Sunday, April 29, 2018

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

At long last, the event initiated in the post-credits sequence of the original Avengers film, helped along by the post-credits scenes in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Thor: Ragnarok and a glimpse of the tyrant's machinations in the first Guardians of the Galaxy has come. The Mad Titan Thanos has come to Earth. The Infinity War has begun.

The Plot

Mere minutes after the ending of Thor Ragnarok, Thanos makes his big move. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) manages to escape to Earth, arriving not long before the first of Thanos's generals. Thanos has already captured several of the Infinity Stones, super-powerful elements forged in the Big Bang, and now he intends to get the rest of them. Ranged against him are the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the survivors of Asgard, but that might not be enough...

The Good

*The movie moves along quickly and brings in the various characters from the previous films in an organic and intelligent way. Although some of the early reviews I've read claimed the movie was "overstuffed," I never got that vibe at all. It all made sense.

*Thanos's motivation are pared down and less silly than in the comics. Not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers.

*Thanos (Josh Brolin) in general is a very impressive character, rather than merely being a monster sitting on his throne and getting failed by minions repeatedly as he was in the earlier films. He's as strong (or stronger) than the Hulk, as clever as Loki, and utterly ruthless and driven. He's also capable of quite a lot of pathos for a genocidal space god.

*I liked Vision's (Paul Bettany's) interactions with Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). He's a genius-level AI, but he's also two or three years old. Some social clumsiness is to be expected.

*We visit Nidavellir, a world of space dwarfs who forged the Asgardians' weapons. That's a nice nod to Norse mythology.

*A character who has been away for quite some time makes a return appearance and has a major role to play in the story. Again, not going into detail for reasons of spoilers.

*There are some well-done fight scenes. Not going to go into details for reasons of spoilers, but my favorite is a battle on Titan.

(There's a theme going here, in case you haven't noticed.)

*Peter Dinklage plays a minor role and I liked it.

The Bad

*The Black Order (who in the films refer to themselves as "the Children of Thanos") don't really have distinct personalities. I didn't even get their names--the wizardy one that Tony refers to as "Squidward" I think is referred to by Thanos later as "Ebony Maw," but that's it. I like the idea of a villain having his own personal posse (in TVTropes they call this the Quirky Miniboss Squad, although that's a little too goofy for this crew) of actual characters, but this was a failed opportunity. They'd be better-developed if Marvel had used some of its previous baddies instead of killing off all but Loki and Baron Zemo--say a single Ultron-bot survived, Thanos' underlings rescued/captured him, and instead of those demon-beast things, it's an army of Ultrons in Wakanda complete with a smart-alecky James Spader voicing them all.

*There's a lot of telling and not showing with the nasty things Thanos does before the movie begins. It might have been better to make Infinity War a trilogy instead of a duology, with the events on Xandar, Knowhere, and Nidavellir as the first movie (there might be ways to get the major characters involved there--say the Guardians are on Xandar and the Asgardian refugees at Nidavellir when Thanos does his thing), this as the second, and the events of the upcoming second film as the third. This would make it especially clear Thanos is the biggest and baddest of them all and ironically make this film, probably one of the darkest MCU films, a Hope Spot. Here's how I would have done it, but beware spoilers.

*The whole thing I felt was kind of underwhelming. Maybe I went in with overblown expectations, having read reviews or spoiler-free comments describing people shrieking in the theaters and the like, but still.

*The film has a pretty significant body-count of major characters, but I can sense a major cop-out coming in the second film.

The Verdict

Don't get your expectations inflated and you'll enjoy it better than I did. 7.5 out of 10.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Frederick the Great an Austrian General and Marc Antony Surviving: Two Cool Alternate Timelines

Although to avoid wasting time in arguments I've had myself banned from the alternate-history forum for probably close to three years now (the exception being a window where I could alert them to the release of The Thing in the Woods last spring/summer), I do browse the public forums quite a bit. There are some cool ongoing timelines I follow and I just found a couple interesting new ones.

