Friday, February 7, 2014

Informal Movie Reviews: The Protector 2, The Wolverine, Golden Queen's Commando

More movie reviews! Short and informal. Some spoilers.

The Protector 2 (2013)

Tony Jaa returns to the big screen! Bad guys steal his elephant and force him to murder people by turning the elephant into a bomb? There was some English but I didn’t watch a subtitled version, so I got to make up my own story. Anyway, the action: disappointing, but not in the way I expected. I was worried that they would fake Tony Jaa: try to make him look cool by pitting him against boring opponents and using a bunch of camera tricks and CGI. But what they did was take Tony Jaa, the real Tony Jaa, and make him look fake. There was some nice choreography; there were some crazy stunts. But the good stuff was impossible to appreciate: obscured by close shots, quick cuts, weird camera angles, and yeah, a bit of CGI as well. Overall, it could have been a lot worse, but the end result was mediocre when it had the potential to be great. Oh, and Jeeja Yanin’s role? Incredibly disappointing. I mean, I didn’t expect her to out-stage Tony Jaa or anything, but her character was so weak! Like, she would struggle forever against some no-name thugs and then Jaa would step in and finish ‘em in a couple of hits! Who doesn’t get to beat up on the no-name thugs? Were there not enough no-name thugs to go around? 

The Wolverine (2013)

Wolverine goes to Japan to visit a dying friend–whom he saved from an atomic bomb during WWII–and then gets caught up in a corporate power struggle involving Yakuza, ninja, and mecha-samurai. The film also portrays less cliche elements of Japanese culture, but still, really? I had fun, though. The plot wasn’t overly concerned with heroics, which was nice. Structurally, it reminded me of many HK action thrillers: action in the first and last acts bookending a middle where the characters do character things that are somewhat entertaining, even if they don’t make a whole lot of sense. In this case, we have Wolverine visiting the Japanese countryside, reminiscing about old friends, and falling in love with his dying friend’s granddaughter. Corny? Maybe, but it was nice to spend time watching the heroes interact with each other (although unfortunately the sidekick disappeared for a while), rather than just watching them run around in response to antagonists. I also liked that the action was less CGI-heavy than most modern superhero movies. Besides the bullet-train sequence (kinda cool, actually) and the mecha-samurai (totally lame–the thing had no weight), the fights had more in common with your typical martial arts flick than your typical Hollywood blockbuster. Nothing mind-blowing, but entertaining in a B-movie way. 

Golden Queen’s Commando (1982)

What happens when you take a one-eyed war criminal, a bible-toting gunslinger, a cage-fighting amazon, an alcoholic swordswoman, a quick-fingered thief, a traitorous courtesan, and a dynamite-laden bandit and throw them in a maximum security prison? Well, they escape, duh, and go on to have exciting adventures together. Basically this movie takes the highlights from a crazy mix of pulp genres (prison break, western, WWII mission, adventure), puts badass women in the lead roles (something more films should do), and totally steals Ennio Morricone’s music from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to play in the background. Don’t go in expecting a smart plot or slick Hollywood production values and you’ll have a cheesy fun time.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ursa Tonic

Spaaaaace cocktail. Enjoy!

Ursa Tonic: a popular drink among the inmates of an Ursa-class space prison. 

3 oz. Urju: a spirit distilled from the fermented juice extract of Ursa Corp’s patented oxygen-recycling algae. 
4 oz. recycled station water, pumped full of CO2 by the cafeteria carbonator.
3 drops synthesized quinine. Usually obtained by bribing a guard to fab it in the chemprinter.

Shake and serve in a prison-issue stainless steel mug, for that signature metallic aftertaste.

