Saturday, August 12, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: Well, That Happened

I am thrilled, overjoyed, and genuinely shocked to report that at the Hugo award ceremony held last night in Helsinki, I won the award for Best Fan Writer.

This came as a complete surprise to me.  I was certain that Chuck Tingle would carry the award away (and if you look at the voting breakdowns, it was a near thing).  At the same time, I knew that I had a chance, so the days before the award were spent in a state of anxiety.  I'm rather pleased with myself that after all that I managed to make it to the stage and deliver my speech in a semi-coherent manner.  For those of you who weren't there (and who weren't able to watch the live feed, which as I understand it failed early in the ceremony), here is the text of my speech:
Thank you very much.  I want to thank the administrators and voters, as well as my fellow nominees.

I was first nominated for a Hugo in 2014, as part of a ballot that was celebrated for its diversity.  In the intervening years, the Hugos were marred by interference from people seeking to advance their own careers and their bigoted worldview.

I am so, so proud to win this award in a year that has seen the Hugos return to the hands of the people they belong to.  I am proud that my fellow nominees once again represent so much of what our field is capable of.

Writing--whether fiction or non-fiction--is a solitary pursuit.  You put thousands of words into the world and hope they resonate with someone.  As a critic and essayist, I am enriched by a community of writers whose ideas I am in constant conversation with.

These include, but are by no means limited to: Nina Allan, Erin Hórakóva, Adam Roberts, Aishwarya Subramanian, Samira Nadkarni, Vajra Chandrasekera, Niall Harrison, and so, so many others.  My greatest thanks and appreciation go to them, for their inspiring, enlightening words.  Long may they continue.
Since I have you here, I'll also take the occasion to thank all of you, for reading, commenting, linking, and generally making this solitary pursuit feel worthwhile even in its loneliest moments.

I'll probably have some more coherent comments about the rest of the awards at a later date (I freely admit that I had trouble concentrating on the remainder of the ceremony after my category was called).  I will, however, say that the evening as a whole was delightful even in my extremely stressed state, with the chance to meet and squee over so many talented people, some of whom I've known online for years but had never had the chance to meet.  (Far from least among the people I was excited to meet was Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, whose band Clppng was nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, and who turns out to be just as charming and approachable as you could possibly hope.  Reader, I fangirled.)  Following the ceremony, there was the Hugo Losers Party, where, having had the nerve to show my face, I was both mocked and plied with drink.  It was, in short, a totally satisfying evening.

On a final note, I'd like to thank and marvel at the skill of Hugo base designer Eeva Jokinen, who made this year's trophy a thing of beauty (if also incredibly heavy).  There doesn't seem to be an official picture yet, but File 770 has a snapshot.  I've lusted over previous year's trophies, and I'm so thrilled that the one I get to take home is such a lovely piece of art, as well as an award.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

New Scientist Column: Yoon Ha Lee, Karin Tidbeck, and Nina Allan

Greetings from Helsinki!  I am briefly emerging from the chaos of Worldcon to link to my latest column in The New Scientist, in which I discuss Yoon Ha Lee's Raven Stratagem, Karin Tidbeck's Amatka, and Nina Allan's The Rift.  It was interesting to see how three novels that seemed so superficially dissimilar ended up being about very similar things, chiefly the way that humans construct their own reality even when it seems rock-solid. 

I was particularly struck by how similar the approach that Lee and Tidbeck took to their stories was, in both cases taking a well-defined genre with extremely familiar tropes--space opera/military SF in Lee's case, highly conformist future dystopia in Tidbeck's--and use the idea of humans' ability to shape their world through agreed-upon concepts to subtly distort their stories' conventions.  In both cases, I think, the authors end up boxed in by their genres, perhaps more than they intended.  But both books (and the Allan) are nevertheless extremely interesting exercises, and fun reads to boot.

And now, back to the convention!  If you're see me around, do come by and say hi.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 26

I haven't seen a lot of people take note of this--and what with everything else going on, that's hardly surprising--but 2017 is shaping up to be a really good movie year.  Specifically, the genre/action/adventure movies this year has served up have been genuinely strong and enjoyable, from envelope-pushing fare like Logan, Get Out, and Colossal, to well-made, thoughtful variations on familiar formulas like Wonder Woman.  (This is especially noticeable in comparison to 2016, which in terms of its movie offerings pretty much peaked with Deadpool.)  I didn't love all of the movies discussed in this post, but I enjoyed all of them, and more than that, I admired their attempts to do something different, even if in some cases those attempts didn't quite work for me.  In a movie scene that seems increasingly governed by formula and last year's successes, it's heartening to see so many idiosyncratic efforts, and hopefully their success bodes well for the future.
  • Baby Driver - For months, reviewers and filmmakers have been priming us have our socks knocked off by Baby Driver, Edgar Wright's victory lap after being unceremoniously dumped from Ant-Man.  The praise for the film was as unanimous and rapturous as it was strangely unspecific--everyone seemed to love Baby Driver, but no one seemed able to say why, beyond some vague gestures towards its soundtrack (and you know, the last film I saw where the soundtrack was a major selling point was the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which is hardly an encouraging comparison).  So when I went to see Baby Driver, it was less in the spirit of enthusiasm and more out of curiosity--what was it about this movie that made people go so gaga over it?  I'm sorry to say that my questions have not been answered.  Baby Driver is enjoyable and well-made.  There are some extremely fun action and car chase scenes (though on that last front the film peaks in its first ten minutes, and never quite recaptures the same high).  But none of this is quite enough to elevate the film past its thoroughly generic story and characters.

    The premise of Baby Driver is so familiar that it practically follows from the film's description as a heist movie.  A demon-behind-the-wheel getaway driver agrees to do One Last Job for some shady characters in order to protect the lives of his loved ones, including his angelic girlfriend, and then things get complicated.  The one twist that Wright offers is that Baby (Ansel Elgort, in a brilliant physical performance that nevertheless feels like little more than a support beam for the film's plot) is obsessed with, constantly listening to, and filtering the world through, music, which he pipes in through the earbuds he hardly ever takes off, ostensibly to ward off the tinnitus that has plagued him since childhood, though like so much else about the film this is a plot element that is introduced and then quickly left by the wayside.  This turns Baby Driver into essentially a long sequence of music videos, an approach that is at first exhilarating, but quickly loses its flavor when it turns out that Wright doesn't have a second gear for it.  For a little while, it feels as if Baby Driver is trying to be the portrait of slightly different person (perhaps even neuroatypical), who needs a soundtrack to his life to function, and who can only truly express his humanity through movement--whether behind the wheel of a car, or walking down the street, or dancing in his apartment.  But as the plot of Baby Driver progresses, this obsession comes to feel less like a character trait and more like a gimmick, a way of establishing the film's coolness credentials--to which end it also gathers actors such as Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx to play the over-the-top criminal types whom Baby squares against.  By the film's final act, in which Baby must save his girlfriend Debora (Lily James) while also retrieving the tape containing the last recording of his mother's singing, he comes off as a less engaging version of Guardians's Starlord, and the film's use of music feels just as calculated.  (This is also a good place to note how few and uninteresting Baby Driver's female characters are, all of them defined by the love, protectiveness, and vengefulness of men.)

