Writer of fiction, poetry and essays.

This short story collection came recommended to me by Lorinda J. Taylor, so I knew going in it would be good. And it lived up to my expectations. The stories are all weird, unsettling, at times disturbing, at other times very funny. In short, an excellent blend of moods.

Each story is based on a famous painting, including works by Chagall, Picasso, and others. A neat concept which leads in interesting directions, and allows for new interpretations of famous pieces.

My favorite story in the collection was probably “The Gift,” which is a classic tale of a vengeful spirit, a concept that I love. I also greatly enjoyed the story from which the collection takes its name, a disturbing blend of sci-fi and horror that evoked A.C. Flory’s Vokhtah in its detailed portrayal of an utterly alien society. “Corden’s Coral Phase” was also a highlight, with the entertaining banter between its characters gradually revealing their personalities.

The description of this collection on Goodreads says, “If you like authors such as Philip K Dick, Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury, P.G. Wodehouse, Annie Proulx and Franz Kafka, then Crow Bones is the anthology for you.”

I can definitely see the influence of Poe and Bradbury. (To be clear, I’m talking Bradbury at his best, i.e. Something Wicked This Way Comes.) I didn’t pick up the Wodehouse influence so much, maybe because the subject matter, even when it is humorous, is more off-kilter than “Plum” would usually do. But it is well-written, and to that lineup above I would add two more names that it brought to my mind: Harlan Ellison and Ambrose Bierce. It has that same dark mood that characterized their works, and frequently the sardonic edge as well.

These stories are probably not for everyone, as their grimmer elements may deter some readers. But if you like dark, weird fiction, and the fact that you’re reading this blog is a strong indication that you probably do, then you should absolutely check it out.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

You probably know Warren Zevon, if you know him at all, as the “Werewolves of London” guy. Maybe you remember his appearance on the David Letterman show when he was dying of cancer.

But Zevon was more than just a one-hit wonder with a poignant final act. He was a hardboiled, sardonic, and tempestuous man. A Byronic rocker, particularly in the sense of being “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” From his ’70s mercenary anthems “Jungle Work” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” to his more sensitive ruminations on death, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” “Life’ll Kill Ya,” and “Ourselves To Know,” his body of work contains far more than just a goofy dance tune about Lon Chaney Jr. walkin’ with the Queen.

Of all Zevon’s albums, Transverse City is probably the least popular. Even his friends didn’t like it. And it’s true, it has a vastly different sound compared with all his other albums.

Yet, the more I listen, the more I become convinced it is his finest work. Maybe there is no standout track like “Roland,” “Mohammad’s Radio,” or “Mr. Bad Example,” but the album as a whole has no weaknesses. Moreover, it’s a concept album with thematic coherence. Rather than just a bunch of songs, it’s a series of variations on a single motif.

And what is that motif? Haha, you must be new here. Seasoned Ruined Chapel veterans know my critical style is very much that of a shaggy dog story; we work our way gradually to the punchline.

But okay, let’s start at the beginning. Track one, side one, and it’s also the title track. It is setting the tone. Right off the bat, we get a whirlwind tour of a cyberpunk wasteland: “Past the shiny mylar towers / Past the ravaged tenements / To a place we can’t remember / For a time we won’t forget.” Zevon had apparently been reading William Gibson, and the influence is pretty clear.

From that, the music segues into a weird electric buzzing that bleeds into the next track, “Run Straight Down.” Once again, we get another techno-hellscape, this time with a more direct commentary on the annihilation of the environment: “Pretty soon there’s not a creature stirring / ‘Cept the robots at the dynamo.”

And again, there’s a weird effect of sirens and helicopter rotors that introduces the next song: “The Long Arm of the Law,” which paints a picture of a post-apocalypse dystopia full of corrupt authorities: “First words I ever heard: / ‘Nobody move, nobody gets hurt!'”

These first three tracks form a coherent vision of nightmarish high-tech cities and the nihilistic decadents who populate them, of the destruction of nature by machines, and an evil government that oversees it all.

To me, this is almost a mini-album in itself, and these three songs would be worth the price. But Zevon is just getting started.

