Euphoria, Apple you're killin' me, and more!
Empire of Silence (Sun Eaters #1) by Christopher Ruocchio
This doorstopper first book in a doorstopper space opera quadrology (or at least the page counts on the sequels appear to be as long as this one) turned out to be much more engaging that I thought it would be based on the setting and first, oh, 20%. The books basically trace the rise and life of the narrator who, we know from some indications, eventually turns out be some kind of planet-destroyer though this first book gives little indication of how that occurs. The world is essentially ancient Rome in space - gladiators, empire, highly tiered society, an empowered church plus inquisitors, etc. This would be the setting part that I found initially dull as the notion that millions of years in the future we've reverted to going to coliseums to watch people slaughter each other just seemed, I don't know, dumb. It took me a bit to get past it and get over the fact that the author is into Roman history and uses that knowledge as a basis for much of the book and plot. But once I did, the book was actually pretty good! I won't go into the plot because there are spoilers, but in essence you have, set against the backdrop of an ongoing war with an alien species, the eldest son - kind of an entitled spoiled teen(ish) - of a planetary ruler in a cold uncaring family who's chafing at the role chosen for him by his father and what happens when he tries to flee it. The reason I ended up liking up the book was because that "what happens" part wasn't really what I thought was going to happen plus it's clear that the author has a grip on his story. The pace is moderate without being boring - if you've read Robin Hobb you'll know the sort of pace I mean, the one where the author is in no rush to get you to the end but, rather, through immersing you in the character's progress, keeps long books engaging by keeping you, the reader, invested in that progress. This book is similarly paced. Which isn't to say it isn't plotty and interesting; it is. It’s just that the book is a character recounting his rise and is very much about the lead (and narrator) beginning to build and develop his character after his life is thrown off its planned course. It's long, but I didn't mind the length because I found the world the character ultimately gets trapped in to be specific enough to see the obstacles he needs to overcome to move forward (vague to avoid spoilering here) and enjoyed the process of watching him try to squirm around all of them. Look the Roman stuff never stopped being irritating for me because it was just difficult to buy into a world in which we'd managed to reach the stars but then there's a church more powerful than everyone who's putting the kibosh on some forms of science and other forms of alien research. But really whatever; it didn't bother me enough to stop reading and I decided to view it as just another character obstacle but really I wish the author had come up with something else or modernized (sci-fi'ized?) that part of the culture. Don't hear this as a diss however. The book was fun and better-written than many in the genre; there were unexpected twists, some mysteries laid out that will presumably be resolved in future novels, and that's good enough for me. If you like things like The Expanse series, this is probably worth a shot.
Euphoria (Seasons 1-2):
Despite my - rightful - assessment that the two interseason COVID-shot specials were so atrocious that they made me dread season 2, I can tell you that that dread was unfounded because the show built on what was great about season 1 and made it even better. For those who haven't seen: this is a series set around modern suburban high-schoolers and is primarily known for the nonstop drugs, all the sex in and among various genders/ungendered, and the huge number of prosthetic dicks. In fact, that's what almost made me not watch season 1 - I was thinking the show was going to be about some navel-gazing obsession with its own modern edginess in which we're seeing the way real teens are today (in the writer’s mind); I thought it was going to be something that just kept throwing stuff out there for shock value and would amount to zero. Well, I was wrong. What all that stuff is is surface, but like tip of the iceberg surface, the kind of surface the characters are evincing/living rather than the writer-imposed oooo-aren't-I-cool-ness I initially thought it was going to be. And lemme tell ya: the iceberg, like all icebergs (remember icebergs?) is deep, cold, and daaaaaaaaaark. This show goes places in terms of the self as played out in the characters' relationships that makes it feel almost compulsive. As in, someone (the showrunner presumably) desperately needs to say something or work something internal out and can't quite figure out the exact way to say it so keeps picking and picking and picking and picking and trying to find it and working it through and all that winds up as a brutally great show. While addiction, drugs, sex, and some violence feature prominently, the show's true strength is its characters which it explores in awesome detail and in ways that, for me at least, wound up being completely unexpected. In some ways, especially towards the end of the second season, it began to feel (and this is a compliment) that these incredibly well-etched lead characters (and there are like 10 of them so it's a definite writing feat to make them all so distinct and individually interesting) were sort of contained within one person, kind of like watching someone with multiple personality disorder (which I guess doesn't exist but you know what I mean) and each of these characters is a facet of one larger person who is trying to create some unifying whole but where the characters are so different and so often in conflict with each other that it seems impossible all these differing desires, motivations, and personal damage could ever cohere, yet someone hasn't given up hope on themselves that one day they will. And if that all sounds very, I don't know, psychologizing the showrunner or something, well that's the show that IJHO he wrote. I've Googled nothing so this isn't coming from knowledge. It's the feel of the show and what makes it so great. In other words, far from being about a bunch of characters created to seem edgy and cool, it's characters who exist in unresolved fullness in the mind of the writer. I think the closest analogue in this sense would be the first season of True Detective, which had a similar feel where you (or I) felt completely swept up in the writer's vision of the world. Or maybe Girls where, no matter how much Lena Dunham became a somewhat hated thing in her real life, the show had a total consistency to it that made it compelling across the series.
I haven't discussed plot at all, partly for spoiler reasons, but mostly because all the plot stems directly from character details and rather than writing out character bios just so you could understand the plot, I'd say go watch the show. It is definitely not for everyone - drugs, sex, and violence (real and simmering) pervade the entire series and the show makes stylistic leaps meaning you may find individual episodes to work better or worse than others depending on your POV. For example: I found the final two episodes of season 2 to be somewhat contrived and structurally discordant in that they felt like they were bouncing from scene to scene rather than letting me settle in - but it didn't matter because the writer is so solid in who these characters are and the choices they make that style is just an overlay you will or won't respond to depending on your personal taste but will have no impact on your investment in the story or how it all plays out. Also as mentioned, I thought the COVID specials were awful because they were just two people in a room talking and they felt like televised plays which I found to be boring. None of it matters. This show has something to say and a clarity of vision across two seasons - oh and also it has some real character humor to it as well - and that is so more than enough for me.
For All Mankind (Season 2):
Honestly it blows my mind that anyone could write let alone finance let alone shoot let alone release a show this mind-bogglingly dull without anyone in the entire studio food-chain seeming to notice, likely due to everyone involved having passed out while watching the dailies, but Apple did it! And not for the first time I might add. The first season of this series teetered on the edge but pulled itself back with some pretty good action sequences whereas this season more or less demanded I DNF after two excruciatingly dull episodes and so I complied as who am I to argue with boredom? As a reminder: this series is an alternate history in the which the Russians beat America to the moon by the a few weeks which, due to Cold War competitiveness, results in NASA getting real funding and America frantically trying to catch up on the space race. The first season was set in the early '70s and played on a lot of the sexist tropes of the time though never in a particularly interesting way as the writers insisted on having the most godawful dull characters playing the most obvious sexist situations (e.g. smart overlooked female engineer in male dominated NASA, closeted lesbian, bored housewife, etc.). Everyone in the show is obvious, earnest, and BORING. In some ways it's shocking. Weren't the writers bored writing these people? No one has any character whatsoever. They're just their type: military-ish White guy, underestimated Black woman, cheating guy, everything's-about-the-presentation woman, and on and on. And that's all they do, i.e. everything's-about-the-presentation woman spends all of her scenes making things presentable and whisking away all discussions or surfaces that don't adhere to some norm. And there you go. Yeah, sure, within the 10 episode first season she gets a comeuppance of sorts and smokes some weed but really isn't that the most obvious and predictable place for that character-type to go? So the show is these insanely boring people in situations we've seen played out a billion times at this point - really it all feels like a pure imitation of Mad Men as it seems no one has much else to say about the sexism/racism of that era beyond what that show said (and so, uh, why say it again, writers?) - mitigated solely by extensive and strongly motivated action sequences. In season 1, everyone was really up against it since the Russians were ahead and this meant people had to make dangerous decisions in an effort to catch up let alone surpass what the Russians were doing. This made all the action stuff much more interesting because the astronauts didn't really have time to prepare and there were engineering problems and it was all seat-of-the-pants so it didn't matter that the characters were bores in those sequences because they were pretty engaging overall.
Okay so this season, which jumps forward a decade or so to the Reagan-era '80s, managed to eliminate literally the only thing that made this show interesting because, even though the Cold War is still on, America's no longer behind the Russians meaning NASA is moving at its normal plodding pace and is there anyone out there in the world of Media Report and beyond who thinks balancing conflicting bureaucratic interests within budgetary constraints makes for seat-gripping drama? How about remote-control-delete-button-gripping non-drama? Really the action is dead - it's just people in space suits bouncing around the moon very slowly or rappelling - again, slowly - down a moon cliff face or whatever. And the same boring people as before but somehow - and this is an amazing achievement - EVEN MORE BORING! Remember "cheating guy" from the other paragraph? Well he's become a fat sad drunk and we get to watch not one not two but THREE (actually maybe it was only two but it felt like three) endless scenes of him giving a talk at the Rotary Club about the good 'ol days. Yep, I gotcha. He's in a bad place right now and look what his life has come to. But how about someone looking at what my viewing has come to! And - and this is where I was like this show can go eff itself and I'm done - you know what a good friend who's running a space program does when they see their old pal is sad and drunk because his astronaut ex-wife is now a rich celebrity who makes guest appearances on the Johnny Carson Show and all he has is the Rotary Club? You send him back to the moon, I guess because endangering the lives of all the other astronauts to hardly mention all the effort and money that went into engineering everything and oh to hardly mention just basic morals goes out the window when your alcoholic out-of-shape pal is sad. Really, 10 hours of the "relax with capybaras" videos which the Youtube algorithm insists I'm obsessed with and jams into my feed nonstop and which I've complained about before and which makes makes me feel either totally misunderstood or even more creepily maybe the algorithm knows me better than I know myself (?!?!) would've been a better investment, boring-wise, on Apple's part.
The Worst Person in the World - This is a modern Norwegian film with some heavy Woody Allen influences, not in terms of wealthy NYers or pedophile accusations, but in terms of what I'd describe as the quasi-naturalistic structured verite style of many Woody Allen films, where people are sitting around talking over each other with a lot of reliance on the actors to convey subtext through looks, pauses, etc. The basic plot tracks a somewhat aimless late 20-something woman through romances and a groping effort to commit to some meaningful path in her life. Also Woody Allenish, the movie is broken up into 12 chapters, which I guess were supposed to mark not only short time jumps but also some kind of progression as well. Is all this reading cool to lukewarm? Because that's how I felt about this movie. Its point, if there is one, was totally incomprehensible to this Janice. There's a lot of waffling around things like marriage and family and the career aimlessness noted above but it doesn't add up to anything, though I think the filmmaker would have us be convinced otherwise. I'm not going to spoiler but essentially the lead has two romantic relationships in the film both of which go nowhere and, via the final quarter of the movie plus an epilogue, clearly implied that I, the viewer, was supposed to understand something about the character and her journey but I understood friggin' nothing. In fact, the aimlessness of the character really mirrors the aimlessness of the filmmaker in that the movie drifts from vignette to vignette with the chapter titles between them but it all amounts to zero. Let's contrast this to many Woody Allen movies like, say, Hannah and Her Sisters, where you can at least trace some character progression through the film, where the relationships and characters start at an A which is distinctly different from the B they end at, i.e. the characters are in some way affected by what they undergo in the film. Not in this movie where you can tell the filmmaker had no idea what he (I think he’s a he?) was up to because there's this random dream sequence which is stylistically out of nowhere in which the lead character moves through a world where everyone is frozen in place except for this one guy and she kisses him and when she emerges from the sequence, she dumps the other guy (not a spoiler because you knew it was coming much earlier). It's just weird, like imagine that happening in Hannah and Her Sisters; it would just be an odd fantasy interruption into an otherwise verite film. I don't know. I watched the whole thing though I was bored in parts and it's over two hours and felt that way plus I found myself getting really annoyed in the final quarter and truly getting super frustrated at the epilogue. This thing has pretensions to be capital A Art but really I wish it had just been about an aimless woman groping for direction in her life and finding it in some manner because the actors were actually really good but it's hard to imagine recommending anyone sit through this just for the acting. Also I have no idea what the title means, none, nor is it ever explained in the movie that I was able to discern so I felt kind of misled because the title made me think I’d be in for something about a lead with markedly unappealing characteristics when in fact the lead, while like any human is flawed, was certainly not the worst person in any world which kind of added to my sense of irritation at the film overall.
The Hunt - This is a totally brutal Danish drama about a kindergarten teacher subject to a witchhunt after an angry 5-year-old lies about being abused by him. It's very stressful and tough to watch and becomes more and more so as the film continues and that’s compliment btw because the filmmaker and lead actor Mads Mikkelsen really managed to immerse the viewer in the ramped up situational tension. We know with certainty that he didn't do anything and we know why the 5-year-old lied and also how her attempts to retract the statement were met by adults essentially telling her it had happened but she'd blotted it out so it’s actually not a movie about child abuse but rather about adult relationships. The town he's in is small and when the adults turn on him, they really turn and he loses everything and all with no recourse. What makes the film interesting is it really speaks to how fragile our friendships are and how trapped we are by them. I won't spoiler where it all goes but I wouldn't say it was predictable to me since it spoke in a larger way to the underlying pain of losing everything and what price you're willing to pay to hang onto it. While the film unfolds in somewhat predictable ways, the predictability is also what makes it so stressful in that you know what’s coming and dread it. While there are some logic leaps in there, especially after the initial accusation, it didn't matter because overall the movie was saying something interesting about our real-world social networks and the unclear choices we may need to make to prevent them from falling apart, and I think it’s worth a watch.