Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hugh Thompson: A Belated Memorial Day Post

This is David Rovics' "Song for Hugh Thompson." Hugh Thompson was a warrant officer in the Vietnam War who interrupted the My Lai Massacre in part by having soldiers under his command point helicopter-mounted machine guns at fellow American soldiers who were murdering Vietnamese civilians.  Although most of the killing had already taken place, his actions saved around a dozen lives and may have forestalled later massacres.

My actual Memorial Day post included Billy Ray Cyrus' song "All Gave Some Gave All," which commemorates the physical courage of soldiers who went to war and those who did not return.

This song commemorates courage of a different sort.  Thompson certainly had physical courage--he returned to the military because he wanted to fly helicopters, even though there was a war on--but he had moral courage as well.  He ordered the soldiers under his command to fire on fellow Americans in defense of South Vietnamese villagers who might well have assisted the enemy and then walked out in front of them to confront  commissioned officers--who outranked him--over the massacre.  Not only was he going against the chain of command (something that military training is intended to prevent), but he risked being shot by his own men who might be outraged at what he asked them to do.

And Thompson's courage continued.  He threw away the citation the local military commanders gave him as part of the cover-up and testified before the Armed Services Committee, one of whose members actually tried to have him court-martialed for threatening other Americans.  He got all kinds of crap from ordinary people, including hate mail, death threats, and dead animals on his doorstep.

And although ultimately Thompson received the praise and medals he was due, all too often the good people do goes unacknowledged.

Update on the "Wastelands" Projects

Here's an update on the projects set in my "Wastelands" universe...

Battle for the Wastelands-I have received critiques on the finished manuscript from two of my five beta readers, with comments from one slated for later this week.  One beta largely enjoyed the work, although on his recommendation I have switched the order of some scenes at the end and will look for opportunities to add descriptive language.  The second beta pointed out some inconsistencies, namely a character with a wounded leg being able to jump around a lot in a fight scene.  I'll need to fix those too. 

The third beta told me that although he liked the story overall, there are some instances of dialogue being unintentionally funny, the same swear words being used in succession by different characters, and people repeating things they think.  I'll need to see the critiqued manuscript before I know which ones are which, but I could potentially cut a some writing flab there.  This'll give me room for more description without reducing the overall word count (some publishers actually want above 100K words) or allow me to have a leaner manuscript (better for other publishers).

I was also hanging out with a steampunk enthusiast friend Memorial Day and he said a hydrogen airship would not explode like the Death Star.  I watched old newsreels on YouTube about the Hindenburg disaster and confirmed it.  A burning airship will sink flaming to the ground, but not go off with an explosion so large it momentarily blinds the protagonist.  He also pointed out that antagonists with half a brain wouldn't have one airship floating directly atop another one.  So I spent most of last night, when I wasn't distracted by pointless debates on my alternate history forum, rewriting that scene.  We'll still have "airship demolition derby," but it's better this way.

"Son of Grendel"-Over Memorial Day weekend, I finished the first draft of "Son of Grendel," although I'll need to go back and elaborate on some things.  Right now, it's just under 17,000 words.  Once I've sent the last half or so to my Lawrenceville group in early June and make changes based on earlier Lawrenceville recommendations, I will cycle it through my Kennesaw writing group in two 8,000 word chunks, much like how James R. Tuck sent his novels and novellas through.

Escape from the Wastelands-Not a whole lot, although I did include this along with the revisions of Battle and "SOG" to differentiate more between the standard weapon of the world (something resembling a Sharps rifle) and the "Old World rifles" (essentially modern assault weapons left over from the pre-apocalyptic world).  A lot of my reading about the Pacific Theater of World War II will show up here, including enemy infiltrators and some of the awful "little details" of war like digging foxholes in formerly enemy territory and accidentally digging into enemy graves, being unable to leave foxholes due to artillery bombardment and having to throw one's waste out of the hole with a shell canister, etc.

Now that Battle and "Son of Grendel" are (mostly) done, it's time to start writing query letters.  I don't intend to start sending them out until after the final revisions are done in case they get back to me faster than the standard eight weeks and catch me flat-footed, but I should at least start planning them.  I have written queries and synopses before, back when I wanted to pitch a Starcraft novel.  It turns out Blizzard doesn't accept unsolicited material--something I could have found if I'd done a bit more digging on their website--but I think this was good practice.  Hopefully I've still got the letter and synopsis hidden away somewhere.  I've also requested a library book on the publishing process from contacting an editor/publisher to contract, which will help as well.

