Monday, July 24, 2017

My Thoughts on GAME OF THRONES Season 7 Episode 2: "Stormborn"

Last night I watched "Stormborn," the second episode of the seventh season of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones. In this one, there's a lot going on, including Danaerys' invasion of the Seven Kingdoms running into a major snag.

The Good

*Sam's surgery on Ser Jorah to cure his greyscale was extremely painful to watch, which was kind of the point. And the way they cut from Sam's knife penetrating Jorah's damaged skin to Arya cutting into a pie was masterful--if gross--in the same way they cut from Sam emptying bedpans to Sam serving slops in the Citadel cafeteria.

*I was very glad to see Arya going home instead of continuing her likely suicidal attempt to take out Cersei. Seriously, the group I watch the show with was straight-up cheering when, upon learning her brother (well, cousin, but she doesn't know that) Jon was ruling the North, she turned around.

*Although Jon is going about it in a clumsy way (no thanks to Sansa), he shows he has the best interests of the North at heart. He really should send Ser Davos or even Sansa herself to Dragonstone to negotiate with Danaerys, at least at first. Hopefully Littlefinger won't take advantage of his absence to push Sansa into doing something stupid and dangerous--it would suck massively if Jon had to personally execute (as far as he knows) his own sister for treason Ned Stark style.

*There are lots of good speeches here--Varys stands up to Danaerys and talks about how he's loyal to the people who'll prosper with good leadership and suffer under bad, Cersei rallying Westerosi lords against Danaerys' army of violent foreigners, and Jaime's attempt to woo Randyll Tarly and overcome his oaths to House Tyrell.

*I liked the scene between Jon Snow and Littlefinger in the crypt, even though I vocally referred to Littlefinger as an "oily prick" while it was actually in progress. Littlefinger mixes lies with truths as usual--Jon does owe him a lot for saving his behind in the Battle of the Bastards, but he had a lot more than just "differences" with Ned Stark and it wasn't very smart of him to reveal that he loved Sansa just like he loved her mother. Seriously, he earned that Big Brother Beatdown there. And the sheer gall of him coming to "pay respects" to Ned Stark's grave when it was him who betrayed him to his death in the first place. DIE! DIE!

*And Euron Greyjoy proves he can walk the walk, not just talk the talk. He takes Yara's fleet (or at least the core of it) by surprise in a pyromaniac orgy of slaughter, he's the first man aboard Yara's flagship riding down a skull-headed gangplank cackling with glee, and by the end of it, he takes multiple stab wounds and multiple blows from a whip from the Sand Snakes, and he still triumphs. Hot damn. That battle sequence was excellent and Euron is my favorite bad guy now. Many of the Game of Thrones villains are just gross (Ramsay, Joffrey), but Euron is just crazy awesome.

The Bad

*No mask for Sam when he's doing a highly risky--to him-- operation on Ser Jorah? Given how he knows from the Archmaester that the man who cured two advanced cases of greyscale died of the disease himself, I'm surprised he didn't wear a mask, whatever equivalent to goggles exist, etc.

*I thought the scene with Grey Worm and Missendei went on for too long. Yes, it's good to know even someone as damaged as Grey Worm can still love (and we know from an earlier season that the Unsullied, despite their physical incapacity, still desire intimacy) and Grey Worm's speech was good, but it seemed like the show's typical gratuitousness. I would have preferred a shorter scene and more time devoted to the Ironborn-on-Ironborn slugfest.

*Sansa needs to stop publicly undermining Jon and arguing with all his decisions. One of my friends said she wanted to punch Sansa through the TV screen. Seriously, they just talked about this last week, and Sansa is a lot more mentally agile and better at playing the game than she was in the earlier seasons.

*When Ellaria and Yara are talking about what Yara would do as queen of the Iron Islands, what they hell does she mean that Theon would serve as her "protector"? As we see later in the episode, Theon isn't very good at "protecting" anybody right now, or at least not protecting people from those bigger and more aggressive than he is. Yara knows how broken Theon is from the failed attack on the Dreadfort. Of course, perhaps this was wishful thinking on her part.

*How did Euron take Yara's flagship by surprise? It's at the heart of a much larger fleet. If he were somehow able to sneak his own ships into the core of Yara's armada, smash up the flagship and its immediate bodyguard, and then flee, leaving most of Yara's fleet actually intact that'd be one thing. But if he attacked at the edges and pushed inward destroying everything in his path, Yara and friends would have a lot more warning rather than being taken by surprise.

*I would have prolonged Theon's agony before he flees. He's shown no problems killing lots of Euron's Ironborn earlier in the episode, which shows he's got a lot of his mojo back. Maybe he advances more boldly on Euron, but slowly breaks back down before Euron's taunting and seeing Euron's people killing everybody around him? Intercut it with some Ramsay flashbacks and it'd be much better.

*Danaerys' strategy to conquer Westeros without alienating the people and leadership by using foreigners to attack the capital and without gratuitously destroying King's Landing with her dragons leaves out just what she would use her dragons for. They're war-winners when used aggressively--see the Field of Fire, the Battle of the Last Storm, and the burning of Harrenhal from Aegon's conquest--and they would allow her coalition to win with far fewer losses.

More Thoughts

*I wonder if they're setting up Sam to get greyscale with the Archmaester's warning and his insufficient precautions.

*The last time we saw Littlefinger getting choked by a Stark it was Ned in King's Landing, and it didn't end well for Ned. And we see Littlefinger rubbing his neck and watching Sansa ominously after emerging from the crypts beneath Winterfell. Jon better watch his back, because the little man is going to try something evil no doubt.

