The Oscars (2019)

After an embattled few months beset with controversy, the Oscars have finally arrived. For reasons beyond understanding, I do enjoy the show. Partly because I like movies, but mostly because it's fun to dunk on the Oscars. This sort of thing isn't unique to the Oscars, but this year seems especially ripe. This is partly due to the standard snubs and occasional recognition of poor art or the strange injection of political bickering into the arena (by which I mean internal Hollywood politics rather than national politics, though those have increasingly reared their ugly head as well), but there've also been some rather baffling decisions. The show is going without a host, which most seem to regard as a disaster (and to be fair, the only other time the show went without a host did not go well), but which could turn out fine. Aside from the opening monologue (possibly including an interminable musical number during which I am usually forced to crack open my first alcoholic beverage of the night) and maybe one or two extraneous and usually useless bits later in the show, they don't really do all that much. Then the Academy decided not to air a few key awards (Cinematography and Editing), but at least they reversed that decision when everyone pointed out how stupid that was. There's been some tussle about how many musical performances (a longtime bugaboo of mine, but I'm a weirdo) that I'm not sure I even want to look into. There's been all sorts of other controversy about the ceremony, the nominees, and so on, but it's gone on for so long that it's like shooting fish in a barrel. The funny thing is that so much of this is based on bland speculation that isn't really backed by much. Remember when everyone was super certain that La La Land was going to win, then they had that insane snafu onstage? There was, like, a momentary acknowledgement that the Oscars did something right, then everyone started complaining again. In a recent interview with Steven Soderbergh, he mentioned the real reason we should all be excited by the Oscars:
The show itself is clunky and weird sometimes. But the work that the academy does, in terms of archiving alone, I don’t care what kind of show they’ve gotta put on to make the money to pay for that stuff. The academy library is one of the most amazing resources in the United States. As a filmmaker, understanding what they’re doing for cinema culture, I’m very sympathetic to their problem, and part of me doesn’t get that worked up about it because I’m like, Look, they’ve gotta put on this show. It pays for all this great stuff. All of my stuff, all the prints, negatives, it’s all there, for nothing. I used to have that shit in a climate-controlled vault in Hollywood. It wasn’t cheap.
I have to admit that I didn't realize this, and it honestly completely turns my opinion on the ceremony. Yeah it's an overlong, narcissistic ceremony where self-satisfied Hollywood elites hand themselves awards, but apparently it all goes to pay for some important stuff, and as Soderbergh notes, the archival services alone are probably worth it. In general, my approach this year will be the same as ever: I will drink some beers and snark it up on Twitter (@mciocco if you're somehow reading this and don't already follow me there), or more accurately, I will be retweeting people who are funnier than I am. Back in day, we used to use our stone knives and bearskins to do this thing called liveblogging, but social media makes it all easier these days. I'll put the predictions below, of course, but any further updates will be on Twitter. If, for some ungodly reason, you want to read a decade plus' worth of previous predictions and commentary on the Oscars, check them out here: [2017] | [2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004]
  • Best Picture: Roma. This category is way more open than you'd expect. The big argument against Roma winning is that Hollywood is terrified of Netflix and won't want to legitimate anything associated with them. But the academy loves their black-and-white arthouse auteurs, and Roma does have some momentum from other awards season wins. Green Book is the sort of bland that critics hate, but which the academy might love, and it's proven pretty resilient to all the criticism hurled its way (including criticism of some dumb comments made by Viggo Mortensen in an interview). It's also garnered some awards season wins, making it a solid contender. Similarly, Bohemian Rhapsody seems to have weathered the controversy surrounding its director (and the blandening of some story elements), but people love Queen and Freddie Mercury and apparently the musician bio-pic isn't played out to some people (it's one of my least favorite sub-genres to start with, but it's been a popular Oscar sub-genre, so...) I'm betting it won't win here because it'll get love in the Best Actor category. A Star Is Born was an early contender, but seems to have flagged considerably during awards season. I kinda considered it as the sorta "safe" choice: no real controversy surrounding it, it doesn't reward Netflix, it's got an actor turned director (something the Academy tends to love), and oh yeah, the story itself is a remake of movies the Oscars have recognized on multiple occasions before (though I don't think it's won best picture). Alas, the aforementioned nominees seem to be weathering their respective storms remarkably well, so A Star is Born will have to settle for recognition elsewhere (which I think there's a fair chance it will get). I don't think any of the other nominees have a particularly good chance. It's possible that the academy will want to recognize Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman (thus righting the wrong of Driving Miss Daisy beating Do the Right Thing way back when), but I'm doubting that (and ironically there's a pretty good chance that Green Book will win, thus forcing Lee to relive the loss). Vice seems far too divisive to actually win. The Favourite is too odd to really win this and should just be glad to be nominated. And there's no way the academy will ever actually recognize a super hero movie here, not even Black Panther (it's pretty remarkable that it's made it here in the first place). It's a weird category this year, and the whole "preferential ballot" voting thing could cause some quirks, so who knows. Of note: I've only seen half the nominees, which is a pretty poor showing for me (update, so I saw one more, making it 5 out of 8).
  • Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma. Thanks to the whole preferential ballot voting in Best Picture, it's no longer a guarantee that the best picture also has the best director. That being said, it could happen this year. And if it doesn't, it'll probably be because Roma doesn't win best picture. Cuarón has been doing well during awards season and has momentum. However, it's quite possible that Spike Lee will take it (perhaps more as an apology for the aforementioned loss way back when, or perhaps as a silver lining when Green Book wins best picture?) The other nominees are of the "just be glad you got nominated" sort. This category is much less open...
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Favourite. Strong contender in Glenn Close, mostly because it's a sorta lifetime achievement award for her and she's got some momentum with wins in awards season, but so does Colman, so there's that too. I'm doubting any of the other nominees could stand up to those two though.
  • Best Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody. He's been on a tear during awards season, and again, the film has weathered its controversies well. Also of note, this award has gone to an actor starring in a biopic for 11 of the last 16 years. That's pretty friggin nuts. I suppose it could go to Christian Bale for Vice, but that movie, again, feels to divisive to win a major award like this one. Potential dark horse with Bradley Cooper, who may win because he was kinda/sorta snubbed for best director. That still feels unlikely though. Willem Dafoe might take a sorta lifetime achievement award here, I guess, but I'm doubting it (though I guess it's a biopic, so there's that). And Viggo Mortensen seems out of the running.
  • Best Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk. She's done well in awards season, and Beale Street didn't get much other love, so this seems to work. However, Rachel Weisz could very well take it, and she won at least one of other other awards, so she's got that going for her. However, her costar Emma Stone is also nominated and might only serve to split the vote, so I'm going to stick with King...
  • Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book. He's got a lot of momentum and has apparently been very charismatic during awards season. On the other hand, he's won this before, and Richard E. Grant has had some buzz around him as well. Still, I think Ali will take it (if we assume Green Book won't win best picture, this could be an acceptable way to recognize that movie without pissing people off). At some point, there was buzz around Sam Elliott, but I'm guessing that never materialized...
  • Best Original Screenplay: The Favourite. It's quite possible that Green Book will win this one too, but I seem to be betting against that movie so I might as well stick with it. Also possible that the academy will go with Paul Schrader for First Reformed, though that's a bit of a dark horse. There hasn't been much consistency with this category during awards season, so this is pretty open.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman. I'm guessing Spike Lee won't win Director or Picture, but this could be the place where the academy gets him an easy win. The movie has won a bunch of other awards, but not the WGA award, so it's possible for Can You Ever Forgive Me? or A Star is Born to sneak in here. The latter might even be a good bet, as again, this category is often seen as a consolation prize.
  • Best Film Editing: Vice. I haven't seen this, but the Academy tends to go with the most visibly edited movies, and I hear this one is exactly that. Bohemian Rhapsody could take it, despite not being particularly accomplished in Editing (that one scene when they first meet the producer or whatever is ruff), because the film had a troubled production in which director and accused rapist Bryan Singer was fired from the film, and most people credit editor John Ottman with salvaging the footage and wrangling it into something coherent (that people love). But who even knows anymore? I could totally bomb this entire ballot.
  • Best Cinematography: Roma. Hard to bet against the popular arthouse black-and-white flick, though I suppose Cold War could also take it here, though it seems like the lesser choice.
  • Best Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War. Duh. I mean, I suppose First Man has an off chance here, but the whole point of that movie was that you focused on inside the capsule, rather than the grand shots of rockets and whatnot. Yeah, there's that one shot (you know the one), but it doesn't feel like enough for this award.
  • Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
  • Best Costume Design: The Favourite
  • Best Production Design: The Favourite
  • Best Original Score: BlacKkKlansman
  • Best Song: Shallow, A Star Is Born
  • Best Animated Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  • Best Documentary: RBG
  • Best Foreign Language Film: Roma
I'm the least confident of these choices as I've ever been. It seems like anything could happen, and yet, even those surprises don't feel like they'll be very exciting. We shall see soon enough, I guess...
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Medusa Touching the Algorithm

One of the obnoxious things about modern streaming services is how difficult they make discovery. To be fair, it's not an easy problem to solve. If you have many thousands of options on your platform, there's only so many ways to traverse the landscape, and it's an easy decision to just fall back on "popularity" as the final arbiter. Novelty junkies and film obsessives really only make up a tiny proportion of a given service's audience, so that often works well enough. On the other hand, the notion of idly spinning through options for a half hour is a common enough occurrence that maybe some optimization is in need.

Each service has their own idiosyncrasies, I guess. Netflix has a huge catalog that could roughly be divided into: Disney properties that people love to watch (i.e. MCU, Star Wars, Pixar, other animated flicks, etc...), Friends (and other TV shows that they didn't shell out 100 million dollars for), direct-to-video cheapies, and an increasingly bizarre and divergent list of Netflix Originals that are promoted for a week and then disappear forever. In terms of older movies, Netflix is abysmal. Only 16 movies made before 1950 are available, and more than half are WWII propaganda films that are only there because of the (actually pretty good) Netflix Original documentary series Five Came Back. Up the date to 1970 and you get a whopping 42 options. Of course, this is their strategy: popular, new, preferably owned by Netflix themselves to minimize licensing fees. Also of note: Netflix has the auto-play feature that everyone hates, but which you can get around by constantly scrolling through the choices (always moving, like a shark). Netflix is data driven enough that I have to believe they have some sort of data that supports the whole auto-play function (i.e. this might be one of those "pay attention to what they do, not what they say" situations.) Regardless, this drives behavior that does not help discovery.

Hulu mainly focuses on TV and, as far as I can tell, has had the same featured "popular" movies for, like, 9 months (this despite having exclusive rights for critical darlings like Minding the Gap and Support the Girls). Even so, browsing TV shows isn't really optimized for discovery. You're basically pushed what's popular, which again, is a hard strategy to argue with, but doesn't make for finding something new and interesting.

Shudder is actually pretty great, but that's only because they're so small and have a very well curated catalog (if you're a horror fan and aren't subscribed, you should consider doing so!) It helps that horror fanatics (i.e. their subscribers) have seen all the basic classics and are generally hungry for stuff that's obscure, old, foreign, or any combination of such. My guess is that licensing for these is also relatively cheap, so they've got a sorta virtuous circle brewing here.

I'm not trying to completely devolve into a full-blown whinging session on streaming services (mission: already failed!), but I do need to to talk a little about Amazon's service. It has its flaws, for sure. The interface isn't as slick, some practices are dubious, and some of the transfers are atrocious. But! There's a treasure trove of older material on Amazon Prime that you won't find anywhere else (even, sometimes, on DVD). They are literally multiple orders of magnitude better than Netflix when it comes to older films. Once again, discovery of these hidden gems isn't particularly easy, but one thing that Amazon does is the "Because you liked X" recommendation slot, which, if you substitute the right movie for "X", will unlock some sort of algorithmic gremlin that will provide you with dozens of obscure, non-obvious recommendations that actually sound pretty interesting. Netflix has this too, but the depth of Amazon's catalog makes it far more effective.

All of which is to say that I recently watched an passable British thriller called The Medusa Touch on Amazon Prime, and was pleasantly surprised to find a whole section of strange (mostly British) thrillers I'd never heard of being recommended to me a couple of weeks later. So I watched a bunch of them. Now, for the most part, there's a good reason these are obscure films, but I've actually had a pretty good time with them, and many have elements that are fantastic (even if the film overall is not particularly great). There has GOT to be a better name for this than "Medusa Touching the Algorithm" (maybe something simpler like "unlocking the algorithm?"), but that's what I've got for now. Let's take a look at some of these:

  • The Medusa Touch - A writer (Richard Burton) in London is found near death under mysterious circumstances, and the French detective (apparently working under some sort of exchange program) working the murder pieces together the writer's strange life. He discovers the victim's psychologist (Lee Remick), who spins a strange, bordering on silly tale of a man convinced that he has the psychic power to cause disasters, big and small. "I have a gift for disaster," he says, and we see a number of examples throughout his life, all told in flashback. Strangely, while his body is near death, his brain's activity is only increasing, and strange occurrences are happening around town. What a strange little slice of late 70s paranoia! Burton is fantastic, turning a rather daft script into something almost (almost!) believable all on his own.
    Richard Burton in The Medusa Touch
    Lee Remick holds her own as the psychologist, and the two detectives are interesting. Modern audiences obsessed with this sort of thing might note that the detectives are kinda coded gay, though this is never explicitly laid out in the film itself (nor is it particularly relevant to the plot). The film does build to a tense, if a bit implausible climax, and of the films on this list is the one most worth checking out. I have to admit that I don't remember how I stumbled upon this movie in the first place (I think I was trolling the JustWatch New list, but not sure about that), but I'm glad I did, since it unlocked the recommendations for the below! ***
  • Madame Sin - Robert Wagner plays a CIA agent kidnapped by an evil mastermind (the titular Madame Sin) played by Bette Davis. She wants to use him to steal a Polaris submarine, and she'll use her sonic, brain-scrambling death ray to destroy anyone in her way. Obvious sub-Bond knock-off that can't even really compete with the worst of that series. Instead of globe trotting, we get a few minutes of a helicopter taking off (a couple of times), which the filmmakers apparently regarded as mind-blowing at the time. Still, the whole affair is worth it for Bette Davis hamming it up and delivering some doozies, like this one: "How many times and in how many ways do I have to prove to you, there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, only winners and losers and I'M A WINNER..." And then the ending in the car, when she spies Windsor Castle and wants to know when the lease is up so she can buy it. Classic. Wagner is pretty stiff, but functional, and it's always nice to see Denholm Elliot show up (this time as Madame Sin's henchman, the guy who explains that the Royal Family have lived in Windsor Castle for centuries and that the Queen has grown somewhat attached to it). The film could have perhaps leaned into the more humorous bits, but it opted to play things mostly straight, which is a shame, because this could have been a lot better if played with a wink. The tagline for the movie was "Even Doctor No would say 'yes' to Madame Sin!", which is funny, but I suspect not particularly accurate. There are far better Bond pastiches out there, but this one has its moments. **
  • The Jigsaw Man - A Michael Caine led spy caper about the head of the British Secret Service defecting to Russia, then getting sent back to London to retrieve some documents that were left behind. To facilitate this, he needs extensive plastic surgery, and he'll have to use all his wits and knowledge to navigate the dangers of being caught between MI6 and the KGB. So there's a skeleton of a good movie here, and Caine is always fun, but this falls down severely in execution. Nevertheless, the idea of a longtime spy playing MI6 and the KGB off of each other with ever more elaborate ruses is an interesting one, and the implication that he's always planning ahead and fitting his moves into a puzzle-like structure is a neat one. It's just a shame that the ruses are not very well conceived or executed or portrayed. Not a snooze-fest or anything, but not exactly great either. **
  • Killjoy (aka Who Murdered Joy Morgan?) - This TV movie features a very early Kim Basinger performance, and decent stable of supporting talent, ranging from "that guys" like Robert Culp and Stephen Macht to more obscure performers. Basically Basinger and her doctor boyfriend Macht are planning on getting married, but a jealous colleague invents a fictional woman named Joy Morgan who Macht is supposedly having an affair with. Then Culp shows up wondering about Morgan himself, though we don't really know who he is or what he's after. It starts a little slow, but then some schemes get revealed, red herrings are proffered, and the twists start coming fast later in the movie, until the third act when it's all laid out leading to the final twist. It's a pretty decent little hospital-based thriller, lots of twists and turns that are mostly successful (they might not all entirely fit, but the attempt is appreciated), and a visual style that is pretty good for the era (i.e. this is long before prestige TV, so it doesn't look particularly cinematic, but it's not bad either). Again, not high cinema, but entertaining enough. **1/2
  • Nothing But the Night - Three trustees of the Van Traylen Trust have died during the last few months in deaths looking like suicides. However, after a suspicious bus crash involving three more trustees and thirty orphan kids, the police, aided by doctors, start to investigate. One young girl shows particularly strange symptoms, and a doctor sets about using hypnosis to uncover hidden memories. Meanwhile, the young girl's mother, upset that the child was taken away, seeks to expose the Van Traylen Trust... or something like that. This takes its time to get moving, but it eventually emerges as a sorta mashup between The Wicker Man and Get Out.
    Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in Nothing But The Night
    Along for the ride are Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, both doing a good job selling the weirdness of the plot (along with a pretty good child performance from Gwyneth Strong), which only gets weirder towards the bonfire finale when all is revealed. One of the better flicks from this litter exercise. **1/2
  • The Initiation of Sarah - This is basically Carrie goes to college and joins a sorority. Yes two sisters, one of whom has latent psychic powers, go to college. The more normal, popular one joins up with the leading sorority (led by the ultra-snobby Morgan Fairchild playing a character named, I shit you not, Jennifer Lawrence), while the psychic one joins the nerdy sorority that doesn't even bother recruiting anymore. It turns out that the house mother of the nerdy sorority (played by Shelly Winters) is a witch who wants to use our protagonist's psychic powers to exact revenge on a rival sorority. It's a pretty tame TV movie elevated by an unhinged Shelly Winters, a super bitchy Morgan Fairchild, and a surprisingly sympathetic performance from Kay Lenz as the Carrie-esque Sarah. Also of note: Robert Hays, of Airplane fame shows up as a hunky frat dude; I think this is the only thing other than Airplane that I've seen this guy in... Catnip for fans of derivative 70s schlock, it's one of the more interesting movies from this list (incidentally, this may not have been a direct recommendation from The Medusa Touch, but it was on my watchlist next to a bunch, so I'm including it.) **
  • Loophole - Martin Sheen is an architect who just lost his job and needs some quick cash to pay off some debts. He falls in with some bank robbers, led by Albert Finney, and while initially hesitant to participate, eventually agrees to go along, using his architecture skillz to plan and execute the heist. This is by the numbers heist stuff, elevated only by the talent involved, even if they sometimes just feel like they're going through the motions themselves. That being said, it's entertaining enough for what it is, and heist fanatics will probably enjoy it well enough. The ending is kinda bizarre. After successfully tunneling into the safe from the sewers below (spoilers, I guess, but come on), it starts to rain and the sewers start to fill with water, which could effectively trap them in the safe. The thieves all leave, but Sheen stays in the vault, claiming its safer there. Ultimately, its just an excuse for a misleading shot of Sheen in a dirty bath (making you think that he drowned in the safe or something?), but it turns out that he made it out just fine? Again, some entertaining stuff here, but it's all a bit hackneyed. **
  • Paper Man - A few poor students use their computer hacking skillz to create a fictitious person so they can get a credit card. It starts as a prank, but it takes on a life of its own when people start dying, seemingly at the hands of the room-sized-computer, which is obviously pissed off about having been used in the scam. Lots of amusing early 70s computer jargon like: "I'm just identifying myself to the computer. It's called logging in." Some of the death sequences are pretty creepy, especially the one woman who is attempting to teach the computer voice recognition. She normally says a word a bunch of times using different intonations, etc... and eventually the computer figures out what she's saying and repeats the word back. Only this time, she says "Breath" and the computer responds "Death". It's a made for TV movie, so when she gets sliced in half by an elevator, it's not really graphic, but it's pretty disturbing nonetheless. Pretty sure the transfer is from a VHS (or maybe, just maybe, Beta!), so it doesn't exactly look great, but its actually a pretty good slice of 70s technophobia, and it's actually mildly clever on that front too. Probably most notable for being an early showcase for Dean Stockwell, it's actually pretty well done for a TV movie. **1/2
Alright, so most of these movies are not very good, but it's still fun to get sucked into a Medusa Touched Algorithm.
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SF Book Review: Part 31

