Thursday, June 7, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Under Siege (1992)

One of the movies I'd wanted to see when I was a kid but wasn't allowed to was the original Under Siege, starring noted martial artist Steven Seagal. Like most movies I wasn't allowed to see I ended up losing interest in it, but thanks to the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood and Amazon Instant Video, I had the chance to see it again.

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

The Plot

The U.S.S. Missouri, the venerable battleship that accepted the surrender of Imperial Japan in 1945 and was upgraded to fight in the Gulf War, has finally been retired. It's making one last cruise from Hawaii to San Francisco to be decommissioned. Aboard the ship is cook Casey Ryback (Steven Seagal), personally chosen by Captain Adams (Patrick O'Neal) but disliked by the cranky executive officer Commander Krill (Gary Busey).

Krill throws a surprise birthday party for Adams, led by apparent musician William Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones), but it turns out it's all a scheme to seize control of the ship and sell its Tomahawk missiles (including several tipped with nuclear weapons) to the highest bidder. With most of the crew killed or welded up in the ship's forecastle, it's up to Ryback and some unlikely allies to save the day.

The Good

*The movie is entertaining and moves along at a pretty brisk clip. It's never boring, which is the major reason one sees these movies. :) In TVTropes terms, there are several Crowning Moments of Awesome, including one involving the Missouri's main guns.

*Tommy Lee Jones does a good job as the brilliant but deranged Strannix. It reminds me a lot of his later performance of the manic Two-Face in Batman Forever. And as befitting someone with military command experience (he references attending the War College, which colonels and lieutenant colonels apply to enter) he avoids, as TVTropes puts it, the infamous Villain Ball. Instead of sending out individual goons to be killed, they're to patrol in groups, not pursue Ryback into unsecured areas, check in regularly, etc.

*There's the theme throughout the movie of political-hack superiors throwing fighting-men under the bus. Although one would like to think our military is immune to CYA and other such bullshit, that's not the case. Although I'm violating the Servo Rule about invoking good movies in one's crappy movie (okay "mediocre" is more accurate), the novel Once An Eagle (later adapted into a miniseries) features a slimy politically-savvy staff officer Courtney Massengale and the battle-tested Sam Damon who has to fix or take the fall for his screw-ups.

*The opening scene in which the executive officer is the hard-ass and the captain more mellow reflects something I remember reading about how a well-run Navy ship operates. The captain is supposed to be the "good cop" and the XO the "bad cop." The XO is also more involved in the day-to-day hands-on stuff than the captain is. Commander Krill getting on Ryback's case about his uniform reflects that.

*I'm pretty sure that's really President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush in the movie.

*The terrorists' scheme to get aboard the ship actually makes a lot of sense. After all, Cher filmed the music video for "If I Could Turn Back Time" on the USS Missouri when it was docked in California.

*There's a really creative henchman death involving an I-beam.

*A first-time killer (who starts out the film as a pacifist no less) reacts with all the emotional trauma one would expect when they have to kill a terrorist.

The Bad

*The amount of skill required to hijack a U.S. Navy battleship is the kind of thing Soviet special forces or some other high-end military force would have. The terrorists seem like a bunch of mercenaries initially recruited for a CIA black-ops scheme or even a multinational criminal gang (there's a Eurotrash-looking guy, a Japanese guy, what sound like some Italians, a British guy, etc) led by what seems like a disgruntled U.S. Special Forces officer rather than a coherent unit. The recruiting effort needed to collect the people with all the necessary skill-sets from different nations, armies, etc. would raise all kinds of red flags, especially given the villain's immediate back-story, and then there's getting so many different people to actually work together.

It would make more sense if the perpetrators were some Soviet military or KGB die-hards who know they're on the way out (if this is in the fall or winter of 1991 the coup against Gorbachev has already failed and the USSR is clearly doomed) and are looking to secure their retirement if not take revenge on the Yankee capitalists. They'd be a coherent unit trained and working together for years with espirit de corps rather than a bunch of mercs who might balk at something so extreme and dangerous as taking on the U.S. Navy and simply take the money or some other goodies and run at first sign of trouble or before they even go through the mission. Mercenaries have historically not been very reliable soldiers..

