Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 22:00 on 25-08-2015, Robinson L
@Arthur: Fair enough, but I'm afraid for your sake that the current superhero movie fad has not yet hit it's peak, and it's going to be some time now until those particular levers inevitably break.

@Shim: Personally, I enjoyed the action scenes in Winter Soldier; they had a lot of energy, and didn't drag on interminably for me, unlike some other Marvel movies I could mention.

The rest of this post is going to contain a lot of spoilers, and I'm not going to use a tag because the spoilers are the discussion. So if there's anyone here who hasn't seen the movie and wants to avoid spoilers, this is the place to stop reading.

So, the plot of the film is that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA, who plan to use three floating doomsday platforms developed by SHIELD to kill a couple million people who are the greatest threats to their goal of world domination. Nick Fury grows suspicious of the doomsday platform project and tries to get it put on hold while he investigates, and HYDRA tries to assassinate him, apparently succeeding. Before his "death," Fury passes a vital clue to HYDRA's plot to Captain America. Captain America and Black Widow follow the clue, dodging HYDRA's assassins along the way, and finally discover the full extent of the plot. They are reunited with Fury, and with the help of Falcon and Agent Maria Hill, team up to take down the doomsday, platforms, HYDRA, and the hopelessly corrupted SHIELD along with them.

To me, this is a good political/spy thriller plot; the premise has some very silly elements, but the film takes its material just seriously enough to make the viewer feel it, but sufficiently unseriously that the silly superhero stuff is still an asset rather than a liability (as was the case in, e.g., Nolan's The Dark Knight). Once you buy into the premise, the character's actions and motivations make sense, and the story progresses organically rather than depending upon artifice or contrivance.

The threat posed by the villains also feels a lot more real than in most of the early Marvel movies. In those films, the heroes - once they got their powers - blew through scores of enemies without breaking a sweat, there was only a 50/50 chance of even the main villain being an even match for them. Whereas in this movie, sure, Cap is a lot stronger and tougher than everyone else, but they establish early on that the Winter Soldier can take him on, and even the regular HYDRA mooks come awfully close to killing him with a combination of numbers, strategy, and sheer firepower half a dozen times. (And, of course, the rest of the cast, though trained fighters, are no more than level with all the HYRDA agents.)

There's also some good character subplots with Captain America and Black Widow finding a way to trust each other even when they have very good reasons not to; and also Cap trying to reestablish his bonds with his old (and presumed deceased) friend Bucky, since brainwashed into becoming the titular Winter Soldier. (I'm also a sucker for the whole "hero refuses to continue attacking antagonist because of their personal connection" and then "antagonist saves hero's life" scenario.)

I would characterize the main message as "people who think the world would be a safer place if they held a gun to everyone's head are either outright fascists or just dangerously naive." Trust is also a big theme, and I would say the message there is something about the need for trust and partnership and the difficulty of building them in a situation where, as you say, distrust and suspicion are often crucial survival traits.

And no, I still don't know why Nick Fury burned all his personal stuff at the end: I chalked it up to one of those instances where a filmmaker will have a character do something because it's symbolically meaningful rather than it being a sensible thing for that character to do under the circumstances. Annoying, but for me it was a minor point.
at 11:00 on 25-08-2015, Arthur B
I'm personally kind of tired of the whole superhero cycle at this point. It's the old story: movie studio finds combinations of levers they can pull which yields major returns; movie studio pulls the same levers over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again until they break.

I mean, they're fun and all, but it's one flavour of fun and to me it's outstayed its welcome and needs to go away for a while to refresh itself.
at 21:15 on 24-08-2015, Shim
I still haven't seen Guardians, but I did see Winter Soldier recently.

Honestly I found it completely adequate as a superhero film, but a bit tedious at times. In particular I felt like the fight scenes were far too long. That wasn't particularly down to the actual combat, I think it's an artefact of modern budgets and special effects. Instead of Thug firing, Guy dodging and something ricocheting somewhere, we get Thug firing, Guy dodging, the shot slamming into a nearby car, which careens into a wall, and another car crashes into it and flips right over the wall trailing flames, and slams down in the path of a bus, which slews across the road hurling lampposts around, and people run around screaming, and thirty seconds later Guy actually responds.

