit tedious, however. 

Best of all, I really did like the way that Tarzan’s origin story was woven through the main narrative, neatly arriving at the point where it explains why the secondary bad guy, excellently played by Djimon Hounsou, was so eager to kill Tarzan.

Incidentally, Hounsou performs with such nobility that the confrontation scene actually becomes transcendent.

And I absolutely loved all the animal stuff. This is a worthy companion piece to Jungle Book, itself one of the best movies of the year. And that's appropriate because Burroughs was inspired by Kipling when he created Tarzan.

Oh, and in case anyone is sceptical about the scene where Tarzan is affectionately greeted by his old friend the lion, in an emotional reunion, just check out this true life story It brings a tear to my eye every time.

(Image credits: With their rather boringly limited colour palette, all these poster are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday 24 July 2016

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Legend of Tarzan is in cinemas and I'm eager to write about it. But it occurred to me that this genuinely is a legendary character, and of sufficient stature to justify a post sketching some of his context and background. So we'll get to the movie next week.

Tarzan, along with Sherlock Holmes, is one of the universally recognised literary heroes. Famous all over the world for over a century, he is part of the fabric of life.  

Indeed, my father used to get irked if people mispronounced the name — Dad insisted on the stress on the first syllable:"TAR-zun".

Edgar Rice Burroughs may not have been one of the greatest prose stylists, but he was a genius. And he was by no means a one-hit wonder. His Martian adventure stories, starting with A Princess of Mars, were colourful, vigorous pulp science fiction and enormously successful.

But Tarzan is his finest and most enduring creation. Written under the influence of Rudyard Kipling and Jack London (and the legend of Romulus and Remus), Tarzan of the Apes nonetheless was unique and vividly original. 

It was first published in All Story Magazine in 1912, the same magazine and the same year as A Princess of Mars (what a year!).  Burroughs was paid $700 for it. 

An immediate hit with readers of the magazine, Tarzan didn't instantly command a wider audience. When Burroughs sent off copies of the story to book publishers, he was initially turned down flat.

I love the anecdote of what happened next. Burroughs promptly wrote a sequel, but the editor of All Story, Thomas Newell Metcalf, didn't think much of it. In fact, he rejected it. 

In a classic piece of meaningless editor-speak, he said the story "lacked balance". So Burroughs just turned around and sold it, without a word being changed, to another magazine for $1,000. Of course, it was a big success.

Burroughs then proceeded to play the magazines off against each other and thereby jack up his fee.

All writers love anecdotes like that. This one is true, and it's documented in John Taliaferro's Tarzan Forever, one of three books I have about Burroughs on my shelf (as opposed to the several dozen by Burroughs). The others are Edgar Rice Burroughs Master of Adventure by Richard Lupoff and Edgar Rice Burroughs The Man Who Created Tarzan by Irwin Porges.
The Porges book is huge, big enough to stun an ox — or, if you're Tarzan, probably a rhino. And the Lupoff biography is beautifully illustrated. But I'd recommend the Taliaferro as the best introduction to the fascinating subject of Tarzan and his creator.

(Image credits: The beautifully stylish cover of the first edition, by Fred Arting, is from Wikipedia. The Taliaferro cover is from Simon & Schuster. The Porges is from Good Reads. The Lupoff green Frazetta cover is also from Good Reads. The earlier red Frazetta cover is from James Reasoner's blog.)

Sunday 17 July 2016

The Neon Demon by Nicolas Winding Refn

If I mention the cannibalism and necrophilia I’m in danger of making this movie sound interesting... But it isn't, really. It's a boring, arty dud

(Before we go on I should perhaps issue a warning. This post contains spoilers. It also mentions some scenes you may prefer not to read about while eating your breakfast.)

I must confess, I saw a trailer for The Neon Demon and I was immediately hooked and eager to see it

The imagery looked stunning, like Nic Roeg at his most lush. You'll get a taste of what I mean from these posters.

