Hail Action!

I ran a poll recently. It was arguably the most important poll in the history of Western Civilization:

Bloodsport vs. Road House vs. Point Break vs. Commando. Who ya got?

Commando won, but each movie got some love. I also got a lot of great reactions about all four films.

In short, these four mainstays of the 1980s/early 1990s action movie genre remain memorable despite of–or maybe because of–their alleged “cheesiness.”

Maybe they’re cheesy. All I know is that I, along with millions of others, love these four films to death.

I have written about Road House before, and Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton’s recommendation to “I want you to be nice . . . until it’s time to not be nice. He also say stuff like “Pain don’t hurt” and “You’re too stupid to have a good time.”

Lines like these are other reasons why the four movies I polled people on remain popular. I mean, Commando is pretty much one big one-liner. Even Point Break has some classics, with “Vaya con dios,” and “Utah! Get me two!”

Bloodsport is a little light on the one-liners, but I still chuckle whenever Ray Jackson, played by Donald Gibb, tells the Federal agent–played by Forrest Whitaker!–“I ain’t your pal, dickface.

Yeah, I’m mature.

But the one-liners aren’t the only reason these movies remain so beloved, or watchable.

Scratch that. They’re not just watchable, they’re re-watchable. Is it because they’re “so bad they’re good”? Kind of. I think it’s deeper than that. I think they are actually well-made movies that do what they set out to do: entertain.

Movies–how do they work? Continue reading “Hail Action!”

Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

When I asked author friends and fans of the old masterworks of fantasy and science fiction–that’s the Pulp Rev crew to you–who to start with if I’m interested in digging back into the forgotten classics of yore, two names came up consistently: Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Howard, as you might know, was most famous for creating Conan the Barbarian, and wrote several stories featuring the Cimmerian warrior in the 1930s. Burroughs might sound a little more familiar to the layman, being the creator of one of pop culture’s most enduring characters: Tarzan, King of the Apes. But he also wrote another long-running series focusing on former Confederate soldier John Carter and his adventures on Mars.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

This is where I decided to start, with Burroughs’ very first entry in his Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars.

(Barsoom, just so you know, is how the Martians refer to their home planet.)

First published in 1912, A Princess of Mars details the adventures of John Carter among the warring tribes of Martians and his marriage to the titular princess, Dejah Thoris.

The framing story is unique. The narrator (the author himself?), whose family is friends with Carter, comes across the manuscript after Carter’s funeral, with instructions to publish them some years after his death. Carter’s exploits are presented as a memoir, and while there’s no central “plot” per se, there is a through-line, and that is Carter’s pursuit of the beautiful, brave, and strong-willed Dejah Thoris, Princess of the Red Martians of Helium, one of Barsoom’s great civilizations.

I see why Burroughs was popular both in his day and now: this is adventure and escapism at is finest. Swashbuckling, romance, danger, monsters, violence, and a hero with an unwavering dedication to doing what is right.  Continue reading “Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs”

Kid’s Stuff: Children’s Entertainment Doesn’t Have to be Bland

My son likes cartoons and books and movies. Who doesn’t?

Here’s the thing: I can often tell the quality of the product by how often my son talks about it when it’s over and how much he laughs.

I will use two cartoons to illustrate this point: Doc McStuffinsand Masha and the Bear.

Doc McStuffins is one of the most bland, anodyne, and actively beige cartoons I have ever seen. My son likes it because he’s interested in medical stuff, but there’s nothing there. The main character is perfect, the conflicts are utterly trivial, there are lessons shoehorned into every single aspect of an episode, and the humor is non-existent. I mean, the show is not funny at all, not even good for a chuckle. The mark of a funny children’s show isn’t how often an adult laughs at it, but you’d think a kid’s laughter would be a good indicator.

But nope. When he watches Doc McStuffins, he just blankly accepts what comes on, and then is on to the next one. He doesn’t talk about it after the fact. The show feels carefully crafted by a committee of bean-counters tick points off a checklist. It’s just another widget churned out by the institutionalized entertainment factory that is Disney. I should be careful criticizing them too heavily, though, since Disney will soon own every single piece of entertainment that you read, watch, listen to, or otherwise experience, including this blog. It’s a hungry mouse.

