Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Two BLADE RUNNER Endings and Why They're Lame

Although I found the 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner to be rather boring when I watched it the first time, the film has been growing on me. Even if the adventures of Deckard and company aren't all that entertaining, the concepts, the world, and at least some of the characters (Sebastian, Roy, Rachael) are interesting.

The version we watched for the Myopia podcast episode was the final cut, not the theatrical release. I knew the theatrical version had a more upbeat, commercial ending forced on Ridley Scott by the studio heads, so I got curious and looked it up on YouTube. Here goes...

Although Tyrell's earlier reference to Rachael being "special" could explain why she doesn't have the Replicants' typical limited lifespan, it seems like something they shoved in there to give Deckard and Rachael a happy ending.

(Of course, given Rachael's vulnerability as a shoot-on-sight fugitive and consequent dependence on Deckard, who at the very least takes advantage of her traumatized mental state after she learns her entire life is a lie and straight-up kills someone and who at worst outright rapes her, it might not be that happy for her.)

But the biggest problem for me is the world-building. The climate of this world's 2019 has changed so severely that Los Angeles is chronically rainy and nasty like Seattle, with real animals being rare and expensive. By the time of the sequel in 2049, there've been "ecosystem collapses" that results in Los Angeles being a snowy (!) barren desert with the only living things besides people wild worms and bees and bugs being raised for food and little if any plant life. Canadian science fiction author Bruno Lombardi theorized here the climate change in the original film could have been caused by an asteroid impact, which if it landed in the ocean would evaporate massive amounts of water into the atmosphere. The novel Lucifer's Hammer depicts worldwide rainstorms for weeks afterward, which much of the rain being salty from the ocean. Southern California might climatically resemble the Pacific Northwest due to lots of water being added from the post-impact rains and circulating in the area for decades, or it might be even more desolate owing to salt from evaporated seawater poisoning the land, but it looks entirely too normal in this scene.

And there's an alternate cut of the theatrical ending that managed to be even worse. Here it is:

The shot quality looks better, but the characterization is ridiculous. As one of the commenters points out, Rachael sounds "retarded" when in the film she's depicted as sensitive and clever. Even though at this point she knows she's a Replicant and the memories of her whole pre-human life are false, it's not like she's going to forget her people skills or experience a massive IQ drop. After all, she knows how to play Deckard's piano even though she knows she never actually took piano lessons and she's able to shoot and kill the warrior Replicant Leon despite not likely having in-person shooting lessons either.

(Plus this is the best day of her life? She's just found out her entire life is a lie in a crude and insensitive way, she fled the relative safety of the Tyrell Corporation to become a hunted fugitive, she killed another thinking entity to save the life of said crude and insensitive man, said man rapes her, the fact the slimy Gaff found her alone in Deckard's apartment raises all sorts of unpleasant questions, and now they're two city-dwellers having to hide out in an unfamiliar wilderness. This has been a bad day. This fan-fic here has Rachael's thoughts on why she sought out Deckard and why she comes to love him, but assuming Ridley Scott had something like this in mind for why this would be her "best day," it's not really clear. And without that clarity she seems like a moron.)

Seriously, Rachael was acting so ridiculous it's actually insulting.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Q&A With BENEATH Author Kristi DeMeester

This coming Saturday (10/21), Kristi DeMeester, author of the Lovecraftian horror novel Beneath, will be holding a book signing at Posman Books in Atlanta from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. as part of a month-long series of science-fiction and horror-themed events. Here's a Q&A about her novel.

What inspired you to start writing Beneath?

I started writing Beneath because I couldn't shake a lot of the images from the [Fundamentalist Pentecostal] tent revivals of my childhood. I was very young and very indoctrinated, but I remember looking out over the congregation as they were swept up, as they shook and trembled and frothed, and I watched as that mania swept through the room, and I was afraid. I did not understand why, but I was afraid. I wanted to write about that feeling and about the deep belief I once carried in the Devil. That he was incredibly real, a monster lurking in the darkness forever searching for soft girl meat.

How long did it take you to finish writing it?

Four years. Start to finish. Mostly because I stopped working on it for close to two years because I didn't know what to do with it.

Once it was done, how did you go about getting it published?

I did some agent hunting but quickly became discouraged. Because of the subject matter, even the agents that were interested turned it down. "Too hard of a sell," they said. I'd kind of resigned myself to the fact that it may never see the light of day, but I'd gone on a podcast, The Outer Dark with Scott Nicolay, and I talked about the book. Ross Lockhart from Word Horde heard it and reached out. The rest is history.

What kind of reception has Beneath received since publication?

I've been thrilled to see some positive commentary about Beneath in addition to comments that it's unsettling. I can't avoid saying that there hasn't been controversy and criticism. A lot of people don't like the ending. A lot of people have a problem with the surreal, dream like nature of the story. A lot of people have a problem with my tendency to be plot "lite."

What do you mean by "plot lite"?

I tend to focus more on emotional resonance than "This is what happens." I prefer ambiguity.

What are some major literary influences on Beneath?

Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, my own childhood.

What does the future hold for you writing-wise?

