Thursday, February 26, 2015

Caligula A Christian? This Could Be Fun...

Caligula. The name of this Roman emperor has become associated with insanity, sexual depravity, murder, and other heinous crimes. He was the first Roman emperor to be assassinated due to his real or imagined atrocities.

However, a gentleman (I'm assuming) from my alternate-history forum has suggested another path in life for this maniac who thinks he's Zeus. In an alternate timeline entitled "St. Caligula," a Christian named Clement miraculously heals Caligula during the illness that in our history may have driven him insane, or at least is around to claim the credit for it. This leads to Caligula becoming interested in the Christian faith and ultimately becoming a baptized believer himself.

Here's the timeline.

This could get very interesting. At this early point, most of the apostles are still alive and most of the New Testament has not yet been written. An imperial benefactor who adopts many Christian ideas into his regime (such as imperial foundling-houses), even if his reign isn't very long, could have some interesting ripples down the line. So far things are going well, with Caligula anonymously delivering charity to the poor and writing treatises on the ethical behavior of senators, but hints have been dropped that he'll end up wearing the martyrs' crown as well as that of Caesar...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Cliffhanger (1993)

The latest movie I've watched for my friend Nick's podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is the 1993 Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger.

I'm pretty sure I wasn't allowed to see this when I came out in theaters (I would have been around nine, so that was probably a good idea), but I do remember playing the Sega Genesis game and failing to get beyond the first level, an adaptation of the avalanche scene. Here's the podcast, which among other things includes me adapting Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" to comment on some of the character's fashion choices. But now the review...



The Plot

After a woman dies in a botched climbing rescue, mountain rescue ranger Gabe Walker (Stallone) leaves his Colorado mountain community. He returns eight months later to an annoyed wife or girlfriend Jessie (Stallone wears a ring and they're living together, but the reviews refer to her as "girlfriend") and his buddy Hal who blames him for the accident, only to be forced to participate in a plan by a bunch of criminals to retrieve some stolen money.

The Good

*The movie is quite entertaining and moves along quickly. There was only one part toward the end, before the climax of the film, where I got bored.

*The opening scene, even though I knew it was going to end badly from its parody in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and the fact my companions were discussing it while we were watching the film, is still pretty darn suspenseful and frightening.

*Jessie (Janine Turner) is generally a pretty competent character in her own right rather than a damsel in distress. She does end up in trouble at the end of the film, but it's for intelligent reasons rather than a contrived excuse to have Sylvester Stallone save her.

*The film does provide some character development and differentiation among its villains. Delmar appears to be a white South African and antagonizes the black Kynette to the point the latter draws a knife on him. He later utilizes his soccer skills from his college days to absolutely brutalize another character (and provoke a really funny riposte from said character). Kynette, meanwhile, is a martial artist capable of putting serious hurt on Stallone himself. Sole female Krystel is pretty sneaky--claiming they need insulin to get the rescuers coming faster and pretending to be injured to lure more. And although mastermind Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) gets mocked in some reviews for hiring a bunch of minions who all hate each other, this keeps them from joining forces to challenge him.

*There are some well-done character deaths, including "death by stalactite." Here's the entirety of the fight scene in question, but SPOILERS!

*When the initial heist takes place, there are some good red herrings. I thought somebody else was the inside man for awhile.

*During the heist scene, the trope of "a single bullet hole decompresses the plane" I remember from a skyjacking episode of The A-Team (and apparently commonly believed by opponents of having armed air marshals) is avoided. It takes a sustained burst of gunfire punching multiple holes in a small, flimsy plane to affect the plane's air supply.

*The humor generally works, including the creative use of a snowman on top of the soccer joke I referenced earlier, another joke involving burning money, and a scene involving machine-gunning small animals. Yes, it's possible to make that funny.

The Bad

*The woman's death in the beginning was completely avoidable. Not just in the obvious sense of mountain-rescuer Hal having the intelligence to not take an inexperienced girlfriend climbing to the top of a gigantic vertical tower, but the way they handled the actual rescue. Firstly, the woman could have been sent across first instead of Hal (who, to be fair, was injured), since she's less experienced, isn't as heavy as Hal, and in any event it's the chivalrous thing to do. Hal would have been better able to handle the harness breaking up like it did, even with his (minor) injury. Secondly, the helicopter could have hovered right alongside the top of the tower, close enough for them to step off it into the helicopter. Failing that, they could have still come much closer to the tower, reducing the distances involved and thus the risk.

