Demon Knight: Tales From the Crypt, a review

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***Spoilers***

 This 1995 release was connected to TV‘s Tales From the Crypt.

"Demon Knight" cover

Cover for “Demon Knight”

It stars Billy Zane, William Sadler and Jada Pinkett with CCH Pounder and Thomas Hayden Church. The director, Ernest R. Dickerson has directed episodes of The Walking Dead and Treme as well as other high profile TV offerings. I had seen Demon Knight several years ago and what stuck with me was how much I enjoyed Billy Zane’s performance. So last night, I decided to take another look. Zane plays a demon and this little devil really likes his work. Zane has a handsome face, but he hasn’t let it slow him down. His performance in Demon Knight puts his melodrama-villain turn in Titanic to shame.

If the Zane of Demon Knight were on that boat, Rose wouldn’t have given Jack the time of day. This film was a spin off of the TV series, Tales From the Crypt, and the series was inspired by those comics–the lurid, wild-eyed, bloody, bony stories we loved even though reading them let to many a night light. Demon’s story is simple. A man with a secret hides out at a hotel out in the middle of nowhere. He’s being chased by a demon who wants something the man carries with him. It’s one of seven keys and if the demon gets it, there’s lights out for all mankind and we’d better get used to a lot of slime and cackling. The man and the hotel’s few occupants are under siege as Zane and his army of zany demons, try to get that key. Each guest is tempted to hand it over. Among the group, there’s plucky little Jada Pinkett’s character, a convict on work release, CCH Pounder as the cynical hotel manager, Thomas Hayden Church’s sexy lout and William Sadler, an actor who usually plays a villain as the mysterious, weary guest.

Like a comic book, Demon Knight is in vivid primary colors. Dickerson trusts his actors to breathe life into the narrative and with a cast like this, you can’t go wrong. Even so, Zane is a stand-out. His career doesn’t reflect his gifts–I think because he’s a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man. He shows us the sexy allure of evil, how it dazzles and obscures the facts, and the lies, which he gleefully admits. If for no other reason than Zane’s performance, take a look at Demon Knight. It’s on Netflix. On a Saturday night, a friend or two, a bowl of popcorn and Demon Knight, you could do worse.

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“The Darkest Hour” is mostly a dim bulb.

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SPOILER ALERT!

image from the Russian movie, "The Darkest Hour"

Cover for “The Darkest Hour”

I watched this movie on DVD rather than in the theater so perhaps that’s why I feel a tad more charitable than the critics. Rather than experimenting with genre like “The Cabin in the Woods,” an experiment that fizzled, stinking up the lab, “The Darkest Hour,” a joint Russian/American production directed by Chris Gorak and starring Emile Hirsch, is a paint-by-numbers alien invasion film.

Rather than the US, the invasion is shown from the Russian side of things. We follow the imperiled twenty-something Americans who number among a handful of survivors after Earth is invaded by balls of light that chase people down and shred them into pixie dust (check out Night of the Comet–a much better film with red-pixie dust former people and zombie department store stock boy geeks). As they run from building to building, hiding from the x-ray vision of the light balls, the Americans (okay there’s also one Australian and a double-dealing Swede) luckily encounter English speaking Russians.

It makes you wonder if a few more education dollars ought to be devoted to us learning more than one language. When they encounter an old lady who shouts in Russian and tells them they’re all going to die, I was surprised to recognize a couple of words from those long ago two years of high school Russian. However, too much science knowledge would probably get in the way when they make it to the American embassy and discover a recorded message sitting in a birdcage. Yes I said a birdcage. The message is “There’s a Russian sub coming up the river in a few hours. Get there or be left behind.”

Next they meet an old man named Sergei who is a plumber. Sergei has put together what looks like a paintball gun, but instead of paint, it shoots microwaves. The light balls don’t like microwaves. This totally went over my head, but . . . okay. Being from the Russian point of view led to some great early scenes in Moscow, portrayed as an ultra-modern city with great nightclubs. Like here in Los Angeles, you have to look camera-ready to get in. The Russian perspective led to lines like “Eat this Russian bullet” and “I’ll stay here (a good guy Russian cop); I have all of Moscow at my back.” Russian exceptionalism. All in all–mildly entertaining.

Cloud Atlas: Six stories in search of Ovaltine

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A book review:

Spoiler Alert

If you plan on reading the book or if you plan on seeing the movie, this Cloud Atlas review may rain on your plan.

Book cover for "Cloud Atlas"

“Cloud Atlas” book coverThe movie, Cloud Atlas is due to be in theaters on October 26, and the trailer looked very interesting, so I decided to read the book and compare it with the movie. The novel, Cloud Atlas, is the third book by British author, David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas has won awards, including the British Book and the Nebula. Cloud Atlas is a collection of six related stories, described as a puzzle or a set of Russian nesting dolls. I think paper dolls would be closer.

