Sunday, July 15, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 30

I think it was in one of last year's recent movie roundups that I noted that while everything in the world seemed to be terrible, at least the movies were good.  On the level of popcorn entertainment, if on no other, 2017 was a genuinely great year, delivering instant classics like Get Out, impeccable crowdpleasers like Wonder Woman, and slightly off-the-wall experiments like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Thor: Ragnarok.  Now here we are in 2018, everything in the world is, amazingly, even worse than it was last year, and as if to add insult to injury, the movies aren't even that good.  After the early highlight of Black Panther (which I'm increasingly coming to think of as an honorary 2017 movie), most of this year's blockbuster entertainment has run the gamut between fun-but-dumb (Deadpool 2), inessential (Solo), and pretty lousy (Infinity War).  I don't even have high hopes for the rest of the year, whose "highlights" include Mission Impossible: Fallout, Venom, and Aquaman.  The following bunch of films were all perfectly entertaining, but even the best of them pales besides what 2017 had to offer.
  • Incredibles 2 - This fourteen-years-later follow-up to one of Pixar's greatest successes--and one of the best superhero movies of the 21st century, one that anticipated, and in many ways outclassed, many of the live-action films in the ongoing, post-Iron Man superhero boom--had a lot of expectations riding on it, and it's probably not a great surprise that it doesn't quite manage to live up to them. That's not to say that Incredibles 2 doesn't have moments of greatness that match the original.  Its action scenes are thrilling and imaginative, taking full advantage of its various superpowered characters' abilities and the snazzy tech they've been furnished with.  There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud sequences, most involving the youngest member of the superpowered Parr family, baby Jack-Jack, and the problems of corralling an infant with seemingly-unlimited superpowers.  Edna Mode turns up, of course, with her familiar and irresistible combination of genius, ego, and murderous inventiveness.  It's an extremely fun movie.

    But it really isn't much more than that, and the checklist above is probably a big part of why.  Incredibles 2 is the sort of sequel whose approach is to give the audience all the things they loved about the first movie, but bigger, louder, and in greater quantity.  There's a reason this is one of the longest movies in Pixar's roster, and it's not because the plot desperately needs it.  Rather, you can sense the filmmakers' (like the first film, this one has been written and directed by Brad Bird) desire to cram in every idea they had while brainstorming, in the belief that this is what the audience wants.  But unlike other unnecessary-but-successful Pixar sequels like Toy Story 3 or Finding Dory, Incredibles 2 never finds a way to build on what its predecessor originated.  The Edna Mode scene is an Edna Mode scene, allowing her (and Bird, who also voices the character) to cut loose with all the tics and idiosyncrasies we love and remember so well.  But it does nothing new with the character, and this is true for the rest of the movie as well.

    Perhaps the glut of fanservice is also meant to conceal the fact that Incredibles 2 is also not nearly as smart as its predecessor.  The original Incredibles had one of the tightest, most perfectly-crafted scripts in Pixar's history (I might even go so far as to say in Hollywood in general), and one of the things that made it work is that it drew Bob and Helen Parr as intelligent, experienced people who were aware of the pitfalls of their profession (or rather, the tropes of their genre) and knew how to avoid them.  What's more, it painted them as emotionally intelligent, aware of the need to maintain their marriage and take an active role in the raising of their children. 

    Incredibles 2 walks a lot of that back when it has the Parrs unthinkingly accept the offer of a superhero-buff industrialist to bankroll them and help them reform their image (the brief superhero renaissance promised by the end of the first film is cut short by concerns about mayhem and property damage), even though any genre-savvy viewer will be instantly suspicious.  Even worse, it reduces Bob to the cliché of the dumb, clueless husband, when it turns out that Elastigirl, not Mr. Incredible, is to be the new face of superhero-dom, leaving Bob at home to care for the kids. 

    In the first film, Bob came off as distracted and depressed, but nevertheless a good, loving guy.  That impression is destroyed by Incredibles 2, in which Bob can't even manage to pretend not to feel dismayed and displeased at being upstaged by his wife.  His struggles to juggle the kids' needs, and slow realization that he needs to step up as a parent so that Helen can have her moment, would be more impressive if they weren't such a massive step backwards for the character (among other things, implying that, despite working at a job he despised and found extremely boring, Bob had virtually nothing to do with the care and upbringing of his children until Helen got a job).

    Perhaps in response to the decade-plus of debate over the original Incredibles's political subtext, Bird dispenses with any ambiguity about the sequel's politics, stuffing it with tons of overly-complicated dialogue that sounds clever but turns incoherent at the slightest examination.  In an early scene, the Parrs are informed that they can't be superheroes anymore because "politicians don't trust people who do good just because it's right".  This is, obviously, completely wrong (it's also one of the ways you can tell this movie's production stretches back to well before the Trump administration), but what's worse is that the idea is dropped almost as soon as it's introduced.  Later, Helen fights a villain who insists that he is trying to free people from their passive dependence on screens and entertainment, which might be a boldly subversive statement to make in an entertainment that millions of people will watch on a screen, if the film actually did anything with it. 

    Incredibles 2's ultimate villain tries to awkwardly tie this technophobia to a distrust of superheroes, insisting that people have become too dependent on supers and won't solve their own problems (to state the obvious, this seems highly unlikely in the world of these films, where superheroes have been illegal for fifteen years).  But the film's response to this is to, well, have superheroes save the day, and no one seems to feel that this in any way validates the villain's point.  In the end, it's hard to tell what Incredibles 2 is about, beyond the opportunity to let these characters do their thing for two hours.  That's not nothing, but it's not the sequel we were hoping for, or that the original film deserved.

  • Ocean's Eight - This all-female sequel/reboot/remake of the delightful Ocean's Eleven series (itself a remake of a Rat Pack film from the 60s) does little to conceal its connection to those films.  Like Ocean's Eleven, it starts with our protagonist (Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, sister of the original's Danny) scamming her way through a parole hearing by promising faithfully to stay on the straight-and-narrow, and, as soon as she's released, looking up her old partner in crime (Cate Blanchett as the stylish, cool as a cucumber Lou) so they can put together a team of equally quick-witted professionals to pull off a major score that turns out to have a personal component for their leader.  There are some differences--Debbie's objective is revenge on the man who left her holding the bag and facing a prison sentence, not winning back a lost love (though the fact that her relationship with Lou, though never explicitly acknowledged as such, could very easily be read as a partnership in more ways than one gives the film a subtext of romantic reconciliation).  And, of course, the context of the job--a jewelry heist at the Met Gala--is a change of pace from the previous Ocean films, and a nice touch given the all-female cast, since it allows our heroines to immerse themselves in an environment where almost everyone--marks, accomplices, obstacles--are women.

    Nevertheless, Ocean's Eight feels very much as if it was written to a template, hitting setbacks and reversals almost exactly where a fan of the original films would expect them--as in a scene in which Lou realizes that Debbie is planning revenge against her ex, and gives her a speech that is almost word-for-word Rusty's "now we're stealing two things" rebuke from the original Ocean's Eleven.  To be clear, this isn't a bad thing--there's a reason Ocean's Eleven is a classic, and recapturing its highs with an all-female cast of this caliber (as well as Bullock and Blancett, the film features Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Mindy Kaling) is worth the price of admission even if you can tell the twists ahead of time, especially because women so rarely get to play the types popularized by the Ocean's films, of chill dudes who know their business but also have each other's back. 

    The problem is that recalling the original Ocean's Eleven so strongly serves to highlight just how poor the plotting is in Ocean's Eight.  In an early scene, Debbie tells Lou that she spent five years in prison planning this score, but the job we actually see is rooted in compromise, improvisation, and coincidence (not least, as the film's final twist reveals, the fact that the entire score rests on the Costume Institute choosing a particular theme for that year's exhibit).  A long final stretch of the film in which the job is completed but Debbie and crew must scramble to throw off the attentions of an insurance investigator (James Corden, who gets some of the film's best jokes but is still playing a part that should have gone to a woman), only makes it more obvious that the characters have done a terrible job of covering their tracks, and that in six months they should all be in prison.

    Most importantly, Ocean's Eight lacks the original films' sharpness.  The twist at the end of Ocean's Eleven is one of the most thrilling moments in modern pop culture, and while that's obviously a tough act to follow (the two subsequent Ocean's movies, after all, were never able to recreate it) there's nothing in Ocean's Eight that even comes close that jaw-dropping realization of how thoroughly and delightfully we've been tricked.  Instead, the film coasts on its stars' charm and wit--Hathaway's shallow yet surprisingly savvy Hollywood star, an unwitting accomplice of the gang as they manipulate her into borrowing a valuable Cartier necklace for her red carpet appearance, is a particular highlight, but everyone, including relative acting newcomers Rihanna and Awkwafina, carries their weight.  That's not nothing, and I left the theater after Ocean's Eight feeling thoroughly entertained.  But the more distance I get from it, the more I feel like these women deserved a better script, one that would have elevated Ocean's Eight from a gimmick into the classic that its cast could absolutely have delivered.

  • Ant-Man and the Wasp - For all the reasonable objections raised to the concept of the MCU delivering a lighthearted, comedic romp only months after depicting galactic genocide at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, this is the only film I've watched recently that actually outdid its prequel.  That, of course, has a lot to do with the fact that the original Ant-Man was half-baked at best, and easily one of the MCU's least successful entries.  For the sequel, returning director Peyton Reed and his writers demonstrate an impressive capacity to recognize what worked in the original film--so Michael Peña's delightful ex-con character Luis returns with a lot more to do, including a scene in which he motor-mouths a summary of the events that took place between the two Ant-Man movies that is one of the sequel's comedic highlights--and jettisoning the stuff that didn't. 

    Most of all, this means downplaying the role of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), whom the original Ant-Man repeatedly and unconvincingly tried to sell as a hero, despite the fact that Evangeline Lilly's Hope Van Dyne was a much more persuasive candidate for the position of that film's protagonist.  Ant-Man and the Wasp instead leans into the fact that Scott is a self-sabotaging idiot.  The film opens with him only three days from completing the two-year home arrest sentence he was saddled with after thoughtlessly running off to fight alongside Captain America in Civil War, a choice that among other things forced Hope and her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) into hiding.  Scott could do nothing but goof off for 72 hours and things would be fine, but instead he latches on to the flimsiest excuse to reach out to Hope and Hank, and from there his life descends into chaos.

    Despite its title--very clearly chosen to assuage the angry response to Ant-Man's sidelining of her--Hope is not the co-lead of Ant-Man and the Wasp.  But then, neither is Scott.  The film is rather the MCU's first true ensemble piece, with multiples storylines and protagonists, each with their own goal.  Hope and Hank hope to rescue the missing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), lost for decades in the quantum realm, for which task they need Scott, who seems to have forged a connection with Janet during his own foray in the realm in Ant-Man, to help them.  Their efforts to retrieve the last components they need for this project are interrupted first by Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a mobster who wants to sell their research to criminals, and later by Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), an assassin who can phase through matter. 

    The latter turns out to be the daughter of one of Hank's former SHIELD colleagues, whose failed experiment doomed his daughter to a lifetime of pain and a looming death (if nothing else, you have to appreciate the Ant-Man movies for their casual insistence that SHIELD was always a dysfunctional shitshow, spewing far more chaos into the world than it ever solved), so it's hard not to feel that she has a point even though she's willing to kill Janet (and Scott, Hope, and Hank if they get in her way) to save her own life.  Similarly sympathetic is Luis, who just wants the security business he's started with Scott to stay afloat, and keeps causing trouble for the Pyms by butting in at just the wrong moment.

    It's refreshing for an MCU movie to extend so much sympathy and attention to each one of its characters--really, the only character who isn't even a little bit sympathetic is Burch, and even he's not very malicious; when he wants to get information out of Luis, for example, he resorts to truth serum, not torture.  Even a subplot in which Randall Park plays Scott's long-suffering FBI monitor, who knows that his prisoner is breaking the terms of his plea deal but can't prove it, is given space to breathe.  But as Ant-Man and the Wasp draws to a close, this proliferation of plotlines doesn't converge as elegantly as it should, and the film's ending feels rushed and crowded. 

    This is compounded by the fact that using it for fight scenes is literally the least interesting, least imaginative use to which one can put Hank Pym's miniaturization technology.  The early parts of the film recognize this--a scene where Hank miniaturizes the entire building where he keeps his lab, thus turning it portable, drew gasps from me for its implications for the technology's possible implementations.  But as the story approaches its mandatory big fight finish, these flights of imagination fade away--there are only so many times you can rely on the gag of "something that is supposed to be small is big", or vice versa, before it feels like you're reaching for ideas (the film actually gets more mileage out of scenes in which Scott's suit malfunctions, stranding him in child size or giant size, and forcing him to improvise around those limitations).  Still, the film's use of humor, its relatively modest stakes, and its compassion for every one of its characters, mark it as a step in the right direction for the MCU and for the Ant-Man series in particular--even if the post-credits scene reminds us that in the wider world of the Avengers movies, none of these qualities are as prized as they should be.

Monday, July 09, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Tacoma at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My latest Political History of the Future column discusses Tacoma, the follow-up to Fullbright's paradigm-busting exploration game Gone Home (see my review here).  Tacoma takes a very different approach from Gone Home's 90s-set domestic drama.  It puts us in the head of Amy, a salvage specialist in 2088 dispatched to the titular space station, to discover what catastrophe caused the crew to evacuate, and how they responded to it.  So far, so familiar, but as in Gone Home, Tacoma plays with our genre expectations, approaching its premise with a refreshing lack of melodrama or sensationalism, and exploring the human connections formed on the station, and how the disaster affects them.  It also, as I write in my column, gives us a panoramic view of life in this late 21st century future, where corporations have even more power than they currently do, and people find their lives, relationships, and happiness held hostage to the whims of a company's bottom line.
One of the points revealed by these conversations and email exchanges is how strongly the economic system in the game's future is tilted towards corporations. While money still exists in the game's world, it is heavily supplemented, and in some cases superseded, by loyalty points—either "customer loyalty", which locks consumers into purchasing from a single company, or "company loyalty", which discourages employees from moving from one corporate employer to another. The game is very smart in how it introduces this concept—it takes a few conversations for us to realize how commonplace and insidious it is, because most of the characters take it for granted. ... What's smart about how Tacoma introduces these ideas is how it avoids the obvious, dystopian spin it could have put on them ... while also making it clear how they curtail the freedom and happiness of ordinary people

Monday, July 02, 2018

Five Comments on Luke Cage, Season 2

I don't have that much to say about the second season of Luke Cage.  Which is actually a shame, because despite some problems, I'd say that it's the strongest and most consistently entertaining season of television the Netflix MCU has produced since the first season of Jessica Jones.  It's just that the things I'd have to say about it are basically a combination of my review of the first season, and my review of the second season of Jessica Jones.  The stuff that worked in season one is back here, but better--the strong visuals, the amazing music, the thrilling fight scenes, the palpable sense of place.  And like Jessica Jones, coming back for a second season seems to have freed Luke Cage from the burden of having to justify its own existence as a superhero show about X (a woman, a black man), and allowed it to simply tell a story in which most of the characters are people of color (and some of them have superpowers).  At the same time, a lot of the problems that plagued the first season, and suggested that the Luke Cage concept might not be as durable as we could hope, are back in force here, with little indication that the show is interested in addressing them.  Here are a few thoughts I had at the end of the season, though the bottom line is that it is definitely worth watching.

  1. Luke Cage's second season feels like a second crack at the story the show failed to tell in season one.  Strictly speaking, the story that dominates the second season is a continuation of the one from its first, but realistically, they are both the same story, the second time around with the kinks worked out.  In both seasons, Luke finds himself caught in between the established Harlem crime mafia, ruled over in the second season by the semi-legitimate Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and her mobster henchman--and now lover--Shades (Theo Rossi), and a newly-arrived crime boss with powers that rival Luke's.  In the first season, this was the profoundly unimpressive Diamondback, whose appearance derailed the entire season.  The biggest course-correction made by season two is to substitute that character with John "Bushmaster" McIver (Mustafa Shakir), who represents the Brooklyn-based Jamaican mafia, and whose powers come from Obeah medicine.

    It's almost impossible to express what a huge shot in the arm Bushmaster represents for the show.  It's not just that he's a better-written character than Diamondback, with more nuance to his personality and more intelligence in his schemes against both Mariah and Luke.  And its not just that the season avoids the disastrous bifurcated structure of season one, introducing Bushmaster in its first episode and slowly ramping up his challenge to Harlem's existing power structures.  The show also makes some very smart choices in how it builds Bushmaster's connection to the Harlem characters.  Where Diamondback had a parachuted-in family connection to Luke that never felt particularly persuasive or interesting, Bushmaster turns out to have a connection to Mariah, or rather her criminal forebears, the Stokes, whose memory both haunts and galvanizes her.  Bushmaster and Mariah's fathers, it turns out, were business partners, but Buggy Stokes cheated Quentin McIver of his share of the business, setting off a violent family feud that has claimed lives for generations, and which Bushmaster now intends to end.

    The stage is thus set for a twisty multigenerational crime drama with many fascinating elements.  Mariah's relationship to her family, and particularly her harsh but effective crime-boss grandmother, Mama Mabel (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), was a highlight of season one, and introducing an additional wrinkle in the form of a criminal feud with another family allows us to delve even further into the Stokes' storied history.  The conflict between Harlem-based African-Americans and Brooklyn-based Jamaican immigrants is the kind of story one hardly ever gets to see on TV, and it allows the show to explore the nuances of the prejudices and mutual incomprehension that lie between the two communities--as well as their tendency to be lumped together by outsiders, as when Harlem residents complain that they are experiencing increased police harassment after the Jamaican mafia carries off some public acts of brutality.

    Other stories include Mariah's attempts to reconcile with her daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), who grows suspicious of Shades's presence in her mother's life; Shades's own desire to cross over to the legitimate side of business even as Mariah begins to enthusiastically embrace the criminal life; and new character Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones), Shades's long-time compatriot, whose suspicion of Mariah initially seems like garden-variety misogyny and ageism, but is eventually revealed to be romantic jealousy over Shades.  The show ties them all together beautifully, into a storied tragedy about the past catching even with people who are trying to escape it.  It's the story that season one hinted at--particularly in its standout scene, in which Mariah's cousin Cottonmouth goads her about her abuse at the hands of their uncle, finally causing her to snap and kill him--but wasn't able to pull off.  Season two does so in spades.

  2. Luke himself continues to be the least interesting character in his own show, and feels almost incidental to the season's most interesting storyline.  This was already a problem in season one, but as Luke Cage gets its crime storytelling under control, it becomes increasingly clear that it doesn't have a correspondingly strong story to tell about its putative hero, or even a particularly important role for him to play in its more successful storylines.  It's not just that Luke isn't particularly instrumental in settling the Stokes/McIver dispute--he protects a witness here, defuses a conflict there, but the ultimate showdown occurs because of choices made by Mariah, Bushmaster, Tilda, and Shades, not him.  But about halfway into the season you realize that almost every standout scene that will stay with you--moments like Comanche admitting to Shades that the relationship they embarked on in prison meant more to him than just a way of venting his frustrations, or Mariah telling Tilda that she was conceived from rape--doesn't even include Luke in it, and would in fact have been significantly worse if he had been there.  (I'm obviously not including the fight scenes here, and there are some genuinely great ones over the course of the season; but as much as I enjoy good action scenes, they're not why I watch this show.)

    This ends up feeling like part of a greater problem revealed by Luke Cage's second season--that after appearing in three shows and four seasons of television, Luke Cage remains the Netflix MCU's most poorly-defined main character.  He seems to have a different personality in every show he appears in.  In Jessica Jones, he's a romance novel hero, brooding yet sensitive, willing to take direction in bed, and disarmingly vulnerable outside of it.  In the first season of Luke Cage, he was something very different, an earnest small-c conservative with a profound sense of his own dignity.  In The Defenders, he was the team dad, defusing Matt and Jessica's intensity and corralling Danny's puppyish tendencies while also smacking down his thoughtless arrogance and quick recourse to violence.  And now in Luke Cage's second season, he's something else yet again, a local hero who is both burdened and seduced by fame, and who struggles with his desire to set things right by strength of arms, no matter who gets in his way.

    It's not that any of these character arcs are unconvincing or poorly executed, but taken together they create the sense that Luke is the Netflix MCU's utility player, and make each one feel less convincing and less urgent in its own right.  Season two of Luke Cage tries to delve into its hero's psyche by confronting him with his disapproving father (Reg E. Cathey in his final role), whose harshness towards Luke is matched only by his inability to admit his own failings.  Through him, the show tries to spin the argument that Luke struggles with internalized rage, which emerges both in his conflicts with his father, and in his increasingly-rocky relationship with Claire Temple, who ultimately leaves after he has a violent outburst during an argument.  It's not that Luke has never been angry on screen, but the idea that this is his besetting flaw feels like an informed trait (not to mention, very similar to Matt, Jessica, and even Danny's core flaws).  For this reason, and because the writing for it is less successful, the scenes addressing this inner struggle are rarely as engaging as, for example, Mariah trying to win over Tilda, or Bushmaster conversing with his friends and relatives in the Jamaican community.

    There's the hint of a more interesting idea that crops up later in the season, when the show suggests that Luke's sense of responsibility for his community is as much a negative trait as a positive one.  That he not only feels an obligation to protect Harlem, but sees himself as having the right to assert his authority over it.  This leads to the season's final twist, in which Luke establishes himself as "the king of Harlem", making deals with competing mob bosses to keep their business out of the neighborhood, while a dying Mariah wills him her club, Harlem's Paradise, making his rule visible as well as tangible.  This sets up a very interesting situation for the third season, in which Luke will apparently try to be a crime boss, minus the crime.  But given how poorly the Netflix MCU, and even his own show, have served this character so far, it's hard to hope for great things.

  3. This is still an incredibly frustrating show for anyone who hoped that it would address police brutality and the broken relationship between African-Americans and the police.  It's true, season two avoids some of season one's most egregious choices, such as a subplot in which Mariah, a prominent black politician, cynically uses Black Lives Matter rhetoric to conceal her crimes and inflame public opinion against Luke.  But the season remains caught in a seemingly irreconcilable bind between its superhero premise and its cultural moment.  Most superhero shows these days are essentially cop shows with less accountability, and the Netflix MCU in particular is disturbingly wedded to the notion that the police have had their hands tied by due process and the rules of evidence, which allow criminals to evade justice "on a technicality", thus requiring extra-legal interference from people like Matt Murdoch, Frank Castle, or Luke Cage.  But in a setting like Luke Cage's Harlem--and on a show where the hero periodically reminds us that his skin color can easily cancel out his heroism as far as the authorities are concerned--that's a troubling choice, whose implications are only sporadically acknowledged.

    The season thus veers oddly back and forth between addressing the persecution that black people experience from the police and other authorities, and endorsing the abuse of police power (even though it stops short of justifying outright violence).  In one scene, Misty Knight complains that the NYPD leadership's reaction to Bushmaster's initial, theatrical forays against Mariah is to increase uniformed officer presence in Brooklyn, which is sure to result only in the harassment of law-abiding Jamaicans.  One of Misty's main storylines over the course of the season involves seriously considering--and very nearly carrying out--a plan to plant contraband weapons on a recently-released criminal who has been beating his wife.  When she's forestalled by the man's death, she admits that she's been at risk of going down a dark path and that she's afraid of ending up like her partner, Scarfe, who worked for Cottonmouth and regularly fabricated evidence.

    At the same time, however, this is still the same Misty who gets visibly angry when the law prevents her from roughing up suspects or interrogating them without their lawyer present.  Near the end of the season, she suggests that Tilda demanding a warrant before allowing Misty to search her store makes her similar to Mariah.  Especially given that Misty is such a heroic and stalwart figure, the way that the show repeatedly expects us to sympathize with her impatience with people exercising their constitutional rights feels like something we're meant to sympathize with.  And in a show about a community whose rights have historically been curtailed and ignored, that feels like an unjustifiable choice.

  4. Alfre Woodard gives the performance of a lifetime.  Woodard has been doing terrific work in film and TV for decades, including of course in the first season of Luke Cage.  But season two deepens and complicates Mariah's character, and gives Woodard a meaty role which she sinks her teeth into with gusto.  In her hands, Mariah becomes a mass of contradictions, and both the performance and the writing make it clear that these inner conflicts are rooted not just in Mariah's moral bankruptcy or her difficult family history, but in her race, and in the difficulties inherent in being an intelligent, powerful black woman.  Woodard excels at switching between Mariah's respectable, matronly demeanor and the "street" persona she associates with her past and her family.  She is at once desperate to cement her legacy as Harlem's savior, and completely ruthless and self-absorbed as a burgeoning crime boss.  As her involvement in criminal activities deepens, she veers wildly between ebullience at her newfound power, and dark despair when things don't go her way.  She also gets to address Mariah's sexuality, something that few older actresses get to play with, and is at turns rapacious, jealous, and insecure.

    It's a performance, and a character, that reminded me a great deal of what Viola Davis is doing on How to Get Away With Murder.  Both actresses are playing women who live on a knife's edge, who have supposedly overcome their troubled pasts, but who are constantly aware of the fact that as black women, they are always being judged and observed, and always on the verge of being pulled back down--until they finally decide to jump.  Like Davis, Woodard is fearless in portraying the psychological cost of a life lived with this uncertainty, and with the need to play a part in order to get ahead.  She lets us see beneath Mariah's mask, and what's there is dark and often unpleasant to look at.  But Woodard and the writing for Mariah make it clear that as much as that darkness is rooted in Mariah's own shriveled soul, it's also the result of a lifetime of being taught to hate herself--by her family, who refused to allow her the space to recover from rape and abuse, and by a society that insists that she is lesser because of the color of her skin.  One very good thing to have come out of the Netflix MCU is the glee with which it has allowed older actresses to play thorny, unsympathetic, but completely magnetic characters--Sigourney Weaver in The Defenders, Janet McTeer and Carrie-Ann Moss in Jessica Jones.  But Woodard is in a league of her own.  If you watch the show for no other reason, watch it for her.

  5. Yes, Danny Rand shows up.  It's only for one episode, and there are some good action scenes in it as Luke and Danny figure out how to combine their powers in a fight.  Plus, the work done in The Defenders to tone down Danny's smug arrogance continues here, and one can almost believe that he and Luke genuinely like each other.  All that said, Danny is still an annoying, pointless character, and his Luke Cage cameo does nothing to dissuade me from my decision not to watch Iron Fist's second season whenever it arrives.  (Colleen Wing also guest-stars earlier in the season, and is so much fun that it's depressing to remember that she's still stuck on Iron Fist.  Daughters of the Dragon, Netflix!  You made a dumb Punisher show, now do this!)

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Get to the Next Screen: Thoughts on Westworld's Second Season

When I wrote about Westworld's first season eighteen months ago, it was with profound annoyance at the show's reliance on twists and revelations, to the detriment of some of the interesting ideas about personhood and consciousness that the season tooled around with but never really explored.  I wasn't alone in making this criticism, and creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have subsequently backed off some of their more elaborate (and unsatisfying) structural choices.  But the result hasn't been all we could have hoped for.  In 2016, I was annoyed by Westworld.  In 2018, I was bored by it.  Removing the show's central gimmick, it turned out, only revealed a sad truth: that despite its sumptuous production values, gorgeous shooting locations, and amazing cast, what you find at the center of Westworld's maze is a great big blank.  That after producing twenty-three or -four hours of material, this show still isn't any closer to articulating what it's actually about.

I mean, really, what actually happens in season two?  The best of the season's storylines is probably the one involving Maeve (Thandie Newton), which is already a huge warning sign, because on paper Maeve's story is nothing but a great big runaround.  She spends the season chasing after her daughter--despite the very logical objections of almost everyone she meets, who point out that the host in question isn't her child in any way and that the feelings of love Maeve feels for her were imposed by the same people who pimped her out to be raped and murdered repeatedly by the park's guests.  Nevertheless, Maeve insists on her goal, and thus proceeds along a Perils of Pauline-like plot in which she encounters one obstacle and setback after another.  It works mainly because Newton is so amazing in the role, combining wit, humor, warmth, and determination.  Also, because it's the storyline that incorporates the season's two best episodes, each focusing on a different secondary character--Rinko Kikuchi's head geisha Akane, Maeve's counterpart in Westworld's Japanese-themed neighbor Shogun World; and Zahn McClarnon's Akecheta, head of Westworld's mysterious Ghost Nation tribe.  But it's also the storyline least connected to the season's thematic and conceptual load, and impacting the least on the show's main story, the conflict between the hosts and the park's owners, the Delos Corporation.

Meanwhile, easily the worst storyline in the season is also the one that is supposedly driving this conflict, the journey of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her supporters as they launch the robot revolution.  This is where the bulk of season's violence is concentrated, as Dolores mows her way through humans and hosts alike, and it's probably that--along with her tendency to break out in pseudo-enlightened speechifying--that creates a false sense of significance around this storyline.  But when you look a little closer, it becomes clear that Dolores doesn't really have a plan.  She bounces from one objective to another, and her actions seem designed primarily to produce dramatic set-pieces (and, again, more opportunities for speeches).  Even her final accomplishment, escaping the park in a body built to resemble Delos honcho Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) happens largely because of other people's choices.

Somewhere in the middle is Jeffrey Wright's Bernard, a park administrator revealed last season to be a host.  His storyline features the season's major stylistic flourish, the fact that Bernard's memory has been "de-addressed", leaving him incapable of distinguishing between past and present, between remembering events and living through them.  It's here, as it moves back and forth through the weeks immediately following the breakdown of order in the park, that the show delivers the bulk of its conceptual payload, chiefly in revealing Delos's actual purpose for the park, which the show has teased since its first episode.  This turns out to be using the hosts and the park's systems to spy on the guests in order to model their personalities, in the hopes of later marketing artificial immortality.  (There are, to be clear, some massive problems with this concept, including the never-addressed question of how the park can recreate the hosts' memories, particularly of events that happened outside of it.)  Bernard ends up taking us on a guided tour of the behind the scenes stations where this project is perfected, from Ford's secret lab, where a host copy of company founder Jim Delos (Peter Mullan) has spent decades repeatedly failing "fidelity" tests, to the Cradle, an artificial reality where the guest models are tested and refined, to the Forge, where the copies are stored in their millions, and where the season's final denouement takes place.

Spelling it out like this throws into sharp relief just how nonsensically this project has been designed, as if for no other purpose than to offer consecutive, increasingly dramatic revelations for the viewer.  As Todd VanDerWerff observed in an essay published before this week's finale, Westworld makes a lot more sense if you approach it as something to be "played", rather than watched.  As if the flatness of the characters were intended to make them suitable player surrogates, and the weird, level-like arrangement of its locations and revelations were intended to mimic a player's progress through a game.  But whereas in a game, the sense of accomplishment derived from solving a puzzle or winning a boss fight can obscure a certain thinness in the worldbuilding (or, more precisely, a sense that a world was built for no other purpose than to be discovered by the player in a specific order), there's no corresponding hit of satisfaction that does the same in Westworld.  It becomes impossible not to notice that all the convolutions of plot, all the movement back and forth across the park, is in service of very little.  That the only real purpose of the characters'--and, eventually, the viewers'--actions is getting to the next screen.

It's not that there aren't interesting ideas in the second season of Westworld.  But they all seem to occur in the background, and are rarely given the space they'd need to develop into a coherent theme for the show.  Take, for example, the revelation that park writer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), pressed for time, used the same storylines and character types for Westworld and Shogun World, so that when Maeve and her companions, the outlaw Hector and his silent, tattooed second-in-command Armistice, arrive in Shogun World's central location, they find their exact counterparts, repeating essentially the same stories and the same speeches, with only superficial changes to account for culture.  It's a profound challenge to the characters' sense of self, to which they each react differently--Hector and his double are suspicious of one another, Armistice and hers are instantly fascinated, and Maeve and Kikuchi's Akane forge a deep bond over their shared feelings of bereaved motherhood.  It also allows the show to at least gesture at the racism implicit in its premise, which it also does in Akecheta's story.

Later in the season, Lee, radicalized by his closer view of Maeve's suffering, sacrifices himself in order to allow her, Hector, and Armistice to escape, but does so while delivering one of Hector's speeches, essentially becoming his own character and further blurring the line between host and human.  Perhaps most interestingly, there is the running theme of host characters--Maeve, Dolores, Teddy--questioning whether they should allow themselves to be driven by emotional attachments written into their programs.  (Though the fact that they all end up making the same choice, to follow their programming, suggests that perhaps this is not as interesting a question as I'm assuming.)

All of these, however, are ancillary to the season's main storyline and revelations.  The most interesting idea suggested by the immortality plotline comes very late in the season, when we learn that the reason the park's system have struggled to recreate the guests in host form--they inevitably reach a "cognitive plateau" and go mad--is not that the system isn't sophisticated enough to model a human, but that humans are too simple.  For the park's AIs, it turns out, humans are a solved game.  With only a few thousand lines of code, they can be recreated with perfect fidelity, their every decision anticipated.

Jonathan Nolan's previous show, Person of Interest, toyed with very similar ideas, but approached them in ways that were compassionate and profound.  Westworld, on the other hand, chooses to take this concept in a direction that is cynical and glib.  "Humans can't change", the AI controlling the Forge explains to Dolores and Bernard, and when a digital ghost of park creator Ford (Anthony Hopkins) appears to Bernard in the Cradle and later in the real world, he insists that humans are incapable of grasping the personhood of hosts, and that violent conflict between the two groups is inevitable.  So in only a few steps, we've gone from "humans are completely predictable" to "humans have no free will" to "humans are incapable of learning to see past prejudices and expanding their definition of personhood."

There's a certain superficial attraction here.  Any avid reader knows that one rarely encounters, in real life, people as complex as the ones you find in fiction, and the last eighteen months in particular have been an education for people like me who grew up on fiction that told us villains were multifaceted and intelligent, only to realize that in the real world, bad guys are petty, stupid, and self-absorbed (and no less dangerous for it).  But simple isn't the same as soulless, and predictable isn't the same as inhuman, and it's not clear that the show realizes this--for example, no one ever comments on the fact that the system's conclusions about people's capacity for change are drawn from a sample made up entirely of people rich and bored enough to pay obscene sums of money in order to play an R-rated version of Cowboys and Indians.  It eventually starts to feel as if the show's dim view of people is less a philosophical standpoint, and more a way of justifying its own inability to write interesting characters.

Take, for example, the one human that Westworld does try to imbue with complexity, the Man in Black, AKA William (Ed Harris).  Not unlike his storyline in the first season, he spends the second refusing to be rescued after the robot uprising, and insisting on his right to pursue Ford's latest "game".  In doing so, he becomes convinced that the entire park exists for his benefit, including the human staff and, ultimately, his own daughter Emily (Katja Herbers), whom he kills.  But in his own focus episode at the end of the season, we learn that William has become obsessed with the park because he believes that it holds the key to his inner darkness, something that he has concealed from most people in the real world, covering for it with philanthropy and lies, and which is only suspected by his wife.

To state the obvious, this type of person--a complete sociopath, who somehow doesn't realize this about himself until his thirties, and then spends the next thirty years trying to hide his true nature while simultaneously becoming obsessed with a consequence-free murder playground--doesn't exist anywhere except in (rather pulpy) fiction.  But the problem with William is less that, and more the fact that the version of this character that Westworld offers is extremely unconvincing.  William feels more like an engine for story and shocking moments than a person--he's as inhuman as the most unaware of the hosts.  And while that might be a point the show is trying to make, it doesn't make watching him--or the fact that the narrative refuses to kill him off, despite multiple opportunities and the plain truth that his function in the story has ended--any more tolerable.

One of the frustrating aspects of trying to talk about Westworld is that for any criticism you can mount of the show, there's an equally valid defense of "yes, that's the point".  As VanDerWerff writes, for example, the flatness of the characters--humans and hosts alike--may very well be taken as a deliberate reflection of the show's belief that nobody, whether biological or artificial, can transcend their programming and core directives.  But plodding through the second season of Westworld, I was forced to come to the conclusion that there isn't a point to all these points.  That even when the show hits on interesting ideas, what it does with them is almost inevitably shallow.  The second season finale seems to promise the same sort of leveling-up as the first.  The surviving self-aware hosts have been packed off to their own artificial world where the humans of Delos can't harm them.  Maeve is recaptured, though some of her human allies may be in place to help her.  Bernard and Dolores escape the park and vow to fight for the future of their race, and against each other.  Once again, the show is promising that if we just stick with it, just move along to the next screen, we'll get to the real story.  But after two seasons of wheel-spinning, is there any reason to believe that Westworld has anything to say?

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Shows of Summer, 2018 Edition

Summer is properly here, and with it all the TV shows deemed too weird or too niche to make it in more prestigious weather.  I admit that I've noped out of several shows whose flimsiness felt appropriate to the season but not really to my taste, like the virtual reality procedural Reverie or the Castle-in-reverse detective show Take Two.  And on the other hand, some more serious fare, like FX's Pose, felt a little more earnest and heartfelt than I can take right now in the sweltering heat.  But here are a few shows that hit the exact sweet-spot between shlocky and highbrow, and helped me greet the summer (in my air-conditioned living room) with appropriate flair.
  • A Very English Scandal - I'm a little surprised that this BBC miniseries hasn't received more attention from people in my various feeds, since it seems to tick so many boxes of stuff people like.  Hugh Grant, in full Paddington 2 smarm mode, plays Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the British Liberal party (precursors of today's Liberal Democrats) during the 60s and 70s, who is also a closeted gay man.  Ben Whishaw plays Norman Scott, Thorpe's former lover, who over a span of years intermittently contacts and harasses Thorpe, asking for money, favors, or just acknowledgment that what they had existed.  Thorpe decides that his best course of action is to kill Scott, to which end he enlists a cabal of increasingly dim and incompetent middlemen and assassins, which leads to a botched attempt, a trial, a public scandal, and the end of Thorpe's career.  The whole thing comes to us (via a nonfiction book by John Preston) from the pen of Russell T. Davies, who takes the opportunity afforded by this improbable but nevertheless real historical event to discuss the lives of gay men in mid-20th century Britain.

    A first, and obvious, point of comparison for A Very English Scandal is this spring's The Assassination of Gianni Versace.  Both are true crime stories that use a shocking act of violence as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the lives of gay men in a society where their sexuality is no longer illegal, but still incompatible with "respectable" life.  But Assassination--despite stunning central performances from Darren Criss as the serial killer Andrew Cunanan, and Finn Wittrock and Cody Fern as two of his victims--is perhaps a little too self-serious.  Scandal approaches the same subject matter with significantly more humor--the other point of comparison I found myself returning to while watching was I, Tonya, and like that movie the miniseries is a very black comedy in which everyone is an idiot, but also afforded great sympathy and moments of dignity.  Taking its lead from Thorpe himself, a dynamic, magnetic rogue who seems to get things done through sheer force of personality, Scandal refuses to take any of its events very seriously, even as it circles around some genuinely awful truths--that Thorpe was right to believe that being outed would destroy his career; that the British press were far more interested in the details of his sexual relationship with Scott than in the fact that he ordered a murder; and that the sexuality of his victim (and the fact that Scott, unlike Thorpe, lived openly as a gay man) made it highly unlikely that he'd face consequences for his actions.

    Much time, therefore, is spent on minutiae, on manners that only lightly conceal a naughty or even depraved truth, and on the silliness of all these efforts to keep up a respectable face.  Whether it's Thorpe trying to maneuver his way into a relationship with a naive Scott without ever calling it by name, or trying to maneuver his way out of it, once he gets bored, by pretending that they were never more than friends.  Or Scott's constant harping on insignificant details--a running gag is his complaint that Thorpe promised to replace his lost national insurance card but never did so--as a substitute for the recognition he so clearly craves.  Or the would-be assassins' bumbling, movie-inspired attempts to lure Scott to his death with promises to protect him from other, nonexistent killers.  There's great humor in all of these sequences, but interspersed with them are moments of genuine emotion, when the mask of English detachment slips and one sees what's behind it all--a real, and entirely justified, fear of being found out.  When Thorpe tells his only real friend (Alex Jennings in a performance that rivals his turn as the pickled, peevish Edward VIII in The Crown) that legalizing homosexuality will not give gay men dignity or freedom, and that he would take his own life if he were ever exposed, there's a sudden lurch into genuine vulnerability that is almost too much to take.  Other scenes--Jennings pointing out that despite his effeminate presentation and obvious triviality, Scott's willingness to face up to daily public censure and potential violence by living openly as a gay man suggests a strength that other, more dignified characters lack; Thorpe explaining that one of his reasons for choosing Scott was that he seemed unlikely to be violent towards him, as other one-night stands often were; a conservative peer who is co-sponsoring the bill to decriminalize homosexuality painfully reminiscing about his brother's death by suicide--all combine to make the point that while this particular story may be a silly one, the pain and injustice that underlie it are real, and reverberate to this day.

  • Marvel's Cloak & Dagger - Five years into Marvel's TV project, it's possible to identify three distinct schools.  There are the ABC shows, perpetually hobbled by the need to conform to the network TV model without the skill to pull it off in an entertaining way; they occasionally throw up good material (the first season of Agent Carter, mainly), but for the most part aren't worth your time and attention.  There are the Netflix shows, incredibly exciting when they first appeared but very quick to squander their most interesting ideas (not to mention their potential for political storytelling).  And in the last year, we've gotten the Freeform shows (formerly known as ABC Family, Freeform is an ABC-owned channel for youth-oriented material).  These tend to be characterized by more adventurous visuals and an emphasis on real-world class issues that extends to filming in poor and sometimes dilapidated locations, something that hardly any other MCU product attempts.  But they also tend to wallow in soap-opera storylines to the detriment of their ostensible superhero premise.  No sooner did we bid farewell to Runaways--which started out like gangbusters only to stall due to its unwillingness to actually let its title characters run away--than the channel has released Cloak & Dagger, which demonstrates the same frustrating combination of promise and glacial plotting.

    The Cloak and Dagger of the title are Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) and Tandy (Olivia Holt), two teenagers who, as we learn in the pilot but as they are still figuring out, were granted superpowers by the same industrial accident, and who have a mysterious connection that they don't entirely understand.  The show spends a lot of time on their respective, complex situations.  Tyrone is the surviving child of an upwardly-mobile family whose parents, still scarred by the shooting death of his older brother, are frantic for him to buckle down and fly straight, and terrified that this won't be enough to protect him from a world that frequently victimizes young black men.  Tandy is living on the streets, running scams on rich college students, occasionally dropping in on her alcoholic mother, who is still trying to prove that the accident that killed Tandy's father (the same one that gave her and Tyrone their powers) wasn't his fault.  These are both well-drawn settings, and the fact that the show takes its time to introduce us to them, as well as the fact that it's drawing out our understanding of Tyrone and Tandy's powers, is not unjustifiable in itself.  What's less understandable is the show's reluctance to put its two leads together, instead pairing them with other characters who are obviously less important because their names aren't in the title.  This is particularly true of the two leads' respective alternate love interests--Tandy's devoted boyfriend Liam (Carl Lundstedt), and Evita (Noëlle Renée Bercy), a girl in Tyrone's school who makes her interest in him clear.  Both are decent characters, but since it's clear that they are merely hurdles on the path to Tyrone and Tandy getting together, it's hard not to resent the time spent with them.

    Nevertheless, there are things in Cloak & Dagger that make me think it's worth sticking with.  The show makes much of its New Orleans setting, not only using it to comment on race, racist policing, and corporate negligence, but drawing on its history for its own storytelling.  In a dream sequence in the third episode, Tyrone is seen dressed like an 18th century chevalier, which is perfect for a New Orleans story but not something you see in most superhero shows.  Another interesting note is the show's use of religious imagery.  Tyrone goes to a Catholic school and has a mentor in one of the priests who teach there, who challenges him to use faith to overcome his anger over his brother's death.  Tandy squats in an abandoned church and is drawn to images of angels.  Most gratifying given the show's setting, voodoo has already been introduced into the show's cosmology, with Tyrone visiting a priestess who sends him on a vision quest (this is actually one of the better uses to which the show puts Evita's character, who is one of the vectors through which Tyrone explores black New Orleans culture; the other is his father, a former Mardi Gras Indian).  These aren't elements that have shown up in other MCU shows, and they offer the possibility that Cloak & Dagger will be able to strike its own path rather than following a familiar template.  But for that promise to be realized, the show's plotting need to kick into gear.

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock - I haven't read the 1967 Joan Lindsay novel on which this miniseries is based, nor watched the 1975 Peter Weir film adaptation which is generally considered to be a masterpiece.  I did, however, know the basic details of the plot (and, apparently like a lot of other people, made the mistake of assuming that it was based on a real event).  On a summer afternoon in 1900 Australia, a group of girls from a rural finishing school go on a picnic at Hanging Rock, a magnificent natural rock formation.  Three of the girls and one of the teachers go exploring and don't return.  One is rescued after a few days, and the others are never seen again.  The investigation into the disappearance dredges up the secrets of the school's imperious headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), and stirs up currents of tension and resentment among the school's remaining students and teachers.

    The Victorian girls' boarding school as a hotbed of repression, hysteria, and overheated imagination is practically a cliché, especially in the Gothic genre to which Picnic at Hanging Rock clearly belongs.  But the Australian setting puts its own spin on the proceedings.  The miniseries' visuals stress the overpowering, baking sun.  One can almost feel the late summer heat wafting through the screen.  Victorian ideas of propriety are, of course, completely unsuited to this setting, and much is made of the way the girls are confined by their dress--being permitted to remove their gloves is depicted as an act of liberation.  The sound design, as well, often overpowers the characters' dialogue with jangling, modern music, or sounds of nature and of animals which are foreign to the characters' European-trained expectations (one of the missing girls complains that the Australian scenery is "wrong" and needs taming).  The soundtrack reminded me of a similar approach in the recently-concluded The Terror, a show I didn't get around to writing about, but which is on my list as one of the best TV series of 2018.  Despite taking place in very different parts of the world, both stories are ultimately about Victorians encroaching on an alien landscape and trying to remake it in their image, only to end up swallowed up by it.  Though the miniseries touches only lightly on the significance of Hanging Rock to Indigenous Australians, there is a constant suggestion that the rock is a place of power, and that the missing women have somehow plugged into it.

    At the same time, Picnic at Hanging Rock deals with the traditional components of Gothic stories--sexual hysteria, adolescent girls rebelling against their swiftly-approaching womanhood and its attendant limitations, and the vicious, self-imposed trap of female propriety.  Mrs. Appleyard turns out to have a dark past, which she compensates for by playing the correct, respectable matron to the hilt.  She collects damaged, vulnerable women as her students and employees, but it's never clear whether she does this out of genuine fellow-feeling or the desire to have someone to exercise her power over.  Either way, she ends up developing twisted, abusive relationships with all of them, incapable of reaching past her own tragic past and her desire to erase it.  The three girls each have a horror of their looming adulthood--Miranda (Lily Sullivan), the daughter of a rancher, dreams of returning to farm life but knows that she will soon be married off; Marion (Madeleine Madden), the biracial, illegitimate daughter of a rich man, struggles with both her limited future prospects, and her attraction to women; cosmopolitan heiress Irma (Samara Weaving) has money but no real family, and she latches on to the visiting nephew of one of the town's leading families, who in turn is more interested in the stable boy.  Orbiting the three girls is charity case Sarah (Inez Currõ), who fruitlessly tries to combat Mrs. Appleyard's attempts to impose normalcy (and save the reputation of her establishment) after the disappearances.

    There's a lot of interesting material, but perhaps not enough to sustain a six-hour miniseries.  Picnic at Hanging Rock drags towards its middle, when it seems that its story is branching out in multiple directions--Sarah's long-lost brother and her years in an orphanage; the school's French mistress's affair with a local businessman; the Bible-thumping deportment teacher's seeming horror at her students' rebelliousness, mingled with her own desire for freedom; even a romance between two of the school's servants--that don't seem to have much to do with one another.  There is perhaps a little too much reliance on wordless flashes to the missing girls in their diaphanous white gowns, too many attempts to create atmosphere that end up coasting on it.  Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a plot-driven story--another thing that most people know about it is that the mystery isn't solved--but nevertheless the miniseries wallows in its plotlessness a little too much, veering off on tangents instead of trying to come to a point.  The ending, despite its openness, is quite powerful, but nevertheless one wishes that the middle were a little more tightly-constructed.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My latest Political History of the Future column discusses Catherynne M. Valente's new novel Space Opera.  As I discuss in the essay, this is seemingly an odd choice--Valente's Hitchhiker's Guide-inspired comedy about a galaxy where species prove their right to exist among civilized nations by competing in space-Eurovision is pretty far outside the boundaries I had previously defined, of works that engage with concrete political and social issues.
To which the answer is, because talking about Space Opera gives me an opportunity to point out a glaring lacuna in almost all the works we’ve discussed so far—the way that nearly every one of them leaves out the centrality of culture, and particularly popular culture, in shaping a society and reflecting its preoccupations. ... Even as it strives to create fully-realized worlds, art—high and low, functional and abstract, popular and obscure, ridiculous and serious—tends to be absent from them. So are artists—try to remember the last time you encountered a character in a science fiction or fantasy story who had an artistic side, even just as a hobby. Even worse, few characters in SFF stories have any kind of cultural touchstones.
Valente not only creates a setting where art and music are the most important thing, but also touches on how central culture is to our existence as thinking, feeling people.  Plus, it's a really fun book.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Review: Lost in Space, Season 1 at Strange Horizons

This week at Strange Horizons, I review the first season of Netflix's re-reboot of Lost in Space.  Like a lot of people I found the entire notion of remaking a silly little space-pioneering show from 1965 (after a failed reboot movie in 1998) rather bizarre, and I can't say that the show has proved that this was something that needed to happen.  What it does achieve, however, is to demonstrate how you can take an unnecessary concept and execute it with intelligence and sensitivity (something that the makers of, to take a recent example, Solo: A Star Wars Story completely failed to accomplish).  I still don't think we needed a new Lost in Space, but the show we got has interesting characters, good storylines, and does some things that I'd almost given up on seeing in a genre show, such as construct coherent and compelling episode plots.  That said, because this is a reboot that is ultimately an attempt to monetize a familiar IP, the end of the season is a lot less interesting than its beginning, working overtime to get the characters to the canonical Lost in Space form, despite the fact that the new one it had originally presented was a great deal more interesting.

One thing I didn't find space for in the review, but which feels important to note, was my disappointment in the total straightness and cisnormativity of the show.  All of the characters we meet are implicitly straight.  All of the romances presented or suggested on the show are straight.  Though the characters spend a lot of time around other space-bound colonists, who, like them, are divided into family units, none of them have same-sex couples as parents.  All of the children are presumed to be straight and cis, and none suggest that they might be realizing otherwise.  This is particularly disappointing given that Netflix's other big kid-oriented show, A Series of Unfortunate Events, is cheerfully LGBT-friendly, dropping frequent mentions of gay couples into the story, and even featuring a non-binary character.  So it's not a matter of the target audience, but simply the show's creators making no space in their future for queerness, something that we should have long ago moved past.