The Defenders

Delta-vee presents classic Old Time Radio productions and modern audio dramas, today’s episode: “The Defenders”. The works of Philip K. Dick repeatedly treat themes revolving around our perception of reality and personal identity. Protagonists in Dick’s work were often regular people rather than action heroes and did not need to be human at all; the qualities that defined humanity for Dick included traditional virtues such as honesty, kindness, and the ability to act rationally. Dick’s heroes often engaged in extensive rational analysis of their world, often concluding that the world around them could not be objectively real but a product of their own perception and interaction choices. Dick displayed an overarching fear and hatred of war, both as a political and social instrument, believing it to be an expression of the immaturity of human culture. Jungian psychology played a large part in Dick’s thinking, shaping his stories around themes of the collective unconscious of humanity, the behavior of individuals in groups, and the intrinsic nature of personhood. Film adaptations of Dick’s work include “Minority Report”, “Total Recall”, and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”; Dick’s work has been pervasively influential in the science fiction genre as a whole. “The Defenders” presents a world where a war started by humanity is prosecuted by machines, precursing both Keith Laumer’s “Bolo” stories and James Cameron’s “Terminator” franchise, and treats Dick’s three themes in a very succinct and expressive way. “The Defenders” was first published in the January, 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. This episode of X Minus One first aired on May 22, 1956. And now, our feature presentation….

Sam, This Is You

Delta-vee presents classic Old Time Radio productions and modern audio dramas, today’s episode: “Sam, This Is You”. Murray Leinster wrote more than 1500 short stories and novels during an extremely prolific writing career under a variety of pseudonyms, the “Leinster” persona being the most famous of them. His writing career began well before World War I when he wrote for a wide variety of genre fiction magazines, including westerns, mysteries, and romance, but it wasn’t until pulp science fiction started to become widely accepted in the 50s and 60s that he published routinely under his real name, William Fitzgerald Jenkins. Leinster accumulated many “sci-fi firsts” to his credit, including genre conventions such as parallel universe stories and the universal translator. Leinster’s most famous story is unquestionably “A Logic Named Joe”, where he predicts not only personal computers associated with everyday tasks, but the existence of a pervasive network of interconnected information systems. The “Sideways Award for Alternate History” was created in 1995 to recognize outstanding parallel universe stories, and takes its name from Leinster’s story “Sideways In Time”. Leinster’s story “Sam, This Is You” dabbles in time travel without dipping into the complex arguments of causality and predetermination that accompany this kind of exercise in the modern and post-modern storytelling era. Instead, Leinster lets events play out in a continually unfolding drama that assumes history will play out more or less the same way regardless of outside meddling; that era’s optimistic outlook stands in sharp contrast to contemporary attitudes of mistrust and fear that now form the prevalent reaction to personal insecurity. “Sam, This Is You” first saw print in the May 1955 issue of Galaxy magazine; this episode of X Minus One first aired on October 31, 1956. And now, our feature presentation ….

Time and Time Again

Delta-vee presents classic Old-Time Radio productions and modern audio dramas, today’s episode: “Time and Time Again”. Henry Beam Piper never lived to see the great impression his contributions to science fiction would make on future generations of writers. Like Robert Jordan before him, Piper took his own life after a lengthy depression. Piper’s works tended to revolve around themes of social conflict and cultural misunderstanding, usually underscored with the trappings of space opera. He wrote many of his stories in an interconnected universal timeline, in the same way as his better known contemporaries Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Although the Terro-Human and Paratime sereis feature prominently in Piper’s outstanding bibliography, his Terro-Human novel “Little Fuzzy” is inarguably his most well known and influential work, detailing the conflict between human industrialists and the aboriginal inhabitants of a planet with singular natural resources. “Time and Time Again” is notable for being Piper’s first published work, appearing in 1947 in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction. Piper was a self-educated man who believed in the stark competence and self-reliance of the individual, a theme that repeats itself in the heroic characterization of his protagonists. This episode of X Minus 1 first aired on January 11, 1956. And now, our feature presentation….

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.

{2reels}

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.

{2reels}

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.

{1reel}

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