Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Empire Rises Somewhat Differently, Or "The Skywalker Heresy"

My alternate-history message-board allows for alternate histories of fictional universes (known as "AU" in the fan-fic realm's parlance) in the "Alien Space Bats" section. Although that part of the site is restricted to members only, I've encouraged many writers of interesting scenarios to post them on fanfiction.net (or other such sites like AO3) so I can share them with everybody.

So without further introduction, allow me to introduce "The Skywalker Heresy," a Star Wars AU story beginning soon after the Battle of Coruscant. Palpatine has already set in motion the final chain of events to make Anakin Skywalker his new Sith Apprentice, but even the best laid plans of mice and men can be set awry by the smallest things.

(Seriously, Anakin's canonical fall was a pretty tenuous, unlikely thing, although I've heard the animated Clone Wars series does a really good job setting up Anakin for this particular path to damnation. It'd be pretty easy for things to get...complicated.)

The author has posted the entirety of the first full story set in this alternate timeline on the message-board, but will be posting it on fanfiction.net a chapter per day due to the need to scrub some coding. I won't go into a lot of detail about what happens in it to avoid spoiling some fun surprises, but some knowledge Clone Wars series would be helpful.

And he's promised there will be more stories. So keep those reviews coming!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Some Thoughts on MARTA, Infrastructure, and Keynesian Economics

I was perusing some articles from magazines published by a company I've been working for since midsummer and that got me thinking about transportation, Atlanta's mass-transit system MARTA, and related topics. Here goes...

MARTA has historically not functioned very well for a number of reasons, including a lack of support from the state, state meddling in how it spends its money, opposition to expanding it from its core territories (for various reasons--although a lot of opposition is driven by excessive fear of crime and even outright racism, there're better reasons like not wanting to pay extra taxes and the fact the train doesn't go to places like Turner Field), etc. However, under new management, it has undergone a major turnaround. The possibility of extending MARTA buses and even rail (although they really should stop being so vague about doing this "in the future") to Clayton County is on the table, while 2012's failed TSPLOST (which would have passed if it had been limited to a more truncated area instead of including counties like Cherokee) included proposals to extend MARTA rail to Emory and even up Ga. 400 into North Fulton or up I-75 into Cobb. As the Governing article notes, there's a lot more support for expanding MARTA due to people moving in-town, high gas prices, etc.

And now for the Keynesianism. This article here describes how in many places, growth and employment are low but so are borrowing costs. That would be a good time for infrastructure investment, since it would employ people and get them spending money ("priming the pump" if you will) and low interest rates mean that it's safer for a government to borrow money to fund the project. And given the dilapidated state of much of U.S. infrastructure (here's a specific example of where things can go very wrong), we wouldn't be talking about stupid make-work projects like paying people to dig holes and paying others to fill them, but stuff that is in legitimate government purview. Here's some evidence that this can kick in the "money multiplier" effect.

As far as Atlanta is concerned, Georgia recently had the highest unemployment rate in the nation, although things have gotten better now. MARTA has a bunch of projects under consideration already. I'm not a transit expert, but I can see some areas where expanding MARTA rail in-town and out-of-town would merit further investigation and, if built, would provide lots of construction/infrastructure-type jobs.

*Although the stereotype of MARTA opponents is white people from the northern suburbs, there was opposition to the TSPLOST based on how it wouldn't have extended heavy rail to Stonecrest Mall. Residents don't want to wait decades to get rail out the I-20 East corridor. This would be pretty pricey based on that article--according to these specifics here, it'd be 12 miles of heavy rail, some transit centers (presumably for buses), and a bunch of other stuff, at a cost of $2 billion. That's billion with a B. Still, if it would clear out the traffic in the area, it would reduce air pollution and improve quality of life for area residents on top of the obvious "reduce traffic" parts.

*The Clifton Corridor project would extend MARTA to Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control facility in Atlanta. This is the main reason I advocated in favor of the TSPLOST, since I've visited friends out there and the place is a traffic black hole at certain periods of the day. Someone I knew online opposed TSPLOST funding for the project by saying that Emory and the CDC should contribute and that's not a bad argument. I'm not sure about using light rail vs. heavy rail--a lot of the times light rail isn't separated from car traffic and if the trains get snarled among cars like a streetcar would, people won't use them.

*A direct rail connection to Atlantic Station would help remedy the "doesn't go anywhere" problem inside the Perimeter. I've seen movies like Ender's Game with friends from Alpharetta and it was easier to drive than take the train because then we'd have to use a shuttle bus to actually get to Atlantic Station. This would be even more convenient for people already in-town, since they wouldn't need to make the long trip down from North Springs into Atlanta proper. Thing is, with all the development already there, it would be more expensive to build a rail connection (even a cheaper light rail one) and according to the MARTA site, it's not that far of a walk.

*Assuming Clayton votes for MARTA this November, go to page 2-11 to see where rail stops can go. I used to live in the Lovejoy/Jonesboro area (back when I was a reporter for The Griffin Daily News) and I would have loved this for DragonCon and even for church (I go to a church in-town near a MARTA stop). Although rail wouldn't go as far south as Lovejoy (at first), it would have been much better to get on the train at the Jonesboro Justice Center than drive all the way up to Lakewood/Ft. McPherson.

