Monday, August 31, 2009


I hate to disappoint anyone who may have been searching for Movie Monday (though considering I never get comments on Movie Mondays, I doubt anyone is actually disappointed), but it's on hiatus today. I have other things going on.

What other things?


A few years ago, I was writing a lot. Writing short stories and trying to get them published (and even succeeding a few times). Working on a Digger novel. Joining writing groups, both here at home and on-line. In the last couple of years, though, I've written very little. I didn't seem to be progressing, really, and working futilely on Hero Go Home to no success really took a lot of wind out of my sails. Throw in my marriage disintegrating and job stress and buying a house and buying and losing a business, and you have the ingredients for deep depression, not productivity.


Lately, I've been kicking something around. Something different from most of what I've done before. A novel, something short and definitely not sweet, something geared to a publisher like Hard Case Crime. I'm thinking about pounding it out fast, old-school, like Walter Gibson or somebody. Or new school NaNoWriMo, if you will, only not in November. I've got a few interesting characters, I think, with actual backstory (which has never been a strong suit for me), and I've got a very bare bones outline. I've got to fill in the third act better (I always say this, and never do it, but I'm doing it tonight), but I think I'm ready to start writing it tomorrow.

September First is the launch, and I want to have it finished by the 30th. I'm unemployed, so I've got the time. If I do get a job between now and September 30th, I'll cry all the way to the bank, but I'll still try to finish by the thirtieth.

So yesterday, I dug through some old manuscripts and found the first act of a novel I started in 2004 or so. I was just publishing Blue Falcon through iUniverse and looking toward my next book. That next book was going to be a big science fiction thriller titled Angel Baby.

The premise: a United Nations project to establish a grid of orbital power satellites is about to come on-line, providing free electricity to everyone everywhere in the world. It promises clean power, improving the environment as it improves the quality of people's lives. A new age of peace and prosperity.

But on the eve of the final satellite launch to bring the grid on-line, a woman working on the project, an atheist, has a vision of an angel. And the angel tells her that the global satellite grid will bring about the end of the world.


I wrote the first act fast, and then petered out. Even though I had an "outline" for the rest of the book, it wasn't very specific, and I found I was having trouble converting that outline into specific scenes. The biggest problem was that my outline of the second act basically jettisoned most of the characters from the first act, leaving me little material to work with.

I went back and reread that first act last night, and I've got to say, it has problems. There are sections that are very weak, where you can tell I'm faking the funk. Especially the exposition scenes where I'm trying to get out basic facts while also working in themes and distinctive character bits and foreshadowing and you can see the seams showing and none of it feels real or sincere.

But there are other scenes that work pretty well, and the plotting is actually pretty tight. Things work together, actions by one character push actions by another, and by the time I reached the end, I really wanted to see where the story went.

It gives me some confidence. I had lost that confidence in the wake of Blue Falcon, when I attempted three different novels, only to end up stymied on all three. This one will work out, I think.

Of course, I could be wrong. Ask me again in a month.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Out of the Vault- Battle to the Death #1

Okay, if you read the post about Castle and Joanne Kelly this past week, you know that I occasionally get caught up in runs of coincidence, or synchronicity, or call it what you will (maybe just selective noticing), but here's another example.

In last week's Vault, I talked about The Realm, featuring perhaps the first published work of penciller Guy Davis. After I published that entry, I became curious whether Davis had gone on to do anything else notable in comics and discovered that he is currently the artist on the Hellboy spin-off series B.P.R.D. I have some friends who are big Hellboy fans, so I thought that was cool.

So then this morning, I realized I needed a comic for this week's Vault. I went to the "B" box since it was open and started flipping through at random. And stumbled upon a long-forgotten title known as Battle to the Death, published in 1987 by Imperial Comics.

Battle to the Death, written by John Arcudi and drawn by Jim Rohn and Dave Harrison, starts out at a rock concert being held in Hiroshima, where a bunch of mohawked punks are head-banging to the band when suddenly a zombie walks out on stage. The band flees, but the crowd thinks it's just part of the show, until...

Well, that puts a damper on the party. More zombies converge, and the police evacuate the area and cordon off the arena. Meanwhile, police inspector Tanasa has dragged the band to headquarters, where he harangues them with this rather unique monologue (click the image for a larger version if you have trouble reading it)...

Police lieutenant Katsu tells Tanasa to lay off the band, because the real answers are to be found with the zombies. He heads down to the police cordon, where the zombies have broken out and are in pitched battle with the cops. The cops are losing badly, and Katsu is in mortal danger.

But it turns out Katsu has "friends in high places" and has brought help--a gang of ninjas. The ninjas battle the zombies for a while, but it becomes apparent that, though ninja are masters of killing, killing doesn't work on zombies since they're sorta already dead.

Katsu and ninja buddy Isho head back toward the arena, but cut through a graveyard, where they stumble upon a weird mausoleum guarded by zombies in cop uniforms. Turns out, this is the temple of the Flame of Life, which is what reanimated the zombies. Katsu and Isho battle a giant living idol in an attempt to snuff the flame. They succeed, and the zombies fall.

But their problems aren't over. For when they leave the temple, Katsu and Isho encounter Inspector Tanasa, leading a group of really big dudes with rayguns and weird helmets with bug antennae on them.


