Archive for August, 2013

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The Genre Jumping Richard B. Riddick

At the time of this post, the world is less than a week away from another Riddick movie. After the utter hot mess that was The Chronicles of Riddick, I don’t really know who, other than Vin Diesel, thought this next chapter was necessary. Nevertheless, the movie is coming, so I thought I’d write about it.

A little research on the series revealed that all of the feature length Riddick movies, including the upcoming Riddick, have been written and directed by the same man, David Twohy. This revelation proved something of a surprise. Given how much Pitch Black got things right in terms of storytelling, atmosphere, and camera work, I assumed a new director/writer combo fouled things up for The Chronicles of Riddick. Even the second movie’s title stank of a studio director coming in with visions of a six movie franchise. The raw hubris of self-identifying the sequel a “chronicle” is enough to merit the attention of a dead Greek poet.

Though accounting for the obvious incongruity between Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick has become something of a spectator sport among fans of the series, I thought I would weigh-in with an idea that, if correct, might not spell disaster for the third movie. Pitch Black, despite being set on another planet and featuring aliens and a space ship, is a horror movie with science fiction elements. The Chronicles of Riddick is a “soft” science fiction movie that draws too heavily upon fantasy tropes. This distinction effectively spelled disaster for the second move before it even started.

If we consider Pitch Black an homage, in part, to Alien then it’s pretty easy to run down the check list of horror story qualifications. The conflict is essentially one of survival against a natural, though unfamiliar, force – in this case the native inhabitants of the planet that never sees darkness. Granted, there are moments where Pitch Black is seemingly content to startle the audience with snap cuts and loud noises. However, those overt attempts to scare are just a smoke screen for the movie’s darker intentions to subvert a truth most of us, through the comforting words of parents and loved ones, embraced at childhood: there are no monsters in the darkness. Pitch Black resonates because it taps into a collective fear, filling the night with all of the things that made us hide under the blankets as children.

It further subverts expectations of normality in that the two authority figures among the survivors are both quickly established as amoral agents. Johns is a dope shooting mercenary who only cares for his payday. Fry put her own survival before the passengers when she attempted to purge their section of the starship during the crash. It’s the convicted felon, the man who admits to being ruled by the animal part of the human psyche, who in turn becomes the hero of the story. The take away message of Pitch Black then becomes one of trusting the monster you can see as opposed to those lurking in the darkness.

Going into Chronicles of Riddick, I expected this message to be continued. Instead, I got Chronicles of Riddick.

Arguably the biggest problem with Chronicles, and why I suggest it borrows too much from fantasy, is an apparent Human diaspora never once mentioned in Pitch Black. In addition to the garden variety humans of Helion Prime, and those seen in the previous movie, there are now Furyans, Aereons (which said aloud sounds like Aryans – bad choice), and Necromongers. Were this Middle Earth, or any other fantasy successor state therein, they would be called Barbarians, Elves, and Orcs.

Chronicles of Riddick, which very much wants to be a dark space opera, pulls a bait and switch in terms of presenting a conflict which is dependent upon understanding a previously absent back story all the while appropriating a character introduced to the audience through a horror lens. If Riddick is now a Furyan, then the script can’t avoid explaining why Furyans are different from regular humans. More problematic is the fact that these changes lend themselves to exposition rather than action, yet another difference between fantasy and horror. Horror shows the audience why things are subversive; whereas fantasy, by virtue of dealing with deeper stories, has a tendency to tell the audience the things they need to know. Obviously film does not lend itself to extensive “telling” without getting overly talkie. Therefore, the answers to Chronicles of Riddick’s burning questions, which also serve to undermine Riddick’s agency as a self-proclaimed bad ass, present as somewhat simplistic gimmicks.

Meanwhile the standbys of “soft” science fiction replace the hard edge of reality seen in Pitch Black. Aliens are no big deal to the extent that they are used as guard dogs on Crematoria. Space ships have easy FTL and artificial gravity. Shivs and Molotov cocktails are traded in for pew-pew lasers. The social and technological familiarity of Pitch Black is sacrificed upon the altar of ostensibly deeper setting, and in doing so a horror character is dragged out of his genre. When we get right down to it, that’s why Chronicles of Riddick seems like such a poor entry compared to Pitch Black. Riddick isn’t and never will be Han Solo when he’s introduced to us as someone akin to Pinhead.

All we can do now is hope that the suspicious absence of any “Chronicles of” in the new movie’s title can be read as a signal that the story is returning to its horror roots. Perhaps Mr. Twohy has recognized that Riddick isn’t meant for a science fiction world. If that’s the case, then there may be hope for Riddick as a decent successor to Pitch Black. Otherwise, it’s just going to be more of the same Chronicles of Riddick drek.


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Star Drunk: A Short Film that Delivers on What It Promises

Sometimes the internet presents something so utterly bizarre that it is impossible to ignore. Thus do I tip my hat to Beverly Bambury for linking me to Star Drunk: Space Alien V.

This short film purports to be both written by drunk people and also performed, without revisions to the booze soaked script, by actors in a similar state of inebriation. The production itself was sponsored by New Deal Distillery, a Portland based producer of craft vodka, gin, and liqueurs. PS to New Deal Distillery, call me if you ever want to sponsor a drunk podcast.

Star Drunk’s acting and writing certainly do seem inspired by a fair measure of liquid creativity. There’s an expected amount of slurring, stammering, and utterly nonsensical dialogue. The best comedic moments occur when stopping to ponder on if an actor botched a line, or if a writer intentionally got it wrong. As much as these instances are quite chuckle worthy, I think they’re somewhat dwarfed by the movie’s amazing post-production work.

There is a blink-and-miss-it battle sequence which matches anything seen in Battlestar Galactica. As well, and for want of a better adjective, there’s a distinct “cool” factor in the main starships’ design. The bow looks like two Star Wars Dreadnaughts fused together with the aft section of the Battlestar Pegasus. Quite honestly, I think the special effects might steal the show from the hammered cast.

Star Drunk also has me wondering if drunken comedy is becoming more of a touchstone within the pop culture spectrum. The obvious point of comparison here is Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Though the one thing that Drunk History brings to the table that’s missing from Star Drunk, and perhaps the essential selling point of “drunk” comedy, is having the sober straight man.

If everybody in a room is drunk, as is the case in Star Drunk, then, then there’s no chance for outsider/pariah driven comedy. In those situations the booze hound can be seen to say what the sober people are thinking but unwilling to speak aloud. Alternatively, the drunkard can demonstrate a comedic (in)ability to function because of their intoxication. Or if neither of those two options fit the scene, there’s always an appeal to schadenfreude; I would direct you to the landmark case of Kenny v. Spenny’s season two episode “Who can drink the most beer?

Is the trope slapsticky and juvenile? Perhaps. Does it glorify alcohol abuse to the point that some buzz kill will inevitably feel the need to talk about how alcohol addiction ruins lives and destroys families? Quite likely. Would I watch a whole web series of Star Drunk? Almost certainly, and I don’t think I would feel bad about it, either. So to the cast and crew of Space Drunk I say good on you for putting it out there. Now let’s have another round.

Star Drunk: Space Alien V

Directed by Chris R Wilson and Zach Persson

Written by Chris R Wilson, Zach Persson, Jacqueline Gault, Tim Feeney, Roman Battan, and Josh Persson

Starring: Greg James, Adam Elliot Davis, Kyle Smith, Britt Harris. Alexander Fraser, Bethany Jacobs


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TV Review: True Blood Season 6

Every summer I find myself sitting down to write a post like this. And true to form, every year I always ask myself why I keep watching True Blood. I have no good answer.

I suppose the academic in me wants to understand how something so dumb can be so popular. The iota of intelligence that underwrote the series’ ongoing vampires versus humans meta-conflict dropped off the grid sometime around the end of season two. Since then it has been nothing but downhill. Granted, we do get treated to the occasional scene stealing one-liner, usually courtesy of Kristin Bauer van Straten’s acerbic vampire Pam. But in between those great moments, wherein at least one writer recognizes the absolute crap that the rest of his/her colleagues are flinging against the wall, the audience has been subjected to were-puma gang rapes, Iraqi fire-starting ghosts, and vampires tripping balls on the blood of their messiah.

After season five dressed up pointless faffing about as a vampire religious schism, it was good to see season six trying to recapture some of the early series’ “us versus them” energy. There is an appropriate, if mildly stupid, conspiracy which sees the enactment of martial law, abuses against constitutional rights, and the creation of a vampire internment camp in Louisiana. All of this is very good. But then the series had to bring in fairies, building from there to a Christianity driven vampire Final Solution.

Come on, writers. You have to assume that there are a few people who aren’t watching the show for eye candy. Do you really think you can go from internment to a Final Solution over the course of two weeks of plot time?

If anti-vampire fascism was executed as the singular focus of the season, I think could have got on board the genocide train bandwagon. In such a scenario, there would have been time to properly show the breakdown of due process and the rise of a police state in and around Bon Temps. But why shade the conflict when the series can take a tedious trip to the dark side and back again via Alcide Herveaux. If that’s not enough for you, we can witness the mental breakdown and suicide of a tertiary character, who prior to this season was lucky to have an average of five lines per episode. And if you’re still hungry for more distractions from the main plot, there’s fairy bullshit which, though eventually becoming relevant to the main plot, does little other than fill time for the first five episodes.

I said this last year, and I’ll say it again this year, half of the show’s characters need to die. If the ensemble continues to see an annual net growth – this year we got a new baby vampire, Jason’s vampire girlfriend, Jessica’s vampire boyfriend, Sam’s girlfriend, and Warlow the vampire-fairy – then the shallow veneer of self-seriousness that the show maintains is going to crack under its own weight.

Despite these problems, I have to recognize this season as an improvement on the previous three. There’s a faint awareness, in both the writing and the acting, that the show is running off the rails. In that light, I quite enjoyed watching Ryan Kwanten, Alexander Skarsgård, Rutina Wesley, and even Stephen Moyer chewing up the scenery from week to week. In some ways, this season of True Blood reminds me of the final season of Blakes’ 7; therein Paul Darrow’s performances always seemed to be charged by the knowledge that the series had turned into a hot mess. Rather than let that knowledge limit him, he played Avon as hard as he could. The same can be said for select members of True Blood’s cast.

I imagine most fans and critics would join me in dismissing the season finale’s “six months later” time jump as utterly lazy writing.  This skip ahead is indicative of the poor pacing and excess filler material found within the season. Suppose that everything that happened in season six, prior to the flash forward, were condensed into the first five episodes, the last five could have taken us from internment to attempted genocide without the hand waiving of “Hepatitis V” and Eric flying off into the sunset to set things right. Maybe, just maybe, the audience would have liked to see some natural plot development. Now the writers have put themselves in a place where the first few episodes of season seven are going to get caught up in navel gazing as plot holes are necessarily plugged.

I won’t deny that the wandering vampire army in the finale’s final frame set up an interesting conflict. At the same time, when you roll a metaphorical grenade into a crowded room, only one of two things can happen.

If it goes boom, then we are witness to a wholesale slaughter of Bon Temps at the restaurant formerly known as Merlotte’s. Cool? Absolutely. And while that’s a great hook, we must ask where a show with a limited capacity for deep writing can go from there? Granted, True Blood isn’t beneath a good wholesale slaughter to advance the plot. But from my point of view, it can only play that card once per season. Suppose then that the grenade is a dud, and the vampires don’t massacre the assembled citizens of Bon Temps; ladies and gentlemen you just spent the winter in anticipation of a fake out.

It doesn’t take Carson in a turban to foresee a lead Hep-V vampire flinging invectives and threats at the good people of Bon Temps. The assembled healthy vampires and humans, with Jason and his girlfriend as mouthpieces, will draw a line in the sand, and before you can “drop fang” we’ll be back to the posturing and wanking of season five. Sherriff Andy certainly can’t show up with a tactical team and kill all the itinerant vampires. If that happened we would need a new conflict for the coming season. So when we come right down to it, the “six months later card” has only served to put next season behind the narrative eight ball.

All in all, I wouldn’t call True Blood’s sixth season a traditionally “good” season of television. Measured against the incredibly low standards that True Blood sets for itself, season six does land well above the curve. It’s an improvement over what we’ve been seeing for the last three years, but those were three genuinely awful seasons of television. I suspect, however, this success will be short lived as the portents for season seven do not bode well.

Now if there’s any justice in the universe, I won’t have to write about sexy vampires for another year.


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In Defense of Ben Affleck as Batman

If my extended infosphere, as represented on facebook and twitter, is an accurate reflection of popular opinion, then there are a lot of people freaking out about the announcement of Ben Affleck as Batman. I daresay the news surprised me. For a moment, I honestly thought a few of my friends were trying to troll me. Now that multiple sources have verified the story, you’ll forgive me if I don’t jump aboard the anti-Affleck band wagon. I’ll even go so far as to say that I think Mr. Affleck might prove to be a good choice for the role.

Let’s deal with the obvious elephant in the room: Daredevil. If Daredevil is guilty of a single cardinal sin, it’s being a superhero movie predating Iron Man. And spare me any twenty-twenty hindsight, historical revision bullshit in pointing at X-Men as evidence that superhero movies were on the uptake in the early 2000s. Prior to Marvel: Phase One, comic book adaptations were high-risk investments that saw the studios playing it very conservative with plots that might be too sci-fi for the audience. Don’t believe me? Look at what Marvel did to Galactus in Rise of the Silver Surfer. They couldn’t make it a proper Marvel Cosmic story, so they brought in Doom to keep the conflict more accessible. Galactus’ actual downfall proved to be little more than handwaving that steered well clear of the Ultimate Nullifer and Uatu the Watcher.

Were Daredevil made today the project would likely be taken seriously enough to merit a writer/director with experience beyond Grumpy Old Men. Mark Steven Johnson was a sophomore director when he took on Daredevil. Johnson’s directorial debut was a religiously themed piece called Simon Birch; I didn’t see it, either. As a screenwriter, Johnson’s pre-Daredevil chops included Jack Frost, Big Bully, and both of the Grumpy Old Men movies. So the powers at Marvel tapped a “comedy” writer to work with one of their darkest heroes (perhaps rivaled only by The Punisher) while slapping a PG-13 restriction on the story. Are we really going to lay the blame for Daredevil’s shortcomings, which are almost exclusively narrative failings, on Ben Affleck’s acting abilities? Such a course of action seems a bit childish and overly reductive.

Next elephants in the room: Gigli and Jersey Girl. He did the former for the booty, QED. I can respect that. As for the latter, also booty. Booty and perhaps even a confidence in his long-term ability to keep earning Oscars when his girlfriend would be lucky to end up as a judge on a network TV talent show. Additionally, Kevin Smith wrote the damn thing, so criticism where criticism is due.

Those are Affleck’s stinkers; let’s look at the positives Affleck brings to the table. First and foremost, Oscar gold for writing Good Will Hunting at age 26. Before lobbing hate bombs at Affleck, ask yourself how many internationally recognized awards for writing you earned when you were that age. If the number is a non-negative, non-zero integer, feel free to leave a comment telling me to shut-up. There’s also a shared Screen Actors Guild award for his role in Shakespeare in Love. More recently, he earned a National Board of Review award for directing Gone Baby Gone. And, of course, Affleck likely needed to buy a new mantle for the boatload of awards he earned for Argo. Said awards included another Academy Award and two BAFTA’s, just for the record.

Even if we concede that Affleck may not be the world’s most gifted actor, he’s proven himself a more than capable story teller on multiple occasions. Isn’t that the sort of individual we want headlining a Zach Snyder “film”? Affleck has enough clout that he could easily insist upon rewrites that wouldn’t see Batman and Superman dudebroing it up in Gotham, were Mr. Snyder inclined to take the story in such an uncomfortable, but almost inevitable, direction. This may not manifest as a ringing endorsement for Affleck, but it’s at least reason to pause and reflect before writing him off. I doubt Henry Cavill, and his excessive professional tight wearing, is going to have the same kind of script doctoring pull that Affleck will bring to the table.

Let’s switch gears and discuss Batman, himself. How is Ben Affleck any worse than some of the other gentlemen who have taken on the role? Batman is supposed to be the world’s greatest detective, yet we saw him as the world’s greatest functional drunk in Batman and Robin. And Batman Forever was so campy that I’m surprised the “box” device didn’t show a vision of Val Kilmer playing topless beach volleyball when it probed Bruce Wayne’s mind. The worst case scenario here is that Ben Affleck ends up in the middle quintile of Batman actors.

People within my info-bubble are further doubting Affleck’s ability to convey the depth required for Bruce Wayne/Batman. Depth? What depth? I’m no actor but Batman seems pretty easy as a screen character. The dark knight is a chaotic good character with control/daddy issues. Have I missed anything?

In terms of physically inhabiting the role, most of Batman’s hard work can be covered by stuntmen. All the headliner needs to manage is a piercing stare and a decent Batman voice. If Michael Keaton was able to pull off the former, then I imagine Mr. Affleck can give it the old college try. As for the latter, Kevin Conroy is the only Batman voice that matters. Knowing that he will never reach this level of Batmanitude, all Affleck has to do is be better than the growling-shouting binary of Christian Bale.

As for the Bruce Wayne aspect of the character, I’m very confident in a white, male, millionaire’s abilities to play a white, male, billionaire.

What of Nolan’s legacy to the Batman franchise? How is Affleck, who isn’t really known for the same method acting insanity intensity that Christian Bale brought to the role, supposed to insert himself into existing expectations? Consider that the relative strength of the new trilogy isn’t tethered to Christian Bale or his work with the eponymous vigilante. Bale was an adequate, if emo, Bruce Wayne. As Batman, he lacked the finesse befitting the world’s greatest detective.

Nolan’s movies worked because of the strong writing reflected in the collective acting chops of the supporting ensemble. We may have gone to see the Dark Knight for Batman, but we re-watched it and bought DVDs for Heath Ledger’s Joker. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, and others all underwrote the success of Nolan’s movies. In all honestly, I don’t think it would have mattered who played Batman. In fact, we can test that theory: can anybody tell me how Ben Affleck, as an actor replacing Christian Bale, could have broken Nolan’s Batman movies? Did Bale really bring anything unique to the role that isn’t ripe for parody?

 

 

At the end of the day, the person playing Batman isn’t nearly as important as the effective mobilization of supporting players within a story worthy of Batman’s attention. Batman, at least the harder edged Frank Miller/Batman TAS Batman the modern audience has come to demand from the character, is a one-trick pony if left to his own devices. Batman needs other meaningful characters in his life because they are the ones that feed his inner conflict. Batman’s humanity comes from Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon, Terry McGinnis, Selina Kyle, and all the rest. Without those characters and the morality they infuse into Batman, he’d be predictable and boring; Batman would be a meme akin to What Would Jesus Do? Only instead of perpetually turning the other cheek, he would be exacting his non-equivocating vision of justice upon Gotham without exception. Selling the audience on a story whose main character is utterly depended upon supporting players is NEVER going to be about the actor playing Batman; it is about the writer(s).

So without knowing anything about the script, but knowing a thing or two about Batman, consider this my comprehensive answer to why people should back off Ben Affleck. If anything is going to break the delicate balance of a Batman-Superman movie, it won’t come down to something as simple as the acting.


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Post 500 and The Next Big Project

If only my third grade teacher could see me now. She once told my parents I lacked focus and would never amount to anything. Where are you now, Mrs. Saaid? You’re in hell (or more likely Florida), that’s where, and I’m writing the 500th post to my completely reasonably moderately comparatively successful blog. Point, Shaftoe.

But enough of that, this isn’t going to be a usual big number post. This is an announcement post, of sorts.

After recording the last podcast, my co-host, Matt Leaver, and me decided to watch The Last Starfighter. Of course by watch, I mean we mercilessly made fun of a movie that only holds water if you’re ten-years-old and some sort of space-time conveyance has returned you to the 1980s. Half-way through the second act, it occurred to me that we should have recorded our banter, if only to try our hands at making an homage to Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and RiffTrax. Because at the end of the day, everybody whose seen a bad movie and whispered a snarky rejoinder to their neighbor wants to have the freedom to be Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett.

Later, I recounted the day’s goofing off on facebook; therein a mutual friend asked, “Who am I, Pierce? Why didn’t anybody invite me in on this?”

And out of this unintentional Piercing, an idea was born; we would make a full-length riff ‘cast. But what movie? What movie is so obviously bad that we could thrash it without fear of alienating the audience. Not to mention we needed something untouched by either the real RiffTrax team or Red Letter Media? The answer came in an epiphany from the nerd gods: Wing Commander. Tell me another movie that is so reviled by both critics and the audience at large? And let’s not forget all the gamers who are in all likelihood still bitter about this movie taking a steaming dump on established video game canon.

But we couldn’t do it on our own. We would need a third guy, because the laws of comedy clearly demonstrate that three nerds are better than two when making fun of awful movies. Also, we don’t want our friend to think he’s the Pierce of our group. Three voices, however, would require three microphones, which is one more than I currently have. So like so many projects before us, we’ve decided to take to begging. Thankfully, it’s a small-scale beg with long term benefits.

Our goal is $300.

Expenses break down like so:

$100 for a new microphone

$50 for a mic stand and shock mount

$40 for a mic cable

$25 for a pop filter

$15 for a BluRay of Wing Commander, because none of us own, or will admit to owning, this abomination of a movie

$70 to cover production costs

As kickstarter campaigns go, we wanted to keep this a humble affair.

Why turn to crowd sourcing? First and foremost becasue we’re giving away the final product for free.  Maybe, one day, somebody will pay me to do stuff like this. For now, I’m happy to do it for the fun of doing it. That said, it would take my Google ad revenue about 21 years to absorb the costs of this project. So a little assistance would not go amiss. Rest assured that even if we don’t meet our goal, we’re still going to do this. It just means the audio quality isn’t going to be where I want it to be and we won’t have any original art to go with it. Speaking of art, Akira Arruda, who has done some fantastic promotional work for the weekly web series Continue? has agreed to do the art for riff ‘cast. I want to be able to pay her for her effort, even if it is a pittance of a symbolic gesture. In the long run, having a third mic means I can expand the podcast into a Ricky Gervais Show format, which is want I’ve wanted to do all along. So without wanting to sound too sentimental, contributing to this campaign has the added benefit of helping me meet a goal that predates podcast #1 – which nobody should listen to because it is terrible. I mean it’s just awful.

What will you get for contributing? Well, we’re still working on all the details therein, but here is what we have so far:

- A personalized copy of the riff track.

- A name drop for your book/web series/podcast/whatever during the track.

- Page of Reviews podcast producer powers for a day; wherein you can subject Matt, myself, and our mystery third to reviewing a movie of your choosing.

- Executive producer powers, which get you the same as the above but also include making me do a dramatic reading from any book of your choosing. Well, almost any book. I draw the line at Mein Kampf and its ilk.

Look for the kickstarter in the days to come. And even if you don’t contribute to this wholly reasonably somewhat worthy campaign, thanks for reading this post. I wouldn’t keep writing if people didn’t keep coming back to see what I have to say.


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Afternoon Anime: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 Episode 10

Episode ten of Space Battleship Yamato 2199 reveals that the series might be trying to position itself as both a meta-narrative on war and a reconciliation with the reality of Imperial Japan’s history. True to my suspicions from episode 9, this chapter returns to the idea of cooperation and co-existence with the Gamilans. Further reinforcing this thesis is the fact that the Yamato doesn’t fire single shot in anger, thus maintaining its white knight status.

Here’s the overview. A warp jump gone wrong lands the Yamato inside a dimensional rift. The area is dubbed a universal Sargasso Sea after Chief Tokugawa reports that the rift is draining power from the wave-motion engine. The tranquility of the starship graveyard is further shattered when a Gamilan destroyer snaps to life. Thus begins a story of cooperation wherein the Gamilans propose working together to escape the rift. If the Yamato fires its wave-motion gun at a point where reality meets the dimensional barrier, it will form an exit portal. The Gamilan destroyer will then tow the energy depleted Yamato to safety. The captain of the Gamilan destroyer does make clear that once they are outside the rift the Terrans and Gamilans are enemies once more.

This temporary alliance allows the Yamato’s crew their first look at a live Gamilan; a female blue-skinned fighter pilot named Melda Ditz, who is the daughter of Admiral Ditz – who is apparently a somebody. Which brings me to my next point, other than Dessler and his elfin Minster of Propaganda, I have a really hard time keeping track of the various individuals within Gamilas’ High Command. Their names are often infodumped into a scene without any real context. This probably accounts for why I always feel like I’m out of the loop when the action cuts to some Gamilan political intrigue.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the over the top voice acting – even in Japanese the ham is delicious – hyperbole, and fascist rants that come from most of the Gamilan characters. There are moments when I think the writers are having fun with Nazi ideology much in the same way that Quentin Tarantino did in Inglorious Basterds. The problem is that there are too many named Gamilans being talked about without getting enough useful screen time. That’s writing 101 right there, guys. You can’t just show off a character, flash their very German High Command sounding name on the screen, and expect the audience to give a damn. Without some connection to the overall conflict they are just speaking props.

Meanwhile, through Melda Ditz’s role as temporary ambassador, we are presented with a potential revelation. Ditz claims that Earth started the war with the Gamilas. During a Kodai-led interrogation, she alludes to a Terran sneak attack without any formal declaration of hostilities. This open a wholly interesting dimension in understanding the series.

Everything we know about the Yamato and the UNCF has been filtered through the lens of a defensive war. Gamilas attacked Earth, and in doing so put humanity on the righteous side of the conflict. If Earth is the aggressor, then the entire subtext of historical revision falls out from under the series’ feet. Yamato 2199 could be about Japan owning its part in World War Two, rather than trying to change it into some mytho-heroic nonsense wherein the home islands were history’s victims. Given the way the series has poured on the Third Reich allusions as witnessed on Planet Gamilas and in the blue-skinned Gamilans, I was not expecting to see meaningful reflection on Japanese ethos as personified in the United Nations forces. More on this in future episodes, I hope.

During the escape from the rift, we witness an “imperial guard” blue-skin Gamilan, an unsubtle representation of an SS officer, attempting to strand the Yamato in the Sargasso dimension. The destroyer’s second-class Gamilan captain eventually rescues the Yamato, but not before the blue-skined SS man can send a distress signal to high command. Once both ships return to normal space they are greeted by a flotilla of Gamilan starships.

At the helm of this small fleet is Commander Goer, a blue-skinned Gamilan we’re supposed to remember from a few episodes back. Desperate to vanquish the Yamato, Goer doesn’t even wait for the Yamato’s rescuer to clear the line of fire. The destroyer is sunk with all hands. Somehow, without so much as a briefing from Sanada, Captain Okita knows to get the Yamato away from the rift before it opens up and eats the aggressor Gamilan fleet, save for Goer’s flagship which warps away leaving his men to their doom. Perhaps the subtitles missed something, or maybe Okita is just that much of an expert sailor.

And thus ends episode ten. Enemies come together to escape common plight. Honour and mutual respect between soldiers carries the day. And the first live contact between Earth and Gamilas ends up with a prisoner situation aboard the Yamato. Will this continue? Will we see less jingoism and more grey areas starting to emerge? Granted the destroyer pulling the Yamato out of the rift isn’t quite the image of WW1 soldiers playing soccer between trenches, but it’s a step toward that much more meaningful narrative of war.


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Game Review: Shadowrun Returns

1993’s Shadowrun SNES game was my first exposure to the urban fantasy sub-genre. Though I don’t think I first played said game until the early 2000s, I found the concept of magic and science existing side-by-side in a Blade Runner-esque world to be interesting. Not so enrapturing that I ever made an effort to play the pen and paper RPG, mind you. Still, when I discovered Shadowrun Returns I was happy to part coin from hand for a chance to revisit the Sixth World.

The first mistake I made in approaching Shadowrun Returns was assuming that I was buying a game. It’s more accurate to describe Shadowrun Returns as a semi-open source game engine featuring a ten hour prefab campaign.

This engine, as seen through the Dead Man’s Switch campaign, does a good job in streamlining the dice rolling and micromanaging of a pen and paper RPG. Players manipulate their character’s stats through a skill tree that is somewhat reminiscent of the original Mass Effect. There’s room for exploration and experimentation within the system, but it’s intuitive enough that Shadowrun newbies, like yours truly, won’t have to fear for breaking their character when leveling up.

The combat, both in the slums of future Seattle and the digital realm of The Matrix – yeah I know, but Shadowrun predates the Wachowski’s movie, so leave it alone – offers an old-school turn based strategy system with some rudimentary cover mechanics. What it’s not, however, is Diablo. There is almost no looting to be found in the DMS campaign. Weapons, power-ups, and equipment must be purchased before taking a party out on a mission. Which brings us to Adam’s first rule of building a team of shadowrunners: always bring a healer.

I’m being serious. Bring a healer. Don’t come crying to me when some wiz street samurai makes sushi out of your decker and you’ve got nothing but bailing wire, good intentions, and a third rate discount medkit to hold him together. Bring a healer.

The lack of looting combined with a checkpoint based save system does present some level of difficulty not found in most contemporary games. Then again, it is perfectly accurate to the pen and paper RPGs I’ve played over the years. In the ten hours it took me to finish the Dead Man’s Switch I only ever had to repeat a sequence once, at the cost of about ten minutes of my time. Rumours of impossible difficulty and excessive punitive repetition within the DMS campaign are not to be believed.

Outside of battle, a basic point and click interface manages player movement and interactions. I will say this system proves a little too basic for my liking. That said, I don’t want to generalize the entire game engine based on the Dead Man’s Switch campaign. DMS struck me as a primer for the culture and extended mythos of the Shadowrun universe, not necessarily a stress test for the engine.

Even when the game play began to feel a bit routine, the quality of the story and the depth of the setting kept me coming back for more. Bearing that in mind, I can accept a certain amount of linear action and an abundance of “click me for conversation/stuff” icons.

I have also seen some attempts to add depth to Shadowrun Returns through my first venture into a user generated story. The first act of From the Shadows, Run, a campaign created by a Steam user named Ashram, features side quests and an actual feeling of meaningful choice in a player’s actions.

Ashram’s first act manages to be just as intriguing as the DMS story, due in no small part to his/her decision to release the campaign as a serial. The inevitable risk here is that we will end up with a mountain of great first acts that never get brought to their conclusions because the writers’ personal/professional lives get in the way of continuing their Shadowrun work. Still, it’s a risk I’ll take for the chance to regularly jump into somebody else’s story.

Perhaps that freedom to come and go as you please is at the cornerstone of the game’s broad storytelling/RPG appeal. For want of players and/or suitable venues, pen and paper RPGs were scarce in my youth – I’m of the vintage where parents thought D&D would lead to murder-suicides. As an adult, I don’t want for either; the new challenge is syncing schedules and finding a DM who doesn’t resent having to officiate rather than play. Shadowrun Returns solves that problem, albeit at the price of a wholly single player experience. I expect that adding a multiplayer component to the engine would be a priority for the developers now that the modding community is actively producing new content.

Ultimately, Shadowrun Returns gives gamers a taste of what they can expect from a pen and paper RPG gone digital. Then just as it is getting good, the game tells you to go forth and make your own fun. It’s risky gambit, but one that should pay off in the long term since the good people at Harebrained Schemes have gone out of their way to build comprehensive tools for a community apt to weave their own neo-noir cyberpunk fantasies.

On a personal note, I hope Shadowrun Returns encourages other RPG publishers to create game engines out of their properties. I will be a happy man on the day I can settle in for an afternoon of proper Battletech (Don’t talk to me about Mechwarrior Tactics Online) without having to put on pants or paint models.

Shadowrun Returns

Developed and Published by Harebrained Schemes


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Movie Review: Doomsday Book

Prior to getting into the movie, I wasn’t sure what to make of Doomsday Book. Now, a week after viewing it, I’m still not certain what I should take away. As a Korean language film, I know there’s a geographical and cultural subtext that is likely lost in both the subtitles and my own lack of expertise on that part of the world. On that note, I’ll ask my readers’ indulgence if I’ve missed some obvious reading contingent upon having lived in Korea.

Taken together, I’m not quite sure how the three constituent short films of this anthology fit together. I don’t see a clear meta-narrative that brings together these three very divergent approaches to the end of world. Two stories represent physical apocalypses, while the third is a more metaphysical affair. If I squint and look sideways at the movie, I suppose there’s a way to view each story as a study into the destruction of an aspect of the human condition: body, soul, and mind, respectively. But that’s stretching interpretation to the point of snapping. Despite this, the triad of end-of-days movies are quite capable, even if they don’t exactly break the mould in terms of genre story telling.

The first film, A Brave New World, is a study into the Korean zombie apocalypse. The focus is a on a gangly 20-something excluded from a family vacation. Naturally, his mother leaves him with a list of chores, which includes taking out the recycling and garbage. You’d think this would be no great inconvenience, except for the fact that the protagonist’s family are singularly the most slovenly middle-class people I have ever seen depicted on film.

There is so much rotten food and garbage strewn about his apartment that I’m surprised the family hasn’t contracted dysentery and died. This cringe worthy post-consumer horror serves to catalyze the remainder of the story. Viewers are taken through waste treatment plants wherein a mouldy apple is processed into cattle feed, which then ends up partially embedded in the steak our protagonist eats on a date with his would-be girlfriend. Thus begins a mad-cow variant of the zombie apocalypse.

Consequently, A Brave New World’s focus on how both zombies and humans are creatures driven by primal desires to feed is about as subtle as the tight shots on maggoty food and people making out. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but as a criticism on consumer culture it does get the job done.

Beyond that, the “oh my god, shit just got real” montage which takes the audience from patient zero to widespread epidemic, could be seen as a means of exploring information as a further infectious vector during a time of crisis. And had I not seen Contagion, I’m sure that idea would be blowing my mind. Now it’s just sort of par for the course. So while there’s little that is particularly innovative about this interpretation of the zombie apocalypse, it’s certainly competent and reasonably chill inducing in its photography.

The anthology’s second entry, The Heavenly Creature, is another story that is competent, but not ground breaking. Where other robots-among-us narratives explore the consequences of machines achieving sentience, this movie is concerned with an android finding spiritual enlightenment.

It’s hard to miss the Asimov inspired motifs driving a story about a service android turned Buddhist monk. The big, and possibly evil, robot manufacturer, views the RU-4 android as an affront to human supremacy on Earth. The monks, naming the machine An-myung, recognize his capacity for personhood and his potential embodiment of Buddhism’s teachings. What follows is some metaphysical talk on perception, objective reality, and the ability to self-identify as the core of consciousness. Not knowing much more about Buddism than what I’ve learned from movies and the odd book or two over the years, I’m sure there’s an entire layer to the story that I’m missing.

What is clear, however, is the movie’s outstanding ability to employ a non-human character that is capable of resonating on an emotional level. Setting aside a personal tendency to anthropomorphize machines, the puppetry and voice acting behind An-myung is genuinely stirring. Even though it’s a clunky near-future looking doll, there’s a compelling amount of soul to the character. The value for pathos, more so than the cookie cutter metaphysical conflict between man and machine, is what makes this story stand out within the collection.

Finally we come to Happy Birthday, Doomsday Book’s nod to the absurd. The story begins with a little girl throwing her father’s favourite pool ball out a window. Why pool balls? I have no idea. Maybe it’s big in Korea? When she tries to order a replacement she inadvertently logs on to an extraterrestrial version of ebay. Frantic hand waving and weak exposition attempt to explain this event, but the effort is quite sad considering the eloquent way A Brave New World charts the origins of the zombie apocalypse without saying a word. Nonetheless, the alien ebay results in an 8-ball the size of Texas hurdling toward the Earth. Following that, there’s some panic, hysteria, and one newscaster pimp slapping another on the air. Unfortunately the writing and acting lack any clear indication of if this is supposed to be Stooge-ish comedy or a cutting criticism on how crisis brings out the worst in people.

Would that there was any sort of pay off for asking the audience to suspend their disbelief to the point that they can accept an alien internet merging with our own through some convoluted take on chaos theory, this movie would be instantly better. Instead, it just feels like the product of writers who have blown all their good ideas on the anthology’s first two projects.

As anthologies go, I suppose two out of three stories getting the job does isn’t a bad track record. So while there’s nothing revolutionary to Doomsday Book, at least not for this Westerner with little-to-no knowledge of Korean culture, it’s hardly a waste of time. The first two episodes are good attempts at the go-to stories of science fiction. Even if these conflicts are somewhat Western in origin, there’s a clear uniqueness to their telling through a Korean lens. While the third movie wants for anything beyond absurdity and a cloying attempt to create sympathy for a little girl deprived of her childhood, it can be justified as a strange palate cleanser following a heavily metaphysical second act.

Doomsday Book

Written and Directed by Pil-Sung Yim and Kim Jee-Woon

Starring Yoon Se Ah, Donna Bae, and Joon-ho Bong


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Podcast Episode 30: Podcast-LALALALALALALALALALALALA

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe, Matt Leaver, and Stephen King.

I’m not sure who this Stephen King guy thinks he is, but I’m certain I won’t come to regret passing on doing an interview with him.

In this the thirtieth episode of the Page of Reviews Podcast, my assistant “editor” Matt Leaver returns for a review of the 1987 cinematic masterpiece, G.I. Joe: The Animated Movie.

Though a critical dissection of such a plainly terrible movie isn’t exactly hard, it is certainly entertaining. It also prompted an unrecorded RiffTrax style viewing of The Last Starfighter after the podcast, as well as plans to try and do a podcast review of Naked Lunch. I suspect a Naked Lunch podcast would have a total run time of fifteen minutes and consist mostly of me saying, “What the hell did I just watch?” Still, the attempt could be fun if nothing else.

But the bigger question is this, if Matt and I try to do our own version of Mystery Science Theatre, possibly conscripting another mutual friend in for the fun, what movie should we do?

Topics under discussion for this podcast include

- Nostalgia value vs actual value of GI Joe

- Youth culture and GI Joe

- Race in GI Joe and constructions of “The Other”

- A discussion on the ideal length of an action movie

- Millennial “entitlement” and 80s cartoons

- Matt and Adam admit they have no idea what Naked Lunch is supposed to be about

- Cobra-La and Lovecraft

Theme music: Bionic Commando stage 4 (Dale vs Wray mix) (NecroPolo) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


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Book Review: Crux

My summer of sequels continues with the sublime Crux, Ramez Naam’s follow-up to last year’s near-future post-human techno-thriller, Nexus.

When I sat down to write my review of Nexus, I remember feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of having to package a complex novel within the confines of a short review. Crux has had much the same effect upon me. In the simplest possible terms, this book is speculative fiction at its finest. Full stop. Crux offers the sort of writing which literary wags could easily point to and declare, “Proper literature looks like this.”

Meanwhile genre readers will smile, knowing full well that their medium has always produced works of this caliber.

For anybody approaching Crux without having read the first novel, the book’s prologue provides a primer on Mr. Naam’s vision of our not-too-distant future. It is a world where a Ph.D. student named Kaden Lane creates Nexus 5, a designer “drug” – more on the danger quotes in a moment – which allows users to hack and subsequently network the human brain. Though Nexus continues in this novel as an allegorical critique on America’s war on drugs, it catalyzes Crux’s much deeper study into a post-human future. NB: post-human does not equal post-apocalyptic or any other sort of end-of-the-world cliché. Tempting as it may be to look at the novel’s union of cyberpunk motifs and climate change as a means of facilitating a dystopian label, the novel is very carefully balanced against such a framing.

I draw attention to this because it’s worth recognizing when a near-future science fiction novel doesn’t unfurl a big banner proudly declaring “We’re all screwed, and everyone is going to die.” Sure, it’s fun to watch writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Margaret Atwood destroy the world. But it’s hard not to walk away from their novels without a palpable fear for the future outweighing any sense of wonder. By comparison, Crux rallying cry is that post-human problems require post-human solutions. The optimism for the future may be measured, pragmatic, and contingent upon change, but it is there none the less. And given a near-prescient plot point that saw a hurricane affecting political change, I think it is important to recognize the ability – and dare I say need? – for smart fiction to inspire readers to do better with our world.

Crux also sees the return of the Department of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Division. The ERD, and those who share its worldview, publically demonize Nexus as little more than a narcotic. In that light, the novel pulls no punches in showing how the ability to network a mind lends itself to the worst sort of abuses and affronts to human dignity. Alternatively, Nexus proves capable of awakening a capacity for learning and socialization in children with autism spectrum disorders while also facilitating next generation research between scientists. A think tank takes on a whole new meaning when a dozen scientists can collectively work on a problem at the speed of thought.

For the latter, and certainly individuals within the book’s target demographic, the ERD’s actions seem retrograde. What progressive nation bans a tool and further exploits a constitutional loophole to strip the users of said tool of their citizenship rights? But just as it was in Nexus, the debate in Crux is so much deeper than a simple binary between conservative and progressive ideologies. The proponents of The Chandler Act – imagine the Patriot Act, on anabolic steroids, targeting post-humans – can easily be read as a good piece of legislation designed to protect the rights of a majority who refuse to, or are incapable of, redefining humanity beyond natural selection. Think on that for a moment; the ERD waterboards and tortures Kade’s friends and Nexus co-developers on behalf of Americans who don’t want to be anything more than human. I’d be tempted to smirk at the idea of the government so effectively entrenching mediocrity through a clumsy law, but the strength of Mr. Naam’s ideas precludes such a simple reading. After all, what would happen if the next generation saw an open source technology that makes a person better than any natural born human?

Suppose I go into a job interview with a Nexus-esque neural computer feeding my brain every feel-good neurotransmitter in the book while reminding me of certain speaking points appropriate to each answer. It might not guarantee success, but certainly it grants an advantage otherwise absent to me. In this scenario a defacto ban on post-human technology would be necessary to protect the rights of a majority incapable of being anything more than they are. And once again, Ramez Naam has found a way to take my natural “damn the man” outlook on life and make me sympathize with the establishment.

Similarly, I’m not sure how much I should read into the Chandler Act’s ability to strip post-humans of citizenship as a parallel to North American immigration laws that redefine certain humans as “illegal.” A case could be made, but I’ll leave that to a critic better informed on the topic.

Moving beyond politics, which is hard to do in such a politically astute novel, Crux expands on Nexus’ exploration of post-human technology and religion. One such study focuses on Kade’s flight from justice through Southeast Asia via a series of Buddhist temples. The other looks at a character from the first book who has become the first true post-human after having her consciousness uploaded into a network of quantum computers. It’s standard enough fare to see science fiction writers using non-terrestrial actors as a lens for religious studies. Seeing similar discussions emerge out of scientific innovation is a delightful subversion of a standard trope. Would Buddhism adjust itself in the wake of technology that can allow novices to achieve an oneness with their fellows? Dare we invoke Descartes mind-body discourse in viewing a person of pure consciousness and computer code within her own digital realm? These questions further demonstrate the awe-inspiring extent to which Mr. Naam has considered the implications of post-human tech. My only regret therein is that there isn’t more room in the novel for probe for answers therein.

I’ll preclude any further rambling by closing on this point; if I don’t see some Nebula and/or Hugo buzz orbiting Crux within the next year I will be genuinely surprised. The novel is a poignant reflection on the sociological, economic, climate challenges of our changing world. Meanwhile, Mr. Naam masterfully mobilizes the zeitgeist of contemporary political and tech culture in his creation of a near-future which tempts readers with equal parts dread and optimism. This is not a book to be missed, and certainly one deserving much discussion in the months to come.

Crux by Ramez Naam

Published by Angry Robot Books