Pulp Consumption: Justified

Long Hard Times to Come

JUSTIFIED was a law-and-crime show that ran for six seasons on FX, and starred Timothy Olyphant as US Marshall Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as the criminal Boyd Crowder. The show was based off characters by the late great Elmore Leonard, who, until his untimely death, had an Executive Producer credit on the show.

It would be too easy to say that Raylan is a cowboy cop… but with the boots, the hat (the hat!), and the general attitude, well, it fits. That said, many of Raylan’s actions where he deviates from standard procedure only gets him into worse trouble both personally and professionally. The show also doesn’t steer away from the issues that substance abuse, in particular alcohol, can have on a character. Raylan would be a typical white hat in any classic Western: quick on the draw, giving ultimatums to bad guys (memorably used in the very first episode), and operating within his own code of honor. At times, given that he is operating in the early part of the 21st century and not the latter half of the 19th, this often has negative repercussions.

a11892fd3ed5479fc7cb92bf3008aa57

Timothy Olyphant (left) as Raylan Givens, and Walton Goggins (right) as Boyd Crowder

One of the most interesting facets of the show for me was that it realized it had two interesting character arcs to work with, and it wasn’t afraid to take time off from one to focus on the other[1]. Even though Raylan and Boyd are frequently set in opposition to each other, the show does diverge at times to show that not every criminal action was tied to Boyd, and that Givens did have a responsibility as a law enforcement officer that extended beyond Boyd’s criminal aspirations. Both arcs are highly compelling and complex. The show accomplishes this by focusing not only on the tensions between Raylan and Boyd, but each season contains a arc where some outside criminal force tries to make inroads in Harlan County, thinking the locals uneducated rubes. Without fail, the locals show that local knowledge and deep roots in Kentucky triumph every time.

The show also brings to the fore how vital secondary characters are to establishing a well-rounded show. Whether it was Ava (Joelle Carter), torn between Raylan and Boyd, or Art (Nick Searcy) as Raylan’s long-suffering boss, the people orbiting around the main characters provide a vibrant and more importantly, believable, community for these characters to inhabit. Also, all of the characters evolve in believable ways to the actions that take place around them. Characters grow, evolve, and yes, make some truly stupendous bad decisions, but, for the most part, you can understand why they’d make those decisions in the first place.

So if you are looking for a show to binge and want to see what happens when a great like Elmore Leonard gets transferred to a different medium, you could do a lot worse than JUSTIFED.

[1] Fun trivia fact: Boyd Crowder wasn’t supposed to survive the pilot episode, but Walton Goggins’ performance convinced the showrunners to keep him around. I can only imagine how different the show would be without him.

Posted in Pulp Consumption | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pulp Consumption: Lovecraft Country

1801753216
In theory, Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff should be everything I want to read in modern horror – inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, but rejecting his outright racism. Maybe it would have, if I’d stopped reading after the first section. Instead, taken as a whole, the novel was merely okay.

Lovecraft Country, published in 2016, is the story of two black families living during the Jim Crow era, when the racist attitudes of much of America supported such awful ideas as sundown towns and anti-miscegenation laws. The main character of the first section of the novel is Atticus Turner. As the story opens, Turner’s father, Montrose, has called Atticus home from Florida, where Turner settled after ending his active duty service for the Army in Korea. When Turner gets home, after being accosted time and again by the white establishment, including being shot at by a police officer for violating a town’s sundown curfew, he finds his father missing. He enlists the help of his Uncle George, the publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional analog of the real Negro Motorist Green Book, and his childhood friend, the strong-willed and resourceful Letitia, to head to Ardham, Massachusetts, his father’s destination. It’s a point of deliberate humor when Atticus first misreads the location as Lovecraft’s Arkham.

Pulp horror and science fiction permeate the world of Lovecraft Country, with much of the main cast being fans of works written by people like Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft. While they despise much of the racism that presented itself in those works, the fictional worlds those authors, and many others, created were big enough draws the characters could love the work while not forgiving or apologizing for the biases, much like Matt and I.

It’s no surprise, then, when Turner’s father is discovered imprisoned in a weird village where a cult of white necromantic sorcerers, the Order of the Ancient Dawn, is attempting to enact a ritual that will give them even more magical power than they currently possess.

It is this first section I fell in love with. The existential horror of being black Americans trying to travel from one state to another without being imprisoned or killed simply for the color of their skin is coupled with the existential horror of ages-old cults worshiping Elder Gods (though not Lovecraft’s versions) and possessing ancient magical texts.

As mentioned in the introduction, I ought to have stopped once the first section met its resolution. Sadly I did not, mostly because I was so enthusiastic about what I’d read. I really wanted the rest to match. However, as the novel went on I found myself drifting away from some of the characters, until the last section when I very nearly just stopped completely. Each chapter after the first is told from a different character’s point of view. Normally that would be fine, and many authors make use of this sort of limited omniscience to great effect. But the first section establishes a strong connection with Atticus, and I never felt as deeply attached to the other characters. That’s not to say there is nothing enjoyable about the rest of the novel, but none of it matches the heights of Atticus’ story of coming home and then attempting to rescue his father.

The book is comprised of eight novellas, each following a different character’s point of view. I’ve mentioned Atticus’ story above, which was fantastic. The stories of Ruby, Letitia’s sister who is given power to change her race in the fashion of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde; Hippolyta, Uncle George’s wife and main researcher for the The Safe Negro Travel Guide, an explorer who visits a weird far-flung world with strange stars; and Montrose, a man who winds up reliving part of the Tulsa race riots while conversing with ghosts, are also particularly well done, though never quite as good as the first. I’m less enamored of the stories of Letitia, the inheritor of a haunted house; Uncle George, who puts together a group of Prince Hall Masons to steal an ancient Book of Names; and Horace, Uncle George’s son, who is stalked by a possessed doll, a la Chuckie or Talking Tina. But they’re readable, if not terribly exciting.

The last chapter, “The Mark of Cain” isn’t really horror at all. The main characters, who up until this point have been fighting nearly hopeless battles and just barely surviving, suddenly become hyper-competent masterminds, like Ocean’s Eleven, and the ending reads nothing whatsoever like its namesake author, nor the novellas before it. I was supremely disappointed with this turn, especially since I felt like Ruff did such a good job capturing the feeling of Lovecraft while updating it for modern audiences. The last chapter just doesn’t fit.

Still, Lovecraft Country is definitely worth reading. If I had to rank it on a 5 star scale, it would be a 3 overall.

As a final note, earlier this year there was talk about HBO making a Lovecraft Country TV show with Jordan Peele, fresh off his tremendously successful Get Out, but there’s been no real chatter since May.

Posted in Pulp Consumption | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Pulp Consumption: Hard Boiled

Okay, so HARD BOILED wasn’t my first exposure to John Woo’s style of film making[1], but if I have to name the one film of his I could not do without it is this, his swan song before he left Hong Kong to make movies in the USA.

hardboiled1

Give a guy a gun, he thinks he’s Superman. Give him two and he thinks he’s God.

A quick synopsis of the plot- Tequila Yuen (Yun-Fat Chow) is the hard boiled cop of the title. He’s not great at relationships and he’s terrible at following orders, but put a gun in his hand (or even better, two) and he’s a God among men. Alan (played by Tony Leung) is an undercover officer trying to dismantle a ruthless organized crime gang from the inside. At first thinking that they are on opposite sides, the two learn to work together to bring down the ruthless boss Johnny.

Okay, so what makes it pulp though? Is it the action sequences, beautifully shot and which act as a high water mark for heroic bloodshed, a subgenre of action movies featuring high amounts of gunplay, meticulously crafted action choreography, and well, blood?

Is it the seemingly black-and-white characters that get mired in the grey of reality? Where one character who is clearly the heavy discovers there is a line he will not cross when his boss takes a step too far? Where Woo acknowledges the chaos that can result in a running gun battle and that friendly fire might happen and what toll that might take on a character? Is it the core threads of honor and respect that some of the characters hold on to with both hands?

hardboiled2

Here are the things that make the movie work for me:

  1. The stakes are clearly defined throughout the movie. Tequila wants revenge for his partner getting shot. Alan wants to bring down the mob so he can come out from undercover work. Johnny wants to make money by importing as many guns as he can.
  2. The action is palpable and beautifully done. As a viewer you get sucked in and the way the cinematography is done blows you away.
  3. There are a few quiet moments in the film, some brief time in introspection. Particularly of note is Tequila’s conversation with a bartender (John Woo himself in a cameo). These function as periodic breaks to give the viewer a chance to catch their breath and prepare for the next bit of action… as opposed to being a never ending sensory barrage.
  4. The lines are clearly drawn, despite some of the moral ambiguity. The old mob boss is of a more respectable nature, while the up-and-comer Johnny is obviously a more reckless and dangerous element. Despite some of the actions Alan is forced to take while undercover, he shows obvious regret while still acknowledging that the work he is doing is important.

hardboiled3

HARD BOILED would receive a sequel of sorts in 2007 in the form of the video game STRANGLEHOLD, with the added bonus of Chow Yun-Fat reprising his role as Tequila, but if you haven’t seen the original… well, what are you waiting for?

[1] That would be HARD TARGET where Jean-Claude Van Damme is a merchant marine going up against rich people who hunt the poor for sport.

Posted in Pulp Consumption | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pulp Appeal: Tales from the Crypt

Tales-from-the-Crypt_1

Eeee hee hee hee hee hee hee heeeeeeee!

A couple years ago there was a rumor (which turned out to be correct) M. Night Shyamalan was resurrecting one of my favorite television series of all time: Tales from the Crypt. I was simultaneously ecstatic and revolted, as anyone who has followed Shyamalan’s career[1] has a right to be. I have a reputation among my friends and family of poo-pooing remakes and unnecessary sequels, but this is a series I would love to see revived, provided it is done correctly.

Before the era of the Comics Code Authority, comic books went through a growth period in which they embraced violence, blood, and horror, but no publisher pushed the boundaries of acceptability in four-colors further than William Gaines of EC Comics. After his father died, Bill took over and turned it from a fairly standard publishing house, Entertaining Comics, into the horror and shock masterpiece that marked EC Comics’ heyday.

Although writers and producers had been bandying about the idea of a Tales from the Crypt movie for years, the box office flops Twilight Zone: The Movie and Creepshow made that path untenable at best, but HBO was willing to get onboard with a tv series simply because of how much support the idea was getting from big name Hollywood types like Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, and Walter Hill. Zemeckis was a hot commodity at the time after the huge success of Back to the Future, Donner was the hitmaker behind Superman and The Goonies, and Walter Hill was the man behind the stylistic wonder The Warriors. With those three pushing for the series, it’s no surprise HBO backed the weird property.

Most of the show’s episodes come not from the title comic, Tales from the Crypt, but rather from The Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, and The Haunt of Fear. The stories Gaines published were mostly those of bloody morality tales where deviants and murderers get their comeuppances in gory and frequently ironic fashions, and the tv series followed suit. Although the comics became the focus of Congressional hearings over decency laws, and eventually died out because of the strict censorship protocols of the Comics Code Authority, HBO didn’t have to fight those battles. As an independent cable network, they could show blood, violence, and nudity, most of which would be considered tame by modern standards[2].

Like a lot of pulp of the later era, there are clear morals in play in the Tales series. While earlier pulp magazines and stories of the 1930s and 40s played more in the gray areas, with heroic criminals and selfish heroes, the EC Comics stories were definitely starker in their divides. The villains were clear and they almost universally met tragic endings. 

RCO011_1464944405The tv series follows this formula, which is entertaining, if at times predictable and staid. That said, there are few duds in the long-running anthology, and the series was popular enough they even made a kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon spin-off, Tales from the Cryptkeeper[3].

My all time favorite episode has to be the third episode of season 1, “”Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone.” Joe Pantoliano plays a daredevil who thinks he has nine lives after a medical experiment, only to realize too late into his latest death-defying stunt that he’s miscounted and is about to be buried alive. It’s simple, not overly moralistic, and has one of my favorite character actors in a lead role.

RCO028_1464947730

I also really like the episode from season 2 called “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” starring Bobcat Goldthwait (what has he been up to recently?) and Don Rickles. I think it’s partly because Rickles is one of my favorite stand-up comics, engaging as he does in insult comedy against his own audience. Anyone who knows me probably understands why. The reveal of who the ventriloquist’s dummy is remains one of the stupidest reveals in tv history, right up there with Newhart’s “it was all a dream” nonsense, and yet I love it because it’s so insanely campy.

Something I didn’t know until research for writing this article was the censored syndicated versions of the show that aired on Fox in the mid 1990s weren’t just cut, but rather used secondary shots. The producers had apparently planned for the show to reach larger audiences and double-shot most episodes so they could be recut for broadcast without being completely neutered by dialogue overdubs or pixelation.

Since the cancellation of the in-production revival this past summer[4], it appears our best hope for anthology television remains in the science fiction realm. While The Twilight Zone managed to split across scifi, fantasy, and horror genres in relatively equal measure, modern productions are having a harder time of it. Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror has been a hit, with a new season dropping sometime soon. Amazon is hitting back at Netflix with a science-fiction anthology series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, based on the work of one of the best science fiction authors of the mid-to-late 20th Century.

There is certainly room for a straight-up horror anthology series, something the world has been missing for over a decade. The last attempt[5] at a tv show was Showtime’s Masters of Horror, which had some really fantastic episodes, but lacked the longevity of Tales from the Crypt. There have been movies like V/H/S attempting to fill the void, but every one I’ve seen has been a pale imitation at best. While I was trepidatious and cautiously optimistic about a Shyamalan-helmed reboot of Tales from the Crypt, not having anything at all in the works is even more disheartening. I guess I’ll have to find my joy in Black Mirror and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. I just wish HBO would at least find a way to put Tales from the Crypt up on HBOGO.


[1] He has some made some of my favorite films, like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Split, and some catastrophic duds, like The Last Airbender, AfterEarth, and The Happening.

[2] Heck, even some broadcast network shows show more of the first two than Tales from the Crypt did, and while nudity is still censored outside of subscription cable services, some recent shows make Tales look positively prudish.

[3] Yup, that’s right – kid-friendly horror cartoon. Here’s the intro.

[4] Rights issues were apparently labyrinthine and no one could find an Alexandrian way of cutting that Gordian Knot.

[5] I am aware of Amazon’s Lore, but haven’t yet had the chance to watch it. Reviews have been mixed, so I’m in no rush, but maybe over winter break I’ll give it a go.

Posted in Pulp Appeal | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Pulp Consumption: Mad Max: Fury Road

mad+max+fury+road+trailer

Max and what’s left of his “Pursuit Special” 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT

In case you’ve been under a rock somewhere, Mad Max: Fury Road is the latest (as of 2015) installment in George Miller’s Mad Max series of films.

Yes, I know it’s another movie. Yes, I know it’s post-apocalyptic. Yes, I know it doesn’t fit into the “pulp mold”, whatever that might be.

Here’s why you want to watch it from a storytelling perspective.

The stakes are clear. If Max doesn’t escape Immortan Joe and his War Boys, he’s going to be bled dry as a source of clean blood. If Furiosa and Immortan’s brides don’t escape, Furiosa will be killed (most likely), and the brides will be subjected to sex slave status until Joe dispenses with them at which point the best they can probably hope for is being used as a milk source. If Immortan doesn’t recapture Furiosa and the brides, his power is diminished both in a material way (loss of the War Rig) as well as from a social standing (he looks weak for having one of his chief lieutenants defect, as well as losing the status symbols of having his “brides”). As a tyrannical despot, Immortan didn’t get to be in power, and keep that power, by being the type of guy to let things slide.

 

MV5BMTY2NDMxODcyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjQ3NTE2NTE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,744_AL_

Mediocre? I think not.

The story is action driven. From the first chase through the desert where Max is captured, through the citadel when he tries to escape, down to the extended chase through the wasteland, Fury Road is driven by action and with all of the characters taking deliberate actions to move the story along. It is one of those rare stories where the villain is being forced to react to the actions of the protagonists. The story wouldn’t happen if Furiosa hadn’t stolen the rig and tried to escape with the brides. Everything Immortan Joe and his forces do in the scope of the movie is in reaction to that theft.

The storytelling techniques used are also inspired. There are no long infodumps. Miller shows enough to establish setting and character with a few visuals and lets the viewer do the heavy lifting with the rest. There is no voice over describing War Boy culture, and it doesn’t detract from the film. We don’t get much of Furiosa’s backstory other than the sense she has done terrible things in Immortan Joe’s service and this act of rebellion might be her way of seeking a redemption of sorts.

the-man-behind-the-awesome-flamethrower-guitar-player-in-mad-max-fury-road-is-a-popular-australian-musician (1)

I considered cropping this image, but really, how could I?

One of the ways that it does fit the classic pulp structure is that there is a clear sense of good and evil. From the character designs down, there is a clear sense of the sides everyone is on. Even Max, who ostensibly starts off as neutral (all he wants is his car back and to be on his way) quickly realizes who he is better off with as he sides with Furiosa despite the odds stacked against her. The actions of Immortan Joe (along with the Bullet Farmer and People Eater), might seem over the top and evil, but they never spill over the edge into the realm of making it hard to suspend disbelief.  It is the type of story that wouldn’t feel out of place in a sword-and-sorcery setting, or even a retro sci-fi piece with some minor adjustments.

So if you are looking for inspiration for your own pulp stories, you can do a lot worse than looking toward Fury Road for inspiration[1].

Also, be sure to check out Cameron’s article last week where he discussed the original Mad Max. And don’t forget that you can join us on Facebook.


[1] This isn’t the first time Matt’s talked about Fury Road. If you want more of his insights, you can check out this episode of Hollow9ine’s “What Am I Watching?!”

Posted in Pulp Consumption | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Pulp Consumption: Mad Max

madmax

Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray cover

In 1979 something incredible happened: I was born. But seriously, that’s also the year of some amazing cinema, including Alien, The Amityville Horror, Apocalypse Now, and The Warriors, but the one I’m most enamored of is Mel Gibson’s second major film, and the one that rocketed him to stardom, Mad Max.

mad_max_2_h2-490x388

Max during Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, arguably more influential and important to the look of Fury Road than anything in the original.

The Mad Max series rocketed back into cultural consciousness two years ago with Fury Road, but before Furiosa and Immortan Joe, before Tina Turner singing “We don’t need another hero,” before the ever-expanding desert and the gyrocopter and the weird kids-only cargo cult, we had Max Rockatansky, an Australian highway patrolman operating a pursuit vehicle at the ass-end of civilization as society breaks down around him. We aren’t given a specific time period, just “a few years from now,” and there are still vestiges of contemporary life, but the apocalyptic events that shape the world of the later Mad Max sequels are clearly ramping up.

Of course, that information all comes over the course of said sequels, and George Miller’s explanation of setting is not nearly so clear in the films themselves as it is in hindsight with audience interpolation and extrapolation. Miller chooses not to have a ton of voiceover, long expository scenes, minutes-long text scrolling, or characters all but talking to viewers, as some other, lesser films tend to do. Instead he packs every scene with visual cues, exhibiting an attention to detail that is rivaled only by the best directors in film history, people like Alfred Hitchcock, Walter Hill, Brian DePalma, Ridley Scott (before fame ruined his directorial focus), James Cameron, and Stanley Kubrick (when he wasn’t being a monstrous jerk to his actors).

At the beginning of the film, Max is called out to engage and bring to justice a motorcycle gang member known as Nightrider after Nightrider has killed a rookie police officer. After a high-speed chase in his now-iconic Interceptor (a 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT), Max manages to force a crash that kills Nightrider. Some later events regarding the lack of true justice for a rape committed by the same gang makes Max question the efficacy of law enforcement as the world begins to eat itself, and he tries to resign and make do with what life is left in the collapsing world. He’s convinced to take a vacation instead, but there are no Disneys in this world, and vacations aren’t exactly something that happens in the apocalypse.

MV5BMTU2MTI1NzQ5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODc3NDk0NA@@._V1_SY343_CR0,0,511,343_AL_

Max as he appears before the film hits high gear.

What starts out as a relatively straightforward action cop movie shifts gears and becomes a straight up revenge film as Max forgoes any objectivity or belief in justice after watching his wife and infant son run down and murdered by a biker gang. Far be it for me to spoil a 38-year-old movie, but Max gets his vengeance and leaves the last vestiges of his humanity behind him as he moves on to become the ultimate survivor we meet in the three follow-up movies.

This film absolutely fits into the pulp aesthetic, at least as far as I’m concerned. There may be room for some reasonable disagreement on this point, but revenge plots where main characters seek out their own personal justice against the people who have done them wrong are as pure pulp as exists. The sense of right and wrong is also pretty clear cut, which some of the pulp revolution crowd insist on when they describe pulp. I’m not so set on that, and any in-depth foray into Black Mask or Detective Fiction Weekly will put the lie to that idea. In any case, there is clear motivation, all the action is driven by character decision rather than authorial intrusion or outside circumstances, and the resolution is satisfying if morally gray, lending viewers a definite feeling that justice was served, but at a significant personal cost.

MV5BNTcxYjQ0YTgtZTIzYi00OWQ4LWI4NmQtZDUzMmQ1YzA1OGRhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,641,1000_AL_

The weakest of the films is also the one that establishes most of the mythology about the apocalypse and those who are surviving it.

To modern audiences, Mad Max might appear a tad slow, which I grok, as even for a fan like me it does seem to drag on at times. Compared to Miller’s newest sequel (or even its excellent immediate sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and the less-than-stellar-but-still-enjoyable mid-1980s trope defining Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) Mad Max seems positively glacial.

If your only foray into the world of the desert diesel-punk post-apocalyptic world that is Mad Max was 2015’s Fury Road, then you need to do yourself a favor and queue up the original, if for no other reason than to see where it all started.

In next week’s article, Matt will be discussing Fury Road, so stay tuned for more Mad Max love. While you’re at it, join us on Facebook. We just launched a group where we can engage more directly with fans of Broadswords and Blasters or pulp in general.

Posted in Pulp Consumption | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Pulp Consumption: The Recursion Theorem

Earlier this year, we were given the unique opportunity to view “The Recursion Theorem,” an indie black and white film that would feel right at home in the Twilight Zone. It also claims inspiration from Asteroids (the classic video game), and Greek mythology. Yes, when I read that description I scratched my head as well. But bear with it, because it comes together well.

The story is simple enough. A man, Dan Everett, wakes up in a room, with no memory as to how he arrived there. In his exploration of his space, he discovers that he cannot escape the room, as no matter what point he exits, he reenters the room at the opposite point. With his physical movement so confined, what follows is his exploration of how he might have arrived there and what it will mean at the end.

While the special effects are impressive (especially for an indie), the stand out piece is Dan Franko’s performance as Dan and his descent into… well, if it’s not quite madness than it is at least a close cousin. At one point he has a conversation with his more reasonable half, proceeds to get drunk and devises a plan to escape that, well… that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

One thing I can say is that I wish the filmmaker had revealed a bit more as to what is going on, as all the viewer truly understands is about as much as Dan himself. There are hints strewn throughout the film as to what the possibilities are, but nothing is fully revealed leaving the viewer to guess at the nature of the room and whether Dan is justly imprisoned, cruelly being held captive, or perhaps the entire sequence of events is playing out in his head.

I’d recommend this to anyone who is a fan of the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, or even Doctor Who for the themes explored… or just to people who enjoy what a single actor can accomplish in a limited space.

The Recursion Theorem is available on a pay-what-you-want at their website, has garnered a heap of well-deserved praise, and is a testament to what indie film makers can accomplish.

Posted in Pulp Consumption | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment