Monday, May 29, 2017

Happy 50th

Today is my birthday and it's a big one. So to celebrate, here are 50 other things that turn 50 this year.











Friday, May 26, 2017

Introducing Southern Charm



My pal Jody Collins is from Knoxville, Tennessee and he wanted to start a podcast that takes a positive look at Southern culture. Since I'm a Southern transplant to Minnesota, he asked if I'd be into joining him for it, and of course I am.

The first episode is out and I think it's pretty great. We open and close with songs by Southern musicians, talk about our individual histories with the South, discuss the work of photographer Jack Spencer, and then Jody wraps up with his recipe for fried okra. If that sounds like your glass of tea, you should give it a listen.

Garden & Gun article on Jack Spencer

Spencer's book is This Land: An American Portrait

Intro Music: "What's She Found" by The V-Roys

Outro Music: "Devil's Teeth" by Muddy Magnolias

Monday, May 22, 2017

7 Days in May | Noir Vincent Price and Monster Summer Camp

The Web (1947)



I don't know if this is blasphemous, but I like Noir Vincent Price better than Horror Vincent Price. He's great in Laura, even better in His Kind of Woman, and now I have The Web to admire him in. There's a bunch of others that I haven't seen yet, so I'm making a list. If you have more to recommend, please do:

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Shock (1946)
The Long Night (1947)
Moss Rose (1947)
The Bribe (1949)
The Las Vegas Story (1952)
Dangerous Mission (1954)
While the City Sleeps (1956)

Price is delicious in The Web, but he's not the only one. This was my first Ella Raines movie and I'll be seeking out more of her stuff as well. It's a great thriller in which a naive lawyer (Edmond O'Brien) is suckered by a wealthy businessman (Price) into committing murder. That's a bit of a spoiler, but O'Brien figures it out quickly and most of the film focuses on how he's going to prove his innocence. William Bendix steals every scene he's in as the lead detective on the case. He reminds me of John Favreau in a really good way: serious, but kind of goofy and totally likeable.

Raines plays Price's secretary and I like the dilemma that she's in as she starts to trust O'Brien and distrust Price. O'Brien's character is horribly sexist - assuming, for starters, that she got her job simply because she's gorgeous - but the movie kind of steers into that by explaining that he's also really socially awkward. It doesn't excuse some of the things that come out of his mouth, but I like that it offers a reason for them beyond "1947."

Lethal Weapon (1987)



This has been on the list to show David for years, but it got bumped up a few months ago when we watched Silverado. David mostly knows Gibson from Braveheart, so there's a lot of catching up to do on that filmography.

I hadn't seen Lethal Weapon in decades, so I was pleased to see how much it holds up. I'd forgotten a couple of important plot twists, so the story kept me interested, but mostly it's about Gibson's performance as possibly-crazy Martin Riggs. There's some damn good acting in there. And of course his relationship with Glover's Roger Murtaugh, which provides much needed relief from the palpable grief surrounding Gibson's character.

Father of the Bride (1991)



I'm trying to remember why I finally pulled the trigger and bought this, but I'm glad I did. I think maybe we were talking about Martin Short or BD Wong and I realized that David needed to meet Franck Eggelhoffer and Howard Weinstein. Especially Howard Weinstein.

But even though theirs are the biggest performances in the movie, they're not the most important or best ones. I'd forgotten how much I love late-'80s-era Steve Martin (which this fits into more naturally than '90s-era Martin). He's right in the sweet spot between the desperate craziness of his early years and the melancholy of his later stuff. He's confident, he's physical... Watching this makes me want to revisit Roxanne and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles immediately.

And the rest of the cast is great, too. Diane Keaton doesn't have a ton to do, but she's exactly what the movie needs to balance out Martin's overreactions. And Kimberly Williams is lovely as someone torn between excitement about the next stage of life and fear of leaving the previous one behind. The movie focuses on Martin's character, but never forgets that there are other, real people making the journey with him.

Camp Midnight by Steven Seagle and Jason Katzenstein



I'm a big fan of Steven Seagle, monsters, and stories about summer camp. Camp Midnight helped me understand why I like the last two so much: they're both about outsiders and the struggle to fit in. Seagle and Katzenstein are insightful and entertaining about why that can be so hard.

Jam of the Week: "Don't Take the Money" by Bleachers

Sometimes you just need a big anthem that you can scream along to. Even better when it's a reminder to not sell out, but stick with your passions. Even more better when the video is funny.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mystery Movie Night | Point Blank (1967), The Phantom (1996), and The Village (2004)



Are you ready for controversy? In the latest episode of Mystery Movie Night, Dave, David, and I are joined by very special guest Jeff Somogyi (Nerd Lunch Presents Down the Rabbit Hole) to talk about some divisive movies. We question Lee Marvin's murder skills, M Night Shyamalan's storytelling skills, and Billy Zane's... pronunciation of "refuse?" Okay, we don't question much about Billy Zane, but there may be another element or two in The Phantom that make us wonder. Check out the great discussion and see if you can guess the secret connection between the movies before it's revealed.

