Week of Movies

I’ve been in a very passive media consumption mood for the last week, so I’ve spent most of my free time watching movies instead of playing games. Here’s what I’ve watched in the past week or so:

Amazon Prime

Oasis. Pilot for a stylish science fiction series. A priest is requested at a struggling offworld human colony. I always find it interesting when people of faith are portrayed as something other than stereotypical villains, especially in science fiction. This priest is a little too far on the stereotypical “cool guy therapist” anti-trope side, though, but hey, it’s a step in the right direction.
Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation. Popcorn flick. It was okay. Good stunts, as usual.
Terminator: Genisys. Popcorn flick. It was terrible. #NotMyTerminator
13 Hours. Story of the Benghazi attack. I expected this would be a typical Michael Bay seizure-inducing flick, but it was remarkably reserved. I question the details of the film, but overall it “sort of” matched what I had read of the incident and was better than I expected. The entire film I was distracted by the fact that John Krazinski looked exactly like Zachary Levi from Chuck.
The Battle of Chosin. Documentary on a disastrous Korean War battle that I had previously not known about, and the entry of China into that war. I watched it because I wanted to know more about how we got to where we are today with North Korea, and the roots of that are very much in the Korean War. It was a good documentary, but a terrible event.
Hornet’s Nest. Documentary following two embedded reporters during the Afghanistan War and an intense battle with the Taliban. Initially I watched this to understand more about the conditions of fighting in Afghanistan, but as it went on I felt it was more important simply to bear witness to what those guys went through. (Incidentally, Sand Castle is another good movie about the Afghanistan War–it’s a drama but it presented the political situation pretty well.)
Apocalypse Now. I’d never seen it before, and it’s been on my “I should watch that someday” list for ever. It was okay. Some parts were good, other parts seemed to be drowning in pretentious cinema or like you had to be high to enjoy it. Not surprisingly, young Martin Sheen looked exactly like Emilio Estavez from Young Guns.

Netflix

Jaws. Never seen before. It was pretty good. Better than I expected a movie from the 1970s to be.
The Siege of Jadotville. Dramatization of a Cold War incident that I’d never heard of before, about Irish soldiers trying to defend a town in the Congo during the 1960s.
Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden. A dramatic recreation in the form of a documentary. It was okay.
Tropic Thunder. Parody of Vietnam War movies by Ben Stiller. It was funny, but it was the kind of humor that you’re ashamed to be laughing at and would probably not admit to anyone that you thought it was funny. :) Generally I prefer my humor to be a little more subtle, and this movie kind of hit you over the head with it. Still, it was better than I expected it to be.

The Mist (2017)

When I heard that there was a new version of Stephen King’s The Mist available to watch, I ran to my nearest cable box and found the ten episodes of season one buried in Spike TV’s video on demand on FIOS.

The Mist has always been one of my favorite Stephen King stories. It was a novella at the beginning of the collection Skeleton Crew. (Survivor Type is the other memorable story from that book.)

Anyway, The Mist was made into a mediocre movie in 2007. I don’t have any specific memory of hating it, so I’m assuming it was “okay”—not terrible, but not fantastic. I recall that the movie took liberties with the book, but it followed roughly the same plot: A group of people become stuck in a supermarket or something when a supernatural mist surrounds them. It’s the classic stuck-in-an-elevator story, with a Stephen King survival horror spin.

Fast forward to 2017, and now we have The Mist in a television series. The first season contains 10 one-hour episodes.

The first episode is terrible. Just mind-bogglingly awful. The script is terrible and the acting is terrible. It’s an absolute train wreck of exposition as they try to setup the backstory for the characters before they get trapped in the mist. Everything is forced and stilted and incredibly unbelievable. It’s very clear that they made no attempt to adhere to anything from the novella.

It was so bad that I couldn’t stop watching it.

The metallic shrieking catastrophe continued through the second, third, and fourth episode.

Then something happened. In the fifth episode, suddenly the actors started to act. Dramatic tension developed. The tone of the show shifted from a Lifetime special back to where it belonged: Horror. Instead of listening to the show in the background while I went about my Internet browsing, I suddenly found myself watching scenes all the way through from start to finish.

The characters finally morphed from robots delivering terrible dialog into people that I could care about. In the initial episodes, we were supposed to care about them because of the artificial backstory they tried to jam down our throats, and it was hilariously ineffective. But as the series went on, we started to care about them because of the terrible situation they were in, and that is the entire point of The Mist in the first place.

They should have started the show at episode 5, and filled in the Lifetime drama backstory in flashbacks.

