Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

When Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out in 2007 the oppinions I hear about it were mostly pretty bad and calling it by far the worst Indiana Jones movie and absolutely terrible, and it causing the series to be ruined forever!. So I never watched it in all the years and had no desire to ever do so. But I got the series on DVD for christmas and it had the movie included and yesterday my parents were visiting, and since we wanted to watch a movie and none of us had seen it before, we watched it. Otherwise I still wouldn’t have watched it, preferring to simply don’t know what’s in it. (I might do the same with the new Star Wars movies.)

Right from the start some things seem to be odd. Indy aknowledges being old and mentions his father having died, which doesn’t match the ending of the previous movie. But no explanation is ever given or the events of the movie mentioned, which I found rather odd. The second scene is set in the famous warehouse from the first movie and we get a quick lool at the arc as its box is broken, but otherwise the first movie isn’t mentioned either. It’s just like “look, we made a reference to the other movies!” That’s weak. Indy starts the movie with a new sidekick, whose name I can’t even remember, which always is a very bad sign about the strength of a movies characters and dialogues. It’s never explained who he is or what his relationship with Indy is, and except for two short scenes he has no real relevance to the plot or any meaningful dialogue. The other new character is Mutt, who follows Indy around after fat moustache guy has left for a while and after his first scene has no real impact on the plot either. Later of course we meet Marion again, who is a fun character but also has just one relevant dialogue with Indy and doesn’t really contribute anything to the plot. John Hurt also plays a character who gets picked up with by Indys crew and hangs around for the rest of the plot, but after drawing a map in his first scene does not have any meaningful dialogue or impact to the plot. Indy himself is okay, but you probably can see the problem here. Indy could have gone on this whole adventure by all by himself, or at least with only one companion to give an opportunity to explain the plot to the audience.

There are two villains in this movie. One is a Russian psychic played by Kate Blanchet, who tries to read Indys mind once but fails and then never shows any supernatural abilities for the rest of the movie at all. She keeps chasing after Indy for all of the movie but except for one scene in the middle of the movie she never catches up to him so her impact on the plot is also almost nothing. She has a henchman who commands a group of Soviet soldiers, but since he almost only speaks in Russian without subtitles and very little of that, we don’t really know anything about him. *sigh* And yes, he also does not do anything relevant for the plot. Indy has a fist fight with him, but he simply falls over ans gets pulled into a hole by a swarm of ants. It doesn’t remotely reach the fight against the random German mechanic in the first movie, which is clearly what this scene tries to allude to. At two point during the search for a lost ancient city in South America does Indy run into local tribes of Indians who menacingly sneak around with seemingly supernatura skill in the dark. But they show the Indians the skull and they back off, doing nothing at all and then disappearing while Indy explores the city.

And that really expresses the big problem of the movie. People move to different places and have chase scenes, but nothing ever happens. Nothing is accomplished, nothing is gained. In most of the chase scenes there isn’t even a reason why they are getting chased. They just move fast in vehicles. Occasionaly the classic red line on a map shows us where they are traveling to, but it happens randomly without anyone saying “we have to go to X to do Y”. It’s like the ending of a Monty Python sketch. When they don’t know how to continue or end a scene after they have said what they want to say, you get a shot of the map and then go to “something completely different”. Probably the most infamous scene in the movie is where Indy gets into a nuclear explosion and only survives by hiding inside a big refridgerator. Yes, the scene is stupid, but not because he survives being thrown miles through the air and crashing very hard into the ground. In fact the scene happens about 5 minutes into the movie when Indy escapes from the Soviets who had kidnapped him to have him help them find a specific box in the warehouse where the CIA stores all its secret artifacts. Which happens to be a simple airplane hangar inside the testing area for nuclear bombs. The Soviets probably chose to go to the site on that day at that time because the whole area had been evacuated. That makes sense so far, but wouldn’t that mean the warehouse is now destroyed with most of its contents? That doesn’t make any sense? Why is it just a hangar on a military base and why do they have nuclear tests there?! And worst of all, It has no relevance to the plot! At all! Indy already escaped from the Soviets and was just somewhere in the desert after they had left with the thing they had come to get. There was no point to the scene at all! Maybe to put it into the trailers? Bullshit.

Though I give it to the movie that it is eight years old, I have to say the effects look pretty bad. There are big swarms of goophers in the first scene and monkeys in a schene in the jungle (which have no relevance to the plot), which are obviously only there to show of the effects. And look terrible. The nuclear explosion looks fake too, as do most efects.

It’s also extremely predictable. We usually never do riff-tracking for movies and we didn’t intend to be fooling around, but in the big scene at the end, when they reach a room with alien skeletons, our comments were this:

  • “These will be 12 skeletons, plus one additional one that is missing the skull.”
  • “Which they need to return back home.”
  • “And then the Russians arrive.”

Which was of course exactly what happened.

The ending was also bullshit. Supposedly the reward for the person who returns the skull would be gold, but in Mayan the word for gold also means treasure. And the treasure they found wasn’t riches, but knowledge. What a nice message. But what knowledge? What have we learned at the end? Nothing! The whole trip accomplished nothing! There was some excuse for first finding a missing friend in trouble and then about preventing the villain from getting the power to telepathically turn all Americans into loyal socialists. But in the end Indy and his large entourage don’t really do anyhthing and the villain fails anyway. In fact, the villain only gets this far because Indy leads her there. And why does he even keep trying to get the skull to the lost city once they stole it from the Soviets? Even the other characters are wondering. So Indy tells them that the skull told him so and he has to. And they just go with it.