*With the Targaryen-loyalist faction of the Ironborn gutted and the current Dornish leadership captive (and possibly much of the Dornish army destroyed in transports), Danaerys might definitely need to "be a dragon" now, and with Qyburn building a huge ballista (that, per the books, is capable of killing a dragon) and having most of Cersei's wildfire stash besides, that could end badly for her. Hopefully she'll unleash the dragons on Casterly Rock in the next episode, which, incidentally, would give Qyburn more time to build up the capital's anti-dragon defenses.

*Theon is explicitly still alive at the end of the episode, although the sharks will likely be attracted by all the dead and wounded in the water. Unless some remnant of the Targaryen Ironborn fleet is there to pick him up, he looks like he's in trouble. On the other hand, the fact he's explicitly left alive onscreen means that this isn't the last we've seen of him. Let's hope Euron went with a "sneak in, burn, and sneak out" strategy that left much of Yara's fleet intact, for his sake at least.

*Ellaria Sand and one of her daughters are now prisoners of Cersei Lannister, whose innocent daughter they'd treacherously murdered. I wouldn't expect them to live very long, although given how in the books Qyburn seems to enjoy experimenting on women, there might be something much worse for them in store than Cersei simply chopping off both their heads.

(Yara's in a tight spot too, but Euron might want to pimp her out to one of his political allies for Greyjoy dynastic reasons.)

As always, looking forward to next week.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

My Thoughts on "Game of Thrones" S7 Episode 1: "Dragonstone"

Just got back from watching the first episode of Game of Thrones Season 7, "Dragonstone." Here are some thoughts. Beware, here there be lots of spoilers...

This episode was really funny, both things that are obviously intended to be comic and things that really aren't. For example, the scene at the beginning where Arya Stark disguises herself as Walder Frey and poisons all of the male Freys (or at least the ones involved in the Red Wedding) was funny to me. It's not because watching people getting poisoned is innately funny, but because it's so masterfully done (including how Arya-as-Walder avoids drinking the poisoned wine and keeps "his"wife from doing so) and because Arya-as-Walder's speech is so cutting.

In terms of things that actually are supposed to be funny, Euron Greyjoy rocked the house this episode. I particularly liked his comment on how he's got "one thousand ships and two good hands," which is obviously a jab at Jaime Lannister. I also liked how Jaime reacted to it, as well as his less-than-flattering assessment of the Ironborn in general.

In case you're wondering what's going on, Euron arrives at King's Landing with the Iron Fleet to offer himself as a husband to Cersei Lannister, who has at this point usurped the Iron Throne but in the process has made a lot of enemies. Cersei displays what could be common sense in rejecting Euron (a known backstabber), at least until he can prove himself. But that could also be unnecessary arrogance, since the Iron Throne is in such a perilous state that something as drastic as a royal marriage might be necessary to get the Ironborn back on board. One wonders if there are any suitable women to push Jaime on? Oleanna Tyrell is too old and based on the events of the last season, any member of the Sand Snake junta in Dorne is out of the question.

And of course we see Tormund Giantsbane lusting after Brienne of Tarth again. That's pretty funny, especially his comments to Podrick Payne.

Moving on from the comedy, a lot of really important stuff story-wise happens in this episode. At long last, Danaerys returns to Westeros, taking control of Stannis's former stronghold of Dragonstone and dramatically touching the ground of her long-lost homeland. The "next week on Game of Thrones" preview shows all of Danaerys' allies gathering around Aegon's table and Yara Greyjoy offering to attack King's Landing right away, so that plot looks to be moving at a rapid clip.

I did like seeing some of the drama between Jon and Sansa. Sansa has clearly learned how to play the game and be ruthless as needed from Cersei and Littlefinger. She points out that Ned and Robb made some bad decisions and paid for it with their lives. However, publicly arguing with her brother is not the way to get what she wants. As Jon points out to him, that undermines his authority as King in the North, and he can't have that. And Littlefinger is clearly trying to manipulate Sansa into doing something.

(With Bran back in the game, we have a possible succession issue in Winterfell--Jon is a blooded warrior but he's a bastard, Sansa is the oldest remaining true-born child but she's a girl, and Bran is the oldest remaining true-born son but he's disabled. Depending on whether the break in his spine is he might not be able to father children, and he certainly can't lead men in battle.)

It was also interesting to see the Lannister soldiers who are friendly to Arya, one of whom was singer Ed Sheeran. I honestly thought they had bad intentions at first, with the way they were trying to offer her food and wine, but it seems they were honestly trying to be friendly. Maybe all the previous criticism about the violence toward women on the show has been taken to heart? Or perhaps the producers were making the point, like the books do, that when the nobles play their games of thrones, it's the commoners who suffer. None of those men seem like bad guys at all, but if Cersei and Jon go to war, Arya's people will kill them or they'll kill Arya's people. All very sad.

Although the episode was overall pretty good, I didn't like what I called the "extended poo montage," much to my friends' amusement. They could have made the point that Sam's life as a Citadel novice sucks in half the time, freeing up a few minutes to elaborate on some of the other subplots.

Also, what about Edmure Tully? Is Arya aware he's a captive in the Twins? It could be that she is and desire for revenge has consumed her to the point she doesn't care about her uncle. With most if not all of the male Freys dead, that might leave Edmure in an unexpectedly strong position to reacquire the Riverlands, assuming they don't just forget about him in the dungeon.

Still, definitely looking forward to next week.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Movie Review: The Void (2016)

A couple months ago, I saw that the Canadian horror film The Void was playing at The Plaza independent theater in Atlanta. I hemmed and hawwed about going to see it and eventually proved my father's dictum "'I don't know' eventually becomes 'no'" correct. However, although it left the theater, it soon came out on home media. So I headed over to Videodrome (Atlanta's last video rental store) and got it. Now for the review...


The Plot

Police officer Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) stumbles across bloodied James (Evan Stern) while on late-night patrol and takes him to the nearby hospital, which is in the process of being closed down after a fire. There he turns James over to his estranged wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) and the skeletal remaining staff, including intern Kim (Ellen Wong).

Things take a turn when nurse Beverly (Stephanie Belding) kills a patient and attacks Daniel, forcing him to shoot her, and then her body starts mutating into a tentacle monster. White-robed cultists surround the hospital and a violent father and son (who aren't named in the film or credits but the Wikipedia article calls them Vincent and Simon), whom James had escaped from earlier, burst in with guns intent on killing James.

And that's just the beginning of the mayhem...

The Good

*This is a totally original story, although it's clearly influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This isn't a remake and it isn't even an adaptation of a book, comic, etc. It's a purely original film, something that's an all-too-rare treasure these days.

*This film is in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, which I always appreciate. There simply aren't enough films in this tradition, and those tend to be either older (like The Dunwich Horror or Re-Animator) or not as well known (like Dagon, which I own, or Cthulhu).

*The reveal that Daniel and Allison are estranged spouses is done very subtly--he spots her drinking coffee from a particular mug and states that he'd been wondering where it went.

*Daniel's reaction to killing Beverly--whom he might know through Allison--is realistic. He gets the shakes and ends up vomiting. This isn't some action-movie killing machine here, but a far more realistic character.

*The movie starts out grabbing the viewer's attention right away--James and an unnamed woman escape some un-described but no doubt Very Bad things at the cult's headquarters, with Vincent and Sam in hot pursuit. No slow and boring buildup here.

*There's a nice Lovecraft in-joke--the hospital is in Marsh County. In Lovecraft's lore, Obed Marsh is a sea captain who, in Lovecraft's story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," brings the worship of the sea god Dagon (and blasphemous mating with the amphibian-humanoid Deep Ones) to the titular town.

*Horror films these days are often overloaded with badly-done computer-generated imagery, but The Void has purely practical special effects. Consequently, when the creepy critters start showing up, they look like they're actually real instead of video-game entities interacting with the cast. The abomination known as Spawn (with its awful PlayStation One demon-lord Malbolgia) this was not. That is one of the strongest aspects of the film, and something that has won much justifiable praise from critics and viewers alike.

(It's a pity the DVD doesn't have a whole featurette dedicated to the effects alone. I would have loved to see that.)

*There's a lot of good imagery in the film, especially "the other side" and some of the cult iconography.

*The loss of a child plays a major role in the lives of three characters in the film and that's given the gravity it deserves. Daniel and Allison are estranged owing to the death of their son in childbirth; many marriages end if a child dies. And one character is driven to extremes by the death of his child--I won't go into detail for reasons of spoilers.

*In many horror films the characters have ample chance to get out of the situation or at least avoid making bad decisions that get them killed. Here there's a very good reason the characters don't even make a token attempt to run the blockade of cultists and get out of the hospital--Maggie's pregnancy is getting complicated and any attempt to take her elsewhere risk her death or the death of her child. And since Maggie needs medicine, a character will need to go looking for it, which leads to...complications.

*Ellen Wong does a good job as Kim, an intern who's called upon to complete tasks beyond her training and doesn't think she can do them.

*The movie stands on its own, although there's definitely room for a sequel. No details for reasons of spoilers, but a sequel following the survivors in this world (as they potentially have to deal with the cultists) and those who've ended up on the other side and presumably want to get home could be pretty cool.

The Bad

*It becomes very difficult to tell just what's going on in the second half to one-third of the film when people start hallucinating. That was my single biggest problem and why it won't get as high a review as I'd wish to give it. In Lovecraftian lore people exposed to the horrors beyond tend to start going crazy, but that made much of the film very confusing. Furthermore, it's my understanding the characters were hallucinating because the villain was attacking them telepathically, which is something that could have been eliminated. The bad guy is already dangerous enough, especially with the cultists as muscle.

*The opening credits are long and slow.

*Some of the hallucinations are useful in providing back-stories for Vincent and Simon, but per my last point, it made the last part of the movie rather confusing. It might've been better to have more conventional flashbacks, or have previous events expressed in dialogue. "As you know, Bob" is something to avoid, but exposition-through-dialogue can be done.

*There's something about the hospital I can't really describe for reasons of spoilers that could have been foreshadowed better.

*The dozens of white-robed cultists play a major role in the first half of the film, but by the end of the film they seem to have disappeared entirely. Maybe a scene depicting them fleeing the hospital as events take a turn for the worse could have been filmed?

*There were also too many cultists. A cult that big, especially if it's up to the activities James is claiming (and the villain later elaborates on), seems like something that would attract a lot of attention real quick. Instead of dozens and dozens of cultists with knives blockading the hospital, maybe there could have been a much smaller number with rifles hiding in the trees and shooting anybody attempting to escape? One or two snipers can make things difficult for a much larger number of people, especially if it's dark, and the pregnant Maggie would slow down any dash for the cars.

*Sometimes the editing is a bit choppy--toward the end we see a dead cultist or cultists on the floor of the hospital, but I'm not sure how they actually got there.

The Verdict

Very creative, especially in our age of remakes and derivative crap. A worthy effort I wish I could have given it a better review. I'd recommend renting it or getting on Amazon video. 7.0 out of 10.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Split Second (1992)

I was born in 1984 and grew up in the age of video stores, but my parents tended to be rather conservative about what they'd let me watch. The movie Split Second, starring Rutger Hauer, has the look of a movie I would have seen in the store when I was in elementary school but not been allowed to watch.

(Given how old I was I can't really fault Mom and Dad.)

I saw part of it on television a long time ago and recently saw it available for rent at Videodrome, Atlanta's last remaining video rental store.

So I decided to watch it. Here goes...



The Plot

Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, flooding London bit by bit. In this decaying city, a mysterious killer has been stalking the city for years, at one point killing police officer Foster and scarring his partner Harley Stone (Rutger Hauer). Hauer has become Ahab-like in his pursuit of the killer, prompting his superior to assign the intellectual Dick Durkin (Neil Duncan) to manage him. The two men continue their pursuit of the killer alongside Michelle (Kim Cattrall), Foster's widow who apparently had a relationship with Stone.

But the killer has become fixated on Stone and may not be human...

The Good

*The movie was made in 1992 but takes place in London in 2008. The issue of global warming causing rising sea levels is still a timely one, plus a flooded London makes a good set-piece. Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson has a new novel out set in a partially-flooded New York that reminds me a lot of Venice, but since London has the River Thames running through it and is if I remember right built on fairly low ground, it seems like a city that could be threatened by rising sea levels as well.

(Plus rising water would force rats out of their burrows and sewers, which would explain why rats are everywhere in the film.)

There's also a low-level cyberpunk vibe in the scene where Stone forces his way into a nightclub to hunt the killer.

*The film is pretty well-paced and is never dull.

*There are character arcs--Stone becomes more stable and functional as he comes closer and closer to fulfilling his quest to get his partner's killer, while Durkin becomes more and more manic and crazy as he realizes they're dealing with a monster.

*The film uses the Jaws principle of showing the monster as little as possible. A clawed hand here, a towering shadow there, etc. We don't see it full-on until the climactic battle in a flooded, abandoned subway station, and even then not in its entirety. Here're some production photos from the film if you want to get a better look at it.

*Durkin is annoying at first, but after the morgue scene, he gets funnier and funnier. Bigger and bigger guns. :)

*Stone's caffeine addiction is pretty funny. Also, although there is a "as you know Bob" bit for his new partner, many of his traits--the caffeine addiction, the jumpiness and recklessness, his disregard for his colleagues, etc.--are shown, not told. He is such a loose-cannon jackass that we get into serious anti-hero territory.

*It's a film set in Britain and has a whole lot of British actors, as opposed to having Americans playing foreigners. Pete Postlethwaite plays another Officer Paulsen, with whom Stone doesn't get along, while Stone's commanding officer is played by Alun Armstrong--I thought he was Doug Bradley (best-known for playing Pinhead in the Hellraiser films) at first.

*There's some good foreshadowing that the killer isn't human earlier on.

*I like how the flashbacks to the death of Stone's partner are shot--they're not fully black-and-white, but they're not in full color either.

*In one scene, the monster uses a stolen police shotgun. I've never seen a movie monster with plenty of natural weaponry using human weaponry before, so that's pretty creative.

The Bad

*In the beginning when a character is attacked in a nightclub bathroom, it seems like there's a missing scene--we see a character frightened in the bathroom and then see her dead, but there's no connecting scene where the monster appears in the first place. There'd be no need to show the monster much--just see her washing her hands or something, then start the ominous music and have some movement, she turns around, and then the movie goes as normal.

*The exact nature of the killer is never explained. Durkin uses astrological signs to track its movements and activities and theorizes it might be a demon. It absorbs the DNA of its victims. The DVD cover reveals it's clearly not human. It seems to know enough English to leave taunting messages in blood and knows how to use Michelle to mess with Stone. Some kind of environmental-apocalypse mutant with human-level intelligence, a working knowledge of astrology, and obsessive serial killer tendencies? Which forms a psychic connection with anybody it wounds but does not kill?

(TVTropes theorizes they'd changed the villain from a human serial killer to essentially a skinny B-grade Xenomorph later in the production--the killer at one point has a refrigerated heart delivered to the police station, for example.)

*Stone has been suspended, but his boss Thrasher puts him back on active duty after watching him antagonize his new partner and admit he's carrying a significant number of non-regulation firearms and after flat-out calling him a menace to society. Stone later recklessly shoots off his gun and physically throws other officers around. Maybe post-apocalyptic London is hard-up for police and the standards are lower, but one wonders why he's even still allowed to be a cop. Thrasher is later shown to simply be unable to control Stone and even Durkin, so perhaps he's just weak.

*Durkin spouts a lot of psychobabble about the killer being psychotic, a psychopath, or both, but knowing what I do about abnormal psychology, it's clear he has no idea what he's talking about. The character is supposed to be a mental-health professional of some sort, but the writer clearly hasn't done enough research.

*Michelle and Stone's relationship needs more exposition other than Paulsen ranting at him and Thrasher explaining to Durkin the drama he's getting into.

*Michelle has a completely gratuitous shower scene while staying over at Stone's apartment, all while the monster somehow gets into the apartment without making enough noise to alert her. It's silly.

*In the flashback, Foster is dragged underwater and Stone doesn't seem to react at at all. It's like he thinks it's all a prank.

*A character is shot with a shotgun and tumbles out a second-story or higher window, but shows up perfectly fine later. He attributes his survival to a bulletproof vest, but the fall out the window should bang him up at least.

The Verdict

Entertaining, but it doesn't really make a lot of sense. 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight, Or Franchise Peak Stupidity

A few minutes ago, my friend Loren Collins shared this article on the new Michael Bay Transformers film Transformers: The Last Knight. I looked it over and quickly shared with my friend Nick, who is no fan of Michael Bay, and told him that it looked like the franchise had reached "peak stupidity."

Let the record state that I saw the first three Michael Bay Transformers adaptations. I enjoyed the first one, which I own on Blu-Ray. The second one Revenge of the Fallen had a good concept, but a rather mediocre execution. It bothered me so much that I wrote my own version of it on fanfiction.net.

The third movie Dark of the Moon I saw in theaters and didn't particularly like it. Part of it was because they not only ditched Megan Fox but also the character Mikaela Banes and replaced her with the much less interesting Carly, but also, well, for a whole bunch of reasons. Here's my review; beware spoilers.

I skipped the fourth movie Age of Extinction altogether and based on the film's poor Rotten Tomatoes score and the sheer ludicrosity of what the Io9 article and the film's Wikipedia page described, I'm probably going to skip this one two. Seriously, an ancient order consisting of various famous people descended from Merlin called "the Witwiccans"? As, the origin of the name "Witwicky"? That's ridiculous. And the Transformers having been on Earth for generations? Bumblebee fighting the Nazis I could understand (he was on Earth before the Autobots began arriving en masse in the first movie), but a "secret history" of Cybertronian involvement on Earth dating back to King Arthur? Overkill and a continuity problem.

I wish I were part of Michael Bay's writer mafia. The first one was generally good and could have been better (some of the humor was really infantile, like Bumblebee "urinating" on Simmons), while the second one could have explored the Cybertronians in more detail (I kept the backstory of Starscream and Jetfire from the animated series, for example) and could have had a more cohesive storyline as well as Michael Bay's glorious explosions.

And here's how a Matthew W. Quinn version of Dark of the Moon would have looked like. It'd draw heavily on the 1986 Transformers animated film (complete with Unicron, Galvatron, and a child-traumatizing massacre of most of the well-known Autobots) but would have the characters from the first two films and a bit of a "next generation" thing going with Daniel being the son of Sam and Mikaela, Simmons (and his apprentice Leo) and Lennox being high-up intelligence and military guys, etc. And no chucking Sam and Mikaela either--since it's 20 years later, just recast them if they're no longer interested in being in the franchise (Shia) or they do something that annoys the boss too much (like Megan Fox did).

(Not sure how I would have done #4 and #5. Perhaps stuff based on the animated series material that took place after the movie, like Starscream trying to get a new body, the Quintessons, etc.)

Instead we got a series of films so firmly enmeshed into what TVTropes calls Status Quo is God that the Io9 author makes a good case that Michael Bay has issues with "object permanence."

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Franco Stays Loyal, No Spanish Civil War?

A long time ago I found a timeline on the alternate-history discussion forum in which General Francisco Franco, who led the fascist-allied Nationalists who overthrew the left-leaning but democratically-elected Spanish Republic in the 1930s, remains loyal to the Spanish Republic. Apparently he dithered about whether to join the planned coup attempt, much to the other conspirators' annoyance, and at one point warned the government the military was disloyal, but ended up joining the uprising.

Here's the timeline, which was written by a Spanish board-member and has all sorts of details an outsider wouldn't know. Here are some highlights:

*Sometimes pushing to get your way gets you the exact opposite response, something Emilio Mola really should have thought about when trying to get Franco to join up.

*Spanish society was heavily divided in the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War. Even though the coup that kicked off our history's war is pre-empted and squashed, there's a lot of political violence from both sides. 1934 saw a left-wing uprising in Spain that Franco defeated with extreme brutality; in this timeline the Spanish hard right makes a go of it in 1936 after the coup is squashed.

*Anarchism (the left-wing socialist sort) becomes a parliamentary party in the Spanish Republic. Although an anarchist political party seems like a bit of an oxymoron, it's not that difficult to push for certain political goals within a governmental framework. Anarchism was very strong in Spain, in particular Catalonia.

*Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini during the early days of the war apparently planned to opportunistically seize the Balearic Islands, but found his Nationalist allies had seized them first. This time around the enmity between the Spanish Republic and the Italian fascist regime remains.

*Exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky comes to live in Spain, much to Stalin's rage.

The timeline is long and very detailed, but it's very interesting. Check it out!

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Dirty Dancing (1987)

Although Dirty Dancing is not the usual type of movie I watch, the good folks at Myopia: Defend Your Childhood chose it for their weekly examination of whether beloved childhood movies hold up. I figured I'd give it a spin, and I was not disappointed. Here's the link to the podcast. And now for my review.



The Plot

In the early 1960s, before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, young Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey), the daughter of wealthy doctor Jake (Jerry Orbach), is vacationing with her family at a resort in the Catskill Mountains. Although Neil (Lonny Price) the grandson of resort owner Max Kellerman (Jack Weston) seeks her attentions, she instead falls for the working-class dance teacher Jack Castle (Patrick Swayze). Complications ensue. Will young love triumph? We'll just have to see...

The Good

*Jennifer Grey does a really good job playing "Baby." Her facial expressions, in particular her eyes, are extremely expressive and she uses them quite well. For example, when the sheltered doctor's daughter stumbles onto the raunchy dance party the resort staff are holding, her expression speaks volumes. She's seriously Adorkable and does a great job in the part.

*The other actors do a good job. Patrick Swayze's Castle is cool, Orbach is appropriately paternal (and, as a doctor, outraged at the "butcher" who presides over a botched abortion), and Weston conveys Kellerman's snobbery (but surprising kindness toward his longtime band leader). Cynthia Rhodes, who plays Johnny's dance partner Penny, does a lot with a part that could have had more depth. Price and Max Cantor, who plays slimy waiter Robbie Gould, do a good job playing the sort of upper-class lowlifes who give fraternities a bad name. Seriously, I referred to both of them as "young Donald Trump" for their attitudes toward women and the resort staff.

*And on the matter of women and the resort staff, the movie deals with some very important social issues without being annoying and preachy. The upper-class waiters (who are doing this as a summer job while at schools like Yale and Harvard) are clearly disdainful of the working-class dance instructors and other resort staff, something the elder Kellerman encourages by telling the waiters they're there to "show the daughters a good time" but threatening to fire any staffer who get involved with a guest. Baby's older sister Lisa (Jane Brucker) clearly fits in with the shallow world of 1960s wealthy people who have few aspirations beyond socializing and marrying well, but it's clear Baby doesn't want that and doesn't really fit in. The class issue ties in with a plot involving an illegal abortion in which Gould tells Baby that some people count and some people don't, complete with showing her a copy of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead for good measure.

And although the abortion plot is something that could potentially derail the film into an issues movie (and aggravate viewers on either side of the issue), it's handled compassionately and respectfully. We see exactly why the character in question goes through with it, how badly it could have gone in the days when abortion was illegal (both the danger of death and, should the woman survive, sterility), and we see Dr. Houseman's outrage toward both the back-alley abortionist (whom he calls a "butcher") and the young man he initially thinks is responsible. The whole situation is just sad.

*The soundtrack's good. It mixes both music from the 1960s when the movie takes place with songs from the 1980s when the movie was made. One of the songs, "She's Like The Wind," was even sung by Swayze himself, who's a good singer.

The Bad

*The movie drags a little bit in parts. I spent a good bit of time on my phone. To be fair, that's because this is not the sort of movie I ordinarily enjoy watching. Someone else--and considering how beloved this film is, that'd probably be most people--wouldn't have that problem.

*The movie has an actual Training Montage when Baby learns to dance. I remarked that this was like seeing a cliche come to life, but the movie is also nearly 30 years old. Back then training montages might not have been so cliched, although Nick tells me that training montages occur in some of the earliest movies.

*Perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention, but as I said earlier, the characters Robbie Gould and Neil Kellerman are so similar in look and action that I actually thought they were both the same character. Neil claims that he's planning on joining the Freedom Riders (and the TVTropes page for the film claims that actually shows he has hidden depths), but it came off to me that he was taken aback that Baby in interested in studying economics and joining the Peace Corps rather than studying English (aka an "MRS Degree," given the time and her social class) and was scrambling for some way to impress her. Both of them came off to me as "young Donald Trump," with Neil as snotty and pushy toward "the help" and Robbie as a vile cad.

*Where are Baby's parents? Castle is teaching Baby how to dance and the film implies this takes most of the summer, with the climax taking place at the end of the season. Certain events in the film early on strongly prejudice Dr. Houseman against Castle and I imagine he wouldn't want Baby involved with him AT ALL or, if he did allow her to take lessons, he'd keep a close eye on them. There's a deleted scene suggesting Mrs. Houseman knows a lot more about what's going on, but a deleted scene doesn't help much.

*It would have been nice if Baby's actual name is revealed earlier. It's not even in the credits!

*How much older is Castle than Baby? If the resort staff are all in their 20s and 30s and "the daughters" are all teens, Mr. Kellerman would have reasons beyond class snobbery to want to limit guest-staff romances to the wait staff, who are all college students and are consequently more appropriate age-wise. Patrick Swayze was in his 30s when the movie was made, for example, while Frances' character would have still been in high school if not just graduated and college-bound.

*It's my understanding that going to the Catskills for extended summer vacations was a primarily Jewish thing (hence the "Borscht Belt"), but religion or culture is never touched on. This article in Tablet Magazine suggests Dirty Dancing is "the most Jewish film ever," but if you're not already familiar with the cultural milieu, you wouldn't get it. Some indication that the characters are Jewish would have been nice, plus if Castle is a Christian (or at least simply isn't Jewish), that's another reason for Dad to be bothered.

The Verdict

It's not my type of movie, but it's very well-done. 8.5 out of 10.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: The Mind's Eye (2014)

A couple years ago, I promised to purchase and review Chris Nuttall's then-new novel The Mind's Eye, but life got in the way and that promise fell by the wayside. I don't abandon promises lightly, so at long last here's the promised review. Caveat: I agreed to the review as part of a swap for a review of one of my own works, but this will be an honest review...


The Plot

Marine Lieutenant Art Russell is on a mission in Afghanistan to capture or kill a major terrorist leader when he develops a severe headache and loses consciousness. When he wakes up, he discovers he has developed telepathy--the ability to read minds. He uses these abilities to foil a terrorist attack and is soon transferred to the CIA and promoted to captain, where he's tasked with preventing another, bigger attack in New York City.

However, more and more people are developing telepathic abilities and this is causing major problems for society. Many people are fearful of telepaths and want to control or kill them, and although most telepaths mean nobody any harm, some are willing to misuse their abilities. The stage is set for a violent showdown...

The Good

*The book starts in the middle of the action with a group of U.S. Marines on a mission in Afghanistan. No excessive info-dumping, no boring buildup. It doesn't start with a bang 100% only because the shooting hasn't started yet, but that doesn't really matter.

*The book is a quick and entertaining read. It's never boring and it's not too long. I finished it in two sessions on the elliptical.

*Each chapter begins with a news article providing the broader context for events in the narrative or describing something happening elsewhere in the world. Those could be a good source of spinoffs or areas to be explored in future sequels.

The Bad

*The book suffers from two many characters in too many places. It would have been better to follow Russell and a couple other characters throughout the early days of the new Telepathic Age rather than have so many diffuse POVs.

*A character starts out as a smarter-than-thou nerd and soon after developing telepathy and escaping from an anti-telepath terrorist attack starts blatantly espousing master-race theories, including ideas of superior bloodlines. This comes out of nowhere, although it's revealed later that he was under the influence of another character. That other character isn't named and mentioned until much later. It would have been better if there'd been more scenes from the perspective of the POV character for that subplot, watching him fall more and more under the influence of this bad influence and/or processing his trauma by reading lots of books with...dangerous ideas...at the home of the professor they're staying with. By the final quarter of the book, he turns in a full-blown Evil Nerd with a whole lot of internal hatred of women, something that wasn't really foreshadowed either.

*Pursuant to my above comments, it would have been better if the early plot featuring Russell's investigation of a planned Islamist terror attack in the United States is the main plot of the book. The climax could be a battle with the jihadi commander known only as the Emir...and it's revealed that he too is a telepath. That could be the shocking sequel hook...Russell is not a freak and there are more telepaths out there. The discovery of more and more telepaths, the popular reaction to the presence of telepaths (attempts to kill them, attempts to exploit them, etc) could be the plot of the second book, with Evil Nerd guy going rogue at the end. The third book could deal with the rogue-telepath plot. This way, Evil Nerd's fall from grace is spread out over a more realistic time-frame and we see it happen rather than him going from a know-it-all to a racist to a perverted murderous monster in what seems to be only a few months.

*The ending seems rather difficult in light of both the U.S. Constitution and the contributions the good telepaths made in the fight against both radical Islamist terrorists and evil telepaths. At the very least, the resulting court cases should play a role in any sequel.

*A character who has sex with a woman but doesn't know what role his telepathy played in her consent thinks the only way he'll know if it was consensual or if he was a "filthy rapist" will be when he dies, but never before expressed any belief in God, an afterlife, a Judgement Day, etc. It kind of came out of nowhere.

The Verdict

It's okay. There are good concepts that could have been developed further. 7.5 out of 10.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Christian Themes in the Movie "Hellraiser"

In a couple previous posts I've made on the movie Hellraiser, I've discussed the character of Frank Cotton and the theme of godly versus worldly sorrow (see 2 Corinthinians 7:10). Seeking Biblical truth in a horror film centered on sadomasochism may seem quite strange--and many will see it as just as excuse to justify watching a movie with gross and immoral content--but there's actually a good bit of thought in there.

Below are some Christian themes I've noticed in the film:

Godly vs. Worldly Sorrow

2 Corinthians 7:10 states the following:  Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. The article above goes into more detail, but I'll summarize a bit for the TL; DR crowd or for those who might not be interesting in visiting a Christian website. "Godly sorrow" is sorrow for the immorality of one's actions--the disrespect shown to God and harm done to others. "Worldly sorrow" is regret for the personal costs of sin only.

And in Hellraiser (and the novella it's based on, "The Hellbound Heart") "worldly sorrow" is epitomized by Frank Cotton. Frank is an unrepentant hedonistic pleasure-seeker who in the book describes having smuggled heroin and in both the book and film seduced his own brother's fiancee. The book elaborates by describing how the only reason he doesn't "snatch her from under her would-be husband's nose" is that he would soon tire of her and have his vengeful brother after him. He grows bored with "dope and drink" and endless fornication and seeks out the Lament Configuration, which promises wonders and pleasures beyond human comprehension.

Well, the ones bringing said wonders and pleasures have some very different ideas of what constitutes fun. Frank is abducted by the Cenobites and subject to gross physical and sexual abuse, which he escapes purely by accident. He regrets his involvement with the Cenobites--this early draft of the "Hellraiser" script shows how deeply the Cenobites have traumatized him--but not the immoral lifestyle he has led. This same early draft of the script depicts him attempting to rape his own niece when he sees her for the first time in years, and in both the book and the film he treats Julia as a means to an end, disposing of her when she is no longer convenient. In "The Hellbound Heart," he seems interested in applying some of what he learned about pleasure and pain in Hell to Julia if only she would set him free, which implies he intends to go straight back to sleeping around if not worse once he's fully reconstituted.

And in the end, Frank's worldly sorrow leads to death. In his desperation to rebuild his mutilated body, he and Julia murder several people so he can feed on them. When Kirsty threatens to expose him, he murders his own brother, and when he and Julia attempt to kill Kirsty, he accidentally stabs her and then feeds off her remaining life-force rather than trying to help her. He attempts to kill Kirsty (his niece in the film, a friend of his brother in the book) and is ultimately reclaimed by the Cenobites, dismembered alive and returned to Hell. In Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, he ends up getting killed by the damned Julia, who uses the exact same words he told her before he tried to consume her.

Conscience and Universal Knowledge of Morality

The first two chapters of Paul's letter to the Romans are something I have always had problems believing. Romans 1:18-32, which states outright universal knowledge of the nature of God and universal human rejection of what they know to be true, is what Carl Sagan would call an extraordinary claim needing extraordinary proof. Furthermore, many conservative Christians, especially Calvinists, have taken it so far as to claim that everybody knows the Christian religion specifically is true and simply rejects it out of desire to sin. Seriously, we're talking about people who call ISIS "God-haters," never mind that they're fanatics of a different religion rather than irreligious. Romans 2:12-16 describes how the laws of God are written on the hearts of Gentiles and in particular suggests the human conscience is divinely ordained. The conscience in my opinion is more malleable than that.

Frank's life before he's taken by the Cenobites is not discussed much in the film at all (beyond the whole "seducing/semi-raping his brother's fiancee" part), but the book describes his imagination as "fertile" when it comes to "trickery and theft" and among other things he smuggles heroin. He apparently owes a lot of people money, which he probably spent on "dope and drink" and prostitutes. However, and this is the important part, he knows what he's doing is wrong. The prologue refers to him growing bored and dosing himself with whatever opiate "his immoralities had earned him." This is from his point of view, not the narrator's, so even if he had "suppressed the truth in unrighteousness" (i.e. convinced himself superficially his behavior was not immoral despite knowing better), on some subconscious level he knows that his lifestyle is evil.

In Which Frank Quotes the Bible

In the film, when Frank is speared repeatedly by the Cenobites, his last words are, "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). That's the shortest verse in the Bible, in which Jesus mourns for His dead friend Lazarus, whom he later resurrects. I'm not sure what Frank is referring to in that context--according to some Googling, the line was ad-libbed by the actor and Barker decided to keep it.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

How I Would Have Done FRIDAY THE 13TH VII: THE NEW BLOOD

Awhile back I saw Friday the 13th VII in order to prepare for a live podcast with some friends. Sufficient to say I didn't enjoy the movie that much, but one thing that stuck out to me was how they did nothing with a potentially intriguing implication villainous psychiatrist Dr. Crews knew more about Jason Voorhees than he was letting on. This reminded me a heck of a lot of Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 in which heroine Kirsty Cotton warns the director of the mental institution about the horrors of the Cenobites...who it turns out the director has been researching for some time.

So here's how I would have written Friday the 13th VII if I had to follow the same basic plot. Beware spoilers...

Act One

*No opening recap of the earlier films in the series. The camera starts on the lake floor and pans up around Jason's body before we meeting young Tina and her dysfunctional family. The death of Mr. Shepherd plays out like it does in the canonical film.

*Flash forward ten years later. Tina, her mother, and Dr. Crews arrive at the cabin and the events of the film proceed roughly the same. However, we start getting hints that Dr. Crews knows more about Crystal Lake's bloody history than is quite healthy. In the canonical film his binder of news articles about Jason Voorhees is discovered relatively late, but here we'll see him reading it and hurriedly putting it away when Tina or her mother catch him. He'll still continue his emotionally-abusive "training" to force Tina to manifest her powers, which will be important later.

*The teens having the party next door are still there, but there are a lot fewer of them and they're more developed. I'd keep Nick as the male lead and Tina's love interest, the rich snob Melissa, the nerdy writer guy, the Robin-Maddy-David triangle, and leave the rest out. This means the two black characters aren't there, but the fact the Teen Slasher Meat don't have any black friends at their party could be used to imply they're racist. They're not supposed to be sympathetic, right?

*Tina still frees Jason from the bottom of the lake like in the canonical film.

Act Two

*As Tina and Nick grow closer, Jason begins stalking the partying teens, killing the guest of honor and his girlfriend en route like in the actual film. Dr. Crews still hides the evidence Jason is present (I think it was a blade of some kind left embedded in the door), which combined with his earlier reading about the Crystal Lake murders from the previous films makes his actions a lot creepier.

*Jason's rampage continues, picking off another late-coming couple (if there absolutely must be a skinny-dipping scene, perhaps it can be here) before moving on the main house. Tina is aware of this due to her visions, which Dr. Crews uses as "proof" to her mother Tina needs either further "treatment" from him or she'll need to be returned to the mental hospital.

*Tina overhears this and runs away like in the film. Dr. Crews and Tina's mother pursue as Jason heads off through the woods toward the party house.

Act Three

*When Dr. Crews and Tina's mother find Tina's wrecked car, she finally has enough and browbeats Dr. Crews to explain his behavior or they're done. From what I know about mental-health law, Dr. Crews can't have Tina committed against her will on his word alone, so I imagine a lot of his threats are just bluff. He finally reveals that he wanted to use Tina to free Jason, which has already been done, and now he needs her to kill Jason. This will not only destroy Jason permanently (he'll know he's been "killed" before and thinks something supernatural is needed to get rid of him in the long term), but he thinks will finally giver her control over her powers. He points out that it took psychological stress to get them to manifest before--this is the ultimate make-or-break.

Well, Tina's mother isn't having this and tries to ditch Dr. Crews. Dr. Crews in turn uses Tina's mother as a human shield like in the canonical film, leading to her death at Jason's hands.

*The fleeing Dr. Crews runs into Tina and tells her that Jason Voorhees has killed her mother and only she can avenge her death. Tina sees through his bullshit immediately and her powers manifest, crippling him. She then realizes that Jason is making his way to the party house and abandons Dr. Crews. Jason arrives, Dr. Crews tries to bargain with him (claiming that he deserves credit for freeing him from the bottom of the lake), and Jason kills him anyway. Karmic Death?

*Jason beats Tina to the house, cuts the power like in the movie, and kills off most of the remaining teens. Tina then confronts him and apparently kills him with the power lines and the rain puddle like in the canonical film. I would emphasize how surprised and frightened Jason is--per TVTropes, this is an Oh Crap moment from him. With Jason apparently neutralized, Tina makes her way back to the house where Nick and Melissa are. I liked how Melissa lived longer than the others, so that stays.

*Jason arrives, kills Melissa, and the prolonged battle between Jason and Tina takes place. In the process the house is blown up. Jason is apparently killed again, only to attack Nick and Tina again.

*However, instead of Tina's dead father somehow coming to life again to save the day, Tina uses her powers to impale Jason on something big and heavy and toss him back into his watery (living) grave. Goodbye until Jason Takes Manhattan.

*There's an epilogue in which Nick and Tina ride off into the sunset. As they leave, the camera pans back to the lake for an ominous ending...