(Story and cocktail are part of another terribleminds flash fiction challenge)

Ursa Tonic

Stellion to Hold-em to Five-card Draw to New Kong Stud and back to Hold-em, the last a tense hand that Pichet wins with wired kings. They have been drinking and smoking and playing poker–dealer’s choice, base-limit hands–since fifth rotation, the four of them now sprawled about the open cell: Sin cross-legged, black dreads falling to the cold metal floor, losing and pissed; Zoe leaning back against Wu’s bunk, losing as well but too drunk to care; Wu beside Zoe, occasionally reaching for a thermos filled with Urju and a vial of synthesized quinine, mixing both with stale soda water and pouring the solution into stainless steel mugs which she passes to the others; Pichet completing the lopsided half-circle, she and Wu the only ones ahead, winnings grown to a small pile of expired yuan and cheap cigarettes and all the other crap that passes for currency in the Ursa-class space prison they inhabit.

Pichet takes the deck from Wu and shuffles it with an idle faro. Zoe and Sin sort out the blinds.

“Shit,” Zoe says, drunken amusement. She runs a hand through neon blue hair and throws a weak smile to the others. “You cleaned me. Looks like I’m out.”

Wu exhales a cloud of smoke. “So. That mean we’re through?”

Pichet shrugs, sets the deck down and begins to gather her winnings.

“Wait, wait, wait. Neither of you gonna offer to spot her?”

Wu laughs. “You really want to keep on playing, Sin? Not doing so well yourself.”

“I’m just saying. Give us a chance to get it back.” Sin turns to Pichet. “How ‘bout it, Pichet? Give us a chance, yeah?”

“I don’t give something for nothing.”

“Fuck that. She’s new. Have a heart.” Sin glares at Pichet, but evokes no response. “Hey, Pichet!”

“C’mon, Sin,” Wu says nervously. “Cool down.”

“Something for nothing! Can you–“ Sin breaks off with a frustrated snort. “Aw, fuck it,” and under her breath: “asshole.”

The group falls silent. Pichet counts out her yuan; the others watch. The gap in their conversation fills with the chaotic ambience of Block B40: the stuttering buzz of the air cycler; work boots against metal; endless chatter punctuated by moans and shouts and screams. Wu finishes one cigarette, starts another. Sin stretches her back, rolls her neck, restlessly cracks her knuckles. Zoe bites her lip–initial amusement turning to quiet distress as the extent of her losses becomes clear. Eventually, Pichet finishes and moves to tuck the notes into an inner pocket of her prison-issue jumpsuit. 

“Wait,” Zoe says. “I got something. Well, not a thing, it’s information, a secret, but it’s valuable and maybe–”

“Spit it out,” Wu says.

“I know how to escape.”

“Bullshit,” Sin says. “You’re still here.”

“It’s not easy, but I know how to do it. And I’ll tell you. Spot me fifty, and if I lose it I’ll tell you.”

Pichet shakes her head. 

“Oh, c’mon Pichet,” Wu says. “I’m curious. What are you worried about, anyway? Afraid you’re gonna lose?”

“Fine.” Pichet peels a few notes from her roll and tosses them to Zoe, sets the rest aside. She grabs the deck. She cascades the cards from one hand to the other. “We play.”

They start with a round of New Kong Stud and continue with Stellion and Hold-em. Zoe hits a streak of lucky hands and starts to pull ahead. Pichet bides her time, lets the deck go around a few times, retains a pair of kings which she hides up her sleeve. After Wu deals a hand of Five-card Draw that ends with both Sin and Zoe chasing a hearts flush, Pichet sees her chance. The deal passes to her; when she gathers the deck she sets the important cards–eight of hearts, nine of hearts, ten of hearts, ten of spades, king of clubs, queen of hearts, jack of hearts–on the bottom, keeps them there with a few false shuffles. Then she deals a hand of Hold-em, sneaking the retained kings to Zoe and bottom-dealing the eight and nine of hearts to herself. After each phase of betting, she burns from the top and deals from the bottom, so that for the showdown Zoe’s confident, sitting on a full house of kings and tens, while she herself is poised to win with an unlikely straight flush.

It works better than she expected: Zoe goes all in. Pichet reveals her straight flush with a small flourish. 

