Friday, January 29, 2016

My Top 10 Movies from 2015

1. The Force Awakens

I feel like I've talked enough about my feelings for Force Awakens. My initial reaction was on Starmageddon, with a deeper dive on Nerd Lunch, and then some follow-up thoughts on Starmageddon again. The short version though is that no, the movie isn't perfect. Yes, there are flaws. None of which matter to me when I'm watching it. I just love these characters too much. Exactly how I feel about the original movie, by the way, and Force Awakens is easily in my Top Two films of the series.

2. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

I loved Ghost Protocol, but Mission: Impossible III was the one to beat for me and I think Rogue Nation did it. Sean Harris isn't as scary a villain as Philip Seymour Hoffman was, but he's still terrifying and extremely watchable (unlike Michael Nyqvist's relatively generic bad guy in Ghost Protocol).

And as much as I love Keri Russell, Rebecca Ferguson's character is way better and I want a whole series of Ilsa Faust movies, please. Plus Alec Baldwin in a great role, plus an extended role for Simon Pegg, plus some amazing action and stunts. The Mission: Impossible movies are making better Bond Movies than the Bond movies lately.

3. Inside Out

Pixar has been so uninspiring the last few years that I wasn't at all convinced that a Herman's Head remake was going to be anything I wanted to see. But then reviews rolled in and the word "masterpiece" was used a lot, so I got my hopes up and checked it out. "Masterpiece" is an accurate word. Inside Out is touching and profound and measurably makes life better for its existence. It's the best movie I saw in 2015.

The only reason it's not at the Number One spot on this list is that it's not tapping into childhood nostalgia the way the first two are. I mentioned in an earlier post that these are listed in order of my enjoyment of them, not in terms of objective quality. Not that quality is all that objective anyway, but just thinking along those lines would have made this a different list. My head values what movies like Inside Out and Black Sea are accomplishing from scratch, but Force Awakens and Rogue Nation make my heart soar. This list is about my heart.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

This was a lot of people's Movie of the Year and it's the one I'm rooting hardest for in the Best Picture Oscar category. I have not a single negative thing to say about it. It's awesome and beautiful and I love that it exists. But as much as I love Imperator Furiosa, I love Rey, Faust, and Riley's feelings more.

5. The Man from UNCLE

I'm still a fan of Guy Ritchie, including RocknRolla and the Sherlock Holmes movies, so I was very much looking forward to The Man from UNCLE. And I wasn't disappointed. It's got all of his style used in wonderful service to '60s spy movies. It's a gorgeous film, too. Every shot of Henry Cavill looks like a GQ ad come to life. And his delivery is as awesomely square-jawed as his face.

I didn't buy some of the initial attempts to build relationships between the characters, but once those were established I loved watching the team interact. It's a pleasant change to watch a spy movie that's more about rhythm, relationships, and revelations than stunts and set pieces. Not that there's anything wrong with stunts and set pieces, but not every movie has to be focused on that.

The soundtrack is also amazing. I don't buy many soundtracks anymore, but I got that one.

6. Mr. Holmes

A wonderful character piece with an even more wonderful performance. If I have one criticism, it's that the mystery story isn't as strong as I want it to be, but it's really not about the mystery story. It's about the kind of man you might expect Sherlock Holmes would become, and whether or not that's someone he wants to be. Lovely movie.

7. Avengers: Age of Ultron

This gets rated way higher than Ant-Man, because it is the wham-pow epic of a movie that I want Marvel films to be now. But it's not as solid as the first Avengers, probably because it's just trying to do so much that it can't do everything well. I have no problem with Black Widow and Bruce Banner's becoming romantically involved in concept; it's just that the movie doesn't do a good job of selling them as a couple. Seeing Hawkeye's family is very sweet and I loved it, but it doesn't really add anything to this story. I'd rather have that Thor stuff added back in, because it does bear on the plot.

But I liked it so much more than I didn't. There are some super fun moments (that party!) and I love that it takes the time to show our heroes being heroes.

8. Jurassic World

I think the only Jurassic Park movie that I truly don't care for is the second one. And even then, it's been so long since I've seen it that I only have the fuzziest recollection of what I didn't care for. Something about the T-Rex's city adventure not being as awesome as it could've been. Maybe I'd like it more now. Or maybe I'd remember other things I don't like. My point is that I'm a pretty easy mark for these things.

