Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Movies: Ninja and Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear

I’m in total love with martial arts movies and I'm not ashamed to admit it. What’s more I’m not sure how I missed these absolute gems. Star Scott Adkins is the real deal. Fast as a spitting cobra with a glare that would melt stone, Adkins is a true martial artist. Ninja is a superhero slugfest, complete with costumes and major battles. Ninja 2 is even better, with lots of hand-to-hand combat in an action packed free-for-all. There are fights with swords, stars, bo staffs, knives and numerous other exotic weapons. I'd go into the plot, but both are thin and who cares? See these popcorn flicks for the action. The cinematography and choreography are top grade. Adkins can really fight (sort of the anti-Ben Affleck), and the fights are shot wide so viewers can see all the action. Not like most Hollywood actioners, where fights are shot in extreme close up and you can't tell what the heck is going on. If you like fast-moving action movies and a lot of bone-crunching martial arts violence and swordfights, see these movies. Incredibly entertaining.

My favorite exchange from Ninja 2:

Nakabara: “The man who seeks revenge must dig two graves.”

Casey: “They’re gonna need a lot more than that.”

Martial Arts Rating: ***** broken sternums out of 5

Here's the trailer for Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear. Enjoy: 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Comics - Marvel Horror Essentials Vol 1

This collected volume is daring stuff for the 1970s. These are straight up occult stories of good vs. evil, dealing with the Son of Satan and Satanna, the Devil's Daughter. No kidding, they’re actually the offspring not of a minor demon, but Satan himself. Steve Gerber does a lot of the storytelling heavy lifting on Damon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan stories. Hellstrom is torn between his natures as a decent man trying to do good and his darker demon half. Satanna is the opposite, embracing her dark half and rejecting goodness, hugs and apple pie. 

Surprisingly, Satan himself appears as the antagonist in many stories, something Disney/Marvel wouldn't do on a bet now. The Son of Satan stuff has some wild ideas and is a first-rate read until the character graduates from the Marvel Spotlight book into his own series, Son of Satan. Writer John Warner takes over (not a writer I've ever heard of--a pseudonym?) and turns the book from occult based into a superhero series. Villains go from demons and hood-wearing cultists to goats in spandex and capes. It's too weird even for this concept and the series suffers for it. These stories go some uncomfortable places for a comic, especially the Satanna tales. It's intriguing to see what the drugs of the mid-70s did to comic book authors. 

This 650-page tome collects Ghost Rider #1-2; Marvel Spotlight #12-24; Son of Satan #1-8; Marvel Two In One #14; Marvel Team Up #32, 80-81; Vampire Tales #2-3; Haunt of Horror #2, 4-5, Marvel Premiere #27 and Marvel Preview #7. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Books: Soldier of Rome: The Legionary by James Mace

One of Rome’s biggest defeats on the battlefield was by the German war chief Arminius (an ancient form of the name Herman; thus Rome was undone by Herman the German) in 9 A.D. Arminius was working for the Romans as an auxiliary, and won the trust of the incompetent general Quintilius Varus. Leading the Roman Legionaries into a trap in Teutoburger Forest, three full legions were lost with few survivors. This was devastating to Emperor Augustus Caesar, who used to bang his head on the palace doors and utter, “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”
In Soldier of Rome, six years after the fatal attack Artorius is a new recruit into the legions. His brother Metellus was killed at Teutoburger, and all he wants is revenge against the barbarians who killed him. Artorius is with the army that invades Germany to take revenge. The aim of this incursion was not conquest, but annihilation.
Mace writes a potboiling adventure novel that demands the reader’s attention from page one. He uses his own army experience to lend verisimilitude to the training, fighting and camaraderie scenes between soldiers. Mace describes legionary training, the organization of the army and battle strategy and tactics without bogging down the reader in endless minutia. He folds his world-building organically into the story, teaching his reader about the Ancient Roman world without their knowing they’ve been taught.
Eventually the new Legion arrives at Teutoburger to survey the damage. The soldiers are a mix of new recruits, experienced veterans and survivors of the original massacre. The army travels deep into the German interior to punish the tribes responsible for the ambush. Ultimately there is no safe man, woman or child east of the Rhine River.
Mace is a writer who lives in the Ancient Roman mindset. You won’t find 2015 attitudes, manners and worldviews here. Parts of the book are difficult to read, especially when the Romans take their final revenge on German warriors and their families. But this is a gripping, action-packed story, full of massive battles, political maneuvers, gladiatorial combats and soldiers being soldiers. I couldn’t put it down, and can’t wait to read the next in the series about Legionary Artorius and his friends. Soldier of Rome: The Legionary brings the ancient world alive.
Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Monday, January 12, 2015