(If "Son of Grendel" is critiqued by the Kennesaw group in June/July and Battle by the novel-writing spinoff group in August, everything should hopefully be ready to go by DragonCon.  There are a lot of publishers there, although I don't recall many agents.)

Monday, May 28, 2012

All Gave Some, Some Gave All

We are free because of those who have sacrificed. All gave some, some gave all.

Happy Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Trailers from "The Strain"

In late March, I was covering the International Day at NE/Spruill Oaks Library and during some down time, I found a copy of the novel The Strain on one of the tables.

(It's written by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo Del Toro and attempts to tackle vampirism from a scientific point of view.  Not going to go into detail for spoiler reasons, but it's both icky and very interesting.)

Here are a couple of book trailers.  Since Del Toro's got the cinema background (and presumably lots of money), they're very well-done book trailers.  From what I've heard from more established writers, book trailers aren't necessarily a good idea.

Here's the first trailer:

Here's the second trailer:

The trailers go into a little detail about how the vampires came to be ("dead man possessed by a disease") and how they operate (that nasty tongue thing), but they're not spoileriffic.

I haven't read more than the first 100 pages of the first novel, dribs and drabs of the second two, and the Wikipedia and TVTropes pages for the series, but they look really interesting. Once I finish with some of my library books, I'll request them.

Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Videos

Last night I was hanging out with my friends Nick and Candice after playing team trivia with a whole bunch of people and Candice, who is from Ohio, told me about these funny videos entitled "Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Videos."

Here's the first one:

And here's the second one.  I can't copy the embed HTML for some reason, so here's the link.

I'm not from Ohio, but I think they're hilarious, in a really goofy 1980s-esque way.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book Review: "Throne of the Crescent Moon" (SPOILERS)

This morning, I got done reading Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. Now it's time for my review...

The Good

Firstly, I really liked the concept.  The majority of fantasy, especially sword-and-sorcery, takes place in fake-medieval-Europe, not fake-medieval-anywhere else.  Throne takes place in a city resembling medieval Baghdad, a city introduced by a really well-written poem at the beginning of the book.  There are lots of good details that help build the world.

And the religious background of the novel, rather than being faux Christianity or faux paganism, is faux Islamic.  I found that quite interesting, especially when we run into disagreements between religious moderates (Doctor Adoulla Makhslood), conservatives (Raseed bin Raseed), and out-and-out fundamentalists (the stand-ins for the Saudi morality police who become a problem later).

Although I'm not as familiar with sword and sorcery fiction, I've never read one where the protagonist is a fat old man (Adoulla) instead of a younger, flashier type.  Points for creativity.

The novel is a quick read and isn't ever boring.  It's got a lot of fun action sequences, including Raseed giving the Falcon Prince a run for his money in a sword fight, despite being drugged, and how the Falcon Prince's token of respect played a major role in resolving a major problem the characters have.

And the book's ending sets up an interesting sequel--the city's neighbors might not recognize the change of regime and the Falcon Prince controls the magics of the Khalifal throne that sound extremely dangerous to a non-expert.  Adoulla, who has threatened to kill the prince if he misuses the magic, has retired and furthermore, said magics could make the user powerful enough to defeat armies.  And Raseed is torn between his dervish order and Zamia.  Things could get very dicey in the next book.

The Bad

The book could easily be much longer.  It's awfully short.  In particular, I would have liked more depth to the world Ahmed has created, as well as more on the villains.  The chief villain doesn't even get a name until much later in the book, and the connection between him and his man-jackal shadow-monster associate is only implied.  I would have liked much more back story for both of them, especially since they're both killed off at the end of the novel.

Also, after Zamia is injured by the man-jackal, she loses her shape-shifting powers for a time.  I thought this was associated with her wound, which has supernatural as well as physical components, but it's later revealed she is unable to change form while she is menstruating.  That latter revelation/explanation came out of nowhere.

Finally, I found this article online this morning while searching for more information about the book.  Ahmed could have added some more depth to Zamia's character and that of Litaz if he included more of this aspect of Islamic culture in the book.  This article exaggerates the problem somewhat--Litaz and Zamia do have "girl time" on at least one occasion--but the female side of the story could have been developed more.

The Verdict

Something new in the fantasy world, but it could be better.  Worth checking out from the library at least.  6.5 out of 10.  Since the book jacket refers to this being part of a "Crescent Moon Kingdoms" series, hopefully Ahmed's next book in the series will go into more depth.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Movie Review: "Battleship" (2012) (Spoilers)

Just saw Battleshipwith my friend David.  Here's the review...

The Good

Once the actual alien invasion starts, things get fun.  I liked how Nagata devised a way to track the aliens without using radar using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoys.  It also provided a way to have naval combat resembling the Battleship game realistically.  I'd talked with friends about how this would do just as well without tying it into the game at all, but this actually justifies the fact they made this based on a board game.

Although it's dubious that the U.S.S. Missouri could be made ready for battle that quickly and that it has ammunition for its big guns handy, the modern Naval crew and the retired WWII and Korean vets working together to get the ship running and setting off to do battle against the main alien ship was awesome.  In addition to the action coolness, there's some humor in the timing of the shots in the "move the shell" scene.

I really liked the beginning in which Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) tries to impress Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker) by breaking into a convenience store to get her a chicken burrito.  And then he flees the cops and gets Tased repeatedly to make sure she gets the burrito.  All that was hilarious.

They foreshadow Mick Canales (Gregory Gadson)'s hand-to-hand tooth-breaking brawl with the aliens by having Sam reference him being a Golden Gloves boxer when we first meet him.  Having him suddenly beat on the alien soldier without foreshadowing would have been an eye-roller.

The film does give some of the characters story arcs.  Alex has to grow out of his slacker ways and man up, especially once his effective brother is killed in battle.  He also has to put aside his pride and acknowledge the superior skills of Nagata, despite the soccer-game incident before.  Meanwhile, Canales has to put aside his self-pity and belief his injuries have left him incapable when the aliens attack and the NASA scientist has to face his own cowardice.  He starts out fleeing while the aliens massacre his graduate students, later abandons Sam and Canales, and ends with a surprise intervention into Canales' fight with the alien warrior..

Also, Rihanna didn't do a bad job as Petty Officer Cora Raikes.  It wasn't an outstanding performance, but she wasn't a bad actress.  The same for Decker.  If you want someone from a non-acting profession who cannot act, that British girl in Transformers: Dark of the Moon who had no chemistry with the male lead and only one good line ("Sentinel Prime's bitch!") is the way to go.

The Bad

There are some military issues.  I'm assuming Alex entered the Navy as an enlisted man due to his apparent lack of higher education (his brother is trying to get him a construction job).  Furthermore, assuming Alex was given the choice between jail or the military, which used to be fairly common and could explain why he wasn't in jail the next morning after breaking and entering, that's going to be another strike against advancing his career.

So how did he end up an officer again, especially in a relatively short time period?  Although it is possible for enlisted men to become officers (the "green to gold" program or something like that), very few long-service enlisted men become officers.  Where else do all these venerable sergeants and deck chiefs even low-ranking officers fear come from?

Also, there was some bad dialogue, especially early in the film.  When Stone laws down the law on his brother after the burrito incident, the culminating line ("YOU'RE JOINING ME IN THE NAVY!") was just lame.

The aliens are too human in appearance.  They're basically horse-faces with lizard eyes that don't take the sun well, four fingers on each hand, and funky beard-looking things.  Non-humanoid aliens would probably cost an arm and a leg to animate, but they could have looked a bit more different.

The aliens' odd military attitudes.  They smash two of the human destroyers but leave the third one alone when it breaks off to rescue survivors.  The aliens do a commando raid on the destroyer to rescue one of their personnel who's been taken prisoner and then walk off without taking the opportunity to kill the humans present (which include the ship's captain).  And then either they either left another soldier behind (the one who attacks the engine room) or were overconfident to the point they were willing to pull most of the rescue party off the ship and leave one to wreck it.  One of their soldiers catches the guy who runs the Beacon communications system and for some strange reason does not register him as a threat.

Either they were trying to fight a war with one hand behind their back (why?) or they were really overconfident.  If they'd been a bit more ruthless, they'd have won (or at least succeeded in phoning home with valuable intelligence that could aid a larger follow-up force, even if the initial attackers got nuked into oblivion later).

The Verdict

It was a entertaining movie, especially once the mayhem starts.  6 out of 10.  If you want to see this first-run, go to a matinee.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Putting The Cart Before The Horse: A "Wastelands" TV Series?

I was having dinner the other night with my friend Brian, who was visiting from Los Angeles, and the television show Game of Thrones came up.  Each season of the show roughly corresponds to one book in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy series.  This gives the creators plenty of time to develop the characters, the setting, etc.

That reminded me of how S.M. Stirling's "Emberverse" novels had been optioned for the purposes of a television series, with each season corresponding to a year.  Stirling said at DragonCon that short stories make good films and books make good miniseries--again, there's more room for character development and the like.  I own his book Island in the Sea of Time and there are two, perhaps three "break points" making for a four or six-hour miniseries.  Heck, I think there's enough material for making each book a television season a la Game of Thrones.

That got me thinking about the Wastelands novels.  Although Battle for the Wastelands takes place chronologically over maybe two months (just before harvest to just afterward), there's so much going on in so many different places that a lot would need to be cut to make it into a movie.  A television series would be much better.

However, to get a full TV season per book, even longer books like the ASOIAF ones need more material.  I've only read the first two ASOIAF novels and haven't actually watched the TV series, but based on the recaps, there's a lot of stuff that's not in the books.  A lot of it is tied with the new character Ros (the redhead prostitute at Winterfell) and the various people she's involved with in a professional capacity, plus in Season One we see an...intimate moment between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell and I think we actually see King Robert Baratheon's fatal hunt.  And in Season Two, again based on the recaps, there's a scene involved Renly, Loras, and Renly's wife Margaery Tyrell and a scene where Littlefinger delivers Ned's bones to Catelyn Stark and proceeds to hit on her.

Of course, all this is putting the cart before the horse.  I need to get the novels as good as they can be and find a buyer.  Then they need to be successful--I've heard the average book sells only 1,000 copies.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Steampunk War of the Worlds Sequel Coming...

Found this on my alternate-history forum this morning.  It's an animated sequel to War of the Worlds in which the Martians are back for round two and we face them with reverse-engineered Martian weapons.

The animation style seems more Japanese than Western, but not as much as, say, Pokemon or Dragonball Z.  I'd compare it more to the new Thundercats.  Plus it definitely doesn't suffer from the Animation Age Ghetto--we've got people's flesh dissolving off their bones on-camera and between the blond woman unbuttoning her shirt and later the way her head is bouncing, there's probably on-screen sex.

Here's the link to the film's web-site.  The film will be released sometime in 2012 and it will be theatrical, not just direct to video.

Let's hope this works.  Animation is something that could be very useful for adapting large-scale fantasy and science-fiction properties.  For example, if Game of Thrones were animated, you could have all the soap-opera hijinks and large-scale battle scenes.  However, in the United States at least, this hasn't been done much and when it has been done, it hasn't always been successful (Titan A.E. is an example).

I've got a partial script written for Coil Gun.  If this movie proves successful, it could set a useful precedent.

One quibble--this isn't the actual trailer that tells what the story is about, which can be found on the web-site.  Let's hope the film is advertised using the trailer and not a random montage of fight scenes that look cool but don't explain the plot.

Why The Black Widow and Hawkeye Should Get Their Own Film(s)

Here's an idea I had the other day on the next Marvel movie, since we've had films about each Avenger depicted in the movie except two.  Spoilers for The Avengers are coming...

In The Avengers, when Black Widow goes to talk to Loki, she describes her history with Hawkeye and how he "made a different call" when he was sent to kill her.  Although she makes a Suspiciously Specific Denial about them being in love, she does describe how she "owes him a debt" and wants to clear the red off her ledger.

A prequel film depicting the Black Widow as a villain and Hawkeye being sent to kill her before changing his mind for whatever reason would be really interesting.  I'm not familiar with Scarlett Johansson's career, but I don't think she's ever played a full-blown villain.  And the amount of character growth/development on her end could be a good exercise for her acting ability.

Hawkeye makes an appearance in Thor and the Black Widow in Iron Man 2, but unlike the rest of the team, they haven't gotten their own films.  The situation I'm describing could even be done in two films.  The first movie could be called Hawkeye and feature him being sent after her and end with him bringing her back to SHIELD rather than killing her.  The second film could be called The Black Widow and feature the fallout from Hawkeye's reinterpreting his orders.  Perhaps as "the price of redemption," SHIELD requires her to kill a former employer or mentor?

(She makes a reference to killing for anyone for money.  Given the comic character's Soviet back-story, she could be an unemployed KGB agent who became a contract killer the way many ex-Soviet military-intelligence types got involved in the Mafiya.)

In the second film, she could undergo an "evil detox" and realize just how bad she'd been before.  This could be the beginning of her "quest for redemption."  This article here makes a good case too.

Y'all like?  I personally would love to see this.  Hollywood types, take note.

Movie Review: "Dark Shadows" (2012) (SPOILERS)

Saw Dark Shadowsyesterday afternoon with my friends Nick and Candice.  Candice used to watch the original TV series with her mother and sister and, based on the previews, was concerned it would be a goofy parody rather than a proper adaptation.  Sufficient to say, that was not a problem. Here's my review...

The Good

*They did play up the "man out of time" parts of the story that my reading about the TV series has led me to think wasn't touched on earlier.  If a man has been out of circulation for 200 years, he's going to find the modern world very strange.  Although that led to many of the comedic moments, it was not played to the point the film was a vampire version of the first Austin Powers movie.

*Related to the first point, I liked Barnabas's dialect.  His vocabulary is certainly richer than any modern person's, and I can certainly appreciate that.  It's also rather amusing.

*Barnabas bemoaning his condition and its homicidal consequences while banging his head into a piano was a particularly amusing scene.

*The 1970s setting is done consistently.  When Victoria Winters arrives in Collinsport and later when Barnabas is freed from his coffin, the architecture, the dress, the films playing in the theaters, etc. are all very disco-era.  The movie Deliverance is playing in the theaters, for example.

On a darker note, this applies to the social norms are as well--we later see that Victoria's parents institutionalized her when they saw her talking to a ghost (that they could not see).  "Institutionalized" in this context means having orderlies bundle her screaming into an ambulance and take her to a prison-like sanitarium where the staff "treated" her with electroshock therapy and kept her locked up in the rubber room the rest of the time, never mind that she isn't violent.  She eventually escapes bedsheets-out-the-window style the way people apparently escape from jail.  Barnabas was rightly PO'd at this and I was expecting him to go kill her parents.

*Barnabas was well-characterized.  He clearly internalized his father's dictum that family is the only true wealth and sets about restoring the family fortunes as soon as he is aware the Collins family business is on the verge of ruin.  In general, he seems to be the rather honorable sort.  However, he is still a murderous vampire and that shows.

The Bad

*Barnabas waxes poetic about how horrible his condition is and laments about having killed innocent people, but he doesn't try to take any steps to avoid the whole "kill people" thing in the modern day.  His attacking the construction workers like he did might be excusable due to his mental state--he has been imprisoned for 200 years and is, as he said, "very thirsty," but the later attack on the hippies was completely gratuitous.  He could have used the family's wealth to buy his own blood bank or fed on people non-lethally and then hypnotized them to forget, but it doesn't seem that the thought even occurred to him.

*Barnabas said people tried to stone him to death and it didn't work, but it doesn't seem like much happens between his transformation into a vampire and Angelique goading the villagers into burying him alive in a chained coffin.  Barnabas does make a reference to having killed innocent people.  There could have been a montage of him attacking and killing people and various failed efforts to kill him, culminating in him being buried alive.  That might extend the opening sequence a bit much though.

*There's a scene where Victoria is talking to Barnabas and she says that David idolizes him.  We don't ever see that, although given how useless his father Roger is, that's no surprise.  There should be some more scenes where David and Barnabas interact.

Given how introverted and weird David is (claiming to see his mother's ghost and all) and the comment someone makes about the town not liking them, perhaps the kids of some of Angelique's employees are picking on him and Barnabas teaches him some 18th Century Liverpool street-fighting techniques when Roger can't be bothered to do anything about it?  Actually seeing the kid-fights would be distracting, but maybe the mother can get a note from school saying David is getting picked on, Barnabas says he has something to show David, and then another note reports that David put the hurt on one of the mean kids.

Alternatively, maybe Roger ignores David and Barnabas ends up having to read to him or comfort him during a nightmare.  When Barnabas later demands Roger either act like the father David deserves or leave, he could add "like I've been doing."

*The revelation at the climax that Carolyn is a werewolf is extremely random, especially when Angelique claimed she had a werewolf bite Carolyn in her cradle.  If Carolyn has been a werewolf since she was a baby, surely someone would have noticed by now.  Her mother could have come to check on her when she's sleeping and spotted the transformation, or Carolyn could be frightened by the change and seek her mother out.  Plus it was really too late to have the revelation that werewolves exist--that there are witches, ghosts, and vampires is revealed within the first few minutes of the film.

*At the end of the film, when Barnabas is forced to turn Victoria into a vampire to save her life, Victoria later refers to herself as "Josette."  Barnabas is fixated on her because she resembles his lost love, but the fact we see Josette's ghost as a separate entity from Victoria would augur against her being a straight reincarnation.  The only foreshadowing we get for this is that Victoria believes in ghosts and other supernatural things, but that better foreshadows the reveal that she sees dead people, not that she's a reincarnation of anyone.

The Verdict

Not a bad movie by any means, but could use some work.  7.5 out of 10.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Movie Review: "The Avengers" (2012) (SPOILERS)

Saw The Avengerslast night.  The movie absolutely rocked. Here's my review telling you why:

The Good

The best part of this movie is Joss Whedon's script.  It's so well-done that the movie functions just as well as a comedy as a superhero film without being unintentionally funny (the danger with this kind of thing) at all.  The funniest part is when Loki tries to browbeat the Hulk into submission and the Hulk absolutely destroys him.  The entire audience in the theater I saw it in broke out in cheers, laughter, and applause.  There are also a lot of other hilarious lines, to the point I can't list or remember all of them.  Here's a selection:

*When Nick Fury chats with the imprisoned Loki and in response to Loki rambling about ultimate power, basically shuts him down and tells him to call when "ultimate power" wants a magazine or something.

*When Tony Stark refers to Hawkeye as "Legolas."

*The Black Widow Natasha Romanoff's reaction to being ordered to recruit Banner.  Bozhe moi, which is Russian for "Oh my God."  I thought it was a bit more obscene, but either way it works.

*Loki's comment upon seeing the lightning that he's not fond of what (or who) happens next.

*Thor defending Loki against the other Avengers and when they reveal just how many people he's killed, Thor admits he's adopted.

*Iron Man's "Shakespeare in the Park" line to Thor, especially the part about wearing drapes.

On a related note, the chat between Loki and the Black Widow reveals just how much of a total monster Loki has become since his sympathetic depiction in Thor.  He gets really psychotically, spitting-on-the-glass enraged, calls the Black Widow a "mewling quim" (according to TVTropes, "quim" is synonymous for a word that begins with "c" and rhymes with "bunt") and the way it came off to me (especially the "intimately" part), he was threatening to have mind-controlled Hawkeye rape and torture her to death, then free his mind long enough for him to realize what he's done and then kill him.  Damn it, he needs to die.

The movie also has some nice shout-outs to the earlier films, including a reference to Stark Enterprises no longer making weapons.  The impression I had from the first Iron Man is that Stark was shutting down the weapons line temporarily due to Stark weapons ending up in the wrong hands, but given how Stark makes references to being the leader in green energy, maybe he had the company totally reorient.  Meanwhile, Captain America discovers lots of loot from the HYDRA villains of the Captain America movie.

I liked Captain America's old-fashioned values, including belief in self-sacrifice, his politeness (referring to Romanoff as "ma'am"), and his line to her about how there's only one God and He doesn't dress like the Asgardians do.  In many films, the depiction of someone with a pre-counterculture value system serves as an excuse to show that this value system is wrong.  In this one, however, Captain America serves as a good example to the point of inspiring greater self-sacrifice on the part of Iron Man and becoming the de facto leader of the Avengers.

I also like how they elaborated on the Black Widow, including giving her a back-story and some character moments during the confrontation with Loki.  A lesser film would have made her just eye candy, the token female character, or (most insultingly) a damsel in distress, but this was just so much better.  And as TVTropes points out, in one scene, she outsmarts the God of Lies.

The Bad

Only a few problems I can think of with the movie, and they're pretty minor.

Firstly, the Chitauri should have really seen the end of The Phantom Menace.  Never make it so that if your command ship gets blown up, your entire army shuts down.  Not only did the aliens' flying cyborg monster things drop dead, but so did their individual soldiers.  With the portal closed they were doomed anyway, but this is a major flaw on the aliens' part.  In real life, if an aircraft carrier were destroyed, did all the aircraft shut down and all of the sailors die?

The TVTropes article suggests the aliens didn't trust Loki with command of an army, but did they trust him so much they were willing to risk an entire army of their own people dying in the event of treachery?  If the aliens had some kind of "in the event of treachery" plan, something like Order 66 from Star Wars (in which the clones turn on their Jedi commanders and kill them) would have been better.

Secondly, when Banner first turns into the Hulk the first time, he's totally out of control and destructive much like one expects the Hulk to be.  However, when he deliberately transforms to defend New York from the aliens, he seems to be in total control, with the exception of smacking Thor upside the head after a particular fight.  The end of the second Hulk film depicts Banner deliberately inducing the transformation in to the Hulk and grinning as he does so, which implies he's gained some control over it.  However, if the cause of him being uncontrollably destructive the first time is Loki's staff rather than the nature of him being the Hulk, this could be shown onscreen.  Say, cutting between Banner "hulking out" and the mini-tesseract in Loki's staff pulsating while ominous music plays.

Thirdly, I didn't like the anti-weapon/technological theme about the tesseract.  When Captain America reveals to the team that SHIELD is manufacturing weapons based on HYDRA's tesseract research, most of the Avengers get all moralistic and whiny about using the tesseract to make weapons even though Fury stands his ground on why this is a good idea.  As he pointed out, a minor alien invasion leveled a small town in Thor and as we later learn, there are other hostile alien races out there.  After the Chitauri invasion, we see Fury telling the World Security Council (the UN?) that he put the tesseract safely out of human reach and we see Loki and Thor taking it back to Asgard.  I would think that after seeing an alien invasion trash Manhattan, the team would a bit more accepting of the need to arm up.

(Although to be fair, the main reason said invasion happened is because Loki offered the tesseract to the Chitauri in exchange for them helping him take over Earth.  Maybe some kind of mixed message where they return the tesseract to Asgard--since it's technically theirs anyway--but insist on the need for the derived gear?  After all, it wasn't the tesseract that caused the events of Thor.)

The Verdict

Probably the best movie I've seen this year.  10 out of 10.  This is the first time I've given this great a review.  There's a good chance I'll see this one again and I'll definitely get the DVD.

By the way, in addition to the "stinger" depicting Thanos, apparently the U.S. version features another post-credits stinger depicting everyone getting shwarma.  I missed that one.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Book Review: Dan Wells' "Mr. Monster" (Spoilers)

Awhile back, I reviewed Dan Wells' book I Am Not A Serial Killer, which I learned about on the Writing Excuses podcast.

Now I've gotten around to reading Mr. Monster, the second book in the trilogy.  Here comes my review...

The Good

It's a pretty quick read.  It couldn't have taken me more than two hours to finish--a couple of chapters at the beginning, then most of the book while on the elliptical at the L.A. Fitness, and maybe half an hour tops to finish it after working out.  My main problem with the first book was that it was slow-moving, and that's not an issue here.

Wells foreshadows that protagonist John Wayne Cleaver's sister Lauren's boyfriend Curt is bad news when he constantly belittles her, ostensibly in a joking fashion, at a family dinner.  When Lauren shows up crying saying he'd hit her, that's no surprise.

Bully Rob Anders physically attacking Cleaver, whom he is convinced is a killer, builds well on an earlier incident in Mr. Monster in which he claims Cleaver wants to kill him but is afraid of getting caught and the confrontation at the school dance in I Am Not a Serial Killer which Cleaver messes with his mind.  I haven't read I Don't Want To Kill You, the third book in the trilogy, but Anders could make himself very problematic.

The revelation that the FBI agent Forman is another demon came as kind of a shock, but not a bad one.  His emotion-sensing/feeding abilities that he reveals in more detail once he takes Cleaver to his house of horrors (more on that later) are foreshadowed by his rant about Stephanie the receptionist.  And the cliffhanger ending of Chapter 14 ("you tell me how you killed a god") was really good.

I also liked one of Forman's lines where he describes what the demons (in particular the one who masqueraded as Mr. Crowley in the first book) are like from their point of view:

"When your ancestors crawled out of the muck and howled at the darkness it was he who answered them, great and terrible."

That gave me that weird tingly feeling I get in my scalp sometimes.

And the house of horrors...yikes.  I read through that part as quickly as possible because I wanted to get through it.  It reminded me entirely too much of this nasty horror book I read part of on Smashwords involving some sicko who kept a woman in a cage barely bigger than she was for 17 years, feeding her only baby formula he made too hot on purpose, that reduced her to something resembling a concentration-camp victim. Only there were several such women and although there was less starvation, there was a lot more torture.  Particularly twisted was the person bricked up alive in a wall except for eye holes so she had to watch Forman torture others.

If Wells wanted to make the point that this was what the "demons" were typically like and Crowley was less horrifically bad because he'd discovered love and was living as a human (and killed only to maintain his human form when it was falling apart), he's done a darn good job.  I'm including this under the "good" because even though it wasn't pleasant to read, it inspired an emotional reaction and that means Wells is a good writer.

I liked the trap he laid for Forman that ultimately killed him and how he used his anticipation of killing him (that Forman could sense) to make Forman think he anticipated killing Brooke--until Forman grabbed an electrified knife.  Goodbye.  :)

The ending line when he has Forman's cell phone and calls one of the people he recognizes as another demon and flat-out challenges her was really well-done.

"Because you're next," I said.  "I'm the demon slayer.  Come and get me."

That needs to be on the TVTropes page for "Crowning Moment of Awesome."  Sociopath or not, he at least recognizes he's got a problem and tries to keep the problem contained.  That automatically makes him higher on the moral food chain than 10,000-odd year old sadistic supernatural predators who he's just declared war on.

And considering how the dying Forman claims to have won--prior to this he tried to force Cleaver to torture and kill Curt and then his sort-of girlfriend Brooke--that seems nice and ominous.  Cleaver has had less control over his darker side in this story than before and many of Forman's actions were intent on breaking even that.  It's like Star Wars, with Palpatine goading Luke into killing him in hopes of converting him to the Dark Side.  Cleaver might be more dangerous to the demons now, but he's also more dangerous to a lot of other people too.

The Bad

Some of the characterizations of Cleaver undermine his diagnosis as a sociopath.  For example, when he learns Curt is abusing Lauren, his volcanic reaction seems to indicate emotional attachment.  Sociopaths cannot feel emotional attachments.  Cleaver might realistically get that angry on territorial grounds--Lauren is HIS sister and nobody can mess with her because he is HIS.  He'd view her as a prized possession or a pet, not a person.  However, that does not seem to be the case.

Another example is when Brooke breaks up with him because her being with him reminds her of what happened in Forman's house of horrors.  One of the major traits of sociopathy is lack of empathy.  Wells' illustrated that well in the first book when he had Cleaver recount torturing animals as if he were playing with Legos--it was like he was unaware of their suffering.

When Brooke breaks up with him, he should have at least some initial difficulty understanding her reasoning.  Heck, he could be upset at her "ingratitude" for saving her life and that would make things even more unpleasant for both of them.

Also, it's not really clear why Curt went to all the extra effort of setting Forman's house on fire.  If he thought Cleaver was in league with Forman--he certainly has grounds for it--burning the house down rather than waiting for Cleaver to come out gains him nothing.

Furthermore, since Cleaver killing the cat represents the worst violation of his rules for restraining his dark side, I think it should have been more significant.  I've heard people (Wells himself?) describing that as particularly horrifying, but it was over too quickly.

The Verdict

Not as pleasant a read as I Am Not a Serial Killer, but deals with some of the first book's flaws.  Definitely not for all tastes.  8 out of 10.