MOVIE REVIEW: Krull (1983)

Ah, the early 80s…. In the cinemas, the hot trend was “sword and sorcery” movies. Swashbuckling heroes, damsels in distress, special effects making magic and monsters….. The stuff of legends, brought to life. They were coming out on a virtually monthly basis. To rise above the crowd, you needed something special.

A combined British and American production team thought about it and said, “Let’s add a little science fiction into the mix! And then throw a heck of a lot of money at it!” The result is our subject du jour.

The sci-fi elements in Krull are there at the start. As ponderous narration informs us, the asteroid we are seeing is actually a spaceship, and it’s setting out to conquer hapless worlds. Its next target is the planet Krull, a rather peaceful place consisting of various modest kingdoms. The conquest is well underway as the plot begins.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heaven’s Ditch

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal
Jack Kelly
St Martin’s Press, NY
Copyright 2016 by the author

It was the nation’s first big infrastructure project. A canal connecting Lake Erie (and thereby the Great Lakes and the Northwest Territory) to the Hudson River (and thereby New York City and the Atlantic Ocean). A project vital to the growth and development of the United States, it also brought a palpable sense of excitement to upper New York…. an excitement that would have significant effects not only on individuals, but on the nation as a whole.

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Book Review: Dark Matter

Dark Matter
by Blake Crouch
Crown Publishers
(c) 2016 by the author

Since at least as far back as Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time” (1934), science fiction writers have been penning tales of traveling through the “multiverse” of alternate histories. So despite what some of the reviewers might be saying, there’s nothing really novel about Crouch’s novel in that regard. But what is new is that instead of positing another world where the Confederacy won the War Between the States or the Nazis won WWII, Crouch makes it personal.

Everyone has made important decisions in their lives. What college to attend, what job to take, to break up or not to break up with a lover…. Crouch pens a fast-paced action-adventure story based around the individual “alternaties” that spring from the many choices we make.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)

Science and scientists rarely get proper treatment by Hollywood. If they aren’t the stereotypical Mad Scientist creating wacky gadgets or Tampering In God’s Domain, they’re the Absent-Minded Professor who is socially awkward and treated as Comic Relief. Or the Screen Scientist is just in the plot to provide exposition so the other characters (and the audience) can know what’s going on.

Most likely, this lack of respect is simply because if they showed a real scientist, they’d look just like someone in any other field of employment (and behave similarly, no doubt). And if they showed real science, not only would most of the audience not understand it, the “process” of Science is long, tedious, and filled with failure. Not something that makes for a good movie.

Is it any wonder, then, that the best movies about science and scientists tend to be biographies? Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: Here is Where

Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History
Andrew Carroll
Crown Archetype
2013

It’s a fairly non-descript row house on Brooklyn’s Ryerson St. It only stands out because it’s a three-story building surrounded by two-story homes. But underneath the bland siding is a house that goes back to the 1850s. And in 1855, it’s where Walt Whitman lived while he was between newspaper jobs, and where he wrote and self-published Leaves of Grass [1].

There’s no plaque on the door; presumably the current residents – if they even know about their former tenant – don’t want to be besieged by Whitman groupies or harassed by historical tours. But in a city where all the other Whitman-related buildings and locations have been torn down or built over or otherwise lost over the many decades, shouldn’t it at least be worthy of a sign on the sidewalk?

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MOVIE REVIEW: Q, The Winged Serpent (US, 1982)

There’s an old (well, not *that* old, but old enough) movie trivia game known as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. Basically, it attempts to demonstrate that no actor is more than six co-star links away from Kevin Bacon, thus making him the Center of the Hollywood Universe – or something. It’s become a cliche now, to the point where one can make fun of it knowing that people will get the reference.

But if you’ve somehow never come across it, or want to impress your friends with your movie trivia wizardry, the key is to remember the movies with unusual pairings in the cast. Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff. William Shatner and Judy Garland. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree…

That last one is the subject of this review. In Q, Detective Shepard (Carradine) and Sgt. Powell (Roundtree) are NYC police officers who find themselves investigating the decapitation of a window washer. The real puzzle is that the victim was at work on an upper story of the Chrysler Building at the time. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, they also are dealing with a couple of cases of what looks like ritual human sacrifice.

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Book Review: Floodpath

Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles
Jon Wilkman
Bloomsbury Press
(c) 2016 by the author

What Robert Moses was for New York City, William Mulholland was for Los Angeles. Both were immensely powerful and influential in their cities, despite not holding an elective office. Both earned their positions by being very hard working, and extremely good at their jobs. Both indelibly shaped their cites forever, both for good and for bad. But where Moses’ gradual fall from power was the result of a growing realization that his roadbuilding was no longer what New York needed, Mulholland’s fall happened literally overnight.

Documentarian Jon Wilkman has written another fine book on the collapse of the St Francis Dam outside Los Angeles, on the night of March 12-13, 1928. I say “another fine book” since this is not the first volume on the subject – but it is the first I’ve read. And it really is a very fine work.

The flood from the collapse of the dam blasted down the Santa Clara river valley, leaving millions of dollars in damage, and over 400 dead. It is one of the worst civil engineering disasters in US History – but is barely remembered outside California.

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BOOK REVIEW: Famous Works of Art – And How They Got That Way

Famous Works of Art – And How They Got That Way
John B. Nici
Rowman & Littlefield
Copyright 2015 by the author

Ask a hundred people what is the most famous or greatest work of art in the world, and ninety-nine of them will most likely say it’s the “Mona Lisa”. Ask them to explain why, and most of them will mumble something about the smile. Nothing about da Vinci’s technique or composition or anything else that one would usually expect to hear when discussing a masterpiece, just an opinion that they are no doubt parroting from someone else.

What is it that makes a famous work of art famous? Art historian John B. Nici has taken time out from teaching art history at Queens College in New York to delve into the matter. As often as not, Fame comes from things external to the artwork itself.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Beastmaster II: Through the Portal of Time (1991)

There’s a term in film criticism that comes up in the discussion of “bad” movies – the Idiot Picture. It has a couple of definitions. It could refer to the plot of the movie progressing only because a character is an idiot. I’ve heard it referring to a fantasy / sci-fi movie world where everyone is so idiotic that the movie reviewer feels they could take over that world on a good weekend. Or perhaps it’s the movie makers who are idiots for including utterly inane dialog and leaving vast plot holes. Or maybe it means that only an idiot would think it’s a good movie.

Beastmaster II seems to cover all of them.
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Book Review: Iran-Contra

Iran-Contra:
Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power
by Malcolm Byrne
(c) 2014 by The University Press of Kansas

Return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when Communism was on its way out as the #1 Global Threat and Radical Islam was quickly climbing up the charts….

On October 5, 1986, a Sandanista soldier fired off his SAM-7 at a Fairchild C-123K cargo plane that had just crossed into Nicaraguan airspace from Costa Rica. He got really lucky – the missile hit, and knocked down the plane. Three of the crew died in the crash – but Eugene Hasenfus survived. He confirmed to his captors what documents found in the crash revealed: the plane was on a covert mission on behalf of the CIA to supply the Contra rebels with arms – in direct contravention of US laws.

A few weeks later, a news magazine in Lebanon published a scoop. Representatives from the Reagan administration had been meeting with Iranian government officials in an effort to purchase the release of a couple of Americans who had been kidnapped by Hezbollah. This was a big deal; the stated position of the American government was “We will never negotiate with terrorists”. And Iran, now that a theocratic Islamic government had kicked out our friend the Shah and then allowed a bunch of radicals to capture the staff of our embassy in Tehran, was considered the number one terrorist-backing government in the world.

This was all Very Bad News for the Reagan administration, especially when it was found that the profits from the arms sales to Iran were being used to pay for supplying the Contras without the knowledge – nevermind the permission – of Congress.
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