Friday, June 21, 2024

Recap: The Acolyte Episode 4 — Day

Blink and you'll miss it this week! Episode 4 is only 34 minutes long but packs a few fun surprises.

Last week, we ended on the discovery of a Jedi Wookiee. Episode 4 opens on an overview of his daily routine, as he seems to be living the life of a forest hermit on Khofar not unlike the future fates of Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi (man the Jedi are a bit of martyrs, aren't they?)

We get to see him make a salad (interesting cuisine for a species I had assumed would be carnivorous) and piddle about doing domestic tasks. On the wall we see the same spiral symbols of Mae and Osha's witch coven — what does this mean? The Jedi on Brendok for those tragic events clearly have been struggling with some strong emotions. 

Jedi Besties

Back on Coruscant, Osha watches a youngling training class before chatting with Jecki. The two say goodbye, and Osha states that finding Mae is the Jedi's problem now, though she's grateful to have found out that her sister is alive after all these years. This scene is touching, and I'm coming to really like these two young characters. 

Jecki is a wonderful addition to the list of Jedi we've come to know over the past nearly 50 years, and I'm rooting for her. There's something very Spock-like about her that I find charming, and she's also a hardworking and very competent Jedi. 

These days, we're spending more and more time with the Order as the Disney Star Wars canon grows, and we're getting to dive in much deeper to their faults (hubris and space cop-ism being chief among them). We also get even more a glimpse into their humanity (using this term loosely since there's more than just human Jedi of course). 

They were never — and are never — going to be perfect warriors for the Republic that fan may have once though they were. They're not droids, after all. And despite striving for detachment and unwavering loyalty and obedience, they're still going to make mistakes and commit sins. I know many hardcore fans remain continually dismayed by the portrayal of the Jedi as less than perfect, but I'm here for it. 

What About the (Potential) Sith Attack on a Wookie?

Elsewhere on Coruscant, a group of Jedi comprising Ki-Adi-Mundi (everyone's favorite long-lived conehead Jedi from the prequel trilogy) Vernestra, and Sol discuss the dark threat that Mae poses. 

In a classic attempt of covering up internal strife, Vernestra declares that they'll not be informing the High Council about a potential new Sith master — they'll take care of it themselves so as not to inspire fear or mistrust of their order. C'mon guys, this is a bad idea. She dispatches a team of Jedi to track her down and bring her in. Sol agrees, feeling that there is in fact still good in Mae, convinced that she is simply a pawn of the master.

Back on Khofar, Mae and Qimir set out to find Kelnacca, the Wookiee Jedi, so Mae can kill him without using a single weapon, the most recent quest given to her by masked, red-lightsaber-wielding master. Qimir reminds Mae of her deal she made with the master, as it appears he's starting to realize her discovery of her sister may be affecting her resolve. He confesses to also owing the master something, stating that "You know, he collects people." 

Qimir is sort of a neutral character when it comes to motivation, kind of like Han Solo in most of A New Hope. Manny Jacinto is absolutely knocking it out of the park with this character, and he's a joy to watch.

The Jedi team is close behind them, and both groups have entered into what is very clearly inspired by the fire swamp from A Princess Bride, right down to the bugs of unusual size. They've employed the use an animal-like tracker named Bazil, which is a fun little character straight out of Guardians of the Galaxy

Mae, approaching Kelnacca's abode, has a change of heart and strings up Qimir, confessing her desire to abandon her relationship with the master. We love a "there's still good in her" prophecy coming true.

All of our characters meet at once chez Kelnacca, and Mae discovers him dead from a lightsaber slash to the chest. He's here. 

In the final scene, we witness a team of Jedi stand up to the master, and we get our first good look at his helmet. It's no stormtrooper or Darth Vader helmet — it's something much more sinister, a cross between EV-9D9 and Venom. The teeth, however, aren't biological, they're screws and metal meant to approximate a rictus grin. 

As the Jedi rush him, he forces pushes them meters back with a flick of his fingers. The credits roll. I cannot WAIT for the next episode. 


The Math

Baseline score: 8

Bonuses: Finally seeing the big sith (?) baddie up close was pretty fun; the expedition on Khofar felt very Star Wars

Proto Gonk droid count: A big old goose egg again.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, Vidalia onions, and growing corn and giving them pun names like Anacorn Skywalker. 

