Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Super Mario Brothers (1993)

Over the weekend, I watched the 1993 film Super Mario Brothers with my friend Nick for his new podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. The episode isn't available yet, but once it is I'll plug in the link in place of this sentence. :)

So how exactly did a video game series with only minimal plot (the plumber has got to rescue the princess from the lecherous turtle-dragon thingie) get made into a film with a plot? Well, the movie starts out with a woman fleeing through New York to deliver a metal case locked with an exotic stone to a convent in the way one generally associates with foundlings being abandoned. She then goes down a subway tunnel, where she encounters Dennis Hopper in a military uniform with reptilian ridges on his head. Meanwhile, the nuns open the box and the egg inside hatches, revealing an infant girl. Twenty-some years later, the struggling Mario Brothers plumbers encounter a young blonde woman who wears the stone from the prologue as a necklace...

The Good

*I'll give them points for trying to create an expanded world/plot based on the game, even if what ultimately emerged was, well...we'll get to that. We have back-stories for the Mario Brothers themselves, both of them clearly have lives outside of being plumbers (the elder brother Mario has a girlfriend of his own, while younger brother Luigi is into sci-fi, unexplained phenomena, etc). The plot also involves people from our own world ending up in the parallel dimension even before the plumbers themselves get involved, which is pretty innovative.

*Dennis Hopper is having a lot of fun as the nefarious Koopa and it shows. He's the best actor in the bunch and the most entertaining with his distinctive voice.

*There's one scene that comes off as a parody of Thelma and Louise. I guess that's a Parental Bonus.

*The ending--a pretty blatant Sequel Hook--did pique my interest. Apparently it piqued enough interest that a comic-book sequel was written, much like what happened with the film Serenity.

*I did like Yoshi, even though he was too small for anybody to ride on. He's a pretty good example of pre-Jurassic Park special effects--a dinosaur puppet that moves by itself.

*There's an inside joke for gamers that I didn't notice at first--Mario, whose girlfriend was abducted by dull-witted minions who mistook her for Daisy, must dance with a very large woman based on the Big Bertha character from the games in order to retrieve Princess Daisy's necklace. Said dancing includes burying his head in her cleavage to try to snatch the necklace with his mouth. The outfit he's wearing in that scene is orange--much like that of Wario, the evil Mario counterpart who first appeared a year or so before the movie came out. Pretty clever.

The Bad

*The wider world they tried to create is ridiculous even by the low standards of children's movies. The gist of it is that the meteor that killed the dinosaurs instead created some kind of parallel world where dinosaurs evolved into a mostly human-like species dwelling in an isolated analogue to New York City in the midst of a vast desert. I'm guessing having "humans" who are descended from dinosaurs was cheaper than having casts of thousands of reptilian-looking creatures--and would allow for a love story between Luigi and Princess Daisy that's not icky. However, given how the The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! that featured live-action sequences in our world and animated sequences in fantasyland had come out years before the movie, it would have been better if they'd done a similar live-action/animation split. The world and characters would be much more faithful to the game, which would help prevent the problem I'll get to next...

*Animation would allow for the Goombahs and Koopas to resemble their video-game counterparts better instead of being huge deformed quasi-dinosaurs. Given the science fiction plot, the Koopas could be human-sized reptilian creatures and the Goombahs could perhaps be humans (or human-like creatures) wearing some kind of armor? The Goombahs and Koopas instead are these ugly semi-retarded things that look ridiculous.

*They made Mario the plumbers' last name, so it's Mario Mario and Luigi Mario. It's so inane. It'd be better if the "Mario Brothers" thing resulted from a misunderstanding, perhaps by the inhabitants of fantasyland when they meet the plumbers.

*Bob Hoskins is Mario and John Leguizamo is Luigi. Bob Hoskins is 22 years older than John Leguizamo. They do explain this with Luigi claiming Mario pretty much raised him--I had the notion they might be from a large Catholic family where the parents married young and didn't use contraception, so the older siblings might be married and have families of their own when the youngest siblings are born and if the parents died, the older siblings would look after the younger ones. However, it'd be simpler if they were closer in age. Luigi makes a joke about how Mario was like a mother to him, so if they made casting decisions in order to justify a joke that really wasn't that funny, well...I really hope they didn't.

The Verdict

Very poorly made and often inane, but it has its entertaining moments. Four out of 10.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Mighty Ducks

Last Saturday night, I watched The Mighty Ducks with my friend Nick for his podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood that should premiere soon. I saw the movie in theaters when it came out, so here're my thoughts on this tale of an arrogant attorney who rediscovers his love of hockey due to being forced to coach an impoverished youth hockey team after driving under the influence.

