Monday, June 19, 2017

7 Days in May | Hailee Steinfeld vs the Mummy

The Mummy (2017)

Disappointing. Or it would have been had the extremely negative reviews not lowered my expectations. But still disappointing compared to the hopes I had for the Tom Cruise-starring launch of a Universal Monsters movie series. I have no problems with old dudes in action movies, but the script clearly thinks he's at least 20 years younger than he is. And contradictory to Universal's claims, it's not actually scary. It's an adventure story that has more in common with the 1999 Mummy than the 1932 one.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing and I had a good enough time with it. It's not the strong start to the Dark Universe (hate that name) that I wanted, but it's a harmless, mostly engaging summer flick.

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

The mix between drama and comedy leans more heavily towards drama than the charming and funny trailer led me to believe, but it's still really, really good. And funny. But also heart-breaking and uplifting and completely relatable. Anyone who knows what it's like to hold the simultaneous views that you are the center of the universe, but also completely worthless will appreciate what Nadine's (Hailee Steinfeld) going through.

Resident Evil (2002)

And people say there are no good video game movies.

Seriously, I don't know why this has a bad reputation. It's a simple, clear plot complicated by some cool obstacles and nice twists. And Milla Jovovich is awesome in it.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

I'm going to have to change my "I don't like zombie movies" stance, because the exception list is getting long. This one's even more straight-up zombie movie than the first Resident Evil and in spite of that, I like it even better. Alice (Jovovich) is in full-on butt-kick mode, there are a bunch of fun, new (and yes, cliché, but still fun) characters, and again: clear, simple plot with plenty of action to keep it moving.

Mannequin (1987)

I've been catching up on some episodes of the Cult Film Club podcast that I have bookmarked and Mannequin was next on the list. I loved this movie back in the day and saw it multiple times in the theater. It's goofy and never explains the rules of whatever fantasy or magic is going on in it, but it's also super funny and oddly sweet. Andrew McCarthy was never high on my list of favorite Brat Packers (those spots are all saved for Breakfast Club alumni), but I always liked him in roles like this and Pretty in Pink where he just gets to be pleasantly sincere. That hasn't changed.

I think I remember some culture shock about James Spader's performance when I originally saw this, because I love him as Pretty in Pink's handsome and powerful Steff and didn't like that he was so greasy and snivelling in Mannequin. But years later, after seeing him in many other things, I love what he's doing in Mannequin and that he went with a different spin on what could have been the exact same role.

The rest of the cast is great, too; especially Meshach Taylor and GW Bailey.

Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985)

David and I watched First Blood back in January and it's just taken us this long to get to the sequel. It's not as good as First Blood, but it's still an effective commentary on the US' emotions around the Vietnam War and has some great action sequences. It's starting to get into over the top territory (tee hee), but it's still somewhat grounded and not full-on Rambo III, which I'll likely never watch again.

Ben-Hur (1959)

This Spring we watched the 2016 version and it wasn't great, but was better than expected and made Diane want to check out the '59 version. I couldn't talk her into the 1925 silent version that I like better, but I wanted to rewatch Heston, too, so we finally did that.

My dad always referred to this as the Star Wars of his generation and I can see why. It's a cool story and an amazing spectacle. I can imagine going back to the theater over and over just to rewatch the chariot race alone. And that's exactly what people did in 1959.

It's taken me a few years to understand the whole "Tale of the Christ" sub-title, because Jesus Christ only makes a couple of cameos (though they're prominent and significant). But the whole movie really is about how Christ's teachings about love and vengeance end up affecting the main character. It's wisdom that needs remembering, so I was happy to revisit it.

