The Crocodile’s Last Embrace, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

This sixth installment in Arruda’s outstanding series has much in common, in terms of style and other characteristics, with the preceding five. We pick up here in February 1921, and our setting is the familiar one of Nairobi and its environs; all or most of the supporting cast we’ve come to like are here, as well as Jade herself.

Early on in the story, Jade becomes an inadvertent witness to a clandestine body disposal (Inspector Finch once wryly commented that she “attracts corpses,” and that’s running true to form here!), and other deaths will follow, seeming to be connected with a mysterious purported gold mining operation in the northern reaches of the colony. Intertwined with these events is the menace of a huge, man-eating piebald crocodile, whose depredations along the Athi River are a concern to both the Kikuyu natives and the authorities. More than one concealed identity factors into the situation, and as usual there is a soupcon of traditional African supernatural belief flavoring the mix. The setting continues to be strongly evoked.

It can be said, though, that this is one of the better constructed and more challenging mysteries in the series. Based on my knowledge of how Arruda writes, I was smugly certain that I had identified one of the principal villains as soon as the character was introduced. But I couldn’t have been more wrong; and I had no clue about the other one, either. I did see through one concealed identity, but otherwise, Arruda does a masterful job here of hiding her clues in plain sight And the final chapters before the wrap-up are a tour de force of excitement and suspenseful tension as the author maneuvers various characters into position for a climactic confrontation that doesn’t disappoint.

More than most entries in the series, too, this one is no running in place operation in terms of an overall story arc; this volume will bring significant changes to Jade’s life. Indeed, there are some indications that this (so far) penultimate entry may originally have been intended as the series finale. (All six of the first books were published by Big Publishing, and no more than a year apart. The seventh book was self-published, and only after a five year gap.)

As always, I would recommend reading the series in order, rather than trying to start with this book. It would lose a lot without the built-up familiarity with the characters and their history in relation to each other. But series fans won’t be disappointed in any respect!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: Berkley, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Hundra

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“Blonde barbarians have more fun.”

hundraDirector Cimber seems always to have had an interest in the action-heroine genre, having previously directed Lady Cocoa, he’d go on to do Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold , also starring Landon, and work on Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. But this was likely his best work, a rather inspired Conan knock-off, which both predates and is significantly better than Red Sonja.

The titular heroine (Landon) is left virtually the last of her all-female tribe, after everyone else is slaughtered while she’s out hunting or something. Initially intent on getting revenge, the tribal shaman, Chrysula, then insists Hundra’s more important task is to find a man appropriate to start the job of repopulating them. But our barbarian queen quickly finds out that most men are, indeed, dicks, and not in the sense she hoped either. The remainder of the film is mostly about the task of trying to locate someone worthy of being the father of her child, while also bringing a feminist consciousness to other women, who tend not to be anywhere near as liberated as Hundra.

It certainly starts impressively, with both the massacre and the resulting revenge-based chase (in which the hunters become the hunted), being well-staged and brutally effective. Landon could probably do with some more muscles, particularly in her arms; when she’s clashing blades with guys twice her size, it isn’t entirely convincing, but she largely makes up for that with a fierce personality. After that barn-storming start, the pace does slacken considerably in the middle too, as Hundra goes into “hormonal clock overtime” mode, eventually deciding that Pateray (Oliveros) has the seed worthy of her loins. However, he insists she must first learn how to be a lady, a rather odd concept for the genre – what is this, My Fair Barbarian? However, a strong score from legendary composer Ennio Morricone helps things tick over until the action quotient ramps up again in time for Hundra to pop out the necessary rug-rat and pick up her sword once more.

I believe the producers purchased some of the left-over costumes and props from Conan, which makes sense since the story here is also largely recycling its plot as well. Admittedly, it does so with a significantly enhanced feminist agenda, although this consists as much of portraying men as nothing but mindless boors as anything uplifting. Landon apparently did almost all her own action, and has to be commended for that; credit also Hundra’s dog, who succeeds in out-acting and being more sympathetic than most of the men present. You’ll believe a canine can ride a horse… While I’d be hard-pushed to claim this is great overall, and the inconsistency of tone is occasionally very jarring, there are enough aspects and elements which work, to make this an interesting, generally entertaining watch.

