The Point of Smoking Lizard

Posted: March 21, 2018 in Uncategorized

Smoking Lizard is EVERYWHERE!

I do columns here on this blog that are a mix of my personal adventures concerning a subject and pieces that will help others interested in that subject. At the moment, I really only like five things…

WRITING (and the supporting READING): Behold! I give you the Scribbler’s Saga column. I will relate parts of my life as a writer, provide a review of properties I’ve read and tools I’ve tested, post essays about writing and hopefully interview other writers.

Additionally, when I just need to fill my cyberspace with actual writing, whether short one-shots or small pieces of the greater whole: Author’s Assortment.

MUSIC: I’ve been talking big about composing music for a decent while now. As I figure out how to fish or cut bait in this area, you, Dear Reader, will read all about it in the Composer’s Counterpoint column. Posts may include my Woody Allen-esque frustration with thinking I’m better at music than I am, reviews of music, tools and the presently rare live shows. Again, part of the mission is to interview other musicians.

TABLETOP RPGS: Yes, I play Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, I can go on for hours about the time I played a thief that hot-prowled the villain’s house and walked out with a suit of armor. But, that was a long time ago. It’s time to make new stories. It’s time to see if I can create adventures other players want to play. As with the other columns the content of the Dungeoneer’s Diary, will mix the personal and journalistic.

ILLUSTRATION and VISUAL ARTS: While I myself don’t draw, I do okay with a camera and certain apps. The Imager’s Impression column will probably be less frequently advanced, but will discuss my appreciation of pictures and the people who make them. And when I make more images with my script kid tools, the results will go here.

MOVIES: Yeah, I thought I would skip writing about movies. Start laughing now. So anyway if I’m bloviating about movies, it  goes here in the Filmgoer’s Flamethrower.

There will be times when columns will cross over, because working on a fun dungeon will spark a novel idea that may cause me to pull out the harmonica…

Lastly, if you came to the site for my older content click on one of the many pages that will provide links to nearby archive sites. Happy Reading.


© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Vlad Dracula, Count Dracula. There are two ways this limited comic book series by my friends, Edward Ambriz and David Moreno, lands. On the historical Count Dracula of Wallachia, thousands of Turks and other undesirables impaled to make a point about invading the sacred homeland. Or on the literary count given to us by Bram Stoker, where after all the copious amounts of impaling and the other forms of brutality depicted in the first version we will see some kind of vampire conversion probably as a last page reveal leading into more stories. And at two issues, there’s no way to guess.

So anyway, we have 44 pages of black and white comics telling us the early life of history’s more colorful tyrants/national heroes (he did keep the Turks out, you’re welcome Europe), who was as famously harsh upon the native-born sinners in Wallachia (part of Romania now) as the Turks. Vlad is the second son (the Spare) jockeying for favor and position from his father, also named Vlad, against his older brother Micea (the Heir, for now). A young lady (sorry, farm girl, lady being used in a more egalitarian sense these days), Elisabetta, has caught young Vlad’s eye and we will see how this plays out in future installments.

So far the reading experience progresses with a lot of intentional slow moving build up toward the inevitable blood bath of practically anyone in Vlad Tepes of Dracula’s way. We see the building brother fight and the senior Vlad’s preference for his namesake due to suspicions that Micea might be in the closet. Daddy regularly slaps both of his sons for the slightest infractions in learning the fine art of war. And the King, the elder Vlad’s older brother has just agreed to foster both of his sons in Constantinople to create peace with the Turks. Young Vlad instantly sees all kinds of angles that perhaps don’t bode well for Vlad’s cousins, the princes. Micea does not.

Reactions to this story will vary according to one’s personal preferences in terms of how fast the writer and artist cut to the chase and have the dynastic struggle play out amid slashed open arteries and the mass impaling to come. I personally teeter between – “shut up, not every story needs to unfold at the breakneck speed of a violent sibling rivalry tale on speed!” – and – “more bloodshed sooner, please!” Though, I do suspect that however these creators choose that more things will happen in Issue #3 regardless of which Dracula story they’ve chosen to tell, because at some point the story will fall off the metaphorical top of the rollercoaster.

Right now, the story gains its most interesting aspects from Vlad’s first person narration in various caption boxes. Clearly old Vlad narrates over young Vlad’s doings how he got that way with a reputation lasting through the centuries since. These text boxes do quite a lot to fill up the story with more foreboding and foreshadowing for the later parts of the story where Vlad will start picking off enemy’s and likely avenge whatever nasty things are in store for Dear Sweet Elisabetta who even now as the pretty face from the kitchen basically has a sign around her neck reading – HOSTAGE WEARING THE RED DRESS FOR THE EVENING.