*Actor Rex Linn, who plays baddie Travers, has some serious delivery problems in a couple scenes.

*In several scenes, the baddies' guns look obviously fake. If you can't get quality fake guns, don't film them too closely lest it be too obvious they're made of plastic.

*There's a scene involving swarming bats that doesn't really serve any purpose. I initially thought the bats would alert the villains to the fact they're being pursued, but that didn't seem to happen. Everything included in a book or story has to serve the overall project and however cool a scary bat scene might be, it didn't help out and either should have been made to do so (see my suggestion) or cut completely.

*I don't remember Kynette's martial-arts abilities ever referenced before. However impressive they are, they come out nowhere.

*John Lithgow's British accent isn't very good and at one moment seems to disappear entirely. Plus they only refer to him as coming from "Military Intelligence." If he's British, it would be the Intelligence Corps, although if they wanted to invoke the mystique of James Bond, having him as a rogue member of MI-6 would have been cool.

*A major character's death is unintentionally hilarious.

*In one scene, a character is menaced by wolves that we never see again. I referred to them as "Chekhov's Wolves." I seriously expected them to return later in the film--perhaps to inflict the comeuppance of a villain who thought he escaped justice, a la Brotherhood of the Wolf.

The Verdict

See it once and you'll be entertained. Depending on how much you like action movies, it may or may not hold up for more than that. 7.5 out of 10.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

January 2015 Writing Contest Results

January 2015 was another iteration of my writing contest. I ended up writing 3,230 words on various fictional projects. Now that I'm starting the last phase of graduate school (the last classes and various exams), I doubt I'll be doing any more writing bets with friends until possibly this summer. So this'll be your last monthly update as to what I'm working on for awhile.

*Most of the words went into bringing The Thing in the Woods up to 56,000 words. That's at the low end of the right length for a young-adult novel. I've begun querying agents again, since it turns out there won't be an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest this year. Mostly just dribs and drabs of content, since the really big stuff went into the text in December.

*I also added a few hundred words to The Atlanta Incursion, the more UFO-centric sequel to The Thing in the Woods. I basically went through the entire text as written and added a little bit here and there. In the near future I'll need to do some research and go to the Videodrome in Virginia Highlands--the last in-town video rental store. A pity I don't live near it. :(

*I added a few hundred words to my near-future hard(ish) SF space-war tale The Cybele Incident. It's still around a third finished approximately.

*Also added a few hundred words to my two additional short stories featuring supervillain protagonist Andrew Patel (who has appeared in two earlier stories, √úbermensch and Needs Must).The plan at present is to release an omnibus on Amazon containing all four stories--Alex Claw has already done a cover--that will be the only place one will be able to get the two remaining tales.

*Finally added a little bit to Battle for the Wastelands based on my reading of the history book River of Dark Dreams about the settlement of the antebellum Mississippi Valley. The Flesh-Eater regime just got a little bit more dystopian, although we won't actually see the details under the second book.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Review: JUPITER ASCENDING (2015)

This afternoon I saw the new science fiction film Jupiter Ascending, the latest production by the minds behind The Matrix, with my friend Daniel.

The Plot

Working-class illegal Russian immigrant Jupiter Jones (her father is British) learns that she's a rare genetic recurrence of the recently-deceased matriarch of the powerful interstellar Abrasax dynasty--a sort of clone/reincarnation. Given the terms of said matriarch's will, she's the owner of Earth in the eyes of a powerful space civilization that seeded the planet 100,000 years before. The matriarch's heirs have other plans, but she has an ally in Caine Wise, a genetically-engineered warrior combing human and canine DNA.


The Good

*Points for originality. These days it seems everything is a remake of some older, more successful film or an adaptation of a young-adult novel. I don't mind book adaptations one bit--I hope to make a butt-load of money off those someday--but something purely original seems to be a rare treat these days.

*Though the beginning is slow, once we get into space things get more entertaining.

*It seems everything is set in New York or Los Angeles. The fact something is set in Chicago and there are recognizable Chicago buildings is kind of cool.

*This could be the jumping-off point for an interesting fictional universe, even if the movie doesn't do well. I could easily imagine comics, TV series, etc.

*They at least try to explain some of the more outlandish conceits. For example, the "seeding" of Earth with humans (who apparently really evolved elsewhere a billion years ago) involved mixing human DNA with that of indigenous life to bring about independent human evolution on Earth. Another example involved just why it didn't really matter that attempts to cover up alien-human involvement on Earth wouldn't be 100% foolproof.