    The most obvious point of comparison for Baby Driver is Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, and the difference between how these two movies handle their protagonist feels extremely telling.  Drive's most brilliant touch is the third-act revelation that beneath its angel-faced protagonist's placid exterior, there is a great big nothing.  That his coolness is merely a thin veneer for genuine psychopathy, which eventually tarnishes, and sometimes destroys, the lives of everyone he gets close to.  Baby Driver feels like the movie for people who found that conclusion too depressing, who wanted to be able to keep rooting for the Driver with no moral qualms or complications.  The contortions the film goes through in order to assure us that Baby is a good person, even an innocent--at the same time as he willingly participates in horrific violence--are ultimately more alienating than Drive's condemnation of its hero.  The film's ending feels almost like a parody of the way the American justice system bends over backwards to avoid "destroying the life" of photogenic white criminals.  This is a problem less from an ethical standpoint (though the film's approach to race is troubling, and deserves a lot more attention from reviewers than it's gotten) than from a storytelling one.  If Baby Driver won't give its title character a personality, and won't admit that the absence of a personality is an indication that there is something wrong with him, then all that's left is the film's obsession with coolness, which--for me at least--is not nearly enough to carry it over the finish line.

  • Spider-Man: Homecoming - If the rapturous reception for Baby Driver left me feeling warily curious, the only reaction I had to similarly positive reviews for the latest Spider-Man film was resigned fatigue.  As the sixth (!) Spider-Man movie in fifteen years, Homecoming seemed more like a chore than a pleasure, and the fact that Marvel was clearly only making the movie so that the web-crawler could appear in Infinity War and then become the lynchpin of phase four of the MCU certainly didn't help.  For all that Homecoming turned out to be a smart, charming movie, I'm still not convinced that this character needed to be rebooted for the third time.  But I am impressed with how Marvel has handled the significant challenges of doing so, with a great deal more wit and care than comparable franchise launches (much less re-launches) from other studios have managed.

    It's not surprising that Homecoming steers clear of the over-familiar tropes of the Spider-Man story (in fact some of them, like the burden of guilt Peter carries for the death of Uncle Ben, feel weirdly absent from this story, in which he is far too insouciant and carefree than your standard Peter Parker).  What I didn't expect was for the film to face head-on some of the growing problems with the more recent MCU movies, and to swiftly disarm them.  Homecoming strikes a compelling middle ground between the overheated bombast of MCU team-up movies, and the by-the-numbers plotting of recent standalones.  It tells a story with relatively modest stakes and scope, with a hero who is frequently out of his depth, and villains who are just trying to get paid.  But by giving its setting and characters room to breathe, it paradoxically ends up the most involving MCU movie in some time.  Tom Holland plays Peter as something between Tobey Maguire's soulful nerd and Andrew Garfield's dimwitted jokester, but most of all he plays the character as young.  His Peter is fundamentally decent and heroic, whether he's giving an old lady directions or thoughtlessly stepping up to take a bullet for a street criminal caught in over his head.  But he's also immature, playful, unclear on how this whole superhero business works, and star-struck by his recent adventures with Iron Man in Civil War.  That looseness in his characterization extends to the rest of the cast.  The kids in Peter's school--best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), popular nice girl Liz (Laura Harrier), too-cool-for-school Michelle (Zendaya), asshole Flash (Tony Revolori), and even some of the background players--all get space to be their own, idiosyncratic versions of these types, each a little bit weird in their own way.  As a result, Homecoming ends up feeling more grounded than most films in this genre, like a teen movie about a superhero, not a superhero movie just waiting to shake off its teenage hero's ordinary life.

    There's a similar heft and humanity in the film's handling of its villains, whether it's a small-time crook played by Donald Glover, or the main bad guys.  All feel like people first and plot tokens second, with lives that exist outside of Peter's drama, and limits to their villainy informed by their being part of a community and a family (when Peter convinces Glover's character to give him information, he does it by pointing out that the bad guys have blown up a popular local sandwich shop).  The film's villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), breaks the MCU films' villain curse, ending up simultaneously terrifying and sympathetic.  He makes the largely convincing argument that people like Tony Stark cause tremendous damage that they never look down and notice, much less face consequences for.  Peter's heroism is expressed by recognizing the rightness of this criticism, but also the evil of Toomes's reaction to it--he steals and modifies alien technology, and sells it to criminals.  Even then, the true measure of Toomes's villainy comes not when he dons a terrifying flying suit, but through the mundane details of his double life--the hurt that he causes his family, and the damage he does to his community.

    Much has been made of Tony Stark's presence in Homecoming, with some critics even calling it half an Iron Man movie.  I was actually surprised by how little space Tony takes up in the movie, and more than that, by how Homecoming feels free to subtly criticize him.  If, like myself, you thought Tony's decision to recruit Peter in Civil War was reckless and irresponsible, then Homecoming will be the film for you, as it delves into the unintended consequences of that decision--such as Peter retreating from his life in the belief that he will soon be called to join the Avengers.  When Tony tries to repair the damage he's caused, he repeatedly overcompensates, either ghosting Peter completely or micro-managing him, in both cases expecting him to follow orders without considering that he is still a child.  A major component of Peter's growth into heroism and maturity is the fact that he outgrows Tony, rejecting his worldview and choosing to a be a street-level hero, someone who can address the damage that Tony and the Avengers don't see.  (The film also gets in a few jabs at Captain America, who appears as the star of some breathtakingly clueless PSAs screened at Peter's school, even as the teachers admit that he is currently a war criminal.)  It's an ending that also brings Homecoming full circle, back in conversation with the previous Spider-Man movies.  Whereas those films were driven by Peter's tragic inability to balance his life as a person and a hero, Homecoming concludes that it is essential to Peter's heroism that he maintain his humanity, and not ignore his life for the sake of the excitement of being a hero.  It's a little surprising for a Spider-Man movie to end up concluding that its hero should stay "close to the ground" (many of the film's jokes even rely on Peter's inability to find tall buildings and structures to swing from), but for this moment, in both the MCU and this much-rebooted character's existence, that feels like the right decision.

  • Okja - Bong Joon Ho's follow-up to Snowpiercer (produced by Netflix and available to stream on it) is, like its predecessor, a film that veers somewhat haphazardly between dark social satire and earnest social commentary.  Also like Snowpiercer, Okja is a collection of set pieces that vary wildly in tone and even genre, but without the organizing principle of a journey along a train, the result feels even more bitty.  That's not necessarily a complaint.  Some of Okja's set-pieces--chiefly a truck-heist/prison-break scene in the streets of Seoul that gives Baby Driver a run for its money--are worth the price of admission in their own right.  But especially for a film so driven by its message, it can be hard to get a grip on the story Okja is trying to tell.

    The title character is a genetically engineered pig hybrid the size of an elephant, bred as a new, environmentally-friendly food alternative.  Ten years ago, sample piglets were handed out to farmers all over the world, as a publicity stunt meant to normalize the new protein source.  Now, with Korean-raised Okja deemed the "best super-pig" and carted off to the US to be fêted (and then slaughtered), Mija (An Seo Hyun), the granddaughter of the farmer who raised Okja, sets off on a journey to rescue her friend.  It's a fairly basic animal-in-peril story, and yet Okja veers into some extremely weird tangents that never quite coalesce into a coherent whole, whether it's the animal rights group that helps Mija (led by a pacifist Paul Dano and a slightly shady Steven Yeun), or the dissipated former animal show host who has been coopted by the corporation to put a smiley face on Okja's looming fate (Jake Gyllenhaal, in what is easily the most deranged performance of his career).  Some of these bits work very well--the fact that the corporation's CEOs are twins both played by Tilda Swinton, one a money-obsessed monster, the other an airy wannabe-celebrity desperate to remake her company's image, ends up making a subtly cutting statement--it doesn't matter which of these women takes over the running of the company, because the end result of animal abuse will be the same, whether or not it's sugarcoated with good PR.  And even when the film's weirdness doesn't work, it's so expertly done as to be fun to watch.  But the constant shift between absurdism and utterly serious animal rights rhetoric--chiefly a long sojourn in a super-pig slaughterhouse that has definite concentration camp associations--can make it hard to know how to react.