I also wasn't really sure what it was trying to say. Trusting people is both genuinely problematic for intelligence agents and demonstrably unwise in the canon of the film, where half the characters turn out to be untrustworthy Hydra mooks. At the end Samuel L Jackson burns down his secret hospital in what's clearly supposed to be a moving symbolic scene, but I didn't understand why he was burning it down, given that it was a field hospital rather than some kind of sinister archive, and that having a secret fallback base is a genuinely sensible move (in fact, not having one is criminally foolish in his position).

Can you say a bit more and sell me on it? I absolutely didn't hate it, but it didn't particularly speak to me either. I can't honestly remember it very well after quite a short time.
at 20:02 on 24-08-2015, Robinson L
Well ... that backfired spectacularly.

Not much more to say on the puppy ballot, but I'm glad to see Orphan Black getting some love, especially since I'm baffled at seeing "Listen" apparently come in for praise - a profoundly "meh" of an episode, if you ask me. It had some good parts, but only about half of them came together at the end, leaving us with a story which was ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

Ouch on Guardians of the Galaxy, though - ptolemaeus hated that movie, and though I found it enjoyably watchable, it was hardly great. Whereas I think Winter Soldier had probably the best-written and -executed plot of any Marvel Cinematic Universe movie I've seen to date (possibly The Incredible Hulk or Ant-Man are superior, but I'm skeptical. On the other hand, I know she's happy to see Ms. Marvel bring home an award.

As for best novel, I'm a bit surprised to see Ancillary Sword come in third (though I haven't read the winner or first runner up) because I liked it better, on the whole, than its 2014 award-winning predecessor. (And tangent alert: the rest of this post is going to be my rambling thoughts on the series).

Ancillary Justice took more than a hundred pages to really hook me in, but with Sword, I was on board from pretty much the beginning. I guess now that we have the set up, and Ann Leckie isn't playing cagey with her protagonist's goals and motivations, she can plunge the reader in right from the start, rather than keeping her at a distance for a while.

The characters and world-building were engaging and the plot was quite good. I like the way the protagonist is usually several steps ahead of the reader (I've also recently been listening to the first season of the TeXt Factor again, and it's a bit reminiscent of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon), not an easy trick to pull off when you're the first person narrator.

I also think Leckie walks a fine line with Breq, as this character with incredible power and authority coming into a situation righting wrongs and dispensing justice, without turning her into a Great White Savior.

And, of course, there's lots of wonderfully subversive questioning of assumptions that comes with an almost entirely gender-ambiguous cast, who are all referred to by female pronouns.

I was surprised by how small the story was, considering the grand sweeping scope introduced at the end of the previous book. I wasn't disappointed by the story—perish the thought—but there's this massive war going on in the background, which I'm now wondering how Leckie is going to resolve satisfactorily in the final book.

I guess the one real criticism I have is that early in the book, we're introduced to a character who, it transpires,
has been turned into an ancillary of the Lord of the Radch
. Once the
tech which made her an ancillary
has been removed, Breq tells the Medic that the person that character was previously is now dead. Granted, this can be taken metaphorically, that the character has been permanently transformed by her traumatic experience, but given that in every other instance of the
process we've seen so far, the original personality has been definitively killed, I read the "dead" pronouncement as literal (as in, erased memory), and it took me the best part of a highly confusing chapter or two to work out what was going on.

But yeah, other than that, very good book, definitely recommended.
at 22:34 on 23-08-2015, Arthur B
A bunch of puppies got taken out behind the shed and given the Ol' Yeller treatment at the Hugos today. (The sole exception is Guardians of the Galaxy, which if anything demonstrates how a piece can, under the right circumstances, shake off the stink of being associated with the puppies if it's of a high enough quality and it doesn't actually share the politics of the puppies that latched onto it.)

Abigail Nussbaum has one of the better early responses to the story. Whole article is worth a read but I think the take-away quote is this:

The puppies claimed that they represented "real" Hugo fandom, here to take back the award from a politically-motivated cabal that had commandeered it.

But the thing is, if that were true, it would be true. If the puppies had truly represented "real" fandom, then "real" fandom would have turned up to vote for the nominees they put on the ballot. Instead, the people who voted were, overwhelmingly, thoroughly pissed off and eager to kick some puppy ass. The Hugo is a popular vote award, and what that means is that while it can be manipulated, it can't be stolen. It belongs to whoever turns up to vote, and in 2015 the people who turned up to vote wanted nothing to do with the puppies' politics and tactics. Despite the puppies' loudest claims to the contrary, 3,000 voters are not a cabal or a clique. They are the fandom.
at 18:06 on 20-08-2015, Robinson L
New York State, around 50 miles up the Hudson from the city; it's where my parents and my sisters live, and where I'm going back to this weekend. (Then back in Ohio in a month, then somewhere else in October for a new job ...) And yeah, Labor Day definitely wouldn't work - we'll be visiting my the NY State Fair with my mother's family that weekend. Too bad.
at 03:52 on 20-08-2015, Adrienne
Robinson L,

