Friday, April 28, 2017

Mystery Movie Night | The Music Man (1962), Men in Black (1997), and Mulan (1998)

Erik, David, Dave, and I discuss Robert Preston's cons, Barry Sonnenfeld's creatures, and where Mulan fits into the Disney canon. And of course, the top secret connection that ties them all together.

00:00:49 - Review of The Music Man

00:30:45 - Review of Men in Black

00:54:28 - Review of Mulan

01:11:00 - Guessing the Connection

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

It’s Time for the Jedi to End

Shortly before The Force Awakens came out, I wrote an article trying to get my head around the Star Wars saga up to that point. It's a long read, but the brief version is that I rethought a lot of things, including my feelings about the Jedi and my interpretation of the prophecy about the Balance of the Force. For the Balance, I realized that as portrayed in the prequels, the Light and Dark sides of the Force are not actually about Good and Evil, but about Reason and Passion. Which means that the Jedi of the prequels were not the defenders of Good, but advocates for Reason. And as it turns out, rather complacent, arrogant, and narrow-minded ones.

Seen this way, balancing the Force starts to make sense as a worthwhile goal. Why would anyone want to balance Good and Evil? That's ridiculous. We want that scale tipped all the way over to the Good side. But balancing Reason and Passion isn't just beneficial, it's crucial. And as I argued in the previous article, that's what Luke does.

The teaser trailer for The Last Jedi supports this idea and makes me extremely excited for the new movie. It not only prominently mentions the Balance as a theme; it also suggests how Balance might be achieved.

If the Jedi aren't champions of Good, but of Reason, then theirs is just one way of relating to the Force. It's been the dominant way for however long (I'm not clear on the timeline since it was rebooted), but  Rogue One in particular goes to great lengths to show that the Jedi Way is not the only "good" way. I am one with the Force. The Force is with me.

The Force Awakens does this too, but more subtly. For better or worse, it comes out especially clearly in interviews with JJ Abrams when he talks about going back to a vision of the Force as suggested in the original Star Wars.
"I’m not someone who quite understands the science of the Force. To me Star Wars was never about science fiction — it was a spiritual story. And it was more of a fairytale in that regard. For me when I heard Obi-Wan say that the Force surrounds us and binds us all together, there was no judgement about who you were. This was something that we could all access. Being strong with the force didn’t mean something scientific, it meant something spiritual. It meant someone who could believe, someone who could reach down to the depths of your feelings and follow this primal energy that was flowing through all of us. I mean, thats what was said in that first film!"
We see Rey tap into that with no Jedi training whatsoever (that she can remember, anyway) and Leia's another good example with her raw supernatural connection to Luke in Empire and Return of the Jedi. There are also suggestions that Finn may be Force-sensitive if you want to read some things a certain way. And Kylo has also taken an unconventional approach to mastering the Force. He rejected Luke's Jedi teaching, but it's also clear that whatever Snoke's teaching him isn't precisely Sith, either.

With all that in mind, the very title The Force Awakens takes on an added layer of meaning. Until recently, I assumed that the Force had been sleeping only since Luke shut down his failed Jedi school. But what if the Force has been sleeping for much, much longer than that? Like, since the Jedi codified it and turned it into something specific and scientific. It's not that the Jedi weren't using the Force, but they'd limited it. And now, with Rey's awakening to it, we're seeing the Force awakened as well so that it can be used in new and different ways.

In the Last Jedi trailer, Luke tells Rey to reach out and tell him what she sees. "Light," she says. "Darkness." And finally, "The Balance." And Luke says, "It's so much bigger." Because the Force encompasses so much more than just the traditional Light and Dark sides. The Balance negates the extremes and throws off the limiting definitions that the Jedi imposed on it, so that Force is not just awakened, but now also allowed to grow and flourish.

Luke recognizes this, which is why he also says, "I only know one truth. It's time for the Jedi to end." He's not training Rey to be a Jedi, he's training her to use the Force in this new way, balancing Reason and Passion. Thanks to the way that the Last Jedi was titled in some non-English translations, there was some speculation that the Jedi in the title is plural, but Rian Johnson has clarified that - for him at least - it's singular. "They say in Force Awakens that [Luke] has gone to find the last Jedi temple and Luke's the last Jedi."

And I couldn't be happier about that.

Monday, April 24, 2017

7 Days in May | Fate of the Furious and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

The Tall T (1957)

A while back, Pax and I talked about Ride Lonesome on Hellbent for Letterbox. I like that movie a lot and some of our listeners recommended a few other Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott films, so I picked up a DVD set of six Scott Westerns, four of which were directed by Boetticher. The Tall T is the second of them I've seen now (counting Ride Lonesome) and it promises good things for the rest of the collection.

I have no idea what the title means, but it's based on an Elmore Leonard story, so there's a heavy crime thriller element to it. Scott plays a guy who winds up hostage with some other people to a gang of ruthless bad guys. Mostly the movie is about that captivity and who will survive it, with Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane in the classic MGM Tarzan movies) as a notable (but married) ally for Scott. There's a lot of tension and a lot of trying to figure out how to get out of it. I had a great time.

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Since I finished Season 1 of Disney's Zorro show last week, I took a break to watch the first Zorro movie. I've seen it a few times by now and it's a very faithful adaptation, but I wanted to watch it again right after reading The Curse of Capistrano to remind myself how it handled parts of McCulley's novel. For instance, Zorro's mute assistant Bernardo is a huge part of the Disney show (played by the lovely and charming Gene Sheldon), but the character is in the novel so little that I actually wondered what the point was of having him there at all. The Mark of Zorro includes the character and gives him a lot more to do, including allowing him to hear (the novel's Bernardo is deaf as well as mute). Disney's version is borrowing from Fairbanks' movie, not the book. And that's a good thing.

Another thing I was interested in was how Mark of Zorro handles the secret identity. I was surprised that the novel saves the reveal until the very end, so the reader finds out at the same time as everyone else. I couldn't remember if the movie does the same thing. It was possible that the movie kept that a secret, but that I filled in the knowledge because of my familiarity with the character. But no, that's not it. Mark of Zorro lets viewers in on the deception right away.