Of course, given how dangerous a company or even a platoon of Spetsnaz would be, it'd be a much different and probably much shorter movie if the baddie rank-and-file were professional soldiers and not thug and merc types.

*Steven Seagal is a capable fighter, but he's not a very good actor. His delivery isn't very strong most of the time. Since he's the lead actor, this kind of presents a problem. :(

*Ryback gives a gun to a character who's an incoherent and frightened mess and expects them to be able to use it intelligently after having a couple of the gun's functions explained to them. One would think a trained soldier would know better. Of course he promptly uses this person as an ammo mule, so maybe he only intended them to actually use the weapon as a last resort.

*Do any of the terrorists have grenades? If they had grenades to use themselves, or if Ryback managed to snag a couple off the terrorists he kills, a lot of those gunfight scenes would be very difficult. Given how Strannix is a black-ops type, I would imagine his people would be carrying a bit more than small arms just in case.

*At one point Ryback basically abandons a bunch of his allies to go gallivanting around with only one other character, never mind that the terrorists still have at least half their numbers.

*A major plot point involves Tomahawk missiles having self-destruct codes the captain of the ship can trigger. I'm pretty sure those don't actually exist in real life--if an enemy got hold of them, they could use them to prevent a ship from effectively using its weapons. It'd be better if they were still relying on targeting data from the Missouri's radars or satellite inputs and could be redirected using the ship's fire control, but even that would be a problem.

*There's a love-interest plot involving Ryback, but there's no foreshadowing of it or any depth to the relationship. Some kind of weird trauma-bonding perhaps? It'd be more interesting if they avoided it completely, since a lot of action films have a token romantic plot and this would be different.

The Verdict

Fun, but more than a little bit nonsensical. See it once. 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Stargate (1994)

The first time I saw the movie Stargate, I was in late elementary or middle school having a friend spend the night over and I'm pretty sure we'd rented it from a Hollywood Video. That's how long ago it was. The second time I saw it with some of my church friends, who had a tradition of a double feature and then going to the Chinese Buddha in Atlanta for midnight-or-later Chinese food, after I graduated college.

Well, the third time I saw it, it was for Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Here's the podcast. And now for the review.

(Let the record state the version I saw was the extended version, which has a different beginning than the theatrical version.)


The Plot

On Earth in 1928, an alien artifact is unearthed in Egypt by an archaeologist with a young daughter Catherine. Flash forward to the present day and Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader), a fringe archaeologist on the verge of homelessness, is recruited by the grown up Catherine Langford (Viveca Lindfors) to translate the hieroglyphics on her father's artifact--which are in ancient Egyptian.

It's soon discovered the artifact is a stargate to a distant world and a military team led by the troubled Col. Jack O'Neill (Kurt Russell) is dispatched to explore it. There they find the distant descendants of Egyptians, led by the priest Kusuf (Erick Avari). Jackson befriends Kusuf's daughter Sha'uri (Milli Avital) and O'Neill his son Skaara (Alexis Cruz), but things get complicated when a tyrannical alien masquerading as none other than the god Ra (Jaye Davidson) shows up.

The Good

*The movie starts out with a bang with an alien spacecraft landing in ancient North Africa (extended edition), followed by the discovery of the buried stargate (the theatrical opening and, and in the extended version, it includes some of Ra's soldiers who'd been buried with it or attempted to come through after it had been buried and didn't survive). Then we see Dr. Jackson getting humiliated for his alien theories--that turn out to be right--and the game is on.

*The back-story for Col. O'Neill and his son is exposited in an "as you know Bob" fashion, but this time it actually makes sense--one of the two soldiers sent to "reactivate" him honestly doesn't know why he's acting so weirdly, so the other guy needs to fill him in.

*Per the above, the relationship that O'Neill develops with Skaara makes a lot of sense and is generally well-done.

*When we meet the beasts of burden the peasants of Abydos use, they use practical effects, and these are good practical effects. It looks like Dr. Jackson is interacting with an actual animal. Since so little CGI is used, the special effects have aged well in the 24-odd years since the movie came out.

*The arrival of Ra and his entourage of Abydos is well-done. So are the armor and equipment of Ra and his minions (in the SG-1 TV series they're called Jaffa and they're augmented humans who serve the "gods")--they're designed to look as though they inspired Egyptian gods and iconography and they work. The armor and gadgets are also practical effects generally speaking, so there's no risk of good-for-its-time CGI aging badly.