Contrasting Doc McStuffins with Masha and the Bear is pretty eye-opening. Masha and the Bear is a Russian-produced animated show loosely based on Russian folklore about a hyper-energetic, slightly destructive though ultimately well-meaning little girl named Masha and her adventures with, and slight terrorizing of, a big friendly brown bear. The bear doesn’t talk, communicating in gestures and grunts. In fact, none of the other animal characters talk, just Masha and occasionally her cousin Dasha.

Anyway, all Bear really enjoys doing is gardening, hanging out at his house playing chess or reading, and reminiscing about his glory days as a performer with a circus in Moscow. Masha, of course, has other crazy ideas, which always leads to some form of chaos that is ultimately resolved. In the process, Bear and all the other animals are exasperated to the near breaking point, but things work out in the end (hey, it is a kid’s show, isn’t it?).

Unlike Doc McStuffins, Masha and the Bear has actual conflicts: Bear’s battle against the black bear for the lady bear’s affections, Masha’s rivalry with Bear’s panda cousin from China, Masha finding a penguin egg and forcing Bear to take care of it, and so on. The episodes are short, snappy, chaotic in the old Warner Brothers tradition, and funny.

There are sight gags that have my son erupting in side-splitting laughter, and I’ll admit: My wife and I get a kick out of it too. It’s nothing intellectual or snarky or anything like that. It’s just dumb cartoonish slapstick akin to what you’d see Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck engaging in. There’s a reason why the classic Warner Brothers shorts are still held up as the benchmark for cartoons to be measured against.

There are lessons in Masha and the Bear, but here’s the distinction between them and other Disney-fied pablum: the lessons aren’t rammed down the kids’ throats. Instead, they are demonstrated through the characters’ actions. In other words, the show shows and doesn’t tell.This is storytelling 101, and kids absolutely pick up on that. Continue reading “Kid’s Stuff: Children’s Entertainment Doesn’t Have to be Bland”

Tough Choices (In Writing and In Life)

Do you ever read a book or see a movie and think to yourself, “Where’s the tension?

When it seems like a given that nothing bad will ever happen to your characters (ahem, Disney Star Wars), things get boring.

It’s analogous to music: we need tension and release, delayed gratification, point and counterpoint.

No matter the kind of story, we usually want to see our characters face difficulties and then overcome them. Along with this, we want the outcome to be uncertain even as we hope for the best.

I remember reading comic books as a kid. There was a brief period in the 80 and into the early 90s where, when something bad happened, like a character dying, it had consequences.

Related to this is the joy, albeit a perverse one, audiences take in seeing protagonists make tough choices: Does our hero save the child from a burning building, or capture our villain, who we know will kill more later one? Does our hero steal the life-saving medication for his friend or spouse or child at the expense of someone else dying, or leave it and look for another solution?

This isn’t to say that ambiguity is the magic formula for a compelling story. It means that the instances when there are no “good” choices make for interesting stories. Continue reading “Tough Choices (In Writing and In Life)”

Book Review: The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book IV) by Brian Niemeier

The Ophian Rising, Soul Cycle Book IV by Brian Niemeier

With a heavy heart, I finished reading The Ophian Rising, the fourth and final book in Brian Niemeier‘s Soul Cycle. And thus closes one of the most interesting, unique, satisfying, and fun book series I have read in a long time.

In my review of the first book, Nethereal, I described it as such:

Take the good parts of Dune and Star Wars, mix them together with a heaping dollop of Dante, a dash of high fantasy, and a whole lot of horror, and you’re beginning to almost approach Brian Niemeier‘s self-published Nethereal, book one of his three-part Soul Cycle series.

Is it sci-fi? Is it science-fantasy?

Who cares? It’s fun.

This description works across the entire series.

I refuse to get into spoiler territory here, as interested readers need to experience the Soul Cycle for themselves. What I’d like to do instead is explain why this series works so well, and encourage you to read it for yourself.

