Friday, March 16, 2018

The 2018 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Fiction Categories

With a little under 24 hours left in the Hugo nominating period, it's time for the big fiction categories.  As I wrote earlier this spring, I'm giving the short fiction categories a pass this year, but I have read enough interesting novellas to have a few nominations in that category.  In the novel categories, however, we've seen a bit of an explosion in the last few years, with the Best Series, and Best YA Novel (tentatively called the Lodestar) joining Best Novel.  I haven't read much that's eligible in either category (I'm tempted to nominate Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence for Best Series, but I was a little underwhelmed by Europe in Winter so I might not), but nevertheless, there's more to talk about in this post than in previous years.

Previous posts in this series:

Best Novel:

  • The Rift by Nina Allan (review at The New Scientist) - Allan's second novel sneaks up on you.  For most of its length, it's a well-crafted family drama about a woman whose sister disappears in her teens and reappears as an adult.  A long middle segment seems to chart the sister's experiences on an alien planet, but are we to take them literally, or as a metaphor for abduction and abuse, or a as a complete invention?  Despite the seeming simplicity of the story, there's a richness here that demands reexamination and thought, in the tradition of the best science fiction.  Shortlisted for the BSFA award for best novel.

  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid - It's a bit of a long shot, trying to get literary fantasy onto the Hugo ballot, but if there was a 2017 novel that combined a literary fiction sensibility with SFnal elements to greater and more devastating effect than Exit West, I haven't heard of it.  Set in a world much like our own, where civil war, economic instability, and climate change are sending waves of refugees in search of a better future, Hamid imagines that randomly appearing doors allow these refugees to immediately appear in richer, safer countries.  The result is sometimes tragic, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally utopian.  Shortlisted for the BSFA award for best novel.

  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru - If Exit West is a stretch, White Tears is even more so, since the Hugos don't tend to recognize horror and ghost stories.  But Kunzru's novel is masterful in how it combines the familiar tropes of a haunting with the history of how white culture appropriates black art and commodifies black pain.  Its fevered conclusion leaves us uncertain who to root for, and uncertain whether a full exorcism is even possibly until the total extent of complicity and guilt has been explored and expiated.

  • New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (review at The New Scientist) - Along with Exit West, this feels like the genre novel for 2017, encompassing politics, capitalism, and environmentalism as it tries to imagine how humanity might survive in the post-climate catastrophe world, and how the means of that survival could end up being turned into yet another commodity by the financial system that defines New York as much as its culture and community.  Told by a rotating cast of characters, New York 2140 is funny, erudite, and invigorating, offering hope for the future even as it identifies the infuriating flaws of the present.

  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (review at The New Scientist, subscribers only) - Offering a twist on the generation ship story that really shouldn't work, Solomon not only combines slavery and science fiction, but adds to them a neuroatypical, gender-nonconforming heroine to create a rich stew that nonetheless feels grounded and immediate.  An Unkindness of Ghosts touches on so many issues, and makes room for such harsh, heartbreaking emotion, that it's hard to believe that it also works so well as a space adventure and a tale of escape.  But at the heart of the story is a simple message--that science fiction is not antithetical to the prejudiced abuses of the past, and that enslaved people can still star in, and direct, a science fictional story.  Listed in the Tiptree Award honor roll.

Best Novella:

I have to admit that I don't actually know that any of these works belong in this category, wordcount-wise--the first two might be too long, the last too short.  But absent any information to the contrary, I'm nominating them here because that's where it feels that they belong.

  • Landscape With Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson (review in The New Scientist) - Anderson's short, devastating work is a dark comedy about love, art, and economic exploitation.  Or rather, it's a dark comedy about how economic exploitation can hollow out love and art until there's nothing left, and about people clinging to their notions of how the world works even in the face of the complete destruction of their system of values.  All that, and funny aliens too.

  • Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim - I'll have more to say about Lim's weird, experimental volume in the near future, but for now I'll just say that this is a deeply political work that forces the fantasies of agency that pop culture has been feeding us for decades--superheroes, secret agents, psychic powers--on a collision course with the realities of political and economic exploitation.  Dear Cyborgs asks, what is the value of disruption--through art, through protest, through defeating a supervillain's dastardly plot--when the system that envelopes you will always co-opt it?

  • "Fallow" by Sofia Samatar (from Tender) - After delivering two of the most astonishing fantasy novels of the last few years, Samatar dropped off the radar a bit in 2017, despite releasing a very fine short fiction collection.  As a result, there hasn't been as much talk about "Fallow" as it deserves, but this is a very fine portrait of a deeply conformist society and the individual that bucks against it.  The narrator--who isn't an iconoclast but loves people who are--is left wondering what's better, preserving the community or making space for those who are different.

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel:

  • A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge - Normally I'd feel a bit guilty for nominating in a category in which I've only read one eligible novel, but when that novel is by Frances Hardinge, and is as fine as A Skinful of Shadows, there's really nothing to apologize for.  Set in the early days of the English civil war, Skinful follows a heroine with a head full of ghosts, as she tries to survive, escape people who want to abuse her power, and form a family of her own.  It's a keen examination of the abuses of power and how it twists both the people it benefits and the people it hurts, as well as a utopian vision of disenfranchised people helping one another and creating a kinder, more equitable future.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer:

Most years, my nominees in this category are short story writers, but because I haven't read a lot of 2017 short fiction, this year they're all debut novelists, each with a very different, but also very exciting, start to their career.

  • Jeannette Ng - I had a lot of expectations when I heard that Ng's debut novel, Under the Pendulum Sun, was about Victorian missionaries in fairyland.  Ng exploded pretty much all of them, and delivered something much stranger--a Gothic romance full of musings about identity, morality, and theology.  It doesn't entire work for me--there's a certain bagginess, especially towards the end, and the book seems to expect an investment in the main characters' obsessions that I didn't quite feel--but despite these issues, Under the Pendulum Sun is so much its own thing, and Ng's work on it feels so assured, that it heralds the arrival of a major new writer.  First year of eligibility.

  • K. Arsenault Rivera - I wasn't entirely blown away by Rivera's debut novel, The Tiger's Daughter (I'll have more to say about it soon, probably next week).  But it is a gorgeously written epic fantasy that places as much focus on its heroines' interior life as it does on their battles with demons and wild animals.  And it builds a fascinating world rooted in Asian culture and mythology, and plants a complicated political system in the middle of it.  There are a lot of great writers challenging our assumptions about what epic fantasy can and should do these days, and with The Tiger's Daughter, Rivera has joined their ranks.  First years of eligibility.

  • Rivers Solomon - It should come as no surprise that the author of a debut novel on my Best Novel ballot will also end up on my Campbell ballot.  I've already written about why I think An Unkindness of Ghosts is special, and I can only hope that Solomon will follow it up with more work that is groundbreaking and challenging.  First year of eligibility.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The 2018 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories

A lot of my nominations in these categories this year are going to be repeats of stuff I nominated in previous years.  These are the categories that got hit hardest by puppy interference, and a lot of people and institutions that should have had a chance to win Hugos in the last five years were pushed out of nomination entirely.  There's a backlog, in other words.  On the other hand, this is also the grouping where I tend to nominate the least (I'm not alone in this--that's why these categories were so vulnerable to the puppies).  Joining the editor categories and Best Fancast in ballots I'm probably going to leave blank this year is Best Fanzine--I'm sorry, but I just don't read enough eligible sites (much less paper zines) to nominate in this category.

Previous posts in this series:

Best Semiprozine:

  • GigaNotoSaurus (editor: Rashida J. Smith) - This continue to be the little magazine that could, publishing a single story each month on a simple blogging platform, and giving space to some of the most interesting writers in the business, often at greater length than other online magazines offer.

  • Lackington's (editor: Ranylt Richildis) - I love that this weird project is still going strong for the fourth year, delivering themed issues with stories that are experimental or surrealist.  Alongside the more blockbuster magazine, Lackington's deserves to be recognized for striking its own path.

  • Strange Horizons (editors: Jane Crowley, Kate Dollarhyde, Niall Harrison) - Strange Horizons continues to move from strength to strength, launching projects like Samovar to promote translated fiction, featuring Geoff Ryman's 100 African Writers of SFF series, dedicating a special issue to the topic of resistance on the week of Trump's inauguration.  It's also one of the best magazines for insightful criticism and commentary on genre, featuring (among other great writing) Dexter Palmer's long meditation on Alan Moore's Jerusalem, Vandana Singh's conflicted reaction to Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement, and, of course, "Kirk Drift".

