Monday, June 26, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight, Or Franchise Peak Stupidity

A few minutes ago, my friend Loren Collins shared this article on the new Michael Bay Transformers film Transformers: The Last Knight. I looked it over and quickly shared with my friend Nick, who is no fan of Michael Bay, and told him that it looked like the franchise had reached "peak stupidity."

Let the record state that I saw the first three Michael Bay Transformers adaptations. I enjoyed the first one, which I own on Blu-Ray. The second one Revenge of the Fallen had a good concept, but a rather mediocre execution. It bothered me so much that I wrote my own version of it on fanfiction.net.

The third movie Dark of the Moon I saw in theaters and didn't particularly like it. Part of it was because they not only ditched Megan Fox but also the character Mikaela Banes and replaced her with the much less interesting Carly, but also, well, for a whole bunch of reasons. Here's my review; beware spoilers.

I skipped the fourth movie Age of Extinction altogether and based on the film's poor Rotten Tomatoes score and the sheer ludicrosity of what the Io9 article and the film's Wikipedia page described, I'm probably going to skip this one two. Seriously, an ancient order consisting of various famous people descended from Merlin called "the Witwiccans"? As, the origin of the name "Witwicky"? That's ridiculous. And the Transformers having been on Earth for generations? Bumblebee fighting the Nazis I could understand (he was on Earth before the Autobots began arriving en masse in the first movie), but a "secret history" of Cybertronian involvement on Earth dating back to King Arthur? Overkill and a continuity problem.

I wish I were part of Michael Bay's writer mafia. The first one was generally good and could have been better (some of the humor was really infantile, like Bumblebee "urinating" on Simmons), while the second one could have explored the Cybertronians in more detail (I kept the backstory of Starscream and Jetfire from the animated series, for example) and could have had a more cohesive storyline as well as Michael Bay's glorious explosions.

And here's how a Matthew W. Quinn version of Dark of the Moon would have looked like. It'd draw heavily on the 1986 Transformers animated film (complete with Unicron, Galvatron, and a child-traumatizing massacre of most of the well-known Autobots) but would have the characters from the first two films and a bit of a "next generation" thing going with Daniel being the son of Sam and Mikaela, Simmons (and his apprentice Leo) and Lennox being high-up intelligence and military guys, etc. And no chucking Sam and Mikaela either--since it's 20 years later, just recast them if they're no longer interested in being in the franchise (Shia) or they do something that annoys the boss too much (like Megan Fox did).

(Not sure how I would have done #4 and #5. Perhaps stuff based on the animated series material that took place after the movie, like Starscream trying to get a new body, the Quintessons, etc.)

Instead we got a series of films so firmly enmeshed into what TVTropes calls Status Quo is God that the Io9 author makes a good case that Michael Bay has issues with "object permanence."

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Franco Stays Loyal, No Spanish Civil War?

A long time ago I found a timeline on the alternate-history discussion forum in which General Francisco Franco, who led the fascist-allied Nationalists who overthrew the left-leaning but democratically-elected Spanish Republic in the 1930s, remains loyal to the Spanish Republic. Apparently he dithered about whether to join the planned coup attempt, much to the other conspirators' annoyance, and at one point warned the government the military was disloyal, but ended up joining the uprising.

Here's the timeline, which was written by a Spanish board-member and has all sorts of details an outsider wouldn't know. Here are some highlights:

*Sometimes pushing to get your way gets you the exact opposite response, something Emilio Mola really should have thought about when trying to get Franco to join up.

*Spanish society was heavily divided in the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War. Even though the coup that kicked off our history's war is pre-empted and squashed, there's a lot of political violence from both sides. 1934 saw a left-wing uprising in Spain that Franco defeated with extreme brutality; in this timeline the Spanish hard right makes a go of it in 1936 after the coup is squashed.

*Anarchism (the left-wing socialist sort) becomes a parliamentary party in the Spanish Republic. Although an anarchist political party seems like a bit of an oxymoron, it's not that difficult to push for certain political goals within a governmental framework. Anarchism was very strong in Spain, in particular Catalonia.

*Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini during the early days of the war apparently planned to opportunistically seize the Balearic Islands, but found his Nationalist allies had seized them first. This time around the enmity between the Spanish Republic and the Italian fascist regime remains.

*Exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky comes to live in Spain, much to Stalin's rage.

The timeline is long and very detailed, but it's very interesting. Check it out!