Three Godfathers (1936)

I think I added this to my list last Christmas, because someone described it as a Western version of the Three Magi story. Which I guess it is, but only symbolically in that it's about three men who make sacrifices for the benefit of an infant at Christmastime. But in this case they're three outlaws in various stages of hard-heartedness. I really liked Lewis Stone's character, who's the first to cave when it comes to taking in the baby, but I had a tough time buying the journey of Chester Morris' character. He's the most wicked of the bunch, so his change should be the most effective, but he doesn't sell it to me. Curious if the 1948 John Ford/John Wayne remake handles that better.

The Plainsman (1936)

Ever since watching The Young Riders for Hellbent for Letterbox, I've been interested in movies about Bills both Wild and Buffalo. This one's got both, starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and James Ellison (I Walked With a Zombie) as Buffalo Bill Cody. Jean Arthur pretty much steals the movie as Calamity Jane, though.

It's a fun movie that condenses a lot of history into a manageable narrative (and tells you up front that that's what it's doing). Not super essential, but it makes a nice sequel to The Young Riders.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

As I'm closing in on the end of Disney's Zorro series, I figured to close out on the rest of the Zorro movies I've been meaning to watch, too. I've seen Mask several times and in spite of never being able to buy Anthony Hopkins as Diego, I love it. He may not be remotely Spanish, but Hopkins is charming and it's cool how he becomes the new Bernardo to Antonio Banderas' new Zorro. Banderas is an awesome swashbuckler and I like that Mask is a sequel to the original stories while also giving us the origin story that we've never really gotten before. Catherine Zeta Jones is perfect in it, too.

Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939)

I'm going to have to come back and try this again after putting some distance between myself and the other Zorro films. It's probably a decent enough serial, but it doesn't feel at all like Zorro to me. Reed Hadley is playing Don Diego and does some fencing (unlike the Son of Zorro serial from eight years later), but he's got a flat, American accent and - worse - the eponymous legion to share time and spotlight with. I'll think I'll eventually be able to enjoy it as a Western, but it ain't Zorro and I decided not to finish it.

River of Death (1989)

Speaking of not finishing things, I had high hopes for a movie about Michael Dudikoff (American Ninja) traveling a jungle river to search for a lost city and fight some Nazis played by Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasance. But holy crap this was boring. Dudikoff is passionless and the movie does zero work to build any relationship between his character and the girl he's supposed to be risking his life to rescue. I own it (it came in a box with the awesome Brenda Starr), so I may give it another shot one day, but it'll be a while, if ever.

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Very well written in terms of craft. Powers knows how to create captivating characters and give them distinct voices. He's also great at period details and introducing a compelling mystery.

Where the book lost me was halfway through when the magic fully took over from the nautical adventure. It becomes full-on fantasy and the villains might as well be wearing pointy hats with stars. Also, the one female character is nothing but a MacGuffin for the hero to chase after and try to protect. I didn't finish this, either.

Jam of the Week: "How Far I'll Go" by Auli'i Cravalho

I may relate to Moana a bit too much. No one knows how deep it goes.

Friday, June 16, 2017

I want a podcast. Chicks dig the podcast.

A lot of podcasting going on this week.

On the most recent Mystery Movie Night, David, Dave, and I were joined by my wife Diane (also David's mom and Dave's sister), who also happens to be the creator of the Mystery Movie Night concept. You can listen to her tell that story as we reconsider a couple of maligned superhero movies and a family classic.

Then at Nerd Lunch, Evan Hanson and I talked with the fellas about "adult" snack cakes and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. It was an impromptu episode that turned out to be a blast.

So much of a blast that the outtakes made it into their own mini-episode.

Promotion for the Kill All Monsters Omnibus is ramping up, so I've been on a couple of podcasts to talk about that. First was Word Bros with the amazing Bob Frantz and Kevin Cuffe, a super fun and funny writing team with a ton of joy and enthusiasm for comics. I was grinning all the way through that conversation.

And finally (for now), Jason Copland and I were both on the Happy Haven podcast to talk about the book, our partnership, Renaissance Festivals, and Cassingles.

Monday, June 12, 2017

7 Days in May | Zorro vs Zorro

Streets of Fire (1984)

I've had this on the To Do list for a while now, because I wanted to watch it and then listen to the Cult Film Club episode about it. I loved Streets of Fire back in the day when I was working at the video store and could take it home as often as I wanted. I have no idea how many times I watched it. And I had no idea whether or not it would hold up.

Turns out, it does. There's a level of cheese to the dialogue that may be intentional, but that I didn't pick up in younger days. It works with the tone of the rest of the movie though, so if you lean into it, it's not a flaw. And the rest of the movie is all good stuff. The setting is a fun mix of 1950s and '80s. The songs are a great mixture of '80s rock anthems and rockabilly with a little Motown mixed in. And the characters are all memorable and cool, with Willem Dafoe being especially so. And I love how the plot - while simple - never goes exactly where you think it's going to.

They Came from Beyond Space (1967)

I almost like it. It's a decade late though and the goofy space invader plot would have been more charming in black-and-white and with '50s fashions. I had a hard time staying interested, but there's some fun stuff in it, to be sure.

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

I've seen it before, but never in such close proximity to the silent version or the Disney show and certainly not since reading the novel it's based on. And I'd kind of forgotten a lot about it, because I was shocked at how much it deviates from the book. It's not a faithful adaptation at all.

It's much more focused on Don Diego and I was also surprised at how little Zorro there is in it. When Diego does put on the costume it's exciting, but it kind of reminded me of superhero shows from the '70s where 90% of the show is the secret identity and then you'd get a couple of big scenes with the hero to make it worth watching.

Not that the Diego stuff is boring. There's a lot of drama and intrigue and some great character stuff. And the swords fights are extremely good, even when no one in them is wearing black.

Zorro (1957-61)

After wrapping up the Richard Anderson/Jolene Brand plot in a really lovely way, Season 2 abruptly and unceremoniously returns the main cast to Los Angeles in time for a few episodes with Cesar Romero as Don Diego's shifty, gold-digging uncle. There are still multi-episode storylines, but they don't flow from one to another the way earlier episodes did and there are a few that are just completely standalone.

I'm still digging the show; the cast makes sure of that and Zorro is as cool and swashbuckling a character as ever. I'm just not as blown away by it was I was in the first season.

The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

David and I have been listening to the Tarzan series on aubiobook as sort of extracurricular activity for Greystoked. Return of Tarzan is still one of my favorite Tarzan novels. I love how it shifts settings and even genres in the same story, going from romantic thriller to spy story to jungle adventure and on to fantasy. It introduces Tarzan's arch-enemy Rokoff as well as the Waziri allies and the infamous La of Opar.

I asked David if he wanted to take a break and listen to the Star Wars radio dramas (since they came up on the last Dragonfly Ripple), but he wanted to go right into Beasts of Tarzan. It makes sense. He was literally jumping up and down in his seat and laughing in glee at the final confrontation between Tarzan and Rokoff in Return.

Jam of the Week: "Make You Crazy" by Brett Dennen

Smooth and summery with a hint of reggae.

Make You Crazy by Brett Dennen on VEVO.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Hellbent for Letterbox | How the West Was Won (1962)

Pax and I finally watched the epic classic from directors Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall; starring Carroll Baker, Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, and George Peppard. And with cameos by everyone else alive at the time.

Does it live up to its reputation? Will we finally be able to tell it apart from Once Upon a Time in the West? Only one way to find out.

Also: Pony Express mail and quick reviews of The Way West (1967) and The War Wagon (1967).

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Clifford Ball: Apprentice to a Fallen Master [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The world of fantasy was shattered in 1936 when Robert E Howard put a gun to his head and ended it all. The fledgling genre of heroic fantasy was at a loss. Who would take up the torch and continue on from where Howard began with his tales of Bran Mak Morn, King Kull, and especially, Conan the Cimmerian? These larger-than-life warriors had found a home in an unlikely place: the horror magazine, Weird Tales. And it was in those same pages that the next sword-and-sorcery writers would appear.

