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Sunday, June 26, 2016

2016 Hugo Awards: Short Stories
Short Stories are tricky beasts. In its ideal form, the short story is a pure distillation of storytelling. No slack, no flab, no digressions, just story. This is hard to do, and lots of stories don't really work (for me, at least). As a result, reading a bunch of short stories together leads to an uneven experience. This goes double for Hugo shortlists, as there's not even a pretense that the stories are related (most collections are from a singular author or cover a theme), and when you add in our current culture wars, things get even more annoying. I've been mildly unimpressed with the last few years worth of Hugo Short Stories, and this year doesn't really change that. I'm not sure if that's just because there are so many short stories and so little agreement during the nominating phase or if it's because there really aren't enough great short stories out there. This year's ballot is mostly Rabid Puppies, with one non-Puppy work that made the ballot as a result of one original nominee bowing out in protest to the slate approach (a shame, since I loved that story). What's more, you can tell from the works themselves which belongs to which camp. There's a bifurcation of preferences that is very stark and obvious. Is that good? I don't know, let's dive in:
  1. "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer - Told from the perspective of an AI that was unintentionally created at Google to optimize their search algorithms. Bored, the AI decides to try helping out some humans... humans who are stubborn and uncooperative. In exchange, all the AI asks is for cat pictures. This is a fun little story, albeit a little derivative. I mean, the story itself references other stories (such as Bruce Sterling's "Maneki Neko") and that has the effect of making you want to read those rather than this one. Otherwise, it's reasonably well executed, with the occasional quibble to be had. The AI does seem surprisingly human in its thought process (dare I say: a Mary Sue), even as it pretends to be superior, but it works well enough. As it notes, most AI stories are about evil AIs that must be destroyed before they destroy humanity, and it is a little refreshing to read a story about a benevolent AI (albeit one with no boundaries on privacy).
  2. "Seven Kill Tiger" by Charles Shao - A tale of biological warfare and casual genocide, this story has some interesting ideas floating around. Not new ideas, to be sure, and the whole thing comes from a position of nationalism and xenophobia that is uncomfortable, but perhaps intentionally so. It's a little depressing (as I'm sure was intended), but perhaps too simple in its execution, which undercuts its effectiveness a little. Still, it's paced well and hits all its points quickly and effectively. These first two stories are imperfect, but on about the same level (as such, depending on my mood, the order might switch up when it comes to final voting).
  3. "Asymmetrical Warfare" by S. R. Algernon - Alien forces occupy earth and humans stubbornly fight back, as told from the perspective of the Alien commander. It's a little too short for its own good, but effectively shows a tragic misunderstanding at the heart of the conflict. That being said, there's not quite enough meat on this bone to make it truly effective, but then, who knows. We'll see how it marinates in my head when it comes voting time.
  4. Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle - A pretty blatant trolling nomination here, but it starts out surprisingly SFnal. But yeah, it's more gay erotica than SF and, um, how are we supposed to vote on this thing? For his part, Tingle seems to be taking the nomination in stride and with good humor, but whatever. I don't know, I'll just keep it here I think.
  5. No Award
  6. "If You Were an Award, My Love" by Juan Tabo and S. Harris - Look, I didn't particularly like "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" (a controversial nominee from a couple years ago) either, and if you want to whine about it on your blog, that's fine too. But best SF short story of the year? It's not a story at all. It's just a thinly veiled screed against non-Puppy Hugo voters and John Scalzi. Also? It's about a year too late. Hey, you guys, if I post my trenchant take-down of Murphy Brown next week, will you nominate that for a short story award next year? I get the "let's troll the awards" instinct that the Rabids have, I guess, but this is clearly not deserving of even being ranked on the final ballot. I don't hand out No Awards very often, but this is a pretty clear case.
Of note: the story that dropped out, The Commuter, would have probably been #1 on this ballot. So there you have it. I'm finishing up my final novel on the list and will move on to Novelettes and Novellas soon enough, so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2016 at 12:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Book Queue
It's been a long time since I posted a book queue, so naturally it's been filling up with lots and lots of things that I want to read. For the most part, this is separate from the Hugo Award reading list which I'm also hoping to tackle in the coming few weeks (finishing up novels now, moving to short fiction this week).
  • Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement - I really enjoyed Clement's Needle, so this one seems like a good next step. Often mentioned as a classic of hard SF, I'm looking forward to this one.
  • The Player of Games by Ian M. Banks - I started Banks' loosely connected Culture series a while back and it seems like it gets better as it goes, so this one is up next. I've heard great things about the next book in the series, and even though I don't think you need to read them in order like this, I guess I'm a completist and just want to go in order.
  • Jhereg by Steven Brust - Back when I finished up Bujold's Vorkosigan series of novels and started going through withdrawal pains, I started seeking out a replacement series. Something that would give me that same high. This... has not been a successful effort. I've read some decent books, of course, but nothing that quite reached the level of Vorkosigan. Not even close, really. But one of the suggestions I found was Steven Brust's long running Vlad Taltos novels, of which this one is the first. It's a fantasy series, so it's nothing like the Vor novels, but still, I'm willing to give it a chance.
  • Startide Rising by David Brin - I read the first novel in Brin's Uplift series not too long ago, and thought it was fine, but I only really read it so that I could get to this novel, which has a great reputation. And yes, I'm cheating, I'm already in the midst of reading this book. And it's quite good! More to come!
  • Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp - I'm not sure where this one came from, but I've heard good things and I've never read anything from this author, so there's no time like the present. Or a few months from now, when I'm more likely to find time to read this...
  • Heaven's Queen by Rachel Bach - I "read" the first two novels in this trilogy last year, but never finished it off... because I was listening to them as audio books and for some reason, this final installment isn't available on audiobook. So I'll just have to bit the bullet and read it. Poor me. Still, I've greatly enjoyed the series so far, so I'm looking forward to this one.
  • The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe R. Lansdale - I will, inevitably, become fed up with SF/F in the near future, so I'll return to Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series of Texas crime novels. I've read two so far, and greatly enjoyed both, so this third installment is next up...
  • Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury - And now we move on to the non-fiction phase of the book queue, and this one sounds fun. Art fraud, con men, and so on, what's not to like?
  • The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage - I've read excerpts from this novel and greatly enjoyed them. It's about telegraphs and the stairstep in communication that it represented. It turns out that many of the "strange" things about the internet (another stairstep in communication improvement) have happened before. History repeats itself. Sounds great.
  • Time Travel in Einstein's Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel Through Time by J. Richard Gott III - I'm a sucker for time travel stories, and this book goes through some possibilities and supposedly references some fictional stories that I've read, so I'll check this out at some point...
  • The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer - Another cheat! I've been reading this for, like, 9 months. Well, not straight. It's a collection of short stories, so every time I finish a book, I take a break and read a short story or two. It is excellent! There are great stories here, and it seems to be giving a fantastic overview of hard SF throughout the history of SF, ranging from 19th century fiction to the 80s (the book was published in the early 90s). It's a huge book, featuring stories from all the classic authors and more, but it's going to take a while to finish. Over 1000 pages and it's dense, small-type pages so it'll take a while, but I want to finish it this year.
Well, that should keep me busy for a while, right?
Posted by Mark on June 19, 2016 at 08:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Link Dump: Peakquel Edition
A rash of articles this week examine the lackluster performance of many recently released sequels, which is interesting speculation but perhaps feature a bit too much hand wringing. Movies can be "successful" because of many factors. We all like to think that quality has something to do with it, and it probably does, but not as much as we'd think. Luck undoubtedly plays a part. Marketing can get people into theaters and goose the numbers, but it generally doesn't get people to like the movie. Look, this isn't quantum physics, a movie's success isn't just the sum of metrics describing it. Plenty of movies make lots of money, but that doesn't mean people actually want to see more. Indeed, they might have hated the movie, such that when the inevitable sequel comes out, they stay away. Ultimately, on a long enough timeline, bad movies get their just desserts.
  • Hollywood's New Problem: Sequels Moviegoers Don't Want - The article that kicked off the discussion:
    "Sequels of late have fallen on rough times. The tried-and-true formulas and familiar characters and themes that are the cornerstone of the modern sequel have acted as a de facto life insurance policy against box-office failure," says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "However, 2016 has proven to be a very tough battleground, and the landscape has been littered with a series of sequels that have come up short, and thus call into question the entire notion of the inherent appeal of non-original, franchise-based content."
    Which is funny, because don't we so often hear about original content being not so appealing? Indeed, this year hasn't seen a particularly great performance, even from quality films like The Nice Guys.
  • Have we finally reached peak sequel? asks Matt Singer, who would eventually discuss "peakquel" on twitter and turned the discussion towards "event" based movies:
    American movies in 2016 are all about creating events, movies so "important" that they can’t be missed (or, more specifically, that they can’t be put off until they show up on cable or streaming services). But how much of an event can something be if it's the sixth installment in a series that seemingly has no planned ending?

    ...But events are unique; that's what makes them events. Hollywood now tries to position so many sequels as events, that they've inadvertently diluted their primary selling point. When everything is an event, nothing is an event - and when a franchise has no end in sight each individual installment is inherently less unique, because there will always be more where that came from.
    This is quite true. One of the successful things about Captain America: Civil War was that the fate of the entire planet didn't really hinge on a giant laser beam into the sky, but rather a personal battle between two friends. Meanwhile, X-Men: Apocalypse feints towards the literal end of the world, and audiences mostly just yawn.
  • Maybe Audiences Want Sagas, Not Sequels - Devin Faraci has an interesting spin, but it basically just amounts to the need for a sequel to be good and worthwhile, not just a shameless retread. Still worth thinking about though:
    As Hollywood studios chase guaranteed box office they need to understand that audiences recognize when a movie has been made as a shitty cash grab or, in the case of Neighbors 2, they're cynical when it looks like it might have been a shitty cash grab. Audiences want to feel like a sequel has a reason to exist. On the other hand understanding that too much leads to a peculiar phenomenon where the first movie is just a set up for a trilogy or something, leaving audiences unsatisfied. The key is to create a complete movie experience with one eye on the future. That's the lesson nobody's taking from Marvel.
    Also worth noting that Marvel's source material is already serialized in nature. I think that's a key part of Superhero movie success, though it can often collapse in on itself when filmmakers become too ambitious and try to cram too much into one film. Marvel has done this from time to time, but seems to have largely escaped the normal fate that befalls such a film...
And that's all for now. Stay tuned for the sequel link dump next week. Or not.
Posted by Mark on June 12, 2016 at 03:14 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, June 05, 2016

Link Dump
As per usual, just some links from the depths of ye olde internets: And that's all for now...
Posted by Mark on June 05, 2016 at 03:32 PM .: Comments (1) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Hugo Awards: The Fifth Season
The Fifth Season is death... or maybe the end of the world. It's happened before and it's going to happen again, metaphorically and maybe even literally. Spoiler alert, I guess, but the grim nature of N.K. Jemisin's Hugo-finalist novel and the downright misanthropic outlook it gives us on its world are almost immediately apparent. After all, this is a book that opens with a woman grieving for her infant son who had been beaten to death by his father. It's a rough way to start the story, coupled as it is with some deft but also quite dense world building, but don't worry, things get way, way worse as the story proceeds.

The setting is a world with a giant supercontinent that is under constant state of geological distress, occasionally leading to catastrophic Fifth Seasons that humanity barely survives. To help quell the earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis are the orogenes, magic users with seismic powers that are essential to keeping the world alive. For their trouble, they are generally feared and despised by the rest of the population (I kept thinking of X-Men). The plot considers three different orogenes, each at a different point in their life. One is Essun, an older orogene in hiding and also the aforementioned grieving mother who is now determined to seek out her husband (who has also presumably kidnapped their daughter). Then there is Syenite, a cranky but talented orogene sent on a mission with another, very powerful orogene named Alabaster. Finally, there's the child Damaya, who we follow as she's taken from her home to be trained at the Fulcrum and serve at the will of the Empire. Meanwhile, Winter is coming a fifth season is brewing.

To some people, this dark (to put it mildly) approach is like catnip. At least, judging from the reviews, that's the case. I found myself floundering a bit at the beginning, at first in a good way. I like the dense worldbulding and the magic system (such as it is) is well thought out and used in clever ways. The characters are well drawn and yet, I didn't particularly like anyone. This can be fine, but they're not particularly interesting either, except insofar as they are instruments of the worldbuilding. The twisted and misanthropic nature of the relationships and institutions don't help. There are no real friendships here, only betrayals. There isn't any love, only lies. Every relationship is a twisted power struggle resulting in exploitation at best and usually outright abuse. Every institution is oppressive and exploitative. The result is misery porn.

Look, I don't need a book to have all the answers or be uniformly upbeat, but this book takes such an extreme and dismal view that it resulted primarily in a sorta detached experience for me. The end of the book even has a revelation or two that are genuinely interesting, but it's all undercut by this relentless horror that only served to desensitize me. It could almost approach self-parody, but it's far to horrifying to ever reach comedic levels. Towards the end of the book, there was a big twist that I find interesting on an intellectual level, but which didn't have nearly the impact it should have because I just didn't care that much about the characters. As a result, the twist felt more like a cheat than a revelation. Progress is made on all of the storylines, but little is resolved in the end, perhaps because this is the start of a series. The final line of the novel holds an interesting promise, but I can't say as though I'm at all interested in revisiting this world or its characters.

In her review at the New York Times, fellow Hugo nominee Naomi Novik praises Jemisin's novel, noting that:
Fantasy novels often provide a degree of escapism: a good thing, for any reader who has something worth escaping. Too often, though, that escape comes through a fictional world that erases rather than solves the more complex problems of our own, reducing difficulty to the level of personal struggle and heroism, turning all obstacles to monsters we can see and touch and kill with a sword. But N.K. ­Jemisin's intricate and extraordinary world-­building starts with oppression...

...Yet there is no message of hopelessness here. In Jemisin's work, nature is not unchangeable or inevitable. "The Fifth Season" invites us to imagine a dismantling of the earth in both the literal and the metaphorical sense, and suggests the possibility of a richer and more fundamental escape. The end of the world becomes a triumph when the world is monstrous, even if what lies beyond is difficult to conceive for those who are trapped inside it.
That's an interesting perspective, but from what I can see, Jemisin's pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction. If Fantasy too often errs on the side of optimism, this book perhaps errs too far on the side of pessimism. It's one thing to confront complex problems, but it's another to propose a solution that is the end of the world. That's not a solution that provides hope or inspiration, merely despair. Or maybe I'm just being too literal. Jemisin is certainly a talented author with a good command of language, but this novel never really managed to get over the hump for me. As usual, judging a book from a series presents certain difficulties with how to rank this on the Hugo ballot. Right now, Novik's Uprooted and Stephenson's Seveneves are at the top somewhere, which puts this book about on par with Leckie's Ancillary Mercy (another book that bounced off me).
Posted by Mark on May 29, 2016 at 11:43 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 22, 2016

SF Book Review, Part 23
Just catching up with SF reading, including the tail end of Hugo candidates and some other stuff. One of these actually made the cut for my Hugo ballot, but alas did not become a finalist. Let's hop in:
  • Corsair by James L. Cambias - The "space pirates" trope can be a fun one if you're willing to sacrifice scientific rigor in favor of a ripping good yarn, essentially pretending that space is an ocean and thus vulnerable to piracy. But space isn't an ocean and the logistics of piracy in space make such an outcome unlikely. And yet, James Cambias has actually managed to make it work in this novel. He does so by cleverly setting up the "ocean" in a limited fashion, speculating about mining operations on the Moon by unmanned semi-autonomous spacecraft (whether there's anything actually worth the trouble of mining on the Moon is another question). This means that piracy is actually conducted from the comfort of our home planet via hacking attacks (sometimes involving other unmanned spacecraft, but still). While the space between Earth and the Moon is vast, energy efficiency essentially dictates the past most of the valuable cargo will have to pass through. The Earth/Moon Lagrange Point is essentially pirate-infested waters. All of this is background, of course, but it's this sort of subtle cleverness that Cambias threads through his work that attracts me. The story itself takes a little while to get going, but works well enough. David Schwartz and Elizabeth Santiago meet each other at MIT, but while they initially hit it off, it seems clear that their general attitudes don't fit together (especially David's more morally flexible approach). A decade later and Santiago is in the Air Force helping fight space piracy. Unbeknownst to her, David is secretly "Captain Jack, the Space Pirate", the most infamous and successful space pirate of them all. Captain Jack's latest endeavor, though, is sponsored by a shady group with their own agenda. When things start to go pear-shaped, David and Elizabeth's paths cross again. Some of the space pirate stuff feels a little cheesy, to be sure, and David's attitude seems naive, egotistical, and maybe even sociopathic at times, but he's at least competent and otherwise likeable enough that he sneaks through. Still, once things get going, it's a lot of fun, and the underlying cleverness worked enough for me that I threw it a Hugo nod (which, of course, did not make the finalists). Cambias is quickly becoming an author I look out for...
  • Zero World by Jason M. Hough - Peter Caswell is an technologically enhanced assassin. To ensure operational security, he has neural implants that prevent him from remembering any details of his missions. After his handler activates him for an emergency mission, Caswell finds himself on an alien but oddly familiar world, tasked with seeking out and murdering an escaped human. Naturally, all is not what it seems, and as Peter goes further down the rabbit-hole, other revelations make him question his involvement... until he hits his time limit and regresses to his "innocent" state. This was an enjoyable enough read, and while some of the later plot twists are well done, others are wholly predictable. It's a bit overlong and yet, incomplete, as it seems like there will be more books in the series. I'm on the fence as to whether or not I'd read those books, which I guess says something about this one. Again, very enjoyable, but somewhat disposable...
  • Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang - A few years ago, I read Chiang's story "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" and was impressed enough that I made a note to go back and check out more of his stories. In typical Kaedrin fashion, we're only now getting to read more of his stories, but they're pretty fascinating. Some of them are more purely fantasy, but clearly from the mind of a SF author ("Tower of Babylon", "Hell Is the Absence of God"). Most of them have very human cores, even when delving deeply into the science of this or that. "Story of Your Life" is certainly a standout, covering a team of scientists and liguists making first contact with an alien species (Cross-cut with one of the scientist's memories of her daughter). It's apparently going to be a movie directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams, which sounds promising, though I can't imagine this being a "crowd-pleaser" of a movie... "Understand", about a man given an experimental drug to heal brain damage which has the unexpected side-effect of dramatically improving his intellect. Soon, he's being hunted by the government and, more ominously, another super-intelligence. Very interesting and entertaining. Like all short-story collections, this is a bit uneven, but the quality is overall pretty high.
  • Triplet by Timothy Zahn - I always come back to Zahn, a solid craftsman who I can usually count on for some SF comfort-food. This is one of his earlier efforts, about a three planet system connected through magic. It's yet another play on Clarke's infamous "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", though in this case, Zahn takes it literally, positing flying carpets, trolls, demons, and so on... It's not a long book, but it does take a bit of time to get going, and our main characters aren't quite as enjoyable as you'd probably want here (my favorite character is the bodyguard Hart, a man our main characters spend most of their time avoiding... drats.) Zahn has lots of better efforts, but this was fun enough.
  • The Commuter by Thomas A. Mays - Originally a finalist for this year's Short Story Hugo, Mays asked to be removed because all of the nominees were part of the Rabid Puppy slate. But I greatly enjoyed Mays' previous effort, a novel called A Sword into Darkness, so I decided to pick this up and give it a shot. It's a fun little fantasy tale of a man whose daughter is inadvertently stuck in the Faerie land. Action packed, fun, and a little clever, it's a good little story and worth checking out...
And that's all for now. I've started making my way through this year's Hugo finalists, so you should be seeing some more reviews here soon enough...
Posted by Mark on May 22, 2016 at 02:14 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Captain America: Civil War
Who would win in a fight: Captain America or Iron Man? Such speculation is a hallmark of schoolyard debate and can be a blast to discuss... in isolation. The problem with trying to execute this as part of a larger narrative is that you need to come up with a convincing way to pit two heroes against one another. This often leads to amusing enough sequences that don't make much sense when seen in context. My least favorite parts of the The Avengers are the scenes where our heroes are bickering or outright fighting. Take the Iron Man versus Thor sequence (with special appearance by Captain America). It's a lot of fun to watch! But why are they fighting? Mostly so Thor can shoot lightning at Iron Man, which will have the unexpected consequence of supercharging the suit. Or to ponder the age old question of what happens when Thor's hammer Mjolnir meets Cap's vibranium shield. It doesn't really serve the story, but again, it's fun and even a little clever. It's certainly a step above anything in Age of Ultron. The scene with the Hulk Buster? I got very little out of that. I gather that my opinion on this isn't the most common, or at least that most true comic book nerds are much more into the idea, as it's clearly a time-honored tradition derived from the comic books themselves. It's just the sort of thing that bounces off of me.

All of which is to say that Marvel's latest, Captain America: Civil War, has its work cut out for it. Truth be told, I was not enamored with the idea behind this installment in Marvel's grand shared-universe experiment. But I have to respect their willingness to take chances, and they've done a remarkable job thus far, so it's hard to count them out. I'm pleasantly surprised to report that Marvel's done it. This movie is a stunning juggling act. Not a perfect one. Like, they dropped a few elements but were able to desperately flail their legs to kick them back up in the air before they fell to the ground. The sort of thing that Olympic judges will tut-tut and say oh, that will cost them a 0.1 score reduction while the rest of us just marvel (pun intended!) that this athlete managed to save an awkward situation. They still end up with a great score and maybe even metal, but it's not one for the record books. Ok, I think we've beaten this metaphor into the ground.

The success is mostly due to the philosophical conflict at the center of the film. It's a situation where you can empathize with both sides of the argument and indeed, there isn't really a good answer. It's confronting one of the core issues with superhero stories in the first place, which is that so many of these characters are essentially vigilantes. Right around the time Marvel was just getting started, there were a bunch of comic book movies that were tackling this problem head-on. For instance, The Dark Knight took a very pragmatic view of Bruce Wayne's plan. As Harvey Dent opines:
You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Look, whoever the Batman is, he's looking for someone to take his place. He doesn't want to do it forever.
Because who could do it forever? When you place yourself above the rule of law, you will inevitably yield unfavorable consequences. The Avengers certainly have. Of course, they were initially government sanctioned, which makes some of the complaints in this film a little hypocritical. They talk about New York as if S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't put together the Avengers in the first place. Then again, Age of Ultron really saddles this film with distinctly unheroic collateral damage that would undoubtedly lead to widespread distrust of these heroes. So Tony Stark's guilt and plan for some sort of oversight is an understandable perspective (and an interesting evolution of his character since his first appearance). For his part, Steve Rodgers's hesitation to submit to this constraint is perfectly cromulent when you consider his role in exposing the corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D. The film isn't perfect in the execution of this debate, but it does actually make room for the discussion. It takes the ideas seriously and doesn't flinch at the complexity. It does, perhaps, let the fisticuffs fly a bit too quick to be convincing, and the tone gets yanked around quite a bit. Again, Marvel is incredibly good at this, so the tonal inconsistencies are handled deftly enough to escape too much scrutiny.

This movie is stuffed to the gills, something that usually dooms a movie into incomprehensibility. Most superhero franchises fall into this trap at some point, incorporating extra villains and side characters and franchise-service until the entire narrative collapses in on itself. The list of culprits is long and distinguished. Joel Schumacher's Batman films, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and most recently and relevantly, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice*. Civil War has all the elements necessary for its implosion, but has somehow, improbably, made it all work. I don't know how they did it, but I'm really glad they did.

To be sure, a lot of this movie is not strictly necessary. But most of those extraneous bits are so entertaining that who would ever want to remove it? Take Spider Man. He's one of the main highlights of the movie! The character is handled perfectly. Distinct from previous filmic incarnations, but from what I can understand, very true to the character on the page. And yet, he's completely superfluous. Having Tony Stark recruit him is handled well... so long as you don't start wondering why he invited an unproven teenager to a giant superhero battle. Speaking of which, like, half of the folks involved in that battle don't have a particularly good reason to be there. Well, not half, but why is Hawkeye there? Why is Ant-Man there? Wait, I get the disagreement, but why are they fighting again? Maybe instead of this infighting, Marvel could just come up with a decent villain for once? But I digress.

Ultimately, the plot of this movie doesn't quite hold up under the close scrutiny of Hitchcock's refridgerator. In particular, the plan of the master-manipulator working behind the scenes to foment this conflict is quite obtuse. Then again, who cares? The set piece at the airport is so damn entertaining that it's hard to fault of the movie for bending over backwards to get us there. The ultimate motivations of this villain are surprising and thematically relevant. The whole movie embraces a smaller-scale battle of wills and fisticuffs rather than powerbeams into the sky, invading armies, or explodey bits (well, alright, there are plenty of explodey bits). This is refreshing and genuinely involving. You don't want these characters to be fighting, but you can understand why. You might not even particularly agree with either of them, but you can see where they're coming from and fill in some blanks on your own.

So the movie is overstuffed, but most of this stuffing is still great. We get a nice introduction to Black Panther, a sorta mini-origin story and actually, he's one of the few characters to really undergo a character arc and where he ends up is more heroic than most of our other heros. As Black Panther, he's maybe a bit underwhelming, but Chadwick Boseman's performance, especially when under the T'Challa persona, makes a lot out of a little. He will be served well in his own film. I've already mentioned how great Spider Man is, but can we just bask in how great he was during the airport set piece? His nervous quips and clear love of all the Avengers (even the ones he's fighting) come through strong, and he has some of the best lines in the movie. Speaking of quips, Paul Rudd's Ant-Man shows up and it speaks to his charisma that we're so glad we're watching him that we don't really question why he's even there until after the movie. He's so enamored with all the Avengers, and he gets some really good moments to shine. It's revealed that Emily VanCamp's character from the previous film is actually Sharon Carter (niece of Peggy Carter), which leads to a shoehorned romantic subplot for Cap that is simultaneously a long time coming and also a bit rushed and awkward... but totally worth it for the reaction shot of Bucky and Sam. Speaking of which, Bucky and Sam's interactions are absolutely great. There's not quite enough of it to really enter Laurel and Hardy slapstick territory, but what we get is great. I've mentioned the villain Zemo's absurd plan, but Daniel Bruhl plays him well enough that we think less about the plan than about his motivation.

Jeeze, I could probably spend a few thousand more words enumerating all of the little moments I loved in this film, Chris Farley Show style, but in the interest of time, I will leave it at that. If you have enjoyed any of the Marvel movies thus far, you will enjoy this one. Certainly a big step up from Age of Ultron (which attempted and failed at many of the things this movie succeeds at), and they managed to take a premise I wasn't really on board with and make it work to an extent I would have never guessed possible. It is basically an extended playing-in-the-sandbox excuse for pitting superheroes against one another and coming up with clever ways for superpowers to interact, but is so good at it that you can't help but be won over by the sheer audacity and skillful execution on display. The thematic heft at its core provides depth, but the movie doesn't quite descend into overly grim and gritty territory. It ends with some things unresolved, but in a totally satisfying way.

When Age of Ultron came out, I mentioned that Marvel was really leaning into the comic-bookeyness of this whole endeavor. It's one of the reasons we can so easily forgive how overstuffed this movie is. Sure, Black Panther wasn't given that much to do... but he'll have plenty to do in his own movie at some point (and with Ryan Coogler at the helm? I think we're all on board with that!) We're going to see most of these characters again, and probably sooner rather than later. I also opined that: "The never-ending serialized nature of comic books are coming to the screen, fraught with all the attendant baggage that entails." With Age of Ultron, I was seeing the strain. With Civil War, I'm seeing the opportunities, even if I still find the whole Civil War concept a bit dubious. In the immortal words of that great philosopher, Axl Rose, what's so civil about war anyway?**

* This is the actual title of the movie. Someone actually thought that up, and then more people actually approved it and put hundreds of millions dollars behind it.

** Seriously, though***, wouldn't it be awesome if they played that song at some point?

*** Ok, not seriously, that's a terrible idea, I'm the worst.
Posted by Mark on May 15, 2016 at 09:43 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Movie Queue
There've been a string of limited release films in recent (and upcoming) months and I've done a poor job actually keeping up with these suckers. In fact, I'm behind on just about everything, including more mainstream releases like 10 Cloverfield Lane and even Captain America: Civil War. Still, here's a few movies I'm going to have to catch up with soon:
  • Green Room - Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to the interesting, small-scale revenge flick, Blue Ruin. This one is something about a band who inadvertently witnesses a murder and tries to survive against a group of skinheads lead by none other than Patrick Stewart. In. Limited release right now, but everyone seems to love it.
  • High Rise - Don't know a lot about this one except that it apparently played like gangbusters at last year's Fantastic Fest, which is usually enough for me. Also, it stars Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, and Sienna Miller. Not sure when it comes out, but will probably be limited until it hits streaming, etc....
  • The Invitation - Another small, independent film that's in limited release right now. All the descriptions make it sound kinda like it wouldn't be my thing, but then, I gather the description is somewhat misleading. Will have to check it out.
  • Everybody Wants Some - Alright, so you don't need me to tell you about Richard Linklater's latest, especially since it's described as the spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused, but Linklater often rubs me the wrong way. This seems like it could work though. We shall see!
  • Tickled - "The Hunt for the Truth in Competitive Tickling" Apparently real, and what else do you need to know about this documentary?
  • Black Mountain Side - I don't remember where I heard about this little horror film, but hey, the description sounds interesting: "A group of archaeologists uncover a strange structure in Northern Canada, dating over ten thousand years before the present. The team finds themselves isolated when their communication systems fail and it's not long before they begin to feel the effects of the solitude." Yes, I will watch this.
As always, there's interesting stuff out there if you're willing to dig. What's on your list?
Posted by Mark on May 08, 2016 at 12:39 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

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