Friday, May 22, 2015

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) | Villains



So they brought back Blofeld one more time and it's once too many. I love the idea of bringing him back for Bond to get his revenge, but not like this. Not with this tone and not played by Charles Gray.

For years I thought I hated Charles Gray, because he kept getting miscast in Bond films. I recently, finally saw a movie that I loved him in though. He plays the leader of a Satanic cult and battles Christopher Lee in 1968's The Devil Rides Out. It's a perfect role for him, because he can be as prissy and cowardly as he wants and I'm supposed to despise him. But those traits make him a lousy Dikko Henderson in You Only Live Twice and a worse Blofeld. He's a stunning disappointment after Telly Savalas' tough guy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

When he escapes Bond by dressing as a woman, I don't even blink an eye. That's exactly the kind of thing this Blofeld would do. But just try to imagine Savalas or the Blofeld of Thunderball doing that. Heck, try to imagine Donald Pleasance doing that!

One thing he has in common with Pleasance's Blofeld though is that they're both dumber than their cats. There are a couple of times when Blofeld has the opportunity to destroy Bond in Diamonds and doesn't. Having Wint and Kidd just drop him unconscious in a pipe and leave it out in the open - hoping that it gets buried the next day by random workers - is ludicrous. And later, when Bond shows up at the oil rig, Blofeld again passes up having him shot.

Admittedly, it's too late on both of those occasions for Blofeld's plan to succeed. Thanks to Bond's competent - if not especially impressive - detective work, too many people have all the information they need to shut Blofeld down. But Blofeld at least has the chance to rid himself of Bond once and for all, then escape to plan another caper. He doesn't care though. That's a recurring motif in this movie.



Wint and Kidd are memorable henchmen, because they're so odd and disturbing. Especially jazz musician Putter Smith as Mr. Kidd. Apparently, the producers wanted both killers to be played by musicians and originally went for Paul Williams as Wint, but they couldn't reach an agreement about the money. So they hired Bruce Glover to play Wint instead. They originally told Glover he looked too normal for the role, but the actor makes up for it with the same, innate creepiness he passed on to his son, Crispin Glover.

Wint and Kidd are gay like they are in the novel, but it isn't their attraction to each other that makes them so disconcerting. And interestingly for 1971, no one even comments on it except for Bond's criticizing Wint's cologne. Like everything else about them though, Wint and Kidd's gayness is played really weird. They call each other by their surnames and could not look less natural holding hands. They're completely bizzare as a couple and I'm endlessly fascinated trying to imagine their home life when they're not on an assignment.

And speaking of assignments, just who are they working for when they try to kill Bond at the end of the movie? And why are they trying to use flaming skewers and a bomb? They seem like competent assassins earlier in the movie, but between putting Bond in that pipe and the pointless attack on the ocean liner, they turn out to be not that good.



You know who else are pointless and not that good? Bambi and Thumper are completely lame with their crazy dance moves and sort of taking turns attacking Bond. They don't even really take turns, because one of them will just slither around a little or do some cartwheels before throwing it back to the other. And then Bond defeats them because apparently the fight's gone on long enough and it's time for it to end.

Top Ten Villains

1. Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
2. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (From Russia With Love and Thunderball)
3. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
4. Doctor No (Dr. No)
5. Emilio Largo (Thunderball)
6. Rosa Klebb (From Russia With Love)
7. Kronsteen (From Russia With Love)
8. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (You Only Live Twice)
9. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Diamonds Are Forever)
10. TBD

Top Ten Henchmen

1. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
2. Grant (From Russia With Love)
3. Oddjob (Goldfinger)
4. Irma Bunt (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
5. Miss Taro (Dr. No)
6. Professor Dent (Dr. No)
7. Morzeny (From Russia With Love)
8. Hans (You Only Live Twice)
9. Helga Brandt (You Only Live Twice)
10. Vargas (Thunderball)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) | Women



Jill St John is really charming as Tiffany Case, but she's a much different character than the one Fleming wrote. In the novel, Case is a tough, but damaged woman who relates to the also tough, also damaged Bond. In the movie, she's still tough and all-business on the surface, but that's a cover for incompetence, not pain. St John's Tiffany is all bravado that fails her when the pressure really gets going.

She's interesting for a while, agreeing to double-cross her bosses and abscond with the diamonds alongside Bond. St John plays it cool and there's no telling at first whose side she's really on. As it turns out, she's playing Bond and stays loyal to her hidden bosses until it becomes apparent that they're trying to kill her.

Once she's on Bond's side though, she doesn't make sense anymore. She has opportunities to take off and escape prison, but she inexplicably sticks around; I guess hoping that Bond will use some influence to drop the charges against her. That works out for her in the end, but it's a super risky play. The impression I get is that she's pretty tough when she has the hierarchy of the smuggling ring backing her up, but she has no idea what to do or how to survive on her own. So she trades in the smugglers for Bond and hopes for the best.

