Friday, September 8, 2017

Video: My Reading from the THING IN THE WOODS Prologue

On August 5, I had a book signing at the Tall Tales bookshop in Atlanta near Emory University for my teen Lovecraftian novel The Thing in the Woods. My friend Kellie shot the following video of me reading from the prologue.

Be warned, it's really rather graphic. My poor mother was sitting in the front row looking more and more horrified as I went along.

video

If you like it and you live in the Atlanta area and/or can get here, I'm having a second book signing at the end of October at Posman Books in Ponce City Market. I'd like to see you there. I'll have 35 copies of The Thing in the Woods to sell, so be sure to get there early.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Maya Colonize The Caribbean?

Still self-banned from the alternate-history forum, but I found a cool discussion thread leading into a new timeline. Behold "Maya Colonization of the Caribbean"!

The gist of it is that the Maya develop outrigger canoes in the late pre-classic/early classic period. The Maya spread out into the Caribbean islands, with the technology spreading ahead of them and getting adopted by the Taino people, the tribes that in real history greeted Columbus and suffered greatly for it. The end result is a Mayan thalassocracy controlling the Caribbean basin, including major islands like Cuba, Hispaniola, etc. as well as the mouth of the Mississippi River in what will become the United States. Although there's a good bit of preliminary discussion, the actual alternate timeline starts here.

In real history, the Maya urban civilization (the Maya people are still there) collapsed due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion, but with the improved sailing capability and the trade routes existing this time around that didn't in real history, the surplus population moves out into the Caribbean islands. Eventually expansion becomes more land-based as the mainland stabilizes and the Maya civilization (they were decentralized city-states, like Greece, so it's not one giant empire) spreads further down into Central America and even onto the Pacific coastline.

By the time Columbus's ships arrive (nothing that changes in the Western Hemisphere is realistically going to affect the East unless the Maya manage to contact the Vikings, who would have to travel much farther south than they did in our history), civilization in the region has advanced well beyond the Taino chiefdoms Columbus encountered.

Not sure if the writer plans to depict what happens after Columbus's ships arrive (it ends with their arrival), but what's there is pretty cool.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: Thrawn (2017)

Here it is, folks. My review of Timothy Zahn's 2017 Thrawn novel, in which the beloved (if that's the right word) Imperial Grand Admiral that Zahn created for the old Expanded Universe is given a back-story for his appearance as the Season Three Big Bad in Star Wars Rebels.


The Plot

A group of Imperials exploring a planet find themselves under attack by a mysterious foe who, though fighting on foot, manages by unknown means to bring down at least one fighter aircraft and kills multiple soldiers. They evacuate the planet only to find their enemy has come with them. They capture him, only to discover he's an exiled Chiss military officer named Mitth'raw'nuruodo--or as he tells them to call him, Thrawn.

Taken to Coruscant, he manages to impress Emperor Palpatine and is recruited into the Imperial military. The novel follows his rise through the ranks in the years preceding Rebels, with him

The Good

*The fact this book even exists is good. The first novel in the original Thrawn trilogy, Heir to the Empire, was the first new Star Wars material in over a decade and proved to be a major hit. It spawned two sequels, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command, as well as the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe. The EU got so clunky and contradictory I can't fault Disney for torching the whole thing when they bought LucasFilm, but they destroyed the good with the bad by nuking Thrawn, Mara Jade, etc. Now Thrawn's back, and they've brought a lot of his original back-story (his exile by the Chiss, for example) with him. And the book copy doesn't ignore the original Thrawn Trilogy--the story is being sold as a sort of "before he was famous" for Thrawn.

*Thrawn's characterization is very much like the original Thrawn trilogy. In my commentary on the trilogy, I described him as having a very Lie to Me focus on body language and little details. This is really depicted only in one or two scenes, but in Thrawn we see it a whole lot. The majority of the story is told from Eli Vatto's POV much like how Sherlock Holmes' story is told by Watson, but there are lots and lots of italicized portions from his POV that show his hyper-focus on details of others' body language. Furthermore, he's not just a human with blue skin--he can see in the infrared spectrum, which allows to him to perceive more about people's reactions.

*Per the Sherlock Holmes comment, although we get Thrawn's POV in journal entries at the beginning of each chapter, they're not overwhelming. And we finally learn just how his examination of his enemies' artwork helps him anticipate their battle strategies.

*I've only seen bits and pieces of Rebels on YouTube, but Thrawn provides a lot of back-story for the planet of Lothal, Imperial Governor Pryce, Thrawn, etc. Rebels fans will really like this. If I'd seen more of Rebels, I'd probably enjoy the book at lot more. The last chunk of the book explicitly ties in with Thrawn's introduction in the show and the suppression of the insurgency on the world of Batonn, where civilian casualties were significantly higher than insurgent ones.

