Saturday, April 30, 2016

See It. Hear It. Feel It. Podcast It.

Hellbent for Letterbox: High Noon 



This was a busy week of podcasting. On Monday, a new episode of Hellbent for Letterbox came out in which Pax and I talk about the Gary Cooper classic, High Noon. But though it may be a classic, we had some big issues with it.



Then we followed that up later in the week with a supplemental episode (we call 'em "Hitching Posts") about a couple of movies that were inspired by High Noon. Sean Connery's Outland is a scifi film with a Western feel that pays homage to High Noon, and then there's the TV movie sequel, High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane starring Lee Majors, Pernell Roberts, and David Carradine. Guess which one we liked more.



Mystery Movie Night: Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, and Graffiti Bridge



The death of Prince put the Mystery Movie Night crew in the mood to watch his movies and talk about them, so we did. Sadly, Erik wasn't able to join us for this one, but he was there in spirit and we had a great discussion about our respect for Prince and the merits and flaws of his films.



Starmageddon, Episode 30 



And finally, the latest episode of Starmageddon rolled out in which we talk about the Rogue One trailer, the trailer for Adam Nimoy's For the Love of Spock documentary, and rumors about the setting and format of the new Star Trek TV series. Are we excited? Uneasy? Only one way to find out.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Scott Rand in the World of Time [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Comics in the late 1930s and early 1940s were a mixed bag. Having spectacular names, promising great entertainment inside, they were generally collections of stock types from the newspaper comic strips, movies, and radio. Each title had to have its Mandrake knock-off, a jungle lord or lady, a Western hero, a naval hero, etc. Amongst these types was the space hero, usually dressed in a one-piece with a fin on the hood. Sporting a ray gun, he rescued space maidens and thwarted the all-too Asian-looking Martians.

Most of the early science fiction comics are just plain bad. Minor versions of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, they are sadly dated today. It's easy to see why SF historians have written them off as largely irrelevant. Still, they are a weak reflection of what science fiction was in the early pulp years. One comic that I find fascinating in this regard is "Scott Rand and the World of Time" by Otto Binder (writing under the Eando Binder pseudonym) with artwork by his older brother, Jack. The three segments that comprise this masterpiece of silliness appeared in Top-Notch Comics #1-3 (December1939-February 1940).

What makes this particular comic interesting is the timing. Jack Binder had previously written and drawn (as Max Plastid) the "Zarnak" comic for Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1936. After that stint, he drew comics for the Harry A Chesler shop, which "Scott Rand" was produced for. This group of creators wrote and drew comics, then sold them to packagers such as MJL who produced Top-Notch Comics. In many ways, Scott Rand's adventures were a continuation of Zarnak's, featuring similar ships and costumes in color.

Also at the same time, Otto Binder was creating science fiction history at Amazing Stories with his tales of Adam Link, the robot ("I, Robot" had appeared in January of 1939). Goofy by today's post-Asimovian standards, these stories were an important watershed for robot characters. So why was Otto Binder writing script for Harry Chesler? In 1939, there were only three solid and reliable SF magazines: Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and Thrilling Wonder Stories. More pulps were on the way, but it was almost impossible to write SF full-time. Otto had to have more markets, and instead of writing Westerns he turned to the pulp's little brother, comics. He would leave Chesler in 1941 to become the top writer of Captain Marvel at Fawcett and later work for DC on the Superman line. Jack Binder left Chesler as well in 1940 to work for Fawcett, Lev Gleason, and Timely, where he worked on the original Daredevil. He would create his own comic shop in 1942 until his retirement.

True to the Flash Gordon formula (which had been around since 1934; earlier if you consider that it stole its inspiration from 1929's Buck Rogers), the team of adventurers in "Scott Rand" has an older, bald, cerebral leader in Dr. Meade. Meade's inventions, such as the time-car, allow our heroes to be heroic. Contrasted to Meade is Scott Rand; young, wavy-haired, blonde, and muscular. Partnered with Thor, a Viking from the year 200 AD, the team has plenty of brawn. Finally, the last member is Princess Elda, who is beautiful and exotic and completely useless, needing to be rescued frequently and acting as cheerleader to Scott or lab assistant to Meade.

The first installment takes Dr. Meade and Scott into the past. They go back to 200 AD and see Vikings attack Rome. The Romans hold their own, killing all but Thor, whom Scott saves. After this, they go to Egypt and save Princess Elda from being sacrificed to the god Ishtar. Dr. Meade, in an unusual show of force, guns the Egyptians down with a machine gun! Putting the time-car in neutral (a phase between time-worlds), Meade teaches the two newcomers how to speak English. It takes a long time but no time at all.

Now the sharp-eyed will notice some stunning errors here. The Vikings as a phenomenon belong to the 10th Century, not the 2nd. Binder has mistaken Goths for Vikings. The "god" Ishtar is actually a Babylonian goddess and was not worshipped by the Egyptians. Otto may have known better, but is writing so fast he doesn't really care. What are a bunch of little kids going to say about it? It only gets better from there. The time-car goes back 10 million years to the time of the dinosaurs! The frisky dinos (one brontosaur looks like it is trying to get intimate with the time-car) are repelled using hand grenades.

In the second part of the story, the crew return to 1940. Thor has a hard time of adjusting, attacking a taxi with his hammer, so Dr. Meade does the only logical thing. He takes them into the future because it is safer. (It's hard to argue with logic like that, but hey, this guy invented time travel.) They land in 2000 AD, in a futuristic New York that is under attack. On a large radio set, they hear that Martians are attacking in a battle fleet. (Here is one of those SF anachronisms that make you smile. Binder can conceive time travel, but not the Internet, or even television for that matter. He's not alone.) Scott and Thor join the military, while Meade goes to work in military intelligence. Elda... well... Elda looks pretty. Scott and Thor are so good at flying fighter ships that the Martians target them, but Scott uses a land gun and takes out the Martian leaders. The time travelers are heroes. (At no time does Dr. Meade suggest they take the time-car into the past and warn the Earth of the impending invasion. Good thing he is a genius.)

