Monday, May 28, 2012

The Round-Up#51 (Special Superhero Edition)

Film Review: The Avengers (2012): I am a fan of comic books and the wondrous storytelling contained within their pages. But my taste has always leaned more toward DC Comics than Marvel. When it comes to feature film adaptations of comic books, DC, again, trumps Marvel (Daredevil, The Punisher, anyone?) Although Marvel Studios have been trying to improve the quality of their film output this past decade, with stellar films like Spider-Man and its sequel and the fantastic Captain America, still, most feature films based on Marvel Comics can't escape being hokey and cartoonish. I don't know why, exactly.

With The Avengers, Marvel tries to remedy all that by bringing us a movie that combines many of their most famous characters into one super-mega package. The result: Well, let's just say that watching the film was a pleasant, forgettable experience. Nothing more.

Under the helm of Joss Whedon (the uber TV writer/producer, known for creating such hit TV shows as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and it's spin-off, Angel), The Avengers is an energetic, fast-paced romp through comic book shenanigans, with a soupcon of effective characterization occasionally thrown in for good measure. And it works, for the most part, with the heroes (especially Captain America and The Hulk, who are the most fleshed out characters here) all getting their turn to shine. But the film is strangely repetitive, without the innovative plot mechanisms and visual flair Whedon is known for. It seems that, with a huge cast, a gigantic budget, and an array of characters whose storylines are plotted out by studio heads for maximum profitability, has restricted Whedon from doing more with the material.

But, in the end, as far as summer blockbusters go, this is one of the better ones;  a true crowd pleaser, even if it is all just a little too silly.

Film Review: Captain America: The First Avenger: Hands down, the best feature film based on Marvel Comics since Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, Captain America manages a near impossible feat: take a character that oozes jingoism and silliness, and make it human, appealing, and entertaining.

Thanks to Joe Johnston's directorial flourishes (he is one of the best filmmakers working in Hollywood who can recreate the golden age of the 30's and 40's through an art-decoish/pulp-style filter), and an effective script, this is a tremendously entertaining, stylish comic book movie, filled with kinetic set-pieces, gorgeous period detail, and endearing performances (even the usually unimpressive Chris Evans manages to shine as Captain America).

If you are a fan of golden age superheroes, this is a must. And for a feature film based on Marvel Comics, this is surprisingly classy, high-quality work.

Extra! Batman: The Stone King by Alan Grant: This edition's Extra! selection is the novel Batman: The Stone King by Alan Grant, a Justice League of America adventure that offers an extremely fast-paced and entertaining story, even if it's somewhat dark, which, combined with the writer's style (which is admirably somewhere between a comic book and a pulp novel), make this a hugely entertaining book.

That's it for me. Till next time, keep browsing those shelves!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Round-Up#50 (Special DRACULA Edition)

Book Review: Dracula: The Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt Vs. Dracula: The Undead by Freda Warrington: When it was announced that an "official" sequel to Dracula by Bram Stoker, one of my all-time favorite books, was coming out, I was ecstatic, especially since it was reported that the book would be penned by a descendant of Stoker's and would be based on Bram Stoker's notes. I bought a copy of the book, cracked it open, and all was revealed.

Dracula: The Un-Dead is an entertaining, fast-paced, occasionally thrilling book, but it is anything but an "official" sequel to the greatest Victorian Gothic novel ever written. In fact, it reads more like one of the dozens of attempts to capitalize on and modernize Stoker's original, harrowing tale. The fact that it was co-written by a member of the Stoker family is irrelevant; what matters is the story itself, and the story contained within this novel's pages does not show an ounce of reverence toward the source material. Dacre Stoker and his co-author Ian Holt take Stoker's original story and basically cut it to shreds, reshape it, and create a book that reads like an attempt at a Hollywood blockbuster, complete with explosive set-pieces, gory effects, and graphic love scenes. Come on!

That's not to say it is a bad book. Far from it. This is one compelling piece of dark-fantasy, written in straight-forward prose, and with nary a dull moment. But when the plot centers on Countess Bathory wreaking havoc in London, killing members of the band of heroes (Harker, Mina, Holmwood, and Van Helsing), while Dracula turns out to be alive and well, and, shock, horror!, a hero who wants to protect Mina and her son, Quincey, you can hardly call it a continuation of Stoker's masterpiece. Did I also mention that Bram Stoker himself makes an appearance?! Throw in Jack The Ripper, an obsessed detective, and lots and lots of chases, and you get a modernized, oversexed, somewhat cheesy attempt to create a blockbuster sequel.

The Bottom Line: An entertaining, fast-paced novel that should be read as yet another attempt to modernize Stoker's tale. But a proper, true to the source material, sequel it is not.

Now we come to that other sequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was commissioned by Penguin to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Stoker's original. Released quietly in 1997, with almost no publicity whatsoever, Freda Warrington's Dracula The Undead, is a well-written book that is infuriatingly uneven.

On the one hand, Warrington goes to great lengths to stay true to Stoker's style, and, for the first two thirds of the book, the novel reads like a true Dracula fan's dream come true, with spot-on characterization, a dark, foreboding tone, and clever plot machinations. Then, Dracula rises once more, and all is lost, with Warrington falling into Anne Rice-mode, turning Count Dracula into a misunderstood anti-hero and Mina's destined lover. What a shame, because up to that point, Warrington had got everything right, from Dracula's sinister plan to resurrect himself, to the tortured lives of the band of heroes who defeated Dracula, to the marvelously creepy scenes in the Scholomance, to the exquisitely Gothic tone. But, alas, Warrington seems to have a bone to pick with Stoker, as she injects the story wth feminist overtones, defensive, psycho-sexual babble, and a misplaced romance between Mina and the Count.

Still, if one were going to choose between this book and Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt's "official" sequel, Warrington's book is  the better choice. At least she doesn't attempt to please everyone (especially the Hollywood crowd) with her book, only herself. Recommended, but with reservations.

For another sequel to Bram Stoker's Dracula, there is my novel, Phantasms, which features the Count in a supporting yet vital role, and, in my book, he is an absolute villain! Here is the official synopsis:

"The greatest prison in the universe, the one that houses the world's most evil creatures - including Dracula himself - is under attack, and the creatures of the night, the phantasms are about to escape, into our world.

Now, a band of warriors with supernatural powers, led by an aging occult expert, have to travel through worlds and time to reach The Castle that holds the key to stopping the evil, before it reaches our world. But The Castle is protected by The Red Death, the mythic figure that inspired Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story. And so the warriors have to find a way to defeat The Red Death, enter the castle and solve the mystery, before the world comes to an end!

Featuring characters from Bram Stoker's Dracula and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, PHANTASMS is an epic tale of "Good Versus Evil" and a must-read for fans of the genre."

You can buy it from Amazon here.

Extra! Curse of The Vampire (also known as Bloodscreams#1: Vampire Dreams) by Robert W. Walker: This edition's Extra! selection is a forgotten gem from the early 1990's. Curse of The Vampire by Robert W. Walker (writing as Geoffrey Caine) is one of the most entertaining vampire novels I've ever read, with its appealing Van-Helsing-like central character, Abraham Stroud (a psychic former cop who dedicates his life to fighting evil), mesmerizing atmosphere, and inventive plot. This is the first part of a four-book series (all available from Amazon), but it can also be enjoyed as a stand-alone story. Highly recommended.

That's it for me. Till next time, keep browsing those shelves.