What I Read September 2019

Three books in September, and I guarantee at least three in October. I feel like I am in a better rhythm that I have been in the past few years. Also, I am focusing on short books, which helps make it look like I read more.

Smoke and Summons

Charlie N. Holmberg

I’ve enjoyed Holmberg’s previous work, though I admit I bought it mostly due to its low price point and how aggressive amazon was at putting it in my face. But again, I really liked the Paper Magician books and the few other books of hers that I’ve read. Smoke and Summons starts a new world for her.

This book follows a pair of protagonists. Sandis is a slave to a man who uses her as a vessel to summon powerful spirits. When she sees another vessel killed by her master, she escapes. She eventually meets Rone, a thief who has the special power to be invincible for one minute a day. Forced together by chance, they work together to try to evade both Sandis’ master and save Rone’s mother from some people he robbed. It feels like it maybe takes too long to get an understanding of how this world works, but the book moves so fast it is hard to hold that against it. I’ve already got the second book on my kindle and I’ll get to it soon-ish.

Diamonds Are Forever

Ian Fleming

I don’t know that I actually like Ian Fleming’s writing. This is the fourth James Bond book and it really didn’t do anything for me. In this one, Bond gets a mission to hunt down an international diamond smuggling syndicate. There does not appear to be any direct connection to the cold war here; it is a pure mob problem.

In this book, Bond goes undercover as a diamond smuggler, with the help of Tiffany Case, who works for the Spangled Mob, a gang run by the Sprang brothers. They fly to Las Vegas, where Bond goes undercover to figure out the diamond smuggling pipeline. He does, and kills the Spangs in the process. He mostly does this by working Tiffany. Tiffany hates men because she was gang-raped as a teenager. Luckily (gag), Bond’s manliness is able to overcome that and she falls in love with him. It is a quick read, and suitably entertaining and action packed throughout.

Jade Darcy and the Affair of Honor

Stephen Goldin and Mary Mason

I feel kind of bad about this. I got this book for Christmas and kind of scoffed at it. It has a cheesy cover and what I thought was a goofy title. (I left out the “Book One in ‘The Rehumanization of Jade Darcy’” bit from the title above.) I was prepared for some cheesy late 80s science fiction.

Affair of Honor isn’t the most complex science fiction story ever written; it is honestly pretty simple. Jade Darcy is a former commando with enhanced reflexes. She has fled humanity, living on a planet as far from Earth as possible and working as a bouncer and a mercenary. The book spends a lot of time setting up the character of Jade Darcy. Too bad it didn’t have a little more interesting of a plot to put her in. It works, but it feels a little flat. Another human comes to the planet where Jade has isolated herself from humanity. Instead of facing this person who is looking for her, she takes on a dangerous mission from an alien who has a grudge against the alien race that killed Jade’s family. They assassinate an enemy general, but instead of escaping without a trace, Jade’s employer leaves something so they know who did it, as a matter of honor.

That turns to Jade, after meeting the other human and making some peace with her own people that she finds out what honor means to her. This book was largely a lot of fun.

What I Watched September 2019

Movies

Falling Inn Love — A woman wins a contest to own a B&B, which turns out to be a trap to stick them with a dilapidated old inn. A cheap romance ensues. Its fine for what it is. **

Plus One — A rom com starring Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid. They are friends who have a lot of other friends, mutual and otherwise, who are getting married. So they agree to be each other’s plus one. Eventually, a real relationship blossoms. It is actually very well executed, and Erskine and Quaid are charming. ****

The Goldfinch read review here. **1/2

Hustlers read review here. ****

Ad Astra read review here. ****1/2

Tall Girl This movie isn’t a terrible teen dramedy, but I was never hooked by the concept. It starts with a voice over talking about how the viewer knows that really tall girl, and I don’t. That is not an archetype I am familiar with. I don’t even know anyone who can relate. **

Between Two Ferns I have watched some Between Two Ferns interviews, this movie doesn’t have quite enough of them. The actual movie is nothing special, but the interviews within are amazing. I had a lot of fun with it, despite its foibles. ****

TV

Derry Girls S1&2 A fun little comedy set in 1990’s Ireland that feature some teen girls, and one boy, coming of age. The show takes a few episodes to find its footing, but once it does it is pretty entertaining. I don’t have a lot to say about it, it is a fun show that doesn’t take too long to watch.