*Extending MARTA rail to Turner Field (which would allow the buses used for the Braves shuttle to be deployed elsewhere) was on the initial TSPLOST project list, but was ultimately removed. The lack of transit options was one reason the Braves gave for leaving Atlanta, although the fact they're moving to Cobb (where the transit situation is even worse) makes them look dumb at best and dishonest at worst. Still, given the possible uses Turner Field could be put to--Mayor Kasim Reed wants a middle-class housing development and Georgia State University wants to transform it into a combination of sports, retail, and student housing--extending MARTA rail to the site anyway would be a good idea.

*As far as extending MARTA outside the Perimeter is concerned, back when I was a reporter in North Fulton I heard all about various proposals to extend MARTA into Alpharetta. That particular line would begin in the Perimeter area and extend all the way to Windward Parkway, with stops in Roswell along the way. That has faced some opposition from people who think it would "urbanize" Alpharetta (in context they're talking about dense development, not using "urban" as a synonym for "black"), but others have pointed out that there's a whole lot of office space in the area. If you work in the same office all day, you won't need a car like more mobile workers (such as journalists like me), so if a lot of office workers commute to Alpharetta from elsewhere, rail service might be a boon for them.

*If we go through with bringing the Braves Stadium to the Cumberland area (gag me with a spoon), it's going to create a traffic nightmare in the area. Extending MARTA up I-75 will connect the system to in-town fans and fans from the south who could take MARTA through Atlanta to Cobb, but one reason the Braves moved is because, based on ticket sales, they figured most of the fan base lived in the northern suburbs. However nice building a MARTA line connecting Cumberland to the rest of Atlanta would be in and of itself, it won't help "northern arc" people get there any faster and, as the following article points out, the politically-easiest route would also be quite expensive. Here's a transportation proposal that should make things easier and would create jobs to boot.

*This is an odd proposal that I'm not aware anybody has even studied, but some kind cross-Perimeter line connecting Doraville (Gold Line) to Dunwoody (Red Line) would be interesting. The distance is relatively short and it would allow much easier transit between the Red and Gold lines if somebody wants to go from the Northside to Lenox or Brookhaven rather than having to go all the way to Lindbergh Center and then change trains. If someone is heading up from downtown to the Northside and wants to detour to Lenox for whatever reason, they could keep going on the Gold Line and get back on the Red at Doraville.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"The Strain" Season Finale Review and Recap (Spoilers)

Just got done watching the season finale of The Strain. No more icky medical vampires until 2015. A pity.

This episode was quite a lot of fun. It starts out with elderly billionaire Palmer (who's looking surprisingly healthy) and his minion Fitzwilliam entering Setrakian's shop, where Palmer confiscates Setrakian's collection of vampire lore and even his late wife's infested heart. He meets Eichhorst there, overjoyed to think he's received the ultimate blessing of vampiric immortality and wondering when he's going to get a stinger--only to find out he hasn't. Being transformed into a thinking vampire like Eichhorst is not for him yet. Next we have a rather telling flashback in which Kelly gives Zack a birthday bike and films him riding it to send to Eph while he's at a CDC conference in Atlanta. Yep, we know who the good and involved parent actually was here. It turns out it was a dream and Zack is with the rest of them at another home Setrakian owns. They're plotting to go after the Master again and Eph and Setrakian get into a fight about just what to let him know. Then Eph and exterminator Vasiley Fet are off to do some reconnaissance.

Meanwhile, Palmer is not happy to know about Eph's broadcast, especially since the secretary of health and human services is considering shutting down Manhattan. He orders Fitzwilliam to bring around the car to take him and Eichhorst to see her, but Fitzwilliam refuses. Palmer gets rather PO'd at him and they fight. Fitzwilliam resigns from Palmer's employ, but refuses to kill him as a tribute to the help he'd provided him over the years. You know, honor is all good most of the time, but now it's not.

And Gus is captive of the mysterious vampire commando who hasn't been named yet, but I know who he is so I'll say it--Mr. Quinlan. Quinlan unties him and wants to show him something, parrying every attempt Gus makes to attack him.

Eph and Fet sneak into the theater that "Goth douche-bag" Gabriel Bolivar rented, since it's close to where they faced the Master the first time. They find the coffin being partially reassembled and bail when the vampires start sensing intruders. On the way out, Fet pops a manhole open to flood the sewers with sunlight and keep vampire reinforcements out.

Next we see Palmer and Eichhorst confronting the secretary of health and human services and Eph and Nora's boss Everett Barnes. Palmer tries to talk her out of canceling her planned quarantine and when that doesn't work, he throws her off a ledge. He and Eichhorst bully Barnes into agreeing to go along with their plan.

Eph and Fet return and we find Nora smoking and mourning her mother, whom she had to kill last week after vampire-Bolivar took a drink out of her. Eph initially quails at going after the Master again (he wants to protect Zack from vampirized Kelly), but Nora rants about people disappearing in Argentina and so Eph agrees to take Zack to war with them. Setrakian gives him his very own silver blade and he and Eph give him some pointers on how to use it.

