Saturday, May 19, 2018

Great Minds Think Alike: The Dutch East India Company Finds Gold and My Afrikaner Timeline

Although I'm still self-banned from the alternate history forum to avoid Internet political drama and save time for my writing projects, I do drop in unlogged-in from time to time to see if there's anything cool in the public sections.

Well, here's a new timeline entitled "The Dutch Strike Gold: A Timeline of VOC Exploits in Southern Africa." In our history it's my understanding that the Dutch East India Company (whose Dutch acronym is VOC) restricted Dutch settlement to the coastal regions of what was then their Cape Colony, preventing further expansion into the rural areas. The movement of the Dutch into the interior, the Great Trek, came much later on, after the British seized the Cape during the Napoleonic Wars and many Dutch didn't want to live under their rule.

In this timeline, however, a VOC expedition into the interior discovers gold, prompting mass emigration to the colony from the Netherlands, France, and other parts of Europe. The Dutch begin moving into the interior well ahead of schedule, eventually putting them right in the crosshairs of the nascent Zulu Empire under the rule of the charismatic and highly dangerous Shaka Zulu. Shaka's conquests triggered the Mfecane, a period of widespread warfare and conquest in southern Africa that led to the formation of many new states and killed between one and two million people. Things get...interesting, although one positive consequence might be better relations between the Boers and neighboring African peoples, including possible intermarriage rather than what ultimately became apartheid.

This reminded me quite a bit of my own alternate timeline, "Apartheid Superpower," in which my space-war short story "Coil Gun" (included in Digital Science Fiction: Pressure Suite) and espionage novelette "Picking Up Plans in Palma" (available as part of the collection Digital Science Fiction: Cosmic Hooey as well) are set. My timeline is rather spotty in the early days, but it features a similar situation in that the Dutch settle southern Africa much earlier and in larger numbers, ultimately expanding all the way to the Sahara Desert and Ethiopia by land and into Arabia and India by sea.

(In case that sounds familiar, the world is both a homage to and critique of S.M. Stirling's Draka novels, the first three of which are combined in The Domination and the fourth novel Drakon. I elaborate a bit on that in this post here.)

Given how hostile the disease environment is toward Europeans and their livestock once one gets sufficiently north into Africa, that took some...creativity. For starters, the Afrikaner Confederation is founded independently of the Netherlands and VOC, allowing for more flexibility. What ends up developing is more akin to the Massachusetts Bay Colony than an outpost focused on providing way stations for the trade with India and nothing else. Secondly, a Spanish attack on Cape Town (complete with several leading citizens being burned at the stake for refusing to abandon Protestantism) traumatizes the Afrikaners and prompts them to greatly militarization. Thirdly, having the VOC side with Cape Town instead of Amsterdam when Revolutionary France seizes control of the Netherlands (in TongaTui's timeline the VOC and its African colonies side with France) allows the nascent Afrikaner Confederation to pretty much inherit all the VOC's assets throughout Asia and lots and lots of money, allowing for the Confederation to dominate southern Asia by the time of World War III.

However, dealing with malaria, the tsetse fly, etc. with pre-19th Century medical knowledge proved a tougher hurdle. I had the Afrikaners transplant cinchona trees to their lands in Africa and Asia (the anti-malarial quinine is made from the bark), something someone commenting on the timeline pointed out would be that era's equivalent of the Moon Landing. TongaTui's timeline is probably much more realistic than mine; it's certainly more conservative and better-researched.

So if you're interested in alternate history set in Africa, check out TongaTui's timeline and my timeline, as well as the published works linked to above.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Prussian Generals In Austrian Service and a Tougher Italian Fight for Ethiopia

Awhile back I posted about an alternate timeline featuring our world's Frederick the Great defecting to Austria and having a major impact on world history (early ending of serfdom in Russia, earlier and larger American Revolution, and much more). It was a pretty good timeline and it's still going.

Well, here's another alternate timeline featuring a real-life Prussian general in Austrian service, "The Great Silent One: Moltke the Austrian." In this one, the Prussian military genius Moltke the Elder moves to the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a child. Instead of serving on first the Prussian and then the German Imperial general staff, instead he enters the Hapsburg army and makes his way to their general staff instead. Nothing really significant differs from our world until the Austrians battle the French in the Sardinian War. Then things start getting really, really different. Highlights of the timeline include the humbling of Prussia, the continued survival of Napoleon III's regime in France (and its increasingly anti-British turn), a wiser Nicholas II of Russia influenced by his reformist grandfather and not his reactionary father, and French interfering in the Spanish-American War.

Things aren't looking good for the British as Europe seems to be developing an alternate-timeline version of the Three Emperor's League of Napoleonic France, the enlarged Hapsburg Empire, and Romanov Russia, but given how the French have annoyed the Americans already, it's possible an Anglo-American rapprochement will happen at around the same time.

Moving onward, there's another interesting timeline, "The New Conquering Lion of Judah, Ras Imru!" Ras Imru was a cousin of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and one of Ethiopia's most successful generals during the second Ethiopian-Italian war, at one point menacing the Italian rear before his army was wrecked by aerial bombardment using poison gas. Although many often think of the second war as being a one-sided beating of the Ethiopians by Mussolini and company, the Italians weren't doing too well early on. Heck, even later on the Ethiopians had the chance to inflict a major defeat on the Italians that they lost due to feasting before battle for a week.

(I'm MerryPrankster, although I haven't posted in years because the site--especially the political discussion forums--are time sinks.)

In this scenario, the timeline's author uses my suggested point of divergence that the Ethiopians attack the Italians at Maychew earlier and beat them. Despite winning the battle, the Ethiopians know they won't be able to defend the capital against the Italians once the rainy season ends, so they set up a provisional capital at Gore, more defensible against the Italians, and begin implementing long-run plans for a guerrilla war in areas under Italian occupation. The success at Maychew and Ethiopian diplomacy at the League of Nations convinces the League to end the arms embargo to "both sides" that benefited the somewhat-industrialized Italians (who could manufacture their own weapons) but kept the Ethiopians disarmed. Weapons ordered by the Ethiopians but impounded in other European colonies start flowing in, while foreign journalists have more freedom to cover the war (and thus publicize the Ethiopian cause).

In the last update the Ethiopians have abandoned the capital of Addis Ababa (with the exception of some stay-behinds who bushwhack Italian and Eritrean troops entering the city), but the war's not over yet...

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)

One of the most iconic animated films of many millennials' childhoods is An American Tail, which the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood was sure to cover and I was sure to review for my blog. Well, like many successful movies, it spawned a sequel a few years later--An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. And Myopia was sure to discuss it.

Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

Although the Mousekewitz family is happily reunited after the events of the previous film and remain unlikely friends with the "vegetarian" cat Tiger (Dom DeLuise), they're still living in an impoverished immigrant ghetto in New York City. A charismatic and ostensibly harmless cat named Cat-R-Waul (the John Cleese) persuades the family--and many other New York City mice--to travel west to a brand new life on the frontier.

Unfortunately, Cat-R-Waul is not as harmless as he seems, and its up to Fievel (Phillip Glasser) to save the day once more. Unfortunately, his sister Tanya's (Cathy Cavadini) musical dreams leave her vulnerable to Cat-R-Waul's blandishments. Can legendary gunfighter Wylie Burp (the legendary Jimmy Stewart in his final role) help save the day?

The Good

*There're some amusing jokes, like how the Mousekewitzs use Tanya's early singing--and the resulting thrown fruits and vegetables--to get food. It was a way to work "Somewhere Out There" back into the film at least. And there are some fun visual gags, including a tin can used as a hamster wheel. And when we finally meet the legendary Wylie Burp, he gets a couple good lines.

*They managed to bring back many of the voice actors from the original, like Dom DeLuise (Tiger), Phillip Glasser (Fievel), Nehemiah Persoff (Papa Mousekewitz), and Erica Yohn (Mama Mousekewitz) to voice the characters. Tanya has a new voice actress, but given how she's supposed to be Fievel's older sister and looks to be in her teens at this point, it makes sense her voice would sound different. Like "Somewhere Out There," the single version of her song "Dreams to Dream" was performed by Linda Rondstadt. Having continuity when you make a sequel is a good thing. And Glasser has improved as Fievel's voice--he doesn't sound nearly as annoying as he does sometimes in the original.

*Cat-R-Waul is entertaining as a villain. Very smart, very advanced vocabulary, and supercilious as hell. He was a lot of fun to watch, and a great improvement over the rather bland Warren T. Rat of the original. John Lovitz as Cat-R-Waul's tarantula minion Chula was pretty fun too.

*I like how they elaborated on Tanya's character, making her an aspiring singer and a pretty good one too. I liked Cavadini's singing voice, and Tanya's song "The Girl You Left Behind" in the cat bar is actually pretty entertaining. And for those of feminist inclinations, her scenes with Miss Kitty do pass the Bechdel Test. :)

*The later part of the movie gets a lot faster-moving and more entertaining. It even includes a training montage. And a character we never thought capable became a bad-ass.

The Bad

*The animation quality has declined from the original--static backgrounds that are obvious paintings without any movement. The fact that Don Bluth, who left Disney over their corner-cutting with animation, isn't involved in this one is rather obvious.

*There's a lot of rehashing of the first movie--the mice have to flee cat pogroms again, Fievel gets separated from his family again, there's an "ally" who it turns out is a villainous cat, etc. The songs feel like rehashes too--compare "Way Out West" to "No Cats in America." Very similar, but less ethnic. Assimilation? Laziness on the part of the writers? Complaints about the original number being stereotypical? Either way, less original and less fun.

*The mice seem to fall for Cat-R-Waul's scheme far too readily with far too few skeptics. These are prey animals and cats (with the exception of the eccentric pescatarian Tiger and to a degree Miss Kitty) are their mortal enemies. If they were that dumb, they wouldn't have lived that long. Papa Mousekewitz had already found out the hard way in the last film that there ARE cats in America and the streets aren't full of cheese, so I would expect him at least to be less naive. "Out west, cats are good?" Really? Papa Mousekewitz, how stupid are you? That seems like something Fievel, who idealizes the Wild West and has a cat friend, might think of, with pogrom survivor Papa Mousekewitz a bit more suspicious. After all, when they're leaving on the train, Papa tells Fievel that when he's older he'll realize his friendship with Tiger wasn't meant to be or something like that.

