Collection: Angels and You Dogs by Kathleen Ann Goonan

I admire Kathleen Ann Goonan’s writing, but after two books I’m not sure her work is a perfect fit for me. Angels and You Dogs (2012) is a classy, ambitious collection of literary SF stories, and physically the book is gorgeous, a nicely produced hardcover from PS Publishing. The stories within are also beautifully crafted, full of interesting ideas and polished prose, but in my opinion narrative energy and satisfying structure often takes a back seat to atmosphere, concept, and language. I came away respecting the book, without entirely enjoying it.

The two stories I found most entertaining, from a pure storytelling standpoint, open and close the collection. The title story, “Angels and You Dogs,” is amusing fantasy with a breezy, conversational style involving communication with the dead, in a finely realized Florida setting. Closing the volume is “The Bridge,” an entertaining and idea-rich futuristic noir full of neat skiffy concepts. These are two of the lighter, more conventional pieces in the collection, but I found them the most fun and engaging.

Elsewhere in the collection is meatier, perhaps more ambitious fare, and while much of the material felt slow to start, it’s also understandably acclaimed. “Solitaire” is a evocative, nostalgic character study about a young boy who meets a very peculiar playmate; the time, place, and mood here is finely evoked. “Susannah’s Snowbears” is an intriguing and lyrical tale about a world rendered conformist by science, and a married couple who labor to live outside of it. Other stories, like “Klein Time,” “Sundiver Day,” and “Memory Dog,” dazzle with their heavy SF concepts and eloquent prose. Even the more enjoyable of these stories, however, read long to me – meandering to their point of attack in the early stages, and ultimately feeling longer than their word counts. Goonan is a skilled and deliberate stylist with ideas to burn, but ultimately I found myself working too hard to discern the shape of piece from all the well crafted but somewhat distancing components. There’s plenty of style and substance in this one to resonate with the right reader, but unfortunately that doesn’t always seem to be me.

Related Posts:

Film: The Congress

the-congress-movie-poster-2014From its promising core conceit to its incoherent conclusion, The Congress (2014) is an interesting but unsatisfying SFnal riff on art, drugs, escapism, and free will – or the lack thereof. Robin Wright stars as, well, herself more or less…an actress in middle life whose career is nearing its end. Wright’s agent (Harvey Keitel) may have one last contract for her, though: she can scan her very essence into a computer and sign away her identity to Hollywood, but only if she agrees never to act again. The very idea of it rankles her, but she agrees to do it, a decision that proves to be just the first step in the bizarre evolution of the movie business’s future.

The story starts promisingly with a surreal atmosphere, glimpses of interesting near-futurism, and eloquent performances from Wright, Keitel, Danny Huston, and Paul Giamatti. At first there’s the sense that it might develop into a thoughtful meditation on the evolution of the entertainment industry, with an eye for intellectual property issues, artistic expression, and the human costs of talent commodification. But The Congress has other plans: messier, weirder plans that are possibly more interesting, but aren’t satisfying. After time-jumping twenty years into the future, the narrative takes a visually intriguing but stilted and muddled left-turn into sociopolitical comment about media as opiate to the masses. The way the film lurches from live action to animation strains suspension of disbelief, and the pacing in the lengthy middle stage lags. There is an interesting artistry to it all, but once the narrative momentum dies, the creative message becomes difficult to parse or care about. Overall The Congress is an interesting experiment with some worthwhile moments, but ultimately it struck me as ponderous and pretentious.

Related Posts:

Film: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

strangeAn affected, carefully engineered extended music video of macabre weirdness, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013) is Belgian arthouse horror that’s trying very hard to look like it was made in Italy in the 1970s. It’s your standard apartment-complex-full-of-ghastly-mysteries scenario, wherein a man (Klaus Tange) returns from a business trip to find his wife has vanished. His investigation leads him from floor to floor in his building, encountering all manner of odd, bleak horrors, that might in fact add up to something…I’m not sure, because I stopped caring about halfway through.