Another interesting element of this story is a discussion between Vlad the Senior and the head housekeeper who really wants both of the Tepes-Dracula boys to stay off Elisabetta, because she’s good people that needs to find a good husband that will be less likely to make an offer once a royal nephew finishes up. Predictably from what we assume were the attitudes of the time, Daddy practically shrugs acquiescence. And we also learn of his aversion to having a potentially gay son inherit the lands and titles in this scene.

The read breaks down a little bit what with needing to introduce various players to the political drama of Wallachia with title cards as they discuss the apparently unpopular decision of the King to foster his children in Constantinople. Obviously, even without facetiously bringing up the many victims briefly shown in the first issue in a flash forward to the mostly unseen present where the adult Vlad is superimposed over the field of the impaled, we can say there is a cast of thousands. The title cards help as we see hints of the various political forces sure to play a role later.

I ended up having minor quibbles with how Mister Moreno’s art landed on the page in a few places. Specifically, I had to toggle back and forth between Micea and young Vlad on the page. These two boys practically have the same face. Luckily, like the various Peanuts characters, they wear pretty much the same clothes throughout the story. Micea had a neck ruffle and Vlad wore the Tepes-Dracula coat of arms on his chest. But, as time went by how they acted help me tell them apart.

Mister Moreno also did the covers and then brought in a colorist. It’s the same art style, but color really helps the emotional impact of the overall read. Yes, except for the quibble in the above paragraph, I found the black and white art highly atmospheric setting the mood for the dark events to come. It favors the dark inks to go with a story landing in the dark places where the main character becomes known to history as Vlad the Impaler.

As for Mister Ambriz’s writing, allowing for the intentional style to let this story build like a slow cooked stew, I found the scripting to be very workmanlike getting the job done with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of emotional impact. This helped me stay with the story despite what are ultimately minor flaws in the writing. The most glaring of these is that through two issues, so far I’ve found seven typos where I couldn’t help myself and highlighted these mistakes with Post-it notes. Hopefully, there will be more time to send the script to a proofreader before the Issue 3 goes to the letterer.

We have a dark atmosphere with an easy sell when it comes to subject, even if we only get the Historical Dracula. The build up bringing things up to the top of the rollercoaster where the winch grinds the cable just before the release still works for me. As such, I’m still waiting to see what happens in Issue 3 when it finally surfaces. And that’s enough for me.

Oops! Someone opened the wrong egg…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Excerpted from the journals of Stephor the Seeker:

It was a night of bloody pissed drunk. The Rainbow City, Blue Sixteen, that pub where the serving ladies tell you to hide your eyes sparking up the special order, at least so I remember. The bright blinding near white blasted through the hands covering my eyes revealing the hidden forms behind my bony digits. Mug with my ale chaser. My dagger, just in case. I saw both of these with reversed colors on the bar. And then I saw the black egg resting between my drink and blade.

When my eyes cleared of spots, the black egg remained on the oak. Someone must’ve used the distraction of my Flaming Blue Flamingo to give me something. I didn’t leave home nagging my parents into a ship and sword to avoid impeding my brother’s accession to the Big Chair with the intent of being impressively stupid about strange gifts. I swept the egg to the sawdust floor and continued telling my best jokes to Brienne the blonde. Sadly, the Lady B, as the patrons called her, carefully explained that while we could disappear somewhere her man would want to watch and then attempt to outdo me afterwards…that killed the mood faster than her kiss to the forehead.

It was in this after phase of trying to figure out how I would get back to my ship without waving a red flag for the usual thugs inhabiting port cities that Lady B tossed a coin to the innkeeper instructing that I should land facedown over a chamber pot in a room upstairs. In so doing, she knelt down to find the black egg that I had so casually dismissed cracked open…

Editor’s Note:

I will stop the first person narrative here what with the legendary Stephor the Seeker about to spend the rest of the evening in the self-induced misery of being loaded to the eyeballs and paying off that karma at a vastly accelerated rate. The journals become more coherent the next afternoon to reveal what lay inside the black egg.

Other sources from that time reveal that the Rainbow City, a fabulous magical city with easy portals to nearly everywhere, nearly wrecked its entire Blue Section in a succession of disasters seemingly man made or natural but for being too far away from the regions where such phenomenon can be expected. A storm roughly equivalent to what Maine lobstermen might name Nor’easter blasted the three-square blocks around the pub. Six trolls seemingly appeared from other dimensions stepping carefully through imaginary doors in side alleys that no wizard ever replicated. And then there was the dragon as the end of level boss fight.

