Category Archives: Blog

A Big Ape, An Island, And Disgusting Monsters

I originally had my doubts about extensively reviving the Toho cinematic universe. With all those monsters, I feared it would disintegrate into a cluttered, implausible (I mean, REALLY implausible) mess. If Kong: Skull Island (2017,  Legendary Entertainment and Warner Brothers, directed by Jordan Vogt Roberts) is any indication, I need not have worried.

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I can’t say this about every movie that Toho distributed, but some of them had mind-capturing, enduring concepts.  I come across them every now and then when I’m spinning channels, get interested, and ultimately end up disappointed by the special effects. But… oh, those concepts. That’s why I started watching the Legendary/Warner Brothers franchise. To date, the special effects have delivered, and the stories are interesting. I like the re-imagined take which pays homage to the original movies while adapting the plots and themes more to the expectations of a modern audience.

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I like the background explanation of monsters living deep in the oceans and in earth’s crust, where they can feed on radiation. In this light, this latest iteration of the giant ape provides a backstory in a period piece format.  We get glimpses of World War II and Viet Nam war imagery mixed in with the Kaiju format, and I found the combination kind of refreshing.

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The cast is very good, including Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly…

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… John Goodman as an underfunded leader of MONARCH in its early days…

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… and Samuel L. Jackson in his own Heart of Darkness cinematic turn.

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But the character interactions and the characters themselves provide a backdrop for Kong and other assorted monsters, some of which are absolutely disgusting. The latter are given some scenes to match their nature. Mostly, however, the visuals were innovative, fun, and “realistic”.

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I thought the plot was good for a film in this genre, but I’ll forego giving a synopsis… Wait. You say you want one anyway? Oh, okay. Here:

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By the way, he’s still growing…

Despite the success of the Marvel and Jurassic Park franchises (which I love, by the way) this has the potential to become my favorite (for strictly personal reasons). At any rate, it is a cinematic universe which this 64-year-old fifth grade boy looks forward to exploring.

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Stanhope (cont.)

Here are some more paintings from the second wave Pre-Raphaelite, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope.  The painting below is taken from the story of Psyche. She had unintentionally aroused the ire of Aphrodite when men, aroused by her beauty, had turned from worshiping the goddess in favor of her.  Later on in her story, she becomes Aphrodite’s servant and is sent on a series of impossible tasks, one of which is to venture into Hades. She is one of the relatively few characters in Greek mythology to make it back alive from the place of the dead. Charon was the pilot who ushered the dead across the river Styx and into Hades.

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Charon and Psyche by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

This next painting is a personification, another example of allegorical art.

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Night by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

Here is Venus, another mythological subject…

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Venus Rising From the Sea by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

… and, from Greek mythology, a depiction of Andromeda, the maiden who was rescued by the demigod Perseus from the sea serpent Cetus when she was chained to a rock.

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Andromeda by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

I will end my discussion of this artist with his portrayal (on two panels) of an event from the New Testament: that of the angel appearing to Mary.

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The Anunciation by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

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John Roddam Spencer Stanhope is considered by some to be a “second wave Pre-Raphaelite”. He was influenced by Edward Burne-Jones, and he was a close friend of Dante Gabrielle Rossetti. He was also uncle to Evelyn De Morgan, whom I have featured previously in this category.

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Love and the Maiden by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

Let’s jump right in. This above painting is another example of allegorical art in which Love has been personified in a mythological way. Shown below is a photograph of the artist next to a portrait painted by his niece, Evelyn De Morgan.

  

Stanhope was evidently willing to explore themes from Greco Roman Mythology to Christianity. The following painting (for which I did not find a title) apparently depicts the quote from Luke 2: 24 (“Why seek you the living among the dead?”) in which an angel proclaims the resurrection of Christ to the women who have visited his empty tomb on the third day.

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Here is a portrayal of an angel expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden:

Stanhope, John Roddam Spencer, 1829-1908; The Expulsion from Eden
Stanhope, John Roddam Spencer; The Expulsion from Eden; Walker Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-expulsion-from-eden-97032

I will show one more. This is taken from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, another wacked-out lovers’ tragedy from Roman mythology. Guess what? They both die.

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Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

I will feature some more paintings from this artist next week.

