Review: Under the Skin

I saw this over the weekend, knowing nothing before walking in other than that it had Scarlett Johansen and wasn’t the one of her with the trailer in front of Captain America.  (Man did that movie look good until they explained the premise).  So when it opened with an extended sequence of staring into a light that slowly morphed into an eye I started surprised, then immediately adjusted to “Oh, I’m in an art movie,” mode.  Thanks gratuitous and heavy-handed light-eye imagery!

If you’re looking for a successful attack on traditional story telling technique in film, or a movie carried almost entirely by its images and performances, this is your thing.  It was very well done, and I’m very inclined to pick up the book it was based on, if only to see how that story got told in prose.  (I still haven’t looked up anything about the movie, so all I know about the alleged premise is what the people I went with explained over dinner after)

I spent a good while after the movie pondering it, and did a lot of listening to the six other people I saw it with talk about it – what they liked, what they didn’t like – and by the time I’d polished off the delightful walnut-gorgonzola-cranberry salad concoction I had for dinner, I’d come to a very solid conclusion: It was a really well done movie I did not like at all.

The brilliance of the movie is that it’s very easy to construct a narrative of what happened, and seven people who all saw it can then proceed to argue about what the actual narrative was without any of them being conclusively wrong or right.  I love successful narratives that require their audiences to do some of the heavy lifting.  But what isn’t debatable about what happened are the following: (I’m about to spoiler nearly everything that can be spoilered about the movie)

1) Scarlett Johanson’s character starts of as a non-human, gender-role swapped predator, driving around and picking men without family or connections who are out walking alone at night

2) This ends badly for the men

3) She decides to stop doing the predator thing after encountering a deformed man who is the opposite of the skeevy guys she’s been encountering all film.

4) Experiments with being “normal” or “more human” lead her to spend some time with a genuinely nice guy, but all fail and lead to her freaking out and running away.

5) A lumberjack tries to rape her, realizes she’s not human, then sets her on fire.

6) The end.


It’s possible I’ve never said this before, but I am completely dissatisfied with that unhappy ending.  At the metaphorical/thematic level, it’s asserting that we (maybe just women, maybe everybody) have a choice between being a predator, or being raped and set on fire, a proposition I could spend a great many words taking issue with. At the more concrete, literal level, it seems to be claiming that a creature capable of single-handedly luring men to their demise with phenomenal consistency can’t handle a randy lumberjack and just gets abused and burned alive? The only other woman in the entire movie drowns while trying to rescue her dog, so if it’s trying to present the thematic content as something to then discuss and criticize, the discussion and criticism is completely absent.

I mean, I’m all for setting people on fire as a means of problem solving, especially plot problems, and cinders are a great end point for character development. But this movie didn’t earn it.

A Love Letter to Jonathan Hoag

Yesterday I ran across this news that’s nearly a year old.  (Thanks, Ciro!)  This fills me with happy joy and anticipation in a way that can only be understood by other people who’ve had something they love and adore adapted.

“The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” is one of my favorite pieces of fiction ever, and is, I think unquestionably, the best thing Heinlein ever wrote.  The summary for the movie says it’s about a man who realizes he doesn’t know what he does at work all day, and hires a married PI couple to find out.  That’s a great summary of the inciting incident of the story – it’s not at all what it’s about.

The bulk of the story is about the PI couple.  The novella was written in 1942, before Heinlein got lazy about building his relationships between his characters, and this story is mostly a love letter to their relationship.  Ted and Cynthia, the PI couple, are real partners, a true team.  Cynthia winds up playing secretary a lot – something people justifiably criticize Heinlein’s heroines for doing all the the time – but she’s clearly doing it because that’s the role she needs to play when they interact with the rest of society, and she’s clearly playing.  The story pauses at several moments to sort of roll its eyes at the world that has those silly, narrow expectations for Cynthia, and to congratulate the couple for subverting those expectations to their own ends.

One of the things that has always drawn me to this is Heinlein’s unrelenting, visceral hatred of Chicago.  He hates Chicago so much that it’s one of his most detailed, real settings.  I’d already decided to move to Chicago the first time I read this, and the way he hated it, for being dirty, full of people, dense, was reassuring.  Heinlein and I do not want the same things from our living environments, much like we don’t want the same things from our open relationships.  But that didn’t matter, because telling this story in Chicago, and making Chicago a stand-in for everything that is broken and awful in this world, gives our heroes the space to be a couple, to be partners, to love each other.

And this is absolutely a love story.  A bleak, pessimistic love story that still finds a way to let our heroes have a happy ending.  A love story with protagonists who deserve each other and their relationship.  It’s a story about what it means that we can love each other, and what that love looks like, and what it’s worth.  And it does it with fantastically creep tension and a genuinely compelling mystery.

If you’ve missed reading this, and most people who aren’t dedicated Heinlein fans have, go read it.  It’s lovely and rewarding and well worth the time you’ll spend.

Incomplete Award Nominations

I’ve not quite put all my nominations for the Hugos and Nebulas together, but deadlines are fast approaching, so here are what I do know I’m doing.


The Killing Moon – Nora Jemison

Make no mistake, I plan to throw a spectacularly childish fit if this one doesn’t get nominated for everything under the sun this year.  If want to see me throw a spectacularly childish fit, I will throw one in order to solicit nominations for this book.

Glamour in Glass – Mary Robinette Kowal

I quite liked Shades of Milk and Honey, but the ending didn’t quite nail it for me.  Glamour in Glass had no such problems and was even more enjoyable than it’s predecessor.  And it’s not often that “Light-hearted” and “Comedy” are applicable tags to things I recommend, though they do apply to this series. I’m pleased there’s going to be more.

Alif the Unseen – G. Willow Wilson

This book wasn’t flawless – it falls apart particularly hard when the main characters start explaining the computer-y things they’re doing for anybody who knows anything about the computer-y things.  That said, it does the magic + computing thing better than I’ve seen anywhere else, and this is a trope that usually destroys a book for me.  The setting was great, and used to fantastic effect.  Well worth a nomination despite its flaws.

Short Story

The Three Feats of Agani – Christie Yant

I’ve already written about this story here.  It’s fantastic, evocative, and doesn’t flinch from the really necessary ending.

Robot – Helena Bell

It’s flash and I love it.  What more could you possibly need to hear to tell you this story is exceptional?

Her Words Like Hunting Vixens – Brook Bolander

Great setting, nice twist on Western tropes.  I was listening to the podcast of this story on my way to the airport last year and sat in the parking lot before turning in the rental car.

The Suicide’s Guide to the Absinthe of Perdition – Megan Ackenburg

The story is flat out beautiful, lush and worth reading or listening to, and nominating for awards.

Wing – Amal el-Mohtar

My weakness for pretty is known.  This is a pretty little gem full of atmosphere and numinous simplicity.

Dramatic Presentation

Todd Akin’s interview on KTVI-TV

Some fantastic science fiction going on there, which fearlessly delves into current social issues.  It almost cuts too close to parody for my tastes, but is nomination worthy all the same.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

Basically because I, too, am well and truly fed up with Dr. Who sweeping the category even when it’s made of relentless suck, like the most recent season. See, I get bitter and lodge protest votes for things other than presidential elections!

Madoka Magica

I watched the whole thing in a single weekend.  It’s made of Anaea-crack, gorgeously animated, and mercilessly chews through tropes and turns them on their head.  I’m told if you’re more familiar with the Magical Girl anime genre than I am (which would mean having seen any of it) then it’s even better.  The possibility of that blows my mind.

I still haven’t decided whether I’m nominating myself for the Campbell.  It’ll come down to how hard it is for me to narrow down the list of people I’d like to nominate, and whether there’s room for me once I do.  Fortunately, the Hugos have more time for making decisions than the Nebulas.

Django Unchained – Onscreen Victims

The roomies and I went to see Django Unchained last weekend.  I was really looking forward to it because I adored Inglorious Basterds and I was curious to see what Tarantino would do with the antebellum South.  I went into it a little worried I’d wind up offended – between dealing with slavery and pitfalls there, and my general touchiness about people who don’t get the South making stupid jokes, there was lots of potential – but that’s not what wound up happening.  Instead, I got bored.  Which was weird.  So I spent a while trying to figure out why I got bored.

Django Unchained plays with a lot of the same formula at use in Inglorious Basterds – you’ve got clear good guys and bad guys, and the good guys go about being good guys by doing really bad things to the bad guys, all in a fantastical setting that looks like the historical one where the movie is set.  Where Inglorious Basterds worked for me as a joyful romp through convincigly faux Nazi-occupied Europe, Django Unchained hit an uncanny valley where it looked enough like the actual antebellum South that I tripped all over the historical inaccuracies that were part of the ways it was meant to be fantastical.

For example, there’s a long scene featuring the KKK, well before Reconstruction.  That makes my history senses itch, but I can roll with it for a good movie.  Except that in this case, the KKK was there to set up the longest running version of the oldest KKK joke out there, i.e. hoods make it hard to see.  Dear Everybody: The KKK is so very pompously, ridiculously absurd that if you spend 10 minutes researching it on Wikipedia, YOU WILL FIND SOMETHING BETTER THAN THE HOODS TO PICK ON.  Seriously.  Check out the rank system if you don’t believe me.

I think the primary reason Django Unchained failed – weak jokes aside – has to do with the biggest structural difference between it and Basterds: we see the victims.  Basterds never shows you the concentration camps.  In fact, after the opening scene, we never see a “civilian.”  Shoshana is the closest we come, but her plot is more or less about how she’s a player in the fight.  On the other hand, Django is full of the vicitms.  Consequently, we spend a lot of time watching our heroes cringing while they witness the bad guys being bad, which hugely undercuts the unhinged glee of punishing the bad guys.

I have no idea how you successfully set a slave-revenge flick in the antebellum South without showing the victims you’re avenging, or how you do show the victims without then having to let your heroes pause to feel uncomfortable with it.  Clearly, neither did Tarantino.  Which was a problem for this movie.  And, at least as far as my overall enjoyment of the movie goes, a fatal one.

There’s lots of fodder for talking about “stuff” in this movie, and all of the acting was fantastic.  But if you’re hoping for the same twisted glee Inglorious Basterds delivered, you’ll be let down.

Review: Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1

A couple months ago Nick handed me a stack of CDs, as he is wont to do.  One of them was completely black.  I don’t mean black text on black paper, I mean just black.  The liner notes?  Blank black pages.  “What is this?” I asked.  “It’s Lupe Fiasco’s new album.”

In case you aren’t familiar, Lupe Fiasco is the guy who got me interested in English-language rap by covering subjects varying from the awesomeness of Chicago, to Robots attacking D.C., to young skateboarders in love.  So it was with something akin to glee that I stuck the CD into my car stereo.

Thinkin’ protests are temporary and trendy
Well rock a t-shirt and carry a poster
And two weeks later it’s back to normal

– Ayesha Says (Intro)

This album crawled into the spot in my brain where my election-year-induced media obsession lives and put down roots.  Four years ago it was Dark Knight, this year it was Food & Liquor II.  He’s beautifully, powerfully angry, with all the eloquence I’ve been scrambling for since June.  There are a ton of fantastically poetic, clever lines, but it was it was this bit in the intro track that gave me notice I was going to love this album.

Anybody who’s had the (mis)fortune of riding in my car with me has been subjected to a steady litany of “Oh this song.  I love this one!  Oh, and this one too.  Have I made you listen to this one yet?”

The anger here isn’t my anger; I’m not a black and the album is thick with discourse about race relations and problems therein.  There’s a bit of pan-colored-people-solidarity which always strikes me as naive, but the power behind the words mostly makes it very easy for me to just shut up and listen.

I’m very tempted to do a song-by-song analysis explaining why each of the songs on this album is, one way or another, brilliant, but I’ll refrain.  Still, I have to squee a bit about what he does in Brave Heart.  The last verse is a rhetorically dense perfection with a fantastic punch line.

As archaeologists dig in the deserts of the east
A pit a hundred meters wide and a hundred meters deep
They discover ancient cars on even older streets
And a city well preserved and most likely at its peak

A society at peace. With liberty and justice for all
Neatly carved in what seems to be a wall
They would doubt that there was any starvation at all
That they pretty much had the poverty problem all solved

Religions kinda complex. Kinda hard to figure out
And this must be the temple
This White House

If you like rap, go get this album right now.  If you don’t like rap, but make any claims to liking poetry, rhetoric, or literary quality, go get this album right now.  If you don’t like rap but want to see what it’s like when it’s brilliant, album. Get. Now.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi: A Secret Horror Film

The way this documentary is done is genius.  You wouldn’t believe them if they came right out and said they were recording the effects of a malevolent demonic force, but through carefully arranging their scenes and interview clips, the audience can’t possibly doubt what’s going on.

Jiro is an ancient, primal spirit living in a tunnel used by the the Tokyo subway.  There he keeps a small shop where he uses carefully, alchemically crafted treats to lure in the unsuspecting, rob them of worldly wealth and sap their vital energy.  The interviews with the victims are surprisingly consistent on that front.  In fifteen minutes they’ll have spent more than $300.  “I was nervous, the first time I went in,” is an extremely common comment.  On film, Jiro looks like a genial old man, but everybody who meets him talks about how intimidating he is.

The apprentices in his shop are forced to massage be-tentacled, Lovecraftian horrors and complete Sisyphean tasks with avian larvae.  They could go through this torture for as much as ten years before Jiro will release them.  “Some of them don’t even make it a day,” the oldest son comments, on the fate of those poor buggers.

Jiro was a menace before he found his calling as a tunnel-demon, though.  The documentary interviews some of his childhood friends, who talk about how he bullied them when they were young.  “But we like him now,” they’re quick to assure us.  Do I imagine that nervous glance toward Jiro?  I think not.

The real tragedy of the horror show is Jiro’s oldest son who is trapped in the tunnel until his father dies.  Jiro smiles maliciously when he talks about how his sons wanted to go to college, but he made them come work in the tunnel instead.  “I hated it for the first two years,” one of the sons says.  Now he’s a cowed, broken thing, quick to tell the apprentices they should listen to Jiro, prone to pine wistfully for his lost opportunities to become a speed demon, instead of a tunnel creature.  By the time the film starts showing the walls slowly contracting around him, the diminishing fish stocks even as sushi vendors proliferate, the audience is transfixed by the horror of the situation.

This is no slash and stab gore-fest, but a slow, sensuous, psychological torment.  Recommended to the connoisseur of food-porn and horror alike.

The Last Airbender: A mini-rant about Idealism

I just finished up watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, by which I mean the animated series, not the movie.  (I saw the movie first and it was so bad, it screamed “I murdered quality source material.”)  The first season is solid kid’s show with gestures towards being something interesting, and then the second season takes off, largely because Azula is made of awesome.  Why weren’t there role models like her when I was a kid?  I think the series’s biggest mistake was its failure to notice that Azula, not the Fire Lord, was the real antagonist of the series, which borked their finale a bit.

It’s got good characters, fantastic world building, a really solid plot and handles its cheery cuddly themes fairly well for a kid’s show.  There is, of course, a giant “but” there, and it’s in the way it handles those cuddly themes.

(Vague-ish spoilers for the finale below, though nothing you wouldn’t know from watching the show well before getting there)

As we crashing toward the finale, Aang starts freaking out over the conflict between the morals and ethics he was raised with and the actions he allegedly has to take in order to save the world from fire and destruction thanks to the bad guys.  There’s one, brief, moment when I thought the show had utterly transcended its status a kid’s cartoon, and it was when Aang gets told, “You’re the Avatar.  Doing your job matters more than your personal spiritual purity.  Get to it.”

“Wow,” said I to my viewing buddy.  “What a practical, and fantastically realistic moral to teach kids.  That’s awesome.”

My viewing buddy doesn’t talk much, but his eyebrows were clearly shouting, “You’re insane.  Also, speaking too soon.”

I’m not all that upset with what they wound up doing, i.e. finding a third option that solved the problem without the moral complications, particularly since while they hadn’t directly alluded to the world building detail that enabled it, I’d sorta deduced it as a mechanism anyway.  And teaching kids to find creative solutions to problems and not just accept the either-or presented to them is important, because the world is chock full of badly framed problems.  So this isn’t even a full-throated gripe about the show.  They didn’t wince or cop out, they just stepped aside from something that could have been fantastic.

But, I’m really, really tired of feeding kids a steady diet of platitudes and idealism and calling it virtuous.  Love doesn’t conquer all.  Words do hurt.  Friendship frequently doesn’t last forever.  Good doesn’t always triumph.  They can’t be whatever they want when they grow up, if only they try hard enough.  There’s a thinking feeling human buried under everybody, but they aren’t always good, whatever you mean by good.  Teaching kids anything else just gives them unreasonable expectations, making it that much harder when reality slaps them.

I’m not saying we should start a campaign to bring doom and gloom and misery and woe to all the little kiddies.  I’m not even saying it’s wrong to give them media with those messages – being a kid sucks hard enough that they need to be lied to if they’re going to tough it out to adulthood.  It’s the all-saccharine, all the time diet I’m objecting to.  It’s the lack of moments where somebody looks their past life in the eye and gets told, “You’ve got a job to do.  Now get your hands dirty and go do it.”  Thank you, Avatar, for giving me at least that much.

Also, you want a pure leader willing to walk their own path and actively shape their own destiny?  AZULA’S RIGHT THERE. /gripe

Three Things You Should Read with Brief Reviews

I’ve run into a slew of really good short fiction lately.  For example:

Robot by Helena Bell.  When I tell people I hate flash fiction but don’t have a problem with stories that just happen to be very short, this is the kind of story I mean as what I like.  It’s lush, structurally interesting, and exactly the right length.

Love Might Be Too Strong a Word by Charlie Jane Anders.  I got to hear a big chunk of this one read by Charlie Jane herself at WisCon and it was brilliant and I was vexed when she didn’t get to the ending.  Then I got to be pleasantly surprised when it turned up on my podcast while biking to dinner one night.  I took my time getting to dinner.

The Three Feats of Agani by Christie Yant.  This story is beautiful and tragic and I spent the whole time terrified it would have the wrong ending.  It didn’t.

These are all, incidentally, availbale by podcast, since it’s about the only way I’m keeping up with short fiction these days.  Also, one of these stories is a secret member of the pro-villainist movement.  I won’t say which, because that would be spoilers.

Jade Mountain Cafe: It’s Made of Crack

Sometimes you develop irrational affection for a place and it becomes dear to you beyond its qualities.  It could have a really convenient location, or be the only place you can get x thing even if they don’t do x thing well, or possibly they have particularly attractive employees.

Then there’s the place that’s so awesome there’s a guy strumming a square base on the patio just cuz, your baseline for thing x gets defined as “It’s competent if it’s 50% as good as here,” and you’ll drive clear across town on a weekly basis to go.  I have just such a place and it is Jade Mountain Cafe.

I go for their bubble tea and their pot stickers, and I go every Thursday.  Sometimes I go on Wednesday too.  Or Friday.  Or Sunday.  Those “ors” could accurately be read as “ands.”  They’re not actually as far away from my house as you can get while still being in Madison, but they do a decent impression of it.  I go anyway.  The tapioca beads they put in their tea aren’t just cooked correctly, with the right texture and density, they’re cooked superbly.  I think they cheat and use honey.  I’m totally down with cheating.

Let me give you some perspective so you can see what a big deal this is.  A year ago, I did not like tea.  At all.  But I loved fruit smoothies with tapoica beads, and was in severe withdrawal after developing an addiction in Chicago because nowhere in Madison did them well.  Then Jade Mountain opened, and while they didn’t do fruit smoothies, they cooked their tapioca so well that their tea smoothies were good enough.

Now I drink tea.

I’m not yet a refined, take my black tea black tea drinker, but tea no longer tastes like funky water.  I have an actual pallet.  I almost enjoy it even when it isn’t full of milk and honey and tasty, tasty tapioca.  I foresee legitimate tea fondness in my future.  That’s how good Jade Mountain is.

I want them to open up a new location on the west side something awful.  I may, in fact, have a place within walking distance of my house picked out, if only the coffee shop currently there would go out of business.

Yes, I am obsessed.  Yes, I am an addict.  But it’s not irrational.  They really are that good.  And if you live in Madison, or ever come by, you should come see it for yourself.

Review: Leviathan Wakes

I don’t have a lot to say about this one.  It grabbed me with the prologue and didn’t let go.  The plot twists nicely, the characters are complex and engaging, the world is viscerally real in the best of the gritty space opera tradition.  There was a point where I was annoyed with the book because the bad guys were doing stupid things just to be bad guys, but then when we started talking to the bad guys about why they’d done those things, they made perfect sense, so I was retroactively not annoyed with the book at all.  This book was badass in all the right ways, subtly creepy where appropriate, and did space travel so well and compellingly it makes me feel guilty for playing with FTL.

This, of course, means I rather hate the book, because I need to go have an anxiety attack about whether to vote for it, or for Embassytown.  Stupid quality.