Friday, September 21, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Back when I was in high school I rented a movie called Donnie Darko from Hollywood Video in East Cobb back when there was such a thing. I can't remember why, but one of my Quiz Bowl friends was really into indie films and perhaps he recommended it. I remembered actually liking it, or not disliking it, but I haven't seen it since.

Well, then Myopia: Defend Your Childhood booted up the "Cool in College" month in which we watched movies that we (or our peers) thought were so profound back in college to see if they were still thus. I rented Donnie Darko from Videodrome, the last video store I'm aware of in Atlanta, and off we went. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

In 1988, troubled teenager Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins hallucinating a humanoid rabbit creature named Frank. This leads into a convoluted tale of time travel, young love, and mental illness.

The Good

*The performances are generally good. I particularly liked how they cast real-life siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal as brother and sister. That makes how they relate to each other more authentic. Jake as Donnie conveys both mental illness (I think the film establishes that he's a paranoid schizophrenic) and a sweet side that his sickness obscures. And although the character Kitty Farmer is utterly obnoxious, Beth Grant does a good job with her intensity and moralistic fixation. Per her Wikipedia article she gets cast as religious nuts and rule-sticklers a lot, so that makes sense.

*The opening scenes of the film show rather than tell the Darko family's troubles. Mr. and Mrs. Darko have problems managing their mentally ill and possibly dangerous son, while their older daughter Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) rebels against their traditionalism by voting Democratic.

*The film takes place in 1988, which I didn't remember from when I watched it. I liked how they got a lot of the details right--the TVs are square and wood-paneled and the gas can that a character uses to commit arson is the exact same color and pattern of the gas can I remember my dad filling up the lawnmower with back in the day.

*The ending is legitimately sad. That's one reason I didn't like the movie--it actually made me somewhat depressive for a bit--but it shows skill on the filmmakers' part. In particular there's a conversation or speech Donnie is involved in/makes that reminded me of the iconic quote from A Tale of Two Cities:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

*Two of Donnie's friends wish they had a "Smurfette" as part of their group. Although their main focus is sex--there are a lot of people who need to get their minds out of the gutter on the issue of there being one female Smurf and a bunch of male Smurfs--ironically that comes true at the end when Gretchen (Jena Malone), a new girl in school who becomes Donnie's girlfriend, accompanies Donnie and his crew on an adventure.

*Per the above, there's some good examples of foreshadowing here and there.

*There's some stuff that's legitimately funny.

The Bad

*The film is incredibly, incredibly BORING. Seriously, it was a chore to stay focused on the movie for large stretches of it, even though I needed to do in order to discuss the movie for the podcast. There's apparently a director's cut that's twenty minutes longer! Hopefully it's dramatically re-edited so it's not so boring and makes more sense.

(Based on what Lauren said on the podcast it sounds like that was the case. In that case, here it is.)

*I don't remember not understanding the plot when I saw it in high school, but I definitely had problems understanding it now. Maybe it was hard to pay attention enough to "get it" because it was so boring or maybe there's some other reason, but I didn't understand it and that's a problem. I'm not against movies that require me to think, but there's that and there's this confusing morass.

*Donnie befriends Gretchen by helping her get away from a couple slimy guys and walking her home, but along the way he acts really weird and creepy (recounting burning down an abandoned house, for example) and ends with basically asking her to be his girlfriend. And somehow it works. Given Gretchen's history of familial abuse, I had trouble believing this wouldn't immediately trigger her danger alarm. Donnie is sweet in many ways but he's also mentally ill and unstable. This is not going to end well. Many young people have poor romantic taste and Gretchen perhaps saw the good in him and thought perhaps she could fix him. Again, this is not going to end well.

*Drew Barrymore plays the school's English teacher and she didn't impress. She wasn't bad per se, but she wasn't really that good either.

The Verdict

A dull depressing mess. 3.0 out of 10. Don't bother.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Irish in the Americas, Mexico and Guatemala Go To War, and French Protestant South Africa

More goodies from the alternate history forum. Although I've been self-banned from posting for the last three years--all the better to focus on my writing--I still go by every so often to see if there's something interesting.

And behold, here are some new alternate-history scenarios!

In this one, the seagoing Irish monk St. Brendan makes his way to what would become Canada (much like how the Vikings did later on) and kicks off Irish settlement of the New World many centuries in advance. A trans-Atlantic trade in exotic furs is enough to fund everything and we start seeing Britons fleeing the oncoming Saxons traveling across the seas as well as Irish. Although the Native Americans are still vulnerable to European diseases, the Irish settlement is on a much smaller scale and is much less organized, so they still have a fighting chance.

(Yes, I know it sounds absolutely insane, but someone actually built the kind of boat St. Brendan would have used and sailed to Canada from Ireland. Think Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition to show the Polynesians could have traveled to South America or South Americans could have traveled to Polynesia.)

 And this discussion here features a war breaking out between Mexico and Guatemala in the late 1950s. I'm not really familiar with Latin American history from that period, but it seems plausible and well-researched. And in real life El Salvador and Honduras got into a shooting war over soccer, so it's not like wars in the region haven't been started over less.

Finally, here's a timeline I found the other day featuring French Protestants colonizing South Africa. I'm not familiar with the French Wars of Religion beyond some of the different noble houses involved and how the Protestants essentially won but their leader converted to Catholicism in order to actually govern, but it seems pretty legitimate and detailed. The Huguenots (French Protestants) seem generally more decent to the natives than the Boers were (hiring them as free laborers on their farms rather than enslaving them), so perhaps the region's racial history will be a bit more pleasant.

