TV: Danger 5

Danger_5_PosterIt fills me with a perverse sense of joy that something as weird, uncompromising, and wrong as Danger 5 (2011, 2014) exists. There are bad TV shows, and there are so-bad-it’s-good TV shows, but Danger 5 is a rare beast: a knowingly bad show that is so cleverly bad, it’s kind of amazing. Or, maybe, awful.

The Australian-produced Danger 5 is — or perhaps I should say, it starts as – a 1960s-style spy spoof about an international team of operatives tasked with saving the world from the Nazi menace – and, of course, killing Adolf Hitler. Further summary? Unnecessary. This show is bonkers. It’s Thunderbirds by way of Our Man Flint, produced by Sid and Marty Krofft. There are puppets, and miniatures, bizarrely reimagined Nazi villains and hilarious anachronisms. The dialogue is random, and deliberately, badly dubbed – even the English lines. The special effects are brilliantly horrible, the tone is brain-meltingly crass, and it revels in its nutty, self-aware political incorrectness. It is at once a travesty and a work of mad genius, sure to repel as many as it lures. It’s the kind of show you watch with your jaw hanging open. It makes Iron Sky look tame. Check this out (not exactly safe for work):

I’m guessing many of you didn’t make it through the trailer. And get this: it gets even weirder. In season two, the show’s satirization of the excesses of 1960s wish-fulfillment adventure morphs into a send-up of 1980s film-making excess. The war is over, but Hitler is still at large, and the Danger 5 team reunites to hunt him down and take him out. The chase leads them across a horrible cinematic landscape of the very worst 1980s film tropes.

Season two’s tone skews from Rambo to Fast Times at Ridgement High to Miami Vice to Scanners to Back to the Future. It’s a seven-episode reminder of the atrocity that was the eighties, and if you can’t get through the first season, you’ll find the second one virtually unwatchable. Personally I found it difficult to like, but also impossible to turn away from, and the way it finishes off the story is unexpectedly satisfying. I watched it in a state of bemused awe. It’s a purposeful mess, but it knows what it’s doing and realizes it apeshit vision with manic confidence.

Did I enjoy Danger 5? No, because it was horrible, and yes, because it was awesome. Someone asked me over lunch recently what my TV-show guilty pleasure was, but I think I have to change my answer. It’s definitely Danger 5.

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Film: Whiplash

Whiplash (2014) is a film about the extreme lengths people will go to achieve greatness. It’s the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an ambitious young jazz drummer at a prestigious New York music conservatory who wants to be the best. His first encounter with the scathing, legendary jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) – the man to impress at the school, with a career-making reputation – leaves him full of doubt. But Fletcher sees something in him, and singles him out to join his best-of-the-best jazz band. Andy is on top of the world…until Fletcher’s abusive coaching pushes him to his limits, and beyond.

Anyone who’s as ever pursued a creative calling with passion – especially in the music world – will find Whiplash a riveting, suspenseful, and emotionally difficult watch. The nerves, the competition, the compulsion to be the best and the odds against ever achieving that…these elements are almost painfully well realized, and left me at once sympathetic with Andy’s struggle and wanting to beat some sense into him. It is a streamlined and utterly engrossing film. Teller is convincing and accessible as the uncertain but driven Andy, and Simmons is perfectly cast as the foul-mouthed, horrible Fletcher. The production is assured, and the jazz score is intense.

Alas, it has its problematic side. Granted the jazz music world is probably male-dominated, but this is another film about greatness that also “happens” to be a film about men. The only substantive female role is Andy’s girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), who is dismissed as a distraction; I wanted this to be thematic commentary, but I’m afraid it’s just Hollywood tokenism. More annoyingly, Whiplash purports to critique the appalling behavior of its characters, but really it’s slyly celebrating it– if not, in fact, condoning the problematic theory at the core of its narrative.

