Novel: Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers

Tim Powers’ track record for inventive fantasy is a long and accomplished one, and while Medusa’s Web (2016) isn’t among his strongest novels, it’s likely to scratch the itch for the author’s long-time fans. It’s a quirky and clever yarn about a uniquely dysfunctional family in Southern California, and a secret underground of occult vision junkies.

Upon the bizarre suicide of the aunt who raised them, thirty-something siblings Scott and Madeline Madden return to the odd Hollywood Hills mansion, called “Caveat,” where they grew up. They’re met icily by their reclusive cousins Ariel and Claimayne, who see them as rivals for the estate. But their aunt’s mysterious death turns out to be just the first clue in a decades-long mystery that ties into strange, occult symbols that Scott and Madeline accidentally viewed as children. These “spider” symbols cause the viewer to travel through time and temporarily inhabit other bodies — and the experience is addictive, which has created a secret Los Angeles underground of users seeking to track them down. Evidently, Scott and Madeline’s aunt is tied into this strange subculture, and her death generates a web of intrigue into which they ultimately fall.

Medusa’s Web has a nifty set-up and a memorable backdrop, and it nicely leverages the inimitable landscape and storied history of Hollywood. The characters are likeable oddballs, the dialogue is amusing, and the time-jumping plot contortions surrounding the spider visions are cleverly executed. Alas, there’s rather a missing spark of energy; it’s a slow, talky book, especially early on, and the plot takes its time developing. Momentum finally arrives and accelerates in the final act, but it takes some effort getting there. Still, it’s a fun, inventive fantasy that reminded me a little of the charming California fantasies of James P. Blaylock, as well as some of Powers’ earlier contemporary work, like Last Call.

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Film: The American Side

the-american-side_poster_goldposter_com_1If you want to get me to watch a movie, just make it a neo-noir detective story set in Buffalo, New York. That was my initial take on the core elements of low-budget indie film The American Side (2016), and it delivers on them, but it also throws in some real surprises, like a world-altering retro-skiffy MacGuffin and an unexpected secret history feel, all surrounding famous inventor Nikola Tesla. What an odd concotion!

Scruffy gumshoe Charlie Paczynski (Greg Stuhr) is a PI working the back alleys of Buffalo. His unscrupulous collaboration with a stripper, who helps him set up marks in adultery schemes, backfires when his latest victim, Tom Soberin (Harris Yulin), dies in what may or may not be a suicide. Soberin’s death entwines Paczynski with Nicole Meeker (Alicja Bachleda), a young scientist connected to Soberin — and sitting on dangerous secrets. Soon Paczynski’s twisted up in intrigues involving corrupt businessmen, the Serbian mafia, and shady government agents, among other things. And at the heart of it all lies a schematic that could change the world.

The American Side makes an iffy first impression, with its low-rent soundtrack, budget-conscious look, and a hero that’s hard to love. But the Buffalo location work carried me past these flaws, and the film improves as Paczynski’s bull-headed pursuit of the truth leads him further and further into hot water. Is the script structurally coherent? Not really. But the scenes are peppered with catchy noir crime lingo, all classed up by a cast that includes Camilla Belle (the requisite femme fatale), Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster, Janeane Garofalo, and, remarkably, Robert Vaughn in a spirited cameo. Meanwhile, Stuhr (who cowrote the script with director Jenna Ricker) eventually grows on you, his stubborn, lowbrow detective conjuring an incongruous seventies vibe. And his throwback personality isn’t the only nod to the past, as historical references — involving Tesla, science in general, and the city of Buffalo — are scattered throughout the script.

The result is surprisingly fun, with a unique pulp genre flavor in a story that looks quirkily backwards at yesterday’s futurism. I suspect the western New York easter eggs were part of the attraction for me — everything from scenes set at Niagara Falls to the protagonist quoting the catch phrases of Sabres announcer Rick Jeanneret. But this one should also fill a niche for other viewers, particularly those with an interest in indie films, neo noir, and madcap takes on science history. A peculiar, enjoyable film.

