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Dracula: Prince of Darkness [Blu-ray] [Import]
Dracula: Prince of Darkness [Blu-ray] [Import]
Price: CDN$ 31.66
12 used & new from CDN$ 20.51

3.0 out of 5 stars Dracula: Prince of Slashers, Nov. 9 2015
After the massive disappointment of "Brides of Dracula" -- which had neither Dracula nor his brides -- Hammer Studios managed to woo back the great Christopher Lee to reprise his role as the count.

So does "Dracula: Prince of Darkness" dramatically return to the quality of "Horror of Dracula," now that its central character and actor have returned? Not even a little. However, it does have a certain charm as a vampire slasher movie, with an almost-silent Lee stalking around after some supremely unlikeable British tourists -- and it does have some positive points like a whole monastery of vampire-slaying monks, who leave you wishing that they were the lead characters.

Two British couples are touring Transylvania because... well, because they're tourists. Like every other foreign visitor to the region, they end up stranded in the middle of nowhere, but fortunately come across the remote, semi-abandoned Castle Dracula. The only servant in the castle, Klove (Philip Latham) explains that his deceased master, Count Dracula, ordered him to keep rooms and food ready for whatever guests might stumble across it, and they are all welcome to stay the night.

Charles (Francis Matthews), Diana (Suzan Farmer) and Alan (Charles Tingwell) are all totally okay with this peculiar arrangement, but Helen is filled with dread and trepidation. It turns out that she is right, since that night Klove murders Alan and uses his blood to resurrect Dracula (Lee) from the ashes. Apparently vampires operate on a "add water and stir" principle.

The following day, Charles and Diana discover that not only is Dracula up and about, but Helen has been transformed into his vampire bride. But they soon receive help from Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a wandering priest and local expert in vampire matters -- and he can give them sanctuary in a local monastery, whose occupants seem very well-equipped with dealing with vampires. Dracula has decided he wants Diana as his next bride, and nothing can stand in his way.

The biggest problem with "Dracula: Prince of Darkness" is that it is essentially a slasher movie with a vampire. It revolves around a group of dumb, rather annoying characters who end up in a house in the remote forests, where they are stalked and/or killed by a mysterious monstrous figure who never ever speaks. Set it in modern times and give Dracula a large knife, and you would have a fairly by-the-numbers slasher movie. Yes, Dracula doesn't actually speak in this movie, apparently because Christopher Lee was so disgusted by the dialogue that he refused to do anything but hiss and snarl.

As a result, Dracula is not a particularly impressive villain, because he seems to have left a good portion of his brain in that smoke-filled coffin. He's certainly intimidating, with Lee's stature and aura of palpable disdain for those around him. But he doesn't seem to act with the cunning and elegance that you would expect of an ancient and powerful vampire, and the lack of speech makes him feel more animalistic.

However, the movie does have some definite upsides. Father Sandor -- fulfilling the Van Helsing role of the story -- successfully infuses a lot of vampire lore into the battle against Dracula, and Keir has a robust, outspoken, genial flavor to his performance. He is, quite simply, someone you can easily imagine trusting in a crisis, and he has the physical presence of someone who can actually back you up in a fight. He's also backed by a number of monks with steel nerves, who seem to be quite effective at battling vampires.

As a result, the second half of the movie is far more intriguing than the first -- it contains a measure of haunting suspense (including the question of how they can stop Dracula), some mediocre fight scenes, and a skin-crawlingly violent vampire-slaying when one of the vamps is captured by the monks. The main flaw is that the monks also have a local Renfield-type, whose allegiance to Dracula is obvious within the first few seconds of his first scene. A little suspense might have been nice.

"Dracula: Prince of Darkness" starts off like a sort of Draculean slasher movie, and moves on to some of the most quietly awesome monks and priests you'll ever see in a vampire movie. Just don't expect Lee to do anything but hiss like a cat with a bowl full of cauliflower.

Brides of Dracula [Blu-ray] [Import]
Brides of Dracula [Blu-ray] [Import]
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2.0 out of 5 stars The Horror of Baron Mommy's-Boy, Nov. 9 2015
As with all adaptations of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," the Hammer movie "Horror of Dracula" ended with Dracula dying. Hard to continue menacing the world when you're a pile of ashes.

So how could Hammer produce a Dracula sequel when the famed count is no more? Produce a barely-related movie called "Brides of Dracula," which does not have Dracula or his brides -- it simply has Van Helsing squaring off against a far less impressive vampire, with the sporadic assistance of a woman so stupid she is unable to remember what happened the previous day. As always, Peter Cushing is absolutely magnificent as Van Helsing, but the rest of the movie is a tedious, paint-by-numbers vampire movie.

Young Frenchwoman Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) is on her way to teach in a remote Transylvanian girls' school, but ends up stranded in a remote mountain village. She accepts the invitation of the eccentric Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) to stay in her castle overnight, but immediately becomes entangled with the Baroness' son, who is imprisoned in a neighboring part of the castle. He convinces Marianne to free him, which she does... because she's an idiot who blindly does whatever attractive men tell her to do.