Vintage SF Month has ended, but it appears that I'm still way behind on doing even cursory reviews of recent reads. Let's get to it:
  • The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken - Meet Belisarius, a genetically engineered human that was part of a failed experiment to help humans better understand quantum physics. In theory, Belisarius should be able to enter a trance-like state to channel all his brainpower into understanding various quantum phenomena, amongst other things. In practice, these trances are quite dangerous to Belisarius, and as a result, he's redirected all his talents into various cons and nefarious schemes (least his overactive brain would drive him crazy, or somesuch). This book tells the story of one such con, an attempt to smuggle a fleet of warships through a wormhole. To accomplish the task, Belisarius assembles a crew of friends and former business associates, then sets about executing an ambitious plan. There's a layer of straightforward heist story here that is quite nice, not quite the fizzy Ocean's 11 style, but close enough. It's got all the requisite tropes: assembling a crew, devising a plan, improvising escapes when the opponent successfully anticipates a move, etc... Künsken attempts to add some depth with his explorations of genetic engineering. Belisarius is the primary target of this, and we get a repetitive deep dive into his motivations and the ways in which he copes with his intense instinct to do things that his body simply can't handle. The Puppets, a whole race of genetically engineered slaves that have evolved into something even weirder, are also well covered. Unfortunately, the fizzy heist set amidst dystopian elements, while an interesting mix, didn't quite hit home for me. The heist elements work, but often feel interrupted by the more serious themes, which ultimately doesn't serve either element well. The SFnal elements, while well done, are also somewhat derivative (take, for instance, the trance-like state that Belisarius enters, a clear nod to the Emergent's "Focus" from Vernor Vinge's A Deepness In The Sky). Perhaps I'm being too hard on this book; I enjoyed it well enough for what it was, but I don't think I'll be nominating for a Hugo.
  • The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts - The Eriophora is a relativistic ship built inside an asteroid and controlled by an AI known as The Chimp. Sunday is part of a crew that is only awakened for very short intervals in order to help the ship build wormhole gates. The crew has been at it for 65 million years (though obviously they've been asleep for the grand majority of that time), and they're starting to get a little antsy... to the point where mutiny is on the table. But how do you execute a mutiny when you're only awake for a few days every thousand years or so? So Watts generally doesn't craft the most friendly of settings, but makes up for that with great ideas and good storytelling. This story is obviously reminiscent of other runaway relativistic stories like Tau Zero, but Watts puts enough spins on it that it still reads fresh. The ending isn't exactly a happy one, but it is oddly satisfying. Definitely one of the most interesting things I've read from 2018, and will probably be on my Hugo novella ballot.
  • Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells - Ah, the continuing adventures of Murderbot, the security android who just wants to binge-watch TV shows, but always gets entangled with humans who have no security sense whatsoever. The first novella, All Systems Red, won the Hugo last year, and I judge a fair chance that Exit Strategy will this year (I'll be nominating it). The four novellas released so far are episodic in nature, but there is a throughline that gets resolved in Exit Strategy. Along the way, we're treated to well plotted action and adventure in a pretty standard space opera setting. It's all very entertaining, and I was happy to see Murderbot reunited with Dr. Mensah and crew. Apparently Wells is working on a Murderbot novel, and if these four novellas are any indication, I'm sure it will be great.
  • Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn - Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the more enduring creations in the Star Wars expanded universe (even if it has been deprecated), but he wasn't always a Grand Admiral. This newish novel tells the story of how Thrawn came to the Imperial Navy and quickly rose through the ranks. Along the way, we're treated to some Imperial Academy sequences, early battles, and a final showdown with an insurgent uprising. At the outset, Thrawn befriends an obscure Ensign, Eli Vanto, and becomes his mentor, teaching him everything from combat tactics and leadership to his trademark usage of art to see what animates the enemy. As a normal, competent but uninspired officer, Vanto provides us with perspective on Thrawn, and it's entertaining to see Thrawn win Vanto over. Eventually Vanto starts to demonstrate abilities of his own. It's all great fun, and Thrawn's tactical prowess and observational abilities are well portrayed here (the use of Vanto's vantage helps - writing a genius character has to be somewhat difficult, but writing about him from a more mundane perspective makes it easier). It's a bit episodic and while the ending does have an element of closure to it, it doesn't really feel like a major climax. Still, it was a very entertaining book. Zahn has always been a Kaedrin favorite, and this one is well worth checking out if you're a Star Wars fan (assuming you've already read Zahn's original Thrawn trilogy).
  • Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn - Alas, this sequel to Thrawn isn't as great. Both a prequel and a sequel, it tells the story of Thrawn's initial meeting with Anakin Skywalker in the past (implied but not detailed in the previous book), cross cut with Thrawn's collaboration with Darth Vader in the present/future/whatever. Weird as it may be to say, Skywalker/Vader's presence here just doesn't work for me at all. The Clone Wars era never particularly interested me and Anakin's whiny nature is a turnoff. Vader isn't quite as imposing in this story either, though I can't quite pinpoint why. He's more petty and shortsighted than I'd normally peg him as. It's not necessarily bad, it's just not quite at the level of the first book. Also, I miss Eli Vanto here. He was a good window into the events of the story, but that sort of thing is sorely missing here. Still curious to see where else Zahn takes this Thrawn series, even if this one was a bit of a misfire for me...
And that's all for now!
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Favorite Films of 2018

We continue our recap of the year in movies with a top 10 list, only a month late! Which, if you're a longtime reader, is actually a few weeks earlier than usual (this list is usually posted mid/late February, right before the Oscars), so progress!? This marks the thirteenth year in a row that I've posted a top 10. A baker's dozen! For reference, previous top 10s are here: [2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]

I usually try to figure out some sort of cohesive theme for the year in movies, and while this is something of a fool's errand, it's something I like attempting. This year didn't inspire much in the way of new insights though. Yes, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu continue to make inroads into serious cinema, if not quite in my top 10. Still, the likes of Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Suspiria, and Minding the Gap show that these services mean business, even if it takes some effort to sort through the throngs of new content to find the gems. The rise of these services as a serious concern was a theme I mentioned last year, as is the continued decline of traditional blockbusters. To be sure, there were plenty of conventional Hollywood movies that I enjoyed quite a bit this year, but few even made it into my honorable mentions.

