juushika: Photograph of the torso and legs of a female-bodied figure with a teddy bear. (Bear)
I woke to rain outside, and kept hearing it, on and off, through the day; hearing it because I've been able to keep a window open and the fan off for a few days now. The window here is behind a substantial bush, so the light is gentle in the mornings (the birdsong, on the other hand, not so much). Yesterday morning, I sat under that open window and peeled and cut apples while watching Supernatural. (Every year about this time I catch up on Supernatural; every year it's still awful, but the kernel of the show it could be, the 11.4 "Baby" show, the AU werewolf!Claire show, the show of ambiguous landscapes of denuded, earthen British Columbia forests pretending to be the Midwest, the show of flannel and bunkers and overnight drives, always leave me wistful.)

The apples came from the back yard, half-feral apple trees that produce tart, hard, dry green apples with just a few bugs. When I taught Teja how to make applesauce, I told him "peel, chop, boil over medium heat"—it's impossible to screw up. This year made me wonder if I was wrong; the first batch was prone to scalding and awfully tart, and required a cup of water (I'm used to ladling off excess fluid instead) and half a cup of brown sugar (there are greater sins). And it wasn't ruined, it turned out fantastic. Homemade applesauce always is.

Anyway, I moved last month. Moving is objectively always awful, but this went fine, even if it left me wishing I owned zero physical objects—despite that it was making a place for objects (specifically, an overhead shelf with nothing but blankets and plush and treasured figurine) which made me feel settled in.

August and Gillian are settling in too, decently well. The stress of the move, and the smaller space and relative isolation, has made them much more companionable. They've lived together for five years, with tolerance but no intimacy. Now, they're touching all the time! They share a blanket! This morning, August licked Gillian's face three small, sweet times. I'm not getting invested in the future of this intimacy, but feel blessed to witness the little signs of it.

I've been taking a few shitty snapshots of the cats, and you can find them over on my Tumblr; here are some cat-touching highlights:






Their peace and comfort, and also mine, has been interrupted by a fairly severe flea infestation—with which we are dealing, but which may be an ongoing/reoccuring battle for reasons outside my control, and I'm mad about that. They're just so uncomfortable, and only have the energy to groom and eat and then nap; not eager to play, too sore for most cuddles. Hopefully things will improve as the medication does its thing.

Autumn is the season of my heart, and the weather report says the rain is not just today, it is the next five days, and by then it's late September; 70 degree days after that will just be sunny days in autumn—the season is here. Most people don't get such a clear cut-off date! But ours was September 17, and rain, and rain, and rain.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, film, 2016, dir. David Yates
Going into this already inundated by criticism helped, because it allowed me to recognize the problematic bits, know they had been engaged, and not sorry over them so much that ruined the rest of the experience. (That said: where are the Jews in this New York & cast of Jewish surnames?) I thought this was decent. I liked the characters, and thought the effects were charming; the conflicts, both overarching and localized "where to find them" plot, are less successful—predictably paced and too disconnected from one another. The worldbuilding falls somewhere in between: there's a fantastic sense of place but the adaptation of wizard culture is clumsy; the magical beasts could add such new life to the world! but their magical characteristics are gimmicks, and their behavior is subservient and anthropomorphized, which undermines ... everything, really. Ultimately, this provided what I came for, that Harry Potter-film escapism composed of rich visual aesthetic, larger than life characters, and just enough underlying emotional subtlety; but it wasn't great.

How to Get Away With Murder, season 3, 2016-2017
If this series is The Secret History of procedurals—the push/pull of exaggerated, idealized academia and intimacy set against the social breakdown fostered by secrets and murder—then this is the season of consequences, of the trickle up to Keating's career. I didn't know my respect of Viola Davis could grow more profound, but it has—she does an outstanding job of portraying a complex mix of vulnerability and strength. The plot elsewise is okay—the danger in a series with this premise is that it can grow too convoluted, undermining and/or overlooking previous events while chasing the next cliffhanger; but the way that things fall out, the in-fighting, the effect on extended cast, the hints of underlying intimacy (especially in Michaela's apartment!), use previous events to good advantage. I enjoyed this a lot.

Frailty, film, 2002, dir. Bill Paxton
This would have been a significantly better story given: 1) no twist ending—the twist is exceptionally predictable and could have even been written in, but wasn't, and as is it serves only to undermine the potential character study of brainwashing/abuse/delusion, 2) better acting—it's a small cast, and there's a huge burden on the child actors, and no one can stand up to it (Bill Paxton in particular has some cringe-worthy acting in high-value scenes), 3) better effects ... I didn't discover until this writing that this came out in 2002! I thought it was older ... the corny effects combine with the so-so acting to undermine the premise, to turn it from compelling and unsettling to a gimmick. Nice idea, but skip this one.

Tag, film, 2015, dir. Sion Sono
What a weird film! It's almost successful, mostly on account of the acting and because, in broad strokes, the feminist themes work: an intimate relationship between women, fighting the nightmare of gendered social expectations. The tone is certainly remarkable, if not successful: grindhouse meets arthouse, strange and humorous gratuitous violence played against surreal reoccurring imagery and dream logic. But here's the thing: it engages in an awful lot of objectification despite the feminist subtext, and the reveal is a bit of a mess, a lot of an anticlimax, and isn't awfully empowering. This is no Sucker Punch, but sometimes resembles one.

Sense8, season 2, 2017
I forgot, until viewing the S1 summary, how much of this show is ridiculously contrived action sequences, the motivations for which I'd largely forgotten—and few of which really matter because, as the summary reinforces, the heart of this show is 25% speculative concept/plot and 75% queer orgy found family feels. And I really love those precise feels, and I'm mad about the circumstances behind the show's cancelation for precisely this reason: it's so id, so gay, and there's not much else that does what it does—I want it to set president, not be quietly erased. I don't have a lot of feelings about plotting vs. interpersonal in this season (I don't, frankly, think it improved remarkably over the previous season), but I found it so engaging, as always: I love these characters, the film techniques, the voice and style; it's a consistent pleasure.

Dig Two Graves, film, 2014, dir. Hunter Adams
Phenomenal sense of time and place; a ... mixed handling of racial issues: uses g*psy slur, but it's period-appropriate; it acknowledges racism and its consequences, but also capitalizes on stereotypes for aesthetic and plot purposes. I have a lot of mixed feelings, here. It pushes the hell out of my Southern gothic aesthetic buttons, and I love the initial setup, the haunting use of liminality. But some of the "magic" evoked is pretty corny (as well as fulfilling racist stereotypes), and as the narrative progresses—spoiler spoiler spoiler warning—and everything is given mundane explanations ... mundanity makes for a tricky reveal: it's innately underwhelming, despite the substantial themes and the title drop. I liked this, and wanted to like it more, but kept running into caveats.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Please help me, I am forever so behind on these, & what I do not record I will forget forever.


Time of Eve, anime, 2010
This has an ideal runtime and microformat. The individual vignettes aren't particularly in-depth exploration of speculative concepts/worldbuilding/the laws of robotics; they're equally fueled by pathos and the human condition, so the short episode length gives room to develop those things without allowing them to grow maudlin—a good emotional balance. The effect is cumulative—not especially cleverly so, it's pretty straightforward "interwoven ensemble with overarching character growth," but it's satisfying. I wish this pushed its speculative/robotics elements further, but, frankly, I'm satisfied with the whole thing, it's engaging and evocative and sweet and I sure do like androids.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, season 1, 2017
I'm surprised to find I enjoyed this more than the book series—and I didn't love the books, but didn't expect them to improve upon adaptation. The weakness of the books is how much depends on the meta-narrative and how little of that there actually is; rewriting it with a better idea of what that narrative will be, and with more outside PoVs, makes it more substantial and creates a better overarching flow. The humor is great, the set design is great, it feels faithful without merely reiterating, a condensed "best of" the atmosphere and themes; a sincere and pleasant surprise. I'm only sad that the second season isn't out yet, because the Quagmire Triplets were always my favorites.

The Great British Bake Off, series 6, 2015
They finally got rid of the awful, belabored pause before weekly reveals! That was the only thing I ever hated about this series, and I'm glad to see it go. This is a weird season: weekly performances are irregular and inconsistent and vaguely underwhelming; the finale is superb. It makes me feel validated in my doubts re: whether the challenges and judging metrics actually reflect the contestants's skills, but whatever: it has solid payoff and this is as charming and pure as ever. What a delightful show.

Arrival, film, 2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve
50% "gosh, the alien/language concept design is good"; 50% "I really just want to read the short story" (so I immediately put the collection on hold). Short fiction adapts so well to film length that it makes me wonder why we insist on adapting novels: the pacing is just right, the speculative and plot elements are just deep enough to thoroughly explore, there's no feeling of being rushed or abridged or shallow. What makes this worthwhile as a film is some of the imagery, alien design (the language really is fantastic), and viewer preconceptions re: flashbacks as narrative device; it's awfully white and straight and boring as a romance, though—underwhelming characters with no particular chemistry, although I like Amy Adams's pale restraint. If I sound critical, I'm not; I thought this was a satisfying as a 2-hour experience.

