Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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Violent Femmes (not the band)

I was 23 when Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita hit the screens, and it was wild.
There had been action thrillers before, of course, but none like this – Anne Perillaud was absolutely stunning, and she was a killer.
In the true sense of the word.
La Femme Nikita was tough, dark in an almost neo-noir way, elegantly shot, and it featured a woman that did what usually was done by a guy, in this kind of movies.

Fast forward thirty years, and the kick-ass dame has become a common trope of modern action cinema, to the point it is now almost its own genre – the crime/espionage action thriller with the lone woman fighting her way from the first act to the third. You know, stuff like Atomic Blonde.

Today being Sunday, and this being August, I decided to take one day off. I spent the morning (re)reading the dark, disquieting The Devil in Nanking, by the late lamented Mo Hayder, and in the afternoon, it being too hot for anything else, I started the fan and then went to see what Prime Video had to offer.
I watched three movies. First, I watched Kate Beckinsale kick ass in New York in Jolt, then I watched Sasha Luss kick ass in Paris in Luc Besson’s Anna, and finally I watched Karen Gillan kick ass in Berlin in Gunpowder Milkshake.
Let’s talk about it.

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The Good, the Bad and the Starfish

I am not a big fan of superhero movies.
Granted, I liked Donner’s Superman, and I can enjoy a good superhero flick once in a while, but I am not a fan, I don’t have high expectations and I don’t wait holding my breath the next Marvel or DC film.
I enjoyed the Green Arrow TV adaptation, for a while, and I like Doom Patrol. A lot of the rest I missed simply because I was not interested.
And I enjoyed the Birds of Prey film for what it was. But to me The Avengers are still John Steed and Emma Peel.

It was mostly because of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and Idris Elba’s Bloodsport that I watched The Suicide Squad.
And James Gunn. I liked his old horror, Slither. I trust the guy.
Cast and director convinced me, despite the fact that I was never able to go deeper than fifteen minutes in the first film of the series, Suicide Squad, the one without a “The”.

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Cruisin’

Of all the movies that were somehow delayed by the pandemic, Disney’s Jungle Cruise was one of those I had been expecting with the highest anticipation. Possibly only Villeneuve’s Dune sits higher in my can’t-wait-to-see-it list for 2021.
On the downside, yes, it’s a Disney movie, and yes, it is based on a Disneyland ride. But I mean, the first Pirates of the Caribbean was based on a ride, too, right? And this one it features Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, and it’ s a big pulp-style adventure with exotic locales, a treasure, wild animals, the jungle, Conquistadores, headhunters… I mean, where do I sign?

So I went and watched it.

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Mind over matter: Detective L (2019)

A very Holmes-esque mystery series set in 1930s Shanghai?
You know I’ve got to see it.
And I did.

Detective L is a 24-episodes Chinese drama series set in 1932 Shanghai, and distributed on the streaming platform Tencent Video. Newcomer Qin Xiao Man, a woman graduate from a provincial police academy, comes to the big city to serve in the local constabulary, only to be swiftly paired off with Luo Fei, a detective that sometimes acts as consultant for the police.
A Watson-Holmes dynamic ensues, with an extra of romantic tension, as mysteries are solved and a shadowy character, the Moriarty-like “Captain” emerges to provide an overarching metaplot.

The series is a rather classic Chinese serial product, with good actors, great costumes and a somewhat limited budget locations-wise. The 1930s Shanghai is brought to screen via a mix of back lot sets, actual Shanghai villas and mansions and a lot of CGI.
But it’s OK.
Granted, this Shanghai is strangely devoid of Westerners of any kind, and a few glaring errors, prop-wise, caused a laugh-out-loud moment or two (one word: the gramophone turntable), but really, this is light entertainment, not a documentary. So it’s OK.
Even the quirky anachronistic soundtrack really works.

The leads are charming, and the idea of developing a mystery over an arc of three episodes allows a modicum of welcome development. These are classic locked room mysteries, more puzzles than in-depth investigations of the human soul, and it’s fine like that.
Even the comedy manages to be classy – not a given, with Chinese series and Western tastes.

If you are interested, you can find the whole series on Youtube, in mandarin but with English subtitles.
It’s a nice way to spend half an hour before dinner.


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The burgers always taste the same

I was talking with my friend Lucy, a few moments ago. We were discussing the first pages of a book we’ve both picked up and, alas, dropped real fast. The first pages are critical, and here, in two pages, we got such a distillation of elements done to death in the last thirty years, that we were both unable to go on. And we talked about this, comparing our reactions.

Now, I am not a big fan of gore-drenched slasher-fests, and so my distaste for the self-congratulatory tone with which the violence was portrayed in the text was somewhat natural. Lucy is more into this sort of books, and what she objected to was the cliché feel of the whole thing.

“We’ve seen it done better, a thousand times, since the ’90s”

she said.
And she is perfectly right.
And yet the book is selling like hotcakes, and it’s got a brace of rave reviews.
What the hell happened?

My take on the thing is, the book caters for the lowest common denominator, and that’s what the majority of the target audience is expecting. What they actually demand.

So a good strategy is to feed the audience a checklist of expected cliches, in the expected order, and with a language as commonplace and plain as possible.
Anything new, different and original might scare the target audience away.

And this, really, is the only thing that might convince me to go on reading this book – to see if the author is smart enough to hook his target audience in the first stilted throwaway pages, and then, once the readers have been hooked, reel them in and hit them with a few original twists.
It would be great.
But I doubt this is how it goes.

Talking with Lucy, we remembered the song Styx used to sing…

I like fast food
The burgers always
taste the same

Entertainment should be entertaining and, in this instance at least, it is not entertaining to me, or to Lucy.
We have been there already, now we want something more, something better.
I’d go as far as to say we’d be happy with a less-than-perfect story, as long as it goes someplace we’ve never been before, or throws a different light on ideas we are familiar with.
But we have to accept that to the majority of the readers, the lowest common denominator, the burger-like story that always tastes the same, is perfectly fine.

It’s a very unpleasant situation – both from a writer’s and a reader’s point of view.


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Space Patrol, in German

I was always pretty wary of nostalgia, and I’ve become even more so in the last few years, after seeing nostalgia weaponized and used to sell cartloads of rubbish to people that, basically, were reacting to a manufactured nostalgia for something they had not, in fact, experienced first hand.
And yet.

Yesterday I read in Variety a Bavarian production company is set to launch a new series of Raumpatrouille – that’s Space Patrol in German – a 1966 series that was probably the first proper SF show I ever saw on television, in the early ’70s, when I was in primary school.
Boy, we loved that show – all seven episodes of it.
The complete title was quite a mothful, in original: Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion.

The plot: in a future in which humanity has become a single people as is exploring space, major Clif Allister McLane and the crew of the starship Orion face menaces both natural and not, including the expansionist plans of an alien race known as the Frogs.

The series was shot in black and white, and REALLY on the cheap – and yet it turned out to be too expensive for the production company, that had to pull the plug after barely seven 1-hour episodes because they had run out of money.

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School of hard knocks: Monster Hunter (2020)

I did not have great expectations when I started watching Monster Hunter, the 2020 movie based on a popular videogame property by Capcom. I never played the videogames, and I had a very sketchy idea of the setup. All I knew was there is Milla Jovovich in it – and I quite like her – and that it was written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, a man that should be hanged and quartered for what he did to the Three Musketeers.
So, you get an idea of what I was expecting.

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