The Legend of Tarzan

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Tarzan is a character that I like to think of as an early 20th century comic book/pulp superhero. In the books (of which I read one and a half before I lost interest), his ‘superpower’ does not stem from being bitten by a radioactive ape, but from his noble birth. His nobility is what makes him superior to, not only the apes and other jungle creatures, but also the African natives.  It’s very much a product of its time and place. And most of the dramatic treatments of the stories, while somewhat modernized or Americanized, have treated him as a kind of comic book character, before the days when comic book characters were ever treated seriously. The stories and movies were fun, but never to be taken seriously. Of course, “Greystoke:The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” made a small attempt to change that, but only with limited success.

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And now we have “The Legend of Tarzan”, which stars Alexander Skarsgård, as John Clayton, The Lord of Greystoke, aka “Tarzan”, Margot Robbie as Jayne, Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams, an American who fought in the Civil War, and a few wars after that, and Christoph Waltz, as Leon Rum, the villain of the story.

The story opens in a time after John Clayton has returned from his adventures in the Jungle. He’s a kind of celebrity, and so its obvious that a recent invitation he’s received from the Belgian government, to come and tour the Belgian Congo is a bit of a publicity stunt. Belgium is losing money in the Congo, and there are some nasty rumors about the treatment of the native peoples there, and they want to use him to put The Congo in a better light. He meets with British government officials (who are also fellow nobles) who encourage him to take the offer. An american named George Washington Williams also encourages him to accept the offer, but for entirely different reasons. His goal is to travel with Tarzan and gather evidence that Belgium is enslaving the native population.

The actual Tarzan origin story is told briefly in a few flashbacks for those who may not be familiar with his story, or who want a brief refresher on it. That’s not the focus of this movie.  It is to tell a typical Tarzan mindless adventure story. There’s no pretense, like in “Greystoke”, to be anything other than that. We learn of Tarzan’s connections to people and animals, and that he has history there, friends AND enemies. Pretty early in the film, Leon Rum tries unsuccessfully to capture Tarzan in order to sell him to one of those enemies — but he does get Jayne instead, and he intends to use her as bait to lure Tarzan into a trap.

Sure, that’s a little bit of a spoiler, but most of that can be divined simply by watching the trailers. The rest of the story is mostly action, with typical scenes of Rum menacing Jayne so that we know just how ‘evil’ he is, and of Tarzan and Williams dealing with all of the dangers of the jungle, up until the final big encounter with Rum. It’s all fun, but certainly not a deep ,or anything that can be called a quality film. But it is fun. It’s a good mindless summer popcorn movie. If you go to the theater expecting anything more than that, you will be sorely disappointed. But for good, mindless fun, you could do a lot worse. So I definitely recommend it.

 

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The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

Charles Stross’s “Laundry” series appeals to me partly because it depicts computer and math nerds (both of which I kind of was, at least at one time) as ‘wizards’ — I mean, literally, workers of arcane magic. One of the major premises of the series is that magic is a logical consequence of advanced mathematics. For example, if you conceive of certain specific mathematical constructs or algorithms in your mind, that it makes your brain attractive to a very specific kind of brain-eating creature from other dimensions (in fact, Charles Stross has vampires in his most recent books that came into being because a team of math quants working for an investment bank came up with such an algorithm, and thus became infected with what they’ve dubbed “V-Parasites”. His vampires are not quite like the traditional vampires of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, or of the more modern take of “True Blood”, but they are still recognizable as vampires. People who are skilled with math and/or computers can, if they are not knowledgeable about the ‘true’ nature of how things work, can accidentally unleash all sorts of creatures, or attract the attention of ancient horrors from other dimensions.

Another premise of his “Laundry” series is that there are various secret organizations in the world that know about this stuff, and who recruit people to defend their government or their nation or the world against all of the arcane dangers, many of which are connected to magic and the occult, and ‘hideous things from other dimensions’. The Laundry is the British version of such an organization. But what they most fear, and what they are almost certain is coming, is the end of the world. They don’t believe that they can stop it, but they sure as hell will try to delay it for as long as possible. And they have code names for all of the various improbably or close to impossible situations that they fear that can lead to the end of the world. It’s mentioned in just about all of the Laundry books — the end of the world is coming, it’s inevitable, and it’s probably closer than you might think.

Oh yeah, and the Laundry books can be very funny at times. The end of the world may be coming, but you can still have a laugh along the way.