If there's something I like better than dinosaurs, it's theme parks. Well, mostly Disney World, but there are other good ones. I even have a weird thing I do when I visit zoos and Japanese gardens where I think about how I'd design them differently. There should be a concession stand there, a tram that runs along here; that kind of thing. So to see a Jurassic Park movie with a fully functioning theme park was exactly what I wanted. Not because I loved all the attractions they came up with - I didn't - but because I love thinking about how I'd improve them. It taps into a specific kind of nerdom that lights me up.

Add to that Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, both of whom I love for different reasons, and let Pratt lead a pack of raptors from his motorcycle... I agree that the gender politics of Jurassic World aren't good and I agree that the death of Claire's assistant goes on way too long. I don't like either of those things. But between some favorite actors, theme park nerdery, and giant lizards, there's way more about it that I love.

9. Crimson Peak

Excellent gothic romance. A bit more graphic than I'm used to from the genre, but it works. And I suppose there's precedence if you take the Hammer films into consideration. Easily my favorite Del Toro film so far and I expect to find even more to like about it when I watch it again.

I took along Diane and David for this one. Diane's not into horror and David's skittish about some kinds of scary movies, but they both loved it. Looking forward now to seeing if David will also enjoy stuff like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Northanger Abbey.

10. Ex Machina

Smart, fascinating movie about a guy who's brought in by a reclusive tech genius to test a new AI system. At least, that's what it appears to be about. The film quickly raises questions about who's actually being tested and why.

It's not a twisty-turny movie in the sense that it's trying to "getcha." It's very clear from the start that something is up. But it rewards keeping an open mind and not trying to outsmart it. It played with my perception of what the movie is even about, so that by the end I was watching a different movie from the one I started. I'm eager to watch it again from this new perspective. Betting I like it even more.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

10 Movies from 2015 That I Liked a Lot

11. Creed

Fantastic. Hard to see the final fight through my tears, though.

Actually, I could say that about most of the Rocky movies anymore. Something about where I am in my life right now helps these movies hit me hard. Exceptions are III and IV; not that I don't love III, but it's not as emotional for me as the others. I rewatched all the numbered ones and finally saw Rocky Balboa for the first time shortly before watching Creed and loved the whole experience, but I wonder if I wouldn't have liked Creed even more if I didn't have all the others in such close proximity to compare it to. Especially Rocky Balboa which was pretty much perfect and a bigger surprise.

Still, wonderful movie.

12. The Martian

I have a knee-jerk, negative response to survival films, mostly because I dread spending two hours with just one character. I know that that's almost never the actual case in these movies, but it's a Pavlovian reaction by this point. Many reviews told me that The Martian spends a lot of time with the people who are trying to rescue Matt Damon, but I still had to push myself into the theater. And of course I'm glad I did.

Damon's character faces his problems with intelligence and humor. That's true of all the characters, really, so the whole movie is refreshingly positive and inspirational. It's the movie that Tomorrowland was trying so hard to be. The drawback is that its lightness dilutes the tension and suspense somewhat, but The Martian is inspirational science fiction first and survival thriller second. It totally succeeds at that primary purpose.

13. Trainwreck

A drawback to seeing this later than a lot of people is that it couldn't possibly live up to the hype I was hearing. It's a funny movie and I cared about the characters, but I wanted to be laughing harder than I was, not just chuckling quietly. A very good romantic comedy, but not one I'll be revisiting a lot.

14. Ant-Man

Another very good superhero movie from Marvel. I love that it has its own tone and stands apart from the other Marvel films, while totally fitting in with them at the same time. I had a lot of fun with it, but the bar on Marvel movies has been raised so high at this point that I'm sort of disappointed if I'm not losing my mind over how awesome they are. Not fair, but that's where I am.


As huge a Bond fan as I am, I was frankly unexcited to see SPECTRE. The trailers emphasized themes that have been thoroughly explored in the previous three Bond films: distrust, Bond's going rogue, etc. And the lackluster theme song did nothing to draw me to the theater on opening night. That said, once I saw it, I immediately went back the following night.

The first time, I spent the movie trying to figure out the plot. It felt lighter in tone than the trailers suggested, but was that a decoy? How much could I trust Madeleine Swann? Was Christoph Waltz playing Blofeld or not? I ended up being satisfied with the answers to those questions and looking forward to seeing the movie again the next day.

