Friday, August 29, 2014

Social Justice Warriors and How "Punitive Medicine" Might Come to the United States

I came across this article by Andrew Todd and although I agree with his macro-point that people who threaten women who disagree with them with rape need to be stopped, one part I did disagree with. See below:

“Social Justice Warriors” is a term used often by these sort of people, and it’s a term whose pejorative use perplexes me, because aside from the source of its invention, it sounds like a really badass thing to be. I’d much rather label myself a Social Justice Warrior than a warrior for...whatever it is that these people are warriors for. Social justice is such an inherently positive thing - literally everyone benefits from greater equality - that it’s impossible to see its enemies as anything but sociopathic. Hatred of Social Justice Warriors can be seen as a broader hatred of social justice itself.
Apparently Mr. Todd can't distinguish between people opposed to the cause of social justice (i.e. people who are racists, sexists, etc) and people opposed to the actions and attitudes of belligerent Internet left-wingers. And furthermore, he claims that people who are racists, sexists, etc. aren't simply immoral people, but sociopaths. Assuming the notion held by some Internet left-wingers that right-wingers have something congenitally wrong with them is true (it's not), that doesn't explain why left-wingers have come out against SJWs like this gentleman has here.

Let the record state that I am strongly opposed to racism, sexism, sending rape threats, and all the various a-hole things that take up most of Mr. Todd's denunciation. Those people deserve every ounce of opprobrium that can be rained down on them--and legal action too. Let's see how tough they are when they get charged with terroristic threats and get put in the cooler with really bad dudes.

However, I've criticized the SJWs myself a fair bit because of their propensity for swearing and many occasions when their claims get ridiculous--claiming J.K. Rowling is some kind of creepy Calvinist, which strikes me as quite absurd given the amount of criticism she's received from conservative Christians. Being a blowhard is so essential to these people they've invented a term that makes calling them out for their incivility immoral--"tone policing."

Obviously one should not ignore legitimate evidence just because the person presenting said evidence is a tool--Hitler and Stalin claimed the other was evil and they were both right--but I've seen people being complete jerks and claiming people are objecting to their behavior because they want minorities to shut up, not because they're jerks. Just because someone is a supporter of an ostensibly good cause doesn't mean that anybody opposed to that person is opposed to the cause itself--I'm a Christian, but I don't interpret attacks on individual Christians or organizations that misbehave as attacks on Christianity or Jesus.

Furthermore, accusing people with disagreeable views of being mentally ill is the first step down a very dangerous road. The kind of road that ends with the Soviet psychiatric gulag. Although I remember seeing some idiot on FreeRepublic claiming the Clintons and Obama were clinical narcissists, it seems to be more common on the (secular) left because they believe people are inherently good--so therefore when the reality of human evil becomes too obvious, they decide evil people aren't really people. See this article on sociopathy on Richard Dawkins' old website, for example. Or this one about the Virginia Tech shooter. In real life, I've got one friend who said "sociopath" is the scientific term for evil, another who said it's okay to love fictional psychopaths (including Loki from the Marvel films, who based on his attachment to his mother Frigga is not a clinical psychopath however much a murderous jerk he is) but one should avoid them in real life, and a third (a vocal member of the skeptic movement) who said that one of my Wastelands-verse characters is a psychopath even though, speaking as his creator, he's not.

(For the record, I toned his actions down a bit from that version of the story. If you're a writer and your reader misinterprets your character, odds are it's your fault for not defining him or her clearly enough.)

The "evil people are sociopaths" meme is something I first noticed a lot of on the site DemocraticUnderground, where people liked to claim various prominent Republicans were psychopaths and sociopaths (presumably the corporate variety chronicled in Snakes in Suits as opposed to the stereotypical mad ax-murderer). An entire pseudo-science called "ponerology" has been invented to justify this type of thing. Here's an example of ponerology being applied politically, to the point of conspiracy theory if you take the bit at the end about "PSYCHOPATHS RULE THE WORLD" into account. Here's another example of ponerology-as-ideology.

You say these people are isolated individuals (most of whom are limited to certain quarters of the Internet) who have no real power, right? Well, for starters every one who can vote has a small amount of power and once you get enough voters, then you're talking the potential for something truly dangerous. Once notions of un-persons and that certain political views are a sign of being an un-person get traction--and it wasn't long ago that a shadow of this passed over the political landscape--watch out. And before you say, "It can't happen here," well look at what's being discussed in Britain. Or what actually has happened in New York. Or the prominence of eugenics in the United States not all that long ago. The prevalence of the "bad people are sociopaths, not regular people who have made poor or immoral decisions" meme could represent a wider cultural trend, especially as Christianity, with its notions of universal human sin and that anyone can repent of their wickedness even late in their lives, declines in influence in the United States.

I imagine someone will accuse me of indulging in the slippery slope fallacy, and I concede that A doesn't necessarily lead to B and so on. However, if I were some obscurantist, I would have denied the existence of personality disorders as a whole, despite objective evidence for them. I could mimic the young-earth crowd and try to use religion to trump science (see Romans 2:15, which implies everyone has a conscience, something psychopaths/sociopaths don't have) and claim that the notion of personality disorders will inevitably lead to psychiatric abuses, the mistreatment of the children of criminals due to their supposedly defective heredity, etc. (fallacy of appeal to consequences), much like how the young-earthers claim belief in evolution leads to racism. My main concern is not popular prejudice (although I certainly object to that), but the political implications.