*In the Expanded Universe, the Empire was depicted as both extremely racist (toward non-humans) and rather sexist as well. Here Imperial racism is handled a bit more subtly. The Empire is a successor state to a multi-species Republic that has lasted for thousands of years, so going Nazi, even with the Emperor scapegoating non-humans for the Clone Wars (in the Revenge of the Sith novelization that seemed to be Dooku's idea about what would happen afterward), would be very difficult. Thrawn's time at the Imperial Academy shows this pretty well--the atmosphere is very prejudiced overall and there's a lot of ugly behavior thrown his way, but he's still able to attend and graduate. And sexism doesn't seem to be an issue at all, which matches the more gender-egalitarian picture of the Empire depicted in previous new-canon books.

*Over the course of the story, we see more and more about the logistical side of building a certain mega-project. In fact, said project's logistical demands play a major role in many of Thrawn's adventures in this period.

The Bad

*It initially isn't clear the italicized portions scattered throughout the text are from Thrawn's point of view.

*Given that this takes place during the period of peace (albeit a repressive one) that followed the end of the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire and preceded the Rebellion, not a lot happens military-wise. Most of what Thrawn seems to be is detain smugglers and fight pirates. There's not really a lot of action. Like in the original Thrawn novels, a lot of the combat maneuvering and what-not is told rather than shown.

*We see the rise of Governor Pryce of Lothal, which is interesting if you'd like to learn about Imperial politics and how the Senate functioned under the Emperor. It's a nice bit of her Rebels back-story, but it wasn't super-duper interesting.

The Verdict

It's worth reading if you're a big fan of Rebels. I'd recommend getting it from the library. 7.0 out of 10.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Movie Review: The Dark Tower (2017)

Long ago when I was in high school, I read some of my father's older editions of Stephen King's Dark Tower novels, illustrated by the awesome Michael Whelan. I think there were only three--The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Wastelands. I eventually finished the series--they're what started me toward writing Battle for the Wastelands--and I eagerly awaited the movie I heard was coming.


The Plot

Teenage Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is having dreams of fiery apocalypse. The psychiatrist his mother and stepfather are sending him to think they have to do with the death of his firefighter father, but it turns out he's having psychic visions of another world. The villainous Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) is sending agents to abduct children with psychic potential to assist his plan to undermine the Dark Tower in the center of the cosmos, to allow the horrors of the outer darkness through.

Fortunately Jake is also having visions of Roland, the last gunslinger (Idris Elba). Jake escapes the agents of the Man in Black into Mid-World, left in ruins by a long-ago apocalyptic war, and soon meets Roland. The two have to survive attacks by the minions of the Man in Black as well as stop him from bringing down the Tower...

The Good

*The beginning is very well-done. We start out with some idyllic 1950s-esque suburbia (only more peacefully multi-racial) full of children and teens playing with each other. Then the air raid sirens start going off. Only instead of some kind of attack, it turns out that many of the children are being summoned into an ominous black pyramid by people who are obviously non-human creatures wearing human disguises. And did I mention this little idyll and the horror within sit atop a mesa surrounded by post-apocalyptic desolation?

*Although we don't see the Man in Black's ability to destroy civilizations by manipulating people, we do see in the small scale. He telepathically torments Roland and Jake with visions of their fathers and tries to play on Roland's guilt for those he failed to protect, he plays on Jake's stepfather's resentment of him, etc. We also see his pettiness--he twists a girl's mind to hate her mother to amuse himself, he forces minions who failed to kill each other, etc.

*There are some good visuals, like when Jake first arrives on Mid-World and spots the sand-encrusted ruins of a tank from the war that caused the world to "move on." There's also what looks like a giant mall with its own mass transit station, with a more primitive village of people wearing what look like modern clothes in its shadow. Let's be realistic--if there was some kind of apocalyptic event tomorrow, there'd still be continuity in culture, dress, etc.

*Tom Taylor does a good job as Jake. Matthew McConaughey is all right as the Man in Black. I'd hoped for better from him--see below. Elba doesn't really have a lot to say or emote as Roland, although he does the action scenes quite well.

*There are a lot of good action sequences and the movie is generally entertaining.

*There are some amusing one-liners here and there.

The Bad

*As someone who's read the books I recognized a lot of the events, Easter Eggs, etc. in the film, but so much more could have been said about them. The battle in whose aftermath we see the Man in Black kill a wounded man, the "last stand," is almost certainly the Battle of Jericho Hill, or some alternate-reality version of it. It's never actually named, nor do we see the actual battle or who was fighting in it. They tried to squeeze too much into too short a running time and although what emerged was decent, The Dark Tower is supposed to be an American Lord of the Rings. This could have been a trilogy of films at least. Maybe there's a 2-3 hour director's cut somewhere and I hope to God there is because there's so much they could have explored but didn't.

*The film makes Jake for all intents and purposes the protagonist when he doesn't even show up in the book series until later. Roland is the protagonist of The Gunslinger, but we don't meet him until well into the film. One of the critics on The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast flat-out described him as a sidekick to Jake, which has an unfortunate Hollywood history. I wouldn't go that far, but I'd be far more interested in seeing Roland's adventures, perhaps cross-cut with Jake's story in New York, until they cross paths. That would be a good chance to work in some episodes from Roland's journey in The Gunslinger, for example.

