Misc + QuikReviews: No Time to Die, Oblivion

The area my parents are from has an industry based on three things: cows, chickens, and flea markets. That being said, it does pay to patiently check all the bookshelves when you browse your way through:

  • The Conquest of Mexico – Bernal Diaz del Castillo
  • The Horse and His Boy – C. S. Lewis (apparently I’m assembling a Narnia collection piecemeal)
  • Hank the Cowdog: The Case of the Double Bumblebee Sting – E. Erickson (to be delivered to the homeschool group, which will ignore it because those kids are hopeless.)

We also watched:

  • Oblivion (2013) – For a non-scifi person, The Mother of Skaith is rather surprisingly good at picking out the influences of one movie and another.
    • “They stole that from Star Trek!”
    • “This is like that other movie! The one with Sean Bean and whats-his face!”
    • “Sandpeople!”
    • “When was this made?”
  • No Time to Die (2021) – I have several thoughts about this movie.
    • The Mother of Skaith had thoughts about this movie, too, and they are:
      • “I do not like him as James Bond! He is an ugly person!”
      • “That is not Q! That little student person is Q? Q should be a distinguished figure.”
      • “What! James Bond does not have a child! That is not Bond.”
        “He probably has multiple kids, you know.”
        “James Bond does not have kids.”
    • Anyhow, this isn’t a very good James Bond movie. It’s an okayish “grizzled ex-spy gets pulled in for One Last Job” movie, but that still leaves it with some fundamental structural problems.
    • It’s aimed at a female audience. Female audiences are interested in things like feelings, emotional speeches, characters making emotional connections with each other, and families. They aren’t interested in things like: spycraft, cars, motorcycles, helicopters, gunfights (loud), tactical weapony procedural stuff (boring), problem solving under pressure (scary!), or stuff blowing up (ugh, come on). That stuff is boring, and they like to skip past it as quickly as possible to get back to the good stuff.
      • Mind, having emotional connections and character growth in your movie is good stuff, don’t mistake. Fights do get boring when there aren’t any personal stakes involved–such as people that we care about being endangered….and we have to legitimately care about them. My personal favorite action scene in the movie is where Bond attempts to draw off pursuit from his love interest and daughter. Bond legitimately cares about these people, and so, consequently, do we.
      • Bond and Paloma taking a moment for drinks in the middle of a gunfight was also a nice classic-film-Bondish moment.
    • The fundamental structural problem with skipping to the good stuff is that the conflicts are set to “easy mode.” The climax of the movie is Bond trying to a) stop the bad guy, b) rescue his family. a) is pretty simple. b) should require some effort, as both love interest and kid are in separate places under guard. But easy mode kicks in and all three manage to wander into each other without having to think, plan, ask questions, or work towards it as a goal.
    • It does not integrate the required male-audience interest stuff well enough to make it a truly unisex viewing experience. If it had it would have been….quite a lot better. And it is possible, at least in my opinion.
      • Seven Swords (2005) is a wuxia movie that is extremely female-audience-oriented. It’s got handsome guys with long flowing hair; shirtless scenes; elaborate costumes; at least two love triangles, one of which is a not-too-bad-looking villain obsessively in love with one of the main characters and the other of which is star-crossed; the action scenes are pretty much all filmed from the POV of the female characters as per the director’s commentary; not to mention that there are multiple well-written, female characters to begin (and end) with. And there’s oodles of wuxia violence, sword fights, fist fights, sword fights with weird swords, fights with weird weapons, fights on horseback, fights upside down between walls, fights where everything is on fire….and so on. So it is possible. (Is a very good movie.)

I also watched:

  • Two Weeks Notice (2002) because I’m still recovering from sickness, OKAY
    • Hugh Grant is actually really good here, making his upper class twit character a charming, intelligent upper class twit. Sandra Bullock is also good; her part is rather obnoxiously written but she makes herself completely likable. Unfortunately, after the first fifteen minutes or so, the script loses headway and never really makes it back up.
    • Although
      “Do you know what other games I like?”
      “Strip chess.”
      “….that is also a good game.”
      was pretty funny.

The Mandalorian – Eps 1-3 – (Re)Reviewed

mandalorian-poster-detail-cropEp 1: “Ok, so, you have to watch The Mandalorian.
The Mandalorian. You know, I can’t believe you! Why are you even watching that–that–garbage!? You know it’s bad. You know what Disney has done to Star Wars.”
“No, it’s actually surprisingly decent.”
“It is!”
“How can it be Star Wars when it ain’t even got none of the original people in it?”
“What? Look, just watch this gunfight at the end. Watch it!”
“Wait, wait, wait, why does this look like a Western?”

Ep 2: “Look, it’s Baby Yoda.”
“Oh my gosh are you buying into that Baby Yoda cr–craziness? It’s aaaaaall over Facebook. All the time. Baby Yoda. Baby Yoda. Baby Yoda. Gah! It’s annoying! What is the big deal with Baby Yoda!?”
“People like Star Wars when it’s done even, y’know, half-way decently well!”
“Baby Yoda. Oh gosh. I can’t believe you.”
“Heh, see, he’s chasing the frog thing. And Mando tells him to spit it out. ’cause, y’know, babies.”
“Oh [hork], he ate it!?”
“You’re acting as though my niece did not just try to eat a dead fly off the windowsill.”
“…that was only once!
“And look at the Jawas! I always liked the Jawas!”
“I can’t believe you.”
“You gotta watch the whole thing, there’s a bit where he’s fighting this creature and he goes through each of his weapons–he goes through his rifle, and then his sidearm, and then his flamethrower, and then the mud-horn is y’know, getting ready for the charge and he’s like all beaten-up and on one knee, and all he can do is pull out his knife and get ready for it–and he’s so tired and his hands are shaking, and so he has to steady the knife with both hands as the creature is barreling down on him. It’s awesome.”
“…I don’t get it.”
“…y’know, we can always watch some little Barbie Disney Princess movie if you like instead.”
“Shut up.”
“We can watch My Little Pony!”