The first is "Dionysus Lives: A Mark Antony Survival Timeline." It diverges from our history with Marc Antony winning the Battle of Actium by leading his army in person and keeping the sixteen legions from abandoning his cause. With his army and fleet intact, the war with Octavian, the future Caesar Augustus, is prolonged and ends up in a negotiated truce where Antony is dominant in the East and Octavian in the West. Antony wages wars against the Parthians and others, but has to deal with the rivalry between his Egyptian wife Cleopatra and his powerful client Herod the Great. It's pretty interesting, especially for enthusiasts of the Late Republic and the personalities of that era.

(One of the few shows I watched after high school was HBO's Rome after all.)

The second is "Odyssey of Fritz, the Turncoat Prince." In real history, the young Prussian prince who would become the warrior-king Frederick the Great ran away from his father with a "friend" (possibly a homosexual lover), but was caught. In this story, he flees on an alternate route south and ends up in Austria, where he befriends (friends only, much to the latter's annoyance) future Empress Maria Theresa and ends up becoming a major Austrian general. Without Frederick's genius organizing Prussia the state runs into...some trouble (not going into more detail for reasons of spoilers), but Frederick rises high in Hapsburg service and has all sorts of interesting adventures. Highlights include a more brutal subjugation of Scotland and Ireland foreshadowing an earlier American Revolution, an earlier emancipation of the serfs, and the woman who in our history became Catherine the Great of Russia marrying into the British royal family.

Both timelines are ongoing, so check back often. I know I will.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Grimdark Alternative Ending for the 1994 Stargate

The following discussion contains spoilers for the 1994 science-fiction film Stargate, although given how the movie is 24 years old I don't know why that's important.

In the film, Ra plans to send an American nuclear warhead back to Earth, enhanced with the type of materials his advanced technology uses (in Stargate SG-1 it's called naquadah). He states this will enhance the warhead's power 100 times and claims that he created human civilization and now he will end it.

Hold it right there. Assuming that the military sent a W78 nuclear warhead through the Stargate with O'Neill, that's 350 kilotons. A nuke enhanced with naquadah to 100x its force would be around 35 megatons. That's around a third more than the 1960s-era B41 nuclear weapon. Mount St. Helens' eruption was 25 megatons of explosive power, while Mount Pinatubo was around 70 megatons. So Ra sends the nuke back through the Stargate and it detonates in the decommissioned nuclear silo that was the base of operations for the mission. Assuming he can remotely detonate it through the gateway, he's basically just caused a volcanic eruption in the U.S. Rocky Mountains, and that assumes the mountain on top of the explosion cannot contain it. After all, underground nuclear tests generally don't disturb the surface that much.

Mount Pinatubo caused a worldwide temperature drop of one degree, and that was with smoke, gas, and other crap continuously pumping into the atmosphere from the bowels of the Earth and spreading all over the world rather than a one-time big bang and, depending on what's around it, a big radioactive forest fire. Assuming the equivalent of Mount Pinatubo, Ra has just caused--maybe--a repeat of the Year Without a Summer in 1994. That would suck if it causes drought and famine in marginal areas, but it would not destroy modern civilization.

That said, there's a more grimdark possibility here. If there's a major nuclear detonation in the US, it could potentially lead to a confrontation with Russia, although I doubt President Clinton would have ordered a nuclear strike not knowing what happened. Assuming the US panicked and launched on Russia and the Russians fired back, you could have a civilization-ending nuclear exchange depending on what missiles are fired, where they detonate, etc. Bonus points if there's a nuclear winter to cause famine and ecological collapse in otherwise unaffected areas.

Ra (or some other opportunistic Goa'uld who notices) could wait a few years or decades for civilization to collapse, show up and pull his "I'm a god" trick on the debased, uneducated descendants of the exchange survivors, and assume control over Earth. I'm now imagining the Earth's surviving libraries as the equivalents of the fresco Sha'uri showed Dr. Jackson that depicted Ra bringing Earthlings to Abydos and the rebellion that ended his rule on Earth thousands of years ago.

Of course, Ra in the movie doesn't actually seem powerful to pull that off, even if post-nuclear civilization is reduced to medieval levels. He's got a couple fighter jets, one spaceship, and a few guards with armor resembling that of Egypt's gods. The basis of his rule is deception, not raw strength. He might not be able successfully take control of Earth, although one of the TV series' Goa'uld with their planetary empires, navies, etc. would.

That said, I could easily imagine him taking control over part of it. Maybe he keeps Dr. Jackson alive using the sarcophagus long enough to see him returning to Egypt and re-establishing himself as god there once more.

How's that for a Downer Ending?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Geekly Oddcast: The Prequels Nobody Wanted

I'm not a regular participant in The Geekly Oddcast the way I am with Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, but I do show up from time to time. The last episode I appeared in was another game like turning children's stories into horror movies, making animated children's films into live-action movies (I'm holding out for Bart the Bear in costume as Little John), and casting a 1970s version of The Avengers. For this, one, the focus was on prequels nobody wanted. The idea was that we'd agree on one film and then "Rogue One" it, plotting out a full story and actually try to make it good.

The film we ultimately chose was Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Time travel gets put to all sorts of interesting uses in that one, plus I annoy everybody by bringing up Denver the Last Dinosaur. Here's the full episode if you want to hear more, including some thoughts about a prequel to Friday the 13th featuring Pamela Voorhees in the vein of Cher in the film Mask (if Cher's son had died due to camp-counselor negligence and Cher went violently insane). However, it was my understanding we were to come with a few ideas already. Here're the two I provided for the podcast itself:

Highlander-A prequel focused on the Kurgan or Ramirez would have been pretty cool without much effort, but making one about young Connor would be tricky. Maybe a back-story of the feud between the Macleods and the Frasers, with the Kurgan making a dramatic entrance by killing a bunch of people in the vein of Vader's appearance in Rogue One? You could have the love story between Connor and Kate (you know, the one who later demanded he be burned at the stake) and perhaps go with the fan theory that Dugal "comforted" Kate after Connor's death and their insistence Connor was demon-possessed or a witch was driven by guilt.

Since the ultimate goal is potentially making this into a good film, it could be some kind of semi-Braveheart, possibly with a teen love triangle thrown in for good measure, and an occasional appearance by the Kurgan to remind us that this is actually a Highlander film.

The Guyver-The protagonist could be Tetsu Segawa, the scientist father of love interest Mitzi Segawa from the original film. We see how he got involves with the Chronos Corporation, how he became a Zoanoid, and how he ultimately attempted to steal a Guyver unit and defect to the CIA. You could get an early appearance by the Zoanoid gangbangers of the first film and even the dragon-like monstrous form of evil CEO Fulton Balcus much like how Rogue One gives us some of the pre-Alderaan outings of the Death Star. It could give Mark Hamill a chance to reprise his role as the CIA agent Max, although he's aged so much since the movie was made that this really wouldn't be a good idea unless they CGI de-aged him a la Tony Stark in Captain America Civil War or Rachael in Blade Runner 2049 or went full-blown Tarkin or Leia like in Rogue One.

(Granted, you could do an all-new cast, but including Mark Hamill might be the only way to get this off the ground.)

I never really got the chance to contribute any more ideas, but other notions I had included expanding the 1970s opening of Master of Disguise into a full movie, making a prequel to That's My Boy that's basically a Lifetime Original Movie about creepy teachers with the genders swapped, making a prequel to Stargate about how Kurt Russell's character's son killed himself with his dad's gun (basically an "issues movie" about accidental shootings), and making a prequel to Gigli (probably one of the worst movies ever made) following Ben Affleck or Jennifer Lopez's characters before the kidnapping that dominates the film's plot.

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Highlander (1986)

When I was in middle school, I enjoyed watching Sci-Fi Channel re-runs of Highlander: The Series. The show features Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod, an immortal Scotsman who must battle other immortals for "The Prize." Highlander: The Series is actually a sequel to the 1986 film Highlander, in which Christopher Lambert plays Connor MacLeod, a similar character.