Godzilla (2014)

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In a monster movie of this scope, you get your first hints of how important the human characters are from the early exits of Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston and from the limited lines of Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins.

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Oh, yeah – David Straithairn, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Elizabeth Olson are also in it.

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It’s a good cast, but the real star is…

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Godzilla (duh). It was produced by Legendary Entertainment and Warner Brothers and directed by Gareth Edwards. Let me say here that Edwards really gets his special effects right in all of the movies under his direction that I’ve seen. His visuals are realistic enough to make my mind race. Okay, monsters 350 feet tall aren’t realistic, but if they were, it’s not hard to imagine them looking like this. He does a good job of blending his CGI with real backgrounds and real foreground objects. He also makes good use of imperfect focus where needed. All of this keeps the CGI from looking too much like CGI.

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So let’s get the negatives out of the way. Yes, the science is ridiculous. What did you expect? For me, the complaints that Godzilla wasn’t prominent enough in his own movie were greatly lessened with repeated viewings. Near the end, the time to get the nuke away from San Francisco is insufficient, but Christopher Nolan also made a similar mistake in The Dark Knight Rises. What do we watch monster movies for most: the plot logic or the imagery? The MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms) that everyone complained about are actually pretty cool themselves, and the associated sound effects really work. This movie is just plain kid fun, and it does a good job of encapsulating and paying homage to past Toho movies while re-imagining the original concepts.

Okay, here’s a plot synopsis. A MUTO  hatches out of a type of chrysalis that scientists from MONARCH are studying, and then it escapes.

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Another one comes back to life. Later, Godzilla appears, and there’s a HALO (high altitude low opening) drop which inserts some outmatched soldiers into the area.

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Then, in a totally unexpected plot development (just kidding), there’s a big fight. This leads to what I considered the coolest sequence of the movie…

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and…

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goodbye.

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Allegorical Art

 Before I start, allow me to thank Art Bacchant for the post  which alerted me to the existence of this artist. The painting below, titled Sense of Sight, by Annie Swynnerton,  is what initially attracted my attention. Its composition and use of color are compelling, as are the eyes and facial expression of the main figure.

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Sense of Sight by Anna Louisa Swynnerton

Anna Louisa Swynnerton (1844 – 1933) was known for her allegorical paintings.

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Study of angels, Anna Louisa Swynnerton

The work of Edward Burne-Jones was one of her major influences.  Here are some photographs of the artist herself:

 

Cupid and Psyche have been painted by various artists, including Burne-Jones. A version from Swynnerton is shown below. Again, I am impressed by the expressions on the faces. Perhaps more than the other paintings I have included, it reminds me of the work of Edward Burne-Jones, especially the style of his Perseus cycle featured in another post under this category.

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Cupid and Psyche by Anna Louisa Swynnerton

I’ll end with Oceanid, a painting of a lake nymph who was the daughter of Okeanos and Tethys. Notice how the water surrounding her sparkles in its transparency. This painting is a good example of the artist’s use of vibrant color.

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Oceanid by Anna Louisa Swynnerton

I am struck by how all of the above works seem to vibrate with life in one way or another.

Alias Adam Available

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A couple of months ago, I posted Alias Adam in a series of free installments on this site. For those who have read it and who would like to have the entire story in one place, it is available through Amazon for $ 0.99 on Kindle or for $ 9.85 in paperback. These are the minimum prices the Createspace platform would allow me to charge. You can order Alias Adam by clicking HERE.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, you can read the entire story for free by clicking on the “Alias Adam” category in the black strip on the left. The story uses a combination of science fiction and fantasy to address the problems of sexual assault and child abuse in America. In addition, I offer the following description from the back cover:

  • He had four biological parents.
  • She had a father of unknown identity.
  • He had a history of child abuse.
  • She had been assaulted throughout her life.
  • Their physical and physiological abilities were beyond the ordinary.
  • Somehow, beyond all sensory verification, they were not alone.

Again, you can order by clicking HERE. Happy reading.