This is a loving homage to dark arthouse creepfests of the past; its groovy soundtrack and sensibility conjures the Italian technicolor horror movies of the 1970s, but run through a more sophisticated filter of derivative David Lynchisms. Audio-visual experimentation abounds. The film and sound editing is rapid-fire and unsettling. There are artsy closeups of eyeballs and mouths and lit cigarettes and hair follicles. Sinister sound effects, shocking cuts, surprising violence, arbitrary nudity, and confusing, half-coherent scene-building are abundant. In other words, it contains scads of tasty arthouse horror ingredients, if you’re into that kind of thing. Unfortunately, the ingredients aren’t particularly well blended…the occasional bite has a pleasant flavor, but the dish is ultimately bland.

It’s quite possible this one has an ingenius shape to its random-feeling construction, that upon careful scrutiny its affected, careful cinematography might be deconstructed to reveal some brilliant endgame. But, if that’s the case, I couldn’t tell you what it is; I lost patience with the film long before that conclusion could be reached.

Related Posts:

Goodbye, Los Angeles

Chris LAToday is my last full day as an Angeleno.

Even this close to our move to Portland, I’m still kind of in that surreal, moving-crisis headspace that fills your day with so much activity that the reality of what you’re doing never quite sinks in. It’s been full speed ahead ever since we got back from our trip to the Pacific Northwest in January – was that really just two months ago? – and now all that effort is coming together. Still, the jaw-dropping rhetorical questions! Have I really just exploded my life? Am I really about to start over somewhere else?

I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2007. It feels like a lifetime ago that I shut down ten years in Iowa City, selling, donating, trashing, or shipping all my worldly possessions, and flying out to a new home, a new job, a new relationship, and a new life. Jenn made the transition a smooth and easy one, and I never doubted my decision to come out here to be with her. But my relationship with the city was a different story. It was nerve-wracking at first. While Jenn was off at work I would walk the hot, desert streets of Tarzana trying to get the feel of the place, overwhelmed by the press of people, the aggressive traffic, and all the fascinating different. Eventually, I bought a car and I’ll never forget the panicky, sweaty drive back from Orange County, gingerly negotiating the choked LA freeways feeling like a slow-motion accident in progress. One day, during a desperate stretch of a difficult job hunt, I went out of the house for a while and wound up verging on panic in the magazine aisle of a bookstore. What am I doing here? Do I belong here? Does anyone belong in Los Angeles?

But gradually I got into the place. I remember the enthusiasm of going to Lulu’s Beehive in Studio City once or twice a week (thanks, Lisa!), feeding off the aspirational Hollywood energy as I wrote TV scripts and let the dreamy, anything-can-happen irreality of Southern California wash over me. Then I landed a job, became a commuter, and learned how to drive here, which pried me forcibly out of my small-town shell. In the early days at work, my desk faced windows overlooking Brentwood and the Santa Monica Mountains…I could see the Getty Center perched nearby, and the ocean way off in the distance. It was a far cry from the open-plan, industrial office of my old digs in Iowa, where the windows overlooked rolling fields and hills and the extremes of the midwestern climate. No more frozen landscapes, no more thunderstorms or tornado skies. Just buildings, mountains, and sun, sun, sun.

Los Angeles is a car city, and driving was the way I gradually came to terms with the place. What an absurd, amazing, energizing, suffocating sprawl of pavements. One of my favorite things to do was load up on errands and spend my Saturday ricocheting all over the San Fernando Valley, marveling at the relentless development, the diversity, the richness of experience. When my commutes got complicated by endless construction on the 405 (seriously, like six years of it), I found myself forced to explore alternate routes home every night. These were often infuriating but occasionally magical drives through LA’s crowded roster of mutated neighborhoods: Brentwood, Santa Monica, Bel Air, Culver City, through the winding passes of Sepulveda and Beverly Glen and Topanga Canyon. Each drive, no matter how frustrating, increased my awe of the city: its shimmering beauty and grungy ugliness, its vast disparities of experience, from the obscene wealth of one neighborhood to the grim, dingy bleakness of the next. It always felt a little like sifting creative energy out of thin air whenever I drove home, and the next morning I would channel that energy into writing, words fueled by LA’s particular characteristics: its fractious relationship with the environment, its grasping ambition, its enthusiastic dreaminess, its haphazard and out-of-control development, its outlandish entitlement and unquestioning, powerful confidence. I got a novel and several short stories out of this place, and a much, much different perspective on the world.