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Dirty Dancing (1987)

Although Dirty Dancing is not the usual type of movie I watch, the good folks at Myopia: Defend Your Childhood chose it for their weekly examination of whether beloved childhood movies hold up. I figured I'd give it a spin, and I was not disappointed. Here's the link to the podcast. And now for my review.



The Plot

In the early 1960s, before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, young Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey), the daughter of wealthy doctor Jake (Jerry Orbach), is vacationing with her family at a resort in the Catskill Mountains. Although Neil (Lonny Price) the grandson of resort owner Max Kellerman (Jack Weston) seeks her attentions, she instead falls for the working-class dance teacher Jack Castle (Patrick Swayze). Complications ensue. Will young love triumph? We'll just have to see...

The Good

*Jennifer Grey does a really good job playing "Baby." Her facial expressions, in particular her eyes, are extremely expressive and she uses them quite well. For example, when the sheltered doctor's daughter stumbles onto the raunchy dance party the resort staff are holding, her expression speaks volumes. She's seriously Adorkable and does a great job in the part.

*The other actors do a good job. Patrick Swayze's Castle is cool, Orbach is appropriately paternal (and, as a doctor, outraged at the "butcher" who presides over a botched abortion), and Weston conveys Kellerman's snobbery (but surprising kindness toward his longtime band leader). Cynthia Rhodes, who plays Johnny's dance partner Penny, does a lot with a part that could have had more depth. Price and Max Cantor, who plays slimy waiter Robbie Gould, do a good job playing the sort of upper-class lowlifes who give fraternities a bad name. Seriously, I referred to both of them as "young Donald Trump" for their attitudes toward women and the resort staff.

*And on the matter of women and the resort staff, the movie deals with some very important social issues without being annoying and preachy. The upper-class waiters (who are doing this as a summer job while at schools like Yale and Harvard) are clearly disdainful of the working-class dance instructors and other resort staff, something the elder Kellerman encourages by telling the waiters they're there to "show the daughters a good time" but threatening to fire any staffer who get involved with a guest. Baby's older sister Lisa (Jane Brucker) clearly fits in with the shallow world of 1960s wealthy people who have few aspirations beyond socializing and marrying well, but it's clear Baby doesn't want that and doesn't really fit in. The class issue ties in with a plot involving an illegal abortion in which Gould tells Baby that some people count and some people don't, complete with showing her a copy of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead for good measure.

And although the abortion plot is something that could potentially derail the film into an issues movie (and aggravate viewers on either side of the issue), it's handled compassionately and respectfully. We see exactly why the character in question goes through with it, how badly it could have gone in the days when abortion was illegal (both the danger of death and, should the woman survive, sterility), and we see Dr. Houseman's outrage toward both the back-alley abortionist (whom he calls a "butcher") and the young man he initially thinks is responsible. The whole situation is just sad.

*The soundtrack's good. It mixes both music from the 1960s when the movie takes place with songs from the 1980s when the movie was made. One of the songs, "She's Like The Wind," was even sung by Swayze himself, who's a good singer.

The Bad

*The movie drags a little bit in parts. I spent a good bit of time on my phone. To be fair, that's because this is not the sort of movie I ordinarily enjoy watching. Someone else--and considering how beloved this film is, that'd probably be most people--wouldn't have that problem.

*The movie has an actual Training Montage when Baby learns to dance. I remarked that this was like seeing a cliche come to life, but the movie is also nearly 30 years old. Back then training montages might not have been so cliched, although Nick tells me that training montages occur in some of the earliest movies.

*Perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention, but as I said earlier, the characters Robbie Gould and Neil Kellerman are so similar in look and action that I actually thought they were both the same character. Neil claims that he's planning on joining the Freedom Riders (and the TVTropes page for the film claims that actually shows he has hidden depths), but it came off to me that he was taken aback that Baby in interested in studying economics and joining the Peace Corps rather than studying English (aka an "MRS Degree," given the time and her social class) and was scrambling for some way to impress her. Both of them came off to me as "young Donald Trump," with Neil as snotty and pushy toward "the help" and Robbie as a vile cad.

*Where are Baby's parents? Castle is teaching Baby how to dance and the film implies this takes most of the summer, with the climax taking place at the end of the season. Certain events in the film early on strongly prejudice Dr. Houseman against Castle and I imagine he wouldn't want Baby involved with him AT ALL or, if he did allow her to take lessons, he'd keep a close eye on them. There's a deleted scene suggesting Mrs. Houseman knows a lot more about what's going on, but a deleted scene doesn't help much.

*It would have been nice if Baby's actual name is revealed earlier. It's not even in the credits!

*How much older is Castle than Baby? If the resort staff are all in their 20s and 30s and "the daughters" are all teens, Mr. Kellerman would have reasons beyond class snobbery to want to limit guest-staff romances to the wait staff, who are all college students and are consequently more appropriate age-wise. Patrick Swayze was in his 30s when the movie was made, for example, while Frances' character would have still been in high school if not just graduated and college-bound.

*It's my understanding that going to the Catskills for extended summer vacations was a primarily Jewish thing (hence the "Borscht Belt"), but religion or culture is never touched on. This article in Tablet Magazine suggests Dirty Dancing is "the most Jewish film ever," but if you're not already familiar with the cultural milieu, you wouldn't get it. Some indication that the characters are Jewish would have been nice, plus if Castle is a Christian (or at least simply isn't Jewish), that's another reason for Dad to be bothered.

The Verdict

It's not my type of movie, but it's very well-done. 8.5 out of 10.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: The Mind's Eye (2014)

A couple years ago, I promised to purchase and review Chris Nuttall's then-new novel The Mind's Eye, but life got in the way and that promise fell by the wayside. I don't abandon promises lightly, so at long last here's the promised review. Caveat: I agreed to the review as part of a swap for a review of one of my own works, but this will be an honest review...


The Plot

Marine Lieutenant Art Russell is on a mission in Afghanistan to capture or kill a major terrorist leader when he develops a severe headache and loses consciousness. When he wakes up, he discovers he has developed telepathy--the ability to read minds. He uses these abilities to foil a terrorist attack and is soon transferred to the CIA and promoted to captain, where he's tasked with preventing another, bigger attack in New York City.

However, more and more people are developing telepathic abilities and this is causing major problems for society. Many people are fearful of telepaths and want to control or kill them, and although most telepaths mean nobody any harm, some are willing to misuse their abilities. The stage is set for a violent showdown...

The Good

*The book starts in the middle of the action with a group of U.S. Marines on a mission in Afghanistan. No excessive info-dumping, no boring buildup. It doesn't start with a bang 100% only because the shooting hasn't started yet, but that doesn't really matter.

*The book is a quick and entertaining read. It's never boring and it's not too long. I finished it in two sessions on the elliptical.

*Each chapter begins with a news article providing the broader context for events in the narrative or describing something happening elsewhere in the world. Those could be a good source of spinoffs or areas to be explored in future sequels.

The Bad

*The book suffers from two many characters in too many places. It would have been better to follow Russell and a couple other characters throughout the early days of the new Telepathic Age rather than have so many diffuse POVs.

*A character starts out as a smarter-than-thou nerd and soon after developing telepathy and escaping from an anti-telepath terrorist attack starts blatantly espousing master-race theories, including ideas of superior bloodlines. This comes out of nowhere, although it's revealed later that he was under the influence of another character. That other character isn't named and mentioned until much later. It would have been better if there'd been more scenes from the perspective of the POV character for that subplot, watching him fall more and more under the influence of this bad influence and/or processing his trauma by reading lots of books with...dangerous ideas...at the home of the professor they're staying with. By the final quarter of the book, he turns in a full-blown Evil Nerd with a whole lot of internal hatred of women, something that wasn't really foreshadowed either.

*Pursuant to my above comments, it would have been better if the early plot featuring Russell's investigation of a planned Islamist terror attack in the United States is the main plot of the book. The climax could be a battle with the jihadi commander known only as the Emir...and it's revealed that he too is a telepath. That could be the shocking sequel hook...Russell is not a freak and there are more telepaths out there. The discovery of more and more telepaths, the popular reaction to the presence of telepaths (attempts to kill them, attempts to exploit them, etc) could be the plot of the second book, with Evil Nerd guy going rogue at the end. The third book could deal with the rogue-telepath plot. This way, Evil Nerd's fall from grace is spread out over a more realistic time-frame and we see it happen rather than him going from a know-it-all to a racist to a perverted murderous monster in what seems to be only a few months.

*The ending seems rather difficult in light of both the U.S. Constitution and the contributions the good telepaths made in the fight against both radical Islamist terrorists and evil telepaths. At the very least, the resulting court cases should play a role in any sequel.

*A character who has sex with a woman but doesn't know what role his telepathy played in her consent thinks the only way he'll know if it was consensual or if he was a "filthy rapist" will be when he dies, but never before expressed any belief in God, an afterlife, a Judgement Day, etc. It kind of came out of nowhere.

The Verdict

It's okay. There are good concepts that could have been developed further. 7.5 out of 10.