Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017's Christmas Movie: The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (1966)

While my Warhammer 40K blog has seen the occasional post, my general blog has been practically abandoned for the past couple years. Hopefully I can change that with at one or two entries every month or so.

Some traditions, no matter how ill-advised, just won't die. Every December for nearly a decade I've watched at least one Mystery Science Theater 3000 or RiffTrax Christmas movie. Sadly, I neglected to record which movie I watched in 2015, but I'm pretty sure it was either Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) or Santa Claus (1959). In 2016 my Warhammer/X-Wing gaming group watched a collection of Christmas shorts released by RiffTrax as Santa's Village of Madness. Although these weren't quite as excruciating as Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972), they were at least on par with The Magic Christmas Tree (1964).

Only an excess of Christmas spirit could possibly explain why I watched three Christmas-themed movies this year. I started out with Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, followed it up with The Magic Christmas Tree, and finished it with The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (1966). The latter movie was riffed as part of Season 11 of the revived Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The "Almost" in the title is kind of a spoiler, isn't it?

In the joint American-Italian film, The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, we learn that Santa long ago built his comically small workshop at the North Pole with the Eskimo's permission. Unfortunately, the Eskimo have recently sold the land to a miser named Phineas T. Prune (as expected for this kind of film, the filmmakers either don't know that there is no dry land at the geographic North Pole or have chosen to ignore the fact). Prune isn't nearly as generous as the original landowners and demands rent from the Jolly Fat Man, whose job doesn't exactly pay well. If the rent isn't paid by midnight on Christmas Eve, the workshop and the toys within will be confiscated.

Proud owner of a large slab of sea ice north of the Arctic Circle

With only a couple weeks to go before Christmas Eve, Santa seeks out the help of a kindly lawyer named Sam Whipple, who just happens to live in the same town as Prune. Although Saint Nick is in disguise, Whipple immediately recognizes him and gladly agrees to represent Santa. Sadly, their attempts to reason with Prune go nowhere; the miser admits that he doesn't actually care about the money. The truth is that Prune, who genuinely believes that he was never a child, loathes children and despises Santa's annual tradition of gift-giving.

With no other option but to come up with the money, Whipple suggests that Santa get a job at the local department store. The lawyer sells the store's manager on the idea of letting his bearded friend "pretend" to be Santa, asking children what they want for Christmas and generally attracting customers, thus inventing the idea of the department store Santa. Whipple also gets a side job as the store's janitor, although he spends more time playing with toys and acting as Santa's helper than actually cleaning.

While Santa easily gets the job of playing himself, he's extremely nervous about his first day at work. The reason why is surprisingly clever for a children's Christmas movie from the mid-60s. For centuries Santa has been leaving gifts for children in the middle of the night while they were sleeping; he has never actually spoken with a child and doesn't know how to interact with them. Whipple is put in the unexpected position of coaching Santa Claus himself on how to ask a child what he or she wants for Christmas and how to give a boisterous "ho, ho, ho". Santa, as portrayed in The Christmas That Almost Wasn't is a kindly but quiet man whose personality doesn't match people's expectations.

It's fortunate that Santa's first interaction with children wasn't
with the spoiled hellions that you often find at the mall

Santa quickly adapts to his role once the children start lining up to see him. Despite Prune's and his creepy butler's attempts to sabotage them, Whipple and Santa have earned enough to pay the rent by the close of business on Christmas Eve. (That a couple weeks' worth of a janitor's and a department store Santa's salary could pay the rent is probably the least believable part of the film.) However, before they can pay off Santa's landlord, a concealed Prune and his butler start knocking toys to the floor. As Santa and Whipple puzzle over the inexplicably broken toys, Prune appears and reveals that he bought the department store earlier that afternoon. While he will certainly pay Santa and Whipple what they're owed, he insists that they cover the cost of the items that were damaged on their watch.

Left with nothing, a devastated Santa Claus wanders out into the town square. When a little boy asks him what's wrong, Whipple informs him of the situation. The boy insists on giving him what little money he has, declaring that it's the least he can do for a man who has shown so much generosity. The boy then starts waking all the children in town, telling them that Santa is in trouble. Saint Nick is soon swarmed by children carrying their purses and piggy banks. With literally seconds to spare, Santa pays the irate Prune with an enormous pile of coins.

With the debt paid and the time short, the elves, Santa, Mrs. Claus, and Whipple load the sleigh. Breaking from tradition, Santa decides to take the latter two along so that he can finish his deliveries in time. Just before Santa can fly off, his chief elf, Jonathan, hands him a final package.