00:02:19 - Review of Point Blank

00:34:54 - Review of The Phantom

01:03:20 - Review of The Village

01:47:00 - Guessing the Connection

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When Planets Clashed: War in Space [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Manly Wade Wellman continually surprises me. "When Planets Clashed," his writing debut back in Wonder Stories Quarterly Spring 1931 is no exception. I expected a juvenile effort, technically poor, but showing the spark that would flower in years to come, such as Robert E Howard's "Spear and Fang" in Weird Tales. Instead of some filler piece, "When Planets Clashed" is an interplanetary war tale with a difference. Yes, it has the elements Hugo Gernsback would expect in a story about Earth and Mars waging a war across space. But as Gernsback says in the story's intro:
Stories of Interplanetary warfare usually presuppose earthlings who are all heroes and enemies across space who are all villains. The supposition is also made that earth is fighting to defend its honor or its people from a predatory race from another world.
The idea of an interplanetary war certainly wasn't new in 1931. HG Wells started it off in 1898 with the War of the Worlds, in which the invaders were inhuman, squid-like beings. Future wars between humans go back even further to novellas like George Tomkyns Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" (1871), where England is invaded by thinly disguised Germans, and even Hugo Gernsback's own classic publication of Philip Francis Nowlan's "Armageddon 2419" that featured the Asiatic Hans who conquer America. Gernsback's competitor, the Clayton Astounding, presented numerous examples of stories in this fashion, with brave Americans beating evil invaders. So Wellman is writing within an SF tradition, but it is what he does within that tradition that is surprising.

Despite Gernsback's applause that the story is different, much of it is not. He claims that the hero is not so heroic. This is untrue. Jack Stillwell, our earthling who loves Mars and in particular the Martian girl Yann, promises her he will fight for his side with honor. This involves him going single-handed to the moon to locate a secret base of Martian raiders. Once he finds it, he decides it is too big for a fleet of earth ships to destroy, so he sneaks inside as a saboteur. Fortunately, he runs into Yann's brother Nalo and the Martian naively allows him to have run of the ship. Betraying his friend, he blows up the super-ship, killing Nalo in the process. Torn with feelings of guilt, he still joins the Earth fleet that engages the superior Martian armada and wins. This part of the story is filled with radio-controlled bombs and destructor rays little different than Raymond Z Gallun's "The Crystal Ray" or even John W Campbell's "The Ultimate Weapon" five years later. The middle part of this tale is well-written, but nothing new.

It is the beginning and ending of the story that make it stand out. In the beginning we see Jack torn between his loyalty to Mars and Earth. He leaves Yann with the promise that he will return to her after the war is over. And he does, but carrying a terrible weight. He has caused the death of Yann's brother and indirectly her father as well, who died in the space fleet battle. Yann says, "How sad that the war was needed to assure one world of the humanity of the other..." No glory for Stillwell the war hero. His pain is so great that he says he can not bear Yann's touch and must go away and never see her again. She changes his mind by saying she has lost her brother and father; must she lose Jack too? He relents and says he will take her to Earth, which he describes as so beautiful. Yann accepts his invitation but you can sense she is also losing the planet Mars. The finale is so atypical of pulp science fiction that I am surprised the story lies largely forgotten; unanthologized. I can only surmise it was the occurrence of World War II that made this tale fade away. The philosophy behind it -  the acknowledgement of propaganda and its role in the war - would become unpopular after the Depression was over. From Gernsback's introduction again:
This psychology is not at all new. It is the favorite in our wars on earth, and the propaganda each nation pit out in 1914-18 in the form of books, lectures and motion pictures showed it as a just, peaceable nation defending only its right to existence.
With the perspective of nearly fifteen years behind us, we are able to realize that seldom is any nation solely a villain and another solely a hero. Wars, we have learned, are the work of professional war makers, and are fought by men who kill those they might be friendly with, were they permitted to be. The present story is splendid for the picturization of an interplanetary war, that shows both sides of the picture.
Such a debut should have been noted by historians. (EF Bleiler, in SF: The Gernsback Years, found Nalo's behavior unconvincing, for he would have certainly had Jack arrested as a spy.) Wellman remains largely known for his last works about occult detectives in the fantasy genre and much of his SF work has not been appreciated fully. He would get to return to the interplanetary war theme toward the end of his career in Sherlock Holmes and the War of the Worlds (1975), which he wrote with his son Wade Wellman. And again in The Beyonders (1977) he would show how an alien invasion affects a small, rural town, an approach M. Night Shyamalan would use in Signs, twenty-five years later.

One of the reasons that Wellman could write such a story as “When Planets Clashed” was his unusual upbringing. He began life, not in America - world of hot dogs and baseball - but in Uganda, the child of missionary parents. Manly’s first companions were very unlike himself, allowing him to see the universality in different cultures rather than the differences. It is this perspective that does not allow him to paint the Martians as villains. Wellman would rely on this sensitivity again in his numerous historical works, especially those with Native American people such as The Last Mammoth (1953).

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.

Monday, May 15, 2017

7 Days in May | Attack the Block and Man-Thing

Attack the Block (2011)



Attack the Block has been on the rewatch pile for a while now. I love the movie, but David had never seen it and I knew he'd dig it, 'cause John Boyega and aliens. What's so remarkable about it to me is the way that it introduces Boyega and his friends as completely unsympathetic thugs, but gradually redeems them so that they're heroes at the end. That's a really hard job and the movie does it masterfully.

And that alien design is the best.

Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947)



I've checked out some old Dick Tracy before and didn't especially enjoy it, but Dilemma is a treat. There's no real mystery to it, because the crime is presented onscreen and the movie's just about watching Tracy and Friends try to piece things together, but Jack Lambert is terrifying as The Claw, a low level thug who's just a little more crazy and ruthless than everyone else. There are some terrific, suspenseful moments throughout, so the movie's worth tracking down.

