Novel: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl’s debut novel Everfair (2016) is a striking and ambitious book, a steampunk alternate history that tackles tough subjects in a sprawling mosaic. Do the components all work together perfectly? In my view, not entirely, but it’s impossible not to appreciate the novel for its beautiful prose, its scope, and its mission.

It imagines an alternate timeline in which members of the Fabian Society and American missionaries purchase land in the Belgian Congo to found a new nation, Everfair, in the late nineteenth century. A democracy composed of Congolese natives, freed American slaves, and expatriates from all over the world, Everfair is conceptualized as a tolerant haven, and its disparate citizens work together to realize that vision, aided by the emergence of new steam technologies that transform their society. But the march of history throws numerous world-shaking challenges in Everfair’s path, including a world war, forcing the nation’s citizens to work tirelessly to sustain their society.

Everfair’s mosaic structure involves numerous viewpoints and short, time-gapped chapters that incrementally paint a picture — a storytelling strategy adopted, perhaps, to convey this multicultural society’s gradual progress. At times, the scattered approach makes it a difficult read; a sustained, flowing narrative is sacrificed in a favor of a cumulative impression of the setting, pieced together from the observations of a massive cast of characters over a span of decades. Fortunately, the pieces are finely rendered with beautiful prose, complex relationships, and fascinating historical detail. The novel ventures into largely unexplored corners of history, giving voice to marginalized races, genders, and sexualities against a backdrop of epic geopolitical upheavals.

It’s perhaps not the most compellingly readable novel, frequently changing focus in a manner that is occasionally distancing. But it’s also unlike any other speculative history I’ve ever read, compensating for its somewhat disjointed storytelling with other assets, especially an impressive historical reach and a hopeful political vision. Overall, an impressive debut.

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Film: The Keeper of Lost Causes

q1Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series get its first film treatment in The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013), a superbly crafted adaptation that smoothes over the novel’s rougher edges for a broader audience. Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is a Copenhagen police detective returning to the force after a traumatic incident that destroyed his team and shattered his marriage. Mørck is such a pain in the ass, however, that his superiors decide not to return him to his homicide beat; instead, they bury him in the newly formed “Department Q,” a dead-end administrative post where his job is to write reports and close the book on cold cases. But Mørck needs a more meaningful distraction from his miserable life, and seizes upon a particularly interesting case: the mysterious disappearance of Danish politician Myrete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter), who is suspected of having jumped to her death from a ferry even though no body was found. Mørck doesn’t buy it, however, and with the help of his upbeat assistant Assad (Fares Fares), he goes against orders to reopen the case.

I remember the novel as a deftly plotted, darker-than-dark story characterized by intensely detailed police work and difficult-to-read passages of physical and emotional abuse. The film version of The Keeper of Lost Causes stirs a smidge more light into its Nordic noir, keeping the bleak story but softening the grim, gritty detail and squicky brutality. It also softens Mørck, a rather unlikeable protagonist in the book; his filmic incarnation is considerably more sympathetic. He’s also more driven and proactive, less reliant on his hard-working assistant Assad for motivation. Fortunately, the Mørck-Assad partnership similarly earns its reluctant team chemistry, and the taut, explosive climax brings together the plot threads neatly. Overall, an excellent adaptation, and I’m excited to see the subsequent ones — evidently both The Absent One and A Conspiracy of Faith have also been produced, and are currently available on Netflix.

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Film: Arrival

new-arrival-movie-poster-615813Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” is one of science fiction’s most lauded and memorable works, and  Arrival (2016) adapts it beautifully for the big screen. This is a smart, thoughtful, and hopeful science fiction film that couldn’t be more timely.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a brilliant linguist who answers the call when a world-shaking event occurs: twelve alien spaceships appear across the Earth, causing an international crisis. Banks is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join the American first-contact team entrusted with opening communications with the aliens. Along with theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise meets — under disorienting circumstances — the aliens, and undertakes the arduous process of trying to decipher their language, not to mention their entirely alien mindset. The work is only made more difficult by time pressure, as the various governments involved in cracking the language slowly buckle under political pressure, fear, and uncertainty. It’s up to Louise to diffuse the escalating tension, but can they make the necessary breakthroughs in time?

Arrival is an understated, thought-provoking science fiction film that creates an immersive, gripping atmosphere of scientific mystery and simmering political tension. Its thematic focus on communication, cooperation, and understanding otherness in a world that often pits us against each other is a timeless message, but it couldn’t be more relevant to the current political climate. This makes it both an important and a difficult watch, depicting as it does an environment of international, multicultural cooperation in an era that seems to want to slam the door on that kind of endeavor forever. For some, this will make the film an emotionally charged dagger to the heart. I, for one, found its worldview sad but beautiful, an image of a better, fictional world that inaccurately reflects the fractious and hateful state of affairs in our own.

But Arrival also never loses sight of its smaller, human story, which, while playing out quite subtly underneath the broader narrative action, is just as powerful. This angle was, for me, the true source of the film’s hope and optimism: an effectively rendered message of perseverance in the face of perilous personal circumstances. On this score, Amy Adams is the film’s best asset: she delivers a flawless central performance, perfectly nuanced to execute the film’s impressive narrative strategy, which involves a jaw-dropping emotional reveal. The message of her character’s life journey is a powerful one, and one many of us most likely need to hear right about now.

In summary, Arrival is first-rate SF, a fiction that converses powerfully with the truth, delivering sense of wonder, thought-provoking concepts, romance, drama, and hope. Science fiction doesn’t get much better than this.

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TV: The Code (Season 1)

the-code-season-1-posterThe conspiracy thriller continues to be a thorny genre in the post-truth era, but fortunately they still get made, because they still make for great drama. My latest watch in this category is the Australian series The Code, and while I think its idea is somewhat better than its execution, overall it’s an effective example of its type.

The action begins with a car accident in a remote corner of New South Wales: a girl is killed, and the surviving boy is so traumatized that he can’t entirely remember what happened. A government cover-up glosses over the story, but a whistleblower steers it toward journalist Ned Banks (Dan Spielman), who works for an online magazine called Password. Ned’s investigation takes him to the small town of Lindara, where, with the help of the boy’s schoolteacher Alex Wisham (Lucy Lawless), he begins to uncover a connection between the accident and a biotech firm called Phylanto. Ned’s autistic younger brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), who also happens to a brilliant computer hacker, gets wind of Ned’s investigation and can’t resist getting involved, hacking into Phylanto’s computer network to gather evidence. The hack, however, lands him and Ned — along with Jesse’s hacker friend Hani (Adele Perovic) — in serious hot water, when their pursuit of the story lands them in the crosshairs of various government agents, corrupt politicians, and ruthless mercenaries.

The Code is impeccably acted and boasts some beautiful cinematography, leveraging both the urban and rural landscapes of Australia to great effect. (I was particularly enamored of its time-lapsed establishing shots, a striking stylistic flourish.) Visually, it’s like the flip side of Fortitude, particularly when it ventures to the unforgiving desert locations. The narrative is suitably complex, entwining its heroes with a shifting roster of potential allies and enemies, among them Rectify’s Aden Young. Spielman and Zukerman are both excellent, and the fraught, convincing relationship between the two brothers provides a solid emotional core to the convoluted plot. Adele Perovic is also quite appealing in a key supporting role, and by the way, the theme song and credit sequence are absolutely first rate.

Unfortunately, while it starts well and ends satisfyingly, certain parts of the journey are a bit muddy and confusing; shows of this nature benefit from clockwork pacing, and The Code isn’t quite there, its moving parts occasionally grinding. The action unnecessarily veers into triggery violence and torture at times, and the “autistic computer genius” characterization does feel a bit like a shopworn trope, at this point. These imperfections aren’t deal-breakers, however, and overall I think The Code does a good job balancing its taut story mechanics with an engaging human story. Looking forward to the second season.

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TV: Luke Cage (Season 1)

luke-cageNetflix’s corner of the Marvel universe continues to expand in Luke Cage, its latest Defenders run-up that ties into the worlds of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. I wish I had better things to say about the first season of this stylish but ultimately underwhelming show, which, while not without its assets, doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors.

Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a good and decent man, trying to live life on the up-and-up with modest, low-paying jobs in Harlem at a barber shop and a music club. But Luke is also a man with a troubled past, one that both caused and made him reluctant to use his unlikely powers: super strength and bullet-proof skin. Luke’s attempts to blend into the background are destined to fail, however. His boss at the club, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), is tied into Harlem’s underworld, a criminal enterprise Stokes’ scheming cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) clandestinely works to legitimize from her position on the city council. When Cottonmouth’s criminal activity coincidentally starts following Luke around, Luke becomes a potential suspect for sharp Harlem detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who sees him as a key figure to unraveling the neighborhood’s criminal mysteries. Trapped between the good guys and the bad, Luke is finally forced to choose a side and make use of his abilities.

There aren’t enough superlatives to convey how much I loved Luke Cage’s audio-visual style, which launches the series with confidence and energy. There’s an effective retro 1970s vibe permeating the soundtrack, anchored by a superb Lalo Schifrinesque theme song, which lends the show an infectiously stylized ambience. Marvel’s recent Hollywood fare isn’t known for its racial or gender diversity, but Luke Cage bucks that trend with a refreshing focus on African-American characters, many of them female, and at times speaks powerfully to their experience in an increasingly hostile political environment. Especially in the early episodes, the characters are well drawn, with Ali’s Cottonmouth, Missick’s Misty Knight, Frank Whaley’s Detective Scarf, and Theo Rossi’s criminal thug Shades making the strongest impressions. Later, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) shows up, improving on her Daredevil and Jessica Jones appearances to prove herself as the essential glue of Netflix’s “MTU.”

Unfortunately, the show’s early sure-handedness eventually starts to sputter. Like the other series, it starts to feel flabby and padded in its middle episodes, but unlike those shows it fails to regain its magic down the home stretch, leading to a clumsy, unsatisfying conclusion. Colter is tremendous physical casting and does a good job with what he’s given, but Cage’s origin story isn’t terribly inspired, and in the end he feels like a hole in the middle compared to the more present and proactive Misty and Claire, whose more organic heroism is ultimately sidelined. The show also relies on a trio of villains to carry its narrative power, and only one of them — Ali’s impressive Cottonmouth — truly holds up his end. Woodard’s Mariah Dillard simply isn’t interesting or formidable enough, but even less inspired is Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), easily the weakest Netflix villain both in affect and backstory. The story hangs a lot of its story-telling hopes on Diamondback, and it doesn’t pay off.

That said, the show’s drawbacks aren’t so dire as to put me off the sequence entirely. I’m still invested in seeing how the world develops, and how the various solo sequences weave together into a team project. And oh, that fantastic style! But hopefully, having dispensed with its origin-story formalities, Luke Cage can up its storytelling game in its next season.

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Film: Death in Small Doses

death-in-small-doses-movie-poster-1957-1020197288Even the B movies of the 1950s have a quiet, modest artistry to them, a compliment that certainly applies to Death in Small Doses (1957), an unspectacular but enjoyable mix of film noir and drug panic PSA. In an early leading role, Peter Graves stars as an Federal Drug Administration agent who goes undercover as a truck driver to bust up an amphetamine ring on the west coast. Preliminary intelligence sends him to an LA boarding house run by Valerie Owens (Mala Powers), the first step in his quest to eradicate a “benny” epidemic plaguing the trucking industry. His subsequent long hauls up and down the coast put him into contact with the web of users and dealers that help him crack the case.

With its modest budget and simple plot, Death in Small Doses is far from dazzling, but its prosaic filmmaking techniques are effective enough to provide a certain charm. Weirdly, it’s based on a Saturday Evening Post article, which adds a rather quaint and old-fashioned addiction alarmism to its potboiler trappings. Graves shows early signs of the leading man charisma that would serve him well through the early years of his career, while Powers makes for a compelling femme fatale. Also along for the ride is Chuck Connors, who turns in an animated performance as “Mink,” a sketchy trucker junkie. Fans of this sort of old-school noir will find it an inessential but pleasant diversion.

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TV: Foyle’s War

foyle1Mixing together history, mystery, and memorable characters, Foyle’s War (2002-2015) is a classy British procedural that spans from the early days of the Second World War to its conclusion, and then onto the early stages of the Cold War. Detective Chief Superintendant Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) is a widower, a father, and a policeman in southern England, based in the city of Hastings. He’s also a veteran of the Great War, and if he had his way, he’d be doing his bit against Hitler as well. Unfortunately, his military enlistment is blocked by his superiors, who think he’s too valuable where he is. Foyle’s none too pleased by the arrangement, but he’s too good at his job not to carry it out, and with his driver Sam Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) and subordinate Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) by his side, he soon finds himself contributing to the war effort on the home front, one nefarious crime at a time.

Foyle’s War is classy, authentic, and a little bit cozy, an addictive, dark mystery series that builds its world convincingly and peppers its intriguing plots with interesting bits of historical detail. It develops, and quickly perfects, a winning formula: first, a picture is painted of its world, then a crime is introduced, then Foyle and his team are deployed to solve it. While that skeleton framework does get repetitive, it never fails to work, thanks largely to the chemistry of the heroes. Kitchen is especially good as the mysterious, understated Foyle, whose unassuming demeanor conceals both penetrating intelligence and a fierce sense of right and wrong — which often boils over in eloquent, brilliant argument when confronted with selfishness and injustice. Foyle’s subdued, bleak eye is countered by his underlings, especially the good-hearted Sam, played winningly by Weeks. The father-daughter rapport between Foyle and Sam serves as the core of the show’s continuity as circumstances and characters and world events swirl around them.

The first five or six seasons are superb, at once entertaining procedurals and insightful windows onto the era. As the war comes to a close and the series reorients in a logically different direction, however, I found it losing its hold on me slightly. Perhaps the long production gaps changed the flavor, or marred the actor continuity too much, and Foyle’s role in the proceedings feels rather reduced down the home stretch. I’m also disappointed they never quite developed Sam beyond her cheerful, occasionally clumsy persona as Foyle’s aide and sounding board. Despite this slight decrease in quality, the final couple of years are still quite good, and Kitchen’s memorable protagonist is ever worth the price of admission. Well worth a look, especially for fans of British period mystery.

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Film: Mascots

mascots-movie-posterLet’s say you’ve had a rough week *ahem* and you want to take your mind off the world’s troubles. You could do worse than to watch Christopher Guest’s Netflix comedy Mascots (2016), the latest in his trademark line of semi-improvisational ensemble pieces. Following the model of Best in Show, Mascots focuses on a peculiar niche passion — in this case, sports “mascottery” — and zooms in on a gathering of its goofier practitioners as they gear up for its annual competition.

Folks who have been following Guest’s work stretching all the way back to This is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman will recognize the traditional mockumentary format he helped to pioneer, as well as the usual band of repertory suspects from previous projects, back again to take a ridiculous subject way too seriously. Parker Posey, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Chris O’Dowd, and more Guest veterans turn up — including Guest, reprising his Guffman role as Corky St. Clair. But it’s the newcomers who steal the show, this time: Zach Woods, Susan Yeagley, and Tom Bennett are among this one’s funnier and more memorable oddballs.

Occasionally there’s a mildly mean-spirited, punching down quality to Guest’s work, poking fun at the simple pleasures of quirky, unsophisticated folk. Mascots has a little of that, marred by a handful of cringeworthy bits, but overall its subject is so ludicrous that it’s easy to turn off the critical filters and enjoy the absurdity, and the often inspired comic buffoonery of the competition sequence that winds down the film. Mascots isn’t quite up to Guest’s classic stuff, but it’s still pretty good, and it turned my brain off for an hour so, which is a high bar to clear these days.

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TV: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 1)

crazyexgirlfriend_s1It took some convincing for me to watch the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but after plying me with hilarious YouTube videos, Jenn eventually wooed me over to watching this one. And now I feel like a fool for resisting, because it’s pretty wonderful. Stupid masculine conditioning!

Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom, in a performance as fearless as it is virtuosic) is a high-powered attorney in the New York City rat race. She’s successful, but also miserable and neurotic, and when her dreamy ex from summer camp Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) appears on the street out of nowhere, the brief encounter finally causes her to crack. Blowing up her life, she spontaneously moves to Josh’s home town of West Covina, California, takes a job at a third-rate law firm run by Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner), and begins concocting elaborate schemes to win Josh back — often with the help of her new best friend, Paula (the wildly talented Donna Lynne Champlin), who gets drawn into the vicarious thrill of Rebecca’s love life. But Rebecca’s unselfaware pursuit of romantic destiny starts to lay waste to the web of relationships surrounding Josh, particularly for Josh’s cynical pal Greg (Santino Fontana) and his snarly girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz). Rebecca is convinced that winning back Josh will solve all her problems, but her efforts to do so lead her down a reckless path of deluded antiheroism.

At first blush, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend looks like a twee rom-com with an unappealing, politically incorrect premise, but once you get past that false impression, there’s a smart, satisfying, and wickedly funny show waiting, that leverages the cheery tropes of musicals and romantic comedy to cynical and hilarious effect. The songs and dance routines range from amusing to fall-over funny, and it resurrects the musical as a viable TV genre, mastering and sustaining the inventiveness and sense of humor that made Buffy’s “Once More with Feeling” and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog successful. At the heart of it all is Bloom, who is marvelous in a juicy, showy antihero part. She’s the Walter White or Vic Mackey of the musical comedy genre, walking that tricky line of relatable and appalling that keeps you rooting both for and against her as she wreaks havoc. Bloom is a massive talent, and the cast surrounding her — especially Champlin and Fontana — are just as talented and funny. And while there are some early, punching-down missteps in its messaging, it’s mostly a very progressive and thoughtful show in terms of its thematic subtexts. I view it as kind of cagey, dark flip side to Jane the Virgin, which it resembles in perky tone and stylistic approach. It has the same zippy antics and rib-jabbing metahumor, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is nastier, edgier, and flat out funnier, even as it stirs in just enough hope and goodness to keep the viewer invested. Plus, it has madcap musical numbers that propel the narrative and add another layer of inventiveness. Hopefully more viewers will push through its off-putting surface to find their way to this show, because it deserves to stick around for a while.

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TV: Rectify (Season 3)

rectify-3One of peak TV’s under-celebrated greats, the thoughtful, atmospheric Rectify extends its classy track record in its third year. Set in small-town Georgia, the show circles the haunted Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who, after twenty years on death row for a rape-murder to which he confessed, is released when DNA evidence exonerates him of the crime. The show executes an impressive structural feat in its first two seasons: without exhausting viewer patience, it incrementally reveals new details of a decades-old crime, painting a clearer and clearer picture of what actually happened to put Daniel behind bars. But even as the second season ends with major components of the truth revealed, the full picture of the crime remains muddy. Daniel’s troubled psychology leads to perplexing behavior that continues to cast doubts on the extent of his involvement in the crime that forever changed his life.

As the season begins, Daniel has been banished from his home town of Paulie; he has thirty days to tie up loose ends and start a new life elsewhere. But while Daniel has resigned himself to this uncertain future, other developments in town start to pull away the veil of secrecy surrounding his past. A new body is discovered, and the resulting investigation, led by Sheriff Carl Daggett (J.D. Evermore), seems connected with Daniel and the tragic, defining moments that shaped him. Broken and bewildered, Daniel has accepted his own ambiguous guilt and is ready to move on, but Daggett has new doubts, and new details emerge that may change the fate of Daniel and his family.

Rectify isn’t always an easy show to watch: its emotional lows are heart-breaking, and this season it reveals itself more as an oblique, damning critique of toxic masculinity and rape culture. Sad as it is, however, it’s also moving and beautiful, thanks to the nuanced, touching performances of its cast — especially Young, Abigail Spencer, J. Smith-Cameron, Adelaide Clemens, Clayne Crawford, and Luke Kirby. Its dire, troubled atmosphere also muses thoughtfully on judgmental behavior, faith, and justice in a quietly hopeful way, and the title leaves me anxious to see how the show resolves its dilemmas in the fourth and final season.

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