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.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Shrieker (1998)

Once upon a time, I was in the habit of staying up late watching movies on the Sci-Fi Channel (they spelled it correctly then) and one I remember in particular was Shrieker. I recall enjoying the movie and trying to find it on DVD or VHS (that's how long ago it was) and ultimately finding it not worth the bother.

(The film was ultimately released to DVD, apparently in multiple editions.)

Well, I found it on Amazon Instant Video and since I'm laid up for a few days with a back injury, I needed something to do. Time for a "Blast from the Past" movie review that's not related to Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. In the immortal words of the Heath Ledger Joker, here we go!

The Plot

College freshman and math major Clark (Tanya Dempsey) is looking for a cheap place to stay. She's invited by Zak (Jamie Gannon) to squat with him and some others at an abandoned hospital near campus. Said hospital has been abandoned for a reason--back in the 1940s, a series of grisly (and unsolved) murders took place.

Occultic shenanigans ensue. Does the mysterious Robert (Thomas R. Martin), who has been living in the basement unbeknownst the others, know what's going on? Can our heroes find out more before they all end up dead?

The Good

*The beginning features some discussion of the titular monster's origins and the wider occultic world that fuses both Christian and Lovecraftian elements. I'd have loved to see more on the cosmology.

*The filmmakers know that it's better to leave stuff to the imagination than show your hand (or monster) too early. In the beginning of the film all we get of the monster are its screams and brief glimpses and it's more than a little spooky. There are few if any full-body shots of the creature.

*There are some legitimately tense and scary moments in the film. I was actually surprised to find this.

*The movie starts with a bang with the Shrieker's first appearance in the 1940s. When we get to the present day, things get started pretty quickly. Clarke moves into the abandoned hospital and meets her fellow squatters, the Shrieker makes its first modern appearance, and Clarke meets the oddball Robert within the first fifteen or twenty minutes. It's rarely if ever boring.

*Some of the characters are pretty amusing, like the aspiring revolutionary Tanya (Alison Cuffe) or the property- and guns-rights enthusiast David (Parry Shen). Given today's concerns about representation, the depiction of David as something other than a wimpy nerd or a karate master might be attractive to some. I found Tanya and David's contrasting politics amusing.

*There's a joke involving the characters comparing their situation to the musical Rent I actually found amusing.

The Bad

*The acting in general really isn't much to write home about.

*There are some transitions of questionable quality, including what look like commercial-break edits from the television version. There are also some obviously reused shots. The film could've used a better editor.

*The film's run-time is a little over an hour. It would have been better if there was more to it. They could have fleshed out the cosmology and characters a bit more.

*In the prologue introducing the mythology, one of the ancient alchemists looks like they're sketching the Lament Configuration from Hellraiser. Umm...would it have been that hard to come up with some original Evil Eldritch Writing? Especially when they do have plenty of that elsewhere in the film.

The Verdict

Good bones, so to speak, but a little bony. Just rent it or watch it on TV. 6.0 out of 10.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Interview with the Vampire (1994)

I vaguely remember when the film Interview with the Vampire, based on the novel by Anne Rice, came out, but I don't remember whether I wanted to see it. Although I've read the werewolf novels of Rice's sister Alice Borchardt (I strongly recommend The Silver Wolf), I never really had much interest in Rice's vampire novels or seeing the movies based on them.

Well, thanks to Myopia, I'm seeing a lot of movies I'd never otherwise watch, so here we go. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

In the modern day, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) takes aside Daniel Molloy (Christian Slater) and reveals to him that he's an immortal vampire. He begins telling his story, taking the viewer back to when he was a planter in French Louisiana in the late 18th Century. After the death of his wife and child he sought death, only to encounter Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise), a French vampire. With Louis's permission Lestat transforms him into a vampire and the two of them form a hunting pair, eventually adding transformed pre-adolescent Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) to their crew as they live through the centuries and have various adventures.

The Good

*The acting is very, very good. Brad Pitt does a great job as the tormented Louis, who has to kill others to survive but hates himself for doing it. When we first meet him, he gets his unnatural nature across very subtly and without unnecessary drama (i.e. popping out fangs and hissing). Kirsten Dunst is good as Claudia, who grows frustrated that she's stuck in the body of a child for eternity and will never become a woman and acts quite like a teenager for much of the film. She eventually manages to pull off acting like an adult woman even though she's physically around 10.