    Perhaps the most significant way in which Okja holds back from its audience is the title character itself.  The CGI for Okja can get a little ropey in the film's action scenes, but it works where it counts, in convincing us that this is a feeling creature whom Mija loves and who is capable of returning that affection, and in making us root for her survival.  And yet Okja, as a character, feels curiously absent from the movie that bears her name.  In most animal in peril stories, the animal is in many ways in the main character (think, for example, of the way Dawn of the Planet of the Apes spends its middle segment focused almost entire on Caesar).  But in Okja, even in scenes in which she is alone (or alone with her abusers), the focus is almost always on the human characters, not on Okja's feelings.  (This is particularly strange because there's a strong implication in the film that Okja and the other super-pigs are a lot smarter than suspected, perhaps even self-aware, and yet ultimately nothing is made of this.)  Okja only really comes to life when she's paired with Mija, and though that pairing, and the love and devotion the two have for one another, are never less than entirely convincing, it's yet another way in which Okja feels confused about what it wants to be.  It's a film that I'm glad exists (not least for how it pushes forward Netflix's willingness to take a shot on strange material and creators from outside of Hollywood) but it's worth watching more for its pieces than its whole.

  • Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - On paper, Luc Besson's latest movie (based on the comic by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières) should be an unmitigated disaster.  The plot is predictable and frequently relies on the characters being stupid, or worse, following stupid rules and regulations.  The characters are flat, with informed personality traits that never manage to emerge from the actors' performances.  In particular, Dane DeHaan is woefully miscast as the title character, a rougeish adventurer with no time for rules (except right at the end of the film, when he suddenly decides that abiding by the rules defines him).  It's a role that ends up wearing him, rather than allowing him to make it his own.  The film's decision to hang its emotional arc on a putative romance between him and his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), is almost comically misguided--not only is DeHaan completely unconvincing as a lothario whom Laureline desires but can't trust, but the film never gives us any reason, any romantic or sexual spark, to make us root for Valerian and Laureline as a couple.  And despite aiming at a message of inclusivity and tolerance, Valerian's character work frequently plumps for thoughtless stereotypes, particularly in an ill-advised sojourn in a red light district, where Valerian befriends a shape-changing prostitute (Rihanna) who can't get away from her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold type, or the racially insensitive guises her clients favor.

    And yet for all these flaws, I found Valerian utterly delightful, for the simple reason that the film's world is so broad, so varied, and so much fun, that it's possible to tune out the leaden dialogue, the annoying characters, and the idiot plotting, and simply enjoy the ride.  This isn't simply a matter of visuals--though these are spectacular and constantly evolving throughout the film's run--but of worldbuilding.  Valerian mostly takes place on a travelling space station, Alpha, where humans and other species have for centuries mingled freely and peacefully, adding modules and segments as each species joins the journey.  The film's opening scene, which shows us Alpha's origins as an international space station orbiting Earth, establishes a theme of tolerance and mutual respect, and though, as noted above, that's something Valerian honors as much in the breach as in the observance, it's still a powerful message that informs how Besson builds his world, and how Valerian and Laureline move through it.  This isn't a Guardians of the Galaxy-esque setting, where entire space-faring civilizations exist solely for our heroes to punch their way through.  It's a living, functional world, whose rules and values are worth preserving because they allow its inhabitants to live in (relative) peace and prosperity.  It's no surprise that the villain of the piece turns out to be someone who thought he had the right to tear through another civilization for his own goals, and that our heroes triumph not just by defeating him, but by bringing him to justice.

    All of this is to make Valerian sound a great deal more high-minded than it actually is (not least because, as noted, for all the film's lofty intentions its actual execution is at best awkward, at worst actively working against its message).  But the belief that the world he's constructed is interesting and worth exploring informs how Besson constructs his action plot, and as a result Valerian never stops moving, and never stops showing us new corners of its world.  The film is made up of several gargantuan, and incredibly fun, set pieces, from a chase through an intergalactic market that exists in several dimensions, to Valerian pursuing aliens who have kidnapped his commander by jumping from one environ in Alpha to another, to an underwater quest for a jellyfish that will help Laureline find a missing Valerian.  Perhaps most importantly, the aliens whose dispossession is the film's inciting incident have a society that feels, if not exactly realistic, then sympathetic and interesting.  You find yourself rooting for them to have a happy ending, and it almost makes Valerian and Laureline bearable that they clearly see this as a more important goal than obeying orders.  None of this is enough to make Valerian into a good movie, but it's one that left me feeling a great deal more hopeful and exuberant than any other recent example of this genre, and that's worth celebrating.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Colossal

Going into Colossal with only the film's trailers and promotional material to prepare you, it's easy to expect an entertaining but fairly shallow handling of its premise, in which a hard-partying alcoholic (Anne Hathaway) is kicked out by her boyfriend and returns to her home town to wallow and hang out at a bar with her childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis), before discovering that she mysteriously has control over a giant monster that has begun menacing Seoul.  Despite the weirdness of that description's final turn, there's something very familiar about that combination--a melding of mumblecore character drama and out-there genre elements, along the lines of The One I Love.  So while you might expect Colossal to be good, you also expect its genre components to be merely a jumping-off point, a particularly on-the-nose metaphor--alcohol makes our heroine, Gloria, into a literal monster!  (There is, in addition, an uncomfortable undertone to this premise, in which a white woman's obliviousness causes mass deaths in an Asian city on the other side of the planet.)  And yet, in the hands of writer-director Nacho Vigalondo, Colossal turns out to be something much smarter and more exciting, doing things that not many movies, in and out of genre, are doing.  It is, on the one hand, a hair-raising portrait of abuse and how a person might unwittingly slip into a relationship with an abuser, and on the other hand, a fresh and thoughtful twist on the superhero origin story.

The early scenes of Colossal, in which Gloria finally exhausts the patience of her circle in New York, moves back home, reunites with Sudeikis's Oscar, starts working at his bar, and begins to realize that she and the monster in Seoul are connected, are doing a lot of ground-laying work.  It's therefore easy to miss the early danger signs in Gloria and Oscar's relationship, especially as the film seeds them so subtly.  Oscar's social circle, into which he immediately folds Gloria, at first seems like the typical indie film collection of losers and sad-sacks--Tim Blake Nelson as drug-addled conspiracy nut Garth, and Austin Stowell as introverted Joel, whose attractiveness is outweighed by his lack of confidence around Gloria.  But when Oscar explodes in rage the first night that the group spend together--ostensibly in defense of Gloria--we begin to get a sense of the reality of the group's dynamics, in which Oscar, in the guise of the genial grown-up friend, exerts an unhealthy amount of control on people too weak to break away from him.