Surprise surprise, the young Baron (David Peel) is actually a vampire who immediately kills his mother, with the help of an insane servant who seems to think crazy laughter is the answer to every problem. Marianne is rescued by Van Helsing (Cushing) who whisks her off to her destination, before doubling back to the village to deal with their vampire problem. Unfortunately the Baron is already getting his own harem of white-gowned brides, just like Dracula -- and he's determined to make Marianne one of them. As she has the brains of a lobotomized squirrel, she has absolutely no problem marrying a man who murdered his own mother.

I can only imagine the disappointment of audiences who watches "Brides of Dracula" and discovered that it contained no Christopher Lee, no Dracula, and no brides of Dracula. There are brides, but they're not Dracula's brides. In fact, there is very little in this movie that actually ties it to the legendary story of Dracula, or even to the previous movie adaptation. Except for a couple of vague mentions of Dracula, the only connection is Van Helsing himself, and he is presented so generically that the character would be unchanged if he were renamed.

In fact, "generic" is perhaps the best term to describe the entire plot of this movie. Little about it is actually memorable or unique -- most of the story is made up of cliches rewarmed and recycled from "Horror of Dracula" -- aristocratic vampire preying on a little Romanian village (where most of the inhabitants sound extremely British), with a damsel he's targeting and a knowledgeable vampire hunter. The only unique aspect is the Baroness, a rather tragic figure whose relentless indulgence of her son leads to him becoming a monster, and in turn transforming her into one as well.

As usual, Peter Cushing gives a practically flawless performance as Van Helsing -- he comes across as warm and kind to everyone he comes across, and he easily dominates every scene without being overbearing. There's even a rather brutal scene where Van Helsing gets bitten, and uses some rather unorthodox treatments to avoid becoming a vampire.

Unfortunately, Van Helsing is not the only main character. Instead of Dracula, we have the Baron Meinster... so rather than an ancient, ruthless warlord, we have a spoiled rich brat whose mommy let him hang out with the bad kids until one of them turned him into a vampire. Not exactly threatening. He's very much a generic vampire without much actual presence, and doesn't seem to have any of the cunning necessary to actually DO anything.

To make matters worse, Marianne is one of the stupidest heroines I've ever seen in a movie -- not only does she constantly show a complete lack of common sense (when told the Baron is dangerously insane, she immediately tries to free him), but she somehow manages to forget everything she saw and heard after her first encounter with the Baron... including Van Helsing's whole explanation about what was going on. When the Baron pops up again, she looks mildly confused in an airheaded way, but is apparently happy to see him. Monlaur's bizarrely affected performance doesn't exactly help a character who seems destined to be a Darwin award.

"Brides of Dracula" has no Dracula, no brides of Dracula, and no point. The one saving grace is the presence of the ever-amazing Peter Cushing, but even his return as Van Helsing is not enough to save this poorly-plotted clucker.

Crimson Peak
Crimson Peak
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A monstrous love, Nov. 6 2015
This review is from: Crimson Peak (DVD)
Like every genre, gothic stories have their tropes -- ghosts, eerie moors, girls in fluttering white nightgowns, handsome brooding men, spooky old mansions, sexual perversions and old secrets hidden from sight.

And Guillermo del Toro loves them. Every single one. Every trope. Otherwise, "Crimson Peak" wouldn't be the love letter to gothic fiction that it is -- a sensual, ripe, rich-looking movie that mingles gothic romance with a sense of creeping horror... and, you know, a few howling ghosts. With a dream cast of Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowski, del Toro sculpts a beautifully grotesque piece of art that drapes its skeletons in black lace and silk.

As a child, Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) was visited by the ghost of her mother, who warned her "Beware of Crimson Peak." Vague, but chilling. Fourteen years later, Edith is an aspiring author who wants to write stories about ghosts instead of girly romances, which brings her in contact with the impoverished baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and his weird, icy sister Lucille (Chastain). Sharpe is hoping that Edith's father will invest in a clay-mining invention that he's developing, but Mr. Cushing (Jim Beaver) is not impressed.

He's even less impressed when he finds that Edith is falling in love with Thomas, due to his elegance and advice on her writing. He tries to bribe the siblings into leaving Boston for good. Then he's murdered by a mysterious figure, although the authorities believe that it was an accident.

A grieving Edith quickly marries Sir Thomas, and he whisks her away to his remote ancestral estate in England, a vast, rotting mansion that is slowly sinking into the red clay mine underneath it. As Edith explores her new home, she finds that this mansion has some literal ghosts -- terrifying red-soaked specters that seem to be trying to warn her. As she slowly unearths the horrors of Allerdale Hall, she begins to realize the terrible secrets that her new husband is keeping from her... and the terrible fate that awaits her.

In a way, "Crimson Peak" is a sequel to del Toro's previous movie "The Devil's Backbone" -- most of the horror comes from very human evils, with the ghosts not being scary or threatening. But this one is pure gothic romance, and not just because he happily name-drops Jane Austen and Mary Shelley. Every image and concept associated with gothic "blood and thunder tales" can be found here. Dashing, brooding man with a secret? Check. Girl running around in a trailing white gown? Check. Big scary house with spooky places you're not supposed to go? Coughing up blood? Strange deaths? Check. Check. CHECK!

In fact, this movie practically drips with luscious, beautifully-decayed gothic atmosphere -- the dead leaves and snow fluttering through the gaping hole in Allerdale's main hall, the damp rooms filled with creepy toys and flickering shadows, the black moths fluttering around the heroine as she floats through the ornately-spiky halls. It's a visual feast, but an unsettling one.

The entire plot is a slow-building mass of suspense that explodes into bloody, fluttering violence at the end, but del Toro does pause to develop the characters in a very organic way (Edith's tearful ramble about her father's clothing choices after identifying his body). And while some of the dialogue can be cliched ("You're so... different." "From who?" "Everyone"), del Toro manages a Victorian style of speech that seems natural and fluid ("I advise you to return to your ghosts and fancies, the sooner the better. You know precious little about the human heart or love or the pain that comes with it!").

The biggest problem with the story? Well... I saw the big twist coming from the beginning of the movie. It's really very obvious, and at times you just want Edith to catch up to what is obviously going on. But hey, she's a sheltered naive young girl in the late Victorian period, so perhaps she can be forgiven for not cluing in.

And in that regard, Wasikowski does pretty well. Her acting seems a bit tremulous, but she does convincingly depict a naive, sheltered young woman who thinks she's more worldly-wise than she is, only to discover that the world is crueler than she ever dreamed. And Hiddleston is absolutely perfect as Sir Thomas -- he's elegant and charming, making use of the actor's natural charisma and wide-eyed intensity. Yet he's also a weak-willed man who has done terrible things, and Hiddleston manages to make you both despise and like him by the movie's end.

On the flipside, Chastain gives a downright eerie performance as Lucille, a lady who seems to have only two settings: homicidal rage and icy remoteness. At times she seems a bit over-the-top, but her slow unraveling is genuinely scary. Charlie Hunnam and Jim Beaver also give good, robust performances as Edith's earnest admirer and her genial dad.

"Crimson Peak" is an exquisite little monster -- it's Guillermo del Toro dabbling in classic gothic romance, spinning his own story as he pays homage to others. Great performances, eerie atmosphere and a rotting haunted mansion.... what's not to love?

Star Trek:  The Original Series:  Season (One Remastered)
Star Trek: The Original Series: Season (One Remastered)
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5.0 out of 5 stars Warp one, Mr. Sulu, Nov. 6 2015
"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations... to boldly go where no man has gone before!" It would be hard to find many TV shows as wildly influential as the original series of "Star Trek," which inspired a devoted fandom, several spinoffs of varying quality, a string of films, and most recently an alternate-timeline reboot directed by J. J. Abrams.

And it all started with "Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 1," a groundbreaking and intelligent sci-fi series that brought interstellar exploration to TV screens -- aliens, androids, strange phenomena and the odd planet that generates giant rabbits and school bullies. Yes, it has the late-sixties color schemes and miniskirts, but it also has a moral complexity and wide-eyed earnestness that most TV shows lack, along with crisp writing and a solid cast.

In the twenty-third century, mankind has spread out among the stars, and established a Federation of like-minded worlds. The starship Enterprise is part of their Starfleet division -- and it does pretty much everything, from fighting hostile aliens like the Klingon and the Romulan Empires, investigating distress calls (including from a planet infested with pain-producing alien blobs), and exploring planets with weird and freakish creatures on them (including a furry creature that sucks salt out of its victims).

The captain is James T. Kirk (William Shatner), who is assisted and guided by his two trusted friends: the logic-driven, half-Vulcan science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the crusty, blunt-spoken doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Deforest Kelley). With the faithful crew of the Enterprise behind them, they travel through time, encounter godlike aliens, fall prey to some weird diseases (including one that makes you drunk!), crash a shuttlecraft, encounter a war fought with computers, and deal with androids, rock monsters, plague-infected kids, genetically-engineered Übermenschen, a giant lizard and the White Rabbit.

A lot of stuff in "Star Trek: The Original Series" has become sci-fi cliche by now, but that only underscores that the entire first season must have been wildly fresh and groundbreaking when it first aired. There are a few episodes that are hit-and-miss ("This Side of Paradise"), but many of them are wildly inventive and cleverly-written -- and it's not just about weird alien Threat Du Jour. The Enterprise crew also deals with some truly bizarre problems, ranging from Kirk being accused of murder to a visitor from an antimatter universe.

One of the best aspects of this season is that it never loses the human element. When the characters encounter problems, they often must grapple with issues of morality, revealing a great deal about themselves in the process -- Kirk's passionate love for a woman who is fated to die, his struggle to pass judgment on a mass murderer without giving in to his own base hatred, Spock's conflicted nature, his fierce loyalty to his old captain, an officer widowed during a battle, and so on. It's the personal part of the writing that gives it greater depth, beyond merely "Kirk fights with a big lizard-man by shooting diamonds at him." And yes, that does happen.

As stories, these episodes are crisply and solidly written, with a good blend of intelligent sci-fi, action and pathos. The dialogue was well-written ("Do you play God, carry his head through the corridors in triumph? That won't bring back the dead, Jim") but with moments of humor to keep it from ever getting pompous ("I'll protect you, fair maiden!" "Sorry, neither"). That's what allows even the slightly silly (Spock attacked by a flying brain cell) to be pulled off well.

It also has a very good cast, from the central three characters to the underused supporting characters like Uhura and Sulu. For all the gags about Shatner's acting, he plays Kirk as a man of both brains and passion -- he's driven and emotion, with a love for his ship, his crew and the unexplored crannies of the galaxy that rules his life. But he's also intelligent and canny, and more than once we see him outwitting a foe, whether it's making a primitive gun by hand or playing the ultimate bluff against a vast alien ship.

And he has uniquely solid chemistry with Nimoy and Kelley, so that you can really believe that these three characters are fast friends who bicker, joke and advise each other... well, mostly Bones and Spock snipe at each other, while Kirk sits there smiling. Nimoy gives a brilliant performance as the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, struggling with the emotions that his Vulcan nature doesn't allow him to express. Kelley plays McCoy as the exact opposite -- a fiery Southern doctor whose determination to do the right thing sometimes clashes with his duty. Yes, he boozes it up while on duty, but who doesn't want a doctor like McCoy?

Few TV shows have had the impact on nerd culture that "Star Trek: The Original Series" has had, and the first season of this show is still an entertaining, thought-provoking story. Live long and prosper!

The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches (A Keeper Martin's Tale) (Kingdoms and Dragons Fantasy Series Book 1)
The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches (A Keeper Martin's Tale) (Kingdoms and Dragons Fantasy Series Book 1)
Price: CDN$ 1.13

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Only so, my dear reader. Only so, Nov. 6 2015
How do you market a wretched fantasy book to a much younger audience? Why, you chop it in half and sell it as two separate, shorter books!

Sadly for Robert Stanek's "The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches," which is the first half of "Keeper Martin's Tales." this just highlights what a confusing, frustrating train wreck his attempt at an epic fantasy is. There's almost nothing going on (even compared to the later works of Robert Jordan), the characters are disastrously shallow and/or obnoxious, the conflict is impossible to understand, and the way that Stanek writes every scene is brain-meltingly dull.

I wish I could summarize this book properly, but it's difficult to even do that much. Basically, a war is brewing among the four kingdoms, although I'm not sure who the villains are, what caused the conflict, or why the heroes are involved. It's not a good sign for an epic fantasy when your initial response is a long string of one-word questions: "Why? How? When? What? Huh?"

Three particular characters become embroiled in the conflict -- sociopathic "spunky princess" Adrina, the befuddled elf bodyguard Seth, and the sadistic magical child Vilmos. Vilmos is taken under the wing of wizened magician Xith; Seth is sent by the Elf Queen to get involved in... some conflict; and Adrina, after much contrived castle intrigue, goes... somewhere with her love interest Emel.

Yeah, "Keeper Martin's Tales" was a disaster of a book, but "The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches" is actually WORSE than the book it makes up the first half of. Stanek took what little substance the original "adult" book had, and halved it. Even if this semi-crooked approach to publishing weren't.... well, semi-crooked, this was not a good thing. It actually highlights just how LITTLE is actually going on in the story... and it ends at a totally random spot with a very awkwardly-placed "to be continued."

It's also painfully confusing; I had no idea what caused the war, who was involved in it, or even who the villains were. Robert Stanek is absolutely ghastly at exposition -- he's one of those authors who seems to assume that you understand all the terminology and backstory of his world without actually EXPLAINING it or finding some way (ancient texts, letters, dialogue) to exposit.

The plot (if you can say there is one) is a meandering disaster of inexplicable events (Vilmos encounters a two-headed beast that... has nothing to do with anything else). Stanek doesn't really bother to give any actual texture to his imaginary world and cultures -- there's a castle, and there's a place with elves and mood-ring rooms, but not much else. It's like a 2-dimensional stage set. Also, Stanek clearly has no idea how subplots progress, since he flings his characters to wherever he feels like putting them, without warning. For instance, in one chapter Seth is hanging out in the Elf... city? Country? Civilization?.... and the next he's suddenly in battle hundreds of miles away.

Furthermore, Stanek has a writing style that manages to be both bloated and vacuous, so that the act of reading it is like trying to do the backstroke in zero gravity. There's little substance there, but you have to slog through so much that it becomes exhausting to try to read. He keeps using words that he clearly doesn't understand ("Galan had the insatiable curiosity of a preborn child") and phrases that don't belong in a fantasy book ("It is called non-corporeal stasis, an out of body experience"). His writing simply rambles on without any actual POINT, littered with gaping plot holes, terrible metaphors, and Big Significant Events that.... aren't. And of course, his dialogue often sinks into nonsense (“Rouse two guards to council doors").

Stanek's characters are almost as ghastly as his prose -- Adrina, Seth and Vilmos all show signs of sociopathic behavior, whether it's frightening other people for fun or cold-bloodedly manipulating them. Nobody in this book does anything in a logical manner, bursting into tears or freaking out based on... whatever the author wants them to do at a given moment. Adrina is a particularly annoying character, since she also embodies the Rebellious Princess trope. So she would be irritating even if she weren't a sociopath.

As if "Keeper Martin's Tales" wasn't teeth-grindingly annoying already, "The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches" takes what little content Stanek's book had... and gives you only half for your money. Save your money for a book by Tolkien.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 26.02
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dragons or dragonflies?, Oct. 12 2015
One of the signs of a well-developed fantasy world is that the author isn't confined to the present -- they can spin stories from centuries ago, and it still fits their world perfectly. Such a tale can be found in the adventures of Dunk and Egg, which takes place a century before the events of George R. R. Martin's epic A Song Of Ice And Fire series. "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" brings together all three of those tales -- the story of a struggling hedge knight and his faithful yet snarky squire, both of whom are more than they appear.

In "The Hedge Knight," Dunk has spent most of his life as the squire to an aging hedge knight. But his master eventually dies, leaving him a sword, some old armor, a pair of horses and a handful of coins. He is determined to make a name for himself at a tourney, and hopefully be hired by some lord -- despite the annoyingly outspoken boy named Egg who is following him, hoping to become his squire.

But when Dunk arrives at the tourney, he finds that he's outmatched by everybody. He only need to score one win, but without armor he doesn't have a chance against the knights from powerful, aristocratic families. So he uses his wits to raise money... only to run afoul of a Targaryen prince when he defends a pretty puppeteer. Given the choice of losing his hand or trial by combat, Dunk chooses the less disfiguring option -- but that means he must find six allies to help him in the combat. And he might still lose his life at the end.

"The Sworn Sword" brings Dunk and Egg to Standfast, in service to Ser Eustace Osgrey. The land is in the middle of a horrifying drought, and when Dunk investigates the sudden drying-up of a nearby stream, he discovers that Osgrey's neighbor Lady Rohanne has built a dam to redirect a nearby river. There's a feud going on between Eustace and Rohanne, which will soon bloom into a vicious little war and the loss of Rohanne's lands -- and Duncan may be the only one who can resolve things once and for all.

"The Mystery Knight" sees Dunk and Egg entering an area full of political strife -- a rebellion some years ago has caused a lot of hostility towards the Targaryens. When invited to a wedding melee, Dunk decides to go as an unidentified "mystery knight" to avoid any people who might have heard of Ser Duncan the Tall... only to find himself and Egg the center of a conspiracy of murder, the theft of a dragon egg, and a brewing threat against his own squire.

Compared to A Song Of Ice And Fire, the three stories of "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" are relatively light fare -- sure, they have plenty of gritty medieval atmosphere and a few tragic deaths, but these stories are positively fairy-tale-like compared to the dark stuff Martin usually writes. Don't worry, there's still plenty of political strife, mysteries, battles and the odd speck of the fantastical (a dragon's egg, a knight with precognitive dreams), but the main focus is on a simple hedge knight and his squire.

Martin's writing is simple, but rich with descriptions ("Reeds grew thick along its edge, and a tall leafy elm presided over all. The spring grass there was as green as any knight’s banner and soft to the touch") and he writes some snappy dialogue between Dunk and Egg. Every story has an escalating story of political strife, with Dunk's seemingly simple existence repeatedly interrupted with the political repercussions of House Blackfyre -- he just wants to wander around and fight for whoever, sleeping under shady trees and eating salt beef, but he keeps being tripped up by the scars of the past.

And the approach to Dunk is what makes these stories so gripping. The man is a mass of endearing contradictions -- a gentle teenager who is also a powerful fighter, simple yet wise, intelligent yet straightforward, ambitious yet humble in those ambitions. His clear sight and good heart are what ultimately win people over to him, and even if he's kind of grumpy with Egg during the squire's more spoiled moments, there's not much actual bite to any of his complaints.

And what of Egg? I won't reveal too much about this character's life, but he is a perfect counterpoint to Dunk -- a boy torn between the glamorous idea of being a squire, and the actual struggles it involves. He has a nimble intellect and a smart mouth, but sometimes shows a distinct lack of common sense compared to Dunk.

"A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" is a delightful trio of side-stories for fans of the Song Of Ice And Fire series, and a solid introduction to the land of Westeros for newcomers. And of course, it leaves you wanting to hear about more adventures of Dunk and Egg.

Howling II - Your Sister Is A Werewolf (Blu-ray)
Howling II - Your Sister Is A Werewolf (Blu-ray)
DVD ~ Annie McEnroe
Price: CDN$ 24.99
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1.0 out of 5 stars And your momma wears fur gloves, Oct. 12 2015
In werewolf-centric cinema, "The Howling" is one of the classics -- a moody, ultimately tragic tale of a young woman slowly overtaken by her lycanthropic dark side.

So of course, they had to make sequels. Horrible, brain-melting sequels.

And the first of these was the comically-named "Howling II - Your Sister Is a Werewolf," which is all the more tragic because it actually has some promise as a concept. Also, it had horror god Christopher Lee. Unfortunately, Lee's dignified performance turns out to be the only good thing in this messy, incoherent, disgusting mess of bad makeup and bizarre editing, which is scripted more like a vampire movie than a werewolf movie. Since when was a stake through the heart the best way to kill a werewolf?

It takes place shortly after the events of the first movie, with Ben White (Reb Brown) attending his late sister's funeral (and no, they weren't able to get Dee Wallace back for a cameo). After the funeral, he is approached by the mysterious Stefan Crosscoe (Lee), who informs him that his sister Karen was a werewolf. Naturally, Ben doesn't believe him, but Stefan shows him and journalist Annie (Jenny (McEnroe) a videotape of Karen's on-air transformation... and later they see Karen's werewolf self trying to break out of a coffin. It's fairly convincing.

So the two of them join Stefan's crusade against werewolves, and particularly against the evil werewolf queen Stirba, who... um, is someone they have a reason to hunt down and kill. So they travel to Transylvania -- well-known for its connection to WEREWOLF lore -- and soon discover that the place is crawling with evil werewolves. Even Stefan's expertise may not be enough to keep them from getting killed, especially when Annie (like all token annoying love interests) gets captured.

I wish that I could say that "Howling II - Your Sister Is a Werewolf" was just a stinker of a sequel, as if it were merely one of the many dreadful horror sequels like "Sinister 2," "Poltergeist 3" or "Lost Boys: The Tribe." But no, it isn't. It's a stinker of a sequel of EPIC PROPORTIONS, taking everything that was intense and powerful in the original "Howling" and turning it into a cheap B-movie with (from the look of it) about one-tenth of the budget, minus 95% of the plot, and with about twenty times the naked boobs.

For one thing... "Howling II" is more like a vampire movie than a werewolf movie. Trips to Transylvania, heart-staking, garlic and "re-killing" the werewolves locked in their coffins.... because apparently werewolves are now undead. Also, werewolves worship the devil and have totally random orgies. Yeah.

But aside from the absurd storytelling, the technical aspects of the movie are also pretty dreadful -- the editing is painfully choppy, often intercutting blatantly to random shots of crucifixes, skeletons and other things. The action tends towards the bizarre, with lots of shotguns blasting and the occasional hand grenade. There are also many weird, sometimes grotesque scenes that add nothing to the plot -- consider a disgusting scene late in the movie where a priest is rather, um, graphically murdered by a gross little monster.

And the special effects are comically bad. The werewolves look like hirsute humans with bad teeth, and are almost never seen attacking anyone (except for close-ups of a hairy glove or plastic fangs). Typically, fully-transformed werewolves are represented by waving fur-gloved arms from somewhere just off screen

So what is the ONLY good thing about this movie? Horror legend Christopher Lee, who overshadows the wooden Brown and forgettable McEnroe with his powerful presence, deep voice and air of authority. Sure there's a silly scene where Lee goes undercover at a rave club and wear sunglasses indoors (while looking painfully aware of how awful this is), but he also has the one spectacularly awesome scene in the entire film: he kills a werewolf with a holy hand grenade!

It's a shame that the movie is so dreadful, because Shout! did a pretty good job presenting it on blu-ray, with alternate openings and closings, behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with actors Reb Brown and Sybil Danning, details on the makeup people, and two audio commentaries.

Even as a guilty pleasure, "Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf" is a bizarre, messy sequel whose only real good point is (of course) the inestimable Christopher Lee... who later apologized for starring in it. If you watch it, be sure you have alcohol and a bunch of snarky friends handy.

House of the Long Shadows (1983) [Blu-ray]
House of the Long Shadows (1983) [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Vincent Price
Price: CDN$ 32.09
12 used & new from CDN$ 19.42

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't interrupt me while I'm soliloquizing, Oct. 11 2015
Christopher Lee. Vincent Price. Peter Cushing. These horror titans starred pretty frequently in the same movies together... but oddly, there is only one movie that stars all three together.

That movie was "House of the Long Shadows," which lays out a wide array of classic horror tropes -- a spooky old house, a slasher killer, gore, ugly old secrets, and plenty of gruesome deaths. But this movie is far cleverer than the sum of its parts, with a twisty finale and a heavy metafictional slant that makes perfect sense in retrospect. And of course, it has a powerhouse cast of well-beloved actors, including Price, Cushing, Lee and John Carradine.

Cynical young author Kenneth (Desi Arnaz Jr.) makes a bet with his publisher: he'll churn out a gothic novel within twenty-four hours, just so he can prove that those books are no big deal. The winner gets twenty thousand dollars. The publisher also gives him the keys to an abandoned Welsh manor belonging to the Grisbane family, "Baldpate" Manor (since the actual name is hard to pronounce or spell). But when he gets there, Kenneth discovers that the Grisbanes aren't quite as gone as he expected. Lord Grisbane (Carradine) and his religious daughter Victoria (Sheila Keith) have been living there, pretending to be the caretakers.

And in short order, more people arrive:
-Melodramatic Lionel Grisbane (Price) and his weepy brother Sebastian (Cushing).
-The publisher's secretary, Mary (Julie Peasgood), who has been sent to sabotage Kenneth.
-A hiker couple whose marriage is falling apart.
-Corrigan (Lee), a wealthy businessman who has just purchased the house.

And soon they learn the horrifying secret of the Grisbane family, which has haunted and ruled them for many decades... and which has led to everyone now being stalked by a vengeful psychopath. With no way to escape (slashed tires) and a storm raging outside, the people in Baldpate Manor will have to do their best to stay alive in the hours before morning... but Kenneth soon discovers that there are even more secrets being kept by those around him.

On the surface, "House of the Long Shadows" is just another cliche horror movie. But between the casting (four beloved horror icons) and the metafictional slant of the story (Kenneth's whole reason for being there is to write gothic suspense), it soon becomes clear that this story is more of a love letter to gothic horror. Yet it never becomes precious or self-aware in its storytelling, and after awhile it becomes a genuinely suspenseful, gruesome mystery.

For the most part, the story follows the "isolated house" model of horror, where nobody can leave and someone is picking the inhabitants one by one -- and it becomes obvious eventually that the murders are not just aimed at the Grisbanes. Most of the murders are grisly and violent (acid, piano wire, heart attack from a grotesque dummy), and director Sheldon Reynolds cloaks the story in a thick layer of murky paranoia and thunder. Under the tongue-in-cheek dialogue ("Filled with things best not spoken of. Yes, I saw the movie. You do know how to get there?"), there's the simmering sense that no one in this house can trust anyone else.

It also has a very unique ending. Without giving too much away, it has not one, not two, but THREE twists to the grand finale. That's a pretty impressive feat for any story, and all the more impressive in a fairly simple, straightforward horror tale.

And of course, it has a glorious cast. Much of the spotlight is on the horror trio: Lee is intimidating, brusque and impatient with all these aristocratic melodramas; Price is gloriously dramatic, while still being subtle enough to avoid scenery-chewing; and Cushing plays a sensitive wibbling guy with a lisp. John Carradine also is pretty fun here, although he doesn't have much to do but wear a fez and yell at people. Compared to these guys, the younger actors have a little trouble standing out, but Arnaz and Peasgood give decent enough performances as the cynical "modern" author and his love interests.

"House of the Long Shadows" is partly a love letter to gothic horror, with classic horror actors playing beautifully off one another -- but the meta slant and the twist endings make it a delight as well. A fun tale to watch on Halloween.

Twilight Tenth Anniversary/Life and Death Dual Edition
Twilight Tenth Anniversary/Life and Death Dual Edition
by Stephenie Meyer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 23.84
35 used & new from CDN$ 5.43

8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not exactly my brand of heroin, Oct. 8 2015
The "Twilight" series is anything but scary... and yet the "Twilight Tenth Anniversary" edition has given us something truly bone-chilling: Stephenie Meyer trying to write a book from the perspective of a GUY.

Yes, the tenth anniversary edition of the sparkling vampire book has an additional tale tacked onto it. And instead of some short stories or perhaps a new novella, she decided to write the same story... but this time, with gender-flipped characters! If you needed any more evidence that Meyer is A) utterly ignorant of the male mind and B) creatively bereft, this two-for-one book will leave you in absolutely no doubt -- the original is a grotesquely overripe glorification of teen melodrama and misogyny, and the companion novel is dull and artificial.

"Twilight" is... well, "Twilight." Everyone knows the plot: whiny, self-absorbed Bella Swan moves to the small town of Forks to live with her silent lump of a father. At her new school, she encounters the mysterious and misogynistic Edward Cullen, and eventually deduces (through the worst Internet research in history) that he is actually a vampire. Who sparkles. She and Edward fall madly in lust, and he introduces her to his creepy vampire "family".... only to have everything go awry when an evil vampire begins stalking her.

And then there's "Life and Death," in which whiny, self-absorbed Beau Swan moves to the small town of Forks to live with his silent lump of a father. Yes, everyone else in this book is gender-flipped (with many names straight from Utah), but I guess the idea of a flaky, irresponsible man and a sullen female cop is beyond Stephenie Meyer's imagination.

And of course, Beau encounters.... Edythe Cullen. Which sounds like the name of a Southern great-grandmother who makes everyone uncomfortable. Of course, there's buckets of contrived sexual tension, mostly involving petty bickering and talking about things that don't matter -- and eventually he realizes that she's actually a vampire. A sparkling one. But after Edythe finally introduces Beau to her creepy vampire family, an evil tracker decides she wants to kill Beau. For some reason.

Everyone knows "Twilight" by now -- the misogyny, the creepy stalker characters, the flowery goopy language, the total lack of plot. Every aspect of the book has become notorious, so that it's almost not even worth exploring all over again. It's not quite the worst book I've ever read, but it's definitely up there -- the characters are bizarrely prissy, whiny and obnoxious, and the book mostly squanders its time on the most boring pursuits you can imagine (MacBeth papers, vampire baseball, every boy in school chasing Bella). When an actual pitiful plot appears, it's too late to save this soggy mess.

And then... there's "Life And Death." If there's one thing the Twilight novels have shown us, it's that Stephenie Meyer understands the male psyche as well as she understands string theory. So an entire book from a male perspective is kind of torturous -- her idea of writing a male perspective is to just toss in some token mentions of watching violent action movies, reading books with monsters, Monty Python and sports. It's kind of like masculinity as seen by aliens.

As a result, Beau doesn't come across as a character in his own right -- he feels like Bella Swan with a penis. Both are whiny, self-absorbed, self-pitying and obnoxious ("I wanted to die when they put on the neck brace"). And since Edythe is a woman and not Stephenie Meyer's fantasy sexual partner, the descriptions of her attractiveness feel bloodless and vague, and she's completely devoid of even the pretense of menace. Even in a book where the powerful, dangerous vampire is female... Meyer can't bring herself to actually have her seem credibly scary.