Ep 3: “Wait, so he never takes his helmet off?”
“This is the way.”
“His skin must be horrible.”
“I mean, imagine if he has dandruff. His hair must be sooo greasy and then he has to keep putting the same helmet back on again. It would never get a chance to get better. Ew.”
“Maybe he has like a beanie or something he wears under it and he can change that out. Like a helmet liner. Do they have helmet liners? Why are you looking at me like that? He’s the one who said he don’t ever take his helmet off!”
“Yeah, it’s okay. But it’s still not as good as real Star Wars.”
“It’s the best we’re gonna get, and they were making an effort. They’re actively trying to do the story right, and, and, when they do insult your intelligence, it’s unintentional.”
“But there’s no lightsabers. It can’t really be Star Wars without lightsabers!”
Star Wars is technically–”
“It ain’t Star Wars unless it’s the original movies with the original cast, with the original director making it.”
“The movies had different directors.”
“You know what I mean! No lightsabers, no Star Wars! No George Lucas!”
Star Wars is science fiction. You don’t need lightsabers. You just need spaceships and blasters. And George Lucas sold out to Disney for four billion dollars.”
“Hmph. And also! There’s no Jedi. And there’s no Luke or Leia. Or Han.”
“You have Mando! And Baby Yoda! They are introducing new characters to Expand the Universe! And
can you imagine how they’d screw it up if they did have Luke and Leia?”
“Oh. Well. Yeah.”
“And Baby Yoda is very cute.”
“It looks realllllllly fake.”
“Yeah, it really does.”

The Shadow Magazine #42 – Mox

shadow_magazine_vol_1_42So. One of the ways that The Shadow’s mysterious ways remained mysterious is by not including his point of view. He is shown, in certain stories, either as a gliding, cloaked-and-hatted shape through the, uh, somewhat dispassionate lens of the omniscient narrator–observing and describing his actions but offering little concrete commentary on his motivations.

Some books don’t even have an alter-ego for The Shadow–only spectral laughter and sinister whispers; some books have him assume an entirely new personality for the length of the story, discarding it and revealing himself only to thwart evil at the climax.

Alternatively, sight of The Shadow is filtered through the eyes of a POV character…who is generally far, far from omniscient. This contributes to the overall mystery (since they are generally baffled and/or completely wrong about their deductions,) or to the plot (because Harry Vincent is going to a) get clobbered and kidnapped, b) screw up his mission. Sigh.)

In this case, the narrative viewpoint largely follows Joe Cardona, currently an Acting Inspector and generally regarded as the ace sleuth of New York City’s police force–largely because of assistance from a certain black-clad force of justice and vengeance that he cannot formally admit exists, especially to his skeptic boss. “Mox” is Jarvis Moxton, a wealthy speculator whose name soon becomes of interest to investigators looking into the death of contracting agent, Schuyler Harlew. (How that happens is admittedly via a long, long shot, but for such deductions is The Shadow famed.) It transpires that Mox–Moxton–has been locating inventors of promising but underfunded projects, luring them to his countryside lair with promises of money and support, and there–at the stroke of midnight–destroying them! The Shadow puts the pieces together just a tad too late to save another unlucky victim, but he vows that no others will so die!

He succeeds, too, in a brief-but-awesome battle that a) saves an innocent life, b) decimates Mox’s henchmen, c) reveals Mox’s true nature to local authorities, and d) forces Mox into flight. Local authorities, in the person of the cool and cantankerous Sheriff Junius Tharbel, soon seem to have cracked open the case–much to the displeasure of the visiting Joe Cardona, who begins a bitter and one-sided rivalry as a result–but the question still remains to be solved as to where–or who–of the suspects Mox truly is. Junius Tharbel has jurisdiction; he also has the scoop. And a material witness. And also a dog….and yet who seemingly has more interest in going off huntin’ with his country hick friends (you know: the short fat one and the tall thin one) than in tracking down Mox.

The dog is a Dalmatian by the way, which are not actually great pets. They have a high prey drive and can be very aggressive. Also, they have a congenital tendency to deafness and need special food because they also have a tendency to kidney disease. Anyway, the dog is also a material witness in the case. But how does Junius Tharbel actually plan to crack this case–and, more importantly, does The Shadow?

I’ve also talked at length before about how Walter B. Gibson never cheapens his work by letting The Shadow’s power level vary strategically with circumstances. It’s never conveniently just one notch above his current adversaries: it’s always at eleven. Sometimes The Shadow mows through opponents easily: if, for instance, he’s up against a handful of disunified, poorly-coordinated mooks in a dimly-lit area, or if he gets into a hand-to-hand fight with someone whose only combat experience is brawling with other thugs. Sometimes, he struggles rather more–giant Mongol henchmen are always a toughie; and gangsters prepared with anti-Shadow ordnances such as machine guns and spotlights, definitely make things very hot indeed. And sometimes he does get flat-out beaten to the punch, such as when he attempted to jump a squad of Japanese jiu-jitsu masters, or accidentally triggered a voice-activated murder robot.

But when The Shadow is on the struggling side, Gibson never cheats on his behalf to even things back up. Mongol warriors don’t suddenly lose their fighting skills or their brains; they get outmaneuvered, or they end up fighting Jericho Druke, or they get shot. Murder robots…actually, I forget how that one got solved, that was kind of weird. Spotlights get shot out. Carloads of crooks get sniped from mobile or covered positions; they don’t all die, but they are scattered and forced to retreat. Ninja masters get the snot scared out of them in a darkened room and The Shadow gets his last laugh. There’s a real-world logic to the winning of these conflicts that lends them–no matter how outlandish the situation–a verisimilitude, a weight and tension, that’s absent from other stories of the kind.

Clyde Burke liaises with Cardona and Tharbel, and The Shadow glides about in the background, communicating via phone calls and whispers so sinister his own agent gets the chills. There’s a spidery henchman who kills on the stroke of midnight, a death-pit, hidden rooms, secret identities, and red herrings galore.

And so it goes.

This is really a superb Shadow story, so much so that it received a follow-up, Crime County, several years later, starring Junius Tharbel and a dog named–Mox.

Rated: W-A-D-E-H-O-S-T-H-I-S-T-H-E-S-H-A-D-O-W

QuikReiew: Black Adam (2022)

So I decided to watch Black Adam despite some reservations (i.e.: I didn’t want to pay money for it, because I knew it wouldn’t be worth it.) I was not wrong. This movie is really not worth paying money for, because obviously the studio execs didn’t think it was, either. At least, they didn’t think paying for a script was, and boy howdy does it show.