Classic Movies: From Noon Till Three

A new feature here on Humble Opinions! From time to time I’ll be looking at some older movies which may have escaped your notice but deserve wider exposure. We’ll start with my favorite Charles Bronson movie, From Noon Till Three.
This movie is not a Western, although it takes place in the American west in the late 1800s and does feature horses, bank robbers and guns. But it has none of the other trappings of a typical Western. No, this film is about loneliness, romanticism, zeitgeist and the beginnings of American pop culture. It is not a comedy but has some hilariously funny scenes. Beware, some slight spoilers ahead.
Charles Bronson is bank robber Graham Dorsey. While on the way to rob a bank in a small town, he has a nightmare about the job and makes an excuse to stay at an unsuspecting homestead while the rest of the gang goes on to do the job. The owner of the lush homestead is a beautiful widow named Amanda (Bronson’s real life wife, Jill Ireland). The gang says they’ll need three hours to do the job, so Bronson will be holed up there from noon till three.
Smitten with her beauty, Bronson, a cunning criminal, sees Amanda as the hopeless romantic she is. He starts a slow and effective seduction that turns into a love affair for the smitten Amanda. They become lovers and for a few hours, imagine how their lives together would play out. When news arrives of the bank gang being captured and waiting to be hung, Amanda sends Graham out to rescue his doomed comrades. Leaving, but with no intention of helping his former friends, Graham takes a wrong turn and is mistakenly thought dead.
Here’s where the fireworks start. Writing a tell-all book about their torrid three-hour love affair, Amanda becomes an international celebrity. The book is a runaway best seller. There are songs written, plays performed and the house where they dallied becomes a popular tourist attraction. When Dorsey learns of the situation, he returns to surprise Amanda with the fact that he is alive. Trouble is, Amanda remembers Graham Dorsey as a dark, handsome, six foot three warrior god (as he is portrayed in her book) and doesn’t believe Bronson is him! After some comical efforts, he manages to convince her. After that, he tries to convince the world as well, but they just won’t believe him. Everywhere he goes, he is laughed at, challenged to fight or accused of fraud. Graham Dorsey has been romanticized beyond recovery. Graham’s own friends don’t recognize him. Surprising a madam at a brothel who was once a close friend, she immediately has him thrown out as an imposter. As the bouncers toss him into the street, she shouts, “Graham Dorsey was six foot three and the handsomest man I ever met!”
Bronson’s attempt to prove to the world he is still alive, and his attempts to debunk the romance of the book the world has come to fall in love with, meet uproarious results and skew modern culture’s romantic exaggeration of criminals and romance stories. The ultimate fates of Amanda and Graham wrap up the story perfectly and make this a classic, but ultimately forgotten, film. Try it!
From Noon Till Three is available as a DVD from Netflix or here from Amazon. It’s cheap!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Comics Capsule Reviews

Savage Dragon #200
Savage Dragon #200: I’ve followed Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon from the first miniseries in the ‘90s. That’s two decades and well over 200 issues of the comic, including various spinoffs and miniseries. I love the book, but #200 may be my last issue.

As usual for anniversary books, Larsen celebrates them old school style, a man after my own heart. The 100-page book is packed with stories, art and surprises. And one of those surprises may make this the last issue of the book I purchase. The main story goes down some ... strange avenues. On the trail of the villains who have kidnapped the original Dragon, Malcolm pauses to have sex for the first time with his girlfriend Maxine. When Malcolm’s stepsister Angel drops by unannounced and discovers them, she joins them in a ménage a trois. NOT where I was expecting the book to go. First of all, Malcolm Dragon is still in high school, as is his girlfriend. Is either one underage? I don’t know, but that’s not what I want to read about in a superhero comic. Angel is over 18, but why did she consent to sex with her stepbrother and his girlfriend? That’s icky. And they’re not even from Kentucky. During the act, the girls make fun of Malcolm’s ... manhood and come up with all sorts of pet names for it, including a certain green Avenger from another company. What was Larsen thinking here? Is this what the book is going to be about now? This is inappropriate even for a teen book. I just want a superhero book about a guy with a fin on his head fighting monsters. Is that too much to ask? Is Larsen out of ideas? High? Something went desperately wrong with his judgment here.

The remaining stories spotlight various supporting characters (Mr. Glum, alternate universe Angel—who’s a bigger freak than the regular one) and artists. It’s good to see Herb Trimpe get work, as he does a Dragon in prison story.

Overall this was actually an enjoyable issue, but the three-way thing was a huge mistake. I think Larsen has lost my business after 200 mostly excellent issues.