I’m torn on this film. It is exceedingly well done, and the ending – Andy’s final performance – is masterfully engineered and highly satisfying. The climactic scenes left me breathless and moved me deeply. But, strong as its narrative is, I wish it had been more sure-handed with its messaging, which muddles its cautionary tone with a dispiriting, mean-streak aftertaste.

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Previously, On Everything…

Following shows from week to week feels so 1990, and I find it increasingly difficult to do as I get older. Why fracture the narrative with such huge gaps between episodes when you can absorb the whole story in the span of a week? Now that TV story-telling conventions have evolved for the binge era, I find it difficult to remember the threads, especially after weeks-long hiatuses.

But it does seem to be the best way for Jenn and I to keep up with our shared-viewing shows, and stay moderately connected to the serial-viewing zeitgeist in real time. So here are my somewhat sketchy thoughts on what I’ve kept up with over the last little while:

Parks and Recreation - Season 7Parks & Recreation, Season 7. This one ended months ago in the midst of our move, and NBC burned through them two at a time as if dispatching an odious chore – factors that combined to deprive me of blogging about the final moments of one of TV’s best-ever comedies. It’s possible this final season, which propelled Leslie Knope (the incomparable Amy Poehler) and her crew into a kooky near future, lost a step over some of its previous seasons. But it was still consistently, uniquely funny, and did nothing to diminish my love and respect for these characters and the show’s refreshingly positive message. I will miss this series dearly. A-

112B99_scn48_080.jpgBrooklyn Nine-Nine, Season 2. Fortunately there’s a Next Best Thing, and that’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which injects Parks & Recreation’s comedic stylings into a Barney Miller-like precinct. Like all the best comedies, B99 has a spectacular ensemble cast, centered around a perfectly leveraged Andy Samberg. (My personal favorites, however, continue to be Melissa Fumero’s adorable apple-polisher Amy Santiago, and a hilariously deadpan Andre Braugher as Captain Holt.) It doesn’t quite have Parks & Rec’s one-of-a-kind mission statement propelling it, but even at its weakest it’s still a joy to watch every week. A

communityCommunity, Season 6. Meanwhile over on Yahoo Screen (where?), the once-brilliant Community is limping through an aimless and uneven sixth season. (Still a few episodes to go, at this writing.) After a brief, semi-rebound in season five, this series has lapsed again, its distinct chemistry eroded further by more departures, especially Yvette Nicole Brown. Fortunately, Gillian Jacobs and Jim Rash have pulled a few episodes out of the fire. “Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing” (in which Dean Pelton agrees to pose as a token gay man on the school board to help school PR) and “Basic Safety Features” (wherein Britta’s ex, Subway, returns) are moderately sucessful standouts, and the elevator scene in “Modern Espionage” is almost worth the rest of the season’s failings. But by and large I’m finding the post-Gas Leak Years Community to be awkwardly paced and strangely unfunny. Oh how the mighty have fallen. D

shieldAgents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Season 2. Speaking of disappointing shows, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – after teasing that it might have turned a corner late in its first go-round – showed measurable improvement early in its sophomore season, only to flounder its way to a clumsy narrative intersection with Avengers: Age of Ultron. What went right this season? Well, the writers separated and delineated Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), immeasurably improving them both. Also, some compelling new blood joined the cast, notably Adrianne Palicki (as Bobbi Morse) and Henry Simmons (as Mac). But after a decent start the season descended into rambling serial incoherence. This show seems destined to be the puppet, if not the punching bag, of the MCU, handcuffed by the scheduled events of the wider universe. But my biggest bone to pick here was with dialogue, a litany of expository logistics and arbitrary disagreement that seemed, line-by-line, to be almost interchangeable; a singular monotonous voice infects each character. Some actors can elevate their material (Chloe Bennett, Palicki, Simmons, Nick Blood), but many more cannot. The saving grace of the season for me was Kyle MacLachlan, who was season-stealing in a juicy role as the mad, villainous Calvin Zabo. MacLachlan delivered a superbly entertaining sustained performance, his presence injecting every scene with a unique MacLachlaneque mix of humor and menace. Other than that, though, I found myself largely indifferent to it all. I’m afraid I may finally be done with this one. D-