*When Fievel is pursued by a predatory bird, the music sounds very much like something I remember from The Land Before Time. Were they so cheap that they were reduced to reusing soundtrack elements from an unrelated film that happened to have the same producer?

*Fievel's family seems remarkably blase about them losing him again. Papa Mousekewitz seems to trust that he'd find their way back to them like he did in the first film, but that's really a reckless attitude to have.

*There's a bit of bad CGI (or at least something that looked like bad early 1990s CGI) at the end that's really not necessary.

The Verdict

An improvement on the original in many respects, but derivative and the plot relies on several characters being idiots. Fortunately it's not too long. 6.5 out of 10.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Long ago I rented the 1982 Don Bluth animated classic The Secret of the NIMH from Blockbuster Video to see it a second time, since I had seen it on VHS tape as a child in elementary school and been quite frankly scared to death by it. As an adult I didn't find it scary, but I did think it was very well-done. When I first began pondering "blast from the past" movie reviews, it was The Secret of the NIMH I had in mind.

Years passed. I eventually met Bluth and his cohort Gary Goldman while reporting on the 2011 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in Johns Creek, learning about the back-story behind NIMH and how it paved the way for An American Tail. Eventually the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood was born, and I awaited the day we could watch the film once more.

Well, that day has come. Here's the podcast. And now for the review.

The Plot

Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) is the widowed mother of four little mice, and she has very good reason to be worried. Every year she must move her family's home to avoid the oncoming plow, but her son Timothy has been bitten by a spider and then developed pneumonia. To move him risks killing him, but if they don't move, they'll all die. Aided by the annoying crow Jeremy (Dom DeLuise), she ultimately seeks out a mysterious colony of intelligent rats, only to be swept up in the machinations of the evil Jenner (Paul Shenar).

The Good

*Bluth and his allies left Disney because they were upset the company had become too cheap to produce good animation and set out to create quality art in hopes of competing with Disney and pushing the company back to its former glory. It shows. This is quite frankly a beautifully-made movie. The animation is incredibly detailed--for example, there's a scene where Mrs. Brisby slips through a hole into a lighted room and her body cuts off the light for a couple seconds.

*Per my above comment, even the smallest details are important. In a flashback scene we meet Jonathan Brisby and he bears a strong resemblance to his children, particularly Timmy. That would have been something easy to overlook, but the creators didn't.

*There are subtle details in the narrative that are well-done as well. Mrs. Brisby says she can read a little because Jonathan taught her, but the children are better. This makes quite a lot of sense--she's an ordinary mouse, but her children were fathered by a mouse deliberately altered to be human-level intelligent. If his genes bred true, and it seems they did, then her children would be more intelligent than she is. And she's always addressed as "Mrs. Brisby" or "Mrs. Jonathan Brisby"--according to some fan theories I reviewed after watching the film, it's possible she might not have even had a name before she met Jonathan. After all, Auntie Shrew is called by her species and an honorary title rather than a human name like Martin or Teresa (the Brisby children), Jenner, Justinian, and Nicodemus (the NIMH rats), etc.

*Some of the characterization makes a lot of sense. I remember reading in a high school psychology book that an only boy in an otherwise female household (say a younger brother of several sisters) might either act exaggeratedly masculine (as "the man of the house") or more "effeminate" (in the context of the book, more sensitive and emotional). Martin seems to demonstrate the former--although he had a father and has a younger brother, Jonathan Brisby has been dead for some time and Timmy seems so much younger that Martin might as well be the only boy. And of course, he loudly insists he's not even afraid of the Great Owl and he's not very respectful to Auntie Shrew or to Jeremy, despite both of them being significantly bigger and Auntie Shrew apparently being a secondary mother-figure to them besides.

*The characterization of the Great Owl as a kind of god-like entity makes sense as well. Owls are associated with wisdom, but at the same time, to mice, rats, and even crows like Jeremy, an owl is a terrifying predator. To Mrs. Brisby, the Great Owl is awesome in the same sense God is--something that could bless or destroy. And just how the Great Owl demonstrates his power is subtle and clever.

*Elizabeth Hartman does a great job as the voice of Mrs. Brisby. I'd always thought Mrs. Brisby had a beautiful voice, and though it's not so nice the third time around, it's still well-done. And she does a good job showing the character's feelings--her fear for her children, her desire to be brave, her irritation with Jeremy.

*The dialogue is often extremely clever. I particularly noted how Mrs. Brisby is good at playing on Jeremy's various fixations and flattering him to get him to do things for her.

*Although Jenner is a little too obviously manipulative in places, he's very good at it. I can't go into details about how he uses Nicodemus's own words and desires for his own schemes without going into spoilers, but he's pretty smart about it.

*It's rather violent for a children's movie and it did scare me as a six-year-old, but that's not a bad thing. C.K. Chesterton said children already know dragons exist; the importance of fairy tales is that they tell children dragons can be killed. Evils like the overpowering force of NIMH or the farmer's plow, the selfish ambition, manipulation, and brutality of Jenner, or the cowardice and gullibility of Sullivan exist, but they can be beaten. I saw the original Land Before Time (also a Bluth film) in theaters at age four and it scared me, but I doubt it was particularly traumatic. This might be fine for kids a little older--first/second-graders rather than kindergartners like I was.

The Bad

*Subtlety is not the film's strong suite. Jenner is pretty obviously a bad guy--he looks distinctly lupine, far more overtly predatory than the other rats who escaped from NIMH. And when he's trying to persuade somebody, he's really quite oily in his body language and mannerisms.

*The books are very pro-science, with the rats using human technology or equivalents they can make from local resources. The film brings magic, or at least something that appears to be magic, into the equation, and it's that which ultimately proves more important. Now, one could simply claim this was some kind of more advanced science devised by Nicodemus (who also has a machine that allows him to scry/remote view) rather than anything overtly supernatural, but I shouldn't have to stretch that much for something that happens in the film to make sense.

The Verdict

It's not as good the third time around, but the fact it terrified me as a child and was a great movie in my 20s shows its quality. 9.0 out of 10.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

How I Would Have Done AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (Spoilers)

This past Sunday I saw Avengers: Infinity War. Based on reviews and word of mouth, I expected something great and glorious and ended up disappointed. However, anybody can complain. I did some thinking based on my concern that there's a lot of stuff that's told rather than shown and decided that Infinity War would actually work better as a trilogy than a duology.

Firstly, I would have had the Asgardian refugees escape Thanos' initial attack (implied in the post-credits scene of Thor Ragnarok) and make it to Nidavellir. Nidavellir's dwarfs are the ones who made the Asgardians' weaponry and it would make sense the homeless Asgardians would seek the hospitality of their allies, especially a race of weaponsmiths who could help them fight off this new attacker. Eitri (Peter Dinklage) begins making Thor Stormbreaker to kill Thanos, but before it can be finished, Thanos and company catch up with them. We have the battle between him and his goon squad and the Asgardians that we only see the aftermath of in the beginning of the film. Here's a chance to develop the Black Order further--Ebony Maw, Thanos's sorcerer, can battle Loki, while Corvus Glaive and Proxima Midnight can be revealed as Dark Elves (the ones from Thor Dark World) with a major grudge against the Asgardians and battle Thor and Heimdall.

(With the exception of those weird horns Proxima had, I thought Corvus and Proxima were Dark Elves. With most of their race having been killed prior to or during the second Thor film, it would make sense that any dregs might fall under the domination of Thanos.)

Not only are Corvus and Proxima Dark Elves, but Thanos' muscle is augmented by none other than Ultron. It turns out the wounded Ultron Vision killed at the end of Age of Ultron wasn't the only surviving copy and Thanos collected him and gave him the resources needed to repair himself and build a new army. Although his ultimate goal would be confronting his creator Tony Stark, Thor destroyed his fair share of Ultron-bots and so he'll gladly fight him too. The surviving Asgardians and dwarfs are beaten. Thanos kills Heimdall and Loki as he does in the film, and then he forces the dwarfs to make the Infinity Gauntlet for him.

(Continuity error, as in the post-credits sequence for Age of Ultron, it seems he already has the Infinity Gauntlet. Maybe he needs it augmented or altered in some way?)

Thor manages to get away with the newly-forged Stormbreaker, perhaps as a result of Heimdall's sacrifice that also enables Banner to escape. Perhaps Thanos forcing Eitri to make or improve the Gauntlet for him is specifically a punishment for making Stormbreaker? This will foreshadow Stormbreaker is something Thanos fears.

Not long afterward, the Guardians are on Xandar when Thanos and company show up. They help the Nova Corps fight the oncoming enemy, possibly with the help of Ravagers coming to aid Yondu's adopted son Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Unfortunately, Thanos has his own contacts within the Ravagers and some of them turn traitor at the worst possible time, seduced to Thanos's cause with the promise of looting Xandar once the Nova Corps is destroyed. The Ravager commander Sylvester Stallone (does he have a name?) is killed and the dregs of the loyal Ravagers are forced to retreat under the command of Kraglin (Sean Gunn). With the Nova Corps destroyed, Thanos manages to capture another Infinity Stone. The fact Thanos won through treason and dividing his enemies will show that he's not just a big purple brute, but a clever politician and general too.

(I'm actually reminded of Morgoth engineering the Easterlings' treason in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears in The Silmarillon.)

The Guardians flee the devastated Xandar to Knowhere, hoping to retrieve the Infinity Stone the Collector has now they know what Thanos is up to, but they find Thanos has gotten there first. The Knowhere sequence plays out largely like it does in the actual film, which leads to the Guardians heading for Titan. I'd also like Howard the Duck to make a cameo, since he was in the stinger of the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps during the fight Thanos nonchalantly steps on him and it's played for laughs?

Meanwhile, Thor and Banner arrive on Earth and meet Dr. Strange and Iron Man. The film ends with the arrival of Thanos's Black Order generals on Earth and everybody preparing to fight. Pepper might play a larger role than just getting ditched so Tony can run off with Banner and Dr. Strange--in Iron Man III she becomes an Extremis super-soldier and although Tony claims he can "fix" her, if she can avoid accidentally blowing up, why would she want to be fixed? It'd be hard for villains to take her hostage or menace her to mess with Tony if she's superpowered herself. It's not like Pepper doesn't become super-powered in the comics--she gets her own powered armor and becomes the superheroine Rescue.

To include the Avengers in this otherwise cosmic-focused film, perhaps there's a parallel plot featuring the loyalists (Tony and friends) hunting the rebels (Captain America and his crew) and we have a rematch? Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) meeting up for romantic rendezvous could make this happen--they meet in New York City on the grounds it's the last place the loyalists would look, but Tony and Colonel Rhodes manage to track Vision despite his precautions and arrive to detain Wanda. Then Captain America, Black Widow, and Falcon show up, having anticipated exactly this. There's a fight and then Thor, Banner, Dr. Strange, and Wong show up to put a stop to it, much to the annoyance of General Ross (William Hurt). Unfortunately, just when the old friends have finally made peace, Ebony Maw and friends show up on Earth. Credits.

The second film will begin with the fight that triggers Tony and friends going to Titan where they encounter the Guardians. Thanos's goons attack the reunited Avengers and wound Vision, leading Captain America and his team return to Avengers HQ (which I don't think is that far from NYC) to treat him and collect War Machine (Don Cheadle). General Ross has anticipated this and unleashes the Abomination (Tim Roth) on them. They escape and head to Wakanda with Vision for the canonical "remove and destroy the stone" plot while Thanos defeats the good guys on Titan. The remaining members of the Black Order arrive, with Ultron's robot horde providing the muscle, and we have the canonical battle with the Wakandan army and (most of) the Avengers.

Perhaps Ultron fighting every Avenger but Tony Stark becomes a running gag? Spader was good with the exasperation in Age of Ultron, so we could see more of that here. For a more serious alternative take, he ends up facing Wanda, who destroyed his primary body in Age of Ultron. She's still pissed about the death of her brother and Ultron feels guilty despite himself. After all, she was the only human he seemed to have any sympathy for, even warning her to run and save herself after she and her brother abandoned him for the Avengers. If he's a sophisticated enough machine to have Daddy issues and be so disgusted by humanity he wants to kill everybody, he can feel guilt as well.

Either way, although the Black Order is destroyed, Thanos arrives to claim his prize. My movie ends the same way as the canonical film did, with the upcoming second film being the third film in my proposed trilogy.

What do you all think? The one flaw I can see in this is that it juggles multiple parallel plots, but the Asgardian one can be merged into the Earth-based Avengers plot relatively quickly, perhaps a quarter to a third of the way into the film.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

At long last, the event initiated in the post-credits sequence of the original Avengers film, helped along by the post-credits scenes in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Thor: Ragnarok and a glimpse of the tyrant's machinations in the first Guardians of the Galaxy has come. The Mad Titan Thanos has come to Earth. The Infinity War has begun.

The Plot

Mere minutes after the ending of Thor Ragnarok, Thanos makes his big move. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) manages to escape to Earth, arriving not long before the first of Thanos's generals. Thanos has already captured several of the Infinity Stones, super-powerful elements forged in the Big Bang, and now he intends to get the rest of them. Ranged against him are the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the survivors of Asgard, but that might not be enough...

The Good

*The movie moves along quickly and brings in the various characters from the previous films in an organic and intelligent way. Although some of the early reviews I've read claimed the movie was "overstuffed," I never got that vibe at all. It all made sense.

*Thanos's motivation are pared down and less silly than in the comics. Not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers.

*Thanos (Josh Brolin) in general is a very impressive character, rather than merely being a monster sitting on his throne and getting failed by minions repeatedly as he was in the earlier films. He's as strong (or stronger) than the Hulk, as clever as Loki, and utterly ruthless and driven. He's also capable of quite a lot of pathos for a genocidal space god.

*I liked Vision's (Paul Bettany's) interactions with Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). He's a genius-level AI, but he's also two or three years old. Some social clumsiness is to be expected.

*We visit Nidavellir, a world of space dwarfs who forged the Asgardians' weapons. That's a nice nod to Norse mythology.

*A character who has been away for quite some time makes a return appearance and has a major role to play in the story. Again, not going into detail for reasons of spoilers.

*There are some well-done fight scenes. Not going to go into details for reasons of spoilers, but my favorite is a battle on Titan.

(There's a theme going here, in case you haven't noticed.)

*Peter Dinklage plays a minor role and I liked it.

The Bad

*The Black Order (who in the films refer to themselves as "the Children of Thanos") don't really have distinct personalities. I didn't even get their names--the wizardy one that Tony refers to as "Squidward" I think is referred to by Thanos later as "Ebony Maw," but that's it. I like the idea of a villain having his own personal posse (in TVTropes they call this the Quirky Miniboss Squad, although that's a little too goofy for this crew) of actual characters, but this was a failed opportunity. They'd be better-developed if Marvel had used some of its previous baddies instead of killing off all but Loki and Baron Zemo--say a single Ultron-bot survived, Thanos' underlings rescued/captured him, and instead of those demon-beast things, it's an army of Ultrons in Wakanda complete with a smart-alecky James Spader voicing them all.

*There's a lot of telling and not showing with the nasty things Thanos does before the movie begins. It might have been better to make Infinity War a trilogy instead of a duology, with the events on Xandar, Knowhere, and Nidavellir as the first movie (there might be ways to get the major characters involved there--say the Guardians are on Xandar and the Asgardian refugees at Nidavellir when Thanos does his thing), this as the second, and the events of the upcoming second film as the third. This would make it especially clear Thanos is the biggest and baddest of them all and ironically make this film, probably one of the darkest MCU films, a Hope Spot. Here's how I would have done it, but beware spoilers.

*The whole thing I felt was kind of underwhelming. Maybe I went in with overblown expectations, having read reviews or spoiler-free comments describing people shrieking in the theaters and the like, but still.

*The film has a pretty significant body-count of major characters, but I can sense a major cop-out coming in the second film.

The Verdict

Don't get your expectations inflated and you'll enjoy it better than I did. 7.5 out of 10.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Frederick the Great an Austrian General and Marc Antony Surviving: Two Cool Alternate Timelines

Although to avoid wasting time in arguments I've had myself banned from the alternate-history forum for probably close to three years now (the exception being a window where I could alert them to the release of The Thing in the Woods last spring/summer), I do browse the public forums quite a bit. There are some cool ongoing timelines I follow and I just found a couple interesting new ones.

The first is "Dionysus Lives: A Mark Antony Survival Timeline." It diverges from our history with Marc Antony winning the Battle of Actium by leading his army in person and keeping the sixteen legions from abandoning his cause. With his army and fleet intact, the war with Octavian, the future Caesar Augustus, is prolonged and ends up in a negotiated truce where Antony is dominant in the East and Octavian in the West. Antony wages wars against the Parthians and others, but has to deal with the rivalry between his Egyptian wife Cleopatra and his powerful client Herod the Great. It's pretty interesting, especially for enthusiasts of the Late Republic and the personalities of that era.

(One of the few shows I watched after high school was HBO's Rome after all.)

The second is "Odyssey of Fritz, the Turncoat Prince." In real history, the young Prussian prince who would become the warrior-king Frederick the Great ran away from his father with a "friend" (possibly a homosexual lover), but was caught. In this story, he flees on an alternate route south and ends up in Austria, where he befriends (friends only, much to the latter's annoyance) future Empress Maria Theresa and ends up becoming a major Austrian general. Without Frederick's genius organizing Prussia the state runs into...some trouble (not going into more detail for reasons of spoilers), but Frederick rises high in Hapsburg service and has all sorts of interesting adventures. Highlights include a more brutal subjugation of Scotland and Ireland foreshadowing an earlier American Revolution, an earlier emancipation of the serfs, and the woman who in our history became Catherine the Great of Russia marrying into the British royal family.

Both timelines are ongoing, so check back often. I know I will.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Grimdark Alternative Ending for the 1994 Stargate

The following discussion contains spoilers for the 1994 science-fiction film Stargate, although given how the movie is 24 years old I don't know why that's important.

In the film, Ra plans to send an American nuclear warhead back to Earth, enhanced with the type of materials his advanced technology uses (in Stargate SG-1 it's called naquadah). He states this will enhance the warhead's power 100 times and claims that he created human civilization and now he will end it.

Hold it right there. Assuming that the military sent a W78 nuclear warhead through the Stargate with O'Neill, that's 350 kilotons. A nuke enhanced with naquadah to 100x its force would be around 35 megatons. That's around a third more than the 1960s-era B41 nuclear weapon. Mount St. Helens' eruption was 25 megatons of explosive power, while Mount Pinatubo was around 70 megatons. So Ra sends the nuke back through the Stargate and it detonates in the decommissioned nuclear silo that was the base of operations for the mission. Assuming he can remotely detonate it through the gateway, he's basically just caused a volcanic eruption in the U.S. Rocky Mountains, and that assumes the mountain on top of the explosion cannot contain it. After all, underground nuclear tests generally don't disturb the surface that much.

Mount Pinatubo caused a worldwide temperature drop of one degree, and that was with smoke, gas, and other crap continuously pumping into the atmosphere from the bowels of the Earth and spreading all over the world rather than a one-time big bang and, depending on what's around it, a big radioactive forest fire. Assuming the equivalent of Mount Pinatubo, Ra has just caused--maybe--a repeat of the Year Without a Summer in 1994. That would suck if it causes drought and famine in marginal areas, but it would not destroy modern civilization.

That said, there's a more grimdark possibility here. If there's a major nuclear detonation in the US, it could potentially lead to a confrontation with Russia, although I doubt President Clinton would have ordered a nuclear strike not knowing what happened. Assuming the US panicked and launched on Russia and the Russians fired back, you could have a civilization-ending nuclear exchange depending on what missiles are fired, where they detonate, etc. Bonus points if there's a nuclear winter to cause famine and ecological collapse in otherwise unaffected areas.

Ra (or some other opportunistic Goa'uld who notices) could wait a few years or decades for civilization to collapse, show up and pull his "I'm a god" trick on the debased, uneducated descendants of the exchange survivors, and assume control over Earth. I'm now imagining the Earth's surviving libraries as the equivalents of the fresco Sha'uri showed Dr. Jackson that depicted Ra bringing Earthlings to Abydos and the rebellion that ended his rule on Earth thousands of years ago.