*Per the above, although there're some good character material for the Man in Black, he could still be developed more. In the books, for example, he had an affair with Roland's mother and the teen Roland accidentally killed her while trying to kill him. He's held a grudge for her death ever since--in The Dark Tower, the last novel in the cycle, it's his "most of all" reason for hating Roland. Here all we see is him mocking Roland about his "soft-skinned mother" (implying he had an acquaintance with said skin) and calling Roland's father a poor excuse for a man. A man in love (or at least in lust) with a married woman might comment on her looks and look down on her husband, but the full story isn't here. It would have been more interesting if the death of Gabrielle Deschain was part of what fueled his destructive tendencies. In The Wolves of the Calla, he does have enough feelings to be hurt when accused of cruelty, for example.

*In the commercials the Man in Black comes off as a lot more menacing and powerful. I'd expected McConaughey to play him with more intensity than what we got on-screen. The death of a character very important to Roland early on could be a good place to show this--in the scene the Man in Black basically tells the character to stop breathing and he does. He then walks away, catching the single shot Roland shoots at him almost offhand. If he's deflecting and dodging bullets all while psychically forcing a guy to suffocate himself, it'd be a lot scarier.

*There's an incursion from the outer darkness that's meant to illustrate what horrors will invade reality if the Tower falls, but it happens at night and it's too dark to really see just what kind of critter that is.

*The film starts to drag toward the middle. I think I remember looking at my watch.

Many of the criticisms I'm posting here are echoed and put into words more coherently by The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast's review of the film. Gotta give credit where it's due.

The Verdict

A rather shallow take on a much richer mythology. If there's not going to be a sequel, I hope there's a much longer director's cut out there somewhere. I do remember seeing a still of McConaughey walking through an icy wasteland past some corpses and whistling, there were scenes in commercials of mutant goons in the desert that weren't in the film either, and neither was the line where Jake asks if the Man in Black is the devil and Roland says he's worse. There might be more out there. 7.5 out of 10.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Movie Review: Spider-Man Homecoming (2017)

The other day I saw the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Spider-Man Homecoming, at the North DeKalb Mall movie theater where you can still get matinee tickets for less than $5. I'd skipped Doctor Strange due to a combination of other obligations and because it looked kind of trippy (like Inception), so this was my first time back in the MCU in awhile.


The Plot

In the aftermath of the Battle of New York, contractor Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), hired by the city of New York to help clean up Grand Central Station, is unceremoniously kicked off the job by a bunch of Men In Black types. It turns out Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has set up a public-private partnership with the federal government to rebuild the city, cutting Toomes' company out entirely even though he's bought lots of new equipment and hired new people for the job.

Despite having lost the contract, Toomes still has some captured Chitauri technology, which he proceeds to reverse-engineer into weapons to sell and winged powered armor for himself. After doing this under-the-radar for eight years, careless subordinates bring him into conflict with Queens' friendly-neighborhood superhero, Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

The Good

*As you can tell by my plot description, my favorite character overall was the Vulture. In this movie, he's far more sympathetic than Tony Stark. I've griped about how Iron Man III reduced the legendary Mandarin to yet another (white) military-industrial type with a grudge against Tony, but this movie does a really good job with the villain's characterization even though it differs from the comic version. The MCU Vulture shows that even though Tony isn't the narcissistic jerk he was before the events of the first Iron Man film, his self-absorption continues to cause problems. He attempted to enforce the Sokovia Accords on his own allies in Captain America Civil War due to HIS guilt for Ultron and he screwed over Toomes due to HIS desire to help clean up the mess of NYC and HIS desire to keep control over alien technology. If Tony had just bought out Toomes or paid him compensation, this whole mess could have been avoided, but he couldn't be bothered with the details.

And Michael Keaton does an excellent job playing the Vulture. I liked the character's sense of honor and fair play, his general swagger, his hardass attitude when required, his delivery of his lines, and his facial expressions and attitude during a scene where he rides in the car with Peter for an extended period. Very, very good. I also liked the combination of his WWII bomber jacket and all the high-tech stuff.

*Peter's friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who I'm not spoiling anything by revealing that he learns that Peter is Spider-Man early in the film, is pretty funny too. He pesters Peter about his superpowers, how he got them, etc. and talks about how he wants to be "the guy in the chair" who sends Peter out on missions. He even has a hilarious moment of glory late in the film.

*I'm glad they didn't do yet another origin story for Spider-Man. We've seen the spider bite and Uncle Ben die in Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man already, with a revisionist take in Spider-Man III to boot. Captain America Civil War introduced us to a young man who'd already been superheroing for some time, so the whole radioactive (or genetically-mutated) spider and the death of Uncle Ben is in the past.

