Novella Sale to Panverse Four

I’m delighted to announce that my novella “The Machine Storms” has been accepted for publication in the Panverse Four anthology!

This sale is definitely a Taos Toolbox success story. For months, I’d been stuck on the first several pages of what was looking to be a long, futuristic adventure set in the Midwest. I liked my opening but didn’t know where to go with it. It wasn’t until the workshop that I felt equipped to tackle the project. During the mid-Taos panic to produce something for week two, I sequestered myself at a cafe for a few hours to generate new pages. The Taos crew helped me get the story moving, and later the Freeway Dragons here in LA helped me put the finishing touches on it.

Very excited to be working with Dario Ciriello at Panverse Publishing on this piece. Watch for “The Machine Storms” in Panverse Four, sometime in 2015!

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Film: A Most Wanted Man

When I first heard Philip Seymour Hoffman would be starring in a movie adaptation of a John le Carré novel, I got very excited – it seemed about time the paths of these two luminaries should cross. As it turns out, A Most Wanted Man (2014), Hoffman’s last major lead performance, couldn’t be a more appropriate send-off for one of Hollywood’s legendary actors. It’s also a surprisingly good adaptation of one of le Carré’s lesser known late works, coming at the source material from an unexpected angle.

In Hamburg, Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) is a downtrodden German intelligence officer tasked with battling the war on terror. When a young half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg, Bachmann and his team go into action monitoring the illegal arrival. Despite pressure to swoop in an arrest Karpov, Bachmann has a longer game in  mind: he wants to track Karpov’s movements and see what he’s up to. His patience pays off when Karpov recruits an idealistic young lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) to help him get in touch with a shady British banker, Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). It turns out Karpov has inherited vast sums of laundered Russian mafia money – a circumstance Bachmann decides to spin, methodically, to his advantage in his targeting of a suspected terrorist financier, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi).

The film was directed by Anton Corbijn, who also helmed The American – a similar film in a similar milieu. But whereas The American seemed more interested in style and visuals, A Most Wanted Man is clearly more focused on performance and plot. The result is a much more satisfying film. It’s rife with le Carré’s trademark themes and elements: intricate plotting, characters torn between idealism and cynicism, understated spy craft, thorny geopolitical conflicts. Andrew Bovell’s script inverted my expectations, though; I seem to recall the novel being more from Tommy Brue’s point of view, but the story has been cleverly retooled to focus on Bachmann’s man-hunt and subsequent maneuverings, and it makes for a more focused and intriguing story.

Or perhaps that’s simply the impact of Hoffman, who delivers an exquisite swan song here, playing classic spy-world stuff: the experienced, disillusioned veteran intelligence officer who knows how to play the game brilliantly, even if he can’t always remember why he’s playing it. Whether subtly flirting with his colleague Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), butting heads with rival Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), or cagily exchanging information with an American CIA officer (Robin Wright), Hoffman is utterly convincing, exuding gravitas. He’s even more impressive at rest or saying nothing, the failures and disappointments of his career – only hinted at in the script – written all over his every nuanced gesture. He doesn’t just play Bachmann, he inhabits him, and it sells the film.

Which doesn’t make it a perfect one, alas. As with The American, I didn’t find much energy to Corbijn’s artistry. The slow, deliberate build-up contributes to the emotional effect, but it’s at the expense of narrative momentum. Then again, it makes the brutal door-slam of a finale all the more powerful, even if the message is strident. Reservations aside, it’s still a very, very good spy film, especially worth watching for Hoffman’s intense, brooding, weighty performance. He will be missed.

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Novel: Nexus by Ramez Naam

For a face-full of near-future world-building, intense violent action, and the usual Angry Robot attitude, go no further than Nexus (2013) by Ramez Naam. It’s a longish book that feels short thanks to smooth, simple prose and a gripping central premise.

In the mid-21st century, Kaden Lane is a pioneer in the development and improvement of a nanotechnology-based drug called Nexus, which enables the user to engage in mind-to-mind communication. Unfortunately for Kade, the government gets wind of his work. Rather than slap him in jail for violating the US’s draconian anti-science laws, they decide to use him as a bait in a scheme to smoke out and neutralize suspected Nexus dealers and scientists at an international science conference in Thailand. There, Kade has to make impossible choices when caught between opposing forces in a secret war to control the future of posthumanity.

