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.

I applaud you for reading this. You could have just left well enough alone by reading the first part and marking this down as a gentle romantic comedy. But you want to know “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say.

I breezed past some of the world-building elements of this book in the first part, but now I want to get into the nitty-gritty.

First, as mentioned in H.R.R. Gorman’s review, the Victorian class system is very much intact. Helena and August both have family servants. Now, in keeping with the principle of noblesse oblige, and because Helena and August are good people, they treat their servants well, and they, in turn, are deeply devoted to their employers. Which is all swell, and will be a dynamic familiar to anyone who ever read a Jeeves novel.

But… it’s still a class system. Helena’s servant Fanny is never going to be a member of the ruling class. Which may be fine, as Fanny shows no desire whatsoever to be a member of the ruling class. But I am just saying.

“Okay, Berthold,” you reply. “So there’s a feudal dynamic. Whatever; I’ve watched Downton Abbey. What’s the big deal?”

Nothing… it’s just very Victorian. Which is to be expected since it’s in the title. I’m not arguing that it’s a flaw or that it shouldn’t have been like that. It’s just interesting, especially in light of other things.

Because then you have that hybrid DNA test and dating service which finds promising romantic matches based on a person’s genetic makeup. Did I mention this service is run by the Church of England, which at this point now encompasses all religions practiced in the Empire?

Now, one asks, what reason could there be for wanting to run DNA tests to find good matches? Is there any other term for this type of practice? Why yes, there is, and its origins are also firmly rooted in the Victorian epoch.

To be clear, the gene-matching program in That Inevitable Victorian Thing is purely based on individual choice. There is no compulsion (unless you are actually a member of the Royal Family) to marry certain people based upon it. It’s just a rite of passage. Like getting your driver’s license. Or registering to vote.

Oh, about voting… yes, well, I don’t think that happens here. Now, if you’re a neo-Imperialist, you’re like, “What part of ‘absolute monarchy’ is confusing you, Yankee Doodle? Of course there’s no voting!” (Real die-hards may also be unable to refrain from adding aloud, “And rebellion and treason are forcèd to yield!“)

So, just to recap: we have a strict class hierarchy, a social system predicated upon genetic compatibility and overseen by the Church, and unelected monarchs who rule for life and hold supreme executive power.

Does this sound to you like the setting for an idyllic romance, as I described in the first part? Or does it sound like, I don’t know, nine different dystopias are about to break out all at once?

Of course, the story is the story. If Johnston wants to write a book about a genteel, peaceful, and civilized society governed by absolute monarchy and based on eugenics and class, she can do it. And there’s no unreliable narrator sleight-of-hand going on here, either, trying to make us think it’s one thing when really it’s another. Believe me, I put on my Hildred Castaigne goggles and looked.

Part of the reason is, as I mentioned earlier, everyone in the story is basically good. As Plato himself said, the best form of government is the kind where the best people are in charge. (Well duh, Plato! How much are we paying you again?)

And because everyone is basically good, they can do fine with a form of government which, in the wrong hands, one can easily imagine being used to turn the Empire into a nightmarish hellscape.

Speaking of nightmarish hellscapes, I want to talk a little about how the alternate future of That Inevitable Victorian Thing depicts the United States of America. Not that it depicts it much. The book largely takes place in Canada, with other characters from different parts of the Empire dropping in now and then.

But when something bad shows up, chances are it came from the USA. The USA of this world is the rotten ruin of a failed experiment. It has no culture. Its food is terrible. It is apparently overrun with pirates. When the neo-Victorian ruling élite discusses it at all, it is with a mixture of disgust and pity.

Any one of these elements in the world Johnston has built might seem like a trifling bit of counterfactual history put in just for the sake of being different. But together, they form an unnerving and weird backdrop to the light and pleasantly mild main plot.

Which is, I think, the point. After all, the real Victorian world, which we often see with rose-colored sentimentality, had its unnerving and weird side too. But the real Victorians, who read books like Jane Eyre without thinking of what you might call the Wide Sargasso Sea perspective, were probably oblivious to the unnerving and weird aspects of their society. So is everyone, in every society.

To read That Inevitable Victorian Thing is to get a vague sense of what it would have been like to read a Victorian novel as a Victorian, and not as a modern looking back at the literature of a bygone era. In that regard, while it’s probably not for everybody, it is a fascinating literary experiment.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Two bits of exciting book news from fellow indie authors:

-First, my longtime blogger friend Patrick Prescott has published a new book. It is an “autobiography” of Matthew Fontaine Maury. In the vein of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, Pat has immersed himself in study of this Civil War-era naval officer and scientist in order to write an account of his life in the first person. Get it on Amazon here.

