Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Geekly Oddcast On Reboots, Cartoon or Otherwise

In case you haven't heard, I'm in the new The Geekly Oddcast podcast with my friends Thomas, Nick, Daniel, and some other people I don't know as well. The second episode, which covers cartoon reboots, is the first episode I'm actually in.

Here you go!

Most of the programs we discuss on the podcast are shows I didn't regularly watch as a child, like Reboot or The Powerpuff Girls. However, I do remember regularly watching DuckTales despite, even as a preschooler or early elementary schooler, I found the theme song incredibly annoying.

(When I dropped that bomb that got a lot of people on the podcast aggravated. However, to prove my DuckTales cred, I will cite a VHS tape "Lost World Wanderers" Mom got me, which had "Dinosaur Ducks" where the gang visits a prehistoric lost world and "The Curse of Castle McDuck" where they encounter the Hound of Baskervilles. I also remember watching episodes featuring a robotic killer whale and Donald Duck in the Navy, as well as Magica de Spell and creatures that remind me a lot of Sirens from Greek mythology. My grandmother Quinn even took my little brother and I to see DuckTales The Movie: The Treasure of the Lost Lamp, which the Myopia podcast discussed here.)

The podcast got derailed some into non-cartoon reboots like Michael Bay's Transformers and Ninja Turtles films, which I enjoyed but the others didn't particularly like. That was probably my fault, since I didn't watch the main shows being discussed to the degree the others did. However, it did generate some good conversation and jokes. :)

However, there was one cartoon property I do have some familiarity with, and that was Thundercats. I remember watching the original show when visiting my grandparents, which would have been in the late 1980s, and I saw some of the Thundercats reboot on YouTube. Those episodes seemed a lot more thoughtful and sophisticated in terms of characterization and storytelling than I remember the original show being. Unfortunately, it didn't attract the attention of today's kids (despite being more anime in visual style), nor did it bring in the fans of the original. So it ran for only one season. :(

So if you like animation in general or you're a fan of the Myopia episodes dealing with animated movies, come check this episode out!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

How I Would Have Done STAR TREK BEYOND (Spoilers)

Last night I saw the science fiction action film Star Trek Beyond with a friend. It's really too late at this point for a movie review, but I did find the big plot twist at the end kind of annoying. The whole "Federation military man who can't handle peace" plot has been done already with Admiral Marcus in Star Trek Into Darkness and that was one of the weakest parts of the movie.

But anybody can complain. Here's how I would have done it:


The movie opens with Kirk's failed attempt to negotiate a peace treaty between the two alien species and the amusing reveal that the big scary aliens are really Chihuahua-sized. I'd also keep the description of how they're three years into the five-year mission, how every day is bleeding into another day, and Kirk's birthday angst. I'd also throw something in there about Carol Marcus, who at the end of Into Darkness seems to be Kirk's girlfriend but is never mentioned in this movie at all.

(Maybe she requested a transfer for reasons unknown and left the ship, breaking Kirk's heart and contributing, along with his Daddy angst, to his depression. The "reasons unknown" could be revealed in a later film to be David Marcus.)

The Enterprise arrives at the Yorktown, which is explicitly described as being the farthest Federation outpost and up against unknown space. Kirk applies for a desk job at the station. Vice-Admiral seems a bit high for a relatively young captain, so perhaps the position is Commodore or even another captaincy, just with a different job. There are captains who command combat units and captains who run bureaucracies, after all. Spock learns of Ambassador Spock's death and briefly breaks up with Uhura so that he can travel to New Vulcan and, as Bones would put it, "make little Vulcans."

However, everybody seems on-edge at the Yorktown command and we eventually learn that there've been probes of the Yorktown by unknown alien craft apparently from a nearby nebula. The nebula's radiation blocks out Federation long-range reconnaissance and unmanned probes have disappeared, apparently lost in the debris fields, dangerous gases, etc. The Federation leadership at the station puts on a big happy face about how this is an opportunity to meet new alien life-forms, but there's a lot of worry that the Yorktown could be attacked. Yorktown commander Commodore Parris dispatches Kirk and the Enterprise to the nebula to investigate. We get Kirk's speech about how they can't communicate with the Federation, which will be important in a minute.

Upon arrival in the nebula, the Enterprise is surprise-attacked by the drone swarm like in the movie. The ship is badly damaged (the warp nacelles are torn off like in the movie), but Scotty's "redirect the warp core into the impulse drive" plan allows them to break contact. They manage to limp back to the Yorktown just in time for...


A massive attack on the Yorktown by the nebula aliens. The Enterprise, despite being in no shape to fight, is drafted to help hold the line. Here we have the boarding action by Krall and the hand-to-hand battle between him and Kirk, who leads an attempt to relieve some cut-off Starfleet personnel in person instead of doing the intelligent thing and delegating like he's supposed to. The Bones-Spock interaction from the film can go in here as well--perhaps they've got to rely on each other to escape alien boarders or something. Many Federation ships are destroyed, but the Yorktown itself is unpenetrated and the alien fleet, which has taken losses of its own, retreats. Krall then calls for negotiations. Kirk is sent along with Uhura and Spock to parley.

At the negotiations, Krall submits his terms. He demands the Federation evacuate Yorktown and turn the station intact over to him and his people. Kirk is angry at the unprovoked attack, points out the Yorktown as a free-floating artificial planetoid is in no way an intrusion on any world his people inhabit, etc. Kirk then defends the Federation as a peaceful state that only fights if attacked and is primarily interested in exploration, new discoveries, providing a happy life for its citizens, etc.

Krall plays his trump card. He shows the Federation ancient television transmissions of a documentary on Red Cloud's War and the subsequent defeat and subjugation of the Sioux Nation by the United States. "I will not be the Sioux." He then makes a big speech about the expansion of the Federation before dropping the "this is where the frontier pushes back" line that made me think Krall was the leader of an alien polity that felt threatened by the expanding Federation. He might also mock the Federation's ethos of unity, cooperation, etc. by pointing out how his fleet has just savaged theirs.

(Imagine the gloating of a victorious Japanese soldier in 1941-42, mocking Americans as weaklings easily defeated by superior will.)

However, Krall has no interest in blowing up the Yorktown the way the Sioux burned the Powder River forts. The Yorktown's shipyard's and automated industrial facilities would make Krall's race invulnerable to any kind of outside coercion and allow them to be "free" forever. Some of the Federation people are even open to the proposal--Spock might think that Krall is clearly more interested in maintaining his independence than any sort of aggression against the Federation and the placement of the Yorktown was unduly provocative. Kirk tries to argue the Federation isn't like the U.S. was back in the day, that it never incorporates a world against the will of its inhabitants, etc. but Krall is not impressed.

Then we meet Jaylah, one of Krall's soldiers who is clearly not of his race who defects. She tells the Federation delegation that Krall's people have conquered her species, another race residing within the nebula, and fears they will continue this behavior once they capture the Yorktown.

Commodore Parris, fearing that Krall could use the station's productive facilities to conquer other lower-tech races nearby (like the dog-people from the opening), begins evacuating non-combatants aboard warp-capable civilian ships while preparing to defend against another attack and, if necessary, blow up the station. We have the line from Kirk's confrontation with Krall in the movie about how it's better to die protecting others than live killing them--said by Kirk, agreeing with Commodore Parris's proposal. She recalls Kirk and the Federation delegation, who escape under fire when it's clear they intend to take Jaylah with them.


It turns out Jaylah has served in Krall's army as a draftee (think a more authoritarian-industrialized version of the Indian scouts who accompanied the US cavalry in the Old West) and knows just how Krall's fleet works. Most of Krall's ships and soldiers are drones and/or Terminator-type robots--Krall's race is not particularly numerous but uses advanced technology to conquer other races. This is in explicit contrast with the high-tech Federation, which is democratic, voluntary, etc. Scotty, Jaylah, and his little alien friend begin putting together the plan to disrupt the coordination of the drone swarm with radio waves. The problem is, they have to get close enough to the swarm for this to work. Jaylah is reluctant to participate since she fears Krall will retaliate against her subjugated people, but Scotty tells her if they work together, her people will no longer need to fear Krall. "Ye canna' break a stick in a bundle" or whatever the proverb his grandmother told him can be deployed here.

So Bones and Spock are dispatched with a captured drone craft to disrupt the swarm from within, while the Enterprise (which has had some repairs) and the remaining Federation ships prepare to hold the line against the drones and then, once the swarm is disrupted enough, attack and destroy the drone fleet. The Yorktown will add the station's powerful transmitters to the plan, although the skeptical Parris is still planning on scuttling the station if necessary.

The attack begins. The Federation takes some losses and the Yorktown itself is damaged before Bones and Spock trigger radio waves (yes, I'd keep Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" as the song) within the swarm, disrupting their coordination and causing lots of them to crash into each other. The remaining Federation ships take the offensive, disrupting the swarm and destroying the uncoordinated drones at knife-fight range, before the Yorktown's mega-transmitter breaks the swarm completely. Krall and the (few) survivors pull back toward the nebula. Kirk, rather than immediately pursuing, transmits a request for a parley to the surprised Krall.

At the parley, Kirk tells Krall that if the Federation were as bad as he thinks they are, he'd have finished off Krall's armada and invaded the nebula to either exterminate his people or reduce them to a planetary reservation. Instead, Starfleet will allow Krall to return to his homeworld with the remainder of his fleet in peace. Of course, with Krall's fleet largely destroyed, unmanned probes bearing records of the defeat have been dispatched to Jaylah's world, which Kirk expects will rebel against Krall and request Federation membership shortly. Krall is welcome to seek membership in the Federation as well, of course, or he can remain independent and un-interfered with. He has a choice between reigning in hell or serving in heaven and the Federation will respect that choice.

Krall is outraged by this "duplicity" (encouraging a revolt within his realm while negotiating with him), but tells him that it's no matter. The shipyards and industrial production that allowed Krall's people to build their huge fleet and conquer the other civilizations in the nebula are on worlds that Krall's people dominate. Setting Jaylah's people free won't change that. Krall will rebuild and then take back what is his at first opportunity.

Kirk just nods and tells him the Federation will be ready if he tries again. However, the shot will reveal other members of Krall's entourage looking at the Federation delegation with respect and at Krall with disdain. Even if Krall is able to maintain his regime in the short run, in the long run his empire is doomed. The Federation has shown itself to be morally superior and, owing to its unity and tolerance, strong enough to repel more aggressive and less moral foes. Krall's philosophy has just been shown to be a bunch of nonsense, just like how World War II showed racism, fascism, etc. as deficient.

My version ends the same way the actual film does, with Kirk withdrawing his application for a desk job at the Yorktown, Spock reconciling with Uhura, and Jaylah joining Starfleet. The badly damaged Enterprise is rebuilt as the Enterprise A and once it's done, the crew is off again on new adventures.

You all like? The only problem I can think of is having Kirk and not Commodore Parris being the one in charge of the final parley with Krall, offering Federation membership to Jaylah's world, etc. Killing or incapacitating Parris in Krall's attack on the Yorktown is too easy. Perhaps she delegates to Kirk while she focuses on repairing the damaged Yorktown? A gigantic space station is vulnerable to losing its gravity, air, and other things that keep millions of people alive in a way that a planet isn't, so this might be a more urgent priority

Either way, this maintains Trek's optimistic ethos without indulging in yet another parable about how the real danger comes from within, not from without. Someone who believed that in World War II would be screaming about the democracies being the warmongers for preparing themselves, the Axis being a phony threat to justify FDR accumulating more power, etc. while German panzers and Japanese Zeroes roll behind them. The original series even touched on that with "The City on the Edge of Forever" episodes about the danger of pacifism when faced with aggressors like Nazis Germany.

My version of Beyond would maintain the superiority of democracy, racial tolerance, etc. in the face of racism and imperialism without being naive and weak.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

No Kindle? No Problem! How To Get FLASHING STEEL FLASHING FIRE Elsewhere

I was puttering around my Twitter feed after work this evening and found the following article:

Self-Publishing Is Not Spelt K.I.N.D.L.E.

The article argued independently-published authors don't sell very many copies of their e-books for devices other than the Kindle because they don't bother advertising for these other devices. I tweeted out the Nook version of my short-story collection Flashing Steel Flashing Fire and thought about doing the same for the Kobo version, then decided it would be more economical to put it all in one place.

So here goes...

Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire for Kobo

Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire for Nook

Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire for iBooks

Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire on Smashwords. That's got versions for lots of different e-readers and services--you can even get it as a .rtf file to read on your word processor. Here's a list of the different retailers.

So if you enjoy science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and/or horror and don't have a Kindle, live in a county without access to Amazon, etc., here's your chance to get ten stories for $2.99, or (based on my $0.99 price for individual stories) ten for the price of three.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Geekly Oddcast Is Here!

There's a new film and culture podcast out there in the world. It's called The Geekly Oddcast and was put on by the good people from The Brothers Herman and The Dudeletter. The first episode, dedicated to the subject of spoilers, premiered on Podbean a few days ago and further episodes will appear every two weeks. This episode features Daniel from The Corner Critic, a Myopia regular, as well as Myopia: Defend Your Childhood and Dudeletter overlord Nick and the merry Hermans.

The podcast is dedicated to "geeky" topics (hence the name). I'm in three episodes that I can think of--one dedicated to Star Wars, one to Harry Potter, and a third to the realities of working as an Internet writer. The first two have companion blog posts I've already written that will appear here once the podcast goes up.

So enjoy!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Going Back to DragonCon...

This time last year, I was starting a new job and needed to focus on learning how to do that properly. The year before that, I was a graduate student at Georgia State paying for my M.A. by working as a graduate research assistant and didn't want to spend the money.

Things are a little different this year, so I'm going back to DragonCon! For those of you who aren't in the know, DragonCon is the big science fiction, fantasy, horror, comics, etc. convention in Atlanta every Labor Day weekend.

In 2008 I went to DragonCon and met representatives of the company holding the rights to the BattleTech science-fiction franchise. I spent the next year (I probably could have finished it faster) writing "Skirmish at the Vale's Edge," which tells the tale of the Clan Wolf invasion of the Oberon Confederation, and told them in person in 2009 that I'd submitted it.

(I also got a good reference from established BattleTech writer Loren Coleman, who vouched for me that unlike some other fan-fic writers, I wasn't insane and actually did believe in the rights of copyright holders.)

They ultimately accepted the story and it's now considered part of the BattleTech canon alongside books written by established authors like Michael Stackpole, Mr. Coleman, Blaine Lee Pardoe, etc.

This time around, I've got two completed novels--the post-apocalyptic steampunk Western Battle for the Wastelands and the Lovecraftian science-fiction/horror The Thing in the Woods--to pitch. I've got got two more incomplete projects, the horror/dark comedy/bizarro Little People, Big Guns (which I've blogged about under its original title Badgers vs. Midgets) and the science fiction Bloody Talons: An Oral History of the Avian War, that I can pitch as well. Even if they're not done now, I can get permission to submit them once they're done.

(Bloody Talons is the secret project I've been referencing in posts tagged with "aliens" and "alien invasion." It can be described as a cross between World War Z and Independence Day. I'm still going to keep the details close to the chest though, since it's maybe 1/3 finished.)

When I was at DragonCon in 2011 and 2012, I made contacts with publishers and pitched Battle. Although neither pitch panned out (I did get a "this is good" rejection from one publisher though), meeting representatives of publishers at conventions is a good way to get around the "no unsolicited submissions" bar. If you get permission, it's not an unsolicited submission anymore. Just be sure to reference that in the e-mail to be safe.

Furthermore, even if I don't sell anything as a result of my visit, it's a good way to network and learn. I've interacted with Michael Stackpole and Stephen Michael Stirling, both of whom are really cool guys, and learned about the craft of writing. I might acquire some interesting new books (which I could get signed, considering how many authors are there) and collectibles. And I just learned from my friend James R. Tuck that the Fire of Brazil near the hotel has a $10-12 lunch. Considering how those Brazilian steakhouses are typically $50+ I think I'll hit that up pronto.

It's going to be a fun weekend. :)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hadrian a Confucian Aficionado in Kuwait? Check Out "On Eastern Shores"

Self-banned from the alternate-history forum until October so I can focus on work and my personal writing projects, but here's a relatively new Roman-era timeline that looks pretty cool.