The Good

*Emilio Estevez does a good job playing Gordon Bombay, the arrogant attorney in question. He's quite obnoxious and karma bites him in the behind pretty darn quick. He also has a fairly strong character arc--he learns some lessons in humility and comes to love the children he'd once disdained as "barely human."

*The film has some pretty funny jokes, including a scene where ineffective goalie Goldberg (who is afraid of the puck) is tied up (in heavy pads) and the other kids shoot pucks at him to break him of his fear.

*A climactic scene where a character is deliberately injured by players on the rival team is downright painful to watch. The kid is strapped down on a backboard--as a former lifeguard, I've participated in backboard drills and when those get involved, you know some bad things are up.

*Some issues of social class get explored--the rival Hawks team is as good as it is because it's from a wealthier part of town and its parents can afford to provide good uniforms, rink time, etc. for their kids. Bombay has to get his boss at the law firm to provide a very large sum of money so the kids can buy equipment, practice, etc. Even if kids won't understand this, adults certainly will.

The Bad

*The film is really cliched. Bombay is haunted by his failure as a child to score at a hockey shootout and displeasing his overbearing coach, something that wrecked what could have developed into a promising hockey career. The film begins with a flashback to this and we see it at least one more time. We also see a quite literally sepia-toned flashback to Bombay practicing hockey as a kid with his late father (who died just before the hockey shootout) and an old Scandinavian mentor figure. And the Hawks team is straight out of the Cobra Kai school of bad juvenile athletes warped by their malevolent coach--the same coach who berated Gordon as a child for letting them all down for not scoring that critical goal.

*Per the above, there's a whole lot of Narm going on here. But it's not even funny Narm--it's just groan-inducing. Bombay's challenge to his boss--including QUACKING at him in the office--is just annoying.

*It's not 100% clear how old the kids Bombay is coaching actually are. They're part of a "peewee" hockey league and the team includes two girls, which means they're probably elementary or early middle school aged (before puberty would put the girls at a disadvantage in physical strength vis-a-vis the boys). Goldberg in particular says he hasn't had his bar mitzvah yet, which means he's younger than 13. A big plot point hinges on some of the kids misunderstanding something they overheard Gordon say to his former coach, a misunderstanding that only younger kids would make. However, the kids' dialogue sounds like something older kids would say, with the derogatory nickname "Cake Eater" (I'm guessing an allusion to the supposed quote from Marie Antoinette) for a wealthier character being something I wouldn't expect from young kids from the wrong side of the tracks. And one of the girl hockey players seems to be dating one of the boys--although this isn't really touched on much, they seem more like teens than sixth graders.

*Per the above point, many of the kids are really annoying and bratty, in particularly Jesse Hall who really needs a spanking (or, given how it'd be really improper for a non-parent to do that, perhaps a lot of wind sprints).

The Verdict

A good movie to take kids to see, but adults will likely be bored. 5.5 out of 10.

"The Strain" Recap and Review: "The Box"

Just got done watching the second episode of FX's vampire series "The Strain." It's called "The Box" and, surprise surprise, has to do with the big scary box found aboard the aircraft in the first episode.

The episode starts off with Eph, Nora, and Jim checking out the body of the man the Master killed soon after his arrival in New York City. Jim isn't taking seeing a corpse with its head mashed in very well. Our heroes soon find out that the four survivors have been released from quarantine. Eph and Nora keep them from leaving, but lawyer Joan soon has the secretary of health and human services on the phone. Apparently it was carbon monoxide that caused the incident on the plane and it's no longer the Centers for Disease Control's concern. Eph and Nora protest (Eph a bit too much so, grabbing his supervisor by the lapels) and get an involuntary vacation.

We next meet Vasily Fet, a zealous exterminator who praises his cat for bringing him a rat and then shuts down the fancy restaurant where Joan and Marilyn Manson clone Gabriel Bolivar (another survivor released from quarantine) are plotting to sue the airline after discovering a rat in the kitchen. Joan's eyes aren't looking good and she sees blood in her wine glass, so she decides to go home to her husband and kids. Meanwhile, Thomas Eichhorst--studiously staying out of the sunlight--confers with sickly billionaire Eldritch Palmer and then leaves to see "an old friend."

Meanwhile, Gus drops off the coffin in the warehouse like he's supposed to, but nobody is there to get it. It starts to rattle and he does the smart thing--he takes off and runs. Back home to his mother and brother Crispin, who was one of the thugs who tried to rob Sertrakian's pawn shop. He plays nice under Mom leaves for Mass, then beats the hell out of his brother for bringing stolen property home (a clock he and his thug friend stole after Sertrakian took said friend's gun). Crispin berates him for their mother crying every night while he was in prison and asks him how long until he goes back. Gus, meanwhile, wants to return the clock to Sertrakian, which seems to me to be setting up their eventual meeting.

