Review > District 9


From an aesthetic and conceptual standpoint, I liked a lot of things about District 9. Director Neil Blomkamp has already proven to be a master of the use of adding special effects (such as aliens) to documentary-style footage to heighten their realism–the grainy, shaky camera work hides a multitude of CGI sins while anchoring the viewer in a familiar, real-world context (well, as “real” as your average news show is these days).

Then there’s the concept. District 9‘s set-up is simple: in the early 1980s, a giant alien mothership appears in Earth airspace. Rather than nuking New York–or even London, or Paris, or Tokyo–it settles over Johannesburg, South Africa, where it proceeds to hover for three months until the local government decides to take action. Drilling into the ship, they discover a million malnourished, sickly insect-like aliens. They take the aliens out of the ship and set up a temporary refugee camp below the vessel, which eventually turns into a permanent residence and, finally, a slum. (more…)

Knitting and knitting and knitting

I envy my wife her hobby–knitting. She can knit while watching TV or having a conversation without missing a beat. And she gets something out of it, too–at the end of a four-hour marathon of NCIS, she’s made half a blanket or whatever.

I don’t have a hobby like that. I’ve tried writing while watching TV, but it just doesn’t work–writing requires so much of my concentration I can’t even listen to music other than classical (and sometimes not even that, depending on how up-tempo it is).

Which all means that, in order to be anything resembling a successful writer, I’ve got to get used to spending a lot of time doing nothing other than writing. It’s hard not to feel like life is passing you by. But that’s always been one of the crosses writers have had to bear, I suppose.

Halo 3 review

Poe Ghostal snipes a n00b

Looking at that screenshot, I’m suddenly reminded of the first videogame I remember playing, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for Intellivision. Man, videogames have come a long way in a mere quarter-century. But then, I suppose it only took us twice that time to go from flying the first plane to landing on the moon.

Incidentally, that screenshot was taken in-game by yours truly. It shows my digital avatar, Poe Ghostal, sniping some poor mook.

So, Halo 3. Its release received the kind of marketing hype once reserved solely for summer blockbusters (before they became manufactured a-dime-a-dozen products). It has already made hundreds of millions of dollars.

I was one of those people who was really into the whole “Haloverse” as well as the game itself, and I was greatly anticipating the end of the saga. Here are my impressions.


The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985)


I was introduced to Godzilla by my cousin Ed, who passed down to me his Shogun Warriors Godzilla toy as well as his love of WLVI 56’s Creature Double Feature. I took to the big green lizard like a fish to water–something about the fire-breathing, skyscraper-sized beast spoke to my young soul. I won’t bother to analyze that right now. In any event, I grew up on Godzilla movies. (In fact, Godzilla would eventually help me get into college–but I’ll tell that story some other time.)

In August 1985, at the age of six, I finally got to see a Godzilla movie in the theater. Godzilla 1985 (or The Return of Godzilla, as it was known in Japan) was an important event in my childhood.


Friday the 13th

I wrote this piece a few months ago, when I was still thinking I could sit through all the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween movies. It turned out I couldn’t, but I did manage to write two reviews before I gave up. Here’s the first one.

Hello and welcome. I’m Jander Rothberg.

And my name is Sir Nigel Sandstone.

We’re here today to discuss the celluloid trash—I mean, the cinematic masterpie—the film Friday the 13th. Filmed on a budget of $700,000 and released in 1980, this so-called ‘slasher flick’ spawned—and I do mean spawned, as spawn is a word most often associated with slimy things with tentacles—spawned a series of sequels.

Now now, Jan, you’re getting ahead of yourself, no?

Oh very well. Hand me the tea, will you? The film’s plot, such as it is, can be summarized thusly. The movie begins in a place called Camp Crystal Lake in 1958. Two teenage camp counselors sneak off to copulate and are brutally murdered. Twenty years later, the camp is re-opened and teenage camp counselors are brutally murdered, usually after sneaking off to copulate.

Now now, Jan, there’s a bit more to it than that.