Battle to the Death ran for three issues, but I only have the first one. I don't think I so much chose not to buy subsequent issues as I just never saw them come out, because ninjas vs. zombies vs. aliens is my kind of book, even if it never went as far over the top as I would have liked. It was fun.

But I was talking about weird coincidences. So here's the thing: when I saw that Battle to the Death was written by John Arcudi, I thought, "Hmmm. I've heard of him. He's written other stuff I liked." So I looked him up.

Turns out, he wrote The Mask, the original comic which inspired the Jim Carrey movie (the comic was much darker and harder-edged, and I'd like to see them actually make that story someday). And he wrote Barb Wire, the comic which inspired the Pamela Anderson movie (no one's perfect, although any movie sporting that much cleavage is not entirely bad--at worst, you can turn the sound off and just look at cleavage).

And it turns out (although you've figured this out already, because I set it up several inches above) he's now the co-writer on B.P.R.D. Battle to the Death was one of his earliest published jobs, and I just stumbled across it this morning after just stumbling across one of the artist's earliest published jobs last week.

I don't know how this happens, but it does. Maybe Joanne Kelly is trying to tell me to read B.P.R.D.

Corinne Bohrer disbelieves.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Day Break

Back in late 2006, ABC made a risky decision concerning one of their breakout dramas--Lost. Lost was a complex show: intricately scripted, with a large cast, shot on location in Hawaii while taking place literally around the world, heavy on special effects. Episodes were produced slowly, which meant that shows rolled out sporadically during the first two seasons, with lots of reruns sparking lots of viewer complaints.

So ABC tried something new in the fall of 2006. They launched the third season of Lost with six new episodes before putting the show on hiatus, and replaced it with a new series, another twisty, complex drama that played games with time in which every passing detail might mean more within the overall picture than first appeared. The new series would run for 12 weeks (thirteen hours including the two-hour pilot) and present a self-contained, complete story: beginning, middle and end.

That series was Day Break.

After the two hour pilot aired, I have to admit, I was worried for my favorite show. The pilot was so good, taut and action-packed compared to the relatively slow-moving Lost, that I worried that it would suffer the same fate as Boston Legal, which went on a "temporary" hiatus to allow Grey's Anatomy to launch in its timeslot. But Grey's Anatomy was a hit, leaving Boston Legal in limbo until space could be cleared in the schedule to give it a lesser slot. I didn't want that to happen to Lost.

As it turned out, I didn't need to worry, because Day Break ended up getting canceled after 6 episodes. Which sucks, because it was an excellent show. Luckily, the entire series is available on-line at Hulu.

Day Break stars Taye Diggs as Detective Brett Hopper, a good cop who is framed for the murder of an assistant district attorney he has never met. The case against him is airtight, it seems: the gun was found in his closet with his prints on it, a shirt with the victim's blood was found at his girlfriend's place, and the victim's wife claims she saw Hopper do it. Hopper is interrogated, held without bail, and shipped to the county jail.

Then mysterious men break into his cell during the night and haul Hopper to a rock quarry, where an even more mysterious man shows Hopper a video of his girlfriend being shot. The man threatens Hopper's sister and her children if Hopper does not confess to the murder. "Just remember: for every decision, there's a consequence," says the mysterious figure, channelling the Ghost of Authorial Message. "Decision. Consequence."

And then Hopper awakes the next morning, in bed with his girlfriend. Only it is the same as the morning before. Same time on the clock. Same pigeon at the window. Same garbage truck outside. Same traffic report about a spilled truckload of diapers.

The entire day is the same, except that Hopper now moves through it differently, learning new things about the conspiracy that's trying to trap him. And as he moves through each new day, making new choices based on his new knowledge, he changes the world around him. He's in a web on interconnecting events, and whenever he pulls a string here, it causes a vibration there.

He tries confronting. He tries escaping. He tries surrender. Some choices have better consequences and some have worse, but all choices reset the next day.

Except that some don't. When he helps his partner resolve a personal crisis, she awakes next iteration feeling "different," ready to resolve her problem without Hopper's prodding. And Hopper is given hope that if the day can change, the day can end. He just has to untangle the knots tied around him and reach the truth.

At thirteen hours, I think the show probably goes a little too long. I mean, I understand that the economics of American television demand a minimum thirteen episode order, but it felt a little padded.

Then again, compared to the bloated, overstretched monstrosities that X-Files and Prison Break became, Day Break was a model of storytelling economy. The mystery was deep, and thankfully had nothing to do with evil corporate barons, or evil Republicans trying to stack the Supreme Court, or evil NSA agents. Yes, there are corrupt public officials and politicians, but they aren't transparent right-wing strawmen, so I was glad of that.

And the cast is excellent. Taye Diggs makes a compelling lead, determined and good-hearted, yet believeable in his flaws. The supporting cast also does excellent work, especially Adam Baldwin (always a favorite) as an Internal Affairs agent who was Hopper's former partner, and also Hopper's girlfriend's ex-husband. Clayton Rohner gets a good turn also, as a crazy street vagrant who may not be as crazy as he appears.

So if your favorite show is on hiatus, and you're looking for something to fill a few empty hours, give Day Break a try. It was a great show that never found the audience it deserved, but it's still there, waiting for you to watch. Just like the sun coming up every morning.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Castle and Incestuous Guest Stars

So I mentioned a while back that I'd started watching Warehouse 13 on SyFy. It's a fun show. Stars Eddie McClintock and Joanne Kelly have a nice chemistry, and Kelly handles the role of straight woman to McClintock's clown with grace. But she also sometimes has a grating quality, and there's a weird twist to her mouth that puts me off sometimes.