Meanwhile (I really need to stop saying this), Abraham Sertrakian has a visitor in jail--Eichhorst. How he managed to get there without the sunlight doing a number on him is beyond me. He repeatedly refers to Sertrakian by the concentration-camp tattoo on his arm and claims that he's taken Sertrakian's name away from him. He ghoulishly promises that Sertrakian will remain alive to see the world fall and that the Master will be the last thing he sees, all while gloating about the previous owner of the worm-infested heart Sertrakian keeps in his home. Sertrakian asks him why an old friend of his isn't there to share in his glory and then answers his own question by telling him said friend was cut into pieces and is now at the bottom of the North Sea. Eichhorst will be joining him soon.

Even though they're not supposed to be involved in the case anymore, Eph and Nora are examining one of the vampiric worms taken from the airport. They end up seeking out Captain Redfern (the pilot of the plane), who when they tell him something from the cargo is missing immediately guesses it's the box. The box was loaded onto the plane at the last minute by official-looking people he didn't dare question. Redfern isn't feeling well and Eph persuades him to check into the hospital and see a particular doctor. There, his condition takes a turn for the worse, with Eph disbelieving the changes his illness is making to his body until under ultraviolent light he sees the worms under the captain's skin. Uh oh...

Bolivar, claiming the need to get his "pipes cleaned," has an orgy with three groupies. Or he tries at least--one of them pulls out some of his hair and then he bites down on them. It's not a love bite. He orders the three out and then starts licking up the blood, first from his mouth and then from the floor. Uh oh...

The episode is slow and one reason for it being slow is Eph's personal life. He visits his house to find his estranged wife's boyfriend and his son Zach turning his former office into a game room. Eph and Matt are surprisingly civil to one another and Matt even hugs Eph in a surprisingly odd and awkward moment. Eph then goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where he confesses to having been sober for just over a year and managing to overcome the temptation to drink after visiting his house where his wife is sleeping with another man. From what I know of the books Eph's familial situation is a major driver of things, but seeing it kind of dragged.

And Palmer finally meets the Master. We don't see too terribly much of the vampire overlord beyond his bald white head and his clawed hands, but we do hear him speak. He's rather difficult to understand, which is unfortunate. He's got a deep evil voice (of course), but his words all bleed together.

On the way to the morgue after visiting Captain Redfern, Eph gets a call from the French father whose supposedly-dead daughter returned at the end of the last episode. The father thanks Eph for sending his daughter home, much to Eph's surprise given how the girl was dead. He and Nora go to the morgue to investigate while we see firsthhand just why the daughter has returned--she's now a vampire and when her father tries to retrieve her from her bath for dinner, he gets drained. Soon after, Eph and Nora arrive at the morgue to find it a mess and all the bodies gone. Uh oh...

The verdict: It continues the storyline, but unlike the first episode it's really rather slow. Let's hope the next one is better.

Monday, July 14, 2014

More Thoughts on "The Strain" (SPOILERS)

Now that I've had some time to think (and sleep), here are some more ponderings about last night's premiere of The Strain.

I've only read the first 100 pages or so from the book version,but the part that was the most gripping is the story Abraham Sertrakian's elderly grandmother tells him about a giant who came to Romania. The giant--a young Polish nobleman named Josef Sardu, who suffered from gigantism--is hunting wolf with his father, who has the notion that eating this will cure his son of his sickness. The animals they seek have been displaced from their lairs by something, a something that hunts and kills the other members of the party. Josef, the sole survivor, buries them and goes into the cave to confront what he thinks is something unnatural watching him.

(You can see this part of the story in comic-book form here.)

The premiere episode of the television adaptation is great as it is, but it would have been nice to have that as a prologue just like in the book. Sardu's story could be shown in flashback form much like the comics--both the boy's flashback to his grandmother telling the story and his grandmother's flashback to the events of her childhood and what she imagined preceded them. Then the prologue could end just like the book--Sertrakian and his family are living in territory under Nazi control and have to flee those who would exterminate them just like his grandmother had to flee the monstrosity the once-kindly Josef Sardu became. It would tie in Sertrakian's back-story with the hints we've received thus far about Eichhorst as well.

