Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review: Crooked Little Vein (2007)

This month I decided to step out of the sort of fiction I usually read and checked out Warren Ellis's 2007 novel Crooked Little Vein: A Novel. It was a pretty quick read, so here's a book review for you:

The Plot

Down-on-his luck private detective Michael McGill is hired by the rather conservative White House Chief of Staff to find a supposed backup copy of the U.S. Constitution that the man is convinced will restore the United States to a much more moral, pristine state. Between coercion from Secret Service and the prospect of an unlimited expense account, Michael sets off on an adventure through the sleazy underbelly of the United States.

The Good

*The book is quite amusing. I particularly enjoyed it when Michael and his love interest Trix visit Texas and a ranch belonging to a powerful conservative political family who are not the Bushes (look at my eye it's winking see). There's political satire, there's over-the-top sexual or vulgar humor, and there's this delightfully insane combination of both.

*In general, the voice Ellis uses for Michael is really smart-alecky and really funny. He's a fun character to follow on his epic journey through some of the weirdest places in the United States imaginable.

*The book isn't very long and moves along nicely, so it's a quick, fun read.

The Bad

*I found the extremely lowbrow Refuge in Audacity type humor to be pretty funny, but not everybody will.

*Its shortness can work against it. It's not a slog, but there could be more room for further insane adventures.

The Verdict

It's a quick, amusing read that I recommend getting from the library because reading it once is fine. 8.5 out of 10.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: The Flock (2006)

A few months ago I came across James Robert Smith's novel 2006 novel The Flock and the rather strange story about just how the movie rights got optioned. Sufficient to say, this seems to be the one time that arguing on the Internet has actually produced financial benefits.

The Plot

In Florida, in the last major region of long-leaf pine savanna in the United States, a former Air Force training ground holds an unusual secret--a surviving population of Titanis walleri (imagine the most jacked-up ostriches that ever lived, with two-foot razor beaks that in their time hunted horses) that have escaped the scrutiny of men. The birds have escaped detection by becoming nocturnal, avoiding hunting humans, and dwelling in an area that humans have long been excluded from--but now the 400,000-odd acres that once made up a bombing range are being disputed by the Disney-esque Berg Brothers, a cantankerous militiaman, and a wealthy environmentalist who knows more than he lets on.

Into this mess stumbles a young investigator from the Fish and Wildlife Department looking into some mysterious attacks on animals near the Berg Brothers' model community that bears a strong resemblance to Celebration, Florida. The game is afoot, and somebody's going to end up lunch...

The Good

*I buy a fair number of fiction books to read while I'm on the elliptical at the gym, since although the elliptical burns a vast number of calories in a relatively short amount of time, it's extremely tedious. I finished the book in two 1.5-hour sessions that went by in a breeze. The book is fast-moving and never, ever boring. Its excellent entertainment value alone makes it worth buying, but there's more...

*I have never heard of a horror novel or film featuring terror-birds before, so points for a creative concept. And Smith's characterization is so good that he makes the two terror-birds who have point-of-view chapters--the rogue male Scarlet who wants to establish a flock of his own and Walks-Behind, whose job is to destroy evidence of the flock's presence, interesting characters in their own right. And with two mutually-contradictory goals in mind, this is going to get nasty.

*And although it'd be very easy to make this just some "rampaging monsters" novel, the primary baddies in the story are actually humans. This is something I can agree with on a philosophical level--a predatory animal is acting according to its nature and although they might need to be killed to protect humans, pets, or livestock, it's not like they're evil per se. Humans, however, can sin, and there's plenty of choose from in this one--murder in the name of greed, racism, etc. No wonder Smith invented an entire fictional entertainment conglomerate instead of setting it at Celebration.

*One of the human factions has a mole within one of the others, but Smith lets the reader think it's someone else, then someone else, etc. until they're finally revealed. Very well-done, and surprising.

*There are some amusing bits, like comparing two terror-birds dueling to the world's biggest cock-fight and an ending joke based on an ability the birds display in the climax of the novel.

The Bad

No book is perfect, so here're my critiques:

*The prologue strongly implies that the Scarlet was a chick in 1946 when a group of soldiers stumble on something they shouldn't. That would make Scarlet at least 60 years old if the book takes place in 2006-ish, with Walks-Behind and his parents even older than that. I'm not aware of any wild animal that naturally lives that long other than the Galapagos tortoise and maybe some whales. Scarlet also comes off a bit like a human adolescent wanting to break away from his family and establish his own. Were it me writing this, I would have set the prologue in the 1980s or 1990s so Scarlet (and by extension, his elders in the flock) are much younger.

*In the climax of the novel, the terror-birds display some interesting abilities on top of their near-human-level intelligence and their extreme physical prowess. Not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers. Although their being able to do one of these things does make sense in the context of earlier events in the story, giving them these abilities on top of everything else is taking things too far. Even if it does provide for a funny bit of humor at the end.

*In a scene where some hired goons try to shake down a character and are foiled, the characters don't immediately call the police. That could have unraveled the villains' plans right there--or forced them to act prematurely. The latter course is something Smith could have adopted without changing the plot much if at all.

*The flock has adopted its lifestyle because they know they cannot stand before humans with guns, but one would think if European colonists or Native Americans killed most of them off, there'd have been some record of their existence. If I took down one of those critters, I'd have it stuffed and mounted and displayed with pride. This is a pretty minor thing that could be explained away by invoking them as some kind of local legend that the characters write off...until they can't anymore.

The Verdict

A wonderful book. 9.0 out of 10.0. I'm looking forward to the sequel The Clan that's apparently in limbo, as well as the movie that seems to be in similar straits. Maybe if some of y'all bought the book and reviewed it on Amazon?

Friday, December 26, 2014

On Sony, THE INTERVIEW, and Free Speech

I got into an interesting Facebook discussion with my friend Zaid Jilani after I posted this article about how both Republicans and Democrats are standing together against attempts by North Korea (or groups putting on a very good show of acting on behalf of the regime) to stop The Interview as a piece of uplifting news.

To make a long story short, Zaid said that this wasn't a free-speech issue, but Sony covering up for the incompetence of its IT department (Sony has been hacked before, on top of this recent bit of idiocy) by using the hack as part of a publicity campaign for The Interview, a movie that it feared would not do well. He did not see why he ought to give money to a company that repeatedly puts its customers at risk by failing to secure its electronics. To make a long story short, he said that Sony has been playing everybody rushing to its defense in the name of "free speech."

To be fair, he's raised some good points. If he doesn't want to see The Interview because that would be rewarding incompetence, so be it. And I could easily imagine any executive with any degree of intelligence following the dictum of never letting a good crisis go to waste. No less an authority than Forbes magazine agrees.

However, I disagree that it's not a free-speech issue:

*Most of the major American movie chains refused to screen the movie out of fear of extralegal violence, be it a threat of 9/11-esque violence (which might inspired some homegrown moron to attack a theater--I doubt there are North Korean commandos running around) or the more probable danger of hacking. The Sony hack crippled its electronic infrastructure--hacking isn't just a matter of embarrassment (racist Sony e-mails, nude pictures) but a real threat to one's business.

*For a time it seemed like Sony was going to bury the movie completely--they initially said there were "no plans" to release it on Video On Demand or DVD. Had that happened, the North Koreans would have straight-up silenced a critic well outside of their territory. It'd be like agents of the Nazi regime coming into the U.S. and waging a terror campaign to get United Artists to shelve The Great Dictator.

