The Underground Railroad.

Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for that year and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the first book to win both awards. The last three Carnegie Medal for Fiction winners have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well, making Whitehead’s book the current favorite for that honor as well, and it would certainly fit both in the quality of the work itself and the kind of American themes the Pulitzer committee is charged with identifying.

Whitehead’s alternative history has an actual railroad operating underground, in secret, ferrying slaves to freedom in the north with the help of abolitionist whites, with southern plantation owners and slave-hunters trying to ferret out its locations and operators. This becomes the route for Cora, a slave on a brutal plantation in Georgia who has been abandoned by her mother (who fled the plantation without a word) and finds the farm’s ownership going from bad to worse, as she attempts to find freedom in the north despite impossible odds and the threat of torture and death if she’s caught and returned to her owner.

Cora herself is one of the great strengths of the novel, as Whitehead has created one of the most memorable and compelling female protagonists in American fiction. It’s easy for a writer to craft a fictional slave who captures the sympathy of readers; Whitehead’s success is in crafting one who captures our empathy. Cora is strength in futility, a tightly wound ball of fear, rage, and grief who makes her dash out of a desire for freedom and a quest for a connection to the family she’s lost. She’s neither broken by the dehumanizing experiences she had as a slave, nor unbroken as we might expect of a fictional heroine. There’s enough reason in Cora’s character to doubt that she’ll succeed in reaching her goal.

The other strength of The Underground Railroad is the setting, which goes beyond the mere reimagining of the titular escape route as a physical entity. Cora lands in South Carolina and then North Carolina, each of which has come up with its own “solution” to the slave question rather than continuing to employ slaves as in the true antebellum south – but, of course, South Carolina’s superficial paradise has a sinister plan beneath the surface, while North Carolina chose to end slavery in vile fashion that has some unfortunate parallels in our modern climate. She eventually ends up in Indiana, where a house of free blacks simply proves too successful to stand even in the face of whites who oppose slavery and would likely feign horror if anyone called them racists. None of these places after Georgia is based in historical reality; each is the product of an imagination that can take a metaphor and create a realistic setting that puts ideas into buildings, people, and actions. It’s fictional but not fanciful, and each location is a world unto itself that could easily have hosted an entire novel and would generate hours of discussion about the meanings beneath the details.

Cora is hunted throughout the book by the amoral, mercenary slave-hunter Ridgeway, who refers to any slave as “it” and travels with the most motley crew of associates imaginable. But Ridgeway himself is utterly two-dimensional, maybe one-dimensional, and instead seemed to me to be a clear attempt by Whitehead to make Cora’s fear of recapture and memories of oppression incarnate. She cannot escape her past until and unless she escapes Ridgeway for good. That doesn’t make him an interesting character, but in a book that seems to urge us to fight the national tendency to forget the sins of our fathers, it makes him an invaluable one.

The nature of the rest of the book makes the other characters, most of whom are white, less than two-dimensional as well, although again it seems that Whitehead is using these people as stand-ins for ideas. The well-meaning whites in South Carolina are particularly striking because they are so opaque, and because they tell themselves they’re doing the Right Things, even when what they’re doing is ultimately both wrong and springs from a sentiment that is itself thoroughly wrong. The couple who harbor Cora in North Carolina present different sides of the white person who knows slavery is wrong, but chooses to look the other way, to decline to get involved, or to just generally protect his/her own well-being rather than helping others in more desperate straits. Creating so many underdeveloped side characters is generally a major flaw in a novel, but the genius here is in creating characters from ideas without them becoming totally one-note.

I have no idea if The Underground Railroad should or will win the Pulitzer, since I haven’t read any other 2016 books yet aside from the one I’m reading now, Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey. I can say that few books of recent vintage have disturbed me the way Whitehead’s book has; the world he’s created manages to be abhorrent and magnetic at once, a world you’d never want to live in but that you can’t help but want to see. And it’s so full of ideas without ever devolving into sermon, imploring us to remember our past and accept that we will never fully escape it. The book’s final chapter is less conclusion than peroration, showing us the difficulty of becoming free of our history and depicting just one narrow path to get there.

Sing Street.

Sing Street is a coming-of-age story, set in the 1980s, that also serves as an homage to the distinctive pop and new-wave sounds of the first half of that decade along with the new medium of the music video. Written and directed by John Carney, who wrote and directed the wonderful 2007 film Once (now a Tony Award-winning musical), Sing Street uses largely unknown actors and original music that manages to evoke classic ’80s pop tunes without directly ripping them off, and includes all kinds of little visual cues to remind those of us who grew up in that era of the atmosphere of the time. The film earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical or Comedy (it’s both), but didn’t earn a Best Song nomination, and was totally overlooked by the Oscars. I named it my #10 movie of 2016 on my post last weekend. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

The film follows Conor, the youngest of three children of squabbling Robert (Aidan Gillen, a.k.a. Mayor Carcetti from The Wire) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy, a.k.a. Mrs. S from Orphan Black), as he’s moved from a posh private school to a free school run by the Christian Brothers called Synge Street, named for the Dublin street on which it’s located. (The street and school are both real.) Conor’s bullied right away by the tough kids in the new school, but spots an attractive girl standing across the street – complete with ’80s big hair – and lies about being in a band to try to impress her, asking her to be in their first video. Then he has to make a band, which becomes Sing Street, and launches the remainder of the story, along with the film’s wonderful soundtrack.