*Jupiter's loving--if at times difficult to deal with--working-class family is contrasted with the decadent interstellar aristocracy. The whole concept of foils shows the Wachowskis were trying for something more high concept than "pulpy space opera."

*Although the dialogue has been criticized a lot, I actually liked it. I found the "I've always loved dogs" bit from the trailer funny in context, and the scene where Jupiter's family finds out her slimy cousin Vladie had persuaded her to try to sell her eggs was pretty amusing.

*There were a couple bits of humor I enjoyed.

*Can't go into detail, but I did think the ending was kind of sweet.

The Bad

*It's a very pretty film, but it's pretty dull in parts. The scene where bounty hunters in space fighters hunt Caine and Jupiter through Chicago was actually kind of dull. And where was the military/police reaction? We see cops coming on the scene later, but that's it.

*Jupiter doesn't really display a whole lot of agency until the climax. Obviously someone snatched from a mundane life into a world of interstellar craziness is going to be a bit lost and bewildered for awhile, but if the plan was that her character arc was "growing a spine" (Mila Kunis described the character as hating her life but too lazy to do anything about it), the "showing her progressively getting more and more opinionated and willing to do something about it" angle should have been stronger.

*Even though they try to lampshade it, I still have a hard time buying that in an age of smart phones with cameras, YouTube, etc. that it would be possible to cover up large-scale extraterrestrial activity. Especially when Caine claims damaged buildings would be quickly rebuilt to continue the cover-up. If the fact this worked in the past and is no longer working became a plot point, that would be tolerable, but it doesn't.

*There's clearly so much world the Wachowskis have built, but it's hard to work it all into a normal movie coherently.

*There're some anti-capitalist elements that weren't really handled well. I don't mind political messages I don't agree with, but I'd rather they be presented well. Either do it right or leave it out. That makes more business sense as well, given how alienating politics can be.

*Eddie Redmayne's delivery needs some work. He comes off as petulant and not really able to hold his own in a fight--which given his decadent-aristocrat upbringing isn't really a surprise--but the way he alternates between whispering and shouting isn't that good.

*The "interstellar DMV scene" (with apparently homages to the film Brazil) clashes aesthetically with the rest of the space civilization as depicted. I imagine the intent is comedic--and they do get a couple amusing jokes out of it--but it just doesn't work worldbuilding wise.

*Two plot threads involving rival heirs are left hanging. Are these being left for the sequel? Given how hard it will be for a film this expensive to make back its budget, that might not have been such a good idea.

The Verdict

It's worth seeing once. 6.5 out of 10. Hopefully it does well enough to justify a television series or books like what ultimately happened to Dark Angel. It would have been better off as a high-budget TV show in the vein of Game of Thrones.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Thoughts on Obama's Prayer Breakfast Speech

On February 5, U.S. President Barack Obama made an address at the National Prayer Breakfast. And as can be expected whenever he takes a position on a controversial topic, some people got upset. In particular, people objected to his invocation of the Crusades, slavery, and Jim Crow as something people defended in the name of Christ. In the context, he was warning Americans to not think violent religious extremism was something other people (i.e. Muslims) did. To quote Scripture, 1 Corinthians 10:12 warns anyone thinks he stands to take heed lest he fall.

First things first, none of what Obama said was false. The Crusades were ordered by the Pope, the head of the Western Church, whose subordinates literally shouted "Deus vult" (God wills it). And although the Inquisition's body count has long been exaggerated by its Protestant and secularist critics, a few thousand across centuries murdered in the name of Christ (and countless others subject to lesser penalties like torture, public humiliation, internal exile, etc) is still a few thousand too many. And closer to home, many Christians in the U.S. defended slavery as Biblical and later separation of the races likewise. Christians today--and even many Christians back then (Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World includes accounts of Christian opponents of witch-hunting, some of whom were violently punished)--recognized these things as wrong, but that doesn't mean evil was not done in the name of Christ. Hell, even today many churches invoke 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 to try to silence (Christian) critics and cover up wrongdoing (actual crimes, not just the petty crap the verse is referring to).

However, self-flagellating over the Crusades in particular lacks historical perspective. The Crusades began when the Eastern Roman Empire, crumbling in the face of aggression by Muslim Turkic peoples (both the Great Seljuk Sultanate and independent ghazi warlords), requested military assistance from the Catholic world. This was only the latest of many defeats inflicted on Christians (and others) by Islamic warriors since the days of Mohammed himself. This article here provides an overview, but here's a map I found on Facebook this morning that illustrates the situation particularly vividly.