*An adaptation of the graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea that might feature Steve Carrell had the plug pulled on it in the middle of development.

*When a Texas theater chain decided to air Team America World Police in place of The Interview to show it would not be intimidated by North Korean threats, Paramount Pictures prevented them from screening the movie.

*The Associated Press theorized that the attack on Sony would deter Hollywood from making films featuring overseas villains.

These electronic attacks and threats of physical violence have unleashed a massive "chilling effect." People are being intimidated from speaking their minds, producing art, etc. by either a foreign regime, a private entity (a hacker gang trying to sound scarier than it really is), or a combination of the two (a hacker gang working for North Korea). Chuck Wendig explains it very well.

Zaid repeatedly referred to The Interview as a crappy movie. That's purely a subjective matter--I've loved movies like Skyline that had horrible RottenTomatoes ratings and disliked movies like Get Him to the Greek that had much better ratings. RT currently gives The Interview a 48% and a kind of middling critical consensus. I could easily imagine the movie being crap--I didn't really enjoy Wedding Crashers and I disliked Get Him To The Greek so much I turned off the movie 15 minutes in and returned it.

However, just because a movie is crap doesn't mean it isn't worth defending. I read parts of The Satanic Verses and didn't really understand or enjoy it, but that doesn't mean Salman Rushdie should have been left to the tender mercies of the Ayatollah Khomeini and goons inspired by him.

Furthermore, free speech is something that should be extended as broadly as possible to the most unpopular people to make sure everybody is protected.

For example, Hustler magazine is incredibly tasteless, vile, and sexist. It ran an ad depicting Jerry Falwell confessing to incest with his mother, it mocks female politicians by depicting them in sexual situations, one magazine cover featured a woman in a meat grinder, and apparently it had some kind of spread depicting a pornographic version of a concentration camp. Even if you don't have a moral objection to pornography, Hustler is garbage.

However, so long as Hustler's right to free speech, however vile, is protected, more prosaic incidents of artistic nudity (and I mean legitimate art) are in significantly less danger from Moral Guardians on the right (artistic nudity is sinful and immodest, and according to the Calvinists undermines the gospel) or on the left (artistic nudity is exploitation of women). And if history is anything to go by, these groups will impose censorship if they could. This applies to both social conservatives and social liberals.

The same goes for "hate speech." As long as the speech of definitely hateful people like the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, etc. is protected, you won't have the kind of censorship of far more innocent things that "hate speech" laws in France, India, Poland, Britain, etc. have led to.

To quote A Man for All Seasons, I'd give the Devil the benefit of the law for my own safety's sake.

So I will be seeing The Interview as a matter of principle. If the movie sucks, so be it. If I'm giving money to a company that's too inept to protect its employees and customers, so be it. This is about taking a stand against appeasement and threats of violence, in defense of artistic freedom against crude coercion.

A Kindle Christmas Gift for My Fans

Starting in September 2012, I published several of my short stories on Amazon.com for my fans who've got Kindles (or Kindle apps for their non-Kindle gadgets). Although I've occasionally set a story for free for a day or two to gin up some sales (or borrows, which if your content is cheap enough make more than sales), making multiple stories available for multiple days is something I only do for very special occasions.

Like Christmas. :)

If you've gotten a Kindle for Christmas (or Hanukkah, since it concluded Christmas Eve) or gotten a tablet or other gadget with a Kindle app on it, the following stories will be available for free today (12/26) and tomorrow (12/27):

"Illegal Alien"-A group of undocumented men from Mexico try to sneak into the United States, only to find that there are far more dangerous things than the Border Patrol. Alien things.

"Melon Heads"-Two college students on the way back to school for final exams discover that a local urban legend is quite real. And hungry.

"√úbermensch"-Getting tired of seeing superheroes protecting New York City from aliens, supervillains, etc? How about you come down to Atlanta and walk on the dark side with supervillain Andrew Patel? And if you like it, there's always the sequel, "Needs Must."

And no Kindle? No problem. I've got two stories available for purchase on Smashwords.

Friday, December 19, 2014

How I Would Have Done "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" (SPOILERS)

Having second-guessed none other than Clive Barker on adapting his own story The Hellbound Heartinto Hellraiser, I'm going to move on to bigger game. I'm going to discuss how I would have done Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which I saw earlier this week.

Spoilers will be abounding, so be ye warned:

*I really enjoyed the scene where the White Council (Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel) invades Dol Guldur to rescue the captive Gandalf, however much I didn't like that Gandalf had been taken captive in the first place. I would have had Gandalf, once freed from the crow cage, given a new staff and then he can join the others in fighting the Nazgul and ultimately driving away Sauron. In the film Gandalf lies there semi-conscious the whole time and ultimately has to be removed because Dol Guldur is supposedly sapping his life away. I would have also nixed the quasi-romantic stuff between Gandalf and Galadriel and wouldn't have Galadriel collapsing after driving out Sauron, however impressive she was going into "Dark Queen" mode and speaking in that scary deep voice. Instead all four members of the White Council can exert their power and exorcise Sauron and the Ringwraiths so nobody gets burned out. Finally, I'd nix Sauron's comment about the oncoming "Age of the Orc." Sauron doesn't want to replace Elves, Men, and Dwarfs with Orcs--he wants to rule the Earth forever, worshiped as a god. He has Men as well as Orcs among his servants, and there are references in canon to Dwarfs serving him as well. Instead he could make some comment about this being only a setback but victory shall be his or something like that.

*I would have had more surviving Lakemen. It seemed there were only a few hundred survivors of Smaug's attack on Laketown and a lot of them were women and children. They simply didn't have the numbers to make up one of the armies in the Battle of the Five Armies--it seemed more like they were allies/auxiliaries of the wood elves. They also wouldn't have the numbers to realistically defend the reoccupied city of Dale against the Orcs, even if the latter hadn't managed to breach the walls. Not too numerous though, since they're the survivors of a city that's been devastated by a dragon that inflicts the equivalent of the WWII firebombing of Tokyo.

*I would have also made the Lakemen more formidable militarily, especially once they've reoccupied Dale and reclaimed the city's abandoned stashes of armor and weapons. They visibly recoil at the approach of Dain Ironfoot's Dwarfs despite being in the midst of the uber-disciplined Elven formation and most of them don't seem to have armor. Despite this they do far better than they realistically would against the Orc army storming Dale, especially once they breach the walls. Given how they're basically a civilian militia (even though we do see them drilling in one scene) it'd be more realistic if their main focus was holding the walls of Dale. Perhaps when the Orcish armies appear, Thranduil orders Bard to retreat to Dale and hold it against the Orcs to give the Elves and Dwarves a safe place to retreat? The Dalemen wouldn't have the battle experience of the immortal Elves or the ornery Dwarves, so holding the walls and gates of Dale against Azog would be a more fitting task for them.

*The gigantic "earth eaters" (some kind of huge mutant earthworm) that Azog deploys to bring his army into the Dale region via surprise tunnels could have won him the battle if he'd deployed them intelligently--by attacking the Elves, Men, and Dwarfs. Even if they managed to kill them (mass elven archer fire and the Dwarfs jumping on them), their formations would be out of order and even easier prey for Azog's armies. I would have had just one "earth eater" used to dig one huge tunnel to bring Azog's army in and then have Azog make it charge the Free Peoples. The Dwarfs and Elves will kill it, but it will do a lot of damage.

*The dwarfs seem like a functioning military tactically, including forming a shield wall with pikes and then using a svinfylking to break the Orcish lines once Thorin and his men enter the battle. The elves, however, seem to fight more individually rather than as a unit. Given how each elf probably has hundreds if not thousands of years of combat experience they could probably make this work, but I would have them function more like an organized military. Rather than leaping over the Dwarf shield-wall to engage the Orcs directly I would have them volley-fire arrows into the oncoming Orcs might like they did at the Battle of Dagorlad at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring and then once they go hand-to-hand, advance as a big square bristling with swords. They'd go into the less-organized Orcish formation like an advancing slice-and-dice machine quite literally chewing into the enemy the way the Elven front ranks sliced into the advancing Orcs at Dagorlad.

*On a less grand level, I would have had Alfred (the Master of Laketown's slimy deputy) killed in the fall of Smaug along with his boss. He's apparently supposed to be funny, but I thought it was obnoxious. He's the one who hails Bard as King of Dale, but that could be saved for the end of the movie.

*I'd like to see more of a familial/paternal relationship between Azog and Bolg. Bolg is explicitly described as Azog's son, but we don't see much beyond him being referred to as such. The Orcs are sapient beings, being the descendants of mutilated/mutated Elves, so they'd have families, emotions, etc., albeit twisted.

*On the matter of the end of the movie, I would have ended it with the surviving King of Erebor (since Thorin dies) sharing out the gold with the Men of Laketown and Elves as promised and the crowning of Bard as the King of Dale. Bilbo is there much like how the Hobbits were at the crowning of Aragorn as the new King of Gondor and then he heads back home. Drawing parallels, you know. Since Bard's grandson Brand is killed in the Battle of the Dale during the War of the Ring and Dain Ironfoot is killed defending his body, perhaps we could see Dain and Bain (Bard's son) being friendly at the end. Foreshadowing.

*Finally, the dialogue between Kili and Tauriel when Kili leaves with the Dwarfs to go to Erebor and Tauriel leaves with Legolas to scout out Mount Gundabad was just awful. I wouldn't have had this love triangle in the first place, but that would have required changing more than just the first movie. Their later interactions and Tauriel mourning Kili's death were fine.

A Second Post About "The Interview"

Now it seems that the film The Interview will not be released at all, not even on Video on Demand, at least in the near future. Sony first abandoned plans to release the film after most theater chains in the United States refused to show it after the hackers (likely backed by North Korea) threatened 9/11-esque terror attacks. It seems more realistic that the greater danger would be hacking of customer credit card data and the like rather than physical violence (thus saith Homeland Security), but given how a judge has ruled a lawsuit against the theater in Aurora, Colorado over the shooting in the movie theater can go forward, that theaters might be concerned is understandable.

(The only solution I could think of would be for the government to agree to assume liability for this particular situation on the grounds of defending the citizens' freedoms against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That could potentially be very expensive and theater owners might not want the theaters full of cops--or if a municipality doesn't have enough police, the National Guard--as an alternative to simply not screening the movie. And they're a private business--if they don't want to go to all the trouble, that's their call.)

However, many movie theaters like the Plaza Theater in Atlanta were still willing to show the movie. I was actually planning on seeing it there as part of a "To Hell With Kim Jong-Un" outing. I am aware there is a risk (however minimal) of violence or (more probable) that my financial data might be compromised in a reprisal hack. Thing is, life has risks.

We are free because people in this country resisted bullies like the British Crown, the Klan, etc. not by cowering and hoping against hope the arrogant and the strong would show mercy. I intended to see the movie to show that I (and presumably the others who would see it with me) were not going to be intimidated by the Internet hired guns of some chunky despot in some unreconstructed Stalinist hellhole. And to all those people moralizing in the comments sections about how showing the movie isn't worth innocent lives, that if there was an incident the same people who condemned Sony for pulling the movie would condemn Sony for releasing the movie, etc., I would remind you that Allied bombing killed vast numbers of civilians living under German occupation in WWII and these same populations thought it was worth it to be liberated. Sometimes freedom has a price.

Then, when I was in the early stages of organizing my outing, Sony pulled the movie completely. One of my friends theorized that the hackers still had unreleased employee personal data that they could have released if further antagonized and Sony knuckled under to their threats to protect employees, which this article here supports. However, this article here depicts Sony warning past and present employees that their data is already out there. If that is the case, this was cowardice on Sony's part, since the hackers would have (foolishly) expended their leverage.

And Paramount is even worse. Some theaters decided to show Team America World Police instead to show they would not be intimidated by Fat Boy and his minions, but Paramount prevented them from screening the film. Paramount has not been hacked and now that the North Koreans' goons' tactics are known, precautions can be taken. And since it seemed the theater owners were making the decision to show the movie on their own, they're the ones assuming liability. This is an even more pathetic case of cowardice on the part of Paramount, which can't even plead coercion the way Sony can.

I've seen some people online suggesting that The Interview would be released later once the hubbub dies down, either theatrically or, to avoid security problems, by video-on-demand. It would be a good idea to give Sony a few months to a year to do the right thing, once the initial threat has passed. However, between Sony's "no plans" statement and this new threat by hackers, that might not be happening. If Sony tried to kill the movie permanently, this would be one of those rare occasions that I would support pirating it and spreading it so far over the Internet that all the threats and bloviations of Sony, Fat Boy, etc. would not be able to stop it. It would foil the North Korean regime's desire that people not see this movie and show Sony that bowing to the demands of hackers can cost them as well.

(And to anyone who says that'd be victimizing Sony twice, this would allow them to get their product out there and have an excuse to the people holding them hostage that they had nothing to do with it. Once the cat's out of the bag, the hackers might back off and Sony can release it legitimately.)

Judd Apatow has said Sony's actions guarantee the film will be seen illegally. Glad to see he agrees with me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"The Interview," Or Sony Gives Into Terror

I logged onto Facebook this morning and found a rather unpleasant article courtesy of my fellow blogger The Corner Critic. Apparently the Georgia-based movie theater chain Carmike Cinemas has canceled screenings of the upcoming film The Interview due to liability concerns after Internet death threats were made, something done with the blessing of Sony Pictures. The film's premiere in New York was canceled due to threats of a "9/11-style attack." And Sony has already caved to North Korea's whining once already by editing real-life North Korean military medals out of the film.

I can understand prudence, especially if there are lives and/or a great deal of money on the line. However, the chances of anything actually happening are extremely remote. Although North Korea has engaged in state sponsorship of terror before (so there is precedent for violent behavior abroad), incidents like the Rangoon Bombing and the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 were in the 1980s and in Asia to boot. North Korea is a heck of a lot poorer now without Soviet subsidies and with its economy having tanked to the point of famine. And by making threats, whoever is behind the hacks (probably agents of the regime) has openly telegraphed its intentions. Whatever assets, personnel, etc. they've got here (apparently they don't have diplomatic relations with the U.S.) would be under more serious scrutiny. Even if they seriously attempted anything, it would get nixed really quickly.

Hacking and making Internet threats are an extremely cheap way to sow terror. All you really need are a couple guys with computer skills (and diplomatic immunity if they get caught) to do things like hack Sony's computers or send online death threats. Actually putting together a terrorist attack is a much more difficult proposition. The first link cites the Department of Homeland Security saying there is no evidence an actual attack is in the works. This report from the Atlanta-based pop-culture news site Fanbolt confirms it.

Furthermore, it seems rather questionable that movie theaters would be liable in the unlikely event there were some kind of terrorist attack. This article here indicates workplaces can be sued for negligence, but if theaters can get Sony Pictures to provide extra security, hire security guards themselves, or get the local government to provide extra police (spin it as defending Americans' right to see whatever movies they like being under threat from foreign goons), that would indicate they took the threat seriously and would limit their liability.

I do like what this group of human-rights activists are planning on doing--sending copies of The Interview into North Korea via balloon. I wonder if they've already done the same with Team America World Police, since that one mocks Kim Jong-Il mercilessly. The article states that North Korea would be much more upset at The Interview than a film like Titanic because it openly undermines the cult of the Kims. If non-political Western movies weaken the brainwashing as much as the story in the article indicates, movies openly bashing the Kim Dynasty would be even more effective.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies" (2014) Review

Just got back from seeing The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (in IMAX 3D no less). I'd ordinarily wait until tomorrow morning, but I'd like to put my impressions to paper before they fade.

The Plot

Smaug attacks Laketown and Bard the Bowman disposes of him in the first ten minutes or so. But with the dragon dead, everybody wants Erebor now, either for its gold or for its strategic position. And so four armies (the fifth will be revealed in due time) converge on the Lonely Mountain...

The Good

*The movie is all about the battle and the battle sequences are awesome. Smaug Dresden-ing Laketown (complete with some trash-talking in Benedict Cumberbatch's awesome voice when he finally notices Bard shooting arrows at him) and his ultimate death starts out the movie with an impressive bang. Then the White Council battles the Ringwraiths and Sauron himself in a supernatural kung-fu battle of awesomeness. And then comes the Battle of Five Armies itself, the fantasy equivalent of the film Gettysburg.

*The Orcs get some character development, with Azog displaying an extremely cunning battle strategy and averting Hollywood Tactics bigtime by using horns and flags to coordinate his troops. That the Orcs, whose battle strategies tend to revolve around burying their enemies with their numbers, display the most strategic and tactical sense of any of the races in this film is pretty impressive. And it's confirmed that Bolg is Azog's son, although we don't really see any familial interaction between them.

*We see Thorin going mad with greed and comparisons are drawn between him and Smaug. It's very well-done.

*The Dwarves display some actual military tactics on multiple occasions themselves--they form a pike-shield wall against the oncoming Orcs and later something resembling a svinfylking to breach an Orc battle-line.

*There's a fair bit of humor in the film, especially from the out-of-control faux-Scottish Dwarf warlord Dain Ironfoot. This is a man who rides a giant pig into battle and kills his foes by alternatively wielding a hammer as big as he is and headbutting them.

*Saruman has no problem dealing with the Ringwraiths, but is visibly intimidated by Sauron. This might explain his actions in The Fellowship of the Ring, since in the movie-verse he seems driven by fear to become Sauron's vassal rather than pretending to deal with him while plotting to take over the world himself (as is more obvious in the books).

The Bad

*For the defeat of Smaug I expected to see Bard crowned the king of Dale, yet that issue is not handled well. Granted, they kind of had more important issues to deal with at the time, but that might've been a good ending.

*Kili's romantic dialogue with Tauriel before the battle starts made me laugh, and not in a good way.

*The survivors of Laketown seem to only number in the dozens if not the low hundreds and they visibly recoil from the menacing Dwarf troops under Dain Ironfoot despite being nigh-surrounded by allied Elves, yet they do a heck of a lot better than they have any right to in defense of Dale against the Orc armies. Especially since most of them don't have armor.

*And even though the Orcs are armored quite impressively, it doesn't seem to be worth a damn.

*When the White Council battles Sauron and the Ringwraiths in Dol Guldur, Galadriel bounces around from nigh-unstoppable to lying around semi-conscious. And Gandalf seems to have romantic feelings for her, which are most assuredly not in the book. Gandalf is an incarnated angelic being and Galadriel is an elf--plus she's also married.

*Some uber-creatures that aren't in the book are used to facilitate the movement of Orcish armies but don't actually fight in the Battle of Five Armies themselves. It's never explained why, even though they'd almost certainly be battle-winners for the forces of darkness.

*In the battle with the White Council Sauron claims the Age of the Orc is coming, but that's not what Sauron is about. Sauron wants to prevent the incipient Age of Men, but he doesn't want to replace humans with Orcs. The Age of Men is about man's dominion over Creation and Sauron wants to have that dominion for himself. He's fine with being worshiped by Men as well as Orcs and other races.

*The phrase "bred for war" gets bandied around a lot.

The Verdict

See it and then see the extended edition that's no doubt coming. 9.0 out of 10.

How I Would Have Done Hellraiser (SPOILERS!)

In my previous blog post on the film Hellraiser, I made some criticisms of the film and dropped some hints about things I would have done differently if I were writing the script. However, I couldn't go into a lot of detail for fear of spoilers, which I prefer to avoid putting in reviews.

So here's a separate blog post where I can discuss stuff that happened in the film without fear. Although Hellraiser is a creepy, very well-done film, even the best films (and yes, that includes the glory that was The Avengers) can stand to have some improvements. Here are some things I'd have done differently if I were writing the script:

*Kirsty's British boyfriend Steve does very little in the film and is written off in the opening minutes of Hellbound: Hellraiser II as having been let go by the police while Kirsty herself is institutionalized. And yet there's no indication he made any effort to try to get her out, even though he may have seen the Cenobites and definitely saw the vagrant reclaim the puzzle box from the fire and transform into a skeletal dragon. If my girlfriend got locked up for telling the truth, I'd be (pun intended) raising hell. It would have been better if Steve simply weren't in the film at all and the money used to pay the actor invested elsewhere. That would have been helpful given how the film only had a budget of $1 million.

If Kirsty needs to have something to do (other than Steve, hee-hee) to occupy her until she starts suspecting her stepmother Julia is having an affair, perhaps we could have her notice Julia's odd behavior earlier than her father and start her own investigation. The oblivious Larry thinks that maybe the two women are becoming friends, but Julia suspects that Kirsty knows too much. She might want the resurrected Frank Cotton to murder and feed off Kirsty, but Frank could refuse due to either familial loyalty or his wanting to have sex with Kirsty--he creeps on her on two different occasions in the film, once when he's got no skin and a second time wearing Larry's skin--once he's fully resurrected.

(This would have to come after Julia has killed people for Frank because a major part of her character arc is that it's initially very difficult for her to kill and she will not allow Frank to harm Larry, but she ultimately becomes more and more warped and murderous. Her wanting to kill her stepdaughter before she finally agrees to allow Frank to kill Larry would be doable, since it's clear from the beginning they don't get along.)

*On the matter of Julia's character arc from "bored wife" to "murderous betrayer," she could try to offer Frank her own blood in order to restore him before she resorts to the whole "lure men to the house and murder them" thing. A little bit of her blood is enough to restore some of him (much like a little bit of Larry's was enough to bring Frank back as a crawling skeleton), but since one can only safely give blood every few weeks, Frank demands she bring him men to feed on because he wants his body restored as soon as possible. Julia is depicted as totally dominated by Frank's overpowering sexuality (his flashback seduction of her comes off as very rape-y but yet she's soon willing to do "anything" for him--and this is before her marriage to Larry), so this would be a good beginning of her "damnation arc."

*At the climax of the film, the resurrected Frank murders Larry off-screen and wears his skin and mimics his voice in order to deceive his niece Kirsty, which actually works. I have no problem suspending my disbelief where puzzle boxes summoning leather freaks from beyond the grave works, but I really, really doubt this would deceive Kirsty for even a minute. He wouldn't look like Larry (Larry-Frank and Larry are played by the same actor), but some kind of Ed Gein monstrosity. Furthermore, we see Julia killing other men to allow Frank to regenerate his body by feeding on them, but we never see the confrontation between the two brothers even though that would have been excellent thematically.

I would have depicted their no doubt brief and horrible reunion intercut with Kirsty running to her father's house (cross-cutting builds suspense) and had Frank use his brother's blood to fully resurrect himself. If there's any additional body-part thievery to be done, he could scalp his brother and wear his hair as a wig, which might trick Kirsty if she sees him from the back (especially if it's dark) and he doesn't talk. Kirsty can run in looking for her father and Julia can bring her to "Larry," only for "Larry" to dramatically turn around and it's Frank wearing Larry's scalp. That'd be more horrific than what we got in the film because it doesn't wreck the suspension of disbelief the way "I'm wearing my brother's entire skin" does. Sometimes subtlety is a really good idea.

*Pinhead and the Cenobites, when they initially appear, are all set to drag a terrified Kirsty to Hell, but she's able to bargain with them by offering Frank in her place. However, when they come to reclaim Frank, Pinhead tells Kirsty that what they intend to do to him is "not for your eyes" and shoo her away. Within minutes if not seconds, however, the Cenobites renege on their deal and try to take Kirsty too--incredibly ineffectively. When Pinhead pops up behind her and does the whole "we have such sights to show you" speech (awesome line but yet seeing Frank dismember is not for her to see), he could have easily knocked the box out of her hands when she's solving it to send him back, but doesn't.

What I would have done is have her flee the house, with one last look behind her so we can get the "Jesus wept" line from Frank, and then once outside, she sees flashing lights in the upper room as the Cenobites return to Hell. Then the house collapses. She can then try to destroy the puzzle-box only to have the vagrant snatch it away and then we have the ending where he's later selling it to some other degenerate pleasure-seeker. TVTropes even states that the Cenobites are actually Kirsty's allies for most of the film and having two humans be the real villains while the monstrous leather-freaks really are not is a nice subversion.

*When Larry and Julia are getting it on and Frank comes out of the closet with a knife to kill Larry (only for Julia to stop him, which Larry thinks is Julia telling him she doesn't want to have sex right now), he cuts up an extremely fake-looking rat for some reason. That was kind of gratuitous--not only is a skinless man coming to murder his brother horrible enough, but it's a special effects failure that didn't need to happen.

*On the matter of rats, given how desperate Frank is to restore himself and get out of the house where he was taken lest the Cenobites go looking there first, it would have been a good thing to see him at least try to feed on rats to restore his body. It would be a suitably gross way to show rather than tell how desperate Frank is, but either it doesn't work (he'd need human blood) or it starts causing his appearance to become rat-like (more body hair?) and he's so vain he'd rather kill other humans to restore his original appearance. Given how Frank initially doesn't want Julia to look at him, vanity could easily be another one of his many sins.

*When Kirsty faints in the streets after escaping Frank the first time, she's taken to the hospital and treated like an injured criminal in need of questioning, to the point she's locked in the room by the pushy, obnoxious doctor until the police can arrive. That would make more sense in the second film, given how the Powers That Be seem to think she's an insane murder suspect, but she's not suspected of any crime. It seems like they just needed her to have no choice but to solve the box and summon the Cenobites. It would've been better if she'd retreated to her rented room and solved the box out of curiosity there. That would also eliminate the need for the doctor and nurse actors, saving even more money.

*And speaking of curiosity, when she first solves the box and opens a doorway to Hell, she doesn't seem remotely afraid and just wanders in. I would have expected a lot more hesitation and fear. This approaches "stupid horror movie character" territory and I would have expected better from someone as talented as Clive Barker. I would have had her get as far away from the open door as she can in a locked room and then, after it seems nothing is coming out, she gets up to look inside--and then runs right into Pinhead. No need for the tunnel monster, which would save money.

*In the second film, Julia escapes from Hell via the mattress she allegedly died on in this movie. However, Frank accidentally stabbed her on the stairs and then drained her life ("nothing personal, babe"). Yet we see her body on the bed in another room a few minutes later clutching the puzzle box. Assuming she still had some life in her even after the stab wound and Frank feeding on her, I could imagine her crawling away, but retrieving the box, crawling into another room, and then getting into bed is something else. Maybe she dies on a carpet and that's what they use in the second film?

*Finally, when Kirsty first encounters Frank and he attacks her, he becomes very concerned when she picks up the puzzle box and it's not clear why. It would have been better if it he were obviously concerned she might accidentally summon the Cenobites (making a similar speech to the one he made to Julia earlier in the film), either to protect himself or protect her (either out of family loyalty or because he wants her alive so he can have sex with her later). Or maybe she just picks up the box, sees his unspoken fear, and then either throws it at him (and out the window so he can pick it up off the street) or brandish it at him so she can escape. All the scene really needs to accomplish is to make her aware that Frank is alive (sort of), that the box had something to do with it, and that she escapes him with the box to summon the Cenobites.

Let me repeat that all these things I'd have done differently if I were writing the script in no way make Hellraiser a bad film. It's a very creepy, atmospheric, well-done film all the more impressive due to its low budget and I recommend it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Movie Review: Hellraiser (1987)

A few days ago I got rather interested in the Hellraiser franchise of films, in which people who toy with a magical puzzle-box summon the leather-clad Pinhead and friends, "explorers of the farther reaches of experience," whose idea of fun involves torture and sadomasochism (in which a good time is not had by all). So I decided to give the original Hellraiser a watch. Combined with my recent watch of Gremlins, it's turning into a very 1980s horror movie December.

Here goes...

The Plot

Married couple Larry and Julia Cotton move into an old house formerly owned by Larry's ne'er-do-well brother Frank, with whom Larry has not been in contact in some time. The reason for that is that Frank has solved a mysterious puzzle box and been dismembered. A moving-day accident spills blood on the floor of the upstairs room where Frank was taken and soon he's back as a flesh-eating skinless monster intent on restoring his human body with other people's blood. Trouble ensues, and Larry's daughter Kirsty soon finds that someone else is looking for Frank...

The Good

*The characterization is quite good. Within the first fifteen or so minutes, we know that the Cotton household isn't exactly a happy one and nobody says "I'm unhappy." Instead Larry and his wife Julia argue about moving into the new house, Larry and his daughter Kirsty argue about her decision to live on her own and have a job rather than living at home, and when she comes to visit we see some subtle hostility between her and Julia (whom a brief conversation between Larry and some workmen reveal is Kirsty's stepmother, not her mother). Julia's boredom at Larry's party just before she learns that Frank isn't quite as gone as she thinks shows that this is not a happy marriage and sets her up to be tempted by her back-from-the-dead brother-in-law.

However, though Julia is one of the villains of the piece, we see some sympathetic actions on her part--in flashback she initially resists Frank's advances (advances that come off as kind of rapey, no matter how much we later see her enjoying the results) and she quickly sees to Larry's welfare when he's injured. And when Frank wants to finish his resurrection by killing Larry, Julia is willing and able to fend him off. At least initially. And Frank--Frank is the Calvinist principle of total depravity in its most extreme form epitomized. Years in Hell haven't turned him off the path of selfishness, depravity, perversity, etc. and he's willing to commit all sorts of sins to ensure that he doesn't go back.

*The movie is genuinely creepy throughout, starting with the weird doings that start when Larry bleeds on the floor and then when the bored Julia returns to the room where Frank was taken to Hell and encounters, well, you'll have to see it. And then when Kirsty solves the box herself, things start getting scary again.

*Though the special effects are a bit dated in places, mediocre practical effects are, as a general rule, much better-looking than mediocre CGI. Frank's resurrection from the floorboards does look a bit puppety, but at least the viewer knows something is really there. And it's appropriately gruesome. Skinless resurrected-Frank looks pretty realistic.

*Although we don't see the Cenobites until rather late in the film--the resurrected Frank and Julia are the primary villains--it's still a suspenseful and well-done film regardless.

*Doug Bradley, the actor who plays Pinhead, has an amazingly deep voice and excellent delivery. No wonder they kept him on for the near-generation of sequels that followed.

The Bad

*The film shows its budgetary limitations in places. When Frank solves the box and the hooked chains come out, we see very little of what they do to him--only before and after shots. In contrast, when Capt. Elliott Spenser solves the box in the opening of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, we see a lot of hooked-chains-into-flesh and his transformation into Pinhead. According to Wikipedia, the first film had a budget of only $1 million (albeit in 1987 dollars), which could explain it.

*The movie should have ended a few minutes earlier, once Pinhead and friends find Frank. Granted, the awesome, "We have such sights to show you" line would need to be placed elsewhere or removed entirely, but good writing is about killing your darlings. Obviously some kind of resolution would need to happen, but the way the Cenobites go from, "This is not for your eyes" to doing what they do doesn't really make sense.

*Why didn't Julia try to use her own blood to finish reassembling Frank rather than jumping to murder? She immediately jumps from "unhappy wife" to "kill people" without any intermediate step (other than fear/hesitation when she brings the first man home). If she tried to use her own blood and it didn't work (perhaps the blood had to be forcibly taken, perhaps like Harry's blood used to resurrect Voldemort?) or Frank was in a hurry due to fear of the Cenobites finding him again and needed a lot of blood immediately, that would explain why she jumped to more extreme measures.

*The film starts out slowly--although we know from the prologue (Frank solving the puzzle box) that supernatural doings are afoot, until Larry cuts himself and the blood starts disappearing into the floor, it seems like a domestic drama.

*The resurrected Frank and Larry eventually encounter one another, but it's never seen. Given how they're estranged and Frank clearly has a great deal of contempt for Larry, this would have been interesting to see. And the results of this encounter, which we do see, strain credulity. Not going to go into detail for spoiler reasons, but you'll know it when you see it.

*It's not clear why Frank freaks out when Kirsty gets hold of the box. Is he afraid she'll solve it and bring in the Cenobites? He gets angry rather than relieved when she throws it out the window. Is he concerned for her safety? It seemed like he was intent on either feeding off her to finish his resurrection or molesting her, plus he was willing to kill his own brother for his blood, so familial loyalty isn't exactly his strong suite.

*There's a scene where Frank cuts up a rat with a knife where the rat looks like a toy. I'm not sure what the point was. And on the matter of rats the room where Frank was hiding was crawling with them, but he never tried to use their blood to restore his body. Given how he's desperate to get away before the Cenobites come looking for him, this could be shown by him chasing down and feeding on rats for what little regeneration something that small could provide. If only human blood will work, his trying and failing could give him a more rational reason for driving Julia to kill.

*There's a doctor character later in the film (just over an hour in) whose actions seem like their whole purpose is to drive the plot rather than something a doctor would realistically do. And Kirsty's actions soon afterward verge into horror-film-character stupidity. At the very least, I would expect a lot more hesitation mixed in with the curiosity once, you know, a gateway into what looks like another world appears in the wall!

*Kirsty's British boyfriend isn't well-developed. He's not in very many scenes and the movie might've been better off without him at all.

The Verdict

Creepy and generally well-done, but with some storytelling flaws. 8 out of 10.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My Writing Plan for the Month

As I might have mentioned earlier, I have revived my monthly writing bet with one friend for the month of December and will be continuing it in January with another friend. Now that I'm done with graduate school and my magazine internship, I can get started on it in earnest. Thus far I've written 1,700-ish words for two different projects. Hopefully I'll be able to do better, considering last December I wrote nearly 12,000 words.

Here're some goals I hope to reach for the month:

*The Thing in the Woods is 53,000-odd words at present, but the few agents I've sent it off to have said it needs to be longer. My goal is to get to at least 60,000 words this month through judicious adding of a few words per page (much like how I cut, by nicking a few words per page) of extra description, atmosphere, etc. I've also written a new scene that might be 1,000 words or so that I haven't plugged into the main draft yet. Samhain Publishing, a small press that published the novel Shadows in the Mist I really enjoyed, has a minimum of 60,000 for print books. The main way I know as an author to market a book is to do book signings, so having a print book is essential. Plus 60,000 words would put me well ahead of the bare-minimum figure of 55,000 words. 7,000 words is doable, I would think.

*My current project--that I won't go into details with for now--is at 17K words or so. Owing to the nature of the project there's a lot of journalism (playing to my strengths) and telling instead of showing (which is easier to write). I had the notion of finishing it this month, but that might be a little too ambitious. I took a couple chapters to writing group yesterday and spent a fair bit of the afternoon editing based on their suggestions.

*I've got 2,000 words of a bizarro novella or novel involving badgers and heavily-armed little people written. If this is a novella, I might be able to finish it this month. This is the first time I've written comedy in years. Joke topics include badgers, hippies, little people, and even the death of David Carradine. :)

I can already foresee spreading myself too thinly and not finishing anything. So let the games begin.

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Gremlins (1984)

Saturday evening I saw the 1984 film Gremlins at a special screening in Atlanta. The movie came out a couple months before I was born and when the sequel came out in 1989, I wasn't allowed to see it. Having not seen either film, I organized a group of friends to go see it (the original plan was to record for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood afterward, which didn't happen) and off we went. We ended up recording a podcast later, but here's the original review.

The Plot

The movie starts with a mediocre inventor (his gadgets all seem to fail spectacularly after a couple weeks, if they even last that long) buying a mysterious furry creature as a pet for his son. There are three rules for the creature--do not expose him to bright lights, do not get him wet, and DO NOT feed him after midnight. As you might expect these rules get broken at some point and trouble ensues.

The Good

*The movie is often really, really funny. It's described as a horror-comedy after all. The humor ranges from the bizarre threats the local mean rich woman makes toward the protagonist's dog, how a suburban mother takes on some monsters in her house, how villainous characters get their comeuppances, and the hilarious timing of a particularly dark back-story reveal. This is basically the main reason to see the movie.

*Although some people have objected to the characterization of the elderly Chinese storekeeper as a racial stereotype ("inscrutable Oriental"?), he's wiser and generally more competent than most of the Caucasian characters. I liked him better than the inventor character.

*The evil gremlins are kept hidden early on, revealing only a claw here or a brief glimpse there. People's imagination is often scarier than what you see on-screen, so this is a good path to take. Very much like Jaws, which isn't a surprise considering Spielberg was involved in both.

*Many horror films rely on the characters making incredibly stupid decisions, but in this one, the evil gremlins are pretty darn clever. The "stupid things the characters do" are the sort of careless things people do in real life, not "character idiocy is needed to advance the plot."

*The romantic subplot is foreshadowed by how the characters look at each other very early in the film.

The Bad

*There were places where it was rather slow. This is, of course, before the gremlin mayhem starts. Maybe some judicious trimming would have been in order.

*The special effects are a bit dated, which is understandable given how the movie was made the year I was born.

*The humor is dark and at times downright sadistic. I didn't have a problem with it, but I could easily imagine some people not liking it.

The Verdict

Worth seeing once. 7.5 out of 10.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

On Bringing Back a Certain Dead Character (Walking Dead SPOILERS)

This morning while doing some Twitter work for a client, I found the following article:

"Second Half of Walking Dead Promises 'Huge Changes'"

I'm not familiar with the show (I didn't have cable when it started), but I saw the mid-season finale with some of my church friends. The article said it's possible that due to the fan outcry, they might bring back the character Beth.

Here's what happens to Beth in the mid-season finale:

Unless they're doing flashbacks or dream sequences (Maggie tormented by visions of her sister?), Beth is dead. Maybe they have a funeral for Beth that would give the actress one last gig (basically lying around until they can burn her, given how everyone who dies comes back as a zombie) and that would work, but that's it. And I doubt they're going to do this, considering I read an article talking about how sad it was for her to leave the set.

I mean, watch the scene:

1. The bullet drilled right through her head and out the back with a lot of blood and gore flying, as you can see above. She was almost certainly immediately killed.

2. Even if she was on some level still alive when Daryl carried out of the hospital, there's not a hospital that could treat her for that kind of injury. Grady could try (they still function, sort of), but I doubt they'd succeed. That's a lot of brain blown out, and then there's all the shock, bleeding, etc. that would go with it. She would die very quickly if she's not already dead. The Grady people might try to keep her body alive for organ-donation purposes (assuming that's even possible anymore due to the whole "everyone who dies becomes a zombie" thing), but the Beth that is Beth is gone.

So this would be a time where giving into fan demands would hurt the quality of the show.

HOWEVER, I did have an idea for an alternate ending for that episode that could have made this possible.

Dawn shoots Beth reflexively and she goes down. Daryl loses it and blows Dawn to hell. Then we find out that Beth, though wounded badly (shot to chest instead of head?), is still alive. Officer Shepherd (the female cop taken hostage to trade for Beth and Carol who tells everyone to stand down) offers to allow the group to stay at the hospital (presumably as muscle to replenish the police/doctor ruling class, since I doubt they could control a bunch of armed people as enslaved "patients") like she does in the canonical show, and when Rick tells her to go to hell, offers to save Beth.

For Beth's sake and for Maggie's, Rick agrees "for the duration" (until Beth recovers). The group basically becomes part of the hospital's ruling faction. The show could go into all sorts of interesting directions:

1. Nobody in the group is going to tolerate the abuse of the hospital's patients by the police. Even Dawn, for all her sins, called out another cop for beating patients, making rape jokes, etc. before he attacked her and she and Beth threw him down an elevator shaft into (I think) a pit full of zombies. Nor are they going to support raiding survivor groups for slaves (i.e. how the hospital got Beth and Noah). That'll cause all kinds of drama between the remaining police and Rick's group.

2. Dawn likely had friends among the police officers and doctors even possibly among the patients and nurses (due to her comparative benign-ness). They're going to want revenge on Daryl for killing her. Openly attacking him risks a civil war in the hospital that could leave them all vulnerable to the zombies outside or an uprising by the patients, but it'd be a lot easier to poison him or arrange for a zombie-related accident.

3. Word might get out that Rick killed that third cop, the one they'd taken hostage and who tried to escape, rather than him getting eaten by the zombies like they said. That'll likely P.O. some people.

4. Power corrupts--could one or more group members be tempted to drink the Kool-Aid and become as bad as the cops?

5. Noah is not going to be a happy camper, considering he was trying to escape the hospital earlier.

6. Rick can see all these problems, but they can't leave until Beth is healed enough. Maybe he sees all of these problems and tries to leave before Beth is fully healed, putting her at risk? And the remaining cops might try to stop them from leaving, since without them they might not have the numbers to control the patients and/or protect everybody from the zombies?

This could actually be really interesting. That said, given the comment I read in another recap about how nobody escapes a season finale unscathed, having Beth killed minutes before she would have reunited with her sister seems like something that's a pattern for the show. Breaking it would harm the show stylistically.

Friday, December 12, 2014

How A Major War Could Have Started In Ukraine: An Alternate Timeline

Most of the stuff I've been posting on the blog from my alternate-history forum has been counterfactuals of fictional scenarios like things going differently in A Song of Ice and Fire or what-not.

Here's something a bit more grounded in reality, and based on current events to boot. It's entitled "And To Think It Might Have Happened: A Ukraine War Timeline." The point of divergence from our history is that on March 14, during the Russian takeover of Crimea, a Ukrainian missile boat fires on a Russian corvette and cripples it, forcing it to be abandoned. The Russians sink the missile boat with aircraft. Things mushroom from there, with the Russians launching a massive aerial attack March 17 followed by a ground invasion March 19.

*The Russians take Luhansk pretty early and advance all the way to Kharkiv. The Ukrainians put up a spirited fight, but their resistance crumbles when supplies and ammunition run out. The new government in Ukraine early on had problems paying its soldiers, so keeping them supplied in wartime is going to be even more of a problem.

*Kazakh troops are fighting alongside the Russians.

*Kiev gets bombed, nearly killing the Ukrainian president.

*NATO doesn't intervene in Ukraine's defense, although they do share intelligence on Russian movements and even fly aircraft in western Ukraine as a show of force. The latter course is really quite risky, given the possibility of an accident.

*By March 25, the Russians are approaching Kiev itself. The Ukrainians for the most part have fallen back over the Dnieper. The Russians announce their intentions to annex occupied Ukraine.

Then a British passenger jet gets shot down, escalating things even more. Right now NATO troops have been deployed to Europe in large numbers and the Russians are preparing to intervene in the Baltic States. The Russian secretary of defense has just resigned (and been arrested) rather than participate in something this risky.

This is a really interesting timeline. The last date was yesterday and the update before that was around three days ago, so there might be a new installment by this weekend.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: D2: The Mighty Ducks (1994)

Last night I watched D2: The Mighty Ducks film for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Here's the podcast. And now the review...

The Plot

Coach Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez), who set off at the end of the first film to join a minor-league hockey team, finally scores the goal he needs to get into the National Hockey League but then suffers a career-ending (or at least career-derailing, since he's able to skate later) injury soon afterward. He returns home to Minnesota and is offered the chance to coach Team USA at the Goodwill Games. Many of the original Mighty Ducks return along with some new faces from elsewhere in the U.S. for a trip to Los Angeles, where they face off against the dreaded Icelandic team.

