Novel: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon (2015) is an intriguing and enjoyable read that, with its wide array of viewpoints and fragmented substories, feels a little like a mosaic. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, the tale centers around an alien species that settles in the Atlantic waters just off the coast, and the three humans who first encounter them. Adaora is a marine biologist; Agu is a soldier in the Nigerian army; and Anthony Dey Craze is a famous rapper from nearby Ghana. By chance and fate the three of them come together, and are the first to confront the aliens’ primary emissary, Ayodele, an alien in human form. The aliens’ motives are unclear at first, but as the heroes unravel the mystery, one thing quickly becomes clear: life in Nigeria, and the world, will never be the same.

Okorafor’s inviting, deceptively simple writing style makes Lagoon a smooth, bracing read, even as its narrative jumps perspectives, restlessly exploring tangents and expanding the scope. While I’m not always convinced the author is in full command of her plot, the scenes nonetheless have an impressive cumulative effect. The setting and cultural milieu are refreshing, but so is the unpredictable blend of genre elements: aliens, super powers, myth, magic, and more. These disparate components combine to form a unique, memorable, and unexpected work, both an exciting genre adventure and a thought-provoking political allegory.

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Film: Interstellar

interstellar-posterIs there anything more dispiriting than a widely acclaimed movie that’s virtually unwatachable? Interstellar (2014) is the kind of self-involved mess that only a 900-pound auteur can generate, a bloated, pretentious excuse for a science fiction epic that drowns its incoherent story in an ocean of imbalanced noise. What a trial!

On a dying Earth in the future that consists entirely of Midwestern cornfields, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot and frustrated engineer who’s been forced to redirect his talents toward the world’s most pressing problem: food. His farming career is interrupted when a strange gravity anomaly in his house delivers to him, in binary code, the coordinates of a NASA facility hidden in another nearby cornfield. Turns out there’s a secret project underway to send a scientific team into space, through a wormhole in Saturn, to search for a habitable planet — before life on Earth becomes unsustainable. It’s a chance to save humanity, and Cooper jumps at it. With no training whatsoever, he  assumes command and leads the expedition into an interstellar realm full of cosmic mystery.

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have written good scripts, but oh boy, this isn’t one of them. Full of thin world-building and random scientific babbling, it’s a tedious, unstreamlined blend of quasi-philosophical musing, clumsy exposition, and nauseating love-will-save-all mysticism. As if sensing this, the score drowns the dialogue in thundering sound effects and circular, anesthetizing Hans Zimmer music. In retrospect, this may in fact be a cagey decision, like smothering a recipe’s failings in salt and butter to distract from iffier ingredients. Alas, Zimmer’s score isn’t salt and butter. It’s full of overblown, grandiose sentimentality that somehow slows the pace of scenes that are already interminable. So, deliberate strategy or otherwise, it’s quite possibly the worst sound design in cinema history.

The cast, which includes Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, and Matt Damon, is full of firepower struggling vainly to bring life to unconvincing dialogue. The tone is one of unrelenting pathos for a dying humanity that I cared less and less about with each passing minute of its three-hour running time.

Yes, there are stunning visual effects and occasional moments that push the old sense-of-wonder buttons. But  this is a terrible movie, and worse, it’s a terrible movie that thinks it’s a brilliant one. Alas, simply believing you’re 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t make it so.

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TV: Fargo (Season 1)

fargo_logoWell, here’s an unlikely TV success story: take an old Coen Brothers movie, create a whole new cast of characters, and spin it off into a black humor crime anthology series. Honestly I’ve been so burnt out on reboots, relaunches, and reimaginings that Fargo slipped under my radar when it debuted, but now that I’ve seen it all I can say is holy fucking shit.