Furthermore, as this article from The Federalist points out, it is theologically much easier to justify violence in the name of Islam than Christianity. Jesus was a teacher executed by His government and a cynic (or a Nietzsche groupie) could write off the violence associated with the teaching of the Second Coming (see this quote from Luke and, well, most of the Book of Revelation) as a revenge fantasy of His followers. Meanwhile, Mohammed himself was a conqueror (even though, to be blunt, the Meccans persecuted him and his followers first) and his followers waged the wars depicted in the above image and Wikipedia article very soon after his death. The Federalist's article isn't perfect--when Tracinski comments about Islam not being able to uplift feudal and caste-ridden societies after 1,000 years he forgets the Golden Age of Islam and how the modern-day failings of many Islamic states can be attributed to later political problems like the resource curse, colonialism and other foreign meddling, etc. before they can be attributed to Islamic doctrine--but having a warrior vs. an ascetic as a spiritual leader has its consequences.

Obviously "they started it" or quibbling over theology does not justify the particularly gratuitous acts of violence that accompanied the Crusaders. The Jews were not to my knowledge involved in the Islamic wars of conquest at all and yet vast numbers of them suffered, both in pogroms along the line of march or the burning of the synagogue in Jerusalem, possibly with the worshipers inside. It was the Crusades, according to a history book I read in high school (it wasn't the official textbook but perhaps something I read as part of Academic Bowl) that kicked off the first pogroms that occurred intermittently all the way to the late 1940s. Furthermore, even if Islamic powers were the military enemy, there was no justification for gratuitous massacre of unarmed Muslims as occurred when the Crusaders took Jerusalem. Given St. Augustine had devised the doctrine of the Just War centuries earlier, the Crusaders (at least the clergy and more educated nobles, who would be in charge) should have known better.

However, just as the advances of the Caliphate or various Muslim rulers like the Seljuk sultan (who as a person seemed like a pretty cool fellow, based on the research I did for an article on the Battle of Manzikert) did not justify Crusader war crimes, the terrorist attacks of al-Qaeda and the conquering advance of ISIS do not justify the maltreatment of innocent Muslims today. For example, Daniel Pipes and Michelle Malkin have advocated measures going far beyond differentiating between Muslim men and little old ladies from Peoria when conducting airport security in regards to American Muslims. This article here, written by a Muslim, cites various indignities endured by American Muslims after 9/11. And you should see the comments that resulted when I defended the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" and brought up the opposition to a Catholic church in New York centuries ago.

Yes, there are jihadis hiding among Muslim civilian populations in the U.S. and elsewhere, but there were Klansmen and other white-supremacist terrorists hiding among the white civilian populations of the defeated South after the Civil War. The federal response to their shenanigans--more widespread in geography, numbers of attacks, and political effectiveness even if smaller in body counts than modern Islamists--was generally more measured than the policies certain people have advocated toward Muslims. And Muslim allies will be needed to defeat ISIS--and after the murder of that Jordanian pilot there will be no shortage of them. Mistreating Muslims will jeopardize that.

So although Obama seems to have the typical blind spot Western left-wingers have when discussing the Crusades versus the wars that provoked them, the reaction to his comments has been ridiculous. We as conservatives need to do better.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Fern Gully (1992)

For my friend Nick's podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we watched the 1992 environmental film Ferngully - The Last Rainforest. Here's the individual podcast. Let the games begin...



The Plot

Young fairy Crysta is not interested in the lessons her mentor-figure Magi is trying to teach her. Instead, she's more interested in learning more about humans, whom the fairy population of the Australian rain forest near Mount Warning think have been extinct for thousands of years, ever since a volcanic eruption unleashed the demonic Hexxus. Some mysterious smoke on the horizon and the arrival of a mentally ill, traumatized bat signal the return of humans, who are logging the nearby forests with a gigantic scary logging machine. Crysta uses magic to shrink logger Zach to save him from being accidentally killed by said machine, which soon frees Hexxus from his tree prison. Trouble ensues...

The Good

*The background animation was quite often beautiful and well-done. I prefer 2D old-fashioned animation to the 3D Pixar-style stuff that's more popular these days, so it's always good to go back to a time when that animation ruled. And it's always good to see something not done by Disney.