That's cool because it means we get to peek at parts of Zorro's life that the book keeps hidden. Like how Zorro comes in and out of his house. Underneath his mansion, he's got a cave with a couple of hidden entrances. There's a shrub covered, horse-sized outer passage, and in the house there's a secret door disguised as a grandfather clock. Everyone knows that Batman was inspired by Zorro, but sometimes we forget how much. It's all based on Fairbanks' version though, not the novel.

Batman could take some more lessons from Fairbanks' Zorro on playing the idle playboy, though. Fairbanks' performance as Don Diego is brilliant. He always looks exhausted and bored, only perking up when he's irritating someone with an unwanted handkerchief trick. In the Disney version, you kind of have to overlook that no one's figured out that Guy Williams' Diego and Zorro are the same guy. It's about as believable a disguise as George Reeves' Clark Kent. But with Douglas Fairbanks, I totally see why people are fooled. And that impressive bit of acting is nothing compared to the unbelievable acrobatic work that Fairbanks pulls off in Zorro mode: leaping around and climbing over sets like he's inventing parkour.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93)

Watched two episodes that were basically Young Indy in Love. As he and his friend Remy are trying to get to London to join the Belgian army, they stop off in Ireland to work and raise money for the final leg of their trip. Indy meets a girl who seems to like him, but she's under the impression that he's rich and she always brings along her girlfriend on dates. I feel like it's supposed to be some kind of life lesson for Indy, but after the relative maturity of the relationship back in Princeton that he totally blew off, I wasn't able to believe in Indy's investment in this one at all.

More effective was the story around the girl's brother, a passionate young man who's interested in freeing Ireland from English control. The brother becomes involved in the Easter Rebellion and I wondered briefly is Indy would be tempted to join up, too. After the easy way in which he was persuaded to join the Mexican Revolution and then enter WWI, he seems like a sucker for this kind of thing. But he doesn't join the Irish fight and the show is smart about why. In contrast to the brother, Indy also meets the playwright Seán O'Casey (Juno and the Paycock) who has his own ideas about what Irish independence means. One of the lessons that Indy learned in Mexico is that war is often messy and that everyone has different ideas on what it's about. It makes sense that he'd pass up Ireland's battles in order to fight a more objective evil (so he believes) on the European continent. It'll be interesting to see how long he holds on to that belief.

In the second episode, Indy and Remy reach London and join the Belgian army. They have some time before they leave though, so they split up: Remy to hook up with a war widow and Indy to go visit his childhood governess in Oxford. Before Indy takes off for Oxford though, he meets a young woman played by Elizabeth Hurley and gets involved in the cause of women's suffrage. This romance is way more believable and touching than the Irish one and I'm as heartbroken as Indy when it doesn't work out (for equally believable and touching reasons). I buy that this was the love of Indy's life and it makes some sense out of his lack of commitment to anyone in the later films. In fact, I kind of don't like that he marries Marion anymore. But I expect I'll get over that when I rewatch the movies.

Underground (2016-present)

One of the things I love about this show is how it has enough characters that it can split its focus from episode to episode and depending on the characters its dealing with, can even change genres. So in the Season 2 episodes I watched this week, one was a Revenant-style survival tale while the other was a cat-and-mouse drama between two old rivals. And every episode just seems to open up more potential for future storylines. There's no end to the breadth of stories possible in this setting. And that most of them feature utterly badass women makes me extremely happy.

The Fate of the Furious (2017)


As much as I'm a fiend for this series, F8 (as it should have been called) didn't even crack my 20 Most Anticipated Movies of the year. That was due to the hackneyed suggestion in the trailer that Dom's going rogue and betraying his team. Since there was 0% chance that his defection was real, I rebelled at the whole concept. And I wasn't crazy about the promise of Jason Statham's Han-killing character joining the family, either. I went into F8 with arms crossed and needing to be won over.

And it was rough-going for a lot of the movie. Charlize Theron is wasted as a super-serious and self-important hacker who growls the worst dialogue I've heard in a few years. "Did you ever think you'd betray your family the way you did today?" And even though I'm all for previous movies' tossing cars between skyscrapers and parachuting them out of airplanes, I found the complications around the New York car chase ridiculous and unbelievable, but still not as fun as skyscraper jumping and automotive skydiving. And Statham's transition to the good guys' side was as clunky as I feared it would be.

But about the time that Helen Mirren showed up, I decided to just jump on board. She's awesome, her relationship to the other characters is awesome, the final chase across the ice lake is awesome (confusingly shot at times, but still awesome), and Jason Statham is the most awesome of all. Enough so that I forgive the movie for making him a good guy, even if I don't completely forgive him for murdering one of my favorite characters. There's a devastating missed opportunity when he doesn't dive out of the airplane with a baby in pursuit of Theron, but oh well. This isn't one of the best Fast/Furious movies, but it's good enough and I ended up having a really good time.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

I enjoyed Jack Reacher and had been looking forward to the sequel, but negative reviews of Never Go Back lessened my enthusiasm and I decided to wait for home video. I'm okay with not having seen it in the theater, but I do like it a lot more than the critical consensus did.

There are some tropy elements like introducing a potential love interest and a possible daughter. And it seems a little weird and unexplained that Reacher is willing to "go back" in the first place. Also, this is far from the first military contractor we've seen go rogue.

But as clumsily as the relationships are introduced, I bought into them once they got going. Cobie Smulders is good as a high-ranking officer who still struggles with sexism and doesn't feel like dealing with it from Reacher, however unintentional his might be. I don't see a lot of stories that deal with systemic and ingrained, but involuntary sexism. Seeing it here made me think about my own actions and attitudes in a way that stories about blatant chauvinists can't.

Danika Yarosh is great as the teenager who may or may not be Reacher's kid. She reminds me a lot of young Anna Paquin and I love how smart and resourceful and tough, yet deeply vulnerable her character is.