Is there? I was under the impression this was a quickie rip-off of John Carpenter’s far superior Halloween that happened to have enough nudity and gratuitous violence to be successful and give the filmmakers the wrong idea that they should keep making movies rather than turning their talents to some other medium that might better suit their talents. Like fabric sculpture, perhaps.

All right, enough. I for one thought the film was relatively effective at what it was trying to do, which is to scare you.

But what kind of goal is that for a work of art? Is there nothing more?

What about Psycho?

Touché. But I do hope you’re not comparing Alfred Hitchcock to Sean S. Cunningham, the director of this film?

What if I were?

Then I should beat you about the face and neck until I was certain your fit of madness had passed.

As everyone knows, the big twist in Friday the 13th is that the killer turns out not to be a masked male psychopath—that came in the later films—but a middle-aged woman, the mother of a boy named Jason Voorhees who drowned at the camp in 1957 while the counselors were off copulating, as you put it.

Hmph. ‘Twist.’ I suppose it was fairly clever. But once the woman, played by one Betsy Palmer, was revealed, I have to say the heroine did not handle herself very well. How many times did she beat the woman down, then leave without making sure she was unconscious?

Well, one must expect such conventions of the genre.

Oh please. But I did like the old crazy fellow in town who told them that the Camp had a death curse. If I had a nickel for every time I was told one of my vacation destinations had a death curse…

…then what?


If you had a nickel for every time that happened, then what?

I’d be rich, I believe the expression goes.

People have actually told you that a place you are going on vacation has a death curse?

I was merely making a joke, Nigel.

So no one’s ever actually told you a place you were going had a death curse.

Well, there was that one time, when I was going to visit New Haven. But that turned out to be true.

Moving on. What did you think of the cast? I thought the actors were generally a bit stilted and untrained, but that was fine, since all they really had to do was die in horribly violent ways.

Yes, it was a very rewarding film in that regard.

I suppose we ought to mention that this film features a very young Kevin Bacon.

Yes, he gets stabbed through the throat from under the bed. Excellent role for him. Unfortunately for those of you who like to play “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” none of the other actors in this film have ever done anything else.

Now that’s neither nice nor quite true.

It’s mostly true.


Also, I’m unclear as to why I had to be subjected to Mr. Bacon wearing a skintight banana-hammock and, later, his exposed buttocks.

I did like the heroine, Alice. I thought Adrienne King made her charming and believable.

Aside from the character’s astounding lack of common sense and mild-to-moderate arm strength, I’ll agree with you.

Of course, it’s the next film that the infamous Jason Voorhees takes his place as the antagonist of the series. But I’ll let Mr. Clarke tell you about that. Until next time, my friends.

Enjoy the day.

My Halo 3 article(s) posted online

ToyFare is doing a “Halo Week” on their website, primarily by posting my article from the magazine piecemeal.

The Call of Cthulhu


Here’s an interesting tidbit. Last night I watched The Call of Cthulhu, a short independent film by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. The concept was to adapt Lovecraft’s famous short story in the style of the era in which it was written–that is, a 1920s silent movie.

I actually requested Netflix add the title to their collection, and they quite nicely obliged me (which was no doubt a better boon to the filmmakers than if I’d just bought my own copy). That said, I was wary; the concept seemed ambitious and I’d already seen more than one bad, low-budget Lovecraft adaptation.

But The Call of Cthulhu impressed me. The silent film conceit works well for Lovecraft’s writing style, which is low on character development and features lots of oblique references and impenetrable dialogue. The acting is surprisingly good, perfectly capturing the stage-like style of the period, and rarely seems amateurish. Most importantly the cinematography and film stock give the impression of an actual 1920s silent film, rather than a black-and-white student film that happens to have no dialogue.

The special effects are interesting too, particularly the Impressionistic manner in which the filmmakers present the “non-Euclidean” architecture of R’lyeh, Cthulhu’s sunken city.

The film is only fifty minutes long and well worth a rental, especially if you’re a Lovecraft fan. I may end up buying a copy for myself. While this isn’t the most realistic adaptation of Lovecraft, it is one of the most effective and faithful to the spirit of the work.