Admittedly she did adjust her writing somewhat, since Bella's flowery, melodramatic style is ridiculous enough for a girl, and would be hilarious coming from a guy. And she adjusted certain scenes, such as turning the attempted gang-rape into a hilariously contrived "you're a cop!" confrontation (because obviously guys never get raped! Rape exists as a peril to swooning girls so they can be rescued!).

But the attempt at a stripped-down style ("It was probably beautiful or something") just ends up being boring -- without the giggle factor from lines like "I'd already said my goodbyes to the sun." When Smeyer does sound like herself, she writes lines that no guy would ever actually think or say ("I was well aware that my league and her league were spheres that did not touch"). And it's wildly inconsistent, with some scenes stripped-down awkwardly to make them more masculine, and others are just as flowery and silly as ever.

"Twilight Tenth Anniversary" takes the wretched, oozing mess that was the original book... and tacks on another one that absolutely nobody asked for. If you need positive proof that Stephenie Meyer has no creativity as a storyteller, then look no further.

The Cinder Spires: the Aeronaut's Windlass
The Cinder Spires: the Aeronaut's Windlass
by Jim Butcher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 30.27
33 used & new from CDN$ 10.81

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The tale of Grim Ship-Tree, Sept. 29 2015
I have literally been waiting years for this book. Literally. Years. Ever since I heard that Jim Butcher was penning a steampunk series, I have been slavering to read the first Cinder Spires book.

And Butcher doesn't disappoint in "The Aeronaut's Windlass," which feels like the love child of Final Fantasy and Horatio Hornblower -- a rousing, action-packed fantasy set in a world where everyone lives on vast nation-like Spires, and crystal-powered airships sail through the clouds. His rich imagination is on full display here, and he weaves together a fast-moving, multi-layered story that promises to become even more epic in the installments to come.

After the AMS Predator is badly damaged in battle by an Auroran battlecruiser, Captain Grimm has to face the possibility that his motley crew may lose their home for good. But then the forces of Spire Aurora attack the people of Spire Albion, and Grimm is one of the brave people who manage to repel them... or rather, most of them. The Spirearch suspects treachery, so he enlists Grimm -- an honorable outcast -- along with a trio of capable new Guard trainees, a snobby cat and a pair of very, very eccentric Etherealists.

But their seemingly-simple mission quickly becomes much more complicated when they arrive at Habble Landing, and Grimm begins to realize that traps are being set up all around them. Mysterious attacks, rumors of horrors in the depths of the Spire, and Auroran spies all begin to coalesce around Grimm and his crew, trapping some and wounding others -- but the worst is yet to come, as one of the etherealists senses a terrible enemy lurking nearby...

Jim Butcher is well-known for solid world-building, and "The Aeronaut's Windlass" is no disappointment. Rather than just pasting gears and steampunk trappings on an average fantasy, Butcher instead spins up an entire world like no other -- everyone lives in Spires (think a country's worth of cities stacked on top of each other) built by the mysterious, long-lost Builders. There are sentient cats, energy-blasting crystals, genetically-engineered warriors, poisonous insectoid monsters, and a very strange form of magic that seems to make practitioners a wee bit crazy.

And all this is draped over a plot that is both densely complex and riotously entertaining. Butcher comes up with a complicated tale of espionage and sinister plans for Albion, and presents it with plenty of airship battles, crystal-blasting action, and the odd (literal) catfight. His prose is still nimble and often witty, especially when he writes of the eccentric etherealist Folly ("It did seem fitting, after all, that one be present for one’s own death") or the deliciously snobby cats ("“You saved us." “Of course I did. I am without flaw.”).

Perhaps his biggest problem is when he tries to write more formal, Victorianish-styled dialogue, such as what we get in the opening chapter of the book. It's not bad, but it sounds rather stiff coming from an author who writes hilarious quips so easily. Butcher seems more at home writing from Grimm's perspective.

Speaking of Grimm. he is also a new type of hero for Butcher -- while he's a cynical outsider like Harry Dresden, he's a much more serious, grizzled man who holds tightly to his crew and ship. And he seems to run his life according to a complex system of honor, loyalty and self-sufficiency. While he's still a mysterious figure in some ways, he's a likably brash, no-nonsense guy who cares about what needs to be done.

And there's a solid cast supporting him, such as the clever but naive aristocrat Gwen, her sensible cousin Benedict, the working-class Bridget, and the canny old Ferus; he even has some chapters from the perspectives of the Aurorans, allowing us to see how the enemy forces see the world. But the real scene-stealers are Folly and Rowl -- Rowl's arrogance and odd perspective (he refers to masts as "ship-trees") are delightful, and Folly is a bittersweet mixture of quirky oddity and mild mental illness.

"The Aeronaut's Windlass" is clearly part of a bigger, darker story that Jim Butcher is spinning out for us, but it's also a solid, action-packed adventure yarn in its own right -- and the world Butcher conjures promises to get a lot more interesting.

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