-Second, another writer friend, Audrey Driscoll, has the sequel to her 2018 novel She Who Comes Forth available for pre-order on Amazon. She Who Returns follows France Leighton as she revisits Egypt. It will release on May 1 and it’s $0.99 for pre-order. (And She Who Comes Forth is also currently going for $0.99)

Congratulations to Pat and Audrey on their latest writing achievements!

This right here is the movie that inspired me to write this series. Of all the movies I have discussed, or will discuss, this is the ’90s-est, action-est, movie-est.

While I obviously like every movie listed here, I could point to flaws in most of them. Terminator 2 is too cartoonishly violent, Last Action Hero has too many crude jokes, GoldenEye has Xenia Onatopp, and so on. But when it comes to The Mummy, I’m at a loss to find much fault with it. It’s a classic pulp adventure.

You’ve got wonderful characters, from the gunslinging American Rick O’Connell and the bumbling twit Jonathan Carnahan, to the mysterious Ardeth Bay and the jovial pilot Winston Havelock. Not forgetting the conniving coward Beni or the sinister High Priest himself, Imhotep.

And then, of course, there’s Evie Carnahan. I can do no better than to quote her description of herself, after she’s had a little too much to drink around the campfire one night:

“I may not be an explorer or an adventurer or a treasure-seeker or a… a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell! But, I am proud of what I am! I… am a librarian!”

All right, maybe that’s not Evie at her finest, although definitely she is pretty awesome even when she’s been hitting the bottle. But what I love is how she and O’Connell make such a good team. His adventuring skills and her thorough knowledge of Egypt help rescue them time and again from the wrath of the revivified mummy.

Everything about the movie is just fun. You can tell the actors are enjoying themselves, and why shouldn’t they? It’s a cracking good yarn of romance and derring-do. It’s one of those movies that, when you see it come on TV, you just sit and watch it before you even realize where the time has gone.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the better I like a movie, the harder it is to review it. How many ways are there to say, “this movie is awesome and I love it”? Not bloody many. This is probably why academic critical analyses of movies tend to focus on what’s wrong with them; that’s much more fruitful ground. But the result is that many words are generated on the topic of bad movies, and not so much on the good ones.

Well, I’m no academic, but I’ll give this a try: The Mummy is great because it offers us an immediately recognizable, yet still sufficiently different world we can escape into. People watch movies because they want fun. Critics, as a rule, don’t want fun. Ergo, critics aren’t people. Oops, wait; I’m a critic, aren’t I? Hmm.

My point is, if you want to write a 20 page paper on themes and symbolism and whatnot, this movie probably won’t furnish you with enough raw material for same. But who cares? Only weirdos like me sit down and write at length of their thoughts on movies; normal people just enjoy them. And joy is an underrated emotion when it comes to providing fodder for writing. Probably because it’s so far beyond words. There’s a reason that the most famous instance of a composition expressing joy was written in music.

In a way, writing critiques is just dodging the real issue. Could any review I write, no matter how clever, witty, or insightful, ever equal the sheer glee I had as an 11 year old kid watching Rick O’Connell mow down legions of zombie warriors? Of course not! Writing about it is just a way to relive the experience over again, and hopefully share the joy with others.

The real greatness of movies is never found in reviews; it’s found when you are sitting there in that theater, with your popcorn and your drinks, ideally with people you really like, sharing the pleasure of diving together into some fantastic, imaginary world full of excitement and suspense and adventure that you can talk about afterward not in the technical, fussy language of a critic, but with the burbling excitement of a kid playing in the backyard. Take that, Bembridge scholars!

This book is in that uncomfortable range of works that is neither obscure nor famous enough to typically warrant a review from me. I like to review either indie books that are really new, or iconic books that are so famous everyone knows them. This one, though, falls somewhere in between.

I read it because of H.R.R. Gorman’s review. By the way friends, if you want to get me to read a book, this is how to do it:

“This one was a trip. Like, really weird. Super out there. I had fun for the most part, but certain elements just threw me off hard.”

Such was H.R.R.’s verdict, and to me, that’s about as enticing as it gets.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a YA romance set in an alternate future where the British Empire never fell. How exactly this happened is left vague, but it’s suggested that Victoria overrode Parliament, ruling more as an absolute than a constitutional monarch, and married her children off to all parts of the Empire, thereby embedding its influence all across the globe.