Anime Review: Delicious in Dungeon Series 1

Three different shows in a trenchcoat, masquerading as a fun, silly, traumatic adventure (and succeeding)

I don't think I have ever watched a show - any kind of show, not just anime - that careens so wildly and gloriously between absolute delightful nonsense and gut-wrenching, soul-crushing emotional darkness. Every single episode of Delicious in Dungeon (also know as Dungeon Meshi) is a rollercoaster and a surprise gift bag. Reach in your hand and what do you receive? A man with an almost sexually charged obsession/hobby interest in eating dungeon monsters. What next? The death of sibling and that same man's determination to save her from the longest of odds, knowing that even as they speak she's being digested in a dragon's stomach. And now? Up-skirt shots of a heavily bearded dwarf! And then? Dressing up in the partly-flensed skins of giant frogs! It's a RIDE.

You thought I was joking about the frogs? I was not

It shouldn't, by rights, work. It really shouldn't. But somehow it does. There's no real smoothness between those two moods, no attempt to reconcile the cheerful goofery of this band of adventurers clumsily pootling down the dungeon and the horrors they witness and perpetrate. You just have to sit with the whiplash of it all and... cope. But somehow, that's the best part.

To step back a little, Delicious in Dungeon is an anime (based very closely on an existing manga) that follows a D&D style party after their healer has been eaten by a dragon and, as her last act, sends them back to the surface and safety. Her brother, the human fighter of the group, is determined to go straight back in and save her, but not everyone is willing to join him, not least because they simply do not have the funds to correctly supply their return trip. Nonetheless determined, he, along with the elven mage and half-foot (clearly halfling) rogue head back in, and soon find themselves hungry enough to consider eating some of the more... food-adjacent-seeming entities that roam the dungeon. On their first attempt, they meet a dwarf who has been doing exactly that for some years and who, glad to find fellow enthusiasts, agrees to accompany them and help them eat and cook their way down into the depths to find and resurrect their fallen comrade.

Season 1 - we now have a confirmed second season, though not yet with a date attached - takes them right down into the depths, and some discoveries about the dungeon, its ecosystems, its magic and its origin that change the scope of their original quest somewhat, and take us into the territory of those bigger, darker, deeper themes. But every episode also includes interludes of finding edible monsters, plants or other dungeon detritus and turning it into deliciously drawn meals. This is a show that does spend time telling you exactly how to cut down that mushroom critter and fry it just right, or whether you should barbecue your dragon meat or cure it. It wants to make food a core part of the story - visually and thematically - and it does that in every single episode.

It is, however, also conscious, as I'm sure you've begun to be even just as you read this, that there are some definite grey areas of morality and mores that could easily be stumbled into on this journey. Where is the line of monsterhood between animal/plant and the more... peopley? What is ok to eat? It's a theme only touched on a few times explicitly, but it is something that runs through as an undercurrent throughout the show, and eventually links in to some of those bigger themes in some very interesting ways. We establish early on that humanoid creatures are a nono. But where's the line on humanoid? Fishman egg roe - yay or nay? It's never the biggest deal, never a big focus of long exposition, but it's constantly clear that, as well as being outrageously silly, this is also a show that is really thinking about its premises as well.

Whether it comes to any enormous conclusions? Well, that remains to be seen in season 2, as and when we get it. But the process of thinking about them is fun, especially as it blends together with all the other things it's doing.

As a D&D pastiche with a big sense of humour, it works wonderfully. The jokes and silliness are genuinely funny, and the characters are just the right amount of caricature to be enjoyable, relatable and well... people... while still being silly, funny characters. We also get to enjoy some well-worn and beloved silliness at various points, with a particular highlight being the episode where everyone swaps species, and our burly dwarf becomes the sparkliest twink elfboy who ever lived.

No, really.

The moments of sometimes quite horrific darkness also, somehow, are really well done. We spend enough time with the characters, even through the silliness, to get a sense of them as people, and so when horror comes their way it is impactful, even despite the quite dramatic tonal contrast. There are plenty of tragic backstories - because of course there are - but much of the darkness comes in the form of the imminent and the visceral. There are blood and guts very much splattered about on screen, and we do have to grapple with some really quite horrible things in the quest to find someone who's been digested by a dragon but can still be resurrected. Which shouldn't be a surprise, but a lot of shows would not be willing to fully go there.

If anything, it could possibly do with dwelling more on some of those aspects, but I feel like that's going to be something we cannot avoid by the time we get to season 2.

If it has a weakness, it's an unwillingness to spend more than a couple of minutes at any given time really establishing any sort of solidity of worldbuilding. By the end of the season, a lot has been built up, but it's definitely in little snippets and bursts, and what we get is interesting enough that I would definitely like to have got more. There's an absence of who and how about a lot of things that would really improve things. Equally, it's very slow about pulling in some of the characters who eventually end up being relevant, and there are plenty I would like to have spent a little more time getting to know, but who are clearly being signalled as important in... some way... to the events as they are going to unfold, or to events that happened before the start of the show. We get those answers, but predominantly in bare bones form, and I just would have liked a little bit more, a little bit extra, to really get things bedded in.

