Film: How I Live Now

“When you’re a teenager, falling in love feels like the end of the world…” Or so I imagine the pitch session for How I Live Now, a British indie that blends post-apocalyptic SF with fairly conventional YA romance. Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a bratty American kid, obsessed with the surface trivia of teenaged life, when she’s sent – against her will – to spend a summer with extended family in England. She’s determined not to enjoy her stay, but gradually she begins to find her new life charming – thanks to her fun-loving cousins Piper (Harley Bird), Isaac (Tom Holland), and especially Eddie (George MacKay), with whom she begins an intoxicating, forbidden romance. Her newfound happiness is short-lived, however, when terrorists detonate a nuclear device in London, triggering World War III. Left to their own devices, the kids hole up to survive the ensuing chaos, but when martial law is declared, the war soon encroaches on their peaceful corner of the universe – and separates the young lovers.

It’s a confidently made, perfectly watchable film thanks to high production values and Ronan’s impressive presence; she does have uncommon gravitas for an actor so young. Alas, Ronan’s charisma must make up for the character’s innate unlikeability – not a fatal flaw, since a coming-of-age transformation is part of her journey, but definitely a barrier. More problematic are the genre elements of the story, specifically the romance and the SF. The Daisy-Eddie relationship, so crucial to the plot, is rather rushed and ultimately sparkless. Similarly unconvincing is the apocalyptic war scenario, a vague and hand-wavy conflict that doesn’t ring authentic. Without being able to buy into either the romance or the SFnal world-building, all that’s left to carry the film are its pretty surfaces and, more importantly, its survival story aspects. Those go some distance to making the viewing moderately worthwhile…but not nearly far enough to warrant a more enthusiastic recommendation.

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Novel: Chimpanzee by Darin Bradley

With his second novel, Darin Bradley continues to establish himself as one of SF’s most intriguing new voices. Like his first novel Noise, Chimpanzee (2014) is a timely, forward-looking, and harrowing vision that muses unflinchingly on the future while riffing off of the present.

It’s the story of Dr. Benjamin Cade — soon to be downgraded to Mr. Cade. In a future U.S. wracked by mass unemployment, Cade – like many others – has defaulted spectacularly on his student loans. This makes him a candidate for Renewal, a new government program to repossess already-delivered education. Cade’s fields of interest – cognitive theory, literature, the search for meaning – make his “knowledge-removal therapy” a particularly existential issue. But before the process is complete, he makes one last attempt to use his education – by doling it out for free, on the streets. His decision to turn the world into his classroom doesn’t sit well with the authorities…and it puts him at the center of a slowly mounting cultural revolution.

Bradley writes like a sinister distant cousin of Philip K. Dick, his work dark, disorienting, and unflinching in the best possible way. Chimpanzee unfolds in an eerie, unnerving manner, somehow cleverly assembling its chilling puzzle even as it methodically removes the pieces. I found it a fast, thought-provoking read, classic “if-this-goes-on” SF that confronts contemporary problems with fierce intelligence. It left me very interested to see more of Bradley’s work.

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Film: Seven Days in May

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy thriller Seven Days in May (1964) is considered the middle chapter in his “paranoia trilogy,” a thematically linked sequence that begins with The Manchurian Candidate and ends with Seconds. The former is more famous, the latter perhaps more accomplished, but Seven Days in May is also a worthy, politically charged affair. The specific subject here is nuclear proliferation, and the apocalyptic dread it engendered at the height of the Cold War. While aspects of its political dialogue about the military-industrial complex are dated, the gist is still quite relevant.

It’s a male-dominated ensemble film with multiple viewpoint characters, but the pivotal one is Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), a principled Marines Corps colonel who works at the Pentagon. Casey is a hawk who opposes a recent nuclear disarmament treaty advocated by left wing president Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) – but he’s also a firm believer in the Constitution and the democratic process that made that treaty a political reality. The intrigue escalates when he pieces together that his superior, General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), isn’t nearly as respectful of American institutions. Scott is a charistmatic right-wing firebrand who believes the Russians won’t hold up their end of the bargain…and much to Casey’s shock and concern, Scott seems willing to go to treasonous extremes to make sure the disarmament treaty doesn’t take effect, even if it means a forcible military coup.

Penned by none other than Rod Serling, who flavors the proceedings with his distinctive voice and memorable turns of phrase, Seven Days in May is probably the least visually arresting of the films in this thematic trilogy. Serling’s deliberate writing favors dialogue to visual story-telling, and Frankenheimer follows the script’s lead. It’s still a compelling film, cleverly and patiently structured, building the drama and intrigue in a manner that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence. If the message is a bit politically strident, it’s also – much like Seconds – chillingly prescient. The cast is terrific across the board, bolstered by the likes of Martin Balsam, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien in key supporting roles. It might be too deliberate and talky by contemporary standards, but I found it a rewarding, historically interesting watch.

