Thursday, November 15, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 31

In one of this year's previous movie roundups, I noted what a terrible year 2018 has turned out to be for blockbuster, action-adventure entertainment.  That situation hasn't improved (and seems unlikely to by the end of the year) but as the seasons change and the more sophisticated segment of the year's movie slate starts showing up in theaters, I've found myself pleasantly surprised.  2018's grown-up movies and Oscar hopefuls are an intriguingly diverse bunch, with some genuinely out there entries.  Even the films I haven't been wowed by have felt enough like their own thing to be worth watching.  This roundup covers films from late summer and early fall--it also helps that Israeli film distributors seem to have abandoned their habit of only screening Oscar hopefuls in the weeks right before the ceremony, which means that this year, for once, I can feel like part of the conversation around the award as it develops.
  • BlacKkKlansman - Based on true events, Spike Lee's latest film follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a Colorado police detective who in the late 70s makes contact with the local branch of the KKK and manages to infiltrate them, deploying a white detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), for in person meetings but maintaining a phone relationship with the branch leaders and even grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).  The premise, and Stallworth's ability to penetrate so far up the Klan's org structure, create the impression of a jovial heist movie, about how a black detective brought down the KKK, which is bolstered by Washington and Driver's witty, dynamic performances.  But this is to miss how angry, and bleak, BlacKkKlansman actually is.  The most important scene in the film comes when Stallworth's sergeant explains to him that Duke's strategy is to reinvent the Klan for an era in which overt bigotry is no longer cool, by instead concealing it under allegedly serious policy issues like immigration, which could eventually lead to sympathetic fellow travelers making their way into politics and even the white house.  Stallworth's incredulous reaction--"America won't elect a man like David Duke!"--is a stomach-dropping moment, but Lee isn't content to leave it at that.  The film ends with news footage from last year's murderous neo-Nazi rally at Charlottesville, and with footage of Trump calling the protesters (who had already killed a woman, Heather Heyer, to whose memory the film is dedicated) "very fine people".

    One could almost see the events of BlacKkKlansman as Stallworth doing the Klan's work for them, mopping up the more violent, openly bigoted chapter members, who are planning an attack on the president of a local black students group (Laura Harrier), who is also Stallworth's love interest, while leaving a smarter, more polite generation in place to enact the next thirty years of far-right encroachment into American politics.  It's hard, in the end, not to feel that Ron and Flip's mission amounts to little more than trolling, and while it's obviously satisfying to watch Duke and his ilk realize that they've been played, the fact that, as the movie points out, they have had the last laugh leaves you with a rather bitter taste in your mouth as you're leaving the theater.  It's for this reason that I'm dubious about the criticisms that have been made of BlacKkKlansman, for example by Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley, as being too pro-police.  For one thing, the film is extremely upfront about the fact that it takes a black man to even get the police to take the Klan seriously (before this mission, Stallworth is deployed to spy on "black radicals"), and it ends with the upper brass insisting that the investigation be shut down, and Stallworth's lists of KKK members destroyed. Obviously, a film about a heroic character who genuinely believes in the ability to do good as a cop will end up falling on that hero's side, for all the criticism it allows of that character.  But I think it's a mistake to view BlacKkKlansman, or its hero, as purely triumphant figures--it's just that Lee doesn't see the police as the ultimate problem.

  • Crazy Rich Asians - When I wrote about the Kevin Kwan novel on which this movie is based, I observed that it has a bulletproof premise--a Chinese-American woman travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend's family, only to discover that they're richer than god and see her as an interloper and a gold-digger--which it executes with bizarrely lead-footed inattention to the basics of drama.  So the most prominent reaction I had to Crazy Rich Asians, the movie--which is otherwise a well-made, fun romantic comedy with an excellent cast and a beautiful setting--is to note how many smart choices it makes in adapting the novel.  So instead of being a passive doormat, heroine Rachel (Constance Wu) is smart, inquisitive, and willing to fight for her man.  And instead of gaslighting his girlfriend for the entire movie, hero Nicholas (Henry Golding) is called on the insensitivity of simply dropping Rachel into a situation she wasn't aware of or prepared for halfway into the movie, and spends the rest of the story trying to make up for it (though I remain incensed that Nicholas didn't realize that Rachel would need a designer wardrobe to show her face among his family, and offered to buy it for her).  Annoying subplots from the novel--Nicholas's cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) prostrating herself before her husband, who is humiliated that she has more money than him, or his other cousin Edison (Ronny Chieng) browbeating his family into presenting perfect appearances for fashion photographers and paparazzi--are either cut or massively changed to be much more palatable.

    Most importantly, Crazy Rich Asians significantly increases the instances of interaction and conflict between Rachel and Nicholas's imperious, disapproving mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).  One of the most frustrating aspects of the book was how little these two women interacted, when the struggle between them should be the heart of the story.  And when you've got actresses like Wu and Yeoh at your disposal, it's simply a crime not to pit them against each other as much as possible, which results in some masterful scenes that give the entire film around them weight and significance.  The film also straightens out the book's messy conclusion, in which things more or less fall together for Rachel and Nicholas, by having Rachel make choices, and demonstrate to Eleanor that although she doesn't have money or breeding, she does have character (along the way, a genuinely infuriating subplot in which Rachel behaves selfishly and judgmentally towards her mother is also eliminated).  This leads to a perfect rom-com ending--the means by which the film indicates that Rachel has won Eleanor's approval is one of the most perfect moments of scriptwriting I've seen all year.  It might seem like damning Crazy Rich Asians with faint praise to say that I spent so much of my viewing time observing how much its script (by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim) improves on the book, but those improvements are also a reminder that fun, effective romantic comedies are something that Hollywood can still deliver, if it can muster up the will and get out of its own way.

  • A Star is Born - I haven't seen any of the previous versions of this beloved Hollywood tale, but like a lot of people, I suspect, I knew the general shape of the story long before sitting down to watch this latest one.  It feels as if director Bradley Cooper took that knowledge into account, because his version of Star feels like only the vaguest outline of a story, one that assumes our ability to make the leap from one plot point to another mostly unaided.  This works just fine in the scenes that focus on the film's two leads--Cooper's Jackson, a middle-aged country-rock star who is on the last stretch of his crawl into the bottle, and Lady Gaga's Ally, a furiously talented but insecure aspiring singer whom Jackson meets, falls in love with, and then watches flower into an instant pop diva.  The two actors perfectly inhabit their characters, and even more importantly, the romance between them, which feels warm and lived-in for all its obvious problems.  It feels worth watching the movie just to get to hang out with them, or listen to them perform the various songs they write separately and together.

    As a piece of storytelling, however, A Star is Born is a great deal less satisfying.  It sometimes feels as if the film is telling two stories, both of which it shortchanges.  There is the familiar Hollywood chestnut, in which Jackson sinks further into addiction as Ally's career takes off, finally realizing that his presence in her life will only make her miserable in the long run.  And there is the running issue of Jackson and Ally's conflicting musical styles, and the question of whether she is selling herself out by veering in a sexier, costume-and-dance-heavy direction, or if Jackson's insistence that she is merely reflects his jealousy and desire to control her.  The latter conflict is more interesting to me (not least for the unspoken but very obvious misogyny inherent in dismissing pop as Jackson and his hangers-on do), but it's where the film places the least emphasis.  Which might be fine if the seesaw of Jackson and Ally's career trajectories was more affecting, but this storyline is undermined not only by the script's hollowness, but by the entire premise's romanticized, soft-pedaling approach to difficult issues like addiction and suicide.

    Jackson is never allowed to be as ugly as the story demands--the closest he comes is when he humiliates himself and Ally on stage at the Grammys, but it's a scene that goes by quickly, after which he immediately gets clean.  And Ally's repeated choices to entangle herself with him emotionally and professionally, despite his obvious issues, are never explored or given grounding in her character.  (In addition, the film misses the obvious opportunity of being the first A Star is Born set in the internet era to discuss the ways that the constant churn of cultural commentary would affect its heroes--would Jackson become a meme?  Would Ally be derided for sticking with him?  It's never even discussed.)  The result ends up feeling glib, and ultimately irresponsible.  A Star is Born clearly wants to think of itself as a grand tragedy, but beyond some good songs and performances, all it left me with was a slight queasiness.

