Two Serpents Rise (Craft Sequence #2)

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What it’s about: An employee of a water supply concern tries to prevent his city from being destroyed by giant serpent gods, without having to fall back to the dark old ways of human sacrifice.

Notes:

  • I really like the Craft Sequence for how it has so far enmeshed fantasy and urban fantasy tropes together in a highly original fashion. This notion of fantasy worlds grappling with modernity – not just in technology, but in the social structures that come with sophisticated industrializing societies – is relatively new ground in fantasy.
  • In Two Serpents Rise, Gladstone depicts a society and city (Dresidiel Lex) that is heavily inspired by the Aztecs, but has since cast off its history of human sacrifice to appease the gods to enter a new gilded age roughly resembling 1920s New York. A city that sustains its burgeoning population on the magic of Craft, which draws its power from exploiting the natural world, leaving indigenous communities to suffer from the effects of rapacious extractionism, all in order to support the bourgeois lifestyles of the urban rich.
  • The conceit is clearly meant to be a reflection of the real world – but Gladstone makes an interesting juxtaposition via highlighting the city’s Aztec-esque heritage. In decades past, before the advent of Craft (read: industrial age technologies), the city prospered by the periodic human sacrifice to appease two giant serpent deities residing at the heart of the city. In this context, the sacrifice is more visceral and  barbaric, but it forces the city to confront the reality of its devil’s bargain (albeit glorifying it as a noble act) – rather than effacing it behind the impersonal but industrial-scale exploitations of faceless corporations, so that the urbanites of Dresidiel Lex can attend their parties with a clear conscience.
  • The juxtaposition is the key to the plot, because the protagonist, Caleb, has to negotiate a new way for the city to survive beyond these two extreme ends. In a way, his character straddles both worlds – he is the son of one of the last priests of the old ways, and has gained some of the powers that they used to have – but on the other, he has gainful employment as an employee of a vast industrial concern that supplies water to the city using Craft. He is sympathetic in a way – someone who embraces modernity in part as a way to resolve the daddy issues resolving around the fact that his dad is a wanted terrorist who used to carve out people’s hearts, and who once subjected him to a painful ritual to grant him weird and unpleasant powers.
  • Overall, it was an entertaining book, if not particularly memorable in terms of plot and character development – while Caleb was, I think, an interesting character, no one else really was, although one character – the King in Red, a deathless animated skeleton and CEO of Red King Incorporated, does make an impression, but more because he’s a deeply scary funky telekinetic skeleton. The Craft Sequence does have a lot of these nuggets of weirdness that stick in the mind.
  • One thing that does stick out in my mind, though, is Gladstone’s unfortunate penchant for writing some of the most god awfully purple prose in fantasy literature. Seriously – the book is peppered with weird similes and hyperbolic images that read like bad high-school poetry, and actually detract, rather than augment, the reader’s mind’s eye of what is being described. Like this extract from a single page of Caleb and love-interest Mal having sex on a beach amidst fireworks:
  • “…as they lay with each other, on each other, in each other, the flame built…her laugh shook the world…they breathed in unison, and clutched each other forever. Fireworks burst and burned, flared and retreated. The sky broke open time and again only to reclaim its darkness. All was subsumed in flames, which were themselves dancers, singers, beaters of drums, flowering on the infinite to die.”
  • Narmy, isn’t it?

Verdict: Creative, inventive and stellar urban fantasy, stymied somewhat by a somewhat unmemorable plot and characters and at times awfully purple prose.

I give this: 4 out of 5 thaums

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Spiderman: Homecoming

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What it’s about: A young and naive Spiderman must learn to wield his powers responsibly.

Notes:

  • I’m liking how Spiderman: Homecoming is being integrated with the rest of the MCU as an accessory superhero without another tired rehash of an origin story, but instead, a story that explores him coming into his own abilities through trial and tribulation. Thematically, it works well as an “intro” movie to MCU-continuity Spiderman because it captures the defining conceit of Spiderman – the power/responsibility struggle – without needing to hearken back to Uncle Ben again. I like how Tony Stark’s the mentor, now, too – and how he fits into the whole Avengers shtick.
  • I really like how grounded the movie is too – as MCU movies go, at least. Spiderman isn’t dealing with some existential crisis or god-tier supervillain – just a good old-fashioned criminal lucky enough to get his hands on some Chitauri technology for fun and profit, whose only motivation is to make money to support his family – even if he’s willing to go to psychopathic lengths to do so. Also, casting Michael Keaton as the Vulture is so apropos – after his Oscar-nominated turn in Birdman, which in turn was an ironically appropriate reference to his tenure as Batman. A bat superhero turned bird superhero turned bird villain. The Vulture is probably the villain with the most grounded and realistic motives since Iron Man’s Obadiah Stane.
  • Of course, being a teen film, the movie is filled to the brim with cringeworthy teenybopper antics – proms, house parties, and teenagers awkwardly trying to find out what it means to be an adult. Oh, and Peter Parker’s absolute inability to act normal when trying to hide his true nature in a crisis situation. Not my favorite part of the movie by any stretch, but since such things are almost par for the course in any American film about high school kids, I suppose it is a standard offering.
  • Sexy Aunt May is super disturbing. Marvel, why???

Verdict: While not the most groundbreaking MCU film, Spiderman: Homecoming is a creditable entry into the MCU, and miles, miles better than the Spidey films that preceded it.

I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 energy weapons

Thor: Ragnarok

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What it’s about: Thor goes on a galaxy-spanning quest to stop the evil goddess Hela from remaking Asgard into her own image.

Notes:

  • I have to say, after watching director Taika Watiti’s hilarious Thor and Daryl shorts, I had high expectations for this film in the laughs department. And I was not disappointed. Thor: Ragnarok is a great comedy, almost to the extent that it kind of strikes a discordant note with the tone of the rest of the MCU. Seriously, there’s so much screwball humor going on here that it actually seems strangely out of place with the previous two films (although The Dark World had its fair share of funnies). The Watiti-voiced Korg, in particular, with his strong Kiwi accent and almost fourth wall-breaking genre savviness, is one such example of humor encroaching upon, for lack of a better term, tonal verisimilitude (although he is a great comic character). The Odin-play and Thor calling the Hulk a “friend from work” are some other jokes that don’t quite square with what you’d expect from the usually-seriou superhero. That said, Watiti’s lack of concern for tonal consistency gives the film the artistic freedom to be one of the freshest and most entertaining MCU films yet.
  • The plot is admittedly based on a string of unlikely coincidences and contrivances though. Thor, getting thrown onto the very planet that Valkyrie and Hulk are on; Thor conveniently storing the Surtur helmet and eternal flame in the same vault, even though the Asgardians took such special care to separate the Infinity Stones from each other. There’s also the fact that apparently the entire population of Asgard can fit within a medium sized spaceship? Where the heck is everyone? These plot contrivances do add up, but the film is so hilariously irreverent about so many other aspects that somehow, their presence doesn’t matter so much.
  • I do hope  that Thor: Ragnarok’s character development actually takes in future Marvel films, though – I’d hate to see Loki, for example, fall back to his fundamentally manipulative ways in Infinity War, when the movie went to all the trouble to give his character a kind of redemptive arc. He did steal the Tesseract at the end of the film, though, and it remains to be seen if he’ll proffer it in some way back to Thanos.
  • I’m glad Watiti chose to go with the flow and not weasel out of the premise of the movie, i.e. Ragnarok and the destruction of Asgard. It feels like things are moving into place for an intense climax in the form of Infinity War, especially with the movies now including more and more crossovers, and Watiti found a pretty decent way to make a good twist ending around the annihilation of Asgard.

Verdict: Intensely watchable and funny, if a little out of place tonally, Thor: Ragnarok is Marvel’s most successful attempt yet at integrating effective comedy with into its storytelling, and a sure crowd-pleaser.

I give this movie: 4 out of 5 Surtur helmets

 

Blade Runner 2049

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Blade Runner 2049 may feature the classic’s oppressive dehumanising cityscapes of its predecessor, but like its storied forebear, it is heartbreakingly and effusively human in its emotional and thematic outlook.

A film as self-contained as Blade Runner never seemed to need a sequel to complete it, but BR 2049 achieves that rarest of things – it takes the first film and iterates on it, providing a fresh new experience while drawing on the same primordial themes. 30 years after the  first film, replicants have been re-introduced on Earth; this time, they are made to be pliant and unquestioning in their service to humanity. K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant Blade Runner who dispatches previous iterations of “dangerous” replicants, follows a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to a secret long thought buried and forgotten – the fate of Rick Deckard and Rachel, and the existence of an impossibility – a child born of a replicant.

First off, BR 2049 is a darned good hardboiled detective story. K broods in his tiny apartment, accompanied by his AI companion Joi (played to perfection by Ana de Armas) while his implacable detective instincts lead him inexorably on the chase. The film is long – almost three hours – but it unravels in a stylishly noirish slow burn. Some have called it slow, but personally, I never felt bored at any point – every scene seemed to drip with tension and atmosphere and foreboding. The aesthetics of this film – in the rainy, ocean-buffeted megalithic cityscapes of Los Angeles, to the parched radioactive wastes of Las Vegas – are brilliantly realised, and the thundering, discordant score suffuses each scene with a barely contained power. The film may take its time, but it is filled with viscerality, and every scene is plastered with visual interest.

Where BR 2049 really shines, though, and takes its place as a worthy sequel to the original, is just how emotionally resonant its character relationships are. In particular, K and Joi are a sweetly tragic pairing, two created beings at the bottom of the hierarchy that, despite everything, love each other. While the film is deliberately ambiguous about whether Joi’s affection for K is just a manifestation of her programming, the visceral sincerity of their affection for each other on screen always cuts through that ambiguity and makes their relationship feel authentic. Every scene with the two of them together was a wondrous technical and emotional achievement on Villeneuve’s part.

(NB: although if you take the position that Joi is just a glorified interactive dakimakura, you might be of the opinion that the relationship has chauvinist undertones. But I’m kind of with Daniel Dennett on the notion that there’s  probably no quantum leap between consciousness and not. If it looks, acts feels and thinks like a person, it probably is a complex enough gestalt to be person, notwithstanding that it follows some rules of engagement with respect to behaviour. Humans are no different. Can we truly be said to be free of biological programming, to love, have babies? There is probably no philosophical zombie, no Chinese Room).

And it’s that relationship, coupled with K’s own journey of attempted self-actualisation, that underlies the film’s core theme – that to be human isn’t about what you are made of, but about one’s ability to make human choices. Joi’s selflessness may be due to her programming, but if she, at some level, demonstrates her agency to choose, then she is human. Gosling’s K momentarily believes that he is the Replicant version of the Chosen One – a trueborn of his kind, with a real childhood. But when disabused of this notion and told that he is – after all, just another regular Replicant Joe – he chooses to exercise his human agency to ensure that Deckard gets to see his daughter (and that final scene where he peers through the glass to see her – that cautious but yearning look – is pure catharsis that makes K’s efforts seem even more worth it. Bravo, Harrison.) . It doesn’t matter that he, like Pinocchio, wasn’t made of flesh – his choices made him a real boy.

There is a pleasing symmetry to the first film – where the Roy and his gang fought to give themselves a future (in trying to extend their lifespans), K sought to give himself a past (by trying to find out if he was realborn, and that his implanted memories were not fake). They both failed, but in the process, their actions bequeathed them the humanity that society denied them. And the respective scenes near the end of both movies, where both K and Roy rest their weary heads, are equally emotionally charged. For while our heroes didn’t fulfill their original quests, they have self-actualised in another, very human sense.

This is something the Replicant Resistance doesn’t quite understand. Like Roy and his gang of dancing replicants, they are in a quest to give themselves humanity by fixating on its essential attributes – long life in the first film, childbirth in the second. It may break the world, but the ability to have kids doesn’t make Replicants human – even if they think it is. That is why K defies their order to kill Deckard and instead saves him – because he knows they got it all backwards. I both loved and was emotionally devastated by the film’s quite masterful sleight of hand in making audiences think K was someone special – the revelation that he was not broke me emotionally. But K pulls through his despair and does what he thinks is right, and claims his humanity even as he loses his happy ending.

Many science fiction films have played with this trope – to varying effect, but BR 2049 is one of the most compelling and emotionally resonant renditions of this theme I’ve watched on film. It’s a testament that great film can’t just appeal to the intellect, but to the heartstrings as well.

It’s not a perfect film – I thought Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace was a ham-fisted Ridley Scott-esque play at the megalomaniac corporate villain, and his ambitions to create a race of self-replicating replicants a bit wool-headed given the implications. But most notably, he is just evil for evil’s sake, lacking any human empathy or capacity for understanding that cloning someone doesn’t bring them back. He kills for expository effect, too. Just an all-around narmy clown. His Replicant henchwoman, I thought was well-executed for her role as the baddie, but I thought there was a lot of scope to make her character more complex than just being Wallace’s tool with the occasional pang of sympathy for a fellow Replicant.

But beyond that, BR 2049 does what it sets out to do so well – and with such grace, style, beauty, and economy of storytelling – yes, I think that running time is justified – that it will be taking its place in my personal list of the all-time science fiction greats.

I give this film: 5 out of 5 emanators

Baby Driver

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What it’s about: A gifted young getaway driver tries to leave his life of crime, but realises it’s harder than it looks. Mayhem ensues.

Notes:

  • Much ink has already been spilled about how this is another of Wright’s cinematographic triumphs, and I shan’t go into it too much here. Suffice to say, much of this film is not so much directed as choreographed, actors moving to the beat of an eclectic and variegated track, car chase sequences impeccably shot and edited, that makes the movie a sensorial treat on so many levels. Visually, aurally,  proprioceptively, Baby Driver delivers.
  • Or, at least, in the first half or so of the film, when it shines the brightest. The film’s best scenes are almost all in the first half, in its kineticism, its humour, its cheerfulness, and Baby’s winning, cool-kid-but-not-douchey precociousness, amidst the violence and freneticism of the car chase sequences and trigger-happy action.
  • As the film’s plot starts to go into motion, however, Baby Driver‘s unique traits – its choreographed physicality, whiplash humor – fades somewhat into the background as a more typical plotline takes over – where Baby is blackmailed into continuing his criminal activities by his erstwhile handler Doc, who threatens his girlfriend Debora and his foster parent Joseph. Heists go south with the increasingly deranged antics of the psychopathic gang member Bats, who kills at the slightest provocation, giving the film its main source of dramatic tension as we wonder when this unstable element will explode.
  • At this point, the film essentially becomes Drive, but without the sun-gold stylishness and heavy electronic beats – taciturn protagonists with assumed names raining carnage down on their enemies to save themselves and their girls from psychopathic criminals. Also, while Drive ended on a low poignant note with the Driver sacrificing his humanity to save the woman he loves, even as she distances herself from him and the things he’s done, Baby Driver has a bucolic ending and a moralistic message. Baby, the kid with a good heart who was forced to break bad, served his time in jail, and having done penance for his crimes, is clean in the eyes of the public, and most importantly, his love interest. The two films therefore share the same stylistic and dramatic beats, but have different payoffs for their respective characters. Of course, the Driver did a lot more gruesome things than Baby, though.

Verdict: With a strong, stylish and refreshing first half that unfortunately segues a little into action film generica by the finish, Baby Driver doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 iPods 

 

IT (Movie)

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What it’s about: A bunch of kids fight an evil clown (among other things) and grow closer in the process.

Notes

  • Having watched this so soon after having read the book, I obviously can’t help but compare the two. And in many ways, the movie is actually better – more taut in its storytelling, clearer in its themes, less reliant on odd plot contrivances. But, of course, the hoariness and bloat of the book is part of its dreadful charm. Reading IT, unlike watching it, immersed you in a dark tangled forest of fear, something a 2 hour movie could never quite reach.
  • The book is also replete with a depth of lore, of tangential anecdotes of the city and its inhabitants and their deep dark secrets, making the city of Derry one of the main characters of the book, when in the movie the idea of Derry as a place steeped in that miasma of contagious psychic evil doesn’t really come through. And of course, the interweaving and simultaneous plot threads featuring the characters as children and as adults, with all the intratextual delightfulness that brings, becomes a movie entirely focusing on the children, with the second chapter an as-yet unconfirmed (but highly probable) sequel.
  • Viscerally, IT isn’t actually all that groundbreaking a horror movie. It has all the tropes – CG jump scares, an overreliance on a blaring orchestral score to signal scary moments, characters acting stupid and wandering off alone in dangerous places, and of course, clowns (though Stan Uri’s fear, the Thin Woman Judith, is pretty scary). What sets IT apart is not the quality of its horror, but rather how convincingly it portrays the struggles of adolescence, of childhood friendships, (potty-mouthed) banter, and solidarity, using the horror as a foil to bind its characters together. It’s a formula that works, and now that I’ve read and watched IT, I know why Stranger Things evokes such a pang of familiarity – the It story is a near-perfect evocation of that archetype of youthful friendship in adversity.
  • As for Pennywise himself, stripped of the story of his origins (which might come in the next instalment), he actually comes across as a rather one-dimensional villain, because his motives are never really explored in the film. He’s just a supernatural shapeshifting creep with a taste for scared children. Bill Skarsgard does his darndest to come up with a unique and scary interpretation of the character, all yellow-eyed, double-jointed, drooling menace, but in a way, Pennywise’s insanity is just animalistic – it doesn’t quite have that intelligent, twisted cruelty that Pennywise has in the book, in which he delights in tormenting and stalking his prey, not just through jump scares, but through psychological torment as well. But maybe that’ll come in the second instalment.

Verdict: Don’t expect to be too scared if you’re a horror veteran (I’m not and I wasn’t that  scared), and Pennywise himself doesn’t quite get to the stratospheric heights of scariness that I was expecting, but watch anyway for a near-perfect evocation of adolescent friendship.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 pills

 

 

Kedi

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What it’s about: A documentary about the lives of the cats that roam around Istanbul, and the relationships that they have with each other and the humans that know them.

Notes

  • I’m of two minds about this documentary. On one hand, it’s a cute, beautifully composed romp through the lives of a number of cats that inhabit the streets and byways of Istanbul. On the other, however, it really isn’t much more than that. It tries to be. Most of its narration comprises the musings and benedictions of the Istanbul residents that look after these cats. They talk about how the cats have changed their lives, how they bring out the best and worst in people, and how they are themselves people-like in their character and actions. But the nuggets of insight grow thin after a while.
  • This is ultimately a documentary that outlasts its welcome. Its first half hour is everything you’d expect a documentary about cats to be. But it repeats itself and its platitudes over and over because it doesn’t have a narrative arc to guide its progression.
  • The cats are all distinct personalities, sure, but there is a sense of there being little follow-through – the documentary is a snapshot of each cat’s lives, but their stories are truncated before they have a chance to impress themselves upon us – the cat never catches the mouse.
  • The film does make me want to visit Istanbul, though – just because it makes it seem like such a welcoming city, one in which the street cat is recognised and appreciated for their tenacity and resourcefulness and in which they become part of the cultural and historical fabric of the city.

Verdict: Beautifully shot and full of cute cats, Kedi lacks a compelling narrative arc to sustain the many undeveloped vignettes of its feline stars, and ultimately becomes a bit of a repetitive slog towards the end.

I give this: 3 out of 5 cats