Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Summer and Fall 2021 Convention Schedule (So Far)

Given how lucrative conventions are for me (I profited $400 on a $600 gross at the 2018 Atlanta Comic-Con, equivalent to several months of e-book income, and I profited $168 on $500-ish gross at the moment recent Toylanta show) and COVID seems to be waning, I'm getting events lined up for this summer and fall. This is still in-progress, so I might come back and edit this post as necessary. Hopefully there won't be any COVID spikes or political nonsense that could interfere...

Confirmed Events

August 6-8, 2021: Atlanta Comic-Con-This is the big kahuna--I made all the money I mentioned above when I split the table cost with C.S. Johnson and I've got a partner for this one as well, fellow Atlanta Horror Writers Association member Venessa Giunta. And last time I only had two books, The Thing in the Woods and The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2, the latter of which I straight-up sold out on. This time around I'll have seven books available, including the Thing sequel The Atlanta Incursion (great for two-for-one deals) and the completely new (to ACC) steampunk Wastelands series. I'm also going to set Thing and Battle for the Wastelands e-books to $0.99 and hand out a lot of cards with QR codes linking to them, a strategy that has ginned up e-book sales before.

Also, Cineprov, an Atlanta film comedy troupe whose membership overlaps significantly with Myopia Movies, may be performing there as well. Come for the humor, stay for the products. :)

August 14, 2021: FarleyCon-I found out about this event at Toylanta in mid-March. Although I'm leery of out-of-state events due to hotel costs eating my profits, this event takes place in a suburb outside of Chattanooga, pretty close to the Georgia line. Table costs were pretty low, although owing to the distance mileage is going to be an expense.

October 2, 2021: NextChapterCon-This event is dedicated to independent authors and books solely. I attended two previous events and served as a panelist on multiple panels, so it's good to carry on the tradition. Furthermore, this year's event will be in Dalton rather than Ringgold, meaning hopefully a larger audience given how it's a larger community to start with and Dalton State College is located there..

In-Process

June 5, 2021: Middle Georgia Comic-Con-This is about as far a drive south as previous events in Dalton and Ringgold were to the north and I've never sold books in middle Georgia before. Furthermore, very low table costs and no need to worry about a hotel.

October 8-10, 2021: Monsterama-This is another relatively new convention. It's a bit of a hike from my day job and so last time I dawdled so much that I ended up not being able to get a table when I finally decided to apply. However, Toylanta showed that going straight from work to a convention that officially starts Friday night in the northern suburbs is completely doable.

October 15-17, 2021: MultiverseCon-I applied for a guest spot and in case I don't get it, I'll apply for a vending table. I was one of the vendors at the first event, made a good profit, and even met the woman who edited Thing first edition for Digital Fiction Publishing, so hopefully the next event will be even better.

Haven't Taken The Plunge Yet

September 17-19, 2021: Fandemic Dead-This is something I would only do with a partner owing to its high table costs, but there are a whole lot of actors from The Walking Dead coming. We're talking the people who played major characters like Negan and Glenn, not bit players. Given how much of a big deal this is, it might be worth the risk of spending that much money on a table.

And who knows, maybe I'll meet Jeffrey Dean Morgan and see if he's impressed by my Negan impersonation? One of my former students said it was "very good and very terrifying."

Monday, April 5, 2021

How I Would Have Done STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

Although the film podcast Myopia Movies covered Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith awhile ago — listen if you want to see my fan-rage in all its glory — we didn’t critique earlier prequels. So at the request of regular guest Evan, we did an episode on Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Although I remember liking it when it came out (I was at the very tail end of eighth grade), watching it again I see why it got mocked. Daniel recommended I do another one of my “how I would have done it” write-ups, so here we go…



In General

*Other than Jake Lloyd, the casting is good. However, I’m not sure whether it’s Lloyd, the script, or both, but I don’t really like him as young Anakin Skywalker. I know they’re trying to emphasize the tragedy by depicting one of cinema’s great villains as an adorable little boy who wants to help people, but he comes off too much as a 1990s precocious kid. I would probably go with both — a different actor (and an older one too so it doesn’t, per a podcast colleague, come off like a nine-year-old crushing on his babysitter) and cut dumbest lines like, “This is podracing!”

*Make the Jedi Council more overbearing. This article from Tor.com shows how one really needs to watch the animated Clone Wars cartoon to really understand why Anakin turned like he did and apparently the show depicts the Council at its worst — mistreating Anakin’s apprentice Ahsoka Tano and refusing to admit fault, jacking Anakin around, etc. However, although the Council in TPM is rather pig-headed and annoying, they’re all bark and no bite. Obi-Wan repeatedly chides Qui-Gon for refusing to follow the Jedi Code, but Qui-Gon has apparently been doing this for years and all the Council does is…not seat him on the Council. After Qui-Gon’s death, Obi-Wan flat-out tells Yoda he’ll train Anakin even if the Council forbids it…and they let him.

Why did Anakin and Padme have to keep their marriage secret if that’s all the Council would do if they got caught? Anakin might have liked the honor of a Council seat, but the bureaucratic stuff would bore him to insanity. If they caught him and decided his punishment would be that he’d never sit on the Jedi Council, he’d probably be relieved they aren’t turning him out onto the street.

It would have been better if the Council were more cultish, Qui-Gon’s relative free-spiritedness is only barely tolerated, and that Obi-Wan is more in line with the Council than with his master. Remove the one influential Jedi who doesn’t have his head up his own ass and have the Jedi marinate in their own nonsense for a decade and by Attack of the Clones, Anakin has very real reason to fear the Council. According to people who know the old Expanded Universe better, Obi-Wan was a martinet who was unduly harsh with Anakin and fond of threatening to kick him out of the Order. This might be in-character for an inexperienced teacher whose first pupil is a gifted but also troubled youth who isn’t much younger than he. Add that Obi-Wan is drinking the Council’s Kool-Aid because his own mentor is no longer around to moderate it and you have a recipe for a not particularly healthy relationship. This would in turn make Anakin more vulnerable to Palpatine’s manipulations, since he’d have a much greater reason to resent the killjoy Jedi Council in general and Obi-Wan in particular.

*Jar-Jar. Episode II shows how a well-meaning but not very smart person could be easily manipulated (he’s the one who convinces everybody to give Palpatine emergency powers), but he’s so annoying. I’d tone down the accent, although the clumsiness and well-meaning ineptitude are a major part of his character and an occasional source of legitimate comedy.

Act One

*When we first come to Naboo and see the Trade Federation blockade, there’re 10-20 carriers, but by the time the final battle rolls around, there’s only one. If Palpatine had ordered the Trade Federation to weaken the blockade and then the heroes pull this amazing come-from-behind victory, they’d never trust Palpatine again and Clone Wars of canon would have never happened. I would depict only two or three, since this is an age of peace and so Naboo simply might only have ten to twenty fighters, the equivalent of a police force. Three military-surplus carriers carrying hundreds of drone fighters can easily blockade the planet. That the Republic can’t slap the Trade Federation down shows how weak the central government is — either their military has withered in the millennium since defeating the Sith or like the United Nations of today it never really had much power of its own to start with.

*More variety of Neimodian accents. I’m not going to complain about them all dressing like Confucian officials, but the fact they all have stereotypical quasi-Chinese accents too? Racism aside, we’re also getting into Planet of Hats territory. An entire species is unlikely to be monocultural, even if there’s a single dominant group. If there was some kind of human space empire today, it might be American-dominated, but you’d see contingents from China, the European Union, etc.

*I had no problem with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Their conversations do a good job depicting their differences in philosophy and illuminating their characters. And when the time comes for fighting, they’re great.

*However on the matter of fighting, Palpatine is supposed to be this mastermind whose convoluted plots turn out just how he likes. Ordering the Jedi killed to prolong the crisis to his own benefit makes sense, but I would imagine he would explicitly order the Trade Federation to make it look like an accident. Although the Trade Federation’s desire not to escalate would explain why they use poison gas in the meeting room rather than go in with guns blazing, it wouldn’t explain why they destroy the Republic cruiser. That’s not just an escalation, that’s an act of war against the galactic government and even a weak one wouldn’t tolerate that. I’d have depicted the poison gas and then then droid attack, but Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon have to flee because they simply cannot fight their way back to the cruiser, not because the cruiser’s been destroyed.