Bu if I’d known it was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, I  would never have rushed to get a ticket. Certainly Refn's movie Drive was striking and memorable — although it fell apart at the end, in a foretaste of things to come. 

But his next film, Only God Forgives, certainly ranks as one of the worst I've ever seen. (Where the hell did that guy get the sword?)

Admittedly, Neon Demon is vastly better... but that still leaves a hell of a lot of room for it to be bad in. 

Neon Demon tells the story of Jesse (a plucky Elle Fanning), a teenage girl who comes to LA hoping to be a model. She has sudden and giddying success, but also makes some dangerous enemies... Again, this all makes it sound quite interesting. 

However, Refn is like Kubrick without the genius and Lynch without the madness. And he calls to mind Cronenberg at his worst. Indeed, it’s as if someone wanted to emulate Kubrick, Lynch and Cronenberg while adopting the approach of Lars Von Trier at his most pretentious and boring.

Have said all that, The Neon Demon has the occasional highly effective moment – Keanu Reeves is quite impressive and there’s a nice bit involving him and a mountain lion. (Which accounts for one of the posters here.)

Apart from the incomprehensible artiness which besets this film, though, Refn makes a fatal rookie mistake. He kills off Jesse, but he doesn't end the movie at that point. 

It grinds on for another 15 minutes or so, continuing long after it has stopped in the minds and the emotions of the audience.

He does this because he wants to include a grisly gag about the two super models who helped to kill, and eat, poor Jesse. They are at a photo shoot when one of them gets up an upset stomach. She regurgitates one of Jesse's eyes. The other super model promptly pops it in her mouth and eats it.

So you can see we're not exactly talking about Citizen Kane here.

You'll also notice the prominence of Drive on these posters. That's because it's the only movie which Refn's directed that anyone would want to see. 

So far.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards.) 

Sunday 10 July 2016

Trouble Spot by Lawrence and Horak

In my last post about the James Bond comic strips I said I was going to go looking for all the ones drawn by Yaroslav Horak, and this represents the first fruits of that search. The title story of the volume is Trouble Spot, but Isle of Condors is my favourite in the collection.

As with The Spy Who Loved Me, which I discussed last time, all these adventures are written by Jim Lawrence and his scripts are excellent — sexy, arresting, exotic, colourful and featuring excellent use of locations with real place names and scraps of foreign dialogue, all of which lend a sense of reality to the crazy fantasies

The research that underpins these stories, and the breezy thrills they project, remind me of Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise comics — in other words, the absolute cream of British (or even international) newspaper strip writing.

(Interestingly, the useful checklist at the back of the book reveals the fact that O'Donnell himself briefly worked on the Bond strip he did the Dr No adaptation.)

Another intriguing feature of these stories is the growing racial diversity of the cast. With the appearance of British private eye Crystal Kelly we see Horak getting the hang of using shading to depict a black (indeed, blacksploitation) character. 

The blacksploitation continues in Die With My Boots On which features the wincingly named Smoky Turpin. 

Luckily Turpin is better than his name, though. A resourceful and highly proficient secondary good guy, he is former Royal Navy and correctly refers to 007 as "Commander Bond."

There are other interesting characters, mostly villains, of course, like the Greek tycoon, Xerxes Xenophanos — known as "Double Cross" because his initials are XX. Unfortunately, Bond's battle on his yacht sees some of Lawrence's least successful writing.

There's no way 007 would be allow to triumph today by draining the yacht's fuel tanks and creating a huge oil slick on the ocean — what an eco bastard. We move from lack of political correctness to lack of plausibility when Bond expects to set the slick on fire by throwing a Molotov cocktail into it — unlikely and for this fire to then set off a nuclear warhead on the ship impossible.