*I'm usually not sympathetic to the demands of the social-justice set (well, beyond the "don't be jerk" parts), but I did like the increased ethnic diversity of the cast. Queens in the early 21st Century and Queens in the 1960s when Spider-Man premiered are vastly different places ethnically. Back then blue-collar whites like the Parker family would have been the dominant group and the 1965 Immigration Act would not have had time to make an impact. These days many of the lower-class whites (or their grandchildren) would have moved elsewhere, with large Hispanic, African-American, and Asian population moving in. Making Peter's friend Ned Filipino, his rival Flash Guatemalan (although until I looked up the actor I thought he was Indian), and his argumentative fellow Academic Decathlon player Michelle biracial (actress Zendaya has a black father and a white mother) accurately reflects reality without being preachy or heavy-handed. And there's an amusing bit where he helps a lost Dominican lady (and she buys him a churro) and an Easter Egg involving a criminal's nephew revealing that in this world, Miles Morales (Ultimate Spider-Man's Afro-Latino successor) exists.

*The film emphasizes the sacrifices Peter makes in order to be Spider-Man--he gives up extracurricular activities, gets into trouble at school, and misses out on social opportunities and alienates his peers.

*The film goes to Washington DC (where we get a nice Easter Egg with the rebuilding of the SHIELD Triskelion complex after the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier) in a completely non-forced way.

*The very end of the film unleashes a major twist to the Spider-Man mythology involving Aunt May. I won't go into it for reasons of spoilers though.

*The "friendly neighborhood" aspect of Spider-Man is emphasized--per my above comment he helps a lost Dominican lady and takes down a guy who's recklessly riding a bike down a sidewalk and knocking people over. Perhaps that's why the cops tolerate him despite the Sokovia Accords--he's more of a local mascot than a law-undermining vigilante.

The Bad

*The high-school stuff was boring and in some cases actively painful to watch. Not in the pathos drama sense, but in the "CAN THIS END" sense. I know an important part of his character is that he's balancing trying to be a normal teen and a superhero, but most if it really wasn't that interesting.

*Although as I said before I'm glad this isn't yet another origin story, Peter doesn't seem to have the guilt for the death of Uncle Ben driving him, nor does he ever unleash his tag-line about with great power coming great responsibility. Instead he seems motivated purely by "holy crap I can do that" joie de vivre a high-school sophomore discovering he has superpowers would have and a general-purpose desire to help people. Peter alludes to his aunt suffering a great trauma, but Uncle Ben would have for all intents and purposes been his father, so the death of Uncle Ben would have hurt him a lot too.

*One of the more interesting aspects of the original Flash character was that although he sneered at and bullied Peter, he greatly admired Spider-Man. That was something missing from the characterization of Flash this time around. It wouldn't have been hard to work that in--in the scene where Ned starts telling people Peter knows Spider-Man, Flash could say something like, "Spider-Man is too cool to hang out with some loser like you" or something to that effect. Or if they wanted to make this something that develops with his character, maybe he could become the big Spider-Man fanboy after the Washington Monument sequence.

The Verdict

The superheroics are fun, but the high school stuff had me looking at my watch many times. 7.5 out of 10.

Thoughts on Timothy Zahn's (Original) Thrawn Trilogy

Long ago, back when I was sleeping over at my friend David's house, I saw he had a book entitled The Last Command. I took a look at it and found that it was the last in a series of Star Wars novels set after the events of the original trilogy. I don't remember if I actually read it or not, although I do vaguely recall some of the events from it. But I do remember the villain--Grand Admiral Thrawn, the racist Empire's only non-human major military commander and probably one of their best. He didn't gratuitously abuse his subordinates, he was always polite, and he could figure out his enemies' military strategies by studying their cultures' artwork. And since these were the first of what would become a legion of books, video games, etc. that continued the story after Return of the Jedi, these books were extremely well-received when they came out in the early 1990s

More recently, when Disney bought Star Wars and wiped out the original canon outside of the movies, I was not particularly pleased. The original canon was complicated and often contradictory, especially when the prequels were released, but Disney destroyed the good with the bad by junking the Thrawn Trilogy, including the epic villain Thrawn, the "good Imperial" Pellaeon, the honor-bound alien Noghri who serve the Empire for a good deed done to them long ago by none other than Darth Vader, and Mara Jade, former assassin for Palpatine who started out wanting to kill Luke and (much later) ended up marrying him instead. This which should have been the sequel trilogy. The Force Awakens got better the second time I saw it (I wasn't impressed the first time around), but it would have seen so cool to see the Thrawn Trilogy on the big screen.

However, despite my griping, I had never actually read the Thrawn Trilogy in its entirety. I knew much of what had happened going in, but at most I'd only read parts of the books. So here goes, starting with the first one...

Heir to the Empire-Truth be told, this was a bit underwhelming. Thrawn's artwork inclinations are interesting and I thought the attack on Sluis Van (and the shenanigans leading up to it) were pretty clever, but Thrawn is nowhere near the epic mastermind I expected. And Mara Jade isn't nearly as cool as I'd hoped she'd be too. It's all right rather than glorious. Joruus C'Baoth, an insane clone of a Clone Wars-era Jedi Master, does show some interesting facets--rather than demanding rule of worlds for his help like a Sith Lord or more ambitious Dark Jedi might, he wants trainees so he can be a Jedi Master. Trainees he can teach, mold, and, creepily enough, punish.