The Good

*The movie is quite entertaining, much more so than the original film (which I reviewed here). It is written that love covers a multitude of sins, and the film's pure entertainment value does much the same. I'll single out a few particularly good ones in this section later. I saw both movies as a kid and I remember the second one being better than the first. That still holds true.

*The two big kids who bond over being, well, big kids who can terrorize the other team are really funny as the "Bash Brothers." They get a lot of amusing moments, most of which revolve around them inflicting violence on opposing players or rocking out to heavy metal.

*The antagonist Icelandic coach has more shades of gray than the a-hole coach of the first film. That one (Coach Reilly) was vindictive, domineering, and emotionally abusive, while Stansson (except for one out-of-character moment I'll get too later) is depicted as supportive to his players even when he's a major jerk to everybody else.

*The street hockey team from South Central came off initially as being a bunch of "Magical Negroes" (with one Hispanic I noticed), but escapes that territory because one of the players (played by none other than Keenan Thompson) ends up actually joining Team USA. One of the players even sacrifices his spot on the ice to accommodate him.

*Some of the humor is more adult this time around, which makes some degree of sense given how the kids are probably now at least freshmen in high school or older middle-schoolers. The scene where they manage to infiltrate a chic Beverly Hills clothing store is amusing.

The Bad

*The last 20 minutes get kind of ridiculous. The Texan kid straight-up lassos an Icelandic player who's being overly rough with Connie. I'll complain some more about him later, but if they're willing to kick players out of the game permanently in the first match for stuff that's much less absurd, I would imagine he'd be in more serious trouble. Foreign objects, perhaps? The two big enforcer kids skate by the Icelandic team in their box whacking them on the helmets like they were drums, which the Icelandic a-hole coach (who's depicted as being ruthless and treacherous) doesn't even try to use as a pretext to get them kicked out of the game. An attempt to inspire the kids by chanting "DUCKS FLY TOGETHER" was Narm-ish. And then they just happen to have upgraded versions of their old Ducks uniforms (product placement for the Anaheim Ducks alert) sitting around. I know the last game of a sports movie is supposed to be a big deal, but this is one of the few things the first film actually did better.

*The romance between Bombay and Charlie's mother from the first film is written off with a line from the Magical Scandinavian who refers to her as having remarried and Charlie works at his shop now. Instead they have Bombay dating a woman who works for the Icelandic team for all of ten minutes and a lot of meaningful looks between Bombay and Michelle McKay, who's responsible for teaching the kids when they're not playing or practicing, that's never really followed up on. That's a twofer--something that was a very big deal in the first movie is abandoned with a single line and the replacement for this movie pretty much does nothing.

*Some of the new characters are depicted in stupidly stereotypical ways. The presumably Cuban-American player from Miami is introduced to what sounds like mariachi music (mariachi is a specifically Mexican style), while the Texan kid makes a lot of cowboy references, wears a cowboy hat and a giant belt buckle, and even straight-up lassos a rival player (more on that later). Sometimes stereotyping can be funny or serve a dramatic point, but this was just lame.

*Bombay starts neglecting his team due to the celebrity he's acquired and has to be set straight again by the Magical Scandinavian, complete with another sepia-toned solo skating sequence. A bit repetitive, considering something very similar happened in the first film.

*Stansson's characterization (see above) is undermined at the very end when he berates one of his player, who snaps back at him. That whole exchange could have been eliminated completely. Not only does it undermine Stansson's grayer portrayal, but it's way too late to actually give the Icelandic characters any major characterization.

*On that note, it would have been better to depict some more internal goings-on in the Icelandic team. The first film managed that with the Hawks (the two kids who fight over whether or not to "take out" Adam, their former teammate) without taking the focus off the Ducks, so it's not like the filmmakers didn't know how to do it. Instead, we see a relatively harmonious (among themselves at least) situation disrupted at the very end by one of the players talking back to the coach.

*The original Magical Scandinavian is replaced by his brother, since apparently he's visiting family back home. Put on a Bus indeed. Seriously, if the actor wasn't available, they should have re-cast him. He wasn't a major character like Bombay, so this wouldn't have been a problem.

*Some of the more adult humor really isn't that funny. In a scene where the hockey players are tied together to learn to skate as a team one of the female players complains about other players' hands and later the player comments about pads when hassled by the Icelanders. Those jokes didn't really work.

The Verdict

An improvement over the original. 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Last night I saw the third The Hunger Games film, Mockingjay - Part 1,with a friend. Here's my review...

The Plot

With the aid of a group of rebels including Capitol dissidents and the people of the long-thought-destroyed District 13, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and some of the other tributes have escaped from the arena. Now they're in hiding in District 13, whose leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) plans to lead the rebellious districts in the final war against the decadent Capitol. Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plan to make Katniss an iconic figure for the rebellion, but the Capitol has cards to play of its own...

The Good

*I liked how they made District 13 look. There's a giant central shaft and tunnels radiating off in different directions, with bomb shelters below and aircraft hangars at the top. The vibe I got off it was that they were living in a re-purposed missile silo, which given what District 13 produced for the Capitol before the rebellion, makes a lot of sense.

*I like how in the overhead shots of District 13 you can see buildings engulfed by the forests, broken bridges, etc. It shows that the people once lived on the surface and retreated below-ground before Capitol aerial attacks without having to explain it.

*Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress. She does a great job conveying emotions like horror (the ruins of District 12) and blinding, straight-up FURY ("you will burn with us"). Bravo.

*I liked Jennifer Lawrence's rendition of the song "The Hanging Tree." It's apparently one of the most popular songs in the world right now. So in addition to being a talented actress and (from what I've read about her) an awesome person in general, now she's a pop star. :) I need to come up with some folk music for the wider culture of my Wastelands world. Something akin to "The Hanging Tree" would really fit. I've gotten the song off iTunes and I've listened to it a whole bunch of times...

*When they cut from her singing "The Hanging Tree" to District Five rebels marching on the giant dam complex that fuels the Capitol, carrying no weapons to defend themselves but explosives to attack the dam, it shows just how much of a cult icon Katniss is becoming to the people of Panem.

*Per my earlier comment, the scene where Katniss returns to District 12 and finds in absolute ruin, complete with, well, go to this image, is well dramatic and well-done. Especially when you see off to the corner what a surviving dog is doing. TVTropes calls it Scenery Gorn and damn if it isn't effective.

*The propaganda campaign the Capitol wages against the rebellion is actually quite clever. No details for spoiler reasons, but it's something that on the surface makes a lot of sense. It's a testament to human ingenuity and fallibility that the most evil things (like the Capitol's exploitative system) can be made to sound so good. If you want something similarly clever, there's this rumination on the Sith.

*The producers have been criticized in many quarters for splitting the singular Mockingjay novel into two movies, but where they split the book makes sense.

*There are some good moments of humor, many of which revolve around Katniss's sister Prim's cat.

The Bad

*It was a little slow in places. I found myself looking at my watch a couple times. That being said, there weren't any obvious places where material could be cut.

*It would have been good to see the Capitol bombers attacking District 13. Although there are good, dramatic reasons to focus on Katniss, her mother, and her sister hiding in the bunkers while dust falls from the ceiling, it would have been cool to intersperse those scenes with images of Capitol aircraft engaging District 13's air defenses.

The Verdict

Go see it. 9.0 out of 10.