And so they're off to fight the vampires. Oh boy, things are fun. Fet blows up a bunch of vampire reinforcements momentarily stalled by the open sewer with dynamite and then they're into the theater. They blow through the minion vampires until Eichhorst arrives, promising to drink Dutch first. She shoots him, but is only able to wound him. He and Fet go hand-to-hand while Dutch can't get a clear shot and Nora vents some of her rage into strigoi-slaying. Bolivar shows up and loses a big chunk of his stinger for his pains. Setrakian, Eph, and Zack ascend into the upper floors, where Eph kills a vampire that looks an awful lot like Kelly. There Setrakian and the Master face off, with Eph and Zack smashing windows to expose the Master to sunlight. The wounded Master knocks Setrakian aside and leaps through the window into the sun, where he starts to burn. The other vampires, including the wounded Eichhorst, retreat in a creepy reverse-VCR kind of way. Darn. Fet had pumped at least one silver nail into his face and Dutch had already hit him twice with silver bullets. The old Nazi was one or two more hits away from a long-delayed meeting with his Maker...

Finally, Setrakian and Eph have the Master at their mercy. Setrakian is all, "IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY!" and is going to deliver a silver shanking when the Master rolls over (using his cloak to protect himself from the sun) and flees down the side of the building. We can see his skeleton through burnt-away flesh, but he's not dead yet.

Damn it! Setrakian really should have learned not to Call His Attacks like that. If he hadn't had that dramatic pause and struck right then, he might've speared the bastard to the ground with the gigantic silver wolf-sword he carries and then Eph could have used his own weapon. They can gloat once they've taken off his limbs or transfixed him butterfly-style so he can't get away. He bugs off and Setrakian admits he doesn't know how to actually kill the Master. Umm...he was burning alive in the sunlight and bugged out rather than try to finish his decades-long enemy Setrakian and his new apprentice Eph. Sunlight isn't an instant-killer for any strigoi--they all saw the bunch in the sewer step into the sun, start smoking, and recoil--so why is it such a problem to think that a being that is around nine feet tall, weighs probably 400+ pounds, and covers most of his flesh in a big heavy cloak might take awhile to cook?

Afterward, Zack is having an asthma attack, so they detour by the Goodweather house to retrieve his inhaler and medication. Only it turns out he was faking the attack in order to retrieve a family photo album! That idiot kid. He and Eph talk about a particularly well-remembered birthday party (!) when a shadow with long hair falls. Zack immediately thinks it's Mom, whom Eph had repeatedly neglected to tell him has been turned. She calls for him and Zack nearly runs for her, but Eph shoots her in the shoulder and she retreats. She's going to be a problem later. Eph (a recovering alcoholic) for the first time takes a drink, as Nora pleads for him not to. Bad move, old bean.

Meanwhile, Gus manages to apparently escape from Quinlan and runs into an empty room. The lights go on and we see a bunch of emaciated naked creatures very similar to the Master (except not so huge). They're all asleep and Quinlan says he speaks for them in a well-delivered monologue about how these Ancients are creatures of great dignity, honor, etc. If they were to be woken up, they'd be hungry and Gus wouldn't like that. Quinlan offers "revenge and a rich payday" to Gus to be their daytime warrior against the Master and Gus accepts his role in the vampire turf war. Let the games begin.

The episode ends with our heroes heading out of the city toward Fet's place, with some fires burning amid the buildings. This was a good episode overall. I knew the Master would survive, but I was hoping Eichhorst would bite it. He so nearly did too! Oh well. Onto 2015...

Friday, October 3, 2014

Can Sean Bean Save Westeros? Let's Take a Look...

Found another A Song of Ice and Fire fan-fiction for your entertainment. It's entitled "Sean Bean Saves Westeros." The gist of it is that after Season One of the television series Game of Thrones wraps, Sean Bean (the actor who played Ned Stark) wakes up as Ned Stark in Westeros in the city of White Harbor in the North--soon after Ned Stark was executed. Now he has to pretend to be Ned Stark (resurrected by the Old Gods) to reunite the Realm in the face of the return of the Others and the coming Winter.

The writer seems to know Sean Bean's career and personal life very well and that's what makes the story at times really funny (an enthusiasm for soccer that leads to an amusing clash with Jaime Lannister) and other times somewhat poignant (he sings a rather sad Northern English song from our world and compares Ned's relationships with Catelyn to his own failed marriages and Ned's relationship to Arya to his relationship with his real-life daughters). The story is also setting up Renly Baratheon of all people as the Big Bad (at least before the Others show up), since between "Ned" with modern historical and military knowledge (Bean is depicted as knowing a fair bit about the historical Battle of Hastings) in command of the Northern host and Stannis's fleet, the Lannisters get neutralized pretty quickly but Renly still has his army of 100,000 heading (slowly) for King's Landing. And along the way, some of canon's villains get their just desserts.

So if you like fan fiction that's a little off the beaten path, you'll definitely like this one.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Guest Post: "Bring Out The Dead" Accepted by J. Ellington Ashton Press

Alex Shalenko is a former member of my alternate-history forum who has been very helpful with my writing career. He's got some very good news to share with you all...

Imagine this: you are fifteen years old. You are an awkward, bookish kid with a wardrobe straight out of some bad sitcom, more Star Trek posters than friends, and social skills to match. Now, imagine that you have a crush on a cute girl who, as conventional wisdom would have it, is more likely to date a football player, or perhaps that one guy in a band, or the proverbial cool kid who smokes cigarettes and has a fake ID to buy beer. Imagine that you ask the girl on a date, fully anticipating humiliating rejection or ridicule.

