Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: Hellboy: The Midnight Circus by Mike Mignola et al.

Hellboy: The Midnight Circus written by Mike Mignola and draw by Duncan Fegredo

In 1948, the young Hellboy sneaks out of the B.P.R.D. Headquarters in Connecticut at night to smoke a cigarette he filched from some guys in the lunchroom. Just as he finds a nice tree behind which he can light up, he hears a lone drummer on a nearby path. It's a clown playing a drum. Hellboy follows, seeing a poster for a circus. He forgets the cigarette and runs off to see the circus. Naturally it's much more than it appears to be.

The story provides an interesting reflection on Hellboy as seen through the story of Pinocchio. Hellboy discusses the plot of Pinocchio with the circus ring master which brings to mind Hellboy's own desire to be a regular human. Professor Broom, his foster father, wants to give Hellboy as much of a normal childhood as he can have. Others (both humans at the B.P.R.D. and demons at the circus) are concerned about Hellboy's fated role. Is he the harbinger of destruction or even the destroyer himself? It's a mystery that still hasn't been solved, though clearly the older Hellboy in the other stories resists what others tell him is his fate.

The story here is interesting though the young Hellboy is mostly passive in the second half of the story. He is just a kid after need to make him grow up too soon. The book is enjoyable but it does seem like it is little more than a single-issue comic released in a hard-cover format at hard-cover prices.

Sample quote--Mike Mignola's dedication of the book:
For Carlo Collodi, who taught me everything I know about what a puppet should be. And for Ray Bradbury, who confirmed my worst fears about the circus.

Movie Review: Evil Dead (2013)

Evil Dead (2013) directed by Fede Alvarez

Here's another film I meant to see last summer, though unlike Pacific Rim, World War Z and Much Ado About Nothing, I debated long and hard about whether I wanted to see this one or not. Too long, thus I missed it in the theatres here.

It used to be in Hollywood, aspiring film makers could break into the scene by making a low-budget noir thriller (see Blood Simple) or horror film (see Night of the Living Dead).  Sam Raimi and his friends got into the business by making The Evil Dead, a low-budget horror movie famous (or infamous) for pushing the boundaries. The movie is pretty raw. The story is fairly basic--five 18-to-25 year-olds go to a cabin in the woods where they plan to have a lot of fun but unleash a demon who starts possessing and killing them one by one. The special effects were the best they could do on a low budget and work for the most part. The violence and gore and scares are so extreme that they sometimes become comic. Bruce Campbell's over the top performance as Ash begins his amazing career. The movie became a cult hit and was also banned in Britain during the video nasties scare of the 1980s.

Fast forward 30 years. A high-budget (comparatively speaking) remake is made with the backing of the original film's producers. The story is mostly the same, except that the five young people come to the cabin to help one of them kick her drug addiction (which helps explain why they don't run away immediately when she tells them about the crazy evil things happening to her). The special effects are top-notch, to the fault of being too realistic. The violence and gore and scares are extreme but don't cross the line into comedy. Jane Levy's solid performance as going-cold-turkey Mia carries the viewer through the excruciating horror. The movie, while not a big hit, performed well enough at the box office to get a sequel greenlit.

This movie has a lot of visual and audio references to the first film (and its sequels), which is to be expected, but has nothing iconic of its own to offer. I liked the set-up which makes their reluctance to leave more plausible, though both this film and the earlier one show that escape is impossible regardless of the characters' decisions. So the set up is a welcome but not necessary addition. The change in tone, losing the humor and the over-the-top rawness, is a big problem. Without the humor to buoy up the viewer, the gore gets too grim and unbearable. The realistic depiction of the gore doesn't help. When Bruce Campbell cuts his evil hand off in Evil Dead II, the filmmakers play up the ridiculousness of what's happening (at the end the hand goes scurrying away like Thing from The Addams Family). A similar scene in this film has a woman (not Mia) chopping most of her arm off with an electric kitchen knife, but it's just an unpleasantly realistic-looking experience--gore for its own sake, which is repulsive in every possible sense. Mia's plight is pitiable but truly unpleasant. Perhaps there's heroism in her survival to the end but watching the movie is more like a forced march than a triumphant arrival. The film has almost nothing to offer but a lot of unpleasantness.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

Castel Sant'Angelo is a large fortress on the banks of the Tiber River. When first built in AD 139, it was the tomb for Emperor Hadrian. Subsequent years saw it used as part of the Aurelian Walls , a medieval citadel, a prison, and a residence for the pope when the city was being attacked. It's now a museum full of its own history and of spectacular views over the city of Rome.

Castel Sant'Angelo

The first level of the interior has some buildings used for administrative purposes now, though it is easy to imagine soldiers stationed here to guard the outer wall of the Castel. Four bastions are located on four corners of the inner wall. The bastions are named after the four evangelists.

