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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reading/Watching Log #5

It's been a rather slow month on the reading/watching front. I only read two books (there was a time I could manage twice that in a single week!) and watched a handful of movies, including Captain America: Civil War. It's one of only two Marvel films I've seen in theatres, and the only movie I've ever been to in which the audience applauded at the end.
Indian Summers came to an untimely end, which is disappointing considering it had a five-year plan, but apparently its ratings couldn't compete against The Night Manager. I also remain (somewhat idiotically) faithful to Merlin by tracking down another cast member's projects, and sought out another – somewhat obscure – reiteration of the Superman mythos.

The Riverman by Aaron Starmer
This was a book that caught me off guard based on just how creepy it got towards the end. Like most psychological thrillers (though in this case one that's wrapped up in a quasi-fairytale narrative) it keeps you guessing as to what's real and what's not – but which is all the more unsettling since the book is aimed at young adults.
It makes good use of a Vanilla Protagonist, in which Alistair Cleary's first-person narrative is just a way to introduce the reader to his more interesting neighbour Fiona Loomis. Knowing Alistair is both trustworthy and a good writer, Fiona comes to his house one day and asks him to write her biography, spinning a tale that he believes is a coping mechanism for some trauma going on in her life.
According to her, she visits a world in her dreams that can be reshaped into anything her imagination can conjure up, and (in true fantasy world tradition) no matter how long she stays there, she returns to the exact same moment she left. Other children have similar worlds that can be constructed at will, but some of her friends have recently disappeared – systematically hunted down by an entity known as the Riverman. Her decision to have Alistair write her biography is due to her fear that the Riverman will claim her next.
There are plenty of twists and turns in this book, and it's difficult to really capture its atmosphere. Reading my summary you'll either think it's a horror/thriller or a fantasy/adventure, and it's really not. It examines the power of stories, the dysfunctionality of families, the complex nature of relationships – and ends on a note that somehow made me both thankful and disappointed that it's the first of a trilogy.
The Door to Where by Sally Gardner
This was a book that was diverting enough while it lasted, and completely forgettable once it was done. AJ Flynn leaves high school with only one GCSE, and yet manages to land a job at a prestigious law firm. It soon becomes obvious that his employers have a vested interest in his family tree, as while organizing their records he finds a key that's clearly marked with his name and date of birth. It unlocks a door that leads to London in 1830, which opens up a world of possibilities for AJ – if he can take advantage of them.
Sally Gardner is a reasonably prolific author, but this isn't one of her best offerings. The plot is divided into two main strands: AJ trying to solve the mystery of his family and attempting to help his delinquent friends – but because the dual storylines only sporadically intersect, whichever one you're least interested in will feel superfluous.
As vividly as Gardner portrays London in the 19th century, she never really captures the wonder of time travel or the opportunities that AJ could potentially seize. It's hardly a bad book by any means, just a slightly uninspired one. I spent most of it wishing I was reading Tom's Midnight Garden instead.
Babies (2010)
If you had told me I'd ever willingly settle down to watch a documentary about babies I probably would have laughed in your face. But Thomas Balm├Ęs's completely non-sentimental look at four babies from around the world (growing from infancy to toddlerhood across the course of the film) is surprisingly engrossing.
Hattie from San Francisco, Mari from Tokyo, Bayar from Mongolia and Ponijao from Namibia are all going to grow up to be very different human beings, but in their earliest years each of them – regardless of gender, race or background – were equally fascinated with the world around them.
The film is as much about cultural differences as it is a baby's first few years, with some clever editing that dramatically contrasts the difference in their lives. For instance, a scene of Hattie on a scooter and her father's ensuing panic when it careens out of control segues into Bayar calmly playing alongside goats three times bigger than he is, without any indication of any adult supervision.
There's no narration or subtitles for other languages and nearly everything is shot from a baby's point-of-view, making it an immersive and unique viewing experience.
The Throwaways (2015)
My loyalty to the Merlin cast continues, even as it leads me to stuff like this. Drew Reynolds is a hacker with the ability to tap really fast on keyboards and single-handedly dismantle terrorist organizations. The CIA track him down and offer him a deal: go to jail, or help them find an encryption key that could ... I dunno, destroy the world or something. It doesn’t really matter.
Drew isn't interested in helping out, and so recruits a bunch of losers who are guaranteed to fail in their mission, thereby letting him off the hook. Wow. There are flawed characters and then there's this guy, who belongs in jail for pulling a stunt like that. Yet weirdly enough, we're still meant to actually like Drew, played by Sam Huntington with the exactly the sort of breathlessly distraught, socially awkward yet astoundingly witty manner you'd expect from a character like this.
Katie McGrath (the reason I tuned in) plays a spy who uses her sex appeal to get results, is subsequently disrespected by her employers, and feels really sad about it. The rest of the team are comprised of the ultra-violent hitman with no self-control, the Russian with the goofy accent/facial hair, and the jerkish team leader.
Okay, so it's not totally horrendous and there are a few fun bits – but also some comedy that just feels cruel. Like when they break into a top secret base and end up machine-gunning down the staff who were hiding in anticipation of a colleague's surprise birthday party. We get to watch them all die in slow-motion in a rain of confetti. Go team?
Legion of Superheroes: Season One (2007)
I've no idea what compelled me to track this down; all I know is that I watched a couple of episodes back when it first aired on television and then promptly forgot about it. Yet a couple of weeks ago I was seized by the compulsion to watch it again.
The premise is surprisingly complex in a number of ways. In the 31st century the Legion of Superheroes is struggling against an enemy they can't defeat, leading to three of its members travelling back in time to find Clark Kent in his pre-Superman days. Whisking him away into the future, they inform him of the great destiny laid before him, and how he's currently revered as a legend.
After assisting in the initial fight against their enemies, Clark decides to stay in the future, knowing that he can return to his own time at the exact moment he left it. It's a promising setup, with plenty of potential for some timey-wimey fun, but for some reason the writing doesn't delve into it very deeply.
If you were catapulted over a thousand years into the future and learned that during your own lifetime you were famous enough to get a museum built in your honour, you'd be rather curious to learn more, wouldn't you? Yet apart from one episode in which Clark does try to investigate his past (or technically, his future – time travel is confusing that way) there's really nothing done with the premise.
Despite his initial curiosity, he's continually told he can't learn anything about Superman's legacy so as to maintain the integrity of the time-stream. Fair enough I suppose, expect that such reasoning feels more like a handwave so the writers don't have to deal with it, instead focusing on superhero adventures in the distant future. Again, not a bad thing to build a show around, but why involve Superman? Most of the time he comes across as rather superfluous.
The rest of the team have some great character designs, but there's a definite hierarchy when it comes to which ones have story precedence, and not a huge amount of depth to any of them. (That they're almost always referred to by their codenames pretty much sums it up).
And of course, there's the inevitable presence of the arrogant, headstrong, dick-measuring braggado, who really has no business whatsoever being on a team, since absolutely everything always has to be about him. Naturally, the lead female's understandable exasperation with his attitude leads to her apologizing when he "comes through" for the team in their time of need, even though it's nothing that isn't expected of every other teammate. Urgh, I hate these types of characters.  
(Also, the cover art on the DVD is irritating - there are three girls on the team, but none of them appear on the cover).
In all, not too inspiring, but a couple of standalone episodes are fun, and the animation is suitably colourful and stylistic. Perhaps I'll catch up on season two in the near future.
Indian Summers: Season Two (2016)
I gave the first season of Indian Summers an extensive review and was fully planning to do the same for its second, only to be let down by what it had to offer. I've noticed this a lot with original television – after all, any first season of a show gets plenty of time for its writers to carefully plan and plot out storylines, whilst the crafting of the second season clearly has time limitations in place.
Mostly it failed in its inability to properly connect with what had been previously established. The first season left us with two tantalizing promises: first that Aafrin had wriggled his way into Ralph's trust while secretly declaring his loyalty to Indian independence, and second that Cynthia was about to unleash all the power of her vindictive mind on the unsuspecting Alice, who she has pegged as the source of all her woe.
The show doesn't follow through on either development. With most of the political drama replaced with star-crossed relationships, the show feels as though it's lost interest in itself. The idea of Aafrin caught between loyalty to his country and his love for Alice is completely downplayed, and his fascinating rapport with Ralph (one of respect and empathy, but also deep resentment and deception) is all but ignored. The seething dislike Cynthia held toward Alice is quickly swept under the rug when she becomes an unlikely ally in the face of Charlie Havistock's psychological abuse, going so far as to enable the Aafrin/Alice affair by providing them with a room to secretly rendezvous in.
And poor Sooni, once a staunch idealist and defender of her nation, now has little to do but navigate the tepid waters of a love triangle.
Then there are the weird creative decisions. For instance, the last time we saw Dougie and Sarah their marriage was over in all but name, with Sarah heading back to England and Dougie remaining at the missionary with the implication he would enter a relationship with Leena. And yet this season opens three years later to find Leena homeless, Dougie reconciled with Sarah, and Sarah heavily pregnant. It's such a massive overhaul from where we last left them that it practically renders their entire first season arc completely pointless.
Ralph, a high-ranking British official is apparently so catastrophically in debt that he has to guilt-trip his wife into sleeping with an Indian prince to help advance his bid for Viceroy. Alice's husband is such a raging lunatic that it's impossible to visualize any sort of scenario in which she'd agree to marry him in the first place. Dougie is killed in a bomb blast, but the aftermath is so inconsequential that it honestly took me half an episode to realize he was dead.
Perhaps I'm being too critical, for the truth is I very much enjoyed Indian Summers – but it simply wasn't as engaging this time around, and when the news came through that it wouldn’t be renewed for a third season, I lost quite a lot of my will to see it through to the finish line. Still I'm glad I did, as it ends on a reasonably satisfying note for the characters I cared most about – and yet knowing that it fell to the dreaded two season curse (basically: good enough to get renewed once, unable to maintain enough stamina to do it twice) means I'll be leaving it behind with a deep sense of regret.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
This is the only the second Marvel film I've seen in cinemas (the other being Age of Ultron, which I only went to because it was my friend's birthday) and I'll freely admit to being only a casual fan of the franchise. But I had heard enough buzz about Civil War to cough up the ten dollars required to see it on the big screen – even if it meant having to sit in the front row. Ow, my neck!
And it was... good. I enjoyed it. Let's face it, there are so many metas and essays out there that there's very little I can add to the conversation at this stage, especially as someone who has no particular investment in the characters or storylines. But I thought the Russo brothers did a great job of balancing their massive cast, making sure each character had at least one "fuck yeah!" moment, and setting up the board for the next lot of movies.
I suppose I should state some sort of preference for either Team Iron Man or Team Cap, though I feel some of the setup was a little disingenuous. In any sane world a group like the Avengers would obviously have to be held accountable to some sort of government body – it's a complete no-brainer. So in a bid to even the scales of the argument and create the necessary conflict, the film has to add things like a "shoot to kill" manhunt of Bucky, and the dissenting Avengers being thrown into an underwater prison without trial, and the whole thing being manipulated by shadowy villain.
It comes down to this: any attempt to inflict real-world politics upon a superhero story only highlights the fact that in real life the concept of superheroes (or vigilante justice) just doesn't work. So why not just keep the politics out of your story and have fun with making the good guys fight an alien invasion? Oh, that's what Infinity Wars is all about? Okay, great.  
The best part for me was Black Panther, who was arguably the only character who got actual development in this movie, and I'm definitely looking forward to his solo outing in 2017. Spiderman on the other hand? Meh. Black Widow and Scarlet Witch were treated better than in Age of Ultron (though still not excellently) but I thought Hawkeye was a bit negligible. I was super-relieved Rhodey wasn't killed off, really enjoyed Ant Man's cameo, and loved the animosity between Sam/Bucky.
As someone who doesn't give two shits about any of the shipping that goes on in this franchise, I thought Steve/Sharon was a bit out of left-field, especially when an embrace would have gotten the same reaction from Bucky/Sam that the kiss scene was clearly designed for. I'm certainly not opposed to Sam/Sharon, so why not let it slow burn a while longer?
But my biggest caveat would have to be that (hoo boy, unpopular opinion time!) I don't really care about Bucky or fully grasp the depth of the relationship he's meant to have with Steve. I know that they were friends as kids, and I know that they fought together in the war, but I also feel that I've been told rather than shown this. I like Sebastian Stan, and I can feel empathy for what happened to Bucky – but Steve's friendships with Natasha and Sam feel a lot more genuine to me. He's more of a plot-point than a character, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing were it not for the fact he's also the lynchpin of the entire movie.  Knowing that the original third instalment of the Captain America trilogy was meant to revolve around the hunt for Bucky makes me wish that film had been given the chance to get made.

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