*Tom Cruise as Lestat merits his own entry. He's appropriately obnoxious as the arrogant elder vampire, who soon after transforming Louis moves into his house and discusses his home and property as though it's "ours" and not "yours." Per some of the on-screen commentary that comes with Amazon Instant Video, Cruise watched videos of lions hunting gazelles to get the predatory aspect right. He's even more overtly creepy and predatory than Louis and seeing the brunette Cruise as a blonde is even more off-putting. Although at least some of Louis's slaves care about him, they're all quite justifiably terrified of Lestat. Cruise provides both slyness and manipulation (as this article points out, it resembles an abusive heterosexual relationship with Louis as the battered wife) and manic energy that's often quite funny (his training of Claudia in how to be a vampire). Whatever you might say about Scientology and Cruise's other...eccentricities (the above link, among other things, compares Lestat's relationship with Louis to Tom Cruise's relationship with Katie Holmes)...he's probably the best actor in the film.

*There's some stuff in the film that's legitimately funny. In addition to how funny Lestat can be, Louis's "poodle massacre" is timed so well that it's hilarious.

*In the credits Anne Rice is listed as writing the screenplay. Although writing for film and writing for books are two vastly different skill-sets--with a novel you can throw in everything but in a screenplay everything must be explicitly on-screen or at least strongly implied on-screen--if a novelist can write a good script, having them at least involved in the script is a great idea. They'll know what's most important, they won't get stuff wrong about their own work, etc.

*It functions well as a period piece--in the 1990s frame story there's a lot of smoking, people are recording stuff on analog tape, etc. It also works well as a period piece for antebellum Louisiana, although there are some historical problems with the 1870 visit to Paris. Paris at that point was under siege during the Franco-Prussian War and nobody's going to be having balls, high culture, etc. there. The costumes are great and the filmmakers even gets into the subtle details of slave culture--in Catholic Louisiana, the slave religion is a lot more likely to have elements of voodoo (you see slaves sticking pins into dolls, some of the dances and ceremonies resemble stuff I've seen in documentaries about the Caribbean, etc) than in the Protestant U.S.

*The makeup crew got the vampires' unnatural nature done with great subtlety. The veins in the vampires' faces stand out and their eyes are strange--no need for elaborate special effects.

*There's also a nice bit of social commentary in making Louis a slave-owner. He's already a parasite--making him a vampire just makes it more overt. And as I noted above, Lestat is even more blatant--while Louis feeds on animals and hates himself, Lestat feeds on Louis's slaves.

*Since Louis cannot go out in daylight, there are certain colors he simply can't see anymore, like the blue of oceans. He's grateful for the advent of movies so he can see these things again. That's something I've never thought of and it's pretty clever.

The Bad

*The movie is a little slow in places. Louis is, after all, telling the story of his entire life, and it's not always going to be interesting. I'm not totally sure what the actual storyline is--Louis manages to escape from the need to have a quasi-boyfriend (Lestat, Armand), Louis figures out how to live as a vampire while maintaining his morality (okay they don't really do this, but he could feed only on criminals or work out a behind-the-scenes deal with the military or state government to serve as a soldier or executioner), etc.

*My Myopia co-hosts really liked Armand, but he felt kind of meh to me. Louis has his Catholic guilt thing and Lestat is over-the-top and often hilarious, but what makes Armand interesting?

*Even though the vampires can move so quickly people can't see them and heal wounds very quickly and Lestat seems to pay at least lip service to their need to hide their activities, one wonders how nobody notices Louis and especially Lestat are killing so many people. Louis remarks that Lestat kills two or three people per night and in one scene, they kill people at a high-class party. In another scene they wipe out a whole family coming to see Claudia play the piano, while Claudia herself kills people in public. There's also all the bloody clothes that presumably are getting laundered somehow. Louis's slaves seem to figure out something is going on pretty quickly (and at one point descend on "the big house" with torches), but Louis and Lestat never seem to need to get out of town quickly. Given how slaves in the antebellum South had a plantation-to-plantation gossip network that came in really handy for the Underground Railroad and Union forces during the Civil War, I imagine rumors would have spread of Louis and Lestat's behavior very quickly rather than being restricted to the slaves of Louis's estate. And that says nothing of their killing people in New Orleans, especially upper-class people who'll be missed.