Each of the six stories takes place in a different time and setting. Mitchell writes all but one in first person and that is where the similarity ends. Each story is written in a different style. Mitchell’s command of the narrative style of the 19th century, his inventiveness in terms of language, and detailed settings of the future worlds in stories five and six are impressive. Five stories are in two parts. Story six, in one piece. is in the middle of the novel and it follows the five half stories. After story six, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” Mitchell completes the other five in reverse order, with story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” resuming after six until he ends the novel by completing story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is written ala Herman Melville (the story takes place around 1850) by a thirty something American notary, Adam Ewing. We are introduced to Ewing as he waits on a South Pacific island. There’s been a shipwreck and along with Ewing, we meet his companion, Dr. Goose, an eccentric English physician. Following this story was tough sledding. Ewing learns about the victimized peace-loving Morioiris, enslaved by the Maoris (part of the evil “White Man” plan). All of this is revealed as Ewing witnesses a Moriori being flogged. When exploring the island, Ewing discovers thousands of carvings of faces. Frightened, he scrambles to safety and encounters a beating heart hanging from a tree. He speculates on what kind (hog, human?) but never solves the mystery. As his sea voyage continues via a Dutch ship, Ewing rescues a stowaway, Autua–the Moriori he saw being beaten. The mid sentence ending thing was annoying.

Story two, “Letters From Zedelghem” takes place in 1931 Europe, beginning in England then moving to Belgium. A young English musician/composer, Robert Frobisher, writes his best friend and lover, Sixsmith, telling him of his plans to travel to Belgium and exploit Ayrs, a famous composer who hasn’t written anything since contracting syphilis. Frobisher is something of a snot and the black sheep of his family. Leaving a trail of bad debts, he asks Sixsmith to send him money. Frobisher means to convince Ayrs that he, Robert, will help him to continue his work. Rather than Frobisher exploiting Ayrs, crafty old Ayrs takes credit for Frobisher’s new compositions. There’s no sympathy for Robert. He’s a narcissist and a schemer. Out of the blue, not related to anything else in the story, Robert finds the first half of Ewing’s journal. Also, we learn that Robert has a crescent shaped birthmark on his shoulder. We’re left hanging, the story unfinished. There isn’t been one character in either story whom I’ve found interesting, nor have I cared.

Story three, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” has two ties to story two (“Letters …”) and one to story one. Three is the only one of the six written in third person. It’s the 1970″s and we know this because Disco music plays. Luisa Rey, a journalist in her 30’s gets stuck in an elevator with Sixsmith, a sixty-something scientist and Frobisher’s friend from story two. Although they are strangers, Luisa and Sixsmith spend over an hour together feeling very comfortable talking. Luisa has a birthmark on her shoulder, just like Frobisher’s. Sixsmith has written a report, blowing the whistle on plans for a dangerous new energy plant–an atomic energy plant like Three Mile Island. And so the killing begins. First, Sixsmith, and you know Luisa’s on that list. Luisa is the daughter of a cop, a dead hero. There’s a hit-man named Smoke after her, and we leave the story as her car is plunging off a bridge and into some deep water. I found story three to be the weakest. The plot would have been at home on any Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, or Rockford Files episode. The characters were paper thin and totally forgettable.

Story four, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” begins with a murder. A reviewer who panned a book is thrown off a balcony by the author. Oops, better be careful. Timothy Cavendish, the book’s publisher, is in his late sixties. When the book starts making money, Cavendish joyfully pays off debts until the imprisoned author’s thuggish brothers threaten him, demanding 60,000 pounds. Before he flees, Cavendish receives a submission: Half Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery. Cavendish begs his own estranged brother (Cavendish slept with his wife) for help and when the story breaks, Cavendish, courtesy of his sneaky brother, is trapped in an old folks’ home with a Nurse Ratched running things. This story was marginally more interesting because of Cavendish’s chaotic nightmarish journey, randy reminisces of past romances and Mitchell’s use of a florid narrative style. Mitchell showcases literary flourishes while the character declares: “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980’s with M.A.s in post-modernism and chaos theory.” Style-wise, the story goes from being The Lavender Hill Mob to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Alec Guinness as McMurphy.

Story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” is a dystopic science fiction piece set in Korea. Corporations run what’s left of a polluted world. The narrative is a dialogue between Somni-451, a rebel “fabricant” and the “Archivist.” Somni began her life as a customized clone, working for “Papa Song” a fast food franchise where fabricants serve twelve years, and then are rewarded with a glorious retirement in “Hawaii.” Tinkering with her programming results in a wiser, more informed Somni, who becomes a pawn of the “Union,” the rebel entity trying to upend the Establishment. Most of the story involves her on the run to rebel headquarters, where she will become a figurehead and mentor to facilitate a fabricant uprising. Along the way, Somni encounters a statue of Buddha and we encounter the first “author’s message,” when a nun explains the meaning of the symbol. Whenever I see an overt message in fiction I always think of Woody Allen’s movie, Bananas, or maybe it was Take the Money and Run, (I’m not sure but I do remember the joke ) where during dialogue the words “author’s message” keep flashing. This was the first story I actually enjoyed, but I noticed elements of other sci fi. The layered corruption and Asian setting evokes Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Somni’s reflection on the Union’s true purpose brings to mind O’Brien’s speech in 1984. And what really happens aboard that fabricant ship bound for Hawaii? Think Charleton Heston screaming, “It’s people!” Before her execution, Somni asks to finish seeing a movie, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a connection imposed on the story, rather than an outgrowth of plot or character development. Why does Somni want to spend the remaining minutes of her life seeing a movie? Somni has a crescent shaped birthmark on her shoulder.