So if you're wondering how history could have gone differently and you want something a little more exotic than "what if the South won the Civil War" and "what if Hitler won WWII," come check these out. They're fun.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Fight Club (1999)

The podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is having a "Theme Month" dedicated to films that people thought were cool in college but as the years pass, one realizes they might not have been as deep and profound as one might think. The most recent episode is based on the 1999 film Fight Club, which, as is appropriate, I first saw as a student at the University of Georgia. So here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

A nameless Narrator (Edward Norton) works as a recall inspector for a large car company--he inspects car crashes to see if they were caused by faults in the car itself and decides whether it'd be cheaper to recall the car or to settle out of court with people injured (or the families of those killed) by the defective cars. Off-the-clock, he contents himself with expensive IKEA furniture and doesn't seem to have any human relationships.

Then he develops severe insomnia. When a doctor won't prescribe him a sleeping drug and he whines that he's suffering, the doctor tells him to check out a cancer support group to see real suffering. The Narrator becomes addicted to attending these groups even though he has none of the diseases because he enjoys the connections he forms with the people there...and then he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), who's doing the exact same thing.

This perturbs him, and so the two divide the support groups between them so they can avoid each other. Then while on a business trip, the Narrator befriends Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who claims to be a soap salesman. He ultimately moves into a run-down abandoned house with Durden when his condo mysteriously explodes. Durden begins romancing (or at least constantly banging) Marla as the two co-found an underground fighting club to counteract soulless materialism and the emasculation of American men, a club that soon grows out of control...

The Good

*The acting is really good. Norton does well as the Narrator who grows beyond empty materialism through his involvement with Durden. Pitt is appropriately dangerous and charismatic as Durden, who starts out engaging in petty and unhygienic trolling of society before progressing into outright violence. And Carter acts like, well, a junkie.

*The script is witty and flows well.

*The film shows the seductive nature and dangers of extremism. Durden does a good job calling out the emptiness of modern materialism, consumerism, and alienation from other people and even forming fight clubs isn't a bad thing given how people agree to participate and how it encourages men to excel physically. However, then they graduate to outright terrorism and that's not cool. Here's a poem (of sorts) about how fascism isn't going to reappear as comic-book Nazis but something far more deceptive. When our hero meets Bob (a man he met at a testicular-cancer support group) again and they both learn they're members of fight club unknown to each other, we see both male bonding and hero-worship--the kind that's fine in moderation but could potentially get very dangerous.

*Marla condemns modern throwaway society as well with her spiel about her dress, originally a bridesmaid's dress she got for $1 at a thrift store. Loved intensely for a day...then thrown away. She never goes to the extremes of Durden though. Even though she's clearly self-destructive with her drug use and sexual habits, that part at least is more rational.

*There's some good humor in there, especially a scene involving a liposuction clinic.

*Although especially lately people like to equate fascism and religion--and all too often organized religion has sold out to fascism to maintain its social hegemony--Durden's ideology is explicitly anti-religious (considering Durden's explicit denunciation of God and redemption) and even in many ways a substitute for the community-building functions of religion. The alt right, many of whose adherents are essentially freikorps LARPers, is often explicitly anti-Christian in terms of actual ethos and faith.

*Although at least one of my podcast companions was critical of the doctor for not prescribing the Narrator something like Ambien, I thought this a good example of someone telling the patient what they need to hear and not what they want to hear. One reason for a growing disease resistance to antibiotics is that doctors prescribe people drugs they don't need. Drugs aren't a quick-fix for everything and if the Narrator could fix his insomnia through exercise and herbal sleep aids, Ambien might not be needed.

The Bad

*The movie does run on for too long. Seriously, it's a nearly three-hour film. Good concept and well-executed, but that's still a problem. Tightening things up a bit isn't a problem--I cut my as-yet-unsold novel Battle for the Wastelands from 101K words to 89K words just by tightening the manuscript without cutting substantial content. Hell, I even added a scene that developed a character better. I'm not sure what parts of the film were flabby and needed tightening, but it is possible to snip a few seconds here and there to get a substantial reduction.

*There's a bit of a disconnect between the first and the second and third acts. The first act is about the Narrator, Marla, and support groups, while the second and third are about the fighting clubs and "Project Mayhem." Maybe if they had the Narrator meet Durden earlier, perhaps before he and Marla divide up the support groups? The Narrator losing interest in the support groups as the fighting club fills the emotional void the support groups did could be shown onscreen instead of just implied.

*Things get into suspension-of-disbelief territory once the police get involved. Trying to intimidate law enforcement to avoid investigating is going to backfire massively considering how tribal law enforcement is. Rather than back off, the police are going to get more aggressive. After all, their authority has been challenged and they can't have that. Given how law enforcement needs to be subverted as well for the plot to advance, perhaps we start seeing bored and frustrated rank-and-file cops joining the club and some stuff about how loyalty to the club trumps everything else? As Daniel and I discussed the other evening, crime has been in decline for years (although it might not have been obvious in the late 1990s), so people who joined the force thinking they'd be action heroes might be bored.

The Verdict

8.5 out of 10. Could stand to be tightened up a little bit.

Oh, and if you want an interesting fan theory, here's the notion that "Jack" is Calvin and Tyler Durden is really Hobbes. Hobbes, being a sentient figment of Calvin's imagination, has gone mad after being isolated for decades in Calvin's subconscious and now wants revenge on society for forcing Calvin to banish him and grinding his imaginative and lively pal down into a corporate drone.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Camp Nowhere (1994)

Once upon a time, I was a student at Tommy Cho Karate in East Cobb. In addition to biweekly classes and birthdays, Mr. Cho occasionally had sleepover parties where we watched movies. One movie I remember watching is Camp Nowhere, featuring Christopher Lloyd, Kate Mulgrew (better known from Star Trek Voyager), Jessica Alba in a minor role, and a bunch of other child actors I've never heard of. Well, the good old Myopia: Defend Your Childhood podcast gave me the chance to revisit this film, as it has many others.