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Novel: A Colder War by Charles Cumming

The novels of Charles Cumming have a tendency to propel themselves immediately to the top of my to-read stack, and his latest, A Colder War (2014), isn’t likely to change this trend. The new Thomas Kell adventure is just as colorful, vivid, and enthralling as its predecessor.

Following the events of A Foreign Country, veteran agent Thomas Kell remains in professional exile, biding his time and waiting for the chance to get back to work for MI6. He gets his opportunity when there’s a crisis in Turkey: Paul Wallinger, an old friend and the head of station in Ankara, dies mysteriously in a plane crash. Kell’s fringe status once again situates him to discreetly investigate, a case that sends him to Istanbul and the islands of the eastern Mediterranean. There he reconnects with old colleagues, meets new ones, gathers and analyzes the intelligence, surveils suspects, and – unexpectedly – becomes romantically entangled with Paul’s spirited daughter, Rachel. As it turns out, Paul’s death may be connected to recent operational disasters in the Middle East, and as Kell follows the breadcrumbs, it quickly becomes clear there’s a gaping leak in the US-UK intelligence apparat – one that, until it’s plugged, will leave careers and lives hanging in the balance.

This is, first and foremost, assured and wholly engaging spy fiction. Picturesque locales, idiosyncratic operatives, thorny interservice politics, ideologies and betrayals, detailed tradecraft – it has all the wonderful earmarks of a compelling spy yarn. But what makes Cumming’s work so accessible for me is his focus on the “outspider spy:” the agents looking in from the edges, longing to belong to the secret world even as it seems determined to destroy them. Kell fits squarely into that mold, a tradition started with Alec Milius back in A Spy By Nature. He desires acceptance and inclusion in the spy world, and greatly resents it lack, even as he thrives on the fringes of that world. That notion resonates with me, I think, because when you expand the idea out, it touches on very human problems in the wider world: the complicated, unforgiving system of expectations, norms, and standards we hold ourselves up against, the world’s ruthless cliquism and croneyism, the power networks of privilege and policy and wealth. Cumming always deftly manages the surface details of the genre, but never loses sight of the human angle underneath it all: the personal motivations and the emotional costs. Kell is determined, cunning, highly ambitious, but also flawed: petty at times, prone to schoolboy jealousies and fits of rage. There’s always a person inside the spy in Cumming’s work, and that person’s struggle is often easy to relate to and sympathize with – because it so neatly parallels so many experiences an individual may have, when interacting with with a group, an institution, even a society. It’s a strong theme that spy fiction is particularly adept at exploring – and Cumming, in my book, is definitely among the best at it.

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Film: Carve Her Name with Pride

Netflix spent months convincing me I should watch Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), so I finally obliged…and indeed, it is my kind of movie. Hardly among the top rank of World War II spy thrillers, it’s nonetheless an effective and occasionally moving one, rendered noteworthy as an unusual early action vehicle for a female star.

At the height of World War II, Violette Szabo (Virginia McKenna) falls in love with a dashing soldier of the French foreign legion, only to lose him to the war shortly after their marriage. A child of a British father and a French mother, Violette – fluent in French, athletic, fearless, and uncommonly motivated – is given a unique opportunity to aid the war effort. Despite having a young child by her short-lived marriage, she agrees to become a spy, jumping behind enemy lines to aid the French resistance.

Based on true events, this film is almost identical structurally to another one I watched recently, Decision Before Dawn, showing the origin, the training, and finally the missions of an unlikely spy. Carve Her Name with Pride isn’t nearly as accomplished, however, at least partially because it’s a much more modest production. While it is a vehicle for a female action hero, the feminist subtext is dated: Violette isn’t characterized much beyond her gender, and her story skews toward the home front, family, and marriage. But McKenna is an accessible lead, and the action scenes late in the film, when the going gets tough, are bracing – with Violette right in the thick of it. Carve Her Name with Pride is an uneven and occasionally slow wartime drama, but for me it was a diverting weekend matinee, quietly rewarding.

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Novel: Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

As a long-time reader of science fiction, I frequently defend the genre as literature’s most inclusive: the one that can absorb and contain the elements of other genres, but go even further thanks to SF’s speculative, visionary potential. Generally speaking I still think that’s true, but I also have to acknowledge that I haven’t read enough mainstream fiction to know exactly how true. Jennifer Egan’s fiction puts my theory to the test. While most definitely a mainstream novel, Look at Me (2002) plays the inclusivity game in reverse, incorporating the protocols of other genres into its penetrating, beautifully written examination of America’s obsession with image. It blends elements of mystery, thriller, and PI fiction into its milieu, and even – in an abstract, thematic way – the protocols of spy fiction and SF. It’s the total package, and uncommonly satisfying on many levels.

Charlotte Swenson is a fading supermodel when her career is derailed by a spectacular car accident. She survives, but the resulting plastic surgery makes her subtly, strangely unrecognizable, essentially throwing her very identity and image into question. She recovers, slowly, in her hometown of Rockford, Illinois, exactly the kind of Everywhere USA she became a model to escape, but the intervening years show it in a new light – and, when she eventually returns to New York to resume what remains of her career, her mysterious new anonymity has a similarly transforming effect on her professional environment.

Charlotte is the central figure, but the novel spins off from and informs her story with a number of other characters: the daughter of her best friend from high school, also named Charlotte, and her troubled university professor uncle Moose; a scruffy New York PI named Anthony Halliday; and an undercover terrorist from the Middle East, who is experiencing America for the first time.  Egan intertwines these fascinating lives, and it’s a bracing narrative – fragmented but intrinsically connected, a  technique not unlike her brilliant later novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, another incisive and thought-provoking critique of America. If there the metaphor was rock ‘n’ roll, here it’s image:  perceptions versus realities, the nature of identity, surfaces and subtexts, cultural and societal expectations, peer pressure, the American dream…these themes are all richly, engagingly explored. The characters of Look at Me struggle with these issues, each of their experiences colored by the unforgiving filter of the American backdrop; comparing what they want against what’s expected of them, reconciling their inner selves with how they present externally, trying to see the real world through the cloudy lens of individual perception.

Thematically it’s a fascinating hall of mirrors, eloquent and literary, but not shying away from the tools of genre to enhance the message. Egan’s reflections on the nature of identity are positively science fictional, and there’s also a prescient futurism to her contemporary world-building (the rise of social media, reality television, and the specter of escalating anti-American terrorism – it’s all quite ahead of its time, considering when it was written). Meanwhile, detective and spy fiction tropes creep into the mix: what it’s like to live one’s cover, to look one way and feel another, to keep secrets, to deceive loved ones and enemies alike, and to relentlessly pursue hidden truths. All of these elements contribute to the thematic structure – and also make this a particularly accessible mainstream novel for readers steeped in genre convention. It’s smart, powerful, and totally absorbing, and left me hungry for more of the author’s work.

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Novel: Hurricane Fever by Tobias Buckell

Tobias Buckell’s whip-fast near-future thriller Hurricane Fever (2014) continues the series that began with Arctic Rising, and it’s another topical, bracingly entertaining read. This one features Prudence “Roo” Jones, a retired agent for a joint intelligence agency in the Caribbean. Roo’s peaceful retirement is spoiled by a phone call from a dead former friend in the service, which lures him reluctantly back into the spy game. He winds up in possession of a drive full of stolen weather data, and soon becomes a person of interest on the agendas of several people, including his friend’s grieving sister Kit. He doesn’t know what the data means, but he quickly learns that someone is willing to kill for it, and it leads him back into a life he left behind to uncover an international conspiracy.

It’s a very short, fast read that adeptly fuses classic spy thriller tropes with just-around-the-corner speculation, a winning combination deftly executed. Roo is an engaging and accessible protagonist, and the world-building is convincing and interesting stuff, from the spy-tech gadgets to the details of climate change and heavy weather. From time to time the plot feels a little rushed to me, and the overarching premise behind the hugger-mugger is a bit over-the-top – a mad scheme right out of Monologuing Bond Villain territory. But with its accessible characters, vivid Caribbean setting, and non-stop action, I couldn’t find much to complain about. Hopefully there will be more in this series.

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Novel: Strange Country by Deborah Coates

Deborah Coates’ rural fantasy trilogy comes to a conclusion in Strange Country (2014), another quietly entertaining blend of dark magic, smoldering romance, and upper midwestern quirkiness. This one’s narrative splits time between its two central figures:  Hallie Michaels, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan whose near-death experience has lodged her permanently in between the realms of life and death, and Deputy Boyd Davies, a principled lawman beset by precognitive dreams. The procedural intrigue gets underway when a local citizen is gunned down by a high-powered rifle. Boyd, who is with the woman when she’s killed, launches an investigation that slowly unveils a twenty-year-old mystery, buried in the chilly North Dakota landscape.  His efforts to solve the crime tie into Hallie’s strange, death-realm visions, as her connection with the local land and its people pulls her reluctantly into a web of supernatural mystery.

Strange Country’s plot isn’t quite as propulsive as its predecessors, but I still enjoyed the novel’s vivid, eerie setting, authentic characters, and distinctive midwestern voice. The sparsely populated, wide open North Dakota backdrop is just as much a character as any of the oddball denizens of West Prairie City, a windy, singular blend of Longmire stoicism and Twin Peaks eccentricity. Hopefully this isn’t the last we’ll see of Hallie and Boyd, but if it is, I’m going to miss their weird supernatural afflictions and lingering looks, as well as the series’ atmospheric, slow-building mysteries.

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Film: Blue Ruin

Revenge movies generally aren’t my cup of tea, perhaps because they’re inherently thin thematically; how many ways can you say “revenge is bad?” For some reason my recent viewings are putting this aversion to the test, though, for just as Munich proved that context can make a revenge plot worth watching, Blue Ruin (2013) proves that exceptional execution can do the same.

Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is clearly a man with a dark past, which has left him broken, eating out of dumpsters and living out of a defunct car. When he learns that a mysterious figure from his past has been released from prison, it activates Dwight like a sleeper agent: he heads back to his hometown in Virginia to track the man down. His plan: simple revenge, an act he’s been waiting years to carry out. But Dwight, for all his resourcefulness, is a neophyte to violence, and even as his plan succeeds, there are angles he can’t see in time to keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin is a riveting suspense film, full of classic, visual story-telling that lets the action do the talking. The message is simple enough, but the narrative escalates crisply and logically from one effective setpiece to the next. A no-name cast does a convincing job, and in fact the players’ unrecognizability lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings. It’s all led by Blair, who does an exceptional job bringing his unlikely antihero to life: an unremarkable man raising his game to face the extraordinary, catastrophic circumstances he’s brought upon himself. He’s easy to get invested in, even as the story condemns his every fateful decision.

Is there a point beyond the obvious moral: that an eye for an eye never solves anything? Perhaps not. But Blue Ruin is smart, well oiled, and assured, with just enough surprises and subtly built character to ensure the journey transcends its expected destination.

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Film: Nymphomaniac (Parts I & II)

So now I’ve seen the notorious Nymphomaniac (2013). Perhaps my past experience with von Trier’s provacative shock tactics has inured me, but I didn’t find it as outrageous as I was expecting, despite its frank discussions and graphic depictions of sex and violence – which, since this is von Trier, are intertwined. But really, most of the film involves two articulate actors having a long philosophical conversation, and it’s emblematic of von Trier’s genius that the viewer is gradually, painstakingly seduced into listening. I felt as if I was peeking behind the curtain at a very private story, and the effect is characteristically thought-provoking.

Long suffering von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg stars as Joe, the title character: a woman found beaten and bloody in an alley by a kindly old gentleman named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Seligman takes Joe into his home, and when he finds her morose and self-critical, she decides to tell him her life story: a lengthy, tragic account of her lifelong, destructive addiction to sex. Joe’s tale is both a cathartic exercise, and an impromptu therapy session, as the two character’s viewpoints provide differing angles of interpretation on Joe’s singular experience.

As usual with von Trier, I came away both dazzled and bemused, with a conflicted impression. His visual style is unrelentingly grim, but also darkly beautiful at times; his subject matter is unforgiving and explicit. He pushes buttons to provoke reactions, in this case challenging preconceived notions about sexuality and gender – and, through shock and awe, forcing the viewer to confront questions they might not otherwise have asked. It’s hard not to imagine Skarsgaard’s character as the von Trier stand-in: the manipulative auteur, happy to speculatively mansplain his heroine’s reactions to her own life story. This is discomfiting, but also kind of the point. And at the same time, Seligman struggles to be the objective sounding board, morbidly fascinated by the salacious and sordid details. Seligman, like von Trier, enjoys talking about the things society might not find polite.

For me, the message managed to be both a muddle and ballpeen hammer to the forehead – my primary gut reaction was repulsion, and yet I still watched with rapt attention, mesmerized by the craft and contemplating the artistic intent. The acting, especially from the ever fearless Gainsbourg and game-for-anything Skarsgard, is first rate. There are some particularly good supporting turns as well, most notably from Uma Thurman, whose emotional performance is raw and cringe-inducing. Unfortunately, Shia LaBeouf is along as a major love interest for Joe; his character, Jerome, serves as Joe’s Achilles’ heel. Perhaps it’s LaBeouf’s performance, or maybe it’s his weird celebrity reputation proceeding him, but Jerome hardly seems worth the fuss.

Unsurprisingly, one must leave one’s inhibitions and squeamishness at the door for Nymphomaniac, and it takes some work to appreciate it. As von Trier movies go it’s no  Melancholia, but it is an interesting film in the disturbing manner of Antichrist or The Idiots: an awkward watch through slitted eyes, from which you can’t quite turn away.

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