The final portion of the tale begins with Dr. Meade and Elda's being captured by Kruzzo the Ice King of Mars. Scott (whose hair is now brown for some reason), Thor, and the unnamed leader of Earth go in pursuit, taking out Kruzzo's pirate fleet near the equator of Mars. Here they learn that not all the Martians are bad, only those working for Kruzzo. The heroes fly to Mars's south pole to infiltrate Kruzzo's base. They sneak in, find the captives, then fight the Martian pirates. Dr. Meade throws a rock into the air apparatus and blows up the baddies while the good guys escape. This last portion seems weaker than the previous two, and no one cried to see the series end here.

So why is "Scott Rand in the World of Time" so bad? Did it not have one of SF's hottest writers at the time? A man who would create Mary Marvel and Supergirl, writing over 50,000 pages of comics in his career? Yes, but "Scott Rand" was early in Binder's career, and written at lightning speed. The comic shops of 1940 pumped out pages at a terrific pace, with little concern for legacy. This was grunt work for low pay. Ideas were stolen, snatched from whatever was hot at the time; whatever was tried and true (though different enough you wouldn't get sued). Even later masters like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby tore through page after page, trying to keep the wolf from the door. The opportunity for greater creativity and care would have to wait until the comics industry abandoned the shop model and replaced it with the bullpens of companies like DC and Marvel. Otto and Jack Binder would make those contributions with Captain Marvel and Superman in the years to come.

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

British History in Film | The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Robin Hood (1973)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)



A wonderful spectacle that includes most of my favorite Robin Hood stories in a single film. And what Errol Flynn lacks in Douglas Fairbanks' sheer acrobatic ability, he makes up in swordsmanship and charm. It's tough for me to pick a favorite between the two of them.

Meanwhile, Claude Rains is a memorable Prince John and Basil Rathbone is always a delicious foil for Flynn. I'm not a huge fan of Olivia de Havilland as Marian - not when I have Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio to compare her to - but she's fine and I have no complaints either.

Robin Hood (1973)



Made during a time when Disney was creating animated features on the cheap, but it's no less charming for that. It's not the best Robin Hood, but it will always be my Robin Hood.

Monday, April 25, 2016

7 Days in May | Corky Romano, Covered Wagon, and a cat in a robot suit

Corky Romano (2001)



It's usually cited as a horrible movie (6% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I think it's hilarious and sweet. It's also plenty dumb, but Chris Kattan is totally endearing whether he's belting out "Take On Me" or dressed as a Girl Scout.

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)



Innovative and clever, thanks to the famous sequence where Buster Keaton's projectionist character dreams himself onto a movie screen. Not one of the funniest Keaton movies, but still charming and wonderful. And while Keaton's Sherlock Jr character is only a dream, I would love a whole series of movies about that guy. He's part Philo Vance, part James Bond, and part Colombo.

The Covered Wagon (1924)



An impressive production with a huge cast and a lot of location shooting. It tells the story of a couple of wagon trains going from the Missouri River to Oregon. The two groups set off together, but differing opinions between their leaders (and some romantic drama between one leader and the daughter of the other) eventually split them up.

J Warren Kerrigan is pretty generic as the young hero who leads one of the trains. And Lois Wilson is just as bland as his love interest. But there are a couple of character actors who keep the movie interesting. Alan Hale (who'd go on to co-star in Errol Flynn movies and was also father of the actor who played Gilligan's Skipper) is appropriately loathsome as the other fellow who wants to marry Wilson's character.

But even better is Ernest Torrence, whom I knew as the heavy in movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Steamboat Bill, Jr. This time, he's playing Kerrigan's friend and guide and it's great fun to see his imposing size and menacing looks used for good. His interactions with Hale are the best parts of the film.

The Navigator (1924)



Possibly my favorite Buster Keaton film. I'm a big fan of nautical stories anyway, but this is also one of Keaton's funniest. The bit with the painting hanging outside his window still never fails to crack me up, but there are several gags like that in it.

Peter Pan (1924)



This isn't just a staging of the play, but it has a real theatrical feel to it. The sets are grand and impressive, but the action takes place only in those certain locations. It's like watching really great children's theater with some lovely visual effects sprinkled in - especially around Tinker Bell. And Ernest Torrence shows up again, this time as Captain Hook. Easily my favorite Peter Pan movie.

reMIND: Volume 1 by Jason Brubaker



It's tough to judge the first of a multi-part story, but I'm eager to read Volume 2 of the series of graphic novels. Brubaker's got a lovely visual style and has created a beautifully mad world to tell his story in. It's got lizard-men, talking cats, robot-suits... lizard-men whose brains have been transplanted into cats wearing robot-suits. And we're introduced to the craziness in a cool, X-Filesy way through a skeptical woman whose deceased father made their village infamous by claiming to see something weird.

Friday, April 22, 2016

One podcast will change two worlds



In the latest episode of Mystery Movie Night, my son David takes the reins to fly us through Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, Hiccup and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon, and Rocket and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. But no, the secret connection isn't that they're buddy movies. Take a listen and see if you can guess what it is before David reveals it at the end.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

British History in Film | Ivanhoe (1952) and Robin Hood (1922)

Ivanhoe (1952)



Last time, we left off with Henry II still king and fighting with his wife about who would take his place. She wanted Richard; he wanted John. If you know nothing else about the history of medieval Britain, you know that Richard won that argument. And you know it because of stories like Ivanhoe and Robin Hood.

I debated which to watch first, but settled on Ivanhoe just to get it out of the way. I love Walter Scott's novel, but the movie doesn't do it justice and weakens the Robin Hood character (which it just calls Locksley). And Robert Taylor's performance as the title character is super stiff. I think he's going for noble, but jeez he's wooden and it's surprising that Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine both go for him. The women are equally great though. Taylor easily makes me root for her, but Fontaine gives her character plenty of complicated emotions, too. I like them both.