Modeled on the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film, Fargo takes place ten years later in Bemidji, Minnesota, and hinges on a fateful, Strangers on a Train encounter. Nebbish insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a hard-luck loser with a wife who hates him, living in the shadow of his successful younger brother. One horrible day culminates in him getting picked on mercilessly by his old high school nemesis, an incident that lands him in the emergency room. There Nygaard meets Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a highly peculiar criminal in town on shady business. Their innocent conversation turns sinister when Malvo asks Nygaard if he wants to see the bully who picked on him dead. Taking the question as hypothetical, Nygaard says yes…but the creepy encounter has imprinted on him, and spins him inexorably into a world of treachery, deceit, and murder. The resulting trail of crime falls to the understaffed, sleepy police department of Bemidji, where its most competent deputy, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), combats the ineffectual complaceny of her peers in pursuit of the truth.

And that’s just a fraction of what happens in Fargo; if it were a novel, writing the synopsis would be a living nightmare. Writer Noah Hawley has tapped into the spirit of the source material brilliantly to weave a Coenesque tapestry of violence, mayhem, understated dark humor, unpredictable left-turns, and narrative non sequiturs. Aside from the central Nygaard-Malvo conflict and Solverson’s crime-solving mission, there are side plots galore that ultimately entangle a dimwitted Duluth cop (Colin Hanks), organized crime hit men (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard), a supermarket magnate (Oliver Platt), and a pair of ineffectual FBI agents (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), among others. All the oddball characters and outrageous plot elements combine into a riveting, one-of-a-kind contraption. And while one major crux of the story — the Breaking Bad-ification of Lester Nygaard — is getting to be a tired old trope, the execution is simply superb, and there are plenty of supplemental storylines to augment that familiar narrative thrust. The most compelling of these, for me, is Solverson’s frustrating career struggle, negotiating a laid back old boys’ network in the face of their lazy indifference. If Nygaard and Malvo represent the dark malice of this fictional universe, Solverson is its inspiring, understated heart, giving you someone to root for even as you’re cringing in rapt awe at the atrocious behavior of the villains.

The show is perfectly cast and uniformly well performed, with the central trio really standing out. Thornton delivers an unbelievably creepy, pretty much legendary performance as the catalyst for everyone’s troubles. Freeman transforms himself impressively into an over-the-top Minnesotan, channeling vintage William H. Macy, while Tolman makes for a relatable and refreshingly unconventional hero. Among the supporting players I was particularly fond of Hanks (who I’m usually pretty lukewarm about), Bob Odenkirk as Molly’s good-natured but incompetent police colleague, and Keith Carradine as her stoic, retired cop father. But there isn’t an acting misstep to be found.

Unfortunately Fargo isn’t exactly a hotbed of well-rounded female characters, and in the grander scheme of “New Golden Age” TV it’s not particularly breaking any new ground. This is primarily another Men Being Horrible story, which is something of a thematic dead horse in the wake of The Sopranos and all that’s come after. Do we really need to explore this idea further? Well, I suppose this theme explains so many American ills, maybe we do…but it does make me wonder if everyone living vicariously through its villainous protagonists are processing the broader sociopolitical subtext.

In the face of Fargo‘s undeniable excellence in virtually every other respect, however, I can’t help but be inclined to be forgiving on this point. It’s just so beautifully shot, so full of unpredictable turns and chilling suspense setpieces, so rife with powerhouse performances , and its grimdark comic sensibility is just so pitch-perfect and unique. As self-contained seasons of modern television go, it’s damn near a masterpiece.

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TV: Mannix (Season 1)

mannix1Ah, Mannix: classic, wonderfully dated, old-school comfort food TV. The notion of checking out this PI drama, developed by Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller, has been simmering on my backburner for years now. I’ve finally watched the first season and it’s a just what the doctor ordered: an episodic mix of late sixties camp and PI noir, ranging from good to mediocre…but mediocre in the best possible way.

The show follows the exploits of Joe Mannix (Mike Connors), a chiseled, dashing private investigator who works for Intertect, a massive, high-tech agency that leverages its powerful computer databases and army of agents to solve private cases. Intertect runs with clockwork precision under the leadership of severe, intellectual Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella). But if Intertect is a machine, Mannix is its monkey wrench: the exception to the rule, who derides authority and disregards procedure at every opportunity, with similar if not better results. Each episode is a new case, and finds Mannix jousting with his boss on one side, and a fresh cast of desperate clients and shady suspects on the other.