*It's not clear whether being bitten by a vampire instantly kills or not. Lestat feeds on Louis once before transforming him and that renders him sickly but not dead, while the tavern girl Lestat kills when first teaching Louis to hunt doesn't seem to lose any blood at all. Claudia's bites seem to kill people pretty quickly, faster than Louis and Lestat's attacks, while another vampire we meet later in the film has a mortal child servant whom he seems to be nibbling on fairly often without killing him. In none of these situations do people seem to lose much blood. Dracula and the television series True Blood seem more realistic--people have quite a lot of blood and it would take multiple feedings to kill a person. That could have been an opportunity to contrast Lestat and Louis--Lestat demands blood from the slaves to the point it kills them (when he simply doesn't kill them immediately), while Louis (who is depicted as a relatively benign slave-master) tries to minimize Lestat's predations on them?

*As a brief conversation on the podcast alludes to, the film's depiction of slavery has some...problems. Louis's house slave Yvette (Thandie Newton) says the slaves are worried about newly-vampirized Louis because he's not going out into the fields (i.e. supervising them at work, which would require him to go out in the sunlight) or visiting the slave quarter? She asks him if he's still their master, which one can read as either her wondering if he's still the same person he was before (it's later revealed the slaves think he's turned into the Devil) or that she's upset that he's not supervising them and micromanaging their lives. You can see it in the script here and make your own judgments. Now, one could read visiting the slave quarter as him simply checking on them rather than something more sinister, but most slave-owners were NOT benign father-figures no matter what the Lost Cause nonsense teaches, and their visits to slave quarters might have had more sinister purposes. I initially thought the visits to the slave quarter she referenced were sexual in nature; it would be pretty screwed up if Yvette acts like him not doing that anymore is a bad thing. In Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana 1718-1868, which I read for graduate school, it depicts the racial environment of French Louisiana as less strict and cruel than the Anglo-American order that came with the Louisiana Purchase, but still.

I'm not going to criticize without offering suggestions for improvement, so perhaps the reactions to Louis's strange behavior among his slaves could be depicted as being more mixed? Yvette might be concerned for Louis's well-being and want Lestat gone because she was hoping to take the place of his deceased wife (in French Louisiana there was this whole legal institution in which slaves and free women of color could advance their positions by romantic relationships with white men) and is actually jealous of Lestat. That's what I meant when I commented in the podcast about how Yvette being jealous of Lestat would further emphasize the homoerotic nature of Lestat and Louis's relationship--she would view Lestat as a romantic rival. This would still allow for the dialogue between Yvette and Louis without suggesting that the slaves in general actually miss their master and would show Yvette exercising agency despite her not really having a lot of choices.

Meanwhile, other slaves are glad Louis isn't bothering them and perhaps take advantage of the fact he's drinking the blood of livestock rather than eating actual meat to improve their diets? Much African-American cuisine is based on parts of animals the slave-owners didn't want, and some accounts I've read of slavery involve slaves taking food from "the big house" to supplement their crappy rations and getting punished. Given how we see slaves mourning friends and relatives killed by Lestat, perhaps there could have been a scene where we see slaves sneaking around with dead chickens and other birds killed by Louis (and commenting on Louis's behavior as they do so), only for Lestat to ambush them? Then we see the slave voodoo rituals and the like, culminating in them marching on Louis's mansion with torches. One doesn't need to spend a whole lot of time on this issue--it would only need the tweaking of some of Yvette's and Louis's dialogue and maybe an additional scene of Lestat being a predatory scumbag.

*Later in the film, some other characters do Louis a great wrong (not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers) and he gets away from them and they know he's gotten away from them, but they take no precautions. Then he comes back for revenge. How stupid are these people?

The Verdict

A little slow in places, but overall a very well-done film. 8.0 out of 10

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Movie Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

The first PG-13 movie I ever saw was the original Jurassic Park back in 1993. I've been a fan of the franchise ever since--I saw the first sequel Lost World in middle school, Jurassic Park III in high school, and Jurassic World when it came out. I reviewed it and even participated in a podcast dedicated to the film. So even though the advance buzz wasn't so hot, I definitely made plans to see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

The Plot

In the aftermath of the events of Jurassic World and the massive payouts the company had to make to those harmed, Isla Nublar has been abandoned again. However, it's not a paradise where once-extinct beasts can roam around freely--at least not for much longer. The island's dormant volcano has came to life and the US government, which based on Jurassic Park III seems to have been doing the lion's share of keeping the islands quarantined, has been listening to Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and is inclined to let the volcano destroy the dinosaurs.

This doesn't sit well with Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is now running the Dinosaur Protection Group dedicated to protecting the dinosaurs like they're an ordinary endangered species. She allies with the late John Hammond's former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to transport the dinosaurs to a new sanctuary, with her former boyfriend Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) along for the ride to help find his velociraptor pet/surrogate child Blue.