Now Robert E Howard was not the only fantasy writer at "The Unique Magazine." CL Moore had created her swordswoman Jirel of Joiry in October 1934 with "The Black God's Kiss" and its sequel "The Black God's Shadow" (December 1934). Nictzin Dyalhis had written one classic piece, "The Sapphire Siren," in February 1934. Edmond Hamilton had been writing many kinds of science fiction and fantasy for Weird Tales and could have taken up the crown of sword-and-sorcery. But none of these writers did. CL Moore would write only one more Jirel tale after Howard's death. Dyalhis and Hamilton wrote other things.

The mantle fell to a fan of Robert E Howard, the inexperienced Clifford Ball (1896?-1947?). Ball would produce three sword-and-sorcery stories for Weird Tales: "Duar the Accursed" (May 1937), "The Thief of Forthe" (July 1937), and "The Goddess Awakes" (February 1938). His next story after these was "The Swine of Aeaea" (March 1939), a tale of a modern day Circe. The two that followed that were pedestrian horror tales. Not much is known about Ball, but his bio in the magazine suggests a young man who traveled around looking for work before taking up the pen to write pulp. From his writing we can tell he was a fan of both Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. All three tales make mention of white apes: "If the guardsmen had been startled before, now they were certainly in a panic, much as if they had captured one of the terrible white apes from the hills of Barsoom..." This tidbit is telling, but jars the reader out of Ball's imaginary world. Such are the errors of youth.

In plot, "Duar the Accursed" is reminiscent of Howard's "The Scarlet Citadel" (January 1933), but also draws from other sources. Duar has been captured by the Queen Nione, who throws him into a dank dungeon known as the Pits of Ygoth. Duar is rescued by a supernatural being named Shar, who loves him and can restore his lost memories of how he was an emperor over Atlantis eons ago before its destruction and his curse. Duar refuses and instead takes on a mission for the queen: to enter the Black Tower and return with the Rose of Gaon, a fabulous and magical jewel. Duar climbs the stairs and faces the terror that none have survived to describe.

On a pillar surrounded by skeletons sits the Rose of Gaon. As the swordsman approaches he finds his limbs becoming tired and lifeless. He will stay that way until he dies of starvation. Shar reappears to remind him he is King Duar and to use his sword to destroy the Rose, for it is actually the heart of a demon. Duar rallies and destroys the gem, having power to deny the magic because of his ancient lineage. Shar offers to take him away, revive his memory, and work with him to rule the entire world again. Duar refuses and walks off to spend the rest of his years in Nione's bed. That opening scene with Duar chained before Queen Nione, defying her will seems cliché today having been used in multiple sword-and-sorcery tales since, but it may not have been so shop-worn in 1937. We have to remember Ball was the first to play with the story building blocks that Howard left behind. Lin Carter selected this story for his anthology, New Worlds For Old (1971).

The last two stories Ball wrote did not feature Duar. Instead they are about a thief and adventurer named Rald. "The Thief of Forte" begins with two conspirators: a strange wizard name Karlk and the swordsman Rald. They enter the imperial palace to steal the royal jewels and the throne. While doing this, Rald meets Princess Thrine, the king's sister, who is very beautiful and spirited. She stalls the two long enough for King Thrall to show up and disarm the thieves. The two men are tied up and left. It is then that Karlk reveals something about his mysterious person. He has a second set of small, hairy hands that he uses to untie himself. He leaves Rald tied up as he prepares to ambush and kill the King and Princess with a magic blast. Rald can not lie by idly as death comes for Thrine, so he burns off his ropes and arrives in time to stop the wizard. Karlk is stabbed, and while dying admits why he wanted to kill the royals. Karlk is actually a woman, it is revealed as her disguise is pulled off. She is the daughter of a woman who was carried off by one the white apes (shades of Barsoom again!) so she has two sets of arms. Karlk dies horribly as the demon Nargath, who gave her her power, comes to claim her. King Thrall goes to thank Rald for saving them, but Rald has disappeared. Thrall wonders if Rald will come back. Thrine tells her brother that Rald will be back... for her.