Interstellar, film, 2014, dir. Christopher Nolan
I have a lot of feelings, and most of them are terror: wormholes! black holes! water planet! time as a dimension! space, just as a thing in general!—I find all this terrifying, in a fascinated by authentically panicky way. The imagery and plot does a solid job of making these concepts comprehensible and still vast (save perhaps for the fourth+ dimension—the imagery there almost works, but it's so emotionally-laden and interpersonal as to, ironically, make it feel localized, small). But Blight-as-worldbuilding is shallow, and a lot of the human element is oppressive and obvious, which deadens things; I wish more of it were on the scale of Dr. Brand's love or the effects of relativity: private motivations for the characters, sincere and intense but with limited effect on the setting or plot. But as a speculative narrative, one within the realm of the plausible but intentionally alien, distant, and awe-inspiring, this is effectively the space version of the disaster porn in a disaster flick—space porn, is that a thing? It's captivating in a nightmareish way, which, I suppose, is exactly what I wanted.

Legend, complete series, 1995
One of Devon's childhood shows, which he got as a birthday present, so we watched it together. It's honestly not as awful as I expected. The frontier setting is less idealized or racist than it could be, but still has a great atmosphere; the character dynamics are hammy but sincerely endearing; the mystery plots are episodic but decently written. Not a new favorite, shows its age, and the mix of tone and science fantasy Western makes it understandably niche, but it exceeded expectations.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (I should have been born a cat)
The OA, season 1, 2016
I can't talk about this show without spoilers; be ye warned. Insofar as the purpose of a piece of media is to engage and stimulate, this succeeds. I don't find it necessarily to decide or clarify the "objective truth" of OA's story, but I do think the show tries to do too much in putting it into question—it's a slow, spread-out narrative, and then so much is crammed into the many hanging threads of the final episode; it's cheap and underdeveloped. But I'm sold on that slow narrative, in both structure and content, from the modern set dressing to the speculative elements to the framed narrative to the unreliable narrator; that it's a contemporary/SF movie given a 10-hour runtime actually makes it more immersive. I'm even more content than not with the final episode, more for the purpose it achieves than how it does so, although I don't know how they can make a second season work after the intentional and strained ambiguity of the finale. This was an experience—not always successful, not always smooth, a little smug and back-weighted, but it held me; I wanted to read about it and talk about it after I finished watching, all signs that I was engaged.

Santa Clarita Diet, season 1, 2017
This is sincerely charming; so charming that I can overlook the fact it's essentially a quirky White suburban romantic comedy. It's gleefully morbid, excessively so, shamelessly so, overshooting gorn and landing in the territory of corny but legitimately icky—which must be the counterpoint that I need to sell me on the rest. (It helps, too, that I love Drew Barrymore, although they really don't know how to do her hair.) I wish the pacing were better, I wish the season had any sense of finality—instead of just feeling like it had finally developed a larger plot, none the least because the premise is the more engaging narrative. But while I bounce off most humor, this worked for me. It's endearing and gross and dark and I approve.

Sherlock, series 3 and "The Abominable Bride", 2013-2014 and 2016
Spending a while away from this show really serves to highlight its flaws upon return. It's not half so clever or logical as it needs to be, borrowing poorly from the source material as far as cases are concerned. It's overacted; the humor misses its mark. Sherlock himself is wildly unpleasant, and scenes like John's forgiveness on the train are simply—ironically—unforgivable. And then there's an episode like "His Last Vow," which manages to expand on the original material, which hammers home the show's dynamic and characterization, which is tightly written and uses the obtrusive styling to its best advantage. My sum experience with BBC Sherlock tends to be negative, but it's highlights like that which make me keep trying.

Finding Dory, film, 2016, dirs. Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane
This is such an active, compassionate, empowered narrative about disability, and some later scenes are fantastic. I sincerely appreciate the depiction of accommodation and internalized discrimination; it's tear-jerking in the right way, substantial but uplifting. But a character magically overcoming an injury/disability is unequivocally awful; and I've seen arguments that the humorous exploitation and derision of other disabled characters functions both to depict a discriminatory society and invite viewers to question why they participate in it—except that it doesn't, the humor goes almost entirely unchallenged, and it's wildly out of place and disgusting. I went into this having read some criticisms, and I'm glad for that—or I probably would have stalled out at the one-third mark. The sum is positive, but there's no excuse for the missteps—ever, really, but especially in this context.

The Joy of Painting Netflix Series, Bob Ross: Beauty is Everywhere & Chill with Bob Ross
Full episodes of the show's entire run are also on YouTube, so I'm still watching Bob Ross—but I didn't discover that until watching the Netflix compilations. They're composed of selected episodes from later seasons (~27-31), which makes for the highest quality video and most familiar techniques (in narration, painting, and filming). Chill is winter scenes, and many of Ross's winter paintings are warm-toned and a bit fuzzy; this is the selection that grows most repetitive, but I also watched it during winter in a moment of kismet: during the stress of the holidays, Netflix gave me Bob Ross. Beauty is Everywhere is general landscapes and seascapes, but a solid selection of those, highlighting a number of the black-canvas paintings which Ross particularly loved and I do too. There isn't a particular reason to watch these selected episodes, they're hardly the only good ones, but they are good, consistently watchable, and have all the markers that make this series enjoyable.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir, season 1 and Christmas Special, 2015-2016
This has a strict episodic framework—repeated sequences, reiterated structure, etc. But it also begins with all aspects established, from supporting cast to superpowers—a mild in medias res. Subplots, small details, and the natural evolution of relationships explore those background aspects and add narrative depth, and the occasional deviation from the repetitive format has nice narrative flair. I'm normally ambivalent about the format of kid's cartoons, so I'm surprise by how well this worked for me on a structural level. And the protagonists's relationship! it's a star-crossed miscommunication-driven will they/won't they/of course they will hetero romance, but I love it anyway, thanks in large part of the way that Ladybug controls their dynamic both in and out of combat. There should be nothing for me to love here, but I found myself taken with it anyway; it's charming and unexpectedly compelling. I look forward to the next season. (I did find the webisodes frivolous, and skipped them. I prefer the French dub immensely, and wish Netflix weren't missing some of the audio tracks.)

Re:Zero — Starting Life in Another World, anime, 2016, White Fox
I came to this explicitly because a friend spoiled the protagonist's character growth (or, more specifically, the reveal that Subaru is a "nice guy" and that the narrative calls him out on it). I'm glad I went in knowing that, both because it's interesting to track the foreshadowing and because it helps justify such an awful protagonist. His later character growth is artlessly exaggerated, but it's still rewarding to see his behavior condemned and corrected. The plot, meanwhile, has an iterated/Groundhog Day-style structure (one of my favorite tropes) which is just clever enough to work and which sells the danger and violence—and that's a good thing, because something needs to counteract the anime styling at play. I would have liked this better had it shed its anime clichés—but I still found it incredibly engaging, cathartic, and satisfying. (I'm not sold on the ending, but my impression is that it works better in context of the light novel, as a yet another bait-and-switch happy resolution.)

The Great British Bake-Off, series 4, 2013
As calming and as sweet-hearted as ever, but I found myself more critical of the judging structure this time (I don't think judging week-to-week without taking into account cumulative performance is representative of real quality; I'm troubled by the cultural/educational bias implicit in the technical challenges), and of significantly less patience with the pacing of the reveals (so corny; just skip them). But even if my initial wonderment has passed, this remains such an endearing show, pure and lovely, engaging food porn and light reality TV, but without the pettiness that fuels so much of the genre.

Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor, anime, 2007-2008, Madhouse
The pacing here isn't as successful in Akagi—it's more strung out, teetering towards the repetitive and stretching the tension and metaphors too far. But! it's still so good! (Within FKMT caveats: no female characters; funny noses.) Such a fantastic foil to Akagi: this protagonist who doesn't want to risk, who isn't looking for the experience; who keeps landing himself in trouble and manages to scrape through almost despite himself. Like any good predicament porn, it's equal parts indulgent and discomforting, the perfect balance that pushes "dim ratbag victim of masochists" past the point of humor and enjoyable tension and into the realm of sincere, albeit frustrating, sympathy. I look forward to continuing with the next series.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Person of Interest, entire series, 2011-2016
This reminds me a lot of Fringe: a crime serial with a speculative premise that becomes increasingly predominant; an imperfect found family, confronted with apocalypses of increasing scale. (See also: Buffy, X-Files—the negotiation between episodic and overarching in speculative television has been a long conversation.) I'm a sucker for this setup, and a bigger sucker for the themes at play, for artificial intelligences and human/machine intimacies; and the premise also opens the door to creative tropes and narrative techniques, to flashbacks and alternate realities, to structural inversions (like the functions of the numbers in 2.22 "God Mode"). It's sometimes inconsistent, sometimes too playful, sometimes repetitive in structure (especially the pacing of the action sequences), but I sincerely love it, both for its genre-mashing premise and for the characters (especially Root and Shaw).