I like Mannix, even when I’m disliking it. Mike Connors is a convincing and charismatic lead, with a natural likeability counteracted at times by his character’s macho cockiness and brutal methods. There’s a tinge of the early James Bond in him: smarmy, above it all, his only flaw a tendency to never have a light for his cigarette. His motives are true, but his methods are unsavory. Jim Rockford may have been created to balance the universe in the wake of Joe Mannix, who is self-assured, fearless, and violent.

On top of that, something’s not quite working in the set-up. I can see what Geller was going for: make Mannix the loose cannon working within a strict, regimented workplace. Instant conflict! Wickersham is pure Geller, not unlike the original IMF mastermind, Dan Briggs: cold, perceptive, inscrutable. But whereas Briggs had a certain authoritarian mystique, Wickersham is a thankless role for Campanella, who exists merely to call Mannix into his office and have his methods proven wrong every week. He, and Intertect, would be jettisoned after one season, and I’m curious to see what comes after, as Mannix goes into business for himself.

Failings aside, the atmosphere of this show is infectious. I don’t really do background TV: when I watch, I watch. The closest I come to background TV is old-school stuff like Mission: Impossible and The Rockford Files, and Mannix is like a lost, mutated combination of those two shows. With its jaunty, jazzy Lalo Schifrin scores, its Paramount backlots, and its roster of familiar actors, writers, and directors, Mannix almost perfectly mimics the vibe of Mission. It’s basically Mission: Impossible, without the impossible, which is a strong nostalgia draw for me. Meanwhile the show’s Southern California case-of-the-week formula, which twists Mannix up with suspicious street characters one minute and scheming wealthy scumbags the next, is just Rockfordesque enough to scratch that old episodic detective story itch.

I’m probably more enthusiastic about this old show than most contemporary viewers would be, and honestly it’s not the kind of thing I watch too carefully. But I get a kick out of Mannix. Even when it’s not working, it’s fun…but when it is, there are flashes of intriguing potential. (The first episode of season two is particularly interesting.) This old show’s got its hook in.

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TV: Mozart in the Jungle (Season 2)

Mozart-in-the-JungleAfter a promising but uneven first season, Mozart in the Jungle returns for another year of music, comedy, beautiful moments, and wildly unpredictable plotting. This clever look at the eccentric musicians of the New York Symphony continues to follow young oboist Hailey Rutledge (Lola Kirke), whose career climb is colored — and sometimes threatened — by her flirty, complicated relationship with flamboyant conductor Rodrigo (a sensational Gael García Bernal). Raising the stakes this time is a looming labor dispute between the musicians and the symphony’s board, whose new villain, corporate scumbag Edward Biben (Brennan Brown), wants to put his own ruthless stamp on the group — and possibly destroy it in the process.

In the past I’ve criticized Mozart in the Jungle for its aimless, flailing lack of structure. But as the series leans into this scattered approach in its second year, I’ve come to not only appreciate it, but to revel in it. There is nothing formulaic about this show, which makes every episode surprising: the tone is all over the map, bouncing from sitcom shenanigans to romcom tenderness, from wild, international escapades and improvisational stream-of-consciousness. The only real constant is the will-they, won’t-they vibe of Hailey and Rodrigo’s relationship, which may be the least interesting aspect of the show.  The side plots, though, are delightfully unexpected.

Through it all, Bernal is the life energy of the series, a delightful rallying figure. This year, there’s even better material for key supporting characters like the luminous Bernadette Peters, and the always-game Malcolm McDowell. But in the end, the music is always the star…the show improves its deployment of music to interface more powerfully with the emotions of its likeable characters, leading to the occasional, unexpected moment of sheer joy in creative expression. People immune to classical music probably won’t get it, but if you have even a cursory appreciation for it, this is a terrifically entertaining series that occasionally pierces straight to the heart.