After story six, Mitchell completes the rest of the stories, starting with five. As I said, I did enjoy Somni’s story and I got a kick out of the wild prison break in the Cavendish story. The only intriguing part of Luisa Rey was her recognition of Frobisher’s music, a device I believe could have been used in the other stories effectively and also, Luisa’s hesitating when she passes The Prophetess, the ship in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” Frobisher’s suicide in story two made me shrug because he was so unlikeable. I read part two of story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” with the expectation that Mitchell would lock in a piece that would unite all the stories into one, universal narrative. I couldn’t find it. I read again, assuming I didn’t read it carefully enough.

The last two pages were pure “author’s message” and I was reminded of another movie, A Christmas Story. It’s 1939’s Middle-America and Christmas time. Ralphie, a nine-year old boy, schemes for a b-bee-gun to be under the tree. Ralphie is also a fan of Little Orphan Annie, and he has sent in all the boxtops to get a decoder ring. When it finally arrives in the mail, he eagerly listens to the radio show for Annie’s secret message, only accessible to those in the inner circle of decoder ring-bearers. Then, he locks himself in the bathroom, ignoring the wails of his younger brother who has “to go.” As he huddles in the bathroom, defiant and decoding, the secret message Ralphie discovers is “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Disgusted, Ralphie feels Little Orphan Annie has played him. When I read the rest of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,”I knew just how Ralphie felt.

American Gods Season One: Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Fight

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*Spoilers*

Starz series American Gods cover image

Cover image for Starz series American Gods on IMDB

American Gods, the new series on STARZ is based on the book American Gods by British author Neil Gaiman. Until last night, I had resisted adding STARZ due to the enormity that is my monthly cable bill.

After my free STARZ months, I had bid a reluctant goodbye to The Outlander.

Recently, I winced when I learned that A Handmaid’s Tale was part of the Hulu lineup. You can’t afford it, I reminded myself. There are too many good shows and not enough time to watch them all, especially when it costs more. And then I read that Starz was airing a ten part series based on American Gods, a book that I had read and greatly enjoyed. My fiscal resolve developed a serious wobble.

STARZ had me at hello, American Gods.

As the first episode ended, did I have any regrets? Absolutely not!

Rather than the soul, American Gods explores the dark recesses of the human heart where magical thinking, desires and grudges reside, overruling logic and dictating our choices. The opening credits alone are worth a look. The lush visuals of American Gods reflect myth and machine. They create a jumble of the bizarre and the beautiful, a dreamlike landscape inhabited by fearsome creatures.

Gaiman’s American Gods is a war story. The old gods, brought to our shore by immigrants from different parts of the world, prepare for battle.

The first sequence involves a god carved from driftwood

Vikings land on a hostile New World shore. The bugs alone make this place a no go for the exhausted Norsemen. When the lack of a strong wind prevents their leaving, they create a god, hoping it will intercede and convince the stubborn wind to let them leave.

The god is greedy. It wants blood offerings.

The wind finally comes when half of the invaders are dead, the result of a mass sacrifice. Not wanting to linger and chance the wind changing its mind, the Vikings abandon their god in the New World along with their unburied dead.

In Episode One, “The Bone Orchard,” we meet Shadow Moon, an inmate serving time in a 21st Century prison.

On parole and on his way home for his wife’s funeral, Shadow (Ricky Whittle—The 100) becomes the reluctant employee of Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane—Ray DonovanDeadwood plus too many to count).

A slick con artist, Mr. Wednesday embroils Shadow in the doings of the old gods, who are now scattered across the American landscape.

After losing a bar fight with Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber—Orange is the New Black), a six-foot plus leprechaun, Shadow begins to doubt his sense of reality and his commitment to his employer, Mr. Wednesday. Wednesday knows that America’s new gods are homegrown. Fathered by innovation, birthed and nurtured by commerce, the new gods mean to destroy the old ones.

Neglected and forgotten, the old gods, especially Mr. Wednesday, will not go gentle.

Knowledge of Shadow as Wednesday’s new bodyguard brings the wrath of one of the new gods, bratty know-it-all and nightmare millennial, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley—Dead Waters). After grilling him on Wednesday’s plans, Technical Boy orders Shadow’s death, a fate Shadow barely escapes as the episode ends.

Starz is currently airing American Gods with the last episode debuting on June 18th.

So, do any Americans, descendants of immigrants, believe in the gods of the old country?

I think some do. Ask any football fan how many rituals he or she performs to ensure a win for their favorite team. But don’t ask them during a game; that’s bad joo joo.