Zoe laughs. “I didn’t think you were the type to chase straights, Pichet,” she says. Then she flips her own cards over, revealing the ace and king of hearts–a royal flush. “Clever scam,” she continues. “Wu draws me into the game, gets me drunk on Ursa Tonic. Pichet manipulates the cards. Sin plays the angry loser to undermine any complaint I might make. And after I leave–“ but before she can finish Sin leaps to her feet and grabs her, stands her up against the wall. “Hey, wait–“ Sin punches Zoe in the gut, and Zoe pukes Ursa Tonic over the scattered cards and jumbled notes.

“Jesus, Sin. Back off. She figured it out. It doesn’t matter,” Wu says. And then to Zoe: “So what gave it away? And why are you bragging about it?”

“Oh, I always knew. Your group has a bit of a reputation. That’s why you target new inmates like me, right? See, I wasn’t lying when I said I knew how to escape. But I can’t do it alone. I need liars, people who can pull off a con, and I think I just found the right women for the job.” Zoe wipes vomit from her mouth with the sleeve of her jumpsuit, then quirks an eyebrow and grins. “So, you all ready to blow this joint?”

Wu and Sin look to Pichet, who responds with a rare crooked smile. “Yeah, sure. Deal us in.”


Some notes: I'm not sure that going into extended detail on how exactly Pichet pulled off the cheat was the right choice. I feel like it stands out as the only section with a clear POV, but maybe the mistake was that I didn’t establish a clear POV for the rest of the story, tried to do some kind of group-centered omniscient thing instead. Initially, I felt that not having a POV character was essential to the double reveal structure of the story, but in retrospect I think the double reveal was more a construct of the mid-action starting point than anything else.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Informal Movie Reviews: The Inspector Wears Skirts, Fantasy Mission Force, Pacific Rim

My first movie reviews for the blog! Bite-sized and informal. Contain spoilers.

The Inspector Wears Skirts (aka Top Squad) (1988)

After saving a sheik, Sibelle Hu and Cynthia Rothrock are commissioned to train an all-female commando unit! Can their recruits (including Kara Hui, Ellen Chan, and Sandra Ng) endure the training? Can they overcome the romantic tension imposed by neighboring all-male ‘Tiger’ squad? Can they foil a jewelry heist lead by Jeffrey Falcon? For no particular reason (I mean, check out that cast) I had looooooow expectations for this, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually quite good. Cool stunts, good fight choreography, nice long shots for the action sequences. . . yeah, the middle was forty minutes of boot camp comedy fluff, but I thought a lot of it (Sandra Ng’s crazy dance, a training exercise where the recruits race fire by running across gasoline-soaked planks) was genuinely funny. Or maybe I’m just beginning to appreciate HK humor? They say it’s an acquired taste. Also worth noting: despite the large cast everyone gets a chance to shine, and the annoyingly chauvinistic secondary male characters don’t get a disproportionate amount of fight time, a frustrating bait-and-switch that often mars HK girls-with-guns flicks. 

Fantasy Mission Force (1983)

Stupid-awesome anachronistic crazy HK action flick (if you say it loud enough you’ll always sound. . .  never mind). It’s about that one time during WWII when the Japanese invaded Canada and captured Abraham Lincoln and the Chinese got angry and assembled an elite strike force to get him back. But unfortunately for Abe, James Bond was busy, Snake Plissken died three years ago, and Rocky wasn’t even in the military, so the Chinese settled for Mr. Bandito Mustache, Mr. White Tuxedo, Mr. Guy in a Kilt, Mr. Guy in Archaic Armor with a Spiked Helmet, a guy named Greased Lightning, and also a cowgirl with a bazooka, played by Brigitte Lin before she met Tsui Hark and got to be in good movies. So these crack commandos go on the mission and along the way they fight off Amazons, hopping vampires, car-surfing Nazis, and Jackie Chan (who is in this film because he lost a bet or something?), while spouting off incredible wisdom, like: “I’m gonna sleep in the coffin. Do you want to come with me?” and “I don’t know any generals. To me you look like clowns!” Best worst movie I’ve seen since Riki-Oh

Pacific Rim (2013)

Kaiju! Jaegers! Leeeeeeet’s fight! So I was a little disappointed with this one, probably because I went in with high expectations. On one hand, the action was nice. Normally I find CGI action kinda cartoony. I mean, people punch holes in walls and toss cars around and explode things, but all the spectacle lacks the proper wince-inducing impact of, say, a chucked stuntman breaking his fall with a conveniently placed table. Pacific Rim had impact: I was sold on the Jaeger slamming into Kaiju, stumbling around, shaking the earth and crushing buildings. Well done. 
But on the other hand, I found the movie thematically incoherent (I know, I know, I praised the action and now I’m gonna get picky about themes?). So the central conceit was that you need two people to mind-link to pilot a Jaeger, which should naturally lead to themes of empathy and trust and working together, right? And the first half of the movie sets this stuff up. You have a guy traumatized by the death of his brother who needs to connect with a new Jaeger partner. You have a girl with self-control issues and an overprotective military father figure. Is it just me or is this clearly building up to a climactic action sequence where our heroes are getting their collective robot ass kicked and she’s like “We gotta do the thing!” and he’s like “No! It is too dangerous!” and she’s like “Trust me! I can’t do it without you!” and he’s like “No! I love you! I’m not going to watch you die! Like that time I watched my brother die!” and she’s like “I love you too! But you’re being too overprotective! Like my surrogate father!” and he’s like and she’s like and yeah. Instead we get a confusing guy-sacrifices-self-to-save-girl-(oh, so they weren’t expecting to die when they jumped in the dimensional rift)-but-lives-anyway thing. So disappointing! It undermines the strength of the female lead, it devalues the importance of teamwork, it reverses the previous “don’t be a lone wolf” message the film had going in the intra-team friction subplots. . . oh, well. Also, I was sorry to see the German and Chinese Jaegers get knocked off so early. What up with that?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Gavotte beneath a Wasteland Willow

My first fiction for the blog. Written in response to Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge: The Who, The Where, The Uh-Oh.

Gavotte beneath a Wasteland Willow

Seven years after nuclear armageddon, Cal finally chased down Jerry Smitt. She caught him sleeping in the mini-mart of some eastern Oregon ghost town, kicked him till he woke, shoved a gun in his face and marched him out to an old willow tree with a noose hanging down above a rotting three-legged stool. They stopped a dozen paces short of this tableau: makeshift gallows lit by early morning sun, rope swaying in the autumn breeze. “Get up on that stool,” Cal said. “Put the noose around your neck.”

Smitt stood still, back to Cal, hands clasped above his head. “Let’s talk,” he said.

“You wanna talk? Get up on that stool and put that noose around your fat fucking neck. You can talk from there.”


“Last chance. Get moving before I put a bullet in your brain.” And then, calculated: “Don’t think I’ll waste any lead on a warning shot.”

“Alright.” Smitt started walking. “So you’re a cold-hearted bitch, I get that. You tracked me down. You caught me. Congratulations. But you followed me far into the dead lands, and in doing so you made a mistake.”

“Yeah, well at least I’m on the right side of the gun.”

“I’ve come this way before. I have supply caches hidden all along Route 30.”

“After I kill you, I’ll take whatever you have at your camp.”

“It will not be enough to get you back.” Smitt reached the stool and paused. “If I get up there, do you promise to hear me out?”

“Won’t change a thing, but sure. I promise.”

“Alright, then.” Smitt got on the stool, balanced for a moment as it creaked under his weight. The noose was rough and barely large enough to admit his head. He struggled to force it past his ears. Finished, he turned to Cal, looked her straight in the eye. “I suppose you were with that tribe up in Wasco?”

Cal shook her head. “Nope.”

“Perhaps that New Salem settlement?”

“Nope. But I passed through after you did what you did. Doubt they’ll last the winter now.”

“Well, whatever has given you cause to hunt me down, I’m not going to apologize for it.”

“Didn’t ask for an apology.”

“I did what it took to survive. You've lived through the apocalypse as long as I have. You should understand this.”

“Aw. And here I was thinking you had nothing but good intentions and a heart of gold.”