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

The Plot

Morris "Mud" Himmel (Jonathan Jackson) and his friend Zach Dell (Andrew Keegan) are going to be sent off yet again for the whole summer to camps they hate--in Mud's case a computer camp and Zach's case military-style camp owing to his poor behavior. Meanwhile, their female friends Gaby Nowicki (Melody Kay) and Trish Prescott (Marnette Patterson) are in the same predicament, with fat camp for Gaby despite her not being fat and acting camp for Trish (and a completely different camp for her sister) so her parents can take a nice long vacation.

Mud devises a scheme to create a fake summer camp where they can do what they want, and they enlist a down-on-his-luck actor and former teacher at their school Dennis Van Welker (Christopher Lloyd) to pull it off. Things go pretty well until the kids' antics attract the attention of local doctors and law enforcement and the parents decide to visit the camp to see what their little darlings have been up to.

The Good

*Christopher Lloyd shows off his comedic acting talents as the down-on-his-luck actor Van Welker. He's always a joy to watch. The montage of him pretending to be the counselor for an acting camp, a computer, camp, a fat camp, and a military camp in order to sell the different kids' parents on the scheme is pretty amusing, as is a close encounter of the worst kind between him and a car wash. Pure, as TVTropes would put it, Refuge in Audacity. And amazing facial expressions.

*There's a bit of, as TVTropes would put it, Reality Ensues when one of the kids is injured and requires medical attention. Let's be realistic...a bunch of middle-schoolers trying to pull something like this would run into all sorts of problems. There's also homesickness, boredom, and what constituents do their leaders when things go poorly in the short run.

*Per the almighty TVTropes, all of the major characters have arcs--Mud and Zach learn to be responsible (and Mud abandons his self-loathing for being a "geek"), Gaby lays off the junk food, and Trish mellows out. Mud's arc is the most obvious, which makes sense since he's the main character. And although TVTropes doesn't point this out, I noticed that Van Welker has an arc as well. He starts out basically as this slacker who's blackmailed into this by a bunch of middle schoolers and uses the whole situation as an excuse to live in a cabin by the lake and flirt with the local doctor, but partway through he starts to remember he was a teacher (albeit one with rather poor judgement--seriously, trying to stage a middle-school musical version of Silence of the Lambs?) and he does have responsibilities to the kids. All these arcs in turn tie in with the ending of the film.

*The film can be read as a criticism of over-scheduling kids in favor of more free play. The various camps the kids' parents want them to go to tend to be super-focused on particular activities (computers, acting) rather than simply letting kids have fun over the summer. The links I posted above contain various articles written from all ends of the political/cultural/moral spectrum criticizing society's tendency to over-schedule kids and in favor of more unstructured imaginative play. Obviously kids need to be supervised to some degree so they don't kill themselves, but free range kids were the norm up until relatively recently and the world has only gotten more safe since then. Alternatively, as Nick and Thomas pointed out in the podcast, one could read this an endorsement of providing at least some structure for kids--they grow bored with endless free play and ultimately have more fun with more organized activities in the later part of the film. One could argue both elements are in play--as the ancient Greeks said, "moderation in all things."

*Zach is clearly a case of, as the Bible would put it, bad company corrupting good character. The movie starts out with him pretending to bully Mud in order to maintain his "reputation" with a bunch of juvenile delinquent friends. Another character even points this out pretty early in the film.

*There are some good middle-school humor jokes, like one of the bullies becoming only effective after having experienced a growth spurt.

*Ironically enough, when the parents come to visit, the kids have to do a lot of the stuff they were supposed to do anyway to fool them--putting on dramatic productions, conducting military drills, etc. That was pretty funny.

The Bad

*Although Gaby is being sent off to fat camp when she doesn't need it and Trish is just being sent away so her parents can go on a prolonged vacation rather than spend time with her and her sister, Mud and Zach are rather disrespectful to their parents, especially Zach. In his case, military camp might be necessary to teach him discipline, although one might argue that his father's excessive strictness is exacerbating his son's troublemaking (by provoking his rebellious tendencies) rather than solving it.

*Although Mud is clever enough to come up with the scheme, he looks like he's 11 or 12. His dialogue comes off as something someone far older and wittier would say.

*It was my understanding that Gaby wasn't actually overweight and her parents (in particular her mother) were erroneously convinced otherwise. The actress certainly isn't. However, her character arc involves her ditching junk food and Mud discusses how someday she'll lose weight and become attractive. That kind of mixed messaging could be a problem given the prevalence of eating disorders and even girls of normal body sizes thinking they're "fat." TL;DR She's not fat, and the movie is not being especially responsible for conceding even the possibility she is.

*The characters are all 12-13. Just how interested in the opposite sex are they going to be? Perhaps I was a late bloomer, but although I'd outgrown the "girls are icky" early-elementary idiocy, I wasn't really interested in girls in the romantic sense until a little later in middle school. I'm pretty there was a Simpsons episode involving a "valley girl" trying to organize a school dance and nobody was really into it, with Lisa being the voice of reason. Yet Mud and Zach have have romantic subplots and in the side of one shot we see two kids making out. They're not high schoolers, yet they seem to act like them.

