Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Dog Video For You

For those of you among my readers who like dogs, here's a special treat. My parents' Doberman Duke, who is usually hostile toward other dogs, is chasing (in a playful way) the other dog, a little yappy terrier-mutt named Coco, around the yard.


Parental commentary included. Enjoy!

"Everybody Is The Hero of Their Own Story" -- STAR WARS and Writing Villains

On my Twitter feed this morning, I found this article in which Adam Driver and J.J. Abrams discuss the villain Kylo Ren, whom Driver plays in the upcoming science-fiction (science fantasy?) film Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The first article links to this article here in Empire, which goes into more detail. The gist of it is that according to Abrams, both devotees of the Light Side and the Dark Side are the heroes of their own story, while according to Driver, Ren is more a religious zealot who's doing what he thinks is right rather than someone who is truly evil by nature.

(I'm guessing by "evil" he would mean selfish and malicious. Someone can have the best of intentions, can honestly think they're doing the right thing, and still be evil. I was researching an alternate-history project in high school and college and, while reading about the Russian Civil War, learned about Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. According to future Polish leader Józef Piłsudski, who went to school with him, Dzerzhinsky "did not know how to lie," another source described him as being strict toward himself as well as others, and the quotes I found indicated he was wracked by guilt about the horrors he oversaw as the Bolsheviks' hatchet-man.)

A long time ago I discovered the quote that "everybody is the hero of their own story." I have taken pains to apply the principle when I write villains, and I cited it before in my blog post about Roose Bolton from the fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire and its HBO adaptation A Game of Thrones. Dzerzhinsky thought he was building a utopia and that would justify breaking a few (or many) eggs along the way, while Roose Bolton could justify his treachery against Robb Stark by claiming it in the best interest of the North and the realm as a whole that the Lannisters win as quickly and bloodlessly as possible. The warlord Grendel of my Wastelands series wants safety, security, and power (to better ensure the first two) for his family and friends--which he seeks through imperialism and aggressive warfare. Meanwhile, the cult leader Phil from my Lovecraftian novel The Thing in the Woods wants to protect the town of Edington from corrupting outside influences--which he does by kidnapping people he doesn't like and feeding them to an alien monster.

And now we get back to Star Wars. One of the most interesting blog posts I've ever found was called "The Tao of Sith" and was posted on a blog that's essentially the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi from the point of view of Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and apprentice to the Emperor Palpatine.

(The post initially went to some "Star Wars Webring" site, but I clicked on it again and it went to the right place, so have faith.)

The gist of it is that Vader believes the Sith were justified in their various misdeeds and creating the Empire because galactic civilization was in danger of collapse. Furthermore, the Jedi were neglecting their responsibilities and denying their emotions in favor of idle contemplation except in a few circumstances ("trivia that offends their effete sensibilities"), despite allegedly knowing that "an age of barbarism" was nigh. The Sith, in contrast, embrace life, embrace emotions, and embrace the actions necessary to save civilization.

(Given how the prequel-era Jedi demanded their adherents forsake emotional attachments, relationships, etc. a lot of Vader's comments ring true.)

Vader as depicted in the blog post is NOT a simple monster using politics as a cover to indulge his appetite for sadism, power and control, etc. My article on how fictional villains should not be sociopaths acknowledges such people exist, but they don't make for interesting bad guys (or girls). So if you're writing a villain, try to see things from their point of view. What is their story, and why are they the hero in it? Not only will you have a much better-developed villain, but you might also have a much varied and "grayer" world if it turns out the villain has some good points.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Netflix Producing a LOST IN SPACE Remake?

I just found out via my Twitter feed that Netflix is putting out a remake of the classic television series Lost in Space. Given how I defended the 1998 movie for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, this was something of especial interest. Here's the article the original one links to, which has more detail about the project.

As I said in the blog post associated with that episode of the podcast, one thing I liked was that they attempted to use Lost In Space as the basis for a serious, coherent science-fiction story. There's a dark future, the still-ruling West is squabbling with various terrorists and Third World types over what little remains on Earth, and space colonization is the only hope. I posted some ideas about how Lost In Space could have been a much better film (it was incredibly boring, despite the good concept) and most of them could be applied to a television series:

*The film touches on the family drama that a prolonged family space mission would bring--the children who don't want to leave their lives on Earth, the husband and wife separated by too much work, etc. A television series could elaborate on this aspect of the story a lot more.

*Why exactly are they going on this colonization mission? The television series made it seem like this was an ordinary space mission, but the movie raised the stakes by depicting the Robinson family as the key to establishing a hypergate that will transport humanity off the dying Earth.

*The film depicted human political rivalries--the treacherous Dr. Smith is an agent for the terroristic Global Sedition--undermining the space mission, elaborating on the original series. If they retained Dr. Smith's canonical characterization and the Robinson family tolerates him--I suggested he could be a Token Evil Teammate whose skills as a doctor are too important for them to kill him despite his treachery--we could learn more about just who wanted to sabotage the mission and why.

