Double Disney

maleficent-2014I’m joined in the reaction chamber by Petra and we take on a double dose of Disney films. Maleficent is the box office darling right now, but our reaction to the film is less than enthusiastic. By the same token we finally get around to watching The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer – a film that was nearly universally panned. And we got really excited about it. The short version of the podcast is: skip Maleficent and go see The Lone Ranger.

Don’t forget, this is the final week to get in on the Opposing Forces Kickstarter, so jump in!

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Sunstones and Shadowguard

10970782Every so often, I come across a book series that really intrigues me with elements of the setting. Because I really enjoyed his “Keys to the Kingdom” series, I put some faith in Garth Nix and picked up “The Seventh Tower” series.

The six books of the series describe a world in perpetual darkness, where a magical Veil surrounds the planet, forever blocking the sun from the earth below. Above the Veil, the world continues as it has always been. Below the Veil, the planet is shrouded in perpetual ice, cut off from the heat and light of the sun. Bridging the two worlds is the ancient Castle, home of the Chosen, and the foundation of the seven Towers.

The Chosen use magical sunstones to provide light and heat to their home, for only the Towers rise through the Veil to the light. The Castle, as the world below, lies in utter darkness. The Chosen are served by spiritshadows, spirits from the world of Aenir who have been bonded to Chosen and brought back to the Dark World, where they take the form of shadows.

Tal is one of the Chosen, but his father has gone missing, and the responsibility to care for his sick mother and younger siblings has fallen to 13-year-old Tal. Unfortunately, he lacks a sunstone strong enough to journey to Aenir and complete the ritual that will allow his family to rise through the social ranks and continue to live within the Castle as Chosen instead of the servant class known as Underfolk.

When Tal fails disastrously in his attempt to gain a sunstone, he falls from the castle to the ice-covered world outside, where he meets Milla. Milla is an Icecarl, one of a nomadic, viking-like people who follow the great herds of animals in their migration across the ice. The leaders of her tribe assign Milla a Quest to help Tal get home and bring back a sunstone to her tribe. The Quest will take Milla and Tal across the ice, through the darkest recesses of the Castle, and into the spirit world of Aenir to battle against a secret traitor seeking to destroy both the Castle and the world of the Icecarls.

The two teenagers will not emerge from this ordeal unscathed, nor will their beliefs go unchallenged. Both young people must endure, not only physical hardship, but tests of spirit and mind that will change them on a fundamental level.

I think that’s all I can say about the plot in good conscience. But at the same time, this series is written for teens, and plot is fairly straightforward, although dramatic revelations do come at a steady pace that keeps the tension on an upward swing.

I found several things intriguing about this series, starting with the shadowspirits. These come in three kinds: shadowguard, shadowspirits, and free spirits. Shadowguard are spirits that are bonded to children as a mark of their status as Chosen. The particulars are not made clear, but it is implied that this is done by the parents during a journey to Aenir. All shadow creatures come from Aenir. Bonding a shadow to a Chosen replaces the person’s shadow with the spirit, who remains Aeniran while in Aenir, but becomes a shadow in the Dark World. Most Aeniran spirits pressed into service this way are animals of some kind, but a few are … something else. We’ll get to that in a minute. Shadowguard are loyal in the same way as a favored pet, if considerably more versatile and intelligent.

Bound shadowspirits are mostly larger animals, and have many of the same abilities as shadowguard, but are stronger and retain more of their native qualities. One important difference – shadowguard can change shape easily, while most shadowspirits cannot.

Free spirits are Aenirans that have crossed into the Dark World without being bound to a human shadow. These are individual beings, seldom simply animals, with individual wills and agendas.

This leads to the nature of Aenirans. While creatures in the Dark World are just animals, fantastic to be sure, but not possessed of magical abilities, most everything in Aenir is alive. The forests walk around, whirwinds guard sacred treasures, plants act as sentries. A mountain gets up and stretches once a millenium – just to get the kinks out. At one point, Tal holds a conversation with a lake.

The idea of animals and locations having essential and vital spirits is not new. Plato called it the “ideal self”. New Age philosophy imbues everything with its own individuality. And don’t get me started on the philosophical ramifications of the whole Herbie franchise…. But as cool as that is, its not what intrigued me the most. At this point in my jaded readership, that kind of thing just seems like standard fantasy fare. No, I liked the idea of binding spirits to serve as companions and guards, and the possibilities presented by Nix’s use of vague descriptive terms such as “shadow flesh”.

While most of the shadowspirit relationships are presented as owner/pet, or at best master/servant, I can see how this type of relationship would appeal to a teen audience. During a time of life when everything is growing uncontrollably and in strange directions, having one other person upon whom you can depend and with whom you can safely quarrel without fear of rejection or unforgiveness – I gotta say, that’s inviting. There is something essential within all of us that desires that kind of relationship. As adults, we often seek that in marriage and the promise of a family. As Christians, we are promised that kind of relationship with the Holy Spirit. In Nix’s world, the shadows fill this void for the characters, and serve as an essential catalyst for their growth.

The rest of the action really serves as the backdrop for the dynamic relationships between the characters. The magic and setting is cool – I’ll get to that – but it’s the give and take between Milla, Tal, and their shadows that really kept me reading.

Okay, light magic. The Chosen run their entire society around Light Magic, useful in a world where the sun has been cut off entirely. This is basic “Green Lantern” type stuff. They can form force field objects, blast rays of destruction, use limited healing magic, and more basic heating and light provision. It’s cool; Garth Nix makes good use of it, and it makes me want a sunstone of my own, but not especially unsusual for the genre.

The Icecarl society is pseudo-viking-slash-amazon in nature. They live on the ice in a nomadic structure that emphasizes physicality and places little value on intellectualism. I should point out here that the Chosen society is exactly opposite, valueing intellectual development over physical prowess – and Nix doesn’t neglect the literary value of contrasting societies as metaphorical tools, complete with the reactionary, revolutionary, and stagnant contingents.

The main warrior force of the ice-carls is the Shield Maidens, with men performing duties as hunters and legendary heroes. It felt very familiar, like the characters are rebelling against type solely in an attempt to be different or to strengthen the character. This literary device is absent in Nix’s later works, and shows his growth as a writer. In “The Seventh Tower”, it is merely distracting without being destructive.

All in all, I stayed up way too late for way too many nights in order to finish reading this series, but I can’t say I regret the time spent that way. The books read quickly, and are meant for teens while remaining interesting and approachable to adults. I really enjoyed “The Keys to the Kingdom”, and “The Seventh Tower”, although written earlier in his career, was every bit as involving and the world just as fully realized.

I’m not so sure I’d care to share my shadow with any of the real or fantastical creatures I met in this series, but I think I’d like a sunstone, and just a smidgen of Light Magic for coolness.

Superman vs The Elite

In 2001’s Action Comics #775 , writer Joe Kelly asked the question, “What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” Kelly was responding in part to a trend in comic books that embraced heroes that took extreme actions towards their villains, often killing or permanently maiming their foes. The violent trend is one part reaction to the “revolving prison door” trope that allows series fiction to reuse villain characters, and one part the emergence into the field of a generation of creators that came of age in the 80s and 90s. Publishers Dark Horse and Image Comics built their entire businesses around providing consumers with content graphically depicting violence and brutality, and populated by heroes and villains that embraced the narcissistic nihilism of a generation raised with a dominantly post-modern viewpoint that insisted on deconstructing any kind of ethical or moral standard.

In this publishing environment, the question of whether a character like Superman could remain relevant, draw in consumer dollars, or even continue to exist in a cultural context was a very real one. Kelly’s response is an emphatic “Yes” that makes the argument, not only can Superman exist in this cultural context, but he must exist in this cultural context if we are ever to move past it toward a future founded on principles other than selfishness. Kelly expressed his point of view in the characters of Manchester Black and the Elite, who embodied the generational values of hedonism, narcissism, nihilism, and entitlement. In combat with Superman, the values that drive the Elite are taken to their logical conclusion, and the effect on society graphically portrayed. Without defending the basis of valuing Truth and Justice, Kelly nonetheless makes an effective argument against post-modern narcissism. The movie is a spiritually faithful adaptation of the comic, not surprising since Kelly wrote the screenplay.

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Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass

The story is fairly simple. The Elite show up and start acting like bullies. Superman puts them in their place. Little time is wasted on complex plotting. The stakes are made clear, and the battle is joined. Story exposition exists solely to allow characters to expound their points of view and provide a logical escalation of tension.

Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Although we really only get to spend time with Superman and Manchester Black, they are the only two characters that really matter in this story. As it is, we get to see not only what it is that drives each of these individuals, but why their motivations are so important to them. Once again, little time is wasted on supporting characters, except how they relate to the principles. Predictably, Superman’s supporting cast is important to him, while the narcissistic Black focuses solely on himself.

Production Value (Pass/Fail) – Fail

I expect better from Warner Bros animation. The voice cast is stellar, with George Newbern, Pauley Perrette, and Robin Atkin Downes performing as Superman, Lois, and Manchester Black. Unfortunately, the animation and character designs are distinctly sub-par, with characters feeling oddly angular and anemic. Special mention has to be made of Superman’s chin, which is broad enough to be a super power all its own. The action sequences feel trite and familiar; there are none of the dramatic visuals and powerful sound design we have come to expect from the DC hero movies. The opening and closing credits feel like they’ve been ripped from a particularly jarring 70s acid trip, and the movie opens with a sequence that turns out to be an intentional parody, but whose childish design almost caused me to turn off the rest of the movie without bothering to watch it. Contrast this with the comic book, whose gritty portrayal of the characters, action, and environment sparked the imagination instead of squashing it.

Literary Value (Pass/Fail) – Pass

This story has some important things to say about humanity, about living in society, about the need for heroes, and about society in general. Thankfully, it just comes out and says them without beating around the bush and making tedious generalizations. Kelly has a drum to beat, and he does so with steadily increasing volume until crescendo. Even though the underlying reasons for the moral imperative are never addressed, Kelly makes a compellingly humanistic argument for the existence and value of the moral imperative.

Shelf-Life (Pass/Fail) – Fail

Unfortunately, this story is more fulfilling on paper than on the screen. The comic book is a fantastic read, and Kelly’s other outings with The Elite make excellent storytelling. But the slow pace of the film, the poor animation and character design, and the familiarity of the moral message makes me hesitate to pop this movie in as a random Saturday afternoon pick. Even the feature length commentary and two fascinating featurettes don’t make a compelling case for long-term purchase. The lower investment of the comic book purchase and the extended treatment of the premise make it more tempting to buy the trade paperback, though I find myself just as satisfied with a library loan. After a single trip through the material, I feel I’ve gained all the benefit there is to be had.

Ultimately, this is a satisfying movie with an important and compelling message, but as with many cases where stories have been adapted across mediums – the book was better.

Battleship Down

The trailers for Battleship give everything away, if anything can be said to be secret about a movie based on Hasbro’s popular board game. There are naval vessels. There are aliens. They fight. Without any related IP baggage of any kind, Battleship had the freedom to make a great naval warfare movie; I’m even willing to give them the aliens just because the sci-fi geek in me screams at the thought of World War II class 16 inch guns firing 2000 pound shells at E.T. I’ve seen Midway, Victory at Sea, and In Harm’s Way. I knew what to expect from a movie about naval warfare. I expected carnage. I expected explosions. I expected fleets of ships in classic naval maneuvers that pushed through deep water and came home bloody but unbroken. I hoped for David Weber’s Honor Harrington on the ocean. As it is, this film barely made it out of the harbor, let alone onto the roll of honored dead.

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Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass

What do we really expect from a film named “Battleship”? Two enemy forces engage each other on – well, near – the open ocean. There’s a ridiculous subplot about establishing a communications array, and more than a bit of cringe-worthy cinematic physics, but this is a fantasy action film after all and I’m prepared to suspend the laws of physics if it serves the cause of drama. Since every event serves to advance the action and promote the naval engagement, the story gets a passing grade – but only just barely.

Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Taylor Kitsch carries the emotional weight of the film squarely on his shoulders, and he undergoes a solid journey from slacker to hero in the best short form character arc tradition. There is a token attempt to give a character arc to a disabled Army veteran, but it seems tacked on at best. The rest of the movie is populated a recognizable cast of characters, you know the ones: the pop star, the humorous guy, the nascent best friend, the authority figure, the love interest. All of these people are simply vehicles upon which Taylor Kitsch’s character carries the audience to the credits. For all the pressure of having the only developed character in the film, Kitsch fills the role with empathy and aplomb.

Production Value (Pass/Fail) – Fail

I’m so tired of second-unit film students being given a multimillion dollar budget and a hand held video camera. Whatever happened to the art of cinematography? This movie should have been filled with sweeping shots of entire carrier fleets engaged in mutually assured destruction. Instead, we get a camera shoved up the actors’ noses and being bounced all around the place. The result is almost unwatchable. All of that luscious tech design and expensive CGI is wasted because I couldn’t figure out what I was seeing on the screen.

Meaningful Content (Pass/Fail) – Fail

There is a passing reference to the Art of War that makes no sense at all and depends on a highly personal interpretation of the laws of physics in order to work at all. No attempt is made to touch on themes of steadfastness and sacrifice. The writer makes no effort to familiarize himself with the mindset of the military man in general or the naval officer in particular. I didn’t expect Shakespeare on the ocean, but I hoped for something resembling the values and ideals of the military. Instead, we get a pathetically obvious condemnation of early exploration of the Americas by them-thar evil Conquistadors and that dastardly Columbus fella.

Shelf Life (Pass/Fail) – Fail

I saw it on the silver screen. I wish I had waited for the small screen. I can’t image any reason to watch this movie again. The story and characters only barely scraped a passing grade. There is no action eye-candy to keep me entertained. The schizophrenic soundtrack is simultaneously in love with AC/DC and The Blue Danube.


I’m just not sure what to say in closing. This isn’t really a movie that stays with you after the credits roll. Speaking of which, there is a completely predictable tag after the credits which it won’t hurt anyone to skip. In fact, skip this film entirely and get the far more satisfying American Warships from The Asylum.

The Odds Favor a Sequel

Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” debuted in US theaters this week, to much hype and the attendance of many teenagers. For both of you who may be unfamiliar with this violent work of chick-lit, in a dystopian future, The Capitol forces each of the 12 Districts in the nation to send a pair of teenagers to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games. Think “A Clockwork Orange” meets “The Running Man” and you get the basic look and feel of the movie. The book series was aggressively advertised as a sci-fi action novel – which it most definitely is not. The movie suffers from the same poor marketing, as it is being portrayed as an action film when it is in fact a drama of the much more ordinary sort. Which isn’t to say it’s not a decent enough movie.

A little while back I reviewed the book trilogy, both on my podcast and in a guest post over at the Two-Fisted Blogger. I’m afraid neither review was very favorable. Looking at it from the perspective of time, I see that both reviews were colored by a desire for the novels to be something that they expressly were not. I wanted an action novel, and I got chick-lit teen drama. Perversely, I was aching to see The Hunger Games made into a movie. Unfortunately I wanted an action movie, and I got a chick-flick teen drama. I suppose it serves me right.

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Story (Pass/Fail): Pass

For what it is, the story holds together well enough. It is a straightforward tale of one girl’s life experience within an oppressive dystopian future. This kind of thing eschews conventional plot device in favor of using the narrative as a sort-of biopic about the main character. Genre fans will find every expected beat hit right on cue – no surprises there, Collins is an experienced screeenwriter. Viewers looking for conventional storytelling devices such as metaphor, foreshadowing, plot threading or anything more complex than simple narrative will be disappointed. Still, it executes by the numbers without any glaring faults.

Characters (Pass/Fail): Fail

It’s a good thing that Jennifer Lawrence has such a likable appearance, because she is on camera and in close-up quite a lot. Hutcherson delivers a sympathetic and strong Peeta with his customary charm and charisma. Bizarrely for all the time the camera spends focused on them, neither of the principle characters are given enough screen time to flex their emotions and reel in the audience in any meaningful way. The performances are almost uniformly of the strong, silent type. It works exceptionally well in the novel, but leaves the viewing audience unimpressed and unsympathetic.

Production Value (Pass/Fail): Fail

For the amount of money spent on this thing, you’d think it would feature some visual spectacle worth watching – sweeping FX shots of the area, the Districts, and the Capitol; devastatingly brutal fight scenes; bizarre and disturbing mutant creatures. Heck, I’d have been happy if they just held the camera still once in a while. It seems like the entire movie is filmed in close-up on the shaky-cam; this device seems to be in vogue right now, and I’m heartily tired of it. For a haunting tune that led every trailer, the movie makes no use of musical score in any memorable way, and closes with a strange song that seems unrelated to the rest of the film. It’s like the director went out of his way to miss every opportunity to impress the viewer with visual or audio spectacle.

Content (Pass/Fail): Pass

This is heavy stuff, watching teenagers fight to the death. Collins meant her story to comment on media obsession with violence, and the point comes across very effectively. Much of the novel’s subtext is lost, as is an attempt within the movie to inject some of that subtext, but what remains is worth noting.

Shelf Life (Pass/Fail): Fail

Saw it once. I’m done. The visuals aren’t strong enough to bring me back. The music is entirely forgettable. The story is captivating, once I adjusted my expectations away from the action genre. Honestly though, at two and a half hours to sit through a poorly filmed movie that eschews much of the value of the novel, I’d rather spend the six hours on the audiobook and get the full experience.

I suppose the key to enjoying this movie or the novel trilogy is to manage expectations. Understand that this is teen chick drama and not sci-fi action, and …. well, the book is quite good but I’m afraid there’s little to be done for the movie.

With a Vengeance

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance roared into theaters this weekend, and I squeezed some time out to catch an early matinee. I’ve been a Ghost Rider fanboy since 1982, when Roger Stern shared the writing credits with J.M. DeMatteis. I read my older brother’s abandoned comic books under the covers with a flashlight, thrilling to the explosive action of a guy who rode a flaming motorcycle, and horrified at the tortures Johnny Blaze underwent in his quest for redemption. Those stories were equal parts morality play and schlock horror, and I loved every minute of it. Many years later, Chuck Dixon and Mark Texeira brought more adult sensibilities to the story, along with a new origin, purpose, and powers for the Ghost Rider. At the same time, Marvel reprinted the final issues of the 1973 run – the very issues that had hooked me on the character – and I came to appreciate the storytelling on an entirely different level. Although the Ghost Rider has appeared in a few cartoons, he’s never had a major motion picture, and I anticipated eagerly the release of the 2007 picture. Five years later, I’m still excited to see another theater release, and I’m hoping for a better  treatment of the character.

The movie reboots the franchise with a clean break from the previous release; even though Nicholas Cage reprises his role as Johnny Blaze, it’s a much different Blaze than the 2007 picture. Where the first picture was almost entirely an origin story, the new one follows Blaze on his travels across Europe, running from the demon inside himself. In the process, he stumbles across an unexpected opportunity to free himself of the curse of the Ghost Rider, and help prevent a young boy from falling into the clutches of the devil. The result is a movie that delivers only a sliver of the action possible in its concept, none of the pathos of Blaze’s damned soul, and an inexpressibly mediocre take on a superhero movie.

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Story (Pass/Fail): Fail

I expected better from Neveldine and Taylor, the team of directors behind Crank, Crank 2: High Voltage, and Gamer. I expected much better from story and screenwriter David Goyer, the pen behind realizing Dark City. This movie doesn’t know whether it wants to be a superhero slugfest, introverted horror story, or road trip buddy picture and the resultant mishmash of styles has the viewer moving from beat to beat without any sense of continuity or purpose. Plot hooks are left dangling without any attempt to resolve them, and when the origin of Blaze’s demon Zarathos is finally revealed in a glorious 30-second backstory, the viewer is far more interested in the outcome of that tale than in anything that takes place in the movie itself.

Characters (Pass/Fail): Fail

Nicholas Cage plays Blaze like a drug addict who hates and loves his fix with equal intensity. Johnny Whitworth steals the show as the street-scum Carrigan. Neither of these performances can save the movie from a cast of flat actors going through the motions of reciting their lines and hitting their beats without regard to motivation, emotion, or consistency. Even the Ghost Rider is bizarre and unpredictable in his behavior, alternately creepy and powerful, but never actually as terrifying as he should be.

Production Value (Pass/Fail): Pass

This movie looks good. The Rider and everything he touches turns to dirty, sooty fire and ash. Carrigan’s transformation into Blackout accompanies dynamic visuals and an increased sense of unreality. The fight sequences are sharp, exciting, and charged with adrenaline. The camera work is mostly acceptable, leaning a bit too heavily on close-ups and camera movement for my taste, but I expect the effect of that will be diluted when it hits video instead of the theater. The music really stands out, with a hard metal score driving the Rider’s mayhem during the most explosive parts of the film. Even when the action has calmed down, the metal edge remains to the music, reminding us that all is not, in fact, well.

Content (Pass/Fail): Fail

For a movie without gory bloodletting, gratuitous skin shots, or excessive shocking language (a few g-d-bombs grated on my sensibilities) this somehow still manages to treat the inherently emotional subjects of original sin, fall from grace, continuity of evil, power of religion, and the search for redemption in a way that strips them of anything worth thinking about and reduces them to trope and cliche instead of powerful, motivating emotional force. It’s like the filmmakers couldn’t distinguish between offensive and emotional subjects, and so elected to strip both of their visceral impact.

Shelf Life (Pass/Fail): Fail

I can’t think of a reason to watch this film again. The effects and action were okay, but not spectacular enough to merit slogging through the morass of twitchy acting and time-honored cliche that makes up the rest of the film. I’m hoping for some really good featurettes on the character when the blu-ray hits. Maybe that will persuade me to buy it.

In the mean time, I’m going to dig out my Ghost Rider comics and read them again. DeMatteis and Stern set up some truly horrific themes when the character was winding down out of their care. Dixon made it all fresh again when Danny Ketch transformed into the Spirit of Vengeance at the shedding of innocent blood. I just plan to stop before they decided that Danny Ketch and Johnny Blaze were long-lost brothers, their power came from a piece of amulet embedded in their bodies, and Blaze was turned into a cyborg.

I suppose nothing good lasts forever.

Shining Spirit Blade of Victory

It’s hard to talk about Spirit Blade without sounding like either a raving fanboy or a nitpicky hater. I purchased the first edition of this story to listen to it in the car on family vacation. I was immediately hooked. The audio design was wholly immersive, the music was resonant and complex, the lyrics were clearly extremely personal. I wound up buying copies for all of my friends and family (Christmas was conveniently near). Not satisfied with his original product, Paeter Frandsen (the creator at Spirit Blade Productions) remastered and released the Special Edition two years later, putting to good use the experience he gained in producing the sequel – Spirit Blade: Dark Ritual – and Pilgrim’s Progress: Similitude of a Dream.

The Special Edition makes everything that was good about the original into something truly remarkable, without actually fixing any of the flaws in the production. Even so, this is both the creator’s and this listener’s preferred production of this story.

{4headphones} Continue reading Shining Spirit Blade of Victory