Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Movies: Doctor Strange

Marvel continues its string of hits with the Master of the Mystic Arts, Dr Strange. Cummerbund Bandersnatch (kidding! You know it’s Benedict Cumberbatch) plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a rich, arrogant snob of a neurological surgeon. Cold to his patients, condescending to his peers and addicted to wealth and power, Strange loses it all after an explosive auto accident. When Western medicine fails to restore his health, he looks to the East for a more mystical solution. There he finds the Ancient One, a mystical teacher who accepts him as a student and helps him heal his body and open his mind.

While training with other students, including the enigmatic Baron Mordo, Strange shows some aptitude for magic and spells, kicking and dragging his logical medical mind into the process. He learns of a major magical threat to the world and teams with his new peers to battle it, despite his neophyte status. 

Mr. Bandersnatch as Dr. Strange
Doctor Strange hits all the right buttons; growing and changing Strange into a bearable, caring human being, providing several intimidating protagonists and blowing viewers’ minds with special effects. Doctor Strange has the most trippy, complex and awe-inspiring visuals of any Marvel movie so far. The effects not only evoke otherworldly magic, but also the art of Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange co-creator (along with Stan Lee, who has a rather bland cameo in the film) and designer of some extremely wild alt-dimensional worlds in the original comic. This movie displays a unique and electrifying visual design sense. 

Doctor Strange does follow the normal Marvel movie formula, which is a strength here. There is an origin, dangerous protagonists who threaten to end the world and a slam-bang resolution. Along the way the acting, magic battles and art direction are absolutely stunning. 

The only negative in the movie is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. As portrayed in the comic, the Ancient One is an Asian man from Tibet. I’m not sure if they changed the character from an Asian man to a bald English woman for political reasons (China is a huge movie market, and the Chinese government doesn’t want to see a heroic character from disputed client nation Tibet), politically correct reasons (I thought race trumped sex in PC culture. Liberals, please educate me), or just because the director wanted to change something to put his stamp on the story. Regardless, the story follows the original Lee/Ditko comics closely except for this important detail.

The Ancient One
Not the Ancient One
Overall, Doctor Strange adds magic to the Marvel brand, and I look forward to his sequels and appearances in other Marvel films, as hinted in the post-credits scene. Doctor Strange is a fun romp well deserving of your time.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Monday, November 7, 2016

Comics – The Master of Kung Fu Omnibus, Vol. I

This first volume reprints one of the most beloved properties of the ‘70s and ‘80s, stories of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, Shang-Chi was the son of Chinese supervillain Fu Manchu and an unnamed American mother. With a publishing history stemming from the early 1900s, Fu Manchu was a well-known literary character licensed from the estate of author Sax Romer. A character original to Marvel, Shang-Chi (whose name means “rising and advancing of a spirit”) is trained from birth to be a human weapon and assassin for his father. Dispatched for his first kill, he is told his target is an evil operative who is a danger to the world. After killing the man, Shang-Chi is assaulted by doubt and eventually learns the truth about his father. Desperate to assuage his guilt for the murder, Shang-Chi joins British spymaster Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and his group of operatives to fight Fu Manchu and regularly save the world. Rounding out the cast is man-mountain Black Jack Tarr, man of style and action Clive Reston (son of James Bond and great-nephew of Sherlock Holmes), and Shang’s lover Leiko Wu.

These reprints start with Special Marvel Edition #15, then the title changes to Master of Kung Fu in issue #17, which keeps the Special Marvel Edition numbering. By issue #21, Englehart is off the book and writer Doug Moench takes over and becomes the creative force most closely identified with Shang-Chi and his adventures.