Zorro (1957-61)



Zorro is still in Monterey for some reason, but my interest is renewed by the introduction of Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man) as a recurring foil for Don Diego. The two characters are old rivals and things get complicated when Señorita Verdugo (from earlier in the season) returns and both men like her.

I'm not usually crazy about these kinds of romance triangles where two people both like the third and the object of their affection refuses to make a choice. But it works in this case, because I feel like Verdugo actually has made a choice, but one of the men isn't paying attention. We'll see though. This storyline is still in progress and I don't know how it's going to turn out.

Whatever the case, Anderson adds a lot of fun to the cast. He'll eventually wear out his welcome, I suspect, because this plot can't go too much longer, but for now I'm enjoying him.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93)



Watched a couple of episodes packaged together as The Phantom Train of Doom. Indy and his pal Remy have been transferred to Africa to fight Germans there, but have trouble joining their regiment and instead get pulled into a mission with some elderly, but feisty soldiers who are trying to track down a mysterious train with a giant cannon that's been troubling the Allies.

The story is light on education; it doesn't even go into why the war has spilled into Africa. But that may be why it's more exciting than most of the Young Indy series. It's not full-on pulp, but it gets closer than the series has so far.

Underground (2016-present)



We finished Season Two just in time to watch the finale live. It's not as strong an ending as the first season, which leaned more towards satisfying conclusions than teases for next year. This one is mostly teases. But they're good teases and I'm still very much hooked. Looking forward to watching live next season.

Zorro: The Complete Pulp Adventures, Vol. 1 by Johnston McCulley



Most of this collection is made up of The Curse of Capistrano, the original Zorro novel that I've already talked about. But there are two other Zorro stories by Johnston McCulley in it, so I read those, too. And I'm probably done with McCulley's Zorro stories. At least for a while.

The problem is that they're influenced by the Douglas Fairbanks movie. I love the movie, but it bugs me to see original versions of things I love transform themselves to be more like film versions. Like when Ian Fleming retroactively made James Bond a Scot so that he'd be closer to Sean Connery. Or changes in the looks of Marvel superheroes. It destroys the illusion that the story I'm reading is about real characters in a real place and I'm reminded that they're just "properties" (a term that - along with "franchise" - I try to avoid as much as possible when talking about characters and series).

The biggest change from Capistrano to the short stories that followed it is about Zorro's secret identity. Capistrano ends with the threat defeated and Don Diego's revealing that he was Zorro all along. We can't have that in continuing adventures, so "Zorro Saves a Friend" hits the reset button. I tried to make that story work as a prequel to Capistrano and was somewhat successful, but the other story in the collection, "Zorro Hunts a Jackal," makes it impossible. "Jackal" continues using characters from "Friend," but there's no way that it can take place before Capistrano.

McCulley also plays loose with Zorro's support system. In Capistrano, Zorro's servant Bernardo was deaf as well as mute, but that was changed in the Fairbanks movie so that Bernardo was mute only. McCulley copied that in the subsequent short stories, but I'm not sure what his reason is. Bernardo barely appears in Capistrano and - unlike the movie version - doesn't help Zorro at all. And even though he's able to hear in "Friend" and "Jackal," Bernardo still doesn't provide any assistance. For that, McCulley has created a whole new character, José of the Cocopahs, who's able to hear and speak. And frankly, he speaks too much, because he blabs Zorro's identity to several people. They're all trustworthy, it turns out, but it feels like half of LA knows who Zorro is in the short stories.

There are also a couple of essays in the collection and they're worth mentioning: Sandra R Curtis opens the book with a comparison of Zorro's California to the historical one; then Ed Hulse wraps things up with the story of how Curse of Capistrano was adapted for the cinema.

The Man-Thing by Steve Gerber: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1



"Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing's touch!" The specificity of that strange super power has intrigued me for years, so when it came up again when I was reading Master of Kung Fu, I decided I needed to finally read some Man-Thing and figure out what that's all about.

I've been thinking a lot about fear as a motivation lately, especially during the last election, in which both major candidates used it as the basis of their campaigns. I wondered if Man-Thing had anything interesting to add. Why is this mindless swamp creature so opposed to fear? Is Man-Thing symbolic of something else that battles fear? If so, what? And what does burning have to do with it?

Sadly, if there's deeper meaning in these comics, I'm missing it. Like most serialized adventures that are passed from writer to writer (and that's the case here, even though Steve Gerber's name is in the title and he wrote most of the stories in the collection), ideas get introduced then dropped or changed as the story evolves.

Man-Thing started in a standalone story in Marvel's black-and-white anthology magazine, Strange Tales, where writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas gave the monster the ability to burn people with his touch. It's not explicitly connected to fear, though. Thomas kept the story going in a two-part adventure in Astonishing Tales, where Ka-Zar connects the Man-Thing's burning power with the emotion of fear, but it's still not explained why.

When the character got his own, ongoing feature in Adventure into Fear, Conway was back writing and added to the fear/burning connection the explanation that fear is an emotion that Man-Thing hates. When Gerber took over in the next issue, he just continued what Conway and Thomas had started, eventually adding the famous catch-phrase.

So I was disappointed in the lack of any deeper meaning to the connection between fear, burning, and this awesome-looking swamp creature. As far as I can tell, it wasn't the result of a creator's philosophy, but just random connections that developed over time.