For the Love of Spock, film, 2016, dir. Adam Nimoy
This is endearing. It touches on a lot of things, all with approximately equal depth—and while some topics summarize nicely in eight minutes, others feel cursory: giving the gay guy a few sentences to talk about slash fandom is particularly insufficient. But the balance between Leonard Nimoy's private life, his career, and the character of Spock is more successful. There's an earnestness here, a sympathy, an active humor; it hits all the right notes and it's what I wanted it to be: informative in a non-exhaustive but honest and consumable way, and, primarily, cathartic.

After the Dark, film, 2013, dir. John Huddles
A shaggy dog story by way of an iterated thought experiment, which is both its strength and failure. The unexpected narrative style briefly engages some interesting tropes, and the parallels between classroom and experiment, and between iterations, may not live up to all the philosophical name-dropping but are interesting. It helps that, despite the slick, implausible teen styling, the acting is passably strong. But there's no real sum to the various parts, and the tone vacillates and fizzles out at the end. This is engaging but not quite satisfying.

Star Trek: Deep Space 9, s6-7, 1997-1999
I actually picked this rewatch back up midway through s5, which is where I'd left off (a few years ago), but as near as memory serves s6-7 were entirely new to me. (Their airdates overlap my family's residence in the UK, which may explain it.) I decided to continue my DS9 journey now because I wanted something socially-aware but escapist, and this is Devon's favorite show to rewatch and so it seemed like a safe bet. I was wrong. It was exhausting. The Dominion war means that late s5 and s6 alternate between grim war episodes and comedy relief episodes, many of them independently successful, but creating an inconsistent overall experience. (Devon later told me that he skips a lot of s6 episodes when rewatching.) S7 has a new major character and a large multi-part ending which stretches some plotlines too long yet still manages manages to back-weight and rush the finale. But this is still far and above the most ambitious and successful Star Trek. I adore a lot of individual tropes (Trill symbionts and Bajoran religion, primarily) (but also Odo!), but it's the cumulative effect which is most impressive: the uncompromising exploration of the Bajoran Occupation, a Black captain, the stationary setting which demands a larger and more consistent plot, even Armin Shimerman's quest to salvage the Ferengi make for an overarching set of themes which aren't always successful but are frequently, intelligently, pointed in the right direction, more demanding and more thorough than many equivalent themes in other Star Trek series. This wasn't the comfort watch I was expecting, but I think I value it more for that.

Voltron: Legendary Defender, s2, 2017
This has much better pacing than the first season! It's more cohesive, less pointlessly episodic while still maintaining that structure, and has better foreshadowing and ramp up; the cliffhanger is less pasted on. The personal/interpersonal focus is shifted: the strife/teamwork between the paladins is less emphasized, even taken for granted; but the focus on Shiro and Keith is bigger and more integrated into the worldbuilding than anything else so far. I could nitpick—the animation isn't as smooth as s1, and the unlockable power-ups is a predictable trope; but that last is occasionally really effective (as with Shiro) and the overall effort is just such a pleasure. This may be less iconic than s1, but it feels like the show has really settled into itself.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Erased (Boku dake ga Inai Machi), anime, 2016, A-1 Pictures
Time-traveler solves the disappearance of a fellow student from his childhood is a deceptively big concept with a deceptively small, interpersonal execution, and the truth is somewhere in between: the speculative elements are scaled down, secondary to the relationships that fuel the plot, but that plot grows increasingly convoluted and suspenseful. It's an ambitious effort, and successful in large part because of the way the many elements balance once another. (And I will never be over that fantastic gimmick with the opening credits.)

Voltron: Legendary Defender, season 1, 2016
I'm surprised by how much I enjoyed this, but it's not perfect. The animation is fantastic, which gives the action and characters so much life; I genuinely love everyone except Lance (I wish the default protagonist weren't the male-gaze asshole) and every inter-character dynamic (even those with Lance). But after the overlong establishing sequences, the plot grows episodic and goes nowhere—it feels like watching any other serial SF show, with predictable premises and storylines. Against that stagnation, the sudden uptick in plot and the ridiculous cliffhanger at the end of the season feel like an insult. But while I normally have a hard time with "made for kids, accessible to all audiences" because I can't switch off my criticism (and can never tolerate comic relief), Voltron engaged me. I'll absolutely watch season 2. (That all said, I could never not laugh at Voltron's cat fists and fuzzy cat slippers and cat hat, I know this is the design Voltron has had forever and that they are being faithful to the source material, it still looks ridiculous, I'm sorry.)

Zootopia, film, 2016, Disney
Charming animation and worldbuilding, great dialog, and I'm a sucker both for mystery plots and cop buddy dynamics. But I'm not sure I loved the themes—"the disenfranchised also foster social unrest/aim to benefit from inequality" is a common trope that creates a false equivalency between the targeted hatred of oppressors and the justified anger of the oppressed, and while I think it's the exact opposite of the film's intended message, it's present and it's gross. This was a fun watching experience, but invites critical viewing it can't stand up to, and left me uneasy.

3%, season 1, 2016
I love survival games and in a similar way understand the appeal of dystopian meritocracies—but I hate the YA tropes/poor writing/unbelievable worldbuilding they tend to come packed in. 3% has pieces of all of that, and yet I sincerely enjoyed it. Television is a better format for this series than a book or film series because there's more room to flesh out the characters without constantly trying to reinvent the plot. That the competitors are 20 years old also helps—it's an appropriate age for the personal growth tropes and some of the interpersonal dramas of the genre, but sheds the adolescent-love-triangle tone. But maybe the best divergence is that there are so many people of color. This is less glamorized than most examples of the genre it hails from, despite maintaining a lot of genre concepts and tropes; I don't think it's necessarily revolutionary, but it's absolutely more successful. I'm glad to see Netflix diversifying the work they produce, and will watch season 2.

Yuri!!! on Ice, anime, 2016, MAPPA
As a sports anime, this isn't groundbreaking; as queer sports anime, it's not ideal representation—but I understand the source of its limitations and I think it navigates genre conventions and "appears subtextual, is actually textual" better than not. It does a lot in little space, with surprisingly clever plotting and details, but what really sold me is the sincerity of the character development and the romance. Yuuri's anxiety and its effects on his performance and interpersonal relationships mimic the emotional dramas of other sports anime, but have a more sincere, sympathetic arc; the central romance engages a number of queerbaiting tropes and then sidesteps them to explore sincere passion and how people build relationships and romantic intimacy. It's really just ... heartening to watch, not super angsty but emotionally accessible. I sincerely enjoyed it.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
This is my list of the best media that I consumed for the first time (but was probably not published) in 2016.

Books

I read 128 books in 2016 and, unusually for me, almost all of them were new. It was also, independently, a great reading year. As such, this list is particularly long.

Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie. This was as good as the hype, but not always for the reasons I was lead to expect; the genre and setting is far-future space opera, but plot and investment are character-driven, and it was the ancillary experience and Lieutenant Tisarwat's violet eyes that really kept me engaged. This series is satisfying on the levels I value most.

Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. This isn't the first fantasy-which-is-actually-sci-fi genre crossover I've encountered, but it's by far the best. The genre-bending is fundamental to the narrative, but also to the protagonist’s PoV, as she uses and creates the scientific method, applying it to a reality which exceeds her comprehension--and which bleeds over into plot twists which exceed the reader’s expectations. I haven’t been this impressed by a book series in a long time.

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre. Something like a sibling to the Steerswoman books, with a similar worldbuilding premise but a smaller focus--it's less about redefining knowledge of the world, and more about fostering knowledge in order to improve life on the local, private scale. It’s soothing and valuable.

Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. In particular, Blood of Elves--but this series entire lives on this list because of Ciri. The Witcher franchise is problematic, from its sexism-as-worldbuilding to its flawed balance of politics to plot. But while I rarely become attached to book characters, I am inordinately attached to Ciri, and to her family and those motivated by her. She's central. The books forget, sometimes, that that’s all I care about (and the games sometimes forget it entirely), but when the pieces align to star her I am in love.

The complete works of Octavia Butler. This isn’t the year that I began reading Butler, but is the year that I read most of and finished her work. I rarely find myself in such active conversation with an author, and as much as I’ve critiqued her for her style and occasional limitations, I’m blown away by what she achieved, and by the fact that her work is so compelling and complicated, so ambitious and successful in precisely the ways that matter.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette). This is the most feel-good that a novel has been while still leaving an impression on me--because it’s not frivolous or simplistic, but rather is about the stubborn effort to do good creating real good in the world: a particularly cathartic, empowering variety of wish-fulfillment

Hild by Nicola Griffith. This is half a story, and a laboriously intimate one at that--a gradual coming of age, dealing with issues of gender and faith and identity, the private and political; it took me a little to warm into it, but having done so I loved it--Hild’s PoV is incredibly immersive.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson. What an experience! This is yet another SF/F mashup (it was a good year for those), but this is a particularly tropey one brought alive by the vivid and powerful use of dialect. This is a novella that feels bigger than that, that feels more distinct and dynamic than its page count.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. I don't think the plot in this was entirely successful--but I love the premise so unreservedly as to recommend it on that basis alone. This is portal fantasy meta, looking at the afters and in-betweens of those who visit other worlds (and paralleling the reader experience of existing within/without fantasy), conjuring a bittersweet longing unlike anything I've experienced. I've always loved this genre, but didn't have a framework for my feelings about it until reading this book and:

Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente. I am of mixed opinions of this work, too. I love the first book beyond reason, but I don't know what the series as a whole lives up to it--the travelogue aspects grow stylistically repetitive, and on a technical level these come to feel rushed. But all the books have something charming to offer, and there's something sincerely valuable about the relationship between September, Halloween, Maud, Mallow, and the Marquess. Their dynamic is subtextual and complicated, and in ongoing conversation about portal fantasy, identity, and self-determination.

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente. My favorite of Valente's novella so far. I'm surprised by how well her mythological and fairy tale imagery builds upon an AI premise, and by how concrete the AI is. There's a lot of depth in this little space, and it's particularly evocative, even for Valente.

Honorable mentions in books

Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip. This isn't the best or most important McKillip, but I love its tropes to pieces (especially the way that the interpersonal dramas resolve) and it’s probably my favorite of the McKillip novels I've read so far.

The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet. I was sincerely impressed by this book, by its intimately-integrated magic system and the unforgiving, unsettling complexity of the interpersonal dynamics.

Multiple novels by CJ Cherryh. I'm continuing to read a lot of Cherryh, and I've yet to be disappointed by any of her work; her combination of deceptively terse writing style, intimate relationship dynamics, and worldbuilding concepts consistently hits on tropes that I adore.

Black Iris by Leah Raeder (Elliot Wake). New Adult isn't a genre I thought I would ever care about, but I care a lot about Wake's contributions to it, and Black Iris is the novel which has spoken to me strongest so far because its angry, intimate depiction of mental illness is cathartic and sincere while meshing well with the heightened passions which are a marker of the genre.




Video Games

Neko Atsume. I came late to this bandwagon, but it was worth the wait; what a charming, pure experience, and somehow even cuter than I expected. There's not really a lot to say about Neko Atsume, but I love it.

Deemo. Far and above the best rhythm game I've ever played, in song quality, aesthetic, narrative, and gameplay--the latter in particular is so natural, genuinely like playing a piano. I love this game to pieces and listen to the soundtrack all the time, yet I've never heard anyone talk about it. Please give it a try.

Overwatch. Is this art, no; but I have been playing 90min/day since launch, so that's something. I appreciate the changes Overwatch has brought to the genre and the active role Blizzard has taken in expanding and balancing it. It wouldn't be my pick for game of the year, but it’s important enough to earn that.

Pokémon Moon. This, frankly, would be my pick for game of the year. It benefits from the engine development of Gen VI, while continuing the narrative trends from Gen V--it looks fantastic, the UI and battle mechanics are great, but most importantly I cried three (three!) times while playing SuMo. The narrative has leveled up, the character development is phenomenal, and I treasure it.

Stardew Valley. This is a love letter to the farming and life simulator games that it draws from, and it almost exceeds them--I admire the depth and refinement of this game, and it's such a satisfying, soothing experience, exactly as it's meant to be.

Dark Souls III. The micro-level of this release, the cinder construct, isn't my series favorite, although I love the characters in this game; but on the macro-level, drawing the cycles of each installment together and to a close, Dark Souls III is incredibly fulfilling. I also appreciate the reintroduction of more varied enemy types and refinements to the combat system.

Honorable mentions in video games

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. This is as beautiful as I wanted it to be, but not quite as weird as it needed to be--I miss the push-pull of the body horror in Human Revolution. But what a fantastic graphic engine, and the characters and plotting live up to series standard.




Visual Media

Critical Role. This monster of a show has without exaggeration been a life-changer. It's a huge investment of time and such an unassuming medium, but the payoff is intense. The live creative process has an innate energy, and the cast's obvious investment in character and narrative is contagious. It ate me alive this year, and I regret nothing.

Stranger Things. I wanted Stranger Things to be a smidge less neat (plotwise, especially the ending), but in all other ways adore it, from the conversation between genres to the unexpected but indulgent aesthetic to the character acting. I've rarely been so utterly consumed by a show, to the point where coming up for air between episodes made the real world feel surreal.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I expected to like this, but was surprised by how sincerely I enjoyed it; the character archetypes combining to develop complexity and depth translates well to a miniseries, and despite TV-quality effects this is an aesthetic and speculative delight.

Black Mirror "San Junipero". I can give or take Black Mirror on the whole, but I treasure this particular episode, both because I think it's one of the better realized of the series in terms of plot delivery and because victorious WLW was balm to my soul, especially in the face of so many dead queer women in television.

Penny Dreadful. The series takes a definite downturn by the third season, but the overall experience was worth it, in part of the surprisingly robust gothic retelling, delightful aesthetic, and found family tropes, but mostly because of Vanessa Ives and Eva Green, without which this would be half a show. The intimate depiction of her vulnerability, intelligence, competency, and honesty was particularly valuable to me; this is one of the few supernatural metaphors for mental illness which I've found successful.

Star Trek: The Original Series, and movies 1-5. I grew up with every Star Trek except this one, and had a cultural impression that TOS was corny and misogynistic--and it is, a little, but it holds up much better than I was expecting and has fundamental charm and value, both as franchise starter and in its own right.

Red vs Blue. I never believed I could be so consumed by a machinima comedy series, but the humor works and the eventual scale of Red vs Blue--its convoluted plot, surprisingly well-developed characters, strong pacing, and fantastic animation--is incredible.

Honorable mentions in visual media

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I had never watched the original Cosmos; this remake has some redundancy/direction issues in the middle but is on the whole all I wanted, vast and terrifying and beautiful, but also accessible, even personable.

Ravenous. The gayest narrative about cannibals that isn't Hannibal-related, and so delightful--and it only improves on repeat viewing, where the tonal shifts can be anticipated. Great imagery, fun acting, and such explicit cannibalism-as-metaphor violence-as-romance; it's become one of my favorite films.

The Falling. I love quiet little movies about gender, female experience, coming of age, and illness; this was my favorite of those that I watched this year (but see also: The Silenced), perhaps because it's the most convincing: an intimate, vaguely idealized, unsettling portrait of British girls's schools and female adolescence.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (I should have been born a cat)
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, miniseries, 2015
I'm surprised by how much I liked this, and I expected to like it. The set and costume and makeup are all beautiful; the special effects are sometimes TV-quality but still so evocative. I'd forgotten how successful this narrative is, and/or I'm a better consumer (I was particularly stricken by the women—not an impression I had when I first read it) or I liked this more than the book or I simply need to reread the book; the way in which these characters gain exponential depth as they interact, escaping the limitations of their respective tropes, is particularly fulfilling. What a pleasure to watch.

Dark Matter, seasons 1-2, 2015-2016
Six strangers forced to work together is how found families are born, and this absolutely lives up to its tropes. The cast is made up of heavy-handed archetypes but I love lots of them—especially all the women of the core cast (the android's character growth is especially good.) But mutual distrust also creates a lot of miscommunication-as-plot, which is a trope I detest. I've now mentioned tropes four times, which is indicative: this is pulpy Syfy-channel material, with appropriate pacing, plotting, budget, and the ideal arena to engage tropes with gusto, which this does, and I love it for that.

They Look Like People, film, dir. Perry Blackshear, 2016
I'm not sure how to discuss this one without spoilers, so be ye warned. I found this unexpectedly effective as a horror film—it has a strong grasp of tension and pacing and the evocative unseen. But these are also things that freak me out, personally (face blindness is not-infrequently the experience of "have people been replaced by not-people that I'm supposed to assume look the same?" and "is this face correct? is this what faces look like?"), which biases my reaction. Some have lauded this for its human, empathetic depiction of mental illness; it is that, but I'm still not on board with eliding mental illness and speculative themes, and constantly linking mental illness and violent actions. I find myself of a mixed but ultimately positive opinion, and this certainly does a lot with tone and horror despite its tiny cast and budget.

The Girl in the Book, film, dir. Marya Cohn, 2015
A thorny, private, messy personal trauma given a cathartic, neat resolution—so it hits all the right notes and I understand the intent, but it still feels limited. I like the narrative structure, though, exploring the sequences of events in one timeline, their longterm impact in the other. But I can't help negatively comparing this to Blue Car, which was thematically similar but much more messy and bittersweet in resolution: equally important representation, but refusing to be so neat.

Twin Peaks, season 1-2, 1990-1991
Fire Walk with Me, film, dir. David Lynch, 1992
(Spoilers be ye warned, again.) I made multiple false starts on this show before seeing it to conclusion, which I feel is in some way indicative of my overall experience. There's so much to talk about! I'm underwhelmed by some of the iconic elements, the soap opera plotting, laborious pacing, and "quirky" townsfolk—but I love the effect of the ominous and surreal set against that mundanity. The plotting goes off the rails after Laura's arc, and the new romances are a horrible choice—but I love the increasingly prominent role of the Black Lodge. (What imagery!) But I take strong issue with the way that Lynch uses disability to indicate strangeness, in the townsfolk and surreal dreams and the Lodge. I loved Fire Walk with Me, because as much as I admire a successful narrative in absentia it's empowering to make Laura subject (rather than object) of the narrative and Sheryl Lee's portrayal is intimate and convincing. Twin Peaks and I had a rocky start, and I couldn't imagine rewatching it for fun, but I came away with strong opinions and a lot of love for the bits I loved (speech in the Lodge & the entrance to the Lodge; the characterization of Dale Cooper and Audrey Horne in the first arc, and the relationship between them) and love, also, for for its ... intent and iconic cultural effect, I suppose, more than the actual product.

On Tumblr: Dale Cooper vs. Professor Layton; David Lynch uncritically presenting the Other was weird.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Red vs. Blue, seasons 1-13, 2003-2015
I came to this just to understand Devon's references, because he quotes the first few seasons a lot; and then it ate me alive. I have a narrow sense of humor, and the jokes here can absolutely be problematic, but it's frequently hilarious, with fantastic delivery and surprisingly effective simple staging. And as the show matures, it snowballs: always harebrained, but increasingly complex and character-driven; the CGI is breathtaking, the pacing superb; and I love the characters, I love so many of them so passionately, and I would never have predicted that. That something this inane and weirdly constructed can be so successful still surprises me, but, man, what an experience.

Black Mirror, season 3, 2016
All of these episodes are on some level mediocre—except "San Junipero" [imagine here a 20min pause, weeks after watching this episode, that I spent looking at fanart and gifs of this episode because I will never be over it], which is phenomenal. It's also the biggest departure from Black Mirror's tone, so perhaps my ongoing issue is just with Black Mirror itself, and with its smartphone dystopias and one-note worldbuilding, its speculative-in-the-mainstream shoddy work; none of this season manages to be harrowing and have an intriguing premise, expect perhaps "Playtest" (deadened by predictable tropes) and "Hated in the Nation" (deadened by runtime). But "San Junipero" is tightly written, with economic plot delivery and a stubborn, sensitive interpersonal focus; the acting is fantastic, the tone equally indulgent/nostalgic and emotional; the love story convincing and validating. I have rarely been so impressed with any single episode of anything, and it can easily stand alone. It made the season worth it for me, and I'd recommend it even if you've never watched Black Mirror.

Sphere, film, 1998, dir. Barry Levinson
What an intriguing premise, what predictable execution. I think "in a confined environment, everyone doubts and turns against one another" is a pretty tired narrative, but I was ready to be sold on the psychological stress of a first encounter and the social fallout among the human crew—it could be a refreshing twist on the premise. But the alien aspect goes almost entirely unexplored; even the concept of the unknown, of the what and why inside the sphere, is barely touched. There's some good monologues and character acting, but this is otherwise dull, doing a disservice to its setup and first third, with a particularly weak ending.

III: The Ritual, film, 2015, dir. Pavel Khvaleev
The framing narrative is incoherent, but the central story is about a young woman journeying into her sister's dreamscape in order to cure her of disease—also incoherent, but to good effect; a lot of the markers it hits are predictable, and some imagery is ungrounded, but I love dreamscapes and this one is evocative. I love the focus on bodies (but wish it interrogated the link it makes between illness/bodies/gendered experience/mental state), the liminal spaces and use of transitions, and the way that arbitrary personal symbols exist alongside overtly literal imagery. This reminds me of Silent Hill, if less successful: confront the monsters that represent your inner demons while some inexplicable cult plot occurs around you.

On Tumblr: screencaps.

Hellboy, film, 2004, dir. Guillermo del Toro
I had vague impressions of remarkable, intricate imagery, but it looks like most of that is in the second film. This one's special effects have aged well, and the special effects makeup is fantastic; it uses that to do interesting things with bodies, and those details—Abe's hands and gills, Kroenen's monster design—are so satisfying. But the set designs aren't particularly memorable, and everything is so predictable: the pacing, the plot structure, the comedic timing; Perlman (whom I love) delivers a distinct but hammy performance. I did love Liz (less so her place in the plotline); that couldn't outweigh how tired I am of speculative sexy Nazis, a trope that I think is harmful and objectively unforgivable. I wish I could watch the second film! (It's not on Netflix.) I think I'd like it better, if only for the visuals. This first one is hit and miss.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Stonehearst Asylum/Eliza Graves, film, 2014, dir. Brad Anderson
There's so much going on here, all of it about halfways successful. The movie can never decide if it's horror, romance, satire, or just an excuse for Gothic extravagance, so is all of those things without total success—it has a fantastic aesthetic, but the tone often contradicts itself. But I'm surprised how watchable this is as an asylum movie—it's a narrative that makes me nervous, but the "inmates take over the aslyum" premise means that representations of institutionalized violence are limited in scope and cast as overtly problematic; that said, the implied farce of the inmates in control is its own microaggression; that said, the narrative affords them a surprising amountof respect, despite the occasional condescension. Eliza is well developed, and her gendered condition treated with the respect—which the obligatory romance and "cure" undermine. It's complicated! The plot's fine, the aesthetic is great, the tone is inconsistent—but it's the themes at play which I find myself remembering.

The Silenced (Gyeongseong School: Disappeared Girls), film, 2015, dir. Lee Hae-young
This makes a tonal shift in the second half, from gothic mystery to action thriller; I appreciate the first half more, but to my surprise the shift didn't lose me—largely because the writing remains solid, no dumb twists, just foreshadowing carried through. This is visually superb, so beautiful with such luscious imagery; I love the themes, the female intimacies (this movie has one (1) male character, bless), and the exploration of sick bodies, revenge/cure fantasies, and the social manipulation of women. This is a quiet gem, and I want more people to watch it.

Tumblr posts: visuals; women and illness narratives.

Penny Dreadful, complete series, 2014-2016
I am so conflicted! This is an aesthetic treat, and the way it engages gothic genre and penny dreadful reiteration of urban fables is compelling; there's some solid casting and the dialog is fantastic—and Eva Green steals the show with the depth of her affect and the way she epitomizes the show's aesthetic. But the plotting goes south midway through season 2, growing messier and more predictable (especially in character deaths and villain motivations, see: killing minority groups, vilifying female power), and the end—both the focus on Ethan in s3, and Vanessa's death—are especially flat. There's fantastic tropes at play here (especially the found family dynamic) and some truly phenomenal episodes (especially the flashbacks); I'm surprised how effectively and respectfully it elides trauma, mental illness, and speculative elements. But it comes out to be a bit of a mess, and not inevitability: the overarching plotting could've been better.

Supernatural, season 11, 2015-2016
The big bad of this season wildly overreaches while managing to remain entirely predictable—I don't know how the show could ever have pulled off a big-G God arc, and it shouldn't have tried; Amara's character arc is simplistic and her imagery underwhelming. Yet, somehow, this season has some of my favorite stand-alones, chief among them 11.4 "Baby," a Impala PoV about the daily grind of hunting which is everything I love of this show; I also adored the return of Lucifer, and Misha Collin's acting; and Enemy Mine of the last few episodes; and developments in the Sam/Dean dynamic. Supernatural is always inconsistent, but this was an unusual inconsistency: the small and personal parts of this work beautifully while the overarching plot spirals, forgotten, into the sun.
juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)
Once Upon a Time, season 5, 2015-2016
The Dark Swan arc exceeded my expectations—it has a constrained focus and the plot twists are vaguely convincing (a OUaT rarity!); the interpersonal and character arcs sold me, especially those between Emma and Regina. The resolution is weaker—as the focus shifts off Emma, it flounders. The Underworld arc, by contrast, is a mess entire: boring imagery, and the Greek myths are out of place (although I love Greg Germann and enjoy the Hades/Zelena relationship). As always, the problem with OUaT is its insincerity: there are so any plot twists that they lose their effect; it's hard to get invested in expectation of a twist, so the rare sincere moment lacks impact. Anyway: The land of untold stories stretches the show's premise but revives its creativity and makes it less Strictly Disney; I wonder what season 6 will be like.

Stranger Things, season 1, 2016
Frequently incredible: the atmospheric genre mishmash, the aesthetic as thick as pea soup, the tight writing, the great acting—especially from the children, about which no one as surprised as me. The triple plotline and the genre-awareness means that the plotting has to be strong, and it is—until the last episode, where it's so strong, so neat and obvious with obligatory sequel bait, as to strangle out the mystery and depth. I wanted something braver in scale and less obvious in resolution. Finale complaints aside, I truly adored this. It's a bit like The X-Files (without the monsters of the week), a bit like Twin Peaks (but faster paced), so 80s gothic; genre-aware and engaged in discussion about genre; the aesthetic is captivating—I've rarely been so lost in a show: at the end of each episode, the real world felt uncanny. I can't wait for season 2.

Splice, film, 2009, dir. Vincenzo Natali
I love this as a strange incestuous family drama with weird imagery and sexy body horror, which is the first three quarters; I like it less as an obligatory action sequence stripped of complex characterization and replaced with trite gender commentary, which is how it ends. The special effects are necessarily strong, and the visuals engaging; the acting is good. I was pleasantly surprised, but the ending remains a let-down.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, television, 2014, Neil deGrasse Tyson presenting
My complaints first, because they matter: the human element threatens to overshadow the science, the pacing slows in the middle third and wants structure, and the overlong section on global warming is preaching to a choir & puts the onus on individuals while failing to address the political/industrial solutions which will affect necessary change. That aside, this is fantastic. It's accessible without feeling simplistic, Tyson is engaged and engaging, and above all it conveys a profound awe, scale, scope. The CGI helps. It needs better structure, and some topics were belabored while others went unexplored, but honestly I was captivated.

Deep Impact, film, 1998, dir. Mimi Leder
I appreciate the somber tone, the on-screen named character depths, the interplay of national politics and personal narratives (although the kids are tiresome); the pacing is more predictable and less successful, transparent drama-fuel, and the actual disaster is too localized and back-loaded—some post-disaster survivalism would benefit the tone. On the whole, more effective than good: it's a welcome somber deviation from the disaster movie genre while still fulfilling genre tropes, but isn't particularly memorable.

The House at the End of Time (La casa del fin de los tiempos), film, 2013, dir. Alejandro Hidalgo
Expect spoilers, because it turns out this is less horror than it is time travel. The setting and tone are fantastic (what a great house); in theory, the time travel is a clever twist on the haunted house premise, but it's too neat—which makes for literal repetition (as it revisits previous scenes with new information) and predictability, especially throughout the second half. The emotional elements rely on child actors and aging make-up, neither of which are convincing. I wanted to like this, but it's too simple and hollow to be effective.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
(CW for offhand discussion of mental health issues and suicidal ideation.)

At the risk of jinxing it, we've been having unseasonably cool weather these last few weeks. I hate summer but live seasonally, in particular organizing my media consumption around the seasons, so this deviation is disorientating but not unwelcome. And I've been finding a lot of media to fill the gap in my media consumption as I push some things back (like sports anime, which is uniquely suited to warm weather).

I discovered Critical Role only approximately an eon behind everyone else, and it's phenomenal and also a gigantic timesink. Halfway through the second episode I stopped to make sure it was safe to binge watch and I wouldn't run into a sudden end, but the joke was on me because it's 50+ 3 hour-long episodes. I've never participated in a tabletop RPG and always wanted to, but never been interested in D&D because of my hatred of high fantasy; I still don't care about the setting, but I had underestimated how engaging this sort of by-user for-user creation could be, even when the source material is as generic as imaginable. (It does make me wish I could play something similar, which then reminds me that a lot of things aren't accessible to me because of my crazy; I receive that reminder often, and it always manages to sap away some joy, but the show is still fun to watch.)

(See also: Pokemon GO, which I would love to play but can't b/c no cell phone b/c mental health reasons, so that's a fun phenomenon to be excluded from.)

I've also been reading significantly more book series in the last few years, which has increased by book consumption considerably and contributes to the number of books I've reviewed this year. I still dislike the time and energy demand of series, still think a lot of them would benefit from brevity, and always keep to my habit of alternating between series-book and non-series book to prevent fatigue—but there's something satisfying about chewing through a sequence of books instead of a slew of stand-alones, and it's opened up some authors (Octavia Butler, a lot of children's/MG/YA literature, and, goodness knows, a ton of SF/F) that I previously would have avoided.

This last week or so I've been having some abnormal pain problems (neck and upper back, approximately unrelated to my normal back pain) that are affecting my sleep, and some amorphous low blood pressure issues. Both are annoying but niether particularly awful; less sleep just means more time for stories, and, as established, feeling cold in the summer is A-ok with me.

My mental health issues mean that I have constant suicidal ideation, not often with any particular desire or intent but with unflagging consistency; I would always rather not be, even when various symptoms are in remission; I have never found anything that justifies the effort of being present. And these stories still don't, but the sheer number of them, that I'm timesharing episodes to watch against series installments to finish, means that—for a rare occasion—I feel like there's not enough time, not enough of being, for all these things. That's not exactly a counterbalance but it's pretty close, as these things go.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Death Parade, anime, 2015, dir. Yuzuru Tachikawa
Ending spoilers: Read more... )

The two core characters are phenomenal; the world is unique and strange. The rules of the universe immediately appear unfair and fatally flawed, so it's rewarding to discover that's exactly the point of the show. The actual execution is a bit rough, especially the middle episodes and the wildly inconsistent tone, but by the end everything coalesces on an instinctual level. But, for me, the reveal of the protagonist's death sours that emotional payoff.

Awake, season 1, 2012
An engaging effort that doesn't hold up to, but does invite, close scrutiny. Speculative procedural is a unique combination, but it's a lot to manage. The episodic crimes are simplistic, not unforgivably so; but they want overarching characterization to sustain them, and that, too, is unfortunately episodic, especially in the son. The parallel universe concept is intriguing, especially the uncertainly of its validity or cause, giving the show a fragile, subjective atmosphere. But it would have been more successful if they'd known it would be just one season: the last episode feels more red herring than resolution, but there's no time to explore it. I am the ideal audience for this genre crossover, and I'm glad I watched it, but it could have been better.

The Machine, film, 2014, dir. Caradog W. James,
So much potential, not quite realized. There's some neat underlying ideas here: how to teach a robot to pass a Turing test; the evolved language. And there's some nice imagery, only a little ruined by the predictability (eyes: always the indicator of strangeness) and the gendering and body of the machine, feminine, blonde, nude, beautiful, potentially vulnerable. But the interpersonal aspects are so simplistic and the plot so predictable that the potential has no chance to shine.

Experimenter, film, 2015, dir. Michael Almereyda
Wouldn't it be neat if a biopic that makes a point of discussing race, the effects of race, and the erasure of race didn't cast a white person in the role of its Jewish subject? Yeah, that'd be neat. But Sarsgaard is strong, and the film is otherwise enjoyable—the subject and the sympathetic portrayal of Milgram's reactions to criticism of his work more than the experimental staging. In pieces, those elements work well, especially Milgram addressing the camera; but the effect entire, and the green screen in particular, is obtrusive.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
I recently completed The Great Star Trek: TOS first viewing; I grew up on TNG and Voyager and DS9, but had never watched TOS until just now. As I watched, I read along with Eugene Myers and Torie Atkinson's re-watch, here on Tor.com, with the third season on The Viewscreen. Torie's analyses I found particularly relevant, both because she came it from the same position as me (familiar with most of Star Trek, but not with TOS), but particularly because of how she examines and confronts Roddenberry's attempts, successes, and failures in exploring and representing equality.

Star Trek: The Original Series, complete series, 1966-69
This exceeded my expectations. It's not as forward-thinking as Roddenberry's vision demanded, which I don't think the time period excuses, given Roddenberry's intent. But the intent is so good, and more than occasionally effective; the underlying sense of wonder is inspiring, the cast and the inter-character dynamics are phenomenal, and Spock—Spock I adore, and I now understand how much Nimoy brought to the show and character. The number of authentically enjoyable episodes balances the amount of formulaic or ridiculous drivel, and while the third season lags it only feels like a preponderance of the bad elements that were there throughout—although most of the series clichés, especially Kirk's womanizing and the lady of the week, seem to come from this season rather than the show entire. I regret that the show prioritizes the return to status quo, but it was inevitable consequence of the genre's development. In sum: not near corny as I expected it to be; dated, flawed, certainly, but authentically enjoyable. I agree with Torie Atkinson's thoughts in the Star Trek Re-watch: Season 1 Wrap-Up: the sincerity and unidealized optimism is surprisingly effective.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture, film, 1979, dir. Robert Wise
I can appreciate this for what it is: an homage, love letter, and the celebration of an effects budget. The same things which are wearisome—namely, the long, slow shots of the ship and other special effects—are in some ways the most endearing: it's almost fanservice, the frank admiration of some of the most beloved bits of TOS. Pity about the recycled plot, and putting the band back together stymies character progression (although Spock, as always, is strong). TMP isn't great as a movie, but I appreciate it as a revival.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, film, 1982, dir. Nicholas Meyer
Not much I can say that hasn't been said. Khan's characterization feels flat—I wanted something more than the definitive obsession with Kirk. The rest of the cast fairs far better, with solid characterization and character progression; I adore Spock in the captain's seat, and the intercast dynamics are fantastic. This successfully translates the feel of the show into movie format: similar ethos, movie-appropriate pacing, and a satisfying number of subplots; the end is strong. But I fail to find it as memorable as TMP—perhaps because it's simply more traditional and successful a film.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, film, 1984, dir. Leonard Nimoy
Another one that I enjoyed, despite general consensus. I love successful narratives-in-absentia, and so respond well to a story that orbits an absent character. And how lovely, to see McCoy given more complexity. This is a smaller, more private story; melancholy, personal, heartsick; the destruction of the Enterprise contributes significantly to this tone. I hate back from the dead plotlines in principle, and I didn't care one whit about the B-plot or the villain; the film certainly has flaws. But the small parts of it which work well I treasure.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, film, 1986, dir. Leonard Nimoy
A humorous installment is well-timed and surprisingly effective, and—other than the ridiculous premise—this has great pacing and strong character moments. TVH absolutely tips towards embarrassment squick, but it never oversteps, thank goodness. It's charming and silly, the cast has just enough substance, and it's utterly engaging to watch—but not, ultimately, particularly memorable or complex.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, film, 1989, dir. William Shatner
I could have done without. There's some well-intended elements—namely, to give glimpses into the backstory and private lives of the crew—but they're ineffective; meanwhile, the humor is cringe-inducing and while the plot echoes some reoccurring series themes, it does a poor job of it and the fake god is particularly clumsy. I wish it had gone in a different direction—I would have loved to better explore the experience of a Vulcan with emotions.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, film, 1991, dir. Nicholas Meyer
This is such a rewarding endnote. The murder-mystery plot isn't flawless (the courtroom scene is frustrating, despite the appearance of Michael Dorn; the clue-search aboard the ship tends toward silly), but the balance of the plot's momentum and the depth of the metaphor is almost flawless. I love to see Kirk confronted, to see him proven wrong and forced to change; I love a bit less Spock's flaws, but the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic in this film is some of my favorite in the series entire. This may be the most enjoyable and watchable of the films—and final voice-over and the signatures on the stars was the most perfect of all possible conclusions. (Reader, I cried.)

This is the final cruise of the Starship Enterprise under my command. This ship and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun, and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man ... where no one has gone before.



Bonus, crossposted from Tumblr: In defense of 3.20 The Way to Eden )
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
The Great British Bake Off (The Great British Baking Show), series 5, 2014
There's something reaffirming about British reality TV. It's certainly edited for drama, as this series's Bingate proves. But it feels less exploitive and competitive, more heartfelt. This was just so lovely to watch, playful and passionate and with engaging variety. I'm not sure I'd feel the same if I watched multiple series, but all reality TV dulls with repetition. I enjoyed this for what it was, and didn't need more.

Jessica Jones, season 1, 2015
My dislike of Daredevil made me hesitant to watch this, despite positive fan response. I should have listened to my gut. It does so many things right in its depiction of rape and trauma survival, even female characters—female showrunners help immensely, who would have thought!—and I appreciate that. But the larger story failed me: the noir/action styling is tiresome, the tie-ins to Marvel movie-verse out of place, and the plot is a string of twists motivated by unreliable characters—sometimes unreliable because of Kilgrave's mind control, as often unreliable for unrelated reasons, all of it off-putting. It's not you, Marvel (okay, well, sometimes it is); it's me. This isn't my thing. (Longer thoughts on what didn't work for me here on Tumblr.)

We Need to Talk About Kevin, film, 2011, dir. Lynne Ramsay
A necessary DNF; I remembered at the halfway mark that narratives about unwilling mothers and problem children make my skin crawl. Half of the movie is enough to get a feel for it. Swinton's performance is powerful; other characters, even eponymous Kevin, feel stiff, their functions too singular. The jumpy piecemeal narrative is stressful, but creates tension. I have no doubt that this film does what it intends, but I feel like I've encountered the same narrative—as intriguing and unsettling, as ultimately unproductive—in more watchable form in Law & Order episodes, of all things. This was, intentionally, but for me fatally, unpleasant.

Hide and Seek (Amorous), film, 2015, dir. Joanna Coates
A group of young adults absent themselves from society to live in a beautiful house in the country and begin a closed poly relationship—my perfect premise. This does every predictable thing that can be done with this setup—a disruption by an outsider, the threat of monogamy—but it's unique in one respect: the relationship survives. That never happens in this sort of story! It's refreshing and idyllic. Otherwise: the plot is slim, characterization thin; the acting is acceptable, but sells the awkward start better than the established relationship. The style is light, hazy, sunny, indie-artsy. This isn't a profound film, but I appreciate that it exists. And! queer representation! that isn't entirely drowned out by hetero configurations! (but is somewhat.)

Hide and Seek: longer thoughts. )
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
This is late! and I don’t care! This is way longer than usual—I suppose I just encountered a lot of strong stories this year—but it feels a shame to trim it down. So, I present: The best media that I encountered in 2015.


Best books:

Hexslinger Series by Gemma Files. The sequels live up to A Book of Tongues, as brutal, as lyrical, as distinctive in style. Chess's ruthless character growth exceeded my expectations, and there was no character not rendered complex. I expected this series to have a great voice and satisfying scale; I wasn't expecting it to be resonant, which came to be the quality I admired most.

Hannibal Lecter Series by Thomas Harris. There's a number of individual criticisms to be made of Harris's work—and Hannibal Rising in particular is an awful mess that should be avoided at all costs. But I find Hannibal compelling in all his iterations, and this source material provides invaluable context.

Octavia E. Butler. Butler's voice can feel raw, but her engaging speculative premises are grounded by unforgiving, confrontational issues of morality. It took me too long to discover her work, but I'm glad that I finally did. She's brilliant and intense and compulsively readable.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Quiet, picturesque, luminescent; bittersweet and beautiful and a delight to read. Books are rarely this successful—this achieves its precise intent, and does so with grace.

Spindle's End by Robin McKinley. I love most of the McKinley that I've read, but this may be my favorite. A darling book, sweet but not quite saccharine, suffused with a playful domestic magic; and important, thematically heavy-handed, perhaps, but necessary, and with effective emotional appeal. Comfort reading of the highest caliber.

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. If there were just one book on this list, it would be Fire and Hemlock. Bittersweet, charming, magical, strange, and suffused with intent; easily the best book I read this year, and maybe one of the best I've ever read.

Goth by Otsuichi. As intimately familiar as I was with this story in its other iterations, the light novel still surprised me—it was just that good. The narrative techniques are manipulative but clever; the emotional register and atmosphere are subdued, amoral, thoughtful, and keenly compelling.

So Brilliantly Clever by Peter Graham. A rare non-fiction book! The Parker-Hulmes murder case is fascinating, and Graham's investigation is thorough, thoughtful, sympathetic but not forgiving—the best write-up I could have hoped on a subject I wished to know more about.

Honorable mentions in books:

The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. While by no means "great" literature, this is one of the first second-world fantasy series that I've found compelling. I admire Hobb's attention to daily detail, which grounds the sometimes-angsty character building; the companion animal tropes are top-notch; these are id-level, rewarding books.

Jacob's Ladder Series by Elizabeth Bear. I loved Dust years ago when I first read it; it was worth rereading to finish up the series. The middle book is redundant, but the last is logical counterpoint to the first, viewing its culture from without in a way that forces it to change. Despite the evidence of this list, I'm wary of series; this one is more than a run-on story, instead pushing its premise beyond the confines of a single book.




Best video games:

Soma. This would be my pick for Game of the Year 2015, not for being flawless (it's not, and I often wish Frictional were more willing to leave their comfort zone) but for being bold: an unsettling, confrontational, somber narrative sold by earnest dialog, surprisingly well-written and aware, not at all horror but superb sci-fi. I watched this game twice in a row and still think about it constantly—it's stuck with me.

Dark Souls II. Dense, mournful, and quiet, in atmosphere as well as level design and worldbuilding; singularly punishing and intentional gameplay. It requires an active engagement both to survive combat and explore the world—few games are this consistently rewarding to play.

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair. Bless these offbeat little games—there's a dozen missteps in both characterization and humor, but they're engaging murder mysteries (with such creative, grotesque deaths!) that feature a strong core cast, and the second game is a superb sequel especially on a narrative level: aware, self-referential, metatextual, clever and singularly satisfying.

Saya no Uta. I am never not impressed with Urobuchi. This early work is exactly what it sets out to be, questionable in all logical loli ways, but also grotesque, beautiful, and keenly romantic. I admire the interplay between the three endings, that each is most successful because of how it contrasts with the larger narrative/other ends.

Corpse Party: Book of Shadows. This fulfilled everything I wanted from a sequel, in ways I never expected: the metatextual vignettes create plentiful insight into elements left underexplored by base game, and, where it mattered most (Morishige), the game excelled.

E3 PC Gaming Show 2015. This talky, long-form new entry to the E3 roster was a breath of fresh air, allowing for more in-depth, less-hyped glimpses into some upcoming games. I'm not sure how sustainable it is, but it was my highlight of E3 2015.

Summer Games Done Quick 2015. My first time watching speedruns, and what an introduction. This was addicting, with a lively roster and great personalities and great games and a lovely variety of speedrun techniques; I barely slept for the week it was running and don't regret it.

Honorable mentions in video games:

Octodad: Dadliest Catch. SGDQ introduced me to this, and I've now watched four LPs of it and would happily watch more. It's charming and ridiculous and entirely to my sense of humor.

Dishonored. There are few fictional worlds which I find better designed or realized, from art style to flavor text: the worldbuilding is immersive and thought-provoking.

Halo 5. I am not as sold on campaign as I was Halo 4, but multiplayer, while it still warrants quibbles, introduces so many perfect additions: clambering and boosting makes for active and engaged gameplay, and I would find it hard to go back to any other Halo multiplayer.




Best visual media:

The Fall. This show succeeds where every other grim non-episodic murder mystery fails: it's an intelligent, pointed study of evil, confrontational even as it's romanticized, consistently compelling, and flawlessly cast.

How to Get Away with Murder. What a smart, tense, engaging show; how well-cast; how satisfying both in its diversity and in its smug id-level tropes. An utter delight.

Natsume Yuujinchou. There was a hole in my life I hadn't noticed, and this gentle, kind story fit right into that space; I can no longer imagine my inner landscape without it. The world needs more stories like this, small, private, bittersweet, about recovery from trauma and friendships forming and isolation and magic.

Honorable mentions in visual media:

Sense8. There's something captivating about this show, not in plot but in concept: it's a daydream of intimacy, dreamt with enthusiasm and sing-alongs and orgies. Flawed, but singularly satisfying.

Dead Ringers. An obscure little story that hit every single one of my buttons, absurd, intimate, discomforting, id-level, ridiculously indulgent. Is it good? I have no idea. Will I treasure it forever? Certainly.

Mirai Nikki. This fills a number of genre clichés, none the least in that it sparked a genre cliché, and yet: the core relationship surprised me, because it's authentically compelling, even romantic, not in defiance of but via the same aspects that make it unsettling.
juushika: Photograph of the torso and legs of a female-bodied figure with a teddy bear. (Bear)
Supernatural, season 9, 2014-15
Rowena is a delight, and I enjoy Crowley's progression—bravo to the show for exploring how soft he's gone. Otherwise: a disappointment. The Mark is too reminescent of S8's post-Purgatory effects, but significantly less compelling. The big bad is a mess—is it Styne? Rowena? the Mark has no face and so makes for an indistinct and unsatisfying enemy, and the show fails to capitalize on the quandary of how to win a fight when the only face of the enemy is yourself. Charlie's death is as predictably problematic as this show can conceivably be; the sudden twist ending is transparent sequel bait, and the entire last episode has predictable pacing. This is midgrade, messy, unremarkable Supernatural.

Circle, film, 2015, dir. Aaron Hann & Mario Miscione
I'm a sucker for this sort of survival setup, yet this did little for me. What makes survival games work is the way that individuals react to life and death competition, but there's no room for characters here. Instead, Circle has soundbite distillations of "American values," cursory and unproductive caricatures of sexism/racism/homophobia. Tension sustains the film, but the staccato pacing doesn't allow for tension to build or the narrative to flow. It's constrained and frantic and small, distinctly not awful; the end is strong. But I'm unimpressed.

The Duke of Burgundy, film, 2014, dir. Peter Strickland
Beautiful, rich, but too self-aware. This is a gorgeous dreamworld of texture and sound and scripted erotic play, balanced by heavy emotional emphasis which is at times almost unpleasant to watch because the character's needs are so transparent. But it can get lost under artsy montage, the worst of which is a dream-sequence entered via a crotch close-up (I mean, really); it's too smug and too arty. I think of this better in retrospect than I enjoyed it at the time—great potential, a bit too much beauty, and it doesn't work with my sense of humor.

Cloverfield, film, 2008, dir. Mat Reeves
I went into this thinking it was a monster delay film—I suppose I was mistaken, because the monster is all over the place, and inconsistent, and too convenient—most especially the presence of the smaller parasites. As a found footage film, this is decent, although I never grew invested in the interpersonal elements which are necessary to ground the apocalypse. The scale of the disaster is nice, although the monster itself is bland. In sum: merely competent.

Broadchurch, series 2, 2015
The writing here is better than the first series: less episodic, more cohesive as a whole. The casting and character arcs remain strong, especially Ellie, both in her family life and in her interactions with Hardy. But the emotional register and atmosphere are banal. It's uncreative: compare to Tana French's In the Woods: similar dual cases, small towns, PoV even, but the atmosphere is much more intense and the emotional focus has more intent, simply has more to say. The circumstances here are strange, even contrived, but most of the dynamics are disappointing in their normalcy.

Black Mirror, series 1-2 & Christmas Special, 2011-14
The natural result of mainstream media picking up spec-fic with the self-satisfied smugness of one who thinks they've come up with something new while failing to realize they have no genre experience to support them. Slick, well-acted, and pointedly cruel—but riddled with plotholes and unable to do anything with the potentially interesting near-future scenarios other than to see their effects on the entirely uninteresting lives of mostly-white straight people. It's watchable but the satire grows tiresome, obsessed with the petty evils of social media, and it buries its potential in over-trod emotional ground. Everywhere, every day, I can see upper-middle class white marriages fall apart due to possessive husband and frigid wives; there's better vehicles to explore "everyone records every moment of their lives" and "I spoke with the avatar of my dead partner."
juushika: Photograph of the torso and legs of a female-bodied figure with a teddy bear. (Bear)
In Sense8, a trans woman undergoes forced hospitalization and is threatened with a lobotomy (for reasons unrelated to but not independent of her gender identity); in Sarah Waters's Fingersmith, one Victorian woman is committed to an asylum under false pretenses while the other is held captive. If you asked, I'd probably say that my biggest fears, other than the crippling agoraphobia which is at this point more a personality trait than a fear, are spiders, automatonophobia/life where life shouldn't be, and existential horror. It's surprising how often those things come up, in daily life and in video games and in the night sky. But let me tell you, I am fucking terrified of the idea of forced hospitalization, medical procedures, and institutionalization.

Terrified, almost, on the level of agoraphobia. My other fears have that push/pull of horror, and revulsion that can be manipulated into intrigue. But, while I think there's room to creatively explore and even idealize mental illness/institutionalization, specifically in/of women (see: my thoughts on Emilie Autumn's Fight Like a Girl), there's no potential in me for a pleasant thrill. I suppose it's too real. I've never been hospitalized, but it's always been at the fringe of my experience—offhand comments by authority figures, horror stories from peers; half the reason I'm afraid to seek any help is the fear of the form that help may take. On some level, I've always believed I deserved it—that I am sufficiently incapacitated that I should not be able to self-govern. What makes it worse is that these narratives are often about women who are not mentally ill: it's terrifying that the social standing innate to gender and perceived neurotypicality are used to control and punish women, but, even worse, these women don't even deserve it—and part of their punishment is being alongside actual crazies, who do. These women at least have the narrative to advocate for them; whether or not it ends well, we as consumers know that their situation is unfair. What advocate would I have?

(I think this is why Emilie Autumn's Fight Like a Girl doesn't bother me as much—nor, to some extent, American Horror Story: Asylum: the PoV is not solely "sane person punished by being viewed as crazy"; both have mentally ill characters that the narrative still acknowledges are undeserving victims of the system.)

It's not something that will happen, and on society's scale of crazies mine are pretty acceptable—it's probably not something that could happen. And even if it did, there's every possibility that I have a skewed perspective built on historical evidence and horror stories, and that some forms of forced/in-patient medial aid would help me. And it doesn't matter. The idea makes me so anxious and miserable that a bit of logical counterpoint means nothing.

As fate would have it, Sense8 and Fingersmith are the primary show I'm watching/book I'm reading right now. They're both quite good! But consuming them at the same time meant that last night when trying to wind down to sleep I couldn't even give up one piece of media for another that would be less anxiety-provoking. "I know!" I thought. "I'll grab the next Circle of Magic book, because middle-grade wish fulfillment about found families and personal ability will certainly sooth my anxiety." But my elibrary hold still hasn't come in, and I couldn't *cough* "find" an epub on the entire damn internet. But by some minor miracle, even though it was 3a, Devon was awake and he read to me the two last chapters of a Wizard of Oz book, and then I read two chapters of a Narnia book, and then I slept.

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