Monday, July 26, 2021

I Finally Watched Masters of the Universe: Revelation

By the power of geekdom, how can folks not like Masters of the Universe: Revelation? I'm not sure, because it is an epic, summer blockbuster movie in five episodes with one massive cliffhanger.

My (Lack of) Background with MOTU

I have none. Zero. While showrunner, Kevin Smith, and I are both from Generation X, I'm two years older than he is. As such, back in 1983 when the original cartoon debuted, I had just aged out of the target audience for He-Man and his toy line. I was a Star Wars kid who owned a ton of those toys, but I was just not interested in MOTU. Even when Return of the Jedi landed in theaters, I didn't buy a single ROTJ toy. I had just graduated from middle school. I was heading into high school in the fall of 1983. I was, I suppose, growing up, and leaving toys behind.

That said, I knew a few things. I knew that the hero was He-Man, his lady friend was She-Ra (literally thought that was her name until I started watching Revelation), and his enemy was Skeletor, a dang cool-looking villain. And I knew the setting was Grayskull which, when you looked at the name and the visuals, I just assumed was where Skeletor lived. Other than that, I knew next to nothing about MOTU and never bothered to learn. I didn't even see the live-action movie with Dolph Lundgren. Even when He-Man made an appearance in DC Comics alongside Superman, I probably just shrugged and waited until the next issue. Needless to say, I barely gave MOTU any thought.

My Background with Kevin Smith

I had never seen any of Smith's films until 2019 when I saw all of them. For me, he was a podcaster, the host of Fat Man on Batman. I loved his deep dives into Batman, the comics, and all the things that excited him because they also thrilled me. I wrote a blog series back in 2019 where I finally watched and reviewed all his films (and my favorite often surprises people) leading up to Jay and Silent Bob Reboot's release. (Every post began with "I Finally" so I kept it here, too, even though MOTU: Revelation is brand-new.) I saw it at a special screening here in Houston with Smith and Jay Mewes in attendance. It was a great night.

Along the way, writer Marc Bernardin joined Smith as a cohost for Fat Man on Batman that morphed into what it is now: Fatman Beyond, a podcast where Kevin and Marc talk about geek news, take questions from the audience, and generally weigh in on all things geek. Over the years, however, the writing lessons of Marc and his in-depth commentary on movies and story, have become an education for anyone who cares to listen. He has a way of cutting through all the clutter and getting down to the crux of a story and why it ticks or doesn't. I started transcribing Marc's comments into a quote folder. While I am very much like Kevin when it comes to emotionally reacting to various things (audience reaction videos to the end of Avengers: Endgame get me every single time), I grew to love Marc's pronouncements on story. It's helped my own writing immensely.

Enter MOTU

Having 'caught up' with Smith's filmmaking, I was in the bag for anything he'd do next. I watched his TV episodes when he directed The Flash and Supergirl, but I wondered what his next big thing would be. When he and Marc announced that it would be an update to MOTU, I likely screwed up my face and uttered a "Why?" aloud for no one to hear. Seriously? He's gonna do an animated show about that toy line back in the 1980s that I didn't care about then or now? 

Yes he was. And the more he talked about it, the more I listened. It wasn't like I could fast-forward through one of the podcasts. Well, I could, but who knew how long it would take for notorious talker Smith to stop talking about MOTU and get on talking about Batman, Marvel movies, or anything else I knew about.

So I listened to everything. And what came through was Smith's boundless enthusiasm. But a key to this excitement for the franchise was not merely the thing he was hired to do. It was enthusiasm for the franchise itself. He loved MOTU and it came through in his voice. It would be something he genuinely wanted to see even if it he wasn't the showrunner. Over time and multiple podcasts, he wore me down. 

When I watched those trailers, I recognized what he and the entire creative team had done: update the visual look from the original Filmation version to a 21st Century sensibility. I started to get excited for this franchise I had never seen.  I knew that whenever MOTU: Revelation dropped, I would watch it. When he indicated Marc would write an episode, that was just icing on the cake. 

MOTU: Revelation Is Epic

Note: Spoilers abound from here on out.

Treating the show like a Saturday morning cartoon, I settled in to watch this new show this past weekend, but I made one crucial decision, the same decision I made when I watched Smith's films back in 2019: I did no pre-watch research. I merely watched the episodes, one after the other, reading no background or reviews. All my reactions to the show would be mine alone.

Thankfully for a newbie like me, the opening of Episode One gives an overview and immediately I realized my error about Castle Grayskull. It's not Skeletor's house. Yet another revelation was He-Man himself. I never realized that was a secret identity. He-Man's basically a super-hero, Shazam-like in that the scrawny Prince Adam bulks up to become the buff and powerful He-Man. I'm down for that.

Speaking of super-hero-type things, during that Episode One battle between Skeletor's forces and the heroes, Skeletor uses his magic to conjure various things, like a giant fist he swings at He-Man. My DC Comics-loving self took a note that said, “Oh, Skeletor’s like Green Lantern." Still good so far. Heck, all of the events of Episode One, which Smith wrote, was all it took for me to instantly be enthralled with the show. The animation was fantastic, the more adult tone was on point, and the action was exactly what I wanted: over-the-top and with stakes. Seriously, what's not to like?

The Music is More Than I Expected

But there was one aspect that I noted more than once in my note-taking: the music. As a guy who considers the soundtrack to a movie just as important as the movie itself, I loved it. When I listen to many of the soundtracks I own--be they from John Williams, James Horner, or others--I can "see" the movie in my mind as I hear the score.

Bear McCreary composed the music not for a mere cartoon. He took to heart the mantra the Mattel folks gave Smith during the creation of the show: make this franchise feel epic and Shakespearian. McCreary delivered. Not only did we get a huge, sweeping orchestral score, but he threw in metal-like guitars in many of the action sequences. That was awesome.

Yet McCreary didn't just compose bombastic music. He wrote the smaller, quieter parts equally as good. You know how seconds after a show ends, Netflix's app prompts you to either skip the credits and jump to the next episode or stay for the credits? I stayed for the credits just to hear McCreay's music. The end piece for Episode One, with its single French Horn mournfully playing after the titanic events that close that episode is a wonderful piece of music that reminded me a little of how Princess Leia's theme from Star Wars (1977) sounded.

The Quest Starts With Lots of Fun References

Naturally, after both He-Man and Skeletor "die" in Episode One, we have the what comes after. Teela (not She-Ra, thank you very much) and everyone else have moved on. So, too, has Eternia, this time, with technology. Science fiction geek that I am, I loved the tech in the next four episodes. And I especially appreciated how it was used in the show. Magic failed Eternia, so tech filled the void. Excellent take and historically accurate analogy (for our world). 

I appreciated how we start with Teela and then revisit every other character and what they've been doing in the years since the magic died. So, too, did I love the little references thrown in for the benefit of the audience, the “if you know, you'll know parts.” "Sorry about the mess," line from Teela was an obvious one, but I also dug the "Certain death? Most likely.“ line as a callback to Disney's The Emperor's New Groove. 