Sadly it'll be Labor Day weekend, so beginning of September. :( Whereabouts did you move to, if it can be told?
at 03:00 on 20-08-2015, Robinson L
Funny you should mention, Adrienne. It's actually more like Central Ohio, between Columbus and Dayton (closer to Dayton). And I moved away last Summer, though I'm out here again for a brief visit right now. As it happens, I'm returning for another visit at the end of September, so depending when exactly you're coming through, yes, that could potentially work.
at 07:26 on 19-08-2015, Adrienne
Robinson L: Am i remembering correctly that you live in Northwestern Ohio somewhere? Because my brute and i will be headed through there in a couple of weeks, and i wondered if you wanted to catch up for a snack or something. Micro-Ferretbrain-meetup? :D
at 13:54 on 07-08-2015, Axiomatic
>Size Matters: Long books are serious books.

As a fantasy reader, I can confirm this.
at 19:58 on 05-08-2015, Jamie Johnston
Meanwhile – you folks have got to check this out – 'Shut down Nouvella! First-ever *reverse* kickstarter':

American publishing has always centered around the Great American Novel, and we believe it should maintain this purity of vision. However, the recent proliferation of the independent publishing scene combined with millennials’ puerile attachment to things that are smaller, lighter and sleekly designed has serious implications for the continued dominance of the Great American Novel.

Nowhere is this disturbing trend more obvious in our industry than with indie publisher Nouvella, which publishes pocket-sized works of fiction between 10,000-40,000 words.

With your help, we intend to shut Nouvella down.
at 19:50 on 05-08-2015, Jamie Johnston
Wow, that's... not even bad in an entertaining way, just in a bad way.
at 12:24 on 03-08-2015, Arthur B
The Dissolve has an excellent article on Sean Connery's weird trainwreck of a final film. Make sure to watch the videos for the full horror.
at 21:10 on 27-07-2015, Craverguy
Even though I'm an American (or maybe because I'm an American; we don't have many legitimately leftist politicians here), I am quite enthused at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour.
at 10:07 on 27-07-2015, Shim
Those both sound reasonably good, though I tend toward's Melanie's. Like any subgenre though, it's hard to pin down exactly. You know it when you see it. There's usually a lot of very unpleasant things happening for no particular reason, to demonstrate to the reader what a grimly-"realistic" setting this is, and how vile various characters are, and how unlike all those other frivolous fantasy books this author is.

I think 40K is the origin of the phrase because it's a good phrase, but is quite a long way from grimdark because it refused to take itself seriously, although I'm not sure that's always the case now. The sheer excessiveness of everything does help though. Only genetically-engineered brain-eating fascist supersoldier monks can save you from the insects that eat planets and the ghost robots that want to annihilate the universe, and maybe you'd be better off if they didn't.
at 02:51 on 27-07-2015, Melanie
I had been interpreting "grimdark" as meaning: "fairly humorless, dark and unpleasant, and proud of itself for being such". Exaggeratedly pessimistic, maybe with claims of being "serious"/"realistic"/"gritty".

...I thought it was just a Ferretbrainism for some reason, but apparently not. Huh.
at 01:24 on 27-07-2015, James D
Could you please clarify how you personally interpret the term "grimdark"?

Now I haven't seen Spartacus, but this question got me thinking about grimdark in general - we can all mention examples of grimdark authors - George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, etc. - but what specifically is it that makes them grimdark? Is there a concise definition of grimdark that doesn't use examples?

The best, shortest description I could come up with was "exploitation fiction without the wink." Like exploitation fiction, the extreme sex and violence is there to titillate the reader (unlike the sex and violence in All Quiet on the Western Front or 12 Years a Slave), but unlike exploitation fiction it's done seriously, without that knowing wink that's often present.

A lot of people cite Warhammer 40K as an example of grimdark, and "grim darkness" is of course in its tagline, but I think it's too self-aware and over-the-top to really qualify, at least in my book. That's where I see the pejorative sense of "grimdark" coming in - if a book is pushing for dark and disturbing levels of sex and violence but instead goes over the top and unintentionally comes across as silly and ridiculous as Warhammer 40K, then you could say it's grimdark.
at 02:21 on 24-07-2015, Chris A
I really enjoyed Sense8. It isn't without some major flaws, but the features that seem to garner the most criticism don't really strike me as problems. Its leisurely start and disregard for some of the rules of episodic storytelling are choices made to take advantage of the Netflix medium, and I think they mostly work or are at least interesting. And the criticism that the show is 'incoherent' is just fundamentally off-base.

On the subject of Spartacus, I do think the world and events it depicts are remote in a way that makes a difference in our ... how shall I phrase it: our moral obligation to approach its subject matter sensitively? I think a series that depicted Nat Turner's rebellion or the Mâle Revolt along similar stylistic lines to Spartacus would be seen as exploitative. As would a film adaptation of Im Westen nichts Neues that aestheticized violence in the way that, say, The 300 did. Yes, some of the characters in Spartacus bear the names of historical figures, and there really was a Third Servile War, but their reality is unrecoverable and has no meaningful point of contact with the present. I would compare it to Game of Thrones more readily than to 12 Years a Slave.
at 21:02 on 23-07-2015, Shim
On a note about as unrelated as it is possible to be, it seems like Tusks is a thing Ferretbrain would talk about.
at 22:36 on 21-07-2015, Robinson L
My apologies, Cheriola. I meant no mockery of Spartacus or the historical events it portrays. I do not use the term "grimdark" as an exclusively derisive term - I view it as a mode of storytelling, not intrinsically better or worse than any other (I don't view misogyny as inherent to the grimdark mode, just sadly prevalent, as it is in so many other forms of speculative fiction). That said, I probably should not have been so flippant to lump an historical drama rooted in real horrific events with the fiction writings of George R. R. Martin, Matthew Stover, Joe Abercrombie, and the like. Especially since the discourse on "grimdarkness" on this site is largely critical.

Everything you say about the show sounds excellent, and mirrors what I've heard/read from others over the years. And I can easily believe that the tone is appropriately serious and depressing given the subject matter - but I'm afraid that's a level of intensity I can't really handle in television/film. Cartoonish hyper-violence I can handle, but high mortality rates among characters I've grown to deeply care about I really can't. Heck, sometimes just one character is enough to spoil my enjoyment of a film/show. Nothing against the series in question, it's just my own personal tolerance levels. Again, sorry for the implied ridicule.

And thanks also for the Sense8 recommendation. I start a new TV show about once every six months or so, but I've kept your previous recommendations in mind, and I may well find my way to them someday. That clip you linked won serious points with me for two reasons: first, by revolving so much around "What's Up," by 4 Non Blondes, which is one of those songs that's highly important to my circle of friends (a bunch of us sang it karaoke at a wedding not long ago); and second, hi Martha Jones from Doctor Who. It does look and sound like a pretty cool show ...
at 21:40 on 21-07-2015, Cheriola
By the way, if you want a show that has its heart in the same earnestly well-meaning place as "Spartacus" (i.e. lots of POC characters and feminist themes; the heroes are genuinely good people who support each other; and the romance is both very sexual and utterly wholesome, as well as very LGTB-inclusive) but with more obvious humor and less extreme violence and no rape or predestined character deaths, then I recommend the new Netflix show "Sense8". Be warned though that while the character subplots get resolved, the scifi/paranormal arc plot doesn't really get all that far in the first season, and Netflix hasn't yet said if they'll finance a continuation. Mainly because the mainstream critics didn't understand the show and panned it, and it's only slowly getting steam via word-of-mouth.

It also gave me the curious experience of recognising most of the settings of the parts filmed in Berlin. Which feels really odd when I'm watching an American-style action-drama.

Here's a short excerpt that reflects the feel of the show quite well:

at 17:45 on 21-07-2015, Cheriola
Moving this to the playpen because it's got nothing to do with "The Wizard of Oz":

Could you please clarify how you personally interpret the term "grimdark"? 'Cause I'm having a hard time not to side-eye you right now for mocking a drama about historical institutionalised slavery and large-scale murder, and the tragic death of tens of thousands of people in a war that really happened as "needlessly serious and depressing". I mean, of course they took some narrative liberties with history and we can't know the actual personalities of the people involved, but almost all of the male characters on "Spartacus" stand in for and share the names of people who really existed (the Romans weren't very interested in documenting the fate of women). Does their suffering not deserve a serious and empathetically heartbreaking depiction just because they've been dead 2000 years? This isn't "Game of Thrones" or "Warhammer 40.000" where the darkness of the setting is an arbitrary style choice by the author. Would you call "12 Years a Slave" or "Nothing New on the Western Front" grimdark as well?

That said, what the show undoubtedly is, is hyper-violent. But the violence is depicted just over-the-top and unrealistic enough (i.e. dull Roman swords that work as well as katanas for cutting limbs off; high-pressure spurts of GGI blood that is just a shade too purple to look real; etc.) so that it doesn't faze me - and I can't bear to watch splatter horror movies like "Scream" or "Saw". I don't particularly enjoy the testosterone-overdosed arena fights in the first season, but I can just roll my eyes and wait a few minutes for the show to get back to the interpersonal drama. I do appreciate the strange subversiveness with which the show used said larger-than-life violence and all the sex to draw in the stereotypical straight male aged 18-49 audience (and then served up a drama plot that's surprisingly feminist, gay-inclusive, tenderly romantic, character-development-driven, and almost Shakespearean in terms of challenging lyrical speech patterns and intrigue-based subplots), as well as making the audience kind of complicit in the exploitation of the slaves, which the gladiator slave characters really come to resent only when their brainwashing wears off at the end of the first season. The show doesn't go so far as to openly shame its audience for liking the violence, of course, but it does lure you in for a while to act just like the frothing in-show audience in the arena and cheer the gladiators on in their contest to become 'champion' - to forget what the bloodsport really means for those forced to be involved, and that the title really is meaningless. Which I found an interesting tactic to make the viewer understand how the system persisted in the first place, given that not all Romans can be psychopaths. (And they aren't, on the show. Except for a few minor characters and an upper-class couple who actually are borderline psychopathic, the villains are presented in a way that makes you want to root for them at least in their struggle to with the social class system and with the patriarchy.)

And in the later seasons, the show sometimes uses the violence for good, such as in this amazing scene that subverts the usual plot of harm done to female characters primarily to give the male characters motivation for revenge, instead providing catharsis to female rape survivors:

(A little note: The actor who plays the lover of the woman fighting in this scene, the one who looks like a bit of a jarhead, turned out to be a real revelation. His character starts out as the gladiator equivalent of a jerk jock, so the depth the actor lends him through eye-acting comes as a real surprise. Case in point: that look on his face when the woman's opponent, who had a long-standing personal vendetta with him, taunts him with how he 'ruined her' and that she'll never forget it - that look means a lot more when you remember that the lover had been sexually abused for years as well. Not violently, and not by a man, but still. The show never has the male characters talk about the sexual abuse they suffered (which is almost all the major straight male slave characters, in one way or another), because macho culture, but you can see how it informs their treatment of female rape survivors, and their romantic relationships, which are refreshingly free from any pushy or abusive behaviour or other creepiness that normally keeps me from rooting for romantic couples in shows.)

And while history dictates that the ending be a tragedy since the slave revolt failed and most of the historical characters are only known from the death reports, the show creators did manage to make the final episode one of the most emotionally satisfying series finales I have ever seen, partly because you really come to care about those characters (I rarely cry at movies, but here I spent the last 15 minutes sobbing), partly for meta reasons (
a lovely subversion of the old Bury Your Gays trope as a Take That! to all the haters who'd told the show creator to "Cut out the gay shit."
- yes, this is a show where telling you who survives is considered a major spoiler), and partly because the slave characters do get a sort of moral victory in the end, and because the main character himself dies covered in blood but at peace in the tender embrace of loving friends. Which nicely encapsulated the general feel of the show - all that outside violence and everpresent threat in the setting just means that there's little need for in-group nastiness to make things interesting to watch. Contrast with the Romans, who are constantly stabbing each other in the back, because that's the kind of society you get if you base the whole thing on violent exploitation of a massive underclass and need to raise the privileged to be capable of cruelty in order to maintain the system.
at 14:05 on 16-07-2015, Orion
So, the much-vaunted MRA-directed "documentary" "expose" of Anita Sarkeesian's alleged perfidy is finally out, kind of. The filmmakers had a falling out, but one of them has released a 40-minute mockup containing a few actual interviews, some clips from her videos and from the mainstream media, plus minutes on end of MRAs rambling over a blank screen. The title sequence is a still picture labeled "animated title sequence."

It's hilariously bad and everything, but mostly it makes me sad that I've never seen or participated in an actual critical review of her actual work.
at 12:59 on 12-07-2015, Arthur B
Meerkat works for me...