Rating: *** out of 5 stars

John Carter #2
John Carter, Warlord of Mars #2: Just a word about what excellent work writer Ron Marz is doing with this comic. Marz’s favorite Edgar Rice Burroughs creation is John Carter (for me it’s Tarzan, all the way), and writing this book is his life’s dream. Readers can tell. He’s packed the book with action, great characters and a unique villain with a legitimate threat. Abhishek Malsuni’s art is wonderful and complements the writing perfectly. These are some of the best John Carter tales since ERB was writing him, and much better than the recent movie.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Alex + Ada #11
Alex + Ada #11: I just can’t say enough good things about this book. Alex and Ada reflect on the new phase of their relationship, then go to a party where a potential girlfriend of Alex’s strikes out in jealousy at Ada. Things are fine until she calls Ada a “thing.” Then they get heated. The bigger question is, is she a “thing?” Now that her sentience is activated, Ada is thinking, learning, making decisions for herself and falling in love. On top of that, she must hide her sentient intelligence from the world, or she’ll be caught and destroyed. It’s a fine line to walk, and the writers do a fantastic job portraying it. The end is yet another cliffhanger—will Ada really be discovered? As usual, I can’t wait until the next issue.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Wytches #3
Wytches #3: I’m not sure Scott Synder is capable of writing a “normal” comic book, and that’s a good thing. This issue deepens the mystery of what happened to high-schooler Sailor in the woods, as her family desperately searches for her. Regardless, some strange stuff is going on in this town. People are disappearing with no trace, and the police don’t seem too concerned. There are rumors about being “pledged,” where someone pledges a loved one to the Wytches in return for fame, money or power. When you’re pledged, you have no choice but to march into the woods and surrender yourself. So, where is Sailor again?

Everything about Wytches is top notch, including artist Jock’s dark, moody artwork and his flowing, borderless panels. However, there are some digital color effects added over the finished artwork that are unnecessary. They just make the pages look murky and overcrowded. The effects obscure the artwork rather than enhance it. Still, a complex, spooky read that comes highly recommended.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Graveyard Shift #1
Graveyard Shift #1: From writer Jay Faerber (prominently featured on my recent Top 10 Favorite Current Comic Writers list), this is his new vampire/cop team-up book. Liam is a detective who picked the wrong house to raid. Tobias Strickland is a vampire and doesn’t take kindly being the focal point of a violent police invasion. For revenge he tracks down the entire strike team and dispatches them, one by one. Liam is having dinner with his girlfriend Hope when the nasties come calling. When he wakes up in the hospital, he gets some very bad news about Hope. But if she’s gone, who is that standing by her grave, waving and smiling?

Although this book is officially “horror,” Faerber promises a lighter tone than most hardcore horror movies/TV shows. Here he shows a deft hand at dialog and relationships. His characters are believable and relate to each other as adults. Although a miniseries, I hope to see a lot more of Graveyard Shift.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Star Trek/Planet of the Apes #1
Star Trek/Planet of the Apes: The Primate Directive #1: Talk about high concept. Why has no one thought of this before? While on an undercover mission, Sulu and Uhura from the Star Trek Universe find out the Klingons have discovered a planet of intelligent apes in an alternate dimension. When the Enterprise goes exploring they find the Klingons are arming the apes and messing with their world’s development. Not to mention that it is an alternate version of Earth. Not content to let those damn, dirty Klingons mess with another primitive society, Kirk and the usual suspects beam down to the planet surface to check things out personally and stop the Klingons if possible.

This book was 22-some odd pages of fun. Klingons, gorillas in armor, Cornelius, Dr. Zaius, this has a full geek dream cast. The cover blurb from next issue has Kirk and company meeting Charlton Heston’s Taylor in front of the Statue of Liberty. Can you imagine the ultimate ham crossover as Heston and Shatner try to out-thespian each other? And I say that as a huge fan of both actors. I can’t wait to see Mr. Spock give General Aldo the Vulcan Nerve Pinch, or Dr. McCoy in a verbal sparring match with Roddy McDowell’s Cornelius. This is one of the more inspired and exciting crossovers of licensed properties. From concept to execution, this one’s a winner!

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Doc Savage Special
Doc Savage Special: Eight bucks was a little steep for one book, but the page count and story more than made up for it. Doc himself is relegated to the background in this one in order to spotlight his sexier cousin, Pat. Truth to tell I’ve had a crush on Pat since I first read her adventures in the late ‘70s, and I do have a soft spot for Pat Savage solo stories. This Special does not disappoint.

When Doc walks into Pat’s business, a hair salon (it was the 1930s, okay?), at first she thinks it’s just a friendly visit. That’s when she notices the tiny Asian girl tagging along with him. Babysitting duty is not to Pat’s liking, but she reluctantly agrees. The girl is a political refugee, and soon her home country is sending thugs, Ninjas and other ne’er do wells to get her back. Pat, no slouch at martial arts, defends the girl through the city, over rooftops and down elevator shafts. She ends up doing a better job than Doc himself, until she finds the girl is not what she seems. A fine tale by David Walker with outstanding art by Kewber Baal. I have to say Dynamite has done an excellent job with the Doc Savage license, and it’s good to read a first-rate Savage story occasionally, especially about Pat. Well done.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars