Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Recent Reading Roundup 47

I'm sorry to report it, but I'm not having the best reading year in 2018.  I'm reading a lot, and enjoying quite a bit of what I'm reading, but when I look at my lists from the year's first half, very little stands out as something that I'll still be thinking of, much less selecting for a best-of list, at the year's end.  I'd like to say that this current bunch of books represents a turning point--and there are several books here that I did genuinely love and that I expect to linger in my mind--but for the most part they continue a trend.  Some interesting ideas, some good execution, but also a lot of problems.  Let's hope that I do better in the year's remaining months.

  • The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar - Gowar's much-lauded historical novel is made up of fantastic pieces that don't really come together into much of a whole.  Even the novel's three segments feel more like linked novellas than chapters in a single story.  In the first, a prosperous but unhappy merchant in 1785, Jonah Hancock, is shocked when the captain of his latest trading venture returns to London having traded his ship for a preserved mermaid.  His attempts to make money off this curio launch Hancock into previously unknown social strata, where he crosses paths with Angelica Neal, a successful courtesan whose latest patron has died, leaving her to scramble for a new protector or risk being thrown back into the exploitative racket of London's upscale brothels.  In the second segment, Angelica falls into a disastrous, obsessive affair with a penniless and mercurial military officer, while Hancock, who has sold his mermaid for a great sum and retreated back into the rational world of business, finds himself longing for the vivacity and excitement he glimpsed in his meeting with her.  In the third and final segment, Hancock and Angelica marry and find themselves remarkably well suited--his stability (and wealth) meshing well with her liveliness and sense of style--but their fledgling happiness is threatened by the presence of another, different sort of mermaid, who seems to have the power to exacerbate their anxieties and dampen their hopes for the future.

    You can see the lines that Gowar is trying to draw between these three parts of the story, but they don't entirely convince.  Why does Hancock agree to not only pay off Angelica's debts, but to marry her, for example?  The novel has established him as chafing under the conventional morality of his social set, but not to this extent.  And why does Angelica, after the initial shock of being abandoned by her lover and left nearly destitute has worn off, commit herself so completely to a new life as a middle class matron?  Surely it would take more work than the novel shows us for her to reinvent herself so completely, when everything we've seen of her until this point has been pleasure-seeking and short-sighted?  The throughline of the mermaid, which should tie the novel together, ends up feeling almost extraneous to the plot (it certainly doesn't help that there are two, rather different, sorts of mermaids over the course of the story--if you're going to use a supernatural concept as your central metaphor, it might be wise to narrow it down to a single form).  There are, in addition, other subplots that pop up and disappear, such as a story about a young prostitute, the daughter of a slave-owner and his favorite, who runs away from Angelica's old brothel and ends up servicing johns in alleys, but who doesn't get anything like a conclusive ending to her story.  Or a horrific scene near the end of the novel in which Angelica's old madam is beaten to death by an angry mob.  It's hard to tell what this is all meant to come together to form.

    What makes The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock worth reading despite this fractured quality is, however, its pieces.  Hancock and Angelica are great creations, complex and human and so perfectly well-suited, despite moving in such different worlds, that one can't help but root for them to make a go of it.  They are surrounded by similarly rich creations--Hancock's niece Sukie, who is excited by the possibility of taking on adult responsibilities as his fortunes in the world rise, but also desperately longs for him (and later also Angelica) to treat her as parents and protect her from the world; Mrs. Chappell, Angelica's old Madam, whose treatment of her wards is equal parts abusive and protective, and whose advice is both self-serving and wise; Simeon, a servant at Mrs. Chappel's establishment and a former slave, who carefully parses the razor-thin nuances of respectability and opportunity that his race and position afford him.  The overall impression is the one formed by the best sort of historical novel, of people who are living not through history but through a vibrant, turbulent now, thoughtfully examining their world and their choices instead of just going along with convention because "that's how it was back then".  It's a shame that the story Gowar has constructed around these characters and moments doesn't quite hold up, but the core of the novel is strong enough to make me very interested in what she does next.

  • The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty - Despite having a lot to recommend it, Chakraborty's debut novel suffers from a problem that I've been seeing a in a lot of new SFF (and particularly trilogy-starters like this one).  It has a genuinely fascinating setting, and a story that is only so-so.  The city of brass of the title is Daevabad, one of the chief cities of djinn-kind, founded after the demons and genies of Muslim and Arabian folklore were banished by King Solomon and forbidden from interfering in human affairs.  For most of its existence, Daevabad was ruled by the Daevas, a powerful sect whose isolationist stance extended to periodic genocides against other tribes who practiced intermarriage with humans.  Fourteen hundred years ago, another tribe, the Geziri, motivated at least in part by these atrocities but also by their adoption of the Muslim faith, conquered Daevabad and reduced the Daevas, and their ruling family, the Nahids, to a powerless aristocracy.  In the present day (or rather, the early 19th century, as evidenced by an early reference to Napoleon's conquest of Cairo), Daevabad is is rife with ethnic, religious, and cultural strife.  The Daevas complain of persecution from the Geziri leadership but refuse to acknowledge their own history of atrocity, and dream of resurrecting their old rule with its old prejudices intact.  This includes Daevabad's substantial part-human population, known as shafits, who experience prejudice but whose higher fertility and greater numbers can also make them sporadically dangerous to the Daeva elites.  The Geziri leadership pits the two groups against each other in the hopes of maintaining Daevabad's delicate balance, while also keeping a wary eye on Muslim fanatics within its own ranks who might be eager to set the city ablaze.

    It's an incredibly rich setting, not least for how the novel steadfastly refuses to give us someone to uncomplicatedly root for.  The Daevas' prejudice against shafits is uncompromising, and extends to kidnapping and enslaving shafit children.  But when we meet an underground shafit benevolence association, they turn out to be funneling at least some of the money donated to them to the purchase of weapons.  And the Geziri's approach to keeping order is brutal and amoral--everything from staging riots to mass executions to concealing their own history of atrocity--even as the obvious powder keg of the city's ethnic relations suggests that it may be the lesser of all evils.  It's perhaps inevitable that any character interjected between us and this setting will be less interesting than the city itself, but Chakraborty compounds this effect by making her two heroes ignorant and naive.  Nahri is a street hustler in Cairo who has spent her life concealing her magical powers.  When she accidentally calls down a genie named Dara, he reveals that she is the last scion of the Nahid dynasty, long thought extinct, and returns her to Daevabad to become a figurehead for both the Geziri establishment and the Daeva restoration movement.  Ali is the younger son of the Geziri king, pious, well-meaning, and easily-influenced.  Initially moved by the shafit plight, he's dismayed by their weapon-hoarding (unwittingly funded by his contributions), and spends the novel trying to cover his tracks, not realizing that he is actually a pawn in his father's larger political game.  There are obvious worldbuilding advantages to making two such naifs our point of view on Daevabad's complex political tapestry, but this also means that Nahri and Ali's own stories are rarely as interesting as what's happening in their backgrounds.

    It certainly doesn't help that the novel's pacing is so odd.  It takes Nahri nearly half the book to arrive in Daevabad, and once she does she is quickly ensconced in the palace, only fleetingly allowed to engage with the city's greater society.  Ali, meanwhile, spends the novel reacting, since his primary motivation is to hide an act of treachery that took place before the story even started.  An interesting dynamic eventually develops between the two of them and Dara, who makes little effort to hide his resentment of the Geziri or apologize for his own history as the Daevas' most genocidal general.  This misshapen triangle--friendship between Nahri and Ali; simmering attraction between Nahri and Dara; barely-suppressed hostility between Dara and Ali--pairs well with the novel's political worldbuilding, as Nahri and Ali become more aware of the events that Dara and the other Daeva are setting into motion.  But it takes most of the novel to get us to this point, and when we do, Chakraborty explodes the triangle seemingly out of nowhere, introducing a sudden crisis whose obvious goal is to reshuffle the players and set up the next chapter in the story.  The City of Brass ends by promising a significant leveling-up, with each of its characters in a new and very precarious situation.  But the resulting impression is that the (rather long) novel we've just finished reading was little more than setup for the real story, and I admit to finding this approach tiring.  As much as I enjoyed Chakraborty's worldbuilding, I'm not sure her story works well enough to tempt me into another foray into this world.

  • The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith - There's been a lot of enthusiasm and praise for Galbraith's--who is, of course, the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling--Cormoran Strike series in the years since this first volume appeared.  And yet somehow, in all that hubbub, I don't remember anyone pointing out what seemed obvious to me within The Cuckoo's Calling's first few chapters--that with these books, Rowling is trying to write a 21st century equivalent to the mystery novels of Dorothy L. Sayers.  You feel this in particular in the strong descriptive voice that characterizes the book, sometimes a tight third person on a particular character's point of view, but often just a strongly-characterized narrative voice, with an arch, knowing tone, and a keen attention to details of dress, demeanor, and class.  This is an old-fashioned choice, but it suits the kind of novel that Rowling is writing, a Fair Play mystery in which the key to the solution is working out everyone's location during a few crucial minutes, and figuring out how quickly they could have plausibly moved from one point to another.  Similarly old-fashioned is the novel's focus on witness testimony--it is, essentially, made up of set-pieces in which the detective interviews each witness or connected person, carefully weeding through their assumptions, dissimulations, and agendas.  There is even, in the novel's opening chapter, a potentially-lethal ironwork staircase, reminiscent of the one made famous in Sayers's Murder Must Advertise, down which Strike's plucky, Girl-Friday-ish new assistant, Robin Ellacott, nearly tumbles to her death.

    The one crucial difference between Rowling and Sayers is their central detective.  Strike bears some superficial similarities to Peter Wimsey--he's a traumatized war veteran, albeit with a physical injury, an amputated leg, rather than a psychological one; he comes from a famous family whose strong personalities will no doubt feature in future books; and he's smarter, and more educated, than he lets on.  But where Wimsey was effete and happily ensconced in his upper-class trappings, Strike is lumbering and determinedly down to earth.  Even his family connections are of a very different sort to Wimsey's--he is the illegitimate son of a dissipated but very rich rock star, who has never acknowledged him or done much for him, even though Wikipedia has made the connection between them available to anyone who wants to know.

    The internet, in fact, is one of the interesting twists that Rowling offers to Sayers's template, overlaying her stratified, insular worlds on a setting where anyone can know anything about anyone else.  It's not surprising that the first Strike mystery revolves around a dead model, whose face and personal relationships were laid bare for the whole world to see, in print and in the digital realm.  That Rowling mingles this setting with the issue of race--another point on which Sayers was mostly silent--might cause some people familiar with her well-meaning but often lead-footed approach to social issues, in her books and in her own statements, to cringe in nervous anticipation.  But for the most part The Cuckoo's Calling handles this issue with intelligence, if perhaps not the depth it deserves.  Both the victim and many of the people around her--her favorite fashion designer, a rapper who was smitten with her--perform a certain high-class version of blackness for a mostly-white audience, which makes them rich but leaves them scrambling for connection and a sense of identity.  In the end, this is perhaps too heavy a topic for the tone that Rowling is aiming for, which prioritizes Strike's own emotional problems over the turmoil and injustice that his investigation unveils--again, as in Sayers, the point here is the detective, not anything he uncovers.  But Strike himself, and the relationship he builds with Robin, are very winning, and enough to make me look forward to future entries in the series.

  • The Changeling by Victor LaValle - LaValle's latest novel starts out from a familiar premise--young couple happily welcomes their first child, and then things go seriously wrong--which he makes his own almost from the first page.  Starting from the family history of protagonist Apollo Kagwa--his Ugandan immigrant mother, his absent white father, his childhood fascination with books which leads to a career as a rare book dealer--and continuing with his storybook romance with strong-willed librarian Emma Valentine, The Changeling feels like one part fairy tale, one part breezy and well-observed contemporary slice of life, with a strong sense of its New York setting, and of the lives of young black people living in it.  Then a shocking act of violence tears the young family apart, leaving Apollo bereft and full of rage.  LaValle does a great job of observing the tiny details that make Apollo's grief mundane and therefore all the more crushing, as well as the mingled indifference and prurience that greets him in public.  Scenes in which he's awkwardly rejected by the ad-hoc fathers' group he'd once been a proud member of, or lingers in sad silence in a survivors' support group, feel so vivid and so wrenching in their own right that it's almost possible to miss the novel's slow but unstoppable slide into weirdness.  Eventually, however, it becomes clear that the death of Apollo's son, and the disappearance of his wife, were not just an ordinary sort of insanity, but that there is something supernatural at work.

    The fact that Apollo--and the reader along with him--takes so long to realize the weirdness of what's happening around him is part of the book's point, and very well-realized by LaValle.  Even before the novel's rupture point, it keeps hinting to us that something is wrong, while locking us in the point of view of Apollo, who can't see it.  Later on, he repeatedly comes to realize that there are aspects of reality he hasn't acknowledged, and that these are almost always tied to the lives of women--his mother's struggles as a single working woman with a child, and the reason for his father's disappearance; the self-protective lies told to him by Emma's friends and family; a community of escaped battered women living on an abandoned island in the East River, whose leader may or may not be an actual witch; most of all, Emma's growing conviction that there is something wrong with her child, and that she must go to extremes to prove it even if it means leaving Apollo behind.  It's uncommon to see novels about men telling stories like this, about male characters realizing that they have failed to recognize the humanity of women and the validity of their experiences, and learning to do better.  LaValle makes us care for Apollo while also revealing his errors and flaws, and giving him the courage and determination to make amends to the women he's wronged and thus regain his family.  It's not surprising that the novel's villain turns out to be a man who rejects the humanity of women, but it's encouraging to find such a villain in a work that believes so strongly in the responsibility of good men to stand up to such people, and teach their own sons to be better.

    Unlike some of LaValle's previous work, like the novella The Ballad of Black Tom, race doesn't sit front and center in The Changeling.  But it's always present, and LaValle finds fascinating ways to incorporate it into the story, chiefly in stressing the ways that black characters have to alter their behavior when they become the protagonist of the sort of story usually reserved for white heroes.  When Apollo and his friend Patrice start behaving like regular horror story protagonists, breaking rules and violating norms in order to get to the heart of the wrongness that has infected their lives, they have to bear in mind how their behavior looks to nosy white neighbors or passing policemen--as Patrice says, black people can be heroes, but they have to be smart in how they go about it.  This constant peripheral awareness of race reminded me a little of some of Helen Oyeyemi's fairy tale-inspired novels, like Boy, Snow, Bird, in which race irrevocably changes a familiar story's meaning in a way that makes us question the underpinning of many of the stories we grew up on.  Through that choice and others, The Changeling makes a fair bid to become a modern bit of folklore, a fairy tale of New York that isn't reserved merely to one segment of its population.

  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones - A very different take on modern African-American couplehood is offered in Jones's latest novel, a stunning, heart-rending melodrama in which love is set in opposition to an abusive, uncaring system.  Celestial and Roy are the face of the new, rising black South.  He is an ambitious young executive, the fulfillment of his hard-working, small-town parents' dreams.  She is an aspiring artist, the daughter of an upper-middle-class couple, and a product of the Atlanta black community's careful shepherding of black excellence.  That carefully-curated life is torn down, however, when Roy is accused of a crime he didn't commit, and sent to prison for twelve years.  The novel's long opening segment, in which, after a brief introduction, we observe the disintegration of Celestial and Roy's marriage through the letters they send each other during his incarceration, is a devastating tour de force.  It quickly becomes clear that as much as Roy's imprisonment has placed an insupportable burden on his and Celestial's marriage, there were also preexisting flaws in it that their terrible situation is exacerbating.  Roy's inferiority complex, Celestial's selfishness, his wandering eye, her unwillingness to sublimate her desires in order to play the supportive wife, all are exposed in these letters, whose flowing, lyrical style makes me wish for an adaptation of the book so that I can hear them read out loud.

    Unanswerable questions are raised and drive wedges between the couple.  Was Celestial being selfish or showing a lack of faith when she terminated the pregnancy she was carrying when Roy was arrested, or was she responding to his unspoken wishes?  When she wins a major award for a piece depicting an incarcerated black man and fails to mention Roy, is she hiding a shameful truth that might blight her career, or protecting a painful personal grief from public scrutiny?  This segment of the novel might have been a stunning novella in its own right, but Jones turns the screw even further when Roy's conviction is suddenly overturned and he's released after five years.  Celestial, by this point, is Roy's wife in name only, and has begun a romance with her childhood friend Andre, who has even proposed marriage.  The three characters end up struggling with guilt, desire, heartbreak, and rage, as they try to behave decently while also working to secure their own happiness.

    At the heart of An American Marriage is the conflict between the personal and the systemic.  Celestial and Roy's marriage was tempestuous and perhaps doomed to failure, but it was real.  What has torn it apart is an unconscionable, racist overreach of the state's power, one that--as Andre is frequently reminded--could have happened to any one of the novel's characters.  Does Celestial owe it to Roy to welcome him back into her home, not simply because she's his wife but because he's a black man brutalized by the state?  Is her own relative good fortune--going back to her parents' wealth--something she needs to expiate, or is she, as Roy's cellmate insists, just as precariously positioned as any other black person in America?  Does Roy get to demand that she love him again, simply because what was done to him was unjust, and the damage it caused to his trajectory in life irrecoverable?  Jones wisely makes all of her characters--not just the core trio but Celestial and Roy's parents and their friends--sympathetic and thoughtful, even in their most selfish moments, as they ponder these questions and try to come up with a solution that is just and loving.  An American Marriage is not a traditional love triangle, in the sense that you know, fairly early on, who you want Celestial to choose and how you want all the characters to end up.  What it is instead is a powerful story about love in all its forms, and how it struggles to stand up to the predations of an uncaring system.  The real question at the novel's core is whether Celestial, Roy, and Andre can love one another enough to make up for the world's unkindness, its determination to make them unkind.  The answer Jones gives to this question is full of hope as well as sadness.

  • The Heart of the Circle by Keren Landsman - I wouldn't normally write about this book, published in Hebrew earlier this year, since most of my English-speaking readers can't enjoy it.  But since Landsman recently announced the acquisition of The Heart of the Circle by Angry Robot books, I'm merely anticipating its English-language availability.  Set in contemporary Tel Aviv in a world where certain individuals are born with magical powers, The Heart of the Circle is narrated by Geva, a young gay man with the power to sense, influence, and drain the emotions of other people.  Geva is introduced to us reeling from shock, and struggling to comfort his friends, in the immediate aftermath of a murder at a wizards'-rights rally, which sets the tone for Landsman's worldbuilding throughout the novel.  Though nominally free, Geva and his friends have made an uneasy peace with an array of limitations and curtailments--from having to use marked-off areas on public transport, to being exploited by landlords who know their housing options are limited, to experiencing casual verbal and physical violence at work or on the street.  But their tolerance is stretched to the breaking point by this more overt violence.  A messianic anti-wizard group calling themselves the Sons of Shimon have recruited magical users into their cult, and begin using them to disrupt wizard hangouts and target leaders within the community.  Geva and his social circle--his best friend Tamar, a clairvoyant; his ex-boyfriend Reshef, who controls fire and heat; his "normal" brother Doron; and his new love interest, the fellow empath Omer--find themselves constantly on the front lines of this escalation into violence, eventually realizing that the Sons of Shimon have identified a path to their desired anti-wizard future that runs through their group, and specifically through Geva.

    There are some obvious pitfalls to the premise of analogyzing social oppression through characters who have super-human and often dangerous powers--in particular, Israeli readers will recognize Landsman's lightly-fictionalized versions of two major homophobic attacks, the 2009 shooting at an LGBT youth club, which left two dead, and a knife attack at the Jerusalem pride march in 2015, in which a teenager lost her life.  Landsman can't exactly solve these problems, but she circumvents a lot of them through the specificity of her worldbuilding, and by focusing more on the emotions of her young, angry characters than on the broader question of "equal rights: y/n".  Within Geva's social group there are people drawn to the Sons of Shimon, who promise total freedom for magical users so long as they sublimate themselves to the new world order; others who believe in total non-violence and argue that only by trying to understand fanatics like the Sons of Shimon and their followers can a peaceful future be achieved; older activists whose respectability politics seem geared more at securing their own safety and comfort than achieving gains for their community; teenagers in the youth group Geva instructs who take illegal drugs to suppress their powers so that they can fit in; and a dynamic young police officer, Shiran, who recruits Geva and his friends into her plans to unmask the Sons of Shimon.  Geva's burgeoning romance with Omer is also deeply inflected by their different experiences of growing up magical in Israel and the US, and by their own hang-ups about opening up emotionally--which means something very different to people with their powers.  In background details and tossed-off remarks, Landsman makes it clear that the entire history of her world has been affected by the presence of wizards (which, among other things, has resulted in a different geopolitical present, in which the Soviet Union still exists and the US is a "Confederation").  That, and the primacy of the characters' emotions, both anger over their situation and their desire to continue living normal lives, help to make the world of the novel feels vivid and lived-in, far more than a metaphor.

    One place where I felt that Landsman's worldbuilding fell short--and which I think will strike non-Israeli readers much more strongly--is the near-total absence of any reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I'm sympathetic to the argument, often made by Israeli artists and critics, that not every work by an Israeli has to be about "the situation".  But especially in its closing chapters, The Heart of the Circle becomes a story about building a better, freer, more egalitarian world, and the absence of any acknowledgment of the ongoing occupation--or any details on how it has been affected by the existence of magical powers--feels like a gaping hole.  The weeks before I started reading  The Heart of the Circle served up multiple demonstrations of how the internal religious, cultural, and ethnic disputes within Israeli society are inextricably bound with the Palestinian occupation, and how resolving one is impossible without addressing the other.  The fact that the characters in the novel seem to think otherwise, and aren't at least called out on that belief, felt jarring.  Despite this flaw, there's a lot that foreign readers will find fascinating in The Heart of the Circle, from its pitch-perfect portrait of the lives of young people in Tel Aviv, to the way that everyone's life is affected by what they did in the army.  In its insistence that this kind of urban fantasy can take place in a country like Israel, The Heart of the Circle is an important step forward for the Israeli genre scene, and in its portrait of young people struggling with both their outsized emotions and an unjust situation, it delivers a powerful, engrossing story.

  • Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan - I admit, when I first heard about Kwan's novel a few years ago, I was put off by its title.  I got the sense that this was an airless social satire, of the kind that justifies its characters' awfulness by keeping you in constant ironic distance from them.  As the trailer for the forthcoming movie adaptation reveals, however, Crazy Rich Asians is something completely different, a cross-class, cross-cultural romantic comedy about a Chinese-American woman, Rachel, whose boyfriend of two years, Nicholas, invites her to visit his home and family in Singapore, only to reveal that he's the son of one of the region's wealthiest, most snobbish family.  Crazy Rich Asians thus becomes a whirlwind tour of Singapore's old money families and their jet-setting younger generations--people who wouldn't settle for anything less than next year's designer clothes, and who collect real-estate like shot glasses.  Kwan, who grew up in Singapore, effortlessly constructs an entire social set, and confidently guides us through its intermarriages, feuds, prejudices, and the centerpieces of its social calendar.  In this world, Rachel is viewed as an interloper and a gold-digger, and Nicholas's mother, aunts, grandmother, not to mention the women who wanted him for themselves, quickly set out to undermine their relationship by any means necessary.

    Crazy Rich Asians is a lot of fun when it's introducing us to Singapore and its moneyed elites, but as a romantic comedy it's less satisfying, with Kwan making some obvious mistakes in how he constructs his plot and characters.  Most egregiously, he fails to make either Rachel or Nicholas particularly interesting, nor their romance very compelling.  Rachel is far too much of a straight woman, observing and reacting to both the world she's introduced to in Singapore and the hostility she meets there, but rarely asserting herself or expressing a point of view--we're told, for example, that she's a professor of economics, but if she has any thoughts about the explosion of development in land-poor Singapore, or the sustainability of its rapidly growing super-rich class, she keeps them to herself.  More importantly, it takes her an unconscionably long time to realize that Nicholas's family opposes their relationship, and she never really does anything to stake her claim on him, which feels untenable in a romantic heroine.  Nicholas, meanwhile, refuses to either own up to Rachel about his family's wealth, or acknowledge that she would be unacceptable to them as his partner.  This makes him seem both stupid and insensitive--in one scene, Rachel is informed that in order not to completely embarrass herself in the society wedding that is the pretext for her journey to Singapore, she needs an entire designer wardrobe; but of course Nicholas should have known this, and offered to buy it for her.  The novel makes it clear that Nicholas's denial is rooted in psychological hangups, not lack of concern, but nevertheless keeps it up for too long--by the time Nicholas realizes how much his behavior has hurt Rachel, there's really no time for him to apologize or do better, and their inevitable reconciliation thus feels unearned.

    Perhaps most importantly, Kwan's control of his tone wobbles constantly, veering from a meaningful study of the social set he's invented, to little more than the constant name-dropping of designer brands, luxury cars, and the famous architects who decorated each of the characters' fabulous apartments.  To be clear, it's obvious from its early pages that Crazy Rich Asians is not in the business of criticizing its ultra-rich characters or their lifestyle, nor is it trying to question an economic system that allows the accumulation of such obscene wealth.  (And in fairness, there is something quietly revolutionary about a novel geared at a Western audience that acts as if the center of the world is not in the West, that treats the US like a backwater, and Europe as unimportant except for Paris, where you go to buy designer clothes.)  Even the criticism of the snobbery directed towards Rachel is downplayed, for example when she's contrasted with another inappropriate girlfriend in Nicholas's family, a trashy soap opera star with no class or manners, against whom Rachel is clearly the "good" non-rich person.  All of this is the price of admission, and it doesn't seem fair to ding Kwan for it.  But there are whole passages of Crazy Rich Asians that read as if their purpose is less to tell a story than to construct elaborate fantasies of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and this quickly becomes tedious, and then a little uncomfortable.

    It's also a shame, because in its best moments Crazy Rich Asians actually has a lot to say about the subtle currents that control its community--like the fact that Nick's old money family is unknown to a lot of Singapore's newer, more ostentatious super-rich because they make a point of downplaying their wealth, to the chagrin of some of the younger cousins; or how Nick's mother is still seen as an outsider by his grandmother, who holds the purse-strings, and how she's spent his life carefully grooming him to inherit the family fortune, which is now endangered by his entanglement with Rachel.  In the end, Crazy Rich Asians feels more like a scaffold for a good story than one in its own right.  Already in the movie trailer, I can spot some changes to the plot that feel eminently reasonable, and I look forward to seeing what is made of what are after all a winning premise and setting.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 09, 2018

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

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

Monday, July 02, 2018

Five Comments on Luke Cage, Season 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Shows of Summer, 2018 Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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