Thursday, October 1, 2015

Farewell, Smudge

Smudge avec Gargoyle

By Hank Parmer

Smudge, unlike the rest of our feline overlords, wasn't so much a foundling as a visitor who never left: There was a really bad cold snap that winter, fifteen years ago, and the guy who lived in the little house behind us at the time needed to bring his dogs inside. They were large dogs, not used to cats, so he was worried they might kill this kitten which, if I recall correctly, he was (sort of) looking after. He asked us to keep her for a few days, until the dogs could stay outside again.

I think he was probably well aware what he was doing: He knew we already had one cat -- Puck, the Van cat -- and really, as if anyone could have a devastatingly cute, feisty and affectionate two-month-old salt-and-pepper calico kitten with the most amazing green eyes around for a few days and not fall head-over-heels in love with it. He certainly didn't object to our keeping her. Somewhere among all the photos I haven't gotten around to scanning yet there's one of her comfortably perched on my shoulder, while I'm sitting at the computer. (I am fairly broad-shouldered, but this should still give you an idea how tiny a thing she was.)

Puck, who was well into his middle years by then, accepted her immediately. But of course, he was the friendliest, sweetest-natured feline I've ever known, incredibly tolerant of this manic ball of fur who would come streaking out of hiding with such gleeful ferocity she'd bowl him right over. Until he pinned her down with a foreleg and started grooming her, while she wriggled and protested. Yeah, I know: too damn cute for their own good. If I could have caught them on video, it probably would have garnered millions of hits on YouTube by now.

Smudge wasn't a big cat; she never weighed more than 8 or 9 pounds. In contrast to her outgoing kitten personality, as an adult she was occasionally affectionate, but mostly rather aloof and self-contained, with a real knack for finding the most unlikely places to take a nap, often way up on top of something. (Or, if she wasn't in a mood to cooperate, in some inaccessible corner of our cluttered house.) Many's the time I would be in a room, thinking I was alone, and then slowly come to realize I was being scrutinized from some high vantage by a pair of cool green eyes. Every cat knows it's the center of the universe, but I've never met another who exuded so much quiet confidence in the fact. She was the Empress of all she surveyed, far too dignified to wish to amuse her humans with cute cat tricks.

She was also the stubbornest cat of my acquaintance. When Fred, the big Maine Coon, joined our household, once again Puck was happy to have a new friend, and they got along famously. Smudge, however, instantly decided he was the essence of evil. For the rest of her life, she bullied him mercilessly.

If you ever met Fred, you'd know as well as I he could have done nothing to directly provoke this; as far as I could ever determine, she simply resented the fact of his existence. Sometimes she would pause while crossing the room, then with no warning at all dart over to the poor guy where he was curled up deep in slumber, and hiss and smack him on the nose. I guess she felt he deserved a whack, just on general principles. All he'd do is blink at her sleepily, with this "What'd I do?" expression. In fact, never once did I see this low-slung bruiser of a cat -- who weighed nearly twice as much as his tormentor -- retaliate against the little termagant. She had him completely buffaloed, .

And it really was personal; when several years later two more half-grown kittens found a home with us, about a year apart, Smudge just ignored them so long as they didn't pester her. She even allowed them to sleep with her on the waterbed -- if they maintained a respectful distance -- which was something she never permitted Fred.

For a frail, diabetic 15-year-old cat who had to have insulin twice a day -- that is, if she deigned to appear at injection time -- she was in fairly good health up until the last. I won't go into the details of what forced us to have her put to sleep, just that the onset was shockingly sudden, and we were there with her when what had to be done was done.

Like all her clan, she was a unique, often endearing and at times frustrating creature. Things just aren't the same, without this cantankerous gremlin who I suspect was a grande dame in some former life, as well as this one.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Random Scenes of Hollywood and Elsewhere

Is it just me, or do these Wal-Mart greeters seem to be getting kind of hardcore?