Carnival Row S1 wrote about it here.

Frontier S3 — I’ve got to be honest, I completely lost the plot with this show. It doesn’t help that I started it months ago before finishing it recently. By the time it got to the end, I didn’t really remember who a lot of the characters were and what were their relationships to each other. I really like Jason Momoa and there is a lot of good stuff in this show, but I needed to have paid closer attention than I did.

Four Weddings and a Funeral This is based on a movie and while there are some winning performances and it is generally a solidly entertaining show, it mostly serves to make a strong argument that romantic comedies should not be ten hours long. It just takes too long to get where its going, with structure that isn’t really designed to last that long. Still, I was generally entertained by it.

Wu Assassins S1 — This kind of feels like a CW show that just so happens to star actually good martial artists (no disrespect intended to Arrow’s largely very well done fights). It is a fun martial arts fantasy. I don’t have a lot to say.

Magnum, pi S5&7 wrote about it here.

What We Do In The Shadows — The movie What We Do In The Shadows was amazing. It was my introduction to Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. What is shocking to me is that the TV show manages to keep almost everything that was good about the movie, and introduce some new fun wrinkles. It takes the concept, a mockumentary tv show about the everyday life of vampires, and transplants it to America. It all works. The addition of Mark Proksch as an energy vampire is great. It is just one of the funniest shows on TV.

Unbelievable — This is a show that I should write a full post about. It is a difficult show, an excellently made show. Kaitlyn Dever, who was great in Booksmart, stars as Marie Adler, a young woman who was raped in her apartment. She tells the police, but the force her to repeatedly recount her story and then she recants when it just becomes too much. Eventually, they charge her with false reporting. Three years later, two detectives in another state, played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette, find themselves working a series of cases with a similar MO to that of Marie’s rapist. The show follows along two tracks, the first with Marie in 2008 as she deals with the fallout of her rape, the other in 2011 with the detectives trying to unravel these crimes. It is a really well made procedural that manages to deal with some really complex issues with a confident hand. This is one of the best TV shows of the year.

Carole & Tuesday — The first half of a new anime from Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo director Shinichiro Watanabe. This appears to take place in the same or a similar universe to Cowboy Bebop, set on a terraformed Mars. Carole is an orphaned musician working part time jobs to get by, Tuesday is the sheltered and stifled daughter of a powerful politician. She runs away and meets Tuesday, and the two form a band. The back half has the duo on an American Idol-like talent competition. There is a lot going on. I am not a big music guy, so I am not sure this is the show for me, it I am generally enjoying it quite a bit.

Disenchantment S2 I like the first season—which I believe was actually the first half of the first season and this is the second half—well enough, but this second season really sees Disenchantment grow into its own. This is still a Groening show that prioritizes plot over jokes, kind of like the inverse of Futurama, which had plot but was mostly about jokes. However, this season feels more comfortable in its style. The world is getting more interesting and more distinctive and the characters seem to have found much more comfortable roles. It is a comfort food show for me, but I still think it is really good.

Recap of the Titans S2 Ep 6

Titans Season 2, Episode 6: “Conner”

I think I am just going to have to resign myself to not liking how Titans handles its episode to episode storytelling. Instead of building momentum from one episode to another, this show seems determined to restart after every episode. With some forethought, the flashbacks in Aqualad and scenes from this story with Conner could have been weaved into the previous four episodes, instead of each being quarantined as its own discrete chunk. It is a storytelling choice, but one that I think has hampered the show this season, at least when watching it week to week. It feels like a choice made for a binge model, where the viewer can just blow through the whole season in a weekend.

“Conner,” instead of following up on the end of the last episode, with Jason apparently plummeting to his death, shifts gears completely, introducing eventual Superboy Conner to the mix. As a stand alone episode, “Conner” is pretty great. It starts with Conner escaping from Cadmus Labs along with a dog names Krypto. This episode finally starts to introduce some Superman into a series that has been dominated by Batman so far.