All I’ll say about The Ophian Rising is that:

  1. Brian’s writing, good to start with, gets better and better with each book.
  2. The Soul Cycle needs to be read from front-to-back in order to pick up on everything Brian has subtly wove into it. I plan on doing a re-read of the whole series soon.
  3. Brian knows how to tell a lean story that’s still satisfying (more on this later).

And here is my only complaint about The Ophian Rising: I wish that it, and the series itself, was longer. That’s right: Brian has left me wanting more. Thankfully, I know he has no plan to stop writing anything anytime soon.

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Why You Should Read The Soul Cycle

Regular readers know that I’ve written about Brian before. He edited the manuscript for my own novel, The Rust Man, and writes about many topics on his own blog that I’ve used as springboards for further discussion here.

I’m going to distill a few of Brian’s biggest points for you, and then explain why, if these sound good to you, you should read his work.

  • The era of the doorstop novel is over.
  • Readers want something they can pick up that will grip them from the start and keep them reading–the key word here is immediacy.
  • Favor clear writing over clever writing.
  • People crave heroes that are actually heroic–good and evil matter!
  • Books are competing with TV, social media, movies, video games, and streaming video.
  • Keep your politics out of your writing–shoehorning contemporary issues into your fiction is a recipe for disaster, or at least for severely limiting your audience.
  • The era of big publishing is over. Indies are where it’s at.
  • Indie does not equal low quality. Not anymore.
  • And finally: If it has nothing to do with your story, get rid of it.

I can safely say that The Soul Cycle series embodies all of these principles. Continue reading “Book Review: The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book IV) by Brian Niemeier”

Feature Their Hurt

There’s this song by Frank Zappa called “Tryin’ to Grow a Chin.” One line in it,

If Simmons was here, I could feature my hurt

refers to former member of Zappa’s band, Jeff Simmons–often the butt of Zappa’s jokes–who wanted to play more of his own material so he could “feature my hurt”; that is, bare his soul in the grand, Romantic tradition of artistes like Byron and Beethoven . . . at least, in Zappa’s terminology.

Not that there’s anything wrong with conveying emotion in art. That’s one of art’s core functions, after all. And although we see ugliness, inscrutability, and contempt for the audience as an intellectual shorthand for what makes art “art,” there is also a component of giving the audience what they want. And contra the sensitive types, there is no shame in this whatsoever. Most artists actually want to make a living, after all. Luckily for them, a lot of what the audience wants is for our artists and entertainers to feature their hurt so we can reflect on it, commiserate, and hopefully work through it.

Another apropos line of the Zappa song, itself a parody of teenage angst, is the end refrain:

I wanna be dead,

In bed please kill me

‘Cause that would thrill me

It might have just been a bit of Zappa-esque off-hand humor, a throwaway line that just sounded funny (Zappa reportedly hated writing lyrics), but it actually runs deeper than you think.

Look at the word “thrill.” That’s what we get when we can “bare our soul” and “feature our hurt.”

Because you see, it’s not really about other people. It’s about us. Continue reading “Feature Their Hurt”

Everyone Has A 9/11 Story

Sixteen years after the worst terrorist attack on American soil, and the world is still as dangerous and violent as ever. So few problems have been solved. So many seem to pop up by the day.

It’s almost as if violence and bloodshed, hatred and division, are indelible parts of the human condition. Who knew?

I was going to write about some negative aspects of 9/11, things people have said to me, and so forth. But then I realized, why dwell on the negative? Today we commemorate one of the most negative days in American history. I’d rather not add to it.

That’s why these kinds of commemorations–even dumb blog posts–are important. A whole generation born after 9/11 or too young to remember is now entering adulthood. It’d be tragic if these stories were lost, the event downplayed, or worse, trivialized and forgotten.

Remember the fallen and the survivors, remember the heroes, and remember our enemies. Just remember.

And listen. Everyone has a 9/11 story the way our ancestors had Civil War stories and Jim Crow stories and Depression stories and Pearl Harbor stories and civil rights stories and Vietnam stories. We all need an ear to listen, not for our own vanity, but so we never forget.

It’s cathartic. The rituals and reverence ensure that we take certain things seriously, which in the world of snark and smirking detachment we’re all occupying is more vital than ever.

So what’s my 9/11 story? Continue reading “Everyone Has A 9/11 Story”