Dir: Matt Cimber
Star: Laurene Landon, John Ghaffari, Marisa Casel, Ramiro Oliveros

The Assignment

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“(Gender) Identity crisis”

I’m a big fan of any film with an outrageous premise, and this one certainly delivers. Mob hitman Frank Kitchen (Rodriguez) carries out his latest job with no qualms, killing a debtor. What he doesn’t realize is, the victim’s sister is a talented but EXTREMELY twisted surgeon, Dr. Rachel Jane (Weaver). She vows to take revenge on Frank by removing what she feels matters most to him: his masculinity. Kitchen is knocked out, kidnapped, and wakes up in a seedy hotel room, to find herself in possession of a couple of things she didn’t have before, and missing something she used to have. But gender reassignment does not make the (wo)man, and an extremely pissed-off Frank vows revenge of her own, both on Jane and Honest John Hartunian (LaPaglia), the former employer who betrayed Kitchen.

Said director Hill, “Is it lurid? Yes. Is it lowbrow? Well, maybe. Is it offensive? No. I’m just trying to honor the B movies that we grew up with.” Maybe he needed to take that actual step and actually be offensive. For I guarantee you, something like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS clearly did not give a damn about anyone who took offense at the concept, and was all the better for it. The only time this succeeds in provoking similar feelings of “What is this and why am I watching it?”, is when we get to see Rodriguez come out of the shower as male Frank, sporting a prosthetic penis.

The issue here is not the concept: if you have an issue with it, the solution is simple enough. Don’t watch. It’s fiction. It’s not intended to be an accurate portrayal of gender reassignment surgery, any more than Face Off was a documentary about facial reconstruction. I’m more amused by the reactions of people who can’t distinguish reality from cinema, asking questions like “Why is gender reassignment being depicted as a cruel punishment?” The answer is blindingly obvious: because it results in someone trapped in a body that’s the wrong sex for them. I would have thought the trans community might empathize with that. Apparently not.

No, the problem is… It’s not actually a very good film. It’s told mostly in flashback, Dr. Jane telling her story in a straitjacket to a psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Galen (Shalhoub), and this helps leads to a muddled and confusing structure, when a straightforward linear narrative would likely have served the story better. The action scenes are also almost perfunctory: I’d have expected a lot better from the man who gave us an all-time classic in The Warriors. Mind you, that was a long time ago [though the script which formed the basis for this, also dates back to the seventies], and he hasn’t done anything of note since – pauses to check Wikipedia – uh… Last Man Standing, maybe? That was 1996. I saw it in a Dublin cinema, and fell asleep. Though that might have been the Guinness.

It may also have been a misstep (cisstep?) to have Rodriguez play both halves of Kitchen. She’s fine on the female side, delivering her usual tough attitude, entirely befitting the project’s original title, Tomboy. But she’s less than convincing as an “actual” man, looking more like Captain Jack Sparrow after a metrosexual makeover. I did like Weaver, delivering a mix of coolness and taut insanity that is interesting and unsettling to watch. However, the negatives outweigh the positives, and we’re left with a film that’s difficult to defend, purely on an artistic level. It is, however, the first time I’ve ever been uncertain whether a film should be included here, due to uncertainty over the “heroine” part of “action heroine”…

Dir: Walter Hill
Star: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia

Pale Queen Rising by A.R. Kahler

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

Claire is the official “court assassin” to Mab, who is the Winter Faerie Queen. Her realm lies in a world parallel to ours, but separate from it, and inhabited by a slew of creatures we humans know only from myth, who can travel back and forth to the mortal world. Mab traffics in “Dream”, which is somewhere between a food, a drug and currency for her citizens, and the product of human emotions, particularly in group settings such as concerts or other shows. However, someone is muscling in on her turf, with the intent of controlling the Dream, and she unleashes Claire to track down the culprit, who turns out to be the ‘Pale Queen’ of the title.

Claire is actually human: she was taken as a child, replaced by a changeling, and brought up by Mab in a palace of ice, not even knowing her real last name. But she’s more used to tasks that require blunt application of force, and is increasingly troubled as her investigation brings her past back out of the shadows – in particular, the apparent involvement of her biological mother with the Immortal Circus, which seems to serve as a front for the illicit trade. There’s also Roxie, a mortal singer who has signed a contract giving her the fame she seeks, in exchange for being a conduit through which Dream can be harvested – and to whose allure Claire is not immune.

