50 Under 50 - Part II

The second recap in my resolution to watch 50 movies made before 1950 in 2018 [see Part I]. I'm still a little behind if I want to hit 50, but I've got plenty of time to make up the shortfall. This time around, I continue to hit obscurities, but have also peppered in some genuine classics:
  • The Thin Man (1934) - Adapted from a Dashiell Hammett novel, the story revolves around Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is a former detective who married up to Nora, a wealthy socialite. They generally spend their time drinking in speakeasies and throwing parties in their hotel. Nick is drawn into a murder mystery and, with Nora's encouragement, takes on the case as something of a lark. The mystery itself isn't particularly special, but Nick and Nora sure are. It's the banter and witty dialogue that sell everything. When Nora asks if Nick has "a type" of woman, he says: "Only you darling, lanky brunettes with wicked jaws." There are some visual gags too, like the way Nick dangles a hat as a lure. And then there's Asta, their adorable dog which actually manages to crack the case at one point. The mystery is functional and a good base for the banter and copious amounts of alcohol. A very enjoyable flick, well worth seeking out. There were lots of sequels, which I may need to check out at some point during this little project. ***
  • D.O.A. (1949) - A noir film with a pretty unique premise. A man enters a police station:
    "I'd like to report a murder."

    "Who was murdered?"

    "I was."
    It's a nice hook, isn't it? The rest plays out in standard noir fashion, with our hero simply attempting to figure out who murdered him (via slow-acting poison, it should be noted) and why. The steps along the way aren't exactly groundbreaking or anything, but it's nice to see a non-standard noir premise, even if it's played out in typical ways. I think my favorite thing about this is that the premise reminds me of the Jason Statham Crank films (and any of a number of other "ticking clock" premised movies). As of right now, it's on Amazon Prime, and worth a spin for noir fans. **1/2
  • Paradise Canyon (1935) - Early B-grade John Wayne western about a man who goes undercover in a medicine show to bust a counterfeiting ring. The medicine in question is Dr. Carter's Famous Indian Remedy, a 90% ABV elixer that would cure lots of things, like having an esophagus. Pretty bog standard stuff, but short and sweet, and diverting enough for what it is. I kept getting struck by various details (such as the aforementioned elixer). They also do this thing where instead of shooting people, they just shoot their horses. Ultimately nothing special, and the transfer that's floating around on streaming/cable isn't anything special, but it's not a complete waste of time. Damning with faint praise, I guess, but here we are. **
  • Foreign Correspondent (1940) - Hitchcock tale about a reporter seeking to expose enemy agents in London. Along the way, we get an assassination, a spy ring is uncovered, and naturally, our hero falls in love. I'd like to promise you that one of these 50 Under 50 posts won't contain a Hitchcock flick, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to keep that promise. As these things go, this is also pretty minor Hitchcock, but as per usual, minor Hitchcock is still pretty good. Hitch has a knack for elevating what would normally be a mundane 40s spy thriller. The romance is a bit flimsy and there's some clumsy exposition and all-too-convenient plot happenings here or there, but it's otherwise pretty good stuff. Some decent set pieces at the windmill and cathedral, but the real visual standout is the assassination sequence with a sea of black umbrellas. Still probably only of major interest to Hitchcock completists, it's somewhere in the middle of his oeuvre. **1/2
  • Stagecoach (1939) - John Ford western about a group of travelers on the titular stagecoach. The travelers represent a microcosm of society, illustrating class struggles and various prejudices. The stagecoach is threatened by native Americans, but despite a solid set piece, the film ultimately boils down to the relationship between John Wayne's Ringo Kid and Claire Trevor's Dallas. Speaking of which, the zooming reveal of John Wayne is a ludicrous classic.
    John Wayne reveal from Stagecoach
    Apparently you can pinpoint the moment when John Wayne went from popular actor to utter superstar, and that's the one. I could quibble about some pacing issues and the insta-romance between Wayne and Trevor's characters, but there's lots to chew on here. I'm not an expert in the genre and this isn't my favorite, but it does seem like it's an important one, for what it's worth. ***
  • Babes in Toyland (1934) - A story that weaves various Mother Goose nursery rhymes into a Christmas-themed musical. Laurel and Hardy are solid, but they feel shoehorned into the story and there's too many other characters and song and dance numbers (a personal bugaboo, not really something to fault the movie for, I guess, but these didn't really grab me at all) and whatnot for them to overcome. The finale with the whole "march of the wooden soldiers" bit is neat, but again not quite enough to make up for the rest. **
  • Sullivan's Travels (1941) - In search of inspiration, a filmmaker goes on the road with only a shabby outfit and a dime in his pocket, looking to connect with the common man or somesuch. Along the way, he meets Veronica Lake and of course, falls in love with her. At first, I was a little unsure about this guy's plan. He keeps getting rescued at the faintest hint of difficulty, something that he was ostensibly trying to explore. But the film eventually gets to where it needs to with a cleverly plotted mishap (and solution). Lots of great bits here. There's a prescient scene in a movie theater, indicating that thoughtless patrons were always a thing. One of Sullivan's butlers gives a great speech on the nature of the poor. The skewering of Hollywood tropes is fun ("With a little sex in it.") Makes me want to watch the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou? to spot the references. Witty dialog abounds, including something I will use for the rest of my days: "I don't like musicals, they hurt my ears." Lake is wonderful in the movie and I've already got a couple more of her movies in the queue for future 50 Under 50 viewing. Definitely worth watching. ***
More to come!
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Hugo Awards: Provenance

Ann Leckie's Hugo Nominated novel Provenance takes place in the same universe as her Ancillary trilogy, but in a largely independent locale that is only peripherally impacted by the events of those three novels. Ancillary Justice was the first, and to my mind, best of that preceding trilogy, managing a great balance between crunchy hard-SF and social/cultural exploration. In particular, I found the depiction of shared consciousness and hive minds intriguing, and Leckie posited some interesting consequences of such technology. Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy largely jettisoned that idea in favor of the more social and cultural context of a much smaller system (also: tea), a maneuver that was unexpected and bold, but which left me mildly disappointed. At the time, I wondered what it would be like to read a story in the same universe, but with different characters.

Enter Provenance, a story set in the same universe, but not tied to any of the characters from the Ancillary series. Ingray Aughskold is seeking to gain favor with her Mother so that she could be named heir. She's in competition with her brother Danach, who is considered to have the position locked down. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so the book opens with Ingray's plan to free a notorious thief named Pahlad Budrakim out of "Compassionate Removal" (a wonderful doublespeak euphemism for "brutal prison that is anything but compassionate") in the hopes of convincing em (not a typo, we'll get to it) to reveal the location of valuable vestiges that he had stolen. If she could find those vestiges and return them to her family, it would be a big coup for her (vestiges are apparently a big deal on her home planet, wielding enormous cultural and political influence), and potentially get her back in the competition for heir.

Naturally, her plan starts to disintegrate immediately. She's spent most of her money getting this thief smuggled out of prison, only to find that e's not who she thought e was. Then it turns out that Tic Uisine (the captain of the ship she'd chartered for her mission) has some undisclosed beef with some authorities. Even once they manage to get their way back to Ingray's home planet, the trio keeps encountering newer and increasingly more complicated obstacles. There's an archaeological dig that has implications for Ingray's family, a murder mystery pops up, a group of children is kidnapped, alien ambassadors hang around causing fun, titular questions around provenance crop up, and so on. There are actually some mentions of the far flung events of the Ancillary books, but they're exactly that: far flung and not particularly important to the workings of the plot here.

It's all, well, pretty good. While lacking a bit in that crunchy SF component, it's got lots of fun elements, a complex plot (something I usually enjoy more than most), and reasonably well done characters. The thematic exploration of how the past shapes the present is well done and fits neatly in with Leckie's wheelhouse of exploring identity. Speaking of which, while the Ancillary series played with a sorta lack of gender, here Leckie reverses course, reintroducing gendered pronouns and including a third, gender neutral set of pronouns (e, eir, er - this is what Garal/Palad identify as, which is why I used those pronouns above), and allowing characters to choose how they identify. Like the primary use of feminine pronouns in the Ancillary books, it has an effect here, though it doesn't feel entirely in line with the story.

All well and good, but aside from some interesting uses of mechs, the openly SFnal elements are a bit lacking. I mean, sure, there's different planets and spaceships and whatnot, but they're used to establish and illustrate cultural differences more than to cultivate that sense of wonder that SF can do so well. Not that this sort of thing can't generate sense of wonder, but nothing in the book really twixed me the way that it probably should. There are references to two alien species in this novel, but neither are fully explored and mostly exist on the periphery. The Presger remain enigmatic, but we do find out some stuff about the Geck (in particular, we get some background on Tic, who has a complicated relationship with the aliens). I like that the aliens seem to be actually alien and not the distressingly common "basically a human but with a slightly different appearance" trope that a lot of SF uses... but it would be nice if we'd actually explore these worlds and beings a little more. But then, the plot here really doesn't need it, and such a digression would probably only serve to kill the pacing.

So we're left with a generally enjoyable novel. It's got lots of fun elements, decent characters, and a nice, twisty plot. While I feel like I should like this a lot more than I do, it's not like I didn't enjoy it or anything. It seems to be sticking with me more after I've read it than I thought it would whilst reading. Is it truly Hugo worthy? Maybe, but I suspect it's here more because of the follow on effect from the popular Ancillary books. Personally, it will probably fall somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of this year's Hugo nominees, but this is only the third (of six) that I've read, so it's hard to say for sure (I'm midway through two others though, and this seems about right).

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Avengers: Infinity War

I've dabbled with reading comic books here and there, but my experience is mostly with trades and features massive gaps in knowledge. That being said, comic books have a certain reputation... a reputation that features both good and bad characteristics. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), being a large scale adaptation of their comics, inherits that reputation, for better or for worse. Many of the MCU movies manage to skirt the cheesier, gimmicky aspects of comic books, others are less successful.

There's something to be said for comic book movies that defy such cheesy expectations or feel less comic-booky. The Dark Knight feels less like a superhero movie than a crime flick that just happens to feature a dude dressed like a bat (and it might be my favorite comic book movie of all time). But there's also something a little sad when these movies deny their origins and pretend they're something they're not. The MCU movies manage a sort of balance around that line that works very well. Sometimes, though, they really lean into their comic book nature, and the "team-up" films are the biggest example of this. Avengers: Age of Ultron, in particular, really felt like it leaned into the comic bookiness of it all. The never-ending serialized nature of comic books had arrived on the screen, fraught with all the attendant baggage that entails.

Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War is the nineteenth film in the MCU, and it is one of the more ambitious efforts to date. Nearly all of the characters introduced in the past decade show up on screen to battle a villain that has been hinted at for at least eight years. Loosely based on the early 1990s crossover event The Infinity Gauntlet and its sequels, Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, this film attempts to tie together the last ten years of MCU films into one climactic story. Thanos is the big villain, hinted at in previous films, who wants to collect powerful macguffins known as Infinity Stones so that he can obliterate half of all life in the universe in order to stave off the threat of overpopulation. The various MCU heroes, who've been encountering the Infinity Stones all along (i.e. the Tesseract, Loki's staff, etc...), attempt to block Thanos. Some major spoilers posted below, so read on at your peril. Basically, I liked it just fine.

As a coherent narrative, it fits, I guess, but is quite disjointed (and incomplete). This is a long movie, but even then, it's not long enough to give satisfying character arcs to all of its participants. This is the supreme challenge of the team-up movies, and this one has so many characters that it can't help but feel a little jumbled and rambling. I wouldn't go as far as some critics, who think of this as barely a movie for that reason (which I find amusing given those same critics' praise for artsy films where nothing happens, but I digress), but the general criticism that it lacks depth is valid.

On the other hand, who cares? We spend a lot of time with characters we like! We get fun interactions as characters meet for the first time. Thor meets the Guardians and enlists Rocket and Groot to help him build a new weapon. Iron Man, Spiderman, and Dr. Strange deal with some of Thanos' henchmen in New York and later space. At one point Captain America meets Groot and the dialog is priceless ("I am Steve Rogers," brilliant). It's these little moments, disconnected as they are from any larger context, that make the MCU work as well as it does. Some of this is less successful. Vision and Wanda's romance was something hinted at in Civil War, but they aren't developed enough to care that much about (also, wasn't Vision way, way more powerful in previous films? He's stumbling around like a weakling in this film the entire time.) Gamora and Peter have similarly been circling each other for a couple of movies and fare a bit better, but something seemed to have progressed between GotG2 and Infinity War.

Which brings us to Thanos. He was kind of a nothingburger in previous films. Comic Book fans knew who he was, but he just kinda sat around and orchestrated things in the background instead of being an active participant (I mean, after ten years of trying to collect Infinity Stones via proxies, once he gets up to do it himself, it takes a couple of days). In this movie, he finally becomes an actual character. As mentioned above, he's got this Malthusian mission to reduce the population of the universe in half, which is kinda dumb, but also understandable enough.

I suspect there's a better movie lurking beneath the surface of this one that is far more focused on Thanos and Gamorra. Their dysfunctional relationship has been established since the first Guardians of the Galaxy, but it's lopsided and lacks depth. There's some flashbacks here that attempt to improve on that, but not nearly enough to justify the whole Soul Stone sacrifice bit. Instead, we spend fifteen minutes watching Thor go forge a weapon at some random neutron star facility. Don't get me wrong, Thor interacting with Rocket and Groot was a ton of fun and worked well, but it does sorta distract from the overall narrative of the film. In fact, a lot of these little side stories, while containing the character beats that I appreciate so much, ultimately make the film feel sorta disjointed. This is the challenge of these films though. You have to devote some time to all the characters, which means that the narrative fractures a bit. But the fact that we like most of these characters so much keeps the fractured elements in orbit around one another, which is probably the most you can really hope for...

As I understand it, one of the things done in big comic book crossover events is that you have tie-in issues of individual heroes' comics where you can delve deeper into one character's perspective on the larger events. Alas, that's not something that quite works in blockbuster film territory (though, for all I know, there are actual comic books that are providing this background for the films...) Alright, time to get to the real spoilers. This is your second warning, read on at your own peril.

So the ending is simultaneously shocking and boring. Shocking because Thanos basically wins, half the universe disappears with the snap of his finger (i.e. The Snapture), including a lot of our heroes. Boring because far too many of our heroes die for it to actually mean something. There's no way this can stand in the next installment, which makes the stakes here a bit suspect. Again, in the moment, these characters dying is affecting, but with even a second's introspection, you realize that it can't actually be a lasting situation. This isn't exactly a unique take on the ending. Most point to the fact that many of the dead characters have upcoming movies and the characters who lived are actually the ones you'd expect to be killed off (i.e. Chris Evans contract is nearly finished and has made it clear he won't be coming back, and so on). My point is that even without knowing that, the ending doesn't have quite the impact it should because we still wouldn't believe this situation is permanent. This goes back to the whole comic-bookiness of it all, and I'm not entirely sure what to think of that. On the one hand, it feels kinda cheep and gimmicky, a way to sell more tickets to the next movie. On the other hand, no one has even done this sort of thing on this scale before. 19 movies leading up to this? It's an interesting translation of comic book storytelling to the screen. I don't know that it works any better for it, but I have to admire the attempt.

It feels like a bit of a cheat too, since the marketing for this has sorta promised that this would be its own movie, when it's clearly part one of a bigger story that will be resolved next year. This, again, gets back to the comic-bookiness of it all. It's not that serialized storytelling hasn't been done on film before, but the scale of this is impressive, and I suspect that some of the complaints about this film would fade away or at least morph into something different once the next film comes out. This is the thing with the MCU. I think all of the films are enjoyable (mostly) and competent on their own. I don't think any one film achieves true greatness, but many of them are able to underline each other with connective tissue that helps reinforce the overall narrative. That's what makes the MCU special, and it's hard to fault it for attempting to do something on this sort of scale. It's hard to judge this movie on its own because there's so much that leads up to it, and so much still to come. You can level a lot of harsh criticism at it for precisely that reason though, and there are a ton of fully justifiable complaints about this movie.

It's ultimately the sum of its parts, nothing more, nothing less. It has a lot of great moments and interactions and is worth watching for that alone, but the overarching narrative is lacking focus. But it's like a comic book. Nothing ever ends. No one really stays dead. You just have to wait for the next issue.

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Link Dump

As per usual, interesting links from the depths of the internets:
  • How Far Was Rocky’s Famous Run in Rocky II? - Spoiler: 30.61 miles. And I think that's a pretty conservative number. Dude is ping-ponging all over the city. Still good detective work here.
  • Back to the Blog - Apparently there are some social-media-addled users who are attempting to “re-decentralize” the web, something that is easier said than done, and yet somehow already here (and always has been). I mean, nothing forces you to spend all your time on Facebook and Twitter but yourself.
    It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.
    A lot of the things that blogging relied on have disappeared or fractured though, so there'll need to be something else to help us along...
  • The Platform is the Message (.pdf) - James Grimmelman's essay starts with Tide Pods and ends with Fake News, with stops at kayfabe and Peppa Pig along the way, and is well worth reading.
    All of these videos, and all of these links, everything going back to the Onion is both a joke and not a joke. It’s easy to find videos of people holding up Tide Pods, sympathetically noting how tasty they look, and then giving a finger-wagging speech about not eating them because they’re dangerous. Are these sincere anti-pod-eating public service announcements? Or are they surfing the wave of interest in pod-eating by superficially claiming to denounce it? Both at once? Are these part of the detergent-eating phenomenon (forbidden), or are they critical commentary on it (acceptable)? Online culture is awash in layers of irony; there is a sense in which there is no such thing as a pure exemplar of eating a Tide Pod unironically or a critique of the practice that is not also in part an advertisement for it. All one can say is that the Tide Pod cluster of memes and practices attract attention: the controversy only adds to the attention.

    The difficulty of distinguishing between a practice, a parody of the practice, and a commentary on the practice is bad news for any legal doctrines that try to distinguish among them,18 and for any moderation guidelines or ethical principles that try to draw similar distinctions. I cannot think of any Tide Pod content that could not make a colorable claim to be a transformative use; I cannot think of any Tide Pod content that would not be at least marginally newsworthy.
    Great essay, a little on the pessimistic side, but I can't dispute anything either...
  • The Battle of New York: An 'Avengers' Oral History - There's a lot of sloppy stuff in the first Avengers movie that I don't like very much, but I still love that movie and rewatch it often because of the finale, one of the great extended action sequences of our time, and it really sends you away on a high that most movies cannot manage.
  • Jones BBQ and foot massage - It's so disappointing that this isn't a real establishment.
That's all for now...
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Summer Movie Wager 2018

The /Filmcast does this thing every year where they pick what they each think will be the top 10 movies of the summer in terms of domestic box office performance. One enterprising listener created a website to coordinate the whole Summer Movie Wager and opened it up to everyone, so this year I figured I'd play along. I didn't spend a ton of time on it, but I've been following the /Filmcast for a long time, so I had some idea of how its played. I made my picks before I listened to their picks this year, and now that I've listened to their episode, I had some mild regret for some of my choices, but ultimately, I think I did alright. Here's my picks, along with some comments:
  1. Avengers: Infinity War - Duh. Pretty much everyone has this pegged as the winner this summer. I'm sure someone is making a calculated bet to pick something else, and if they wind up correct, they'll have a big advantage over the whole field. But it still seems like a big longshot.
  2. Incredibles 2 - I have this much higher than most, but I think this is going to be the "Animated Kids Movie" of choice this summer, and those always do much better than expected. I worry that my love for the original film has skewed my thoughts here though, and if I were doing this again, I might bump it down a spot or two.
  3. Deadpool 2 - Seems like a big deal, but the /Filmcast did worry me a bit, as it does feel like the sort of thing that isn't quite repeatable. The rated R superhero comedy was kinda new last time around, it'll be difficult to recapture the novelty here. Then again, there's always a rated R movie that does better than expected in the summer, the first movie was hugely popular, and I think most are genuinely looking forward to this one.
  4. Solo: A Star Wars Story - This is honestly a pretty big question mark. It's Star Wars, so it will definitely make the top 10, but its performance could vary wildly. Are people getting Star Wars fatigue? Is anyone really looking forward to the concept of this one? Will Last Jedi haters drive down performance? Only time will tell. This slot doesn't seem overly ambitious or pessimistic.
  5. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - Everyone was blindsided by Jurassic World a few years ago, which did an obscene $650 million. No one expected that much love for the franchise, and the movie was frankly kinda crappy, so it was a big surprise. Most folks seem to be putting this latest iteration at number 2. I may be overly pessimistic about its chances, but I'm thinking that the trailers look bad and those who didn't love the last movie will not turn up this time. I don't know, maybe Jeff Goldblum fans will turn out in droves? There's no way it gets close to its predecessor, but it'll almost certainly be top 5. I have it a little low, but I don't think this is completely unwarranted.
  6. Ant-Man and the Wasp - And here I'm being a bit optimistic. I'm betting that Avengers loev will spill over to this and drive this to perform a little better than the first film. I'm definitely taking a chance here, but this seems feasible. This is where the list starts to get a bit wonky and unpredictable. It's reasonable to think my top 5 will be the top 5 (if not in the exact order I picked), but 6-10 are much more of a toss up.
  7. Ocean's 8 - Here I'm betting that this will do better than the other Ocean's sequels. Who knows if I'm right, but this somehow feels kinda like counter-programming during the summer blockbuster season, and the female-led cast will also appeal to audiences. It also comes out early in June and will have plenty of time to keep making money (this becomes a problem with below picks).
  8. Mission: Impossible - Fallout - If this does similar numbers to the last two installments, it probably deserves to be higher on this list... but it's release at the very end of July means that some of its gross won't count towards this contest. On the other hand, releases are still front-loaded and this will have plenty of time to build up sales. This should almost certainly be one or two spots up higher on this list. Dammit.
  9. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again - I mean, who the hell knows once we get down to this area. The first movie was a surprise hit, and again, the counter-programming aspect of this might auger for some level of success. But I could be way off.
  10. The Meg - I might have been swayed by the internet response to the first trailer, which looks like a ton of dumb fun... The big problem with this is the release date, which only allows for 3-4 weeks to make money. Then again, August is usually a wasteland for movies, so there won't be as much competition as there will be early in the season.
Outside the top 10, we get three "Dark Horse" picks:
  • Christopher Robin - I don't know. It's Disney, so it'll do ok, but I picked this without really knowing much about it. Finding out more, I'm not sure it was a wise choice...
  • Skyscraper - The Rock is just so unpredictable in terms of both quality and performance that I'm not sure what to make of this movie. It could very well earn a spot in the top 10, but this marks the 3rd movie that The Rock has had in theaters this year. Just not sure about it. It could be big, it could bomb.
  • Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation - These movies do well, right? Again, kids movies tend to do better than expected. I probably should have put this one at #10 in place of The Meg, but again, who knows.
I think I did alright. If I were to do it again, I'd definitely make some changes... but it would still be a similar list.
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Link Dump

As per usual, interesting links from the depths of ye olde interwebs: And that's all for now.
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Hugo Awards: Raven Stratagem

Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit was a dense, sometimes gruesome Space Opera. I really enjoyed it, and it was nominated for a Hugo Award last year. Raven Stratagem is the follow up, second in a trilogy, and yes, I enjoyed this one too, despite it succumbing to traditional middle entry in a trilogy syndrome.

raven-strategem.jpg
I was initially a little hesitant to pick up this sequel. As much as I enjoyed it, I remember the first novel being a bit difficult to follow at parts, and I didn't entirely remember what had happened (I read it almost two years ago) except in broad strokes. Fortunately, Raven Stratagem presents itself in a much more accessible manner than its predecessor, which allows you to ease back into the universe without too much strain.

We continue to follow the bleshed personalities of Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao, quasi-successful at retaking the Fortress of Shattered Needles in the first book, as they now set out to defend the Hexarchate from an invading enemy, the Hafn. Cheris is a gifted mathematician and infantry captain for the subservient Kel faction. She's been possessed by the "ghost" of long-dead military genius, madman, and mass murderer, Jedao, of the Machiavellian Shuos faction. The Hexarchate being an oppressive tyrannical semi-dystopia, the leaders/dictator aren't sure if they can trust Jedao and his stated intention to simply repel the Hafn. For that matter, neither is the fleet that Jedao has taken over for that purpose. General Kel Khiruev even attempts to assassinate Jedao, but eventually succumbs to Jedao's, er, charms? That's not the quite the right word, but it gets the job done, I guess.

So yeah, that brief description kinda captures the density of the worldbuilding, but again, Raven Stratagem is more accessible at laying this out than Ninefox Gambit. This is a best-of-both-worlds situation here. I appreciate dense worldbuilding, and Lee was able to make it more approachable without losing anything. Shuos Jedao, despite frequent reminders of atrocities he's committed in the past, remains a fascinating character and indeed, things tend to bog down a bit whenever we're not following him (and I should add her, as Cheris is a woman). I found myself much less interested in the Hexarchate politics side of the story, which comprises a large portion of the second act, though it's clearly a necessary part of the story.

There are some twists and turns along the way. One of them, which I think is played as a twist, was actually something that I thought I had just misremembered from the first book, but which it turns out, I remembered correctly*. But the final revelation sets up a genuinely interesting premise for the third book to tackle. Unfortunately, that leaves this book in a sorta limbo, as a lot of middle entries in a series feel. This is excellent, but it's not self-contained, and that always makes Hugo voting a little tricky. Of course, the Hugo context is a bit unfair - as middle entries go, this is a good one, and it moves the story along briskly (which is more than can be said about a lot of middle novels). In any case, Lee's worldbuilding is solid, but quite dark and sometimes gruesome. Fortunately, he doesn't wallow in the misery in the way that other books tackling similar themes seem to do.

As Science Fiction, I'm not entirely sure the whole Calendrical Math thing feels grounded enough; it feels more like a metaphorical representation of the way the Hexarchate is controlled than an actual mathematical thing. That not a terrible thing, and it does seem to be played with an internal consistency that I appreciate. Again, Cheris and Jedao are interesting, and their immediate surroundings work, but as mentioned above, once you get beyond that, the story falters a bit.

This is a good book, and Lee's skill is worth rewarding with a Hugo Award, but I don't think this is the book to do it. As the second in a series, it feels incomplete (again, not in a way that is bad outside of the Hugo context), which makes it difficult to judge against other books. On the other hand, I expect this will actually do well when it comes time to put in my ballot - I like this work, so I suspect it will come out ahead of several other nominees that I'm unsure about. Fortunately, Lee also has a novelette that's been nominated, Extracurricular Activities, which is self-contained and excellent. It follows Jedao back when he was a young officer, and bears a sorta Bujold-esque feel to it, which I naturally love (this is high praise, people). I haven't read any of the other novelette finalists, but I suspect this one will top my ballot. Ultimately, I will most likely pick up the final book in this trilogy, which says a lot, and I greatly look forward to whatever Lee tackles next.

* (Spoilers) I had assumed that Jedao's ghost had died in the betrayal at the end of Ninefox Gambit, but for most of this book, Cheris is basically just pretending to be Jedao, and since she still has all of his memories implanted in her consciousness, she can pull it off. Lee can get away with this because we mostly see Jedao from the perspective of others, like Khiruev, and Cheris has no reason to let on that she is using Jedao's reputation for her own purposes (which, to be fair, were also Jedao's).

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The 2018 Hugo Award Finalists were announced yesterday, so it's time for moaning and whinging about the nominees. Assorted thoughts below:
  • The novel ballot looks interesting enough. Only half are part of a series! Arguably. One of the series entries is the first (and reasonably self-contained), but one of the non-series is set in a universe the author had already established. So I guess it evens out.

    John Scalzi's The Collapsing Empire is that reasonably self-contained first entry in a series, and it's a lot of fun, my favorite Scalzi since The Human Division. I don't expect it to win. New York 2140 seems like a pretty standard Kim Stanley Robinson offering, an extension of many of his usual themes. Again, I don't expect it to win. Provenance, by Ann Leckie is the aforementioned standalone novel set in Leckie's Imperial Radch universe. It seems like a heist story, but the writeups emphasize that it's about "power, theft, privilege and birthright" which is pretty well tread ground for the past few years of nominees (and for which Leckie has already been recognized), but then, this seems to be what current voters like. I don't see it winning, but what do I know. I really enjoyed Raven Stratagem but Yoon Ha Lee's second Machineries of Empire novel suffers from middle-novel-in-a-trilogy syndrome, so it did not make my nominating ballot (Yoon Ha Lee has been a mainstay of my nominating ballots for years, and as we'll see, there's another option for him that I think works better in an awards context). Then again, Jemison's Obelisk Gate also suffered from middle novel syndrome and managed to win last year, so once again, I know nothing. Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty represents the only new-to-me author nominated (she won the Campbell a few years back, so not a completely new name), and the novel sounds like a neat closed room mystery... in space! I never managed to catch up with it before the nominating period ended, but it was something I wanted to read. Who knows if it has any chance? The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin is the conclusion to her trilogy, of which the first two entries have already won Hugos. For any other series or author, I'd say that means this one has less of a chance of winning, but despite my hesitations with the previous two books, people seem to really love these novels, so there's a fair chance it'll win again this year. Not sure what that augurs for the health of the awards, but I guess nothing is decided yet.

    I've only read two of these novels, definitely want to read one more, was curious about another two, and am not particularly looking forward to The Stone Sky (but at this point, I feel like I should probably finish out the trilogy). That's a reasonable batting average, I guess. Pour one out for The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. though. I suspect that will remain my favorite novel of the year, even after catching up with these other four nominees.
  • I'm a little surprised that Lois McMaster Bujold didn't get a nod in the novella category, but I'm guessing that releasing three Penric novellas in one year managed to split the vote. I was happy to see All Systems Red by Martha Wells get the nod (it was on my ballot and one my favorite reads of last year). A few other recognizable names on the ballot, but nothing that really grabs me. I skipped the category last year, not sure if I'll manage this year.
  • Novelette has another Yoon Ha Lee story, “Extracurricular Activities”, that was what I nominated instead of Raven Strategem. It takes place in the same universe and features a character from his novels, but is entirely standalone (and more accessible than the novels as well). My other nominee didn't make it, and nothing is jumping out at me for the other nominees.
  • I haven't read any of the nominated Short Stories, but in my experience with these awards, this category is almost always the biggest disaster. I almost never enjoy any of the short stories, for whatever reason.
  • I remain skeptical of the Best Series category on pragmatic, logistical grounds, but think it funny that Lois McMaster Bujold could win the award again this year (and I judge a fair chance of that).
  • The Dramatic Presentation awards look decent enough, considering the venue. Still wish that Colossal and Your Name would have gotten some love, but hey, you can still watch them (go give them a shot - they're both great). In other news, I've actually already seen half the Short Form nominees, which is a rarity.
  • The 1943 Retro Hugo finalists were also announced. I actually nominated a couple of things, and they both made it. Rooting for Hal Clement's short story, "Proof" (a fantastic story, well worth checking out if you can find it - are these included in Hugo Voters Packets? Be on the lookout.) And Asimov's "Foundation" got a nod too (though it's only the Novelette, a subset of what most of us read). The only real surprise is that The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis didn't get a nod. Or maybe not. Current Hugo voters aren't into Lewis' religiousity, I guess.
And that covers it. I'll most likely be reading and reviewing over the next few months (might take a bit to get going, as I just started a large book that will take a bit to finish)...
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50 Under 50 - Part I

Back in January, I linked to Matt Singer's This Year, Make a Movie-Related New Year's Resolution and noted that the suggested resolution to watch 50 films made before 1950 was a good idea. Looking at my viewing from last year, only five movies qualified (and even then, I'd already seen two of them). I'm still quite behind on this project and didn't really resolve to do it until the last few weeks, but I've already beaten last year's total, which is a win. For posterity, here are the first six entries in my 50 Under 50 challenge:
  • Fallen Angel (1945) - Otto Preminger's noirish tale of a penniless con man who blows into a small town looking to make a buck, falls for a waitress named Stella. She wants nothing to do with him, unless he can find a way to make himself rich, so he hatches a scheme to marry a wealthy heiress for the money. Naturally, he gets more than he bargained for.
    fallenangel.jpg
    It takes a little while to get going, but it gets there, and I must admit that the final twists did work well for me. Of course, the story hinges on some relationships that develop mighty quick, but it's easy enough to go with. The cast is reasonably good and the filmmaking is solid. The writing has some worthy noir zingers, my favorite being the phony medium played by John Carradine: "I hope to see you in my room later, I have a fine collection collection of friendly spirits there, Scotch ancestry." Heh. Not exactly a classic film noir, but a worthy watch. (Watched on Amazon Prime, a solid transfer) **1/2
  • The Golem (1920) (AKA: The Golem: How He Came Into the World) - Writer/Director/Star Paul Wegener actually made three movies about the Golem, but the first two were lost (about 5 minutes were somewhat recently discovered), and this third entry is all that remains. Along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, The Golem is considered a classic example of German Expressionism. Of course, those two other movies set a rather high bar that is difficult to clear. The Golem has some great visuals, but nothing quite as stylized as Caligari, nor the deep shadows of Nosferatu. The story concerns Jews who are being persecuted, and a Rabbi who creates a giant golem out of clay to protect the people. It's slow to start (the Golem is initially used to perform menial tasks around town, like chopping wood), but it has its moments later in the story. This is a clear precursor to Frankenstein and worth watching for students of the genre for that alone, but it's also not quite the classic that, well, all the other films listed are. (The Amazon Prime copy is a slightly shortened version with "full sound", meaning a modern soundtrack and terrible voiceovers.) **
  • Secret Agent (1936) - Alfred Hitchcock's follow up to The 39 Steps (arguably his best British effort), Secret Agent is another tale of espionage that bears some of Hitch's trademarks, though perhaps only in embryonic form. Three British agents are ordered to assassinate a mysterious German spy during World War I. While initially thrilled by the adventurous aspects of their mission, two of them grow a conscience, which obviously makes things difficult. A few twists and turns, this does wind up being "minor" Hitchcock, but even his lower tier offerings are worth watching. While not as visually striking as Hitchcock's other efforts, he does seem to have enjoyed playing around with sound, whether it be the snappy reparte between characters, or the loud sounds of the casino, or the booming machinery of a chocolate factory. Hitch was clearly still adjusting to the talkies at this point, but it all works well enough. Some bits work great, and there's some decent zingers here too (one of our spies had their death faked, at which point their superior asks: "Tell me, do you love your country?" and he responds "Well I just died for it!" Heh.) The only thing that really grates is Peter Lorre's womanizing "Mexican General", which is clearly a turn-off for modern audiences, but functional in the story, I guess. Probably only worth it for Hitchcock fanatics, and like I said, you see some of his favored tropes here in their embryonic state, but nowhere near Hitch's best, even in this era. (Watched on Amazon Prime, a solid transfer) **
  • Saboteur (1942) - More minor Hitchcock, this time from his early American period. A man working in an aircraft factory is wrongly accused of sabotaging the plant, causing a fire that killed his best friend. Naturally, he goes on the run and tries to clear his name. Hitch sure did make a killing on wartime espionage stories, and this one is a decent enough example. Probably not the best, but it's a good wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time tale that Hitch is always great at pulling off. I don't think it's the first example of setting a climactic scene at a monument, but this one does go to the Statue of Liberty (which has a nifty symbolic note), a feat only really rivaled by Hitch's later use of Mount Rushmore. Again, this one is probably more of interest to Hitchcock fanatics, but it's definitely a step up from Secret Agent, if not exactly competing with the true classics. (Watched on Blu Ray, though I do think this one's on Amazon Prime too) **1/2
  • The Vampire's Ghost (1945) - Mysterious death's plague a small, African port town. It turns out that the local bar owner is actually a vampire who's grown weary of time's inexorable march. Not the most culturally sensitive and pretty straightforward, it does have enough entertainment value to carry the day. I actually sought this one out because it was co-written by Leigh Brackett, and I wanted to check out some of her earlier work. Again, not a whole lot to it, but I enjoyed it well enough. (Watched a copy from Internet Archive) **
  • The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939) - Mr. Wong is a fictional Chinese-American detective who appeared in a series of stories in Collier's magazine, which was then adapted into a series of films starring Boris Karloff as the titular character. This is actually the second in that series of films (I stumbled onto it by accident, not realizing it was a series), but it appears to be standalone. It's basically a murder mystery. Mr. Wong attends a dinner party where an antiques collector is murdered under mysterious circumstances. It turns out that he had come into possession of a famously cursed jewel named "The Eye of the Daugther of The Moon." Hijinks ensue. Not exactly high cinema, but the mystery actually works and Karloff is always great. This series of films was put out by Mongram pictures, a low-budget studio who traded in cheap thrills at the theater. They churned out Mr. Wong movies at a 6 month clip, but if this one is any indication, they managed pretty well. I might actually check out more of these. (Watched on Amazon Prime, a solid transfer) **1/2
I should probably gravitate more towards classics here, but I'm actually kinda enjoying this midlist stuff, even if the ratings don't quite bear that out. You'll notice that most of this is available on Amazon Prime, which does have a pretty wide selection of older films (unlike, say, Netflix, which has, like, 10 movies made before 1950). Anway, I'm 5-6 movies behind on this whole project, but that should be simple enough to resolve throughout the rest of the year.
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Link Dump

Things seen on the internets: That's all for now...
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