Colossal

colossal_28film29Colossal, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, is a strange film to have to describe to someone. When you say “it’s a dark black comedy about alcoholism and abusive relationships starring Anne Hathaway, who finds out she’s causing a giant monster to attack Seoul”, you get some puzzled looks, because yes, this is a weird mashup of genres. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in; what little I’d heard suggested it would either be a huge disaster, or that I would love it. And hey, it’s not a disaster.

Anne Hathaway’s character, Gloria, is an unemployed writer with an alcohol problem. After being kicked out by her boyfriend she moves back to her home town, where she runs into her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who offers her a job at his bar. Gloria quickly settles into a pattern of drinking all night with Oscar and his buddies, often waking the next day with no memory of the night before.

And then the news starts reporting about a giant monster that has been materialising in Seoul, South Korea, causing terror and destruction. Gloria quickly comes to the realisation that she is in fact causing the monster to appear, and it is mimicking her actions.

It’s a pretty blatant metaphor: the monster destroying Seoul as a stand in for the damage Gloria causes to those around her with her self-destructive drunken behaviour. Where things get really interesting is after she shares her discovery with Oscar and his friends; Gloria’s relationship with Oscar begins to take a darker turn, and their influence over the events in Korea become part of an increasingly abusive cycle.

It’s so obvious what the film is doing with this premise that it seems like it shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does. Despite some jarring swings in tone in the early parts – when the monster attacks are first reported I felt like this would fall apart after all – the film really manages to sell the idea that this is what is happening, and this is what real, flawed people would do with that power. The performance by Sudeikis in particular, with the gradual reveal of his abusive nature, is excellent.

This can be a very dark film, and it is tackling some serious subject matter, but it also manages to have incredibly funny moments, even when what’s happening perhaps isn’t something that should be laughed at.  The tone does clash at times, but for the most part it’s handled well, and I think the portrayal of domestic abuse is something the film does well and treats somewhat respectfully. If there’s one problem on that end it’s that the resolution of their conflict is maybe a little too easy and neat.

One final thing I feel is worth bringing up, and which adds a small caveat to my otherwise strong recommendation, is that this is a film about two white Americans in New England whose personal problems are acted out upon the lives of thousands of South Koreans; the very real death and destruction they cause is far removed from them, existing for the purposes of the film as part of an extended metaphor for the control abusers can hold over their victims. As a white westerner myself I don’t think there’s much I can say about that, but the use of Asian lives like this without providing them a real presence or agency in the film seems like something that deserves addressing.

That said, Colossal is unique, weird, and features some brilliant performances. It might not work for everyone, but I very much enjoyed it and would recommend checking it out. It’s in cinemas in the UK right now (though not in all of them; I had to travel a little out of my way to see it).

X-Men Apocalypse

X-Men Apocalypse would be a good film, if they hadn’t decided to skimp on character development in favour of filling the middle with pointless fanservice and padding.

(Spoilers ahead.)

I just got back from seeing the film, and I already tweeted a bunch of thoughts on it, but here I’ll go over them in a little more detail.

So you’re making a movie, and you have a group of teenage characters who are just getting to know each other. The foreign exchange student wants to see a bit of US culture, so what else is there to do but have them take a trip to the mall? (This is set in the 80s, after all.) They get to hang out together on their own terms for the first time; you can show how they interact as a group, start them bonding. Maybe the new kid gets into some trouble because he looks different, and his new friends stick up for him. When they come back to school and find out that plot has happened, they’ve already become a team to the audience’s eyes.

Or you can have all that happen off screen and show another Quicksilver slow-mo sequence instead. The fans liked that last time, right? They won’t want to get to know these new characters, what they want is the same thing as last time, but twice as long and with way more forced humour.