Dreaming in ultraviolet near dark

Watched a few movies over the weekend. I don’t really feel like doing individual reviews of any of them, so here are my thoughts based on a five-star rating system:

Masters of Horror: Stuart Gordon’s Dreams in the Witch House

Director Stuart Gordon is the only commercial filmmaker to have made a concerted effort to bring H.P. Lovecraft’s eccentric style of horror to the big screen. His greatest success was and remains Re-Animator, which ironically was based on Lovecraft’s novella “Herbert West–Reanimator,” a work that’s one of Lovecraft’s least-regarded (by himself as well as his fans). By making it into a true dark comedy, Gordon actually improved upon the original tale, though I don’t think there’s anything particularly “Lovecraftian” about the end result.

Gordon’s next effort was From Beyond, based on Lovecraft’s story of the same name, which I haven’t seen and therefore won’t comment on. But I have seen Dagon, Gordon’s attempt at adapting one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. To my mind, Gordon makes a painfully crucial error in the film by setting it in a tiny West European fishing village rather than the haunted New England Lovecraft so adored. That said, there’s enough weirdness to make Dagon one of Gordon’s better efforts, but it’s still doesn’t quite capture that true Lovecraftian feel.

Dreams in the Witch House, Gordon’s first contribution to Showtime’s acclaimed Masters of Horror series, is probably the most faithful Lovecraft adaptation I’ve seen to date. It’s based on one of my favorite Lovecraft tales (though it’s not too highly regarded in critical circles), and it features one of his most successful efforts at blending science fiction with supernatural horror.

Miskatonic University grad student Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden) somewhat reluctantly takes a room in an ancient, crumbling boarding house. Aside from the stereotypically fat and unpleasant landlord, Walter’s housemates include creepy old man Masurewicz (Campbell Lane) and single mother Frances Elwood (Chelah Horsdal). The lonely Walter and Frances are soon engaging in some awkward flirting, while Walter begins having some very odd nightmares involving a witch and a rat with a human face.

I was impressed by the acting of Godden and Horsdal. While the other characters are a bit two-dimensional, Walter and Frances are fully realized and behave as believably as one could, given the circumstances. While Frances was “Frank” in the original story (and obviously not a love interest), many of the major plot points are present. The changes made to the story (and I’m not entirely sure what they are, since I haven’t read it in a year or two) are mostly for the better, I think, adding an emotional involvement with the characters that Lovecraft was incapable of doing.

My only disappointment was the conclusion, which gets bogged down in unnecessary exposition and delays the inevitable a bit too long. The film could easily have used the original ending to the story and gotten away with it.

Overall, though, this is probably my favorite film translation of a Lovecraft story so far. Fingers crossed for that Guillermo Del Toro adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, though.

Near Dark

With surprising frequency, I discover the existence of cult movies I wasn’t even aware of. Evil Dead II was one of those, as was Legend and, most recently, Time After Time. While the quality of these discoveries varies, it’s always interesting to run across these nuggets of genre film.

After the punishing disappointment of Time After Time, I didn’t expect much from Near Dark (1987), which seemed very similar The Lost Boys (which had come out a few months earlier). The films have an almost identical plot: a young man gets turned into a vampire against his will and is then shanghaied by the vampire gang into becoming one of them–or else. But where The Lost Boys was played mostly for thrills and laughs, Near Dark adds a certain pathos about the vampire condition that makes it work surprisingly well.

Billed as a “vampire Western,” Near Dark features Heroes’ Adrian Pasdar as Caleb, the aforementioned dupe; Jenny Wright as the sexy vamp fatale who dupes him; Lance Henriksen as the nihilistic leader of the gang; and Bill Paxton as the resident psychotic. (Jennette Goldstein also plays a vampire, which means Near Dark features three Aliens actors just a year after that movie came out.)

The film’s most famous scene is a bloody massacre in a bar, and what makes it effective is the vampires’ truly cold-blooded attitude toward their victims. Unlike many movie vampires of late, these aren’t the flying monsters of Lost Boys or even the feral, animalistic hedonists of the Blade flicks; these are serial killers whose bloodthirst happens to be literal.

