Friday, June 20, 2014

Cinema in the Dark: Double-Feature
Reviews by Anthony Servante

Featuring "How to Train Your Dragon 2" (2014) and "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014)

Film #1: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Director: Dean DeBlois

Cast: Jay Baruchel Hiccup, Gerard Butler Stoick, America Ferrera Astrid, Cate Blanchett Valka.

Summary: Five years have passed since Hiccup and Toothless united the dragons and Vikings of Berk. Now, they spend their time charting the island's unmapped territories. During one of their adventures, the pair discover a secret cave that houses hundreds of wild dragons -- and a mysterious dragon rider who turns out to be Hiccup's long-lost mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett) . Hiccup and Toothless then find themselves at the center of a battle to protect Berk from a power-hungry warrior named Drago.

Review: I sang the praises of "How to Train Your Dragon" (2010). Great protagonist in Hiccup and a great villain in that super dragon in the fantastic battle finale. The old cast is back, only now we have Hiccup's mother Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett) and two villains: a super dragon and a dragon "herder" for lack of a better word. In the original movie, the tension lay between father Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler) and son Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the former a warrior, the latter an inventor, but in Dragon 2, the tension has shifted to Hiccup's refusal to take over his father's role as chieftain of the tribe.

As Hiccup avoids his father by mapping the surrounding country and sea, courtesy of his flying dragon Toothless, he encounters his long lost mother, who was spirited away by dragons when he was but a wee baby in the crib. He also finds that his mother has become the Jane Goodall of dragons, so it is no surprise when we learn that Hiccup takes after his mother.

Enter the bad guys. Dragon hunters, who work for the villain Drago (voiced by Djimon Hounsou). He plans to conquer Hiccup's tribe by trapping and controlling all the village's dragons. And yes, he does have the means to control the dragons. So you thought the giant dragon in the first movie was big; wait till you see the two, yes, two, giants battling for alpha status over all the dragons. Godzilla is a Chihuahua compared to these behemoths.

So, all the ingredients are there for me to love this movie as much as the first film. What happened? For one, the supporting cast, the youngsters, were relegated to cheerleaders for Hiccup rather than fellow warriors. They were also given one too many jokes to tell the kids in the audience. Why is it that only Hiccup can grow older without acting the buffoon?! I mean, these characters have grown five years older, yet they still behave like preteens on a sugar-rush. Another thing: Valka, when we first meet her, is a kick-ass dragon rider who outmaneuvers Hiccup and Toothless. By the second half of the movie, she becomes a damsel in distress. What gives? I thought Ripley in the movie Alien (1979) left that stereotype behind; she showed women can be heroes and created the model for movie heroines to follow (including Sarah Conners from Terminator Two).  But these are minor annoyances, and most fans of the movie probably won't even notice them.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 was lots of fun, but the laughs were forced this time out. (I did like the joke about the old woman of the village surrounded by little dragons like the cat lady from The Simpsons). The action, however, makes up for the bad jokes as there are some dragon battles that alone are worth the price of admission. I gave the first film a grade of A, so I'd put an A- on the second Dragon. And with Dragon 3 on its way, I can only hope that the trilogy ends with an A+.

Film #2: Edge of Tomorrow

Director: Doug Liman

Cast: Tom Cruise Lt. Col. Bill Cage, Emily Blunt Rita Vrataski

Summary:  Lt. Col. Bill Cage is an officer who has never seen a day of combat when he is unceremoniously dropped into what amounts to a suicide mission. Killed within minutes, Cage now finds himself inexplicably thrown into a time loop - forcing him to live out the same brutal combat over and over, fighting and dying again - and again. But with each battle, Cage becomes able to engage the adversaries with increasing skill, alongside Special Forces warrior Rita Vrataski. And, as Cage and Rita take the fight to the aliens, each repeated encounter gets them one step closer to defeating the enemy.

Review: In The Outer Limits, the original series, there was an episode called "Controlled Experiment", wherein two aliens with a time machine replay a murder scene over and over trying to understand this brutal human act. It is one of my least favorite episodes. It plays the same scene so many times, in slow-motion, in fast-forward, rewind, and freeze-frame, that it becomes monotonous. The story made murder boring. Part of the problem was the technology in the 1960s was very modest and the special effects amounted to the same functions we would later have on a basic VHS player. 

Then came "Groundhog Day (1993). The Bill Murray film used the basic premise of a recurring event, only the hero, newsman Phil Conners, can alter the turnout of circumstances as the same day starts anew. This extension of the premise allowed Phil to change himself until the day was in harmony with his new character. Then a new day begins and time moves forward. 

In "Edge of Tomorrow", the repeating day premise goes way beyond Groundhog Day. Now only must Bill Cage find the perfect balance with the day's events, he must destroy an alien enemy, called mimics, that has the same power he has: They can repeat the day as well in order to anticipate their foe's strengths and plans and defeat the humans who believe this is old-fashioned warfare. Little do they realize the aliens have changed the paradigm of war and the humans are doomed to failure. Thus, when Cage acquires the aliens' ability to replay time, he becomes the humans' only hope to stop the aliens. Too bad as each day repeats itself, no one believes him.

This is where the movie picks up the pace from a Groundhog Day repetition. Cage finds a soldier (Emily Blunt) who had and lost the same power he now has, and she must help him finish what she couldn't finish: the mission to destroy the aliens at their own game. 

What we have instead of montage after montage of training are twists in the plot. Each day is like a piece in a game of chess between Cage and the mimics. The key for the alien creatures is to stop Cage, and the mission for Cage changes so many times that he realizes that this might be a game that he can't win. 

The fun aspect of the movie is that to reset the day Cage must die. Vrataski understands this and constantly kills Cage in order to advance his training. But as I said, the training isn't enough to sustain the plot. Cage must gather an army for the final invasion. The endgame is do or die. So pay attention to every detail, every character, for they'll play a role later in that endgame, a battle that is a perfect denouement for this search for the perfect day when the humans are down to one chance to win.

Edge of Tomorrow is the best movie out there this year, and I can't see any movie topping it for sheer originality and intelligence. This is not the Avengers banging you over the head with Thor's hammer. This is a film that can be added proudly to the time travel genre, but as a movie overall, I can't imagine anything coming out soon that will be half as entertaining and thought-provoking. Even if you could reset the day. 

Thank you, readers, for joining us for our double-feature. Whether you pick one or the other to watch, or both if you have the time and inclination, you will have one grand time that only the cinema darkness can deliver. See you next time. 

Off Kilter TV: Where Horror Rears Its Ugly Head on Family Television
by Anthony Servante

(Reprinted from The Black Glove Horror Ezine 9-4-2011)

When we watch family television, we have certain expectations about our favorite programs past and present: In our comedies, like I Love Lucy, we expect Lucy to get into and out of trouble and make us laugh in the process; in our supernatural shows, like X-Files, we expect other-worldly creatures, science fiction dilemmas, and unexplained phenomena. What we don’t expect is Lucy taking on monsters or Mulder and Scully stealing John Wayne’s cement footprints from the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. But sometimes a show will surprise our expectations. These unexpected TV shows are what I call Off Kilter TV. We find them on all types of TV shows, from comedy to drama to supernatural, from the Golden Age of TV to today. Every other month or so, I will present to you readers some of my favorite OKTV shows. I welcome comments and suggestions about Off Kilter shows you like as well.

In today’s column, I give you the hit western TV show "Bonanza" and an episode called "Twilight Town", Season 5, Episode 138. The first sign that this episode will be different from our usual western fare is that the story was written by Cy Chermak, who would later go on to produce "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" and write for "Star Trek: The Next Generation".

The story begins with Little Joe headed home with a large sum of money only to be bushwhacked by a highwayman who makes off with Joe’s horse and money. With a head injury Joe stumbles into the town of Martinville, a ghost town inhabited by tumbleweeds. There he collapses.

When he wakes, he is surrounded by townsfolk who are all staring at him. Next we see Joe being nursed by a young girl Louise Corman (with a nod to Roger Corman, perhaps) and her father. Joe still can’t believe these townsfolk are real and grabs Louise by the wrist. He is surprised to hold a solid wrist and releases it. Meanwhile, Mr. Corman talks to the town leaders and informs them that Joe has a gun. The others are skeptical, that a young man with a gun may not be enough.

It seems that the town leaders, in fact, the entire townsfolk, are seeking a person to replace the Sheriff, who we learn from his widow was gunned down by outlaws who will return to the town once more that very day. But not only do the residents of Martinville seek a Sheriff, they need someone who can stand up to the outlaws or they will keep returning to the town time and time again to wreak havoc.

Joe is nursed back to health and then forced to become the Sheriff. There are no horses anywhere in the town. The absence of livestock is blamed on the outlaws. Without a means to leave town, except on foot, Joe reluctantly accepts the law enforcer’s badge and confronts the outlaws, who warn that they will leave for now but when they return they will kill everyone in the town.

With the help of the men folk, Joe builds a barricade and organizes the men with weapons to fend off the outlaws. The ex-sheriff’s widow warns Joe that this isn’t the first time the townsfolk have tried to stand up to the outlaws, but when the outlaws appeared, the residents disappeared in fear, leaving the sheriff alone to face the dozen or so gunfighters and be gunned down. She also warns Joe that he isn’t the first since the death of her husband to be picked by the townsfolk to fight off the outlaws and that the townsfolk always abandon the person they pick when the outlaws arrive.

At first, the townsfolk do try to retreat, but Joe chastises them and leads them in an attack on the outlaws hiding behind some boulders. Both sides suffer losses. Joe confronts the leader of the outlaws, kills him, but is grazed by a bullet to the head and falls unconscious. His father, Ben Cartwright, and his two brothers, Adam and Hoss, revive him. They turn the dead outlaw leader over and it is the highwayman who bushwhacked Joe at the beginning of the episode. Martinville and the townsfolk have disappeared. The tumbleweeds have returned to the empty street of the town. Joe pleads with his family to believe him that he was not alone. Ben tells him that when a man knows something in his heart, he doesn’t have to convince anyone that it’s true. They ride home, but Joe takes a look back at the ghost town and sees Louise standing there emotionless and still for a second before vanishing.

Here’s why this episode is supernatural with horrific overtones in the big picture. This is basic metonymy 101, which means that by looking at a single puzzle piece, one can picture the entire puzzle. One day in Martinville for the TV viewer is the one piece to see the whole puzzle, that a gang of outlaws came to Martinville many, many years ago. They terrorized the town. The Sheriff gathered the men folk and planned to stand up to the gang. But they ran off in fear at the last second. When the outlaws arrived, the lawman faced them alone and was killed. To punish the town people for their futile attempt at defiance, the gang killed every man, then each man’s family, killing wives then children, in that order; before killing Louise, the gang leader raped her. Before the Sheriff’s wife was killed, she put a curse on the townsfolk to relive their moment of cowardice and its bloody consequences over and over again in a kind of Groundhog’s Day purgatory until a true leader came and risked his own life to turn these cowards to men. 

As Martinville became a ghost town, the townsfolk became ghosts, time shadows of that one fateful day. Men who passed by the ghost town who were capable of leading the town against the outlaws were able to see the ghosts as flesh and blood. Not one of these men survived the bullets of the phantom outlaws. Before Joe arrived, the ghosts of the residents of Martinville became flesh and blood again and again and relived this horrific day thousands and thousands of times: The rape, the murders of women and children and the deaths of the cowardly men (and also the livestock of the town). It was Joe who risked his life for them and ended their time warp in purgatory.

For Bonanza, this supernatural aspect to the episode Twilight Town is no doubt a wink to Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. Cy Chermak doesn’t need to show us the gruesome details of the massacre. They are woven in the dialogue, the unfinished sentences, and the pregnant pauses. Even though we never see kids or horses in Martinville, there are several references by both outlaw and townsfolk referring to the killing of the children and livestock. We never see the killings, but we unweave the description of the cycle of murder, death, rebirth, and so forth as we relive the last day of their curse. Behind this story of heroism lies a chilling tale of supernatural revenge. Hallucination or haunting? Clearly, Twilight Town is the latter.

Click here to watch a collage of Bonanza Twilight Town.

Off Kilter TV will see you readers soon. Don’t forget to leave the TV on before you go to sleep.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Cybernocturnalism 6.5: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Compiled and Introduced by Anthony Servante

Cybernocks: Read My Book!