goodwifeThe Good Wife, Season 6. For returning shows that continue to deliver, one can always count on The Good Wife, still remarkably strong after six seasons. Yes, the life journey of Alicia Florick (Julianna Margulies) certainly didn’t reach the series’ previous heights this season: her run for state’s attorney, despite some nuanced interplay with opponent Frank Prady (David Hyde Pierce), seemed in some ways a narrative dead end. And the high-jeopardy legal plight of Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) left me with an icky, sinking feeling for half a season. As a swan song for the once-dynamic Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), it also left something to be desired. But, reservations aside, The Good Wife is still addictive, quality TV, and a veritable factory of memorable characters. Kudos to CBS for picking it up for one more year, despite low ratings, to wrap up its epic storyline; here’s hoping the writers can put a satisfying capper on it all. B-

janeJane the Virgin, Season 1. For brand-new shows, I’m wishing for a long and healthy run for the unexpected Jane the Virgin, which – not unlike The Good Wife – is a textbook example of How Not to Market a Show to Chris East. A bright, colorful, and utterly zany series that mimics and riffs off the style of telenovelas, the series stars Gina Rodriguez as Jane Villanueva, a young woman whose life is turned upside down when she’s accidentally, artificially inseminated by the sperm of hot young hotel magnate Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni). Although the upbeat, anything-goes creativity of this series proved difficult to sustain over the course of the year – my interest flagged a bit down the home stretch – it’s still a marvelously fun show that’s also refreshingly, uncommonly diverse. Plus, it’s got the hilarious Jaime Camil (#rogeliomybrogelio). B+

izombieiZombie, Season 1. With all due respect to Jane, I’m even more excited about iZombie, The CW’s engaging zombie comedy from the writers behind Veronica Mars. The medical career of young Dr. Liv Moore (Rose McIver) takes a left-turn when she wakes up in a body bag to learn she’s been zombified. Now she can only eat brains, with the weird side effect that she takes on the memories and abilities of the people she eats. This makes her a particularly useful ally to Detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin), who needs a leg-up closing cases in Seattle’s homicide division. iZombie is grimly amusing, infectious (haha) fun that gets great mileage out of McIver’s winning smile and personality contortions. A terrific supporting cast includes Goodwin, Rahul Kohli, Robert Buckley, David Anders, and Aly Michalka, and the show blends case-of-the-week neatness with a cleverly escalating season arc, much in the way that Veronica Mars did so effectively. It’s promising and confident stuff, with an awesome theme song which is pretty much constantly stuck in my head. A few episodes to go on this one yet, but I’m loving the direction. A-

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Film: Ex Machina

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) is probably one of the best science fiction films ever made: smart, thoughtful, well-acted, beautifully shot, and ingeniously structured. Above all, it’s a thought-provoking examination of artificial intelligence, human psychology, and gender. It’s unfortunate, then, that it winds up falling prey to the exploitation it purports to critique – deliberately, perhaps, but in a distracting manner that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer for a futuristic, Google-like search engine giant, wins a drawing to spend a week at the remote mountain estate of the company’s reclusive genius founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Flown by helicopter to Nathan’s facility, Caleb quickly learns the reason for the visit: his job is to test Nathan’s lifelike robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), to find out whether its AI consciousness can pass the Turing test. The week begins innocently enough, as Caleb meets the miraculous Ava and begins to judge her capacity for human interaction. But as the sessions continue, Caleb learns that something odd is going on at the facility, and his investigation spins off in dark, mysterious directions.

Ex Machina is confident and engrossing, building its human and science fictional mysteries with subtle, effective reveals that pull the viewer inexorably through a maze. It’s visually stunning, but the driving force of its execution is performance. Gleeson shines as the film’s quietly decent hero, while Isaac’s gloriously sleazy Nathan is played to perfection. Vikander, too, is impressive, making Ava feel ever more unknowable and alien as the film progresses, even as she looks more and more human. The plot is thoroughly satisfying, carrying the viewer from innocent intrigue to jaw-dropping discomfort as the unsettling truth is exposed in increments. It’s tight, smart, and powerfully executed in almost every respect.

But late in the game, Garland falters. The film builds, quite deliberately, to an examination of the inherent problem of an artificial person’s potential for being exploited. Ava is Nathan’s creation: not just objectified, but literally an object, and technically a prisoner. As this realization dawns on Caleb, it dawns on the viewer as well, and thrusts them rather effectively into the uncomfortable spaces of Garland’s message. The script drives this twist quite purposefully, and there is an ethical underpinning to it, thematically. But the direction, I think unnecessarily, indulges in the behavior it’s ostensibly critiquing by lingering rather leeringly at the nude robots with whom we’re supposed to sympathize. Films of this nature tread a fine line: are they critiquing exploitation, or actually exploiting? Ex Machina steps over that line and stays there several frames too long. The ogling also breaks the suspension of disbelief; an otherwise immersive story suddenly becomes, transparently, a movie with the seams showing, in which a male director is clearly manipulating his actresses – while, perhaps hypocritically, berating one of his characters for committing the same crime.

That’s a troubling scar, alas, but the surface of the film is otherwise flawless. Garland does, indeed, command this material and one comes away wondering if this one sleazy decision is part of the grander plan: to get the audience to think about the implications of its SFnal premise, and by extension how that reflects back on the uneasy truths of our reality. The best SF does this, and at the end of the day Ex Machina earns that badge.

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TV: The Fall (Seasons 1 & 2)

the fallDark, deliberate crime series The Fall is grimly compelling stuff that plays an unsettling trick on the viewer. Set in Belfast, the mystery centers on a mild-mannered grief counselor named Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan). Outwardly Spector is an upstanding family man, but secretly he’s a vicious serial killer who prays on innocent women. Called in to investigate his latest crime is Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), a brooding and brilliant inspector with psychological insights into the crime borne of her own unique experience. When Gibson connects Spector’s latest victim with an earlier murder, the investigation escalates into a classic cat-and-mouse conflict that strays unflinchingly down the pitch-black alleys of human nature at its worst.

At first glimpse, The Fall’s serial killer narrative plays out like a bleaker, more European inversion of Dexter. There, the writers took great pains to invest you in Dexter Morgan’s particular brand of evil by ensuring his victims were “deserving” targets. Here, though, Paul Spector – played with increasingly creepy and intense villainy by Dornan – is completely and utterly unsympathetic. He feeds off the suffering of his innocent victims in an unrepentant and arbitrary manner. This isn’t to say that the series doesn’t invest you in his plight; part of the show’s penetrating end game is to lure the viewer into a fascination with this monster, despite his irredeemability. He’s a liar, a misogynist, and a sociopath of the highest order, and yet the show plays on your curiosity to concern yourself with his peculiar psychology. The way the series yanks the rug out of this interest is a real punch in the gut.

In terms of sheer watchability, however, the show gets far more mileage out of Gillian Anderson, who is riveting as Spector’s relentless opposite number. Gibson’s determination and professionalism cork a volcano of emotional volatility that’s only ever hinted at by the narrative. It’s one of those subtle, nuanced performances that doesn’t look like acting until you realize how convincing it is.

The faceoff between Gibson and Spector drives the story, but The Fall has other assets: seemingly incongruous subplots that flesh out and eventually tie into the wider world; a solid supporting cast that includes Niamh McGrady, Archie Panjabi, John Lynch, Stuart Graham, Bronagh Waugh, Aisling Franciosi, Karen Hassan, and, in a crucial role, Valene Kane; and a uniquely respectful handling of the potentially exploitative elements so commonly found in this subgenre of crime story. (Really, on this score it’s more similar to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than Dexter.) All these components culminate in a season two ending that some will find abrupt, but that I found thought-provoking, both as a penetrating character study of Gibson and a hopeful sociopolitical commentary.

Be forewarned: The Fall is full of very difficult-to-watch depictions of violence against women. It’s also glacially paced, creaking and lurching through each episode in a manner that will mesmerize some while alienating others. Most surprisingly, evidently there’s a third season in the works…which blew my mind, as the season two finale seemed quite calculated to tie everything off thematically. My guess is that viewers who make it to the end of season two will most likely be interested enough to continue, however; I know I will.

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Spy 100, #3: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

In my view, the list’s top three selections are unassailably awesome spy films, but it’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) that may be the most perfect. This classic of noir intrigue, based on John Le Carré’s breakout novel, is an elegant masterpiece of convoluted spy fiction plotting. It may not be the most purely enjoyable film on the list, but it’s certainly the tightest, craftiest, and most brilliantly realized one, and its influence still lingers fifty years later.

Based in Berlin, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is a station chief for British intelligence. When the last of his agents is killed trying to cross the border, he’s called back to London and put out to pasture by his boss, Control (Cyril Cusack). Or is he? As it turns out, Control has one last operation in mind for Leamas: selling him to the East Germans as a defector, in order to implicate the enemy’s top man, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck), of being a British spy. The elaborate, subtle charade involves Leamas’ faked expulsion from the service, a meager new job, and a descent into embittered alcoholism. It also entangles him in an unexpected romance with a co-worker, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom). But ultimately Leamas hits rock bottom, and when he does, enemy spies come out of the woodwork to recruit him. The devious British plan is in effect, but it turns out to be even more devious than Leamas ever imagined.

Shot in stark, elegant black and white by director Martin Ritt, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an absolute classic of dark spy fiction, and surely one of the genre’s most ingenious narratives. Ritt’s take is quite faithful, and represents a rare instance of a film matching the quality of its source material. The script doesn’t pander or over-explain; it simply immerses the viewer in its sordid, mysterious world, stringing together stately sequences that paint a gradual picture, which finally explodes into focus during the final act. In the process, it serves as an unforgiving, vicious rejoinder to the glamorized, wish-fulfillment exploits of James Bond and his suave, spy-fantasy ilk. At the heart of it all, Richard Burton is ferocious as the embattled Leamas, giving one of spy fiction’s most memorable figures an unforgettably riveting performance.

Viewers searching for colorful, escapist spy action will bounce right off of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but diehards attracted to the genre’s murky gray areas and ethical ambiguities will find it an absolutely essential watch.

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Film – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe – formulaic hitmaker, nostalgic button-pusher, miraculous blockbuster franchise – I still love it, even when I’m apologizing for its flaws and excesses. And yes, the much-anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) possesses its share of flaws and excesses, rough edges that could have used some sanding down. On the other hand, I still found it highly satisfying: breathless, funny, thrilling, and chock-full of the iconic heroes of my youth, including some Avengers second-stringers I was very excited to see come to life on the big screen.

The installment begins with a full-on assault of a H.Y.D.R.A. base in the fictional eastern European nation of Sokovia, where the Avengers are tracking down the missing sceptor of Loki. But they get much more than they bargained for: not only do they face off against two experimentally enhanced humans – the twins Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) – but they stumble across the seeds of a complex new artificial intelligence. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) decides to develop this AI into an invincible new peace-keeping technology, and lures Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) into helping him. Alas, that famous Stark inventiveness has always had its short-sighted side, and his experiment spawns Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a robot whose notions of “peace in our time” turn out to be decidedly more pure and sinister than Stark ever imagined.

Without getting much further into it, I suppose that’s an adequate, brushstroke summary of the plot, which is more or less a structural and thematic mirror of its predecessor. As in the original, the fractious, exceptional individuals that make up the Avengers are first torn apart by their differences – with a little help from the villains – but then rally, with the moral guidance of Captain America (Chris Evans, still pitch perfect in the part), to present a unified front against a threat to the world. Ultron wants to eradicate humanity and evolve a new species, but he’s more or less the same type of villain as Loki: a maniacal trickster, with legions of minions at his disposal for the Avengers to systematically obliterate.

It’s a successful formula, and a solid framework on which to hang the series’ raison d’être: clever, engaging character interactions between the team’s iconic heroes. As usual, Joss Whedon’s dialogue zings and sings, full of witty lines and clever rejoinders. The ensemble dynamic – even complicated as it is by its small army of new and recurring characters – is as exuberant and winning as ever. Whedon has always been good at fast-paced interplay between disparate team members, and he hasn’t lost his touch.

He also pleasantly surprised me by scaling back the story focus on the MCU’s dominant A-listers – Captain America, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Iron Man – in favor of the characters who don’t have their own franchises. It was a pleasure to see extra attention given to Bruce Banner, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Alas, Johansson and Ruffalo are shotgunned into a romance that capitalizes on their chemistry, but diminishes Black Widow’s agency and resourcefulness. Not exactly a feather in Whedon’s cap, regressing Johansson – to me, the walkaway superstar of the franchise – into much more conventional, supporting-role spaces. Meanwhile Hawkeye, ever the butt of a joke, has a nice subplot painting him as the team’s “glue guy;” finally the wise-cracking Hawkeye I loved as a kid has found his way to the big screen. Renner isn’t my ideal incarnation of Marvel’s unlikely archer, but he comes closer here than ever.

The film also introduces three more great, lesser-known Marvel characters: Quicksilver (Taylor-Johnson), Scarlet Witch (Olsen), and the Vision (Paul Bettany). All three are introduced in lore-bending but effective fashion, integrated well in light of the limited time allotted to the task. While we don’t really get to know them too deeply, their powers are perfectly rendered, and their surface personalities, at least, are true to the lore.

So what’s not to like? Well, for one, there’s a certain level of structural and thematic predictability – some attributable to MCU formulism, others born of Whedon’s familiar writing tactics. There are hand-wavey plot transitions that gave me “wait-what?” moments. (The vision pool? The Vision’s Frankenstein-like birth?) Some of the story decisions (the Banner-Natasha romance, the “Science Bros” subplot) felt like fan-service pandering…or maybe the greasy fingerprints of studio interference. There’s Stark’s dismaying remorselessness in light of his disastrous decisions. And there’s the ever-worrying trend of wanton destruction, collateral damage, and civilian casualties that tend to cloud these otherwise light-hearted spectacles. (A lengthy, middle-stretch slugfest between Iron Man and Hulk – while it has thematic and emotional payoff, at least – reminded me, dispiritingly, of Peter Jackson’s King Kong dinosaur battle. I felt bludgeoned.)

In the greater scheme of things, and in the moment, these issues didn’t particularly bother me; I was more or less swept along by the colorful, exciting fun of it all. These are characters, after all, that lodged themselves into my pop culture psyche as a kid, and I’m still a little amazed at how well they’ve translated to the big screen thirty-odd years later. Is the continuity getting too overpopulated? Probably. Can the MCU sustain its hit-making prowess without shaking up its formula now and then? I do wonder. But as chaotic and messy as the universe is getting, my enthusiasm just isn’t flagging. Avengers: Age of Ultron is imperfect, but I still enjoyed the hell out of it.

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Novel: The Buried Life by Carrie Patel

Debut author Carrie Patel’s The Buried Life (2015) is a dystopic mystery set in Recoletta, a subterranean city located in…where, now? This is one of the questions that propels this breezy, engaging SF mystery.

Liesl Malone, a determined inspector for Recoletta’s municipal police, is joined by a dashing new partner named Rafe Sundar for an important case: looking into the murder of a member of the city’s ruling council. Their investigation, which takes them through the dark, murky warrens of the underground city, only scratches the surface of what turns out to by a wider conspiracy, which also entangles young Jane Lin. Jane is a laundress whose access to powerful clients in the wealthy quarter embroils her in parallel intrigues. Malone and Jane don’t know it, but they’re curiosity and determination has set them on a collision course with each other, with history, and with Recoletta’s turbulent future.

The Buried Life is a bracing and accessible read, full of nicely honed turns of phrase and entertaining banter. And I grew rather fond of its well rendered characters as they doggedly search for the truth underlying their reality. The story action is rife with compelling ingredients, from high society balls to government conspiracies, romantic encounters to action setpieces. Unfortunately, in my opinion the novel did fall down a little bit on its setting and world-building. Recoletta only came alive visually in snatches, and the deeper realities of the futuristic scenario aren’t examined in all that much detail. Chiefly concerning: why does society remain underground when the surface seems perfectly recovered from whatever catastrophe befell it in the past? A corner of my mind was hoping for an answer to this question at the end, preferably something integral to the plot, but it never quite comes. But the ride, overall, is a fun and promising one, an engaging retrofuture procedural with a winning cast. Here’s hoping the sequel addresses some of the novel’s meta-issues.

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Spy 100, #4: Goldfinger

Hallelujah. The final James Bond movie on the list, Goldfinger (1964), has been dutifully processed. I wasn’t impressed. Actually, let me put it this way: I thought it was wretched.

Goldfinger pits smarmy superspy James Bond (Sean Connery) up against Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), a seedy dealer in precious metals who’s clearly up to no good. Tasked with revealing Goldfinger’s evil schemes, Bond plants himself in the villain’s path, quasi-befriends him, and then finds himself neck-deep in Goldfinger’s elaborate plans to hijack the US gold reserve in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Okay, I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect a best-of spy movie list not to lionize Bond. And Goldfinger is iconic stuff, not just within the franchise but within the entire genre. There’s legendary Bond girl Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). There’s memorable adversary Oddjob (Harold Sakata). The famously tricked-out Aston Martin. The classic scene with Bond on a table, about to be bisected by a laser. That undying exchange of dialogue: “Do you expect me talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” And the lavish Fort Knox setpiece. All of these ingredients would influence subsequent Bond movies, and spy filmdom in general, for decades to come.

But holy cow, is this a tedious yawner. Bond’s “best” film, by this list’s reckoning, is dating very, very poorly. The plot is a confused muddle. The villains’ decisions are illogical and convenient. The fight choreography is clumsy. The technological eyeball kicks have lost their luster. And my God, is Bond ever an unlikeable hero. What an entitled, sexist asshole.

The fourth best spy movie of all time? I’m not convinced it’s the fourth best Bond movie of all time. Certainly From Russia With Love (#39) and Casino Royale (#73) are superior, at the very least. Alas, the best thing about Goldfinger is that it is the last James Bond movie I will ever have to watch.

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Film: Force Majeure

Force MajeureThe Swedish film Force Majeure (2014) is a long, difficult watch, but it rewards the effort – provided you’re interested in stunning scenery, awkward cinéma vérité stylings, and painfully insightful gender subtexts. (How’s that for a soft sell?)

In the French Alps, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) take their two young children on a posh holiday to a ski resort. It’s a relaxing, indulgent time for the family until the unexpected occurs: a controlled avalanche goes awry, nearly engulfing them. Ebba moves instinctively to protect the children, but Tomas, in a moment of panic, races to save himself. When the snow settles, no harm is done but everything is utterly changed, as Tomas’ momentary knee-jerk cowardice drives a wedge between the husband and wife, and sends Tomas spiraling toward an emotional breakdown.

Force Majeure is the kind of patient, slow-building movie that’s sure to bore some viewers while mesmerizing others. I fell into the latter camp, lured by its breathtaking cinematography, realistic performances, and the way its simple scenes build a complex picture. At first it comes across like a painstaking, bludgeoningly honest character study, but eventually reveals itself to be a scathing indictment of traditional gender roles – especially conventional male self-image. Heroic, strong, knowledgeable, in-charge…Force Majeure lays bare the weakness and hypersensitivity lurking underneath this posturing façade. I’ve seen this film billed as biting comedy, but it didn’t remotely tickle my funny bone; this is a nuanced and penetrating monument to the enduring toxicity of modern male behavior. Hard to stomach, but very well done.

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