Of course, there’s a dark side to the city’s enormity, its frenetic pace, and its extremes of power, privilege, and wealth. The place wears you down with its ludicrous traffic, its increasingly long hot seasons, its drought, its me-first attitude, hellacious impatience, ubiquitous crowds and rat-race feel. As much as I drew creative energy from this place, I gave a lot back. There’s something soul-draining about LA’s relentless striving and tense urban chaos. Once it became clear that there was no reason for us, professionally, to stay here, the idea of relocating went from hypothetical goal to inevitable, essential reality. It was time for change, and we’re making that happen now.

That said, I will miss this place. Oh, the food! And the movie theaters! The views from the Getty and the Griffith Observatory, the weirdos of Venice Beach, the ocean breezes of Santa Monica, and Jim Rockford’s beach in Malibu. Hockey games at the Staples Center. The wealth of concerts and plays and cultural events to choose from. And the dizzying view of its massive, lit-up sprawl when flying in and out of Burbank or LAX. And finally, of course, there are the people I got to know here: my various local friends and work colleagues and especially my amazing writing group, the Freeway Dragons, all of whom helped make this such a rewarding and exciting place to live. I’m going to miss you all, and – if you’ll permit me plagiarizing my own Facebook status– I’m going to miss this wild, frustrating, vibrant, wonderful, randomly terraformed, haphazard desert metropolis full of dreams. Goodbye, Los Angeles!

Related Posts:

TV: House of Cards (Season 3)

hoc3I’ve watched three seasons of House of Cards now, and I’m still not sure if it’s as good as it thinks it is. The acclaimed and thoroughly addictive political drama’s third season landed at Netflix this month, and it’s still rolling along on the energy of its posh production values, snarling scripts, and the scheming exchanges of its characters. But is it really saying anything? Is there a satisfying final agenda in the cards? For me, the jury is still out as to whether this one can cap off its antiheroic arc with a satisfying climax (a la The Shield), or trickle away into repetitive franchise insignificance (a la Dexter).

The unlikely, ruthless journey of Francis J. Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) begins its third season in the White House. The couple’s unconventional climb has finally landed Frank in the Oval Office, but they’re not done yet: now it’s time to build a legacy. To this end, Frank launches a radical new jobs program called America Works, a demonic, neoconservative version of the New Deal that polarizes his allies and enemies even moreso than usual. Additionally, he pushes for a risky Middle East peace plan, using Claire – controversially appointed as a U.N. Ambassador – to leverage the playing field. Both schemes are uphill battles, complicating his chances for the ultimate thrust of abbreviated first term: re-election.

The story is watchable enough, and often riveting, but season three is beset by a nagging early question: what now? The first two seasons capitalized on the promise of a radical, secret endgame; the Underwoods seemed hellbent on achieving power for a particular reason. Having achieved the ultimate heights of power, one might expect that reason to reveal itself, but it’s hard to imagine that a jobs program and a peacekeeping mission in the Jordan Valley were the end-all, be-all of the Underwoods’ ambition. Are they deferring this reveal until an inevitable second term? Or is there even a reveal in the offing? At this point I will be disappointed if there isn’t one, but I have a hard time imagining what it could be.

If the political surface stories didn’t entirely sing this season, they at least cast new light on the Underwoods’ relationship. Frank and Claire attaining power has a much different flavor than Frank and Claire wielding it, and the season arc does significantly alter the dynamic between the two, which ultimately leads to some powerful fireworks. The catalyst for this change is a new character, Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), a writer Francis hires to write a book about his program. Yates’ thoughtful presence gets under the skin of the President and the First Lady both, peeling away the political surface just enough to see the rough, rough edges underneath.

That said, the Underwoods were kind of the hole in the middle of the season for me. More interesting was the arc of Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Frank’s right-hand man, who has to build himself back up, both physically and professionally, from a near-death experience. Stamper’s dark journey plays out quietly and confidently, an involved twist of long-term planning to rehabilitate himself from professional exile. And it achieves the series’ trademark trick of getting you behind the actions of a total, ruthless prick…making him sympathetic enough to care about, and then pulling the rug out to remind you of your misguided allegiance.

In the end, is this what House of Cards is really about: the misguided allegiances of our largely futile political reality? Perhaps it is, but I keep coming away from this series wanting something more. I’m not sure what, exactly, but at this point I’m kind of hoping the series goes full Inglorious Basterds on us, with some outrageous final act that sheds new light on all the stylized build-up. The Underwoods deliberately provoke World War III, maybe? Just kidding…sort of. In the meantime, I’ll continue to follow this diverting saga on the strength of its magnetic surfaces – that, and the fact that it’s at least good enough to prompt questions as to what exactly it’s up to. So far that intrigue has been enough; I just hope it’s all going somewhere.

