Hugo Awards: New York 2140

I'm sad to say that until this novel, I had not read any of Kim Stanley Robinson's previous works. I've had Red Mars in my queue for a long time, but since New York 2140 was nominated for this year's Hugo ballot, I figured it was finally time to bite the bullet. Unfortunately, I don't think this was a particularly good introduction.

Set in a future where the world has endured two sudden, catastrophic "pulses" of rising sea levels, this novel focuses mostly on New York City, which has managed to adapt and survive as a sorta New Venice, using various high-tech solutions to cope with the water levels. The story, such as it is, follows several residents of the MetLife Tower on Madison Square as they go about their lives. The Met is run as a co-op, generating food and power as well as providing shelter.

At first, it seems like there's a buildup of plot elements that will all come together in the end, but it ultimately doesn't go in that direction. At least, not in as satisfying a way as I was expecting from some of the initial chapters. There's two programmers, Mutt & Jeff, who want to muck with various finance laws/code and get kidnapped. Inspector Gen is a police officer investigating their disappearance, as well as some other mysterious stuff about security contractors. Two young kids, Roberto and Stefan, are engaging in an old-fashioned sunken treasure hunt. The Met is run by social workers like Charlotte, who is trying to fend off a purchase offer for the building. Vlade is the building manager, and he's finding weird little malfunctions in some of the water-proofing tech of the building as well as being the general glue of all the folks living in the building. Franklin is a hedge fund manager who is anticipating a housing bubble burst and trying to position himself to profit. He's also trying to get into a woman's pants (this gets tedious and belies future twists in his story). Amelia is a ditzy social media star and environmental activist that lives in the Met, but spends most of her time in a dirigible helping animal migrations. Like any story with a large ensemble cast, some of these plot threads are more enjoyable than others, but it's all set up reasonably well and it leads to a sense of anticipation.

Unfortunately, most of these plot threads simply fizzle out in an anti-climactic fashion. Roberto and Stefan find their sunken treasure quickly and easily, enlist Vlade and his ex to actually extract the treasure. During that process, they inadvertently stumble on the location where Mutt & Jeff were being held. Gen is pleased by that discovery, but it doesn't lead to much for her investigation, which is unglamorous and slow moving. Franklin is enlisted to launder the treasure, but that also goes smoothly. Amelia's initial efforts to move polar bears to a better climate is literally nuked by environmentalists? But somehow that's also anti-climactic, with little in the way of fallout (both literally and figuratively). Later, there's a hurricane that hits New York that has some mildly compelling episodes, but the drama that is derived from that feels half-baked and rushed. It becomes clear that it's only there to provide a thin excuse for the blatant wish fulfillment of the finale. That finale, which involves a large proportion of the population simply not paying their bills, is probably the most politically partisan part of the story and the most likely to annoy (I was not exactly on board with this plan, which seemed to somehow go off without a hitch and with unconvincing simplicity). It all hinges on a lot of coincidences and unbelievable changes of heart, such as Franklin's Grinch-like transformation (which did not feel earned). Aside from Vlade and maybe the two kids, I didn't particularly find the characters very engaging either, but rather more like partisan plot delivery devices.

Mostly the novel is basically about how pissed off Kim Stanley Robinson is about the 2008 economic crisis. And like, that's not an unsympathetic stance, but this novel doesn't really provide much in the way of new perspectives on the matter. In fact, the longer the novel goes on, the more clear it becomes that everything he's set up in the worldbuilding is there to comment on our present-day economic ills (or those of 2008). Again, that isn't necessarily a problem. Great art can be manipulative, but in bad art, you can see the strings being pulled, and that's what's going on here. This can be subjective, to be sure, but it was not successful for me. Plus, we're already steeped in critiques of capitalism or explanations for 2008. I mean, if you weren't familiar with this stuff, this book might read much better, but while I'm no expert in the matter, I didn't find much here to chew on that isn't better explored in popular non-fiction. The bald, tailor-made way in which Robinson patterns the issues affecting New York in 2140 means that there's not much new to learn about finance here. Add to that a disjointed narrative that isn't really interested in being an actual story, and you're left with a simple screed. A valued one, perhaps, but a screed nonetheless.

This is most obvious in the chapters attributed to a nameless "citizen", which are basically didactic and condescending history lectures from an angry standin for Robinson. Some of the information imparted in these rants are actually interesting and get at the technical aspects of the worldbuilding, but the tone is generally offputting and weird. At one point, this citizen even urges us to skip these chapters if we're not interested in them, which feels like a bit of self-awareness on Robinson's part, but it's also a confounding notion. Being self-aware of your bad choices does not exactly excuse them (this sort of thing works best in very limited doses). Look, science fiction is infamous for its info-dumps and I'm usually pretty forgiving of such, but this is pretty excessive. (At one point, the citizen is whining about how most of the population didn't see the whole climate change problem coming, or if they did, they didn't do anything about it; then he mentions that only some scientists and science fiction writers were ahead of the curve, which just felt kinda smug on Robinson's part.)

I kept thinking about a couple of other books while reading this one. First, I thought a lot about Cryptonomicon. If you ever pinned me down and forced me to pick a favorite book (an impossible task!), it would probably be Cryptonomicon. And I do see a lot of surface similarities here. There's no CliFi in that book, but lots of speculations about finance, treasure-hunts, money-laundering, and so on. It's also a big ensemble piece with multiple viewpoint characters and a sorta disjointed narrative featuring tons of digressions and yes, info-dumps. I love the book, but I have yet to meet a person in real life who has read it and loved it (there are plenty on the internet who do, to be sure, but still). I kept wondering if my experience reading New York 2140 was like my real-life friends' experience reading Cryptonomicon. As New York 2140 progresses and diverges more clearly from what Cryptonomicon is doing, this feeling lessened, but I thought it an interesting observation. Ultimately, I think Cryptonomicon tightened its various plot threads as it went on, while New York 2140 slowly unraveled. It also speculated on new technology (cryto-currency and data havens), which put a spin on economics that was new and interesting and thus not as well covered by non-fiction of the time.