Best Professional Artist:

  • John Coulthart - If you're like me, there's been one particular piece of Coulthart's art that you've been unable to escape all year, and each time it's looked just as fresh and exciting as the first time.  I'm speaking, of course, of the cover for Jeannette Ng's Under the Pendulum Sun, easily the most eye-catching genre book cover of 2017, and one that perfectly captures the mood of the book and the things that make it remarkable.  A look through Coulthart's gallery reveals that he's illustrated several other interesting covers this year.

  • Kathleen Jennings - I didn't recognize Jennings name when I saw someone recommend her for this category, but when I looked through her gallery, I realized that I'd been seeing her illustrations all year.  Jennings produces cut-paper and line illustrations, and in 2017 you'll have seen her work adorning the second season of Ellen Kushner's Tremontaine, and Kij Johnsons Wind in the Willows sequel The River Bank.

  • Victo Ngai - Unlike the previous two names, Ngai should need no introduction, and certainly not if you've been following my Hugo nominations for the last few years.  She continues to be one of the most exciting, talented artists working in SFF illustration.  In 2017, her work has included the covers to stories by JY Yang and Christopher Caldwell.

  • Yuko Shimizu - Shimizu is another name that I've been nominating for years for consistently great work, but in 2017 she delivered some of the most effective, gorgeous covers in the business with her work on JY Yang's twinned novellas The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune.  I usually read Tor novellas in ebook format, but Shimizu's work made me desperately jealous for the physical object.

  • Christian Ward - It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Ward's art to the success of Saladin Ahmed's Black Bolt.  His psychedelic illustrations perfectly convey the irrationality of the prison in which the Inhuman leader has been trapped, and the turmoil of his and the other prisoners' souls.  It's unlike anything I've seen before in a comic, and deserves to be recognized in its own right.

Best Fan Artist:

This is a category whose boundaries always flummox me.  A lot of the people brought up as prospective nominees are professional artists who also do personal work, and then the question becomes, when do they cross the line into the pro category?  Two people I'd like to nominate this year are Brian Kesinger, a professional illustrator and animator whose Calvin & Hobbes-inspired Star Wars drawings were all over the internet after The Last Jedi.  And James Davies, a children's book illustrator whose genre-themed illustrations (see his recent series of Lord of the Rings characters) are delightful.

  • Likhain - You're probably familiar with Likhain's colorful, fantastical drawings, and in 2017 as in the previous year she combined professional work with her own personal drawings.  But the bulk of her work has been in the latter category (which explains why she was nominated here last year).  Her drawings continue to be evocative and rich in details.

  • Liv Rainey-Smith - I'm a little uncertain about this nomination.  Rainey-Smith's woodcut illustrations are delightfully weird, but I'm not sure they answer the requirement of being a "fan"--most of them seem to draw on folklore and religious imagery rather than genre subjects, though there are the obligatory Lovecraft drawings.  Still, I like what I see here enough to let someone else sort out the minutiae.

  • Vacuumslayer - Still making mixed-media works, Vacuumslayer's focus this year seems decidedly Alice in Wonderland-ish.  These two pieces are my favorites.

Best Fan Writer:

(A brief reminder here that I have announced that I would decline a nomination in this category if I received enough votes to qualify this year.)

  • Nina Allan - Nina had a great 2017, with her second novel The Rift gaining wide acclaim and attention.  She also continued to do good work as a critic and reviewer, on her personal blog, at Strange Horizons, and in the Shadow Clarke project.

  • Vajra Chandrasekera - We didn't see as much of Vajra's nonfiction writing in 2017 as I would have liked--his focus these days seems to be on his own fiction and on being a fiction editor at Strange Horizons.  But his writing at the Shadow Clarke site was some of the most insightful writing that project offered up, in particular this review of Aliya Whitely's The Arrival of Missives.

  • Erin Horáková - After nominating Erin's magnum opus for Best Related Work, you're probably not surprised to find me nominating her in this category.  As well as that magnificent essay, Erin did other writing for Strange Horizons in 2017, covering movies, plays, and board games.

  • Samira Nadkarni - A lot of Samira's best work is happening on twitter, where in 2017 she made some incisive comments about works like Star Trek: Discovery or Thor: Ragnarok (she had some equally interesting things to say last month about Black Panther).  In longer writing, some standouts include her review of Deserts of Fire, an anthology about "modern war" whose project Samira argues with vociferously, and of the Netflix show Crazyhead, in which she discusses the genre trope of conflating mental health problems and superpowers.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Altered Carbon at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My latest Political History of the Future column discusses Altered Carbon, which recently received an appropriately neon-lit, grimy-yet-expensive-looking adaptation from Netflix.  My emphasis in this column, however, is more on the original, 2002 novel by Richard Morgan.  I reread the book before watching the show, for the first time in close to 15 years, and wasn't terribly surprised to discover that some of its hardboiled-cyberpunk tropes hadn't aged terribly well.  Nevertheless, Altered Carbon remains a terrific thriller with a great central idea, one that Morgan explores with insight and verve.
Peeking in between these crime story elements, however, are glimpses of a world in which your body has become just another one of your possessions, like a car or a phone. Something you can insure. Something you can trade up. Something the state can, under certain circumstances, lay claim to. Something the rich get better versions of.
The show, in comparison, only glosses the surface of these ideas.  It's more focused on the fairly basic idea of immortality being unevenly distributed, which is only where the novel starts exploring the implications of personality storage and transfer.  It's a fun watch, but if you found its ideas intriguing, you might be better off picking up the book.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The 2018 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

The Hugo nominating deadline will soon be upon us, and as ever there are a million things I wanted to watch, read, play, or ponder before the nominating period closes.  Just in these categories--in which I feel reasonably well-versed this year--the list of things I really wanted to get to include the Japanese anime film Your Name, the fourth season of Black Mirror, Fullbright's recent game Tacoma, and Strange Horizons's 100 African Writers of SFF project.  As ever, be sure to check out the 2018 Hugo Recommendation Spreadsheet, and the 2018 Hugo Wiki, for other suggestions (and, of course, you can also add your own to both).

Best Related Work:
  • "Freshly Remember'd: Kirk Drift" by Erin Horáková (Strange Horizons) - It's been nearly a year since Erin's masterful essay--about James Kirk, how pop culture processes masculinity, and how the forces that have changed how we view our male heroes are also reflected in politics.  Aside from being a brilliant--and brilliantly written--bit of textual analysis, which repeatedly demonstrates that Kirk is a much more thoughtful, respectful, and even feminist character than the conventional wisdom about him would have it, "Kirk Drift" speaks to vital currents in our culture.  Why do we prioritize bluster and machoism over competence and cooperation, so much that we reinvent characters who embody the latter traits so that they instead espouse the former?  I doubt there's another piece of criticism published last year that was as relevant or as necessary as this essay, and it deserves to be recognized by the Hugos.

  • Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid (University of Illinois Press) - The Modern Masters of Science Fiction series (edited by Gary K. Wolfe) has been publishing tantalizing volumes about mid- and late-twentieth century SF authors for several years, but none were as designed to appeal to my interests as one of my favorite critics writing about one of my favorite authors.  In this short but illuminating volume, Kincaid walks us through Banks's career--with the aid of copious references to interviews, contemporary reviews, and reminiscences of Banks's friends in the UK SF community.  Most gratifyingly, he ties together Banks's SF and mainstream output, arguing that the gap between the two is nowhere near as wide as many critics have argued, and that there are common themes that recur throughout his work.  He also delivers a close, strongly political analysis of the Culture novels, and while I don't entirely agree with his conclusions, his argument is cogent and engaging.  This is a major work of criticism on a major author, and any fan of Banks owes it to themselves to read it.

Best Graphic Story:
  • Black Bolt, Vol. 1: Hard Time by Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward (Marvel Comics) - If, like me, your first encounter with Black Bolt, the leader of the Inhumans, was in Marvel TV's misbegotten TV series, then the first volume of Ahmed's run will be not just a treat, but a necessary corrective.  Ahmed strips Black Bolt of his powers (including his earth-shattering voice) and places him in a cosmic prison, at the whim of a sadistic, all-powerful warden.  The stiff-necked king is forced to make common cause with prisoners he would otherwise despise and dismiss, which gives them the opportunity to showcase their humanity, and him the chance to earn his.  Ward's psychedelic art is essential to the story's success, conveying both the irrationality of the prison, and the characters' inner turmoil.