With each new inflicted terror, either Stephor or one of the other sources had found a black egg that was then cracked open. The shards of the previously cracked egg had disappeared when the new black egg appeared. All told the journals relate ten seemingly random destructive events that were finally curtailed when the shells were ground into fine powder and burned destroying the curse. Or just killed off a pernicious monster in its own right. Hard to say what happened.

Stephor entrusted me with his story when we’d met on the Los Angeles leg of his mission to find a lady with a certain necklace. He got one look at my all in one printer and started running off copies of four years of adventures for my benefit. I’d told him that I made my living telling stories, including repackaging unbelievable truths as fictions, and he knew he had the way to honor our first meeting when he was a child. He also put me on his Rainbow City library card as plus one knowing I would want additional sources for the wonders contained in his copied pages…like the black egg that I facetiously named the Noir Easter.

My research with the Rainbow City Library using Stephor’s card showed that black eggs show up across the multiverse mostly in places where magic provides shortcuts to science. Terrible and extraordinary events occur immediately upon cracking open the egg. One landed in the Sixth Ring of the Golden City and took out four blocks. The first of many appearances of the great storm much like Nor’easters once the rescue team swept up finding the cracked black shell. Because of this high correlation with storms unleashed in this manner, the resemblance to an Easter egg, this is how I came to name this phenomenon Noir Easter. Even serious research needs a few puns.

Was the Noir Easter a magical shell unleashing anything that had been locked inside waiting for a modern day Pandora to make French toast? Was the Noir Easter a sentient being, a monster that changed itself into the form most likely to amuse it laying waste to whole cities? Frankly, having followed up the additional sources the answer is elusive where perhaps both statements are true.

Wizards and scholars reporting back to the Library have stated that sometimes the Noir Easter can be appeased and propitiated with tender caresses or leaving the remains of the evening’s sandwich so the egg or the monster inside could feed. In some cases, the eggshell had strengthened with the offered food that nothing happened, even when the egg dropped from a great height. Such effects always proved temporary as the storm and plague of monsters that should’ve defined far off and therefore legendary merely waited a few days.

So for the benefit of my fellow game masters and authors who perhaps don’t have access to the Rainbow City Library, it is time to set down the parameters of what the Noir Easter could be. I think that, yes, the egg is in fact alive, but that it also makes agreements with other kinds of monsters to protect them when facing extinction in the home range until a gullible sentient (usually a human) can be enticed like Pandora to crack it.

The great storm appears to be the first form of the egg itself. That it releases itself from the small space in the egg as a sentient storm perhaps taking the form of a triumvirate of elementals: water, air and fire (providing the underlying energy of great storms). Then the many and varied monsters that come after the storm are either the creatures given a lift from elsewhere to the new range, or could be further manifestations of the Noir Easter itself. The wizards involved can’t agree, but they do agree that the mayhem ends when the shells are powdered and burned.

Luckily, for those of us that live in low magic realms the Noir Easter is just a fable to be ruthlessly exploited at the gaming table or in print for the temporary terror of our readers and players. Since the Noir Easter can either be anything or hide nearly anything in the various monster books for your favorite system, I will include a non-inclusive list of devastation to give the GM/author a quick goose to the imagination to tailor the fun and mayhem. Oh, yes, and my usual loosey-goosey suggestions as to the combat stats of the thing (assuming it’s alive).

1. Orcs, Vorgons and Goblins. The egg unleashes a number of pissed off humanoids roughly equivalent to the amount of hit points in the party. A warm up fight.

2. Trolls. Now the egg gets nasty transforming into a pack of trolls equal to three times the hit points of the whole party.

3. More trolls or giants. Mayhem equivalent to four times the hit points in the whole party.

4. Medusas, sirens and sirdusas. This one waits until the party makes it back to town and springs the leggy female upon them when they least expect it in the tavern – “buy me a drink kind, Sir.”

5. An even bigger storm. Perhaps the Noir Easter wasn’t finished leveling whole neighborhoods and just has to come back for more…

6. The dragon. Draw up a narratively appropriate dragon, wyrm, draco-bear or anything similar and get busy.

Of course, the individual DM/GM and author has complete freedom to expand these six choices into ten choices, twenty choices or even a hundred (a lot of work creating that D100 table, but…). I suggest that in its native egg state the Noir Easter whether whole or cracked should be able to survive at least thirty hit points of damage with resistance up to at least leather armor. And allow for random occurrences of “feed it and try to make friends.” There that covers that stats and rules geekery.

And if you should ask how in the real world one comes up with Noir Easter. I was loaded at a bar and I found a black plastic Easter egg, so not far off from what Stephor asserted in his journals. I’m a professional at this…until next time.