Our three main characters are Helena Marcus, the daughter of an important geneticist, August Callaghan, who is set to inherit his father’s shipping company and planning to marry Helena, and Victoria-Margaret, the crown princess, traveling in disguise for the debut season in Ontario, Canada.

In other words, we have many standard tropes of Victorian novels: disguised royalty, engagements, and lots of fancy parties and grand balls. I was impressed early on with how well the author imitated the style of The Old Victorian Novel. I was worried it was going to be one of those affairs where we’re told it’s a neo-Victorian setting, but everyone acts and talks just like modern-day people. Thankfully, that’s not the case for the most part.

And of course, also very much in keeping with the expectations of Victorian melodrama, everyone has a secret. Victoria-Margaret is concealing the fact that she is the heir to the throne of the British Empire. August is concealing an indiscreet business arrangement he foolishly made early in his career. And Helena…

…well, I won’t say exactly what Helena is concealing. But let’s say that it is one of those “accident of birth” things with which the Victorians were so fascinated. The Victorians were obsessed with concepts like blood and breeding, and that’s very much the case here, as evidenced by the prominence of the DNA-based computer dating service that drives so much of the plot.

That said, this is more of a comedy of manners than a melodrama. The plot develops largely at dances and over teas, or at long trips to the family summer retreat. Again, classic Victorian romance stuff.

The other thing that struck me about the book was how nice everyone was. There are no villains; the drama mostly comes from misunderstandings. The worst person in the whole thing is an overly-aggressive paparazzo trying to get pictures of the undercover princess. Everyone is polite, well-meaning and generally decent. (Not to fall into blatant stereotyping, but it was set in Canada, and written by a Canadian…)

Before I wrap this up, a quick word about the cover. I like it a lot. It reminds me of something. But what? I’ve been trying to figure it out, but I can’t. At first I thought it was this image of The Golden Bough, but on closer inspection, I realize it can’t be. So, what is it then? There is something Victorian that looks like that, I’m convinced of it.

Anyway, though, this is a very charming romance story that honors its Victorian heritage well. There are a few nits to pick here and there, including one super-jarring use of a certain word beginning with “f”, but for the most part, it’s a sweet, cozy tale of young love at the height of a great Empire.


…as Columbo would say, “There’s just one more thing.” Well, actually, maybe it’s more like three more things.

Could anyone seriously believe that the author of American Chimera would call a mere cozy comedy of manners “really weird”? Oh, no, no, no. There’s a lot more going on here. If you’ve read H.R.R.’s review, you already knew that.

There is so much more to address, and this is running long. So, for the first time on A Ruined Chapel by Moonlight, I’m splitting the review in two, with the second part to be posted next Friday, same bat-time, same bat-channel. Then we’ll find out what is really happening.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

What, you may ask, is ultimately the point of this series? Have I come to tell you that the only good action movies were made between 1990 and 1999? No, of course not. There have been plenty of good action movies for decades before and after. North by Northwest is a wonderful action movie, and so is Ghost in the Shell. Nostalgia for the cinema of the ’90s may color my vision, but it has not blinded me. Not yet, anyway.

Let me answer this question the same way I do everything: by telling a long rambling story that I’ve probably told before on here someplace.

The story begins with my mother, who is a much better critic than I am, and one of my worst fears is that someday she may start a blog of her own, and put me out of business. Part of the reason she is so good she attributes to the nuns who educated her. One of these nuns taught my mother’s high school English literature class, where she drilled into her students that one of the great themes of literature was “Love Conquers All.”

My mother wondered what were some other great themes of literature. She concluded that another one was “Ya Can’t Fight City Hall.” Tragedy, in other words; the inevitability of fate. (Ma Gambrel is a classicist, and I’m sure that it was reading Greek tragedy that made her think of this.) She was convinced there were others, but as yet, she has not been able to name them.

Now, you know me, readers! Show me a rule, and the first thing I try to do is break it. But there’s no doubt in my mind this is one versatile rule. I’ve found that most stories can be sorted into one of these two categories. Of course, they’re very broadly defined. “Love” can be familial love, fraternal love, paternal love, erotic love, patriotic love, etc. Likewise, “City Hall” could be God, destiny, social norms, the inherently imperfect nature of humanity, ancestral sins, etc.