*There are some good symbolic bits like when Crysta touches an "X" marked on a tree to be logged and her hand comes away covered in what looks like blood. It's red paint, but the effect is what's important.

*Robin Williams, who plays the experimented-on escaped lab bat Batty Koda, did a very good job voice-acting. I liked how the character despised humans and even tried to get Zach killed early on, which given his back-story makes a lot of sense.

*Although my fellow podcasters didn't seem to agree with me, I liked the "Batty Rap," in which Williams raps about being experimented on by humans. According to some of the material I've read about the movie, the song had to be toned down due to how dark it gets when you listen to the lyrics. Another good song is "Toxic Love," sung by none other than Tim Curry. Finally, I liked the rap number by Tone-Loc in which he voices a goanna lizard that tries to eat Zach.

*The jerkish fairy Pips has a character arc. Although he's hostile toward Zach--whom he recognizes as a rival for Crysta's affection--he does save him from falling to his death and helps him get into the logging machine to deactivate it. Considering how downright nasty his facial expressions get in the scene where Zach uses his fallen Walkman to lead the other fairies in a musical number, there's definitely some bad emotions to overcome. And Batty overcomes his prejudices against humans, at least as far as Zach is concerned.

*Although Hexxus looks a lot like a smoky version of Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmasfor most of the film, his final appearance as a skeletal monstrosity breathing fire and wearing a cloak of tar is quite impressive. Very reminiscent of the "Nightmare on Bald Mountain" sequence from Fantasia.

*Although it's an environmentalist film, humans are not depicted as destroying the environment for no reason. Instead humans make poor decisions based on lack of respect for something they don't really understand and short-sightedness. It's the demonic Hexxus who spurs the loggers on toward deliberate destruction (to take revenge for the fairies imprisoning him), something they don't really question because it means overtime.

The Bad

*The movie kind of dragged in many places. The romantic song between Zach and Crysta in which they romp through the rain forest was a particularly bad offender. Considering how the movie isn't even an hour and a half long, the fact that it's dull in any places at all is particularly damning.

*The dialogue was very late 1980s/early 1990s, with such wonders as "tubular" and "bodacious babe." It was like watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles again, but not in a good way.

*Hexxus has been imprisoned in the tree since the Stone Age, but in "Toxic Love," he references diesel fuel, acid rain, and egg chow mein, things he should have no idea about. As TVTropes put it, does he have cable in his tree?

*And speaking of the Stone Age, the fairies call Mount Warning by its Western name rather than its Aboriginal one (Wallumbin). Since their last contact with humans was with Australian Aborigines (see my bit about the opening later), this would make more sense. I can understand concerns the producers might have that the viewers wouldn't know the Aboriginal name, but Crysta could refer to the mountain as Wallumbin and Zach doesn't initially recognize it, then snaps his fingers to say "Mount Warning."

*The environmental message was kind of heavy-handed and there was some serious anarcho-primitivist stuff going on. When Zach asks Crysta what she does for a job, she doesn't seem to know what a "job" actually is. And of course capitalism (fallen trees transform into coins in "Toxic Love") and machines (Crysta thinks the logging machine is a monster) are destroying the pure, natural environment where nobody is in danger of starving and the endemic predation is only vaguely touched on. It wasn't as obnoxious and heavy-handed as I remember Captain Planet being, but that's a pretty low bar to jump. I have no objection to films teaching environmental lessons, but subtlety can be a good thing.

*The opening artwork is done in the style of Australian aboriginal art, but the opening music gives off a very Caribbean steel-drums vibe. Since this was a joint Australian-American co-production and Mount Warning is a real mountain, why not have at least some Australian Aboriginal music? Bringing in some didgeridoos would have been cool.

*The movie takes place in Australia, but nobody has an Australian accent. Even if having a largely American cast was necessary to get the movie funded, they could at least try to do the accent. And they could have at least employed Australians for some of the characters. Thanks to the Crocodile Dundee films, Paul Hogan was big at this point. He'd sound too old to do Zach or Pips, but maybe Krista's dad or one of the older guys driving the logging machine?

*The animation quality was often inconsistent. In the scene where Crysta approaches the mysterious source of smoke, the smoke moves against a background that looks like a still painting. Toward the end when Zach is climbing down from the scary logging machine, the whole scene looks washed out.

*The sound mixing needed work. Seriously, sometimes things get LOUD out of nowhere.

*"Magi" is both the character's name and job description. Come on. They could have been more creative than that.

The Verdict

See it once, maybe. 5 out of 10.