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Orpheus and Eurydice without the music, I thought to myself watching A Wrinkle in Time. In the end the experience of the filmed adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s classic children’s novel came off as one of almost and one of the few properties for which longer makes sense. Longer in the sense of a harder and harsher story rescuing Meg Murry’s father from the dark world of the It (Hades, Hell take your pick). And shorter in the sense of the three Mistresses, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which (the local analogue of Gandalf the overpowered guide) getting off stage earlier in the First Act.

We begin with Meg (Storm Reid) interacting with her father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), a brilliant astrophysicist explaining in simple terms his search for the frequencies lying underneath the universe that may enable long distance travel and possibly the opportunity to shake hands with Creation. And just days after adopting Meg’s new baby brother, Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe), Daddy disappears leaving a hole in Meg’s heart.

Four years later, Meg endures the slings and arrows of the outrageous misfortune of Middle School where any of the slightest things can cause bullying. Not having a father who famously disappeared after proposing an apparently whacked out theory about using frequencies and dimensions to travel anywhere, explore the mysteries of the subatomic, the influence of the other Dr. Murry, Kate aka Mom (Gugu MBatha-Raw) and generally geek out understanding it’s a wonderful and beautiful universe. Or having a little brother wearing his heart for his big sister on his sleeve. Or that the chief tormentor, Veronica Kiley (Rowan Blanchard), gets mean when she’s on a low carb diet.

Because Charles Wallace is such a nice trusting person where Meg really isn’t because Daddy disappearing has left a hole in her heart, he drags home or causes a meeting with two of three strange women to figure greatly in the story to come. First up, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) lands on their porch in a wind and rainstorm. She tells them that a tesseract is real and leaves when she sees Meg isn’t quite ready.

Then Charles Murry leads Meg and her friend and potential boyfriend, Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) across the street to a classic Los Angeles shotgun bungalow house where they find an odd and sleepy Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) wrapped up in a quilt making full use of a rocker. This Mrs. speaks only in other people’s quotations including a few that dropped into our collective headspace after the publication of the book. When Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are ready, the final guide appears…Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). And away we go…off to rescue Daddy from the clutches of the It, an ever-expanding force of anger, jealousy and rage infecting the whole galaxy, but starting with Earth.

Rescuing loved ones from the underworld or the Sith Lord headquarters on Death Star 2.0 is a time-honored allegedly always works form of mythic storytelling. We keep going back to it. And we keep using Gandalf the guide that has to leave in the middle of the story to make sure that Orpheus or Heracles (the other mythic Greek to tangle with Hades on home turf) do the heavy lifting themselves, rescuing people from the underworld. The problem is that sometimes the guide stays on stage too long as do all of the Mistresses in this case.

In the company of the three Mistresses (it is so hard to speak and write the plural of Mrs. without going back to the archaic meaning before the contraction), the children visit the visually stunning world of Uriel. The flowers fly. The colors assisted by lots of CGI might blow out your retinas and then the adventure party discovers the It during the latest tesser attempt. Meg doesn’t believe she can do very much because of how damaging Daddy’s absence has been. And then after a brief sojourn with The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), as obvious a stand-in for The Oracle of Delphi as there ever was, the roadshow goes directly to Camazotz, the land of the It. The Mistresses bail, a little late for my tastes in story structure.

If you ask me (and you didn’t, I get it), the movie needs to drag out what happens to the three children in the underworld lair of the It. Orpheus seeking his love was an epic journey full of stops where the mythical musician has to play for his life to calm various beasts resident in Hades, including the three-headed dog Cerberus. If you add in pseudo-Christian theology, where Lucifer works out his anger at God and humans by lying and deceiving, you can see how the Orpheus myth has expanded into some awesome storytelling, including the near-classic cheeseball movie Road to Hell from the 1990s. But, it works only if the writer/filmmaker doesn’t jump the narrative to get Orpheus into the infernal presence too soon.

Pretty much Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin see a scary, creepy suburban cul-de-sac where scary, creepy little children bounce playground red handballs in unison until they’re called inside by their equally scary, creepy Stepford Wives mothers for dinner. One of these moms offers to feed the hero party as well, but in a possible nod to the similar other great myth of the Greek Underworld, Persephone, Meg and party don’t want to eat anything in Camazotz.

And then the kids go to the beach, where the previous fortitude about not eating the It’s food breaks down and only Meg passes the moral test. And so once Charles Wallace succumbs to the blandishments from the It’s front man, Red (Michael Peña), the mission becomes about saving Daddy held prisoner and rescuing the boy from his mental entrapment by the It that sees his potential, but only if the lad abandons the love in his family. Meg must tap into her faults and insecurities as the smart brainy and awkward girl at school throwing punches over slights to her family and, most importantly, her love for Charles Wallace to get everyone home.

Really? So once the Orpheus stand-in leaves the security of the Mistresses at The Happy Medium’s cave, there are only two major stops in the Underworld to delay, distract her from rebuilding the family in Love? This has basically been a lot of words to carefully explain that not enough happens to Meg Murry to make this movie anything more than an average visual feast hollowed out like a homeless fort made from cardboard.

On the plus side, the film looks great. Whether it was the location scouts, the cinematography, or the absolute artists sacrificing their eyes in front of monitors, a new standard for screen wonder has been set. And director Ava DuVernay got as much as anyone would ever do out of this structurally thin script especially in the small moments seeing Meg’s travails at school at the hands of Veronica. Storm Reid imbues Meg Murry with the Everyman quality of all of us as we wish we could forget Middle School.

Another area where this film went well is with the music, especially finding every available female singer with a song about strong women, whether a mother, sister or daughter to tug at the heartstrings. As sometimes happens very little of the non-singing soundtrack comes back to my memory a day after seeing the movie.

In sum, I walked out of the theater feeling that not enough happened in this movie to care beyond the flashes of interesting character work seen on screen. Until next time…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Wow! Sometimes you land on brilliance where you least expect it and The Hitman’s Bodyguard fits that bill.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) protects wealthy clients. Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) shoots said wealthy clients for money, but only if they fit his criteria for being bad people. One day, Bryce protects a wealthy Japanese man from hotel to airport with the help of twenty underlings all in cool cars. The client boards his Learjet and…someone puts a bullet through the aircraft window right into the man’s head. Two years later, a depressed and angry Bryce has fallen to servicing protection gigs best described as being only two small steps away from being a mall rent-a-cop. An old girlfriend he blamed for the client’s death reappears after she nearly gets killed delivering witnesses against Belarus strongman, Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman), currently on trial in the Hague.

Many bad movies trade on the standard pitch of Cop and Criminal or Bodyguard and Assassin thrown together for survival and coming to learn how close they are in worldview. Several good movies, this one included, also use this pitch. What makes The Hitman’s Bodyguard stand out so much is the frankly surprising manner achieving the final product on screen.

It begins with the right casting for an example of the Seemingly Opposites Attract subgroup of Buddy Film. Yeah, throw Deadpool and Nick Fury together in a movie and see what happens. Mister Reynolds deceptively plays against his Deadpool persona as an initially by the book by the numbers kind of rigid planner, while still managing the underlying charming goofiness of his acting career that we hope he never loses. By contrast, Mr. Jackson plays to his strengths defined by his turn as the immortal Jules in Pulp Fiction presenting the thematic opposite personality, a born romantic seat of the pants killer with a reason. Let the fireworks commence.

Both men eat up all available scenery with copious Tapatió presenting their characters. And we come to see how their characters really only differ when factoring for the Planner versus Embracing Chaos debate and perhaps how often each will resort to cuss words. They pretty much do the same thing; kill bad guys for money taking modestly different approaches: the client is bad or the assassin is bad, both statements can be true. More importantly, since this high octane Buddy Road Movie trades on their underlying similarities we should point out that they are most alike when it comes to their women.

Darius met his wife Sonia (Salma Hayek) in a bar in Honduras of the type that we might declare a stereotypical One Percenter Biker Bar, but for that we don’t associate Honduras with very much of the Outlaw Biker lifestyle. In a flashback presented with spot on slow motion, the lady serving the drinks didn’t like her treatment at the hands of various pig customers. Darius rose from his seat to assist the lady, but found himself in Love at First Slashed Artery when it was basically all over but the shouting before he could even straighten up his back.

Similarly, Bryce secretly still pines for Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel (Élodie Yung) whom he met at the funeral of a client dead of excessive mayonnaise (the one thing a bodyguard can’t do). The Interpol agents are made when trying to arrest an associate of the guest of honor and mayhem ensues in yet another slow motion extravaganza. Amelia and Bryce land in each other’s arms. Can you see how these men basically have the same love interest?

Unfortunately, Amelia is more plot device to ferret out traitors to the trial among the ranks of Interpol in the Hague than character while Sonia gets all kinds of good lines lovingly referring to her man as a cockroach, unkillable. But, even though, structurally speaking, these ladies merely highlight aspects of the men the filmmakers really wanted us to know I found myself wishing for a girl chat moment between them.

As much as I enjoyed the slow motion dance back at their Honduras bar where Darius escaped prison to remember his anniversary with Sonia for the absolute last shot of the movie, a good way to get more out of this hilariously chaotic scene in my opinion was to turn the moment into a kind of double date coda for both couples. In this imaginary pretend scene, Darius dances with his sweetie amid the violent chaos of the bar where they met. Bryce arrives once the romantic slow motion ends to warn Darius that Amelia will soon be there to make the arrest, only to have Amelia enter with cops and handcuffs. Sonia busts Amelia for ingratitude considering that Darius played relationship therapist during a key action scene. Sonia and Amelia share a whiskey commiserating about their shared taste in men.

Yes, yes, I just fucked up a solid ending in its simplicity adding ten more moving parts to the cake (horrible mixed metaphor there). It’s just that this fantastically silly movie managed to make me want more and that’s a good thing.

A word about Gary Oldman. His part isn’t on screen long enough despite opening the movie with his crimes against humanity for us to really sink our teeth. It’s as if Mister Oldman had other dramatic fish to fry last year (Darkest Hour, anyone?) and even the filmmakers probably just assumed the thespian would independently develop the character and arc and thus the decided to leave him to his own devices as long as his dictator portrayal made any kind of sense. However, Mr. Oldman pulls off the thankless task of doing something interesting with a cardboard cutout thus justifying his hiring.

But, this movie succeeds on more than great casting and the resulting highly skilled acting, but in a frankly brilliant balancing of the comedy elements with a frantic and frenetic visual style more akin to a John Wick film than what is supposed to be an action-comedy. This is important because action-comedies don’t develop this brutal style of cinematic mayhem and still be funny, which this experience does. And just so you know the trailer that made me regret missing this movie the theaters last year only played up the funny (the singing Italian nuns on the bus), so color me immensely surprised.

The stunt work proved exciting, formulaic underneath and reassuring. I assert the previous sentence because if I wanted to be more of a movie snob showing off that watching movies and reading books is what I do I would go Chapter and Verse ticking off the James Bond movies from which they borrowed their gags (including a few moments from A View to Kill of all things). But, I’m reassured by anyone willing to plagiarize from the best.

Musically, the original score, such as it was, proved mostly forgettable, but the licensed song drop-ins over big moments knocked things out of the park. And we get to hear an interesting dichotomy between Samuel L. Jackson and Darius Kincaid in that the character can’t really carry a tune singing a personally important song, while the actor sings the same song over the end credits and hits the mark.

At which point, it’s time to move on to the next movie and I won’t bloviate further about liking the European and British locations or any of the other thousand small things that depending on execution either make a movie silly in a tragically bad way or elevate things to sublime good silliness worthy of nearly 1,300 words saying so. What, you’re still here? Review’s over, go home!

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

I’ve heard that some stage actors pick out a random member of the audience and play directly to that person as their personal method of getting over stage fright. Pretty much that’s what the team behind Red Sparrow did for me with this movie seemingly designing something with spies and really great music, including a 12-minute ballet sequence at the beginning that comes close to defining what film music is and should be for the next three generations. So pretty much, if you think I’m being too soft on…oh never mind, people who seek attention by writing really can’t sustain a huffy There’s the Door/Link to Rotten Tomatoes attitude. Anyway, good movie that I hope tears it up on home video/streaming if you don’t see it in the theater.

Dominika Egorov (Jennifer Lawrence) has the life dancing for the Bolshoi or whatever facsimile created on a soundstage absolutely nowhere near Moscow (IRL the Russian Bear is back to his old tricks, don’t expect film permits). Proof that All About Eve is universal to theater everywhere, the male lead leaps to land wrong on Dominika’s leg for the benefit of the understudy he has sex with ending the prima ballerina’s career. Even though it’s only CGI, the fracture defines ugly and cringe worthy for all filmmaking until whatever martial arts actor taking over for Steven Segal feels safe depicting actual compound (sticking out of skin) fractures again.

Meanwhile, CIA Case Officer Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) meets with an asset in Gorky Park where they’re interrupted by regular old vice cops that mistake the brush pass for a drug deal or perhaps a same sex solicitation. Nash breaks the cardinal rule about real world espionage and fires his Beretta into the ground to distract the cops away from the source, who seems nearly as important as the real life Oleg Penkovski or the fictional Cardinal from Clancy’s The Cardinal in the Kremlin.

Nash gets sent home by the Moscow Embassy before the political mess can get too fraught. Dominika’s uncle, Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenarts) suggests to his superiors in the SVR that they send a Sparrow (an operative trained in sexual manipulation) to make contact with Nash attempting to get the name of the highly placed traitor. Believing Dominika to already have the mental toughness for such work, he offers the assistance of his influence with the government to his niece.

Thus begins a sordid tale of sex, rape and espionage leading to a female comeuppance that is generally satisfying largely because Jennifer Lawrence as the star wills it so. It is also the story of a budding romance between Dominika and Nash that might or might not result in her recruitment as a traitor to Mother Russia as part of her desire to get even with the men that routinely use people like whores.

When I think about this movie in my most critical mindset independent of growing up as an avid reader of espionage novels (eventually, I will have to write about John Le Carré’s entire career giving the reader an excellent book learning course in tradecraft), the movie lands in the realm of solid and not as the classic it could have been. I suspect that my quibbles result from Jason Matthews’ originating novel, his first after a long career with the CIA.

The feel and authenticity of the dark and seamy world of human espionage in cities like Budapest and Vienna are undeniable, but I have a suspicion that when I finally read the book that I will find the same minor story structure flaws as the movie has. Dominika needed more mystery entering into the dance with Nash where we don’t exactly know if she really hates the bastards turning Russia into a paranoid aggressor willing to rig any election because democracy is scary or if she’s loyally playing a long game against Western imperialism. I knew because prior to seeing the movie I had perused the dust jacket blurbs for the trio of the books written by Mr. Matthews and the blurb for the sequel kind of gives away what happens between Nash and Dominika.

However, what is actually on screen for this part of the story flops onto the deck creating the impression of fairly straightforward storytelling where Dominika plays the game far straighter with Nash than she does against her uncle Ivan. Because we know that she won’t betray her lover and primary vehicle for vengeance, we perhaps get a solid but middling onscreen relationship that allows reviewers like me to say – “Yeah, worked for me” – and other reviewers to assert a complete lack of chemistry between Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Edgerton. The truth lands solidly in the middle.

The human psychological chess game that we’ve come to expect from most espionage stories of this type picks up when the game isn’t between Nash and Dominika, but between her and Uncle Ivan. Throughout her sex spy training, we see key techniques introduced to enable tracking, skillful tradecraft and hardcore emotional manipulation of targets and then we see Uncle Ivan drop in for a visit. Afterward, we see Dominika do things like grab a drink glass he touched, open bank accounts while asking the Americans for a lot of money and then, by design, we ignore these things while we rush to the next scene with Nash.

The real asset, codenamed Marble, reveals himself to Dominika offering himself as a sacrifice to enhance her double life as a traitor in place because events have proceeded to where either the lady brings back Marble’s name or she takes a bullet from the pissed off Russians. She has other plans that may or may not involve her game against her uncle and you’ll have to see the movie or read the book to learn what happens.

A word about the real world verisimilitude of Russian sex-spionage. The school described has been depicted elsewhere by nearly every interesting novelist or TV writer doing Russian spies. Mister Matthews presumably saw the same classified historical archives as Le Carré and the others. If we assume that these writers either lived it or did their research, then I give the program a high probability of being or having been deadly real. It is a life casual brutality where cadets in the program are degraded in ways sure to piss off feminists now that we live in post-MeToo Land. These stories assert that rape is a training tool designed to create the proper sexually fluid mindset where sex is about the mission and nothing like love nor emotional sentimentality comes anywhere near the operative’s thinking.

This nasty undercurrent shows up in the movie with Jennifer Lawrence choosing to walk right up to the median line of a hard R-rating with the copious amount of movie-safe nudity and sex seen onscreen. Additionally, there is a lot of torture leading to cinematic bullets to the head to dispatch now useless victims of state power. Some viewers are just never going to be okay watching this movie, especially since it really just lands in the middle of storytelling quality where, to steal a Godfather reference, they metaphorically decapitate the horse without getting the results seen in that classic terrifying scene.

Okay, so I’m predisposed to enjoy spies and back-alley espionage as long as the good guys win, but the music that composer James Newton Howard busts out for this movie really ties the room together. Usually film music, even creations of well regarded composers, does its job of tugging the required heartstrings and gets off stage, but this score proved haunting and perfectly tuned to the movie images that I put it in the same category as when I first heard Howard Shore’s work for Fellowship of the Ring, where you know you’ll stream the soundtrack off Spotify forty million times possibly never getting sick of the music.

In sum, we have a solid but not superlative espionage thriller that lucked out with a release date in early March between Black Panther and Wrinkle in Time and directly opposite Death Wish (2018) (see review), the single easiest competitor on the planet in this spring season. The squeamish should just not worry about this one and fans of really great film music will find something to like. A solid rental a few months from now. And with that the review’s over…go home!

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

The original was better. There I said it, the whine of every movie snob old enough to fondly remember the better movies from last year or four decades ago. With Death Wish (2018) the whine is real and highly deserved.

Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) has become a trauma surgeon in bullet-torn Chicago. He saves everybody, including criminals. One night, three burglars break into the Kersey house surprised that trauma surgeons don’t have regular schedules and kill Mrs. Kersey and gravely injure the daughter. The good doctor becomes receptive to a pro-gun vigilante justice argument because the cops will take forever to make an arrest. Criminals start dying from gunshots; the city of Chicago either stands up to cheer – “finally!” – or tries to double down on various anti-vigilante arguments.

I hate this movie more with each second I need to take typing this review. I’ll steal the words of a brief acquaintance some twenty years ago describing Judge Dredd – “I’m as liberal as the next guy, but I prefer that my fascist movies be honest and unapologetic about it.”

You can smell the unfortunate all over this film whether it’s hitting market two weeks after Parkland. Or the larger issue of Black Lives Matter where the original Charles Bronson film made no bones that some of Paul Kersey’s victims would be black. In fact, when you’re done reading this review go back to the original movie and fast forward to the Upper West Side cocktail party. You’ll hear many different sides of the vigilante debate, like a Liberal white woman expressing concern that the shooter takes down a lot of black people. The businessman trying to hit on her expresses the thought that if there are a lot of black criminals then statistically a lot of black criminals would get shot. Back then movies like this presented both sides and let the audience work it out…for good or for ill.

The new version falls flat dealing with these themes largely because the Step Carefully Square Dance proves completely obvious. The initial killers are white and Hispanic, mostly like the original. The movie then goes out of its way to align Paul Kersey as a not racist vigilante by saving a black couple from a carjacking from thugs that may split the difference between white and Hispanic. Then to really tango out of this firestorm, the script heavy-handedly makes sure that the one black target, the Ice Cream Man, is so loathsome in his intentionally shooting small children in the leg to force them to sell drugs that even blacks might just abandon him to his fate.

But, the most glaring difference between the original that set up the debate and this silly shit storm is that Paul Kersey finds and dispatches the men who are actually responsible for the crime against his family. If the point of a movie, like Death Wish is a discussion that asks – “how far would you go?” – then finding the killers you actually wanted to find damages the presentation of the metaphor. We got decades of discussion from Charles Bronson never finding the killers (until one the many sequels, I think) that comic book fans have gotten from Batman doing the same thing without guns in Gotham. We have no reason to discuss these things with Bruce Willis in the driver’s seat because it’s over too soon, despite emulating the original movie with Paul Kersey in another city pointing a gun finger at a criminal as the very last shot of the movie.

I found translating Paul Kersey from architect to doctor weakened the story in so many ways. We’ve come to assume high moral standards from good doctors due to what we assume about the Hippocratic Oath. And Bruce Willis’ transition to vigilante perhaps needed a few more intermediate steps showing him wrestling with his professional ethics against doing harm. This thread culminates in Dr. Kersey torturing one of his killers to find the remaining villain as if we’d suddenly channels to watch a Holocaust movie featuring Dr. Mengele. Stick to one thing, please!

Additionally, I just liked the way the unofficial police tolerance of the vigilante played out in the original. In the Charles Bronson version, he is wounded and the cops find the killer’s gun at the scene and find Mr. Kersey’s fingerprints. The killer has been good for the troubled city of New York reducing the crime rate by convincing criminals to stay home. They want the shootings to end, but do so quietly because the fear of the killer coming back might buy a few more months of lowered crime rates. The lead detective proposes that Paul Kersey take a transfer out of town in return for the pistol thrown in the East River.

By contrast, the detectives in the new version handle the same scene with a mushier morass of indirect questions highlighted by tone of voice. Especially since the final gunfight takes place in the Kersey home after Dr. Kersey decides to buy a gun legally and throw away the unregistered Glock, these detectives show that they know but don’t really care to prove. It all plays out clumsy.

I will finish the hit piece part of this review bringing up the one moment that takes a movie that was still semi-watchable despite all the flaws described above: the bowling ball. A pink bowling ball proves crucial to the plot representing both the worst kind of deus ex machina and is so out of place largely because it was put on screen without the comedy sound effects it truly deserved. But, Death Wish (2018) isn’t a comedy…pity.

How bad was this bowling ball moment? I hereby propose that Pink Bowling Ball join Jump the Shark and Nuke the Fridge in our pantheon of trite film clichés guaranteed to leave you laughing in a way that ruins the movie.

All of this silliness serves to wipe out quite a few things that are actually good about this movie. Mister Willis brings his trademark charm and cool that barely hides the underlying goofiness of his action hero life. In a script that made sense, we’d be talking about Paul Kersey 2.0 dethroning most of the portrayals of John McClane (the sequels, Ducky, not Die Hard) as the definition of Bruce Willis’ career.

Completely lost in the shuffle we have Vincent D’Onofrio as the brother, a new character from the original, who steps up to protect his family by showing up for his niece in hospital and then reels his brother back to reality. The performance here…well there just aren’t any words it’s so good.

With that I end and pretend I didn’t see this movie…