Is this a perfect way of categorizing fiction? Certainly not. No such thing exists. Is it even a worthwhile exercise? Well, that’s a discussion I’ll leave up to you. But I’ll tell you this: my hunch is, most famous movies of a given era will fall into one camp or the other. The late ’60s and early ’70s, for example, were heavily Ya Can’t Fight City Hall, e.g. McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Chinatown. And in contrast, the ’90s were, on balance, all about Love Conquering All.

Which brings me at last to the topic of the movie I actually want to talk about today. Like Tank Girl, this is one I’ve reviewed before, so that will spare me the synopsis, which is my least-favorite part of review writing, and let me get right to the analysis.

The Fifth Element, basically, is love. Well, of course, technically it’s Leeloo, the mysterious woman who appears just in time to oppose the evil forces threatening to destroy the universe. But she doesn’t do that until Dallas declares his love for her. It’s a surprisingly fairy-tale ending for what has largely been a wild, semi-cyberpunk sci-fi adventure.

A good theme can hold a weird movie together. You can have all sorts of weirdness, as indeed The Fifth Element does, but if you do, it’s best to have a solid foundation in the form of the kind of story that people have been telling for millennia. Otherwise, you just get weirdness for weirdness’ sake.

The other thing that makes Fifth Element great is its sense of humor. Sometimes directors get so invested in trying to make people buy in to their make-believe world that they forget to be able to laugh along the way. But this movie knows not to take itself too seriously, and the result is a playful adventure move that can be rewatched again and again. My friend Pat Prescott, who introduced me to this film, watches it whenever he’s having a really tough week.

Now, before I wrap up this installment, let’s do a thought experiment: imagine there was a Fifth Element franchise. There would have been sequels where Leeloo and Dallas broke up. There would have been a prequel that showed Zorg’s dark, gritty origin story. There would have been a reboot that was substantially the same as the original except with everything just slightly worse. It would have been awful.

One thing I’ve learned from this hobby of mine as a wannabe techno-decadent cultural critic is that the word “franchise” in the context of movies is essentially synonymous with the word “putrefaction.” Once something is called a franchise, that means it is dying. The process may be slow and subtle, or it may be swift and brutal, but it’s inevitable once that word starts showing up.

Anyway, though; this is supposed to be an upbeat series! I don’t know where all that doom and gloom came from. The point is, The Fifth Element is a wonderful sci-fi adventure that encapsulates the bubbly good-spiritedness of ’90s action movies.

This is the second book in the Dr. Rowena Halley series, the first of which I reviewed here. This one picks up right where the first one left off in following the career of Rowena Arwen Halley, the Russian language Ph.D. struggling to navigate a brutal academic job market as well as her own desire for a relationship. But, her heart is torn between Alex, another struggling post-doc, and Dima, the Russian soldier-turned-journalist who broke up with her and sent her back to the U.S. while he continued reporting on conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Dr. Halley has started a new one-semester teaching position, and from day one, is beset by annoyances, the most prominent of which is Jason, a student in one of her classes who wants to use her to help him fight a custody battle with his estranged Russian wife.

The start of the book is a bit slow, although it does give a good window into the dreary reality of academia. Where it really picks up is with the arrival of Rowena’s brother, Ivanhoe Elladan Halley, the rough-and-tumble Marine Corps officer recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, who comes to visit in the middle of the book. (Disregarding his parents’ decision to name him after Sir Walter Scott and Tolkien characters, he goes by “John” most of the time.)

John is my favorite character in the book. For one thing, his lines are pretty funny, especially his unsolicited blunt advice to his sister and his foul-mouthed contempt for her boyfriends, past and present. But he’s also a more complex character: a veteran who probably has PTSD but masks it with machismo, alcohol, and womanizing. He’s basically a good guy, but he’s been through some bad stuff, and it has taken its toll on him.

I won’t lie, the middle third of the book, in which John appears regularly, is definitely my favorite part. The ending suffers from some of the same issues as the beginning; namely, that it gives a very accurate portrayal of the current state of seeking employment in academia, particularly in the humanities.

There’s one other issue I have with this book. Unlike the first installment, which really was a mystery that needed to be figured out, here, the main conflict isn’t a mystery. The person who is obviously bad ultimately turns out to be… bad. Which is kind of a letdown. It’s not that exciting when at the climax of the story, a character turns out to be exactly who you thought they were.

