Thursday, April 2, 2020

This post is full of spoilers!


 
On an online discussion forum, someone recently asked about Joe Abercrombie’s “Last Wish” series (I reviewed the first two books here and here), to which I replied they were an inversion of common fantasy tropes. Right? Right. Pretty basic stuff.
 
Oh, but no. That’s a spoiler, you see.
 
Not five minutes later I had two users passive-aggressively bitching at me for spoiling the series. Yes, I know, boo-hoo, woe is me. I’ll live, I’ll survive. But for fuck’s sake, can we knock this shit off?
 
(The girl in The Crying Game is transgender.)
 
The spoiler crusade probably grew out of a sympathetic impulse—to prevent online assholes (“trolls,” sorry) from deliberately trying to ruin books and movies for other people—and like all our good impulses it was immediately taken up and wielded by the worst sort of literal-minded, unimaginative, killjoy people on the planet to stifle virtually any media discussion that doesn’t cater to their fragile paleo-diet sensitivities. Spoiler warnings are the emotional support dogs of Internet Karens constantly screaming for forum managers. They are the “Do Not Iron While Wearing Shirt” product warning labels of people too stupid to take care of themselves.
 
(Kylo Ren kills Han Solo.)
 
If you haven’t guessed, I’m not too keen on spoiler warnings.
 
(Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze.)
 
Partly, I think the structure of a lot of modern media is to blame, and partly it’s part of an online outrage culture that rewards virtue-signaling vigilantism over actual discussion and thought.
 
(Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.)
 
Now there are some stories in which the big reveal at the ending is the point. The mystery genre is an obvious example—the whole story revolves around unraveling whodunit. Revealing the end in that case would, of course, lessen your enjoyment of the story. No question there.
 
(Jesus comes back from the dead.)
 
The problem is, with the popularity of shows like “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica,” the rise of the “mystery box” and “subverting expectations” approaches to storytelling have exported these techniques to genres where the whodunit isn’t, or rather shouldn’t be the point at all. In the bid to ensure every property is must-see “appointment television” that you have to watch as soon as it is released or miss out on the zeitgeist forever, more and more entertainment is being drained of repeat value, turned into a pump-and-dump one night stand that’s forgotten the next morning.
 
(Oedipus kills his dad and marries his mom.)
 
Take the Star Wars franchise: “The Force Awakens” is a prime example of mystery box storytelling, but for fucks' sake why? Star Wars is space opera, not Agatha Christie. Sure, the movies have always had surprises … just, that was never the point of the movies. The twist that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father is a surprise, but your enjoyment of the franchise doesn’t hinge on not knowing this fact. Hell, the entire prequel trilogy depends on you knowing this fact, otherwise its relationship to the original three movies would be utterly baffling.
 
(Oldboy is her dad.)
 
Another example would be Game of Thrones, which did a lot to popularize the use of shocking twists: Ned's execution or the murder of the Starks at the Red Wedding are also surprising, but let me tell you I and thousands of other book readers knew exactly what was coming and loved every minute of it.
 
(Beowulf kills Grendel.)
 
Those aren’t spoilers, you see, they’re just plot points. Those are things that happen in the course of the story, not the central point of the story itself. If you call those spoilers, then literally every fact about the book or movie, the names of the characters, the genre, the gist of the plot, they’re all spoilers. Every trailer, poster, announcement or review is a spoiler. "I liked it," is a spoiler. If you want to wander in into a movie theater and plump your whining arse down completely unspoiled, you’d have to be blindfolded and led inside without even knowing the title.
 
(Soylent green is people.)
 
Even overlooking that point, any narrative that is only enjoyable once and never again because now you know the details is shit. Worthless. Insulting, condescending entertainment that has nothing of value to offer and nothing to say other than “Fooled you!” It’s an admission that there is nothing but plot—no characters, no setting, no mood, no drama, no tension. Just plot. And that’s a shallow, shallow way to approach entertainment.
 
(Tyler Durden doesn’t exist.)
 
For an example of the opposite approach, let’s look at Chris Nolan’s movie, “Memento.” There’s a fairly complicated plot. Like almost all Nolan movies, it screws around with time, this time by putting you into the amnesiac main character’s head by having events play out in reverse chronological order, so you don’t know what’s happening, either. At the end, turns out the amnesiac is responsible for his own wife’s death and keeps cynically hunting for people to get revenge on as a way of giving himself a reason to live. Now you can go back and watch the movie, and see how that all gets set up. THERE IS MORE THAN JUST PLOT. You can still enjoy every single moment of it. Because the point is the nature and malleability of memory, not whether or not this loony bastard has killed anyone or not.
 
Journey, not the destination, people.
 
(Macbeth did it.)
 
The other aspect of this narrative nannying is that it plays into social media’s tendency to reward grandstanding, style over substance. People are upvoted for reposting a funny picture, not for making one. They are praised for making posts like “Can we all appreciate X…” rather than, you know, everyone actually appreciating the person directly. Spoiler-whinging is part of this, too. The finger-wagging for mentioning spoilers means, of course, that the finger-wagger has already consumed the media in question and is thus being outraged on some theoretical other’s behalf.
 
(Achilles dies at the end.)
 
It’s white-knighting, only for the supposed lambs wandering innocently into movie or book discussions blissfully unaware that a movie or book discussion might contain details of the movie or book in question. They aren’t actually defending or protecting anyone, they’re just performatively demonstrating how pure and noble they are, in return for watching a small digit on their screen display a slightly larger number.
 