Takes a little bit for the situation here to become clear. It wasn’t until a good way in that I figured out the details of what “Dream” was; since this is kinda important to the plot, it should likely have been laid out from the get-go. For an assassin, it has to be said, Claire really doesn’t do much assassin-ing in this volume and that, too, needed to be more effectively established. Anyone can proclaiming themselves an assassin. She does have some moderately bad-ass magical skills, and solid hand-to-hand combat talents, and she needs both of these, as well as help from her own allies, when going up against the Pale Queen’s minions, who have abilities of their own. More likely needed, however.

The heroine has a nicely sarcastic approach to life that is endearing, and Kahler has crafted a world with plenty of potential. However, it feels like a lot of that potential was left dangling. For instance, early on, Claire says, “Monsters can come from anywhere with a flat surface.” At least in this book, that intriguing premise is left unexplored. Most of the time, too, Claire is apparently meandering round in the human world, only popping back occasionally to the, likely more interesting, faerie realm. It may be the case that this works better if you’ve read the author’s previous series, which focuses on the Immortal Circus. As a standalone, however, this is no more than alright, and ends in the unsatisfactory “buy the second volume” way, which I’m increasingly discovering appears to be a thing with e-books.

Author: A.R. Kahler
Publisher: 47North, available through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

Hunted

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“A four-episode story stretched over eight episodes.”

Sam Hunter (George) is an agent for a private intelligence agency, Byzantium. While on a mission in Morocco, she is shot and nearly killed, so opts to go off-grid for a year. She returns to her job, and is assigned the highly risky task of infiltrating a criminal family, who are one of the bidders on a lucrative Pakistani dam project. However, that may not be the biggest threat to Sam’s life, as she knows whoever was behind the attempt in Morocco may well try again, now she has come back out of the shadows. There’s also the question of her own past, involving a dead mother and some severely repressed memories.

Originally pitched as a vehicle for Gillian Anderson – creator Spotnitz was a head writer on The X-Files – the main problem here is likely a structure which demands a second season the show never received. This seems to have come as a surprise to the creators, since they had put together a writing team and planned out storylines. Then, the show was abruptly not renewed, in response to sagging British ratings (the series lost 30% of its viewers over the eight-week run). Even after the BBC pulled the plug, there were hopes Cinemax would continue the show, as it had sustained its audience much better in the US. Those failed to come to fruition either, and the story of Sam Hunter is left frustratingly incomplete.

It’s a shame, because the start and end of the first series had a great deal of promise. Hunter is quickly positioned as someone who is equally competent in both brains and brawn, with the action scenes here being impressively hard-hitting. George carries herself well, with a terse approach to combat that stresses efficiency over flamboyance. The main plot thread here, concerning corruption at the intersection between big business and high level government, is also well considered and not implausible. Kudos also to Patrick Malahide, as crime boss Jack Turner, who projects the right degree of barely-restrained malice, and also Spotnitz, for giving him a better motive than TV villains usually receive.

The problem is the middle episodes, where the show meanders off in half-baked directions likely intended for exploration in the second series that never happened. There are major segments concerning an even more shadowy conspiracy, named “Hourglass,” as well as a creepy-looking dude who takes over the identity of a scientist, and who has a fondness for jabbing syringes into people’s eyeballs. None of this ever comes anywhere close to being resolved, any more than the safe-deposit box key Sam is handed in the final episode. True, it’s not the creators’ fault the show was canceled. However, until the ink is dry on the contract for renewal, it’s probably a good idea to act as if every series will be your last. Otherwise, you run the risk of ending up with something like this, an infuriating mix of well-crafted elements, thrown away on a bunch of loose ends.

Creator: Frank Spotnitz
Star: Melissa George, Adam Rayner, Stephen Dillane, Stephen Campbell Moore

Black Widows

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“Bland misandry masquerading as female empowerment.”

Three women friends – Darcy (Elizabeth), Nora (Graham) and Olivia (Kocee) – are all having shitty luck with their relationships. Olivia is in the middle of an ugly divorce from Adam. Nora’s boyfriend Ryan is a control freak. And while Darcy’s new friend Blair (Brown) initially seems fine, he turns out to be the worst of them all. After he refuses to take no for an answer, the trio decide revenge is a dish best served naked in the middle of the desert. Unfortunately for him, Blair ends up lacking a pulse. Unfortunately for the film, it takes forever to get to this point, and for the vast majority of its running-time the promised “dark comedy” is neither dark nor comedic.

The writer of this was a date-rape victim herself, and it pains me to say so, but this might be the problem. According to the director, “This was an opportunity for her to wrestle with her demons.” It would probably have been better if she’d gone to therapy, written bad poetry or anything, rather than trying to turn those demons into a movie – especially one apparently trying to occupy any subgenre of comedy. For what comes over here is a relentless, bitter tone of (probably understandable, I will admit, given the writer’s history) distrust and loathing of the opposite sex, which permeates every scene of the film to such an extent that any potential humour is strangled. You can’t even call it dark, it’s closer to… jaundiced.

If the film had started with the three women standing over Blair’s body, and gone forward from there, it might have worked. For the trio have a cheerfully apathetic approach to the escalating mayhem, and there finally is dark comedy present, in the way they bicker about trivia like getting blood on their shoes. However, it is the very definition of “too little, too late,” and any interest and attention was already pushing up the daisies by this point.

As an aside – and because I’ve otherwise run out of things to say about this almost entirely forgettable item – I’ve been around the IMDb long enough to know a page stuffed with fake reviews. The obvious giveaway is when the glowing reports are almost entirely from people with precisely one review to their name. That’s what we find here, almost two-third of all write-ups being dated the week beginning August 9, the week of its release. Those 16 authors have reviewed a total of three films: this one 16 times, and two others, none more recently than 2012. At best, there was an email blast from the director to her mates, begging for reviews. At worst, paid astroturfing (though I doubt the budget went that far). It’s all painfully obvious, because it’s almost impossible to see how anyone other than a shill could have genuinely liked this mess.

Dir: Venita Ozols-Graham
Star: Brigitte Graham, Shelby Kocee, Jordan Elizabeth, Jake Brown

The Collection, by Lance Charnes

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Lance Charnes and I are Goodreads friends, having “met” (electronically) a few years ago through the Action Heroine Fans group. Some time ago, I bought a copy of his outstanding debut novel, Doha 12, and it got five stars from me. This new novel, the opener for a projected series, didn’t come to me as an official review copy –instead, Lance generously donated a print copy to the library where I work– but he knew I would read and review it, and knew my tastes well enough to be pretty sure I’d like it. Of course, we both understood that he might be wrong –but he wasn’t! For much of my reading experience, I expected to rate the book four stars –a denouement and conclusion that blew me to pieces and then knit me back together easily pushed it up to five stars.

Being his Goodreads friend, I try to keep abreast of Lance’s book reviews, so I know firsthand how well read he is in the whole area of the contemporary fine arts market, and particularly of its increasingly seedy underbelly. In real life, art by big-name artists can command staggering prices, and in the last 15-20 years it’s come to be a major commodity in the world of big-time international money laundering and shady commercial exchanges where cash transfers come too easily to the attention of authorities. And a lot of art that’s traded this way may be stolen, or forged.

Rich collectors with an enthusiasm for art aren’t the only players any more; we’re dealing with crime syndicates, corrupt and despotic governments and their officials, and billionaires looking for ways to cheat the tax authorities, and violence and murder may be aspects of normal business operations for some of these people. Lance sets this novel in that milieu, and he and his protagonist Matt Friedrich know it like the back of their hand. The author is also well-traveled; he sets his tale mostly in Europe, and principally Milan, and brings the locale to life with an assurance and level of detail which suggests he’s actually been there, or researched it a LOT online.

This is crime fiction more than traditional mystery; and as in his debut novel, Lance uses the knowledge of skulduggery, weapons, and high-technology snooping gained as a military intelligence officer to good advantage. The plotting is taut (first-person, present-tense narration is used for maximum immediacy) and the pace brisk, with a steady dose of dangerous situations and life-threatening tension. Matt’s crafty scheming sometimes takes the reader by surprise, and he’s sometime majorly taken for surprise himself, along with the reader. Action scenes aren’t frequent, but you never know when they could erupt, and when they do they’re well depicted. I’ve used the term “thriller” for this book, and that’s one I seldom use; I don’t seek out books that bill themselves that way, because I think the plotting is usually so cliched and stereotyped that it fails to thrill. This one doesn’t fail.

I’ve also used the term “gritty.” As described above, the moral world of this novel is a dark one where people are generally guided by the most selfish and cynical of motives, where the law is typically powerless to do much, and where innocent people are hurt as a by-product of what some of the characters routinely do. The DeWitt so-called “Agency” is a morally ambiguous enterprise that works for the highest bidder, and our narrator is an ex-con who was once involved in crooked art deals, and is now so crushed under a mountain of legal debts that he’s willing to violate his parole by working for said agency if it gives him a shot at paying it down.

And yet this is a surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly, given the moral vision that animates the author’s earlier novel) moral work of fiction, with a main character who’s learned something about life and ethics from his time in prison, and who wants to become a human being that he can look in the mirror and respect. He’s going to encounter challenges and decisions here that will put that resolve to the test. Both Matt and Carson (the female operative he’s paired with –who provides the team’s muscles and fighting skill when it’s needed) are intensely vital, round, realistic characters with a credible pattern of interactions that doesn’t stay static, but develops believably. Unlike some writers of this type of fiction, Lance understands that characters you care about are the only thing that can truly provide it with its heart, and he gives character development and relationships their due. There’s a lot that I can’t tell you because I’m determined to avoid spoilers; but I can say that this is where the book really earns its stars. (The principal supporting characters are masterfully drawn as well.)

You don’t have to be familiar with the world of the contemporary art market to enjoy this book (I’m not, at all); the author explains everything you have to know, and he does it easily and smoothly, in small doses with no info-dumps. None of the discussion is detailed enough to be boring. He uses enough physical description to let you visualize scenes, but not, IMO, too much; the same with technological exposition. (At one point, I didn’t really understand what one of the villains was trying to gain by his conduct; but the narrative drive carried me through without asking questions.) f you’re any kind of fan of crime fiction thrillers in a contemporary setting, and my review intrigues you rather than turning you away, I’d say this is definitely worth your checking out. I’m certainly going to be following the series; and I’m now even more anxious to read the author’s South, sooner rather than later!

Matt’s very sensible to feminine charms (he hasn’t been out of prison very long), but there’s no sex here, and Matt actually refrains from taking sexual advantage of one young woman. Violence isn’t any more frequent or graphic than it needs to be. As for bad language, not all of the characters swear, but some do, including Matt; Carson and one of the villains have the worst mouths (including the f-word as regular vocabulary). I never felt that the author was trying to mainstream that kind of thing, nor push the envelope with it.

Author: Lance Charnes
Publisher: Wombat Group Media, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Red Sonja: Queen of Plagues

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“A not-so-animated feature”

The rating here is largely based on my (I’d say, not unreasonable) expectation going in, that this would be actual animation. It isn’t. This appears to be, what I’ve since learned is called, a “motion comic”: think of it more as an illustrated radio play, with voice actors playing the parts in front of somewhat animated panels. And when I say, “somewhat”, I mean there is typically no more than one thing moving on them e.g. a character’s mouth. I can see comics for which this approach would work; unfortunately, a heavily action-oriented story such as Red Sonja is not among them.

It’s a shame, as the story and voice acting are both quite well-done. Sonja (Lee) and another prisoner are rescued by King Dimath, from a dungeon where they had been forced to fight other captives for the amusement of their captors. Years later, Dimath sends Sonja a call for help. His kingdom has fallen prey to a plague, and a horde is about to sweep through it, intent on salting the earth to prevent the disease spreading. And, wouldn’t you know it, commanding that horde is Annisia (Strom) – who just so happens to be Sonja’s co-captive from her time in the dungeon. Her experiences have pushed her into quite a different psychological path, shall we say.

It reminds me more than a little of the Xena: Warrior Princess arc which pitted Xena against her own blonde nemesis from the past, Callisto. That’s not a bad thing, and there’s no shortage of strong female characters, such as the bow-wielding bodyguards Dimath dispatches to stand alongside Sonja. Admittedly, they are more used to taking out rabbits – which may or may not be a Holy Grail reference. Yet what they lack in combat experience, they more than make for in the effusive complimentary terms by which they address Sonja, e.g. “your radiant ladyship,” “majestic blade mistress,” “our glorious sword princess” or even “she of the excellent cleavage”!

Lee certainly gives it her all, and so do the rest of the cast. It’s just that this needs a far greater range of motion than it gets here. These should be epic battle scenes, drenched wall-to-wall in blood and flying body parts – not still panels, with maybe an arm holding a sword moving slowly across the frame. If this had been the full-on animated feature I was expecting, all the other pieces are in place for it to have surpassed, by far, the woeful Brigitte Neilsen movie. It’s a damn shame the approach taken, instead robs all these aspects of their vitality and energy. What you’re left with falls short of reading the comic, because you have someone else turning the pages.

It’s barely an adequate place-holder for the proposed live-action version. That feature has been circling development hell since it was announced in 2008, with names as diverse as Rose McGowan, Megan Fox and Amber Heard linked to it. Last I heard was Feb 2015, when a new writer came on board. At this point, I’m certainly not holding my breath…

Dir: Gail Simone
Star (voice): Misty Lee, Becca Strom, Shannon Kingston, Tyler Nicol

Wonder Woman

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“Slightly short of a wonder.”

I’m not an enormous fan of either the Marvel or DC Cinematic Universes. Superhero films tend to bore me: the concept in general seems like lazy writing, and nor can I handle the subsequent contortions needed to generate a credible threat e.g. Kryptonite. The Dark Knight is the only film from either stable that I actually possess, mostly due to Heath Ledger’s incredible performance. The others I’ve seen, from Iron Man through to Suicide Squad, have been no better than popcorn pleasantries, without much to offer in the way of emotional heart. That’s the biggest improvement Wonder Woman offers: a heroine who, as personified by Gal Gadot, cares – indeed, perhaps too much. And through her passion, she makes the audience care.

There’s one scene which particularly demonstrates this. Diana (no-one ever calls her by the WW label here) has just arrived at the front in 1918 Belgium, and is experiencing the hell of modern war for the first time. She is horrified by the suffering of the civilians and refuses to accept the explanations of her partner, US Captain Steve Trevor (Pine) about why nothing can be done. She won’t accept it, and goes over the top on her own, leading by selfless example, to rescue people she’s never even seen. It’s true heroism, and the intensity of Gadot’s performance – with a nod to Pine for the set-up – gives it a wallop that in terms of sheer emotion, surpasses almost anything else delivered by Marvel or DC to date.

To reach that point, however, takes quite a lengthy set-up. We begin with the adorable young Diana, watching the other Amazons training on Themyscira, imitating their kicks and punches in a way a million 8-year-olds were likely doing on the way home from the cinema this weekend. Despite her mother’s wishes, Diana is trained and becomes the Amazons’ top warrior, just in time for Steve to show up, hotly pursued by the Germans. This is because he has stolen documentation of a rogue chemical warfare program, run by Doctor Isabel Maru and General Ludendorff (Huston). After helping fend off the Germans, at considerable cost, Diana agrees to go into the world at large, because she believes the Greek god of war, Ares, is behind the program. She’s not ready for the world. And nor is the world ready for Diana…

The positives here greatly outnumber the negatives, starting with the cast, who are almost universally spot-on. Gadot may not be muscular enough for some as an Amazon goddess, but I can honestly say, that was an issue which never crossed my mind during the (perhaps a little long) 141-min running time. Any possible shortcomings physically, are perfectly well-covered by the intensity and dedication of her performance. Pine, too, is excellent: he grounds the film, acting as the audience’s voice and offering up much the same comments as we would. There is romantic tension between Steve and Diana, yet it’s lightly enough handled not to interfere. The supporting cast…well, they provide solid support, led admirably by Etta Davis as Steve’s secretary. My main qualm might be Huston, who isn’t the supervillain every good superhero(ine) needs: he’s no Heath Ledger, put it that way. Dr. Maru might have made for a better antagonist, though the script has other intentions for her.

Technically, it’s good, rather than great. Jenkins does occasionally succumb to the fast-cut style of editing, and some of the green-screen work is frankly ropey. Witness the 8-year-old Diana falling off a cliff, for instance, which really does not look like comes from a $150 million film. The script is similar: the main twist it offers is one which I guessed almost immediately (if you’ve been watching a current TV show, you likely will too), though it didn’t damage my enjoyment too much. It is occasionally a little… well, smug? Is that the right word? I’m not sure, but that’s how exchanges about the war like this come off:
   Trevor: Maybe we’re all to blame.
   Diana: I’m not!
#WellActually… I’d say that being part of a group which hides in a literal bubble for two thousand years does not absolve one of all responsibility for the state of the world. To slightly misquote Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good women to do nothing.” Anyway, this is me, cringing at the earnest obviousness of the above. Or obvious earnestness. That it stood out, however, indicates it was more a misstep than a consistent direction.

Good thing too. For I hate the way almost every major motion picture with an action heroine nowadays, seems to turn into World War One itself. From Fury Road through Ghostbusters to Rogue One, they become a battleground for gender trench warfare, with the camps lobbing verbal bombs at each other, and taking no prisoners. Look: if the goddamn movie is robust, it doesn’t matter whether you have a hero or a heroine, unless you make it matter. [That’s where George Miller was smart and Paul Feig wasn’t, perhaps reflecting the former’s superior confidence in his material – and he was justified there] Here, this is exactly what you would expect: the title is the movie. No kudos are deserved for it, nor any criticism. If you are somehow upset by the concept, stay away, and don’t whine about it. Nor is it the deeply life-changing experience some allege – or, at least, if your life is dramatically changed (by this or any other Hollywood product), I’d guess you have other issues. Or possibly, are aged eight.

I do wonder what the character’s creator, William Moulton Marston would have thought, seeing his bondage-heavy heroine turned into a glossy major movie. Especially since history is littered with not-very-good comic adaptations featuring female leads: Brenda Starr; Sheena; Supergirl; Tank Girl; Catwoman; Elektra; Painkiller Jane. To tell the truth, I think I was personally more relieved than anything, that this did not exhibit a similar degree of suckage. It was a very, very high profile effort, and failure, commercially and/or critically, would have had a severely dampening impact on any similar future productions. This doesn’t appear to have happened, and its success will hopefully open the door for more top of the line action heroines – some of which could end up being even better. Meanwhile, we’re bracing ourselves for the tidal-wave of little Diana Princes which will swamp our doorstep on Halloween.

Dir: Patty Jenkins
Star: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, David Thewlis

The Harvesting, by Melanie Karsak

Literary rating: starstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2
“Twilight of the Living Dead…”

This is likely the kind of book you enjoy rather than appreciate. While no-one will ever mistake this for great literature – you could go with “ludicrous nonsense,” and I’d not argue much – it’s a fun enough bit of pulp fiction that I kept turning the pages. Layla Petrovich gets a strange call from her Russian grandmother in her hometown, the remote rural community of Hamletville, requesting her presence. When Layla arrives, she finds Grandma, a noted local seer, clearly preparing for something. What isn’t clear, until Layla wakes up to find herself in the middle of the zombie apocalypse.

Fortunately, Layla is a bit of a weapons expert – she had moved to Washington D.C. and was working in a museum, specializing in medieval weapons, while giving fencing lessons on the side. What are the odds? So she is soon leading the townsfolk in defense of their realm, while they wait for help to arrive. In the meantime, she has to fend off the unwanted advances of ex-boyfriend Ian and the not-so-unwanted advances of his brother Jamie, deal with her own apparently blossoming psychic talents, and figure out, when the aid eventually shows up, whether it’s quite the kind they want to accept. Hey, who ever said life after the zombie apocalypse would be easy?

There are two aspects that I found memorable here. The first is the psychic angle, which is largely at odds with the straightforward, two-fisted zombie slaying otherwise present. It doesn’t serve much purpose here, to be honest: there is only one supernatural revelation that matters, and you wonder why Granny didn’t simply tell Layla, “You need to get ready for this, that and the other, dear.” However, it adds some off-kilter atmosphere that’s welcome – and perhaps explains why her hit-rate with firearms is close to 100%, despite never having picked one up before going to Grandma’s house. She has the second telescopic-sight, hohoho.

The other thing is the way the story takes an abrupt right-turn at about the two-thirds point, with the zombies being entirely abandoned as a threat, and replaced by… Well, let’s just say, I didn’t see that coming. It’s not the smoothest of transitions, and feels like two separate novels ended up mashed into one file, thanks to an error in the Kindle factory. Yet it perhaps makes some logical sense given the circumstances. On the other hand, the new enemy have a convenient weakness, rendering them astonishingly vulnerable – except their leader, for reasons never made clear, but presumably to avoid the final battle with Layla being over in 0.7 seconds.

Outside the heroine, the rest of the characterization is limited, to put it mildly. While Ian and Jamie gets the most sentences, they’re never much more than cyphers, who exist purely as the other two sides of the love-triangle. Hardly anyone else stands out – save perhaps Buddie, the bow-wielding woodsman who appears to have wandered in on a guest appearance from The Walking Dead. Karsak saves the enthusiasm for the decapitations and brain-splatter, as you’d expect from the very first line: “If you ever need to slice someone’s head off, this is the blade you want.” Providing you’re fine with that, you’ll be fine with this as well.

Author: Melanie Karsak
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, available through Amazon, both as an ebook and a paperback.