But that’s okay. This is a character-driven book, more so than the first one was. The interesting thing is less about seeing where it all goes than how it gets there, and how it gets there is pretty interesting. Stark tackles a variety of social and geopolitical issues, from the overproduction of elites in American higher education leading to a glut on the academic job market, to the many ruined lives resulting from ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, to the destruction of society at the most fundamental level as a result of people lacking basic virtues.

So, don’t go into it expecting some kind of plot-twist filled mystery. Instead, read it as a commentary on the many deeply-rooted problems in modern society. Read that way, it paints a vivid and memorable picture.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This entry is an unusual one. For starters, it’s the first film in this series that I’ve reviewed before on this blog. Hopefully, I’ll be able to say something new about it, rather than just repeating myself. I suppose I’ll need to find a new angle from which to talk about this movie,  since I’ve covered most of the plot in the earlier review.

I’m not sure if “tank movies” are officially recognized as a type of genre, but they ought to be. Obviously, they can’t officially be a “sub-genre”… that would have to be for movies like Crimson Tide and Das Boot.

Sorry. But there really is such a thing as a tank movie. 1988’s The Beast, about a Russian tank crew in Afghanistan, is one such example, and this is another one. Actually, as I think about it, there may have been some real tank nostalgia going on in the ’90s. After all, who can forget the big scene with the tank in the previous film I discussed? And this was also the decade that gave us BattleTanx, a post-apocalyptic video game about a future where rival tank gangs fight it out on the streets of ruined cities.

Tank Girl is more like The Beast, in that there is just one tank, all by itself in a huge desert. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end, because while The Beast is a dark rumination on the morality of war and man’s inhumanity to man, Tank Girl is a hilarious romp complete with Cole Porter musical numbers, half-man, half-kangaroo hybrids, and Malcolm McDowell hamming it up as the villain. Ladies and gentlemen, the ’90s!

Is Tank Girl a great movie? No, I wouldn’t say so. But here’s a thought for you: maybe every movie doesn’t have to be great. Maybe it’s good enough to just be fun sometimes. Tank Girl doesn’t feel like it had any pretensions, or grand ambitions, or designs to cleverly subvert or archly critique. The writing process was pretty much, “What if there was this punk girl who drives a tank and fights an evil corporation?” And that’s what you get.

Okay, I am going to repeat myself a bit. I guess it’s a bit tacky to quote from my own review, but hey, I stole the title of this blog from a stage direction in a Victorian operetta. I’m not one to stand on ceremony.

[W]hat amazed me most about the movie was that—despite being a combination of live-action and surreal cartoon animation, despite the bizarre set design, despite the male love interest being part kangaroo—at its heart, it’s just a good old-fashioned tale of frontier justice.

It’s tough to make something weird and unique that is still compelling. Most well-worn tropes are well-worn because they work very well. Telling a story that is both innovative and yet follows a good, solid three-act plot structure that will satisfy an audience is hard to do, and Tank Girl does it.

Maybe you’ll find the movie just too bizarre. Unlike the other movies I’ve covered so far, this is a cult film, with nothing like the huge blockbuster ambitions of the others. But I realized I simply couldn’t make this list without it. Its mixture of surreal and commonplace plot elements, its grungy aesthetic, and its essential optimism all make it a film that practically shouts “’90s” to me.

And finally, a note about the tank itself. According to my most-used reference website, it is an M5 Stuart tank in most scenes, though sometimes it is a T-55 or PT-76. The Stuart tank is also featured in another “tank story”: DC Comics’ Haunted Tank. Do with this information what you will.

This is a short story in two parts. The first part is a ghost story, told by a young man who gets lost while driving one stormy night, and ultimately finds his way to a creepy house where terrifying events occur. He flees with a small carved statuette in the shape of the titular grinning god, which becomes his only proof that anything happened at all when he is unable to find the house again despite a thorough search in daylight.

The second part of the story involves Prof. Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen meeting the young man who recounted the events in the first part of the story, who by this time is raving mad. Prof. Van Dusen is nicknamed “The Thinking Machine” because of his relentlessly logical mind, which enables him to use pure reason to solve seemingly-impossible mysteries. Prof. Van Dusen’s formidable intellect goes to work, trying to determine a rational explanation for these bizarre events.

You know me: I like a good horror story that leaves things unexplained. Hence, you won’t be surprised to learn that I liked the first part of the story better than the second part.

But, what makes this particularly noteworthy is the story behind the story: the first part was written by May Futrelle, to set up a deliberately impossible problem for Prof. Van Dusen, a character created by her husband, Jacques Futrelle. Jacques then wrote the second part, where he tried to come up with a way to satisfyingly solve the unsolvable problem.