Of course, Ra in the movie doesn't actually seem powerful to pull that off, even if post-nuclear civilization is reduced to medieval levels. He's got a couple fighter jets, one spaceship, and a few guards with armor resembling that of Egypt's gods. The basis of his rule is deception, not raw strength. He might not be able successfully take control of Earth, although one of the TV series' Goa'uld with their planetary empires, navies, etc. would.

That said, I could easily imagine him taking control over part of it. Maybe he keeps Dr. Jackson alive using the sarcophagus long enough to see him returning to Egypt and re-establishing himself as god there once more.

How's that for a Downer Ending?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Geekly Oddcast: The Prequels Nobody Wanted

I'm not a regular participant in The Geekly Oddcast the way I am with Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, but I do show up from time to time. The last episode I appeared in was another game like turning children's stories into horror movies, making animated children's films into live-action movies (I'm holding out for Bart the Bear in costume as Little John), and casting a 1970s version of The Avengers. For this, one, the focus was on prequels nobody wanted. The idea was that we'd agree on one film and then "Rogue One" it, plotting out a full story and actually try to make it good.

The film we ultimately chose was Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Time travel gets put to all sorts of interesting uses in that one, plus I annoy everybody by bringing up Denver the Last Dinosaur. Here's the full episode if you want to hear more, including some thoughts about a prequel to Friday the 13th featuring Pamela Voorhees in the vein of Cher in the film Mask (if Cher's son had died due to camp-counselor negligence and Cher went violently insane). However, it was my understanding we were to come with a few ideas already. Here're the two I provided for the podcast itself:

Highlander-A prequel focused on the Kurgan or Ramirez would have been pretty cool without much effort, but making one about young Connor would be tricky. Maybe a back-story of the feud between the Macleods and the Frasers, with the Kurgan making a dramatic entrance by killing a bunch of people in the vein of Vader's appearance in Rogue One? You could have the love story between Connor and Kate (you know, the one who later demanded he be burned at the stake) and perhaps go with the fan theory that Dugal "comforted" Kate after Connor's death and their insistence Connor was demon-possessed or a witch was driven by guilt.

Since the ultimate goal is potentially making this into a good film, it could be some kind of semi-Braveheart, possibly with a teen love triangle thrown in for good measure, and an occasional appearance by the Kurgan to remind us that this is actually a Highlander film.

The Guyver-The protagonist could be Tetsu Segawa, the scientist father of love interest Mitzi Segawa from the original film. We see how he got involves with the Chronos Corporation, how he became a Zoanoid, and how he ultimately attempted to steal a Guyver unit and defect to the CIA. You could get an early appearance by the Zoanoid gangbangers of the first film and even the dragon-like monstrous form of evil CEO Fulton Balcus much like how Rogue One gives us some of the pre-Alderaan outings of the Death Star. It could give Mark Hamill a chance to reprise his role as the CIA agent Max, although he's aged so much since the movie was made that this really wouldn't be a good idea unless they CGI de-aged him a la Tony Stark in Captain America Civil War or Rachael in Blade Runner 2049 or went full-blown Tarkin or Leia like in Rogue One.

(Granted, you could do an all-new cast, but including Mark Hamill might be the only way to get this off the ground.)

I never really got the chance to contribute any more ideas, but other notions I had included expanding the 1970s opening of Master of Disguise into a full movie, making a prequel to That's My Boy that's basically a Lifetime Original Movie about creepy teachers with the genders swapped, making a prequel to Stargate about how Kurt Russell's character's son killed himself with his dad's gun (basically an "issues movie" about accidental shootings), and making a prequel to Gigli (probably one of the worst movies ever made) following Ben Affleck or Jennifer Lopez's characters before the kidnapping that dominates the film's plot.

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Highlander (1986)

When I was in middle school, I enjoyed watching Sci-Fi Channel re-runs of Highlander: The Series. The show features Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod, an immortal Scotsman who must battle other immortals for "The Prize." Highlander: The Series is actually a sequel to the 1986 film Highlander, in which Christopher Lambert plays Connor MacLeod, a similar character.

(Connor is from the same family, but from a couple generations back. The opening episode of the television series features him intervening on behalf of Duncan when the latter, who has abandoned pursuit of "The Prize" to live a quiet and normal life, is attacked by the evil immortal Slan Quince.)

I also taped (yes, on a VHS tape) Highlander on USA Network's Joe Bob Briggs' MonsterVision program and enjoyed it, even though Briggs mocked the movie's ponderous terminology ("the Quickening and the Gathering and the roaming and the gloaming"). The medieval incarnation of the villainous Kurgan (Clancy Brown) is the inspiration for the appearance of Grendel, the first lord of the Northlands and antagonist of my as-yet-unpublished steampunk-Western Battle for the Wastelands. And of course, the opening song by Queen is awesome. So when the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood picked the movie, I was eager to participate.

Here's the podcast. Now for the review...

The Plot

Connor MacLeod is a young man in medieval Scotland who is mortally wounded on the battlefield by a barbarian mercenary known only as the Kurgan. He recovers miraculously, but is cast out by his superstitious kinsmen. He soon encounters the Spaniard Ramirez (Sean Connery), who was actually born thousands of years before in ancient Egypt. Ramirez introduces him to the secret world of the immortals, who are destined to someday be called to "a distant land" for the time of "The Gathering," where they will behead each other until one wins "The Prize."

Mishaps ensue, and we catch up to Connor years later in 1980s New York City. His taking the head of another immortal attracts the attention of police forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). Unfortunately, it is also the time of the Gathering, and the Kurgan is still alive and ready to claim the Prize.

The Good

*The movie is never boring. I watched it on my Kindle (via an Amazon "movie rental") on the elliptical at my gym (much like I did with Tomb Raider for an earlier episode) and an hour went by pretty quickly.

*The aging and death of Connor's medieval wife Heather while he stays young, all set to "Who Wants to Live Forever," is legitimately poignant. No wonder Ramirez advises him to leave her for her own sake, especially since she seems to blame herself for their not having children. For the record, it's part of the mythology that immortals are sterile.

*The version I saw seemed to be an extended version which included just who Rachel, who seems to be Connor's modern-day assistant, is. When I first saw the movie I thought he might be Connor's modern lover who he intends to leave for someone new as soon as she ages to the point the age difference starts getting noticeable (which would make Connor a gigantic asshole--per one of the graphic novels, even the dastardly Adam Monroe from Heroes pretended to be his wife's son and then grandson until she passed, and Connor himself did that for Heather), but the version I saw revealed that Rachel was a little girl he'd rescued from the Nazis and kind of adopted. It also makes it clearer that Heather's death has traumatized Connor so much that he's abandoned any effort at romantic relationships, as Ramirez had advised him to do.

*Brenda Wyatt is a very active female character--she becomes interested in Connor after the police investigate the opening battle in Madison Square Garden and investigates him on her own even though the police seem to give up on investigating Connor for the other immortal's death. She even sets up a date with him and sets up a tape recorder recording and stashes a gun just in case in order to find out more. She also searches the archives for information on Nash and the owner of his house. She's also very interested in ancient sword-making, which is what clued her into his immortal nature in the first place. Some shrinking violet she is not.

*The vile Kurgan gets some interesting character development in the modern day--he has a rather twisted sense of humor, which he gets to indulge in without consequence owing to his immortality.

The Bad

*One wonders if Christopher Lambert, born to French parents and having grown up in Switzerland (and thus having a very French-sounding accent), was the best choice to play the Scottish Connor. Although one could imagine him adopting a different accent and mannerisms over the course of centuries of life, he doesn't seem too different in medieval Scotland as he does in 1980s New York City.

Sean Connery's Ramirez, who was born in ancient Egypt but is living as a Spaniard in medieval times, is even more blatant. It's my understanding that ancient Egyptians were a Semitic people like Jews or Arabs; although there might be exceptional-looking individuals like Ramesses II who was apparently a fair-skinned redhead, I imagine Ramirez would be more Jewish or Arabic-looking than the Scottish Sean Connery. Omar Sharif might have been a more sensible and equally commercially-viable alternative--take a look at his character in the 1980 Chevy Chase film Oh Heavenly Dog or in the 1986 Peter the Great miniseries. He even kind of looks like Sean Connery.

*Lambert's delivery in many cases, especially when he seems to be trying to assume a Scottish accent, isn't very good.

*When Ramirez battles the Kurgan in medieval Scotland, he has several chances to take his head but doesn't do so. That weakens both characters--it makes the Kurgan seem less dangerous and makes Ramirez, who is over 2,000 years old and has been doing the whole "battle other immortals for their heads" thing the whole time, seem less competent. The filmmakers missed a chance to make the Kurgan seem truly deadly, as befitting the man whom Ramirez claims is the strongest immortal.

*Wyatt's discovery of Connor's immortality basically requires him to have been living in New York City continuous for over 200 years--or at the very least returning to the same house after years- or decades-long gaps. That doesn't reflect well on Connor's intelligence--even with the kind of turnover pre-modern disease-ridden cities had, surely someone might notice. And that assumes nobody pays too close attention to ownership records.

*I don't get the romance that develops between Connor and Brenda. Connor's will to never repeat what happened with Heather might be starting to crack after 400-odd years of not being in a serious relationship and he might glom onto an attractive woman pursuing him, but Brenda seems to be motivated more by intellectual curiosity than love or even desire.

*How on Earth can Brenda afford such a gigantic New York City apartment on the salary of a police forensics official, even with some extra income from her books on sword-making? At least in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was made clear April was living above the store she inherited from her father and owned property outside of the city as well, which perhaps she made additional income renting out. Maybe Brenda's living in New Jersey or somewhere else outside of New York City proper, since it takes some time for her to get back into the city the last time we see her in it. This article from of all places shows that Hollywood often misrepresents just how expensive housing is.

*When an immortal character is killed, monsters and demons and what not appear in his Quickening. In previous Quickenings, it seems to be just lightning everywhere. Not really sure what was going on there.

The Verdict

A pretty good movie, but could be better in many ways. 8.0 out of 10, but barely.