Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Legends Never Die: Han Solo's Revenge



Han Solo at Stars' End was published in early 1979. The sequel, Han Solo's Revenge followed in late 1979. Whereas Stars' End ended up a prison break story, this turns into almost a James Bond style adventure/mystery.

It begins with Han and Chewie (and the droids Bollux and Blue Max) operating a movie theater on a desert planet for easy credits. Unbeknownst to them, they've accidentally created a religious experience for the desert natives by showing a documentary of a water world. The scheme ends in a hurry when they try to show a different movie and they're back in space, desperate for cash.


The solution comes in a simple, lucrative smuggling operation. One catch: Han finds out it involves running slaves. Han & Chewie are rogues, but they absolutely refuse to get involved with any slavers. The immediate situation resolved, an angry Han Solo sets out to find the slavers and get the money they still owe him.

To that end, Han runs into one Fiolla of Llord, a beautiful, idealistic and resourceful woman who's also a Corporate Sector Assistant Auditor-General trying to track down the very same slaving ring. Meanwhile Chewie has his hands full dealing with a persistent skip tracer named Spray, who shoves his way onto the Falcon, intending to repossess it once all the shooting stops.


Shootouts on a luxury spaceliner, planet hopping, a bomb on the Millennium Falcon, a high speed swoop bike chase scene five years before the speeder bikes of Return of the Jedi, and an encounter with Gallandro, the deadliest gunslinger in the Corporate Sector, if not the entire Galaxy.

Much like Stars' End, Revenge runs at a rapid clip of action sequences, betrayals and more action sequences. Comic relief is also strong, as Bollux and Blue Max continue to provide their mix of competence and comedy, while Spray becomes an amusing foil for Chewie.


The real standout is Fiolla, one of the first genuinely memorable Expanded Universe female protagonists and love interests for Han. (Jessa from Stars' End counts too, but she's only there at the beginning and end of that story). Resourceful, witty, and occasionally naive in contrast to Han's practical cynicism, she's great. If one were feeling woke, it could be pointed out that she is a non-Caucasian female hero in a Star Wars story from 1979 and it was no big deal because the franchise was always diverse, but that would shatter the narrative.

She's also a genuinely good cop, which makes a strong contrast to the hard edge the Corporate Sector Authority had in the first book. Tyrants like Viceprex Hirken aren't the only employees in the Authority, which adds a nice layer of nuance.


I absolutely recommend Han Solo's Revenge for fast-paced scum and villainy action, adventure and romance. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Movie Review: Robin Hood (1991)



So you're probably already aware of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves which is an entertaining but ultimately mediocre and hollow movie with a great soundtrack and a damn entertaining Alan Rickman performance.

But also released in 1991 was another Robin Hood movie. Directed by action veteran John Irvin and written by Sam Resnick and John McGrath. McGrath was a veteran TV writer but this is Resnick's only film credit on IMDB. The cast is full of veteran actors, but the biggest name a modern viewer will recognize is a young Uma Thurman in her Post-Baron Munchausen, Pre-Pulp Fiction early 90s period.

Robert Hode (Patrick Bergin) is the Saxon Earl of Huntington and friend Norman Baron Roger Dauguerre (Jeroen Krabbe). Things go sour when Sir Miles Folcanet (Jurgen Prochnow AKA the guy from Das Boot) arrives and arrogantly starts throwing his weight around. He's here to marry Dauguerre's niece Marian (Uma Thurman), but that's not why Robin rebels.

Much the Miller (Daniel Webb) is caught poaching and Robin stands up for him, preventing Sir Miles from blinding the peasant. During his trial, words get heated, pride gets insulted, and Robin punches his way out of the castle and becomes an outlaw with his kinsman Will Scarlett (Owen Teale). They hit upon the standard beats of the river fight with Little John (David Morrissey), the attempted thievery on Friar Tuck (Jeff Nuttall), Marian running off to join Robin disguised as a young man. All against the backdrop of Prince John's regency during King Richard's imprisonment.

So why is this “The Good 1991 Robin Hood movie?”

Tone.

It gets the spirit absolutely right. There's no way that an early 90s medieval movie would ever reach the joyful spirit of The Adventures of Robin Hood, but while the costumes and sets feature lots of browns and washed out lighting, the spirit of the movie is deeply earthy. Characters sing (not elaborate musical numbers, just little ditties as they go along). There's some swashbuckling. There's trick shooting. There are glimpses of historical awareness, though they muddle together All Souls' Day with the Lord of Misrule tradition that belongs to Christmastide or the Merry Men getting powerful Welsh longbows about a hundred or so years before they became truly dominant in English battle tactics.