The same dynamic quickly begins to ensnare Gloria.  After her first night drinking with him and his friends, Oscar arrives at her house to inform the hung-over Gloria that she agreed to let him lend her a TV, and to start working at the bar.  Because Gloria is such a trainwreck, it's easy to believe that she might have had these conversations without remembering them.  But the next morning, when Oscar arrives with a sofa and makes a similar claim, his behavior seems more suspicious.  We spent most of the previous evening with him and Gloria, and a sofa never came up.  It suddenly becomes obvious that both this and the previous morning's claim were lies, that Oscar is gaslighting Gloria, supposedly for her own good but really as a way of insinuating himself into her life and home.  By the time his behavior turns sinister, later in the movie, he's already so embedded in her routine that shaking him off requires genuine effort and carries meaningful costs.

Throughout all this, there's the monster.  It's difficult to explain how deftly Colossal weaves this gonzo element into the dynamic of slowly-growing menace that permeates Gloria and Oscar's interactions, but it quickly grows into an expression, not just of Gloria's own dysfunction, but of the baleful influence that Oscar has on her.  When she realizes the rules of her connection to the monster--it appears when she walks onto a certain playground near her house, at a certain time of day--Gloria tries to exercise responsibility.  Her first attempts fail miserably.  While trying to show Oscar and the guys her connection, she panics at the news that Korean authorities are shooting missiles at "her", trips, and falls, causing massive destruction (there's really not enough that can be said for Vigalondo's ability to make a drunk woman falling down in a playground look like an earth-shattering catastrophe).  But the more Gloria tries to act like a responsible person--including trying to stop drinking--the angrier Oscar gets, and the more he tries to push her into going back into monster mode.

The metaphor--an addict trying to straighten out while their resentful friends who are still using attack and sabotage them--is blatant.  Almost any other film might have stopped there.  But Colossal moves into the realm of all-out genre storytelling when it reveals that Oscar, too, has an analogue in Seoul, in his case a giant robot.  (There is, ultimately, an explanation for both Oscar and Gloria's conditions, and it mostly hangs together.  But it also isn't entirely necessary--no amount of backstory will make this movie's premise any less ridiculous, and it's the execution that makes it work, not whether the script can come up with a sufficiently convincing McGuffin.)  This places him in a position to threaten Gloria.  If she doesn't do as he says--stay in town, continue working at his bar and hanging out with his friends, start drinking again--he will deliberately trash the city.  This sets up an obvious monster-movie situation--the scenes beamed in from Seoul, in which the monster and the robot grapple against a backdrop of skyscraper and a soundtrack of screams, are almost prototypical of this genre.  But it also sets up a hellish scenario of abusive blackmail that reminded me a great deal of Jessica Jones, as does Gloria's self-destructive personality.  (Indeed, the choice to cast Sudeikis, an indie-film stalwart who often plays mopey but good-hearted love interests, as an abusive villain feels as deliberate as Jessica Jones's choice to cast fandom's beloved David Tennant as Kilgrave.)  With the added turn of the screw that, unlike Jessica, Gloria doesn't have super-strength.  In their human guises, Oscar is bigger and stronger than her, and she has no ability to force him to stop.

When I say that Colossal reads like a superhero origin story, what I mean is not just that it ends up pitting Gloria and Oscar (and their gigantic analogues) against each other in a classic punch-up pose.  But that its premise forces its characters to confront what lies at the heart of heroism and villainy.  What makes Gloria a hero--or at least temporarily heroic--is the fact that she takes responsibility for her actions, finally realizing that she can't blithely go about her self-destruction, smashing into people and things without any concern for the damage she causes.  What makes Oscar a villain is the fact that he's so steeped in self-loathing that he doesn't even want to get better anymore, and is content to drag everyone around him down to his own level.  Telling this sort of story with, on the one hand, city-scale stakes, and on the other hand, no actual superpowers, means that the focus remains strictly on the emotional.  Gloria triumphs not just because she outsmarts Oscar, but because she refuses to give into despair, even in the face of a seemingly inescapable trap.

Colossal finds a way for Gloria to escape that trap--one that is conceptually elegant, but whose execution is perhaps a little sloppy, leaning a little too much into the profound satisfaction of seeing Oscar get his comeuppance.  What's more important, however, is what happens afterwards.  Flush with triumph and awash with relief, Gloria walks the streets of the city and then turns into.. a bar.  It's clear from the film's closing moments that she didn't even realize what she was doing, that the choice was practically automatic.  Which is perhaps the cleverest thing Colossal does with the superhero story.  Just because Gloria saved the world doesn't make her a hero, and her continuing to be one--or even just a functional human being--depends on constantly making the choice not to sink back into bad habits, even when the fate of a South Korean metropolis doesn't hang in the balance.  It's left to us to hope that the lessons Gloria has learned will help her going forward, but the film's open ending is reminder that she still has it in her to be a monster, this time of the more scary human variety.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Five (Additional) Comments on Wonder Woman

I didn't expect to have anything more to say about Wonder Woman after publishing my short review of it.  But in the week that followed, the film has stayed with me, particularly the ways in which it complicates (and fails to complicate) the conventions of the superhero narrative.  Partly, this is just the shock of the new.  The MCU--and particularly those parts of it that are a bit more politically engaged--has gotten more than a little top-heavy, constantly bumping up against the limitations of its genre when it tries to do anything interesting with it.  Wonder Woman isn't kicking off its own cinematic universe, but I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that we'd all be better off if WB wrote off its previous three DC movies and used Wonder Woman as its template going forward (and, at least until November, we can all pretend that this is what's going to happen).  Without the baggage that the MCU has accumulated, DC is in the enviable position of being able to learn from the earlier franchise's mistakes, as well as striking its own path.  The following are some thoughts on how Wonder Woman sets up some interesting ideas for that project going forward, and how the conventions of Hollywood, and of the superhero genre, are likely to stymie that approach.
  • It's been a little frustrating to watch the conversation around Wonder Woman coalesce around its feminism.  Not that I don't understand why that's happening, or that there aren't interesting things to be said on this front.  In particular, I've been struck by discussions of the film's visual language, and of its avoidance of typically male-gaze-ish approaches to depicting powerful women.  And, in the other direction, there have been some trenchant critiques of the whiteness of the film's feminism, the fact that, in the Amazonian utopia of its opening segments, women of color are mostly relegated to the background, and in the WWI segments, they are almost entirely absent even as non-white men appear in crowd scenes and as main characters.

    My problem, however, with talking about Wonder Woman as a feminist work is that most of that feminism is external to the film.  That is, Wonder Woman is feminist because of what it is, not because of what it does.  To be clear, I absolutely agree with the statement that being the first movie about a female superhero in the current, mega-successful iteration of superhero movies (and one of only a small number before that) is a feminist act in its own right.  But there's only so much that you can say about that, and that's a problem that is exacerbated by Wonder Woman herself.  More than almost any other character in pop culture, Diana exists outside of patriarchy.  And while it's powerful to see a woman who brushes aside the assumption that she's not as good as a man because the very idea that this might be true is completely foreign to her heritage and upbringing, what this also means is that a lot of the central questions of feminism are equally foreign to her.

