Saturday, February 9, 2019

A More Radical Union During The Civil War? Japanese-Hawaiian Dynastic Union?

Although I'm still self-banned from the alternate history forum because it's a time sink, I still visit now and again to see if anything interesting has been posted. Maybe if I ever become successful enough to go full-time perhaps I'll have them un-ban me (and I'll probably drop back in to advertise Little People, Big Guns when it comes out in November), but that's a long ways off.

Here are a couple interesting scenarios for you.

Until Every Drop of Blood Is Paid: A More Radical Civil War-In real history, the American federal government suppressed the Confederacy's attempt to secede from the Union to preserve (and possibly expand into the Caribbean and bordering areas) slavery and freed the slaves, but the war wasn't explicitly fought for abolition at first and the U.S. ultimately prematurely abandoned Reconstruction, condemning the former slaves to two to three generations of Jim Crow suppression. In this scenario, the murder of Lyman Trumbull by a pro-slavery fanatic gets Abraham Lincoln into the Senate in 1854, where his views on slavery and race become more radical much earlier than they did in real history. This has consequences--John Brown, though still ultimately a failure, is more successful than in real history, and the Confederacy still emerges under different leadership (its president is the failed presidential candidate John C. Breckenridge, with real-life Confederate President Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War). The Confederates do better early on, but from the way things are going, the South is going to get an even worse hiding than in real history.

AHC: Make Hawaii a Japanese Colony-An "AHC" is a challenge to come up with a scenario where a particular counterfactual happens--in this case, Japan rather than the United States colonizes Hawaii. In the post I linked to, a brief visit to Hawaii by lost Japanese fishermen triggers diplomacy between the kingdom (this is well before the U.S. annexation) and the Tokugawa Shogunate. You know, the regime that (mostly) cut off Japan from foreign contact. To make a long story short, the two insular powers form an alliance to deter European or American meddling. It's based on a lot of little-known real-life history (including proposed dynastic alliances, treaties of protection against various outsiders, etc) and it's pretty interesting. My main quibble is that I think the author overestimates the isolation of Tokugawa Japan from outside knowledge, although he does acknowledge the existence of Dutch Learning.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Film Theories and Subtext: ROAD HOUSE (1989) and IMMORTALS (2011)

Once upon a time in one of my writing groups I remember my as-yet-unsold novel Battle for the Wastelands getting criticized for its lack of subtext. At the time I didn't think that criticism was particularly valid, although at this point I don't remember the details and the work has undergone many revisions in the years since then. Overall it is a good idea to imply stuff in the text that's not stated explicitly in order to add depth to your work, get your readers discussing it with each other, etc.

Here are some subtext-driven film theories I've come up with, one very recently and a few years ago. Spoilers ahead, so be ye warned...

Road House-The other night, I saw Road House when my friend Nic was doing a comedy performance with the Atlanta comedy troupe Cineprov. Although nobody in the habit of editing the Wikipeda or TVTropes pages seems to have noticed, I got the implication that Doctor Elizabeth "Doc" Clay (Kelly Lynch) is actually the ex-wife of small-town bully and petty gangster Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara).

*She references having been married before, but it didn't work out.

*Another character refers to Wesley's wife having left him and him not taking it very well.

*Wesley's new wife or mistress (it's not clear which) looks a lot like Doc. They're both tall and blonde, although the new girl comes off as a lot ditzier and raunchier than, well, a medical doctor.

*Wesley gets REALLY twitchy when he sees Doc over at the room that James Dalton (Patrick Swayze) has rented from a local farmer, especially when she and Dalton start getting busy on the roof outside. He's watching from across the lake for an awkwardly long time and rather than deriving voyeuristic glee out of the situation, he's clearly not a happy camper.

*When Wesley and his crew show up at the Double Deuce club to make trouble, the way he and Doc talk implies they have some sort of history, or at least know each other.

*When Dalton goes to Wesley's house for the final confrontation, Doc arrives just when Dalton is going to finish Wesley after having killed or otherwise incapacitated his goons. That doesn't necessarily mean she's been there before, that she has access to the property, etc. but she would probably be familiar enough with the house and how to get there quickly if she'd lived there before. Someone online theorized that she'd been taken hostage, but Wesley's whole plan was to kill Dalton's friend/mentor Wade Garrett (Sam Elliot) and then have his goon squad waiting in the driveway with guns for Dalton to show up. Not only are all the goons there waiting for Dalton (i.e. nobody is kidnapping Doc separately), but there's no need for Doc to be present at all, since Garrett would have been provocation enough. Also, in their previous conversation, Wesley threatens Dalton, not Doc herself.

Immortals-I saw this a few years ago and although nobody seems to think this besides me, I got the distinct impression that the villainous King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) is actually the father of the film's hero Theseus (Henry Cavill).

*Theseus is the town outcast, the product of his mother getting raped by a bunch of "peasants."

*When the slimy Lysander (Joseph Morgan) brings this up in front of Hyperion, Hyperion takes offense at his mockery of peasants, claiming that he had been a peasant himself.

*One of the seers has a Bad Future vision of Hyperion and Theseus standing together as allies, which might happen if Theseus learns Hyperion is his father and Hyperion plays his cards right--claims he didn't know Theseus's mother was pregnant, that the gang-rape story isn't actually true, etc. As a young man who grew up without a father, Theseus might be particularly susceptible to Hyperion much like how Luke was tempted by Vader's We Can Rule Together routine in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

(In the old Expanded Universe novel The Truce at Bakura that takes place immediately after ROTJ Luke momentarily fantasizes about how he could have ruled the Empire--only to realize that even if he had fallen to temptation, him, Vader, and Palpatine would have died with the Death Star.)