These are legitimate mistakes, but there's an attempt at verisimilitude and not something so nakedly absurd as the Ewok Village or Celts or a Moor traveling the 12th Century English countryside because he has a Wookiee life-debt like in Prince of Thieves.

Then there's the romance. Marian is great here as a strong-willed and very court-savvy young woman with a sharp tongue. She has no interest in Sir Miles, and is charmed by Robin's benevolence and hot-blooded heroics. Even when she goes tomboy, she's still a girl in disguise and not simply an action movie character with boobs. This Marian's actually kind of bad in a fight, but still manages to get some good shots in. Compare with Prince of Thieves Marian who starts off the movie showing off her sword skills but becomes useless in the climactic fight scene. 

Robin himself is great too. There's no “You killed my father/betrayed my King, I need revenge!” motivation. He's just a proud, hot-headed nobleman with a rigid sense of morality who commits to his actions. Not quite Erroll Flynn heroic, but definitely channeling him.

Jeff Nuttall's Friar Tuck is also interesting. Nuttall was a major figure in 60s counterculture and artistic movements with an anarchic streak. Here he plays Tuck as a thoroughly shady character: evicted from his monastery for murdering another friar, he now travels the countryside selling chicken bones as saints' relics. Its an interesting thought behind why a man of God would go around with a band of outlaws, but Tuck's postmodern shadiness contrasts hard with Robin's straightforward heroism.

Straightforward heroism is the order of the day here. Robin is good, Sir Miles is bad (but not “consorting with sorcery and trying to rape Maid Marian” bad), and the two spiral toward a deadly confrontation before a legitimately earned happy ending.


Besides Men in Tights, this forgotten little gem is the best Robin Hood movie made in the last thirty years or so. Highly recommended.


 


Sunday, September 03, 2017

Bike Week Bonanza: Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Every Which Way But Loose, Heroes of the East

I've taken to riding an exercise bike and watching a movie every day to kill two birds with one stone.



Mortal Kombat (1995)
Surprisingly good and probably the best video game movie adaptation. It plays smart by keeping it close to the original “Deathmatch Tournament” plot with broadly-drawn archetypes meeting up to punch each other.

Set design is outstanding and the CGI isn't overused beyond the limits of mid-90s graphics. Christopher Lambert is a stroke of genius as Raiden. The rest of the heroes are well handled, especially Johnny Cage's story arc. The Goro costume/effects are impressive. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa steals the show as douchebag sorcerer Shang Tsung.

The fight scenes rely too much on quick cuts. Scorpion doesn't do much except have a cool fight with Cage. Sub-Zero dies like a bitch.

Unpretentious and a lot of fun. Probably the best Paul W. S. Anderson movie I've seen.



Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)
The sequel that replaces almost the entire cast except Liu Kang and Kitana. James Remar (from the Warriors) does a serviceable job as Raiden, but lacks the touch of amused madness that made Lambert's version so good. Brian Thompson (the bad guy from Cobra) is halfway to a good Shao-Kahn, but making him into a daddy's boy hurts the character badly, but that's also because Shinnok ruins everything.

Surprisingly faithful to Mortal Kombat 3's plot, it suffers from a plot that's more ambitious than its budget can allow. Smoke and Cyrax get fun fights. Nightwolf shows up for one scene to spout vision quest nonsense about animalities to Liu Kang. The heroic Sub-Zero II (yes, that's canon) shows up to fight Scorpion, spout some ninja nonsense, and then vanishes entirely from the movie in a complete waste of one of the series' most popular characters. Sheeva, Rain, and Baraka die like chumps. Which I guess is in character, but still...

CGI is more heavily used, to its detriment. Motaro looks like ass. Liu Kang and Shao-Kahn's dragon vs hydra Animality fight is AWFUL. Set design remains pretty good.

Considerably weaker than the first. Pretty bad, but entertaining at least.



Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
Clint Eastwood as street fighting trucker Philo Beddoe with a pet orangutan named Clyde. No reason given for Clyde. No reason needed.

Philo falls in love with a mysterious country-western singer Lynn Halsey-Taylor who leaves him one night and he takes off after her with his ape and his best friend Orville (Geoffrey Lewis).