*Ditch the elected middle-schooler queen. If Padme is a hereditary monarch it could explain why a 14-year-old is in that position, but nobody in their right mind is going to elect a teenager. Some of the old EU said it was a Naboo custom to involve children in public service from a young age and the downside is they could be manipulated by ill-intentioned adults, but there’s a difference between Padme the legislative page and Padme the chief executive of a planet. I’d have her inherit the throne recently (i.e. still mourning her father or mother) and depict her advisors squabbling among themselves as to whether they should fight the Trade Federation or continue diplomacy. If Padme leans in the peaceful direction due to personal temperament, that would lend weight to the peace faction whose support for a diplomatic solution is more pragmatic (the Trade Federation would crush them) rather than ideological.

*When the Jedi meet Boss Nass, make it clear the Gungans and the Naboo are historical enemies rather than just his resenting the Naboo for (allegedly) thinking they’re smarter. In the novelization, a character (Jar-Jar?) references past fighting and now the Naboo stick to the plains and the Gungans the swamps, something when combined with how widespread humans are in the Star Wars galaxy implied the Naboo are not natives. The Gungans are the indigenous race who, like the Native Americans, have lost most of their lands to outside invaders. That would make Padme’s humbling herself before Boss Nass later and the ending parade much more meaningful. However, I’d make sure it was handled subtly — this is Star Wars, not Dances With Frogs. Maybe I’d just have Boss Nass say something like, “now they-sa know what it’s like” and let the audience figure out the implication.

And while I’m at it, Boss Nass’s verbal tics and Nixonian face-waggling is really annoying.

*A planet core is full of water and monsters? Naboo is pretty normal-looking, so I would imagine there’s a molten core generating a magnetic field and all that. I’d have made it a little more subtle — Boss Nass is sending them through an underwater cave system connecting Otoh Gunga with a lake or river near Theed. There’ll still be the cool monster chases and what-not, but it’s less ridiculous. Bonus points if we see obvious Gungan remains near where the submarine surfaces, further hinting Theed used to belong to them. The queen is rescued and off they go.

Act Two

*I liked the Tatooine connection with the original films, so Padme and the Jedi fleeing there to evade the Trade Federation can stay.

*Having C-3PO being built by a young Anakin was a little too much, given how Star Wars takes place over an entire galaxy. Although this allowed for a well-done moment in one of the comics, it makes the world seem small. Having Anakin build a robot to help his mother shows his technical genius and helpful character, but it doesn’t have to be C-3PO. I’d have had Anakin have built a similar robot, possibly a simpler design a skilled child could manage.

*I’d have tweaked Watto’s design. Someone online reported children seeing the movie called him a “weird little Jew guy with wings.” Although making Watto into a Borscht Belt comedy figure (the constant complaining) might be funny, I’d have ditched the giant nose and later on, the skullcap. Aaron Freedman did say that as a Jew he identified with Watto and this could be given a more positive spin, even though Watto is a minor antagonist given his greed and owning slaves. Maybe just keep the voice and mannerisms?

*The dinner at the Skywalker home and the romantic subtext between Qui-Gon and Shmi Skywalker were fine. We also get to see Padme’s naivete breaking when she sees that slavery is legal and Watto, who seems to have a bark worse than his bite (the way Anakin argues with him and how the Skywalkers have their own home away from his shop), has surgically implanted bombs in Shmi and Anakin in the event they try to escape. The podracing was generally fine, although per fellow podcaster Daniel that could be tightened up to save time. Reduce the number of racers?

*I would have our heroes making some effort to free Shmi’s too. Even if Qui-Gon doesn’t want to push his luck given how they’re dependent on Watto for the ship parts, perhaps the humanitarian Padme (in her persona as the queen’s representative) offers to trade some of the queen’s wardrobe or jewelry? Watto, however, refuses since slaves are a status symbol in Tatooine society and without slaves he’s just another junk dealer. The naïve Padme tries to make an issue of this, but it’s Shmi who shoos them away and tells the tearful Anakin not to look back.

*The first duel with Maul was pretty cool. I’d have kept it as-is, since Maul is clearly getting the better of Qui-Gon and it foreshadows his eventual defeat. However, it’s a pretty big jump for Qui-Gon to tell the Jedi Council that a Force-using goon with a red lightsaber is a Sith when the Sith are supposedly extinct and there are lesser Dark Side users, fallen Jedi, etc. I’d have thrown in some comments about how he needs to meditate on this or depict him reviewing some of his Jedi books.

*I liked the arrival on Coruscant, especially since this is the first time we see the legendary city-planet outside the Expanded Universe. It’s also a good character moment for Padme, who shows compassion for the lonely Anakin despite the fact her people are suffering vastly worse, and Anakin himself who cares for Padme despite the fact he misses his own mother.

*When Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan come before the Council and reveal their suspicions that Darth Maul is a Sith, I’d have the Jedi leadership more skeptical. The conflicts with the Dark Side were long and bloody and it’s an article of faith that the Jedi triumphed, proving the superiority of the Light over the Dark. The possibility the Sith survived is almost heretical. Although they promise Qui-Gon they’ll look into it, it’s more pro forma and they don’t seem to take it particularly seriously. And I’d make “more to say” a bit more sarcastic, although I wouldn’t go so far as to make Yoda a complete asshole. The Jedi are individually good people — it’s the ossified system and their rigid thinking that’s the problem. Qui-Gon represents what the Jedi should be, and it’s a sign of the failing of the late Order that they only tolerate him rather than listen to him. I’d depict Obi-Wan as being torn — he saw Maul getting the better of his master in a way that some random fallen Jedi shouldn’t, but at the same time he has the Council’s rigid mindset and is skeptical of Qui-Gon’s freethinking ways. The Council agrees to see Anakin, but it’s clear they don’t take this seriously.

*I also liked how Palpatine maneuvers Padme into calling a no-confidence vote in Valorum’s leadership. The way they cut to his face when she calls for the vote shows that this is one of his evil plans and it’s falling into place nicely.

*The Council tests Anakin and acknowledges his potential, but rejects him due to his age. “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate lead to suffering” has to stay because that foreshadows Anakin’s fall later in the trilogy — fear for his wife’s life leads to anger toward the Jedi, that leads to outright hatred when he kneels before Palpatine, and after the duel on Mustafar, the rest of his life is suffering. Having some of the Council looking uneasy at “bringing balance to the Force” would help — with the Sith gone, the Light is so predominant that any rebalancing would likely be very bad for the Jedi. They aren’t going to send him back to Tatooine given the risk he might be re-enslaved, but they order Qui-Gon to make arrangements for him on Coruscant. Anakin is heartbroken by this rejection and is comforted by none other than C-3PO, a Jedi protocol droid who somewhat resembles the droid Anakin made for Shmi.

*Although Valorum has been voted out as Supreme Chancellor, who will replace him hasn’t been decided. Growing bored with the political games and knowing her people are suffering, the Queen decides to return to Naboo. As her assigned bodyguards, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan go with her. Having not found a place to safely leave Anakin, Qui-Gon decides to take him, having a feeling from the Force he might be useful.

Act Three

*The return to Naboo and the alliance with the Gungans was generally fine. Panaka’s belief the Trade Federation “wiped out” the Gungans shows the Naboo snobbery Boss Nass griped about. However, on the way in I’d have had someone remark about why there’s only one Trade Federation ship. Maybe someone theorizes the Trade Federation is overconfident that they can control Naboo with the queen having fled or the vote of no confidence in Valorum prompted the Trade Federation to withdraw some of its forces to protect its core holdings from possible Republic reprisal. Padme, Captain Panaka, or both decide now is the time to humble the Trade Federation themselves, especially if they know that Viceroy Gunray and the other top leaders are still on Naboo and can be taken hostage. However, no “bombad general” Jar-Jar. Boss Nass isn’t stupid. He gives Jar-Jar a lesser military rank and makes him an aide to Captain Tarpels, the gray-skinned Gungan officer who spends most of the canonical battle trying to protect his “general.”

