Showing posts with label Hulu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hulu. Show all posts

Friday, February 04, 2011

Hulu Recommendation Friday -- Community: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

After a long hiatus, here is the much deserved return of Hulu Recommendation Friday. This week's offering is very near and dear to my heart. I have thoroughly enjoyed the NBC sit com "Community" from its pilot episode, but now that it has fused itself with another of my loves the show has my undying loyalty. If NBC execs try to cancel the show...I'll have them performing Otto's Irresistible Dance.


Note the fusion of new school (Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms) with old school (Queen of the Demonweb Pits, Unearthed Arcana, The Dungeon Master's Guide) in the products featured.

To those of us who saw "Role Models," it's no surprise that Ken Jeong knocks the ball out of the park in this episode.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Hulu Recommendation Friday -- Raising Hope

What are your thoughts about the new sitcom Raising Hope? I enjoyed it, but I'm wondering just how long they can maintain the raw humor before they slip into the land of the routine.

Any sitcom that features a scene of a father covering his baby's eyes as the baby's mother is being electrocuted for murder is showing a nice audacity, but I hope they can keep it up.

So far I've really enjoyed the performances of Cloris Leachman, Garret Dillahunt, Martha Plimpton, and Shannon Woodward.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hulu Recommendation Friday: The Real Housewives of Orange County

I can't help it. I love this show. You must watch it.

The "cast" has changed significantly over the past few years, but this is one of the most entertaining realitoaperas ever created. The spin off shows each have their appeal, and their own craziness, but there is something that keeps bringing me back to OC.

One of the things that makes this season in particular so engaging is that it is the first time that you can see "reality" fatigue so blatantly on display. When the Vicki started stressing how she wouldn't spend any time with the current cast if it weren't for the show, I knew that this season we'd begin to see some real human drama -- and we have. Vicki's family is facing a genuine medical problem, whether it is a crisis or not has yet to be discovered. The combination of Vicki's need for constant attention and historic lack of empathy, is disappearing as she has spent time healing her marriage and wraps her mind around what her daughter is going through. Add to this the financial difficulties some of the other families are facing, and this show is shifting from catty conflict to real pathos inspiring drama.

This isn't to say that there isn't catty conflict...would it be a "Real Housewives" show if there wasn't?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Speaking of Captain America Controversies -- Hulu Recommentation Friday: CAPTAIN AMERICA (1990)

There has recently been a bit of a row regarding Captain America (see here and here). Some conservatives are irked that the good Captain, and his friend The Falcon, are uncomfortable with a Marvel Universe political movement that bears similarity to the Tea Party movement.

I'd like to inform those conservatives out there who think that this is "new" or a "big deal" that they are wrong. While it could be argued that someone who was frozen in 1945 and who awoke in the late 60s (or early 00s depending on the retcon) might be conservative to the point of being out of touch with most modern Americans, but Marvel has never written the character that way -- nor are they likely to start anytime soon.

If you look at the history of Captain America's career since 1972, you see the following pattern. Captain America quits in disgust over Nixon's behavior. Cap retakes the mantle when Jimmy Carter is elected. Cap is ostracized by the Reagan administration, then fired and replaced by someone more conservative (today's USAgent) during the first Bush Administration. Captain America retakes the mantle during the Clinton Administration. During the Bush Administration, Cap fluctuates between favoring soft or hard power -- depending on the writer and the proximity of 9/11 -- before he is shot and killed after leading a Civil War against government superhero registration policies. Cap is "resurrected" during the Obama administration.

Most of these decisions were made for one of the following reasons. Either there were real world issues that Marvel wanted to engage in their comics to give them depth, or they needed to reassert the value of the Captain America brand and stop having "Nomad" (or "The Captain") wander Route 66. If you're conservative and you wanted Captain America to represent your political philosophy...too bad. He doesn't. He's a comic book character.

It isn't controversial and it isn't new. If you weren't so busy trying to be offended, you might just notice that the stories where Cap quits/is fired/is killed are some of the best runs in the history of the series. They demonstrate the depth of the character and his convictions.

Oh, and since when is pointing out the dangers of "movement" driven populist democracy Un-American? I thought the whole shared powers structure that the Founding Fathers set up was due to concerns with the power of faction and "fear" of majority faction.

WHAT IS that HULU watchers have given the 1980s movie version of CAPTAIN AMERICA 3 stars. 3 stars?! Really?! But it's terrible.

Friday, February 05, 2010

BRAVESTARR -- Hulu Recommendation Friday

The cartoons of my youth were both wonderful and mildly disturbing. I have an active love hate relationship with the Filmation animation formula. Essentially, the formula is Hero (male or female), Competent Sidekick of Opposing Gender, Cool Animal/Anthropomorpic Animal Sidekick, and Annoying Comic Relief (Snarf/Orko). This hero faced a villain who was somehow in league with "dark forces."

To be fair, only about half their shows used this formula, but the character archetypes they created created the template for other companies cartoon templates as well. Would we have had Thundercats with Mumm Ra if we hadn't had Skeletor? I think not.

The writers and animators who worked using this framework had a seemingly limitless ability to apply the template to almost any genre. It worked well with the Planetary Romance narrative style of the He-Man, She-Ra, and Blackstar shows as well as for the Space Western format Bravestarr -- and it later worked for non-Filmation shows like the aforementioned ThunderCats.

As much as I liked the cartoons, there were a couple of things that bothered me. I despised, and still do, the lame comic relief characters. I blame Orko for Jar Jar Binks. The shows also had an obsession with presenting "moral lessons" that were often too heavy handed to be taken seriously. Even a 10 year old knows when he/she is being talked down to regarding moral choices.

Those things aside, the cartoons were imaginative and entertaining. I could have recommended the He-Man series that is archetypal for the genre, but I have a fondness for BRAVESTARR. The show came late in the decade and features the voice acting of Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime) as the anthropomorphic horse sidekick .30-.30. How awesome is that? The sidekick is named after rifle ammunition!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Mandatory Elvis Hulu Post

January 8th happens to be my and Elvis' birthday. Ever since I was a kid, this day has been marked with Elvis movie (and music) marathons. I would rather that January 8th was filled with David Bowie or John McTiernan marathons, as I would prefer to watch Labyrinth and Die Hard over Viva Las Vegas.

My sister was born on August 16th, which happens to be the anniversary of Elvis' death -- so our birthdays make nice Elvis bookends. Her birthday is also marked with TCM marathons of Elvis' (quite large) movie catalog.

Though I might prefer McTiernan films to the King's offerings, I had to make a decision early in life. I had to decide whether I was going to be trite and feign offense at the outpouring of popular culture offerings repeated annually on my birthday, or whether I was going to go along for the ride and have as good a time as possible. I chose the second path. Elvis movies may not be the best films ever made, but they are often quite fun. I've always enjoyed Speedway, King Creole, and Jailhouse Rock -- even if I've never come to truly appreciate Viva Las Vegas. The songs, like most of the King's tunes, are infectious and the stories are entertaining enough. One just has to be in the proper frame of mind.

Thankfully, I am usually in that frame of mind on my birthday. After all, I'm someone who celebrated his birthday by going out with friends to watch In the Name of the King by Uwe Boll. Compared to that film, the Elvis films are high art.

Sadly, Hulu doesn't have any full length Elvis films in their catalog to date. They do have some clips from Elvis' first film though, and you can enjoy Elvis big screen premiere in Love Me Tender.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fist of the Northstar: Mad Max Meets Superpowered Kung Fu (Hulu Recommendation Friday)

Happy New Year!

One of the great traditions of celebrating a new year, is looking back to the past and how it portrayed the future. The mid-80s were filled with post-apocalyptic narratives, but none quite as action packed as the anime series Fist of the North Star. The cartoon is best remembered for the exploding heads and bodies of its antagonists and its protagonist's favorite one-liner, "you're dead and you don't even know it yet." This is usually followed by the villain's body exploding in dramatic fashion.

Hulu has all 152 episodes of the series.

Koei Tecmo will be releasing a video game based on the manga/anime classic some time during 2010.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Dresden Files [Hulu Recommendation Friday]

Watching the preview for THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE, put me in the mood for watching the Dresden Files television show.

Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series is one of my literary addictions. I enjoy the way Butcher combines urban fantasy and noir detective fiction tropes in the books. Harry Dresden is a Wizard for Hire in a world that doesn't believe in magic, much to it's own peril.

In 2007, Syfy (then the SciFi Channel) aired twelve episodes of a series based on Butcher's books. The early shows, like the pilot below, were clumsy, but the show eventually found its voice and became quite entertaining.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lovecraft for Christmas, Kenneth Hite, Seamus Cooper, and "From Beyond" on Hulu Recommendation Friday

All this month, Tor is hosting a "December Belongs to Cthulhu" event on their website. I mentioned earlier the historic connection horror and the winter season have with each other, as perfectly described by Manly Wade Wellman.

The Tor site has even begun a series of posts entitled "The Twelve Days of Lovecraft" as a part of the celebration. The "Twelve Days" posts feature a discussion of twelve of Seamus Cooper's favorite Lovecraft tales, with a discussion of why they are so effective and what their greatest problems are. Cooper wrote the entertaining Mall of Cthulhu, which I reviewed earlier this year, and is a natural selection for a series of articles about Lovecraft's fiction.

I think it would be interesting to compare the entries to the indispensable "Tour de Lovecraft" web entries provided by polymath extraordinaire, and author of the Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game (the BEST Lovecraftian RPG ever written, though the author would quibble with that praise), Kenneth Hite. Hite's "Tour de Lovecraft" is the yardstick by which I measure all story discussion blog posts.

Let's just say that in presenting this story, Hite's entry is useful to the neophyte and the veteran where Cooper's entry is useful primarily to the neophyte -- though Cooper does sprinkle in some good humor. As I noted in my review of Cooper's Mall of Cthulhu, Cooper makes a point of discussing Lovecraft's racism and the obscurity of Lovecraft's prose. Two things that are interesting to point out to the neophyte, but which without new insights into root causes (as William Jones has done in his discussions of Lovecraft and Eugenics) it's really beating a dead horse. Hite references the racism as well, because it really is blatant and must be mentioned, but focuses his post on comparing Lovecraft's storytelling with Edmund Burke's aesthetics. Now that is a connection that I might not have made, and I've read Burke's Enquiry.

Both authors note that "Dunwich Horror" is a Gospel-esque tale, but only Hite notices that there are two Gospels being presented. There is the supernatural Gospel of the creature and the secular Gospel of Armitage. Hite also discusses the work as pastiche. Something fans of Lovecraft often overlook is the influence prior authors had on Lovecraft's own writing, and Hite is right to remind us here that Lovecraft's story is not purely Lovecraft. It should be noted that while Hite's article is the "deeper" of the two, in this case, it is also the more confusing one to the uninitiated. If you haven't read the story before diving into Hite's conversation, you could quickly become lost. This is not the case with Cooper.

The sharpest distinction between the Cooper and Hite posts is their reactions to Lovecraft's description of the town. Cooper is bored by the length and clumsiness of the description of the town and Hite draws maps of Innsmouth based on the description. One can imagine that for most readers a description long and accurate enough to base a map upon might be a trite dull. Cooper and Hite also disagree with regard to Lovecraft's use of the "native" in the story. For Cooper, it is further evidence of Lovecraft's obsession with racial purity -- and it is. For Hite, it is something more. He sees Lovecraft's use of primitive mythology as a subversive one, where he inverts which mythology (Western or "other") is more important. In this tale, the mythical worldview of the other is more accurate. Though the eugenics narrative is still overpowering.

But this isn't "analyze Cooper and Hite Friday," this is Hulu Recommendation Friday. Given the Lovecraftian bent of the post so far, I feel that I must give a Lovecraftian offering. Without further ado, I give you the awful (as in not very good) , From Beyond.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: Gotcha!

In 1982, Steve Jackson Games released Killer: The Assassination Game, a game many consider to be the first "live action role playing" game (LARP). The game was the first serious attempt by a professional game company to provide a full scale set of rules for "Assassination Games" in order to facilitate more entertaining play. Games like "Assassination" or "Cops and Robbers" can become heated affairs without the establishment of firm and agreed upon norms for play and a consistent means for arbitration of disagreements. This is exactly the niche that Killer was able to fill. The game is still available as a pdf from Steve Jackson Games and even if you never intend to play a game, it is an entertaining read.

1982 also saw the release of the motion picture TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME. In this film, starring Linda Hamilton and Robert Carradine, an "Assassination" game goes bad. When reigning champion (Bruce Abbot) is killed under humiliating circumstances, he breaks and decides he needs to raise the stakes and play The Most Dangerous Game. The film is difficult to find on video, but it perfectly captured the 80s concerns regarding gaming and obsession. A large part of the 80s culture wars were the constant discussion about whether role playing games, or violent games like "Assassin," could corrupt the minds of the young and turn them into psychopathic killers. TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME is a film that plays on those fears.

In response to these kinds of concerns, more recent editions of the Steve Jackson Games version of Killer have included the following disclaimer.

While TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME is near impossible to find -- VHS copies average $90 on eBay -- for the time being, you can watch the film on Google Video.

GOTCHA! (1985) raised the stakes of "Assassination" games in a very different way than TAG. Where TAG represented the fears associated with the 80s Culture Wars, GOTCHA! is a comedy that plays off Cold War narrative tropes. The protagonist in GOTCHA! is as obsessed with "GOTCHA!" as the villain in TAG was with "TAG," but the skills he learned while playing the LARP end up serving him well when he gets caught up in the world of espionage. Anthony Edwards is wonderfully naive in the film, and Linda Fiorentino is enthralling as the seductress/spy. GOTCHA! lacks the sophistication of Stanley Donen's classic CHARADE, another film where an innocent gets caught up in the world of intrigue, but it is wonderful popcorn entertainment.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: The Prisoner

Given that this Sunday is the premiere of the new AMC series "The Prisoner," a site as devoted to geek culture as this one is has only one possible recommendation to make -- "The Prisoner" starring Patrick McGoohan. The show is not "officially" on Hulu, but you can find a link on the Hulu site.

The original "The Prisoner" was nominally a follow up to Patrick McGoohan's popular spy themed show "Danger Man," or as I always new it "Secret Agent." One way that "The Prisoner" can be viewed is as the "deprogramming" of McGoohan's character from the earlier series as he retires from the spy world.

There are many other lenses through which the show can be viewed as the show is a great example of what much of the New Wave SF Writers and the earlier Futurian SF writers where doing in written SF. In the fiction of both the New Wave writers and Futurians shifted the focus of sfnal elements away from the mechanically technical and into the political and social. It is true that earlier SF, like that of Wells and Huxley, had been filled with political and social elements as the primary sfnal elements, but the Hard SF movement championed by John W. Campbell had a greater focus on hard science than earlier SF. The Campbellian writers had political subtexts as well, but one can read much of Heinlein, Vogt, and Asimov without engaging with the political/philosophic content. The fiction of the New Wave and Futurians was a little more radical and overt in its use of political and social elements. One cannot read Behold the Man without engaging with the radicalism of the text. It's no accident that "The Prisoner," with its focus on the collective versus the individual, came into existence at the height of the, largely British, SF New Wave.

It is a common practice among fans of "The Prisoner" to have lengthy conversations about the meanings embedded within the series and it is almost impossible to describe the series itself without revealing one something that one might find to be a spoiler. "The Prisoner" is a show to be experienced tabula rasa, then to be experienced again and again in order to engage with the complexities of the narrative.

It appears that the new AMC show is using Alternate Reality Gaming to expand the experience. Make a little visit to the Summakor website to get an idea of what I mean.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday -- Enter the Ninja

The classic Bond film You Only Live Twice, may be the first example of ninjas being featured in mainstream Western cinema, but it was the Sho Kosugi vehicle Enter the Ninja that captured the imagination of a generation. I can still remember sitting in my 7th grade Drama class, having just finished performing a monologue from The Glass Menagerie, as a group of my classmates enacted a sequence from Enter the Dragon.

The instructor wasn't very impressed, but I was and I immediately hunted down the Sho Kosugi film and experienced pure viewing pleasure.

Enter the Dragon follows one of the standard Golan and Globus action storylines. In this case it is the "old army buddy comes to visit an old friend who he served with during some military exchange or another, only to find out that the friend is in trouble with the local (criminal underworld, greedy land grabbing corporation, or both)." It's up to our protagonist to kick ass, take names, kick the asses of the people whose names he took, and save the day. Enter the Ninja adds ninja techniques to our protagonists usual repertoire of skills, which naturally makes him invincible as only a ninja can kill a ninja.

Franco Nero (Django and Camelot), our protagonist, has less than stellar martial arts skills, most of the acting is horrible, and the film suffers from Samurite syndrome. The film often borders on the ridiculous. For example, there is a point when Christopher George is calling out stating, "I want my ninja now!" in a manner that can only be described as extremely homoerotic -- an extremely incongruous moment in the film. Any one of these flaws could have ruined the film for all time, yet none do.


Sho Kosugi. The moment Sho Kosugi hits the screen, the viewer is in for a treat. Even while covered head to toe in his ninja costume, Sho Kosugi brings charisma and power to the screen. Yes, ninja costumes are inherently cool, but Sho is cool beyond the outfit. He is a joy to watch, which is likely one of the reasons Revenge of the Ninja drops the Samurite aspects of narrative and let's Sho carry the film. Sho Kosugi was the quintessential ninja throughout the 80s, and I cannot wait to see him in the forthcoming Ninja Assassin -- even in a small role.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: V -- The Series

With ABC running a remake of the classic V miniseries, I had no other choice than to have this week's Hulu recommendation be a V related one.

While there has been much talk lately regarding how SF and Fantasy have come to so dominate popular culture and the collective social conscience that we may now be entering into a "post-SF" era, it should be noted that film and television have been saturated with SF and Fantasy narratives since their beginnings. Even prior to the television and films that affected me as a young Gen X viewer, these media had entertained generations with fantastic SF/F. This earlier influence is what made growing up an SF/F fan in Generation X such a joy. There was an amazing abundance of quality sfnal material to watch when I was growing up, and it wouldn't have been there if not for how much earlier entertainment influenced those who created entertainment in the 70s and 80s.

Let's take a quick look at some of the entertainment offerings that Generation X was able to enjoy. On television, we had THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and the BIONIC WOMAN, SUPERFRIENDS, JOHNNY QUEST, STAR BLAZERS, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, SPACE 1999, SALVAGE, and V. In film, we had ALIEN, OUTLAND, STAR WARS, KRULL, THE LAST STARFIGHTER, EXCALIBUR, SUPERMAN, FLASH GORDON, and BLADE RUNNER. The lists above don't even scratch the surface of how much wonderful sfnal material was being produced as Generation X was growing up. Science Fiction and Fantasy films may have bigger budgets today, but they are no more ubiquitous today than they were in the 70s and 80s.

It is often jokingly remarked that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 13 (or insert some other young age), as that is the time one can best enjoy the fantastic tale merely for the sake of its being fantastic. I'm not one who usually agrees with this statement, as I have yet to be disillusioned about the SF/F I read as a child. Most of what I enjoyed, I still enjoy. Most of what I missed that others tell me I should have read, but may not enjoy as much now that I am "a more mature reader," I have enjoyed. Sometimes, as was the case with the ending of SLAN, I find small quibbles with particular narrative devices or decisions, but for the most part I find that a good story remains a good story.

I remember V being a very good story. It was a wonderful reversal of the alien story told in films like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. We had aliens who were visiting our planet claiming to be peaceful, like in DAY. Unlike the humans in DAY, we believed them much to our eventual dismay. That one small difference made V more plausible to me than the high minded and hopeful narratives offered by movies like DAY.

The argument in DAY is, essentially, that if all the scientists can work together (because they understand the futility of war) then Earth can become a wonderful and peaceful place. Of course, if they cannot then the Earth will be destroyed, since apparently the Galactic Community believes in using violence preemptively to stop nuclear capable planets from attacking them. I very much enjoy DAY, but still have trouble with the "we have evolved beyond violence and if you don't..we'll destroy you" narrative. The short story is better with regard to this issue.

The argument in V is "beware of aliens bearing gifts." The aliens come to help us achieve peace and can end all the problems facing human society. One small thing, they really want to turn us into dinner. Given the messages that tyrants have used throughout history to attain power have been ones of "peace," "equality," and "progress." I found the story plausible. (I also found the narrative in ALIEN NATION extremely plausible, and more compelling than V as a "human" story.) The costumes the aliens wore, and the way they manipulated specific humans in order to get their "help," are fairly obvious references to Nazism.

I cannot wait to see what ABC is doing with the new V series on November 3. To get ready, I recommend watching the miniseries link above from google video and watching the spin-off series on Hulu. I've embedded the first episode of the followup series below. It isn't as solid as the miniseries, and I don't know how it will hold up as I'll be finding out over the weekend, but I have fond memories.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

This Sunday will mark the sixteenth anniversary of the death of a horror film legend. October 25th, 1993, Vincent Price left this mortal coil. The horror films that Vincent Price starred in were not the violent shockfests people so often imagine when they thing of the words "horror film." His films were not about gore, or quick cathartic release of tension, rather they were about fear. H.P. Lovecraft, a pioneer in American "Wierd Fiction", wrote in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature :

5-27-1911 to 10-25-1993

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown...their admitted truth must establish for all time the geniuneness and dignity of the wierdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to "uplift" the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars...

This horror of the unknown is the kind of horror that permeated the films of Vincent Price. To be sure some like the Tingler had moments of visual shock, but most of the horror in Price's films was internal to the viewed characters. The audience felt the horror not as an immediate thing which passes when the musical sting chimes, but as a lingering afterthought which remained with the viewer long after the film had been viewed.

An image from The Tingler more akin to modern horror.

Vincent Price and Roger Corman's screen adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe tales are some of the best examples of this lingering kind of fear. With modern special effects making the imagery in The Pit and the Pendulum tame, possibly completely enervated of shock value, in comparison to the slaughter a Jason Voorhees is capable of committing. It is not the violence in Pit which horrifies, it is the thought of what man is capable of doing. This is the best kind of fear, the fear that reminds us as we look into the abyss that the abyss is looking back into us. True fear is horror at the possible meaninglessness of existence and the potential cruelty of man. How horrible is the realization in Fall of the House of Usher that Roderick Usher had accidently put his living sister prematurely into the tomb? The audience who watches this film can imagine both having to dig oneself free of an early grave and the terror of realization Roderick comes to when he realizes what he has done. There but for the grace of God go I.

Edgar Allan Poe is the founding voice for a great deal of American literature, including the modern horror tale. There have been some more recent Poe translations than the Corman/Price collaborations, but none seem to capture the tone as well. Price is magnificent in roles where we get to watch an otherwise noble man descend into madness. The Corman/Price films also manage to capture hints of the "unreliable narrator" literary device that Poe was famous for using/inventing. The lens through which the audience views the scene isn't the unreliable narrator, but the characters themselves often conceal their real motivations from each other. Have fun this Halloween with horror whose legacy can be seen in the SAW series, and the first HOSTEL, though the Poe versions spend a little more time on psychology of terror and less on the visceral sensations.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday (on the following Tuesday): Steel Dawn

The 70s, 80s, and 90s were the heyday of the Post-Apocalyptic narrative. From movies to video games to role playing games there was an explosion of Post-Apocalyptic entertainment available.

One the movie front, we had quite a variety in quality to choose from. My favorite Post Apocalyptic film lies somewhere between Logan's Run, Escape from New York, and The Planet of the Apes. Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and The Quiet Earth were some of the shining stars of the film releases. Zardoz and Tank Girl were two of the weirder and less coherent entries. Jean Claude Van Damme's Cyborg fell somewhere in the middle of entertaining and mind-numbingly horrible.

On the gaming front, the post-apocalyptic role playing games varied from the systemically complex Aftermath to the wildly imaginative Gamma World. Aftermath always seemed to me to be a simulation of "what would happen if," which meant that most characters die in horrible fashion -- at least they did after some complex mathematical equations were applied to a couple of die rolls. Twilight 2000 was a representation of "what was going to happen." T2000, like Aftermath, featured complex rules systems with realistic representations of radiation poisoning. Nothing more fun that calculating "rads" and their very real affects on your character. Gamma World was a pure "what if" that included everything from serious speculation to mutant plant/rabbit fusions. Gamma World was the most intriguing of the games, but it also had the disadvantage of multiple editions with incompatible rules sets. I would be remiss if I left out the ultra-enjoyable Car Wars game by Steve Jackson with machine guns and rocket

As for video games...Wasteland is one of the classic computer role playing games and the ancestor of the excellent Fallout series of games.

In the middle of this Cold War inspired Post-Apocalyptomania, in 1987, came a film starring one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Fresh out of successful films like Red Dawn (itself a Post Apocalyptic movie in its own way), Youngblood, and Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze entered the medium with an entry that fused narrative elements from the Post Apocalyptic, Western, Sword and Sorcery, and Planetary Romance genres. Steel Dawn was directed by Lance Hool (Missing in Action 2) with a screenplay by Doug Lefler (director of The Last Legion). In addition to Swayze, the film stars Lisa Niemi (Swayze's real world wife) in the "romantic" role of Kasha and b-movie stalwart Brion James as Tark "the romantic rival."

The outline of the story is essentially Shane. A wanderer comes to town and helps a family who is being pressured by a land baron to give up their water to the land baron. Like most adaptations of Shane, the film understates the dangerous nature of the wanderer and overstates the relationship between Shane and the mother of the family under "siege." Alan Ladd's Shane is too friendly, the book's character is more akin to the Jack Palance character. Jean Claude Van Damme's Shane clone encounters a single mother and can thus become the romantic interest. Clint Eastwood's Shane translation is the hand of god working vengeance against an unjust man. Swayze's Shane is a former soldier who wanders into town with the goal of, temporarily at least, taking the place of a "Peacekeeper" who is murdered at the beginning of the film.

Swayze's arrival throws a wrench into the plans of the land baron, and into a burgeoning romance between Tark and Kasha. His skills with a sword spark the imagination of Kasha's son Jux and are what eventually allow Swayze to challenge the local land baron and avenge the death of the prior "Peacekeeper."

The swordplay, use of meditation, and moral clarity of the hero echo the narrative tropes of Planetary Romance -- the reason this film was recommended this week. The inclusion, at the beginning of the film, of weird horror in the form of sand-dwelling mutants, the aforementioned swordplay, and the lone walker nature of Swayze's character fall nicely in the Sword and Sorcery genre. The setting is definitely Post-Apocalyptic with a nuclear blasted landscape with enough history that their have even been Post-Holocaust wars that resulted in the creation of Post Apocalyptic super swordsman like Swayze and Sho -- the warrior hired by the land baron to defeat Swayze. And the story is a pure translation of Shane, but lacking in Shane's adulation of the father figure.

I have always found it interesting that the father, who is so strong in Schaefer's book Shane, is emasculated in favor of the Shane figure in film representations of the tale. Shane is a dangerous man, a gambler and murderer akin to Doc Holliday. Shane is a villain who becomes a hero when he encounters the civilizing influence of a family. Had Shane stopped in town, instead of the farm, he would have quickly become the villain of the story. A key scene, in most representations, demonstrating the difference in focus from father worship to rogue worship is the scene where the father gets into a fight in the local tavern. The book makes it clear how powerful the father is and how he is holding back to save his son, the movies make no such concessions and Steel Dawn is no different. Tark is not the young boy's father, but he is a capable farmhand who has been in the father role for some time. He is quickly displaced by Swayze, even when he is a fairly competent defender in his own right -- he's just not a sword jedi who meditates while standing on his head like Swayze.

The film is enjoyable, though very campy, and it is largely due to Swayze's extraordinary charisma.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: Buck Rogers

Given the recent discussions of Planetary Romance, it is natural to recommend the 1979 Buck Roger's television show starring Gil Gerard. The TV series falls somewhere between Space Opera and Planetary Romance. I'll leave it for you to decide exactly where. Many of the plots in Buck Rogers are similar to PR stories, but the emphasis on space fighter battles makes a good case for Space Opera. Regardless, the show's first season had a two part storyline entitled "Planet of the Slave Girls." The episodes aired back to back, if Hulu's airing dates are to be trusted, on September 27, 1979 and Buster Crabbe (the original Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon) made a cameo appearance.

And no one would argue that Buster Crabbe, who played both Flash Gordon (a Planetary Romance classic) and Tarzan (a character created by the father of the field) doesn't belong in a discussion of the genre.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: Angel and the Badman

John Wayne didn't receive formal accolades for his acting ability until his 1970 performance as Marshall Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn. It is often argued that the reason the Oscar, and Golden Globe, was awarded is due to the fact that in playing "against type" John Wayne finally proved that he was a capable actor. Those who make this argument often point to the John Wayne film, The Shootist, as another example of how the "usually cardboard" Wayne was able to bring another powerful performance to screen.

Those who believe that John Wayne only came into "deep" acting later in his career are wearing some fairly narrow blinders and have to ignore a long list of worthy performances.

Wayne's performance in The Quiet Man is simultaneously vulnerable and powerful, passionate and reserved, melancholy and puckish. The film is a joy to watch for a wide variety of reason, but John Wayne's wonderful performance is one of those reasons.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a movie where Wayne simultaneously plays the stereotype and breaks it wide open, Wayne's performance uses the audience's knowledge of his past films to good effect. Audiences were used to seeing the tough Wayne who met challenges head on, kills the bad guy, is fawned upon by the community, and who often ended up with the girl -- a perfect example of this character is Wayne's performance in Rio Bravo or Stagecoach. But Tom Donophon, Wayne's character in Valance, only accomplishes two of these line items. Donophon does that most remarkable of things. He gives credit, and all the rewards due to the individual to whom credit is given, to another man -- a man he believes to be better than himself. The film is a perfect argument against Machiavellian style politics, and a presentation of true heroic virtue. Donophon refuses to take any credit for a heroic deed, even though it means he must live without the woman he loves. He does this because the community needs him to do it. Wayne's performance is powerful in this film, and his heartbreak is palpable.

There are several other examples in Wayne's career of great performances, The Searchers and Red River also immediately jump to mind, but one of those performances that is often overlooked is Angel and the Badman a film in which we see glimpses of the actor's potential to break free from the cardboard hero in a screenplay were the audience, like in the later Valance, can see that there is more to the Western than good guy kills bad guy.

In Angel and the Badman, we see Wayne without the scaffolding of Howard Hawks or John Ford. This time, Wayne is directed by James Edward Grant who is better known for his screenplays than his directing, and who no one would argue was an auteur. The film is a vehicle for Wayne as "John Wayne," but it ends up being much more than that.

The film's story is a simple one. Quirt Evans is a man of the West. He largely lives outside the law, taking what he wants, and living life to its hedonistic fullest. Quirt isn't a purely evil man, but he is an amoral one and his flexible morality has come into conflict with another outlaw named Laredo Stevens.

So far, the names and character types are almost caricatures from a bad dime novel. Quirt? Laredo? These aren't names of characters one expects in a film of substance. That's typically true, but Grant -- who also wrote the screenplay -- is about to take our expectations of a cardboard tale and throw it for a loop.

As might be expected, Quirt gets injured in a rundown with Laredo. Quirt's injuries are not small and he ends up demanding to be cared for by a family of Quakers named Worth. Penelope Worth (Gail Russell) -- again with those obvious names -- takes a high interest in Quirt and the two eventually develop an emotional attachment. In the end, Quirt must choose between love and violence, between living a moral life or defending those he has come to love by murdering the villain Laredo.

This would all be typical stuff, and the audience can see which way the wind is taking Wayne by the color of his hat in a given scene as it alternates between black and white, except that Grant is making a more sophisticated argument than one might initially expect -- and Wayne is able to portray the moral complexity of the character required to advance that argument. Grant doesn't merely give us a tale where pacifism equals moral virtue and violent action equals moral vice. The film is as complex as High Noon in the way it balances legitimate authority and pacifism.

The Worth family, while happy, is suffering due to their religious practices and it is only Quirt who can convince their neighbor to give them the water they need to thrive. It is the threat of implied violence that accompanies Quirt that initially changes the mind of their Scrooge like neighbor to share water with the Worth family. The neighbor shares because he is scared that Quirt will kill him if he doesn't comply. What makes the scene powerful is that Quirt went to the neighbor unarmed, and with good intentions, and that the bond of neighborly friendship is cemented by the kindness of the Worth family. There is another scene where the threat of Quirt using violence saves the lives of the family.

Grant's argument in the film seems to be that violence, and the threat of violence, isn't in itself evil, but that the application of violence is only moral when done through proper authority. There are some great parallels between this film and the earlier mentioned High Noon, of particular interest is a comparison of the endings of the two films, and both films require subtle performances from underrated actors. Wayne's portrayal of Quirt begins as you might expect a Wayne performance to play out, but as it continues and Quirt transforms from Badman to Man it is Wayne's performance that makes it work. One can see glimpses of the performances Wayne would later bring to the screen, and one also gets to see how a writer can use the clich├ęd tropes of a genre and manipulate them into a more complex tale than one usually expects.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: The Secret of NIMH

Sometimes it seems as if we've forgotten how wonderful hand drawn animation can be and the sense of marvel it can convey. Digital Animation can be, and often is, a wonderful medium in which to view stories, but there is something about hand painted cells that -- when well done -- captures the imagination in a spectacular way. Don Bluth's 1982 masterpiece, The Secret of NIMH is a film that manages to show off many of the advantages of hand drawn animation, while exhibiting few of the weaknesses. Digital animation still lacks the fluidity of well executed hand drawn animation, but that is only a matter of time.

What is special about this kind of animation is the same quality that is special about paintings in comparison to photographs. Photographs, particularly digital photographs, have a crisp quality of realism where paintings -- even spectacularly realistic paintings -- have a sense of the surreal about them. The same is true when comparing digital animation and hand drawn animation, the digital always "feels" a little more real than the hand drawn -- somehow more abstracted from reality.

Both types of animation have a well deserved place in entertainment, but sometimes we get so obsessed with the new that we forget the transformative nature of the old.

The Secret of NIMH is one of the rare movies that Jody and I own actual animation cells from and they are among our most prized possessions.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: Heavy Gear

In the spring of 1994, Dream Pod 9 released its popular Heavy Gear tactical miniatures game. The game featured a grim and gritty universe where giant humanoid shaped vehicles did battle on the battle scarred landscape of Nova Terra -- and throughout the galaxy. The game featured an easy to learn tactical game system that could be easily scaled to a companion role playing game, so players could use the same characters in both the rpg and the tactical miniatures game. The components were high quality, and the sourcebooks were -- and still are -- engaging.

Dream Pod 9, a company that started business as the creators of a licensed setting (Jovian Chronicles) for another company's role playing game (Mekton), emerged as a force of their own with the creation of Heavy Gear. Eventually, Dream Pod 9's Jovian Chronicles setting would be translated from the Mekton system into the DP9 in house Silhouette system. From small beginnings, the company became a gaming establishment whose product line diversified and whose IP became desirable commodities. Their Heavy Gear game has been licensed as video games and as an animated series. The company has also shown an ability to adapt to changing market forces and have released new editions of their game lines.

In 2001, Sony's 40 episode animated series based on the Heavy Gear IP was released worldwide -- though it seems that there was not much advertising in the American market for Heavy Gear gamers who might have wanted to watch the show. I know I certainly never saw any advertisements for the show, and I was actively looking.

The show had a similar animated style to Reboot, which should come as no surprise as both shows were produced by Canada's Mainframe Entertainment -- now Rainmaker Entertainment. Where the role playing and tactical Heavy Gear games featured a grim setting, the animated series toned down some of the darker elements and aimed a a younger audience. The gear battles at the beginning of the series take place in an arena in formalized, almost athletic, competitions. The show's tone was a far cry from the setting established in the games.

The original press release hints at what the initial concept for the show was intended to be. It appears that the initial concept was closer to the original IP than the end product. That release stated:

The animated series' storylines will focus on the soldiers who pilot the Heavy Gears combat machines, combining state-of-the-art storytelling with the fascination of heroic dogfighter pilots and the dynamics of Japanese mechanical warriors. It will also deliver a tremendously rich storyline that lies beneath the action of Heavy Gear: politics, love, religion and unexpected mysteries as well as unexpected enemies all play their part in the saga of Heavy Gear.

In the end, the show ended up focusing on a character named Marcus Steven Rover whose characterization is close to that of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films. Watch the opening episode with A New Hope in mind and you can see how being a Gear Pilot can be seen as analogous to going to the "Academy." The end product, as DP9's current site describes it is:

The Heavy Gear: the Animated Series followed the adventures of Marcus Steven Rover, a young Gear pilot just recruited into the Shadow Dragons, a special independent dueling squad of the Southern MILICIA. His team is pitted against the Vanguards of Justice, their counterparts from the Northern Guard. Both squads meet in a series of events and battles in the arena desert town of Trash City to determine who will take home the coveted Heavy Gear Championship cup and its associated glory. Major Alexander Wallis III, the leader of the Vanguards, will let his team do anything to secure a victory against the ragtag team of Southerners.

Gone are any mention of politics, love, or religion. All that remains is the quest for the cup and a battle against a team willing to cheat to win. As always, we are rooting for a "ragtag team" fighting against the odds.

Though the show abandoned a darker tone, which would have appealed more to the gamers who play the game, it is still an entertaining series. It just happens to be a series for a younger audience. One could look at it as a show you get your kids to watch to "prepare" them for shows like Robotech.