Moench takes Shang through some very James Bond-inspired adventures, and the group regularly battles Fu Manchu, usually resulting in a draw. Fu sends assassins like clockwork to kill Shang—they come in the form of waiters, lovers, spies and people on the street. Everyone knows kung fu and everyone is out to kill Shang-Chi for the price on his head placed there by his father. It is clear these tales were never meant to be read all at once, put together they can be somewhat repetitive. Even some of the included letters pages bear this out. But the characters and characterization are top-notch. Shang-Chi makes a conscious decision at one point that, while he abhors violence, he must work with Smith to fight villains and evildoers who mean humanity harm. It’s a tough decision for Shang, at heart a pacifist who just wants to be left alone to find himself.

The largest criticism of Master of Kung Fu is the kung fu itself. I’m not sure anyone on the creative team had ever cracked a magazine or saw a movie about martial arts. Forms are wrong, stances non-existent, punches, kicks and strikes are not related in any way to actual kung fu. Some artists are better than others (Paul Gulacy definitely improved as he went along), but this is a massive missed opportunity for the book. Shang-Chi could have brought real kung fu to the masses. Instead, the book turns out to be another superhero punch-fest with little or no authentic martial arts. But this criticism pales in comparison to the general quality of the stories and the characterization of Shang-Chi as constantly divided, always wanting to retire from his “games of death and deceit.” That conflict drives the series and Moench plays it perfectly.

Obviously inspired by the contemporary television show Kung Fu, starring David Carridine, Master of Kung Fu does manage to be its own separate entity. Shang-Chi is not Kwai Chang Caine, he has his own hang-ups and goals. The stories are fun and action packed, and do contain quite a bit of Eastern philosophy and aesthetic. Moench is a thoughtful writer who can write big concepts, meditation scenes and globetrotting exploits. Overall, MOKF gives readers killer plots, explosive action and a lot of bang for their buck. I very much look forward to the next volume in the series.  

The Master of Kung Fu Omnibus collects Special Marvel Edition 15-16, Master of Kung Fu 17-37 & Giant-Size 1-4, Giant-Size Spider-Man 2 and Iron Man Annual 4.  

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Books: Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge and Ready Player One

Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge by Larry Correia and John Ringo

A fresh new voice enters the MHI Universe with Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge. The book’s introduction discusses how veteran author John Ringo read and loved Correia’s Monster Hunter International novels, as should everyone with discerning taste in monster hunting novels. He was inspired by those books to create stories of his own set in the MHI universe. Correia, already a Ringo fan, wasn’t about to turn away a writer of that stature playing in his sandbox, especially since the ideas were so good. Correia spent some time helping shape the ideas to fit his universe’s history and aesthetic. The resulting book is smooth as silk between the two writer’s styles.

The first story in the planned series is Grunge. And it is spectacular. I’d never read Ringo’s work, but count me in as a major fan now. Ringo’s hero protagonist is Oliver Chadwick Gardenier, a unique and dangerous man. The book takes place in the 1980s, as Gardenier’s memoir is found behind a filing cabinet in the present day and is exposed to the world for the first time. As the story and Chad’s background slowly but deliciously unfolds, we meet his hippie/activist mother and his playboy father, and come to realize Chad’s future will go in a slightly different direction. After being mortally wounded during his Marine Corps service, Chad is given another chance by heaven (the circumstances of his heavenly meeting are a hoot) to come back and make a difference on Earth. This quickly translates to kicking some major monster ass.

Chad is a different sort of hero. He is what some Asian cultures would term the warrior poet. He is extremely well educated, has a talent with languages and his IQ is off the charts. He is a violin virtuoso and writes music when it pleases him. But he is also a gun, combat and weapon expert/enthusiast who doesn’t hesitate to kill evil monsters of all categories.

Grunge is the story of Chad’s life, his “resurrection” and his time fighting monsters as part of Monster Hunter International. No one is more dedicated to getting the job done despite any and all obstacles put in his way. Chad faces off against zombies, a werewolf, giant spiders, trailer elves and even challenges a fairie queen to a duel of sorts (my favorite part of the book and not for the faint of heart). Along the way he indulges his giant libido, makes contact with many new monster cultures (mostly to crush them like radioactive bugs), and becomes a born-again Christian. True, he practices his own personal brand of Christianity, but it’s a safe bet he’s going to heaven when he dies. And I hope that is not for a long, long time. Chad’s story is funny, irreverent and a mountain of fun. This book is sure to bring many new readers into the MHI fold.

