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And the other time travel movies … (#SFWApro)

BEN 10: Race Against Time (2007) was a live-action adaptation of the cartoon series, in which Ben (the kid who can turn into super-powered aliens) finds himself up against the time-traveling alien Eon who plans to pull his people out of their doomed world to Earth’s present, but needs Ben’s omnitrix to do it. Like a number of children’s films I’ve watched for this book, it’s hard for me to get into the emotional arc here—the big finish isn’t Ben beating Eon but performing in the school talent show, for instance. But it’s not their fault I’m no longer a child. Robert Picardo and Lee Majors are among the cast “I’m sorry about that detention—I didn’t want to blow my cover.”

SHREK FOREVER AFTER (2010) has Shrek beginning to wonder if he’s cut out for a life of changing diapers, friends constantly intruding and being held up as a celebrity rather than a terrifying monster—all of which makes it easy for Rumpelstiltskin to trick Shrek into erasing himself from existence (“The day you took from me was the day I was born, right?”). This tries to milk the usual humor from the alt.versions of the characters (Fat Puss In Boots!) and the usual Why Do You Say YouKnow Me? confusion, but the series formula is clearly as played out here as in Goldmember. As typical for a parallel-world/alternate personal history story, the moral is that you have a wonderful life so stop thinking the grass is greener somewhere else. “How’s that for a metaphysical paradox?’

MV5BMTY0MTc3MzMzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDE4MjE0NA@@._V1_SX214_AL_SOURCE CODE (2011) has Jake Gyllenhaal trying to figure out how he went from being a downed soldier in Afghanistan to a commuter flirting with Michelle Monaghan and dying over and over when a bomb destroys their train. The answer, he learns, is that he’s being used in a mad science experiment to identify the terrorist responsible by entering a quantum alternate reality created by one victim’s dying memories. As you may be able to tell the science here is specious even for time-travel, but I like the film (though the end of the ending didn’t work). Former Quantum Leaper Scott Bakula makes a voice cameo as Gyllenhaal’s father. All rights to image with current copyright holder. “I’m going to press redial, your phone is going to ring, and I’m going to shoot you.”

STAR TREK: First Contact (1996) has the Enterprise discover resistance really is futile when a Borg attack on Earth turns out to be an attack through time, leaving Earth with a population of nine billion Borg and nothing else. So it’s back to the apocalyptic ruin of the mid-21st century where James Cromwell is unwittingly about to make first contact with Vulcan, unless the Borg stop him first. Very good as Picard deals with his own past history with the Borg, but the introduction of the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) never worked for me—I prefer the Borg as a completely uniform hive-mind because it’s so much more alien. With the regular Next Generation cast, plus Robert Picardo as a holo-doctor (“According to Starfleet medical research, Borg implants can cause extreme skin irritation.”). “And you people are all astronauts on … some kind of star trek?

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Remake vs. original: Four time-travel films (#SFWApro)

Rewatching LA JETEE (1963) I found I appreciated the wistful, romantic mood better than I did the first time as a post WW III government forces the protagonist to test an experimental time-travel method. He finds himself drawn to a woman he saw years ago at the Orly Airport, falls in love, but runs up against a last-minute twist which still seems to be me too Twilight Zone. “To wake up in another time is to be born again as an adult.”

That French short inspired 12 MONKEYS (1995) in which the apocalypse is a 1997 pandemic. A few decades later, the technocratic government of what remains of humanity sends Bruce Willis into the past in the hopes of recovering a sample fo the original bioweapon used by the “Army of the 12 Monkeys”—not to change history but so that the scientists can develop a vaccine. This Terry Gilliam film is interesting, but I can’t say it’s enjoyable: Bruce Willis is a good actor, but Willis playing crazy for 90 minutes of the film just isn’t entertaining. Another problem is that instead of the gentle romance of the original, this has Willis kidnap psychiatrist Madeleine Stowe, who then falls madly in love with him—something that seems more Stockholm Syndrome than romantic. With Christopher Plummer and David Morse as virologists and Brad Pitt as another loonie; some version of this will appear on SyFy as a TV series (next year, I believe). “Science isn’t an exact science with these clowns.”

IL MARE (2000) is a Korean time-travel fantasy in which two young people discover that despite living two years apart, the mailbox at their mutual waterfront home manages to transmit letters back and forth (an interesting example of how logic works in time travel films). Very charming, even though the ending, as I mentioned this week, doesn’t make sense. “The fact that I cannot be close to you even now must mean we are not meant to be.”

Despite being the same length, THE LAKE HOUSE (2006) squeezes in considerably more subplot, such as Keanu Reaves’ awkward relationship with his genius father (Christopher Plummer again) and Sandra Bullock’s fear of commitment (which we’re told explains her interest in Reaves rather than here-and-now boyfriend Dylan Walsh). The time-travel plot diverges from the original quite a bit: while both films have a tragic fate for the male lead (at least in one timeline), this has it happen at the start; there’s also a prolonged romantic encounter thanks to Reaves contriving to meet Bullock before (from her perspective) they’ve begun their correspondence). On the whole, I don’t think the changes add much (I’d definitely have dropped the meeting) and more generally the young lovers of the Korean original just seem to fit the tone better than the two fortysomethings here. “Did you eat a clown this morning?”

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And then the other stuff (#SFWApro)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) is the second Marvel team to bear that name, an oddball group of SF characters that together turned into a hit comic and now movie. Chris Pratt plays Star Lord (“Who?”) a human interplanetary thief and mercenary reluctantly forced to turn hero to stop Kree fanatic Ronan (Lee Pace of Pushing Daises) from exterminating the peaceful world of Xander (run by Glenn Close as Nova Prime). Can forging a team out of tree-man Groot, genetic misfit Rocket Raccoon, brutal warrior Drax (Dave Bautista) and super-assassin Gamora (Zooey Saldana) stop Ronan and his sidekick Nebula (Karen Gillan of Doctor Who)? A very entertaining film in its own right, more so if you know enough comics to catch some of the names dropped along the way. For anyone who’s interested, Atomic Anxiety provides more in-depth analysis, and Brian Cronin looks at their comic-book roots in detail here. “I have lived my life among enemies—I will be happy to die among friends.”
MEN WITH GUNS (1997) is John Sayles’ drama about a Latin American doctor who decides to drop in on the students he sent out to treat the poor several years ago only to discover the ones who weren’t shot as collaborators by the military were killed as government stooges by the insurgents. Filmed entirely in Spanish (except for some native Indian dialect), this is grimly effective, even though I can see where it’s going. Mandy Patinkin and Maggie Renzi play tourists. “I was a soldier, but now I don’t wear a uniform—does that mean I haven’t killed anyone?”

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The Other Doc Savage #2: Marvel’s black and white era (#SFWApro)

Marvel’s first Doc Savage comic folded in 1974, but Doc did not fade away. Within a year he was back in one of Marvel’s black-and-white magazines.
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Marvel’s magazine line began in the early seventies and largely died at the end of the decade (Savage Sword of Conan kept on rolling, of course). Magazines got displayed in drug stores and supermarkets with other magazines instead of with comic books, hopefully drawing new readers (remember this was the days before dedicated comics stores were the norm). They weren’t subject to the Comics Code, which didn’t affect Doc’s adventures but Conan sure took advantage (a number of stories showed hot women walking around topless). And the cover price was higher, which made them potentially more profitable for both the store and the company. As it turned out, most of them didn’t have sales to justify continued publication.
Doug Moench wrote all Doc’s magazine stories, with Tony deZuniga providing most of the art (the cover here is by Ken Barr, all rights with current holder). Unlike Marvel’s color comic, all the stories were new and Moench dependably delivered plenty of slam-bang action, pulp thrills and pulp SF weirdness every issue. Egyptian gods suck the air out from a small mining town. A madman builds a model of the globe that will trigger a doomsday bomb. A criminal destroys skyscrapers from the air with lightning blasts. A slithering octopoid horror drains men’s brains of knowledge and drives them to suicide. They also planned for a clash between Doc and Fu Manchu (Marvel was already using Fu Manchu in another series, Master of Kung Fu) but the rights couldn’t be worked out.
On the downside, Moench makes a lot of errors. His Doc carries a gun regularly; even in one story where he wears his vest full of gadgets, he still relies on a gun. While Doc was an expert with a pistol (of course. Doc’s an expert at everything) he didn’t carry one. There were also some chronology errors (a reference to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast two years too early) but the letter-column said those were an aesthetic choice (the story in question had to be set in 1936, and the Welles reference seemed to good to miss) so that’s a little more defensible. The only real clunker was #6, which spends way too much time discussing the mystic properties of pyramids, a popular pop-science idea back in the day. And that made up for it by having my letter in the letter-column, waa-hoo!
The art was good, but never got Doc’s team right. The thing is, most of them look freakish and Monk’s the only one where deZuniga (or others) captured that: Renny’s hands aren’t big enough, Johnny’s not skeletally lean enough and Long Tom doesn’t look frail enough (though “frail” is a hard thing to convey visually I think). That aside, the art was excellent.
Along with losing out on Fu Manchu, plans to resurrect Doc’s arch enemy, John Sunlight, fell through when the final issue had to be a fill-in job (I don’t know why)—an entertaining story, but Sunlight would have been awesome.
After announcing plans for a series of short backup features spotlighting Doc’s aides, only the Monk episode saw print. I’m guessing the essays about Doc that got published instead were cheaper to run.
It was a fun run to reread (and available in TPB from DC, during the period it had the rights to Doc for First Wave). Next up, DC’s 1980s comic, which takes Doc and his friends into the modern world.

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Books and TPBS (#SFWApro)

The next Peter Wimsey mystery, MURDER MUST ADVERTISE, has advertising copywriter “Death Bredon” (“Most people stuck with the name pronounce it to rhyme with ‘teeth.’”) taking a suspicious interest in the way his predecessor at the agency broke his neck falling down a staircase, not to mention his curiosity about the man’s self-indulgent, wealthy girlfriend and her drug-addicted circle. This felt so different from the usual Wimsey novel (taking on a ring of drug-dealers rather than the usual lone murderer) I wondered if Sayers had decided to write a social satire. Her biography, however (I found this on Wikipedia, but the article quotes the bio at length), says she ran into trouble getting the technical details she needed for The Nine Tailors so she used her own experience (she was an advertising copywriter for years), added drugs to be topical and got a Wimsey novel in by deadline (Nine Tailor is next in the series). The rush may explain the pulpish details like Wimsey convincing a drug dealer Death Bredon is his evil twin; fun overall, and interesting how some things don’t change—the Bright Young Things don’t seem very different from the world of Less Than Zero. I do suspect some of the advertising jokes would have had more punch for people reading advertising back then.

ICHIRO by Ryan Inzana is two good graphic novels that don’t quite fit together. In Part One, American teenager Ichiro stays with his Japanese grandfather and gets a crash course in history, then in Part Two Ichiro gets tangled into a war in the world of Japanese mythology. The shift from reality to fantasy is really awkward, but the pieces work well.

GIRL GENIUS: Agatha Heterodyne and the Siege of Mechanicsburg by Phil and Kaja Folio has Baron Wulfenbach revealing his master plan to move against Agatha while she and her allies struggle to get Castle Heterodyne up and running in time to stop him. Full of humor and energy, as always.

SAGA, Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples has Marco and Alana hiding with the author of the romance novel that brought them together, while The Will and Marco’s ex Gwendolyn contemplate their own relationship and two reporters learn this cross-world romance is something nobody among Alana’s people wants discussed. Good, though the reporter plotline doesn’t really work for me (I think maybe because I don’t see why it’s so controversial to discuss them). This appears to mark the end of the first arc, as the closing pages show Hazel transitioning from babe in arms to one year old. Still a winner.

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And now, we catch up on the BPRD—Killing Ground (cover by Guy Davis, rights with current holder) by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and Guy Davis has the BPRD locking up a wendigo in its headquarters. Unfortunately, Daimio’s been hiding a lot of secrets and soon the wendigo isn’t the only man-monster the team has to deal with. Daimio departs with this issue, and I miss him (the normals they’ve introduced since lack his hardened military presence), but a good, action-packed story.
BPRD: The Warning by the same team happens one week later (I’ve discussed some issues with the chronology) as the team breaks off the hunt for Daimio to identify the mystery man in Liz’s head. When they go to confront him, however, he’s ready for them—and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the subterranean creatures from The Hollow Earth are joining the demon frogs in attacking humanity. Another good one.

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It’s like something out of a movie— (#SFWApro)

Brooklyn Dodgers
Ever see the show Leverage? One of the world’s top insurance investigators and a handful of top crooks (burglar/enforcer/hacker/grifter) work together to take down criminals the law can’t catch. One of the show’s shticks was that the hacker, being a gigantic nerd, would give them cover names such as “Emma Peel and John Steed.”
A number of people asked John Rogers, the show-runner for the series, how come nobody ever caught on (though one person did in one episode). His response: what seems obvious to Internet geeks (holding that anyone who bothers to visit his blog is presumably some degree of geeky) isn’t common knowledge to the rest of the world.
It’s a good point to remember. Not everyone has the same pop culture references. And not every fictional character should, either. One of the problems I had with Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was that while I can buy Oscar’s constant geek references, I didn’t believe in the narrator tossing LOTR references out all the time. Likewise, I have some trouble with Harry Dresden squeezing in as many geek references as he does since he never seems to read comics, just make references. And I really, really don’t believe he’d know the Evil Overlord List—that’s the kind of thing I think of as only serious Internet geeks (including, obviously, myself) knowing about (maybe I’m wrong and it’s on everyone’s lips, but I don’t think so).
A lot of people in contrast use mainstream TV or sports (for example) as metaphors and references, but I rarely run into that, even in contemporary fantasy. Not that having characters who read fantasy or watch SF movies is implausible, and sometimes it works great (the Middleman TV show, for instance), but other times it feels like all the characters share a very narrow range of taste (the similar problem in future SF is having everyone fixated on the past)
The flip side is when a character announces he sees everything in, say, terms of movies, but his observations don’t live up to that. The protagonist of Le Divorce opens by saying she’s a film student who sees everything as a movie, but that’s never brought up again (at least not before I gave up on the book midway through). Likewise Trent in Dying Is My Business comments that much of what he knows of life comes from watching old movies, but it never feels that way (as someone who really does see a lot of stuff in comic-book terms [case in point] I use myself as a measure, rightly or wrongly).
In working on Southern Discomfort, I’m trying to get away from that. Of course, it’s 1973, so speculative fiction isn’t anywhere near as mainstream as I think it is now. Lord of the Rings gets mentioned quite a bit, but that silly TV show Star Trek? Not so much. Many more characters have seen the Beverly Hillbillies (after all at the time The Beverly Hillbillies was way more popular). And yes, some sports references, though they don’t come naturally to me.
One thing I have to keep in mind is that even though the show is set in 1973, the characters’ lives go back much further. My protagonist Maria was born in 1946, the beginning of the baby boom. She grew up with Milton Berle and I Love Lucy on TV, discovered Dr. Kildare and the Twilight Zone in her teens. Joan Kirby is 18, so her childhood TV is more Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Maria crushed on Sinatra, Joan went for the Beatles (despite her father grumbling their hair was too outrageously long).
How much of that will make it into the story, I don’t know yet. But it’s good to keep in mind.

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Books (#SFWApro)

(In case you’re wondering, we had house guests last week so no movies to review just now.)
ATOMS AND EVIL shows Robert Bloch’s funnier side, starting with the first story (“Once there was a sane scientist who had an ugly daughter.”) though in a lot of cases, it hasn’t aged well—the satirical comparison of marriage to buying a car in “Wheel and Deal” now comes across as painfully sexist. “You Could be Wrong,” however is a great one as the protagonist begins questioning not only the truth in advertising (advertising during the 1950s was regarded with a kind of morbid fascination by people as it became obvious how much it influenced our purchases) but the truth of everything. “Dead-End Doctor” may be unique in having a psychiatrist as the good guy, Bloch not being a fan of the profession. Overall, a good collection.
CRUCIBLE OF GOLD: A Temeraire Novel by Naomi Novik has Laurence and Temeraire no sooner get reconciled to their exile in Australia than they’re recalled to stop Napoleon waging war on Brazil (thereby pressuring Portugal to prevent Wellington landing there). Even getting from Australia to South America proves difficult, and their landing has them mired in Inca politics (the imperial dragons having massacred the conquistadors, the Incans are still doing fine in 1800). A good entry in the series, which Novik has announced has only two books left to run.
WHERE ARE THE CUSTOMERS’ YACHTS or A Good Hard Look at Wall Street by stockbroker Fred Schwed Jr. is a 1940 Anti-Investment Guide that concludes, as countless later books would that there’s absolutely no miracle secret, strategy or predictive skill for mastering the stock market, despite the claims of countless pros (“A depressing number of people study the past thousand spins of the roulette wheel on the assumption that they can divine a pattern. Worse, they usually find it.”). Schwed’s conclusion is that the further you stray from conservative investments, the greater the certainty you’ll lose your shirt, though he argues it’s more a matter of incompetence than outright fraud (“A great many losers in the crash of ’29 found it more plausible their money went to their broker than that it simply disappeared.”). Enjoyably wry, and still relevant.
SWORDS OF MARS is one of Burroughs more conventionally SF stories as John Carter’s efforts to root out the Assassin’s Guild of Zodanga (by going undercover as a wandering sell-sword) is almost immediately forgotten in favor of a space flight to one of Mars’ moons in a computer-operated space-ships. Though of course, ERB doesn’t avoid the usual thrills of swordfights, kidnapped women (I must say I’m surprised the princess who falls for John doesn’t show the usual insane jealousy) and weird alien races. A standard entry for the series, but standard here was never as low as in Tarzan (maybe because the setting had much more flexibility)
ARCHITECTURE: A Crash Course by Hilary French jumps rapid-fire from Egyptian pyramids through Greece, Rome, Gothic, Palladian, Neoclassical, Neogothic, Baroque and Rococo architecture and on into the modern area as architecture constantly careens between Formal and Rational principles and Natural and Free-Flowing ideas. There are lots of spots where the details aren’t as clear as they should be (or the visual examples should be better) but as a condensed reference, pretty good.

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