Related Posts:

Film: Wild Tales

wild talesArgentinian director Damián Szifrón’s scathing anthology film Wild Tales (2014) is a collection of nerve-wracking, blackly comic short stories about people coming undone in high-pressure situations. A teaser segment on an airplane sets the darkly madcap tone, before the film jump-cuts frantically to tales of spontaneous revenge, extreme road rage, civic corruption, accidents spiraling out of control, and nuptials run amok.

To summarize any of its chapters would be to rob them of their crucial shock value and twisted humor, but suffice it to say it’s a remarkable film, unpredictable and ferocious. If pressed to compare it with something, I would mention Black Mirror, in the way that its high-strung, violent, and absurd scenarios comment mercilessly on the pressures of modern life. But really it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, an ambitious and occasionally overwrought project that’s full of inventive scenarios involving ordinarary people going postal in jaw-dropping ways. While some of its segments are much more effective than others, overall I found it an original and riveting cinematic concoction…probably not for everyone, but definitely for arthouse fans with strong stomachs.

Related Posts:

TV: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 1)

Kudos to Netflix for picking up Robert Carlock and Tina Fey’s zany new series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a fast-paced comedy that ramps up 30 Rock absurdity to the next level. The show follows the life of Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), a young woman who was abducted into an apocalyptic cult as a teenager. Over a decade later she’s rescued and, forced to assimilate to modern times, decides to start over in New York City. After moving into a basement apartment with the starry-eyed, perpetually broke Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), she lands a job with the blindly entitled Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), leveraging her eighth-grade education, can-do attitude, and hard-won bunker-cult “wisdom” toward getting her life back.

Perhaps too weird for NBC, which maybe wasn’t ready to sustain another low-ratings critical darling, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is another great fit for Netflix’s slate of original material: quirky, addictive, bingeworthy comedy that’s sure to inspire a passionate fanbase. It succeeds on the strength of its lightning quick pace, talented cast, and anything-goes, stream-of-conscious sense of humor. Kemper’s spirited, go-for-it performance as Kimmy is magnetic; she’s an explosive combination of Leslie Knope enthusiasm and Liz Lemon out-of-touchness, with a generous sprinkle of unpredictable weirdness on top. Burgess, Krakowski, Carol Kane, and the rest of the supporting cast keeps up nicely with the tongue-twisting material, which, at its best, is marvelously funny and surprising.

Alas, it’s not always at its best. For a show that’s refreshingly diverse and socially open-minded, it also occasionally crosses lines and sticks its foot in its mouth. Its 1990s nostalgia call-outs get stale quickly, and some of the jokes, full of convoluted syntax and obscure references, work a little too hard. And the season winds down with a disappointing story arc that takes Ellie back to Indiana to confront her cult past; the show is much better, I think, when it stays in the colorful, loopy New York world it’s created.

By and large, though, I was charmed and delighted by the show; its first ten episodes are gloriously fun and surprising. Like most comedies the material is uneven, but overall it’s a very promising first season.

Related Posts:

Novel: The Ghost War by Alex Berenson

Alex Berenson’s first sequel to The Faithful Spy is The Ghost War (2008), which shares many of his debut novel’s strengths, but also feels slightly less vibrant and assured. After famously thwarting a terrorist plot in New York City, John Wells has publicly rescued his reputation, but his enemies in the CIA are determined to keep him at an arm’s length – sequestering him, along with his colleagues Jennifer Exley and Ellis Shafer, in a clandestine outstation with high clearance but little influence. Circumstances contrive to thrust them back into action, however, sending Wells back to Afghanistan to moonlight with a Special Forces operation, while, more centrally, Exley and Shafer investigate the death of a high-level North Korean informant who was attempting to defect. The compromised informant hints at a Chinese mole within the service, which the trio works diligently to expose, but the mole’s treachery is only the tip of the iceberg in an elaborate enemy plot to dangerously escalate and leverage geopolitical tensions between China and the United States.