And I liked it even better the second time. Knowing what to expect plot- and tone-wise, I was able to focus on the themes and characters. I love what it says about Bond and how he's grown since Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. His final confrontation with Waltz' character - the self-styled "author of all your pain" - is remarkable and wonderful. Waltz wants to be so consumingly important in Bond's life, but Bond's not having it. I love that he's matured to that point, even though I absolutely dread the potential repercussions in the next movie.

The reason it's not higher on my list is that not only is it nowhere near my favorite Bond movie, it's not even the best spy movie I saw this year. If you're interested in more detailed thoughts about it, I wrote those up, too.

16. Pitch Perfect 2

Might even like it better than the first one. The humor is still uneven and I really don't care for the way it resets the group's success to zero so that they can repeat their climb to the top again, but the addition of Hailee Steinfeld, Keegan-Michael Key, and for the love of God: Das Sound Machine...

Look, sometimes a sequel just needs to do what the first one did and do it a bigger. I don't say that often, because it doesn't work that often, but it sure works in this case.

17. What We Do in the Shadows

My expectations were too high. The concept is hilarious and the trailer had me rolling, but the movie never made me fall out of my chair in laughter and - fair or not - that's what I thought I was going to get. Still, super funny and highly recommended. Looking forward to the just announced sequel: We're Wolves.

18. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Don't know if the Maze Runner movies are getting lost in the mass of other YA dystopia adaptations or if I'm just reading the wrong film coverage. It feels like no one's talking about these, though, and that's a shame. They're solid adventure stories with interesting characters who have complex motivations and are played by appealing actors. Ready for the next one.

19. Spy

Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy do it again. This time, they made a great spy spoof that also became one of my favorite Jason Statham movies. What keeps it from being higher on the list is the amount of time it spends on McCarthy in sad, cat lady disguises. It does that so that she can break free of them and be awesome - and once she does, it's great and I love it whole-heartedly - but I had to get through that stuff to get to the great stuff, so that keeps me from loving it.

It also doesn't help that all the US marketing for the movie focused on cat lady. I had to go to Korea to find a poster of McCarthy looking cool. It makes me very sad that US marketers didn't think anyone wanted to see that.

20. Black Sea

An excellent, undersea heist thriller. Not nearly as much about the tension between the English and Russian halves of the team that the trailer would have you believe, but that stuff is certainly in there. My issue with it has nothing to do with the movie itself and everything to do with what I wanted it to be. The thriller stuff is totally in there and it's very good, but ultimately the movie is more interested in the emotional journey of Jude Law's character and that takes the story in a specific direction I was sorry to see it go. If this list were about objective quality and not about my personal reactions, Black Sea would be in a different spot.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

This month was JanuMAYry at Nerd Lunch

I used the term "embarrassment of riches" at some point this month to describe my experience podcasting four weeks in a row with the Nerd Lunch crew, and that's pretty accurate. I love those guys and Kay and one of the many highlights of 2015 for me was getting to talk our way through the Star Wars movies. So starting off 2016 by joining the show four weeks in a row for various topics was indeed a rich blessing. I'm a little sheepish about taking up time that other guests could have been on, but regret nothing. That was crazy fun.

We wrapped up the Star Wars discussion (for now) with Pax, Kay, and I discussing the Star Wars EU books and comics and then the whole panel convening to cover The Force Awakens. But I'd also wondered out loud about the possibility of being on this year's Nerdstradamus episode, because I love annual predictions episodes (Pop Culture Happy Hour does that too, for example). And Jeeg was awesome and made that happen. As schedules would have it, that fell right after the Force Awakens episode, so the fellas decided to just go for it and have me on all month. Today, the final episode of the tetralogy dropped, in which I join CT, Pax, and one of my favorite Nerd Lunch guests, William Bruce West to talk about Undeserving TV Revivals.

I interpreted "undeserving" to indicate a lack of clamoring from the current public, but my pick was a show that was super popular in its day and I'd love to see it come back. CT went sort of that same route, while Pax and William went with shows that weren't all that loved even in their heyday. I'll leave it for you to discover in the episode what our choices were.