Main floor of the castel

Bastion San Marco

Courtyard of cannonballs?

This level of the castle provides some nice views of the city as well as the massive round tower at the center of the castel.

Tiber River

Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II

The round tower

Going up another staircase, we crossed a small bridge into the tower and ascended the Staircase of Alexander VI, which cuts through the center of the building. Originally (i.e. in the Hadrian Mausoleum days) a spiral ramp followed along inside the wall up to main rooms. The ramp is still there but the staircase is much more direct.

Stairs up to the bridge

A mighty door with a L-sized door in it!

Going up the staircase!

About halfway up is the Chamber of Urns, where the cremated remains of Hadrian's family had been kept.

Chamber of Urns

At the top of the stairs is the Courtyard of Honor, which had been an ammunition store. Now it is home to one of the previous Saint Michael statues that was placed at the top of the castel.

Entrance to the Courtyard of Honor

An earlier St. Michael statue

The courtyard leads to various museums with artifacts from the history of the castel. Most of the museum is off limits to cameras, but the hall with models of the Mausoleum and the Castel are okay.

Artist's conception of Hadrian's Tomb

Your standard temple

The cut-away of the Pantheon was popular with J and L

Another stairway led us up to the roof which has two items of note. First is the massive bronze statue of Saint Michael the Archangel. The story goes that Pope Gregory the Great had a vision of Saint Michael on top of the castel. The angel indicated that a plague which had struck the city was about to end. The plague did indeed end so the castel was renamed and different statues have adorned the top for centuries.

Side view of the statue

Front view of the statue

The other item of note is the fantastic views over the city of Rome.

J looks out toward the Vatican

The Vatican on its own

Roman domes

Ponte Sant'Angelo

Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II

Going back down, we followed an ornate passage around the top that had some nice frescoes and, in the summer, some nice vine cover.

Frescoes along the path

A unicorn!

Would be nicer in spring or summer

We descended through the Courtyard of Alexander VI which has a ballista and the castel's well.

Too exciting for J



We were amazed by the variety of busts found throughout the castel. Here's a sampling...

A bust labeled "Colossal Male Head"

Emperor Hadrian

Unidentified but probably some Renaissance person

Two more emperors

Emperor Voldemort?

The castel was well worth visiting. The kids enjoyed climbing around a bit and we parents enjoyed some history and great views.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Moving on to the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

Along the Via di Corridori Borgo in Rome runs a high, wide wall from the Vatican to Castel Sant'Angelo. The wall was built in 1277. It is the Vatican Corridor (known locally as the Passetto), an escape route for the pope in times of trouble. We followed the wall to find Castel Sant'Angelo.

Following the Vatican Corridor

A way through to the other street

The corridor enters the Castel Sant'Angelo

The castel is surrounded by ramparts that make a nice garden area. We had a hard time deciding which way to walk around the ramparts to find the main entrance.

View from rampart to the back of the castle

Along the way, we discovered an outdoor sculpture dedicated to Catherine of Siena, beloved by Romans. The display includes her statue and some bas reliefs of scenes from her life, including her saving a man from execution and her stopping a burglar from robbing the convent.

Catherine of Siena sculpture

Scenes from her life

More scenes from her life

We walked a bit more and finally found the castle grounds and the entrance. More on the Castel in the next post!

J ready to go!

The family at the entrance

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ponte Sant'Angelo, Rome

Just outside the Castel Sant'Angelo is the Ponte Sant'Angelo, a bridge across the Tiber. The bridge was originally known as the Aelian Bridge, named after Emperor Hadrian whose tomb was on the site of the Castel Sant'Angelo. The bridge has been there since 134 AD.

Ponte Sant'Angelo seen from the Castel

In 1535 Pope Clement VII commissioned statues of Peter and Paul, the evangelists, and some patriarchs for the bridge. In 1669 Pope Clement IX commissioned Bernini to replace the evangelists and patriarchs (which were crumbling) with ten statues of angels holding instruments of the passion. Bernini was at the end of his life and only finished two of the statues, the angel with the superscription INRI and the one with the crown of thorns. Clement liked the two statues so much he kept them for his own collection. After his death, the statues wound up in Sant'Andrea delle Fratte. Copies were made for the bridge.

Peter and Paul are located on the opposite side of the river from the castle, so we'll start from there.



Angel with the Whips

Angel with the Column

Angel with Veronica's Veil

Angel with the Crown of Thorns

Angel with the Nail

Angel with the Garment and Dice

Angel with the Cross

Angel with the Superscription INRI

Angel with the Sponge

Angel with the Lance

The bridge does draw tourists which draws sidewalk salesmen selling bags, sunglasses, trinkets, etc. We resisted the urge to purchase anything, recognizing most of it as low quality and uninteresting to us.

Tomorrow's post moves on to the Castel Sant'Angelo!