The other book I kept thinking of was Neptune's Brood. Charlie Stross is pretty clearly not a fan of things like capitalism and debt (and I'm sure he was just as upset at the 2008 economic crisis), but he still managed to build a fascinating story around finance (!) that gave me that vaunted Sense of Wonder that great SF can generate. And his message was baked into an entertaining space-opera that plays well as a narrative all on its own. As a result, his book is much more successful at making me think about our current day woes than New York 2140, which strikes me as a fictional rehashing of Paul Krugman or Thomas Piketty or whatever. I suppose Robinson was trying to use climate change as the mutator of economic ideas, but that's not as interesting or effective as Stross' use of Slow Debt and planetary colonization. Or, you know, non-fiction about climate change and finance today.

Science fiction is often used to comment on present day ills, but the way Robinson constructs his critique doesn't work. I'm not really sure who this book is for. It won't convince political opponents, that's for sure. Moderates might take more from it, but I suspect they'd have my main complaint: If I want to learn more about 2008 (or climate change), there are far better and more accessible non-fictional avenues to pursue, and New York 2140 is nowhere near abstracted enough to be more broadly applicable (a feat that both Cryptonomicon and Neptune's Brood managed because they abstracted and generalized to an interesting degree). I suspect people who are more aligned with Robinson's politics would like it, but that means this is just preaching to the choir. I suppose there's value in that, but perhaps not "Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year" value.

For all my whinging about this book, it wasn't particularly difficult to read and in fact flowed pretty smoothly. It was certainly overlong, the pacing was inconsistent, and more episodic than I'd want, but there were plenty of interesting ideas and page-turning moments. They just didn't add up to a cohesive whole for me. I think you can tell that this will be towards the bottom of my Hugo ballot. At this point, I've read all the novels (review of Six Wakes is incoming; spoiler alert, I liked that a lot more than this...). I'm not entirely sure what will be at the top, but there's a pretty clear list of three tiers for me (and New York 2140, sadly, is on that bottom tier).

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Solo and Assorted Star Wars Thoughts