However, now that I've had some time to think about it, it would be an either-or choice between that prologue and the prologue aboard the aircraft involving the flight attendants. In that respect, the flight attendant scene works better because it introduces Gabriel Bolivar and the little French girl--who will introduce the "dear ones" aspect of the story--and provides the first appearance of the villainous Master in his modern form. One major task of a writer is to "kill your darlings" and I'm sure that story can be told later--perhaps as a nightmare Sertrakian has, or a story he's telling to someone else.

"The Strain" Review and Recap: "Night Zero"

Back when I was a weekly newspaper editor, I visited the library to cover a story and found an interesting-looking paperback called The Strain. I read the first 100 or so pages before more pressing duties called, but I always remembered the book. Now it's been adapted into a television show and going forward, I'm going to recap the episodes for you.

So here goes...

"The Strain" Season One, Episode One: "Night Zero."

The episode begins a narrator discussing hunger and thirst before we see a flight attendant making her rounds as the plane comes in for a landing. I like her--she puts the obnoxious Marilyn Manson-esque shock rocker Gabriel Bolivar in his place and deals compassionately with a young girl traveling alone. Then another flight attendant reports something moving in the cargo area. She goes to investigate and something bursts out of the hold. Soon after the control tower finds the plane dead and uncommunicative on the runway--"like a dead animal." Nice and ominous.

Cut to CDC scientist Ephraim Goodweather, who's undergoing custody counseling with his estranged wife. He self-sabotages a fair bit in the meeting. His wife Kelly comes off as more sympathetic given how Eph is never around. Eph offers to quit his job to save their marriage, but she thinks it's too late for that. She's taken up with a new fellow named Matt, whom Eph had unknowingly met sometime earlier (and exchanges cross words with later on the way out). He arrives at the airport and after some of the other public-safety people try to warn him off, he makes an excellent speech about the nature of a virus that, knowing what I know about The Strain's macro-plot, has got some major foreshadowing going on.

At the twenty minute mark we meet Dr. Abraham Sertrakian, an elderly pawnbroker. Two thugs try to sell him an obviously stolen watch and then try to steal money from him when he's not looking. He deals with them masterfully in a scene that was fun to watch. Upon seeing the news about the dead airplane, he descends into living quarters under his shop where he has an old heart in a jar. He opens the lid and cuts open his finger to drip blood into it--and a bunch of worms emerge from the heart to feed on the blood. This is an awesome introduction.

Thirty minutes into the episode we see Goodweather and Nora Martinez, another CDC scientist, suiting up to enter the plane. Here we learn that Goodweather had been unfaithful with her, but had never revealed it to his wife since she filed for divorce first. They board the plane to find everybody dead--well, almost everybody. If you want a jump scene, the revelation that not everybody on board is dead--including a young man who'd been creepily watching the flight attendants in the prologue--provides this.

Meanwhile, a tall skinny man whose eyes do some creepy stuff I can't quite describe is coming to meet with sickly billionaire Eldritch Palmer--now that's a scary name there--at the office of the Stoneheart Group. The man--named Eichhorst and obviously German--reveals that the ball is rolling to Palmer and jut before the forty-five minute mark, he drops this lovely bomb. "I miss breathing sometimes."

Back at the New York airport, 48 minutes in, the survivors of the airplane are being quarantined and a huge box carved with images of death is discovered in the cargo. It wasn't on the manifest. Somebody isn't very subtle, now are they? Our intrepid CDC investigators, who went into the plane in full biohazard gear, open the box in the street clothes. We're getting into Darwin Award territory with that one. It's full of dirt.

Native soil? Uh oh. There's a latch on the inside of the coffin too.

And at fifty minutes in, things get real. One of the lead airport personnel starts hearing voices in his head. He wanders off into another room where he finds pools of blood on the floor and something big feeding on something on the ground. When he gets close, it rises to its feet--it's taller than him, tall enough to fit in that box--and rams a proboscis into his throat. The proboscis is full of worms and we see them getting into the man's bloodstream through it. Once it feeds on him, it smashes his head to mush before retreating.

Meanwhile, we see Eichhorst conferring with some thugs, including the two who'd tried to rob Sertrakian. He orders Augustin "Gus" Elizalde to bring something out of the airport, something that has to be over the river before daybreak. He offers to fix Gus's mother's immigration status and his brother's criminal record and Gus, with much profanity and threats, agrees.

Next we see Sertrakian on the move. He infiltrates the airport--now crowded with Bolivar fans--and manages to get to Jim Kent, Eph's assistant, by faking heart trouble. Meanwhile, an unprepared Eph--his boss Everett Barnes let him think he was speaking to the passengers' families only--reveals that most of the people on the plane are dead and there are only a few survivors. One of the passengers, the father of the little girl from the prologue, is upset and slaps him.

At around an hour and eight minutes it, we see the bodies taken from the plane being dissected. They all have incisions on their necks and when they're cut open, their blood is white and foaming. Sertrakian finally encounters Eph and demands the coffin be destroyed along with the bodies of the dead and the survivors. If the coffin is still there they have a chance. Nora is interested--Sertrakian knows a lot more than he should--but Eph isn't. Sertrakian gets arrested.

At an hour and sixteen minutes we meet the worms again. They're in some soil that had come from the coffin. Eph and Nora realize that the worms are the vector for what's killed the passengers and the coffin is full of them. Security cameras reveal the coffin has been stolen--and slowing the footage down reveals it's our huge cloaked friend who's done it. Eph orders trucks, vans, anything big enough to get the coffin out of the airport be prevented from leaving. Meanwhile, Gus leaves the airport with the box. He's stopped by police, whose dogs freak out upon smelling the truck, but upon recognizes the Stoneheart insignia Gus carries, tells Gus to tell them he's through with them before letting Gus and the coffin out of the airport.

Back in the morgue, our friend the medical examiner has opened up the bodies and found they're looking rather different inside. He initially refers to them in the recording as abnormal growths, but amends his statement to call them, "New, fully functional organs." Some movement in the morgue alerts him and he finds a heart he'd removed beating in a metal box. He picks it up, only for worms to erupt from the heart and get onto his hands. One burrows into his flesh and he manages to pull it out with a metal tool--only to be set upon by the reanimated passengers from the plane, who now have proboscises of their own. He's made lunch as "Sweet Caroline" plays in the background.

At an hour and a half in, we see Sertrakian being dropped off in the holding tank at the jail. A man who's clearly been in a fight asks him if he's a librarian--I laughed--and upon seeing his Holocaust tattoo, asks what the "ink" means.  Soon afterward, back at the Stoneheart headquarters, Eichhorst is informed that an old man with a sword was arrested at the airport. He refers to Sertrakian as "the Jew" and expresses surprise he's still doing what he's doing. He then makes some comment about how New York will be purified and Palmer summons his aide to go on a walk with him. A sentimental old man, he wants to go for one last walk around the city before "the fall."

Meanwhile, Gus talks with his mother on the phone as he brings the coffin across the river in his truck. He talks to the coffin and tells it that whatever it is, it's brought him good luck.

The episode ends with Sertrakian--the narrator from the beginning--talking about the nature of love as the father who had freaked out about the possible death of his daughter returns home. He soon discovers his daughter is there and rushes to embrace her. She returns his hug, but we see that her eyes do the same creepy thing Eichorst's do.

Uh oh...

Overall, a well-done first episode to what will hopefully be an excellent series. 8 out of 10.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Land Before Time (1988)

As part of the Myopia: Defend Your Childhood podcast produced by the Dudeletter, I watched the Don Bluth animated classic The Land Before Timethe other night. Set during the Cretaceous period, in a time of geological upheaval and climate change, the diminishing herds of herbivores gather to seek out the possibly mythical "Great Valley" where it's still green. After being separated from the rest by an earthquake, the young sauropod Littlefoot and his friends must seek out the Great Valley on their own, all while being stalked by a homicidal Tyrannosaurus Rex that killed his mother. I saw the movie in theaters when I was four years old and hadn't seen it in probably two decades, so let's see how it held up...

The Good

*The battle between the Sharptooth and Littlefoot's mother is well-done. She's clearly significantly bigger and stronger, but he's a better adapted fighter. They depict the Sharptooth wounding her in such a way that it's obvious what happened (we see the shadows of flying flesh after he bites her), but it isn't explicitly bloody and can thus still be rated G. It's not 100% clear how Littlefoot's mother actually dies though--I remember reading online it was infection (similar to the now-debunked theory that someone bitten by a Komodo dragon would die from the nasty bacteria in the rotting meat between the critter's teeth), but blood loss and shock might also do it. If they're all hungry due to limited foot on their journey through the desolation, she'd be physically weakened as well.

*I liked how decisive Littlefoot got when they were attacked again by the Sharptooth. He straight-up plots to lure it into deep water and drop a boulder on it to drown it. None of the usual "the hero refuses to kill so the villain does something evil and causes their own death" nonsense that I've complained about before. It's the equivalent of a bunch of elementary schoolers taking on the non-superpowered Freddy Krueger and it is awesome.

*It makes some surprisingly thoughtful statements about religion. Littlefoot wonders how it is that his mother knows about the Great Valley even though she has never been there and she says it's something she's seen, not with her eyes, but with her heart. Later on Littlefoot has a flashback to something his mother possibly told him offscreen about how the Great Valley is beyond a distinctive rock formation and a ridge of volcanoes, so her faith is based on more than her own desires and imagination. Later on, Cera rejects Littlefoot's vision to go her own way and the other young dinosaurs follow her because it's "easier." Instead Cera leads them into a volcanic desolation (aka Hell) and it's up to Littlefoot, the one individual who had the right idea, to rescue them.

*Although the film's subtlety is lacking, it does make good statements against prejudice. Littlefoot and Cera play together at first, only for Cera's prejudiced parents to stop them and fill her head with nonsense about how three-horns only socialize with other three-horns. Even Littlefoot's kinder mother, who saves Cera as well as Littlefoot from falling into the abyss with the Sharptooth early on, tells Littlefoot that their species are different and there will be plenty of children of his own kind to play with. However, when the young dinosaurs are separated from their parents by the earthquake, they have to stick together in order to survive and it's Cera's arrogance, not Littlefoot's cosmopolitanism, that causes problems. And when the time for the confrontation with the Sharptooth comes, it takes all of them together to pull it off.

*Petri, the neurotic pterodactyl whose fear of heights keeps him from actually flying, has a character arc. We see a scene from his point of view (when they're all standing on top of each other trying to get leaves from the trees) in which heights are terrifying, but he eventually overcomes this fear. The proud and racist Cera learns humility too.

The Bad

*One of my fellow reviewers commented the film felt disjointed and said that material had been cut from the movie against Bluth's wishes. I reviewed the Wikipedia article, which references some scenes of violence being cut out to attain a G rating. It cites this article, which references the T-Rex scene as being trimmed. The area that felt the most disjointed was when Cera leads them into the dangerous volcanic area--the group is separated and we cut from Littlefoot rescuing some of the others to Cera being attacked by a group of territorial pachycephalosaurs without much explanation. I remember seeing a picture of some of them fighting each other in a storybook version I read as a kid and I'm wondering if there was a missing scene where Cera stumbled onto them fighting each other.

*Speaking of Cera, she was the most thoroughly obnoxious character in the film. I can understand the film trying to teach lessons against prejudice, but she was so unsubtle it got old really fast. I guess if you're trying to make a point to children you can't be subtle, but it was so incredibly aggravating.

*There's a completely unnecessary recap of various uplifting events from earlier in the film (Littlefoot hatching, the little dinosaurs cuddling against the cold, etc) at the end.

The Verdict

It's a good movie for children and a good film to see once if you're nostalgic. Seven out of 10.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Dog Soldiers

Last night I watched the film Dog Soldiers with my friend Nick for his "Myopia: Defend Your Childhood" podcast. I first saw the movie in high school (it would have been 2002-2003) and although I'd seen it again a second time somewhat later, it was still long enough ago it worked.

So began my third watching of writer-director Neil Marshall's tale of a group of footy-loving British Army soldiers on maneuvers in the Scottish Highlands and their encounter with werewolves...

The Good

One of the best things about the movie is the soundtrack, particularly the downright tribal drum sequences associated with the werewolves. It's really quite stirring. The scene where the soldiers encounter the werewolves for the first time and "shoot and scoot" through the woods with the werewolves pursuing them was such a good example of a montage I used it in my film writing class (and apparently persuaded a pretty female classmate to purchase the film) at the University of Georgia.

For a film whose budget was around $5 million, the special effects are pretty good. The werewolves are men in suits, not computer-generated imagery, but considering the atrocious quality of CGI in many low budget movies (i.e. Sharknado, which may well have been doing it on purpose), even mediocre costumed critters are better. And these aren't mediocre. I remember when the film was new (at least in the USA) and trendy a lot of discussion about the quality of the costuming.

The action scenes are well-done. It's basically the Battle of Rorke's Drift--one character even explicitly references it--with werewolves. All sorts of interesting items get deployed as weapons when ammo runs low. And believe me, when the men fire like they do, it does.

Although the characters could use a bit more elaboration--they were introduced to the viewer twice, once when they deploy from their helicopter and the second time when Cooper (Kevin McKidd) introduces them to Megan (Emma Cleasby) and it was still hard to keep track of them--I did like the characters Spoon (Darren Morfitt) and the Sarge (Sean Pertwee). The former is amusing and hyperactive (something that comes in really handy a couple times) and the latter is a delightful hard-ass. The spooky story he tells the men at night is the perfect sort of thing a long-service non-commissioned officer (he references serving in the Gulf War, which would have been ten years before the events of the film) would tell the younger men. Joe (Chris Robson), although I don't remember ever quite getting his name, died quite well when he realized a werewolf was in the car with him. And Liam Cunningham (the future Davos Seaworth of Game of Thrones) does a good turn as an extremely unpleasant Special Forces captain. When your co-viewers are demanding his death halfway through the film, you know you've got a bad man.