We do see in the book that not all is well within the ranks of the victorious Rebels--we meet Borsk Fey'lya, an ambitious Bothan leader who parleyed his role in the capture of the plans for the second Death Star (something for which "many Bothans died") into a political career. He tries to develop a following for himself within the military (not a good sign in a democratic state), attempts to discredit Admiral Ackbar, etc. He's driven by personal ambition rather than treason, but he's such a problem many people suspect he's an Imperial agent intent on sowing trouble within the new government.

Dark Force Rising-Here we are shown a lot more of Thrawn's cleverness rather than being told he's a genius, especially in the parts where he's on the Noghri planet and investigates the secret arrival of Princess Leia. He doesn't just assume (remember "assume" makes an ass out of you and me), he follows up on suspicions in unobtrusive ways to avoid alerting the target that he knows, he has a very Lie to Me level of focus on people's body language and tone, and he has a group of experts whose advice he trusts.

In this book we also meet Garm Bel Iblis, one of the original leaders of the Rebel Alliance who so feared how Mon Mothma was becoming the dominant Rebel leader after the death of Bail Organa that he broke with the group and waged his own war against the Empire, intent on keeping his own private army lest Mothma make herself the new Empress.

Mara Jade disappointed me at first--as an Emperor's Hand I expected roughly Jedi levels of Dark Side ability, but it took a lot of effort on her part to shake a pipe loose from a stack to distract a bounty hunter who had a gun on her and she was able to do very little against Thrawn during a confrontation. Something like that would have been pretty mundane, even for someone out of practice or (as stated late in the text) whose Force abilities had been augmented by the now-dead Palpatine.

Also, the Katana Fleet sequence had some problems. Namely the entire time I thought the Imperials were losing--until suddenly it turns out they'd hijacked all but fifteen of the ships. When did that happen? This should have been foreshadowed somehow at least.

The Last Command-This is the best of the Thrawn novels. The first two books are about Thrawn putting together all the pieces he needs for his master plan and now he unleashes them, taking worlds through trickery and raiding Coruscant itself. An intelligence leak in the Rebel leadership on Coruscant is revealed, and it's extremely creative. However, Thrawn's propensity to sacrifice short-term gains (letting enemies who he could easily kill or capture, including those in his custody, escape to fuel other goals) becomes rather extreme in this one. Smuggler Talon Karrde at one point flat-out says that Thrawn "delights in leisurely and convoluted strategies." Thrawn may be clever enough to make these things work at least some of the time, but not always, and when it doesn't work out, it hurts him.

The Verdict

A lot of good concepts here and the book are quick and entertaining reads, but the series does have its flaws. There's a lot of telling and not showing (especially with battle sequences) and the whole overall story seems rather rushed. Were I writing this, I'd have liked to expand Heir to the Empire and Dark Force Rising into a trilogy and make the events of The Last Command into a duology or trilogy itself. I wonder if the reason the books are so celebrated among Star Wars fans is because they were the first new Star Wars material in years and proved popular enough to kick off the original Expanded Universe. They're good, but they're not great.

My friend Cory has recommend I read the Hand of Thrawn duology that features a possible return of Thrawn, so I'll probably do that if the library's got it.

Monday, July 24, 2017

My Thoughts on GAME OF THRONES Season 7 Episode 2: "Stormborn"

Last night I watched "Stormborn," the second episode of the seventh season of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones. In this one, there's a lot going on, including Danaerys' invasion of the Seven Kingdoms running into a major snag.

The Good

*Sam's surgery on Ser Jorah to cure his greyscale was extremely painful to watch, which was kind of the point. And the way they cut from Sam's knife penetrating Jorah's damaged skin to Arya cutting into a pie was masterful--if gross--in the same way they cut from Sam emptying bedpans to Sam serving slops in the Citadel cafeteria.

*I was very glad to see Arya going home instead of continuing her likely suicidal attempt to take out Cersei. Seriously, the group I watch the show with was straight-up cheering when, upon learning her brother (well, cousin, but she doesn't know that) Jon was ruling the North, she turned around.

*Although Jon is going about it in a clumsy way (no thanks to Sansa), he shows he has the best interests of the North at heart. He really should send Ser Davos or even Sansa herself to Dragonstone to negotiate with Danaerys, at least at first. Hopefully Littlefinger won't take advantage of his absence to push Sansa into doing something stupid and dangerous--it would suck massively if Jon had to personally execute (as far as he knows) his own sister for treason Ned Stark style.

*There are lots of good speeches here--Varys stands up to Danaerys and talks about how he's loyal to the people who'll prosper with good leadership and suffer under bad, Cersei rallying Westerosi lords against Danaerys' army of violent foreigners, and Jaime's attempt to woo Randyll Tarly and overcome his oaths to House Tyrell.