There’s isn’t really a plot, for one. There’s a series of vaguely-connected scenes with people telling Teth-Adam that He Must Be A Hero! and Save Khandaq! From INTERGANG! (Who are mercenaries with actually wicked sweet hoverbikes, MAN those things are cool, where can I get one and why haven’t they shown up in any movie before or after?) or, From….uh….them! or from…uh…resurrected demon king guy!

These scenes all play out the same way, too: someone (usually Annoying Kid) tells Teth-Adam that Khandaq needs a hero! Adam responds that he is no hero, leave him alone, and floats off in a random direction; at which point someone else will threaten the Annoying Skateboard Kid or his Woke Mother, and then there will be another smashy-lightning-buildings collapse scene. And this pattern gets very tiresome, very quickly.

Does the movie succeed in introducing and defining its main character? Surprisingly, for the most part, yes. However….it’s about twenty minutes of backstory stretched over an entire two hour movie, without any plot for said character to act on, which would make its inclusion meaningful. This movie could have been condensed down to a ninety minutes and greatly improved. Hell, it could have been condensed down to forty-five minutes and made a TV pilot episode. The fights get that boring after about the fifteenth one.

Does the movie succeed in introducing and defining its secondary characters? To an extent–and no further. Pierce Brosnan shines as Doctor Fate, whom I am guessing is the DC variant of Doctor Strange. He elevates every scene and all the material he’s given, purely by effort of being a good actor who can handle mediocre-at-best dialogue, and also by getting some good reaction shots in. Whats-his-face, as Hawkman….didn’t fare nearly as well, but: he tried. (Incidentally, if you have wind-based powers, and any kind of textured hair, you would ABSOLUTELY keep said hair in a tight protective style. Anyway.)

And one of the things that definitely drags the movie down hard is the presence of Annoying Skateboard Kid and his Woke Mother. Those two are insufferable, and besides being completely unlikable, they’re flat, insipid, and omnipresent. Like, seriously, I have no words to describe how extraneous these people are, and yet the movie insists that they remain vital to the (non-existant) plot. (“Teth-Adam, you have got to be a hero!” “No.” Boom, thud, swoosh, etc.)

Are there any good things about this movie? Eh. It’s not horrible. It’s just not good, at all. If I want to watch an series of strung-together action scenes, I’ll watch Final Fantasy: Advent Children.

Rated: that’s eight dollars I will not see again in a hurry, more’s the pity.

The Shadow # 203 – Crime at Seven Oaks

shadow_magazine_vol_1_203See the cover? That’s a dog. This is a great story, hands-down, QED. Any book that has a dog in a prominent role is automatically a winner. This is a rule that crosses genres: any scifi, mystery, fantasy, or western story that has a dog, jumps at least three points. (Westerns that also highlight the importance, not to mention the personalities, of the horses involved, gain five points. Science fiction tends to be more about cats, but that’s hearkening back to the “space-navy” side of the equation, rather than the “pulp Westerns IN SPACE” genre foundations.)

Needless to say, Vulcan the Great Dane is basically the co-hero of this novel, and it’s a story that is perfectly pleasing in almost every way. (It helps that this story follows #202, Prince of Evil, written by Theodore Tinsley and squarely in the with the salaciousness cranked up until the knob falls off but the intelligence turned to “Is this thing on?” A fine read, to be sure, but definitely a lesser effort.)

It’s one of those stories that showcase Walter B. Gibson’s adroitness for keeping The Shadow’s adventures fresh and interesting by varying the setting, genre, and supporting characters’ roles. In this case, rather than New York City, the little town of Northdale is the backdrop and the setting is a lonely estate mansion (Seven Oaks) on whom troubles already hang and disaster portends. The genre is, well, it’s still pulp noir but with added dollops of gothic melodrama; and there is a madwoman, her nearly-equally disturbed husband, their quasi-telepathic twins, a mysterious stranger, a weirdly chipper young doctor–and as mentioned, the main secondary hero (and, frankly, the most successful impromptu agent The Shadow has ever employed) is a dog.

So. It’s a dark and stormy night, (because of course it is) and a man with the initials C. T. is waylaid and robbed at the very gates of Seven Oaks. He’s Carl Thayer and he’s saved by the intervention of The Shadow–who has been trailing Clint Flenn’s mob for a while–and makes it to the house, there to receive sympathetic and medical treatment, mostly at the hands of Janice Melridge. Janice and Bob are the twenty year old twins who have apparently little to do but wait to come of age and worry over their mother’s condition, and when your mother spends most of her time talking about voices and banshees, and your father is getting frustrated to the point of choking her out, who wouldn’t be? So the middle-aged but still handsome Carl Thayer finds a warm welcome and proceeds to make the most of it.

Clint Flenn, meanwhile, finding the spoils from the opening brigandage rather measly, decides on kidnapping the Melridge moll for ransom as the next move. The Shadow himself is listening in on this conference, however, and and so begins a cat-and-mouse game that progresses through the halls of Seven Oaks, the streets of Northdale, and the cavern-fractured countryside beyond. To summarize events would be to spoil, and this is actually one of those stories that, even knowing Gibson’s penchant for twists and reversals, kept me guessing until the end.

There are no other agents in this particular story, which is fine, because once Vulcan gets recruited by The Shadow, he does a lot of heavy lifting, including one nick-of-time rescue during a three-way battle involving a box of incriminating evidence and a safe full of payroll deposits, that leaves Bob Melridge, his rescuee, completely baffled, heh.

We all have witnessed how terrifying The Shadow is to malefactors, evil-doers, thugs, and malcontents; the flip side of this is that he is a calming, reassuring, instantly trustworthy presence to the innocent, even if they’re the kind of innocent who don’t look it, having been thrust into a frame and are panicking and lashing out. Dogs, naturally, are no exception. Previous stories has seen The Shadow square off against hostile guard dogs, and either hiss or glare them into submission. Vulcan gets the hiss treatment and promptly begins play-fighting with The Shadow’s cloak sleeve, but we are also reminded that he’s a dog on whose judgment the family relies to begin with. And with good reason. (Vulcan also has had some police/guard training, which is what makes him a useful ally in the first place.)

Now, Gibson avoids the trap of making Vulcan too intelligent by letting him be governed by The Shadow, and The Shadow’s superb competence. It’s by making him the only agent to actually follow orders successfully, that allows him to be the hugely effective good boy he is. Harry Vincent is really lucky Vulcan didn’t decide to follow The Shadow home at the end.

The other characters are interesting as well, given the gothic melodrama / gangster noir genre blend of the book, briefly but adroitly handled by Gibson. Clint Flenn, the gang leader, is actually an interestingly authoritative figure, with an alluded-to history of success, successful alibis, and a proven record of cool-headedness, daring, and marksmanship. Mind you, if he’d been slightly less cool when that rat Trigg Unger started squealing that he’d cornered The Shadow down in the basement, he could have been on to something, but, well.

In some ways this is a throwback story: The Shadow spends much of his time hidden, in Shadow garb, only revealing himself at the very end of the novel; and the Lamont Cranston identity is used sparingly. There are multiple gunfights which end with a satisfying number of bodies–and there’s even an interestingly gruesome moment where The Shadow, providing cover for another escape, crashes his car into a barricade hiding entrenched crooks, sending bodies flying (and earning another concussion, but never mind.) He also pistol-whips a couple of crooks with his .45. If it’s the same style as the gun he used in Spoils of The Shadow, which has a hair-trigger and no safety catch, is it really safe to be using the butt end of the gun to slug people with, though? One wonders. Usually he just bashes people with the muzzle, but there’s an explicit mention of knocking out a sentry with the butt of the gun. Oh well.

There’s a lot more to say about this novel, in some ways, but in others, not really. It’s got gunfights, car chases, a really good boyo, haunted houses, madwomen, psychic twins, gangsters, double-crosses, inheritances, mysterious paintings overlooking events with a somber eye, alibis, taking the heat for your loved ones, and highway robbery. It’s got The Shadow protecting innocents, terrorizing crooks, and solving crimes with a discerning eye and strategic hand that proves why he is and always will be the master foe of evil.

Rated: I heard The Shadow’s ha-ha and I scrammed, boss.

The Shadow Magazine #80 – The Condor

shadow_magazine_vol_1_80 The Shadow really came into his own during the mid 1930s, volumes #65-99ish. Before that he and the author were still feeling out their niche; after that, well, even primordial heroes start to eventually feel their age and the effects of all those concussions. But that run is really superb. The Shadow is at the peak of his mental and physical prowess; and his organization as well as the scope of his operations expands, while–and this is important–still staying reasonable.

At his core, The Shadow is a hero who avenges crime.  Sometimes those crimes are murder; more often they are gang violence; and even more often, it’s theft, either outright or white-collar variants such as fraud or embezzlement. (One of the great differences between The Shadow and current-day heroes is that theft is a crime seen as a crime and deserving of a harsh punishment no matter who the intended victims are. Even cigar-smoking businessmen in suits are assumed to have a right to their property, to defend it, and to seek its legal, reasonable increase. Nowadays every single one of would be considered a villain by default, unworthy of protection or recompense. Anyhow.)

Now, quite often the thieves and/or murderers have delusions of grandeur (and sometimes they aren’t quite delusions) and Step 4 is “take over the world” / “reign of terror” and these are usually more colorful, and somewhat harder to stop than your ordinary crop of gangsters. At least the gangsters tend to either drop dead or surrender when the cops arrive. The megalomaniacs fight it out to the end, or crawl away aided by their faithful minions, hissing banefully.

This book manages to combine both types, and very satisfactory it is to see.

So. Cliff Marsland–who once did a stint in Sing Sing for a crime he did not commit, who is now known in gangdom as a man-killer, a tough torpedo, and a mortal enemy of The Shadow and whom none suspect is actually an agent of The Shadow–meets up with and receives a mission from his once-pal, Luffer Cadley. Cadley himself received a tip-off from the now deceased Cuckoo Gruzen: that a big payoff awaits one who can present the Blue Pearl to The Condor at Mountview Lodge. Cadley is bringing Cliff into it, because he has enemies still itching to rub him out and needs the help. Cliff accepts, because he and his chief know that by following the small crime, a much larger one can be uncovered and greater damage prevented.

So. There’s the plot: acquire the Blue Pearl, bring to The Condor, and then find out what the heck his deal is. Simple, sure. But the path that leads from A to B to C is filled with perplexities, difficulties, and dynamite. This is one of those stories where to summarize what happens is to simply state the entire plot, and then where’s the fun in that? But there are mysteries involved (that are actually mysterious and have importance, and whose solution proves the solver to be that much more intelligent and observant than other individuals–without making those others out to immediately be idiots); there are thrills (such as, Henry Arnaud deciding that he really doesn’t want a visit from the local police right at that moment, and having to devise a quick escape via a third-story window); there’s plenty of action, strategy, double-crosses, intrigue, secret identities, and also a couple of random Singhalese giants, because no pulp action story is actually complete without giants. No, really. Doc Savage and Tarzan provide their own; Tom Swift has Koko; Barsoom has the Green Martians….

Huh. Giants, and crocodiles. Make a note of it.

Anyhow. Several of The Shadow’s agents are involved in this one, including the usual mention-only of Miles Crofton (poor guy never gets a chance to shine). Most prominently, these are Cliff Marsland and (siiiiiiiigh) Harry Vincent, but Clyde Burke pops up here and there, and there’s mention of Hawkeye and Moe. The Shadow himself gets to use the lesser-known Henry Arnaud persona as well as his favored guise of Lamont Cranston. The latter persona also gets to support and advise his friend Commissioner Barth after the theft of the Blue Pearl by a masked thug, right under their very noses….

Vic Marquette (still of the Secret Service, and therefore a hero to be lauded, rather than the FBI stooge he later becomes), also pops up.

So, villains. The Condor is a cross between the megalomaniac and the professor. He’s an independently wealthy retiree who decided some time ago that crime might be more risky, but it’s also a hell of a lot more fun and rewarding than doing things the slow, steady, legal way. Physically, he is of a birdlike (guess which kind) mould, especially as far as his voice, and his weirdly strong, thin-fingered hands go. He’s intelligent and cunning; but mostly his success lies in the way he has planned for it. Rather than just recruiting thugs off the street–and then having them ruin things directly–he allows them to self-select, ensuring that only those capable enough can reach him in the first place; and then also by including a time element, ensures that he also gets patient, disciplined crooks, too. As a result, his organization is effective, competent, and cohesive–and it’s not a one-man job taking it down.

