Storm Boy


A boy’s best friend is his…pelican?!?

(2019) Family (Good Deed) Geoffrey Rush, Jai Courtney, Finn Little, Trevor Jamieson,

Morgana Davies, David Gulpilil, Erik Thomson, Chantal Contouri, Martha Lott, Paul Blackwell, Michelle Nightingale, Brendan Rock, James Smith, Rory Walker, Lucy Cowan, Bradley Trent Williams, Anna Bampton, Miraede Bhatia-Williams, Caroline Mignone. Directed by Shawn Seet

 

Children have a special affinity for animals that we tend to lose as we grow into adulthood. Not everybody loses it; lots of adults love animals as much as they did as children (if not more) and work very hard to protect the animal kingdom through organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the SPCA or as veterinarians, zoologists and activists trying to save the habitat that particular species need to thrive.

The 1964 Australian novel Storm Boy by Colin Thiele has been made into a live-action movie once before in 1976; a hit in Australia, the movie is less well here in the States. The new version is a bit different than either the novel or the 1976 movie. Retired businessman Michael Kingley (Rush) has turned his corporation over to his son Malcolm (Thomson) and now his son has negotiated a deal to turn over thousands of acres of unspoiled wetlands over to developers for mining and building upon. Malcolm’s daughter Madison (Davies) is very much against the idea and as a result an extremely wide rift has developed between father and daughter (all of this is new, by the way and not in the book or previous incarnations of the film).

The deal must be voted upon by the firm’s board which Michael sits upon. However, the board meeting is interrupted by a sudden storm which causes a floor to ceiling window in the office tower to shatter, letting in the high winds and rain. While everyone else flees the room, Michael is drawn to the broken window. He looks down and sees a pelican and is reminded of his childhood.

Much of the film takes the form of a flashback as Michael narrates his tale to his granddaughter. After Michael’s mother and sister were killed in a car crash, his grief-stricken father known about town as Hideaway Tom (Courtney) moves to a deserted and isolated coastline of Coorong National Park. The pair subsist there on whatever fish Tom can catch and whatever else Tom can scrounge. One day, young Michael (Little) finds three recently hatched pelicans whose mother had been shot by hunters. The three little birds don’t have much of a chance as an aborigine named Fingerbone Bill (Jamieson) who happens by tries to explain to the young boy, whom he names Storm Boy because of his love for pelicans (Ngarrindjeri tradition holds that when a pelican dies, the event brings on a storm). Storm Boy is not dissuaded and brings the young pelicans home to nurse to health.

Incredibly, the chicks survive and grow to adulthood with the help of the bemused Tom and Fingerbone Bill. Storm Boy names them Mr. Proud, Mr. Ponder and Mr. Percival and although the first two eventually fly away to make their own way in the world, Mr. Percival is inseparable from Storm Boy. The two create quite a sensation in town which is currently divided by a movement to turn the coastline into a nature preserve which doesn’t sit well with the local hunters. Still, everyone finds it amusing until one stormy day when Tom’s life is at risk when the engine to his boat fails during a storm. The seas are too rough to swim but only Mr. Percival can get a line out to the stricken boat.

Mr. Percival becomes a local celebrity and it appears as if the bird’s future is assured. However, well-meaning locals who are aware that Storm Boy has been home schooled by his dad take up a collection to send him to get a proper education. Storm Boy doesn’t much want to go; what would happen to his pelican, after all, if he left?

There is a definite pro-ecological message to the film which is much more overt than in previous incarnations of the story. Geoffrey Rush has been the target of some controversy of late but he does deliver a performance here that elevates the movie some. Courtney, whose work has always been solid, also stands out here.

The pelicans, unlike in a lot of recent family movies involving animals, are completely real and not CGI. A pelican trainer helped the birds with their “stage directions” and the birds were never tethered or restrained in any way; they often flew freely about the set and sometimes would fly out of shots they needed to be in, or into shots they weren’t supposed to be in. To the credit of Seet (primarily a television director up to now) he was patient concerning the birds and the result is a film with the kind of warmth that no amount of CGI no matter how life-like can replicate.

The movie feels cozy and warm with a feeling of safety and security, even though the events don’t necessarily reflect that. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being somewhere snug on a rainy afternoon, feeling content and drowsy. Not that the movie will put you to sleep – at least it didn’t put me there – but it certainly feels like a movie a lot of kids will eventually love, particularly those who love animals.

It’s not getting a wide release so you may have to search a bit to find it on the big screen but if for whatever reason you can’t, this is a definite rental once it becomes available on home video – and may end up being a purchase if your bird-loving kids enjoy it as much as I think they might.

REASONS TO SEE: The movie is warm and cozy like an old blanket on a rainy afternoon.
REASONS TO AVOID: The rescue scene is somewhat far-fetched.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, some difficult thematic elements and a bit of child (and pelican) peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The pelican who plays Mr. Percival in the film now resides at Adelaide Zoo.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ring of Bright Water
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Big Kill

A Quiet Place


Splish splash I was taking a bath.

(2018) Horror (Paramount) John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward, Leon Russom, Rhonda Pell. Directed by John Krasinski

 

Who doesn’t love a little peace and quiet from time to time? Here is a movie that gives you plenty of the latter but not a whole lot of the former.

The premise is fiendishly simple; the Earth has been invaded by insect-like alien creatures who, blind, hunt exclusively by hearing. The slightest noise will bring the down on you and your end will not be pleasant. The Abbott family – papa Lee (Krasinski), mama Evelyn (Blunt), daughter and eldest child Regan (Simmonds) – who in a bit of intentional irony is deaf – middle son Marcus (Jupe) and youngest son beau (Woodward) try to survive in a world where noise is death, a point driven home in the opening scene in a visceral and shocking manner.

Evelyn, to make things worse, is pregnant and her due date rapidly approaches. As any woman will tell you there is nothing quiet about childbirth and certainly nothing quiet about babies. Papa Lee however isn’t willing to say die and has things pretty much figured out – except that almost nothing goes the way he plans it.

The creatures in this movie are terrific; they make logical sense and in fact this is a horror movie that creates its own universe and the rules therein and sticks to them. This is essentially a silent movie although there is ambient noise but it isn’t always quiet. In this space, nobody had better hear you scream.

The performances here are really, really good from Krasinski as the embattled father butting heads with his headstrong daughter and his wife who thinks he’s being too hard on her and Simmonds – so good in Wonderstruck – proves that performance wasn’t a fluke. It is Blunt however who is the most memorable here. Blunt is so emotionally expressive; she acts mainly with body language and facial expression without dialogue to aid her, she communicates directly with her audience without needing subtitles. While I’m not sure Oscar will take notice, she should at least be considered for a Best Actress nod.

Krasinski as a director is promising enough; while he hasn’t broken through to the A-List quite yet as an actor, he once again shows he has the talent to get there eventually. It may turn out that his future lies in directing, which isn’t an easy path to take. Krasinski shows he is more than capable enough to follow that path. Still, it’s hard to dismiss his acting skills, particularly in light of a poignant scene near the end of the movie in which a father’s love shines brightest in the darkness.

This is an outstanding horror movie that is going to end up as one of the year’s best chillers. It’s a shame if you didn’t already catch it on the big screen which is where this would be much more effective; however if you didn’t you at least have the opportunity to see it on your own home video setup. Don’t make the same mistake twice; even if you’re not fond of genre movies you should see this one. Even film buffs are raving about it.