And I was also disappointed at the willy-nilly plots that Gerber ended up laying over the character. It reads like Gerber was never sure what to do with Man-Thing. There are stories with social commentary about race and environmentalism and capitalism, but they're interspersed with goofy high fantasy and Tales from the Crypt-style horror. Some of these work really well, but some - especially the fantasy stuff - really don't.

The art is pretty great throughout the collection, though. Gray Morrow, John Buscema, and Mike Ploog are special favorites of mine, but there's also good stuff by Rich Buckler, Val Mayerik, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, and Vicente Alcazar.

Jam of the Week: "Woman in Chains" by Tears for Fears, featuring Oleta Adams 

We saw Tears for Fears live last week, so that's still what I've been listening to. It's amazing to me how relevant "Shout" still is, with its call for people to speak out loudly about the things that upset them. And it's equally amazing - and heart-breaking - how relevant "Woman in Chains" still is as well.



Friday, May 12, 2017

Greystoked and Down the Rabbit Hole



On the most recent Greystoked, Noel and I review the stories that influenced and were influenced by Tarzan up through 1929. Starting with Gilgamesh and ending with Tarzan the Tiger, we talk about Tarzan books, comics, and theater as well as connections to H Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mickey Mouse.

Opening music from "Wild Cat" by Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti

Closing music from "Diga Diga Doo" by Duke Ellington





That's not the only podcast I was on this week, though. I also got to sit in on Nerd Lunch Presents Down the Rabbit Hole, an always entertaining exploration of various wikis. On this episode, I sat in for Pax and the guest was Dr. Andrea Letamendi from the Arkham Sessions podcast. In honor of the coming Wonder Woman movie, we dug into the DC Comics Database to see if we could get from Mr Mxyzptlk to both Arkham Asylum and Primal Force's Leyman.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Monsters Chasing Monsters [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The history of the ghostbreaker changed on March 10, 1997 when Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired for the first time. (The movie doesn't count.) Whedon's popular character Angel split from the cast for his own show on October 5, 1999 to begin his own campaign against the darkness. And ever since then, most ghostbreakers have been supernatural beings.

Now, let's be fair. Whedon wasn't the first. Even Blade, created by Marv Wolfman, predates Angel. But Joss made them big business. The current "paranormal romance" trend starts with Buffy. By the end of the Buffy run they had dozens of slayers, two vampires, a werewolf, an ex-demon, a lounge-lizard demon, and a witch all pursuing evil. Despite this, the best characters (in my opinion) were Xander, Giles, Fred (pre-transformation), and Wesley. The humans. And perhaps Joss Whedon would nod his head and smile. Because that’s what he planned all along. The humans act as a mirror to his super-beings, whether they are ghostbusters or traveling around in space or fighting super-beings in the Marvel Universe. This is a Whedon thing. But it opened a door to another kind of Hell Mouth – the Monster That Fights Monsters. (It reminds me of that classic Gahan Wilson cartoon where a monster is running after another monster and the human observers says: “It one god-damned thing after another!”)

A 2009-2010 comic book shows just how far this monster-busters thing has gone: Casper and the Spectrals (Arden Entertainment, written by Todd Dezago and drawn by Pedro Delgad). Imagine cute little Casper who never had any friends because people always ran away saying "A g-g-g-ghost!" is now teamed up with Wendy and Hot Stuff as a monster-fighting team. It's well done but, really? Not even that One Percenter D-Bag Richie Rich to bring a little humanity to the gang.

I have to admit I'm old school. Call me a Kolchakian traditionalist if you like. I don't like my vamps to be good guys. I like my Scully and Mulders to be human. I have enjoyed Buffy, Angel, and Blade. I'm not slagging these shows, only pointing out a trend I don't care for. But the over-all effect of this type of ghostbreaker is too akin to a superhero showdown rather than a more Mystery approach a la Carnacki, John Silence, or even Jules de Grandin.

A show I really enjoyed in the first six seasons was Supernatural with its culture of Hunters: humans who prowl the night, protecting humanity. (The show took a left turn I couldn’t endure after this, forgetting about ghostbreaking and becoming a soap opera about a war between Heaven and Hell. Sigh.) The early episodes were more my speed, rather than someone trying to hook up with a vampire. (My favorite line is when Dean Winchester says, "Suck this, Twilight" and blows away a vamp.) The story lines I have enjoyed the most are those when the boys hunt, rather than consort with Satan and angels, and save/destroy the world. I wish the producer McG would create a spin-off show called Tales of the Hunters (or something better) in which we don't go off to save the world each week but just hunt. Kind of a CSI-Supernatural.

This is something X-Files might have done if it hadn't turned into a soap opera about UFOs. (Why does this keep happening?) The Kolchak remake, The Dresden Files, Constantine, and The Exorcist tried, but all were met with cancellation. Perhaps my dream is simply too uncommercial? Doesn’t anyone want a show about humans surrounded by monsters, trying to save humanity from the darkness? Well, besides The Walking Dead? (As long as Rick and his friends are never joined by a zombie sidekick, there might be hope.) Robert Kirkman’s Outcast is another bright light (odd phrase for such a dark show). Kyle Barnes and the Rev certainly are old school, but the show is limited in its scope. It wouldn’t work with new kinds of threats showing up each week.

