Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Bonaventure Cemetery

 

All Photo Credits: Matt Handle

Like any good detective tale, the novel I’m currently querying features a number of side quests the protagonist must complete while in pursuit of his quarry. One of those missions takes him to the Bonaventure Cemetery just outside Savannah, Georgia. I had the opportunity to visit this famous boneyard last month and I thought I’d share some of the photos I took. Located aside the Wilmington River and featuring burial plots from as old as 1802, this quiet Spanish moss-draped place seems perfect for the sort of spooky encounter my occult detective faces there.

















Monday, June 20, 2022

Visiting Savannah

 

All Photo Credits: Matt Handle

While the majority of the occult detective novel I’m shopping to agents this summer takes place in my home turf of Atlanta, a key scene happens in the port city of Savannah, Georgia. This created the perfect excuse to take the family to Savannah this past weekend for a wedding anniversary/Father’s Day celebration where we could not only have a great time, but I could do some fact check reconnaissance as well. Does this mean our trip was deductible? I’ll leave that decision to my tax professional, but it definitely means I took lots of photos. I’ll save the pictures from the Bonaventure Cemetery for a future post since that’s a very specific location in my book but here are plenty of shots around town including the smaller but still spookily impressive Colonial Park Cemetery.


















Sunday, May 22, 2022

Love, Death & Robots – Season 3

 

Image Credit: Netflix

Friday marked the release of Netflix’s sci-fi/horror series Love, Death & Robots Season 3 and like the two seasons before it, the show offers some entertaining short stories told through a host of talented directors and animation studios. The nine episodes this season range from 7 to 21 minutes long and they feature returning writers John Scalzi, Neal Asher, and Michael Stanwick along with series co-creator Tim Miller and award-winning sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling.

There’s enough variety in the stories and styles that everyone is bound to have their personal favorites and I encourage you to give them all a try. Below are my brief descriptions of each episode in my order of preference.

 

In Vaulted Halls Entombed

A military team sent to rescue a captive from terrorists runs afoul of something much more sinister deep in the caves of Afghanistan. This violent, creepy tale ends in a Lovecraftian twist that makes it my favorite of Season 3.

Bad Travelling

I didn’t find the main character to be particularly likeable and the ending felt a little too convenient, but watching a crew battle a tank-sized crustacean who has taken over the ship and developed a taste for human flesh was still a lot of gory fun.

Jibaro

This episode doesn’t include a word of dialogue, but the animation might be the most visually arresting of the series. An invading knight is initially spared from death by a seductive river siren because he is deaf, but her fascination and his greed get the better of him in the end.

Swarm

Another minute or two of exposition to fill in some of plot would have made this episode way more successful. As it is, the story feels a bit disjointed, but it still features excellent world-building as a space-faring human attempts to enslave a uniquely adaptive alien species.

Mason’s Rats

I tend to like the serious episodes more than the silly ones, but this gore-fest about a farmer who goes to extraordinarily violent lengths to rid his barn of intelligent rodents is a fun ride and it features the voice talent of one of my favorite comedians, Craig Ferguson.

The Very Pulse of the Machine

Imagine an astronaut exploring a peyote fever-dream and you’d have the general idea of this episode. While short on action, the artwork is beautiful and it has the sort of ambiguous ending that allows your mind to ponder the story long after it’s over.

Three Robots: Exit Strategies

This humorous continuation of an episode in Season 1 doesn’t offer much in the way of new ideas, but it’s still amusing to imagine what future robot archeologists might think of our strange and self-destructive culture long after we’re gone from Earth.

Kill Team Kill

There’s plenty of violence and vulgarity in this episode, but not much characterization or story. A group of mercenaries runs across a cybernetic monster that’s nearly indestructible and apparently a result of their own government’s experimentation.

Night of the Mini Dead

Given my love for zombies, you’d think I’d rank this one higher, but it just didn’t do much for me. I appreciate the novelty of telling the tale of a zombie apocalypse via miniatures, but other than the fact they’re tiny, this episode doesn’t offer anything you haven’t seen before.


Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Book of Boba Fett – Season 1 Review

 

Image Credit: Disney+

 

Season 1 of the latest Star Wars offering from Disney+ wrapped up last night and being the Star Wars geek that I am, you know I watched every minute of it. If you haven’t seen it yet but plan to, I do share some mild spoilers below but I tried to avoid spilling the best stuff. If you’re on the fence about seeing it, I’ll say up front that it isn’t as good a show as The Mandalorian, but it’s still a fun ride. Boba Fett always struck me as a galactic High Plains Drifter. I assumed this series would depict that same quiet, cruel bounty hunter who just happens to now be more interested/invested in punishing bad guys instead of good ones. That isn't what we get. Instead, Fett is an aging, softening man who just wants to settle down and get the locals to like and respect him.  For me at least, this makes for an uncompelling lead. There’s no doubt that the show is an entertaining piece of nostalgia, it's just not everything I hoped it would be.

That said, here are brief summaries and my thoughts on each episode written immediately after I watched them.

 

Stranger in a Strange Land

Fett’s appeal in the original Star Wars trilogy was his quiet menace. We didn’t hear much from him. We just knew he looked and moved like a bad ass. This new version of the infamous galactic bounty hunter does a good bit of talking and frankly, most of it isn’t very bad ass. I would have enjoyed seeing his sidekick Fennec Shand do more of the talking on his behalf. Like Netflix’s The Witcher, allowing the warrior to rely on grunts and growls would let him keep more of his air of mystery. I also think a set of hand signals between the pair similar to the House Atreides battle language in Dune would underline the importance of their relationship and Fett’s ability to act swiftly and mercilessly with a minimum of words. Robert Rodriguez’s direction of the Mos Espa fight sequence left something to be desired as well. It felt more Spy Kids than Desperado. Improved stunt choreography and editing would have dramatically improved the scene and our belief that Fett and Shand are forces to be reckoned with. This first episode is fun in that it takes us back to a planet and characters that we love, but I think it does less to set up a strong series than what we saw in The Mandalorian.

The Tribes of Tatooine

This second episode has some weak spots, but it’s a definite improvement over its predecessor. The arrival of the Hutt twins and their Wookie enforcer, Krrsantan who want to lay claim to Jabba’s former domain and run off Fett in the process is a highlight as is the appearance of the Ithorian mayor of Mos Espa, Mok Shaiz. However a large portion of this episode is backstory and while interesting, it further damages our image of Fett as a bad ass as we see him repeatedly get beat up by Tusken Raiders. Eventually he earns their respect by saving one of their youths from a desert monster whose odd appearance and movement wouldn’t be out of place in Clash of the Titans. Fett follows that victory with another against a gang of ruffians in a bar brawl, cementing his place in the Tusken tribe. Our protagonist then goes on to lead the sand people in a high-speed spice train robbery that could have been great, but like the Mos Espa fight in Episode 1, feels short-changed by the stunt performers and special effects. It ends up coming off a bit like Fury Road-lite. All-in-all still underwhelming, but the series is at least moving in the right direction.

The Streets of Mos Espa

Fett reflects on the tragic fate of his former Tusken tribe then wakes from his bacta tank dream to an assassination attempt by Krrsantan. He survives thanks to a new gang of young bikers he’s recently taken under his wing and he soon accepts an apology from the Wookie’s Hutt twin employers. The Hutts have decided to leave while they still can and they offer both the Wookie and a rancor as payment for the trouble they’ve caused. I didn’t dislike the teens and their colorful speeder bikes nearly as much as many critics on Twitter did, but I did take exception to director Robert Rodriguez again choosing cheap-looking Spy Kids-type special effects in a chase scene through the busy streets of Mos Espa that could have been a series highlight if done well. Cheers to the casting of Danny Trejo as the rancor keeper though!

The Gathering Storm

The quality of the special effects continues to disappoint, the most glaring example in this episode being Fennec’s cybernetic surgery scene, but watching Fett rescue and befriend Fennec was fun as was the mission to retrieve Fett’s ship from Bib Fortuna, and Krrsantan’s dismemberment of an unfortunate gambler in the Sanctuary club. The highlight of this episode is Fett and Fennec’s exploration of and subsequent battle with the Sarlacc while inside Slave 1. I thought it was a great way to tie the show to Fett’s last scene in Return of the Jedi and yes, for this old-school fan, the name of his ship will never change.

Return of the Mandalorian

Chapter 5 isn’t so much an episode of The Book of Boba Fett as it is a lost episode of The Mandalorian. We follow Din Djarin as he stops in to show off the Darksaber to The Armorer, dukes it out with Paz Vizsla over which of them is the rightful wielder of the legendary blade then promptly gets booted from the Mandalorian ranks when he admits he broke their code to remove his mask for Grogu. This leads Djarin back to Tatooine where he commissions a small, Phantom Menace-era ship to replace his destroyed Razor Crest. The new ship is ridiculously fast but also completely impractical for a bounty hunter who needs to be able to live on, sleep in, and transport prisoners in a cargo hold. The episode ends with Fennec showing up at the shipyard to ask Djarin for his help, finally tying the story back to Boba Fett. While out-of-place in regard to telling Fett’s story, this episode is a blast. I don’t know if it is the superior direction of Bryce Dallas Howard, the superior acting of Pedro Pascal, or if writers Jon Favreau and Noah Kloor are just more in tune with Djarin than Fett, but chapter 5 is far more satisfying than the four episodes before it.

From the Desert Comes a Stranger

The penultimate episode of Season 1 is again mostly about characters other than Fett and it’s even better than episode 5. Not only do we get more Djarin, we get the return of Luke Skywalker, Ahsoka Tano, R2-D2, Cobb Vanth, and maybe coolest of all, the first live action appearance of Star Wars: The Clone Wars baddie, Cad Bane. All of this fan service and world building seems to be leading to a big battle for control of Tatooine between Fett and his allies against the spice-smuggling Pyke Syndicate and their hired guns. Meanwhile Grogu faces the choice between his friendship with Djarin and his Jedi training with Skywalker, a decision which should clear up which direction the next season of The Mandalorian will take.

In The Name of Honor

The final episode of the season is all action and while some of it doesn’t hit as hard as it should, quite a bit does. We get the Star Wars version of Godzilla vs. King Kong, we get Fett and Djarin fighting side by side against overwhelming odds, we get a great showdown between Fett and Bane that’s practically lifted straight out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, and we finally get to see Fennec Shand act like the deadly assassin she was built up to be. This finale isn’t as strong as the two episodes that preceded it, but it’s a fun wrap up of Boba Fett’s rise to power on Tatooine and a nice segue into the upcoming third season of The Mandalorian.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Best Free Short Speculative Fiction of 2021

 

Image Credit: Enrique Meseguer at Pixabay


Welcome to my third annual Best Free Short Speculative Fiction list! In regard to my personal writing accomplishments, 2021 was another period of minor victories but still no major breakthrough. My flash fiction piece “The Stony Gaze of Eternity” can be found in the new horror anthology 99 Tiny Terrors alongside stories by authors Cat Rambo, Seanan McGuire, Scott Edelman, Meg Elison, and more. I also sold a story entitled “Children of the Moon” that will come out next year. My tastes still dwell in the realms of horror and darker/grittier sci-fi and fantasy so with that in mind, if you’re looking for more stories to read, I highly recommend the following ten. They’re all free to read and every one of them is excellent. Here is my list of the best free speculative short stories published in 2021.

 

Orla, Always

I’ve read and enjoyed multiple short stories written by Thomas Ha this year. All of them are dark, otherworldly, and thoroughly engrossing. This tale in the latest issue of Metaphorosis explores how far a father will go to save his only child from a horrific disease and death.

https://magazine.metaphorosis.com/story/2021/orla-always-thomas-ha/

 

White Ribbon, Grey Fur

Uncharted is a welcome new entry in the short story market and this twisted tale of living through a deadly epidemic in a world that’s both similar yet weirdly different from our own by Marisca Pichette hits particularly hard given our current COVID plight.

https://www.unchartedmag.com/stories/white-ribbon-grey-fur/

 

The Lonely Box

The Fall issue of Underland Arcana features this melancholy piece of flash fiction by Manfred Gabriel. I think anyone familiar with the heartache of seeing relationships die as time marches past can relate.

https://www.underlandarcana.com/manfred-gabriel-the-lonely-box/

 

Judge Dee and the Poisoner of Montmartre

Combine Dracula with Sherlock Holmes and what do you get? It might be something like author Lavie Tidhar’s character, Judge Dee. This tale found on the Tor website of a vampire detective and his long-suffering human familiar Jonathan is highly entertaining and will leave you wanting more.

https://www.tor.com/2021/09/15/judge-dee-and-the-poisoner-of-montmartre-lavie-tidhar/

 

The Nature of Things in Motion

A single-minded robot in post-apocalyptic America befriends a curious boy, doing its best to protect him to the (very) bitter end. Marlan K. Smith paints a dark picture of mindless industry and the fragility of man in the premier issue of Etherea Magazine.

https://ethereamagazine.com/the-nature-of-things-in-motion/

 

We Will Weather One Another Somehow

This tragic sci-fi tale by writer Kristina Ten will ring especially true for anyone who has watched a loved one suffer from a debilitating illness. Poignant and touching, it can be found in the June issue of Diabolical Plots.

https://www.diabolicalplots.com/dp-fiction-76b-we-will-weather-one-another-somehow-by-kristina-ten/

 

Brightly, Undiminished

This tale of mourning and magic by Sarah Grey was published in the March issue of Lightspeed Magazine. I don’t know if so many of my picks this year are sad and reflective because of my feelings about the pandemic or because so many great writers out there felt much the same, but this story fits right in.

https://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/brightly-undiminished/

 

Cleaver, Meat, and Block

Maria Haskins’ post-apocalyptic tale of a young woman coming to terms with the cannibalistic murder of her family is harrowing in a way few short stories can manage. Originally published in 2020 by Black Static, it is available for free in PseudoPod 745.

https://pseudopod.org/2021/02/19/pseudopod-745-cleaver-meat-and-block/

 

Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels

That’s right, author Lavie Tidhar and Tor.com not only earned two places on my list; they did it with the same characters. I can’t get enough of vampire detective Judge Dee’s adventures with his sidekick Jonathan. I could easily picture this becoming an animated series on Netflix or HBO Max in the near future. Sign up Tim Burton to direct, Johnny Depp to voice the judge, and I’m ready to binge watch!

https://www.tor.com/2021/02/10/judge-dee-and-the-three-deaths-of-count-werdenfels-lavie-tidhar/

 

Mr. Death

And finally this tale of a harbinger of the afterlife and the moral quandary he must face written by Alix E. Harrow and published in the resurrected Apex Magazine hit me right in the feels. I challenge you to finish this one dry-eyed.

https://apex-magazine.com/mr-death/

 

If you enjoyed these stories and want to find more great short fiction, check out these 20 websites.

 

https://apex-magazine.com/

https://www.apparitionlit.com/

http://arsenika.ink/

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/

http://thedarkmagazine.com/

https://darkmattermagazine.com/

https://thedeadlands.com/

https://www.diabolicalplots.com/

https://www.dreamofshadows.co.uk/

https://ethereamagazine.com

http://www.kaleidotrope.net/

http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/

https://magazine.metaphorosis.com/

http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/

http://pseudopod.org/

http://www.strangehorizons.com/

https://www.tor.com/

https://uncannymagazine.com/

https://www.unchartedmag.com/

https://www.underlandarcana.com/


Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Film Review: Dune

 

Image Credit: Warner Bros.


As a sci-fi writer and fan, director Denis Villeneuve’s take on the science fiction classic novel Dune was one of my most anticipated movies of 2021. So it should be no surprise I went to see it opening weekend. It’s one of those tent-pole films that demands to be seen on the big screen whether you have HBOMax or not. Is it a masterpiece? No. But it kept me thoroughly entertained for the entire 2 hour 35 minute run time. Here’s my take on what it does well and where it might come up a little short.

First off, anyone who hasn’t read the book but did see David Lynch’s attempt in 1984 and walked out saying “huh?” will be happy to know Villeneuve does a much better job of setting up this complex tale so it makes sense. My wife, by no means a sci-fi fan, enjoyed the movie too and only whispered a question once or twice which I consider a huge endorsement. Dune avoids long speeches and exposition, but still throws in enough hints to keep you aware of who the players are and what their agendas might be.

Next, the visuals are amazing. The ship landings, the sandworms, the costumes, the ornithopters flying over the desert, there are so many beautiful shots that I feel like anyone who watches this on television or a mobile screen on first viewing is cheating themselves. If Villeneuve didn’t already prove it with his films Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, he does here. The man knows how to wow.

Casting is also a major strength in this version of Dune, fixing several mistakes made by David Lynch in his earlier attempt. Timothy Chalamet is a much better match for the teenaged Paul Atriedes than Kyle McLachlan was in the mid-80s. Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac are excellent as his royal parents and Jason Momoa is a much more convincing warrior than the terribly miscast Richard Jordan. Several other actors shine as well including Stellan Skarsgard, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Dave Bautista.

Where does the 2021 version of Dune come up short? For starters, the book is so complex and multi-layered it probably should have been made into a mini-series rather than a feature film. Dune could easily fill 10 hours of runtime. This film only covers the first half (or less) of the original story. This means we only get the introduction of the characters, world, and dilemma. There isn’t a great deal of character development and there is little to no resolution, just a cliffhanger leaving us to wait on the recently greenlit sequel.

Perhaps less egregious, but still disappointing is the tiny amount of screen time actress Zendaya receives as Paul’s love interest, Chani. Based on how Villeneuve broke the story into two films, she appears in this one, but has almost nothing to do. I assume she’ll be a major part of the planned sequel, but for now, her fans are probably a little bummed at her lack of dialogue.

All in all, Dune is well worth the price of admission and one of my favorite films of 2021. I’m just eagerly awaiting the rest of the story scheduled to reach theatres in October 2023.


Thursday, October 7, 2021

Rambo: Last Blood and the Importance of Character Motivation

 

Image Credit: Lionsgate Films


WARNING. No Rambo film is a mind-bender full of surprises but this post does contain spoilers. If you haven’t seen Rambo: Last Blood but plan to, know that reading further will tell you more about the plot than you might want to learn. With that said, let’s continue!

 

Those of you who are writers, and my assumption is that a large portion of my blog’s audience falls into this category, may scoff at me using a Sylvester Stallone movie as a writing exercise. You shouldn’t. The man was nominated for a writing Oscar for his Rocky screenplay. The two roles he’s best known for, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo have been featured in 13 feature films. The man knows how to develop a character. Which makes it all the sadder that John Rambo seems to have finished his life story in 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood. The movie was critically panned and did less at the box office than any of its predecessors. As a fan of the series, I held off on watching it to avoid a letdown. I finally caved recently and while I tend to agree with the critics, the truth is it wouldn’t take much to make Rambo: Last Blood a better film. Sometimes the best way to learn how to be a better writer is to take a deeper look into a work that’s a near-miss.

Part of the problem with Rambo: Last Blood appears to be film executive meddling. At 89 minutes the film is too short. The Director’s Cut clocks in at 101 minutes and repairs some of the damage. The theatrical cut leaves out too much of Rambo’s motivation. He’s an old man now. The last time we saw him was 11 years ago working as a solitary boatman in the jungles of Burma. Now he’s retired on his deceased father’s Arizona farm where he lives with his niece Gabriela and her grandmother, Maria. Why did he build a network of tunnels beneath the property? How has he quelled his violent nature? How has he kept his battle skills honed despite this seemingly peaceful existence? An opening scene that’s only available in the Director’s Cut depicts Rambo saving a woman from a flood, but failing to save her friends. He then morosely compares that shortcoming to his failure to save his friends in Vietnam as he discusses the incident with Maria after he returns home. The scene isn’t perfect, but it does help fill in some of the missing backstory.

Later, Rambo suggests rather than leave to a party, Gabriela invite her friends to the farm to party in his Vietcong-like tunnels.  The tunnels full of guns, knives, and his precious war memorabilia. As a responsible parent this is obviously a horrendous idea, but it also was a screenwriter misstep. The friends never appear in the film again so this is senseless diversion from the story. Worse, it misses a golden opportunity to depict his solitude and inability to let go of his violent past. What if she had asked him if they could party in the tunnels instead? What if he’d then explained how dangerous they are? What if he’d told her he trusted no one down there but her, the most precious thing left in the world to him? Wouldn’t that create better foreshadowing of the film’s final showdown? Wouldn’t it have also helped build our understanding of how strongly he felt about her and why he’d go on a bloody rampage to avenge her? Maybe he’d suggest she have the party in the farmhouse instead? Perhaps he could lurk in the shadows of his underground lair listening to the happy sounds and lights of her life, too emotionally haunted and socially awkward to join them. How much better would that have established his mental state and her place as the love of his dark life?

We also don’t get enough of Gabriela’s treacherous friend Gizelle’s motivation. Yes, we see that she doesn’t have much money and yes, both Maria and Rambo describe the young woman as bad news, but it appears she tricked Gabriela into coming to Mexico for the sole purpose of selling her into sex slavery. That’s a pretty terrible act for a friend, even a bad one. A one or two minute scene of the bad guys beating Gizelle up, threatening a member of her family, or some similar horror if she doesn’t help them kidnap new girls would have made this terrible act much easier to believe.

Once we meet the bad guys, a pair of sex-slaver brothers named Hugo and Victor Martinez, there is another cut scene of their seemingly regular battle for who is in charge and why they need more girls as Hugo negotiates with a crime boss named Don Miguel. The scene is a good one and it’s a shame it was cut, but adding it back would have been even more useful if it was expanded a bit. After the turning point in the film where Rambo kills Victor and taunts Hugo into coming to Arizona for revenge, Hugo leads dozens of armed men to Rambo’s farm while dressed in tactical gear and using military commands. The man clearly isn’t your typical pimp. What is his background? Is he a former soldier? Where did he learn this stuff? A line or two in the scene with Don Miguel where Hugo explains why he’d make such a good partner because of his military background and government connections would have fleshed out his character and helped his turn into bad ass squad leader make a lot more sense.

Finally, there is a scene before Rambo murders Victor where he visits the intrepid reporter who nursed him back to health after his first encounter with the Martinez brothers. He asks for her help one last time. The scene is clearly just an excuse to allow Rambo his monologue about grief and wanting that grief to be the last thing Hugo sees before he dies and I don’t have an issue with that, but the screenwriter forgot to actually show us what “help” Rambo came for. Rambo already knows the location of the Martinez’s lair. The reporter doesn’t accompany Rambo there. What was the motivation for Rambo’s visit before exacting his revenge? An easy explanation might have been that he needed the reporter to tell him when Victor would be home while Hugo was out. Or maybe the brothers were at another location and Rambo needed to know where that might be. Perhaps he could have asked her to report the story of Gizelle’s role in the crime. Whatever the explanation, the scene needs one.

What I find remarkable is that none of these additions would have cost much budget. They’re just a minute of dialogue here and there, maybe 10-15 minutes total. All the expensive action scenes work just fine. Rambo: Last Blood doesn’t fail because it’s a bad action film or a poor end to John Rambo’s life story. It fails because it doesn’t take the time to show why the characters do what they do.