Ideas have consequences. If an idea is able to spread unchallenged and people believe it--and those people can vote--it is quite likely that laws will be made to reflect that. The notion that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated, for example, led to those laws in New York, even though it may not be true.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Hook (1991)

What if Peter Pan grew up? That's the tag-line of the movie Hook, which I watched for my friend Nick's movie-review podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood yesterday afternoon. During one of his visits to our world, Peter Pan decides to stay, grows up to become Robin Williams, marries Wendy's granddaughter Moira, and becomes an attorney. An attorney who neglects his family in favor of his job and to be perfectly blunt is a massive jerk.

Then while Peter, Wendy, and Moira are attending a benefit in London, a mysterious intruder invades Wendy's home in London and abducts Peter's children. A note stuck to the door with a dagger demands Peter return to Neverland a note--signed by none other than Captain James Hook.

Uh oh. Now an out-of-shape and cranky Peter has to get his children back with the help of Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) and the skeptical Lost Boys now led by Rufio, a 1980s punk complete with a mohawk. Let the games begin.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Good

*Although Peter Pan was never my favorite Disney movie, I did like the concept. The film is very meta--it starts with the Peter seeing his daughter Maggie acting as Wendy in a school play production of Peter Pan. To quote TVTropes they go with the Literary Agent Hypothesis--Wendy and her brothers told their neighbor J.M. Barrie about their adventures and he wrote them into a book. The whole Peter Pan phenomenon (including the Great Ormond Street Hospital) exists alongside a real Peter Pan and Neverland. Given how the Lost Boys apparently arrive in Neverland on their own in the greater Peter Pan mythology, I liked the depiction of Lost Boys wearing old-fashioned Boy Scout uniforms, a Victorian-esque "Artful Dodger" outfit, and 1980s punk gear (Rufio) and playing basketball and using what looks like a hybrid skateboard/windsurfing board to get around.

*The film had some amusing moments. I particularly liked the non-rap rap battle between Rufio and the adult Peter that has some pretty creative (and generally kid-friendly) insults. The cadences the Lost Boys sing when they get Peter back into shape for the duel with Hook are amusing as well.

*It does pull on the heartstrings a fair bit, in particular Peter's estrangement from and ultimate reconciliation with his children. This isn't something I generally enjoy, but many people do like that and it shows the people involved in making this movie (the writers, directors, and actors) did a good job.

*Robin Williams does a good job as the adult Peter, both in his early depiction as a jerk who repeatedly breaks promises to his children and as he mellows and becomes Peter Pan again. One of the other people watching the movie said when Robin Williams isn't being a goofy funny guy he can actually be pretty scary. Although I haven't seen either film, One Hour Photo and Death to Smoochy can testify to this. We chose Hook as a memorial to Williams (as well as to Bob Hoskins, who played Smee died this year as well), so RIP Mr. Williams.

*I liked the concept of the bored Captain Hook having a straight-up death wish. This is pretty obvious in a suicide-attempt scene (that's played for laughs), but Captain Hook's threats against not only Peter's children but their children and their children and so on come off as basically "KILL ME!"

*I also liked the characterization of Tinkerbell. She's traditionally been depicted as jealous (to the point of attempted murder) of any other female in Peter's life, but in Hook she gets to actually talk about her feelings for Peter. She's even tempted to try to get him to stay with her in Neverland (and shows she can become a full-sized person if she wants), but ultimately reminds him when he's on the verge of forgetting his own family. This struggle with temptation is pretty interesting even though it doesn't take up too terribly much time.

*The pirates have their very own city complete with women and children and have organized the menfolk into a militia to be called out at need. This makes a lot of sense--the pirates when Peter was a child/teen leading the Lost Boys would have been recent arrivals, but now they've been there for (to them) many years and put down roots.

*I like how they included a back-story for Peter. I'm not going to go into detail in order to avoid spoilers, but Peter lives through various historical areas before he makes the decision to stay in our world.

The Bad

*A lot of people liked Captain Hook's introduction in which Hook's titular prosthesis is sharpened by the village blacksmith and carried to him in a gigantic procession in which the pirates all chant "Where's the Hook?" That doesn't really make a lot of sense. The pirates have been there so long they've established a functioning civilization. They know who Hook is. Unless Hook has gotten so bored with life that he's instituted these ludicrous parades every so often to liven things up, there's no reason for this scene at all.

*In one scene, Maggie sings a lullaby her mother sang to her. She has a beautiful voice, but there's no real reason for the scene to be there. I read online Hook was originally supposed to be a musical, which would explain this scene and "Where's the Hook?"--they're leftovers from the earlier version of the film. However, given how the film is not a musical, they should have just cut those out. The hook-sharpening before the parade is cool so that could be kept and if they absolutely had to have Maggie sing, she could be singing to herself in the hold or wherever Hook is keeping her and Peter could overhear it somehow.

*This movie is long and slow. I'm sorry, but it is. That's the single biggest problem with the movie and why my review is ultimately not going to be very good. If Spielberg had cut or at least truncated those two scenes and maybe trimmed a little bit here and a little bit there, it would have been a much tighter film and could have allowed more interesting material to be included, like Neverland's Indians (I'll get to them later).