*This isn't really a knock against the film's quality, but the movie works best for a pre-Internet age. A few minutes of Googling would have blown the scheme up right away unless Van Welker was a skilled web developer and had a bunch of fake Yelp accounts too--in which case, he probably wouldn't be working at a cheese shop in the mall and hiding from the repo man.

*The movie kind of drags in the middle. Would've been better if they'd tightened it up a little.

The Verdict

Entertaining but flawed. 7.5 out of 10.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: My Science Project (1985)

Once upon a time, back when video rental stores were pretty common instead of being retro rarities, there was a video store in the Parkaire shopping center in East Cobb where I (or rather, my parents) regularly rented movies when I was in elementary school. There (I'm pretty sure it was there) I got hold of a 1980s science fiction entitled My Science Project. Before I watched the movie for Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, I remembered liking it but I didn't remember what happened in it that well. What I did remember I thought might actually be from the time-traveling section of House: The Second Story, which I saw on television.

So when Nick was looking for movies to do for Myopia, I suggested this one. We watched it as part of a whole month dedicated to "1990s precocious kids" films, although the cast seems a lot older than the denizens of a typical (as Nick would put it) "kid empowerment film" from that decade. Here's the podcast. And now for the review.

The Plot

It's two weeks before graduation and Michael Harlan (John Stockwell), who's more interested in cars than academics or his girlfriend Crystal (Pat Simmons), and his buddy Vince Latello (Fisher Stevens) don't have a science project. His old hippie science teacher Bob Roberts (Dennis Hopper) tells them that without a science project they can't graduate high school. Furthermore, to encourage him to stretch himself, he's not allowed to do a project on cars.

So Michael sneaks into an Air Force boneyard along with nerdy Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck) and salvages the engine of a fallen alien spacecraft. It sucks power from nearby sources of electricity and causes weird space-time anomalies to occur.

And then it gets plugged into the electrical grid and things really get weird...

(FYI, Jonathan R. Betuel wrote and directed this film. He's the brains behind The Last Starfighter, a previous Myopia adventure.)

The Good

*They managed to get Dennis Hopper--the Dennis Hopper--in the film. That's pretty impressive, given how the rest of the cast are no-names. I did how he portrayed his character--he's an ex-hippie who wants to encourage the kids to succeed and encourages them to not take the easy way out, even though he has to put his foot down when they're not getting their work done. Of course, he also gets waaay too into his subject matter.

*Although Michael is self-absorbed and not the most selfless and attentive boyfriend at the beginning of the film, he's more empathetic and has a much better attitude toward women than Vince. For example, when Vince says his father told him women will like him if he treats them like dirt, he asks Vince what his mother thinks about this and Vince is forced to admit his parents are divorced.

*Vince is a jerk with criminal inclinations (shaking down a student for pay-phone money, for example), but he's pretty funny. I liked how Fisher handled him.

*Vince for all his obnoxiousness is developed somewhat--even though he's just as much of a greaser as Michael, he's always got a sci-fi or monster movie reference available for whenever things get weird.

*It'd be easy to make the nerdy Sherman (Rafael Sbarge) a total put-upon victim of people with more friends and better social skills, but he's more complicated as well. He's abrasive, clearly looks down on people less intelligent than he is, and engages in some (admittedly more harmless and silly) stalking and psychological warfare toward Harlan and Ellie when they're on their kind-of date. And like Bob, he's clearly book smart but not totally up on common sense.

*At least some of the science has a basis in reality. The aliens in the film would have to be from outside our solar system (there's certainly not another technological civilization here) and in order for them to visit realistically they'd need faster-than-light travel. However, according to many Internet science types, the ability to travel faster than light implies the ability to time travel. That an alien engine presumably capable of faster-than-light travel, when fiddled with by people who don't know what they're doing, starts causing time warps as well makes sense.

*The film was clearly made in a time before angst about terrorism and school shootings and that's a good thing. I doubt the movie would be made today because plot points involving students blowing up power lines or going armed into a school to shut down a time warp wouldn't fly with the hoi polloi.

*The last part of the movie, in which all kinds of crazy time-warp stuff happens, is pretty fun.

The Bad

*When President Eisenhower is brought to see the captured flying saucer, he simply orders the Air Force to "get rid of it." That really doesn't ring true to his character. Even though he was skeptical of the military-industrial complex that began with WWII and continued into the Cold War, a captured extraterrestrial craft that "made a mockery of our interceptors" would be a treasure trove. It'd be more sensible if he ordered it taken somewhere more secure and something fell off, to be found nearly 30 years later by the protagonists of the film.

*The film jumps from Michael leaving to go on his "date" with Ellie to them sneaking into the Air Force base with no reason for it, even though he does try to explain later on. Throwing in some kind of urban legend about what went down back in the 1950s earlier in the film and have Michael decide to "impress" aspiring-journalist Ellie by investigating it would have been better. Foreshadowing and less need for after-the-fact explanations.

*A character getting sucked into an alien machine reminded me a lot of the original Ghostbusters, which came out a year before.

*The character's plan to stop the warping of reality could have been done without actually leaving the school building. Why black out the town if you can find the school's circuit breakers? They could be running around the school with all sorts of weird space-time stuff happening around them.

*One character reveals to another character their trust issues with people, trust issues that were not in evidence elsewhere in the film.

*The movie kind of drags in the middle.

*Some of the science is a bit outdated at best. For example, Neanderthals weren't Bigfoot.

*Nobody would need to be told some characters are Viet Cong. If they're 17 in 1985, they were born in 1968. The Vietnam War would have been their childhood, or something their parents or older brothers would have personally experienced.

