1.30.2019

Movie Review: Serenity (2005)


Title:
 Serenity
Director and Writer: Joss Whedon
Producer: Universal Studios
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Gina Torres, and Summer Glau
Excellence: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Rating: PG-13; I'd say this rating is fairly appropriate and would not let my children see it until at least 13, perhaps a little older due to some intense sequences and mature subject matter.
Summary in a Sentence: A fantastic space opera with strong anti-utopian themes, interesting characters, and lots of action.

This film came out in 2005, so by 2019 it's considered "an oldie but a goodie" and in my view well worth revisiting as one of Dad's favourites (although it still has some mature themes so none of the younger contributors to this blog have seen it yet). It is a space opera, but not just any space opera. It is the best in the genre I've ever seen, combining everything that made the original Star Wars movies better than the "prequels", but with modern special effects and better actors and characters.

First, a quick plot synopsis from the Internet Movie Database:
The crew of Serenity will take any job, even if that job isn't exactly legal. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew take small smuggling and robbery jobs to keep their ship afloat, and to stay under the radar of The Alliance, the galactic conglomerate that not only rules the galaxy, but was on the opposite side of the war Mal lost years ago. But when Simon (Sean Maher) and his unstable, telepathic sister, River (Summer Glau) join the crew, they get in much more trouble than they bargained for. A government operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is after River, because she stumbled onto a secret no one was supposed to know... and the alliance will do anything to get her back.


At the time I first saw this film I had never seen the TV series "Firefly", but I was not lost at all in this film and enjoyed it immensely. I have since acquired the series and consider it highly worthwhile but in no way necessary to an appreciation of Serenity. In fact, it is the only movie in years (save the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) that I thought was worth seeing more than once in the theatre, and my wife and I in fact watched it three times.

I really can't say enough about how enjoyable this film is to watch. Suprisingly, it did quite poorly at the box office and was on the big screen for a few short weeks only (or maybe not surprising -- many of my favourite films tanked at the box office). I'm not sure why it was so unpopular, because despite the anti-utopian themes that I alluded to at the very beginning of this review, it had all the things that one would expect to make a blockbuster: good characters, good storyline, good special effects, good action.

The overarching theme of the film is more Catholic than I'm sure the writer could imagine. This manifests itself in the following ways:

  • Anti one-world government - "The Alliance" is run by an intergalactic "parliament" which manipulates and controls the masses through the media, and will brook no contradiction. Their agents are brutal and merciless.
  • Anti-evolution of man/anti-utopian - At one point in the film, Captain Reynolds attack's the Alliance's attempts to further mould man in the image they desire through the use of genetic manipulation via drugs saying, "I do not hold to that". The results of their attempts are horrific, but also an extrapolation of where the social engineering in our own world is headed (see the film to learn more).
  • Pro- some old-world values - Although the crew of Serenity is rather rough around the edges, the also practice a great deal of self-sacrifice, loyalty, and courage.

Now, it definitely has some modernist elements to it and I'm 99% sure the writer/director Joss Whedon is an atheist and it shows, but overall, it's much better than the vast majority of Hollywood films in terms of the messages it tries to convey.

I'll try to sum up quickly the other things that I loved about this film: the special effects sequences were nicely understated (unlike the recent Star Wars movies which sometimes felt like watching someone else play a video game) and when they did appear they were done very well. All of the action sequences were meaningful to the plot. The characters were very realistic and engaging.

As one review I read stated: "for those looking for an original and thrilling movie experience, this will shock and amaze." I think I felt walking away from Serenity a little of what people from a previous generation felt walking out of Star Wars the first time in 1977. Even if you aren't a science fiction fan, put this on your list of movies to watch.


1.25.2019

LEVANTINE LATTÉ

By Godfrey Blackwell

No one had any business being out in the cold, clammy early morning hours, but the Champs-Élysées was busy with growling cars, buzzing mopeds, and swishing bicycles. Rodriguez could hear them, but not see them. The last sight he would ever see for the rest of his life (however long that might be) was the Iranian tanks approaching just before the tactical nuke hit. He supposed the air force pilot that launched it thought he’d done them all a favour.

With his free hand, Rodriguez tried to pull his coat more tightly about him and shivered. He’d been standing on the curb for ten minutes wondering how he was going to get across. Parisian drivers had a reputation he didn’t want to test by literally walking blindly onto the road.

A new sound filtered through that of the traffic: the click of hard-soled shoes striking the pavement. A man around his own height, Rodriguez guessed, by the pause between heavy steps. The stink of a cheap cigarette, probably Turkish, accompanied the footfalls.

Excusez-moi, monsieur, avez-vous besoin d’aide?”

“Ah, parlay-vooz English?” It was the only ‘French’ he knew aside from a few profanities and ‘bonjour’. It had been enough to keep him alive the two weeks he’d been in the region, and to get him from Benelux to Paris.

Ah, oui. Yes, I do. Can I help you across the street, sir?”

“How did you guess?” Rodriguez nodded wearily and held out an arm. “Well don’t be a tease, let’s get going.”

“You are an American, I guess, by your accent,” his guide said halfway across.

“I am,” Rodriguez said cautiously. There wasn’t much point to denying it, but he wondered if his ethnicity would be perceived as a good thing? He didn’t know whether France was still part of the "One World Government"; there'd been rumours of rebellions throughout Europe after the Russians poured over the Vistula. The great minds in Brussels had decided to nuke the Russkies and after that things got real hazy. Real news that wasn’t propaganda had been nonexistent in Landstuhl.

“My grandparents were American,” the Frenchman said. Rodriguez could hear the smile in his voice. “Back when America was a sovereign state. I haven’t spoken to any Americans in years. Can I buy you a drink?”

“I don’t have anything better to do, and it’s never too early in the day for a glass of wine in Paris, is it?”

His companion laughed. Rodriguez thought there was a nervous edge to the laugh.

“A latté, I think, would give you a better sense of French hospitality, monsieur. And there is just the place right here.”

Rodriguez was pulled to the left, then to the right. The Frenchman released his arm and guided him into a chair. After a rapid-fire discussion with another - probably the waiter - a saucer and cup clinked on the table in front of him.

“Thanks,” Rodriguez said. “I’m Rodriguez, by the way. I’d offer you my hand to shake, but I don’t have much of a right hand any more.”

“I am Pierre. So, monsieur, what brings you to Paris?”

No one had said why, but he’d all but been kicked out of the Landstuhl Medical Centre. Maybe the government really had collapsed; maybe they just stopped paying for the bases and left the soldiers there to fend for themselves. Maybe there'd been some sort of peace treaty with the Russians that involved shutting down the bases. He didn't know.

“I was in the area. Seemed a shame not to visit while I was here.” He tasted his latté as a way of changing the subject. "Well, it doesn't taste too much like used motor oil laced with Agent Orange. I suppose that makes it pretty good, these days."

Pierre laughed again, more heartily this time. "It goes well with a cigarette. Would you --"

"One of those toxic smokestacks I smelled you enjoying from two blocks away? Sure. If the rads haven't killed me yet, that won't."

He felt the thin cylinder touch his lips and inhaled when the click-hiss of a lighter reached his ears. It was like sucking on a Trident missile as it launched.

The two made small talk for a while (Rodriguez still couldn’t judge the passage of time without a watch). Pierre complained about the cost of fruit and poor sanitation in the city. Rodriguez tried to be vague when he bellyached in turn, but eventually got to talking about his war wounds (which like his accent could hardly be hidden).

“Damn idiotic wars … making the world safe for democracy.”

“I am glad to hear you say that,” Pierre said. “Most soldiers, and especially Americans, are Islamophobes.”

Rodriguez laughed. “You didn’t strike me as the politically correct type, Pierre. The muftis and mullahs are just as bad – heck, their religion was started by a bloodthirsty phony --”

He was cut off by a loud wailing not far to the east. He'd heard it before in Iran; a muezzin calling Muslims to their prayers. There was more than one, even -- the nearest and loudest didn't quite block out the others. It sounded as if there were minarets for miles around.

“Well, I guess that wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever said, now was it?” Rodriguez said.

"Gendarme! Gendarme!" a voice behind him cried.

"That was not wise, monsieur, you have insulted The Prophet."

"The 'One World Government' is strictly secular. France is still a part of that, isn't it?"

"Not since ... don't you read the news?"

"Take a flipping guess!"

"Be wise! Do as most of us did -- convert and you will be spared. Otherwise--"

The tramp of running boots and the clamour of angry voices shouting in French drowned out the obvious conclusion of Pierre's plea. So this was it then. Rodriguez had wished himself dead many times since being nearly incinerated by that blast outside Mashhad. But now that the moment was here, he wasn't so sure. He reached as calmly as he could for the latté in a last show of bravado, but hands grabbed him and dragged him out of the chair.

There wasn’t a lot of time to make his choice. He didn’t need to understand French to know he was being told to ‘convert or die’. He heard the click of safeties going off and time seemed to stand still. It was the moment -- his moment -- and he knew he must spend it well. The voices of his forebears, the conquistadores who had faced such trials and worse, sounded in his ears. Of El Cid who fought the Moors rather than submit to Allah a millennium before; Of Pizarro who conquered a kingdom with barely a hundred men. Rodriguez’ broken lips peeled back in a fierce grin. He knew what his choice must be.

"Monsieur, will you proclaim Allah? You must answer now or --"

"¡Santiago!"

1.23.2019

Axis and Allies (Boardgame Review)



Name: Axis and Allies
Game Designer: Larry Harris, Jr.
Publisher: Milton Bradley
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Summary: A classic WWII-themed boardgame for 2-5 players; starting in 1942 the game covers the whole globe on a game-map broken up into chunks like Risk; similar to Risk in some ways with with a satisfying increase in complexity without becoming overly detailed.

Albert and James both list Axis and Allies as one of their top three favourite board games, so we decided we'd best do a review of it as soon as possible. We recently finished playing a game doing a turn or two each evening for a week to give us extra inspiration.

For anyone who enjoys boardgames and is interested in World War II history, this game is pretty much a "must have". The game is recommended for ages 12+ but James (7 years old) had no difficulty playing and in fact he and Albert playing the Axis defeated me last time we played. The game is similar to Risk in many ways in that it is based on a global map broken into chunks, battles are fought by moving playing pieces from one map section to another and rolling dice. The "economic" system is a bit more complex -- IPC's (Industrial Production Points) are earned for each map space occupied, although each space is worth varying numbers of IPCs. You can also only build new units on map spaces where you have an industrial complex.

Board Initial Setup showing player reference sheets, IPCs

A look at the game map partway through our recent play-through showing 
how the map is divided and with different IPC values on regions

A big plus for this game is the very nicely sculpted miniatures which beat the pants off of any abstract tokens. Each nation's infantry is unique to that country (i.e. the German infantry look like Wehrmacht troops). In later editions the aircraft, tank, and naval counters are unique as well athough in the edition we have (2nd) they are all the same just different colours.



The game takes about 2-3 hours to play depending on how many players and how quick they are. The reason we give it 4 instead of the full 5 is that since it is history-based and the map starts the same every game this limits replay value slightly (versus games with random setup) and if played too often could get repetitive. In the game manual, the designers note that some players complain that the odds are too heavily stacked in the Allies favour, but Albert and James were able to defeat me using very aggressive tactics (and some of James' trademark "hot dice").

The game is true enough to history for a good game that feels like WWII without getting bogged-down in details. There are more advanced versions of Axis and Allies which we look forward to acquiring, but the "basic" or "classic" version is probably the best for more "casual" board gamers or people who don't feel like investing 6+ hours. Setup does take a while, so we recommend that if you're getting together with friends to play, set the board up ahead to save a lot of time.

A view of the full board, showing the Axis victory

Highlights/favourite parts of our contributors:

Albert: "I like that teamwork is involved in the game." The game does involve two teams (that cannot be changed) and players, Allies and Axis alike, must work together to have any hope of success.

James: "I like how you can build different types of units." What makes this game really stand out as superior to Risk is the fact that there are units with different attack/defence and movement characteristics. In the classic game the options are infantry, armour, fighters, bombers, battleships, submarines, and transports.


1.21.2019

"Quartus" the Miniatures Painter

James Blackwell (age 7) is still mastering writing and drawing, so what you will likely see of the most from him will be painted miniatures at which he excels for his age. At this rate he will be a real master by the time he is 12 -- the recommended age by manufacturers for building and painting these sorts of kits. To start us off, here are a few of his works:


James' first ever miniature, an old-school Warhammer Fantasy Battles wizard. He painted this sometime in 2016 when he was five years old.


This model was painted only a few months later, some time in 2017 when he was six years old; his pride-and-joy, and his best solo-painted miniature to date (Dad only did the chest eagle and cross belt). The figure is an old pewter Warhammer 40,000 Imperial Guard "Praetorian" officer. Great model and Dad will never forgive himself for selling the rest of that army.


This is James' most recent work, completed in December 2018 (at age 7)  a small squad of Dragon Miniatures Soviet VDV (airborne) troopers. This was completed mostly without Dad's help. Dad helped him choose which Citadel shade to use, and did the red "star" and yellow laurels on the berets, plus the anti-aircraft trooper's goggles, and a couple straps, but otherwise this is all James.

1.17.2019

Posting Schedule



Starting on Monday, 21 January, we will begin our regular posting schedule. We intend to post three times a week, and what you can expect is:

Mondays - Artwork and Miniatures/Models
Wednesdays - Movie/book/boardgame reviews, commentary, battle reports, and anything else that isn't strictly a new work of fiction or art
Fridays - Short stories, comics, and novel samples

We hope you enjoy what we have to offer, and see you next week!

1.16.2019

The Swords and Space Team

We'd like to introduce our team of contributors with a bit of artwork by Godfrey Blackwell (A.K.A. "Dad"). As always, you can click on the photo for a larger image.


From left to right we have:

James, Age 7 - Teutonophile and model painter
Albert, Age 12 - Historian and comic book artist
Godfrey - Family patriarch, blog administrator, and jack-of-all trades
Anna, Age 11 - Horse lover and writer
Barbara, Age 8 - Fashionista and colourist

Fuller biographies are available at the CONTRIBUTORS tab above.

1.15.2019

Relaunch and Reintroduction



Welcome to the re-launch and, hopefully, the re-invigoration of "Swords and Space". We re-present this website as a "family blog" of a father and his children who all enjoy writing, drawing and animating (see the "CONTRIBUTORS" section for more). We're all totally unknown, unpublished, and possibly "unpublishable" by main stream, but we write and create for fun and relaxation and we hope that our readers will get some enjoyment from the sharing. We don't pretend to be great masters of our crafts, but simply, we have taken to heart the advice of J.R.R. Tolkien to write the type of fiction one likes to read.

Why "Swords and Space"? It's a play on the "swords and sorcery" label that we thought fitting since our favourite genres are medieval-themed fantasy fiction or science fiction; and not infrequently a genre-bending combination of the two!

On this site you will find a eclectic mixture of short stories; longer stories; book, film and board game reviews; "battle reports"; artwork; animations; and occasional general musings/ramblings/rantings (usually from Dad/Godfrey).

I hope that you will enjoy this blog and honour us by "following" Swords and Space here on blogger and/or on Facebook, and reading regularly.

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