*Here we're getting into spoilery territory, but the ending was rather flawed. Basically Peter defeats Hook in a duel but refuses to kill him. Instead, he orders him to leave Neverland and never return. Hook attacks him when his back is turned, but Tinkerbell intervenes to keep him from hooking Peter's face. Then the crocodile Hook had killed, stuffed, and made into the town clock tower falls on him mouth-first and basically eats him. I imagine Spielberg didn't want to have Peter actually kill Hook, but there's never any indication the crocodile is somehow still alive or is in any way magical. The Wikipedia article suggests Tinkerbell had zapped it briefly back to life somehow, but if that was Spielberg's intention, it should've been more obvious--we could see lightning racing through the crocodile and a Frankenstein-style reanimation.

And it's not like the good guys haven't killed in the movie before--even though most of the Lost Boys fight with non-lethal and rather childish weapons like egg-shooters, Peter and Rufio both stab pirates with knives and swords on-screen. The wounds might not be immediately lethal (they're to the torso rather than head or throat), but in this type of environment (i.e. no modern surgery or antibiotics), gut wounds will kill and they will kill very painfully. What measure is a Mook?

Here's how I would have done it: Keep the final duel all the way to Hook's treacherous attack after Peter has shown him mercy--but instead of being caught unaware, Peter spins around and stabs Hook with his sword. This would show he's gotten his childhood reflexes and speed back. Furthermore, if Peter stabs Hook in the gut, we could hear the blow but not see blood and so the rating wouldn't be unduly affected. And the dying Hook thanks Peter, which would further establish the death-wish characterization. To avoid overly-glorifying killing in a children's film, I'd depict Peter being saddened by having to kill his old enemy.

*Neverland's Indian population is referred to (apparently the pirates have killed some of them and Smee suggests to a bored Hook they do this some more) but never seen. The movie was already so long that including a scene where Peter visits the Indians and secures their alliance with the Lost Boys against the pirates (perhaps including an adult Tiger Lily or her children?) would have been a problem, but if they tightened the film up, it could have been really interesting.

*At the very end, when the senile former Lost Boy Tootles finds his lost marbles (sprinkled with fairy dust) and flies off to Neverland, Moira should be more shocked. Wendy, Peter, and the kids all know this sort of thing can really happen, but Moira only knows this as stories.

The Verdict

*It's a good concept and has a lot of potential, but the film is so long I wouldn't really recommend it. 5.5 out of 10.

Friday, August 15, 2014

My Thoughts on Ferguson and a Poll For You

The situation in Ferguson, Missouri seems to be winding down right now, but it was a pretty wild few days. We had such wonderful things as:

*The police using what looks a lot like military equipment to intimidate protesters.

*Rioting and destruction of property.

*Armed store owners keeping the hooligans away.

*Journalists roughed up in a McDonald's.

*Journalists getting gassed.

*Foreign propaganda outlets use this to make Americans look like a bunch of hypocrites.

*Someone writing in a respectable outlet called it a "police coup."

*I'd heard something about a state representative getting arrested too, but I haven't been able to find any corroborating evidence. I think it was referring to this state senator getting tear-gassed.

*Real soldiers sounding off on how inept the police were even with their military hardware and how if this was the "militarization" of the police force, it was the most inept militarization they'd ever seen.

*Cops telling people not to film them, even though that's perfectly legal.

*The hacker militia Anonymous shutting down much of Ferguson's government.

*A no-fly zone being declared. Very convenient for keeping away news choppers, I think, although it's the FAA and not the local cops declaring it.

Here're my thoughts. I identify as a conservative politically and/or as a Libertarian and I think this is bugnuts insane. Even IF the police shooting that set this all off was justified--and based on witness reports it almost certainly was not--the police massively overreacted to citizens exercising their rights to speak freely, assemble, petition the government for redress of grievances, etc. That the local thug element used this as an opportunity to make trouble doesn't justify the sheer overkill involved.

Some online left-wingers have been claiming Tea Party types, libertarians, militia types, people waving the Gadsden Flag, etc. have been awfully quiet about the situation, with the implication they're entirely cool with brutal police-state stuff if it's directed at black people.

Well, as a big fan of the Gadsden Flag (I plan on having the protagonist in my Wastelands series use it as his personal insignia), here's my response:



The police here have been behaving in a ridiculous manner, to the point their authority in the area has been revoked and the State Highway Patrol (led by a black officer who grew up in the area) has been brought in. Things seem to have gotten a lot better.

(And by the way, libertarians have been complaining for awhile.)

Now for some political thoughts:

*The militarization of the police has gotten absurd in this country. I could understand the need to have some kind of heavy iron for an emergency, but a lot of departments have stocked up on gear they're not likely to ever need short of an alien invasion. I'm an Eagle Scout and I'm all for being prepared, but there's not unlimited money out there. Although the problem in this situation is more of attitude than equipment, I'll steal a page from Rahm Emmanuel and suggest that a good crisis never go to waste. A relevant bill has been put forward. At the very least it might help control government spending.

*From eyewitness reports, the officer straight-up murdered the man. The robbery-suspect thing seems like an ex post facto justification for what happened, given how it didn't come out for days. If the eyewitness claim is true (it may not be--there hasn't been much of an investigation so far), he needs to be charged with the appropriate degree of murder and subject to the appropriate punishment (up to and including execution). Police have a reputation for closing ranks in the event of an accusation of wrongdoing and that needs to stop for the sack of justice.

*I've seen the suggestion floating around the Internet about having police carry small cameras on their persons to record the events of their shift. This seems like a good idea, in order to reduce police brutality and provide evidence to protect the cops themselves if a suspect attacks them and then claims to have been brutalized. It might also give them another source of information for their reports and all. Here's a poll from one of my major clients on cop cameras. If you could vote in it, that would be spiffy.

And because I'm a nerd, here's a selection from Battlestar Galactica about why the police and military are two different things.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Little Image I Made About the Ferguson, MO Situation

Here's a little image I made to show my opinion about what's going on in Ferguson, MO right now.


Some people think conservatives and/or Libertarians are hypocritically staying quiet about Ferguson because they don't mind a police state so long as it's deployed against black people. I call BS, especially now.

I'll post more later. In the meantime, please share the heck out of that picture. Sorry for my mediocre MSPaint skills.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Response to Alison Willmore's Critique of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014) (SPOILERS)

Earlier this morning, I found an article on Facebook in which Buzzfeed movie critic Alison Willmore takes the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Film to task. In particular, she states that the 1990 film is in many ways superior. Although she does make some good points, I disagree with others. So hence this response:

#1: The Appearance of the Turtles

She thinks the Turtles are scary-looking. Although she doesn't explicitly use the phrase, the thing that comes to mind is "uncanny valley." They're close to human in appearance, but so close that it's revolting, not endearing. I didn't find them frightening, but given that one of the theories behind "uncanny valley" is that it's an evolutionary mechanism, I really can't fault her for something that's likely hard-wired into her brain.

One of the commentators, one Benjamin Kubilus, praises the 1990 design for giving them beaks. Given how these are mutated turtles and not, say, human babies injected with turtle DNA, their having beaks makes a lot of sense. Although Willmore didn't say this, I'll give her points for inspiring Kubilus to say this and giving him a platform. Obviously the Jim Henson creatures are less realistic-looking that Bay's turtles, but making the Turtles more "humanoid turtle" instead of "turtle-oid human" would have been a better design.

#2: The Turtles Aren't Fighting Crime

In the original film, the Turtles were already fighting street crime and only encountered an actual supervillain (Shredder) incidentally, by rescuing April from some of his minions she'd caught stealing from her television van. Here they get involved with supervillainy from the get-go.

However, that ties in with the reason Splinter trained them in the martial arts in the first place. Splinter said he trained them because if they went above-ground and tried to openly mingle with humanity, they would be mocked and treated as freaks (which is IMO an understatement--they wouldn't just be sitting by themselves at lunch; odds are someone would try to kill them or put them in a zoo) and would need to defend themselves. It was never his intention to deploy them as crime-fighters--this was a choice they made upon learning about the Foot Clan's depredations, a choice Splinter opposed. To quote Scripture, "To whom much is given much is expected" and the Turtles chose to challenge Shredder because they couldn't stand to see him terrorizing New York and had the means to do something about it.

If Willmore doesn't think this is a good story choice that's her call, but there are reasons they're not (at least during the events of the movie) general-purpose crime-fighters. Given how the film ends with their driving around an armed Turtle-Van, this might change.

She still makes the good point that the villains' evil scheme needs work. Although her argument that Sacks' motive is greed doesn't work because he's already rich--most white-collar criminals (at least the ones who make the news) are already well-off--it would have been better story-wise if this was something Sacks was doing for Shredder. One of the better aspects of the story was that Shredder was apparently Evil Mr. Miyagi to Sacks' Daniel-San when Sacks' father died in Vietnam and if Shredder was more explicitly established as the mastermind and Sacks his minion, this would expand on that.

#3: April O'Neill

Here's where I'm going to disagree with Willmore most strongly. This movie's April, rather than being an established reporter, seems to be new to the job based on how she talks about journalism school as though it's a recent thing. Furthermore, if she were around eight or nine years old in 1999, she's in her very early 20s now. Her superiors at the television station simply don't think her capable of doing more than fluff either due to her inexperience or her gender (the latter is less likely due to her boss being a woman, but still). And putting her on the trampoline isn't Fan-Service--she's too modestly dressed, it's shot from too far away, and it's over too quickly to be all, "Look at Hot Megan Fox on the Trampoline." Yes, her cameraman Vernon does leer at her behind at one point and it is played for laughs, but that's part of his character--he's lazy (he's content to do the feature stories April hates) and he's into her but too inept to really do much about it. Furthermore, she does display a great deal of "hard" news-gathering skills (by collecting evidence of turtle activity elsewhere--even if it didn't prove they were giant mutant turtles, it proved the Foot Clan had a rival), something her boss disdains rather than acknowledge.

And as far as her being important only because of who her dad was, the fact her father was a scientist only gave her access to the lab. It was her who fed the turtles and the rat pizza and gave them names (names that only a very smart child would know--any kid could come up with "Splinter," but the Renaissance artist names she gave the turtles shows intelligence). It was her who ran back into a burning laboratory to rescue Splinter and the turtles, something that Splinter explicitly said inspired him to be a father. He raised the turtles to think they were rescued from a fiery death by some kind of godlike being and when the turtles realize this, they bow to her. Wilmore's argument gives the 2014 April far too little credit.

And as far as April's father is concerned, he just comes off as an impulsive idiot. Rather than pretending to go along with Sacks' plan while secretly gathering evidence for the cops, he proceeds to flip out and destroy the laboratory while his daughter is in the building (putting her in danger from fire or the vengeful Sacks) and while Sacks is present. Considering how Sacks claims to have killed him, that was a really bad idea.

Finally, the budding romance between Casey Jones and April in the first film was poorly developed. In this film, however much Vernon crushes on her, she never reciprocates or even acknowledges his feelings. This holds true even after he dramatically rises above his previous worthlessness by helping rescue the turtles from Sacks and then beating the evil scientist down with a microscope and getting shot in the process. Feminist-inclined commentators have claimed Fox's character Mikaela in Transformers was a "trophy" for Sam, but here she has no romantic plot at all.

#4: Splinter's Asian-ness

There's actually a good point entangled in the Social Justice Warrior business. Splinter in the 1990 film was the pet of a Japanese martial artist and learned karate by mimicking his practicing master's movements. That would explain why, when he gained the ability to speak, he spoke English with a Japanese accent and had this shinobi-esque ethical system. In the 2014 film, Splinter taught himself and later the turtles martial arts from a book. That wouldn't explain his accent and manner of dress--even if he adopted other aspects of Japanese culture from the book, he wouldn't have the accent since he wouldn't have been exposed to Japanese language.

(Maybe if Splinter had been the pet of a rival ninja that Shredder killed and then Sacks claimed him for the lab that could explain it, but this isn't in the movie. It would be kind of clunky to include, although perhaps it would fit in the flashback scenes. Heck, perhaps Bay could include it in the sequel, although it would then inspire the same kind of complaints making Splinter and the turtles April's semi-pets did.)

That said, you can't win when you as a Western artist try to portray or borrow from a non-Western culture. She complains about the franchise's "exotification" of Japanese culture, but without including it, you couldn't have the Ninja Turtles in the first place. Ninja Turtles is a hell of a lot better than "Teenage Mutant Professional Wrestler Turtles" or "Teenage Mutant Boxing Turtles" (i.e. using a Western, not an Eastern, practice). However, then the franchise's creators would get crap for leaving out heroic non-Westerners, especially if they keep the Japanese Shredder as a villain. Then it'd be "heroic (culturally) white people against the Yellow Peril" and people would complain about that.

Obviously her argument leaves room for including Japanese culture, the martial arts, etc. in a non-stupid way, but how to do it?

#5: No Actually Getting to Know The Turtles

It's true that Bay could have developed the turtle characters better beyond the angry Raphael and the immature, blatantly-crushing-on-April Michelangelo. However, that would best be done subtly and in small bites. For example, there's some promotional material out there depicting Donatello wanting to be "the badass for once" that some interpret as an effort to overcome cowardice and others interpret as him not wanting to be in the backseat because he's the techie. Unfortunately, I didn't notice this in the actual film. Either interpretation of Donatello's character could have been interesting, given how one of the complaints about the film I've seen elsewhere is that the turtles (or at least those other than Raphael, whose development she doesn't acknowledge) are lacking characterization. And I did suggest a way to develop Leonardo as the team leader in an earlier blog post.

However, the interlude in the countryside in the first movie Willmore is nostalgic for is one of the most incredibly boring parts of the film. Not only that, but it gives Splinter the completely unexplained talent for astral projection that isn't foreshadowed and is never used again. Unless of course this was some kind of group hallucination and for all of them to see the exact same thing at the same time seems really tricky. I can understand her desire for more developed characters, but mimicking that sequence really isn't the way to go.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

The other night for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood I'm doing with my friend Nick, I watched the film Sleepy Hollow (1999). And so the "blast from the past movie review" train continues rolling...

The Good

*The atmosphere and colors are really well-done. It's a beautiful, well-shot film. Apparently this is something director Tim Burton is really good at.

*The concept is really quite creative. Making the Headless Horseman into a murderous movie villain could've gone into pure slasher territory (and according to the Wikipedia entry, that's where it was going before Tim Burton got involved). Instead, we get something a lot smarter and generally better. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail for fear of spoilers, but I do like the overall plot. And the Horseman himself is really quite impressive.

*Johnny Depp did a good job playing Ichabod Crane, a police officer and a big fan of rationalism, the Enlightenment, etc. rather than a gold-digging schoolteacher. Even when he's finally convinced that the Headless Horseman is real, he still applies his rationalist, scientific approach to deduce that it's not some just a monstrous hell-fiend gratuitously murdering people, but something with a purpose. He's also somewhat gray--on more than one occasion he puts others between himself and danger, albeit fairly subtly and perhaps even unconsciously. And he's afraid of spiders and prone to fainting.

*Although my compatriots didn't receive Casper Van Dien's presence in the film very well when he was first introduced, I did like his version of Brom Bones. The film retains his territorial, possessive attitude toward Katrina Van Tassel, but he's not a blowhard bully (as he is in the animated film). In fact, he takes on the Headless Horseman and puts up a pretty impressive fight.

*Given the gadgets people use in the film, you could credibly call it steampunk. Ichabod has got a cool medical bag with brass shelves that pop out, while Brom has got some kind of steampunk sniper rifle. It's awesome.


The Bad

*The movie comes off at times as neo-pagan religious propaganda. A character is saved from a bullet by a book of magic spells rather than by a Bible or cross (the latter I remember quite well from The Three Musketeers film from the early 1990s), a Puritan preacher is anti-intellectual and corrupt, a church only becomes a sanctuary from the Headless Horseman when one of the good witches draws a charm to protect a loved one from evil on the floor, and a character has a free-spirited witch mother who is abused and ultimately murdered (in a torture chamber hidden in a church no less) by a grim and stereotypically evil Puritan father. Meanwhile, Ichabod is a skeptic and the rest of the sympathetic characters are witches. The obvious response is that having symbols of the Christian faith protecting people from physical danger (i.e. bullets) or spiritual foes is Christian propaganda, but that doesn't explain the purely negative portrayal of Christians in the film. Young Masbath, the boy who becomes Ichabod's helper to help avenge his murdered father, could've been developed as a good Christian character, given how he tells Ichabod that his mother is in Heaven and now his father is there to take care of her. That's similar to what I did with the Janissary Mehmed in my short story "The Beast of the Bosporus" on the advice of my writing group to avoid accusations of anti-Muslim prejudice (given how other Muslim characters are drunks or practitioners of dark magic). However, a bad witch explicitly describes making a pact with Satan, a figure not present in any neo-pagan religion I'm aware of.

*The Headless Horseman can be harmed (or at least knocked around) by blades or bullets but, since he's already dead, not killed. There's a scene where a building is blown up with the Horseman in it, but he emerges without a scratch. It would've been a lot cooler if the characters thought they'd killed him but instead he emerges from the burning building on fire and the flames slowly die off. That would have been visually awesome.

*Christopher Walken, who plays the Horseman in scenes when he has his head, is a goggled-eyed lunatic who rasps and snarls a lot but never actually speaks coherently. At times he was unintentionally hilarious, especially with his bizarre Albert Einstein-esque hair.

*There's a scene where a character lurks in a fortified tree-fort (it's surrounded by what look like anti-cavalry stakes) to shoot the Horseman if he approaches Sleepy Hollow. He shoots at the Horseman and we later see him running away on foot and getting cut down. Why didn't he stay in his little fort? It would've been better if we see how the Horseman drove him out (perhaps by setting the fort on fire?), because him abandoning a safe space the way he did was just dumb.

The Verdict

It's a pretty good movie. 7 out of 10.

How I Would Have Done the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie (SPOILERS)

I just reviewed the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie produced by none other than the polarizing Michael Bay. I overall liked it a fair bit, but I'd have done a few things differently. Here goes...

*April is fired from her job at the television news station for continuing to push her theory about the vigilantes fighting the Foot Clan because she supposedly lacks proof. However, she did have some pictures of the Turtles on her phone that she later showed Sacks. Why didn't she show them to her boss? The boss could've dismissed them as Photoshop or too blurry to mean anything, much like how she blew off her picture of the graffiti the Turtles left behind when they first challenged the Foot, but it doesn't look like she even tried.

*The master plan that Sacks and the Shredder concocted between them doesn't make a great deal of sense. Sacks creating a chemical attack or plague (it's not totally clear which) secretly and then producing the cure and making a butt-load of money and getting all the glory, that makes sense. But how exactly is the Foot Clan going to rule New York? They try that, they're going to get slapped down by the New York National Guard or, if they get too troublesome, the U.S. Army. Maybe if their intent was to use the chemical weapon to take the city hostage a la Bane's scheme in The Dark Knight Rises that might be more sensible, but it's never explained. It would've been better if the Foot was providing the muscle, stolen lab equipment, etc. for the plan in exchange for a cut of the money or Sacks' chemical weapon for their own use. Given the relationship revealed between Sacks and the Shredder (the Shredder became his mentor/father figure after his own father died in Vietnam), Sacks as an agent or puppet of the Foot pursuing their agenda in the corporate world would make sense.

*Sacks was basically raised by the Shredder, an evil ninja, but never displays any martial-arts ability himself. Vernon, April's cameraman, jokes about having taken yoga classes but quitting after (rather pathetically) injuring himself. If it were me writing the script, Vernon could've (briefly) taken a real martial art and quit after (quickly) getting hurt. Then, in the scene where April and Vernon confront Sacks in the lab, Sacks has them at gunpoint and Vernon manages to surprise him and knock away his gun. Then Sacks proceeds to unleash some real martial-arts and kick the living hell out of him. It's April who attacks Sacks from behind with one of those heavy lab microscopes, avenging the death of her father at Sacks' hands years before. She does stab Shredder in the back when he's dueling Splinter in the sewers earlier in the film, so even if she's not going to be taking on adult male martial artists, ambush or taking advantage of a distracted opponent is still entirely doable. And although we sacrifice Vernon's yoga joke, having him get the tar beat out of him by Sacks preserves him as the semi-lovable Butt Monkey he kind of is.

*Since the movie is the Turtles' origin story, we could see the individual turtles growing into their roles. We do see Raphael overcoming his anger issues and threats to abandon his brothers to go rescue them when they're captured by the Foot. Having Leonardo be the one to defeat the Shredder (instead of April convincing the Turtles to basically use her as a club to knock him sixty stories off a falling radio tower) could cement him in his role as the Turtles' battle leader, especially if Splinter remains too injured for frontline fighting. April could get her action-girl glory (in a more thematically appropriate way) in my above scenario where she caves in Sacks' head with a microscope.

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Just got back from seeing the 2014 live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. Here goes. There won't be a lot of detail due to the need to avoid spoilers, but I promise more later.


The Good

*Once things got going, it was never dull and quite entertaining. From when the Foot Clan invades the Turtles' lair onward it's a blast. The fight scenes are really well-done and fun to watch. The fight choreography is vastly better than the 1990 version.

*There are a lot of good callbacks later in the movie to stuff that happens earlier, like the "don't move no matter what" in the climax. And good callbacks to the animated series, including Shredder's vow to eat turtle soup, Vernon making a reference to "heroes on a half-shell," etc.

*I liked the back-story between Sacks and the Shredder.

*Megan Fox did a pretty good job playing April O'Neill. I liked Judith Hoag in the 1990 version better, but it wasn't a bad performance. A lot of people don't think she's a talented actress and I really haven't seen that many of her movies, but she does seem to play a particular type of character (spunky young female with a chip o n her shoulder?) well enough. And I did like the character--they combine her different back stories (in some versions she's a scientist or daughter of a scientist, while in others she's a newspaper reporter) in a coherent way.

*A lot of people thought the Turtles' new designs were nightmarish or creepy, I'm guessing due to the Uncanny Valley effect. They didn't bother me. I actually thought they were kind of cool. And Splinter using his long tail as a fifth limb for fights--such as his epic throw-down with the Shredder--was awesome.

*They bring in Karai, although her relationship with the Shredder (in many versions she's his daughter, adopted daughter, granddaughter, etc) is never really explained beyond the fact she gets to explain herself and not get mashed when things go wrong.

*It had a lot of funny moments.

The Bad

*The early part of the movie kind of drags. Things pick up after the Foot Clan takes hostages in the subway and the Turtles proceed to take the perpetrators apart, but the slow beginning isn't helpful.

*The Shredder's master plan is really kind of dubious. I could understand how [NAME REDACTED TO AVOID SPOILERS] would benefit from his part of it--the Foot Clan could have simply been providing muscle in exchange for part of the eventual profits. That'll go into the "how I would've done it" post I wrote tonight.

*There's a pivotal scene I would have done rather differently, but going into detail would be spoilery. It was all right, but it could've been much better. That'll go into the "how I would have done it" post as well.

*The Shredder is too bulky. I would have preferred him more lithe like he was as a powered-armor-free ninja in most of his incarnations. Given how gigantic and steroidal the Turtles are in this incarnation some kind of enhancement was necessary to make him a realistic threat, but something more akin to Iron Man would've been better.

The Verdict

It's not the greatest movie ever, but it's not bad either. Worth seeing once. 7 out of 10.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Marko Kloos' First Two FRONTLINES Novels (Some Spoilers)

A relative who's in the military was in town a few days ago and while he was here, he recommended I read two novels by Marko Kloos, a German-born American science fiction writer. The first is Terms of Enlistment and the second is Lines of Departure. I corresponded briefly with Kloos via Twitter and there's a third one he's working on now, plus a couple shorter works set in the same universe I haven't got around to reading yet.

The Good

*It's a really entertaining series. I typically buy e-books to read while on the elliptical at the gym (my hour and change goes a lot faster when there's something I can look at besides the timer) and this is something that makes my cardio routine go by in a flash. It also makes the MARTA train when I'm going to graduate school much less boring.

*The aliens when they're finally revealed are the most interesting extraterrestrials since the "fish" of Midshipman's Hope and its sequels or the alien-invasion novel Footfall. Most fictional aliens are human-sized or, like the Fithp of Footfall, slightly larger. The Lankies somewhat resemble the Baluchitherium of prehistoric Earth--but are vastly bigger.

*As the protagonist himself points out, the idea that the warring factions of humanity would unite in the face of a common alien foe is pretty cliched--and does not happen. The North American Commonwealth and the Sino-Russian Alliance continue their war even with the wolf at the door. Although cliches can be plausible, it's generally good to avoid them.

*It does touch on the less-romantic realities of space colonization--going from an urbanized Earth to some new colony where there are maybe a million people on an entire planet is going to be pretty jarring and lonely.

*Kloos started out as a self-published writer using the Kindle Direct Program and then 47 North, Amazon's science fiction imprint, picked up him. He's a success story those of us who seek to walk this path (I'm still primarily interested in the traditional route, but I could easily imagine going down his path if I keep querying and nobody bites) could learn from.

The Bad

*The male lead and female lead are in a romantic relationship lasting for years, but she's an officer and he's senior enlisted. That's a serious no-no right there. Kloos is a veteran of the German military, so he should know how these things work. Some acknowledgement of the situation would be a good idea--it could be pointed out in-story they're not in the same chain of command or due to long space voyages the rules aren't as strictly enforced.

*We're getting into spoilery territory here, but in the second book it's made clear that there haven't been any human victories in space over the aliens. A solution is ultimately found to that problem, a solution that's pretty simple and obvious. Given how dumb people can be sometimes and how the NAC government was covering up just how bad things were, the fact that this solution wasn't thought up immediately isn't the implausible part--what's implausible is that in-story it took five years. If the war with the Lankies had only been in progress for a year or two that would make more sense, plus it would make the Lankies a lot scarier if they've obliterated half the NAC's space colonies in that sort of a time-frame. It would also explain why the NAC and SRA haven't ended their chronic war--five years is quite a long time to keep fighting in the middle of a burning house.