“I do not apologize so that perhaps you will believe me when I say that I do not hold a grudge. If you let me go, I will take you to a supply cache. And then I will leave. If you continue to chase me, I will kill you, but otherwise there is no need to continue–“ he gestured, hands encompassing the scene “–this. Revenge was for before the bombs. You cannot hold on to those goals if you want to survive.”

“Nice speech,” Cal said. She lowered her voice, parodied his matter-of-fact tone. “I’m not gonna apologize. I did what I had to do and you would’a done the same. I’m Jerry fucking Smitt, and I may be a heartless bastard now, but before the bombs fell, why I was a stand-up guy.”

Smitt’s eyes went cold. “And how did you know that name.”

“San Antonio. Late April. Two years before the bombs. I was on the run from some pissed-off border smugglers, so I went to the cops, where I met you.”

“And what did I do?”

“You drove me out into the desert, shot me in the head, and buried me you psychotic fuck!”

“Ah. I remember. You’re Ann Sherit.”

“It’s Cal, now. Short for Calamity, if you were wondering.”

“I suppose that, for some people, things were no different before the apocalypse. You did whatever you had to do to–“

“To survive. Yeah, bullshit. You were crooked then, and you’re crooked now. You know why I been following you all these years? What kept me going? Not revenge. Well, not just revenge.” Cal stopped and for a while stared off into the rising sun, ordering her thoughts. “The thing is, Jerry. . . I can’t sleep.”

“The fuck?”

“I see things, Jerry. I see things in my dreams. Ever since you put that bullet in my head–“

“It wasn’t–“

“Ever since you put that fucking bullet my fucking head!” Cal took a deep breath, let it out slow. “I see violence. I see all the violent things people are gonna do in the future. Murders. Beatings. Torture. It’s fucking brutal. The months before the bombs fell–“ she shakes her head “–let’s just say it was a relief when it finally happened.

“For a while I thought maybe that was it. That the dreams were just the prelude to mankind’s self-immolation in its biggest motherfucking act of violence. But the dreams went on. That’s how I knew you were still alive and killing, by the way. Two days after, I saw you strangle some poor old lady for a bottle of water. Yeah, it was chaos after the war. Eventually most people realized they needed to work together, but then there were people like you who just kept stabbing ‘em in the back.

“So I have a new theory. The dreams started when you put a bullet in my head; they end when I put a bullet in yours. And if they don’t, well at least that’s one less sick fucker for the rest of us to worry about.”

“Learn to live with your dreams; the violence of the world won’t end with me. And it doesn’t change the fact that my supplies–“

“I don’t want your shit, Jerry. You want a bargain? Well, I was going to shoot a leg off that stool and let you do a little danse macabre, but reckon that if you jump high enough, gravity and your fat ass will collaborate to break your fucking neck. So go on. Save me a bullet and die with some dignity.”

“I’ve been thinking,” Smitt temporized, “this little gallows you’ve set up, you must’ve gone through a lot of trouble. You could’ve just shot me, if you had the bullets to shoot me with.”

“Maybe I wanted to see you suffer. Maybe I figured you’d jump and save me a bullet. Maybe I remembered how a bit of lead in the head and a nap in a shallow grave weren’t enough to keep even me dead.”

“Maybe, maybe, maybe.” Smitt closed his eyes, breathed in and exhaled, then darted his hands up towards his neck. Cal shot him in the knee. Smitt slipped, the stool tipped; he fell, howl choked by the noose. Desperate hands grasped the rope and he flopped around in silence, wild gavotte splattering blood on the dirt below. A couple of times he kicked his way to the willow, but he couldn’t get any purchase with one good leg.

Eventually, he stilled. Cal let him hang there while she dug a deep, deep grave. Perhaps the dreams would stop now. Probably they wouldn’t. Either way, there was a good chance she would die out there in the dead lands. She didn’t have a plan, but if she got lucky. . . well, it wouldn’t be the first time, if she did.


So for the record, I rolled up (1) psychic (2) seeking revenge after being shot and left for dead (3) by a dirty cop (4) in a nuclear wasteland. I’m not sure if approx. 1200 words of dialogue was the best way to tell this story, but it was an interesting exercise. At least there was a lot of interaction between the principal characters?