Is it a bad movie? Yes, it is. But not for the reasons people always complain about. The reason this movie is bad is that things are happening with no rhyme or reason but it’s still painfully predictable. There is no plot worth mentioning and nobody ever does anything. This movie only exist because it had been decided that there should be another Indiana Jones movie. But nobody seems to have had any real inspiration for a story. There are characters and locations, but nothing is ever done with them. The are introduced and then immediately forgotten about. At several points of the movie I had the feeling that the script originally started as a decent story but then was shortened and shortened to make for a shorter film and leave more time for special effects until nothing of the plot remains.

But ruined forever? Yes, the movie is bad. But it is simply very weak. It is not insultingly bad to fans of the series. It really mostly ignores the other movies and it doesn’t do anything really ridiculous except for the refrigerator. And extradimensional aliens? Sure, why not? It’s not a cheap twist at the end as I had assumed, but made clear right from the start that this is what the movie is about. It’s not a good choice, but it didn’t seem to me as particularly unfitting for the series.

But when it comes to asking yay or nay, I think I would like to introduce a third rating: “Meh”. Because that’s really what I feel about this movie. It really isn’t great by any stretch, but it is so utterly bland and without plot that I’m not even mad.

Retro Game Review: Halo

Man, this game is old…

Oh man! I am old!

Old enough to remember when Halo was first announced. At that time Half-Life and Unreal were the big first person shoters of the day that everyone had to have played. (Though I admit I never played Unreal.) Call of Duty and Battlefield didn’t even exist yet, though there was the Medal of Honor series, which quite likely many of you never heard of. It was the time before the decade of World War II shoters and science-fiction was really the big deal, continuing the tradition of Doom and Quake. The first screenshots were just mind blowing. Because it had outdoor areas that didn’t look like total crap! The first videos of the Warthog jeep were just out of this world. The hype was on almost instantly. When Microsoft bought Bungie and announced that Halo would be the launch title for their Xbox project, it really ruffled some feather. The internet was much smaller back in 2000, but there was still plenty of nerd rage in which I heartily participated. In 2001 the game was released and a huge success, and a few years later we actually did get a PC port of the game. In 2012 followed the 10 year anniversary edition with improved graphics for Xbox 360, which I did get used last year. This review is based on my recent playthrough of this version and how it plays now, looking back at the game 13 years later.

When I first played the game, I really quite liked it a lot. Not quite as much as Half-Life or Half-Life 2, but still a fun game. And when I later got an XBox 360 I also got Halo and played through another two times. So this one it was probably my fourth playthrough of the game. I played it on Hard. The one above Normal and below Very Hard. The game doesn’t call it like that, but I already feel too old to learn all the fancy difficulty names games have these days. It was hard. The one with the two swords, but without the skull. And I have to admit, that game is really terribly boring. Okay, in the games defense, I played it the fourth time and I have an exceptional memory for environments, so I always had a pretty good idea what would be behind the next corner and where all the surprise enemy spawns would be. But still, it’s mostly a straight corridor shoter where you run down these big long hallways. These very, very long hallways of constantly repeating copy and paste segments. And playing on Hard meant I died a good number of time and checkpoints are not nearly as tight as in recent Call of Duty games, so effectively I probably ran down twice as many corridors as the actual level length. On top of that, Halo is also very effecient at recycling levels. Usually you have to fight your way from point A to point B, then there is a cutscene and you have to go almost all the way back to A again, this time with different enemies. Generally I like the idea, as fighting your way out of the base you stormed makes perfect sense. But since there is such an excessive amount of copy-paste corridor segments it really becomes very repetitive, as the levels are also pretty long.

The enemies are a very different story though. The enemies in the game are great and are still fun to this day. The alien Covenant is an empire of many different alien species and you encounter four different types in the first game, with two more added in the second. They also come in various different color schemes, with the Elite also having different ranks and special units. In addition to that you also get the Flood, which is a swarm of alien space zombies, which comes in four types as well, and one type of automated defense robots. The four different species of Covenant are the best, though. You got the little Grunts, which are basically hordes of goblins. Individually they are laughably weak, but usually you get to encounter a whole dozen or more of them, and getting into their crossfire kills you very quickly. They also have grenades that stick to you when they make a direct hit and will instantly kill you. The grunts are supported by the Elites, who are two and a half meter tall aliens who serve as officers for the Covenant army. They are much stronger, have a much better weapon, and are almost always accompanied by a small horde of grunts. But what really makes them dangerous is that they have a rechargable shield, so it’s not enough to just hit them a lot, you also have to hit them a lot in a short amount of time. If they can get into cover for a few seconds, they just recharge and will be almost as good as new. Also, the human pistols and assault rifles do shit against their armor, but thankfully you can pick up their own plasma weapons, which work a lot better. The third type of Covenant are the Jackals, which come in two type. One type carries a large energy shield that covers them almost completely and you can really only hit them by getting behind them, using grenades, or hitting their feet or a small hole they use to put their own gun through. Plasma weapons can punch through the shields, but with human weapons you really have no feasable option other than throwing grenade. The other type of jackal is a sniper, which thankfully leaves a bright pink line in the air after each shot, so you always know where they are hiding. The last, and coolest species of the Covenant army are the Hunters. Hunters are huge ogres who are almost completely covered with impenetrable armor, carry a really big shield on the end of one arm, and a plasma rocket launcher in the other. The only way to hit them is to either shot them in the back, which strangely is not covered by armor at all, or into a gap on their stomach, which they expose when they raise their fucking huge shield to bash it into your face. Which wouldn’t be so bad if they wouldn’t always appear in pairs, which allows even the relatively simple AI to cover each other pretty effectively. It’s rare that you encounter any type of enemy alone, except for the hunters, which makes combat really quite exciting almost the whole time. Every enemy has very different abilities and behaviors, which keeps things always interesting. Another fun thing about the covenant aliens is that each of them has a different, but always very bright color of blood, and that stuff gets everywhere. After a big fight in a tight corridor all the walls are painted in bright orange, purple, blue, and green.