Previous books in the series primarily focused on Bob Howard, and we watched his rise from a minor math and computer geek to head of The Laundry, starting in The Atrocity ArchivesThe Rhesus Chart introduced vampires into this world, including the character of Alex Schwartz, a quant who accidentally got infected with the V-Parasites. The latest novel, The Nightmare Stacks now focuses on Alex and how he is coping with his recruitment and training as a low-level Laundry employee, a ‘PHANG’ (the slang/acronym for a vampire), and a young man who feels isolated by both his top secret job and the secrets he has to keep from family and almost everyone else, and the stress of trying to actually have a social life without passing on his infection to others. He’s a young man who is dealing with all of the same problems that most young men do — meeting women, dealing with his parents, with the added difficulty of his total social awkwardness, plus the threat of accidentally committing treason by revealing state secrets, such as what he does for a living.

Alex runs into a young woman named Cassie on the street, a drama student who invites him to a show and after-party — they are performing “Dracula”. Being the socially awkward young man that he is, he doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that this young woman seems inexplicably friendly with him in spite of all of his awkwardness and geekiness. Meanwhile he has to deal with being temporarily relocated to Leeds, which is inconveniently far too close to where his parents live, so all of the excuses he’s been making so that he doesn’t have to deal with meeting the family with all of the secrets he has (such as his thirst for blood, his career change from over-paid bank investment analyst to an underpaid civil servant.  Oh, and yes, his lack of a girlfriend.

I can’t say too much more about this novel without giving stuff away. I know I am not doing a great job here telling you just how much I loved this book.  It certainly starts out slow, and it’s very hard to tell what direction the story will turn. But by the end, it is filled with action and surprises, and danger, and, yes, humor. There’s not as much humor in it as previous books, but it’s still a very cool book.

One thing I really like about this series is that every book seems to be so completely different from another. I have to admit that I was disappointed when Bob Howard, the character who was the focus of for the first several books, was shifted back, and his wife became the focus in The Annihilation Score. Well, the focus has changed again, and Alex is, to a certain extent, dealing with some of the same issues as Bob did in the early novels. So, in that respect, it’s similar to them. But as I said, each novel has a different style and structure to it. We’ve had a spy story, we’ve had a vampire story, we’ve had superheroes. Now this novel is more of  (and I guess this is a bit of a spoiler) is a story about an invasion from (as one character puts it) ‘Middle Earth’. And I did start to feel for Alex and for his various problems, and I really did get into the story, and it builds up to a rip-roaring climax. I really enjoyed this book.

If you want to really get into the series (And I heartily recommend that) I would start with The Atrocity Archives, and then keep on going. I have no idea how he will finish the series, because as I said, it’s all supposed to be leading up to the end of the world, and we get closer and closer to it, with things spiraling more and more out of control with each novel. Hell, I’m simply curious how the  world will deal with the repercussions of everything that happened in THIS novel. This is a series that will hook you and keep you coming back to see what happens next.

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

Book 15 in Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series, focuses once again on the Night Watch of the twin-city of Ankh-Morpork. In Book 8 of the series, Guards! Guards! Captain Vimes met Lady Ramkin, an eccentric noble woman who raises swamp dragons. Well a lot has happened, and the couple is due to be married shortly, and is slated for retirement from the guards. But something evil is afoot as a device has been stolen from the Assassins’ Guild, and people start showing up dead, with holes in them made by a metal projectile. And the Night Watch starts sticking their noses in places that the various guilds of Ankh-Morpork would prefer remain hidden.

Corporal Carrot, the human who was adopted by dwarves has to take charge of the guild and the old guards, Nobbs and Colon are now joined by new recruits Cuddy (a dwarf), Detritus (a Troll), and Angua (a woman with a secret).  The trail of bodies leads them to the Assassins guild, the Beggars Guild, and the Fools Guild. Also returning is Gaspode, the talking dog from Moving Pictures.

Men at Arms is a really good addition to the series. If you’ve enjoyed the books up until now, of course you will read it — it’s very funny, written with all of the humor and skill that the late Mr. Pratchett displayed in his previous novels. But there is also an undercurrent of seriousness here, and all of the gun violence that has been in the news in recent years gives the novel a bit of extra weight. This is not really a political novel, at least not at its core. But there certainly is a gentle political commentary here, as the Discworld experiences its first incidents of ‘gonne’ violence.

The book is good, and if you are reading the series, you shouldn’t skip it. If you want to read it and haven’t read any of the previous books, I would suggest reading Guards! Guards! first. You really don’t have to, but it will make more sense if you do. And if you want to find out about Gaspode, of course you may also want to read Moving Pictures.  But for the best experience, I’d read everything in order — while they aren’t all equally good, there really isn’t a bad book in the bunch.