It's entitled "On Eastern Shores: A Roman Timeline." The divergence from our timeline is that the dying Emperor Trajan, instead of selecting Hadrian as his successor, instead chooses the Roman general and governor of Judea Lusius Quietus. Lusius had defeated a series of Jewish uprisings known as the Kitos War, which is part of reason the timeline's author gave for Trajan deciding Quietus would be his successor instead. The other reason is that Trajan doesn't think Hadrian will retain his conquests, something that our history bore out with the abandonment of Mesopotamia.

(Quietus was relieved of command and killed, possibly on Hadrian's orders, soon after Hadrian became emperor, so it's possible he was a serious contender for power.)

As emperor, Quietus finishes the war with the Parthians with a treaty that leaves Mesopotamia in Roman hands and the kingdom of Characene (modern southern Iraq and Kuwait) a Roman client. Hadrian, seeking to avoid offending Quietus, moves to Characene and becomes a patron of scholarship, including Indian and Chinese scholars whose ideas become popular.

And that's the kicker there. With a Roman port on the Persian Gulf, Rome is in a much better position to participate in the Indian Ocean trade. The Romans also receive a Chinese ambassador, something that I don't believe happened in real history. As a result, Buddhism spreads more readily in the Roman sphere than it did historically, while Confucian ideas about government arrive. These encourage the Roman Empire to develop a more merit-oriented bureaucratic system rather than staffing the government with members of the senatorial and equestrian classes.

I don't agree with everything the author plans for this timeline--he seems to think Buddhism would syncretize with and replace Christianity because Buddhism, unlike Christianity, does not require people to abandon their earlier religious beliefs. I'd prefer he go with a more religiously-divided Roman sphere (one of the commenters suggested one half be Christian, one half be Buddhist, and Christians enjoy more success outside of the Empire), but I'm not going to be a major contributor to the timeline. So we'll just have to see how it goes.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell (2016)

I first became interested in the Hellraiser horror franchise when I was in middle or high school, although I lost interest for a long time. Over the last few months my interest has been rekindled--I watched the original Hellraiser for the first time and read the novel that inspired it, The Hellbound Heart. At some point along the way I saw that Rebellion Publishing had a Hellraiser/Sherlock Holmes crossover entitled Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell coming out.

So how was it? Let's see...

The Plot

Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest detective, and his physician partner John Watson are called into action when a libertine disappears from a locked room. Their investigation draws them deeper into London's underworld, where the powerful and influential cast aside their Victorian uprightness indulge in a plethora of perversions. They discover the machinations of the mysterious "Order of the Gash" and a mysterious puzzle box.

Soon Holmes and Watson find themselves faced with a foe not of this world that deals in fates worse than death...

The Good

*As I mentioned earlier I've been interested in the Hellraiser universe for a long time. Crossing it over with the realm of Sherlock Holmes is pretty creative. Someone who solves the box and is taken by the Cenobites sets up a classical "locked room mystery," especially since a philosophical materialist like Holmes is not likely to consider a supernatural cause like, well, a gang of extra-dimensional BDSM enthusiasts who drag people through portals opened by a supernatural Rubix cube.

(Wow, I just made the whole franchise seem really ridiculous, didn't I?)

*I was able to read the novel in a few hours on the elliptical and it made my exercise time go by pretty quickly. It's an absorbing read and a fairly quick one. Definitely very entertaining, which is why we all read books in the first place.

*Author Paul Kane has clearly done his research into the Hellraiser franchise. This is not really a surprise considering he'd written The Hellraiser films and Their Legacy and had the assistance of Barbie Wilde, who played the Female Cenobite in the first two films and wrote the introduction to the book. In particular he's clearly studied The Hellbound Heart, since he knows the smell of vanilla accompanies the Cenobites and those who seek their attentions sometimes offer their dove's heads and their own urine. A character is very strongly implied to be the ancestor of Clive Barker's occult detective Harry D'Amour, who appears in some of Barker's other works before facing off against the nefarious Pinhead in the recent Scarlet Gospels. The acknowledgements section at the end of the book reveals influences from anthologies of stories set in Barker's universe written by other authors as well. The climactic battle even draws on both Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 and Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth.

*Per the above, Kane knows not to bring in Pinhead. Pinhead would have been "born" in the 20th Century and this far too early for him. However, Hell had servants well before Pinhead, so he's not really needed.

*Sherlock Holmes' deductive talents are on full display in this one. He deduces several interesting facts about one Laurence Cotton and his second wife Juliet (more on them later) upon meeting them and he's able to discern the presence of the Puzzle Guardian vagrant and just how those who've gone missing after the solving the box died. Kane has written in the Holmes universe as well, including stories in The Mammoth Book of Sherlock Holmes Abroad and Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes.

*I was initially displeased to see characters from earlier Holmes works popping up, but Kane makes the whole situation work out and paves the way for a very entertaining climax.

The Bad

*The author's knowledge of the Hellraiser universe proves to be a bit of a creative crutch when Holmes and Watson first begin investigating. The first missing person is a mischievous "Francis Cotton" and the people who seek out their help are his brother Laurence and his new wife Juliet, who live on Lodovico Street in London. Laurence has a daughter named Kirsten, with whom Juliet doesn't get along. Does this sound a bit familiar? It's the triangle of Larry, Frank, and Julia from the first Hellraiser, transplanted into the late 19th Century.

However, another missing person is one Lt. Howard Spencer and he has a son nicknamed Ellie, whom Watson thinks will go into the military for all the wrong reasons. The implication is that this is the young Elliott Spencer, who will someday solve the puzzle box in India and be transformed into Pinhead.

If the story had been a pure prequel to The Hellbound Heart, this would not have been a problem at all, and if Kane had just transplanted the tale of the Cotton family for a 19th Century reboot, I might not have liked it but I wouldn't have been that upset. However, the prequel and the reboot aspects sit uneasily side by side. And since Hellraiser is not public domain like Sherlock Holmes is, Barker and friends have to have approved this.

It would have been better if Holmes and Watson merely met the ancestors of the Cottons--perhaps they had a boarder in the upper room of their Lodovico Street house who disappeared? It might be a nice hat-tip to the mythology.

Per my point about the Cotton family reprise, some characters' fates in hell are more akin to the torments depicted in in Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 than The Hellbound Heart. For example, Barker's original novella implied those taken by the Cenobites experienced "pleasures" more physical than psychological that reduced Frank Cotton to a mutilated mess and bore at least a passing relationship to sex. The punishments of Francis Cotton, the elder Spencer, etc. are more psychological and spiritual in nature. Furthermore, they stem from the idea of the Cenobites dispensing justice upon the wicked, as opposed to Barker's original vision of them as a band of amoral experimenters in pleasure and pain. That's something that appears in the later Hellraiser films (especially the awful direct to video ones), but not in The Hellbound Heart or the original Hellraiser. The idea present in The Hellbound Heart that the damned, when not "enduring pleasure," are able to see into the worlds they've left behind is abandoned entirely.

So is this a prequel to The Hellbound Heart and some of Barker's other works, the Hellraiser film series, or both?

*Some of Watson's actions after the climax of the novel don't fit in with his character, don't fit in with the existing Hellraiser mythology and might not work with the Holmes canon overall. I'm not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers.

The Verdict

An interesting book and a fast read besides. 8.5 out of 10.

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

The other day I saw with my girlfriend, mom, and little cousins Illumination Entertainment's new animated film The Secret Life of Pets. Although this type of movie usually isn't my thing, the metal-head poodle from the trailer is what sold me on the film.

So here's the review...

The Plot

Max (Louis C.K.) is a terrier who's loving his life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) in her New York City apartment. Then one day she brings home a much larger new dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max does not like this intruder one bit, but the two end up lost in the city without their licenses after a dog-park mishap. Neighboring dog Gidget (Jenny Slate) recruits other local pets--who have a human-like society that operates when their humans aren't home--to rescue Max, on whom she has a crush. Unfortunately she's not the only one looking for Max--the angry rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart), who leads a band of abused and abandoned pets, are on the hunt for him as well.

The Good

*Where do I begin? This movie is absolutely hilarious. I could not stop laughing for most of the film. Of particular amusement is Snowball, whom Hart plays as a Black Panther militant-revolutionary type. He has so many funny lines it's hard to pick out specific ones, but I did like the sequences from the trailer in which he poops himself during a speech and another where he floats on some driftwood while commenting on his appearance, as well as a funeral speech he gives. Snowball's gang also has some amusing characters, including a pig Snowball uses as muscle.

There's plenty of humor coming from characters other than Snowball. The scene in the trailer where Gidget interrogates criminal feral cat Ozone (Steve Coogan) was amusing, as is a sequence where Duke and Snowball sneak into a sausage factory. The apartment that the elderly disabled basset hound Pops (Dana Carvey) turns into a chronic party-place for pets has a whole bunch of funny scenes in it. There's also a hilarious bit involving YouTube cat videos that kids and parents will love. And let's not forget Leonard the metal-head poodle. :)

Heck, I can't name them all or even a double-digit percentage of them. Just see the movie. It's absolutely hilarious.

*The voice-acting is really good. I liked all of them, especially Snowball. I seriously didn't have any problems with any of the voice-acting at all.

*The characterization is complex. Max is hostile toward Duke, but it's because his life revolves around his beloved owner and he feels betrayed. Duke initially tries to bully Max, but it's provoked and we later find out he has very good reasons to fear losing his new home. Snowball is a violent loon, but he's, as TVTropes put it, a Father To His Men (well, animals, but that's not the point) and also has good reasons to hate humans.

*The 90 minute running time is pretty brief, which fits for a movie aimed at children. There were only a couple times I looked at my watch.

*The animation quality was really good. I'm a fan of old-fashioned 2D animation that's really out of favor now (I think the last major film using that technique was The Princess and the Frog), but I had no problems with this one. No character looked like a mobile Barbie doll; no cityscape looked like a bunch of toy blocks stacked up. Perhaps you could call me a convert. :)

The Bad

*I honestly can't think of anything major. The closest thing I can come up with is that some parts of the storyline that are supposed to be poignant really aren't. And that might be just me.

*Some critics have accused the movie of being too much like Toy Story. I concede they've got a point--the Toy Story films had a "secret society that hides from humans" thing going, while Woody and Buzz were initially rivals the way Max and Duke are. However, I didn't think that was a problem. It'd be a ripoff if these were toys, not pets, and these aren't toys.

*Acknowledging that having a dog of Duke's size in a New York City apartment is not fair to Duke or Max and not safe for Katie's property either would have been good. If it's made clear that Katie is fostering Duke temporarily, it would make her look like a more responsible pet owner and make Max look like more of a jerk (he's getting territorial about somebody who's not going to be there long).

The Verdict

A great movie, and I don't just say that because I enjoy promoting non-Disney animation. 9.5/10.

Hopefully there'll be more of these movies and Illumination will provide an alternative to Disney (not faulting Disney, but I doubt they'd go for something edgy like making Snowball the animal version of a Black Panther) for a long time to come. And I'm pretty sure I'll be buying the DVD.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

I've historically not been interested in the Tarzan mythology, even though I remember getting a kid version of Tarzan of the Apes at the elementary-school book fair long ago. However, I saw the trailers for the jungle-history-adventure film The Legend of Tarzan and they looked really cool, so I decided to go see it.

How was it?

The Plot

John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård), an English aristocrat raised by apes in the African jungle but ultimately returned to civilization after rescuing missionary's daughter Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) from a violent ape, is asked to visit Belgian King Leopold's Congolese colony on behalf of the British government. He declines, but is asked by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to accept the invitation in order to help him investigate rumored mass enslavement of Congolese by Leopold's regime, which as far as the outside world knows is a humanitarian venture whose purpose is to educate the natives, spread Christianity, and protect them from Arab slavers.

Taking up Williams' offer, he returns to the village on the edge of the Congolese jungle where Jane's father taught the locals English and where he was a local legend "Tarzan," an evil spirit who could control the animals of the jungle. The village is attacked by Force Publique soldiers under the command of Belgian official Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who intend to trade Clayton to African chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), whose son Tarzan had killed years before, in exchange for a hoard of diamonds. Williams and Clayton escape but Jane and many of the villagers are captured by Rom's men, who take them upriver into Mbonga's domain. Clayton, Williams, and a posse of African villagers pursue...

The Good

*One generally doesn't associate "jungle action-adventure movies" with really good acting, but I was impressed with the actors in this one, especially the supporting cast. Robbie impresses as Jane, who's quite spunky and not the sort of damsel who easily ends up in distress (or has problems getting out of it). Jackson's Williams is pretty cool, especially when he opens up about his past and the reasons why he's trying to expose Leopold's misdeeds. Waltz plays Rom in an oily and cunning way that reminds me very much of Aidan Gillen's Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. And Hounsou, even though he's not onscreen very much, does a great job conveying a grieving and very, very angry father.

*I like the tie-ins with real history. Both Rom and Williams are real people, while the enslavement and exploitation of the peoples of the Congo by the Congo Free State (the king's personal project, not affiliated with the Belgian government until the revelation of his crimes made it radioactive) was a very real and evil thing. If anything, the film downplays the regime's cruelty--we see generic colonial crimes like Africans being killed or taken as slaves, but none of the especial horrors that led to the death of ten million people, half of Congo's population. Read King Leopold's Ghost if you want to know more. The movie doesn't need to be pushed into R territory with excessive additional violence, but perhaps a scene of villagers with missing hands or dying en masse of starvation because the men are all collecting rubber and the women and children are all being kept hostage (so nobody is actually growing food) could be included.

*Per the above, the tale of a colonial-era white guy as king of the African jungle could run into all sorts of problems in an age where the wider culture (or at the very least cultural arbiters and gatekeepers like movie critics, studio VIPs, academics, etc) are much more sensitive to charges of racism. I remember someone online openly wondering if the Tarzan story should even be retired completely as a relic of a less-enlightened time. However, the film retains unaltered the characters of Tarzan (the white "king of the jungle") and Jane (his white American wife) while at the same time depicting black people as something other than violent spear-chucking villains and/or helpless people who need Tarzan to save them from the peril of the week. Heck, instead of being a "White Savior," Tarzan would much rather stay home in Britain and it takes Williams to get him to go back to Africa in the first place. Williams, although not as ludicrously fit as Tarzan, is essentially his equal, while Mbonga, instead of being another howling savage from central casting, is developed as a character. And when Tarzan goes to war, he has a posse of African allies backing him up.

*There's some really good foreshadowing. Tarzan's skills and physical power are shown in little doses before he goes into full Tarzan mode--he can hear Williams cracking nuts in a meeting when nobody else can and he climbs a tree on his English estate by pulling himself several feet up onto a branch with only one arm. The fact that hippos, not crocodiles or lions, are the most dangerous animals in Africa is revealed well before we even get to Africa, let alone before the hippos become a problem. And Tarzan's ability to mimic animal mating calls is revealed pretty early in the film too. There's a whole arsenal of Chekhov's guns put on display before they're fired, instead of New Powers As The Plot Demands.

*Rom is clearly a villain, but during a conversation with the captive Jane he reveals a lot of the issues driving him and they're all quite understandable. Everybody is the hero of their own story and although Rom's deeds clearly make him a bad guy, he has intelligent and even sympathetic motivations.

*Although I had some problems with the script (I'll get to those later), one thing I definitely appreciated is just how funny it is. Jane's first meeting with the young Tarzan many years before the story begins is downright hilarious, as is Williams' character in general. There are a lot of funny bits in the movie and I rather appreciate them.

*The older Tarzan works depicted gorillas as murderously homicidal and violent (probably due to limited scientific knowledge at the time), but in reality gorillas are much less violent than the smaller chimpanzees. The movie gets around this by specifically differentiating the "Mangani" apes that raised Tarzan from gorillas, who are explicitly described as "gentle."

The Bad

*There are some really draggy bits in the first third or so of the movie, before the Claytons return to Africa. Things get better later on, fortunately.

*Skarsgård is not nearly as interesting or impressive as Clayton/Tarzan as Jackson, Robbie, Honsou, and Waltz are as the other characters. The movie could have depicted him as someone having problems fitting in with civilization and only being really "free" once he's returned to the jungle (I think that was a major aspect of one of the 1980s Tarzan movies), but that vein isn't really mined very much. I've heard Skarsgård is a great actor, so that might be on the script.

*Many African cultures are polygamous and even if the (fictional) culture of Opar does not allow the practice, larger families would have been the norm. I doubt Tarzan would have killed Mbonga's only son. Make it his eldest son and that would be fine. Heck, it could have been any son, not just the eldest.

*The historical Force Publique would have been recruited from the local population and thus would have been mostly black, with white officers. In the film we see an occasional black guy in the Force Publique, but they mostly seem to be white European mercenaries. Obviously one can't be too picky about historical accuracy, especially if one wants a happy ending given the history of the Congo, but if one is concerned depicting Africans complicit in the European conquest of other Africans will annoy people, it could be made clear why they're fighting. Give them agency, if you will, like the movie is clearly doing with Mbonga. Rom could explicitly be depicted recruiting poor and outcast Africans with the promises of money or power, recruiting soldiers from one tribe with the promise of them getting to kill their rivals, etc.

*We could see more of the reasons Rom has for doing what he does in other scenes beyond his conversation with Jane. The climactic battle would be a very good place for it--when things go poorly it's him who keeps the villains going. His issues simply will not let him give up. This would also make him more impressive.

*The climactic battle--not going to go into a lot of detail for reasons of spoilers--is over way too quickly. I would have prolonged it, which would also allow for Tarzan's African allies to do more.

*The villainous Rom is depicted as fiddling on his rosary a lot and claims to have been very close to his local priest as a child. However, the real-life strong Christian faith that drove Williams (he was a Baptist minister as well as a soldier and diplomat) to challenge Leopold's cruelty is absent from his character completely. Other reviewers have referred to Jane as the daughter of a missionary and although that's not explicit, it seems to me that's the only plausible reason her father is teaching English to remote African villagers. There are purely secular NGOs like Doctors Without Borders today, but it is my understanding that back then the kind of people who did the stuff the elder Porter did (i.e. traveling to remote places and educating the people) would have been Christian missionaries like Dr. Livingston.

Given the times, the overwhelming majority of Westerners would have been at least nominally Christian, but only the evil Rom is depicted as being such and that left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

*We're told that Tarzan and Jane had lost a child and that's why Tarzan is reluctant to have Jane accompany him back to Africa, but the impact on them could have been explored more deeply. Even a miscarriage, let alone the death of a newborn or older child, will leave its wounds, but that only seems important in one scene. Jane could be clearly depressed in England and Tarzan could agree to have her accompany him, despite his concerns for her safety, in the hopes that a trip will lift her spirits.

*The British Prime Minister trying to get Tarzan to support Leopold's venture on the grounds it would give the natives jobs is anachronistic. The idea that a government's duties including keeping people employed was not common back then, especially in more laissez-faire Britain. I would have had him play the "white man's burden" card--he could believe the claims that Leopold's government is educating and protecting the natives who Tarzan knew as a young man. Only Williams is skeptical, since as as a black man he would have reasons to distrust white paternalism.

The Verdict

Surprisingly well-done, but with a few flaws. Definitely worth the $4 I paid to see it at North DeKalb Mall's AMC (which has first-run movies for matinee prices I haven't seen in many years) and worth a matinee price at a more expensive place. 8.0 out of 10.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Movie Review: FREE STATE OF JONES (2016)

This afternoon I rode up to the old homestead in East Cobb to see the Matthew McConaughey historical movie The Free State of Jones, based on the book Free State of Jones, with my friend Nick. It hadn't been long since I'd learned the Confederate secession was lacking in democratic legitimacy (if you combined the white Unionists with the blacks, one could make a very strong case the majority of the population opposed secession), but I'm not aware of Hollywood actually acknowledging internal opposition to the Confederacy. The only exception I can think of is Cold Mountain, and I hadn't seen the movie or read the book.

So how was it? Let's see...

The Plot

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate medic from Mississippi, deserts from the army to take home the body of his son (or a relative of some kind, it's not 100% clear), who had been drafted by Confederate soldiers who had also taken most of the family's crops and farming equipment. Already upset by the "20 slave law" that exempts the sons of large slave-owners from the draft, he protects a widow and her daughters from the thieving Confederates, who then chase him into the swamp using bloodhounds. He falls in with some runaway slaves and organizes a rebellion against the Confederacy. Along the way, he romances the slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) after his wife Serena (Keri Russell) leaves him. After the war, he and his fellow guerrillas become staunch Republicans (the white South was strongly Democratic at the time) but soon face the coming of lynching, disenfranchisement, and Jim Crow.

The Good

*Great, great history that has rarely if ever been told on film before. The period where film emerged as an art form and Hollywood emerged as a cultural machine coincided with a period called "the nadir of American race relations," the age of widespread disenfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation, and lynchings. The dominant historiography of Reconstruction at the time, the Dunning School, taught that Reconstruction governments had been run by corrupt Northern migrants and inept, foolish blacks. It's no surprise that the first film with an actual plot is the Klan-glorifying The Birth of a Nation, while mega-film Gone With The Wind romanticizes the antebellum South. There's even the 1940 film Santa Fe Trail that depicts abolitionist John Brown as a maniac who burns the Kansas countryside and so frightens the slaves that they don't want freedom if it's him bringing it.