The Pope + The Queen = Hot Sex. This may be the worst logic puzzle HIGHLIGHTS magazine has ever done.
This motto may be true, but I could also say the same thing about that mercurochrome I licked off my elbow at age 4.
Any random movie theater.

The "Hollywood Renaissance" continues apace, with a multitude of construction cranes looming over the skyline like so many Brobdingnagian drinking birds.

The infield at Santa Anita Racetrack. Seems somehow a little less Runyonesque with the palm trees.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Scenes From a Marriage: Episode 423

[SCOTT opens the freezer and stares into it for a moment.]

SCOTT:  Well, this is sad.

MARY: What?

SCOTT: This may be the most depressing thing I've ever seen.

MARY:  What?

[SCOTT pulls freezer door wide, to reveal a single half corn-on-the-cob, laying on the ice trays.]

SCOTT: Frozen, pitiful, alone. He was the last of his polar expedition...

[MARY rolls her eyes.]

SCOTT:  Tragically, he perished only a hundred yards from Base Camp...

[MARY sighs and grabs the frozen cob.]

SCOTT: His journal is heartbreaking...

[She tosses it across the kitchen; it hits the bottom of the trashcan with a THUNK! like a rock.]

MARY:  That'll teach you not to be so fussy about eating your sled dogs, Commander Cobb!

SCOTT:  I was going to ask what's for dinner, but I I won't.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Operation Afreet is Afoot!

If you've been following the comments to Hank Parmer's latest post (a study of P-51 Dragon Fighter, which is, I daresay, a far more exhaustive review than the filmmakers ever expected to receive, and every bit as snarky as they deserve), then you've learned much about Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos, a series of novellas which shares a superficial similarity to P-51 (dragons, witches, and other magical beasts doing their patriotic duty in World War II), and our friend Li'l Innocent's efforts to translate the tale into sequential art.

This part of Anderson's oeuvre was new to me, and I found the discussion fascinating; Li'l was kind enough to follow up with a little more background:

I found a scan of the 1950-something Fantasy & Science Fiction cover that Frank Kelly Freas did to illustrate Operation Afreet. It's almost abstract, and yet - in its ​SFish way - in the grand mid-century pinup tradition. There's no justification in Anderson's text for the lady's outfit! But I remember as a 12 year old grooving on the magazine, that the magical elements of the art fascinated me as much as the glamour aspects. Such a cool pictorial narrative teaser! 
I did a bit of research on Freas and was interested to learn that as a kid in his early 20s, he was an Army Air Force reconnaissance photographer in the Pacific Theater in WW2 -- and also painted pinups on bomber noses.

Anyway, I thought you and Hank might enjoy seeing this, in more ways than one!
Let me count the ways that I might enjoy this!  Mid-century pulp mag? Check! Busty, flame-haired, cat-suited sorceress with unnecessary spurs? Check! Actually, I better stop there...
I've dug out the presentation (book size) versions of my Operation Chaos pgs. Will take a bit o' scanning to reduce them to blog-postable jpgs. I'll let you know when they're on my Lady's Mantle blog.
Personally, I can't wait to see the images, and I'll post links as soon as they're up.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Happy Birthday, acrannymint!

As a professional deadline-blower I'm currently blowing deadlines like a badly procrastinating Category 5 hurricane, and as a result of all this roiling toil, I nearly let a very important occasion pass unremarked: Today is the natal anniversary of longtime Crapper and accomplished cat-owner, acrannymint!

Unfortunately, I'm so far behind on work that I didn't have time to scour the Internet for some commercial image of disgusting food, then do a long, unwanted exegesis of the ad copy that leaves everyone feeling vaguely queasy and resentful.  Fortunately, I confessed my plight to Sheri (who, as old-timers will recall, gave the recipes in The Gallery of Regrettable Food the test kitchen treatment in the early days of Wo'C, thereby unimpeachably establishing her bad food bona fides) and she found the perfect meal for today's political climate: "Sexist Soup!"
It's the He-Man Women Haters Bisque. Just season with Pick-Up Artist to taste, garnish with a Mens Rights Activist, and you're ready to cater your next Gamer Gater affair!

