Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Movie Review: "Conan the Barbarian" (2011) (SPOILERS)

I saw the new Conan the Barbarian with Jason Momoa Sunday afternoon.  I wasn't able to review it until now. Here we go...


The Good

Unlike the Arnold version, this actually felt like one of the original stories, complete with exotic cities with hard-to-pronounce names and lots of fight scenes.  And we see Conan's early career where he was a thief, a pirate, and a general-purpose trouble-maker rather than him escaping slavery, performing one illegal feat, and then going off on a quest for revenge.  And like the stories, it's extremely entertaining.

The beginning in which we see Conan as a child and the destruction of his village, a plotline borrowed from the first movie and not from Howard or his successors, is extremely well-done.  We see how Conan was born on the battlefield, per the original stories, and see how he becomes a warrior despite being much younger than the other warriors.  The scene where Conan, who can't be more than 12 or so, takes down several Pictish raiders was awesome.  Leo Howard did a good job as the child Conan.  And the Picts' battle-cries were downright spooky.

Jason Momoa makes a far better adult Conan than Arnold did.  Conan in the stories, although lacking formal education, was very intelligent, while Arnold's Conan came off as rather stupid.  Later in life, he became King of Aquilonia, and rather than blow the realm's entire treasury on booze, gambling, and orgies as a younger, more foolish man might have, he became a very effective ruler.  Momoa's Conan was intelligent and as his friend Artus (Nonso Anozie) said, had the heart of a king.  The Conan of the stories was also lithe and agile, not a walking tank like Arnold in his younger years was.

Ron Perlman did an excellent job as Conan's father Corin.  Particularly notable is his performance when the warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) interrogates him in the forge and how he kills himself to allow Conan to escape.

And Lang did a good job as Zym, who was fairly complex for a sword-and-sorcery villain.  Yes, he did intend to rule the world and become a god, but he dearly loved his late wife and wanted to resurrect her.  And when Fassir (Raad Rawi) told him his wife deserved to die (burning alive to be more specific) for witchcraft--an act Zym and his daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) were forced to watch--he goes convincingly berserk.  He made a better villain than Thulsa Doom from the original, although Doom wasn't bad.

I liked Tamara (Rachel Nichols), who Zym and his daughter are hunting to use her blood to reactivate the mask.  She's no shrinking violet needing to be rescued all the time and shows herself a capable fighter, but at the same time she's not unrealistically depicted as being the combat equal of Conan or Zym in the name of political correctness either.

Also, props to Alina Puscau, Zlatka Raikova, and to any of the other actresses from early in the film who were required to have actual conversations and act while topless.  I'm referring to the scene where they're rescued from the slavers early on and later when they're hanging out with Conan, Artus, and their crew in the bar.

When I was a student at UGA, I saw a hypnotist show in which several women and one man were hypnotized and convinced they were naked in front of the spectators.  The women proceeded to start screaming and covering themselves, while the man didn't seem to care at all. 

I didn't detect any trace of awkwardness or fear at all in any of actresses playing the slave girls or "topless wenches" when they conversed with Conan and Artus.  It was like they were carrying on an ordinary conversation, only not wearing much of anything.  And points to Momoa and Anozie for convincingly acting like this kind of thing is totally normal and carrying on ordinary conversations with the actresses rather than staring awkwardly at their breasts the entire time.

The Bad

Some of the dialogue was laugh-out-loud and not necessarily intentionally.  The only specific incident I can recall is whe Corin holds the infant Conan over the battlefield and roars dramatically.  Narm (see TVTropes) alert.

When Conan raids the slaver camp in the beginning of the film, he tells Artus "no man should live in chains."  Conan as a young man would violently object to being enslaved himself but I don't recall any moral scruples about enslaving anyone else.  Conan is described as having a personal moral code, but the only part of it I can recall is that he will not, under any circumstances, commit rape.

Also, it was fairly strange that Tamara kept referring to herself as a monk when, being a woman, the proper term is nun.

Also, early in the film when Conan joins the other Cimmerian boys in an initiation ritual and they encounter Pictish raiders, it would have been nice if they had been identified.  I know from the Conan mythology that these were the Picts, the Cimmerians' hereditary enemies, but it wasn't mentioned.  It would have been pretty easy to have one of the older boys yell "the Picts" upon seeing them, perhaps before another boy tells the others they need to return to the village.

In the film, we see Zym's daughter essentially come onto her father and Zym rejects her.  However, when Remo (Milton Welsh) gets dropped through the the roof of Zym's elephant-carried ship, it looks like they're in bed together.  Maybe Marique was having nightmares of watching her mother being burned as a witch or something and needed to be comforted, but given what transpired earlier, it looks rather dubious.  Even encouraging Marique's incestuous feelings would be out-of-character for Zym.

When Zym interrogates Conan's father in the forge, we see the battle is still going on outside.  That seems rather strange.  It would be more sensible for the enemy commander to wait until all resistance is subdued before he takes the time to torture and interrogate someone.  In the film, Conan intervened and wounded both Zym and one of his commanders--had adult warriors barged in, things might have gone badly for the villains.

Of course, given how Zym's whole motivation is resurrecting his wife using the Acheronian mask and the last piece is within his grasp, him not being especially rational about the whole thing makes sense.

When Conan needs help infiltrating Zym's fortress, he seeks out thief Ela-Shan (Saïd Taghmaoui ), who owes Conan his life and freedom, at Argalon, the city of thieves.  It's not made clear how far Argalon actually is from Zym's city and it doesn't seem to take very long to get there and back.

And when Zym battles Conan while wearing the activated mask, the mask who gives the wearer supernatural powers, all we see him do is try to summon his wife's soul from the underworld to possess Tamara.  Granted, this would tie in with him being focused solely on reviving his wife and ignoring more immediate concerns, but it would have been nice to see him throwing lightning bolts at Conan or something.

The Verdict

This was an entertaining movie and far more faithful to the source material than Arnold's version.  I'm definitely going to snag this on DVD.  8 out of 10.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Saw "Conan The Barbarian" Today

Saw the new Conan film with Jason Momoa today.  I won't write a full review until tomorrow or Tuesday, but I really enjoyed it.  It was certainly better than the original film with Arnold Schwarzenegger in it, by far.

All of you should go to see it before it leaves theaters.  There were only two showings of the non-3D version in the theater today and I believe a roughly similar number of 3D showings.  Although it doesn't look like the movie is going to make back its budget in theaters, at least in the United States, every little bit helps.

Conan is an awesome character and Robert E. Howard was one of the greatest fantasy writers of all time.  Let's do our bit to help keep the character and franchise alive.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Sovereign Grace Meltdown Continues...

Things are getting more interesting at Sovereign Grace these days.  Here's something I found today at SGMSurvivors.

http://www.sgmsurvivors.com/?p=2779&cp=all

The Washington Post getting involved could make things very dicey for Mahaney and his allies, especially if, as many of the people at SGMSurvivors and its associated site SGMRefuge have alleged, real crimes have been committed or covered up, including sexual abuse.

And it seems to me the members of these sites, despite having rejected SGM's authoritarian ways, still haven't gotten all the Kool-aid out of their systems.  In addition to the comments on that thread indicating fear of the secular media, some people from SGMRefuge have announced they aren't cooperating at all.

http://sgmrefuge.com/2011/08/17/the-washington-post-the-blogs-and-sgm/#comments

Here's where I vent:

One strategy to maintain power if you are a tyrant is to create an enemy to keep people rallying around the flag and obedient to the leadership.  The Nazis in Germany used the USSR and the worldwide Communist movement, the Soviets used the Western powers, the more obnoxious left-wingers in this country use the threat of a Religious Right theocracy, and the more obnoxious right-wingers make it sound like al-Qaeda is going to impose Islamic law in the United States if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq or somesuch.

In this case, the secular world and the media are serving as the monster intended to keep the rank-and-file blind and deaf to problems experienced by others and silent about their own experiences, just like "the bloggers" were used by the less moral SGM leadership.  Until the identity of the reporter inquiring about the doings within SGM was revealed, many people thought the Post would use the SGM situation as a club to bash Christianity and turn people off to the Gospel.

(Never mind that if the doctrine of election is true, there is no need to worry about how people view the Gospel since God will save whom He wills.  For all their talk of soli dea gloria, the Calvinists seem to place an ideologically-inconsistent amount of responsibility on man.)

I'm a newspaper reporter.  I've been an editor at a weekly since last January and worked at a daily for three and a half years since I graduated from college.  Before that, I learned journalism from some damn fine people at the University of Georgia.

Nowhere was I taught to be biased in favor of one side or the other, in favor or against any religion or political ideology.  In fact, one of my professors told me it was none of my business who he voted for.  Even though many reporters I've worked with were not always especially religious or politically conservative, all of my editors and publishers are/were Christians and at least some of them were Republicans, even if none of them were foaming at the mouth ideologues.

In journalism, we are taught to be factually accurate and not take sides.  If what we report pisses someone off, pardon my language, then chances are we're goring someone's sacred cow rather than lying.

(This is not to say dishonest or biased people are not active in journalism.  There are some, to our shame.  However, at least we're trained not to be biased or to let our biases interfere with our work.)

Certain parties like Tim Challies as well as those who still have some Kool-aid in their systems are quoting Scriptures about publicizing disputes within the church, gossiping, etc.  I imagine they're quoting the same Scriptures the Catholic leadership did over the years to justify covering up the fact that there were sexual predators in the priesthood, that efforts to treat them in-house had failed, and they were reoffending wherever the church moved them.

Remember the Lord Himself said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).  Jesus, Paul, etc. were concerned that the good name of Christianity not be dragged through the mud by people's stupidity and pettiness, not that gross sins and outright crimes be covered up.  Remember the Old Testament prophets criticized misbehaving kings and prominent people in public and Paul named names at times, so the Bible does not teach that we should indulge in sordid coverups and victim-blaming whenever bad things happen within the church.

And of course, one can't discuss SGM without Joshua Harris.  Harris is one of the few people in the Reformed movement who have weighed in the situation who is showing significant integrity, as witnessed by Al Mohler and Ligon Duncan as well as Challies.  He has acknowledged critics have legitimate points and even apologized when one of his statements was misinterpreted in an insulting way.  Although I have my issues with Josh both professional (complementarianism) and personal (the "courtship" ideology has not been good for my social life), I can respect honor, backbone, and doing what is right no matter the cost.

And Harris has paid a price already.  He has resigned, I suspect under pressure, from the SGM board, and two of Mahaney's sons-in-law have left Covenant Life.  I have read that he and Mahaney have historically been very close, so this must not be fun at all.  And if a breach between SGM and Covenant Life comes--which is possible, given how other leaders at Covenant Life have reached out to SGM's critics--I imagine the wrath of the various Reformed leaders who have sided with Mahaney will come down on him and his.  These are people he respects, so that sure as heck won't be a picnic.

Of course, he's still got his flaws--rather than telling all church members to read the documents revealing all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans among SGM leadership and then make an informed decision about staying with the church, he said heads of households should do that.  Said heads being, I would imagine, husbands and fathers.  Patriarchal democracy is an improvement over oligarchy or outright dictatorship, true, but every believer is a priest before God, not just male heads of household.

(Many Reformed and complementarians seem to think the husband/father is the priest of their family before God, which contradicts the doctrine--based on 1 Peter 2:9--that all Christians are priests.  The Reformers who fought against the Catholic system of priesthood would be spinning in their graves at the notion that not each and every believer is a priest before God, even if they weren't the most female-friendly people.)

There.  I'm done.  Now, the Bible does tell us to pray, so we should pray for everyone concerned, that justice be done if needed, that hurts be healed, and that the truth would win out.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Productivity Update, Including Possible Future Anthology

Current projects:

*Battle for the Wastelands

*First story featuring Andrew Patel, tentatively titled "Ubermensch."

*Second story featuring Andrew Patel, tentatively titled "Needs Must."

Awhile back, I sent out a suggestion to members of my writing group that we put together an anthology of short fiction we could sell for our own profit or to make money for a charity.  After a lengthy chain of e-mails and Facebook discussions, we decided to create an anthology of superhero stories.  Yesterday at my writing group, we set a deadline for Nov. 1 for the first drafts to be submitted, with Nov. 15 as the secondary deadline.  The theme is "Southern Superheroes."  The stories thus far (mine and another writer who doesn't have a blog or non-personal Facebook page I can link to) are set in Atlanta and Mobile.

Originally we were going to use Amazon publishing to sell this, since Matt Schafer had attempted to sell a short story entitled "Heroic Times" some years ago and was told superhero stories were impossible to sell.  However, at Saturday's meeting, both James Tuck and Alex Hughes, who have book deals right now, said that this is no longer the case.  We decided to get the anthology as good as we could make it and seek out a "real" publisher for it.

My contribution will be two villain-protagonist stories starring Andrew Patel, a half-Indian biomedical engineer who lives by the creed of the German philosopher Nietzsche.  He seeks to transcend humanity using technological means and funds this by alternatively working for and preying on members of Atlanta's criminal class.  "Ubermensch" is completed; "Needs Must" is perhaps a fifth done.

"Ubermensch" is on draft four now.  I am in the process of incorporating suggestions from this writing group, such as working in more Nietzschean philosophy and emphasizing Patel's struggle with his own envy in his battle with the hero Silverbolt--Nietzsche wrote extensively about how (according to him) the weak envy the strong and seek to tear them down rather than improve themselves.  I should be able to finish this fairly quickly--the most extreme suggestion would involve adding some additional content at the beginning of a scene.

Today has been a very productive day as far as "Needs Must" is concerned.  Last night, I plugged in the title and contact information (per Standard Manuscript Format) and marked off the different sections.  Today I wrote 1,600-odd words, just under half during my aggravating experiment with taking MARTA to do some chores at my church (I ended up missing the chores and there were delays in the northbound train so it took awhile to get home too) and the rest this afternoon.

Due to the November deadline, chances are I'll be focusing on my two stories and additional anthology work rather than Battle for the Wastelands.  However, I have been able to write some material from the points of view of the tyrant Grendel and the rebel chief Alonzo Merrill that takes place later in the story.  Unfortunately, the next unfinished chapter doesn't have a whole lot to it yet, so I won't be taking Battle to the writing group anytime soon.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Two More MARTA Columns

As the saga of the Metro Atlanta TSPLOST comes down to the wire, I figured it would appropriate to post the other columns I wrote as editor of The Johns Creek Herald.

http://www.northfulton.com/Articles-c-2011-07-12-188183.114126-sub-Local-MARTA-expansion-should-be-supported.html

http://www.northfulton.com/Articles-c-2011-07-26-188416.114126-sub-Compromise-key-to-successful-transportation-tax.html

Since I wrote these columns, things have changed.  Here's the project list as of a few days ago, the one the executive committee wasn't able to cut down to the proper size.

http://www.atlantaregionalroundtable.com/docs/Project_List_for_08-11-11_EC_Meeting.pdf

Now for some commentary, which might appear in a later column:

I'm rather leery of some of the transit projects not being fully funded.  Although the roundtable folk seem to think they'll be able to get matching funds from elsewhere (read: the federal government), given the financial problems in Washington these days, I don't think that money is coming.  It would be better to fully fund every project, even if that means reducing the total number of projects, rather than relying on outside help that may never come.

Especially foolish is providing only two-thirds of the Clifton Corridor cost.  The top end cost of extending MARTA to Emory University and the CDC, which would be a most worthy project, is $1.5 billion.  What good is half a rail line?  If they do it on the cheap, I fear they might simply create a rapid bus line instead of a heavy rail line.  Assuming they build a new road or lane rather than adding buses to the already-congested areas around Emory, buses would still need to be fueled, each bus would need drivers, and although I haven't used MARTA buses, based on what others have said I think they're slower than the trains and their service isn't as good.

And then there's the I-20 East extension in which they budgeted only one-third of the cost.  That's even worse, since there's no alternative to the trains in the area I can think of.

Although I know due to the context Jesus is talking about the cost of discipleship, I'm still reminded of the unfinished tower in Luke 14:28-30:

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, `This man began to build, and was not able to finish.'

Luckily the list the executive committee puts together Monday (hopefully) isn't the end of the story.  When the list goes before the full roundtable, the officials can alter it as they see fit.  The final list isn't due until October.

On the bright side, maybe not budgeting all the money could provide an incentive to get things done under budget?  Just so long as it's not done shoddily, putting lives at risk...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Villain Protagonists In Music

I've written a supervillain-protagonist story for a possible charity anthology one of my writing groups is doing, and might do another.  That's got me thinking on the subject of villain protagonists.  There seems to be a fair number of them in music, ranging from fairly minor to severe.

"Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones-Satan.  Enough said.

"Crimson King" by Demons and Wizards-The Crimson King and Randall Flagg from the Dark Tower novels by Stephen King.  The Crimson King is an extradimensional evil power bent on destroying the universe and Flagg is his Antichrist-like apostle who ultimately aspires to backstab him and take control. It reminds me of Revelation 13:4 from the Bible, where men worship both Satan and the Antichrist.

"Copperhead Road" by Steve Earle-The protagonist is a drug dealer who's rigged his drug farm full of Viet Cong-type booby traps to kill Drug Enforcement Agency agents.

"Porn Star Dancing" by My Darkest Days-The protagonist is angry the women he is interested in either won't put out at all ("Stacy's gonna save herself for marriage") or won't put out to the degree he'd like (making out with other women, letting him sleep with their friends, etc), so he's going to seek out a stripper/porn star/prostitute who'll do anything for money.  Fairly minor compared to criminals and Dark Lords, but still.

"Girlfriend" by Avril Lavigne-A girl seeks out to seduce the boyfriend of another girl because she doesn't like the first girl ("I don't like your girlfriend/think you need a new one").  Also minor compared to truly monstrous people, but it's rather mean.

"Dracula" by Iced Earth-Dracula, as depicted in Bram Stoker's Dracula.  More sympathetic than usual, but still an evil vampire overlord.

"Damien" by Iced Earth-The Antichrist.  Enough said.

"Hail to Odin" and "Blade of Triumph" by Iron Fire-Vikings on a pillaging kick.

"The Phantom of the Opera" and "Music of the Night"-I sympathize with the Phantom and think he's more interesting than pretty-boy nobleman Raoul, but he's a stalker, extortionist, and serial killer.

"Be Prepared"-Scar's villain song from The Lion King.  Still awesome though.

"Highwayman" by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Others-The protagonist, in a past life, was a highway robber who'd robbed women of their jewelry and killed "many a soldier."

"Seven Spanish Angels" by Ray Charles-The protagonist sounds like a fugitive being hunted by the Texas Rangers.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Good News for My Friend Alex

On Aug. 2, after the novel-focused spinoff of my Kennesaw writing group reviewed the current draft of Amanda Williamson's novel Legacy of the Werewolf, Matt Schafer and I walked Alex Hughes back to her car.  On the way there, we learned the good news that Alex had sold her novel Clean to the publisher Penguin, more specifically its Roc imprint.

Here's the page on Alex's site where she makes the announcement:

A Dream Realized: A Two-Book Deal

Based on this blog post, it seems the pivotal decision that led to the book deal was submitting Clean to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.  Apparently a lot of agents and publishers are interested in stories that do well in the contest and given how the publisher contacted Alex rather than the other way around, I think the publisher found the novel.

Those of you who've got a completed book, it might be a good idea to send it to Amazon.  Of course, you should be absolutely, positively sure it's ready to go when you do that.  After all, Alex went through multiple drafts of Clean before it hit ABNA.  She brought it before the novel group fairly late in the cycle, since she mentioned having gone through several drafts at the meeting.  I recommend joining writing groups, either in-person groups like can be found through meetup.com or all-online groups like Critters.  They've been a big help to me and I credit one of my groups with helping me sell "Coil Gun."

About what's in her novel, I'm not going to go much beyond the blurb on the blog-post to avoid spoiling it nearly a year in advance.  It's not really my cup of tea--my tastes in science-fiction tend to be more technological and more violent--but it's a well-done story.  Alex is a better writer than I am, especially in the field of character development. 

(For the record, she's the one who called Battle for the Wastelands a "boy book" and suggested I send it to Baen.  However, she said if I elaborated on the characterization more, I could send it to a wider variety of markets.  I'll have to work on that, once I actually finish.  70,000 words done, probably 20,000 to 30,000 to go.)

Plus, by setting it in Atlanta, she's writing about a familiar environment and is less likely to make mistakes about street names and the like.