REASONS TO GO: Krasinski the director keeps the tension high throughout and Krasinski the actor once again shows star quality. The monster in this film is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene may be too shocking and disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and bloody images, alongside some children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the entire film not a single door is opened or closd.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: See No Evil
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Across the River

Blood Stripe


Kate Nowlin canoe, can you?

(2016) Drama (Tandem Pictures) Kate Nowlin, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Sullivan, Rene Auberjonois, Ashlie Atkinson, Tom Lipinski, Taliesin Cox, Ken Marks, Greta Oglesby, Sunde Auberjonois, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Johnson, Louis Jenkins, Reed Sigmund, Emily Zimmer, David Clay, Scotty Nelson, Benson Ramsey, Kristen Gregerson. Directed by Remy Auberjonois

 

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to slog on with no end in sight, Hollywood as well as independent filmmakers have seized upon the return home of combat veterans as a theme with varying degrees of quality. In all honesty, the question I ask myself when viewing one of these is “What, if anything, new does this film bring to the subject?”

A nameless Marine, referred to in the credits only as Our Sergeant (Nowlin) – I suppose in an attempt to make her something of an everywoman – returns home to Northern Minnesota. Picked up by an in-law from the airport, she receives a somewhat muted welcome home from her husband Rusty (Sullivan). It is clear from the get-go that she has got a lot of issues, from an overreaction when she gets an overenthusiastic hug from a drunken male guest at her welcome home party to her constant insistence that she’s fine when she clearly isn’t, she eats little, sleeps hardly at all and drinks heavily. She runs obsessively and mows her lawn in the middle of the night. When Rusty hesitantly asks if she shouldn’t see someone, she says tersely “There’s a wait.” As it turns out, there’s a 129 day wait at the local VA, a situation which has fallen off the radar of late.

She acquires a job working on a highway repair crew but is given little to do. One fine day, she just seems to snap; she stares off into the distance while a co-worker talks to her, a haunted expression on her face and without a word turns and walks off the job, climbs into her husband’s truck and just drives away.

Where she winds up driving to is a summer camp that she attended as a kid. It’s off-season now and the tranquil waters of the lake shore are quiet, the sounds of children vanished with the heat of the summer. The caretaker, Dot (Schwimmer) has a load of work to do and only an aging handyman with a bad back to help her. She takes on the Marine giving her room and board in exchange for her efforts lugging and lifting. When Dot compliments her on her work ethic, the Sergeant says “Nobody ever drowned from sweat,” attributing the quote to a drill sergeant.

The hard work and lovely scenery seems to bring some solace to the tortured soul of the Sergeant and when a small church group led by elderly pastor Art (Rene Auberjonois, the director’s father) she finds further solace with one of the younger parishioners (Lipinski) who acts as their fishing guide. He also has a troubled past of his own.

Still, she can’t outrun her demons; a pair of hunters who blare Metallica from their car stereo everywhere they go trigger a defensive reaction in her and she ends up reconnoitering their home to see what they might be up to. Attempts at intimacy with the fisherman end up disastrously and calls to her frantic husband range from cold to crisis. Can this woman ever find peace?

The movie, co-written by Remy Auberjonois and Nowlin (who are husband and wife in real life), doesn’t give us a lot of background into Our Sergeant which is both maddening and admirable. We don’t know what trauma caused her breakdown and there aren’t the obligatory flashbacks to show us definitively what put her into that state. We surmise that she was either tortured or sexually assaulted (or both) from the scars on her back and her general reaction to men but there are no absolute answers which lead us to make up our own narrative as to her past.

Nowlin is a real talent and she captures the bearing and posture of a Marine minus the swagger. We can absolutely believe she’s been to war and acquitted herself with honor. We can also believe that she’s been through hell and is haunted by demons that we civilians can’t even imagine. Her expression during the breakdown scenes tell us everything we need to know.

Cinematographer Radium Cheung also acquits himself well, giving us some beautiful vistas of the northern Minnesota lake country as well as some interesting shots during the final third of the movie that help us see inside the protagonist’s head. This is a lovely movie to see visually.

The subplot about the Metallica boys seemed unnecessary and contrived; the writers had already established that Our Sergeant had a touch of paranoia about her. It seems to inject elements of a thriller into what was already a fine drama; they should have left it with the drama which seemed to be much more in their wheelhouse.

The character of Our Sergeant is central to the film in any case and she’s a fascinating if enigmatic character indeed. Schwimmer and the elder Auberjonois both deliver solid supporting performances as does Lipinski even though the romantic chemistry seems a bit forced and again feels like it was a tangent that the filmmakers should have avoided. What we’re more interested in is Nowlin’s character and whenever the focus came off of her the movie suffered.

This was an award-winning entry at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival and only last month did it get a brief theatrical release. It will likely show up on some streaming service or another at some point; it is worth seeking out when it does because movies like this one which fly even a little bit out of the box should always be supported and in any case there is enough quality here to recommend it.

REASONS TO GO: There is some lovely cinematography. Nowlin does a bang-up job.
REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure the metal-head hunters’ subplot was absolutely necessary. The romance doesn’t work very well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, some violence, disturbing adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blood Stripe refers to the red stripe on the trouser leg of the dress uniform of the United States Marine Corps.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lucky Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
All Eyez on Me

The Revenant (2015)


Leo in the wilderness.

Leo in the wilderness.

(2015) Western (20th Century Fox) Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge, Duane Howard, Melaw Nakehk’o, Fabrice Adde, Arthur RedCloud, Christopher Rosamond, Robert Moloney, Lukas Haas, Brendan Fletcher, Tyson Wood, McCaleb Burnett, Grace Dove. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Nature has a way of reducing us to our primal, primordial selves. Life becomes reduced to a single choice; survive or die. There is nothing complex about it – but nothing simple either.

Loosely based on an actual incident, the story is about Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), an explorer and trapper in the 1820s American frontier who is leading a party of trappers set upon by the Pawnee, who erroneously believe they kidnapped one of their women. The Americans, under the command of the dauntless Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson) are forced to stash their hard-won pelts and flee, led by Glass and his compatriot John Fitzgerald (Hardy). When Glass is attacked by a bear and gravely injured and the Pawnee hard on their trail, Captain Henry is forced to leave him under the care of three men, including Fitzgerald, young Bridger (Poulter) and Glass’ son Hawk (Goodluck), who is half-Native American. Glass’ wife (Dove) had been killed by soldiers a few years earlier.

However, the cowardly Fitzgerald, thinking that Glass is a goner for sure, decides to bury him prematurely while Bridger is away. Hawk discovers him and tries to fight him off but gets stabbed to death for his trouble. Fitzgerald quickly buries Hawk and then convinces Bridger that the Pawnee are almost upon them, and throws Glass into a shallow grave, still alive. Bridger reluctantly agrees but his conscience is absolutely bothering him.

The trouble is, Glass is not quite dead yet. And having witnessed his son’s murder, he is full on with a thirst for revenge. The trouble is, he is hundreds of miles away from anything and anyone and he can barely walk. It is the middle of winter and his chances of survival are nearly nil, but never count out the human spirit – and the thirst for vengeance.

This is one of the most beautifully shot films you’re likely to see. In my admittedly inexpert opinion cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is far and away the Oscar favorite and this has been a superb year for cinematographers. It is bleak and cold, but there is so much beauty. The shots are carefully constructed to frame the action but at the same time look like works of art, with the trees and the sky and the snow all combining to bring the audience into the frame. I couldn’t help but shiver at times.