The second article suggests the show will be about a family of explorers trying to stay together in the face of a hostile universe. That gives off Star Trek Voyager vibes to me--although the show had the hostility between the Federation and the Maquis crews stranded in the Delta Quadrant, the main focus was surviving the dangerous, unknown universe. That could be pretty cool too. And if they encounter other humans out there, it won't be something prosaic like some random space cowboy, but something more akin to the film's time-displaced spacecraft or my idea of a group of human rivals like Global Sedition.

The article suggests that Netflix's Lost In Space is intended to be more family-friendly, unlike its offerings like Hemlock Grove, House of Cards, etc. One can still tell a cool science-fiction story without excessive swearing or violence, sex, etc. -- Star Wars is a great example, as are most Star Trek offerings -- but I'm concerned that in trying to make it more family-friendly, it'd be too much like the goofy, campy original. They'd be better off trying to make it the next Battlestar Galactica, which wasn't for the younger set.

It won't be out for awhile yet. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Evil Dead II (1987)

For our podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we decided to watch the movie Evil Dead II, the second film in the Evil Dead series for of our usual horror-themed month of October. It's been a long time since I saw this one--I think I saw it in high school, as part of a Hollywood Video double feature with the original, in the late 1990s. I remember enjoying the film then, especially in comparison to the execrable original film with its gouts of oatmeal-gore. Considering how Starz is putting out a new television series called Ash vs. the Evil Dead, this was a rather appropriate time to do the movie...

How did it hold up? Well, here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda visit a seemingly abandoned cabin in the woods for a romantic weekend, but it turns out a professor of ancient history was using it as a site to translate an ancient evil book bound in human skin. Ash plays a recording of the incantation and unleashes all sorts of slapstick-undead horrors just as the professor's daughter, her boyfriend, and a couple locals show up completely coincidentally. All of them must now survived the murderous (and sometimes hilarious) horrors of the Deadites...

The Good

*The movie avoids the "a bunch of friends go to the cabin in the woods to smoke weed and have sex" cliche of 1980s horror films. Instead it's Ash and his girlfriend basically breaking into someone else's cabin for the weekend and then the actual owners (or at least their relatives) show up, not knowing the craziness Ash accidentally unleashed.

*Ash's first encounter with the undead is a mildly-effective "Jump Scare." Given how inured I am to most horror films, it's probably a lot scarier for most people.

*At times Ash is remarkably genre-savvy. He knows sticking around a haunted cabin where a scientist recited incantations from a book bound in human skin is a really bad idea and at first chance he gets the hell out of there. Or let me rephrase that--he tries.

*There's a fair bit of good slapstick humor in this one, including a lengthy sequence involving Ash's hand getting possessed. Who's laughing now indeed? :)

*Who knew the book A Farewell to Arms could be so amusing? You'll laugh when you see the context.

*I never really thought about what might happen if you soak a room's sole light source in blood...

*There's a nice bit of Reality Ensues when Ash starts blasting around with the shotgun. Sometimes you don't know where the shells will end up.

The Bad

*The first twenty or thirty minutes of the film really aren't that entertaining. To be blunt, a lot of the film just isn't entertaining, although there are certainly some good moments.

*Ash's first killing of a possessed character could be played for either horror (it's a brutal necessity that traumatizes him) or comedy (slapstick violence, hammy overreaction to the deed). It doesn't really work as either.

*The film's sense of time is wonky. It doesn't take long for Ash and Linda to get to the cabin from the Scary Ominous Bridge (TM), but Ash leaves the cabin the morning after they arrive and arrives there just in time for the sun to set?

*In the scene where Ash sees a character reanimated after having been possessed and killed, they've only been dead a day or two, if not just a few hours. It would have been better (and likely much cheaper) to have the original actor wearing zombie makeup reviving and misbehaving rather than having a mediocre claymation monster.

*For someone who starts out showing some intelligence, Ash displays some fairly stupid behavior at times, especially later in the film.

The Verdict

Not as funny as I remember and it hasn't aged very well. I wonder if the remake is more technically adept, although a friend of mine tells me it's really, really gory. Unless you really like 1980s horror, 1980s comedies, or combinations thereof, don't bother with this one. 5.0 out of 10.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Thinking of Starting a Newsletter...

I've been reading some advice on writing and marketing's ones books (like Your First 1,000 Copies) and listening to the Sell More Books Show podcast. Something that's come up a lot is to have an e-mail newsletter. My writing-group cohort Alex Hughes has a newsletter, as does small-press rock star (I didn't come up with that moniker) William Meikle.

I worked with MailChimp for a film-company internship and later for a client not long ago, so I've created an account with them. However, I have not yet sent anything out via said newsletter, in part due to a bunch of real-life obligations.