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TV: Better Call Saul (Season 2)

bcs 2Better Call Saul will probably never satisfy a certain subset of the Breaking Bad audience: it’s perhaps too light and subdued to match the intensity of its source material. But this extended origin story of Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is a different kind of a great: a stylish, assured, and thematically strong tragicomedy, following the ethical dilemmas of its doomed protagonists with wit and intelligence.

Thanks to his dogged pursuit of a class action lawsuit against a retirement home, Jimmy lands his dream job: a partner-track position at Santa Fe law firm Davis & Maine, with a posh office, a company car, and a personal assistant. But even as he tries to play it straight, he soon comes to realize he’s a fish out of water, his tendency to cut legal corners causing conflict with close friend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), and ramping up his rivalry with brother Chuck (Michael McKean). Meanwhile, retired cop Ehrmantraut, still motivated by guilt to provide for his struggling daughter-in-law Stacey (Kerry Condon), entangles himself with local organized crime, entering into a dangerously escalating partnership with one of the cartel’s sharper lieutenants, Nacho (Orphan Black’s Michael Mando).

Along with characters and settings, Better Call Saul shares some stylistic similarities with Breaking Bad, but beyond that it’s decidedly its own show. If Breaking Bad looked for the evil lurking within us all, Better Call Saul is more interested in the smaller ethical compromises we make in order to compete and thrive in an unforgiving world. Neither Jimmy nor Mike are monsters in the vein of Walter White; they’re not even inherently bad people. They’re merely flawed ones, grasping for an edge, fighting their better nature as they continually make the wrong decisions for the right reasons…or vice versa. This keeps their individual journeys unpredictable and entertaining, even though we know their ultimate destinations. And this theme extends nicely to the major characters who don’t appear in Breaking Bad, namely Kim and Chuck, who tend to be most negatively impacted by Jimmy’s slippery moral code. Chuck is Jimmy’s opposite, a perfect foil, and the complicated sibling rivalry between him and Jimmy — and the entertaining interplay between Odenkirk and McKean — looks to be the structural heart of the series. Meanwhile, it’s a great season for Seehorn, whose role is thankfully expanded as Kim is attracted to, but also rejects, Jimmy’s troublesome conniving. Both Chuck and Kim have their own problems with moral compasses, but serve as more accessible and sympathetic counterpoints to the more problematic antiheroics of Jimmy and Mike.

Originally I wondered if knowing Jimmy and Mike’s fates in Breaking Bad would spoil the journey of Better Call Saul, but not only am I still interested in their stories, I’ve also latched onto other characters to care about — whose fates I’m just as invested in. In the end, unexpectedly, I may be enjoying this spinoff more than the original…and that’s saying something.

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Novel: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (2012) is the first in a long-running series of World War II-era mysteries that feature Maggie Hope: a bright, ambitious woman with a math background who, by chance, lands a secretarial job in the Prime Minister’s office just as Winston Churchill takes power. A mix of espionage, murder, romance, and history, it’s a breezy, cozy read that I never quite fell in love with, but ultimately enjoyed.

Maggie, a British citizen with an American upbringing, is in London to sell a family estate when war breaks out, and unexpectedly does her bit for the war effort by accepting a position at No. 10 Downing Street. It’s a clerical position for which Maggie, a polyglot with exceptional math skills, is vastly overqualified, but she undertakes it dutifully, and in the end it places her in position to prove herself. If it’s not enough that she begins to uncover a conspiracy of Nazi and IRA agents working to unleash attacks on British soil, she also starts to learn that there’s more than a stuffy patriarchy keeping her career prospects in check. With the help of friends and colleagues, Maggie gradually reveals both the skeletons of her family history and the devious plans of the enemy, taking early steps toward becoming an important weapon in the Allied arsenal against the German war machine.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is an accessible, quick read, with a Masterpiece Theater vibe; it’s like Foyle’s War through a feminist lens, a refreshing World War II story that focuses on what women were up to, and up against, while the British were holding out alone against Germany. The beginning of the novel spends quite a bit of time on detailed historical world-building that seasoned readers might find remedial; I think this orientation is at the expense of a timely point of attack. But eventually the book develops an enjoyable mystery-solving rhythm, as Maggie uncovers secret after secret, and gets herself out of ever-more-dangerous jams. There’s a bit of a wish-fulfillment feel, a romanticizing flavor to its treatment of the era, with Maggie serving as a vicarious window on this turbulent time. But it’s also a thoughtful and confident entertainment, with a cast of likable characters exploring under-explored corners of the past. I’m wouldn’t call myself addicted, then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I dipped back into this well for another adventure.

