Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guest Post: The Bukharin Alternative, Part Two

It is a common belief in some circles that Stalinist policies were necessary for the Soviet Union to industrialize sufficiently in order to defeat the inevitable genocidal Nazi invasion. In particular is the Holodomor, in which grain was exported to the West to purchase industrial equipment and the like while millions starved to death. Ukraine was hit particularly hard, but Central Asia, the North Caucasus, and other places suffered as well.

However, my Internet cohort Scott Blair doesn't agree with this theory and wrote this essay--which I broke into two parts--to elaborate. Part One can be see here.

The Bukharin Alternative Part Two: Stalinist Complicity in the Rise of Hitler

By Scott Blair

It is also worth considering whether or not Hitler would have risen to power without Stalin’s support. In 1928, the Comintern leadership in Moscow took a much harsher stance against collaboration with Social Democrat parties in Europe, on the belief that the collapse of capitalism was imminent. In Germany, the results were disastrous. From 1928 onward, the German Communist Party (KPD) “party directed its venom principally against the Social Democrats”, while the Red Front-Fighters League became a paramilitary force. The KPD were particularly vocal in attacking the Social Democrats, who they denounced as “social fascists”, and by the end of 1932 Germany’s military was worried that a crackdown on the Nazis or Communists would result in civil war. Initially, Josef Stalin and the KPD welcomed the rise of Nazism, believing that he was a crazy fool whose rise to power was a sign that the German revolution was at hand. History has proven how wrong this belief was.

In these circumstances, one may well wonder if Nikolai Bukharin would have made a difference, and the answer is an emphatic yes. In contrast to Stalin, by 1928 Bukharin had become notable for advocating collaboration with the Socialist parties of Europe, and as the KPD followed the line set down in Moscow, it would have followed Bukharin’s policy as well. While it is unlikely that the Social Democrats and KPD would have collaborated in any meaningful way, if the KPD had emphasize on stabilizing the Republic the German military may have been more willing to crack down on the Nazis. This would not have resulted in a shiny, happy German democracy, and the possibilities range from an authoritarian state run by the military, to an unstable democracy, to a German civil war.

All three alternatives would have been preferable to the Third Reich. Even a militarist dictatorship would have been unstable, possibly annexing Austria and warring with Poland, but it is unlikely to have been as aggressive or uniquely successful as the Third Reich was. It must also be remembered that before the rise of Hitler Germany and the USSR had been close, with joint military exercises and discussions about a partition of Poland. Thus, in the Bukharin alternative the Great Patriotic War may never occur.

Even if one assumes Hitler still rose to power, and that things are the same until the beginning of Barbarossa, then it is possible Bukharin’s policies would have still let the Soviet Union win. On the one hand, the Soviet Union would have a smaller industrial base. First, it is unlikely that Bukharin would have been caught by the surprise the way that Stalin was, which may have resulted in a different outcome in the opening stages of the Great Patriotic War. It is also unlikely that the purges would have taken place, with their well known effects on the Soviet officer corps. Finally, peasant disenchantment with the regime, so obvious in the summer of 1941, may have been much less significant in a USSR that followed Bukharin’s policies. All told, even if we assume a somewhat smaller Soviet industrial base, there is good reason to think that the USSR would ultimately prevail in the war, as it did historically.

Thus, Bukharin would have emerged from the Great Patriotic War as the head of a USSR with a much more vigorous agricultural sector, and one with millions of more citizens than had died in the famine. Perhaps Bukharin’s Soviet Union would not have turned the former breadbasket of Europe into an importer of American grain. Perhaps calls for increased autonomy in the economy would have been more successful in the 1960s, and the USSR’s economy would not have stagnated and ultimately crumbled.

At the risk of being speculative, in such a scenario it is possible that the Soviet Union would still exist today. If so, Stalin, far from being necessary, may have ensured the USSR’s ultimate demise.

Guest Post: The Bukharin Alternative Part One

It is a common belief in some circles that Stalinist policies were necessary for the Soviet Union to industrialize sufficiently in order to defeat the inevitable genocidal Nazi invasion. In particular is the Holodomor, in which grain was exported to the West to purchase industrial equipment and the like while millions starved to death. Ukraine was hit particularly hard, but Central Asia, the North Caucasus, and other places suffered as well.

However, my Internet cohort Scott Blair doesn't agree with this theory and wrote this essay--which I broke into two parts--to elaborate...

The Bukharin Alternative Part One: Collectivization and the Great Terror

By Scott Blair

In order to answer whether or Stalin was necessary, it is necessary to consider who could have replaced him. In order to do so, let us posit that in 1927, at the height of the debate between Josef Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin, Stalin dies from a bad batch of borscht. Thus, Bukharin, considered to be a more moderate leader, assumes control of the Soviet Union. What would the USSR, under the command of a man who said, “we have to tell the whole peasantry, all its strata: get rich, accumulate, develop your economy,” look like? Bukharin’s policies would have entailed a modification of the NEP, and its continuation. It is therefore worth asking how the USSR would have industrialized under him. Stalin’s industrialization is often held up as an example of his success, and so it is worth asking if Bukharin could have done the same.

To begin with, it is clear that collectivization, the cornerstone of Stalin’s policy, was a disaster. Gross farm output declined 20% between 1928 and 1933, and this is allowing for a recovery after the initial great famine. It has been estimated that “not until the mid 1950s did agriculture regain the level of output achieved in the last years before the Great War”. The number of livestock in the Soviet Union also fell dramatically, and it is estimated that half of the nation’s cows, pigs, and horses were killed between 1928 and 1932. This is especially tragic as the last years of the NEP witnessed increased crop diversification and access to new equipment such as horse drawn plows. 

Admittedly, the NEP had problems. The Revolution, by breaking up the large estates and farms of prosperous kulaks who had produced for the market, ended up producing millions of subsistence farms which were simply less efficient. This meant that while agriculture production recovered and surpassed the 1913 Russian levels, grain sales actually declined during this period. Thus, collectivization did have some benefits, by forcing peasants to provide grain for the Soviet Union’s burgeoning cities. It has also been suggested that the famine caused approximately twelve million Soviet citizens to flee the countryside for work in the USSR’s new cities between 1928 and 1933. 

In addition, the NEP years saw marked instability in pricing. 1922 witnessed high prices for grain and low prices for manufactured goods, while 1923 witnessed the “scissors crisis”, in which peasants refrained from buying industrial goods because the price of grain was low while the price of manufactures was high. Grain prices offered by the state in 1927 were low, while industrial consumer goods were in short supply. As a result, peasants simply withheld their grain from the market. As the state needed grain to industrialize, these problems have led to the belief that the NEP was essentially a dead end, and it is therefore worth asking how Bukharin could have come to terms with them. 

First, by by December of 1927, even Bukharin wanted “to speed up the tempo of industrialization and put pressure on the kulaks, though [he] believed the free market had to be maintained”. Secondly, by 1927 Soviet investment in industry had already surpassed investment by Russian and foreign capital in Russian industry in 1913, and industrial output slightly exceeded prewar levels. Thus, even without any modifications, industrialization and development would have continued, albeit not at the pace of Stalin’s Soviet Union. However, a variety of mechanisms to stimulate agricultural production, and thus industrialization, present themselves. For instance, the Soviet government forced peasants to sell a certain amount of grain to state procurement agencies or to machine tractor stations for their services. The state also imposed a high sales tax on goods but not on food, ensuring that what money peasants received by selling crops would go to the government. 

Thus, Soviet policy ultimately consisted of taking grain from Soviet peasants at artificially low prices, and selling them industrial goods at extremely high ones. There is no reason to assume such policies could not have been followed sans collectivization. This would have resulted in a system that squeezed the peasants, but allowed them to maintain a profit on what was left of their crop, but need not have entailed collectivization. Such a system would probably have squeezed less grain out of the peasants, meaning that industrialization would go less rapidly than historically. However, it would have provided better long term prospects for Soviet agriculture once industrialization had been achieved. 

It is also worth considering Bukharin’s historical plan provide more grain for the cities. Bukharin historically proposed selling manufactured goods at low prices and buying grain at high prices to encourage peasants to market more grain, but it is unclear if this policy would have worked. However, when the People’s Republic of China began paying peasants more for agricultural products in the late 1970s and early 1980s, agricultural production and the sale of agricultural products boomed as peasants responded to the new demand. China’s economic success is well known, and this suggests that Bukharin’s policy may have let the state have its cake and eat it too. The Soviet Union may have been able to build an industrial base which, if not as large as the one it possessed historically by 1941, was not significantly smaller. 

Two additional points suggest that Stalinist policies harmed industrialization. Collectivization and the ensuing slaughter of livestock also harmed the Soviet textile industry as well as exports of wool and leather. As money from exports was used to finance purchases of machinery necessary for industrialization, a more benign policy may have helped the Soviet Union purchase more foreign technology. It is also worth asking what the effect of the famines the ensued from collectivization was. Estimates put the number of deaths from famine between four and nine million, and the birth rate declined in the mid 1930s, ultimately rebounding by the end of the decade. It is therefore worth asking what the net economic effect of the loss of six million Soviet citizens was. One of the purported benefits of the famine and collectivization was that it drove peasants to the cities, where they worked in the USSR’s new factories. 

Would the number of migrants from the countryside have been significantly less in a Bukharin led USSR if we assume that at least some of those peasants would have immigrated to the city? Furthermore, many of those purged were among the USSR’s intelligentsia, and it is evident that the Soviet economy would have done better if engineers, instead of chopping wood in Siberia, had been able to use their skills productively. It is unclear how much of difference fewer purges would have made, but it may have been significant. 

Part Two will cover the role of Stalin in Hitler's rise to power in the first place...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"The Strain" Review and Recap: Episode Three "Gone Smooth"

The most recent episode of "The Strain" was on Sunday. I had a lot going on Monday, so this review and recap is a little bit late...

The episode begins with a mysterious figure getting dressed. We see a being that looks remarkably like Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter movies applying makeup, fake ears, etc. until we have the Eichhorst we all know and loathe. See this here for a comparison. He says the time for charades is over soon and victory is near. We'll see about that, you glorified tick. :)

Meanwhile, while Eph and Nora's CDC boss is being less than helpful as usual, survivor Ansel (the nerdy-looking one who I thought was a bit creepy) is at home with the wife and kids and getting sicker. Bloodshot eyes, ringing in the ears. He won't go to the doctor. And Jim Kent disappears from the CDC to get answers at the Stoneheart Group HQ. There he encounters Eichhorst and is brought back into line when the Nazi vampire offers to ensure his cancer-stricken wife Sylvia is admitted to a drug trial. "You have two bosses now," he warns. Uh oh.

And Sertrakian goes before a judge who cannot pronounce his name properly. Nora, who earlier told Eph Sertrakian knew things, comes in to watch the proceeding. Sertrakian plays the Holocaust-survivor card and the bereaved-widower card. The judge calls him out on the silver sword-cane, which he claims is an illegal concealed weapon. Sertrakian BSes him by promising to have it melted down and replaced with a normal cane. The judge lets him off. Nora tries to speak to him afterward, but when she balks at the idea of killing anyone who has been in contact with the dead passengers and survivors of the plane, he blows her off. Tsk, tsk.

Meanwhile, Eph is at a family court hearing. The judge asks Zach what sort of custodial arrangement he'd like. After himming and hawwing about how he knows his parents want what's best for him, he said he'd rather Eph visit him a few weekends a month. This way, he's not stressed out on top of his stressful job like joint custody would supposedly do. Eph is upset and tries to say that Zach really meant "joint custody" and the judge shoots him down. After the hearing, Eph is really upset. Kelly (his wife) tells him that regardless of what the judge rules, he can visit Zach any time he wants if he just gives her the heads-up first. When Eph insists Zach is the most important thing in his world, Kelly says he should show that with "little things" rather than just saying it. Although there's this stereotype of vindictive ex-wives trying to excise fathers from their children's lives, Kelly is coming off as far more sympathetic and reasonable than the grouchy Eph. Many bloggers have complained about this bit of family drama, but it was actually helpful in humanizing Kelly and painting Eph with some major shades of gray.

Cut to Gabriel Bolivar (who I kept referring to in my notes as "Marilyn Manson"). He's sick. Meanwhile, Eph visits the Frenchman's house and finds a tub full of blood and hair. Something is stalking him. Nora calls him away and we see a vampiric form (probably the daughter) watching him.

Meanwhile, Vasily Fet is making a house call on some influential yuppie whose daughter was bitten by a rat. He catches the rat and exhorts the daughter not to eat in bed (since rats are attracted by the smell of food). While smoking outside the yuppie's building, he sees many rats on the streets. He follows to find them swarming out of a pipe. Something's down there...

Next we see Jim coming home and meeting his wife Sylvia, who's bald from chemotherapy and wearing a head-scarf. She got into the trial. The devil is holding up his end of the bargain so far. Back at the nerdy survivor's house, he's still sick and now his dog is barking at him. He goes into the kitchen and sees a thawing steak--and drinks the blood from it. In front of his horrified wife. Uh oh. And I'm not the only one who noticed something unusual about his tongue...

Bolivar is having a house call from a doctor. He describes ringing in his ears and a voice calling his name. The doctor offers him various prescriptions. Then Bolivar gets up and opens his robe. We don't see what the doctor sees, but said doctor immediately advises him to go to the hospital. Bolivar doesn't want the paparazzi troubles, so the doctor instead offers to get him in touch with a "discreet" urologist who makes house calls.

Back at the pawn shop, Sertrakian hangs up the cane he'd promised to destroy and gets the passenger manifest for the airplane from this hacker girl. He's going to "visit their families" and "pay his respects." Uh oh.

And back at the hospital, Captain Redfern really isn't doing well. Under UV light, his body is alive with the worms. He announces, "He is here."

Back at Eph's former home, Zach is reading about his father's CDC exploits on an iPad. He hears a noise downstairs. It's Kelly, reading through a photo album from happier times. Much sadness and cuddling.

Late at night at Regis Air's headquarters, Eichhorst pays the CEO a visit and kills him, making it look like a suicide. It looks like the "it was carbon monoxide poisoning" charade is going to go on for a little while longer.

And Bolivar isn't looking too good. His eyes are bleeding and even without his Goth makeup, he's looking pale and veiny. Then he goes to urinate and his member falls off. He flushes it down the toilet without a care and then does that creepy eye-blink thing the fully-infected do. And then he turns around and we see full frontal no-genitalia vampire. According to an interview from Del Toro, under that robe he's developed a full-blown cloaca to excrete as he feeds like a tick, so certain parts are rather superfluous now.

The episode ends with Redfern disappearing from the hospital just before they're going to open him up to see what's going on with him. Jim finds him in the basement feeding on blood samples. Redfern attacks him, but the Voice of Evil recognizes him as "Jim" and Redfern backs down. Nora and Eph arrive and Redfern attacks them, revealing the mouth stinger for the first time. Eph beats him down with a fire extinguisher but he gets up to try again--until Eph proceeds to totally destroy his head with the fire extinguisher in the same way the Master did with the man he killed at the airport.

The Verdict: Good episode. Awaiting the next one.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Lost In Space (1998)

Last night I went over to my friend Nick's for another movie screening for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. That night's entree was Lost in Space,the 1998 television adaptation of the classic TV show in which the Robinson family, thanks to the treacherous saboteur Dr. Smith, ends up, well...look at the title. Here's the actual podcast.

So how did it hold up?

The Good

*As I said on the podcast, they tried to make a much more coherent space-opera universe. I remember the original series featured the Robinson family going on a "five year vacation," although some fact-checking online indicates that they actually were part of a serious colonization mission. Instead we have a dying, resource-depleted Earth and different political factions (the Western-dominated United Global Space Force and the Global Sedition, which comes off as some kind of Third World group) trying to take control of the Earth-like world intended as humanity's second home.

*There are some good callbacks to the original series, including the robot being voiced by the same actor and Dr. Smith getting Will Robinson's attention by tapping out "Danger Will Robinson" in Morse code. Several actors from the original show play different roles in the movie--mother June Lockhart plays the young Will Robinson's school principal, for example, while the original Major West plays the commanding officer of the new one.

*Although it took awhile to actually get into space, once the mission actually begins things are entertaining for awhile. The robot, sabotaged by Dr. Smith, goes on a rampage and wrecks the ship, and in order to avoid being pulled into the gravity of the sun, Professor Robinson and West have to trigger the hyperdrive even though, without the hypergate, they could end up anywhere. Well, alive in the middle of nowhere with a slim chance of getting home is better than being incinerated by the sun, so off we go...

*The Robinsons seem a lot more Genre Savvy than they were in the TV show. Professor Robinson can't bring himself to shoot the man who'd tried to kill them in front of his children, so they keep him locked up and only let him out when they explore a derelict ship (more on that later) because leaving him aboard the ship without supervision is more dangerous.

*I liked the depiction of middle daughter Penny as a rebellious semi-Goth who resents having to abandon her life on Earth to go on a decades-long space mission. Will apparently acts out in school (albeit in nerdy ways like hacking school computers for his own projects, not by being violent or obnoxious) due to his father never being around. This does deconstruct the whole "family gives their all for the species" angle because, let's be blunt, most people aren't that noble and self-sacrificing. Mother Maureen, although being more mature about the situation, makes her dislike clear in two scenes with her husband.

The Bad

*The movie is, simply put, incredibly boring. It's not as aggravatingly dull as Spawn was the other night, but it's still pretty darn slow. Nick said it's a "chamber drama" and given the amount of family issues they all have to work through, that is somewhat appropriate. However, the way it's done is booooring...

*The CGI has not held up very well for the most part. The opening space battle between the United Global Space Force and Global Sedition looks like a video game. Things get better when the lost Jupiter 2 encounters a derelict human ship with more advanced technology that's got a cute obvious toy tie-in monkey-like creature and a swarm of space-dwelling spiders (that presumably came off an alien ship found alongside the derelict that nobody really comments on), but they still don't look that good.

*The science doesn't make a lot of sense. The Jupiter 2 has a faster-than-light drive of some kind, but apparently without a completed hypergate the drive transports the ship to a random location. It seems rather hard to swallow that humanity at this point has figured out how breach the light-speed barrier but can't actually guide the ship anywhere. The end of the film implies that with the star-maps retrieved from the Proteus (the derelict ship apparently from the future) the Jupiter 2 will get to Alpha Prime well ahead of schedule, but that doesn't really make a lot of sense. We already have star-maps! Figuring out how to travel faster than light is the hard part!

It would've been better if the Jupiter 2 had an FTL drive that works as advertised and the robot's rampage caused them to jump to a random location before crapping out completely (if it uses space-folding, which the time-travel story later in the movie implies) or drop out of hyperspace someplace random (if it moves them in and out of some kind of parallel dimension).

*The acting is, as a general rule, not very good. The most egregious offender is Jared Harris, who plays the future adult Will Robinson. I liked him as Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, so I'm guessing he got better. Matt LeBlanc--yes, Joey from Friends plays West--also has some issues with his delivery as well.

*Dr. Smith has a lot of wasted potential. He starts out as a mole who programs the robot to destroy the Jupiter 2 for Global Sedition for money and then is nearly killed by a rigged communicator now that he's served his purpose. He's knocked unconscious long enough for the ship to blast off and when the robot goes on its rampage, he's forced to awaken the Robinson family to save his own skin. He talks about how it's in his self-interest in help Our Heroes because he wants to survive to return home, but he's pointlessly treacherous in two different scenes (trying to persuade West to help him take control of the ship, playing on their shared military backgrounds, and later taking several characters hostage). He's also a massive downer claiming they're doomed all the time, which in a situation like this is outright dangerous, not just annoying. He'd have been better as a Token Evil Teammate who's useful (and actually does useful things rather than being The Load) because it's in his interest but definitely not trustworthy.

*The story is too complicated. I'd have dumped the time-travel issue and had them simply forced to fight the aliens to salvage the derelict human ship to repair their own. Of course, the only reason said human ship is there is because of the time-travel plot, so maybe they come across the wreckage of a previous expedition or some Global Sedition explorers in the same boat. The latter could be really interesting--they either have to fight them for the parts to repair their ship or they have to team up like how the Federation and Maquis did in Star Trek Voyager to make it back home or fight off aliens. Given how Global Sedition tried to kill Dr. Smith after he wasn't useful to them anymore, there could be hostility from that quarter, which given how in the show Smith's various shenanigans made life more difficult that makes sense. Plus, if one of the Sedition men gets older daughter Judy's Bad Boy Syndrome going (she apparently sacrificed a lot of her personal life to the project and might resent that, even if she's not as vocal as her siblings), we could have some kind of love triangle involving him, her, and the flirtatious West. A Global Sedition true believer might also give some back-story as to what the group actually believes--the only time their ideology is discussed is that they apparently are planning to build their own hypergate and leave the "Western devils" on Earth to die.

*The friendship between Will Robinson and the ship's robot that plays a critical role later is really, really sappy.

The Verdict

Not as abysmal as Spawn, but still pretty darn bad. So much potential wasted by a mediocre script that, as was pointed out in the podcast, needed some major rewrites. 5 out of 10.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Spawn (1997)

Last night I went over to my friend Nick's to watch Spawn for his podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. It's was slated for October as part of a Halloween-themed month and behold, here it is!

So let me tell you about how I movie I saw when I was in middle school (it came out the month I turned 13) about secret agent Al Simmons who returns from Hell as a demonic uber-warrior to see his wife again after making a deal with the Satan stand-in Malbolgia held up...

The Good

*John Leguizamo plays the demonic Violator, who's the "evil angel" on Spawn's shoulder to speak. And he's clearly having a lot of fun playing this character in all his perverted scatological glory. Among other things he eats a rotten pizza writhing with maggots out of a dumpster (something the actor actually did, according to TVTropes), passes prodigious quantities of gas, and even performs a cheerleading number dressed in drag. Yes, watch it. It's hilarious. But he's not just a purveyor of lowbrow humor and bad advice to our hero--watch out when he gets really mad (it's around 2 minutes into this clip). He's probably one of the best things about this movie.

*The character of Cogliostro, implied in this version to be a Hellspawn from an earlier generation who had successfully rebelled against Malbolgia and now serves Heaven, had a lot of potential to be an interesting character. They didn't touch on it as much as they could have, but then again, it's not his movie.

*I liked how they introduced the evil Jason Wynn (played by Martin Sheen) and his henchwoman Jessica Priest. Jason is smoking prodigiously and putting out his cigarettes in an ashtray crawling with live scorpions, while Priest is getting really friendly with a tarantula.

*The fight scenes--with the exception of the battle between Spawn and Cogliostro and the Violator in Hell--are pretty entertaining. Michael Jai White, who plays Spawn, is a martial artist in real life, so that certainly helps.

*Spawn's widow Wanda and his best friend Terry are in an interracial marriage with a biracial daughter and nobody cares. Not even the villains. It's a non-issue.

The Bad

*How on Earth a superhero movie could be this dull is beyond me. The opening credits (which consist of a lot of stylized fire effects and the names of pretty much everybody involved in the film) take about ten minutes. During the movie and the podcast I joked that this is where a lot of the special effects budget went, considering how poorly the rest of the special effects held up. The movie drags in multiple places, so this isn't just a one-time problem. It is probably one of the most excruciatingly dull films I've seen this year.

*The special effects are abysmal, especially in scenes taking place in Hell. The computer animation sequences in which the characters go to Hell (Al when he's damned as a murderer and Al and Cogliostro when Violator drags them into Hell to fight him there) is really fake. And when we actually get to Hell, it looks like (as TVTropes put it), a bad Playstation One game. Malbolgia is even worse--when he talks his mouth doesn't move with his words. And by that, I mean it doesn't move very much at all. This isn't some 1960s Godzilla movie with poor dubbing, but much, much worse.

Yes, I know the movie was made in 1997, but guess what else came out in 1997? Men In Black.The Lost World: Jurassic Park. And this is after the glories of Jurassic Park (1993) and The Abyss
(1989). This movie cost $40 million to make, so it's not like there wasn't money available.. I've seen much cheaper movies with much better special effects than this. If they made Hell a physical set in the vein of What Dreams May Come and made the Malbolgia a physical puppet monster rather than CGI, that would have been a massive improvement. Sometimes a big puppet really IS better than CGI.

*Here's a really ballsy alternative course they could have taken that would have dealt with the above issue--make the movie animated. There was an an HBO animated series that premiered a few months before the movie did and lasted a few years. The movie could have been a tie-in with the animated series in the vein of Ducktales The Movie or even replaced it completely. The former course makes more sense business-wise even if it means the movie would be released a year later, since a TV show is a cheaper way to build a fan-base. Animation would save money on actors (since it wouldn't take up as much of their time to record lines as opposed to physical acting) and avoid the special effects fails of the live-action movie.

And even though animation for adults is pretty risky in the USA, this would have been a great time for it. This is years before Batman Begins,during which the Batman saga consisted of the much goofier Schumacher films. Hell, this is the year of Batman and Robin, which from what little I know of it was just absurd.

(Seriously, a Bat Credit Card? And here are some really bad Mr. Freeze puns too.)

This is also the age of the dark 1990s antiheroes. Spawn is the epitome of that trend, being an undead assassin transformed into some kind of hell-monster who does really awful things to really awful people. There simply were no films reflecting this trend, so even a riskier violent animated movie would fill a gap.

The Verdict

So much wasted potential. Don't bother with it. 3 out of 10.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Super Mario Brothers (1993)

Over the weekend, I watched the 1993 film Super Mario Brothers with my friend Nick for his new podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Here's the actual episode for your listening pleasure...

So how exactly did a video game series with only minimal plot (the plumber has got to rescue the princess from the lecherous turtle-dragon thingie) get made into a film with a plot? Well, the movie starts out with a woman fleeing through New York to deliver a metal case locked with an exotic stone to a convent in the way one generally associates with foundlings being abandoned. She then goes down a subway tunnel, where she encounters Dennis Hopper in a military uniform with reptilian ridges on his head. Meanwhile, the nuns open the box and the egg inside hatches, revealing an infant girl. Twenty-some years later, the struggling Mario Brothers plumbers encounter a young blonde woman who wears the stone from the prologue as a necklace...

The Good

*I'll give them points for trying to create an expanded world/plot based on the game, even if what ultimately emerged was, well...we'll get to that. We have back-stories for the Mario Brothers themselves, both of them clearly have lives outside of being plumbers (the elder brother Mario has a girlfriend of his own, while younger brother Luigi is into sci-fi, unexplained phenomena, etc). The plot also involves people from our own world ending up in the parallel dimension even before the plumbers themselves get involved, which is pretty innovative.

*Dennis Hopper is having a lot of fun as the nefarious Koopa and it shows. He's the best actor in the bunch and the most entertaining with his distinctive voice.

*There's one scene that comes off as a parody of Thelma and Louise. I guess that's a Parental Bonus.

*The ending--a pretty blatant Sequel Hook--did pique my interest. Apparently it piqued enough interest that a comic-book sequel was written, much like what happened with the film Serenity.

*I did like Yoshi, even though he was too small for anybody to ride on. He's a pretty good example of pre-Jurassic Park special effects--a dinosaur puppet that moves by itself.

*There's an inside joke for gamers that I didn't notice at first--Mario, whose girlfriend was abducted by dull-witted minions who mistook her for Daisy, must dance with a very large woman based on the Big Bertha character from the games in order to retrieve Princess Daisy's necklace. Said dancing includes burying his head in her cleavage to try to snatch the necklace with his mouth. The outfit he's wearing in that scene is orange--much like that of Wario, the evil Mario counterpart who first appeared a year or so before the movie came out. Pretty clever.

The Bad

*The wider world they tried to create is ridiculous even by the low standards of children's movies. The gist of it is that the meteor that killed the dinosaurs instead created some kind of parallel world where dinosaurs evolved into a mostly human-like species dwelling in an isolated analogue to New York City in the midst of a vast desert. I'm guessing having "humans" who are descended from dinosaurs was cheaper than having casts of thousands of reptilian-looking creatures--and would allow for a love story between Luigi and Princess Daisy that's not icky. However, given how the The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! that featured live-action sequences in our world and animated sequences in fantasyland had come out years before the movie, it would have been better if they'd done a similar live-action/animation split. The world and characters would be much more faithful to the game, which would help prevent the problem I'll get to next...

*Animation would allow for the Goombahs and Koopas to resemble their video-game counterparts better instead of being huge deformed quasi-dinosaurs. Given the science fiction plot, the Koopas could be human-sized reptilian creatures and the Goombahs could perhaps be humans (or human-like creatures) wearing some kind of armor? The Goombahs and Koopas instead are these ugly semi-retarded things that look ridiculous.

*They made Mario the plumbers' last name, so it's Mario Mario and Luigi Mario. It's so inane. It'd be better if the "Mario Brothers" thing resulted from a misunderstanding, perhaps by the inhabitants of fantasyland when they meet the plumbers.

*Bob Hoskins is Mario and John Leguizamo is Luigi. Bob Hoskins is 22 years older than John Leguizamo. They do explain this with Luigi claiming Mario pretty much raised him--I had the notion they might be from a large Catholic family where the parents married young and didn't use contraception, so the older siblings might be married and have families of their own when the youngest siblings are born and if the parents died, the older siblings would look after the younger ones. However, it'd be simpler if they were closer in age. Luigi makes a joke about how Mario was like a mother to him, so if they made casting decisions in order to justify a joke that really wasn't that funny, well...I really hope they didn't.

The Verdict

Very poorly made and often inane, but it has its entertaining moments. Four out of 10.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Mighty Ducks (1992)

Last Saturday night, I watched The Mighty Ducks with my friend Nick for his podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Here's the specific episode. I saw the movie in theaters when it came out, so here're my thoughts on this tale of an arrogant attorney who rediscovers his love of hockey due to being forced to coach an impoverished youth hockey team after driving under the influence.

The Good

*Emilio Estevez does a good job playing Gordon Bombay, the arrogant attorney in question. He's quite obnoxious and karma bites him in the behind pretty darn quick. He also has a fairly strong character arc--he learns some lessons in humility and comes to love the children he'd once disdained as "barely human."

*The film has some pretty funny jokes, including a scene where ineffective goalie Goldberg (who is afraid of the puck) is tied up (in heavy pads) and the other kids shoot pucks at him to break him of his fear.

*A climactic scene where a character is deliberately injured by players on the rival team is downright painful to watch. The kid is strapped down on a backboard--as a former lifeguard, I've participated in backboard drills and when those get involved, you know some bad things are up.

*Some issues of social class get explored--the rival Hawks team is as good as it is because it's from a wealthier part of town and its parents can afford to provide good uniforms, rink time, etc. for their kids. Bombay has to get his boss at the law firm to provide a very large sum of money so the kids can buy equipment, practice, etc. Even if kids won't understand this, adults certainly will.

The Bad

*The film is really cliched. Bombay is haunted by his failure as a child to score at a hockey shootout and displeasing his overbearing coach, something that wrecked what could have developed into a promising hockey career. The film begins with a flashback to this and we see it at least one more time. We also see a quite literally sepia-toned flashback to Bombay practicing hockey as a kid with his late father (who died just before the hockey shootout) and an old Scandinavian mentor figure. And the Hawks team is straight out of the Cobra Kai school of bad juvenile athletes warped by their malevolent coach--the same coach who berated Gordon as a child for letting them all down for not scoring that critical goal.

*Per the above, there's a whole lot of Narm going on here. But it's not even funny Narm--it's just groan-inducing. Bombay's challenge to his boss--including QUACKING at him in the office--is just annoying.

*It's not 100% clear how old the kids Bombay is coaching actually are. They're part of a "peewee" hockey league and the team includes two girls, which means they're probably elementary or early middle school aged (before puberty would put the girls at a disadvantage in physical strength vis-a-vis the boys). Goldberg in particular says he hasn't had his bar mitzvah yet, which means he's younger than 13. A big plot point hinges on some of the kids misunderstanding something they overheard Gordon say to his former coach, a misunderstanding that only younger kids would make. However, the kids' dialogue sounds like something older kids would say, with the derogatory nickname "Cake Eater" (I'm guessing an allusion to the supposed quote from Marie Antoinette) for a wealthier character being something I wouldn't expect from young kids from the wrong side of the tracks. And one of the girl hockey players seems to be dating one of the boys--although this isn't really touched on much, they seem more like teens than sixth graders.

*Per the above point, many of the kids are really annoying and bratty, in particularly Jesse Hall who really needs a spanking (or, given how it'd be really improper for a non-parent to do that, perhaps a lot of wind sprints).

The Verdict

A good movie to take kids to see, but adults will likely be bored. 5.5 out of 10.

"The Strain" Recap and Review: "The Box"

Just got done watching the second episode of FX's vampire series "The Strain." It's called "The Box" and, surprise surprise, has to do with the big scary box found aboard the aircraft in the first episode.

The episode starts off with Eph, Nora, and Jim checking out the body of the man the Master killed soon after his arrival in New York City. Jim isn't taking seeing a corpse with its head mashed in very well. Our heroes soon find out that the four survivors have been released from quarantine. Eph and Nora keep them from leaving, but lawyer Joan soon has the secretary of health and human services on the phone. Apparently it was carbon monoxide that caused the incident on the plane and it's no longer the Centers for Disease Control's concern. Eph and Nora protest (Eph a bit too much so, grabbing his supervisor by the lapels) and get an involuntary vacation.

We next meet Vasily Fet, a zealous exterminator who praises his cat for bringing him a rat and then shuts down the fancy restaurant where Joan and Marilyn Manson clone Gabriel Bolivar (another survivor released from quarantine) are plotting to sue the airline after discovering a rat in the kitchen. Joan's eyes aren't looking good and she sees blood in her wine glass, so she decides to go home to her husband and kids. Meanwhile, Thomas Eichhorst--studiously staying out of the sunlight--confers with sickly billionaire Eldritch Palmer and then leaves to see "an old friend."

Meanwhile, Gus drops off the coffin in the warehouse like he's supposed to, but nobody is there to get it. It starts to rattle and he does the smart thing--he takes off and runs. Back home to his mother and brother Crispin, who was one of the thugs who tried to rob Sertrakian's pawn shop. He plays nice until Mom leaves for Mass, then beats the hell out of his brother for bringing stolen property home (a clock he and his thug friend stole after Sertrakian took said friend's gun). Crispin berates him for their mother crying every night while he was in prison and asks him how long until he goes back. Gus, meanwhile, wants to return the clock to Sertrakian, which seems to me to be setting up their eventual meeting.

Meanwhile (I really need to stop saying this), Abraham Sertrakian has a visitor in jail--Eichhorst. How he managed to get there without the sunlight doing a number on him is beyond me. He repeatedly refers to Sertrakian by the concentration-camp tattoo on his arm and claims that he's taken Sertrakian's name away from him. He ghoulishly promises that Sertrakian will remain alive to see the world fall and that the Master will be the last thing he sees, all while gloating about the previous owner of the worm-infested heart Sertrakian keeps in his home. Sertrakian asks him why an old friend of his isn't there to share in his glory and then answers his own question by telling him said friend was cut into pieces and is now at the bottom of the North Sea. Eichhorst will be joining him soon.

Even though they're not supposed to be involved in the case anymore, Eph and Nora are examining one of the vampiric worms taken from the airport. They end up seeking out Captain Redfern (the pilot of the plane), who when they tell him something from the cargo is missing immediately guesses it's the box. The box was loaded onto the plane at the last minute by official-looking people he didn't dare question. Redfern isn't feeling well and Eph persuades him to check into the hospital and see a particular doctor. There, his condition takes a turn for the worse, with Eph disbelieving the changes his illness is making to his body until under ultraviolent light he sees the worms under the captain's skin. Uh oh...

Bolivar, claiming the need to get his "pipes cleaned," has an orgy with three groupies. Or he tries at least--one of them pulls out some of his hair and then he bites down on them. It's not a love bite. He orders the three out and then starts licking up the blood, first from his mouth and then from the floor. Uh oh...

The episode is slow and one reason for it being slow is Eph's personal life. He visits his house to find his estranged wife's boyfriend and his son Zach turning his former office into a game room. Eph and Matt are surprisingly civil to one another and Matt even hugs Eph in a surprisingly odd and awkward moment. Eph then goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where he confesses to having been sober for just over a year and managing to overcome the temptation to drink after visiting his house where his wife is sleeping with another man. From what I know of the books Eph's familial situation is a major driver of things, but seeing it kind of dragged.

And Palmer finally meets the Master. We don't see too terribly much of the vampire overlord beyond his bald white head and his clawed hands, but we do hear him speak. He's rather difficult to understand, which is unfortunate. He's got a deep evil voice (of course), but his words all bleed together.

On the way to the morgue after visiting Captain Redfern, Eph gets a call from the French father whose supposedly-dead daughter returned at the end of the last episode. The father thanks Eph for sending his daughter home, much to Eph's surprise given how the girl was dead. He and Nora go to the morgue to investigate while we see firsthhand just why the daughter has returned--she's now a vampire and when her father tries to retrieve her from her bath for dinner, he gets drained. Soon after, Eph and Nora arrive at the morgue to find it a mess and all the bodies gone. Uh oh...

The verdict: It continues the storyline, but unlike the first episode it's really rather slow. Let's hope the next one is better.

Monday, July 14, 2014

More Thoughts on "The Strain" (SPOILERS)

Now that I've had some time to think (and sleep), here are some more ponderings about last night's premiere of The Strain.

I've only read the first 100 pages or so from the book version,but the part that was the most gripping is the story Abraham Sertrakian's elderly grandmother tells him about a giant who came to Romania. The giant--a young Polish nobleman named Josef Sardu, who suffered from gigantism--is hunting wolf with his father, who has the notion that eating this will cure his son of his sickness. The animals they seek have been displaced from their lairs by something, a something that hunts and kills the other members of the party. Josef, the sole survivor, buries them and goes into the cave to confront what he thinks is something unnatural watching him.

(You can see this part of the story in comic-book form here.)

The premiere episode of the television adaptation is great as it is, but it would have been nice to have that as a prologue just like in the book. Sardu's story could be shown in flashback form much like the comics--both the boy's flashback to his grandmother telling the story and his grandmother's flashback to the events of her childhood and what she imagined preceded them. Then the prologue could end just like the book--Sertrakian and his family are living in territory under Nazi control and have to flee those who would exterminate them just like his grandmother had to flee the monstrosity the once-kindly Josef Sardu became. It would tie in Sertrakian's back-story with the hints we've received thus far about Eichhorst as well.

However, now that I've had some time to think about it, it would be an either-or choice between that prologue and the prologue aboard the aircraft involving the flight attendants. In that respect, the flight attendant scene works better because it introduces Gabriel Bolivar and the little French girl--who will introduce the "dear ones" aspect of the story--and provides the first appearance of the villainous Master in his modern form. One major task of a writer is to "kill your darlings" and I'm sure that story can be told later--perhaps as a nightmare Sertrakian has, or a story he's telling to someone else.

"The Strain" Review and Recap: "Night Zero"

Back when I was a weekly newspaper editor, I visited the library to cover a story and found an interesting-looking paperback called The Strain. I read the first 100 or so pages before more pressing duties called, but I always remembered the book. Now it's been adapted into a television show and going forward, I'm going to recap the episodes for you.

So here goes...

"The Strain" Season One, Episode One: "Night Zero."

The episode begins a narrator discussing hunger and thirst before we see a flight attendant making her rounds as the plane comes in for a landing. I like her--she puts the obnoxious Marilyn Manson-esque shock rocker Gabriel Bolivar in his place and deals compassionately with a young girl traveling alone. Then another flight attendant reports something moving in the cargo area. She goes to investigate and something bursts out of the hold. Soon after the control tower finds the plane dead and uncommunicative on the runway--"like a dead animal." Nice and ominous.

Cut to CDC scientist Ephraim Goodweather, who's undergoing custody counseling with his estranged wife. He self-sabotages a fair bit in the meeting. His wife Kelly comes off as more sympathetic given how Eph is never around. Eph offers to quit his job to save their marriage, but she thinks it's too late for that. She's taken up with a new fellow named Matt, whom Eph had unknowingly met sometime earlier (and exchanges cross words with later on the way out). He arrives at the airport and after some of the other public-safety people try to warn him off, he makes an excellent speech about the nature of a virus that, knowing what I know about The Strain's macro-plot, has got some major foreshadowing going on.

At the twenty minute mark we meet Dr. Abraham Sertrakian, an elderly pawnbroker. Two thugs try to sell him an obviously stolen watch and then try to steal money from him when he's not looking. He deals with them masterfully in a scene that was fun to watch. Upon seeing the news about the dead airplane, he descends into living quarters under his shop where he has an old heart in a jar. He opens the lid and cuts open his finger to drip blood into it--and a bunch of worms emerge from the heart to feed on the blood. This is an awesome introduction.

Thirty minutes into the episode we see Goodweather and Nora Martinez, another CDC scientist, suiting up to enter the plane. Here we learn that Goodweather had been unfaithful with her, but had never revealed it to his wife since she filed for divorce first. They board the plane to find everybody dead--well, almost everybody. If you want a jump scene, the revelation that not everybody on board is dead--including a young man who'd been creepily watching the flight attendants in the prologue--provides this.

Meanwhile, a tall skinny man whose eyes do some creepy stuff I can't quite describe is coming to meet with sickly billionaire Eldritch Palmer--now that's a scary name there--at the office of the Stoneheart Group. The man--named Eichhorst and obviously German--reveals that the ball is rolling to Palmer and jut before the forty-five minute mark, he drops this lovely bomb. "I miss breathing sometimes."

Back at the New York airport, 48 minutes in, the survivors of the airplane are being quarantined and a huge box carved with images of death is discovered in the cargo. It wasn't on the manifest. Somebody isn't very subtle, now are they? Our intrepid CDC investigators, who went into the plane in full biohazard gear, open the box in the street clothes. We're getting into Darwin Award territory with that one. It's full of dirt.

Native soil? Uh oh. There's a latch on the inside of the coffin too.

And at fifty minutes in, things get real. One of the lead airport personnel starts hearing voices in his head. He wanders off into another room where he finds pools of blood on the floor and something big feeding on something on the ground. When he gets close, it rises to its feet--it's taller than him, tall enough to fit in that box--and rams a proboscis into his throat. The proboscis is full of worms and we see them getting into the man's bloodstream through it. Once it feeds on him, it smashes his head to mush before retreating.

Meanwhile, we see Eichhorst conferring with some thugs, including the two who'd tried to rob Sertrakian. He orders Augustin "Gus" Elizalde to bring something out of the airport, something that has to be over the river before daybreak. He offers to fix Gus's mother's immigration status and his brother's criminal record and Gus, with much profanity and threats, agrees.

Next we see Sertrakian on the move. He infiltrates the airport--now crowded with Bolivar fans--and manages to get to Jim Kent, Eph's assistant, by faking heart trouble. Meanwhile, an unprepared Eph--his boss Everett Barnes let him think he was speaking to the passengers' families only--reveals that most of the people on the plane are dead and there are only a few survivors. One of the passengers, the father of the little girl from the prologue, is upset and slaps him.

At around an hour and eight minutes it, we see the bodies taken from the plane being dissected. They all have incisions on their necks and when they're cut open, their blood is white and foaming. Sertrakian finally encounters Eph and demands the coffin be destroyed along with the bodies of the dead and the survivors. If the coffin is still there they have a chance. Nora is interested--Sertrakian knows a lot more than he should--but Eph isn't. Sertrakian gets arrested.

At an hour and sixteen minutes we meet the worms again. They're in some soil that had come from the coffin. Eph and Nora realize that the worms are the vector for what's killed the passengers and the coffin is full of them. Security cameras reveal the coffin has been stolen--and slowing the footage down reveals it's our huge cloaked friend who's done it. Eph orders trucks, vans, anything big enough to get the coffin out of the airport be prevented from leaving. Meanwhile, Gus leaves the airport with the box. He's stopped by police, whose dogs freak out upon smelling the truck, but upon recognizes the Stoneheart insignia Gus carries, tells Gus to tell them he's through with them before letting Gus and the coffin out of the airport.

Back in the morgue, our friend the medical examiner has opened up the bodies and found they're looking rather different inside. He initially refers to them in the recording as abnormal growths, but amends his statement to call them, "New, fully functional organs." Some movement in the morgue alerts him and he finds a heart he'd removed beating in a metal box. He picks it up, only for worms to erupt from the heart and get onto his hands. One burrows into his flesh and he manages to pull it out with a metal tool--only to be set upon by the reanimated passengers from the plane, who now have proboscises of their own. He's made lunch as "Sweet Caroline" plays in the background.

At an hour and a half in, we see Sertrakian being dropped off in the holding tank at the jail. A man who's clearly been in a fight asks him if he's a librarian--I laughed--and upon seeing his Holocaust tattoo, asks what the "ink" means.  Soon afterward, back at the Stoneheart headquarters, Eichhorst is informed that an old man with a sword was arrested at the airport. He refers to Sertrakian as "the Jew" and expresses surprise he's still doing what he's doing. He then makes some comment about how New York will be purified and Palmer summons his aide to go on a walk with him. A sentimental old man, he wants to go for one last walk around the city before "the fall."

Meanwhile, Gus talks with his mother on the phone as he brings the coffin across the river in his truck. He talks to the coffin and tells it that whatever it is, it's brought him good luck.

The episode ends with Sertrakian--the narrator from the beginning--talking about the nature of love as the father who had freaked out about the possible death of his daughter returns home. He soon discovers his daughter is there and rushes to embrace her. She returns his hug, but we see that her eyes do the same creepy thing Eichorst's do.

Uh oh...

Overall, a well-done first episode to what will hopefully be an excellent series. 8 out of 10.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Land Before Time (1988)

As part of the Myopia: Defend Your Childhood podcast produced by the Dudeletter, I watched the Don Bluth animated classic The Land Before Timethe other night. Set during the Cretaceous period, in a time of geological upheaval and climate change, the diminishing herds of herbivores gather to seek out the possibly mythical "Great Valley" where it's still green. After being separated from the rest by an earthquake, the young sauropod Littlefoot and his friends must seek out the Great Valley on their own, all while being stalked by a homicidal Tyrannosaurus Rex that killed his mother. I saw the movie in theaters when I was four years old and hadn't seen it in probably two decades, so let's see how it held up. Podcast here.

The Good

*The battle between the Sharptooth and Littlefoot's mother is well-done. She's clearly significantly bigger and stronger, but he's a better adapted fighter. They depict the Sharptooth wounding her in such a way that it's obvious what happened (we see the shadows of flying flesh after he bites her), but it isn't explicitly bloody and can thus still be rated G. It's not 100% clear how Littlefoot's mother actually dies though--I remember reading online it was infection (similar to the now-debunked theory that someone bitten by a Komodo dragon would die from the nasty bacteria in the rotting meat between the critter's teeth), but blood loss and shock might also do it. If they're all hungry due to limited foot on their journey through the desolation, she'd be physically weakened as well.

*I liked how decisive Littlefoot got when they were attacked again by the Sharptooth. He straight-up plots to lure it into deep water and drop a boulder on it to drown it. None of the usual "the hero refuses to kill so the villain does something evil and causes their own death" nonsense that I've complained about before. It's the equivalent of a bunch of elementary schoolers taking on the non-superpowered Freddy Krueger and it is awesome.

*It makes some surprisingly thoughtful statements about religion. Littlefoot wonders how it is that his mother knows about the Great Valley even though she has never been there and she says it's something she's seen, not with her eyes, but with her heart. Later on Littlefoot has a flashback to something his mother possibly told him offscreen about how the Great Valley is beyond a distinctive rock formation and a ridge of volcanoes, so her faith is based on more than her own desires and imagination. Later on, Cera rejects Littlefoot's vision to go her own way and the other young dinosaurs follow her because it's "easier." Instead Cera leads them into a volcanic desolation (aka Hell) and it's up to Littlefoot, the one individual who had the right idea, to rescue them.

*Although the film's subtlety is lacking, it does make good statements against prejudice. Littlefoot and Cera play together at first, only for Cera's prejudiced parents to stop them and fill her head with nonsense about how three-horns only socialize with other three-horns. Even Littlefoot's kinder mother, who saves Cera as well as Littlefoot from falling into the abyss with the Sharptooth early on, tells Littlefoot that their species are different and there will be plenty of children of his own kind to play with. However, when the young dinosaurs are separated from their parents by the earthquake, they have to stick together in order to survive and it's Cera's arrogance, not Littlefoot's cosmopolitanism, that causes problems. And when the time for the confrontation with the Sharptooth comes, it takes all of them together to pull it off.

*Petri, the neurotic pterodactyl whose fear of heights keeps him from actually flying, has a character arc. We see a scene from his point of view (when they're all standing on top of each other trying to get leaves from the trees) in which heights are terrifying, but he eventually overcomes this fear. The proud and racist Cera learns humility too.

The Bad

*One of my fellow reviewers commented the film felt disjointed and said that material had been cut from the movie against Bluth's wishes. I reviewed the Wikipedia article, which references some scenes of violence being cut out to attain a G rating. It cites this article, which references the T-Rex scene as being trimmed. The area that felt the most disjointed was when Cera leads them into the dangerous volcanic area--the group is separated and we cut from Littlefoot rescuing some of the others to Cera being attacked by a group of territorial pachycephalosaurs without much explanation. I remember seeing a picture of some of them fighting each other in a storybook version I read as a kid and I'm wondering if there was a missing scene where Cera stumbled onto them fighting each other.

*Speaking of Cera, she was the most thoroughly obnoxious character in the film. I can understand the film trying to teach lessons against prejudice, but she was so unsubtle it got old really fast. I guess if you're trying to make a point to children you can't be subtle, but it was so incredibly aggravating.

*There's a completely unnecessary recap of various uplifting events from earlier in the film (Littlefoot hatching, the little dinosaurs cuddling against the cold, etc) at the end.

The Verdict

It's a good movie for children and a good film to see once if you're nostalgic. Seven out of 10. Here's the actual podcast.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Dog Soldiers (2002)

Last night I watched the film Dog Soldiers with my friend Nick for his "Myopia: Defend Your Childhood" podcast. I first saw the movie in high school (it would have been 2002-2003) and although I'd seen it again a second time somewhat later, it was still long enough ago it worked.

So began my third watching of writer-director Neil Marshall's tale of a group of footy-loving British Army soldiers on maneuvers in the Scottish Highlands and their encounter with werewolves...

The Good

One of the best things about the movie is the soundtrack, particularly the downright tribal drum sequences associated with the werewolves. It's really quite stirring. The scene where the soldiers encounter the werewolves for the first time and "shoot and scoot" through the woods with the werewolves pursuing them was such a good example of a montage I used it in my film writing class (and apparently persuaded a pretty female classmate to purchase the film) at the University of Georgia.

For a film whose budget was around $5 million, the special effects are pretty good. The werewolves are men in suits, not computer-generated imagery, but considering the atrocious quality of CGI in many low budget movies (i.e. Sharknado, which may well have been doing it on purpose), even mediocre costumed critters are better. And these aren't mediocre. I remember when the film was new (at least in the USA) and trendy a lot of discussion about the quality of the costuming.

The action scenes are well-done. It's basically the Battle of Rorke's Drift--one character even explicitly references it--with werewolves. All sorts of interesting items get deployed as weapons when ammo runs low. And believe me, when the men fire like they do, it does.

Although the characters could use a bit more elaboration--they were introduced to the viewer twice, once when they deploy from their helicopter and the second time when Cooper (Kevin McKidd) introduces them to Megan (Emma Cleasby) and it was still hard to keep track of them--I did like the characters Spoon (Darren Morfitt) and the Sarge (Sean Pertwee). The former is amusing and hyperactive (something that comes in really handy a couple times) and the latter is a delightful hard-ass. The spooky story he tells the men at night is the perfect sort of thing a long-service non-commissioned officer (he references serving in the Gulf War, which would have been ten years before the events of the film) would tell the younger men. Joe (Chris Robson), although I don't remember ever quite getting his name, died quite well when he realized a werewolf was in the car with him. And Liam Cunningham (the future Davos Seaworth of Game of Thrones) does a good turn as an extremely unpleasant Special Forces captain. When your co-viewers are demanding his death halfway through the film, you know you've got a bad man.

And although sometimes it was hard to understand them, the film had a wide variety of British accents. The "British accent" most foreigners think is the British accent is actually one of many regional ones and they're all present in the film. This being a British film, it makes sense.

The Bad

It's slow. Jesus H. Sanchez, it's slow. There are random fades to black in different places, a scene in the beginning where the soldiers are marching along to this whistling soundtrack for no reason, etc. The film would have been much better if it were tightened significantly. The second time I saw this movie was for a writing group Halloween party and it must've been edited for television because I don't remember it being that bloody slow. Although that's the film's single major flaw, well, there's is the expression "how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?" Seriously, that's the most absolutely damning problem with the film.

Nick is convinced they used three cameras for the film and although two of them were quality cameras, one was not. Parts of the film look rather grainy, in a way that reminds me of a movie shot in the 1970s when camera technology wasn't as good. The opening of the film looks like a 1970s horror movie in terms of film quality. This is less noticeable later on, but it's still a problem.

The scene where the men are camped out for the night and somebody throws an eviscerated cow at them is nonsensical. The werewolves are almost certainly the ones responsible, but rather than attack the men in the open where they'd almost certainly wipe them out, it seem they just wanted to troll them. Given the explicit references to hikers disappearing in the area (that Cooper seems aware of from the get-go), it's not like the werewolves are trying to warn them away so they don't "have" to kill them. If that scene had been drastically trimmed--it can't be cut completely or we'd lose a good bit of characterization, particularly for Sarge--it would've also helped with the length.

The "rules of lycanthropy" could use a bit of clarification. There's dialogue between a character who was wounded (and healing unnaturally--bad sign) and character who was not using bathroom metaphors that sort-of explains the later revelation that a certain person who turns out to be infected was able to hold off the change for most of the night, but in that case it could have been better foreshadowed. The filmmakers did clearly remember the rule of Chekhov's Gun for a bunch of other matters and there is one scene involving the infected-character-who-does-not-change that drops a pretty darn big hint, so it's not like they couldn't have done this better.  Having this person acting sweaty and twitchy but explaining away as a response to stress or claiming to have suffered in the past from panic attacks would have been a good way to do it.

The Verdict

Good scenes, but it really needed a better editor. 5 out of 10. Interesting that this is where a lot of British actors who went on to bigger and better things (McKidd in HBO's Rome, Cunningham in Game of Thrones) got big parts.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Writing Contest Results: June 2014

For the month of June 2014, I wrote 7,400 words of fiction for my writing contest. Given how several of my friends who've been involved in various iterations of the contest have dropped out or not been able to participate fully due to real-life obligations, this might be the tail end of the contest.

Still, I got a fair bit done, including some touch-ups to The Thing in the Woods and Battle for the Wastelands. However, the single largest block of work was done on an untitled faux oral history project I've probably mentioned here and there on the blog. Right now it's at 6,118 words, probably 10 percent or so of its eventual total length.

Right now, I'm thinking that'll be my next project. Although I've got the outline of conventional novel trilogy set in this world in the idea file, it's probably a one-shot (Max Brooks hasn't written a narrative novel or novels set in his zombie world, after all) and since it's a collection of interviews in the style of The Good War or World War Z, it won't have things like character arcs and the like. It's more like a short story collection, due to its interview-based format and how I intend to pay homage to "show don't tell" by the use of extended flashback sequences.

In the event I get some agent interest in Battle or Thing, obviously I'll switch over to those projects (either editing or, if they sell, writing sequels). However, writing a second book in a series when you haven't sold the first is generally not a good idea. Once I finish this project, that's a third axis of advance on my goal toward being a professional novelist.