Imagine that she says yes.

Are you still with me? Good. Because this is what having a publishing contract feels like. And it is a great, wonderful feeling, accentuated by sprinkles of trepidation and anxiety. What will happen next? How much will the editing process alter the book? Will readers and reviewers like it? Will it sell?

At the very least, it will not be too long before those questions are answered.

I have to thank a fellow author and good friend Bruno Lombardi (whose excellent works I would heartily recommend) for pointing me in the direction of J. Ellington Ashton Press. One submission later found me looking at the e-mail containing a publishing contract, not quite believing my own eyes and excited beyond all measure, for now the story that began as a birthday present for my wife will finally see the light of day.

My path to the holy grail of aspiring authors took eight years from the time when I finished my first novel, or four years from the time I finished Bring Out the Dead. This was not the fastest journey, but if anything, it proved the value of perseverance, and, more than anything, the value of support from friends and family, without which little would have happened. Also, it does not hurt to know a thing or two about the topic you are writing about.

After all, being a Russian-speaking author with professional background in the financial industry turned out to be a major asset in writing Bring Out the Dead. Being married to a lifelong reader of horror fiction (whose birthday was coming up) turned out to be another. A chance posting of photographs from the toxic wasteland of Norilsk, Russia, made it all come together. From there, the novel pretty much wrote itself.

Just like real-life Norilsk, the fictional town of Severozavodsk has a dark history strewn with forced prisoner labor, blatant disregard for environment, and good old-fashioned greed. As with many places in the far corners of the world, it came with its own mythology, both from the hushed cautionary tales of the Soviet era, and from the native Nenets people who lived in the far north long before the march of civilization. It came with blizzards which could cut off a sizable city for weeks at a time, frozen earth that yields precious little of its bounty, the eternal conflict of the rational against the superstitious, of industry versus magic that comes out of hiding in the light of the northern aurora. And it came with people – tough, fatalistic people who hide their fear of the dark under a callous exterior.

So, Bring Out the Dead is the story of all these things and then some. When Jake Levin, the novel's protagonist, finds himself in Russia, he learns not only about a different culture, but also about himself, and whether or not he can face the darkness, change it or be changed by it. What happens next? Well, you will have to read to find out!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Batman and Robin (1997)

The other night as part of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we watched Batman and Robin, a film remembered so poorly that we couldn't find anybody willing to defend it. Our exalted host Nick had to do it himself. In this gem, Batman and Robin must fight on multiple fronts--not only Mr. Freeze, but also new villains Poison Ivy and her henchman Bane. Complicating things is the arrival of Alfred's niece Barbara, who has secrets of her own...

The Good

*The opening scene where Batman and Robin take on Mr. Freeze and his hockey-themed gang in a museum is entertaining.

*When Uma Thurman is in her Poison Ivy persona, she's not too bad.

*They had some nice tie-ins with Batman Forever,including seeing Two-Face and the Riddler's gear in Arkham Asylum and Poison Ivy and Bane having to run off the raver gang Robin fought when he stole the Batmobile in order to claim a new hideout. Robin invokes his family's circus act the Flying Graysons in a squabble with Batman as well.

*Chris O'Donnell is less intolerable as Robin this time around. Given the length of time implied to have elapsed between this movie and Batman Forever, it makes some sense that the character wouldn't be a teenager anymore and having an adult actor wouldn't be as obnoxious.

*They kept Mr. Freeze's more complicated and sympathetic back-story from the comics. Even though Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't the best actor in the film, the problem with the character was his constant punning, not the character himself.

The Bad

Where do I begin? The movie was so poorly received the major Batman film series that started with Batman in 1989 ended and had to be rebooted by Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins years later. Not only rebooted, but rebooted in a Darker and Edgier way that repudiated the campiness of the Burton-Schumacher era. It was a straight-up Franchise Killer.

*So many butt and crotch shots of Batman and Robin, plus the infamous Bat-nipples and six-packs on the two. Given how movies often objectify female characters turnabout's fair play (and some of Myopia's female crew appreciated the view), but the way it was done was so groaningly unsubtle it was annoying.

*Campiness in limited quantities is funny. Campiness in the amount ladled on this film is just bad. The museum battle scene at one point featured Batman and Robin deploying ice-skates from their boots so they can engage Mr. Freeze's hockey gang on the ice. And the puns. So many puns. So many bad puns! I love groaner puns, but in moderation. This went way, way too far. Whether this is director Joel Schumacher's fault or the executives' fault I don't know, but either way it was very bad.

*Plugging in Batgirl the way they did was stupid. She's not British even though she's supposed to be Alfred's niece and a student at a British school, she's explicitly the daughter of his sister and not a great-niece (which would make more sense given the massive age difference between her and Alfred), and her disappearance from a big chunk of the film (so the viewer can be surprised she's a covert street-racer and her eventually becoming Batgirl is foreshadowed) could have been handled better.

Although her reasoning for being there is creative at least--Alfred apparently used his salary from the Waynes' employ to support her after her parents died and she wants to repay him so he can retire--she has absolutely no reason to think his situation is that servile and she just comes off as really rude. Alicia Silverstone is dreadfully miscast--she's not British, she doesn't seem to be in the physical condition needed to do the stuff she does, and even though Barbara's reason for being there is absurd, a better actress could have made her feelings more convincing. Could Keira Knightley have been a better Batgirl? She might've been too young at the time to (not creepily) have the romantic tension with Robin, but still.