And finally, I just got a kick out of Underground's Aldis Hodge as the MP officer tracking down Reacher and Company. Never Go Back isn't as good as the first Jack Reacher movie, but I found a lot worthwhile about it.

Jam of the Week: "High Ticket Attractions" by The New Pornographers

Shut up and dance.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Hellbent for Letterbox | 100 Rifles (1969)

In the most recent Hellbent, Pax and I deal with the shock of realizing that Tom Gries' 100 Rifles is not the light-hearted heist movie that we expected from the cast of Jim Brown, Raquel Welch, and Burt Reynolds. But before we get to that, there's some discussion of the TV show Rawhide, the comic book Brimstone, and the 1965 film Cat Ballou. Closing music for this episode by Daniel Pemberton from his score to The Man from UNCLE (2015).

Monday, April 17, 2017

7 Days in May | Love vs Fear and the Master of Kung Fu

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

I've been cautiously curious about this one. Both Ethan Hawke and John Travolta are actors that I like in certain roles, but I've also experienced annoyance at some of their roles, so I'm never sure how I'm going to react. And all I knew about director Ti West is that he's made a few horror movies that I had no interest in. By all accounts, In a Valley of Violence was a straight-up Western - not a horror movie in a Western setting - so I wasn't sure what to expect.

Fortunately, it's a pretty good movie. Hawke plays a drifter with secrets and a really cute dog. He's passing through the town of Denton when the local bully picks a fight and Hawke humiliates him. Unfortunately, the bully is also the son of the town marshall (Travolta), so things escalate. It's a familiar plot, but Hawke is good as the troubled soul who just wants to be left alone. And Travolta's character is surprisingly reasonable and not at all at the level of wickedness and corruption that I expected him to be. He's perfectly willing to let Hawke go, but is trapped by his loyalty to his less intelligent son.

Taissa Farmiga is also a highlight as a young woman in town who takes a liking to Hawke's character, but Karen Gillen is less impressive as her sister. I usually like Gillen, and her character had the potential for some complexity since she's in love with the bully, but Gillen plays her without any empathy, which means that she didn't create any for me either. She's pretty much perfect for her boyfriend though, since James Ransone plays the bully with no complexity as well.

Back on the positive side, Burn Gorman shows up as a priest who is fairly complicated. He's just not in the movie enough. So I like some of the characters and the action is pretty compelling. In a Valley of Violence isn't doing anything revolutionary, but it's a good, Saturday afternoon, B-Western.

Gojira (1954)

Some friends of ours know that David is a huge Godzilla fan, but don't know anything about the King of Monsters themselves. So they invited us over last weekend for lunch and an introduction. In hindsight, I don't know if Gojira is the best introduction for everyone, because there are some substantial barriers to entry, depending on how you feel about black-and-white and subtitles (we couldn't bring ourselves to show them the English version with Raymond Burr).

i don't know if it's accurate to say that our friends "enjoyed" it, but they at least had their curiosity satisfied and we spent some time at the end talking about the movie in its historical and cultural context. So the purpose of the viewing was achieved and honestly, I don't know that our friends didn't like it. Or if they didn't, why not. The word "interesting" was used, though, and I never take that as high praise.

I still love it though. There's some goofy stuff, but there's also some truly horrific and powerful imagery and I'm always touched by the film's discussion of science and how it's applied.

The Hollow Crown: Henry V (2013)

Since I rewatched Kenneth Branagh's Henry V a couple of weeks ago, I was ready to move on in the Hollow Crown series and see how it handles the play. Branagh is brilliant and jaw-droppingly inspirational in his version, so it would be foolish for Tom Hiddleston to try to top that. Wisely, he understates his performance, which robs power from key speeches, but makes Hal a more relatable character. It's the right way to go. Hiddleston's version is still inspirational; just in a different way.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

We've been watching Firefly lately for an upcoming episode of Dragonfly Ripple. If I'm going to talk about something on a podcast, I'll save my thoughts for the show and not write about it here, but I bring up Firefly because seeing Alan Tudyk made me really want to watch Dodgeball again.

I always have fond memories of Dodgeball, mostly because it's ridiculous and has great cameos. And of course: Pirate Steve. But watching it again, I'm reminded of its many problems. Some of them are dated and unfunny jokes, but there's also structural stuff, like having Pirate Steve disappear from the climax for no good reason and then clumsily rejoin the movie for the very end. Or worse, the way that the heroes' victory is glossed over and explained in a way that makes it sound sure even though it's totally not.

Still, a lot of the jokes and visual gags are still hilarious and I like the overarching message about inclusion and not being ashamed of who you are.

Zorro (1957-61)

I finished Season 1 and it was pretty good, if not entirely satisfying. As I said last week, Zorro's victories had been getting smaller as the Eagle grew in power, but the hero upped his game for the finale and pulled out a decisive victory.

However... it's also apparent that Zorro's victory wouldn't have been so decisive if the Eagle hadn't grown impatient and tried to stage a final coup before he was ready. His allies knew it was a bad idea and withdrew, but he insisted on moving ahead alone, which was a bone-headed play and led to his downfall more than Zorro's skill.

Still, it's a strong run of almost 40 episodes, even if it doesn't perfectly stick the landing. I haven't mentioned him before, but one of the MVPs of the series is Don Diamond as a late addition to the cast. He's brought in as a foil for Henry Calvin's Sgt Garcia; someone for Garcia to boss around, but who doesn't follow orders so well. The two of them are hilarious together and bring a needed, lighter touch to the show just as it's starting to look rather grim.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93)

When the show was originally on TV, I always preferred the older of the two Young Indys (Sean Patrick Flanery). Now I remember why. The younger Young Indy (Corey Carrier) had adventures, but they were generally about his learning how the world works: coming to understand things like art, love, and freedom. Flanery's adventures are about his coming to understand himself.

