Thursday, August 23, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Camp Nowhere (1994)

Once upon a time, I was a student at Tommy Cho Karate in East Cobb. In addition to biweekly classes and birthdays, Mr. Cho occasionally had sleepover parties where we watched movies. One movie I remember watching is Camp Nowhere, featuring Christopher Lloyd, Kate Mulgrew (better known from Star Trek Voyager), Jessica Alba in a minor role, and a bunch of other child actors I've never heard of. Well, the good old Myopia: Defend Your Childhood podcast gave me the chance to revisit this film, as it has many others.

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

The Plot

Morris "Mud" Himmel (Jonathan Jackson) and his friend Zach Dell (Andrew Keegan) are going to be sent off yet again for the whole summer to camps they hate--in Mud's case a computer camp and Zach's case military-style camp owing to his poor behavior. Meanwhile, their female friends Gaby Nowicki (Melody Kay) and Trish Prescott (Marnette Patterson) are in the same predicament, with fat camp for Gaby despite her not being fat and acting camp for Trish (and a completely different camp for her sister) so her parents can take a nice long vacation.

Mud devises a scheme to create a fake summer camp where they can do what they want, and they enlist a down-on-his-luck actor and former teacher at their school Dennis Van Welker (Christopher Lloyd) to pull it off. Things go pretty well until the kids' antics attract the attention of local doctors and law enforcement and the parents decide to visit the camp to see what their little darlings have been up to.

The Good

*Christopher Lloyd shows off his comedic acting talents as the down-on-his-luck actor Van Welker. He's always a joy to watch. The montage of him pretending to be the counselor for an acting camp, a computer, camp, a fat camp, and a military camp in order to sell the different kids' parents on the scheme is pretty amusing, as is a close encounter of the worst kind between him and a car wash. Pure, as TVTropes would put it, Refuge in Audacity. And amazing facial expressions.

*There's a bit of, as TVTropes would put it, Reality Ensues when one of the kids is injured and requires medical attention. Let's be realistic...a bunch of middle-schoolers trying to pull something like this would run into all sorts of problems. There's also homesickness, boredom, and what constituents do their leaders when things go poorly in the short run.

*Per the almighty TVTropes, all of the major characters have arcs--Mud and Zach learn to be responsible (and Mud abandons his self-loathing for being a "geek"), Gaby lays off the junk food, and Trish mellows out. Mud's arc is the most obvious, which makes sense since he's the main character. And although TVTropes doesn't point this out, I noticed that Van Welker has an arc as well. He starts out basically as this slacker who's blackmailed into this by a bunch of middle schoolers and uses the whole situation as an excuse to live in a cabin by the lake and flirt with the local doctor, but partway through he starts to remember he was a teacher (albeit one with rather poor judgement--seriously, trying to stage a middle-school musical version of Silence of the Lambs?) and he does have responsibilities to the kids. All these arcs in turn tie in with the ending of the film.

*The film can be read as a criticism of over-scheduling kids in favor of more free play. The various camps the kids' parents want them to go to tend to be super-focused on particular activities (computers, acting) rather than simply letting kids have fun over the summer. The links I posted above contain various articles written from all ends of the political/cultural/moral spectrum criticizing society's tendency to over-schedule kids and in favor of more unstructured imaginative play. Obviously kids need to be supervised to some degree so they don't kill themselves, but free range kids were the norm up until relatively recently and the world has only gotten more safe since then. Alternatively, as Nick and Thomas pointed out in the podcast, one could read this an endorsement of providing at least some structure for kids--they grow bored with endless free play and ultimately have more fun with more organized activities in the later part of the film. One could argue both elements are in play--as the ancient Greeks said, "moderation in all things."

*Zach is clearly a case of, as the Bible would put it, bad company corrupting good character. The movie starts out with him pretending to bully Mud in order to maintain his "reputation" with a bunch of juvenile delinquent friends. Another character even points this out pretty early in the film.

*There are some good middle-school humor jokes, like one of the bullies becoming only effective after having experienced a growth spurt.

*Ironically enough, when the parents come to visit, the kids have to do a lot of the stuff they were supposed to do anyway to fool them--putting on dramatic productions, conducting military drills, etc. That was pretty funny.

The Bad

*Although Gaby is being sent off to fat camp when she doesn't need it and Trish is just being sent away so her parents can go on a prolonged vacation rather than spend time with her and her sister, Mud and Zach are rather disrespectful to their parents, especially Zach. In his case, military camp might be necessary to teach him discipline, although one might argue that his father's excessive strictness is exacerbating his son's troublemaking (by provoking his rebellious tendencies) rather than solving it.