Of course, one does have to get past the psychedelic Tangerine Dream soundtrack–is it me, or is that band singularly responsible for making a third of all ’80s films instantly dated?

The last third of Near Dark is the weakest, with a terrible deus ex machina and some unrealistic behavior on the part of the normies, but overall I was surprised by how much I liked this one.

(Oh, and don’t look now, but there’s a remake on the way.)


DG wanted to watch something dumb, so we got it via On Demand. In the past, I’ve been willing to defend director Kurt Wimmer’s previous film, Equilibrium, which gets a bad rap as a Matrix rip-off even though it was filmed at about the same time and stars a better actor.

But I’m not going to defend Ultraviolet. Holy crap, what the heck was that? I mean…I guess I don’t really have anything to say. Just…wow. What a mess.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Yesterday I blasted through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to finally put an end to the constant shushing I’ve had to do to people who’ve already finished it. (Ed has already written on the phenomenon of HP speed-reading, and I posted my thoughts over there.)

I read the first three Harry Potter books back in 2000 while spending a summer in England. I had avoided them until then mostly out of laziness and a general antipathy toward the mega-popular that I had at the time. When I finally read them, my verdict was that they were good, but not quite as good as Roald Dahl. I enjoyed the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, immensely, but it took me almost a year to get through the depressing Order of the Phoenix. Half-Blood Prince I remember only for its climax.

And where does that leave Deathly Hallows? I’ve decided to keep this a relatively spoiler-free review (we’ll confine the spoilers discussion to the comments below). Overall, I found Deathly Hallows satisfying. Not immensely satisfying; too many of my predictions came true, there was a tad too much of use of di ex machina, and too few major twists.

Actually, that’s as far as I’m going to review it, I think. I could start nitpicking, but if people really want to get into that they can do it in the comments. I think Stephen King’s essay in Entertainment Weekly pretty much sums up my thoughts on the novel.

One thing I would like to mention is that, back in 2000, pompous windbag Harold Bloom issued an ill-favored screed against the Harry Potter books. Three years later, in a bizarre tangent when he was supposed to be attacking Stephen King, Bloom actually suggested it would be better for children not to read at all than to read Harry Potter.

While working on my Masters a few years ago, I wrote an essay defending Harry Potter (and J.R.R. Tolkien) from Bloom and his spiritual predecessor, Edmund Wilson. I wouldn’t dare punish you by reprinting the essay in toto here, but if you’re interested in reading me argue why it’s okay to read popular fiction, you can download the PDF.

And remember: spoilers in the comments!

Live Free or Die Hard

Yippie-ki-ay, mother(BLAM!)

I don’t remember the first time I saw Die Hard. I do know I loved the movie as a kid, which was one of the great action films of my youth alongside The Terminator and T2, Predator, Aliens and Robocop (though I saw most of these as edited network television versions, rather than the R-rated originals). In junior high school I wrote a story in which my high school was taken over by terrorists and my friends and I were the heroes who fought them, crawling through air ducts and using makeshift weapons–an obvious rip-off of Bruce Willis’s first starring vehicle.

I read an article recently (can’t remember where, sorry) that listed the greatest action movies, and on the entry on Die Hard it mentioned how Willis’s John McClane, a blue-collar New York cop who gets caught up in a terrorist attack on an office building in Los Angeles, was a different kind of hero than the bad-ass, unstoppable Herculean killing machines that Arnold (Commando) Schwarzenegger and Sylvester (Rambo II) Stallone tended to play. As the movie begins, McClane is having trouble with his marriage, irritable from having sat through a long flight across the country, and as uncomfortable with the flaky California culture as only a lifelong New Yorker can be. Over the course of the first film, McClane is beaten, stabbed, shot, burned, blown up, and forced to walk barefoot over broken glass–and unlike Stallone or Schwarzenegger, all those wounds add up, to the point where his wife gasps in shock when she sees what’s become of him near the end of the film. (more…)

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