Cybernocturnalism refers to the current trend of self-publishing “horror” (and other genres) in ebook form, marketing the work on social media, and creating a deluge of product whereby it is becoming harder and harder to find quality writing in a medium that requires only a modicum of attention to editing, book covers, and proofreading. In Cybernocturnalism VI: The Seeds of Horror (see adjacent article on this blog), I invited several authors who were new to the ebook market and a handful who were about to enter the market to be interviewed to gauge their expectations about becoming cyber-authors in an overcrowded market. Then I invited two published authors from the traditional paper book market to address our participants’ expectations with some “real world” advice. When the interviews went live, I left the door wide open for the participants to answer our two traditional authors’ responses.

That didn’t happen, though I give kudos to Rod Labbe for trying to carry the Comments section virtually on his own (there was one other person who tried to light the fire of commentary, to no avail). So, I decided to conduct a survey for my Friendship Circle on Facebook that would address this area of Cybernocturnalism that was not addressed sufficiently in part VI. Thus we have part 6.5.

I suppose you are wondering why I called it “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee”? Well, because many self-published writers think social media alone is enough to garner a readership for their ebook, that the sheer numbers of "friends" alone should constitute a decent amount of sales. Which is why the survey addresses these specific areas of expectations. Here is what our "friends" think by way of this survey.

A Survey for Authors and Writers

I. When you accept a new friend on Facebook (or any social media), do you expect them to:
1. Buy your books.
2. Like your page.
3. Review your books.
II. When you accept a new friend, who is also a writer, do you intend to:
1. Buy their books.
2. Like their page.
3. Review their books.
III. Is I or II most likely?
IV. If you have a thousand Facebook friends, do you believe that you should sell one thousand of your books? 500? 100? 10?
V. Do you give as much promotion to authors and writers as you expect to get for yourself from them? What's the percentage? 50-50? 10-90? 90-10? Or some other combination?

I will take serious answers and place the stats on my blog. This is Cybernocturnalism 6.5: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. Thanks for your time and participation. Try to keep the cracks to a minimum.

Note: I cut off comments to this survey as soon as the “cracks” started. By that time there was a discernible pattern to inform a thesis. Thankfully, Steven Savile, author of “Vampire Wars”, was first to pick up the gauntlet and slew the bad metaphor by answering the survey questions. Luckily, we had a very nice group of writers, established and newcomers, participate in the survey. It is an important topic and I thank each of you for your answers. Here are the responses to the survey, uncensored, uncut, and unabridged. 

The Survey Responses:

Steven Savile I: no no no. II no no no IV 1000 facebook friends might related to 2-3 avid readers, 50 casual readers who enjoyed one book, 950 people trying to sell me their books. V I try to share stuff I think might be of interest to people, and hope for the same in return.

Morgan Griffith I may not have been published enough to qualify for your survey, but personally I don't expect anything of any on my friends list. I buy books that interest me and that's how it should be for everyone. Expectations and obligations don't enter into the picture.

Eric A Shelman I would say the answer to the first question is that I "hope" they do all of the three, but realize some people friend me for other reasons, such as my music on YouTube. With regard to the second question, I do intend to, at one point, buy and read at least their most popular book to determine if their style is for me, and if I do that, I will surely review their books(s). #2 is more likely right away, because I currently write more than I read, despite my best intentions. As for #3, liking their page, of course I will do. #4: A thousand Facebook friends means nothing - I only hope for the best, I do not expect anything and don't think it does any good. It is what it is, as they say. As for the last one, 50/50 ... the authors that I promote tend to promote me right back. There are some, however, who are so excited about their own happenings, that it does not happen. That's okay ... when their sales begin to settle after an initial release, they will seek out cross-promotion strategies with other authors rather than just the one-way street.

Michael H. Hanson Survey Answers:

I. When you accept a new friend on Facebook (or any social media), do you expect them to:

1. Buy your books. - Nope

2. Like your page. - Not Necessarily

3. Review your books. - Nope

II. When you accept a new friend, who is also a writer, do you intend to:

1. Buy their books. - Not Necessarily

2. Like their page. - Yes

3. Review their books. - Not Necessarily

III. Is I or II most likely? - Not sure I understand the question

IV. If you have a thousand Facebook friends, do you believe that you should sell one thousand of your books? 500? 100? 10?