The Anniversary edition has improved graphics that look pretty much like those of Halo: Reach (the fourth game in the series), but you also can switch them to the original appearance and back any time with the press of a button. That way you can directly compare the different between the two. Neat feature, something I’d like to see in other remastered games. Back in 2001, the games looked quite incredible. Some games age really well when it comes to graphics and are still enjoyable in a certain retro way. Halo is not one of those games. The original graphics look like shit. They tried to get over the pixelated look of Quake engine games like Half-Life, but in practice everything simply looked blurry and like shiny plastic. I do really quite love the general art style of the game and the series as a whole. It’s primarily a color palette consting of turqoise, blue, and purple, which gives the whole game a somewhat dreamlike quality. That was a very strong contrast to the brown, gray, and olive that dominated in previous games and that came back in the mid 2000s (“real is brown”). Halo always looked different. Perhaps a bit fake, but I rather take that over always the same thing everywhere.

Regarding gameplay, Halo was the first big shoter build for consoles and then ported to PC. That required some adjustments to established conventions of the first person shoter genre, as a game controler only has about 10 buttons while PC games can make use of over a hundred key combinations. (And back in the 90s, when space fighter and jet simulators were a big thing, you needed all those combinations!) The result was the quite controversial idea to not let the player keep every gun he found througout the whole game (which often could easily be 20 or more), but to be limited to only two. With the press of a button you would switch to your other gun and back, instead of cycling through a dozen weapons until you get to the one you want in the middle of a fight. For the World War 2 shoters it made sense, but for a space marine game it seemed a weird choice. In practice, it really didn’t matter a lot, because there were no real “special weapons” in the game. Every gun you could use would either be regular marine equipment you find on the plenty of corpses lying around everywhere, or be used by the enemies. If you wanted to use a specific gun, you usually could find it on the floor within a few minutes, as well as a good supply of ammo. The alien weapons can not be reloaded (presumedly they would do that between fights back in their ship or at recharge stations you can’t use) but have pretty large amounts of ammo. Once they run out you simply throw them away and grab something else. Which in really big and long fights can be quite fun, as you throw away the useless piece of metal in your hand and grab whatever happens to lie at your feet. Total badass carnage! The game also was more “arcade” by giving your character a rechargable shield. The shield can not take a lot of hits before it runs out, but if you simply avoid getting hit for 10 seconds or so it recharge back to full energy. This is now standard for most shoters, except that in the case of energy shields it actually made sense! Healing 50 bullet wounds in 10 seconds does not. Halo did also have a health bar which you could refill by walking over health packs, but that usually made such a little difference that this feature was discarded for Halo 2 and Halo 3 (but returned for Halo: Reach, as it was a prequel and supposedly retro). Again, the nerds were raging, but it really improved the game. I know that Half-Life is quite different in mood and themes, but in that game I would always try to keep maximum health and shields and constantly quickload when a fight went not perfect. Which for me meant losing more than 20 shield energy of 10 health. In Halo that just doesn’t matter so I was much more willing to just throw myself straight into a horde of enemies guns blazing. As long as I didn’t die, I was good to keep going, even with just one health bar.

However, and saying this should cleanse me of any appearance of being a bro, I always played Halo for the story! I never played any Halo game online. (Okay, I did play Counter-Strike for a while and had a week or so fun with Jedi Knight 3, but that’s about it. Playing plenty of Quake Live years later wasn’t broish at all; that was much more hipster.) And I really quite like the story of Halo. The humans have build a huge interplanetary empire throughout the galaxy for several centuries until they encountered the Covenant, a large alliance of many alien species who are better than the humans at everything! They immediately that by now has been going on for 30 years, but the humans have really only held out so long because they keep very few copies of the coordinates of their planets and go to any lengths to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. But at the start of the game that has become pretty much irrelevant, as just a few hours before the Covenant completely annihilated the colony on Reach, which really was the last human stronghold left other than Earth. However, a single human warship escaped from Reach, which had the coordinates of an ancient alien artifact of great signficance. With noting else to lose they try to get there, but the Covenant seem to know where they are headed and really don’t want to allow them to get there. As soon as the ship gets out of hyperspace it’s immediately shot down by an enemy fleet that has been send to intercept them, but they also appear right next to a giant ring shaped space station on which they crash. Since the aliens really don’t want the humans to get there, it must be something very powerful, and maybe it could be just the miracle the humans need to change the outcome of the war and to prevent the completely destruction of their species? In subsequent games, the story becomes a lot more complex and interesting, but in this one it’s fairly simplistic and rather bland. It mostly sets up the situation on which the whole rest of the series is based, so I doubt the following has any major spoilers for anyone left. You are the Master Chief, a genetically engineered super soldier with armor that qualifies as walking tank. These super soldiers were created to be able to beat up an Elite in a fist fight and they can do that, but the war went so terribly that you are the only one left. All the others have since been killed in battle. (Or to be more precise “Missing in Action”, because “Spartans never die”.) Since the ship is shot to pieces and the Artificial Intelligence of the main computer must not fall into enemy hands, you install the nice lady in the computer of your armor. Who happens to be a snarky and smug lady who is full of mean comments and doesn’t take shit from everyone. But I like her, she’s fun. First you travel over the ring world to find other escape pods, then you go to the Covenant command ship to rescue your captured captain. Then you go to a building on the ring to get the location of another building that has the control center of the station. Once you get there your AI companion sends you to immediately get to another bulding (“no time to explain!”) where finally something interesting happens. Turns out the ring had stasis chambers with an alien parasit, which your people unfortunately released when they were searching for the crates that said “Warning: Can destroy everything in the galaxy!” It turns out not to be weapons, but a parasite that turns humans and aliens into mutant space zombies that already almost destroyed all life in the galaxy. You meet the friendly happy artificial intelligence of the station which is excited to inform you that the ring has been created for the explicit purpose of containing any outbreak of the Flood. However, as a safety measure, it requires the assistance of a living volunteer to activate the ring and can’t do it by itself. So you go to another building to get the key. Then you go to another building to enter the key, but then your friendly computer lady informs you that activating the ring will not just kill the parasites, but everything within several thousand lightyears. Because even though they look like zombies, the Flood is actually a highly intelligent hive mind which can not only use weapons (mutant-alien-space-zombies with freaking laser beams!) but also use, repair, and build space ships. So whoever build that thing really wasn’t taking any chances of any parasites escaping after an outbreak. Of course, you would rather not kill all humans and Covenant alien and take your chances at killing the Flood by hand. To do that you have to go back to the alien command ship where the Captain is held prisoner again and once you get his key card you go to the wreck of your ship to blow it up. Which you do. The End.