I'm late to the party I guess, but here are some assorted thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story and more general Star Wars musings.
  • Solo is fine. We're fine. We're all fine here, now, thank you. How are you? It's a movie that doesn't need to exist and maybe Star Wars should be more than just fine, but that's where we're at. Even the stuff I don't like is mostly fine.
  • When Solo was announced, the general consensus was that it was a pretty dumb idea and that no one really cared about, but then they went and hired Phil Lord and Chris Miller, people who have literally made their career out of taking the dumbest ideas ever and making good to great movies out of them (I mean, 21 Jump Street wasn't a movie anyone thought would work, and they made it good, then made 22 Jump Street and it was still good. Also: The Lego Movie.) For some reason, Disney let them get to like 3 weeks before filming was scheduled to end, then fired them and hired Ron Howard to reshoot 70% of the film and make it safe or something. As mentioned above, the result is cromulent I guess, but I'd still be really curious to see what Lord and Miller's version looked like. A comedy heist Star Wars flick could have been a ton of fun. I feel like the version we got was toned down, with any edges shaved off. But who knows? It's really easy for us to second guess the decision, but it's actually quite possible that Lord and Miller had finally reached a breaking point and failed to convert a bad idea into a good film. Their reputation is good and they probably got out of this better than if their film was actually released because now everyone is questioning Disney's decision.
  • Maybe I should talk about the actual movie, eh? Spoilers aho! So we start off on Corellia with Han as basically a street urchin doing the bidding of Fagin Lady Proxima, but he's just stolen a valuable bit of merchandise and hopes to escape with Qi'ra. Of course, things don't go as planned, Qi'ra is captured and Han only escapes by joining the Imperial Navy. After flunking out of pilot school, he becomes an infantryman and during some battle or another he runs into Beckett and immediately figures out that he's a criminal of some kind, but gets thrown into jail and fed to some horrifying monster that turns out to be Chewbacca. Naturally, they hit it off and eventually catch up with Beckett and participate in their planned heist, which does not go well thanks to a rival crew lead by one Enfys Nest. Beckett goes to his boss, who tells him he needs to get some space fuel and fast, so another heist is planned. Oh, and it turns out that Qi'ra is working for Beckett's boss, that's convenient. They recruit Lando Calrissian and his droid L3-37 because they have a ship, the Millenium Falcon. Then they go to Kessel, resulting in the infamous Kessel Run. Once they return, they get another runin with Enfys Nest and things come to a head with Beckett's boss. Betrayals and intrigue, etc... It's all fine.
  • I know that there was an aesthetic choice to forgo the opening crawl in the non-numbered Star Wars Stories, but this movie literally starts with multiple screens of textual introduction and it's like, why not use the already established Star Wars convention of a crawl to accomplish that? This is a quibble to be sure, but the crawl is one of those things that is so distinctly Star Wars that it seemed weird to avoid it in this case (the lack of a crawl didn't bother me too much with Rogue One, so it's not like every movie has to have a crawl, but it seemed appropriate here).
  • Alden Ehrenreich is fine as Han Solo. He doesn't really remind you of Harrison Ford, but that actually kinda works in this movie's favor. He's perhaps not as charismatic as Ford was in the originals, but that's an impossible comparison, so I'd say he's charismatic enough. There are some interesting relationships here which kinda lead to the Han Solo we know, though the character arc in this movie feels incomplete and a little incongrous with the original film. When we first met Han Solo in Star Wars, he was kinda selfish and cynical, but his arc in that film is to be convinced to care again by Luke and Leia and to hop onboard with the Rebellion (an arc that continues throughout the original trilogy). When we meet Han in this film, he's kinda naive and optimistic. He's got a girl and things are looking up. Even once that falls through, he's optimistic that he'll be reunited with her. And he is! There's some interesting stuff there too, as we're not really sure what Qi'ra's been doing since they've been separated, but Han seems excited to be around her again. Beckett keeps telling him he's a fool for trusting anyone, which makes for another interesting relationship. The end of Solo works well enough, but it leaves too many loose threads with respect to Han's arc. Beckett's betray is probably the best portrayed, and that bit about Han shooting him first is one of the few pieces of fan service that actually works really well. You can see Han hardening a bit with Beckett. Qi'ra's relationship is left a little unclear, and one of the problems with the movie is that it's clearly setting up for a sequel where Qi'ra more thoroughly breaks Han's heart. As it is, Han actually supports the Rebellion at the end of this film, which means that while he's hardened a bit, he hasn't quite reached the cynicism that we know he'll reach by Star Wars. I would much rather this have been a self-contained film where we see all of this, because the result, while fine, is not quite as satisfying.
  • Lando is great and Donald Glover does a good job walking the line between doing his own thing and utilizing the affect of Billy Dee Williams (particularly the way he talks). Lando's droid L3-37 is one of the more entertaining bits of the film, but also one of the more confounding characters. She's got this whole droid rights thing going on which is actually a kinda interesting thing in the Star Wars universe because droids are legit treated like slaves, but it's all sorta played as a joke? Then she's killed and uploaded into the Millenium Falcon (against her will?) Still, I liked the interactions between Lando and L3 and thought many of this worked reasonably well. I'm not sure I'd actually want to see a Lando movie with Han Solo as a side character, but I suspect that might have been more original and interesting than the film we got.
  • The fan service bits were mostly terrible. I know that Han Solo's dice was a neat little detail in the set dressing from the original film (supposedly a reference to American Graffiti, a film in which Lucas and Ford worked previously) and I guess it made a bit of sense in The Last Jedi because Han was gone and we needed something to remember him by, but man, we don't need this much of the dice. Similarly, we absolutely do not need a scene where Han gets assigned the last name Solo... it's a pretty cringe-worthy moment. I guess it was nice to see Sabacc being played, but it's a difficult thing to film and it mostly only works because we see Lando cheating. I didn't really need to see the Kessel run either. Fans had long since retconned the whole "made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs" mistake (and it definitely was a mistake), so seeing it onscreen didn't really add anything. Similarly, we've always known that Han won the Millenium Falcon from Lando in a game of chance, so actually seeing it play out isn't that exciting. None of this is actively bad (well, the name thing is pretty terrible), but it's all the sort of thing that's probably better in our imaginations than it was on screen.
  • The film does have a couple of heists that are pretty entertaining. I mean, no, it's not going to stand up as one of the best heist films or anything, but it adds a nice bit of flavor to the Star Wars universe. The first heist with the train is a bit confusing in conception (why is this stuff on a train? Why does Val have to die?) but it's a well executed action sequence. Despite not needing to see the Kessel run, it was also well executed and I liked seeing unexpected stuff like a giant, tentacled, Lovecraftian space-monster being thrown at our heroes. The post-heist machinations had some good bits of business too, with Beckett's betrayal and Han's anticipation of such, and so on. Again, not going to be the first heist flick I reach for but... it's fine.
  • Enfys Nest is kinda interesting, but again suffers from what I assume are some sequel setup issues. The character design and costumes are great. How she keeps getting the drop on Beckett and his crew is unexplained and a little weird. The reveal when she takes off her mask is well shot, but leads you to believe that something of major import is being revealed, but really we're just supposed to be surprised that it's a girl with freckles? At first I was curious if we were supposed to already know who this person is (and I know some have made some connection between Enfys Nest and Saw Gerrera, but that's stretching it), but no, it's just playing the reveal of a female as a surprise. Further, she explains that this criminal syndicate that Beckett and Solo are working for is supporting the Empire and she's part of a sorta Proto-Rebellion. This makes no sense though, since Beckett and Solo were stealing from the Empire. I dunno, maybe they were doing the Heat thing where the Empire gets their stuff stolen, gets pain insurance, then buys back their stuff for half price or somesuch? Or maybe Enfys Nest is lying and we'll find out in a sequel and that will be one of the things that leads to Han's disillusioned cynicism? Either way, it doesn't really work in this movie.
  • So there's a cameo at the end that was completely unnecessary and I'm sure confusing for some folks. Yes, Darth Maul is the head of the crime syndicate and Qi'ra is working for him, but the scene was just so blatantly angling for a sequel that it really left a bad taste in my mouth. It's also the first time Disney also implied that you needed to know more than the films to understand what's going on... (Maul survived his bisection in Episode I and came back in the Clone Wars and Rebels TV series) This all feels like a mistake.
  • Solo has done incredibly bad at the box office. This is likely due to a multitude of factors, such as being so close to the last Star Wars film, having so much competition from similar blockbusters all around it, and perhaps even a follow-on effect of some whiny fans that didn't like Last Jedi. The loss of Lord and Miller couldn't have helped either. I mean, obviously I saw it, but my enthusiasm was lessened.
  • Speaking of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I revisited that film in preparation for Solo, and I think it mostly still holds up. A few additional thoughts on that film: It strikes me as being the first modern Star Wars film that's as conversant with cinema in the same way as the original Star Wars. Johnson is clearly making references to Kurosawa here, this time Rashomon (Luke and Ben's version of the same stories) and Ran (the striking use of red in a battle sequence) rather than The Hidden Fortress (R2-D2 and C-3PO bumbling through the series) in the originals. Even the Canto Bight sequence has this dolly shot that is clearly inspired by Wings, and it's a very nice shot. I do still think that Canto Bight sequence is poorly conceived and executed, but the nuts and bolts filmmaking still works (and there's lots of other cinematic references too). Poe Dameron's story and the whole fleet escape plot has waned a bit in my estimation, though it's still functional and entertaining enough. I like Poe's arc here, but it could have been better illustrated. The more I think about it, the more annoyed I am that they killed Admiral Ackbar the way they did. Laura Dern's a great actress and I like her in this movie, but it would have been more resonant to use a character we knew in that situation, and the whole Holdo Maneuver thing would have been more effective coming from Ackbar. Instead we're simply told that Ackbar was among those who perished in an offhand manner. Annoying. The Luke, Rey, and Ben/Kylo sections are still my favorite parts of the movie. Johnson actually does a really good job editing these three plotlines together, even if one of them is redundant and unnecessary (again, nuts and bolts filmmaking chops are present here, even when something isn't working). Ultimately I still enjoy the movie quite a bit and I'm really thankful that Johnson has cleared the path to do something new with the series. Will Episode IX actually fulfill that potential?
  • I'm still waiting, Disney. Pristine HD/UHD 4K transfers of the originals please, and none of that special edition bullshit. You had Han learn to shoot first in Solo, please restore that (and dozens of other things) in the originals. Some people have mentioned that there are some legal things that need to be worked out with Fox, but I've also heard that they've held back from releasing the original movies because George Lucas doesn't want them released. I guess that's honorable in its own way, but come on. It's clear there's a desire for these things. Solo isn't making much money, so if you want a little boost going into Episode IX, this is a surefire way to get it. Search your feelings, you know it to be true!
So there you have it.