The first episode I watched this week is a transitional one that has him in Princeton. His mom died three years earlier, so it's just him and Dad. Indy's in high school and dating the daughter of writer/book packager Edward Stratemeyer (The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, etc.). Trying to borrow an automobile for the prom leads him and his girlfriend on an adventure involving Thomas Edison and some spies, which also calls into question the tactics of people like Stratemeyer and Edison who benefit from the work of their nameless and unthanked employees.

The episode's not preachy about that, but it does open the discussion. So while there's still an educational element, it's more sophisticated than what's going on with the Corey Carrier stories. And since Flanery is better able to run and fight and propel his own adventures, the action is also ramped up.

That's also true of the second episode, which was originally the second half of the series premiere. The two-hour premiere was divided into two parts, one with the Carrier Indy and one with Flanery. Connecting the two parts was a story about a jackal sculpture that was stolen from a dig in Egypt. Since the parts are now separated by the way the DVDs are chronologically packaged, the Carrier half ends on a cliffhanger that isn't resolved until years later by Flanery. I like that and the Flanery half does a good job of reminding viewers of the earlier adventure so that the jackal doesn't just come out of nowhere.

What this episode is really about though is the complexity of war. On Spring Break, Indy visits relatives in the southeastern US and accidentally gets caught up in the Mexican Revolution. (There's some weird serendipity working here since I also recently watched 100 Rifles for Hellbent for Letterbox and that also deals with the Revolution, as does The Son, which I'll talk about in just a minute.) Indy joins Pancho Villa's army and is all on board at first (leading me to question how much he was really into Nancy Stratemeyer). He thinks that he's fighting for a good and important cause until he meets an old farmer who sees no difference between the various armies who all claim to be fighting for him, but all steal his chickens in order to do so.

Disillusioned, Indy joins another let-down rebel, a Belgian named Remy Baudouin, in deserting Villa's army to join the fight against Germany overseas. The US hasn't yet entered World War I, but Indy is convinced that there must be a cause worth fighting for and expects that he'll find it in Europe. That's a journey of self-discovery that I'm eager to see.

The Son (2017-present)

A Western TV show starring Pierce Brosnan sounded too good to be true and it turns out that it was. Brosnan plays the patriarch of a cattle family near the Texas-Mexico border. The ranch isn't doing so well, so Brosnan's character wants to convert his land to oil drilling, but he's not sure there actually is any oil and his son who technically runs the ranch is against the idea. It's all family drama; sort of an historical Dallas. Not exactly what I wanted.

And since this part of the show is set in 1915, during the Mexican Revolution, there's also a good supply of timely commentary on modern politics. The white people in Brosnan's community are fearful that the Revolution will spill over to their side of the border, so relations between Anglo and Hispanic neighbors are getting tense. If you don't get enough of that on the news, this may be the show you're looking for.

There's also a more Western part of the show. Interspersed with Brosnan's family drama are scenes from when his character was a boy in the 1840s. His family was attacked by Comanches and he was taken prisoner, so part of the show will be dealing with that. I'd find it more to my taste if I didn't hate the person that kid grows up to be. I don't need to see how he got there. Gonna pass on the rest of the series.

Underground (2016-present)

We started Season 2 of Underground and it's still amazing. It's also still a show that refuses to let me get comfortable with a status quo. Characters die suddenly and shockingly, other characters that I thought were gone make surprising reappearances, and still others go unexpected places and do unexpected things.

What speaks to me most though is the show's consistent theme of sacrifice and compassion; often for people the characters have no prior relationship with. Where The Son is emphasizing the horrible things that people do out of fear, Underground displays the beauty of acting out of love, even when those actions bring suffering. It's not an easy or light show, but it's uplifting all the same.

Shang-Chi: Master of Kung-Fu Omnibus, Vol. 1

I'm 99% sure that my very first Marvel comic was the inappropriately numbered Master of Kung Fu #17. It was only the third appearance of Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu (and son of Fu Manchu), but his first two appearances were in the anthology series Special Marvel Edition starting with #15. When it was clear that he was popular enough for his own series, Marvel just continued the numbering from SME. As far as I knew at the time though, Shang Chi had been around for at least 16 issues before I discovered him.

I wasn't huge into martial arts as a kid, but I very quickly fell in love with Shang Chi. Even more than Batman, he was a relatable hero that I could aspire to be like. I'd never have a Batcave, but I reasoned that if I learned and practiced enough, I could be like Shang Chi.

It wasn't his fighting skill that attracted me most though. It was his cooly stoic demeanor. I wasn't able to fully understand that until reading this omnibus and immersing myself in Shang Chi's personality, but I love him for the same reason that I've always loved Ferdinand the Bull from the children's book. These are both characters who are comfortable in themselves and unshaken by the chaos around them. That's something that I valued a lot as a kid and still do.

I didn't have the ability to keep up with Shang Chi's adventures when I was younger, so it was only in later years that I heard about his globetrotting spy era under the legendary pencils of Paul Gulacy. As a big James Bond fan, I've always wanted to read those stories, so between that and revisting my childhood hero, I was super eager for this series of omnibuses collecting the entire series.

One volume in and I'm not disappointed. Shang Chi is every bit as inspiring as I remember and almost every adventure collected here is a winner. He battles with his father's minions in New York, Florida (hello, Man-Thing!), and the jungles of the Amazon before reaching détente with his dad and joining a team of international spies. It's all beautifully drawn and mesmerizingly written stuff. The one story that didn't work for me is the final, two-part tale in the collection, which is maddeningly surreal and impenetrably enigmatic. That's explicitly the point of it, so I'm not even really faulting it. It was just the single section of the almost 700 pages that didn't work for me on every level. I'm going to take a break and read some Man-Thing (more on the subject of fear) before diving into the next volume, but I already can't wait to get to it.

Batman, Illustrated by Neal Adams, Vol. 1

Neal Adams was a revolutionary get for DC in the late '60s and helped them compete with Marvel's more sophisticated style. It's too bad that the writing was still aimed straight at kids. These stories are all gorgeous, but they're also full of the most ridiculous motivations, coincidences, and plot twists imaginable. That can be fun from a certain point of view, but the childish simplicity of the scripts is jarring next to the innovation and maturity of Adams' art.

Jam of the Week: "Madman" by Sean Rowe

Sean Rowe's deep, baritone voice mixes beautifully with the easy, chill groove in "Madman." And there's hand clapping. I've mentioned before how I like me some hand claps.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Greystoked | Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

A new episode of Greystoked came out this week in which Noel and I wrap up the 1920s with David again as our guest. This time we talked about director Henry McRae's 15-chapter serial Tarzan the Tiger, starring Frank Merrill as Tarzan, Natalie Kingston as Jane, and Kithnou as Queen La of Opar. There's treasure, amnesia, and (thanks to this being a transitional film into the sound era) our first listen at a Tarzan yell.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The City of the Spiders: H Warner Munn's Forgotten Classic [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The early issues of Weird Tales are full of surprises. They leap out at you when you aren't expecting them. The stories before 1935 are especially hard to locate unless they were written by Seabury Quinn, HP Lovecraft, or Robert E Howard. H Warner Munn's short novel, "The City of the Spiders," (Weird Tales, November 1926) is a case-in-point. This wonderful old story is largely forgotten despite being one of the best tales of giant spiders ever written. EF Bleiler says it was well crafted and unappreciated, unlike Munn's more famous werewolf clan stories. I was completely unaware of the tale until I came across it in Famous Science Fiction #4 (Fall 1967). Once again I am indebted to Robert AW Lowndes for knowing better.

Appearing in that November issue of 1926, Munn's work did not receive the cover, despite being the best story in the issue. The cover went to EF Hoffman's "The Peacock Shadow," a story that might have been better in WT's sister magazine, Oriental Tales; not yet created (1930-34). Hoffman's tale would certainly have pleased Farnsworth Wright better, as Wright was always looking for a reason to put a half-dressed (or less) woman on the cover and Munn's story has no love interest. But a little digging also found that the cover of June 1925 bore an Andrew Brosnatch illo for Paul S Powers' "Monsters of the Pit," featuring a man attacking a giant spider with an ax. Perhaps Wright simply felt that he'd "been there; done that".

The plot of "The City of Spiders" has Jabez Pentreat, the leader of an expedition in South America, pushing his local bearers into an unknown part of the jungle where their camp is surrounded by large, venomous spiders. The men keep the arachnids at bay with fires and push on. The second attack has larger, grey and red spiders intelligently organizing the mass of crawlers. Pentreat and his men try to flee the jungle but are herded to an ancient city swarming with arachnids. They see other animals such as snakes and jaguars corralled and killed to feed the vast army. The narrator expects to be eaten by the rulers of the city:
“In answer, I heard thuds on the low roofs as trap-doors fell back, and from each structure crawled a creature that dwarfed our captors into insignificance. It was a disgusting, heart-stopping sight, and our stomaches retched as we saw eight enormous spiders, each the size of a horse. But it was not their incredible size and filthiness, nor their bloated bodies which betokened an unthinkable age, that so horrified our souls! It was the look of an incredible, superhuman knowledge within their eyes, a knowledge not of this earth or era, a look as they saw us that might shine in the eyes of Lusifer, conscious of a kingdom or a world that had been gained, ruled and lost! And I knew that they looked upon us as an upstart race, born to serve, that had by a freakish accident turned the tables on our masters.”
Pentreat is saved by the spider king for another purpose. Using a weird form of mental link, the spider king invades Pentreat's mind and sees the vast populations outside the jungle. Munn has some fun with this as the narrator remembers old friends and wonders why he did not pounce on them and suck their blood out. Realizing these are not his thoughts, Pentreat delves deeper into the spider's memories and discovers that men once served the spiders and suffered under their depredations. Pentreat promises those lost people that he will avenge them.

The spiders retain memories genetically, so more history lessons follow, with humans serving as slaves in the ages before the dinosaurs. Rebellious men are fed as an object lesson to a form of gelatinous slime that lives in the water. Munn, like Robert E Howard with his "Hyborian Age," creates a pseudo-history that involves conquering armies of beast-men and spiders until the Ice Age forces the spiders to evolve into smaller, hairier animals; losing their sway over the humans. In a long, dangerous migration, a small band of spiders make it to the equatorial jungles and survive in their city, rebuilding and waiting to take the world back. Munn ignores timelines and slow evolutionary forces much as Howard did, arriving at an age in which humans forget they were once slaves to the spiders. Munn would return to this form of fantasy-history in his Merlin saga - King of the World's Edge (Weird Tales, September-December 1939), The Ship From Atlantis (1967), and Merlin's Ring (1974) - and then actual historical fiction in his Roman novel, The Lost Legion (1980).

The novella ends when the spiders give Pentreat the choice between death or leading them to civilization. He obliges them, all the while planning his escape. This comes when the spider army meets up with a group of headhunters. Pentreat ruthlessly sacrifices the natives when he escapes in a canoe, setting a forest fire behind him. All the spiders and headhunters are burned alive except for the spider king who escapes long enough to make it to the river where the piranhas finish him off. Pentreat returns home to tell of the spiders and is laughed at. He plans to go to the Arctic and locate evidence of an early race of men killed by the spiders and vindicate himself. Munn ends with the explanation for humans hating spiders instinctively: a racial memory of our long enslavement by spiderkind.

The giant, killer spider theme used for a combination of SF and horror (as opposed to fantasy, which has plenty of giant arachnids of its own) can be traced back to HG Wells and "The Valley of the Spiders" (Pearson's Magazine, March 1903). Murray Leinster may have been the first to have gigantic spiders in his series: "The Mad Planet" (Argosy, June 12, 1920), "The Red Dust" (Argosy All-Story, April 2, 1921), and "Nightmare Planet" (Science Fiction Plus, June 1953). Others before Munn include Paul S Powers' mad scientist story "Monsters of the Pit" (mentioned above) and Edmond Hamilton's "The Monster-God of Mamurth" (Weird Tales, August 1926), which has a giant invisible spider.