Speaking of men who like to drink other men's milkshake but don't like women drinking their soup, you may have read that a number of GOP politicians and mouthpieces are playing hooky from the Pope's address to Congress, because he might mention stuff Jesus talked about (e.g., piling up riches won't get you into heaven, be kind to the poor, etc.) and not the stuff Jesus implied with a wink and a St. Nicholas-like finger laid along his nose (e.g., don't vaccinate your kids, because without leprosy to cure, what would Jesus do all day? And also remember to support God's holy warriors, your local County Clerk -- I'm sure some artistically inclined wingnut is hard at work photoshopping an Andrew Breitbart-like tribute, showing the Archangel Michael bestowing a flaming sword upon Kim Davis and Howard Sprague).

Anyway, you know how people who you don't really know all that well can wind up as a Facebook "friend" because they share one of your particular interests? And how sometimes they turn out to be, in Sheri's words, "the wingiest of nuts"?  Well, the image below showed up in Sheri's FB feed, much to her amusement, and she decided to share it with me, and I thought I'd share our conversation about it with you guys, because I really don't have anything else ready, even though I was told to have a two minute song prepared and come dressed to move:

SHERI:  I just thought you might enjoy Brian Kilmeade exhorting the Pope to "take on Islam." Because the Crusades worked out so well.

Bring On Your Pope Fatigue!  Brought to you by Rebooting Liberty, who suggest that before calling Freedom's Help Desk, first try turning the Constitution off and then on again.

SCOTT:  Wow. I mean...Yeah. The Pope should be able to cajole a billion Muslims out of their heartfelt faith, but he should stop trying to talk the Koch Brothers out of their profits, because that's Holy Hubris! Actually, I bet Fox news would be okay with another Crusade -- thrilled, even. Of course, you know what Christendom did to the Jews the last time they conquered Jerusalem, but I guess that might come as a relief, since Fox could finally stop pretending to care about Israelis as people rather than Apocalypse fodder.  (Does Fox even have any Jewish hosts? It seems like they're all other either dim-bulb Irish guys like Kilmeade, red-faced shouty Irish guys like O'Reilly and Hannity, or leggy blondes who all have "Tri-County Summer Squash Queen" somewhere on their resume.

SHERI:  I think that's how Fox gets their News Bimbos: they hold regional harvest festivals, and the blondest, dimmest girls get to be news hosts, and the rest are thrown into volcanos, to appease Rupert Murdoch. Anyway, I love how people are claiming to be God-fearing Catholics, but won't support the Pope when he urges people to follow the teachings of Jesus instead of the teachings of The Holy Tea Party.

SCOTT:  You've uncovered their secret recruiting process! I just assumed Murdoch sent someone (probably Jesse Watters) to Midwich to hire away all the grown Children of the Damned, which I'm sure came as a relief to the locals, because who wants creepy, dead-eyed blondes pumping your gas or selling you Dilly Bars? I also have a scene in my zombie movie set at FNC, where they all realize that despite being Second Amendment badasses, none of them has a gun, because they're in New York City, which is a Constitutional No-Go Zone! So tough guys like Hannity and O'Reilly have to hide under their desks as the ravening hordes pound and claw at the studio doors.  Fortunately, all the lady hosts have "Baton Twirling" under "special skills" on their resume, and suddenly it looks like The Walking Dead meets the Super Bowl Halftime Show! 

And you're right about these foul-weather Catholics (who were only too happy to tell us we had to do everything the Pope said when he was Benedict). Turns out they have so many deep-seated issues with Mother Church they should skip confession and go to Freudian analysis instead.

SHERI:  I want to see your zombie movie now! I want to invest in it and get screen credit as an executive producer!

SCOTT:  It's a deal! Full disclosure, the last producer did have a slight problem with story logic: "Zombies eat brains, right? So why are they bothering to attack Fox News?"

