Movies: Stalker, Wreck-It Ralph
TV: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (season three)
Games: The Room Three and The Room: Old Sins; Old Man's Journey, Monument Valley 2, Framed 2, and Tengami
The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
This is Mr. Turton's debut novel from 2019, an Agatha-Christie-style mystery novel in which a man with amnesia struggles to unravel a murder.
As this is a mystery, I will tread lightly and avoid spoilers (even the amazon page is full of spoilers). Generally we'll dive deeper into the book as we go, and I'll provide ample content warnings.
First, we'll discuss this novel with no spoilers at all. The simplest thing I can say about it is "it's my favorite novel I've read in years; go out and read it".
As a mystery novel, it's exceptional. Like me, Mr. Turton wasted his youth reading Agatha Christie novels, and he absolutely digs into the setting. This is very clearly a down-at-the-heels English manor between the wars, and you can smell the damp, musty air. But it's especially fascinating to see this setting from a book from 201x. Mr. Turton can point out the ways that this world is fundamentally unjust and cruel — ways that a contemporary author would have been blind to, and which a more hagiographic work (think Downton Abbey) would busily paper over.
It's kind of sickening that this is his debut novel, because Mr. Turton is already writing gorgeous prose and deep, nuanced characters — working on a level that, frankly, most of the genre's Golden-Age exemplars couldn't hack. I still can't get over "'What do you mean?' she asked, her voice hurdling an entire octave," and have carefully squirreled it away for later use. He does a fine (and TV-like) job of giving us a clear, sharp character — say, a wheezy, rich, corpulent banker — and adding nuance, detail, and empathy as he goes on.
The mechanisms of the mystery and its solution are very satisfying. There's a strong sense of "fair play", in the mystery-writing sense, here. I figured out nothing ahead of time, but I'm convinced that, if you read the novel slowly, take notes, and take breaks between chapters to think really hard about things, you can figure out a lot of what happened at Blackheath Manor before the closing pages.
If you're a mystery enthusiast, reading this is a no-brainer.
Now, I must dive in a bit more into how the story unfolds. If you want only the gentlest hint about what I'm getting into, click this link. To skip ahead to the next review, click here.
So obviously there's more going on here than just solving a mystery in an English manor.
But it's damned impressive *how* this additional story layer plays out. Mr. Turton is commendably patient. He lets maybe eighty pages pan out before revealing *anything* is amiss. And even then... he waits. It's almost like Death Note, the way it slowly reveals another rule to how this magical universe works, and then another, and then another. But nothing here feels arbitrary — we're never adding arbitrary complications, but just diving deeper and deeper into the first complication we see. Basically it's like you find out the original twist, and then ask "but what about...?" and then that's the next piece of information you get.
And now let's just talk about the bravura piece of logistics Mr. Turton has pulled off. Apparently this required three months of staring at maps, timetables, and eventually a giant spreadsheet that listed each character's activities for each of 43,200 two-minute periods across the day. And on some level you're just gobsmacked that it's working at all, with the hosts swooping in and out of each other's stories, time-loop paradoxes spinning out every which way, and the 'normal' characters in his orbit barely keeping up. And somehow the basic structure of a mystery novel is still there. We gradually get one clue after another. We gradually untangle some superficial-level subterfuge, and then some deeper secrets. And Mr. Turton arranges the actual murder so that it might be possible to save the murder victim, even though everybody sees it plain as day.
But yet, there's more. A lesser author would just throw in this conceit — he's going to Quantum Leap through the day as different people — and leave it at that. The protagonist would be mildly confused by his condition, but work diligently to solve the mystery and not think much about it. Instead, Mr. Turton follows this conceit where it leads, into surprisingly affecting and metaphysical territory. The hero feels steady body dysmorphia through the whole story. He wonders constantly what "he" even is, if it's so easy to drop him off into one person, and then another, and then another.
Any other author would just solve the mystery and be done with it. The hero would solve the murder, he'd jet out of Blackheath, and the story would fade to black. And let's be clear — that's a valid story choice. One of the most impressive things about Groundhog Day, for example, is that the movie doesn't care about *why* Phil Connors is resetting.