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TV: Casual (Season 2)

casual-season-2-posterTo a degree, there’s an element of schadenfreude to the appeal of Hulu’s Casual: the romantic and emotional struggles of an effortlessly rich family in Southern California, whose behavior is often self-serving and awful, and almost always backfires? It is kind of a cringe-a-thon. Fortunately, characters we might otherwise want to keep at an arm’s length draw us in a bit closer thanks to fine performances, making this bleak, subdued comedy more accessible.

Season two continues to the explore the weird and uncomfortable sibling relationship of Valerie (Michaela Watkins) and Alex (Tommy Dewey), whose free-spirited parents scarred them for life — and left them in an awkward, symbiotic emotional relationship. This season shines more light on Alex, whose emotional death spiral in the wake of losing a love of his life is complicated further by the arrival of a new, venture capital business partner (Vincent Kartheiser) and the unexpected return of an old flame (Britt Lower). Valerie, meanwhile, works to rebuild her social life through a new office neighbor, Jennifer (Katie Aselton), which leads to new romantic possibilities. Meanwhile, the influence of the chronically confused guardians in her life trickles down to Valerie’s daughter Laura (Tara Lynn Barr), who enters into misguided and commitment-phobic relationships of her own.

Casual is a quiet and quirky character study, with an open mind but a world-weary eye, its heroes floundering in their psychological issues. The story-telling is patient and understated, even as it pushes into edgy comedic places, leaving the viewer squinting and wincing at each awkward turn. But Watkins, Dewey, and Barr make it highly watchable, as does the cast’s unsung hero Leon (Nyasha Hatendi), a soft-spoken, deadpan composer who frequently allows himself to be inconvenienced by his unlikely friendship with this dysfunctional family.  I wouldn’t expect everyone to enjoy living vicariously through these people’s problems, but I like it, primarily for its uniquely flawed characters and unconventional style.

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Novel: Infomocracy by Malka Older

There’s a certain flavor of idea-rich, eyeball-kicky near-future science fiction that risks burying its storytelling momentum underneath dense world-building and bleeding-edge detail. I kept expecting that to happen in Malka Older’s vivid debut, Infomocracy (2016), but I’m happy to report it doesn’t: this one has a graceful, compelling narrative propelling its thought-experiment core.

In the mid-twenty-first century, a megapowerful search engine company called Information has created a new, post-national world where microdemocracy rules. The Earth is split into “centenals” of 100,000 people, and its citizens can vote for one of any number of worldwide governing parties to dictate policy on the local level. The new system has proceeded peacefully for two decades, through two 10-year election cycles, during which the powerful Heritage party has wielded the supermajority. But as the new election ramps up, something treacherous may be afoot. Ken, an idealistic campaigner for the up-and-coming Policy1st party, and Mishima, an agent of Information, gradually uncover evidence of a possible conspiracy that could alter the fate of the election, and change the world forever.

The thought experiment here is rigorous, interesting, and engrossing, for all that it lacks a firm logistical plausibility. In a world as geopolitically intractable as ours, could such a revolutionary system ever take root? I doubt it…but I also don’t care, because it’s really fun to read about, and Older does a great job realizing her vision, which is refreshingly diverse and global in scope. The scenario is populated with neat futuristic details, the characters are appealing, and the thriller plot clicks along swiftly with just the right mix of intrigue, romance, action, and drama. An impressive and noteworthy debut that should put Older on the map alongside similar new authors like Madeline Ashby and Ramez Naam.