*Although Mud is clever enough to come up with the scheme, he looks like he's 11 or 12. His dialogue comes off as something someone far older and wittier would say.

*It was my understanding that Gaby wasn't actually overweight and her parents (in particular her mother) were erroneously convinced otherwise. The actress certainly isn't. However, her character arc involves her ditching junk food and Mud discusses how someday she'll lose weight and become attractive. That kind of mixed messaging could be a problem given the prevalence of eating disorders and even girls of normal body sizes thinking they're "fat." TL;DR She's not fat, and the movie is not being especially responsible for conceding even the possibility she is.

*The characters are all 12-13. Just how interested in the opposite sex are they going to be? Perhaps I was a late bloomer, but although I'd outgrown the "girls are icky" early-elementary idiocy, I wasn't really interested in girls in the romantic sense until a little later in middle school. I'm pretty there was a Simpsons episode involving a "valley girl" trying to organize a school dance and nobody was really into it, with Lisa being the voice of reason. Yet Mud and Zach have have romantic subplots and in the side of one shot we see two kids making out. They're not high schoolers, yet they seem to act like them.

*This isn't really a knock against the film's quality, but the movie works best for a pre-Internet age. A few minutes of Googling would have blown the scheme up right away unless Van Welker was a skilled web developer and had a bunch of fake Yelp accounts too--in which case, he probably wouldn't be working at a cheese shop in the mall and hiding from the repo man.

*The movie kind of drags in the middle. Would've been better if they'd tightened it up a little.

The Verdict

Entertaining but flawed. 7.5 out of 10.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: My Science Project (1985)

Once upon a time, back when video rental stores were pretty common instead of being retro rarities, there was a video store in the Parkaire shopping center in East Cobb where I (or rather, my parents) regularly rented movies when I was in elementary school. There (I'm pretty sure it was there) I got hold of a 1980s science fiction entitled My Science Project. Before I watched the movie for Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, I remembered liking it but I didn't remember what happened in it that well. What I did remember I thought might actually be from the time-traveling section of House: The Second Story, which I saw on television.

So when Nick was looking for movies to do for Myopia, I suggested this one. We watched it as part of a whole month dedicated to "1990s precocious kids" films, although the cast seems a lot older than the denizens of a typical (as Nick would put it) "kid empowerment film" from that decade. Here's the podcast. And now for the review.

The Plot

It's two weeks before graduation and Michael Harlan (John Stockwell), who's more interested in cars than academics or his girlfriend Crystal (Pat Simmons), and his buddy Vince Latello (Fisher Stevens) don't have a science project. His old hippie science teacher Bob Roberts (Dennis Hopper) tells them that without a science project they can't graduate high school. Furthermore, to encourage him to stretch himself, he's not allowed to do a project on cars.

So Michael sneaks into an Air Force boneyard along with nerdy Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck) and salvages the engine of a fallen alien spacecraft. It sucks power from nearby sources of electricity and causes weird space-time anomalies to occur.

And then it gets plugged into the electrical grid and things really get weird...

(FYI, Jonathan R. Betuel wrote and directed this film. He's the brains behind The Last Starfighter, a previous Myopia adventure.)

The Good

*They managed to get Dennis Hopper--the Dennis Hopper--in the film. That's pretty impressive, given how the rest of the cast are no-names. I did how he portrayed his character--he's an ex-hippie who wants to encourage the kids to succeed and encourages them to not take the easy way out, even though he has to put his foot down when they're not getting their work done. Of course, he also gets waaay too into his subject matter.

*Although Michael is self-absorbed and not the most selfless and attentive boyfriend at the beginning of the film, he's more empathetic and has a much better attitude toward women than Vince. For example, when Vince says his father told him women will like him if he treats them like dirt, he asks Vince what his mother thinks about this and Vince is forced to admit his parents are divorced.

*Vince is a jerk with criminal inclinations (shaking down a student for pay-phone money, for example), but he's pretty funny. I liked how Fisher handled him.

*Vince for all his obnoxiousness is developed somewhat--even though he's just as much of a greaser as Michael, he's always got a sci-fi or monster movie reference available for whenever things get weird.

*It'd be easy to make the nerdy Sherman (Rafael Sbarge) a total put-upon victim of people with more friends and better social skills, but he's more complicated as well. He's abrasive, clearly looks down on people less intelligent than he is, and engages in some (admittedly more harmless and silly) stalking and psychological warfare toward Harlan and Ellie when they're on their kind-of date. And like Bob, he's clearly book smart but not totally up on common sense.

*At least some of the science has a basis in reality. The aliens in the film would have to be from outside our solar system (there's certainly not another technological civilization here) and in order for them to visit realistically they'd need faster-than-light travel. However, according to many Internet science types, the ability to travel faster than light implies the ability to time travel. That an alien engine presumably capable of faster-than-light travel, when fiddled with by people who don't know what they're doing, starts causing time warps as well makes sense.

*The film was clearly made in a time before angst about terrorism and school shootings and that's a good thing. I doubt the movie would be made today because plot points involving students blowing up power lines or going armed into a school to shut down a time warp wouldn't fly with the hoi polloi.

*The last part of the movie, in which all kinds of crazy time-warp stuff happens, is pretty fun.

The Bad

*When President Eisenhower is brought to see the captured flying saucer, he simply orders the Air Force to "get rid of it." That really doesn't ring true to his character. Even though he was skeptical of the military-industrial complex that began with WWII and continued into the Cold War, a captured extraterrestrial craft that "made a mockery of our interceptors" would be a treasure trove. It'd be more sensible if he ordered it taken somewhere more secure and something fell off, to be found nearly 30 years later by the protagonists of the film.

*The film jumps from Michael leaving to go on his "date" with Ellie to them sneaking into the Air Force base with no reason for it, even though he does try to explain later on. Throwing in some kind of urban legend about what went down back in the 1950s earlier in the film and have Michael decide to "impress" aspiring-journalist Ellie by investigating it would have been better. Foreshadowing and less need for after-the-fact explanations.

*A character getting sucked into an alien machine reminded me a lot of the original Ghostbusters, which came out a year before.

*The character's plan to stop the warping of reality could have been done without actually leaving the school building. Why black out the town if you can find the school's circuit breakers? They could be running around the school with all sorts of weird space-time stuff happening around them.

*One character reveals to another character their trust issues with people, trust issues that were not in evidence elsewhere in the film.

*The movie kind of drags in the middle.

*Some of the science is a bit outdated at best. For example, Neanderthals weren't Bigfoot.

*Nobody would need to be told some characters are Viet Cong. If they're 17 in 1985, they were born in 1968. The Vietnam War would have been their childhood, or something their parents or older brothers would have personally experienced.

The Verdict

It's not great, but it's not awful either. I'd say it's mediocre and only really worth seeing if you're feeling nostalgic. 6.5 out of 10.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

My Decatur Book Fest Schedule

I took a page from the great Marko Kloos (author of the Frontlines series, several of which I reviewed on the blog) and decided to put up my schedule for the 2018 Decatur Book Festival, where I will be making several appearances. The festival takes place Saturday 9/1/18 and Sunday 9/2/18 in Decatur, GA, one of the eastern suburbs of Atlanta, GA.

Posman Books

Posman Books Atlanta hosted my second book signing during the lead-up to Halloween 2017 and the manager contacted me to see if I would be interested in an hour-long signing slot. I will be signing copies of The Thing in the Woods and a few copies of The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2 from 1-2 PM on Saturday, 9/1. For those of you new to my blog, Thing is my Georgia-set Lovecraftian horror novel, while Best Of contains my short story "Nicor" and 21 other quality sword-and-sorcery tales.

Emerging Authors Pavilion

Thing and Best Of will be available for purchase at the Emerging Authors Pavilion throughout the entire weekend. However, I will be in the pavilion in person Sunday 9/2 at 12:30 PM for a short speech on Thing, probably about how the book wouldn't even exist if not for a chance trip to a long-since-closed Borders when I was in college. Afterward, I will be signing books in the pavilion from 12:40 PM to 12:50 PM.

Atlanta Writers Club

I will be signing Thing and Best Of at the Atlanta Writers' Club from 4-5 PM on Sunday 9/2. I'm not familiar with this organization, although I did attend a meeting of theirs a few years ago before formally joining relatively recently.

If you'd like to come for any of these events, here's the Facebook event. Sign up there to let me know you're coming. Here's a festival map of Decatur Square to help you find where everything is.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Protesters Come From Across Metro Atlanta 6/30

Protesters gathered from across the metropolitan area gathered in Atlanta June 30 to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's aggressive immigration enforcement that has separated 2,000 children from their parents.

According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, over 4,000 protesters marched through Atlanta from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)'s Atlanta Detention Center to the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in protest of recent "zero tolerance" immigration enforcement. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a veteran civil-rights campaigner, spoke to marchers outside the Richard B. Russell Federal Building. The protest was one of many such protests the AJC reported taking place nationwide.

These protesters came from different regions of the metropolitan area. Anna Crumbliss came from Doraville, while Eli Banks came from near Grant Park. Coming a little farther afield was Kara Sweeney from Johns Creek, GA.

"This is a time in the US when we have to resist any and all policies and actions that lead us away from our humanity and compassion," Sweeney said when asked why she was participating in the protest. "The family separation practices at the border, implemented by the Trump Administration, are cruel and unnecessary."

Banks echoed her words, saying that previous U.S. immigration policies were questionable already and that detaining children separately from their parents was cruel and unnecessary. Crumbliss said she participated in the rally because she wanted to show compassion for immigrants mistreated by the government and advocate for compassion and change.

Banks described the protest as "passionate, but friendly." There were no counter-protests he could see, or other incidents of friction. Sweeney said there was a good turn-out when the protesters gathered at the detention center. Protesters cheered and waved to ICE detainees within the building, who waved back. She described the march as not being particularly long, less than a mile.

"The rally was the most beautiful environment I could have imagined," Crumbliss said. "Everyone there was advocating for others, beaming with hospitality, and fighting for the America that we know and love."

She said the love that echoed through Atlanta when the protesters started chanting, "Love, not hate, makes America great!" gave her the chills because of its power. She said she was proud to be part of a movement of people from all walks of live, ages, and religions coming together to fight for justice.

Although representatives from ICE could not be reached for comment, Banks, Crumbliss, and Sweeney did not report seeing any of them there. Banks said that he only saw a few police and members of the Atlanta Fire Department. Crumbliss said the police mainly directed traffic and kept protest participants safe.

"It was a very peaceful and upbeat event where all we felt from the police present was support and respect. We appreciated them being there," she said.

When asked about what they thought the government should do, all three said ICE should immediately reunite separated children with their parents, a process that is still going on despite a court-ordered deadline. Banks went on to advocate for more humane centers for those still detained, citing how illegal entry into the U.S. is only a misdemeanor. He advocated a path to citizenship for those who entry the country without documentation rather than immediately deporting them. Crumbliss stated that although open borders is impractical, the U.S. should spend monies earmarked for a border wall she described as "pointless" by revising existing rules to not count families of skilled workers who get green cards against the 140,000 yearly cap, something she said would eliminate the backlog of Indian, Chinese, and Filipinos in the U.S. on work visas. This would allow these immigrants to start businesses or change jobs without bureaucratic hurdles.

Crumbliss also advocated allowing the states to run their own visa programs alongside the federal one to allow for workers to be brought in for state-specific industries, specifically suggesting that dairy-producing states could create agricultural visas for farm workers as an example. Crumbliss cited regional visa programs like Canada's Provincial Nominee Program or Australia's different regional schemes.

"These programs have created greater population and employment growth," she said.

Sweeney advocated Donald Trump be impeached for his role in the crisis and stated that her ideal immigration system would be based on compassion and human dignity and be free from racial discrimination.

Although Banks said he would be making sure to write his elected representatives and Crumbliss said she believed that the current administration's policies would likely prompt her to protest again, Sweeney had the most elaborate plans.

"We are an activist family," she said. "We believe in being allies to those who are oppressed or harmed."

She attended a meeting a local mosque to learn how Trump's blocking of immigrants from several Muslim nations impacted Muslim communities. Her church Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North is deeply involved in political activism and Sweeney described how she contacted senators and congressmen daily to protest the Trump administration's policies. She also campaigns for local political candidates and will be looking for volunteer opportunities with the communities most impacted by the administration.

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Matilda (1996)

When I was a little kid, my parents read to me (or I read myself in school) many books by noted British children's writer Roald Dahl. I even remember seeing the 1970s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film when I was home sick for a prolonged period. When I was in later elementary school, Dahl's novel Matilda about a telekinetic elementary school student was adapted for film. I don't remember seeing it in theaters, but I do remember seeing it on video.

So when the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood decided on a theme month dedicated to "precocious kids" (a common theme in 1990s films), the film adaptation of Matilda was a logical choice. Here's the podcast. And now for the review.

The Plot

Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson) is the only daughter of the boorish and dishonest used-car salesman Harry (Danny DeVito) and the annoying Zinnia (Rhea Perlman) Wormwood, who gratuitously neglect her not long after she's born. I mean, seriously, they leave her alone at home starting at age 2-3 so the father can work, the older brother can go to school, and the mother can play bingo. She teaches herself to read and makes her way to the library by herself to learn more, ultimately self-educating herself to at least the middle and possibly high school level by age six. Although her father is initially reluctant to allow her to go to school at all ("who'd sign for the packages"), when he sells a car to the monstrous Agatha Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), he agrees to allow his daughter to attend her school, Crunch-Em Hall. There she makes her first real friend Lavender (Kiami Davael) and meets the saintly Jennifer Honey (Embeth Davidtz), a teacher with a surprising (and not particularly fun) connection to Trunchbull.

The Trunchbull's reign of terror is soon in jeopardy as Matilda begins to develop psychic abilities...

The Good

*Although the 1990s were full of films and television depicting children as smarter and wiser than obnoxious adults (much to my own parents' annoyance), this movie at least provides reasons for it rather than teaching a generalized "kids are good, adults bad" message. Matilda's parents are neglectful and do not value education, but Matilda herself is a child prodigy who is self-taught to a truly astonishing degree. The beginning of the film where this is established is actually rather sad. Her father is also a dishonest businessman and since he's neglected Matilda, she's drawing her moral lessons from her many books and not from him, thus recognizing him for the slimeball he is.

(And although the adults don't recognize the Trunchbull's evil, it's not because they're stupid or even support her cruelty--it's because the stuff the Trunchbull does is so over-the-top ridiculous that most people would assume the kids are being imaginative. Seriously, having an iron maiden in one's office and locking kids in it for hours? Throwing kids out windows? No adult would believe a kid who claimed that.)

*Sometimes I got a magical realism vibe off the movie. Matilda's psychic abilities are too blatantly fantastical to fit into that category, but there're a couple more subtle scenes involving other characters. Considering how dominant magical realism is in Latin American literature, that's a nice bit of cultural blending.

*The relationship between Ms. Honey and the Trunchbull explains why an adult woman would need a child to encourage her to stand up for herself. Not only was Trunchbull abusive toward Ms. Honey as a child but she seems to have a psychological hold on her even as an adult (they apparently have "heart to heart" conversations despite their ugly history). The fact Ms. Honey is Trunchbull's employee encourages this. Matilda is a child prodigy with psychic abilities who, though she fears the Trunchbull, hasn't had her spirit broken by years of abuse. Furthermore, owing to her supernatural gifts, she is far more capable of dealing with a much larger and more aggressive person than Ms. Honey is despite being a child.

*The movie is amusing throughout. There's some obvious Dahl touches, like "a kindly rhubarb farmer." And some of that humor would be amusing for adults as well, long before Shrek made that kind of thing common in kids' movies. Harry is concerned about his wife's interaction with "the speedboat salesmen" (really FBI agents surveilling the house) and even refers to them as "male strippers," while a conversation Zinnia has on the phone references disputed paternity and breast implants. The Trunchbull for all her vileness has a truly impressive vocabulary, especially when she's ranting at children. And the Trunchbull was an Olympian--in 1972, the year of the Munich terrorist attacks. During the podcast we discussed a possible Trunchbull prequel in which she helps the Mossad hunt down the Palestinian nationalists because they'd stolen her thunder--think the movie Munich with slapsticky Trunchbull violence, like her killing PLO guys with the hammer-throw and shot-put. That'd be a hoot.

*Speaking of the Trunchbull, Pam Ferris is clearly having a lot of fun chewing the scenery playing her. And some of the supporting cast are pretty funny. One of the FBI agents watching the house (Mr. Wormwood is knowingly buying stolen car parts) is played by Paul Reubens--Pee-Wee Herman--and is pretty entertaining.

*Finally, I really liked how the film emphasized the importance of reading and libraries. Reading these days is in decline, especially among young people without something like Harry Potter to inspire them to read as it did a whole generation not long ago.

The Bad

*The movie does seem a little slow in places. At an hour and forty minutes it does seem to run a little long for a children's film, even though most Hollywood films are 90 minutes or so.

*Although it's amusing throughout, I remember it being a lot funnier when I was a kid. Especially Zinnia's "DOUBLE BINGO!" scene.

The Verdict

Better for kids than adults, but by no means a bad film. 8.0 out of 10.