And although sometimes it was hard to understand them, the film had a wide variety of British accents. The "British accent" most foreigners think is the British accent is actually one of many regional ones and they're all present in the film. This being a British film, it makes sense.

The Bad

It's slow. Jesus H. Sanchez, it's slow. There are random fades to black in different places, a scene in the beginning where the soldiers are marching along to this whistling soundtrack for no reason, etc. The film would have been much better if it were tightened significantly. The second time I saw this movie was for a writing group Halloween party and it must've been edited for television because I don't remember it being that bloody slow. Although that's the film's single major flaw, well, there's is the expression "how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?" Seriously, that's the most absolutely damning problem with the film.

Nick is convinced they used three cameras for the film and although two of them were quality cameras, one was not. Parts of the film look rather grainy, in a way that reminds me of a movie shot in the 1970s when camera technology wasn't as good. The opening of the film looks like a 1970s horror movie in terms of film quality. This is less noticeable later on, but it's still a problem.

The scene where the men are camped out for the night and somebody throws an eviscerated cow at them is nonsensical. The werewolves are almost certainly the ones responsible, but rather than attack the men in the open where they'd almost certainly wipe them out, it seem they just wanted to troll them. Given the explicit references to hikers disappearing in the area (that Cooper seems aware of from the get-go), it's not like the werewolves are trying to warn them away so they don't "have" to kill them. If that scene had been drastically trimmed--it can't be cut completely or we'd lose a good bit of characterization, particularly for Sarge--it would've also helped with the length.

The "rules of lycanthropy" could use a bit of clarification. There's dialogue between a character who was wounded (and healing unnaturally--bad sign) and character who was not using bathroom metaphors that sort-of explains the later revelation that a certain person who turns out to be infected was able to hold off the change for most of the night, but in that case it could have been better foreshadowed. The filmmakers did clearly remember the rule of Chekhov's Gun for a bunch of other matters and there is one scene involving the infected-character-who-does-not-change that drops a pretty darn big hint, so it's not like they couldn't have done this better.  Having this person acting sweaty and twitchy but explaining away as a response to stress or claiming to have suffered in the past from panic attacks would have been a good way to do it.

The Verdict

Good scenes, but it really needed a better editor. 5 out of 10. Interesting that this is where a lot of British actors who went on to bigger and better things (McKidd in HBO's Rome, Cunningham in Game of Thrones) got big parts.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Writing Contest Results: June 2014

For the month of June 2014, I wrote 7,400 words of fiction for my writing contest. Given how several of my friends who've been involved in various iterations of the contest have dropped out or not been able to participate fully due to real-life obligations, this might be the tail end of the contest.

Still, I got a fair bit done, including some touch-ups to The Thing in the Woods and Battle for the Wastelands. However, the single largest block of work was done on an untitled faux oral history project I've probably mentioned here and there on the blog. Right now it's at 6,118 words, probably 10 percent or so of its eventual total length.

Right now, I'm thinking that'll be my next project. Although I've got the outline of conventional novel trilogy set in this world in the idea file, it's probably a one-shot (Max Brooks hasn't written a narrative novel or novels set in his zombie world, after all) and since it's a collection of interviews in the style of The Good War or World War Z, it won't have things like character arcs and the like. It's more like a short story collection, due to its interview-based format and how I intend to pay homage to "show don't tell" by the use of extended flashback sequences.

In the event I get some agent interest in Battle or Thing, obviously I'll switch over to those projects (either editing or, if they sell, writing sequels). However, writing a second book in a series when you haven't sold the first is generally not a good idea. Once I finish this project, that's a third axis of advance on my goal toward being a professional novelist.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Less Ridiculous "Captain Planet"

Earlier today, I came across a discussion on my alternate-history forum on how the infamously Narmish television series Captain Planet could be a critical and commercial success. For those of you not in the know, it was an environmental-themed cartoon featuring a bunch of teenagers fighting incredibly unsubtle "Eco-Villains" (I think the idea was to avoid upsetting children whose parents worked in ecologically-difficult industries like logging) with the aid of some kind of magically-summoned warrior-type being with a green mullet.

It's actually not all that difficult if you put some thought into it. Here are some suggestions I came up with:

*No "Eco-Villains." Instead, have the Planeteers respond to problems resulting from ecologically unsafe practices. Ideas include pollution-spawned mutant monsters (like the movie Prophecy with the deformed psychotic bear spawned by mercury pollution), killer mudslides caused by deforestation, loose Soviet nukes, etc. Maybe there's an antibiotic-resistant plague resulting from excessive use of antibiotics in agriculture and the Planeteers have to bring in the one effective drug and fight a bunch of criminals trying to steal it and sell it? I remember one episode features a panic about a shark leading to mass killing of sharks and a resulting plague of jellyfish, so it's not like the idea wasn't there.

*Subtler, less ridiculous portrayals of polluters. Nobody seriously wants to destroy the environment, regardless of what the show depicted. According to one of my writing books, the "polluter" character in The China Syndrome is not a bad guy--he cuts corners to cut costs to create more jobs. One CP episode featured an Indian prince who allowed a forest to be cut down to build a resort to generate jobs for his people--since this was something they did in real life, it's not like they weren't capable of subtlety.

*If there absolutely must be Eco-Villains, dial them down a notch. I had the idea for a pollution-spawned mutant messiah who thinks his kind are the next stage of evolution and wants to rule the world. It turns out there actually was such a character--Verminous Scum. Obviously he'd have a more subtle name--I suggested "Lord Vermin" as a name he gives himself to scare people. Alternatively, just buy the rights to the Skaven from Games Workshop--they're not as well-known a fantasy race as Orcs, Dwarves, Elves, etc. so they'd be new and innovative. They can be depicted as a dangerous race of mutants, with some moral grayness courtesy of "good" Skaven who want to share the Earth with humans and murderous racist humans who want to kill all Skaven no matter how peaceful (some of) them are. Another idea could be to have the Planeteers prevent a bin Laden-type figure from getting his hands on unattended Soviet nuclear weapons and he swears revenge, becoming a recurring foe. A PC-type like Ted Turner isn't going to go for that, but he could still be an interesting enemy.

*Don't make Wheeler (the American character) a hothead dumbass. Seriously, do you think Americans are going to want to watch a TV series depicting them so poorly?

*More focus on non-Western environmental pollution. There was one episode where the Russian girl went home to find her hometown getting wrecked by a slipshod Soviet-era mine or something. Depict how environmentally-destructive Communist regimes have historically been. Dedicate a whole episode to the draining of the Aral Sea, for example. The "loose nukes" episode could have Linka pontificating about how horrible life under Communism was in order to put some Western environmentalist who's green on the outside and red on the inside in their place, with the Soviet regime's nuclear weapons now getting bought up by terrorists and malevolent dictators.

Here's a suggestion the board member whose handle is Admiral Hook came up with:

*Captain Planet is actually some kind of being summoned from a ecologically-devastated future back into the past to change history. When he's in the present-day, his body in the future is comatose, which could present some real problems Indian in the Cupboard-style (IIRC a WWI soldier brought into the present-day as a figurine was killed while asleep in a trench due to being summoned). If there's a parallel future storyline (perhaps involving a war on the blighted future Earth), that could be a way to build up some suspense.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Israel Founded Before WWI?

The other night I found a timeline on my alternate-history forum you all might find very interesting. It's called "A Mound of Spring: An Early-Developing Israel in a Late-Developing World." The user whose handle is yboxman (who wrote another timeline I've blogged about before) wanted to write a 20th Century that went the way Theodore Herzl and the other early Zionists thought it would go, with a Zionist vision to match.

The development of this world's Israel, starting with a late 19th Century colony in the northern Sinai fed by a diversion of the Nile River that could've happened in our world, is really interesting. Their solution to the problem of raiding Bedouin is really clever and effective. Yboxman explores the effective of a prosperous Jewish colony on the economy of Egypt and it's interesting. He also gets into what Judaism would look like if the Holy Land is reclaimed by Jews (the soldiers of the Egyptian colony, as allies of the British) in the pre-Holocaust era. These are some really fun aspects of the scenario.

However, on the other hand, things get really dark in the former Ottoman Empire. It's basically broken up Treaty of Sevres-style (to a point--the final disposition is rather different) with a lot of ethnic cleansing of Muslims, forced conversions, and straight-up genocide, with warlords fighting over the rump Turkish state in the interior of Anatolia in something resembling A Game of Thrones. It's a horror show.

Right now we're in the immediate aftermath of WWI with Russia--strained almost to the breaking point--experiencing a lot of civil unrest. This is going to lead to a lot of Russian and Polish Jews (including a very young Ayn Rand) emigrating to the Jewish colony in the Sinai and the British protectorate of "Canaan." There's also (probably) going to be a WWII in the future, although it's going to be rather different in this timeline.