George Sanders is doing what George Sanders does as the villain, but I always like that and De Bois-Guilbert is a tragic variety of his typical cad. The jousting scene and the attack on the castle are both a lot of fun, too. Ivanhoe isn't not one of my favorite medieval swashbucklers, but it still has plenty to recommend it.

Robin Hood (1922)



Now for the good stuff. Douglas Fairbanks' silent version of Robin Hood is an origin story, so Robin Hood as we know him doesn't appear until halfway through the movie. That might sound similar to complaints about the Ridley Scott version, but thanks to Fairbanks' impressive charm and some great humor, even the Hoodless half is a lot of fun.

Once the movie enters familiar territory, it gets even better with lavish sets and Fairbanks proving why he's the king of the swashbucklers. Silent or not, this version sets a high bar for other Robin Hood films. Next week, we'll look at a couple of more and see if they clear it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Land of Harvey [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

There is a fantasy realm that was important to my formative years, and it existed in an unusual place. I call it the Land of Harvey. "Harvey Comics?" you wonder. Isn't that Casper and Richie Rich? Yes, indeed, we are talking about the company that gave us the Poor Little Rich Boy and the Friendly Ghost who couldn't find a friend. These comics were very much a part of my youth as they were for millions back in the 1950s to 1980s. Like Archie Comics they are one of those phases you went through, eventually abandoning them for bulging superheroes or Catcher in the Rye.

In our world of The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, World of Warcraft video games and fat George RR Martin bestsellers, it is easy to forget that in the past we saw fantasy just a little bit differently. That mythos that doesn't get any recognition at all, the Land of Harvey, was a fantastical realm where Casper, Spooky, Wendy, Stumbo the Giant, Nightmare, and other characters dwelled. It was a fairly consistent vision of a pastoral and wooded realm with a medieval flavour, though it transcended dimensions as well, like Lovecraft's Dreamlands, lying only a step away from demons and horrors or our comfortable suburban backyards. There aren't any maps or Tolkienesque guidebooks but the Land of Harvey existed all the same in those back issues of old comics for four decades.

Harvey Comics was created in 1941 by Alfred Harvey and published a wide range of comics, though the bulk were for children. The superheroes and newspaper characters fell by the wayside so that by the 1960s Harvey meant the characters we all know, such as Casper and Richie Rich. The company continued on, despite shrinking markets, until 1982. The writers and artists worked anonymously for decades and remain largely unknown today. Unlike their superhero brethren names such as (writers) Sid Jacobson, Lennie Herman, Stan Kay, and Ralph Newman, and (artists) Warren Cremer, Ernie Colon, Sid Couchey, Dom Sileo, Ben Brown, Steve Muffatti, and Joe Dennett did not become recognizable like Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. These men gave us the Land of Harvey, even if only one small piece at a time.

Now there are simply too many individual comic stories to cite from the 400 Casper, 300 Spooky, 120 Wendy, and 1000 Richie Rich comics that were produced between 1941 and 1982. Still, within all those comics certain types of stories become evident.

The first evidence of the Land of Harvey came from another fantasy source, the fairy tale. The earliest Casper comics often relied on fairy tales or nursery rhymes for their characters, as did the cartoons upon which the first comics producers looked for guidance. These fairy tale stories included "Little Boo Peep" in Casper the Friendly Ghost #14 (November 1953), "Little Red Riding Huey" in Casper the Friendly Ghost #13 (October 1953), and Mother Goose in "Mother Ghost" in Casper the Friendly Ghost #19 (March 1954) and "Wolf Call" in Casper the Friendly Ghost #21 (June 1954). Later issues reused the Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks stories but also introduced Mother Nature, Snow White, King Midas, the Sandman, the Fairy Queen, Merlin, Sleeping Beauty and elements from the Arabian Nights. The writers even rose to Greek mythology with a Ulysses special in "The Wanderer" in The Friendly Ghost, Casper #9 (May 1959).

Another favored theme was the quest. These stories would appear in three parts throughout the issue. Most involved a new location in each segment, including castles, forests, and cloud realms. For example, the three episodes, "When Magic Words Fail You," "Monsters and Demons and Stuff Like That," and "The Land of White Magic" in Wendy, The Good Little Witch #89 (August 1975) begins with Wendy's evil aunts turning Danny the Dwarf into a fish. This Macguffin sends Wendy on a quest to find a cure from the Land of White Magic. Her journey takes her into a creepy cave at Mount Happiness where the Scorpion King and his Grabniks try to grab her. She flees into the Demon Hall where demons chase her into the Dragon's Lair, then the Plant People Land, the Land of the Lonesome Ogre, and finally to the Land of White Magic. There she has to work her way through the bureaucracy, but eventually sees King Goodheart, who gives her lodgings, then a cure to the spell. Wendy lays a trap for her aunts when they try to turn Danny into a fish again. This time their spell gives him a big bag of gold. This is typical Harvey quest, following a structure as old as Gilgamesh.

This story features one of the Harvey Comics favorite gimmicks: magical lands. Others include the Land of Make-Believe, Joker-land, Land of the Soap Bubbles, and even the Land of Shangri-La. Other common elements are knights, dragons, castles, giants, ogres, witches, wizards, talking animals, and gnomes. Comics like Stumbo the Giant and Casper and Nightmare were set entirely in this world that never existed. Others like Casper's Ghostland or Spooky Spooktown were a mix between supernatural settings and the fantasy realm of Harvey.

From this you can see the Harvey writers were fond of adopting props from traditional fantasy. While this is true, they did not preclude the existence of the modern world. A motorcar might become lost in that wood or one of the fairies or other creatures might visit our world. The line between them is never really explained, just as scenarios featuring the Wild West, the arctic, jungles, and desert adventures also exist, despite being long since gone from the world. In short, the writers were willing to cadge just about any genre scenario to fill one more issue.

It strikes me that these comics formed part of the basis upon which I continued on into the fantasy genre; the other being old films like The Magic Sword (1962) and Disney cartoons like Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Sword in the Stone (1963). Afterwards, I would read the Oz books, the CS Lewises, the Tolkiens, later-classics like The Last Unicorn (1968) by Peter S Beagle, and lesser fare like The Sword of Shannara (1977). It was the 1970s and fantasy wasn't hard to come by on paper. But before my fantasy experience became truly literary I had sharpened my teeth on these comics. (Not surprisingly, the majority of the fantasy episodes come after 1965 when the Tolkien explosion was beginning in America. The writers at Harvey may have themselves been expressing a fascination with Middle Earth through these comics.) I look back at the Land of Harvey with a fond nostalgia; an appreciation for the consistency of its look and feel. It's a fantasy world I wandered with an uncritical eye and a few quarters in my pocket.

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, April 18, 2016

7 Days in May | Deadpool, Sinbad, and Sherlock Jr.

Deadpool (2016)



The trailers and other marketing for Deadpool didn't make me laugh at all, so I had decided not to see the movie. But positive reviews from friends and critics made me reconsider and with little else going on at the theater that I wanted to see, I checked it out.

And it's not too bad. I was surprised at how much I cared about the character even while I found him and his girlfriend super annoying. Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are great foils whom I enjoyed whenever they showed up, and it was also great to see Gina Carano and TJ Miller. The movie has a cool look to it, too, and I enjoyed the way it used music.

My biggest problem with the movie is that it's just not my humor. I chuckled a couple of times and neither were at actual jokes. They were just nice character moments that I thought were amusing. The jokes were simply more of what the trailer suggested: references to sex, poop, and self-referential stuff like other X-Men movies, Green Lantern, and Ryan Reynolds in general. Basically, it's Family Guy humor. So while I had a pretty good time watching Deadpool, it ultimately didn't feel like it was for me.

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

I remember liking this a lot when it came out, but the animation doesn't hold up by today's standards. Especially the integration of the CGI elements with the mostly hand-drawn cartooning. But for the most part it gets Sinbad right and I think that's what I originally responded to. He's a swashbuckling rogue with a diverse crew who faces various monsters in the pursuit of treasure.

Unfortunately, the treasure is a vaguely powerful object called the Book of Peace, with no explanation for what it does or why it exists in the first place. And the movie pulls Sinbad out of his Middle Eastern setting to plop him into Europe, which is a shame. Other than that though, it's enough in the spirit of the live-action, Harryhausen versions that I have a good time watching it, even if it doesn't have all the charm of those.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

This is one of a handful of silent movies that I'm totally comfortable showing to people who don't know if they'll like the format. Thanks to Victor Hugo, it's a strong story, but the film does great by it. It balances the large cast of characters well, it's funny, it's touching. And of course Lon Chaney's makeup and physical shenanigans are fantastic spectacles.

Three Ages (1923)



One of the first full-length features that Buster Keaton did. There's a racist gag that bothered me, but for the most part Three Ages is great. It explores essentially the same love story in three different time periods, with the same actors playing the same roles in each era.

What it calls the Stone Age could more accurately be described as the Flintstone Era, since Keaton rides a dinosaur and his rival in love owns a mastodon, but that's all for the better. The other two ages are Ancient Rome (featuring a fantastic chariot race and an awesome scene between Keaton and a lion) and the Modern Age. Great gags, great stunts, and charming plots.

The Balloonatic (1923)

A short Keaton film that's not so much about a hot-air balloon as just general outdoorsiness. Some good stuff, but not one of Keaton's best.

The Love Nest (1923)

I didn't realize until partway through that I've seen this short film before. I don't remember where - TV probably - but it's probably one of the first Buster Keaton films I ever saw. And it's a good one with Keaton as I most like him, bumbling into success on a whaling ship under a horrible captain.

Our Hospitality (1923)

A feature-length Keaton film that's super strong from beginning to end. The plot, the stunts, the gags, the characters... all of it. This is more of how I like him: as an unflappable, slightly clueless good guy who knows when to be heroic and when to run away.

The Ten Commandments (1923)

I've been curious about the original Ten Commandments for a long time. The Charlton Heston version was ubiquitous in my childhood and I've always wanted to see where it came from.

The Exodus stuff is impressively spectacular, but it's ultimately just a long prologue to the real story about a pair of brothers with differing views on religion. Sadly, this part is crazy didactic and obvious, with the characters primarily existing to demonstrate the relevance of the Ten Commandments to modern life. It's extremely well acted though and it's nice to see that the spectacle didn't end with the Biblical prologue. The modern segment also has massive crowd scenes and dramatic visual effects.

So it's great from a technical perspective, it's just that the movie's thoughts about religion are rather shallow, focusing on following rules instead of being a moral person. And that's a shame since communicating those thoughts are the entire reason the film exists.

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron



I've re-read this several times (and even blogged about it) and have just done it again in an attempt to catch up to the rest of the series. Barron (a pen-name for Francine Mathews) writes compelling, spooky mysteries in the humor-filled voice of Jane Austen. She includes great details to bring the historical period to life and a fantastic cast of supporting characters who follow Jane from book to book.

This one drags a little for me in the middle, but I think that's because I'm so familiar with it that I'm eager to get to the final revelations at the end. It certainly didn't feel slow the first time I read it.

Polly and the Pirates, Volume 1 by Ted Naifeh

I'm a big fan of Ted Naifeh anyway, but Polly and the Pirates is especially my cup of tea. It's the story of a proper, young girl who's horrified to learn that she's the daughter of an infamous Pirate Queen. Various groups want to use her to find the Queen's hidden treasure and adventure ensues. Naifeh's created a world that's just enough related to our own to feel comfortable, but also fantastically different.

Polly and the Pirates, Volume 2: Mystery of the Dragonfish by Ted Naifeh and Robbi Rodriguez

The sequel to the first Polly and the Pirates adventure is also fun. Robbi Rodriguez' drawing style is different from Naifeh's, but it's appropriate and beautiful. I wish there'd been more volumes, because it's a fun world and these are great characters.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Big they watched! Big they talked! Big their podcast!