I mentioned in a previous post that Diamonds Are Forever sets the tone for the Roger Moore era and that's evident in Tiffany Case. She's the prototype of the smart/tough woman who suddenly turns dumb partway through the movie, though in her case she was always pretty dumb and just covered it well for a while.



The other major woman in Diamonds is Plenty O'Toole, played by Lana Wood. She's barely even a character and does nothing but bounce between high rollers in the casino. We know nothing more about her than that. Is she a prostitute? Just a gold-digger? Is there some kind of sad backstory that explains why she's ended up here? No idea. The movie doesn't care.

It also doesn't care to explain how she ends up dead in Tiffany's swimming pool, mistaken for Tiffany. Bond says that Plenty went to Tiffany's place to look for the smuggler, but why would Plenty do that? Does she know Tiffany? Who cares? Not this film.

Neither Plenty nor Tiffany crack my Top 10.

My Favorite Bond Women

1. Tracy Bond (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
2. Paula Caplan (Thunderball)
3. Tatiana Romanova (From Russia With Love)
4. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
5. Domino Derval (Thunderball)
6. Honey Rider (Dr. No)
7. Sylvia Trench (Dr. No and From Russia With Love)
8. Aki (You Only Live Twice)
9. Pussy Galore (Goldfinger)
10. Tilly Masterson (Goldfinger)

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) | Bond

Actors and Allies 



I used to assume that Connery's return in Diamonds meant that George Lazenby was a failed experiment. That Saltzman and Broccoli were displeased with Lazenby and fired him before coming to their senses and begging Connery to come back. Boy, was I wrong. Lazenby turned down a seven-picture contract and left the series of his own free will to become a hippie. (Incidentally, OHMSS director Peter Hunt was also invited back, but had to decline for scheduling reasons, so they brought back Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton instead.)

The producers next approached American actor John Gavin (though they also considered Adam West). Gavin's probably best known for playing Sam Loomis in Psycho. United Artists wasn't having it though. Not wanting to risk another new Bond, they insisted on having Connery back whatever the cost. They bought out Gavin's contract and paid Connery £1.25 million, the equivalent of about £23 million today.

Sadly, Connery was as enthused about playing Bond in Diamonds as he was in You Only Live Twice. But though he looks bored in both, it presents itself in different ways. In YOLT, because of the humorlessness of Roald Dahl's script, Bond comes across as serious and dull. In Diamonds, he takes nothing seriously. He's amused at everything, which removes any possibility of tension from the film.

The one time he becomes serious (not counting the cold open), is when he's talking to Tiffany after Plenty O'Toole is murdered. It's possible that he's upset about Plenty's death, but I get the impression that it's more about convincing Tiffany that she's in danger. He slaps her during that scene, which is where the power balance shifts between the two of them. She realizes then that he's not just some underling who wants to double-cross the smugglers and run away with her. It's a jolting scene and doesn't work for me because it's so out of character for the version of Bond that Connery's playing in the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, it's the only way she's going to take him seriously and get out of the way so that he can be in charge for the last half of the film. That Bond has to resort to smacking a woman to be taken seriously illustrates the big problem with Connery's performance.

Conney doesn't even look like Bond anymore. Maybe it's the gray in his hair, maybe it's his longer sideburns. Maybe it's just a really bad toupee. Whatever the reason, he's no longer a debonair spy, but an aging, slightly creepy old dude (even though he was only 40 when the movie was filmed).

M is irritated with Bond in their scenes, but that's not especially anything new in the series. We've seen it particularly clearly with Q. As Bond becomes a less serious character, that grates on the nerves of the people giving him his orders.

In keeping with the weird tone of the movie, the Moneypenny scene is really awkward. Not only is she in the field wearing a fake uniform to perform an extremely minor task (giving Bond his fake passport), but her banter with him is super inappropriate. He's off to Holland and offers to bring her back something, so she asks for a diamond... in a ring. Whether or not she's serious about wanting an engagement ring from him (and I dearly hope she's not, but you can read it either way), that's just an awful thing to say to someone whose wife was recently murdered. Again, the movie isn't thinking about stuff like that. It's just making sure we get some Moneypenny flirting in and doesn't care if it makes any sense.

Felix Leiter shows up in Diamonds, but he has no personality. He's only there to make Bond's activities official on US soil and to occasionally fix things. It's dumb though that he can't authorize an interview between Bond and reclusive millionaire Willard Whyte. By the time Bond makes that request, he has plenty of evidence proving that Whyte is deeply connected to the smuggling ring, but Felix acts like Bond just wants to see Whyte on a hunch.

And speaking of Willard Whyte, he's the best thing about this movie. Country singer/sausage king Jimmy Dean is awesome, charming, and completely convincing as a guy who's been forced out of his business empire. He's equal parts frustrated by the situation and determined to fix it. Love him a lot.

Best Quip



"Well, as long as the collars and cuffs match..." concerning his preference in women's hair color.

Worst Quip



"Named after your father, perhaps?" to Plenty O'Toole when she introduces herself. What does that even mean? Is he implying that she's Peter O'Toole's daughter? Why?

Gadgets



There are a few gadgets in Diamonds, but some of them are relatively mundane, like fake fingerprints and a grappling gun. Blofeld's voice changer is pretty cool and I enjoy Q's nonchalance about the ease with which he duplicates it.

The water ball that Bond uses to reach Blofeld's oil rig is iconic, but that's less a gadget than another reference to new, real-world technology like the hovercraft from earlier in the film.

That leaves my favorite of Diamonds' gadgets: the finger trap in Bond's holster that snaps a henchman's fingers when trying to confiscate Bond's gun in the cold open. It's brutal and bloody; a good match for what that cold open is supposed to be.

Top Ten Gadgets

1. Aston Martin DB V (Goldfinger and Thunderball)
2. Jet pack (Thunderball)
3. Little Nellie (You Only Live Twice)
4. Rocket cigarettes (You Only Live Twice)
5. Attaché case (From Russia With Love)
6. Propeller SCUBA tank with built-in spearguns (Thunderball)
7. Rebreather (Thunderball)
8. Camera-tape recorder; mostly because it reminds me of a camera my dad used to use (From Russia With Love)
9. Seagull SCUBA hat (Goldfinger)
10. Holster finger trap (Diamonds Are Forever)

Bond's Best Outfit



Can't go wrong with a classic, black tux and the red carnation is a nice touch.

Bond's Worst Outfit



I don't mind the pinkness of the tie; it's the ridiculously short length. The '70s, man.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) | Story



Plot Summary

After sweeping the last movie's heavy ending under the rug, Bond tries to uncover a diamond smuggling ring before it shuts down. Hilarity ensues.

Influences

On Her Majesty's Secret Service was one of the top money-making movies of 1969, but it still made far less than You Only Live Twice. Saltzman and Broccoli wanted the series back to where it was, so for the next film, they made a conscious effort to duplicate old successes. Goldfinger had done extremely well in the US, thanks in part to a lot of its being set there, so the producers chose another US-based novel, Diamonds Are Forever, as the next film.

Richard Maibaum was brought back to write the script with US writer Tom Mankiewicz coming in to give it an American feel. The basic set up from Fleming's novel was used, but the mastermind behind the smuggling ring was changed from standard gangsters to Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

A minor influence that popped into the movie was the English Channel hovercraft. The hovercraft had been operating for a couple of years by the time Diamonds came out, but it was still a cool, new thing. Referencing new, real-world technology soon became a recurring phenomenon in the Bond movies.

One thing that some think is an influence - but isn't - is the conspiracy theory that the US moon landing was faked. At one point, Bond encounters some men in spacesuits on a moon set, but that's just a reference to the space program in general. The facility that Bond's infiltrated does space research, so those are just astronauts in training. The fake moon landing conspiracy theory didn't get big until a few years after Diamonds.

How Is the Book Different?

I've already mentioned Blofeld. His scheme for the diamonds is completely different from the gangsters' plan in the novel, which is just about making money. We'll talk more about Blofeld's plan in the Villains post, but since Saltzman and Broccoli were trying to recapture the feel of blockbusters like Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, they needed Blofeld to do something bodacious with those diamonds.

The movie also skips over all the New York stuff from the novel so that it can get to Vegas more quickly and spend more time there. That may have been partially a budget thing (thanks to Sean Connery's enormous salary for the film), but I don't know that New York was ever in the movie script.

Moment That's Most Like Fleming



Though the villains' plans are totally different in the movie, a lot of stuff early in the film is right out of the novel. Wint and Kidd's shutting down the pipeline is from there, and even the death of Blofeld's double in the cold open is inspired by the mud bath scene from the book.

The scene that's closest though is when Bond meets Tiffany in her apartment. It's not a word for word reenactment, but the tone and the characters are exactly right. Bond's pretending to be smuggler Peter Franks and he's bewildered and a little amused that his contact is a tough woman.

Moment That's Least Like Fleming



Again, there's the whole ending, but more than that, Diamonds strikes a weird, goofy tone that's completely foreign to Fleming. That moon scene is one example, with the astronauts moving in slow motion for no reason as they try to stop Bond. The worst though is when Tiffany is walking through the Circus Circus casino and an elephant inexplicably wanders up to a slot machine and plays it.