SHERI:  Well, it's like how humans eat food, but they still buy Pop Tarts and Doritos.

SCOTT:  "Brian Kilmeade: He's not just a Fox News host, he's junk food for the undead!"

So I think we've settled that. In the zombie apocalypse, loud, ham-faced guys will die first, majorettes last, and zombie moms will make zombie kids eat all their Shep Smith, and save their tooth-rotting Brian Kilmeade brain for dessert.

But no birthday would be complete around here without a Sexy Birthday Lizard! I believe Cranny is an Atlantic Seaboarder, so I looked up a reptiles from her neighborhood, and decided to go with this Eastern Fence Lizard, because he's giving such a suave, knowing look to the camera:
Well hello, there. I hear it's your birthday...

Please join Sheri and me in wishing acrannymint the very happiest of birthdays!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Rise and Fall of the Absurd Reich: P-51 Dragon Fighter

By Hank Parmer

After reporting on Jack the Giant Killer, math-challenged auteur Mark Atkins' unremittingly crappy foray into the world of epic fantasy,  I fully intended to take my own advice viz. treating any of his movies in much the same spirit as I would a pathologically jolly weasel sporting an anthrax-squirting joke carnation.

What I did not know at the time was that far from being a first effort, Jack was in fact Renaissance guy Atkins' thirteenth outing as director, etc., etc. (What I'd like to find out is: who keeps financing these things, and how do we make them stop?)

But despite my resolution, the Fates decreed otherwise. Almost a year after I reviewed JtGK, while scanning through Hulu's cornucopia of cinema merde in search of some review fodder, I stumbled across what seemed a promising title and saved it to my queue for later. Even though Hulu displays the director's name in the blurb, my mind must have been clouded, because up until the moment the opening credits ran I swear I hadn't the slightest inkling that P-51 Dragon Fighter was an Atkins film.

And boy, was it ever.

I have no excuse, really, because a quick glance at Atkins' IMDB entry would have shown me that in addition to his blatant attempts to fool the inattentive viewer with titles like Snakes on a Train (2006), Battle of Los Angeles (2011), the aforementioned Jack, and this year's Road Wars, cheap, crappy films involving dragons -- Dragon Crusaders (2011), Dragonquest (2009), Merlin and the War of the Dragons (2008), plus the immediate follow-up to this movie, Dragons of Camelot -- constitute a substantial portion of his direct-to-video output. The guy really has cornered the market on this sort of thing.

The good news is that compared to JtGK, Atkins managed to scrape together a bigger effects budget for this one, and even had some change left over for costumes and props. I suspect most of that came from economizing on his actors; this time he didn't even try to rope one semi-recognizable face into this thing. Maybe word has gotten around.

Not that even the most stellar cast could have made the slightest difference, because the bad news is that once again Mark Atkins is the director, director of photography and screenwriter. The worse news is he shares a story credit with producer and lead protagonist, Scott Martin. Who is proof positive of the dictum that you never let the lead write his own part.

But enough of that. Time for a rip-off -- er, thrilling tale ripped from the pages of history, as a ragtag band of misfit fighter jockey stereotypes battles Nazi dragons, while the fate of the Allied offensive in North Africa hangs in the balance.

The film opens at an excavation in the desert. An excited Arab bursts into the tent of the movie's store brand Belloq. Inside a cave, they've uncovered a really big egg. Send a message to the Fuhrer, pronto: Our quiches will soon astound the world!

Sometime later, a lone American tank is clanking through the North African desert. The driver catches a glimpse of a vehicle before it ducks into a canyon, and they radio the artillery spotters.

Cut to two Joes in a jeep. They check out a column of what appear to be Panzers -- but one of them takes a closer look through the binoculars and realizes they're decoys. Then he notices a group of women standing above them on the hillside. Sound of wings flapping. He looks up in the sky, sees something, although he doesn't seem very perturbed at the sight. The driver yells, "Oh shit!" Flames, blackout.

