“Catching Fire” Takes the Hunger Games Franchise to a New Level

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The movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s Young Adult novel, “The Hunger Games,” was justifiably popular. It told the story of Katniss Everdeen, a strong and relatable teenage girl who lives in the dystopian future nation “Panem.”

The premise was original and exciting: every year two children are chosen from each part of the country to compete in the annual Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death with only one victor. The games are a way for the government, called “The Capitol,” to keep the country’s residents in line, 75 years after they rebelled.

With the scene already set and the characters introduced, director Francis Lawrence (no relations to the actress) is free to amp up all the elements involved to create a spectacular motion picture, catching fire like the character of Katniss. Unexpectedly, he also chooses to highlight the political subtext of the story: the haves versus the have-nots, abuse of authority, our culture’s obsession with celebrity, and the distractions of fashion and the media.

Even viewers who haven’t seen the first movie can pick up and enjoy the story in this second movie, in part because of the storytelling skill of the director and screenplay writers. The film is shot in a wonderfully visual narrative language with beautiful cinematography which serves to cut extraneous and clunky exposition and heighten the viewer’s involvement.

The characters and story are also taken to a new level, as the victors from previous years’ games are forced to participate in yet another televised competition to the death, a “quarter quell.” Having believed their lives were now safe and secure, the previous winners – including Katniss and ally Peeta – are furious and resentful at having to fight for their lives once again. Katniss is intensely troubled by her memories of killing other contestants, and neither she nor Peeta are willing to stick to the scripts dictated to them by the Machiavellian President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) government when on their “Victory Tour.” Instead their basic humanity unwittingly serves to stir the citizens to rebellion.

The stakes are higher than in the first movie. Not only do Peeta and Katniss have to battle deadly previous victors, but if they don’t behave as expected, President Snow promises that their families will suffer. The frivolous and decadent ruling class in the Capitol is vibrantly brought to life in a way that outshines their depiction in the previous movie, and does justice to the novels. Everything is more colorful and outrageous, from the outfits of callow contestant-handler Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) to the spectacles designed to show off the contestants to the crowds.

The scene in which the combatants are reintroduced to the Capitol is especially outstanding, as they ride in Romanesque horse-drawn chariots around a huge circular arena to a cheering audience. Many small touches add to the Roman theme of the event, such as the make up Katniss wears, which recalls Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.

At this point, more of the story’s underlying themes start to rise to the surface, as comparisons to the Roman Circuses are inevitable. Roman death matches have come back in style. Panam starts to resonate more like Pan America, as the societal structure of the “haves” in the Capitol living off of the “have nots” in the districts. The drawn out US economic downturn the US gives this analogy a certain energy. The characters themselves make the connection more explicitly, as mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) reminds Katniss that her real enemies are not her fellow contestants, but the government who creates the games.

The games themselves are heightened as well. The game arena is enormous and complex, with even the weather completely controlled by the game master, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Many of the arena scenes were shot in Hawaii, and the natural splendor of the location sets off the poverty of the poor districts well, and makes the jungle aspects of the games more realistic. Both the special effects and fight scenes are vivid and exciting, and serve the interest of the story, involving the viewer more deeply.

The script for “Catching Fire” seems tighter and more focused than the one for “The Hunger Games,” despite the 2 hour and 27 minute running time. We can thank Oscar-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”) – credited as Michael deBruyn – for less exposition and more suspense and character development.

Katherine Lawrence is now a more assured actress, and her portrayal of Katniss is more in line with the novels than in the first movie. She is emotionally wrenching when the scene calls for it, and displays an admirable lack of vanity when her character is in distress. Other Academy Award winning actors, which fill out the cast in smaller roles, adds to the quality of the film. The movie was partially shot in IMAX, and the format is used in service to the story, rather than as a distraction or a gimmick.

The success of the first movie has given the makers of the second movie the luxury of higher goals, a higher budget, and more lee-way to focus on character development and interaction. Director Lawrence makes great use of them and the audience becomes more emotionally involved. Usually audiences are left dissatisfied when the second movie of a trilogy ends abruptly, but Catching Fire’s ending left the viewers energized and wanting more.

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Essay: Star Trek Technology for Your Appliances

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On “Star Trek,” Star Fleet officers analyzed problems both medical and technological by scanning with a small, hand held device. The device either gave them the information they needed directly, or connected them to the ship’s computer.  While the science of “scanning” remains a little vague, you yourself can now diagnose problems in your household appliances using a small, hand held device almost everyone owns: your phone.

In the last year, Sears’ house brand, Kenmore Elite, has come out with a line of washers and dryers which have a feature called “Kenmore Connect.” This feature enables the appliance owner to have possible problems diagnosed in real time using just a phone. The owner simply calls the Kenmore number, and is led by voice prompts to a specialist who walks him or her through the diagnostic process.

Essentially, the owner holds the mouthpiece of the phone over the appliance power button, presses and hold the appropriate button (“Wash/Rinse” for washers and “Temp” for dryers), then listens for 3 beeps to indicate the appliance is in contact with the computer on the other side of the phone line. At that point, he or she releases the buttons and holds the phone in place until the process is done. Upon completion, the Kenmore specialist can use the diagnostic data provided to suggest solutions, including giving the owner better operating instructions or sending the information on to the in-home service technician to prepare for a home visit.

Extensive field testing of the feature, which is free of charge, actually showed a significant reduction in the need for at-home visits from a repairman. What’s next in futuristic gadgetry for the home? Kenmore hopes to include the Connect feature in its ovens, and Samsung is already selling refrigerators with Wi-Fi in them. They promise having recipe website, Epicurious, right next to the ice and water dispenser will make dinner a little easier for everyone. Sadly, there’s no sign of everyone’s favorite, the transporter, in sight.

Essay: What’s Up with the Twilight Phenomenon?

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I’m 43 years old, and I love vampires. I have always loved vampires.

When I was a child, I used to watch Hammer horror movies with my parents, and ask them why everyone hated the vampire. Admittedly, I was a strange child (as I am a strange adult), but I think the reason I rooted for the vampire was because I “got” the connection between sex and death that the vampire represents. Okay, at that age, it was love, not sex, but the connection between death and “sexual love” (if you will) still applies.

For me, the vampire was a far more compelling love interest than some callow young man who just wanted to marry the heroine and give her babies like everybody else. The vampire needed his paramour as much as life itself, and their love would last for centuries. Talk about romantic!

I read a review of Stephanie Meyer’s novel, “Twilight,” in Entertainment Weekly by one of my favorite writers, Stephen King. He said he could understand the appeal of the subject matter – chaste love for young teens – but he didn’t think Meyer could write. With all due love and respect, I think “Uncle Stevie” missed the boat on this one. That’s okay. Uncle Stevie (as he refers to himself when he address us, the “Constant Reader”) has written some damn good stuff about vampires, in “‘Salem’s Lot,” for example, and in the Dark Tower series.

The vampire is a very rich, fertile source of inspiration and association (especially for something that’s undead) for artists of all stripes. King himself is a very good writer, and his thematic exploration of how vampires prey on the living, especially their own living families, is darkly magical and unsettling.

I think, however, that for Uncle Stevie, vampires don’t resonate sexually, and for me they do. A vampire is like the hero in a Gothic novel: you’re not sure if he wants to rape the heroine, kill her, eat her, or all three, in no particular order.

Vampires conjure up almost Jungian associations of breast feeding: the simple, but all-consuming experience we assume newborn babies have when they suckle: the largely benevolent — but scarily omnipotent — power of the mother and the mother’s breast to feed and comfort or to withhold food and comfort, and the possibility of suffocation under the breasts of that much-larger body.

The unself-consciousness of nursing can become emotionally entangled later in life with the unself-consciousness of orgasm; the nurture from a mother’s breast can remind you of a lover’s emotional nurturing, and the sucking for dear life itself. . . best to leave that to your own imagination for now.

I have only read the first novel of Stephanie Meyers’s series, but I would venture to guess that she “gets” it. When I was a teenager — before I was sexually active — the light touch of a boy’s fingers running up and down my inner forearms would make me dreamy and aroused for days. My body felt exquisitely sensitive, which is how “Twilight’s” female protagonist, Bella, feels after the lightest physical contact with Edward, the vampire with whom she falls in love.

The setting of the book is high school, and the wish-fulfillment of “Bella the outcast” becoming “Bella the girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful and popular” will surely appeal to most teenage girls. Many teenagers will also understand the connection between sex and death on a subconscious basis in the age of AIDS, Hep C and the still scary specter of teenage pregnancy. Even if we take the attraction of those elements as a given, however, there’s a whole other level of depth to the novel that may not be apparent to the casual reader.

I am one of many people around the world who finds the imagery of dominance and submission to be arousing. The typical feminist explanation of a woman’s rape fantasy is that the woman controls the fantasy, so everything that happens to her in the fantasy is of her own choosing, and that the lack of consent frees her from responsibility for her own immoral sexual desire so she can enjoy the fantasy sex without guilt.

Additionally, I find the idea of someone wanting me so much that he has to take me against my will (in exactly the way I want him to, of course) to be very hot. Just for the record, fantasy rape and real rape do not exist in the same universe, and that when a potential sexual partner says no, they really mean it (unless you are playing with safe words, which is a whole different blog entry).

Reading through “Twilight,” I could not help but notice that Edward’s relationship with Bella is often one of loving dominance. He commands her. He compels her. She does what he tells her to against her own judgement because she trusts him. He is as obsessed with her as she is with him, but he’s afraid of losing control because he is just that attracted to her. In addition, she is the only woman who has ever inspired those feelings in him. Pretty heady stuff.

Just when I was starting to find the love story just a tad sedate, however, a threat was introduced that threw all of the qualities of vampire / victim love and dominance dynamics into sharp relief. I’m not going to tell you what it was, in case you haven’t read the book yourself, but having two crazy sexy guys willing to fight to the death to possess you isn’t the worst predicament you could find yourself in, even if at least one of them does want to kill you.

No, “Twilight” has not taken over my life, nor have I bought any fan paraphernalia. However, I have signed up to read the next book in the “Twilight” series at the library, and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. It’s not the next coming, but it is pretty entertaining, and in today’s world, you could do a lot worse.

Themes in the Film “Pitch Black”

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“Though mentioned often in the script, the creatures in “Pitch Black” are seldom seen at length; rather, they are glimpsed, they are heard, they are felt. They are, really, the embodiment of your nocturnal fears: a howling coyote that jars you awake; the painting on the wall that comes to life when stared at too long. . . the sway of your bed just before the earthquake hits. Chimera of the night. The point is made so the reader appreciates that the focus of the finished film will not be on what the creatures do, but on what the creatures do to reveal the inner nature of the characters. For “Pitch Black” is, at its heart, a story of humanity and courage and lack of the same.”

– David Twohy, 1st draft script

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In his science fiction/horror movie, “Pitch Black,” director David Twohy examines the difference between characters who are willing to see what’s around them, and those who are not.

We begin with Richard B. Riddick, locked in his cryochamber aboard the Hunter-Gratzner, an interstellar passenger ship. Until just recently, he had been imprisoned below ground in Slam City. Now he wants his freedom regardless of the cost — to himself or to anybody else.

Riddick’s way of coping with almost any situation is to learn more about it and figure out how it works. Thus he is always striving to see better, further, deeper. When he was sent to Slam City and told he would never see daylight again, he adapted by getting a surgical shine put on his eyes so that he could see in the constant darkness of prison. He also stifled all of his better instincts and became a remorseless killer in order to survive.

Having survived prison, however, Riddick is now in poor shape to deal with the regular world. Outside the darkness of Slam, Riddick’s eyes are blinded by light of any kind, and they are the chink in his armor when it comes to fighting. If his opponent can manage to rip off Riddick’s protective goggles, he becomes almost defenseless. Similarly, the selfish survival instincts that Riddick developed in prison make him an outcast in regular human society. He can adapt to the light by wearing goggles, but he doesn’t know if he will be able to adapt to living in civilized society again. He remains isolated from the other characters because they are unable to perceive his perspective, i.e., see the way he can. This is only a symbol, however, of the fact that no one can understand him or see his point of view.

Riddick’s jailer Johns, on the other hand, doesn’t really want to see the unpleasant reality, so he doesn’t really look. In fact, he’d prefer a little filter between himself and the world, so he shoots morphine right into his eyeball every day. He seems to suffer selective blindness throughout the movie as well, such as when he is unable to find Riddick using his telescope; when Riddick hides above him in the huge animal skeleton, and when Riddick is standing 5 feet away from him in the animal’s ribcage cutting Fry’s hair. The main thing Riddick and Johns have in common at this point in the movie is that they are each concealing their true nature, which will be revealed to the viewer as the plot progresses.

In the beginning of the movie, Riddick is blindfolded in a cryo-sleep chamber. Even without sight, he continues to decipher what he can about his environment by smelling and listening. After the crash, when he is hand-cuffed to a column, he can see through a small tear in his blindfold just enough to figure out how to escape. He tries to encourage the others to pay more attention to their situation as well, such as when the crash survivors are unable to locate Zeke’s body in the cave, and Riddick tells Fry to “Look deeper,” which could easily be his life’s motto. Riddick is also able to see someone’s true nature better than most other people as well. He has to prompt Fry to try to see through the image Johns likes to present to the rest of the party of being a heroic marshal. Riddick is also the one who discovers that “Jack” is really a girl and that she’s being stalked by the aliens because they can smell her menstrual blood.