A Sense Of Story

In his book, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton makes the statement that although philosophers examine patterns when analyzing reality, Christianity is a story. I will add that so are all of the major myths from various cultures. Later in that same book, there is perhaps the most interesting and unique discussion about comparative religion which I have ever read. Whether you believe them or not, Christianity, Judaism, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and Norse mythology (not to mention too many additional myths and religions to include in this post) are stories, and they address a fundamental need of the human condition. I remember being a college student in the 1970s. It was a time when these things could be discussed more freely than they are today. People weren’t nearly as prickly when challenged by ideas with which they disagreed.

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The Ascension by Benjamin West, 1801

Returning back to my opening statement, the recognition and analysis of patterns is extremely useful to the understanding of how nature works. My formal training in molecular biology taught me to do just that. Without the context of a story, however, patterns become disembodied, bland, and hollow. A widespread problem in modern society is the awareness that our weeks are like sentences which lack punctuation, especially that period or exclamation point at the end. Too often, it seems that nothing significant happens, something that adds definition to our existence. This extends into the fear that our lives have no story line and no underlying theme. Social approval only goes so far in filling this need. We long, often while resisting it, for a sense of belonging to something greater than individuals or groups.

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Gods of Olympus (1534-1535) by Giulio Romano

I’ve often wondered if this at least partly underlies our cultural fascination with fantasy, science fiction, or even horror. Especially in the case of the latter, do we jangle our nerves so that we will at least feel something? Lest you think I’m being overly critical, please understand that I love various literary and cinematic works of fantasy, science fiction, and mythology. The exercise of our imaginations can be extremely beneficial when it encourages us to conceive better things.

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The Muse (1895) by Gabriel de Cool

May I suggest also taking a look at the hard stuff? Read the great works of epic and mythical poetry, including The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, and The Poetic Edda. While you’re at it, you could certainly do a lot worse than reading works like, Confessions and The City of God by Augustine, The Bible, and the works of Plato and Aristotle. You won’t understand or agree with everything you read. I certainly didn’t, but I learned not only something of their content but also the pleasure of engaging in deep thinking. The driving can be difficult, but the ride is worth it.

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Mercury and a Sleeping Herdsman by Peter Paul Rubens

We are by nature rebellious, so let’s rebel and begin to fill the hollow universe that has been left to us by materialistic thinking. I must add one more thing before closing. Learning is not enough by itself. Our lives become better stories when we apply what we learn by doing something, by adding quality to ourselves and our communities.

So I Watched My Brother

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Watching The Shape of Water (2017 FOX Searchlight, directed by Guillermo del Toro), I noted with interest the brief sequence when Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins) offers a boiled egg to the Amphibian Man (played by Doug Jones). When I saw him take the egg and dive back into the water, I flashed back to a family vacation about five years ago. We were in Corolla on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I was body surfing (not very well on my part) with my brothers Rich and Doug, and he used the same diving form that I saw him use in this movie.

Before I get into what I want to say most, let me mention that the directing and acting were superb. Additional cast members Octavia Spencer (as cleaning lady Zelda Fuller), Michael Shannon (as repulsive bad guy Richard Strickland), Richard Jenkins (as neighbor Giles), Michael Stuhlbarg ( as scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler), David Hewlett, and others did a superb job in playing their roles and adding their individual facets to this gem of a film.

Lest I give the wrong impression, this film earned its R rating. I estimate that the scenes which made me uncomfortable amounted to about fifteen minutes of screen time, and I would have preferred to have seen that time devoted to a more extensive portrayal of my brother’s character and more transitions in the development of his relationship with the mute cleaning lady.

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A number of social issues were covered in this period piece, and if the film had one major weakness, it might be that it tried to do too much. I personally prefer to see fewer themes developed more fully.

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Now for the things that really impressed me besides the fine acting. This is a unique effort in that it is a blend of monster movie and art film, which is evident from the opening credits. Just to see it, I had to drive a hundred miles to an art house where it was playing in Kansas City. The musical soundtrack is used so effectively that it seems like an additional character in the story. I like that this is a relatively low budget film that nonetheless has unique and stunning visuals. It’s a beautiful piece of cinematic work.

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Overall, I’d say that this is a fairy tale disguised as science fiction. The Amphibian Man is more than a monster. He represents an almost spiritual longing, that ache for something wonderful and unexpected which will overtake us.