The Ghost War possesses most of The Faithful Spy’s genre armaments: involved plotting, a vast scope, multiple viewpoints, crisp prose, a no-nonsense approach to its subject matter, and the usual cast of intelligence world players. It’s a solid surface read, establishing the roster of characters and techniques that are sure to be deployed in the subsequent episodes. But one area it falls short for me is in its psychological examination of its hero. Wells’ conflicted loyalty and complicated internal life regarding religion made The Faithful Spy stand out; those aspects are lacking in the sequel, replaced by what feels like fairly standard “tortured conscience of a killer” moral musings. There’s also less sense of discovery here, now that the world is established…which may well be garden variety sequelitis, not uncommon in an ongoing series.

The story reads bracingly enough, of course, and the pages turn easily and entertainingly. But it feels very much like a follow-up book, its scheme slightly less convincing, its characters and scenarios a little less fresh. I enjoyed it, but some of the early shine’s come off the apple.

Related Posts:

TV: Agent Carter

Agent CarterThe Marvel Cinematic Universe’s relentless expansion into television improves considerably with Agent Carter, a lavish eight-episode series that takes up where Captain America: The First Avenger leaves off. It asks the question: whatever happened to Peggy Carter, Cap’s “best girl,” after his crash into the north Atlantic? The series answers with a gorgeously produced, refreshing and thoroughly entertaining exploration of the MCU’s past.

In the aftermath of World War II, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) – who made her mark fighting side by side with Captain America in Europe – is now an agent of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, a New York-based, secret government agency that will later become the foundation for S.H.I.E.L.D. Unfortunately, Peggy’s value hasn’t been realized in the SSR’s male-dominated work environment, where men’s men Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham) and Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) rule the roost. Her only real ally is Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), whose wartime injury makes him something of a fish out of water in the agency.

Peggy’s troubles begin when the SSR begins investigating industrialist Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) for selling weapons to the enemy. When Stark reaches out to Peggy to proclaim his innocence, she believes him, but is forced to go against her colleagues in order to investigate. Her only help in this clandestine activity is Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Together they work to clear Stark’s name, and in the process, uncover a devious plot against the United States.

Tonally Agent Carter is quite similar to its MCU relative, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But there’s a huge difference: Agent Carter fires on all cylinders right out of the gate, with an assured style, a great look, and confident, in-control storytelling. It’s a colorful, breezy show that deploys its 1940s setting with jazzy panache, its light-hearted tone peppered with just enough comic book jeopardy and intrigue to keep the heroes hopping.

And most of all, Peggy makes for refreshing female action hero, something the MCU desperately needs. She’s quick-witted, brilliant, and physically formidable, a first-class comic superspy. Atwell is terrific, a charismatic central presence who is easy to root for, and the writers are quite mindful of how they depict her movement through the male-dominated law enforcement landscape. The supporting cast, while painfully not-diverse, is quite good, especially D’Arcy, Whigham, and Gjokaj. (I was particularly happy to see Gjokaj turn up here; I’ve always thought his brilliant, criminally overlooked performance in Dollhouse should have lead to bigger, better roles.) Ralph Brown and Bridget Regan provide compelling, appropriately broad villainy.

In sum, Agent Carter is a rousing, entertaining period comic book fantasy, well worth a look.

Related Posts:

Film: Afternoon Delight

It’s hard not to look at Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight (2013) as a warmup for her series Transparent. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is a profoundly bored mother in Los Angeles whose marriage to breadwinner husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) has lost its spark. Rachel’s search for meaning leads her to a strip club, where Jeff buys her a lapdance from young stripper McKenna (Juno Temple). Fascinated by McKenna’s life, Rachel befriends her outside of work, and eventually invites her to live in her spare room – a move calculated to shake up, or perhaps blow up, her life.

Afternoon Delight is stylistically similar to Transparent in its frankness, its mix of comedic talent with dark subject matter, and its semi-improvisational scene-building. It’s also focused on characters ensconced in comfortable, expected, wealthy lives who are searching for meaning. Its story, alas, isn’t nearly as compelling as Transparent’s; Rachel’s journey feels more predictable than that of the Pfeffermans. I found my attention drifting occasionally. But Hahn is terrific in a rare starring turn, and she’s surrounded with convincing support from Radnor, Michaela Watkins, Jane Lynch, and others. Certainly not a must-watch, for me, but not without its strengths.

Related Posts:

Writer