For all the action and intrigue here, my favorite aspect of the novel is its rigorous and thoughtful examination of the central idea. How would the telepathic effects of Nexus work, and how would people want to apply them? Naam makes the science feel real, but even more convincing are the human reactions to its potential. From knee-jerk fear to wide-eyed optimism, these reactions fuel the plot with conflict, but also – more importantly – speak to a central theme about the ethical conundrums of introducing new technologies to the world. Many will want to use them to make the world a better place; others will abuse and control them. Naam skillfully thrusts his protagonist in the midst of a very thorny debate, and the resulting drama is thought-provoking.

There are some stretches of the novel, in the latter stages, where the big-screen ultraviolence started to get long in the tooth for me. In my view, the intriguing build-up, the ideas, and the philosophical disputes made for better reading than the action scenes. But overall I found the novel a solid blend of near-future speculation, complicated intrigue, and bracing entertainment that, in the end, resolves rather powerfully. An impressive debut.

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TV: Masters of Sex (Season 1)

Biopics are an iffy proposition for me at the best of times, but Masters of Sex proves that maybe TV is the better medium for biopics than film. The lives of historical figures may not lend themselves to neat and tidy, feature-length stories with beginnings, middles, and endings, but a truly interesting life can lend itself to many compelling episodes.

Or, in this case, lives; catchy wordplay of the title notwithstanding, the show is misnamed. Yes, while it is about Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen), the groundbreaking midwestern gynecologist who pioneered the study of human sexuality in the 1950s, it’s also just as much about his essential partner in these studies, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), whose attitude and insights helped push a stiff scientist’s research in the right directions. As the series begins, Masters is a powerful hotshot doctor for Washington University’s maternity practice in St. Louis. He and his wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) are struggling to have a baby, and also to connect in their marriage. Johnson, meanwhile, is a twice-divorced former singer with two children, who reboots herself as Masters’ secretary – but she’s ambitious, charming, and quickly develops a knack as his research assistant. As it happens, she’s the perfect complement to Masters as he begins a risky, risqué new study of human sexuality. Oh, and not that he’ll admit it to himself, but he also falls head over heels in love with her.

The show surrounds its two primary subjects with a likeable cast of sympathetic characters. Most integral to the plot is Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), a hospital executive whose closet homosexuality – which Masters knows about – gives Masters the leverage he needs to rubber-stamp his research. Barton’s situation leads to a heartbreaking subplot involving his long-suffering wife, Margaret (Allison Janney). Masters’ protégé, the young Dr. Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosta), is in the mix as a romantic rival, while Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears) and secretary Jane Martin (Heléne York) become important early participants in the study.

Even at their best, Showtime’s series often strike me as glitzier, more surfacey responses to the weightier fare on HBO and AMC. With its 1950s period piece trappings and heavy focus on gender politics, my initial take on Masters of Sex was that it’s a direct descendant of Mad Men, but with more sympathetic characters and more interest in eye candy titillation. But as the season evolves, its gradually transcends that comparison. It has taken its biopic material and spun it into a complicated workplace drama, filled with romantic entanglements and frank explorations of the physical and emotional repercussions of sex. Masters and Johnson, with their clinical methodologies, submerge their emotional responses to sex “in the name of science,” and their relationship is a fascinating one, contrasted against the more human, heart-on-sleeve emotions of the supporting cast.

Surely Masters and Johnson the characters are more accessible and attractive than Masters and Johnson the actual people? I suspect so; the subject matter definitely feels “Hollywoodized.” But if so, it’s cleverly adapted and makes for engaging entertainment. The two leads sell the material effectively and have an effortless rapport. Sheen is terrific as Masters, whose adventurous scientific approach to sexual knowledge doesn’t fail to conceal his own buttoned-down, repressed relationship to it in his personal life. But as Johnson, the liberated, forward-thinking woman who doesn’t fit into her era, Caplan is the heart and soul of the series, the real hero – intelligent, funny, and fearless. The writing handles her struggles to advance, and Masters’ taken-for-granted power and prestige, with a deft touch that is probably more forgiving than the reality…an approach that makes Masters of Sex easier to handle than Mad Men, and more naturally accessible. I don’t think it’s as subtle or as powerful, but it handles similar themes rather likeably. And once you get past the glossy, exploitive Showtime vibe, it’s actually a feminist show – giving considerable play to the challenges of the women in its cast, especially Caplan, FitzGerald, Janney, and Julianne Nicholson (who plays the only female doctor at the university, Lillian DePaul). Masters of Sex feels a little less realistic about its gender politics than Mad Men – it’s more clearly a case of modern viewpoints showing through a filter of the past, as opposed to full immersion. But this makes it more watchable, and especially in the last few episodes of the year, it makes for some scenes that are quite moving.