So I sigh and keep hoping for a truly old school ghostbreaker show to appear. This may show my "raised in rural Canada" background, but all I can say is, "Let's hunt!"

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.

Monday, May 08, 2017

7 Days in May | Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 and The Circle

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)



I liked it better than the first one. It's just as funny and visually interesting and the music is just as cool, but it has a better villain and some really great (and truly touching) development for at least three characters. And awesome cameos.

The Circle (2017)



I'm going to spoil some things, but you shouldn't watch The Circle, so feel free to keep reading. This movie is so disappointing.

I love the cast and the concept is intriguing, but The Circle does a lousy job of making whatever point it's trying to communicate. There's one good scene that raises worthwhile questions about a) the relationship between truth and transparency, and b) the tension between those things and privacy. But I don't know what the rest of the movie is about.

It's not the thriller that the marketing wants you to think it is. Mae (Emma Watson) is never in any physical danger and the only stakes are that if she leaves her job then she also loses the awesome health insurance that's finally getting her dad (Bill Paxton) some help with his MS. That's okay, though. It's enough to put her in an interesting quandary. Should she stay with an employer that has a ridiculous lack of boundaries when it comes to employees' personal lives (and apparently no HR department at all)? The movie could have explored that more fully and I wouldn't have missed the lack of fights and chases. But it's not really about that, either.

I can't tell if Mae is ever skeptical about the Circle's participation policies. I assumed that she was and that her "yeah, yeah, no problem" attitude towards them was simply an attempt not to make waves in her cool, new job. But she never really puts up a fight; not even when senior employee Ty Kalden (John Boyega) decides to entrust her with some concerning information. And after that she's just one bad evening and a pep talk from Tom Hanks away from completely buying what the Circle is selling.

She says some truly stupid things in that section, too. She calls watching videos of other people's experiences "a basic human right," for instance. And says that it's selfish not to post experiences online for everyone to see. She hasn't just swallowed Eamon Bailey's (Tom Hanks) Kool-Aid; she's swallowed the pitcher itself and the entire soft drink aisle. I kept expecting that at some point she would reveal that she was faking it and was really working with Kalden the whole time, but that moment never came.

There's of course a confrontation between Mae and Bailey by the end, but there are two huge problems with it. First, the movie never reveals what it is exactly that Bailey is doing wrong. He's full of terrible, harmful ideas, but there's no explicit indication that he's actually planning to use his collected data for evil purposes. The potential is certainly there and I wanted to see him stopped, but his final unmasking is nothing more than a revelation that he has secrets just like everyone else. Nor does the movie care about telling what those are. So the climactic showdown between him and Mae doesn't have any punch, because it's never clear what would happen if Bailey won.

The second huge problem with the final confrontation is that Mae's ideas are now just as harmful as Bailey's. She still believes in total transparency. Her problem with Bailey is just that he wants to be exempt from it. So I'm not exactly rooting for her, either.

It's not wrong that the movie ends with no clear answers. What I don't like is the way it phrases the question. It presents two, horrible solutions and asks which is preferable. There's some discussion that can be had around that, but the discussion would be so much richer if the film took its dilemma seriously and offered a couple of actually reasonable perspectives for its viewers to contemplate.

Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)



I like Warner Oland's Charlie Chan movies, but this is a minor entry. All the detective work is loaded toward the front with as much passion as Law & Order. It's just trying to get through that as quickly as possible so that it can move on to the spy story that it really wants to tell. And sadly, even though it's set at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, it's not at all interested in the political situation at the time. There's never even a mention of Hitler or the Nazi party.

Zorro (1957-61)



A few more episodes into Season 2 and Zorro's still in Monterey. I had to look ahead at descriptions of future episodes to make sure he doesn't permanently relocate there. He doesn't, but it'll be a while before he gets home.

The excuse for now is that he needs to stay and deal with another rebel against oppression. Unlike the original novel and the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks film, the Californian government in the Disney show isn't depicted as completely corrupt. But the governor isn't as wise or careful as he should be either, so his underlings are often able to get away with cruel activities. When that starts to happen in Monterey, a hotheaded local named Joaquin Castenada rises up in defiance. But while Zorro appreciates the young man's passion, he disagrees with the brutality of his methods. It's an interesting conflict, but one that I hope is wrapped up soon.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93)



The first of the two episodes I watched last week had Indy working as a motorcycle courier, running messages between the French military HQ and the front lines. It's a heavy-handed commentary on the disconnect between the fighting men and the leaders who command them, but it's good in that it puts some cracks in Indy's view of the war. He abandoned the Mexican Revolution when it became complicated, then avoided the Irish Revolution for similar reasons. Both times he set himself resolutely towards Europe to fight the Germans who had ruthlessly invaded Belgium to get to France. Seemed like an uncomplicated bad guy to fight, but as he learns in this episode, the cause of World War I is pitiful and extremely complicated. Unfortunately, it's too late for him to get out now.

In the second episode (written by Carrie Fisher!), Indy is given leave to visit a friend of his father in Paris. The friend is played by Ian McDiarmid, so there's a double Star Wars connection, but the episode is actually about Indy's hooking up with Mata Hari. It's about relationships, so I enjoyed it more than the previous one even though there's not much plot to it. It has some great insights on love and jealousy and the lies we tell early in romances.