Furthermore, when movies began depicting the Confederacy and slavery in a negative light, the story was told very simplistically. Union good and anti-racist (the film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter depicts abolitionists holding signs declaring blacks and whites equals, a notion most opponents of slavery would have viewed with disgust), Confederacy evil and racist (Glory emphasizes the atrocities inflicted on black Union troops and their white officers by Confederates). The nuances of the conflict, such as Northerners hating blacks and refusing to fight in an "emancipation war" or poor Southern whites opposing the Confederacy as a rich man's project they're expected to die for, are generally ignored.

(And even though poor whites were generally racist themselves--the rich whites used racism or the possibility they too could become big slave-owners to manipulate them--poor whites and blacks could work together. A populist biracial movement in North Carolina functioned--and even governed--for several years before being toppled by voter fraud and outright violence by Southern Democrats. I mean, seriously, they organized an outright coup d'etat against the municipal government of Wilmington. Thanks The Dollop podcast for reminding me just in time.)

*Some people were concerned that the movie would be a "white man saves poor blacks" movie, but that's not the case. At first it's a group of runaway slaves who save Newton, providing him shelter from Confederate soldiers hunting him and medical attention for his injured leg. The runaway slave Moses (Mahershala Ali) is portrayed as a leader of the runaways and later as a Reconstruction political activist registering blacks to vote. Knight is the one who first organizes them to fight, but he's a trained soldier and blacks both during and after slavery were purposefully kept ignorant of guns. Historically Knight did lead the insurgency against the Confederacy and later as a strong supporter of blacks' rights (he served as the commander of an all-black unit tasked with fighting racist paramilitaries), so downgrading him to avoid treading on certain people's toes does him a disservice.

*There are some good character moments, like Rachel crying when Newton leads her to a feather bed. Given what we learn about how she'd been treated as a slave, feather beds might bring back some very bad memories. The racial tensions that exist within the guerrilla band do get revealed when the blacks are pointedly not participating in a cookout and a white guerrilla tries to keep one of the blacks from eating some of the leftovers.

*Knight's Christian faith is strongly emphasized. Much is often made about how the Confederates quoted the Bible to defend slavery, but his defense of the lone woman and her daughters against the thieving Confederates reminds me very much of James 1:27. Some of his economic ideas echo the Catholic notion of distributism.

The Bad

*For a war movie this was extremely, extremely non-exciting. Even the battle sequences were boring, and that's really saying something. There are gigantic time skips linked together by onscreen text and images. There have been movies covering spans of years before that handled transitions of time in a more subtle or more interesting fashion. Instead we get a disjointed mess of a movie. It's the single worst aspect of the film. Nick is wondering if there's a three-hour director's cut out there somewhere and hopefully he's right. Hopefully that cut includes some battle scenes earlier in the movie--it's not until at least an hour in that we get serious combat between the guerrillas and Confederate authorities. And the climactic battle sequence is too abbreviated.

Would it be too hard to have a montage of Confederate soldiers deserting, Home Guard stealing crops and hanging deserters, Knight organizing runaway slaves and Confederate deserters into an army, etc? Come on, this is basic film class stuff here.

*Peppered throughout the Civil War story of Newton Knight is the tale of his 20th Century descendant Davis (via Rachel) getting persecuted by the state of Mississippi. Though he is to all appearances white himself, since he has a black great-grandmother by the laws of the state he's considered black and his marriage to a white woman is illegal. If The Free State of Jones were a television miniseries--an exploration in the vein of Roots about how many white Southerners have black ancestors perhaps--using the younger Knight's story to bookend the tale of how his black foremother and his white forefather got together would make sense. Here it just adds to the film's running time. Davis Knight's story would be better as some kind of epilogue or even an on-screen graphic explaining the ultimate fate of Netwton and Rachel's descendants.

*There's not a clear antagonist. It would have been better if they combined the local Confederate colonel and cavalry lieutenant Barbour (Bill Tangradi), who extorts taxes "in kind" from the poor farmers, into one chronic enemy of Knight's. Think how Jason Isaacs' character in The Patriot was Mel Gibson's singular nemesis. The colonel at one point orders something that clearly troubles Barbour, but we don't see any disagreement (unlike the scene in The Patriot when Jason Isaacs orders the burning of a church with Patriot civilians inside, horrifying one of his subordinates) or any real character development on his part.

*Reconstruction lasted for around a decade in Mississippi, but we never see the period of large-scale black participation in the government (including two black U.S. Senators) that so riled white racists. Seeing Moses facing off against local planter James Eakins (Joe Chrest), who manages to reclaim his estate and even some of his slaves as "apprentices" after swearing an oath to the Union, as rival political leaders would have been interesting.

*The potential political power of Mississippi blacks--they were more than half the population--is never discussed, even though blacks voting plays a big part in the last section of the film. There's a reason disenfranchisement was particularly zealous and stringent in Mississippi. I remember a map from a US history book (that I can't find at the moment) depicting Virginia and Georgia as having double-digit percentage of blacks voting before the Voting Rights Act (40% and 25% if I remember right), but Mississippi and Alabama having only around 5%.

*There's a scene where some of Knight's band are hanged by Confederates and we never see them beg for mercy, claim they weren't supposed to be hanged, etc. That's a weakness, especially given the circumstances that lead to the hanging.

The Verdict

Newton, Rachel, and the others who stood against the Confederacy deserve a better movie than this. It's good history, but it's not a good movie. I was originally planning on giving it a 5.0 out of 10 (worse than what I gave Hook), but out of consideration for how little-known the history of anti-Confederate whites is, I'll give it a 6.0.

Do better next time. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was more entertaining than this, and that movie was so mediocre I didn't have much to say during the podcast we had on the movie and didn't bother writing a review. Jeez.