Next up is “Turbulence“. At face value, this is another of Zevon’s signature “obscure warzone” songs, in the tradition of “Roland.” (And later, the little-known “Bujumbura”)  This time, Zevon has made his narrator an unfortunate young soldier in the U.S.S.R’s occupation of Afghanistan: “But comrade Shevardnadze, tell me / What’s a poor boy like me to do?” The song also includes (in Russian) the following haunting lines:

“Lost city on the red desert
I hear voices of enemies from everywhere
I miss my mother very much.”

Following “Turbulence” is the moody and atmospheric “They Moved The Moon,” which is lyrically pretty thin but which captures the feeling of eerie discombobulation perfectly.

Now, if you’re listening to this on a record, this is where the side change occurrs. I only know that from Wikipedia. I first heard this on CD. I admit, I’ve never listened to an actual record on an actual record player. I’ve seen them, and I’ve listened to electronic recordings of records, but have not, ever, listened to one. Yet, even when I was born, it was common for music to be released this way. It really blows my mind.

But, we proceed. The first track on Side 2 is “Splendid Isolation,” which sums up the attitude of the extreme introvert nicely from its opening line onward: “I want to live all alone in the desert.”

And then we have “Networking.” This may well be the most prescient song on an album filled with prescient songs. It opens with an elegant statement of how our own technological advancement has outstripped our own biological capabilities: “There’s a way to live that’s right for us / Like Mayans in Manhattan and Los Angeles.”

From there it goes on to deliberately mix up the language of socializing and dating with computer lingo, culminating in the rather suggestive, “I’ll upload you, you can download me.” Nor is the spiritual element forgotten in this computerized social scene: “There’s a prayer each night that I always pray: / ‘Let the data guide me through every day.'”

There were such things as electronic dating services as far back as the 1960s. But in 1989, they were little more than curiosities. If you asked the average person in 1989 to envision a world where socialization is done primarily through computer interfaces, they’d probably say that it sounds either impossible or extremely sick. They would certainly have been wrong about it being impossible.

The next song, “Gridlock,” is about the frustrations of L.A. traffic. It wouldn’t surprise me if Zevon wrote it while sitting in a traffic jam, because it definitely captures the impotent rage of being stuck in an endless line of cars.

Then there’s “Down In The Mall,” which sounds more incongruous to modern ears now that malls are becoming a symbol of the past, seen only through the lens of nostalgia. What you have to realize is, malls were at one time a symbol of consumer culture, only to be replaced in their turn by online shopping, an even more streamlined competitor in the Darwinian struggle to create the most de-humanized, atomized, and efficient consumer experience.

Still, Zevon’s critique of materialism comes through loud and clear. Mindless consumption is the only thing that ties the characters of the song together: “We’ll go shoppin’ babe; it’s something we can stand.” This is a more realistic, but no less dystopian, riff on the theme of “Transverse City”: a couple losing themselves in a vast, artificial, sensually dazzling but fundamentally hollow experience.

The album ends with a twist on a familiar staple: “Nobody’s in Love This Year.” Zevon usually has a few love songs on most of his albums, but this one, as the name suggests, is more of an anti-love song. Not only has this relationship failed, but all relationships have failed.

All right, I believe I promised you a payoff for all this. I said that Transverse City is organized around a single motif. We are now in a position to see what it is.

The unifying motif of Transverse City is… the pervasive alienation created by modernity.

This is, of course, a very old theme. Really, it’s as old as the first machine, I suppose. And it hasn’t stopped the machines from getting better.

Moreover, 1989 was probably the worst time in history to bring it up. We were poised on the cusp of the 1990s, and as I tried to say in my series on ’90s action movies, the ’90s were an era of overwhelming optimism. In the United States, at least, there was a sense of  excitement at the potential of all the wonders the marriage of liberal democracy and modern information technology had in store for the coming millennium.

And certainly for the next decade or more, such optimism proved to be largely justified. The ’90s were a time of peace, plenty, and prosperity. Technological change did create a booming economy and previously undreamt-of conveniences.

Small wonder Transverse City was a flop.  Small wonder even Zevon’s closest collaborators thought it was lousy. To be either a commercial or critical success, art must be in harmony with the prevailing feelings of its time. Like a plant needing the proper soil and climate to grow, art is no less dependent on its environment.

No, there’s just no sugarcoating it: In 1989, Transverse City was a dud, pure and simple, and in some sense, deservedly so.

In 2022…?