In a nod to the old shows, it was fun to see adventures from back in the day. I'm not sure these were actual episodes remade in the modern style or untold new adventures by our heroes, but I'm game to see them nonetheless. But I thoroughly enjoyed how Episode Three started with a cold open showing a past adventure and when He-Man uttered a cheesy line, the episode flipped back to Teela's new friend, Andra, openly questioning Teela's retelling. It enabled the writer of that episode to acknowledge the source material and the nature of 80s cartoons in general. That writer? Marc Bernardin.

Orko's Speech and Marc Bernardin’s Writing

By Episode Three, Teela has gathered a small team to search for the two halves of the Sword of Power, and that includes Skeletor's former sidekick Evil-Lyn. I only casually watched Game of Thrones but of the handful of episodes I watched, Lena Headey commanded the screen every time she stepped in front of the lens. Her casting as Evil-Lyn was marvelous, especially over the course of this episode as she begins to question all the bad things she did alongside Skeletor. Headey only gives a vocal performance, but you can hear all the cracks in her personal armor start to chip away as she shares times and the quest with the former heroes.

I knew from his commentary in the podcast that Bernardin was a gifted writer. It was his episode for which I most looked forward. And man did he deliver. He gave us humorous lines like "She's the only one with a Skeletor in her closet." Later, when our heroes have dispatched the Mer-Man, Andra says, "Something fishy about that guy." When all look to her, she says, "What? We were all thinking it." Yet for all the funny lines, he supplied some of the most heartfelt moments in all five of these episodes. Evil-Lyn's lament about her early days with Skeletor—"Instead of fulfilling my destiny, I spent a lifetime trying to fulfill his.”—is particularly moving.

But the most poignant lines of this episode were delivered by a character I recognized as being from MOTU but never knew his name: Orko. Griffin Newman voices the diminutive Trollan probably like the old episodes--in a squeaky voice--but still manages to convey tiredness and hopelessness as we first meet him. With the magic gone from Eternia, Orko is slowly dying, being kept alive by magic water delivered to him by Man-at-Arms. When Teela comes calling for Man-at-Arms, she finds Orko as well, and he implores her to take him with her. "I had the best times of my life with you," Orka says via Bernardin's words. "And that's the only thing that can help me right now. More life. But life is out there. So bring me on an adventure. Like you used to. Just this one last time. I won't let you down like the old days. I promise I'll be good." For a newbie like me, those few lines told me all I needed to know about this character. 

But then Orko delivers this speech to Audra:

"I spent years fighting alongside Eternia's greatest warriors. And now, I forget more than I remember. All my memories just blur together. So, if you're gonna lead the life of an adventurer, Andra, you might want to keep a journal. And write down everything you ever do, even the silly stuff you think is forgettable. Because when the adventures are over, that's all you're left with. Good friends and happy memories."

Bernardin is a middle-aged man. So, too, am I, Kevin Smith, and a large majority of the audience who grew up with MOTU. The die-hard fans probably have all the episodes of MOTU on DVD and have memorized many passages. I can do that with Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, and others. We've got those collective memories seared into our brains via countless viewings. But how many of us can remember the nuances of childhood, what it was really like to be a youth in high school, the little moments when we met our spouses, or those first months after our children were born. Bernardin, through Orko, is reminding us of what's really important in life: experiences with family and friends.  Orko's sentiment is all the more powerful after he finally has his big moment and sacrifices himself to save his friends. 

The Big Cliffhanger

Speaking of sacrifices, Roboto also gave his life to reforge the Sword of Power. He's at peace with it, however, saying, "I was no mere machine. I was a miracle." Isn't all of life a miracle? Yes, it is. I know these episodes were written in 2019 and into 2020 and I can't help but consider how the pandemic influenced some of this writing. 

Our heroes finally find Prince Adam and discover he's living in heaven with other heroes of Eternia. It's a story beat you knew was coming but still gave you chills when it came to pass. So, too, was Adam's natural decision to return to Eternia and abandon heaven, knowing he could never return. It's what heroes do and, after all, he's He-Man. 

But just as Adam never truly died, neither did Skeletor. His soul, like the Horcruxes of Voldemort in Harry Potter, was stored in Evil-Lyn's wand, and he reemerges just in time to stab Adam as he's about to utter that famous line. In the final moments of Part I, it is Skeletor, voiced by Mark Hamill, who gets to utter the "By the power of Grayskull" line--probably a first for the character--and become the Master of the Universe.

And now, like at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, we have to wait for Part II to drop. Let's just hope it's not another year.

The Subtitle is the Roadmap for Those Who Care to See It

It was only after I watched and thoroughly enjoyed all five episodes that I jumped online (to ensure I got the details of this review correct) and learned about the vitriol being thrown at Smith. Granted, he's used to being criticized for his own movies, but it still surprised me. This wasn't a situation where one company bought another franchise and then made movies divorced from the original creator. Mattel sought out a kindred MOTU spirit and found it in Kevin Smith. He, in turn, recruited folks who loved the franchise and gave it their all, be it in words, music, animation, or voice. 

And Mattel wouldn't have greenlit the project if they disagreed with Smith's vision. They could have stopped it at any time if they didn't like the choices Smith and company were making. But Mattel didn't. They recognized that this is a show created with reverential love and appreciation for the source material. It is a continuation of the story not from the perspective of the corporate suits who made the original but fans who loved and grew up with MOTU and are now in positions of power to say yes to a project like this. 

It seems like much of the fan reaction focuses on He-Man and him not being in every minute of the story. They point to the original title—“He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”—as proof this new iteration is just plain wrong. But it's right there in the title: Masters of the Universe: Revelation. It's not just a He-Man story. It's a story about everyone else, too. Because why not? I'm guessing all those old shows either didn't delve into the characters much or, if they did, it was only He-Man and Skeletor. 

And just as the opening of Episode One revealed the staircase below Castle Grayskull (seemed like this was a new thing), so, too, will it be likely be revealed that He-Man isn't the only person capable of being a Master of the Universe. There were those other heroes now in heaven. And now there's Skeletor. There's a good chance we'll see someone else utter that famous line and have the power. I'm betting it'll be Teela. Heck, it could even be Evil-Lyn (because I think her time with the heroes has changed her). 

But the subtitle is probably forecasting the future. It will all be revealed when we have the entire story. Because let's be honest: we’ve seen only half the story. People are losing their minds with only half the information in their grasp. Seriously, folks. You can't judge Star Wars having only seen A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Ditto for Star Trek (after Wrath of Khan) or Harry Potter (after any book/movie after Goblet of Fire) or Lord of the Rings (after The Two Towers). We don't know the entire story yet.

Fandom Should Grow and Evolve

Besides, what’s wrong with change? Was there an uproar when Frank Miller made Robin a girl in The Dark Knight Returns? How about when Lois Lane discovered Superman’s secret identity? Or when Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck became female? Or Sherlock Holmes’s Watson followed suit? Or when a young woman welded Skywalker’s lightsaber in The Force Awakens? 