Keep writing novels. Keep trying to find an agent.

What was your favorite part to write?

The scenes in the liquor store. If you've read it, you know the part.

What was your least favorite part?

The scene where an imagined version of Cora's mother reveals how she'd wanted so badly to protect her daughter but couldn't.

Do you anticipate writing any sequels or works set in the same world?

I don't think so. Hensley, North Carolina was fun to play in, but I don't think I'll ever return.

So that's our Q&A. I've read Beneath and although I haven't gotten around to reviewing it (yet), I strongly recommend it. There is some really good imagery and legitimately creepy stuff. Given how hard it is for fiction to spook me, that's really saying something. So get the book on Amazon or, if you'd like to meet the author herself or get a signed copy, come by Posman Books Oct. 21.

Also, special thanks to Anya Martin and ATL Retro for making the introduction. This article and a big chunk of the October series at Posman Books wouldn't be possible without you.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Q&A With ROSETTA Author Stephen Patterson

Today author Stephen Patterson, who in the interest of full disclosure is a former member of my writing group and came to my first The Thing in the Woods book signing and bought a copy, will be holding a book signing of his own at Posman Books in Atlanta. Here's a Q&A about him and his new novel Rosetta.

What inspired you to start writing Rosetta

I have always loved science fiction since I was ten and my older cousin gave me a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land. I’m the type of fellow that makes his own knives, even though I can buy really good ones at the store, I still make my own anyway. It was only a matter of time before I made my own science fiction. Rosetta is my first completed novel-sized work.

How long did it take you to write the book? 

Well, I’m something of a perfectionist. I had to teach myself to write novels in the process of writing a novel. It took me more than five years.

Once it was done, how did you go about getting it published? 

I own a publishing company.

What kind of reception has Rosetta received since publication? 

So far the reviews have been favorable. It’s a bit of a cyberpunk, so people who like that genre seem to like it. It’s complex in some ways and I find people like that in a story. I do. A novel should be about more than just the events it describes.

What are some major literary influences on Rosetta

Ursula LeGuin, Robert Heinlein, Ben Bova, and Arthur C. Clark have all been a big influence on me. Plus, I’m a huge fan of Richard Morgan and Lois McMaster Bujold.

What does the future hold for you writing-wise? 

I’m hooked! I have a very atypical vampire epic swirling around in my cerebrum. Not a magical sparkling vampire, but a gritty noir thriller. Ex-roman legionnaire, still alive after 2000 years . . . and can lift a truck, if the need arises . . .

What was your favorite part of Rosetta to write? 

The fight scenes were fun for sure, but I think the verbal ‘fencing’ scenes are my favorite. Think about the verbal sparing that happens in The Godfather, always with the undercurrent of violence in the immediate background.

What was your least favorite part? 

I had to learn about the nuts and bolts of linguistics, a lot more than I ended up putting in the book. It’s enjoyable to learn new things, but fight scenes are much more fun!

Do you anticipate writing any sequels or works set in the same world? 

Yes. I am working on a prequel to Rosetta, and I have a sequel planned as well. So much writing!

So there it is, folks. I'm already reading it on my Kindle, but if I can, I'll swing by Posman Books today and see if I can snag a signed copy of Rosetta. You should too. :)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Movie Review: Blade Runner (1982)

With the film Blade Runner 2049 coming out soon, it became important for the denizens of the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood to discuss the original Blade Runner. Although the film was initially not successful theatrically, it developed a devoted following and proved to be a major influence on future science fiction. Here's the podcast. And here's my review...

For the record, the version we reviewed was Blade Runner Final Cut, which lacked the Harrison Ford voice-over narration and had a much more ambiguous ending than the theatrical release. As I'd never seen the movie before, nor was this a movie from the era of my childhood like Pagemaster was, this isn't "blast from the past" for me.

The Plot

In the near future, Earth has suffered environmental devastation from some undescribed cause and people (at least healthy ones) are encouraged to emigrate to new offworld colonies. To prepare these colonies for settlement and to do the most dangerous jobs, the Tyrell Corporation has created Replicants--artificial humans--to use as forced labor. To discourage rebellions, they're only given a very limited four-year lifespan. After they rebel anyway, the Earth governments ban them from Earth, recruiting "blade runner" police to hunt them down and "retire" them.

Former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is forced back into the business by blade runner Gaff (Edward James Olmos) and his former boss Harry Bryant (Michael Emmet Walsh). to deal with four Replicants who escaped from slavery on another world and have illegally come to Earth. They're warriors Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Leon Kowalski (Brion James), the "pleasure model" Priss Stratton (Daryl Hannah), and assassin Zhora Salome (Joanna Cassidy), all of whom are extremely dangerous. Along the way he encounters Replicant creator Eldron Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and his assistant Rachael (Sean Young), whom he soon learns is a more advanced Replicant herself. As the hunt continues, Deckard soon finds himself with divided loyalties...

