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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Film: Europa Report

It was only a matter of time: the “found footage” craze meets the SF space mission in Europa Report (2013), an uneven affair that can’t quite reconcile its inherent sense of wonder with its obligatory terror-in-space plot. It’s about a six-person team of astronaut-scientists who journey to Jupiter’s icy moon of Europa, to try and confirm whether the watery planet harbors any life. Half archival footage, half documentary, the film recounts in alinear, mystery-building fashion the terrifying experiences of the crew, and their ultimate scientific discoveries.

The film possesses effective science fictional moments, and the international (if mostly white) cast – Christian Camargo, Sharlto Copley, Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Karolina Wydra, and Daniel Wu – does a fine job enacting its dramas in the claustrophobic, bottle-showy interiors. When it ventures outside the ship, there are eye-widening visuals and effects, and some classic “Cold Equations” SFnal dilemmas. In general, it’s a respectable effort.

Unfortunately, it’s also beset by an ungainly pace – for a ninety-minute film, it sure feels long – and the scientific mysteries ultimately revealed are not terribly surprising. It could just be that I’m inured to the familiar tropes of the “horror-in-space” subgenre, but I think the real problem is that this movie seems more interested in its form than its substance…like maybe the filmmakers are so focused on the techniques they’re using that they lose sight of the narrative, bringing things to a flat, underwhelming stop. It’s certainly not without merit, but ultimately disappointing.

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Spy 100, #12: Munich

In an often-grim genre, Munich (2005) may well be one of the grimmest films yet. Based on actual events, Steven Spielberg’s high-profile spy drama revolves around the tragic kidnapping and murder of nine Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany. That shocking incident leads Mossad, the Israeli intelligence organization, to launch a retaliatory counterstrike against the Arab terrorists who carried out the atrocity. To lead the team is Avner (Eric Bana), an unlikely choice for a globe-trotting assassin – which is exactly the point, since they want him completely deniable. His mission is so black ops that he has to resign from the Mossad in order to undertake it. But once he goes dark, he and his colleagues carry out their vicious, methodical revenge…only to find complications at every turn, and drastic consequences for every crossroads decision.

Munich is impeccably crafted, full of impressive period detail and artfully executed suspense and action setpieces. And it’s a powerful cautionary tale about how revenge can escalate from the notion of a simple exchange to a complicated skein of neverending violence. Bana, an actor who usually strikes me as inexpressive, does a good job with his conflicted character, and he’s supported well, most notably by his teammates Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Hanns Zischler. It’s not an easy watch, nor is it a cheerful one, but as a realistic deglamorization of the spy business, particularly as it pertains to the complex geopolitics of the Middle East, it’s a powerful and harrowing vision.

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TV: The Comeback (Season 1)

If comedy equals tragedy plus time, comedy’s mockumentary subgenre often subtracts the time right back out again, reveling in its characters’ awkward, trainwreck moments. At its most vicious, this genre isn’t for everybody; perhaps that’s why The Comeback, a one-season HBO series that aggressively skewers the surfacey fakeness of Hollywood celebrity culture and reality TV, didn’t find a huge audience. Following on the heels of the genre’s pioneers Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais, Lisa Kudrow takes a similar hyphenate (actor-writer-producer) turn, and it’s quite a solid effort, an overlooked bridge show from the genre’s early days to its current ubiquitous dominance of the comedy landscape.  (A landscape, incidentally, The Comeback is set to rejoin soon thanks to an unlikely, nine-years-removed resurrection.)

Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a third-rate Hollywood celebrity who made a brief splash in the early nineties in a sitcom called I’m It.  Determined to crawl back into the spotlight, she finally gets her chance, years later, on two shows at once: a puerile new sitcom called Room and Bored, and a concurrent reality series about her return to network television called The Comeback.  (If that’s not meta enough for you, the Comeback we’re watching is actually assembled from the raw footage of the fictional Comeback.)  Followed at all times by a quietly manipulative film crew, Valerie struggles valiantly to smile and charm her way through every awkward situation, whether it be an oversensitive co-star, a ratings disappointment, network interference, or an uncomfortable red-carpet outfit. Her cheery, publicity-hungry surface conceals a tragically fragile ego, which meets its strongest challenge in the form of the hot, young spotlight-stealing star of Room and Bored, Juna (Malin Akerman). No, Valerie isn’t “it” any more, and making things worse, she’s utterly reviled by crass asshole writer-producer Paulie G (Lance Barber), who continually works to humiliate Valerie and undermine her potential stardom.

As ahead of the mockumentary curve as it was, The Comeback is hardly groundbreaking material, its impact probably diluted even moreso by the preponderance of similar shows that have followed in its wake. But it’s still worth watching, both as a savage, convincing satire of Hollywood banality and as a sensational acting vehicle for Kudrow. From Valerie’s superficial highs to her horrible, exisential lows, Kudrow carries the day, managing to be both irritating enough to make the abuse she suffers understandable, and sweetly human enough to be accessible and sympathetic. With the exception of Akerman’s unabashedly airheaded Juna, the support is understated and realistic. Particularly good is Barber as Paulie G, who may be the most realistic L.A. asshole ever filmed.  (I’ve totally met that guy.)

It’s hardly riveting stuff, and I often found myself wondering, Is this show really doing anything? Hollywood in general, and reality shows in particular, are deserving targets, but they’re also pretty easy ones. That  creeping question made this partially a background show for me, especially early on. But the episodes have a subtle, cumulative effect, and mixed in with all its awkward moments, pregnant silences, and technical difficulties are some priceless little character moments from Kudrow. The later installments work in some unexpected drama, and the season resolves in a brilliantly cynical closer that neatly ties everything together and puts an exclamation point on the message. Undoubtedly some folks will bounce right off of this one, but all things considered it strikes me as an unjustly overlooked series in the recent mockumentary craze.

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TV: Orphan Black (Season 2)

Orphan Black was such a home run for me out of the gates that I probably should have expected a drop-off in quality for the second season. Unfortunately there is one, although it’s hardly fatal to my enthusiasm. The show remains must-see television, thanks to the absurdly accomplished work of Tatiana Maslany and the show’s singular mix of science fiction, intrigue, drama and humor.

Having uncovered the true nature of their existence, Sarah and her clones (all played by Maslany) begin the year in a precarious semi-truce with the Dyad Corporation and its leaders, Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer) and self-aware insider clone Rachel Duncan (Maslany again). Scientist Cosima has thrown in with them to work with her lover, Delphine Cormier (Evelyn Brochu). Soccer-mom Alison has agreed to cooperate, but maintains her troubled suburban life with husband Donnie (Kristian Bruun). And Helena, miraculously surviving her injuries, finds herself sucked into the orbit of a weird religious cult. Meanwhile Sarah struggles fiercely to resist Dyad’s influence to protect her daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler) from their exploitative agenda. But the clones have never really controlled their own fates, and the list of secret groups invested in their plight seems endless, throwing them into constant conflict with fantatics, profiteers, the military, the law, and more.

Season two takes a couple of episodes to find its groove, but it does, thanks to Maslany’s versatility, winning support for the rest of the cast, and the show’s characteristic surprises and outrageous twists. The tangle of maneuvering factions is considerably more complicated this year, as allegiances and loyalties constantly shift – an aspect of the show that lends it addictive spy-fi  complexity. Jordan Gavaris is still great fun as Sarah’s foster brother Felix, and welcome new faces enter the mix, including Treme’s Michel Huisman and the ubiquitous Michelle Forbes.

On the other hand, I fear Orphan Black’s reliance on shocking escalation and WTF moments may ultimately paint it into ever trickier corners.  This is particularly evident in the season finale, which I found an enjoyable but disorganized mess. It has glee-inducing, fan geek-out moments, and introduces intriguing new developments, but its convoluted attempt to tie together all the loose ends is pretty sloppy, with glaring logic gaps and momentum-halting stumbles. Will it be able to sustain its hair-raising balancing acts through further seasons, ala The Shield, or spiral out of control and outlive its welcome, ala Dexter? Hopefully the former, but either way it’s walking the path of that type of show, and I hope it doesn’t lose sight of its core strengths – character, performance, interesting SFnal questions – in its pursuit of dazzling structural legerdemain.

These concerns aside, with its winning cast and rich subject matter Orphan Black should have plenty of gas left in the tank. And really, as long as Maslany keeps bringing her A-game to this amazing, star-making vehicle, the show will have my utmost attention.

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TV: The Americans (Season 1)

It took me a long time to finish season one of The Americans, FX’s period spy drama about Russian sleeper agents in the 1980s. For a series that has my name written all over it, I’ve had a hard time getting fully invested in this one.

The Americans of the title are Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys), the Jennings, an unassuming suburban couple who are secretly deep-cover agents for the Soviet Union. They’ve been living the lie so long, even their young children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) aren’t aware of their true nature. The Jennings live a conventional American life on the surface, but secretly they’re furthering the aims of their Soviet masters, carrying out operations in a variety of guises. All the while they’re trying to stay one step ahead of the FBI – including their next-door neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich).

With its understated spycraft, convincing period detail, and fine performances, The Americans has all the outward assets, and really the writing is quite good, too. Russell and Rhys are capable anchoring presences for the series, and both are chameleonic, transforming themselves with clever disguises to suit the mission. (The role-playing here is basically the opposite of Alias; whereas Sydney Bristow’s costumes made her stand out like a sore thumb, the Jennings’ make them nondescript and inconspicuous.) Emmerich’s Stan Beeman is a highly credible and formidable adversary, and Margo Martindale has an unusual turn as the Jennings’ ruthless Soviet handler. Meanwhile, just enough historical detail is dashed into the proceedings to contribute to its rich, convincing ambience.

Despite all this, something wasn’t connecting for me, and it took the entire season to put my finger on it: this is not, first and foremost, a spy series. The Americans is a period family drama with a marriage focus. The Jennings’ “marriage” is a troubled one, and it has decidedly unique challenges – but the missions complicating their life, which often involve manipulating and seducing sources, actually stand in for conventional marital strife. I think I would have read the show differently if I’d seen that angle from the beginning. But I kept trying to invest myself fully in the espionage hugger-mugger, which – while hardly ineffective – is ultimately secondary. Meanwhile the show’s most interesting storylines involve infidelity, which is tangled up almost inextricably with the work. Elizabeth has an ongoing affair with her first recruited asset, Gregory (Derek Luke). One of Phillip’s ongoing obligations involves seducing and conning an FBI employee named Martha (Alison Wright). And when Stan turns a young Russian embassy employee named Nina (Annet Sergeevna), he falls in love with her. It’s all professional spy business, and yet the personal cost reflects back on the characters’ “real” relationships. It’s more interesting to me now in retrospect than it was in the moment; I think I was viewing the show wrong, expecting something slightly different than the show was delivering.

The Americans does enough right that I’ll probably keep going with it, but going into season two I’ll be watching with new eyes.

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Film: Guardians of the Galaxy

Consider me among the many who felt that Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was a weird choice for expanding the Marvel cinematic universe. Now that I’ve seen it, consider my skepticism erased. Knowing very little about these characters, I went into the film expecting nothing except that it would probably be pretty good. But it’s much better than good — in fact, it’s among the best of the Marvel films, probably better than The Avengers.

Abducted from Earth as a young boy, Peter Quill aka Starlord (Chris Pratt) is a goofball thief on a mission to retrieve and sell a powerful, mysterious orb. Alas, the orb (read: universe-shaking MacGuffin) has other suitors, most dangerous among them the ruthless Kree leader Ronan (Lee Pace). Quill’s attempt to sell the orb lands him in prison with Ronan’s treacherous assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a genetically engineered raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a giant tree-creature named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and a violent maniac named Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Cast together by fate, this ragtag group forges a tenuous alliance in order to make their fortune and achieve their individual goals. But as they learn more about the orb’s vast powers, and its potential for wreaking havoc on the galactic order, they start to come together as a team to serve a greater purpose.

The movie starts a little slowly and distantly, but soon escalates into a wicked fun adventure full of laugh-out-loud humor, heart, and gorgeous science fiction visuals. In the comic books, Marvel’s galactic adventures never resonated with me the same way their Earth-based stuff did, but much as the Thor films made Asgard accessible, Guardians does the same (even better) with Marvel’s alien worlds and interstellar civilizations. Getting invested in the plight of these distant worlds did not take long.

But where the film exceeds most is in introducing and building its characters: an increasing strength of the Marvel films. The team is basically your classic band of outlaw misfits, but the script digs a little deeper, giving each of them powerful moments that render them all the more sympathetic and real. Pratt brings his usual, effortless comic timing and physical humor; Saldana and Bautista are both physically formidable and quirkily likeable; Groot is an absolute hoot as the team’s Chewbacca-figure; and Rocket, a character I expected to find annoying, is probably the most nuanced and entertaining character, given terrific voice by Cooper. The narrative builds their created-family rapport organically and convincingly, and for a big-budget film so whimsical and kooky, it’s a surprisingly inspiring narrative, regularly delivering emotional, verklempt-making moments…right before hilariously breaking them down.

As is often the case in these affairs, the villainy feels a little incidental. Pace’s effective Ronan is your standard universe-threatening sociopath, and his underlings — most noticeably Nebula (Karen Gillan) — aren’t given much to do beyond bringing the violence. But it’s hard to find much else wrong with the film, a winning, spectacular adventure and another impressive feather in Marvel’s cap. Loved it!

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