The Roger Moore era has the reputation for being silly and over-the-top, but that starts right here. As dumb as You Only Live Twice was, I never get the feeling that it's intentionally dumb. But audiences seemed to love that stupidity and Saltman/Broccoli decided to keep serving it up.

Cold Open



The job of Diamonds' cold open is to resolve the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service as quickly as possible. It opens with a series of beatings as an unseen Bond tries to locate Blofeld and take revenge for Tracy's death. We hear Connery's voice as he questions the underlings, but we don't see him until he arrives at a villa to question a sunbathing woman, choking her with her own bikini top.

She directs him to Blofeld, who's in the middle of surgically creating doubles of himself. Bond and Blofeld fight and Blofeld is apparently killed. Though Blofeld of course turns up later, the cold open wants you to believe that that's it. OHMSS is now wrapped up all tidy and we can get back to the fun Bond that we apparently want.

The cold open is supposed to be the serious, brutal finale to OHMSS, but it doesn't work that way. Forgetting for a second that the rest of Diamonds completely undermines it, the cold open doesn't even work on its own. Connery's performance (which I'll get into more in the next post) is so disinterested that it's impossible to take his quest for vengeance seriously. Even the voiceover work before you see his face lacks any real emotion. In ranking it, I only put it ahead of You Only Live Twice because at least it has a couple of gruesome mud bath deaths.

Top 10 Cold Opens

1. Thunderball
2. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
3. Goldfinger
4. From Russia With Love
5. Diamonds Are Forever
6. You Only Live Twice
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

Movie Series Continuity



With Blofeld "dead" in the cold open, everything's supposed to go back to normal. M says as much in the very first scene, callously dismissing any feelings that Bond still has about his wife's death. Which sadly is fair, because Bond doesn't seem to have any feelings about Tracy. Hunting down and killing Blofeld was apparently an obligation, not satisfaction. Bond actually seems amused by it. But then he seems amused by pretty much everything in the movie.

Bond's still a know-it-all (about sherry this time) and it still irritates M. And keeping with M and Moneypenny's field activities in You Only Live Twice, Moneypenny and Q both leave MI6 HQ in Diamonds. I can buy that Q might be needed in Las Vegas (though why he has to deliver Bond's equipment personally is never explained), but there's no reason whatsoever for Moneypenny to show up at Customs - in uniform - to deliver Bond his fake passport. It's nothing but a ridiculous way to get her into the movie, because audiences want to see Bond banter with her. The filmmakers are just putting checkmarks in boxes at this point.

Oh, you know what continuity isn't in Diamonds? The hat rack trick. Apparently Bond's throwing his hat to Moneypenny at the wedding was the last time he'd do that, which actually suits me just fine. I'll miss that bit, but I'm glad that it went out with some emotion and meaning attached to it.

One final bit of continuity is that everyone still knows who James Bond is. His notoriety goes beyond SPECTRE now and includes common smugglers like Tiffany Case or crooked casino managers like Bert Saxby. Bond's faked death in You Only Live Twice hasn't even fooled the general public.

Fanciful Tales of Time and Space: Fan Fire [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Reading a scanned copy of the original Fanciful Tales #1 (Fall 1936) fills me with so many conflicting emotions. Most of them good. On the one hand, just looking at the contents pages delights me with names of authors I love. We have HP Lovecraft, Donald A Wolheim, Robert E Howard, David H Keller and August Derleth. All we need is Clark Ashton Smith and it would be perfect. With the exception of some like William S Sykora, Duane W Rimel and Kenneth B Pritchard, these names are weird fiction royalty. More importantly, I can glean the fannish zeal with which the project was done. I know that "fan fire," that desire to place words and images in a new way that will thrill (hopefully thousands of) readers (more likely less than a dozen). Fanciful Tales' single issue is a perfect example of a "fanzine," created in a flash of inspiration (that doesn't necessarily include a lot of proofing). I have created not a few similar works of my own.

Looking at the contents of Fanciful Tales #1, I see DAW (as Don Wolheim was known) had some great connections with published writers and active fans, filling his zine accordingly. All are quite short, little longer than flash fiction. Let's take a look at each one and consider them individually:

"The Nameless City" by HP Lovecraft is a fan reprint from 1921. HPL was a professional, but this story appeared before his rise in Weird Tales, in the amateur press magazine The Wolverine, November 1921. The story was later rejected twice by Farnsworth Wright but appeared in November 1938 after HPL's death. The story is considered the first of the Cthulhu Mythos tales.

Wolheim
"Umbriel" by Donald A Wolheim is a short science fiction tale that DAW never reprinted. It's not surprising why. The story is a supposed report on why space travelers don't go to the moon Umbriel. Short on plot, the idea is good - a moon as worm-riddled corpse - but undeveloped. It's the kind of idea Clark Ashton Smith wrote to 11,000 words for Gernsback's Amazing Stories.

"The Forbidden Room" by Duane W Rimel is a traditional ghost story about a pirate and his treasure that haunt a room in his house after his death. A typical Weird Tales-style filler, it is a little too thin for the pulps. The author also contributed his art to the issue. Rimel was largely forgotten until ST Joshi uncovered his work with HP Lovecraft in this century.

"Solomon Kane's Homecoming" by Robert E Howard is a poem that recaps Kane's career outside of England, his sea battles along with Richard Grenville, his combats against sorcery in Africa. This was the first appearance of the poem that would be included in all Solomon Kane collections in the future, even adapted by Marvel Comics. It is likely Howard sent in the piece before his suicide or it was submitted by his executor, Robert H Barlow.

"The Typewriter" by David H Keller MD is about a writer who mysteriously buys a typewriter and uses it to pen a bestseller. His wife becomes jealous of the imaginary woman in the novel and destroys the machine in an attempt to get her husband back. This tale is similar to many he wrote for Weird Tales, based on the psychosis he saw in his day job as psychiatrist.

Derleth
"The Man From Dark Valley" by August W Derleth is a typical Derleth ghost story. He wrote literally dozens of these for Farnsworth Wright (this one using astral projection), but he would resell this one to Wright's competition, Strange Stories, four year later. The American setting is a little different as many of his ghost stories are set in England.

"The Globe" by William S Sykora is the only story this active fan ever published. It's referred to as a "midgetale," 1936-speak for flash fiction. The brief plot involves a globe that sucks people's souls out and feeds them to the globe's owner. Sykora was one of the charter subscribers to Amazing Stories in 1926, a member of the Greater New York Science Fiction League along with Wolheim and Sam Moskowitz, and was involved with SF in many ways, including publishing and filmmaking.

"The Electric World" by Kenneth B Pritchard is the longest story in the issue and is described as "scientific words as long as your arm plus humor..." Accurate, a tale within a tale, but the electrical version of reality is confusing and really not funny, so I guess we shouldn't be sad it was Pritchard's last. He had published a few pieces in another famous fanzine, The Fantasy Fan in 1934-5. After Fanciful Tales he disappeared into the mists of fandom.

The fact that no Fanciful Tales of Time and Space #2 (featuring "Judgement of Netheris" by J Harvey Haggard, "The Psycho Traveler" by Ralph Milne Farley, and "The Escape" by Robert Bloch) appeared is not a surprise. In the world of fan publishing, a run of six issues is a grand achievement. Published on a shoe-string, with no distribution, little advertising, and a proscriptive price (twenty cents was a lot in 1936), the story is the same to this day. It's hard to compete.

Howard
Looking at this attempt at becoming (I have little doubt) another Weird Tales - a painfully disappointing task many of us have tried to accomplish and failed - I am not filled with smugness or derision. I tip my hat at the attempt. Of course, in 2015 we know that the names of Lovecraft, Howard, and Derleth live on. Back in 1936, there was no reason to assume any of these writers would endure. Howard was dead by suicide, Lovecraft had less than a year left, while Derleth's Arkham House was still seven years in the future. In fact, all that possesses me when I read these old bleary pages is the desire to start another magazine, another (not my first) try to create a meeting place for future Lovecrafts and Howards, Bok and Finlays, a place that is made of well-printed text matched with intriguing artwork, a solid, beautiful gem locked in time.

But I resist. Not because the chances of success are so narrow. They were in 1936. They still are in 2015. But because the days of print are gone. I could do the same in a digital format but... it's not the same. Not for me. I need to see those pages printed and saddle-stapled. I need to smell the photocopy ink, the envelopes, that list of buyers (always too few). The agonizing process of collation, folding, stapling, etc. is life's blood to the editor of a fanzine. It is the wellspring from which Donald A Wolheim began, before he became the editor of the Avon Fantasy Reader, the Ace paperback series, and eventually CEO and head editor of DAW paperbacks, a line that continues to this day run by his children. I can imagine the "fan fire" that burned for DAW as he held each of these projects in their final form. Robert Silverberg has said DAW was the most important individual in 20th Century science fiction publishing. It started with Fanciful Tales #1, Fall 1936, a tiny spark of "fan fire".

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

MSP ComiCon 2015



The first annual MSP ComiCon (formerly SpringCon) was a big success. The reason they changed the name was in part because WizardWorld came to town last year and - like they do - scheduled their big pop culture/media convention near the date of the small, local, comics convention. Last year, when my friends outside of the comics community asked if I was going to "Comic-Con," they meant WizardWorld. It was a pretty big deal in the Twin Cities; the closest we've ever got to something like San Diego with all the movie and TV stars there. But it was grating to have to explain that no, I wasn't going to that show; I was instead going to the actual comics convention in town. The one that had been around for decades.