Toward the end of the series, the tone shifts from a tense psychological horror into more of a straight-up survival horror, which is what we were expecting all along. By the time it gets to this point, around episode eight, the show is not that bad, all things considered. The actors are better at portraying characters on the edge of sanity than they are at portraying regular people on a normal day.

But it’s asking a lot to make people sit through four terrible episodes and another three or four mediocre episodes, before you get to a good part. I can’t imagine very many people sticking around to see it through that far.

Still, it’s nothing like the novella. They tried to give the mist a personality or an evil spirit quality and to me that falls completely flat. There isn’t supposed to be any kind of intelligence to the mist. It’s just supposed to be a plot device to force strangers together into a survival situation, so we can watch them fall apart or rise to the occasion.

In conclusion, read the book. :)

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

I bought Prince of Thorns back when it was relatively new on the market (a few years ago?). I read the first chapter, didn’t particularly care for it, put it away, and moved on to something else.

Recently I found it again in my Kindle library after I wrote that bit about the grimdark genre, remembered that I’d only read a single chapter, and decided maybe I didn’t give it a fair shot. It’s at least popular enough to have spawned two sequels, so somebody must like it.

So I went back into it using my patented “read the first sentence of every paragraph until something catches my eye” method, which is a surprisingly fast way to read, if not entirely comprehend, a book. (Then again you might be surprised how often the first sentence of a paragraph summarizes the whole paragraph. It’s a trap I fall into myself quite often.)

This time I got to Chapter 24, the 49% mark, before I reached the same conclusion as the first time I tried to read it. (Actually I had reached that conclusion at about the 10% mark but I kept skimming through it because I had nothing else at hand to read.)

It’s a first-person narrative where the narrator is kind of a bastard (figuratively, not literally). It’s set in a medieval-Europe-like setting during the “Hundred Wars” which presumably is supposed to resemble The Hundred Years War (by most accounts one of the worst times in European history). It’s heavy on dialog and light on description and exposition, so it’s a fairly fast read. The story begins with our hero (cough cough) in the middle of a rampage of vengeance for something that happened earlier.

In the interest of learning to be a better writer, I’ll try to diagnose why I don’t like the book.

I don’t mind the grimdarkishness of it. I don’t mind that our character is a bastard. The problem I think is that it’s shoved into my face so fast that there was no time to get accustomed to it. We are introduced to our main character in the first chapter and the author tells us through this character’s actions and thoughts that he’s consumed by hate, bent on single-minded, bloody revenge.

Um. Cool?

The classic story of revenge doesn’t bother me. But the author fails to give us any time to get to know our main character and develop any kind of sympathy for him before we see him rampaging. Revenge stories are supposed to start out by showing our hero being a great person who doesn’t deserve the bad things that happen to him or her. This book does not start that way. It starts out with, “Eww, this guy’s a creep.”

Compare with Arya from The Game of Thrones. She launches into a classic tale of (albeit slow-motion) revenge, too, but we root for her because GRRM gave us three-quarters of a book to get to know and like her before bad things happened to her. Compare also with that guy Glokta from The Blade Itself. He was kind of a bastard, but Abercrombie was able to make him sympathetic enough (through humor and crippling injuries) that we could turn a blind eye on his monstrous behavior.

Our main guy Jorg in Prince of Thorns is just a straight-up monster. He says monstrous things without a trace of humor. He thinks monstrous thoughts. He doesn’t struggle with the moral implications of his monstrousness. He doesn’t wish he wasn’t a monster. He just jumps up and declares, “Yes, I’m a monster, and I want things, so don’t get in my way.” Even his companions are scared of him. And not only is he a monster, but he’s a teenaged monster. (Redundant, I know.)

Now it’s true that Bad Things happened to him when he was younger. His behavior is partially a product of his time and his upbringing. (His father is also a monster.) It’s the kind of thing you might see in a supervillain origin story. In fact, the author is doing a decent job of building up Jorg as a complex villain.

Except, you know, he’s the protagonist.

Maybe that’s the whole point of these books. “What if there was a book where the protagonist is the evil villain? Ha ha! The joke’s on you, reader! Trope subverted!”

Well unfortunately it’s not really working for me. I’m all for subverting tropes but this either goes too far or it isn’t executed well enough for me. It’s not very satisfying to read a book and root for someone to kill the main character the whole time. It’s destined to end in disappointment. (Because there are two sequels.)

The worldbuilding falls a bit flat for me, too. It’s some sort of alternate Earth I guess where some things are the same (the pope, Jesu, Roma, the Hundred Wars) but some things are different (place names). I think there might be some kind of magic but it seems unimportant. It feels a bit lazy to me.

On my precisely-calibrated rating scale, I give Prince of Thorns a “meh.”

Is This The Life We Really Want? by Roger Waters

I’ve been trying to write about a movie or television show every Saturday, but I didn’t have anything ready for today. So you get an album review!

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a long-time Pink Floyd fan, so when I saw that Roger Waters would be releasing a new album, I instantly clicked that pre-order button on Amazon. The CD and AutoRip MP3s both arrived yesterday, Friday, June 2.

I was very nervous to hear this album. After all, Waters’ last album Amused To Death is a masterwork of musical perfection. It would be hard to top it. Also, the only criticism I ever had of ATD is that Waters’ voice didn’t sound that great compared to his earlier stuff, which I chalked up to the ravages of the aging process. That was way back in 1992.

Now it’s 2017, and presumably Waters has aged another 25 years. Speaking from some personal experience, that’s a lot of mileage to put on vocal cords that didn’t sound that great to start with.

I’m happy to say his voice sounds fantastic. Admittedly there’s a lot of technology available to fix vocals these days that weren’t around in 1992, but his voice doesn’t sound unnatural to me.

The album begins with When We Were Young, a sort of spoken-word prelude that sets the tone and announces that this is, indeed, unmistakably, a Roger Waters album.

Most of the album consists of quiet, simple melodic instrumentations of piano, acoustic guitar, and bass over light drums, with accents of synths, strings, and backing vocals. But some tracks venture into more electronic, trancey, Floydian territory. Familiar, topical television sound bites pepper almost every track. And as always, the lyrics are a stinging rebuke against politics and politicians and war.

I hate to compare new music from an artist against his older music, but there are a couple of tracks that really stand out as Pink Floyd-style music. Picture That sounds like it was inspired by One Of These Days. Smell The Roses has a very similar riff to Have A Cigar.

I like every track from start to finish, but the ones that really piqued my interest were: Picture That, Is This The Life We Really Want, Bird In A Gale. I like them because they sound a bit more musically experimental.

Is it better than Amused To Death? No. But it doesn’t need to be. It stands just fine on its own.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

I’m back with another book report. This time it’s SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (I have to look up the proper spelling of his name every single time), which I read sometime last year. (Hey, at least I’m writing this post this year!)

In my Cryptonomicon review, I said Neal Stephenson is hit-or-miss with me, but this time he delivered a solid hit. I loved this book.

It’s about the moon breaking up and destroying the world, and the steps taken to save the human race. I have always been a sucker for “disaster” stories so it had me as soon as I heard about it. (I can’t remember where I first heard about the book.)

The reason the moon broke up isn’t really important to the story, and in fact is never fully explained. I think there were some theories (a high-speed something hitting it in just the right way), but the characters were kind of busy and didn’t have time or resources to investigate.

The book is in three parts. The first part of the book deals with the immediate aftermath of the moon breaking up and the cold realization that all life on the surface of Earth is going to end. (Apparently all of the increasing number of moon pieces falling into the atmosphere would eventually reach a point where the air superheats and cooks everything. It sounded plausible to me but I’m certainly not an expert on exploding moons.) Part one follows the efforts of launching as many people into orbit as possible, as fast as possible, to save the human race. (They had a two-year deadline.)

The second part of the book deals with events after the “white sky” event which kills everything on Earth, and the efforts of the remaining space-faring human race (numbering about 1,500 by then) to get to a stable place to survive for thousands of years in space until the Earth is habitable again. (Remaining in orbit was still not safe, due to constant bombardments from “bolides,” a term you will understand thoroughly by the end of the book.)

In addition to all the scientific, physical, and emotional obstacles to overcome, there are (of course!) political obstacles as well. It’s all woven together in a way that I found riveting from the beginning of part one to the end of part two.

There aren’t enough words to say how much I loved these first two parts of SEVENEVES. (I am rendering the name in all caps because I think it’s supposed to be that way, because of the symmetry of the word, or at least that’s how I imagine it should be.) I was glued to my Kindle screen for hours on end, which is somewhat of a rarity for me these days. The characters were compelling, the drama was compelling, the action was compelling, the science was compelling, the politicking was compelling, the sociography was compelling. And there were robots!

Then there is the third part of the book. It begins 5,000 years later, and deals with returning to Earth. If I remember right, it started with a truly epic amount of exposition. I can’t say much more about it without spoiling things a bit.

The only criticism I have of SEVENEVES is the decision to include this third part. I don’t want to say it wasn’t good, because it was, but it was a bit of a letdown, because it’s an entirely different story and tone. It is essentially a sequel to parts one and two. You can probably guess that after 5000 years pass, none of the characters from parts one and two appear in part three.

I actually had to put the book down after part two and leave it for several days before I picked it up and started reading again. I had a very strong emotional connection to the characters and events happening in parts one and two, but when it came to part three, I was a lot more detached. It was still fascinating, but it was such a different narrative that it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book. It was almost like a really long epilogue. I would have preferred to see it expanded and made into a full-blown novel on its own.

But other than that, this was a fantastic book. I rate it as … *drumroll* … great!

The Man In The High Castle, S01E01

The other night I discovered that Amazon Prime has a long list of original shows just like Netflix. I don’t know how this escaped my attention. Actually I do know: I usually find something to watch on Netflix before I click the Amazon button on my Vizio remote.

Anyway, scrolling through the Amazon Originals list I spotted The Man In The High Castle, which is a show I’ve heard about often but never realized it was an Amazon show. I don’t know where I thought it was. I just assumed it was on some channel I didn’t have, like Showtime or Starz or something.

I also never realized it was a show about an alternate timeline where the Axis won World War II, based on a Philip K. Dick novel. I always thought it was some kind of generic spy show, maybe like The Americans.

The point is, I finally watched the first episode. My expectations were fairly high, but unfortunately I didn’t really get into it.

I had one big problem with it, and it’s a really nerdy, nitpicky detail that I shouldn’t have in a show that is obviously fiction and not even about this: They didn’t adequately explain to me how the Axis could possibly have won World War II and go on to invade America. I wanted to see a historically accurate, plausible explanation, with all the logistical details of how they replaced the U.S. government with a German government, but all I got was: They used the atomic bomb first, and they invaded Virginia Beach.

That’s what I was waiting for through the entire first episode: The explanation. Some explanation. Any explanation. I guess I did get “any” explanation, but it was rather disappointing.

I’m not an expert on WWII, but I know enough to know that “Germany dropped the A-bomb first” is not a good enough explanation to overcome historical facts. I mean, the Normandy beach landings across the English channel were a logistical nightmare, how did Germany pull off an invasion of Virginia Beach, across an entire ocean?? Where did Germany even get the manpower to pull off such an invasion?? Presumably they wouldn’t have dropped their A-bomb(s) until late in the war, at which time they were utterly devastated as a country and an army. The only way any of it makes sense is if they drop their A-bombs on Day 1 of the war, before they got the bright idea to invade Russia. And yet nobody had A-bomb technology on Day 1 of the war, so how do we explain that little detail? (This is why I don’t write historical fiction. Too many details to pick apart.)

That’s the kind of stuff I kept thinking about while I was watching the episode.

The things that the characters were actually doing on screen seemed unimportant to me in comparison to figuring out how they arrived at that time. As the show went on, I got the impression there is some kind of time-travel element, because that woman had tapes of the “real” outcome of World War II. That was a bit of a disappointment, too. Not only did they not give me a plausible explanation for the Axis winning, they weren’t even committing to it! They are saying that the events of this show are happening in the “wrong” timeline, and presumably our heroes will be spending the show trying to fix things. Or–even more preposterous–the war turned out the way it was supposed to, but something happened after the war to allow Germany and Japan to take over America, and it was all covered up to the point that nobody knows about it.

Given that I didn’t see anything better on Amazon, I guess I’ll watch some more to see if I can resolve some of these mysteries, but I’m probably not going to be glued to the television while the episodes play.

I rate the first episode a “meh.”

P. S. The second episode did not draw me in either. It occurred to me that Nazi bad guys are such a cliche now that seeing actual Nazi bad guys in an appropriately Nazi setting seems like more of a joke than a serious dramatic element. Especially since they are playing them up as stereotypical Nazi bad guys instead of complex characters who happen to be Nazis.

Chris Cornell and Audioslave

Today’s writing topic is: Chris Cornell, who sadly committed suicide.

I might be a smidge older than some of the other folks reminiscing on Twitter about Soundgarden and Chris Cornell in the wake of his recent death. My memory of Soundgarden is limited to exactly two songs from 90s radio: Black Hole Sun and Spoonman. I liked both songs, possibly even loved Spoonman. I remember vividly where I was the first time I heard it, actually. It’s an enthralling song.

But I was never a “fan” of Soundgarden per se, and I couldn’t name or hum a single other song they did. I never bought any Soundgarden CDs. I didn’t know Cornell by name back then.

Overall I never got into grunge music in the early 1990s. I liked the “sound” of it, particularly those heavy guitars, which I often tried and failed to replicate, but I never felt it as a social movement like others did. Looking back now, I think I held a little bit of a resentment toward grunge, because they pushed all of “my” familiar rock music from the radio.

It was also around that time that I discovered the progressive rock of Queensryche, and I had also begun to write my own music. I was also working at home trying to make an Amiga software development business work, so I was pretty busy. It wasn’t until years later that I really started to appreciate the grunge movement. (I was always partial to Stone Temple Pilots, though, particularly their second album Purple, which I still think is a masterpiece.)

Now I want to fast forward to around 2002 or 2003, when I heard a little song called Like A Stone. I cannot even tell you where I heard it. I certainly wasn’t listening to FM radio in 2002, and MTV and VH1 were long gone. Even Napster was gone. It’s possible I heard it on a Winamp “Internet radio” station, because I remember playing around with that for a while.

Regardless of how I heard it, I thought the song was amazing. It was such a simple piece with a lot of powerful, evocative, almost religious lyrics. And then the lead guitar started and it just floored me. What was this alien sound and how the holy hell did they get a guitar to make this sound?? (I still don’t know but I assume it was some kind of pitch shifter pedal, possibly that DigiTech Whammy pedal.) I made a mental note of the band named Audioslave.

Not much later, I heard another song by Audioslave called Show Me How To Live. It had a lot of the same qualities as Like A Stone, but it was more of a rocker.

(It’s weird watching those videos now… I’ve never seen them before.)

At that point I’m pretty sure I got Audioslave’s first album. I don’t remember if I heard it first, then bought it, or if I just bought it based only on those two songs. It’s sort of unusual for me to buy a whole album based on only two songs, though. At that time I was into what I think the local rock stations called “buzz rock” and Audioslave fit perfectly, although it seemed to me that it rose considerably above the median.

Every song on that first Audioslave album is amazing, if you ask me. Most every song on the second and third album is amazing, too. That was when I learned the name Chris Cornell, and found out he used to sing for Soundgarden. (I knew his voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.) I was very surprised to learn that the rest of Audioslave used to be Rage Against The Machine, whom I had heard now and then but never cared for.

That’s how I’ll remember Chris Cornell… as the frontman for Audioslave.

“I’ve been wandering sideways
I’ve stared straight into the sun
Still I don’t know why you’re dying
Long before your time has come”

- Chris Cornell, Your Time Has Come

 

Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson

I wrote this pseudo-review sometime in 2016.

I finally got around to reading Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson, which had been sitting in my Kindle library for years. I knew basically nothing about the book, except that it was one of those books that comes up a lot in geek circles, so I felt like I was obligated to read it.

Neil Stephenson is a hit-or-miss kind of author for me. Snow Crash is the only other book of his I’ve read. I only read that one because, again, I felt like it was one of those books that a modern nerd simply had to read. I remember almost nothing about the story now, but I remember enjoying it up to a point about two-thirds of the way through, when it took a weird turn and/or ground to a complete halt and I lost interest and put it away.

I went into Cryptonomicon expecting another cyberpunk kind of story, but it’s not a cyberpunk story at all. The book is really two stories: It follows characters in and around the field of cryptanalysis during World War II (Bletchley Park, etc.), and different-but-related characters in the 1990s starting up a telecommunications business in the Philippines. It’s one part World War II war story, and one part modern techno-drama. (Not techno-thriller, because there wasn’t any action.) Personally, I greatly preferred the World War II parts of the book and felt like most of the 1990s story was uninteresting. (Seriously, how can you possibly compare the drama of freakin’ World War II with the drama of … starting a company?)

I enjoyed some chapters, while others felt like studying for a security certification. (I have literally studied for tests that encompass cryptography material similar to some chapters of Cryptonomicon.) This is what I mean about the hit-or-miss nature of Stephenson’s writing. Sometimes I find myself riveted to the page, soaking up the text, while other times I feel like I’m reading a technical manual and wondering why I’m wasting my time. I skipped whole sections of text in this book to get past them. I don’t care how interesting cryptography is, it’s not even remotely dramatic.

My biggest criticism is that I thought the book ended rather abruptly. Throughout the book, I kept wondering, “Where is this book going? What are these characters after? What is the endgame?” That was a large driver in what kept me reading, to be honest. (Also, boredom.) I kept expecting a revelation that would tie both time periods together and allow everything to make sense, but I never got that. The book just … stopped.

In the afterword I got the impression that the author planned followup books, which I suppose explains why it didn’t have an ending. I would rate this book somewhere between “okay” and “good” in my patented overly-indifferent rating system. (The ratings are “meh”, “okay”, “good,” and then “great.”)