A new episode of Hellbent for Letterbox dropped this week, in which Pax and I discuss the 1958 epic, The Big Country, starring Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Chuck Connors, and Sam the Snowman. Also: Pax talks about the TV shows Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Wild Wild West, while Michael mentions Tumbleweeds (1925) and Jesse James (1939). Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck may come up as well.



Oh, and hey! Hellbent for Letterbox has a brand-spankin'-new website, too! I'm gonna keep the Tumblr going as a place to celebrate Westerns with all kinds of random stuff, but now we also have a manageable repository to archive all the episodes.



Meanwhile, over at Starmageddon, we're a little behind the Star Wars news cycle, but still plenty enthusiastic about the head-canon of Star Wars Rebels' Dave Filoni. And Ron describes his recent trip to Disneyland and experiencing Season of the Force.

We recorded a new episode this week where we talk about the Rogue One trailer and lots of Star Trek stuff, so that should drop soon. too. I'll let you know.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

British History in Film | Becket and The Lion in Winter

Becket (1964)



The Pillars of the Earth covers the bloody conflict to see who would succeed Henry I as king. His nephew Stephen is in control for most of the mini-series, but it closes with Henry's young grandson, Henry II finally taking the throne. Although the novel apparently goes farther in history and includes the events of Peter Glenville's film, Becket.

Peter O'Toole is the adult Henry II, who's in a conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. This is a recurring theme, since Henry I experienced the same trouble and - according to Pillars of the Earth anyway - it was the Church's attempt to put a friendlier king into power that caused the whole succession crisis in the first place. In Becket, Henry II irritates the Church further by filling England's top clerical position with his childhood buddy, Thomas Becket. Unfortunately for Henry, Becket begins to take his role seriously, instead of just being the puppet that Henry expected.

It's a great film that's lushly directed and superbly acted. It depicts a fascinating relationship between these two, extremely flawed men, one of whom outgrows the other to disastrous consequences. It's really a medieval version of That Was Then, This Is Now, except that it's really good.

The Lion in Winter (1968)



Not a true sequel to Becket, but it sure feels that way with O'Toole reprising his role as an older Henry II. Where Becket was an excellent relationship story though, Lion in Winter is a drawn-out, family melodrama. O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn are Acting, dagnabbit, and they want to make sure you know it. There's an interesting political drama in there somewhere, but it gets lost in the screwed-up relationship of the leads that we're supposed to care about for some reason.

One of the main things they're arguing about is who's going to follow Henry as king. Hepburn's Eleanor of Aquitaine wants eldest son Richard on the throne, but Henry supports youngest boy John. No one cares about middle-child Geoffrey, except for his buddy Philip, the new king of France. (John Gielgud played Philip's dad in Becket.)

Luckily, the sons are all great. Anthony Hopkins is a tough, but deeply troubled Richard. John Castle is delicious as the scheming Geoffrey. And Nigel Terry is perfectly sniveling as young Prince John. Timothy Dalton is also captivating as Philip. Their performances all kept me going even as O'Toole and Hepburn pushed me away.

Next week, you know who wins the throne. Eleanor gets her way, but Richard goes on a crusade that leaves the defense of his kingdom to outlaws.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Greater Gatsby [Guest Post]



By GW Thomas

I finally got around to seeing the Baz Lurhmann-directed Gatsby starring Leonardo diCaprio and my reaction was odd. As a film it was okay, but what struck me most was how much better it would have been if Fitzgerald had been a mystery writer. Or for that matter, a horror writer. Let me explain...

But first a necessary digression. The two authors who get the lion's share of credit for modern prose style are Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald. This is all nice and fine as long as you live in a bubble. My choices for the top prose modernizers would be Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner. For example, The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway has been in print continuously since 1926. The Great Gatsby was rated 2 on the Modern Library Top 100, while The Maltese Falcon only 56. (Not bad for a serial from the pages of Black Mask!) But the Perry Mason series has sold over 300 million. Gardner was the best-selling American writer of the 20th century at the time of his death. These four authors sum up the popular and the academic version of the truth.

Anyway, it is obvious where my bias is. I am a pulp guy and always will be. Which brings me back to The Great Gatsby. I think the entire story could have been twice as interesting if it had been done as a noir novel. Think of it. The story is not told by failed writer turned stockbroker Nick Carraway, but by the man who is hired to find the killer of the mysterious Mr Jay Gatsby. George Wilson does not commit suicide after the shooting but runs, making our detective have to find him. To untie the knot would require him to find out about Tom Buchanan's affair with Mrs Wilson and beat the snot out of Nick Carraway until he spilled the beans about his cousin Daisy and Gatsby`s obsession with her. George would die in a chase across the New York docks and our detective would the have to find the Buchanan family who have run away, so that he could arrest Daisy for Myrtle Wilson's death. Would he do it? His stern PI code could push him either way. Of course, Gatsby's thug connections could spice up the whole stew with gunmen and roughs. Now doesn't that sound more interesting than following Tobey Maguire around for 2 hours and 20 minutes?

And that's just option one. There's still option two: the horror version. Fitzgerald had the right idea telling the story in a nuthouse. In the best Lovecraftian tradition, Nick Carraway is locked away in Arkham Asylum, spewing his sad, dark tale. In this version Gatsby is not only rich but an inventor and scientist. He has obsessed over Daisy, pursues her cruelly until she kills herself. But that won't stop Jay Gatsby. He resurrects her with a strange formula purchased from a stranger in Geneva, reputed to have once belonged to Dr Victor Frankenstein, combining it with weird experiments by New Englander, Herbert West. Daisy's resurrected self is not like her former quiet and loving personality. Now she revels in killing and torture, and Gatsby is hard-pressed to silence the locals who are missing pets and later, children. It all falls apart when Daisy targets the lover of her ex-husband, Tom Buchanan. In a frantic finale with a lightning storm, George Wilson tries to save his wife, but his pistol shots cannot stop Daisy. In the end, it is Daisy who kills Gatsby (perhaps by ripping his beating heart from his chest and holding it to the sky. The lightning, of course, finishes her off, but leaves poor Nick Carraway eating his own filth in a madhouse.) Now that's entertainment, folks!

Or you can have all that Jazz Age jazz with sleepy yawns, knowing things are only going to get worse when you try to read Tender Is the Night. The night is not tender. It's filled with insane killers and monsters and the wide, dark shadow of Horace Walpole and all things gothic. But not all is lost. There is always "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (and its Brad Pitt movie version), a kind of science fantasy for the gothically impaired. Better still, skip the Fitzgerald altogether and reach for one of Cornell Woolrich's "Black" novels instead. From there you can leapfrog into the sterling suspense novels of Fredric Brown, then rollover into his science fiction. Yes, there is hope. You avoid that early, unmarked grave known as "mainstream fiction." But you better hurry. Baz Luhrmann is eyeing up another version of Cop Rock.

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

7 Days in May | Holmes, Hood, and the Headless Horseman

Nosferatu (1922)



I've seen this so many times, but watching it again, I noticed a couple of story problems. How does Orlok get control of Knock? And Professor Bulwer, the Van Helsing character, has no purpose in the movie. He doesn't even directly interact with any other characters until the very last scene and even then it's only to observe what the real characters are doing.

But the style of Nosferatu is so strong, and Orlok is so utterly horrifying (thanks both to Max Schreck's performance and the way director FW Murnau shot him), that nothing else matters. It's not only the best adaptation of Dracula, it's the best vampire movie ever.

The Paleface (1922)

This lesser Buster Keaton short is full of racial stereotypes and hard to watch. They can't all be winners.

Cops (1922)

I love Buster Keaton's usual brand of slapstick, but the action in this short becomes more absurd than I like. It's also mean-spirited in that a lot of the comedy happens at the expense of innocent people. And finally, the plot that sets up Keaton's being chased by an entire police force is shakier than what I'm used to from him. It's still very funny in places, because Keaton, but not one I'll come back to a lot.

My Wife’s Relations (1922)

This is more like it. Due to a language barrier with a judge, Buster Keaton accidentally gets married into a rough family. As expected though, he stoically and resourcefully holds his own. I especially love the dinner table scene where he can't get a bite of his own food for having to constantly pass dishes up and down the table to the others. I've been there, pal.

Sherlock Holmes (1922)



Sort of "Scandal in Bohemia" meets Young Sherlock Holmes, only Holmes and Watson meet in college. It also plays up Holmes' feelings for Irene Adler (renamed Alice Faulkner, but it's following the "Scandal" plot) to a level that's unbelievable for Holmes fans. And it not only inserts Moriarty into the tale; it makes him the reason for Holmes' becoming a detective in the first place. So, lots of liberties taken here.

It's not a strong mystery either and Holmes says things like, "It's easier to know so-and-so is guilty than to explain how I know it." In other words, it barely feels like Sherlock Holmes. John Barrymore is handsome in the role, but I wish he was in a more faithful adaptation. Enjoyable; just not essential.

The Blacksmith (1922)

A really strong short with Buster Keaton as a blacksmith. I can't tell if he's a partner or an apprentice in the business, but he works with another smith who's played by ubiquitous Keaton co-star/nemesis, Joe Roberts. The two are adversaries, but when Roberts' character finally takes his abuse too far and goes to jail, Keaton takes over the whole business. The gags mostly involve Keaton's destroying everything he touches, but they're all funny and I particularly like the bit where he fits a horse for new shoes.

The Frozen North (1922)

This is apparently a parody of William S Hart melodramas, but I've only seen one Hart movie, so I didn't get the joke. It's strange seeing Buster Keaton play a thieving, murderous villain, but not as strange as the plot, which was hard for me to follow. Some of the gags got chuckles from me, but this is low on my ranking of Keaton films.

The Electric House (1922)

When Buster Keaton is mistaken for an electrical engineer and hired to wire a new home for electricity, I thought the gags would involve his incompetence to do the job (especially since I watched this back-to-back with The Blacksmith). Surprisingly, he does a great job and fills the house with awesome gadgets, including an escalator and a train system to deliver food from the kitchen to the dining room table. The jokes come from Keaton's being the wrong person to operate the house as he demonstrates it to the owners, but once he leaves, that's going to be a cool place to live.

Robin Hood (1922)



It's an origin story, so Robin Hood as we know him doesn't appear until halfway through the movie. But thanks to the charming Douglas Fairbanks and some great humor, even the Hoodless half is a lot of fun. Once the movie enters familiar territory, it gets even better with lavish sets and Fairbanks proving why he's the king of the swashbucklers. Highly recommended. I may even like this one better than Errol Flynn's (which I like a lot).

Day Dreams (1922)

Cute, but slight short film in which Buster Keaton writes letters to his sweetheart back home to report on his progress in building the fortune he needs to marry her. He'll tell her that he's "cleaning up on Wall Street" and she'll daydream about his being a stock tycoon, but of course he's actually a street sweeper. This kind of thing repeats a few times until he finally comes home to reveal his failure and face the consequences. It's a depressing scenario, but the individual gags are still very funny.

The Headless Horseman (1922)

Pretty faithful, silent adaptation of the Washington Irving story. Will Rogers isn't quite as lanky an Ichabod Crane as I like, but he's fine. And the Headless Horseman effects are surprisingly great.

It pads itself out though with extra subplots. There's one about the mother of one of Ichabod's students and how she wants to drive Ichabod out of town because he's not Dutch. And another has Brom Bones try to get rid of Ichabod by making the town believe that the schoolteacher is practicing witchcraft. It's interesting enough stuff, but not necessary, especially when I'm anxious to get to the ghost at the end.

I also don't care for how the movie robs the story of what ambiguity it has about Ichabod's fate. I mean, I think Irving's tale is pretty clear about what happens to Ichabod, but it leaves room for different opinions. This movie picks a side and shows it outright, acknowledging the other point of view, but basically mocking it as nonsense.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling



This is my first time reading this, but I've seen the movie many many times. I enjoyed unfilmed scenes like Nearly Headless Nick's party and the additional tension around everyone's thinking that Harry is the Heir. I also hadn't picked up from the film that Dumbledore wasn't the headmaster during Tom Riddle's day. And the Chamber of Secrets sequence flows a lot better without the long chase.

Like in the first book, Harry's successes rely more on coincidence than I'd like, but all-in-all it's a fun book and I'm looking forward to Azkaban.

Oyster War by Ben Towle

While I love sea adventure stories, very few of them are fully satisfying to me. The Unsinkable Walker Bean is one of those, and now Oyster War is another. It combines Ben Towle's knack for well-researched, detailed historical fiction with exciting action, captivating characters, humor, and lots of imagination. And the book is packaged handsomely in an oversized, hardcover album with thick paper, so it's as pleasurable to hold as it is to read.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Happy Tenth Anniversary, Adventureblog

I don't usually celebrate blogiversaries, but ten years feels momentous enough to mention. Ten years ago today, I thought that I needed a better web presence than the crappy site I'd made for myself and Blogger seemed cheap and easy, so I started this thing. I wasn't sure what I was going to call it (and went through a couple of names before settling on this one) and I wasn't sure how it would be any different from my LiveJournal, which was a thing people used to do. Ten years later, I'm still experimenting and tweaking as I go, but I'm thankful to have a corner of the Internet that's all mine and that people seem to appreciate. Thanks to everyone for reading!

In celebration, here are posters for ten movies that were the tenth in their series. Please enjoy and make sure to grab some cake before you leave.























Pirate cake by Jen Benson at Craftsy.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

British History in Film | 1066 and The Pillars of the Earth



I started this British History in Film project that I was just going to write about in the 7 Days in May feature, but it could make a fun feature in itself, so... spin-off! In last week's 7 Days in May, I wrote about King Arthur (2004) and The Vikings (1958). It's kind of appropriate to keep them separate since both are only historical in the loosest possible sense.

With this post, we're kicking off movies that we can actually put some dates to, because they include actual, historical events and people. Not that historical accuracy is going to be a requirement here. This is purely for fun.

1066: The Battle for Middle Earth (2011)

First up is this documentary-style mini-series about the Viking and Norman invasions of Britain that led to the Battle of Hastings. It's pretty good and takes an unusual approach in focusing on the common soldiers rather than their leaders.

As the title suggests, it draws a lot of parallels with Tolkien's novels, staring with its being narrated by Bilbo Baggins himself, Ian Holm. Some of the connections feel unnecessary, like continually calling the Normans "orcs," but others - for instance, the reminder that England's defenders were mostly humble farmers from the shire - have a bigger impact. What the series never does though is actually mention Tolkien or explain why it's making these connections with his books, so it feels a bit pointless and mercenary overall.

The acting is fair and I ended up caring about the characters I was supposed to. The series also makes lovely use of the beautiful forests of England as the setting for these battles. It wasn't quite the narrative style I was looking for, but it ended up being a cool way to experience the story and learn some history.

The Pillars of the Earth (2010)



1066 covered the invasion of England by the Normans from France, led by William the Conqueror. I couldn't find any movies about his son, William II, but his grandson Henry is king when Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth kicks off. The mini-series opens with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which killed Henry's heir and sent England into a crisis over who was going to succeed.

The conflict around that is the backdrop to another story about the building of a fictional cathedral. The crown and the church and a couple of noble families all struggle for power with the cathedral project often being used as a bargaining chip. I'm gonna call it Game of Thrones Lite, but I don't mean it to be insulting. Pillars is playing in that same arena and is slightly less graphic, but it's also its own thing and totally captivating. My whole family was drawn in by these characters and the drama between them.

It's got a great cast, too, with Ian McShane as a wicked and ambitious clergyman and Matthew Macfadyen as the equally ambitious, but more noble priest trying to get the cathedral built. Rufus Sewell plays the builder in charge of the project and Eddie Redmayne is his apprentice, who also has a secret with important implications to the succession crisis. Donald Sutherland plays a noble who supports the underdog in the dispute, and Hayley Atwell is his daughter, though her role becomes much more important than just that.

I highly recommend the mini-series if you haven't seen it, so I won't spoil it (or 862-year-old history) by saying who wins the crown, but next week we'll pick up with a movie about the reign of that ruler.

Monday, April 04, 2016

7 Days in May | Batman v Superman, more Buster Keaton, and gothic romance

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)



I'd strongly considered skipping this in the theaters, but my movie buddy (and fellow Mystery Movie Night podcast host) Dave helped me remember that we see bad movies all the time. So, with the idea in mind that I was treating BvS no differently than an Uwe Boll movie, off we went.

And it was better than I expected, though that's a really low bar. It's built on the very shaky foundation of Man of Steel, which notoriously presented a brooding, selfish Superman. Because of that, the citizens of Superman's world can apparently react to him in only one of two ways: a god to be worshipped or a monster to be destroyed. One character pays lip service to a third option - that he's just a man doing the best he can - but that's not really explored.

In order to get the fight of the title in, Batman is forced to see Superman as a monster, but in an unconvincing way that makes Batman seem pretty dumb. So most of the movie is a bunch of people acting shallowly or stupidly. Lex has an interesting point of view - that Superman is a god and therefore must be destroyed - but Lex is so clearly insane that it's hard to take him seriously either. He's basically the Joker Lite.

Without anyone to care about, there are no stakes and most of the film is pretty dull. That changes somewhat once Lex's plan finally becomes active though. There's suddenly something to lose (in a contrived and cliché way, but still) and some of the action scenes are pretty cool, if not particularly thrilling. I even like where the relationship between the main characters ends up. It's just boring to watch them get there.

Affleck makes a fine Batman and I'm interested in seeing a solo film with him as long as Snyder and Goyer aren't creating it. Almost as interested as I am in the Wonder Woman film. BvS only teases what the character will be like, but so far so good. I'm hopeful about her and Aquaman's movies, but will need convincing about the Flash and Cyborg.

The Son of Tarzan (1920)

The first Tarzan serial starts off strong as it presents Tarzan, Jane, and their son living as the Greystones (ugh) in England, then works on getting Jack separated from his parents and off to Africa. Once he hits the jungle though, the story becomes repetitive for many, many chapters, with the same two or three people continually escaping from and getting recaptured by the same two or three other people. It picks up slightly at the end when Tarzan finally also returns to Africa and some new things start to happen. But even then a lot of the characters are still going through their usual and repetitive paces.

The print I watched was pretty murky, but the action would be hard to follow even on a clearer print, because the editing is super choppy.

On the positive side, it looks like the actor who played the adult Korak had a nice rapport with the elephant who played Tantor. Those characters made a great team and there seems to be some actual chemistry between them as they roam through the jungle together.

The Haunted House (1921)



Basically a harbinger of Scooby Doo with Buster Keaton (on the run after being framed for a bank robbery) and the cast of Faust simultaneously try to hideout in a house that's haunted by a gang of counterfeiters. Some great gags as usual, but also some truly spooky imagery.

Hard Luck (1921)

All over the place without much story to tie it together. Opens with down-on-his-luck Buster Keaton trying to kill himself in various ways, then turns to a brief adventure of his getting hired to hunt an armadillo, but that quickly becomes a fishing gag that finally leads to escapades at a country club.

There's about three minutes of missing footage, so that might explain some of the disjointedness, but as entertaining as Keaton films always are to me, this isn't one that I'll revisit a lot.

The Haunted Castle (1921)

No relation to The Haunted House. I watched this because someone described it to me as a gothic romance, but the building this takes place in is neither haunted (unless we're talking about the metaphorical sense) nor a castle. The Troubled Mansion doesn't have the same ring to it, I guess.

It isn't a horror picture at all, but a murder mystery that takes place a few years after the commission of the crime. Director FW Murnau's style isn't as developed as it would become in Nosferatu the following year, so except for some awesome black makeup around the lead actress' eyes, it's not even that visually interesting. Fortunately, it's only an hour long. I didn't enjoy it much.

The High Sign (1921)

Cute and very funny short in which Buster Keaton fakes his credentials to work at a shooting gallery. His alleged marksmanship gets him offered jobs to simultaneously murder and protect a millionaire and his daughter. One of my favorite Keaton films.

The Goat (1921)

Hilarious comedy-of-errors about Keaton's being mistaken for an escaped criminal. Lots of slapstick chases with some ingenious surprises.

The Three Musketeers (1921)



Excellent adaptation that doesn't try to cover up the intricacies of Dumas' plot. Milady de Winter's role is simplified by ignoring her backstory, but there's still lots of maneuvering and intrigue to go with the swashbuckling. And Douglas Fairbanks is tops when it comes to swashbuckling, of course. His D'Artagnan can be annoying, but that's as Dumas wrote him.

The Play House (1921)

Sometimes, silent films can lead to some uncomfortable places, like this Keaton short that includes a minstrel show and the star in blackface. That's a quick bit though and the rest of the film is a lot of fun. It starts with a fantasy sequence in which Keaton plays every performer in a vaudeville show plus the entire audience, then goes into shenanigans behind the scenes of the real thing. A big highlight is when he accidentally frees a trained ape and has to perform as its substitute in the act.

The Boat (1921)

Sybil Seely is back! I love her team-ups with Keaton. This one has them as a couple who - with their two young children - attempt to launch a homemade boat. I prefer The Navigator when it comes to nautical Keaton, but still plenty of laughs here. And did I mention Sybil Seely is in it?

The Sheik (1921)

I've always wanted to see this Rudolph Valentino classic, but I didn't finish it. Agnes Ayres plays a spoiled bigot, but she doesn't deserve to be kidnapped and held indefinitely by Valentino's even more unpleasant character. Once they began to inexplicably fall in love, I checked out.

The Castle of Wolfenbach: A German Story by Eliza Parsons



On to some reading, I'm a fan of gothic romances and seeing Crimson Peak last year got me in the mood to read some. I love Castle of Otranto, Frankenstein, and Dracula, though I had a hard time getting through The Mysteries of Udolpho. Jane Austen may have called them "horrid novels," but I have a fondness for the twisty, coincidence-filled plots about guileless maidens and the wicked counts who try to control them.

Castle of Wolfenbach is a good one. It's full of the problems these kinds of books have: everyone is one-dimensional and there are so many counts and countesses that I literally lost track of them all. But as an oasis from more complicated literature, I enjoy the absolute goodness of the heroes in Wolfenbach and seeing the villains get their comeuppance.

Also, in addition to haunted rooms and secret passages, this one's got pirates.

The Octopi and the Ocean by Dan R James

This graphic novel has a cool idea to make humans pawns in the war between the octopi and the sharks. And James' whimsically surreal art makes it even more fun. It can be hard to decipher in places, especially toward the end where the story takes a creepy, darker turn, but it's a great concept and I love looking at it.

The Odyssey (All-Action Classics #3) by Homer, Tim Mucci, Ben Caldwell, and Emanuel Tenderini

The Odyssey isn't one of my favorite stories (Homer's classic is more episodic than I like), but if I'm going to read it, Ben Caldwell's All-Action Classics version is how I want it.

The All-Action series is excellent. It emphasizes the best parts of any book, but in a way that flows beautifully as a story and retains the spirit of the original work. There have been many attempts to adapt classic literature for kids - or just for people who don't think they like classic literature - but All-Action Classics is the best. Caldwell's art is exciting and fun to look at and he's working with writers like Tim Mucci who deeply understand the source material and what makes it great.

My 20 Most Anticipated Movies of 2020

It's fun to think about what's coming out and which movies I'm most interested in, then compare that at the end of the year to w...

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails