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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reading/Watching Log #12

Well thank God that's over.
How do you even sum up 2016? With the terrorist attacks in Nice, Munich, Brussels, Orlando, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East? With the political landscape that consistently proved racism, misogyny, xenophobia and fear are still powerful tools in acquiring power? With the carnage in Aleppo? With the deaths of so many shining lights that did their best to bring hope, awareness and positive change to the world, including Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Harper Lee, Muhammed Ali, Anton Yelchin, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Kenny Baker, Ron Glass, Debbie Reynolds and too many others to list here?
On a personal level, the year was marked by the death of my great-aunt and my reaction to it – which was not good. I was on mild anti-depressants for a while after undergoing what I can only describe as a prolonged existential crisis (everyone jokes about having them, but they're bloody awful to go through).
It's difficult to even look forward to the coming year, knowing that the next leader of the free world is a narcissistic buffoon whose taking of office emboldens all manner of disgusting hate groups.
But if there's one thing my 2016 experience taught me, it's this: It ended. I got better. The world kept turning.
And although the last twelve months brought a lot of shit, we don't yet know what else it brought. The first female president of the United States may have gotten an A+ on her political history paper this year. The future parents of the child who will one day find the definitive cure for cancer could have bumped into each other on the street. A story that will change the life of millions might have planted its seed in the boy or girl who will one day write it. Someone may have carried out a simple act of kindness that will eventually have world-wide ramifications.
We don't know yet – we're just going to have to stick around to find out.

Legally Blonde: The Musical
Yes, I went to see this with my old high school friend and it was GREAT. Lots of pink, lots of dancing and singing, lots of miniskirts, perhaps a few too many "oh my gawds", but also the presence of real dogs (a Chihuahua and bulldog respectively) that nearly brought the house down. As it happens, Chihuahuas have inherently funny faces: they're just so nonchalant, even when they're tucked under a woman's arm as she sings and dances with a chorus line on stage.
I was surprised at just how closely it adhered to the plot of the movie; any differences were in fleshing out the story rather than omitting it: there's an extended scene in which Elle actually has to study to get the grades for Harvard (missing out on several parties in the meantime), a song in which Elle takes Emmett shopping for some decent clothes (which doubles as a Falling in Love Montage), and the courtroom drama partly playing out in a shower when they prove Chutney must have lied about her perm (rather than just force a confession).
Other than that, it's pretty much the movie on stage! The girl-power angle is present and accounted for, as is the insistence on female solidarity and the warning against judging at face value. I wasn't sure whether they'd include Professor Callahan's pass at Elle or Vivian's turnaround, but it's all there – along with Paulette having a rather weird obsession with Ireland. Seriously, she gets a solo about it and everything.
The theatre had been decked out with pink seat covers, a lot of neat staging tricks were managed with a revolving stage, and we had a great audience as well. It's one of those shows that causes eye-rolls in conversation (I remember The Soup making relentless fun of it back when it first came out), but screw it – it's a show that exists to entertain, and so it does.
Metallic Love by Tanith Lee
This is the ostensible sequel to The Silver Metal Lover which I read last month, but it's better described as a companion piece than a continuation. The premise is the same (a love affair between a mortal woman and a silver android) and a couple of familiar characters turn up, but for the most part it's more concerned with raising philosophical questions than exploring human emotions.
Loren is (in her own words) the inversion of the last book's protagonist. Where Jane was a poor little rich girl, Loren was raised in a poverty stricken cult; where Jane was emotional but steely, Loren is tough but uncertain. It's Jane's written record of her love affair with the robotic Silver that carries Loren through her childhood and adolescence, so naturally when she realizes that the META Corporation have re-engineered Silver and his ilk, she's desperate to get closer to them.
It's a strange little book, more interested in a potential robot conspiracy than any sort of love story – but that means you can't say it's just a rehash of its predecessor.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The television adaptation is just around the corner, but I really wanted to read the book upon which it's based before watching it. Having done so, my first thought was to laud the casting choices. Ricky Whittle as Shadow – perfection! Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday – bravo! When I first watched the trailer it seemed strange and off-putting; now having the read the book to provide context, it looks like an incredibly faithful and evocative interpretation of the story.
It's a Genre Busting book, as evidenced by its winning of the Hugo and Nebula awards (for sci-fi) the Lotus award (for fantasy) and the Bram Stoker award (for horror) between 2001 – 2003, and as such it can be a little hard to get a handle on. Gaiman doesn't explicitly connect any dots, though it's not difficult to grasp the identities of certain characters as they appear in the text – in fact, this is best part of the novel. When a guy turns up with a glass eye and an affinity for Wednesday, you hopefully know enough about Norse mythology to realize who he really is.
Admittedly it's a little slow to start, as for the longest time Shadow has no clear goal other than "follow Wednesday around" while struggling to understand all the bizarre things that are happening, but in true Gaiman fashion, all subplots and lose ends are slowly but surely drawn together the closer we get to the end of the book. In many ways it's vintage Gaiman, including his usual wordplay, droll humour, macabre twists, and updating of ancient stories into a contemporary setting.
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrless
You know that cake in Alice in Wonderland that has the sign "eat me" on it? This book is that cake.
There's a good chance you've never even heard of Lud-in-the-Mist, but it came to my attention years ago in the same context as Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter and John Crowley's Little, Big. Though I was able to get my hands on those, there was no sign of this book in the library catalogue, and nothing online either.
But then lo and behold, all these years later it's been reprinted and unexpectedly shelved in my very own local library. And in the words of Neil Gaiman, who advocated heavily for its republication, it's: ""the single most beautiful, solid, unearthly, and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century ... a little golden miracle of a book."
Lud-in-the-Mist is a small village haunted by the nearby presence of Faerie; fought with nothing more than the inhabitants' steadfast embracement of rationality and tradition. But when fairy fruit is smuggled into their borders, certain citizens start behaving very strangely before disappearing in ways that cannot be ignored, leaving it up to Mayor Chanticleer (a very unlikely hero) to untangle the mystery.
First published in 1926, it stands as one of the earliest novels to shape the genre, though it still reads as fresh and contemporary. It's easy enough to spot its influence on Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke (who no doubt learned her impeccable mastery of the "show don't tell" rule when it comes to faerie magic from this book), but also the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. It really is delightful, so if you love Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, then you need to get your hands on this.
Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia McKillip
Patricia McKillip is one of my favourite writers; someone whose dense prose is actually elevated by the short-story format considering it's not quite as difficult to penetrate when dealt out in smaller doses. This volume contains seven short stories (though the last is better described as a novella, and has in fact been published separately with illustrations by Brian Froud) as well as a short essay and an afterword by Peter S. Beagle.
I'm not going to provide a synopsis for each short story; suffice to say that McKillip's range is on full display here – moving from fairy tales to magical realism to even a touch of sci-fi. But what really struck me were all the allusions to the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood in The Gorgon in the Cupboard; references that would have gone completely over my head had I not watched Desperate Romantics just last month. It was a reminder that the world and its stories have a very close connection, and the more you know about both, the deeper and more interesting they each become.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Believe it or not, we watched this movie extensively in my high school English class as part of film studies, so it has a special place in my heart. It was so innovative and fresh and funny and quirky when I was fourteen years old, and watching it again all these years later, it holds up well.
The script is verifiably built of tropes, with very little surprises in how the story unfolds, yet Luc Besson knows how to fill the screen with wonders. The world-building is incredible, right down to the tiny details: huge filters on the cigarettes, apartments designed for maximum space, pellets that can be heated into large meals – all sorts of fun minutiae.
It's also a surprisingly enclosed movie. Apart from a few expansive establishing shots and the spacious hotel/theatre, a lot of the action takes place in cramped quarters: apartment, cabs, corridors, ships and boardrooms filled to the breaking point with people. It can get quite claustrophobic at times, though there's also a real sense of the numinous: Corben's awestruck reaction to the diva, or the creepy blood that drips from foreheads when "Mr Shadow" calls.
Like I said, it's a very basic "find the MacGuffin" story (in this case, four elemental stones) but the limited narrative also captures a sense of a much wider scale at work – for the first time I noticed that the "evil planet" is eventually transformed something that looks very much like our own moon, suggesting the cyclical nature of good/evil at work throughout the universe.
Oh, and for the record, I thought Chris Tucker was GREAT in this. I know he's a Base Breaker, but in my opinion he steals the show.
As a point of interest, I watched this with my mum. Halfway through she spotted a man and became utterly convinced that he was that actor who: "did the striptease and has the sticky-out ears." She called him "Chandler Tanning."
She thought he was Channing Tatum.
Batman: Bad Blood (2016)
I'm not sure what led me to this animated feature (it's usually a GIF set on Tumblr, so we'll go with that) but it ended up a fairly entertaining diversion – though I'm pretty sure it's part of a much larger animated continuity, and so by itself feels a little random.
Bruce Wayne goes missing during a battle with a group of criminals, so the extended Bat-Family rally together to cover for his absence till they can figure out what happened to him – this includes Batwoman, Nightwing, Batwing and the latest Robin, the son of Bruce and Talia al Ghul (Bruce has a son? That's news to me).
Turns out Bruce is being brainwashed by Talia and the Mad Hatter for some nefarious scheme – it's pretty standard stuff really, and I could easily imagine it as an episode of the Nineties animated series (minus a few adult scenes). Still the animation and fight scenes are really good, and it was nice to finally see Katherine Kane in action – even better, they don't gloss over her sexual orientation.  
Suicide Squad (2016)
I ended up watching the extended edition, so I have no idea how it compares to the theatrical release, but ...yeah. Watching this movie is like eating metal-flavoured candyfloss: pretty weird, oddly compelling, definitely not good for you, and leaves a tingly aftertaste.
You know the drill: after the death of Superman and in the wake of metahumans threatening the globe, ruthless Amanda Waller pushes to recruit a bunch of dangerous criminals for a "suicide squad" – disposable felons that can be sent on dangerous missions without any major concern for their safety, each one implanted with a brain device that'll be detonated if they try to escape.
It's completely unethical, and largely nonsensical too. When the supernatural threat kicks off, Amanda sends in her team – along with a bunch of SWAT soldiers who probably could have handled things pretty well on their own. Certainly better than a petite woman armed with a baseball bat. Oh, and did I mention that the threat is actually one of the individuals Amanda tried to recruit to the team?
It's basically a bunch of really interesting characters played by incredibly good actors stuck in a plot that's just wandering through empty streets and fighting faceless Mooks. While it lasts, it's mildly entertaining – but I definitely believe the reports that the script was written in just two weeks.
The Flash: Season 1 (2014)
There are so many of these shows to juggle now. I still haven't gotten around to the third season of Arrow, which runs parallel to this one, and though I started The Flash even before tackling season two of Arrow (which meant I met Barry on his own show before his initial introduction on Arrow) too many other commitments meant I had to drop it. Still, you can read my reviews for the first handful of episodes here.
Time certainly flies, and now we're three seasons in – but back in 2014 The Flash was a deliberate antidote to Arrow, with a much lighter tone than all the Batman-esque brooding that went on in Starling City. On the whole it's a very smooth, well-paced season, the creators/writers having gotten two seasons worth of practice on Arrow when it comes to interweaving a myriad of storylines.
In this case, the twenty-three episodes are mostly concerned with the mystery of the Man in the Yellow Suit, the merging of Ronnie and Firestorm, and the introduction of Grodd. Throw in the usual Monsters of the Week and romantic entanglements, and you've got an above-average superhero show with a strong understanding of development and continuity.
There are some issues though. Star Labs has a private prison in its basement, where meta-humans are locked up definitely in three foot cells, with no signs whatsoever as to how they're fed, how they use the toilet, or what they do to pass the time. Naturally there's no due process either, as Barry is appointed judge and jury, locking them up without any rights whatsoever. It's horrific, especially when a few of the meta-humans aren't even that bad. One is a young woman who used her powers to steal money so her boyfriend could escape the mob. A crime? Sure. But dear God, she doesn't deserve the fate our so-called hero dishes out to her.
Then there's the irritating infantilization of Iris by her father, boyfriend and best friend. Candice Patton makes for a wonderful Iris; taking the thankless role of the Locked Out Of The Loop Love Interest and imbuing her with sunshine, intelligence and spunk (the good kind, not the obnoxious kind) only for her nearest and dearest to keep her completely ignorant as to Barry's identity and the dangers that surround her. Naturally it's all for her own good.
And look, I wouldn't have minded if the writers had actually LET HER be angry by the lies and deception, but like most superhero girlfriends, her righteous fury is not allowed to inconvenience the hero for any extended period of time.
The show also has problems with its other regular female cast member. Caitlin reminds me a lot of Laurel over on Arrow, in that she's given a tragic backstory but not allowed to portray it to its logical extent. To lose one's fiancĂ© in a freak accident would leave anybody shattered, in need of extensive grief counselling and therapy. And yet because they're both potential love interests (or in Caitlin's case, a helpmate) they have to be mentally and emotionally available to the hero whenever he needs it. It's a no-win situation: as actresses every instinct is telling them to be as brittle and difficult as their situation dictates, and yet their roles demand they act appealing and sweet. It's like a less extreme version of Nina Sayers's plight in Black Swan – like her, they have to be two totally incompatible things at the same time.
(Not helping is that when Caitlin's fiancé Ronnie returns from the dead, she seems only tepidly interested).
One thing I'm surprised they never touched on was the obvious limitation of super-speed: you actually have to know where you're going. The ability to run to the mall in a matter of seconds means nothing if you don't know how to get there, and though we occasionally see the Star Labs gang giving Barry directions through an earpiece, it would have been cool to see him studying maps and learning city routes.
And one final nitpick: in the opening monologue, Grant Gustin puts the inflection on entirely the wrong word, saying: "it MADE me the impossible" instead of: "it made ME the impossible."
Daredevil: Season 2 (2016)
I seem to say this every month; that I'm getting fatigued with superhero shows/films – and yet here I am, still watching them. My reasoning is simple: everyone else is watching them, and I want to be in the loop! Also, I need to be all caught up by the time The Defenders airs, which I am very interested in.
The second season of Daredevil very much revolves around two new characters/guest stars and their roles as Foils to our hero. The Punisher and Elektra each confront Matt with his no-killing policy, simultaneously asking the audience if killing people out of vengeance – or just because you like it – is ever justified. (The answer is no, but then I knew that well before this season).  
The more I watch superhero shows, the more I realize that unless things are kept light and breezy, the more obvious it is that vigilantism is illegal for a damn good reason. From Captain America: Civil War to this second season of Daredevil, the only possible conclusion any sensible person could reach is that superheroes/vigilantes just don't work in a realistic, grounded setting. And when the show attempts to raise and explore issues that the genre simply isn't equipped to deal with, the whole thing falls apart.
For instance, Matt has a strong no-killing rule, while Elektra openly enjoys it and Frank justifies it; each of them challenging Matt's viewpoint across the course of the season. But what if Matt accidentally killed someone in self-defence? (Watching some of the blows he inflicts, it's difficult to imagine that he hasn't already). Could it be defined as self-defence when he's going out looking for trouble every night? What if someone is crippled, or brain-damaged due to the hits he gives them? Where does that fall on his scale of ethics?
But this is also a world that involves immortal ninjas – when you "kill" one, they just get up and shrug it off. So is it murder when (for instance) Claire pushes one out a high window? Would Matt call that murder given she had no idea the guy would survive the fall? And what about Kilgrave over on Jessica Jones? Because there's no doubt in my mind that if Kilgrave was a real person, anyone would be completely justified in snapping his neck. He was too dangerous to let live, and no prison could have held him for long.
But of course, Kilgrave is no more a real person than all the immortal ninjas. We can't judge their deaths by the same rules as we do in the real world, and so we’re left going round and round in circles.
And by the end it's the Punisher's methods that save Matt's life, so it all feels like a massive Broken Aesop. Hey Matt, if you have problems with killing people, don't put yourself in a position where you might have to. Go volunteer in a soup kitchen or something.
I enjoyed the Elektra arc much more than Frank's, which at times got grotesquely violent and ... well, a little silly. There's one scene in which Matt and Frank are on a rooftop together, literally screaming their man-pain at each other. It tipped into pure Narm and I found myself laughing. Not a good response.
There's also so much stuff that goes unexplained. Apparently Elektra is a Black Sky – okay, but what does that mean? They never actually explain it. There was a kid last season that was also identified as a Black Sky, and Stick claimed he killed him – so why didn't he do the same to Elektra when she was a girl? And what the heck was that giant hole all about? How'd all those kids get roped into providing blood for the weird sarcophagus thingy? And don't tell me the answers are in the comics. I'm here for the show.
We never get a clear idea of what was going on with Frank either. Were his family killed accidentally in a sting or was it a deliberate hit? What was up with the colonel suddenly being evil? Was he trying to hide something? It's all just set-up for his spin-off.
Karen and Foggy aren't served particularly well this time around; Karen and Elektra end up in the Betty and Veronica roles (right down to the hair colours), though I had zero interest in Matt/Karen as a couple. She's much more interesting when she's working through her complex feelings about shooting Wesley last season and projecting her guilt onto Frank Castle (for the record, I have zero interest in Karen/Frank as a couple either).
And ninjas. So many ninjas.
Humans: Season 2 (2016)
I was a tad lukewarm about the first season of Humans – apparently so was the network, as season two starts with a girl-on-girl kiss. Okay, okay, I'm being a bit snarky, as the Astrid/Niska relationship does end up being an important emotional touchstone for the season, so it's not just to pull in more viewers.
For the majority of the first season, I really liked the central premise of mother/wife/lawyer Laura Hawkins becoming the reluctant owner of a synth and trying to figure out whether or not she was a threat to her family. It worked well on a small scale: a single household with an unusual domestic problem.
But that plot resolved, the show must branch out into the wider world. Niska's computer programme is sporadically awakening synths around the world to self-consciousness, leading to a number of confrontations and disputes as both humans and synths try to cope with the changing reality. All the characters are in their own plotlines, and yet it works out pretty well. No one subplot is drastically more interesting or boring than any other, and the pacing of show doesn't flag at any point.
The problem is that some of the dynamics are lost along the way – the most important relationship of the first season was Laura and Mia; a fun twist considering Mia was initially brought in as a potential rival/replacement for Laura in the household, only for husband Joe to end up secondary to the bond that grew between the two women. Here they're not reunited till almost the end of the season, and almost immediately broken up again.
Yet the most interesting part of the show is when it deals with the implications of what synths would actually do to human society, often in small and unexpected ways. For example, the youngest Hawkins daughter begins to mimic synth behaviour, something I could easily imagine real children doing (much to the frustration of their parents).
Class: Season 1 (2016)
It's the Doctor Who spin-off that no one was really asking for. I watched the pilot, and then let the episodes accumulate as the weeks went by, feeling no real compulsion to watch regularly and finally marathoning them over a couple of days.
It's best described as a sci-fi Buffy the Vampire Slayer (they even explicitly liken their school to a Hellmouth at one point) in which an assorted group of high schoolers are made the guardians of their community, which is a magnet for paranormal activity.
YA writer Patrick Ness is showrunner, and though he demonstrates an interest in spiritual/religious matters (or more pertinently, the possible reality of them) that the mother-show lacks, it's mostly a garbled mix of sci-fi tropes and teen angst. I felt no real connection to any of the characters; most of the time they're just screaming exposition to each other, and the acting isn't too good either. One character just mumbles in a bad Polish accent, and I honestly couldn't understand a word he said.
But there are some fun Doctor Who Easter Eggs, and the highlight is Katherine Kelly as Miss Quill: a droll, heartless alien forced into servitude on a planet she hates. At one point we see her reading The Hunger Games and asking aloud: "did this really happen?"
Unfortunately the show can't overcome the fact that its Big Bad is insanely boring, or that its cliff-hanger ending renders most of the first season setup for its second. Sorry, I just don't care enough to come back.
Doctor Who Christmas Special (2016)
The nicest thing I did for myself was to stop caring about Doctor Who, which allowed me to actually start enjoying it again. And I am. Though the "Christmas" part of this special was entirely incidental, it was a pretty fun send-up of the superhero genre, in which the Doctor accidentally imbues a young boy with your typical array of superpowers. Years later, Grant is struggling to hold together his double-life as The Ghost and a nanny, and there's a lot of fun back-and-forth between him and the woman he's secretly in love with (she doesn't notice that the Ghost's cell-phone goes off on live television at the same time she calls Grant).
The Doctor reappears, there's an alien invasion, all the usual shenanigans – but Moffat's writing just felt a lot less pretentious this time around. The clever bits were actually fun as opposed to just "look at me, I made a play on words!" There was some poignant allusions made to River Song. Matt Lucas returning as Nardole made for a solid temporary companion. And it was great to see Adetomiwa Edun again – my God, what a beautiful man.
Sense8 Christmas Special (2016)
In many ways this is less of a Christmas Special (with its own self-contained Christmas-themed story) and more of an interlude between seasons one and two. Nothing of huge importance really happens, as for the most part it just provides updates on our sensates and their storylines: Nomi and Amanita are on the run, Sun wallows in prison, Lito grapples with the public outing of his relationship, Riley cares for Will, etc.
Even the bits of genuine narrative thrust are fairly minor: Felix wakes up, Whispers targets Will's father, Lito confronts his mother – but I'm pretty confident you could skip this and go straight to season two without missing much. Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it: all of these characters are delightful, and I'm as intrigued by the underlying mystery of Whispers and Angelica as I am swept up in the sensates visitations to each other's lives.
But my two favourite characters are a little short-changed this time around. While others are coping with heroin addiction and prison violence and the humiliating end of their careers, Kala's big problem is that she's ... married to a decent, wealthy man who adores her. I can empathize with her, but it's not a situation I can get too invested in – and she's on the brink of becoming unsympathetic if she continues to have an emotional affair with Wolfgang.  
And of course, Capheus is now played by a different actor, one who handles the change gracefully enough (after the script blatantly lampshades his "different face") but still doesn't quite capture the warmth and innocence of Aml Ameen. Ah well, there's no point crying over spilt milk. This got me primed and ready for the show's continuation in May.
And that's it for 2016. Until next time:

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