SpringCon has always had an excellent reputation among comics fans and creators and has been gaining wider attention locally in the last few years, but it was being held back by its name. As popular as comics are these days, all those fans and interested people didn't know what SpringCon was. So this year it became MSP ComiCon and when I was asked by civilians if I was going to "Comic-Con," that was the one they meant. That's a success, but so is the fact that people turned out in droves.

Here's a picture of the line to get in fifteen minutes after the show opened. I heard that it took another hour for it to finally shorten and that fits what I saw inside the building. The floor was packed all morning on Saturday.



It slowed down Saturday afternoon and Sunday, but overall the attendance was record-breaking. And even more encouraging than that were the kinds of people who were walking around and enjoying themselves. Comics readers have become a steadily more diverse crowd over the last few years and it really struck me at the show how true that is. There were people of all ages and races and I saw a lot more groups of just women and girls than I have in the past. This wan't a surprise; just very very reassuring.

Kill All Monsters did pretty well Saturday morning and I was pleased to donate a copy to a library in Wisconsin. Even though sales dipped Saturday afternoon and Sunday, I got a lot of questions from people who've already read it and wanted to know when the next volume is coming. It was really great to be able to tell them about the Dark Horse Presents story in July and the hardcover omnibus scheduled for next year. Saw some very excited faces about both of those things.

David did well with his new mini-comic, a fantasy story about an heroic goat who recruits a middle-school boy to defeat a powerful evil. I can't wait for the second issue.



And Diane did extremely well with her face-painting. She'd mastered Groot and Rocket Raccoon and those were popular, but she's also able to make up stuff on the fly, especially if she has a reference. She maintains a constant line of both kids and adults and she's thinking about maybe bringing in a partner to help meet the demand.

All in all it was an awesome show. The volunteers of the Midwest Comic Book Association were fantastic as usual; always welcoming and often checking in with creators to bring a drink or a snack or anything else a table-bound person might need. Couldn't ask for a nicer show.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

7 Days in May | Who’s strong and brave; here to save the American Way?

Hellboy (2004)



Last week, I got sidetracked from a Marvel re-watch by Red Skull's Raiders of the Lost Ark reference in Captain America: The First Avenger. This week I followed that up with more treasure-hunting Nazis in Hellboy, even though they don't really drive the plot of that movie. Since most of the action takes place in the present, the Nazis are a distant memory with only a few mad villains carrying on their schemes for personal reasons. In First Avenger, Hydra is differentiated from other Nazis too, but their style is similar and they're operating during WWII, so it feels a lot more like Nazis than Hellboy does.

I still like Hellboy, but eleven years later I'm over the initial thrill of having him brought to life on screen, which means I'm less forgiving of some of the changes the movie makes. I don't mind putting Hellboy and Liz Sherman into a romantic relationship, but I do mind Hellboy's pining over her. And while I love Jeffrey Tambor as Tom Manning - and even enjoy that the character is kind of a dick - I think his animosity towards Hellboy is overplayed. These aren't things that ruin the movie for me by any means. In fact, I used to defend them as valid choices to introduce some needed drama to the BPRD team. But a lot has happened with superhero movies in the last decade and I now think it would possible to bring Hellboy to the screen in a way that keeps more of the comics version intact. I want to see that movie.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)



Having finished my detour, I also came back and finished up First Avenger. I don't have a lot to say about it except that it's still awesome with great action, funny dialogue (especially from Tommy Lee Jones), and has a romantic subplot that I get totally invested in every time I watch it. And Chris Evans is still perfectly believable as an altruistic, no-nonsense character who isn't boring. It can be done, Man of Steel.

One of the reasons I want to rewatch the Marvel films is to keep track of the Infinity Stones, but they aren't actually mentioned in First Avenger. We'll find out later that the Tesseract has one in it - and that's foreshadowed when Red Skull touches it and it opens a hole in space at the end, just like it does in The Avengers - but so far all we know about the Tesseract is that it's a power source for Arnim Zola's weapons.

Agent Carter



Rewatching The First Avenger also got me excited to go back and finish Agent Carter. We started it as a family for a few weeks when it started, but got distracted, probably by catching up on Parks and Rec. That happens a lot in our house.

Agent Carter is awesome. It picks up right after the events of First Avenger with Peggy Carter's still grieving over Steve Rogers while also trying to prove her worth in the postwar SSR. Howard Stark is back in the private sector and the SSR is no longer a military operation. It's totally G-Man, with the emphasis on "man." Superspy Carter is now serving coffee and taking lunch orders, because that's all that the men in charge trust her to do. So when some of Howard  Stark's most horrifying inventions begin turning up on the black market and Stark is investigated for treason, Carter relieves her frustration by launching her own investigation to prove Stark's innocence.