So then I started watching The Dresden Files, and there was this episode with this absolutely gorgeous female vampire named Bianca. Of course, I noticed early in that the lighting and make-up seemed designed to give her an unearthly sheen, almost glowing in every scene she's in, and I figured it was a subtle hint at vampire magic or something (that was really a pretty decent show). But there was something familiar about the twist to her mouth in certain scenes. I figured I had to have seen her before somewhere.

Yeah. Joanne Kelly again. But really hot this time.

Speaking of television, I decided to give Castle another shot. I caught one episode during its regular season, and I was underwhelmed. If you'd asked me yesterday what put me off about it, I couldn't put my finger on it, but something had rubbed me the wrong way about the show on the one episode I caught.

But I have friends who like it, so I thought I'd give it another chance. So I found it on Hulu and picked at random an episode titled "Always Buy Retail." I sat back determined to watch with an open mind.

And I can see why people might like it. Nathan Fillion, after all, is talented and charismatic, and has appeared on several fan favorites, like Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog. And the writing isn't completely horrible; there's some witty dialogue and stuff.

But as it turns out, it the episode I picked first was the one episode I'd seen before. The series premise: Castle is a mystery writer who follows NYPD detective Kate Beckett around, with the intention of using her as source material for his next book. This episode's plot: someone is killing people and performing voodoo rituals over their corpses in the attempt to find a mysterious something. And I remembered all the reasons I hadn't liked the show.

Reason the First: the dialogue is too cute, and the writers are too impressed with their own cuteness. Early on, Castle sleeps with his ex-wife, then immediately regrets it, and in relating his problems to Beckett and her partners, Exposition Detectives 1, 2, and 3 (hereinafter referred to as ED 01, ED 02, and ED 03), describes his ex-wife as a "deep-fried Twinkie," a guilty pleasure that's fantastic in limited doses, but sickening when indulged in every day. Witty, but not witty enough for them to keep repeating the damn catch-phrase throughout the rest of the episode.

Reason the Second: this being an ABC show, the PC is so thick, you'd need a machete to hack your way through. When they discover the first body, Castle mentions that it looks like a voodoo ritual. Only he pronounces it "voe-doo," because any good PC lib nowadays has got to use affected pronunciations of foreign terms to show how intellectually superior he is, like "Pokeestan" or "Hava(choke)ee."

And then just to show that the cops aren't conservative retards stuck in the 40's (and also to fullfill the EDs' roles), they don't respond with, "What, you mean 'voodoo'? The zombie thing?" No, one ED blinks stupidly and says, "What's that, some kind of Star Trek thing?" and another busts out with, "It's a religion practiced primarily in West Africa." And it goes on like that for the rest of the episode: normal white people who, one would assume, have seen a zombie movie or two, yet are completely ignorant of even the concept of voodoo, while their intellectual betters tell them how peaceful and spiritual the religion is and how it gets a bad rap in the media (media that these people never watch, apparently). Doesn't matter; the voodoo thing is a red herring anyway. It's all about drugs and forged documents and shit.

(ETA: Rereading this, I think I emphasize "white people" too much -- it's not so much that I'm racist as I'm tired of the fictional trope that people of color are so much more spiritually aware than us white goobs, so we must constantly be preached to and educated - it's condescending)

Reason the Third: EDs. They exist for no reason other than to ask stupid questions for the benefit of the audience and to be impressed by Castle's wit, which they then repeat endlessly throughout the rest of the show (okay, that's sort of going back to Reason the First, but I just got real tired of "deep-fried Twinkie" after a while).

Reason the Fourth: Castle is an idiot. He shows up mid-episode with a Kevlar vest which he has emplazoned with the word "WRITER" (to match the cops' vests which bear the term "POLICE"). Later, he brings a champagne bottle to a gunfight.

Reason the Fifth: As stupid as Castle is, he's smarter than the cops.

So anyway, I got bored later in the evening and tried another Castle episode, titled "Ghosts." Not as bad the first one, I've gotta say, although I saw the big twist coming from very early on. But here's the thing: at one point, Castle and Beckett run into another writer who has been interviewing the murder victim. And guess who plays the writer?

That's right, Joanne Kelly again. Three weeks ago, I'd never heard of this woman, now I can't get away from her. I think she's stalking me. Corinne Bohrer is concerned.

But seeing Joanne Kelly all over the place reminded me that Warehouse 13 has its own guest star problem. Eight episodes in, and they can't stop stunt-casting actors from their other shows. Stars of Eureka and (now cancelled) Stargate Atlantis have appeared already (and maybe someone else I can't remember) (ETA: A ha! Tricia Helfer from Battlestar Galactica also did an episode), and another Eureka star will appear on next week's episode.

I know this is a general condition of television, but for some reason it seems more pronounced with Warehouse 13 (though maybe only because I've run into the Joanne Kelly thing lately, plus the chick from Farscape on another episode of The Dresden Files- maybe they're all just running together in my head).

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Left Hand of Death

So about a year ago, while discussing Worldcon, I mentioned picking up a book on the recommendation of the extremely cute Erin Evans. The book I picked up was titled The Left Hand of Death by Parker DeWolf; the cover notes that it is Book 1 of The Lanternlight Files. It was described by Ms. Evans (IIRC) as a fantasy noir, sort of Raymond Chandler meets Dungeons and Dragons.

Well, if you remember August and September of last year, I was reading through the Worldcon stack at a pretty good clip and posting my impressions here. Then I got to the DeWolf book, and bogged down halfway through. I set it down and didn't pick it up again for almost a year.

So what was wrong? Well, part of it was surely just that I'd read too many books in too short a time and was ready for something different. But another, bigger part is that the book just didn't succeed as advertised.

I mean, sure, it has the requisite Chandleresque stock characters and plot coupons. Ulther Whitsun, the main character, is a fixer, the closest thing the D&D world has to a private eye, apparently. People hire him to solve problems, especially problems that take place in the grimy underworld. Oh yes, Whitsun is a hard-boiled bad-ass, all right.

And yes, there's a MacGuffin, and a shady dame who hires him to find it and almost leads him to ruin, and there's a fat man who's also searching for it, and a hit man, and a gunsel (or D&D equivalent) who's got eyes for the dame and is jealous of Ulther. Ulther's search takes him from the chambers of the rich and powerful to the lowliest den of thieves and runs him afoul of crooks and cops alike.

It's got the elements, all right. But the tone, the atmosphere, are still Dungeons and Dragons, and for me, Dungeons and Dragons is pretty watered down and juvenile as fantasy goes. I mean, if you want me to take your story seriously, you've got to do better than halfling thieves. Halfling thieves? I mean, seriously, come on.

So anyway, I finished it, so it didn't beat me. But I won't be searching for the further adventures.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Movie Monday - Operation Scorpio

Movie Monday continues with more kung fu madness. This week's feature is "Operation Scorpio" from 1991. And although this week's movie is not adapted from a comic, comics do play a part.

"Operation Scorpio" starts Chin Kar Lok as Yu Shu, an aspiring comic artist. He idles away his time in class doodling battles between kung fu masters and daydreaming about being a hero, or at least telling stories about them.

His aspirations receive a cold dose of reality when he rescues Mei, a pretty girl who is being sold into slavery as a prostitute. Unfortunately for him, when he tries to set her free, Mei decides to become his servant to express her gratitude. He hides her out in his father's house.

One night, Yu Shu goes to spy on the slavers. The gang is led by an old man in a wheelchair; his will is enforced by his son (known only as Sonny and played by Korean Won Jun Kim), a master fighter who uses an unusual scorpion style.

Watching from outside the window, Yu Shu sketches Sonny's various techniques with an eye toward using them in his comics someday. When Yu Shu then asks his father if he can study kung fu, his father tells him to be realistic and gets him a job at an old friend's noodle shop instead.

From there on, things get really complicated. Fleeing from the slaver's men, Yu Shu meets Jean Paul, a Chinese proto-bodybuilder who has studied abroad and adopted Western methods of diet and training (so instead of eating rice and practicing Chi Gung, he advocates eating meat and lifting barbells).

Yu Shu begins to live a double life with Mei's help, working in the noodle shop and training his strength with Jean Paul.

Of course, eventually his duplicity is discovered when it causes a disaster. Yu Shu is forbidden to train with Jean Paul anymore, which is when his noodle-making "uncle" (played by Hong Kong movie legend Lau Kar Leung) reveals that he is a kung fu master and has been training Yu Shu all along. Like the "wax on, wax off" scenes in "The Karate Kid," all the work Yu Shu has been doing lifting and tossing huge, burning-hot woks has been training his strength, toughness, and reflexes. His uncle also begins to teach him a special deceptive kicking technique that he says is even more powerful than the Scorpion Tactic. Yu Shu becomes so enthused by his training that he even studies live eels to develop his own personal Eel Technique.

Eventually Mei is discovered and captured again, and Yu Shu sets out to rescue her. Jean Paul battles Sonny, but is beaten. The Noodle Master then battles Sonny, and is on the verge of beating him when he is shot in the leg by Sonny's father. So it is all up to Yu Shu, who must combine Jean Paul's strength training, his uncle's Noodle Fu and Southern Shadowless Kick, and even Eel Style (which looks a bit like combat break dancing), coached by his uncle, who throws Yu Shu's comics pages into the air during hte fight, so that Yu Shu can see and anticipate Sonny's techniques.

It's amazing just how much of the free-for-all plot finally gets tied together in a final battle that lasts only a few minutes.

"Operation Scorpio" is the quintessential 90's kung fu movie. The furious fight scenes are bursting with wire work, which is obvious and unbelievable, but also dazzling if only because it's so crazy. The plot wanders all over the damn place, crams in all kinds of random shit, yet ties it all up and pays it off at the end. Compared to this whack-a-doo mess, an American film like "The Karate Kid" is a model of brutal simplicity.

Overall, I'd say "The Karate Kid" is a better film. But "Operation Scorpio" is way more fun, and given the choice on an average Friday, I'd much rather watch it again.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Out of the Vault - The Realm

Okay, I was planning to do Tony Wong's Oriental Heroes this week, but I'm a little kung fu'd out (although if you're desperate for a kung fu fix, come back for Movie Monday where kung fu is still the subject du jour). So instead, I decided to finally get around to covering The Realm.

I originally had planned to make this one of the very first Out of the Vault entries, but for some reason I couldn't get into it. The Realm was first published by Arrow Comics in 1986 as part of the big black-and-white wave of the mid-80's. The basic storyline, by writers Ralph Griffith and Stu Kerr, with art by Guy Davis and Tim Dzon, was simple and familiar:

Four college students, two guys and their girlfriends (Dom and Alex and Sandi and Marge), go on a trip to a cabin in the woods...

Where they find a mysterious book bound in human skin...

No, sorry, that's "Evil Dead."

Actually, they find a metal chest that promises some precious treasure inside. Yay!

But when they open it, they get zapped. Oh noes!

When they wake up, they are in a decrepit house deep in a mysterious forest, and Dom, the jock, has grown some massive muscles. When they walk outside, armored men on horseback ride up from out of nowhere, kidnap the ladies and knock out the guys.

When the guys come to, they are attacked by creepy goblin-type creatures. Dom beats up a couple of goblins while Alex fends off another with what seems to be magic. Then they are saved by a mysterious hooded archer who is revealed to be...

Silverfawn the Elf. And quicker than you can say, "Oh crap, it's yet another dude's D&D game written up as a comic book," they acquire more party members, including a dwarven fighter and a halfling thief. They manage to save Marge, who has manifested healing powers (cause every party needs a cleric), but Sandi is purchased from the slavers by the Big Bad, Mr. Mushroom Head.

Okay, his name is actually Darkoth, and that's actually a hat. Even though artist Guy Davis claims on his letters page profile that his main influence is Japanese animation, he also cites Nelvana animation as an influence. Therefore I think it's safe to say that Darkoth's look was inspired by Mok from "Rock & Rule," who shared Darkoth's big lips, jutting cheekbones and affinity for flamboyant headgear (although in Mok's case, it was poofy wigs).

Anyway, though it had a cliched concept and a shaky, amateurish start, The Realm actually developed over the first few issues into a decent adventure book. Though Guy Davis's art was sketchy, he matured quickly into a more confident storyteller. The first issue's layouts were actually by someone named Jim Miller, and they were a little blocky and dull. By issue two, Davis was apparently doing everything, and the layouts became much more vibrant.

Like so many independent books of the time, The Realm ended up jumping around from independent publisher to independent publisher. I stuck with the book for 11 issues. After issue 12, they moved from Arrow Comics to WeeBee Comics and then to Caliber. The first major arc ended with issue 15, after which the original creators left, and the series fllailed after that. Two different creative teams tried their hand (including current Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis doing penciling duties), but didn't last long. Another team had better success with the spin-off/reboot Legendlore, which lasted 17 issues.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Crappity Crap-Crap-Crap

I'm unemployed. I'm broke. I have bills due. I need new glasses, a chipped tooth repaired, and an oil change for my car. I have my microwave on my coffee table and my toaster oven next to my TV because the wiring in the back half of the house is shot. I need a job, and when I get that job, I have hundreds and thousands of dollars worth of things I need to spend that money on.

So why am I upset?

Because Champions Online launches in a couple of weeks. The preview videos look awesome, several steps up from City of Heroes. And they're offering a lifetime subscription for about $200 bucks, with all sorts of cool free swag to make your gaming experience more fun.

This is the last thing I need to spend my money on. But as a Champions gamer from way back, damn, I want this.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Movie Monday - Saviour of the Soul

So yeah, I was originally going to be going over superhero movies based on American comics. I will still get back to that eventually. But I realize that right now, it's more fun to hunt down obscure Hong Kong movies that intrigued me and maybe introduce them to an audience that might also find them interesting.

So today's movie is "Saviour of the Soul" from 1991, starring Andy Lau (apparently not the same person as Andrew Lau, who directed last week's featured movie), Aaron Kwok and Anita Mui (best known to American audiences for her roles in Jackie Chan's "Rumble in the Bronx" and "Legend of the Drunken Master" aka "Drunken Master II"). Once again, while I had large portions of this movie on VHS, I ended up reviewing the entire film on Youtube, from which I pulled the fuzzy scans. Sorry.

I first discovered this movie while channel-surfing in Korea on my second tour there. It was the craziest mish-mash I'd ever seen, part romance, part comedy, part kung fu action (with cartoonish moments). I taped about half of it, but as it was broadcasting on a Chinese language network with no subtitles, I had no idea who these people were or why they were fighting. I only knew that it was like nothing I'd ever seen before, almost like a live-action cartoon.

And through the miracle of the Internets, I find out that the movie is apparently based on a Japanese manga, although it's hard to determine which one (a review on Amazon says it's inspired by City Hunter, but if so, it's one of the loosest adaptations I've ever seen). I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given that one of the main characters looks as if he stepped right out of a Final Fantasy video game.

That's Aaron Kwok as the villainous Silver Fox. The film opens as Fox breaks his master Eagle out of the World's Weirdest Prison; he defeats dozens of machine-gun wielding guards with only his sword and a bullet-proof poncho. Eagle relates the story of how he was captured by a woman named May, a city cop/assassin(?) who blinded him with thrown knives. Eagle makes Fox swear revenge before dying.

Turns out, May works with a couple of guys named Chin (Andy Lau) and Koo (Kenny Bee), who are both in love with her. Koo has proposed, but May has been putting Koo off, hoping Chin will find the courage to declare his own feelings. Meanwhile, May's crazy sister (both roles are played by Anita Mui) tells her that Fox is coming for revenge, and that May should send both men away for their own protection until Fox is dealt with.

May rejects her sister's advice. Shortly thereafter, Fox kills Koo, but is forced to flee when May blinds him in one eye with a knife. May decides to protect Chin by telling him she has no feelings for him and was going to marry Koo. She then goes into hiding, leaving Chin to care for Koo's teenage sister.

A year later, May's sister (tired of Chin constantly questioning her as to May's whereabouts) tells Chin that May is posing as Pet Lady, who hides behind a mask and for whom a contest will be fought later that night. Chin heads off to the Pet Palace and fights for the hand of Pet Lady, who has legendary powers of healing. When he finally convinces her to unmask, he is disappointed to find she is not May.

Shortly thereafter, he realizes that May has been the reclusive tenant of the apartment across the alley from his, and manages to reach her just in time to save her from an attack by Fox, in an incredibly entertaining and ridiculous fight sequence.

But not before Fox manages to inflict a terrible curse on her. He inhales a special toxin named Terrible Angel, which causes his skin to go pale and his eye to turn blue.

The drug makes him temporarily super-strong and blazing hot. He can also turn immaterial, passing his body through that of another and transferring the effects of the drug to them. Apparently, if one is not adapted to it as Silver Fox is, the effects are more deleterious. May loses all her strength, and is told that in 24 hours, she will become a mind-controlled puppet of Fox. He will then have her kill Chin.

Chin takes May to a hospital, but they can do nothing. Desperate, he takes her to Pet Lady, but even though he accedes to her demand to crawl through broken glass, she refuses to help. Defeated, Chin takes May back to his apartment, where he tells her that he has turned on all the gas, which will ignite and kill them both when the 24 hours is over. They will never be parted again.

Which is of course the moment that Silver Fox chooses to make his final attack.

"Saviour of the Soul" is a strange beast, combining action, drama, romance, and broad comedy into one insane roller-coaster ride. The action is exciting, but also cartoonishly broad, with crazy weapons like a bullet that steals all the oxygen out of a room and a yo-yo that turns into a sword with a springy blade so flexible that it can wrap entirely around an opponent's head and sword before stabbing him in the eye.

Unfortunately, this is all accomplished on a horribly low-budget. So while the film occasionally features some breathtaking compositions (which highlight the romantic fantasy nature of the story)... also features some Batman tilt-a-cam shots, laughably fake CGI effects and other cheap shortcuts (as well as horrible translations in the subtitles). For instance, at one point, while under the effects of Terrible Angel, Fox gets caught in a mirror. For some shots, they used a decent split-screen effect...

But for quick action shots, they took the expedient method of just gluing a picture of Silver Fox to the mirror (it's much more obvious in motion than in this crappy scan):

So in the end, by American standards, "Saviour of the Soul" fails on almost every level. Its comedy is too broad, its drama too melo-, its epic moments compromised by cheap effects and an overstuffed plot. The movie is ultimately too cheap and uneven to convince anyone who doesn't already love Hong Kong Cinema that there is cool stuff waiting to be mined out there.

However, for people who are already familiar enough to overlook its shortcomings and love its considerable strengths, "Saviour of the Soul" is an absolutely unique,over-the-top experience. It's my kind of crazy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Out of the Vault - The One-Arm Swordsman

So I mentioned last week that before Jademan made its big U.S. debut in 1988, there had been another attempt at bringing Chinese Kung Fu comics into the U.S. market. That was Victory Comics with The One-Arm Swordsman in 1987.

One thing stands out right off. Like the Jademan Special with which Jademan launched their line of comics, The One-Arm Swordsman uses gold ink to give it the look of superior quality. Not only do they use it in the title on the front cover, but it is also used on the back cover to hype their upcoming second book, The Invincible Four of Kung Fu & Ninja. Sure the title may be crap, but look at that gold printing; that's the mark of quality, right there. Also like the Jademan books, a poster is included, as well as a mailing address where you can write for even more cool swag.

The story is pretty standard kung fu movie fare. Master Lui the Tiger calls himself "#1 in Kung Fu," and works hard to maintain that reputation. He has a wicked three-sectional staff technique: the middle section of his staff can split in two to form two nunchaku. We learn that his henchmen have robbed a convoy of a large shipment of silver, and have framed Chan Lam (a wandering hero nicknamed "The Invincible Broadswords") for the crime.

The traders in charge of the convoy confront Chan Lam, who denies the crime and fights off the traders' men. At that moment, Lui the Tiger steps in to see that justice is done (Lui's men have staged all of this so that Lui can kill Chan and eliminate a kung fu rival while still appearing righteous). Lui battles Chan, and the two seem evenly matched until Chan pins one section of Lui's three sectional staff to the ground with his foot.

Lui splits the middle section of his staff and pops out a hidden blade, with which he cuts off Chan's right arm. Chan flees and barely escapes with his life.

Years later, Chan is working as a simple laborer in a restaurant. He has learned to perform all his tasks with only one arm, which has developed outstanding strength and speed. When love interest Mei Ling is nearly raped by some local bandits, Chan tries to stop them, but refuses to fight, still shamed by his defeat of years past. That's when Wan Wei, "The Super Broadswords," arrives in town and saves the girl. He cuts off the bandits' ears and they flee.

Wan Wei is an old friend of Chan Lam and tries to convince him to take up kung fu again, and Mei Ling gives Chan Lam her father's sword so that he can protect himself. Meanwhile, the earless bandits report to their master (none other than Lui the Tiger) that Wan Wei is in town. Lui decides to frame Wan Wei so that he can kill him.

Chan Lam tries to warn Wan Wei that it is a trap, but his poor word choices don't get the message across.

Yes, his techniques are very mischievous, if by "mischievous," you mean he's going to cut your fucking arms off.

So Wan Wei confronts Lui the Tiger, and once again, after a frame-up and a well-matched duel, Lui splits his staff and stabs Wan Wei, proclaiming, "There is no need to consider whether the technique used is upright or not when dealing with an evil man."

When Chan Lam learns that Wan Wei has been killed by Lui, he decides enough is enough. Taking up the broadsword he received from Mei Ling, he goes batshit and kills everyone in Lui's household before confronting the old man himself. Lui's techniques are as devious and tricky as before, but he does not count on the incredible speed which Chan Lam has developed in his single remaining arm and so is defeated, which results in a spectacular death tantrum.

Once Lui is dead, Chan Lam can go back to a happy life with Mei Ling. But we are warned that trouble awaits in issue two. Unfortunately for Victory Comics, there was no issue two.

And it's fairly easy to see why. The story has the feel of a mid-70's Shaw Brothers film, but comics in 1987 had moved far beyond that level of storytelling. Both Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns had debuted the previous year, and their influence had hit the U.S. comics marketplace like a bomb. It's not surprising that a stiffly drawn, poorly-translated comic with skimpy color would not perform well.

Which is too bad, actually, because The One-Arm Swordsman is not horrible. The artwork is stiff and not as polished as the Jademan studio's offerings, but the action sequences play out almost like diagrams in a kung fu manual. The action is clear and believable. And the storyline is mostly simple and direct without the xenophobia or convoluted soap operatics of The Blood Sword or Oriental Heroes.

But yes, the translations are laughably awful. That's part of their charm, though. Only a man with a heart of stone can remain unmoved when Wan Wei, facing Lui's false accusations, responds with:

No, I wouldn't have bought any more issues had they printed them. But I actually enjoyed rereading this one more than I expected to.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Took Long Enough

Two years ago, I took part in a short story contest on Codex Writers Group. I received a character sketch as a story seed and set to work. I got maybe a third of the way through the story and gave up. I had the shape of it in my head, but it wasn't coalescing on the page.

I've tried several times in the intervening years to finish the story but it always refused to gel. Today, I finally finished the first draft, making it the first thing I've written in well over a year (blogs don't count). I didn't hit it out of the park. It was more like a sad bunt dribbling down the third base line, but at least I'm sort of back on the horse.

Speaking of horse, I realized that Hell's Kitchen is back on, so I watched the first three episodes on Hulu tonight. One of the chef-hopefuls was a guy named Tony (eliminated at the start of the third episode, sadly). But the thing with Tony is, in the opening credits (which have a circus sideshow theme), he is presented as a kind of donkey-centaur, with the signs behind him reading "Half-Man! Half-Donkey!"

There's a pun about being half-assed in there somewhere, but I'm too lazy to reach for it.

Corinne Bohrer's never too lazy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

D&D Nostalgia

A friend of mine posted on his blog recently about his introduction to role-playing games. He mentioned specifically that when he was first starting out, one of the books he used was "Blue Set D&D rules."

I'm guessing he meant this, which was the booklet for Basic D&D. I bought this one in the summer of 1980, as part of a boxed set which also included some really crappy dice. They were not made from high-impact plastic, so they shed little plastic flakes all over the place. This was made worse because, when I joined my first gaming group (the Wargames Club at the University of Southern California), I didn't know from dice bags and carried my dice in an empty Blue Diamond almond jar. The dice rolling around against the hard glass made them flake much faster than normal, plus they stank. Within a couple of months, I got rid of jar and dice.

That was an exciting time to game, because role-playing was new, so lots of people were experimenting crazily. True, there were a lot of games that hewed pretty closely to Dungeons and Dragons' basic design philosophy, like Starships and Spacemen from Fantasy Games Unlimited, which felt almost as if they'd taken the Basic D&D Rules and plugged in the word "alien" whenever "monster" showed up in the original. Stats and combat were basically the same. Similarly, the original Villains and Vigilantes (also from FGU) felt very similar to D&D.

But there were other games coming out that were entirely different. Runequest from Chaosium took a very different approach to the issue of levels and skills. Traveller from Game Designers' Workshop was an attempt at a hard science fiction game that held the distinction of being the only game (as far as I know) that would kill off your character before you'd even finished creating him (I bought the books, tried rolling up a character, and by my third death, decided not to play it ever again). In Champions from Hero Games, you purchased your character from points rather than rolling statistics randomly; this made character creation a pain in the ass, but it could also be fun if you liked numbers, tweaking stats for hours to get a character that was powerful enough to survive and matched the conception in your head as closely as possible.

There have been three major gaming periods in my life. At USC, I gamed for about four years with a rowdy group, one of whom I still keep in touch with (and I wish I could track down some of the others). Some time after I came back to Oklahoma, I started gaming at a comic book shop in Oklahoma City, where I ran a brief but memorable Champions game, and also introduced the folks there to the joys and terrors of Steve Jackson's Illuminati.

I tried joining a D&D group when I moved to Tulsa, but it sucked; they handed me a pre-gen NPC, since they were in the middle of an adventure. The group was 4 thieves and a mage, and in the adventure, we were detectives searching for a stolen shipment of textiles. Seriously, it was dull as hell.

So I didn't game (other than occasional sit-ins here and there) for 20 years, until joining a group of friends here in Tulsa last year. Now gaming is fun again, although not as crazy exciting as it was almost 30 years ago, when the world was new, and bird and beast and flower were one with man, and death was but a dream. Also when there were a million new games with more every day, and we were itching to try them all, from Runequest (fantasy) to Bushido (feudal Japanese fantasy) to Boot Hill (Wild West) to Paranoia (sci-fi comedy) to The Morrow Project (post-apocalyptic doom).

Monday, August 10, 2009

Movie Monday - A Man Called Hero

So I figured I'd start doing the same thing with movies that I've been doing with Out of the Vault, which is looking back at old movies, doing sort of half-review, half-nostalgia. My initial plan was to concentrate mainly on superhero movies adapted from comic books, so of course, my lead-off for the official feature is a kung fu movie, 1999's "A Man Called Hero," directed by Andrew Lau and starring Ekin Cheng.

But it is based on a comic book; in fact, the same comic I talked about in Saturday's Out of the Vault: The Blood Sword, known in China as Chinese Hero (sorry about the poor quality of the framegrabs--I don't have this movie on DVD, only VHS, so I grabbed frames off of Youtube, with the expected crappy quality).

The movie opens in 1914, in the village where young Hero Hwa lives. He is excited, because he is due to try out to become the disciple of martial arts master Pride. Before he leaves, his mother gives him her prized possession, the family heirloom Red Sword. Hero goes off to perform a sword form for Master Pride and his chief disciple, Shadow. The master tells Hero that he will accept him as his student, and that when he returns from an errand in Japan, he will teach Hero the ultimate sword technique known as China Secret.

Hero runs home, bursting with pride, but discovers that his parents have been killed while he was gone. His father was a reporter who opposed the opium trade, and the foreigners dealing in opium have killed him in retaliation. Hero uses the Red Sword to take revenge on his parents' murderers, then hides out in the home of his girlfriend, Jade. In a scene that is lifted straight from the comic, their shoes keep each other company on the floor while they (apparently) knock boots.

The next morning, Hero takes passage on a ship taking coolies to America, while Jade and Hero's friend Sheng cry on the dock.

Sixteen years later, in 1930, Sheng arrives in New York with a sixteen-year-old boy named Sword. Sword is Hero's son, conceived on the night of the shoes (I'm not sure why they land in New York rather than say, San Francisco other than setting up the climax--in this movie, all Chinese coming to America come straight to New York). Sheng and Sword go to China House, a hotel for Chinese immigrants, and ask if anyone knows Hero.

Over the course of the rest of the movie, we see in flashback from several witnesses how Hero battled slavers while working as conscripted labor in a mine, how he was rescued by Shadow (Master Pride's senior disciple), how Jade found Hero in New York before the birth of their child, how Shadow and Hero fought ninjas seeking their master Pride, how Jade died giving birth to twins (a boy and a girl) and how the twins were separated shortly after birth. Sword went to China with Sheng, and the daughter was kidnapped by an enemy. We learn how a fortuneteller told Hero he was born under the Star of Death and everyone around him was doomed to die, after which Master Pride finally taught him the China Secret (just before he died as a result of wounds suffered in a duel with rival master Invincible from Japan). No one has heard from him in the years since.

Just as Sword is thinking he will never meet his father, Hero shows up. Sword is happy to finally meet his father, but Hero is distant, explaining that they can never be close because of his curse. Now that Hero has returned, the folks at China House decide to free the coolies enslaved at Steel Bull Canyon (the mine from which Hero escaped 16 years before, and which is run by the man who kidnapped Hero's infant daughter). The Chinese storm the camp and free the slaves, but the secret of Hero's daughter dies with the boss.

Soon afterward, Invincible shows up in New York, determined to duel Hero. Hero and Invincible battle on and around the Statue of Liberty, cutting it to pieces in the process, before Hero kills Invincible with the China Secret technique he has spent 16 years perfecting.

"A Man Called Hero" is an odd movie. Like many Chinese films, it tries to be a lot of things at once--generational saga, romance, action film--and it falls short in all of them. But it does have pretty high production values for a Hong Kong picture, although the CGI used for process shots and to depict incredible martial arts superpowers looks horribly primitive now. And there are some breathtaking shots, although choppy editing, especially in the Statue of Liberty climax, blunts the impact of those incredible images.

The movie tries too hard to cram years' worth of comics storylines into two hours of running time; the story alternately lurches and drags, and some major characters get short shrift. Big Bad Invincinble, for instance, only appears in one brief scene in the last third of the film before he comes back for the big climax. Likewise, the gang of ninja who cause so much trouble appear out of nowhere almost halfway into the film and disappear just as quickly once their little bit of the adventure is over, with one exception. That exception is the female ninja played by Shu Qi, who went on to play Lai in "The Transporter."

Wow. You can see why they came up with an excuse to give her an extra scene.

So anyway, to sum up: "A Man Called Hero" is about a man associated with the Star of Death, or "Death Star," if you will, who has incredible fighting abilities and uses a glowing red sword that can cut through anything. His wife died giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl, who grew up without any contact with their father or each other, until the boy was a teenager.

Sounds familiar...