*Sha'uri and the other villagers have pretty good teeth and that actually makes sense--if they're transplanted Berbers or other North African peoples from the pharaonic or pre-pharaonic period of Egypt and retain their traditional diets, they wouldn't have very much if any sugar. The increased availability of sugar owing to the Caribbean plantation system is what led to growing dental problems--Queen Elizabeth I of England had black rotten teeth from snacking on sugar.

Of course, their teeth might have gotten worn out in other ways--ancient Egyptian bread might have actually had sand in it.

*One of Ra's henchmen has a particularly creative death.

The Bad

*When the American soldiers leave the pyramid on Abydos, it's pretty obviously a matte painting behind them.

*The soldiers other than O'Neill are pretty interchangeable. They don't get a lot of differentiation beyond Kowalsky being a bit of a hothead.

*Dr. Jackson and Sha'uri are pretty obviously making eyes at each other not long after he arrives. Just how old is she? Avital would've been 22 and Spader 34 when the movie came out, but I got teenager vibes off the character, at least at first. The second viewing I remember some ribald commentary about the age difference.

*In one scene, Dr. Jackson is allowed to wander around Ra's spacecraft. This is after hostilities have occurred between the American troops and Ra's soldiers. It'd make more sense if he were forcibly taken into Ra's presence as soon as possible.

*Not going to go into further detail for reasons of spoilers, but Ra really needs to study nuclear strategy. His scheme would generate only around half the destructive power of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo when I was a little kid, and in a fairly isolated area too. There's only one way I can possibly think for Ra's grandiose claim to actually bear fruit, which you can see at this post here, but it's a long shot.

The Verdict

The third time around is up with the first in terms of fun. 9.0 out of 10.0. It's not great cinema, but it's entertaining. I never watched the TV show (other than part of one later episode that seemed so silly it really soured me on the whole concept), but the story expands well beyond the film if you'd like to see how far down the rabbit hole it goes.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Sales Per Day, Pro-Gun Fiction, and America's Demographic Future: Notes From a Gun Show

On May 19 and May 20, I attended the Eastman Gun Show at the Gwinnett Infinite Energy Center in Duluth. Rather than going there to sell guns, I went there to sell books, specifically my Lovecraftian horror novel The Thing in the Woods and the sword-and-sorcery collection The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2, which contains my short story "Nicor."

I had several reasons to think that these would sell well. Thing is set in Georgia and although it's not a "message book" in the vein of The Handmaid's Tale (written by Margaret Atwood in response to the rise of the Christian Right in America and the Iranian Revolution), if one conflates "political" and "reflective of the author's values" than the book is strongly pro-gun. Some characters use personal firearms to fend off an attack by tentacle-god cultists (and to later mount a rescue mission after another character is kidnapped), since "when seconds count the police are just minutes away." And in the case of fictional Edington, Georgia, you might not want the cops to show up in such a situation--the Sheriff's Office and to a lesser extent the Edington Police Department have been infiltrated by said cultists, much like how even in less-nasty Atlanta a quarter of the police in the 1940s were in the Klan. I've gotten kudos from a conservative writer for depicting the residents of Edington as intelligent and three-dimensional characters rather than dumb redneck stereotypes. Author Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International series' initial customer base was gun enthusiasts and he's become quite the success. Meanwhile, I've observed from Facebook posts and some academic reading that the gun enthusiast community tends toward masculine and traditionalist, so sword and sorcery stories with heroes like Conan the Barbarian and the like, might be of interest. Also, there simply might not be much competition for selling books at a gun show.

Superficially my plan worked. I sold 14 copies of Thing and seven copies of Best Of over the two days, grossing over $200. That's better in terms of raw sales than the time I attended Griffin's Mistletoe Market, in which I sold 18 copies of Thing.

However, I reexamined the numbers after talking to my dad and my friend Nick, and things started to look less rosy. The costs were higher at the gun show than the Mistletoe Market ($85 for the table as opposed to $50 and I spent probably around $9 as opposed to $6 on gas and $8-12 on candy for the table). Nobody seemed to have small bills and only one person wanted to use a credit card. To encourage people to open their wallets, I ended up selling both copies for $10 cash each, making a $5.50 profit per copy instead of the usual $7.50 (for Thing) or $6.50 (for Best Of). I made around $10 profit for the whole weekend, which is better than outright losing money but not by a whole lot.

The price problem is the single biggest confounding variable to determining whether gun shows are worth the time to sell books at, but even if I'd gotten my ideal price for all of these books--and that's not a given, as people willing to pay $10 for a book might not be willing to pay $13--I'd have made at most $60 profit. That's somewhat less than one of my lowest-performing book signings. And those 21 copies were also spread out over two days--11 copies on the first day and ten on the second. 14 hours of work as opposed to eight for the Mistletoe Market and 2-6 for the first two book signings. As Dad points out whenever I have some scheme to make or save money, my time has value, and I'm only a few hours' worth of work from finishing the first draft of The Atlanta Incursion (the sequel to Thing). It is possible I made some additional sales due to handing out VistaPrint cards with QR codes on them--I saw one person scan the card to find the Amazon link to Thing and a couple people asked if they could get it in audio--but I cannot quantify those sales, so for the sake of caution, I won't include any guesswork.

(Also, at the Mistletoe Market and the bookstore signings I only had Thing. I might've made even more money if I had Best Of as well.)

Based on this one event, I suspect that gun shows might not be the most profitable environment for book sales, especially if the table costs are high. There's a gun/knife show in June in Atlanta proper that won't require driving as far and the table costs are cheaper so I might give that one a spin, but the weekend before that I'll be out of town for three days for the Lizard-Man Festival and a book signing in Augusta on the way back, so I wouldn't want to go back out again so soon. Especially since I want to produce more material rather than market more intensely what I've already got--I want to finish The Atlanta Incursion and I've got some ideas for a space opera novella trilogy.

(Also, the candy was an additional expense but I don't think it was the deciding factor in bringing people to my table. Going forward I'm not going to bother.)

Meanwhile, one event that proved extremely profitable, even more so than the bookstore signings, is the Atlanta Sci-Fi and Fantasy Expo. There I grossed nearly $400 with only one book over the course of two days. Had I thought to bring Best Of with me, I might have made even more money.

Consequently, generally speaking fandom conventions are a much more profitable use of my time than gun shows, especially if there're unfinished projects on the table. I might give a gun show a spin later once The Atlanta Incursion is available for purchase (so someone who buys Thing might buy TAI as well, to have more of the story) and if the table cost is low enough, but that's a ways away. I'll also make sure to have more small bills to make change if the environment is cash-heavy. I will continue with my plans to attend the Lizard-Man Festival and the Atlanta Comic-Con this summer, since those are more explicitly fandom-focused and look to have much larger numbers attending.

On the brighter side, given today's polarized political environment, the gun show was totally apolitical. There was nothing pertaining to either Donald Trump or Barack Obama, nor was there anything extremist like Confederate flags or swastikas. This I credit Eastman with, since their rules specifically rule out anything that promoting hatred or violence or denigrating the presidency. There were a fair number of children there as well. Everybody was pleasant and it wasn't too loud. It was like a standard trade show, except focused on firearms and not Tupperware.

And although the media and popular culture often stereotype the gun-rights movement as a white-male phenomenon, there were a great many African-Americans and a fair number of Asians attending as well. Speaking as a gun-rights supporter, that's a good thing. The U.S. is becoming less white every year and if non-whites become alienated from the cause of gun rights (see the Philandro Castile screw-up and the cases where "stand your ground" should have applied like the Airman Michael Giles and Marissa Alexander cases if you want examples of the gun-rights movement letting down African-Americans), the anti-gun coalition becomes stronger. Groups like the Deacons for Defense used personal firearms to fight the Klan and even deter attacks on civil-rights activists by police and firemen, so even though anti-gun people have used anti-racism as a pretext to attack gun rights (props to The Root of all entities for taking that apart here), there's a strong history of racial minorities' use of guns for self-defense and racist whites' attempts to disarm them that needs to be emphasized.

So those are the things brought to mind by my sales excursion to a gun show. We'll see how the Lizard-Man Festival goes, since that's my first out-of-state event.

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.