Back to the tank. They call in air support, and a squadron of P-51s responds. It's amazingly quiet inside those cockpits. All the better for us to savor every nuance of the sex-and-booze banter from our cocky young pilots.

The tank is incinerated by a hovering dragon! The P-51s spot the flames, and peel off to investigate. They're wiped out by a flight of dragons, although one pilot survives long enough to radio he's under attack from a dragon bearing the Iron Cross on its wings before he too is crisped.

Next there's an establishing shot of a seedy bar in a squalid North African desert hamlet. Inside, Lt. John Robbins (Scott Martin) and a friend are playing a drinking game, in which they each down a shot of whiskey, and then take turns punching each other. The game continues until one of them can't get up. Just good, clean, manly fun.

Robbins suffers from some terrible psychic wound, which is fortunate, because a stoic, some might even say impassive mien combined with doleful puppy-dog eyes seems to be the only expression this thespian has mastered. 
His character drinks to forget. And if the alcohol doesn't do the trick, the cumulative brain damage from utilizing his head as a punching bag will.

Predictably, Robbins is the last one standing. As he picks up his winnings, a large and very Nordic bloke from the SAS demands to go a few rounds with our hero -- loudly predicting it'll be easy money. Robbins fakes him out and kicks him smartly in the groin. An MP shows up with a timely order for the lieutenant to return to Headquarters, where General Ward informs us that Robbins is super-heroic and has a buttload of commendations and medals. For some unspoken reason he voluntarily relinquished command of his squadron. However, he's the most decorated pilot they have on the North African front.

"Sorry to hear that, sir," deadpans Lt. Robbins. (He's got … attitude!)

The general asks Robbins if he'd like to get back into the air. He then shows him some film salvaged from one of the downed P-51s, taken by its nose camera just before it got torched by a dragon. Good thing they were using that new heat-resistant film stock ...

The general thinks these things are alive. (Brilliant deduction, that. It could have been one of those flying Nazi flamethrower robots, tricked out to look like a dragon.) He wants Robbins to assemble a team, track down and eliminate the dragons. Then he'll get his wings back. Robbins agrees, but only if he can do it his own way; the general says he doesn't care how the lieutenant does it, as long as he gets results.

Cut to the infirmary tent, where we're introduced to the romantic interest, Nurse McKee, as she tends to Robbins' boo-boos. That is, she dabs at his face a bit with a cotton ball, though she doesn't appear at all concerned about the blood leaking from his ear. There's clearly some history between these two.

The next day, Robbins' old buddy, Drake Holdrin, arrives from the RAF. Drake will be the squadron leader and designated doomed hot-shot.

Cut to Afrika Korps headquarters, in Benghazi. Enter Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel -- played, naturally, by a jowly actor who looks almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the famous warrior -- and his new aide-de-camp. In case we've forgotten, Rommel reminds us all he's planning to drive the Allies from North Africa.

Belloq is waiting outside. He's dolled up for the occasion in the Nazi Archaeologist/Dragon Whisperer uniform, which has apparently been designed with the specific intent of humiliating the wearer: khaki shorts and shirt, wide-brimmed hat, neckerchief and an Iron Cross. He looks like a scoutmaster from Dubuque.

An armored personnel carrier pulls up and disgorges a bevy of sinister babes cloaked in black. Rommel is not pleased. He warns the Doktor that he doesn't have the troops to protect these women, but Belloq proudly contradicts the Feldmarschall, saying it is they who will protect his troops.

Back to the Allies' camp, where it's nighttime, and the right time for the script to introduce our colorful dragon-fodder: First, another RAF guy. Then a Czech, a Frenchman, then yet another RAF guy. And last but not least, the American contingent: a farm boy, a Chicagoan and another guy, of indeterminate accent.

