Tuesday, May 27, 2014

May Miscellany

  • I spent the weekend at Balticon, a yearly sci-fi convention here in the Baltimore area, and I think I'm going to be going regularly from now on. I actually don't participate much in the sci-fi fandom, but Balticon has an unusually strong science program, and that's where I spent the whole time when I wasn't shopping in the dealer's room. (I came away with a stack of books and a nifty turned-wood fountain pen.) It was a nice time and I got to spend time with various friends.
  • Summer has descended on Baltimore! The heat and humidity today were dreadful, but it's the beginning of our Sinister Summer and new adventures ahead. What are your plans for the summer?
  • I just finished a rather slight mystery novel from the library. Death and the Courtesan, by Pamela Christie, is an OK read but not much more. It recounts the adventures of Arabella Beaumont, London courtesan of 1811, who is accused of murdering a fellow courtesan and must uncover the murderer in order to save her own neck. The historic milieu is well-researched and Arabella is an amiable person to spend time with, but the plot is rather thin and hastily solved by a leap of logic. I may or may not read the sequel.
    Saucy thing!

Monday, May 19, 2014

May's Night Out at the Cinema!

It's that time again, for our monthly movie night!

Dinner together on this cool spring night is spent discussing our plans for summer adventures, what books we're reading, and other fun things. Then we go down the street to that old movie house where they all know us so well...

First up, I'm doing something a bit different and putting up this very funny clip from the 1929 musical revue film "The Show of Shows," with four comedians (Frank Fay, Lloyd Hamilton, Louise Fazenda, and Beatrice Lillie) doing recitations that end up being somewhat ribald. It's good pre-code naughtiness, and a chance to see Beatrice Lillie in action; she made few film appearances.

And then up next is this piece of fun, 1932's "The Death Kiss," starring David Manners and Bela Lugosi!

The show over, we wander on down the street for a parting glass at our favorite cafe...

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Casinos, Gambling, Glamour, and Reality

Over the weekend, I went to a casino for the first time ever.

It was a big weekend; Saturday was Mom's birthday, and Sunday was Mother's Day, so Saturday night I took Mom out for dinner and then on Sunday my sister and her husband took us all out for a breakfast brunch at Rocky Gap State Park near Cumberland, MD, where they also have a golf resort and a casino. And we gambled. Which felt a bit transgressive and raffish on Sunday morning.

And after a lifetime of novels and movies that made casinos look mysterious and glamorous and all that...I walked away a bit disappointed. It was more like an 80s video arcade than something from a James Bond film. There was a ton of dinging and flashing from the video slot machines that the rest of my family is so fond of. NASCAR slots. Spartacus slots. Universal Monster slots. Little Red Riding Hood slots. Sex in the City slots. Willie Wonka slots. Willie Wonka slots? That's something you'd expect to find in a casino for preteens!

Granted, this is a smallish casino in an area where slots are popular. They had some table games but only roulette and blackjack were active at the time. (It WAS Sunday morning, after all.) I watched roulette for a bit but I have no idea how the betting works so never took part.

So, really, I found the slots a terrible bore. The table games vaguely intrigued me but they're pricier than the slots. To be honest, I can see myself going to a casino with some extra cash and trying out roulette or craps, after studying the betting so I have some idea of what I'm doing. Just to have the experience.

But this was a far cry from flicks like Casino Royale or books like William Le Queux's The Gamblers. It's not in line with the romantic notions of London clubs or Monte Carlo. No tuxes and evening gowns, no million-dollar fortunes falling on the turn of a card, no European nobility or South American playboys. Instead, it's small, rather dull, dark, and a bit sleazy.

Reminds me of recently reading how horse racing was falling from favor, and some racetracks were closing or scaling back operations. Questions of animal rights aside, horse racing and racetracks are now being seen as sleazy and a hangout for hoods and gangsters, and few in the younger generation feel willing to take on the labyrinthine complexity of betting at the tracks.

So, I learned I'm not a gambler. Some day, when I have $50 or more to spare, I may dress up, get some friends together, and head down to Maryland Live to experiment with roulette.

And it was faintly amusing to see, everyone one turned, signs about gambling addiction and giving the phone number for a gambling hotline. I thought they'd do well to post copies of Théodore Géricault's portrait, "Woman with a Gambling Mania." That would freak anyone out.