(I had the first inklings of the idea months if not years ago, but never got around to it. Let this be a life lesson--if there's a period in your life where you've got a lot of free time, don't waste it. I could have had the template set up by now and just plugged in new stuff as I went along.)

So, dear readers, I've got a question. What kind of content would you like to see in a hypothetical e-mail newsletter from me? The only ideas I've got so far are news articles gleaned from Twitter or from my blog (probably lots of movie reviews), and links to the film podcast I'm part of when new episodes appear. Alex has included original short fiction in her newsletter, which is certainly an option. Your First 1,000 Copies recommends I focus on what's in it for the reader, but a lot of the ideas there (like free workout tips) don't seem relevant to the content I can easily produce or the audience I'd like to build.

Let me know. I can take suggestions via comments on this post or via Twitter at @MatthewWQuinn.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Congo (1995)

Well, for the latest episode of the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we watched the 1995 film Congo, adapted from the Michael Crichton novel. Yours truly served as the humble defendant. So did this adventure in diamond prospecting in the heart of Africa hold up? Listen to the podcast here and find out...

The Plot

After an expedition to find blue diamonds that could revolutionize the communications industry is mysteriously massacred, TraviCom head honcho R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker) dispatches Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney) to search for survivors--including his son Charles (Bruce Campbell)--and find the diamonds too. Along the way she joins forces with Dr. Peter Elliott (Dylan Walsh) and the gorilla Amy, whom he taught to speak using a bracelet that translates sign language. Also on the expedition is Herkemer Homulka (Tim Curry), a Romanian philanthropist who is much more than he seems, and Charles Munro (Ernie Hudson), "a great white hunter...who happens to be black." They make their way to the lost city of Zinj, only to encounter grisly horror...

The Good

*Although I've complained about film and television adaptations of books deviating from the source material many times before, simplifying the book's complicated plot actually made sense. If they wanted to keep the entire storyline--which included a race with a rival European-Japanese team and some material about white mercenaries in Africa--it would have made more sense to make it a one-season-and-done television series the way some British shows are. Either that or it'd be something resembling The Lord of the Rings, which they might not have had the budget for.

(Oh but that would have been cool, especially if the two rival expeditions physically clash with each other the way the Fellowship of the Ring and the Uruk-Hai do and the perils of man and nature were cranked up to 11.)

*The actors generally do a good job. Ernie Hudson is the most entertaining as Munro, while Linney and Walsh performed well too.

*The opening is generally well-done and gets to the "expedition gets massacred" pretty quickly. The eyeball sequence is straight from the book.

*There are some good quick bits of exposition, including Dr. Ross's and Charles' previous relationship--they were engaged ("I almost married him!"). If it weren't for the melodrama afterward, that would have been great. Amy's nightmares are also explained quickly without undue info-dumping, as well as a tribal revolt breaking out in Zaire.

*There are some nice little bits of comedy, including an African security official who doesn't know who Kafka is (and gets very upset), a corrupt African soldier, the "great white hunter" joke, and, "I don't have a price. I'm not a pound of sugar, I'm a primatologist." Yes, I liked that line. Here's a YouTube video of the detention scene, which has a lot of the comedy.

*The film has a very good orchestral score.

*Amy is played by a person in a suit, but she generally looks good and not, well, fake. The gorilla suit can even manage facial expressions.

*Once they actually get to Africa, everything moves along at a nice quick pace. It's never boring.

*Instead of Checkov's Gun, we have a Checkov's airplane. :)

The Bad

*The National Geographic-style opening of the film in which we see a bunch of picturesque shots of the African savanna and are gradually introduced to the original expedition rolling in aboard their vehicles got to the vehicles a little too slowly. They could've saved a couple minutes depicting the vehicles from the get-go.

*Although the opening is generally well-done, Bruce Campbell's scream of terror was not well-delivered.

*Back in Houston when the TraviCom head people learn about what happened to the expedition and decide to send a follow-up team, things get melodramatic. Dr. Ross is apparently still touchy about Charles and since she was engaged to him, she's probably privy to a lot of father-son issues, but it didn't come off well. Openly berating and threatening one's employer doesn't seem like a good way to stay employed, let alone get sent off on an important expedition. Maybe if the senior Travis had thrown some zinger about how he wouldn't put up with that if she weren't almost his daughter-in-law that might be better. Dr. Ross is a cool character (in both senses of the word) generally, but on the subject of Charles she gets really irrational and destructive.

*The senior Travis is a cranky jerk with few to no redeeming qualities. A bit two-dimensional.

*There's what comes off as an obvious product placement for the game Doom--yes, the original--pretty early in the film.

*Tim Curry's Romanian accent sounds rather annoying. Fortunately you get used to it pretty quickly.

*Why is the ape flying in the passenger area with everybody else? Maybe it was a private charter and so the ordinary rules don't apply, but I would think animals would generally go with cargo.

