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Entries in dick cheney (125)

Monday
Feb012016

In Which We Never Thought Beowulf Would Return To Be Consumed By Us Again

Forget Dorne

by DICK CHENEY

Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands
creators James Dormer, Tim Haines & Katie Newman

Would you possibly be interested in hearing about a show that is exactly like Game of Thrones except actually good? Life is filled with imitations better than the real thing. Bernie Sanders is like Jimmy Carter except with an IQ soaring north of 100; Marco Rubio reminds me of a Mirror Universe Scarface and Angelina Jolie is a more incestuous and sexually adventurous Jane Fonda.

In a bizarre move, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands thefts Game of Thrones' theme song wholesale. It is very, very important that you are reminded that this is GoT except Lynne will not have to spend half the episode pausing the DVR and asking me if Ser Jorah Mormont is illiterate. "No," I scream, "that is the sea captain that Stannis Baratheon uses as his consigliere. Now get me some fucking canteloupe!"

Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands makes Game of Thrones seem completely low rent in comparison. For some reason HBO has never been keen on spending money on their signature series. The special effects budget is limited to about 30 seconds of CGI per episode and the sets are starting to look like the same castle. The direwolves have basically been written out of the plot entirely, and the dragons have had about twenty minutes of total screen time in the entire run.

In contrast, the special effects in Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands are eyepopping and the art design of the so-called mudborn puts the lame fantasy tropes of GRRM's series to shame. Esquire network is bringing this British series from broadcaster ITV to America, and thank God for that.

Superior production is not the only advantage Beowulf has over its predecessor. It helps Beowulf tremendously that it does not fall into the trap of making a swords and sorcery setting a whitewashing. There are people of all shapes, sizes and colors in Beowulf's hometown.

The entire cast is fantastic. Beowulf was a really boring poem, so James Dormer constructs a rather loose adaptation. Most interesting is the relationship between Beowulf (Kieran Bew) and his half-brother Slean (Edward Speelers). Bew's wig is kinda distracting (if that is real hair, I shudder) but he makes a terrific Beowulf, the sort of man who is alternately naive and adept at the same time.

Beowulf returns to the Shieldlands after learning of his father Hrothgar's death. We know nothing of his mother yet, but his father's wife resented having Beowulf at court so he was sent away from home when he was merely a boy. Within the first moments of his return, Beowulf is framed for a murder and sentenced to execution.

Beowulf's best friend Breca (Gísli Örn Garðarsson) is the only person who cares enough to help him. After flirting with her smith daughter Vishka (Ellora Torchia), Breca marries a lovely woman named Lila (Lolita Chakrabarti) during a drunken evening of debauchery. It is an astoundingly simple subplot, but like much of what happens on Beowulf, it feels original and sensitive. Every single action has a consequence on Beowulf, and unlike Game of Thrones, that result need not always be death.

Beowulf is a decently fun hero, but the show would feel insubstantial without the presence of the ethereally talented Joanne Whalley, who plays Rheda, the wife of Hrothgar (William Hurt). Hurt only gets scenes in flashbacks, but we do not really miss him since it is a lot more fun to see Whalley stumble and get up from adversity as a female yarl ruling a council of male-focused tribes. Eliot Cowan is stupendous as her main political adversary, as both seem to be attempting to one up each other simply by the breadth of their costumes.

James Dormer's writing for all these wildly diverse characters is just as it should be. In a large cast it is supremely important that actors do not sound and talk alike, a distinction David Benioff seems to have forgotten while he was trying to coax GRRM to finish the next volume before Peter Dinklage drinks himself to death. Dormer excels at giving his actors physical, nonverbal moments: we watch them move and sway, sit in repose or at making or working. This is as much an aspect of who they are as what they say and do.

This is the best version of Beowulf ever done, but it is not really just Beowulf. Dormer draws from the influences of classical Greeks and Romans as much as from the epic poem. In truth, dragons are the last thing we want to see in this story, since the magnificently humanoid creatures of Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands offer mysteries beyond those available to a woman who birthed them out of a mysterious egg after Jason Momoa ended her period.

Revenge, hatred and violence is what drives most of Martin's characters, but Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands proves there are far more compelling motivations. It is sedutively simple for us to know the mind of a man who kills his father on the toilet, but why Beowulf should love his father and yet be twisted by the lack of public acknowledgement as his son makes for a deeper story. Dormer is reminding us that characters have a drive, but human beings can be many things at once.