The Verdict

It's not great, but it's not awful either. I'd say it's mediocre and only really worth seeing if you're feeling nostalgic. 6.5 out of 10.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

My Decatur Book Fest Schedule

I took a page from the great Marko Kloos (author of the Frontlines series, several of which I reviewed on the blog) and decided to put up my schedule for the 2018 Decatur Book Festival, where I will be making several appearances. The festival takes place Saturday 9/1/18 and Sunday 9/2/18 in Decatur, GA, one of the eastern suburbs of Atlanta, GA.

Posman Books

Posman Books Atlanta hosted my second book signing during the lead-up to Halloween 2017 and the manager contacted me to see if I would be interested in an hour-long signing slot. I will be signing copies of The Thing in the Woods and a few copies of The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2 from 1-2 PM on Saturday, 9/1. For those of you new to my blog, Thing is my Georgia-set Lovecraftian horror novel, while Best Of contains my short story "Nicor" and 21 other quality sword-and-sorcery tales.

Emerging Authors Pavilion

Thing and Best Of will be available for purchase at the Emerging Authors Pavilion throughout the entire weekend. However, I will be in the pavilion in person Sunday 9/2 at 12:30 PM for a short speech on Thing, probably about how the book wouldn't even exist if not for a chance trip to a long-since-closed Borders when I was in college. Afterward, I will be signing books in the pavilion from 12:40 PM to 12:50 PM.

Atlanta Writers Club

I will be signing Thing and Best Of at the Atlanta Writers' Club from 4-5 PM on Sunday 9/2. I'm not familiar with this organization, although I did attend a meeting of theirs a few years ago before formally joining relatively recently.

If you'd like to come for any of these events, here's the Facebook event. Sign up there to let me know you're coming. Here's a festival map of Decatur Square to help you find where everything is.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Protesters Come From Across Metro Atlanta 6/30

Protesters gathered from across the metropolitan area gathered in Atlanta June 30 to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's aggressive immigration enforcement that has separated 2,000 children from their parents.

According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, over 4,000 protesters marched through Atlanta from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)'s Atlanta Detention Center to the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in protest of recent "zero tolerance" immigration enforcement. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a veteran civil-rights campaigner, spoke to marchers outside the Richard B. Russell Federal Building. The protest was one of many such protests the AJC reported taking place nationwide.

These protesters came from different regions of the metropolitan area. Anna Crumbliss came from Doraville, while Eli Banks came from near Grant Park. Coming a little farther afield was Kara Sweeney from Johns Creek, GA.

"This is a time in the US when we have to resist any and all policies and actions that lead us away from our humanity and compassion," Sweeney said when asked why she was participating in the protest. "The family separation practices at the border, implemented by the Trump Administration, are cruel and unnecessary."

Banks echoed her words, saying that previous U.S. immigration policies were questionable already and that detaining children separately from their parents was cruel and unnecessary. Crumbliss said she participated in the rally because she wanted to show compassion for immigrants mistreated by the government and advocate for compassion and change.

Banks described the protest as "passionate, but friendly." There were no counter-protests he could see, or other incidents of friction. Sweeney said there was a good turn-out when the protesters gathered at the detention center. Protesters cheered and waved to ICE detainees within the building, who waved back. She described the march as not being particularly long, less than a mile.

"The rally was the most beautiful environment I could have imagined," Crumbliss said. "Everyone there was advocating for others, beaming with hospitality, and fighting for the America that we know and love."

She said the love that echoed through Atlanta when the protesters started chanting, "Love, not hate, makes America great!" gave her the chills because of its power. She said she was proud to be part of a movement of people from all walks of live, ages, and religions coming together to fight for justice.

Although representatives from ICE could not be reached for comment, Banks, Crumbliss, and Sweeney did not report seeing any of them there. Banks said that he only saw a few police and members of the Atlanta Fire Department. Crumbliss said the police mainly directed traffic and kept protest participants safe.

"It was a very peaceful and upbeat event where all we felt from the police present was support and respect. We appreciated them being there," she said.

When asked about what they thought the government should do, all three said ICE should immediately reunite separated children with their parents, a process that is still going on despite a court-ordered deadline. Banks went on to advocate for more humane centers for those still detained, citing how illegal entry into the U.S. is only a misdemeanor. He advocated a path to citizenship for those who entry the country without documentation rather than immediately deporting them. Crumbliss stated that although open borders is impractical, the U.S. should spend monies earmarked for a border wall she described as "pointless" by revising existing rules to not count families of skilled workers who get green cards against the 140,000 yearly cap, something she said would eliminate the backlog of Indian, Chinese, and Filipinos in the U.S. on work visas. This would allow these immigrants to start businesses or change jobs without bureaucratic hurdles.

Crumbliss also advocated allowing the states to run their own visa programs alongside the federal one to allow for workers to be brought in for state-specific industries, specifically suggesting that dairy-producing states could create agricultural visas for farm workers as an example. Crumbliss cited regional visa programs like Canada's Provincial Nominee Program or Australia's different regional schemes.

"These programs have created greater population and employment growth," she said.

Sweeney advocated Donald Trump be impeached for his role in the crisis and stated that her ideal immigration system would be based on compassion and human dignity and be free from racial discrimination.

Although Banks said he would be making sure to write his elected representatives and Crumbliss said she believed that the current administration's policies would likely prompt her to protest again, Sweeney had the most elaborate plans.

"We are an activist family," she said. "We believe in being allies to those who are oppressed or harmed."