Never mind. Besides being beautifully drawn and generally well written, these newspaper strip asre agreeably prurient and kinky in the best Bond tradition

And the checklist in the back of the book suggests a couple other volumes to search out with pleasurable anticipation — Peter O'Donnell's adaptation of Doctor No and Jim Lawrence's take on the Kingsley Amis Bond pastiche Colonel Sun.
(Image credits: "Unhampered by clothing" and "Olga you may proceed" are from Adventures in Poor Taste. All the other images are from Popoptiq, which features an interesting article on the series.)

Sunday 3 July 2016

Word Processors: Mac Pages vs Microsoft Word

Although I mostly blog here about the books I read and the movies I see, as a professional writer I also occasionally discuss the tools of my trade.  

In fact one of my earliest posts was about my beloved laptop writing table, Dave.  (I'm not actually crazy enough to name my furniture. Ikea called it Dave.) Indeed, it's so important to me I wrote about it again.

Which brings us to this current discussion of word processors. I recently replaced my ancient (almost ten years old) Mac laptop with a wonderful new MacBook Air. I love this new computer almost embarrassingly. But when I got it, there were a few teething problems...

Microsoft, the treacherous blackguards, had introduced a destructive revised update of their Word software which created a new file format (.docx versus the old .doc) which no longer worked on the old version of Word. 

So I was stuck with this out-of-date software. I looked into getting the new version of Word to go on my lovely MacBook Air. But it was pricey — well north of £100. And then my friend the computer expert said "Why bother with Word? The Mac comes with a word processor called Pages."

Well, I've been using Pages for over six months now and I have discovered precisely why I should bother with Word...

Pages has a nice, clean, inviting user interface and some helpful features. But in the final analysis it is badly designed and madly flaky. 

For a start, you woud frequently, and I mean frequently, end up with non-curly apostrophes and quotation marks instead of the real thing. By deleting and typing again you could generally, eventually, get real apostrophes and quotation marks instead of these straight fakes... because what a busy user needs is to repeatedly retype things...

Also, one of the most important features of a word processor, if you type as quickly and carelessly as I do, it to fix misspellings on the fly. In Word this function is called Auto Correct. 

Well Pages did the same thing, sort of... But its guesses about what a mistyped word should really be were often insane. For instance, "iriginal"  instead of "original" results in this guess: “irisinal” — and as far as my research can determine, this isn’t even a word...

And why would it change “wrestln" to “wrestleg”? — again, there is no such word. Instead of changing “despote” to “despite" it changes it to “despotte." Another non-word. 

And wouldn’t “struggle" be a better guess for “stuggle" than “stagele”? 

These are just a few of dozens of examples that cropped up every week. As I said in a vexed tweet on the subject, it's more a Lewis Carrol poem than a word processor.

Anyway, I've now given in and bought Word instead. And the new Word has some useful features. For instance, search and replace is now local to each document, which means every document remembers what you were looking for last time, instead of it being imported from whatever other document you used recently.

On the other hand, Word lacks some really useful features from Pages... I used to love the way Pages would open a document and return me to the exact point where I was typing last time I left it. Word, which doesn't even have the memory of a goldfish, always reverts to the beginning.

And in Pages I used to be able to move to the top or bottom of a long document with a couple of simple keystrokes. In Word it's such a lengthy and error prone process you might as well forget about it. 

Perhaps worst of all, while Word is smart enough to automatically make corrections like changing "thikn" to "think", any more complex error defeats it. So if I type "iriginal" it just highlights the mistake, then gives up in bafflement. At least Pages tried. It was crazy, but it tried...

Oh well, maybe someday someone will invent a word processor which can actually process words.  

(Image credits: I wasn't sure how to illustrate such an abstract discussion, so as you can see I went retro with these typewriter shots. Most of the pics of sirens typing — non-tinted — were obtained from OzTypewriters; the really vintage shot, which I used as my header, is from BoingBoing; the pink typewriter is from Etsy; the blue one is from My Typewriter, and if you hurry you can actually buy it.)