There really isn’t much more to it. There are maybe four important cutscenes that make up the story and the rest is running through endless hallways shoting at hundreds of aliens. Given that there are more games of the series now, it has very little replay value. The story bits are barely worth mentioning, the levels not really that fun to play, and gameplay also gets a lot better in the later games. If anyone is interested in getting into the series, I would actually recommend to simply skip this one. After having read this review, you know all there is to the story and can jump straight into the second game, where the story really starts to get off the ground. I got the game for pure nostalgia reason and while I don’t regret it (having paid only 15€ or so), I think I could have done without it.

14 years back it might have been a really exciting game, but it really hasn’t aged well at all. So when it comes to yay? or nay?, I think I have to go with nay. If you don’t have it, it’s not worth getting anymore.

Book Review: Death Angel’s Shadow

I think I first read about Karl Wagners Kane a few months ago at Black Gate, and I thought it sounded very interesting. Stories of a true anti-hero whom many consider to be a monster, who is both a great swordsmen and very powerful sorcerer, yet still a character of great depths and deep reflection. I’ve read the story Undertow in The Sword & Sorcery Anthology and while not great, ot really made me want to read more of Kane.

So I picked up Death Angel’s Shadow, which is the first collection of Kane stories I am aware of, but that doesn’t have to mean that these are also the first written ones, and I believe they actually are not. So who is this Kane? He is a very muscular and skilled swordsmen, but that is where the similarities with Conan already end. Both Kane and Wagners writing are a very different story from Howards classic barbarian hero and his countless imitations.

Kane was not a man easily mistaken for another. His red hair and fair complexion, his powerful bearlike frame set him apart from the native Chrosanthians in a region where racial features leaned to dark hair and lean wiriness. And his rather coarse features and huge sinewed hands did not make him too exceptional from the mercenaries displaced from the cold lands far to the south. It was his eyes that banded him as an outsider. No man looked into Kane’s eyes and forgott them. Cold blue eyes in which lurked the wild gleam of insanity, hellish fires of crazed destruction and bloodshed. The look of death. Eyes of a born killer.

Kane is an immortal who has traveled the Earth for countless centuries, cursed by ancient gods to never find any peace in death. He is a great warrior, but also a very powerful sorcerer and through the centuries has ruled over many different lands and made his name known throughout most of the world as a tyrant, conqueror, and bandit. He is a man who is feared, and expects to be feared, and has no illusions or guilt about the death and attrocities he brought upon the world. Yet what we see of Kane, at least in this book, is not a mindless raging killer, but a man of many different aspects.

Reflections for the Winter of My Soul is the longest of the three stories, and I have to say the title really works for me. Is it pretentious? Of course it is. But I think good Sword & Sorcery has always to be at least a little bit preposterous and boastful, and I think this is off for a pretty good start. In the story, Kane is fleeing from enemies that outnumber him and ends up in a sudden snowstorm, from which he is miraculously saved by stumbling on a a small keep in the middle of the desolate wilerness. The lord of the castle has him nursed back to health and welcomes him as a guest, but immediately it becomes apparent that there is something darker going on in that place. Which is almost exactly the same opening and setup as William King used deacdes later in Stealer of Flesh. However, the two stories end up going in very different directions and Kings Kormak is pretty different in character from Kane, even though not necessarily in appearance, so I am letting that pass.

Cold Light is a very different story which has Kane hiding out in some remote and mostly abandoned city in the desert as he is slipping into another of his many phases of passive apathy that haunt his immortal existance. However, he is pursued by a group of crusaders who have vowed to rid the world of the murderous beast that is Kane, and greatly outnumbered he has to rely on his wits to defeat them.

Mirage is considerably shorter than the ther two stories, being more of a length that you’d expect from Howard or Leiber, but still an interesting read. Badly wounded after he was part of a failed rebellion and left for dead on the battlefield, Kane stumbles onto an old castle in the hills which is ruled by a mysterious lady.

I really like this book. While Wagner may not have been a great master of words, this is really solid writing here with some real substance and depth to it. My impression of him is that of “a man of simple words, but of deep thoughts”. His language is utalitarian, trying out a few elegant words here and there, but not getting too flowery or displaying any delusions of grandeur. At times his characters are explaining their thoughts and plans to such detail that it drifts into monologueing, which feels a bit stiff, and for Sword & Sorcery stories there is surprisingly little happening. I criticized plenty of other stories for a lack of action, but I think here Wagner really strikes a pretty good balance that works well for the kind of stories he is telling. Yes, they a grim and broody, but in an interesting and original way, that doesn’t feel like immitation of something the writer saw lots of other people do without understanding it. Perhaps it even was Wagner who those other writers later tried to immitate.