You can hear all four of the recent episodes in the links above or embedded below. Or on iTunes or wherever else you like to listen to podcasts.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Tweenies of Venus: The Early Asimov [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Isaac Asimov never made any secret about the fact that he was not an instant success. Where Robert A Heinlein and AE van Vogt exploded into science fiction fully formed, Ike had to crawl his way slowly through an apprenticeship that included dozens of stories. The Good Doctor collected these initial tales in a book called The Early Asimov (subtitled Or Eleven Years of Trying) (1972).

The Early Asimov, despite containing none of his best work, is a fascinating read for he chronicles his first experiences as a writer, especially those with editor John W Campbell, to whom he dedicated the book. Amongst these early pieces, Ike also tells of stories he wrote and threw away. At least a dozen of them, enough to make any completist cry. If they still existed, we could have published a second book, something like The Worst of Isaac Asimov.

Amongst the stories that didn't disappear, is an Astounding reject called "Half-Breed," which Asimov sold to new editor (and former agent), Fredrick Pohl. The magazine was called Astonishing Tales and because of its low pay it received stories rejected by Astounding and Amazing, including such charming pieces as Manly Wade Wellman's "Elephant Earth" and Asimov's now classic robot story, "Robbie."

"Half-Breed" was a number of firsts for Asimov. The Astonishing Stories February 1940 issue was the first time Asimov had his name on the cover of an SF magazine. The story was 9000 words long, so it appeared as "a novelette," also a first for the Good Doctor. Best of all, the story was popular enough that Pohl asked him to write a sequel, something he had not done up to that point, though he would in the future with his Foundation series. "Half-Breeds of Venus" appeared in Astonishing Stories December 1940 and was another first. The cover art for the issue featured Asimov's story, not just an author mention. He'd "made the cover," a big deal back in those pulp days.

The plot of "Half-Breed" has frustrated scientist Jefferson Scanlon rescuing a "Tweenie" boy named Max. Tweenies are half breeds of human and Martian blood. Their appearance is striking: "...There was no mistaking that brush of wiry, dead-white hair that rose stiffly in all directions like porcupine-quills. (The story's illustrator, Eron, makes sure to include this impressive feature.) Scanlon adopts the boy, who helps him discover nuclear power and make him an important and rich man. As Max gets older, Scanlon seeks a bride for his adopted son, taking on Madeline and her two younger sisters as wards. Scanlon and the Tweenies become progressive in politics, creating Tweenietown. When government men begin to realize that Tweenies are superior to purebred humans or Martians, trouble lies ahead. Fortunately, Max and the other Tweenies have been secretly building three spaceships, which they use to head for the frontier planet of Venus. Max wants Scanlon to join them but he refuses, staying behind. The story ends with Jefferson Scanlon standing in the deserted Tweenietown, knowing he has furthered a race that will one day conquer the entire Solar System.

The sequel, "The Half-Breeds of Venus" continues the story of the fugitive Tweenies. Their ships make it to Venus and they begin an underground complex to live in. Max Scanlon hands the reins over to his son Arthur, while his younger son, Henry has a blossoming romance with Irene. The Tweenies discover a race of telepathic lizards in the lake nearby. These creatures, that they dub "Phibs," are peaceful allies to the Tweenies. Before the new base or a force field device can be perfected human settlers show up in valley and the Tweenies discuss their options. They could wipe out the humans or hide from them. Max knows that if the humans are attacked retaliatory forces from Earth would follow and the Tweenies would suffer. They choose to hide. Henry and Irene sneak out and approach the Phibs with their plight. The Phibs agree to go to the jungles with the Tweenies to corral three Venusian dinosaurs. After a harrying trip back, the dinosaurs are let loose in the human village, but only after the inhabitants have had time to flee. The plan has worked and the Tweenies and Phibs can go on being friends without human interference.

The second story lacks the power of the first. Asimov writes more action and romance than he usually does, but he is no Edmond Hamilton. There are some dialogue sequences that are embarrassingly bad. Asimov apologizes for the scientific impossibilities in these early stories, but there are other writing offenses that make you cringe more. He wisely leaves his Tweenies to their destiny and moves on.

Story elements aside, there is one interesting feature about these stories: the use of the word "Tweenie." Asimov's "Tweenie" is similar to "Tween" or "Tweener," used to describe children 10 to 13. Both words are derived from the word "between." Tween also rhymes with Teen, making it more attractive than "preteen." In Asimov's case, the Tweenies are between human and Martian. The expression Tween doesn't really become prominent until the 1990s, a good fifty years after Asimov. Like the words "robotics" (which Asimov coined), "astronaut" (Neil R Jones), "terraforming"(Jack Williamson) and "alien" (as an extraterrestrial) (Otto Binder), science fiction was there first.

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.

Friday, January 22, 2016

10 Movies from 2015 That I Could Take or Leave

21. Aloha

There's a lot of pressure on Cameron Crowe to make great films and this is not a great film. It's reaching for something that it can't get hold of. But what it does manage to grasp, it does really well. It's a great-looking movie with characters I liked a lot and some intriguing moral dilemmas.

22. Furious 7

I'm a big fan of these of movies and that hasn't changed with this one. Still has lots of what I love about this series: tough people, awesome stunts, and a ton of heart. But the plot is thinner this time (and they're always pretty thin), so that and the bittersweetness around Paul Walker's death bring it down for me. It's an amazing technical achievement though in terms of stunts and filling in scenes that Walker hadn't been in. A solid entry in the series, but not one of the best.

23. Kingsman: The Secret Service

X-Men: First Class always makes me forget that Matthew Vaughn is also the director behind Kick-Ass. And everything that turns me off about Kick-Ass is a problem for me in Kingsman as well. I'd put all the blame on Mark Millar, but I like Wanted, so I think it's the combination of Millar and Vaughn. They're both thrilled/intrigued/whatever by hyper-violence and just being really super explicit. I'm not, so including that in an otherwise cool story about dapper spies is a big drawback for me.

24. Terminator: Genisys

I didn't even want to give this a chance. I'd written off the Terminator franchise as something I'm no longer interested in. I mean, I don't use the word "franchise" very often when I'm talking about a movie series. I much prefer to think in terms of continuing story, and "franchise" sounds so business-y. But that's exactly what the Terminator movies have become, with the rights-holders leasing out the property to anyone who wants to reboot it and try to make some more money.

David was really curious about this one though and it became an excuse to show him the first two. So we went and it was surprisingly watchable. I have many problems with the story and both Jason Clarke and Jai Courtney are boring, but Emilia Clarke is an awesome substitute for Linda Hamilton and Schwarzenegger is at the absolute top of his game. I loved both of their characters and the relationship between them.

25. The DUFF

The title is horrible and I was afraid that the movie would be, too. It's a lot of fun, actually, with a nice message about being comfortable in your own skin. Not quite on the level with Easy A, Ten Things I Hate About You, or the best John Hughes movies, but a solid high school comedy. I might even rank it higher after another viewing or two.

26. The Hateful Eight

Great idea. Killer cast. Pretty to look at. Fantastic score by Ennio Morricone. And I was intrigued by the building of the mystery.

But it could've been 45 minutes shorter without losing anything of the story. There's too much dialogue that I don't care about and too many long, sweeping shots of countryside. It's gorgeous countryside, but an hour into the movie, I was ready to get on with things. I was also disappointed in the solution to the mystery, but at least there's no room for boredom as that's unfolding.

I saw the shorter cut without the intermission and ironically, I think the longer version may have helped some of my issues. More specifically, having the intermission as a palate cleanser may have helped. Would like to try it that way and find out.

27. While We’re Young

I like the ideas in While We're Young. Transitioning into maturity is a weird process that deserves some exploration. Very few people actually feel mature. Instead, we think of ourselves as younger than we are, so it can be startling to confront the reality and challenging to ease into the mindset that growing older doesn't mean not having fun anymore.

All of that is cool and While We're Young touches on it, but then it gets distracted by a theme it's way more interested in: the importance of veracity in documentary film-making. Which is also thought-provoking, but not what I signed up for. Still, great cast and it was this movie that made me realize I'm an Adam Driver fan.

28. Jupiter Ascending

So ambitious and so cool. Doesn't deserve the John Carter-level derision it got (but then, neither did John Carter). Sadly, though it's fun, it's not great. As in, I totally would have paid money for sequels, but it's not that big a deal to me that there won't be any.

29. Focus

I suffer enough Will Smith Fatigue that I wasn't going to watch this one at all. The trailer made it seem very serious and all about whether untrustworthy people can trust each other, so yawn. But then I heard some positive reviews about how it's really just a fun heist movie and I'm always up for that. And it is a really fun heist movie. A mediocre one, but enjoyable and at least it's not dour.

30. Mortdecai

I thought this might be interesting to watch after re-visiting the Pink Panther movies this year. Johnny Depp's cartoon mode has grown tiresome in the last few years, but he's doing it less in Mortdecai (meaning that you can glimpse a human being under all those mannerisms) and his supporting cast (Ewan McGregor, Gwyneth Paltrow, and especially Paul Bettany) are doing great, comedic work. Jeff Goldblum has a fun role, too. All that plus an entertaining caper plot and the whole experience was much more than I hoped for.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

My 8 Least-Favorite Movies from 2015

31. American Ultra

I should start by explaining the weaksauce title of this list. Usually, the bottom several movies of a year are ones that I actively disliked, but that wasn't the case this time. In fact, I like some of these - at least some things about some of them - quite a bit. 2015 was an extraordinarily strong year for film, so even the bottom of the barrel has some good stuff.

For example, American Ultra is sort of Chuck: The Movie, but different enough in every way - characters, plot, tone, and setting - that it's not fair to compare the two. The two leads are wonderful (and I say that as someone who doesn't usually enjoy Stewart's performances) and the focus isn't nearly as drug-oriented as the marketing makes you think. Mike and Phoebe are stoners, but that doesn't define everything about them.

My biggest issue is that the ending undermines the theme of the rest of the movie. It doesn't ruin the film, but it does lessen its impact. Otherwise, it was a fun, last action flick for the summer.

32. Krampus

I was hoping for a horror/comedy like the House movies from the '80s or maybe Tucker and Dale vs Evil. This is more like Gremlins; mostly dark and wanting to be legitimately scary with some humorous moments.

My favorite thing about it is the creature designs. The monsters look amazing and I recommend it if only for that. It's biggest failure is the way the characters react to their situation. There's exactly one moment where I felt like a parent actually acted like a parent would when a child is in danger.

Still, it's a great-looking movie with a cool premise. Not as awesome as I wanted, but not nearly as bad as I feared.

33. The Last Witch Hunter

I had a lot more fun than I expected. I'd written this off as derivative of the numerous monster-hunter movies that came before it, but got to go to a press screening with Diane and David and we had a great time.

For those who've seen a bunch of monster-hunter movies, there's not much new in terms of plot, but it has some cool things going for it. I love Vin Diesel and he's doing his tough-tender thing here in the best way. Michael Caine is also a lot of fun as Diesel's younger associate and there's some genuine chemistry between the two of them. Rose Leslie is a unique presence too, which adds some unpredictability. And there's some great world-building with plenty of hints at things left unexplored for either sequels or just the imagination.

But the dialogue is pretty clunky, it does that thing with voiceover exposition to bring the audience up to speed, Elijah Wood's character doesn't deserve to have Elijah Wood play him, and a lot of the CGI is murky and uninspired (though not all of it; there are some cool moments).

For younger viewers - like my 13-year-old son - The Last Witch Hunter is a fine introduction to the genre. But even as someone who's seen a bunch of these, I found it to be enjoyable pulp, too.

34. Goosebumps

Not too shabby as a horror-themed piece of entertainment for kids. It's never really scary, but it's not trying to be. It's genuinely funny in parts too (though it could have used more of Timothy Simons and Amanda Lund as the cops; they were great). And the actors are all good enough to make me care about their thinly-written characters.

35. Tomorrowland

A huge disappointment. The hugest of the year. Before Tomorrowland, I would have told you that Brad Bird could do no wrong. And he seemed like the perfect person to present the ideas of this movie in a great, powerful way. I don't know what happened.

I still love the ideas of the movie, but the problem is that the themes of positivity and problem-solving are reduced to simple plot points. Rather than being what the movie is about, they're just the MacGuffin that the heroes need to defend. The movie ends up being about summer action beats and set pieces, only a couple of which are notable.

36. The Visit

The best Shyamalan film since After Earth.

That's not quite fair. It's probably his best since Lady in the Water, though that's not saying much either. It's an interesting idea and a lot could have been done with it, but The Visit settles for borrowing imagery from other horror movies to talk about how old people are scary.

I could maybe set aside the ageism in that premise if The Visit actually had any thoughts about why some people are frightened by the elderly. But nope. It's as uninterested in exploring that as it is in commenting thoughtfully on its secondary theme about forgiveness.

For all that though, the actors are all a lot of fun to spend time with and there are some great, scary visuals. The imagery may all be borrowed from The Ring, Paranormal Activity, and The Blair Witch Project, but at least it's copying great stuff.

37. Seventh Son

And now we hit the part of the list where I just don't like these movies. I think I knew that Seventh Son wasn't going to be great, but I did hope it would at least be entertaining. It might be fun on a Saturday afternoon on the couch, maybe as a double-feature with Hawk the Slayer, but it wasn't worth seeing in the theater and I feel like a sucker for having spent money on it.

38. Hitman: Agent 47

Boring. Does nothing new. I cared about none of the characters.

It's not aggressively bad, but there's nothing here to recommend. And that's too bad, because I defend the 2007 film starring Timothy Olyphant.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Zarnak: Forgotten Forerunner [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Comics have a great reputation nowadays. The top grossing films are all based on comics: X-Men, Avengers, Spider-Man, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and so on. If you want to sound a little more high fallutin', you can call them "graphic novels," I don't care. Big writers actually brag about writing comics or having a story adapted into comics. This was not always the case.

In fact, it was worse than that. Comics were an infection in science fiction; only slightly less worse than Venusian snot plague. Many SF writers wrote comics, but they didn't brag about it. Henry Kuttner, Manly Wade Wellman, Alfred Bester, Eando Binder, Edmond Hamilton, and Harry Harrison who started out as a comic artist and became a famous SF author. But of all the science fiction comics, there is one that is different. Perhaps especially hated or simply ignored, but unusual. I'm talking about "Zarnak."

"Zarnak?" you ask. Wasn't he a villain in Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane? Nope. Wasn't he a tentacular space monster in Planet Comics? Uh-uh. Wasn't he a Soviet spy who tried to blackmail J Jonah Jameson in Amazing Spider-Man? Never. Zarnak was the only comic character to appear in a science fiction pulp. Not to be inspired by a pulp or to get a comic from a pulp company, but to actually appear in one.

Wonder Stories has a long and complicated history. It began as Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories, then became just Wonder Stories. All three were owned by Hugo Gernsback. But in 1936, Gernsback gave up the pulp game (at least for a while) and Wonder Stories got bought by the Standard Magazine chain, which changed the name to Thrilling Wonder Stories and placed twenty-one-year-old Mort Weisinger in charge.

Lester del Rey explains the change in his The Worlds of Science Fiction: The History of a Subculture (1977):
"The magazine was no longer the same. It was deliberately slanted to a lower age group, far more frankly designed to use action stories than Astounding had ever been, and it included a comic strip inside it. The comic insert was soon dropped, but it had already helped to give the magazine a bad reputation with the older readers."
First off, you can literally hear the contempt drip off Del Rey's tongue at the words "comic strip." Secondly, you notice that he quickly brushes the strip aside, unnamed, and moves on. Granted he was writing a history of science fiction but the abruptness is as typical as his comparison to the holy grail, John W Campbell's Astounding.

I plan to rectify Mr. Del Rey's omission. That "comic strip" was called "Zarnak" by Max Plaisted, a pseudonym of Jack Binder. (Both Binder and Weisinger have big things to do in comics, but more on that later.) Jack Binder was Earl and Otto's older brother (Jack 1902, Earl 1904, and baby Otto in 1911). Jack was the one who spearheaded the brothers' involvement with comics. Earl and Otto formed "Eando Binder" and went on to write such pulp classics as "I, Robot" before Otto eventually joined the Fawcett Comics team and wrote Captain Marvel and later moved to DC to help create Supergirl. Let's just say that Binders and comics went together.

But back in 1936, with a new juvenile pulp to launch, Mort Weisinger had Jack Binder produce "Zarnak," a cliff-hanger strip modeled on Buck Rogers (that had started in 1929) and Flash Gordon (1934).