The Good

*Rutger Hauer does a good job playing the warrior Replicant Roy Batty. When we first meet him he interrogates a scientist and comes off as really intense and creepy. However, he mourns for a fellow Replicant killed on Earth and his ultimate motivation is care/concern for another being. He even seeks out his creator, whom he seems to view as a father figure, for help. And when the object of his affection dies, he mourns and seeks revenge. For a thinking machine he's very human, which is probably the whole point. Roy is my favorite character in the film and during the podcast I found myself  defending his actions--of all the people he kills, all but one were part of his and the other Replicants' escape from slavery. Harriet Tubman carried a gun to defend herself and her charges from slave-hunters--although I'm not aware of her ever having to use it, I would not fault her if she put a few between some slavers' eyes.

(To be fair though, Roy killed a lot more people and many of them sound like non-combatants. Tubman led a Union raid in South Carolina, but she didn't burn pro-slavery towns down with the people in them.)

*Overall this was a very thoughtful film that discussed the issue of what it really means to be human, what rights a created/artificial but sapient being would have, etc. in a non-preachy and annoying way. It reminded me a lot of the issues that came up during the 2004 remake of Battlestar Galactica, which incidentally also featured Edward James Olmos. The Cylons in BSG were robotic slaves who had rebelled against their human creators and ultimately evolved into beings that could successfully pass as human (one is even impregnated by a human and bears a living child) and in some cases even thought they were human.

Blade Runner brings up similar issues--the human military in Blade Runner had been keeping Priss as a prostitute, a less explicitly violent version of how the crew of the Pegasus repeatedly raped a captured Cylon spy (and tried to do the same to a Cylon defector aboard the Galactica). Given how she doesn't practice anything remotely resembling her former trade on Earth to blend in (even though another female Replicant does, see below), it may be that this job was against her own inclinations and thus rapey as hell. Yes, the Replicants (and the human Cylons) are machines, but they're clearly thinking beings who have wills and desires of their own and, unlike say a robotic arm at a car factory, can suffer. To be perfectly blunt, the Replicants are basically runaway slaves being hunted and murdered. Deckard really should know better, especially given how in the theatrical cut his narration equates Bryant's "skinjob" (for Replicants) with police of an older generation using the n-word (for black people).

(Given current issues in the USA with police and African-Americans, this is particularly timely.)

*I also liked Sebastian, the scientist suffering from premature aging (he's 25 but looks like he's in his 40s or 50s) living alone with various robotic quasi-toys. He's unable to emigrate due to his health issues, which reminded me of a story from college Spanish class called "Las Medias Rojas." He takes in the Replicant Priss when he thinks she's a homeless woman (and doesn't attempt to take advantage of her situation) and shows her the robotic companions he shares the largely-abandoned Bradbury Building with almost childlike joy. The thing that came to my mind was Jesus's story of the sheep and the goats--"I was a stranger and you took Me in, and what you have done to the least of these my brethren you have done also to Me." Upon learning of the Replicants' oncoming deaths, he attempts to help them. Of all the humans in the story, he and to a much more limited extent Deckard are the only ones who treat the Replicants with any kindness, something that Priss even remarks on.

*When Deckard administers the empathy test to Rachael as a deliberate negative, he asks her what she would do if someone gave her a calfskin wallet. She said she would not only turn it down, but report it to the police. Although I hesitate to call this "showing" instead of "telling" (since it's spoken dialogue), it does show the animals-rights legislation of this future Los Angeles. It reminded me of the novel Fallen Dragon by Peter F. Hamilton in which a hardened mercenary is horrified by the concept of eating meat made from real animals in a future where vat meat is common. Given how actual animals are expensive and most animals on-screen are artificial, this (along with her comment that if she discovered her son collecting butterflies she would take him to the doctor) could also exposit Earth's environmental problems have led to far stricter animal protections.

*Zhora at one point works as a stripper. Salome in the Bible performed a suggestive dance of some kind to persuade her stepfather Herod Antipas to have John the Baptist, who had condemned her mother's marriage to the king, executed. Making her last name Salome was pretty clever.

The Bad

*The opening with the gas fires reflected in somebody's eyes as the shot tracks over futuristic Los Angeles complete with flying cars and gigantic sci-fi buildings is kind of slow. It would have been better if the focus is on Leon being brought to the Tyrell Corporation headquarters for the "test" and just happen to see the futuristic landscape as we go along. No need for artsy shots of eyes, prolonged gas-fire scenes, etc.

*There's a significant part of the film from when Deckard first meets privately with Rachael and they discuss whether her childhood memories are real or not until he starts hunting for Zhora, that's really quite dull. In the historical context what he was doing at the time (using a computer to analyze photos in great detail) would have been high-tech and fascinating to the audience and, as one of my podcast brethren pointed out, real detective work is boring. Maybe if they'd made it a more lively montage or provided a soundtrack?

*Deckard makes some very forceful advances on Rachael (bordering if not outright crossing the line into date rape if they had sex, which they actually may not have), after she saves his life from Leon no less. Even if she was to some degree or another interested in him, she's very vulnerable psychologically (she's just learned she's really a Replicant and the whole life she remembers is a lie, and she's just killed a person too) and she is dependent on his physical protection as a hunted fugitive Replicant. She doesn't seem upset afterward and sticks with him instead of running away as soon as possible (although again, see "fugitive Replicant" part), but come on Deckard.

