Sunday, October 06, 2019

Late Summer Streaming

Fall has begun, which once upon a time used to mean a flurry of writing as I scrambled to review all of the networks' new shows.  I haven't done that in a while, because few network shows feel worth talking about these days, or, for that matter, sticking with for a second episode (the one exception so far: the Cobie Smulders-starring Stumptown, which is basically the older-and-sadder-Veronica-Mars show I wanted but didn't get from the actual Veronica Mars).  That may yet change, but in the meantime, let's talk about some of the (mostly) streaming shows that premiered towards the end of the summer.  They're a weird, ambitious bunch of series that don't always work, but demonstrate a willingness to experiment, and a sense of style, whose absence is only one of the reasons that network TV leaves me so underwhelmed these days.  (Obviously, Good Omens is not a summer show, but I've had this review of it sitting around for a while, so take it as a bonus.)

  • Good Omens - Like a lot of people my age, I read the Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman novel on which this miniseries was based in my teens.  I enjoyed it, but though I went on to become a devoted Pratchett fan, it was never entirely clear to me why Good Omens held such a special place for a lot of other readers of both writers.  When I reread the novel ahead of this adaptation, it confirmed my twenty-year-old impression that this is journeyman work for both writers, poorly paced and plotted, whose humor has aged quite badly in some places.  The one thing that makes Good Omens work--and which, I suspect, accounts for its longevity--are the devil-and-angel team of Crowley and Aziraphale, who more or less stumble into saving the world from the looming apocalypse.  It's not just that the two characters pop off the page, or that their rapport--louche bad boy Crowley vs. fussy goody-two-shoes Aziraphable--is instantly lovable, but that it is so easy to read them as a gay couple who love and dislike one another in equal measure, and who mainly can't stand to be without each other.  (Even Pratchett and Gaiman's intended reading for the characters, as Cold War field operatives who discover that they have more in common with their counterpart than with the handlers from their own side who don't understand the reality on the ground, doesn't really contradict this take on them.)  It's easy to see how a fandom starved for queer representation would have embraced Crowley and Aziraphale and memory-holed the problems with the novel containing them, and so my reaction to rereading Good Omens was to think that if that part of the novel was bulked up, and the problems with its plotting and secondary characters addressed, there might be a solid adaptation to be made from it.

    Unfortunately, the Good Omens miniseries doesn't really deviate from the book at all.  The kindest interpretation you can put on this is that Gaiman, who is credited with writing all six episodes and who has spoken on several occasions about his feelings of indebtedness and stewardship when it comes to honoring Pratchett with this project, didn't feel that he had the right to alter the novel's plot (which after all belongs a lot more to Pratchett than it does to him).  But as a result, Good Omens replicates the novel's problems to a one.  It is too long (four hours would have been more than enough), its supporting characters aren't particularly interesting (and the ones with a lot of personality, like Sergeant Shadwell the witchfinder and his neighbor, Madam Tracy the medium-slash-prostitute, spend far too much time repeating the same joke, which is a lot less funny than it is misogynistic), and it tends to get bogged down in storytelling cul-de-sacs that look cool but inevitably turn into a drag (this is particularly true of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse subplot, despite the fact that this is one of the few places where Gaiman has cut the material down the bone; even at their most threadbare version, these characters are a gag that has been done better numerous times).  The crux of the novel--the fact that the antichrist has been accidentally raised as a normal human boy--occasionally gets enough room to breathe, but it is ultimately undone by the biggest change Good Omens makes to its source material, the addition of a voiceover by God (Frances McDormand).  To begin with, this is a way of delivering a lot of Pratchett's jokes, which were narrative- or footnote-based in the novel.  But eventually it becomes a way of smoothing over problems with plotting or making sure the audience doesn't miss a turn of plot.  McDormand's voiceover ultimately becomes incessant and distracting, and this is particularly problematic in the case of Adam, the young antichrist (Sam Taylor Buck).  The story has to convince us that he experiences an awakening in which he realizes that it is better to live in the world than rule over it, but the miniseries is so dependent on McDormand telling us how to feel that it can't sell this moment.

    What's left, then--besides a handsome adaptation that features enjoyable supporting turns from such actors as Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, Michael McKean, Miranda Richardson, Derek Jacobi, and Benedict Cumberbatch--are Crowley and Aziraphale.  Here, the adaptation definitely recognizes its duties, and though it doesn't exactly bulk up the two principalities' role in the story (the ill-advised segment close to the climax in which the two are separated is still there, unfortunately) it does give David Tennant and Michael Sheen all the space they need to develop their characters' personalities and their bond with one another.  This includes a long segment in the mini's third episode that is one of only a handful of meaningful deviations from the book, in which we follow the twosome across the millennia as their friendship grows and deepens.  It also includes a much deeper commitment to the romantic reading of their bond--not, to be clear, to the extent of making it explicit, but to the point where Crowley and Aziraphale have extremely loaded conversations, exchange significant looks, and are clearly pained when they fall out.  Tennant and Sheen are unsurprisingly excellent, and for the scenes in which they are on screen, together and separately, Good Omens feels like the genuinely exciting, out-there piece of storytelling that its fans have been painting it as for decades.  It's just that when the credits roll, you realize--as you do with the book--that you'd much rather just hang out with Crowley and Aziraphale, having lunch and reminiscing about the French Revolution, than pay any attention to all that pesky saving the world business.

  • Carnival Row - Amazon seems to be establishing itself as the home of dubiously-premised but surprisingly well-executed genre series (see also The Boys, which I wrote about on my tumblr).  Carnival Row is apparently the dream project of Pacific Rim writer Travis Beacham, which he has been trying to get made for more than a decade.  Accordingly, the premise, style, and some of the focal points of the plot end up feeling somewhat dated and tired, but to a certain extent this is compensated for by a general competence in the realm of plotting and pacing that one can no longer take for granted in this age of "X-hours movie" streaming shows.  In the show's world, fairyland, called Tirnanog, is a real island, which some years ago became a battleground between two colonizing empires--the Burgue, who are English- and Victorian-coded (with a definite Steampunk slant, easily the show's most dated worldbuilding choice), and the Pact, who remain unexplored in the first season.  The years-long war ended with the Pact's victory, and with fairies who allied themselves with the Burgue made homeless and seeking refuge in Burgish cities, where they're met with prejudice, exploitation, and sometimes violence.  It's a premise that brings to mind various American adventures--Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq--and their aftermath.  Which means that Carnival Row's most befuddling choice is the decision to code the fairies as Irish.  Though the show's casting isn't lily-white (and there are more non-white fairies than humans) it repeatedly subjects white characters to forms of oppression and colonialism that, in the real world, tend to be experienced by POC, such a scene in which heroine Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) is horrified to discover that the ancient library she tried to protect in Tirnanog before being forced to flee from the Pact's forces has had its treasures looted and put on display in a Burgue museum.

    Vignette is a freedom fighter turned people smuggler turned refugee who arrives in the Burgue in Carnival Row's first episode.  Once there, she encounters Rycroft "Philo" Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), the Burgish soldier she fell in love with while he was stationed in Tirnanog.  Philo is now a police detective, and much of the season's storytelling focuses on his investigation of a series of murders that seem to mix the Lovecraftian with Jack the Ripper.  Despite billing itself as a two-hander--and despite the fact that Vignette has what it objectively the more dramatic background, as a refugee who has spent years fighting to survive--Carnival Row is really Philo's story, as he realizes that the murders he's investigating are connected to him, and to his concealed fairy heritage.  Vignette ends up disappearing for large chunks of the season, and when she does appear it is often her feelings for Philo--her love for him, her anger at his decision to give up on their relationship, her protectiveness when he is exposed as a half-breed--that drive her actions.  (This is particularly frustrating because Vignette's other important relationship is with fellow refugee and former lover Tourmaline (Carla Crome), who clearly wants to reignite their relationship, but who ends up being left by the wayside.)  Carnival Row thus ends up having a lot less to say about its putative subject, the travails of refugees and the destruction that colonialism wreaks on its subjects, than about its white male lead.  Bloom is good at conveying Philo's anguish and loneliness, and his journey of self-discovery is refreshingly unheroic--a particular highlight is a scene in which he lets Vignette's needling, and his own need for human connection, overcome his lifelong habits of secrecy, revealing his heritage to his human lover, only to be immediately and viciously rejected.  But waiting in the wings is a prophecy about him, which seems to promise that even once that journey is completed, Carnival Row will be much more about him than about people whose life story is more tragic and complex.

    Perhaps because of this choice of emphasis, Carnival Row ends up being much more interesting and compelling in its side-plots and moments than its central storyline.  Small worldbuilding details, such the fact that fairies write from right to left, give the world a concrete feeling, and secondary characters do a lot more than the main ones to convey the theme of dispossession and homelessness.  Simon McBurney, for example, plays a down-on-his-luck artist and academic who loses his only livelihood (and his only friends) due to Burgish bureaucracy and indifference, which he greets with the weary acceptance of a years-long refugee.  The season's most successful subplot revolves around a shallow society lady (Tamzin Merchant) who is at first scandalized when a wealthy fairy (David Gyasi) purchases the house next door, but is increasingly intrigued by him and the opportunities he seems to offer her as they get to know each other.  (In general, Carnival Row is much better at love stories than you'd expect, happily deploying romance tropes that other shows in its genre might scoff at or downplay.  Though it must be noted that while the show acknowledges the existence of same-sex attraction, all of the love stories it features are straight.)

    For all my problems with its choice of emphasis, Carnival Row is never boring or slack, and even characters who seem to have nothing to do with the basic concept of fairy refugees--such as the Burgish lord chancellor (Jared Harris), his wife (Indira Varma), and their callow son (Arty Froushan)--are well-written and engaging.  As the season draws to a close, it does a good job of tying its various storylines together, revealing unexpected connections between characters who had appeared to have nothing in common, and folding Philo's investigation into the larger politics of the city.  Carnival Row thus ends up feeling a lot more satisfying in its whole than its component pieces might warrant, and by the end of the season I was sufficiently moved by Philo and Vignette's troubles to want to keep watching their story.  But I think it's a good idea to manage expectations.  The show will probably never explore its premise as it deserves to, but it might make for an entertaining, well-made bit of genre storytelling.

  • Pennyworth - A prequel series about the youthful misadventures of Batman's butler sounds like the most soulless of cash grabs, so in the interest of fairness, it must be acknowledged that Pennyworth--produced by the American cable channel Epix, an odd choice given that DC is trying to promote its own streaming service, which is home to Titans, Doom Patrol, and others--is anything but lazy or unimaginative.  Set in a stylized, heightened 1960s England, the show is a distinctive mixture of fact and fantasy.  Its London, like the real one in that era, is caught between the traditionalism and stratification of the post-war years, and an explosion of new cultural and social ideas.  But it is also a city in which criminals are put in stocks and public executions are broadcast on TV (the condemned are hanged, then eviscerated).  More importantly, the country is caught in a battle between the Raven Society, an aristocrat-led fascist secret order who want to depose Queen Elizabeth and replace her with her Nazi uncle, and the No-Name League, a socialist movement that seeks to overthrow the government.

    Into this morass strides Alfred (Jack Bannon).  Or, as he's more commonly known, Alfie, cleverly referencing the character's most famous interpreter, Michael Caine, and one of his breakout roles.  Pennyworth's take on Alfred borrows from that movie--he's a sharp social climber with a chip on his shoulder about his working class origins (his father, we eventually learn, is a butler) whom ladies find irresistible--while making its protagonist more straightforwardly heroic.  This Alfie has recently been discharged from the army, after years of doing messy work in Britain's rapidly-contracting empire (the racial and colonialist implications of this background aren't really addressed by the show, though they are palpable whenever Alfie's military career is mentioned), and is trying to set up a security business.  In that capacity, he runs across Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), currently embedded in the No-Name League by the CIA, and Thomas's future wife Martha Kane (Emma Paetz), who is working for the League in earnest.  After being recruited by Thomas and Martha for several operations involving the League's efforts to defeat the Raven Society, Alfie finds himself increasingly embroiled in what could end up being another civil war.

    Especially for a superhero show, Pennyworth is refreshingly specific in its worldbuilding, both real and imaginary.  It pays a lot of attention to details of class, dress, and manners, from Alfred's mother's working class respectability to the no-nonsense country landowner manners of the Raven Society's leader, Frances Gaunt (Anna Chancellor).  But all of this fine worldbuilding ends up adding up to very little.  At the end of its first season, it's hard to discern where Pennyworth is going with its story (beyond, obviously, establishing Alfred in his canonical position as Thomas and Martha's butler in Gotham).  Its various plotlines spin in circles that don't seem to connect to each other on any thematic level (and only glancingly on the level of plot).  The political conflict between the Raven Society and No-Name League, for example, founders because the show is so obviously more interested in the former, with their fancy houses, rich clothes, and snooty accents.  We barely get a glimpse of the League, much less a sense of what its ideas and goals are--except that its leader, played by Sarah Alexander, is a hypocrite who is in cahoots with a mob boss.  Eventually it feels as if the entire conflict is more about aesthetics than politics.  Similarly, the "courtship of Batman's parents" storyline is clearly intended as an old-fashioned enemies-to-lovers trope--think Lily and James Potter--except that the more we see of the two together, the harder it is to wish for their union.  Thomas is revealed as a priggish control freak who constantly belittles Martha's modern-woman lifestyle.  Martha, meanwhile, has infinitely more chemistry and common ground with Alfred, a fact which the show acknowledges and then immediately backs away from.

    All of this could change, of course--will change, in the case of Thomas and Martha--and in fact one gets the sense that along with its detailed worldbuilding, Pennyworth has an elaborately worked-out plot of which we've seen only a first chapter.  (This would explain, for example, why so much time is spent on the character of Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith), a lesbian Raven Society honcho, and her sister Peggy (Polly Walker), a dominatrix with shady connections, even though neither of them have an important role in the season's plot.  Or, for that matter, a bizarre interlude involving Alesteir Crowley (Jonjo O'Neill), who seems to be in league with the actual devil.)  But so far, the only thing that makes following along with that story worthwhile is Bannon's performance.  His Alfred is a familiar but impeccably-executed combination of intelligence, pragmatism, ruthlessness, and a bit of leftover innocence and capacity for joy.  It's hard not to want to follow him along on his adventures.  The problem is that we know where these adventures will end.  The Alfie we meet has dreams--to rise above his parents' station; to marry his actress girlfriend, despite her posh family's objections; to amount to more than an instrument of someone else's intentions--and we know that he is going to end up giving up on all of them.  It's hard to imagine who thought it would be a good idea to depict Alfred as such a dynamic, compelling young person, and then ask us to enjoy the story of how he ended up sublimating himself to someone else's happiness.  At least in its first season, Pennyworth isn't giving us a story that justifies going along for that ride.

  • The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance - Growing up in Israel, I was familiar with the Jim Henson Company's TV efforts--Sesame Street, The Storyteller, The Muppet Show, and eventually Farscape--but not its film offerings.  That might explain why this series, a co-production with Netflix whose story is a prequel to Henson's 1982 classic The Dark Crystal, left me feeling a bit lukewarm.  The original movie, which I watched before starting the show, is visually stunning, not just in its character work but in how it constructs an entire natural environment out of felt and styrofoam.  But story-wise, it is extremely thin, leavened only by the type of woo-woo mysticism that seemed to capture the imaginations of a lot of white male genre creators in that era (most famously, George Lucas).  Age of Resistance does what it can to fill in the blanks in the movie's worldbuilding and cosmology--this is a much less empty and monocultural world than the one we see in the movie, and several characters, chiefly the demigod/caretaker of the planet Thra, Aughra (voiced by Donna Kimball), are given more personality and more complicated motivations.  But its basic story--a conflict between the fundamentally good Gelflings and the irredeemably evil Skeksis--remains thin and uninvolving.  When I compare Age of Resistance to other Netflix series aimed at younger viewers, like The Dragon Prince or She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which have similar premises, it's hard not to notice a profound difference in thematic richness and complex characterization.

    What's left, then, are the visuals, which are truly stunning.  The main difference between Age of Resistance and the original Dark Crystal (besides, that is, a significantly larger budget) is the availability of CGI, and there are scenes that clearly make use of those capabilities--a rock creature brought to life to act as the protector of one of the heroes was probably made mostly in a computer, and is no less emotive and winning for it.  But for the most part, the show still hinges on hand-crafted, hand-operated puppetry (and as a result probably has a longer shelf-life than most effects-heavy work today--the original Dark Crystal still looks amazing, nearly forty years on, while CGI-heavy movies from twenty or even ten years ago often look laughably bad).  The obvious standouts are the Skeksis, vulture-like creatures with elaborately-worked costumes and decorative details.  The Skeksis have convinced the Gelflings that they are benevolent rulers, guardians of the titular crystal from which Thra's natural equilibrium flows.  But in reality they are greedy and possessive, obsessed with eternal life, for which they corrupt the crystal and extract the living essence from Thra's denizens.  The best scenes in Age of Resistance are the ones that simply follow the Skeksis around, at one of their lavish banquets or as they squabble with each other for power and supremacy, the character design and puppetry working together to convey both overall moral corruption and distinct personalities for each character.  (The same, unfortunately, can't be said of the Gelflings, whose broadly-humanoid design lands them firmly in the uncanny valley.  Most of the emotional heavy lifting in their case is left to the voice actors, a storied group that includes Lena Headey, Helena Bonham Carter, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.)

    Equally impressive is how Age of Resistance constructs it environments.  Its story follows three Gelflings who each realize the truth about the Skeksis, and travel their world to try to warn others, which means that the series gets more space than the movie to show off Thra's various environs--luminous caves, verdant forests, austere palaces.  Each is designed from top to bottom to be interesting to look at, and each is animated at almost every level--the moss and lichen on a cave wall, the insects in the forest, and the animals everywhere.  The amount of work that went into crafting this world must have been incredible, and the distinctive richness of what's on screen often distracts from the otherwise unexciting storytelling (though maybe not for a whole ten hours--this is absolutely a series that could have stood to be eight or even six episodes long).  That richness is a bit of a double-edged sword, however, because it constantly reminds us that the end state of all this worldbuilding is to be unmade and brought to where it was in the movie--the planet made barren, the Gelflings nearly exterminated, their culture forgotten (much is made in the series about the differences and strained relationships between the different Gelfling clans, for example, a concept that didn't exist in the movie; the only conclusion to be drawn is that the genocide the Gelflings experienced between the two works eliminated every trace of their ethnic heritage, a conclusion whose horror the show doesn't feel equipped to address).  Not unlike Pennyworth, Age of Resistance is an extremely rich work aimed at an extremely uninteresting endpoint, and between that and its thin storytelling, it's hard to find much to hold onto here except the visuals.

  • Undone - Amazon's most ambitious 2019 series is not quite a slam-dunk, but still a remarkable achievement that is well worth a watch.  The series follows Alma (Rosa Salazar), an underachieving twenty-eight-year-old in San Antonio who begins experiencing visions of her long-dead father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), following a car accident.  Jacob insists that Alma, like him and his mother, has the power to bend time and change the past, and that she needs to travel to the night of his death--which he insists was not an accident but a murder--and save him.  This kicks off an adventure through space and time during which Alma delves into not only her father's theoretical physics research, and his belief that certain special individuals can cast their consciousness through time, but her tangled relationships with her overbearing mother Camila (Constance Marie), her perfectionist younger sister Becca (Angelique Cabral), and her boyfriend Sam (Siddarth Dhananjay), whose desire for commitment terrifies her.  The series is partly rotoscope animated (scenes were shot on a nearly-bare stage, and the actors' movements traced and then superimposed onto animated backgrounds) which strikes a perfect midpoint between the freedom that animation offers and its limitations at conveying human emotion.  The performances feel human and nuanced, but are set against a backdrop that can change on a whim, with Alma frequently bouncing between past and present, fantasy and reality, and even floating in outer space.  Undone is never less than fascinating to look at, while remaining grounded in very human, mundane relationships.

    Despite its cosmic premise and the mystery at its core, Undone grounds itself in ordinary and very specific details of Alma and her family's lives which give the entire series a lived-in feeling.  Details such as Alma's Native American heritage, and the fact that Camila prefers to downplay it because "people are not so nice to Indians", or Alma's disdain for the cult of the Alamo, situate the family in a specific cultural and ethnic setting.  Sequences such as the one in which Alma, in the middle of a fight with Sam, has a vision of his struggles as a boy who has just immigrated from India, and relates them to her own experiences as a deaf girl who has just received a cochlear implant and has to transition to a hearing school, are not only visually stunning but deeply affecting.  The animation is also presumably the reason that Undone is so short--each of the eight episodes is only 22 minutes long--and as a result the writing for it is tight and effective, delivering volumes of information in a throwaway line--such as a moment in which Jacob, a non-observant Jew, conveys his discomfort with Camila's deeply-felt Catholicism, which speaks to the cracks running throughout their relationship.  The impression formed is of a family that is real, and really troubled--long before Alma realizes it, the audience will have grown suspicious of Jacob and his domineering attitude towards parenting and training her, and it's no surprise to learn that there was more going in in the months before his death than a shady corporation out for his research.  Salazar's performance, which makes Alma lovable without downplaying her self-absorption, emotional volatility, and tendency to express her strong opinions at the most inopportune moments, is the glue that holds the entire series together.  As much as we want Alma to figure out time travel and (maybe) save her father, we also want her to get her life together and form better relationships with the people who love her.

    Where Undone stumbles is in bringing all these elements together to a satisfying ending.  The series that it most closely resembles is another distinctive, remarkable 2019 offering, Netflix's Russian Doll.  Both shows are about brash, messy women who are forced to confront fears of intimacy--rooted in childhood trauma and a family history of mental illness--by a time-bending McGuffin.  But a crucial difference is that Russian Doll quickly does away with the obvious explanation for its heroine's looping through time, that she has experienced a nervous breakdown (if anything, the series's premise functions more as a metaphor for mental illness and the way that human connection can help sufferers live with it).  Whereas Undone, the closer it gets to its ending, becomes more and more enamored by an over-familiar binary--is Alma really bending and changing time, or is her family legacy actually a more tragic one, of schizophrenia and suicide?  (Which, among other things, teeters on the deeply problematic trope of romanticizing mental illness by depicting it as an untapped superpower, which genre fiction is all too prone to doing.)  The series ends on an ambiguous note that leaves it unclear whether Alma has really changed the past and saved her father's life, or whether she has simply had a break with reality.  But what its writers seem not to have realized is that neither of those answers are particularly satisfying--either nothing we've watched for eight episodes has been real, or Alma has erased this version of herself from existence.  What we want is for Alma to find her way through her troubles, with or without time-bending superpowers, and Undone doesn't give us that.  Nevertheless, the journey leading up to this ending is so well-crafted, and so gorgeous to watch, that a messy conclusion can't entirely undermine it.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Review: Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac at Strange Horizons

My review of Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac's Dark Constellations (translated by Roy Kesey) appears today at Strange Horizons.  This a strange, challenging novella that pushes the boundaries of what we define as cyberpunk, and I found it difficult to sum up.  Also challenging: figuring out how to cope with the book's extravagantly bad sex scenes.  Most other reviews I've read have either delicately ignored Dark Constellations's descriptions of sex, which are as bizarre as they are unerotic, or treated them as a flaw in an otherwise fascinating work.  As I write in the review, I think Oloixarac is doing something deliberate with these passages, though this doesn't make them any easier to read.
In the world of Dark Constellations, sex has one purpose: the exchange of genetic information. A young Argentinian graduate student on a research trip to Brazil who falls into a passionate affair with a local engineer is described as having "encountered the source of DNA that she would strive to reproduce" (p. 26). But even more than individual reproduction, Dark Constellations treats sex, and genetic exchange, as a sort of species-wide endeavor, of which individual members are merely an unwitting vector. One is reminded of the classic James Tiptree Jr. story, "A Momentary Taste of Being" (1975), in which humanity turns out to be a galactic sex cell on the lookout for its mate, regardless of the feelings, or pesky consciousness, of any individual member of the species. But Oloixarac goes further than Tiptree when she posits genetic exchange not only between human populations, but between humans and animals, humans and plants, and even humans and machines.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Veronica Mars, Season 4

Veronica Mars has got a Veronica Mars problem.  This is the inescapable conclusion one must draw from the multiple attempted--and, for the most part, failed--reinventions the show has undergone since the end of its first, transcendent season in 2005.  In those fourteen years, we've watched the show try to repeat history (the second season, which furnished Veronica with another high-school-set mystery reeking of sexual violence and the entitlement of the rich), switch formats (the third season, which split its storytelling into three multi-episode arcs, each dealing with a different mystery), attempt to switch settings (the "Veronica Mars, FBI agent" sizzle reel Rob Thomas produced in an attempt to earn the show a fourth season), make a time jump (the 2014 movie, which did have a mystery story somewhere in there but was mostly concerned with delivering all the fanservice viewers could stomach), and now, with Hulu's eight-episode revival, seemingly do all of those things at once.  None of these attempts have recreated the magic of the first season, and at this point, one has to conclude that it's not the mystery writing or the setting or the format that is at fault, but the one thing that all of these trips to the well have in common--the show's heroine.

None of this is to say that the fourth season of Veronica Mars is bad.  It is, on the contrary, a solid and entertaining mystery story (it gets a little wobbly towards its end, but that's for reasons extraneous to the mystery plot which we'll get to in a minute).  It makes good use of the streaming format without devolving into the shapelessness that afflicts a lot of intended binge-watches.  It lets Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni shine as smart, creative detectives and a loving father-daughter team.  It delves into the show's recurring themes of class war and deepening inequality in its setting of Neptune, California.  It features fun, memorable guest performances from J.K. Simmons, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Patton Oswalt.  And it checks in with almost every important recurring character in the show's history.[1]  It's a fun season of television, but it still feels a bit rote and samey, and I think a lot of fans will have walked away from it feeling curiously dissatisfied.

But that's not what you want to talk about.  That's not what anyone wants to talk about when they come to talk about the fourth season of Veronica Mars.  The thing that everyone wants to talk about is the ending, in which (spoiler, in case you care about a season that premiered two months ago and still haven't figured the ending out from the veritable din of shocked reactions and memes on social media) Veronica's perennial ex turned long-term boyfriend turned (as of a few hours earlier) husband Logan Echolls is killed in a car explosion, a parting gift from the season's villain.  As if wanting to make sure that we can't bargain this shocking ending away, the show even flashes forward a year, making sure we know that Logan is dead, dead, dead.  Roll credits.

I liked Logan as much as any Veronica Mars fan with a pulse, but I can see the arguments for killing him off.[2]  Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring have always had off-the-charts chemistry (the reason they became so many fans' OTP in the first place), but the truth is that when I realized the reunion movie was going to put them back together, I sighed.  Veronica and Logan have never really worked as a couple, and while the show likes to pretend that the problem is Logan's bad-boy proclivities (hence the bizarre decision to make him a Navy pilot, and now a Naval Intelligence officer), the real reason is that they didn't have much in common except for intense, obsessive personalities.  Whenever they try to do couple things, they feel false and awkward, and inevitably return to the well of their dysfunction--his short temper, her emotional unavailability.[3]

So the choice to kill Logan bothers me less for the sake of the character himself, than for what it says about the show's attitude towards its heroine, and its approach to the project of growing her as a character and a person--a project at which it has consistently failed.  The reason that season 4, like all the attempts that came before it, falls short of the greatness of season 1 is that it can't figure out what to do with its heroine, how and whether she should change.  For as long as we've known her, Veronica's strength and resilience have been the flip side of her intransigence and hostility to change.  Again and again, people who have tried to get close to her have been rebuffed not just by her distrust of others, but by her total resistance to intimacy and emotional honesty.  This is what defined her as a teenager who had just crawled out of the wreckage of her best friend's murder, her mother's abandonment, sudden social ostracism, and being drugged and raped.  Veronica's reaction to these abuses was to pursue justice and comeuppance, but as a result she never processed her various traumas, was indeed highly resistant to any attempt to get through her defensive barriers--an attitude that has persisted into her adult life.

To be clear, this is something that Veronica Mars, the show, realizes, and comments on throughout the fourth season.  The question of change, and of Veronica's resistance to it, is present in many guises.  There is, for example, the entire "Veronica Mars, older millennial" vibe of the season and of Veronica's interactions with her old friends and former classmates, most of whom have grown up, mellowed out, settled down, or sold out, even as Veronica has stayed mostly in place.  There is a moving subplot in which Veronica and Keith are confronted by the specter of his mortality when he begins experiencing memory lapses.  Veronica is given a protege, teenager Matty Ross (Izabela Vidovic), who mirrors her traumatic origin story in several ways and is, like a young Veronica, determined, resourceful, and prone to getting in over her head.  And of course, the question of marriage, introduced by Logan in the season premiere, hangs over the season, with Veronica reacting in shock[4] and total rejection, then getting angry when Logan takes that rejection in stride.

Above and beyond the marriage issue, Veronica spends the season being confronted with challenges to her preference for stasis.  Keith wonders why she doesn't put her law degree to good use in defending the people of Neptune from the predations of their ultra-rich neighbors.  Weevil angrily points out that she has multiple Ivy League degrees that she is doing nothing with, even as she chastises him for going back to the life of a gangster.  The various villains she sent to prison in season 3 sneer at her when she visits them in jail, pointing out that they have an excuse for not getting anywhere in their lives, but Veronica is still voluntarily doing the same thing she did in high school.  And Logan asks simply: what do you want?  Reminding Veronica that she has options, that despite her constant carping on being stuck in Neptune, a town that she rails against, she has always had the ability to leave, and simply chooses not to.

The problem is that Veronica herself never makes an answer to any of these challenges.  She waves them off or ignores them or storms off in anger.  The closest she comes to introspection is when she muses about Matty that if someone doesn't help her deal with her anger over the murder of her father (the crime that kicks off the season's mystery), she will "set and harden", an obvious reference to Veronica herself.  Nor is this new behavior on her part.  Veronica Mars, the show and the character, have always resisted anything resembling self-analysis or progress towards change and growth.  The second season came closest, with Veronica feeling obvious ambivalence about the role she'd taken on as a crusader for justice[5], but quickly abandoned this line of thought.  And the movie trotted out the extremely unconvincing argument that to Veronica, the PI life constituted an addiction that she just couldn't shake.  But on the question of what she wants and who she wants to be, Veronica has always been silent, and this doesn't change in the fourth season.

The problem is, Veronica Mars has never been good at portraying its heroine as anything other than a hardened detective, and it is increasingly unclear to me whether this represents a commitment to the character's trauma-induced emotional stasis, or an inability to write her as a rounded human being.[6]  You see this, in particular, in those moments when Veronica does decide to move forward with her life.  In the final episode of the fourth season, she suddenly decides that she truly wants to marry Logan, and it's completely unconvincing.  And, as much as I've criticized the Veronica/Logan relationship for its unsustainability, this has been equally true for every other partner Veronica has had--she has always felt fake and unlike herself when playing happiness and romantic fulfillment.

The issue here isn't that Veronica needs to have a happy ending, or that she needs to achieve emotional growth and well-being.  It's that, at the age of thirty-four, she still seems like exactly the same person she was at seventeen.  It would be one thing if I believed that this was something the show was commenting on--that Veronica's refusal to grow as a person, or her inability to be happy in a relationship, are an outgrowth of the same trauma that has made her such an effective detective and crusader for justice.  But as the show keeps trying to reinvent itself, to try on new formats and shuck off old characters, it increasingly feels as if Thomas and his writers don't even realize what their central problem is.  Maybe killing Logan off is the magic ticket.  Maybe getting rid of this last bit of connection to the girl she once was will kickstart the next chapter in Veronica's life and story.  But we've said that before and ended up disappointed.

In the season's final scene, Veronica listens to a voicemail message left by Logan for his therapist, in which he explains why he wants to marry her.  He talks about how much he admires her, and how he wants to see her traits in his children[7].  In a show that tends to subject Veronica to constant criticism (including from herself), this is a rare and welcome reminder of why we love this character, and why she deserves to be happy.  But then Logan adds one final reason: "I want to marry Veronica because she's the toughest human being I've ever met.  Blows that would destroy most people... she always picks herself back up."  The season ends on a close-up of Veronica's face as she takes in this final bit of praise, which is clearly intended as a summation of the character.

But am I the only one who finds that insufficient?  We've always known that Veronica is tough and resilient.  That's been her defining trait since the series's first episode.  But is that all she is?  Is killing Logan just a way of giving us the artificial high of watching Veronica pick herself up from yet another blow, and distracting us from the fact that she hasn't changed or grown in half a lifetime?  Instead of working towards new goals and challenges, is Veronica doomed to always be getting over fresh traumas?  After an entire season in which one supporting character after another asks Veronica what she's going to do with her life, the only answer the show seems able to give us is "she's going to get over yet another tragedy, and she'll be great at it."  I don't think Veronica Mars knows how to show us a Veronica Mars who isn't miserable in the  exact same way she was in high school, and until it solves that problem, the show will always exist in the shadow of the story it told about that girl.



[1] Except Mac, because Tina Majorino apparently wasn't available. And Piz, because my god, why would he ever step foot in Neptune, or anywhere near the Mars family, ever again.

[2] Which, again, I was made aware of within a day or two of the season dropping in July.  One of the things no one ever talks about when discussing spoiler etiquette is that while an individual person might make an oblique reference that only people who have seen the episode will understand, when several hundred people each describe their personal glimpse of the elephant, it's pretty much impossible not to piece together what they're all talking about.

[3] Compare Veronica and Logan to Kristen Bell's other fan-favorite on-screen relationship, with William Jackson Harper's Chidi on The Good Place.  Bell and Harper don't anything like the chemistry she shares with Dohring, but Eleanor and Chidi make so much more sense than Veronica and Logan, and are so much more fun to watch together, simply being a couple.

[4] This is, to be clear, utterly ridiculous.  Veronica and Logan have apparently been together since the movie, which was five or six years ago in the show's chronology.  They've been living together for a substantial chunk of that time.  It is inconceivable that marriage wouldn't have at least come up in conversation, and that Logan's proposal would have come completely out of the blue.  The show even tries to hang a lantern on this--Logan tells a new acquaintance that he sometimes wonders whether his job at Naval Intelligence, which sends him away from home for weeks and months at a time on no notice, isn't the glue that holds his relationship with Veronica together; and when Veronica crosses paths with almost-old-flame Leo, he points out how strange it is that the marriage question has never reared its head in half a decade.  But acknowledging the weirdness of the situation isn't the same thing as defusing it.

[5] Not coincidentally, this is the season most fans seem to like the least.

[6] As an additional data point in debating this question, we should look to iZombie, another Rob Thomas show which aired its fifth and final season this spring.  iZombie's heroine, Liv Moore, is as different from Veronica as it is possible to be--emotionally open (her function in the show is to take on the personalities and character traits of the people whose brains she eats in order to solve their murders), nurturing and mature, a den mother to her friend group.  But she is just as static as Veronica, often ending up edged out of the show's main storylines because she lacks the dynamism to drive them.  For all her emotional awareness, Liv remains just as allergic to personal growth as Veronica ever was, suggesting that this is not an organic character trait.

[7] One thing the show avoids by killing off Logan is the kids conversation, which would surely have been apocalyptic.  It's clear from his behavior throughout the season that Logan has started thinking about children, and just as obvious that Veronica wants nothing to do with them.  This is, again, an absolutely ridiculous thing for a couple who have been together for as long as Veronica and Logan have not to have talked about, and yet the two marry without seemingly having had this very basic conversation.  The bomb was blessing, is what I'm saying.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Ad Astra

For the better part of the last decade, one after another of Hollywood's A-listers have decided to make glossy, prestigious, semi-cerebral space-set science fiction movies.  Matthew McConaughey had Interstellar.  Sandra Bullock had Gravity.  Matt Damon had The Martian.  If you want to make a mini-trend out of the phenomenon, you could throw in Amy Adams in Arrival (if you're willing to extend "space-set" to include a story about aliens coming from space), Ryan Gosling in First Man (if you substitute Apollo program dramatization for science fiction), and Sean Penn in The First (if you extend your field to include television, and also your definition of A-lister to include Sean Penn).  Vague as they were about the film's events, the trailers for James Gray's Ad Astra seemed to suggest that it is now Brad Pitt's turn.  That he too, wanted a star vehicle with lots of gorgeous visuals (and thus opportunities for awed reaction shots) and a plot that riffs on the themes of wonder, resilience, and the spirit of exploration.

It would be an exaggeration to say that this is not what Ad Astra has turned out to be.  This is absolutely a film that revels in the stark visual of a single space-suited protagonist made small against a backdrop of endless stars, or in stunning vistas of planetary bodies and orbital installations.  It absolutely features long wordless stretches in which the cosmic soundtrack strives to create a 2001-esque sense of grandeur.  And it absolutely filters all those sensory feasts through Pitt's character, a soulful Competent Man whose emotional turmoil is both soothed and magnified by the scale of the setting he's been placed in, and the challenges of surviving it.  But Ad Astra also feels like a film aware of its antecedents, of the movies that have come before it over the last decade and the tropes they've established.  If it isn't quite a dismantling of those tropes, it is at least a more measured, more humane response to them.

Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut in a near future in which humanity has made some substantial progress towards colonizing the solar system.  There are radio antennas that reach into the upper atmosphere, settlements on the Moon and Mars that are home to thousands of people, some of them native-born, and routine scientific exploration of the asteroid belt.  Roy's father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), disappeared decades ago on a mission to the edge of the solar system to establish a station searching for signs of alien life.  Roy has modeled his life and career on his father's, and is both uplifted and oppressed by the heroic figure Clifford represents to most other spacefarers.  In the film's opening scene, a series of EM pulses cause widespread damage on Earth, and Roy's superiors inform him that his father is not only known to still be alive, but is believed to be the cause of the pulses.  Roy is dispatched to Mars to send a message to his father, which kicks off an episodic, Heart of Darkness-esque journey that ultimately leads him to Neptune, and the lost mission.

Pitt dominates the film's visuals, with many indoor scenes shot in a tight focus on his face, leaving everything beyond him slightly blurred.  It's a device that stresses not only his centrality to the story but his sense of alienation, the fact that he is as adrift on land and among people as he is in the vacuum of space (that most of the film's supporting characters appear only for a few scenes and are then left behind also contributes to the impression of Roy's isolation).  Roy is a taciturn character, speaking mostly in an interior monologue, or when he submits to automated psychological evaluations in which he's expected to parrot catchphrases about his dedication to his mission.  I've seen some complaints about Roy's omnipresent voiceover, but the film uses it to make an important point--that Roy doesn't really believe in the myth that has been spun around him.  His superiors marvel at his coolness under pressure, but Roy berates himself for his emotional detachment.  "I should feel something", he anxiously tells us after narrowly surviving a kilometers-long fall to earth following one of the EM pulses.  And after being praised for his heroism when he agrees to go to Mars, Roy ruefully muses "as if I had a choice".

Though outwardly embodying the sort of Right Stuff ideal that has been associated with space exploration since the 60s, Roy sees himself as a cog in a machine, a loyal soldier who goes and does as he's told, and who can't function outside that framework.  Ad Astra features some turns of plot that on paper make it sound almost like a pulp movie--pirates on the moon!  Rabid apes in space!--but Roy's numbness, which verges on low-grade depression, dominates the film's tone.  His reaction to space travel and off-planet colonies is less wonder and more weary professionalism, with a side of disdain at how these spaces have been quickly normalized and commercialized.

One complaint that has recurred in my discussions of Ad Astra is that the movie doesn't really need to be set in space.  This is trivially true when you consider how much of its structure and plot have been borrowed from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, and the truth of it is brought further home when the film takes significant liberties with the realities of space travel in order to prop up its story--chiefly, a journey from Mars to Neptune that takes only three months.  But to me, Ad Astra justifies its setting in the way that it uses it to comment on so many of the space movies that have come before it.  Roy and Clifford are both exaggerated, negative variants on the trope of the abandoning, neglectful astronaut father, his gaze so fixed on the stars that he forgets his earthly responsibilities.  Roy embodies this type reluctantly--he has chosen not to have children, and though his marriage (to a nearly-silent Liv Tyler) collapsed, he seems to realize that this was his fault, and to regret it--and Clifford almost gleefully.  His messages to a young Roy from the early years of his mission are almost pathetically impersonal, with dry facts about the mission substituting for any attempt at emotional connection.  When we finally meet Clifford, he positively crows to Roy that he never loved him or his mother, and couldn't wait to escape them into a "worthy" pursuit.  It feels like a direct rebuke to the way that films like Interstellar or First Man aggrandized their protagonists' decision to prioritize exploration over their families.

Pop culture has a soft spot for explorers (male ones in particular) and tends to treat their shirking of personal responsibilities as understandable or even heroic when it's in the pursuit of new frontiers.  In the miniseries The First, Penn's character treats having to give up his spot on a Mars mission after his daughter experiences a mental health crisis as a profound sacrifice, almost a psychic wound, and can't wait for the opportunity to leave her again.  And yet the show views him as a grand, heroic figure, extolling his leadership qualities even as he fails as a father.  Ad Astra is duly contemptuous of both such an attitude and the people it's directed at.  Clifford, in particular, is depicted at first as demonic, and then, as we see how years of isolation and the failure of his quest for alien life have diminished him, as pathetic, so unfit for human society that he'd rather die than go home with his son.

When I wrote about The Martian, I observed with some skepticism its protagonist's ability to withstand months of total isolation with no psychological deterioration, and wondered whether the film wasn't papering over an anti-social personality.  Roy, in contrast, is both aware and ashamed of his capacity to withstand solitude, and his difficulty connecting to people.  His inner monologue berates himself for selfishness even as it recoils from any possibility of connection ("don't touch me", he thinks in the film's opening scene, when a colleague makes a friendly gesture as he's about to go into space).  That Roy spends so much of the film in a spacesuit feels fitting, because there's a barrier between him and everyone he meets, and he both needs that barrier and despises himself for that need.

It's particularly noteworthy how ambivalently Ad Astra treats Roy's hypercompetence, effortless sense of command, and coolness under pressure.  The film is made up of set-pieces which often involve Roy and his companions being placed in sudden, mortal danger, such as a dune-buggy journey across the lunar plain that turns into a race for survival, or a rescue mission to a research vessel in the asteroid belt.  But it eventually becomes impossible not to notice that despite Roy's quick instincts and refusal to panic, the only thing he ever achieves is his own survival.  He never manages to save anyone else.  In the film's most shocking scene, Roy, who has been benched from the mission to Neptune to find and kill his father, breaks into the departing ship as it takes off.  The crew react violently and Roy tries to defuse the situation, but he's so much more capable than them, and they are so panicked by his presence, that they all end up dead.  It feels like a deliberate rebuke to the cult of competence that characterizes so many space stories, a rejection of Roy's perennial coolness under pressure.  Despite his capabilities, and his genuine desire to be of use to others, he only ever manages to be an instrument of death, or a witness to it.

All of this leads to a long, hallucinatory sequence in which Roy makes his lonely way to Neptune, finally meeting the limits of even his prodigious capacity to withstand solitude.  Which leads to his meeting with Clifford, in which he fails to save his father from himself.  Even the ostensible purpose of the mission, to save humanity from Clifford, turns out to be a red herring: the EM pulses are not an intentional attack but the result of a malfunction caused after the last of Clifford's crew mutinied in the face of the ultimate failure of his mission.  "There's nobody out there", Clifford despondently tells Roy, who finally makes the conceptual leap he has teetered on the verge of for the entire length of the movie: "that means all we have is each other".  After Clifford commits suicide, Roy considers doing the same, but rejects the idea.  Newly-motivated, he turns his ship around and back to Earth, eager to rejoin humanity.

You might argue that this is a rather flimsy message on which to hang a film as ponderous and self-important as Ad Astra, and I would have to agree--when I left the theater, my first comment was "that was a whole lot of movie over not very much at all".  I can't help but compare Ad Astra to Gravity, which similarly treats space as a metaphor for emotional isolation, and the rigors of surviving it as the cost of breaking through grief and pain in order to live again.  But it's notable how a middlebrow crowdpleaser like Gravity makes this point so much more effectively and successfully than an art-house project like Ad Astra.  There is nothing in Gray's film that matches the sense of triumph one feels when Bullock's character decides not to give up and drift off into death from hypoxia, or the shock of her first steps back on Earth's soil.

Having said that, I still have a soft spot for how Ad Astra tells this story, and especially for Roy himself.  A lot of reviewers have dinged the character's journey as yet another instance of Hollywood's love affair with daddy issues, but to my mind this criticism ignores how Ad Astra works to detach that trope from a lot of its more poisonous attributes.  Roy isn't made special or tragic by the loss of his father.  Though he admits that he carries a lot of anger and hurt over being abandoned, he takes a mature approach to these feelings, and doesn't seek to impose them on others (well, except to the extent that he allows them to torpedo his marriage, and it must be noted that we don't get enough of a glimpse of that relationship to know how badly Roy may have treated the person closest to him).  Pitt's performance, which has been dinged for its lack of affect, feels to me like a way of stressing the character's humility and self-effacement, his recognition that his pain doesn't entitle him to take up extra space in the world.  When Roy finally gets an opportunity to reach out to his father, his first words to him are "Dad, I'd like to see you again", a generous, open-hearted message.  And when Clifford spews his bile at him, Roy pauses a moment, then simply replies, "I still love you, Dad", and tries to save him.

The portrait that emerges from these moments is of a man with a profound capacity for kindness and compassion who has chosen a path in life that allows him very little scope for these abilities, and has therefore convinced himself that he is incapable of human connection.  What makes Roy's realization of the freaking obvious at the film's end feel worthwhile is the fact that when he imagines himself as a better person with better relationships, what he wants, as his interior monologue tells us, is not to be loved or taken care of, but the opportunity to love and take of others, to be good for them as he now realizes he can be.  That's not a huge message, but it's sufficiently uncommon--in films about men in general, and films about Hollywood stars in space in particular--that I'm grateful for any movie that tries to deliver it.  For all its faults of self-importance, it's this core of humanity that makes me like Ad Astra, maybe even more than other, more successful space-set star vehicles.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Recent Movie Roundup 33

I didn't write any film criticism this summer, because it was a singularly uninteresting summer for blockbuster movies.  I skipped most of the big titles and kept my eyes out for any interesting counter-programming (of which there wasn't a lot).  Which is why this roundup starts with a leftover review from early July, of a film that I imagine most of you have already forgotten.  Otherwise, however, as summer has wound down and film festivals have wound up, some engaging selections have finally shown up at my local movie theaters.  I still don't think 2019 is going to shape up to be a great movie year (and certainly not for genre and blockbuster movies) but this bunch of films is satisfyingly eclectic, and mostly satisfying.

  • Spider-Man: Far From Home - The second outing starring Tom Holland as the MCU's version of Peter Parker picks up eight months after the events of Avengers: Endgame, in a world reeling from the upheavals of the last five years, but still nowhere near as disordered as it should be--the inevitable famine and economic collapse that would have resulted from the sudden doubling of the world's population are nowhere in sight, and instead the main preoccupations of a post-"blip" society are the valorization of Tony Stark (but not Steve Rogers or Natasha Romanoff, for some reason) and an obsessive seeking after "the next Iron Man".  Peter himself is troubled by that question, feeling that Stark's death has left him indebted but dismayed by the responsibility the role represents.  He keeps trying to step back into the position of friendly neighborhood Spider-Man while also living the normal life of a sixteen-year-old, including a school trip to Europe where he hopes to confess his feelings to MJ (Zendaya).  The trip premise, and the frustrated teen romance, give Far From Home a teen movie feel similar to the one that made Spider-Man: Homecoming so charming and down to earth, but from the outset there is a sense that this lightness can't last.  Nick Fury corners Peter in Venice, where he passes along Stark's bequest for him--an AI that controls a powerful drone system, keyed to Peter's biometrics (the question of when Tony made the will that grants Peter this power, given that Peter was dead to him until about a minute before his own death, is never addressed; nor, for that matter, does anyone consider that he might have better entrusted this power to Pepper)--and tries to recruit Peter to a fight against "elementals", beings who have been terrorizing European cities.  Fury also introduces Peter to Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a visitor from another Earth who has fought the elementals before, and who quickly bonds with Peter over his reluctance to accept the responsibility left to him by Stark and take the weight of the world on his shoulders.

    I enjoyed Homecoming for the way it blended the fundamentals of the Spider-Man character with the events of the MCU, along the way managing to pass a subtle criticism of Tony Stark, whose attempts to control, manipulate, and groom Peter repeatedly proved counterproductive.  Far From Home's efforts to produce a similar effect are hobbled by the MCU's need for Peter to step up as an Avenger, no matter how poorly that suits the character.  It ends up doing a lot of the same things as Homecoming, but less well, chiefly when it comes to Peter's acceptance of his own heroism in the face of constant second-guessing, browbeating, and gaslighting from the alleged mentors in his life.  In Homecoming, this confusion culminated in Peter, alone, with no technology, and buried under rubble, crying out "I am Spider-Man" and rising to the occasion.  In Far From Home, it means calling Happy Hogan to bring a private jet and one of Tony Stark's suit fabricators to save the day.  Instead of finding the hero within himself, Peter's heroism suddenly seems to revolve around his similarities to Tony, so that Far From Home ends up feeling more like an Iron Man movie than the Spider-Man film in which he actually appeared.  Not helping matters is the fact that the memory of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is still fresh in our minds.  That film managed to tell a Spider-Man story that was completely new while still finding the core of the character, even as it celebrated the many different forms it could take.  That Far From Home can't imagine any way for Peter to grow except into the space left behind by another, completely different superhero is thus doubly disappointing.

    Still, there are charms to this movie, even though most of them feel like things the first film did better.  Peter's relationships with May (Marisa Tomei) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) remain sweet and supportive, and his burgeoning romance with MJ is true to both characters' quirks and foibles.  Gyllenhaal is great as both a slightly off-the-wall hero in the film's first half, and a wonderfully nefarious villain (whose motive is suitably mercenary and un-ideological, in keeping with the template established by Homecoming) in its second half.  And though I remain boggled by the idea that anyone would give Nick Fury the time of day after his many failures as a general and spymaster, the film strikes just the right balance between criticizing him (and allowing Peter to grow past him) and acknowledging his obvious badassery.  I'm a little less certain about the two major twists introduced in the film's post- and mid-credits scenes.  They represent huge upheavals to the basic Spider-Man story, as well as the MCU as a whole, that I'm not sure the stewards of this series have proved equal to shouldering.  Once again, it feels as if Spider-Man is being flattened and twisted into shapes that don't suit him in order to serve the greater MCU, when surely we would all have been happier just watching Holland play the web-crawler straight--the final scene before the credits roll, in which Peter finally returns to New York to swing between scyscrapers, is a wrenching reminder of what these films have been missing, and now may never manage to give us.

    (Since writing the above, Sony and Disney have announced the end of their shared custody agreement over Spider-Man.  It's hard to imagine how future films in the current series will cope with the mess Far From Home has bequeathed them, which both upends the Spider-Man mythos and requires the series to remain deeply embedded in the MCU.  But I hope they manage it, because the odds now seem greater of getting an actual Spider-Man movie starring Tom Holland, as opposed to a film in the Avengers universe that happens to feature Spider-Man.)

  • Midsommar - Like the feverish Hereditary, Ari Aster's second film starts out as a closely-observed character drama chronicling deep relationship dysfunction and barely-processed trauma, then slides inexorably towards overt horror, as its troubled characters find themselves caught up in the machinations of a pagan cult.  And, as in Hereditary, one finds oneself thinking that the film would have worked just as well with just its first, more naturalistic half to drive it (though the second half, buoyed by Aster's careful compositions, assured direction, and canny way with actors, is never less than engrossing).  Midsommar manages this shift better than its predecessor, in part because it never loses sight of its central character the way Hereditary eventually did.  Dani (Florence Pugh) is a high-strung, anxiety-ridden grad student who has for years been in an unsatisfying relationship with the callow, immature Christian (Jack Reynor), who puts on a show of being a supportive boyfriend, but clearly conveys his impatience with Dani's every expression of emotion.  When Dani suffers a horrific family tragedy, Christian feels unable to end the relationship (though it's unclear whether he would ever have done so, rather than eternally keeping one foot out the door), but also doesn't know how to support her.  Mainly in order to avoid discussing the cracks in their relationship, he backs himself into inviting Dani along on a trip to a remote Swedish commune to witness their once-in-a-century midsummer celebration.

    The first half of Midsommar is thus concerned with a very mundane type of horror--that of being an outsider in a group who are all too polite to say that you're unwelcome, but nevertheless make you feel it.  Christian's friends, Mark and Josh (Will Poulter and William Jackson Harper) clearly realize that they have to be tolerant of Dani and her emotional fragility, but they still manage to bring across their dissatisfaction at her presence and the way that her omnipresent grief and trauma keep ruining their fun.  In an early scene, Dani quite reasonably demurs when offered psychedelics, and is then pressured into taking them by the men's obvious unhappiness at being asked to delay their own gratification.  Dani herself is not blameless here--Pugh's performance is a masterpiece of eager-to-please self-effacement, as Dani repeatedly minimizes her own feelings in order to avoid making Christian or the others feel bad, and eventually that comes to feel like her own choice as much as a response to his behavior.  But it's clear that Christian has made her feel that she can't express any complex, ugly feelings, as exemplified in multiple scenes in which Dani appears to be on the brink of letting out her rage and grief in a primal scream, and then chokes it down to a whimper.

    All of this makes Dani a prime target for the manipulations of the villagers at Hårga, the seemingly idyllic commune to which Dani, Christian, and the others have been introduced by their friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up there.  Wearing white robes and beatific smiles, the Hårgans welcome their visitors to a traditional midsummer ceremony, but even without knowing the film's genre it would be easy to guess that something isn't right.  Everyone is too watchful beneath their blissed-out demeanor, and a little too cryptic about what their ceremonies actually entail.  By the time our characters witness a ritual suicide, it's fairly easy to guess how the rest of the film will play out.  What's interesting, however, is less that the Hårgans have murderous designs towards their guests, and more the complexity of their intentions towards Dani.  They see her as a kindred spirit, and go about folding her into their community.  She, in turn, finds in them an outlet for the feelings that she hasn't let herself express, and responds to their ritualized approach towards death as a counter to the capricious, senseless role it has played in her own life.  The choice she makes at the end of the movie isn't surprising, but Pugh and the script work to make us see it as a twisted sort of happy ending for her (or at least a better option than a sterile, lonely life with Christian, which admittedly isn't much of an alternative).  From her damaged, despairing point of view, the Hårgans' insanity makes a demented kind of sense.

    Another thing worth saying about Midsommar is that it is a genuinely funny movie.  Even as it amps up the tension and anxiety, and depicts acts of grotesque mutilation, the film never loses its comedic undertone, whether it is skewering Christian and his friends' passive-aggression, or highlighting the inherent ridiculousness of the Hårgans' rituals.  Its humor comes from such a wide range of sources that it can be hard to believe they coexist in the same movie.  A subplot in which Christian and Josh both decide that they want to write their graduate thesis about Hårga, and can barely conceal their hostility towards one another under a veneer of academic detachment and scientific curiosity, sits surprisingly well with a scene in which Christian, believing that he's been seduced by a Hårgan woman, instead finds himself surrounded by a crowd of chanting women as he thrusts into her, realizing even as he climaxes that his sole purpose there is insemination.  That breadth of material, and the sheer variety of set-pieces (I haven't mentioned the lewd tapestries, or the maypole, or the bear) explain Midsommar's bloated running time (two and a half hours, and apparently there's at least another half hour of material cut from the theatrical version), but by its end the film will have slightly overstayed its welcome.  Still, that's a small price to pay for a film as weird, interesting, and perfectly crafted as this one.  Midsommar would probably have worked just as well as just a character drama, a dark comedy, or a piece of folk horror, but its mingling of the three works surprisingly well.

  • Parasite - The winner of the grand prize at this year's Cannes festival, Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite is, like last year's festival darling Burning, a film about the profound inequality running through modern Korean society, as exemplified by a dysfunctional relationship between people at either ends of the economic spectrum.  In Bong's story, that relationship isn't between individuals, but between families.  Our protagonists are the Kims--father Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park)--who are near the bottom of the economic ladder.  All four are unemployed, living in a tiny, bug-infested basement apartment, cadging free wifi from neighbors, and making ends meet with odd jobs such as folding pizza boxes.  Then a well-off friend of Ki-woo offers him a golden opportunity--he's been tutoring the teenage daughter of a wealthy family in English, and needs someone to take over while he's studying abroad.  Ki-woo doesn't have credentials, but he has the skills and the polish to fake being a middle class university student.  More importantly, he's able to quickly take the measure of the wealthy, oblivious Park family--airy, impressionable mother Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo) and barely-there father Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee)--and play up to their sense of self-importance and their need to have the best in life (or at least, to believe that they have it).  In a sequence that plays like the most polished of heist movies, the Kims manipulate the Parks into hiring them all--Ki-jung as the young son's art teacher, Ki-taek as Mr. Park's driver, and Chung-sook as the housekeeper (the last two positions require shoving off their previous holders, which the Kims manage with inventiveness and ruthless efficiency).  Before long, the Kims are all frequent visitors to the Parks' elegant home, which becomes almost its own character, its eye-catching interior design and seclusion from the outside world making it not just a haven, but a physical expression of the way the Kims have battened on to the Parks--there are, in reality, two families living in the house, even if the official owners are unaware of this.

    Not unlike Snowpiercer and Okja, Parasite feels like a series of set-pieces strung together, all riffing on the common theme of the parasitical relationship between the two families (which in fact runs both ways, with the Parks routinely imposing on the Kims for not just work, but emotional labor).  Standout scenes include a drunken revel after the Kims are left alone in the house, in which they muse about their "benefactors" and conclude that it is money that has made them both gullible and kind; or a hallucinatory, wordless sequence in which Ki-taek and his children walk from the Parks' house to their own in a thunderstorm, descending endless staircases as if traveling to the underworld, and finding at the end of their journey that the rain that has been pelting them has flowed downhill as well, flooding their basement apartment.  Bong's powerful direction, which creates scenes of intense humor alongside ones of sudden tension and horror, helps to obscure a certain bittiness in the script, the absence of a thesis that ties all the film's ideas together.  One thing, however, shines through--the Kims, despite their expert manipulation of the Parks, are not con artists.  They've worked all their lives--one darkly humorous sequences sees Ki-taek listing all his past jobs--and the children both wanted to attend university.  The fact that they have had to lie and scheme just for the opportunity to work service jobs reflects not some get-rick-quick scheme, but the reality they live in, in which their only path to survival is to latch on to the wealthy for dear life, and fight off anyone who might endanger that position.

    After establishing this premise so effectively, you might expect Bong to rest on his laurels, but instead he complicates it.  It turns out that the Parks' house supports not two families but three, and the Kims find themselves in a fight with people even more desperate than they are.  The house becomes a trap that the family must survive and escape, all under the oblivious noses of the Parks.  It's a magnificent second act development that ratchets up the tension and allows Bong to delve even further into outright horror and action storytelling, as the Kims discover secrets of the house that not even the Parks are aware of, and fight to wrest control over it.  Having established this untenable scenario, however, Bong doesn't seem to know entirely what to do with it.  The film's final act explodes into open violence that feels more like a way of avoiding complicated dilemmas--most obviously, will the Kims commit murder to preserve the cushy positions they've secured for themselves?--than a natural outgrowth of what has come before.  Nevertheless, even this underwhelming ending doesn't do much to undercut Parasite's achievement.  It is a gripping thriller, and a hilarious dark comedy, about the society we've built for ourselves.

  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette - What happened here, one wonders.  You've got one of Hollywood's most respected auteurs, Richard Linklater, following his near-Oscar win for Boyhood with an adaptation of one of the decade's bestselling, most talked-about novels.  To which end he recruits not only one of the best actresses of her generation to play the title character, but a supporting cast that includes Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Megan Mullaly, and Kate Burton.  And yet somehow, Where'd You Go, Bernadette amounts to little more than an occasionally amusing but ultimately pointless experience.  You can't even lay the blame at that perennial pitfall of novel adaptations, over-fidelity to the text that results in an airless, dutiful effort (like the kind that has apparently defeated the star-studded adaptation of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch).  The script (by Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vincent Palmo Jr.) takes significant liberties with the original novel, including changing its ending, and even as someone who remembered the novel only vaguely, I was struck by how thoroughly the film version had changed its pacing.  Bernadette the movie wastes no time in introducing us to its title character, a former wunderkind architect who has become a misanthropic recluse, as well as her family--long-suffering but emotionally checked out husband Elgin (Crudup) and bright, adoring daughter Bee (Emma Nelson).  But it races through the novel's main events, both in explaining to us the genesis of Bernadette's career and how an early failure left her reeling, too disgusted with a world that didn't appreciate her creations to do any work, and in delivering the novel's set-pieces.  A crucial sequence in which the home of Bernadette's neighbor (Wiig) is nearly destroyed in a mudslide, which in the novel was a climax that appeared near its end, here occurs within the first hour, the better to give more space to Bernadette's escape from her family, and her attempt to find a way to create again.

    None of this would be a problem if Linklater's reenvisioning of the novel managed to deliver its emotional beats, but unfortunately the movie comes off as glib and surface-y.  Characters end up explaining their motivations and revelations in too-obvious monologues, because the script can't deliver these ideas organically.  The only character who escapes the flattening effect of Linklater's adaptation is Bernadette herself, and I suspect that this is mainly due to Cate Blanchett's performance.  Her Bernadette is the main reason to see the movie, not only because it's a great performance in its own right--a monologue scene in which Bernadette explains to Fishburne's character the personal travails that led to her abandoning her career is an almost breathtaking achievement, something that would have seemed mannered and put on from any other actress but which feels perfectly natural, and revealing of the character, from Blanchett.  But also, because it's still so uncommon for even an actress's of Blanchett's caliber to get to play this kind of character--a fearsomely smart, creative person who needs to make things in order to stay sane.

    Though the film sands off some of Bernadette's rough edges from the novel--the implicit racism and thoughtless privilege of her relationship with an unseen Indian personal assistant, on whom she happily dumps every responsibility in her life, is downplayed, for example--it leaves untouched the novel's conclusion, that someone like Bernadette needs to create, and that it is wrong for her family to try to stop her from doing that.  This leads to the film's ending, in which, instead of returning home to Seattle as a more functional person as she did in the novel, Bernadette travels to the south pole to design a new research station there (a somewhat unrealistic development, but it does give the film an excuse to shoot beautiful scenes of icy scenery--actually filmed in Greenland but no less breathtaking for it).  The one justification for Where'd You Go, Bernadette's existence is this conclusion, in which Elgin and Bee recognize that Bernadette needs this creative outlet, and let her go in the knowledge that she will return to them a happier, more fulfilled person.  But I can't help but think that there could have been a better film building up to this ending.

  • Hustlers - The question most urgently raised by this film--which was an unexpected favorite at this year's Toronto Film Festival and has had a great opening weekend--is: who thought this was a story worth telling?  This is not a knock on Hustlers, an extremely entertaining and well-made crime story with two fantastic central performances from Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez.  But absent those performances, and Lorene Scafaria's clever script and energetic direction, what was it about this story, in which a group of New York strippers, made financially insecure by the knock-on effects of the 2008 crisis (none of the Wall Street guys who were their bread and butter are showing up to party anymore), resort to trolling for marks, drugging them, and running up huge tabs on their credit cards, that struck people as so fascinating, warranting a long-form journalism piece and now a film adaptation?  Style-wise, Hustlers situates itself firmly within the tradition of heist and crime movies, from Goodfellas to the Ocean's films, with an late-aughts economic crisis twist that recalls The Big Short and its ilk.  But what's happening on screen isn't so much a heist or a con job as it is simple theft (not to mention assault).  There's not even any of the sophisticated plotting and manipulation that accompanies the early scenes of a film like Parasite--all that's required of the heroines, in order to succeed in their scam, is to be able to stand the company of the type of man who sees nothing suspicious about three or four gorgeous women suddenly wanting to party with him.

    I don't say any of this to decry Hustlers, which, again, is an impeccably well-made film that is utterly engrossing from start to finish.  But it's also a film that leaves a bit of a bad taste behind it, as you wonder whether it's the characters who are trying to make something grand out of what was ultimately a sordid and harmful scheme, or the movie itself.  Much like the characters in the film, what keeps you from checking out entirely is the force and magnetism of the personalities involved--newbie stripper Destiny (Wu), who is taken under the wing of seasoned, charismatic veteran Ramona (Lopez), and who together build around themselves a troupe of strippers-turned-hustlers that includes Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart.  A lot of the charm of the movie comes from how female-focused it is, and how much it has to say about relationships between women.  Hustling offers the characters not only the opportunity to take care of themselves, but to create a community with others whom they trust to take care of them.  But Hustlers knows better than to plump for empty platitudes about female empowerment and sisterhood.  The relationships it depicts--particularly between Destiny and Ramona--are thorny and complex.  It's never clear, for example, whether Ramona offers to mentor Destiny out of genuine kindness, or because she's looking for a loyal flunky--a question that becomes more pointed when she starts recruiting obviously sketchy and unreliable women to participate in the drugging scam.  And by the same token, it's never clear how savvy and on the ball Destiny actually is.  She's smart enough to realize that what she and Ramona are doing is a crime and that they need to protect themselves, while Ramona seems determined to pretend that she's done nothing wrong, and takes increasingly riskier chances in her pursuit of bigger payouts.  But she also can't seem to break her habit of expecting someone to save her, whether it's Ramona or the men in her life, even as she insists that all she wants is to be independent.  The fact that her career, both legal and illegal, is unsustainable always seems to take Destiny by surprise, no matter how many times it implodes on her, and though she blames Ramona for this, the film leaves it up to us to decide whether their friendship was toxic, or the only real thing in their lives.

    Hustlers repeatedly gestures at the obvious criticisms of its premise--Destiny, who is telling the story to a reporter played by Julia Stiles, defensively insists that she doesn't want people to think that all strippers are thieves, and that she wouldn't like to "perpetuate a stereotype" that she has in fact thoroughly lived down to; at least some of the heroines' marks end up hurt because of their illicit drugging; and an important subplot revolves around a mark who is a nice person and ends up having his life destroyed by the heroines' machinations.  But having registered these objections, Hustlers doesn't really have anything to say in response to them.  It tries to argue that the drugging scheme is a form of class warfare, with the heroines striking back against the banksters who derailed the American economy, but even in the moment that feels like a self-serving justification by Ramona ("America is a strip club" is a line she tries out on Stiles's character).  And it does its best to argue that the men the heroines target--the ones with fat wallets who would be open to partying at a strip club in the first place--are so entitled and dismissive of women that there's no reason to feel sorry for them.  But here, the film's emphasis on women works against it.  For a film that (obviously) features a lot of nudity and prurient images, Hustlers is surprisingly good at avoiding the male gaze.  The only time the camera fondles a woman is when Destiny watches Ramona dance for the first time, and her reaction has as much to do with professional admiration and envy as it does with lust.  Hustlers pointedly diminishes the presence of men--not only the clients and marks, who are a parade of interchangeable faces with high-limit credit cards attached, but the women's boyfriends and male relatives, who invariably make brief appearances but never stay or offer material support.  But as a result, the marks feel like such non-entities that it's hard to work up much of a dislike for them.  What's left for the film is to suggest that its characters have been left lonely and unhappy by their actions, a conclusion that doesn't entirely fit with its presentation as a sexy crime comedy.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Recent Reading Roundup 50

We haven't done one of these in a while, and indeed the books discussed here cover a wide span of time.  They include two books that were nominated for the Hugo this year (though neither won), and another that was longlisted for the Booker award (though not shortlisted).  In the interim, I also wrote about Jason Lutes's Berlin, an omnibus containing his monumental comic about Weimar-era Berlin, over at Lawyers, Guns & Money.

  • Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman - The first hundred pages of Coleman's debut novel tell a familiar story.  In the baking outback and wilderness of Australia, multiple storylines relate how the Natives are abused, corralled, and brainwashed by the Settlers.  Jacky, a teenage runaway, reflects on his childhood at a mission school, where beatings and starvation were deployed to stamp out his culture and the memory of his family, and to instill in him a sense of inferiority that will make him a docile servant.  Esperance, a young woman living in one of the last encampments of free Natives, worries that Settler encroachment is pushing her people further into the desert, where it's harder to survive and where the odds of being rounded up, separated, and remanded to a life of slavery and abuse increase with every passing day.  Johnny, a deserting Settler soldier, tries to appease his conscience for participating in massacres of the Natives by joining one of their outlaw gangs, lending them his military expertise and superior weaponry.  And the functionaries of this system--the nun who runs the school where Jacky was abused, the bureaucrat in charge of Native affairs--seethe with hatred for the inhospitable territory they've been assigned to and for the willful, "ungrateful" native population they've been tasked with molding into a useful underclass.

    So far, so familiar, but Terra Nullius was published by Small Beer Press, and the book's back matter hints at a twist to the novel's premise.  Most experienced readers of science fiction will guess what that twist is simply by being told that it exists (if not sooner), and Coleman indeed ends up revealing that her novel is set in the future, that the Natives are humans, and that the Settlers are alien invaders who have colonized the entire planet and exterminated most of humanity, but for whom Australia poses a challenge because of its inhospitable climate.  These kind of obvious references to European colonization persist throughout the novel, down to its title, which refers to the legal fiction by which Australia was declared "empty territory" and thus subject to British seizure, regardless of the feelings of the many Indigenous people already living there.  But the actual story is an SFnal one, complete with spaceships and rayguns, and with the very real possibility of human extermination lingering in the background.

    If you've seen this trope once or twice before, you might be forgiven for approaching Terra Nullius with some trepidation.  At its worst, it's a device that can be glib and dismissive, reducing complicated situations to simplistic parallels, and working from the assumption (which is sometimes justified) that white readers can only have sympathy for victims of colonialism if they can imagine them as white.  And, to be fair, there are moments in Terra Nullius in which it is obvious that Coleman (who is herself an Indigenous Australian) is approaching the genre, and this particular trope, as an outsider.  Some of the worldbuilding she does feels awkward, designed to smooth over rough patches in her metaphor, such as her assertion that preexisting racial divisions among humans disappeared after the alien invasion.  But Terra Nullius is written with such conviction, and speaks of such a profound wound, one that is still relatively under-discussed in genre fiction, that one can't help but be won over by it.  Though I spent the last two thirds of the novel feeling uncertain about Coleman's central device, her characters remain vivid and heartbreaking, as they observe the destruction of their world, and are constantly reminded of the inevitability of their culture's erasure.  In a genre that so often trades in tales of triumphant rebellions against evil colonizers, it's worth remembering that in our own history, that sort of victory is very much the exception to the rule.  We're long overdue for science fiction that reflects that sad truth.

  • Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman - Hartman's follow-up to her delightful, idiosyncratic medieval-Europe-with-dragons-and-plucky-young-heroines duology, Seraphina and Shadow Scale, takes its eponymous heroine on a journey of healing and self-discovery.  Tess is Seraphina's human half-sister, and her novel is set a few years after the end of Shadow Scale.  But the conflicts between humans and dragons, and the difficulties that hybrids like Seraphina and others like her experience in their quest to be accepted by both societies, are only a background detail here.  Which is fitting, because Tess is just a normal human, and her problems are normal human ones for which she doesn't have the sort of magical escape hatch that her half-sister was able to make use of.  Several years ago, the inquisitive, adventurous Tess made a foolhardy error in judgment (or at least, that's how she thinks of it; the more the reader learns about Tess's "fall", the more obvious it becomes that she was horribly taken advantage of) that has closed off the already limited prospects her restrictive religious upbringing offered her.  Now she's forced to do penance by working in service to her "good" sister, Jeanne, trying to secure her a rich husband who will restore their family's fortunes, after which she's to be packed off to a nunnery.  Bitter and full of self-loathing, Tess sees no way out of her predicament except through the bottle, until a bit of prodding from Seraphina reminds her that there's a world outside of her family's narrow, suffocating circle.  She steals a few provisions and sets off on her own, with no real destination in mind except away.

    Much as I enjoyed it, my main complaint against Shadow Scale was that Hartman's gift at worldbuilding--she constructs the history of her alternative Europe with elegance and verve, bringing its nations to immediate life--was allowed to run wild, leading to a novel that was on the baggy side.  Tess of the Road might have been written with that complaint in mind, as it utterly perfects the balance between exploring Hartman's fascinating world and weaving a strong narrative through it.  Tess's journey is, by its nature, episodic.  She learns how to steal and how to work, spends time on a road crew, flirts with shepherdesses by pretending to be vagabond on the run from his crimes, and even helps some people even more marginalized than herself.  But running through it, and through the lives of most of the people she meets, is deep pain, and the need to get the distance from it that is the only hope of true healing.  Again and again, Tess encounters people who, like herself, have been twisted up by their families' expectations, by limited and limiting options, and by cruelty and abuse.  By learning to understand them, she gains a greater understanding of, and compassion towards, herself.  But that process is hardly linear.  As Tess tries to grow past the person her life has made of her, she is brought up short by her inability to forgive herself for not living up to an ideal that we eventually realize is not only unrealistic, but damaging, and must struggle repeatedly with her traumas before she can overcome them.  A particularly powerful choice is the novel's determination to deal honestly with sexuality and sexual ethics, starting with Tess's anger at the way the double standard in her society treats promiscuous men as lovable rogues, and the women they seduce as irretrievably damaged and better off dead.  Tess's process of healing is bound up in owning her sexuality and the way it has been abused--by both the men who desire her, and the women who treat her as responsible for that desire.

    Tess's companion throughout most of this journey is Pathka, a quigutl, a cousin-race to dragons who have found themselves caught in the interstices between prejudiced humans and disdainful dragons.  Pathka is on a spiritual quest to find the World Serpent, a mythological creature said to have given the world life.  Which is how Hartman introduces one of the most delightful elements of the worldbuilding in all of her novels, the joyful and complicated handling of religion, mythology, and spirituality.  Religion can mean many things in her books--it is the misogynistic creed that has taught Tess to hate herself and her body; it is the selfless care that the nuns she encounters offer to the sick and indigent; it is the joyous erudition of the monks who invite her to admire their library; and it is the search for the numinous that consumes Pathka (and allows him to run away from parts of his painful past, such as his responsibility to his neglected child Kikiu) and offers Tess a new sort of meaning to cling to.  I don't know a lot of YA books that could do everything that Hartman manages to do in Tess of the Road--tell a good adventure story with a compelling heroine, address weighty issues like rape culture and the sexual double standard, and ask what we look for when we look for god.  That Hartman manages all of this in a single, effortlessly readable volume (though the novel's ending is a blatant hook for a sequel, it also works perfectly well as a work in its own right) is once again a reminder that she is one of the most vital voices in the genre, and that her works are must-reads for anyone who cares about any of the wide-ranging topics she covers in her writing.

  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite - This might seem like a strange thing to say, but Braithwaite's debut--originally self-published in Nigeria in 2017, and reprinted in the US and UK to great acclaim last year--makes for an interesting pairing with Tess of the Road.  Both novels are about pairs of sisters, about corrosive sexual mores, and about how embodying certain types of femininity can become a trap from which the only escape is a violent one.  Our narrator, Korede, is the "good" sister.  Responsible, hard-working, a good cook and fastidious cleaner.  That last trait comes in handy when Korede is repeatedly called to the aid of Ayoola, her beautiful, scatterbrained, selfish sister, who keeps finding herself with dead paramours.  Ayoola claims that her boyfriends attacked her, and at first Korede believes her.  But eventually she's forced to notice that Ayoola never seems to have a mark on her, and that not all the men she kills seem to have been prone to violence.  More than moral outrage, however, what Korede increasingly feels towards Ayoola is resentment, for the way she floats through life, her beauty inoculating her from the need to take care of herself or take responsibility for her actions, and for the way she leaves it to Korede to clean up her messes.  When Ayoola turns her attention to Tade, Korede's colleague on whom she's long nurtured a crush, Korede is torn between the need to protect her sister (and herself) and her concern that Tade will become Ayoola's next victim.

    My Sister, the Serial Killer is short and punchy, told in brief chapters that jump back and forth in time, revealing how the sisters have had a similar dynamic--Ayoola admired and desired, Korede ignored and doing all the work--since childhood.  It also reveals the darkness in their family's past, their abusive, openly unfaithful father, who views both girls as extensions of himself and their sexuality as his to control.  That darkness is reflected in many of Korede's interactions with men in her society, from policemen who hassle her for bribes, to the married men who don't even bother hiding the tan line on their ring finger when they come to court her sister.  Even Tade, whom the early chapters single out as a kind, gentle man, turns out to be a disappointment, ignoring Korede's obvious affection for him and deciding that he's in love with Ayoola for no reason beyond the fact that she's beautiful.  It would be glib to say that My Sister, the Serial Killer is arguing that Ayoola's actions are justified because of sexism and rape culture.  But what the novel does demand--from Korede, if not from us--is to take a side.  She can side with men who will never see her as valuable, who will take pleasure in her good cooking and clean home, but dismiss her because she isn't beautiful, and whose treatment of even a beautiful woman like her sister is self-centered and oblivious.  Or she can dedicate her life to being the caretaker of a monster, to picking up after a psychopath who will almost certainly kill again.  This is the only freedom a woman like Korede is offered, and it's left for us to decide whether that fact is a tragedy, or whether Korede is enough of a monster in her own way that this bind is no more than she deserves.

  • Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg - To begin with, Rosenberg's strange, challenging novel feels like a very familiar type of historical fiction.  A framing story introduces us to an academic, Dr. Voth, who has found a manuscript claiming to be the true and accurate account of the lives of Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess, the 18th century renegades and robbers who have been immortalized in a succession of folktales, ballads, and penny dreadfuls, reaching all the way to modern work like Brecht's Threepenny Opera.  In Voth's version of the story, Jack is a transgender man, and Bess is the daughter of a press-ganged South Asian sailor who jumped ship in England and joined a band of free-thinkers trying to keep landowners from draining the fens.  As the buy-in to a historical novel, this kind of modern spin on preexisting material is hardly unusual--since, after all, free-thinkers and transgender people existed then as well as now.  But the further one gets into Confessions of the Fox, the clearer it becomes that Rosenberg's project with it is something far more twisty.  There are, for example, the Pale Fire-esque footnotes from Voth, which initially provide historical context and definitions for slang terms, but eventually segue into discussions of Voth's life (as a transgender man himself, who talks about his struggles with intimacy and relationships) and his professional troubles.  It eventually becomes clear that the present Voth is writing from is semi-dystopian, with the university he works for constantly curtailing the humanities, subjecting scholars of "useless", status-quo challenging material like Voth to constant interference and increasing indignities from the Dean of Surveillance.  Finally, Voth is informed that in order to keep his job, he has to turn over his manuscript notes on the Confessions to the conglomerate that has been buying more and more influence in the university.  His footnotes become a struggle with a cheerful but insistent representative of that company, Sullivan, whose interest in the manuscript quickly turns sinister.

    By this point, the reader will probably have noticed that something about Jack and Bess's adventures feels slightly off.  The entire project of historical fiction, trying to capture the language and mindset of people in the past while still speaking to issues relevant to the present, doesn't really seem to have been attempted.  Instead the novel feels modern in a way that is disorienting and hard to put one's finger on.  Bess's antipathy towards the police as instruments of the state and of its capitalistic taskmasters, for example, feels like the perspective of a 21st century person--not that an outlaw in 1724 wouldn't hate the police, but not in terms that feel so much like something a modern radical might say.  Similarly, Voth's footnoted conflict with Sullivan over the latter's prurient insistence on getting concrete information about the appearance of Jack's genitals and the exact specifications of the gender-confirmation treatments he's undergone makes sense given current attitudes within the transgender community.  But the fact that the manuscript just happens to fall in line with those attitudes, to draw a respectable veil over any discussion of Jack's physical form, feels extremely convenient, as if the writer of the manuscript (who is never identified) just happened to share Voth's modern perspective.  By the time Jack and Bess discover a method of producing synthetic testosterone, the lines between past and present feel impossibly blurred.

    It doesn't take very long to realize that this is all deliberate, and that Rosenberg's project with Confessions is precisely to comment on the way that historical fiction uses the appearance of realism to tell stories rooted in its own moment, and in modern preoccupations.  The revelation he eventually makes about the nature of the manuscript and the reason for its strange feeling of modernity is both in keeping with that approach, and with the novel's deeply-felt radicalism.  I was reminded of Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories, whose characters questioned whether they could use imperialist tools like written language and codified history to advance an anti-imperialist project.  Rosenberg's characters, similarly, throw all concerns of accuracy and historical fact out the window in their determination to advance their political agenda.  We've been written out of history, they seem to be saying, so now we're going to write ourselves back in whether it's specifically accurate to this particular case or not.  And if you can't trust your history books anymore because of our actions, well, welcome to life for the rest of us.  It makes for a disorienting reading experience, especially if (like myself) you had picked up the book expecting a straightforward historical romp.  But Confessions is so assured, and so decidedly its own thing, that one can't help but trust it, and Rosenberg, to carry you along.

  • The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell - Serpell's debut novel has a familiar format, the multigenerational family saga spanning the history of a nation--in this case Zambia--from the colonial era to the present day.  But it is so full of its own distinctive flourishes that it resists any attempt at pigeonholing.  It incorporates such wide-ranging subjects as the history of the damming of the Zambezi river; weird offshoots of the Zambian independence movement and its Marxist flank, such as the revolutionary Edward Makuka Nkoloso, who in his later years tried to jumpstart the fledgling Zambian nation into the space race; and the quest for an HIV vaccine, which involves screening African sex workers for potential immunity.  It spans not only time, but genre--in its earlier segments, set in the first half of the 20th century, it features magical realist elements such as a woman who is born covered head to toe with hair, which sometimes exhibits prehensile properties.  Or another woman who cries nonstop for decades, until everything in her vicinity is coated with salt.  But in its modern segments (which stretch a little way into the future) the novel turns its attention to just-around-the-corner technologies like CRISPR-based gene therapy that confers HIV immunity but also causes changes in skin pigmentation, or armies of solar-powered microdrones that swarm together, providing internet connectivity outside the control of an oppressive government.  Sections of the novel are narrated by mosquitoes, who blithely observe how their position as disease-spreaders has, over time, been usurped by both scarier diseases than malaria, and by the spread of technology and information and their attendant dangers.  The result is a novel that can feel hard to pin down, but also never less than engrossing.

    Most of The Old Drift is divided into three segments, titled "The Grandmothers", "The Mothers" and "The Children", which follow three families bound together by an event that took place in the early 20th century, the crippling of a young Tonga boy by the daughter of an Italian prospector in The Old Drift, an early European settler town established near Victoria Falls (of which the only remnant today is a cemetery).  The family trees descended from the victim, the perpetrator, and the man who witnessed the attack (and who later nearly shot the same boy, mistaking him for an animal) twist around one another in ways most members aren't even aware of.  They also all end up tied to the fortunes of Northern Rhodesia, later Zambia, as it emerges from colonialism and into independence.  A running theme throughout the first two groups of chapters--in which the point of view characters are all women--is the intersection of revolution, and of anti-colonial liberation movements, with sexism and class prejudice.  Agnes, a young British woman in the 1960s, falls in love with Zambian student Ronald, and runs off with him over the objections of her family (in one of the novel's most darkly humorous moments, Agnes is able to overcome a lifetime of racist conditioning because she has recently lost her sight, and can't bring herself to care about differences of skin color the way she used to).  But despite persisting against racist institutions and the disapproval of society, Agnes and Ronald's love founders over their differing intellectual pretensions.  Ronald, an up-and-comer in the young nation's intelligentsia, learns to despise Agnes for being neither a traditional village wife nor the jewel in his crown that he expected a white wife to be, finally concluding that "white women were just women".  In another story, bright village girl Matha is radicalized when her mother's anti-colonial activity lands her in prison, but she finds herself cast out of the movement when she becomes pregnant, because its leader fears that he will be accused of fathering her child.  The two women's children will end up becoming lovers, but Agnes's son Lionel will thoughtlessly pass along HIV to his wife and son, even as he furiously researches HIV resistance among sex workers, including Matha's daughter Sylvia.

    It's a theme that feels less prominent in the novel's final, present- and near-future-set segment.  In fact, the entire novel's tone changes in these chapters.  Whereas in the previous segments The Old Drift and its characters had felt weighed down by history, trapped by political currents, inherited debts, and dynastic crimes, here there is suddenly a sense of freedom and possibility.  The three descendants of the families we'd been following come together to form a revolutionary triad--middle class, biracial Joseph brings the ideas, slum-born Jacob brings the technological know-how, and Naila, the descendant of Indian and Italian colonizers, provides a much-needed sense of showmanship.  Together they come up with a plan with the potential to transform their country, freeing it from the vestiges of colonialism, the encroachment of capitalistic interests, and the corruption of their government.  It all leads to an ending which Serpell carries off with remarkable verve, and which, if it doesn't quite turn The Old Drift into a work of science fiction, at least gives off a vibe that SF readers will recognize and appreciate.  As obvious as Serpell's intention with this tonal shift is, it can still leave The Old Drift feeling a little lopsided, the heavier, history-laden earlier segments sitting a bit oddly with the more vibrant later ones (it's not a surprise to discover, in the acknowledgements, that a few of the novel's early chapters were published as individual short stories; they have that feel of existing for themselves more than to service the greater structure of the novel).  But it is also so fascinating and well-crafted, and its ending is so energetic and vivid, that these slight infelicities are easy to forgive.

  • The Dollmaker by Nina Allan - Allan's latest novel has a narrative that weaves around itself, spinning stories within stories in a nested structure that should be confusing but somehow works.  Reclusive dollmaker Andrew answers a personal ad by the equally reclusive Bramber, in which she asks for information about the life of a famed mid-twentieth century author and dollmaker, Ewa Chaplin.  Andrew and Bramber begin to exchange letters, and he becomes convinced that they are destined to be together, and sets on a meandering trip through the English countryside with the ultimate goal of arriving at the group home where Bramber has lived her entire adult life.  Along the way he tells us about his life and how he came to collect and later make antique-style dolls.  Set apart by his diminutive stature, Andrew had a lonely childhood, punctuated only by a sexual interlude with an older man and fellow doll aficionado (which the reader will easily recognize as abusive but which Andrew remains more ambivalent about).  Even in adulthood he has few friends, and despite the artistic outlet offered by his dollmaking he comes off as disconnected from his emotions.  The reader can't help but fear that his project to meet Bramber is driven by delusions and unacknowledged loneliness, and that it will come to a tragic end.

    Bramber, meanwhile, writes Andrew elliptical letters that similarly skip between past and present, describing the community of patients and employees at her group home, and slowly converging on the reason for her hospitalization.  Between the two narratives, we are treated to the short stories of Ewa Chaplin, tales in which dysfunctional families and fractured relationships are laid out against backdrops that seem familiar, but suddenly turn fantastical and otherworldly.  Recurring through these stories is the image of a dwarf who dares to love a queen, and is mutilated and executed for his presumption.  This is not our only indication that fact and fiction are blurring in the world of The Dollmaker, but the novel itself never fully commits on this point.  It is impossible, in fact, to pin down its genre--it might be nothing more than a character-driven novel about people who live in their minds, and find resonances between the art that speaks to them and the events of their own lives.  Or it might be that Bramber, Andrew, and Ewa are in some sort of communication across time and parallel universes.  Like Allan's previous novel, The Rift, The Dollmaker is in no rush to commit to an interpretation, and is content to keep readers on their toes, searching for connections and clues that enrich the reading experience but don't add up to a definitive answer.

    Besides this intellectual exercise, the pleasures of The Dollmaker lie in Allan's careful worldbuilding.  The Chaplin stories are delightful, each in their own way, some cruel--a pregnant schoolteacher conceives an irrational hatred for one of her students, and suffers horrific consequences--and some benevolent--a student whose lover has been seduced by her glamorous aunt must decide whether to pursue a drastic scheme of revenge, or find a way to move on with her life.  And Bramber's tales of her family history and her present-day life in the group home have a warm, homey feeling, especially when intercut with Andrew's travelogue as he makes his way to her, staying in small villages and run-down inns, eating lonely meals that he pretends not to mind.  The novel ends up feeling like a portrait of a certain corner of England (albeit one that feels unmoored in time--cellphones are mentioned briefly but hardly ever used, and the internet doesn't play much of a role in the story).  I was less fond of Andrew than I think the narrative wanted me to be--as justified as his wariness of people was, it felt to me that he had never developed the tools to be good for anyone who did take the time to get past his defenses.  But the book's ending, in which Andrew and Bramber finally meet, is wondefully anticlimactic, requiring just enough growth from both characters to be believable, and leaving them both space to continue growing without forcing them to define their relationship.  The Dollmaker is (deliberately, I assume) a hard novel to sum up, but at its core it is about the hope that the cruelty of the worlds described in Ewa Chaplin's stories can be overcome, and that misfits like Andrew and Bramber can make new beginnings.

  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik - Like Novik's previous novel, Uprooted, Spinning Silver takes place in a fantasized pre-industrial Eastern Europe.  And like that earlier novel, it has the feel of a fairy tale retelling without really being a straight version of any particular story--"Rumpelstiltskin" is referenced, obviously, but so are "Cinderella", "Hansel and Gretel", "Rapunzel", and probably bits of regional folklore that I didn't recognize.  What matters more than any of these plot details is the sense of story-ness that wafts over the novel, the feeling, from its first chapter, that its characters are just on the cusp of being carried off on a fantastic adventure, both wonderful and terrible.  To begin with, however, the novel's concerns are quite prosaic.  We are introduced to Miryem, the daughter of a moneylender too soft-hearted to make his collections, who takes over her father's business and proves herself an able businesswoman.  Then to Wanda, a poor farmer's daughter who escapes her abusive home when Miryem takes her on as a servant in payment of her father's debt, and finds not only unexpected warmth and kindness in Miryem's home, but the opportunity to learn new skills and expand her world.  And finally to Irina, the unappreciated daughter of a minor duke, with little to look forward to but an unspectacular marriage at her father's behest.  What ties these three women together is the fact that the novel's world is bedeviled by the Staryk, elf-like creatures who love the cold and cause harsh, overlong winters, during which they raid human settlements, stealing gold.  When the Staryk king overhears Miryem boasting that she can turn silver into gold, he charges her to do the same with his enchanted silver.  This, when transformed into jewelry, unleashes Irina's latent Staryk heritage, making her irresistible to men.  The exchange between the two women thus puts them both on the path to marriages they don't want, to men who aren't what they seem.  Irina's father parlays her newfound charm into a marriage with the tsar, who turns out to be possessed by a fire demon who wants to devour her and anyone else of Staryk blood.  And when Miryem completes the Staryk king's tasks, he carries her off to his kingdom to be his queen.  Both women have to figure out how to outsmart their husbands, and prevent them from destroying the human world--one with fire, the other with ice.

    Spinning Silver is busy, not to say overstuffed.  Wanda's storyline, for example, in which not only she but her two brothers become caught up in Miryem's troubles, doesn't really need to exist, but it's clear that Novik was compelled by the narrative of an abuse victim breaking away from her old life and learning to make real connections, and of a barely-functional family reforming itself into something real and nurturing.  The same can be said of a lot of the novel's cul-de-sacs.  Its frequent discussions of the antisemitism experienced by its Jewish characters--whose expressions range from unspoken hostility to out-and-out violence--and the way they order their lives in preparation for it, are extremely well done, and unusual in fantasy novel.  But they don't really dovetail with any of the novel's themes, nor do they play a central role in its plot.  Though the Jews in the duke's town are integral to securing the novel's happy ending, for example, we're never told that this leads to safer or freer lives for them, or even that their contributions were ignored; the matter is simply never raised.

    What does run through the novel is its preoccupation with debt in its many forms.  Miryem can harden her heart against her father's debtors because she sees them as scroungers who were content to forget their obligations while her family starved.  (It's honestly a little strange to come to a novel published in 2018 and find such a sympathetic take on a debt collector, and such vehemence against people who can't pay back their loans; even if Miryem's moral calculus is correct for the time and place in question, it reads a little oddly in ours.)  For Wanda, meanwhile, even though she's effectively an indentured servant (which is how the people in the village see it, fueling resentment against Miryem and her family), being in debt is liberating, because it means she can't be sold outright by her drunken father.  When Miryem travels to the Staryk realm, she encounters a culture that takes her obsession with honoring debts to its furthest extreme, where nothing can be given without exchange, and where failing to live up to an obligation is punishable by death.  And when both Miryem and Irina triumph over their respective demon lovers, they find that there are greater, intangible debts binding them, to common decency and their basic humanity.  Like Uprooted, Spinning Silver is less interested in telling a story about good triumphing over evil than one in which evil can be transformed, in which it is possible to save the world without destroying another one.  The frequent riffing on the concept of indebtedness finally builds to the conclusion that for every person, there are deals they won't make, things they won't sell, no matter the offered price.  Its heroines' triumphs come not from defeating their enemies, but from recognizing these limits, and acting as they owe to themselves and to others.

    (As an aside, I think it's interesting that after taking a bit of criticism over the end of Uprooted--in which the heroine ended up with a barely-reformed bad boy even though her friendship with another girl could easily have been changed into a romance--Novik's response has been to render the relationships between her heroines cordial and utilitarian, while fielding not one but two sexy villains who end up with the protagonists despite not really doing enough to change over the course of the novel.  One obvious justification for Wanda's existence in the novel, for example, would have been as Miryem's love interest, and it's strange that Novik chose to go another way once again.)