CategoryReviews

Forbidden Planet Field Report

The last time I spent extended time in London, lo 10 years or more ago, I brought back the Malazan Empire books. Possibly thanks to Jess Nevins, I can’t recall. It was certainly a worthwhile haul in any case. This time I fine-tuned the process; Susan and I hit Forbidden Planet in the company of Catie and Ted, and we picked up a few first novels in various series which are not so readily available in the United States. We also controlled the urge to pick up some books you can easily get over here but which have much better cover treatments in Great Britain.

The ScarI mean, really. And there are corresponding designs for every Miéville book. Or how about the lovely minimalist Gollancz 50th collection? Fortunately we retained some modicum of willpower, if only to justify our later extravagance.

Which is to say: after reading the aforementioned first novels we decided which ones we really liked and would have trouble finding in the States, and went back later in the week and splurged. Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series would easily have made the cut, but they’re readily available here. (Important note: Midnight Riot is the first book in the series, originally titled Rivers of London in the UK.) Paul Cornell’s London Falling is awesome but there is no more to buy at present.

There is no shortage of British novels about ordinary people falling into a fantasy world just beneath the skin of the London we know and love, huh? I’m surprised Cubicle 7 hasn’t done an RPG along those lines. Perhaps The Laundry counts.

Empire in Black and GoldAnywise, the exciting find was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series. There are eight of these in print in the UK; I now have seven. Only five of them are available in the US. I am a bit concerned about that since the fifth one came out in the US over a year ago; sales may not have been good enough to justify more. This would be a shame! On the other hand, the series will end at 10 books, all of which have been turned in, so even if I have to go to Chapters or Amazon UK it’ll work out for me.

The setup is a fantasy world in the very early stages of an Industrial Revolution. There’s a barbaric empire roaring down from the north with an eye towards conquering the Lowlands. The Lowlands, of course, are unconvinced of the real danger. There are spymasters and assassins and artificers and lots of politics — it’s a very city-oriented series, which I like. I’m two and a half books in and I don’t think anything significant has taken place outside a city except one big battle.

Said Industrial Revolution and the concomitant fading of magic are the engines of change in the setting. The clever setting postulate is that humanity is divided into kinder, each with a special connection to some kind of insect: Beetle-kinder, Moth-kinder, Wasp-kinder, Spider-kinder, and so on. Some kinder are Apt, and can understand and use machinery. Some kinder are Inapt, and can’t even comprehend how a lock works, but can do magic. In parallel, each kinder has some abilities drawn from their insect connection, which are explicitly not magic. I suppose you could assume they were psychic if you felt like deconstructing it, but Tchaikovsky doesn’t feel any need to explain it.

Slight detour: if the Inapt were noble savages this would irk me. They aren’t. Spider-kinder are Inapt, for example, but they rule an advanced group of cities and have no objections to technology even if they can’t use it themselves. Moth-kinder live in isolated cities and are a shadow of what they once were, but that’s because they were once the fairly tyrannical rulers of the Apt. The Wasp Empire is an Apt empire that’s essentially still barbaric. There’s also no shortage of exceptions to the kinder stereotypes.

I get a bit of a K. J. Parker vibe from the books in that they’re examinations of change in a fantasy setting. The world’s going to be an awfully different place by the time these are done, and it’s not just that a Dark Lord will be overthrown. I don’t think I even have any certainty that the Wasp Empire is going to be defeated. On the other hand, they’re not as grim as a typical Parker book. Competence is a primary virtue, as it is in Parker’s work, but good is also pretty important and is even often rewarded.

They’re pretty sprawling books. Well, 10 in the series, that’s fairly obvious. The initial book is about Stenwold Maker, professor and spymaster, and his four proteges. It spreads out rather quickly after that, however. For reference points, I’d say there are fewer viewpoint characters than you have in Game of Thrones, and the books are closer related to one another than the Malazan Empire books.

The existence of the Inapt means that there’s plenty of justification for epic swordplay even while artificers are inventing dangerous new weaponry. I like books with larger-than-life swordplay, and the Mantis-kinder provide plenty of that. Secretive sect which specializes in combat with members who can take down groups of ten men? Check.

Finally, there are ornithopters and repeating crossbows.

First of the Last

After a really jam-packed first episode of Last Resort, I wound up with a multitude of questions filed into two slots.

First: is the plot in any way believable? You have to buy into the captain of a nuclear sub refusing orders, plus he’s gotta have enough charisma to make his crew more or less stick with him. Also there’s a huge conspiracy in the background. Said conspiracy does some pretty outrageous things even if the Reagan quote at the beginning is taken as good foreign policy. What I’m saying here is that I’m not entirely certain that we’re watching actual humans making sane decisions.

Second, though: is the situation as presented at all stable? And the trick here is that I don’t think it is, but I also don’t think Shawn Ryan necessarily thinks it is. If I’m looking for a showrunner who’s willing to mess with the status quo in a big bad way on his shows, I’m looking for Jeff Pinkner and J. H. Wyman of Fringe. But Shawn Ryan is my number two choice; The Shield went all in on actions with consequences, and Terriers had no qualms about major alterations to the show’s world.

That’s the hook for me. If Last Resort digs into the consequences of all the messed up things that happened in the first episode, it’s gonna be awesome and I will forgive the implausibilities. We’ll see.

Prometheus Theory

I’m too sad to review Prometheus. I will say that it’s absolutely gorgeous and I am glad I saw it on a quality screen. Ridley Scott’s eye for composition and spectacle is still remarkable. There’s nothing wrong with the directing, the acting is mostly very good, and conceptually the movie worked. The script sucked, though. Kept trying to reach big emotional beats, but none of them had proper setup, and without setup there is no payoff.

I do have a theory, though, which is full of spoilers.
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Monkeyball

Last night I headed down to the new Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane location, since movie tickets were two bucks during this week’s soft open of the theater. It’s way out of the way for us, particularly coming from work, but seems reasonably convenient for South Austin peeps. Take Mopac south to the first traffic light and turn right, then immediate left. It took twenty minutes flat to come home at 12:30 AM. Kind of late? Well, cheap movies, so I caught a pair of them. Oh look, the title of this post is a bad joke. Look, they were both set in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’d be way amusing to watch a motion captured Andy Serkis in an Oakland A’s uniform.

Moneyball was pretty good even if it was a touch fictionalized. Pitt was great, as was Hoffman in a nice supporting role. The one scene where Jonah Hill is desperately keeping up with Pitt and Hoffman is totally worth the price of admission. I’d love to know what Soderbergh would have made of it but I am totally content with what we got. Also, that was an entirely funny caricature of John Henry.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was kind of conflicted. The first hour or so is a pretty rough drama about the horrors of animal experimentation plus a really good performance by John Lithgow. Then there’s this magical point where my disbelief ceased to hover lightly in the air, and I’ll even spoil it, because it’s awesome. Caesar is in primate jail, and he’s having trouble adjusting. You know what it’s like being the new kid on the cellblock. So he gets kicked around a bit, and when he’s brooding back in his cell, he looks up at the orangutan across the way. Lo! Maurice the orangutan signs, “Hurt bad?”

Caesar is shocked, because whoa, another ape knows sign language! So he signs, “You know signs?” I’m wondering exactly the same thing. Maurice signs back, calmly, “Circus orangutan.” Clears it all up: everyone knows that circus animals are always taught ASL. Me and the shards of my disbelief will be over here snickering wildly. The movie doesn’t get any more believable from there on in. It stays enjoyable, though! It’s just a different movie in the second half.

Let The Bullets Fly

That didn’t suck.

Let The Bullets Fly is not really a Chow Yun Fat movie in the way that The Ides of March isn’t really a George Clooney movie. It’s just that when you get an actor that charismatic, a movie tends to lean towards him or her. Pleasingly enough, Jiang Wen is equally magnetic and is both the star and the director, so the charisma duel is just about even. You can’t say the same for the duel between their characters, but that’s the story of the movie. Note: it’s a battle of wits, without a whole lot of significant gunplay. It’s a black comedy at heart.

I don’t expect a Hong Kong comedy to be dry and witty, thanks to decades of Stephen Chow and a lot of Jackie Chan/Sammo Hung slapstick. Let The Bullets Fly is completely wry. There’s slapstick in the way the Coen Brothers do it: with a lot of bite beneath the surface. It’s also fairly poignant in a weird sort of a way. Without ever making it explicit, Jiang Wen’s Pocky Zhang undergoes a transformation during the course of his long con.

It’s a gorgeous movie as well. The 1920s vistas are spectacular and Jiang Wen has a great sense of motion. His imagery is likewise excellent. He uses certain visuals, in particular a fortune in silver, as unifying thematic elements. When the final scene is reached and he substitutes something else for the silver, it’s awfully powerful and effective.

Recommended, as long as you don’t expect another Chow Yun Fat heroic bloodshed piece.

Chronicle

Chronicle is a sort of unfortunate title. Hard to search for it, and it’s a lousy entrance point into the film. If you hadn’t seen the trailer, you’d never know what it was about. On the other hand, once you’ve seen the movie and you’re done getting smacked around by the turbulence caused by all your exploding assumptions, it’s a huge clue about the underlying mise en scène of the movie.

If you have seen the trailer, you only sort of know what it’s about, but that’s par for the course. Let me fix that for you. Have no fear; I won’t spoil anything you don’t find out immediately. At least not before the cut.

Here’s the important thing: it’s not a found-footage movie. The movie you see on the screen cannot be an artifact from the fictional reality. Everything’s framed as a camera shot from within the fiction, but there’s nobody who would or could piece together the varying footage into what we see. At the screening I saw, Josh Trank referred to it as a PoV movie, which is a much better term. The secret piece of knowledge you need is that his dad’s a documentarian, and Trank’s intimately familiar with that form. The movie is titled Chronicle because it’s a documentary. Sort of.

It’s not a documentary from the world of the film, though. It’s a movie that’s made in the documentary style. There’s no voice over, no connective tissue, no explanation: just footage from a variety of sources. That choice works because it’s a mirror of how Andrew, the protagonist, sees the world. He fits right into the isolated teen niche, unable to relate to his peers because his adolescence has been stunted by his abusive father and the emotional absence of his dying mother. His environment is established in the first minute of the movie. He’s filming everything because it allows him to both hide and document.

Trank also mentioned that his goal is to make character-oriented films that happen to be genre pictures. He nailed it. The powers are a device to heighten the drama of Andrew’s journey. I found the movie to be rather harrowing at some points, because it’s so raw and painful. Andrew is a sympathetic character all the way through.

Spoilers and loose thoughts coming up next.

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The Descendants (Spoilers)

At the time, I found Sideways somewhat unapproachable. I wasn’t really sure why. Now I’m thinking I didn’t have the vocabulary, and I think it was a privilege problem. Alexander Payne made this great movie about the sad life problems of a pair of well-off guys. Yeah, Paul Giamatti is presented as a failure, and English teachers don’t make much money, but he can afford to take his pal on a week-long wine tour? That’s not realistic.

This is also the problem at the heart of The Descendants. George Clooney’s problems are more believable than Paul Giamatti’s. He’s not pretending to be more of a failure than he is. They’re still rich man problems, though. Adultery, family crisis, death — that could be anyone. However, much of the meat of Clooney’s woes are predicated on his status as one of the most important men in Hawaii. To emphasize with him, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of a guy who is about to make a $500,000,000 decision. Clooney’s a great actor, and he brings everything he has to bear in this, so it works. Still, despite his disclaimer about how Hawaii isn’t really paradise? He’s in pretty good shape.