DiCaprio was nominated for the Golden Globe for his work here and also has been nominated for an Oscar which are a few weeks away as of this writing and while his performance isn’t my favorite of the year, it was certainly worthy of the nominations and has a good shot at winning the statuette, Eddie Redmayne notwithstanding. He doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue here and has to communicate much of his performance through wild looks, spittle blown out of his mouth and wordless screams. As elegant as Redmayne’s also-Oscar worthy performance was, this is primal and raw, a caveman to the sophisticate of Redmayne. It is rare to see such diversity of styles in a single nominated group and I don’t envy the Academy voters their task to pick just one winner.

Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto provided the minimalist score which often was comprised of found sounds, both natural and man-made. The composers also knew when silence would be more effective; the entire bear attack scene had no music other than DiCaprio’s agonized screams and the bear’s grunts and groans. As that scene almost has to be the most effective in the movie in order for the film to work, Iñárritu made some wise choices in setting up and executing not only the action (the bear was CGI from what I understand and quite frankly I couldn’t tell) but also in how that action was framed.

Iñárritu is a bit of a mystic and some of the scenes have that sense, almost like Carlos Castaneda translated to celluloid. He captures the brutality of life on the frontier almost too well; at times the intensity and the starkness is hard to watch. More sensitive viewers may find the film too grim for their liking. While this isn’t my favorite movie in the director’s filmography, it may well be his best in many ways but for reasons that may well be personal (I was literally exhausted while I was watching it after a sleepless night the evening before) it didn’t connect to me the way his other works have. In my case, this is a film that I admire more than I love, but that doesn’t mean you won’t love it. This is certainly when all is said and done essential viewing if you intend to capture the very best of 2015.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing technical achievement. One of DiCaprio’s finest performances of his career. Realistic almost to a fault.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for everybody; grim, relentless and sometimes too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Along with frontier violence and some gory images, there’s also a scene of sexual assault, brief nudity and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DiCaprio, a vegetarian, at an actual raw buffalo liver in the scene that called for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Man Called Horse
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Road to Nowhere

10,000 B.C.


Being chased by a mastadon can ruin your whole day.

Being chased by a mastadon can ruin your whole day.

(2008) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Steven Strait, Camilla Belle, Cliff Curtis, Omar Sharif (voice), Joel Virgel, Afif Ben Badra, Mo Zinal, Nathanael Baring, Mona Hammond, Marco Khan, Reece Ritchie, Joel Fry, Kristian Beazley, Junior Oliphant, Louise Tu’u, Jacob Renton, Grayson Hunt Unwin, Fahruq Ismail Valley-Omar, Boubacar Babiane, Joe Vaz, Suri van Sornsen. Directed by Roland Emmerich

Our prehistory as a species before the great empires of Egypt and Assyria is basically a mystery shrouded by the years. Nothing remains of our nomadic existence prior to the founding of cities except for a few artifacts scattered here and there in Africa, China and a few other places. One can’t help but wonder what came before.

The Yagahl tribe lives peacefully in a post-ice Age valley where herds of mastodon placidly migrate every spring, providing the tribe with most of their food, clothing and shelter. Like the aboriginals of North America once the Europeans showed up, the Yagahl are finding it more and more difficult to keep things going; the herds are getting sparser and appearing less frequently and this being the stone age, nobody’s quite got the knack of the gathering part of hunting and gathering yet.

The Shaman, known only as Old Mother (Hammond) has a vision when an orphan is found on the steppes; this blue-eyed girl (Unwin) is going to become the woman of the strongest warrior in the tribe. Together, they would lead the tribe from their current existence and into a time of prosperity and plenty. The current holder of the number one warrior (Beazley) is less sanguine about it; he doesn’t think that the tribe has long enough to wait for the girl to grow up, so he skedaddles, leaving his infant son in the care of his best friend Tic’Tic (Curtis).

Years later, the young son, known as D’Leh (Strait) which is held – the German word for hero – spelled backwards has lived with the stigma of a father who deserted the tribe, something that is the height of cowardice in their culture. He has fallen in love with the blue-eyed girl, who has grown up into a gorgeous woman named Evolet (Belle). Still, he has no chance at being the tribe’s alpha male – that would seem to be the destiny of Ka’Ren (Zinal), a buff, burly homo sapiens. Still, when the mastodon herd arrives, it is the determined D’Leh who gets the kill, but as he sheepishly admits to Tic’Tic later, it was a matter of luck and not courage that took down the mastodon.

Things get really dicey when the tribe is attacked by “four-legged demons” – slavers on horseback, who kill some of the tribe and take the rest as slaves, including most of the healthy men, but worse yet, also Evolet, who has caught the eye of their leader (Badra). D’Leh vows to go after the woman he loves, also knowing that the tribe won’t survive without most of its hunting force. Tic’Tic decides to go with him, as does a reluctant Ka’Ren. They are followed by Baku (Baring), a young teen whose mother was murdered by the slavers.

They follow them over the mountain range, which nobody from the tribe has ever done, and into a steamy jungle where they and the raiding party are attacked by giant carnivorous dodos. Ka’Ren and Baku manage to get captured by the raiders when D’Leh tries to free Evolet prematurely. Tic’Tic also gets injured.

Following the raiders out of the jungle and onto a grassy African plain, D’Leh encounters a Sabretooth tiger and frees him from a trap. The grateful tiger spares D’Leh’s life and later shows up when a hostile tribe of Africans threaten D’Leh and Tic’Tic with spears. A prophecy of a hero who talks to tigers instantly turns D’Leh into a VIP and the tribe is very ready to have D’Leh lead them against the raiders, who are building a vast city with a gigantic pyramid with slave labor – essentially the tribe mates of the Yagahl and all the veldt. However, it’s a tall order; given that the raiders outnumber the peace-loving tribes. However, if D’Leh can convince the slaves to revolt, they might have a chance, but is he the leader that the prophecies say he is?

The cast is mostly unknowns both at the time this was filmed and years later although both Camille Belle and Cliff Curtis have gone on to pretty decent careers since. Of course you have Omar Sharif – who is the off-screen narrator – who is a legend and deservedly so. There’s not a lot for them and their lesser-renowned cast mates to do. The main thrust of the movie is the gee-wow effects and not the story so few manage to rise above the cliché strata although Belle is certainly beautiful to look at and Curtis manages a nice performance.

The effects of the creatures and the raider city are really mind-boggling. If you choose a movie for great special effects and an imaginative setting, this one has both of those in spades. Although Emmerich is not an impressive director, he is at least an imaginative one, and he brings a vision to life of a world nobody has ever seen. In many ways, you really don’t know what to expect next since D’Leh and his fellow Yagahl who have never left their valley don’t know either. The pacing is nice, although the movie tends to hiccup when they move into the romantic part of the story.

The story is…ummmmm, how shall I say this…superfluous. I think the movie might have benefited from some stronger characters and better writing, but quite frankly, there’s nothing that’s really egregious here on that score. Most of the technical work – the music, the cinematography, the editing, etc. – is competently done, but nothing really breaks new ground except the subject matter itself.

This got some pretty harsh reviews, and I can’t say that I don’t see the flaws. Yes, there’s nothing really new here story-wise, but because you are being transported to a place nobody has really even attempted to show in film, it’s kind of a wash. Go in with low expectations for characterization and story and high expectations for action and special effects and you’ll be fine..

