Isle of Dogs


Isle of Dogs is an impressive technical achievement and a freshly original work of genre fiction. It’s a shame, though, that it doesn’t really live up to the potential of its imaginative premise.

The premise is something that could come out of a weirdly fixated fever-dream. The dog-hating mayor of a futuristic (yet Edo-era more-wise) Japanese city exiles the city’s canine population to an island of trash due to a spreading animal epidemic. But the mayor’s ward intrepidly mounts an expedition to the island on a sputtering plane to save his beloved pet, the first to be consigned. On the island, he meets a pack of dogs led by their surly and resentful leader, a stray named Chief, who reluctantly agrees to help him look for his lost dog.

The classic boy-meets-dog plot-line is at the centre of this film – but there are also a medley of other narrative strands vying for our attention – from the parallel story of the exchange student who leads a revolution against the corrupt establishment, to the adventures of the various dogs around the island as they get separated. The film weaves these strands together in well-coordinated fashion but the pace feels frenetic (especially given the lightning fast quips and dry humor that are Wes Anderson signatures) and important plot elements are easy to miss because they flash by so fast.

To some degree, the frantic pace also comes at the expense of the film having a truly believable emotional core. The aloof Chief warms to Atari much too fast; while he is a dog, he is far too emotionally rich a character in his own right for his rapid transformation into loyal hound to be seen as anything but contrived. Then there are other plot reversals later on that just happen without much buildup and therefore feel out of place, like mayor Kobayashi’s sudden moral about-face near the end. Was he, perhaps, simply dutifully obliging his family’s anti-dog hatred? I don’t know – it all happened much too fast to appreciate.

There’s also the much-discussed question about whether or not Isle of Dogs insensitively propagates negative stereotypes of Japan. To some extent, I think it does – there’s the surface level stuff, like how everyone’s so regimental and subservient, how the denizens are pretty much a mob that sways according to the prevailing political sentiment, the sumo wrestling and the rampant corruption (and weirdly undemocratic means of electing mayors). There’s also how it takes a classic tenkousei – a white, American exchange student – as the vanguard of a revolution – activating obvious White Savior tropes. The bottom line is that in this movie, ostensibly set in Japan, much more could be done not to give the appearance that the denizens of Japan have no agency in their own fate.

But I suspect this is all whingeing about a problem that honestly isn’t particularly major – especially to Japanese people themselves. The film allegedly hired cultural consultants to ensure that the script had a culturally authentic flair. And I suspect also that in general, Japanese have a much more cavalier attitude about cultural appropriation in film – they do it all the time, after all.

I give this: 3.5/5 bags of food trash


A Midsummer’s Equation


An enjoyably intriguing detective thriller, but not the best I’ve read from Higashino.

A Midsummer’s Equation features the recurring character of Manabu Yukawa, the eccentric but brilliant physicist and sometime-detective who features in many of Higashino’s Detective Galileo works (and who also, like many such characters, tends to find himself implicated in these crimes almost purely by happenstance).

Equation reads like your run of the mill murder mystery – a man is killed in an otherwise idyllic if fading  seaside resort town, the police scramble and bark up the wrong tree, while Yukawa quietly goes about his own sleuthing, his eccentric nature the perfect rationale for why he never chooses to edify the authorities until the last minute. It’s much more straightforward than the howdunit narrative structure of The Devotion of Suspect X or the heartrending originality of Naoko. 

There are some interesting elements, though – like how one of the main point of view characters is a child named Kyohei who forms a close bond with Yukawa and who later turns out to have an unexpected connection to the case. Higashino takes some time to develop that relationship between the two, which does lead to a satisfying emotional payoff at the end.

And the narrative does have a few red herrings here and there – the entire pretext of why Yukawa is there is to provide technical expertise for a planned undersea mining project that has the locals up in arms. I thought at first that the murder might have been motivated by something to do with that particular fight, but the real story turned out to be a lot smaller and soap-operatic in its scope.

While the soap opera tinge does feel ever so slightly overwrought – ascribing somewhat larger-than-life motives to people that might not otherwise be expected to have given their characterization – the precise structuring of the mystery and the slow, methodical and ultimately satisfying experience of seeing how all the pieces fit together in unexpected ways is classic Higashino.

Ultimately, A Midsummer’s Equation isn’t as unique as Higashino’s other works in a way that differentiates it from other detective fiction I’ve read, but it is still a book that displays Higashino’s sleuthing mind in top form.

I give this: 4/5 paintings of East Hari Cove

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime


Lovers in A Dangerous Spacetime is a game with a saccharine aesthetic and a simple premise. You pilot a ship across brightly colored expanses of outer space and try to save cosmic bunnies while blowing up enemies.

There isn’t much of a story beyond some vague intimations about a fight between the forces of love and anti-love; obviously the players are the lovers and the enemy sprites are anti-love. The aesthetic is beautiful, with different campaigns having different types of “space terrain” that create gameplay variation – one campaign might feature floating spheres of water that refract weaponry; another, in an icy space cavern, might feature icy gales that push your ship. There are enemies that are covered in impenetrable ice unless you shoot nearby stars, causing them to emit ice-melting bolts of plasma. And despite the premise, some levels can get downright creepy at times – with neutron stars and, at the end of one chapter, a creepy skull-faced berserker boss whose eyes glow a malignant green.

Ship components are upgradeable by collecting different jewels; installing a jewel and mixing and matching different jewels gives rise to different types of weapons, engines and shields. Collect a metal gem and your dinky laser pea-shooter becomes a spiked flail; mix it up with a beam gem and the flail transforms into a flail that shoots frickin’ laser beams out of itself. Upgrades could come in the form of an engine that fires powerful beams that kill enemies but propels you in the opposite direction, or shields that just keep accreting enemy projectiles. The various options are quite creative and the many possible combinations of upgrades make for a nice element of discovery in the game.

That said, what really elevates this above a conventional albeit beautiful 2D platformer is the ability to play the game on the couch with friends. Each of you operates a different part of the ship – one on the engines, another on shields, and yet others manning the various turrets at each cardinal direction. Some degree of teamwork is involved between everyone to get the ship where it needs to go, and in some cases, orient it to help turreteers kill enemies or achieve objectives.

It’s quite an elegant idea that really adds complexity and replayability to what would otherwise be a pretty but short game; at only four chapters of 5 relatively short missions each. I think this really is the way it’s meant to be played (the “lovers” premise bears it out too), and I couldn’t imagine it playing it any other way, to be honest.

I give this: 4 out of 5 healing planets

Iron Gold (Red Rising #4)


Iron Gold is where the Red Rising series sheds its remaining adolescence and emerges in the full flower of its adulthood.

We’ve come far since the YA-inspired beats of the original Red Rising, with its Hunger Games style conflict set in a totalitarian, class-based society. Our protagonist, Darrow, has turned from precocious teen to a force of nature, a towering figure of revolution, in the span of the three books that tell his story from his own perspective.

Iron Gold is the first of a new trilogy of books, set 10 years after the fall of the Society. It’s a familiar refrain commonly employed in novels of this type; maintaining the peace is just as hard as waging war.

Brown emphasises this by telling the story from four different perspectives – Darrow whose quest to annihilate the Society carries him down a dark path; Lyria, a Red whose family is killed in the everyday chaos; Ephraim, a former Grey claims inspector turned mastermind criminal who gets caught up in a vast underworld scheme; and Lysander, the prince in exile. The characters inhabit spaces in this universe that hitherto were just hinted at in the original trilogy, and experience things that show us that even amidst the liberation of society from Gold, privation and conflict still exist, generating conflict, opening new societal fissures, and giving some the chance to profit off the corruption of the system.

Brown isn’t afraid to tear down in Iron Gold what he spent the first three books building up. What Darrow is forced to experience in the course of his character arc will be upsetting to those who hoped to see him lead a happier existence after Morning Star. Threats to the new order emerge, long stratagems to undermine the fledgling Republic bear fruit, and things are frankly looking grim by the end.

It’s not quite escapism because it is so unrelentingly grim, although Brown’s worldbuilding is as top notch as ever, painting the cityscapes of Hyperion, the idyllic islands of Venus, and the acid-swept plains of Ios in larger-than-life brushstrokes; a modern sf writer’s answer to planetary romance. The Japanese-inspired asceticism of the Rim Dominion is a study in cultural appropriation that somehow doesn’t feel as pandering as it could have been, just because of Brown’s skill in syncretising his fictional cultures from many inspirations. Certainly not as bombastic as the Greco-Roman pretensions of Gold society.

Iron Gold has also shed any pretension at being a young adult novel, with rough language and mature themes speckled about. Yes, I know it’s ironic given that the first trilogy featured heaps of violence and gore atop the saccharine tweeny-romancing and bruised male egos, but that’s the calculus society operates on nowadays when deciding what’s adult. And Iron Gold has crossed that particular Rubicon.

After all that fulsomeness, it may perhaps come as a surprise to say that I didn’t quite enjoy the book as much as I did previous offerings in the series. While the world is beautifully crafted and expanded, it does take a while for the story to pick up as we slowly get used to the new characters (and the book assumes the reader continues to be intimately familiar with the characters – a pre-novel recap would have been useful). And the outlook of the novel is so unrelentingly grim that I’ll approach reading the next one with a little bit of trepidation. Perhaps Brown might have dialled up the sense of unrelenting threat a tad too much?

Ultimately, though, those admittedly subjective sentiments don’t detract from Iron Gold’s well-deserved kudos as bringing new life and depth to the burgeoning Red Rising universe. Just wish there were a bit of light in the darkness.

I give this: 4 out of 5 railgun pistols

Avengers: Infinity War

avengers-infinity-war***Obviously, spoilers***

Infinity War is legit one of the best movies Marvel’s made in years, on account of the many things it dares to do differently from its predecessors.

I imagine a movie like this must be a daunting and frankly terrifying undertaking for everyone involved in its production. Not only is it probably one of the most expensive films ever made on account of its immense star power, it is also the culmination of a decade’s worth of Marvel films, a tentpole that needs to live up to the crushing weight of expectations of legions of moviegoers.

Luckily, Marvel had the sense to deploy their A-team on this endeavor. The Russo brothers have directed some of the best Marvel films in the MCU – Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War are two of the better ones in the pantheon – and their cinematic craft is on full display in Infinity War. While it has the usual committee-approved quip-based humor and pandering fanservice in spades, Infinity War stands above the pack by virtue of two things: first, it has a great villain, and second, it’s not afraid to end on a low note.

First, the villain. Of all the MCU baddies introduced so far, I think Thanos probably is the best we’ve got so far – and yes, that includes the ridiculously-named Killmonger. Thanos, while twisted and genocidal, at least has a motive that isn’t self-serving, even as it dwarfs everything in its hubris and enormity – and Thanos feels like it is his duty to do the things that no one else is willing to do. It’s an interesting conceit to give to a villain and I haven’t seen any other movie featuring a villain with a misplaced messiah complex handled in the way Thanos is.

In another context, his efforts and the sacrifices he is willing to make to achieve his goals could well have been the actions of a very complex anti-hero. And unlike the megalomaniacal cackling villains of popular imagination, Thanos is portrayed here as a character first and foremost and an antagonist second – with a full range of emotions, rabidly powerful yet vulnerable, with the ability to feel the weight of what he has wrought.

Second, the film dares to end things on a low note. Infinity War ends with half the universe vanished from existence, including a good half of the Avengers, leaving the audience in something that isn’t quite a cliffhanger as it is a kind of despair over what happens now, that Thanos’ victory is so complete. The scenes where some of our heroes react with horror as they see themselves fade into dust are tragic and impactful in their existential dreadfulness. Imagine – a superhero film that doesn’t treat death as cavalierly as it is wont to do. It’s a bit different from a cliffhanger because from Thanos’ point of view – as a main character in his own right – the battle is won, and he sits at his hut and watches the sun rise on a beautiful pastoral planet. That moment really speaks to what a different film this is – one in which the bad guy wins – and retires in peace in the belief that he has achieved his life’s work. I didn’t think that splitting the Infinity War story in two would necessarily work – but I think choosing to end the film off on that kind of note is an inspired creative choice.

Of course, one could argue that it’s cheapened a little by the fact that we know that the sequels of the films of characters who ended up disappearing are going to be released in the next few years – so you know they’ll come back in some shape or form. But I think Infinity War should be judged on the way that it is constructed to make you think that there is no hope and that this is it, at least for a number of our characters.

There are the usual plotholes and things-unexplained; the variable power of the Infinity Stones, the fact that the stupidity of one hot-headed Peter Quill was directly responsible for Thanos winning, Gamora acting dumb by leading Thanos to the soulstone and not realising what he intends until its too late – they’re there, but no Marvel film really escapes these things. Better to watch the films prepared to avoid nitpicking too much into the details.

But all in all – a stellar superhero film; one that humanises its Big Bad, dares to try to come off with high stakes, and that manages to weave in so many different storylines – on Earth, in space, on Titan – in only slightly frenetic fashion – to make a film that, I think, does live up to the weight of expectation placed upon it by the legions of its fans. Now we will wait and see if the next Avengers film can accomplish an even more immense task – to wrap everything up satisfactorily without cheapening this film.

Oh, and the stellar forge scenes – and the hilariously gigantic dwarf played by Peter Dinklage – are awe inspiring.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 Infinity Stones



The Good Place (Season #2)



Season 2 of The Good Place takes the series into a higher plane of thematic inquiry – no mean feat when following the footsteps of the first.

Season 1 saw Eleanor Shellstrop try oh-so-hard to be good in order to earn her spot in the Good Place. Helped by would-be paragons of virtue, Chidi and Tahani, she genuinely improved – but at the end of the season, it was all revealed to be a sham. The Good Place was the Bad Place, and its raison d’etre was to pilot a whole new form of eternal torment – Sartre’s conception of hell as other people.

For a long time, Season 1’s episodes had to contend with the fact that instrumental morality – i.e. acting good to get into heaven – was an incomplete kind of goodness; a conditional virtue that was only the means to a self-serving end. When Eleanor finally pierces the veil of that illusion, therefore, there was a kind of unsurprising note to it in the midst of the audience shock. The logic of redemption in this ostensibly perfect afterlife couldn’t fly, therefore the only conclusion was that the Good Place wasn’t really what it was cracked up to be.

The second season deepens the show’s inquiry about what it means to be good – and it’s not as simple as doing good deeds, because, as shown in the first season, good deeds may be motivated by corrupt intentions, which inherently cheapen the exercise of them. The show needs a higher reason for why be good – one that is independent of expectation of reward, or fear of punishment.

At first, the second season seems like a rinse and repeat of the first – as we see Michael resetting the Good Place hundreds of times, wiping the memories of our four human protagonists each time as he tries to make his psychological torture simulator work. Eleanor keeps trying to be good; she keeps figuring it out – and Michael keeps having to try again. Soon, Michael realises his failures will earn him retirement at the hands of his unimpressed demon boss, and he hatches a plan to cooperate with the four humans to somehow find a way to escape to the only place there is to go – the Real Good Place.

What starts at first as a kind of quid pro quo arrangement deepens across the length of the season as Michael learns how to be more human, and the humans themselves grow closer to each other and to Michael, united in singular purpose to escape to the Good Place. And that’s the key, really, to how they become the better people that they need to be to get there. They become motivated to do better because they have awakened an innate desire to treat those close to them with dignity, and become a team.

Eventually, through some means, they escape through the Bad Place into a limbo area where the humans appeal to a Judge (played fulsomely by Maya Rudolph) to be let into the real Good Place. The Judge gives them somewhat superficial trials to ascertain if they truly have risen above the traits that sent them to the Bad Place in the first place. Only Eleanor (surprise!) passes. Yet, she stands in solidarity with her friends and opts not to go to the Good Place without them. Before the Judge can send them on their way, though, Michael arrives and pleads for a final intercession – to allow the humans to be tested in a way that can prove they are capable of becoming better people without being motivated by expectation of reward. The Judge agrees, and the humans are returned to the real world, memories wiped, where the accidents that would have killed them were averted, to see if they will actually improve as people without the knowledge of the afterlife.

The way the series comes full circle again to focus on this notion of goodness without reward as being a function of our innate desire to treat each other with respect, and basing the entire premise of the show on the bonds that its characters form with each other to that end, is elegantly and beautifully constructed. Not only is it an uplifting moral message, it gives the show its sheer humanity – as the characters try to become better by deeds, for an end, they get better as people by awakening their innate capacity for empathy and friendship. And of all the characters, it is Eleanor who understands this the best – precisely because her great sin was her former selfishness and lack of regard for others, borne out of abandonment issues as a child. She gets what needs to be done by remembering who she once was, and getting away from that.

By contrast, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason don’t quite have as perfectly formed moral arcs – they are still, actually, the same people they were, just more cognisant of their situation. Chidi is still plagued by crippling, destructive indecisiveness, Tahani still conceited, and Jason still brainlessly, childishly amoral. One wonders how, or if, they will figure out how to be better in the simulated (?) confines of the real world in Season 3. If there ever was a better setup for a tremendously satisfying third season, I haven’t come across it.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 burritos




Aggretsuko (Season #1)


A wonderfully fleshed-out foray into the world of Sanrio’s most relatable character.

A while back, Sanrio, through an English-language campaign, brought Aggretsuko to the attention of the Anglophone world. Everyone went gaga over the cutely relatable red panda who regularly dealt with the ennui and frustrations of her deskbound existence by belting out heavy metal ballads during solo karaoke singing sessions.

Although Retsuko’s daily tribulations were chronicled in a long series of animated shorts, their reach was limited as they were never (to my knowledge) actually released in English. They were also standalone, independently-existing vignettes that lightheartedly painted her character in broad strokes but never got down to interrogating her motivations.

This new Netflix production offers a much more narratively coherent view of Retsuko and her colleagues, fleshing them out much more fully as characters and introducing a modicum of tension into what were previously just played for humor. For example, Retsuko’s boss, Ton-bucho (Pork-section chief) is no longer portrayed merely as a slightly crass and sexist Japanese boss stereotype but as a genuinely troubling workplace harasser who might have been moulded into what he is today by a lifetime of bad examples.

Retsuko herself is also a lot more nuanced – her struggles come from an actual place of ennui and disappointment that life hasn’t turned out the way she expected, and aren’t just played for laughs. And it’s not just Retsuko – even her more put-together yoga friends, Washimi and Gori, who outwardly appear to be the epitome of successful corporate women, have their own insecurities and whimsies, though certainly they have the added perspective of age and status.

In the episodic series, Retsuko’s rage-fueled karaoke sessions were punchlines. In the Netflix series, they’re part of her coping mechanism, her source of solace, and emblematic of her isolated existence. But they’re also part of her authentic self, and consequently, when she does make friends, she starts to reveal that self to them, turning it from coping mechanism to source of strength.

Sure, the animation may be crude, the episode lengths short, and some of the secondary characters little more than rank stereotypes, but Aggretsuko really is a shockingly adult and relatable gem that perfectly captures the lived experiences of a generation of deskbound millennials.

I given this: 4 out of 5 tightly-sealed jars