*The scene where some natives perform a ritual to recall the soul of a catatonic man goes on for too long. The point--a nice bit of local color and "we're not in Kansas anymore"--is made pretty quickly, but the ritual goes on for at least twice as long as it needs to.

*A character is wounded but dies for no apparent reason. Another character who survives in the books dies in the film. Not sure why they needed the change--either way, he's still not going to be joining the group, nor would the group stop for him.

The Verdict

A nice jungle adventure to see once. 8.0 out of 10.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book Review: The Hellbound Heart (1986)

I've recently become interested in the Hellraiser franchise after many years, writing a review of the first movie and how I would have done the movie. The first movie, for those not familiar with the franchise, was inspired by the novella The Hellbound Heart. Recently my friends James R. Tuck and Danielle Tuck started a new podcast and they gave a glowing review to The Hellbound Heart. Danielle strongly recommend I buy it, so here goes...

The Plot

A solid but boring man named Rory (Larry in the film) and his bored wife Julia move into a house previously owned by Rory's late grandmother and now jointly owned by Rory and his brother Frank. Frank, however, has been missing for some time. A selfish hedonist, Frank had grown bored with the usual debauchery and sought out a certain puzzle box rumored to contain wonders and pleasures beyond human comprehension. Unfortunately, he should have been careful what he wished for, because the demonic Cenobites' idea of pleasure and his don't really overlap.

Freed from Hell by an accident--albeit as a skeletal skinless monster--Frank manipulates Julia (with whom he had a brief affair before her wedding to Rory) into murdering people for him to feed on and regenerate his body. Unfortunately for him, Rory's friend Kirsty is onto them...

The Good

*Barker is very good at writing vivid, descriptive scenes. The story opens with Frank solving the mystical puzzle box has a lot of really good descriptive imagery, including a bare light-bulb pulsing with the mournful toll of the bell that heralds the Cenobites' arrival. Another scene from Frank's point of view in which he recounts his year of sensual torment at the Cenobites' hands is also well-done.

*The multiple scenes from Frank's point of view confirm my earlier observations from my film review. Frank is so totally depraved that even a year of torment in Hell by beings he summoned thinking they'd bring him new extremes of pleasure hasn't turned him from his course. Rather than being sobered by the experience and wanting to turn over a new leaf, Frank definitely intends to resume his immoral lifestyle once he's freed. And some of his thoughts toward Julia suggest that the whole "pleasure that becomes pain and pain that becomes pleasure" that this story's Hell is full of have given him some ideas about what to do with her.

I'm reminded of the distinction commentators on 2 Corinthians 7:10 make over "godly sorrow" vs. "worldly sorrow." Frank regrets his bad decisions that lead to him being kidnapped by a bunch of extra-dimensional leather freaks but has no sorrow for his bad behavior generally. This behavior, among other things, caused great grief to his parents, included him cuckolding the brother from whom he was once inseparable, apparently caused him to run up a lot of debt, and even involved smuggling heroin and doing "small favors" to get his hands on the puzzle box. These "small favors" are implied to be immoral or criminal in nature, but he doesn't regret those even though he clearly regrets getting involved with the Cenobites. He is clearly, totally 100% selfish.

*I saw many scenes, concepts, etc. that I recognized as the nuclei of scenes from the movie. Obviously they'd be there since the movie is an adaptation of the book, but Barker, who was in charge of the whole movie, was able to develop his imagery, story, ideas, etc. more fully.

*The book introduces the idea that the prisoners of the Cenobites are aware of and interact with each other. Frank apparently learned of the possibility of escape from "whispers" of other inmates. I don't remember this in the original film, although you see a bit of in Hellbound: Hellraiser II (the only sequel Barker was involved with).

*At 164 pages long, it's a pretty quick read.

The Bad

*Some of the scenes are far more bony and could easily be elaborated on. This is especially disappointing considering the vivid description he employs elsewhere in the story. Contrast the opening damnation of Frank Cotton with Kirsty's initial confrontation with the Cenobites in the hospital. The former scene is very vivid and well-described, but the latter is, well...

“You can’t do this,” she insisted. 

It moved toward her nevertheless. A row of tiny bells, depending from the scraggy flesh of its neck, tinkled as it approached. The stink it gave off made her want to heave. “Wait,” she said. 

“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.” 

“The box,” she said in desperation. “Don’t you want to know where I got the box?” 

“Not particularly.” 

“Frank Cotton,” she said. “Does the name mean anything to you? Frank Cotton.”

The Cenobite smiled. “Oh yes. We know Frank.” 

“He solved the box too, am I right?” 

“He wanted pleasure, until we gave it to him. Then he squirmed.” 

"If I took you to him . . .”

"He’s alive then?” 

“Very much alive.”

"And you’re proposing what? That I take him back instead of you?” 

“Yes. Yes. Why not? Yes.” 