Unfortunately they--and the timid computer geek Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and the take-no-shit "paleo-veterinarian" Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) from Claire's organization--find that the sinister plots to weaponize the dinosaurs (one of Jurassic World's weaker points) are still in play and drastic action might need to be taken to save them...

The Good

*I will give the film credit for taking creative risks. The island gets blown up halfway through the movie and the rest of it takes place in California, with the climax occurring at Lockwood's mansion way out in the woods. No more formulaic "how can we get people to these quarantined dangerous islands" films now. The film also gets pretty dark--there's deliberate murder (or attempted) murder of humans by other humans. Even when Malcolm and his crew sabotage InGen's attempt to capture Isla Sorna's dinosaurs in The Lost World, InGen's mercenaries rescue them from the falling trailers and include them in their attempts to get off the island rather than abandoning them to die or deliberately killing them.

*The visuals are stunning, including the dinosaur effects.

*The last quarter of the film, however ridiculous it often seems, comes off like a Gothic haunted-house horror movie, just with dinosaurs.

*Like before, Howard and Pratt are quite amusing together. And Claire has become quite the bad-ass since then. No more running around the jungle in heels for her. :)

*In general there's a lot of nice laugh-out-loud moments.

*There's a scene with a brachiosaurus that's legitimately sad, just like in the last movie. I think the last movie did it better in terms of eliciting an emotional reaction from me, but a whole lot of people found what happened poignant.

*A new type of dinosaur actually seems to have a personality and almost demonic cleverness.

The Bad

*How is the mosasaurus (really a kronosaurus due to its size) still alive if the park has been abandoned for three years? It doesn't seem like it's capable of climbing out of its pool. It would have long since starved to death trapped in its enclosure unless the pool was already stocked with fish, animals keep conveniently getting close enough for it to snag, or somebody's been feeding it.

*Apparently a tie-in in-world website of the Dinosaur Protection Group that provides a lot of the back-story, but I didn't know it existed. Consequently, I was wondering for much of the movie about Isla Sorna, which should be unaffected by the impending destruction of Isla Nublar. This is a problem--if it's that much of a plot hole, it should be explained in the movie. All they'd need is a throwaway line about how after "the spinosaurus incident" Isla Sorna's ecology collapsed and the surviving dinosaurs had to be relocated to Isla Nublar for the new park.

*There's some needless political commentary, like one of the mercenaries (a villain, unlike the awesome Roland Tembo from the second film) referring to Dr. Rodriguez as a "nasty woman." Where have I heard that before?

*There's a scene involving transfusing blood from one species of dinosaur to another. That's...not going to work. You can't transfuse from one human to another if the blood types are different and humans are all one species. The almighty TVTropes said this was like using rabbit blood in humans.

*Ian Malcolm is even more of an annoying pantheist than he was before. It's my understanding that his worries about chaos theory from the first movie had to do with the overconfidence of Hammond and his entourage that they could control these wild and dangerous animals so easily, but there was still the "nature SELECTED them for extinction" stuff. He's still on that kick in this one, even though he explicitly tells the Congressional committee that God isn't involved here. News-flash: In a purely naturalistic world (Malcolm is not a religious man, something made quite clear in the novel The Lost World), there is no "meant to be" or "wrong side of history. Things happen and people have to deal with them.

*It would have been better if the "rescue the dinosaurs" plot had taken up the entire movie--one last return to the park, rounding up the dinosaurs, some close encounters of the worst kind with big carnivores, etc. could have taken up quite a lot of time. One of the more creative features of The Lost World was the depiction of the carnotaurs as having chameleon-like camouflage, which they could have included in this one. The betrayals that take place halfway through could be a cliffhanger ending to set up the events of a third Jurassic World film, which would cover the events of the second half of the film and the consequences of those.

*Things got kind of draggy after they get off the island all the way to the dinosaur auction going badly.

*They hype up the possibilities of the dinosaurs getting loose as some kind of apocalyptic event when they're really not. Most if not all of the dinosaurs are female and there are so few dinosaurs period they wouldn't be able to create a viable breeding population even if they became established somewhere. And if the lysine contingency is still in the genes of the new batch (it's certainly still there with old-school dinosaurs like the T-Rex), many of them will die unless they can find the proper foods. The only ones I anticipate being a real problem are the kronosaurus, since it has the whole ocean to hide in, or the pterodactyls due to their ability to fly and the fact enough of them escaped Isla Nublar (and Isla Sorna earlier) that they could establish a viable breeding pool. The big carnosaurs in particular will be in zoos or trophy racks within a month or two.