*I liked the scene between Jon Snow and Littlefinger in the crypt, even though I vocally referred to Littlefinger as an "oily prick" while it was actually in progress. Littlefinger mixes lies with truths as usual--Jon does owe him a lot for saving his behind in the Battle of the Bastards, but he had a lot more than just "differences" with Ned Stark and it wasn't very smart of him to reveal that he loved Sansa just like he loved her mother. Seriously, he earned that Big Brother Beatdown there. And the sheer gall of him coming to "pay respects" to Ned Stark's grave when it was him who betrayed him to his death in the first place. DIE! DIE!

*And Euron Greyjoy proves he can walk the walk, not just talk the talk. He takes Yara's fleet (or at least the core of it) by surprise in a pyromaniac orgy of slaughter, he's the first man aboard Yara's flagship riding down a skull-headed gangplank cackling with glee, and by the end of it, he takes multiple stab wounds and multiple blows from a whip from the Sand Snakes, and he still triumphs. Hot damn. That battle sequence was excellent and Euron is my favorite bad guy now. Many of the Game of Thrones villains are just gross (Ramsay, Joffrey), but Euron is just crazy awesome.

The Bad

*No mask for Sam when he's doing a highly risky--to him-- operation on Ser Jorah? Given how he knows from the Archmaester that the man who cured two advanced cases of greyscale died of the disease himself, I'm surprised he didn't wear a mask, whatever equivalent to goggles exist, etc.

*I thought the scene with Grey Worm and Missendei went on for too long. Yes, it's good to know even someone as damaged as Grey Worm can still love (and we know from an earlier season that the Unsullied, despite their physical incapacity, still desire intimacy) and Grey Worm's speech was good, but it seemed like the show's typical gratuitousness. I would have preferred a shorter scene and more time devoted to the Ironborn-on-Ironborn slugfest.

*Sansa needs to stop publicly undermining Jon and arguing with all his decisions. One of my friends said she wanted to punch Sansa through the TV screen. Seriously, they just talked about this last week, and Sansa is a lot more mentally agile and better at playing the game than she was in the earlier seasons.

*When Ellaria and Yara are talking about what Yara would do as queen of the Iron Islands, what they hell does she mean that Theon would serve as her "protector"? As we see later in the episode, Theon isn't very good at "protecting" anybody right now, or at least not protecting people from those bigger and more aggressive than he is. Yara knows how broken Theon is from the failed attack on the Dreadfort. Of course, perhaps this was wishful thinking on her part.

*How did Euron take Yara's flagship by surprise? It's at the heart of a much larger fleet. If he were somehow able to sneak his own ships into the core of Yara's armada, smash up the flagship and its immediate bodyguard, and then flee, leaving most of Yara's fleet actually intact that'd be one thing. But if he attacked at the edges and pushed inward destroying everything in his path, Yara and friends would have a lot more warning rather than being taken by surprise.

*I would have prolonged Theon's agony before he flees. He's shown no problems killing lots of Euron's Ironborn earlier in the episode, which shows he's got a lot of his mojo back. Maybe he advances more boldly on Euron, but slowly breaks back down before Euron's taunting and seeing Euron's people killing everybody around him? Intercut it with some Ramsay flashbacks and it'd be much better.

*Danaerys' strategy to conquer Westeros without alienating the people and leadership by using foreigners to attack the capital and without gratuitously destroying King's Landing with her dragons leaves out just what she would use her dragons for. They're war-winners when used aggressively--see the Field of Fire, the Battle of the Last Storm, and the burning of Harrenhal from Aegon's conquest--and they would allow her coalition to win with far fewer losses.

More Thoughts

*I wonder if they're setting up Sam to get greyscale with the Archmaester's warning and his insufficient precautions.

*The last time we saw Littlefinger getting choked by a Stark it was Ned in King's Landing, and it didn't end well for Ned. And we see Littlefinger rubbing his neck and watching Sansa ominously after emerging from the crypts beneath Winterfell. Jon better watch his back, because the little man is going to try something evil no doubt.

*With the Targaryen-loyalist faction of the Ironborn gutted and the current Dornish leadership captive (and possibly much of the Dornish army destroyed in transports), Danaerys might definitely need to "be a dragon" now, and with Qyburn building a huge ballista (that, per the books, is capable of killing a dragon) and having most of Cersei's wildfire stash besides, that could end badly for her. Hopefully she'll unleash the dragons on Casterly Rock in the next episode, which, incidentally, would give Qyburn more time to build up the capital's anti-dragon defenses.

*Theon is explicitly still alive at the end of the episode, although the sharks will likely be attracted by all the dead and wounded in the water. Unless some remnant of the Targaryen Ironborn fleet is there to pick him up, he looks like he's in trouble. On the other hand, the fact he's explicitly left alive onscreen means that this isn't the last we've seen of him. Let's hope Euron went with a "sneak in, burn, and sneak out" strategy that left much of Yara's fleet intact, for his sake at least.

*Ellaria Sand and one of her daughters are now prisoners of Cersei Lannister, whose innocent daughter they'd treacherously murdered. I wouldn't expect them to live very long, although given how in the books Qyburn seems to enjoy experimenting on women, there might be something much worse for them in store than Cersei simply chopping off both their heads.

