2015 • 108 minutes • A24
Ex Machina concerns Caleb, a programmer at the Google/Apple stand-in Bluebook, winning a lottery to spend a week with the founder of the complany, Nathan. Upon arrival at Nathan’s compound, Caleb is taken aggressively under Nathan’s wing and asked to participate in a Turing test to determine if Ava, Nathan’s latest project, is sentient.
It’s not a spoiler to say that this does not end well.
X-Men ’92: Warzones!
by Chris Sims, Chad Bowers, and Scott Koblish
2016 (originally published 2015) • 128 pages • Marvel Comics
The greatest cartoon theme song of all time—and I will fight you on this point—is undoubtedly the theme tune to X-Men: The Animated Series. Composed by Ron Wasserman (who also composed the theme song for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which kind of blew my mind), it’s sixty seconds of iconic synthesizers, illustrated by an opening sequence straight out of a comic book. (My favorite segment: the team crossing the screen from left to right while the word “X-Men” darts by in several directions for no reason.) It’s so good that Michael Kamen snuck in a sly musical reference to it in the score for X-Men. To me, it is the X-Men, although I never watched the show as a kid. (Although I did watch the entirety of season one at a friend’s apartment in college, and shrieked when Mister Sinister smiled for the first time.) When I went to go see X-Men: Days of Future Past at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, you can bet that they played the theme song and that I totally flipped.
There is simply nothing more X-Men. Nothing more radical. Nothing more, dare I say, nineties.
The Vintner’s Luck
by Elizabeth Knox
2000 (originally published 1998) • 284 pages • Picador USA
You know how you can spot a period film made in the nineties? Well, I’m going to be no help, because I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know it when I see it. Like in Restoration—there’s something about the production design. The quality of the costumes. The Meg Ryan. It might be set in the 1600s, but a single frame can tell you that it was released in 1995. Never mind the fact that it can be carbon-dated by the fullness of Robert Downey Jr.’s lips. (This is why I nearly crawled out of my seat and over the very sweet Spider-Man fan when young!Tony appeared in Captain America: Civil War. His mouth was wrong.)
The same is true of, for some reason, most queer-minded media made in the late nineties and early aughts that I’ve consumed. Velvet Goldmine and The Vintner’s Luck have nothing else in common besides “dudes kiss in them” (oh, and shirtlessness, I guess?), but the quality of the atmosphere is quite similar—heady, languid, rarefied.
Captain America: Civil War
Based on Captain America
by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
2016 • 147 minutes • Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Are we ever going to be able to get back to Captain America: The Winter Soldier?
Don’t get me wrong: I heartily enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. It is no less ideologically chewy, as one review delightfully put it, than The Winter Soldier. The difference is that The Winter Soldier is a Captain America movie and Captain America: Civil War is an Avengers movie. I often wonder when the wheels are going to come off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because we’re getting to a point where a Marvel film must do two things: be a good enough film and set up the board for the next film or films, depending on how many players are on this particular board. In my experience as a reader and viewer, serial plot structure is one of the most challenging things to do right. And Marvel, with the exception of Iron Man 2, has mostly been handling it well. But it’s difficult to serve two masters at once, and we know which one takes precedent.
The Russos, to their eternal credit, pull that delicate balancing act off elegantly, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get a wholly singular genre riff like Captain America: The Winter Soldier again in the Marvel universe.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns
by Rae Carson
2011 • 423 pages • Greenwillow Books
Previously, on the Literary Omnivore, I asked where God and organized religion was in speculative fiction. (Okay, I asked “Where is the God in fantasy”, but tomato, tohmato.) When speculative fiction deals with gods and goddesses, it often does so in objective terms—one cannot dispute the existence of the Valar, for instance, in Middle-Earth. But Throne of the Crescent Moon shows characters actively struggling with and practicing their faith in a world where the divine is not objective, and it gave me a taste for more. But where to start?
Book blogger Samantha of A Musical Feast came to my rescue with a recommendation of The Girl of Fire and Thorns. I’ve known of Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy for a while, in that I used to spend many a shift at the bookstore in the young adult nook and they were in there. They looked like young adult fantasy (which is no slam, but just rarely distinctive enough to grab me), which is why it took Samantha mentioning that it’s actively based on medieval Spain and Spanish Catholicism for me to put it on hold at the library.
Ms. Marvel: Generation Why
by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, and Jacob Wyatt
2015 (originally published 2014) • 136 pages • Marvel
Ms. Marvel: Generation Why (or issues 6 through 11) finds newly minted Ms. Marvel, Jersey City’s own hometown hero, navigating the usual trials and tribulations of a teenage superhero—hiding her identity to protect her loved ones, interfacing with the larger world of superheroics, and, of course, saving the day. Specifically, saving the day from the Inventor, the strange cockatiel-human hybrid who has been kidnapping teenage runaways for assuredly nefarious purposes.
Generation Why keeps up the same high level of quality seen in Ms. Marvel: No Normal—unsurprisingly, as the only major difference in the creative team is Jacob Wyatt stepping in to illustrate issues 6 and 7. Wyatt plays nicely in the quirkier house style of Ms. Marvel (I especially love the way he draws Kamala’s prominent nose), but Adrian Alphona’s teen indie movie in a bottle style is still the most perfect complement to G. Willow Wilson’s writing.
Dear White People
2014 • 108 minutes • Lionsgate
Dear White People opens in the aftermath of an “African-American-themed” party at Winchester University, a very tony Ivy League school somewhere in the United States. As national news covers the story, several characters stare, shellshocked, directly into the camera. It’s only Tessa Thompson’s Sam White who watches back, a camera glued to her left eye and an appraising look in her right one.
And that’s when I screamed in delight, because there are few things I love more than the fourth wall being coolly, elegant broken to make a point about who is seen and who is being seen. (If you would like to enjoy a pop music version of this, I direct you to Madonna’s performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 MTV Awards.)
The Princess Diaries
based on the novel by Meg Cabot
2001 • 115 minutes • Buena Vista Pictures
If, by some strange and vengeful act of God, every Disney Channel Original Movie was wiped from the face of this earth, we could probably reconstruct them using The Princess Diaries. Despite its theatrical release, its Whitney Houston production credit, and the good name of Gary Marshall back when that meant something other than another American rendition of Love Actually (Mother’s Day, coming to theaters April 26th, I am literally not joking), The Princess Diaries is nothing if not the platonic ideal of the DCOM: glossy, sweet, and fun, complete with the optional side order of a big star (Julie Andrews) gracing a smaller production with her presence.
It’s so sweet, in fact, that I remember being very disturbed as a preteen by the discovery that the Grandmere found in Meg Cabot’s novel (upon which the film is based, obviously) bares little resemblance to Julie Andrews’ kindly Queen Clarisse. I mean, she’s amazing—tough as nails, glamorous, and a fan of permanent makeup—but she’s, you know, different.
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe
2014 • 450 pages • Basic Books
Sometimes, I feel for George Lucas.
As a fan, watcher of cinema, and eighties freak, I am, of course, absolutely infuriated by Lucas’ long history of “improving” his films and refusing to release the original theatrical cuts on DVD. (I know, I know, they’re available as “special features” in one of the Special Edition’s DVD releases. But let’s be real, that feels like a slap in the face.) But I do feel for the guy. I’ve always gotten the feeling that Lucas’ career got railroaded by Star Wars in a spectacular way, a feeling that How Star Wars Conquered the Universe confirms.
It’s easy to forget that the story of Star Wars is not just a story of a film franchise and its fandom, but also the story of Lucas’ career up until the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012. But Chris Taylor’s well-balanced How Star Wars Conquered the Universe makes sure to tell all three in remarkably readable fashion. And by readable, I mean that I started tearing up a little when Taylor concludes the book by describing the only things we could know about Star Wars: The Force Awakens: the iconic introduction. Damn you, John Williams! You can get me even when I’m reading something in perfect silence!
The King’s Peace
2002, originally 2000 • 544 pages • Tor Fantasy
Now this was how I wanted to kick off my 2016 reading—with a gloriously chunky fantasy novel by an author that I both trust and trust to treat me like a human being. And, specifically, I wanted to start with this book, this specific mass market paperback edition copy of this book.
This was one of the last books I bought from the used bookstore in my hometown before it closed—not because of poor sales (another one, albeit part of a local chain, popped up instantly across town), but because the lady who ran it retired. The immediate response, from both myself and a friend who grew up the town over, was “Damn, I still had used book credit there!” But it still felt odd to drive past the floral shop in its place when I was picking up baguettes for Christmas dinner. I find something very odd and poetic about the fact that I have managed to, through no fault of my own, lose both of the two-story bookstores that played major roles in my life. (The other one, at least, is still standing, just a bit closer to the ground.)
The fact that this copy also passed through my favorite used bookstore in college, which is happily very still open and, I assume, still trying to get the cursed cardboard standee of the Tenth Doctor I sold to them last month off their hands, just completes the circle. With the fiercely curated remains of my library finally coming to join me sometime soon, my literary universe feels much more immediate and contained.
The King’s Peace just seemed like a very fitting way to kiss the contours of what my literary universe used to be like goodbye.