After an overlong montage of still photos depicting them distributing gifts, the three discover that the last package of the night is intended for Prune. When Prune awakens to find the three uninvited guests in his home, Santa gives him the gift, which turns out to be a toy sailboat. Along with the sailboat is a letter from Jonathan. Apparently, while looking for any record of a young Phineas T. Prune, Jonathan discovered a long-misplaced postcard from a five-year-old Phineas asking for a sailboat. In the letter, Jonathan apologizes for the error and the resulting delay in delivering the gift.

He has his own sleigh, flying reindeer, and a magic bag
that can hold as many packages as necessary; has Santa
considered a side job as a subcontractor for FedEx?

With the sailboat in hand, Prune begins to remember his youth and how the disappointment of the missing sailboat had soured him on childhood and children. Realizing that he has wasted years of his life wallowing in bitterness, Prune rushes out of his house with his toy sailboat and begins greeting people in the town square and wishing them a Merry Christmas. When he notices one little boy admiring the sailboat, Prune chases him down and practically shoves the boat into his hands, apparently having learned in the space of a few minutes that it is better to give than to receive. The film ends with Prune inviting the town's children to a Christmas party in his spacious (but cobweb-filled) home that certainly lacks any of the essentials for hosting a party.

The Christmas That Almost Wasn't is a surprisingly decent film. Of course there's enough badness to give Jonah and the 'bots plenty to work with. For example, the film has some pretty terrible musical numbers. These scenes seem totally out of place since there aren't enough of them to make the movie a real musical. The elves are more creepy than funny, especially the head elf, Jonathan. And Santa sometimes comes across as a bit too dour. At the same time, like Santa Claus, the movie has some surprisingly effective scenes. As I mentioned before, it was a clever decision to portray a Santa who is initially reluctant to interact with children. But the happiness he shows when he finally gets to meet the children who love him so dearly is genuinely sweet.

Since a movie can be made or broken by its villain, it's fortunate that Phineas T. Prune is effectively played by Rossano Brazzi; an internationally-known actor who had been the male lead in films with actresses such as Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. Brazzi plays a reasonably comical character who avoids being as over-the-top as the villains in movies like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. While Prune's conversion from Grinch to kindly old man is a bit sudden, it's reasonably well done.

The Christmas That Almost Wasn't is the fourth film I've seen as part of the MST3K revival. When I first heard that Netflix was going to continue the show, I was skeptical that it could match the quality of the original series. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first episode of the new season, Reptilicus (1961), was as well done as some of my favorite classic episodes. Nor have I been disappointed by any of the other episodes I've since watched. Hopefully the new MST3K has found a long term home on Netflix.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Christmas Tradition: 2016

I just noticed that it's been nearly a year since my last post on this blog. My Warhammer 40,000 blog has almost always gotten a lot more attention, but even that was neglected for over eight months. Unfortunately, 2016 has been pretty tough for our family.

On February 9 of this year I slipped on a patch of ice in my driveway and broke my ankle. Within a week I had a steel plate and eight screws in my leg and doctor's orders not to put any weight on it for six weeks. Almost two months later, on my first day back to work, our youngest child was diagnosed with leukemia. Thankfully it's the most treatable form of leukemia, but it turns out that an "easy" cancer is still a challenge.

Even a rough year can't stop us from fulfilling the annual tradition, though. Once again we went to to order the family's Christmas ornaments. Each child ended up with an ornament, with the three girls choosing Finding Dory and Harry Potter ornaments. With a little bit of prompting from Dad, our oldest boy chose BB-8 from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Originally my wife chose a cute Mickey and Minnie Mouse ornament while our youngest child was going to get Captain America from Captain America: Civil War (in 2014, when he was too young to choose for himself, we got him the Captain America ornament from The Winter Soldier). However, the youngest, who was already spoiled before he got sick, claimed the ornament for himself and relegated Captain American to Mom. This wasn't exactly a great sacrifice on Mom's part since she's an enormous Captain American fan. We couldn't have Captain America without Iron Man, of course, so I chose the latter for my annual ornament.

It's also become a tradition that Dad gets more ornaments than he really needs. I bought Poe Dameron's T-70 X-wing from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, figuring that it would go well with the 1998 X-wing ornament that was among the first Hallmark ornaments I ever owned.

Hallmark tried to sabotage my effort to own every Star Trek: The Original Series character by making Chekov in-store only. Luckily, my own wonderful mother was able to grab the last copy of Chekov from her local Hallmark store. Like my Scotty ornament, Chekov had been the display model.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Video Game Review: Star Wars Battlefront

Although my wife and I have owned an XBox, a Wii, and a PS4 over the past decade or so, we're very casual gamers. The bulk of our video games are the Lego games, games that appeal to our specific interests (e.g., Godzilla fighting games, Star Wars games, Disney Infinity), and games that we bought out of nostalgia (e.g., Super Mario Brothers Wii). Despite their general popularity, we've never been fans of shoot-em-up games. In fact, I think I've played the original Halo only once or twice at a friend's home. The only exceptions, however, have been Star Wars: Battlefront (2004) and Star Wars: Battlefront II (2005).

After waiting nearly ten years for a Star Wars: Battlefront III, we were very excited to hear that EA was going to release Star Wars Battlefront in 2015. We were a little worried when we heard that there would be no single player campaign and limited two player options, though. We had really enjoyed the previous games' campaigns and often played against each other in split screen mode. Nevertheless, we pre-ordered Battlefront and eagerly awaited its arrival.

The Good
The Graphics
First and foremost, the graphics are amazing. When you're used to cartoonish games like Lego Batman III or Disney Infinity, you don't realize how incredible the graphics on a PS4 can be. It's hard to imagine the Star Wars universe being better rendered than it is in Battlefront.

Weapons Variety
The first and second Battlefront allowed you to choose a troop type, which dictated your weapon. Now you can choose from a variety of blasters of varying destructive power, range, firing rate, and cooling rate. The wife is fond of the DL-44 (Han Solo's favorite model of heavy blaster pistol with a low rate of fire but a high degree of lethality) while I prefer the RT-97C (a heavy blaster rifle with a very high rate of fire and relatively long range). The secondary weapons, such as ion torpedoes, are pretty decent, too.

Entertaining Single Player/Co-Op Missions
Although there's no single player campaign, there are single player and two player modes. "Training Missions", "Survival Missions", "Battle Missions", and "Hero Battle Missions" (collectively referred to as "Missions") can all be played by one or two players, which is exclusively how my wife and I play. In and of themselves the Missions are reasonably fun and challenging, at least for a couple casual players who haven't played a game like this since the original Battlefront games.

Hero Battle Missions give you a decent array of Heroes to choose from, including Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Boba Fett, Darth Vader, and Emperor Palpatine. Heroes in the new Battlefront are a lot more versatile and fun to play than they were in Battlefront II.

The Bad
No Clone Wars?
Both the original Battlefront and Battlefront II allowed you to play during the Clone Wars as well as the Galactic Civil War. If you set your battle during the Clone Wars, you could play as a Clone Trooper or a CIS battledroid. If you were fighting in the Galactic Civil War, you could be a Rebel soldier or an Imperial Stormtrooper. Each army played differently and the setting of the battle determined what vehicles were available for play.

Unfortunately, the new Battlefront is set strictly during the Galactic Civil War, which drastically decreases the historical scope of the game compared to its predecessors.

Limited Map Options
Currently all game modes are restricted to just four planets: Hoth, Endor, Tatooine, and Sullust. For Survival and Battle Missions there appear to be only one or two maps per planet. And then you don't even get to choose which of the two maps you play on; the map you get depends on whether or not you choose the Survival Mission or the Battle Mission. I believe that multiplayer modes have a few more maps, but all are set on the same four planets.

The new game simply doesn't compare to the earlier games when it comes to variety. Veterans of the original Battlefront will remember these maps:
Bespin (Platforms and Cloud City)
Kashyyyk (Docks and Islands)
Naboo (Plains and Theed)
Rhen Var (Harbor and Citadel)
Tatooine (Dune Sea and Mos Eisley)
Yavin 4 (Arena and Temple)
Battlefront II had even more maps:
Death Star
Kamino (Clone Facility and Tipoca City)
Polis Massa
Tantive IV
Tatooine (Jabba's Palace and Mos Eisley
Yavin 4
Limited Features for Missions
One of the appeals of the original Battlefront games was the ability to jump into a vehicle and fly/skim/stomp around the battlefield. If you want to play the new game's Missions instead of multiplayer modes, you won't be doing any of that. Training Missions allow you to zip around in an X-wing or a speeder bike, but nothing else. Neither Survival or Battle Missions allow you to use a vehicle.

What side you play is also limited. Only Battle Missions allow you to choose between the Empire and the Rebellion. If you play a Survival Mission, you're always stuck with the Rebellion.

Finally, while the game allows you to choose your blaster beforehand, you have no choice in what kind of soldier you play. The original games allowed you to play as dedicated snipers, jump troopers (I was very fond of the Darktrooper), demolitions specialists, etc. In the new Battlefront's missions you're always a generic trooper, albeit one with a relatively wide selection of weapons.

The Overemphasis on Multiplayer Modes
I suppose it's unfair to judge Battlefront based solely on the offline content, but that's really the only way my wife and I want to play the game. We have no interest in playing against a bunch of anonymous teenagers or hardcore gamers who will regularly wipe us out with a perfect headshot less than 30 seconds after respawning. Thus, we find it a bit irksome that EA put so much of its focus on the multiplayer portions of the game, with the Missions seeming like an afterthought. According to EA's Chief Operating Officer, Peter Moore, the single-player aspect was downplayed because "very few people actually play the single-player on these kinds of games. That’s what the data points to."

"These kinds of games"? I assume he means first-person shooters rather than Star Wars-themed combat games. Perhaps what he says is true of most first-person shooters, but I can't help but to wonder if EA didn't really consider the property the game is based on or the kinds of people that would be interested in it. EA seems to have assumed that the bulk of Battlefront players will be veterans of games like Call of Duty or Halo. One first-person shooter is the same as another, right?

But this is a Star Wars game. Maybe there are a lot of Call of Duty fans who want to play as an Imperial Stormtrooper for a change, but what about customers who are only interested in a shoot-em-up game because it's set in the Star Wars universe? Those who are only playing the game because they want to kill some Rebel scum or drive an AT-AT aren't going to enjoy themselves if they're getting slaughtered by experienced Halo players.

While it's fun to run around as a Rebel soldier or an Imperial Stormtrooper, focusing almost exclusively on simply shooting other soldiers is contrary to what Star Wars is supposed to be. Traditionally, Star Wars has been about telling a story punctuated by galactic combat. Some of the best Star Wars novels (e.g., the Republic Commando books by Karen Traviss) are about 10% action and 90% character development. Battlefront II had a great single player campaign in which you played a clone in the 501st Legion whose 25-year-long career began with the first Battle of Geonosis and ended sometime after the Battle of Hoth. The storytelling was simple, but it made you care about your unnamed clone avatar. Although entertaining, in its current form the new Battlefront aspires to be little more than a typical first-person shooter with a beautifully rendered Star Wars skin.

Was the Game Released Unfinished?
My wife and I are suspicious of any video game linked to some sort of event. One of the best examples of this is the first Lego Indiana Jones, which was released around the same time as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). The development of Lego Indiana Jones was clearly rushed so it could benefit from the movie's advertising campaign, resulting in one of the buggiest video games in a long line of often buggy (but otherwise entertaining) Lego games.

Because of previous experience, I was concerned that the release date of Star Wars Battlefront was timed to precede Star Wars: The Force Awakens by a month. Although the game doesn't seem to be as buggy as I feared it would be, I suspect that the developers deliberately minimized the amount of content so they could put their efforts into a game that looked good and functioned as expected.

One of the most common complaints I've read about Battlefront (and one I've mentioned above) is that the content of the game as released is rather thin. I think EA knew this was going to be the case, hence the early promises of future DLCs. Well before the game's release, EA announced that its first DLC would be the Battle of Jakku (Jakku is a desert planet that will appear in The Force Awakens). This download, which will contain two new maps as well as a whole new multiplayer mode called Turning Point, will be available for free. (It's still not entirely clear if the maps will be available for Missions.) [Update 12/5/2015: sadly, the Jakku maps are only available for multiplayer mode.]

If the Battle of Jakku is free, why didn't EA include the maps and Turning Point in the original game? Similarly, a week after the Battlefront's release, EA's Executive Vice President, Patrick Söderlund, promised "to support Star Wars Battlefront with new content well into the future" and said that EA would add "more of what you love about the game, like new maps and Star Cards, for free in the coming months, in addition to all of the content we have coming with Season Pass." The fact that they're producing free DLCs suggests that they knew they were going to release a $60 game with too little content and intended to fix it later.

I only hope that they throw some of us old-timers a bone and enhance the single player/split screen aspects of the game.

The Summary
All my ranting to the contrary, I actually enjoy Star Wars Battlefront quite a bit. I'm particularly happy with the graphics and weaponry, which go a long way toward making you feel like you're taking part in the Star Wars universe. I would have preferred a bit more content in the initial release, though. And the threadbare single player/two player material leaves a lot of us casual players who are fans of Star Wars more than fans of first-person shooters out in the cold. EA's stated intention of enhancing the game in the future gives me some hope that they might beef up the Missions or even include a single player campaign.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Christmas Tradition: 2015

I've written before about our family's tradition of buying a Hallmark Christmas ornament for each member of the family (here and here). Sadly, our local Hallmark store closed shortly after Christmas 2013, meaning that the annual trip to the mall has been replaced by the annual visit to I don't much care for the mall, but it's not nearly as fun to buy the ornaments online.

We bought our ornaments a little earlier this year. Last year we waited too long and there was a shortage of the Frozen ornaments that our daughters wanted so badly. They weren't available online (another problem with not having a nearby Hallmark store), so my mother in San Diego did her grandmotherly duty and harassed every Hallmark store in her area until she could get a couple.

Hallmark has continued the line of Star Trek characters that started with Captain Kirk in 2010. Although I'm not particularly enthusiastic about any of the Original Series characters besides Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty, I'm still a hopeless collector. Of course I bought Sulu last year and Uhura this year. And I can guarantee that I'll be buying Chekov next year.

Unlike the past few years, which have had some rather mediocre Star Wars ornaments, this year has some pretty good ones. I ended up buying Kylo Ren; Episode VII's mysterious Sith lord. There were several other Star Wars ornaments that I would have loved to get (especially the Y-Wing), but I'm not quite willing to spend $15 to $30 each on even more ornaments that will sit in a box for 11 months out of each year.

As usual, the children were allowed to choose their own ornaments. And again, I'm proud of the oldest daughter's choice. Two years ago, she was the one who chose the Bilbo Baggins ornament. She still loves The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so of course she wanted Smaug this year.

If only the other children had such good taste.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Review: Zombie War: An Account of the Zombie Acopalypse that Swept across America

Sometime in the near future, a virus engineered by the former Soviet Union ends up in Iranian hands. The virus, designated F1-st, is deadly within minutes, but causes its victim to reanimate into a snarling, vicious terror only a short while later. When a handful of zealots sneak into Miami and deliberately inject themselves with the virus during a football game, the resulting epidemic entirely envelops Florida and quickly spreads to adjacent states.

Thus begins Zombie War by Nicholas Ryan, an Amazon bestselling horror writer who has found a niche in the popular field of zombie literature. While the prologue is written as a third person narrative, the remainder of the book is told in the first person by journalist John Culver. Culver spends the bulk of the novel visiting dozens of individuals and places to chronicle the 13 month long Zombie War that saw Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina overrun by the undead.

Zombie War vs. World War Z
The plot of Zombie War will inevitably remind many readers of World War Z. In fact, the author invites the comparison by pasting a reviewer's claim that the book is "As good as World War Z" directly on the cover. (It was through my review of Brook's novel that Ryan found this blog and asked if I would like to review Zombie War.)

While the format of the story may be similar to Max Brook's novel, Ryan's zombie apocalypse is different in several ways.

The Zombies
As I mention in my review of World War Z, much of the plot is driven by the characteristics of the classic Romero zombie; a shambling, mindless creature compelled to eat human flesh. While Romero's films aren't too particular on the nature of zombification, Brooks invents the solanum virus to explain his lurching horrors.

Like Brooks' ghouls, Ryan's zombies are reanimated by a virus. However, F1-st's victims are howling, aggressive, and fast; i.e., post-28 Days Later (2002) zombies. In World War Z, Brooks emphasizes the futility of using modern weapons, which are often designed to kill with blast overpressure, on a creature that is no longer dependent on internal organs or even a fully intact brain. In Ryan's book, the fact that the zombies come running at the first sound or sign of movement means that the US military is often as concerned with crippling or slowing the monsters as it is with killing them.

The Crisis
The nature of Zombie War's crisis leads to a very different war from that in World War Z. The pandemic that becomes World War Z originates in China and spreads through refugees. Solanum's victims often live long enough to travel long distances via truck or airplane, ensuring that the virus spreads far and wide (in at least one case, the virus makes it to Brazil through an infected organ from a Chinese "donor"). The widely spaced epidemics that result grow together into an undead pandemic. Although the undead are slow, the diffuse nature of the pandemic makes it difficult to counteract. The reaction time of the world's governments is further slowed by Chinese secrecy and a misunderstanding of the virus' effect on its victims.

By contrast, Zombie War's F1-st epidemic starts in one location, Miami's Sun Life Stadium, through a single act of terrorism. The F1-st virus kills and reanimates a victim in minutes, thus creating a full-blown zombie horde in record time, but one that is geographically limited and moves only at footspeed. The threat that the rapidly growing mob of flesh-eaters poses is obvious, meaning that America knows what it's dealing with pretty quickly.

The Living Fight Back
In World War Z, most of the world's governments find themselves gathering as many of their citizens as they can into isolated and defensible locations (e.g., parts of the Rocky Mountains). The collapse of civilization means that fuel, vehicles, and armaments are scarce. On top of that, the living are forced to devise innovative ways to fight an enemy that's already dead. Brooks' post-apocalyptic army has no use for tanks or artillery, having found them to be ineffective during the infamous Battle of Yonkers in the early days of the war. Instead, the US military dresses its soldiers in bite-proof fatigues, arms them with bolt-action rifles, and lures the zombies to well-stocked garrisons where Civil War-era formation firing is employed to whittle down their numbers.

Although a substantial portion of the South has to be conceded to the horde, Zombie War's US military is able to construct the Danvers Defense Line (a network of trenches, razor wire, and fences built along major highways) to stop the spread of the zombies. The line forms the centerpiece of the appropriately named "Operation Containment" (code names don't need to be secret when your enemy has no intelligence to speak of).

Ryan's zombies are fast, which neutralizes tactics like formation firing. Additionally, the military in Zombie War is left mostly intact. Fuel and equipment aren't an issue, so massed tank formations can be mustered. After the advance of the zombies is stopped at the Danvers Defence Line, tanks, infantry carriers, and self-propelled artillery are used to push the creatures towards Florida as part of "Operation Conquest". In the final phase of the Zombie War, "Operation Compression", the zombies are pushed into the Florida peninsula and contained behind a second defense line. (Ryan's zombies may be fast, but apparently they can be contained by water. World War Z's zombies often wandered into the ocean and could pop up weeks to months later on a distant beach.)

My Impressions
There are a lot of good ideas in Zombie War. One of the best of these is the use of waves of artillery fire to slow down and immobilize the zombie hordes. Yes, artillery may simply immobilize a zombie rather than kill it, and yes, an immobilized zombie is still dangerous, but at least it allows troops to deal with them on their own terms. Given that World War Z's military completely abandons artillery as useless, I have to wonder if Ryan's story is intended to be a direct rebuttal to Brooks' novel.

The tactics employed during Operation Conquest are interesting and would look very impressive on film. Imagine dozens of Abrams battle tanks driving side-by-side, mowing down zombies with machine gun fire and running over the rest. Two miles behind the Abrams are armored personnel carriers filled with soldiers to clean up what the tanks leave behind.

While I like a lot of the novel's ideas, there are a couple aspects of Zombie War that fell flat with me. For starters, I just don't find John Culver to be that interesting. He's supposed to be a journalist and the bulk of Zombie War is supposed to be an account of America's response to the zombie virus, but much of the story consists of Culver describing his impressions, feelings, or responses to the interviewees. I don't care for real journalists who think we need to know how they feel about the story they're covering; I feel the same way about fictional journalists, too.

Second, the interviews with multiple high ranking military personnel are very repetitive. With few exceptions, they follow a single pattern: Culver arrives at an interview that has been arranged ahead of time; despite the fact that the interview was prearranged, the officer is gruff and abrupt; Culver asks some softball questions and the officer responds with impatience or even outright hostility; eventually, after recounting the horrors of the Zombie War, the officer lets his guard down and shows that the hardened exterior hides a weary and exhausted man. One or two episodes like this wouldn't stick out, but it seems like the majority of the interviews turns out this way.

I should point out that the author never seems to be denigrating or disrespecting the US military. In fact, the book comes across as unashamedly patriotic (which is odd considering that the author is Australian). Instead, I get the impression that Ryan is trying to portray the kind of no-nonsense and notoriously prickly military officials that were so famous during the '40s, '50s, and '60s; e.g., General Patton, General MacArthur, or Admiral Rickover. But in the face of a much more hostile and ubiquitous media, and without the urgency of a conflict on the scale of World War II or the Cold War encouraging politicians and other senior military officials to overlook difficult personalities, modern high-profile military personnel can't afford to be anything but diplomatic.

By contrast, the interviews with sergeants and various grunts are a lot better: some are good humored, some are gruff, some are matter-of-fact, and some are shell shocked. It would have been nice if their superiors had been handled with the same degree of subtlety.

(Full disclosure: I was provided with a digital copy of this novel in order to review it.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Movie Pseudo-Review: Jurassic World (2015)

I was 14 when I saw Jurassic Park (1993) in the theater. I loved it, of course, and couldn't wait for the inevitable sequels. When The Lost World: Jurassic Park came out in 1997, I saw it with a girl I liked (and married four years later). Although I generally enjoyed the film, it didn't have nearly the impact as the original, and I felt that the San Diego sequence significantly detracted from it.

I'm not entirely sure that I even saw Jurassic Park III in the theater in 2001 or if I first saw it on DVD. By that point, my expectations weren't particularly high. It was entertaining enough, and didn't have anything as stupid as its predecessor's San Diego scenes, but it was disappointing compared to the first film.

Thus, I was somewhat wary when I finally saw the Jurassic World teaser trailer. Sure, it looked pretty cool, but what were the odds that the fourth film in a franchise that had a sharp dip in quality with the first sequel would be any good?

Actually, the odds turned out to be pretty good.

Fortunately, Jurassic World turned out to much better than Lost World or Jurassic Park III. Surprisingly, I even enjoyed it more than Avengers: Age of Ultron. Sure, it's not quite as good as the original Jurassic Park, but how many films could claim that?

Rather than do one of my usual reviews, I think I'll list a few things that really stood out to me. Expect some spoilers ahead:

The Setting
Jurassic Park is set on Isla Nublar while The Lost World and Jurassic Park III are set on Isla Sorna (aka, "Site B"). The first island was meant to be the "showroom" while Site B was where the significant research was done. Although the first movie's pristine, soon-to-be-open park is a lot cleaner than the abandoned and decaying facilities seen in the second and third movies, all three movies have essentially the same setting; an isolated location where a small group of people find themselves at the mercy of uncontrolled dinosaurs. This worked well once, but it was feeling pretty stale by the third movie.

Jurassic World took a different approach. InGen, the company founded by John Hammond sometime before the first film, faced financial ruin and was eventually bought out by Simon Masrani. In fulfillment of Hammond's dying wish, Masrani established Jurassic World on Isla Nublar. The public portions of the amusement park take up the southern half of the island while the northern part contains research facilities. The abandoned Jurassic Park site, which remained effectively untouched since the 1993 incident, also happens to be located in the northern half of the island. By the time of the movie, the park has successfully operated for ten years.

It's refreshing to see the franchise change its setting from an untested and empty park with barely contained animals, or an abandoned facility where the dinosaurs are entirely free to roam, to a well-established and heavily populated park (one where the presence of children isn't an anomaly). It's also apparent that the new owners have learned from their predecessor's mistakes. Instead of electrified fences, animal paddocks use solid concrete walls. On top of that, the facility is proactive in managing risks, including running drills and maintaining a special team for containing escaped animals.

Although we know that there will be dinosaur-related mayhem, part of the fun is watching the well-oiled machine of Jurassic World break down through mistakes, misjudgments, and years of complacency.

Simon Masrani
A movie billionaire CEO that
doesn't deserve to be eaten.
Masrani (Irrfan Khan) easily could have been cast as a villain, or at least as a cynical money-grubbing CEO like Hammond's nephew, Peter Ludlow in The Lost World. Instead, he's a very likeable character who explicitly wants both his park's visitors and the animals to be happy. Although he makes some misjudgments, he's generally cautious; an oddity in disaster films like this one. This is most apparent when he first sees the park's future attraction, the Indominus Rex (a hybrid of multiple dinosaur species and several modern animals).

Instead of gleefully rubbing his hands together and monologuing about how much money the new attraction will bring into the park, he immediately becomes concerned about the animal's apparent aggressiveness. He asks his operations manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to bring in Jurassic World's behavioral researcher, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), to evaluate the animal and the security of its pen.

When the Indominus inevitably escapes and starts eating park personnel, Masrani personally flies a helicopter loaded with an armed team to kill the animal. Sadly, pursuit of the Indominus leads to the escape of dozens of pterosaurs, which attack the helicopter and destroy it. Masrani's popularity with his employees becomes obvious when we see that several control center employees are left stunned or in tears when video feeds show their boss go down.

InGen's Dinosaurs versus Current Paleontology
At the time of Jurassic Park's release, the depiction of the dinosaurs was considered to be reasonably accurate (with notable exceptions such as the size of the velociraptors). By the release of Jurassic Park III, it was widely accepted that dinosaurs such as velociraptor would have been covered in feathers. The 2007 discovery of quill knobs on well-preserved velociraptor forearm bones is considered to be definitive proof of this.

It's possible that the 2001 film was attempting to explain away the growing discrepancy between everyone's favorite kitchen-stalking terrors and current paleontological reconstructions with a brief line from Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill). When asked why he was still digging up dinosaur bones when there were living examples on Isla Sorna, Dr. Grant responded that "What John Hammond and InGen did at Jurassic Park is create genetically engineered theme park monsters. Nothing more and nothing less."

Genetically engineered theme park monsters
(also one of the greatest scenes of 20th century cinema)

More accurate, but not what gave an entire generation kitchen-based nightmares

When Jurassic World's trailer came out, the franchise was attacked by paleontologists for continuing to portray the dinosaurs inaccurately. Rather than introduce a huge inconsistency into the film series by updating the dinosaurs, the writers of the new film took advantage of statements made in Jurassic Park that the DNA of the resurrected animals wasn't entirely ancient. When Masrani confronts InGen's chief geneticist, Dr. Henry Wu, and accuses him of creating a monster in the Indominus Rex, Wu retorts:
You are acting like we are engaged in some kind of mad science but we are doing what we have done from the beginning. Nothing in Jurassic World is natural! We have always filled gaps in the genomes with the DNA of other animals. And if their genetic code was pure many of them would look quite different. But you didn't ask for reality, you asked for more teeth [my emphasis].
With that single line, Jurassic World explains why the films' animals haven't kept up with modern paleontology; at the genetic level they're Frankensteinian creations rather than true dinosaurs. In addition to a hodgepodge of dinosaur genetic material, Dr. Wu admits that the Indominus Rex's genome includes cuttlefish DNA to accelerate its growth rate and tree frog DNA to allow it to adapt to a tropical climate.

Owen Grady
Jurassic Park, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Jurassic Park III have two types of people: victims and survivors. The victims are generally random people or those who think they have everything under control. The survivors typically include at least one expert (e.g., Alan Grant or Ian Malcolm) whose skill or experience allow himself and a chosen few to avoid getting eaten.

Jurassic World's Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) introduces one more type into the franchise: the action hero. Grady is a Navy veteran and an expert on deadly animals, has earned the respect of a velociraptor pack (although they're far from tame), and is perpetually cool under pressure. The character is a cliche, but one that the Jurassic Park franchise could really use. Heck, Claire Dearing's nephew simply comes out and says what we're all thinking when Owen Grady is leading the raptor pack from his motorcycle: "Your boyfriend's a bad@$$."

I loved Dr. Alan Grant's character in the first and third Jurassic Park movies, but he definitely couldn't call himself a raptor pack's alpha.

Bad@$$, indeed

I'm looking forward to Jurassic World II.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Marshmallow Peeps and Irrational Hatred

In their baskets this Easter morning, my children once again found one of their favorite candies: marshmallow Peeps. Fortunately, the Easter Bunny knew not to put any of those in my basket. He knows I have an undying hatred of Peeps.

Before the spring of 2003, I simply disliked them. Even as a child, marshmallows were generally too sweet for my taste and I didn't like their gritty layer of sugar. But in April 2003, Brigham Young University's newspaper, The Daily Universe, turned my dislike into something more.

To be honest, I never really cared for the paper. The Daily Universe obviously focused on the activities of humanities majors at the expense of the hard sciences. The paper would gloss over or entirely ignore impressive and internationally recognized accomplishments from BYU's engineering, physics, chemistry, and biology students and professors while articles about life as a [enter title of humanities major here] would make the front page. The journalist brother of a fellow engineering student actually told him that those who served as editors and writers for the newspaper had little interest in the hard sciences and paid almost no attention to what happened on our side of campus.

In April of 2003, I was a member of BYU's Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) team. At the time, we were developing some of the world's smallest airplanes, several of which were equipped with tiny cameras and could act as surveillance drones (this was before such things were ubiquitous). We had just returned from the annual Micro Air Vehicle Competition held at the University of Florida, having competed against 20 other schools, one of which was from Germany and another from South Korea. Despite stiff competition, we placed first in the design and surveillance portions of the competition and fifth in the endurance portion, giving us second place overall.

Our advisor, Dr. Bowman, was very proud of the team and called The Daily Universe, encouraging them to interview us about our work and the competition. He had a preliminary phone interview with one of the writers and expected that the team members would soon speak to one of their reporters. But the team was never contacted and the phone interview served as the sole source of an April 7, 2003 article that appeared around page 15 of the day's paper. The 585 word article included no photos and mentioned no other names beyond that of our advisor.

A mere two days later, the entire top half of the front page of The Daily Universe was taken up by an article on life as a male ballet student (yes, this was considered to be front page material). The 992 word article had a large, full color photograph and included interviews with several dancers. Needless to say, the difference between this article and the treatment the MAV team received further proved what we all suspected about the University paper. We were annoyed by being upstaged by an article on men in tights, but we thought we could take it in stride.

But the very next day, a small color photo of a yellow Peep appeared just above The Daily Universe's title, along with the line "Peeps heat up Easter traditions" and the page number of the article. On the referenced page was found an enormous color photo of a marshmallow Peep. I still remember that absurd picture; a disgusting, stale, gritty mockery of a chicken stretching nearly 3/4 of the page's height. The 753 word article included interviews with several students and alumni on the role of Peeps in their Easter traditions.

An article on chicken-shaped marshmallow novelties was accompanied by an image almost twice as large as any of the MAV team's airplanes, showed more interest in actual individuals, and ran 168 words longer than a perfunctory story about engineering students' accomplishments in an international competition involving experimental technology. Peeps. The tacky and barely edible seasonal treat.

I hate those things

In the end, we could only assume that the editors' bias allowed an article about an inanimate object with no real connection to BYU to receive more attention than one about students studying a field in which the paper's staff happened to have little interest. While I'm certain there was no offense intended, the absurdity of the episode annoyed me to an unprecedented degree. (It's a good thing I missed their 2004 article on Peeps; I simply stopped reading the paper after 2003.) Eventually this annoyance focused not on any human being, but entirely on the face of the whole incident: Peeps.

Yes, I have a fiery hatred for Peeps.

(But, even if I hadn't been on the MAV team at all, I still would have thought the article was stupid.)


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