"The Thief of Forte," like "Duar the Accursed," uses another cliche plot (based on Howard's "Rogues in the House" (January 1934): that of wizard hiring a warrior to enter a heavily or magically guarded palace or tower to steal a magical item. Henry Kuttner would use this one as well a year later in "Spawn of Dagon" (Weird Tales, July 1938) and John Jakes and Lin Carter thirty years later in "The Devils in the Walls" (Fantastic, May 1963) and "The Thieves of Zangabal" (The Mighty Barbarians, 1969).

A letter from "The Eyrie" solves a small mystery for me when WC Jr writes about Virgil Finlay, WT illustrator. He points out that Finlay liked to play practical jokes on the writers: "For instance: Clifford Ball once stated in a letter to the Eyrie, previous to the publication of his first story, that the ridiculous theme of a woman being captured and carried off by a giant ape was passé. With this in mind, Virgil selected that particular scene in illustrating Ball's 'Thief of Forthe.'" When I saw this illustration originally I had reacted with a similar dislike for the picture. There are few sword-and-sorcery illustrations before the 1960s and every one counts. To see an ape-stealing-woman picture worthy of a Jules De Grandin tale, I sighed in disappointment. Now I at least know why...

"The Goddess Awakes" (February 1938) is Rald's second adventure. This time Rald and his comrade-in-arms Thwaine have fled a lost battlefield where they served as mercenaries. They encounter women warriors who knock out Rald and take them to their kingdom inside an extinct volcano. There they learn that the women warriors rule and all men are slaves in the mines by order of Throal. The queen of the land is Cene but she is under the power of the wizard Throal and his daughter, the living goddess and statue, Hess. Rald and Thwaine are promised to die in the arena by being eaten by Hess, a gigantic cat.

This tale smacks more of Edgar Rice Burroughs than Robert E Howard. It only becomes more creepy (and therefore more Howardian) when the cat goddess calls the victims names as the moon draws the living beast out of a stone sphinx. Rald, Thwaine, and their new comrade, Ating - one of the women guards who has fallen for Thwaine - are thrown into a pit. The men try to deal with the goddess with swords, but her gigantic body is impenetrable. It is Queen Cene who saves them by throwing Rald a firebrand. One touch of the flames explodes Hess like a hydrogen zeppelin. Cene takes back her throne by killing Throal with a spear. Like a vampire, he dissolves to an ancient set of bones. His reign is over and the men of Ceipe are free to rejoin the women. The tale ends with Thwaine and Ating ruling the country while Rald and Cene take a year long break to explore the world outside. The whole thing rings more of John Carter than Conan of Cimmeria.

In one respect Clifford Ball did not follow entirely in Howard's footsteps. Ball's three stories all feature very powerful women: the being Shar, the Princess Thrine, and the Queen Cene. Having written only three stories, it is as if Ball chose to copy the longer Howard tales that featured strong female characters such as Yasmina, Belit, and Valeria. His adventure amongst the women warriors of Ceipe plays out more like the opening of Burroughs Pellucidar (1915) than Howard's "Vale of Lost Women," which Ball would not have read since it remained unpublished until Spring 1967.

In just ten months, Ball had given us his version of Howard's style of sword-and-sorcery. These three were all he would do before veering off into writing more traditional fantasy and horror. After only six stories he would disappear from the pulps altogether. But the editors of Weird Tales had a replacement. Henry Kuttner, by far a superior crafter of words, would appear in May 1938 with "Thunder in the Dawn," the first of the Elak of Atlantis stories. Kuttner would more skillfully use the legacy Howard left behind and even innovate, but Clifford Ball can take credit for being the first of a long line of pastichers that would include L Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Bjorn Nyberg, John Jakes, Andrew J Offutt, Poul Anderson, and many more.

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 He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, June 05, 2017

7 Days in May | Wonder Woman vs Gappa

Wonder Woman (2017)

It's awesome. The first movie in the DCEU that's about an actual super hero. I love that Wonder Woman goes on a character journey that is never about whether or not she's going act heroically. It's about her world view changing from simple and naive to complicated and mature. It shakes her to her core, and there was a Zac Snyder moment that made me worried about what she'd do, but she recovered quickly and got back to the work of fighting evil. Just beautiful.

And I love that the movie is able to introduce her to the world as a fish-out-of-water without sacrificing her confidence. She's learning a new culture and there are funny moments that result, but she's never the object of the joke.

I do want to point out one thing though that bugs me a little. Not about Wonder Woman, but what it reveals about the wider DCEU. In Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman has clearly been gone a long time. No one knows about her or remembers her. It's a major plot point that Batman figures out that she's not a brand new hero, but someone who was around a long time ago. And BvS implies that something happened when she was first here that sent her into hiding. Maybe back to Themyscira, but certainly out of the public eye. And that made me concerned - especially in light of Man of Steel and BvS - that Wonder Woman was going to be another dark movie about how heroism is punished.

Watching Wonder Woman, I can still see that movie in there. Diana does go through the ringer. And I can imagine a Snyder-influenced ending where she gives up her mission and just goes home for 100 years. I am so glad that the folks in charge decided not to do that and instead had Diana stick around to keep working, but it does create a large continuity hole with BvS. Making a movie about a hero is a great course correction for the series, but it is a course correction and not a flawless one.

So far, anyway. I suppose that Justice League could explain why no one's ever heard of her even if she's continued to work in our world. That would be great.

Daikyojû Gappa (1967)

Not every kaiju movie is fun or charming. This one's a mix of Godzilla and King Kong in which a magazine publisher hires some people to round up animals for his new theme park. When they bring back a giant baby bird-lizard, they're flabbergasted about why two adult bird-lizards would follow and start tearing the city apart. Eventually, they figure it out and return the baby to its parents just in time to roll credits. Lame.

El Dorado (1967)

I'm almost as much a Howard Hawks fan as I am a Robert Mitchum fan. And I don't mind John Wayne or James Caan, either. That makes El Dorado one of my favorite Westerns.

It has a couple of problems though. One is an unnecessary, extremely racist gag in the middle. The other is some shaky storytelling that skips over the events that turn Mitchum's character from an affable, highly competent sheriff into an embarrassing drunk. It's explained in dialogue, but it's such an important change that I should've been able to see it.

His journey back is much better, though, featuring the efforts of several friends, including Wayne and his new sidekick Caan, as well as Arthur Hunnicutt as a cantankerous, but extremely cool, old coot. Michele Carey is also awesome as a young woman whose family is being persecuted by evil Ed Asner, and she's not going to just sit back and wait for the men to get their act together.

Jam of the Week: "Lost the Feeling" by The Saint Johns

I dig the light, easy groove, the harmony, and the way they pant the word "I" all through this thing. Very cool.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Dragonfly Ripple | Talking with Guests Rob & Delaney

The most recent episode of Dragonfly Ripple was an especially cool one with a brand new format. Carlin and I invited Rob Graham to come on the show with his daughter Delaney to bring a new perspective on nerd parenting. After we talked with Rob for a bit about his philosophy, Delaney, Annaliese, and David joined in to talk about Star Trek, the Star Wars radio dramas, and Walt Disney World. Then in an extra special segment, the kids took over the show to ask each other some fun questions inspired by Star Wars, Harry Potter, and MST3K. The kids also took over Jetpack Tiger when Annaliese interviwed Dash about Minecraft. Then we closed with the whole gang designing our own pop culture theme park rides.


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