To add a not exactly new theme to my list, I've noticed myself gravitating more and more towards sorta elevated genre exercises. Or maybe just plain genre. This is something that's always been more prominent on my Top 10s than your typical critic's list, but it seemed even more prevalent this year. Depending on where you draw the line, at least half of my top 10 would be considered genre, and even the other half isn't your typical prestige drama. I'm not sure if this is due to a general increase in the quality of genre fare this year, or if I was just better at keeping up with it, perhaps thanks to services like Shudder. Whatever the case, it was a good year for genre flicks, and I'm here for that.

As of this writing, I've seen 86 movies that could be considered a 2018 release. While this represents an increase over the past few years and is certainly significantly higher than your average moviegoer, it's still a much smaller number than your typical critic, so I'm not that great after all. Standard disclaimers apply, and it's especially worth noting that due to regional release strategies, some of these would be considered a 2017 movie, but not available until 2018. In at least one case, there's no official US release yet, which is somewhat disheartening. Anyway, rather than continuing to caveat the hell out of the list, let's just get down to business:

Top 10 Movies of 2018
* In roughly reverse order
  • Bad Times at the El Royale - Drew Goddard's latest is a fascinating, mysterious little microcosm set in a border-line straddling hotel with a fine ensemble of characters, each with something to hide. It's a self-reflective deconstruction of crime stories, but a lot more entertaining than that would imply, much like Goddard's previous effort, Cabin in the Woods. Goddard has a keen eye and drew (pun intended!) good performances out of a great ensemble consisting of both veteran actors and fresh faces, all in service of a twisty, engaging story.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Endless - Filmmakers Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have carved out a strange corner of genre filmmaking, a sort of supernatural drama that draws on horror and science fiction without succumbing completely to genre trappings. Their early films displayed these qualities in varying degrees, but The Endless is far more assured and seamless. It's a beautiful film, both visually and thematically.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Review]
  • Upgrade - SF tale of an AI implant gone rogue, this is schlocky and gory and a whole boatload of fun. Writer/Director Leigh Whannell has grown considerably as a filmmaker, and this is slicker than you might think at first glance. As usual, the genre trappings make the more serious thematic ideas go down easy.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Night Comes for Us - This Indonesian flick is basically just two hours of nonstop action and gruesome carnage. The plot is mostly a functional way of progressing our protagonists from one gloriously choreographed fight to the next, but the action quotient here is absurdly high. If you saw the Raid movies and thought they could use some more blood and gore, then this movie is for you. And me, apparently.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Netflix]
  • Paddington 2 - I slept on the first Paddington movie back in 2014, but it turned out to be a delightful film, and this year's sequel is one of the few films that could rival its predecessor.
    Paddington 2
    In a 2018 filled with outrage and misery, a movie like this, which is just radically nice, becomes a welcome, soothing antidote to the vitriol and chaos going on around us. It's just so nice and fun and pleasant and whimsical that I couldn't not put it on this list.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Isle of Dogs - Wes Anderson's style of weaponized quirk doesn't always work for me, but it worked well in this tale of Japanese dogs banished to an island and the boy who travels there seeking his beloved pet. Meticulous, dense, and surprisingly funny, there's also a lot to chew on here (another intended pun!)
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - In the midst of rumored superhero fatigue (something I've never particularly understood) comes this breath of fresh air. It reinvents the character (6 times, even), but it does so in new and interesting ways. A meditation and deconstruction of origin stories that nevertheless stands out as an exceptional origin story of its own.
    Spider Man and Spider Man
    Plus, it provides a whole new take on what had become a pretty stale animation landscape, at least from a visual standpoint, seamlessly incorporating the graphical conventions of comic books onto the screen in a new and exciting way.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Won't You Be My Neighbor - Along with Paddington 2, this stands out as another radically nice movie of the year. Like many people my age, Mr. Rogers was a mainstay of my childhood, such that this documentary covering his life and work hit home in unexpected ways. Let's just say that it got dusty in the theater at times.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Searching - The whole gimmick of a film comprised entirely of a computer's desktop screen is deployed here in a way that feels much less like a gimmick and much more like a reflection of the times in which we live. The film starts with an Up-like montage, then descends into full-blown mystery phase, as a young girl goes missing and her father must piece together the digital clues to find her. The story maybe strains the medium, especially towards the end, but I was mostly just blown away by the movie.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Death of Stalin - Armando Iannucci's grim takedown of Soviet Russia under Stalin is bleakly funny and yet mostly accurate and quite relevant to our tumultuous moment in history. All of the performances are spot on, the comedic timing is perfect, and the use of various accents inspired. It might seem hard to laugh when so much of the humor is derived from paranoia and murder, but that's just because totalitarianism is a joke. This is a fine illustration of how gallows humor exists, and it's my favorite thing I've seen from Iannucci.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • One Cut of the Dead - This tiny Japanese film starts as a sorta rote zombie tale elevated by the single take camerawork, but it quickly pivots to become so much more. I won't spoil the surprise here, but this was the most delightful discovery of the year, a love letter to independent filmmaking spirit and improvised problem solving. Due to a weird Amazon leak, the US release has been jeopardized, but I strongly encourage everyone to seek this out once it becomes available. Its fantastic.
    More Info: [IMDB]
Honorable Mention
* In alphabetical order
  • Bodied - Joseph Kahn's paean to battle rap is bound to infuriate pretty much everyone who watches it, which is kinda the point. Punctuated by the same frenetic energy that drove Kahn's previous manic masterpiece, Detention, this is a film that will challenge you, but it's worth examining our impulse towards being offended, even if we are completely justified in our offence. Very nearly made the top 10.
    More Info: [IMDB] [YouTube Premium]
  • Free Solo - This documentary chronicling a free solo mountain climber, that is, a man who climbs a mountain without any ropes or safety harnesses, is quite eye opening. Filled with procedural process junkie stuff that I absolutely love, it also covers the subject's love life and friendships, which is a bit more difficult since the man is a tremendous asshole.
    Free Solo
    The filmmakers just let this all play out, and by necessity are not invisible. I spent most of the running time with sweaty palms and what I suspect was a low-grade but sustained panic attack. This was a pretty unique experience that is unlike anything I've ever experienced in the theater, for what its worth. Again, on another day, this could easily have made the top 10.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Mission: Impossible - Fallout - Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie's collaboration has been bearing fruit for going on a decade now, but if this movie is any indication, they're still finding ways to keep it fresh and exciting. Great action set pieces with some standard twisty tropes. Among the most entertaining and fun experiences in the theater that I've had all year, and again, very nearly punching its way into the top ten.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Three Identical Strangers - Goofy coincidence after goofy coincidence piles up in this documentary about triplets separated at birth who find each other later in life. The coincidences are eventually revealed to be not a coincidence at all, and the journey from coincidence to serious duplicity is a fascinating one. This is one of a bunch of great documentaries this year that vied for a top 10 slot, and very nearly made it.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Witch in the Window - Short, small-scale psychological horror that nevertheless packs a punch. Rainy Sunday afternoon comfort food for low-key horror fans, this was another strong contender, and it's obscure enough that I don't want to spoil anything. It's basically a haunted house story, but it's got more heft behind it than most of its ilk.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Shirkers - Another great documentary about a young Singaporean girl's attempt to make an avante garde masterpiece when she was younger, only to have the director abscond with all the footage. Decades later, the footage was sort of recovered, but it's the story behind it all that really fascinates.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Netflix]
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - The Coen Brothers always warrant consideration, and this bleak set of Western vignettes is memorable and sometimes quite entertaining, if a bit too nihilistic for my tastes. Like all anthology films, some of the segments are better than the others, leading to a somewhat uneven experience, but I think they all have their merits, and some are downright sublime.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Netflix]
  • First Reformed - What at first glance seems like a simple, sparing story, eventually reveals multitudes. I suspect my reading of the story is somewhat unconventional; I see it as a damning portrayal of the dangers of despair (in the film, it's despair induced by environmental concern, but it could easily be transferred elsewhere). Writer/director Paul Schrader has crafted an excellent acting showcase for Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and more, and his visual motifs emphasize the themes well.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Black Panther - Marvel continues to mine obscure back catalog heroes for gold, and in this latest example, they also manage to establish an effective, sympathetic but still ruthless villain, something the MCU has generally struggled with. The setting is interesting, but some of the action sequences come off as rote, and I don't know, the monarchy system portrayed here seems awfully fragile, but now I'm nitpicking. It's a really fun and effective movie that carves out a distinct identity in the MCU.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Hereditary - An unnerving portrait of grief tinged with supernatural thrills, I can't help but thinking that this would have been even more effective if the filmmakers were a little more interested in the horror components and spent a little more time establishing that groundwork, rather than wallowing in grief for so long. It still had one of the most memorable jaw-dropping sequences of the year, and a knockout performance by Toni Collette (she wuz robbed in the Oscars).
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Mandy - Panos Cosmatos' trippy, psychadelic revenge flick is a visually stunning sight to behold, and it sure does take you on a journey. Certainly a little bloated and indulgent, it's hard to fault a movie where Nicholas Cage forges a battle axe and fights reptilian demon bikers and religious cults with chainsaws. Plus, there's always Cheddar Goblin, who should definitely be hosting the Oscars.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Sorry to Bother You - Boots Riley's debut is so jam packed with ideas that it can't quite do them all justice, but it's fascinating to watch him try. It's somewhat amusing that I only got to see this anti-capitalist film via the ultra-capitalist system of film distribution, but such are the ironies of life. The film holds many surprises and while overstuffed, that just leaves a lot of room for thought and discussion after-the-fact.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Favourite - An impressive acting showcase for three exceptional actresses, I found myself intrigued by the paradoxical nature of centralized power. Yes, a monarch is at the top of the hierarchy, but she is still but one person, and somehow more vulnerable to attack precisely because of her power. Again, this isn't usually my sort of movie, but it's still a fascinating attempt.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
The Quantum Jury Prize:
Awarded to films that exist only in a quantum superposition of two or more states (like good and bad or like and dislike, and everything inbetween). I'm not sure what that means, but that's kinda the point. Basically, every time I observe my feelings on these movies, I experience something like a wave function collapse and get different results each time. Still confused? Good.
  • Annihilation - Alex Garland's adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's novel has some wonderful imagery and effective performances. Some components of the story are a bit too conventional for my liking (notably the framing device, as well as some of the "action" setpieces) and some of the ideas are a bit fuzzy, but it's nevertheless a fascinating movie.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Eighth Grade - An excruciating look at the life of a young girl in eighth grade, the wahjah factor here is so high that it rockets past uncomfortable and into some hitherto unknown realm of embarrassment-by-proxy that I have to respect the whole endeavor. Not usually my thing, but I'm glad I caught up with this one. Or maybe not?
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Roma - Alfonso Cuarón's character study of a Mexican middle-class family's maid is an impressive formal exercise, but for some reason, my overriding thoughts during the movie's slow pans and long takes were about Cuarón himself, and the characters on screen only briefly penetrated through Cuarón's style. Sometimes it's but a fleeting moment - a child absent-mindedly wraps his arm around the maid while watching TV with the family. Others are more sustained - when the maid goes into labor during the Corpus Christi massacre and must make her way to the hospital. The virtuosity is impressive and I'm not normally put off by such things, but then, here we are in the Quantum realm.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Netflix]
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order: Should Have Seen:
Despite having seen around 90 of this year's releases (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Or that I probably need to watch, but don't wanna because reasons. Regardless, there are several movies here that I probably should have caught up with:
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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.

This time around, we have another Hugo winner, Philip José Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go. Famed 19th century British adventurer Richard Francis Burton dies and eventually finds himself resurrected into a naked, hairless 25 year old body. He's attached to an indestructible container (later nicknamed a "grail") and discovers that the world consists of a long river-valley that snakes across the entire planet. The grail can be charged three times a day with food and other supplies by taking it to a "grailstone", a series of devices located at intervals around the river. Burton quickly attracts a group of companions, each in the same situation.

It becomes apparent that every human who has ever lived, dating back to the earliest Neanderthals and proceeding up through alien life forms that visited Earth and died there, has been resurrected along the banks of this river. Burton and company set off to find the river's headwaters, in search of the beings who they surmise have set up this bizarre afterlife. Along the way they get into various adventures, at one point even being enslaved by a faction led by Hermann Göring, who has reverted to his Nazi tactics, enslaving weaker folks and stealing their grail spoils. Will they escape Göring's clutches, get to the headwaters, and discover why they've been reincarnated?

Spoilers: Not exactly. It turns out that this is the first in a long series of novels, and while some things are revealed, there's plenty left to be explored. It's certainly got a neat central idea, and there's lots of interesting logistical and sociological bits in this portrayal of afterlife, but despite predating the TV show Lost by several decades, I get the feeling that it suffers from the same sort of "Mystery Box" issues. I suspect that no matter what explanation is given for this whole resurrection scheme, it won't be as satisfying as expected.

To be sure, I enjoyed this novel greatly, and the various episodic adventures all work well together. It does get a bit weirder after the initial Hermann Göring section, as Burton gets separated from the rest of his crew (who we've also come to know pretty well) and eventually manages to confront the "ethicals" (his name for the folks who created this Riverworld and resurrected the whole of humanity). We get an explanation of sorts, but it still feels like there's a lot of open questions here.

The premise creates lots of opportunities to explore group dynamics, small and large, and the idea of resurrection (with a sorta sciency backing) creates some interesting ethical quandries. For instance, we learn that on this new Riverworld, if you die, you will simply be resurrected again, somewhere else along the river. There's lots of implications here, and while Farmer doesn't shy away from the more cynical or downbeat tendencies of humanity, he's not a total nihilist either and most of our band of protagonists are reasonably honorable folk. We're treated to a number of historical figures interacting in interesting ways, and I must admit that the choice to make the two main characters Richard Burton and Hermann Göring is a distinctive and unexpected one that generally works. The idea that Göring would evolve from Nazi to tormented drug addict to missionary of the Church of the Second Chance (a peaceful religion that arises out of the realities of the Riverworld) is a bold choice that wrestles with the ideas of repentance and forgiveness, something that seems particularly relevant in today's world. On the other hand, I feel like this aspect of the book would enrage a subset of readers sensitive to certain issues. I was certainly wary of Göring in the later chapters, even when he became more pitiable than straight evil.

Ultimately it's a fun idea with some good adventure that is only really marred by "first novel in a series" syndrome. To be fair, it is far from the worst when it comes to that sort of thing, but it's something I've never been particularly in love with, and my patience for this is not what it used to be. I don't mind series, to be sure, but I like it when there's some sort of closure at the end of each installment, and here there's just promise of more adventures. That's not the worst way to end it and I could see this making for a good TV series, but again, this is not my favorite approach. As mentioned above, this won the Hugo award in 1972, beating out novels from Anne McCaffrey (a book from the more famous Pern series), Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, and Roger Zelazny. I haven't read any of the other nominated novels, but I recognize all the names; they were all mainstays in the Hugos of the time. Farmer was not exactly a stranger to the Hugos either, though he had gone through a 14 year drought after writing a novel that won a publisher's contest, but failed to ever get published (it turns out that literary success didn't translate to financial security, even back then). Indeed, that novel (titled "Owe for the Flesh") apparently contained the germ of the Riverworld stories, and To Your Scattered Bodies Go was a reworking of those ideas, published some 15 years later. I'm glad I read it, but probably won't be revisiting the series.

I have one more vintage SF novel that I started reading in January, but I probably won't be finishing it until February. It's an interesting one though, so I'll probably write it up (possibly as soon as next week). In the meantime, we might get to the Top 10 movies of 2018, if I finish in time. Stay tuned!

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The 2018 Kaedrin Movie Award Winners were announced last week. The premise of those awards is to recognize aspects of films that aren't reflected in more traditional awards or praise like a Top 10 list or whatever. However, any awards system will fail to capture all the nuances and complexity available, so we come to the Arbitrary Awards, an opportunity to commend movies that are weird or flawed in ways that don't conform to normal standards. A few of these "awards" have become an annual tradition, but most are just, well, arbitrary. Previous Arbitrary Awards: [2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
  • The "You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else" Award for Worst Dialogue: The Cloverfield Paradox and The Predator (tie). I like the concept of this award, but it's not like I want to go rewatch these films that I did not enjoy very much to really wallow in the poor exposition (Cloverfield Paradox is filled with that sort of thing) or juvenile humor that just doesn't land (I'm not above juvenile humor and Shane Black is usually pretty good at this sort of thing, but The Predator went for a few too many ass-burger and Tourettes jokes to really connect). I don't know that any of these live up to the award's referential namesake, but both of these movies had me rolling my eyes on frequent occasions.
  • The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity: The Cloverfield Paradox and The Predator (tie). Choosing a tie is a bit of a cheat, so if it makes you feel better, let's just say that both of these movies have generally bad dialogue and characters that act stupid and you can just choose one for dialogue and the other will get the stupid character award. I don't really feel like parsing this out, so I'm still going with the tie.
  • Achievement in the Field of Gratuitous Violence: The Night Comes for Us. Two hours of action-packed, gruesome carnage.
  • Best Hero/Badass (Non-Human Edition): Alpha, played by Chuck in Alpha. I just caught up with this movie and thought the wolf/dog at the center of the story was pretty great.
  • Best Villain/Badass (Non-Human Edition): The CGI Bear from Annihilation. I have some issues with the movie, but that bear is quite unsettling.
  • Best Hero/Disembodied Body Part: Mundy's disembodied but somehow sentient arm from The Cloverfield Paradox. It's a terrible movie, but it's almost worth it for the scene where Mundy's arm saves everyone. Kinda. Not really. Work with me here, I'm trying to salvage those two hours of my life. Still, the way Chris O'Dowd addresses his arm is great, as is the way he pronounces "Arm"; "Whadda ya talkin about arm!?"
  • Best Hero/Advertising Mascot: Cheddar Goblin from Mandy. Cheddar Goblin should host the Oscars. After all, Cheddar Goblin has 60% more cheese than the next leading brand.
    The Cheddar Goblin from Mandy
  • Best Supporting Hero/Badass: Field Marshal Zhukov, played by Jason Isaacs in The Death of Stalin. He probably could have been nominated for the full award, but the part is rather small and he doesn't even show up until about an hour into the movie (thus kicking that movie into an even higher gear). But then, Isaacs dominates the screen whenever he is there, stealing every scene he's in. It's a great performance, well worth recognition.
  • Best Movie Featuring the Word "Solo" in the Title: Free Solo. Sorry Han Solo, but this movie about rock climbing without a rope was way better than the Star Wars Story.
  • Coolest Fictional Hotel of the Year: Hotel Artemis. I mean, sure, it's a ripoff of John Wick's franchise of The Continental hotels (two time winners of Arbitrary Awards, and assuming another appearance in 2019, soon to be a three time winner), but if you're going to rip something off, that's a pretty good thing to rip off.
  • Best Octopus Playing the Drums of the Year: The octopus who plays the drums in Aquaman. This isn't a great movie, but on the other hand, it does have an octopus playing the drums, so what the hell else do you want? And frankly, there's like, 10 other things this movie has that are just so totally bonkers that it makes the entire exercise worthwhile and entertaining. I mean, Willem Dafoe riding a Shark and Dolph Lundgren riding a giant Sea Horse? Amber Heard turns a bunch of wine into knives and hurls them at her opponents. Julie Andrews plays a giant, surly sea monster. What else do you want from this movie!?
  • The "Weiner" Award for Unparalleled Access to Documentary Subjects: Minding the Gap. What might seem from the outside like a dumb skateboarding documentary turns out to display far more depth than that, in large part due to the huge amount of access that the subjects allowed the filmmaker (who, to be fare, was one of the subjects himself!) across literal decades of friendship.
  • Best Action-Packed Long Take of the Year: The Halo Jump from Mission: Impossible - Fallout. It's a very impressive shot and a good example of how this series keeps one-upping itself.
Stay tuned, only the Top 10 and Oscar commentary are remaining in our 2018 movie coverage!

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.

Clifford D. Simak is one of the famous Golden Age authors that I haven't really caught up with. There's no time like the present, so I took a spin through his bibliography and settled on the Hugo winning 1963 novel Way Station as my introduction to his work.

Enoch Wallace is an American Civil War veteran who was chosen by the Galactic Federation to maintain a way station for interstellar travel. He looks after the machinery and does his best to greet the alien travelers, even forming some long term friendships among the galactics. Unfortunately, since humanity is not yet ready to join the Galactic Federation, he must keep the station a secret from his fellow humans. He only ages when he leaves the house for his daily walk and thus, even though about a hundred years have passed, he still looks to be about 30 years old. As the novel opens, the US government has discovered Enoch's longevity and set about monitoring his actions in the small, insular Wisconson town in which he resides. What's more, they've noticed a gravestone with strange markings on his property and when they investigated further, they found an alien body buried there, which they absconded with in order to study.

Way Station
From a plot perspective, not a whole lot happens for the first half (maybe even more) of the novel. This is the sort of thing that often bothers me, but not here. The character study of Enoch, a simple but open-minded man living a well-worn routine, is livened by the SFnal elements of the story, even if most of those are only lightly addressed. For example, the transportation network that the way station exists on is one of teleportation by duplication, where the original body remains at the source and a copy is created at the destination. We don't get much information on how this system actually works, nor do we really dive into the philosophical quandaries it presents, which is a fair criticism in some ways, but nothing that an experienced reader of SF could not fill out on their own. A lot of the story's conjectures raise questions that the novel doesn't even try to address directly, which I'm sure can be frustrating for some, but worked reasonably well for me (there's something to be said for SF's ability to leverage the rest of the genre in order to streamline the current story, and this book does a decent job of that).

When things do start happening in the latter half, what initially felt aimless is revealed to be deliberate and well placed. A large number of potential crises arise in relatively short order, but all of them are extensions of things introduced earlier in the story, often in mundane fashion. Enoch's ornery neighbors, while normally content to keep their suspicions to themselves, are getting riled up. The Galactic Federation is experiencing an uncharacteristic rise in political strife and there's a proposal to shut down the transportation path that Earth is on in order to use those resources elsewhere (thus delaying Earth's potential membership by centuries or even millenia). The US government's meddling doesn't help either, as the Federation knows about the stolen alien body and that supports the political factions that think Earth (and this general area of the galaxy) is not worth the trouble. Enoch, having learned alien techniques and maths has done some calculations and determined that Earth, still mired in the Cold War, is headed towards an inevitable nuclear confrontation (he doesn't use the word Psychohistory, but again, experienced SF readers will be able to put 2 and 2 together). Enoch's alien friend (who he has named Ulysses) offers Enoch the chance to petition the Galactic Federation for a way to head off war, but the price is high and the political optics would be bad for the transportation network anyway. Finally, the galaxy has some sort of empirically measurable spiritual force that is harnessed by an artifact that has gone missing (along with its caretaker).

The setup is great and quite entertaining. The resolution... may leave something to be desired. Everything is resolved in a pat, simplistic manner. It's certainly functional, and the book had built up enough goodwill that I don't really have a major problem with it, but it all just feels a little too convenient. Some of these crises are too easily surmounted. To pick one, non-spoilery example, the government agent that confronts Enoch is shockingly deferential to Enoch's wishes, and somehow has no problem whatsoever turning the requests around. I mean, I'm sure the bureaucracy in the government has increased since this novel was written, but not by that much. Several other crises are averted by one simple, almost magical event. Again, it's functional and Simak laid the proper groundwork such that it all fits together in the end (easier said than done, which is perhaps why I'm cutting it slack), but it could be underwhelming. He played the game well enough, I suppose, but I could see it grating others more than it did for me.

Ultimately, though, Enoch is a likable protagonist, in some ways your typical SF competent man, but one who displays a degree of flexibility and open-mindedness that is uncommon. His good natured manner carries the novel even when the plot machinations falter. Simak's style is simple and doesn't call attention to itself, but it's not as stilted or plain as, say, Asimov's style. In some ways, this is an unusual novel of contraditions. Galactic scale space opera tropes portrayed via the simple, pastoral setting of a shack in small-town America. Big ideas and responsibilities laid at the feet of a small man. And yet it works. Indeed, it probably works because of the contradictions. I'm positive that this novel would drive some folks nuts, but I had a really good time with it and shall endeavor to read more Simak. Someday. Way Station actually won the Hugo Award in 1964 against some strong competition, including Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Heinlein's Glory Road, the serialized version of Dune (which would go on to win when published in book form), and Andre Norton's Witch World. Of those, I've only actually read Dune, but it certainly seems like both Cat's Cradle and Glory Road cast a bigger shadow than Way Station, which seems like the most conventional SF choice (but then, the Hugo is a populist award, so perhaps the conventional choice wins out over fantasy, post-apocalypse, or however you'd describe Dune).

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2018 Kaedrin Movie Award Winners

The nominations for the 2018 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. You've all been on the edge of your seats since then, but fear not, I'll be announcing the winners today. Next week, I'll announce the winners of some more goofy, freeform categories that we call the Arbitrary Awards, and not long after that, I'll post my top 10 of 2018. Finally, we'll have some Oscars talk (predictions and probably live-tweeting or more accurately, retweeting funnier people than I am) and then it's on to 2019. And the award goes to:
  • Best Villain/Badass: Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther. And it wasn't even particularly close. Last week, I called this a middling year for villainy, but looking more closely, there's some pretty weak choices and I had to stretch to fill up the category as much as I did. However, Killmonger is really strong, and definitely the best of the MCU, though that's not quite as impressive when you realize that the MCU has generally struggled with villainy. On the other hand, this is the second year in a row that this award has gone to an MCU villain, so they're improving. I suppose Thanos was far better than the nothingburger I was expecting, but that's a low bar, and his Malthusian motivations are, well, dumb. Killmonger, on the other hand, is a bit more sympathetic and has a genuine grievance to address, even if he's completely nutso (but then, that combo is what makes him a great villain). Special notice to Hugh Grant in Paddington 2, who is clearly having a blast, though it doesn't quite fit with the tradition of this award. Henry Cavill in Mission: Impossible - Fallout is interesting, and I suppose I'm kinda spoiling this, but not really. There's also a nice meta-villainy aspect to Cavill too; he refused to shave his mustache during the Justice League reshoots, leading to bizarre uncanny-valley-esque CGIed scenes in that movie. Also that bit in the bathroom scene where he reloads his arms is glorious. But this remains Killmonger's show.
  • Best Hero/Badass: Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Fallout. As with Cavill above, there's a bit of a meta-influence here, as Cruise's intensity and desire to perform his own stunts, even after becoming severely injured after that big jump, is hard to deny. Strong runner up with Nicolas Cage in Mandy, a bonkers movie that deserves some recognition for sure (but never fear, we'll get to that film soon enough). It's funny, but I also called this a middling list of nominees last week, but this is actually much stronger than I realized. A lot of the other nominees are really enjoyable. Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz in Revenge put in a gutsy performance, You Were Never Really Here is anchored by the always great Joaquin Phoenix, Tim Blake Nelson's turn as the titular character in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is great, albeit to short lived, Tom Hardy goes for broke in Venom and somehow succeeds in a way that I doubt anyone else in the world could pull off, and even Jennifer Garner in Peppermint was fun, if a bit derivative. Of special note: Ma Dong-seok in Champion is perhaps the most unconventional and obscure choice, but he's absolutely fantastic and charismatic in the role, and a total badass to boot. Ultimately, though, it goes to Cruise's Ethan Hunt, a first time win for a frequent nominee.
  • Best Comedic Performance: Rachel Weisz in The Favourite. Perhaps the most unconventional choice amongst the nominees, but her biting rejoinders and cruel banter are certainly worthy of recognition.
    Rachel Weisz in The Favourite
    Part of the issue with the other nominees is that so many comedies rely on a comedic ensemble for their laughs that it's hard to single anyone out. I mean, Game Night and Blockers are a lot more conventionally funny than The Favourite and I tried my best to single out my favorite parts of the ensemble, but what works is the ensemble. It's getting to the point where I should probably just tweak this award to account for ensembles instead of singular performances, but I to be honest, even considering ensembles, The Favourite would do well in the voting. I mean it's a bleak, dark comedy, but it has such a great ensemble! Also, it seems like good comedies are few and far between these days, which is a bit sad. Maybe I'm just not looking hard enough.
  • Breakthrough Performance: Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows. She belts out a couple of great songs in Bad Times and rivals Tome Cruise's onscreen running ability in Widows. And she holds her own in two pretty great ensembles too, so it's not just her pipes and physicality that do the work. I expect to see much more of her in the future. Also of note, two other folks from Widows, Elizabeth Debicki and Brian Tyree Henry (who is having an insane year and is in even more films than listed in my post, I just haven't seen them yet - and apparently he could rival Erivo, but I didn't get to them in time). Also of note: Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade, who was a last second addition, as I only saw the film a night after the nominations were announced. Awkwafina did great in supporting roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's Eight as well. But in the end, Erivo was the real eye opener this year.
  • Most Visually Stunning: Mandy. Gorgious and trippy, Panos Cosmatos's pyschadelic fever dream of a movie didn't quite strike the chord with me that it did with everyone else, but I cannot deny how pretty it is to look at.
    Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse managed to evoke the comic book aesthetic, bringing something new and exciting to a mostly stale animation field. The Favourite and Roma are both impeccable formal exercises that are beautiful, if sometimes distracting from the stories they were trying to tell. Free Solo has some of the best nature photography I've ever seen, tinged with potential tragedy (a topic that is best explored in a longer post, perhaps). But ultimately, it's Mandy. It was always Mandy.
  • Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: One Cut of the Dead. I don't even particularly love zombie movies, and this starts out as a sorta rote zombie tale heightened by a long take, but then it becomes so much more. It's a shame that the US release is being jeopardized by a leak, but it's worth seeking out when it does become available. Strong competition from the likes of The Endless and its intricate time-loops, as well as Upgrade's AI exploration. A lot of strong horror this year, and after a strong showing for a while, SF is slipping a bit with this award (this is why the seemingly random combo of SF and Horror are included in this one award - SF often doesn't have enough good films in a year to make it worthwhile). Still, One Cut is just so charming and fun.
  • Best Sequel/Reboot: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Almost both a sequel and a reboot, this film knocks it out of the park, effortlessly introducing several new spider-beings, each with their own, unique origin story, while maintaining a strong central character in Miles Morales.
    Spider Man and Spider Man
    Paddington 2's nicecore sequel is as strong if not stronger than the original (which, sadly, I slept on back when it came out). Mission: Impossible - Fallout continues the franchise that could; somehow maintaining or maybe even exceeding previous entries in the series. The Endless is only kinda-sorta a sequel and still functions as a standalone, but it's really fantastic and definitely better than the film it follows. The other nominees were mostly fun, well done entries in their respective series, even if they can't quite compete with their predecessors.
  • Biggest Disappointment: The Predator. All the ingredients were there, but man, nothing came together like you would hope. Shane Black's best qualities seemed muted (or perhaps cut out, as the film seems to have been edited in an odd way), and his worst tendencies were amplified, leading to a disjointed, shambling mess. It's like there were three completely different movies jammed into one blender, then pureed to a slimy mush. Part of this is my general disdain for sequels and reboots. As per usual, I love the original Predator, but ever since then, it's been a rocky road. And not in, like, the fun, ice cream way. Such that it's hard to believe they're still making Predator movies, though again, on paper, this seemed like a slam dunk. Other nominees range from movies that I expected to be bad that were somehow even worse, to movies that really weren't that bad at all (Creed II and A Wrinkle in Time), with a couple of middling movies in the, um, middle. But I was really looking forward to The Predator!
  • Best Action Sequences: The Night Comes for Us. Sometimes it feels like a cheat when a strong martial arts movie is available in this category, and indeed it does seem unfair to compare the non-stop, brutal action and gruesome carnage that is The Night Comes for Us with, say, the astounding spectacle of Mission: Impossible - Fallout. We could call it a tie, I guess, but despite being two action movies, it still feels like comparing apples to oranges. Make of that what you will, but those two movies are head and shoulders above the entire field this year. In fact, I had to kinda stretch to fill out the category as much as I did. But then, the winner(s?) are so great that it still feels like a great year for action.
  • Best Plot Twist/Surprise: Hereditary. Obviously a bit of a spoiler even acknowledging that there is a twist/surprise, but there is one moment in Hereditary where my jaw dropped and I just sat in dumbfounded shock for about two minutes. I have my issues with the movie overall, but that is probably the most memorable moment I've experience in a theater this year. Other nominees have their charms, especially One Cut of the Dead and Sorry to Bother You and, you know what, they all have pretty great surprises and twists, so we'll just leave it at that. In a decent year for this sort of thing, Hereditary still takes the cake.
  • Best High Concept Film: One Cut of the Dead. I don't want to spoil this one by explaining why, but the concept here is pretty great and very charming, such that it really wins you over as it plays out. Strong competition from Searching, the best of the burgeoning group of films set entirely on a computer screen that I've seen (a small subset of films, to be sure, but this one delivers pretty well). The other nominees aren't quite as high concept, which is admittedly a vague category and totally subjective, but they're all pretty good, unusual films in general so they're worth seeking out too.
  • 2018's 2017 Movie of the Year: Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Frankly, I didn't see many new-to-me 2017 releases in 2018, and this seems to be a general pattern for this award. The award was instituted specifically because there was one year a while back where I really wanted to recognize two movies, but since then, I haven't done much with it. That being said, I watched these two Indian epics this year (the latter of which was released in 2017), and had an absolute blast with both of them, so I'm glad I have the ability to recognize them in some small way. The other nominees are fine, but relatively weak. Which is to be expected, since I have already seen most of the stuff I should have seen last year. On the other hand, there are at least a few high profile movies that I should have probably watched that could be contenders, but I just never got around to them, even when they became widely available on streaming services.
Congrats to all the winners! Some of these were difficult to pick, and our jury (i.e. me) really struggled, but I think we did a pretty good job. Stay tuned for the Arbitrary Awards next week!
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2018 Kaedrin Movie Awards

Welcome to the thirteenth annual Kaedrin Movie Awards! Lucky number 13! A baker's dozen! 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 goofy and freeform. Finally, we'll post a traditional top 10 list (usually sometime in early/mid-February). But first up is the awards! [Previous Installments here: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017]

Standard disclaimers apply: It must be a 2018 movie (with the one caveat that some 2017 films were not accessible until 2018 and are thus eligible under fiat) and I obviously have to have seen the movie. As of this writing, I've seen 79 movies that would be considered a 2018 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 entirely subjective in nature, but the world would be a boring place indeed if we all loved the same things for the same reasons, right? Right. Without further ado:

Best Villain/Badass
Another middling year for villainy. I didn't have any problem populating the list, and there are a couple that stand out as front runners, but still not a banner year. 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.

Best Hero/Badass
Perhaps better than villainy this year, and certainly a broader spectrum, but still a middling year overall. Again limited to individuals and not groups.

Best Comedic Performance
This category is sometimes difficult to populate because comedy so often comes in the form of an ensemble and that certainly impacts this year. Looking through what I watched this year, I see very few straight comedies, which is something that happened last year too. There are some decent choices, but obvious standouts are rare.

Breakthrough Performance
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 who put out a performance that forces me to reconsider what they're capable of. 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.

Most Visually Stunning
Sometimes even bad movies can look really great... A moderate year for this sort of thing, perhaps leaning towards more sober, well-photographed beauty than flashy spectacle, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film
I always try to throw some love towards genres. In the past, cinematic SF was so poor that I had to pad out the category with horror. In the last five or six years, though, SF has really come into its own. It's still far outweighed by horror, but there's often a handful of great SF movies in any given year. I suppose I should also note that I'm probably using a stricter definition of SF than most would for something like this, because I'm a huge nerd and think about that sort of thing a lot. But I digress. Best Sequel/Reboot
Sometimes a difficult category to populate, and there was a fair share of duds this year, but there were still a surprising number of worthwhile sequels/reboots. Biggest Disappointment
A category often dominated by sequels and reboots, and lo, this year is a bit of a return to form, though there's still some original films that were quite disappointing as well. This category is definitely weird in that sometimes I actually enjoy 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). Best Action Sequences
This award isn't for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film, and this has been a pretty good year for action, though there are two clear stoundouts, with the rest just being filler. I honestly had a hard time coming up with these, so I had to reach for a few of them. On the other hand, the two frontrunners are so amazing that it still qualifies as a pretty good year for action. 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? Best High Concept Film
A nebulous category, to be sure, but a fun one because these are generally interesting movies. There are often borderline cases here, and this year is no exception, but a few strong standouts... 2018's 2017 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 after I posted last year's Top 10, or didn't like what I did manage to see, or just plain forgot that I saw it (which, to be fair, probably says something about the movie's chances). Frankly, not a lot going on this year for this category... As per usual, it feels like I overpopulated these awards with nominees and maybe some of them were a stretch, but hey, these are my awards and I play by no ones rules but my own. And sometimes not even those. Winners to be announced next week, followed by Arbitrary Awards, a traditional Top 10 of the year, and finally some Oscars commentary. Stay tuned!

Update: I just watched Eighth Grade, so I needed to update the Breakthrough Performance category. Also the Action Sequences, because man, that mall scene. Rivals the one in Commando. Just kidding, Eighth Grade is excruciating (in a good way?), so just the Breakthrough Performance one was added (because I know you still weren't sure.)

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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.

I've always enjoyed Science Fiction, but a little over a decade ago, I decided to make my casual enjoyment of the genre a little more formal by broadening my horizons and reading more important examples of the genre. One of the first things I did was read a bunch of Heinlein Juveniles (akin to what we'd probably call Young Adult these days). Robert A. Heinlein was never my favorite of the Golden Age authors, but I've gathered that he was among the most important, and after reading many of his novels, I've gained a solid appreciation for the novels themselves and their influence on the genre (and, for that matter, real-world space exploration). Since then, I've slowly been working my way through his bibliography, and this year, I decided to take a look at the unofficial 14th Juvenile novel, Podkayne of Mars. Heinlein himself doesn't consider it a Juvenile and he'd long since gotten tired of being regarded as a "writer of children's books and nothing else", but then, it is written mostly from the perspective of a 15 year old girl (with her eleven year old, snot-nosed little brother playing a big role), so it kinda fits within the Juvenile mold.

Podkayne "Poddy" Fries is a 15 year old girl living on Mars who dreams of becoming the first female starship pilot and leading deep-space exploration efforts. The novel is presented as a first person narrative consisting of her diary. As the story begins, she is about to embark on a trip from Mars to Earth, but the whole thing is scuttled when a hospital mixup inadvertently saddles her parents with three newborn babies to care for (in this future, kids are conceived early and then frozen in order to allow parents to "uncork" the children as time permits, though obviously not in this case). However, the trip is resurrected when Poddy's uncle Tom manages to arrange passage for Poddy and her unbearable (but genius-level smart) little brother Clark on a cruise ship to Earth, with a stop at Venus first. After some minor adventures and meandering, we soon learn that Tom's magnanimous offer to chaperon this trip is really just a cover for some sort of secret political wrangling, and higher-stakes hijinks ensue.

In short, this is probably my least favorite Heinlein novel, though it fails in interesting ways. There's a promising start, and some things play to Heinlein's strengths, but there's a fair amount of unfocused meandering and the whole thing falls apart completely towards the ending, which feels rushed and weirdly dismissive of our narrator/protagonist. Spoilers from here on out!

Speaking of which, our protagonist here is a teenage girl, a fraught proposition when it comes to Heinlein these days. He doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation for writing female characters, and if you were so inclined to look for it, you would find a whole host of things to be offended by in this story. You probably won't have to look very hard. For instance, Poddy seems to be intelligent, but opines on multiple occasions that a woman should hide that intelligence around men, or that a woman should never beat a man in any sort of game of strength (thus she pretends to lose an arm-wrestling match to her little brother), and then there's the thrill of discovering how to properly apply make-up, and so on. I suppose a more generous reading could be that depictions of sexism or the ways females cope with same is not an endorsement, but this novel (especially the ending, which we'll get to in a bit) strains that reading of the story. It's also worth noting that, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, this is the second earliest example of a SF novel that features a female protagonist (narrowly beat out by Naomi Mitchison's lesser known Memoirs of a Spacewoman). To be sure, there were earlier short fiction examples, some even written by Heinlein himself as early as 1949 (featuring a character who he eventually used as inspiration for Poddy), but this is notable in itself.

Other topics are more deftly portrayed, with Heinlein working in a more exploratory mode than he has in many of his works, which are often more prescriptive (i.e. there aren't bald lectures a la Starship Troopers). Indeed, when describing the laissez-faire corporatism of Venusian society, uncle Tom states that he "...can't make up his mind whether it is the grimmest tyranny the human race has ever known... or the most perfect democracy in history." Heinlein goes to great lengths to portray the "corporate fascism" of Venus without resorting too much to lecturing, and he allows the reader to infer a lot of the details so they can make up their own mind.

Alas, the ending really puts the breaks on things for me. Events escalate quickly and Poddy and her brother Clark end up kidnapped by nefarious political forces hoping to blackmail their uncle Tom for concessions. At this point, Poddy goes from being an intelligent, active character to being almost entirely passive, as Clark immediately senses the gravity of the situation (no matter what Tom does, there's no incentive for the kidnappers to keep the kids alive) and devises an escape plan. Furthermore, Poddy is grievously injured during the escape because she went back to the compound to rescue a semi-intelligent Venusian baby animal and Clark had forgotten to disable a nuclear bomb (another baffling subplot, to be honest), which inadvertently went off. The original ending that Heinlein wanted was to have Poddy die in the explosion, but that was apparently a bridge too far for the publisher, who insisted he rewrite the ending. You can kinda tell that Heinlein's heart wasn't in it, as the endings aren't that different and it's clear that he did the bear minimum to satisfy the publisher's expectations. Both endings are available in some editions, but to my mind, neither are particularly good, for reasons already expounded upon.

Another strange thing about the ending is uncle Tom's admonishing of Poddy and Clark's parents for not caring enough about raising their children. Given uncle Tom's use of the children as little more than human shields, disposable meat-pawns for his chess game of interplanetary politics, this is perhaps another example of depiction not being endorsement. Still, the ending strains all storytelling credibility in ways that I'm not used to from Heinlein. It doesn't help that Poddy, thanks to an experience on the trip to Venus where she had to help save babies in the nursery (an event that probably also influenced her decision to go back and save the animal), is implied to be reconsidering her dream of becoming a starship captain, which even from a storytelling perspective, is a bit odd given the opening of the novel.

One of the things I've always enjoyed about Heinlein is his fondness for experimenting with ideas, asking "what if?", and there's certainly some of that going on here. I suspect even his more prescriptive works (the aforementioned Starship Troopers comes to mind) are more stronger-stated thought experiments than strict representations of Heinlein's actual beliefs. There are certainly themes that underlie his work, but from what I've read (which is certainly not comprehensive), they might not be quite as well-defined as usually portrayed. Indeed, one of those underlying themes is certainly his propensity for thought experiments, and thus you get a hard-right book like Starship Troopers followed a year later by the sixties counter-culture template of Stranger in a Strange Land (and just a few years after that, the proto-libertarian The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). As such, Podkayne of Mars occupies an interesting, if not entirely successful, place in Heinlein's oeuvre (coming in between the three books just mentioned) and perhaps SF in general (as an early SF novel with a female protagonist, if not a particularly great example). Owing to Heinlein's importance to the genre, there are actually tons of biographical materials about his beliefs and how they influenced his work, and it's something I should probably look into more sometime. Still, judging solely based on what I've read (and my tendency towards optimism), I gather I have a mildly different view of Heinlein than a lot of other people. Perhaps we should be less concerned with what Heinlein thought than how we interpret his works ourselves. It's entirely possible that I'm just projecting my love of thought experiments onto Heinlein (though given his endless imagination for wide-ranging stories, I suspect there's some basis for my thoughts here). That being said, of his juveniles, I vastly prefer Tunnel in the Sky and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. While not entirely enthused with this one, I'm not deterred from continuing to explore Heinlein's works much at all.