After 1926, Edmond Hamilton created a race of giant spiders in "Locked Worlds" (Amazing Stories Quarterly, Summer 1929), SP Meek wrote "The Tragedy of Spider Island" (Wonder Stories, September 1930), and Edgar Rice Burroughs featured giant jungle spiders in Pirates of Venus (Argosy, 1932). There were also giant spiders in "The Wand of Doom" by Jack Williamson (Weird Tales, October 1932) and Fritz Leiber used a giant arachnid for horror purposes in "Spider Mansion" (Weird Tales, September 1942), while Richard Matheson made men small in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956) and then matched them against real spiders. Many horror writers such as MR James, Erckmann-Chatrian, Basil Copper, and Ramsey Campbell have all used spiders to create thrills. Perhaps the closest to HG Wells is John Wyndham's last novel, Web in 1979.

Munn's inspirations may not have been Wells' alone but his friend and colleague, HP Lovecraft. Munn's super-intelligent spider king from out of the ages has that same elder evil that Lovecraft gave to his creations. And again, here is where 1920s Weird Tales fiction is so refreshing. Unlike all the later August Derleth-driven pastiches, Munn is working in a Lovecraftian mode but not trying to imitate the master. As with Fritz Leiber's later horror classics, Munn is Lovecraft's equal; not a slavish imitator.

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

7 Days in May | Brenda Starr and Operation Kid Brother

Brenda Starr (1992)

This movie came up on an episode of Nerd Lunch that I was on last year and it got me curious to see it. I remember when it came out, but I'd skipped it because a) it was during that whole glut of disappointing, early '90s comics/pulp movies, and b) I've never cared anything about the comic strip it's based on anyway. But then I learned that the plot involves Brenda Starr's getting in an argument with the cartoonist who draws her, so she disappears from the strip and he has to enter Cool World or whatever to bring her back. As low as that put my expectations, there was no way I could be disappointed. I figured I could at least watch a little and turn it off partway if it was unbearable.

Shockingly, I love every minute of the thing.

I've never read Brenda Starr, so I don't know what kind of tone it had, but certainly there are some outlandish things about the concept of a glamorous, adventure-having reporter. What's great about the movie is that it neither downplays nor ridicules those elements. It celebrates them and holds them up as sources of pure joy. Brooke Shields is amazing in the role as an absolutely perfect fashionista. And so is Timothy Dalton as the dashing, eye-patched Basil St John. Eddie Albert from Green Acres is basically playing Chief O'Hara in an early scene, but the real scene-stealers are Jeffrey Tambor and June Gable (Joey's manager Estelle on Friends) as a couple of KGB agents. The movie is funny and I laughed out loud many, many times. I kept waiting for the movie to turn on me, but it never did. Even the weird cartoonist-entering-his-work plot makes a kind of sense as a story about a passionless, mercenary artist who discovers the joy in what he's doing and falls in love with his subject.

The movie's not available on streaming, but I found a cheap DVD and blind-bought it. I'm glad I did, because I'll be watching this over and over again.

Operation Kid Brother (1967)

I stumbled across this one a couple of years ago when I was doing that whole James Bond series here on the blog, but just now got around to watching it. It presents itself as a parody of Bond movies, but I don't know if it really is. No more so than You Only Live Twice was anyway, which came out the same year.

This one stars Sean Connery's younger brother Neil as a gifted plastic surgeon who's also the younger brother of a famous secret agent. The movie is goofy about how much it wants to suggest ties to Bond continuity, so the main character is actually named Neil Connery even though it's clear that his older brother is supposed to be James Bond. And the two government representatives who recruit Neil are played by Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell, who are still clearly playing M and Moneypenny, even though their names are now Commander Cunningham and... well... Maxwell (Max, for short).

There are bunch of other Bond alumni reprising similar roles, too. Anthony Dawson is the head of the evil organization Thanatos, for example. Dawson is most recognizable as Professor Dent in Dr. No, but he also played the faceless Blofeld in From Russia With Love and Thunderball. His number two in Thanatos is played by Adolfo Celi, who was SPECTRE's Number Two in Thunderball. And From Russia With Love's Daniela Bianchi is again an enemy agent who falls for the hero and switches teams.

Neil Connery the character is an amazing man who's not just the world's top plastic surgeon. He also has super-hypnotism powers and is an expert archer and hand-to-hand fighter. My only disappointment with him is that Neil Connery the actor was sick when it was time to dub his lines, so the character has a bland voice with no trace of a Scot accent.

Operation Kid Brother isn't a great movie. It learned some of the wrong lessons from Thunderball, so several sequences are pointlessly overlong. And none of the bit actors are very good. But it's such a weird, fun little movie that I had a great time with it anyway. And it also gives us Ennio Morricone's (working with Bruno Nicolai) version of a Bond score. Well worth checking out for Bond fans.

Return to the Lost World (1992)

I actually watched this last week and forgot to mention it. There aren't really any surprises in this sequel to the Lost World adaptation from the same year. That movie ends by unsubtly foreshadowing how the gang's going to get back together and then they do exactly that in the second movie. And because part of the first one's formula was Professor Challenger and his rival's overcoming their differences, Return opens with them feuding again so that they can repeat the same beats in their relationship.

The special effects aren't any better this time around, either, but I did enjoy Return just slightly more than its predecessor, simply because I wasn't comparing it to Arthur Conan Doyle's novel anymore. Not enough to make me recommend it, but at least I was able to stay more-or-less engaged.

Stripes (1981)

Continuing from last week's watching of Airplane! and Caddyshack, we showed David a couple of more '80s comedies. He's a big Bill Murray fan, so Stripes was a necessity, even though it's not my favorite. There are some great gags, but I always lose interest after the characters graduate basic training. The movie should have ended there and lost the whole, tacked on, weaponized RV plot.

That would have given more time to sell the animosity between Murray's character and the drill sergeant, which is pretty loosely sketched out. Sometimes they seem to admire each other and other times they hate each other, but it's all as the plot dictates, not because it feels like a real relationship.

Big (1988)

Diane's birthday was this week and she requested that we watch Big. It's been a long time since I've seen it and I'd forgotten how much of a revelation Tom Hanks' performance was. This was the moment when we all started realizing that he was capable of much more than Bachelor Party and Volunteers (as much as I like those movies). He's really phenomenal in this, especially in the early scenes where his character is afraid and still getting used to his grown-up body.

It's a little weird that Elizabeth Perkins isn't more weirded out than she is when she finds out she's been sleeping with a 13-year-old, but that bit of creepiness aside, Big holds up as a lovely, touching movie.

Zorro (1957-61)

Almost done with Season 1 and things are getting pretty bleak for our hero. He manages to pull out some kind of victory each week, but they're smaller and smaller as the Eagle gains more and more power, even taking over Don Diego's home. Can't wait for the season finale.

Opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Since I finished the Young Indiana Jones episodes with 10-year-old Indy, I took a break from the show this week to watch the prelude section of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So now Indy has his hat and his scar and I'm ready to watch him go to war in the rest of the TV series.

It was jarring to see the character in such an action-packed adventure after the educational journeys of the TV show. And I wonder what kind of tone the Teenage Indy episodes will take. I remember plot details, but not so much the overall feel.

Underground (2016-present)

We finished Season 1 and Oh My God. I'm loving this show.

Last week, I was concerned that the show was going to drag out the drama around some secrets in a relationship that I otherwise really like. But instead, it ripped that Band-Aid right off and forced the characters to deal with the repercussions. Or at least to start dealing with the repercussions. I have no doubt that it's going to come back to bite them, but at least there's no prolonged lying and delaying the inevitable. Excellent work, show.

More than that, though, I love how the final episode of the season pulled out some awesome twists while wrapping up some plots and teasing the direction of the show in Season 2. The new season is in progress as I'm writing this, but I've got the episodes so far queued up on my TiVo and ready to go.

The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley

Watching the Disney Zorro TV show got me curious to finally read the original story and it's a good one. The 1920 Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks closely follows the novel's plot, so there weren't a lot of surprises in the novel, but there are some.

For one thing, Zorro's mask isn't the kind that's traditionally associated with the character. Fairbanks' mask influenced the popular image, but the mask in the novel is like the one on the cover above. It covers Zorro's (or Señor Zorro, as he's always called) entire face so that he has to lift it in order to eat, drink, or kiss. I'm not a fan, but I'm curious to see if McCulley changed it in the stories he wrote after the Fairbanks movie.

An even bigger surprise was that McCulley keeps his readers in the dark about Zorro's secret identity until the very end. Don Diego is all in the novel, but the reveal that he is also Zorro is meant to be as much of a shock to the audience as to the other characters in the book. That's as impossible for modern readers as keeping the Vader-Luke relationship a secret is for first time Empire viewers, but it's still cool to imagine how the original readers must have reacted.

Related to that, it was also news to me that The Curse of Capistrano is a complete novel with a definite ending and no set up for sequels. McCulley ends the book with Zorro's enemies defeated and his identity revealed, since it's no longer needed. But since the success of the Fairbanks film created a demand for more Zorro stories, I'm curious to see how (or even if) McCulley dealt with that in future installments.

Jam of the Week: "Carter & Cash" by Tor Miller

I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it, just because of it's light beat and playful melody, but I didn't immediately understand the reference in the title. It was calling to mind Tango & Cash, which led me down the completely wrong trail. And then I realized that it was holding up June Carter and Johnny Cash as an example of enduring, faithful love and I fell for the song even harder.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Happy Birthday, Hellbent for Letterbox!

Hellbent for Letterbox hit its one-year anniversary in February and we celebrated (by which I mean that we didn't mention it at all) by recording a pretty cool double-feature focused on the twin Wyatt Earp movies from 1993 and '94.

In the first episode, and after a brief in memoriam for Bill Paxton, Pax and I joined up with my pal and historical-adventure comics writer/artist Chris Schweizer (The Crogan Adventures) to talk about Tombstone. Chris brought his extensive knowledge of the original script and the turbulent making of the film. We discussed what works, what doesn't, and how the movie got that way.

And in "Whatchoo Been Westernin'?" we covered Jeff Guinn's Earp book The Last Gunfight, the recent Western episode of Timeless, and a couple of not-so-recent episodes of Tales of Wells Fargo.

Chris was kind enough to stick around for the second episode as well, in which we talked about Lawrence Kasdan's 1994 biopic starring Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid. We discussed some of the history of the movie, Costner in general during the mid '90s, and we compared the movie a lot to Tombstone. It's a good, juicy discussion.

And in "Whatchoo Been Westernin'," there was quite a bit of Zorro talk, but also a Manifest Destiny update and Chris introduced us to the TV show Yancy Derringer.

And finally, a lot of our discussion with Chris happened outside of the shows we recorded, so we also put out a mini, Hitchin' Post episode where we talked about a bunch of different Western movies and books.

Monday, April 03, 2017

7 Days in May | Battle Royale and The Last Man on Earth

Battle Royale (2000)

As a fan of the Hunger Games books, I got irritated when the movies came out and snotty people were all, "I liked it better when it was called Battle Royale." Yes, yes, you're very hip. But it did put the movie on my radar, so I'm grateful for that. It's a good film.

I still don't think it's smart to compare Battle Royale and Hunger Games though. The similarities are striking, but superficial. They're both about dystopian futures where kids are forced to battle to the death for public entertainment, but each is trying to do something different. For Battle Royale, it's a brutal and memorable analogy for middle and high school. Instead of being so embarrassed that you could just die... well, you could just die.

But that's as deep as it goes. I like the characters in Battle Royale just fine, but they're all simple archetypes; characters we've seen a billion times in a billion different teen movies. Only this time they're trying to murder each other. I dig Battle Royale, but I was way more invested in Katniss and her choices.

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Probably my favorite adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, though I should give The Omega Man another try. I still have problems with The Last Man on Earth, though. Vincent Price is great, as usual, but the other actors aren't convincing and the ending - while a fascinating idea - doesn't pay anything off. The movie seems to be a survival tale, but decides at the last minute that it's really a social commentary of some kind. Except that I'm not clear on what comment it's trying to make; certainly nothing that was set up earlier in the story. It's a pretty cool twist; I just wish it was a more powerful one.

Airplane! (1980)

We talked about Police Squad on a recent episode of Dragonfly Ripple and that got me wanting to share Airplane! with David. Finally pulled the trigger on that and it was a big hit. A lot of the jokes are dated cultural references, but for the most part it's timeless, goofy humor that still holds up.

Caddyshack (1980)

Airplane! got me thinking about other '80s comedies that David hasn't seen yet. And since he's a big fan of the original Ghostbusters, I figured some classic Bill Murray (directed by Harold Ramis, no less) was the way to go. And it was joyous. Caddyshack easily has my favorite roles for Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Ted Knight, and possibly for Rodney Dangerfield, too (though I need to give Back to School another look). That gopher puppet is adorable and the Kenny Loggins theme is second only to "Holiday Road." There are a couple of weird, pointless sidebar scenes to endure, but for the most part it's just one memorable gag after another.

Zorro (1957-61)

Still loving this show. This week some new villains were introduced with a multi-episode plot about stolen treasure that's being used to finance the Eagle's takeover of California. And while Zorro competently overcomes every individual threat, there's the growing sense that he's getting in over his head when it comes to the Eagle's larger organization. The stakes are raising nicely as we head towards the season finale.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93)

In the last couple of episodes with the younger of the two Young Indianas, the Jones family visits India and China. I quite liked the China episode in which the gang makes an excursion far into the countryside without Indy's dad and Indy comes down with typhoid. Even knowing that he has to make it, I was still impressed with the performances, especially by Ruth de Sosa as Indy's mom. She was convincingly terrified that her son was about to die. And though I grew impatient with her hesitation to try Chinese medicine, I understood every decision she made.

The India episode wasn't as touching, but it did make me realize how effective the educational component of the show is. I mentioned last week that I thought the Jones' discussion of philosophy was over-simplified. The show did the same thing in this episode while talking about world religions. But seeing it repeat that tactic made me realize that it's intentional. Like with the geographical and historical elements, the show gives just enough information to tease my curiosity. I've had to pause every single episode at some point to hop on my phone and research one of the characters. In this case, it was Jiddu Krishnamurthi and the fascinating Theosophy organization that made him famous.

Underground (2016-present)

Nearing the end of the first season and the show's getting rather heart-breaking. Some of my favorite characters aren't going to make it.

And others are making some hard decisions that I'm not on board with. I don't know what it says about me that I'd rather see a woman kill a man than have sex with him to buy his silence (especially when her husband is someone else I like), but I would. I don't like that kind of secret in a marriage that I've grown to admire, so I'm hoping that gets resolved quickly and doesn't sit and fester in order to propel more drama. It was something similar that killed my interest in Downton Abbey.

Totally willing to keep going for now, though. I'm still very invested in the surviving runaways and there's some folks who need some comeuppance that I really want to see.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

I'm a slow reader, so I won't always have books to talk about each week, but as luck would have it, I finished three of them last week.

The Wind in the Willows is beautifully pastoral.  Its opening chapters read like a series of short stories about the same, recurring characters. Since I was mostly familiar with Disney's very loose adaptation, I was surprised and pleased to find so much of the book's focus on Mole and Rat. They're pleasant characters who live in a pleasant place and Grahame's wonderful descriptions make me want to live there, too.

I love his prose and especially the observations he makes about human (or animal, I guess) nature. I was completely hooked as soon as I read Mole's thoughts about vacations: "...he somehow could only feel how jolly it was to be the only idle dog among all these busy citizens. After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working." Grahame gets me.

There are stories about hospitality and homesickness and curiosity and traveling and worship and they're all lovely. As they progress, Badger and Toad enter the tales and the stories start to become more connected, so there's a strong narrative pushing through by the end. That's the part that Disney latched onto, and it is entertaining, but it's not the best part to me. The earlier, quieter chapters are the ones that are going to stick with me for a long, long time.

Grandville: Mon Amour by Bryan Talbot

An excellent sequel to Talbot's Grandville. Like it's predecessor, it successfully combines mystery and political intrigue with some horror and lots of talking animals. I really enjoyed reading this so soon after finishing The Wind in the Willows, just because of how radically different they are using so many of the same building blocks.

Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan Omnibus by Various Creators

I knew that Dark Horse had an ongoing Tarzan series in the '90s, but I'd never read it and incorrectly assumed that it was like most ongoing comics series: more or less telling a continuing story of the adventures of a primary character. This omnibus collects the entire run, but it reads like an anthology of individual mini-series. Every few issues brings not only a change in creative teams, but in overall tone and genre. There's no house style connecting them.

Which can be a strength and it mostly works for the collection. I enjoyed some stories more than others, of course. My favorites were the ones with Tarzan in New York encountering a variety of historical figures and literary monsters. And I especially enjoyed the art of Thomas Yeates in the closing story, even if I wasn't as crazy about that story in which Tarzan travels to the future to fight creatures from Edgar Rice Burrough's The Moon Maid.

Jam of the Week: "You Don't Know" by Scarlett & Black

I recently head this playing in a Taco Bell and it brought back all kinds of memories. It was used in the 1987 Jon Cryer movie Hiding Out and was my second favorite song on that soundtrack (after the kd lang/Roy Orbison team-up on "Crying"). I don't know if you can even call Scarlett & Black a one-hit wonder, because this song wasn't much of a hit, but it holds up for me and I love how Robin Hild belts out the title lyrics towards the end.


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