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THE SHAPE OF WATER
Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

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I think people long for the unusual and the mysterious, for something beneficial that is ultimately beyond our control. That which we can manipulate is that which we have an unfortunate tendency to disrespect and take for granted.

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Merry Mythology

This is the day that western culture celebrates my favorite of all myths, one which I regard as fact. I understand that not all of my followers share in this persuasion, and my sincere prayer is that one day you will. Until then, I hope you will continue to follow me since I think I have demonstrated that I am not at all overbearing in my treatment of this topic of mythology. We can all learn from one another.

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The Annunciation (1898) by Henry Ossawa Tanner

If we can get the cartoons out of our heads, it is possible to consider the more profound aspects of the Christmas story. That infinite divinity took on a form we can understand with our limited faculties is a concept of the highest order.

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Adoration of the Child (circa 1620) by Gerard van Honthorst

Think of what those shepherds must have felt when angels announced the birth of the Christ child. These angels were not fat babies with wings. So impressive was their appearance that scriptures almost invariably mention their need to say, “fear not,” to those who beheld them. We pay good money to see movies with imagery less impressive than that. Might this reflect an unrecognized spiritual need?

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The Annunciation to the Shepherds by Cornelius Saftleven

The Christmas story is only the beginning of a greater story. So let me go all Tiny Tim on you by saying, “God bless us every one.” Happy Holidays. I’ll be back with the usual fare next week.

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Journey of the Magi (1894) by James Tissot

Mythology In Space (Part 9)

Based on the cultural monster this franchise has become, I will be up front by saying that I’m enjoying the Star Wars revival. I’m not a purist. I don’t derive deep meaning from these movies, and I’m certainly not looking for anything innovative or groundbreaking. You can normally buy me off with better special effects, but I do find substance in the story lines up to this point. In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the familiar, dare I say  spiritual, themes are still there, and the old formula still works. Stuff happens, stuff gets blown up, and you meet (and say goodbye to) some interesting characters along the way.

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Let’s get this straight. The Disney business model is focused on not just making a lot of money but on making more than a lot of money. That’s why this next round of trilogies and spinoffs exists, so those seeking cultural enlightenment, the meaning of life, and inner peace might want to look elsewhere. The reason I like these movies is that they’re entertaining and fun, and it’s hard to top their visual impact live and on the big screen. This practically founded the genre that my wife and I jokingly refer to as “explosions in space,” not that either of us is pretending to have invented the term.

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Disney inherited/bought some very iconic imagery, and the main allure for me from the beginning was to see it updated with better special effects. In this, I was not disappointed.

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I also did something I had never done before. I went on opening night rather than waiting until the crowds thinned out, so I enjoyed the communal experience of sitting with enthusiastic fans in a theater after standing with them in line.

A good nucleus of new characters has formed and continues to form. In addition to Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), there was the pleasantly surprising addition of Rose Tico, a genuinely interesting character played admirably by Kelly Marie Tran.

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Throw in the old standbys of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) with some good performances by Benicio del Toro, Laura Dern and Domhnall Gleeson, and you have a packed cast. With so many characters, I can understand why they couldn’t all be developed in a limited run time which is still longer than two hours.

I enjoyed the visual and conversational nuance of Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis) …

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… and a blast from the past by Frank Oz still doing the voice of Yoda (or rather his spirit). To see and hear him again good it is.

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The jaded portrayal of Luke Skywalker was intriguing, and seeing his spiritual reawakening was compelling if not fully explained. Mark Hamill also got to display some acting chops.

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The backstories of Rey and Kylo Ren, as well as their continuing development are and evidently will continue to be a central theme.

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I was almost expecting Kylo to break into a chorus of “Oops, I Did It Again,” but better twists were afoot.

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There were some unexpected plot developments, and this keeps the overall story arc from getting stale. That’s all I can say for fear of spoiling anything for those who have not yet seen the movie. As for minor criticisms, there were logical inconsistencies concerning the operation of The Force and who is more powerful at any given moment. In other words, it was like every other movie I have seen in the Star Wars franchise. I am aware that many people have unanswered questions, and I have one of my own: Who cares? I had fun at this one, and I’ll go to the next. Disney will make more than a lot of money, so it’s a win-win all around.