Mercy Graves, Lex Luthor’s chauffeur, bodyguard and aide-de-camp, shows up to the wrecked Cadmus and tasks Dr. Eve Watson with finding Luthor’s escaped experiment. Conner wanders the city like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. He has the body of a young adult, but the understanding of a child. He is a largely blank slate, but he does have memories of the two men who provided the DNA that mixed to create him, those being Superman and Lex Luthor. Those memories eventually draw him to Smallville and the home of Lionel Luthor. The episode expects the viewer to have a baseline of knowledge of who Lex and Superman are. Assuming you do, it works. The weird mixture of the two in Conner’s head make for some illuminating character work. It does a great job of showing who Lex and Clark are, even though neither of them appear, excluding a picture, in the episode. Conner ends up having dinner with Lex’s elderly father, a kind seeming old man who Conner’s Lex inherited memories reveal as an abusive drunk.

The second half of the episode follows Conner and Eve Watson as they try to escape from Cadmus and Luthor’s goons, while she slowly explains the events that led to Conner’s creation. That culminates in the two of them visiting the lab where Conner was created, and since he is experiment 13 he sees the remains of the other 12 experiments. Then the show finally, finally resolves the cliffhanger from the previous episode, while leaving another in its wake.

This episode introduces the best character on the show so far. No, not Conner. Krypto. Conner saves the dog at the opening, and the two of them are together from then on. Krypto is a good dog. The mid-episode reveal that Krypto has powers is excellent, as he catches an rpg and tosses it back to the man who shot it. He acts as something like Conner’s conscience. He knows not to go to the Luthor farm, his barking pulls Conner back several times when his dark side takes over. He is just a great dog.

I find myself enjoying every episode to one degree or another, so I can’t complain too much. Next episode is titled Bruce Wayne, so it looks like where are going to get some Dick stuff. I assume it will be with the team in the present, but who knows. At least I am caught up now.

Recap of the Titans S2 Ep5

Titans Season 2, Episode 5: “Deathstroke”

“Deathstroke” picks up right where “Ghosts,” episode 3, left off. Jason Todd has been captured by Deathstroke. His is strung up in Deathstroke’s and Dr. Light’s hideout. After getting the better of Dr. Light (really, Jason’s repeated clowning of Dr. Light is making the other Titans look foolish for the difficulty they’ve had dealing with him) Deathstroke stops Jason’s escape attempt.

Back at Titans Tower, the rest of the team learns what has happened to Jason. The older Titans are still not treating the younger members like real members of the team. Rose continues to be a truth telling shit stirrer, able to identify people’s problems, but comments in ways seemingly designed to set people off.

Dr. Light finally gets fed up with working for Deathstroke and decides to take on the team himself, only for Deathstroke to put a pretty definitive end to that plan, and set a trap for the Titans at the same time.

Things start to look up for the team when Starfire finally arrives in San Francisco. She immediately gets to helping Raven deal with her growing powers. She is the calming influence that the rest of the team needs. Especially with the deal that Deathstroke has proposed, trading Jason for Rose. While the older team members debate handing Rose over, Gar, Rose, and Raven listen in. After listening to them debate handing her over to her homicidal father, Rose tries to escape. Eventually, it comes down to a showdown between Raven and Rose, and we get a look at just how powerful Raven is now, as well as a first look at Rose’s powers.

Back with Deathstroke and Jason, the show finally gives a better idea of what Deathstroke’s specific beef with the Titans is. It is hypocritical, which is kind of Deathstroke’s thing. He makes it seem as though Dick is the cause of his enmity, which is the opposite of what we just saw in “Aqualad,” where Deathstroke appeared on his own and started a fight with the Titans.

This episode did have the first instance of me actually liking Hawk. He is as abrasive as ever, but he has a moment of vulnerability that actually works to make the character endearing. As much as he didn’t seem to like him when he was around, he sees something of himself in Jason and can’t rest while Deathstroke has him. Dawn, though, continues to be confounding. A couple of episodes ago she was the one moonlighting in her costume, now she is determined that the Titans are done. She goes after Dick to shut the team down once they finish things off with Deathstroke.

Dick outlines a plan that, while not actually including Raven and Gar at least lets them know what is going on, before a swerve sets up Dick facing off with Deathstroke alone. It ends with a cliffhanger that calls back to Jason Todd’s death in the comics more than thirty years ago.

I love how this show gives its characters a chance to breath, instead of being all plot or action. The problem is that several of its characters are not particularly well drawn or interesting. Hank and Dawn are generally the worst. Donna is mostly a cipher. The show noticeably picks up when Starfire is around. There is chemistry between her and Dick, between her and Raven. Most of the younger characters are fine, though the show needs to give Gar something to do. With the addition of Rose and the next episode apparently introducing Conner Kent, maybe it is time for Hawk and Dove to get that retirement they seem to be looking for.

Recap of the Titans S2 Ep4

Titans S2, Ep 4: “Aqualad”

Did I start this project with any idea that I would immediately fall a month behind? Actually yes, I kind of suspected this would happen. But I am committed to catching up and to sticking with it through the rest of the season.

Aqualad starts five years in the past with a proper introduction to Deathstroke as he commits a handful of murders. Because that is what Deathstroke does; kill people. It also introduces, but does not name or identify, Jericho.Then it switches to showing the original Titans in action as a team, with the five of them brutally taking out a trio of car jackers. Five original Titans, with the four we already know—Donna, Dick, Dawn, and Hank—as well as previously unseen (and maybe unmentioned) Garth, who is the Aqualad from the title. They return to the tower for what appears to be a birthday party for Garth.

The show kind of falls down in its portrayal of the relationship between Garth and Donna. Garth keeps pressuring her for a date, while Donna studiously avoids him. That is despite Dawn’s pushing her to him. It isn’t quite clear why Donna is not into Garth, but it doesn’t really matter. She makes it clear that she is not interested, and everyone is ignoring her wishes. It feels kind of gross, with them all pushing her to a relationship she clearly does not want. Now, it is possible she is supposed to appear more conflicted than she does. Donna is leaving for Themyscira soon and does not want to start something that will inevitably be forced to end. It works a little better as the episode goes on, but maybe it should have started with a scene of them actually connecting. It also feels as though there is some information that the show is still holding back. I feel like I’m all over the map here, but only because the show is all over the map. Despite the title of the episode, this episode is about Donna Troy. However, I came out of it feeling like I knew less about her character than when I went in. Without knowing what Donna actually wants, her actions in this episode are inexplicable.

The other big thread in the episode is a little more explanation of who exactly Dr. Light is. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot there. “Would your pedestal be so high without the insights from my spectacular failures?” he shouts at a contemptuous colleague. Dr. Light sucks, and everyone knows he sucks. The team takes him out with minimal effort.

Everything ends in tragedy when Deathstroke returns, setting up another flashback episode to tell the other half of this story. It also has Dick making a connection with Jericho, who is Deathstroke’s son, which seems to be part of his revenge plot.

I’m not sure how well this flashback episode works, because it leaves so many unanswered questions and killed the momentum the show had built up with last week’s episode. We still don’t know who hired Deathstroke, who he was actually hired to kill. We also don’t know what has set him coming after the team again in the present. “Aqualad” merely served to kind of focus the questions we should be asking about Deathstroke’s plot. It did give a bigger look at Donna than episode has yet, but I don’t think we actually learned anything about her. It kind of feels like a missed opportunity.

Recap of the Titans S2 Ep 3

Titans Season 2, Episode 3: “Ghosts”

This is the first episode that actually feels like business as usual for the team. After a pair of episodes devoted to closings and openings, this episode is about continuing. It would have worked so much better with that first episode as the finale, as it was clearly intended to be, but you can feel the momentum picking up with this episode, ending with an intriguing cliffhanger.

It picks up with the team dealing with the revelation that Rose’s father is Deathstroke. Then it immediately jumps to the other half of the team, Hawk, Dove, and Donna, showing up at Titans tower. Dick sends the kids off before discussing the current problem with Dr. Light with the old team. They decide they have to deal with their unfinished business and take him in. The team doesn’t react well to his revelations about Rose and Deathstroke. The reconstituted team goes after Dr. Light and kind of flubs the attempt. After Donna commits what was almost certainly a homicide with a motorcycle, Dr. Light escapes.

While the adults are trying to bring in Dr. Light, the kids are having troubles of their own. Raven is having trouble with her powers and Jason is a constant shit stirrer. The addition of Rose, another shit stirrer, really complicates things. Rose is a sympathetic figure, bonding with Rachel over their mutual terrible fathers. But she also can’t seem to help causing some dissension. Just a little time observing the team lets her find some weaknesses. That is not a good mix with Jason’s hatred of being sat at the kid’s table. When he and Gar find where Dr. Light is hiding, he can’t help but force the issue. It, of course, goes poorly.

The other big thread in the episode is the show finally really digging into who and what Starfire is. At the end of the last episode, she was kidnapped by another alien. Her, it is revealed that he is a member of the royal guard from her planet, her seeking a missing princess, who just so happens to be Kori. He is also something of an ex-boyfriend. Now Kori has to deal with her responsibilities at home and her desire to stay on Earth with her new friends. While the first season was all about her remembering who she was, this season is setting her up to decide who she is going to be.

One good thing about this episode is that it gets most of its characters in one place, and the show gives most of them some time to grow. Hawk and Dove continue to not really work. In this episode they frame their continual pull back to the team as addiction, which makes it clear what the right answer is, but if they are going to be on this show they are always going to be involved in superhero stuff. It is like the characters have already figured out the answer to their problems, but the show won’t let them solve the problem. Dick is dealing with some major guilt. The younger three are all trying to find their place, with Jason doing the most struggling against any perceived limits. Jason’s talk with Gar is particularly illuminating. He sees himself as wanted, which explains his general orneriness. He expects to be left behind or forgotten, so he forces everyone to notice him and leave him out.

Overall, Ghosts was a solid episode. The show appears to be finding a groove and appears to have a plan for its large and growing cast.

Now Playing September 2019

Beaten

River City Girls —

This game is so close to being everything I want from a beat ‘em up. I feel like I say that with every new River City version. I really liked this game, but it has a bunch of small flaws that kind of grated on me as the game went on. One is that it requires a button press to move between screens. That button press is the same as attack, so if you end up fighting near the edge of the screen, be ready to jump back and forth whether you want to or not. Also, some of the boss battles try too hard to be different from the actual game play. It also has a twist at the end that I found narratively unforgiving. Not usually that big a problem in a beat ‘em up, but this one makes you spend a lot of time with its plot. Having the last impression the game leaves you with be pulling the rug out from under the player sucks. Those are the problems I had with this game. I have blown them somewhat out of proportion. River City Girls is gorgeous and fun. It is just a blast to play. It’s two (initial) characters have satisfyingly different movesets, making choice of character more than just a choice of look. The game is filled with fun references to other games in this series, as well as some fun general pop culture riffs. I will go back and do the new game plus before too long. I will try to get all the trophies. It is as good a beat ‘em up as I’ve played in nearly 20 years. River City Ransom is one of my all-time favorite games, when a game in that lineage comes out, that game is the mark I measure them against. River City Girls doesn’t quite meet that mark. But that doesn’t make it in any way bad. It is a delight.

Inazuma Eleven — I bought this game as soon as it was released in the US more than 5 years ago. I have generally enjoyed Level-5’s output, and a true sports RPG was an idea that I had long thought was a great one. The fact that I didn’t finish the game until now kind of says what I thought about it. I didn’t much like playing this game. I like everything about it in theory, but in practice it doesn’t quite work. I am glad I finally got around to finishing it, but I think I see why this series didn’t take off in the West.

Ongoing

Sonic Mania — I am taking this game at a leisurely pace. That, of course, means that I’ve kind of put it down and forgot about it. I still like it and will take the couple of hours I’ll need to finish it sooner or later.

Sega Genesis Mini I bought one of these. I really like my SNES mini, even if I haven’t played it as much as I want to. I never managed to track down an NES mini. I bought a PSX mini when they got discounted to $20 and I feel like I got ripped off. After spending less than an hour playing it, I don’t feel like the Genesis mini is quite up to the standards of SNES mini, but it is certainly better than the Playstation one. One thing I don’t like, which is not really a problem with the system, is that I don’t really have the nostalgia for this specific system. I had the redesigned Genesis, with 6-button controllers. That just means that the aesthetics of this machine don’t quite hit my nostalgia buttons as hard as it could. I will get to the game sooner or later.

Monster Hunter World: Iceborne —

This hit the spot. I had to get my PS4 out of my house when MHW first hit because I was falling behind on my school work. Now it’s back, and with a sizable DLC campaign. I’ve cleared probably half of the new content. I don’t really know what to say; it’s Monster Hunter. It added a new area, some new weapons and armor, and a mix of new and returning monsters. Just the excuse needed to sink another 80 hours into this.

Persona Q2 — I might have hit the breakthrough point with this game, in a good way. I’ve cleared a couple of floors without a party wipe; I feel like I am gaining a better understanding of what strategies work in this game. I have also all but abandoned most of the characters. I’ve got about 7 I’m using, a base five and a few switch outs. Due to the structure of the game, that means a lot of the characters are from Persona 5, but since everyone shows up to blabber on in cutscenes, who you use in battle is 100% a building an effective party choice. Maybe I’ll actually start to enjoy this game soon.

Final Fantasy VIII Remaster — I didn’t get too far in this remaster, but plan to keep at it. This game holds a special place in my memory and playing it for the first time in about a decade has been interesting so far. One thing that has surprised me is how differently I feel about the characters. I used to think that most of the party members in this game were cool, but now I realize that none of them are. Good characters, but they are not cool.

Upcoming

Judgment — This game keeps falling off the ongoing list, but I am going to clear it before too long. It’s fun.

Sega Genesis Games — I’ve got the mini, I am going to play some of the games that came with it. I already started with Alisia Dragoon, a game I do not understand at all.

Elliot Quest — I feel a need to go back and finish up some leftover WiiU games, or maybe some Wii games. Elliot Quest is one that I got most of the way through, and really enjoyed, but never got around to finishing. Another one high on my list

Joker Review

I don’t know that I’ve seen a better made bad movie. It is a movie wearing the darkness and grit of late 70s-early 80s Scorsese as cosplay, without attempting to understand what movies like King of Comedy or Taxi Driver were trying to say. Essentially, why is not a question Joker ever considers. It does things because those things seem dark and provoking, but there is nothing behind them. It is vacant posturing, a movie hoping its darkness will mask its emptiness.

Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck. Fleck works as a clown, scraping out a life in what appears to the early 80s Gotham City for him and his invalid mother. Fleck suffers from mental illness, taking numerous medications and still being prone to bouts of irrational laughter. He dreams of being a stand up comic, like his idol Murray Franklin. In the opening minutes of the movie, Fleck is beaten by a handful of kids who were harassing him as he worked as a clown. From his already abject starting point things get worse for Fleck. The funding for the social services that helped him pay for his medications gets cut, so he goes off his meds. He gets a gun from a coworker after his beating, but having while working gets him fired from his clown job. After another beating on the subway, Fleck fights back, shooting three men who were accosting him. The lone bright spot in his life is his budding relationship with a single mother living a few apartments down from him and his mother.

As shit keeps being piled on Fleck, he begins losing his hold on rationality. Many people treat his subway killings as a call to action, since the three men were well off money men, working for Wayne Enterprises. Thomas Wayne, exploring a potential run for mayor, calls the poor people reacting that way clowns, inspiring clown make-up at the protests arising all over the city. Things finally come to a head when Fleck gets the chance to meet Murray Franklin.

Joker pulls scenes and shots straight out of movies like Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and A Clockwork Orange. It seems desperate to appear to have something to say. But as the movie attempts to unravel Arthur Fleck goes on, it becomes more apparent that there is nothing there. That is despite some all caps ACTING from Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Fleck starts delusion. The movie maybe wants to show why the character finally broke and became the Joker, but it doesn’t come to a better answer than that he was crazy. The movie can’t seem to help but show its contempt for the people protesting in the streets, but they are contrasted with the selfish and corrupt like Wayne or Franklin. Everyone is venal and self-serving.

The movie was numbing. Its desire to shock, to provoke radiates from every scene. But the movie doesn’t actually have anything provoking to say. It is utterly bleak, but that bleakness isn’t expressing anything. It isn’t a black comedy; there is nothing funny here. This is just two hours of ugly posturing that has nothing to say.

**

Carnival Row

For a long time, I was all in on Netflix originals. I still am, I guess. I try to give most of what they put out a try and have watched or intend to watch most of their movie output. While I am still in on a bunch of Netflix shows that have not yet been cancelled, lately I have found myself favoring Amazon Prime’s approach to original content.

Netflix’s strategy, though it may be starting to change, seems to have been to throw money at any and every project it can get its hands on. This led to a lot of weird interesting stuff, as well as simply bad stuff. I don’t think any one else would have given us something like American Vandal, for example. Amazon Prime has always felt more curated than Netflix. They are going for a specific tone and quality, like a network trying to create an identity. Even if Amazon’s output has been more consistent, I don’t think Amazon’s approach has resulted in appreciable better content.

That said, over the last year or so I have come to a greater appreciation of Amazon Prime’s output, and this year they have released several shows that reveal their target consumer appears to be me specifically. The adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens was delightful. I wound up really enjoying The Boys and the unfortunately cancelled The Tick. John Krasinski sells Jack Ryan despite the shows dodgy politics. There is more Homecoming on the way at some point. And while its second season was dreadful, I have hopes that Goliath can right the ship.

That brings us to Amazon Prime’s latest release targeted to my sensibilities and actual subject of this post: Carnival Row.

The reviews I’ve read of Carnival Row have been middling at best, and I can’t really disagree with most of the reasoning within those reviews. (I saw most, calling it out for not being the next Game of Thrones is nonsense.) Carnival Row is a strange beast, a Victorian-ish fantasy mystery show. I don’t know that Carnival Row is actually any good; that doesn’t really matter, though. What matters is that I loved watching it.

Carnival Row combines many elements that I enjoy individually. It is structured like a murder mystery, which I love. The setting is a kind of Victorian-ish steampunk fantasy world, another thing I greatly enjoy. Honestly, I am kind of a sucker for Victorian romances, which a major subplot of this show apes quite effectively. Nearly all the building blocks of this show are precisely calibrated for me to enjoy, so long as they executed halfway well at all.

The story is a little more uneven than the setting, but it mostly works. The mystery isn’t quite there because the most obvious answer after the initial couple of episodes turns out to be the culprit. I kept expecting a twist, but it was more waiting to learn the why rather than the who and there is no real way to speculate on that. Early on the show sets up a lot of threads that appear to be unrelated. Cara Delevingne plays Vignette Stonemoss (this show has top tier names), a fae refugee who shows up in the Burgue and finds out her supposedly dead lover is still alive. That lover is Orlando Bloom’s Rycroft Philostrate (told you about the names). Philo is a detective who is investigating a serial killer who has been killing fae in the slums. The two of them struggle to deal with their reunion as Vignette tries to get used to living as a refugee in the racist Burgue. Also involved are Imogen and Ezra Spurnrose, a pair of impoverished nobles trying to hold on to their lifestyle. They meet up with a rich faun, Agreas Astrayon, who is trying to make inroads amongst the upper class. Finally, there are the Breakspears, the prime minister and his family as they deal with some family problems. While Philo and Vignette are connected, the rest of them do not appear to be at first. The only thing truly connecting them are the setting.

Carnival Row is driven by an obvious and effective racism metaphor that is wrapped up in a solid exploration of colonialism. The fae and other related fantasy races are called “critch” by the people of the Burgue and treated like second class citizens. The fae in the Burgue are refugees from Tirnanoc, the site of a war between two colonialist powers that the Burgue lost. When they withdrew they left the fae that had supported them on their own. With their homeland destroyed, many had no choice but to flee to the Burgue. It creates a toxic stew on the titular Carnival Row, where the fae refugees do what work they can, largely as servant or sex workers, and the Burgue citizen resent them as a drain on the city, especially as the city’s power fades.

Philo and Vignette are co-protagonists, and they give two different and sympathetic points of view. Vignette has trouble dealing with the powerlessness and unfairness of the situation. She goes from working as a servant, with the Spurnroses, to realizing she has no recourse when the master of the house tries to force himself on her. Then she works with a criminal group, which is dangerous because they have to maintain secrecy to keep ‘safe.’ Meanwhile, Philo has a position as a constable, but he has trouble with his fellow cops because he isn’t racist. She gets to see things from the fae side; he sees it from the human. The clarity of its messaging, for the most part, makes up for its simplicity.

The show isn’t exactly fast paced, but it keeps the action coming at a steady clip. It is best when it is the most focused. The first few episodes are the weakest because it is not clear how all the characters relate to each other or how their stories are in any way connected. Some of those connections are not apparent until very late in the show. But strong performances all around and a generally entertaining setting and concept make for a strong show.

Ad Astra Review

Ad Astra joins the ranks of a rash of hard-ish science fiction movies. They present plausibly realistic futures and show people dealing with the harsh realities of the unforgiving nature of space. Movies like The Martian, Gravity, and Interstellar. I don’t know if this is the best of those, but does it really matter when the end result is another thoughtful, interesting space movie to enjoy.

Brad Pitt stars as astronaut Major Roy McBride. The movie introduces him as the coolest man in the US Space Command. His heart rate never cracks 80 bpm, not even when he is falling off a space antenna back to earth after a strange energy surge causes disasters all over the world.

The accident that send McBride plummeting back to earth is what sets up the plot of the movie. That energy surge came from the Lima Project, a research mission to the outer edge of the solar system that was captained by Clifford McBride, Roy’s father and one of the most decorated astronauts ever. They were reported lost years ago, but this surge is the first communication with them in 16 years. So mission command wants to send Roy to Mars to get a message to his father to stop whatever is happening, and to get a precise location for the Lima Project.

So Roy goes to space. The movie presents an interesting dichotomy between the physical journey and the emotional one. Roy’s trip is a Heart of Darkness-esque trek into the unknown, getting further and further from anything he recognizes. There is a lot of pulpy action, with a car chase and zero-g fights. This is presented with austerity and solemnity, but it is really stuff that verges on silly. The combination works, the presentation really sells the wilder stuff happening.

It dovetails nicely with the emotional journey that Roy goes on. At the start, he seems to idolize his father, but also resent his absence. As long as he is on, or near, earth he can maintain his balance. As he travels further from his home, and closer to the father he didn’t really know, the more unbalanced he becomes. This is doubly true as he begins to learn more about his father and The Lima Project. He has to deal with finding out that his father may not be the hero he has been portrayed as as he journeys further and further out into space.

What makes the movie work is Pitt. He is at first somewhat inscrutable; his is cool and cut off from his emotions. He keeps his cool by essentially cutting off his emotions, not actually dealing with his emotional problems. Pitt plays the coldness perfectly, as he does the slow unraveling of Roy’s emotional state as he gets closer to a reunion with his father and as that eventual reunion becomes more conflicted. When the big moment finally happens, you’ve been on this emotional journey with Roy and know where he is.

The movie is a bit too somber and spare at times; it feels like it could be a much more fun movie and still accomplish its central journey. But in my experience that looseness and fun is anathema to James Gray’s filmmaking. But that is a criticism of what this movie is not, not what this movie is. I found it to be one of the most moving film watching experiences I’ve had this year. Ad Astra is a must see.

****1/2