Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bram Stoker, Dracula & Highgate Cemetary

(So Twitter told me today was ‘World Goth Day’. And while I’m not exactly sure what that entails, here’s something that may interest those of responded to the hashtag from my Twitter account.) 

It’s not very often that an author gets to lay claim to inventing an entire genre. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman have a reasonable claim to having invented the Superhero genre. Likewise, there's an argument to be made that my favourite author J.R.R. Tolkien invented the High Fantasy genre. Another such creator is Bram Stoker, the author of the Gothic Horror classic Dracula. An Irishman, Stoker starting writing while working as a manager at London's Lyceum Theatre. After researching European folklore and mythology, he produced Dracula which was published in 1897. And while strictly speaking his novel was not the first vampire novel, it launched the genre into the world like none before it. Indeed, Dracula's popularity would eventually reach stratospheric heights, first appearing in film in 1922 and many since. He has also proved a popular comic book villain too.
Dracula in Marvel's X-Men: Curse of the Mutants, July 2010
Dracula in Marvel's X-Men: Curse of the Mutants, July 2010
Being a long-time Dracula fan, I decided recently to go up to Highgate Cemetery in London and take some photos. This place has long been understood to be a locale that inspired Stoker, with my tour guide even saying he sat and wrote in the cemetery itself. Highgate is one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries which were founded as London grew in the early Victorian period. As you’ll see, it's hauntingly beautiful and if you're ever in London I highly recommend a visit. Nearby Hampstead Heath and the village of Highgate are nice too so make a day of it.

The Highgate Cemetery chapel

The stone, green and quiet all make for an otherwordly place in the midst of London.

Being quite overgrown the cemetery also serves as a nature reserve.
Stone Angel
This is the famous Cypress of Lebanon and is said to date back to the 1690s. Bram Stoker would have looked upon this tree as he wrote.
This is one of the spots where Stoker was said to sit in his chair and write.
Amazing trees!
The final resting place of the great scientist Michael Faraday.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

And Hulk...SMASH: A Review of Avengers

Director: Joss Whedon

Starring: Robert Downey, Jr. Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston & Samuel L. Jackson

I wonder when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the first Avengers comic in the early 1960s, if they had any idea that one day their characters would be featured in a massive feature film that is projected to make hundreds of millions of dollars. Or that some of the world’s biggest movie stars would don the guises of their creations. I doubt they did but fortunately for Stan Lee, he has been able to see his creations one the silver screen. But because Jack Kirby didn't, he passing away in 1994, I've decided to sprinkle this review with artwork from the original comic Avengers #4 (March 1964) which featured Captain America joining the team. Kirby drew this book and is consired a legend in the comic medium and because of this I'm happy to give him the praise he deserves -- including this opportunity. 
Iron Man and Thor in Marvel's Avengers #4 (March 1964)
But let’s get on to the film. I will not be spoiling here, so if you've seen the trailer you should be fine.
WOW. Just wow. It’s a fantastic movie! And while I know I've been a little too easy on some films in the past (see my Green Lantern review -- what was I thinking?!?) this one deserves to be called fantastic and really is worthy of the hype its received. With regard to the characters and actors: as enemies go Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was a good in his role as the Machiavellian leader/puppet of the alien invaders and other stars including Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), and Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye) were great, with special praise going to Renner who, along with the prop department, was able to take an ancient yet potentially mundane weapon (bow and arrow) and turned it into the realistic tool of a top secret agent. Chris Evans contiues to make a good 'Greatest Generation' Captain America and Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow) was the strong female lead this testosterone charged film needed. But of the all-star cast, Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner) and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark) stole the show.  Ruffalo because he played the conflicted genius that is Bruce Banner so well and Downing Jr. because he is Tony Stark and was all of the sardonic, playboy brainiac we've come to know and love over the course of this superhero film franchise.
From Marvel's Avengers #4 (March 1964)
But as we all know a film cannot live on acting alone – it also requires decent plot cohesion that can be difficult when there is so much back story to cover. But in this case it worked. It may have seemed slightly crowded at the beginning of the film, but by the middle act, when everything was going south for the Avengers, you see the team start coming together and are already hungry for the sequel. By the final battle scene where Captain America takes command, you really get the sense it's working. Iron Man and Thor remain themselves yet accept orders from the Captain and in the Hulk we we get to see why comic books have been written about how he's one of the most the powerful characters in the Marvel Universe. Indeed, the scene where Captain America gives the orders in my mind captured the essence of the film perfectly and still counts as only the second best in the film. The top honour goes to the final scene when we get to see what's in store for us next time. That scene had me smiling and fist-pumping all the way home. 
Captain America getting back in Avengers #4 (March 1964)
So there you go: a short, gushing exam-time review of Avengers. All in all, it was great escapist fare for both Fanboys and laypersons alike. Those of us who know comics and their back stories will really enjoy it (especially the final scene!) but if you’re bringing along a girlfriend, sibling, friend or parent they’ll enjoy the action, drama and humour too. Oh, and comics fans, if I haven`t already made this clear: stay in your seats! The final scene has everything you`ve been hoping for.

4.5/5 Stars