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular special effects. Omar Sharif’s narration.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No plot to speak of. Writing is poor and characters kind of all blend together eventually.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a scene of human sacrifice, and some of the critters are extremely menacing, particularly the dodo-raptors, who are a cross between the raptors of Jurassic Park and the angry giant birds of Mysterious Island.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The constellation referred to in the film as “the sign of the warrior” is actually Orion. That constellation also played a key role in a previous Emmerich film Stargate.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Blu-Ray edition adds a featurette (not on the DVD version) that focuses on author Graham Hancock whose Fingerprints of the Gods opines an advanced civilization that existed during the epoch the movie is set in. Although primarily about his own theories, the featurette does tie in with the movie somewhat.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $269.8M on a $105M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Million Years B.C.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Fiddler on the Roof

A Lonely Place to Die


 

There's nowhere to go but up.

There’s nowhere to go but up.

(2011) Thriller (IFC) Alec Newman, Ed Speelers, Melissa George, Kate Magowan, Gary Sweeney, Holly Boyd, Douglas Russell, Alan Steele, Sean Harris, Stephen McCole, Karel Roden, Eamonn Walker, Paul Anderson, Eric Barlow, Jamie Edgell, Matthew Zajac, Gillian MacGregor, Tania Chant, Robert J. Goodwin, Alan Wyn Hughes. Directed by Julian Gilbey

Sometimes when you least expect it you find hidden gems where you ought not to. It might have to do with low expectations – you think that the movie is going to be just one of many that when it turns out that it is not you are so pleased that you perhaps give it an inordinate amount of credit. That’s as may be but the truth is those kinds of movies are the sort you appreciate simply because they leave you pleasantly surprised.

Rob (Newman), Ed (Speelers) and Alison (George) are mountain climbing in the Scottish highlands and having a kick-ass time of it. Sure there are a few hairy moments but nothing these young enthusiasts can’t handle. Afterwards, they meet up with married friends (McGowan, Sweeney) in a remote cabin and….well, do things that young active people do.

High winds the next day preclude their plans for climbing so a hike in the woods is called for instead. It is there that Alison and Ed hear a plaintive voice, crying out in a language they don’t understand. After digging, they find Anna (Boyd), a Serbian girl who can’t speak a word of English, buried in a box underground. They pull her out and determine to send their best climbers – Alison and Rob – on ahead to fetch help.

What they don’t understand is that some Really Bad Men put Anna in that hole and they’re not particularly happy that someone has dug her out. They mean to put her back in that hole and to put anyone who gets in between them – or even knows that she exists – in the ground in a more permanent fashion. Really Bad Men are like that.

This is one of those thrillers that doesn’t rely on artifice – or at least a lot of it – to keep its audience on the edge of their seats. This is a smart, beautifully photographed suspense movie that utilizes some beautiful Scottish scenery. There is a real sense of jeopardy that you can’t manufacture without at least a working understanding of the nuances of the situation. Another thing you can’t manufacture is the scenery; there are some breathtaking images here.

Melissa George has developed into a fine actress who is most commonly found in European thrillers and horror flicks. She’s been compared with Jamie Lee Curtis and I think that is pretty apt; she plays smart, strong women who can be a physical presence without losing their feminine side or their sex appeal. Curtis made a career that way and Gina Carano looks to do the same; George already is.

When the movie changes location to a Scottish village it loses a lot of its momentum, as if the filmmakers were more comfortable filming in the wilderness than they were in a more urban environment. That aside, there are some really nice twists and turns, particularly one having to do with the identity of the Really Bad Men that fans of the genre will surely appreciate.

I’m deliberately keeping things fairly vague because the movie works so much better if you don’t see what’s coming. I was fortunate enough to go into seeing this without knowing anything about it and was simply blown away by how sophisticated the movie making was here. You might think from reading the plot summary that this is a very basic “wilderness stalking” movie, but it’s far from that. It’s elevated by some strong performance (particularly from Speelers and George), some gorgeous cinematography and writing that gives its audience credit for having some sophistication and intelligence. While the ending might knock it down a peg or two, this is still a really good gem in the thriller genre.

WHY RENT THIS: A couple of well-put together scenes. Speelers and George are compelling leads. Gorgeous scenery.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Final third of the movie doesn’t hold up to first two thirds.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly strong violence and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Gilbey and his brother Will (who co-wrote the script with Julian) became avid mountain climbers while researching and making the film. The footage over the end credits that was taken with helmet cans was actually shot by the brothers themselves while scouting locations for the movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25.3M on a $4M production budget; that’s a pretty sizable hit for a movie that’s been pretty much ignored over here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Surviving the Game

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Meskada

Despiadado


 

           At first, we thought we’d won. They had come from another dimension through a portal that we thought we ourselves had opened but as it turned out had been opened by them. We called them Demons because of their vicious homicidal nature and because of the resemblance of some of them to the demons of movies and video games.

            Two wars wiped out nearly the entire human race. We bred certain humans as Guardians, warriors with amazing abilities trained to protect the human race from the demon onslaught. One of the bravest of these, Jeremiah Black, had managed to close the dimensional portal at the cost of his own life. The war was won, but eradicating those demons that remained and reclaiming the Earth as our own went on for years.

            Then came the discovery of Sangre the Silent that the remaining demons were evolving into humans and other animals. It was he who led the great Unification, allowing both races to come together, survive together. We repopulated our planet. Generations came and went. The Guardians – now called Hunters – had become the elite force of warrior knights. They were thought to be obsolete and archaic. Their numbers became few.

            Once again we were victims of our own complacency. It had been a hundred years since the last Demon War. Civilization had built up again; the old cities were habited again. The world had caught up more or less to where it had been before all this began. Only the Hunters, their numbers augmented by former Demons converted to human, sounded any sort of warning knell that the portal that had once been opened could be opened again. These were disregarded as the ramblings of old men and paranoids.

            We knew that when their numbers became to great in their home dimension they would come here again. The portal opened in the dead of winter in the Sangre de Christi Mountains. Instead of the animals coming through, it was all Deathknights but mutated. They were still humanoid but they were bigger (about seven and a half feet tall), stronger and even more vicious.

            The Demon Army wiped out most of North America before we even knew they were here. The conventional armies were overwhelmed by the weapons of the new Demons, which were powerful indeed, capable of vaporizing matter and energy alike. The losses were terrible.

            The Hunters, once reviled and ridiculed, became the last hope of mankind. My father had been one; I had just joined, one of their few new recruits when the Demon Army appeared. Now the Third Demon War was in full swing and somehow, we knew it would be the last.

            My name is Moloch and I am a Hunter. I lead a cadre of ten Hunters, all new recruits. We, like most of the Hunters, had chosen a small town on the Yucatan Peninsula to make a stand, to turn the tide of the war. The name of the place was Ixamal.

            Like many towns on the Yucatan, it was surrounded by jungle and somewhat compact in nature. Unlike many towns, it had largely escaped the ravages of the previous Demon Wars because of its remote location. That would not be true this time. When the Hunterelder Agamemnon sent out a psychic call for all the Hunters to gather there, we came; some by conventional means but most by a new technique we had learned since the last Demon War, the ability to fold space and arrive in a new location instantaneously. There were well over a thousand Hunters in Ixamal, lethal killers all. We got suspicious looks from the locals that bordered on outright hatred. That didn’t bother any of us; without a doubt we would earn that hatred soon. Our very presence guaranteed that.