His marital problems may also come from his money. He’s proud of the fact that he doesn’t spend the capital he’s inherited; he works every day (as a lawyer), and he spends only the interest. So he’s got a high-paying job, plus he has significant money coming from a trust. He can send his kid to boarding school and he doesn’t need to worry about health care costs. But he won’t buy his wife a boat, and there’s a strong implication that he lost her love due to his workaholic nature. It’s hard to be well-off; it’s hard when the less fortunate critique you for not spending money.

Some of his extended family have blown their money and are supposedly broke. We don’t ever see them, though. Cousin Hugh, in a very good Beau Bridges performance, is Clooney’s foil. He wants to sell the land to a local, though, so he’s a good guy. Dresses like a beach bum, drinks early in the afternoon, but he’s got a bunch of rental properties and it’s pretty clearly not going to ruin him financially if the sale doesn’t go through. He’s willing to pass up the higher sale value in order to keep the land in Hawaiian hands.

So. I don’t think Alexander Payne really has a handle on realism, as much as he likes to talk about it. Clooney made the right decision to keep the land, but Payne could and should have shown us the downside. It’s not just Cousin Hugh being pissed off, it’s someone who doesn’t have health insurance or a job and won’t get an influx of money when they badly need it. Payne’s world is a glossy one, untouched by mundane concerns. In the opening, Clooney tells us how much Hawaii isn’t a paradise. That’s the only time we see any signs that it isn’t. Show, don’t tell.

Simultaneously, he’s quite aware of race issues. The climatic speech, where Clooney acknowledges that his family — descended from Hawaiian royalty as they are — are “haole as shit.” But then he turns around and claims a connection to the land. I don’t know enough about Hawaiian issues to really judge this, so I’ll leave all that there.

All that said? It’s a spectacular movie. Clooney’s immensely good. I thought he was awesome in his supporting role in Ides of March, in the way he slowly let us see the complexities of the character. He’s better in this. I touched on it earlier: how do you create empathy for yourself when you’re as handsome and charismatic as Clooney? By being fearless about showing the character’s faults. There’s a very, very thin layer between his pain and the screen, and most of the time it dissolves. Kudos to Payne, too, because he’s good at hitting those notes.

Alas, Jaw

Very sadly, A Dangerous Method wound up being the weakest Cronenberg in a long time. The material was more or less perfect, but Keira Knightley let down the side. It’s not that she’s a bad actress, it’s that Cronenberg has never been the kind of director who draws forth the exceptional from his actors. And Knightley doesn’t know how to give her role weight. So instead of getting a damaged genius/patient, she’s playing another edition of the plucky young woman who stands up to the world. This time with more jaw tics.

Meat

Dinner tonight: Stiles Switch BBQ, which is conveniently half a mile from our house. The place just opened; the pit master used to be the pit boss at Louie Mueller’s up in Taylor. I am no barbecue expert but I hear Louie Mueller’s is very good, and Stiles Switch made me very happy. And it’s just a few minutes away.

Tattoo You

Briefly: Fincher’s directing and Rooney Mara’s acting make it painfully clear that Lisbeth Salander doesn’t make any sense next to Mikael Blomkvist. There are two potentially awesome thrillers in both the book and the movies: one stars Blomkvist, and it’s a story about an awesome journalist who’s pretty much an auctorial stand in. The other is a somewhat more interesting story about Swedish traditional culture and the horrible things it does to women, as personified by both Harriet Vanger and Lisbeth Salander. When you mash them together, however, you get a wish-fulfillment piece in which the awesome journalist is just another man using a woman. Blomkvist and Salander should never have met.

I don’t think Steig Larsson realized this. David Fincher might. (Edit: Fincher has mentioned Blomkvist’s misogyny.) Either way, the clarity of Fincher’s directing strips away all the awkwardness of the English translation, and it’s hard to pretend that Salander belongs with Blomkvist at all. You can’t hide the incongruity by making up your own images when they’re right up there on the screen. The parallel tracks of the two central female characters become really obvious. Consider disguises — I wonder, in fact, if that’s part of why Fincher kept the extensive coda. Larsson thought his hero was a different class of father figure, but Fincher lets the darkness through.

Worth seeing. Tremendously disturbing.

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