*Some more background information about how the world came to be would have been nice. Apparently in the original novel it takes place in the aftermath of a nuclear war between the US and USSR in which the world is slowly dying. Although a nuclear conflict could affect the Earth's climate, I'm not sure how a general worldwide cooling could turn Los Angeles into something resembling a smoggier Seattle. This scenario here, devised by Canadian science fiction author Bruno Lombardi, posits that an oceanic comet impact some years prior was the cause. That makes more sense--in the novel Lucifer's Hammer, oceanic impacts by comet fragments cause it to rain worldwide for weeks. Depending on patterns of evaporation after the unnatural worldwide rain occurs, the overall world climate could be much more humid and rainy for years afterward. Plus if the impact was somewhere in Asia, that could explain how Asian Los Angeles looks in terms of its residents, culture, etc.--Chinatown, Japantown, Koreatown, etc. were swollen by massive numbers of refugees.

The Verdict

Very thoughtful, but don't expect a slang-bang action film. 8.5 out of 10.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Movie Review: It (2017)

Growing up, I noticed my father had a lot of older editions of Stephen King works, including IT. I wasn't allowed to read them until I was much older, which given the content of them makes a lot of sense. I never saw the 1990 IT miniseries, but when I saw the trailer for the 2017 version of the film, I was actually somewhat scared. Given how inured I am to movie frights, that's saying something.

So although I wasn't able to see it the first week or two it was out, I eventually made my way up to Cumberland Mall to check it out. Now for the review...

The Plot

The film begins in Derry, Maine in the late 1980s with stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) making a toy boat for his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). He doesn't really want to go play with him, so Georgie goes out alone...where he's first maimed and then abducted by a murderous fanged clown that speaks to him from a storm drain. Cut to the end of the school year, where we see Bill and his fellow outcast friends getting picked on by the vicious bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang, who also pick on overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and African-American Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). Meanwhile, young Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) is bullied as a "slut" and "trash" by other girls and endures the creepy attentions of her father Alvin (Stephen Bogaert).

All these outcasts are drawn together by repeated attacks by a mysterious entity that appears to them in the form they most fear--sickly Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is menaced by a leper, Ben by a headless child from a history of Derry he's read, Beverly by an explosion of blood and hair from a sink that shows her fear of puberty, and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) by a scary painting in his father's office come to life. They realize that every 27 years, something old and evil awakens in Derry to feed, particularly on children. It's after them now, but they're going to turn the tables.

The Good

*The final third to half of the film in which It renews its attacks on the kids and the kids descend into the underworld to rescue the abducted Beverly and deal with It once and for all is great. That was a seriously enjoyable part of film. I'm not going to go into a lot of details for spoiler reasons, but yes, it is possible for a brawl between a bunch of middle-schoolers and a Lovecraftian horror that appears in the form of a clown to be truly epic. And by deranging various adults (Eddie's smothering mother, Beverly's creepy dad) and Bowers and kidnapping Beverly to use as bait, It displays a great deal of tactical sense--using others as weapons, dividing the group, personally attacking their strongest member alone, playing on the cultural meme of "save the damsel in distress from the dragon" to lure the boys into a trap, etc.

*The acting is really good. Lieberher does a really good job as Bill, who takes command of the group and, when the time for rousing speeches comes, doesn't stutter at all. The scenes between him and Georgie and how he mourns for his brother have legitimate pathos. Finn Wolfhard is pretty funny as the motor-mouthed profanity-spewing Richie Tozier. Lillis plays Beverly as a combination of vulnerable, clever, and when things get nasty, Little Miss Badass. Seriously, although the film has been criticized for making her a damsel in distress where she NEVER was in the book (it's my understanding she's the one who wounds It and forces it to retreat), she's probably the physically fiercest of the bunch and, to It, the most dangerous. She's the first to lose her fear (which makes people vulnerable to Its attacks) and pretty handy with sharp objects and well-placed kicks. Jacobs is well-cast as Mike--as someone who works on his grandfather's farm and delivers meat to the butcher by bicycle, he's got the musculature the character requires and puts it to good use during the final fight with Bowers and It. Finally, Scott does a good job portraying the innocence of a child and a child's terror when attacked by a predator, including screaming for his beloved brother when It drags him into the sewer after biting his arm off.

*There's a good bit of humor in the film. Richie's inability to self-edit and motormouth tendencies are prominent. The scene where Beverly is sunning herself after swimming with the boys in the quarry and they're all gawking at her--only to immediately find other things to do when she starts to notice--was worth a laugh too. And a character going down a well is played like a pinball game--good riddance.

*The film only adapts the first half of the novel, with the second and final showdown between the now-adult kids and It slated for 2019. This not only allows for a much shorter film than the mammoth 1990s miniseries, but allows for a much closer focus on the kids as characters. The ending of the film does a good job setting this up.