She attended a meeting a local mosque to learn how Trump's blocking of immigrants from several Muslim nations impacted Muslim communities. Her church Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North is deeply involved in political activism and Sweeney described how she contacted senators and congressmen daily to protest the Trump administration's policies. She also campaigns for local political candidates and will be looking for volunteer opportunities with the communities most impacted by the administration.

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Matilda (1996)

When I was a little kid, my parents read to me (or I read myself in school) many books by noted British children's writer Roald Dahl. I even remember seeing the 1970s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film when I was home sick for a prolonged period. When I was in later elementary school, Dahl's novel Matilda about a telekinetic elementary school was adapted for film. I don't remember seeing it in theaters, but I do remember seeing it on video.

So when the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood decided on a theme month dedicated to "precocious kids" (a common theme in 1990s films), the film adaptation of Matilda was a logical choice. Here's the podcast. And now for the review.

The Plot

Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) is the only daughter of the boorish and dishonest used-car salesman Harry (Danny DeVito) and the annoying Zinnia (Rhea Perlman) Wormwood, who gratuitously neglect her not long after she's born. I mean, seriously, they leave her alone at home starting at age 2-3 so the father can work, the older brother can go to school, and the mother can play bingo. She teaches herself to read and makes her way to the library by herself to learn more, ultimately self-educating herself to at least the middle and possibly high school level by age six. Although her father is initially reluctant to allow her to go to school at all ("who'd sign for the packages"), when he sells a car to the monstrous Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), he agrees to allow his daughter to attend her school, Crunch-Em Hall. There she makes her first real friend Lavender (Kiami Davael) and meets the saintly Jennifer Honey (Embeth Davidtz), a teacher with a surprising (and not particularly fun) connection to Trunchbull.

The Trunchbull's reign of terror is soon in jeopardy as Matilda begins to develop psychic abilities...

The Good

*Although the 1990s were full of films and television depicting children as smarter and wiser than obnoxious adults (much to my own parents' annoyance), this movie at least provides reasons for it rather than teaching a generalized "kids are good, adults bad" message. Matilda's parents are neglectful and do not value education, but Matilda herself is a child prodigy who is self-taught to a truly astonishing degree. The beginning of the film where this is established is actually rather sad. Her father is also a dishonest businessman and since he's neglected Matilda, she's drawing her moral lessons from her many books and not from him, thus recognizing him for the slimeball he is.

(And although the adults don't recognize the Trunchbull's evil, it's not because they're stupid or even support her cruelty--it's because the stuff the Trunchbull does is so over-the-top ridiculous that most people would assume the kids are being imaginative. Seriously, having an iron maiden in one's office and locking kids in it for hours? Throwing kids out windows? No adult would believe a kid who claimed that.)

*Sometimes I got a magical realism vibe off the movie. Matilda's psychic abilities are too blatantly fantastical to fit into that category, but there're a couple more subtle scenes involving other characters. Considering how dominant magical realism is in Latin American literature, that's a nice bit of cultural blending.

*The relationship between Ms. Honey and the Trunchbull explains why an adult woman would need a child to encourage her to stand up for herself. Not only was Trunchbull abusive toward Ms. Honey as a child but she seems to have a psychological hold on her even as an adult (they apparently have "heart to heart" conversations despite their ugly history). The fact Ms. Honey is Trunchbull's employee encourages this. Matilda is a child prodigy with psychic abilities who, though she fears the Trunchbull, hasn't had her spirit broken by years of abuse. Furthermore, owing to her supernatural gifts, she is far more capable of dealing with a much larger and more aggressive person than Ms. Honey is despite being a child.

*The movie is amusing throughout. There's some obvious Dahl touches, like "a kindly rhubarb farmer." And some of that humor would be amusing for adults as well, long before Shrek made that kind of thing common in kids' movies. Harry is concerned about his wife's interaction with "the speedboat salesmen" (really FBI agents surveilling the house) and even refers to them as "male strippers," while a conversation Zinnia has on the phone references disputed paternity and breast implants. The Trunchbull for all her vileness has a truly impressive vocabulary, especially when she's ranting at children. And the Trunchbull was an Olympian--in 1972, the year of the Munich terrorist attacks. During the podcast we discussed a possible Trunchbull prequel in which she helps the Mossad hunt down the Palestinian nationalists because they'd stolen her thunder--think the movie Munich with slapsticky Trunchbull violence, like her killing PLO guys with the hammer-throw and shot-put. That'd be a hoot.

*Speaking of the Trunchbull, Pam Ferris is clearly having a lot of fun chewing the scenery playing her. And some of the supporting cast are pretty funny. One of the FBI agents watching the house (Mr. Wormwood is knowingly buying stolen car parts) is played by Paul Reubens--Pee-Wee Herman--and is pretty entertaining.

*Finally, I really liked how the film emphasized the importance of reading and libraries. Reading these days is in decline, especially among young people without something like Harry Potter to inspire them to read as it did a whole generation not long ago.

The Bad

*The movie does seem a little slow in places. At an hour and forty minutes it does seem to run a little long for a children's film, even though most Hollywood films are 90 minutes or so.

*Although it's amusing throughout, I remember it being a lot funnier when I was a kid. Especially Zinnia's "DOUBLE BINGO!" scene.

The Verdict

Better for kids than adults, but by no means a bad film. 8.0 out of 10.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Movie Review: The Monster (2016)

A couple years back I learned about a movie called The Monster that looked pretty cool, but I was pretty busy and let its short theatrical release--I'm not 100% sure it was even playing in Atlanta but I think it was--slip by. I injured my back about three weeks ago and was advised to rest and relax, and it's a lot easier to do that with movies.