One thing I really like about the stories is that Wagner leaves a good amount of mystery. Kane is immortal, but he still bleeds and feels pain like any other human, and he greatly fears being overwhelmed in battle. Though he clearly hates his unending existance, he still clings on to live like a mortal man. But why he does, or the exact nature of his curse is never explained. There are plenty of hints in this book that tell us who Kane is. But that still doesn’t tell us anything about what he is or the greater story of his life beyond these few snapshots of a few days. Too many writers give away too many of the mystries of their stories, but Wagner does not. I really like that and the stories are so much richer for it.

I am usually not a fan of action scenes. Most fight scenes quickly bore me and when I watch The Fellowship of the Rings or The Two Towers on DVD, I often turn them off when the big fight scenes at the end start. I’ve seen them once, I know what happens. They no longer entertain me. I don’t even have The Return of the King of DVD, though I actually once went through a friends DVDs and discovered that he doesn’t have it either. That movie is nothing but boring battle scenes. It’s not that I dislike fighting or violence in fiction, but most of the time it’s just swords and explosions. That’s window dressing, but the actual story of fight scenes is really what it does to the people and their emotions. And most action movies and plenty of fantasy books just don’t get that at all. Kane does. There is very little description of how the fighters move and what they do with their swords. When there are fight scenes, and for a merciless killing machine like Kane there are really not that many, they mostly take place inside the characters head. And a very interesting choice that Wagner made was to keep Kanes skill at fighting to relatively realistic levels. When Kane is hopelessly outnumbered in Cold Light, the army of crusaders that has set out to destroy him has already dwindled down to just nine men. And even when he manages to get three of them alone into a trap, he still takes only one shot at one of them and then immediately makes his escape before the other two can react. Kane is immortal and a slayer of thousands, but he won’t take on three armed men at once. This is very different from what you usually see in fantasy, especially Sword & Sorcery.

But what probably impressed me the most about Kane is how much the stories are dealing with the dark deeds of humans and following a protagonist who most probably is much worse than the people he is fighting, while Wagner still manages to remain very much detatched and impartial. From everything we are told, Kane commited countless horrible crimes and attrocities without feeling any remorse for them. But we don’t see him do them and even in his own thoughts Kane never justifies or explains them. He is described as a monster, but when you watch him, he doesn’t feel like a monster. When Howard writes about Conan as a pirate or a bandit leader, whose men murder or plunder, Howard always appears to think Conan is really totally cool, and presents it in a way that assumes that of course we also would think that he is totally cool, which I personally often feel somewhat ambigous about. Yes, he wants to write about a man who lives in a time of foreign values, but it that is what he intended it to come across as, Howard didn’t do a good job in that regard. Wagner is very different. Kane is a great character, but objectively speaking he is a terrible person. Yet when Wagner writes about him, I don’t get any impression that he wants us to either hate or admire Kane. Kane is just Kane. The same goes for many of the enemies Kane is facing. Except towards the ending, which I felt a bit weak for that reason, Cold Light is really very unclear whether the crusaders who are hunting Kane are supposed to be heroic or just as evil as him. But I think they are not supposed to be anything. They just are what they are and do what they do. Towards the end some of the characters take the clear stance that many of their deeds really were evil and reject them, but that is what those characters are thinking. But Wagner really had a talent of keeping the voice of the author out of this. Terrible things happen. He does not judge them, nor comment on them, and as a result the stories never get preachy. When I read Kane, it does not seem to me that Wagner is indifferent to evil and brutality, and at some points you can see that he knows what good and decency are. But he appears to have had the confidence in his readers that they would be able to think about the contents of his stories themselves and make up their own mind, without telling them what it means and what they should think. And that at the same time he also manages to not make it appear as if he admires or glorifies Kane in any way, and I think that is a talent I have not seen any writer display before in such a way, and which really makes me enjoy the stories very much.

Movie Review: Reign of Assassins

Reign of Assassins is a Chinese fantasy movie from 2010. It’s a pretty conventional wuxia movie (as far as I can tell as a casual viewer) with lots of deception, secret societies, doomed lovers, and of course lots of swords and kung fu!

The story is about a woman who was one of the most feared assassins of the Black Stones, a secret society of kung fu masters, who not only made the bad descision of trying to leave the order behind and start a new life, but also take with her a sacred relic which all the assassin groups are after: Half the body of the ancient monk Bodhi, the founder of kung fu. He is said to have been such a great master that even studying his mumified remains would allow anyone to reach nirvana, become the greatest master of kung fu in the whole world, and also gain all kind of other supernatural powers. When the Black Stones found the hiding place of one half of the body and attacked the people who had it, the heroine Drizzle snatches it away and disappears with the help of a surgeon who alters her face. Of course, her former master very much wants the body back and see her dead for betraying the Black Stones, and all the assassins of the society go out to hunt for her.

The first half of the movie spends an extensive amount of time on showing Drizzle settling into her new life as a cloth merchant and her slowly growing affection for a charming messenger and courier whose eye she had cought. There is not a lot of action here, which might be a bit disappointing for people who are really mostly looking for movies with lots of of stunts and swordfights. I did quite like this part of the story, though, and think it’s quite well done. And of course, this wouldn’t be a wuxia movie if her new happiness were going to last. During a bank robbery she is forced to use her kung fu skills to take out a large band of robbers and it doesn’t take long for not only the Black Stones to pick up her trail again, but also the other secret societies to send their own people on the hunt for the body.