Philo's something of an asshole since he keeps provoking fights everywhere he goes. He pisses off an idiot biker gang and a short-fused pair of cops. Both groups chase after him.

Its funny, and shows the American working class as affable and heroic. His sidekick Orville finds love with a young Beverly D'Angelo, but Philo himself discovers that the woman he's followed to Denver from California is a shallow, selfish manipulator.

Its good, but fairly subversive toward the idea of romance. Doesn't really stick the landing. Its got an old lady blowing up motorcycles with a shotgun, though, so there's that.


Heroes of the East AKA Shaolin Challenges Ninja AKA Zhong hua zhang fu (1978)
Shaw Brothers production. Directed by veteran martial artist/stunt actor/director Chia-Liang Liu and starring Shaw Brothers staple Gordon Liu/Chia-Hui Liu. Action comedy about a Chinese man put into an arranged marriage with a Japanese woman. Both like each other, but both are martial artists and deeply proud of their respective heritages/styles.

Misunderstandings lead to arguments, which lead to some Taming of the Shrew moments and then lead to him inadvertently insulting all of her martial arts teachers, who show up looking to avenge the insult.

Cue a series of fights where Liu has to fight them off one by one, using different Chinese Kung Fu styles against their varied Japanese styles.

Its got a light touch and (typical of the genre) the fight scenes are where it shines. Nunchaku, katana, jian swords, spears, sai, butterfly swords, three-sectioned-staff, judo, karate, drunken boxing, crane style, ninjutsu, etc. Watch Kung Fu movie fight choreography, and you'll see how just about every modern Western action director needs to be slapped in the face repeatedly for their terrible editing choices.


Naturally, the Chinese protagonist wins (reconciling with his wife along the way), but the Japanese fighters aren't treated like cartoon villains like in a lot of other Kung Fu cinema (remember, WWII Japan was not kind to China). Its a showcase and celebration of different styles of martial arts. Entertaining and impressive. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Movie Review: Mr. Majestyk (1974)



1974's Mr. Majestyk is a curious little early action film that's largely been forgotten, despite having a reasonably large pedigree.

It stars timeless tough guy Charles Bronson as Vince Majestyk.

It was written by pulp western and crime novelist Elmore Leonard.

And it was directed by big picture filmmaker Richard Fleischer, who directed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage and, uh, Conan the Destroyer.

Its about a grumpy Vietnam veteran with a criminal record who now owns a melon farm in Colorado. All he wants to do is bring in his harvest for the year, but fate seems to have it out for him.

Sounds like a Steinbeck novel about the plight of the working class and death of the American Dream, right?

Wrong. This is Bronson we're talking about, not Tom Joad.

After a confrontation with a small time shakedown scheme, Majestyk gets arrested on bogus charges. During a stay in prison, he meets mob hitman Frank Renda, played by gangster character actor Al Lettieri. The two hate each other immediately.

When the mob tries to spring Renda during a prisoner transfer, a firefight with the cops ensues. In the chaos, Majestyk grabs the keys to Renda's handcuffs and drives off with him in the prison bus. Renda tries to cut a deal, but Majestyk has other plans.

He wants to hand the hitman over to the police in exchange for dropping the charges against him so he can go back to his melon farm. It doesn't work out as planned. Renda escapes and boy is he mad.

The good news is that the charges against Majestyk got dropped. The bad news is that Renda's out to kill him. The best news is that he can go back to his melon harvest. On one condition: That he act as bait to lure out Renda.

The harvest is brought in successfully. He starts up a relationship with migrant worker and union activist Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal). He helped her out at the beginning of the movie and hired her group.

But then tragedy!

Renda makes his move, but Majestyk's not at home, so the mobster settles for the next best thing: destroying the melon harvest with sad violin music playing over it. I swear it makes more sense in context.



What follows is a very satisfying road to revenge. Its got shootouts. Its got an old Ford pickup barreling down perilous mountain trails with Bronson bouncing around in the flatbed shooting a shotgun. Its got ramp jumps. Its got a car going over the side of a cliff and exploding. Its got Bronson jumping through a window blasting away with his shotgun.

Its good stuff.

There's a few nods to the labor disputes of the early 70s, but at its core, its basically a libertarian western. The man just wants to get his harvest in and make some money, and the cops do nothing except get in the way of that.