*When the land battle of Naboo begins I’d have given the Gungans more mixed equipment. If they’re a less-advanced, occupied people their using more “traditional” weapons like horse (or in this case vaguely dinosaur-like) cavalry, catapults, infantry phalanxes adapted to fight blasters, etc. would make sense, but they should have blaster rifles too. After all, the Native Americans had guns as well as bows and arrows and Otoh Gunga looks like a modern city rather than an impoverished Indian reservation. They probably have at least some ability to make more advanced weapons, plus they could have gotten blasters from the Naboo resistance movement or looted Naboo military depots during the invasion.

*With the Trade Federation’s droid army leaving Theed to engage the Gungans, Padme, her guards, whatever resistance is left in the city, and the two Jedi seize the guarded hangar where Naboo’s small space force is. Although they couldn’t realistically defeat two Trade Federation carriers, they might be able to defeat one. Things get complicated when Darth Maul appears and the two Jedi engage him. The battle with Maul will stay roughly as-is…not only is it one of the most fun parts of the movie, but one reason I bought the soundtrack when it came out was because I loved “Duel of the Fates.”

Emphasis on roughly — there’s no reason for random energy fields to keep the combatants separated when convenient. I’d still have Maul separate Qui-Gon from Obi-Wan (which seemed to be his strategy from the get-go) and mortally wound him, then Obi-Wan defeat Maul. However, I’d use the fighting style Obi-Wan is known for in the Expanded Universe — defend until your opponent tires and then strike — rather than have him essentially get lucky against an arrogant opponent.

*The Naboo pilots, not knowing what to do with Anakin with his Jedi babysitters busy, hide him in a damaged fighter while they launch against the Trade Federation carrier. However, Anakin starts playing with the controls and between the fighter not being as damaged as they think and something that’s pretty obviously the Force, Anakin is able to launch. The Naboo pilots engage the enemy carrier and although they’re able to damage it, the droid fighters are too much. Meanwhile, the ground battle is starting to go against the Gungans, although being better-armed they don’t break and run so easily. However, then Anakin gets a lucky (or perhaps “lucky”) shot on some power systems exposed by earlier attacks and the carrier shuts down, disorienting its waves of fighters and shutting off its antiaircraft batteries. Having something as big as a small asteroid blowing up because one reactor near one hangar got blown up was stupid. The Naboo fighters are able to finish it using something resembling a WWII torpedo strike mission.

*The fact the droid army shuts down after their control ship is destroyed makes no military sense. If I remember right the Trade Federation in later films even acknowledges that and redesigns their systems accordingly. I would have made it so the droid armies default to their local commander-bots, but the process doesn’t go smoothly and this allows the Gungans to defeat them. With their carrier destroyed and field army defeated, the Trade Federation’s cowardly leadership essentially throws themselves at Padme’s mercy.

*I would definitely keep Palpatine becoming the Supreme Chancellor for obvious reasons, as well as how he would be “watching [Anakin’s] career with great interest.” However, I would add that given recent events, Padme has decided to abdicate in favor of someone more experienced in order to learn public service from the bottom up. Palpatine uses his “great interest” comment to Anakin to segue to offering Padme an entry-level position on his staff with “the possibility of advancement.” That would explain why in Attack of the Clones she’s the Senator from Naboo in her own right. It could also impact her romance with the adult Anakin in Episode II — Palpatine is her political mentor and possibly a father figure (if she’s queen because her father died) and he’s encouraging this to alienate Anakin from the Jedi Order. However, before she leaves office there’re a couple more things to do…

*Obi-Wan is granted the rank of Jedi Knight for defeating Darth Maul and to honor Qui-Gon, requests the honor of training Anakin himself. However, I would have toned down Obi-Wan’s insistence on training him even if it means defying the Council. This would contradict my more authoritarian depiction of the prequel-era Jedi and the characterization of Obi-Wan as the good boy as opposed to the rebellious Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan lobbies to train Anakin to fulfill his master’s dying wish and the Council reluctantly allows this, although I would have Yoda comment on the importance of training him “properly.” Obi-Wan nods, clearly taking Yoda’s desires to heart. Anakin is going to be trained by the orthodox try-too-hard Obi-Wan and not a more experienced or more flexible teacher and this is going to have consequences. It also emphasizes Yoda’s role in Anakin’s eventual downfall — something else for him to feel guilty about and push him to send himself into exile rather than play a more active role in resisting the early Empire.

*Everybody is appropriately respectful at Qui-Gon’s funeral, but Yoda and Mace Windu are more secretive about Maul being a Sith. I liked Yoda’s “always two there are” because I find the whole concept of The Rule of Two pretty cool, but I’d make it clearer that Yoda and Mace are keeping their suspicions secret. They plan to covertly find and kill the other Sith Lord themselves rather than cause a panic or call into question the Jedi’s past claim to have destroyed the Sith and saved the Republic. This would sully the Order’s reputation — although Yoda and Mace think this would result in legitimately bad things happening with the community no longer trusting the Jedi, there’s still the more selfish PR angle. You could imply a similarity between the Jedi concealing the return of the Sith with the Catholic child molestation scandal — the leadership doesn’t grasp the gravity of the situation, they’re too concerned with their image, they bungle their own attempts to solve it,  and it comes back to bite them big time. This would be another show rather than tell in regards to the late Order’s incompetence. And we definitely need to keep the shot of Palpatine when Yoda and Mace are talking about how they don’t know if Maul is the master or the apprentice, especially if they conclude the surviving Sith “must” be in the Outer Rim, hidden from their sight. This wouldn’t take long — just another sentence or two.

*We keep the Theed parade, since it sets up Anakin as a Padawan and the solidifies his crush on Padme. You could even hint at reciprocal interest — someone online read into her smiling at him that Padme was some kind of pedophile. I thought that absurd but would be more sensible with an older Anakin. And if we go with the Gungans and Naboo as ancient enemies, a Gungan army permitted to parade through the capital is an even greater sign of friendship than Padme giving Boss Nass a fancy trinket.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Two Different Versions of Alexander's Empire Surviving

One of the great hinges on which history turned is the death of the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great. Using the combined war machine of Macedonia and the classical Greek city-states, he conquered the gigantic Achaemenid Persian Empire and even some regions outside it in a very short time. He ruled from northern Greece to Egypt to outer India and Central Asia, but before he could consolidate his government and create a lasting dynasty ruling over most of the known (to Europeans) world...he died of a fever, excessive drinking, or a combination thereof. And his generals tore the empire apart, sidelining and killing his wife and son in the process. Had Alexander lived, it would have been a very, very different world, and people have been wondering about what might have happened for a very, very long time.

(One of the earliest works of alternate history is the Roman writer Livy, who wrote a short scenario in which a surviving Alexander fought Rome. He thinks the Romans would have still won, which is...dubious.)

And the alternate history forum which I still check in on even though I'm self-banned (which keeps me out of the cesspool that's Political Chat) has two different versions of one surviving-Alexander timeline, "Blood and Gold." Here's the first version and here's the second.

Some highlights...

*Apparently before his death, Alexander was planning a campaign to subjugate Arabia, which was the crossroads of a rich spice trade. Given how he lives longer this time around, we see that campaign.

*Alexander's Macedonian supporters were growing increasingly resentful of his adoption of Persian customs in order to govern his enlarged empire. This continues to be an issue for Alexander himself and his successors, who govern from the Middle East rather than Greece. And since the Argead (Alexander's family) often practices polygamy, this leads to all sorts of harem intrigue and problems.

*India continues to be a thorny issue for Alexander and his successors, as by the time Alexander heads back for round two (his army mutinied rather than try to advance further the first time), Chandragupta Maurya has founded his empire. Maurya is Alexander's equal and western India is going to be contested zone for generations.

*Alexander soon finds himself embroiled in the politics of Rome and Carthage, the two great powers of the Mediterranean. This is is also going to be an ongoing issue.

Both the original version of the timeline and the revised timeline are dead now and there's apparently a third that's also dead, but they're long and they're fun reads while they last. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

How I Would Have Done PREDATOR 2 (1990)

Once upon a time, Myopia Movies did an episode on the original Predator film that I was unable to participate in due to attending a friend’s wedding in North Carolina. Given how Predator 2 may have been the first of the two films I actually saw (on TV, long ago), I didn’t want to miss participating in this episode. And although it was a broadly enjoyable film, there’s nothing that can’t be improved on.

