Review – Silver Skull – (The Shadow Magazine No. 165)

shadow_magazine_vol_1_165So, Silver Skull is the 165th The Shadow Magazine story, published January of 1939. Rather odd that the cover artist didn’t go with the scene where The Shadow confronts a ghastly talking silver skull in a gaseous death pit trap. The novel does, however, prominently figure The Shadow in all three of his most-used personalities: the leisurely and laconic Lamont Cranston, globe-trotting millionaire (who also invests heavily in the tech sector and flies planes); stoic and sober Kent Allard, the celebrated aviator; and The Shadow (who flies an autogiro and is heavily interested in crime.)

Planes, as you may infer, are heavily used in the fairly basic plot, which involves a set of rich men, who have recently made wealth transfers of some sort, and then embarked on long-distance flights which promptly crash. Man, you can talk smack about the FAA regulating our flying cars out of existence but maybe it has a point….

Anyhow, The Shadow investigates, both in his own identity as celebrated aviator, Kent Allard (who, we are reminded, survived a crash landing in the Guatemalan jungle and became the white god of a primitive tribe….a detail that frankly never grows old. Man, I love old pulps and their complete determination to make their protagonists awesome by whatever means necessary) and Lamont Cranston. Both have legitimate reasons for their interest; Allard in particular is appealed to by the niece of one such victim, Mildred Wilbin. Despite having the sense to call for help in investigating, and, of freaking course despite the protective overwatch of one Harry Vincent (Most Competent Agent of The Shadow, TM), Mildred promptly also gets kidnapped while playing amateur detective. We are introduced to our villain (Silver Skull), and to a couple of quite bright and therefore not-entirely loyal minions, the crooked Dr. Sleed and his squeeze / nurse, Thelma.

Sleed and Thelma actually give The Shadow a run for his money in this book more than anyone else, leaving him in a room filled with poison gas, or drugging him after he crawls, concussed and battered out of the aforementioned death trap pit–and, correctly assuming that they are slated to be disposed of by Silver Skull for knowing too much, arrange for him (in the guise of Lamont Cranston, who overplayed his hand) to take a one-way ride instead. Later on, of course, the tables turn and they–but, well, let’s not spoil it all completely here.

Burbank gets a great moment, albeit in his own low-key way, insisting the delirious Shadow give him his location and dispatching agents to get him to an actual doctor. Gibson gets the urgency  of the situation across with remarkably few words; and shows how valuable an operative Burbank is by the simple, swift, and competent way he handles it. Take notes, Vincent.

But anyhow, there’s yet another beautiful, game, and gutsy damsel: Geraldine Murton, stewardess of the plane that supposedly crashed with Cranston aboard it. Geraldine is quite taken with Cranston and then also with Allard after meeting him, although she can’t really make her mind up who she prefers. It appears to be mutual, too, because The Shadow takes her along, suitably armed, on the search for Silver Skull’s western base.

So, I’ve gone on at length about the fact that pulp damsels in distress generally are solid characters in their own right who only lack the opportunity to get themselves out of distress and cut loose. This book is a perfect example. At one point, Mildred keeps a set of crooks covered–guarding The Shadow’s back as he takes on a horde of minions–and does so with, well, about as much success as Cliff Marsland  would and definitely more than Harry Vincent. She does falter after actually shooting–killing–a man, but that’s only to be expected, and come the second time around, doesn’t so much as hesitate. Geraldine and her automatic provide a crucial aid to The Shadow in the climactic fight and wow what a perfect setup and payoff it was, too.

Anyhow, I really liked this one, and my only complaint is that it was maybe a chapter or two too short. I would have liked to see Miles Crofton, or even more of Burbank. (Also, this is the second time, after Quetzal, that The Shadow has survived a plane crash, not to mention that the real Lamont Cranston has also lived through one with minor injuries, per The Shadow Unmasks. Live adventurous lives, I suppose…) Although the pacing carries the plot nicely, it’s still a bit thin on the finer details and the reveal is rather obvious once we know that the crashed planes are actually being shot down by a fast fighter plane. Gibson is usually too good to let rather simple reveals stand by themselves without a further twist or elaboration, but the overall strength of the writing carries it through anyhow.

Also the aerial dogfighting. Did we mention that?

Rated: Dat last fade to black, tho, yooooo.