So I jaunted over to Videodrome, the last video rental shop in Atlanta, and guess what movie was there?

The Plot

Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a divorced alcoholic raising her ten-year-old daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and doing a pretty terrible job of it. She's on her way to her former husband's house for his turn at custody--a turn that's strongly implied to be permanent--but on an isolated road late at night, she hits a wolf, wrecking her car. And the wolf has already been injured fighting something else, which has left a big nasty tooth embedded in its body.

The two women must wait for the tow-truck and ambulance to arrive, but there's something else waiting in the woods, something big and unpleasant and hungry...

The Good

*The acting in the film is phenomenal. Kazan does a great job portraying the terribly flawed Kathy, who knows she has a problem and isn't able to fix it. Ballentine does a good job with Lizzy, who has to be mature beyond her years and even act as the surrogate parent to her dysfunctional mother but still in some ways acts like a child. Their chemistry and acting skills are the best part of the film. In the DVD extras writer/director Bryan Bertino was concerned about how he could make a good movie where, most of the time, the two characters are stuck in one location (their car), but it works. It actually reminded me a lot of Cujo, only with something far more dangerous than a rabid St. Bernard.

*Per the above, the script does a good job illustrating how dysfunctional the situation is. In the first five or so minutes of the film we know something is very wrong--Kathy is absent and Lizzy is the one straightening up the house (including throwing away empty bottles of booze), fixing breakfast, etc. And although I'm generally not a fan of telling stories out of order, interspersing too many flashbacks, etc. Bertino makes it work.

*The movie rolls along at a nice quick pace and is particularly riveting in the latter half, when Kathy and Lizzy have to survive the rainy night alone against something that's very rarely seen but very dangerous.

*Although the poster for the film and the Blu-Ray/DVD covers undermine this by showing full-body and head-shots of the titular creature, the monster is handled classically by never showing too much of it. We first see it out of focus lurking behind Lizzy during one of her trips out of the car and we hear its cries, but we never see very much of it until the very end. That's a good thing because in one of the sequences at the end, parts of it look a bit...plasticky.

*Per the above, there's no bad CGI here. All practical effects--it's a man in a monster suit and it's a good monster suit.

*The way the creature sounds is very well-done. Although its precise nature is never explained, it has both reptilian and avian characteristics. It sounds like a combination of, say, a big alligator and a predatory bird.

*And although the trope of the Super-Persistent Predator is often mocked--most predators, particularly solitary ones that don't have kin to care for them if they're injured, aren't going to go after prey that's persistently able to harm or elude them--it makes sense for something that's living in the shadow of human civilization. Assuming the titular creature is intelligent--and it probably is, since it knows what cars are and how they work--it knows that it cannot permit any witnesses to survive lest it be hunted down and destroyed. The creatures from The Flock and especially Wolfen operate the same way.

*The setting makes a lot of sense. The road the women are stranded on is an isolated and near-abandoned one that's been bypassed by a newer road--that happens to have a lot of construction on it, forcing them to take the back way. The fact there's a wolf there along with...something else...makes sense. Animals will quickly move back into an area humans have left, especially if there's a big reserve of natural territory nearby.

The Bad

*There's a missed chance for suspense and drama early on when the friendly tow-truck driver Jesse (Aaron Douglas, who played Chief Tyrol in Battlestar Galactica) arrives. Kathy and Lizzy are alone in an isolated area and dependent on him for help. Even though Jesse has no negative intentions whatsoever, Kathy (and the wise-beyond-her-years Lizzy) would have reason to think he might try to take advantage of them. This could be played up as an early scare, even though it would be a false alarm.

*The early parts, before the titular monster arrives, kind of drag a bit even though they're needed to establish the characters and establish audience feeling for them. I don't have any suggestions to change them without risking the bond the audience builds with them, so maybe it's best to leave them as they are.

*I didn't have a problem with this, but by trying to combine two genres, the movie might end up losing both. People who want family and addiction drama aren't going to be overly interested in a monster attacking people and people who are into monster movies aren't going to be into the family-drama stuff, even though it builds up the characters. Just FYI.

The Verdict

9.0 out of 10. This is the dysfunctional mother-daughter drama with a monster in it you didn't know you wanted to watch. Definitely check it out, at least for a rental.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Movie Review: Priest (2011)

Back in 2011, a movie called Priest came out. It looked pretty cool--in a Judge Dredd looking future, humanity has defeated the vampire menace under the leadership of the Catholic Church, but it turns out the enemy isn't quite defeated--but I must've been very busy at the time or dissuaded by negative reviews, so I never saw it.

Well, I've recently suffered a back injury that's necessitated lot of rest to help it heal. I've filled in this free time by watching a lot of movies, and guess which one was one of the ones I decided to see if it was any good?

The Plot

Vampires are real, and over the long years humanity has waged war against them. Humans have technology, but the vampires are faster and stronger and slowly but surely, humans are losing. The survivors retreat into fortified cities ruled by the Catholic Church, which discovers how to create "priests"--superhuman warriors able to match the vampires' physical ability.

The vampires are ultimately defeated and the survivors herded into reservations where they're tended by disease-ridden vampire-worshiping "familiars." The warrior-priests have been discharged from service and seek to reintegrate into a society that fears and shuns them. Most people remain in the cities under the control of the totalitarian Church, but some have filtered back out into the wilderness beyond and established an Old West frontier lifestyle.