It’s definitely a period soap opera, in some respects, but it’s a much better show than I was expecting: smooth, insightful, historically interesting, and entertaining stuff. Well worth a viewing, especially for the acting.

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Film: Seconds

On first viewing, years ago, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) made a powerful impression on me. I’ve been wanting to revisit it, and while it didn’t wow me with the same intensity this time around, it’s still a remarkable film: a creepy, slow-building Twilight Zone SFnal mystery and a full-blown assault on the spiritual emptiness of the American Dream.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a taciturn, married banker, both upper-middle aged and upper-middle class, and he should have everything he wants in life. But he’s a tepid man leading a tepid life, and his lot feels hollow, a condition exacerbated by bizarre phone calls from an old friend named Charlie (Murray Hamilton). The problem? Charlie’s dead. He’s also hellbent on luring Arthur into a shady underworld operation that will give him a second chance at true happiness, quite literally remaking Arthur into a new man: Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson).

Shot in stark, eerie black-and-white, Seconds is a quirky, unsettling vision, and its first half is a strange and gripping what-the-hell-is-going-on puzzle. Randolph delivers a masterfully uncomfortable performance as he steps hopelessly through the creepy rat’s maze, manipulated by a ruthless, morally bankrupt corporation into ceding his very identity. The film’s grip weakens somewhat when the transformation is complete, perhaps because it resolves the propulsive surface mystery. The middle stretches, during which “Tony” takes up with an attractive young woman named Nora (Salome Jens) in Malibu as part of his new life, deliver the film into a less pointed, more psychological zone as Tony finds that the makeover didn’t exactly quell his existential crisis. Perhaps deliberately, the film feels more aimless here, but Hudson’s terrific, raw performance as this erratic “new” person feeds nicely into a chilling finale. Definitely a product of its time, Seconds is also ahead of it with its offbeat, dark humor, haunting visuals, and its fierce, relentless critique of vapid American culture.

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Spy 100, #57: The Fourth Protocol

From the last gasp of the Cold War comes The Fourth Protocol (1987), a polished but unexceptional thriller. In the Soviet Union, a well placed Russian agent named Valeri Petrofsky (Pierce Brosnan) is given an assignment so top secret he has to kill the man who delivers his instructions. His mission: go to England, rent a flat near a U.S. Air Force base, and assemble an atomic bomb.  Fortunately for the British, political in-fighting puts one their shrewdest agents, John Preston (Michael Caine), in position to sniff out what’s happening. He’s too insubordinate to win over his pompous superior, but fortunately his more intelligent colleague Sir Nigel Irvine (Ian Richardson) deploys him off the books to stop the threat. Can he counter Petrofsky’s plan? Well, yes, of course he can.

The Fourth Protocol starts promisingly, with effective visual story-telling, twisty spy world politics, and a generally intriguing slow-build. It’s also got a good soundtrack from Lalo Schifrin, whose noticeably unnoticeable music always works well with this kind of material. Alas, the film wears out its welcome.  Much of the early-going is unrelated character set-up, and once the main plot takes center stage, nothing particularly unexpected happens and the action unfolds rather clinically. Caine is in fine form and Brosnan is okay, but otherwise the actors struggle with the stilted dialogue, especially the miscast Russians; Ray McAnally makes for an unconvincing KGB bigwig, and Ned Beatty isn’t much better. The trappings are well handled, and the final twist is classically cynical spy world stuff, but overall it’s a flat, distancing affair.

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Film: Under the Skin

The degree to which you enjoy Under the Skin (2013) will probably depend largely on how much you enjoy experimental, arthouse “what-the-hell-is-going-on-here” movies. Also, you might want to bring a high threshold for being creeped out. Warning: I love this type of thing, and I found it intense, riveting, and rather unsettling.

This film does have a plot, but it’s rather a submerged and inchoate one…it follows a mysterious woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, across the Scottish countryside as she preys on unsuspecting men. What she does to them is deeply disturbing, and speaks to her peculiar condition. But she’s not fully in control of her fate: what she’s doing is a by-product of her nature, and also, perhaps, influenced by the oversight of an equally mysterious biker (Jeremy McWilliams) to whom she’s connected. She seems compelled, or duty-bound, to play her role, but ultimately she goes off the reservation.

Under the Skin is chilling, moody science fiction horror that relies largely on visual story-telling and masterful sound design to create a stark, unforgiving atmosphere. I found it impossible to look away, and not just because of Johansson’s alluring performance. The cinematography is impressive, from the landscapes to the set designs to the utterly unnerving visual effects, and the film quietly lets the action and imagery unravel the film’s mysteries; the dialogue, much of it improvised and heavily accented, is almost incidental. It makes for something of a visual puzzle, then, but it’s enhanced immeasurably by the audio: even the most static, mundane scenes are given tension by the sound and music, leveraged like weapons against the viewer.

As for the narrative itself, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Sometimes the film seems fraught with hidden meanings and metaphors, but in the end, it seems a simple SFnal story, its mechanics rendered mostly explicit. I didn’t actually care to fully decipher it, though, too caught up in its fascinating moments and dazzling techniques. Director Jonathan Glazer has created a cult masterpiece, here, in the offbeat vein of David Lynch or Nicolas Roeg. I loved it.

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Novel:  My Real Children by Jo Walton

What a lovely read this is:  Jo Walton’s My Real Children (2014) is a smooth, beautifully written alternate worlds novel that uses a familiar science fictional trope to muse thought-provokingly on choice, love, fate, and the human condition. It’s the story of Patricia Cowan, a woman born in England shortly before World War II. Her early years unfold rather conventionally against the tragic geopolitical backdrop of mid-century Europe, leading up to a momentous marriage proposal from a suitor named Mark. The proposal comes as a now-or-never ultimatum, and Patricia…both accepts and rejects it. Here the novel splits off into two alternating narratives: one tracking the life of Tricia, who dutifully marries Mark and raises his children, and the other following Pat, who follows an entirely different path and starts a very different family. These two lives are drastically contrasting, and so are the sociopolitical realities of their worlds, but both Pat and Tricia experience their own unique joys, successes, struggles, and tragedies.

A mesmerizing blend of history, gender politics, personal drama, and what-if speculation, My Real Children is a quiet, thought-provoking book that hauntingly investigates one woman’s life decisions. Walton’s prose is simple but confident; at times, it feels weirdly like reading a montage, with plenty of summary, and yet I was swept along, intrigued by the discrepancies between the two lives and the two worlds. The variances between realities also provide interesting, varied angles on the author’s sociopolitical viewpoint, which is quite feminist and progressive. At times I found the commentary unsubtle, but it’s also fascinating how it is framed against two alternate versions of our past, so that even as the conditions are familiar, they’re also slightly alien.  A framing device cleverly ties it all together, in a manner both heartening and deeply sad. Overall, a very satisfying novel, one of those books that practically reads itself.

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TV: Island at War

The six-episode British series Island at War (2004) takes as its subject the German occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II. While it provides a chilling look at what life was like under Nazi oppression, unfortunately it’s not a particularly satisfying or complete story.

It’s set on the fictional island of St. Gregory, a stand-in for Jersey and Guernsey, British-colonized islands which are actually much closer to France than to England. With the fall of France, the British withdraw their military presence from the small, strategically insignificant island. This leaves its populace at the mercy of the German invaders, who promptly move in to set up an airbase. The story focuses on three families:  the Dorrs (who are involved in local politics), the Mahys (who run a local market), and the Jonas’ (Mr. Jonas is a local constable, and they run a farm together). Incapable of resisting the German invasion, they’re forced to make tough decisions about how to handle the occupation:  to cooperate, to collaborate, or to resist?

The local constable Wilf Jonas (Owen Teale) suffers the indignity of losing his position and being forced to work for an occupying officer. For the Dorrs, things are complicated by the return of their son Philip (Sam Heughan), who sneaks onto the island as part of an ill-considered intelligence-gathering mission. His presence ends up putting people at risk, while challenging their patriotism and resolve. Meanwhile, the Mahys – mother Cassie (Saskia Reeves) and daughters Angelique (Joanne Froggatt) and June (Samantha Robinson) – are each forced, in different ways, to cope with the influx of young German men to the island. None of them, however, have it as bad as Zelda Kaye (Louisa Clein), an undocumented Jew who becomes the obsession of a monstrous anti-Semite, Oberleutnant Walker (Colin Jonas).

As a historical glimpse at the horrifying injustice of living under a Nazi bootheel, Island at War succeeds quite effectively – and one gets the sense this is the German Army on their best behavior in this particular occupation . The production values are high, the acting is fine, and conflict is inherently built into every scene. Unfortunately, there’s just a general lack of spark to it: there’s rather a day-in-the-life pace to a scenario that’s full of life-and-death stakes. One would suspect more energy and suspense from a series that largely involves ill-fated spy missions, black marketeering, secret fraternization between enemies, and bitter enemies attempting to coexist under impossible circumstances. But Islands at War is curiously buttoned-down, and a little lifeless. And alas, it also feels incomplete…the series ends before the war does, so we never see the islanders delivered from their frustrating circumstances.

It’s certainly a competent and attractive production, and I found it historically interesting, but I probably wouldn’t recommend to anyone who doesn’t already possess an inherent curiosity for the premise.

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Film: Snowpiercer

Miraculously, I managed to stumble into Snowpiercer (2013) with no preconceptions whatsoever. Well, beyond a general sense of positive buzz, that is…so imagine my surprise when I spent the first hour rolling my eyes and glancing at my watch. Then something curious happened: a switch flipped, and the film weirdly redeemed itself. In the end, I still think it’s a bloody awkward mess of a movie, half awful and half good. And yet, in a possibly accidental, unexpected way, it’s also kind of brilliant.

In the future, a climate change experiment goes wrong, plunging the world into a new ice age. Humanity goes extinct with the exception of those who were lucky enough to board the Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circumnavigates the globe, defiantly serving as a last bastion for the survivors. The train is a closed ecosystem, and within it, a caste system emerges, with the privileged elite in the front and the lower-class waste in the back. It’s a brutally unjust set-up, and one that Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) is determined to overthrow. Using intelligence smuggled back from mysterious allies, he and his team – including his sidekick (Jamie Bell), a woman whose son was stolen from her (Octavia Spencer), a security specialist (Song-Kong Ho) and his daughter (Go Ah-sung) – lead a revolution to rush the front of the train, overthrow the dictatorship, and take over.

Taken literally, of course, the SFnal world-building is preposterous, so the script goes to great lengths to make it absolutely explicit that we are squarely in Metaphor Land: the train is the Earth, the passengers are humanity, yeah we get it. The approach is artless and obvious, a pretentious allegory that makes Elysium look masterfully subtle. Its message-y ambition feels like a sham, draped as it is across a plot that is – at first, anyway – blunt, hopelessly linear, and ultraviolent. The pacing is wildly uneven, and the tone is all over the map, from silly to super-serious and back again. Is this a brutal war epic, a dark comedy, a skiffy adventure, or an arthouse experiment? Perhaps it’s all of them at once, but if so, it doesn’t seem strategic or in-control about it; instead, it seems to be trying ideas randomly and keeping everything, whether it meshes, clashes, or both. By the midpoint, I couldn’t wait for it to end.

But as the party makes it way further and further toward the front of the train, Snowpiercer increasingly embraces its gonzo central concept, and somehow that saves it. With each train car they enter, the visionary metaphors get more outlandish. There’s this weird scene with Alison Pill, who is gleefully terrible as a school teacher brainwashing upper-class children with dogmatic Republican values. I hated the scene, but it kind of turned the film on its ass, escalating The Crazy in a way that serves the vision. The character start to matter, the blunt force trauma of the metaphors stops hurting, and a whole begins to take shape from all the unlikely parts. Even the film’s unsuccessful attempts to reverse engineer its implausible world – explaining the machinations of the train with too-late, sort-of cleverness – suit the kludgy nature of it. Then, as the final confrontation nears, Evans delivers this intense, shattering monologue that kind of aligns everything, Ed Harris turns up to drill home the final message, and it ends with a heartbreaking, breathtakingly beautiful final image.

What an absurd, fascinating mess it is – and that plays right into its ultimate, clunky metaphor, doesn’t it? Like the Earth, like its people, like life, Snowpiercer is at once terrible, awesome, disposable, and essential. Could it be its uneven grasp of craft actually works to the theme? After much consideration, I both loved and hated the film, and I’m very, very glad I saw it.

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