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Tale of Two Flicks

So two horror flicks are in current circulation, so I'm comparing the two...

The Quiet Ones is the latest from Hammer films, of course in co-production with about a dozen other companies (which seems to be the rule these days). As I said earlier, it's about an  experiment with a psychologist and his students, who are working on a young lady who seems to be profoundly mentally ill and also beset with poltergeist phenomena. He has the idea that he can get her to personify the dark urges and powers inside her, and thus purge herself of them. He and his crew are forced to take her to a remote, abandoned mansion to perform the experiment...but the weird phenomena just get worse, and at about the 2/3 mark we learn it's not just psychic/paranormal stuff going on, but full-fledged supernatural hijinx.

A lot of the story is from the POV of a videographer who's recording the experiment, and who's attracted to the subject of the experiment, so there's a quite a parallel to the style of "found footage," and it's a mix of omniscient storytelling with camera POV.

Weaknesses? The twist in the story is rather abrupt and not really built up to; it comes pretty much out of nowhere. But on the other hand, it's got some good performances, fun 70s atmosphere, and fer pity's sake, it's HAMMER. It's also purportedly based on the infamous "Philip Experiment," in which some researchers supposedly conjured up a ghost out of sheer psychic energy, although the connection between the "true story" and the movie seems tenuous at best.

Just yesterday I saw Oculus, which was co-produced by the WWE, so I wondered if I would be treated to the sight of pro wrestlers bodyslamming supernatural demons. Not so.

Oculus tells the story of siblings Kaylie and Tim. Eleven years ago, their father bought an antique mirror and hung it in his home office. Soon he began brooding, and possibly was having an affair. Mom became withdrawn, had a psychotic break, and not long after Dad went on a rampage and nearly killed the kids. In the present day, Tim is released from a mental hospital (we learn he shot his dad) and Kaylie, now engaged to a wealthy antiques dealer, has got her hands on the mirror. She's convinced the mirror caused her parents' insanity and the murder spree, and has unearthed records linking it to a series of deaths going back over a century. She's bought the house it all took place in, and hangs the mirror there, under a timed booby-trap, and with cameras and computers galore. She wants proof of the mirror's power before she destroys it, and wants Tim's help.

It's quite trippy, with lots of bouncing between past and present, and at one point it seems the people from the past can see their future selves. The performances are solid, and it's got dread to spare. And there's a great part where Tim and Kaylie argue; Tim's treatment at the institution has left him convinced it was a mundane case of a bad marriage boiling over, and he presents some very good cases for Kaylie's stories being only a coping mechanism. But there's also the annoying factor that we never find out WHY the mirror does these things, and who is the mirror-eyed woman who lives in it, and why do ghosts of the previous victims show up with mirror eyes?

Which leads to something that matters to me. The Quiet Ones hasn't been getting the reviews or business, but at least it's a self-contained story. Oculus leaves so many plot threads hanging that it practically has a fringe, and seems cynically engineered to generate sequels. And yet it's getting good reviews and doing decent business. At the risk of being a bit spoilery, both have rather grim endings, and both seem to emphasize man's powerlessness against the supernatural (at odds with earlier Hammer, which would feature goodhearted humanity triumphing over the powers of darkness). But I'm the kind of guy who likes sequels to develop organically, and tend to look askance at movies that are made to generate sequels.

So I have to come down on the side of The Quiet Ones, at least as far as my personal tastes go. But feel free to see 'em both yourself and make up your own minds. I may just have a perverse fondness for crap.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Phantom Ballad for May Day!

Warmth has finally come, the buds are pushing forth, and the rain has finally stopped. We're enjoying a few drinks at a local spot, where the windows and doors are wide open, feeling the warm breezes and the air after the rain has washed the pollen away...

A man gets on the stage with a guitar and sings a few old ballads, including this one...

"The Wife of Usher's Well," like so many folk ballads, has multiple versions and some pretty dark interpretations of its meaning. One interpretation is that the boys had gone away to learn "gramarye," or sorcery, or black magic, and that their reappearance was due to that. Could they have been meant to be vampires, perhaps?

The man plays on, and we listen attentively, perhaps not noticing the strangely pale person walking behind us...