So in my usual fashion, here’s how I would have done Predator 2


In General

*Keep the general storyline and the cast. The plot is fine as-is and the cast, particularly Danny Glover, works very well.

Act One

*I liked how the film begins in what looks like a jungle and then scrolls into modern Los Angeles. This is a nice callback to the first film, which took place in a fictional Latin American country during the Cold War. We also just go straight into the action with the police confronting an incredibly well-armed drug gang.

*Although the film premiered in 1990 and (I assume) predicts Los Angeles gang warfare would continue worsening until that far-future date of 1997, having drug gangs openly battling the police in the streets and at one point shooting down a police helicopter is a little much. Most gang violence is criminal-on-criminal or criminal-on-civilian — openly fighting law enforcement is a good way to get the hammer dropped. If the Crips and Bloods are too much for the cops, that’s when the National Guard or even the regular military comes in. It’d be better if we see the fight is between the Colombians and the Jamaicans from the get-go and then when the cops arrive, the gangs attempt to flee rather than openly attack the LAPD. Perhaps the two officers are wounded by Colombian leader El Scorpion (Henry Kingi), who is armed to the teeth and clearly high as a kite. That’s when Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) does his death ride. This allows him to rescue the two officers and kill some Colombians who’re serving as the rear-guard to allow the others to escape. Then Harrigan orders his men after the Colombians because he’s angry that they’ve injured two officers and he doesn’t want them to get away and cause more problems later.

*I would keep the cops’ battle with the Colombians as-is after that. They’re trapped in the building and probably more scared of their deranged commander El Scorpion than the police outside. However, Danny Glover seeing the Predator on the rooftop gives the game away too fast. Instead I would have the police proceed as they do in the film, but no explicit depiction of the Predator. It’ll be something the gangsters can see and fight, but although they can see it, the viewers can’t. Based on the ritualistic display of the corpse and the fact the Jamaicans and Colombians were fighting in the area earlier, the cops assume it was the Jamaicans that killed the Colombians inside the building. However, I’d have some clues that make it obvious in hindsight it’s not them. We see a little of that with no guns and drugs missing when the police finally take the building, but to give a more explicit clue, I’d have them find a bit of neon-green blood from a lucky hit. Although the gangsters aren’t nearly as well-trained as the military guys from the first film, they’ve got a lot of weapons and they’re in a confined space they can’t escape. They’re more likely to wound a Predator, especially a less-skilled or experienced one, in such an environment than in a more open place like the jungle. Most of the cops assume it’s part of the Jamaicans’ voodoo-based terror tactics, but Harrigan is suspicious. Especially once the MIB types show up and take possession of the scene. Owing to Harrington’s greater age and experience, he’s probably worked with the DEA before and these guys are clearly not DEA.

*I’d definitely keep the Predator-POV sequences in the opening, as this would be the first clue the Predator is the main antagonist. This is very similar to the original film, where the first focuses on fighting the guerrillas and the Predator is simply watching the fun until the opportune time to jump in. I would also make sure to keep it clear the Predator is specifically focused on Harrigan — a bad-ass, aggressive police officer would be a much more impressive trophy than a bunch of gang members.

*Even though their particular precinct is depicted as the worst in the city, openly fighting a superior officer and even attempting to physically attack him seems like something Harrigan wouldn’t get away with no matter how dystopic the situation. If he was prone to this sort of behavior he probably wouldn’t get as high up as he does — a police lieutenant is only three steps away from becoming chief. I’d tone down him a bit and make it clearer he gets away with whatever overly-aggressive behavior and insubordination he does display because he’s publicly viewed as a hero for things like rescuing the wounded cops and alluded-to previous incidents that would make disciplining him politically difficult. Maybe hint that he’s in the worst precinct in the city because they can’t find anybody else for the job and stuff that would get an officer fired in a less dangerous environment they have to put up with. This would also make him leery of Jerry Lambert (Bill Paxton) — who in their right mind would WANT to transfer to this part of town?

*And speaking of Lambert, the interaction between him and Leona Cantrell (Maria Conchito Alonso) is kind of cringey. He hits on her and she goes into full-on Groin Attack mode until he backs down. Given how the movie was made in the late 1980s when there were a lot fewer rules about sexual harassment, Leona might have had to deal with things herself and hope her police record and/or the boss recognizing the perpetrator as a slimeball helps her get away with it. Since Harrigan sees it, maybe have him remark to himself something like “more XXXXth precinct crap” (indicating this is a symptom of the precinct’s dysfunctionality) and perhaps have words with Lambert about it later. When Harrigan gives his speech about putting the team first (this clip also includes Lambert being obnoxious and Leona putting him in his place), that’d be a good place to work in that he needs to be careful about…certain things. Leaving aside the moral issue of how Leona obviously doesn’t want to listen to his stories or put up with him hitting on her, there’s also the fact this behavior undermines the team and puts everybody at risk.

*I’d actually keep the voodoo ritual scene, although since the gang is supposed to be Jamaican it’d probably be better to call it obeah. Although I can easily imagine someone claiming it’s racist, it’s pretty clear to me the voodoo stuff is something they play up to terrorize their enemies and from a strategic perspective, that makes sense. Also, if we’re trying to keep the viewer thinking that it’s the Jamaicans who wiped out the Colombians as long as possible, their whole “hang your captive upside down and mutilate him” schtick and the Predator’s display of its kills are very similar. Given how the police have no reason at all to think aliens are involved, whenever they’d see this sort of thing they’d just believe it was the Jamaicans. That will be the first scene where I’d reveal rather than just imply the Predator. At this point the Jamaicans have been the red herrings for a fifth or so of the movie, much like the Communist guerrillas in the first film, and their exploits against the Colombians have set them up as something to be feared. Then the Predator just walks in and obliterates them, showing the viewers that he (it?) is the new king of the urban jungle.

Act Two

*Given how improbable it is that the MIB types under Keyes would leave the site of a Predator killing unsecured, I would have simply had Harrigan’s team capture the Predator’s weapon before Keyes’ men hustle them out. Having Danny Archuleta (Ruben Blades) sneak back into the crime scene undermines Keyes’ men’s competence, since not only is the site poorly-secured, but Keyes and Harrigan have butted heads before. This is something the MIB should see coming, especially given how Harrigan’s team is willing to join him in insubordinate behavior. This means Danny dies differently — perhaps he stakes out the building where the Colombians died in hopes of seeing what Keyes is up to and is killed by the Predator instead? This would be another clue that the Predator has fixated on Harrigan specifically.

*I would have kept the broader arc where Harrigan and his loyalists begin their own investigation into Danny’s killer despite the anger of Harrigan’s superiors. This includes Harrigan’s meeting with King Willie, the leader of the Jamaican gang. I actually liked his depiction as a sort of Rastafarian Master Splinter. He even uses the correct terminology, like referring to Harrigan (a police officer) as a representative of “Babylon.” However, I would have included King Willie’s fight with the Predator, since one of my problems with the original was that Billy’s duel with the Predator  (on a log over a river where the Predator can only attack from one direction) was never seen.

*When the police scientist Irene Edwards (Lilyan Chauvin) studies the captured Predator weapon, having it made wholly of elements that aren’t on the periodic table is overkill. Virtually all elements on Earth and in the broader universe are made in stars. I would have made it so that it’s made of elements that are recognizable but associated with very advanced technologies (“niobium—they use that in superconductors”) or are very rare on Earth (“iridium—isn’t that something they only find in asteroid craters?”). Although the viewers at this point already know we’re dealing with something inhuman, this is something that would help the cast realize they’re dealing with something not of this Earth and King Willie might not have been completely full of it.

Act Three

*The train sequence can stay broadly the same, although I had some suspension-of-disbelief issues with how Lambert wasn’t able to injure the Predator at all despite repeatedly shooting it with a handgun at close range. The Predator when we see it is wearing largely fishnet and not a lot of metallic armor. The later film Predators shows they can be injured and killed by human-made swords and the main Predator’s skin is repeatedly penetrated by shotgun blasts later, so it’s not like the hide is bulletproof. I would have had Lambert miss a couple of times in the pandemonium of the train car and his remaining shots bounce off what’s obviously metallic armor. Maybe Lambert can wound it a bit like the Colombians would have in my version, but in the end he goes down. Leona is spared like in the film due to her pregnancy — the fact the Predator has an honor code (or at least a hunting code of ethics) is a character moment for it.

*Harrigan’s pursuit of the Predator to avenge Lambert and his capture by Keyes’ MIB stays broadly the same. However, given how they were clearly trying to take Harrigan alive, I would have made the vehicular mayhem a little more subtle — they pin his car against something rather than slam into him full-on in a larger vehicle, something that could easily kill or injure him.

*The rest of the movie works pretty well as-is. Fast-moving, entertaining, some good one-liners (like Harrigan’s exchange with the old lady in the apartment complex), and the reveal that the Predators’ trophy room has a Xenomorph skull sets up the wonderful crossover video games and novels (and less wonderful crossover films) we get later. The other Predators sparing Harrigan and even giving him a 250-year-old trophy pistol (implying the Predators have been hunting humans on Earth for centuries) as a matter of honor was pretty cool too. I also liked how the MIB Garber looks to throw his weight around until he sees the LAPD coming – he might be a federal agent, but the LAPD of the early 1990s didn’t have a great reputation and I’m sure he didn’t want to fall down the stairs in a one-story building for trying to push around an LAPD officer on his own turf.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

How I Would Have Done STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)

As those of you who’ve listened to the merry crew of misfits we call Myopia Movies for awhile know, an early episode covered the controversial 1997 film Starship Troopers. Opinions on that one were mixed — Nicolas and Daniel liked it for its antiwar satire, while I very much disliked its deliberate mockery of the source material. I hesitate to go any further lest we get political (you want that, go here) and again, anybody can complain.

 So here’s how I would have done it:


In General

*The original novel refers to protagonist Johnny Rico as “Juan” and it’s referenced that he speaks Tagalog at home. Though they live in Buenos Aires, the Rico family are Filipino. Ergo, to be faithful to the novel, they should have cast an Asian or Hispanic lead if a specifically Filipino one isn’t available. The Filipino actor and later politician Alfred Vargas would’ve been a little young (16 in 1997), but given how Johnny is graduating high school when the book begins, that’s not impossible. Given the prevalence of Dawson Casting in Hollywood, Antonio Aquitania would’ve probably been better given he’d be in his early 20s in 1997. If that’s something Hollywood at the time thought too risky (see what happened with the all-black movie Eve’s Bayou, where the suits were so desperate to have a white character they even suggested a white racist villain), an American Hispanic actor like Carlos Ponce (25 in 1997) or Michael Peña (21 in 1997 and acting since 1994) might have worked too.  Although casting a non-white actor goes against the point Verhoeven was trying to make with all the Nazi imagery, screw him it’s me adapting Starship Troopers this time. J

*The rest of the casting is fine, or at least tolerable. The book is a bit of a boys’ club (for starters, Dizzy Flores is male), so I’d keep Carmen’s larger role and keep Dizzy female. From a Hollywood perceived risk/money perspective, if you’re going to take a “risk” with a foreign and/or non-white lead, bringing in more well-known white American actors like Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris, etc. for the rest of the cast is probably necessary.

*The Bug designs are pretty cool, but in the book the Pseudo-Arachnids (that’s what they’re called, with “Bug” being the soldier-slang for them like “Kraut” for Germans) have advanced technology. I would keep the design of the warrior bugs, but attach weapons. Perhaps the Plasma Bugs could stay for Rule of Cool purposes (or as some kind of backup in the event technological weapons fail), but the Bugs will be a technological civilization with their own spacecraft.

*The film looks to only cover a year or so, while the book covers a longer time span and features Johnny going to Officer Candidate School. Given how this is a movie and not a TV show, I’d keep the film’s relatively compressed timeframe. Plus one of the book’s flaws was just how much talking and how little action there was and I’d like to avoid that.

*I’d definitely keep the Basil Poledouris soundtrack. Even though I wasn’t allowed to see the movie when it came out, I did receive the soundtrack CD for Christmas and for a long time it was one of my favorite things to listen to. Check out “Klendathu Drop,” for example.

Act I

*The canonical film starts with the Federation’s invasion of Klendathu going to crap and then cuts to a year-ish earlier with everybody finishing up high school. I’d start with a Federation spacecraft exploring a new section of space when it’s set upon by unknown foes. In the book it’s not clear who actually started the war and this new opening could play on that — the Federation might’ve been trespassing in Bug territory, but it was accidental and the Bugs overreacted by attacking and destroying the ship without warning.

*Then we jump to the high-school stuff. My main issue was that it went on too long, so I’d tighten it up. I’d also make the History and Moral Philosophy class (the one with all the “violence is the ultimate authority” stuff) less unsubtle and ham-handed. Finally, I’d make Xander Barcalow, instead of being the same age as everybody, somewhat older. He’s the brother of one of Carmen’s friends who joined the military a few years back and is home on leave, giving Carmen a serious case of hots for the man in uniform and making Johnny rather jealous. He’s also the bearer of bad news — there’ve been skirmishes with an unknown alien force and the Federation is going to war footing. Being young and naive, at least some of our heroes take this as a sign they should enlist in the military as soon as they graduate high school. Although Johnny is rather cynical toward the Federation’s form of government (in which one has to serve in the military or some other sufficiently dangerous federal service in order to vote and hold office), he signs up to follow Carmen and perhaps win brownie points with possible future in-laws (in a deleted scene she reveals her parents don’t like him because they earned their citizenship and his parents haven’t). This is something his parents, being older and wiser and in the case of Johnny’s father, an ideological pacifist, find absolutely horrifying, so we keep some of the family drama. Although Carmen qualifies for pilot training and Carl’s psychic abilities get him a spot in military intelligence, Johnny finds himself assigned to what Heinlein called “the poor bloody infantry.”

*Next comes boot camp. Johnny meets new friends, including the sort of people he’d have never met in his privileged life in Buenos Aires, and learns how to a be soldier. This was one of the slower parts of the movie even though it’s necessary for Johnny’s character arc, so I’d tighten it up a bit. None of the stupid crap like coed showers or sergeants deliberately injuring recruits to make points (the knife scene comes to mind). However, when Johnny is placed in charge of some recruits and makes a mistake that leads to a man’s death in a live-fire exercise, he still gets flogged. The novel’s Federation, although not the fascist dystopia Verhoeven tried to make it, is still a much rougher society than our own. Wracked by guilt for his role in the other soldier’s death and thinking the whipping insufficient punishment (growing up in Latin America maybe we can get some Catholic guilt going), Johnny decides he’s going to resign.

(This is something that’s allowed because the Federation only wants the most willing soldiers/citizens and the situation hasn’t reached the sort of emergency levels where no manpower leakage can be tolerated. Yet.)

*Just as Johnny is bringing his resignation papers to the camp office, the war with the Bugs takes a severe turn for the worse. Rather than the frontier skirmishes escalating like the undeclared naval war with Germany before the US formally entered World War II, the Bugs have done something as unexpected as Admiral Yamamoto’s attack on Pearl Harbor. They’ve launched a naval assault on Earth itself. The unsuspecting Federal Navy is hit hard. Johnny and his boot-camp friends can see the battle unfolding from the ground, while Xander and Carmen, despite the latter being in roughly the same place in training herself, are rushed into an increasingly-desperate fight in space. The Bugs eventually retreat, but Johnny trashes his resignation papers when he learns that Buenos Aires was nuked. His parents and friends who stayed home are dead. Now it’s personal.

Act II

*With the public in a frenzy after the destruction of Buenos Aires and heavy military losses in the home system, the Federation prepares a rapid counterstrike — an attack on the alien homeworld of Klendathu. To this end, everybody’s training is rushed, something the more experienced soldiers don’t like. Preliminary reconnaissance of Klendathu sees the system is relatively empty — perhaps like the Federation did earlier most of the Bug forces are deployed to the frontiers. Johnny, Dizzy, Ace, and a few other boot-camp characters are placed in a company named Rasczak’s Roughnecks after their commander Jean Rasczak, played once more by genre staple Michael Ironside. Our heroes, like many new soldiers who haven’t “seen the elephant” and in this case have lost people to the Bug attack on Earth, are eager for combat. Despite the misgivings of the more experienced, the assault on the Bug home system is launched…

*And turns into a complete disaster. The Bugs had considered the possibility their assault would be replied to in-kind and allowed the Federation to think that Klendathu’s defenses had been depleted for the frontier conflict. Instead the Federal Navy runs into a massive ambush, the kind of home-court “decisive battle” the Japanese were planning to fight during WWII. Despite this failure, the Federation manages to bash through Klendathu’s orbital defenses and land troops on the planetary surface. Unfortunately they run into massively heavier-than-anticipated enemy numbers on the ground and have to be almost immediately recalled when the Bugs threaten to reclaim orbital control. The campaign intended to win the Federation the war, like in the book, nearly loses the Federation the war instead. Casualties are enormous, including many human prisoners taken by the Bugs. Johnny is badly injured and Carmen gets the false report that he’s been killed.

Although like in the canonical film the Klendathu assault is a massive screw-up on the Federation’s part, the soldiers actually fight competently. They’ll have combined arms — armor, aircraft, artillery, etc. —  supported by orbital bombardment (when available) instead of guys (and girls) in flak jackets bumbling around trying to win a battle of attrition against an enemy that vastly outnumbers them on unknown ground, surrounding a single Bug and emptying their guns into it (how they didn’t all kill each other in that one scene I don’t know), ships colliding like demolition derby, and various other exercises in stupidity. The mission fails due to Bug strategic deception, home-field advantage, and vastly superior numbers, not poor human equipment and (likely racist) arrogance.

The book references the Federation’s Sky Marshal — a sort of combined general and admiral—commanding the rear-guard and giving his life to allow the human forces to evacuate, so I would depict this on-screen, with one of the soldiers he saves being Johnny himself. Given how I’m not planning on introducing the powered armor until later, perhaps he’s flying spacecraft into the teeth of a combined space-air-ground Bug assault until the last possible second and his ship gets destroyed holding the line for the final transports.

*In the aftermath of the disaster, Johnny and Dizzy enter into a romantic relationship largely prompted by how glad both of them are to be alive. They’re both the same rank at this point—in the film they start sleeping together after he is promoted to corporal, something that would be a real issue given that he’s her legal superior. Perhaps with Rasczak killed in the battle his subordinate Jelal becomes the new commanding officer and Johnny and Dizzy become non-commissioned (corporals or sergeants) officers?

*After recovering from his wounds, the Roughnecks are deployed in various raiding missions to keep the Bugs off-balance and on the defensive so they don’t launch another attack on Earth, an attack that (in the book) the Federation’s leaders thought would succeed. This is analogous to the naval raids the US launched against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor with broadly the same goal — bleed the enemy while buying time for the Federation to replenish its forces. Here we see the Federal military functioning like it should, although the Bugs’ technological parity and superior numbers makes each battle a near-run thing. During this part of the storyline, Carmen learns that Johnny is still alive — but he’s in relationship with Dizzy and she’s in a relationship with Xander despite his being her superior officer. Owing to the urgencies of the manpower situation their superiors are turning a blind eye rather than booting one (probably Xander, as he should really know better) or both out, but this is clearly awkward and a bit shameful for all involved. There’s no unprofessional bullshit like Xander disregarding his rank to challenge Johnny to a fistfight, especially since in my version Xander is more experienced and mature even if he’s sleeping with a subordinate and kind of a prick.

Over the course of the campaign, Johnny’s unit is chosen to test out new powered armor intended to counterbalance the Bugs’ superior numbers. Although they’re much more successful wearing armor the book describes as allowing one infantryman to kill multiple tanks, on one of these raids Dizzy is killed. I would depict her death somewhat less stupidly. In the movie Johnny pulls shrapnel from her wound and makes the situation worse rather than bandaging it up and waiting for an actual doctor. Instead play it for horror — they’re retreating after another hit-and-run, she’s the last one on the shuttle ramp, and some dying Bug spears her or kills her with a laser. Dizzy’s funeral scene goes as canon — as much as I disliked the film, Johnny’s speech at Dizzy’s funeral shows he’s grown from the privileged teenager who sneered at the Federal values of service and sacrifice to someone who believes in these values wholeheartedly.

*Then Carl arrives, bringing word that the Roughnecks are needed, pronto. A Federal cruiser has been shot down reconnoitering a possible Bug POW camp on Planet P and the crew, including Xander and Carmen, is in extreme danger. Owing to their ranks, Xander and Carmen in particular need to be kept out of the Bugs’ hands (claws?) lest they get squeezed for information. Carl goes along for the ride — military intelligence reports that one of the higher-caste commander bugs is there and they want to capture it for its intelligence value and possible use as a bargaining chip.

Act III

*On Planet P, Xander and Carmen and some survivors of the crashed ship are being hunted by Bugs. We get some good action sequences, but they end up being captured and brought to cavernous POW camps where human prisoners are being kept in deplorable conditions. Xander and Carmen are recognized as officers by the Bugs and taken away for special attention.

*The Navy launches a diversionary raid on nearby Bug targets, allowing the Roughnecks to land on Planet P itself. Using the powered armor, they go through the Bugs like a chainsaw and blast their way into the prison camps. They learn from the prisoners that Xander and Carmen are being taken deep underground where captured officers go and don’t come back.

*Xander is confronted by one of the Arachnid hive-queens. Although he goes out defiant (however much a tool he is in the canonical film he dies well), the supreme Bug uses the psychic abilities the high-caste bugs use to command lesser bugs across vast distances to straight-up mind-rape him, leaving him dead. None of that brain-eating stuff here — that was just shock value for the sake of shock value and doesn’t even really make sense scientifically. The hive queen turns her attention to Carmen when…

The Roughnecks and some of the more functional POWs they’d armed up blast their way in. A burly brawl breaks out between the human attackers and the hive-queen and her praetorian guard. We can even have cool stuff that’s kind of touched on in the later animated film Starship Troopers: Invasion, like Carl using his own telepathic abilities to set the Bugs against each other and even have a Jedi-like psychic duel with the hive-queen. Things start to go against the humans even with their powered armor when…

*Reinforcements arrive led by Johnny’s old boot-camp Sergeant Zim, who was sent to frontline duty and ended up getting a battlefield commission to command his own unit. The Bugs are shredded and Carl manages to telepathically subdue the queen. And serving as Zim’s chief sergeant is none other than Johnny’s father. Although Johnny heard he was missing and presumed dead in Buenos Aires, it turned out he survived and, realizing that unlike past wars this one is morally justifiable, enlisted himself. This was in the book and although I initially thought this kind of disconnect wouldn’t happen in a society as advanced as the Federation, there were people missing and presumed dead after 9/11 and other mass-casualty events later found alive. If Johnny is deployed far from Earth (and thinks his parents are dead, so he doesn’t bother trying to contact them) and Mr. Rico is isolated in military training and later deployed in a separate unit, it’s possible he simply never learned his father had survived.

*At the end, there’s a ceremony on Earth. Everybody gets medals and perhaps Johnny gets commissioned an officer like in the book, making the unit “Rico’s Roughnecks.” The capture of the Bug queen is celebrated as a major victory, but the war is far from over. Sequel Hook!

In conclusion, although the movie was often entertaining in its own right, it doesn’t sit right with me to have someone who hates a book adapt it for the explicit purpose of mocking it (and his mockery shows he doesn’t understand the message of the book in the first place). My version includes the areas where the film was better (more women, a more compressed time-scale, more exciting), but at the same time isn’t so schmucky.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

How I Would Have Done TRANSFORMERS (2007)

One of the more fun episodes of Myopia Movies that I've participated in was our episode on the 2007 Michael Bay film Transformers. The episode was notable for Nic's hilarious impersonation of Bay, which he used to criticize how the film often objectified Megan Fox's Mikaela Baines.

(Someone online said that if you had just the script she'd be a very capable and competent heroine, but the way the film is shot it often comes off as the camera leering at her. Fellow podcaster Daniel said the movie made him want to take a shower.)

I had my own set of criticisms of the film, but as I've said before, complaining is easy. Here's how I would have done it...

Act One

*We begin with Optimus Prime’s voice-over about the civil war on Cybertron, the AllSpark, etc. Then cut to Earth orbit when two mysterious extraterrestrial craft appear. One approaches a human satellite and transforms into the Decepticon Soundwave, who attaches himself to the satellite with tentacles much like he does in Revenge of the Fallen . He scans through various data-streams and finds the eBay page of Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf), which has some piece of obvious alien technology on it. Upon seeing Sam is located in California, Soundwave dispatches the other mysterious alien toward what is obviously the Middle East.

*Cut to Sam and his father shopping for the car. All Sam can afford with his savings and the money his father is willing to give him is the “piece of crap Camaro.” Yes, this means Bobby Bolivia (Bernie Mac) will stay, but since my proposed revisions cut the entire hacking subplot to save time, preserving one wacky comic relief character can be tolerated.

*Meanwhile in Qatar, we meet Captain William Lennox (Duhamel) and Sergeant Robert Epps (Tyrese Gibson) while they Skype with Lennox’s wife and his baby daughter, born while he was deployed. They’re interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious helicopter that does not respond to human hails and whose pilot it turns out is a hologram. The helicopter transforms into a humanoid warrior robot — the Decepticon Blackout — who begins attacking. The human soldiers flee to their Hummers, tanks, etc. like they do in the canonical film, but we actually see the fight this time. Deploying parasite creatures like Scorponok and able to withstand quite a bit of human firepower, Blackout triumphs, but the prolonged firefight allows Lennox, Epps, and a few others to flee to a nearby Arab village. They’re pursued by Scorponok, but Lennox, other survivors, and the villagers with their bolt-action rifles manage to hold the Decepticon off long enough for Epps — a forward air controller — to “bring the rain” with with AC-130 gunships and A-10 Warthogs. Scorponok loses his tail and flees. This is the kind of spectacle Michael Bay is good at and cutting the hackers means cutting a bunch of actors (including Jon Voight as Not Donald Rumsfeld, who probably cost a lot), freeing up cash to expand the first battle sequence.

*Back to California, Sam and his best friend Miles (John Robinson) crash a party attended by Mikaela Banes (Fox) and her odious football player boyfriend Trent (Travis Van Winkle). The broad strokes of Sam and Mikaela’s story work fine. Sam is amusing and Mikaela is a pretty cool character overall. However, although Sam’s dork to Mikaela's "evil jock concubine" is funny (and we contrast Sam's earnestness with Trent’s arrogance, condescension, and sexism), there are times he’s straight-up creepy. Furthermore, Bumblebee is the world's most unsubtle wingman and Sam's "more than meets the eye" from the original TV series was just lame. Although Sam is not supposed to be the king of social skills, he is so annoying in that scene we’d need some dialogue changes to make him even remotely convincing as a suitor for Mikaela. I would have also toned down the unsubtle Mikaela body shots. Yes, she's very pretty. No, we don't need endless close-ups of her midriff while walking down the road or her semi-posing in short-shorts and a crop top while tinkering with Bumblebee's engine. While Mikaela examines Bumblebee, we see them being stalked by a police car driven by an obvious hologram police officer. This unnerves Mikaela, who has Sam take her home.

*Back in Qatar, we see there’s an emerging crisis in the Middle East attracting the attention of the entire world and something is interfering with the military network. This keeps Lennox from contacting his terrified wife, who knows only that her husband’s base in Qatar has been attacked and many soldiers are dead. The soldiers examine Scorponok’s tail and comparing it to the composite armor American tanks use. It’s similar in structure, but it’s made of materials unknown to humans and its technique is vastly more advanced. Cue the arrival of Tom Banachek (Michael O’Neill), who has heard about what has happened and is very interested in hearing the soldiers’ report. When Lennox asks where he’s from, he only says “Sector Seven.”

*Back in California, Sam sees his car driving away on its own and follows, seeing it transform into the humanoid Bumblebee for the first time. He gets arrested after the police think he’s on drugs, alerting the lurking Barricade at the police station. When his father retrieves him, Bumblebee returns. Sam flees on his mother’s bicycle with Bumblebee in pursuit. He runs into Mikaela again, who follows him when he flees pursued by a car with no driver. He encounters a police car — who it turns out is Barricade. The resulting sequence plays out very similarly to the canonical film, since it provides good character moments for both humans.  Sam is self-sacrificing (jeopardizing his own escape to keep Mikaela from getting too close to Barricade) but prone to panicking, while Mikaela is level-headed, takes no crap, and is quite handy with power tools. Since the whole Air Force One/hacker subplot is dispensed with, Frenzy is simply some parasite creature of Barricade that attacks Sam and Mikaela while Barricade fights Bumblebee. And even though Mikaela chops him up, his head can survive to mimic her phone and hide in her purse.

*With Barricade defeated, Bumblebee collects the kids and reveals his purpose. Not only is he an alien, but he’s called for friends. And they’re arriving.

Act Two

*The arrival of the Autobots is appropriately majestic (see here), but how they introduce themselves to Sam and Mikaela needed work. For starters, Jazz is a millennia-old alien robot who acts like a ghetto stereotype. Although Jazz was always depicted as being "hip,” (watch this scene here from the TV show and this scene from the animated movie), Jazz's voice-actor was Scatman Crothers, not 2 Live Crew. Surely Optimus Prime's able lieutenant merits a more dignified portrayal. Meanwhile Ratchet's commentary on how he can detect Sam wants to "mate" with Mikaela was stupid on two levels — an alien robot older than human civilization isn't realistically going to care, and the empathetic Autobots won’t want to embarrass their human allies. And although I didn’t mind, "We learned your language from the World Wide Web," Optimus Prime would never say, "My bad."

*Optimus Prime explains what the Autobots are searching for. Sam was unknowingly in possession of part of Megatron, the overlord of the evil Decepticons, and they need to collect it before the Decepticons can confirm their missing master is on Earth. Furthermore, said part might contain information about the AllSpark, which the Decepticons absolutely cannot have. That was why Bumblebee was sent to Sam — the Autobots were investigating on their own and once they learned what Sam had, they wanted to protect him from the Decepticons.

*The Autobots take Sam and Mikaela back to Sam’s house, where they search for the Cybertronian artifact. His parents arrive and, suspicious of his evasive behavior, think they’ve caught him masturbating. Mikaela emerges from behind Sam’s bed to put a stop to it, prompting even more embarrassing commentary from Mrs. Witwicky. I found that sequence in the movie amusing, so it can stay. However, rather than engaging in increasingly-creative contortions to stay out of sight and destroying the Witwicky yard in the process, the Autobots just stand guard in the nearby streets in vehicle form.

*Then Sector Seven arrives and detains everybody, ignoring the vehicle-form Autobots (and thus demonstrating their questionable competence). John Turturro’s Agent Simmons will still be creepy and obnoxious (getting unduly poky with Sam's crotch with the Geiger counter, calling Mikaela "hot"), alluding to his portrayal of "pederast" Jesus Quintana from The Big Lebowski. Mikaela mouths off at Simmons, who reveals her father’s criminal past and her own juvenile record. S7 takes everybody away, only for Optimus Prime and the Autobots to intervene and capture them. Simmons ends up handcuffed to a streetlight in his underwear, part of the humiliation he deserves for, as someone online put it, “sexually baiting an underage female detainee,” but no Bumblebee “lubricating” (i.e. urinating on) him like in the actual movie. That was stupid. Then S7 reinforcements arrive and Sam and Mikaela are recaptured along with Bumblebee. The Autobots don’t intervene, since Optimus values confirming that Megatron is on Earth and that he has not claimed the AllSpark over a rescue that would likely take many human lives. This is where Ratchet can demonstrate his medical talents examining whatever artifact Sam had, confirming that it is part of Megatron and it contains information about the AllSpark. Once this is done, then they set off in pursuit of S7.

*Next is a scene that wasn’t in the actual film — rather than the Decepticons coming from all over the world at short notice when they hear from Frenzy, they’ve taken advantage of the Qatari distraction to gather in the United States. The characterization of the Cybertronians who aren't Bumblebee or Optimus Prime is a big weakness of the first three live-action films (that’s when I gave up) and one in particular is Starscream. In the cartoons I watched as a kid, it’s clear he covets Megatron’s position, he’s probably the smartest Decepticon, he prefers subtlety to Megatron's frontal assaults, and he's too cowardly to openly claim power. Some of the film’s promotional material stated Starscream views Optimus Prime's Autobots and Megatron's Decepticons as morally-equivalent personality cults and that in contrast he is solely concerned about the dying Cybertronian race. However, once in power he makes many of the same bad decisions as Megatron. That would be a pretty interesting interpretation.

But it's in none of the movies! Instead he's only a blathering sycophant that Megatron regularly abuses. In my rewrite, we see Starscream is clearly not interested in finding Megatron and the other Deceptions are suspicious, something the prequel novel Ghosts of Yesterday touches on. However, between Soundwave’s infiltration of the military network and Frenzy transmitting his location, they now know where Megatron and the AllSpark are. Although he’d clearly rather not, Starscream has no choice but to act.

*Everybody converges on Hoover Dam. Lennox and his men come with Banachek to assist S7 in fighting the Cybertronians (at this point nobody other than Sam and Mikaela knows there are two warring factions, with one friendly to humans), Simmons is transporting the detained Sam, Mikaela, and Bumblebee, the remaining Autobots are chasing them, and the Decepticons are in turn following them to liberate Megatron and take the AllSpark. The AllSpark is revealed to be something smaller from the get-go rather than somehow shrinking a house-sized machine to something a human can carry. And Simmons doesn’t credit all 20th Century technology to Megatron--for starters, cars already existed before Megatron was stored beneath Hoover Dam in the 1930s. When the Autobots arrive, Sam forces S7 to release Bumblebee and wipe Mikaela's juvenile record. That was another good character moment and explains why Mikaela, who no doubt has lots of options in the boy department, falls for him. However, Frenzy (or at least his head) makes his move, reawakening Megatron and setting the final battle into motion.

Act Three

*Megatron is awake and clearly pissed off and the Decepticons are attacking Hoover Dam. Rather than risk their breaking the dam and all the havoc that would cause, Lennox and friends propose leading the Decepticons into the desert, where American air power can be brought to bear without risking civilians.  Even though it’d be easier to hide in nearby Mission City than in the open where the Decepticons could easily do to American ground forces what the Coalition did to the Iraqis in 1991, the U.S. military is generally not known for Soviet-level callousness toward civilians. Simmons, jackass that he is, suggests the film strategy of disappearing into a populated area, only for Lennox to shut him down, with a gun to his head if necessary. While the Autobots and Army guys "roll out," Simmons and S7 battle Frenzy so Epps can use the 1930s-era radios not in the compromised military network to call in reinforcements.

*The city fight in the real film had some cool moments, so the Autobots and Army guys find some one-stoplight town they didn't realize was there. This lets us keep Mikaela hotwiring a tow truck to carry the injured Bumblebee into battle and Lennox's motorcycle power-slide that kills Blackout. Starscream infiltrates the F-22 squadron that Epps called in and attacks, but enough survive to hammer Megatron to the point they force him to his knees (and do enough damage to Megatron's chest that what happens next works). Optimus will still duel Megatron with "one shall stand, one shall fall," a callback to the 1986 animated film.  Sam still Takes A Third Option and rams the AllSpark into Megatron’s damaged chest to kill him rather than killing the defeated Optimus with it to deny it to Megatron.

*The film ends in Washington with a treaty between the U.S. and the Autobots to fight against the remaining Decepticons. A public treaty, since good luck covering up the Autobots’ arrival in California, the battle in Nevada, etc. in an age of smart-phones and YouTube. Sam and Mikaela are there, clearly a couple without that weird make-out scene on Bumblebee’s hood like in the actual film. Miles is there too, indicating that Sam didn't just abandon his hitherto best friend (and that Miles is willing to put aside his own prejudice against an "evil jock concubine"), as are Mr. and Mrs. Witwicky (for once) acting appropriately. The film ends with Bumblebee assigned to protect Sam against any Decepticon revenge and Ironhide transporting Lennox home to meet his baby daughter, setting up the establishment of NEST in the next film. Meanwhile, the dead Decepticons are dumped into the Laurentian Abyss, not because it’s the deepest part of the ocean (that's Challenger Deep), but because it's right off the East Coast. If the Decepticons attempt to salvage their comrades, it can be more easily defended than something way out in the Pacific.

This version preserves the film’s broad strokes while remedying many of its flaws. If you like this, you might like my Fix Fic of the second film, The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot. That one had potential too, but like this one wasn't executed well.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

NIGHTMARES IN DIXIE, Or Short Stories That Make Good Movies

On the recommendation of T.S. Dann, a fellow member of the Atlanta chapter of the Horror Writers Association, I read Nightmares In Dixie, a collection of horror stories set in different states in the American South. Some were by authors I already knew about like Manly Wade Wellman or Karl Edward Wagner, but others were new to me, like Henry S. Whitehead.

(Whitehead as a person was particularly interesting to me, since not only he was he a horror and fantasy writer who corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft, but he was also an Episcopalian pastor. He served as Archdeacon of the Virgin Islands, where he learned about voodoo and through his fiction brought it into American popular culture.)

This reminded me of something S.M. Stirling once said at DragonCon--books make good miniseries and short stories make good movies. Some of the stories in the collection are too short to justify making an actual film out of them, but they could be put together in an anthology film in the vein of Creepshow or V/H/S. Here's how I'd break it down...


Full Films

"Coven" by Manly Wade Wellman-You could have a prologue set during the Civil War, with the main thrust of the story set in the 1880s. A young Confederate soldier, who'd been captured by a Union sergeant at (I think) the Battle of Shiloh, comes across the sergeant working as a preacher somewhere out west decades later. And said sergeant is fighting a group of Satanists.

"Ooze" By Anthony M. Rud-A man who's the legal guardian of the young daughter of a close friend after the death of said friend and his wife decides to investigate just how they died. He ends up running into some mad science down in the Delta. This is very stylistically like Lovecraft.

"Dark Melody of Madness" By Cornell Woolrich-A New Orleans band leader follows a bandmate whom he suspects has black ancestry into the black part of town and ends up involved in voodoo. He tries to incorporate voodoo rituals into his music and trouble ensues. Given how trendy it is to complain about "cultural appropriation," this might be timely.

"Where The Summer Ends" By Karl Edward Wagner-This is probably one of if not my absolute favorite story in the collection. Who or what is living under the kudzu that's slowly overgrowing a decaying part of Knoxville? You could make this a 1970s period piece, which would explain things like an old-but-not-too-old WWII veteran, the lack of cell phones to call for help, etc. Some stuff that's told could be shown to ensure it's the proper length. Also here's an audio version of the story.

"Beyond The Cleft" by Tom Reamy-In a small mountain town, the children start attacking other children and their parents. It's like a pint-sized zombie apocalypse.

"Night of the Piasa" by J.C. Green and George W. Proctor-A young Native American woman who thanks to a Spanish ancestor can pass for white has adopted a European-style name and has been doing her level best to conceal her heritage. However, she finds out she has a downright supernatural link to her past. Owing to increased awareness of sexual abuse of Native American women this could be a timely movie.

Parts of An Anthology

"The Fireplace" by Henry S. Whitehead-This is a ghost story involving a man murdered in a hotel.

"Fast-Train Ike" by Jesse Stuart-I couldn't even really understand what was going on here. I'm only including this for completeness' sake.

"The Legend of Joe Lee" by John D. MacDonald-This could conceivably be stretched into a film, but it would work much better as a short in a collection.

"The Wait" by Kit Reed-A young woman and her overbearing mother are stranded in a small town in rural Georgia where weird stuff happens.

"Cry Havoc" By Davis Grubb-This was not one of the stronger stories in the collection to say the least. Think the "Chief Wooden-Head" sequence of Creepshow 2, but with toy soldiers. Maybe work in some wartime PTSD for the father's character? With the prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq leading to a whole new generation of veterans suffering from it, that could be timely.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A Friend's Short Stories, Free To Read

A friend of mine is disabled due to an antibiotic mishap and hasn't been able to regularly work since she started getting sick. She's gotten a gig posting these short stories online and she gets paid if you read and like. So here are her first few stories:

"Daffodils"-This one features a police officer responding to a call in a neighborhood of predominately elderly residents.

"Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Jews"-She's not only Jewish, but she's also a convert to Judaism, which is not particularly common. Here are her thoughts on Jewish religion and culture.

"Hiccup"-A woman deals with aging, but it's got an upbeat ending.

"Testify"-Near-death experiences.

Hopefully more short stories will be coming. Enjoy!