Of course, the fact Hyperion killed Theseus's mother in front of him would realistically put a damper on that...

Yes, fan theories are often ridiculous and silly, but I think these have some legs.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Merlin (1998)

The film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood that I'm on is doing a dedicated television movies month. Thomas's contribution to the list was the 1998 television miniseries Merlin, which features none other than Jurassic Park alumnus Sam Neill as the legendary wizard. I watched it when it was on TV and could remember a lot of the general beats, so I figured I'd give it a spin.

Here's the podcast, which among other things features me rasping a lot and swearing. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's the 6th Century AD or so and Britain is a mess. Various Christian and pagan factions are at war with each other, while the Saxons invade from Europe. The goddess Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) and her henchman Frick (Martin Short) attempt to stem the decline of "the old ways"--since if gods aren't worshiped, they cease to exist--in the face of the growing power of Christianity. To do that Mab creates Merlin (Sam Neill) as a sort of anti-Jesus (complete with what seems to be a virgin birth), but Merlin refuses to serve Mab after he discovers just how cruel and unpleasant she is. The supernatural cold war between the two drives the events of the story of King Arthur (Paul Curran) over what seems to be a generation or so.

The Good

*Most Arthurian stories don't take the Saxons into account even though the earliest historical accounts of Arthur are about fighting the invading Saxons. I suspect this has to do with Le Morte D'Arthur and The Once and Future King, which don't feature the pagan continental invaders and focus instead on conflicts among the Celtic Britons. The prologue to the film depicts the Saxons, who respect neither Christian churches nor Celtic pagan shrines, as one of the various problems assailing Britain, which was nice. I'd have liked more of them, but more on that later.

*The acting is for the most part good. After all, they do have Sam Neill, Martin Short, and other talented actors to work with. There are a couple moments of apocalyptic badness (that believe me I make sure to mock in the podcast), but I'll get to those later. Miranda Richardson is raspy and annoying, but she has one really good moment that I discuss in the podcast, since it's spoiler-iffic.

*Paganism is referred to as "the old ways," which however annoying the way they keep saying it is, does make sense. One reason animistic and polytheistic "old religions" tend to fall before proselytizing religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam is that they lack strong organizational structures and in many cases even literature and writing. They're just things people have always done, and that's a pretty weak reed when facing societal collapse (the fall of Rome, the Saxon invasion) or the arrival of a much more organized new faith bearing with it various advancements like literacy (and thus more coherent governmental administration), new crops and farming techniques, etc.

(Yes, I am aware of persecutions of polytheists by ascendant monotheists, but the new faith has to get into a strong enough position to do that in the first place. It took 300-odd years for Christians to persecute Roman pagans; before it was the other way around. And St. Patrick in Ireland was a straight-up slave.)

*When Mordred makes his move, he goes into battle wearing the sun-god image on his armor that's associated with the film The Wicker Man. Considering he's paganism's last champion against oncoming Christianity, that's a nice bit of detail.

The Bad

*For a being of such great power, Merlin comes off as extremely weak and passive. He takes no action (other than to berate Arthur about it) when he learns that Morgan has slept with Arthur even though he's sure a child will result due to Mab's scheming. Even though he knows Morgan is laired up in Castle Tintagel with the young Mordred and Mab getting up to who knows what, all he really does is beg her not to raise Mordred in the "old ways." He doesn't attempt to kidnap or kill Mordred or Morgan despite knowing the threat they represent (and the Vortigern plot shows Merlin is capable of physical violence if he wishes), nor does he have Arthur attempt to take control of his son or attack Tintagel with his armies if Morgan objects. One could argue that this could provoke the wrath of Mab, but Mab is not omniscient or omnipresent. Merlin could pull a fast one and Mab wouldn't be able to prevent it.

*Per the above, so many bad decisions made by so many other people. We're talking Matrix Revolutions levels of stupidity (listen to the podcast in which I discuss that) among people who should know better. It's a lot harder to enjoy the movie when people who are supposed to be such great heroes are all a bunch of morons.

*Per my earlier comment about Mordred, when he enters the picture as an adult, nobody seems able to deal with him. He just walks into Camelot, claiming to be Arthur's son, and starts stirring up trouble. Even in The Once and Future King, it takes years for him to build the support base to challenge Arthur and he's more conflicted about doing it. And once he makes his violent intentions clear, all Arthur does is slap him and he knocks around some soldiers who try to arrest him. That would've been a very good time for a Zerg Rush, since however skilled he is he's just one man.

*Mab's voice is weird and annoying. She's supposed to be an otherworldly being and I know what they're going for, but they could have done something else than have her rasp and screech. Mab also has got too much eyeliner and looks like she's BoToxed to hell. Is this supposed to be a metaphor for her refusal to accept her own obsolescence? She's not super-duper impressive as a villain.

*There are two scenes where Merlin and Mab face off and Neill, for all his acting chops, just comes off as really goofy and ridiculous. "I WILL BEAT YOU MAB! I WILL FIND A WAY!" or something to that effect. If Mab were more genre-savvy, she should have just slagged him right there before he gets powerful enough. Someone really needs to read the Evil Overlord List. And in another scene, Merlin is all like, "ARTHUR WILL HEAL THE LAND!" Excessive drama aside, heal the land from what? The previous king Uther Pendragon is shown to have...issues...but the situation hasn't reached Vortigern-level issues of tyranny or (large-scale) civil war.

*Although Frick is one of the film's more amusing characters, there's a scene later on where he comes off as really passive and foolish. Life lesson: If someone you know is extremely powerful and capable of doing really bad things to you with magic does something bad to someone else, use your own powers (and he has them) immediately rather than just yell at them and give them a chance to hammer you down. This person is someone he knows very well, so he should know just what they're capable of. Idiot.

*The passage of time in the film is really wobbly. Nimue seems to be a trainee nun (or just hanging around an abbey) for one or two decades and however much the Church emphasizes hospitality, at some point they're going to tell her to shit or get off the pot. Arthur is gone hunting for the Holy Grail long enough for problems to result, but the Holy Grail is supposed to be in Britain itself. He'd basically be riding around his own kingdom and could probably check in at Camelot fairly regularly.

*Speaking of the Holy Grail, there's very little foreshadowing about it. Apparently there's a deleted scene explaining that when Frick had the young Morgan put a stone in Arthur's crib (that scene stayed in), it was supposed to curse him with impulsiveness, but that scene really should have stayed there. Knowing Arthur's impulsive behavior is of supernatural origin would explain both some of the good and bad decisions he makes.

*The Saxons aren't mentioned at all after the prologue--the story is super-focused on the "Summer Kingdom" and how it ended, but it was Arthur's unification of the various post-Roman Celtic factions to defeat the Saxons that made the SK possible. There should've been at least one battle against the Saxons--who BTW look like a bunch of central casting Vikings complete with horned helmets--in addition to the various British warlord-types.

*This ties in with my last major problem--the movie is way too long for what happens in it. Yes, it's a TV miniseries, but they should have had a lot more stuff in the allotted time to make it entertaining and less draggy. Per my earlier remarks, making Saxons a larger presence would have been one way--Merlin and Mab could be forced to temporarily work together to help Arthur's Celtic coalition fight off a Saxon invasion, since the Saxons don't respect the Celtic pagans any more than they respect the Celtic Christians, and their victory would be Mab's undoing just as much as the triumph of Christianity. A Nazi-Soviet pact between Merlin and Mab, if you will.

(Incidentally this would deal with my beef with Merlin being so passive and Mab not crushing an obvious threat while he's still weak--he can't move against Mab, nor can Mab move against him, because of the oncoming Saxon invasion. They can snip at each other and impede each other in minor ways, but the apocalyptic showdown simply cannot happen or both Celtic pagan and Celtic Christian civilizations are doomed. Once the Saxons are beaten back, then we move into the endgame.)

During this period of the story, Mab could try to seduce Merlin back into her service (perhaps by offering to heal Nimue's injuries), while Merlin could try to find ways to undermine and destroy her in the process of working with her against the invaders. For example, he could at least try to undermine young Mordred's faith in "the old ways" by explaining that for all her power Mab is ultimately dependent on her worshipers (i.e. she's a parasite and needs them more than they need her) and that she's not even a goddess, but a being from "the land of magic" (i.e. an alien or, as they might understand it, a Fae). Although this doesn't work, the Saxons could still be beaten and Arthur could celebrate the defeat of the Saxons and what appears to peaceable relations with his half-sister with the building of Camelot and the quest for the Grail, only for Mab, Morgan, Mordred, etc. to backstab him before Merlin can backstab them by inciting a coup in Camelot while he's away. If Mordred is old enough to participate in said battle with the Saxons, it could earn him allies among Arthur's supporters that barging into Camelot and griping about Guinevere's affair with Lancelot really wouldn't.

*Finally, is Merlin's guardian Ambrosia a Christian or some kind of non-theist who follows her own conscience? Mab assumes she's become a Christian when Ambrosia tells her to her face she no longer believes in "the old ways," but Ambrosia claims she "follows her own heart." However, she also invokes angels with a dying patient, something neither an atheist nor a Celtic pagan would believe in.

The Verdict

It's not enjoyable enough for the time it takes to watch, especially due to the nonsensical behavior of much of the cast. 6.0 out of 10. Don't bother.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

After-Action Report: Days of the Dead Atlanta, 2019

The weekend of January 25 to January 27, I attended the Days of the Dead Atlanta horror convention at the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel in Atlanta, GA, splitting a table with fellow dark fiction author T.S. Dann. I sold 24 copies of The Thing in the Woods and six copies of The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2. After running all of my expenses (costs of the table, per-unit book costs, snacks, a Lyft ride) and gross revenue, I made around $180 profit. In terms of single-event profitability, this one places second to the Atlanta Comic-Con in July 2017 and ahead of the Atlanta Sci-Fi and Fantasy Expo I attended in March 2017. This one is a definite go-back, especially once my upcoming horror-comedy Little People, Big Guns is released by Deadite Press in November 2019.

(Considering how there aren't a lot of conventions in December and I've got a lot of RL obligations that month, if Days of the Dead Atlanta 2020 is in January that might be the first event where I sell LBPG.)

In addition to earning money, I also got 31 e-mails for my mailing list, which will come in handy when my military sci-fi novel Blood on the Border, the slightly more science-fiction oriented Thing sequel The Atlanta Incursion, and LPBG come out.

(Only LPBG has a definite release date--Blood will be published independently hopefully sometime over the summer and I haven't heard back from the publisher yet on TAI. However, I've got high hopes for them all.)

Based on attending this convention and previous events, here's my advice for aspiring authors:

*Always split the table at a convention if you can. One reason that I made so much profit (as opposed to just gross revenue, although that too was pretty high) at Atlanta Comic-Con was because I split the table with C.S. Johnson. The table cost at Days of the Dead was high, but fortunately Dann was able to shoulder half of it. If he hadn't been able to attend, I would have barely recovered my expenses--and that doesn't take it into account that some people who came over to check his stuff out ultimately bought some of my stuff instead or as well.

*Take the time to network. I met Jeff Strand and his wife as well as John Wayne Comunale there. The Strands informed me there's a Horror Writers Association chapter that just formed in Atlanta that, in addition to networking opportunities at meetings, intends to set up a table members can sell from at the Decatur Book Festival. Considering how I sold a fair number of copies at the DBF at the Atlanta Writers' Club booth, another table someone else is paying for that I can put shifts in sounds awesome.

*Have more than one product to sell if possible. 20% of my profit for the event came from the Heroic Fantasy Quarterly anthology, which wasn't yet published when I had my first book signings and convention appearances. As I publish more and more books, I anticipate my revenues will rise. Someone who isn't interested in the Lovecraft-type horror of Thing might like the Dungeons and Dragons and/or Conan the Barbarian type stories in the Heroic Fantasy Quarterly anthology or the ridiculousness and Crosses The Line Twice of LPBG.

*Always bring your lunch. Leaving the table to get food will not only cost you potential sales (since you're not at the table to sell to passers-by), but you'll spend money on the food. Getting a sandwich from the hotel Starbucks at the Atlanta Comic Convention in December 2017 cost me $6.50, equivalent to the profit of selling one copy of The Best of Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2. I'm not recommending being a total cheapskate, especially if there's something new and good to eat at the convention, but remember everything has a cost.

*Always have lots of bookmarks and other swag to hand out. I handed out hundreds of VistaPrint large-size cards (that can be used as bookmarks) that Digital Fiction Publishing designed for me. This cards have a QR Code linking to a page with links to the various places my fiction is available online. People who weren't able to purchase my books at the convention will be able to do so using the QR code on the card--and be able to purchase other short stories, novellas, etc. that simply don't exist in print form. Even if they don't know how to use QR codes or simply don't bother with them, the card has the title, author, publisher, etc. and can remind them to look it up. Handing out the cards could generate additional sales for me for days, possibly weeks, afterward.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Not-Quite-Serious LABYRINTH Fan Theory and A Bunch of Memes

Once upon a time, when I was looking at memes online when I probably should have been doing something useful, I stumbled across the meme below:

Not sure who created the meme or else I'd give credit (the link I got it from is click-baity and full of ads, so I'd rather not send you there), but "look into my eyes" is based on a line from the movie Venom. I can't find a good clip of it online, but it's one of the lines quoted here.

In the meantime, I participated in a discussion of the movie Labyrinth for the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, a movie that I also reviewed independently. During the episode, the character Hoggle is justifiably criticized for betraying protagonist Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), but in his defense, Hoggle is acting under orders from Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie). If he helps Sarah and her brother Toby (Toby Froud) escape, he's still going to be living in the Labyrinth and there's going to hell to pay.

However, as you might expect from a kids' movie, Hoggle has a change of heart and assists Sarah, who ultimately reclaims her abducted brother from the Goblin King. That solves her problem, but doesn't solve Hoggle's--and those of Sarah's other allies, Ludo's and Sir Didymus's--problem of being known rebels against Jareth. If Jareth reasserts his power, he's going to punish them for rebelling against him and assisting the mortal girl (and her little brother) he was messing with.

Key word: If. Jareth's goblin armies are scattered and he's uniquely vulnerable. It's either him or them. Although Jareth seems to have Reality Warper abilities, Ludo has shown himself capable of geological magic on a large scale and Hoggle is a sneaky little man.

So it's time for regime change in fantasyland. Here's a meme I made using artist B Mac Smith's depiction of Ludo and Hoggle as the base:

The film ends with Sarah and her Muppet friends having a dance party in her room, so clearly Jareth is no longer in a position to have Ludo, Hoggle, Sir Didymus, etc. imprisoned or killed. As was noted in the podcast, some of the Muppets are creatures who were enemies not long before (goblin soldiers) or independent hostiles (the Fireys), but nobody seems to care. Perhaps with Jareth gone, all is forgiven, much like what happened with most of the Axis rank-and-file troops after WWII.

Of course, that owl outside the window is pretty obviously Jareth, who may be down, but he's not out...

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Accomplishments and 2019 Goals

I've taken a page from fellow blogger and writer Matt Stienberg and decided to post about what I accomplished in 2018 and what I intend to do during 2019.

So let's start with what I've done:

*I sold my bizarro comedy-horror novella Little People, Big Guns, which is slated for publication sometime in 2019. I owe the success for this one to my father Terry Quinn, who through a client learned that the 2015 World Horror Convention in Atlanta needed volunteers, and Anya Martin, who actually arranged for me to become a volunteer. Volunteering gained me access to a pitch session, where I pitched the concept to Jeff Burk, who thought it was hilarious. Once I expanded and revised the novella, I sent it to Mr. Burk when Deadite Press re-opened to submissions and voila!

*I learned more deeply the importance of conventions and what the most profitable ones would be. I sold an entire print run of thirty copies of The Thing in the Woods at the Atlanta Sci-Fi and Fantasy Expo in March for a little over $155 profit, in July profited nearly $400 thanks to splitting a table at The Atlanta Comic-Con with C.S. Johnson, and made roughly $100 profit splitting a table at the quarterly Atlanta Comic Convention in December with Robert Jeffrey. In contrast, I straight-up lost money on a fall festival in Snellville, the emerging authors' tent at the Decatur Book Festival, and a twofer book signing and small-town comic-con in Augusta, GA and Bishopville, SC respectively over the summer and made only a nominal profit on a gun show in May.

(I would have probably made more money at the gun show if I had more cash to make change--many patrons of the gun show didn't want to use their credit cards, I'm assuming for privacy reasons, and so I had to underprice--and if I had a more explicitly gun-focused product. Given the success of Larry Correia selling books on the gun circuit, I'll probably give gun shows another spin once Little People, Big Guns is ready and especially once Thing sequel The Atlanta Incursion is available.)

*Speaking of The Atlanta Incursion, I finished that and submitted it at the end of September. Hopefully that'll be accepted and published sometime in 2019. I can't speak for the publisher, but he did seem interested and I'm one of his more aggressive sellers.

*I started writing Blood on the Border, the first work of fiction set in my Federated Worlds universe. This is a project I intend to go full independent on, and it'll hopefully open the door to making lots of money at more explicitly science-fiction conventions like Treklanta and SphinxCon.

Now, onto my goals for 2019:

*Make a killing (heh) at the Atlanta Days of the Dead, which I will be attending with T.S. Dann at the end of January. I still have between 60 and 100 copies of Thing and a few copies of The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2 and this is a horror-focused event, so this has the potential to be extremely lucrative.

*Finish Blood, run it through writing group, and get paperback editions available for Treklanta and SphinxCon. Assuming SphinxCon is the same time as it was last year (early November) that won't be a problem, but Treklanta is Memorial Day Weekend. That could be the tricky part. Treklanta might not be as lucrative as I'm hoping because FW is intended to be a critique of Star Trek in some ways--rather than "we don't have money in the 24th Century," it's an automated economy where most people don't need to work and one species' equivalent to Surak is more like Josef Stalin than Jesus Christ--but SphinxCon is a general military SF/fantasy convention.

*Continue with the comic conventions. The Atlanta Comic Convention is quarterly, while the big Atlanta Comic-Con is slated to return as well. I've done pretty well at these and once I have a greater variety of products to sell, I anticipate things will be even better. Having a table partner is particularly important, especially for the pricey conventions like Atlanta Comic-Con and Days of the Dead.

*The Decatur Book Festival has many other options besides the emerging-author tent, such as the Atlanta Writers' Club booth. I'll definitely sign up for a slot there with the AWC again.

*Assuming TAI is accepted and published sometime this year, I will begin working more intensely on the third book, The Walking Worm, which is more akin to the small-town Southern horror of Thing as opposed to the MIB/UFO stuff that TAI introduces. To make an X-Files analogy, TWW is more "monster of the week" while TAI introduces an overarching mythos. Not sure if I can get that manuscript done and submitted in 2019 given how I don't even have a full outline, but if I can keep my focus anything's possible.

*Battle for the Wastelands has been under consideration by a major publisher for some time, but they don't want it, it's time to self-publish. I have a prequel novella "Son of Grendel" centered on the villain's son already written and a prequel novella "Ruled in Rage" focused on the villain himself as a youth partially written. If I finish "Rage" I could put out Battle first and on the 90 and 180 day mark after that put out a novella. I don't have a lot of the second Wastelands book Escape written yet, which could be a problem.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Long ago I remember seeing The Muppet Christmas Carol in theaters, which means I would have been around eight years old. I didn't remember it very well beyond Scrooge gloating about how Christmas is the perfect time for moneylenders because people spend mortgage money on gifts and parties.

Well, the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood has decided to revisit the film, and so I took a watch. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's Christmastime in Victorian London and the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) doesn't give a damn. He's a selfish, bitter, unpleasant man who gloats that Christmas is "harvest time for the moneylenders" (like himself) because people spend their mortgage payments on gifts and other "frivolities," tyrannizes his staff, including loyal Bob Cratchit (none other than Kermit the Frog), and apparently has turned foreclosed homes into slums he doesn't maintain while squeezing the tenants with high rents.

However, his deceased former partners Jacob and Robert Marley (Statler and Waldorf) visit him in the night, telling him that to avoid their fate of eternal damnation, he will be visited by three spirits--the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet To Come--and he should heed what they're saying. These spirits take Scrooge into his past, into the present, and into the future, a journey chronicled by Charles Dickens (the Great Gonzo) and his companion Rizzo the Rat.

The Good

*The acting is very good. Michael Caine does an excellent job as Scrooge, conveying the crankiness and bitterness and the temper creeping out from under his rather thin veneer of politeness. He also plays him as intelligent enough to make wise-sounding arguments to justify his ugliness (like suggesting people pay their mortgages rather than spend money on Christmas "frivolities"). And in the scenes of his childhood he conveys very well how these arguments are severe denial papering over deep psychological wounds. He's a big jerk gloating about foreclosing people on Christmas in the beginning, but damn I felt sorry for him based on the boarding-school scenes alone. And slowly as we see nostalgia creep in and him confronting his issues, he warms up quite convincingly. The musical number with the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him experiencing straight-up joy probably for the first time in many years and even though I didn't like the song, I thought that was one of the finest acting bits in the movie. And by the time the ghoulish Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come arrives, he has learned genuine humility and eagerly awaits the lessons this terrifying creature can teach him. Scrooge's arc is well-done and most of the credit for that belongs to Caine.

*When I was a little kid I didn't really understand why Scrooge hated Christmas or even really understood his back-story at all. I saw the Alliance Theater production (an Atlanta tradition) sometime later that elaborates on the end of his relationship with his fiancee Belle (he foreclosed on former employer Mr. Fezziwig under the influence of a much more malevolent Jacob Marley) and in the animated version he outraged her by foreclosing on someone whose mortgage payment was an hour late, but this one goes deeper into his past. Seeing him spending Christmas alone at boarding-school was legitimately poignant, as was seeing his fiancee leave him on Christmas because he was becoming too fixated on money even though the scene was rather abbreviated. Scrooge as an old man is a prick, but all of this made me feel for him.

*Per the above, you can see the miserly tendencies in Scrooge even when he's not truly a bad person. As a young man working for Fozziwig (Fozzy the Bear), he's concerned that Fozzy's Christmas party is consuming too much of the company's money. And his reasoning for delaying marriage to Belle (apparently not the first time this has happened) is that he's worried they don't have enough money to live properly. Scrooge's true wickedness (even if you have to foreclose on someone who doesn't pay their loans you don't have to enjoy it) comes later, but it doesn't emerge out of nothing.

*There are some moments of legitimate creepiness, like those leading up the appearance of Jacob Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

*The film moves along relatively quickly, which is good for a kid's movie.

*I did like the younger Statler and Waldorf portraying the Marley Brothers as "lads" before they became old skinflints who ended up in Hell. I've only seen those particular Muppets as old people before, so a completely new design was pretty cool. We also see a Muppet spider-monster as the fence Old Joe buying stolen property and I liked the puppetry design of the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

*I liked the explicit Christianity of the Cratchit family, especially the disabled Tiny Tim who explicitly speaks of the One who healed the sick and made blind men see. And although Mrs. Cratchit clearly knows how much of a jerk Scrooge is, they all wish him a merry Christmas regardless. Jesus said to love even one's enemies and one's jerkass employer doesn't quite reach that level.

The Bad

*Muppet Treasure Island has much better and more memorable songs. "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas" really isn't that good. Neither is "Marley and Marley," which introduces Scrooge's deceased business partners who try to help him avoid their damnation for callous greed and even outright sadism (gloating about foreclosing an orphanage). The Ghost of Christmas Present's song isn't that good either. Belle's song about how her and Scrooge's relationship wasn't meant to be should have stayed in some capacity so Gonzo and Rizzo's reactions make more sense and to amplify the sadness of Scrooge's back-story, although perhaps not this version.

(From her facial expressions she seems like she's spitefully rubbing her leaving in his face rather than sad their relationship is dying because of Scrooge's greed and/or fixation with having "enough money." If she truly loved him I would imagine she would mourn rather than be sadistic.)

*I would have had a lot more sympathy for Scrooge's nephew Fred (Stephen Mackintosh) if he hadn't taken shots at his uncle at a Christmas party. If I had a relative with whom I had philosophical disagreements...I simply wouldn't discuss them with non-family-members at all rather than making them the butt of my jokes at parties. Especially if I'd invited them to said party in the first place.

*It's my understanding that Fred's mother Scrooge's sister (with whom he was rather close) died and that Fred's presence aggravates Scrooge's uglier tendencies because he's never come to terms with her death. Although one might think they can't go into a lot of detail due to this being a kid's movie, the impending death of Tiny Tim stayed. Perhaps Fred could bring up his mother and that sets Scrooge off--kids wouldn't get it but adults would. Instead Scrooge's sister is never mentioned at all, even though according to some of what I've read her death (apparently that was on Christmas too) is one factor behind Scrooge's hating Christmas and his bad behavior in general.

*Scrooge is entirely too well-dressed for a miser. It's my understanding Scrooge was so cheap and obsessed with money that he didn't spend even on pleasurable things for himself. In one version of the story I read or saw on television (it might have been the Mr. Magoo version of the story), the ghostly Jacob Marley chides him for living on gruel in a cold drafty house. Obviously he does have to look somewhat presentable to do business, but I would expect a more austere mode of dress.

(Of course, either Nic or Thomas theorized that he pilfered the watch and chain off the dead Jacob Marley, which would make sense.)

The Verdict

Michael Caine is probably one of the best human actors in any Muppets film I have ever seen, but the movie is still rather mediocre. 6.0 out of 10.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Movie Review: Labyrinth (1986)

I don't call my review of Labyrinth a "blast from the past" review because I never saw it when I was a kid, except perhaps for the opening animated owl on the Disney Channel. I knew about the movie from film books (I remember reading about the special effects in a book that also shows how they did the unmasked Vader for Return of the Jedi, for example) and always found the concepts and some of the imagery rather creepy, so I actually avoided watching the film.

(I did know enough about the film to make jokes about David Bowie's excessively tight pants when I was older.)

Well, the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is discussing the film and so here I am finding the motivation to watch the movie. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

Teenage Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) is not taking her parents' divorce, her father's remarriage, and the presence of her baby half-brother Toby (Toby Froud) very well. She retreats into her imagination and fantasyland far more than is healthy. Required to babysit Toby one night so her father and stepmother can go on a date, she becomes so frustrated with him that she wishes the Goblin King would take him away.

Well be careful what you wish for. None other than the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) and various Muppet minions show up. Sarah immediately realizes the horrible mistake she's made, but Jareth requires her to solve a magical labyrinth in 13 hours or else Toby will be transformed into a goblin forever.

Sarah now has to traverse a dangerous and magical world, making friends and allies and learning life lessons along the way.

The Good

*Although TVTropes (and some of the reviews from the time) talk crap about her acting, Jennifer Connelly does a great job as Sarah. She starts out as a selfish, immature, annoying, bratty teenager. Seriously, there is a lot of flouncing and excessive drama going on here (plus her speech to Toby about how he's a selfish brat shows quite a bit of projection) and it makes her really unsympathetic. However, through the events of the film, she grows out of it. Even when she's in full brat mode she still shows some sisterly concern for Toby, and Connelly does a good job projecting her growing horror when she realizes that she did set the goblins on him. And when the Goblin King takes Toby away, she sets right to getting him back, although she takes some time to grow out of her demanding and selfish tendencies. Sarah's character arc is extraordinarily well done and much of the credit goes to Connelly.

*The character Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson) is given real depth and is played very sympathetically. He's short, ugly, has low self-esteem, apparently never had any friends until he met Sarah, and gets abused and threatened by Jareth, but although he does some bad stuff he's not truly bad. I liked him.

*There are moments of legitimate suspense, like the intercut of real, actual goblins observing Sarah about to invoke them and her over-dramatic speech in which she makes the wish that the goblins would take Toby away. If I didn't know the general story already, I would have definitely found it more suspenseful, and if I were a little kid (i.e. the target audience), even more so. And the Junk Lady (Denise Bryer) is pretty creepy too, given what she ultimately plans on doing.

*The movie teaches good moral lessons for children, especially those who might have a new sibling they resent or are part of a blended family. Sarah learns over the course of it to be unselfish, brave, humble, ask nicely for things, not judge by appearances, persevere when things get tough, understand that things aren't always what they seem, and solve her own problems using her own intelligence. She also uses the kindness we see even in full brat mode to recruit allies.

*The movie gets off to a quick start and moves along quickly. Sarah's invocation of the Goblin King is ten minutes in and she enters the labyrinth at around fifteen.

*Although Shelley Thompson isn't in the film much as Sarah's stepmother, she does a good job with her small part. Although I can easily imagine her rubbing Sarah the wrong way, I can definitely see her point of view that Sarah isn't respectful and needs to have a more normal social life. And her and Sarah's issues are shown, not told, in one scene that was painful to watch.

*There are a lot of good subtle touches, and nothing is in the film by accident. For example, Sarah has a scrapbook with clippings of her actress mother's career and a man beside her in the image is David Bowie. To be fair I might not have noticed if I hadn't already known from others' comments on the film that Jareth is really is her mother's new boyfriend (yikes, a sexual rivalry with one's own mother?), but just because someone doesn't notice subtext doesn't mean it's not there. Another example is all the toys and fairy-tale stuff in Sarah's room. Despite being presumably 15-16 (Connelly's actual age at the time), this shows rather than tells her immaturity, as does the fact that she utterly loses it when Toby and/or her stepmother take one of the toys for him to play with. Yes, teenage girls don't want people messing with their things (as Nic pointed out in the podcast), but I was a better sharer at 3-4 (when my little brother was born/big enough to want to play with my toys) than she is at 16.

*The costumes and creature design are very well-done. Giving Bowie's Goblin King different-colored eyes makes for an unsettling introduction, besides the obvious fact that he's come in through Toby's bedroom window and is looming over a teenage girl. There's also a straight-up Goblin Mecha Muppet at one point that's pretty cool, as well as armies of goblins with what look like elderly velociraptor cavalry and machine guns.

The Bad

*The opening sequence goes on for too long with that damn owl flying around. All with the David Bowie soundtrack too. It goes on for nearly three minutes. Come on people, let's get going.

*Speaking of David Bowie, he's not that impressive as an actor. When he first appears to Sarah he's rather monotone and dull. He does manage to project his subtle contempt for Sarah well with his speech about how she should go back to her toys and forget about Toby and it seems like he really is having fun in "Magic Dance." However, I think he's mostly there for the singing, and his acting ability pales in comparison to Connelly.

*There's too much David Bowie music in the soundtrack. Yes, I know he has a major part in the movie, but the Bowie songs are jarring when the rest of the film's soundtrack is more typical of an 80s fantasy film and him actually singing in-scene (other than "Dance, Magic Dance") was even worse. A Bowie concept album based on the film (exploring themes like coming of age, sexual awakenings, parental divorce, etc) would have been an interesting idea though, just like Songs in the Key of X for The X-Files. It would have been better to save the actual Bowie songs in the opening and closing credits of the film rather than have him awkwardly bursting into song in the midst of his appearances. "Dance, Magic Dance" kind of works, but it comes off to me as what TVTropes would call a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment. Although I could imagine it's there to show that Jareth is bored lording it over a bunch of dim-witted gremlins (i.e. motivation for messing with Sarah and/or wanting to keep her and her brother as companions) and that he's more affectionate with Toby than his own sister, it just comes off like an excuse to have a Bowie number. Actual musicals integrate the numbers into the plot far better. And although one could excuse "DMD" as Jareth just being bored and having a musical performance for kicks, him bursting into song at other times really didn't work for me. "Within You" is a really blatant example.

*And as far as Big-Lipped Alligator Moments are concerned, the singing and dancing vaguely Caribbean fire creatures took too much time on-screen, event though they do serve as an additional peril for Sarah and give her a chance to demonstrate her cleverness in dealing with them. The blue-screen effects aren't very good either. I admit I do like the song though. :)

*Some of the dialogue is a little too on the nose, like Sarah's bit about how she took it for granted after Hoggle lectures her about not taking things for granted.

The Verdict

A charming children's fantasy with some flaws. 8.5 out of 10. Of, and for anybody who's interested, someone typed up the entire novelization here. It goes into a lot more detail about the psychological and family dynamics driving the plot if you're into that sort of thing.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

ISIS Nukes Brussels, The Seljuks Beats the Mongols, and Stalin Joins The Axis

Although I'm still self-banned from posting on the biggest alternate-history forum on the Internet, I do visit the public sections to see what interesting actual alternate history (as opposed to the endless political arguing I quit the forum to avoid) is being discussed.

This led to my finding three more interesting timelines in recent weeks. One takes place in the modern day, the second in the days where Turkish power expanded into Asia Minor at the expense of the crumbling Byzantines, and the third during World War II.

The Sultanate of Rumistan: An Alternate Anatolia-The Seljuk Sultanate of Rum was established after the defeat of the Byzantine Empire by the Seljuk Turks, which began the process of Turkifying and Islamizing Asia Minor and the Byzantines' long decline. The Sultanate was eventually defeated and forced to pay tribute to the Mongols after their defeat at the Battle of Kose Dag, but in this timeline, the Seljuk sultan listens to his experienced commanders and waits for the Mongols to come to him rather than attack them immediately. The Mongols are defeated and the decline of the Seljuk Sultanate--which ultimately led to the rise of the Ottoman Empire--is averted. This is going to make life rather difficult for the Byzantines, but the author knows a whole lot about the workings of the Seljuk Sultanate, the neighboring Kingdom of Georgia, and the Byzantine secessionist regime in Trebizond and it's really quite interesting.

The Maw: When the Lights of the World Went Out-This story begins with agents of the infamous Islamic State somehow getting hold of a nuclear weapon--just how they got it hasn't been explained yet--and they smuggle it from the Middle East into Belgium. They set it off in the downtown area of Brussels, killing tens of thousands (if not more) immediately and provoking France to nuke ISIS's capital of al-Raqqa in reprisal. A straight-up World War II level obliteration of ISIS soon follows. It looks like the author was setting up a much darker scenario based on the hints he was dropping, but the timeline hasn't been updated in some time. Given how the real-life migrant crisis in Europe has been, well, a crisis, a world where ISIS agents snuck into Europe via Greece and ripped a chunk of a major EU city out with a nuke, I suspect the people getting the worst of it are going to European and refugee Muslims.

The Twin Vipers-Stalin joins the Axis. Although given Hitler's ultimate desire to conquer the Soviet Union, exterminate "Jewish Bolshevism," and turn the Slavs into helots for German Spartans and how in general fascism and Communism are opposed ideologies make this sound absolutely insane, there were talks to that effect. Rather than refusing to deal more than the bare minimum with people whom he viewed as racial enemies, the Germans were actually willing to admit the Soviets to the alliance to help defeat Britain. That would have made life very difficult for the Western Allies, since the Soviets could menace the Middle East and India in a way the Germans could not.

However, this timeline begins somewhat earlier than the real-life talks that took place after the defeat of France when the 1939 border conflict between the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan that ended with the Battle of Khalkin Gol escalates into a full-blown war. This leads to Mussolini getting sidelined, the British and French fighting the Soviets in Finland, and even Operation Pike, an Anglo-French plan to bomb the Soviet oil fields that didn't happen in real life.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Movie Review: Muppets from Space (1999)

Here's another movie review I hesitate to call a "blast from the past" simply because even though it came out the summer between my last year of middle school and my first year of high school (1999), I didn't actually see it. It's Muppets from Space and it's the latest offering of the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Here's the podcast episode. And now onto the review...

The Plot

Big-nosed Muppet Gonzo (Dave Goelz) is having a personal crisis, unsure of his place in the world or even his species. After he begins receiving messages in his breakfast cereal, he starts to think that he's actually an extraterrestrial. This draws the attention of K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), the head of an MIB-like government agency headquartered in an old cement factory.

Will Gonzo find his alien family? Or will he be captured and have his brains sucked out? And will Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) advance her journalism career? Only one way to find out...

The Good

*There are some moments of surprising poignancy for a Muppet movie. Gonzo's loneliness and angst about not knowing what he precisely are very well done. Meanwhile, Tambor's back-story of being mocked for his beliefs in aliens had real pathos. He made me empathize with the character no matter how much of an a-hole the man objectively is.

*There are some clever jokes here and there. There're riffs on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Independence Day, and Men in Black, among others. I admit I laughed out loud during a karate fight between an MIB and none other than Miss Piggy, a fight that had quite a few double entendres. There are also anal-probe jokes and a whole riff on prison films, including Shawshank Redemption. A lot of the humor works well for adults as well as kids.

*Some of the Muppets I was less familiar with like Clifford (Kevin Clash) and Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Baretta) get their time to shine. I especially liked Pepe. And Miss Piggy was pretty darn funny, especially when she gets rough.

*The movie is relatively short, which is good for kids and good for me considering I didn't really enjoy it that much. More on that below.

The Bad

*Although I did like some of the jokes, the movie gets off to a very slow start. And that's a real problem.

*What's with all the retro soundtrack music? I generally prefer "classic rock," 1980s pop, etc. to modern music, but that doesn't mean I'd give a movie set in the present day so many songs from previous eras. There's "Brick House," "The Gambler," and a lot of stuff from the 1970s or very early 1980s. And the Muppets themselves never sing, not like they do in Muppet Treasure Island where there're good songs like "Shiver My Timbers," "Boom Shakalaka," and "Professional Pirate."

*The movie seems to be a return to the earlier Muppet films like The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and The Great Muppet Caper in which the Muppets are a group of actors or musicians trying to get by in something resembling the real world rather than Muppet Treasure Island and Muppet Christmas Carol in which the Muppets are characters in an otherwise-unrelated work. I liked that approach better, although if they wanted to do a sci-fi story exploring the origins of Gonzo, I'm not sure how they'd do it. The Muppet Men In Black? That might be kind of cool actually. Keep Will Smith as Agent J and have Kermit as Agent K with guns fighting aliens. Miss Piggy can be the eventual Agent L. Or since Gonzo's friends all think he's going insane, perhaps The Muppet Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Or if Gonzo is of supernatural rather than alien origin, The Muppet Hellboy? Kermit would need to be pretty jacked up to play Hellboy and Miss Piggy as Liz seems difficult.

*Although the muppets are fine, the CGI special effects haven't really aged well. It would have probably been better to go old-school on this one.

The Verdict

Meh. 4.0 out of 10. It doesn't even have good songs like Muppet Treasure Island. Go see The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth instead of you want a better puppet movie.