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Film: Kubo and the Two Strings

kuboThe opening of Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) is so moving and magical, and the film so full of visual wonder throughout, that I was surprised by my overall impression: I was underwhelmed. An animated feature drawing heavily on Japanese mythology, the film revolves around Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy who lives a simple, hardscrabble existence, caring for his ill mother and supporting them as the village storyteller. Kubo is a lively and imaginative boy who possesses a magical power: the ability to animate and control his origami creations. But he also has a troubled origin: he and his mother fled their mean-spirited extended family in the wake of violent conflict, which is about to be reignited. When Kubo’s evil aunts come to collect him, Kubo is forced to flee with Monkey (Charlize Theron), a statue come to life to serve as his guardian. Together they undertake a quest to recover three powerful artifacts that will protect Kubo from his horrible grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

The first twenty minutes of Kubo and the Two Strings are utterly beautiful, bursting with powerful visual story-telling and splendorous imagery. And I was more or less onboard for the duration, enjoying its engaging action setpieces and amusing dialogue. In many ways it’s a refreshing change of pace from the increasingly familiar beats and tropes of big-budget animated cinema. But there’s something missing, or many somethings: a logical basis for the item-gathering plot, a coherent thematic focus, an assured handle on its messaging. There are many elements and ideas at play, but the script struggles to pick and choose how and when to deploy them, and they don’t work in perfect harmony. That doesn’t detract from the journey’s many great moments, but there are also distancing lulls, and a muddled climax.

In the end, I’m disappointed, largely because the film doesn’t deliver on its early promise. Those beautiful early passages create such an evocative, immersive mood, and it was a shame to watch that fall away. Even so, it’s a beautifully made and charmingly different film; I’m happy to have seen it, all the same.

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Film: Spy

spy_-_movie_-_2015Since I loved Bridesmaids and disliked Ghostbusters, I was curious about another Melissa McCarthy-starring, Paul Feig-directed film that was released in between: Spy (2015). (And let’s face it, I might just have a little interest in the subject matter.) The result falls somewhere in between those two comedies: more uneven than Bridesmaids, more assured than Ghostbusters, it’s an enjoyable send-up of the Bondian spy adventure, through a feminist lens.

McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a CIA intelligence analyst who serves as the headquarters support agent for superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a handsome, cocky man of action completely oblivious to Susan’s worship of him. Their partnership meets its end at the hands of the treacherous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who takes out Fine while Susan watches helplessly from his eyeball cameras. Boyanov makes it clear she knows all of the CIA’s top agents, so Susan — a trained field agent who, years ago, meekly allowed her operational ambitions to be diverted — convinces her boss Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) that, with her spotless cover, she might be the best option to go after Boyanov. Crocker bites on the idea, sending Susan to Europe to track down the dangerous Boyanov and prevent her from auctioning off a nuclear bomb to terrorists.

Spy isn’t about to climb onto the Spy 100 list, but it’s pretty good comedy, thanks largely to McCarthy’s natural comedic presence, solid support, and a decent supply of funny dialogue and sight gags. The script does have some unfortunate tendencies, overly leaning on material that plays off McCarthy’s looks; some of this is hilarious (her tech briefing with a clearly misogynistic “Q” is classic, and her frumpy cover personas are great), while others grow tedious (her fashion sparring with Boyanov, the way cliched Italian men dismiss her on the streets of Rome). Another repeating joke that does work is Jason Statham’s furious tough-guy act as gruff, rogue agent Rick Ford; Statham has a great time taking the piss out of himself, becoming a great rival to Cooper. He’s also a solid source of material supporting one of Spy‘s greater missions: satirizing the absurd testosterone levels of the spy genre, which could certainly use a comedic feminist counterpoint. Spy, an entertaining romp, fits that bill reasonably well.