Transverse City gives us songs for a world of atomized individuals who socialize mainly through a little box in their pockets, a world where mega-corporations control nearly every aspect of the economy, a world scarred by wars waged by criminal governments equipped with the latest high-tech weaponry, a world where every day another patch of what had once been wilderness is buried beneath the girders of metastasizing megacities. Well…

But I’m not in the business of telling you what to think. You know modernity at least as well as I do, and you can listen to Transverse City as easily as I can. You may think my interpretation is too jaundiced. Maybe you’re right. Then again, maybe you’re Pollyanna. Either way, Warren Zevon has a message for you:

Told my little Pollyanna, 

There’s a place where we can stay.

We have come to see tomorrow;

We have given up today…

I’ve been hearing a lot about this series, The Book of Boba Fett. But, turns out it’s not a book. It’s a television series, on a streaming service I don’t have. Damn false advertising!

However, Boba Fett: A Practical Man is a book. And it’s by the author of the Republic Commando books, the first of which I enjoyed. So far, so good.

The book follows Fett after his escape from the Sarlaac, when he has assumed the title of Mandalore. He’s going around doing typical Mandalorian mercenary stuff, when who does he run into but the Yuuzhan Vong?

Okay, time-out. How many Star Wars fans even know who the Yuuzhan Vong are? Personally, I had heard of them only by reputation; this is the first piece of Star Wars fiction I’ve ever seen that includes them.

My gut reaction is, they don’t fit in. They are weird, vaguely Lovecraftian entities that shun all machinery in favor of specially evolved organic technology substitutes. The Mandalorians description of them as “crab boys” made me think of the Collectors from Mass Effect 2.

Fett realizes a Yuuzhan Vong invasion is going to be bad news, and so strikes a deal with them to help them fight the New Republic, in exchange for the safety of his people. Of course, he knows they will renege on the deal and attack the Mandalorians eventually, so the deal is negotiated in about as much good faith as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and Fett begins discreetly passing intelligence to his nominal enemies in the New Republic.

I’m about to go off on one of my rants about Star Wars lore. Be warned.

I hated the idea of Fett negotiating such a deal. Of course, it makes strategic sense, but the Mandalorians are all about bravery and valor. Yet, here we have Fett using deception and legal quibbles to save his bacon. This is not the honest, forthright, confrontational style that Mandalorian honor demands! They are lions, not foxes!

This leads me to a larger point, which concerns not just this book, but everything we thought we knew about this particular Star Wars icon. Namely: is Boba Fett actually overrated?

I’ve always thought I liked Boba Fett. But, pretty much everything I see him in, he never quite lives up to expectations. As I said, I haven’t watched the new series, but I hear bad things, including that Boba Fett becomes a secondary character in his own show.

Of course, the thing that makes Boba Fett cool in the original trilogy is that you have no idea who he is or what his backstory is. He seems tough and capable, but beyond that, you make up whatever story you want for him.

Which is why all subsequent attempts to flesh Boba Fett out fall flat. They’re never going to live up to what you imagine. (Probably my all-time favorite Boba Fett story is his appearance in Galaxy of Fear #2, City of the Dead. But, I read that when I was 8.)

Like Karen Traviss, I love the Mandalorians. Theoretically, Fett should be the ultra-Mandalorian. But, again, he falls short of the Mandalorian ideal, otherwise known as Canderous Ordo from Knights of the Old Republic.

Ordo is like a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood. A tough-as-nails soldier who found steady work as a mercenary after the Mandalorian Wars, then used his underworld connections to forge an alliance with the Jedi Revan to defeat Darth Malak, then rebuilt the entire Mandalorian army. Meanwhile Boba Fett is most famous for being knocked into a hole in the ground by a blind man.

And so all writers who try to write Boba Fett are hamstrung by the fact that his documented actions are not half as cool as what everybody thinks he can do, and has done. Traviss is perfectly capable of writing good, solid Mandalorian warriors, as shown in the Republic Commando book, so I think the real issue here is the difficulty of reconciling movie Boba Fett with what we all want him to be.

Apart from the fact that (a) Fett isn’t a great protagonist and (b) the primary villains don’t really feel like they belong in Star Wars, it’s a decent book. There are plenty of battle scenes and stuff about Mandalorian culture. Traviss’ writing is mostly fine, although that issue with made-up words I mentioned in my Republic Commando review comes up again.

Also, there’s this:

Fett hadn’t come across anyone with ideas about taking over the whole galaxy before, unless he counted Palpatine.

Um… why would you not count Palpatine?

Anyway, that’s a minor point. This is a fun book for fans of the Mandalorians, even if only to compare how far they have fallen since the days of Ordo. But if you’re not a die-hard Star Wars fan, you’ll probably be lost.

[Content Warning: This post quotes vivid descriptions of World War I battles.]

I mentioned I had read this book in my review of Jünger’s novella On The Marble Cliffs. I hadn’t planned to review it, but my friend Joy Spicer asked me about it, and so, well, how could I not? By the way, Joy has also written a review of a different translation, which you should definitely read.

But there’s a reason I don’t often review memoirs. It’s hard to do. I can’t claim “I didn’t like this” or “The author should have done that.” It’s his life. Who am I to say how Jünger should have lived it?

Because the way he lived it is simply astounding. The Storm of Steel tells of his service in World War I in the 73rd Hanover Regiment.

Maybe I should start by briefly describing World War I. The best executive summary I ever heard was, “Because a Serbian shot an Austrian, Germany invaded France.”

Is that an oversimplification? You bet. But it succeeds in conveying one important truth about World War I: it was insane.

Jünger could clearly see it was insane. And he wasn’t necessarily against it, either. Indeed, throughout the book, one gets a sense of him as a strongly patriotic German, who fought bravely for his country:

“[T]here is someone within you who keeps you to your post by the power of two mighty spells: Duty and Honor. You know that this is your place in the battle, and that a whole people relies on you to do your job. You feel, ‘If I leave my post, I am a coward in my own eyes, a wretch who will ever blush at every word of praise.'”

In many ways, Jünger fits the stereotype of the well-drilled, almost machine-like German soldier. There is little sentimentality in his reports, and almost no questioning of his duty, save the occasional gripes about senior officers out of touch with the front line reality.

This is a big reason I read memoirs, especially old, relatively obscure ones. You “meet” people, strange people, people to whom you can barely relate. While reading it, I ask myself, what would I have done, in Jünger’s world? What would he make of mine, if he could see it?

My sense is, almost all people from the past would find the modern world unbelievably luxurious. Everyday people caught up in wars, like Jünger, had it especially hard, but even the Kaiser himself lived a life that was full of many more day-to-day inconveniences than, say, mine.

We are all familiar with so-called “First World Problems.” People will complain about something, and then add that phrase to signify their recognition of their own privilege. And then usually go right on complaining.

Funny thing, though: prior to 1914, Europe was the “First World.” Germany, France, England… all were thought to represent civilization at its most advanced. Civilized comfort is always a state of exception; more fragile than many realize, and easily giving way to barbarism.

I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to live in more material wealth and comfort than the vast majority of humans who have ever lived could imagine. If nothing else, I owe it to them to read what they experienced.

I don’t want to come across as glorifying Jünger excessively. He fought for German Imperialism, and he was, by his own admission, a harsh and even callous man. How could he not be, after everything he lived through? After everything he did? The fact is, it’s close to impossible for me to relate to Jünger, or almost anyone who lived in his time, or before. Their world was so different; their experience of life so alien to that of most modern Americans.

I’m as guilty as the next guy. This very morning, I was annoyed by a little plastic flange on a bottle of bug repellent that didn’t work right. What a trivial problem to be concerned with, right?

We humans are problem-solving creatures, and if we have no real problems to complain of, we’ll invent some new ones. What would a world without problems even be like? Would it be paradise, Shangri-La, Nirvana, Heaven? Or would it after all turn out to be “the other place,” as that old episode of The Twilight Zone implied?

A life of comfort can breed a taste for destruction, as Jünger well understood:

“The horrible was undoubtedly a part of that irresistible attraction that drew us into the war. A long period of law and order, such as our generation has behind it, produces a real craving for the abnormal, a craving that literature stimulates.”

I’ve written before about how, in the early 20th century, it was almost like the people of Europe could sense something was brewing. The artistic movements of the period all pointed the way towards decline or catastrophe, as though people had grown tired of the century of Pax Britannica that prevailed after Waterloo, and had developed a kind of perverse wish to see a true crisis.

If so, they got it. What does it look like when an advanced civilization turns its resources to the primal urge for war? What does it look like when a decadent aristocracy, long removed from concern for the people it governs, decides to throw its full weight behind creating the very thing it was intended to prevent?

I don’t know the answers. But Jünger did, and therefore I give him the last word:

“Thus all the frightfulness that the mind of man could devise was brought into the field; and there, where lately there had been the idyllic picture of rural peace. there was as faithful a picture of the soul of scientific war. In earlier wars, certainly, towns and villages had been burned, but what was that compared with this sea of craters dug out by the machines? For even in this fantastic desert there was the sameness of the machine-made article. A shell-hole strewn with bully-tins, broken weapons, fragments of uniform, and dud shells, with one or two bodies on its edge… this was the never-changing scene that surrounded each one of all these hundreds of thousands of men. And it seemed that man, on this landscape he himself had created, became different, more mysterious and hardy and callous than in any previous battle…

[…]For I cannot too often repeat, a battle was no longer an episode that spent itself in blood and fire; it was a condition of things that dug itself in remorselessly week after week and month after month. What was a man’s life in this wilderness whose vapour was laden with the stench of thousands upon thousands of decaying bodies? Death lay in ambush for each one in every shell-hole, merciless, and making one merciless in turn.”

This is a sci-fi horror novella. The setting is a ship on a deep space voyage, which is temporarily knocked off course by a collision with an asteroid.

I can’t say too much more about the plot, because this is a short book, and if I say much, I’ll spoil everything. All I’ll say is if you enjoy stories like Who Goes There? or Alien, you’ll enjoy this one.

What I want to talk about instead are the setting and the characters. Especially one character, Sage, a scientist whose knowledge of chemistry becomes very important in the second half of the story. Despite her brilliance, she’s rather prickly and a little paranoid. (The latter quality ultimately serves her well.)

Nor can I blame her, because there are aspects of the society on the ship that are somewhat creepy. There is an A.I. that is designed to keep the peace among the crew members. One of the ways it does this is by deploying drones that fine people for displays of anger, including even very mild profanity.

I expected this would play a bigger part in the story, although it sort of disappears (for logical reasons) about halfway through. But I would be curious to see this aspect of society on the ship explored in more detail.

All in all, this is a good scary story that blends the science-fiction and the horror elements well and builds to a satisfying conclusion.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Attention, all! If you enjoyed my ’90s action movie series and would like to read more blog posts about movies, fellow author and blogger Peter Martuneac is doing a series on his favorite films, beginning with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first installment, his analysis of The Fellowship of the Ring, went up today and you can read it here.

This is a bizarre and unnerving novella that combines fantasy, magical realism, and horror. It is written in first-person by an unnamed narrator who, along with his brother, Otho, live a peaceful and serene existence studying the flora that grows in the region. I couldn’t tell if Otho is actually his brother by blood, or if he is a “brother” in a sort of religious sense. Either way, the two of them live essentially as monks.

But, soon enough, their lives are disrupted by the activities of the Chief Ranger, a sinister and charismatic figure who hails from the dark forests, and who marshals evil and violent gangs as part of some grand scheme of conquest.

The book slides swiftly from pastoral dream to unholy nightmare. There are many passages in this book, especially later on, that are easily as disturbing as anything Lovecraft or Poe ever wrote. Such as this, describing the Chief Ranger’s HQ, a place called Koppels-Bleek:

Then we heard the wind rocking itself as if in accompaniment among the pines so that the pale skulls on the trees rattled in chorus. Into its lament was mixed the swaying of hooks and the twitching of the withered hands on the barn wall. The noise was that of wood and bone, like a puppet show in the kingdom of the dead.

Of course, this is only a translation from the original, but I can’t imagine anything, in any language, sending a harsher chill down the spine.

It is a strange, disturbing, and deeply unsettling tale, though at the same time it is not without its moments of beauty, particularly in the loving descriptions of things like flowers and cool morning mists.

At times, it was hard for me to follow the story, to the extent that there even was one. But it hardly mattered, because I was so thoroughly swept up in the sublime eeriness of the whole thing. Maybe this is the best you can hope for with translated books. It’s certainly the same vibe I got from, say, The Master and Margarita.

Jünger also made many keen observations about human nature. For example, this description of a character who appears late in the book to challenge the Chief Ranger:

His was a cold, rootless intelligence, and with it went a leaning to Utopias… he conceived of life as the mechanism of a clock, and therefore in force and terror he saw the gears which drive the timepiece of life… Creation had died in his heart, and he had reconstructed it like a mechanical toy.

The climax of the book is dark and bloody, and involves a huge battle between packs of demonic canines. Even if I wanted to completely spoil the book for you, I couldn’t, because the ending was so vague and strange I couldn’t say what exactly happened. Nor does it particularly matter. This is a book about creating impressions and feelings, not telling a coherent story. It’s almost poetry.

You’re probably wondering how I came across such a strange and relatively obscure book. Well, I have been reading a lot of war memoirs, one of which was Jünger’s The Storm of Steel, about his experiences fighting in the German army in World War I, and I discovered he had also written fiction.

His experience in the war is probably why the battle scenes in On The Marble Cliffs feel so shockingly real: the horrors Jünger encountered as a soldier clearly stuck with him. Other details from his life may have found their way in as well, such as the narrator of On The Marble Cliffs referring to his old teacher “van Kerkhoven,” which I think might be a reference to a corporal mentioned in Storm of Steel, a man named Kerkhoff.

On The Marble Cliffs was published in 1939. Some critics have suggested that maybe, just maybe, something was going on in Germany in the 1930s that might possibly have influenced Jünger in writing the book. But I’ll leave it to the reader to draw their own comparisons between the world of the book and actual historical events.

Finally, since I’m sure you’re all wondering about it: no, Jünger was not a Nazi, though he did serve the German regime early in World War II. He was dismissed from the army after being tangentially connected with the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler. He is, in short, a very ambiguous and complicated individual.

All of this makes the book an extremely weird and generally gut-wrenching experience to read. At the same time, it’s a vivid picture of the darkest depths of human nature and the apocalyptic ruination of a society that must have seemed all too immediate at the time of its writing.

A final technical note: I could only find a copy of the book at the Internet Archive. I recommend reading the scans. I downloaded the file in Kindle format, but it was in rough shape. Weird paragraph breaks, page numbers showing up at random in the middle of the text, and occasional duplicate pages. It was a pain to read.

Obi-Wan: I have a bad feeling about this.
Qui-Gon: I don’t sense anything.
Obi-Wan: It’s not about the mission, Master. It’s something… elsewhere. Elusive.

You are not going to believe my Phantom Menace take. I need to prepare you for it gradually. It is simply too incredible. And Star Wars is something people feel very passionate about, so I don’t want to just up and say it without some preamble. You might want to pour a glass of your favorite drink to brace yourself in the meantime.

Back in ’99, the hype for this movie was off the charts. And why not? It was a movie people had been waiting 15 years to see. It was the cinematic event of 1999. Maybe of the whole decade.

And of course it became synonymous with disappointment. This was one of the earliest examples of the now-common phenomenon of internet fan backlash. Star Wars fans felt betrayed; violated by the movie’s failure to fulfill their expectations.

Instead of being a new chapter in the beloved saga, it became fodder for endless jokes. See, for example, this Simpsons parody, which really summarizes the whole thing neatly. What was the deal with this Jar Jar character? What was all this about trade negotiations? What the hell were midichlorians? This wasn’t Star Wars at all; it was some twisted perversion of the space opera so many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers had come to love.

I think I’m describing the film’s reception pretty accurately. I suspect most of you are nodding your heads in agreement.

Now for my opinion of the film. If you’re ready. If indeed anyone can be ready for this.

My opinion is that The Phantom Menace is the best film in the Star Wars saga.

I chose my words in that sentence very carefully. Note that I did not say it is the best Star Wars film. The best Star Wars film would be the one that most accurately captures the fun, pulp-throwback, spacefaring spirit of Star Wars, which in my opinion is, oddly enough… Star Wars. You know, the first one, A New Hope.

Nor did I say it was my favorite Star Wars film. That is, and always will be, Revenge of the Sith, for reasons explained here. So, if you like some other installment in the saga better, well, more power to you.

But my contention is that The Phantom Menace, when considered as a standalone film and not part of the same series, is the best single movie made under the Star Wars brand.

Now, I don’t deny that TPM has its off moments. I don’t hate Jar Jar Binks like most people do, but there’s no doubt he was overused. And the decision to make the film centered around the performance of young actor Jake Lloyd, despite the fact that Lucas struggles to get good performances even from experienced actors, was a major misstep.

But what it gets right, it gets very right. And of all the films, it’s the one with the best atmosphere, and the most interesting plot.

You want evidence? I’ve got evidence. Let us consider some of the film’s plot elements:

  • As part of a trade dispute, an unscrupulous organization has seized a planet and forced a young ruler into exile.
  • The young ruler flees into the desert along with members of a strange and mystical religious order.
  • Realizing that appeals to the conventional authorities are useless, the young ruler organizes a surprise attack against the occupiers using primitive native forces that hardly anyone knows about.

Huh… that’s funny. I appear to have inadvertently also described the plot of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune. For added fun, you can insert the young ruler’s initials into that summary and it will still fit both, whether you’re talking about Paul Atreides or Padmé Amidala.

Essentially, Phantom Menace takes Paul’s character and splits it into two people, Padmé and Anakin Skywalker. Which is really interesting if you’ve read the Dune sequels. (Note this should not be interpreted as me actually telling you to read the Dune sequels. Ruined Chapel cannot be held liable for damages incurred while reading Dune books.)

Everyone focuses on Anakin’s character arc. Even Lucas focused on Anakin’s character arc, because the whole concept of the prequels was exploring how Darth Vader came to be Darth Vader. Which was a bad idea. You never explain that which is better left to the audience’s imagination.

What was a good idea was exploring the collapse of the Republic. This is the background to Padmé’s story arc, and it’s obviously the more interesting one.

There is no civility, only politics. The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. […] The Chancellor has little real power. He is mired by baseless accusations of corruption. The bureaucrats are in charge now.

So Senator Palpatine tells the Queen when she reaches Coruscant to seek the aid of the government. Civic virtue, the lifeblood of any republic, is gone, replaced only by in-fighting among bureaucratic factions trying to hold on to power.

It’s a great scene, not least because of the aesthetics. Queen Amidala in one of her innumerable ornate gowns, Palpatine in a shimmering robe, and all surrounded by elegant, if baroque, art that characterizes the upper-crust of Coruscant and Naboo. It all screams “late stage Republic.” Reclining into splendid decadence, the Old Republic is now incapable of defending its people.

These were the sorts of political messages the audiences of the ’90s laughed at. Such themes sounded like something out of a history textbook, and have we not said that the ’90s were The End of History? Who needed an Edward Gibbon-esque lecture on the collapse of a republic into barbarism, as the sun rose on a new millennium and Western liberal capitalism bestrode the whole world, triumphant and prepared to give us material solutions to all our problems?

Well, it’s not the ’90s anymore. Are the audiences still laughing? And are we so sure, after all, that the sun really was rising?

The ending of The Phantom Menace is simply perfect. Quibble if you want about Anakin’s line delivery or Jar Jar Binks’ comical triumph over the battle droids, but they do nothing to detract from the overall atmosphere. You have four perfectly intercut battles going at once, each matching the other tonally, emotionally, and logically. From the appearance of the Gungan army out of the fog to the death of Qui-Gon Jinn is the best sustained sequence in any Star Wars film. John Williams’ soaring score helps a good deal.

And yet, despite the triumph of the good Queen and her warriors, there is a dark shadow pervading everything. Williams’ soundtrack for the celebratory song in the final scene is a reworking of the Emperor’s Theme from Return of the Jedi in a major key. What better way to underscore that beneath the effusive and joyous ceremony hide the seeds of corruption, decay, and death?

So ends The Phantom Menace, and so ends our retrospective of ’90s action films. Dear reader, I hope you enjoyed this stroll down memory lane. The ’90s didn’t have streaming services, or smart phones, or cinematic universes, but I hope you’ll agree they did have a certain spirit that makes them worth remembering even decades later.

This is actually the 2nd book in Shatzer’s “Cozy Murders” series. The 1st book is the only one of his I haven’t reviewed yet, because it’s a Christmas-themed tale, and I’m saving it for December. But, you can read them out of order.

I like cozy stories. I even like Hallmark-esque Christmas-themed cozy stories. That said, there are certainly things about the genre that do invite parody. And that’s what Shatzer does here, using his comedic pen to lampoon the cloying earnestness sometimes found in such stories.

What do I mean by that? Well, here’s an example:

“Hi, Mrs. Smith,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you for giving me that anti-drug pamphlet. It really made me think. I had no idea drugs could be so dangerous. I’m never going to take them again.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Jimmy,” I said.

“I showed the pamphlet to my friend, Tyler,” he went on. “Tyler told me he was thinking about taking drugs, but then after I gave him the pamphlet and he learned about all the bad things that can happen when you take drugs, he decided not to.” 

Shatzer is parodying the typically unsubtle and occasionally preachy style that sometimes accompanies coziness. The whole book (which is only about a ten minute read) is written in this silly, fairy-tale-for-grown-ups tone. Maybe not everyone will find it funny, but personally, I think it’s a hoot.

As the title suggests, the plot of this book centers around extraterrestrial visitors to the protagonist’s aggressively-charming town of Quaintville. With one exception, the aliens are just as friendly as the human residents of Quaintville. In fact, one of them is strikingly simpatico with our narrator.

Is it kind of a goofy concept? Yeah, it is. It probably wouldn’t work as a full length novel or even novella. But as a short story, it made me laugh. The best thing I can compare it to are MAD magazine spoofs of yore, that would take their inherent silliness and run with it. In fact, I can almost picture the story illustrated by Mort Drucker. It’s that kind of light-hearted fun.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

There’s one in every family, every group. That one that just doesn’t quite fit in. The one that gets the awkward looks and everyone whispers about uncomfortably. And that’s what The Matrix is on this list.

It’s an action film, yes. And it’s from the ’90s. But it’s also the one that signals the beginning of the end of the era we have all gathered here to appreciate. In many ways, it heralds the dawn of the millennium and a new, darker epoch of cinema.

Remember Y2K? More specifically, the infamous Y2K bug? The 21st century kicked off with a panic over a computer code glitch, and looking back, that set the tone for the decades that followed. And The Matrix, with its hackers and simulations and false consciousness, and its grungy cyberpunk aesthetic, captured the techno fin de siècle 2.0 angst perfectly. Already, we are in stranger spiritual waters than the rest of the films covered here.

The Matrix‘s impact on culture is undeniable. To me, it’s also insufferable. The expression “redpill”, for example, which during the 2000s emerged as internet slang for the promulgation of unorthodox political ideas, has become so overused it is now essentially just another way of saying, “Here is some information which I did not previously have.”

For all its sophomoric philosophy, though, The Matrix still a ’90s action film. It’s got cool special effects. It’s got gunfights and explosions. And, most of all, despite its “The Man is Keeping Us Down” attitude, it’s still fundamentally a Love Conquers All story. Neo literally gets revived by True Love’s Kiss, like Snow White.

It’s a pretty decent movie, all told. Though I do think the special effects haven’t aged well. I thought “bullet time” was amazing when I was 12, but now it looks like a gimmick. The fistfight scenes are also oddly comical. I half expect Yakety Sax to break out.

The Matrix has one foot in the optimistic, upbeat world of the ’90s and one in the gloomy, cynical irony of the ’00s. That’s why I had to include it in here; it’s the mutation that would eventually evolve the modern action film. Hell, Keanu Reeves is still starring in neo-noir action movies (and video games) all these years later. Say what you want about The Matrix, but you can’t ignore its impact.

Another funny thing about this film is how one of the major plot points involves… pay phones. Do  those still exist? Does anyone born after the year 2000 know what they are? I’m not sure. That, of course, is the problem with techno-thrillers. Tech changes in ways you can’t predict, and what was once super-futuristic can suddenly appear laughably quaint faster than you expect.

This definitely isn’t my favorite movie on this list, but it’s still a perfectly serviceable action flick with some interesting underlying ideas. Indeed, many of its themes are more relevant now than they were when it was made. If I seem down on this film, it’s not so much a reaction to The Matrix itself, but rather the cultural change of which it was an early harbinger. But no library of ’90s action films would be complete without it, that’s for sure.

We’re coming to the end of this series now, but we still have one last exhibit to consider before making some concluding remarks. Perhaps at last, we will tie together all the divergent strands of cultural evolution discussed heretofore, and in so doing, weave together a complete picture of the zeitgeist as it must have seemed to the cinematic aesthete of the the 20th century’s last decade.

Or maybe we’ll just see a bunch of junk get blown up. You never can tell.