Oh, wait, yeah there was. What’s the common denominator? Female empowerment. Why is there a subset of fandom that thinks only white dudes can lead franchises? True, back in the day, they all did because it was white dudes making all the choices. But fandom has evolved to be more inclusive. Back in my day, we geeks sought out each other because most every other clique thought us weird. We collectively bonded over our shared geekdom. Now those geeks have grown up and are making shows like MOTU: Revelation not only for us veteran geeks but for the young ones as well. And those young ones are living in the 21st Century, a world that’s different from the ones we lived through. 

So, from a purely business standpoint, it makes sense to have Teela and Andra and Evil-Lyn be the stars and carry the heavy load because the fandom should be more inclusive. But just by including some doesn’t mean we’re excluding others. The tent is bigger now, more diverse, and with opinions to match. That is a great and healthy accomplishment if we allow it to be.

The Verdict

Back to the marvelous first half of this epic movie (for that’s what it is, just in ten 24-minute installments), this newbie MOTU watcher loved being introduced to the franchise. I was swept away by the scope of the story, the broadness of the music, the excellence of the voice actors, and the modern animation style. It is one of the best things I've seen in 2021 and will likely rank in my Top 5 for this year.

I may be late to the party, but this stuff is really cool and I can’t wait for Part II to drop. In the meantime, however, I think I'll find out where the original series is streaming and dive in.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Sunday Morning Pick-Me-Up

Sunday mornings have become like New Year’s Day.

For most of 2021, Sunday mornings have developed their own rituals, and the end result has been weekly resolutions.

Monday through Friday have their own schedules. I wake usually between 5:00 and 5:15 and set to work on the latest story. Since last Monday, I’ve been re-reading and reviewing a collaboration with a fellow author. I should finish that up this week and I’ll send it back to him for a final polish and publication soon. When I’m working from home, come 6:25 am, I have to stop the personal work to get ready for the day job. Now, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m going back to the office so that getting-ready schedule is back by half an hour.

Saturdays are the fun mornings. I still wake earlier than everybody else in the house—7:15 or so—in order to have the quiet all to myself. I head on out to Shipley’s do-nuts and buy the same two do-nuts I’ve been eating for over forty years—cherry iced and cherry filled. It’s my big indulgence every week. Coupled with coffee and scrambled eggs, I eat breakfast and watch something no one in the house wants to watch. It was WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier during their runs and, for the past two weeks, it’s been the first two films of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Yeah, I’m just getting around to them. After the family wakes, I head on outside for lawn mowing and whatever else needs doing before jetting off to Trader Joe’s.

And then there are Sundays. I’m a church goer and always have been. During the pandemic, my Methodist church streamed the services live and I shifted from the 11:00 service back to the 9:30 service. That gave me time to participate in the service and then catch The Brady Bunch on MeTV. I’m returning to church in person now, so I’m back to the later service.

But before I get ready for church, I wake around 7:15 and have the quiet house to myself. It’s not like Saturdays. I’m not waking to watch something. I’m waking to read and work. I do a chapter of the Bible everyday—reading through the Apocrypha for the first time ever—and then I start working on my personal projects.

That’s not all I do on Sunday mornings, however. Sunday mornings have become a time to reset. Part of the morning is to review the emails that have accumulated over the week, the ones I didn’t instantly react to, the ones I set aside thinking at the time they were important but didn’t have the time to address them during the other six days of the week. With a clearer head, I will either read and respond or realize I could have deleted them earlier. It’s amazing was a culled email inbox will do for the mind.

Soon after the mind’s cleared, I think back on the past week. How did it go? How well did the personal projects do? How about those day job assignments? Also, the personal interactions. I live with my wife and nineteen-year-old son plus two dogs and a cat. Did any of the humans get into a disagreement over something? What great thing did we do this past week? How’s life going? How well did I eat? How much exercise did I get? Was there anything I wanted to do but didn’t? If so, why?

What these questions do for me is center my mind. I constantly analyze my life to find ways to improve on it. Diet and exercise is a big motivator now that I’m in my fifties. Also the writer life and career. The personal stuff with my family is often a day-to-day thing, but on Sundays, I consider the week as a whole.

Almost always, when the time comes for me to shower and get ready for church, my mind is cleansed. More importantly, however, I have a new set of drivers for the week ahead. Resolutions, if you will.

Like this week. I am going to eat as little processed sugar as possible and just see how the body feels. Also, I plan to complete the review of the collaboration and then get back to my latest book. I’m going to make my day job work better by striving to complete certain assignments in a more streamlined manner. It’ll improve my efficiency and I’ll get more projects out the door. I’m also going to resolve to leave the common areas of our house free from my own personal clutter. I’m talking the latest magazine folded open to the page I’m reading. Ditto for the history book I’m reading, the novel, and the comics I bought at Houston’s Comicpalooza over the weekend. I’m going to do one small thing that’ll help not only myself feel better about the house, but also help the wife and boy.

These weekly resolutions enable to me tweak habits and experiences along the way. New Year’s resolutions are fine and important, but they often get forgotten by the end of January to say nothing of May, September, or December. When you shrink the time down to a week, I can easily remember last week. It gives me the chance to adjust things along the way. And it serves as a positive reminder that if events of the coming week foil my plans, I’ll have another New Week’s Day the following Sunday. That reassurance is a key factor in always picking me up each Sunday morning and helping me face the coming week.

Have you tried weekly resolutions? You should. Pick a day and make that your New Week’s Day. Then you get to make some New Week’s Resolutions and see how you do. I suspect you’ll find the results more than satisfying. And, if you need more incentive, you’ll also get a New Week’s Eve

Monday, July 19, 2021

That Last Minute of a BBC Series Premiere: Unforgotten

BBC shows are a unique thing, and I always find them fantastic.

No matter how tranquil or gritty they might be, there has to be some secret story bible because many of them start the same way. We are shown the detectives, usually in a station or finishing up the last case, chit-chatting with fellow officers. We get to see the victim but we don’t yet know what to feel about him or her other than an untimely death. Then there are all the characters that we’re going to meet and be part of the case.

Yes, I know this is elementary storytelling, but with BBC shows—especially the wonderful Unforgotten—you don’t have anything else to go on. You just see these random characters and not only do you not know who they are, but you also don’t know why they’re important.

Unforgotten, which began its fourth season here in America this past Sunday on PBS, is a cold case show. Interesting timing considering my wife and I just started watching the old CBS show Cold Case just a few weeks ago. What I appreciate most about Unforgotten is the "normalness" of the characters. No typical detectives here (i.e., raging alcoholics with ghosts of the past), just normal people—anchored by Nicola Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart and Sanjeev Bhaska as DI Sunny Khan, complete with backpack—doing a dirty job, looking into cold cases. Season two was particularly great.

But it has a wonderful way of hooking you, and it all leads up to that final minute of the series premiere. Other than the cops doing their job, uncovering a thirty-year-old crime, there are the other main characters, including Andy Nyman. Now, I know you’re not supposed to laugh at a show like Unforgotten, but my wife and I both started cracking up when Nyman showed up on screen. We know him best from the up roaringly hilarious film, Death at a Funeral, the 2007 film directed by Frank Oz (trailer here). Nyman played a hypochondriac who had some unfortunate fecal issues. I know Mr. Nyman would like a couple of Yankees know he’s more than that character in that movie, but Death at a Funeral is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. I’m guessing Nyman’s role in Unforgotten will help us add a layer on his acting credentials.

Anyway, back to that last minute. We’ve seen five random folks, each with their own lives and individual problems. Then, as the camera shows us those five people going about their lives, the detectives are briefed on the case. A crucial piece of evidence has been discovered and you realize…well, it’s a spoiler, right?

Yeah, it is. The show’s only had two episodes aired so you can easily catch up. The premiere is available via your local PBS station and Amazon Prime. 

But suffice it to say the BBC shows have a unique way of hooking the audience’s attention and glueing us to our screens. And I’ve always loved how they do it and I can’t wait to find out more.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Do You Compartmentalize Your Media?

Late on Thursday afternoon, right before the homeward commute, I got a text from a friend of mine: “Dude, The Tomorrow War was not good.”

I couldn’t figure out what he was referring to until I remembered I threw up a short review of the film on my Facebook page: “Just watched The Tomorrow War. It is exactly what you think it is: a fun, over-the-top summer blockbuster film. The whole family enjoyed it. The film had some thrilling action, scary-ass aliens, and genuine emotions stakes.”

I chuckled even more when my friend send me this video with the comment “This pretty much sums up my feelings.”

Oh, spoiler alert for the entire film in this video-but you don’t need to watch it for my pont.

I chuckled with the video. It wasn’t wrong. But you see, I didn’t care. 

My comment back to my friend: “Sure, all those comments are accurate and true. But it’s a summer film and there are few I don’t enjoy. Don’t think. Just watch. It’s a thrill ride. Just enjoy the roller coaster.”

Later that afternoon, I promised I’d review some past summer movies and see if there were any I didn’t like. I couldn’t come up with any for one main reason: if I don’t like something, I do not go out of my way to bash it. I just forget about it and move on.

Compartmentalization: Is that the right word?

I’ve kept thinking about this concept. There are some movies I go see and I know exactly what I’m going to get—and what I want. When it comes to summer movies, like roller coaster, I want them loud, action-packed, and usually funny. Come the fall, I’m in the mood for a different type film (although I’m always game for a ‘summer movie’ no matter the season). Hallmark Christmas movies? Everything is already in your head before you start watching. It’s the various steps along the way that make it fun.

I know what I want depending on my mood and I seek out that kind of content. It applies to movies as well as music, books, and TV. Even more so for social media. I do not get in the weeds over what some celebrity or politician said or did. Life’s too short to get all wound up over something like that.

I go into those things with a certain mindset. Sometimes, the mindset is changed, but most of the time, I’m just going along with the creative thing presented in front of me. I rarely read reviews ahead of time, allowing the movie trailer, the lead single of an album, or a book description and cover to either capture my attention or not. 

I wonder if that makes me easy to please. It certainly does, but I’m much happier for it, and I rarely get disappointed. 

How about you? Do you “compartmentalize” your media consumption?

Monday, July 5, 2021

Cold Case: The TV Show With Heart

It's not every television show that makes me emotional. Despite what you might think, it's pretty rare and often coincides with a series finale. But when it comes to Cold Case, I've teared up about three times watching the few episodes of season one, making it a truly special show.

Discovering the Show

My wife finds a lot of our shows we watch together. I’m not into her “murder shows” (AKA all those true crime series) but we both love detective shows. After reading some review somewhere, she started watching Cold Case a couple of weeks ago. One evening, I waltzed into the TV and she was finishing up the second or third episode of the series. I recognized Kathryn Morris as the lead for this show we just never watched. We both remember the commercials, but I had to go back and research when it actually aired (2003-2010). Shrugging, I sat down and watched the end of the episode.

Then immediately asked to watch the next one.

The Premise

Kathryn Morris plays Lilly Rush, a homicide detective specializing in cold cases. She has a lieutenant (John Finn), a pair of peers (Jeremy Ratchford as Nick Vera and Thom Barry as Will Jeffries), and, a couple of partners in the first half dozen episodes. Justin Chambers (Karev from Gray’s Anatomy) was in the first few episodes and he left and was replaced by Danny Pino as Scotty Valens. Not sure the reason Chambers left, but whatever.

Each week, the team tackles a cold case. The, ahem, cold open is always the flashback to the murder. What helps put you in the mood for the time period is the extensive use of era-appropriate music. There we see the characters and the victim and witnesses to the crime.

Flash to the present and Lilly, with her new eyes, does her research and starts to investigate. In the nine or so episodes I’ve watched (up through episode 12, but I missed episodes one and two), Lilly always gets her bad guy.

But that’s not what makes this show special. In nearly every network TV cop show, the bad guy is going to get caught. Whether it’s the science of CSI or the foot leather of Colombo, the bad guy always lose. Cold Case is right there following this same pattern.

So why has it yanked tears from my eyes on at least three separate times?

Because it makes you care.

And those last scenes.

The Fun of Casting

For stories that take place more than a decade in the past, the casting director had the fun task of finding actors to play the same characters at different stages of their lives. This is incredibly effective, especially when it involves kids. Multiple times during the episodes when Lilly goes to interview a person, the present-day actor and the past actor will flash back and forth. It’s to help you remember which one is which, naturally, but it jolts your thinking. 

Some of these crimes involved characters who were children at the time, but no matter how old they were, they still witnessed or were affected by a crime. By having the younger actors flash in and out, it serves as a visual reminder that, for many people involved with a crime, they remain in that time forever. The father who lost his daughter will always be that age in which the cops gave him the bad news. Ditto for the young men in 1964 who had to hide their homosexuality for fear of violent recriminations. 

The Fun of Seeing the Actors

The oldest episodes are now seventeen years old. That’s not too far in the past, but it’s just far enough to where the wife and I have seen them in other roles. I recognized Silas Weir Mitchell’s lips when they were all that the camera showed in early scenes of his episode. He played Monroe in Grimm while another future Grimm actress, Bree Turner, also appeared. The most fun so far is Brandon Routh, the future Superman in Superman Returns. 

Those Last Scenes

Every last scene shows the bad guy being led away by the cops. And in every scene, you get the actor flashback to the past actor. So you’ll see the old man being cuffed and walked past the young boy he killed. And you see the young actor! Ditto for all these episodes. In "A Time to Hate,” the one from 1964 and the murder of a gay man, not only did the creators show you the young actor, but they reinforced the message by using The Byrds’s “Turn Turn Turn.” I could hear the wife sniffling just as she heard me.

How did we miss this show first run? Not sure, but I’m glad the wife found it and we’re watching it. In the cop genre, there are a lot of good shows over the years, but I can’t think of many who pull at the emotions so frequently and so well.

I know what we’ll be watching the rest of this summer.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Chicago in 2021: The Band That Still Makes People Smile

Fifty-three years later, the rock and roll band with horns is still going strong.

Billed as An Evening with Chicago and Their Greatest Hits, the band formerly known as Chicago Transit Authority (nee The Big Thing) landed in Dallas on Saturday night. As a Houstonian, I had planned to attend the Houston show the following night, but my son and I were in the Metroplex for the weekend and opted to see them at the venue formerly known as the Starplex. 

What made the show even more special was the folks with whom we attended the concert: my best friend since high school and his daughter. This was not just any old best friend. This was the guy who, in the summer of 1985, handed me a cassette copy of Chicago IX: Greatest Hits with the offhand comment that I'd know about half the songs and like the rest. I knew none of the songs, but was in love with the whole album. Thus began my fandom with Chicago and our concert-going experiences started a couple of years later. Starting in the late 80s and early 90s, after we both had vehicles and enough disposable income for concerts, we would often catch the Houston show one night and then drive to Dallas to see the show the next night (or vice versa). For the summer shows, it was always at the Starplex, so it was like coming full circle to bring our kids. 

Another friend, this time a college-era fellow marching band sax player, found me among the throng. On his Facebook post, he had a photo of both the 2021 eTicket and the ticket stub from the 1989 Austin show. We were at the 1989 show and now, thirty-two years later, we were at the same show again. He brought his daughter to keep alive the joy this music brings. 

I made a point not to look at the setlist ahead of time, an easy thing considering the Dallas show was only the third on the tour. But let's be honest: when the advertising is billed as a greatest hits show and the band is Chicago and it's 2021, you know what's going to be played. You go because it's Chicago. You go with your son because he is now a fan. You go with the guy who first introduced you to the band, the same guy with whom you sing all the horn breaks and all the little ad libs from the albums--like Terry Kath's 'woo oohs' in Make Me Smile or Robert Lamm's spoken vocals on Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is. You know what you're going to get.

But then the band surprises you.

The Surprises

Even though I got on the Chicago Train in 1985--the height of the ballad-heavy, Peter Cetera and David Foster sound--over the years, I have come to appreciate all eras of the band. Over time, my favorite song shifted until it has settled on Introduction, the Terry Kath-written tune that showed up on track one on the debut album. I often marvel at bands who release their Mission Statement Song right out of the gate, and Chicago is one of them. Yet Introduction isn't a song that shows up on the myriad of greatest hits albums. Would they play it? If so, I'd be a happy man.

As soon as the band walked out and said hello to us, I heard those first two notes. There are a handful of tunes that are great concert openers--a favorite is Along Comes a Woman where the horns make their entrance just in time for the horn break--but Introduction is a perfect way to start this set. As is befitting his tenure in the band, Lamm sung Kath's vocals and, despite a quirk in the soundboard mix which softened his voice, he made the band's original guitarist proud. 

From there, they segued into another cut from the first album, Question 67 & 68. Originally sung by Cetera, vocalist Neil Donell now sings the tenor part. This was my first time to see Donell in concert but not my first time to hear him. His vocals on Chicago 37: Christmas (2019) are spectacular and I was excited to hear how he put his own spin on those songs sung by Cetera and Jason Scheff (I never got to hear Jeff Coffey). I'll admit it's a little odd to have a bass player (Brett Simons) who doesn't sing lead and a lead singer who doesn't play an instrument, but I quickly got over it. Donell has a naturally high voice that doesn't hit falsetto and more than once during the show, he belted out a high, powerful note and held it. I love that he relishes the adoration of the fans as he sings these great songs. 

Dialogue marked the first time Lou Pardini sang lead. A replacement for both Kath and Bill Champlin, I have grown to really appreciate how Pardini interprets his lead vocals, particularly his phrasing. He's not singing Kath's parts like the record nor does he mimic the soulful Champlin's delivery. He's doing his own thing, holding out a note here, changing a note there, and truly making these classic hits his own. This was on full display in the biggest surprise of the night.

Late in the first set, Pardini came down center stage and started playing a keyboard set up for him. Only bassist Simons and Keith Howland on acoustic guitar accompanied him. He chatted with the audience over his playing then dropped the hint as to the song he's about to sing. He mentioned this song was a number one hit in 1989 and I instantly knew it's going to be Look Away. Over the years, Chicago 19 has risen in my personal list to where it now sits: my third favorite album, my favorite 80s-era album, and the album that contains my favorite Chicago song from the 1980s: You're Not Alone. With Champlin and Scheff gone from the band, I just chalked up the Chicago 19 songs as those the current iteration would never play. When that familiar keyboard riff started, I was over the moon.

I love the original version, I enjoyed the full-band version with Champlin, I really enjoyed the acoustic version Champlin started playing in 1995, but this 2021 version of the song with Pardini was truly special. Again, his phrasing really brings out the anguish the lyrics express. What I loved also is that the band brought horns into this original horn-less ballad, something they've done for all the 80s ballads. Pardini's interpretation of Look Away and his wonderful lead vocals on Chicago 37, especially I'd Do It All Again (Christmas Moon), make me smile every time. And I was grinning ear to ear on Saturday after Look Away.

But the band wasn't finished surprising me. Late in the second set, they broke out Street Player from Chicago 13. I know a lot of fans don't enjoy this album, but I enjoy the two-album Donnie Dacus era (Hot Streets and Chicago 13), and Chicago 13 still stands as my favorite album cover. As you can expect, Donell was able to hit those high notes with ease, even starting the song sounding like the remix many of us know.

They played all the 80s ballads, but the one that really seemed to hit the audience the most was Hard To Say I'm Sorry. Not sure what it is about this tune--maybe because it was the first 80s ballad--but most of the audience pulled out their cellphones and activated the flashlight feature in place of the lighters we all lit back in the day. Everyone was singing along and it was a blast.

Saturday in the Park is always in the set, but mainly it's been in the first quarter or third. When they broke it out after the raucous Get Away, it made for a great song placement. It's a sing-a-long tune and by placing arguably Lamm's most famous vocal at the end of the show, kicked the song's prominence up a notch.

And, as always, they closed out with 25 or 6 to 4. I mean, how else do you end a 30-song, three-hour Chicago concert? Agreed. No other way.

The Afterglow and the Reality

I can't count the number of times I've seen Chicago, but scheduling has prevented me from seeing them for the past few years. As a deep fan who often eschews the hits on my personal playlists in favor of the deep cuts (Mother [Carnegie version], Now That You've Gone, This Time, Hot Streets, Take a Chance, Reruns, Manipulation, If It Were You, all of Stone of Sisyphus, Come to Me Do, and I Can't Let Go all get constant spins), it was a thrill to hear the old classics again. Because they are the classics that will live on past the day the Chicago Train finally pulls into the station and the members disembark, confident they have earned their rest after five decades on the road.

Because let's be honest: the original guys are not getting any younger. They are in their seventies now. Founding trombonist and songwriter James Pankow wasn't there as he's recovering from surgery, leaving Lamm and trumpeter Lee Loughnane as the only ones still carrying the flag first picked up in 1967. Unless the newer guys continue on under the banner of Chicago after Loughnane and Lamm call it a day, there's going to be that last Chicago show. 

Even now, as I write this, a wave of emotion washes over me thinking about it. David Bowie, another of my four all-time favorite rock acts (KISS and Bruce Springsteen are the others), is already gone from this world and the shock of his death prevented me from truly enjoying his songs for awhile. Thankfully, back in April 2004, I got to see him, my third time. Turned out, a mere two months later, Bowie suffered the heart attack that ended his live touring career. 

In a recent interview with Jimmy Pardo from the Never Not Funny podcast, Pankow commented that the band used the COVID pandemic to write some new material for a new Chicago album. The lightening bolt of joy that coursed through me upon hearing those words was almost instantly tamped down by Pankow's follow-up comment: that it would likely be the band's last. 

Everything is finite, but music isn't. We still listen to Bach, Mozart, Bernstein, and McCartney/Lennon and will for decades to come. So, too, will we hear and enjoy the songs of Chicago, in all its iterations.

The Challenge

Why am I ending this review on a somber note? Well, it's to implore you with this thought. If you're on the fence about seeing Chicago in 2021, get off it and go see the show. 

You know their songs. You've danced at school dances to their ballads. You've driven down the highway with the windows open and their music blaring from your speakers. You've grown up with their songs and now have passed them down to your kids (and maybe even their kids). Their music is a part of the fabric of who you are. Now go see the guys who made the music and are still making the music. 

A thought occurred to me as I drove back to the hotel on Saturday night. In that immediate afterglow, I was reminded why I love this band so much. But those thoughts of the finite also passed through me. Did I just see my last Chicago show? Maybe. Maybe not. 

But if circumstances dictate that I have, then my last Chicago show--with my son at my side and my best friend and his daughter on the other--was perfect.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Seventy Years On, The Thing From Another World Still Delivers the Goods, And a New Warning

After watching Them! the other week, I decided to keep going and watch my other favorite science fiction film from the 1950s, The Thing From Another World. Released in the spring of 1951, this is a Howard Hawks's production based on "Who Goes There?" a novella by John E. Campbell from 1938. Chances are good you probably already know the plot--either from this film, the 1982 version starring Kurt Russell--but I'll give you gist.

Up in a remote scientific station in Alaska, a team of Air Force men led by Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and reporter Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer) are sent up to investigate reports of a nearby crash. Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) heads the scientific team and his secretary is an old flame of Hendry's, Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan). The men fly to the crash site and discover what looks to be a tail of an aircraft sticking out of the ice. They spread out to the edges of the dark shape under the ice and what results is one of the my favorite shots in all of science fiction films: they're standing in a circle and they've discovered a flying saucer.

The team also discovers the pilot, frozen in a block of ice. Naturally, they haul the block back to the station and thus ensues the human conflict. Carrington wants to study the alien while Hendry follows the last orders he'd received prior to a winter storm: leave the creature in the ice. No one is happy, least of all one of the guys who is standing watch over the block of ice. He covers the block with a blanket--that just happens to be an electric blanket which is plugged in--and soon, the creature is defrosted. 

After the team recover the Thing's severed arm--the result of a fight with the sled dogs--the scientists realize the alien is actually an advanced form of a plant. Convinced it is intelligent and envious of all the things he could learn from it, Carrington wants to communicate with it. Captain Hendry wants to kill it, especially after they learn the Thing feeds on the blood of the sled dogs and, naturally, two of the scientists it has killed. Interestingly, Carrington is willing to die for science and thinks all the others should be equally as willing.

The ensuing scenes follow the team as they try and figure out how to kill the Thing with the limited resources they have on hand. With this being a black-and-white film, we get some great shots. There's the one in the doorway.


The Thing on fire.


Carrington's attempt to "grow" new aliens from the blood plasma they have on hand for emergencies.

And the finale, where they design a method to electrocute the Thing.

Science vs. the Military

In many SF films, there are always opposing sides to any first-contact issue, and they are on full display here. Unlike 1954's Them, the military guys don't trust Carrington and his scientific team to do the right thing, that being kill the alien. There's a line about the atomic bomb here that's used as the reason scientists can't be trusted. Coming only six years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki--and two years after the Soviets also got the bomb--the fear is palpable. Even the sporadic orders Hendry receives from his superiors wants him to keep the alien alive. But what are humans to do when confronted with a life form determined to survive itself using human blood? In Them, the lead scientist has zero qualms about killing the giant ants. In The Thing, the scientist is willing to die for knowledge.

The Limitations of 1950s Filmmaking

If you've read the novella or seen the 1982 version, you'll know that the Thing can actually shape-shift. Well, not really shape shift but more like it can imitate other forms it encounters, including other humans. Back in 1951, that would be a difficult thing to pull off convincingly, so Howard Hawks dressed up James Arness, the future Matt Dillon himself, as the alien and allowed him to wreck havoc on the humans. 

The Last Warning

I've always had a fondness for this version of the Thing and find it perfectly acceptable for its time. It's a great snapshot of American life in 1951, with the camaraderie of the military men and the discussion about settling down. Sure, it's not perfectly aligned with the novella, but the movie works on multiple levels. It's a basic Kill the Alien type movie while still being about American life in general, less than a decade after World War II and in the early days of the Cold War and the Korean War.

This fear is catalyzed perfectly in the last scene with a great, short speech by reporter Ned Scott.* Finally allowed to send out his story, Scott delivers the following:

Ned Scott: All right, fellas, here's your story: North Pole, November Third, Ned Scott reporting. One of the world's greatest battles was fought and won today by the human race. Here at the top of the world a handful of American soldiers and civilians met the first invasion from another planet. A man by the name of Noah once saved our world with an ark of wood. Here at the North Pole, a few men performed a similar service with an arc of electricity. The flying saucer which landed here and its pilot have been destroyed, but not without causalities among our own meager forces. I would like to bring to the microphone some of the men responsible for our success... but as Senior Air force officer Captain Hendry is attending to demands over and above the call of duty... Doctor Carrington, the leader of the scientific expedition, is recovering from wounds received in the battle.

Eddie: [Softly] Good for you, Scotty.

Ned Scott: And now before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning: Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!

"Keep watching the skies." A perfect sentence that crystallized the paranoia and fear of the Cold War, where Americans have realized their oceans no longer protected them from attack when the enemy could fly planes over the United States and drop nuclear weapons on our cities. Here in 2021, after a year of living through the COVID-19 pandemic In which our oceans also didn't protect us, what else should we keep watching?

*I've always wondered if Gene Roddenberry enjoyed this film enough to name Star Trek's chief engineer Scotty.

Monday, June 21, 2021

The Summer 2021 Box of Comics

If there's one great thing about ebooks and electric comics is that you can carry potentially your entire library on vacation. 

But that wasn't always the case back in the days before Kindles and iPads. No, back then, you'd have to be judicious with what you wanted to read while on vacation because you'd have to carry everything. In my adulthood, I would spend almost as much time deciding on what books and magazine to bring on a vacation as I did on my entire vacation's wardrobe. I know I'm not alone here. I mean, as much as I enjoyed the 800-page, hard cover history book was I reading, there was no way it found it's way into my backpack for reading on a plane. 

Before adulthood, however, there was another factor that determined what we might bring on a vacation: our parents. I remember my youth in the 70s when we'd go on vacation, my parents would not let me take EVERY comic I owned. Even as an only child, it was just not feasible to bring them all. A friend of mine were talking this week and he mentioned his mom told him he could only bring ten comics on their annual trips. He always prioritized the 100-page giants and the like so he could maximize his reading experience. I did something similar. 

Most of the time, those issues would have a then-current story backed with multiple reprints ranging from the 1940s to the 1960s. In an era where back issues were few and far between, these issues rocked. Well, unless is some crappy story feature Prince Valiant or some Viking nonsense. Didn’t like it then. Still don’t. 

Summer 2021

One of my summer projects is to catalog all my comics. I’m almost done. A nice side effect was seeing all these old issues. Some of them have distinct memories associated with them. Others—many others—do not. In fact, I started culling many issues. “Why the heck did I buy that one?” I asked myself more than once.

Seeing all these issues made me want to read them again. Sure, I could keep all my long boxes in the front room all summer, but I think we know how that would go over with the rest of the family. So I made my own Summer 2021 comic box. I’ll probably go back and pull a few other issues, but mainly, the titles I want to read are in this box.


Those thicks ones are those awesome black-and-white reprints where you get 500 pages of comics in a single volume, the modern equivalent to those old 100-page giants.


I’ve been reading through the Master of Kung Fu collection for a little while, but I’ve sped up knowing the movie is on its way. The others are just hankering I’ve been having: 70s-era Marvel books I never read back in the day.

Marvel also published eight magazine-sized Doc Savage issues, all black-and-white. I have them all, but I’ve only read the first one.


This is one where I remember buying it but have zero memory of it. I like the 70s and 80s when comics artists and writers would just try anything, like apparently making a quarterback into a super hero. Sure.



I have a ton of Superman tiles, second only to Batman. But this Time and Time Again series is something that looks interesting.


Then there are titles like this. Have to read it for the historical value.


I discovered a few X-Files comics which are in the box, but that also led to re-discover this entry where the Dark Knight is abducted. 


This issue of Detective is one of the earliest I ever had. Can’t remember the story, but I will this summer. You can see the frayed edges of a well-loved book.


I’ve got a few novels lined up to read, but I think the Summer of 2021 will be comic heavy.

So, did your parents limit the number of novels and comics for your trips? Did you get to buy some on the road? And what specific comics can you remember reading during the summers?

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Embrace the Differences: The Raiders of the Lost Ark Novelization

Raiders of the Lost Ark turns forty today. Hard to believe, sometimes. I still remember watching Siskel and Ebert gush over the movie. Youthful though I was--twelve--Harrison Ford had already become my favorite actor because he was Han Solo. Who knew Indiana Jones was just around the corner.

To commemorate the movie's anniversary, I decided to do something I had never done before: read the novelization by Campbell Black. Yeah, I had the book back in the day. Yeah, I remember cracking it open. But I also know I never finished it. Heck, I don't even remember getting that far into the book before stopping it. I have no memory why. Unlike Star Wars--where I devoured every morsel of news, read every book, and bought every comic--I don't remember doing the same thing with Raiders. It is possible I didn't continue with the novelization because of the differences. Now, forty years later, those differences are fantastic.

Raiders is one of my Top 5 all-time movies. I have no idea how many times I've seen it, but those clips in the Siskel and Ebert segment are all familiar. It's probably one of your favorite movies, too. I can "see" the movie in my head when I listen to John Williams's brilliant score. But the novel was a nice breath of fresh air. 

Early Days of the Canon

Campbell Black is the pen name of Campbell Armstrong, a Scottish writer, who wrote over twenty-five novels. Few pieces of information exist on the internet about him, but his bibliography notes Raiders was this third, and final, movie novelization. 

In the one interview he did for TheRaider.net, Black comments that he "wrote Jones as I saw him. An adventurer, yes, but I always felt there was a slight melancholy side to him. I don't think Lucasfilm really approved of this, but from my point of view I couldn't write the novel if I had to base it on the character in the script - I found him shallow and shadowy, all action and no thought, and I wanted to add some kind of internal process to him, which I think I did. Up to a point."

As much as I enjoy the extensive universe other writers created with Indiana Jones (and Star Wars, too), there's something special about a single writer, very early on, looking at stills and the script and crafting a story as he sees it. No canon, no interlaced movies, no franchise, no established backstory, just a script and one writer's ideas on how scenes of a movie can be stitched together into a coherent novel.

Like Alan Dean Foster, who ghostwrote the Star Wars novelization, Black must have had access to an earlier script because the differences between the movie we know so well and the events in the novel are sometimes striking, but that's what makes the experience so rewarding. 

The Movie is Not the Novelization

I'm not sure what happened to my original copy of the novel. I had the version with black on the cover. The paperback I read this week was published in 1989, after Last Crusade, so it has a white cover. Soon after I started reading the South America prelude, I took a pencil and began annotating the differences.

In a movie, editors can make cuts and swipes and change scenes. You can do the same in a novel, but Black provides a lot of connective tissue between scenes. Just how did Indy get to Nepal? Well, Black describes in detail all the travel and driving Indy did, even throwing in a new character, Lin-Su. Granted, he doesn't do the same for the journey from Nepal to Cairo, but who cares.

I enjoyed the languid pace of the novelization. As much as I enjoy the movie and all that it delivers, there's something to be said for the same story delivered via text over a number of days. What Black does is what novels do well: get into the heads of the characters. We hear the inner thoughts of Indy, Marion, and Belloq. They all prove quite compelling in Black's hands, adding layers and nuances to each character. 

Belloq, for example, proves himself more competitive and mercenary than Paul Freeman portrays him in the film. With Freeman, you could almost side with Belloq in his quest for the Ark and the secrets it holds. In the novel, he's depicted very much as borderline insane with his single-minded devotion to getting the Ark and using it before Hitler gets his hands on it. 

Speaking of Belloq, something occurred to me that I never considered in forty years. It's regarding the headpiece to the staff of Ra. Belloq gets his version of the headpiece because the words are burned into Toht's hand. With that, Belloq makes his calculations. Indy, however, needs the Imam to read and interpret the words on the headpiece. Did Indy not know that language?

Key Differences

This is what you want to know, right? Well, let me get to it.

South America 

- The pit over which Indy and Sapito swing is actually obscured. Sapito nearly falls into the pit because he steps into the cobwebs covering the pit.

-Indy takes a swig from a flask as he reaches the idol. [Love this]

Berlin

There are a few scenes not at all in the movie. They are from the point of view of Dietrich, the main German officer as played by Wolf Kahler. Dietrich never trusts Belloq and we get many internal thoughts from the German. It also explains how Belloq came to be employed by Hitler. Later, during the Cairo scenes, we get a few more scenes from Dietrich's POV, irritated at Belloq's pomposity.

Connecticut

It is certainly implied that Indy is a womanizer, all but taking an undergrad per semester. This is part of the apparent--but never explained--backstory with Indy and Marion. Based on the book, she might as been as young as sixteen when the mid-twenties Indy had a relationship with her. 

Cairo

-There's a nighttime scene between Indy and Marion and whether or not they they'll hook up. It includes their actual first kiss and we get the skeevy take from Indy about how well the woman kisses versus the child from his past.

-The Imam who reads the markings on the headpiece is the one who puts into Indy's head the idea that no mortal should look at the contents of the Ark. It is the Imam's warning Indy remembers at the end.

Tanis Dig

-There is no scene between Belloq and Marion where she puts on the dress and tries to drink him under the table. In its place is Marion's seemingly being under Belloq's spell. They actually kiss and she all but succumbs to him. 

-Belloq actually sees all the lightening that floods the sky when Indy and his friends open the Well of the Souls. 

Truck Chase

-Toht is in the car that flies off the cliff. He dies here and doesn't get his face melted at the end.

-Black describes how the Germans discovered which pirate ship is carrying the Ark.

The Island

-We learn how Belloq arranged for him to open the Ark before delivery to Berlin.

-The scene where Belloq challenges Indy to blow up the Ark isn't here.

Verdict

The novelization is a nice addition to the wonderful movie. There is a place for both. Campbell Black's novel is a good story and a worthy addition to the canon we now have, even if much of what he comes up with (how Indy got the bullwhip) is overridden with subsequent movies and books. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and actually might continue with the novelizations of the next three films. 

Side Note

I went and located my copy of the comic adaptation and many of the scenes mentioned here are in there. Perhaps the Marvel comics folks and Black read from the same script.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Sixty-Seven Years Later, THEM! Holds Up

What do Matt Dillion, Daniel Boone, Kris Kringle, and Mr. Spock have in common? They all battled giant ants in 1954.

I can't remember exactly when I first saw this 1954 film, but there's a sliver of a memory from the early 80s when I spent some summer weeks at my grandparents' house in Tyler, Texas and it might've been then. Moreover, I also can't pinpoint when I was re-introduced to this film directed by Gordon Douglas. Sometime this century. But it has vaulted to one of my favorite 1950s-era science fiction movies.

I watched it again over the weekend, first time in a few years, and boy does it hold up well. It is sixty-seven years old this month, and still packs some genuine suspense, especially during the anticipation of first seeing the ants and, of course, their sound effect.

The atomic bomb tests at Alamogordo, New Mexico, were only nine years old when THEM was released, and the unknowns about nuclear energy were still being learned. It is nuclear radiation that morphs the common small ant into the giant behemoths we see in the film. 

The opening sequence is gripping and unsettling, as we follow a pair of New Mexico state troopers as they discover a little girl wandering in the desert. She's catatonic, in a speechless state of shock. Even as the troopers, one of whom is played by James Whitmore, investigate what happened to her family and a nearby store owner, they can't make heads or tails of the destruction. It's only when we hear that distinctive sound effect of the ants does the girl react. Cleverly, Whitmore and a doctor do not see the girl rise up from her resting spot, terror across her face, only to lie down again, eyes wide in fear.

That sound effect. Most every time, it precedes the visuals of the creatures, and it adds so much suspense for the viewer. I defy you not to have a little chilly twinge crawl up your spine when you hear it. One of the troopers hears the high-pitched sound and goes off screen to investigate. The last thing we hear is his own death scream. 


What struck me with this viewing is how the first half of the film is basically a crime film. There are the investigators--now including an FBI agent played by James Arness (Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke), and a pair of scientists, father and daughter, played by Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) and Joan Weldon--just trying to figure out what's going on. The monsters drop out of their own film largely because of costs, I assume, but the unknown facing the investigators makes for quite an urgent story. The investigators scour news reports and interview eyewitnesses--including Fess Parker (star of the Daniel Boone TV show) as a pilot who saw the queen ants flying west but is thrown in an insane asylum because of his wild story. 

There's even a scene where our heroes discover another nest of ants, the workers protecting both a pair of queen ants and their eggs. Reminded me of Aliens (1986) and how many other monster films. 


A young Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek's Mr. Spock) shows up as a soldier relaying information from the teletype machine.


They finally figure out there's a nest in the sewers of Los Angeles. At this point, we jump to a more traditional monster film: humans hunting the creatures in darkened tunnels, the suspense escalating. That a prime weapon is flamethrowers lends itself to some gruesome imagery of the ants being consumed by fire. 


From a historical perspective, what I appreciate about THEM is how the soldiers and the scientists worked together. The military defers to the entomologists in the discovery of the insects, but the scientists don't want to preserve one for study, a trope in many films of this kind. No, the scientists know exactly what they need to do and work to that end. This is also a year after the Korean War where our military and the government is still held with a certain amount of respect by the civilians. Many of the side characters accept what the FBI agents tell them without question. I bet you'd get quite a different kind of movie nowadays. 

We also get a potential lesson at the close of the film, as the last nest of ants are consumed by flames. "When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict." Looking to sixty-seven years to 1954 from the vantage point of 2021, we can see how many of the nuclear fears of the early days of the Cold War didn't pan out, and we're all relieved by it. But in our post-COVID pandemic era, when the origin of the virus is still not fully known, what are our fears now? What might the folks sixty-seven years hence--2088--think of our current fears. Will they pan out, or will they fester into something greater?

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Always Try Your Dreams

Every year during the first week of June, my mind drifts back to the first week of June 1944. The week leading up to D-Day. Even now, seventy-seven years later, the magnitude of the courage of the men who stormed those beaches never fails to take my breath away.

There have been many books written and documentaries compiled, oral histories recorded and movies filmed. One in particular is Saving Private Ryan which features a grueling opening segment. As horrific as those opening minutes are, you know it’s all just make-believe and that it’s only a taste of what really went down that morning.

Every year, I also take moments to look at the photos of the Allied troops squeezed into those landing crafts. For that one moment when the cameraman snapped his photo, some of those soldiers smiled. Others didn’t. Both tell the same story: the invasion was necessary and they were called on to do it. That was the nature of their birth and world events.

This week, one of those photos really got to me. I honestly can’t find it. It was part of a meme. But in this photo as in so many others, the faces of those men were young. So young. I often wonder how I would have comported myself if history called on me to do what those men did. My son’s nineteen now and he would be called as well. How would he do?

As thankful as we are for the courage of those men, it’s sometimes difficult not to get emotional when thinking of them as individuals. As regular humans on this earth. They, like all of us, had dreams of what they’d do when they got home. Many soldiers returned home. So many did not. Perhaps the cure for cancer was in the brain of one of those men. Maybe a great baseball player or an engineer who could invent something we would now take for granted here in 2021.

But today, I’m talking about creatives. Imagine the books or the songs not created, the paintings and the sculptures, the plays and the actors that never were created. All gone.

The thing is, those men had creative dreams like we do, and then they stormed those beaches to preserve the dreams for all the survivors. For us. For those that’ll come after us.

Perhaps me getting emotional on this commemoration of D-Day is related to my own recent struggles with my writing, my business, and my ideas about the future. I have grand plans and sometimes, I question myself. Why? What’s the point? Who would care?

Well, I care about these plans. I came up with them, after all. They are, to my mind, good and decent ideas. Why not try?

Try because you want to. Try because it could bring you great happiness. Try even though you might fail, but you can learn from that failure. Try because you could reach someone who will need what you create at a precise moment in their lives.

Try because of what happened seventy-seven years ago this morning and the men who didn’t get the chance to try.

Try your dreams. Always.