Podcast Review: The Bright Sessions

I recently discovered The Bright Sessions, a newer podcast which has quickly gained a following and for good reason – it is excellent!  But, first a digression.  I loved the first season of Heroes – a 2006 television show which is kind of infamous.  It started strong but rapidly dropped in quality to the point where I felt the final season was nigh unwatchable.  But what a first season!  I think I liked it so much because it took this group of regular people and gave them superpowers.  Some of them saw their powers as liberating, some saw them as a curse – but best of all the reactions felt realistic as they attempted to grapple with their new realities in the face of threat. download

The Bright Sessions captures that same feeling from Heroes.  The podcast is about a rather ordinary therapist with a rather unconventional set of patients – young people who have manifested powers and are attempting to cope.  Their everyday lives have been impacted by their powers and often not for the best.  The podcasts are recordings of the therapy sessions as the therapist tries to help her patients cope with their newfound abilities.  As a person who has been on the receiving end before of one of these talks, the interplay is surprisingly accurate and real.

The podcast is less than a year old and getting ready to start its third season and I’m really looking forward to it.  I don’t want to spoil the story but it is clear early in the series that not everything is as it seems and the therapist isn’t completely altruistic – she has an agenda which quickly moves these sessions to a much larger story.  The end of the second season was outstanding and I have high hopes that this podcast gets even greater exposure.

Film: Five Science Fiction and Fantasy Treasures from the 1980s

Modern science fiction and fantasy movies aren’t what they use to be.  Don’t get me wrong, there have been several good movies made in recent times but honestly, few of them are really ‘fun’.  Most seem to be weighted down with some sort of overriding message or issue, ranging from colonialism (Avatar) to ecological disaster (Interstellar).  With the glorious exception of Guardians of the Galaxy, it seems the modern stuff takes itself too seriously.

It wasn’t always so gloom and doom.  SFF films back in the early 1980s were all about the fun factor.  SFF in the late 1960s/70s were pretty serious fare.  2001, The Andromeda Strain, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers all had meaty messages and themes, many of them dystopian and paranoid, used to make the future dark and full of terrors instead of bright and hopeful.  Star Wars and the 1980s came around and the films changed back to bright, hopeful, and full of adventure.  The movies weren’t as good in the cinematic and intellectual sense, but they were the movies I watched over and over again as a kid and influence me to this day.

Here are five of my favorite movies from that era:

Krull:  I love Star Wars.  I love Conan.  Why can’t I have both at the same time?  Krull was probably the only time I remember laser beams and spaceships merged with swords and magic.  This movie shouldn’t work and I suppose if you’re a stick in the mud purist, it doesn’t – but I will always remember Colwyn and his merry band of bandits (one of them a young Liam Neeson) riding the flying horses with fire coming out of their hooves, assaulting the alien space mountain and braving laser beams until they were saved by a giant cyclops, and then killing the alien lizard king with the glaive and the fires of love.  No, I didn’t make any of that up.

 

Megaforce:  Jesus Christ, did I just see Barry Bostwick i.e. Brad from Rocky Horror Picture Show, riding a flying motorcycle while wearing a skin tight body suit and a purple headband while blowing kisses to the bald headed girl from Star Trek: The Motion Picture?  Yes.  That happened.  This is the Special Operations Force I wanted to be part of growing up and I tend to think the world would be a better place if these guys were around.  They even had their own soundtrack album from an obscure 80’s rock band.  Best line of the whole film, ‘Hey Ace!  The good guys always win – even in the 80s’.

 

Space Hunter:  Adventures in the Forbidden Zone:  This is what happened when 1980’s character actors let their hair down – also has one of the most criminally underrated moments in cinematic history, Peter Strauss giving a nasty Molly Ringwald a bath in a volcano crater.  It was like the Director told the gang, ‘Don’t worry about me, just do whatever the hell you want and have fun and I’ll film it’.  If you don’t believe me, when Peter Strauss – a galactic soldier of fortune named Wolff – gets captured by the space Amazons and they tell him, ‘Every man who has mated with us has died’.  He winks and says, ‘You know what, I’ll take that bet!’  One thing is for certain, if I ever turn into a supervillain, I am borrowing Michael Ironsides character’s name, ‘The Over-Dog’.

 

Dragon Slayer:  Probably the most mainstream of the listings here – hell it was nominated for an Academy Award for Special Effects , this movie was an obscure collaboration between Disney and Paramount pictures.  Despite  the obscurity, it is actually a pretty beloved movie by most of the big names in SFF literature and film because it featured the scariest dragon in cinematic history, Vermithrax (also a pretty bad ass name).  This dragon didn’t talk and certainly wasn’t cuddly, it was a vicious killer that ate maidens and burned people to death.  The final fight scene between the wizard and the dragon is what fantasy dreams are made.

 

Flash Gordon:  If you don’t love this movie, I don’t want to know you.  It also proves a point which should never be forgotten – no matter how ridiculous what’s happening on the screen, all will be right if Queen does the soundtrack.  Just ask the folks who did Iron Eagle.

 

I hope you enjoy these treasures.  There are plenty of good movies being made today, but none of them are like these gems.

TV Review: Preacher

I’m a Yankee and a proud Catholic but I have always been taken with Southern Church culture, particularly the Evangelical and Pentecostal variety.  I have no desire to go down their road spiritually but I find the motivations and the cadences of their services to be fascinating.  There is something gothic about it.  The clapping and the singing, the laying on of the hands and the speaking in tongues – it is primal and edgy.  I don’t mock the people who are practicing their faith but given my imagination, I find the whole affair to be tailored made for a good horror story.  I know I’m not alone in this feeling.  There is an entire genre of southern gothic horror tales with the Church and the Faithful intertwined.

Preacher, a new television show based off a popular graphic novel, captures the gothic spirit perfectly.  It is set in a small Texas town and features Jesse Custer, the former bad boy turned town preacher and now very much doubting his faith.  Very early in the first episode, he has a supernatural encounter which gives him the power to command people with his voice and this reaffirms his faith – with some pretty unpredictable consequences.

 

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Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) and Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga)

The plot line of the show is good but not amazing.  The whole first season serves as an extended preamble to the events in the comic books and having read them, I can’t wait to get on the road with the preacher.  But where the TV show succeeds is in the characters they introduced, and here they knock it out of the park to the point I don’t know where to begin.  There is a southern spitfire whose opening scene involves her biting off an attacker’s ear and blowing a helicopter out of the sky with an improvised bazooka.  There is a drunk Irish Vampire, two Angels on an unsanctioned mission, or maybe I can talk about the ‘butcher of Gettysburg’ – you’ll know him when you meet him.

Then there is the town itself which serves as a character itself.  Like all towns in these southern gothic towns, it exists in a heightened reality where everything is just a bit off-kilter and strange – and people seem to be fine with it.  It is the sort of place where people go the church and the picnic afterwards, and then go home and break all the rules often in full view of everyone else.  Where the town’s leader has some unusual tastes which he likes to indulge and everyone else has a secret.  Every frame of the show drips with menace and quirkiness.  It is incredibly atmospheric.

In the end, I recommend this show.  The story didn’t floor me but every single character did and I want to spend more time with them.  Now that they have finished season one and have gotten the preliminaries out of the way, I think this could be AMC’s breakout hit going into season two.

Video Games: Roguelike and Permadeath

If I could pick two catchphrases for popular games today it would be Roguelike and Permadeath. Rogue was an amazing game in 1980 and a pioneer of procedural generation. Each game was different and death was permanent. The object was to see how deep into the dungeon you could get and how much gold you could gather before dying. Rogue was infinitely replayable due to its random generation of maps, monsters, and loot; however, the randomness was exactly what turned me off at the time. The game was hard, but could be made easier or harder based on the items you could find before being annihilated. Death is GAME OVER, no saves to load or “Continue?” to continue playing your current game.

I have quite a few “Roguelike” games in my library which continually autosave and death is permanent, such as Darkest Dungeon and FTL. I have yet to win those two. Darkest Dungeon in particular is punishingly difficult and can lead to many rage quits if you are prone to such behavior. Though I really enjoy those games, there are two others that I would rather discuss based upon a player experience function that I hope becomes a trend.

Achievements have been a thing for a while, but other than personal pride, they amount to very little. Not so in the squad-level, turn-based, tactical RPG Mordheim: City of the Damned. In-game achievements called the Veteran System give the player experience points and skills that migrate across as many games as you wish to play. These small rewards make the game only slightly easier, but when stacked can make a huge difference. It also limits the rage quits because when your favorite Hero perishes horribly, it is easier to shrug off since you the player are earning experience points and in-game skills for the next game.

I played about 25 hours with my first warband on Mordhim. At the end, they looked horribly scarred, physically and mentally. I’d lost all my best warriors. My leader was crippled with several ailments which made her a liability, my remaining heavy hitter was struck with PTSD which immobilized her in battle, and my grunts were all suffering from amputations and other ailments. I played on though, because I continued to earn Veteran Points which I could apply to my next (and any subsequent) warband. I recently started my second warband and the difference is noticeable. The game is still very hard, but I am sticking with it because even when my warband collapses, it isn’t necessarily a final GAME OVER, but an excuse to start another warband and earn more achievements, Veteran Points, and skills.

Another very different game, but with a similar system is Thea: The Awakening.  Thea is a turn-based survival strategy RPG game where you play a fallen, powerless god overseeing the rise of your people back to their former glory. Often though, especially in the beginning, your people perish in the harsh land of Thea. At the end of each game (win, lose, or quit), the god you are playing earns experience points and levels up to a maximum of fifth level. Each level gives new perks to your people that will help them survive in future games. So, even if your settlers die horrible deaths, the gods are still earning experience points.

I like this idea of achievements actually meaning something in-game and adding a little incentive to keep playing games despite their difficulty. I imagine it is hard for game designers to achieve a good balance – keeping the game challenging, but offering small perks to help the player long term. I’d be interested to see this as a trend and would like to know if there are other games out there like these.