Likewise, Riddick is the person who makes everyone else see that the geologists that settled on the planet before were killed by the aliens, when everyone else would prefer to believe they were taken off-planet by a big drop ship. He is also the first one to see that not everyone is going to make it off of the planet alive.

Riddick doesn’t tell everybody everything he knows, however. He knows that sometimes it is better for your state of mind NOT to be able to see what’s happening. He doesn’t tell everyone they can’t make it back to the skiff, even though he knows they can’t. When Paris and Johns are being slaughtered by the aliens in the darkness, Riddick is the only one who is able to witness their deaths. He doesn’t torment the others with the details of their deaths, even when Fry asks him about it. Later, when they are running the gauntlet of the bone yard and the aliens’ blood is dripping down on them from above, he tells Fry not to look. He knows that seeing the way the aliens are attacking each other will only make her more afraid, and he’s proven right when she looks up anyway.

It is Riddick’s ability to see from someone else’s perspective — that of the aliens who see in the dark — that enables some of the characters to survive. Riddick doesn’t see exactly the same way that the aliens do (through echo-location), but he can use the way he sees to deduce how they must see. His ability to put himself in the aliens’ place is what enables Riddick to formulate his plan to get the others to safety. It also helps him survive a personal close encounter because he was able to intuit that the aliens have a “blind spot.” Riddick is also the only one who notices that the aliens track their prey from blood. Everyone else is unable to see enough to make sense out of what is happening because they are so terrified. Paris, for example, freaks out and crawls into the darkness alone even though he *knows* his only protection against the aliens is the light.

Ironically, none of the characters are able to see Riddick the way he really is at the beginning of the movie; they just take Johns’ word for it that he’s a vicious killer. Similarly, Riddick also seems strangely invisible in several places in the movie, even when he’s not trying to hide, such as when no one sees him sitting in Paris’ chair under the unbrella with his feet propped up after he’s first escaped.

Jack admires and emulates Riddick’s unique perspective and abilities by wearing makeshift goggles and shaving her head to look more like Riddick. She also asks Riddick how she can get eyes like his. Maybe the reason Jack identifies so strongly with Riddick is that she knows how it feels to be imprisoned, since she had to be cut out of her cryosleep chamber where she was trapped after the crash. Perhaps she knows how important it can be to put up a false front for self-defense, since she herself is presenting as male.

Riddick, in turn, encourages Jack to look at things for herself, as he points out a bone ribcage that lurks dangerously over head rather than simply telling her to duck. Later, Riddick tells Jack not to cry for Johns, because Riddick knows what Jack does not, that Johns wanted to kill her. Once again, Riddick knows that seeing too much can be painful, literally, and that Jack doesn’t need to know.

Fry also wants to see, even if what she is looking for is hidden, and finding it is unpleasant. Immediately after the crash, she digs through the ship debris looking for her navigator, Owens, who is buried under the rubble. Soon after, she bravely approaches Riddick and asks to see his eyes when he tells her what happened to Zeke. She is the one who “looks deeper” into the cavern and finds what’s left of his body. She is the first to see the eclipse coming after she looks at the solar system model in the old settlement.

Carolyn Fry is driven to look even when what she sees may hurt her, as when she tries to see the aliens killing Paris and then Johns. In the run through the gauntlet to the skiff, she also cannot help herself and looks up at the aliens killing each other overhead, although Riddick has already warned her not to look. She is also the character who has seen Riddick’s humanity by the end of the film, when no one else really has.

An eye motif is used continually throughout the movie, probably to subconsciously make the viewer think about seeing and perspective. Paris’s glasses get cracked in the crash, which reflects the fact that his character doesn’t have any accurate perspective at all. This is echoed when Riddick finds the broken glasses in the sand at the settlement, and deduces that people don’t evacuate without their eyeglasses. Paris also asks later (somewhat foolishly), “What are my eyes seeing?” when the eclipse occurs. We first see water on the planet as a huge drop next to an extreme close up of the Muslim boy’s eye. The director also uses extreme eye close ups in point/counterpoint to suggest tension between characters.

The film’s focus on seeing is also developed through its cinematography. During the opening crash sequence, some of the shots are distorted, tinted, and/or reversed to demonstrate the chaos of the ship’s crash, suggesting the confused viewpoint of one of the characters. Likewise, the footage on the planet’s surface looks overdeveloped and washed out, suggesting heat and bright light. The exterior shots are also tinted to indicate the different colored suns, which further suggest multiple ways of seeing the same situation. Often during a scene, the camera pulls back to a wide shot of the group — frequently from overhead — when the action gets confusing, in order to give the viewer some perspective.

The desire to look is one of the things that brings Fry and Riddick together, and wedges Johns apart from them. Johns would rather not see things he doesn’t like, and would rather someone else do the looking for him. Thus when he drops a flare into the coring tunnel at the settlement, Riddick pops up between Johns and the camera, showing that Riddick goes down to get a better look, while Johns stays up top, trying not to see too much.

At another point, Johns asks Riddick to look ahead for him to see if any aliens are waiting ahead. Riddick says that it “Looks clear,” but it isn’t, as an alien flies out to attack Johns. He yells at Riddick, “You said clear!” Riddick corrects him by saying, “I said it *looks* clear.” Johns doesn’t learn from this experience, however. He’d rather ask Riddick *again* whether the way is clear than use his own hand light to see for himself. Riddick looks ahead again and shrugs innocently, then repeats, “Look clear,” as if to say “see for yourself.”

The contrast between the two men is highlighted again when Johns suggests to Riddick that they kill one of the others and drag the body behind them as bait to distract the aliens. Riddick’s first impulse is to look at the little group behind them and ask Johns which one he has in mind. Johns quickly tells Riddick *not* to look and won’t look himself. He won’t even say the name of his intended victim, because he can’t face what he is suggesting.

Fry comes into conflict with Johns several times when she tries to point out his short-sightedness. First she disagrees with him when he plans to screw Riddick and suggests an alternative. She also calls out Johns for blaming his fear of going to the skiff on Jack, and his suggestion that they wait out the eclipse in the crash ship. Johns retaliates by reminding her of her own failings with a Biblical-flavored quote when he says, “Look to thine own eyes first, right, Carolyn?” (Or is it “thine own ass?” Similar, anyway.). The Biblical quote goes something like, “When you look to help your neighbor take the mote of dust from his eye, it is best to remove the wooden beam from your own first.” He’s reminding Carolyn that she almost jettisoned all the passengers during the crash in an attempt to save herself.

Eventually Johns’ refusal to look is his downfall. When he is wounded in his fight with Riddick, he can’t shoot the aliens who come after him because, in the dark, he loaded a red cartridge containing morphine into his shotgun instead of a real cartridge. He’d had relied on his morphine to such an extent that he confused it with real self-defense.

The characters’ desire to see can be thwarted when the object in question is hidden. Riddick’s humanity, for example, is like water in the desert, as Imam says. “It only waits to be found.” Riddick’s better nature is hidden deep inside of him along with his darker urges, and the viewer waits anxiously to see which one will eventually rise to the surface.

In a way, Riddick’s humanity is like Carolyn when she is trapped in the cavern, unable to come out but crying, “I’m here! I’m here!” and wanting someone to find her and bring her to the surface. Both Carolyn and Riddick’s humanity are unable to uncover themselves without help from the others, and even then they are subject to being sucked back down into the darkness. Carolyn and Riddick are tied together visually in this sequence as well, as we cut back and forth between Carolyn trapped in the cavern, and Riddick trying to break his chains. This sequence helps the viewer realize a connection between the two characters, as he is freaking out in the same way as she is at the same time.

Just as it can be painful to see too much, it can also be painful to have your hidden secrets revealed. The secret Fry is hiding — that she wanted to jettison the passengers during the crash — is agonizing to her when Johns reveals it, and her shame is one of the things that leads her to sacrifice herself for the others in the end.

Johns tries unsuccessfully to hide both his uncaring, selfish nature and his secret morphine addiction, which only Riddick and Fry can see. The revelation of Jack’s secret also turn out to be painful, both literally and figuratively. She attempts to disguise her gender to make herself seem less vulnerable to predatory adults. Her menstrual cycle makes her more vulnerable to the aliens, who can smell the blood, and menstruation is often painful in and of itself.

For Riddick, revelation is doubly painful. Physically, it is not so much “looking” that hurts his eyes, as it is the light that illuminates them. He avoids light for that reason, but he also avoids it to keep from *being seen.* If eyes are the window to the soul, Riddick guards his carefully. Even when Riddick’s eyes are visible, most people never see beyond their mirrored surface to the man beneath. Carolyn is the only one who really tries, when she asks to see his eyes and trusts what she sees there enough to give him a chance.

Ironically, Riddick doesn’t want Carolyn to see his eyes at first, and makes her come to him before he will show them to her. He doesn’t want her to uncover his biggest secret, which is the vulnerable, hurt, caring nature he has buried beneath his ruthless exterior. Riddick believes that if someone actually sees his humanity, they will take advantage of it and he will suffer for it in the eventually.

When Carolyn finally dies in the end, Riddick at last allows his better nature to come to the surface, if only for a moment. Her sacrifice inspires him to be a better person, a person worthy of her sacrifice. Now Riddick will have to justify his existence for the rest of his life by trying to be a better person and rejoining the human race. He buries the man he was when he arrived on the planet, and becomes a new one for Carolyn. Accordingly the last line of the movie belongs to him:

“Riddick’s dead. He died somewhere back on that planet.”

Brief Takes: Pastwatch: the Redeption of Christopher Columbus, by Orson Scott Card

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Fantastic telling of the Christopher Columbus saga from an alternative future narrative, about hard choices, playing God, and finding the meaning of your own life. Contains fascinating historical and scientific theories.  One of my favorites from Orson Scott Card, author of the Ender Saga.

Brief Takes: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

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The Road

This is a well-written, character-focused science fiction book about a father and son trying to find some place that is livable after some sort of global catastrophe. Cormac McCarthy, author of “No Country for Old Men,” which was adapted into the Oscar winning movie, creates such bleak inner and outer landscapes here that I was simultaneously depressed and yet thankful my circumstances had not been reduced to such. The techniques the author uses to demonstrate the characters’ personalities, growth and emotions are subtle and fascinating.  I ultimately found the novel thought-provoking rather than depressing.

Brief Takes: Friday, by Robert A. Heinlein

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You would think if your birth had been genetically engineered,  you would know for sure *somebody* wanted you, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in Friday’s experience. This kick butt, secret messenger-cum-assassin uses her off time to search for some kind of family in a universe that doesn’t seem to want her. If the depiction of the Internet is a little off, that’s because it was written before the WWW was born. It’s the characters in this story that count, and Friday is a helluva woman.

Brief Takes: The Jennifer Morgue, by Charles Stross

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This is the 2nd book in a series, following “The Atrocity Archive.” I found this book far more interesting that the first one, which is too bad in a way, as the first one sets up this alternative universe of the novel much better than this one does. That said, this story about a definitively non-superhero who finds himself getting involved in a James Bond-type mystery though mathematic magic was amusing and entertaining.

Brief Takes: Accelerando (Singularity), by Charles Stross

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Accelerando follows several generations of a family of computer geniuses in the near future, leading out to the future of mankind in general. After I relaxed and stopped worrying that I might be misunderstanding the computer jargon, I enjoyed it a lot. The language — including the jargon — is very rich and descriptive, although it does call for some imaginative interpretation of the text. Author Charles Stross includes themes questioning identity and the self in ways I had not thought of before.

Brief Takes: Ghost Hunting, True Stories of Unexplained Phenomenon from the Atlantic Paranormal Society, by Jason Hawes, Grant Wilson, Michael Jan Friedman

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A lot of the cases that are covered have already been covered on the show, and the book doesn’t add much. It’s pretty much for people who are already fans, like me. I would like to know more about how the show is run and more about the people involved and the mechanics of ghost hunting

Book Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

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Some reviewers are predicting that “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins, will be the next Harry Potter or Twilight Saga. It’s not as original or well-written as the Harry Potter novels, but the set up for the book will probably appeal to young sci-fi fans just as much as magic and vampires do, and its anti-authoritarian theme will resonate with many readers.

The book’s protagonist is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, a slum resident in a dystopian future America, now called “Panem.” She’s an isolated loner, with a dead father, an emotionally absent mother, a little sister she loves more than anything, and a platonic male friend who helps her hunt for food on a daily basis. In this future, the haves and have-nots are sharply divided among the rich, pampered government people who live in the Capitol, and everyone else who has to scrounge for food and other scarce resources (a situation with which I’m sure many of today’s anti-government factions can relate).

In a plot device similar to the one in “The Running Man,” every year the Capitol forces children from the slums to compete in televised death matches until the last person standing wins and is awarded money and food for life. Unlike many similar stories, however, “The Hunger Games” uses this setting to remove the main character from her regular daily life in order for her to process her feelings of alienation and resentment among strangers instead in her own family. Her new environment also helps Katniss re-examine her relationship with her mother, and develop empathy with people from different backgrounds.

Like all reality game show contestants, Katniss has her own support team that wants to make her look good. At first she disdains them completely, but becomes more open to them when she realizes her ability to survive the games depends in part on them. As the story continues, she is forced to ally with other contestants, and starts to empathize with them in spite of herself. Her participation in the games breaks Katniss down emotionally and physically,  and lets her repressed anger, vulnerability and longing to rise to the surface.

Katnisss character growth and attitude about the oppressive nature of her government is the most striking departures from so much of the young adult lit that is popular now.  In books with similar settings, like the Stephen King/Richard Bachman novel I loved as a teenage, “The Long Walk,” the teenage participants blame unfair and unsympathetic adults for their predicaments.  Initially in “The Hunger Games,” Katniss bitterly places the blame of her predicament on the machinations of government and society as a whole rather than on specific individual adults, which seems like a more insightful (if oversimplified) approach.

The growth and changes that Katniss undergoes during the games puts this novel in a better class than many similar speculative fiction novels, and her insights about her participation in her own oppression makes it a breath of fresh air compared with similar stories.  Don’t shy away from this novel because it is set in a dystopian future, however;  the action makes it a fun and easy read as well.

Brief Take: Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown

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Returning to the field of the intellectual action hero who travels the world with beautiful women solving esoteric crimes, Dan Brown makes this novel as interesting as “The DaVinci Code,” but perhaps less controversial. If you loved the riddles, games and historical clues that must be solved through symbology, you should love this one about as much as you did the Da Vinci code.

HELIX EPISODE REVIEW (contains spoilers) SEASON 1, EPISODE 2: VECTOR (DAY 2)

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This episode starts on day 2, the day after Dr. Alan Farragut’s CDC team arrived at the Arctic Biosystems base.

Immediately we sense something is off. People are speaking to the audience, but any sense of immediacy is displaced by the odd tint of the picture and its grainy quality. Do we have the right channel? Is this a preview?

No, and our confusion and discomfort is deliberate. We are getting first hand accounts of physical assaults that seem somehow almost tantamount to a rape, even for the male victims. One starts out calling their attacker “Peter,” then switches to “Dr. Farragut,” as if he is unsure if his intimate relationship with the doctor might look unseemly to someone who doesn’t know him.

Intercut with these first hand accounts are glimpses of the attack itself as the victims describe it. Peter held them down and covered their mouths with his, like some kind of animal.

As we ease out of their testimony, we see that Sarah is interviewing the victims, distanced from her by the monitor itself, her full face shield, and the eerie blue light of the isolation room.

Quickly we learn that not only is Dr. Peter Farragut still on the loose after assaulting his fellow doctors in the sun room, but that three other doctors were attacked there and subsequently left the scene. Now they are probably infected and are at risk of infecting yet more people. A campus wide search for them will be necessary.

The CDC leave to go about their various tasks, investigating Peter’s experiments, supervising the infected victims in the isolation room, and hunting for the escaped victims. Not only are they dispersing geographically, they also seem as if they are being further and further isolated from each other by physical features of the base and all the bio hazard precautions: glass doors, protective plastic tarps, metal fencing. Strangely, the campus also seems to be somewhat lacking in intra-base communications. Apparently people in the lab can’t just pick up the phone and call security, or vice versa.

Doreen is in one of the labs, doing a somewhat queasy necropsy accompanied by peppy music from the 60’s, reminding us that one of the producers has used a similar technique to good effect on Lost. Instead of undercutting the fear, the perky soundtrack creates a sinister effect. The opening credits also employ some music that is upbeat yet mellow . . . until the “x” in “Helix” drips down the screen blackly.

Eventually we see that the music isn’t just part of the soundtrack; Doreen is listening to it through ear buds. She dismisses the noises she hears behind her, as well as her own uneasiness, as she goes about her surgical business. She is therefore caught off guard when one of the escaped victims comes up from behind and confronts her. The patient looks bad. Her skin is gray and her eye sockets have that red ring around them people develop when they get infected.

Here it becomes clear how Darleen uses humor as a defense mechanism as she tries to disarm her fellow doctor and get her to come to isolation with her. The victim appears to be paranoid and having delusions, saying that “they” do terrible things to you in isolation, but she can’t talk about it or she will end up “like Dr. Hvit in the White Room.”

The victim seems to go in and out of her paranoia, accusing Darleen of lying to her, much like the way Peter told Alan that everybody lies.

Julia starts to get a funny feeling as she goes about testing the rats. She hears noises from overhead. Is that Peter moving around in the air ducts again? The camera shows us an unrevealing ceiling tile and some sort of semi-clear piece of plexiglass in it. Eventually the camera goes through the plexiglass, as we see, yes! It IS Peter watching her! Cut and we move to the opening credit sequence accompanied, as it was before, with more upbeat mellow 60’s music.

The survivors of Peter’s assault, on the other hand, are experiencing increasing anxiety as time passes slowly in the isolation chamber. They are only isolated from other people, not each other, and they are angry at Sarah for keeping them cooped up together, where they may catch the disease from each other.

As the hunt for the other escaped victims goes on, fault lines seem to be popping up between different groups of people. The sick victim in isolation thinks the other victims will turn on him, playing on Sarah’s sympathies. The CDC team argues with security about how best to deal with the runaway doctors, and the other base personnel object to the way the search is handled.

More weird interplay between Hataki and Julia, she hears Peter in the overhead vents, but Hataki says it’s just the base settling. She then sees something very odd on the video tape she’s watching of Peter’s research, and Hitaki blows it off. When she tries to tell Alan about it, they get into a fight because he didn’t want her working on that. Meanwhile, Peter is kept from attacking Sarah only by a metal chain work door. He tells her that they are there for a reason, that “Walker” – Julia – is there for a reason.

There are more suspenseful hunting scenes in the air ducts. When Peter surprises Bellaseros, Bellaseros zaps him with the stun baton that can take down a polar bear, but doesn’t seem to work on Peter.

Hitaki says something about how he misses doing real lab work that sounds to Julia like something her mom would have said. Her mother died when Julia was very young. He asks about her father, but they are interrupted by the rats trying violently to escape their cages, and she never answers his question. This is the same sort of behavior demonstrated by one of the female victims who disappeared, but tried to break out the window of her bedroom beforehand. The infected rat manages to break into the cage next to it, hold down another rat, and puts its mouth over the other rat’s mouth, again replicating behavior of one of the victims, this time Peter.

Julia has replicated Peter’s original experiments and shows the results to Peter and Sarah. One set of rats seems to have had their brains rewired to become the perfect vector for spreading the virus…like Peter.

The outside setting shots show large wind mills that use the violent artic air to create power for the station, and the sound they make as the blade whirls around and around and around sound inexorable.

The patients in isolation try to get away by threatening Sarah with a syringe. Alan saves the day. Then they try it again, using Sarah’s sympathy for the sickest victim and this time it works.

Alan apologizes to Julia. They reconnect, even though they aren’t married anymore. He doesn’t know if he can stop trying to protect her.

Bellesarios kills an uninfected doctor trying to get away on a snow mobile. Alan confronts Hitaki about his lies and demands complete transparency, but Hitaki never owns any of Alan’s accusations.

Hitaki has a photo album of Julia. Is he her missing father? He takes out his contacts (lying with his appearance?) and we see he has shining silver eyes.

The last scene confirms the strange connection between rape and spreading the disease as Peter attacks Julia in the shower.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Helix passes the Bechdel test! If you haven’t heard about the Bechdel test, it is a little tool we can use to help us evaluate gender in films.

The test goes like this

1. Are there at least two named female characters?

2. Do they talk to each other?

3. If so, do they talk about something other than a man?

HELIX EPISODE SUMMARY (Contains spoilers) SEASON 1, EPISODE 1: PILOT

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If The X-Files had a child with The Hot Zone, that child would be Helix. The resemblance is not coincidental, since one of the producers is Steven Maeda, who produced The X-Files and Lost, both of which specialized in self-contained episodes and long-form mythology arcs.

The pilot episode take a little while to find its footing, but it’s worth the wait. Just like The X-Files, the episode starts out with an attention-grabbing, mysterious sequence. Two men wearing hazmat suits are walking calmly through the halls of a large Arctic installation, evident pursuing a panicked man in a hospital gown, who is running for his life before being pulled aside by someone we cannot see. The hazmat men enter a lab that has been turned upside down and has at least one bloody body in it. They find their patient there, laying on the ground, exhausted and unable to speak. One of the hazmat guys insists on giving the patient water, which causes his throat to start undulating in a horrifying way. The hazmat man calls this “progress.”

Next we see Doctor Alan Farragut asking his assistant, Dr. Sarah Jordan, to help him prepare for his lecture, which he then delivers charmingly to a groups of new employees at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta about the history of cholera. They will face horrors in the field, he states, and make unthinkable sacrifices, and their friends and families will make sacrifices right along with them. We see how dedicated he and his staff are, but Alan also has a sense of humor: He fakes them out by tossing around a vial he says contains cholera, but – in reality – is full of scotch.

Alan’s lecture is interrupted by an emergency meeting of his team with Major Sergio Balleseros from USAMRID. A distress call was received from a private company called Arctic Biosystems, or “big pharma,” as one of his team members puts it. The CDC has no jurisdiction in the Arctic, but since 2 people are already dead and a third infected, the installation (which we saw in the opening sequence) has invited them in. They specifically asked for Dr. Julia Walker, Alan’s ex-wife, and sh e thought Alan should be included because the person who was infected is his brother, Peter.

Dr. Doreen Boyle uses the helicopter ride to the Arctic as a chance to get to know Mario and Sarah better, and to fill Sarah in on Alan’s history. She seems spiky at first, but eventually we come to see that Doreen is trying to use humor and sarcasm to connect with people, albeit tentatively.

As the team helicopters their way to the installation, Dr. Doreen Boyle playfully gives Mario a hard time and fills in young new team member Dr. Sarah Johnson on why she’s never heard Peter talk about his ex wife or his brother before; he caught them in bed together. When Doreen compares Sarah to Julia – unfavorably – we see that Sarah has a crush on Alan, and that Doreen may have a spiky exterior, but she’s using humor to try to connect with people.

The helicopter lands and the team is met by . . . dum, dum, dum! The men from the hazmat suits! They turn out to be Hiroshi Hatake, Director of Research, and Daniel Aerov, head of security. The helicopter leaves because the low temperatures turn the fuel to jelly, but they are reassured it can return quickly if necessary. The team submits to having RFID markers injected under the skin of their wrists in order to get unrestricted access to the base, which is enormous, with at least 6 underground levels. The facility turns out to be a bit more isolated than first suspected, since even though it has state-of-the-art Internet access, it is only for an hour a day.

Julia and Alan help each other tape their gloves to their suit sleeves (nice realistic touch) and discuss their concern for Peter and for each other. When they visit him in an isolation chamber, he looks horrific. His eyes are bloodshot and move constantly in a crazy way. The skin on his face is blackly veiny and he has the remains of some kind of black goop on the corners of his mouth. Plus he is being restrained. He seems unresponsive at first, but upon questioning, answers that he does know where he is: the White Room.

When Julia tells Alan that the blood she is drawing from Peter is black, Peter goes crazy, breaks the restraints, and tries to inject Alan with his blood. They wrestle while Peter yells that Alan lies and everyone lies (shades of House!) until Julia can inject him with some tranquilizer.

Head of security Aerov, who turns out to be Hataki’s adopted son, supervises Doreen, the veterinarian, and soldier Mario as they investigate the lab where Peter worked. He tells them that Peter has been there for 6 months, but refuses to give them any other information and makes Mario hostile. When Doreen notices that the lab rats have no genitalia, Aerov explains they’ve found a way to suppress the genitals, which Doreen finds intriguing. Despite their moment of camaraderie, Aerov tells her they don’t have any monkeys on the base, which she refuses to believe.

Alan, Julia and Sarah check out the bodies of the two workers who died before they got there. They find nothing but skeletons in the midst of nasty black goo that spills out of the body bags and makes the inexperienced Sarah throw up in her hazmat suit, another ewwww. They’ve never seen anything like this before. Hemorrhagic diseases like Ebola cause awful blood loss, but not the ultimate tissue degradation they see here.

After testing lab rats, Doreen comes to the conclusion Dr. Hataki is right, that the disease is not airborne, and takes off her helmet. She and Mario bond while talking about their pasts, while he finds a hair clog in a sink drain. The clog is made of monkey hair, which proves to Doreen that Rhesus Macaques were at the base until very recently, just as she suspected. What they are trying to hide?

Meanwhile Julia and Hataki chat in his office, which has a spectacular arctic view. He tells her that Peter was working on mutagens, agents for speeding up mutation. He has all of Peter’s research for her, but there are 20 boxes of it and it would take days to go through. Hiroyuki Sanada plays Hataki as both sympathetic and mysterious, with a strange personal interest in Julia.

Sarah and Alan search Peter’s office and Alan gets a little emotional when he finds and views Peter’s video logs. In one entry, Peter mentions that he’s seeing a woman named “T,” and wonders if maybe relationships are bad for him, which is ironic considering how he broke up Alan’s marriage with Julia. He says he’s most excited about being up in the arctic and, enigmatically, he understand certain things now. As he talks, Alan notices that Peter is making a gesture that he and Alan used in their childhood to indicate their alcoholic dad was on a rampage, and the best course of action was to run like hell. Is this a hidden message for Alan?

Alan’s video viewing is interrupted by Julia, who tells him he has to come to the isolation chamber right away; Peter has escaped. Alan doesn’t understand how a man who was inches away from death managed to break his restraints again, and also tear a hole in the metal ceiling big enough for him to escape through. Aerov deactivates Peter’s RFID chip so he can’t go anywhere, then suggests they flood the air ducts with a gas that will knock him out for 4 hours; they can go get his body after the gas dissipates. Naturally Alan is against this course of action, not only because Peter is his brother, but because he may also have anti-bodies that have allowed him to fight the infection when the other infected people turned into goo.

Doreen and Mario are combing the base for the monkeys she knows have to be there. When their subcutaneous RFID chips don’t yield the unlimited access promised, Mario uses a cannister of nitrogen to open a locked door.

Alan and Hitaki have compromised, so that Alan will join the security team wearing gas masks while searching the air conduits for Peter, who should have been knocked out by the gas. Meanwhile, Doreen appears to hear something in the ceiling overhead (where the air ducts are) as she and Mario explore the destroyed room beyond the locked door. We cut back and forth between these two sequences to build tension. It’s not suspense worthy of “Alien,” but it’s pretty good nonetheless. Doreen and Mario smell monkey, and they seem to be in the room where Hataki found Peter in the beginning. It’s obvious there were over 100 monkeys in the cages, but the doors where broken off from the inside. Where are they now?

Alan finds black mucous indicative of Peter’s presence while Doreen and Mario hear noise and sense motion in the upended lab: one last monkey. Now the two search sequences are inter-cut as they try to catch the monkey and Alan tries to find his brother. The tension ratchets up as Doreen coaxes the monkey to her, and it launches itself at her face, but strangely doesn’t bite or scratch her. And as it lays on the ground after Mario disables it, it’s throat does the same strange undulations Peter’s did in the first scene. In the air passages, Alan sees a body, and thinks it’s Peter, but it turns out to be someone else, whose body is lying in a pool of blood.

The body Alan found turns out to be one of the security team, and we are treated to watching them pull the half naked, bloody body down from the air shaft. Questions abound: Why did Peter attack him? Why did he cut off the officer’s hand? Why didn’t the gas knock him out? And why does the pathogen seem to be making him stronger?

Julia and Sarah debate Sarah’s relationship (or non-relationship) with Alan and the nature of the pathogen.

Lastly, Mario cuts up his clothing to reveal pieces of machinery that were secreted there. It’s a tiny satellite communication disk that he uses outside privately to send and receive messages from someone. On his way back inside, he comes across a big field of monkeys half frozen in the snow. Their faces are frozen in horror. Were they on the rampage? Or were they running from something?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Two: Passion

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I think this is probably my favorite episode of all time. It’s just an incredible meditation on sex and death, starting with the opening scene of Buffy and Xander dancing sensuously to the hypnotic music (“Never an Easy Way” by Morcheeba). They leave the Bronze laughing and talking with Cordelia and Willow, not realizing that the couple necking against the wall is actually Angelus feeding off a young girl.

The use of Angelus’s voice over to draw us nearer to him and further away from Buffy and her friends is ingenious, and the writing is superb:

“Passion. It lives in all of us: sleeping, waiting, and although unwanted, unbidden, it will stir, open its jaws and howl. Passion rules us all, and we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments: the joy of love; the clarity of hatred; and the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace . . . but we would be hollow — empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.”

Angelus proceeds to stalk Buffy and her friends and family in a psychological reign of terror. Instead of actually killing them, he simply proves that he *can* at any time of his choosing, by leaving evidence of his presence on Buffy’s pillow and in Willow’s room. Buffy mourns the loss of her lover, but Willow sums it up best when she says that the only thing that *hasn’t* changed about him is that Buffy is still all he thinks about.

The sequence in which Giles finds Jenny’s body is exquisite. Giles arrives home and finds evidence that someone has arrived ahead of him: a single red rose has been left on the door; inside, candles are lit, opera plays softly, and champagne is chilling in a bucket. He and Jenny had finally reconciled earlier in the day, and she had said she would come over that night. There is a warm look of surprised delight on Giles’s face as he takes off his coat, smells the rose, and picks up a piece of paper left on the table. Only one word is written on it: “Upstairs.” But we have already seen similar stationary, and already know what has happened to Jenny. Our dread grows in direct proportion to Giles’s anticipation, as he takes off his glasses, smoothes his hair and climbs the rose-strewn stairs, each of which holds a single burning candle. At the top of the stairs, he is greeted with the sight he has most wanted to see: Jenny in his bed. The change of expression on his face as he realizes she is dead is subtle and devastating.

When Giles telephones Buffy’s house to tell her the bad news, we watch from the outside, through the curtains, with Angelus. He has planned this moment carefully and intends to savor it. The phone conversation is muffled and faint; instead we hear the end of Angelus’s narration on passion. The scene inside needs no dialogue; what we see tells the whole story, as Buffy’s expression goes from pleasant and casual to surprise and despair. Limply handing the phone to Willow, Buffy slides down the wall to the floor. Willow’s face becomes a mask of anguish as she hears the unspeakable. She runs crying to the table and Buffy’s mother runs in to comfort her as Buffy sits on the floor in shock. *This,* then, is the ecstasy of grief of which Angelus spoke. He smiles in deep satisfaction as he moves away from the tableau.

Enraged beyond reason, Giles goes after Angelus by himself. Buffy eventually rescues him, but he turns his anger on her: this revenge was his business, not hers. Crying, she pleads with him not to destroy himself, “You can’t leave me! I can’t do this alone!” It is just heartbreaking.

The final grace note of the episode comes as the voice over changes from Angelus’s voice to Buffy’s. She says, “I wasn’t ready before, but I think I finally am. I can’t hang on to the past any more. Angel’s gone and nothing’s ever going to change that,” just as we see Willow, who is taking over Miss Calendar’s class, unknowingly knock to the floor a disk that contains the only copy of the curse that will restore Angel’s soul. Wow.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season Two: Lie to Me

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The theme of this episode is the relationship between growing up and telling the truth, especially to the people you love. The Scooby Gang, being young and idealistic, are of course in favor of the truth. As Cordelia puts it, “Tact is just not saying true stuff. I’ll pass.”

Spike and Drusilla, having been around the block a time or two, are a little more worldly. When Spike becomes annoyed with Dru because she’s spoken to Angel, he points out the cruel truth about the pet Dru’s been talking to.

Spike: The bird’s dead, Dru. You left it in a cage, and you didn’t feed it, and now it’s all dead, just like the last one.

Drusilla begins to whimper, and Spike regrets his blunt honesty. It’s much better to let Dru live in her fantasy world if it makes her happy, so he promptly apologizes.

Spike: I’m sorry, baby. I’m a bad, rude man.

Buffy, on the other hand, still believes that honesty is the best policy (except with her mom . . . and teachers . . . and the police. . . ). So when she sees Angel talking to an exotic, mysterious girl one night, she takes his omission in telling her about it to be a lie. She’s very disappointed in him; when you love someone, you should be truthful with them and tell them everything. The audience, however, already knows the girl was Drusilla, and that their conversation was anything but romantic.

Almost in relatiation, Buffy quickly latches onto a childhood sweetheart who just transferred to Sunnydale, Billy “Ford” Fordham (played by Jason Behr, lately of “Dawson’s Creek,” and next fall’s “Roswell”). Angel is suspicious of Ford, and although Willow attributes his feelings to jealousy, she agrees to research Ford on the Net.

When Angel confronts Buffy with the information Willow had dug up — that Ford is not a registered student at Sunnydale High — she is mad at Angel for being so suspicious and nosey, and also at Willow for not telling Buffy what she was doing. Oddly enough, Buffy is not mad at Ford, giving him the benefit of the doubt, despite the fact that the audience is pretty well convinced by now that he is the one who is really lying to her. Instead, she asks Angel point blank about the girl she saw him with. Since she insists on the painful truth, he tells her how he stalked Drusilla, killed her family, and made her a vampire. Happy now?

Meanwhile, Xander and Willow discover that Ford is the organizer of a club of “wanna-be” vampires. As Spike has said, “People still buy that Anne Rice crap? What a world!” These poor children lie to themselves about the real nature of vampires to comfort themselves in the dark. Ford has promised the wanna-be’s that he will make them vampires, which is another lie, since he intends to serve them up buffet-style to Spike & Co. When Buffy discovers the club, she tries to dissuade the wanna-be’s from their dangerous fantasies, they refuse to believe her. They would prefer to think she’s lying than believe the ugly truth.

It turns out that Ford is planning on turning the Slayer (and the assembled buffet) over to Spike in hopes that Spike will make him a vampire in return. With Buffy and everyone locked in a basement waiting for Spike, Ford finally confesses his plot to Buffy. She can’t understand *why* he would want to become a vampire, especially since he actually sees their true nature instead of a romantic fantasy. It seems that Ford is quickly dying of a terminal illness and sees immortality as a vampire as his only hope. Buffy tries to explain the grotesque truth about how vampires lose their souls and are actually “undead” rather than immortal, but Ford cannot afford to believe her at this point.

In the end, Buffy is able to save most of the wanna-be’s (notably Chanterelle, who becomes the runaway Shelly in the third season opener, “Anne”). Unfortunately, Ford is not among them.

The episode ends with Buffy and Giles at Ford’s grave, waiting for him to rise so Buffy can stake him. Buffy has been forced to grow up a little bit, and she’s lost at least one of her youthful illusions:

Buffy: Does it ever get easy?

Giles: You mean life?

Buffy: Yeah. Does it get easy?

Giles: What do you want me to say?

Buffy: Lie to me.

Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies . . . and everyone lives happily ever after.

Buffy: Liar.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season Two: “When She Was Bad”

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This is the first episode of the 2nd season, and the first time we’ve seen Buffy since she died, was revived, and killed the Master. She’s had all summer to come to terms with her experience, but she hasn’t. It’s almost like she spent her summer in LA with her dad in hibernation, and she only comes back to life when she returns to Sunnydale. Seeing the same people and places that were so intimately connected with her death prevent her from continuing to repress the wild array of emotions brought on by her trauma.

It’s taken me several viewings of this episode to really figure it out to my satisfaction. Why is Buffy being such a bitch to everyone? In a very provocative and sensual scene, she dances with Xander at the Bronze and teases him to within an inch of his life, then leaves him hanging. You can see by his face that her emotional tease was even worse than the physical tease. “Have I ever thanked you for saving my life? (Pause) Don’t you wish I would?” Well, yes, you’d think she’d be grateful instead of resentful. She punishes Willow and Angel with this display too, as they watch and become jealous.

Later Angel comes to Buffy’s bedroom to visit her and she is bitter and sarcastic. He finally tells her that he missed her, and she starts to reply, but he’s gone by the time she gets the words out of her mouth.

I think the key to Buffy’s inappropriate hostility is revealed in her super-realistic nightmare. It starts out normally enough, with Buffy sitting down to chat with Willow and Xander. In fact, the scene is so realistic, that we don’t realize it’s a dream until after it’s over. Still in the dream, Giles comes up and starts off with dire warnings as usual, but suddenly begins to attack Buffy, saying, “I killed you before and I’m sure I can do it again.” Willow and Xander take no notice of what’s happening, but continue their activities calmly.

This dream represents how Buffy *felt* subconsciously about her experience with the Master, regardless of whether or not it is logical or fair, similarly to how we might feel angry at a loved one for dying when anger is obviously not the proper reaction. Giles didn’t warn Buffy about the prophecy that the Master would kill her, and he did nothing to save her. In her subconscious, that’s as bad as if he had killed her himself. Willow and Angel also cared about Buffy, but stood by helplessly while she went through her ordeal. She’s even mad at Xander, even though he saved her, presumably because he wasn’t able to prevent her death in the first place. Buffy can’t consciously face her anger and disappointment in her friends because she loves and depends on them so much, so her feelings surface in passive-aggressive ways.

When the Master’s minions attempt to revive him by spilling the blood of those who were near him when he was killed onto his bones, Buffy comes to her senses and acts rationally to save her friends. She finally exorcises her fear and rage when she pulverizes the Master’s bones to prevent the possibility of his ever rising again. Fortunately, the Scooby Gang is sympathetic and understanding, right down to Xander’s sarcastic, but affectionate, quip, “What should we do tonight? We could grind our enemies into talcum powder with a sledge hammer, but gosh, we did that *last* night.” Great start to a great season.

Brief Takes: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

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I can now see why this book is considered such a classic in true crime literature. Capote rather empathetically imagines the points of view of almost everyone involved: the victims, the killers, neighbors, friends, lawyers, etc., but without sentimentality. He captures the time and place wonderfully, and the narrative structure – revealing the motive for the crime at the end of the book – creates suspense and tension in the reader. Surprisingly, his analysis of the killers’ motives would stand up to today’s theories of mass murderers’ and serial killer’s psychological profiles