*I like all the 1980s visual trappings of the film. Video arcades, New Kids on the Block, the styles of cars and housing, and the films playing in the theaters. Culturally it's also important--kids these days are less able to go full-blown "free range" like children of the 1980s or even the 1990s (I remember wandering the woods a lot by myself or with one or two friends), which is important for the movie to actually work. Also, Beverly being a covert smoker even from that age contributes to the "bad girl" image other characters have of her and plays a role in her story as an adult--her abusive husband justifies his behavior by claiming it's all to get her to stop smoking, which might explain why she puts up with it so long. Think the song "Smoking in the Boys' Room," only with a girl.

*Some of the grosser and disturbing aspects of the novel that kept me from finishing the book in the past and would have likely kept me from the film--animal abuse by the bullies, the infamous "sewer orgy"--have been cut out completely. The bullies are already bad enough and a group hug (and group attack on It) serve the bonding purposes King claimed in interviews the "sewer orgy" scene was supposed to represent. The article from Vox makes a point that the scene where the boys help Beverly clean the bathroom fulfills that purpose as well. Seriously, was King on drugs when he came up with that scene? And were his publisher and editors on drugs when they approved it?

*There's a "rock war" scene where the Losers come to the aid of Mike when Bowers and his gang attack him that's a pure Crowning Moment of Awesome for the Losers and a well-deserved humiliation for the bullies (that, unlike in the book, might have deterred them from joining Bowers in going after the Losers and might well have saved their lives). All to the tune of Anthrax no less.

*During the final battle, It reveals aspects of its true form that (I'm assuming) we'll see in all its glory in the sequel.

The Bad

*The first half of the movie was really boring, to the point I got my phone out to (briefly I must emphasize--no more than a couple minutes) check Facebook even though you're REALLY, REALLY not supposed to do that in movie theaters. The kid drama was simply not interesting to me, even though it was important to set up the last half to one-third of the movie. Character development is important, but I didn't find it particularly interesting even though it had some of the strongest performances (Bill mourning his brother, Beverly cutting her hair and crying after her dad gets creepy).

*Although the film was really well-done, only the opening was really scary. The rest of it was more action-intense than frightening. I didn't really had a problem with this, but some viewers might.

*When the boys go swimming in the quarry, the underwear they're wearing makes them look like they're wearing diapers. I do remember wearing that style of underwear as a little-little kid during this time period (I was born in 1984), but I don't remember it being that puffy. They didn't have bathing suits?

The Verdict

The last third to half of the film is a lot of fun, but can't save it from the boring first part focused on the kid drama. Jeepers Creepers is a better horror film. 7.5 out of 10.

See it once and let's hope for a better sequel.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Video: My Reading from the THING IN THE WOODS Prologue

On August 5, I had a book signing at the Tall Tales bookshop in Atlanta near Emory University for my teen Lovecraftian novel The Thing in the Woods. My friend Kellie shot the following video of me reading from the prologue.

Be warned, it's really rather graphic. My poor mother was sitting in the front row looking more and more horrified as I went along.


If you like it and you live in the Atlanta area and/or can get here, I'm having a second book signing at the end of October at Posman Books in Ponce City Market. I'd like to see you there. I'll have 35 copies of The Thing in the Woods to sell, so be sure to get there early.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Maya Colonize The Caribbean?

Still self-banned from the alternate-history forum, but I found a cool discussion thread leading into a new timeline. Behold "Maya Colonization of the Caribbean"!

The gist of it is that the Maya develop outrigger canoes in the late pre-classic/early classic period. The Maya spread out into the Caribbean islands, with the technology spreading ahead of them and getting adopted by the Taino people, the tribes that in real history greeted Columbus and suffered greatly for it. The end result is a Mayan thalassocracy controlling the Caribbean basin, including major islands like Cuba, Hispaniola, etc. as well as the mouth of the Mississippi River in what will become the United States. Although there's a good bit of preliminary discussion, the actual alternate timeline starts here.

In real history, the Maya urban civilization (the Maya people are still there) collapsed due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion, but with the improved sailing capability and the trade routes existing this time around that didn't in real history, the surplus population moves out into the Caribbean islands. Eventually expansion becomes more land-based as the mainland stabilizes and the Maya civilization (they were decentralized city-states, like Greece, so it's not one giant empire) spreads further down into Central America and even onto the Pacific coastline.

By the time Columbus's ships arrive (nothing that changes in the Western Hemisphere is realistically going to affect the East unless the Maya manage to contact the Vikings, who would have to travel much farther south than they did in our history), civilization in the region has advanced well beyond the Taino chiefdoms Columbus encountered.

Not sure if the writer plans to depict what happens after Columbus's ships arrive (it ends with their arrival), but what's there is pretty cool.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: Thrawn (2017)

Here it is, folks. My review of Timothy Zahn's 2017 Thrawn novel, in which the beloved (if that's the right word) Imperial Grand Admiral that Zahn created for the old Expanded Universe is given a back-story for his appearance as the Season Three Big Bad in Star Wars Rebels.

The Plot

A group of Imperials exploring a planet find themselves under attack by a mysterious foe who, though fighting on foot, manages by unknown means to bring down at least one fighter aircraft and kills multiple soldiers. They evacuate the planet only to find their enemy has come with them. They capture him, only to discover he's an exiled Chiss military officer named Mitth'raw'nuruodo--or as he tells them to call him, Thrawn.