Update: Added a couple of thoughts. I knew I forgot something..
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Link Dump

As per usual, interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:
  • The 25 Most Ridiculous Movie Promo Photos of All Time - My favorites are Jodie Foster posing with an actual lamb and Arnold as Mr. Freeze posing with his wife, who doesn't have a speaking part in the movie (she's in a coma).
  • The Rockies Believe They Have an Unbreakable Code - Interesting dissection of coded baseball signals:
    Iannetta said three-digit codes are never repeated in-game for the same call.

    “If I get ‘1-4-3,’ and it’s a throw over to first base, we’ll never use ‘1-4-3’ again to throw over,” Iannetta said. “There will never be repetition… It’s pretty impossible to steal signs if you use the system we are using.”
    It gets a little into data and how much you really should be trying to control the game through signals...
  • "Syndrome K" was a phony disease made up by doctors in the Fatebenefratelli Hospital during WWII to prevent Nazis from investigating too closely. And it worked! They called it a contagious, fatal disease whose symptoms included convulsions, dementia, paralysis, and, ultimately, death from asphyxiation. Patients were advised to look sick until the doctors could find a way to smuggle them out safely. Nazis mostly kept their distance, though they eventually figured it out (but not after approximately a hundred Jews were saved).
  • MTV Presents: This Is Horror (1991) - Someone uploaded this one-hour special in its entirety, including commercials from back in the day.
  • Arrested Development: Star Wars with Ron Howard! - Ron Howard narrates Star Wars in the Arrested Development style.
  • The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink - Nerding out on how hyperlinks change the way we should write:
    The reason this scares some people is rather Freudian: when an author hyperlinks, s/he instantly transforms the author-reader relationship from parent-child to adult-adult. You must decide how to read.
    It's an interesting technological way to force the topic, but I've always maintained that reading shouldn't be as passive as many people take it as. It's also worth noting that just because the hyperlink is there, doesn't mean people will follow it (think of all the people who comment on an article based on the headline, etc...)
And that's all for now...
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Hugo Awards: The Stone Sky

N.K. Jemisin's The Stone Sky is the concluding volume of a trilogy of beloved novels... that I've never really managed to connect with. I have generally found that these novels' pessimism and relentless misery have only served to distance me from the narrative rather than suck me in. I like a lot of the worldbuilding choices of the initial book, The Fifth Season, but I the story was full of misery porn which resulted in a detached reading experience for me. The second book, The Obelisk Gate, continued the misery and suffered from middle-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome. This didn't stop Hugo voters from awarding the Best Novel Hugos for both, and I judge a fair chance of The Stone Sky to bring home the third straight.

The story picks up where we left off. Essun is traveling with her comm, Castrima, in searching for a new place to live, but ultimately seeks to find her daughter Nassun and help save the world by bringing the moon back into proper orbit. Nassun, for her part, has lead a miserable life, is fed up with the world, and wants to destroy it by smashing the moon into the earth. Finally, we get glimpses of the past as Hoa describes Syl Anagist, a civilization that existed thousands of years ago which, we soon learn, created the obelisks and inadvertently shot the moon out of its orbit, thus causing their destruction and leading to the current, miserable situation.

Interestingly, the entire story is narrated by Hoa. He appears to be telling the story to Essun, as her sections of the story are in second person (as they've been throughout the series). Hoa's portions are in first person, and Nassun's are in third. It's an interesting choice and I suppose there's a reason for it, but it ultimately felt a bit distracting at times and my dumbass engineer's brain kept wondering about irrelevant things: How does Hoa know the inner emotions of closed off people like Essun and Nassun so well? Wait, when is Hoa relating all this to Essun? Why is he relating this to Essun? I can certainly come up with answers to these questions and they're ultimately nitpicks. The thing is, I find this happens most often when I'm not sucked into a story. I've learned to trust that these sorts of nitpicks don't mean much in and of themselves, but the fact that I'm making them at all means something important and indicates a deeper problem.

While I like a lot of the worldbuilding choices, this isn't a world I like spending time in, nor do I particularly enjoy hanging out with these characters. I mean, I don't think we're even supposed to like them very much. Sure, they've endured horrendous hardships and misery, but they've also perpetuated that abuse and oppression and some are easily described as mass murderers. That people struggle to deal with abuse or respond in ugly ways that only serve to continue the cycle is certainly relevant (and obviously reflects some of our society's worst tendencies), but it's difficult to sustain. This is the point, I guesss, and it does represent rich thematic ground. I just don't like wallowing in it for three books, especially since all of this was so ably demonstrated in the first book. I didn't love that one either, but I could see why it was so well regarded. The succeeding volumes feel like a rehashing of the same ideas, over and over again, and they do so using that awkward second person narrative device that tells more than it shows.

The book attempts a hopeful but ambiguous ending, which is something that I would appreciate much more if anything else in the series had indicated a cause for that hope. When your premise is that the end of the world is coming and the world is not worth saving, it's difficult to care about the actual outcome. I don't want every story to be fluffy bunnies and rainbows, but these books tend to be so extreme in their portrait of misery that I was immediately detached from the story and never found a way back in.

I feel like I'm being very harsh on the novel here. Perhaps it's because I never would have read the second or third books in this series, but I did because I wanted to vote in the Hugos (and I don't think it's fair to vote when you haven't read the book). The funny thing is that this is probably the most upbeat of the three books and I probably enjoyed reading it more than the previous installments too. Plus, it actually has an ending and some sense of closure! Some of the characters actually express love in this book, and it's a love that is genuine. As mentioned above, it's got a mildly happy ending. However, after all the betrayals, endless rehashings of infanticide and abuse, and inescapable oppression, the hope at the end feels hollow and unearned. Maybe we're supposed to feel that way and I just don't like being immersed in despair? Look, these books are very well written and I think I can say that Jemisin achieves exactly what she wanted, which is certainly laudable. It's just not my bag, and that's fine.

As far as the Hugo Awards go, this will probably end up on the bottom of my ballot. I'm still reading one novel and I suppose it could fall off a cliff, but I'm doubting that.

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50 Under 50 - Part II

The second recap in my resolution to watch 50 movies made before 1950 in 2018 [see Part I]. I'm still a little behind if I want to hit 50, but I've got plenty of time to make up the shortfall. This time around, I continue to hit obscurities, but have also peppered in some genuine classics:
  • The Thin Man (1934) - Adapted from a Dashiell Hammett novel, the story revolves around Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is a former detective who married up to Nora, a wealthy socialite. They generally spend their time drinking in speakeasies and throwing parties in their hotel. Nick is drawn into a murder mystery and, with Nora's encouragement, takes on the case as something of a lark. The mystery itself isn't particularly special, but Nick and Nora sure are. It's the banter and witty dialogue that sell everything. When Nora asks if Nick has "a type" of woman, he says: "Only you darling, lanky brunettes with wicked jaws." There are some visual gags too, like the way Nick dangles a hat as a lure. And then there's Asta, their adorable dog which actually manages to crack the case at one point. The mystery is functional and a good base for the banter and copious amounts of alcohol. A very enjoyable flick, well worth seeking out. There were lots of sequels, which I may need to check out at some point during this little project. ***
  • D.O.A. (1949) - A noir film with a pretty unique premise. A man enters a police station:
    "I'd like to report a murder."

    "Who was murdered?"

    "I was."
    It's a nice hook, isn't it? The rest plays out in standard noir fashion, with our hero simply attempting to figure out who murdered him (via slow-acting poison, it should be noted) and why. The steps along the way aren't exactly groundbreaking or anything, but it's nice to see a non-standard noir premise, even if it's played out in typical ways. I think my favorite thing about this is that the premise reminds me of the Jason Statham Crank films (and any of a number of other "ticking clock" premised movies). As of right now, it's on Amazon Prime, and worth a spin for noir fans. **1/2
  • Paradise Canyon (1935) - Early B-grade John Wayne western about a man who goes undercover in a medicine show to bust a counterfeiting ring. The medicine in question is Dr. Carter's Famous Indian Remedy, a 90% ABV elixer that would cure lots of things, like having an esophagus. Pretty bog standard stuff, but short and sweet, and diverting enough for what it is. I kept getting struck by various details (such as the aforementioned elixer). They also do this thing where instead of shooting people, they just shoot their horses. Ultimately nothing special, and the transfer that's floating around on streaming/cable isn't anything special, but it's not a complete waste of time. Damning with faint praise, I guess, but here we are. **
  • Foreign Correspondent (1940) - Hitchcock tale about a reporter seeking to expose enemy agents in London. Along the way, we get an assassination, a spy ring is uncovered, and naturally, our hero falls in love. I'd like to promise you that one of these 50 Under 50 posts won't contain a Hitchcock flick, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to keep that promise. As these things go, this is also pretty minor Hitchcock, but as per usual, minor Hitchcock is still pretty good. Hitch has a knack for elevating what would normally be a mundane 40s spy thriller. The romance is a bit flimsy and there's some clumsy exposition and all-too-convenient plot happenings here or there, but it's otherwise pretty good stuff. Some decent set pieces at the windmill and cathedral, but the real visual standout is the assassination sequence with a sea of black umbrellas. Still probably only of major interest to Hitchcock completists, it's somewhere in the middle of his oeuvre. **1/2
  • Stagecoach (1939) - John Ford western about a group of travelers on the titular stagecoach. The travelers represent a microcosm of society, illustrating class struggles and various prejudices. The stagecoach is threatened by native Americans, but despite a solid set piece, the film ultimately boils down to the relationship between John Wayne's Ringo Kid and Claire Trevor's Dallas. Speaking of which, the zooming reveal of John Wayne is a ludicrous classic.
    John Wayne reveal from Stagecoach
    Apparently you can pinpoint the moment when John Wayne went from popular actor to utter superstar, and that's the one. I could quibble about some pacing issues and the insta-romance between Wayne and Trevor's characters, but there's lots to chew on here. I'm not an expert in the genre and this isn't my favorite, but it does seem like it's an important one, for what it's worth. ***
  • Babes in Toyland (1934) - A story that weaves various Mother Goose nursery rhymes into a Christmas-themed musical. Laurel and Hardy are solid, but they feel shoehorned into the story and there's too many other characters and song and dance numbers (a personal bugaboo, not really something to fault the movie for, I guess, but these didn't really grab me at all) and whatnot for them to overcome. The finale with the whole "march of the wooden soldiers" bit is neat, but again not quite enough to make up for the rest. **
  • Sullivan's Travels (1941) - In search of inspiration, a filmmaker goes on the road with only a shabby outfit and a dime in his pocket, looking to connect with the common man or somesuch. Along the way, he meets Veronica Lake and of course, falls in love with her. At first, I was a little unsure about this guy's plan. He keeps getting rescued at the faintest hint of difficulty, something that he was ostensibly trying to explore. But the film eventually gets to where it needs to with a cleverly plotted mishap (and solution). Lots of great bits here. There's a prescient scene in a movie theater, indicating that thoughtless patrons were always a thing. One of Sullivan's butlers gives a great speech on the nature of the poor. The skewering of Hollywood tropes is fun ("With a little sex in it.") Makes me want to watch the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou? to spot the references. Witty dialog abounds, including something I will use for the rest of my days: "I don't like musicals, they hurt my ears." Lake is wonderful in the movie and I've already got a couple more of her movies in the queue for future 50 Under 50 viewing. Definitely worth watching. ***
More to come!
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Hugo Awards: Provenance

Ann Leckie's Hugo Nominated novel Provenance takes place in the same universe as her Ancillary trilogy, but in a largely independent locale that is only peripherally impacted by the events of those three novels. Ancillary Justice was the first, and to my mind, best of that preceding trilogy, managing a great balance between crunchy hard-SF and social/cultural exploration. In particular, I found the depiction of shared consciousness and hive minds intriguing, and Leckie posited some interesting consequences of such technology. Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy largely jettisoned that idea in favor of the more social and cultural context of a much smaller system (also: tea), a maneuver that was unexpected and bold, but which left me mildly disappointed. At the time, I wondered what it would be like to read a story in the same universe, but with different characters.

Enter Provenance, a story set in the same universe, but not tied to any of the characters from the Ancillary series. Ingray Aughskold is seeking to gain favor with her Mother so that she could be named heir. She's in competition with her brother Danach, who is considered to have the position locked down. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so the book opens with Ingray's plan to free a notorious thief named Pahlad Budrakim out of "Compassionate Removal" (a wonderful doublespeak euphemism for "brutal prison that is anything but compassionate") in the hopes of convincing em (not a typo, we'll get to it) to reveal the location of valuable vestiges that he had stolen. If she could find those vestiges and return them to her family, it would be a big coup for her (vestiges are apparently a big deal on her home planet, wielding enormous cultural and political influence), and potentially get her back in the competition for heir.

Naturally, her plan starts to disintegrate immediately. She's spent most of her money getting this thief smuggled out of prison, only to find that e's not who she thought e was. Then it turns out that Tic Uisine (the captain of the ship she'd chartered for her mission) has some undisclosed beef with some authorities. Even once they manage to get their way back to Ingray's home planet, the trio keeps encountering newer and increasingly more complicated obstacles. There's an archaeological dig that has implications for Ingray's family, a murder mystery pops up, a group of children is kidnapped, alien ambassadors hang around causing fun, titular questions around provenance crop up, and so on. There are actually some mentions of the far flung events of the Ancillary books, but they're exactly that: far flung and not particularly important to the workings of the plot here.

It's all, well, pretty good. While lacking a bit in that crunchy SF component, it's got lots of fun elements, a complex plot (something I usually enjoy more than most), and reasonably well done characters. The thematic exploration of how the past shapes the present is well done and fits neatly in with Leckie's wheelhouse of exploring identity. Speaking of which, while the Ancillary series played with a sorta lack of gender, here Leckie reverses course, reintroducing gendered pronouns and including a third, gender neutral set of pronouns (e, eir, er - this is what Garal/Palad identify as, which is why I used those pronouns above), and allowing characters to choose how they identify. Like the primary use of feminine pronouns in the Ancillary books, it has an effect here, though it doesn't feel entirely in line with the story.

All well and good, but aside from some interesting uses of mechs, the openly SFnal elements are a bit lacking. I mean, sure, there's different planets and spaceships and whatnot, but they're used to establish and illustrate cultural differences more than to cultivate that sense of wonder that SF can do so well. Not that this sort of thing can't generate sense of wonder, but nothing in the book really twixed me the way that it probably should. There are references to two alien species in this novel, but neither are fully explored and mostly exist on the periphery. The Presger remain enigmatic, but we do find out some stuff about the Geck (in particular, we get some background on Tic, who has a complicated relationship with the aliens). I like that the aliens seem to be actually alien and not the distressingly common "basically a human but with a slightly different appearance" trope that a lot of SF uses... but it would be nice if we'd actually explore these worlds and beings a little more. But then, the plot here really doesn't need it, and such a digression would probably only serve to kill the pacing.

So we're left with a generally enjoyable novel. It's got lots of fun elements, decent characters, and a nice, twisty plot. While I feel like I should like this a lot more than I do, it's not like I didn't enjoy it or anything. It seems to be sticking with me more after I've read it than I thought it would whilst reading. Is it truly Hugo worthy? Maybe, but I suspect it's here more because of the follow on effect from the popular Ancillary books. Personally, it will probably fall somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of this year's Hugo nominees, but this is only the third (of six) that I've read, so it's hard to say for sure (I'm midway through two others though, and this seems about right).

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Avengers: Infinity War

I've dabbled with reading comic books here and there, but my experience is mostly with trades and features massive gaps in knowledge. That being said, comic books have a certain reputation... a reputation that features both good and bad characteristics. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), being a large scale adaptation of their comics, inherits that reputation, for better or for worse. Many of the MCU movies manage to skirt the cheesier, gimmicky aspects of comic books, others are less successful.

There's something to be said for comic book movies that defy such cheesy expectations or feel less comic-booky. The Dark Knight feels less like a superhero movie than a crime flick that just happens to feature a dude dressed like a bat (and it might be my favorite comic book movie of all time). But there's also something a little sad when these movies deny their origins and pretend they're something they're not. The MCU movies manage a sort of balance around that line that works very well. Sometimes, though, they really lean into their comic book nature, and the "team-up" films are the biggest example of this. Avengers: Age of Ultron, in particular, really felt like it leaned into the comic bookiness of it all. The never-ending serialized nature of comic books had arrived on the screen, fraught with all the attendant baggage that entails.

Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War is the nineteenth film in the MCU, and it is one of the more ambitious efforts to date. Nearly all of the characters introduced in the past decade show up on screen to battle a villain that has been hinted at for at least eight years. Loosely based on the early 1990s crossover event The Infinity Gauntlet and its sequels, Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, this film attempts to tie together the last ten years of MCU films into one climactic story. Thanos is the big villain, hinted at in previous films, who wants to collect powerful macguffins known as Infinity Stones so that he can obliterate half of all life in the universe in order to stave off the threat of overpopulation. The various MCU heroes, who've been encountering the Infinity Stones all along (i.e. the Tesseract, Loki's staff, etc...), attempt to block Thanos. Some major spoilers posted below, so read on at your peril. Basically, I liked it just fine.

As a coherent narrative, it fits, I guess, but is quite disjointed (and incomplete). This is a long movie, but even then, it's not long enough to give satisfying character arcs to all of its participants. This is the supreme challenge of the team-up movies, and this one has so many characters that it can't help but feel a little jumbled and rambling. I wouldn't go as far as some critics, who think of this as barely a movie for that reason (which I find amusing given those same critics' praise for artsy films where nothing happens, but I digress), but the general criticism that it lacks depth is valid.

On the other hand, who cares? We spend a lot of time with characters we like! We get fun interactions as characters meet for the first time. Thor meets the Guardians and enlists Rocket and Groot to help him build a new weapon. Iron Man, Spiderman, and Dr. Strange deal with some of Thanos' henchmen in New York and later space. At one point Captain America meets Groot and the dialog is priceless ("I am Steve Rogers," brilliant). It's these little moments, disconnected as they are from any larger context, that make the MCU work as well as it does. Some of this is less successful. Vision and Wanda's romance was something hinted at in Civil War, but they aren't developed enough to care that much about (also, wasn't Vision way, way more powerful in previous films? He's stumbling around like a weakling in this film the entire time.) Gamora and Peter have similarly been circling each other for a couple of movies and fare a bit better, but something seemed to have progressed between GotG2 and Infinity War.

Which brings us to Thanos. He was kind of a nothingburger in previous films. Comic Book fans knew who he was, but he just kinda sat around and orchestrated things in the background instead of being an active participant (I mean, after ten years of trying to collect Infinity Stones via proxies, once he gets up to do it himself, it takes a couple of days). In this movie, he finally becomes an actual character. As mentioned above, he's got this Malthusian mission to reduce the population of the universe in half, which is kinda dumb, but also understandable enough.

I suspect there's a better movie lurking beneath the surface of this one that is far more focused on Thanos and Gamorra. Their dysfunctional relationship has been established since the first Guardians of the Galaxy, but it's lopsided and lacks depth. There's some flashbacks here that attempt to improve on that, but not nearly enough to justify the whole Soul Stone sacrifice bit. Instead, we spend fifteen minutes watching Thor go forge a weapon at some random neutron star facility. Don't get me wrong, Thor interacting with Rocket and Groot was a ton of fun and worked well, but it does sorta distract from the overall narrative of the film. In fact, a lot of these little side stories, while containing the character beats that I appreciate so much, ultimately make the film feel sorta disjointed. This is the challenge of these films though. You have to devote some time to all the characters, which means that the narrative fractures a bit. But the fact that we like most of these characters so much keeps the fractured elements in orbit around one another, which is probably the most you can really hope for...

As I understand it, one of the things done in big comic book crossover events is that you have tie-in issues of individual heroes' comics where you can delve deeper into one character's perspective on the larger events. Alas, that's not something that quite works in blockbuster film territory (though, for all I know, there are actual comic books that are providing this background for the films...) Alright, time to get to the real spoilers. This is your second warning, read on at your own peril.

So the ending is simultaneously shocking and boring. Shocking because Thanos basically wins, half the universe disappears with the snap of his finger (i.e. The Snapture), including a lot of our heroes. Boring because far too many of our heroes die for it to actually mean something. There's no way this can stand in the next installment, which makes the stakes here a bit suspect. Again, in the moment, these characters dying is affecting, but with even a second's introspection, you realize that it can't actually be a lasting situation. This isn't exactly a unique take on the ending. Most point to the fact that many of the dead characters have upcoming movies and the characters who lived are actually the ones you'd expect to be killed off (i.e. Chris Evans contract is nearly finished and has made it clear he won't be coming back, and so on). My point is that even without knowing that, the ending doesn't have quite the impact it should because we still wouldn't believe this situation is permanent. This goes back to the whole comic-bookiness of it all, and I'm not entirely sure what to think of that. On the one hand, it feels kinda cheep and gimmicky, a way to sell more tickets to the next movie. On the other hand, no one has even done this sort of thing on this scale before. 19 movies leading up to this? It's an interesting translation of comic book storytelling to the screen. I don't know that it works any better for it, but I have to admire the attempt.

It feels like a bit of a cheat too, since the marketing for this has sorta promised that this would be its own movie, when it's clearly part one of a bigger story that will be resolved next year. This, again, gets back to the comic-bookiness of it all. It's not that serialized storytelling hasn't been done on film before, but the scale of this is impressive, and I suspect that some of the complaints about this film would fade away or at least morph into something different once the next film comes out. This is the thing with the MCU. I think all of the films are enjoyable (mostly) and competent on their own. I don't think any one film achieves true greatness, but many of them are able to underline each other with connective tissue that helps reinforce the overall narrative. That's what makes the MCU special, and it's hard to fault it for attempting to do something on this sort of scale. It's hard to judge this movie on its own because there's so much that leads up to it, and so much still to come. You can level a lot of harsh criticism at it for precisely that reason though, and there are a ton of fully justifiable complaints about this movie.

It's ultimately the sum of its parts, nothing more, nothing less. It has a lot of great moments and interactions and is worth watching for that alone, but the overarching narrative is lacking focus. But it's like a comic book. Nothing ever ends. No one really stays dead. You just have to wait for the next issue.

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Link Dump

As per usual, interesting links from the depths of the internets:
  • How Far Was Rocky’s Famous Run in Rocky II? - Spoiler: 30.61 miles. And I think that's a pretty conservative number. Dude is ping-ponging all over the city. Still good detective work here.
  • Back to the Blog - Apparently there are some social-media-addled users who are attempting to “re-decentralize” the web, something that is easier said than done, and yet somehow already here (and always has been). I mean, nothing forces you to spend all your time on Facebook and Twitter but yourself.
    It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.
    A lot of the things that blogging relied on have disappeared or fractured though, so there'll need to be something else to help us along...
  • The Platform is the Message (.pdf) - James Grimmelman's essay starts with Tide Pods and ends with Fake News, with stops at kayfabe and Peppa Pig along the way, and is well worth reading.
    All of these videos, and all of these links, everything going back to the Onion is both a joke and not a joke. It’s easy to find videos of people holding up Tide Pods, sympathetically noting how tasty they look, and then giving a finger-wagging speech about not eating them because they’re dangerous. Are these sincere anti-pod-eating public service announcements? Or are they surfing the wave of interest in pod-eating by superficially claiming to denounce it? Both at once? Are these part of the detergent-eating phenomenon (forbidden), or are they critical commentary on it (acceptable)? Online culture is awash in layers of irony; there is a sense in which there is no such thing as a pure exemplar of eating a Tide Pod unironically or a critique of the practice that is not also in part an advertisement for it. All one can say is that the Tide Pod cluster of memes and practices attract attention: the controversy only adds to the attention.

    The difficulty of distinguishing between a practice, a parody of the practice, and a commentary on the practice is bad news for any legal doctrines that try to distinguish among them,18 and for any moderation guidelines or ethical principles that try to draw similar distinctions. I cannot think of any Tide Pod content that could not make a colorable claim to be a transformative use; I cannot think of any Tide Pod content that would not be at least marginally newsworthy.
    Great essay, a little on the pessimistic side, but I can't dispute anything either...
  • The Battle of New York: An 'Avengers' Oral History - There's a lot of sloppy stuff in the first Avengers movie that I don't like very much, but I still love that movie and rewatch it often because of the finale, one of the great extended action sequences of our time, and it really sends you away on a high that most movies cannot manage.
  • Jones BBQ and foot massage - It's so disappointing that this isn't a real establishment.
That's all for now...
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Summer Movie Wager 2018

The /Filmcast does this thing every year where they pick what they each think will be the top 10 movies of the summer in terms of domestic box office performance. One enterprising listener created a website to coordinate the whole Summer Movie Wager and opened it up to everyone, so this year I figured I'd play along. I didn't spend a ton of time on it, but I've been following the /Filmcast for a long time, so I had some idea of how its played. I made my picks before I listened to their picks this year, and now that I've listened to their episode, I had some mild regret for some of my choices, but ultimately, I think I did alright. Here's my picks, along with some comments:
  1. Avengers: Infinity War - Duh. Pretty much everyone has this pegged as the winner this summer. I'm sure someone is making a calculated bet to pick something else, and if they wind up correct, they'll have a big advantage over the whole field. But it still seems like a big longshot.
  2. Incredibles 2 - I have this much higher than most, but I think this is going to be the "Animated Kids Movie" of choice this summer, and those always do much better than expected. I worry that my love for the original film has skewed my thoughts here though, and if I were doing this again, I might bump it down a spot or two.
  3. Deadpool 2 - Seems like a big deal, but the /Filmcast did worry me a bit, as it does feel like the sort of thing that isn't quite repeatable. The rated R superhero comedy was kinda new last time around, it'll be difficult to recapture the novelty here. Then again, there's always a rated R movie that does better than expected in the summer, the first movie was hugely popular, and I think most are genuinely looking forward to this one.
  4. Solo: A Star Wars Story - This is honestly a pretty big question mark. It's Star Wars, so it will definitely make the top 10, but its performance could vary wildly. Are people getting Star Wars fatigue? Is anyone really looking forward to the concept of this one? Will Last Jedi haters drive down performance? Only time will tell. This slot doesn't seem overly ambitious or pessimistic.
  5. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - Everyone was blindsided by Jurassic World a few years ago, which did an obscene $650 million. No one expected that much love for the franchise, and the movie was frankly kinda crappy, so it was a big surprise. Most folks seem to be putting this latest iteration at number 2. I may be overly pessimistic about its chances, but I'm thinking that the trailers look bad and those who didn't love the last movie will not turn up this time. I don't know, maybe Jeff Goldblum fans will turn out in droves? There's no way it gets close to its predecessor, but it'll almost certainly be top 5. I have it a little low, but I don't think this is completely unwarranted.
  6. Ant-Man and the Wasp - And here I'm being a bit optimistic. I'm betting that Avengers loev will spill over to this and drive this to perform a little better than the first film. I'm definitely taking a chance here, but this seems feasible. This is where the list starts to get a bit wonky and unpredictable. It's reasonable to think my top 5 will be the top 5 (if not in the exact order I picked), but 6-10 are much more of a toss up.
  7. Ocean's 8 - Here I'm betting that this will do better than the other Ocean's sequels. Who knows if I'm right, but this somehow feels kinda like counter-programming during the summer blockbuster season, and the female-led cast will also appeal to audiences. It also comes out early in June and will have plenty of time to keep making money (this becomes a problem with below picks).
  8. Mission: Impossible - Fallout - If this does similar numbers to the last two installments, it probably deserves to be higher on this list... but it's release at the very end of July means that some of its gross won't count towards this contest. On the other hand, releases are still front-loaded and this will have plenty of time to build up sales. This should almost certainly be one or two spots up higher on this list. Dammit.
  9. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again - I mean, who the hell knows once we get down to this area. The first movie was a surprise hit, and again, the counter-programming aspect of this might auger for some level of success. But I could be way off.
  10. The Meg - I might have been swayed by the internet response to the first trailer, which looks like a ton of dumb fun... The big problem with this is the release date, which only allows for 3-4 weeks to make money. Then again, August is usually a wasteland for movies, so there won't be as much competition as there will be early in the season.
Outside the top 10, we get three "Dark Horse" picks:
  • Christopher Robin - I don't know. It's Disney, so it'll do ok, but I picked this without really knowing much about it. Finding out more, I'm not sure it was a wise choice...
  • Skyscraper - The Rock is just so unpredictable in terms of both quality and performance that I'm not sure what to make of this movie. It could very well earn a spot in the top 10, but this marks the 3rd movie that The Rock has had in theaters this year. Just not sure about it. It could be big, it could bomb.
  • Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation - These movies do well, right? Again, kids movies tend to do better than expected. I probably should have put this one at #10 in place of The Meg, but again, who knows.
I think I did alright. If I were to do it again, I'd definitely make some changes... but it would still be a similar list.
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Link Dump

As per usual, interesting links from the depths of ye olde interwebs: And that's all for now.
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