And that there is where X-Men Apocalypse falls down. While we do get to know Scott Summers, Jean Grey, and Kurt Wagner somewhat, their initial bonding as a group happens off screen. This is perhaps because the following segment of the film has the three of them working together to help rescue several other X-Men (and Moira McTaggart) from Colonel Stryker, but the problem with that is the entire sequence is irrelevant to the plot of the film.

At best, the section in Col. Stryker’s secret base exists only to have a fanservice scene of a newly-created Weapon X Wolverine slaughtering his way through a small army. It’s padding, pure and simple, and adds nothing to the Apocalypse story.

(Can I just jump in here to say how bullshit it is that it’s the three characters who get to work together here? There are four friends who go to the mall together, and thus avoid getting caught by Stryker. Jubilee, another fan favourite character, is one of their group. And yet I’m pretty sure the film never even named her, and she disappeared entirely after the destruction of the school.)

Speaking of the Apocalypse story, this too suffers from the unnecessary padding of the film. When he first ventures into the modern world and encounters Ororo (also never named, iirc) it seems like we’ll get to see how he brings her onto his side – but instead, he gives her power and that’s it, she’s on side with no explaining or convincing. Each of the first three of his Four Horsemen – Storm, Psylocke, and Angel – is turned completely at the first demonstration of his power. There’s no sense of why these characters would go along with his plan to destroy the world. Their recruitment scenes wind up perfunctory, and kind of repetitive. Only the fourth Horseman, Magneto, gets an extended scene convincing him to join – because of course he does, this latest trilogy of X-Men films always likes to make everything about Magneto when it can.

Considering the amount of padding in the film, they had so much room to develop all these characters. Show us how Apocalypse convinces Ororo, what it is about his message that gets to her, and it would become much more meaningful when she turns against him. If they’d spent less time shoehorning in Wolverine cameos and Quicksilver music videos, maybe we could’ve got to know why Angel is the way he is, and maybe we’d know a single damn thing about Psylocke.

This film had a villain whose entire plot was “recruit followers, then use their power to destroy the world”. When there’s little in the way of event in your plot, you make it up with character. Make us empathise, make us understand. Don’t just throw in additional empty action to keep us occupied until you reach the page on your screenplay marked “start climactic battle here”.

(The rest of the film was alright. Not amazing, but certainly not bad.)

My Hugo Award Nominations, 2016

Today is the last day for submitting Hugo Award nominations, and I’ve been working on finalising my ballot. Below, you’ll find all the works and people I’ve nominated, plus some other bits where there were close calls. I’m making this post mostly as a record for myself of the stuff from 2015 that I liked enough to nominate.

If you’re interested in checking out any of the works I’ve nominated, I believe everything in the Short Story and Novelette categories is freely available online, as is one of the novellas.

Best Novel
– The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
– Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie
– Uprooted, Naomi Novik
– The Fifth Season, N K Jemisin
– Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace

This was tough to winnow down to 5 nominations. Also in the running were:
– Black Wolves, Kate Elliott
– Radiance, Catherynne M Valente

Best Novella
– Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
– Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson
– The New Mother, Eugene Fischer

Technically, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is above the length requirements for this category at 43k words, but the rules have some allowance for works that are close to the limits and fit the category better.

Best Novelette
– The Oiran’s Song, Isabel Yap
– Ballroom Blitz, Veronica Schanoes

This was a difficult category not because there were a lot of things to choose from, but because I looked at the list of short fiction I’d liked from 2015 and found only one novelette on that list. There’s a surprisingly small amount of fiction published at this length. I managed to catch up and read the Isabel Yap story today, which was recommended on a few other people’s lists, and it immediately went onto my ballot.

Best Short Story
– The Shape of My Name, Nino Cipri
– Madeleine, Amal El-Mohtar
– The Half-Dark Promise, Malon Edwards
– Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight, Aliette de Bodard
– Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, Alyssa Wong

There are a bunch of other short stories I wanted to read, but I never made time to catch up on all the links I have saved. These five, however, are all deserving of their spot on the ballot, so I don’t feel bad about not seeing all the other options. Also under consideration were:
– Elephants and Corpses, Kameron Hurley
– The Language of Knives, Haralambi Markov
– Planet Lion, Catherynne M Valente

Best Related Work
SFF in Conversation: Foz Meadows – Thoughts on Fanfiction

I don’t keep up with a lot of stuff that fits this category, but I thought this essay by Foz Meadows on fanfiction was excellent, a very in depth exploration of the subject.

Best Graphic Story
– The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol 1
– The Wicked + The Divine vol 2
– Bitch Planet vol 1
– Saga vol 5
– Nimona

There are always lots of good comics. Some that didn’t make my ballot this time:
– Ms. Marvel vols 3-4
– Rat Queens vol 2
– ODY-C vol 1

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)
– Mad Max: Fury Road
– Star Wars: The Force Awakens
– Marvel’s Jessica Jones
– Sense8
– Ex Machina

Fury Road all the way. Please don’t lose this to Star Wars. (The others are also good, though I think I’m less excited about Ex Machina.)

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)
– “Cut Man”, Marvel’s Daredevil
– “AKA Sin Bin”, Marvel’s Jessica Jones
– “What Is Human?”, Sense8
– “4,722 Hours”, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I’m not all that enthused on this list. They’re decent episodes, but a lot of the TV I’m watching these days works best as single long works.

Best Fan Writer
– Foz Meadows
– Abigail Nussbaum

I don’t keep up with a lot of fan writers, but these two I do are consistently good.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer
– Alyssa Wong
– Sunil Patel
– Isabel Yap

I’ve not read a whole lot of work by these three, but what I have has been strong.

The following categories were left blank, because I don’t really know what to do with them:
Best Editor (Long Form)
Best Editor (Short Form)
Best Semiprozine
Best Fanzine
Best Fancast
Best Fan Artist

The Thing That Bothers Me About Spider-Man

(or about the Spider-Man movies, at least,)

…is that they always have to give Peter Parker a love interest whose only purpose is to make him worry about her getting hurt. Whatever else is going on in the story, Peter Parker needs to angst about whether his being Spider-Man puts his girlfriend at risk.

We had five movies of this now. Five movies of Peter breaking up with his girlfriend because he doesn’t want her to get hurt. Five films of her breaking up with him because he can’t make up his mind one way or the other. Five films where villains realise he cares for her and target her specifically, so that Peter has to rescue her. Even when it’s as strong a character as Gwen Stacy in the newer films – who is smarter than Peter, accomplished, independent – she falls into the same role.

Occasionally – such as in the latest film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – the writing acknowledges Peter’s protectiveness as a problem. Gwen Stacy is intelligent, capable, and independent – and she has specific knowledge that will help with what Peter’s about to do – and when Peter tries to leave her behind to keep her safe, she calls him out on it. But even then, the narrative inevitably goes on to prove Peter right.

These characters, even when they aren’t actually fridged, exist to present the threat of fridging. Their place in the story is to be the potential woman-in-refrigerator, so that Peter Parker can agonise over the danger he is putting them in.

Now maybe it’s true that these issues are just inherited from the comic books, that the creators are adapting the stories that already exist. But by doing that, they must acknowledge that they are perpetuating this trope, the image of the love interest as a victim, or potential victim. After five movies of the same thing, it really starts to stand out. It’s time they tried to do something different.

Thursday Linkdump Returns

This will probably not become a regular feature again.

Riot Square Sanctificare – Molly Crabapple

Why You Shouldn’t Tell That Random Girl On The Street That She’s Hot

The Dollar-And-Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women – fivethirtyeight

Confirmation Bias, Epic Fantasy, and You – N K Jemisin

Rising from the Middle East – Arab sci-fi

Buried Badasses: The Forgotten Heroines of pre-Code Comics – Saladin Ahmed

Sam Sykes on learning new things

World Record Book Domino Chain

Frozen without Olaf

I saw Disney’s Frozen just before Christmas, and it’s a pretty good film. I enjoyed it a lot, and particularly liked its subversion of the traditional Disney “true love” trope.

What I didn’t quite enjoy so much was the character of Olaf, the talking snowman. Now, I know these films are targeted at kids, and there’s nothing wrong with putting in these goofy characters for comic relief. I personally just found him a little annoying, and not all that important to the plot.

Anyway, I was idly thinking about this and I decided I’d try to use it as an exercise in building a story, and write down how I’d change Frozen to remove Olaf without significantly altering the story. Here’s what I came up with.

Note: Spoilers to follow. Obviously.

The way I see it, there is one key scene in the movie where Olaf played a significant role such that his removal would cause problems. That scene is toward the end, when the protagonist Anna is locked in a room to die by her fiancé Hans, having just revealed his true nature. Olaf arrives comforts Anna, starts a fire to try to keep her from freezing, and ultimately leads her to realise it was Kristoff she should have gone to, not Hans.

Without Olaf, Anna dies in that room. To make that part work, someone needs to come to her aid. The question is, who could? What other character could help Anna at that time, in that place, without significantly altering the story?

It would help if the film had included some other character in the palace who knew Anna and was close to her, but no such character has been established, and introducing one would require significant changes earlier on that might undermine the image it made of her isolated childhood.

After thinking about this for a while, the solution that finally came to me was to redeem the Duke of Weselton.

The Duke is introduced on the day of Queen Elsa’s coronation. He’s established as a greedy and selfish man whose only interest there is money: the kingdom has been isolated since the King and Queen died, and he wants the newly crowned Queen Elsa to reopen trade with Weselton. When things don’t seem to be going his way, he even instructs his men to kill Elsa, considering Prince Hans more likely to give him what he wants if he becomes King. At the end of the film, he is disgraced, sent home with the news that Elsa is severing all ties with Weselton because of his actions. He is a pretty clear cut villain of the film.

My idea would be to take a slightly different direction with the character. The differences would come in small.

When Hans suggests a search party to retrieve Elsa, he offers his men to help – but the audience would not see him instruct them to kill her. Their attempt on her life would come as a surprise, then, but not an unexpected one, as the Duke seems very much like a villainous character. Most likely the viewer will assume he has evil intentions regardless of whether they are shown.

But later, when Elsa is imprisoned by Hans, he would reveal that he had not intended to bring her back alive – he had, in fact, bribed the Duke of Weselton’s men to kill her, thinking to keep his own hands clean and blame it on the Duke.

Around the time of Anna’s return, when Hans announces that she has died after speaking her wedding vows, the Duke, ever looking to his own self-interest, would attempt to broach the subject if trade with Weselton. To his dismay, he would find that Hans intended to favour his own family’s kingdom, and had no interest in the Duke’s offer.

And thus it is that the Duke, his efforts to gain Hans’ support having been for naught, somehow comes across the room where Anna lies dying. Here, the Duke of Weselton’s true nature is revealed: he is horrified that Hans has left her to die. My Duke is still a weasel of a man, but not a murderer. He is too much a coward to confront the new King and his supporters alone (though he may promise to challenge his rule later, after gathering support), and in any case, Anna asks him to stay with her, believing that she is going to die regardless. So he lights a fire, and tries to comfort her – perhaps he even has daughters of his own, back home – and somehow his words cause her to realise that it is Kristoff she needs to find.

And so the ending proceeds as it did, and the kingdom is saved. And in the end, the Duke of Weselton is granted trade agreements with the kingdom by Queen Elsa (though perhaps not quite so favourable to him as he’d prefer).

The Duke is redeemed while keeping his essential character intact, and with very little difference to the remainder of the story.

And not a single talking snowman was needed.

***

If you’ve read all this, thank you for indulging my nonsense. I’ll just say again that Frozen was great, and I’m not claiming these changes needed to be made. I just thought it was a fun exercise to go through.

Elysium

I saw Neill Blomkamp’s new film, Elysium, last Sunday. His previous film, District 9, was excellent, and so there were high hopes when I heard about Elysium, but by the time the film came around I’d dampened those hopes somewhat. If you followed my Twitter you would have seen a few tweets summing up my feelings on the night. This is the expanded version of those thoughts. I may ramble a little.

Before I saw it, I had already read I Renounce My Elysian Citizenship, which criticises the film on the simplified picture it gives of the wealth/poverty divide, racial issues, and immigration. Read it; J Lamb says this bit better than I could. This film portrays a poverty-stricken earth where the people only hope to find a way to cross the border into Elysium and take advantage of its superior healthcare – there’s no sense that they might think to try to improve life down on earth instead. The partly offensive failed attempt to parallel US-Latin American immigration is emphasised all the more by the way the setting of future LA is populated by hispanic people, with Spanish widely spoken, while Elysium is almost entirely white and the only languages you hear there are English and French.

That future-LA (filmed in a Mexican dump) and the imagined Elysium are the only places you’ll see in the film, apart from brief images during the ending. While the film wants to talk about this as a global issue, of the whole of Earth being left poor, polluted, and wanting the privileges of Elysium, we never see that: we only see LA, and are given no sense that things are happening elsewhere in the world.

It struck me as odd that the Elysian Secretary of Defense would be called in to personally oversee the destruction of three small ships attempting to breach Elysian airspace; one would think from the established premise that such attempts were made regularly from all over the world. But no: for the film’s purposes you might as well imagine that the organisation in LA run by Spider are the only people on the whole planet capable of organising such illegal refugee trips to the station. The film can focus on one small part of the world and ignore the rest because it has already painted all of Earth as a homogenous mass of poor all begging to go to Elysium.

The film clearly wanted to talk about serious issues, but it failed so badly by oversimplifying. In a story that is all about getting across the border at all costs, there was no room for the multilayered complexity that discussing things like poverty, immigration, and healthcare requires. And then the ending, the conclusion to the whole story, was so incredibly stupid as to undermine any remaining points it had to make about the real world.

(Spoiler alert for the next paragraph.)

In those final scenes we’re shown that the entire problem was a case of someone in Elysium just flipping a switch and deciding to give healthcare to Earth. We learn that they had ships filled with their miracle medical equipment just sitting around, that could have been deployed at any time to fix all the world’s problems. They had the resources and the capability to provide the healthcare everyone wanted, they had just never chosen to do so. This may not have seemed so stupid if it had been a part of the film’s argument, something referred to at any point prior as an ethical question for Elysium’s leaders, but instead it was simply a deus ex machina that made the whole problem seem unnecessary.

(No more spoilers below this.)

The last, and least, of the points I made on Twitter was about the film as a science fiction. I say least, because I’m not someone who requires realism in their fiction, or that all sci-fi be hard sci-fi. But I couldn’t help noting that the world created in Elysium didn’t feel whole on a technological level, either. Set around 140 years in the future, it features a mix of far-off sci-fi tech, outright fantasy in the form of the miracle medical machines, and oddly backward technology that seems more like something that could exist in 50 years rather than 150.

Oddities include advanced robotic police and security guards being built in factories that are uncomputerised and run on manpower, simply because the filmmakers wanted to parallel exploitation of overseas labour and lack of value for the lives of poor workers.

Perhaps the reason why my suspension of disbelief didn’t quite hold together in Elysium is simply because the message on immigration, healthcare, and poverty was so fully integrated into the worldbuilding that the failure of the film to effectively address those issues meant a failure in the world they had built, too.

In the end, Elysium is a decent action sci-fi movie. But it wanted to be bigger than that, it tried to be bigger than that, and it failed.