Mission: Impossible – Fallout / **** ½

mission_impossible__fallout_ver3How unlikely is it that a cinematic reboot of a 60’s television series, kicked off by a rare Brian de Palma major studio effort, has become the definitive action series of the 21st century? Had you told me, 20 years ago, that I would be beyond eager to see every Mission: Impossible film in theaters – that I’d even pay extra to see them on an IMAX screen – I wouldn’t have believed you. But with Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the series continues its unlikely, remarkable ascendance, delivering a phenomenal action film anchored with satisfying spy games and style to spare.

Fallout finds the M:I franchise doing a few firsts – most notably, it’s the first time that the franchise repeated a director. But it’s also the first time that the series has worried about continuity, in that Fallout is essentially a direct sequel to its predecessor, Rogue Nation, Luckily, there’s not much focus on the details and nitty-gritty, on the whole; even though this is a sequel, Fallout still works almost entirely as a stand-alone film, one whose references to earlier films are interesting but not necessary to remember every aspect of. (I can attest to this, because apparently all I remember about Rogue Nation was that Tom Cruise. Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Alec Baldwin were in it…and that’s it. But I didn’t have any problems following Fallout.)

As for the return of Christopher McQuarrie, there’s a sense here that McQuarrie wanted to show that he could top the previous films in the series, which results in sometimes feeling like what we’re seeing are sequences from earlier films redone – most notably, a lengthy motorcycle chase, this time through the traffic-filled streets of Paris – with an eye towards making them more intense. What we lose in novelty – and I think we undoubtedly lose something on that front, as the film never quite delivers something as iconic as the Langley heist from the first film, the Burj Khalifa or parking garage fight from Ghost Protocol, or the underwater heist from Rogue Nation – we gain in spectacle and dazzling impact.

In other words, Fallout doesn’t dazzle us with the new, like so many other installments in the franchise; it dazzles us with superb craft and incredible intensity. The aforementioned motorcycle chase through Paris is a nail-biter, with car accidents, narrow misses, and multiple levels above and below the streets all interweaving into one breathless chase. A prisoner extraction features a car sinking into the water as it spins, all filmed from the inside, so that the water forms a literal wall that’s slowly hanging over the prisoner in a dazzling shot. The film’s climax interweaves bomb defusing, hand-to-hand combat, and a literal helicopter fight whose choreography is incredible (especially seeing it on the IMAX, given that the sequence was filmed with IMAX film and designed to fill the entire screen). Best of all, though, is a knock-down, no-holds-barred fist fight in a starkly white bathroom, one that shows that the series is just as comfortable in one-on-one fights as it is sprawling setpieces. That Cruise does so much of his own stuntwork can’t be waved away from this, either; it speaks to the series’ commitment to tactile, practical effects where it’s possible, giving the sequences a weight and heft that CGI can rarely match.

Fallout doesn’t take away the top spot of the series from Ghost Protocol (which is, for my money, one of the three best action films of the century so far, accompanied by Mad Max: Fury Road and The Raid), but when that’s about the only real negative I have with it, well, that says something. It’s an exhilarating ride, one that delivers setpiece after setpiece, any one of which would be the standout in a lesser movie, and instead packs them all into one spectacular ride. It’s a reminder of what big budget action movies can be, and just how fun – and how satisfying – they can really be.

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Primordial Threat, by M.A. Rothman / *** ½

40876750There’s a lot of love out there for hard science-fiction stories, and it’s not difficult to understand, especially in a modern era that so often seems to scorn and misunderstand science willfully. At its core, hard science-fiction – that is, science-fiction with an emphasis on the “science” part of that duality, with an effort to stay within the realm of what’s scientifically plausible – is a love letter to science and what humankind can accomplish when it puts its mind to it. More than that, it’s a reminder of what science is truly capable of, and how so much of our history is shaped as much by innovation and breakthrough as it is by historical inevitability.

All of which is to say, M.A. Rothman’s Primordial Threat is a great piece of hard science-fiction. The setup is simple: a massive black hole is drifting into our area of the galaxy – a primordial, massive threat that will tear apart our planet (and most of the solar system). There’s no stopping it; the only thing we can do as a species is to escape. But how does one get a planet out of the way? Enter the scientists that make up NASA’s Near Earth Object program, as they try to put together a Hail Mary for the ages that will change our entire role – and our location – in the universe.

If you needed a setup to explore the power of science, you couldn’t do much better, and Rothman dives into the science here with aplomb and glee, from space elevators to warp theory, even down to putting together an appendix to explain the basis for his ideas. And any time the book is focused on this aspect of things, Primordial Threat is a fun read – it’s the story of intelligent people combing through difficult problems and figuring out solutions using their brains and the available supplies. (It’s what made The Martian such a fun read.) Now, Rothman undeniably has a tendency to get lost in his science, sometimes going overboard with it in exposition dumps that slow the book down, but given the complexity of his ideas, that’s understandable; it just definitely needs some smoothing to make the book as rocket-paced as it could be.

The problem is, there’s more to Primordial Threat than just the science, and while none of the other parts are outright bad, they never quite click together in a smooth way. There’s a religious doomsday cult designed to throw roadblocks in the way of our heroes, for instance, but they feel grafted into the book, and never feel explored or interesting in the way that they seem like they’re going to be; what’s more, there’s never much sense of why they’re there beyond complicating the story. (Whereas something like Carl Sagan’s Contact handled similar ideas but incorporated them into the themes and ideas of the book.) There’s a subplot about a police officer dealing with the unrest around the world in the wake of the black hole discovery, which in theory should help flesh out the world of the book, but ultimately just feels like filler; it’s not complex or rich enough to make the plotline engaging on its own, and doesn’t have enough connection to our main story to feel relevant. Even the character work we get is fine enough, but never really does much beyond sketching in some broad archetypes.

For all of those flaws, Primordial Threat is never bad, and always engaging. Yes, a lot of the book has some bumpy issues, and it could all use some fine-tuning to give it some throughlines, some richer internal connections, and a bit more character work. Yes, the science could use a little paring down. But the plot is great, and the solutions are genuinely satisfying to watch unfold throughout, and even if Rothman does lose his way in explanations sometimes, it never prevents the execution of the science from being anything less than engaging. Rothman feels like a writer who will only improve from here, but who’s starting on the right foot: ambitious, intelligent, and with great ideas, and now he just has to fine-tune the craft. I think he’s got a great future ahead of him, if Primordial Threat is any indication, and hard science-fiction fans will be treated to great books to come.

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Vacationland, by John Hodgman / *****

71ujiwdng8lMy first exposure to John Hodgman was, like so many other people’s, through an interview he did on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Hodgman was a joy, delivering a gleeful sense of absurdity with an absolute poker face and dry delivery, and it wasn’t long until I found out that his first book, The Areas of My Expertise, did much the same. A so-called “almanac of complete world knowledge,” Expertise (and its equally wonderful two follow-ups, More Information Than You Require and That Is All) were hilariously funny, wonderfully imaginative, and handled perfectly, treating all of their insane tidbits with the utmost seriousness.

But over the course of that trilogy, and even more so in his podcast Judge John Hodgman, Hodgman began to reveal hidden depths. Yes, he still had a wonderfully esoteric and odd sense of humor; yes, he still so often cultivated a personality of odd quirks and dry delivery. But what became evident was that Hodgman was also deeply empathetic and insightful, capable not only of riotous humor, but also of quickly and incisively getting at the heart of issues in a way that I was in awe of. (This is especially evident on the podcast, where Hodgman can take a debate as simple as “Should I be able to force my daughter to watch old movies?” and realize that it’s getting to deeper issues of parental fears and familial change, all without ever losing track of that central question.)

All of which is to say, Vacationland is the perfect union of these aspects of Hodgman. A set of essays about Maine, being a privileged white guy, his mother, and more, Vacationland is absolutely hilarious, delivering no shortage of absurd lines and sharp observations. But while it would be easy to make fun of the world around him or those he disagrees with, Hodgman makes himself the focus of these essays and his own sharpest critiques, whether it be his choice of facial hair or the narcissism that he (and really, all of us) had when he was younger. (Hodgman’s assessment of mustaches is particularly quotable: “A mustache sends a visual message to the mating population of Earth that says, ‘No thank you. I have procreated. My DNA is out in the world, and I no longer deserve physical affection.'”)

Is this self-indulgent? Maybe, but Hodgman knows that it’s self-indulgent, and owns that. He’s aware of the privilege that comes with not only being a “minor television celebrity” and “book famous,” but also comes with being a middle-aged white guy, and he never lets himself off the hook for that. Vacationland is rarely political, but there’s little denying that Hodgman has opinions about the world, and that he worries about the trends he sees and the events on the news. He’s aware that he’s bringing his own perspective to bear on it, and that that perspective is necessarily limited – and yet, it’s what he has. So when he thinks about the dangers of nostalgia (a “toxic impulse”) or ponders the wave of police brutality cases that are only now becoming visible to many of us despite existing in the shadows for years, they’re coming from a place of introspection and self-awareness.

This is, undeniably, the work of a very particular person: a man who’s found success, unexpectedly, late in life. (Hodgman’s question “Are you enjoying my very relatable book of essays and reflections?” after he reveals the fact that he has two summer homes is both self-effacing and accurate in its implications.) It’s also the book of a man moving into middle age and contemplating his relationship with his children, mortality, and his own neuroses and complications. It is also, of course, very, very funny, tackling heavy and complex subjects with grace, craft, and a wonderful wit that left me laughing out loud in public places without a mote of shame. It’s just that, for the first time in his writing, Hodgman is willing to show us the thoughtful, humane, generous mind behind the humor.

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Blood Calls, by Charles D. Shell / ****

517xijt72bzlWe like to say “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and it’s true – the cover of a novel so rarely has any indication of what the contents may hold, any more than the poster or the trailer for a film tells you what it’s going to be. And yet, any serious reader would admit that covers can have an effect on you, and that probably goes double when you’re getting review copies of small, independent authors that go through small presses or publish independently. And given that Charles D. Shell’s Blood Calls has a pretty bad cover (and is longer than my typical review copy, which isn’t always a great sign), you could understand my wariness on picking it up.

But I’m really glad that I looked past all of that, because Blood Calls is a solid, engaging, fun read, with strong characters, an interesting world, and a complicated enough plot to more than justify the book’s length and constantly make you want to keep reading more and more. Shell gives us an engaging antihero, a surprising amount of wit and fun, and rich themes – more than enough to satisfy any serious fantasy fan.

The broad strokes of Blood Calls sound familiar enough – or, at least, they incorporate enough tropes that we feel like we’re on familiar ground. A dissolute nobleman who’s being sent to a distant country in an ambassador role to get him out of the way – along with his best friend, a dragon whose bond with him is part friendship, part telepathic, and part something deeper. Meanwhile, another nation, one mixing magic with mechanical warfare devices, is planning a new assault across the continent, but for reasons far beyond the usual land grabs.

As a synopsis, Blood Calls feels like a lot of things we’ve read before, maybe. But in execution, Shell brings his characters to life, giving us a pair of heroes whose sarcastic banter, deep insecurities, casual meanness, and entirely shallow worldview make for wonderfully engaging company. Rather than going for high fantasy nobles and tightly controlled societies, Shell gives us wannabe ladies men, snobby dragons, streetwise newspaper-running street urchins, confident female war heroes, and more, eschewing easy tropes and simple archetypes in favor of rich, funny, engaging characters that bring the world to life, instead of relying on worldbuilding to keep us going.

And if that’s not enough, as we keep reading, we realize that Shell isn’t just giving us quip machines who are swaggering through the novel; instead, he’s giving us damaged people who are victims of this world, from racial discrimination to class warfare victims, from social rebels to worried brothers. Blood Calls may be fantasy, but Shell’s using his fantasy tropes to deal with interesting ideas – after all, how many books have dragons who are victimized and outcast from their tribes due to being labeled as being of an inferior dragon race? All of this has a way of sneaking up on you, as Shell lets us judge the characters based off of their exteriors before peeling back the layers to show us what’s underneath.

The prose of Blood Calls is workmanlike – it gets the job done, but there’s nothing too fancy here to write about. And the overarching plot trades in some cliches, to be sure. But none of that really prevented me from thoroughly enjoying what Shell pulls off here, thanks largely to getting all of the book’s details right in perfect ways. The big picture might be familiar, and the outside cover unappealing. But the pages within have humor, fun, heart, and a surprising emotional complexity that makes the book work on all the levels that matter, and doing what needs to be done on all the others. I went from “I hope this isn’t bad” to “wait, this isn’t bad at all” to “man, I’m really enjoying this” very quickly, and by the end, I couldn’t put it down. It’s well worth your time, if you’re any kind of fantasy fan, and especially if you like yours with some antiheroes, a sense of humor, and a desire to focus on the characters more than the world they inhabit. In other words, it’s a fun read, and those many pages will fly by before you know it.

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Paperbacks from Hell, by Grady Hendrix / *****

33670466Growing up, I tended to get my reading fix courtesy of a used book warehouse in town. Overflowing with books of all genres that you could get for cheap, and encouraged by a father who exposed me to a lot of classic pulp, I would dig through the stacks and pick up books for any number of reasons – author, sure, and of course an interesting plot. But one of the best reasons to look through the stacks was for the covers. From pulp sci-fi landscapes to gloriously lurid horror covers, used books were a crash course in the glory days of cover art.

So it’s really no surprise that I loved Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, a survey of the 70’s and 80’s horror boom (a boom that he defines as opening with the trifecta of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Other, and then came to an end with The Silence of the Lambs). Even before you get into the text, the pictures – a gloriously in-depth exploration of covers absurd and gory, restrained and insane – are enough to make this a must-have for your shelf. Hendrix has a love of the unrestrained and insane, and the way he organizes so much of the book by theme (maybe my favorite: the history of skeleton doctors on book cover) makes just flipping through Paperbacks a ton of fun. From knife-wielding crabs to ominous dolls to whatever is going on in the insane cover of Shaun Hutson’s Spawn, Hendrix covers them all with glee.

But it’s really that glee and passion that makes Paperbacks from Hell such a wonderful read. It would be all too easy for Hendrix to simply pile on the snark and condescension, and even easier still to just discuss the cover art and the trends in marketing. Instead, Hendrix’s deep dive into pulp horror shows through on every page, with his descriptions and synopses walking that fine line between delight and mockery. Hendrix is under no illusions that these novels are fine art, but that never stops him from appreciating them for what they are, and celebrating their weirdness. And while he’s so often willing to embrace the insanity of it all, he never truly turns negative (with one notable exception: his deep dislike of The Amityville Horror, for reasons he makes clear and which are hard to argue with). Sure, he’ll own the problematic (to put it mildly) aspects of the books, or explore in glorious details the dated attitudes on display or the horrific shock value they’re going for. But there’s always a note of love in his tone for these weird books. In other words, this is never cheap hipsterism or ironic embrace; it’s a true love for pulp horror.

Even better, Hendrix uses the book as a chance to recommend some truly great books along the way – ones that deserve better than to be consigned to pulp recycling plants for life. It’ll be hard for any serious horror fan to read Paperbacks and not come away with a big reading list, but Hendrix goes a step further, extolling the virtues of the cover artists, giving them their own spotlights, and doing everything he can to give the credit for these wonderful works to the nameless artists that have so often been forgotten. Paperbacks from Hell is very funny, and very enjoyable, and very aware of the absurdity of what it’s covering. But it’s also done with love, affection, and appreciation for the craft that went into two decades of great horror – and it’s that love that makes it such a great read.

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In the Time of Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez / **** ½

7304461I couldn’t help but think of The Poisonwood Bible as I read Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies, her account of the lives of the famed Mirabal sisters, four sisters who became a symbol of the growing revolution against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Once again, we have a story set against a backdrop of revolution; once again, the story is told entirely from the perspective of its female characters, down to the fact that we have four sisters; and once again, each of the women comes to represent a different aspect of this fight, ranging from fearful acceptance of the dictatorship to violent defiance.

Now, there are clear and marked differences between the two books, to be fair. (Not least of which is the fact that Poisonwood is very much about outsiders – particularly white outsiders – interfering in African politics, while Butterflies is about the people themselves rising up.) But perhaps the most important difference in them is that while Poisonwood hammers home its points by the end, Butterflies allows the reader to draw their own conclusions, simply choosing to depict these women (well, a version of them) without commentary or authorial intent overwhelming the story.

Now, that same aspect of the book can occasionally be frustrating. Alvarez isn’t interested in exploring the origins, causes, or even some of the larger effects of the Trujillo dictatorship; instead, she keeps her focus on the girls, giving us a sense of who they were and building them into human beings, reminding us that underneath the legend of these heroic girls were people with families, dreams, goals, and more. That’s a good focus for the book, and a worthwhile goal, but there are times that as an American reader without much context, I sometimes got a bit hazy on the bigger picture of the book.

Nonetheless, In the Time of Butterflies works as an experience, largely because of that aforementioned focus on a single goal. Any lack of context works because it feels like an extension of the characters and their immersion in this world – that is, because their offering exposition would feel unnatural and added in. And by focusing on the sisters, Alvarez gives us a look at how regular people can rise up and fight back against overwhelming force and oppression – and more importantly, how that process can be an evolution, and not just a switch. Alvarez turns what could have been a dry history of a revolution into something more personal and human, focusing on a ground-level view of the building of a revolution. And really, that seemed to be her goal – to turn icons back into human beings, not to bring them down to Earth or to reduce their status, but to praise them all the more – to show how regular people can change the world. And if it doesn’t necessarily always nail the big picture, the detail and characterization of these four women is so successful and effective that I’m more than willing to forgive that.

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Death Line (a.k.a. Raw Meat) / *** ½

death-line-1972-poster_960_640_80Here’s what you need to know about Death Line (released under the name Raw Meat in the US): it’s not, honestly, that great of a horror film. If what you’re coming in for is something grimy, splattery, and grindhouse-ish (as might be suggested by the name), well, you’re going to be a little disappointed. It’s surprisingly slow-paced, not particularly interested in big scares, and filled with an unexpected emphasis on long, thoughtful takes and building sympathy for its nominal villain.

And yet, I had a complete blast with this movie. For one thing, Death Line is the most wonderfully British movie I’ve maybe ever seen, filled with pubs, dry wit, laconic threats, and contempt for the mess this whole thing is causing. Nowhere is that more evident than in Donald Pleasence’s massively entertaining lead performance as a police inspector who’s often just as vexed by the fact that his tea is from tea bags as he is with the fact that there’s a series of people vanishing from an underground stop. Pleasence’s rapport with his subordinate (another classic British character actor, Norman Rossington) is a joy, with both men’s working class vibes and casual pragmatism constantly butting against the weird horrors of the film. By the time the film followed both men as they hang out after work and get drunk, I was totally willing to just ignore the whole horror aspect of the film and enjoy these two men being disdainful towards the world around them.

Mind you, part of that is because the horror aspect of the film is so…odd. Death Line leans into giving us a first impression of these subterranean cannibals that feels like we’re living in Ed Gein’s house or with the Texas Chain Saw Massacre clan, but that’s not what the movie has in mind. Instead, whenever the film shifts to the tribe, we get long, flowing takes that drift through their silent lair, and lingering shots of the one survivor, alone in the midst of the corpses of his friends. Death Line has sympathy for its monster, which is admirable, and it turns him not into some horrible creature, but into a damaged, lonely man who never had a chance to be anything other than what he was. There’s just two problems with that. The first is that the man’s non-verbal, animalistic performance is hard to sustain the sheer amount of time the film spends on him, dragging the film to a halt every time that’s happening; and the second is that it does have a way of basically killing any horror tendencies that the film has.

Look, I’m not saying that Death Line is a great film. (I haven’t even gotten into the unforgivably bland American lead who’s a non-entity but theoretically our protagonist.) It’s odd, shaggy, a bit slow-paced, and not always as interested in being a horror film as it wants to be. But it’s almost entirely worth watching for Pleasence and Norrington, whose banter and wit is gloriously funny and dark, and whose lived-in performances build the wonderfully British air the film builds. (That doesn’t even touch on Christopher Lee’s cameo, where he gives the most charming, charismatic threat possible while wearing a bowler and pointing with an umbrella.) I loved that aspect of the film, and if the horror parts don’t always work, they’re at least odd and unique enough to make for an interesting, if not always “good”, experience.

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