What’s more, The Condor is more of a nickname, and less of a straightforward gimick, the way The Cobra, or The Gray Fist, or The Python (snigger) was, because as dangerous as those guys admittedly were…they were really frikkin’ goofy, come on. He’s a dude who screeches occasionally and gathers plunder that others have killed/acquired, and he’s very serious about it, and so is the author.

Talking about the cover: it’s always awesome to see covers and titles that directly reference something, a scene or idea in the story; something that’s intriguing and easy on the eyes just on the surface, but that gains incredible depths of meaning once you’ve read the book. It means a lot more once you read the book, but even just on it’s own, it’s pretty darned intriguing nevertheless. (Also doesn’t add a gigantic proboscis to the silhouette. Those are annoying. CANNONICALLY all you can see of The Shadow in Shadow getup is his blazing eyes, and that’s IF he’s not hiding his face anyway. Artistic license, ugh.)

PS: I am not going to review the final Shiwan Khan story, he dies, THE END, good riddance, YOU BELONG DEAD.

Rated: Youse mugs keep them dukes up! I said up!

The Shadow Magazine #7 – The Silent Seven

shadow_magazine_vol_1_7So, on The Shadow’s seventh outing (published in February of 1932), he confronts and finishes an enemy organization actually revealed in the previous book, The Death Tower.

In The Death Tower, we learn that there is an organization known as the Faithful Fifty, that they are in many places and many positions throughout New York City–one is revealed to be a police detective, who, in the presence of certain symbols or signs, covers up evidence and releases suspects–and that they serve the Silent Seven. Very little more is revealed about them, as The Death Tower deals more with the singular evil of Doctor Palermo and his wicked scheme, whatever it was, something to do with jewels, I think?  He was also kind of a weeb.

Walter Gibson expanded on the idea in this, the following book–although this is not immediately apparent. Aside from the title, I guess.

Anyhow, the story opens with an elderly man returning to his New York home when his servants report of burglary attempts–on one occasion hearing, on the other, actually seeing, an intruder. Nothing seems to be missing, but yet the man (Henry Marchand) seems to be in mortal dread as he returns, a fear that does not lessen as enters his study to check the safety of some secret that is known only to him.

Henry Marchand does not leave that room alive; and while his death by poison needle in the catch of the secret desk drawer is promptly attributed to misadventure (by Inspector Klein, Joe Cardona still being a mere detective and his hunches not having gained their due fame). Marchand’s friend and confidante Dr. Lukens is however convinced that the mysterious scrawled code revealed in that desk drawer has a meaning and a connection. Cardona agrees, but with the cause of death already established, can do little more than have the code analyzed. Meanwhile, Lukens looks after the disposition of his former friend’s estate, helped by his secretary, annoyed by one Rodney Paget, a lounging young clubman who seems to turn up because he has nothing better to do, but then who should surely have better manners than to snoop as obviously as he does; and then startled by the entrance of The Shadow.

The Shadow has deduced that Marchand was murdered, and the death cleverly framed to deflect blame on the absent-minded victim. Further, Marchand was killed for whatever he had hidden in the desk–and the code is not it. In fact, the code is a complete fake, intended to defer suspicion when investigators find an empty drawer. Who the murderer is, The Shadow does not yet know; but he expects Lukens’ help in finding justice. Lukens agrees–with the caveat that he also immediately attempts to sic the police on this eerie visitor–but, before he, or The Shadow can make further discoveries, is abruptly murdered.

Everyone (including The Shadow, who in the obligatory tussle with the flatfoots loses his guns in order that they can be ballistic-tested against the bullet that killed Lukens) has an alibi for this killing, and even the irritating man-about-town Rodney Paget seems to be in the clear, when:

RODNEY PAGET finished breakfast in his usual leisurely fashion. He took a bath and dressed. It was afternoon when he prepared to leave the apartment. Burnham was still sleeping.
Paget handed Kama a ten-dollar bill before he left.
“What time did the clock say when I came in?” he asked.
“Clockee strike halfee past eight,” came the parrotlike reply.
Paget rode along Eighty-first Street in a taxicab. He gazed curiously from the window as he passed the brownstone house where Doctor Lukens had died. He noticed a policeman standing by the front steps.
A faint smile appeared upon Paget’s lips.
Reaching in the watch pocket of his trousers, the clubman drew forth an object and held it in his half-closed hand. It was the scarab ring which Doctor Lukens had worn the night before—the ring which had once belonged to Henry Marchand.
Still smiling, Paget replaced the ring in his pocket. Calmly and leisurely, he opened his cigarette case and removed a cigarette. He put it carefully in the long holder.
Rodney Paget was puffing slowly and contentedly when the cab stopped in front of the Merrimac Club.

A huge part of why any hero is successful is because he has a good villain to play off against; and Paget is the sort of villain who would make a decent hero. He’s intelligent, cool under pressure, cultured and genteel; and he’s an underdog who is playing the game against the big boys, as a newcomer, with missing cards–but who still plays to win. (He doesn’t win.) (But still.)

Another part of why the villainy in this story hits home is because it’s a…surprisingly realistic, shall we say, depiction of a powerful secret society of criminals. It’s not super over the top: there’s fifty-seven people in this conspiracy, rather than hundreds, because….how do you stay secret with hundreds of followers? They’re present enough to be threatening, and they have enough gadgets, secret passages, signs and countersigns, to be all spooky secret society–but none of these run into the “gigantic labyrinth underneath Chinatown that somehow no one knows about even though it’s a tremendous fire hazard,” or, “I thought this place was abandoned, why does it have a massive electric bill?” trap. When they think someone’s spying on one of their assets, they lay a trap for him with a four- or five-man team, not an endless wave of fanatic mooks. The final battle doesn’t include withering fire from massed machine guns, but it’s well-aimed enough that if you step out of cover you get shot. The Seven, revealed, are an equal mix of politicians, gangsters, bankers, and (hah) academics. Their aim is power and money, rather than world domination. They rob banks and blackmail millionaires. Simple, and effective.

But back to Paget: having a demonstrably cool, collected character as an antagonist and showing them at their best–dealing with cops, mooks, and the other villains–is a great way to build up your hero by then turning the page and showing how utterly he freaks people out when they know he’s after them.

“I had a dream that same night—a dream that something was threatening me. I woke up and thought some one was in the room. But I could find no one there. The next night I dreamed again. When I awoke and looked toward the window I could see nothing. It seemed as though some great, black shape was looming in front of me. Then it disappeared and was gone.
“Since then every shadow has worried me -”
Paget’s voice stopped. He stared at the window of the room as though expecting to see some monstrous shape sweep aside the shade.
“If my enemy is real,” said Paget in a tense, hoarse whisper, “I can meet him. But when I have never even seen him -“

As mentioned, the earliest Shadow novels lean into a stage magician-like blend of invisibility (The Shadow either uses very simple disguises and an aura of authority to blend in, or he’s a full-on weird shapeless blot of darkness in the night, etc) that sometimes hits the actually uncanny. One of the inspirations of the character was–believe it or not, Dracula–and there’s a bit near the end of this story that seems to nod to Old Red Eyes’ powers. The Shadow himself plays this up with his dialogue when he speaks to Lukens–or, to the revealed First of the Silent Seven. Interestingly, though, he’s less formal on the phone with Burbank–either because Gibson hadn’t quite developed the communications style (“Report!”), or because he tends to trust and rely more heavily on Burbank than his other agents.

Because much of the novel is told from Pagets’ POV, there’s less of The Shadow’s agents; but (sigh) Harry Vincent and Clyde Burke appear and….are frankly almost totally useless. I mean, it’s not as if either of them had any formal training for this job and if you’re going to have trusted agents shouldn’t they also be highly skilled? Or at least assigned to jobs that they’re suited for, generally? I mean, Rutledge Mann stays in his office the majority of the time, clipping newspapers, and Burbank does his thing with gadgets; what was the idea with just recruiting two random guys off the street and having them tail mobsters–who are used to spotting and dealing with this kind of thing, fatally? Really when you think about it, The Shadow is just setting these guys up for failure.

Naturally the final chapter involves dragging Harry Vincent out of a death trap.

So, anyhow: is very a good, very solid early Shadow story, despite the accurate yet lackluster cover.

Rated: If Number Five is dead, you cannot be Number Five. If you are the man who took the ring from the thief, you must be–

DALL·E 2022-09-29 17.41.29

The Lord of Castle Black – Steven Brust – Repost Review

TLDR: Even if this one is pretty good, I have lost all patience with the Dragaera Cycle.

It’s difficult to read Steven Brust’s books at all now–even ones I previously loved liked found okay, like Issola and the very first Jhereg–because now I know the dirty secret. He’s not interested in his own story, his own universe, or making it all fit together. Dragaera isn’t a tightly-woven narrative tapestry, it’s a collection of very bright and colorful threads in a loose knot. Now and then Brust may tug a couple of threads taut, just to show off how shiny and pretty those strands are. But there’s no overall, well-thought out picture that can be salvaged from the tangle at this point (well, not without extreme and conscientious effort which I highly doubt will be made).

Brust’s interest in Dragaera lies in…I can’t say the characters, because he seems painfully uninterested in them, but he does like gourmet food, philosophical digressions (AKA, why socialism is good and mafia aren’t), and….I guess, Devera. And this is a problem, because klava and gourmand fried chocolate-dipped garlic and roast asafoedita-stuffed dormouse have left enough of a bad taste in my mouth that even after reading half of this book and enjoying it, I was extremely reluctant to pick it up again–and I still can’t bring myself to actually read The Baron of Magister Valley (AKA, The Count of Monte Cristo IN DRAGAERA.) Why should I read a book in a series that the author doesn’t even want to finish and doesn’t like any more? Why should I expect to be pleasantly entertained when that’s not the purpose of the story, anymore? Why read a well-written and enjoyable prequel to a series that the author doesn’t want to finish?

Brust does not want to tell stories about swashbuckling but hard-edged heroes, noble but ruthless warriors, sorcerers who are as powerful as gods, and gods who are as petty as men. He doesn’t want to tell a story of criminals or of empires, rebels or righteous war. He doesn’t really care about excitement any more, and adventures are downright distasteful. Much better to drink egg coffee in a corner cafe. His stories are the stories of an old man who shares little in common with his younger self (who at least tried), or with younger audiences (who came on board for the swashbuckling, capeswishing, rapier-flashing, epic fantasy stories written on a narrative backdrop that is a richly-woven tapestry, etc…AKA, people like me who stuck it out for fifteen books but have at this point noticed which way the wind blows.)

That said, and with it in mind, Brust is at his best when he’s riffing off a better author and doesn’t have to come up with those tedious narrative beats himself. As in Paths of the Dead, which I own but haven’t read in several years, this is one of those instances.

This subseries is a prequel to the main Vlad Taltos books, covering the fall and rise again of the Dragaeran Empire. It’s also a riff off of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers–D’Artagnan, Portos, Aramis, and, uh, whats-his-face, Oliver Reed played him in the movie…whatever–becoming Khaavren (the main hero), Tazendra (the dumb but loveable ruffian), Aramis (the sneaky Yendi), and…I dunno, the other guy. (WHAT IS HIS NAAAAME?!) So, I had it wrong, this is actually book 2 of a sub-trilogy within the Khaavren Romances subseries of the Dragaera Cycle. Eh, whatever.

The plot is: Khaavren, formerly the swashbuckling hero of a previous generation, has decided that he needs to get back in shape and take to the road again. His timing is good, because meanwhile, Zerika has re-emerged with the Orb from the Paths of the Dead–making her indisputably the new Empress. Problem is, there really is a dispute going on, because there are at least two pretenders to the throne, and they have quite a few more men than she does. (She’s got about twenty-five, including Khaavren’s son Piro). Meanwhile, young Dragonlord Morrolan has set up shop in a ruined castle and begun doing what he is assured Dragonlords do, which tax the local civilians and use the money to assemble an army. He’s got about three thousand soldiers. Meanwhile, immortal sorceress Sethra Lavode is…well, she’s in her mountain doing whatever she does that is of deep mystic import and is never actually explained to the audience. And, since this is book 2 of 3-ish, that’s about it. There’s a couple of battles but they don’t resolve the Pretendership conflict, and on the personal level, the book ends with a near-tragedy as Khaavren’s old-school values and personal prejudices end up pushing his son away into a life of banditry (whee!)

So the main attraction the Khaavren Romances have is that the writing style, as well as the plot, homages Dumas–that is, it’s wordy, literate, and full of narrative filligree and little stylistic flourishes which ironically help flesh out the world and the characters far, far better than plainer prose. It’s a bit stilted, but it’s charming, often amusing, (“Oh bother,” said Tazendra, “I’ve lost the reins.”) and sometimes actually quite witty. Actual action is treated in classic style: with many flourishes and little detail and as much posturing as is necessary to show our heroes in a heroic light.

The characters are less of an attraction, mostly because they’ve already been established and the narrative convention is to keep them on a bit flatter of an arc than we’d normally see. Mostly the only development is between Piro and his love interest Ibronka, culminating in a highly amusing scene wherein their friends basically lock them in a closet to resolve the UST. Morrolan, the second lead, amusingly gets slighted by the biased narrator, who regards him as an unsophisticated country (human-raised) bumpkin who wavers between dangerously airheaded and just plain dangerous. Needless to say, Morrolan’s actual actions put a lie to everything but the dangerous bit.

So, overall: this is a good book, and it’s part of a series that once showed great promise. Unfortunately, given that the rest of the series fails signally to live up to that….I honestly can’t enjoy it anymore.

Rated: One half-exploded sorceress out of…well…one.

The Shadow #97 – The Voodoo Master

shadow_magazine_vol_1_97So having gone on at length as to how Shiwan Khan–who, having a positive gluttony for punishment, just kept coming back to New York to receive his due whalloping for four books in a row–is a decidedly unimpressive supervillain and deserve no such credit as “archrival” or “nemesis,” here is a rundown of the first appearance to a character who does make a worthy rival to The Shadow: Doctor Rodil Mocquino, the Voodoo Master.

In brief, my thesis is: this book is perfectly executed to show that Mocquino is a supremely dangerous, intelligent, ambitious enemy–and that The Shadow is more powerful, insightful, and and deadly than he….while still retaining suspense, interpersonal danger, and plenty of excitement.

The plot begins with the police acquiring a zombi, not that they know what he is exactly or how to spell it. Ace Inspector Cardona, who has something of a clew now and then, calls in Doctor Rupert Sayre–who calls for his sometimes-client, sometimes-superior, Lamont Cranston, whom he believes to be The Shadow. Yes, it’s out of the ordinary for an M.D. to call in a civilian to make a diagnosis, but then Dr. Sayre doesn’t have that much experience with West Indian superstition, crime lords, methods of subtle and unsubtle psychological torture, and fiendish plots.

Our heroes soon learn details of the last item: a voodoo cult in the very heart of New York, figuring highly placed members of society–who have been programmed or lured into observing with fiendish glee the voodoo deaths of their own close relatives, their friends or employers…. deaths in effigy which are soon duplicated mysteriously in the flesh, leaving said cultees in the possession of, often, great wealth. More to the point, the former zombi, Stanton Wallace, fears for the life of his employer, Texan millionaire Dunley Bligh. Bligh’s situation is set up for a pretty seamless murder. He is on board an ocean liner that has already left port, there to receive a consignment of jewels from the ship’s purser; he has heart issues and takes daily medications at a clinical dosage that is just barely below the fatal one.

Observe how there is a greater but currently immobile threat–The Voodoo Master and his ring of minions (currently numbering about twenty. Keep an eye on that number, because it declines over the course of this novel, heh)–and also an innocent in immediate danger, elsewhere. Standard stuff, obvious, sure: but where The Shadow shows his superiority is that he doesn’t rush headlong to the rescue, committing his full strength in one single, less important, direction. (As, for instance, Tarzan, John Carter, Batman, or Feanor would.)

The Shadow has already located the Voodoo Master’s cult headquarters; he leaves it under close observation by his most competent agents (cough, not Harry Vincent, cough.) Mocquino cannot move without this information reaching The Shadow; and via Burbank and a wireless radio, any such move can be traced or countered. While not negated, the greater threat is controlled. This leaves The Shadow clear to move to the rescue of Dunley Bligh. An artificial crisis is not created by having the hero completely withdraw the field and leave the villain free to act.

Needless to say, the other way The Shadow > other heroes is that he also succeeds when he sets out to rescue the innocent bystander. One of the cheesy but utterly endearing parts of the early to mid-stage Shadow novels is the author’s fullhearted intention to make his hero awesome by any means necessary, even if it was offscreen. The Shadow reaches the outbound ocean liner with the cover story of participating in an aeronautic stunt flight to land an autogiro on a moving vessel, and the audience, like Dunley Bligh, learns from the ship’s purser that “The landing was perfect!” Because of course it was. 

Meanwhile, while an artificial crisis has been avoided, a genuine one results: Stanton Wallace sends Cardona and a posse of headquarters detectives into a trap. Doctor Mocquino’s men get the drop on the detectives and hold them at gunpoint just long enough for everyone to evacuate the voodoo cult headquarters.–Just time enough for Hawkeye to put a call into Burbank, and a strange, swift, wingless plane to swing wide of the Newark airport and drop a passenger off on a rooftop (the landing, again, perfect, although we don’t get to see how well Miles Crofton handles the take-off. Honestly, poor Crofton has like the most thankless job of all The Shadow’s agents, considering how he gets shown up almost every time he’s on screen.)

The Shadow manages to save Cardona and the detectives (remember: not like other heroes), and to thin out Mocquino’s minions–but, the Voodoo Master manages to completely vanish.

This section of the novel is where Mocquino begins to show his own quality–by managing his disappearing act in the first place, smoothly enough that the police never do figure it out; by continuing on the offensive and defensive;  and by maintaining enough firepower to continue to be a threat, even to The Shadow and his agents.

Doctor Mocquino traces the source of the leak to his organization backwards–to Stanton Wallace–but also forwards, placing preemptive countermeasures in the house of the next most likely cultist to be spotted and interrogated by either the police or The Shadow. What’s more, those countermeasures are effective. (Mind you, if Dr. Sayre had more experience at the spy game, and Sergeant Markham wasn’t a moron, Mocquino would have had much less success. Alas. Note, however, that Cardona is allowed to show his intelligence by calling Markham out for the blockhead he is.)

Anyhow, the tension remains high, because The Shadow is physically injured while making his escape, and Doctor Sayre’s combination of over-caution and inexperience prevents him from taking the correct measures. Also, (sigh) Harry Vincent has walked directly into a trap along with Stanton Wallace and needs to be rescued, but never mind. You’d think that these are straits dire enough in themselves, but no: Mocquino continues on the offensive, sending minions to capture Doctor Sayre (they escape with their lives only because The Shadow is too physically weak to pursue them, and are terrified by the notion that an actual sorcerer ghost is after them.)

“The Shadow is not human!” he gasped. “He is what I say—a ghost! Bullets pass through him like a vapor! We do not doubt your power, master. But The Shadow, too, has power—”
Manuel was nodding. Arilla kept on: “At the old house!” he panted. “I have talked with those who fought there. No bullets could harm The Shadow! He advanced in the face of guns! At Rathcourt’s—I have talked with Manuel—let him speak—”
“I saw The Shadow at Rathcourt’s,” put in Manuel, promptly. “I saw guns pointed toward his heart. I saw those weapons fired. One would have thought that the cartridges were blank—”
“And to-day,” added Arilla, “I fired point-blank. My aim was perfect! My bullet did not even stop The Shadow’s laugh!”
Mocquino was glowering. Sayre, turning, saw the fearful expressions on the faces of the Voodoo Master’s minions. Harry and Stanton were looking on, elated. Sayre saw a chance for a conclusive statement.
“They are right, Mocquino,” expressed the physician. “Scientifically and from a medical standpoint, The Shadow is superhuman.”

And while this doesn’t fool Mocquino for more than a few minutes, there’s a wonderful moment where he’s definitely worried.

Anyhow: the plot therefore continues to a satisfactory climax, with another voodoo ritual upcoming and Harry Vincent and Stanton Wallace making guest appearances therein; with the police still officially and unofficially at a complete loss; and with The Shadow’s remaining agents also definitely worried about their chief’s physical ability to participate in the upcoming fight. 

(Mind you, Doctor Mocquino has now lost so many minions he can’t afford to post an outside guard. Heh.)

And so it goes.

I’m all out of things to say, but it’s one of the best. Even if the guy on the cover does look like he got stung by a bee.

QuikReview: Oblivion (2013)

So I watched Oblivion, a 2013 movie scifi movie starring predominantly Tom Cruise.

Now, I’ve opined at length as to the fact that straight scifi movies tend not to be very good. This is because a) filmmakers are stupid, b) they think their audiences are stupid, too. Most SF movies only achieve greatness synthetically, by cribbing off other genres, especially Westerns, but occasionally also horror, or even war-stories. (Pssst, has anyone noticed that Aliens is actually a Western? Everyone thinks it’s an action movie, but it’s got the Red Injuns, the cocky cavalry detachment with the inexperienced leader and the experienced and knowledgeable civilians….)

Anyway, much to my surprise, Oblivion is a straight scifi movie, and it’s….good! It has a simple and unexceptional but solid plot, and it relies on its characters and worldbuilding to reveal that plot point by point and–crucially–twist by twist (there’s a reveal about halfway through that made me actually sit up and grin.) Now, at a certain point it largely gives up on the thoughtful, measured approach and leans hard into the by-golly-I-have-an-explodey-things-budget-and-I’m-gonna-use-it syndrome, but please note I said “leans” not “dives” and entirely omitted “headlong.” The second half of the movie had more than enough built-up good will to keep my attention, but the thing with scifi movies is that they should never try to explain themselves out loud. See a), above. This movie did very, very well when it showed its protagonist–and its audience–what was going on; it only started to fumble when it switched over to telling.

What is there to show, then? Well, Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, Tech-49, who with his communications officer/lover/partner Vika, are the last humans left on Earth after an absolutely devastating war with the alien Scavs that, among other things, destroyed the moon. Most of the human population is on Titan, and some of it is on the orbital space station, the Tet. They have been mind-wiped prior to their mission, because….

Jack maintains the drone fleet that protects the ocean-water-sucking thingies that are destroying what’s left of the earth for power. (Why not just mine some comets, asks no screenwriter ever.) There are still some remnant Scavs on Earth that attack the drones and the power platforms. Vika is his mission control and interface with Command. The two are an effective team, but there are still some conflicts. Jack has dreams of the future and thoughts of the past; Vika resolutely suppresses such things. Jack has a relaxed view of orders and is fully aware that Command has them on a very long leash; Vika has a much stronger belief in regulations.

And then, a signal beamed from Earth brings an ancient spacecraft back to ground….a spacecraft containing living human crewmembers. Living, that is, until Jack’s own drones destroy all but one of the sleep-pods, utterly ignoring his orders to stand down. The sole survivor is Julia, a woman who refuses to reveal anything more to Jack, Vika, or Command until she retrieves the flight recorder from her ship…and shows them the truth. At about this point, Morgan Freeman also enters the picture, and I do have to ask: if Earth is that destroyed, where’d his cigars come from?

And so it goes with the movie, having accumulated this many questions, starting to tip over into revealing the answers (except the one about the cigars.) And so it goes, with the one problem that it reveals rather too many answers and in rather too bald-face a manner for my views.

Other good stuff: the cinematography of this film is really good. Like, I watched it entirely on my phone and I was watching for those little triggering points that normally break my suspension of disbelief (s/a: mysterious, additional light sources when there should not be light sources), and I noticed how good it was. Apparently a chunk of the movie was filmed on location….in Iceland, lending a barren, surreal, beautiful backdrop that works very well indeed. The sets and designs are also very good. Tom Cruise does an expert job as the personable, handsome hero; Morgan Freeman, well, Morgan-Freemans his way through dialogue that is 99% exposition as only Morgan Freeman can or could. Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko are incredibly outmatched in this movie, talent-wise, which is a shame, but they do their best and, in Riseborough’s case, mostly match up to the challenge.

Okay so, although I’ve spent a long while in this review complaining about the movie when it shifts focus to the action, I will also state that the action scenes themselves are largely quite good….at first, when they don’t involve humans. The drones are an incredible threat / weapon / ally, and  it’s an annoying waste of potential that the movie ends up ultimately wimping out and choosing the cheap (explodey) way of making those bits be exciting. That being said, the cinematography still makes everything look good, the characterization makes them be tense and engaging, and, yeah, it’s pretty good.

Overall, I do think that the movie could have been better if it maintained a better balance between its initial, more thoughtful tone and the faster-paced finale (honestly, delete half the expository dialogue and you wouldn’t have to change another thing else), I still have to admit straight-up that, yeah, it’s pretty good.

Rated: Oh wow, you’re in luck, Julie. There’s two of them for you now!