*Weaponizing the dinosaurs is still a dumb idea. Unless they could teach raptors to use guns (or engineer them into creatures similar to the wolf-baboon-human chimera ghouloons from S.M. Stirling's Draka novels), it seems pretty pointless. They need too much food, the fixed costs of creating them are huge, etc. A "war raptor" might be able to do more damage on the battlefield than a "war dog" (more physically destructive, more intimidating) but it doesn't seem like it's worth the effort.

The Verdict

Worth seeing once. It's not a bad movie, but it could have been done better. 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Fifth Element (1997)

Once upon a time when I was in fifth or sixth grade, a science-fiction movie called The Fifth Element came out. My parents were rather conservative about what I was allowed to watch until probably my junior or senior year of high school, so I wasn't allowed to watch it. I pretty much forgot about the movie--looking back most of the movies I wasn't allowed to watch were pretty stupid, like the monster movie DNA that's so bad I can't even find it on Amazon Associates--until Myopia: Defend Your Childhood decided to do a podcast episode on it.

Well, here's the podcast. Now for the review...

The Plot

After a short prologue set in Egypt in 1914, we jump 300 years into the early 23rd Century. Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a military veteran turned taxi driver, crosses paths with Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), an avatar of powerful alien forces. She's pretty important, because an ancient evil that emerges every 5,000 years has returned to threaten Earth. It can only be stopped by five artifacts, four stones representing the classical elements (earth, water, air, fire) and one "fifth element," but eccentric (to say the least) billionaire Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman) is in league with this evil and is planning to steal the stones himself.

The Good

*I liked that it was a Coptic Christian priest (he certainly doesn't look European) who was part of the ancient alien conspiracy. The Copts are the direct descendants of the original Egyptians (see this article here about their language), so they're a lot more likely to get involved with Ancient Aliens-type stuff than the more recent Arab arrivals.

*Korben's military history is shown rather than told--military commendations on his wall, a call from his old commanding officer to catch up, etc. This sets up his bad-ass exploits later on. And although exposition through dialogue is usually not done well ("as you know, Bob"), Zorg exposits the reason why the pig-orc Mangalores are willing to help an ancient evil power destroy Earth pretty neatly without wasting a lot of time.

*There's some pretty good humor in here, like how Korben defeats a mugger and, well, the Space RuPaul that is Ruby Rhod.

*Gary Oldman is clearly playing against type--rather than an obvious tough guy like Sirius Black, Commissioner Gordon, Count Dracula, etc. he's an effeminate Southern-drawling corporate bigwig who's not completely sane. I can appreciate that--roles like this show his range as an actor and he's one of the most entertaining elements in the film. That said, he's sneaky-smart and still pretty handy with a gun.

*A character's death actually caused me to have an emotional reaction, and they're only on-screen for five to ten minutes at most.

The Bad

*For starters, the movie is way, way too long. It's around 2.5 hours if I remember correctly.

*Many of the characters' actions make no sense and serve only to advance the plot. For example, Dallas flees the police with Leeloo when she starts to cry after literally falling into his cab, despite living in very precarious circumstances (i.e. he doesn't have the resources to evade the police, nor defend himself legally if arrested) and having only just met her. Yes, it's clear he's not over his wife having left him, but there's making bad decisions due to a broken heart and there's making truly nonsensical decisions based on a broken heart. The same with Zorg's various antics, especially later in the film.

*The opening is a little slow. Although the beginning in Egypt is kind of cool (including the line about the Germans), the Mondoshowans were hard to take seriously as threatening, or for that matter functioning, aliens. They came off to me as obese robotic Skeksis (from The Dark Crystal). And some of the aliens' actions don't make much sense in the beginning either.

*A modern-day priest claims that trying to fight the Ancient Evil with weapons is trying to fight evil with evil, but he proposes no actual alternative to the President even though he's part of the secret society that's been in league with the aliens for thousands of years. Now might be the time to spills the beans, Father.

*When Leeloo first materializes she's completely naked, as one might expect. Then come some "thermal bandages" that don't really insulate much. Come on, we know that's just for audience titillation while avoiding an R-rating. Just have some doctors give her a robe or something.

*So many McDonalds product placements. It's so obvious.

*The romantic relationship between Korben and Leeloo that develops doesn't seem to have any basis in, well, anything.

The Verdict

There are some parts that are actually pretty entertaining, but it's silly and generally not very good. Don't bother. 6.0 out of 10. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

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

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

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

The Plot

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Stargate (1994)

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

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

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

The Plot

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

Monday, May 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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