Taken to Coruscant, he manages to impress Emperor Palpatine and is recruited into the Imperial military. The novel follows his rise through the ranks in the years preceding Rebels, with him

The Good

*The fact this book even exists is good. The first novel in the original Thrawn trilogy, Heir to the Empire, was the first new Star Wars material in over a decade and proved to be a major hit. It spawned two sequels, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command, as well as the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe. The EU got so clunky and contradictory I can't fault Disney for torching the whole thing when they bought LucasFilm, but they destroyed the good with the bad by nuking Thrawn, Mara Jade, etc. Now Thrawn's back, and they've brought a lot of his original back-story (his exile by the Chiss, for example) with him. And the book copy doesn't ignore the original Thrawn Trilogy--the story is being sold as a sort of "before he was famous" for Thrawn.

*Thrawn's characterization is very much like the original Thrawn trilogy. In my commentary on the trilogy, I described him as having a very Lie to Me focus on body language and little details. This is really depicted only in one or two scenes, but in Thrawn we see it a whole lot. The majority of the story is told from Eli Vatto's POV much like how Sherlock Holmes' story is told by Watson, but there are lots and lots of italicized portions from his POV that show his hyper-focus on details of others' body language. Furthermore, he's not just a human with blue skin--he can see in the infrared spectrum, which allows to him to perceive more about people's reactions.

*Per the Sherlock Holmes comment, although we get Thrawn's POV in journal entries at the beginning of each chapter, they're not overwhelming. And we finally learn just how his examination of his enemies' artwork helps him anticipate their battle strategies.

*I've only seen bits and pieces of Rebels on YouTube, but Thrawn provides a lot of back-story for the planet of Lothal, Imperial Governor Pryce, Thrawn, etc. Rebels fans will really like this. If I'd seen more of Rebels, I'd probably enjoy the book at lot more. The last chunk of the book explicitly ties in with Thrawn's introduction in the show and the suppression of the insurgency on the world of Batonn, where civilian casualties were significantly higher than insurgent ones.

*In the Expanded Universe, the Empire was depicted as both extremely racist (toward non-humans) and rather sexist as well. Here Imperial racism is handled a bit more subtly. The Empire is a successor state to a multi-species Republic that has lasted for thousands of years, so going Nazi, even with the Emperor scapegoating non-humans for the Clone Wars (in the Revenge of the Sith novelization that seemed to be Dooku's idea about what would happen afterward), would be very difficult. Thrawn's time at the Imperial Academy shows this pretty well--the atmosphere is very prejudiced overall and there's a lot of ugly behavior thrown his way, but he's still able to attend and graduate. And sexism doesn't seem to be an issue at all, which matches the more gender-egalitarian picture of the Empire depicted in previous new-canon books.

*Over the course of the story, we see more and more about the logistical side of building a certain mega-project. In fact, said project's logistical demands play a major role in many of Thrawn's adventures in this period.

The Bad

*It initially isn't clear the italicized portions scattered throughout the text are from Thrawn's point of view.

*Given that this takes place during the period of peace (albeit a repressive one) that followed the end of the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire and preceded the Rebellion, not a lot happens military-wise. Most of what Thrawn seems to be is detain smugglers and fight pirates. There's not really a lot of action. Like in the original Thrawn novels, a lot of the combat maneuvering and what-not is told rather than shown.

*We see the rise of Governor Pryce of Lothal, which is interesting if you'd like to learn about Imperial politics and how the Senate functioned under the Emperor. It's a nice bit of her Rebels back-story, but it wasn't super-duper interesting.

The Verdict

It's worth reading if you're a big fan of Rebels. I'd recommend getting it from the library. 7.0 out of 10.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Movie Review: The Dark Tower (2017)

Long ago when I was in high school, I read some of my father's older editions of Stephen King's Dark Tower novels, illustrated by the awesome Michael Whelan. I think there were only three--The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Wastelands. I eventually finished the series--they're what started me toward writing Battle for the Wastelands--and I eagerly awaited the movie I heard was coming.

The Plot

Teenage Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is having dreams of fiery apocalypse. The psychiatrist his mother and stepfather are sending him to think they have to do with the death of his firefighter father, but it turns out he's having psychic visions of another world. The villainous Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) is sending agents to abduct children with psychic potential to assist his plan to undermine the Dark Tower in the center of the cosmos, to allow the horrors of the outer darkness through.

Fortunately Jake is also having visions of Roland, the last gunslinger (Idris Elba). Jake escapes the agents of the Man in Black into Mid-World, left in ruins by a long-ago apocalyptic war, and soon meets Roland. The two have to survive attacks by the minions of the Man in Black as well as stop him from bringing down the Tower...

The Good

*The beginning is very well-done. We start out with some idyllic 1950s-esque suburbia (only more peacefully multi-racial) full of children and teens playing with each other. Then the air raid sirens start going off. Only instead of some kind of attack, it turns out that many of the children are being summoned into an ominous black pyramid by people who are obviously non-human creatures wearing human disguises. And did I mention this little idyll and the horror within sit atop a mesa surrounded by post-apocalyptic desolation?