The Cenobite moved away from her. The room sighed. “I’m tempted,” it said. Then: “But perhaps you’re cheating me. Perhaps this is a lie, to buy you time.”

“I know where he is, for God’s sake,” she said. “He did this to me!” She presented her slashed arms for its perusal. 

“If you’re lying”— it said—“ if you’re trying to squirm your way out of this—” 

“I’m not.” 

“Deliver him alive to us then . . .” 

She wanted to weep with relief. 

“. . . make him confess himself. And maybe we won’t tear your soul apart.”

Compare the above, in which I only got the vaguest notions Kirsty was frightened or the Cenobite was something terrifying, with the movie adaptation below. The Cenobites make their appearance at around five minutes in...

The movie scene displays Pinhead in his dark grandeur and shows Kirsty's visceral terror. The sequence in the books is so monotone, especially in comparison.

*It has some of the same flaws of the film, including a lack of on-screen confrontation between the undead Frank and his brother.

*The e-book is rather expensive for a novella, around $6 or so. I've gotten full-length novels like Marko Kloos' FRONTLINES novels Terms of Enlistment, Lines of Departure, and Angles of Attack for a fair bit less. Is Barker's talent worth the higher price? Not really. The Hellbound Heart isn't even a full novel.

*I liked the film's dynamic of Kirsty as Larry's daughter and Julia as her stepmother better than Kirsty as a platonic friend of Rory (who seems to have romantic feelings for him) who doesn't like Julia. Kirsty knowing Frank as her uncle is a lot less forced than Kirsty having met Frank during the preparations for Rory and Julia's wedding four years before. The familial dynamic also makes Frank even more revolting, as in the films he seems to have incestuous intentions toward his own niece.

The Verdict

Generally good and a worthy seed for which the very creepy tree known as the film Hellraiser grew. However, it's not as good as its reputation and the ebook version is overpriced. If you want to read it, find a collection that includes it and other stories (like the 1988 Night Visions collection in which it first appeared) at a cheaper price. Otherwise just see the movie, in which Barker develops his craft more fully and put together something delightfully creepy.

6.0 out of 10.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


Awhile back I remember a critique of the third Pirates of the Caribbean film that takes issue with, among other things, the depiction of pirates as some kind of quasi-ethnicity being mass-murdered by the East India Company. In particular, the reviewer objected to the sequence where a bunch of pirates, including a child, get hanged and it's depicted as a bad thing. After all, pirates are basically sea robbers and were prone to committing atrocities--for a paper I did on the historiography of Atlantic piracy, I found accounts of pirate Henry Avery's men committing a mass rape of Muslim women on the pilgrimage to Mecca, other pirates torturing and murdering the crew of a ship they'd taken, and various other grotesque acts. The book Under the Black Flag strongly disputes the romanticized view of pirates that omits or downplays their bad behavior.

However, there are pirates and there are pirates. The earliest buccaneers weren't pirates at all, at least at first. They were European adventurers who lived in various Caribbean islands, hunting the cattle that the Spanish had introduced (that had gone wild) and selling the meat to passing ships. Their name comes from a Taino Indian word for "grill." The Spanish repeatedly tried to run them off, until they took control of the island of Tortuga and started attacking the Spanish instead. Furthermore, many later pirates were actually licensed by their governments to attack enemy ships in wartime. The "classic" (and worst-behaved) pirates were at the tail end of the age of piracy, when governments no longer employed freelancers against each other and the pirates basically preyed on everybody.

(To be fair, many pirates had understandable reasons for adopting that way of life--sailors who'd been abused aboard merchant ships or in the military, runaway slaves, etc. Marcus Rediker's Villains of All Nations and the book he co-wrote The Many-Headed Hydra describe these people in more detail, including accounts of how sailors on ships attacked by pirates would often jump ship and join them. However, that still doesn't acknowledge torturing people to find hidden money, rape, etc. Somebody can have a sympathetic back-story and still be an unpleasant, nasty person. Consider Severus Snape, the poor Goth kid oppressed by the rich spoiled popular athlete as a student--who became a cruel teacher who bullied his students and rarely if ever bathed. And Snape is one of my favorite characters.)

So here's a way to get sympathetic pirates and still be at least somewhat realistic. Depict Jack Sparrow and others like him living on some nominally-English but de facto independent island near Port Royal in Jamaica, perhaps a more benign and less violent version of Nassau (depicted as an independent pirate commune in The Republic of Pirates). Emphasize that despite the disdain of Port Royal's residents, most of them are making an honest living selling meat to passing ships, fishing, growing enough food in a month to sustain them for a year, etc.