That being said, it's a case where it feels like the answers do exist, and we've just never had them on screen, rather than that if you asked, someone would have to hastily make something up and hope it didn't accidentally ruin some other bit of continuity. Which is better tv, but possibly less good D&D. There is a very strong sense that much of this is going to be developed further, and we're just not there yet, but it does feel somewhat endloaded with info and exposition compared to the norm, and to what I'd enjoy. I don't need a wizard to infodump everything in episode 1, but there's a happy medium that I think the show could have nudged its way a little closer to, at least for my liking.

But as weaknesses go? It's hardly the worst out there. And so much of the rest of the show is so charming, it more than makes up for it.

All in all, it's a bunch of chaotic muppets rattling their way down a dungeon, eating the monsters, yelling at each other and then occasionally being incredibly traumatised by events. If you're happy with that tonal cacophony - and it's very easy to be happy with it in context - then the show is a heck of a fun ride, and one I would wholeheartedly recommend. 


The Math

Highlights: delightful characters, actually funny jokes, occasional bouts of philosophising on the boundaries of cannibalism

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

First Contact: Labyrinth

A puppet-filled, dream fantasy journey

Despite its enduring popularity, I had never seen the classic 1986 film Labyrinth until this week. I should have identified with a bookish, dreamy, fantasy-obsessed, teen girl protagonist. I have enjoyed, or at least consumed, many similar fantasy films from that time period. But the truth is, missing Labyrinth was not an accident. I deliberately skipped the film over the years because something about the vibe seemed a bit too juvenile. This is likely because of the large volume of bouncy, grotesque puppets in the trailers for the film. Now, before you send letters, please know that I live in Atlanta, home to the Center for Puppetry Arts. I loved The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, and, of course, Star Wars: A New Hope—all of which had varying degrees of puppet-based fantasy. I was raised watching Sesame Street, which I loved, and watching The Muppet Show, which I tolerated just fine. But the film that broke me was The Dark Crystal, which, I admit, I did not enjoy. For me, The Dark Crystal amounted to too many creepy-style puppets and not enough plot. So I always feared Labyrinth would be too close to that vibe despite the plucky YA heroine and the presence of superstar David Bowie in a leading role.

I watched Labyrinth on a nighttime flight from LAX to Atlanta. The sleepy, small screen environment with dim lighting and the hum of cold air was a perfect setting for the dreamy, psychological journey of a self-absorbed teen feeling disquieted and generally irritated with the discomforts of her life. The film does a great job of efficiently delivering a lot of backstory for the protagonist Sarah in a few seconds, then it dives right into the plot. The story goes as follows: [minimum spoilers] Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is a bored suburban teen, living with her dad, his new-ish wife, and Sarah’s toddler half-brother, Toby. It’s initially unclear whether Sarah’s mother is divorced/absent or deceased, but by the ending scene, it seems to be the latter. Sarah enjoys acting out a scene from a fairy tale about a princess who confronts a goblin king who has stolen a child. She is a sixteen-year-old cosplaying before cosplaying was cool. Her make-believe moment is interrupted when she remembers she is scheduled to babysit her baby brother while her parents go out on a date. Stuck with the crying toddler, she holds the child to comfort him, then, in frustration, verbally wishes him to be taken away by the goblin king from her storybook. The child disappears, and a frantic Sarah is told by the goblin king, Jareth (David Bowie), that the child is now his. To get Toby back, she has to navigate a massive labyrinth to reach the goblin king’s castle and rescue her brother. In the labyrinth she encounters various creatures who are variably grotesque or adorable, kind or dangerous, annoying or wise, and who are mostly in the form of puppet creatures. In particular, she meets grumpy goblin frenemy Hoggle, idealistic dog-like Didymus, and loveable fuzzy giant Ludo. On her journey, she learns the value of friendship (of course), the dangers of assumptions, and a new understanding that life isn’t fair as she is forced to stop whining and grow up.

First impressions: Jennifer Connelly is intensely, perfectly, young and dreamlike in the role of Sarah. She looks like a 1980s Snow White, and her dialogue and voice inflection are artificially fairy tale-like. It’s almost borderline annoying. But Sarah is actually the archetype of the unhappy teen searching for something more. In contrast to her sweet appearance, she hates her brother enough to wish him dead, straight out of the gate. The initial scene of her holding her crying brother was stressful for me to watch. There is no child abuse, but the intensity of her anger hovers over the moment in a way that worried me. Ironically, she is bitterly angry because she has to babysit for one night, although she concedes that she literally had nothing else to do. She’s not missing prom, her senior art show, or even a date with friends. Sarah is angry because babysitting Toby has interrupted her fantasy playacting. It’s clear that there are larger issues of grief and discomfort, as well as impatience with the mundaneness of ordinary life compared with the allure of fairy tales.

As she journeys through the labyrinth, Sarah periodically meets Jareth, who repeatedly encourages her to forget the search for the child and just enjoy her fantasy life. Sarah shows her growing maturity by refusing to give up. Sarah also encounters lots of the aforementioned goblins and other fantastical creatures who both help and hinder her in her classic journey story. The story overtly references The Wizard of Oz and Where the Wild Things Are (Sarah has copies of the books in her bedroom), but it also contains clear references to Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

As a classic journey story, I felt I knew where the plot was heading, and I was mostly right. However, there were a few story elements which surprised me. Sarah’s frenemy Hoggle sprays poison to individually kill fairies (sentient, humanoid). Sarah initially finds this horrifying, but then rolls with the fairy killing after one of them bites her finger. She ignores the rest of his poisoning and enlists Hoggle’s help to find the entrance to the labyrinth. Sarah’s pivot from sentimental to pragmatic was a little startling. Labyrinth is a dreamscape, so I guess philosophical concepts of life and death are primarily symbolic. Secondly, David Bowie is perfectly cast as the goblin king Jareth. He is naturally quirky, chaotically elegant, but creepily enamored with Sarah. Additionally, there is a dreamlike scene of a masked ball with elegantly dressed humans dancing together, including Sarah and Jareth. Despite my fears about creepy puppet creatures, the attractive humans at the masked ball felt even more creepy and disturbing. That emotional irony was an artistic high point for me in the film. Another visual highlight was the room of dimension-defying steps where Jareth, Sarah, and Toby all navigate multi-directional, freeform stairs in an Escher-inspired, Inception-style scene.

In Labyrinth, Sarah is repeatedly accused of taking things for granted. I initially assumed this meant she did not appreciate the things she had (her comfortable lifestyle and relative freedom). But she is actually being reminded of the dangers of making assumptions about people and about life. During setbacks, she repeatedly complains “that’s not fair,” and eventually Jareth sarcastically tells her, “You say that so often. I wonder what your basis of comparison is.” It’s a great line. He is effectively telling her to grow up and face reality, a still timely lesson about the unfairness of life even while acknowledging the validity of the search for justice. In the same way, in a final scene, Sarah’s labyrinth friends remind her that they will still be there when she needs an escape. Labyrinth confirms the importance of living in the real world while also acknowledging the value of play, fantasy, and imagination. Hopefully, that is a life lesson that we can all agree on.


  • Classic journey coming of age film
  • So many puppets
  • Timeless dreamscape

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

First Contact: The Adventures of Prince Achmed

The earliest surviving animated feature length film—a fairy tale from a lost world

A friend of a friend once said that one of the many terrible things the Nazis did was destroy the film industry that prospered in Germany under the Weimar Republic. That is, admittedly, by no means the worst thing that the Nazis did, but it was not good. You had some path-breaking filmmaking, pushing the boundaries of a totally new art form, replaced by endless rows of goose-stepping brownshirts, noisome propaganda films, Leni Riefenstahl using whatever artistic ability she had to defend a mass murderer, and Hitler yelling. History has shown us time and again that state-managed media is never profound, or deep, or interesting; it’s only ever a pablum to make you deny the evidence of your eyes and ears. The arts are inevitably a casualty of tyranny.

Here, I’ll be discussing another standout film from the Weimar Republic: The Adventures of Prince Achmed, directed and written by Lotte Reiniger and distributed by Comenius-Film GbmH in 1926. This is a milestone in cinematic history, as it is the earliest surviving fully-animated feature film (there are two from Argentina that are unfortunately lost—although all sorts of old films have been found in warehouses in countries people wouldn’t expect, so here’s hoping they find it). It is also remarkable that said first animated feature film was one directed by a woman; ‘Lotte’ is a German diminutive of ‘Charlotte.’

The plot of this film, as the title may suggest, is adapted from a number of stories from Arabian Nights. The whole film is a lush romp through a lavishly detailed Arabia, a portrayal that is no doubt Orientalist in a number of its tropes but is nevertheless dazzling to look at. It has a few different tales cobbled together, so you have Prince Achmed featuring, but Aladdin also joins in the proceedings. I liked, perhaps most of all, the beginning with the flying horse that operates something like a jetpack that Achmed doesn’t really figure out how to operate until he is already lost.

It is, in some ways, very much of its time. The portrayal of Arabia is clearly something out of an Orientalist fantasy, but as I said, it’s gorgeous. The primary antagonist is an evil sorcerer, stated to be from Africa (although I’m not familiar with the Arab source, so that may be older than this film), who has a miserly look and a big nose. It’s the sort of thing that I suspect to be a primeval antisemitism (see the images on this essay by a Rabbi about modern manifestations of antisemitism), not even consciously expressed, but rather so deep in Western cultural memory we associate it with evil while not being aware of its origin. There’s also something that is both groundbreaking and somewhat uncomfortable in presentation; there is a kiss between two men who apparently love each other—but it is between an evil emperor of China and a trusted servant, which has both uncomfortable power dynamics and the old trope that same-sex attraction is the province of a depraved upper class (see how the Communist world for so long called homosexuality ‘bourgeois degeneracy’). Reiniger herself was outspokenly in favor of gay rights, so she meant well so far as I can tell, but she employed tropes, as in other places in the film, that did not age well.

What really stands out is the animation. It was done with something akin to shadow puppets, in addition to a wide variety of other materials, to create a wide variety of environments; her team used sand, soap, cardboard, and tissue paper. The end result feels both very old and very modern, like a minimalist animation made on a computer and put online with a simple but sweet message. The effect is one that feels natural, logical within its context, a world where palaces can fly and so can horses (although for the latter you need some training). When Reiniger made the film, she said she wanted to make something that wasn’t possible in live action, a sentiment that has aged surprisingly well. You could certainly make a live-action film like this nowadays, but all the magic would be CGI (which is itself a form of animation, perhaps proving her right in a way she could never anticipate).

The plot is simple, and it feels like a fairy tale. Those who want labyrinth dramas twisting every which way will be disappointed, but given the source material, it could only be like this. And that isn’t even a bad thing; viewing the film in the twenty-first century, the plot and the animation complement one another. It looks like a children’s book, with odd plot contrivances here and there, and simple motivations, but Reininger and crew made it feel primordial, like something in our collective subconscious that when brought to the surface makes us feel warm and whole and secure as she tells a story about princes and princesses with a cartoonish visual style and a myriad of colors. Should you watch it, imagine you’re a small child again, and a parent is reading you a bedtime story. That’s the tone.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a film very much of its time, but even so, values can and do resonate. It’s another work whose fingerprints can be seen all over, should you pay attention. It’s a film that, to modern audiences, has the paradoxical effect of simultaneously immersing you and completely breaking your immersion, forcing you to see its place in the world in a sort of artistically-inclined Brechtian distancing effect. It is short, only about an hour long, and magical in a way that adults often forget. It makes you wish that the Weimar age of German cinema could have had more decades to develop and flourish, to create more beautiful things like this. For all its faults and all its moorings in the past, it is a beautiful work of art, and I recommend it to anyone who may be interested.

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.

Book Review: Rakesfall by Vajra Chandrasekera

What the heck did I just read (complimentary)?

I've apparently been on a bit of an unreviewable fiction run. I'm not complaining (they've all been stellar) but Rakesfall, the new novel by Vajra Chandrasekera, is not ending this streak on either count.

If you have read his previous novel The Saint of Bright Doors (which Adri covered as part of her roundup here), you might think yourself familiar with the strangeness Chandrasekera puts in his stories - the geography that shapes itself to will and politics, the deftly inexplicable intrusions of the fantastical into the world. But I say to you, having read Rakesfall now, my friend, you have absolutely no idea the depth of the pool into whose shallow end you have merely dipped your toes. The weirdness is off the charts, and he's holding no one's hand this time, except to drag them through the layer by vivid layer of this strange, piecemeal story that slowly coalesces into a sublime whole, without you ever noticing it happening.

The story follows two characters (or perhaps more) whose lives touch each others again and again and again, throughout time and space and branching timelines. Through a sequence of at first what seem like unconnected stories, we see them relate and relate and relate over and again to each other, to the world, and to the substance of their own relationship, until we begin to see that the story has never really just been about them, as if the kind of relationship that transcends lifetimes can ever be a "just". I've seen the book described by some as a series of short stories with a thread of connection between them, but that does no justice to how thoroughly interwoven each part of this novel is, if you're paying attention to look for the connecting threads. They are everywhere, offhand comments and motifs and themes and ideas and names and ghosts all. Some of them even reach further, back to The Saint of Bright Doors, although I would not call this any kind of sequel. What do these characters do? Well, many things. But it is not in their actions that the story really lies, but in their interrelations, and their relationship to the story, to the very idea of stories, instead.

Some books are plot heavy. Some are character driven. Some world-building focussed. Rakesfall is in the rarer category of theme-driven, and the even rarer still selection of theme-driven and also good. And its strength there lies in not letting itself get too bogged down in one single message, to the detriment of all else. Some stories have a single driving ideal at the core of themself, and by focussing on it to the exclusion of all other parts of craft, they wear down the reader so much without rewarding them that the book becomes a lecture instead. Chandrasekera does not have one note here, but a symphony - to say this book cares about one thing is to have missed five others. I'm sure I have missed five different things in my own muddling through. But I found plenty, and each is gently, quietly interwoven with all the others, to be drawn out by someone wanting to look for it. As a story about stories, it understands how crucial a part the reader plays in that dynamic - the need to trust them, to let them find their own way, their own understanding of what is provided, and feel no need to browbeat them into comprehension, to require them to take a single canonical point. The themes I found in it - and enjoyed, well-explored as they were - were around power and oppression, colonialism, autonomy, destiny and inevitability, the role of the player in the story, the power of choices. I am certain I missed some axes of it that overlap into politics I don't know well.  

But the reader does need to be willing to do the work. And that, I think, is going to be the trouble for this book. It is never going to be escapism, or a pacy, distracting, linear read. It's a book whose content, whose meaning, is to be worked for, and it is important to go in willing to put in that bit of effort.

Because if you do? You will absolutely be rewarded.

If nothing else, the prose is delicious. One of the delights of being the age I currently am is that there are now more and more authors writing books who grew up on my internet, on my references, in my generationalect, so to speak. People who use the slang I use, in the tone I use it, whose view of the world is so clearly coloured by the vast, unpoliced, unpatrolled and uncontrolled wilderness that was the internet of the 90s and 00s. I see that in Rakesfall, too, in the way Chandrasekera switches tone and formality, using a downshift into the casual as a subtle irony, or to undercut a mood, like so:

The simile of the two-handled saw is not a parable. It isn't even a story. That it is self-consciously a simile suggests an unseriousness, a little haha hoho, a little lol j/k.

Or the way tone and formatting intrude in the following segment of a quasi-mythical tale within the story:

One day, the king on his throne hears faraway weeping, and he knows it's from the haunted cemetery outside his city, where a seditionist poet impaled for high treason cries, undying or undead, for water. All his soldiers pee themselves a little, so the king calls up his favourite wrestler, biggest face in the city, beloved far and wide as the best good guy who isn't afraid of anything, and the king says, my Beloved Bro, will you Please take this Cup of Water out unto the Dread Cemetery and give it to that Loud Fucker, and Tell him to (a) Pipe down and (b) give Thanks to the generosity of his King? And the wrestler says, Sure Thing my King.

There's a whole essay you could write about the use of capitalisation here, as well as the contrast between that "unto" and the "Loud Fucker"/"Beloved Bro". The way the tone rattles around between high, mythic formality and the numinous and then right down into the most informal and millennial of slang resonates beautifully with how the story is, itself, told, meandering through time and place, through people who are the same but different, from the visceral act of self-flaying in a bathroom to an undying being flying through space. So often, "inconsistent tone" would be a deserved insult, but here, it is anything but - in that inconsistency, it maintains coherence with its own ideas of itself. It could not be the story it is if it were tied down to a single way of speaking and being. This is especially true for tying it in to the characters, who might otherwise be held at arms length from the telling, and who need to be in close, for you to see the echoes of themselves throughout their selves across their time.

Even aside from his tonal choices, the language Chandrasekera uses is consistently well-chosen. He dwells often on the physical, on skin and blood and texture, on the cutting of flesh and the lolling of tongues, and that is so, so necessary in a book whose concept and overarching purpose are so distant from the grit of humanity. It needs tying down, grounding to something familiar, to let us explore that vastness.

But it is not just the prose. Though distant, the characters are well-drawn, and though confusing at first, the plot coalesces into something truly great by the end of the book. Where many stories experience a quickening towards the end, a visible moment where things begin to come together, and where the pace of events kick up a notch - the Eurovision key change moment, if you will - this has none of that. I say "coalesce" because that is exactly what my understanding did, emerging from the mist of the story with delicately paced exactitude. There was no one moment of insight, just a steady, dawning comprehension that lasted over a third of the book, and left the final page closing with a deep sense of satisfaction.

With every compliment I can muster meant - because it's one of my favourite books, and one I would so rarely draw a comparison to - what Rakesfall reminded me most pointedly of is Vellum, by Hal Duncan. Both are stories that use concepts of personal archetypes, a group of souls rattling around time's dice cup, bumping into each other through eternity. Both reject linearity. Both reject categorisation. Both embrace the grit and grime of humanity alongside the sublime, and refute any idea of a mismatch between them. They're not the same book, by any means, but they have some of the same spirit, and must be approached in similar ways. I suspect Rakesfall, as I find Vellum does, would reward each reread with discoveries of new twists, new nuances and new references, and give the reader a different experience every time. And, ultimately, both are books I want to put into people's hands and just say "it's fucking weird, I can't explain it, just trust me... and come back when you're done". They're books to have conversations about. They're books to have conversations with.

Which is, ultimately, why I adore Rakesfall. It's a story that understands stories, and asks the reader to work with it, to reach out and meet it part way, to understand those stories too. To draw from a negative review I saw of it online - it is an experience as much as it is a story - and the beauty of that is that that experience is necessarily a singular beast. My time with it will not be your time, nor my own in a year when I come back to it (as I surely will), pen and paper in hand, ready to make notes. And because it yearns for you to reach out to it, to work with it, because you must do the work to listen and to think, the experience that comes out at the end feels all the more intimate, all the more personal, all the more beautiful.


The Math

Highlights: beautiful, winding, tone-shifting prose; a plot that materialises gently out of the ether; immaculate pacing

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Vajra Chandrasekera, Rakesfall, [Tordotcom, 2024]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Review: Inside Out 2

More colors, more drama, same beats, same stakes

After successfully guiding a girl through her first identity crisis and her first complex emotions, Joy and her color-coded coworkers are now in charge of a teenager. And with growth comes even more complexity: not only is this teenager a lot more sensitive and volatile; newcomer Anxiety leads a whole new team of additional emotions that promise to make the next few years the rollercoaster all parents dread. What kind of person will she become? How will her conflicting impulses settle into a (hopefully) stable personality?

As it turns out, this time the inner journey is basically the same as last time. Her core emotions are shunted into her unconscious, they go on a tour of metaphoric locations inside the girl's mind, Joy learns that she's been following a counterproductive routine of suppressing all unpleasant thoughts, and the next step toward maturity consists of accepting a more multifaceted and adaptable identity. It seems that in the universe of Inside Out growing up means having to relearn the same lesson again and again.

Except for Joy, who strangely hasn't assimilated what she was supposed to have learned in the first movie. She's still nervously pushing away bad memories in order to steer the formation of a hyperoptimistic sense of self. She pays lip service to acknowledging the importance of Sadness in a healthy mind, but she has put herself in charge of selecting which thoughts are allowed to matter. Now that the girl they're guiding is a little older, a new module has appeared in her mind's headquarters: the self-image, which emerges from all the beliefs she holds. When Anxiety shows up to threaten the status quo, it's already highly anomalous on its own.

One of the traits of great storytelling is the mirroring of the large conflict and the inner conflict. The worldbuilding of Inside Out is uniquely equipped to make this correspondence literal. We watch our girl's increasingly ill-advised choices as Anxiety grabs more and more control over her. In a funny homage to 1984, there's even a scene where Anxiety has turned into a Big Brother figure with all-seeing tools to anticipate every disastrous scenario. This is fully realistic: if Anxiety takes over, we become its slaves. Our girl is well on her way to a panic attack by the time Anxiety has finished seizing the mind's headquarters.

The rest of the mind, alas, is not so imaginatively portrayed. The first movie explored at a leisurely pace the mechanisms of conceptualization, dreams, and memory processing; in the sequel, what we get is a literal treatment of brainstorming, the stream of consciousness, and the dark recesses where secrets hide. There's nothing to criticize as regards the technical side of digital animation, but nothing to marvel at either. It's perfectly adequate Pixar, but it doesn't bring any visual innovation.

What does land impressively is the subtext in the script. Joy has been so deliberate in pruning this mind's development that, were it not for the chaos of puberty, she'd easily lead our girl to a narcissistic personality disorder. After Anxiety's coup, however, she starts quickly building toward a dependent personality disorder. Both are based on a distorted, because incomplete, model of the self: Joy only wants to allow happy thoughts, while Anxiety is hyperfocused on winning approval. What the mind needs is neither of these single-party regimes. We need to let ourselves contain multitudes.

While the conflict is interesting, the resolution is too familiar. Just as Joy eventually agreed to stop trying to control everything, so does Anxiety. Last time, we learned that it's unhealthy to try to ignore Sadness. Now we learn that we also need just a teeny bit of Anxiety in our lives; as she explains at the start of the movie, her task is to anticipate and plan against disaster. The irony is that redirecting all mental resources to one single task also leads to disaster.

Inside Out 2 has the curious problem of presenting a simple conflict with an overcrowded cast. There are brief hints as to the role of Envy in fostering self-improvement, of Embarrassment in correcting course after mistakes, and of Ennui in cutting through unnecessary complications. The obstacle when attempting to expand this story is that there are only so many ways you can keep saying that it's unhealthy to let one emotion rule, that we need to open ourselves to the fullness of the human experience. Unfortunately, Pixar will have to keep finding ways of saying it, if one goes by Disney's plans for future productions. All right, it's time for some Anxiety. Let's tremble.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Review: The Watchers

Who watches the watchers? The watched?

I’ll admit I was drawn to watch (must avoid the temptation to make a torrent of bad puns) The Watchers because of the deeply bizarre and captivating image of these few people in a room in a building in the middle of the woods, in front of what appeared to be a gigantic mirror. It felt like an SCP article, with the attendant eeriness. It was only later that I learned that this film, released in 2024, was written and directed by Ishana Night Shyamalan—the daughter of, yes, the king of twists, M. Night Shyamalan himself, who serves as one of the film’s three producers.

The Watchers is set somewhere in western Ireland, within driving distance of Galway on the country’s Atlantic coast, in a forest where odd and disturbing entities live. This forest attracts those who are, for one reason or another, disillusioned, adrift, or otherwise deeply dissatisfied with their lives. Such is the story of Mina, your protagonist, an American who moved to Ireland and works at a pet shop in Galway dealing with her own personal demons. She takes an errand to deliver a bird to a buyer in Belfast as an excuse to get away for a while, and in doing so finds herself lost in this forest. She meets a small group of people eking out survival and putting on a show of sorts for the presences that dwell in this forest, who are fascinated with humanity in a way that these representatives of our kind most certainly would wish was not actually the case.

Mina, your protagonist, is played with proper subtlety by Dakota Fanning, who holds a lot on her shoulders. She is joined by the ominous leader of this small group of exiles-cum-captives named Madeline, played with many layers by Olwen Fouéré. Together with Oliver Finnegan and Georgina Campbell, they are all trapped in a small environment (a forest intent on not letting them leave) and slowly kicking up the tension as the film goes on, and they are set against each other in a way that is typical of its genre but executed competently.

I like the use of the Irish setting here. Part of it is the exoticism of the foreign country; the woods are woods, but they are not composed of the trees that I see in films set in the United States, or see around my hometown in the suburbs of the District of Columbia. Likewise, Galway just doesn’t look like any American town I’ve been to, with an architecture we tend to stereotype as Old World. Particularly, the shots of Galway Cathedral presiding over the city —it’s not tall enough to really be ‘lumbering’ over, so unlike big cities anywhere— put you in a different state of mind. On a broader level, this film engages with Irish culture in ways that I don’t want to spoil, but that allow the horror aspect to feel natural in its context. It makes the whole story feel like something told by the modern equivalent of a traveling minstrel, and I mean that in the best way possible (and I’m reminded of Eric Flint, who made that comparison, as does P. Djèlí Clark’s nom de plume in a West African context).

Much of the film is concerned with watching (could something with a title like that not?), indeed the very act of watching something, or someone, else. These are people put in a bizarre location away from the comforts of home and hearth to amuse people who aren’t really interested in them for their own sake. These are people, essentially, conscripted to amuse others, and the audiences keep them there, tormenting them to see what happens. It reminds me of my my favorite SCP article, one that makes this metaphor even starker, but there are undertones here that I think enhance the experience. Sure, we aren’t literally kidnapping people to be actors, but to survive they need to keep very fit, often to the point of health problems, so they can be attractive to us, endure grueling filming schedules, and then deal with merciless press junkies where the world pries into their lives as if they were public concern. I don’t know if the book this film is based on deals with this subject matter, but in bringing the story to film, the parallels become hard to ignore, and perhaps could not be told as well in any other medium barring perhaps television. It is a story in the vein of the plot of the original Watchmen comic, a narration that interrogates its very medium.

And yes, if you were wondering, there is a twist. Ishana follows in her father’s footsteps in creating a plot swerve. Fortunately, it is ultimately logical for the circumstances and makes sense given the story and the characterizations. You can certainly feel that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree here, but it’s an apple that is ultimately pretty sweet. I hope she gets more work and can start forging her own style, drawing from her father but never just being more of him (and Hollywood needs more female directors).

Overall, I enjoyed The Watchers. I would say it was reasonably good, not outstanding. I can’t place a finger on why exactly. The film does everything it does well, be it the acting, the plotting, the horror, the environment, the score, the cinematography. However, it never does any of those well enough to become a truly great film. It’s worth watching if you’re in the mood for horror, and particularly folk horror, but I don’t think it’ll become a classic.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.