Underground (2016-present)



After the big event of an entire episode about Harriet Tubman's speech, the next couple of episodes get back to the main story around Rosalee and Noah's plan to free Rosalee's family. Of course that doesn't go as planned and everything falls apart. But that's just in time for the last couple of episodes (the finale airs this week) to hopefully bring it back around. Hopefully.

I'm very invested in these characters and the way last season ended gives me encouragement that this one will go out on some kind of victory. But the show is nothing if not surprising.

Jam of the Week: "Shout" by Tears for Fears

I love these guys in a way that isn't healthy and I'm finally seeing them live this Thursday, so I've been all about them this past week. They have many excellent songs and I'd love to feature a deeper cut here, but there's no better song than "Shout." Probably by any band.




Friday, May 05, 2017

You can't take the 'cast from me



A whole lot of podcasting going on this past week, On Hellbent for Letterbox, Pax and I dove back into the world of spaghetti westerns with Lee Van Cleef in the bonkers Sabata. We also discussed Gregory Peck in The Bravados, Matt Wagner and Francesco Francavilla's Zorro, and Robert Conrad and Ross Martin in The Wild Wild West.





Then over on Dragonfly Ripple, we talked sci-fi and politics. Carlin and I start with a discussion of how we introduce our kids to politics and then get into some sci-fi TV with political elements with the kids. We start with the two V mini-series from the 1980s and then move on to Firefly. Plus, on Jetpack Tiger, Carlin and Dash talk about their experience with Star Wars Celebration.





And finally, there are a couple of recent Starmageddon episodes I have't told you about yet. In the first one, Dan talks about finally finishing Clone Wars, Ron and Dan discuss their addiction to the Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes mobile game, and we share our thoughts on the most recent Star Trek: Discovery casting: Jason Issacs as the captain and Rainn Wilson as our favorite Star Trek rogue, Harry Mudd.

Then in the latest episode, we're joined by David Spell to discuss all of the exciting news from Star Wars Celebration, including the Last Jedi trailer, the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront II video game, and the girl-friendly Forces of Destiny.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

FCCQ | Stranger Things

Here's something new I want to try. CT from Nerd Lunch recently gave the podcast's website a new look and one of the cool updates is the Fourth Chair Army page. You can search for episodes by particular guests (like me, for instance) and there's also a section at the bottom that randomizes a Fourth Chair Carryover Question (FCCQ). If you're not familiar with the show, that's the part where a guest one week leaves a question for the following week's guest to answer. It's super fun and there have been a lot of great discussion questions over the years.

So, with the blessing of the fellas, I'm going to occasionally pull up an FCCQ and answer it here. Starting now.



Way back on Episode 51, Rondal Scott of Strange Kids Club asked appropriately, "What's the strangest thing you remember doing as a kid?"

It's always tough for me to know what weird things I did as a kid that were unique to me and what was just me being a regular kid. For instance, I was narcissistic enough to imagine that I was starring in my own reality show and I didn't dream that other people fantasized about the same thing until The Truman Show brought us all out of the closet to talk about it.

I also know that I wasn't the only kid to cast myself in my own adventures and secretly roleplay my way through the day, but I don't know to what extent other kids did it. So I always suspected that the length and details of my imaginary adventures were a little strange.

They got especially involved anytime we went on vacation. Changes in scenery and new things to do were exciting, so I would try to create a story that tied the whole trip together. Growing up in Florida in the '70s and early '80s was a treat, because Disney World was close and not as expensive as it is today. And I had a recurring story that I would replay every time we went.

It was a simple story. I was some kind of space/time-traveling cop on the hunt for a criminal mastermind. But my time machine wasn't a slow, klunky TARDIS; it was a personal device that either fit in my pocket or I would wear on my wrist or something. And it would allow me to instantly transport from one time period or part of the world to another. So I'd chase him from Main Street's turn-of-the-century US to the jungles and seas of Adventureland and then I'd pop over to the American West in Frontierland to track him some more. Then through a haunted mansion and on to Medieval Europe in Fantasyland and finally we'd end up in the "present" of my story: Tomorrowland. Which of course culminated in a wild race through the stars via Space Mountain. Later, my man safely in custody, I'd chill back at my hotel while waiting for my next assignment.

You can tell me if that's strange. Maybe I was a normal kid after all. But please also tell me what's the strangest thing you remember doing as a kid?

Disney World map scan from MousePlanet.com.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Turok, Son of Plants [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Looking at all the comic books that have used plant monsters, one title stands far above the others for monstrous plants. Now to be clear, I have dismissed series like Batman that feature villains like Poison Ivy on an irregular basis. What I am looking for is a comic series that featured different stories with different monsters, not recurring villains or heroes such as Swamp Thing or Man-Thing. The comic that used so many plant monsters was Western Publishing's Turok, Son of Stone. While anthologies like House of Mystery and Adventures into the Unknown had their share, it was Turok and his sidekick, Andar that met the most villainous plants.

And different plants too, not a recurring appearance of the same jungle vine or stalking tree. In the course of one hundred thirty-three issues, Turok saw five different plant encounters from issue #11 to 122. Over those twenty-one years, Turok and Andar encountered one plant fiend for every five years. That's pretty impressive when you consider how long most comics last.

The first green terror appeared in "The Valley of the Vines" (Turok, Son of Stones #11, March-May 1958). The duo are escaping a T-Rex and become trapped in a valley where the vines will allow you to come in but not go back out. The thorns are all on one side, keeping animals in, I presume as a food source.