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Novel: The Envoy by Edward Wilson

A complex portrait of mid-twentieth century geopolitics is the primary asset of Edward Wilson’s The Envoy (2008), an unforgiving but rewarding tale of historical espionage. It chronicles the exploits of Kitson Fournier, a U.S. envoy in London who also serves as the CIA head of station on diplomatic cover. A reluctant spy, Fournier nonetheless has an undeniable skill for the sordid business of espionage. He also possesses an unhealthy romantic obsession with his cousin Jennifer, who is married to a British scientist involved in Great Britain’s pursuit of the hydrogen bomb. Fournier’s primary job is to further the national interests of the United States, but as his work thrusts him into conflict with allies and enemies alike, his wavering dedication erodes even as he uncovers a shocking international conspiracy.

Wilson’s historical portrait of mid-fifties England at the height of the Cold War is highly detailed and convincing, reminding me of the worldbuilding in Alan Furst’s work. It takes a while to warm up to, but the novel pays off down the home stretch. The narrative strategy is less propulsive than immersive: it feels like swimming around in clues and descriptions and color, before eventually resolving into an impressive big picture. Admiring the puzzle pieces is difficult initially, but once they start fitting together it’s a real pleasure to watch the intricate mosaic come together. Fournier is not a particularly likeable protagonist, but he’s a useful one for the novel’s insightful critique of scheming Cold War geopolitics and the madness of nuclear proliferation. I wasn’t sure I was enjoying this one at first, but came away highly impressed; it’s a unique and challenging achievement in spy fiction.

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Comics: Chew (Volumes 9: Chicken Tenders & 10: Blood Puddin’)

Chicken TendersIs there a more inventive comic universe than that of John Layton and Rob Guillory’s Chew? If so, I don’t know of it. The adventures of cibopathic federal agent Tony Chu, who can read the history of whatever he eats, have spiraled in ever weirder directions for forty-plus issues now, and its most recent omnibus volumes — Chicken Tenders and Blood Puddin’ — continue that fine tradition.

Chicken Tenders is perhaps the weaker of the two volumes, but it’s still a great romp, with a heavier focus on the series’ badass battle chicken Poyo, a throwaway character who became incredibly popular. Meanwhile Tony and his rabble of daring colleagues and rivals at the FDA are tracking down the vampiric Collector, whose super power — to absorb the abilities of others — has him scouring the globe gobbling up every food-based ability he can sink his teeth into. In Blood Puddin’, Chu ramps up his pursuit of the Collector, building inexorably to an explosive confrontation.

blood puddinWhen I saw John Layton speak at Wondercon a while ago, he spoke to Chew‘s future: chiefly, that he has an end game in mind, and that issue #60 will be the last. Knowing it was all building to a planned finale only made me more excited about the title; these two recent volumes continue to propel the series headlong towards that conclusion. Colorful, zany, weird, gross, highly entertaining, and surprisingly dramatic stuff.

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TV: Casual (Season 1)

2563595_Casual_SC1In retrospect, the first season of Hulu’s Casual may be best viewed as a mystery. Stylistically reminiscent of Transparent, it’s a dramedy about a dysfunctional LA family, and like Transparent it revels in transgressive subject matter, blends dark humor with serious themes, and is very, very white. But as the season unfolds, the origins of the family’s psychological problems are gradually revealed, and the journey has a cumulative effect, rendering its messed-up characters increasingly sympathetic.

Psychologist Valerie Cole (Michaela Watkins), in the wake of a contentious divorce, moves in with her wealthy, web developer brother Alex (Tommy Dewey) to pick up the pieces, along with her teenaged daughter Laura (Tara Lynn Barr). All three of them are looking for love, but none of them are particularly good at it, and as their individual searches continue, their romantic and sexual entanglements get more and more complicated and psychologically revealing.

Casual is a show that probably wouldn’t exist in the pre-peak TV era: it’s a quirky thing, without broad appeal. And it’s an imperfect show: some of its plot coupons are showing, it lacks diversity, and I wasn’t convinced it always had its messaging under control. That said, it unfolds with a quiet confidence, bolstered by stellar acting. Watkins is terrific in the lead, and the rest of the cast keeps up nicely, especially Cole, Nyasha Hatendi, Eliza Coupe, and an Emmy-worthy Frances Conroy as Valerie and Alex’s insufferable mother. I’m not sure Casual is doing anything particularly earth-shattering, but it makes an impressive mark and fills its niche well.

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Film: Inside Out

Disney-Pixar-Inside-Out-Movie-PosterOh, Inside Out (2015). Wow, I didn’t know what I was in for with this one. What a heartbreaking, beautiful movie.

Pixar’s latest opus is a clever and inventive literalized metaphor: inside the mind of a young girl named Riley (Kaitlin Dias), five entities serve as Riley’s emotional nerve center, helping her through her daily life. The dominant emotion is Joy (Amy Poehler), whose goal is make sure Riley is always happy…an objective often challenged by her coworkers Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Still, the emotions have an effective working relationship…until Riley’s parents move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. The move upsets everything, sending Riley into depression…and throwing the emotions’ lives into utter chaos.

Inside Out’s worldbuilding is wildly creative, a colorful and ever-surprising extended metaphor for the inner workings of a person’s mind. The script smartly enables its personified emotions to wander about in the various corners of Riley’s consciousness — long-term memory, abstract thought, imagination, the subconscious, etc. — and each new step comes with terrific eyeball kicks, sight gags, hilarious jokes, and heartfelt sentiment. It captures, in empathetic and insightful fashion, the way depression and stressful change can make our emotions go out of control. And while the metaphors are blatant, they’re also smart and funny and touching. Anyone who’s ever had the blues will find something to relate to here.

This movie gets its hooks in early and works its magic throughout. A visually stunning, emotionally charged film that constantly had me on the edge of tears. Highly recommended!

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Film: MI-5 (Spooks: The Greater Good)

mi-5One of TV’s best spy shows returns in MI-5 (aka Spooks: The Greater Good) (2015), a surprisingly effective coda to the series. Generally I’m trepidatious about resurrected franchises, and in light of the original series’ continuity-shattering cast turnover in its waning years, I wasn’t sure how much emotional investment I’d still have for this fictional universe. But it works, thanks to a smart script that deploys a thoughtful theme amidst the requisite adventure and intrigue.

Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), still stubbornly at the helm of MI-5, is supervising the transport of notorious terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel) into custody when the operation goes horrible wrong. An agent is killed, Qasim escapes, and Pearce takes the fall. Cut loose from the service, Pearce fakes his own death…a move that alarms MI-5’s remaining leadership. What’s Harry up to? To find him, they enlist decommissioned officer Will Holloway (Game of Thrones’s Kit Harington) to track him down. What they don’t know is that Holloway plays right into Harry’s hidden agenda: preventing a terrorist threat, and saving MI-5.

The Greater Good doesn’t satisfy on the level of MI-5′s best seasons, but for fans of the series who hung around until the end, it makes for a solid epilogue. For those who are wondering, other original cast members return: season ten’s Erin Watts (Lara Pulver) and Callum Reed (Geoffrey Streatfield), and of course good old Malcolm Wynn-Jones (Hugh Simon). But their appearances amount to cameos; in terms of series continuity, the movie leans almost entirely on Pearce. (No offense to  Tim McInnerny, who reprises the scheming Oliver Mace with even more snarl and venom than usual.) Since for me MI-5 was always stronger when it focused on the officers, with Pearce as their inscrutable overseer, I was nervous about the dearth of familiar faces. Fortunately the writers know what they’re doing , and build Pearce’s legacy as a fierce, stubborn survivor into the theme. Meanwhile the physical action is carried by newcomer Harington, whose Will Holloway, a failed Pearce protege, feels nebulous at the start. Ultimately, though, the fact that he’s an unknown quantity in the MI-5 universe works in the film’s favor, and is indeed central to narrative strategy. Other new performers that make a solid impression are Jennifer Ehle, as a steely member of MI‑5’s upper echelon, and Sense8′s Tuppence Middleton, as an ambitious junior officer enlisted by Holloway to help .

The film likely won’t stand alone for the uninitiated, but fans will enjoy The Greater Good’s stew of spy genre elements: fights, chases, dead drops, tradecraft, misdirection, surveillance, mole-hunts, hacks, terrorist threats, and life-and-death decisions. But the build-up is merely good; the film is ultimately elevated by its denouement, which speaks to Pearce’s difficult journey through the series — and the viewers’ journey alongside him.

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