Monday, August 18, 2014

PG-13 Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

There will be spoilers, but nothing that you couldn't have figured out from the trailers.

Since everyone in the universe has already seen Guardians of the Galaxy, I figure I would throw my two cents in. After all, I saw it over a week ago now, and I still haven't joined the masses on the subject. Besides, I had nothing else to blog about today.

My thoughts?

Is "Bat-shit insane" two words or three?

From an opening credit that has our lead dancing through an abandoned Temple of Doom set singing along to 80s music while kicking away vicious rats with an attitude problem, all the way to a climactic standoff with a bad guy that even had the bad guy going "What are you doing?" this was a roller coaster of demented from start to finish. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I hear Moulin Rouge won a few academy awards for their purely warped film.

Let's look at our roster of strangeness, even though that was one of the few things the credits conveyed in their The Usual Suspects-style commercials.

Peter "Starlord" Quill (Chris Pratt) was an alien abductee who was pretty much adopted by the abductors known as the Ravagers, almost immediately after his mother died of cancer ... well, that's timing. In the comics, the abductors murdered his mother during the course of his kidnapping, but they needed the Ravagers in the movie to be cavalry-ish, so they couldn't be too evil. In fact, considering that the Ravagers all have Southern accents, it almost felt like it was Duck Dynasty to the rescue. Sort of.  It's a long, strange story.

When the film opens, Quill has decided to betray the Ravagers by getting to the McGuffin device before the Ravagers can.

Anyway, we have Gamora, played by the wide-eyed Zoe Saldana. Yes, there's some chemistry, though she's not really the love interest in this one; but since they're getting a sequel, director James Gunn probably figured that they could stretch it out a bit, which I'm fine with. Gamora is the adoptive daughter of Thanos (big, stoney and purple from the end of The Avengers), modified to wreak havoc at his command. She's been loaned out to an alien terrorist called Ronan the Accuser, in exchange for the McGuffin.

Gamora sees the McGuffin device as her way far, far away from Thanos, who has earned his title of "The Mad Titan." So she's after Quill.

The .... let's call them Mercenaries ... Rocket Raccoon and Groot (walking tree) spot Quill when he goes to cash in on the McGuffin, and sees that the Ravagers have posted a bounty on his head.

When the four of them get together, the ensuing chase / fight is actually very well done. It goes back and forth like a tennis match gone awry. It's everybody versus everybody else, and it's like trying to get leverage on Gumbi.

Then the police arrive and throw everyone in the prison from Face / Off. No, I'm not kidding. It feels like they even took the set.

In jail, they run into Drax the Destroyer. Drax's entire family was murdered by Ronan, and Gamora was working for Ronan. This will not end well. Quill talks Drax down by suggesting that Gamora be used as bait.

If I say that there's a breakout, will anyone see that as a spoiler?

Anyway. Our five-some takes the McGuffin to Gamora's fence, known as the Collector (post-credits on Thor: The Dark World), who explains that the McGuffin is one of the Infinity Gems. Previous Infinity Gems include the Tesseract / Cosmic Cube from Captain America and The Avengers, the Aether from Thor 2, and probably the gem at the end of the spear of fate (The Avengers). This is #4. There are six of them scattered throughout the galaxy. Any one of them individually can wreak havoc.

But Ronan wants the gem, and our protagonists have it.   Hilarity ensues.

I must compliment James Gunn for introducing the insanity that is the Marvel cosmic universe to a mainstream audience. Let's face it, it's a big job. He has to set up five characters, set up the universe, all the while telling a story that will explain the endgame of the Marvel franchise.  Yes, endgame.  Trust me, Thanos is going to be the bad guy for The Avengers Three, probably subtitled The Infinity War. While strange, GotG is going to be necessary for the final product of the overall story arc.

Ronan, in the comics
Are there problems? Yes. Sure. Our adversary, Ronan the Accuser, isn't very colorful. Loki has some depth of character. Ronan is "a terrorist." He's too "traditional," without explaining what the traditions are. Is he someone who wants the return of the Persian Empire, or just wear funny hats? And he's described as a Kree, and at war with the Nova Corps and the people of Xandar ... but the Kree in the comics were at war with the Skrulls. In fact, the Accusers were essentially Judges from the Judge Dredd universe, and he was The Accuser because he was their Police Commissioner.  So, yes, I'd nitpick that Ronan in the comics had become more of a good guy, and had been part of a major war against something called "The Cancerverse," but I don't think anyone cares. He could have used a bit more fleshing out.

Anyway, what else? I suspect there are deleted scenes from the film. Mainly because they hired Karen Gillan of Doctor Who, and barely used her. Gillan plays Nebula, another daughter of Thanos. I expected a knockdown dragout with Gamora, but their battle felt truncated, and I suspect that there's stuff that ended on the cutting room floor.In fact, Nebula seems to only be there so she shows up in Avengers 3 (see above). Also, I wanted some more explanation here and there. For example .... who hired the Ravagers in the first place to find the McGuffin? There's a fence who hired them, yes, but who was it going to? We never knew.

But, overall, James Gunn had to put together the Avengers in space, with none of the backstory, previous movies, or large established fan base, and he did a fantastic job of it in less time than the Avengers did. I've only seen it once, so I may have to watch it a few more times before I decide whether or not there's anything beneath the strange.

But it's a summer movie. Yes, it's not as intellectually deep as Captain America, but there are more moving parts, and probably more going on in the background. Also, it's very meta.  It makes fun of itself, using standard movie tropes, then poking fun at it.  For example, that scene when they decide that yes, we're going to make a stand against the bad guys! Yes, we're going to go out fighting! I'm going to stand with you! (Then literally stand). Then they poke fun at that as they're doing it.

Also -- George Lucas, your special effects suck. You writing sucks. Your directing sucks. Why? BECAUSE YOU GOT OWNED BY A RACCOON. THAT'S WHY.

Yes, time for the acting critique.

The acting was quite good. It was the best acting gig Vin Diesel ever had (insert "he's very wooden" joke here); and they did a good job with someone who had only four words in the entire movie. Yes. Four. Bradley Cooper as Rocket was surprisingly touching at times, which means he's been allowed more acting range in this film than in every other movie combined.

Peter Quill was ... well, if Mal Reynolds had a personality, he'd probably be Peter Quill. Or Nathan Fillion.

Zoe Saldana didn't have a great acting range in this film, but then again, she doesn't need it on her resume, she held Columbiana together with both hands.

However, her stunt fighting was fun. Don't mess with Uhura in the next Star Trek film.

The surprise performance in this one was actually from Dave Bautista as Drax. Drax had emotional depth, the best one-liners in the film, and was a deeply, deeply damaged fellow.

This is more acting in one film than Mr. Bautista was allowed in all his years in wrestling.  (Yes, I sort of follow wrestling. And it's only "fake" if you plan to hit someone with a metal chair "just so," in such a way as you're not making them a rutabaga.)

In short, I liked it.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gun shop visit

Margot St. Aubin.
While I was in Chicago, I was offered a visit to a gun range by fellow Catholic blogger, Margot St. Aubin.  She had read the Pius trilogy thus far and could see that I wasn't exactly up on guns.

And by that I means I've never seen one off of a cop, and never held one. Welcome to New York City. Screw you, Bloomberg.


So, she offered me a range visit while I was in the area.

I walked in to the gun range, and explained the situation. When I said I was I New Yorker, I used the cop line from above.

Off of that visit .... well, one suggestion for writers: First of all, assume that there are no clips. They are magazines. Period. Few guns actually use clips.

Second, I didn't take any pictures because, really, I'm an idiot. Actually, I'm still not used to the concept of my phone as a tool to document every last event in my life.

Springfield, XD, 9mm. The model I used at the range
Upon my arrival, the store owner was pleasant. He went over the rules of gun safety, most of which I knew. He then went over the gun's operation, some of which I knew. I never really knew what to do with my thumbs when firing, now I know that they go over one side.

I knew about avoiding slide bite (when gripping the gun, make sure the slide doesn't take off skin between your thumb and forefinger).

Squeeze, don't pull.  I always knew this rule, just didn't really know how to apply it. Even after firing off some rounds, I'm still not 100% I do.

Don't point at anything you don't intend to shoot at / act like it's loaded all the time... again, I picked that up from many, many thrillers where guns come into play.

What I didn't know were the rules of the individual range. I knew that the slide locked back when the gun was empty, though I didn't know there was a little switch? Button? on the side that slid it back into position after it was reloaded, and automatically filling the chamber.

My stance was a simple weaver stance. Feet are diagonal, gun is cupped in both hands, elbows are not locked out ...

Basically, I learned the stance by watching Jack Bauer on 24.

I started out relatively close, only a quarter of the range, then I moved it halfway down range.  I fired 21 rounds, all but 3 landing within the 10 ring (well, I think). When one of the employees saw it, I think the word he used was "fantastic."  Or was that the hotel employee who saw me bringing it inside the hotel?  I'm not sure. There were a few compliments from complete and total strangers.

Either way, we've got photos.

Some observations.

Brass goes EVERYWHERE.  And I mean EVERYWHERE. The casing ejected over my shoulder, around my body, directly onto the floor, bouncing off the stall I was in, rolling as far as 8 feet away, easily.  I understand why not every killer polices their brass. It's hard work. And I was standing still. Imagine if it were a running shootout. Oy.

Firing a gun is a lot easier than I thought. Then again, the Springfield that I was using was very easy to operate.  It's not quite point and click, but it's close.  The grip safety is nothing. It's a button at the back of the pistol grip, just under where it meets the rest of the gun, where the webbing between thumb and index finger wrap around the gun.  From what I can tell, the hardest part was putting the bullets into the magazine. Step one, the broad flat part of the bullet goes into the narrow part of the magazine. The pointy-er bit goes towards the open end.  And after the first ten bullets, the spring inside the magazine starts to fight back.

Damn, that thing's light. As in toy gun light. The gun owner stripped the barrel off for me and let me hold the frame. The frame is comparable with a squirt gun.  The bullets will double the weight. Just over a dozen pill-sized pellets of doom will double the weight. Imagine it. It's strange.

Come to think of it, I think a super soaker, empty, is heavier than an actual gun.  Okay, it's been years since I've even seen a super soaker, but you get the idea.

I always heard that the magazine ejection button was behind the trigger, but it's actually on the side of the gun behind the trigger guard.

After firing, there was no smell that I really picked up on.  None. Seriously, none. There were three other people firing guns in that range at the same time, and I didn't really pick up on any major scent. I expected a smell akin to a fireworks display.  But, apparently, expanded cordite doesn't exist anymore. At all. So, just pretend it doesn't exist. I made reference to it in A Pius Man, but thankfully, I didn't say where the explosive came from, just that it smelled like a fireworks display.  Granted, I said it smelled like Cordite, but I might be able to bluff through if I'm called on it.

There are pink AR-15s. Really. It was strange, because I could ID it by sight, despite the pink. I may have been looking at guns too long.

It's official. Guns are not that scary. Also, I may need to rewrite some scenes in future novels.

Thanks once more to Margot for bringing me along. It was awesome.

Monday, August 4, 2014

I'm back! Action / Adventure panel at CWCL

The Catholic Writer's Conference, Live! action-adventure panel.

This will be an incomplete transcript of the entire panel, starring Declan Finn (me), Gene Wolfe, and John Desjarlais (French-Canadian pronunciation. Good luck) and Anthony Kolenc.

Now, there will be gaps here. I've forgotten most of what I've said, to heck with what anyone else said.  I'm going to ask anyone who was there to comment, and fill in the blanks. Anyone who posted to YouTube, please let me know, I'll post some here.

The moderator was the awesome and wonderful Ann Margaret Lewis.

Here we go.....

Q: Has a Saint's non-violence inspired you?

Declan Finn: Well, the closest I've ever come to that was with Thomas Aquinas. Like me, Aquinas was a nerd. He had only two real outbursts in his life.  One was when his family had hired a hooker -- a second one, because he converted the first -- only this one was more persistent in her job. Aquinas finally grabbed a burning log from the fireplace and chased her out, drawing a cross of fire into the door on her way out. I always liked that one if only for the comedy value. The second story was Aquinas at a party being held by King St. Louis. It was one of those "You've been invited. Go to the party, you'll have fun." During the party, he had a philosophical thought, rear up, and slammed the table, declaring "and that will settle the Manichees!" I've got a few characters who are also just as flakey.

Gene Wolfe: But the important part of that fight scene with the hooker -- and it was a fight scene, even if she just ran away -- was what was being defended!

JD: One of my earlier books was about a war that happened over a book. It was written back when I was still a Protestant. Who knew I was writing a Catholic novel?

Worst fight scene ever?
Declan Finn: Jack Higgins wrote a scene to the end of a family of villains who had been plaguing his heroes for books. It was a dark and stormy night, fighting on the roof.  The entire fight consisted of "They went at each other. They fought. They grappled, they rolled to the edge of the roof, and Rashid fell off."  He's been the bad guy for repeated books! I know fights are quick, but can I have a little more detail?

JD: The worst fight scene I've ever read was when a pivotal fight happened off screen, with no emotional payoff.

Q: Who can you give as an example of writing good fight scenes.
Lee Child's Jack Reacher.  Before every fight, there's a little dissertation on violence. It explains why he's targeting who he's targeting, and why he's hitting with what he's hitting.  And since Jack Reacher was 6'5" -- not Tom Cruise -- he was always being confronted by 5-7 people, and discussed group dynamics.

Ann: Do you think they stole that for the Robert Downy Jr. Sherlock Holmes films?

Well, for that, I can at least see Holmes doing it, because he's Holmes. He can play three-dimensional chess in his head.  As for stealing .... does Guy Ritchie even read? I know he was with Madonna for a while, so I wouldn't place money on it.

I also suggest James Rollins.  And for large scale battles, read Bernard Cornwell -- not John, Bernard -- who wrote the Richard Sharpe series. It was about the Napoleonic wars, and one of the few roles where Sean Bean did not die a horrible, horrible death.

[I got a few laughs there]

Q: Why do you write in your genre?
Declan Finn: Because thrillers are what people read. And I'm not going to write a romance novel.

What is your pet peeve about action scenes?

Gene Wolfe: When two guys are exchanging one-liners between punches. All of the one-liners in real life come before the punching starts. One of these days, I want someone to start a one-liner and get punched in the mouth.

[No, I don't remember what I said to that one. It's been a hard week]

Q: For science fiction and fantasy, it's easy to ignore tech or magic in order to have an exciting fight scene. (Remember how Indy shot the swordsman instead of the big scene they had planned.) How do you work around advanced tech that might make a dull fight?

Declan Finn: "I make it simple. I give all the advanced weaponry to the bad guys.  As for working around it -- the tech can be magical, but it's still run by people. People can be tricked. Confused. Or just plain stupid."

Gene mostly answered this question.  I don't remember his answer, though I want to have recalled it.  He also loved the Raiders swordfight cited above because that's very much how real fights go.

Q (from the audience): What makes a Catholic adventure?
JD: As Bilbo said in The Hobbit, "I'm going on an adventure!"  The first part of having an adventure is that you go out."
Me: I'm the simple one here. Catholic adventure? The priests aren't all Nazis. The Pope isn't evil.  There is good. There is evil. And evil must lose.

[I swear I had an "amen" at that point.]

Q (From the audience): "Have you ever had prayer, or angels, or a miracle to solve a problem? Something supernatural for a solution?"
Gene: "Yes, I did. I had one story where every time my main character would start praying, he would start to win."
Declan Finn: "Since I don't want it to be a deus ex machina, I do have a bit of a miracle in book three of my Pius trilogy, when the fecal matter hits the air impeller" [laugh].  "But it's like the old joke: A cop car goes up to a guy's house.  There's a flood coming. Get in the car. Guy says that God'll save me, God'll save my house. The next people to come by are in a boat, and they're talking to the homeowner in the second story window because that's where the water is.  Get in the boat, they say. Guy says that God'll save me, God'll save my house.  The next people to come by are in a helicopter, and the homeowner's on the roof. Guy says No, God'll save me, God'll save my house. Homeowner drowns.  When the homeowner asks, Why didn't you save me? God says 'I sent the cop, I sent the boat, I sent the helicopter, what more do you want?'  It's like that."

Then there were several great lines that I can't remember the context for......

JD: "The scene between Bilbo and Gollum in the cave is a buildup to Bilbo and Smaug later on, playing for much larger stakes. Setup, payoff."

JD: A fight has to either advance the story or the character.  You can't just have it to be there. It has to accomplish something.

[.... I hate him for that. He stole my line before I could say it. :)  Yes, I'm kidding. I love his novels Bleeder and Viper.  I should probably review then ... anyway....]

Declan Finn: "As was said by John, if it's going to bore the writer, it's going to bore the audience. I cut a scene from my novel Codename: Winterborn because there were too many fight scenes already.  But since the scene was something that had to happen for the story to move forward, and it was a navy SEAL versus some guys in the street, I boiled it down to a sentence of the aftermath, and moved on."

Gene Wolfe: "I'm glad to see that fighting men are wearing armor again. I had one of the first pieces of armor issued to the army. It was this big heavy nylon thing with lead squares, and it might as well have been made of solid metal. Anyway, during one time, this Lieutenant had come up on stage before the men, and he wore this bright green shining piece of armor with a string of grenades across the chest. It made him look like Flash Gordon. He had a truck of his new armor and he said "Is there anyone here who doesn't have armor?" I disconnected my straps, holding my armor up, and I shot up to the stage, saying "Me. I don't have armor."  And I got myself some shiny new armor, the first time it was given out to the enlisted men and not just officers.  Anyway, we made an about face, and marched out of the room, and there was my old armor, just lying there. The Lieutenant just laughed, picked up the armor, and threw it on the truck."

As I said, these are pieces and parts I recall from less than a week ago. Any help on filling in the blanks would be helpful