Turok and Andar are enveloped by one of the pods of the plants after arriving in the valley. They are freed by cavemen who have been trapped in the valley for a long while. They befriend Ulf, but make a mortal enemy of his rival, Dal. The pods release their prey if struck at the base.

When the T-Rex that chased them into the valley becomes trapped as well, Turok sees his way out. Using fire arrows, Turok and Andar drive the gigantic dinosaur through the deadly thorns. The saurian dies at the end, making a bridge for Ulf and his tribesmen to climb out of the valley. They escape and Ulf's leadership is reaffirmed.

"The Deadly Jungle" (Turok, Son of Stone #26, December 1961-February 1962) has the two friends encounter predatory vines and pods they call "plant-traps". Turok claims, "I have never seen plants like these..." which of course we know is wrong. Only thirteen issues ago he had, but let's not quibble.

Turok learns there is a tribe of cavemen nearby who know of a seed that, when ground into a powder, will release the vines. They won't share the location of the seeds. Andar spies on them that night but is discovered. He ends up in the vine trap and Turok must go in search of the seeds. The cavemen know of two spots where the red flowers grow, but direct Turok to the more dangerous location. The flowers grow near a pterodactyl nest and Turok has to do some fancy shooting to escape. With the powder, he rescues Andar but also releases an allosaurus by accident. He tricks the dinosaur back into the vines.

"The Land of the Plant People: The Deadly Maze" (Turok, Son of Stone #45, May 1965) really pulled out all the stops, featuring a half dozen different plant monsters. Turok and Andar discover a living wall of thorns in a canyon. Beyond the wall is a race of men who call themselves the Plant People. This is a good name for they have plants for many uses besides the thorn wall, which can be activated to open and close. They also have plants that act as alarms, seed pods which capture people, others that contain sleeping gas, thorn spikes that thrust upward and kill dinosaurs for food.

The best thing the Plant People have is a gauntlet known as the Maze. Anyone who can make it through is declared innocent of a crime. Turok and Andar are accused of killing a man they found dying. In the Maze there are the usual strangling vines, as well as giant Venus flytraps, acid sprayers, cacti that shoot spines, "Moon Plants" that cast a radiance and make it easier for the sentries to see you. Turok saves them both by setting one type of plant against another. He uses fire to drive off certain plants. The duo make it out of the Maze, but the Plant People won't let them go. Turok uses his new knowledge to set the plants against his captors.

Turok took a decade long break before encountering another plant monster. After "The Deadly Maze" what was there left to do? Turok and Andar's return to the deadly jungle proves disappointing to say the least. "Where Honkers Fear to Go" (Turok, Son of Stone #98, August 1975) has Turok and Andar chased into a grove by a herd of stampeding triceratops. They encounter creeping vines, biting pods, even vines in the river, and spend the entire story fleeing from them. That's about it. No real plot, just plants and they get away. It's a greatest hits from "The Deadly Maze" without much plot. Not surprising, the second story in the issue got the cover.

The final plant tale is a sad good-bye. "The Vines of Death" (Turok, Son of Stone #122, July 1979) proves even less interesting. Aggressive cavemen stop following the duo, saying, "They'll die when the rains come." Killer vines shoot up after a rainstorm and try to grab the hunters. Turok uses fire to hold them off until the vines wither in the heat. (Turok learned this and many other tricks back in The Maze but seems to have forgotten after fourteen years.) Again nothing new, no real plot. Somebody phoned this one in, remembering the good old days of 1965.

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.

Monday, May 01, 2017

7 Days in May | Robert Langdon and Señorita Scorpion

The Da Vinci Code (2006)



I never got around to seeing the new Dan Brown/Robert Langdon movie last fall, so I decided to do that and introduce David to the whole series at the same time. I'm not a huge fan of these, but I do like puzzles and scavenger hunt stories in general, so my base-level interest in these is always going to be enough to get me to look.

The reason I'm not a huge fan is that the Langdon series takes itself so extremely seriously. If I'm going to watch a grown person run around solving puzzles, I prefer the lighter-hearted approach of the National Treasure movies. The Langdon movies have fun plots, but they compete with the joylessness of their hero. I like Robert Langdon - he's a kind person who wants to help whenever he's asked, regardless of what it will cost him - but I don't enjoy him.

Da Vinci Code is my least favorite of the series. I like that the stakes are personal in it, but the plot is all over the place. It's driven by Langdon's being hunted and trying to prove his own innocence, so there's not a lot to contain it. He and his story are able to meander and it's difficult to keep track of how the various clues he's chasing connect to each other. If they even all do.

Angels & Demons (2009)



This is my favorite in the series. I still don't love it, but the narrative is straightforward with a single, clear objective and smaller objectives along the way that are clear about how they fit into the larger one. It also has a ticking clock element that I like. Most of all though, this one makes the most sense as to why there's a scavenger hunt in the first place. In Da Vinci Code and Inferno, there's not a great reason for anyone to have created the elaborate trail of clues. In Angels & Demons, I understand the thinking that went into them.

Inferno (2016)



Like Angels & Demons, there's a straightforward objective and a ticking clock element to Inferno, but those don't do as good a job at keeping the story on track. There's no real reason for the scavenger hunt to exist in the first place and the movie over-complicates itself by questioning everyone's motives. It's trying to introduce paranoia to the adventure, but even while it's doing that it hangs big surprises on the assumption that viewers have unquestioningly trusted some things. I don't think you can have it both ways.

