Saturday, September 23, 2017

Beat-Em-Up to a Pulp



So a recent Twitter conversation randomly shifted to the lost genre of Beat-Em-Up games.

Aside from nostalgia for pumping quarters into Final Fight at the Pizza Hut my Grandpa would take me to after school for a personal pan pizza, I managed to beat the arcade version of the game this year.

Its simple, even for its genre, but it still holds up. The SNES exclusive Final Fight 3 adds a ton of features, like more playable characters, combos, the ability to dash, and even a super move meter.

Then epiphany hit. Beat-em-ups are, at their core, pulp adventures.

A group of individuals numbering between one and at most six take to the streets to right a wrong. The world, or at least the city, needs saving. A lot of times, its the female love interest who gets kidnapped and its up to the hero and his friends to save her (Streets of Rage 2 remixes this by having it be one of the male protagonists of the first game be the one kidnapped).

Double Dragon establishes the hero's motivation with maximum efficiency. A woman (Marian) is surrounded on a street by a mean looking gang. One of them walks up to her, slugs her in the gut, throws her over his shoulder, and carries her off.




Mission Start. Ten seconds of backstory is all you need to know. Action, romance, and morality (because good dudes don't sucker punch women and carry them off).

Or take Final Fight. The newly-elected mayor of Metro City gets a call from the Mad Gear gang. They've kidnapped his daughter Jessica to extort his cooperation.

Since the mayor is Mike Haggar, the response is swift and decisive. He strips off his shirt and personally takes to the streets to suplex and pile driver anyone who gets in his way. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that he's a former professional wrestler. And this predates Jesse Ventura's governorship.

Sounds insane, right? Sure, but its memorable, and Haggar's design, moveset and moustache are so iconic that he's the poster boy of the franchise and the only one to be playable in every Final Fight game. He's even made it into two Marvel Vs Capcom games.



Joining him are Cody, Jessica's boyfriend and the heroic everyman-type of protagonist, as well as Guy, Cody's friend and a ninja (because 1989), who has no emotional investment in the proceedings and only joins in because its the right thing to do.

Technological limitations had an effect on storytelling back then, but even so, that works for Beat-Em-Ups, which boil the story down into the minimal background required to invest you into going from left to right across a screen and literally beating everything you meet into a pulp.

You want a deep story? There's lots of RPGs to scratch that itch.

You want to play through an action movie? Memorable character designs that fit into gameplay archetypes taking on the world? Killer soundtracks? Eating fully cooked turkey you found in wooden crate?

Don't actually do that last one.




Hell yeah, its pulp.  

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.


Monday, August 07, 2017

"Figure a man's only good for one oath at a time"



Over the weekend I watched John Ford's 1956 Western masterpiece The Searchers. And in calling it a “masterpiece,” in the first sentence, I'm already recommending it. Its great. Watch it.

Its about a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning to his brother's farm in Texas to settle down after some probably violent and illegal adventuring after the war. He's a proud man, but damaged, and wants to settle down with his loving kin. Except his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, who would play Captain Pike for the pilot episode of Star Trek before his untimely death in 1969 at the age of 42), who's part-Indian and well-meaning, but kind of a hot-blooded idiot.

The two ride out with a posse of Rangers investigating missing cattle, find signs of the Comanche, and then the Edwards family back home is slaughtered in a raid. Except for the little girl, Debbie, who's taken by the raiders.

This sends Ethan and Martin on a desperate, five-year search for the girl that also turns into a meditation on the nature of vengeance and the toll it takes, both on those that seek it, and the people surrounding them.

Its gritty without being graphic, and doesn't shy away from some pretty harsh themes. The Comanche under a chief named Scar are brutal raiders, but Scar has his own motivation that makes sense without making him too sympathetic. He's also obsessed with blind vengeance. For their part, Ethan and Martin do some pretty rotten stuff too when faced with some tough decisions, and people end up dying because of it.

But what really hammered home the genius of Ford as a director, is the raid on the Edwards homestead. The movie spends the first fifteen minutes or so establishing Ethan's family and hometown as a nice place filled with good and occasionally quirky people. The character actors play their parts well and while they're painted with broad strokes, they're likable. Which is important, because around the 20 minute mark, it all goes down.

The posse establishes that the Comanche are on a murder raid, looking to kill some settlers. Two farms are singled out as possible targets, and the party rides to the closest one first.

It ends up being the wrong one.

What follows is one of the most effective horror scenes I've ever seen in a movie. Its not a spoiler because its the instigating event of the entire movie.