*Although we don't see the Man in Black's ability to destroy civilizations by manipulating people, we do see in the small scale. He telepathically torments Roland and Jake with visions of their fathers and tries to play on Roland's guilt for those he failed to protect, he plays on Jake's stepfather's resentment of him, etc. We also see his pettiness--he twists a girl's mind to hate her mother to amuse himself, he forces minions who failed to kill each other, etc.

*There are some good visuals, like when Jake first arrives on Mid-World and spots the sand-encrusted ruins of a tank from the war that caused the world to "move on." There's also what looks like a giant mall with its own mass transit station, with a more primitive village of people wearing what look like modern clothes in its shadow. Let's be realistic--if there was some kind of apocalyptic event tomorrow, there'd still be continuity in culture, dress, etc.

*Tom Taylor does a good job as Jake. Matthew McConaughey is all right as the Man in Black. I'd hoped for better from him--see below. Elba doesn't really have a lot to say or emote as Roland, although he does the action scenes quite well.

*There are a lot of good action sequences and the movie is generally entertaining.

*There are some amusing one-liners here and there.

The Bad

*As someone who's read the books I recognized a lot of the events, Easter Eggs, etc. in the film, but so much more could have been said about them. The battle in whose aftermath we see the Man in Black kill a wounded man, the "last stand," is almost certainly the Battle of Jericho Hill, or some alternate-reality version of it. It's never actually named, nor do we see the actual battle or who was fighting in it. They tried to squeeze too much into too short a running time and although what emerged was decent, The Dark Tower is supposed to be an American Lord of the Rings. This could have been a trilogy of films at least. Maybe there's a 2-3 hour director's cut somewhere and I hope to God there is because there's so much they could have explored but didn't.

*The film makes Jake for all intents and purposes the protagonist when he doesn't even show up in the book series until later. Roland is the protagonist of The Gunslinger, but we don't meet him until well into the film. One of the critics on The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast flat-out described him as a sidekick to Jake, which has an unfortunate Hollywood history. I wouldn't go that far, but I'd be far more interested in seeing Roland's adventures, perhaps cross-cut with Jake's story in New York, until they cross paths. That would be a good chance to work in some episodes from Roland's journey in The Gunslinger, for example.

*Per the above, although there're some good character material for the Man in Black, he could still be developed more. In the books, for example, he had an affair with Roland's mother and the teen Roland accidentally killed her while trying to kill him. He's held a grudge for her death ever since--in The Dark Tower, the last novel in the cycle, it's his "most of all" reason for hating Roland. Here all we see is him mocking Roland about his "soft-skinned mother" (implying he had an acquaintance with said skin) and calling Roland's father a poor excuse for a man. A man in love (or at least in lust) with a married woman might comment on her looks and look down on her husband, but the full story isn't here. It would have been more interesting if the death of Gabrielle Deschain was part of what fueled his destructive tendencies. In The Wolves of the Calla, he does have enough feelings to be hurt when accused of cruelty, for example.

*In the commercials the Man in Black comes off as a lot more menacing and powerful. I'd expected McConaughey to play him with more intensity than what we got on-screen. The death of a character very important to Roland early on could be a good place to show this--in the scene the Man in Black basically tells the character to stop breathing and he does. He then walks away, catching the single shot Roland shoots at him almost offhand. If he's deflecting and dodging bullets all while psychically forcing a guy to suffocate himself, it'd be a lot scarier.

*There's an incursion from the outer darkness that's meant to illustrate what horrors will invade reality if the Tower falls, but it happens at night and it's too dark to really see just what kind of critter that is.

*The film starts to drag toward the middle. I think I remember looking at my watch.

Many of the criticisms I'm posting here are echoed and put into words more coherently by The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast's review of the film. Gotta give credit where it's due.

The Verdict

A rather shallow take on a much richer mythology. If there's not going to be a sequel, I hope there's a much longer director's cut out there somewhere. I do remember seeing a still of McConaughey walking through an icy wasteland past some corpses and whistling, there were scenes in commercials of mutant goons in the desert that weren't in the film either, and neither was the line where Jake asks if the Man in Black is the devil and Roland says he's worse. There might be more out there. 7.5 out of 10.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Movie Review: Spider-Man Homecoming (2017)

The other day I saw the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Spider-Man Homecoming, at the North DeKalb Mall movie theater where you can still get matinee tickets for less than $5. I'd skipped Doctor Strange due to a combination of other obligations and because it looked kind of trippy (like Inception), so this was my first time back in the MCU in awhile.

The Plot

In the aftermath of the Battle of New York, contractor Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), hired by the city of New York to help clean up Grand Central Station, is unceremoniously kicked off the job by a bunch of Men In Black types. It turns out Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has set up a public-private partnership with the federal government to rebuild the city, cutting Toomes' company out entirely even though he's bought lots of new equipment and hired new people for the job.