Each Sing Street song is a thematic copy of something that’s popular at the moment, like Duran Duran’s “Rio” or Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” If you remember the ’80s act Danny Wilson, who had a minor hit in the U.S. in 1988 called “Mary’s Prayer,” their lead singer Gary Clark wrote most of the music for Sing Street, and has a clear knack for this sort of knockoff – the song that sounds like some other song, but has enough of a hook to work on its own, with new and often quite clever lyrics. I’m far from the only person who thought “Drive It Like You Stole It” was robbed of an Oscar nomination – neither Sting’s version of the same song he’s been rewriting since “They Dance Alone” or that awful Timberlake song where he trolls the entire world deserved a spot over this one – but you could make a case for “Up” or closer “Brown Shoes” too.

The story itself is a little light, and we’re mostly just following the two main characters, Conor and Raphina, as they start to grow up a little, make some mistakes, and develop a sort of teenage crush. Everyone else is comic relief, including Conor’s manic, frustrated musician brother Brendan (played by American actor Jack Reynor, who’s great except for his bad Irish accent); Mark McKenna as rabbit-obsessed multi-instrumentalist wizard Eamon; and even class bully Barry, who has a predictably awful home life but gets his little moment in the sun. And Carney works in several ’80s music-video tropes, including shots of the main couple running out of a concert hall or the two of them running down the alley in the half-light, as well as clips of the band filming amateur music videos that imitate the stuff they’ve seen on TV.

Carney himself has said he regrets the ending, joking that he wishes he’d killed the two protagonists off, but I found his comments puzzling because, before I saw his comments, I didn’t think the ending was so unambiguously happy. Other than the clear reference to “Rio,” except for Conor getting poured on as opposed to Simon LeBon basking in sunshine, the ending seemed open-ended and doubtful to me. There’s no real reason to believe good things are going to happen to either character in what would hypothetically follow the final sequence. It’s an escape, because the film itself (and the music videos that inspired it) is an escape, but the characters are only escaping from, not escaping to. To compare it to the other great musical of 2016, La La Land, there’s probably no chance Conor and Raphina are staying together for long. They’re two kids in something like love, doing something rash and impetuous that probably won’t work out, but so what?

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo has a star-making turn as Conor, playing him with little flashes of the charisma of a lead singer, but primarily as a shy, slightly nerdy kid who’s barely coming into his own over the course of the film. He was 16 when it was filmed and won’t turn 18 until this October, if you want to wonder what you’ve done with your life. Lucy Boynton has less to do as Raphina, but she manages to pull off a solid combination of insecurity and superficial haughtiness, while also proving to be quite the chameleon as the costume and makeup folks run her through a series of looks that are unquestionably ’80s and best left there. (She’s also going to appear in the upcoming film version of Murder on the Orient Express.) Walsh-Peelo is the one I’d like to see some more, though, since he sang his own vocals and has a certain presence even behind his character’s meekness.

For more on how Carney & company created the convincing sounds of a band of teenagers who’ve just started playing together, I recommend this piece from MIX magazine.

Tower.

On August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman, a white, Catholic 25-year-old who had trained as a sharpshooter with the Marines, murdered his wife and his mother, then went to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower and began targeting and shooting anyone he could see, killing 14 and wounding 31 others. It was considered the first mass “school shooting” in U.S. history and the worst mass murder in Texas history to that point.

The documentary Tower, which was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, recreates the 96 minutes from when Whitman first started shooting until he was killed by policemen who, with the help of one courageous civilian, cornered him on the observation deck. By using first-person accounts from survivors and witnesses, Tower tells the story of the shootings via animation, some of it overlaid on actual footage from either that day or that time period. It’s an utterly gripping account that comes as close as possible to putting the viewer on the scene, and focuses on the victims, both those killed that day and those injured or involved who had to carry those memories for the rest of their lives. The film is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

Whitman’s motives remain unknown to this day, although there are multiple theories, including that a brain tumor pressing on his amygdala had caused him to have murderous or delusional thoughts. Tower doesn’t get into Whitman’s story at all; in fact, he never appears in the film, not even in animation. Instead, the documentary gives us the stories of the people who are rarely if ever mentioned when the story of the Tower shootings are told.

One student, Claire Wilson, who was eight months pregnant and walking with her boyfriend was among the first people shot by Whitman; she survived, thanks to the help of multiple good Samaritans, two of whom eventually risked their lives to drag her to safety, but she lost the baby and her boyfriend was killed immediately. Another student, John “Artly” Fox, was one of the men who went into the open to bring Claire out of the sniper’s sight so she could get medical attention, and after three months in the hospital, she survived. Tower brings the two of them together for the first time since the shootings at the end of the film. A boy delivering newspapers was shot while on his cousin’s bicycle; he survived, but his parents were first told he’d been killed before finding him alive at the hospital. Air Force veteran Allen Crum, then the manager of the campus co-op store across the street, came out to break up what he thought was a fight, then realized there was a sniper and decided to make his way to the tower itself, eventually joining the officers on the observation deck and providing cover for them as they crept up on Whitman and killed him.

Many of the principals are still alive today and appear twice over in the film – as themselves, near the end of the documentary, but in animated form as their younger selves during the reenactments. The animation gimmick works incredibly well, more than simply hiring actors would have (if such a thing were even feasible), because it allowed me at least to focus completely on their words. There’s no question of someone overacting or rendering a person inaccurately here; we get their memories, enough to give us a fairly complete picture of those 96 minutes of hell, and a closing segment as those still alive discuss life after the shootings. And because this story is rarely told – victims are largely numbers, and modern accounts will always focus on the killer instead – there are tons of details here I’d never heard before, as well as the angle that elevates some of the day’s heroes over the murderer in the telling.

I’m floored Tower didn’t advance and earn of the five nominations for Best Documentary Feature. It’s better than the four nominees of normal length, with a clear narrative and a strong angle that remains important to this day (perhaps even more so, as the current federal government wants to ensure people with serious mental illnesses have easy access to guns). And it did something novel, combining animation with real footage to provide an accurate historical rendering of a major event in American history – one that I would say is somewhat forgotten outside of Texas, perhaps because school shootings have become so commonplace. It’s better structured than I Am Not Your Negro, more compelling than Life, Animated, and lacks the fatal flaw of The 13th. For it to fall behind all of those films defies understanding.

The Fifth Season.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won the 2016 Hugo Prize for the best science-fiction novel of the year, and while I have had a lot of issues with Hugo winners, this one absolutely deserved the honor. Jemisin constructs a world that is thoroughly integrated with the plot, one that incorporates the theme of environmental degradation into its story, and uses a brilliant tripartite narrative that gradually comes together as the novel reaches the end, with a clever twist that I didn’t really see coming.

The Fifth Season is set on Earth of the very distant future, on a planet that experiences frequent seismic disruptions that cause “seasons” that threaten mass extinctions, like the way the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora caused the so-called year without a summer. These seasons last years, decades, occasionally even a century, and wipe out most of civilization each time, although humanity attempts to learn and improve its survival chances with every change. There’s only one (known) continent, the Stillness, sort-of ruled by the remnants of an empire, with people organized into autonomous communities called “comms.”

People have evolved in the interim as well, with some people born with a special power called “orogeny” that allows them to draw strength from the earth itself and move stone or even tectonic plates. These orogenes, known colloquially by the pejorative term “roggas,” are often used to quell minor earthquakes, but can also move mountains, literally. Most orogenes are brought to the main comm and trained to use their powers, but some never learn and are a danger to themselves and others, leading to widespread prejudice and even violence. There’s also a third type of human running around, the stone-eaters, although their role isn’t clear till very late in the story.

Jemisin gives us those three intertwined narratives, all truly centered around orogeny – their roles in society and the way they’re simultaneously valued and feared by others. One is told in the second person, and “you” are the orogene mother of two, and when the story starts, you find that your non-orogenic husband has beaten your son to death, probably because he figured out the boy also had this power. The second follows a young girl, Damaya, who’s discovered to have the same power and is brought by a Guardian to the central comm for training in a special academy for orogenes, which isn’t exactly Hogwarts. The third follows Syenite, an adult orogene who is forced to join up with Alabaster, who’s implied to be the most powerful orogene in the Stillness, for the purposes of breeding and giving birth to lots of orogenic babies. When they’re also asked to visit a coastal comm and help them with a problem in their harbor, things start to go very wrong, a series of events that precipitates the union of the three storylines as the book reaches its conclusion.

Outside of Ursula K. Leguin’s work, The Fifth Season is probably the most outright feminist sci-fi novel I’ve ever read – but not in an overt way at all. The characters aren’t feminists; it’s not clear such a designation would have any meaning in this society. The entire story explores the role of women in society, the possibility of them having power equal to or exceeding that of men, and the timeless questions of a woman’s agency in matters like having children. Environmental degradation does underpin the overall story – Jemisin’s Earth often appears to be trying to kill people, and the humans’ pagan religion treats the planet as an angry god – but it’s the women themselves who are the stars of the novel, and their challenges drive the plot forward.

I could have done without some of Jemisin’s explicit descriptions of sex – they just don’t add anything at all to the story – and some of the cruelty inflicted on children in the book, while more relevant to the plot, was tough to read too. Jemisin’s biggest strength as a writer is the pure storytelling; she’s conceived a world unlike any I’ve seen, remaking the post-apocalyptic earth into something less nightmarish, a testament to the human desire to live and to keep something of civilization going. The dialogue can be clunky, especially when any of the characters is forced to confront something unpleasant or makes a sudden realization. Alabaster is the only well-drawn male character (although that’s kind of a welcome change from novels that don’t have a single three-dimensional female character in sight). It’s such an incredibly compelling story, however, intricate yet internally consistent, around three women you will want to follow to the story’s end … and the sequel, since it turns out this is the start of a new trilogy, with the second book, The Obelisk Gate, already out.

Next up: One of the early Pulitzer winners, the out-of-print Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, which I picked up used because there isn’t even a library copy in the entire state of Delaware.

La La Land.

My top 100 prospects ranking is rolling out this week, with prospects #40 to #21 in today’s post. Over at Paste, I reviewed the new edition of Citadels, a classic game from 2000 that plays 2-8, and comfortably plays five-plus – I’d say it’s best with at least four.

Imagine if Once were set in L.A., opened with a classic musical-film song and dance number, and starred two ridiculously beautiful people wearing nice clothes and singing happier songs?

Once didn’t get the love it deserved from the Oscars, although it later became a cult hit and a Tony Award-winning musical. La La Land is a lot more ambitious and bigger-budget than Once was, and it’s going to win a lot more Academy Awards, but at their hearts are quite similar stories about love affairs that just can’t last, set to music.

Of course, that’s a bit glib – La La Land is more than just that. It’s part homage to the bygone era of the big Hollywood musical. It’s a feast for the eyes, with vivid colors in the background and on Emma Stone. It’s a little bit parody, and then it folds a little back in on itself and plays along with its own gag. It’s also a really good time, which makes it a rarity among the Best Picture nominees this year. La La Land is an outright pleasure to watch, even with the half-and-half ending, and with so many movies draped in grief, regret, sorrow, and isolation this year, it stands out even more.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play Mia and Seb, two beautiful people struggling in their careers in LA – she an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop, he a jazz pianist playing Christmas music in a nightclub and then, in a sight gag that Stone turns into something much more, in a bad ’80s cover band. They meet more than once and don’t hit it off right away, but eventually the movie keeps pushing them together until there’s a spark, along with a song about how there’s no spark between them. Eventually, he gets a medium break, playing in a jazz-pop band led by his old frenemy Keith (played by John Legend), which forms the first wedge between the star-crossed lovers, although they manage to careen back and forth until the movie’s epilogue, five years later, where we see that, even in the movies, sometimes you just can’t have everything after all.

This is a musical, but not an old-time musical. If you just saw the opening scene, a huge ensemble dance number set in a traffic jam on a highway on-ramp, you’d expect something like the classics, where people just spontaneously start dancing while singing their dialogue. Instead, this is a regular movie with a handful of songs, and it isn’t until the end, when Emma Stone sings for her Oscar with “The Audition Song” (earning the movie one of its two Best Song nominations) near the very end, that we get another flashback to the halcyon days of Hollywood. Did critics who’ve said of La La Land that “they don’t make movies like this any more!” realize that Hollywood never made movies like this in the past?

Stone really owns this film in just about every way. Her character is better-developed, more three-dimensional, and shows real growth over the film. When Mia and Seb have their first quarrel as lovers, Mia holds her own in the argument, and Stone manages to portray inner turmoil on a face that’s outwardly composed until Seb finally insults her enough for her to leave. That’s Stone’s greatest achievement in the movie – her character is often put in situations where she’s turning from one emotion to another in a flash, and she can do this without making you aware that this is just someone acting.

The movie also uses her as a blank canvas of sorts, running her through an array of dresses in solid, vibrant colors that seemed to underscore the fact that, hey, we’re in California, where everything is sunny and bright and colorful all the time. It doesn’t hurt that she can get away with wearing all of those colors, or that her eyes seemed to be green in one scene and blue in another, but it ensures that your eyes are on her in nearly every scene.

Gosling, meanwhile, can turn on the charm when his character permits, but Seb is prone to this sort of insular, sulking behavior that I thought was as offputting as his strange amalgam of New York and Philly accents. And neither of these two is winning any awards for dancing, although, as always, we must give more credit to the woman for dancing backward and in heels.

Some of the L.A. jokes were a little too on the nose – the Prius gag, the gluten-free line – and the movie is funnier when it draws humor from situations rather than punchlines. When Seb is trying to explain jazz to Mia, and she answers with, “What about Kenny G?” it’s his reaction that drives the entire scene. He is totally beyond exasperated, like he wants to claw the skin off his face, yet is so passionate about the subject and obviously smitten with her that he tries to talk her down off the smooth-jazz ledge. It’s probably my favorite Gosling scene in the movie, especially since Seb’s ego returns to the center of his character towards the end of the film.

The movie ends with a dream sequence that shows an alternate reality five years on, what might have happened if things went … well, the other way, and I think here director and writer Damien Chazelle did two things: paid homage to classic musicals in more explicit fashion, and reminded the Academy just one more time to vote for him. I caught direct allusions to An American in Paris and Royal Wedding, and Funny Face, but I’m no expert on the genre and assume I missed many more. In that sense, it was the most engrossing part of the movie – you’re looking at the flip side of the movie’s internal reality, and also watching the two of them move through a rolling reference to Hollywood history.

I’ve seen four of the Best Picture nominees and hope to see as many as eight – I have zero interest in a Mel Gibson movie, and even less in that particular one – although I might only get Lion after the awards ceremony. Of the four I’ve seen, I think La La Land would get my vote. It just does more, and does more well, than Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea, both great movies but less ambitious than this one. I think any would be a worthy winner, but I rank things, and I currently have La La Land at #1.

Sherlock, season four.

New pieces elsewhere: Two-thirds of my annual farm systems rankings are up now, the middle tier 20-11 and the bottom tier, 30-21, both Insider-only, with the top ten to come on Friday. My latest boardgame review for Paste covers Kodama: The Tree Spirits, which is both clever and – I mean this in a good way – adorable.

I miss the version of Sherlock who used his head and solved crimes. It’s a shame that we didn’t get that guy much, if at all, in season four of the BBC series, because even when these three episodes were entertaining, which they frequently were, they felt like I was watching not just a different show but a different main character entirely.

I’ll still argue that a bad season of Sherlock would beat an average season of most other shows; it’s written on a higher plane than almost anything else I’ve seen, making big assumptions about the audience’s ability to follow both dialogue and plot, and if that means the writers, Mark Gattis and Stephen Moffat, go astray at times, it’s a risk I’ll gladly take as a viewer.

And in the second episode of season four – which comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray on the 24th – it all worked pretty well. Toby Jones plays Donald Trump – okay, they called him Culverton Smith – as a billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, and celebrity whom Holmes believes is a secret serial killer, concocting an incredibly elaborate scheme to catch him that’s worthy of the detective character’s rich history. It was over the top at a few points, but the resolution was vintage, including the way it tied in minor bits of earlier dialogue and action (e.g., the nurse who thought Holmes wrote the blog) and flipped in a bit of dark humor (about people stopping at three), which manages to infuse some life into the ending we know we have to get – viz., that Holmes isn’t going to die.

That same problem, however, is part of what wrecked the bombastic season (and possibly series) finale of season four, where we meet Holmes’ missing sister Eurus, who has been kept in a secret, secure, offshore prison for years, maybe decades, and discover that she is the distillation of the rational part of Sherlock’s personality. There’s so much absurdity in this episode that I could never suspend my disbelief sufficiently to get sucked into the plot, from her preternatural ability to ‘reprogram’ others to practical questions of how she got on and off the island so frequently to the drone scene early in the episode, which is incongruent with everything Eurus does afterwards. (One fun Easter egg in the episode, though – the island fortress is named Sherrinford, which was one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s potential names for Sherlock and later showed up in his notes as a name for a possible third Holmes brother.) It may all have been worth it to see Andrew Scott get off that helicopter in a flashback scene, playing Moriarty to the absolute hilt, but the solution to the ongoing problem Eurus presents to Holmes over the course of the entire episode was such a muddled mess I’m not even sure of the payoff.

If I take the long view, I think I can see where Gatiss and Moffatt were going with the arc over the three episodes, even if I didn’t fully agree with the decisions or plot details they chose. They needed to write Mary out of the series somehow, as she dies offscreen in the original stories, and her presence was a complication of the Holmes-Watson relationship at the heart of Conan Doyle’s work and this series. (And while the character here was quite well-written, her superspy background was so much stuff and nonsense.) The Eurus episode accomplished two other ends for Sherlock’s character: It reset the balance between him and Mycroft, whose superiority to his brother has now been undermined, while also giving Sherlock himself insight into his own severe rationalism as a defense mechanism to childhood trauma. The result, should the series continue, would at least allow them to write Sherlock with some more emotional complexity – no longer the “high-functioning sociopath” of the first and second series, but an evolved character who has been affected by the death and suffering around him, including one death he believes he caused, and who has come to recognize his dependence on the small number of people who have at least tried to be his friends.

That’s not strictly loyal to the original character, and in some sense – you can’t cure sociopathy, if that’s what Holmes really had – perhaps not realistic, but it is almost certainly essential to continuing to tell these stories. Another character derived from Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, descended into caricature over the last four seasons of his namesake series because the writers refused to have him evolve in any fashion (arguing, not without justification, that it would be unrealistic). This Holmes’ connections to the surrounding characters, including the surprisingly badass Mrs. Hudson, would have to break had he failed to develop emotionally, and seeing him treat his ‘friends’ with cruel indifference would have become unpleasant, if not outright unwatchable.

However, if the show does continue, can we put the gunplay and action sequences away now? Not only does it look silly – Holmes and Watson jumping out of the Baker Street window was the worst effects sequence in the series – but it’s wholly out of character, even if we are only considering the character Gatiss and Moffatt have created here. Where did Holmes learn to fight or shoot? His whole history is one of using his brain to avoid such things, to set traps for the culprits to out themselves as such, and that is the pleasure not just of the original stories but of all of the great novels and stories around classic detectives – Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Wimsey, Wolfe, and so on. I want a season five, but I want it to revolve around Holmes and Watson, with more of Lestrade and Molly (there’s a hell of a cliffhanger there) and Mrs. Hudson around. The interplay among those characters was part of the charm of the first two seasons, along with Holmes devising plots and connecting dots we couldn’t see till the end of each episode. I’d be quite happy with a return to that sort of story, but with the characters now changed by everything that’s happened to them from the death of Moriarty through the end of series four.

The Night Of.

I started HBO’s limited series The Night Of when it premiered in July, liked the first three episodes, got busy and just never got back around to it, because it’s the kind of series that demands your full attention, not scattered looks here and there. I finally binged the last three episodes over the past few days, racing to the end, and, well, as usual Alan Sepinwall got it right, although I think on balance I liked the series more than he did.

Co-written by Richard Price, who wrote several episodes of The Wire along with the incredible novel Lush Life and the solid Clockers, HBO’s The Night Of was adapted from a five-hour British TV series called Criminal Justice, keeping the same core elements but adding several critical details. The story centers on Naz (Riz Ahmed, nominated for a Golden Globe Award), a naive college student of Pakistani descent who “borrows” his father’s cab for a night out, ends up picking up a girl, partying and sleeping with her, only to find when he wakes up in her apartment that she’s been brutally stabbed to death. After a sequence that’s both gripping and a comedy of errors, he’s arrested and charged with the crime, which informs the remainder of the series. (If you don’t have HBO, you can watch the series on amazon.)

The Night Of splits across at least four intertwined plot threads that eventually coalesce in the eighth and final episode. Naz is first represented by eczema-riddled, $250/pop defense attorney John Stone (John Turturro, also nominated for a Golden Globe Award), later joined after various machinations by the young idealist Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan); they’re opposed by DA Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) and about-to-retire Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), with each side’s efforts forming one subplot. A third focuses on Naz’s experiences in prison, where he’s taken under the wing of convicted murderer Freddy Knight (Micheal K. Williams, a.k.a. Omar Little). A fourth focuses on the impact of Naz’s arrest on his family and the Muslim community, including the destruction it wreaks on his family’s finances, and the harassment they get from Muslims who fear that it will stir up further prejudice against them and from white supremacists who, frankly, need little provocation anyway.

Awards aside – this is going to lose everything to The People vs. O.J. Simpson at the Golden Globes – The Night Of is strong and compelling but flawed. The storylines don’t carry equal weight or even work that well when presented in counterpoint; the prison stuff felt very rushed and often lurid, while the investigative threads are deliberate, almost cautious, building tension because the stakes are high, and the truth of what happened that night doesn’t become clear until the last episode. If you look only at those two subplots – the prosecutors and the defense – The Night Of is a smart crime drama elevated by several brilliant characters. Interspersing prison scenes or the languid (if entirely plausible) vignettes of Naz’s family presents pacing issues that dragged the middle episodes for me.

And then there is the utter disaster of Chandra Kapoor’s character, who is completely undone by her utterly inexplicable and unrealistic choices in the seventh episode to shatter ethical boundaries between attorney and client, putting her career at risk (or right in the toilet) with no warning or internal justification. Karan nails this character up through that episode, effusing intelligence and confidence with her voice, her posture, and her facial expressions; this is a young lawyer on the come, a woman of integrity, destined for big cases where she owns the room and the cameras, so when the writers have her do two mind-blowingly stupid things as mere plot contrivances (i.e., so Stone can deliver the closing argument), they undo all the work they and Karan have done to build this character into a credible, three-dimensional person.

(Unrelated, but I was floored to find out Karan was born in the UK; her American accent isn’t just good, but precisely neutral. Ahmed is also British, but his character’s accent is very New York, and you can hear little moments where he’s emphasizing certain consonants to harden it. Doing a dead-neutral accent like Karan is a harder task.)

In the original series, the defendant was played by Ben Whishaw (The Lobster, The Hour), so the switch to a Muslim character and son of immigrants introduced an entirely new element to the series, one that the writers chose to explore on the outside of the courtroom but sort of dropped on the way to trial inside it. With white supremacists becoming more open in their hate and their actions, I feel like the treatment of the hostility toward Naz’s family and Muslims in general could have received more thorough handling in the family thread, perhaps with less of the pandering violence scenes from the prison.

Peyman Moaadi (A Separation) is great but underutilized as Naz’s father, reduced to a sad-sack character whose life is spinning beyond his control, and Williams chews up the screen most of the times he appears, playing a character (the criminal with a code) we’ve seen from him before. The series has a bunch of fun cameos, though, with J.D. Williams (Bodie from The Wire) appearing in several episodes, Trudie Styler (an actress best known as Sting’s wife) as a cougar who dated the murder victim’s stepfather, and Roscoe Orman (Gordon from Sesame Street) as the jury foreman. I didn’t recognize rappers Sticky Fingaz of Onyx or Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, but both appeared as fellow inmates of Naz and Freddy at Rikers Island.

Despite all of those issues with the series, I found the core storyline – did Naz do it, and how would both sides assemble and present their cases to the jury – very compelling. The final episode doesn’t resort to cheap tricks or big gotcha moments; we get small, very human glimpses into most of the characters, even ones we don’t know that well like DA Weiss. The resolution of Naz’s story is poignant yet ambiguous, and Stone gets almost the same kind of half-and-half treatment. But I do think the cat was just a metaphor, nothing more.

Manchester by the Sea.

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Manchester by the Sea is a devastating portrayal of the aftermath of grief that can’t just go away with time, the lengths to which people will go to avoid it, and the inevitability of returning to it. Casey Affleck delivers a performance for the ages here, and Michelle Williams is brilliant in a secondary role that doesn’t give her a ton of screen time. And despite the film’s core subject matter, there’s a lot of humor in it, some silly, some dry, but more than enough to keep you from turning away from the film’s unrelenting sorrow.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, whom we meet first in his job in Quincy (correctly pronounced “quinzy”), Massachusetts, a working-class suburb just south of Boston, as a janitor and handyman for several buildings, where he’s put upon by numerous tenants and displays a sort of heroic stoicism in the face of condescension and stupidity. He gets a surprise phone call while shoveling snow and de-icing a sidewalk, a regular pastime for Boston-area residents, to learn his brother, Joe, has been hospitalized; by the time he arrives, his brother has died of a heart attack, which we find out was the result of congestive heart failure that hit Joe at a very young age. Lee finds out that Joe has appointed him guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick, with the assumption that Lee would take over Joe’s house in Manchester-by-the-Sea and raise Patrick to adulthood, but this revelation – Lee had no idea that this was in Joe’s will – reopens a torrent of grief related to another, earlier tragedy for which Lee blames himself and led to his flight to the city.

This is a Casey Affleck solo album, and he delivers a virtuoso performance that never really answers whether Lee is truly a stoic or merely suffering so much internal pain that he’s become numb on the outside. Affleck has a hundred opportunities to slip outside of that hard exterior and lose the character, and never blinks. There’s pain in his eyes, especially in the scene where we see him explaining the earlier tragedy to police, and a tension in his jaw that lasts throughout the film, so that when he turns down even simple gestures of kindness from others, those characters could see him as impolite or morose and never tell which. The script makes excellent use of silences throughout the film, but those are a key component of Lee’s conversations with just about everyone around him, even in response to mundane questions, as if wondering what kind of day he’s having is just too painful to contemplate.

The one character with whom Lee has any reduction in his guard is Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, who has already won several awards for the best performance by a young actor in a film this year. We see through flashbacks that Lee was close to Patrick when the latter was still young, before Lee’s own tragedy and the departure of Patrick’s alcoholic mother from his life, but Lee’s ability to connect with Patrick is hampered by absence and time, and the spectre of that central tragedy in Lee’s past. Hedges is at his best when balancing the facade of the insouciant teenager, balancing two girlfriends who don’t know about each other, against his own grief at losing his father and one particular detail that encapsulates his grief.

Williams isn’t on screen much as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, although her character is central to the backstory and she delivers a monologue near the very end of the film (the one you see in the trailer and commercials) where she speaks through wracking sobs that sound unbelievably real. Her accent, like most of those other than Affleck’s, is over the top, but like Affleck she reflects intense pain through her eyes and through tightly drawn lips in her first reappearance at the funeral service, only to let the grief out in a barrage of tears in that (Oscar nomination clip?) scene. The change in her appearance from the past to the present is also significant and well-executed; in the present day, she’s remarried into at least some more money, with an expensive haircut and clothes and more makeup, but the makeover turns her into someone who’s overcompensating to forget her past, and perhaps unsure of how to reflect a rise in status in her looks.

There are little details around the edges of the film that could have been better, including a few scenes that director Kenneth Lonergan might have cut, such as the thirty-second discussion over the “bleeper” (the garage-door opener) that served no purpose other than to have Affleck and Hedges say that word with their Massachusetts accents. The police-station scene where Affleck goes over the earlier tragedy is marred by the score, which is too loud to begin with and didn’t need to be in that scene at all; the score as a whole detracts from the movie, as it was just too noticeable in a film that needs to be quiet. Also, when Patrick eats at the house of one of his girlfriends, he refers to a dish as “homemade carbonara” when it is clearly a red sauce, and that sort of mistake is just unforgiveable.

Affleck seems like a lock for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and I’m not sure how anyone could deliver a better performance than this. I’ve mentioned the sexual harassment lawsuits against him in a recent links post, which could sink his support among Oscar voters, but on the merits alone he’s more than deserving, with a Golden Globe nomination already and several wins from local film critics’ associations. I imagine it’ll get nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, with Williams possibly grabbing one for Best Supporting Actress, although from reading expert views I get the sense like Viola Davis has that one sealed up for Fences. I don’t think it will beat Moonlight, but I think it’s actually a better film with a stronger script; both films use silence heavily to express sorrow, grief, or doubt, but Manchester does it more effectively.

Doomsday Book.

Connie Willis is one of the most decorated science fiction writers ever, with eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards, as well as induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her 1998 novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, a Hugo winner, is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, a tight mash-up of a comedy of manners and a time travel story along with a send-up of a classic Brit Lit novel. That book was set in the same universe as her 1992 novel Doomsday Book, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for best sci-fi novel, and explores much darker subject matter: how we respond to unthinkable disaster and human suffering.

Willis has crafted rules around her fictional time travel that manage to give it sufficient plausibility so that suspending your disbelief isn’t really an issue. Her time travelers are historians heading into the past for research purposes (usually), and do so under tightly controlled conditions. Heading into the past to alter history isn’t permitted by spacetime itself; anyone heading through to create such a paradox simply won’t be allowed to enter the “net” of time travel. And there’s “slippage” in time, the difference between when you arrive and when you were trying to arrive, which the researchers attribute to spacetime’s attempts to avoid even minor incidents like having you appear out of nowhere in the middle of a crowd of people who’d think you were an alien or a witch.

In Doomsday Book, a young woman in Oxford’s history department named Kivrin is heading back to 1320 England to examine village life of the time and as a prelude to a future research trip back to the Black Death, which began in England in 1348. Unfortunately, as soon as she steps through the net into the past, the main technician who organized the drop, Badri, falls horribly ill with a new strain of influenza, touching off an epidemic in modern-day Oxford … with Kivrin unfortunately falling sick as she arrives in the past. Something has gone wrong with the drop, but Badri is near death and unable to tell anyone why or to explain how they will retrieve Kivrin at the scheduled rendezvous time and place. Kivrin, meanwhile, ends up involved in a separate epidemic, as the plague arrives in the village where she’s staying, and since she’s been vaccinated she is the only person there with immunity to the disease. Her response, as the only person in her time and place who understands the nature of the plague, and the responses of those in the modern time are the real focus of the book, from those thinking first and foremost about the victims to those stuck in the mindset of adhering to policy or those unable to give up their own goals even when it puts others at grave risk.

Willis is an outstanding writer in every aspect of the term, from plot to pacing to character development, but two things particularly stand out in Doomsday Book. One is her ability to still weave humor into a story that is incredibly dark and full of tragedy, with many deaths of named characters in both timelines. William Gaddson, an undergraduate who is rather successful with the young ladies but whose overbearing mother thinks he’s a fragile, innocent boy who studies too hard, provides regular comic relief and even plays a real role in the plot. The American bell choir stuck inside the quarantine zone is almost absurd in its zeal to put on a show regardless of conditions. The assistant Finch’s obsession with “lavatory paper” is similar in its “oh my God is he still on about that” nature.

One of the first symptoms of this influenza strain is mental confusion, and Willis manages to impart that to the reader without actually confusing the reader about what’s happening. That is, when the character at the center of the action gets sick and begins to suffer the confusion, Willis gets that across in ways that don’t cause the reader to lose understanding of what’s happening. I found I realized some things weren’t making sense, so the character’s confusion was tangible, but I also could follow what was happening as an observer (since it’s written entirely in the third person) rather than just getting lost myself. That balance is a neat trick and takes a skilled writer to pull off.

Doomsday Book touches on some significant themes, notably some of the characters’ difficulty in reconciling their belief in God with the horrors of the epidemics before them and the deaths of friends and family members. Some fall to disbelief, others to superstition or belief that it’s God’s vengeance. Those who remain after the epidemics have ended, however, seem to all have come to some appreciation of the kindness and mercy of others, even those facing their own deaths, in the face of unimaginable fear and difficulty. Kivrin’s final encounter with a dying plague victim provides the most moving, insightful scene of the book, even though both characters see the situation from almost perfectly opposed perspectives.

As with To Say Nothing of the Dog and Willis’ shorter novel Bellwether, which I read in June and loved but never had time to review, I couldn’t put Doomsday Book down, reading its nearly 600 pages in just over a week. I’ll have to get to her most recent novel in the Oxford universe, the 2010 two-part novel Blackout/All Clear, which also swept the major awards and runs over 1,000 pages in total.

Next up: I read Philip José Farmer’s Hugo winner To Your Scattered Bodies Go this week and hated just about everything about it. I’m about to start Laurent Binet’s World War II novel HHhH today, which has to be better.

Everybody Wants Some!!

My first GenCon wrap-up post for Paste covers the top ten new boardgames at this year’s convention.

I wasn’t sure about seeing Everybody Wants Some!! (amazoniTunes), Richard Linklater’s 2016 movie about a college baseball team set in 1980, because baseball-themed films are generally quite terrible and I was concerned this might be a big bro-movie too. The indispensable Grierson & Leitch podcast convinced me to see it anyway when both critics put it on their top six movies of 2016 to date, and when Will Leitch said it’s only tangentially a baseball movie anyway (which is true). As it turns out, the movie is more of a slice-of-life portrait than any kind of baseball story, and it’s witty and endearing, full of memorable lines and characters, without getting too sentimental or losing its pacing.

There’s little plot to speak of in Everybody Wants Some!!, so Linklater has to keep the dialogue moving to keep the movie from dragging, but the script must have looked liked the one from His Girl Friday given how little silence there is anywhere in the film. (If no one is talking, it’s because there’s music playing, and if there’s music playing, there’s probably someone singing or rapping along with it.) We start with the arrival of Jacob (Blake Jenner), a freshman pitcher who was second-team All-State as a Texas high schooler, at the two off-campus houses where Southeast Texas State University’s baseball team resides, which also serves as a rapid-fire introduction to most of Jacob’s new teammates, led by the garrulous intellectual Finn (Glen Powell) and frat-boyish bro McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin, former ASU baseball player and a dead ringer for Angel Eyes from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in this film). Within a few minutes, Jacob is in the car with four of his teammates – Finn, Dale (J. Quinton Johnson, the only African-American player on the team), Roper (Ryan Guzman), and another freshman, slow-witted catcher Plummer (Temple Baker) – heading out on the prowl while doing a Bohemian Rhapsody-esque take on “Rapper’s Delight.” Their brief cruise puts Jacob in contact with Beverly (Zoey Deutch), the film’s only substantial female character; his brief courtship of Beverly is the closest thing the movie has to an actual narrative, a meet-cute subplot that takes up maybe 10% of the movie.

From there we follow the boys – and the film makes it clear that these are boys who just look like men – from one party to the next, with only a little bit of action on the field, and a few hilarious scenes at the house (including the stoner/hippie Willoughby trying to exchange thoughts telepathically with Dale, Jacob, and Plummer). There’s no real direction but “forward,” so the film ends up driven by its characters and dialogue, the latter of which sparkles whenever Finn or Dale takes center stage, Finn for his rapid-fire delivery and vocabulary full of $20 words, Dale for his note-perfect delivery and spot-on facial expressions. The only character of the dozen or so we meet who misses the mark is Jay Niles, played by Huston Street’s brother Juston, a bombastic, tightly wound pitcher who claims he throws 95, was drafted by the Blue Jays, and calls himself “Raw Dog” … because he’s the raw dog. It’s all caricature, no nuance in a cast of characters who otherwise have some two-dimensionality.

Linklater captures the time and place of Everybody Wants Some!! perfectly between the music, the clothes, the hair, and the dialogue, and takes advantage of it in ways that he couldn’t if the movie were set closer to today. There’s some mild hazing of the freshmen, at least one part of which would be completely unacceptable today, and the boys’ attitudes towards women are definitely a product of their time. The sexual liberation of the 1970s is still in full swing with no thought of STDs, let alone the virus that changed the landscape in the following decade. The script takes full advantage of the liberties of its milieu, giving us comic moments that would be unsettling (or just offensive) in a contemporary setting.

Five or ten years from now, we’ll look at Everybody Wants Some!! as the starting point of the careers of a number of these actors, especially Powell and Johnson, each of whom grabs hold of the viewer’s attention whenever they get the opportunity. Johnson manages to be hammy the way a college kid plays for laughs without ever seeming to be “acting” so, and he gets extra points for writing the music for the rap song that airs with the closing credits. (He told me on Twitter that the actors each wrote their own verses.) Powell takes dialogue that would sound ridiculous out of just about any character’s mouth and infuses it with charisma that manage to make it just believable enough to fly in a film where no one else talks in a way remotely resembling his hifalutin speech. I wish Deutch had had more to do than to stand around and look cute; she gets two little moments to act, and the one at the costume party near the end of the film showed some comic chops that might have come in handy elsewhere in the movie.

Doing that would have gone against the ethic of Everybody Wants Some!!, though, since at heart this is a smart “bro” movie, one that neither celebrates the idiocy of young men nor mocks them for the same. Instead it celebrates camaraderie with a heavy dose of nostalgia, hitting that moment right before you realize that your life choices might be limited, that the dream you’ve always chased might not come true, and that there are also new possibilities you hadn’t previously imagined. Linklater’s script is never maudlin, even in moments where the characters almost acknowledge that their baseball careers are probably stopping here on campus, and the humor doesn’t stop long enough for the mood to turn bittersweet. It’s a bunch of guys who are living in the moment and having a good time in that brief span of post-adolescence where you have yet to hit adult maturity, and while I didn’t see myself in any of these characters, it still evoked that memory of being part of a big group of people with nothing more in mind than having fun.