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The Full Lid 7th June 2019

Hi folks, welcome to The Full Lid!

I'm Alasdair Stuart, professionally enthusiastic pop culture analyst, podcaster and 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo finalist. This is a lot like what the inside of my head looks like, as narrative stacks on narrative and I dive deep into the fictional overspace to find the shiniest pearls of syllabic perfection for you. Or, to put it another way:

A lot of pop culture is either really good, interesting, or both. Here's where I talk about it and give you something fun to read at the end of the working week.

Two quick things then we'll jump right into it. The archive and sign up page is here. If you like what you read, tell a friend. Also, spoilers will be total from here on out so hands and feet inside the newsletter at all time. All good? Cool. Let's do Contents!

Contents

X-Men Dark Phoenix
Booksmart
Signal Boost
Blue Spacesuits, Pink Spacesuits
Signing Off/Playing Out
Read More

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

It’s the mid 1990s and the X-Men are beloved superheroes. Charles Xavier is the US President’s go to advisor and the dream of mutant/human cooperation is alive. Until the X-Men are dispatched to save the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour from a solar flare and Jean Grey takes the full force of it head on. When she survives, two things become apparent; what they saw was not a solar flare. And something is verywrong with Jean...

Good news everyone! This isn’t even in the same time zone as 2017’s risible, phoned in X-Men: Apocalypse. Characters actually do things! There are frequent emotions! At no point does Oscar Isaac go full Skeletor! Even better, it’s a substantial improvement on The Last Stand, the last time these movies tried to tell this story. Simon Kinberg was one of the writers then and is the sole writer and director now. He’s definitely exorcised his ghosts. The franchise’s ghosts? Enh. Not so much

For all the problems we’ll get to there’s a surprisingly strong emotional and thematic arc to go with the punching. Charles has won, mutants are protected by being in the public eye and he’s become increasingly blasé about what his kids do to earn that safety.  Not to mention the hints of servitude to how he deploys the X-Men at the government’s beck and call. One of the movie’s best scenes sees Mystique confront him about this very thing and it solidifies perfectly the principled amorality that lies at the heart of McAvoy’s take on Professor X. He’s a fundamentally good man, but frequently expresses that goodness in startlingly irresponsible and manipulative ways. Getting something that subtle on screen in this franchise is kind of amazing and McAvoy and Lawrence both do excellent work here.
But they’re blown off the screen, at times literally, by Sophie Turner. This incarnation of Jean Grey is one movie old and has far more nuance and agency to her than the last one was given across an entire trilogy. This Jean dives deep into her trauma, hates what she finds there and spends the entire movie searching for her moral compass and often not finding it. Turner hits both essential notes, horror and seething joyous rage, with equal success and when the movie works it’s almost always because of her. She feels genuinely dangerous, especially in the whirlwind fast confrontation at Jean’s old house and that’s more than The Last Stand managed at any point.

Elsewhere in the cast, Nicholas Hoult’s Hank gets a couple of surprising turns that give him the depth he’s singularly lacked since First Class albeit for very tiresome reasons. Fassbender too, who at times looked actively bored in Apocalypse has some fun moments. Magneto’s peace is, again, hard fought and, again, shattered. But this time there’s a real sense of progress with the man that has been singularly lacking. He gets the movie’s most surprising heroic moment and his government sanctioned mutant state is one of the many ideas the film could have done with exploring more.

There is, inevitably, some bad news.

Outside the characters mentioned above, no one else has much to do. Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops is entirely reactive, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler is ineffectual until the movie’s laziest, stupidest moment in the closing fight gives him RAAAAAGE. Evan Peters’ iconic Quicksilver is benched for most of the action and Alexandra Shipp’s Storm gets five lines more than last time and a couple of fun beats in the final fight but nothing else. Worse still, the film largely wastes Jessica Chastain as Vuk, the shape-changing leader of a race whose world was destroyed by the Phoenix. She gets to stalk around, look menacing, explain her plan and then watch as the film chooses the least interesting response to it. There was a chance here to take the X-Men out into the cosmos, to tie the biological singularity of mutation to the cultural singularity of first contact. For this to be a rescue mission rather than a war. It would have been glorious. Instead, we get an extended fight on a train that you keep half expecting Deadpool, Domino, FireFist and Cable to try and hijack.

The film’s other faults are less obvious but no less severe. There are, counting Storm, five people of colour with speaking roles in the movie. Storm is the only survivor. She’s also one of only two to actually be named on screen. For a franchise built on the idea of the power and worth and necessity of diversity to be doing this after two movies is stupid. After seven, it’s deliberate to the point of malicious. Oh and that scene between Mystique and Xavier I mentioned? Only time the issue is brought up. Because why tackle the exact social issues these characters are defined by and built to explore when there’s CGI to throw around?

Then there’s the Mystique problem. Look, this is the X-Men, death here is a cold everywhere else, I get it. But despite working so hard to show every single character in jeopardy, Dark Phoenix ends with a single body in the ground and, as always, it’s a woman. This is the one place where the ghost of Last Stand rattles its chains and shrieks, as ladymurder and REVENGE! Become the sole motivators for Magneto and Hank to solve the problem by... committing even more ladymurder.

This is stupid.
It’s lazy.

It’s crushingly obvious and, much like the fact POC characters in these movies really shouldn’t start long books, it looks deliberate and flies in the face of everything the franchise notionally represents. I can forgive them not salting the Earth because Dark Phoenix was no doubt in development before the Disney/Fox  merger went through. But for a franchise that has always hit its lowest points by taking the obvious route, again, this feels pretty disingenuous. There was a chance to go out on a high note. They go out on a middle note at best.

So those are the problems. If you can get past them, there’s a fair bit to enjoy here. Kinberg joins Matthew Vaughan as one of the two directors this franchise has ever had who understands how to do multi-person fight scenes. The cast members who have things to do carry out all those things very well. Best of all there are actual emotional stakes, something which has attended guest lectures at the Xavier School but never really matriculated. It is far from perfect and it’s already getting critically slammed but that’s only partially deserved. Dark Phoenix does the job. It doesn’t do it brilliantly but it does a hell of a lot better than its immediate predecessor. As a closing note for the embattled, outmoded X-Men movies it’s absolutely fine. And that, honestly, is better than I dared hope for.


I'm also currently rewatching all the other X-Men movies and writing about them on the blog. Click through for Counting to X.
Yeah just...an IV is probably best. No...No no. The entire season. Yeah. PERFECT.

Booksmart

Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is the Class President, Valedictorian and soon-to-be youngest Supreme Court Justice in history if she sticks to the plan. Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is her best friend, newly out, passionately interested in every righteous cause. They're each other's right hand, the support system that's got them through school with their heads down and their eyes on the prize. Until Molly realizes that the kids who partied got into good schools too.

They wasted their time.

They were inefficient.

This cannot stand.

So, the night before graduation, they decide to have fun. By any means necessary.

Written by Emily Halperm, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silverman and directed in her debut by Olivia Wilde, Booksmart is a mic drop of a movie for everyone involved. It's been initially lauded as this generation's Superbad and that's pretty accurate. Booksmart is just as filthy and just as filled with epic incompetence as Superbad but it's closer, if anything, to last year's The Package. Both movies have an espresso shot of desperation to them, whether the characters are trying to save a friend's severed penis or have fun on one of the last nights they will have together. Both of them capture, perfectly, the crystallized scream of late end adolescence. One of them does so with 150,000% more dick jokes than the other, but the through line remains the same. So much so that The Package's Eduardo Franco has a memorable cameo here.

What makes Booksmart different is the way the movie manages to do three impossible things at once. First and foremost it's the story of a platonic but deep romance. Amy and Molly love one another completely and you can see why. Amy is Molly's rock, cautious where she kicks the door in and emotionally locked down where her best friend is an open wound. Molly organizes everything, running headlong into battle with everyone and everything to ensure she and her best friend get the future they deserve and the respect they're more than due. 

Then there's the way it's an absolutely off the shelf teen comedy seen through lenses we never see those movies through. Molly and Amy are every kid who ever got grades instead of beer and if the movie had rested on those particular laurels it would have been good enough. But the script is braver than that, showing us the entitlement of the outsider too. An early joke about how another girl in their class is called Triple A because of the 'roadside attention' she's given boys is re-framed later to be shown as the sexist, self-defeating weapon it is when Molly wields it. It's also, brilliantly, then flipped again and we find out the truth about the situation. This is a movie where nothing's easy and no one is a simple read. Molly and Amy are outsiders, sure, but that means they pingpong off countless other lives which are all complex enough to be stories in their own right. 

Finally, it's an absolutely no punches pulled examination of teen friendship. There's an argument the girls were always going to have which escalates in the most organic, realistic way I've ever seen. They go from good natured sniping to screaming at one another as the sound drops, Dan the Automator's soundtrack rises and Wilde's camera circles them. As it does so, we see countless smart phone lights come on as the girls are filmed. At the party, still outsiders.

And at the exact moment you think this is going to slide sideways into being a much more serious movie than it is, the next joke drops. Time and again, the only people more surprised than the audience are the girls. Wilde throws everything at them, from a cringe-inducing Lyft ride with their moonlighting High School Principal to Billie Lourd's maniacal serial partier, Gigi. The Party, the idea of the Party, is like a questing beast made of EDM and terrible wardrobe choices. Catching it doesn't solve the girl's problems, it just gives them new ones. Those often come in the form of dizzyingly charming interludes, including Molly's dance number with her crush and a fantastic scene where the girls are dosed and become convinced they're dolls. Feldstein and Dever hit every single beat out of the park and their double act is so effortlessly charming and funny you immediately want to watch another movie featuring them. They're the 21st Century's Affleck and Damon. Although I get the feeling they'd have much better tastes in back tattoos.

Booksmart, brilliantly, is still in theaters at something approaching times humans can see films. If you can see it, please do. It's hilarious, whip smart, filthy and one of my movies of the year.
I am SO CONFLICTED. On the one hand this seems to feature a space elevator(!), an actual lunar rover car chase/gun fight and a whole bunch of fun as hell astronaut gubbins. On the other 'Heart of Darkness! IN! SPAAAAAAAAAAAACE!' is the least interesting way they could have gone with this. It has my attention, but I'm not sure how happy I am about that.

Signal Boost

  • Shomarq, one of the best journalists in podcasting, has a Patreon. Follow them on twitter, help them out on Patreon if you can. They're amazing.
  • Afterlife Inc is one of the comics that brought me back to the field after years away. it's AMAZING work, I'm hoping to chat to the team here or on the blog soon and Volume 5 is kickstarting now.
  • Quietus is a tabletop RPG designed to tell stories that echo It Follows, Oculus, Hush and other intimate, melancholy horror. It's SO me, looks so great and I can't wait to see it finished. It's kickstarting now.
  • Sarah Gailey has a new book out. You need it, and all the ones that came before too.
  • This thread by Kayleigh Donaldson is not just a brilliant reaction to a lousy article but a perfect example of how it's possible to be a critic but still be open to positivity, especially in artists whose work you don't like. Which is a really weird way of saying it may have persuaded me to watch another Ansel Elgort, which, after Baby Driver, is quite an achievement.

Blue Spacesuits, Pink Spacesuits

So, now we've had a nice long time to read through all this and watch the three trailers above, let's talk about what they tell us about the current state of near-future, near space science fiction. This is a field I'm pretty invested in right now, for just over 65,000 reasons, and it's one I've been fond of all my life.  Which is why Lego is going to get even more of my money this year.

What I find most immediately attention grabbing here is that the past is a safe place. For All Mankind basks in the romantic after-glow of the Apollo program even as it posits a world where it came in second. It's an immensely savvy move, taking the ultimate American engineering achievement and doing the only thing that makes it even more of an underdog; having it lose. That leads to the subversive, fun elements we glimpse there. I'm pretty certain those female astronauts will turn out to be some variant of the Mercury 13. I'm also pretty sure we see a glimpse of Major Robert Lawrence. The space program, always a stalking horse for America's self image, re-imagined through adversity as something better. It's an incredibly compelling idea and a surprisingly easy sell given it's alternate history based around something still in living memory.  Plus it does look fun as Hell.

Then we get to Ad Astra and things, somehow, got both weirder and duller. Like I said further up, this looks for all the world like Heart of Darkness in space and while that's fun (Lunar rover chases?!) it's also apparently got an emotional core that seems like the lowest of low hanging fruit. It's early days and there's clearly lots to come but right now, it looks a lot like 'Handsome, brave, amazing astronaut risks all to save solar system from improbably evil father'. Which, when the improbably evil father has a lighstaber is fine. When it looks worryingly like he's got in the eyeliner, done a bad job of it and watched Blown Away on repeat there's cause for concern, Here we go again, as Whitesnake once sort of put it. Going down the only road male characters in movies ever seem to get, as they didn't once put it at all.

That brings us to Lucy in the Sky. Loosely based on a true story and the directorial debut of Noah Hawley, who does not know how to frame an image badly, it looks amazing. It also looks to tackle, head on, the issue every astronaut has faced to some extent; what happens when the mission is over. This has been an issue as long as we've sent people into space, with the sheer profundity of the experience defining the lives of those that go. When astronauts were test pilots, it was especially difficult because when you've reached the top of the pyramid, what do you do? What happens when you have nothing more to win? I'm honestly really excited to see this idea explored, and especially explored through a female lens. I'm willing to bet you'll be able to put this and Interstellar side by side and see some fascinatingly different perspectives on certain beats.

And yet, it is also a movie about a woman being too emotional to deal with space.

Each one of these projects looks brilliant. Each one of these projects has a downside. For All Mankind could so easily slip into jingoistic fan fiction. Ad Astra could have an utterly pat emotional core. Lucy in the Sky could just be about a woman who fell apart under the strain of her job. I doubt, and hope, that's the case but I feel like when you view them all like this it shows us their strengths and weaknesses as well as giving us a read on the current state of this sub-genre. From where I'm sitting, it's good news. That near future, near space SF is evolving, trying new things (And old things in new wrappers) and moving towards something very different. After all, books have already got there so it's about time TV and movies caught up.

And of course, here's my Ko-Fi.

Signing Off/Playing Out

Well that was a Week, huh? Congratulations, you got through it:) And you know what's great to celebrate a week in the books and/or the weekend?

Escape Artists podcasts!

Also because Social Media is the seventh sense humanity has and it may be what actually saves us, do pop along to the Instagram page of Team KennerStuart and say hi.

Finally, if you enjoyed this week's newsletter, why not throw some money in the tip jar? Think of it as buying me a coffee without having to worry about size, whipped cream, sprinkles or anything else. Actually never worry about that stuff with me, gets in the way of the coffee

Pace yourself this week, okay? And take some time to be kind to yourself too. We've all earned that, believe me. Playing us out is 'Full Star' from the Booksmart soundtrack which sounds a lot like the music that plays in my head all the time anyway. Check it out and after you do, enjoy the weekend, because this?
Is a Full Lid.
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Agathon Towers · Cheapside Road · Reading, Berkshire RG1 7AG · United Kingdom

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