For all that, I still like the movie. That's hugely thanks to Irrfan Khan as the head of a mysterious organization whose objectives I won't spoil. He injects humor and charm into what normally would have been a generic villain. I also very much enjoyed Sidse Babett Knudsen (the Westworld TV series) as the chief representative of the World Health Organization on the case. Her character is a suspect, so I don't want to specify the spoilery things I liked about her, but she made me believe in her (even while I don't believe how her story wraps up).

Chimes at Midnight (1965)



Having watched the Hollow Crown adaptation of Shakespeare's Henriad, I also wanted to check out Orson Welles' condensed version. I love Welles both as a filmmaker and an actor and this reminded me of why. Chimes at Midnight tells the story primarily from Falstaff's point of view with some other scenes included for context. Welles brings the right mix of humor and sadness to the part, making me feel sorry for him while simultaneously feeling like he's getting exactly what he's earned.

There's a thesis paper to be written about how Welles sets up shots in this thing, but the movie rewards even a superficial look with beautiful, fascinating compositions and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. Chimes of Midnight is no substitute for the full plays, but it's a great companion piece to them.

Zorro (1957-61)



I started Season 2 of Disney's Zorro and it may be wearing on me a little. I'm still enjoying it, but I'm also aware that I'm pushing through it. If I took a break now, I don't know when I'd get back to it.

Some of what's dampening my enthusiasm is a major change in location. Instead of taking place in Los Angeles, the action's been moved to Monterey where a patriotic trader is trying to gather money for a massive supply shipment. Spain is at war, so the Spanish citizens of California see it as their duty to support their homeland by keeping up business. The trouble is that shipments of investment capital from all over California are being intercepted by bandits, so Don Diego has traveled to Monterey to oversee delivery of the money from LA. Four episodes in and he's still there.

He's accompanied by Bernardo and has also been joined by Sgt Garcia and Cpl Reyes, so the best characters from the first season are still there. But I'm hoping that this storyline wraps up quickly and everyone returns to LA. The locations were such an important part of Season One that I'm not ready to let them go.

One really cool thing though is that Lee Van Cleef plays one of the bandits in the first episode. That's him fighting Zorro in the image above.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93)



Indy has finally gone to war in the two episodes I watched this week. In the first, he's already been embroiled in trench warfare for a few months and there's dissension in the ranks. All of the officers in his unit have been killed and Indy suspects one of the men of murder. Indy's already showing some leadership skills though and has become the unofficial leader of the group until they're reassigned to serve temporarily under French command. Most of the episode is about the horrors of trench warfare as the French try to capture a chateau under German control.

The episode ends with Indy's being taken captive with another soldier (Jason Flemyng), which leads into the next about POW camps. The tone moves from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Great Escape and I enjoyed both genres.

Underground (2016-present)



The episode "Minty" from a couple of weeks ago was the one where Underground went from being Really Cool Adventure Show About a Serious Topic to Holy Crap This Is Important and Potentially Life Changing.

As I've mentioned before, one of the enormous strengths of the show is its ability to shift genres as it changes focus from character to character. The entire run time of "Minty" is nothing but Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds) talking to a roomful of fellow Abolitionists about her story for an hour. Hinds has been compelling in the role all season, but she carries this entire episode with very few speaking parts from any other characters. It's a great speech and Hinds delivers it masterfully. There's humor, horror, and hope all wrapped into it, but most importantly there are Ideas.

One of the subplots of the show has been about the proper response of Abolitionists to slavery. Some are content to quietly rebel by assisting on the Underground Railroad. Others see the conflict as all out war and want to act accordingly. So far, Jessica De Gouw's Elizabeth has been the character to most struggle with this, but in "Minty" we learn that Tubman has been wrestling, too, and has come to a decision.

I'm a huge pacifist, but that speech stirred me up and made me rethink my posture towards war. Knowing that the metaphorical war that the Abolitionists are talking about will ultimately lead to very literal war, I think about where my country would be right now if people had just kept quietly rebelling and the Civil War never happened. I'm not ready to pick up arms and I don't believe that Underground is suggesting that we do (though it is very pointed in drawing comparisons between the time of the show and today). What it's extremely successful at though is making me want to take some kind of action. And those who know me best know how difficult a thing that is to accomplish.

"The Brand of Señorita Scorpion" by Lee Savage, Jr.



Read another Señorita Scorpion story from a collection I picked up last year. I was looking forward to more adventures of the female Western hero, especially since the first story was mostly told from the perspective of a male character who falls in love with the mysterious heroine. Sadly, that's also the case here. The Señorita doesn't even get mentioned by her cool name; she's just a damsel in distress for the love-struck cowboy to rescue. It's an exciting enough tale, but not what I wanted.

There are two more in the collection, so I'll keep going, but I'm predicting that I don't pick up the second volume.

Jam of the Week: "Foot of the Mountain" by a-ha

It always irritates me when people refer to a-ha as a one-hit wonder. Forgetting for a second the moderate success that their second album had in the US, the dudes had a freaking James Bond theme song. They're not just "Take On Me."

Still, I understand why a lot of folks are surprised that the band had a long and successful (if sporadic) career after the '80s. This is one of my favorites of their recent stuff, which is as good if not better than their earlier hits. It's eight years old (geez, how time does fly), but there was another album in 2015 with yet another (of live, acoustic versions of their songs) rumored for later this year.




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