Like most wuxia movies, Reign of Assassins is not a massive budget production. $14 million is not even enough to pay the catering for the last Hobbit movie. But the sets and costumes are looking just as fine, if not even better, and the visual quality and stunts are very well done. It’s very obviously not an AAA-movie, but certainly not a B-movie by any measure either. I very much enjoyed all the cast and liked all the acting and character writing. None of the characters are boring, overly cliched, or inappropriately overacted, even though a lot of them are quite excentric. The newest recruit of the Black Stones, a young woman who murdered her husband and two other people on her wedding night is obviously batshit insane, the wizard always dresses in a rainbow colored silk cape, and the noodle-maker tries to be incredibly cool at everything he does, but I think they are all acted much better than most of what you get to see in Star Wars or The Hobbit.

The plot manages a great balance of being predictable and having plenty of unexpected turns. Often I knew that something was up with one character or another, but couldn’t really say what exactly it would be when it came to be revealed. Reviews for the movie seem to be “generally positive”, which is an assesment I would agree with. This is not a movie that makes you want to tell all your friends about or get the DVD for your own collection if you saw it at someone elses place. But the movie does a lot of things very well while at the same time not doing anything actually bad. If I absolutely had to make some negative comments, I might say that in the first five minutes there is perhaps a bit much jumping back and forth between scenes as the backstory is told, but it’s not really something that hurts the movie in the long run. So yay or nay?

Clear Yay! from me.

This is a good movie. Perhaps not an outstanding movie that everyone should watch, but if you’re looking for a decent wuxia movie you havn’t seen yet, Reign of Assassins is one I can definitly recommend. And probably would place quite high on my list.

Book Review: The Sword & Sorcery Anthology (Part 2)

Part 2 of my review:

I want to say it here again, that I really love Sword & Sorcery and hope that I will be reading something great every time I begin a new story. And when it doesn’t start well, I keep on reading hoping it gets better and I am really looking for things to like about it and that I could recommend favorably. I was really hoping this second part of the review would be much more positive and make the book at least a decent anthology overall. But my reaction turned out to be something else.

It’s just going to get a lot worse.

    • Soldier of an Empire Unacquainted with Defeat by Glen Cook (1980): When the story began with a centurion of the Demon Guard of the Dread Empire, I didn’t exactly have high hopes for it. But it turned out to be good. Really good. I think it’s a rather odd pick for this collection, being three times as long as the other stories in the book and not having a lot of action or magic. There are a couple of spells, but the whole story could have been told entirely without them, and the action scenes would have to be called hyper-minimalistic. At some points I wasn’t sure if there even had been an implied at all, and at the end I didn’t know if the last enemy was killed or spared. It usually goes like “his blade flashed forward” and four sentences later “he spotted a vulture circling above” and that is all indication you get that there had been a fight at all. Bit weird to read, but otherwise the story is really quite good. Even though it’s not a magic about either action or magic. And I totally did not see the big twist at the end coming! How often does that still happen with this cliche-ridden genre? I am quite reminded by this story of Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, which so far is the only Sword & Sorcery book I like as much as Conan. Not only is the mood quite similar as well as the protagonist, there are also several plot elements that reminded me of The Lesser Evil and The Edge of the World. It actually would surprise me if Sapkowski hadn’t read this story before writing his own. Though it’s nothing like plagiarism, only very loosely inspired by it and then done something quite different with them. Great story, a joy to read.
    • Epistle from Lebanoi by Michael Shea (2012): I really hate this one. Convoluted sentences crammed with as many rare, antiquated, and made up words as possible make this a tedious chore to struggle through. And the plot isn’t anything good either. The first half is rambling monologues of infodumps that don’t make any sense, and the second half a big chaotic battle full of weird shit happening that doesn’t make any sense. The protagonist and narrator is only a bystander who doesn’t actually do anything and the entire time I hadn’t had a clue what’s going on. Nor did I actually care.
    • Become a Warrior by Jane Yolen (1998): Blargh! This is awful. It’s incredibly cheesy, sappy, really boring, but thankfully short. For the plot, I really have no words. I hate it! It offends me. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t have any action or magic, so I don’t have even the slightest clue how anyone in his right mind could have even considered this for a Sword & Sorcery anthology. I think this is the worst entry in a Sword & Sorcery anthology I’ve seen so far, and that includes everything in Swords & Dark Magic and Sword & Mythos. No, just no!
    • The Red Guild by Rachel Pollack (1985): This one is about an aloof girl assassin with mysterious powers and a dark and troubled past. This is about as interesting as it sounds and uses the cheap old trick of deliberately withholding critical information that all the characters know, to create a fake sense of mystery and depth. The second half has some supernatural element that is noticably lacking in most of the other stories, but all of that is overshadowed by the sappy drama.
    • Six from Atlantis by Gene Wolfe (2006): Well, this was unpleasant. No plot, no context, no reason, no sense.
    • The Sea Troll’s Daughter by Caitlin Kiernan (2010): I already reviewed this one as part of Swords & Dark Magic last year. It’s a story I really enjoy, even though it deals more with the rather unheroic aftermath of an adventure than the actual adventure itself and it’s clearly written as comedy. But it’s a story of foolhardy carousing and entertaining chaos, which is consider the true essence of Sword & Sorcery that makes it special, and which is lacking in many more recent stories. And I think it was genuinly funny. I like this story.
    • The Coral Heart by Jeffrey Ford (2009): This story has a mighty warrior with a magic sword and there’s some real action and sorcery there. But the first three quarters of this story only bored me. The ending was just really stupid.
    • Path of the Dragon by George Martin (2000): I know that Daenerys is character from the Song of Ice and Fire series, so that apparently makes this story part of it. If it’s something supplementary he wrote to the books or a couple of chapters from one of the books I can not say, could be either. He knows how to write, I give him that. He constructs solid sentences and effective dialogues and arranges them in a way that is smooth to read, without being pretentiously elaborate. This is a lot more than can be said for most of the writers in this book. But I have not read the Song of Ice and Fire series, so I have no idea what the context of this text fragment is and who all those people or places are and what kind of campaign this might be they talk about the whole time. The first third of it is some people I don’t know, talking about other people I don’t know, some tournament 30 years ago, and politics I don’t know anything about. In the meantime they occasionally play with baby dragons. The rest of the book is a quick stop in some slave port in which the protagonist is appalled about the condition and treatment of the slaves. There is no action and no sorcery here. Really, it’s all one really big chunk of exposition. Quite well presented exposition that avoids turning into a too obvious infodump, but still exposition about a nove I don’t know anything about and that isn’t the subject of this book. And yet it is by far the longest entry in this book. As good as the man writes, this really shouldn’t have gone into this anthology. Had they put it at the very back of the book as a preview, that might perhaps have been okay, but something like this really shouldn’t happen.
    • The Year of the Three Monarchs by Michael Swanwick (2012): “When the castle guards burst upon her, Slythe triumphantly exclaimed, “The tyrant is dead and I have killed him. I am now your ruler.” But, “Our loyalty is not to the man but the office,” the captain of the guard said. “You do not wear the Diamond Crown of Ilyssia. Therefore you must die.”