Movies with my Mother: A Day of Fury (1956)

pgrsaao8ibpxesyj2a5u3y1eixv(Reposted from….wow, way back in 2017.)

“Dun duuuun dun!”

“Jagade? Never heard of him.”
“He’s fictional.”

“See, a brown horse. You wouldn’t be able to tell in black and white that he was riding a brown horse. It’d just be a black horse. Or a white horse.”

“Jagadi. Jagati?”

“What’s she always looking at?”
“Him.”

‘Windah.’

“He’s pushing his luck. He is!”
“He’s doing it on purpose.”
“Yes, but he is pushing it! Look at him!”

” ‘Excuse us. Give us a minute please.’ ‘Beat it?’ ”
“The kid deserved it.”
“Could still be polite.”

“See, look, he actually knows how how to ride.”

“What’s she doing?…checking him out?”image-w1280

“Bet you someone saw her.”
“Yep, see, the other girl. Ungrateful!”

“Uh oh, ambush. Ambush!”
“No, it’s the girl waiting for him….oh, it’s the other girl. Huh.”

“Noooo, you can get down without his help.”
“They always do.”

“Tell me what happens when I get back. […] What did he do to the schoolteacher girl?”

p41247_i_h10_ab“They’ll turn against him. Look, she turned against him already.”
“Yeah, but he knows it.”
“That lady didn’t want that girl to come back, look.”
“He does it on purpose. He pushes people. He likes it.”
“And they turn against him.”
“Yeah, but when people try to fight back he kills them.”

“What. Did that. Prove.”

“He just told you everything you needed to know, now go back.”

“Uh oh, uh oh did he really send that young man?”
“He didn’t but he’s been egging him on the whole time.”

“Uhhhh ohhhhh.”

“He a big man, he got a gun, huh.”

“Too bad.”
“He might survive!”

[very nearly simultaneously:]
“Turn around…he’s going to turn around…”
“Uh oh I can’t look, when you can’t see people’s backs, they’re gonna see something–”
[he sees something and it’s genuinely shocking]
“Uhhhohhhhhhhh!”
“Oh my gosh!”

dia2bfuria2bfoto2b2[“One of us will explain later.”]
“Teehee!”
“Good one.”

“All that is sass. The marshal said get, now.”

“What! Why did the bell get him!”
“The preacher beat him–mostly by being shot–”
“Wait. How?”
“The preacher stopped them, they were about to lynch the marshal. And the marshal was their only hope. So the preacher beat him, and there was enough of them to ring the bell. Or something.”

“I didn’t know he was faster!”
“Of course he’s faster, he’s the good guy.”

“That was a good movie.”
“It was intresting.”

PSA: Dresden Files Short Story out

heroic-hearts“Little Things” is Jim Butcher’s contribution to the Heroic Hearts anthology, released, uh, a couple days ago.

Protip: If you do not want to sign up for your free Audible download and/or fork over money for this, your free Overdrive library account has a “read an excerpt” option, which apparently includes the full length of the story.

It stars, as the cover denotes, Major General Toot-Toot Minimus and his not-girlfriend, Lacuna. Also appearing are the Za Lord, Dresden; his castellan, Sir William; the guardian spirit Bob, and the dread beast Mister of the fell paws and stubby tail.

The plot?

The conomee is bad. The Lord Dresden is in mourning. The troops are worried and restless. And there is a sudden, present threat to the pizza!

I have no further comments to add except that the Little Folk thinking that the tarp dropcloths all over the castle are tacky, poorly-made tapestries = magnifique.

The Shadow Magazine #156 – The Green Hoods

shadow_magazine_vol_1_156So, much has happened in the realm of the gangland-haunted, crime boss-infested, mad genius-harboring and only moderately competently policed 1930s New York. Some of it has to do with the remarkable return of the World War 1 hero aviator and explorer, Kent Allard, who after crash-landing in Guatemala spent twelve years ruling as the white god of a remote Indian tribe and now enjoys a similar celebrity status in modern civilization.

But, mostly, there’s crime.

So our tale begins with Kent Allard receiving an invitation, if he so wishes and is interested in matters of crime, to join The Green Hoods secret society as No. 13, RSVP. Hoods being expected makes it a little bit more believable that no one is going to ask pointed questions when Lamont Cranston (in full Shadow regalia) glides in to scope out the situation instead.