It's a great spy story with lots of connections to the Marvel movies, but it's also much more than that. It comments on the way women were perceived in the mid-20th century and challenges perceptions that may still be holding on from that era. That's a major undercurrent of the story, but the series isn't strident about the way it communicates its ideas. Everything is done through plot and some really excellent characters, including the men. In the first episodes, the men of the SSR appear to be stereotypical and flat. Most of them are chauvinists, except for a handful who seem to respect Carter and her abilities. But as the eight episodes progress, the series reveals more and I came to admire some of the men I hated at the beginning. And some who appeared open-minded and heroic at first are proven to be far more complicated. None of the characters are lazily written; everyone has been carefully considered. Cannot wait for Season Two.

Captain America (1944)



I also got curious about the 1944 serial adventures of Captain America. I'm a little less than halfway through the 15 chapters, but so far I'm disappointed. That's mostly because of how little the serial cares about the character it's based on. Instead of super soldier Steve Rogers, Captain America is a generic vigilante, the alter-ego of District Attorney Grant Gardner, who puts on the costume to fight crime in a way he can't legally in his day job. Cap doesn't even carry a shield.

The villain is generic too if you're familiar with serials or other stories from that time period. He's played by Lionel Atwill, so that's cool, but his motivations and methods are standard. He's irritated about being underappreciated by his peers, so he takes revenge by murdering them and stealing their inventions. One thing is different though. Unlike most serials, the villain's identity is known right from the first chapter. That may be to give Atwill more screen time, which is nice because I like him, but it also robs the story of one of the more fun serial tropes: a mysterious, masked mastermind who is revealed at the end to be one of the supporting characters.

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)



Finally, unrelated to the other stuff I watched this week, I got out to see Pitch Perfect 2. I was pleasantly surprised when the first one turned out to be legitimately, truly good instead of just the amusing diversion I expected. It has some characters that I genuinely care about, the music is awesome, and I laughed out loud a lot.

I wasn't sure the sequel could repeat that. And frankly, I still wasn't sure about twenty minutes into the new one. A lot of the early jokes are lame, one of the new characters is an uncomfortable stereotype, and some of the situations seem trite. The way the team is disgraced at the beginning is a forced, obvious move so that we can watch them climb back up again. And I always like Hailee Steinfeld, but for too long her character is just a way to bring some awkwardness to the otherwise polished and comfortable group.

The movie quickly outgrows this early shakiness though. It gets funnier fast, for one thing, but it also gets more complex and interesting. In the first movie, Anna Kendrick's character wanted a career as a music producer and Pitch Perfect 2 uses that to explore the potential conflict between finding your own artistic voice and just adapting and riffing on other people's stuff. Those sound like mutually exclusive ideas, but the movie argues that they're not. It makes a subtle comparison between a capella covers and a producer's collaboration with an artist. Or any collaboration, really. Having an artistic voice doesn't mean that you have to be the only one heard in an artistic endeavor. It just means that you do need to be heard. You need to have something to say.

And it's wonderful that what could have been an easy, cash-grab sequel does in fact have something to say, too.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Dragonfly Ripple's Weird West/Star Wars show



Carlin and I were part of the Nerd Lunch episode on the first Star Wars movie, but we're not even close to done talking about the series. It comes up again on this month's episode of Dragonfly Ripple. First, Carlin and I talk about the right approach to introducing kids to Star Wars. (Do you start them on the prequels or the original trilogy?) And later, in the Jetpack Tiger segment, Carlin talks with his son Dash about the Clone Wars series.

But most of the show is about Western TV shows with a twist. Annaliese and Carlin review The Adventures of Brisco County Jr and then David and I discuss The Wild Wild West (both the '60s show and the '90s movie). Hope you'll check it out and maybe recommend some excellent steampunk.

Nerd Lunch's Star Wars drill-down



Following up on our Setting the Table episode last fall, the Nerd Lunch fellas invited Kay and me (now officially known as Kay and May) back to talk more Star Wars. I'm always down for that subject, but I was especially looking forward to this particular discussion about the first movie. Not only was it an excuse to watch it a couple of more times (once for the theatrical cut and once for the Special Edition), but I also knew that talking about it with this particular group of people was going to be a treat. And it was.

We talk about our favorite characters (I was surprised that mine's changed recently) and scenes and about the trouble with making the movie fit with all the stuff that came later. Is Star Wars best watched as its own thing or as part of the larger series? We hash all that out.

Give it a listen!



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Netflix Daredevil: A Review and a Forecast [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

[Michael hasn't seen any of Netflix' Daredevil yet and found nothing spoilery in the article below, but if you don't want to know anything about the show and haven't watched it, be warned that some minor details are discussed.]