Everybody else in the movie thinks he's crazy, since with all the madness going on, his main fixation is the melon harvest. But in context, it makes sense. Its his livelihood and independence on the line, and he'd be ruined it he couldn't sell the crop. Even the melon massacre works in that context. The hero and villain both understand the symbolism of the crop.

There are some slower parts here and there, but Leonard's script keeps things building nicely.


It may not be his finest work, but at the end of the day, its Charles Bronson kicking ass for a hundred minutes. What more do you need to recommend it?


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pulp Review: The Living Shadow


The origins of the Shadow are an interesting, and appropriately twisting gyre of early cross-media promotion.

Once upon a time, Street & Smith published a pulp mag called Detective Story Magazine. On July 31, 1930, Detective Story Hour premiered on the radio for adaptations of stories from the magazine, and to shill other Street & Smith publications. The narrator of the show was a mysterious voice known only as The Shadow (a clever piece of marketing itself).

It worked, but not exactly as expected. The Shadow's sinister charisma had audiences going to the stands to buy magazines, but they weren't asking for Detective Story. They wanted The Shadow. Which didn't exist.

Street & Smith were smart enough to see a demand hungry for a supply, and hired up-and-coming mystery writer (and former reporter, stage magic afficionado, and crossword puzzle writer) Walter B. Gibson, to create a character whole cloth out of nothing more than a voice.

Under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant, Gibson would go on to write 300 Shadow novels, so it worked out pretty well.

Shadow Magazine Volume 1, issue 1 appeared on stands in April of 1931, featuring The Living Shadow, Gibson's first published Shadow story.

What follows is pulp as hell.



We meet suicidally depressed Harry Vincent on a bridge in New York. He got a letter from his old girlfriend back in Michigan dumping him, and so like a bitch, he jumps.

Fate intervenes in the form of the Shadow, who yanks him back onto the bridge and offers him a deal: Harry's financial woes are forever taken care of, but he has to obey any and every command of the Shadow's. Or they could go back to the bridge and Harry goes over the railing again. Harry's life belongs to the Shadow now, and decides his old life is dead anyway, so he eagerly agrees to become an Agent..

It doesn't take long. Harry is introduced to another Shadow Agent, intermediary Claude Fellows. Harry is sent into a nearly fatal disastrous investigation of a fence operating out of a tea shop in Chinatown. Re-shuffled to a murder investigation in Long Island that's got the police stumped.

Mystery! Investigations! Misdirection! Disguises! Murder! Car Chases! Fistfights! Deathtraps! Crossword Puzzles! About the only thing it doesn't have is estrogen. Margo Lane wouldn't appear in radio until 1937 and in the pulps until 1941.

Anything else would give away the plot, and it takes some very clever turns.



What's more important is that it establishes the Shadow as a character: He has a mysterious drive to punish evil-doers and is fabulously wealthy. He says that he can spend the lives of his agents if he wants to, but goes to great lengths to help and protect them in danger. He is a master of disguise beyond normal physical limitations. He can travel convincingly through shadows and its never made clear if its supernatural or not. He has his trademark laugh. These last bits move the story from a master detective with enough prep-time hax to make Batman blush (makes sense, since Batman's the bastard son of the Shadow) into supernatural fantasy.

What's even more amusing is that at one point, Harry Vincent is instructed to tune into the radio at a specific time and channel to hear his next orders from the Shadow. It is a blatant nod to the the Shadow's real-life radio presence and a brilliant piece of cross-media marketing.

Imagine being a loyal listener of the show and finally reading the Shadow's print stories only for it imply that at any time, you, yes YOU, could hear instructions from the Shadow to help him in his crusade on crime. Really tickles the tympanic membrane, doesn't it?



As an introduction, The Living Shadow succeeds, such that Street & Smith would publish it again in hardcover the next year and there would be numerous reprints over the years. Its not the Shadow and his mythos fully developed, hell, the Shadow's identity as Lamont Cranston or Kent Allard isn't even established yet. Yet there's enough there to be unmistakably The Shadow, and its fun as hell.


Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pulp Review: Black God's Kiss


Its such a common narrative among modernist Sci-Fi/Fantasy pundits to say that the genre was always a boys' club and that women are only now assuming their rightful place at the top of the field. (There's probably an io9 article about the subject right now.)

This is bullshit because it erases women who were writing at the top of their game to great commercial and critical success almost a hundred years ago. Catherine Lucille “C. L.” Moore being among the best and brightest of that group.