(Connor is from the same family, but from a couple generations back. The opening episode of the television series features him intervening on behalf of Duncan when the latter, who has abandoned pursuit of "The Prize" to live a quiet and normal life, is attacked by the evil immortal Slan Quince.)

I also taped (yes, on a VHS tape) Highlander on USA Network's Joe Bob Briggs' MonsterVision program and enjoyed it, even though Briggs mocked the movie's ponderous terminology ("the Quickening and the Gathering and the roaming and the gloaming"). The medieval incarnation of the villainous Kurgan (Clancy Brown) is the inspiration for the appearance of Grendel, the first lord of the Northlands and antagonist of my steampunk-Western novel Battle for the Wastelands. And of course, the opening song by Queen is awesome. So when the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood picked the movie, I was eager to participate.

Here's the podcast. Now for the review...

The Plot

Connor MacLeod is a young man in medieval Scotland who is mortally wounded on the battlefield by a barbarian mercenary known only as the Kurgan. He recovers miraculously, but is cast out by his superstitious kinsmen. He soon encounters the Spaniard Ramirez (Sean Connery), who was actually born thousands of years before in ancient Egypt. Ramirez introduces him to the secret world of the immortals, who are destined to someday be called to "a distant land" for the time of "The Gathering," where they will behead each other until one wins "The Prize."

Mishaps ensue, and we catch up to Connor years later in 1980s New York City. His taking the head of another immortal attracts the attention of police forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). Unfortunately, it is also the time of the Gathering, and the Kurgan is still alive and ready to claim the Prize.

The Good

*The movie is never boring. I watched it on my Kindle (via an Amazon "movie rental") on the elliptical at my gym (much like I did with Tomb Raider for an earlier episode) and an hour went by pretty quickly.

*The aging and death of Connor's medieval wife Heather while he stays young, all set to "Who Wants to Live Forever," is legitimately poignant. No wonder Ramirez advises him to leave her for her own sake, especially since she seems to blame herself for their not having children. For the record, it's part of the mythology that immortals are sterile.

*The version I saw seemed to be an extended version which included just who Rachel, who seems to be Connor's modern-day assistant, is. When I first saw the movie I thought he might be Connor's modern lover who he intends to leave for someone new as soon as she ages to the point the age difference starts getting noticeable (which would make Connor a gigantic asshole--per one of the graphic novels, even the dastardly Adam Monroe from Heroes pretended to be his wife's son and then grandson until she passed, and Connor himself did that for Heather), but the version I saw revealed that Rachel was a little girl he'd rescued from the Nazis and kind of adopted. It also makes it clearer that Heather's death has traumatized Connor so much that he's abandoned any effort at romantic relationships, as Ramirez had advised him to do.

*Brenda Wyatt is a very active female character--she becomes interested in Connor after the police investigate the opening battle in Madison Square Garden and investigates him on her own even though the police seem to give up on investigating Connor for the other immortal's death. She even sets up a date with him and sets up a tape recorder recording and stashes a gun just in case in order to find out more. She also searches the archives for information on Nash and the owner of his house. She's also very interested in ancient sword-making, which is what clued her into his immortal nature in the first place. Some shrinking violet she is not.

*The vile Kurgan gets some interesting character development in the modern day--he has a rather twisted sense of humor, which he gets to indulge in without consequence owing to his immortality.

The Bad

*One wonders if Christopher Lambert, born to French parents and having grown up in Switzerland (and thus having a very French-sounding accent), was the best choice to play the Scottish Connor. Although one could imagine him adopting a different accent and mannerisms over the course of centuries of life, he doesn't seem too different in medieval Scotland as he does in 1980s New York City.

Sean Connery's Ramirez, who was born in ancient Egypt but is living as a Spaniard in medieval times, is even more blatant. It's my understanding that ancient Egyptians were a Semitic people like Jews or Arabs; although there might be exceptional-looking individuals like Ramesses II who was apparently a fair-skinned redhead, I imagine Ramirez would be more Jewish or Arabic-looking than the Scottish Sean Connery. Omar Sharif might have been a more sensible and equally commercially-viable alternative--take a look at his character in the 1980 Chevy Chase film Oh Heavenly Dog or in the 1986 Peter the Great miniseries. He even kind of looks like Sean Connery.

*Lambert's delivery in many cases, especially when he seems to be trying to assume a Scottish accent, isn't very good.

*When Ramirez battles the Kurgan in medieval Scotland, he has several chances to take his head but doesn't do so. That weakens both characters--it makes the Kurgan seem less dangerous and makes Ramirez, who is over 2,000 years old and has been doing the whole "battle other immortals for their heads" thing the whole time, seem less competent. The filmmakers missed a chance to make the Kurgan seem truly deadly, as befitting the man whom Ramirez claims is the strongest immortal.

*Wyatt's discovery of Connor's immortality basically requires him to have been living in New York City continuously for over 200 years--or at the very least returning to the same house after years- or decades-long gaps. That doesn't reflect well on Connor's intelligence--even with the kind of turnover pre-modern disease-ridden cities had, surely someone might notice. And that assumes nobody pays too close attention to ownership records.

*I don't get the romance that develops between Connor and Brenda. Connor's will to never repeat what happened with Heather might be starting to crack after 400-odd years of not being in a serious relationship and he might glom onto an attractive woman pursuing him, but Brenda seems to be motivated more by intellectual curiosity than love or even desire.

*How on Earth can Brenda afford such a gigantic New York City apartment on the salary of a police forensics official, even with some extra income from her books on sword-making? At least in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was made clear April was living above the store she inherited from her father and owned property outside of the city as well, which perhaps she made additional income renting out. Maybe Brenda's living in New Jersey or somewhere else outside of New York City proper, since it takes some time for her to get back into the city the last time we see her in it. This article from of all places shows that Hollywood often misrepresents just how expensive housing is.

*When an immortal character is killed, monsters and demons and what not appear in his Quickening. In previous Quickenings, it seems to be just lightning everywhere. Not really sure what was going on there.

The Verdict

A pretty good movie, but could be better in many ways. 8.0 out of 10, but barely.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Deep Blue Sea (1999)

As some of you may know I'm an Eagle Scout, having earned the rank in 2001. As part of my experiences with Boy Scout Troop 1011 in Marietta, GA, I visited the Scouts' major oceanic campsite Sea Base in the Florida Keys twice, once to go sailing and once to go SCUBA diving. During the first trip, several of my peers and I decided to go see the movie Deep Blue Sea after we got back. I remember really liking it at the time, but how well did it hold up? That's what Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is for.

Here's the episode. And now for the review...

The Plot

Dr. Susan McAllister (Saffron Burrows), who took care of her Alzheimers-afflicted father during his dying days, presides over a laboratory in which mako sharks with enlarged brains are being bred to harvest for a compound intended to treat degenerative brain disease. After the escape of one shark makes national news, she brings Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson), her chief investor, to her oceanic lab in a bid to prevent it from being shut down. There he meets other members of the staff, like parolee "shark wrangler" Carter (Thomas Jane) and "Preach" (L.L. Cool J), a former clergyman who's now the facility's cook.

Unfortunately having a larger brain-to-body-size ratio means that these sharks are more intelligent than the norm, and they want out. As a hurricane bears down on the facility, the sharks enact their plan to escape...

The Good

*The concept is pretty interesting. In shark attack movies, the default "bad shark" is almost always a great white simply due to the being the biggest overtly-predacious sharks (the larger basking shark and whale shark feed on plankton and krill). I think there was at least one horror movie depicting a tiger shark as the villain and the upcoming sequel depicts bull sharks (which are much more likely to be aggressive toward humans) as the villains, but other than this movie, I have never heard of mako sharks being movie monsters before.

*This being a monster movie, there are some pretty creative kill scenes. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail to avoid spoilers, but one involves a gurney and the other involves a character being torn in half.

*There's some decent acting, especially from Samuel L. Jackson. Burrows does a decent job with McAllister's intensity, although I would have expected more emotion from her when recounting her father's last days.

*The only real villains in the film are the sharks, and they're just animals acting according to their nature rather than being truly malicious. It's true that McAllister's poor judgement and excessive zeal caused the problem in the first place, but given the back-story where she had to care for her dying father, that she'd be so monomaniacal in pursuit of her goal of curing degenerative brain disease makes a lot of sense. She's not evil or malicious.

*The sharks in this film's greatest danger isn't their destructive physical power, although there's plenty of that, but their intelligence. They're dangerous smart creatures and put our heroes in jeopardy quite a bit. Seriously, given some of the things they pull off in the movie, one could make an argument that these sharks are smarter than humans.

*This is something I got some pushback on from other members of the podcast, but I liked the depiction of Preach as a Christian character. He's not a preening holier-than-thou jerk, a domineering authoritarian fundamentalist (think Escape from L.A.), or a hypocrite loudly condemning some sin that he secretly practices. Nor is he unrealistically perfect. He has a drinking problem (cooking sherry!) and admits having failed as a preacher, a husband, and a father, but when things go down, he's the one who keeps it together and even leads other characters in prayer. At one point he compares his own situation to Daniel being thrown into the lion's den.

*I liked the brief interplay between Preach and Russell. I've taken a class on portrayals of different ethnicities in movies and they riff on the "black guy dies first" trope that comes up quite a lot.

The Bad

*The CGI used to create the sharks has not aged well since 1999. Although I said on the podcast that this is something to be expected, the more I think about it the less valid an excuse that is. Jurassic Park, which came out several years earlier, had vastly superior CGI, as did Men in Black. It might've been better to use more practical effects, or Jaws-style "don't see much of the sharks until the end" to get around this, especially if the poor CGI was a consequence of its budget rather than incompetence.

*The middle part of the film kind of drags.

*There's a scene involving McAllister needing to get out of her wetsuit that is pretty ridiculous fan-service.

*Although I liked Preach, there is a little too religious anti-science for my taste. Preach at times becomes convinced the shark is a straight-up demon (i.e. a supernatural evil entity) and Carter criticizes McAllister for giving God's greatest killing machine "will and desire." Pursuant to my next point, McAllister's only straight-up sin I can think of was dishonesty about just what she was doing with the sharks. Bad judgement, even the kind that deserves legal sanction (I'm thinking there'd be a lot of charges of reckless endangerment in her future, and since several people died, not just due to the super-sharks existing, but due to her actions when one of them attacks a scientist, probably involuntary manslaughter too) doesn't equal immorality. And moralizing about "playing God" aside, I am not aware of any strong religious justification for opposing genetic engineering, cloning, etc.

(I used to be a member of an Internet forum dedicated to the Left Behind novels and I remember someone online claiming that human clones would not have souls. I cannot think of any biblical justification for that statement.)

*Per the above, there are strong anti-intellectual and Science Is Bad vibes in this movie, as TVTropes would put it. Again, although McAllister wasn't being honest about what she was doing to the sharks, it took a series of unlikely events for the sharks successfully break into the facility and start hunting the people. Even though McAllister prevented a shark that had attacked another scientist from being killed (which Nick pointed out was Not A Good Thing), it took a problem with the helicopter nobody could have foreseen for the next events to happen. Yet when things go wrong, it's the "street smart" but less-educated characters like ex-con Carter and the facility's cook Preach who are more effective than the scientists, especially Janice (Jacqueline McKenzie).

Yes, many people are book smart and lack good judgement and common sense or are prone to panicking, but still.

*To that end, one could also argue that the way "book smart" and "street smart" break down, the female characters end up portrayed worse than the men. Janice is panicky and hysterical and it was McAllister's poor judgement that caused the whole situation in the first place. Meanwhile, Carter and Preach are the ones who save the day. I am NOT accusing anybody of deliberate bigotry, sexism, etc. but that's still the vibe I got.

The Verdict

Another one of those "see it once" films. 6.5 out of 10. There is a sequel coming out this year, which seems to go even further into the "man was not meant to play God" mentality than this one and looks like a bad-CGI direct-to-video schlocker on top of that. I don't think I'll be seeing it.