The ending of Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge makes me glad there are more books planned in the series. I could read about Chad Gardenier’s exploits for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy. A joyous read.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Taking place in the near future, Ready Player One is a true ode to 1980s video games, music, TV and general pop culture. Being a teenager for the first part of the ‘80s, I can definitely relate. But the book goes much deeper into the future of gaming and how it might affect society. Speculation on what our entertainment choices may evolve into is wrapped around the tightly plotted story of a fantastic and magical online quest.

When eccentric billionaire and game developer James Halliday dies from cancer in the 2040s, he leaves behind a video that will change the world. He reveals in the video that he has left clues in his immersive 3D online world, known as the OASIS, to a contest that will award the winner his $340 billion fortune. Not to mention control of his online gaming empire, including the OASIS. Immediately billions of online users of the OASIS scramble to find any evidence of the clues. One of those users is Wade Watts, a brilliant but poor teenage hacker/programmer. Wade uses his online avatar, Parzival, to aggressively go on the hunt for the first clue. The goal is to find “the Egg,” the final prize that will lead to Halliday’s billions.

Other top scorers, whom Wade ends up knowing well, are avatars Art3mis (Artemis), Aech (pronounced like the letter “H”), and Japanese brothers Diato and Shoto. Standing directly in their way, and in the way of the entire world, is the company IOI. IOI  management and employees, collectively known as “the sixers” (for reasons explained in the novel) are not only after the money, but also control of the OASIS, which has become the way most of the world learns, lives and is entertained. They want to monetize the program and make it much more exclusive, an anathema to Wade and the other players. IOI has the money and resources to control a lot of the quest and game play online, but they are not all powerful.

Wade has to compete against IOI as well as other very smart people in his quest for the Egg. Halliday has based many of the clues on the pop culture he consumed growing up in the 1980s. Wade and the others immerse themselves in 80s culture, memorizing Halliday’s every favorite movie, video game, cartoon, song and book, most of which are mentioned in his public diaries. This information comes in handy when Wade has to take Matthew Broderick’s part in an online recreation of the movie War Games, or know the lyrics to a particular Rush song from the album 2112. The length and breadth of iconic 80s pop culture items mentioned in this book boggle the mind, and definitely took me on a nostalgic trip to my teenage years.

The plot takes some fun twists, especially dealing with the lengths IOI will go to possess the OASIS, and also with the reveal of the characters behind all the major avatars. Getting through each challenge—there are three virtual keys to find and three gates players must navigate to find the Egg—is progressively harder but endless fun to read. The explosive battle for the final gate includes every spaceship, giant robot, fantasy and sci-fi weapon and video game icon created in the 1980s. I’ve read that Steven Spielberg is adapting Ready Player One into a movie. This is an inspired idea, as it is one of the most visual books I’ve ever read. However, I’m not sure it will be possible to bring the epic nature of the story to the screen. Will the filmmakers be able to license media from all the different genres and cultures mentioned to recreate the book? There are hundreds of different rock bands, video games, books, anime, TV shows and games featured, from Dungeons and Dragons to Family Matters to Joust. I would think it would be prohibitively expensive to have them all sharing space in one movie. Perhaps they will pull a Roger Rabbit and make it all work.

Ready Player One is a prose visual tour de force and a feast for all senses. It also takes a serious look at the shut-in phenomenon and what might happen when people have the chance to immerse themselves 24 hours a day in a 3D environment much more exciting and rewarding than real life. Thought-provoking, action packed and full of surprises with an inspired ending, Ready Player One delivers the full gaming experience.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars