Lions in My Lap

bwanalionsWhile living in Chicago during the 1990s, I suddenly found myself unemployed. To keep active while searching for another job, I became a volunteer at the Field Museum, the city’s world renowned natural history museum. My duties involved either manning the owl station or the teeth cart, though I longed to work as a docent in the mammal galleries where animals from all over the world were stuffed and mounted for display. Instead of explaining the stealth capabilities of owls or the difference between alligator and crocodile teeth, I really wanted to tell folks about the Field’s most notorious residents, the man-eating Lions of Tsavo.

In 1898, these two lions stalked and preyed on the Hindu immigrants working in Africa for the colonial British, who insisted they had a right to build the Kenya-Uganda Railroad across the continent. When the company began to construct a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya, the lions terrorized the crew by attacking and devouring several workers. Fearful of being eaten alive, the crew halted work, and many fled. The British sent Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson to calm the crew and ensure their safety. At first, Patterson assumed the stories about man-eaters were exaggerations, but he soon discovered the two beasts exhibited behavior uncommon for lions. They hunted together as a pair; they made their den in a cave, where they dragged their prey; they were unafraid to get close to humans, even in daylight. Apparently the cats eluded several traps, crawled under thorn fences, and figured out how to get around the raging fires intended to keep them at bay. It took Colonel Patterson about nine months to kill the lions, though not before they consumed about three dozen employees. On December 9, he wounded one of the lions in the leg. According to the Colonel’s published account, the big cat returned to camp that night to seek revenge, but he shot it dead. About 20 days later, he killed the second lion. The Colonel’s self-promotional account is not entirely accurate: He claimed that the Lions of Tsavo had killed and eaten about 135 people. After Field Museum scientists discovered and studied the lions’ original den and ran tests on their fur and skin, they estimated one of the man-eaters had consumed about ten victims, while the other had digested about 24.

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Zombie Watch: A Conversation With Dave Kehr about Paul W.S. Anderson

It was a banner weekend for Paul Andersons, as Paul Thomas Anderson and Paul W.S. Anderson topped the specialty and worldwide box office. As PTA’s vaultingly ambitious The Master has understandably dominated the cultural conversation, I wanted to create some space to discuss the ever-workmanlike W.S. One of the few directors to fully embrace 3D, creating dazzling depth effects on half the budget of most Hollywood spectaculars, he’s an endlessly resourceful stylist. Despite this, W.S. has long been one of the worst reviewed directors in the United States. One of his staunchest defenders has been New York Times film critic Dave Kehr,  so I went to see Resident Evil: Retribution 3D (rated 30% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) with him at the Regal Union Square in Manhattan. Afterward we sat down and had an informal chat about Paul W.S. Anderson’s work and career. [Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

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Alien Dimensions: Prometheus in 3D

It has been 30 years since Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner, and he hasn’t lensed an indelible image since. That is, until Prometheus, the Alien prequel which resurrects H.R. Giger’s oozingly organic set and creature design. Scott has never had a more brilliant collaborator, and filming the late Giger’s vision in elegantly executed 3D makes for an immersively entertaining spectacle, opening up the dank corridors of Alien into deepening chasms and high-vaulted chambers. It’s a 3D film with depth effects in every frame, one of the rare blockbusters to fully take advantage of the technology.

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10 of the World’s Most Unique Movie Theaters

I recently read a news story shared by Devin Faraci on the Badass Digest Twitter page about an incredible floating movie theater in Thailand. I was so fascinated by the concept that I started researching international movie theaters located around the world. I love to travel but I don’t get the opportunity to do it often so I enjoyed roaming around the globe from the comfort of my own home. During my armchair travels I came across lots of unusual and unique movie theaters so I thought I’d spotlight a few of my favorite discoveries.

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Silents Please: Hugo and The Artist

In one of those serendipitous quirks of scheduling, two homages to the silent film era are opening at the same time. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a 3D extravaganza adapted from Brian Selznick’s gorgeously illustrated children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, uses the life and work of  Georges Melies as the central mystery for its eponymous hero to uncover. Conceived for 3D, it uses the contemporary (and derided) version of movie magic to look backward at a magician who was famed for his own glorious special effects fakery.

Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a labor of love that made to mimic a 1927 silent. It was shot without sound on Hollywood back lots, framed in the old 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and was converted to B&W in post-production. Where Hugo posits Melies’s art as contemporary as the Hollywood blockbuster he is a character inside, The Artist embalms the object of its adoration.

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Musketeering

Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers has been adapted countless times for the screen, most of them forgotten. There is a 1911 Edison production, a modernized 1933 Mascot serial that starred John Wayne as a French Foreign Legionnaire,  and now a newfangled 3D version crafted by Paul W.S. Anderson. Left out of this un-illustrious list are the canonical Douglas Fairbanks interpretation of 1924, and the popular jokey two-parter from Richard Lester in ’73 and ’74, but alas, it seems the latest Dumas gloss will go the way of Edison’s and the Duke’s, filed away as rote remake and quietly ignored thereafter. Garnering a variety of gleeful pans and disappointing box-office returns, Anderson’s Three Musketeers nevertheless abounds in visual riches and confirms the director as one of the few to fully explore the possibilities of new 3D technologies.

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38th Telluride Film Festival

In case you missed it, the Telluride Film Festival had its 38th bash last Labor Day Weekend, September 2-5. It included the latest films by Aki Kaurismäki, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Alexander Payne, Béla Tarr, David Cronenberg, and many more. But the reason I still love Telluride is not because it delivers the newest works from so many talented directors, but because they also focus on the past (showing silent films, archive prints, and various repertory titles), along with some unexpected programming courtesy of guest directors who are given Carte blanche to select anything they like, no matter how esoteric that might be. (This year the guest director was Brazilian composer, singer, guitarist, writer, and political activist Caetano Veloso, who has worked on soundtracks for Michelangelo Antonioni and Pedro Almodóvar). Telluride also eschews the competitive awards-system that drives so many other festivals and has managed to sidestep being mobbed by industry professionals, brand-obsessed sponsors, or party-obsessed socialites. In sum, Telluride has managed to still be that rare festival that bends over backwards to bring obscure 35mm movies while simultaneously providing viewers with cinematic experiences that challenge them to broaden their horizons rather than simply pandering to market whims or popular taste. And, yes, I say that despite the fact that this year its tribute star was George Clooney.  [...MORE]

My Top Ten Genre Movies of 2010

I was able to see more movies during the year than this guy. To honor him, I’m going to run down my favorite Genre Films of 2010. As top-ten lists rain down upon us, a general consensus emerges and recurring titles get chewed over like regurgitated cud. So while I greatly admire The Social Network (#2 on my year-end list here), I feel no need to spill more metaphorical ink over it. What doesn’t get recognized during the awards season hullaballoo are the disreputable action/sci-fi/horror movies that earn profits and low Rotten Tomatoes scores. I’m using the colloquial definition of “genre films”, of macho flicks with b-movie scenarios, but in reality everything that’s produced slots into one genre or another (David Bordwell persuasively argues that even the art film is one). So forgive my semantic fudging for the sake of headline-writing brevity. In any case, anonymous disfigured corpse from The Crazies, this is for you.

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Dimensional Musings

Jackass 3D had a gigantic opening weekend, bringing in $50 million, almost twice as much as its predecessor. Two weeks previously I watched Joe Dante’s The Hole 3D at the New York Film Festival, which is still without a distributor. The bump in the Jackass money is not only attributable to the 3D premium pricing, it attracted more admissions than its first two entries as well, as Ben Fritz reported in the L.A. Times.  Regardless of the flak the technology receives from critics like Roger Ebert, it draws crowds, and thus will be a part of the cinematic landscape for some time to come. And while muddy-looking 3D conversions will surely mar theaters in the future, there are plenty of productions that are producing fascinating depth effects with the new technology.

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Raoul Walsh, Adventurer

For a man who toiled in the studio system for close to 50 years, cranking out genre quickies and prestige productions with equal aplomb, Raoul Walsh’s work remains astonishingly coherent. My grab-bag syle of viewing has made this resoundingly clear. This week I watched his earliest work, Regeneration (1915) and The Thief of Bagdad (1925) through two films he made in 1953: The Lawless Breed and Gun Fury. The above still is from Along the Great Divide, a spare, Oedipal Western from 1951. All of them, in one guise or another, deals with Walsh’s major concern, the benefits (freedom) and costs (self-absorption, loneliness) of individuality.

In Along the Great Divide (available from the Warner Archive), men are subsumed under vaulting rock formations, isolated and doomed. Kirk Douglas, in his first Western, plays a neurotic U.S. Marshal intent on protecting a cattle rustler accused of murder (Walter Brennan) from his would-be lynchers, and on bringing him to justice. He pushes his deputies as hard as his prisoners, eventually alienating all of them over a harsh drive through the desert. Douglas represses his world-devouring charisma into a bottled-up rage, unleashed only when a bemused, sardonic Brennan starts incessantly humming a tune, “Down In the Valley”, that the Marshal’s Dad used to sing, triggering unwelcome memories.

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