Its evening at the Edwards farm. The sunset casts a reddish glow and one by one the family starts to realize that all is not well. Each time that realization spreads, the tension ratchets up, first with the parents trying to keep calm and lay low, then accelerating when the older daughter, Lucy, realizes what's going on and screams, prompting her mother to slap her to shut her up.

They know.

They know what's coming.

So in their last minutes, they send their youngest daughter, Debbie (played by the Wood sisters, Lana as the younger version, Natalie as a 15 year old) to a hiding place away from the house. Only its not a great hiding place, and we get our first glimpse of Scar as he walks up to her, looks down, and blows the signal.

Fade to black.

The scene tells you everything you need to know about what's going to happen. Their reactions, their resignation, their despair. You don't need to see it on screen because the violence of the moment is in your mind, and I can guarantee that its going to be bloodier than anything the Hays Production Code would've allowed.

Its genius.

I'm not going to bother finding the clip and linking it, because you need that first twenty minutes of setup to provide context. Its probably not my favorite John Ford/John Wayne film (which is maybe Stagecoach, but I need to see more).


Highest recommendation. Watch this movie. 


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Geek Culture™ Apocalypse


The recent RazörFist rant on the coming decline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which is worth a watch) combined with the San Diego Comic-Con trailer for Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One adaptation (which is worth a watch if you think slapping a DeLorean and the Iron Giant and whatever other pre-existing sci-fi/fantasy element you can think of into a bigger budget version of a Seltzerand Friedberg Pop Culture Schlockfest is your idea of good writing) got me thinking about the current state of Geek Culture™ that's existed since about 2007.

Every major multimedia franchise that's been marketed to Hell and back harder than Dante and Orpheus going on a bus tour is exhausting itself. Let's explore.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is going strong, but audience fatigue is definitely setting in. What started with 2008's Iron Man has turned into an impressive shared universe of movies building on each other with characters and actors carrying over. Like classic comic book storylines of yore, a disparate group of directors and writers were kept in line by a firm editorial hand, guiding each successive movie to financial success. As a lifelong Avengers fan, I've benefited greatly from it, but entertainment trends last about a decade, and the clock is ticking. After next year's two-part Infinity War, I expect things to change. Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios and the franchise's primary architect of success, has his contract up in 2018. Disney/Marvel would be stupid to let an organizer like that go, but in the off-chance that they don't offer him a lifetime supply of Large Free Bags of Cash or if he decides he wants to do something else, the quality will plummet. Audiences are already starting to get restless, and if the quality drops lower, they'll leave.

The print version of Marvel is in even worse trouble. Since the market crash of the 90s, the comics industry has been hemorrhaging readers at an alarming rate and relying on big crossovers and shock storylines to draw attention but not long-term readership. Right now, Marvel's books are full of bad art, bad writing, no action, and meaningless changes for the sake of controversy, and they the execs are blaming it on the audience “not wanting more diversity.” Because calling your audience racist for not buying your books is a great way to keep them. 

Things aren't that great for DC either. The Justice League cinematic universe, or whatever they call it, is struggling to find its footing. They make money, sure, but the only movie that's talked about with universal approval is Wonder Woman. Worse, they've been trying to rush the JLA movie out the door before the Superhero movie bubble bursts, so it hasn't taken the time to develop characters or the universe well for movie audiences. Its been a rocky ride for them, and there are persistent rumors that things aren't going that smoothly behind the scenes either

In terms of print, DC's been capitalizing on Marvel's stumbles, except instead of running with heroes and villains engaged in big superheroic action, they're poised to follow Marvel's identity politics right into the dumpster with dumb ideas like Batman:White Knight, a miniseries about turning the Joker into a literal Social Justice Warrior and the protagonist. 

Who knows? Maybe it'll be a giant subversion of SJW culture because at his core, the Joker is an abusive, violent psychotic with neon hair who pretends to intellectual depth in order to justify his criminal impulses...okay, so he's basically Antifa already. 

Back at Disney, Star Wars has been making a lot of money through marketing and movies, but its been going as hard and fast as possible, and oversaturation is going to hit back hard. The Force Awakens and Rogue One garnered a large share of manufactured internet controversy touching on the usual “Fans are sexist, racist, etc if they don't like it.” While that's always true for some, it also doesn't change the fact that both movies were competently made but largely mediocre and ultimately forgettable. The Last Jedi is of course, riding on controversy to build its marketing momentum, but depending on how that movie treats beloved characters like Luke and Leia (we already know how TFA treated Han), its going to sour a lot of people off of it. Speaking of Han, that movie's been going through serious production woes, with the initial directors being let go in the middle of filming

Its my own personal opinion, but I think that movie's going to be the point where NuCanon flies off the rails and people start abandoning it and no amount of identity politics controversy is going to put butts in seats. Feel free to quote me on that.

Doctor Who's ratings have been slipping heavily in recent years, and a lot of people I've talked to personally have been unhappy with the slipping quality of the writing for a while. The recent casting of the first female Doctor has again followed the manufactured controversy route, except for the previous show runner calling out the press for doing just that. It remains to be seen whether it'll rebuild its audience, but I kind of doubt it will after an initial bump of curiosity. It didn't work for comic books, why would it work here?

The Walking Dead has been slipping and there's talk of what the end of the series would be like. Outside of Negan and the recent spoilers, nobody's really talking about it. Meanwhile the very successful video game from Telltale Games will be ending its last season in, you guessed it, 2018.

Back at Disney one last time, the House Walt Built seems to be doing nothing but live action remakes of previous successes. Because treading water is easier than drawing, apparently. Pixar (which is independent now, but still close with Disney) can still animate, but they've been moving more and more into sequel territory.

Game of Thrones is currently on its seventh season, and will be ending after the eighth (which will, coincidentally, probably air in 2018-2019). A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin's book series that's the basis for the show, still has two books to go with no end in sight, thanks to the glacial pace of Martins' writing.

As for other massively popular fantasy book series adaptations, Harry Potter continues chugging along with the rest of the Fantastic Beasts movies and a Voldemort Origin Movie on the way. Kudos to the fan film team that got the blessing from Warner Bros, that takes moxie, but on the other hand, giving a villain famous for being mysterious and sinister an origin prequel is a good way to neuter said villain.  

Just ask Darth Vader.

All of these are big, big franchises. All of them have a huge media presence. All of them are seeing declining audiences or behind the scenes trouble or relying on manufactured controversy to draw attention. All of them are cornerstones of modern Geek Culturethat have cottage industries of t-shirts, toys, games, podcasts, mugs, etc. built up around them.

My gut tells me that 2018 will be the moment where it all comes crashing down.

The best part is, I don't know what's going to rise up to take their place, which is the first time in a decade where I could say that. 


Its going to be a hell of a ride. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Pulp Review: Black Destroyer


Alfred Elton (A. E.) van Vogt (1912-2000) was a Canadian-born author who is more or less forgotten in the modern age thanks to fellow Sci-Fi author and Science Fiction Writers and Fantasy Writers of America founder Damon Knight who savagely vilified van Vogt in the 50s. Which is odd, considering that van Vogt is also credited with ushering in “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” when he sold his first SF story to John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction in 1939. (There is, of course, contention about whether the Campbellian period should be considered the Golden Age, but that's a beside the point of this review).

The story in question is Black Destroyer, and it was the featured cover story of its issue of Astounding.

While retroactively crediting it with starting “The Golden Age” of Sci-Fi feels like a stretch, it does feature a lot of elements common to later Hard Sci-Fi stories. A team of scientists travel to another world to conduct research and discover a dangerous life form that they have to survive using their brains. The threat in question is an intelligent, malevolent, cat-like creature called a coeurl with a pair tentacles sprouting from its back as extra appendages that feeds on “id-creatures” by draining all the phosphorus from their bodies. The unnamed world is a dying wasteland filled with Barsoomian ruins and the coeurl is starving, having exhausted all of the food in its territory. The humans show up and its a veritable buffet for the starving creature.

Using guile, the coeurl (no, I don't know how to pronounce that) pretends to be a simple beast curious with the visitors, but then secretly starts killing them off for food and, later, for sheer bloodthirstiness. As the science team learns about the threat, they also learn that the “pussy” they adopted is far more intelligent and powerful than they first thought.

Its simple, but also fairly effective Space Horror, and its DNA is clearly visible in movies like Alien. The coeurl itself has loads of personality despite not being able to communicate with the humans, but in no way is it treated as a sympathetic monster. Its a killer and a barbarian, a degenerated relic of the creatures that once ruled its world, and the coeurl's spite and malice end up sabotaging itself even while it schemes to unite its kin so they can conquer the stars.

The humans, on the other hand, are clearly heroic, if terribly naive. After one of the team is found dead by mysterious means, several of the team suspect the coeurl (its the only living thing they've found) but the captain, Morton, doubts that and allows it on the ship so they can study it more. Its a stupid call that gets a dozen of his crew murdered, and Morton feels really bad about that, rallying his men to find a solution through their collective intelligence (and disintegration guns).

And then when discussing civilizations, van Vogt has the Japanese archaeologist (Pearl Harbor was still some years away) say this:

     “You may ask, commander, what has all this to do with your question? My answer is: there is no
     record of a culture entering abruptly into the period of contending states. It is always a slow 
     development; and the first step is merciless questioning of all that was once held sacred. Inner 
     certainties cease to exist, are dissolved before the ruthless probings of scientific and analytic 
     minds. The skeptic becomes the highest type of being.”

That's heavy stuff, and a thorough rejection of postmodern thought. Its no wonder that a Futurian hard leftist like Damon Knight would hate him enough to try to destroy his career.

A small, fairly simple story, the plot is straightforward but satisfying enough that I can recommend for a quick read. It was eventually “fixed up” by van Vogt for inclusion in 1950's The Voyage of the Space Beagle, but it works well as a stand-alone. The real draw are the ideas at play, from the foundation it lays for Space Horror that still stands today to the interesting dead world, and the coeurl is just a damn cool monster. So cool, that it its the direct ancestor of D&D's Displacer Beast.

But that's an essay for another day.


Monday, July 17, 2017

“The bottle is more distinguished than its wine.”


The best-selling novelist of all time (at least according to the Wikipedia and Infogalactic entries both citing The Guinness Book of World Records), and arguably the most popular murder mystery writer in the history of the genre is Agatha Christie (1890-1976). An absolutely fascinating woman. She acted as a volunteer nurse during WWI, struggled to get published for a very long time, married twice, had a fascination with paranormal and occult themes, and took an active interest in archaeology, often traveling to the Middle East with her second husband to go to digs. She also wrote a total of 73 novels over the course of her life, 66 of them being murder mysteries. Those, along with 165 short stories and 16 plays, cement her as a deeply prolific writer. She may not have been a pulp writer, but damn did she write at pulp speed.

Her most enduring creation is Hercule Poirot, an eccentric Belgian detective with an outrageous moustache and a knack for solving odd crimes. By the time she published Murder on the Orient Express in 1934, it was her 16th novel.

I'm laying all this backstory on you because when it comes to 20th Century Female Authors, Agatha Christie MATTERS. She's a BIG DEAL. So when the 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) was released, that too was a big deal, especially since she was still alive to see it. She approved of it, but felt Poirot's moustache needed to be bigger.

The plot is deceptively simple. Hercule Poirot is in Istanbul returning to England where he boards the Orient Express train to the port of Calais. A mysterious and dangerous-looking American named Ratchett tries to hire him as a bodyguard. Poirot declines, and the next day, Ratchett turns up dead in his bed with twelve stab wounds and train car full of suspects with motives. He has until the train is dug out of a snowdrift to solve the murder, and discovers that the victim was an important figure in the kidnapping and murder of a little girl five years prior in a case based on the real-life Lindbergh kidnapping.

The cast is outstanding. Albert Finney as Poirot, followed by Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role), Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, and Michael York, among others.

Lumet's directing and cinematography are top notch, and aside from a prologue sequence that provides important background on the baby kidnapping case that feels a little long, is grand in its presentation of the luxury of the Orient Express and the tight confines of a train car stuck in the snow. Everything works great and is a deliberate throwback to classic Hollywood filmmaking.

I wish there was more I could say about it, but its a murder mystery and it really is worth experiencing for yourself. Absolutely recommended. Its a classic.

There's a remake coming out later this year with another high profile cast and with Kenneth Branagh at the helm. Might be good, even thought its largely unnecessary thanks to the strength of the original. There's also a 2015 miniseries from Japan that I discovered while researching this review. It looks rather charming.




Monday, July 10, 2017

Twofer Review: The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996)





Russell Mulcahy (the director of Highlander) adapts Walter Gibson's pulp hero The Shadow, with Alec Baldwin in the title role as Lamont Cranston. The plot centers around Shiwan Khan (John Lone), last surviving descendant of Genghis Khan, and powerful mystic, arriving in New York with a dream to conquer the world. The plot involves something about a bomb, but honestly that gets lost in the shuffle.

Still, the cast is very solid, with Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellan, Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, and a small cameo from James Hong. A solid adaptation of the Shadow, it hits on a lot of character beats and traits like Margo Lane, the network of agents, his dual .45s, even his sinister long-nosed appearance when he's in full Shadow costume.

There's some origin stuff about Cranston being an opium kingpin in Asia at the start before beginning his mystical journey which is completely unnecessary and Shiwan Khan's plot feels like it loses cohesion along the way (I want to conquer the world, but I also want to blow up New York City!). The good outweighs the bad, however, and it hits all the right notes on the Pillars of ADVENTURE.


Crazy pulp elements: Khan's goons wear armor and run around 30s NYC with crossbows and swords. A flying, intelligent CGI dagger with a bad attitude. Shiwan Khan smuggling himself to the US in a coffin just so he can mind control a security guard into killing himself. Actually, most of what Shiwan Khan does. He's pretty fun.


Another 90s adaption of a pulp hero, Lee Falk's hero The Phantom was directed by Simon Wincer (Free Willy, Quigley Down Under, several episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles). The plot centers around Kit Walker (Billy Zane) as a two-fisted masked avenger who prowls the African jungles as the Ghost Who Walks having to deal with an American businessman and gangster, Xander Drax (Treat Williams) who's searching for several mystical crystal skulls scattered across the world that will give him unlimited power. And can shoot lasers. Mostly lasers. Knowledge was their treasure, you know.

Again, the cast is very solid, with Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar, and Patrick McGoohan in key roles. Pacing is great, location shots are lush, and the physical stunts and effects are pretty incredible. Zane's also really charming in the lead role. It gets a little odd when the Phantom has conversations with the ghost of his dead father that only he can see, but its an excuse to have McGoohan on screen, so I don't mind as much. The Shadow nails the glitzy and grimy aesthetic of 30s New York, but overall The Phantom is a little more fun and the plot holds together tighter.

Crazy Pulp Elements: An all-female squadron of flying pirates. Xander Drax throwing a spear through a man at a meeting in his office. A trapped microscope stabs out a man's eyes. Phantom's horse and wolf clearly communicating with each other to figure a way to get him out of a scrape.


It turns out the pseudo-Pulp revival thing from the 90s was actually pretty good. Both of these movies are solidly entertaining, have heroic heroes, villainous villains, beautiful women, handsome men, exotic locations, tight pacing, and meaningful peril. They're not relevatory or what you might call “modern classics,” but they're leagues better than most modern dreck passing itself off as Action-ADVENTURE.  

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Appendix N Review: A Princess of Mars


Barsoom.

A dying world with bizarre life forms, advanced technologies, and people eking out a living as savage tribes.

Into this crazy vision of Mars steps one John Carter; Virginian, Fortune Seeker, Civil War Veteran. After things go bad in Arizona, the method by which he arrives on Mars is vague, but once there, he learns that coming from Earth's higher gravity gives him greater physical strength and agility, putting him on even footing with the native giant Tharks. Earning an uneasy place among the tribe of four-armed giant Green Martians, he soon meets Dejah Thoris, the headstrong princess of Helium, strongest city-state of the dominant Red Martians.

What follows is a love story that conquers worlds.



Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote this in 1912 (under the pen name “Norman Bean”) and first serialized it as Under the Moons of Mars in The All-Story (one of Argosy's many name changes over its lifetime). It was an immediate success and that same year he wrote the first Tarzan story. In 1917, the story was published in hardcover as A Princess of Mars.

That this is a debut novel/story is staggering. While the prose may be frequently utilitarian and more than a few plot moments happen because Carter is in the right place at the right time (and the means by which he travels to Mars is flimsy as hell), Burroughs' world building is some of the best I've ever read. Barsoom is lovingly described as a beautiful and deadly world. Every chapter has some kind of action or tension or discovery. Martian blood flows freely, whether its Carter beating a white ape to death with a rock or one Green Warhoon gutting another with his tusks.

And yet despite all this savagery, Carter is able to bring the best out of people by helping them and holding true to his own personal code of honor. Thanks to the compassionate Sola and the noble Tars Tarkas, he teaches the Tharks the value of friendship. He throws an arena fight to help a Red Martian named Kantos Kan earn his freedom, who repays that kindness later on. Even Woola, a big ugly dog-like calot, becomes his first and most loyal companion. Yes, I suppose if you step back a bit it seems a little silly, but its so earnest and heartfelt that you can't help but root for Carter to succeed.

Because John Carter is a Hero, and wherever he goes, he makes the world a better place, because that's what Heroes do.



Reading it now, I can't help but notice that this is essentially ground zero for 20th Century Science Fiction/Fantasy. 26 years before Superman, John Carter was jumping over tall buildings. D&D's Dark Sun setting is a love letter to Barsoom, right down to every living thing being telepathic at some level. Robert E. Howard's tough heroes with rigid codes of honor and loyalty have kinship with Burroughs. A. Merrit's epic love stories and wild world building seek the same lofty heights. Even Carl Sagan loved the series so much growing up that he apparently had a map of Barsoom hanging outside his office at Cornell.

This is a book of wild imagination, larger-than-life heroism, and unbridled adventure.


This isn't simply recommended reading for understanding the history of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It is essential, and a damn fun read.