NB: A lot of you have been asking me my predictions for Iowa. A Donald Trump-Bernie Sanders contest will ensure that old white men are the dominant ruling species for all time. I'm starting to miss President Obama already.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

"You're So Good To Me" - M. Ward (mp3)

"Temptation" - M. Ward (mp3)

Monday
Jan112016

In Which The Shannara Chronicles Remains Rather Cynical

Elf Stone

by DICK CHENEY

The Shannara Chronicles
creators Alfred Gough & Miles Millar

The last time I watched MTV the entire channel was reruns of Beavis & Butthead that I had already seen and repeated, unending loops of "California Love." Christ that song was bad. MTV has always been very literal, since their messaging is cynical, as is all marketing directed at children. 

Enter their new original series, The Shannara Chronicles. This fantasy outing features a young princess Amberle (Poppy Drayton) who has to enter a tree in order to claim the bloodseed, which she has to deliver to some safe place in order to regrow the phallic trunk. The seed itself resembles congealed semen, and one of the other characters might as well have cracked, "I hope it is not that time of the month." Terry Brooks penned the books this show is based on, and to say he was averse to overt sexual metaphor would be a lie.

While she is inside the tree, Amberle hallucinates fighting off a bunch of men. They try to kill and rape her, but she does them in with a sword. It is at that point when they win her respect, and she is allowed to carry their semen off with her. She tells one of the men, "I never loved you," since he looks like her old boyfriend, who died recently. Poppy Drayton's nostrils are massive, and as an actress, her greatest strength is looking somewhat surprised by every single thing that happens to her, e.g. this face:

Attempting to salvage the hot disaster that is roughly all of this is James Remar, who plays a misogynist thief named Cephalo. He has a slave named Eretria (Ivana Baquero of Pan's Labyrinth) who is unfortunately so gorgeous and talented that she outshines the princess who is supposed to be the main draw in The Shannara Chronicles. A supporting actress should never make a lead actress look plain. 

Since the relationship between master and hot slave is the only interesting aspect of The Shannara Chronicles, instead we are forced to witness scene after scene with Wil (Austin Butler) a farm elf who can use magic stones in lieu of any actual intelligence or ability. Butler at least is trying to be decent in this thankless role of a blond goofball who is the center of events for zero reason, but his straight man with a bad name Allanon (Manu Bennett) looks like he just stepped off the set of a porno. 

Bennett plays a druid who is over a hundred years old. He cannot act like at all, and he gets most of the painful screentime here. The original novel was an attempt to rewrite LOTR with an actual story and characters. The Shannara Chronicles is a lot better than watching Peter Jackson's odious movies, but that that is not saying much. Brooks does manage a few interesting — if familiar — twists with the lame fantasy conceits Tolkien relied on: Shannara is set on a dying Earth with a capital E, and bloodlines explain the genomic split between humanity and its sister species. 

The chief problem with The Shannara Chronicles is that they are entirely humorless. This is no fault of the original material, but more the wonky adaptation. Millar and Gough, in all of their television output, are incapable of putting any jokes into their writing. At least Tolkien conceived of some crude comic relief since he knew on some level he was a shit writer. The Shannara Chronicles has some lame banter about its characters staring at each other's naked bodies, but even the sex is glossed over. Did Gough and Millar never see Undressed?

Shannara actually features a decent, if relatively mundane plot. Normally, a drama without humor would be perfectly acceptable on its own. But fantasy by its exaggerated nature relies so much on the existence of comedy to make the fantastic something outside our own experience. There is no wonder in this deformed America; even the most massive cavern or lookout is reacted to to as if were grudgingly familiar. The show's first sequence features a decimated Space Needle, soon relegated to a mere memory like every other gorgeous visual the show's stellar art design provides. 

John Rhys-Davis portrays the elf king Eventine. His scenes with his disbelieving, power-hungry son Arion (Daniel McPherson) are great fun, since they feature an actual conflict and the motivations are easily understandable. McPherson is one of the best discoveries in The Shannara Chronicles, since the show badly needs an antagonist other than the whining demon (Jed Brophy) who spends most of his time swirling around a gray and listless netherworld. Such scenes are too close to Peter Jackson's movies to be called tribute.

For what I assume are budgetary reasons, the production values here seem much higher than on Miller and Gough's AMC show, Into the Badlands, which recently concluded its first season with a finale so effortlessly dull I am shocked anyone lasted so long to see it. The Shannara Chronicles has a much brighter future, but like the other show, it may not actually be edgy enough to keep the attention of those accustomed to the heightened violence that Netflix series and adult movies can allow for. The Shannara Chronicles is for kids, and it shows.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

"The Cabin" - Bear McCreary (mp3)


Friday
Dec182015

In Which The Devil Remained Somewhat In The Details

The Last, Charles Dance

by DICK CHENEY

Childhood's End
creator Matthew Graham

The Expanse
creators Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby

Arthur C. Clarke was not much of a writer. His first novel, Childhood's End, was not among his best, either. It's about some aliens who come to Earth in disguise, and then reveal that they actually look like demons. Everyone is fine with this; no one even considers it much of a coincidence that the aliens look exactly like something from Christian myth. There is no evidence of Christianity at all in Childhood's End, I think a person may have been in a church once but it was very subtle.

The Syfy network has been run by people who know nothing about science fiction for quite awhile now. Their original programming has largely been focused on space operas and the eye for adaptations on display is mediocre at best. They took to series The Expanse, based on the novel by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, Leviathan Wakes. The resulting show is completely unwatchable, which should be no surprise given how tragically bad the source material was.

If something is a bad, implausible story, but it is a realistic tale, no one is interested in it. Bad science fiction can appropriate elements of good science fiction quite easily. Childhood's End is a pastiche of several literary cliches mishmashed into nothing. To be fair to Arthur C. Clarke, the concept that the aliens looked like Christian demons is quite entertaining, and it's fun to see Twyin Lannister dressed up like this: 

Unfortunately, that's all the aliens do in Childhood's End, stand still and clomp around slightly on their hooves. Matthew Graham actually does a decent job adapting the story. In short, the aliens arrive and create a utopia for mankind. No one is really bothered by this until a bunch of children display telekenetic powers and become an extension of the master the aliens serve, which is a kind of god called the Overmind.

The only person the aliens talk to at first is Ricky (Mike Vogel) who is an American farmer. The aliens also only speak English, even when they broadcast their voices to the entire world, which seems like a fairly bizarre faux pas. They eventually reveal they are the midwives to the Overmind, and that Earth is not long for this universe.

The scientific community gives up since they all just want to frolic and be stress-free. No new discoveries appear. The one holdout is Milo Rodericks (Osy Ikhile). I'm fairly sure no one has ever been named Milo Rodericks. Ikhile does his best with the material he is given, and he is the only positive thing to come out of Childhood's End. The other main performer, Mike Vogel (Under the Dome), is one of the worst on television, and was clearly only selected because of his Filene's Basement version of Ryan Gosling looks.

A lot of very poignant music plays as the Overmind destroys Earth and all the people on it. I guess it is supposed to be sad, although there is a lot of whining along the way. You keep expecting someone to fight back, but they are mostly accepting of their fate. Even though we have several viable ways to evacuate Earth (see Neal Stephenson's Seveneves), no one bothers to even attempt it. Childhood's End makes for a very boring three-part miniseries, although I did like Charles Dance's costume and makeup.

I mean, Childhood's End was utterly boring to watch for the most part, and quite depressing as well. I liked the idea of going for a downer ending, but since humanity was never even given the slightest bit of hope, it did not really seem justified. There is no story of any consequence in Childhood's End, it is more of just a concept written on a napkin and stretched out for hours and hours.

I have to give credit to Matthew Graham though. The writing was not terrible and the production values were well-above the tragic shit that usually passes for sets and costumes on the complete mess of a channel that is the Syfy network.

You know, I actually love science fiction, but not like this. I mean, maybe look into some actual books by people who can write: Greg Egan, Vernor Vinge, Stephenson, Linda Nagata, M. John Harrison, Jack McDevitt, Robert Charles Wilson. This brings me to The Expanse, which is probably the ugliest show ever to appear on television. This has to be the worst lighting ever done in any cinematic medium — half the scenes you cannot actually see who is who.

The casting is all over the place. The novel The Expanse is based on made Jim Holden's first love interest an African woman, so the genuises behind this show decided to recast her as a hot blonde, which is completely disgusting. Steven Strait (Magic City) plays Holden, which is weird because he comes off as a sleazy douchebag and Holden is actually supposed to be quite ethical.

Continuing the parade of some of the worst actors on television is the hammy, outsized performance of Shohreh Aghdashloo, whose overwrought accent and grandstanding completely overpowers the grumbling of Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane).

Let's get to the plot, where The Expanse really does not shine. In brief, the novel is about a virus called a protomolecule that infects a ship and eventually becomes a threat to Earth. You will be shocked to learn that this protomolecule turns people into zombies. Thomas Jane has this look throughout like, why am I on this fucking show? The dialogue is wretched, the performances are actually worse.

You know, I'm sorry to be negative, but Syfy needs a new direction, and adapting mediocre novels is not it. There are some great things on television. Eva Longoria's new show wasn't that bad, although I find it a bit sexist. Fargo was fantastic. I'm trying to think of something else, but I'm drawing a blank. Jessica Jones became kind of boring after awhile. The Last Man On Earth had a great finale. That new show with Jennifer Lopez looks decent.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

"Ocean of Tears" - Monica (mp3)