- The "You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else" Award for Worst Dialogue: Suicide Squad. Pretty much anything Rick Flagg says in the movie qualifies, but the real howler is his introduction of Katana: "This is Katana. She’s got my back. She can cut all of you in half with one sword stroke, just like mowing the lawn. I would advise not getting killed by her. Her sword traps the souls of its victims." Perfectly delivered, cringe-inducing exposition there... As runner up, there are a couple of candidates. Ghostbusters has a "That's gonna leave a mark" joke, which was tired and hackey, like, 30 years ago (and don't get me started on "You just got Holtzmanned baby!"). Blair Witch has some of the least deft exposition of the year as well.
- The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity: Blair Witch. Some really dumb stuff here, like taking off shoes to cross a river, or to climb up to the top of the tree to retrieve a broken drone that you know wouldn't help, or figuring out that facing the corner prevents the Blair Witch from attacking... then turning around to face the Blair Witch for no reason. Sheesh.
- Best Hero/Badass (Non-Human Edition):The Cloak of Levitation from Doctor Strange. In a year of lackluster heroics, this cape really stepped up. In fact, I'm more excited about this "character" than the one who won the human-centered award. I suppose I could have relaxed the rules and whatnot, but I'll settle for the Arbitrary Award.
- Best Long Take/Tracking Shot: La La Land, particularly the opening sequence, which might be one of those things that is a compilation of several long takes assembled in a way to appear like one really big long take, but who cares, it's delightful.
- Most Action Packed Long Take: London Has Fallen. Say what you will about this movie's reactionary sentiments, it still has one of the most thrilling action sequences of the year, as Gerard Butler makes his way towards an enemy stronghold in a single take. Lots of moving parts, a bravura sequence worthy of recognition.
- Best Historical Reenactment: Sully. The rest of the movie is somewhat tame, exaggerated yet paint-by-numbers drama, but the reenactment of the airplane crash at the heart of the film (seen multiple times, from multiple perspectives) is exceedingly well done and worth the price of admission alone.
- Biggest Balls Award: Phantasm: Ravager. Ba dum tsss!
- Best Waitress of the Year: Margaret Bowman as T-Bone Waitress in Hell or High Water. Total scene stealer, one of the best scenes of the year. "Ain't nobody ever ordered nothing but a T-Bone steak and baked potato. Except one time, this asshole from New York ordered a trout, back in 1987. We ain't got no goddamned trout."
- Best Soundtrack: Sing Street. If you're into 80s music, at least. I didn't exactly do a thorough accounting of the year's soundtracks, but I knew I wanted to recognize this movie somehow and this seemed like the best way to do it. If you haven't seen it and enjoy 80s music, get thee to Netflix, post haste.
- Best Alcohol Reference: Sour Grapes. Fascinating documentary about rare wine fraud that is well worth your time, even if you're not a booze hound.
- Best Villain/Badass: Darcy, played by Patrick Stewart in Green Room. Nothing worse than a calm, collected white supremecist who almost sounds reasonable... before he tries to kill you. There's an understated menace to Stewart's performance that really solidified his win in this category. 10 Cloverfield Lane, a little more unhinged than Stewart, but no less menacing. Stephen Lang did great work in Don't Breathe, believably blind but still, um, menacing. I seem to be using that word too much. Alas, Lang didn't quite make the cut, mostly due to the scripted issue of that stupid turkey baster (which really held the movie back for me). Finally, I thought I'd give a shoutout to Black Phillip in The Witch, who could probably have taken this award in a weaker year, despite not even being human.
- Best Hero/Badass: Wade / Deadpool, played by Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool. Sometimes when I'm figuring out nominees, I have an obvious winner in mind and am just filling in the rest of the slots out of obligation. Other times, I have no idea who will win, like this award. I'm actually a little surprised it came to this. Reynolds is, of course, perfect for the role, mixing the proper degrees of sophmoric humor and self-referential snark, and near as I can tell, he's capturing what made the character so popular in the source material. Yet I can't help but think the win here is due to a generally weak year for heroism. Indeed, as Deadpool opines repeatedly throughout the movie, he's not even a hero! But the competition was pretty scarce this year. As runner up, I was seriously considering Russell Crowe's bruiser from The Nice Guys. Gerard Butler's throwback reactionary in London Has Fallen is so inappropriate that he almost crosses through to score an ironic win, but still can't quite manage it. Sofia Boutella injected a much needed hit of energy into Star Trek Beyond, but the role is perhaps too small to really get there. I'm giving it to Deadpool, but honestly this was the toughest category to pick this year, and it could easily have moved to someone else depending on my mood. Get with the program Hollywood, we need better heroes.
- Best Comedic Performance: Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennet in Love & Friendship (tie) A cheat, to be sure, and emblematic of the challenge of this particular award. Standout comedic performances turn out to be somewhat rare. Instead, what we mostly get are great performances as part of an ensemble. In this case, we've got Kate Beckinsale schredding up the screen with her wry, manipulative wit, contrasted perfectly Tom Bennet's delightful oaf. The "peas" scene alone is worth the win in this category. The Nice Guys, another unconventionally funny performance. Kate McKinnon's mugging in Ghostbusters could be percieved as too showy, but I really enjoyed it (despite the ill-conceived "You just got Holtzmanned baby!" line, which is just abysmal). Other performances also good, but I was taken enough with Love & Friendship to give those performances the nod.
- Breakthrough Performance: Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!. In a movie filled with great moments, Alden Ehrenreich managed a couple of classics. First, you've got "Would that it 'twere so simple", one of the best scenes from any movie of the year. Then, in a more subtle sequence, when Ehrenreich's character is waiting for his date and pulls out a lasso and starts absent-mindeldy doing tricks with it, it's just great. He's going to be a star, and his casting as young Han Solo will probably really cement that in a couple years. Runner up, actually, is Janelle Monáe. She was great in Hidden Figures, but what made me bump her higher on the list was her supporting role in Moonlight. I think she's going to do well in the next few years too. If I awarded this to the person with the best name, Royalty Hightower would obviously win (and she's great in The Fits too, I guess). Brianna Hildebrand did a lot with a little in Deadpool, and Tom Holland managed to almost single-handedly save a languishing character with his tangential appearance in Captain America: Civil War. The future looks bright, is what I'm saying.
- Most Visually Stunning: The Handmaiden. Usually this award goes to an arthouse flick so concerned with making things pretty that they forget to give the movie a story, but not this year. This is one of may favorite movies of the year, and it's gorgeous to boot. The Witch as runner up, but who knows.
- Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: Arrival. SF has been making a pretty strong showing in the past few years, but that sort of fell off this year. Then again, the only true SF nominee is winning the award this year. It's one of the few SF movies to genuinely capture the sense of wonder and conceptual breakthrough that I love so much in SF literature. True, it's an adaptation of an award-winning novella, but while I wouldn't go so far as to call it unfilmable, I think the film came out as good as I ever could have hoped for. Runner up is definitely The Witch, which I gather I enjoy more than most people. Indeed, these are probably my two favorite movies of the year.
- Best Sequel/Reboot: 10 Cloverfield Lane. A generally tepid year for sequels, I think it's telling that my choice doesn't have much of a connection to its predecessor. That said, this movie was an unexpected and pleasant surprise. In a year of "Who wanted a sequel to that?" movies, this one actually delivered something solid. I also quite enjoyed Captain America: Civil War and Star Trek Beyond, which are vying it out for the number two slot in my head. Fortunately, we only really award the number one slot, so let's move on.
- Biggest Disappointment: Blair Witch. While not the worst movie of the year... or maybe even not the worst movie on this list, it was, in fact, the biggest disappointment. The reason for this is that I had much higher expectations for this movie than for anything else on the list, and I was really, really let down by the final product (i.e. this scored really poorly on Joe Posnanski's Plus-Minus Scale). I've already laid out my disappointments on this, so I will move on. It's bad. Runner up is Suicide Squad, mostly because I liked the concept and because those trailers really were fantastic. That being said, my guard was already up after years of DC movie ineptitude.
- Best Action Sequences: Kill Zone 2. Perhaps an obscure choice and choosing martial arts movies feels like cheating, but this has some really solid action and while Tony Jaa hasn't turned out to be quite the superstar we expected when he burst on the scene, he's still fantastic at action. The airport setpiece in Captain America: Civil War is wonderful, though it suffers a bit because I don't like seeing superheroes fight each other like that. London Has Fallen is worth mentioning for the bravura long-take assault on an enemy stronghold, and I enjoyed the other nominees welle enough as well.
- Best Plot Twist/Surprise: Arrival. I often try to spread around these awards to different movies, but I can't help myself here. To complicate matters, the runner up would be The Handmaiden, which also already has an award. I suppose even mentioning that there's a twist is a bit of a spoiler, but I will refrain from more detailed discussions here. THis was actually a pretty good year for this sort of thing, with the rest of the nominees that too far behind the winner...
- Best High Concept Film: The Lobster. Look, Yorgos Lanthimos pretty much has a lock on this category. This story is about single people who are sent to a hotel to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or they will be transformed into an animal and sent out into the wild (our protagonist chooses a Lobster). It's a fascinating movie. Not sure how much I really like it, but whatever you may think of it, it doesn't get more high concept than that.
- 2016's 2015 Movie of the Year: JoyThis category grew out of a specific year in which I managed to catch up with a couple of movies that I truly loved, but too far into the following year to give them any love. The problem is that I normally manage to see most movies that I think I'll love before the year runs out. So I'm not entirely sure about this category. I did wind up enjoying Joy though. It's a bit of a mess, but it holds a certain personal connection and has some bits that work pretty well for me, so it gets the award. The other nominees were all worthwhile, but none of the nominees would really break into last year's top 10...
Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another of his famous movie quizes, and as always, I'm excited to participate. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert Farnsworth, David Huxley, Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, Professor Severus Snape, Professor Ed Avery, Dr. Anton Phibes, Sister Clodagh, Professor Arthur Chipping, Miss Jean Brodie, Professor Larry Gopnick, Professor Dewey Finn, Ms. Elizabeth Halsey, Professor Abraham Setrakian, Mr. Dadier, and Professor Abronsius are also available. Let's get to it:
1) Best movie of 2016
Not to take the wind out of my forthcoming top 10 list's sails, but my favorite movie of the year (that I've managed to see, at least) is Arrival. It has many qualities to like and perhaps a few flaws, but more than anything else, I adore this movie because it brings a certain sense of wonder and conceptual breakthrough that is common in SF literature to the screen (where it is nearly absent).
2) Worst movie of 2016
A tough choice. I watch a lot of movies, so there are several contenders here, but I'm not a critic who is forced to watch some truly interminable movies on a semi-regular basis, so my available choices are probably not authoritative enough. Also, in deference to the Biggest Disappointment category in this year's Kaedrin Movie Awards, I will go with something I just saw called Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. I was hoping this would be about visual design, but it's really just a documentary following a bunch of ridiculously photogenic rich people who made terrible decisions about their goals in life but were nonetheless able to opt out of the traditional capitalist lifestyle. They mostly come off as bland, boring versions Tyler Durden who can't even throw a punch. The ideas behind the movement aren't terrible, per say, but this movie doesn't do a good job exploring or interrogating them or those who espouse them. Minimalism is alright, but this documentary taught me that minimalists are the worst.
3) Best actress of 2016
I haven't seen some of the heavy-hitters in this category yet, but I was quite taken with Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship. As someone not predisposed to enjoying period costume dramas, I attribute a big portion of my enjoyment of this movie to Beckinsale's sharply comic turn as a manipulative widow.
4) Best actor of 2016
Once again, I haven't seen some of the favored few in this category yet, but the obvious choice that I have seen is Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. A boring choice, perhaps, but what are you going to do? Stop reading? NO, don't stop. Please don't stop. I'll be good.
5) What movie from 2016 would you prefer not hearing another word about? Why?
I'm sick of hearing certain people say that Moonlight is the best movie of the year and then pivoting to complaining about how they're superior to everyone else because they will go for La La Land. The one caveat I have here is that I have not seen this movie yet, and thus I could be in for a Short Term 12-style reversal of opinion. (Update! I have just seen Moonlight. It's very good, but to my mind, not the obvious #1 critics seem to unanimously proclaim. I would say that though. I'm the worst.)
6) Second-favorite Olivier Assayas movie
I've only seen the three part Carlos, so I guess I could pick one of those (it would be one of the two that didn't cover the OPEC raid). Cheating? I'm good with that for now.
7) Miriam Hopkins or Kay Francis?
I've seen more Miriam Hopkins, but I don't really know either of these actresses so... mulligan!
8) What’s the story of your first R-rated movie?
Nothing particularly exciting about the story except that the movie was The Terminator, which remains one of my all-time favorite movies. I'd like to think this is based on more than just nostalgia and I do believe the movie holds up well, but I can't quite rule out my history with the film either. That being said, who cares, the movie is awesome.
9) What movie from any era that you haven’t yet seen would you be willing to resolve to see before this day next year?
I am woefully inexperienced with French New Wave films. I've seen several, for sure, but some of the most influential examples elude me. I know, I'm the worst. I will resolve to watch Breathless this year. I'd still have a lot of movies to watch, but it's a start, right?
10) Second-favorite Pedro Almodovar movie
On second thought, perhaps I should resolve to watch more Almodovar. The answer here is Volver by default (i.e. I've only seen two Almodovar movies).
11) What movie do you think comes closest to summing up or otherwise addressing the qualities of 2016?
12) Chris Pine or Chris Pratt?
An interesting pairing that is roughly equivalent. Pratt has more innate charisma and comic timing, but Pine seems to have more range. Based on their current filmographies, I'd go Pratt, but Pine has the potential to overtake.
13) Your favorite movie theater, presently or from the past
I couldn't think of a theater that wasn't interchangeable with dozens of others until I remembered that I spent a week in Austin at the Alamo Draft House, at which point the answer became crystal clear. The South Lamar location that I remember fondly has apparently even been refurbished, so I'm sure it's even better now. Regardless, the thing that made it great was the intangibles like the attitude and philosophy of the company and even the customers.
14) Favorite movie involving a family celebration
Was having trouble with this one and started looking around. Found Dogtooth which fits, in an odd sort of way. I guess. I mean, oof.
15) Second-favorite Paul Schrader movie
I usually read these questions to refer to the person in question's directorial efforts, but in this case, I'm going with Schrader's screenwriting, which leads me to Raging Bull.
16) Ruth Negga or Hayley Atwell?
Hayley Atwell is clearly the winner in terms of Marvel properties here, though Ruth Negga seems to have the buzz for her work in film this year. Alas, I have not seen Loving yet, so Atwell carries the day.
17) Last three movies you saw, in any format
Beware the Slenderman, an HBO true crime documentary about the infamous 2014 stabbing inspired by an internet boogeyman. Well done, affecting, and thought provoking.
Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, of which I've already said too much.
The Handmaiden, Chan-wook Park's latest, which immediately rocketed into my top 10 list for 2016. Twisty, turny, and beautiful.
18) Your first X-rated, or porn movie?
Apparently A Clockwork Orange was rated X, so there you have it.
19) Richard Boone or Charles McGraw?
Charles McGraw, for I have seen more of his movies. I know this sort of criteria is probably not the point of these types of questions, but it does make them easy to answer, that's for sure.
20) Second-favorite Chan-wook Park movie
On the other hand, sometimes I've actually seen the majority of someone's filmography and struggle mightily to find a good answer. Here it is a toss-up between Oldboy and The Handmaiden. Since I've only just seen The Handmaiden recently, let's give it to Oldboy, eh? (Incidentally, Lady Vengeance is my favorite, which I gather is an unconventional choice.)
21) Movie that best encompasses or expresses loneliness
Taxi Driver's portrait of "God's lonely man" Travis Bickle comes to mind.
22) What’s your favorite movie to watch with your best friend?
23) Who’s the current actor you most look forward to seeing in 2017?
Part of the reason my answers to questions #3 and 4 were so lackluster is that I apparently have an attitude towards actors similar to Hitchcock's: “All actors are cattle.” Alright, so I would probably never declare such a dismissive thing myself, but I do tend to gravitate more towards directors and story than acting. Big acting showcases often leave me a bit cold, and thus I don't really have much of an answer to this question.
24) Your New Year’s wish for the movies
I wish something other than sequels and remakes could break through and teach Hollywood to move in a more original direction, but I'm not holding my breath and past success on this front hasn't exactly helped. I suppose I should also wish that if you're going to make sequels and remakes, at least make them well. I thought they had a pretty good handle on this in the past few years, with truly fabulous stuff like Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and whatever you consider the Marvel movies (which did alright this year, to be sure). Some good potential this year, but I guess we'll have to wait and watch and see.
Stay tuned, Kaedrin Movie Award winners will be announced next week!
Welcome to the eleventh annual Kaedrin Movie Awards! Eleven years! Over a decade of conceptual continuity! The idea is to recognize films for various achievements that don't always reflect well on top 10 lists or traditional awards. There are lots of formal award categories and nominees listed below, but once those are announced, we'll also leave some room for Arbitrary Awards that are more freeform. Finally, we'll post a traditional top 10 list (usually sometime in mid-February). But first up is the awards! [Previous Installments here: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015]
Standard disclaimers apply: It must be a 2016 movie (with the one caveat that some 2015 films were not accessible until 2016 and are thus eligible under fiat) and I obviously have to have seen the movie. As of this writing, I've seen 68 movies that would be considered a 2016 release. Significantly less than your typical critic, but more than your average moviegoer and enough to populate these awards. Obviously this is a personal exercise that is subjective in nature, but the world would be a boring place indeed if we all loved the same things for the same reasons, right? Sound good? Let's get this party going:
Another middling year for villainy. I didn't have any problem populating the list, but true standouts were rare. Special note here to Captain America: Civil War, which blurred the lines between villain and hero enough that I just didn't include it in either category (I suppose I could have nominated the Zemo character, but... I'm not going to). As usual, my picks in this category are limited to individuals, not groups (i.e. no vampires or zombies as a general menace, etc...) or ideas.
- Howard, played by John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane
- Darcy, played by Patrick Stewart in Green Room
- The Blind Man, played by Stephen Lang in Don't Breathe
- Man, played by John Gallagher Jr. in Hush
- The Tall Man, played by Angus Scrimm in Phantasm: Ravager
- Warden Ko, played by Zhang Jin in Kill Zone 2
- Black Phillip, played by Wahab Chaudhry (voice) and a goat in The Witch
- Crowley, played by Christopher Lloyd in I Am Not a Serial Killer
A moderate year for heroism, but again, standouts are rare. Another nod to Captain America: Civil War, not nominated for reasons already explained. Again limited to individuals and not groups.
- Wade / Deadpool, played by Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool
- Mike Banning, played by Gerard Butler in London Has Fallen
- Jackson Healy, played by Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys
- Jaylah, played by Sofia Boutella in Star Trek Beyond
- Reggie, played by Reggie Bannister in Phantasm: Ravager
- The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange
- Chirrut Îmwe, played by Donnie Yen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
- Chatchai, played by Tony Jaa in Kill Zone 2
- Moana, played by Auli'i Cravalho in Moana
Best Comedic Performance
This category is sometimes difficult to populate because comedy so often comes in the form of an ensemble, but we had a pretty great year of comic performances (albeit, mostly unconventional ones), even if I have some duplication going on here.
- Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool
- Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys
- Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters
- Glen Powell in Everybody Wants Some!!
- Andy Samberg in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
- Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in Keanu
- Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship
- Tom Bennet in Love & Friendship
- Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man
- Alan Tudyk in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Always an interesting category to populate. Sometimes, it's not so much about someone's industry breakthrough, but a more personal breakthrough. This can happen even with established actors. This year, we've got more of a moderate crop of young up-and-comers. The main criteria for this category was if I watched a movie, then immediately looking up the actor/actress on IMDB to see what else they've done (or where they came from). A somewhat vague category, but that's why these awards are fun.
- Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!
- Brianna Hildebrand in Deadpool
- Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch
- Tom Holland in Captain America: Civil War
- Julian Dennison in Hunt for the Wilderpeople
- Royalty Hightower in The Fits
- Janelle Monáe in Hidden Figures
Most Visually Stunning
Sometimes even bad movies can look really great... and we've got a light year here, but still plenty of good choices.
- Hail, Caesar!
- The Witch
- Doctor Strange
- Swiss Army Man
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
- La La Land
- The Handmaiden
Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
I like to give a little love to my favorite genres, hence this category. When I started this category, I always had trouble finding good SF movies, so I had to pad out the category with horror. But we've seen an astonishing increase in good SF in recent years, mostly micro-budget independent stuff, but this year has been a bit slower in that respect, even if we've got a really solid SF contender!
- The Witch
- 10 Cloverfield Lane
- Midnight Special
- The Invitation
- Don't Breathe
- The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Often a difficult category to populate, but after a few stellar years of Hollywood output, we dropped off the "they made a sequel to what?" cliff this year. That said, a few things managed to stand out:
- London Has Fallen
- Captain America: Civil War
- 10 Cloverfield Lane
- Star Trek Beyond
- Kill Zone 2
- Finding Dory
A category usually dominated by sequels, and what do you know, all of these are sequels (or whatever the heck you consider Suicide Squad) . This category is definitely weird in that sometimes I actually enjoy some of these movies... but my expectations were just too high when I saw them. Related reading: Joe Posnanski's Plus-Minus Scale (these movies scored especially poor on that scale).
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice*
- X-Men: Apocalypse
- Suicide Squad
- Blair Witch
- Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
- Jason Bourne
Best Action Sequences
This award isn't for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film, and this has been a decent but not overwhelmingly awesome year for action.
- London Has Fallen
- Captain America: Civil War
- Doctor Strange
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
- Kill Zone 2
- Star Trek Beyond
Best Plot Twist/Surprise
Well, I suppose even listing nominees here constitutes something of a spoiler, but it's a risk we'll have to take, right?
- The Invitation
- 10 Cloverfield Lane
- Hell or High Water
- I Am Not a Serial Killer
- The Autopsy of Jane Doe
- The Handmaiden
Best High Concept Film
A nebulous category, to be sure, but a fun one because these are generally interesting movies. Lots of borderline cases this year, but a few strong standouts...
2016's 2015 Movie of the Year
There are always movies I miss out on, whether due to availability or laziness, but when I do catch up with them, I'm often taken with them. Sometimes a very difficult category to populate, maybe because I didn't see much, or didn't like it, or just plain forgot that I saw it (which, to be fair, probably says something about the movie's chances). Still, a pretty respectable list this year, with plenty to choose from.
So The Witch leads the way with 5 nominations, with Rogue One, Kill Zone 2, and 10 Cloverfield Lane not far behind with 4 nominations each. The numbers expand dramatically from there, with 9 movies soaking up 3 nominations, and lots of movies getting 1 or 2 nominations. Overall, 43 different movies were nominated this year (not counting the last category, which would put me at 48. Also worth noting that 5 of the 43 were the disappointing movies...) making this a very broad year with few films really standing out... in these categories, at least. Stay tuned for the winners, which will be announced in 1-2 weeks. I still have a few movies to catch up with, so you may even see a winner that wasn't nominated (it's happened before!)
* 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.
Update: So I just saw The Handmaiden and yep, it steps into two awards, easily. You will probably hear more about it later in the Kaedrin Movie Award season...
Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss "older than I am" Science Fiction in the month of January.
“Their flight was not less exhilarating for being explainable.” - Tau Zero, Page 19
Poul Anderson's Tau Zero follows the story of the starship Leonora Christine, a colonization vessel staffed with 50 of the best and brightest that Earth has to offer. Their goal is to travel to a distant star system using a Bussard ramjet to accelerate at a modest but constant rate until they reach an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. This makes their voyage subject to relativity and time dilation; it will take 5 years from the crew's subjective, while 33 years will pass on earth. Tragedy strikes when the ship passes through an unexpected nebula, damaging the deceleration capabilities of the ship. Since the ship's engines must be kept running in order to provide protection from stray objects and radiation, the crew is doomed to continue accelerating ever closer to the speed of light, thus increasing time dilation and traveling ever farther from home in terms of both distance and time. Will the crew manage to find a way to slow down and find a suitable planet for colonization in time to create a viable population that can thrive?
So this book has a reputation as a classic, and indeed, the hard SF bits are nice and chunky giving the reader that sense of wonder so many of us crave from our SF. Alas, it's the crew interactions and character touches that didn't quite connect with me. I find this to be a relatively common challenge with novels from this period between the New Wave in the 60s and the hard SF revival in the 80s (another example of great hard SF ideas mixed with middling character work from this same era is The Mote in God's Eye, even if that remains one of the great first-contact stories due to the lower proportion of character work there).
To be fair, much of the interior reflection in the novel works. The crew handles their initial setbacks well, but as the true implications dawn, there are some pretty weighty troubles to deal with. It doesn't take long before they realize that while only a few years have passed for them, it's likely that everyone they have ever known has long since passed away. Once they reach a speed where millions of years are passing for every one year of travel, these implications start to take a even more of a toll on the crew, as it becomes clear that all of humanity as they knew it is probably long gone. Unfortunately, much of the crew interactions feel forced and unrelatable. Old Earth politics, love triangles, cheating, authoritarian controls on various aspects of life aboard a spaceship are all viable story components, I guess, but I found myself not caring much about these aspects of the story, which actually do comprise a sizable portion of the narrative.
The hard SF bits are harnessed into an effective driver for the story, even if some things don't quite fit with the current science and cosmology. I mean, yeah, at the speed they the ship was moving, it would be blueshifted far enough to kill people instantly from radiation poisoning, but that would make for a pretty anticlimactic story. Similarly, the "Big Crunch" speculated in the book probably wouldn't work that way and even if it did, the ship's odds at surviving are doubtful. None of this is enough to totally outweigh the sense of wonder brought on by a ship traveling so fast that it could witness the end of the current universe, the big bang of a new universe, and travel billions of years into the span of said new universe to find a planet that would be habitable in a timeframe that would allow for 50 people to create a viable colony. (Spoilers, I guess.) All in all, Anderson evokes the grandeur and scale of the universe well enough that it kept me motivated to get past the characterization bits.
So it's a neat idea, reasonably well executed, but the character work is middling at best. In this way, it also reminded me a bit of Gregory Benford's Timescape (cool ideas bogged down by inane dinner parties), which is funny, because I recently read a Benford short story called "Relativistic Effects" which recalls Tau Zero to such an extent that I have to believe Benford was directly inspired by Anderson's work. Another runaway ship witnessing a new big bang, and so on, but captured in a tiny fraction of Tau Zero's already pretty short length (approximately 200 pages). Incidentally, that short story collection that had the Benford work also contained an Anderson story called "Kyrie" that also deals with time dilation (as it relates to black holes). That story really kicked me in the face and was the inspiration for picking up Tau Zero in the first place. Ultimately, I'm glad I read this and hope to read more Anderson at some point, but I'd recommend checking out The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF and reading the two aforementioned stories rather than Tau Zero... which I guess says something about this book. On the other hand, I can see why it's hailed as a classic, the science bits are interesting, and it's definitely worth reading for students of the genre. However, back on that first hand, while I generally don't mind the stereotypical flat characters of hard SF, I feel like this book shot for some ambitious litfic characterization and didn't quite clear the bar on that front, which lessens the overall appeal some.
Will I manage a third Vintage review this month? Only time will tell, but I do have a book lined up (assuming I finish the two I'm currently reading...)
The nomination period for the 2017 Hugo Awards is open, so I thought I'd get some of my thoughts out there before the requisite whining and controversy begins in earnest. I've read several eligible works, but as of right now, only two will make my ballot:
The interesting thing about these choices is that both feature the concept of two characters sharing one consciousness. Ninefox Gambit comes from an arguably SFnal perspective, while Penric's Mission is distinctly fantasy. Ninefox's characters have a more adversarial relationship, while Penric's characters are more symbiotic. I don't know what this says about me, especially if you're the type who doesn't believe in coincidences.
On the novel front, I'm currently reading A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers that has the potential to make the cut. I might get to one or two other novels before the nomination period ends, but I'm probably more interested in digging into some short fiction in the near term. Of note here is Jonathan Edelstein's roundup of short fiction over at Haibane.info, of which several seem right up my alley.
This also marks the first year the Hugos are considering a Best Series category. It's not guaranteed to continue, but there are tons of eligible series this year, including some heavy hitters. As far as I can see, this is Harry Potter's award to lose. I'm also nominating Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga here, though again, I'm doubt any series could stop the Harry Potter juggernaut. The rules for best series are pretty simple, which of course means that there are lots of edge cases that make it difficult to predict how or even if this award will continue. The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of non-trivial problems with this award. For example, let's say we get 5 series nominated. If you haven't read all of them, what does that mean for the voting process? The Vorkosigan Saga is somewhere between 15-20 stories (depending on how you count some of the novellas) that would be difficult to read in just a couple of months. All of which is to say that I'm curious to see how this shakes out this year...
I will obviously be nominating for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form award, most notably Arrival (which I think should win) and The Witch (which I'm doubting will get a nomination at all). After those two, there's a second tier of worthy nominees that I'll have to wade through.
I'm hoping that this will be the least controversial year since I started voting, as the Sad Puppies will be proceeding much like they did last year, while Rabid Puppies seem to be reticent to spend any money to support the Hugos anymore (which will, you know, mean less influence since it costs money to nominate and vote).
Any recommendations or suggestions are welcome! I will most likely post a follow up post with my final nomination ballot as the end of the nomination period approaches (sometime in March or so).
Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. I don't know how I missed this before, but since I've already read two vintage (i.e. "older than I am") works this month without even trying, I figured it would be fun to participate! First up: Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell:
"... the driver lost control at high speed while swiping at a wasp which had flown in through a window and was buzzing around his face. ... The weight of a wasp is under half an ounce. Compared with a human being, the wasp's size is minute, its strength negligible. Its sole armament is a tiny syringe holding a drop of irritant, formic acid. In this instance, the wasp didn't use it. Nevertheless, that wasp killed four big men and converted a large, powerful car into a heap of scrap." - Wasp, pages 3-4
Terrorists make for unlikely heroes, especially in our post 9/11 world, but Eric Frank Russell's 1957 novel Wasp represents a valiant effort that feels prescient and relevant to this day.
Sometime in the future, humans are at war with the Sirian Empire. Even though the humans posses superior technology in nearly every way, the Sirian Empire is able to compensate because their population outnumbers the humans by a ratio of 12 to 1 (along with commensurate advantage in resources). What to do when confronted with numerical inferiority? Resort to asymmetrical warfare! James Mowry is the titular wasp, a single human saboteur sent to the Sirian empire to sow discord and disruption. Given suitable circumstances, one man against a whole planet can "obtain results monstrously in excess of the effort."
He is, in effect, a terrorist. His tactics start out innocently enough. Phase 1 of his plan simply involves slapping subversive stickers all over various cities in order to establish the existence of a (nonexistent) resistance organisation named Dirac Angestun Gesept (Sirian Freedom Party). Subsequent phases escalate to targeted assassinations and bombings. He is aided by the panic of the Sirian government, depicted as an oppressive police state that engages in censorship and forceful suppression. Ironically, one of the strengths of asymmetrical warfare is that when your enemy commits a major act of violence against the people, you (the terrorist) win and you become stronger.
This is certainly a peculiar book. Terry Pratchett once commented that he "can't imagine a funnier terrorists' handbook." The tone of the book is certainly lighter than you'd expect from the above description, and it does have a dark, dry humor to it that is surprising. Mowry is a likable enough agent provocateur, but he is still a terrorist. We really don't know that much about him, actually. His recruitment at the beginning of the novel is coerced and I read it to basically be a death sentence (i.e. even if he survives, he will simply be redeployed). Russell does his best to soften the violence against the Sirians leadership by portraying them as obnoxious bureaucrats, but he leaves room for doubt due to reprisals on the innocent population (who are mostly portrayed as ordinary, perfectly nice people). We're clearly meant to root for Mowry, but Russell doesn't quite let us off that easy and provokes questions that are not easily answered.
Of course, the procedural aspects are great, and hold up pretty well too. Most of the tactics used in the novel feel logical and independent of hand-wavey technological cheats. For instance, there's a clever variant on a typical "follow that car" sequence in which Mowry, not wanting to attract suspicion, tells the cab driver that he doesn't remember the exact name of where he's headed, but he does remember the how to get there, so he'll just direct the driver as they go. Humor emanates from some of these tactics as well, like when the Sirian government, attempting to counter Dirac Angestun Gesept by requiring every organization on the planet, from the lowliest knitting group to the largest corporation, to formally register. Unphased, Mowry obtains a form and formally registers Dirac Angestun Gesept (Purpose of organization: Destruction of present government and termination of war against Terra. Names and address of elected officers: You'll find out when it's too late.). The 4GW crowd would probably love this book... if they didn't already have a well worn, dog-eared copy. The Sirian level of technology does seem suspiciously like that of 1950s earth, but Russell mitigates that with his earlier notion that the Sirians are technologically inferior.
Russell did serve in the RAF in WWII, and that's lead to some speculation that he had at least some firsthand experience (or at least, knowledge) of disruption in occupied Europe. As an anecdotal observation, the depiction of asymmetrical warfare in fiction was beginning to uptick in the 50s and 60s (I'm thinking of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in SF, as well as French memoirs and even some films like Jean Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows). In this respect, Russell's work does seem prescient, though it would be interesting to do more formal research to see how fiction depicted terrorism over time.
Aside from Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman has also counted himself a fan, and even set about trying for a movie adaptation:
The only book I've optioned was WASP. I started the script, wrote about a dozen pages, then Sept 11th happened, and I let the option lapse; I didn’t think that the world (or at least the U.S.) would be ready for a terrorist hero for a very long time. And he is a terrorist—one man tying up an entire planet's military might as they look for a huge non-existent organisation, using nothing but the 1950s plot-equivalent of a couple of explosions and a few envelopes filled with anthrax powder...
It would make for an interesting movie, though I'm guessing they'd rethink the Sirian appearance of purple skin, bowlegged gait, and funny ears. Regardless, I think it's something we could handle now, so perhaps, someday...
It's a short, easy to read book with little in the way of character depth or stylistic flourishes, but it's also fascinating, prescient, relevant, darkly funny, and a little scary. Certainly worth a few hours of your time.
In accordance with tradition, I'm taking a look back at the year in books (and movies, which will be getting their own, more elaborate, recap in the coming weeks). I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there!), and they have some nifty statistical visualization tools that I can use, even if I'd love a deeper dive into this sort of thing (which I can do, for sure, but which would be much nicer if automated).
First up is total books read:
I read 50 books last year which ties my record in the current era (set in 2012). Full list here. Of course, standard disclaimers apply, as this includes a fair amount of short fiction and graphic novels which distorts the numbers a bit. Also, some were audiobooks, which might be a tad misleading. That being said, total pages read provides another angle:
Notably more than last year, just barely edging past 2012, and narrowly missing the 2014 record. Adding in the inherent variability of page numbers, and I think it's reasonable to put me on par with the record of the modern era. Not too shabby. Anecdotal observation indicates that I tend to read more page numbers when reading shorter books, while longer epics tend to slow me down. This year I had some of both. Sure, I had a bunch of short fiction, but I also read two 900+ page books and several 600+ page books. Some more data:
Slightly off pace this year, as last year's average page length was 306, but again, variability puts this number at about par. Still, this represents a long slide from my high of 356 pages, set in 2013 (which, ironically but tellingly, also had the fewest books read). The longest book of the year was The Ascent of Wonder, a SF anthology clocking in at 992 pages, but I will note that these were large, dense pages that took longer to read than most other books (i.e. this is probably longer than most of my previous longest reads). Runner up would be Swan Song at 956 pages.
The breakdown got a little more complicated this year and includes more short stories and comic books than last year. Probably less non-fiction though, something that I should rectify in 2017.
In terms of publication dates, I definitely spread myself out much more this year than in the past two years. I attribute this to lower participation in the Hugo Awards nomination process, which means less current reading, more time to explore the classics or older stuff. The oldest book was 1939's classic And Then There Were None/Ten Little Indians, followed by 1949's Needle, also very good.
So I declare last year a success. I don't have any overriding themes or needs for 2017, so I think you can expect more of the same. Maybe more non-fiction and slightly less current fiction, but no dramatic changes. I'm again on the fence about this year's Hugo Awards, but after last year's mild improvement, I'm hoping this year could represent a return to form. I certainly have a few things that I think would make great nominees, so hopefully they still let last year's members nominate this year... Well, that just about wraps things up. How did your year in books go?
- Tickled - A documentary where a journalist delves into the rough and tumble world of... online competitive tickling? This is exactly the sort of documentary that normally gets me, so it's at the top of the list (and yes, I've now seen it, and it's about much more than, uh, tickling; it's also fantastic). (Available for purchase, should be rentable soon.)
- Weiner - Documentary covering Anthony Weiner's rise, fall, attempted comeback, and additionally collapse. Apparently notable for the amount of access the filmmakers had during his run for Mayor, especially when the scandals broke. (And yes, it's an astounding document.) (Available on Showtime's various streaming channels, I was able to watch it on Amazon with a 7 day free trial that I canceled the next day.)
- Moana - Disney's latest animated musical has been getting rave reviews and they've been on a bit of a hot streak recently, so this goes on the list. (Totally worth it, it's a lot of fun...) (In theaters now.)
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople - I didn't know much about this except that it was the next film from Taika Waititi, who made one of last year's favorites, What We Do in the Shadows, which is enough to make me want to see it. (And it's great!) (Available for rental. Streaming on Hulu.)
- Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World - Werner Herzog's exploration of the Internet and technology, what's not to like? (It's decent, a bit unfocused, but interesting.) (Streaming on Netflix.)
- La La Land - Director Damien Chazelle's throwback musical about an aspiring actress falling for a jazz musician in LA. I am not much of a fan of musicals, but this looks to be a front-runner for this year's Oscars and I've heard people say things like "This is a musical for people who say they don't like musicals". This makes me skeptical, but I'll give it a shot. (And I really enjoyed it! Not sure if it's top 10 material, but it's fun!) (In theaters now)
- Love & Friendship - So I'm not particularly into Jane Austen costume dramas and I've actually never seen a Whit Stillman movie, but I've heard good things about this from folks I trust, so on the list it goes. (And it's quite good! It took me a bit to get into it, but by the end I was quite taken with it...) (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)
- The Handmaiden - Chan-wook Park's latest film about some sort of, um, handmaiden who is seeking to defraud her employer. Or something. Who cares, it's Park Chan-wook, I'm in. (Releases on DVD/Streaming sometime late January)
- Kill Zone 2 - AKA "SPL 2: A Time for Consequences", this is a Tony Jaa action movie with some buzz behind it. I will watch this. (Available on Netflix Instant)
- Swiss Army Man - Ah the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie. Despite that pitch, it's apparently a very good film, so I will be checking it out. (Available for rental or purchase on most services)
- Finding Dory - Never saw Pixar's latest in the theater, which needs to be rectified. (Available for rental on most services)
- Pete's Dragon - Live action remakes aren't usually my jam, but I'm told this is worth checking out so I probably will... (Available for rental on most services)
- The Jungle Book - Again, live action remake of an animated movie that I was never particularly in love with in the first place, but then, I hear good things... (Streaming on Netflix)
- The Mermaid - Stephen Chow's latest was apparently a huge hit in China... but it's American release was suspiciously quiet. I will watch. (Available for rental or purchase on most services)
- The Autopsy of Jane Doe - I know nothing about this except that it's supposed to be one of the better obscure horror releases of the year. Sold. (Available for rental or purchase on most services)
- Kubo and the Two Strings - Another animated movie that I skipped in theaters, but people keep raving about it, so I guess I should give it a shot... (Available for rental or purchase on most services)
- De Palma - A documentary about Brian De Palma? Ok, sure, why not? (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)
- The Fits - I don't know much about this other than that it starts a young actress named Royalty Hightower, which is the best name ever. Also, it's supposed to be good, so there's that. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
- Elle - Paul Verhoeven's latest and probably worth checking out solely because of that, but then, this has been getting mixed reviews, so there is that. Might not get to this one... (Availability unknown, which doesn't help)
- Moonlight - Critical darling of the year, it's only playing in Philly and I'm not sure if I can get down there before it leaves theaters. Does not sound like my cup of tea, but seems worth the stretch. (In theaters now.)
- Three - The latest from Kaedrin favorite Johnnie To, this one doesn't appear to be available anywhere just yet... (Availability unknown)
- The Love Witch - I have no idea what this thing is and I've read about it a few times but I still don't have a clue, which does make me want to watch it, but I can't seem to find it anywhere. (Availability unknown)
- I Am Not a Serial Killer - I've heard good things about the book, so why not watch the movie? (Streaming on Netflix)
* I started writing this post a little before Christmas and meant to post it earlier last week, but this is a busy time of the year and yes, laziness was probably involved too. As such, a goodly portion of the above have already been watched - I'm now at 52 movies from 2016 and counting.
The case against Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens boils down to its plot, a retread of the original Star Wars Death Star storyline. While I was more than willing to go with it, as it it does execute well (plus, as I mentioned at the time, it does "rhyme" with the original trilogy much better than the prequels), I do certainly feel like that plot point is getting a bit tired. Enter Rogue One, the first in a series of one-off "Star Wars Stories" that will be injected between the numbered outings. Once again, we're focused on a Death Star plot... but this isn't really a retread. It tells the story of how the Rebels managed to snag the original Death Star's plans (and how they so quickly found its weakness). Spoilers aho!
As a child, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) sees her mother killed and father, genius scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), suborned by the Empire to complete the construction of some sort of mysterious superweapon (that we immediately know is the original Death Star). Jyn manages to escape and is rescued and raised by a splinter rebel faction led by Saw Guerrera (Forest Whitaker). Jump ahead a few years and Jyn is imprisoned by the Empire, though they luckily do not know her true identity. She is rescued by the Rebel Alliance, who needs her connections to that splinter faction, as they've captured a defector claiming to have a message from Galen Erso. At first reluctant, Jyn gets onboard and builds a team of rebels, including the spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a reprogrammed Empire droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a Zatoichi-like blind martial artist who is clearly not a Jedi named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and his machine-gun wielding friend Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Together they must find the Death Star plans and deliver them to the Rebel Alliance. Along the way, they are opposed by Empire apparatchik Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and his bosses, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin.
Phew. Everybody get that? For a general plot that is very simple at its core, they've certainly amped up the moving parts to imply complexity. Tons of new characters, lots of new planets, backstories, subplots, and so on. It's a bit overstuffed and perhaps not every arc is completely earned, but they managed to pull it off, even if it sometimes feels a bit perfunctory. Still, for a movie that is technically a prequel where you know how it's going to end up, this does a remarkably good job inserting itself into the series without distracting from the originals. This is a movie that engages and enriches the original. It doesn't just retread things we already know or fill holes, it adds something meaningful to the series. It's probably one of the better prequels ever made.
I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that almost all of these characters are new and relatively interesting. We recognize many side characters, but the core is all new and unknown to us. Again, we don't necessarily get to spend enough time with each character's backstory or subplot to completely earn the payoff, but it's still a payoff. There are some standouts, namely Alan Tudyk's voice acting for K-2SO, who gets a couple of great lines. I liked the idea of Forest Whitaker's cave-dwelling terrorist gone half-mad with paranoia and yet, being on the "right side" of Star Wars history. Similarly, Diego Luna does some good work with his tortured spy who's seen and done horrible things. Felicity Jones does well in the lead role, and once her character buys in, she displays enough charisma to get by. Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang make for a good team and are total badasses. The problem is, again, not enough time to really flesh out these characters, making the movie feel a bit overstuffed.
This movie is a little more consistent and even though, so we don't quite get anything as great as BB-8 giving the flaming thumbs up in VIII, for instance, but we also don't get as many head-scratchers (how exactly does Starkiller base work?) Ultimately, we care about the characters and they're fun to be around, even if they don't really go above and beyond in that respect (i.e. we're just not given any reasons to really dislike the characters, which is a trap that they could have easily fallen into). The plot is simple, but it does add some interesting retcons that actually enhance the series (namely, why the Death Star is so vulnerable).
Visually, it's a very impressive movie. Director Gareth Edwards seems to be good at that, and his action chops are up to par as well. I really enjoyed the action here, and the set pieces were varied enough that it never becomes repetitious or tedious. Edwards isn't as great with story, but what's here is light years beyond Godzilla or Monsters.
Also distressing, especially given Edwards visual effects background, is the baffling choice to use CGI models for Grand Moff Tarkin (and one other character that shall remain nameless). This is something that has kinda worked in other movies (see Marvel's use in Ant-Man and Civil War, though in both cases, what you're seeing is younger versions of living actors - I guess the tech isn't quite there for actors who have passed long ago...), but fails pretty miserably here. Individual moments or stills might work fine, but added up, the CGI never quite clears the uncanny valley. They get pretty far across... only to faceplant on the far edge of the valley... It becomes even more baffling given that they were able to cast some pretty great lookalikes (at least, close enough) for some of the other side characters, like Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly). O'Reilly played Mon Mothma in Episode III, which is interesting because that movie also features Wayne Pygram as Tarkin... and that looked fine!
Finally, I think they managed to pull off the darker, grittier vibe they were pulling for without distracting from its Star-Warsian nature, but once again, they don't really have enough time to really nail these themes down. They walk the line well, though it would be nice, just once, for someone to say that a sequel or prequel will be "brighter and more fun" rather than "darker and grittier".
So I'd call this movie a success. It's not perfect, but most of my criticisms are relatively minor. That being said, let's maybe lay off the Death Star focused storylines from now on, shall we? Maybe it's just because there've been sooo many sequels in 2016 that failed so completely at this, but Rogue One walked a narrow tightrope on this movie and got to the other side. In general though, this fits well with the series. The original trilogy still resonates most with me, but I'd put Rogue One at least on par with VII, if not better. It's certainly a massive improvement over the prequels, that's for sure. I'm looking forward to more "Star Wars Stories", and am obviously excited for VIII. We live in bountiful times for nerdy pursuits, which makes me happy.