But with Groundhog Day, the entire story is *about* Phil growing as a person, so any "outer story" is unnecessary. In this novel, that inner story is just solving a murder — and a murder the hero has no personal stakes in. So the book uses this outer story — "solving the mystery" of why the hero came to Blackheath in the first place — to create a surprisingly moving emotional grounding for the whodunnit. Solving what happened at Blackheath isn't just important because murder is bad and justice is good — it's important because it finishes a redemptive character arc that spans thousands of Blackheath iterations.
This is a gorgeous novel. I'm giddy that a streaming service has bought the development rights.¹ And again, everyone should read it.
This is the Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film about a 'stalker', a criminal who ventures illegally into "The Zone", a region in Russia that, after a brief alien visit, contains dangerous and lucrative objects. It's an adaptation of the science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic
I did not enjoy Stalker, but I'm glad I watched it.
It satisfied my curiosity ("how *would* you adapt Roadside Picnic?") and it let me experience something markedly different from my usual movie fare. And it *is* different. For starters, Tarkovsky's work is slow — and, for lack of a better term, *confidently* slow, like modern wide-release movies are manic with flopsweat by comparison. It serves the material well here, creating the eerie stillness of the Zone, and leaving room for pensive, philosophical discussions.
And the setting itself is distinctive and memorable — both the Zone itself, with its peaceful decay and yet the sense that something is 'off' about the place, and the nearby city, decrepit, hopeless, and under a severe government lockdown.
And yet, I felt like I could never connect to the material. Those philosophical arguments between the stalker and his guests usually left me sort of 'afloat', like there were too many unknown antecedents and thus I didn't know what anyone was talking about. And I felt like I was watching a lot of arguments between dudes trying to prove themselves to be the most angsty and indifferent to life — which is, I guess, how you perform masculinity in some subcultures.
For now, I'll go back to safer, more popular work. But I'm glad I spent a few hours out of my comfort zone.
Wreck-It Ralph is the 2012 computer-animated adventure set in the world of retro video games. It follows the villain of a fictional 80s coin-op game who winds up having to fight off a threat to his entire arcade.
This is a really solid, three-star movie. And in a way, I applaud the film's lack of ambition. I'm sure they elevator-pitched this as "Toy Story, but with retro games", and every decision that followed was just the simplest, most straightforward story choice for a movie set in that world. Who's the hero? A classic 80s coin-op villain, trying to do good. Great! You get your story arc right there: his first attempt will be kind of stupid and superficial, because he doesn't really know what heroism is; he'll get some relationships worth fighting for; then he'll do something genuinely heroic at the end.
Casting John C. Reilly in the main role is a very good choice, but not a crazy surprise, really — it's a good way to undercut the "villain" nature of the character and lean into a "lovable lunk" character design.
And the story itself works with straightforward efficiency. We see the "and every day" part of Ralph's life. After getting shut out of the game's 30ᵗʰ-anniversary party, he decides to go on a quest to become a hero — it's not the most pressing or dramatic inciting incident, but it works. And we sort of run from there. There aren't any wasted elements. They set up a couple of nice twists to the story, and some tidy opportunities for Ralph to use his wrecking skills for good.
And they indulge themselves with a love story. I guess they figured if Ralph didn't have a love story, they would shoehorn one in elsewhere. And honestly, that was charming, pleasant, and again, straightforward — a pretty typical three-event plotline where Sergeant Calhoun learns to love again after previous trauma. But mainly it was nice to see a love story for cishet types (a proud warrior lady and a genial handyman) that don't usually get to have them — and they don't even really make a joke of the relationship itself, like most lesser comedies would. It was a weird moment of "wow, not only are we not telling love stories for LGBTQ audiences, we're only serving a tiny and conventional subset of the cishet crowd." So good on them for that.