  • Shade the Changing Girl, Vol 1: Earth Girl Made Easy by Cecil Castelucci and Marley Zarcone (Young Animal) - I don't read a lot of superhero comics in general, and when I do I tend to gravitate towards Marvel because those are the characters I know from the movies and TV shows.  But DC couldn't have targeted me better with its recent Young Animal line, which focuses on characters who are not so much heroic as they are weird.  In Shade the Changing Girl, an alien thrill-seeker steals the cloak of madness that once belonged to the poet Rac Shade, and finds her consciousness transported to the body of a comatose teenage bully on Earth.  The story charts her adjustment to life as a human girl, to the consequences of her host's past cruelty, and to the madness of the cloak which constantly threatens to overwhelm her, even as her friends try to conceal her crime and figure out a way to get her home.  The result feels much more like proper SF than a superhero story.

  • Bitch Planet, Vol. 2: President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro (Image Comics) - I was intrigued but not entirely won over by the first Bitch Planet volume, which introduces a world in which women dubbed Non-Compliant--too mouthy, too smart, too unattractive, too gay--are dumped in a sadistic off-world prison.  The second volume, having established its premise, settles down to its story, and delivers something much more satisfying, which has left me eager to see where the story goes from here.  The various characters feel more lived in, as they form a group that rebels and takes over the prison.  And the forces arrayed against them begin to act in earnest, setting up even more interesting stories for future volumes.

  • My Favorite Things is Monsters, Vol. 1 by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) - Here's where I admit that I don't really have an argument for why Ferris's brilliant, magnificent debut work belongs on the Hugo shortlist.  While there are genre elements in this story--chiefly heroine Karen's fascination with monster movies and her defensive self-image as a burgeoning monster herself--this is largely a mimetic story, albeit one that bounces between time periods, and between Karen's life story and her musings about art, high and low.  But it's also one of the most brilliant books, much less graphic novels, I read in 2017, and if I have the opportunity to nominate it for something, I'm going to do it, even if I have to hang that on a rather flimsy thread.

  • Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) - I heard a lot of praise for this short, self-contained piece before I read it, but none of it prepared me for just how assured and effective Jacobs's deceptively simple story would be.  In a rented home in a nameless suburb, new girl in school Daisy discovers that the washing machine in the basement leads to an alternate dimension, where the normal rules of physics and reality don't apply.  She invites one friend, who invites several others, and soon the entire class is tripping on this altered reality--getting lost, or trashing the place, or just imposing on their host's patience.  Using a very simple scheme of lines and colors, Jacobs brilliantly conveys the strangeness of the other world, and the way it affects the humans who venture into it, while also telling a sweet, sad story about teenagers who just want to fit in.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:

2017 was a tremendous year for genre film and other sorts of dramatic presentations, and I think we can all make a solid guess as to how this category will shake out.  Which is why I've tried to give my nominations to slightly more offbeat choices--you won't find Logan, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, or The Last Jedi here, even though I liked all of them.
  • Colossal (review) - In a year full of lauded and much-discussed superhero and monster movies, this is the one that got away, even though it deserved better.  Nacho Vigalondo's expertly-turned dark comedy, in which heroine Anne Hathaway discovers that she can control a monster menacing Seoul, presents itself as something gimmicky, and turns out to shockingly smart and cutting.  It's a brilliant portrait of abuse and how people fall into abusive relationships, and an original, desperately needed take on the superhero canard that with great power, comes great responsibility.  If anyone should be giving this movie its due, it's the Hugos.

  • Crisis on Earth X - I enjoy the DC TV shows (certainly more than the DC movies or most of Marvel's TV output) but I'd be the first to admit that they're rarely very good, much less great, TV.  But this project, in which of the four CW shows--Supergirl, ArrowThe Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow--contributed an hour to a single continuing story featuring all of their characters banding together to battle an invasion from an alternate Earth governed by Nazis, was a genuinely impressive achievement.  It's been noted in the past that the CW shows do superhero crossovers better than movies like Batman v Superman or Justice League, but Crisis on Earth X takes its storytelling to the next level, genuinely replicating the comics crossover event (and given what I've heard of recent DC and Marvel crossovers, with results that are much more enjoyable).  It's its own thing, and worthy or recognition for that fact.

  • Get Out - I obviously don't need to add too much to the mountains of praise heaped upon this movie, but for Hugo voters in particular I think that it's important to recognize it.  Get Out does exactly what we keep arguing genre fiction is best at, take a fantastical situation and use it to make incisive comments about the real world.  At this moment in particular, with the Hugos finally opening their ranks to perspectives of people other than just white men, the way Get Out uses the tropes of horror to make its more mundane--and thus even more terrifying--point is something the award should be recognizing.

  • Night in the Woods (review) - I'd like to see this category recognizing more games and other forms of interactive narratives, and Night in the Woods is a perfect opportunity to do so.  It's a great game, and its use of the fantastic is perfectly judged, imbuing the failing small town at the game's center with a sense of weirdness and looming horror, and echoing heroine Mae's mental health problems.  Its political subtext, as well, feels ripe for recognition by the Hugos--how many recent works have not only drawn on Lovecraftian horror, but used it as a metaphor for the economic hollowing out of the Rust Belt?

  • Twin Peaks: The Return (review) - I know that this is probably a long shot, but dammit, The Return was one of the most brilliant, groundbreaking genre works published last year, not just in film or TV but overall.  The temptation to wallow in fanservice and lead viewers down a merry path of clues to the show's mythology must have been immense, but instead David Lynch and his co-writer Mark Frost deliver not just a rewarding, self-contained story, but a meditation on guilt, trauma, and the possibility of compassion and healing.  A lot of people will probably single out the magnificent, nearly-wordless "Episode 8", but I think The Return is something much bigger than that single surreal hour.  It's a tale of a battle between good and evil that genuinely understands the full import of both, which is all too rare, and exhilarating when it finally happens.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:

This category, on the other hand, is leaving me pretty flummoxed this year.  There were a lot of high profile genre TV shows in 2017, but most of them worked on the level of their seasons (when they worked at all) and not so much on the level of the episode.  (Here's where not having watched Black Mirror, or for that matter the well-received but much lower-profile anthology series Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, is proving to be a problem.)
  • Legion, "Chapter 1" - I was a little underwhelmed by Legion as a whole, but I can't deny the impact of its visuals and its gonzo storytelling (even if both were subsequently shown up by Twin Peaks, which does the same thing with so much more heart).  The show's first episode is a good choice for a Hugo nomination even if, like me, you're not in love with the entire season, because it's where Legion's commitment to weirdness, and to wrong-footing the audience, is at its strongest.  It's an hour that runs on suggestion, confusion, and stories-within-stories, and which doesn't resolve itself until its very last moments.  If the show that follows doesn't quite live up to the promise of this beginning, it's still a remarkable hour of TV in its own right.

  • The Good Place, "The Trolley Problem" - I admit, there's a part of me that wants to spend three nominating slots on The Good Place, and also nominate "Michael's Gambit", the brilliant first season finale in which the show's entire scheme reveals itself, and "Dance Dance Resolution", in which the show takes itself apart and reinvents itself a dozen times within the space of less than half an hour.  But "The Trolley Problem", in which the titular ethical dilemma is brought to vivid, blood-spurting life to haunt the flustered, good-hearted Chidi, is The Good Place in a nutshell--brilliant worldbuilding, great characters, and some of the chewiest ideas in pop culture.  If Twin Peaks was the best genre drama of 2017, The Good Place is the best genre comedy, and like the David Lynch extravaganza, it runs on a combination of weirdness, impeccable execution, and pure heart.

  • The Handmaid's Tale, "Offred" - Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel was equal parts timely and of its own time.  One can't imagine a more relevant time for a show about a totalitarian world in which women are enslaved and reduced to their reproductive function, but at the same time, putting the novel on screen throws its problems--particularly the limitations of its worldbuilding and its issues with race--into sharper relief (and the choice to continue the show past the novel's end will probably exacerbate those issues).  But "Offred", the series premiere, is the episode that hews most closely to the novel without exposing the show's limitations.  The strengths of the show--Elisabeth Moss's magnetic central performance, Reed Morano's claustrophobic direction, the stifling set and costume design--are on full display, and the pilot's arc, in which Offred first introduces us to her hellish situation and then vows to survive, is irresistible.

  • Star Trek: Discovery, "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" - This is not truly a great hour of television, but it does something that hardly any other genre show is even trying to do right now--tell a self-contained science fiction story within a continuing setting that is interesting and enjoyable in its own right, not because of how it moves a larger, overarching plot.  The fact that this story is a time-loop episode even feels like a deliberate nod to how few shows try to make episodes like this anymore, and how few manage to do it well.  Plus, I like the idea of having Discovery on my ballot, as ambivalent as I ended up feeling about it.  It wouldn't feel right for the first Star Trek show in a decade not to at least get a nod at the Hugos.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Black Panther at Lawyers, Guns & Money

In my latest Political History of the Future column at Lawyers, Guns & Money, I discuss Black Panther, a genuinely remarkable movie that sets a bar that other MCU films are going to struggle to clear.  There's been a lot of fascinating conversation about this movie, not least its importance to African-Americans as both the first MCU movie to star a black man, and a representation of a fictional African nation that is powerful, self-sufficient, and never colonized.  In this essay, I discuss how that act of worldbuilding puts Black Panther squarely in the tradition of utopian SF, and how its utopia is enriched by the film's deep interest in blackness and African heritage.  As I write in the essay, it's interesting to compare Black Panther to Star Trek: Discovery, and find that the movie delivers exactly what I was looking for in that show.
Beyond its importance as a work of worldbuilding, however, what excites me about Black Panther—and sets it head and shoulders above any other work in the MCU, as far as I’m concerned—is the fact that it’s a story about worldbuilders. "Just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved", T'Challa is informed by his sister, the bright-eyed inventor Shuri (Letitia Wright). And indeed, Black Panther and Wakanda are full of people who, despite living in a seeming paradise, keep asking themselves how they can make it better, and what responsibility they have to help improve the rest of the world.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Through a Mirror, Darkly: Thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery's First Season

Well, folks, what is there to be done about Star Trek: Discovery?  Four months ago, writing about the season's first few episodes, I said that there were things about the show I really liked, and things I really disliked, but that it would probably take me until the end of the season to decide where I stood on the matter of the whole.  But here we are, nearly a week after the finale, and I'm no closer to a conclusion.  Neither, it seems, is the rest of fandom, which often feels like it's watching and reacting to several different shows.  And no one, no matter their opinion, seems very clear on what Discovery is.  Is it a bold reinvention of the franchise for the Peak TV era, or a shallow action-adventure whose ambitions often outstrip its capacity to execute them?  Is it the spiritual successor of the reboot movies, reveling in Star Trek tropes and fanservice without understanding the franchise's meaning, or is it a genuine attempt to grapple with the core ideas of Star Trek fifty years after its inception?  Is it, in short, Star Trek?

I don't know the answer to this question, and what's worse, I'm not even sure how to begin answering it.  Part of the problem--and also, I think, the reason that so many viewers and reviewers have had such wildly divergent reactions to this show--is that Discovery tries to do so many different things in its first season that it's hard to know how to begin assessing it.  So let's start with a plot summary.  Set about a decade before the original Star Trek, Discovery centers on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), an up-and-coming young Starfleet officer on the cusp of being named to her own command.  Raised by Vulcans[1] after the death of her parents, Burnham sees herself as a completely rational person, but (like most actual Vulcans on Star Trek) she turns out to be more driven by her emotions than she's willing to admit.  When a routine mission on her ship, the Shenzhou, becomes the Federation's first contact with the Klingons in decades, Burnham advises her captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) to fire first.  When Georgiou refuses, Burnham commits mutiny in order to protect her ship from what she sees as an incurably violent, bloodthirsty species.  This ends up devolving into a battle in which Georgiou is killed, the Shenzhou is destroyed, and the Federation and Klingon Empire are left at war.  Burnham, meanwhile, is stripped of her rank and sent to prison.

That's all in the first two episodes.  When we catch up with Burnham again, the war has been raging for several months, and her prison transport is picked up by the Discovery, a science vessel retasked to the development of technology critical to the war.  Discovery's captain, the rule-breaking, charismatic Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) recruits Burnham to his crew, arguing that she can help alleviate her guilt and the damage she caused by helping him to research a new propulsion system that could shift the tide of battle.  Working with engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and eager cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Burnham helps to develop a "spore drive", which rides a network of fungal blooms that span the multiverse, allowing Discovery to travel in the blink of an eye.  Along the way, the show visits with two ambitious young Klingons, Voq and L'Rell (Mary Chieffo), who dream of uniting their society under a single political and ideological banner; introduces security officer Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who was imprisoned and tortured by the Klingons, and who develops a romantic relationship with Burnham after he joins Discovery's crew; and pays an extended visit to the infamous mirror universe, where Georgiou's evil double turns out to be the emperor of the fascistic, xenophobic Terran Empire.

As I said, a lot of different things to try to accomplish in a single season.  And, in almost every case, Discovery's execution of these ideas has serious and specific problems.  Which means that it's hard to talk about my criticisms of the show without coming off more negative than I actually ended up feeling about it.  Before we get to that, then, let's talk about a few of the things I liked about Discovery, especially the ways in which it deviates from the Star Trek template that I initially found dismaying but which ultimately felt right.  I liked that the show takes a while--nearly half the season--to assemble its core crew, giving individual characters, and even Discovery itself, their own proper introduction rather than just plopping them all together at once.  I liked--after some initial reservation--the fact that the show is so locked into Burnham's point of view, which made it feel like a very different sort of story while still remaining recognizably Star Trek-ish.  I liked how, especially in the first half of the season, the show combines the needs of continuous storytelling with fairly well-structured, and even, in some cases, self-contained episodes.  I even liked the weirdness of the technology, which has been so derided in some quarters.  "The ship runs on mushrooms" sounds pretty silly, but if you think about it, a "mycelium network" along which a spaceship can travel in an instant is not actually a more ridiculous idea than a warp drive, and there's something to be said for expanding our idea of what SFnal science looks like beyond physics and into biology and zoology.[2]

Most of all, I liked Burnham, who feels layered and multifaceted in a way that I associate with the best Star Trek characters, a fully-rounded person who tries to approach every turn in her life with generosity and an open mind.  In my first write-up of the show, I called her
a wonderful blend of intellect and temper, calm reasoning and self-destructive urges. The badass/fuckup combination that failed so catastrophically with NuKirk works wonderfully here, mainly because the writing and the performance combine to create the impression that Michael is always thinking, always questioning, genuinely curious about her surroundings and genuinely thoughtful in her choices--even the bad ones. If she's not quite the Hornblower-esque figure that the original Kirk was, she's a fascinating modern variation on it--not least for being a black woman.
I stand by all this, and over the course of the season I continued to enjoy how Discovery used Burnham.  The show recognizes that the only thing to be done with a character as furiously competent--and yet as prone to boneheaded decisions--as Burnham is to keep piling challenges in their path.  Some of these challenges are emotional--grappling with guilt over her betrayal of Georgiou and her responsibility for her death; facing up to the fact of having failed for the first time in her life; falling in love with Tyler--while others are practical--in the mirror universe, Burnham goes undercover as her double in order to secure information necessary for Discovery's return home.  And it's always a pleasure to watch her grapple with them, with a combination of determination, intellect, and vulnerability.  No matter how messy or flawed the rest of the show ends up, the fact that Discovery is Burnham's story means that there's always something true and worth watching at its center, and it's this, more than anything else, that makes me feel that there might be a good show lurking here.[3]

But then there are those flaws, and the problem with them is not so much that the things that are bad about Discovery outweighs the things that are good, as how they reveal the limitations of the show's understanding of Star Trek, and of its ambitions within the franchise.  Take, for example, the show's handling of Klingons.  It would be one thing for Discovery to so thoroughly reinvent this foundational Star Trek race, right down to redesigning their makeup in a way that makes it difficult for the actors to emote (which is exacerbated by the choice to saddle them with lines in phonetic Klingon rather than English), if there was a stronger sense of what the show was trying to achieve with this.  But after an entire season that featured the Klingons heavily and included two major Klingon characters, I still have no idea what Discovery wants me to think about them.

A big part of the problem is that Discovery's story about Klingons often feels more like a story about Burnham.  She starts the season hating them and seeing them as irredeemably violent and bloodthirsty (with some justification, since she witnessed Klingons killing her parents as a child), and ends the season realizing that while there's still a great deal about their culture she can't respect, these are nevertheless people living their lives, and deserving of the basic rights that entails.  This is fine--if a little basic--as character arcs go.  But most Star Trek fans will have gone into Discovery knowing the Klingons much better than Burnham, and for us, what the show chooses to do with them feels shallow and unconvincing.

Co-creator Alex Kurtzman (yes, that Alex Kurtzman) has spoken about his desire to develop the Klingons as more than a violent Other, but this is something that was already done by The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, with far greater nuance and complexity than Discovery manages.  The Klingons who show up on Discovery, in comparison, feel rigid and joyless.  There's none of the warmth, humor, or depth of character that even minor Klingon characters on previous Star Trek shows demonstrated as a matter of course.  Weirdly, hardly any of them bring up honor or its importance to their worldview.

This might work if Discovery's purpose was to dismantle the romanticized view of the Klingons that some fans have developed (though, again, this is something that Deep Space Nine did twenty years ago, and much better).  But what it offers instead is effectively a validation of Burnham's view--Klingons as a monolithically violent culture with few redeeming qualities.  It's as if Discovery's purpose with the Klingons is to say "even people whose culture is inherently violent deserve basic compassion", but this is a great deal less thought-provoking than the show clearly believes, not to mention not very applicable to the real world.[4]

And if that seems like too much of an old school fannish complaint, too rooted in my familiarity with the franchise--which is, after all, trying to reinvent itself, and perhaps attract a new audience--then how about the way Discovery uses plot twists?  There are two major ones in the first season.  In quick succession, it's revealed that Ash Tyler is actually the Klingon Voq, physically transformed and brainwashed into believing that he is human, and that Lorca is actually his mirror universe counterpart, who escaped into our universe after a failed coup attempt against Emperor Georgiou.  There's a level on which both of these twists have thematic weight.  Tyler's horrified realization of what was done to him is a rare depiction of a male character coping with violation and its aftermath (and it also challenges Burnham to accept that she could have loved a Klingon), while the revelation of Lorca's identity makes sense of the increasingly uncomfortable way in which he pushes past Starfleet norms over the course of the season (it also explains why he recruits Burnham, since in the mirror universe the two were lovers).  But the aftermath in both cases is truncated--the Voq personality dies soon after it's introduced, leaving Tyler back in control of a human-looking body, and Burnham and Emperor Georgiou kill the imposter Lorca within an episode of his unmasking--and gives the impression that these twists existed for no reason other than themselves.  Taken together, they create the sense that the season--perhaps the show as a whole--has no weight or substance.

It certainly doesn't help that when those twists are swept away and the time finally comes for Discovery to make an argument for itself as more than just an action story, as a part of the Star Trek narrative, it makes such a hash of things.  Returning from the mirror universe sans the fake Lorca (but with Emperor Georgiou in tow, because apparently being a Nazi cannibal isn't enough to get Michael Burnham to leave you to die if you look like her dead mentor), Discovery finds itself nine months in its future, with the war against the Klingons nearly lost.  Georgiou offers her expertise as a wartime consigliere, arguing that the Federation is constitutionally unsuited to an all-out war for its survival.  She offers to guide Discovery to the Klingon homeworld in what is meant to be a strike on military targets, but behind their backs she turns out to have made a more sinister deal with the remaining Starfleet brass, to detonate a supervolcano under the planet's surface and render it uninhabitable.  When Burnham and the Discovery crew learn about this plan, they refuse their orders.  Burnham makes a deal with L'Rell, giving her the supervolcano detonator so she can use it to claim leadership of the Empire and end the war.[5]

This isn't bad, exactly, and the moment where Burnham and the Discovery crew learn about the plan and reject it out of hand is genuinely moving precisely because there's no doubt or debate.  It is simply obvious to the entire crew that this is not who they are and that they must find another way.  But it's also very neat--the one mutiny at the beginning of the season in which Burnham rejects Starfleet values in order to protect Federation lives paralleled by another mutiny at the end of the season in which Discovery refuses to destroy the Klingon race in order to save their own.  One might even say glib.  As Zach Handlen writes in his review of the finale, you can very clearly imagine Discovery's writers deciding on this clever structure, making a half-assed attempt to write a middle story that would actually earn it, and then giving up with the job half-done.

Much like its handling of the Klingons, Discovery's attempt to examine what the Federation means and how it functions under pressure is interesting in theory.  This is, after all, a utopian vision invented fifty years ago by a man who was possibly a rapist, which takes as its template a society that in the real world was rooted in imperialism and exploitation, whose self-image as benevolent and free was at least in part a fantasy designed to paper over oppression.  There absolutely is room, and perhaps even a necessity, to take a serious look at that utopia, especially in this current moment, as we watch the liberal democracy that inspired Gene Roddenberry to imagine the Federation devour itself from the inside out.  But what Discovery ends up delivering is, again, a combination of things done better by Star Trek shows in the 80s and 90s, and original ideas that are extremely shallow and poorly handled.

Lorca is a prime example.  For most of the season he poses a serious challenge to the viewers, not just in how he conducts himself, constantly pushing against Federation values and norms, but in the way that he nevertheless gains the crew's loyalty for his intelligence, his determination, and his ability to think his way out of problems.  This didn't exactly make me happy, but what I wanted was for the show to face this uncomfortable contradiction head-on, to have Burnham recognize the fact that the man she's following is betraying the ideals they've both sworn to uphold.  Revealing that Lorca is actually from the mirror universe does away with all that complexity.  It makes him--and, more importantly, the other characters' loyalty to him--something that can easily be squared away and dismissed.  An episode after his death, it's easy to forget that he ever existed (which, among other things, feels like a waste of Isaacs's fine, magnetic performance).

What's even more problematic about the attempted genocide storyline is how it reveals the shallowness of Discovery's idea of Star Trek.  Like the reboot movies before it, Discovery seems to think that the most--perhaps the only--interesting question to ask within the Star Trek universe is "should we have a Federation?"  Does it, for example, make a civilization weak to live in peace and prosperity?  And what happens when such a society meets an existential threat?  Does it give up its values and civil liberties in order to survive?[6]  But the thing is, this is literally the most boring, basic question one can ask about Star Trek.  The real challenges posed by a society like the Federation aren't questions of if, but of how.  How do you create a truly just, fair, equal society?  How do you balance freedom of conscience and opinion with your core values of tolerance and peace?  How do you prevent the exploitation of those who are weaker than you?  How do you help people outside your society, and do you have the right to encourage them to be more like you?

It's been close to twenty years since any work with Star Trek in the title even tried to address these questions, and in some ways Discovery feels like it's going backwards.  Even as it prides itself on honoring Federation values in its big moments, it misses their complete violation in its small ones.  When Burnham arrives on Discovery in a group of other prisoners--who are apparently being press-ganged to work in dilithium mines--they're greeted by security chief Landry (Rekha Sharma), who remarks that "I see we're unloading all kinds of garbage today".  When Lorca and Tyler are held prisoner by the Klingons and mount an escape, they leave behind a fellow Federation citizen who had been informing on them to their captors, even though he begs to be taken along.[7] Worst of all, only two episodes before Discovery's crew refuses to blow up Qo'noS, they blow up the Imperial City-Ship in the mirror universe, with probably tens of thousands of people on board, without anyone even mentioning the subject of collateral damage.  At best, this is sloppy writing.  At worst, it's an indication that Discovery's writers have only the faintest, broadest understanding of what Federation values are.  That whenever they're not writing a story that is explicitly about Federation values, they default to some kind of space opera standard where heroic characters shoot first, think only of themselves, and don't care what kind of society they live in.

At the same time, there are moments where it feels like Discovery does know what it means to be Star Trek, where it remembers that this franchise isn't just--much less primarily--about big moments of sacrifice, but about small moments of decency and kindness.  It's Burnham fighting for the space animal that Discovery has been using as a navigator in the mycelium network, which is suffering from the ordeal.  It's Saru (Doug Jones), Burnham's former crewmate on the Shenzhou, who resents her for Georgiou's death, but still shows her kindness and hospitality when she arrives on Discovery, because she's a disgraced prisoner whose life sucks at that moment.  It's Tilly sitting next to Tyler in the mess hall after the Voq personality is exposed and removed, reminding him and the other officers that he deserves their compassion.  And it's also Tilly, in a later scene, putting herself between Tyler and Burnham, who isn't ready to talk to him about their relationship.  It's Admiral Cornwall (Jane Brooke) bonding with L'Rell over their shared courage and toughness, without losing sight of the things that set them apart.  It's Tyler joining in with a bunch of blustering Klingons as they play a gambling game, and finding joy in his hybrid nature for the first time.  Most of all, it's Captain Georgiou hearing Burnham's reasoned, logical argument for why she should attack the Klingons, and saying simply: "Starfleet doesn't fire first".

As a lot of people have noted, Star Trek shows have a history of starting out quite wobbly.  Discovery has enough good points that in theory it too could pull off the transformation that Deep Space Nine or The Next Generation achieved in their second and third seasons, and become a truly top notch series and a worthy addition to the franchise.  On the other hand, that kind of improvement doesn't tend to happen in the era of Peak TV.  It requires more episodic storytelling, fewer overarching storylines, and a willingness to play around that most modern TV shows don't have, and which Discovery hasn't really demonstrated.  Put another way, to ask whether Discovery could become a good show is really to ask what it is that currently makes it bad.  Is it simply a matter of execution, or is it that the people making it don't really know what they're trying to accomplish, and what the significance of the universe they're working in is?  I have sufficient respect for the bones of the show--for Burnham, and the other characters, and the moments where they feel like Starfleet officers--that I'm willing to stick around in hope, but I really don't know yet whether that hope has any basis in reality.

[1] Raised, in fact, by Sarek (James Frain), which is just one of those things about Discovery--like the prequel setting--that you have to sigh and accept as the price of admission.  On the whole, Discovery is pretty good about not wallowing in fanservice, including in how it uses Sarek.  But there are moments--chiefly the season's closing scene--where its obvious lack of faith in itself as its own story is genuinely embarrassing.

[2] Also, the mycelium network is one of the few instances in which Discovery does any meaningful kind of worldbuilding, expanding the boundaries of the existing Star Trek universe.  Even allowing for the fact that the show's story focuses on war and not exploration, there's something awfully limited and narrow about how it draws its world, as if its writers were afraid to go past the edges of the map they'd inherited.  But with the network, they give their universe a new dimension, even if they're going to have to do some fancy footwork to explain why no subsequent Star Trek show ever used or mentioned this technology.

[3] For a contrasting perspective on Burnham, see Angelica Jade Bastién at the Vulture, who argues that the constant piling of challenges on Burnham's shoulders is emblematic of the "she can take it" attitude towards black women in pop culture.  I don't agree with her take--Burnham feels a lot less acted-upon to me--but I have to admit that she's given me a lot to think about.  I do, however, absolutely agree with Bastién's frustration with Discovery handling of gay themes.  The show's production crowed for months about featuring televised Star Trek's first gay couple in the form of Stamets and his partner Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) only to kill Culber part way into the season.  Given how unforgivably long it's taken this franchise to give the LGBT community its due in this supposedly egalitarian future, this was a slap in the face, and no amount of mealy-mouthed promises that Culber will return in some form (so far he's appeared as a sort of ghost who haunts the mycelium network, which apparently justifies Stamets having almost no emotional reaction to the death of the man he loved) can make up for it.

[4] This isn't the only place where Discovery's seeming ignorance of Star Trek shows past the original series can feel frustrating--I had to hold myself back from making this entire essay merely a list of things the show attempts, and which Deep Space Nine did better back in the 90s.  I will, however, note that mirror universe Georgiou is basically the Intendant, right down to the bondage gear and evil bisexuality.  But while Deep Space Nine at least started out by taking a serious look at the Intendant's moral depravity--like the fact that she sexually abused enslaved people--Discovery very quickly ends up where the later DS9 mirror universe episodes did, treating Emperor Georgiou as a fun, camp villain.  There's obviously a lot of fun to be had watching Michelle Yeoh play a remorseless thug, but coming only a single episode after this Georgiou waxes nostalgic about depopulating Betazed, or cavalierly consumes the brains of sentient aliens, the tonal whiplash is a little hard to take.

[5] Further to my thoughts above about Discovery's weird take on the Klingons, it should go without saying that a Klingon threatening to blow up Qo'noS unless they're made Emperor would be seen as completely without honor, and thus not a fit leader.  And from a purely practical standpoint, there's no way L'Rell can hold on to power with only this single, apocalyptic threat to back up her reign.  But at that point there's only ten minutes left in the season so you just go with it.

[6] Not to keep harping on this, but this is also a question that Deep Space Nine dealt with, at much greater depth and complexity, in 1996.  And it wasn't even one of the better Deep Space Nine stories.  Just watch Deep Space Nine, is what I'm saying.

[7] Obviously, as it turns out neither Lorca nor Tyler are Starfleet officers, but at that point they both think the other is (and Tyler still believes that he is one as well), so there's no justification for them betraying their putative oath so severely.  Also, no one who hears the story later on seems to think there was anything wrong with their actions.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 28

Here we are again at that special time of year where every single one of the previous year's prestige movies and Oscar hopefuls gets dumped in Israeli movie theaters at the same time.  I've found myself scrambling from one screening to another, just trying to catch up to movies that reviewers abroad have been talking about for months--I suspect I will have seen more than half the total movies I'll watch in 2018 before the end of March.  So far, my reports are mixed.  There are a lot of interesting movies among this year's Oscar nominees, but few of them have lived up to their reputation.  Of the five movies I discuss here, one is remarkable, two others are intriguing but frustrating, and two are genuinely bad.  Let's hope I fare better with the next bunch.
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Yorgos Lanthimos follows up the bizarre but oddly lovable The Lobster with a stranger, colder work that challenges viewers (like myself) who were willing to follow him into the woods of that earlier movie to keep going.  Perhaps what's strangest about The Killing of a Sacred Deer, however, is how similar it is to The Lobster in its style and approach, even though its tone and subject matter are much darker.  Successful heart surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) is having regular meetings with Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a deceased patient, buying him expensive gifts and inviting him to meet his family: wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and children Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic).  The early parts of the film operate within the familiar forms of a psychological thriller, introducing a seemingly normal (if suspicious) situation and slowly amping up the wrongness, as Martin insinuates himself further and further into Steven's life and makes more demands on his time.  But because Killing is written with the same stiff, oddball speech patterns, the same indifference to the norms of polite conversation, that Lanthimos used in The Lobster, it can be hard to tell where the wrongness we're supposed to notice ends, and where the kind that is the hallmark of this director's movies begins.  When Steven straight-facedly informs a colleague that Kim has recently started menstruating, or Bob and Martin debate whether the latter has sufficient armpit hair, that's a weirdness that is simply part of the film's world.  But when Bob, and then Kim, suddenly begin to suffer from a mysterious paralysis, and Martin informs Steven that he must choose which of his family members to kill before the illness kills them all, that's a weirdness that everyone notices (even if it takes Steven and Anna a while to believe in it).

    Killing is thus a parody of thrillers in which the unacknowledged guilt of overprivileged men comes back to haunt them, and a completely earnest example of one.  It is also an urgent, compelling movie.  Between the cast, Lanthimos's deliberate direction, and the intrusive soundtrack, the film expertly ratchets up the tension of its situation, and makes its characters, robotic as their speech and behavior can sometimes seem, into people whose fate we care about.  (In particular, Kidman is great at finding a person at the heart of her strange character, whose fear, desperation, and anger are palpable even as she explains to her husband that he should kill one of their children because they can still have another one.)

    Nevertheless, Lanthimos's style and the chilliness of Killing's story make for a challenging combination.  For all the distance it imposed from its characters, The Lobster was ultimately a compassionate film.  It saw them as foolish and weak, but also took care to remind us that it was the world they lived in, with its arbitrary definitions of what an acceptable relationship looks like, that allowed those traits to grow paramount and destroy the characters' lives.  Killing has no such compassion.  It derides Steven, who beneath his guise as a strong, benevolent patriarch is fundamentally weak, incapable of admitting fault, and constantly looking to make his horrific situation easy on himself regardless of how much pain that causes the rest of the family.  But it offers no respite in the form of Anna, Kim, or Bob, who as soon as they realize that Steven needs to choose between them start turning on each other and trying to manipulate him into making a choice that leaves them alive.  Even more disturbingly, as Steven's weakness becomes apparent, they turn to Martin, who embodies the virtues of male strength and decisiveness that their patriarch has proven himself incapable of.  It's obvious that Lanthimos is trying to comment on the destructiveness of male pride and self-regard, but in a film that lacks The Lobster's oddball warmth, that condemnation quickly becomes indistinguishable from depiction.  By the time the film ends, there's no one left to feel sorry for, and one is left with the feeling of having watched something expertly-turned but fundamentally empty.

  • Molly's Game - There's really only one reason to seek out this movie, and that's the morbid curiosity aroused by the idea of Aaron Sorkin writing a female lead.  The result feels not unlike the famous comic strip needling Frank Miller for his inability to write women who are not overly-sexualized prostitutes.  Not that Sorkin is as casually demeaning as Miller, but that the attempt ends up being so revealing, not only of his hangups about women, but of his obsession with elites.  The titular Molly is Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a bright overachiever who stumbles into running high-stakes poker games for movie stars, CEOs, and trust fund kids, and after a decade finds herself at the center of a RICO case when it turns out that some of her clients were mobsters who were using her games to launder money.  The film alternates between flashbacks that narrate Molly's rise and fall, and two-hander scenes with her lawyer Charlie (Idris Elba, who rattles off Sorkin's dialogue with an ease and naturalism that puts nearly all the actors who have done so before him--a rather storied bunch, as you'll recall--to shame), who is initially reluctant to believe that Molly ran a clean game and had no idea who her shady players were.  (The film is based on a book by the real Bloom, who obviously has every motivation to make herself seem as innocent as possible.  For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to treat the film's Molly as a purely fictional creation, since between Bloom and Sorkin I have no way of knowing how close she is to the truth.)

    As much as the question of Molly's guilt dominates the film's early scenes, this is not the trial that it eventually puts her on.  The idea that she might have been in deep with the mob is quickly dismissed, and the film even makes a reasonably compelling argument that the seizure of her assets and the exaggerated sentencing recommendation made by the prosecution are intimidation tactics meant to secure her cooperation as a witness.  But what really occupies Charlie, and the movie, when they try to figure out its main character is the question of class.  By which I mean not the socioeconomic state, but the mode of being--is Molly a person of character and integrity, or is she a fame-whore?  This is, to state the obvious, a ridiculous question--on the one hand, completely irrelevant to the issue of whether Molly deserves to go to prison, and on the other hand, completely inadequate to summing up her moral failures.  By her own admission, Molly built her career by roping in enthusiastic but outmatched players for her regulars to fleece, and created an atmosphere of male hedonism and entitlement that she both despised and used to get rich.  The film hangs its approval of her on the things she didn't do--she didn't employ leg-breakers to collect her outstanding debts; she refuses to name the famous players in her games, or reveal the dishy tidbits of gossip she collected about them.  But not doing bad things doesn't make you a good person, and being morally upright in a den of debauchery and corruption that you yourself built is not the testament of good character the film seems to think it is.  If anything, it makes Molly look kind of stupid.  She had the privilege, resources, and skills to make a successful legitimate career at anything she put her mind to, but instead she chose to live half in the shadows, and ended up where people who do that usually end up.

    A much more plausible reading of the story Molly's Game tries to tell is that its title character is simply someone who found an easy, glamorous way to make money and rolled with it without thinking about the consequences.  Instead, the film tries to paint her as a saint for running a semi-honest game and refusing to name her players.  More importantly, it refuses to even consider the possibility that Molly was just as star-struck as her clients by the rooms she was moving in. Which feels not just like an expression of Sorkin's issues writing women, but bound up in his ideas about class, in a way that ends up exposing how much those two hangups have to do with each other.  When Molly first asks Charlie to represent her, he refuses because he sees her as someone who is cheap and tawdry, a tabloid queen who wrote a book to cash in on her infamy.  Even if you tried to ignore the way the film ties feminized behavior to a lack of integrity, Sorkin makes it impossible--Charlie, who is making his daughter read The Crucible, describes it as a story about "what happens when teenage girls gossip".

    Molly's journey of proving her worth, then, is a journey of demonstrating that she is above petty, girlish preoccupations with fame and celebrity.  This all culminates in a truly dreadful scene in which Molly confronts her domineering father (Kevin Costner) who explains to her that the reason she chose to torpedo her prospects by running a poker game is that she was trying to get back at him for cheating on her mother.  Throughout the film, there have been faint hints at an alternate explanation for Molly's actions, her simmering rage at the entitled, sneering men who will never see her as their equal.  But this scene takes that rage and pathologizes it, by pretending that all of these men were merely stand-ins for Molly's father.  In other words, this is what you get when Aaron Sorkin writes a heroine: someone who, in order to prove her worth, has to demonstrate that she transcends womanhood; someone who spends the entire movie earning the approval of men; and someone who isn't even allowed to feel anger at this situation before being informed that her problem isn't the world, but her own personal hangups.  Honestly, I shouldn't have expected any better.

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Martin McDonagh's third film has proven extremely polarizing, garnering both raves and condemnation.  But given how much I enjoyed his previous In Bruges, I was still surprised by how much it fell flat for me, its formal experimentation and political commentary constantly ringing the wrong, sour notes.  I do, however, feel like I've got a handle on why this film seems to divide its audience so starkly.  Despite its heavy subject matter--the aftermath of the brutal rape and murder of a young girl, and simmering racial tensions and police brutality in the titular small town--Three Billboards is a comedy (it actually deserved to be classed in the Golden Globes comedy category far more than Get Out).  What's more, it's a comedy that relies for its effect primarily on shock and outrage, on the vicious insults lobbed back and forth between its characters, the sudden violence that erupts between them, and their cavalier way with both racist insults and the accusation of racism.  That's the sort of thing that either really works for you or really doesn't, and in my case nearly every scene where Three Billboards tried to get a rise out of me, whether through shock or laughter, fell flat.  The film ended up feeling stagy and contrived, its characters elevated only by fine performances, not a cluttered, unfocused script or McDonagh's direction.

    The three billboards of the title are rented by grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand).  Their text--"Raped While Dying" "And Still No Arrests?" "How Come, Chief Willoughby?"--is intended to needle the town's police department, who have failed to capture the killer of Mildred's teenage daughter Angela.  While Mildred's righteous rage is sympathetic, it's made clear very early on that it's also at least partly misplaced.  Despite severe problems in his department, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a decent man who earnestly tried to solve the murder, but simply had no evidence to go on.  To add insult to injury, he's dying of cancer, which Mildred knew when she paid for the billboards.  For the rest of the film, Mildred's anger drives her to greater extremes of hostility and violence, even towards people sympathetic to her cause.  What's also made clear, however, is that the town is far more outraged by Mildred's actions than by Angela's murder--the latter they find regrettable but somehow within the "normal" scheme of things, whereas Mildred's choice to lash out in anger and tar an upstanding member of the community is perceived as beyond the pale.  She quickly starts receiving public condemnation, threats, and even outright violence.

    This is--or should be--the beating heart of the film, and yet Three Billboards can't seem to keep its focus on it.  It veers off in odd, increasingly theatrical tangents, such as a mid-story twist involving Willoughby that's meant to be touching but just comes off as melodramatic (and which results in him functioning as McDonagh's mouthpiece, informing the other characters who they are and what they want).  A few of these set-pieces land, most notably a confrontation between Mildred and Willoughby in which they trade increasingly nasty, personal insults until he suddenly starts coughing blood, horrifying them both.  But for the most part, I found the characters' behavior inhuman.  When it's revealed, for example, that not only were Mildred and Angela fighting the last time they spoke, but that Mildred ended the fight by saying "I hope you get raped", I had to roll my eyes.  This isn't the behavior of a well-written character.  It's McDonagh putting his finger on the scale, trying to wring the maximum amount of drama out of a story that would have been much more dramatic if it had simply been allowed to breathe.

    And then there's the matter of the film's handling of racism.  One of the reasons that the disparity between the reaction to Angela's murder and to Mildred putting up the billboards doesn't get the space is deserves is that most of Three Billboards's second half is focused on the character of Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a deputy in Willoughby's department with a history of violence towards people of color.  Dixon is initially portrayed as stupid, belligerent, and, yes, racist, but in the second half of the film he undergoes a moral awakening and comes to support Mildred in her quest for justice.  This has led to a flurry of condemnation of the film.  Though I'm not categorically opposed to redemption stories for characters like Dixon--if we're going to spend so much time with toxic male characters, it might be nice to see some of them realize that they want to be better, and make efforts to achieve that without someone else having to "save" them--I have to agree that the execution in Three Billboards is appalling, and like much else about the film, suffers from the script's sloppiness.

    Firstly, there is the way that Dixon's malice is minimized, and even made fun of.  Though the other (white) characters condemn him for his racism and racially-motivated violence, they also treat it as something of a joke.  It's as if racism were a cudgel that the various white people in the movie can use against each other, not something that affects actual marginalized people--as when Mildred hurls Dixon's past abuse of a black prisoner at him as a way of putting him on his back foot.  When the few black characters in the movie interact with Dixon, we see contempt, but not fear, as if Three Billboards genuinely doesn't realize that to some people, Dixon isn't just stupid or mean, but genuinely dangerous.  And when Dixon starts his process of growth, his interactions with people of color end.  In a touching scene, he apologizes to the man who rented Mildred the billboards, whom he had previously viciously beaten.  But this victim is white, and there's no sense that Dixon's growth involves recognizing the debt he owes to Ebbing's non-white residents.  This leads to the film's strange ending, in which Mildred and Dixon join forces to deliver vigilante justice to evildoers.  You can sort of see what McDonagh is going for with this final twist--the idea that these two damaged, rage-filled people can find absolution by having each other's back--but in the context of the story Three Billboards is telling, this once again feels like a poorly thought-out plot twist that doesn't really land.

  • Call Me by Your Name - Luca Guadagnino's gorgeous, heartfelt movie takes place over a single languorous summer in rural Italy in the early 80s, where Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the precocious 17-year-old son of an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlberg), falls in love with his father's summer assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer).  Viewers coming in knowing that Call Me by Your Name is a love story might find themselves feeling frustrated, as Elio and Oliver spend so long circling around each other and, in some cases, falling out of each other's orbits.  They spend as much of the first half of the movie's two-plus hours swimming, lounging on the grass, exploring the countryside, and hanging out with the other young people from the village, as they do pining for each other, much less making concrete steps towards acting on their attraction.

    This frustration, however, is very much a reflection of Elio's own feelings.  One of the things that Call Me by Your Name manages, which hardly any other story of first love even attempts, is to bring across the fact that Elio is in many ways still a child.  He can be intelligent and thoughtful, but also silly or moody.  He and Oliver go back and forth between serious conversations about music and philosophy, immature sniping that doesn't acknowledge the real reason for the tension between them, and boyish roughhousing, and for a while it's not clear which of these Elio truly wants--not even, one suspects, to himself.  Choosing to open himself up to Oliver means letting go of that last bit of his childhood, not just in the sense of surrendering his romantic and sexual inexperience, but also of having to engage with the world as an adult, not an indulged, favorite child.  It's been said many times, but whereas straight romances often sand down their characters' personality in the pursuit of vague notion of "love", gay romances seem to have an easier time treating their lovers as human beings with their own idiosyncrasies.  This is what happens in Call Me by Your Name, in which Elio's progress towards being able to articulate his desire for Oliver, and to demand that it be taken seriously as the feelings of an adult rather than a child's crush, is at the heart of the seemingly meandering first half of the movie.  (It's for this reason, also, that despite everything else going on right now, and despite Hammer being and looking much older than his character's age, the romance in Call Me by Your Name never feels exploitative.  We're never in any doubt that this is Elio's choice, and that he came to it on his own.)

    Even when that threshold is crossed, Call Me by Your Name finds ways of making the romance between Elio and Oliver feel like something that is about them specifically.  In their first love scene, they spend several minutes simply holding each other, overjoyed to finally be able to do something they've clearly been holding themselves back from for weeks.  Unlike the novel on which it was based, Call Me by Your Name avoids explicit sex scenes and nudity (male nudity, that is; there is a tossed-off scene of female nudity that feels all the more jarring given how carefully the film otherwise avoids prurience).  But it is very frank about the role that sex and physical desire play in Elio and Oliver's relationship, whether it's the difference in their experience, or their frustrated need to touch each other in public, or their joy in each other's bodies.  The film is also surprisingly, and refreshingly, uninterested in making homophobia or social disapproval the crux of its story.  These forces exist in the background, and Oliver in particular is clearly experienced at navigating them and teaching Elio how to do the same.  But this isn't a story about shame or self-loathing, and it ends on a profound note of acceptance--not just of Elio by his parents, but of Elio by himself.  The crux of Call Me by Your Name is the idea that love should be experienced, even when it's scary or socially unacceptable, and even when it's likely to lead to heartbreak.  It holds out the hope of a world that respects and accepts that love no matter what form it takes, and gives young people like Elio the space they need to explore who they are.

  • Phantom Thread - Paul Thomas Anderson's latest study of a deranged genius cloaks itself in the guise of a measured costume drama.  Set in the aristocratic circles of 50s London, the film follows society dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he embarks on the latest of his affairs, with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a much-younger waitress he meets while on holiday.  It's clear from the film's opening scenes, in which Reynolds's previous girlfriend is efficiently gotten rid of by his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville), that these romances are common for Reynolds and generally follow the same trajectory--a period of intense infatuation followed by a sudden loss of interest, then wounded exasperation as the latest paramour tries to understand what she did wrong.  As his first encounters with Alma make it clear, Reynolds uses his lovers as muses, draping them with ever more elaborate and sumptuous gowns (the film is, if nothing else, an absolute delight for costume aficionados).  But it's not just when they wear his clothes that he seems to want them to be obedient dummies--a running theme through the film is his sporadic frustration at Alma making noise while at the breakfast table, which Reynolds finds unbearably distracting.  It's a portrait of the indulged, cossetted male artist, his selfishness and tantrums tolerated, and even encouraged, on the grounds that he needs total acquiescence to do his work.  The fact that Reynolds' art is rooted in the feminine, and that he is surrounded by women--not just Alma and Cyril, but also his clients, and the seamstresses who make his vision a reality but don't earn the designation of artist--is a reminder that the indulgence he enjoys is rooted less in his artistry (which is very real) but in his gender.  That he is able, by pretending weakness and delicacy, to bully all the women around him into thinking only of his needs and desires, never of their own.

    It's a brilliant depiction (not least because of Day-Lewis's performance, which turns on a dime from fussy and wounded, to outraged and malicious), but what Phantom Thread does with it, and with Reynolds and Alma's relationship, is unformed, maybe even glib.  It's clear from the first moment that Alma believes in Reynolds in a way that no one before her has, even as she sees his shortcomings more clearly.  In an early sequence, she is outraged on his behalf when a wealthy patron falls down drunk while wearing one of Reynolds's dresses, insisting that this is disrespectful to him as an artist.  But Alma also loves Reynolds for his presentation of himself as weak and childish.  She enjoys indulging him and taking care of him, and becomes frustrated when the real man--who is merely spoiled, not vulnerable--starts chafing against her attempts to become a true partner in his life.  Her solution to this--which is essentially to force Reynolds to become the weak, dependent person he has been pretending to be--should be a brilliant turn of the screw in what has turned out to be a twisty psychological drama.  But it ends up feeling empty and contrived.

    A big part of the problem is that we never get a strong sense of who Alma is and why she acts as she does (despite Krieps's captivating, emotive performance).  Is she a canny operator who realizes she's landed on her feet and will do anything to secure her comfort?  Is she a psychopath molding a victim into a perfect partner?  Is she a normal woman who has fallen in love with a monstrously selfish man, who must become a monster herself in order to keep him?  Or is Phantom Thread genuinely a love story, between two extremely weird people who just happen to be perfect for one another?  The film doesn't seem interested in answering that question, or even in stressing the ambiguity.  It appears content to luxuriate in its fine performances, gorgeous cinematography and music, and of course its beautiful dresses.  But there's something far nastier and cleverer at the heart of this story, and this is never developed as fully as it might have been.