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

Lady Bloodfight

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“Now available for Playstation and Xbox”

This rattled around in pre-production for a while, originally being called Lady Bloodsport, and with the names linked to it being significantly higher in profile: Maggie Q, Shu Qi and Zhiyi Zhang. The end result here is obviously smaller and cheaper – the fights at its core all take place in the bastion of martial arts, a warehouse – and you can’t help but think, “What if…?” However, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable, despite – or, perhaps because of – feeling like a throwback to straightforward movies such as the original Bloodsport, which helped launch the career of Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1988.

The basic approach seems entirely deliberate, and the simplicity works to the film’s benefit. You don’t watch a film with this title for intricate plot or subtle character study; you watch it to see asses being kicked, and there’s enough of that, you’d be hard-pushed to feel cheated. The excuse is the well-worn trope of a martial-arts tournament for women, the kumite, being held in Hong Kong. The last time it happened, it ended in a tie between deadly rivals, Shu (Hofmann) and Wai (K. Wu). They’re now both looking for someone who can fight on their behalf. Shu selects Jane Jones (Johnston), in Hong Kong seeking a father who vanished under murky circumstances years earlier. Wai chooses and trains Ling (J. Wu), a cocky, streetwise fighter. But there are 14 other entrants, hailing from all over the world, including Russia, Australia and Brazil, who must be defeated before the inevitable Jones vs. Ling showdown.

Yes, it’s utterly contrived, not least in not one, but two, master-student threads. If you can’t think of better ways to achieve the same end, you need to watch more movies. Fortunately, it’s salvaged by a quarter of decent performances from the lead women, who take the clichés they’re given by the script, and round them out into at least an approximation of real characters, good enough for the movie’s purposes. Bonus points due, for not inflicting any sappy romance (although Jones’s interactions with the spirit of her father are occasionally on perilously thin ice instead) and also largely avoiding potentially sleazy cheesecake, save for one locker-room pan.

As the tag-line above suggests, this feels very much like an adaptation of a non-existent video-game. As such, it would have helped if they’d mixed up the environments for the fights a bit, in the name of variety. This is a minor quibble, however, and what you get are some well-crafted slabs of action, showcasing various styles and approaches. Outside of Jones and Ling, the character which stuck in our mind most was likely Mayling Ng’s monstrous Svietta, freed from a Russian prison for the kumite. All tattoos and snarls, she might have made a better “final boss” for the heroine than Ling, who is perhaps a little too sympathetic. Despite any flaws, it’s a brisk tale, energetically told, and with plenty to commend its no-nonsense approach.

Dir: Chris Nahon
Star: Amy Johnston, Muriel Hofmann, Jenny Wu, Kathy Wu

Catfight

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“All teeth and claws.”

My wife is a big fan of Sandra Oh, for her long-time work on soapy medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy. This is about as far from that as imaginable. It’s a gloriously mean-spirited “comedy” [and I used the quotes out of reverence, not in a bad way], which combines social satire with gleeful hyper-violence, at a level where you would not expect to find serious actresses. Veronica (Oh) and Ashley (Heche) knew each other in college, and have since grown apart. Veronica is now wife to a defense contractor; Ashley a largely unsuccessful artist. They meet at a birthday party, and instantly the hate begins, each representing everything the other finds reprehensible. The night ends in a stairwell brawl, which leaves Veronica in a coma for two years. She awakens, to discover she has lost everything, and Ashley is now on top, enjoying commercial and critical success.

But things are only just getting started.

This is cinematic schadenfreude: watching two thoroughly unpleasant and entitled people lose it all, and take it out on each other. The three-act structure here has each act culminate in a ferocious bout of fisticuffs, whose only point of comparison would be the Roddy Piper/Keith David fight from They Live. It is, equally as much, entirely over-the-top and deliberately so, not least for being backed by classical music e.g. The Stars and Stripes Forever or even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Particular credit goes to the sound design crew, who really go to town, with the blows having so much impact, it feels as if the punches are being launched from a missile silo in Wyoming. You’ll certainly come away with a new appreciation for the art of foley.

It’s nicely even-handed in its cynical view: most films would be inclined to come down on the side of one or other protagonist, but here, any bias is more likely to reflect the viewer’s point of view. Personally, I though Oh hit it out of the park with her performance: she has a great face, capable of conveying a wealth of emotion with a look. Though no, darling: I still won’t watch Grey’s. [Bonus points to Chris, as she did notice the hospital in which Veronica wakes up is called Mercy General, a name likely chosen as a nod to the rival hospital in the show, Mercy West.] But it is undeniably a two-hander, with credit due to both: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in that, I was occasionally reminded of a more brutal version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Credit is particularly due for the ending, where I felt certain the movie was going to cop out, delivering a sappy “kiss and make up” conclusion. There would probably be hugs, it would be utterly at odds with the acid venom of the previous 90 minutes, and I’d walk away disappointed. I’m delighted to say I was entirely wrong, and the ending fits the film perfectly. This is an ugly, guilty pleasure: yet, a pleasure it undeniably is.

Dir: Onur Tukel
Star: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Ariel Kavoussi

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

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“Brains and brawn.”

Much more a reboot, complete with a redesigned lead, than any kind of sequel, this four-part series of hour-long episodes received a theatrical release in Japan, before being released on DVD. In a typically confusing GitS universe approach, it was then broadcast on TV in 10 episodes, with extra material added. I mention this only because it’s the four-part version which will be reviewed here. It starts before Major Kusanagi (Maxwell) joins up with her boss, Aramaki (Swasey): initially, she’s part of the 501st, a counter-cyberterrorism group which owns her cyborg body. However, Aramaki offers her the opportunity to go freelance under him, doing similar work, and assemble a team who will largely be free from bureaucratic oversight.

Over the course of the four episodes, she recruits others whose names will be familiar. For example, ex-Ranger Batou (Sabat), comes aboard after initially being part of a team working against Kusanagi, who are trying to prove government complicity in war crimes. This is an interesting change, compared to the previous versions, which always seemed to join Section 9 “in progress,” and provides some intriguing insight into what makes – literally, to some extent – the Major the way she is. For, in this incarnation, we discover that she has been in her prosthetic body since birth, and has never known any other way of life.

The other main focus is the dangers of a society which is totally reliant on technology, because of the horrible opportunities for exploitation it presents to terrorists. Even the heroine is not immune to being hacked, and one of the themes is the implications of a world in which you can’t trust your own memories, when these could be false implants. This makes police work incredibly hard, because as is pointed out, even if someone admits to committing a crime, they could actually be entirely innocent. This illustrates the nicely cynical streak here, concentrating heavily on the potential downsides of scientific advancement.

I found the main strength to be the much better balance struck between the intellectual and action elements. If you’ve read the previous reviews, you’ll know I’ve rolled my eyes at the uber-dense lumps of philosophy, shoehorned in for no reason more necessary than, apparently, to prove how well-read the script-writer was at college. Here, those are refreshingly absent, although you still need to be paying damn good attention to the plot: I made the mistake of drifting away in episode 2 for a bit, and finally had to admit defeat, cranking things back to re-watch what I’d missed.

The battle sequences are awesome. Whether it’s the Major going up against another enhanced human, or taking on a massive battle-tank which has been hijacked by a pair of “ghosts,” these are slickly animated and edited with precision, in a way from which many live-action films could learn. They’re also incredibly violent, both on a personal level and in terms of the material carnage caused by them. But such is the joy of cyborgs, they can take a lickin’ and keep right on tickin’… The result is a rare combination of action and intelligence, that offers something for both the lizard portions of the brain, and the more highly-developed parts.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star (voice): Elizabeth Maxwell, John Swasey, John Swasey, Jason Douglas

Black Amazon of Mars, by Leigh Brackett

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

Normally, I like to start a series at the beginning. But I chose to read this second novella of Brackett’s Eric John Stark series, as my long-awaited first introduction to her work, because Amazon offered me the chance to read it for free on my Kindle app. (And yes, I’ll definitely be buying a paper copy!) That means there are unanswered questions here about Stark’s origins and background, and about the Martian world –what kind of “beasts” are used as mounts here, for instance, or what the economic base of a city-state like Kushat is– that probably have answers in the first book, or earlier stories. (The author wrote about the character in both formats, and not all of the corpus is still in print.)

Genre giant Brackett stands in the Romantic tradition, and represents SF’s “soft” school; she’s known for her “swords-and-planet” tales of adventure and derring-do on mostly low-tech worlds, and her style was shaped in the hey-day of the pulp magazines. Stark himself has affinities to the typical Burroughs hero, or to some of Robert E. Howatd’s protagonists; the appeal of “primitivism” (which I’ve discussed elsewhere) is clearly present here, though in Stark’s case, he’s not a refugee or escapee from civilization. (Of Earth stock, he was born on Mercury, and apparently grew up in a rough setting and circumstances, with trauma that left him carrying a lot of psychological damage.) He’s a bit more rough-edged than , say, John Carter, and indeed can at times seem almost feral. But he’s clearly a person of principle, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, and a willingness to put his life on the line for what’s right when it really matters.

Fans of this site, however, will be as (or more) interested in the title character here. Given the title and the cover art, we know she’s definitely a fighting female. For perhaps the first half or more of the book, however, some readers might wonder when she’s going to show up. Don’t worry, though –Brackett incorporates one plot element here, at a crucial moment, that’s meant to come as a major surprise. It does to Stark (of course, he didn’t see the cover or read the title!), but it probably won’t to most readers. Not to share any spoilers, but the phrase “hidden in plain sight” might come readily to mind. And our ax-wielding lady’s fighting prowess won’t disappoint.

Of course, if she’s judged honestly and fairly, it has to be admitted that she’s pretty much a villainess in the legitimate definition of the word; she’s motivated by selfish personal ambition for power and status, and she’s quite ruthlessly willing to inflict suffering and death on any number of people who defy that goal. But she’s also a nuanced villainess who does have some genuine good in her, which shows itself in actions. (And sometimes, when the chips are down, a nuanced villainess with some genuine good in her might find that she has the stuff inside to add “heroine” to her resume’….) That degree of nuance makes her an interesting character (at least to me).

Like many SF authors who wrote before the advent of space exploration by unmanned probes, Brackett imagined the other inner planets of our solar system to be much more hospitable to human life than they actually are. Her Mars is a cold, arid world whose fragile ecology depends on the annual summer melting of much of the polar ice cap; but it’s a world with a human-like native race (if they differ from Earth humans in any way, it’s not stated here), with a civilization originating a million years earlier, in the time of a culture hero called Ban Cruach. Much of his story is forgotten and mysterious; but at the end of his life, he passed through the Gates of Death, the high pass that is the only way through the mountains enclosing the uninhabited, permanently frozen region around the North Pole itself, after leaving behind an enigmatic talisman in the northern city of Kushat (which controls access to the pass). Now, at the behest of a dying friend, who stole the talisman years before, Stark is journeying through the bitterly cold Martian winter and across the wild, mountainous North (a region much less civilized than southern Mars) to return the object to Kushat.

Brackett’s world-building is much more plausible than that of Burrough’s Barsoom novels, and (allowing for the basic premise) the science isn’t, to a lay reader like myself, glaringly off-beam. (How the high technology –yes, there is some here, but I’m not writing any spoilers– works isn’t explained, and it’s not extrapolated from any existing technology, but that’s because we’re in the realm of soft SF; the author’s purpose isn’t to speculate about what high technology might someday do, but to use it to tell and enable a story about people in a particular dramatic situation.)

Brackett’s imagination is genuinely original, in a type of story that often wasn’t handled with great originality in the time period when she wrote. The plot covers just a few days, and incorporates a lot of action, usually violent action (corpses at one point are lying in “windrows”), but there’s no graphic wallowing in violence for its own sake. Our main characters here aren’t plaster saints, and we might disapprove (big time, in some cases!) of some of their actions; but they’re each vibrantly alive, understandable men and women whose fate we come to care deeply about. They’ll face conflicts and challenges here that involve extremely high stakes, and that will tax physical, mental and moral strength to overcome (IF they’re overcome….); and the personal interrelationships are complex and emotionally evocative.

Bottom line, if you like an old-school pulp action sci-fi yarn in which the gal gets to swing the sword (or, in this case, the ax) as well as the guy, I think you’ll find this a very good read of the type!

Author: Leigh Brackett
Publisher: Aegypan, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Neerja

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“Sticks to the plane truth.”

Time to set up GirlsWithoutGuns.org, perhaps. For this film brings home that among the most courageous of heroines are the unarmed ones – especially when facing people who are not. Such is the case with Neerja Bhanot, the 22-year-old head purser on Pan Am Flight 73 from Mumbai to New York in 1986. Just before takeoff after a stop in Karachi, the plane was taken over by hijackers from the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization, who intended to divert it to Cyprus. Bhanot alerted the pilots, allowing them to escape and thwarting that plan. She then discarded the passports of American passengers, stopping the terrorists from targeting them. When they believed Pakistani forces were about to storm the plane, she opened the emergency exits, help shepherd passengers out, and sheltered children from the terrorists’ bullets.

Yep, there are good reasons she became the first female recipient of India’s highest decoration for bravery in peacetime, the Ashok Chakra Award, and the youngest ever. Wisely, the film opts for a largely straightforward retelling of the events of those 24 hours, beginning with Neerja’s exuberant attendance at a birthday party the previous evening, through her trip to the airport and the mundane processes of the early, peaceful leg of the flight, before all hell comes storming up the stairs into her aircraft. Against a solid background, the only element which rings significantly false is the note given to her by a friend at the airport: its clichéd contents perhaps explain the disclaimer before the movie, about “Any resemblance to persons living or dead…”

Otherwise, however, it seems to stick to the truth, as far as my post-film Googling has been able to tell. Yes, Neerja was a part-time model as well as an air hostess. She also had already been through an arranged marriage which failed, to an apparently abusive husband (though here again: “Any resemblance…”). But it’s her amazingly calm, yet smart approach in the face of the four hijackers that is most incredible, with death never more than a hair-trigger’s breadth away. This hellish and escalating claustrophobia of the incident is the film’s strongest suit. Madhvani plays it expertly to a crescendo, as the hijackers become increasingly irritated by what they perceive (not incorrectly) as stalling tactics by the authorities in response to demands for new pilots.

It’s likely one of those cases where less knowledge may be useful in appreciating it. For I’m sure most of the original Indian audience was already well aware of the story here; in contrast, as someone who hadn’t heard about it before, I found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion, with no clue of how it would end. As we enter the New Year of 2017, it certainly qualifies as one of the strongest entries of 2016, even if – or perhaps because? – the movie goes in a different direction from the more-traditional kind of action heroines, which we usually cover on this site.

Dir: Ram Madhvani
Star: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Abrar Zahoor

Forest Child, by Heather Day Gilbert

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

“A cleaved head never plots.”

“I swear to you, this death will be avenged. And not in the afterlife.” –Freydis Eiriksdotter

Most readers with any knowledge of early American history are aware that Viking sailors, faring south-westward from Greenland, discovered mainland North America around the year 1000 A.D. No lasting settlements were made, but archaeologists have excavated the temporary settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in present-day Newfoundland (probably the one referred to in the sagas as Straumsfjord). Our main contemporary historical sources for the Viking voyages to “Vinland” are two oral Icelandic sagas, committed to writing about 250 years after the events, which differ in details but basically present a common core of factual information. (The skalds who composed and transmitted the sagas weren’t composing fiction; they were recording history for an aliterate society, although they sometimes garbled or misunderstood details.)

Evangelical Christian author Heather Day Gilbert has taken these sagas, coupled with serious research into the Viking history and culture of that era, plausibly reconstructed a unified picture of the events they present, and brought it to life in a masterful historical series, The Vikings of the New World Saga, consisting of two novels, God’s Daughter and this sequel. Faithful to known facts, she uses her imagination to flesh them out, and to reconstruct believable personalities for the major and minor players in the events. (I’ve read modern re-tellings of the sagas, though not the sagas themselves, and could recognize persons and events in both books.) The first book focused on Gudrid, former pagan priestess (now a Christian) and healer; I wouldn’t really characterize her as an action heroine, though she does pack a blade and is psychologically prepared to fight if she has to. However, this one focuses on her half-sister-in-law by a previous marriage, Freydis, out-of-wedlock daughter of Eirik the Red, and she’s most definitely a butt-kicking lady.

Historical fiction about real-life people uses imagination to reconstruct the details history leaves out, and especially the inner personalities and motivations that history may record imperfectly or not at all. The Icelandic sagas don’t remember Freydis kindly: she’s depicted as a vicious, treacherous psychopath who becomes the New World’s first mass murderer. BUT…. 1.) No historians, medieval or modern, are wholly free from biases that shape their reaction to their material. Gender relations in early Scandinavian/Germanic and Celtic society, as reflected in these books, were comparatively more egalitarian and meritocratic than those of the “civilized” states of southern Europe. By the 13th century, though, when the oral sagas were being committed to writing, the more patriarchal and stratified attitudes of the latter were re-shaping thought and practice in the northern lands. To these historiographers, a woman who clearly didn’t fit their picture of proper gender roles may well have been seen as an obviously deviant villainess by definition, whose actions called for censorious treatment. 2.) Even some of the details recorded by the saga compilers themselves, if one reads between the lines, cast doubt on the supposedly innocent and pacific intentions of Freydis’ adversaries. And 3.), the two key conversations in the sagas that cast Freydis in the worst light, taken at face value, were totally private conversations that none of the original tellers of the material could actually have been privy to. They’re imaginative reconstructions, just as much as Gilbert’s dialogue is –and they’re reconstructions created by writers with an ideological agenda of their own.

Gilbert follows the factual account of events in the sagas faithfully (even including the two conversations I find suspect). But she fleshes out the picture with a more sympathetic vision, and a broader reconstruction of a plausible context, that gives us a very different picture of what (may have) actually happened on the Vineland coast a thousand years ago. The Freydis who emerges here isn’t an evil harridan, and isn’t psychotic. What she is is a tough-as-nails young woman who’s the product of a society that puts a premium on physical courage and fighting ability, who’s had to fight tooth and nail for anything she’s ever gotten, who didn’t feel loved as a child, never knew her birth mother, and doesn’t show love or give trust very easily, a female warrior (in her culture, that wasn’t a contradiction in terms) who killed men in combat while she was still in her teens, who doesn’t readily take orders from any man, woman, or deity, and who isn’t a total stranger to the effects of the special kind of dried mushrooms imbibed by Viking “berserkers” –which are as potent as modern-day “angel dust,” and just as dangerous. She’s also a smart, competent woman (it says something that she’s the expedition leader here, not her husband) with principles as strong as steel, and deep reserves of love and loyalty. And like all of us, she’s a woman on a spiritual journey … which might not end where it began. In real life, the Vikings of succeeding generations never forgot her. Modern readers probably won’t, either.

Gilbert brings Freydis’ world vividly to life here, without employing info-dumps or cluttering the narrative with excessive details. (She includes a family tree for Freydis and a short list of other characters in the back, along with a short glossary of Viking terms used in the text; but I personally didn’t need the former, and with my Scandinavian background, the latter only included a couple of words I didn’t know –and I’d roughly deduced the meanings of those from the context already. Even readers who haven’t read much about Vikings, I think, could guess the definitions of all these terms the same way.) This is a very taut, gripping read, with a lot of suspense in the first part even when you know the general outline of the history, and the plot continues to hold dangers and surprises up to the denouement and beyond. It’s written in first-person, present-tense, which puts us inside Freydis’ head and bonds us to her quickly. As in the first book, the characterizations are believable and vivid. All told, this is historical fiction at its finest! I give it my highest recommendation, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Gilbert’s work.

I would strongly advise reading both books in order; they have many of the same characters, and it will help you as a reader to come to this book with the better and deeper understanding of the relationships, personalities and general situation that reading the first book will give you. Action heroine fans usually like other kinds of strong heroines as well, and Gudrid easily fits into that sorority.

Full disclosure: I was gifted with a free copy of this work by the author, just because she knew I wanted to read it. I wasn’t asked to give a favorable review (or, really, any review at all) –that had to be earned, and it was earned in abundance.

Author: Heather Day Gilbert
Publisher: WoodHaven Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl

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“They’re super, thanks for asking…”

Initially a web series, the eight episodes are combined into a feature-length production here, and it’s done well enough you can’t see the join. It’s inspired by a Sid + Marty Krofft creation from the mid-seventies, which parodied the Batman and Robin dynamic. Four decades later, when it seems every other movie is a superhero of one form or another, the updated concept works deliciously well, helped by a winning lead performance from Hart as Dyna Girl. She and her partner Electra Woman (Helbig) are low-tier superheroines – without any particular powers, in fact – who operate out of Akron, Ohio until video of them disarming (literally) a convenience store robber goes viral.

That gets them the attention of CMM, the top talent agency for caped crusaders, which necessitates a move from Akron to Los Angeles. With the fame and fortune comes its share of problems, as the more photogenic Electra Woman is seen as the lead, with Dyna Girl increasingly reduced to “sidekick” status. Worse is to follow, as the first supervillain in a long time shows up in Los Angeles, and the ‘Empress of Evil’ rapidly takes out Major Vaunt, the city’s top hero. Can EW + DG patch up their creative differences and save the City of Angels? [Or, at least, the City of Vancouver, attempting to stand-in for the City of Angels…]

I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by this. I had no clue at all what to expect, having never even heard of the show before, and not even seen a trailer. But I greatly appreciated the dry wit, often bordering on sarcasm, not often seen to this extent in American films. Helbig and Hart are, apparently, YouTube stars, which may help explain the abundant references to social media and pop culture in the script. These may not date well, i.e. jokes about Uber discount coupons or filming with your phone vertical, and if you don’t know what a “Reddit AMA” is, much of the satire there may go over your head. For now, however, it hit the mark for me, and the entirely underwhelming nature of the heroines along with their (lack of) abilities and down-to-earth personalities made them far more relatable than the likes of Jessica Jones.

As you should probably expect, the action aspects are somewhat restrained. Yet these are more successful than you’d imagine and are meshed into the rest of the film nicely – the villains who are beaten up by our two leading ladies sell their punishment magnificently, which certainly helps! It’s also refreshing that there is basically not even the hint of any romantic elements here at all; EW & DG sleep in twin bunk-beds, above each other. This charming naiveté extends to other aspects, such as Dyna Girl’s adorably dorky hair-cut, which looks like the kind of thing you do to yourself in the mirror – if you had the attention span of Dory. The self-awareness here is almost off the charts, and this shows that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Dir: Chris Marrs Piliero
Star: Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, Matreya Fedor

The Sister Street Fighter series

ssf4

Sister Street Fighter
starstarstarstar

sisterstreetfighterfI have reviewed this previously, way back at the birth of the site, as part of the Women Who Kick Butt box-set, where it was easily the best film present. However, that was in a dubbed version, and having recently got hold of a copy in the original Japanese, I thought it deserved a re-watch. I’m pleased to report it remains a supremely loopy bit of fun, fully meriting the seal of approval and deserving of its own page, However could it be otherwise, with dialogue such as the title caption above, or the unforgettable line, “I killed fifty bulls with my bare hands in South America, you know.” It’s 70’s martial arts plot #26: central character goes to look for missing relative. In this case, it’s Tina (Shihomi), whose brother, an undercover cop, vanished while looking into a Japanese drug cartel. She agrees to follow in his footsteps, and soon finds the gang, under boss Hayashi (Yamamoto), handle snoopers with extreme prejudice. As that caption suggests, they bring the merchandise in using heroin-infused wigs(!), and the eccentric boss is now keeping Tina’s brother as a plaything in his basement – presumably alongside the “men who know where they are and care, but don’t drink.”

Oh, and Hayashi also collects martial artists: “Some rich men buy race horses or keep an expensive dog as a pet. But I keep unusual humans instead of animals. It amuses me.” This includes everything from an expert in the Okinawan Kobudo, a chained sickle, through to a pack of Thai kickboxers called the “Amazon Seven.” There’s also a guy with a mohawk who shoots poisoned darts from his blowgun, and bunch of fairly ineffective minions, who walk around wearing what look kinda like ski-masks made of straw. Wisely, they remove these before going into battle, although this does make me wonder what the point is. These and more will all, at some point or other, be faced down by Tina and/or her own allies, including colleagues of her brother, Sonny Hibachi (Chiba) and Emmy Kawasaki (Hayakawa), as well as a ballet-school teacher, because everyone in Japan knows some version of karate, it appears. [I should also mention the unfortunate logo of the karate school is a swastika!] Though Tina’s most startling skill is her ability to fall hundreds of feet from a high bridge, then re-appear without the slightest explanation as to how she survived.

Yamaguchi’s directorial style appears to consist of tilting the camera semi-randomly, leading to some sequences being Everyday Etsuko Shiomis, seen from unusual angles. But he also is smart enough to stand back when appropriate, letting her and everyone else do their thing, and this is when the film earns its keep. Watching Shiomi duel with nunchakus is worth the cost of admission alone, with the rest of the fights, and the general lunatic approach, merely a bonus. Released almost exactly a year after Enter the Dragon, the debt owed to that classic is certainly clear, not least in the tiger claws wielded by Hayashi. If some performances may be on the functional side (watch the drug withdrawal scene for truly epic over-acting), it still does a better of job of repaying its debts than many other imitators of the time, being an enjoyable slab of excessive kung-fu action in its own right.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Shohei Yamamoto, May Hayakawa, Sonny Chiba

Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread
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ssf2Even before the original film was released, the studio was spurred into making a swift follow-up, and the rush into production shows itself in a plot more than somewhat similar to its predecessor. Koryu Lee (Shiomi) looks for Birei, a friend from high-school, at the request of Birei’s father, after she vanishes from Hong Kong. She tracks Birei down in Japan where the girl is being used as a mule by a diamond-smuggling gang, operating under the front of a company owned by Kazunari Osone (Murota). They don’t take kindly to Koryu’s investigation, and send a range of thugs to stop her, which only encourages Koryu, naturally. However, turns out there’s a more personal connection, since her sister Bykuran (Mitsukawa) is working for Osone – both on her feet and her back, if you know what I mean…

Sure, it’s smuggling diamonds not drugs, and Koryu’s sister instead of her brother who is in bed with the criminals. But if you watch this back to back with the original, it’s almost going to seem like a mockbuster rather than a sequel, albeit made by much the same people. One semi-significant difference is that replacing Sonny Chiba, you have Kurata, playing a martial-arts master who joins the Osone gang with his own agenda. The opponents for our heroine are still the same selection of fighters with different talents, each introduced with a caption describing their origin. But these seem significantly more restrained than first time round, outside of the transsexual killer with her lethal fingernails.

The main problem is Yamaguchi’s direction, apparently considerably less stable than previously. It was a while ago I watched the first film, so perhaps I just didn’t notice it there, but for this entry he seems to have developed a terrible habit of moving the camera enthusiastically during Shihomi’s fight sequences. Which might have worked better, if the SteadiCam had arrived in Japanese cinema at the time of shooting. Instead, the results more closely resemble handing the camera to a amphetamine-crazed chimp, and are an unpleasant distraction, rather than providing any kind of enhancement to proceedings. It’s a blessed relief, whenever things calm long enough for viewers to appreciate the actual skill possessed by Shihomi, with her use of the nunchakus remaining a particular highlight.

The film does seem to have jacked up the exploitation aspects, with surprisingly disturbing (for the mid-seventies time) gore, in particular some eyeball violence, with what feels like more nudity as well. These are occasionally combined, such as the removal without anaesthetic of the smuggled diamonds, from the buttocks of the woman smuggling them. That’ll leave a mark. Not sure that’s necessarily a plus, since Shihomi’s wholesome and earnest intensity was one of the pleasures in the first film, making it stand out from the more common and salacious “pinky violence” cousins, that this sequel appears to be aping.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Hideo Murota, Yasuaki Kurata, Tamayo Mitsukawa

The Return of the Sister Street Fighter
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ssf3The third in the series is something of a return to form, not least because Yamaguchi goes back to holding the damn camera steady. But, really: another friend/relative has vanished into the clutches of a yakuza smuggling ring? At this point, it’s going beyond the realms of coincidence and, as Oscar Wilde (somewhat) said, now looks like carelessness. In this case, it’s cousin Shurei, though it’s not entirely clear if she is the cousin of Koryu (Shihomi) or the detective who gives our heroine her mission. The details are largely irrelevant, however. For what matters is that Koryu has not yet touched dry land after her arrival in Yokohama, accompanied by Shurei’s adorable little daughter Rika, when she is ambushed on the pier.

Having survived that, she links up with Shurei’s sister, Reika, then goes to meet “Suzy Wong”, who supposedly knows Shurei’s whereabouts. Koryu learns Shurei has become the mistress of Oh Ryu Mei (Yamamoto), “the shadow ruler of Yokohama’s Chinatown,” before Suzy becomes another in what turns out to be quite a lengthy string of dead bodies. For Mr Oh’s approach to henchmen employment is to have the potential candidates fight each other in death matches to determine who gets the four open spots as his enforcers. One of these ends up being Takeshi Kurosaki (Kurata), though if you’ve seen the second film, you will not be at all surprised to learn that he has his own agenda once more. Really, it’s like they’re not even making a token effort in terms of the script at this point.

That said, I enjoyed this one significantly more: as noted, the cinematography is less flailing, there’s no shortage of action, and there are some surreal touches (both deliberate and, I suspect, accidental) that enliven proceedings. For example, [mild spoiler] Mr Oh is wheelchair-bound, though this certainly doesn’t stop him from being wheeled around to slap under-performing minions silly. Except, at the end, he suddenly leaps from his wheelchair into battle. I guess he was just being a lazy bastard the rest of the time. In the “accidental” category, there’s the saxophone rendition of Danny Boy, which accompanies the Very Serious conversation between Koryu and Suzy, in a spectacular display of inappropriateness.

I wondered why chunks of this felt so familiar, and eventually discovered I had reviewed this previously, back in September 2008. I wasn’t as impressed at that point, awarding it only two stars at that point (though I appear to have been equally amused then by the whole Danny Boy thing). Either my tastes have changed over the intervening years, or perhaps I was influenced by watching this in close proximity to the inferior second film? But, if I ever become an evil overlord, and have a mortal enemy in my grasp, I will not stop a henchman about to kill them, with a quip such as, “The crows will feed on her by morning anyway.” That never ends well for the evil overlord…

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Yasuaki Kurata, Rinichi Yamamoto, Akane Kawasaki

Sister Street Fighter: Fifth-level Fist
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ssf5The fourth entry marked several changes, although given it was also the final one, that suggests these were not considered too successful. A new director was brought in; Ozawa is best known for The Streetfighter, starring Sonny Chiba, which inspired the spin-off series here, though this was the last of the 30-odd films in his career. Shihomi also plays a different character from the earlier movies: Kiku Nakagawa, the daughter of an upwardly-mobile kimono designer who is trying to marry her off to a salaryman. Kiku is having none of it, not when her Okinawan friend, Michi (Love), needs help. For Michi’s half-black stepbrother, Jim (Wallace), has been targeted by the drug-smugglers he has fallen in with, who are using a movie studio as a front for their activities, under its owner Fujiyama (Kawai).

This takes a long while to get going, with Kiku having precious little to do in terms of action until the final 20 minutes or so. When it does, have to say, she and Michi deliver one of the best fights of the entire series, in an extended brawl around the film lot. Until then, it’s as much social commentary as anything, with the siblings the target of prejudice for their mixed-race nature [something which also formed a significant aspect of Rika the Mixed-Blood Girl and its sequels]. This is also more explicitly feminist than its predecessors, and not only in the arranged marriage Kiku wants to avoid. When that falls through, her father tries to set her up with Detective Suji Takagi, but he’s an unrepentant chauvinist and tells Riku: “Men are attracted to a woman’s gentleness. Cooking good food for your husband and raising your children well – isn’t that what makes a woman happy?” Showing remarkable restraint, she somehow managed to avoid punching his lights out as a counter-argument.

There seems to be a bit more comedy in this one, and additionally, it seems somewhat brave of Ozawa to make a film linking a movie studio to the Yakuza, given the long-standing whispers linking Toei, the company behind this series, to organized crime in the seventies. [According to Federico Varese, “Bosses not only took a keen interest in their portrayal and demanded to pre-approve the content of movies but also encouraged the production of hagiographies about themselves and their gangs.”] Maybe that explains why it was the last movie he ever directed… While this was also the last entry in the Sister Street Fighter series, Shihomi continued acting for another decade, before marrying fellow-actor Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, marrying him and retiring from acting at the ripe old age of thirty-one. However, these four features likely remain the definitive works in her filmography, showcasing her skills, and putting them front and centre, where they belong.

Dir: Shigehiro Ozawa
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Mitchi Love, Ken Wallace, Nobuo Kawai

Daughter of the Eagle, by Don Coldsmith

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

d-e-coverAlthough it’s self-contained enough to be read as a stand-alone, this is actually the sixth novel in Coldsmith’s popular Spanish Bit Saga, a multi-generational epic of the history of the Plains Indians after their culture is transformed by the coming of the horse, focusing on a tribe that calls itself (as most of them did) simply “the People.” (It’s a fictional, composite tribe, but probably modeled most closely on the Cheyenne.) In terms of style and literary vision, it has a lot in common with the series opener, Trail of the Spanish Bit, and the numerous other series installments I’ve read. However, it proved to be my favorite (and, I believe, my wife’s as well). Re-reading it, and re-experiencing parts I’d forgotten, was a reminder of how much I liked it the first time, and still do!

By now, our chronological setting is the late 1500s; we’re focusing on the granddaughter of Juan Garcia, the Spanish soldier who first introduced the People to the horse, and daughter of his older son Eagle (hence the book title). She’s known as Eagle Woman when the book begins, and will become Running Eagle later (in her culture, personal names can be changed with circumstances and status). When we meet her, she’s 19 (and the oldest girl in the tribe –or at least in her particular band of the tribe– still single). Like all children, both male and female, of her people, she grew up being trained in athletic pursuits and the use of weapons; she’s stronger and faster than most girls, and recognized as proficient with the bow.

Most men of hunting/fighting age among the People belong to the main warrior society. (The author does his usual excellent job of bringing the culture and its institutions to life here.) This group concerns itself with buffalo hunting –but also with tribal warfare, usually against the People’s traditional enemy, the Head-Splitters. (Unlike warfare in the European tradition, this isn’t concerned with political conquest, though jockeying for control of hunting territory plays a role in it; it’s more a matter of sporadic raiding to bring personal glory to warriors, and for stealing horses and slaves. But like all warfare, it’s a grim and ugly pursuit.) Our heroine is a “warrior sister” of the society, one of a few girls who take part in its rituals as priestesses. But for reasons of personal challenge and fulfillment, she makes a momentous decision near the beginning of the book: she’d like to take the unusual –but not culturally prohibited– step of seeking full warrior status in the society. This won’t necessarily require her to be involved as a member of actual war parties, and that isn’t her intended object in wanting to join. But the ways that circumstances develop are often not at all what people originally intend and expect….

One of my Goodreads friends who read this book wrote that she “couldn’t get into it.” That’s probably a result of Coldsmith’s writing style, which won’t be every reader’s cup of tea. He prefers straight narration to development of plot and characters through dialogue; so the latter takes a back seat to the former here. And where we have dialogue –and we have it, as needed– it tends to be terse and laconic, realistically reflecting the norm of a culture that devalued chatter and cultivated terse simplicity in everyday speech. Our three main characters are developed very well, IMO, but mainly by the author allowing us inside their heads, so we’re privy to their thoughts and feelings. This didn’t bother me; but if it would bother you, you may not “get into” the book either. Otherwise, the style is made to order for a quick read, with short chapters in 178 pages of text overall, and prose that doesn’t call attention to itself but carries you along on a white-water ride. The plot is exciting and increasingly suspenseful, and the literary craftsmanship first-rate (I considered the ending perfect!). There’s a good, clean romantic element; Long Walker is a fine leading male character, and the book has no issues of bad language or overly graphic content.

However, because Coldsmith is a male author, and he’s dealing with a plot in which rape occurs, some readers will find the latter fact problematical; it may be suggested that the only reason a male author could have to treat the subject at all is because of a morbid fascination with it, and/or that he’s “trivializing” it here. (Taken captive at one point, Running Eagle is subjected to sexual union with the enemy sub-chief who has a sick obsession with her, though the incidents aren’t directly described; she submits physically but not emotionally, remaining defiant, and isn’t reduced to emotional and mental ruin by the experience.) In the context of thousands of years of history in which women have repeatedly been victims of sexual violence, and a large percentage of present-day women have or can expect to be, sensitivity on this subject is completely understandable.

My honest response to the concern here would be that I think Coldsmith includes that component in his plot because in the historical setting it was a realistic danger that couldn’t be ignored, not because of any fascination with it (it’s glossed over too quickly to see it as being milked for any particular fascination); that he views it, and encourages the reader to view it, as evil and disgusting, and that he correctly sees it as being about power, not about normal sexual desire; and that the kind of female response to rape we have here doesn’t “trivialize” it so much as view it from a perspective of personal strength, in which a woman doesn’t choose to be self-marked or self-defined for the rest of her life by anything an enemy might do to her. Obviously, not all women, or all men, have that kind of inner strength; and anyone who’s left horribly psychologically scarred by traumatic abuse (of whatever sort) deserves our fullest compassion. But I personally think a response of personal strength provides a better role model for women in this situation than they get from, say, a writer like Thomas Dixon, with his advice to “defiled” rape victims that they commit suicide over it.

Author: Don Coldsmith
Publisher: Doubleday, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.