- I honestly have no expectations of selling ANY of my books to any of my FB friends. This is not cynicism. Just cold, harsh experience since I joined FB in 2009. I get wonderful feedback from lots of folks about my poetry, but have literally sold ZERO copies of my poetry books to any of them. FB is a free way to market to family, friends, and fellow writers/poets, but in the end they are not the audience we as writers and poets really need to be reaching to truly start selling our work.

V. Do you give as much promotion to authors and writers as you expect to get for yourself from them? What's the percentage? 50-50? 10-90? 90-10? Or some other combination?

- I have no expectation of any other writer promoting my work, period... with the exception of anthologies I have created... I expect the authors in the anthologies I produce to do their share of marketing. As for those few friends kind enough to "share" any of my marketing posts, I "do" make an effort to "Like" their posts and also "share" an equal number of publishing announcements they make on their pages, assuming they are also writers or poets.... so I guess the answer to this last question is that I try to give a 50-50 reciprocation to all publishing favors done for me by fellow writers/poets. How successful I truly am at that? I really don't know...

Alyn Day ^^^ Pretty much what I was going to say.

Kat Yares Answers:
I. When I accept a new friend, I expect nothing from them.
II. I will generally like their page. If they write in a genre I like, I might buy their books, depending on funds at the moment.
III. ?
IV. The number of friends I have on FB has no bearing on the number of books I expect to sell.
V. I used to promote most of my author/filmmaking friends on FB. With the last few promotions I've done - I've found only about 10 of them will help promote my work. And yes, I took names and yes, those will be the authors I promote in the future.

Rob Meyer I would prefer 3 in the first part and one in the second (with reviews for those books I like), but my most serious expectation is that the person be interesting in their posts. Better an interesting friend than a dull salesperson.

Lisa Lane I. When you accept a new friend on Facebook (or any social media), do you expect them to:

1. Buy your books.

2. Like your page.
It would be nice, but I don't expect it.

3. Review your books.

II. When you accept a new friend, who is also a writer, do you intend to:

1. Buy their books.
Only if they interest me.

2. Like their page.
If I've taken an interest in their work and/or they've liked my page.

3. Review their books.
Only if I read and enjoyed them.

III. Is I or II most likely?
I think it depends on the friend.

IV. If you have a thousand Facebook friends, do you believe that you should sell one thousand of your books? 500? 100? 10?
I can't really set a number.

V. Do you give as much promotion to authors and writers as you expect to get for yourself from them? What's the percentage? 50-50? 10-90? 90-10? Or some other combination?
I'd say 60-40. I'm pretty supportive, but I do have to believe in the author and/or book. I won't promote a book I haven't read (although I will share Amazon buys).

Todd Brown the first one I would say - I dont put any stock in receiving anything when it comes to a friend request, however, if a person likes my author page on facebook, I see them as a POTENTIAL customer.

Todd Brown 2. if a writer likes my page, I always try to reciprocate and like their author page. if they have a book that appears interesting, I will buy it. and if I buy a book, good or bad, I will leave a review.

Todd Brown 3. #2 is most likely

Todd Brown 4. I dont base my sales hopes on facebook friend numbers. people are inundated with requests through that media so I just see it as one small piece of the way to get my stuff in front of others.

Todd Brown 5. I feel that is a lopsided relationship. there are a core few that I feel do as much for me as I do for them, a few that I think do MORE for me, and a majority who are really good at taking and give nothing in return.

Chet Williamson No expectations and no obligations. I'm on Facebook for fun. I'll do a marketing post when I have a new project out, and occasionally remind people that I have books and audiobooks for sale, but generally I just post what strikes my fancy. And if Facebook friends get too "markety," I'll hide their posts.

Richard Lee Byers I don't expect anything, and I'm not disappointed if I don't get anything. But if somebody tries my stuff, I appreciate it.

Amy Frischmann I invite all to my page, I don't commercialize my products on their pages nor would I like them to do the same. I am a writer and also play games on here so if you would me like to reveiw your book or works in the making then ask, don't shove it in my face and be like if you don't read my stuff then I am unfriending you. I like what people post, I tend to like some I also comment on some. Be a friend not an ass

Lisa Tuttle I don't expect ANY of those things. I will "promote" another author only to the extent that if I've read and liked their book I might say so on FB. But I don't see social media as any sort of quid pro quo exchange, and although I kind of have to promote my own books, I keep it to a minimum, and get fed up with other writers if they are constantly banging on about their publications and encouraging you to buy them.

David Whitman I don't expect anything. I've found that FB probably isn't the best place to sell books, though I've definitely had a few sales this way. I've never asked anyone on FB to like any of my book pages.

Barbara Custer I don't want my posting or anyone else's to be a constant "buy my book buy my book." I may ask someone to "like" my page, and I would be glad to like their page, too. Mostly, though I like getting to know people and their interests.

Pam Uphoff I don't friend people, writers or not, with the expectation of them doing anything for me. I friend people with the assumption that they want to participate in the sorts of discussions they've seen me in around here or other places. I have around 600 friends, and probably sell a dozen books from facebook mentions.

John Peet With all these no's I would not know any of you write nor would I have the chance to check anything out that you all have worked on?? Most books I buy are from people I find on facebook. I get the e-books but still seems like a lot of negativity in regards to the question. I find bands this way too. I like finding new things to read and new music to listen to but if you don't tell me what you do or share a page with me I would never be the wiser to ask "hi are you a writer or a band" that would be an automatic delete if I kept posting that on peoples pages lol…

Pam Uphoff I talk about my stuff all the time. But I don't expect my friends to advertise for me. I can be annoying and rude all by myself, and then the blame goes where it ought. Like this: in the middle of someone's thread.

Addendum courtesy of Tony Tremblay  from his 6-18-14 post on Facebook: 

"If EVERY post you make is only about YOUR:
1) Book
2) Short stories
3) How many words you wrote today
4) Some review you got
5) An acceptance
6) How you came up with a brilliant idea about your WIP last night

...then people like me are going to start to pass over your postings. I understand your need to promote and market, but if you are a fledgling or unknown writer to me, the only way I am going to take the extra effort to notice your book is if I know a little something about YOU! We don't have to be best friends, and I don't have to know all your most personal details or dirty little secrets (in fact, I prefer it if I don't). But I do want to know who your influences are, Do you read a lot? Do you have a sense of humor? Can I relate to you on any level other than someone who's trying to sell me a book! I don't have to agree with you on any subject or all of them, I just want to know if you are an interesting person, if you are, you just might be an interesting author to me also.

Anyway, after seeing three posts this morning from authors who ONLY write about what I've posted above, I just wanted to vent."

Thanks, Tony. Very apropos. 

Now we've heard what our "friends" think of the marketing of ebooks from their own lips (as opposed from someone else's lips, I suppose), but it was what we needed to hear. The commonality seems to be people do not join Facebook to find something to read and would rather not be marketed to. But Facebook makes for such a nice Swap Meet atmosphere that it's hard to resist the urge to push one's ebook. Mostly, that is frowned upon.

Anyway, I ended the survey with Pam’s sardonic yet gritty example of the lengths Cybernocks go through to place their ebook ad on a Facebook friend’s timeline or, in this case, survey. And yes I let her ad remain in the thread, but only allow the link here because if I post a picture of her book, then everyone will want their ebook cover posted as well. You see, that's the point. Every ebook author =does= want their ebook publicized on Facebook, blogs, Goodreads, and so on. Any publicity is good publicity, even sardonic links. 

Because the internet has no limit to occupants, as in a restaurant seating area, the deluge of ebooks has bloated the market even though the seams continue to stretch to accommodate even more new e-authors everyday. When will the seams burst? Probably never. But that does not bode well for ebook authors who have stories that are competitive with the traditionally published paper books. David Moody, author of the ebook “Haters”, was the exception. He was found at the cusp of the Cybernock expansion. But now it may be too late for the other talent that is in that great avalanche of ebooks. So, newcomers, wake up and smell the coffee. It’s a whole new market, and the avalanche has only begun.

Honestly, however: Good luck, one and all.