(Yara's in a tight spot too, but Euron might want to pimp her out to one of his political allies for Greyjoy dynastic reasons.)

As always, looking forward to next week.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

My Thoughts on "Game of Thrones" S7 Episode 1: "Dragonstone"

Just got back from watching the first episode of Game of Thrones Season 7, "Dragonstone." Here are some thoughts. Beware, here there be lots of spoilers...

This episode was really funny, both things that are obviously intended to be comic and things that really aren't. For example, the scene at the beginning where Arya Stark disguises herself as Walder Frey and poisons all of the male Freys (or at least the ones involved in the Red Wedding) was funny to me. It's not because watching people getting poisoned is innately funny, but because it's so masterfully done (including how Arya-as-Walder avoids drinking the poisoned wine and keeps "his"wife from doing so) and because Arya-as-Walder's speech is so cutting.

In terms of things that actually are supposed to be funny, Euron Greyjoy rocked the house this episode. I particularly liked his comment on how he's got "one thousand ships and two good hands," which is obviously a jab at Jaime Lannister. I also liked how Jaime reacted to it, as well as his less-than-flattering assessment of the Ironborn in general.

In case you're wondering what's going on, Euron arrives at King's Landing with the Iron Fleet to offer himself as a husband to Cersei Lannister, who has at this point usurped the Iron Throne but in the process has made a lot of enemies. Cersei displays what could be common sense in rejecting Euron (a known backstabber), at least until he can prove himself. But that could also be unnecessary arrogance, since the Iron Throne is in such a perilous state that something as drastic as a royal marriage might be necessary to get the Ironborn back on board. One wonders if there are any suitable women to push Jaime on? Oleanna Tyrell is too old and based on the events of the last season, any member of the Sand Snake junta in Dorne is out of the question.

And of course we see Tormund Giantsbane lusting after Brienne of Tarth again. That's pretty funny, especially his comments to Podrick Payne.

Moving on from the comedy, a lot of really important stuff story-wise happens in this episode. At long last, Danaerys returns to Westeros, taking control of Stannis's former stronghold of Dragonstone and dramatically touching the ground of her long-lost homeland. The "next week on Game of Thrones" preview shows all of Danaerys' allies gathering around Aegon's table and Yara Greyjoy offering to attack King's Landing right away, so that plot looks to be moving at a rapid clip.

I did like seeing some of the drama between Jon and Sansa. Sansa has clearly learned how to play the game and be ruthless as needed from Cersei and Littlefinger. She points out that Ned and Robb made some bad decisions and paid for it with their lives. However, publicly arguing with her brother is not the way to get what she wants. As Jon points out to him, that undermines his authority as King in the North, and he can't have that. And Littlefinger is clearly trying to manipulate Sansa into doing something.

(With Bran back in the game, we have a possible succession issue in Winterfell--Jon is a blooded warrior but he's a bastard, Sansa is the oldest remaining true-born child but she's a girl, and Bran is the oldest remaining true-born son but he's disabled. Depending on whether the break in his spine is he might not be able to father children, and he certainly can't lead men in battle.)

It was also interesting to see the Lannister soldiers who are friendly to Arya, one of whom was singer Ed Sheeran. I honestly thought they had bad intentions at first, with the way they were trying to offer her food and wine, but it seems they were honestly trying to be friendly. Maybe all the previous criticism about the violence toward women on the show has been taken to heart? Or perhaps the producers were making the point, like the books do, that when the nobles play their games of thrones, it's the commoners who suffer. None of those men seem like bad guys at all, but if Cersei and Jon go to war, Arya's people will kill them or they'll kill Arya's people. All very sad.

Although the episode was overall pretty good, I didn't like what I called the "extended poo montage," much to my friends' amusement. They could have made the point that Sam's life as a Citadel novice sucks in half the time, freeing up a few minutes to elaborate on some of the other subplots.

Also, what about Edmure Tully? Is Arya aware he's a captive in the Twins? It could be that she is and desire for revenge has consumed her to the point she doesn't care about her uncle. With most if not all of the male Freys dead, that might leave Edmure in an unexpectedly strong position to reacquire the Riverlands, assuming they don't just forget about him in the dungeon.

Still, definitely looking forward to next week.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Movie Review: The Void (2016)

A couple months ago, I saw that the Canadian horror film The Void was playing at The Plaza independent theater in Atlanta. I hemmed and hawwed about going to see it and eventually proved my father's dictum "'I don't know' eventually becomes 'no'" correct. However, although it left the theater, it soon came out on home media. So I headed over to Videodrome (Atlanta's last video rental store) and got it. Now for the review...


The Plot

Police officer Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) stumbles across bloodied James (Evan Stern) while on late-night patrol and takes him to the nearby hospital, which is in the process of being closed down after a fire. There he turns James over to his estranged wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) and the skeletal remaining staff, including intern Kim (Ellen Wong).