            We were soon made well aware as to why we had been summoned. The Demon Army, numbering well over 500,000 gibbering ravening demons, dripping foul-smelling pus and drool, were on their way. Why they had chosen this spot was occupying much of the Elders’ time; there seemed to be no real reason why the Demons should want to go to Ixamal or even the Yucatan Peninsula, but here they were.

            I had a group of ten Hunters who were my charges. We called ourselves the Orphans because we had divorced ourselves from our pasts, our parents; we’d cut all our ties with anything human because we knew that we would not survive this war. Dead men make formidable warriors; they have nothing to lose. I sat on the doorstep of a dusty cantina and looked at my charges; youngsters one and all. Part of me thought they should all be in school, learning useless information and trying to get laid.

            They were tough and they were hard; we’d seen a lot of battle and none of it was pretty. They’d seen their friends die horribly, ripped into shreds by demonic claws or barbecued by demonic breath. Of course, many had been vaporized by the new demonic weapon that we had yet to find a way to counter. These, so far, had escaped all of those fates, although many had scars to show their worth in battle. They sat around me now, boys pretending to be men, myself a man trying to pretend I didn’t envy them their youth. The things we had seen together…would continue to see.

            One among them stood out. His name was Despiadado and he was my right hand. Taciturn but brilliant in his own way, he was native to this area and he knew the topography well. His counsel had served us well a week past when we ran into a scouting party for the main Army while out scouting ourselves. We manage to herd them into a cenote that he knew about, where we simply used our psychokinesis to push them over the edge into the bottomless pools, where they might have drowned had not their skin been sensitive to water which acted like acid and dissolved them, screaming, into vapor.

            He was calm under pressure and a killing machine in battle. He had a better grasp of his gifts than did most of the boys, and no compunction about using them. While the others showed a whole lot of bravado, Despiadado had more of a quiet confidence in his abilities. He would make a tremendous Hunter, maybe even one of the best ever – if he lived through the night.

            The others waited, like all of us. We had been assigned as reserves, mostly due to our age and inexperience. Haaken was telling a joke to El Verdugo, while Sorrow, Refsingar and Pala gambled quietly in the corner, throwing dice against the wall. I wondered idly if any of us would survive.

            The Demon Army was finally upon us. We awaited our orders as we knew that we would be used to fill in where Hunters had fallen, or where the Army had exploited our weaknesses. Agamemnon was in charge of the Hunters, although Pelennor and Socorro both had equal say by law, Agamemnon was deferred to because of his experience.

            The villagers were escorted to basements and whatever hiding places could be found though if we were overrun they would afford them no shelter. Many of the villagers had fled already and of those, the vast majority would already be dead, killed by Demon scouting parties. Agamemnon, who was descended from Demon stock (some say from Lady Venema herself) had warned against it but as usual, the villagers ignored the experience of the Hunters and had given way to fear. If we had been listened to in the first place, we might have been better prepared.

            Spilt milk, that. What’s done is done and now the Hunters are the hunted. We awaited the first assault in the village, some looking forward to battle with bloodlust, others preparing to do their duty. None look forward to death but all accepted that death would take most or all of us that day. That was as may be, but if we could stop the Demons from whatever goal was theirs, we would die content.

            When the first assault finally came all of the chatter and horseplay in my cadre stopped. We all felt the pain and suffering of those on the front line, and when a Hunter died, a part of our souls died with them. Our expressions were grim. I knew it wouldn’t be long before we were called to the front line, to suffer and die with our brothers.

            Our losses were terrible. We were only a thousand to begin with and we were down to half that number within the first ten minutes. I felt Agamemnon’s call and we were summoned to a barricade on the southern part of town. We relieved a group of more veteran Hunters who were going to the North, where the attack was concentrated.

            Despiadado sidled up to me. “Their attack is well-coordinated but there’s something strange,” he said in a soft voice. “I am not feeling the psychic emanations from the Demons that I do from us, except for one. He is in the rear of the Army and whenever their disintegration weapon is used, I feel the psychic energy coming from him.” I nodded and relayed the information to Agamemnon. I got a very irritated “We’re well aware of that but we can’t pinpoint the single Demon controlling their weapon. We’ve attacked that area several times but we can’t get anyone close enough. Await your orders.”

            Despiadado had picked up the message. He looked at me with clear brown eyes. “I can,” he said softly, “I can kill the demon that’s directing their weapon.” I looked at him critically. “What makes you think so?” I knew he was more sensitive psychically than most. If he said he could pinpoint which Demon was directing the weapon, I believed him. But I would imagine that the Demons would protect the weapon director quite heavily. If we had 10,000 men we probably couldn’t get close.

            “I know the terrain. I could travel almost right next to him.” I shook my head. Transporting right next to a target, taking them out and then returning was difficult at best. Transporting left even the best of us disoriented for several moments, long enough for guards to raise the alarm and even kill the Hunter before he had regained his senses. This didn’t seem like a viable option and I said so, explaining why.

            Despiadado smiled and said “That would be true, but if I had a psychic link with you, the effects could be lessened. You would be the disoriented one, leaving me time enough to kill the bastard and get back.” I considered it. The plan could work, although there were a number of pitfalls. If Despiadado were killed, I would also die. The psychic backlash would fry my brain. Despiadado would also be nearly useless for several hours, too exhausted to fight.

            However, the opportunity was too much to pass. I communicated my intentions to Agamemnon and he sent back a terse “Do it.” From his standpoint, it wasn’t much of a risk – the worst case scenario was that Despiadado and I would die and that was a mere two Hunters. However, if we were successful, that could turn the tide of battle. I nodded to Despiadado and he smiled, closed his eyes and disappeared.

            I could see through his eyes, feel what he felt. He/I arrived in the Demons camp, which was strange and organic looking. There were Squidgens everywhere but they were of no concern. A pair of Deathknights and a Krueger stood in front of tent-like structure that appeared to be made of flesh and bone. Through Despiadado I could feel the psychic presence of the Demon controlling the weapon. I could also feel the disorientation that came from Travelling and I fought it.

            Despiadado didn’t feel it. His sword came out and sang and the Krueger’s head flew off, it’s razor-sharp blade-ended fingers twitching as black blood fountained from its corpse. The Deathknights hesitated a moment and began to draw their own weapons but it was too late. One was stabbed through the heart by Despiadado’s blade and the other took a psychic blast, causing the blood vessels in its brain and heart to explode. It collapsed where it stood.

            There were literally hundreds of other Demons nearby and at the death of the Krueger they began running to the Pavilion. Despiadado didn’t hesitate; he ran inside and there sat the Demon he had come for.

            It was huge, gigantic, maybe 450 pounds of fat, bulbous flesh. It pulsated on the floor, it’s eyes a sickly yellow and there were several hundred of them scattered on the sticky purple flesh of the Demon. A large spiked tail protruded from its anus but other than that it was just a blob. It had no visible means of locomotion nor did it have a mouth.

            And yet it made a loud squealing noise, and it let loose a psychic blast of its own. Despiadado got his defenses up only just barely in time and the pain of the impact of the blast on his shields chilled me to the bone. I sent all my own strength to augment his and he drew his blade and began slicing the animal, for the Demon before him was little more than that.

            The skin was remarkably tough but our blades are sharper than razors. After a few hacks, Despiadado pierced the hide and into the soft tissue below and once that was done it was all over. He continued to parry psychic blasts as the tail swished through the air and the thing’s death screams filled his mind. At last, blood flowing from dozens of wounds, it slumped to the ground, dead. Why hadn’t it just vaporized him? I didn’t have time to answer my own thoughts as Despiadado closed his eyes and Travelled back to the camp, collapsing to the ground. He was covered in the Demon’s foul-smelling blood and his own sweat. He had made it out just in time; the first of the guards had reached the door by the time he had Travelled out.

            I collapsed alongside him, spent. We sat there for several moments, trying to get our bearings. Amontillado and Pala ran up to us. “What the hell? Are you all right?” I nodded, and then smiled. “We’re going to be okay boys.” And I was right. When the creature had died, most of the Demon army was in psychic contact with it. The psychic backlash of its death had killed a good part of their army and our Hunters did the rest.

            We were called heroes for our deeds, although I have to admit I’m uncomfortable with it. There’s no time to celebrate killing a single Demon and winning a single battle. This war is just beginning and it is going to get worse before it gets better but you have to take your victories where you can get them.

            Despiadado was given command of my cadre and I was sent to Ecuador to train new recruits. There are lots of them these days – those who survived the initial onslaught would all be pressed into service. In order to survive, the human race will all have to become Hunters. Perhaps that is for the best, but a part of me mourns. What are we going to give up in order to preserve life? The cost will be high indeed.

Inner Demons


            The wasteland has its own beauty for those willing to look. Frankly, most people aren’t – they’re too busy getting the hell out of it before they run into something really nasty.

            Ever since the last war, the wasteland has been where the demons held sway. Most of us know from the tales of our grandparents (who heard the same tale from their grandparents who witnessed it firsthand) of the time when the portal to the dimension we call Hell was opened and the demons swarmed through.

            There’s nothing supernatural about it, by the way. Take it from me – I know. We ascribe these things to the Devil and to Hell, but these are flesh and blood creatures. Some of them are resistant to flame, others to cold, most of them are abysmally hard to kill but they can be killed, they can bleed and they can kill. The killing part you know about.

            Nobody knows precisely how the portal was opened. Some say it was magic, a sorcerer making an incantation from forbidden scrolls. Others say it was science, a government experiment to find proof of other dimensions that got more than the scientists bargained for. That’s the explanation I tend to believe; hubris with a lab coat.

            In any case, once the portal was opened, the floodgates turned loose and homicidal creatures of every sort came into our dimension by the thousands, then the millions. Some of them had wings and could fly; some of them had gills and could breathe underwater. Most of them had fangs and talons and venom. All of them had a penchant for killing anything that wasn’t a demon. We began calling them demons because they resembled the Hollywood version of demons in a physical sense but later on, because the more religious of what was left of humanity assigned a spiritual explanation to them. Whatever the case may be, I have yet to see an angel but I’ve seen plenty of demons.

            The war took its toll on humanity, a heavy one. In the space of three years our population decreased by 75%; three out of every four humans were killed in the space of three years, either directly at the hands of the demons or through disease and the starvation that followed the war. Still, the war went on for ten bloody years but we managed at last to prevail. We survive, although I wouldn’t call it thriving.

            Most of the great cities are deserted, empty husks that were once thriving and full of vitality. They stand quiet, sentinels in the night, lifeless monuments to a civilization that no longer exists. From time to time, my travels take me through one of them; as hardened as I am to the world around me, I find myself in tears sometimes as I think about what once was.

            The demons were contained and humans learned to protect themselves better. We designed weapons that were more effective against the demon horde than bullets, rockets and even nuclear devices. We designed warriors to wield them that were more murderous than any that had existed before.

            But what we didn’t count on was the adaptability of the demons. Some of them have been able to alter their own appearance by using the DNA of human prisoners to create doppelgangers, demons in human form. Those did tremendous damage in the second Demon War, but soon we figured out a way to sniff them out.

            Now humanity exists in small enclaves, fortress-like castle-cities that are almost feudal in nature. These enclaves are protected by the Hunters, those who patrol the land and destroy whatever demons we can find. I am one of these. I had a human name once but now I’m just called Sangre.

            The second Demon War ended when a Hunter by the name of Jeremiah found a way to permanently close the open portal. This heroic act cost Jeremiah his life and there is no human more revered than he, and for good reason. We have hope for the first time in decades that we may actually survive as a species. Once upon a time the Hunters had a very different role, protecting the human communities against demon assault. We were called Guardians back then – Jeremiah was actually a Guardian all his life, although we regard him as the first Hunter.

            Now we have left the fortresses and go out looking for demons to kill. Most demons are mindless, ravening animals but there are demons that have intelligence and self-awareness. There were once armies of this sort of demon – the doppelgangers were part of this demonic strain. Now, we aim to commit utter genocide against these bastards. It is the mission of the Hunters to eradicate their presence completely from our world and reclaim it not only for the humans, but for the plants and animals that existed before the demon incursion.

            We have managed to save many of the plant and animal species – some as embryos and seeds only. When the demons are gone, the wasteland will be reseeded and inhabitable once again. It has been 20 years since Jeremiah made his sacrifice and the end of the mission is in sight.

            In fact, some of the demon wastelands in various parts of the world have been rendered completely free of their presence and the reclamation of those areas have already begun. One of these, in what used to be called California, has been successful. These days we call it Eden.

            But there is still work to be done, and it is my calling to do it. My brothers Espada and Dolor lead Hunter teams into one of the largest remaining demon wastelands in North America, located in a part of the region that stretched out over New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. They are attacking in an organized fashion, with dozens of men and women at their disposal.

            I prefer to work alone. Not quite alone; I have a dog, a Doberman mix who is my only companion. He doesn’t require a lot of attention which is why I don’t mind him, but he is also invaluable and sniffing out demons which is why I keep him. I used to just call him Dog, but my brother Dolor pointed out that all creatures need a name; it’s what separates us from the demons, so I named him Escatar, after my other brother who was killed by demons as a boy.

            The reason I like Escatar so much is because he doesn’t talk much. I’m really not one for conversation; most of my thinking is about demons, how to kill them and how to survive killing them. Like most Hunters, I’m not what you’d call a good looking man. I’m gaunt from years of foraging in the wasteland, with long stringy black hair and an unkempt beard that is beginning to turn grey. Half of my left ear is missing and there’s a long scar on that side of my face from when a Green Hornback made a snack of the lower part of my ear over in Mesquite territory.

            There are all sorts of smaller scars, scratches, dents and bruises from other battles. My nose has been broken so many times I’ve lost count; it’s left my nose looking more or less like a mashed potato on the center of my face. I broke my hip fighting a Ruiner in the ruins that used to be Phoenix and it never set right so I walk with a decided limp. My skin is like leather from living out in the sun. I don’t even notice sunburns anymore and I have all sorts of moles and cysts on my skin from exposure to the sun. Like I said, a real looker.

             While my brothers are marching through the wasteland from the East, I’m headed for the center of it. There are still lots of demons there, too many. Demons can reproduce, but not quickly except for the little Squidgens but they are more pests then demon. However, with the portal closed, the population of demons should be decreasing rapidly and everywhere else, they have. Only here there hasn’t been a decrease, there’s an increase. Nobody talks about it, nobody wants to admit it, but I will voice what nobody wants to say. There’s another portal, and it’s open. Here.

            So I go into Hell, into the center of the wasteland to find it. Me, my dog, my sword and my balls. That’s all I need. So I’m walking through the wasteland and it’s not like a walk through anywhere else you’ve ever been. Most of the plant and animal life that lived here before has withered or been killed. New species have established themselves here, most of them deadly in one way or another, like the Scorpion Ghost which is actually a plant. It’s tendrils hide beneath the surface and are alerted by the vibrations of footfalls, which cause the plant to suddenly erupt through the surface to wrap themselves around the foot of whatever it is that’s walking. Tiny little injectors pump venom into the body of the victim, rendering him paralyzed. The vines then drag the living carcass to the maw of the plant, where the victim is slowly digested for several days.

            Then there are the Leviathans, monsters that are ten stories tall and nearly a mile long, looking not unlike a horseshoe crab only with a slimy, rubbery skin that is covered with a toxin that attacks anything fleshy, dissolving it in a matter of minutes. It’s large and ungainly but it can be avoided and can be killed by pouring ordinary rock salt on it. The real danger is the carrion eater that follows behind it, the Yellowclaw. These are nightmarish crosses between spiders, crabs and crocodiles, with eight sets of claws and pincers, retracting eyestalks and a long, deadly tail with a club-like appendage that if it hits you can knock you woozy, at which point it attacks with a surprisingly fast ferocity, tearing you to pieces and eating your remains.

            There are Whistlers and Gigglers and Dirtclouds; Gatorbirds and Stretchers and Incubi. Chokers and Spearwings and Spiketails, Chargers and Wink Devils and Ironjaws. I’ve run into all of them and dozens more over the past few weeks, and killed every one of them. I haven’t seen any Dops or Deathknights so far, but I’ve seen Hellhounds and when you see one of them, the others can’t be far away.

            I’ve been living in the wasteland for almost fifteen years now, either here or in the northwest and I’ve seen acid storms and razorwind but never before have I had this gut feeling that something very, very bad was going on the way I do now and so I trudge forward, one foot in front of the other, killing anything that gets in my way.

            This morning, I was in the middle of dispatching a Bramble Lion, a large cat-like creature that instead of fur has spiky, sticky thistle-like growths that stick to your skin and are melted by body heat. Once the outer shell melts, a particularly virulent acid is released that acts a lot like napalm except it only burns flesh. I had just finished cutting off its head when I saw her, a beautiful woman with long, black hair and cobalt blue skin. A Deathknight, the most intelligent and cunning of the demons and the masterminds of the demon civilization, assuming they have one.

            With the Bramble Lion’s ichor dripping from my sword, I sauntered towards her. She regarded me with some amusement; clearly she had no fear of me, despite the fact my brotherhood had been dispatching her brethren with ruthless efficiency. She gave me an ironic bow and applauded. “Oh well done, Hunter, dispatching a Bramble Lion so bravely. You are indeed worthy of your calling. Tell me, which of the brothers do I have the pleasure of addressing? Dolor? Sangre? Espada? Escatar?”

            I straightened up and looked at her dead in the eyes, saying nothing. She was obviously trying to get a rise out of me by mentioning my dead brother. My brothers and I are certainly well-known among Deathknights. We have been responsible for sending a lot of them on to the next life after all. I wouldn’t speak directly, just staring at her patiently. I reached out my senses and after a moment ascertained that there were dozens of demons within striking distance. Next to me Escatar was growling.

            The Deathknight laughed. “Ah, you must be Sangre the Silent. I should have known from the scar on the side of your face, given you by a mere Green Hornback. That must have been embarrassing.” I grunted and begin to advance on her, warily, knowing that the attack from her attendants would be from the back, but I couldn’t allow the Deathknight to report my position back to her friends. If the demons knew I was this close to the center of the wasteland they might send a whole army after me, which might disrupt my plans a little bit.

            Suddenly behind the Deathknight stood a line of Kruegers, vaguely human-shaped demons with long sharp blades where their fingers should be. They also spit venom and are surprisingly fast and agile. I could take on one or two of them at once, but there had to be twenty of them there, far more than I could handle alone, or even with Escatar. Still, better to go down fighting if I must die. I raised my sword and prepared to do battle.

            The Deathknight laughed. “Stay your sword, Hunter, sheathe your weapon. I mean you no harm, at least not now. If I wanted you dead, I have many minions at my disposal; I could have had you killed while you were busy fighting the Bramble Lion. Even if you could kill all my Kruegers, I have a Master Maggot not a hundred feet away.” I felt the presence of the maggot, one of the largest and most feared demons there were; one Master Maggot could easily take on an army of Hunters without much trouble.

            At last I spoke to her. “What would you have of me?” I asked. The sound of my voice seemed to startle her, which brought me some satisfaction. “So it’s true, Sangre the Silent carries the Spectral Voice. How very interesting.”

            She was sitting in a chair that one of her minions had brought out. There was an empty chair beside her and she motioned at me to sit. I saw no other alternative but to oblige her, which I did. She smiled again. “I am Venema of the Legion, and I speak for my people. We wish to parlay with your kind.” I had been trained by the Elderhunters not to betray any emotions, but I very nearly did. Since they had arrived, we had always believed the Deathknights and those they command take no prisoners, show no mercy, never compromise. The only thing they wanted was to exterminate all existing life on our world so they could make it their own. They had very nearly succeeded. So now that they were on the verge of being wiped out themselves, they wanted to talk?

            “There is nothing to discuss,” I said. “You came to destroy us. Instead, it is you who will be destroyed. We have wiped out your kind all over the world, and here is where the last of you will die. What more is there to talk about?” For a moment, the mask of arrogance vanished and she frowned. She said “I admit, we did mean to annihilate your race, but we needed your world. Our own world was no longer able to support our numbers. When you opened the portal to your dimension, we discovered a means to our salvation. Your world is an ugly and inhospitable place, but it had potential. We came through the portal by the millions until the Unspeakable shut that door for eternity.” I assume by “the Unspeakable” she meant Jeremiah.

            “Now we are stuck here and cannot get back. Enough of us came through that those who remained in our dimension can survive, at least for several centuries but all the Deathknights are here, in this world. As you can see, we are intelligent and self-aware as you are; you mean to commit genocide against us, yet you accuse us of being monsters.”

            I looked at her, glowering. “I do not recall you being particularly concerned about the ramifications of wiping out the human race. We have a saying among my people; That which you do as you live, thus will you die. You have brought this end on yourselves. We had the right to defend ourselves and we won. Even if you kill me, inevitably you will all die. You cannot reproduce fast enough and we will kill every last one of you and restore this planet the way it was.”

            She smiled again and I got that peculiar feeling that something wasn’t right. “I cannot fault you for defending yourself, Hunter. It is part of the Ka of every living thing to desire its own survival. You merely follow your instinct that was bred within you. We have the same Ka; in this regard we are the same, loathe as I am to admit there is anything about us that is the same.” At last, something we both could agree on.

            “So what are we talking about, Deathknight? You wish me to go to my brothers and beg them to take their armies back home and let you survive long enough to build your numbers back up again so that you might swarm and finish the job your kind started? It is you or us; both cannot survive here. There is nothing more to say.”      

            I stood up to end the conversation but she grabbed my arm. “If I take you to the center of our land to our city and show you a reason to allow us to survive, what then?” I shook her arm off with a vigorous motion. The touch of her was strangely unsettling. “And what if I do not think your reason worthy? I will be as good as dead. Better to die here in that case.”

            She stood too and did something that amazed me. She unsheathed her own sword, knelt at my feet and offered it up to me. “I am told you know the nature of my kind better than any living Pinkbelly. Our sword is our soul; in it is our honor, our being, all that we are. I give you my sword for you to safeguard. If what I reveal to you in our city does not convince you, you will be escorted back here to this spot without harm and given three days where none will harm you. Leave my sword where it can be found and you will get another three days. That is my oath to you; on my sword I swear it.”

            She was right about me knowing the Deathknights. Deathknights whose swords were broken would take their own lives. If I felt threatened at any time, I could break her sword and she knew it. Deathknights were not fond of self-sacrifice; I didn’t think she would give her life away so freely when she could have taken mine without endangering her own. However, I needed a little more assurance.

            “Send away the maggot, and let me communicate with my brothers. Let no harm come to them as well while I am in your city and I will see what you have to show me.” She smiled and stood up. She bowed her head for a moment and then looked up. “I have sent away the maggot. Sense for yourself.” I reached out with my senses and felt the maggot’s presence moving off. I also noticed it was moving away from where my brothers were supposed to be. I nodded in satisfaction. “You may communicate with your brothers now.”

            I reached out with my mind. Part of the training of the Hunters involves our psi-senses, giving us the ability to speak over great distances with our minds. That bond is stronger within blood relatives. I often spoke to my brothers this way; we rarely meet in person because of our mission. I felt the familiar and reassuring presence of their minds in my own. “Brothers, I am in the presence of Venema, a Deathknight who wishes to show me a reason for us to spare their kind. I am going to their city to see this. I have been given assurances for safe conduct that I do not trust. Keep in contact with my mind; it will lead you to their city if I am betrayed and will at last give you the means of wiping them out for good.”

            As Hunters must be, they were unsentimental. I was saying goodbye to them; I did not expect to survive this journey, but the information I gathered might well be important and useful in our mission to exterminate the demons. I deemed it a sacrifice well worth making. I felt their acknowledgement but no regret. They knew what I did, and expected no less as I would with them. I looked up. “We go, then.” She smiled. “We go” was all she said.

            It was somewhat surreal. I had been living in this wasteland or others like it my entire adult life and every step of the journey was always filled with danger; a Hunter must be alert every second of every day or that Hunter would die, and nothing was of less use than a dead Hunter. However, I felt strangely calm. Venema steered us around every place dangerous to humans and often sent her minions out to clear the way of dangerous plants and animals in our path. I knew she wanted me in the city for a reason, so I would be safe enough until then.

            Escatar followed along, somewhat uncertainly. Occasionally he would let loose a whimper or a growl, and clearly he didn’t like having so many enemies so close at hand but he was a loyal and noble creature and stayed right by my side where he might defend me if the need arose. I had never been touched by any living thing before, but I was touched by his loyalty.

            It took us more than a week to arrive there, but we reached the demon city and I had to admit I was a bit surprised at its strange beauty. It was built of materials both familiar and strange to me and rose almost like a fairy tale in the wasteland. Elegant cone-like spires, tapered at the bottom, reached hundreds of meters into the sky. There was a gracefulness to the city I hadn’t expected; I didn’t expect there to be art or beauty among the demons. Venema seemed amused at my reaction. “You Pinkbellies believe the worst of us, do you not? We have no art, no culture, nothing of value, and nothing of beauty…and yet you see differently.”

            I looked at her coolly. “Is this what I was meant to see? That you have an aesthetic sense? Anthills have that as well, and I have no issues stepping on one.” She laughed, a strange sound indeed. “Sangre the Silent, I would have never thought you to be one to jest. No, there is much more for you to see before we come to what I came to show you.”

            As we walked through the city, I felt ill at ease. I was surrounded by the enemy and I could feel their stares. Some made no secret of their hatred and their desire to kill me, but everywhere we went Venema had an escort for us who made sure that no trouble would arise and none did.

            In many respects it was similar to a human city; there were clearly divides of class and status, with some living in what appeared to be poorer quarters, while others seemed to have more living space. There were sword makers and markets that sold what appeared to be food, although none looked edible to me. There were plants and animals that humans could consume, and Venema had provided them throughout our journey. We passed what appeared to be auditoriums of some kind; places where hundreds of Deathknights gathered. I asked Venema if these were places of worship and she looked at me strangely and thoughtfully then said that they were.

            I had been right about one thing; there were many, many more Deathknights than we thought there were. I sent that information to my brothers. They had literally thousands of Hunters between them, but they would need double what they had to take this city. Dolor assured me he was communicating that information to the Hunterelders who would send reinforcements.

            We came to a large building near the center of the city. While many of the buildings we had passed were adorned with symbols and decoration, this one was not. There was a sinister feel to it, like some great evil existed within it. We stopped at the doors to the building. The entire building was a very dark grey, nearly black. The double doors were tall, about twenty meters, and unadorned. Venema turned to me. “This is what I brought you to see.” For a moment, I almost felt sympathy for her. She had been pleasant company this past week, and had lived up to her word but I knew before I would die I would see her dead first.

            I looked at her and decided to go for broke. “Is this where the portal is that you have re-established to your world?” Her eyes widened and at first I thought I had the right of it, but then she smiled and there was wistfulness to her expression. “Would that it was, Hunter, would that it was.” She went to the door handles which were iron, then twisted them clockwise and pulled. Slowly, ponderously the door opened.

            It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the darkness – I hadn’t been inside a building in years. Then I saw. It was not what I expected. I took several steps back, my mouth open in shock. I had been trained not to reveal what I felt, but all my training could not have prepared me for what I saw. I quickly established contact with my brothers. Espada, my elder brother, picked up on my emotions and asked me what was wrong. “Turn your men around Espada. You too, Dolor. Send the reinforcements back where they came. We have no need to come here. We have no need at all.”            I sensed their confusion. Dolor spoke. “What do you see, brother? Tell us.” I felt myself weeping. I could sense Venema’s presence next to me. “Now you understand,” she said and I nodded. Oh heaven above, at last I did.

            There were thousands of demons in the room of all shapes and sizes, plants, animals and Deathknights alike and every one of them was changing, becoming something different. Strangletrees were turning into Eucalyptus trees. Leaping mold was becoming lichen.

            Animals were no different. Chargers were turning into terriers, Hellhounds into stallions, and Deathknights…they were becoming humans. “Your world is changing us. We are adapting to it, unexpectedly so. In a generation we will have changed completely. Your world will be yours. It will be ours as it turns out…unless you wipe us out, but you would be killing your own kind.”

            She was right. There was no need to kill the demons; our own world was doing that for us, and in a gentle, natural way. All we had to do was let nature take its course and our world would heal itself and as long as we did no further harm, it would remain that way. The wonder of our planet, our home was there before my very eyes. I hadn’t realized just how wonderful it all was. The world inside this grey building was the world as it once was…and would be again. We had been given a second chance by the demons, although that was never their intention.

            Some time later, as I walked with Venema out towards where my brother Espada’s army was camped, I asked her what she thought of all this. She looked at me thoughtfully, and then said “Our world was dying, and we had done that to ourselves with overpopulation, pollution and neglect. The millions who came here gave our old world a chance to regenerate itself. I never imagined that once the portal closed we’d be able to survive here. Now, there’s hope for us, a second chance.”

            I nodded. “For us as well,” I said. We walked on in silence and I ruminated on the irony that mankind’s best hope had come when we exorcised our own inner demons, and the demons accessed their inner human. Hope is a strange creature, is it not?