Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Book report: "A Clash of Kings"

After I tackled "A Game of Thrones" in BLAP 58, concentrating on Early Installement Weirdness, I recently completed my reread of "A Clash of Kings", and so I want to give you my report here. Of course, you know the book, I knew the book, so I'm not reciting the plot and tell you it's a damn good book, but I'd rather make some stray observations.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Season 8 Episode 6 “The Iron Throne” review – A Feast of Conclusions?


Valarr morghulis. Everything needs to come to an end, and so does the greatest series of all time, the popcultural phenomenon to end all popcultural phenomena. Unlike the preceding episodes, this one isn’t exactly subtle or multi-layered about what characters are doing and why they’re doing it; nor does it need to be. Everyone is stating their motivations clearly. Every ambiguity left is deliberate. It’s always thus with endings. We know that Samwise is happy in the Shire. We don’t know whether Frodo will be in Valinor. And so we know that Samwell Tarly has the right job and becomes happy in it. We don’t know whether Arya will ever succeed. And that’s just how it’s meant to be.

Season 8 Episode 5 “The Bells” review – A coinflip


Sometimes, everything comes down to a choice. Sometimes, everything comes down to the flip of a coin. As the popular saying goes, each time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin, and the world holds its breath. As Varys says, he’s quite unsure on what side Dany’s will land. From there on out, one metaphysical question, old as human deliberation itself, hovers over everything: Do we possess free will?

Season 8 Episode 4 “The Last of the Starks” review – Castle of Glass


Last week, I wrote that it was so hard to assess the impact of the larger plot and themes as long as the show hasn’t finished the story yet, and the same still holds true today. For this reason, I’ll start with a disclaimer: I will try to call out the themes and larger developments as I see them unfolding right now, in the clear possibility that some red herrings will lead me astray. So I’ll not judge next week’s episode on the basis of whether it delivered on my readings of this one, as I hope my readers will not judge this review on the clairvoyance of its predictions.

Season 8 Episode 3 “The Long Night” review – Too big to comprehend


I think this is the first time that I’m at a total loss writing one of these reviews. We’re standing here, at what’s likely the apex of a development that speeded past us in the last half decade. If you had told me in 2014 that in 2019, we’d be watching a battle involving thousands of people on both sides, three dragons and a zombie giant IN THE MIDSEASON FINALE OF A TV SHOW, and that we’d complain about how much sense the battle tactics made, I’d have declared you a bit lucid. This a show that couldn’t scrape the money together to show more than two horses and twenty people for the Tourney of the Hand only seven years ago!

Season 8 Episode 2 “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” review: A Storm of Reunions


My illustrious co-host Sean T. Collins wrote in his terrific review of the first episode that while all the joy coming from the reunions in the season’s first episode lacked a bit of the bitterness that was the trademark of “Game of Thrones” all the time, ending with the knife-sharp conclusion that “poison helps the sugar go down”. It’s a staple by now to point to George R. R. Martin’s rare statement about the endgame of the series that it would be “bittersweet”. This episode showed how this can look in practice.

Season 8 Episode 1 “Winterfell” review: A Clash of Reunions


I’m conflicted about this episode. Really, really conflicted. On the one hand, in about an hour, it presents the culmination of moments that have been set in motion eight years ago, if you’re counting show-time, or even 23 years, if you’re counting book-time. People who haven’t seen each other since the first third of “A Game of Thrones” come back together on screen. In this clash of reunions, the possibilities and limitations of the medium TV all converge into one messy hour of screen time.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Jenniferography, part 1: Winter's Bone (2010)

Because of the great success of my series on the filmography of Kevin Costner (the Kevinography) and Channing Tatum (Channingography) - success defined by "no one made a fuzz about it" - I decided to also start one about Jennifer Lawrence. I had previously watched the Hunger Games movies and the X-Men movies featuring her, as well as Mother!, so I decided that before I rewatched those I would start with some I didn't already kow. 

Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a resident of the Ozarks in Missouri, in an area that could easily be taken directly from the pages of J. D. Vance's "Hillbilly Eligy". There are a lot of rundown houses, ruined houses, rundown people, ruined people. Everyone is poor, everyone is miserable, everyone is dreary. Ree is 17, saddled with two young siblings and a catatonic mother, caring for the complete family. The father is in jail, and now he's out - somewhere. 
As the family quickly learns, part of his rehabilitation agreement was that he present himself in court in a week's time, and he has since vanished. Ree couldn't give less of a fuck about the absent father, but the family patriarch put up their home as bond. She now has one week to find him and convince him to appear in court, or else face homelessness for her and her family. 
Unfortunately, this proves more difficult than expected. The tight-knit community blocks all her attempts. Even her uncle tells her that it's her father's decision whether he shows up or not, and that they have simply to live with the consequences. The family unhelpful as that, even backing up the sentiment with a threat of violence, it's easy to anticipate what reaction will come from the rest of the criminal Ozark underbelly. And that's exactly what happens. Violence and dead ends tempt utter despair on Ree.
That's where I want to leave the synopsis for now, not to spoil anything if you haven't yet watched this movie.
I have no way of knowing if this is true, but given the date of the movie, it makes sense that the people in charge of the casting for the Hunger Games movies watched it. It almost seems like a casting reel in some respects. 
On the one hand, there is the extremely dreary Ozarks landscape. The rundown houses and people, the bad jobs, the non-existent healthcare, the bad food situation, lacking education, all of it could be set directly in District 12. That alone of course doesn't do much; it's par for the course for these stories of White Trash, much like sprayed, dirty hallways in anonymous apartment blocks belong to every story about the African American experience. 
But the character of Ree also has strong vibes of Katniss Everdeen in the way she carries herself. It's not like the characters themselves are much alike, but the way they're presenting themselves to the world - stoic, with a touch of badass, willing to take a beating but incredibly vulnerable and young under the surface - is eerily similar. And Lawrence really nails it. In the hands of a lesser actress, this would just be an emotionless performanc, presenting a stony outlook to the world, but Lawrence manages to give Ree a vulnerability under the strong surface that creates a lot of nuance. 
The story itself is also surprisingly written and takes some unexpected turns. It's almost like an expedition into a strange, foreign country. People are behaving according to a complex set of rules and norms that outsiders cannot penetrate, and Ree is an outsider - although she doesn't really know why. She can navigate a lot of the toxic masculinity and faux "family values" subculture, but the norms of the criminal fraternity, she cannot penetrate. 
Therefore, her mission is doomed to fail. The state itself is uncaring. Of course Missouri has no use for a run-down shack in the Ozarks like the one Ree lives in, and of course putting her and her family out on the street does nothing than create misery, but everything is geared towards that result with disheartening inevitability. 
Whether or not this seemingly inevitable conclusion comes to pass I do not want to spoil. But this isn't Vance's self-congratulatory hagiography, it's much more real than that. It's not like a happy ending is waiting for anyone at that particular cul-de-sac of the American Dream.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Channingography, part 2: Jump Streets


I do faintly remember seeing a trailer for 22 Jump Street in cinema. My wife and I instantly knew that it was silly, stupid trash that we didn't need to watch. People drinking in college? How funny and entertaining. I'm not a party person, never were, and so, this movie wasn't in any way interesting to us. Getting 21 Jump Street and its sequel therefore in order to continue my Channingography project felt a bit like a chore. But as with Magic Mike, I was pleasently surprised. Quite a lot, actually. 
And that really is surprising, because the genre itself isn't usually something I like. I'd describe it as action comedy with a lot of parody elements. Let me give you a quick synopsis before we go into a discussion. 
In 2005, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenk (Channing Tatum) pass High School. Jenko is a jock, Schmidt is a nerd. Both go to the police, and fast forward in 2012, they're at the lowest spot in the pecking order, still basically children if now in adult's bodies, and desperate to get ahead. After a fuck-up they get assigned to undercover unit 21 Jump Street and an assignment to infiltrate High School to flush out a drug dealer. 
In 2014, they do the exact same thing again, this time in 22 Jump Street (get it?). Only this time, they're in college, not in High School. But it's the exact same plot otherwise, a fact that the movie points out with alarming regularity. 
The humor in these movies is not exactly subtle. The unit commander, played by Ice Cube, resides in a cube. His name is Captain Dickson, and if you think the penis jokes stop there, you're sorely mistaken. Meta jokes also abound; the characters are all genre savvy. And so on. 
This should be a simple paint-by-numbers thing, using Hill's and Tatum's natural chemistry and charisma, but surprisingly, it's much more than that. A good deal of that comes from the fact that all characters are genre savvy, because this allows the movies to subtely subvert expectations of audience and characters alike, but it's also poignant in how it defies several of the more clicheed tropes that are harmful and instead try to say something of substance. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. 
The throughline joke of both movies is that it's utterly ridiculous anyone would believe these 30ish men could pass as High Schoolers or even College attendees. While everyone likes to point out how old they look, nobody ever seriously questions it (which basically extends to other characters as well, it's not like James Franco would look the High School part, either). 
The same is true about the ridiculouness of the Jump Street unit itself, which is treated as an utter joke (including a cameo by Johnny Depp in 22 Jump Street), while at the same time dumping on the idea of sequels that are doing the same thing, only bigger (EVERYONE in 22 Jump Street comments on this concept, and the whole credits are an extended riff on uninspired sequels). In that context, the biggest gag these movies pull is that there's no third one to fill up a trilogy. 
But there are subtler things going on than these enjoyable meta-jokes. They're very progressive considering their release dates in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Jenko, Channing Tatum's character, for example harangues everyone for making homophobic jokes or comments. Women refuse to play the parts these movies usually reserve for them (including a Walk of Shame for Schmidt!), and so on.
The thing I loved best, though, was the subversion of the jock-nerd-dynamic. While Schmidt and Jenko are introduced in a slightly antagonistic way - Schmidt is asking the hot girl out for prom and gets rejected to the laughter of Jenko - the two of them become best buddies in police academy, playing into their respective strengths and developing mutual respect. It's not so much that they were adversaries in High School; they just lived in different universes that practically didn't cross. 
But the genius comes when they return to High School. It's been only seven years, but everything changed. Jenko quickly has to realize that his attempts at teaching Schmidt how to be cool are utterly wasted, not because Schmidt couldn't perform, but because Jenko's jock coolness is out of fashion. It's the nerd's world now, full in the grip of Nerdstream, and while Schmidt is able to gain all the recognition from a new generation of students that he never got, Jenko is relegated to the sidelines - only to fall in with the geeks. They're not oppressed like Schmidt back in the day, more secluded.
That way, there are surprisingly deep character arcs, character arcs that feel incredibly true. I concluded the Germany's High School equivalent in 2005 as well, and I finished university in 2011, returning to school as a trainee teacher in 2012, so this feels incredibly personal for me - and true. There is a new generation of students, and the amount of bullying, shaming and exclusion has gone down considerably. I can feel for Jenko's experiences, because I can see them every day, but I feel A LOT for Schmidt - including the temptations he falls for. He has the chance to basically relive the final year of High School in an absolute dream state. This is a fantasy a lot of people can emphasize with, I guess, and the central conflict of the movie isn't to catch the damn dealer, it's to resist that temptation. 
The script is subtly flipped again in 22 Jump Street. Neither Jenko nor Schmidt went to College, obviously, so this chance is new. But defying expectations, it's not Schmidt who is tempted here, but Jenko. Quarterback Zoot (Wyatt Russell, of "Falcon and the Winter Soldier" fame) includes Jenko in the team, offering him a chance for a scholarship and a way out of the police into a better life - drug dealers be damned. This character conflict drives the action in the second movie, and it's once again played entirely straight. 
So is College. While there's a lot of partying, it still feels like a realistic experience, because it's clear that all these young people are torn between the urge to enjoy themselves as much as possible and taste the fruits of youth that Schmidt and Jenko pointedly missed and are now trying to recreate on the one hand and the realization of their live goals on the other hand. 
That way, the movies piognantly tell something about do-overs, nostalgia, High School and College. Below the veneer of unseriousness and screwball comedy that the trailers promised (and sold to great success) there's a surprisingly deep well of things to reflect.
The movies are also wickedly funny, though.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Book report: Game of Thrones

Like most of you (I gather), I reread "A Song of Ice and Fire" about once per year, or near enough as makes no matter. For this reread, I want to focus on the structure of "A Game of Thrones", a kind of meta-analysis, if you will, and especially concentrate on "early installment weirdness". That term relates to the first volume of a series, or the first episode, or whatever your medium might be, and how it usually is a bit rough on the edges. Ideas are not fully formed yet, characters not really "there", and there are elements that didn't work and were consequently dropped.

There's a surprisingly big amount of that. It shouldn't really be surprising, given that Martin started writing this almost thirty years ago (in 1993!), but compared to the later novels or the (finished!) TV series, it is rather noticable. For example, there is Tyrion's artistic ability, never brought up again until Martin retroactively put a lid on it in "A Dance with Dragons" by explaining it as an artifact of his backstory.
Such details pale towards plot elements that stem from Martin's original outline. There is the groundwork laid for the later three-way-romance between Tyrion, Jon and Arya (mercifully dropped already by the end of the novel, but if you know that Martin planned for this, it's clear to see). Jon's relationship with Arya is strongly established and has little payoff in the novels following it; Robb is the much more important fixpoint for Jon's memories of home.
There's the groundwork laid for the later planned destruction of Winterfell at Tyrion's hands. The wolves' aggression towards Tyrion, his strong connection to the place, the tragic of his friendship to Jon - both in terms of the planned romance with Arya and the destruction of his childhood home - all point towards that direction.
There's the groundwork laid for Catelyn's journey beyond the Wall, as when she is the primary conduit for the dark premonitions about the Land Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder and the Others. When she hopes that Eddard will have gotten her pregnant again after they had sex in her first chapter, we see an echo of the child birth that was supposed to be her death in that frozen wasteland (a plot thread that Martin returned to with alarming regularity since).
There are also many elements that, would he write "A Game of Thrones" now, would be there but are absent. The most glaring for me is the lack of references. Eddard Stark becomes Hand of the King, but no one compares him to Cregan Stark, which would be an obvious comparison, especially for Pycelle, Varys and Littlefinger. The behavior of people towards Eddard as the first Stark Hand since Cregan makes no sense at all now that "The Hour of the Wolf" is a thing, but of course, it was not yet conceived back then.
People instead tread Ned as a provincial, a bit unrefined and straightforward, much as he is written. But given what we know about Targaryen history by now, there should be a lot darker and much more concrete biases at work. The same goes for kingsguard, king and nobility in general, the Dothraki and the role of the Free Cities - none of it is grounded in the detailed history Martin has written since. One can debate, I guess, the wisdom of creating all that stuff afterwards.
The same is true of several regions: the Iron Islands are treated as an afterthought; they will be developed as a solution after Tyrion cannot destroy Winterfell anymore because his plot leads to King's Landing. Dorne is only mentioned in passing. The Tyrells likewise. There's no mention of the Crownlands. And so on.
The novel itself remains the weakest of the entire series when we talk about intricacy of plotting and depth of character. It is "only" an extremely well written political thriller set in a low-fantasy world. The main threads are Ned's investigation in Jon Arryn's death - a mystery that will only be solved in the finale of "A Storm of Swords"! - and the political fallout of the Lannister intrigue against Robert Baratheon.
What is very noticable is the tight plotting on the one hand - chapters are following directly on each other and deliver the consequences of the actions of the previous chapter much of the time, instead of following unconnected threads, with the notable exception of Daenerys' arc. But even Dany gets connected to the main plot via the murder attempt and the fears of Robert in a way that will not be true in the following novels.
It's even more pronounced with Jon's arc, which is so carefully plotted that each revelation comes just too late for Jon to take a different course, perfectly calibrated to play out his inner struggles with his dual identity between Stark and Night's Watch.
That is not to take away from an, once again, extremely well written novel. But especially compared to Feastdance, the lack of themes, the close interconnectedness of character arcs with the plot, and above all, the careful construction of the plot stick out. It is incredible on how many chances and coincidences the plot hinges. The fates in the person of Martin have their thumbs on the scales, HARD.
Once again, all of that is not take away from "A Game of Thrones". It makes it, however, the least "A Song of Ice and Fire"-y of all the novels. It's no wonder that Martin was able to write the first three novels so much faster than the last three. The main challenge here is to think about which character best to tell which event through, as to obfuscate and set up most effectively. But there is no question who is present where when; Martin only needs to choose. There is no Meereenese Knot, no question of which character will arrive when where to which effect, how to make time jumps and so on. It's almost quaint. And if you know "A Game of Thrones", you know what that means for the series at large. It's a breathtaking accomplishment. One can only stand in awe of Martin's abilities.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Channingography, part 1: Magic Mike

This is the beginning of a series in which I watch movies with Channing Tatum. This guy hasn't been on my radar in like forever. I've seen "Jupiter Ascending" a while back, but nothing else I can remember. What I do remember is having seen a trailer to "22 Jump Street" in cinema back in 2014 and filed it under cheap trash. For a reason I can't even remember I read a glowing review of "Magic Mike", and I decided to check the movie out. I watched it, and only after I finished watching it I realized that I actually watched the sequel, "Magic Mike XXL". So I went back and also watched the original. 
"Magic Mike" is a story about male strippers. The titular Mike is our protagonist, but he doesn't take center stage; there's room enough for other abs and pairs of biceps to go around. I was very sceptical, I have to admit. Tatum is just the kind of actor starring in the kinds of movies that usually aren't for me, and male strippers isn't a subject matter I was particularily engaged in. 

Friday, August 6, 2021

The problem with telling "Alien" stories

Fox has announced that they're going to produce a TV series set in the "Alien" universe done by the creator of Fargo. Esteemed colleague Matt Zoller Seitz already laid out his predictions for the series: 

1 It's an anthology telling stories in seasons 
2 Jumps through the franchise timeline a la Fargo 
3 Weyland-Yutani is the connecting thread a la gang wars in Fargo 
4 Established characters cameo as younger/older versions of themselves

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Revenge is no tasty dish

Warning: Spoilers for "Promising Young Woman" incoming. 

Revenge stories are a classic in movies. Usually they involve some wronged manly man who then goes on a rampage to rectify things, usually by killing everyone, which somehow makes it okay. Look no further than half the filmography of Gerard Butler (especially the atrocious "Law Abiding Citizen"). Tarantino mixed the genre up by switching the manly man into a female woman, but that has gone stale since then, too.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Kevinography, part 16: McFarland, USA (2015)

This is part 16 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.

Synopsis: Mr. White (Kevin Costner) is a football teacher who gets angry quickly and cycles through jobs quickly. Now he hits the end of the line in southern California immigrant community McFarland, where he's hired as teacher and assistant coach. He quickly gets into another fight that leads to his dismissal from the football team, but he discovers something else: the Mexican-American kids that make up the school are damn good runners. So he trains them for cross-country running - and they train him in becoming a member of the community. When the team qualifies for the statewide competition, the stakes get a lot higher...

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Kevinography, part 15 - No way out (1987)

This is part 15 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.

Synopsis: Navy officer Tom Farell (Kevin Costner) gets an assignment as personal liasion to the shady Secretary of Defense Brice (Gene Hackman) and his slimy assistant, Duvall (Will Patton). Things get complicated when Farell falls in love with the same woman that Brice has enlisted as his mistress, Susan Atwell (Sean Young). In a fit of jealous rage, Brice kills his mistress - not knowing who her lover is. Farell knows, and he's now an integral part of the investigation - an investigation that Brice is trying to steer into the direction of fingering an unknown Russian agent. Said agent would be Farell, who needs to prove his innocence before Brice finds out who exactly is leading his "investigation"...

Friday, May 21, 2021

Kevinography, part 14 - Let him go (2020)

This is part 14 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.
Synopsis: In 1967, a man falls off a horse and dies. He leaves behind his young wife (Kayli Carter), their babe and his parents (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane). The wife remarries, and the husband turns out to be abusive. Before the parents can do something about it, he forces his family to North Dakota, back to where his clan lives. The parents follow, realizing too late just what kind of people their son-in-law descends from...

Sunday, May 9, 2021

In the maw of catastrophe - a review of Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Ministry of the Future"

I have a chequered history with Kim Stanley Robinson. I tried to read the Martian trilogy and finished "Red Mars", but then I gave up a few chapters in of "Green Mars". I read about the first third of "2312" before I gave that one up. I was tempted by the premises of "New York 2140" as well as "Aurora", but I never quite dared to get disappointed again, even though they intrigued me. I can happily report that I finished his latest book, "The Ministry of the Future". 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Kevinography, part 12: Bull Durham (1988)

This is part 12 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.

Synopsis: The Minor League baseball team Durham Bulls has a new player, "Nuke" (Tim Robinson), with some promise who might help them break their losing streak, but he's his own worst enemy. So the manager brings in aging pitcher Crash Davies (Kevin Costner), whose job it is to mature the boy. This job is complicated by Annie (Susan Sarandon). She sleeps with one up-and-coming player per season, and she can't decide whether it shall be Nuke or Crash. What follows is a journey through the love life of three people, interspersed with a lot of bad baseball.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Kevinography, part 11: "The Untouchables" (1987)

This is part 11 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.

Synopsis: In 1930, Chicago is in the grip of Al Capone and his thugs. Elliot Ness (Costner), Treasury Agent, is fresh on the job trying to bust Capone. But the police is corrupted to the core, and so, when Ness meets honest cop Jimmy (Sean Connery), he founds a new task force of untouchable cops. Taking the fight to Capone carries its own risks, though, as the mobster is gunning for lives and families....

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Kevinography, part 10: Thirteen Days (2000)

This post comes out of a series of writing I do on ASOIAF meta and other topics of popular culture over at the Patreon of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. If you like to read stuff like this, chime in just 1$ and you get access to everything I write. If you throw in 2$, you even get access to the audio version. For 5$, you get access to the mini-podcasts I'm doing with illustrious co-hosts answering questions by listeners of the podcast. At 10$, you get exclusive access to the Boiled Leather Audio Conversation bonus podcasts. Give the Patreon a look!

This is part 3 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.

Synopsis: In 1962, the Soviet Union secretly deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba. When the US found out, a deadly game of cat and mouse started as the US administration tried to find a course of action not drawing the world into nuclear war. While the military tries to goad the cabinet into war, Kenneth O'Donnel (Costner), Special Assistant to the President, is among those trying to find a political solution. But events take on a dynamic of their own, and it seems like the world will soon bust in flames...