An Indiana native, Moore made her first professional sale to Weird Tales in 1933. In 1934, she made the cover story of Weird Tales' October issue with Black God's Kiss. It's weird.

Jirel is the tall, fiery, red-headed, yellow-eyed warrior commander of Joiry, a castle somewhere in France that has just been captured by the arrogant and dashing Guillaume. He takes something of a fancy to her spirited defense of the castle and cavalierly kisses her.

Imprisoned and seething with wounded pride and rage, she escapes her cell and with the help of Father Gervase, she sneaks into a dark, forbidden part of Joiry Castle where a dark tunnel will lead her to a dark place where she might find the means of her revenge.

Gervase's pleas fall on deaf ears. Jirel will have her revenge, even at the cost of her soul, and she descends into a bizarre Hell that isn't like the kind described in Dante.



It would be a crime to spoil what follows, but it entails physical peril, moral peril, spiritual peril, and some very difficult decisions and repercussions.

Jirel is an incredible female heroine: strong and flawed, skilled in battle but with so much growing up left to do. Her battle prowess isn't what can help her, though, and she must use her judgment to reach the end of the story, which arguably moves it away from Sword & Sorcery (where cutting a bloody swath through one's enemies is de rigueur) to the kind of weirdness that marked the beginning of Merritt's The Moon Pool. There's no mistaking that Moore is a female author, though, and her perspective adds another layer to the experiences of young Jirel that wouldn't be found in Robert E. Howard's work.

Less action-packed and more weirdness & wonder, Black God's Kiss is an incredible introduction to an incredible character written by a Grandmaster of the genre who is leagues better than the modern SF/F writers (male or female) who've forgotten her legacy. She stands shoulder to shoulder with Burroughs, Merritt and Howard and deserves to be a household name.

Respect due.

Essential Reading.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Pulp Review: The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (pt 1)


The poetically unimaginative but accurately titled The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is a book of short fiction from 2008 that collects a massive number of short stories from arguably the best writer of the Pulp Era. 

I've been reading the collection on and off for several months now, and while there's a very good reason why Conan is Howard's most enduring creation, this book provides an excellent survey that hammers home just how damn good he was as a writer.

Some of the stories are better than others, with some I would call essential fantasy reading, but there isn't a single one I would say is “bad.” The theme being horror, that's what you end up with: spooky tales, the genesis of the Weird West genre, monster hunters, and eldritch abomination slayers. Action and imagination are the cornerstones of Howard, and every single genre he puts his hand to spins something enjoyable.

Rather than dwelling on a single story, I'll review them in smaller chunks because while they've all been enjoyable, some have more meat on their bones than others.

In the Forest of Villefère (Weird Tales, August 1925)
A traveler named de Montour is passing through a forest on the way to the village of Villefère. He meets a fellow traveler, Carolus le Loup. With a name like that, he's obviously a werewolf and attacks de Montour when the moon rises. A slight tale, but atmospheric with explosive action at the end.

Wolfshead (Weird Tales, April 1926)
The sequel to the above story, this time a new narrator travels to Africa and the fortress of one Dom Vincente da Lusto, a trader and slaver who has carved himself a small empire there. Among the guests there is de Montour, who is himself a werewolf now and tries to lock himself away from others when the moon rises, but of course that doesn't work 100% and a couple people in the castle start dying. Then one of Vincente's courtiers starts a slave revolt as a power play against him and it ends in some literal explosive action. The slavery issue (which makes sense given that its set during the Age of Sail, also Dom Vincente isn't a very good man in the first place) will be a turnoff for some but the action is top notch and an early example of a “heroic werewolf” in fiction. De Montour's desire to lock himself away during the full moon notably prefigures Larry Talbot from the Wolfman movies.

The Dream Snake (Weird Tales, February 1928)
On a warm summer night down South, an old man named Faming explains his horrific dreams of being hunted by a gigantic snake. Every night its the same dream, only the snake gets closer. A short and simple creepy tale.

Sea Curse (Weird Tales, May 1928)
Now we're getting somewhere. The first of the “Faring Town” stories about a small coastal town that suffers from weird incidents. This is about two drunken scoundrels and pirates named John Kulrek and Lie-lip Canool. Kulrek did wrong by one of the girls of the village, and when she died at sea, her old mother, Moll Farrell, places a curse on the two. I'll say no more, since the payoff is fantastic.