One such family is that of Owen Pace (Stephen Moyer), his wife Shannon (M├Ądchen Amick), and daughter Lucy (Lily Collins). One night they're attacked by vampires, who kill Shannon, abduct Lucy, and leave Owen wounded but able to summon his brother, the titular Priest (Paul Bettany) for help. Priest defies the leadership of the Church, which claims the vampire threat has been defeated and fears any attempt to undermine the social order. Priest sets off accompanied by Hicks (Cam Gigandet), the sheriff of the small town of Augustine his brother and family called home, to rescue Lucy, pursued by several other reactivated priests sent to arrest him.

Only it turns out it wasn't the dregs of the defeated vampires or common bandits pretending to be vampires that attacked the town, but a new and far more dangerous threat commanded by an all-too-familiar face.

The Good

*The world the filmmakers created is really quite fascinating. Vampires have coexisted with mankind since the beginning apparently, creating an entirely different history (although there're still recognizable medieval knights, the Catholic Church, WWI-style artillery, and nuclear weapons are implied). There's definitely room for lots of stories to be told in this world.

*The aesthetics are all really cool. We've got Blade Runner like urban hellscapes where most people live in the totalitarian safety provided by the Church, you've got the Old West type environments (complete with lowlifes peddling worthless patent medicines) where those who are willing to risk their safety for freedom try to rebuild the ruined world, you've got the in-between of the "overlap zones" like the bigger towns that apparently trade with the cities (they're connected by functioning rail lines), and the totally alien aesthetic of the vampire hives.

*The vampires' biology is really interesting. They're eyeless subterranean creatures resembling to some degree naked mole rats, which makes sense since naked mole rats are mammals who have evolved along a path more akin to that of insects. They're a completely different life-form rather than mutated humans (The Strain) or supernaturally-affected individuals (most other vampire lore) and its clear the film's creators put a lot of thought into it.

*Although I'm usually kind of anal about faithfulness to the source material, I looked into the Korean graphic novel the film is based on and the movie is a lot more interesting. It reflects well on the filmmakers that they included the comic-book creator in the film production, consulting him on the visuals and the like, but the only thing the film and the comic seem to have in common is the name and some of the aesthetics. The movie to me is a heck of a lot more interesting.

*It's made explicit that the Priest and his allies' rejection of the authority of the Church leadership does not mean they're rejecting Christianity, belief in God, or even specifically Catholicism. Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, etc. did not immediately decide that since the Church was wrong on some things that it must be wrong on everything and the Christian God doesn't exist.

*Karl Urban plays the villain, who is never named but often referred to as "Black Hat." I'm not going to go into a lot about him for reasons of spoilers, but the character is quite interesting and Urban does a good job playing him. Not only is he clearly physically powerful and strategically clever, but he's very good with people and uses that to his advantage.

*There's an obvious Sequel Hook, although given how the movie didn't make a profit (at least in theaters), it doesn't seem like there'll be one. A pity--this is an incredibly cool world with characters that had a lot of potential (more on that later) and I'd have loved to see the story continue.

The Bad

*Most of the performances are mediocre except for that of Karl Urban. I've never heard of Paul Bettany and (others) to be particularly bad actors, so I imagine it's probably the director's fault. A pity, as there's so much potential in the characters. The Priest and Priestess are veterans who don't fit back into society, the Church leadership is self-serving and corrupt (but could made grayer if they honestly think keeping order even if it means hiding the revived vampire threat as the lesser evil than potentially causing a mass panic or causing people to doubt the Church), and Karl Urban had the potential to be a Dark Messiah transcending humans and vampires. However, this isn't touched on enough and could have been developed more.

*The problem with vampires overrunning and annihilating humanity is that they're destroying their own food source. The film does imply they can survive on non-human blood--a familiar is seen draining blood from chickens--but it would have been more interesting if the vampires had enslaved and farmed humans, with the familiars as their enforcers, rather than the implication the vampires in the process of exterminating their own food supply. The Church-ruled territories and the vampire-ruled territories could have, at the end of the day, looked awfully similar--just with a different ruling caste and different justifications for their actions.

*The priests' not having names makes it hard to differentiate them as characters, especially the lesser male priests. It might be better if they kept their first names but abandoned their last names, as the Church is now their family. After all, although I'm not Catholic, it's my understanding priests are referred to as "Father (FIRST NAME)" and these are supposed to be Catholic priests who've undergone some kind of advanced training or augmentation.

*Much is made of the priests' vows, but if the priests have been discharged from service, would they still apply? The titular priest isn't working as a mundane Catholic clergyman, but seems to be just another proletarian. So his vows of celibacy, obedience to the hierarchy, etc. would no longer be binding, correct? Owen at one point suggests Priest could have returned to Augustine and Priests states that it wouldn't have been right, which given some things that get revealed later in the film makes a lot of sense.

It would make more sense if the warrior-priests were all serving as ordinary clergy--still bound by their religious vows--and simply not fitting in, as is often the case with veterans returning to ordinary lives after service in war. Priest seeks permission to abandon his religious duties rather than simply to leave the city and search for his niece.

*Some of the dialogue in Lily's argument with her father when we first meet her doesn't sound like something actual people--especially rebellious teenage girls--would actually say. This negative review here accurately describes a lot of the problems with the film, beginning with the dialogue, but be ye warned, there are spoilers.

*There's a lot of stuff that's revealed but not adequately foreshadowed.

The Verdict

So much potential not developed enough. It's worth seeing once. It could've been so much better and it's a pity it didn't make enough to spawn a sequel, given how cool the world they've created is. Maybe the story could be remade as a television series? The events of the movie could be the first season and then things could go from there.

7.5 out of 10. It's worth seeing once and I might see if I could snag the DVD used (especially since it turns out there's an unrated special edition) so I could learn about how it was made.