    I'm not as down on Wonder Woman as Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, but she's not wrong when she says that "Gadot's Wonder Woman doesn't fight for rights because she transcends that fight; she is unfettered by it and insensible to it, an implausible post-feminist hero."  Diana's journey over the course of the movie involves learning to see humanity--or, as she puts it, "men"--for what it is, with all its strengths and flaws.  But left completely unacknowledged is the degree to which the cruelty of men is often visited upon women.  How does Diana's bemusement at the concept of marriage face up to the discovery that almost all of the people she meets in 1918 would consider it acceptable for a man to beat his wife?  How does her decision to engage in heterosexual intercourse change in light of the fact that she is moving through a rape culture?  How does her joy at seeing a baby withstand the knowledge that most women in that period have no choice in when or whether to have children, and that many of them die in childbirth?

    If DC and WB were actually serious about making their cinematic universe "dark", this is precisely the sort of material they could latch on to, instead of focusing on the angst of privileged white men like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent.  As I've written, Wonder Woman already shows us a Diana who has more of a justification for despairing of humanity than either of her established fellow heroes, but it misses an important point when it ignores how much of that despair should be rooted in the world's treatment of women.  That's something that could change in future movies, but not if they continue to hold on to the simplistic notion of a woman who is a feminist idol simply for existing.

  • One of the few explicitly feminist moments in Wonder Woman comes when Diana meets Etta Candy, and, after learning what a secretary does, exclaims "where I'm from, that's called slavery!"  At the most basic level, this is a 21st century joke awkwardly shoehorned into an early 20th century setting.  As modern feminists, we are supposed to disdain secretarial positions (we shall leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether this is actually a feminist stance, and whether there are many feminists who still hold it), while in 1918 the profession, still largely male, would have been seen as prestigious and important (it is, in fact, entirely possible that Etta only has her job because too many of the men who might have taken it have been sent to the front).

    If you look at this exchange more seriously, however, some troubling questions emerge.  How can Diana be completely ignorant of patriarchy, and yet also know what a slave is?  Where exactly do the boundaries of Themyscira's utopia lie?  It's a question that puts me in mind of some of Sarah Mesle's excellent writing about Game of Thrones, and particularly the way the show styles its supposedly badass, egalitarian women.  Who, Mesle asks, is pleating Daenerys Targareyn's skirts?  Who is braiding Arya Stark's hair?  No one who cares about that sort of thing can have missed the elaborate (if functional) hairstyles on almost all the Amazons in Wonder Woman, but even if we assume that the women braid each other's hair, in a show of sisterhood, who tanned Diana's leather training outfit?  Who dyed the bright blue gown of the tutor the young Diana escapes from in the film's opening scene?  The pre-modern Greek civilizations that Themyscira is modeled on ran on slave labor, and particularly when it came to styling high-status women, there would have been an army of lower- and no-status ones working to make the illusion seem effortless.  Is Themyscira perhaps run like a kibbutz, with everyone, low and high, sharing in even the most noxious of tasks?  But if so, then again, how does Diana know what a slave is?

    The answer, of course, is that this is not a thing that the film wants us to think about, and in this it is ultimately no different than most Hollywood products (including, of course, Game of Thrones).  But to go back to that scene with Etta, it's interesting to note what happens after the exchange between her and Diana.  The camera follows as they walk into the department store, and the musical score rises, but it is still possible to hear Etta, having agreed with Diana that she is the equivalent of a slave, go on to explain that "...the pay is rather good."

    So, on the one hand, we have Etta making a 21st century joke about how being a secretary is like being a slave.  And on the other hand, we have the film's obvious belief that Etta is a trailblazer for being a woman who works (with all the issues that attend that form of mid-century, mainstream-friendly feminism, which tends to ignore the fact that women have always worked, just not always in professions with prestige, good conditions, and good pay).  But most importantly, we have Diana falling in with both of these contradictory attitudes, when what she should be decrying as slavery is the very notion that one should have to work to earn the means of survival.

    When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, there was a lot of discussion of Steve Rogers's politics, with some persuasive arguments that Steve, the Brooklyn-born, working-class child of immigrants, would have been at least a socialist if not an all-out communist, in direct opposition to Tony Stark, the benevolent oligarch (four films later, Steve and Tony have devolved into subtly different variations on American imperialism, so it's no wonder that we're looking to Wonder Woman for a fresh start).  But, if we assume that Themyscira is the utopia that it claims to be, then Diana should be even more of a radical than Steve, and her feminism should be inextricably bound up with the kind of anti-capitalism that would obviate both Etta's pride in having secured well-paying work, and the idea that one's work would require you to be constantly at the beck and call of another person.  Obviously, this is putting more thought than the film ever expected me to into a fundamentally thoughtless gag.  But it also feels like the perfect encapsulation of the limitations of Wonder Woman's feminism--of the limitations of any feminism that begins and ends with representation.

  • I've written already about the similarities between Wonder Woman and The First Avenger--as I said on twitter, Wonder Woman feels at points as if it's retelling the Captain America film's story, from the perspective of a Peggy Carter who also happens to be the one with superpowers.  The more I think about it, however, the more it feels as if Wonder Woman is in direct conversation with the earlier movie, and deliberately attempting to address its flaws, particularly when it comes to the depiction of weakness, injury, and loss.  Wonder Woman's variation on the Howling Commandos stands out for its willingness to allow these characters to carry irreparable damage, and to contribute nevertheless.  But the film is perhaps most remarkable for its willingness to accept that people don't have to be able to contribute in order to be valuable--or that their contributions don't have to be related to martial prowess.  The moment in Wonder Woman that most sets the film apart from the superhero films that have come before it, and most effectively establishes who Diana is and what makes her a hero, comes when the shell-shocked sniper Charlie, who froze and was unable to carry out his duties in the previous battle, suggests that he stay behind, because he has nothing to offer.  Without missing a beat, Diana replies: "but Charlie, who will sing for us?"

    By the end of the film, Charlie will of course have picked up his weapon again.  But it's important that this is not signposted as a huge redemptive moment for him.  As far as Wonder Woman is concerned, Charlie doesn't need to be redeemed, or even cured.  His value as a human being, and a friend, is not diminished by his inability to be a soldier.  As I've written many times in the past, I am deeply bothered by the way that superhero stories, and the MCU in particular, depict trauma and disability, often distinguishing good from bad characters by whether they are willing (or able) to overcome their past, and become fighters once more.  The franchise is profoundly uneasy with characters who can't overcome their damage, and particularly those who express their mental health issues in uncomfortable, unattractive ways--consider, for example, the way that Thor: The Dark World plays Erik Selvig's lingering trauma over having been brainwashed by Loki for laughs, while dealing very soberly with Loki's own, more photogenic emotional problems.  Let's not forget that The First Avenger itself is a story about a hero who is weak--one might say disabled or chronically ill--and who is magically cured of his weakness.  Or that the MCU's most consistently incurable character and most obvious analogue to Charlie, Bucky Barnes, is someone the films have never entirely known what to do with, literally sticking him in storage in lieu of facing head-on the full extent of the damage he has sustained.

    There's an obvious caveat here, which is that while Steve Rogers may be cured of his weakness, Diana was born without any.  It's easy for her to tolerate weakness in others when she is literally a goddess herself, and in fact one might argue that the former emerges from the latter--that to Diana, we are all so fundamentally weak that the difference between Charlie and Steve Trevor is essentially meaningless.  But even taking that into account, it still feels incredibly important for Wonder Woman to have taken the time to let Diana be kind, and to let characters like Charlie express their weakness without being expected to overcome it.  (Having said that, it shouldn't be ignored that the film also fails quite badly on the disability front with the character of Dr. Maru, who falls into the risible stereotype of the evil disfigured person.)

  • The more I think about it, the more it feels like the biggest flaw in Wonder Woman, not just as a feminist work but as a film trying to establish Diana as her own unique kind of hero, is the near-total absence of women after Diana leaves Themyscira.  The scenes on the island are powerful, not only giving the film an easy and meaningful Bechdel pass but establishing strong relationships between Diana and her mother and aunt.  But those relationships are effectively closed off when Diana leaves the island.  It is particularly frustrating to see how Steve repeatedly draws on the memory of his father for courage and inspiration, while Diana never even mentions Hippolyta or Antiope after parting from them.

    In the modern world, Diana's relationships with women are brief to the point of nonexistence.  Etta disappears almost as soon as she's introduced.  There is virtually no interaction between Diana and Dr. Maru.  Aside from all the other ways in which this is a problem, it feels utterly unbelievable for Diana, who has spent her whole life surrounded solely by women, to be so comfortable being the only woman in her circle.  She should be seeking out women wherever she goes, inherently more comfortable in their company than she could ever be around Steve or the other men in their group.  Nor should there have been any shortage of women with whom she could have interacted--WWI offered great scope for women outside the confines of the domestic, as nurses, factory workers, even spies.  If there's one thing that I want future Wonder Woman movies (or, for that matter, future Justice League movies) to address, it is the paucity of relationships between Diana and other women.

  • Like, I suspect, most viewers (who don't know a great deal about WWI), I assumed that the villain of Wonder Woman, Ludendorff, was an invented character.  I was surprised--and impressed--to discover that he was based on a real WWI general, and even more intrigued after I read his wikipedia entry.  The real Erich Ludendorff was one of the most influential figures in wartime Germany, essentially running large parts of the war and of the country's economy.  Unlike his film analogue, he supported an armistice, but only because he saw no hope for victory.  But he also saw Germany's defeat as a humiliation, both personal and national, and was further outraged by the Treaty of Versailles.

    Though not a Nazi himself, Ludendorff was absolutely a fellow-traveler to them.  He coined the "stab in the back" myth, which blamed Germany's loss in the war on internal sabotage by Jews and communists.  When the Nazis emerged in the 20s, Ludendorff was sympathetic to them, even having cordial meetings with Hitler, and he supported the abortive Beer Hall Putsch.  After the Nazi party was outlawed following the putsch, Ludendorff represented the National Socialist Freedom Movement in the German parliament, made out of former Nazis and members of the German Völkisch Freedom Party.  Even his personal philosophy sounds like the origin story of the Red Skull:
    Ludendorff was a Social Darwinist who believed that war was the "foundation of human society," and that military dictatorship was the normal form of government in a society in which every resource must be mobilized.[63] The historian Margaret Lavinia Anderson notes that after the war, Ludendorff wanted Germany to go to war against all of Europe, and that he became a pagan worshiper of the Nordic god Wotan (Odin); he detested not only Judaism, but also Christianity, which he regarded as a weakening force.[64]
    I mention all this not just because it's interesting, but because it casts the film's depiction of its villains in a new and intriguing light.  There's been a lot of discussion of Wonder Woman's choice to frame Germans as the "bad guys" in WWI, with some commentators lamenting a simplification of history that depicts all German villains as Nazis, and others arguing that the film's choice of WWI as its setting was a deliberate attempt to avoid an easy categorization into heroes and villains.  But as Ludendorff's history shows, the issue is more complicated.  While not a Nazi himself, Ludendorff sympathized with and supported the Nazis' goals and philosophies.  What's more, his post-war career reminds us that the Nazis were not the only fascist, racist movement to emerge in Germany, and that the ideas that drove them found fruitful ground in many levels of society.

    Especially right now, it feels important to me to point out that Nazi-esque evil is not restricted to just those people who wear the right uniforms and make the right salutes (this is one of the reasons why the "Hydra are Nazis!" conversation that has emerged in response to Marvel Comics's bizarre pandering to the far-right has struck me as oversimplified and frustrating).  In every society, there are always going to be racist, authoritarian, anti-democratic groups, that worship power and believe that things like human rights, the rule of law, and freedom of expression are, at best, effete luxuries, and at worst, threats to the nation.  Whether they're the Nazis or the KKK or the alt-right, the danger that these groups pose is not in themselves, but in the possibility that the population as a whole will enable them, ignoring the danger they pose or even voting them into power.  The narrative of Economic Anxiety that most of us have been taught about the Nazis' rise isn't entirely inaccurate, but it elides the degree to which people wanted the Nazis in power because they wanted to feel powerful, because the allure of authoritarianism and violence is ever-present, especially when fanned with hysteria about Those People.

    To be clear, there isn't a great deal of this in Wonder Woman, and in fact I'm disappointed that the film leaves out so much of Ludendorff's actual personality (there's also the fact that with both Ludendorff and Hindenburg dead at the end of the movie, one might expect the history of the world in the DC cinematic universe to have progressed very differently from ours).  But I think the seeds of what I've described here are in the movie--the idea that it isn't one particular fascist philosophy that we should be worried about, but an entire cluster of nationalistic, authoritarian movements, and more than that, the impulse towards war and conquest.  It's hard to know how much we can expect future Wonder Woman movies to espouse the pacifist philosophy that the film ends on--this is, after all, a genre that runs not just on violence, but on the idea that violence can be good, even redemptive.  But Wonder Woman itself certainly comes closer to doing so than almost any superhero story in recent memory.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Review: Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock at Strange Horizons

My review of Anne Charnock's third novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, is up at Strange Horizons.  I took this review as an opportunity to air some of my frustration at one of the most glaring blind spots of science fiction (and perhaps fiction and public discourse in general), pregnancy and fertility.  A genre that likes to imagine that it will dismantle any commonplace of modern life, and ask how changing it changes humanity, has been deafeningly silent on one of the most basic, common human experiences.  It's as if science fiction writers believe that there's nothing to change or innovate when it comes to how we create children, even as the real-world state of pregnancy undergoes massive upheavals due to public ignorance and indifference.

It's perhaps because of my eagerness for science fiction that engages with fertility that I found Dreams Before the Start of Time a little underwhelming.  Some of what Charnock does in this book, which follows several families over the course of nearly a century, as each generation grapples with how they want to create the next, is very interesting.  But taken as a whole, Dreams is too focused on the personal, on pregnancy as a personal choice that the characters can agonize over--and then be blamed for by their children.  The political and social forces that shape how pregnancy is viewed and experienced, meanwhile, feel muted.  To a certain extent that's me blaming Dreams for not being the book I wanted it to be, but I continue to feel that the book I wanted is essential, and sadly absent.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 25

This bunch of movies is something of a transitional group--a few of the early blockbusters of the year, but also some of last year's art-house movies that only made it into Israeli movie theaters recently, and one movie that I wasn't expecting to see here at all.  The coming summer doesn't have much that appeals to me (though I was excited to learn, just today, that both Colossal and The Big Sick have scheduled Israeli releases), so this might end up being the most intriguing group of movies I see for some time.
  • Get Out - It's a bit of a shame to come to Jordan Peele's blockbusting debut film so long after its release, given that its topic, twists, and most memorable moments have been the subject of so much discussion (not to mention GIF-ing and meme-ifying) in the intervening months.  I would have loved to approach Get Out knowing a lot less about it (but then, until very recently it was quite unusual for Israeli film distributors to even purchase films by or about African-Americans, so I guess even a delayed release is something to celebrate).  Still, even knowing what to expect, there's a lot to enjoy and admire here, both the audacity of creating a film that melds the horror genre and the real-life horror of racism and racially motivated violence so seamlessly, and the skill with which that melding is accomplished.  In its early scenes, Get Out feels like a pitch-perfect dark comedy of social awkwardness, as photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, excellent) nervously accompanies his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) on a weekend visit to her family, uncertain what to expect in a white enclave where he is likely to be the only black presence.  Chris's interactions with Rose's parents, Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), initially balance on the knife's edge between well-meaning cluelessness (Dean assuring Chris that he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have) and something more sinister.  The more Chris sees of the neighborhood, however, the more suspicious it seems, and particularly his interactions with the few black members of the community: Dean and Missy's servants Walter and Georgina (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel), or friend of the family Logan (Lakeith Stanfield), whose behavior grows increasingly creepy and inhuman as the film draws on.

    Peele has such a perfect grasp on the slowly mounting tension and wrongness in the Chris-focused parts of the film, that the ones that move away from him can feel slack in comparison (in particular, a plot strand involving Chris's friend Rod (LiRel Howery), who grows suspicious of Chris's reports, is very funny, but could have stood to be pared down significantly).  When the film returns to the family home, however, it is a perfect engine of suspense, black humor, and keen social observations.  The core conceit of Get Out is, of course, overturning the racist trope in which the black interloper endangers an innocent white family, by reversing the direction of danger.  But even knowing that going in, I couldn't help but gasp at some of the ways Peele found to express that idea, such as the fact that Chris is literally auctioned off by his hosts (the slow revelation of what's actually going on in this scene is one of the film's most shocking and brilliantly executed directorial flourishes), or the realization, as sirens sound in the distance in the film's final moments, that Chris may be in as much danger from the cops coming to his rescue, who might automatically see him as the assailant, as he was from the people trying to kill him.  But the most audacious and provocative twist Peele makes to his premise is to reveal that the danger Chris is placed in is motivated not by straightforward hatred of black people, but by the fetishization of them and their bodies.  The people he ends up running from desperately want to be black, while feeling so secure in their privilege that they are unable to even imagine the danger that can sometimes pose for real black people--a danger they end up embodying.  It's a rich, heady examination of the inherent contradictions and irrationality of racism, wrapped in a genuinely thrilling and engaging story.

  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 - The second Guardians of the Galaxy film is sentimental, self-indulgent, and very heavily dependent on the twin crutches of its catchy soundtrack and jokes that seem cleverer than they actually are.  It's also a lot of fun--at least while you're watching it--largely because of a still-game cast, psychedelic visuals, and some genuinely exciting action scenes.  The actual plot is overstuffed, but circles mostly around manchild Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) being reunited with his father, Ego (Kurt Russell), a living planet who has taken the form of a man, and whose plans for Peter quickly turn out to be sinister.  There's the hint of a genuinely interesting idea in Ego's dilemma, as an all-powerful immortal who desperately searches for meaning to his existence, and lands on something monstrous but, in its own way, understandable.  But Vol. 2 is much more interested in Ego as an engine for Peter's never-ending daddy issues, to which end it also brings back Michael Rooker's Yondu, the brusque space-pirate who raised Peter, and who spends the last act of the film fighting with Ego over the titles of good and bad dad.  The whole thing looks rather silly and, again, self-indulgent if you think about it for very long, but it works in the moment, largely because Pratt manages to sell Peter's vulnerability and craving for a father-figure without ever surrendering his inherent immaturity and silliness.  (The same, unfortunately, can't be said of Dave Bautista's Drax, who like Peter is meant to be both clueless and deeply damaged, but whose humor in this movie mainly comes off as mean and unpleasant.)

    The other Guardians get their own storylines--Gamora (Zoe Saldana) continues to fight with her adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan); Rocket (Bradley Cooper) pushes people away with obnoxious behavior; and Groot (Vin Diesel) is going through the stages of tree-person development.  It's good that Vol. 2 works so hard to give each member of the team their turn in the spotlight, while also introducing new member Mantis (Pom Klementieff), as well as several new locales and potentially recurring characters (certainly the film does a much better job of juggling multiple main characters and settings than either Civil War or Age of Ultron).  But with each of these storylines being just as heavy-handed as the main one, the ultimate result is both overwrought, and not entirely earned.  It's nice, for example, that Gamora spends most of her on-screen time with Nebula (which also means that Vol. 2 has the most meaningful Bechdel pass of probably any MCU movie), but their shared scenes, which reveal more of the horrors they endured as the adopted daughters of Thanos, only reinforce the impression created by the first film, that Gamora's well-adjusted, even slightly boring personality makes no sense--except as the film needs her to be the adult to Peter's child.  And even when the film's subplots land, Vol. 2 doesn't have a strong control of its tone.  Like its predecessor, it bills itself as cheeky but heartwarming, but what shows up on screen is often much darker, and all the more so for going unacknowledged.  An excessively long sequence in which Yondu's men mutiny, for example, leading first to his supporters being spaced, and then to the mutineers being killed off one by one by Yondu to the sounds a jaunty tune, is weirdly graphic and brutal.  And yet the film clearly means for us to find it cool, or even funny.  It's a good thing that Vol. 2 is so ephemeral, slipping from your fingers even as you step out of the movie theater; thinking about it more than a little reveals some pretty disturbing stuff beneath the surface.

  • To Walk Invisible - I don't know why it took me so long to get around to watching this movie, since it combines so many things I like: the writing of Sally Wainwright, of Happy Valley fame; stories about prickly women artists who keep plugging on despite the obstacles piled in their path; and the Brontë sisters.  Once I sat down to watch the film itself, however, I found its structural choices a bit strange, perhaps even offputting.  To Walk Invisible focuses on the period between 1846 and 1848, when Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë (Finn Atkins, Chloe Pirrie, and Charlie Murphy) decided to focus seriously on their writing as a potential career, encouraging and advising one another on their work, and sending it out to publishers under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.  But it frames that story through the narrative of the final deterioration of the only Brontë son, Branwell (Adam Nagaitis).  The film begins as he returns home, after having been dismissed from a his position as a tutor for having an affair with his employer's wife.  It follows him as he sinks into depression and alcoholism, and ends with his death.

    The film paints a chilling portrait of the agony of living with an addict who won't even try to get better--the queasy combination of frustration, pity, resentment, and love the sisters feel for their brother, especially since, even in his dissipation, he is considered more respectable, and more capable, than they are simply because of his gender.  But because Branwell's actions--drinking and whoring and haranguing his father (Jonathan Pryce) for money--are inherently more dramatic than the sisters' writing, or their silent rage and frustration with him, he can end up taking an outsized role in a story that doesn't belong to him.  Even more disturbingly, the juxtaposition between Branwell's downward spiral and the sisters' success can end up feeling rather moralistic--Branwell is a failure because he won't "get over" serious emotional problems, while his hardworking sisters triumph because they persevere in the face of profound discouragement.  This isn't wrong, obviously--and the film even makes the point that part of the reason Branwell is so fragile is that he's been taught to think only of himself, while his sisters were trained to work hard without the expectation of reward and recognition--but by the end of the story there seems to be a tinge of gloating to the way the film contrasts the male and female Brontës.  It feels particularly pointed that the film ends with Branwell's death, and only informs us that Emily and Anne followed him soon after in its end titles.  Especially when you recall that one of the causes of Emily's death was her refusal to accept medical attention until it was too late.

    All that said, there is still a great deal to enjoy in To Walk Invisible, and particularly the way that it draws each of the sisters as her own unique person, whose personality is reflected in the work she ends up producing.  Charlotte is deeply ambitious, and most able to clearly articulate the frustration of being discounted because of her gender.  Emily is short-tempered and hard-headed, perhaps the most purely talented of the three sisters, but also the one most afraid of exposing herself to public judgment.  Anne is outwardly conciliatory, but also has the keenest social awareness, and is eager to use her writing to advance social causes.  The depiction of writing as work, and of publishing as a business, are not only engaging in themselves, but set up the film's best and most moving scene, when Charlotte presents herself at her publisher's office to quash the rumors that the Bell siblings are all the same person.  Watching her be met first by befuddlement, and then with total, unabashed fannishness is gratifying twice over.  As someone who has been watching Charlotte struggle both professionally and personally, it's wonderful to finally see her get the recognition she deserves.  And as a reader, it's marvelous to imagine how it might be for an author you deeply admire to simply walk into your workplace one day.  If I remain dubious about some of To Walk Invisible's framing choices, its commitment to the idea that the Brontë sisters were remarkable artists, worthy of celebration, is certainly laudable and worth watching for.

  • Paterson - For about its first half hour, it's hard not to feel a sense of slight puzzlement towards Jim Jarmusch's most recent movie.  What is it about this gentle but repetitive film, about the life of a bus driver and his wife, that enraptured so many critics?  Once you get into the rhythm of Paterson, though, the magic of it becomes apparent, though not very easy to explain.  Set over the course of a week, Paterson follows its title character (Adam Driver) as he goes about his routine in the New Jersey town whose name he shares.  He wakes up early in the morning, eats breakfast, walks to work, drives the #23 bus back and forth across town, walks home, eats dinner with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahni), walks their dog, and stops at his local bar for a beer.  In between these mundane actions, Paterson observes the sights of his town, listens to the conversations between his passengers, and interacts with friends and strangers, all of which inspire him to write poetry, which he jots down in a notebook he carries with him.  Nor is Paterson the only artist in the movie.  Throughout the week he runs into other poets, from a little girl to a Japanese tourist to an aspiring rapper, all of whom take the time to observe the world, and try to put something new in it.  Laura, meanwhile, is bursting with talent and creativity, experimenting with everything from fashion to music to cookery, but unable to decide on a single direction.  There's an obvious risk that a movie with this premise will fall into the trap of treating its subjects like an anthropological curiosity: a bus driver who writes poetry!  Working class people with dreams of being taken seriously as artists!  But instead Paterson makes its premise seem not just unremarkable, but entirely inevitable.  It puts us so thoroughly in its protagonist's head that we start to see the world through his eyes, and to see how the things and people he encounters can only be captured through poetry.  It's a feeling that persists even after you walk out of the movie theater--the belief that even in the mundane, there is something worth creating art over.

  • Wonder Woman - Plot-wise, DC's latest movie--and, amazingly, the very first superhero movie in the decade-old "expanded universe" craze to star a woman--is not much to write home about.  Its opening segment on the island of Themyscira is overlong and stuffed with portentous pronouncements (though it does feature the film's most distinctive action sequence, in which a legion of Amazons on horseback battle a boatload of pistol-packing German infantry soldiers).  The rest of the movie, after heroine Diana (Gal Gadot) leaves her home with crash-landed spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) in order to bring an end to WWI, feels almost like a remake of Captain America: The First Avenger, and especially because, despite some solid action scenes, Wonder Woman doesn't really have a signature moment along the lines of Winter Soldier's elevator fight.  None of which is intended as a criticism of this movie, but more an observation that its strengths lie elsewhere than plot.

    Near the top of any list of those strengths would be the characters.  Gadot plays up the young Diana's naivete without ever losing sight of her innate heroism.  Neither the audience nor the characters around her ever doubt that Diana is a born hero, but she also spends the movie in genuine dismay at the cruelty and suffering of the first modern war, and her conviction that this is all the work of the war god Ares, and that all she needs to do is kill him in order to restore peace to the world, grows thinner and less persuasive as the story progresses.  One might expect Pine's Steve to be a cynical contrast to Diana's idealism, but instead his is merely a more mature, more compromised version of her belief in the need to do everything possible to save lives.  (As much as I liked Steve as a character, one can't help but notice how much space Wonder Woman gives him, and how much of a role he has in moving the story and helping Diana develop into a hero, compared to female love interests.  In particular, it feels as if the film ends up downplaying the romance between the two in favor of giving Steve his own story in a way that would never have happened with, say, Peggy Carter.)  The band of misfits the two collect in their quest to destroy a poison gas production site, while obviously based on the Howling Commandos, is compelling for being more obviously damaged: a French-Muslim charlatan who dreamed of being an actor but couldn't make it because of his race (Saïd Taghmaoui), a shell-shocked Scottish sniper (Ewen Bremner), and a Native American smuggler who pointedly observes that he is following the lead of a man whose people exterminated his own (Eugene Brave Rock).  That these unappreciated denizens of the demimonde are nevertheless willing to risk their lives for the greater good--and that Diana recognizes their heroism even when it is curtailed by their various weaknesses--is a powerful statement that hardly any other superhero movie has made.

    Being willing, even eager, to accept the damaged and the flawed is, in fact, Wonder Woman's greatest strength, and the thing that most sets it apart from The First Avenger.  When I first heard that the film was going to have a WWI setting, I assumed that this would be a fig leaf, and that it would nevertheless treat its German villains as cod-Nazis.  Instead, Wonder Woman faces head on the senseless slaughter of the first world war, the fact that there were no right sides in this dispute, and no clear-cut villains (in fact, the actual villains of the film's superhero plot--Danny Huston as a German general who refuses the proposed armistice, and Elena Anaya as a chemist developing new poisons--barely even register compared to the impersonal evil of modern warfare).  Against this much suffering, even a superhero might quail, and indeed the core question of Wonder Woman is what its heroine can (and should) do to save the world from itself--a question that it handles with more nuance and delicacy than the Captain America movies, refusing to blame the ills of the world on a single villain or an infiltration of evil, while insisting that humanity is still worth fighting for.  Diana herself is simultaneously unequal to the challenges set before her, and a figure of hope and inspiration whose strength lies, in no small part, in her refusal to accept that she can't save everyone.  Another way of putting it is that Wonder Woman earns the tone of bleak hopelessness that infected the previous Justice League movies--Diana's experiences actually justify the loss of faith in humanity that both Batman and Superman take as their starting position.  And yet this is by no means a hopeless movie, but rather one that powers through hopelessness, the recognition that there is evil in the hearts of men that no superhero can vanquish, and nevertheless lands on the choice to continue fighting.  I don't know if future DC movies will follow in Wonder Woman's ideological footsteps, but they might be wise to, as it lays out a template for setting themselves apart from the MCU while still remaining recognizably heroic.