*Per the Knightfall saga, Bane is not only a very powerful warrior but also very, very smart. In this one, he's basically Poison Ivy's semi-retarded henchman. According to TVTropes this is the studio bosses' fault and not Schumacher's--Knightfall wasn't that long before and they wanted to work Bane in somehow, so they basically replaced an established Poison Ivy minion with him. Children, this is why Executive Meddling is quite often a bad thing. The only thing they got right is that Bane is Latin American background instead of being Middle Eastern like in The Dark Knight Rises and the Batman animated series (which depicted Bane as this glorified Mexican wrestler with an obvious accent) did that better.

*In her deranged-scientist mode (when she's not being Poison Ivy), Uma Thurman is obnoxious and not very good. She's generally a good actress, so maybe really bad direction?

*The way Batman and Robin fight with each other, with Robin apparently honest-to-God thinking Poison Ivy actually likes him, is freaking stupid. If Robin were depicted as a teen played by a teen actor it might've worked--but played by the 20-something Chris O'Donnell it's obnoxiously bad. And the where Batman shuts down Robin's motorcycle so he doesn't try to jump between buildings and Robin screams at him as he flies away is unintentionally funny. But not that funny because then I might have enjoyed it.

*Where's Dr. Meridian, Nicole Kidman's character from Batman Forever? The end implied she and Bruce were now a couple, and since she knows he's Batman that's not going to be the kind of problem it'd be for anyone who isn't Catwoman. However, unlike Vicki Vale, she's gone without a mention. Instead he's dating this random woman and apparently has been for some time.

The Verdict

Let this franchise-killer lie dead and forgotten. 4 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Brief Discussion of "Myopia: Defend Your Childhood"

A man from Marietta has joined the ranks of podcasters with his new podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood.

"It's because I consume a lot of podcasts and I'm part of a group of people who watch a lot of movies," Nick said when asked where Myopia came from. "We talk about a lot of movies."

He credits his wife Candice and his friend Scott Miller with keeping him focused and helping develop the idea. He and Scott started developing the idea in the spring of 2014. They'd been hitting around the idea of a movie podcast and didn't know a formula, although The Flop House and How Did This Get Made? inspired him, as did We Hate Movies. However, he wasn't sure how he'd put his own spin on the topic. Then he listened to Pop Culture Happy Hour, in particular their discussion of myopias. This they defined as something one is so familiar with that one is short-sighed. That's what made the idea for Myopia work and what makes it different from other movie podcasts. Rather than watch new movies like a review show or watch bad movies on purpose, instead Nick and his merry band will challenge blind spots people have.

With Scott's help, Nick devised a formula. A select group of participants--full disclosure, I'm one of them--would use a survey to list movies from their childhoods that they wanted to see how they held up. When a movie was selected, the person who suggested the movie must defend it before the group watches it. The movie must be at least ten years old and the defendant can't have seen it in at least five years.

The first episode, recorded in late June, covered the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

"We were thinking to capitalize on the assumption that the Michael Bay Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would be a trainwreck," he said. "Frankly it looks like we were right."

The podcast has attracted a following already--as of last count, 976 unique downloads, with the feed being checked over 6,000 times. Since Podbean bases its count on devices, this means nobody is gaming the system by downloading it multiple times. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been downloaded over 200 times. Nine episodes are available online, with new episodes premiering every Wednesday. A rough schedule has been established that will take the podcast through early spring. October, for example, is slated to feature scary movies, while November will be devoted to film series like Batman and December will be Christmas movies.

Nick's favorite movie to discuss was Hook, chosen in honor of the late Robin Williams. He was particularly impressed with the Hook discussion because it got into film study. He and regular participant Daniel both studied film in college, so they both prize deep discussion.

"It was satisfying to rewatch Space Jam and Hook and the Mighty Ducks movies because they were my favorites as a kid," he said.

He said it's important to do what one enjoys. Due to his busy work schedule, he can't always record regularly, so he sometimes records three movies in a weekend.

"If it becomes a job, it's no longer worth doing," he said.

One must also be comfortable with the sound of one's own voice, since one will be hearing it a lot.

Participation in the podcast keeps growing. Every time he talks about it, more people like to talk about it. The first episode only featured three participants, but now an average movie night features 8-12 participants. His favorite part is that people come to watch him and the other participants discuss the films. The early movies discussed were films he'd seen before, but with so many new participants, people are suggesting movies he's never seen before.

"It's giving me an excuse to see movies I should have seen years ago," he said. "Or perhaps that should never have existed."

Case in mind: The 1997 film Spawn,which was so bad that Daniel devoted an entire blog post to calling it the worst move he'd ever seen, even worse than Scooby-Doo.

Nick's future plans include his family. One episode that has already been recorded features him and his brothers discussing A Goofy Movie and a planned episode will feature The Muppet Christmas Carol. A special Mother's Day episode will feature his mother discussing The Breakfast Club.Meanwhile, Candice and her mother will have their own Mother's Day feature--Airplane!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Batman Forever (1995)

Yesterday some friends and I gathered for our weekly recording of Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. That afternoon, we watched and discussed Batman Forever, in which the Caped Crusader faces established foe Two-Face and new villain Riddler while acquiring a "ward," the angry young Dick Grayson...

The Good

*The first half of the movie is really entertaining. It starts out with a bang--Two-Face is robbing a bank (or some other institution that has a vault full of money) atop a high-rise in order to lure Batman to fight him. Things get more and more insane once Batman arrives, including a trap full of boiling acid and nothing less than the Statue of Liberty. It's really well-done.

*Although this will horrify some of my fellow reviewers, I thought a lot of the pithy lines were hilarious. The "chicks love the car" line when Batman is fending off the amorous attentions of Dr. Chase Meridian (more on her later) is one of the most amusing lines in the film. So's "the bat-signal is not a beeper." And then there's Alfred's bit about "the OTHER car" and how what's really the secret entrance to the Batcave is where Bruce keeps his dead wives.

*There are some good establishing character moments for Bruce Wayne himself--on the news we hear that he's announced a profit-sharing plan for workers in Wayne Enterprises and we later see him insisting that the family of an employee who (apparently) committed suicide receive full benefits even though that's against company policy for suicides. And when the Riddler, now the powerful executive of the NygmaTech corporation, tries to crassly triumph over him at a gala, Bruce good-sportedly congratulates him on his success, revealing that for all his success and grandiosity the Riddler is nothing more than a petty jerk. Val Kilmer does a good job playing the character and apparently he was creator Bob Kane's favorite Batman.

*Jim Carrey's performance as the Riddler is brilliant. He's hilarious and his line delivery is great, plus he can do the creepy aspects (he has a The Cable Guy-esque fixation on Bruce, his former employer) and the arrogance (he demands an answer from Bruce, the owner of the company where he works, NOW rather than sending his designs to Bruce's secretary) very well. The latter is actually somewhat painful to watch--here's a man who had the ear of one of the most powerful men in Gotham and threw it away because he was a demanding entitled jerk.

*Tommy Lee Jones is having a lot of fun as Two-Face and he's fun to watch.

*Although it's different from his comic-book origins, I liked seeing the birth of Robin and how it was tied into both Two-Face and Batman. Even though the rest of the Grayson family doesn't get much screentime, I did like their characterization. Rather than cower before Two-Face and his thugs, they hijack the bomb he's using to hold the circus hostage and use their acrobatic skills to maneuver it out of the tent and into the river, at a terrible cost to themselves. It's very well-done.

*To that end, the deaths of Robin's family at Two-Face's hands causing Bruce to have a lot of flashbacks to the deaths of his parents and how he developed his fixation with bats and his attempt to keep Robin from becoming what he's become (the early Batman depicted in the prior two films is a killer) makes a lot of sense.

The Bad

*The second half of the film suffers from a major case of the slows. Things pick up toward the end after Two-Face and the Riddler deduce Batman's true identity and attack Wayne Manor, but there's a long stretch of boredom.

*Chris O'Donnell is grossly miscast as Dick Grayson. I don't think he's a bad actor, but he is way, way too old for the part. There's no reason for Commissioner Gordon to leave him with Batman as his ward when he looks like he's 25. I'm not familiar enough with the lore to know just how old Dick Grayson was when he became Robin, but he would have probably been in his earlier teens. Yet we meet him riding a motorcycle to Wayne Manor and Bruce discusses him catching up with the circus (now "halfway to Metropolis") as though that was a serious option. He acts like an older teen or twenty-something much of the time, except for one scene where he basically flips out on Batman in what comes off as a temper tantrum.

(And his "kung-fu laundry folding" routine is just ridiculous to watch. Although I imagine its purpose was to show that he was capable of fighting before he rescued that girl from the gang of ravers, this could have been exposited some other way. Perhaps Bruce catches him beating on a punching bag or something.)

*Two-Face, though quite entertaining to watch, is completely out of sync with his comic book character. The DC character who commits violent crimes while laughing maniacally and acting hyper is the Joker, not Two-Face. Two-Face is a grim, violent nihilist with a split personality. I've only read a few Batman comics, but the impression I've got is that Two-Face's depiction in The Dark Knight is much more in sync with his comic-book character (and the character I vaguely remember from the animated series I watched as a kid).

*During the scene where Two-Face takes the circus hostage, Bruce Wayne proceeds to beat the hell out of a bunch of Two-Face's minions while trying to get to Two-Face. Note that I said "Bruce Wayne," not "Batman." The fact that billionaire Bruce Wayne got into a fistfight with a bunch of armed men and straight-up destroyed them is something that any media account of the event will include. That'd attract attention to Bruce that he doesn't really need. Granted, he was willing to reveal his identity as Batman to appease Two-Face earlier in the scene (but nobody heard him, not even his date or the annoying reporter who was hanging out with him) and there is a giant bomb that's about to go off, but at least some consequences would've been nice. Given how Commissioner Gordon brings Dick to Wayne Manor in the next scene, he could say something about how impressed he is with Bruce's fighting ability and Bruce could wave it off by saying he's been taking krav maga or something.

*Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) is a really annoying character. She has some kind of love triangle thing going with both Batman and Bruce Wayne, even though the former is explicitly not interested. She's useful in precisely three ways--her kickboxing comes in handy when she and Bruce hold a staircase in Wayne Manor against a group of Two-Face's minions, she does a nice callback to Batman Returns when she asks if Batman would be more interested in her if she wore vinyl and wielded a whip, and her idea to play on Two-Face's fixation with coin-flipping comes in handy at the climax. Otherwise all she really does is throw herself at Batman at any given opportunity. She does have a meaningful name, which I did appreciate.

*"Holey Rusted Metal Batman." Yes, I know they were trying to make an in-joke about Robin's exclamations from the earlier Batman material in a way that was true to the new character (he's actually making an observation), but this one was a groaner. And coming from me, that's a big deal. And some of the campy aspects of the film were ridiculous rather than funny--the security guard panicking over the "BOILING ACID" was hilarious rather than frightening.

*During Batman and Robin's invasion of the Riddler's lair, Robin has the chance to kill Two-Face. Despite challenging Bruce's warning that desire for revenge will consume him for most of the movie, he suddenly has a change of heart without any obvious conflict.

The Verdict

*It has its entertaining parts, but it's not that great of a film overall. If only it had been edited a bit more tightly. Six out of 10.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Batman Returns (1992)

I wasn't able to attend the Myopia: Defend Your Childhood screening of Batman due to a church social event, so I made sure to participate in the podcast focusing on Batman Returns, which I wasn't allowed to see when it came out but whatever. In this one, Batman faces two new threats--a grotesque "penguin man" who emerges from the sewers to seek Gotham's highest office and a mysterious cat burglar wearing a lot of tight leather.

The Good

*One of my fellow panelists described how Batman could have had an arc from the 1989 film through this movie to Batman Forever, but this got botched. However, I did some thinking and I think there's actually one there. In the first film, Batman kills the Joker and in this film Batman kills several members of the Penguin's gang. However, in Batman Forever, Batman tells Robin that if he kills Two-Face (who had killed his parents) that won't be the end of it. It's like he's warning Robin against going down the path he's walked already and managed to get out of.

(The "Fridge Brilliance" TVTropes page, which I read after I came up with theory, suggests that his getting to know Catwoman and realizing not all criminals were faceless monsters might've been the cause for the change in behavior. Considering how the early Batman would kill and the later Batman would not, this means the movies were following the comic books).

*Another area where it shines is the acting and characterization of its villains. From the beginning the audience sympathizes with the Penguin, the victim of a comically Tim Burton-esque attempt at infanticide by his wealthy parents horrified at his deformed appearance and bizarre behavior (he did attack the family cat--by dragging it into the scarily cage-like playpen he was being kept in). He starts out wanting to find out who his parents were and reclaim his "birthright," although there are some hints that the evil plan of the climax is already stirring when we see him in the Gotham hall of records. Due to his lack of socialization (he was raised by penguins before being put in a freak show), he acts like a psychotic man-child much of the time, which can actually be pretty amusing (if vulgar). Meanwhile, Catwoman starts out as an oppressed ditsy secretary whom her boss attempts to murder for knowing too much about his own evil scheme. Her acts of villainy--which are much less extreme than the Penguin's--are driven by a desire for personal empowerment vis-a-vis a world that has disdained her (and a boss who, before trying to kill her, was rather rude to her) rather than malice per se and she's rather conflicted about the whole thing rather than being remorselessly evil. Meanwhile, industrialist Max Shreck is greedy and amoral, but he's depicted (rather thinly) as a man who rose from nothing and wants to leave something for his son.

*The absence of Vicki Vale (Batman's love interest from the first film) is noted and explained.

The Bad

*Shreck is not a particularly good villain. He's trying to convince the Gotham city leadership to allow him to build a new power-plant (even though it's made repeatedly clear the city has plenty of power), a "power-plant" that actually drains and stores power from the city grid. When his secretary Selina Kyle discovers this he attempts to kill her (causing her to become Catwoman) and he sets up the boorish Penguin as his puppet candidate for mayor (causing most of the battles with Batman) to get rid of the mayor opposed to the plan. However, he's the most thinly-characterized of the villains and is a background figure most of the time. Furthermore, how does he plan to conceal this from the citizens? He's depicted as having committed other sins as well (owning "firetrap" slums, dumping toxic waste, and even having killed a prior business partner), but those are the sort of things that are relatively easy to conceal. Building a power-stealing fake power plant isn't. And trying to make a man who is for all intents and purposes a deformed vagrant your candidate for mayor? Really?

(Granted, the ridiculousness might be explained by this being a Tim Burton film...)

*The Penguin's scheming gets more and more ridiculous as the film goes on. He's for all intents and purposes a homeless man who has a gang of ex-circus performers as henchmen, but yet he commands a ridiculous amount of resources. If it was made clear he was diverting monies Shreck gave him for his mayoral campaign into, say, creating an army of trained penguins armed with rocket launchers, that would make more sense. I know the film isn't trying to be more realistic like the Nolan Batman films (in which the "supervillains" are terrorists and mobsters rather than, well, supervillains), but one wonders how he's actually doing this. Before this, he sends a circus train (similar to the trains you see carrying around little kids in malls) to kidnap the firstborn sons of Gotham's social elite to murder them--a train seen driving around the city without opposition or even notice.

*When Selina wrecks her apartment and begins her transformation into Catwoman, she assembles her new outfit out of a leather jacket. I don't think there's enough leather in that one jacket to make a full body suit. It would have been better if she was depicted as having several such jackets. She does seem to have a lot of clothes, so it wouldn't have been that hard.

*Batman's costume is really not that good. He can't turn his head and that affects his fighting style. At one point he tears his mask off and it looks like its made of pleather.

The Verdict

It's not boring, but it's really not that good. Six out of 10.

Guest Post: How Maliki Wrecked the Iraqi Army

Here's a little something from the member of my alternate-history forum whose handle is CalBear about how the ineptitude of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is responsible for the success of ISIS. Take it away, CB:

We have all witnessed the almost stunningly weak performance of the Iraqi Army in its on-going struggle against ISIL. The destruction of multiple brigade size Iraqi Army formation totaling over 20,000 troops by roughly 1,500 ISIL fighters was, for most Westerners, our introduction to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The sight of thousands of Iraqi troops abandoning all their equipment, including uniforms as well as weapons and armored vehicles to some black pajama clad guys in pick-up trucks was puzzling to the point of disbelief. How could this possibly have occurred?

There is no single answer to this most reasonable of questions. It is important to consider exactly how the Iraqi Army of 2014 can to be, and what could cause the sort of collapse seen not just in Mosul but in a series of engagements between the regular Iraqi Army and ISIL.

Iraq’s pre-2003 military was utter destroyed by Anglo-American formations during the ill-starred 2003 Iraq War. A force that had never really recovered from its utter defeat in 1991’s Desert Storm campaign, was dismantled by advancing U.S. and British Armored formations in a text book assault. In the aftermath every member of the Iraqi Army, from the newest recruit to the most senior commander, was essentially fired. Starting in 2004 the Coalition began to reconstitute the military, initially using private military contractors, and then under the instruction of NATO trainers (primarily U.S. Special Forces). Initially the training was designed to create a “counter-insurgency” force capable of assisting and eventually replacing UK & U.S. forces on the ground fighting the “Insurgents” (actually an al Qaeda led force primarily made up of non-Iraqi “foreign fighters”), with the training expanding into the creation of a professional national defense force as the AQ threat was effectively eliminated. By the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq on December 31, 2011 the training had, by most accounts, been largely successful in creating a professional force that thought of itself as “Iraqi” not the Sunni/Shi’a division that is a constant background to all Iraq politics, and a divide that various groups had manipulated to their own goals during the post 2003 War’s chaos. The Iraqi Army was, it was hoped, going to be an example of cooperation and professionalism that would serve as a template for the rest of Iraqi society as it transitioned to full democracy. On January 1st, 2012, this looked very hopeful.

Clearly this hope was soon to be dashed. What happened? The short version is Nouri al-Maliki happened.

Effectively the hand-picked U.S. choice for prime minister of the new Iraqi Republic in 2006 thanks to what the U.S. concluded was a sufficient strong anti-Iran stance, he was re-elected in 2010 some nine months after elections of the new Parliament. al-Maliki began to dismantle the carefully constructed Iraqi professional officer corps, replacing senior officer who had been chosen based on merit and potential by U.S. trainers, with political allies. As he did so, the non-aligned Army began to fracture along sectarian and ethnic lines. Sunni/Shi’a and Arab/Kurd became more important than qualification for promotion. This in turn, led to the degradation of the junior officer corps, and perhaps most crucially to the effective collapse of the military’s supply system. Al-Maliki created three brigades with the specific job of protecting the regime (i.e. him) from possible overthrow. The forces received the best equipment and were kept in full supply. Much of the rest of the supplies needed to support the day-to-day operation of the combat forces was either stolen after purchase, or never actually obtained, with the cash diverted to personal accounts. Forces on the borders of Iraq, where the blow-back of the Syrian Civil War was already having impact, were left with insufficient equipment and often without any pay for weeks, even months. It was these forces that collapsed when ISIL struck.

Unpaid, hungry, poorly led at the most senior military levels, with battalion officers who were selected for political reliability more than command skills, these forces lacked what the military calls unit cohesion (and is usually referred to as morale). As each level of command fled the battle field, those below felt increasingly abandoned until a critical mass was reached where a rout was nearly inevitable. Despite suffering remarkably low casualties (estimated total combat KIA among Iraqi forces at Mosul total well under 200, out of a force exceeding 20,000) units found themselves unable to face the much more motivated and far better led ISIL units that were attacking them. What had been an Army Division sized force became a panicked mob that stampeded, abandoning everything in its wake. Lacking competent leadership (reports indicate that senior commanders fled either by helicopter or car even before combat began, with General officers telling Colonels, Colonels tell Captains and so on to flee before the advancing ISIL forces) once the rout began there was no stopping it. Mosul was lost, as was much of non Kurdish Northern Iraq, without any sort of serious effort by Iraqi troops to prevent it.

Today, thanks to the corruption, political meddling, and on-going string of defeats, the military built with such care by the U.S. is in utter disarray. American military advisers have reported that less than half of the combat units in the Iraqi Army can be trusted by U.S. troops due to infiltration by various sectarian groups, none of whom have the Iraqi nation best interest as a driving force. One can hope that being faced with the brutality of ISIL, these diverse groups will come together for the greater good, with a new sense of purpose and recently elected political leadership. Only time will tell.