I just finished watching all thirteen episodes of Netflix's Daredevil. As superhero fare goes it was a nice surprise. The writing was multi-layered with interesting good guys and bad guys. The action sequences were stellar. The first episode features a punch-up that runs two and a half minutes long (broken only by a flashback). Short of Peter Griffon's chicken fight on Family Guy, I can't think of a longer fight on TV. As with all good TV, I watched the full run in a matter of days, and was left wanting more.

First off, let me state a few prejudices because no review is worth anything if you don't know the where the reviewer is coming from. I love superhero comics and movies. Marvel, DC, and independent. Like many people I had high hopes for Arrow three seasons ago, but have since given it up. Why? It has nothing left to say. It is silly and repetitive and irrelevant. I enjoyed the first season, which felt in many ways the same as this first season of Daredevil. A lone man against a tide of evil. Good stuff. Stephen Amell did well as Oliver Queen: buff enough, able to act to some degree. Then the team got bigger and bigger. By Season Three, everybody except the dead characters have become a superhero, or an evil mastermind, or some other reversion of "not very real." And let's be honest, if I see one more Island flashback I'm likely to strangle someone. When The Flash premiered this season, I was reluctant, but gave it a chance. Marvel's Agents of SHIELD didn't even get that the year before.

With these ill feelings, you might think I would skip Daredevil. But it had several things going for it. The first was that it would be as much a show about the legal side of Matt Murdock's life as the superhero stuff. This balance is what I miss in Arrow. Secondly, the executive producer is Steven S DeKnight, who gave us Spartacus at Starz. Though the gratuitous blood and sex got old fast, the underlying story of a man who faced the power of Rome was fascinating. DeKnight brings a similar tension to Daredevil. He also knows how to write villains well. The character of Kingpin played by Vincent D'Inofrio was as engaging as that of Matt Murdock. Third, and I think most important, was Netflix.

The Netflix platform is, in my opinion, the future of television. April 10th, the entire thirteen episode run appeared and I spent the next week bingeing on Charlie Cox as Matt, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, and strong villains like Toby Leonard Moore as Wesley fighting it out in Hell's Kitchen. The level of swearing and violence was not hampered by Network TV acceptability just as if I was watching a cable show like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. (This is another reason Arrow is quickly sinking down the toilet. As soon as Oliver Queen changed his "no kill" policy, the show lost steam.) There is no secret why the networks keep pumping out more reality shows instead of dramas. How do you compete? The answer: you don't. Netflix is a nice neutral ground where all that stuff doesn't matter. Here's the show. Watch it or don't.

To get back to my earlier statement: this is the future of TV. I think the number of episodes is telling. Thirteen is the usual number of a British show. And the Brits know a little something about "quality" TV. Unlike traditional American fare, shows like Doctor Who or Downton Abbey have short seasons. Six, ten, or thirteen episodes means no filler. Twenty-two episodes a season means a lot of people sitting around asking, "What do we do this week?" The paradigm is changing thanks to the cable networks. New shows like Jay Baruchel's Man Seeking Woman on FXX are experimental at ten episodes. If it works, do another ten. If not, move on and try something else. Baruchel is not locked into a five year contract, chaining him to a dog that should be put down.

And here is my final point: this new Netflix (watch on demand) platform is changing the writing. The producers are learning that the viewers may not be watching one episode a week. They will be lying in their La-Z-Boys and popping through three or four episodes a night. That requires a new kind of writing. It's exciting because a lot of the old "requirements" are falling away. Things like self contained episodes with Captain Kirk and his cronies all gathered around the big chair, laughing at Mr. Spock's obtuseness at the end of episode. Or over-kill excitement just before the commercial. Here's a big one for me, the required fight scene. Watching Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel (both shows I binged on DVD years ago) you get to know the structure/formula too well. You know when Boreanaz is going to be fighting a demon for about thirty seconds. Though this made sense when the shows aired weekly, it is tiresome for the binge-watcher. Thank goodness, they invented fast forward.

Watching Daredevil I noticed I never felt this way. (Perhaps I will have to re-watch them to see it.) I think the way the show was written the fight scenes are better paced and seem more logical in terms of why they happen. One episode "Nelson VS Murdoch" doesn't even have a fight scene in it (if you don't count beating up a child molester), but is a protracted argument between Matt and Foggy after his partner discovers Matt's secret superhero life. Would that work on network TV? I doubt it. I've seen the same kind of "character" episodes on The Walking Dead. Though weekly viewers complain, when the binge-watchers get to them, they will seem brilliant. And in our iTunes reality this will become (is already becoming) the way it is. A new show appears, you purchase it (directly or through a provider like Netflix), you watch it at your own pace, without commercials, without tiresome formulas, and you move on. Or you watch reality TV on the networks. I guess there are some things worse than Season Three of Arrow...

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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