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TV: BoJack Horseman (Season 3)

Bojack-Horseman-season-3-trailerDark comedy doesn’t get much darker than BoJack Horseman. Netflix’s animated gem continues this trend in season three, which is once again addictive, hilarious, and surprisingly heartfelt. Horse actor BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) is back in the spotlight after a lengthy career nadir: his role in award-bait film Secretariat has him in contention for an Oscar, which his new publicist Ana Spanikopita (Angela Bassett) is determined to win for him at any cost. But BoJack’s Oscar campaign stokes his every neuroses and self-destructive behavior, engendering a philosophical crisis that may destroy him, if not everyone he cares about.

If that doesn’t sound like a laugh-riot to you…well, it somehow is, even as pitch-black tone bubbles along beneath the surface of its witty banter and frantic sight gags. Speaking of which, season three really takes it up a notch in terms of fast-paced eyeball kicks, visual jokes, and hilarious background text. It also steps up experimental metahumor, to mixed effect. I watched this season on full throttle, but I’m pretty sure a second viewing would add several new layers of laughs, from the silly to the cringeworthy to the shocking. But be forewarned: the humor is a set-up, raising your spirits only to dash them with tragic plot turns…but in the best possible way? BoJack may be an addict and a narcissist, self-absorbed and stubborn, and his ambition and need for validation is almost appalling. But he has just enough moments of relatable doubt and self-awareness to make him accessible, and his distinctly American success story, full of chaos and greed and confusion, serves as a brutal, unforgiving critique of celebrity culture. At the same time it’s also a thoughtful, existential exploration, capable of hauntingly beautiful moments of insight into the human (er, horse) condition.

Season three has a few weak hours late in the run, and despite a strong finish, it’s not quite as powerful as the earlier seasons taken as a whole. But a number of episodes — especially the magnificent “Fish Out of Water,” a visual story-telling masterpiece — are as edgy and superb as anything the show’s ever done. In the era of peak TV, it’s hard to put a finger on what shows will be worthy of rewatching down the road, but I’m putting my money on BoJack. If you haven’t checked this out yet, I strongly encourage you to get on it.

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TV: Mannix (Seasons 4-8)

MannixWell, the great Mannix marathon is over. I’ve powered through all 194 episodes of this unsung private eye show, and while the modern TV viewer in me found it dated and repetitive, the comfort-food-seeking, old-school TV viewer in me enjoyed every minute of it.

Mannix chronicles the exploits of Joe Mannix (Mike Connors), a private detective in Los Angeles. Mannix is an old-fashioned hero: a former Korean war hero and college football star, a man of action and integrity who doesn’t care about money, runs toward danger, and lights up at the sight of a beautiful woman. And while he’s his own boss, he more or less works as an extended arm of the police force, constantly staying one step ahead of the lieutenants that form his extended social network. Indeed, outside of Mannix’s loyal, ultra-competent secretary Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), Mannix’s recurring police contacts provide the only real world-building continuity across eight seasons. Most frequent among his cop friends is Lieutenant Art Malcolm (Ward Wood), a no-nonsense old-timer with a skeptical eye and a foghorn voice, but the best is Lieutenant Adam Tobias (Robert Reed). Appearing periodically whenever he could escape his Brady Bunch duties, Reed played his argumentative interactions with Mannix as a cranky cynic, even as his respect and friendship shined through; his rapport with Connors is effortless, and his appearances are always a treat.

After an awkward first season, Mannix stepped up its game in season two with the addition of Gail Fisher, and really hit its stride with the season 3 episode “The Sound of Darkness,” a showcase episode for Connors and a breakout moment for Mannix as a vulnerable, relatable hero. Alas, the remaining seasons don’t deliver another episode quite as outstanding as that one, although there are still some highlights. Season 4’s “The Mouse That Died” has a nifty premise: Mannix stumbles across an enemy espionage outfit, who try to subtly take him out with a slow-acting poison; his subsequent illness and hallucinations make for  suspenseful ticking clock, not to mention some wonderfully weird, Prisoneresque visuals. I also liked “The Inside Man,” wherein Mannix goes on a long-term, deep-cover assignment to infiltrate a New Orleans mafia oufit. If that one feels like a held-over Mission: Impossible episode, the two-part “Race Against Time” in season 7 may well be retooled Mission script: Mannix’s task is to smuggle a doctor into a Latin American dictatorship in order to save the life of a rebel leader; here, Mannix really gets his Rollin Hand on. Alas, while I’m sure other favorites would jump out at me on a second run-through, setpiece episodes like “The Sound of Darkness” and “End Game” are rarities; Mannix is more about Joe Mannix than his cases, and the episodes tend to bleed into each other in the memory, filled with recurring actors in new parts, a consistent stable of directors and writers, and in at least two cases, scripts that were obviously re-used from earlier seasons.

The repetitiveness of Mannix is disappointing, but also kind of endearing. The show almost always delivers it signature elements: good-natured banter with Peggy, skeptical exchanges with the police, vicious villainy, untrustworthy clients. After 15 seasons of Mannix and Mission: Impossible combined, I could probably draw a map of the Paramount studio backlot, but somehow recognizing the exteriors never ruined the moment — nor did the re-used soundstage interiors, which included a frequently made-over Brady Bunch living room. It’s all part of the cozy. And of course there’s the action: for its era, Mannix was violent stuff, full of fistfights and shootouts and car chases. The show occasionally contrived some almost comical action sequences: Mannix, full cast on one foot, waddling for his life with a tractor trying to run him down; Mannix, bouncing uncomfortably over bumpy terrain in a dune buggy; Mannix, taking on a room full of thugs while in a straight jacket, thundering around like an out-of-control rhinoceros. It’s a rare episode in which Mannix doesn’t get hit over the head and knocked unconscious; I used to think Jim Rockford got clobbered a lot, but Mannix must be several cases of post-concussion syndrome beyond that. The fact that Connors is a rugged, physical actor who does many of his own stunts makes it easier to buy his toughness, not to mention get invested in his struggle. But the outcome, of course, is never in doubt.

mannix-splshAlas, the show never entirely cashes in on the potential of the terrific Gail Fisher, whose Peggy Fair is too often little more than a supportive background presence. Clearly, most of the writers didn’t quite know how to write for Peggy, who isn’t given much to do beyond serve coffee, share hunches, and raise her eyebrows at Mannix’s rash behavior or questionable decisions. The infrequent episodes that showcased Peggy usually placed her in some kind of peril to motivate Joe. An exception is “The World Between,” in which Peggy is wounded in the course of her duties and stumbles into a mystery while recovering in the hospital. In another unlikely episode, season 6’s “Out of the Night,” Peggy — a professional, single mother — goes undercover as a prostitute to help Mannix bust a drug ring, and pulls off her role brilliantly. This episode is frustrating, because it shows Fisher’s range, but is hopelessly out of character; the experiment isn’t repeated. Too often, she doesn’t appear at all. It does make those episodes wherein the Mannix-Peggy teamwork is on full display all the more worth savoring, and Connors and Fisher play the friendship so naturally and winningly that it lifts those hours up with heart and camaraderie.

Anyway it’s hard not to see why the show focused so centrally on Connors, whose effortless charisma carries the series even through its weaker episodes. He’s a classic TV star, and clearly a consummate professional; it’s hard to imagine how rigorous those 24-episode seasons must have been for an actor appearing in nearly every scene. Mannix starts cocky and perhaps too perfect, but evolves into something more: an emblem of the regular joe trying to do the right thing, for his own reasons, despite the cost. It’s a kind of hero that might not play believably in modern TV, but nowadays that makes it refreshing, and gives it nostalgic charm.  The world could use a little more Joe Mannix right about now.

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