If they are engaging in criminal behavior, it's more sympathetic activities like smuggling to avoid excessive tariffs. After all, our Founding Fathers did it. :) If there's any actual piracy, it's defensive or retaliatory in nature--they're fighting more violent criminals trying to take control of their island (think how The Godfather made the Corleones sympathetic by pitting them against even more immoral crime families and dirty cops), plantation types trying to reclaim members of their community who'd fled slavery, former employers who'd mistreated them, etc. Emphasize the more sympathetic parts of Jack Sparrow's back-story in particular--according to a deleted scene, he refused to participate in the slave trade. Think Han Solo, who on the surface was a rogue, mercenary, and criminal but had been drummed out of the Imperial Navy for defending a Wookiee slave.

However, not all residents of this island are good folk deep down beneath the veneer of roguishness and petty criminality. Barbossa could be present as a crueler and more violent pirate, with the back-story of him usurping Sparrow's ship still there. He comes to the island and despite Sparrow's opposition is welcomed for his wealth and powerful ship. Then he promptly starts raiding the Port Royal merchants, engaging in the more typical pirate atrocities (including the "dining with the crew...and you'll be naked" implied rape threat from the first film). The fantasy elements can stay or not--their terrorizing her with their undead nature would further show they're bad apples and retain the supernatural stuff depicted in the Disney World ride.

While all this is going on, we can have the canonical romance between Will Turner and Elizabeth. Will is an unappreciated apprentice--he's a trained sword-fighter and makes an excellent weapon, but his lazy master gets all the credit. He might be tempted to join the pirates himself. Elizabeth could too--she clearly has issues with the gender roles of her time ("Do you like pain? Try wearing a corset!") and isn't interested in marrying the older Commodore Norrington.

For the later films, here's where the East India Company (or a more Caribbean-focused equivalent) comes in. Even with Barbossa defeated, the Powers That Be use the fact that Sparrow's island hosted him and many of the inhabitants joined him as a pretext to drive the population they can make it into a sugar plantation. And sugar-production back then was horrifically destructive to the enslaved work force. This is where we can meet Beckett and get his back-story with Sparrow. If Sparrow and his friends engage in outright piracy and the more aggressive behavior originally more characteristic of Barbossa, it's in defense of their homes against a ruthless and dangerous opponent operating under the color of law.

(And, if we retain the fantasy elements, possibly in collusion with evil supernatural forces like Davy Jones.)

So, you all like?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Muppet Treasure Island (1996)

For the movie podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, Daniel wanted to defend Muppet Treasure Island specifically and Thomas greatly wanted to see a Muppet film. So off we went. I had not seen Muppet Treasure Island since it came out in theaters when I was probably in the fifth grade, so I gladly came out to watch it.

So here's the podcast. And here comes the review...

The Plot

The classic tale of Treasure Island gets a treatment from the Muppets. Young Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop) sets out on a hunt for buried gold after receiving a treasure map from the dying pirate Billy Bones alongside Muppet companions Gonzo and Rizzo. Under the command of Captain Smollett (Kermit the Frog) they sail for the Caribbean, but the mysterious ship's cook Long John Silver (Tim Curry) is much more than he appears...

The Good

*Three of the musical numbers--the really dark opening number "Shiver My Timbers" and the goofy "Cabin Fever"--have held up really well. Although some unnecessary vocals mar "Boom Shakalaka," it's still a pretty impressive introduction for a very important character.

*Tim Curry does a great job as Long John Silver, covering the whole gamut from weirdly paternal with young Jim to murderous and dangerous to charismatic.

*The pirates when they reveal themselves have a strong Marcus Rediker vibe. In the "Professional Pirate" song, one openly invokes how Sir Francis Drake is a hero to the British even though the Spanish hate him and talks about how they're a brotherhood that share with each other. Perhaps I'm giving the producers of the film too much credit for research, but Redeker is a Marxist historian who views the pirates of the Golden Age as a class revolt of common sailors, runaway slaves, etc. against the abusive governments and corporations of the time. He discusses this in his books Villains of All Nations and The Many-Headed Hydra.

*I might well be the minority opinion on the matter, but I really like puns. And at one point there's the pun, "Don't cry for me, Benjamina." I thought it was funny at least.

*Although pirate stories tend to be very male-dominated, they do a clever flip of a male character from the original book in order to bring Miss Piggy, who's too important to leave out, into the story. Pretty clever.

*There are some jokes that kids won't get that parents will. Not only is there the Evita joke I referenced earlier, here's a joke about a character having starfish in his pants and "hobbies," how another character "could have been a contender," and a character being in a relationship with another character because she's a lady, he's a pirate, and you know how the story ends. That particular story usually has a rather adult ending, and to make things even more fun, there were two different pirates involved.

*The movie isn't very long, so there's not a lot of time to bore the viewer. See below.

The Bad

*Kevin Bishop's singing voice is too high-pitched and faint. You can see it in "Something Better" and "Sailing for Adventure." It was really a distraction. He wasn't a bad actor overall, but given the importance of his role, if they couldn't remix his voice, it might've been a better idea to have a different actor.

*When the ship is setting off on its voyage, the background of the town is pretty obviously a matte painting.

*I haven't read the book, but the impression I had was that a certain character's treachery was supposed to be a surprise. In this film, the character is pretty obviously a false friend from early on, which takes away the shock.

*Sadly the movie just really is not that entertaining. I wish I could go into more detail, but it's just...not. Which is a pity considering how much I remember really liking this as a kid.

The Verdict

See it once if you're a Muppet completist. 7.0 out of 10.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

My Trunk Novels, Fan-Fic, and One Million Words

The other day I was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast in which they interviewed Charlie Holmberg, who said she had finished nine novels before she sold one. That was mildly worrying, as I'm currently pitching The Thing in the Woods (got a full-manuscript request from an agent who's an AAR member ten minutes after querying, although he ultimately rejected it) and seriously considering indie-publishing Battle for the Wastelands in hopes of being like Marko Kloos (parleyed independent novel Terms of Enlistment into multiple-book deal with 47 North) or Chris Nuttall (successful independent writer). Both Battle and Thing are my first finished original novels. I'd rather not have to write between three and six more that never see the light of day--when I make something, I generally like the ideas, characters, etc. too much just to toss them.

There's a term for books that never escape the drawer--"trunk novels." I've got one writer friend who has a book (that to me sounded really cool) she was told was "fatally flawed" that's never going to see the light of day, plus a second finished novel that doesn't seem like it's going anywhere either. I've also heard the "my first, second, third, etc. novel didn't sell either" from a bunch of different writers.

It turns out I've got a fair number of those myself. The main difference being, however, that they're not actually finished.

Darkness in the North-This one I actually started writing in high school, with one of my friends really liking the prologue. It has some interesting concepts, including the idea of a revolutionary republic in a fantasy world (which the Powder Mage novels like A Promise of Blood get into) and how a coed military (of said republic) might function. I was outlining it and it turned into a rambling mess, but the prologue did eventually see the light of day as one of the stories in Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire. Other than that prologue, nothing from this is likely to see the light of day. 14,750 words.

Seventeen Sons-This one I remember writing in college (my college ministry had a writing group as part of its arts division) and bringing before my secular writing group at least in part some time after I graduated. It involves a half-demon who's getting hunted by a religious order despite not being a bad guy at all. After his girlfriend is killed by mistake, he wages a one-man counteroffensive, only to unintentionally help his evil father carry out his plans for invading the mortal realm. This in turn necessitates allying with his old enemies. Perhaps it'll get "reimagined," but in its current form isn't going anywhere. 22,964 words.

The American Principate-I'm generally a conservative, but there was a lot of stuff about the Bush Administration I came to dislike. Think the Patriot Act, the Transportation Security Agency, citizens getting interned without trial, etc, all to the applause of people who would have been outraged if Bill Clinton did it. A wise man named Randolph Bourne once said that, "War is the health of the State" and Founding Father James Madison said that if tyranny and oppression came to America, it would be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. And there's this questionable quote ostensibly from Julius Caesar.

So I decided to adapt the fall of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire to American circumstances, with a faux George W. Bush as Julius Caesar, an illegal war with Iran as the crossing of the Rubicon, faux Ron Paul as Brutus, and ultimately faux Dick Cheney (whom I dislike much, much more than Bush) as Caesar Augustus. Here's some more detail. The manuscript is full of early-2000s zeitgeist and even some flirtation with questionable economics--there's the implication that the war with Iran had to do with the country deciding to sell oil in Euros and the United States ends up a financial vassal of China. As such the window of opportunity to write it would have been in 2004-2006 or so. Too late now. 2,769 words.

Aaron Greymalkin-This is another high-school story--I remember telling some of my Quiz Bowl friends about it on a trip and one said they liked the character's name. It's set in an independent California after a comet strike destroys most of the United States and causes an impact winter that wrecks the rest of the world. Think the awesome novel Lucifer's Hammer. Notable for a nuclear-armed neo-Aztec cult being manipulated by the surviving U.S. military leadership in Colorado Springs and an independent Alaska trying to avoid resource vassalage to Japan. I'm thinking this would make a really good setting for an RPG. 2,727 words.

Blasted Lands Cycle-Another high-school project--I remember doodling about this rather than watching a Spanish translation of The Never-Ending Story as the first semester drew to a close around Christmas. This takes place in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and Putin's which the latter deploys some kind of weapon that opens a gateway to the age of the dinosaurs. So you have various warlord types, Haitian settlers, a Russian warship that's still fighting the war, and dinosaurs. Another good RPG setting, but the actual novel isn't going anywhere. The last time I remember doing anything with this one was in 2006 when I visited Destin with my friend Nick and his buddies from Ohio. 7,561 words.