The Green Hoods are interested in crime–to prevent it. They are, it transpires, a group of talented or educated men who gather to share advances in crime detection or prevention….all, it transpires, save one of them, who produces a flashbang, blinds the group–and the spying Shadow–murders and steals the Truth Inducer from the group’s own founder. He gets away with it, too, leaving The Shadow to follow the clues he finds on the dead man’s body and the circumstantial evidence of the attractive but very worried brunette in the alleyway outside. The trail winds mysteriously, but which of the leads is true and which false? The Shadow knows, or at least figures it out well ahead of everybody else.

Mind you, this becomes less impressive when you realize “everybody else” consists of Commissioner Weston (who keeps being rather miffed that he never has the chance to introduce his friend Lamont Cranston to his other friend Kent Allard), and also the poker-faced ace of the New York detective squad, Joe Cardona (whom The Shadow proceeds to use as actual bait for the Green Hood, heh.)

So, the usual suspects periodically get their undergarments in a twist over the idea of non-Present Day fiction a) existing before the Present Day, b) featuring featuring damsels who c) may during the course of the story find themselves in distress. Entirely setting aside the fact that in the Shadowverse this role is in fact routinely reserved for Harry Vincent, it’s also a load of bunk as far as the actual damsels go. Gibson’s dames, whether they be socialites or secretaries, tend to be intelligent, plucky, and good shots with, at the very least, a .22. (Evelyn Rayle, the aforementioned brunette, uses a .32, and on at least one occasion a damsel has borrowed Cardona’s .38 to plug a gorilla.) Evelyn, the dead inventor’s secretary, not only wields her .32 with aplomb, she gets the drop on The Shadow twice, aids him as a temporary agent and reveals vital information to him and to the law in the process.

As mentioned before, one of the ways Gibson kept The Shadow stories always fresh and distinct was to vary the genre and formula as well as the characters. This one is rather light on The Shadow’s agents, as Evelyn Rayle helps out when needed; but it features a larger than usual dose of Weston and Cardona. Although there is a Sekret Society Of Geniuses angle, the plot is mostly a straightforward whodunnit mystery, albeit one complicated by the presence of a distinctive .28 caliber Baby Paterson revolver, an Italian stiletto, a Malaysian “creese,” a French medallion, an intialed watch-chain charm, a distinctive cigar band, and a typewriter that misaligns its and . ‘s.

Like I said, only The Shadow is equipped to see through it all.

Oh, and there’s also a rather cunning death trap, but it’s the kind of death trap that makes the reader start scratching their head and asking questions like, “if this was only set up less than forty-eight hours ago, where are the signs of obvious new construction and remodeling on the roof trapdoor?” “How come the floor was strategically weakened juuuust enough for someone to crash through, three separate times, but yet was able to support the people who worked on it to, y’know, strategically weaken it?” “Why didn’t The Shadow just try the back door, since that’s how the thugs and then also the damsel got in, anyhow?” It is, nevertheless, a cool scene and it’s one of the showcase reasons as to why The Shadow manages to be a consistently terrifying and eternally-dreaded foe to men of evil: because no matter what you do to this guy, there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will work and that he will stay down and even if you do plug him it was probably actually Mike and oh God he’s laughing now….!

Rated: Muahahahahahaha

QuikReview: The Star Kings – Edmund Hamilton

This book is Space Opera–as written by one of the Old Masters, first of the breed, foremost among those that led the way and titan to those that followed–at its finest. I mean, his nickname was “World Wrecker,” you can’t get better than that. There’s a different adventure every 1.5 chapters, a space princess, a scantily-clad space-concubine, grizzled space-captains, battleships, cruisers, phantoms, cunning or treacherous advisors, quarrelsome barons, and grim and gallant fighting men. There’s the lurking menace of the Clouded Worlds’ rebel fanatics and the legendary, unknowable, unutterably fearsome threat of The Disruptor that keeps even their cynical leader in line. There’s also, to make sense of it all, a present-day (1949) protagonist who has had his consciousness transferred into the body of a star-Prince–and thence suddenly into the teeth of the action itself. But what can a man of Earth–our Earth–do when the stars themselves are at stake?

Aaaaand that’s basically it. If you feel you need to somehow know more about this book, then you ought to read it.

It’s a book that reads incredibly quickly and hits every single pulp fiction trope that it possibly can without changing genres (and that even includes the crashed ship being attacked by hostile natives….if there had been space for even a single chapter more there would have been some sort of sword-against-sword action going on.) –but yet there’s a consummate level of skill involved that carries it all off.

Partly, it’s the prose, which sells the sensawunda that can only be achieved by an active imagination, a yearning for stars yet-unreached, deep knowledge of the past that informs the actual doings and behaviors of mankind; and a nimble pen that doesn’t flinch from a little bit of mauve from time to time (see: scantily-clad space concubine.) The other part is that Hamilton actually did know his business, and, preposterous though the plot is, makes it proceed logically from the actions of intelligent and motivated actors, one of which is often–but not always–our hero.

A third and crucial part is that our hero is a hero. Starting out from an ex-soldier with a yearning for more than his old accounting job will offer him, and thrust abruptly into the whirl of galactic politics and treachery, he accounts himself well, never forgetting that he owes a debt to the true Zarth Arn, whose face he wears and whose place he has taken. Also, another tribute to Hamilton’s prowess, although John Gordon is an outsider with only a cursory knowledge of the situation, never once does anyone to sit down and explain things to him (us) in simple language. While he’s no moron, he’s always scrambling to achieve an in-scene, in-person goal–to keep his cover, to bluff the enemy, to not break his morganatic wife’s heart–and he’s doing it with limited resources and high stakes.

The other characters suffer from the fact that this is a pulp novel at heart. They’re colorful, they’re placed to provide maximum interest, and they all give the impression that, given more time to navel-gaze, they could be turned into interesting persons indeed, rather than what is simply given them by their descriptors–space-princess, stalwart captain, sneaky advisor, cynical tyrant.

The one character who does do particularly well in this is, oddly enough, the cynical space-tyrant who leads the fanatics of the (?) Clouded Worlds. Shorr Kan is an odd duck of an antagonist, professing a fanatical hatred against the Empire that he in no ways feels; his own desire is for naked power alone. He’s cunning enough to seed the elitest ranks of the Empire with his own men, assassinate the Emperor and frame his own son for it, cold-blooded enough to use a brain scan device that, on uncovering neural connections, breaks them irreparably….and yet human enough to immediately switch the device off when it reveals that he’s got the wrong man. Mind you, he’s also dumb enough to let his suddenly-ultracooperative prisoner take his girlfriend along on a harebrained scheme that couldn’t possibly go wrong, so…perhaps his defeat was more inevitable than it seemed. Apparently he gets brought back for the sequel, so.

Rated: man once dreamed of the stars!

The Shadow Magazine Vol. 1 No. 58 – Chain of Death (Review)

shadow_magazine_vol_1_58This is a solid middle-ranking Shadow story, so it’s an automatic 8/10. There aren’t many outstanding moments, and there is the inimitably incompetent presence of Harry Vincent (dude, your boss doubled back to rescue you, left you standing over an unconscious enemy with a gun in your hand, and still you manage to get knocked out and let him escape) which I’m petty enough to bump the rating down half a star for.  (Seriously.)

Nevertheless, that’s still eight out of ten. There’s still a grim, fire-eyed avenger in the night, laughing in the teeth of danger and the face of evil, with twin, mammoth automatics in each black-gloved fist; there’s still innocents to rescue and reputations to save; and there’s still sinister, dastardly, malicious and cunning villains to face and defeat, even though The Shadow must uncover, link by link, the hidden chain of death itself! And also (sigh) Harry Vincent.

So. The 80-page saga begins with young Howard Norwyn, a junior investment broker, signing in at the security desk to enter his employer’s office after hours. Unfortunately, by the time he reaches the office, his employer is dead and the actual murderer proceeds–with obvious, and perfect preplanning–to implicate Norwyn for the crime, and disappear. Fortunately, The Shadow arrives before the police do, susses out the scene, and whisks Norwyn away to safety. Norwyn, unlike some of his ilk, proves cooperative and listens quietly to Lamont Cranston, eccentric globe-trotting millionaire, at his offer of help–little knowing, of course, that, the hawkish, masklike face of Lamont Cranston is one of many that The Shadow sometimes wears.

Meanwhile, an old man dies and, as a reward for faithful (hopeful) service by his conniving young secretary, wills him not money but a secret legacy: original stock and a controlling interest in Crime, Incorporated….

You see, Crime, Incorporated (also nee: Aztec Mines), has a unique method of forming, carrying out, and avoiding consequences for, cunning crimes that might draw suspicion. Each shareholder in Crime, Incorporated knows only two others. They communicate by cipher–a cipher designed to confound the most expert cryptographer. They are men with education, means, and competencies. They are geographically widespread. They have nothing in common, save the penchant to acquire other people’s wealth by whatever means are necessary, and this complete disconnect allows them to assist or abet in crimes without bringing suspicion on themselves. And they have not yet been suspected.

Needless to say, Crime, Incorporated gets its board dissolved in a hostile takeover when The Shadow glides into the fray:

 I spoke of a menace, I shall name it. Crime Incorporated has finished its career. The menace that you face will bring destruction.

Again, this book doesn’t have any jawdropping reveals or astounding action beats; the standout scene is when The Shadow materializes on a smuggler’s boat in mid-ocean with an eerie laugh, and proceeds to completely dominate the fight and take over command despite being weaponless at the onset. The small-fry smugglers are so cowed that, The Shadow ashore with the recaptured loot, they nearly wreck their boat trying to get away again.

The bulk of the mystery plot is given to solving the cryptograms by which Crime, Incorporated communicate with each other. Each message from a stockholder is doubled: a trivial one in a code made of circles, and the real one, in a code made of blocks. The circled code can be solved easily with by frequency analyses, but the block code is much more difficult; in conjunction with a simple code, the harder one is meant to make experts think it is a blind. Nevertheless, there are experts…and The Shadow.

Since the villains end up dead and there’s not a huge role to be played by The Shadow’s agents (sigh), there aren’t really any standout characters in this one; Joe Cardona does his thing, as does Burbank, and they stay in the background.

All this seems like damning with faint praise, but it’s really not. It’s a perfectly solid, perfectly-paced, perfectly-scripted, -drawn, and -laid out, compulsively readable pulp-noir novel.

Rated: I am the menace.

ReReview: Face of a Fugitive (1959)

face-of-a-fugitive-movie-posterSo this is a 1959 Western starring Fred MacMurray and Not-Rhonda Fleming (She has red hair.) Also it has a young but extremely toothy James Coburn as “that young punk who sneers a lot.”

This one was really great, mostly because the plot is very simple. A happens, and therefore B. However, C. And therefore, D. And so on, very logically leading on to (depending on the genre): the farmboy becoming king, the Death Star blowing up, or finding the sword of Martin the Warrior.

In this case: MacMurray is a genial bank robber en route to trial and jail, but actually just about to escape. However, overenthusiastic help from his kid brother ends with two people dead–the brother, and the escorting deputy. Therefore, with murder on the rap sheet, MacMurray has no choice other than to run. However, getting out of town is delayed: all strangers are being detained at the pass until the wanted posters with the fugitive’s picture arrive. And therefore, MacMurray….well, watch the movie. Most of the subsequent “and therefores” are a direct result of MacMurray’s character just being that much of a swell, decent guy. He’s the kind of hero that small children and horses trust on sight. He’s the kind of man who can tuck a little girl into bed, or go toe-to-toe with the toughest guy in town; can talk some sense into a proud young feller’s head, or save the day in a gunfight.

In fact, MacMurray’s hero is so competent, the final fight has to put him at a significant handicap to maintain any sort of tension. This was something that felt like a total gimick at first, but on thought was really quite brilliant. Without the injury, the audience–trusting the guy they’ve seen outthink, outmaneuver, and outfight all parties so far–is going to simply impatiently wait for him to clear up this stupid little fight, and then get back to something that does provide a problem. With it, MacMurray is pinned and the gunfight becomes the center of attention. Kudos to the writer.

The one downside of the movie is that its ending (post-gunfight) is almost cruelly abrupt. Give itfacefugcutting another minute and give the man a line or two to explain himself, at least! Well, nobody’s perfect.

There’s also a really amusing (well, to me, at least) scene where MacMurray’s character is doing the decent thing and cutting James Coburn out of the barbed wire he’s tangled in. At least, until Coburn’s crazy boss and the rest of the riders come storming up, at which point MacMurray books it.

10 wirecutters out of 10.

The Shadow #143 – The Fifth Napoleon

shadow_magazine_vol_1_143So I didn’t even guess that this one was a Theodore Tinsley book until I looked it up on the wiki; before that I had it filed as “well, this was a weird throwback.” The Shadow’s agents are almost completely absent; plot elements jar against the neat and tidy New York that nearly seven years (of publication history) has assured us The Shadow’s efforts have produced; and The Shadow himself (seems) weirdly absent in his own story. Tinsley does a much better job at approximating Gibson’s voice….this time it’s the construction that made me scratch my head a little.

The bulk of the plot concerns a chess match between the Four Napoleons Plus Their Mysterious Leader, and the charismatic and vicious mob boss Tiger Marsh. The Shadow himself is visible primarily only in the disguise as “Lifer” Stone, a criminal released from Sing Sing….IDK, somehow….in order to….IDK, do something? Except Joe Cardona bumbles that, which means that the ersatz Lifer doesn’t get to….IDK, do something else? That he was planning to do? I’m still not sure why Lifer was intended to do, anyway; he’s described as a killer, but killers are a dime a dozen for either side anyway, so…

Meanwhile, the Napoleons are trying to, I dunno, snarfle some money or something and Tiger Marsh is trying to get it from them. And there’s a Judge and his beautiful but dimwitted daughter and then there’s her fiance, who is an editor of The Classic. Or something. The four Napoleons are big-time racketeers, but they are completely cowed by the Fifth, their merciless leader, who also runs a weirdly group of agents, to boot. (Meanwhile, other novels have assured us that not only is being a crime lord a pretty good death sentence in New York these days, thugs are getting weirdly thin on the ground due to The Shadow’s policy of offering them a choice between jail and a one-way ticket to a tropical island.*) Then one of the Napoleons ends up dead and The Shadow delivers a packet of highly incriminating papers to Judge Sherman, except that Judge Sherman’s daughter (did we mention she’s a moron?) is promptly kidnapped by Tiger Marsh!

There’s also a sequence wherein The Shadow infiltrates the Fifth Napoleon’s high-rise lair (in fact we find out that it is only one of many); and honestly I should have twigged it at this moment. A good author sets the stakes and then lets a scenario play out to its finish. A great author sets the stakes, lets the scene play out, and lets the natural end result of the scenario raise or lower them. An uncertain author, or just a poor one, sets the stakes and then keeps attempting to raise them artificially, by injecting fake and unnecessary difficulties into the scene.

The first time I ever twigged onto this was in reading Ice Station by Matthew Reilly. There’s a pool of hungry orcas! There’s a kid on a sagging beam above them! Her fingers are slipping! The beam is on fire! The hero crawls out and grabs her even as her fingers fail and she falls! But ’tis OK, he grabbed on to her hood! BUT OH NOES THE BUTTONS OF HER HOOD START TO POP  OFF ONE BY ONE BY ONE!

Now, that was an extreme example and nothing in this book rises remotely to that level…but in the better books, it doesn’t happen at all. The focus stays exactly where it needs to, without zigging off in unnecessary directions, and without unneeded, artificial, unwanted drama. You want to raise stakes, do it at the end of the chapter when the hero bursts into the room, not five times in five paragraphs during the bit while he’s just sneaking up to the door.

(Also The Shadow escapes by diving off a high-rise balcony onto a nearby, lower rooftop pool and badly scares a sunbathing blonde in the process, which is just clumsy, really.)

So, anyhow, with some digressions but with a decent amount of aplomb and a great deal of headlong energy, the plot continues with the cat-and-mousing of Tiger Marsh and the Napoleons. By this time, between Tiger, mysterious gifts of highly incriminating and specific evidence, and the doggedness of Joe Cardona, the Napoleons are definitely on the run and Lifer Stone is rather mysteriously absent. But the tables have not finished revolving yet, and neither has the trick floor in the second, back-up lair. (Revolving floors and trap doors are so prevalent in fiction….well, fiction of a certain genre…that you half-expect to see them in real life. But they’re not practical in the slightest! Think about all the extra effort it would take to make an actual revolving floor that slid down and then rotated away and then clicked back up. Think about how hard it would be to maintain that mechanism! Labor costs for the repair guys! Parts sourcing! Build times! Project secrecy!)

Rated: Anyhow, it’s a good 7/10, and what color are The Shadow’s eyes anyway?

*not kidding about the tropical island. It’s for the potentially-reformable hard cases and they’re kept under the watchful eye of sociologist Slade Farrow.

Movie Review: Tenet (2020) – this genre doesn’t exist

44e7e33d7f2cbdde288a10c719ec6afdPeople who like words, or who are writers, or who have spent too much time in pursuit of an English degree, are generally aware of the existence of palindromes, words or phrases which are the same spelled backwards or forwards. “Tenet,” or “pull-up,” or 02/02/2020, or “do geese see God.” Slightly nerdier people will be aware of the Sator Square, a historical palindrome phrase which can be read in multiple directions and has either a mystical or a vaguely Christian meaning. The word “tenet” also means “principle,” or “doctrine,” or a belief maintained to be true and followed. (Wow, so are layers of meaning here in a simple title? Woww! That’s incredible! Is your mind blown yet?…no?…uh…why not?) Well, maybe if someone in this movie started discussing theistic and/or electrical geese….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAScience fiction readers are aware of the fact that there are not, and never have been, a “science fiction” movie genre. This is because science fiction, at its core, is a genre of wonder, imagination, intelligence, and creativity, attributes which writers of screenplays, producers of movies, directors, or actors, do not have.

But Aliens! But, Terminator! But Star Wars! But, but, but Blade Runner! These movies, alas, prove my thesis: that there isn’t an actual sci-fi genre to film, just other genres dressed up in fancier clothing and with different names thrown in. Aliens? It’s a Western. The Cavalry has been trapped at the scene of the massacre. The Injuns are wearing green rubber masks. Terminator? It’s a straight-up slasher thriller with a few special effects thrown in. (If Cameron had wanted to be an auteur, he would have left out the reveal of the Terminator as an actual cyborg and just let later generations argue over whether or not Kyle Reese was insane….at the least that would have spared us the sequels.) Blade Runner? Guys, it’s a color film noir with anxiety about how Asia was taking over the world. Star Wars is jidai geki in space.

tenet-posters-2-600x889-1So what does this have to do with Tenet? It’s a terrible scifi movie, that’s what. But it’s a pretty good contemporary action-thriller. Christopher Nolan’s reach exceeds his grasp, which is too bad, because his grasp also exceeds his imagination in this case. Not a single element of the time-travel makes sense. Not one. Not even in-universe. Not even when you try to think about how it could work, the way it does, instead of how it should work, the way it would when you apply those same exact rules and limitations to it. The whole point of mentioning the Grandfather Paradox is figuring out how to work around it, morons: kill him after your father has been conceived; or take a DNA test to find that Grandma was cheating; or become your own grandfather and live out the stable time loop. The whole point of a timeywimey device means that your first wave is a super sneaky recon squad, ri–oh. Oh, okay then.

I haven’t and won’t attempt to summarize the plot of this movie, because a) puzzlement, b) extreme rage will result. This is genuinely a movie that rewards turning your brain off and watching the show. Is that what Christopher Nolan thought he was making? Probably not, but who knows. He might even think he was making a scifi movie.

But! The action is great, the explosions are more than adequately firey, the locations are exotic, lush, and filmed in Technicolor; and there are several setpieces which genuinely appear to have been filmed live.  The cast is uniformly very easy on the eyes, and, crucially, the characters are rounded, sympathetic, charismatic, and understandable. The characters are what make this movie, because let me tell you, no one is in it for the plot, including Christopher Nolan.

tenet-movie-promotional-photo-posters-26There’s Kat, the extremely tall but still fragile loving mother–and abused wife–of an evil man. There’s Neil, who knows a hell of a lot more than he says, and who saves the world. There’s…uh, let’s see, there’s that Indian lady. There’s even the bad guy, who, while still being an evil and unsympathetic person, shows enough recognizable human emotion that he’s, yes, an actual character with actual thoughts and actual motivations–not just a convenient hate sink for the audience. (Also: after beating a traitor to death with a gold bar, he checks his fitbit. “Ninety-eight. Not bad for such exertion.”)

Then you have the protagonist, who….

….Well, he’s poorly served by the movie, in a methane-sniffing moment deciding to name him “Protagonist;” there’s really no buildup to support the grand end reveal (that he is the mastermind behind the secret organization protecting the world); there’s zero chemistry between him and The Really Tall Damsel In Distress; and….

washington_pattinson_tenetBut, small idiocies aside….he’s a cool, capable, active hero. You don’t see many of those these days. He should be celebrated for being a cool hero guy who does good, heroic things. And y’know, he saves the world and the girl to boot. That counts as doing a pretty darned good job, these days.

Rated: I’m waiting for Fimbulwinter, myself….

Review: The Shadow Magazine – The Pooltex Tangle

shadow_magazine_vol_1_135(There’s a motorcycle chase in this book, in case you wanted to know that up front.)

So, number 135 in the list is The Pooltex Tangle, and it’s another one by Theodore Tinsley. He’s got a slightly better grasp on how to handle the reins in a Gibsonesque way, but he’s still writing in the “adventure” genre rather than “pulp.” His narration is more breathless, the characters are familiar in form and face, but not–quite–function (yes, I mean Harry Vincent, no, don’t worry, I’ll get to it) and the plot glissades over events at high speed– but in a way that requests ones’ tolerance rather than forces it. There’s also rather a lot of Getting From Point A to Point B.

So the plot deals with the theft of a train-car load valuable, nay, priceless Pooltex fabric–heatproof and acidproof–which has been sold to Unnamed Warlike Country A. This theft involves the murder of a young brakeman we soon learn to be Anthony Cardona, favored nephew of Acting Inspector Joe Cardona. Meanwhile, Lamont Cranston bumps into one of the manufacturers of Pooltex, who is in New York, at the Cobalt Club, and looking unaccountably nervous.

The plot is rather spread out over the rest of the book due to the unavoidable bustling about from Point A to Point B that the “adventure” genre always requires but never seems really able to explain. Still, there are a few flourishes, such as: one of the manufacturers, Pool, has a two-timing fiancee who is actually in love with a blackmailing playboy and gets caught by his loyal sidekick but to no avail; meanwhile, said playboy has previously blackmailed the other manufacturer (Wallace)’s daughter with fake nude photos and an interesting tangle is produced when he ends up dead about three quarters of the way through the novel.

There’s also the way The Shadow’s agents are used. Clyde Burke, Harry Vincent, and Moe Shrevenitz all pop up for about a chapter or so each and get a moment or two in the limelight.  I will take a moment to say that indeed, Harry does get to pull a damsel out of distress without immediately falling on his face. (She immediately gets back into trouble, leaving him behind, but never mind.) Burke gets the best of it, though, managing to locate the freighter standing by to receive the stolen goods, and escaping execution by freight crane with only his wits and hiding a razorblade in his mouth.

Walter Gibson (the main The Shadow writer) has a fairly distinctive style and a way of tagging places and people with descriptions. Clyde Burke is slight but wiry, star reporter of the Classic. Joe Cardona is stocky, swarthy, and gruff, the ace of the New York Police force. Lamont Cranston is a millionaire globe-trotter with a masklike, hawklike countenance who speaks in calm, leisurely tones. The Shadow’s sanctum is lit by a bluish lamp, and for a while he had a habit of laughing before he left it (seriously), letting ghoulish echoes sob back and die into silence. Tinsley’s version of this is to reuse the word “muscular” a lot.

Tinsley also tends to emphasize the interpersonal relationships in a way Gibson wouldn’t or didn’t. Cardona and Commissioner Weston are definitely not close personal friends; and Cardona’s acquaintance with Lamont Cranston is one that occurs only in the context of crimes that rouse his leisurely interest and bring him along in Weston’s wake. Characters don’t need to be deeply personally connected to have interesting rapport or chemistry; and they can work with or against each other, and play off one another without being personal friends or vicious enemies. Sure, a connection can help add to a story at times–but not always, and generally speaking, not when this is #135/300+ and it’s a completely stand-alone story.

Additionally, thinking back: I don’t think there actually was a gun or a fistfight in this book. There’s an awful lot of car-, train-, motorcycle-, etc-chases, generally predicated on, as usual, Getting From Point A to Point B.

So, what’s the point of this review? I guess it’s to damn this book with faint praise, because it’s actually pretty decent.

Rated: I don’t care how fireproof it is, if you’re standing in a blast furnace when it’s turned on you are toast.

Or maybe roast.