(This isn’t a spoiler. Aha, made you look.)
 
Arguing or attempting to publicly shame someone online is designed to draw more attention to the point in question, to get more people to see the spoiler, not less (Otherwise, how else will everyone see how brave the spoiler defender is being).
 
In this sense, it’s part of the same trend towards worshipping lore over story, the desire for exclusive control over how media is consumed and enjoyed. Just as lord nerds insist that fictional facts fit their stores of hoarded trivia, so spoiler queens insist that experiences with fiction fit their ideals. Everyone must watch or read in the spoiler purist’s approved way—no others are allowed.
 
(This post ends after the next paragraph.)
 
So what perhaps once began as a genuine attempt to improve everyone’s online experience has now been cynically twisted into a self-serving attempt to show what a great guy you are. It isn’t for anyone’s benefit but the complainer. It’s petty, it’s childish, and it’s time for this shit to stop.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Letter for the King (Series)



Title: The Letter for the King
Directed by: Alex Holmes, Felix Thompson
Written by: Will Davies (based on a novel by Tonke Dragt)
Network: Netflix
 
Disposable, twee YA high fantasy with a vaguely shapeless, charmless lead, leaden and cliché writing and a lank-haired pretty boy villain who looks about as threatening as Bryan Ferry. In my last post, I praised (well, semi-praised) the acting in “Kingdom” for not being “The Shannara Chronicles” bad, but this might well be.
 
Like the Chosen One of its hackneyed premise, “The Letter for the King” is the descendant of a line of kings, including not only “Shannara” but also the “Eragon” and “Dungeons and Dragons” movies.
 
I know this isn’t aimed at me, I’m not the target audience, I’m an old and crusty git, but honestly, I thought this was the kind of plastic, Disneyfied, suburban shopping-mall cosplay fantasy that Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones had finally managed to pincushion with arrows, behead, poison and stab at its own wedding. Somehow though, like a grizzled old wizard after one too many subterranean demonic barbeques, this genre keeps climbing back out.
 
I really don't see the attraction. Fantasy as a genre is meaningful when it has something to say about myths, legends and folk tales, or about the cultures and historical periods that gave rise to them, not when it’s just “The O.C.” in a codpiece. What's left is just a cold, lifeless attempt to cash in on a genre that's currently enjoying a bit of a revival.
 
Aping the conventions—the ominous voiceover, the over-long background exposition, the overuse of words like “darkness”—is an ultimately hollow exercise, a tired repetition of tropes without adding to or commenting on them in any way. The show isn’t especially interested in the Fantasy genre questions it raises, such as royal succession in monarchial rule, aristocracy versus meritocracy, or even in the non-genre themes it touches on like racism or developing your own identity, they’re all just props used for nothing more than to propel the plot along.
 
Well, let the kids have their fun. As an avid consumer of such filmic classics as “Krull,” it’s not like I can complain. There are some YA properties that adults can enjoy, but this isn’t one of them, so I think we have to sit this one out.
 
The one joy for the adults in the room is placing some of the actors who appear in supporting roles: The main character’s dad is played by Captain Faramir, though there are precious few opportunities to show us his quality, while the boy’s trainer is Lem Lemoncloak from Game of Thrones, much more supportive and less peasant-murdery this time around.
 
You can catch both of them in the opening episode, too, so once that’s out of the way, go watch “Kingdom” instead.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Kingdom (Netflix Series)



Title:
 Kingdom (Seasons 1 & 2)
Directed by: Kim Seong-hun (S1, S2E1), Park In-je (S2E2-S2E6)
Screenplay by: Kim Eun-hee
Network: Netflix
 
Given the current quarantined state of the coronavirus world and the way modern horror uses zombies as a stand-in for disease, there were probably better things I could have done for my mental health than watch Kingdom, a South Korean mashup of historical drama and zombie horror.

When season 1 came out in 2018, the story probably felt more socio-economic than epidemiological: The king of Joseon (17th century Korea) has fallen ill and rumors circulate he may be dead—but access to the king is fiercely guarded by Cho Hak-ju, his chief advisor, and by Cho’s daughter, who also happens to be the king’s pregnant wife. The king’s older son by a concubine, Lee Chang, stands to inherit the throne if the king dies before the wife gives birth to a son.

Cho accuses Lee of treason and he is forced to flee to the south in search of clues to his father’s illness, accompanied only by his personal bodyguard. He finds the southern provinces ravaged by poverty and starvation, and by a strange plague has begun to turn the inhabitants into crazed, flesh-eating monsters. The wealthy and isolated scholars and aristocrats in the capital remain blind to the danger until it is literally on their doorstep.

Put it that way and it sounds like a companion piece to “Parasite,” the Korean Oscar-winning movie about income inequality and class conflict. However, the show has kind of been overtaken by recent events. Referring to the zombies as “the infected” takes on new resonance now. In the show’s tale of corruption and lust for power, we can perhaps now see the danger these leaders pose to society in a health crisis: They either ignore all danger signs, or are interested only to the extent that they can use the crisis to their own advantage. They remain assured of their own invulnerability until it is far, far too late.

It’s also worth noting that South Korea is emerging from the current crisis as one of the few countries in the world that has managed the virus with anything even remotely approaching success. All that zombie-fighting did them some good, eh?

Each season is composed of six one-hour episodes, making it a quick watch, though I find it kind of falls between two stools—too long for a feature film, too short for subplots or character development.

On the plus side, there’s a kind of streamlined simplicity to the narrative in that all conflict ultimately comes down to the power struggle between the Cho Clan and Crown Prince Lee Chang, but that does leave the world feeling a little thin and the characters as interchangeable as the ridiculous hats everybody wears. (I don’t think any culture’s 17th century dress comes out looking too cool, lace ruffs I’m looking at you, but Joseon Korea’s penchant for mumu-ish silk robes and a pheasant-feathered top hat just strikes me as impractical for a horror actioner).

Both the action and the acting are very melodramatic and Acting-y. The show’s zombies are nocturnal, so tension often requires the sun to drop like Wall Street in a pandemic. Hah, that’s a joke that’ll age like milk. Anyway. Mortally wounded heroes suddenly sprout more arrows than Boromir yet they always find time for five-minute death speeches, while the Queen Consort does little but stare eerily straight at the camera, but it’s serviceable—not Game of Thrones, but not Shannara Chronicles, either. Ryu Seung-ryong as Cho Hak-ju is excellent though, full of ruthless menace, vividly portraying a man to whom a devastating plague is just one more tool to be wielded in his bid to hold on to power.

Netflix continues its tradition of having the dialog and subtitles translated by two different people which can be aurally confusing at times, but the story is so straightforward you could probably get the gist of it even if you watched it in Korean.
 
Ordinarily, I’d recommend this as a refreshing take on the zombie genre, both in terms of setting and style, but through no fault of its own the show gave me stomach cramps, heart palpitations and a sudden need to watch something a little more lighthearted. Though I understand “Contagion” is seeing a resurgence in popularity now, so this is probably exactly what you all want to see. You loonies.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Altered Carbon: Resleeved




Title: Altered Carbon—Resleeved
Directed by: Takeru Nakajima & Yoshiyuki Okuda
Screenplay: Dai Sato & Tsukasa Kondo
Network: Netflix
 
Cyberpunk is a wonderful genre, so fun, so full of cool gadgetry, bass-ass mofos, gangsters, mercs, techno-blitzkrieg action, neon, rain and bare buttocks gyrating to electronica. I love it, really I do. But damn is it a limited, self-referential genre.
 
Show me a cyberpunk cityscape and I won’t be able to tell you if it’s from Altered Carbon, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell or Johnny Mnemonic. Every megacorp in every neon-lit sprawl is owned by a megarich oligarch using technology to oppress, rather than free the average chummer. Every anonymous hacker is fighting against this oppression (rather than doxxing feminists on Facebook or posting neo-Nazi diatribes on Reddit). We get it, cyberpunk: Money, technology and corporations bad, ex-military cyborg mercenaries good!
 
The Japanese have become one of the standard-bearers of the genre, probably because their vending-machine mediated society is already more than halfway there. Akira and Ghost in the Shell in all their branching, self-replicating swarms of comic books, feature films and serialized formats form one of the kernels of Cyberpunk’s programming.
 
Like most works in this narrow (and honestly, creatively spent) genre, the Altered Carbon series by Richard K. Morgan owed more than a little debt to the Japanese, as witnessed by the name of the main character, Takeshi Kovacs.
 
In the spirit of self-recursion then, hot on the heels of season 2 in Netflix’s Altered Carbon adaptation, the property pays homage to its roots with “Resleeved,” an original one-off feature-length prequel to season 1, done in CGIed anime style. (Note: To clarify, it’s a prequel to the series, not the books, as it features elements absent from the books, such as Takeshi’s sister and the idea that Envoys were freedom fighters rather than government stormtroops).
 
In “Resleeved,” Kovacs is hired by the yakuza to protect a tattoo artist who has been targeted by assassins, just as the yakuza syndicate prepares for a ceremony to transfer leadership from one generation to the next. He’s joined by a pink-haired government agent, and a holographic hotel AI (in a blatant and unnecessary copy of a story element from the Altered Carbon series).
 
The story, by screenwriters who’ve worked on Ghost in the Shell’s serialized sibling, the Stand Alone Complex, as well as other oddities like Halo Legends, is … not smart. While the basic concept is sound, the execution is pure edgy teenager trying to impress. The whole movie is essentially five or six fight scenes loosely strung together, with the knots tying each string striving to outdo one another in stupidity: Kovacs is downloaded into a naked body in the middle of an S&M dance club. A yakuza guard gets murdered and his security key stolen—and two days later his key still works just fine. Nobody bothered tracing or cancelling it. A horde of dozens of assassins just wander into a yakuza stronghold, and nobody asks how they gained entry.
 
There’s nothing new here, either conceptually or visually.
 
While exactly how the big bad executes his nefarious plan is different in its colorful details, involving a tattoo and Altered Carbon's concept of digitized consciousness and the ability to switch bodies, we’ve done yakuza to death, the city is pure Blade Runner: 2049 and they’ve even reused the hotel AI idea from the Netflix show.
 
Visually, the action is pure manga, with blood splattering across walls, floors, ceilings and the “camera” lens as samurai swords gleefully bisect bodies at every angle like something straight out of Ninja Scrolls. There’s an energy and exuberance to the shot composition, I’ll grant you, reminiscent of “The Witness” segment from “Love, Death and Robots” but for the most part it’s nothing we haven’t been seeing in the genre for the last 20 years, just CGed up a bit.
 
I don’t expect every pop culture product to deliver a grand statement on the Way Life Is and the Nature of the Human Condition, but I just found this a little too derivative, a little too gore-passing-for-cool, a little too I’ve-seen-this-before.
 
One last thing: Oddly, the English voice acting and the English subtitles appear to have been created by people working from two different versions of the script—or the original Japanese script was translated by two different people, one for the voice actors, one for the subtitles. Anyway, the two frequently don’t match up, which can be a little disorienting if you’re listening with the subtitles on.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Altered Carbon (Season 2)



Title: Altered Carbon (Season 2)
Showrunners: Laeta Kalogridis, Alison Schapker
Writers: Laeta Kalogridis, Sarah Nicole Jones, Michael R. Perry, Sang Kyu Kim, Cortney Norris, Adam Lash, Cori Uchida, Nevin Densham, Alison Schapker, Elizabeth Padden
Network: Netflix

While the very word “Adaptation” implies change, I wish more adapters would err on the side of changing too little rather than too much. This Carbon would have been better if they’d altered it a bit less.

The Altered Carbon series on Netflix is an adaptation of a three-book series about super-soldier turned lone gun for hire Takeshi Kovacs, by author Richard K. Morgan. Series 1, released in 2018, covered the first book in the series, which I wrote about here and here. If you’re lazy, and hey we’re on the Internet so yeah, the gee-whiz SF premise is that human consciousness can be digitized, stored in a “stack” implanted in the spine, and downloaded into any available “sleeve” (what people in far future land call bodies).

This second incarnation of the Altered Carbon series is a bit of a mashup—in the messiest sense of the word—of elements from books 2 and 3 of the Takeshi Kovacs series, Broken Angels and Woken Furies, altered to the point of almost unrecognizability.

Carrera and Kemp from Broken Angels show up, though their motivations and characters are completely altered. The setting has been moved to Harlan’s World, as in Woken Furies, and it follows book 3’s hunt for legendary rebel leader Quellcrist Falconer plot line, though of course they had to make this literal by turning it into a hunt for the actual person rather than a copy of her consciousness. As I said before, we are in the age of incredibly literal SF. Oshima from book 3 is transformed into a black lesbian woman named Trepp (Simone Missick), though amazingly without raising the kind of outcry that casting white actor Joel Kinnaman to play a white character with a half-Japanese half-Czech name did in season 1.

Can’t imagine why not.

If you’ve never read the books that’s going to make as much sense as alien hieroglyphs, so here’s the plot: Kovacs (played by Anthony Mackie this time) is convinced his long-vanished lover Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry) is still alive. He is lured back to his home world of Harlan’s World by the prospect of finding her, only to discover he is suspected of murdering a cabal of super-rich “Meths” (short for methuselah because of their money-fueled longevity). He enlists the aid of Trepp and Poe (Chris Conner), the holographic hotel AI from season 1, and is hunted by Colonel Carrera (Torben Liebrecht), who creates a clone of Kovacs based on a stored copy of Kovac’s consciousness (Will Yun Lee) to help track down the fugitives.  

None of these details actually matter much. Here’s what the show is like to watch: Bam! Aaah! Watch out! [Voiceover] Memories, are, like, ghosts, you know? Nanoswarm! The construct is destabilizing! Smash! Waaugh! Gyaaa! The End.

The first two episodes in particular are written by idiots for idiots.

Two examples from the first couple of episodes may illustrate:

Kovacs is stabbed in the shoulder and knocked unconscious. He awakes with no memory of what happened. To make himself remember, he stabs himself in the shoulder. Thank god his assailant didn’t kick him in the testicles.

In another scene, Colonel Carrera and four of his men (despite being a Colonel, Carrera only seems to have about four—alas for streaming TV budgets) investigate the scene of a murder. The police allow them in, but confiscate their weapons (why, I have no idea). Carrera and his men kill the cops anyway: Carrera takes one cop’s gun, shoots the cop, then tosses it to one of his men, who does a pirouette and then shoots another cop, the ballet guy then tosses the gun to yet another solider, who does a backflip, then shoots a third cop, backflippy tosses the gun YET AGAIN … Anyway, at the end of it all Carrera reports everything he found at the crime scene without covering anything up, so. What. The. Fuck. Was that all in aid of?

The dialog is enjoyable in its schlocky cheesiness. Colonel Carrera gets most of the best (worst) lines: “If we’re talking wolves, I’m the alpha and you’re nothing but my bitch.” Though frankly this is slightly let down by the fact that as the big bad, Carrera looks like a middle-aged metrosexual with about as much menace as Mark Ruffalo.

There are attempts at a serious tone, with laboring weighty voiceovers about the way we are are haunted by memories and vainly attempt to recreate our pasts, but the seriousness is undercut by the nonsensical action. The treatment of the virtual and digital is especially silly: Poe, the holographic AI, carries a shotgun, drinks whiskey and manipulates other programs by waving his hands around in midair.

To be honest, the show doesn’t seem that interested in its own themes, anyway. Character motivations are impossible to follow and don’t matter, as every problem is resolved by punching or shooting things. Carrera is working against the planet’s governor, no he’s working for her, Quellcrist is a murderer, no she’s a victim, no she’s a willing accomplice. Clone Kovacs is a ruthless killer who murders Trepp’s father, no he’s a caring, sensitive guy you’d like if you got to know him personally. Maybe if given enough time these changes would sit better, but with a season of just eight episodes character arcs get rushed in the mad dash to get through the convoluted plot involving about four double-crosses and a lot of unconvincing technobabble.

I get that streaming TV is not words on paper, and each medium imposes different needs. However, as I argued with Star Trek Discovery, if all you keep is the surface level stuff—the names and places, some of the technology, one or two lines—then why not go all the way and make something totally new? Using original works of fiction for little more than name recognition feels an uncomfortable combination of both horribly cynical and terribly hubristic—assuming you as the TV writer know better how to craft a story than the bestselling author whose works you’re plundering for your story line.

Think back to the Lord of the Rings movies, probably the best-loved and most widely acclaimed SF/Fantasy adaptations in recent memory (Game of Thrones had a shot at the title before that last season, sigh). Now, what do people remember about those movies? Was it Legolas surfing down an elephant’s trunk while no-scoping orcs with his bow? Was it Aragorn somehow grabbing a green ghost by the neck and threatening it with his sword? Was it the incredibly literal interpretation of the all-seeing eye of Sauron as a gigantic searchlight? Or—or were these dismissed as risible additions by the writers to an otherwise vivid portrayal of one of the classics of modern English literature?

The Takeshi Kovacs books are certainly no Lord of the Rings, but there was a core to them, a bitter suspicion of the corrosive effects that the convergence of money and technology into the hands of a few can have, but also a deep wariness of fanatics and extremists of any stripe—people who believe deeply in a cause often don’t care too much about the people who follow it. That gets thrown out the window—season 2 ends with Quellcrist vowing to travel to some other planet to continue her bloody revolution.

It’s a light, mildly diverting, disposable time-filler, something Netflix can dump on the service to keep you busy for a week or two until the next show comes around, but that’s pretty much the only mileage I got out of it.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Breath of the Wild



Yes, we’re here today to review a game that came out in 2017 because that’s the kind of timely, breaking, up-to-the-decade content our reader (Hi, Tom) has come to expect from this blog.

We got a Switch, for the exercise games really, but it gave me the excuse to buy a game for myself. I picked up this one, and three weeks later emerged, pastel-shaded but happier, thoroughly happy with my purchase.

After a string of gritty, bloody open-world games like “Skyrim” and “Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt” it was nice to play something almost innocent like Breath of the Wild for a change.

I say it’s innocent, and overall it is, though the setup is a little dark. You see, the backstory is an ancient evil returned to the world (they way they inevitably do, as foretold by the prophecy) and … the good guys lost. Your four closest friends were all killed, the princess you swore to protect is now locked in an eternal, stalemated battle with the ancient evil, and you were so badly injured you had to spend 100 years in a bacta tank recovering. The five races of the kingdom were brutally slaughtered by an army of relentless, soulless, pitiless robots. Also, you can get your inventory space increased by a fat green fairy who plays the maracas. The whimsy sometimes jives oddly with the post-apocalyptic setting, is all I’m saying.

As Link, the princess’s champion, your task is to visit the four non-human races and free their “Divine Beasts”—giant animal-shaped war machines—before the final confrontation with the Big Bad, called “Calamity Ganon.” In parallel, you can also try to restore Link’s memories by visiting 12 places of special importance to him. It being an open world you can, of course, just piss about the whole time or attempt to kill the big bad while still completely amnesiac and armed only with a pointed stick. It’s really up to you.

The four races are the birdlike Rito, the boulder-shaped Goron, a bunch of fish with heads shaped like porpoises, and a desert-dwelling tribe of redheaded Amazons with washboard abs and ski jump noses. The four thus neatly map onto the four ancient elements, namely wind, earth, water and gingers. 

Getting them onto your side requires you board one of the Divine Beasts (a bird, a salamander, an elephant and a camel) and solve a series of puzzles before fighting a mini-boss. These were fun to figure out, but by the time you get to the fourth one, the near carbon-copy nature gets a little wearying.

The RPG mechanics are fairly limited. You only have two stats: health and stamina. Instead of being raised through experience, you need to collect tokens from a series of hidden shrines, each of which requires you to solve a puzzle. These puzzles generally hit the sweet spot of being engaging without being frustrating—fairly straightforward, but you still feel like a bloody genius when you figure them out. The only thing that was a little annoying was that each shrine involved about three identical cutscenes every single time you entered one.

Combat I found a lot less satisfactory. On the plus side you have complete freedom to approach any encounter the way you want. The game gives you a set of potentially useful abilities, including remote-detonated bombs, a magnet, an ice-maker and the ability to freeze time, and these allow some creative solutions like knocking enemies off cliffs with levitating metal boxes or firing boulders at them. You can also find melee weapons—one handed, two-handed and spears—as well as bows, but melee combat in particular was dependent on split-second timing which, at 45, I can do about once in every five attempts.

Your conversation choices are about as limited as the RPG elements. The people encounter along the way are mostly bland NPCs there only to give out quests, mixed with some very idiosyncratic personalities, such as a scientist who has regressed to childhood and another who (in the Japanese version of the game) speaks English, but the English of a Japanese person who doesn’t speak English very well. These NPCs offer you dozens of side quests you can take or leave, but frankly I left most of them, as they tended to be rather long and involved, frustratingly hard to understand what you were supposed to be doing, and rewarded you with little more than a pat on the head. Balance wasn’t quite so well done there.

The other major task you'll find yourself doing is finding and activating a series of Towers, each of which reveals a portion of the map of the world to you. All the towers look almost identical and you go through an identical cutscene to activate them and after the Divine Beasts and the shrines I think you can probably guess what I'm going to complain about at the end of this review.

But let's talk about the good stuff first. The area where the game really shines is the art design and the world itself. Breath of the Wild has a wonderfully stylized sort of comic-book look to it, neither too childish nor too realistic, that is unique, distinctive, and genuinely lovely to look at. The map covers a range of terrain, from rolling grasslands to a lava-spewing volcano, from blistering desert to snow-capped mountains. Traveling about them is sped up by giving you access to horses and a kind of parachute/hang glider that lets you swoop down from cliffs or mountains. At the beginning, at least, there’s a lot of fun to be had just peacefully wandering about and looking at things. There’s a lot of empty space, but that serves to space out the action and gives you the chance to appreciate this world.

Of course, even that can wear thin after a bit, so it’s time to face that nasty old Calamity Ganon and give him a jolly good thrashing.

The final climactic showdown is a little bizarre, in that there are two phases. Phase One is a floaty spider thing which combines elements from the four Divine Beast mini-bosses. Sure, you think, okay, builds up nicely. Once you beat that, Phase Two begins. In Phase Two, the big bad transforms into a giant pig that. Um. Kind of stands there. You shoot it full of arrows and win! Yay!

You are then reunited with Princess Zelda in a very sweet yet chaste scene (c’mon, she’s 17 guys—well, 117 I suppose, which is also kind of weird). Fade to black.

It’s a glorious, gorgeous, light-hearted game, that suffers only in some of the samey locations and the repetitive nature of the four main quests. Still, after so much grim darkness, it’s a breath of fresh air. Ha!

Sunday, February 23, 2020

1917





Title: 1917
Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Shall we talk about the cinematography?

I think we have to. It’s all anyone seems to talk about regarding this movie, probably for the very good reason that it’s the main thing worth talking about.

So as you probably know, but I’ll repeat just in case you’ve been hit in the helmet by a ricocheting bullet and knocked out for the last three months, the gimmick with 1917 is the illusion that the events are happening in “real time” and is shot by one camera in a single “take,” a bit like the Kiefer Sutherland/Jack Bauer series “24” mixed with the showiness of the long shots from “Children of Men,” only stretched to 119 minutes. There are no cuts between close-ups of people in conversation, nor between wide, middle and close-up shots, every scene—with one obvious and glaring exception—flows seamlessly together.

It is a masterful achievement, and obviously took a lot of serious, meticulous planning and preparation to pull off. And by and large, it works, at least at the technical level. The camera pirouettes about men in narrow trenches and through the walls of farmhouses, down shattered lanes and across a field under artillery fire, without loosening its relentless focus on the leads (except that one, really thumpingly noticeable time it does, but shh). You as the viewer are stuck with these guys, just as they are stuck there, and the only way either of you gets out is to see it through to the end.

As a movie-making technique, it doesn’t work quite so well.

In behind-the-scenes featurettes, the filmmakers have said this is meant to be immersive, but let’s admit that no, it absolutely isn’t. This is film-making that draws attention to its own artifice. Look! See how clever we are! It very quickly becomes distracting—You should be down in the trenches with these two guys, but you’re not, you’re thinking about the cameraman, the logistics of the shot, you are constantly aware that you’re watching a movie, an artificial narrative, and spend more time thinking about how Mendes and Deacon were able to film the scene, rather than being engaged and emotionally invested in the action.

The artifice, in other words, prevents it from achieving the very effect it is designed to produce.

The script also contributes to this detached feeling in a couple of ways. First, things off-screen, out of the frame of the shot, seem to suddenly just appear or immediately vanish from existence when we pan away from them. A group of fellow British soldiers in a convoy of trucks materialize out of thin air behind a farmhouse (wouldn’t we have heard them?) When one of our heroes parts ways with these soldiers and is shot at by a sniper while crossing a bridge, the comrades he left not 10 seconds ago do nothing (why aren’t they shooting back?). We just never see them again.

Distances start to feel distorted. The initial scene where the two messengers cross no-man’s land is fantastic in an excruciating way, a nail-biting crawl, slither, crouch and scramble across a nightmare landscape of iron, steel, mud, shell craters and bloated bodies. However, once that is over though, the scenery changes come thick and fast. There’s a truck ride that includes two stops and barely lasts one conversation, but somehow transports us from a lonely farmhouse to the edge of a town. Later we jump into a river which immediately flows over a waterfall and just as quickly ends up lapping at the rear of the British lines.

Finally, the soundtrack is deafeningly intrusive. Just in case you weren’t sure a moment was meant to be tense or not, don’t worry, HERE COME A THOUSAND BLARING TRUMPETS TO REASSURE YOU THAT YES, THIS REALLY IS PRETTY DAMN TENSE RIGHT NOW I CAN TELL YOU. Combined with the evident artifice of the cinematography, all this serves to keep you at arm’s length from the story. Don’t worry, it’s just a movie, and here is a stream of constant reminders to that effect just in case you start to get too into it.

The story itself is bare-bones simple, and probably could have been shown just as effectively, if not moreso, with traditional filmmaking techniques.

If there’s a theme to the movie, it’s how utterly shit the life of a lowly lance corporal was (and probably still is) in the year 1917. Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Game of Thrones’s Tommen) and Scofield (George MacKay) are picked by his NCO for the thankless and probably impossible job of sneaking across German-held territory to deliver orders to another unit, calling off an attack. There’s a perfunctory briefing by the General (Colin Firth), in which responsibility for saving the lives of 1,600 men is unceremoniously dumped on the two lads despite the cockup entirely originating from said General, who doesn’t actually giving them any useful advice about how they’re supposed to achieve this herculean task.

Nonetheless, the two gamely do their British best, moaning and bullshitting their way across no-man’s land, beset by booby traps and crashing airplanes and German snipers. The message is finally delivered in the very nick of time to a pissed off, irate Colonel (Benedict Cumberbatch) who tells Scofield thanks, points out he hasn’t actually saved anybody as this just means there will be a different attack the next day, and invites him to please fuck off.

There’s a vague arc about Scofield going from reluctant partner to fiercely determined to accomplish the mission, coupled with an early resentment of the people at home and ending with him staring longingly at family photos, but Blake and Scofield mostly get flattened by both the action and the juggernaut pace of the story, leaving little time for us to get to know either character. They’re lance corporals, nobodies, could be anybodies, and who they are isn’t really the point. They’re every soldier, and they just want to survive and go home.

Together with Chris Nolan’s “Dunkirk” then, we seem to be building up a new direction for war movies, moving away from tales of heroism and questions of morality or immorality, towards a tighter focus on the experience of the unheroic experiences of the individual soldier, whose goal is nothing more noble than To Not Get Killed. The enemy, if they appear at all, are just one more thing to be survived, and the only “victory” is survival.

In the end though “1917” ends up being far more about the craft of the story than about the narrative itself. It’s a good movie, an impressive accomplishment, but it’s all about its own impressiveness, not really about the two poor sods at the center of the story. Though you get the feeling the lance corporals probably used to being overlooked until it’s time to do something nasty.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Canadian Fantasy Two-fer: Guy Gavriel Kay

Titles:   Children of the Earth and Sky
              A Brightness Long Ago
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Berkley
 
I’m reviewing two books at once here, a feat made possible by Kay’s transformation of himself into a kind of brand, much like Stephen King, Dan Brown or John Grisham, a reliable if predictable producer of a very specific type of fantasy fiction. Although the details differ, the two books—and indeed pretty much anything published by Kay after about 1998—are more or less interchangeable.
 
The world in both books is a mildly fantastical version of our own, with events, places and people existing in more or less a 1:1 correspondence with things in the real world: Byzantium becomes “Sarantium” and Rome, “Rhodias,” Christians, Jews and Muslims become “Jaddites,” “Kindath” and “Asharites,” Sarantium falls to the Asharites just as Byzantium did to the Ottomans, and so on.
 
The protagonist (as always) is a male artist, a painter in “Children of the Earth and Sky” (2016), a bookseller in “A Brightness Long Ago” (2019). He exists at the periphery of and observes the lives of the great—the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in “Children…” and Italian mercenary captains Frederico and Sigismondo in “A Brightness…” In this, the main character is aided by spirited and independent women, often doctors or healers, and returns home, burdened with wisdom and bittersweet experience.
 
Everybody emotes with apocalyptic intensity. Kay is not an author to use one emotion when three would be more dramatic. They are perhaps best thought of not as novels, but the modern prose equivalent of Shakespearean plays, with characters striding about the stage, loudly declaiming their motivations and desires to the audience. They love! They hate! They beat their breasts and weep!
 
American author Elmore Leonard famously advised that “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” Kay’s works exist as a shining beacon for all of those who curse such advice as the basest, vile calumny. I keep half-expecting Kay to start referring to me as “gentle reader…” Every sentence here practically deafens you with the writing-ness of its writing.
 
The theme in both books is the one Kay started expressing in “The Last Light of the Sun” (2004), the idea that there is nothing predictable or inevitable about the course of history or people’s lives, and that both events and lives are changed by split-second decisions taken in moments of rage, panic, fear or ecstasy.
 
There is, at least, a unity between the prose and the theme then. Both are infused with melodrama and a kind of mournful, weeping acceptance that the world is a cold, cruel, capricious place whose grey is brokenly only intermittently by beauty or art.
 
After about half a dozen novels like this though, all the emoting feels more polished than passionate, like a veteran musician playing a well-known piece, technically proficient yes, comforting in its familiarity perhaps, but not especially innovative or surprising.
 
To an extent, I suppose this is just the realities and necessities of the publishing market. With so much choice out there, an author needs to carve out a recognizable space for themselves in order to win recognition and repeat readers.
 
Pretty much everyone does it. I recently downloaded a sample of Joe Abercrombie’s latest, “A Little Hatred,” and it’s exactly the same kind of thing as he was writing in “The Blade Itself,” in 2006 (If I had to sum up his style in a single sentence, it’s be something like: ‘“Fuck, I’ve shat myself,” swore the princess.’) You always knew what you were getting in an Iain M. Banks Culture book or Terry Pratchett Discworld novel.
 
Still, while a recognizable style is standard for any author, I do think that Kay has carried this even further, going as far as to make his characters and their arcs and themes more or less identical each time. I miss the inventive Kay of books like the “Fionavar Tapestry” (1984-86), “Tigana” (1990) or “A Song for Arbonne” (1992).
 
And yet as a marketing strategy it’s undeniable effective. I scroll through my Amazon dot com recommendations these days and I’ve no idea who most of these authors are, what their books are like and whether or not they’re any good (Amazon further muddies the waters by inserting its “promoted” books into searches, but that’s a gripe for another time). So I end up retreating to the familiar, to Kay, Abercrombie, William Gibson and a couple of others who may not surprise and delight, but who are at least guaranteed to deliver what I expect.
 
I’ve you’ve read one Kay book then, you know what to expect from these two. It’s more of the same, emotionally overwrought, purple of prose, well-crafted but eminently predictable. But you know, sometimes that’s not a bad thing.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Agency


Title: Agency
Author: William Gibson
Publisher: Berkley Books

I find it hard, in this the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, to take seriously any novel in which President Hillary Rodham Clinton is painted as a hero who will avert nuclear catastrophe.

No, I didn’t like this much, which is a shame, for although I find the plots of most recent Gibson novels a bit limp, he’s always been an interesting writer at the level of word choice, sentence structure, paragraph and chapter. A master stylist, if not a masterful storyteller. But his latest effort I found just a bit drab, filed with recycled plot elements from his better books and without any of his linguistic flair, where characters do very little but go around in circles while the plot resolves itself for them. For a book titled “Agency,” pretty much nobody exerts any, which might be the point I suppose, but makes for a dull read.

“Agency” revisits the world of 2014’s “The Peripheral,” in which people in the 22nd century have discovered they can digitally contact people in the past, but only in alternate or parallel realities (since such contact didn’t occur in their own past). A group of such future-humans then begin to manipulate the course of these realities, some for shits and giggles, others to try to make them “better” by avoiding the disasters the “main” timeline endured.

While alternate reality in “The Peripheral” was a late-stage capitalist version of the USA, in which the only jobs are fighting in America’s imperialist wars or selling drugs, “Agency” is set in an alternate 2017 in which Hillary Clinton won the Presidential election and the UK voted to remain in the EU.

A woman in alternate 2017 named Verity is supposedly an “app-whisperer”, which is the kind of unspecific but cool-sounding technological super-ability we saw in “Pattern Recognition” yet which is never mentioned after the first chapter making you wonder why Gibson bothered, but anyway, this Verity is hired by a tech start-up to field test a responsive virtual agent (hence Agency, geddit), which turns out to be a stolen full-blown military intelligence AI.

What follows is pretty much just the emergent AI creating the circumstances for its own birth (giving her “agency”, geddit) plot that we saw in “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” only told with much less verve or invention.

Verity and a small cast of characters (including many from a people-following Agency, geddit) spend the entire novel driving around in circles in LA and San Francisco at the direction of the AI while being menaced rather unconvincingly by shadowy operatives whose objectives aren’t especially clear, other than to menace the main characters from time to time. As in, I’m not really sure why these people keep trying to kidnap a woman just for talking to a stolen AI—it’s not like she physically carries it around or anything. 

Anyway, in the end the AI is okay, no thanks to any of these people.

Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear annihilation looms in the background as Russia and the US come to blows over the Middle East. This plot line, as mentioned above, is also resolved without anyone doing anything, thanks to President Clinton.

Yet a third strand involves the future humans in the 22nd century, who apparently (and off-camera) instigated the plot by getting the start-up to hire Verity. In their own time, they are threatened by a Russian oligarch pissed that their meddling in past realities tends to be aimed at creating conditions where Russian oligarchs have less power. This plot line is resolved by someone going to an all-day breakfast restaurant three times for 10-minute conversations.

As I think I wrote in my review of “Zero History,” I like Gibson less the more he writes about the present-day. Back then, it was the brand name-dropping that irritated. Now, it’s the overt focus on modern US politics, especially his support for Clinton and evident disdain for Trump (though he is never mentioned by name). To be transparent, like most non-Americans I find Trump to be a patently corrupt, vain, narcissistic, sub-moronic windbag whose presidency effectively annihilates any claim Americans might ever make to moral superiority about pretty much anything. So I agree with Gibson’s assessment, just putting it into the story so baldly seems crude. As I wrote in yesterday’s braindead thinkpiece on here, it feels like part of a trend towards incredibly literal moralizing and messaging in SF. Nothing is allowed to be metaphor and interpretation, there’s only text, no subtext.

What are we to make of the characters’ odd passivity and inability to influence the plot? If this is by design, it comes across as fatalistic, suggesting there’s nothing people can do to avert nuclear war or climate catastrophe other than pray a Strong Leader like, hum, er, Clinton, or else some benevolent AI will rescue us. Which might well be true, but doesn’t really fit the triumphant and uplifting tone of the end of the novel, where the AI reveals itself to the world (yes, spoilers, go fuck yourself). That sounds like a recipe for apathy rather than activism to me.

The other sour note I found was Verity’s ex-boyfriend, a mega-rich tech maverick named Stets, whose enormous wealth is essential in arranging all the complex gadgetry required to help Verity stay one step ahead of the bad guys. This man is unfailing portrayed in a positive light, charming, intelligent, perceptive, flaunting the law to help his friends, all for the greater good!

Contrast this to the Russian oligarch subplot, in which those nasty rich Russkies try to trip up our heroes just so they can stay rich and, er, Russian. Now, to me it feels like pure American exceptionalism to suggest there’s anything different between Stets and the Russian oligarch. One happens to be using his inordinate wealth and influence to help the protagonist, the other to hinder, but in each case we’re talking about a class of people whose wealth has effectively rendered them above the law.

As with the emergent AI line, it feels like I’m being asked to celebrate something that strikes me as deeply, deeply disturbing. The only people capable of exercising agency in this world of ours are the mega-rich or artificial intelligences. Luckily ours are nice and not nasty at all. Hooray, I guess?

It’s a bit like “Waiting for Godot” if Godot showed up in Act II, announced he was actually an immortal all-seeing God, but a nice one, and all the characters went hope happy. 

“Agency” has a strangely positive ending for a book apparently about our powerlessness in the face of technological and socioeconomic change. All of that, I think, encapsulated by the bit at the end where the characters celebrate World War III being averted by that benevolent God, Hillary Clinton.