*From the way they talk about the use of nuclear weapons (and the strategies the humans follow against the Lankies), it seems Kloos thinks the use of a few nukes on a planet would render it uninhabitable to both the humans and Lankies. Unless they're using cobalt-salted bombs, that's not plausible. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were immediately rebuilt and re-inhabited after they got A-Bombed. To be fair if he was a German soldier during the Cold War even tactical nuclear use in an area as densely populated as Germany would be horrifically destructive, but whole worlds are not single countries.

*The Earth is rapidly overpopulating and it seems most of the urban population in the NAC is living on welfare. Some more discussion about how this situation actually came to be would be interesting. If it were me writing it, I'd say that the economy is so advanced that it can generate all sorts of high-tech goodies but automated to the point it only creates a few jobs. However, the government is so starved of funds (due to overly-low or misdirected taxes, an inept tax-collection apparatus, or some combination of the two) that it can't manage guns and butter (and so the masses are reduced to living on soy in crime-ridden ghettos), that its needs are so great it's debasing the currency to meet them (and that's why beef is $100/pound), or a combination of the two. Kloos obviously shouldn't have to explain everything, but at the same time, the reader shouldn't have to come up with explanations for why something works to this degree.

The Verdict

A good series despite some world-building flaws. Definitely worth keeping up with. 8.5 out of 10.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guest Post: The Bukharin Alternative, Part Two

It is a common belief in some circles that Stalinist policies were necessary for the Soviet Union to industrialize sufficiently in order to defeat the inevitable genocidal Nazi invasion. In particular is the Holodomor, in which grain was exported to the West to purchase industrial equipment and the like while millions starved to death. Ukraine was hit particularly hard, but Central Asia, the North Caucasus, and other places suffered as well.

However, my Internet cohort Scott Blair doesn't agree with this theory and wrote this essay--which I broke into two parts--to elaborate. Part One can be see here.

The Bukharin Alternative Part Two: Stalinist Complicity in the Rise of Hitler

By Scott Blair

It is also worth considering whether or not Hitler would have risen to power without Stalin’s support. In 1928, the Comintern leadership in Moscow took a much harsher stance against collaboration with Social Democrat parties in Europe, on the belief that the collapse of capitalism was imminent. In Germany, the results were disastrous. From 1928 onward, the German Communist Party (KPD) “party directed its venom principally against the Social Democrats”, while the Red Front-Fighters League became a paramilitary force. The KPD were particularly vocal in attacking the Social Democrats, who they denounced as “social fascists”, and by the end of 1932 Germany’s military was worried that a crackdown on the Nazis or Communists would result in civil war. Initially, Josef Stalin and the KPD welcomed the rise of Nazism, believing that he was a crazy fool whose rise to power was a sign that the German revolution was at hand. History has proven how wrong this belief was.

In these circumstances, one may well wonder if Nikolai Bukharin would have made a difference, and the answer is an emphatic yes. In contrast to Stalin, by 1928 Bukharin had become notable for advocating collaboration with the Socialist parties of Europe, and as the KPD followed the line set down in Moscow, it would have followed Bukharin’s policy as well. While it is unlikely that the Social Democrats and KPD would have collaborated in any meaningful way, if the KPD had emphasize on stabilizing the Republic the German military may have been more willing to crack down on the Nazis. This would not have resulted in a shiny, happy German democracy, and the possibilities range from an authoritarian state run by the military, to an unstable democracy, to a German civil war.

All three alternatives would have been preferable to the Third Reich. Even a militarist dictatorship would have been unstable, possibly annexing Austria and warring with Poland, but it is unlikely to have been as aggressive or uniquely successful as the Third Reich was. It must also be remembered that before the rise of Hitler Germany and the USSR had been close, with joint military exercises and discussions about a partition of Poland. Thus, in the Bukharin alternative the Great Patriotic War may never occur.

Even if one assumes Hitler still rose to power, and that things are the same until the beginning of Barbarossa, then it is possible Bukharin’s policies would have still let the Soviet Union win. On the one hand, the Soviet Union would have a smaller industrial base. First, it is unlikely that Bukharin would have been caught by the surprise the way that Stalin was, which may have resulted in a different outcome in the opening stages of the Great Patriotic War. It is also unlikely that the purges would have taken place, with their well known effects on the Soviet officer corps. Finally, peasant disenchantment with the regime, so obvious in the summer of 1941, may have been much less significant in a USSR that followed Bukharin’s policies. All told, even if we assume a somewhat smaller Soviet industrial base, there is good reason to think that the USSR would ultimately prevail in the war, as it did historically.

Thus, Bukharin would have emerged from the Great Patriotic War as the head of a USSR with a much more vigorous agricultural sector, and one with millions of more citizens than had died in the famine. Perhaps Bukharin’s Soviet Union would not have turned the former breadbasket of Europe into an importer of American grain. Perhaps calls for increased autonomy in the economy would have been more successful in the 1960s, and the USSR’s economy would not have stagnated and ultimately crumbled.


At the risk of being speculative, in such a scenario it is possible that the Soviet Union would still exist today. If so, Stalin, far from being necessary, may have ensured the USSR’s ultimate demise.