Gates of Vasharia-Up until relatively recently, it was widely believed that the Ninth Legion was destroyed somewhere in Scotland fighting the Picts. I wondered, what if the Ninth Legion wasn't wiped out in battle, but ended up...somewhere else? And they weren't the only ones?

Enter the world of Vasharia, where the descendants of the Ninth Legion established a new Roman Empire that grew to encompass various other cultures (including my personal favorites, the Nestorian Christians--imagine a world where the Church of the East continued to thrive) and traded with other worlds through controlled wormholes. I started writing this one probably in 2004 and there are characters based on people I knew in high school and early college. Oh boy, that's a good way to get into trouble. :)

It's been so long since I touched this one that I'm thinking this one isn't going anywhere. That said, I had the idea of re-telling the story from the first-person point-of-view of Patrick Rassam, a Nestorian Syrian general who was cast into the dark spaces between the worlds (think Stephen King's todash darkness), only to return having made a Faustian deal with things living there. I'd call it I, Dark Lord, a title that would capture Rassam's dry wit.

I re-read the manuscript a year or so ago and found there are some pretty good character moments, so of all of the "trunk novels," this one might be the most salvageable. Of all of them, it's the one that's gotten the most attention from my writing group, which helped me work a lot of the bugs out, especially dealing with military stuff. 40,274 words.

However, although none of the above would count toward having a bunch of finished novels one writes before one sells the big one, I have finished novels that aren't going anywhere either. They certainly contribute to the whole "you have to write a million words before you're any good" maxim far more than the 91,000-odd words of those "trunk novels." They're called fan fiction. You can find my profile here.

The Wrath of the Half-Blood Prince-My friend Jamie pointed out this one is actually longer than the first three or even four Harry Potter novels combined. It's actually 193,000 words. It's basically the entire First War if Snape had broken with the Death Eaters his fourth or fifth year--the divergence is at the same time as Snape and Lily's argument about his skinhead friends, some time before the "Mudblood Incident." If this was a book series, I imagine it could be a trilogy.

Lord of the Werewolves-This one I wrote with a pen-pal. It's 125,000 words. It's a "fix fic" intending to correct the underuse of Lupin and Tonks in Deathly Hallows. The first part of the story is basically Deathly Hallows from Lupin and Tonks' points-of-view and includes stuff we don't see, like their romantic relationship (a lot of people thought Tonks some kind of stalker, but the impression I had was that Lupin liked her too but was just too hung up on being a werewolf to act on it), wedding and honeymoon, and much of the Battle of Seven Potters. It diverges from canon during Bill and Fleur's wedding and gets really dark. Like, really, really, dark. Of all my fan-fiction, it's probably the best in terms of characterization. Heck, of all my fiction generally it ranks up there.

Revenge of the Fallen Reboot-I loved the first Michael Bay Transformers film, but was rather disappointed by the second. Good concept, but mediocre execution. So this is how I would have done it. There was some stuff suggested by the commercials (like a confrontation between female lead Mikaela Banes and Starscream) that never happened, but would have been really cool. Heck, the Bay universe botched Starscream's character massively, and that's just one of its sins. 58,476 words, about the length of a decent novel and not that much longer than Thing. I should probably write a TVTropes page--there's already Fix Fic, What The Hell Hero, and a bit of Your Approval Fills Me With Shame.

The Dragon and the Bear-There's very little actual narrative here. It's basically an alternate version of S.M. Stirling's Draka timeline where Russia defeats the Domination in World War II. In terms of sheer word count it would match a novel though--and I still haven't posted all of it on I'm self-banned from the forum until Christmas, so maybe I'll post the rest of it then. It's 46,000 words now, but there's a big chunk left to transfer. I kind of let it peter out a decade or two after the Final War between the Domination and the Alliance for Democracy, but I would bit it's around 60,000 words all total.

So of my "modern" fan-fic (i.e. stuff I wrote after college), that's around 436,000 words. I also wrote some Dark Angel fan-fic in high school that was basically how I would have done Season Two. Combined I think that's around 100,000 words--there were several 20K to 25K installments. There're also various dribs and drabs from short stories both unfinished and finished, my 2006 Battlestar Galactica short story "The Death of the Triton," the 600-odd posts on The World According to Quinn (if they average 800 words each that's 480,000 words), and the thoroughly massive amount of writing I've done for multiple newspapers in my seven-odd years as a full-time and part-time professional journalist.

(Not sure if the latter counts, since some members of my writing group have said writing like a journalist leads to a rather dry and overly-informative product. Good for newspapers, not good for novels.)

So I realized that I'm not necessarily all that different from those "I wrote ten books before I sold one" writers. Even if Battle for the Wastelands (92,000 words) is ultimately destined for the trunk too (God forbid, and I mean that), perhaps The Thing in the Woods (56,000 words) won't be, and neither will my secret third project I've obliquely referenced before (17,000 words presently) or my science fiction tale The Cybele Incident (20,000-odd words presently). :)