Despite having lost the contract, Toomes still has some captured Chitauri technology, which he proceeds to reverse-engineer into weapons to sell and winged powered armor for himself. After doing this under-the-radar for eight years, careless subordinates bring him into conflict with Queens' friendly-neighborhood superhero, Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

The Good

*As you can tell by my plot description, my favorite character overall was the Vulture. In this movie, he's far more sympathetic than Tony Stark. I've griped about how Iron Man III reduced the legendary Mandarin to yet another (white) military-industrial type with a grudge against Tony, but this movie does a really good job with the villain's characterization even though it differs from the comic version. The MCU Vulture shows that even though Tony isn't the narcissistic jerk he was before the events of the first Iron Man film, his self-absorption continues to cause problems. He attempted to enforce the Sokovia Accords on his own allies in Captain America Civil War due to HIS guilt for Ultron and he screwed over Toomes due to HIS desire to help clean up the mess of NYC and HIS desire to keep control over alien technology. If Tony had just bought out Toomes or paid him compensation, this whole mess could have been avoided, but he couldn't be bothered with the details.

And Michael Keaton does an excellent job playing the Vulture. I liked the character's sense of honor and fair play, his general swagger, his hardass attitude when required, his delivery of his lines, and his facial expressions and attitude during a scene where he rides in the car with Peter for an extended period. Very, very good. I also liked the combination of his WWII bomber jacket and all the high-tech stuff.

*Peter's friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who I'm not spoiling anything by revealing that he learns that Peter is Spider-Man early in the film, is pretty funny too. He pesters Peter about his superpowers, how he got them, etc. and talks about how he wants to be "the guy in the chair" who sends Peter out on missions. He even has a hilarious moment of glory late in the film.

*I'm glad they didn't do yet another origin story for Spider-Man. We've seen the spider bite and Uncle Ben die in Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man already, with a revisionist take in Spider-Man III to boot. Captain America Civil War introduced us to a young man who'd already been superheroing for some time, so the whole radioactive (or genetically-mutated) spider and the death of Uncle Ben is in the past.

*I'm usually not sympathetic to the demands of the social-justice set (well, beyond the "don't be jerk" parts), but I did like the increased ethnic diversity of the cast. Queens in the early 21st Century and Queens in the 1960s when Spider-Man premiered are vastly different places ethnically. Back then blue-collar whites like the Parker family would have been the dominant group and the 1965 Immigration Act would not have had time to make an impact. These days many of the lower-class whites (or their grandchildren) would have moved elsewhere, with large Hispanic, African-American, and Asian population moving in. Making Peter's friend Ned Filipino, his rival Flash Guatemalan (although until I looked up the actor I thought he was Indian), and his argumentative fellow Academic Decathlon player Michelle biracial (actress Zendaya has a black father and a white mother) accurately reflects reality without being preachy or heavy-handed. And there's an amusing bit where he helps a lost Dominican lady (and she buys him a churro) and an Easter Egg involving a criminal's nephew revealing that in this world, Miles Morales (Ultimate Spider-Man's Afro-Latino successor) exists.

*The film emphasizes the sacrifices Peter makes in order to be Spider-Man--he gives up extracurricular activities, gets into trouble at school, and misses out on social opportunities and alienates his peers.

*The film goes to Washington DC (where we get a nice Easter Egg with the rebuilding of the SHIELD Triskelion complex after the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier) in a completely non-forced way.

*The very end of the film unleashes a major twist to the Spider-Man mythology involving Aunt May. I won't go into it for reasons of spoilers though.

*The "friendly neighborhood" aspect of Spider-Man is emphasized--per my above comment he helps a lost Dominican lady and takes down a guy who's recklessly riding a bike down a sidewalk and knocking people over. Perhaps that's why the cops tolerate him despite the Sokovia Accords--he's more of a local mascot than a law-undermining vigilante.

The Bad

*The high-school stuff was boring and in some cases actively painful to watch. Not in the pathos drama sense, but in the "CAN THIS END" sense. I know an important part of his character is that he's balancing trying to be a normal teen and a superhero, but most if it really wasn't that interesting.

*Although as I said before I'm glad this isn't yet another origin story, Peter doesn't seem to have the guilt for the death of Uncle Ben driving him, nor does he ever unleash his tag-line about with great power coming great responsibility. Instead he seems motivated purely by "holy crap I can do that" joie de vivre a high-school sophomore discovering he has superpowers would have and a general-purpose desire to help people. Peter alludes to his aunt suffering a great trauma, but Uncle Ben would have for all intents and purposes been his father, so the death of Uncle Ben would have hurt him a lot too.

*One of the more interesting aspects of the original Flash character was that although he sneered at and bullied Peter, he greatly admired Spider-Man. That was something missing from the characterization of Flash this time around. It wouldn't have been hard to work that in--in the scene where Ned starts telling people Peter knows Spider-Man, Flash could say something like, "Spider-Man is too cool to hang out with some loser like you" or something to that effect. Or if they wanted to make this something that develops with his character, maybe he could become the big Spider-Man fanboy after the Washington Monument sequence.

The Verdict

The superheroics are fun, but the high school stuff had me looking at my watch many times. 7.5 out of 10.