Zarnak lives on the Earth of 2936, a planet regressed to medieval superstition after World War 5. Building a rocket plane, Zarnak leaves Earth in search of a spaceship that fled the planet and may have the last remaining scientifically civilized humans left. But Zarnak gets into trouble right away when a meteor plugs his rocket tubes. He is headed into the sun, but lands on the undiscovered first planet, Vulcan. There he finds slugs who eat metal and he uses them to unplug his ship and escape. He crash-lands on Mercury and meets the "crazy ones," beings with large, bulbous heads and are ruled by Thark. Zarnak is sacrificed to a giant bird that takes him to a city on the cold side. This city is inhabited by scientists who want to cut Zarnak up to discover the secret of longer life, because they live for only twenty-four years. Zarnak is saved by the beautiful Etarre, who takes him away in her plane, but they are shot down by Thark who puts them in his new machine that is supposed to separate their souls from their bodies. Zarnak fools Thark into thinking they have been freed, lures him to his ship, straps a jet pack on him, and is rid of the fool. The duo flies to the Hollow Mountain where Etarre betrays him to the Supreme One, giant-headed Vaeco, who wants to burn Zarnak alive. Vaeco relents and explains that he and Etarre are from Venus. Etarre was born looking like an Earthling, so Vaeco fled with her to Mercury, where he rules like a god. Zarnak becomes part of the team. He goes on a secret mission to find a rogue scientist living amongst the "crazy ones," finds their secret generator base, and is attacked from behind...

The strip was dropped and the next installment never appeared.

Let's look at the good and the bad now. On the negative side, the science was very poor. The meteor that plugs the rocket tube is hilarious. Zarnak contemplates jumping out of his ship into space, then quickly remembers this is entirely stupid. The characterization of Zarnak and his enemies is almost non-existent. We assume Zarnak is good because he is human and heroic. We assume the scientists and the crazy ones are bad because they are ugly and alien. Was this any dumber than other SF comics being produced? Not really, for the stories in Planet Comics and even the newspaper strips would make similar faux pas. On the plus side, Jack Binder kept the story moving with an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style pace (remember Thark?) He always managed to come up with a cliffhanger too, which is not as easy as you might think with only three pages an episode. The entire thing comes off as a paper version of a Flash Gordon serial. Not the high standard Lester Del Rey wanted and ultimately, neither did Mort Weisinger. Cancelled after only eight episodes, it is hard to imagine Zarnak had any real influence on science fiction. Unlike Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, Zarnak was quickly forgotten.

Jack Binder must have shrugged off the cancellation. He was moving up in comics. By 1942 he had his own comic mill that employed such future stars as Gil Kane, Ken Bald, Kurt Schaffenburger, and Carmine Infantino. Binder himself penciled many of the Captain Marvel adventures written by his brother Otto. Jack closed the studio four years later, moving into semi-retirement, but continuing to pencil comics for a number of years.

Also to be noted: twenty-one-year-old editor Mort Weisinger would end up at DC in 1941. After a stint in the army, Mort became the man behind Superman and Batman, along with Julius Schwartz. It was Mort and Julius who would lure so many of those old SF writers into the DC fold, having first known them as fanboys publishing fanzines and semi-prozines and finally real pulp titles. Zarnak had come and gone, but the authors of Thrilling Wonder still had much to offer comics, bringing in the better science fictional content we take for granted as part of the DC universe.

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.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Movies I Missed in 2015: Part 4

28. The Night Before

I allow myself one Seth Rogen movie a year and intended to make this the one for 2015. The trailer made me laugh and I love Gordon-Levitt and Mackie. Just couldn't make my schedule work.

29. The Good Dinosaur

Wasn't super excited about this even before the unenthusiastic reviews. It's been on Pixar's To Do list for so long that my interest in it peaked a long time ago. But I do hear great things about the background animation in particular, so I'll get around to it one of these days.

30. Victor Frankenstein

Not sure this is going to be my bag, mostly because the tone seems inconsistent even in the trailer. Is it a horror movie? Is it a humorous action romp? Who knows. But I like the Frankenstein story and I like both those actors, so I'll give it a shot.

31. Christmas Eve

Everyone bags on these holiday-titled movies with huge casts of interconnected characters, but I tend to like them. And this one's got Patrick Stewart, James Roday, and Cheryl Hines.

32. In the Heart of the Sea

Sea adventure starring one of my favorite actors right now. Don't know why I'm not more excited, but I feel nervous about this one.

33. The Big Short

Love this cast so much and I hear good things. Not too sure about my interest in the subject matter, but I said the same thing about Moneyball and liked it a lot.

34. The Revenant

Sounds like an amazing experience. Not sure I want to put myself through it. Probably will.

And that's it. Thanks for letting me break this out over a couple of weeks. It gave me the chance to move a couple of films off this list and onto the other one. Next week, I'll start counting down the films I saw - least favorite to most.


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