Things take a turn when nurse Beverly (Stephanie Belding) kills a patient and attacks Daniel, forcing him to shoot her, and then her body starts mutating into a tentacle monster. White-robed cultists surround the hospital and a violent father and son (who aren't named in the film or credits but the Wikipedia article calls them Vincent and Simon), whom James had escaped from earlier, burst in with guns intent on killing James.

And that's just the beginning of the mayhem...

The Good

*This is a totally original story, although it's clearly influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This isn't a remake and it isn't even an adaptation of a book, comic, etc. It's a purely original film, something that's an all-too-rare treasure these days.

*This film is in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, which I always appreciate. There simply aren't enough films in this tradition, and those tend to be either older (like The Dunwich Horror or Re-Animator) or not as well known (like Dagon, which I own, or Cthulhu).

*The reveal that Daniel and Allison are estranged spouses is done very subtly--he spots her drinking coffee from a particular mug and states that he'd been wondering where it went.

*Daniel's reaction to killing Beverly--whom he might know through Allison--is realistic. He gets the shakes and ends up vomiting. This isn't some action-movie killing machine here, but a far more realistic character.

*The movie starts out grabbing the viewer's attention right away--James and an unnamed woman escape some un-described but no doubt Very Bad things at the cult's headquarters, with Vincent and Sam in hot pursuit. No slow and boring buildup here.

*There's a nice Lovecraft in-joke--the hospital is in Marsh County. In Lovecraft's lore, Obed Marsh is a sea captain who, in Lovecraft's story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," brings the worship of the sea god Dagon (and blasphemous mating with the amphibian-humanoid Deep Ones) to the titular town.

*Horror films these days are often overloaded with badly-done computer-generated imagery, but The Void has purely practical special effects. Consequently, when the creepy critters start showing up, they look like they're actually real instead of video-game entities interacting with the cast. The abomination known as Spawn (with its awful PlayStation One demon-lord Malbolgia) this was not. That is one of the strongest aspects of the film, and something that has won much justifiable praise from critics and viewers alike.

(It's a pity the DVD doesn't have a whole featurette dedicated to the effects alone. I would have loved to see that.)

*There's a lot of good imagery in the film, especially "the other side" and some of the cult iconography.

*The loss of a child plays a major role in the lives of three characters in the film and that's given the gravity it deserves. Daniel and Allison are estranged owing to the death of their son in childbirth; many marriages end if a child dies. And one character is driven to extremes by the death of his child--I won't go into detail for reasons of spoilers.

*In many horror films the characters have ample chance to get out of the situation or at least avoid making bad decisions that get them killed. Here there's a very good reason the characters don't even make a token attempt to run the blockade of cultists and get out of the hospital--Maggie's pregnancy is getting complicated and any attempt to take her elsewhere risk her death or the death of her child. And since Maggie needs medicine, a character will need to go looking for it, which leads to...complications.

*Ellen Wong does a good job as Kim, an intern who's called upon to complete tasks beyond her training and doesn't think she can do them.

*The movie stands on its own, although there's definitely room for a sequel. No details for reasons of spoilers, but a sequel following the survivors in this world (as they potentially have to deal with the cultists) and those who've ended up on the other side and presumably want to get home could be pretty cool.

The Bad

*It becomes very difficult to tell just what's going on in the second half to one-third of the film when people start hallucinating. That was my single biggest problem and why it won't get as high a review as I'd wish to give it. In Lovecraftian lore people exposed to the horrors beyond tend to start going crazy, but that made much of the film very confusing. Furthermore, it's my understanding the characters were hallucinating because the villain was attacking them telepathically, which is something that could have been eliminated. The bad guy is already dangerous enough, especially with the cultists as muscle.

*The opening credits are long and slow.

*Some of the hallucinations are useful in providing back-stories for Vincent and Simon, but per my last point, it made the last part of the movie rather confusing. It might've been better to have more conventional flashbacks, or have previous events expressed in dialogue. "As you know, Bob" is something to avoid, but exposition-through-dialogue can be done.

*There's something about the hospital I can't really describe for reasons of spoilers that could have been foreshadowed better.

*The dozens of white-robed cultists play a major role in the first half of the film, but by the end of the film they seem to have disappeared entirely. Maybe a scene depicting them fleeing the hospital as events take a turn for the worse could have been filmed?

*There were also too many cultists. A cult that big, especially if it's up to the activities James is claiming (and the villain later elaborates on), seems like something that would attract a lot of attention real quick. Instead of dozens and dozens of cultists with knives blockading the hospital, maybe there could have been a much smaller number with rifles hiding in the trees and shooting anybody attempting to escape? One or two snipers can make things difficult for a much larger number of people, especially if it's dark, and the pregnant Maggie would slow down any dash for the cars.

*Sometimes the editing is a bit choppy--toward the end we see a dead cultist or cultists on the floor of the hospital, but I'm not sure how they actually got there.

The Verdict

Very creative, especially in our age of remakes and derivative crap. A worthy effort I wish I could have given it a better review. I'd recommend renting it or getting on Amazon video. 7.0 out of 10.