But their roster is not yet complete. They're awaiting the arrival of the final member of their valiant band, who has some business to take care of first, explains Co-General Anderson, something to do with Life magazine. (The guy's been spending quite a lot of time by himself lately, since the Kate Smith swimsuit issue arrived in the mail.)

To kill some time while they're waiting for him to finish whatever it is he's doing, crusty, irascible CG Anderson shows them a short subject titled "Project Skywurm". It was captured from a German reconnaissance plane that landed at the wrong airfield during a sandstorm. (And was that pilot ever red in the face!)

The film-within-a-film opens with the camera panning past a line of ladies wearing full-length black silk nightgowns -- with black peek-a-boo lace trim -- and hooded black cloaks. Could be they're extras from a cheesy death metal video. Or they might be a Goth sorority.

Then we see one of the Goth sisters, standing on a rock, her mouth open and arms outstretched. Since there's no soundtrack, it's difficult to tell whether she's singing, or demanding a feeding. A glimpse of a dragon. Then a German soldier in a cave, inspecting dozens of big eggs. Whoo-hoo! They found the Easter Bunny's secret stash!

Next, we see Scoutmaster Belloq, standing in a doorway, while the spooky ladies file out of the building and walk past him toward the camera. The Herr Doktor allows himself a tight little smile of satisfaction.

Co-Gen. Anderson identifies him as "Dr. Heinrich Gudrun", who's an archaeologist, cryptozoologist and specialist in the occult. (One thing you have to admit: the guy's got an unbeatable resume for this gig.)

Anderson then reveals that the women are sorceresses, who call themselves the Vrill. He says they believe in telekinesis, mind control, telepathy, and communication with non-human entities. They can also pick winning Lotto numbers and find missing jewelry and lost pets. Anderson believes they've been training the dragons. Drake, the cheeky devil, suggests it's just like the legend of the unicorn and the virgin. All they need do is drop him behind the lines with a couple of bottles of wine, and he'll solve that little problem. Har.

CG Anderson is not amused. While he's chewing Drake out, the final recruit shows up: Lt. Marx, who's on loan from the Tuskeegee Airmen. And he insists on handing out pamphlets about the struggle of the urban proletariat. This might not end well ...

Back to the seedy bar, where our newly-assembled team is getting to know each other. It's not like they have to worry their pretty little heads about sissy stuff like how to locate these monsters, or what tactics they'll use when they run into them ...

Since they don't officially exist, they decide to call themselves the "Ghost Squadron". (Not exactly the most auspicious name they could have chosen, if you ask me.)

Nurse McKee and her friend, Sue Strickland, enter the place and pause for a moment at the bar. Cocksman Drake sits up and takes notice, arrowing in on the pair like a bird-seeking missile. Sue is awestruck by Drake's fame and captivated by his rugged smarm, but McKee says she's there to meet someone, and leaves. Temporarily forgetting they're not in a 60s disco, Drake remarks to Sue that her friend is really "uptight".

Cut to Lt. Marx, who's trying to order a drink, but the bartender won't serve him. When Robbins walks up, the bartender immediately relents, subdued no doubt by the sheer force of the lieutenant's dolefulness. Meanwhile, McKee appears at the Ghost Squadron table, to a chorus of appreciative wolf whistles.

Back at the bar, Lt. Marx picks up his drink and walks away. This, by the way, is the only racism he will encounter during the course of this film. You have to marvel at a story that introduces a situation so rife with possibilities for some dramatic tension, and then resolutely refuses to do anything with it.

SAS bloke now makes an appearance. In the ensuing fracas Robbins inadvertently gropes McKee's breast and gets roundly slapped. Then she cracks a beer bottle over SAS bloke's head -- what a gal! -- rendering him hors de combat, while his partner tussles with the rest of the Ghost Squadron. We can now check "bar brawl to swing music" off our list of Good War film cliches.

Everybody gets in on the fun, except for Drake, who's busy snogging with Sue. Their merry free-for-all is suddenly interrupted by an air raid warning: dragon attack!