So, yay or nay?

Well what do you think? FUCK, NAY!!!

You will very often hear that Sword & Sorcery has a bad reputation for being infantile and badly written with a strong leaning towards trash. And reading anthologies like this, I really can no longer make any arguments to refute this claim. If this book is indeed representative of Sword & Sorcery, then the genre is indeed dominated by shit! And I don’t mean unrefined writing and cliched plots with too much dumb violence that is only good for an immature chuckle. To call it trash would be misleading, as there are always people with a certain affectionate enjoyment for trashy art. But this? This is indeed just shit!

There were some exceptions, of course. The Tower of the Elephant, Black God’s Kiss, Gimmile’s Songs, Undertow, Soldier of an Empire, and The Sea Trolls Daughter are all very nice stories, but the majority of this book is just terrible and completely out of place here.

So what about that pretentious title “The Sword & Sorcery Anthology”? It’s not “The Complete Collection of Sword & Sorcery” and not “The Best of Sword & Sorcery”. If you want to know how the Sword & Sorcery genre got it’s reputation for being terrible crap, this is indeed the book you are looking for. After you read it, you’ll probably agree with all the detractors.

And that is a shame. Sword & Sorcery can be such a wonderful genre of daring adventure, larger than life heroes, magical places, and mystical creatures. Which you barely get to see in this book. Or this one, or this one. I am done with this crap. I am really very much tempted to simply stick with a few famous authors and read everything that they have written, by ignoring all the junk on the fringes. Because what new writers have I discovered reading these shitty anthologies? C. L. Moore, C. J. Cherryh, and Caitlin R. Kiernan. (Which happen to have a funny naming pattern. ^^) Sorry Ladies, but as much as I enjoyed your stories and looking for more, that’s not enough to have made this ordeal worth it.

To anyone interested in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, I very much recommend against picking up anthologies, at least any that have been released after the 80s. Instead take a look around for the most famous writers of the genre and pick up books from those who specifically strike you as interesting. I can very much recommend Robert Howard and Andrzej Sapowski, who I consider the best in the field, and what I’ve read from Glen Gook and Charles Saunders were also not quite bad. And if you feel you really have to, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock at least knew how the genre works and how to make it work for them, even if I don’t consider them good writers. But at least they are fun! Fun! That’s what Sword & Sorcery is all about.

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

– Robert Howard: The Phoenix on the Sword, 1932

Book Review: The Sword & Sorcery Anthology (Part 1)

Now this title is a boast as big as it can possibly get. Swords & Dark Magic called itself the new Sword & Sorcery and fell disappointingly flat in that regard. “The Sword & Sorcery Anthology” can only be read in two possible ways: Either “The Complete Collection of Sword & Sorcery”, which obviously it isn’t, or “The Ultimate Sword & Sorcery Anthology”. I am more than willing to judge a book by its content, but when the publisher puts such a claim into the very title of the book, I will judge it by that measure as well.

Since getting through this book is taking a lot longer than I thought, I’ll split this review into two parts, covering half of the stories each. (The second half may take another week or two, though.)

    • The Tower of the Elephant by Robert Howard (1933): If you do a collection of the works of Sword & Sorcery writers both current and past, there really is no way you could not include Robert Howards Conan. The Tower of the Elephant is widely considered a classic and iconic story, but I think personally it’s one of the weaker ones and painfully simply structured. I think there could have been much better choices than this.
    • Black God’s Kiss by C.L. Moore (1934): Jiriel of Jory is another character regarded as one of the classic Sword & Sorcery heroes, though a relatively unknown one these days. I hadn’t read any of her stories yet, and it certainly is interesting. However, I think I am being generous when saying that this story was “heavily inspired by” Robert Howards Worms of the Earth. Yes, it’s not a bad story, but a strong candidate for the Vanilla Ice Test: “If you remove the parts that were taken from another artists work, is the rest still good?” (The only good part of Ice Ice Baby was the sample from Queen.) And I have to say, not very much. There are some original ideas, but they really don’t shine out that much in a story that already isn’t that stellar to begin with. I am not judging Moore on this single text, but to present her work to a new audience, I think this wasn’t a good pick.
    • The Unholy Grail by Fritz Leiber (1962): Oh dear. I think I admitted before that I have a rather complicated relationship with Leibers stories. I think they range from not very good to pretty bad, but almost always they are still fun to read. Not only did he come up with the name Sword & Sorcery for swashbuckling heroic fantasy with darker undertones, he also was able to bring the best parts of this genre to shine even though his plots were not that great and his characters and dialogs generally quite bad. He may not have been a good writer, but he knew what made this strain of heroic fantasy tick and codified it, which very much earns him the reputation as one of the three grand masters of Sword & Sorcery. But, oh boy! The Unholy Grail would be his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story which I consider to be by far the worst! Fafhrd doesn’t actually appear in this one, and the Mouser is a completely different person from his usual self. Since it’s an origin story Leiber may have had reasons for that, but as a sample of the iconic duo of Sword & Sorcery, this is probably the worst possible pick ever!
    • The Tale of Hauk by Poul Anderson (1977): I’ve heard that mans name before and I think he has some big fans, but I never read anything of his or even know what kind of works he is known for. If there is one ultimate rule of writing other than avoiding Deus Ex Machina, then it’s not starting a story with an infodump. The full first quarter of the story is nothing but a single big infodump, which actually doesn’t matter to the plot at all. And even after that, the actual plot only begins around the halfway mark of the story. Unfortunately, the actual story itself isn’t very interesting. I hate to bring this up in seemingly every review I do, but this story isn’t really Sword & Sorcery at all. Yes, the story of Jiriel of Jory also takes place in France, but once she goes down the rabbit hole (which happens just a fifth into the story), she clearly isn’t in Aquitaine anymore. The Tale of Hauk is just a simple Nordic ghost story. And not even an interesting one. The story takes a lot of time to show off lots of minor and subtle elements of Germanic culture, of which I think most will only have any meaning to people who are as familiar with them as Anderson himself. At the same time, he is forgetting that there needs to be an actual plot for the story. It’s not a completely horrible story, and I’ve come across those in the past, but not something I would include in any Best Of anthology. And in a Sword & Sorcery collection, it really is quite out of place.
    • The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams by Michael Moorcock (1962): Like Howard and Leiber, ou can’t really make a Best Of Sword & Sorcery collection without Moorcock. When Leiber proposed the name Sword & Sorcery for the genre that had not yet been defined, but already quite clear in the mind of several people, he was actually replying directly to Moorcock who had called for a catchy title they could be using. The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams is a strange name for this story, as there aren’t any caravans in it, nor was I aware of any lost lore or visions of a better future. Before this one, I’ve only read a single one of Moorcocks Elric stories, but I think it was much better than this one. The dialog is clunky, as the two characters mostly talk to give information to the reader that they both already know, and there really isn’t any effective buildup or context given. A huge army destroying every country it comes through and now it reaches the city where Elric lives, so he and his sidekick sneak into the camp to take out the hordes sorcerer. They run into a dozen warriors who try to kill them, but given that the story is just starting, they are just a dozen unnamed ruffians, and they are going against what I assume to be the most terrifying sorcerer-knight in the world, the whole encounter is pretty pointless. Of course the heroes will butcher them without breaking a sweat. There’s an interesting part in the middle, where they have joined the horde and are still trying to work out a plan, and the horde is raiding another town. Elric and his sidekick feel bad about it, but they can’t do anything to stop thousands of warriors by themselves. That part could have been interesting, but is rushed through just as fast as everything else in this story and nothing comes out of it. In the end, the story is wrapped up with two Deus Ex Machina right after the other and the story is over. This wasn’t great, and I am sure Moorcock didn’t get famous because of this particular story.
    • The Adventuress by Joanna Russ (1967): This story is not fit for publication. I don’t have the faintest trace of an idea how this one ended up in a collection of the greatest Sword & Sorcery tales. Not only does it has nothing to do with Sword & Sorcery, it is also remarkably poorly written. There is no real discernable plot, the scenes are confusing and erratic, and the whole time I had no idea what’s going on. It’s about two unlikable women who do nothing but bitching at each other, one being constantly hysterical and screaming, the other lazily passive agressive. On the last few pages there is some kind of development of the two characters starting to respect each other, and while that may be a decent theme to write about, the story doesn’t have anything to do with Sword & Sorcery. As I said, this text is not fit for publishing.
    • Gimmile’s Songs by Charles Saunders (1984): I hadn’t read anything by Saunders before, but heard quite a lot about him. And based on this one short sample, he seems to be clearly one of the better authors who write for this genre. The story deals with sorcery, which is nice for a change, but lacking in any daring adventuring. It’s a decent story, but I didn’t find it exciting.
    • Undertow by Karl Edward Wagner (1977): On okay story. I think the twist at the end was too strongly telegraphed and predictable halfway through the story, and the mystery is mostly created through putting the scenes out of order and deliberately witholding important information from the reader, which usually are very cheap tricks. But there’s still a nice eerieness to it, and Wagners famous character Kane as a secondary character in the background work actually quite well and is genuinely creepy, which makes the story worth a read.
    • The Stages of God by Ramsey Campbell (1974): A disposed king stumbling through the wilds and nothing much happens. There’s an encounter with a giant monster and two magical battles, but each of them gets covered in just two sentences and it’s all very boring.
    • The Barrow Troll by David Drake (1975): This one isn’t terrible, but mediocre at best. One of the two characters is very bland, the other so unspeakably reprehensible that you almost immediately figure out what will happen at the end. This is not an anti-hero but a guy specifically written for damnation.