Apparently, Mr. Futrelle wrote a ton of these Prof. Van Dusen stories. He seems to have been the heir to Sherlock Holmes as a popular fictional detective, though he’s obviously not been as enduring. Futrelle likely would have written many more stories, but alas, he died at the age of 37, in the wreck of the Titanic. (May survived, however.)

Anyway, “The Grinning God.” Do I recommend it? Yeah, I’d say it’s worth reading just for the first part. The second part is more gimmicky, but it was still interesting. It was written in 1907, so it’s probably public domain, though I ended up just reading it in the collection linked above for the sake of convenience.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

It occurs to me, gentle reader, that perhaps this series has a curious structure to it. The posts are getting longer and, hopefully, building upon each other. However, this structure might make it confusing to read. Maybe it’s better to read it in reverse order, with the posts hopefully cascading to tell a larger story. Like the verses in “I Have  A Song to Sing, O!”

Or maybe not. Anyway, our journey has now brought us to the 1995 007 flick, GoldenEye.

GoldenEye is, in my opinion, the best James Bond movie. Now, my opinion could be biased by the fact that it is the first James Bond movie I ever saw. But I don’t think so. Part of the reason is that Brosnan is not my favorite Bond; not even close, and yet I still enjoy this film the most.

The key thing with all James Bond films is that they are walking a fine line. You can’t take James Bond too seriously, because, well, the whole premise is basically ridiculous. The early Connery films established a somewhat over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek tone.

Unfortunately, the 1970s happened, and this tone got carried to a new extreme during the Roger Moore era, which saw Bond films that ranged from pseudo-blaxploitation to rip-offs of Star Wars.  And that was before we even got to Octopussy and A View to a Kill. <shudder>

The Timothy Dalton era wasn’t really even an era, consisting as it did of only two films: The Living Daylights, which still has some residual silliness inherited from the Roger Moore tradition, and the serious and gritty Licence to Kill, a clear forerunner of the darker tone of the Craig era.

It’s a shame Dalton didn’t sign up for one more turn as 007 in GoldenEye, because it’s the one that finally hit that proper medium. It isn’t outright camp like the Moore films, but it has enough awareness of its genre not to try and be some sort of grim, realistic thriller.

And we should expect nothing less! Because it was made in the ’90s, and the whole point of this exercise is that the ’90s were the halcyon days of action movies. GoldenEye isn’t a great film, and I would grade it as distinctly inferior to the preceding three films I’ve reviewed in this series, but there’s no doubt in my mind it is the best Bond film, and the best that’s likely to be made for some while.

There are even some moments of social commentary, incredible as it may seem. Like when Bond goes wandering amid a wasteland of Soviet relics to meet the leader of the Janus crime syndicate, with the implication being that Bond himself is another holdover from the Cold War. The film asks: with the U.S.S.R. gone, what is even the point of an operative like 007?

The whole movie is kind of a farewell to Cold War thrillers. Large portions of it are set in Russia, with Russian villains, and Russian super-weapons, and a brief discussion of the repatriation of the Cossacks in the aftermath of World War II. It’s a meditation, to the extent that any action movie can be called a “meditation,” on what all the tropes of the spy genre would look like in the unipolar moment.

Because what was a spy to do, at The End of History? For that matter, what were these huge, military-industrial complexes with vast arsenals of experimental weapons built up over decades to do? (The answer to both, GoldenEye suggests, is “fall into the hands of terrorists and madmen.”)

But that’s another story, for another decade. In the ’90s, it was still all just fun and games, and James Bond could be counted on to save the world with his sexy sidekicks and his cool gadgets, and even the blundering, bumbling American CIA could show up for a cameo at the end.

I can’t end this review without mentioning GoldenEye‘s most enduring legacy: the spin-off video game that proved to be one of the most influential of its era, and which remains legendary in gaming circles to this day.  Do they still do video game spin-offs of movies these days? I haven’t heard about any. Games based on movies have a reputation for being awful; and yet we see that it was done successfully at least once, in that strange, gauzily-remembered decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Y2K. It seems the knowledge once existed, though it has subsequently been lost. Like Greek Fire.

[Update: check out my friend Pat Prescott’s response to this post. His take on the movie is very different than mine, and while I stand by my opinion, I admit he makes some good points. But then, he’s a real Bond expert, having seen all the films many times. One thing I hope to encourage with this series is for people to post their own opinions on the films I discuss.]