  • Suspiria - I haven't seen the original film of which this is remake, so I have no idea how much director Luca Guadagnino and writer David Kajganic's version differs from Dario Argento's original.  But one point on which the two films must diverge is their sense of history and its context.  The original Suspiria came out in 1977, and the remake is set in that year as a historical piece (with a brief foray into the present in its closing moments).  Which obviously gives it a very different perspective.  The Baader-Meinhof protests and terrorist attacks run through the story, showing up in police reports and in discussions of the characters' political sympathies.  That movement was at least in part a reaction by Germany's youth to the horror of the previous generation's actions, and to the lingering presence of ex-Nazis in West German leadership and politics.  Coming to that setting in 2018, one can't help but have different associations than Argento would have.  In one scene, heroine Susie (Dakota Johnson) asks "why is everyone so quick to believe that the worst is over?" and right now, with fascism resurgent in so many parts of the world, that seems like a question we should all have been asking.

    Susie, an American fleeing a strict religious upbringing, arrives in divided Berlin to join the Markos Company, a renowned dance troupe overseen by the ethereal, soft-spoken Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton).  She quickly singles herself out and is selected to be the lead dancer in the company's upcoming performance of their signature piece.  Knowing that Suspiria was a horror movie, I didn't expect it to spend so much time on the matter of art, but Susie's development as a dancer, her mentorship relationship with Blanc, and her growing understanding of the piece she's dancing are a major component of the movie.  Underlying it all, of course, is witchcraft--it's a genuinely clever touch to reveal, as the film quickly does, that the company's exclusively-female leadership is a coven of witches, who use their performances to augment their power and protect themselves from the outside world.  The prototypical image of witches in Christian folklore has involved women sneaking off to engage in secret, lascivious dances, and the pieces choreographed for Suspiria strike a perfect midpoint between modern dance and occult ritual.  It's not at all surprising--and, at the same time, both thrilling and horrifying--when Susie's first performance of her part inadvertently taps into the coven's latent power, and uses it to brutally punish a dancer who had betrayed the company.  The various performances in the movie culminate in a bacchanalia intended to offer Susie up as a sacrifice to ensure the company's continued survival, but things predictably go out of hand.

    For a horror movie that so revels in gore, physical abuse, and the grotesque--a particular highlight is the company's leader, the mostly-absent Madame Markos (also Swinton), whose swollen, barely-alive body is on full display in the film's climax--Suspiria isn't very scary.  If I compare it to something like The Haunting of Hill House--which overall I found significantly less coherent and interesting than this movie--I can't think of a single fright or scary moment that has lingered with me from Suspiria in the way that the miniseries has continued to haunt me.  On the contrary, there's something weirdly soothing about the movie's depiction of female power.  Not that that power is benign, even to other women.  It's made clear from the film's opening scene that the coven requires sacrifices, and that the company's leaders are perfectly willing to offer up their young dancers to horrific fates in order to preserve their power.  But given what's going on in the outside world of the movie (and in general) you find yourself hard-pressed to blame them for this calculation, and for being willing to do anything to remain safe and independent.

    The film's secondary storyline involves a psychiatrist, Dr. Klemperer (Swinton again, which means that almost every major role in the movie is played by a woman), who begins to suspect the coven when a dancer he'd been treating disappears.  Klemperer's wife, we learn, disappeared during the war, and he is haunted by guilt over failing to protect her.  Meanwhile, the Markos company survived throughout the war, when (as Susie is told by one of her soon-to-be-devoured friends) the Nazis wanted women to shut up and have babies.  It's a contrast that feels extremely deliberate.  Suspiria is unusual among horror movies in setting itself so strongly within a historical moment, and contrasting its horror so precisely with historical horrors.  The argument it's making is a bit glib--especially when the film's climax goes a little off the rails with its dedication to gore and hysteria--but one can't deny its timeliness.

  • Burning - Korea's entry in the upcoming best foreign language film Oscar race is a very slow film.  Not meditative or atmospheric, but simply slow, and the fact that that slowness is deliberate is made clear in the film's closing scenes, in which its story comes to a crashing, abrupt, close.  Before that, however, we follow aimless college graduate and aspiring writer Jongsu (Ah-In Yoo) as he works part-time jobs, reconnects with Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon), a former classmate and neighbor, tends to his father's country house, and attends court hearings in which his father is being tried for assaulting a government official.  Jongsu and Haemi's flirtation is cut short when she goes on vacation and returns with Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy man who enjoys squiring the two young people around, showing off his fancy car, beautiful apartment, and the group of sophisticated young professionals he socializes with.  The film makes very little effort to hide Ben's fundamental creepiness, and the possibility that he poses a danger to Haemi--in an early scene, he boasts about never crying or feeling sadness--but neither she nor Jongsu do anything to detach themselves from Ben, perhaps because his wealth and social status lend him an authority they feel compelled to follow.  There are several more scenes in which the trio hang out, or Jongsu tries to work through his frustration at being supplanted.  Then Haemi disappears, not long after Ben boasts to Jongsu about his hobby of setting fires, promising to start one near Jongsu's house.

    Perhaps the smartest choice that Burning makes is that, while its premise is familiar from a million thrillers and mysteries, it avoids their tropes entirely.  There's never any doubt about what happened to Haemi and Ben's responsibility for it.  Or rather, there is doubt, but it's of a more existential variety.  People suggest to Jongsu that Haemi may have gone underground to avoid credit card debt, or gone on another vacation.  It's not that any of these theories are more or less plausible than the suspicion that Haemi has been murdered by Ben, but that in order to believe them, Jongsu has to see her as a type, the untrustworthy woman--a major throughline in the film is his attempt to discover whether a story she told him about her childhood really happened--rather than a person whose wellbeing matters and should be a concern to everyone.  By the same token, we never find out the details of what happened to Haemi--again, there isn't really any question that she's dead, but Jongsu doesn't find her body, or any but the most circumstantial of proofs that Ben has killed her.  The point of Jongsu's journey is less about finding proof for what is, after all, the most logical explanation for both Haemi's disappearance and Ben's strange behavior, but his willingness to accept that it has happened, and to take the necessary next step.

    Haemi herself is a frustratingly vague figure, lacking any sign of an inner life, and completely passive in how she allows herself to be manipulated, and ultimately destroyed, by Ben.  This is obviously part of the point the film is making--not only that the society Haemi lives in values her, and women like her, so little that it allows Ben to prey on them with only the thinnest disguise for his actions, but that Jongsu, despite claiming to love her, never tries to understand her or reach out to her, and only becomes a true ally to her after he can no longer offer her any real help.  But that doesn't really alleviate the frustration of watching yet another film in which a woman is an object to be worked on, victimized, and avenged by men.  What's left to appreciate about Burning, then, is Jongsu's journey--one that is deeply inflected by Korean society's growing inequality, and by all the characters' unspoken recognition that people like Jongsu and Haemi will never matter as much as people like Ben and his friends.  Yoo does a great job of portraying a character who initially seems unformed, and slowly turns out to be more canny, and more determined, than either we or he could have imagined (though again, that growth comes too late to be of any use to his friend).  It's just a shame that this transformation is rooted, as it so often is in fiction, in a woman's suffering.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Streaming in the Fall

A few weeks ago I noted that this year's fall network TV crop has been singularly unimpressive, so much so that I didn't even bother to review any of them.  At this point, there aren't any new shows that I'm following (I briefly hate-watched A Million Little Things, a This Is Us clone about suicide and depression that is just as risible as that description suggests; but life is too short to subject yourself to that kind of tripe for too long). And for whatever reason, the cable networks haven't kicked off any of their prestige shows yet (we'll be getting The Little Drummer Girl and My Brilliant Friend in a few weeks, though).  Never fear: the streaming networks are here to fill the gap.  I didn't love any of these shows, but at least they offer more to talk about than their network counterparts, as well as suggesting some new directions that TV in general could move in.
  • Chilling Adventures of Sabrina - Netflix's stylish, spooky remake of the cheesy 90s sitcom (both of which are based on the Archie Comics character) has a lot of quirks and details that make watching it a rewarding experience.  There is, for example, the show's careful attention to visual detail, whether in its richly decorated sets or its impeccable costuming, from Sabrina's adorably moddish outfits, to her aunt Zelda's 40s-style dresses and suits (always accentuated with a dramatic fur or veil), to the sumptuous gowns worn by the show's various witch characters.  Or the fact that one of Sabrina's friends, Susie Putnam, is clearly coming to terms with her gender identity, and is played by a young non-binary actor, Lachlan Watson.  Or the delightful scene-stealing of Sabrina's cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), who turns on a dime from too-cool-for-school loucheness to genuine vulnerability, not to mention dismay at Sabrina's willingness to thumb her nose at anyone more powerful than her.  Or Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto as Sabrina's aunts Hilda and Zelda, who effortlessly find the beating heart beneath the show's thick layer of camp, and craft a dysfunctional but ultimately loving sisterly bond.  Or, for that matter, the rest of the show's cast, which is stacked with ringers all perfectly happy to chew the scenery as Sabrina's foils and helpers--Richard Coyle as Faustus Blackwood, the headmaster of Sabrina's witch academy who is sometimes her ally and sometimes her enemy; Michelle Gomez as Ms. Wardwell, a teacher at Sabrina's human school who is nudging her towards embracing her witch heritage; or Tati Gabrielle as Prudence, the imperious mean girl at Sabrina's school whose deeper substance does nothing to curtail her cruelty.

    Unfortunately, the litany of things to praise about Chilling Adventures comes to crashing halt with Sabrina herself, and with the story the show weaves around her.  Kiernan Shipka is perfectly game to deliver anything the show's writers (the same team that gave us Riverdale) want from her, but her skill only serves to reveal how thoroughly empty and poorly defined the character she's been given actually is.  The crux of the season is that Sabrina, half-mortal and half-witch, has to commit to the latter side of her heritage on her sixteenth birthday, and leave her mortal life, including her friends and boyfriend, behind forever.  When she chooses not to, and to remain in both worlds, she sets off a chain reaction in the highest reaches of witch society, which reveals that there are dark plans afoot for her.  But Sabrina herself never feels interesting enough, or compelling enough, to justify all this hullabaloo around her.  She occasionally balks at the sadism and indifference to human life that run rampant through witch society, but she also does a lot of ethically questionable things without seeming terribly affected by them.  As Sonia Saraiya writes, she's more Harry Potter than Hermione, reacting to challenges that are right in front of her, but never developing any sort of coherent worldview.

    Beyond a certain pluckiness, Sabrina doesn't seem to have much of a personality, and she doesn't grow, or even gain much self-awareness, over the course of the season.  When she makes a dramatic choice in the season finale that finally forces her to pick between her two worlds, it rings hollow, because we've gotten so little sense of who she is that it's hard to know what this choice actually means--or, for that matter, to believe that the second season won't quickly roll it back.  At a shorter length, this hollowness at Chilling Adventures's center might be easier to ignore--there is, after all, so much else about the show that is fun and entertaining.  But the longer it runs, the more obvious it becomes that beyond its style and its cool moments, this show has no idea what it is, or what story it wants to tell.

  • Homecoming - Amazon's latest miniseries is produced and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, which tells in both the show's look, and its dominant tone of paranoia and alienation.  Julia Roberts plays Heidi, a counselor at the titular center, which advertises itself as offering a program to help soldiers returning from overseas deployment to prepare for civilian life.  In conversations with her oily, fast-talking boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale), however, it becomes clear that Homecoming's actual project is to treat PTSD, and that it is doing so by surreptitiously introducing a drug into the soldiers' food.  Heidi forges a particular bond with one of her subjects, Walter (Stephan James), who grows suspicious of Homecoming's project, and whose personality changes eventually alarm Heidi herself.  A second storyline takes place several years later, when a DoD investigator played by Shae Whigham starts looking into complaints about the now-shuttered Homecoming center, and tracks Heidi down.  Her cryptic responses to his questions initially seem like stonewalling, but it eventually becomes clear, to both Heidi and to us, that she has lost all memory of her time at Homecoming.

    As he does in Mr. Robot, Esmail deploys a distinctive visual style to convey the smallness of his characters when set against a joint government-corporate edifice to whom they are merely items on a budget.  Early scenes in which Walter and the other patients try to figure out the catch to Homecoming's combination of luxury and isolation have a definite Prisoner-ish vibe.  Familiar tics--the copious use of negative space, long pans across office parks or cubicle farms, characters shot in extreme long takes amid countless rows of storage racks, a jangling, discordant soundtrack--combine, as they do in Mr. Robot, to create the sense that what's happening to the characters is at once deeply sinister, and depressingly mundane.  When we get a glimpse of Homecoming's corporate overlords, they come off more like a cult, each level promising the one below it that enlightenment, and some kind of master plan, are just around the corner.  But then the curtain is pulled back, revealing just another layer of pointless grasping at status and wealth, to which end people like Walter, Heidi, and even Colin are merely chips to be played.

    As in Mr. Robot, however, this is a level of cynicism that eventually comes to feel hollow and uninteresting.  There are some good ideas circling around Homecoming, that might have turned it into a Black Mirror-esque examination of how capitalism exploits even the most altruistic of endeavors to perpetuate itself, as when we learn that a memory-altering drug initially developed to treat PTSD is being used by the corporation's top honchos to give themselves deniability for the atrocities they've signed off on.  But Homecoming is much more interested in the gotcha moment of revealing how much the corruption of all its institutions is baked into the system to develop this idea in interesting directions.  The same might be said of Heidi, whom the show treats with what seems like excessive sympathy given that she knowingly signed on to administer a completely unethical experiment on a vulnerable population.  A more thoughtful script might have delved into her reasons doing that--what we learn of Heidi makes her look like a thoroughly mediocre person who was so desperate to feel like a hero that she allowed herself to become an instrument of evil.  But Homecoming's handling of her (coupled with Roberts's apparently indefatigable charisma) is bizarrely focused on soft-pedaling her failures and trying to give her a happy ending.

    What's left in Homecoming, then, is basically what you get in Mr. Robot, but in a more condensed form.  Great performances--Roberts is typically winning, but James also does a great job of making Walter likable and making us wish for things to work out for him, and at the other extreme, Cannavale is terrifyingly excellent at portraying a complete sociopath, who is capable of faking any emotion, and of manipulating any situation, to his own benefit.  And, of course, the look and feel of the show are so effectively overpowering that they frequently make up for the thinness of the script and of the ideas running through it.  Esmail and his writers made the smart choice to limit the show's episodes to a half hour each, something that very few dramas (much less ones as self-serious as this one) would be willing to do, and this makes Homecoming into a tight, intense story that one can't help but want to follow along.  It's only when the final credits roll that you realize there wasn't much there there, but the journey was entertaining enough that it doesn't really matter.

  • Titans - Like everyone else, DC Comics wants its own streaming service, but it got off to a rough start when it premiered the trailer to Titans, the first show in its planned streaming-only slate (other planned series include Doom Patrol and Swamp Thing).  The trailer seemed to indulge in all the most juvenile tendencies of dark-n'-gritty comics storytelling, climaxing with a grim-faced Robin (Brenton Thwaites) choking out "fuck Batman!", as if to promise that this show will finally be the one to crack the code, and manage to transform indiscriminate violence and thoughtless profanity into sophisticated drama.  In context, the "fuck Batman" scene turns out to be less egregious than you might think--Robin is reacting more in exasperation than in defiance, as the criminals he's trying to catch single-handed treat him as an afterthought and worry that Batman might be around.  This isn't to say that Titans doesn't suffer from a lot of the typical (and extremely annoying) flaws of "dark" comics storytelling, chiefly in finding violence a great deal more interesting and dramatically fruitful than anyone over the age of thirteen should.  (It also has some typical streaming superhero show problems; much like the Netflix MCU shows, it has a flat, murky look that belies what must have been an extremely expensive production to deliver a show that looks ugly and boring nearly all the time.)  But in between those tedious tics, the show turns out to be better than it has any business being, and this is almost entirely down to its willingness to be weird.

    That weirdness is concentrated in the series's three non-Robin protagonists: Rachel "Raven" Roth (Teagan Croft) is a twelve-year-old who has spent her life trying to suppress a dark force within herself, which may be an alternate personality, and may be her true self, but either way has tremendous destructive abilities; Kori "Starfire" Anders (Anna Diop) seems to be a superior being, able to withstand any attack, speak any language, and deal out significant punishment, but she also has no memory of her life until shortly after the show starts; and Gar "Beast Boy" Logan (Ryan Potter) was saved from a fatal disease by a serum that changed his appearance, and gave him the ability to transform into animals (four episodes into the series, he is thus far its least developed character).  Not only are the characters' powers specific and interestingly realized (you quickly find yourself looking forward to the next idiot who tries to get in Rachel or Kori's way, simply for the pleasure of seeing what inventive method they'll come up with to take them apart--for once, the gritty approach to comics violence delivers something that is fun to watch), but their reactions to their abilities also feel specific and grounded in their circumstances.  Kori is bemused by her abilities, and inspired by them to cut through bullshit and prevarication--when a gangster she'd been scamming cries that he loved her, she thinks for a moment and replies that although she has no memory of their relationship, she probably never loved him--but also to be kind to people she sees as worthy of her protection.  Rachel, on the other hand, is terrified of her powers, convinced that she harbors a monster within her.  It's not a terribly original storyline, but Croft's performance and the specific depiction of Rachel's dark counterpart are interesting enough to keep you engaged.  Even one-off characters, like the struggling superhero duo Hawk and Dove (Alan Ritchson and Minka Kelly), or the freak collection Doom Patrol (presumably a stealth introduction for their own show) have enough verve and oddball characteristics to make the time spent with them worthwhile.

    All of this might be for nothing, however, because the place where Titans is weakest is probably also the character whom the show clearly expects to be its main draw, Robin.  It's startling how quickly the air comes out of the show every time the story pivots to focus on Robin and his drama.  This isn't Thwaites's fault, but the fact that he's been given a storyline that is at once vague (he's left Gotham to strike out on his own as a superhero because of some unspecified break with Batman) and tedious (he seems to suffer from anger issues, leaving scores of broken, bleeding bodies behind him every time he goes out in his super-suit, but also claims to be trying to overcome the violence that Batman taught him, even though he's clearly going way past the line the Caped Crusader tends to draw) makes him extremely hard to care about.  That we're obviously going to spend much of the season learning the exact contours of the trauma that brought Robin to his current state is enough to make one drop the show, and especially when you contrast that with Rachel and Kori's more compelling, more pressing storylines (hell, even Gar, who doesn't have much of a story yet, is at least fun to be around). 

    Robin's angst is only barely alleviated by his determination to protect Rachel, but given that she seems perfectly capable of taking care of herself, and that his emotional problems are probably far worse than hers, it's hard not to feel that she's better off with only Kori and Gar to act as her surrogate family.  It's hard to see what Robin brings to the show besides name recognition (and the opportunity to bring in other Bat-family characters like Alfred and Jason Todd, though obviously not Batman himself, for guest appearances), and hard not to suspect that as the story increases its focus on him, the delightful weirdness that made Titans worth watching despite its many flaws will leak away, and leave us with nothing but another "dark" superhero show that doesn't understand what that term means or how to make anything of it.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Sorry to Bother You

If you're anything like me, you've probably been hearing great things about Sorry to Bother You since it premiered to rapturous reception in this year's Sundance Festival.  If you're a lot like me, you probably follow many film industry people and reviewers on twitter, and have spent several months watching them go nuts over this film, while also advising you to learn as little as possible about it so as not to be spoiled for its mind-bending plot twists.  If you're really like me, you probably live in one of the many non-US countries where Sorry to Bother You, despite its tremendous reception, hasn't been able to find a distributor, and had reconciled yourself to not being able to see it legally.  And if you actually are me, you were probably overjoyed to learn that a local film festival had purchased the film for a special, one-night-only showing, and hurried as fast as you could to buy tickets.

You see where I'm going with this, right?  It's pretty much impossible to sit down and watch, in November, a film that you've been hearing talked up since January, and not come away feeling at least a little let down.  And the issue here isn't that Sorry to Bother You isn't a good movie--it is, with a tremendous cast, a sharp and funny script, and more ideas per minute than any dozen other films put together--but that a lot of its promised mind-blowing plot developments struck me as more familiar and more conventional than I was expecting.  And then when thought about it, that suddenly seemed like the whole point.  The thing that makes Sorry to Bother You remarkable is less how it tells its story, and more its willingness to tell it at all.  Under the guise of its eyebrow-raising premise, and the gonzo twists of plot it proceeds along from that premise, it is willing to talk about issues of labor rights, and labor organizing, that the rest of pop culture seems genuinely blind to.

Written and directed by rapper and activist Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You recalls, in its freewheeling visuals and cheerful weirdness, the work of auteurs like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.  But it also gives the definite impression of having had a lifetime's worth of ideas, preoccupations, and frustrations crammed into a script that can't quite hold them all.  It's impressive that Riley has managed to craft a gonzo-yet-plausible day-after-tomorrow world, to tell a complicated story within it, and to make the whole thing pretty funny, but there's often a sense that the film can't properly address all of its interesting ideas, and ends up underplaying some of them or leaving them by the wayside.  About halfway through the movie, for example, we detour into the world of performance art, and the question of whether radical or disruptive art can spur real social change.  It's an interesting question (especially since the film we're watching is one such work of art), but there simply isn't enough time to consider it.  Other times, the script indulges in oddball flourishes that seem to exist merely for the pleasure of doing them, such as a character whose name is bleeped out, or a massively popular reality show whose participants agree to be beaten bloody on live TV.  No doubt there's a hidden meaning to some of these details, but mostly they feel like a way of setting the film apart.  Not that that's a bad thing--I can't think of another film that feels as much like its own thing as this one.  But one sometimes wishes that Riley had saved a few concepts for his next work.

The premise of Sorry to Bother You, which has been widely reported, reads like a racially-conscious twist on surreal corporate parodies like the early scenes of Being John Malkovich.  Down-on-his-luck Oakland resident Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) lands a boring, unfulfilling job at a telemarketing company, selling useless crap (it is one of the script's typically underplayed but obviously significant choices that we get only a few vague descriptions of what Cassius is selling), but finds that he can't make much money at it, because prospective customers hang up on him as soon as he introduces himself.  An older colleague, Langston (Danny Glover), advises Cassius to use his "white voice" to lure in customers.  Once Cassius finds that persona (voiced by David Cross), his sales suddenly shoot through the roof, and he's invited to join the company's elite, highly remunerated "top sellers", eventually catching the eye of company founder Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

So far, this is probably what you know about Sorry to Bother You from its trailers and plot descriptions.  But this part of the plot is gotten through in the film's early scenes.  More importantly, though race plays an important role in the story (if in no other respect than the fact that the film's sympathetic characters are almost entirely people of color, while its antagonists, be they thoughtless or malicious, are mostly white), it isn't what the film is ultimately about.  The idea that a black person might have an easier time doing their job if they seem white is introduced and accepted, but even during the first introduction of the concept of a "white voice", it's made clear that this isn't simply about vocal inflection.  As Glover explains, "white voice" doesn't mean sounding like a white person, but sounding like the fantasy of whiteness that only a minority of white America actually embodies, but that all of it has been taught to aspire to.
I'm not talking about sounding all nasal.  It's like, sounding like you don't have a care.  You got your bills paid.  You happy about your future.  You 'bout ready to jump in your Ferrari out there after you get off this call.  Put some real breath in there.  Breezy, like, I don't really need this money.  You've never been fired, only laid off.  It's not really a white voice.  It's what they wish they sounded like.  It's like what they think they're supposed to sound like.
Sorry to Bother You is much more interested in capitalism as the original sin of its world than in racism.  That doesn't mean that race doesn't play an important role in the movie, or indeed in its critique of the class conflict--when Cassius asks his girlfriend, the artist and activist Detroit (Tessa Thompson), why her work focuses so much on Africa, she talks about the atrocities visited on African people, but also observes that this exploitation was the starting point of modern capitalism.  This doesn't mean that race, and how his race changes the way people relate to him, doesn't continue to dog Cassius, but that it is inextricably mixed with class, woven through the film's critique of capitalism.  When Cassius arrives at the top callers' floor, he's mentored by another black man, Mr. ____ (Omari Hardwick), who instructs him to use his white voice at all times (Mr. ____'s white voice is dubbed by Patton Oswalt, and we only hear Hardwick's own voice once or twice).  But when the two are invited to Lift's mansion for a party, the plutocrat insists that he's cool with black people and that Cassius should drop his feigned persona--and then immediately instructs him to tell rough stories from his childhood, and perform a rap.  When Cassius, over his objections that he can't rap, is nevertheless compelled to perform, he's initially flummoxed, and then realizes that he can satisfy the crowd by yelling the n-word repeatedly.  The way that his blackness shifts from hindrance to asset as Cassius climbs the class ladder, but never in a way that he can feel comfortable with or allow himself to embody in the way that he wants, is clearly a major component of the film's argument.

But it isn't the main component.  Even as Cassius is taking his early steps towards corporate success, his fellow employees (who eventually include Detroit) start to grumble about the poor working conditions in their company.  One of them, Squeeze (Steven Yeun), starts to agitate for a union, and we eventually learn that he is a professional organizer, moving from one workplace to another and encouraging the employees to unionize.  The scene in which Squeeze introduces himself to Cassius and starts feeling him out for union sympathy is a deceptively simple one, but it threw me momentarily out of the movie.  I started asking myself when was the last time I saw a Hollywood movie incorporate labor organizing into its storytelling--much less a raucous, SF-inflected comedy like Sorry to Bother You.  The film itself seems aware that this is a vanishingly rare plot element in movies, as it has Detroit compare herself to Sally Field in Norma Rae, which came out in 1979.

What's more, the fact that the organizing, and eventual strike, of the film's characters isn't something spontaneous, but spurred and guided by the actions of an "outside agitator" like Squeeze, is practically unheard of in modern pop culture, which has a seemingly pathological distrust of progressive organizing and continues to insist that good social change can only emerge from individuals acting on the spur of the moment.  (Even Doctor Who pretends that Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat was merely a spontaneous protest.)  Planning is for villains, and working towards a better world from any position other than abject misery and humiliation is inherently suspect.  But not in the world of Sorry to Bother You, which treats Squeeze's actions as legitimate and even heroic, and the union he's trying to form as necessary to the characters' happiness and wellbeing.

Naturally, the unionization plot ends up on a collision course with Cassius's upward trajectory on the corporate ladder, which is where the emotional and moral weight of Sorry to Bother You actually lies.  Cassius is initially supportive of the union, and even after his fortunes improve, he continues to root for his friends.  But the more he succeeds and the more relations between workers and management deteriorate, the more he pulls away from his old group, until he's faced with the stark dilemma of whether to cross a picket line.  This makes Sorry to Bother You a very familiar, even hoary, Hollywood story--the outsider who discovers that they have a special skill, is embraced by the mercenary, shallow world they'd previously despised but also secretly yearned to belong to, and along the way abandons the friend who appreciated him back when he was a nobody.  It's the stuff of a million teen movies and sports dramas, but what sets Sorry to Bother You apart is that Cassius's failure isn't refusing to be true to himself, or forgetting about the people who knew him when.  It's failing to show solidarity with his class, thinking of what's best for him alone, instead of what's better for everyone.

As well as the central fantasy conceit of the white voice, Sorry to Bother You is littered with exaggerated SF worldbuilding that imagines how a world where inequality has only gotten worse and worse will look like.  The most prominent of these is WorryFree, an employment scheme that trades guaranteed room and board for a lifetime of labor--or, in other words, slavery.  Several characters in the movie contemplate selling themselves into this sort of contract, and billboards for the scheme crop up everywhere in the film's version of Oakland (the billboards are quickly defaced by Detroit and her fellow members of an anarchist collective, but we're left to wonder whether this form of protest has any effect--Squeeze, for example, seems politely dubious).

I found myself wishing that the film had acknowledged that this sort of labor policy is ultimately cannibalistic--if more and more of the population has no disposable income, then they won't be able to buy the products they're producing, and the economy will shrink.  It ends up doing the next best thing.  When Cassius asks Langston how he can make real money off this telemarketing job, the older man admits that there's no path to that in selling the consumer products they've been peddling--and indeed, the customers we see Cassius sell to are often only scraping by, doing not much better than he was at the beginning of the movie.  When Cassius graduates to the top seller level, he learns that he won't be selling to the little people anymore, but to corporations and plutocrats.  And his product is the WorryFree workforce.  So again, even though race isn't the central topic of the movie, it continues to lurk in the background, with its black, white-presenting character only achieving the wealth he'd dreamed of by becoming a slave-trader.

The final turn of the film's surrealism screw comes when Cassius finally gets a glimpse behind the curtain of the vast corporate empire he's sold his soul to.  At a party in Steve Lift's house, he discovers that some of the WorryFree employees have been given a serum that transforms them into horse-human hybrids (dubbed "equisapiens"), who are more powerful and resilient than ordinary humans.  I think this is probably the moment that blew the top of a lot of people's heads off, but taken on its own it strikes me as a fairly middle-of-the-road Black Mirror premise (though that's not going to stop me from nominating Sorry to Bother You for the Hugo next year).  It's what Riley does with this idea that makes it special.

Finally shocked out of his selfishness, Cassius at first tries to alert the media to Lift's evil scheme, but the result is only to inflate WorryFree's stock price (I would like to call this a moment of exaggerated cynicism, but all anyone has to do is look at the myriad examples of the market reacting positively to appalling corporate behavior, and negatively to anything resembling good citizenship and compassion on the part of companies, to know that this is hardly an unlikely supposition).  Finally, he realizes that he can't save the world on his own.  He contacts Squeeze, Detroit, and the other strikers.  More importantly, he reaches out to the equisapiens, and the film culminates in a protest in which humans and horse-people join forces to defeat the SWAT team deployed to break up the strike.  The core difference between Black Mirror and Sorry to Bother You is that where the former would stop at the moment of disgust Cassius feels when he first sees the suffering, grotesque equisapiens, the movie reaches past that reaction to compassion, and then to solidarity.  It treats the horse-people not as monsters but as people who are still capable of participating in society--and more importantly, it treats protest as merely one form that that participation can take.

In the end, that's what makes Sorry to Bother You special.  It's not that any particular idea is so original, but that Riley completely rejects the cynicism and sneering disdain for progressive action that permeates so much of Hollywood's political work.  Sorry to Bother You doesn't end with order restored and evil defeated--it's very clear, in fact, that the characters will have to continue struggling and protesting for the rest of their lives.  But the idea that this is, in itself, a happy ending, and that by standing together they can create a good, meaningful life for themselves, is rare enough that it felt almost like a physical shock to encounter.

At the beginning of the film, Cassius worryingly asks Detroit what she thinks the meaning of life is.  What value will his life have if he just lives it and accomplishes nothing of note?  Detroit answers that she wants to be loved by her family, but Cassius counters that this is merely kicking the can down the road, that finding meaning in your children is just a way of pushing the burden of meaning onto their shoulders.  This is a standard Hollywood film dilemma--do you pursue greatness and personal accomplishment, or family and love?  It's the crux of a million movies about overworked dads who have to learn not to ignore their families in favor of more time at the office, and it's the core dilemma of a different million Great Man biopics in which a tortured white guy achieves great things while his all-but-abandoned wife looks pained.  Sorry to Bother You insists that this is false dilemma; that in fact, to focus on yourself when trying to find meaning in life is to completely miss the point.  The solution, as Cassius concludes at the film's ending, is to work together to make a better world for tomorrow.  (And in case you find that ending too treacly, there's another, second ending with more of an "eat the rich" theme.)  It's so rare to find a film that reaches this seemingly obvious conclusion.  As with so much else about Sorry to Bother You, there's nothing new here; just things that desperately needed to be said.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review: The Haunting of Hill House at Strange Horizons

My review of Netflix's miniseries adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is up at Strange Horizons today.  I ended up feeling deeply conflicted about the show.  Like many Jackson fans, I was initially dismayed by its decision to rip out the original novel's story and replace it with something in which only a few character names and details are recognizable.  Then I was won over by the excellence of this substitute story, and the way it combined supernatural haunting with thoroughly mundane family drama and the effects that unacknowledged tragedy can have on families.  And then, as the series's storytelling started groaning as it approached its conclusion, I started to notice how its deviation from the novel reaches much further than changing the plot, to a complete misunderstanding of what Jackson was trying to do with her story, particularly when it comes to gender.  The Netflix version of Haunting prioritizes male characters and treats women as tragic victims, which is something that Jackson would surely have strenuously objected to. 

Still, I've found that Haunting has lingered with me in the weeks since I watched it (certainly far more than Netflix's other major October offerings, like the third season of Daredevil and the reboot of Sabrina, both of which ended up feeling centerless, and uncertain about their main characters).  I'm not sure if I can exactly recommend it, but if you do choose to watch it, you'll find plenty to chew over.

This is also a good opportunity to mention that the Strange Horizons fund drive is running, and with only a week left, is still quite short of its goal.  The magazine has continued to do great work in the last year, and in the reviews department in particular, there has been some fantastic writing in 2018: Nandini Ramachandran on The Shape of Water, Maggie Clark on The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt, Vajra Chandrasekera's excellent overview of this year's Clarke Award shortlist (part 1 and 2), Erin Horakova on Netflix's reboot of The Worst Witch, Matt Hilliard on the middle two books of Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series (part 1 and 2), and many others.  If you want this work to continue, please consider making a contribution.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

First Man

[A version of this post appeared yesterday at Lawyers, Guns & Money]

So, here's something you may not know about me: I love stories about solar system space exploration. I love fictionalizations of the mid-century space race like Apollo 13 and the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. I love hokey disaster movies in space like Gravity and The Martian. I have even voluntary sat down and watched absolute garbage like Defying Gravity, Ascension, and The First, simply because they were about the slow, complicated process of getting into space. Hell, I'm one of the few people who does not think Interstellar is completely worthless, mainly because the middle segment, set on a spaceship and focused on the characters having to overcome so many practical and technical challenges, checks every one of my favorite tropes.

Why do I love space stories so much? I love them because they satisfy my craving for competent, thoughtful protagonists. I love them because their heroes are usually smart, hard-working people who spend their time solving practical problems. I love them because they're set in an environment so challenging that even the simplest problems become incredible challenges that require creative, fascinating solutions. I love them because, at their best, the drama and conflict in them emerge organically from those challenging situations, not from contrived, parachuted-in personal issues. I love them because there isn't a better setting for genuinely impeccable plotting than space, where the only resources at your disposal are the ones you brought with you.

Most of all, I love stories about space exploration because they offer a different—and to my mind, better—model for heroic, adventurous storytelling than a lot of what pop culture produces. No one gets into space alone. No one does it by being a rule-breaking maverick. It takes thousands of people working together, respecting and listening to one another. The story of space exploration is the story of how, through self-sacrifice, hard work, cooperation, and camaraderie, we can achieve almost anything.

And yet, despite my genuine love for stories about space exploration and the Apollo program, I found myself feeling curiously unexcited about Damien Chazelle's First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his path to becoming the first man on the moon. While some of the criticism voiced towards the film's project—basically "why bother when we already know he makes it"—struck me as glib (though, to be fair, the film does itself no favors on this front in its trailers, which do genuinely seem to suggest that there's some question on this point), I have to admit that I approached First Man in genuine puzzlement as to why it had even been attempted. 2016's Hidden Figures, it seemed to me, provided a much better template for future fiction about the Apollo program, shining a light on little-known corners of the endeavor, and on the people who took part in it who were not white men. Why go back to Armstrong and Apollo 11, whose story has surely been covered from every possible angle?

First Man doesn't really give you a satisfying answer to this question. It's a fantastic piece of filmmaking, with some stunning visuals and set-pieces—particularly the long final sequence on the moon itself, though I couldn't shake the sneaking suspicion that in shooting these scenes Chazelle was driven primarily by his crushing disappointment that none of the real moon landing footage is in HD. And there are moments in Josh Singer's script where you can almost sense a unique approach to the material. Where, instead of Right Stuff hyper-competence, or even Apollo 13 improvisation, the film highlights the ricketiness of the edifice NASA built to take men into space, the flimsiness of the technology that Armstrong and his fellow astronauts trusted with their lives, and the danger and uncertainty they met when they left the earth's atmosphere.

It's an interesting approach, but a rather flimsy scaffold upon which to hang an entire (long) movie. It works incredibly well in an early sequence, in which Armstrong and his fellow Gemini 8 astronaut Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) find themselves spinning uncontrollably due to an unforeseen malfunction. Armstrong's firm-yet-clearly-exasperated response of "No. I'm busy" when NASA asks him for information about the capsule's condition while he's trying to calculate a solution before losing consciousness from G-forces conveys the seriousness of his predicament and the weight that's been placed on his shoulders. For all the support and technology backing him up, First Man is saying, it's ultimately up to him to do the job. Similarly, Michael Collins's (Lukas Haas) moment of barely-suppressed panic when bidding Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) goodbye as they leave for the lunar surface is a wonderfully human touch, a reminder that he is about to become the loneliest person in human history, and that there was a very real chance he'd have to make the journey back alone.

Other times, though, the film's wallowing in the dangers of the Apollo program feels deeply manipulative. I found the entire sequence leading up to the Apollo 1 disaster exploitative and macabre. The way the film lingers on doomed mission commander Ed White (Jason Clarke), from stressing his friendship with Armstrong, to having Armstrong genuinely congratulate him for being named the first Apollo commander, felt like taking dramatic irony to absurd extremes. And the choice to fully dramatize the astronauts' horrific deaths feels like it could only come from a place of wanting us to marvel at what a badass Armstrong must be, to stay on with the space program even after his friends died so terribly.

(To be fair, I'm bringing a lot of my own baggage to these reactions, since I didn't know anything about the Gemini 8 malfunction, but did know about the Apollo 1 disaster. That said, there's something genuinely unpleasant about the film's deliberate drawing out of the moment in which three men were incinerated in a metal coffin.)

Another way of looking at it, of course, is that First Man highlights the difficulties and dangers of space exploration in order to puzzle over the type of person who would brave them in order to achieve an objectively meaningless goal. As such, the film avoids a lot of obvious pitfalls. I've seen some people dismiss it as great man fetishism, and I don't think that's entirely fair (though, again, the film doesn't do itself any favors by placing so much emphasis on Armstrong's grief over the death of his daughter, ultimately seeming to imply that he ran to the moon to get away from it). On the contrary, First Man works hard to establish that the traits that make Armstrong uniquely suited to the technical and emotional challenges of his mission also make him something very different from the standard Hollywood hero.

As portrayed by Gosling, Armstrong is thoughtful, methodical, almost bereft of ego. He's not the easiest person to live with, especially when he's in the grip of a mission, as exemplified by the scenes he shares with his increasingly exasperated wife Janet (Claire Foy). But he's not the blustering, emotionally-illiterate manchild we're used to seeing as a stand-in for heroism. He understands his responsibilities as a husband and father, even though he expects Janet to tolerate his need to step away from them. And he understands his responsibility to the mission and the team, even though the film he's in chooses to downplay them both so entirely.

(Having said this, it's worth noting that the alt-right missed a gigantic trick when it chose to blow its nonsense culture war wad around this movie on the non-issue of the supposed absence of American flags—which are, in fact, featured quite prominently. In a different universe, some smarter MRA types waited to see the movie, and then embraced it as a return to the values of traditional masculinity, one that recognizes the space program as the achievement of brave white men, in direct contrast to something like Hidden Figures.)

What's missing from Gosling's Armstrong, however, and what ultimately made First Man's project with him fail for me, is any sense of wonder or joy. In the scenes depicting the actual moon landing, Gosling and the film's sound engineers worked to manipulate his performance so as to sound almost identical to the original recordings of Armstrong. But the extremely noticeable shift only draws attention to the choices Gosling and Chazelle have made elsewhere in the movie. Most of Gosling's line readings reek of the weight on his shoulders—of his mission, of his grief, of the sheer responsibility of being a Great Man. It's as though the entire endeavor would be cheapened if he ever allowed himself to feel happy or excited about what he was doing, or experience wonder at the privilege he was granted and the new frontiers he was crossing. When imitating the real Armstrong, on the other hand, he just sounds like a person—a little nervous, a little self-conscious, but mostly focused on the job at hand. We suddenly notice just how up himself the fictionalized version of Armstrong has seemed, and how the absence of that self-obsession makes one a much better emissary for humanity's first forays on another world.

In the end, for all of Chazelle and Gosling's incredible work, First Man is remarkably uninvolving. It lacks the sense of uplift that should be the foundation of any space story. It's so wound up in its hero's manpain—and in convincing us that it's not just manpain but something grander and more impressive—that it forgets to inspire us. I imagine there will be some people for whom First Man is the first Apollo program dramatization they've seen, and that thought makes me sad. We all deserve a version of this story that gives us joy and hope, that inspires awe at the universe and what it takes to explore it. If First Man wants us to feel awe, it is only at its hero.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2018 Edition

Usually when I write these roundups, it's to review the new network shows that premiere in the fall.  But as we all know, there hasn't been a season for TV for some time now, as evidenced by the fact that the various streaming services delivered several new, high-profile projects in September, just when you'd expect everyone's focus to be on the networks.  I might still write about the network shows, though right now none of them have grabbed me enough to seem worthy of discussion.  But in the meantime, here are a few of the shows I've watched as the fall has started.  None of them are amazing, but a few hold promise, and together they form an interesting snapshot of what TV is becoming, for better and worse.
  • Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 social novel, about the travails and adventures of hard-hearted social climber Becky Sharpe, has gotten fewer bites at the adaptation apple than other 19th century favorites like the novels of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.  ITV's new miniseries, written by Gwyneth Hughes, is the first adaptation since Mira Nair's 2004 film, and the first TV adaptation since the BBC's 1998 version.  It's never been clear to me why Vanity Fair is so comparatively ignored, since it contains all the ingredients of a genuinely excellent period soap--a wide cast of characters who are both ridiculous and compelling, a plot that romps across the continent and the early 19th century's major events, and a theme, the moral bankruptcy of so-called polite society and its shining figures, that will probably never lose its relevance.  And yet judging by Hughes's efforts, translating Vanity Fair to the screen is a lot tougher than you might think, as she struggles to capture Thackeray's wit and his story's delightedly scandalized tone.

    The miniseries benefits from an excellent cast.  Olivia Cooke is perfect at conveying Becky's combination of smarts, charisma, and utter narcissism.  Tom Bateman, who I enjoyed as a surprisingly affecting Claudio in the National Theater's production of Much Ado About Nothing, takes the opposite emotional journey as Rawdon Crawley, starting out a cad who seems like Becky's equal in hedonism and self-absorption, and then unexpectedly growing a heart just in time to realize that he's married the wrong woman.  Claudia Jessie perfectly captures the infuriating, soppy helplessness of the saintly Amelia Sedley, and while Johnny Flynn initially feels far too sexy to play the repressed, lovelorn Major Dobbin, he actually ends up defusing the undertone of creepiness that often accompanies the character's decades-long pining for Amelia, conveying Dobbin's awkwardness and fundamental decency.

    But good actors can only take you so far, and Hughes's script repeatedly fumbles the book's biggest emotional climaxes, and leaves out the complexity of most of its characters.  The joy of Vanity Fair is that no one in it is purely lovable or hateable.  You thrill to Becky's triumphs even as her rise in society allows her to more fully express her worst qualities.  You groan at Amelia's blind love for a selfish man-child, which persists long after his death, even as you're reluctantly forced to admit that she's a better person than most of the other characters.  You roll your eyes at the moralistic preening of Rawdon's sister-in-law, then stand back in dismay as she turns out to be one of the kindest, most benevolent people in the novel.  Hughes misses so many of these hairpin turns of plotting and characterization, chiefly when it comes to her heroine, who is here flattened into a proto-feminist figure whose failings are not really her fault, but a justified reaction to a classist society that leaves her no option but to social climb, and then disdains her for trying.  It's not that Thackeray didn't know that the world he had dropped his heroine into was evil; he just didn't see that as an excuse for being heartless.  Hughes repeatedly seems to think that she can do him better, while missing the entire point of the book--as in the bizarre choice to spend twenty minutes recreating the battle of Waterloo, which in the book is dismissed in a paragraph, not because Thackeray couldn't write battle scenes, but because his entire point was to look at what people do when they are at their leisure, even when that leisure is at the edge of a war.  The best I can say for ITV's Vanity Fair is that it has inspired me to reread the book and enjoy its genius first-hand, but this is once again a demonstration of how fleeting that genius is in anyone else's hands.

  • Forever - Before Alan Yang (co-creator of Master of None) and Matt Hubbard's new series dropped at Amazon, the creators apparently sent reviewers an itemized list of details they were asked not to reveal in their reviews.  I'm not a professional reviewer, and more importantly, there's really nothing to say about Forever without getting into those spoilers.  So I'm just going to reveal that in Forever's first two episodes, its two main characters, married couple Oscar (Fred Armisen) and June (Maya Rudolph), both die within a year of each other, and are reunited in an afterlife that looks like a pleasant but slightly dull suburban neighborhood.  In other words, Forever is a lot like The Good Place, but without the weight of ethical questioning that gives that show its purpose (not to mention the breakneck pace of hilarious jokes).  If that sounds a little boring, well, I'm both describing it right, and getting at the point that the show is trying to make.  June and Oscar's afterlife doesn't seem to have a point, or to be significantly different from the life they left behind.  They fill it with hobbies and genuine--though somewhat well-worn--affection for one another.  But for June, who was already feeling dissatisfaction with her life before Oscar died, this isn't enough, and she ends up going on a series of adventures with her equally discontented neighbor Kase (Katherine Keener), which leave Oscar feeling increasingly abandoned.

    The problem with writing a show about boredom and discontent, even one with as high a concept as Forever, is that it's hard to do without making your audience feel the same emotions, and there's only so far you can take the attitude that "that's the point!"  There's a reason why the best episode in Forever's (first?) season is the one that spends the least time with the main characters, as we follow a pair of realtors played by Jason Mitchell and Hong Chau who embark on a years-long quasi-affair centered around the same house.  These characters are doing things, making choices, experiencing change, and while, again, that is clearly the point the show is making, it doesn't make it any easier to go back to June, Oscar, and their slower-moving and less engaging dramas.  There's some pleasure to be had in the show's excellent production, smart writing, and of course its cast, but even over a short season (which, as noted, takes two episodes just to set up its premise), those pleasures wear thin.  Forever ends up feeling like an interesting experiment, one that you're overall pretty glad you tuned in for, but you can tell that it wanted to be a lot more.

  • Maniac - Netflix has been taking some heat for its quantity-over-quality approach in the last few years, so you can see what they were aiming for when they recruited Cary Joji Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, to direct Patrick Somerville's miniseries about a journey into the mind.  Between the presence of bona fide movie stars like Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, the distinctive, retro-futuristic look of the mini's world, and the trailers' promise of a trippy, Eternal Sunshine-esque exploration of the characters' psyches, it's clear that Netflix was building Maniac up to be an event, the sort of thing that people might obsess over in the same way that they furiously debated True Detective's fusion of mystery storytelling and the fantastic.  What the show ends up delivering, however, is both more idiosyncratic, and more conventional.  Maniac is extremely watchable and very well made, but it's also completely self-indulgent.  There is simply no reason for this story to be a ten-part miniseries rather than a movie--neither the basic story it tells, nor the flourishes and ornamentation it piles on top of it, justify that kind of excess.  It's only the skill of the people involved that keeps the entire thing from devolving into a slog.

    Maniac centers on two people, Owen (Hill) and Annie (Stone) who volunteer for a pharmaceutical study, which turns out to be a combined drug-and-guided-hallucination protocol meant to cure all mental illness and replace psychiatry.  Owen has suffered from hallucinations and paranoid delusions for years (there is initially an impression that we're meant to wonder how much of the show is happening in his head, but there are too many scenes outside his perspective for this to be a plausible reading), while Annie, who joins the study because she's drug-seeking, has alienated her family and friends with erratic, anti-social behavior in the years since her sister's death.  A malfunction in the process causes Owen and Annie's hallucinations to combine, and they end up having a series of adventures in different genres, from a 1940s heist to Tolkienian high fantasy to a Doctor Strangelove-esque spy story with aliens.  These sequences are sumptuously realized, and they look extremely appealing in the trailers, but it doesn't take very long to realize that they are actually the least interesting aspect of Maniac's story.  Far more interesting are the glimpses we get of the show's world, with its 80s technology, 70s hairstyles, and bizarre, Blade-Runner-on-acid details like the ability to hire a "friend proxy" who pretends to be an absent figure from your life, or to pay for services by agreeing to be shadowed by an "ad buddy", who reads commercials to you.  A subplot about the scientists overseeing the project (Justin Theroux, Sonoya Mizuno, and Rome Kanda) struggling with substance abuse, a failed love affair, and a poisonous relationship with their mother (Sally Field, who also plays the AI who oversees the subjects' hallucinations) ends up feeling a great deal more engaging and substantial than a lot of what happens to the show's putative main characters, not least because it's the site of most of the series's absurdist comedy.

    Most importantly, Annie and Owen's journeys of self-exploration never feel as deep or as revelatory as the series's gonzo visuals and psychedelic themes seem to promise.  Annie needs to let go of her anger and guilt over her sister's death, but this is both a simpler concept than the show's repeated dressing it up in metaphor and costumes can acknowledge, and a much bigger one than the series's fine-but-unremarkable writing can hope to encompass--the closest the show comes to a novel approach to this familiar topic is when Annie hallucinates an entire story whose purpose is to allow her to advise the future mother of the man who will cause her sister's fatal accident not to have children.  Owen has deeper mental health problems, but it's telling that the one scene in which we get a sense of how painful and scary it is to live with his condition takes place in the real world, when he tells Annie about his first psychotic break (Hill is genuinely excellent here, perfectly conveying Owen's anguish at not being able to trust either his perceptions or his family, who treat him like a freak or an encumbrance).  When it comes down to it, Maniac tells a very simple and familiar story, about two damaged people who unexpectedly find solace and support in one another, and who discover that friendship can help them bear seemingly insupportable burdens.  The visual and storytelling flourishes that Fukunaga and Somerville pile on this premise don't end up elevating it, nor do they give us insight into their characters.  Fukunaga's hand on the tiller is sure enough that Maniac is never boring to watch (in particular, it's interesting to observe that he avoids Netflix bloat by making each episode only as long as it needs to be, resulting in playing times that range from 47 minutes to 26), and you do end up hoping for good things for its characters.  But when the credits roll, it's impossible not to conclude that the show is a lot less interesting and experimental than all its preening and marketing had suggested.

  • The First - Hulu's series about the first manned mission to Mars looks and sounds like many millions of bucks.  It's full of moments of breathtaking cinematography backed by a sweeping orchestral score.  But all that grandeur often seems to be in service of obscuring the fact that The First has so little to say about its putative topic.  Despite what promotional materials may have promised, the season takes place on Earth, after an accident during the launch of the first stage of a semi-private venture to the red planet leaves the rest of the project in jeopardy.  Tech visionary Laz Ingram (Natasha McElhone) brings in former astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), with whom she had previously feuded, to lead the next mission and help convince the public and politicians not to pull funding.  But even this logistical, political, and technical challenge isn't where the show's heart really lies.  Instead, The First turns out to be much more of a character drama, about the kind of people who choose to risk their lives on a long, arduous, dangerous journey into the unknown, and the people they leave behind.

    As such, there are some aspects of the show that are worth experiencing.  In particular, Anna Jacoby-Heron gives a very fine performance as Hagerty's troubled daughter Denise, struggling with substance abuse and the death by suicide of her mother as she grapples with the possibility of losing a father who has always seemed to be more drawn to the stars than to her side.  But even leaving aside the fact that this is not what most viewers will have tuned in for when promised a show about space exploration, there simply isn't enough of this to justify the season's stately pace.  Ultimately, the show keeps circling around the same question--isn't it wasteful to expend vast resources, and possibly lives, on a journey to another planet, when the one we're on still has so many problems?  And what kind of person would leave their family for years, possibly forever, if they didn't have to?  The problem is, these are not very interesting questions, because the answers to them are not rational.  Humans explore because we have a drive to, not because we can find a justification for it--a justification that, in many cases, is thin and unconvincing.  That fundamental irrationality can be an inspiring, stirring thing, but not when you keep worrying at it for eight episodes as The First does, trying and failing to come up with an argument that will win the day when the truth is that this is a purely emotional choice.

    Another problem with the show is Hagerty, who ends up taking an outsized role in the story, with the other crewmembers barely getting their own storylines.  Casting Sean Penn was already a big hurdle to my enjoyment of the show, and as if to rub my face in it, The First keeps putting Hagerty in a position to talk down to women--Ingram, Denise, random journalists, his wife, even the president of the United States.  A particularly annoying storyline involves his second, Kayla Price (LisaGay Hamilton), who was originally intended to lead the mission but was bumped down because of Hagerty's greater media profile.  Hamilton gets some great scenes to express the frustration of having clawed her way to the upper echelons of her profession as a gay black woman, only to find that just at the end, the real prize is snatched away.  But having given her such a justified grievance, the show is too invested in Penn's stardom to give her (and us) the requisite happy ending, so instead it pretends that she needs to adjust her attitude and learn to appreciate Hagerty for the great guy that he is.  Similar subplots recur throughout the season, with the entire story feeling warped by the need to shape it around a specific male hero (even Ingram gets sucked into Hagerty and Denise's family drama), when in fact the more interesting story would have been the one about a team coming together to do a great thing.  It's a shame, because there are moments when you can imagine the show that The First would have been without Hagerty (or even just Penn) at its center--scenes like the astronauts, on their last morning on Earth, pausing to appreciate things like the feel of running water, or the pull of gravity, that they will soon have to live without--and it seems like one that I would have enjoyed watching.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My latest Political History of the Future column discusses Revenant Gun, the final volume in Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire trilogy.  More broadly, it talks about the way the entire trilogy constructs its world, and how the central metaphor of a space empire that powers its technologies, its weapons, and its internal policing apparatus by enforcing a particular calendar gives Lee a rich and versatile tool for exploring the way that oppression and totalitarianism perpetuate themselves.
It's a slippery concept at first, but once you wrap your mind around it, it becomes clear just what a brilliant metaphor this is. Imposing a timekeeping method, a common tool of cultural imperialism, becomes a weapon of plain old ordinary imperialism. The Hexarchate propagates itself by literally winning over hearts and minds, forcing people to live according to its calendar (or risk being suppressed by one of the many arms of its doctrine-enforcing police force), which gives it the power to continue oppressing them. And, in order for any rebellion against the empire to succeed, it has to impose its own calendar, which is to say its own way of seeing the world, on a sufficiently large population.
I actually ended up liking Revenant Gun rather less than the two previous volumes in the series, Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem.  Its focus ended up being a lot less on the area I was interested in, the complicated problem of building a better society in a setting where calendrical weapons and technology are the dominant paradigm, and more on the character of Shuos Jedao and his quest for redemption, or at least a level of monstrousness he can live with.  I found Jedao rather problematic (and honestly, not that interesting) in the first two books, and the increased emphasis on him was frankly rather tedious.  (Also, this is maybe not the best time to be telling stories about tortured, justified killers; we keep seeing real-world examples of how society bends over backwards to make excuses and try to read goodness into utterly depraved people, and it should be obvious that the character type of Jedao comes from the same place.)  If I were recommending this series to people, I think I would tell them that the first two books work perfectly well as a duology about rebellion within the Hexarchate, and to only read Revenant Gun if you're particularly invested in the character of Jedao.