I feel like I'm damning the movie with faint praise here, and that's not my intent. Telling a simple story well is hard, and telling a simple story well is rewarding. Setting up the twists they trigger at the end is hard. Creating a big action scenario with a ticking clock where Ralph is the only one who can save the day is hard. And the end result is, this is a surprisingly affecting movie. The emotional beats land, to the point that I found myself caring about the small character moments much more than the big "wow" animation effects.
So it's a simple, fun movie. The zillions of game references are cute. And if, in the end, it doesn't *mean* a lot, thematically, that's okay.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (season three)
This is the third season of Rachel Bloom's musical comedy about a lawyer who moves to California to pursue her childhood crush.
It feels like this third season alternates between two shows. One of them is a harrowing, closely-observed, and ultimately warm and empathetic story about mental illness. And the other is... not. It's more a grab bag of forgettable B-stories that fill out the running time. Rebecca facing and grappling with her mental illness is *easily* the best story this show has told so far. But it's a dark, dark story — so it makes sense that they try to leaven it with lighter, sillier, less consequential work.
The contrast was really jarring. It's a wide gap between, say, Rebecca's spiral leading to a suicide attempt — and actually, let's stop there for a moment. Seeing how this show treated suicide made me retroactively angry at other depictions I've seen. This made me see that other shows have, for lack of a better word, fetishized suicide attempts. Suicide typically becomes this trippy, Very Important ceremony, in which the director lets all their film-school overreach have free rein. From what I hear about 13 Reasons Why, some shows even add a veneer of disgusting desirability to the act. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the first depictions I've seen that felt honest: it's somebody hopeless, at the absolute end of their rope, who's just tired and, in that moment, wants out. And watching it play out is just unbearably sad.
And everything after that, again, feels honest and drawn from life. The moment that killed me was Rebecca coming to in the hospital room, focusing on her best friend, and immediately saying, "I'm sorry." With her friends' heightened responses, the show edged back towards more straightforward comedy, but even those responses felt honest and accurate. And I love how the overall plot tilts towards "Rebecca realizes she has a problem, and then the really, really, *really* hard work begins."
The whole thing feels like one of the most elaborate examples I've seen of (please someone at TV Tropes invent a better term for this) a "comedy rugpull" — a story where you're watching a classic comedic story, a well-worn structure you've seen hundreds of times, and then suddenly reveals how realistic characters with emotional depth would function in this world.² ³ In a way, the whole series feels like this process — we start with a classic RomCom trope, of someone getting up to all sorts of clever shenanigans to pursue the love interest, but from the start, it's arch and heightened, the music making it all a little "something is Not Right here".⁴
It felt like season one did the most "let's just have wacky romcom adventures", even as it revealed how messed-up this whole thing was. And now here at season three it's looking you in the eye and telling you, "A protagonist who does these things has a serious mental illness. Now we're going to look at this without flinching." And the fact that nobody else on TV is doing this — here I sneer at Legion for using mental illness mainly for plot churn — means you can tell really straightforward, honest stories that nobody has seen before.⁵
So that's your A-story for any given week. Meanwhile, in the B-plot, you've got Tim singing a Les Mis-style number about how he can't bring his wife to orgasm. And you're thinking, "Okay, fine, I'll lightly pay attention to this 'til it's time for the *real* story to come back into view. It feels like the whole writers' room is collectively shrugging, wincing, and spitballing a bunch of story threads, not because it's the natural arc for the secondary characters, and not because anyone in the room actually cares that (say) Paula meets her teenage boyfriend, but just because, after twenty-odd episodes, they're just storylines they haven't yet exhausted.
And yet, this season is a must-see. Even the dilatory B-plots have some killer songs ("The First Penis I Saw" is the ABBA/Fountains of Wayne earworm you didn't know you needed), and the A-story is a marvel that you owe it to yourself to seek out.
The Room Three and The Room: Old Sins
These are the third and fourth games of the Room series of games, tablet-based games in which you have to physically operate and unlock elaborate puzzle boxes. (I reviewed the first two games here.)
It's interesting, playing these two games, in that at this point, I pretty much know how these games operate. I practically have a checklist of things to do when presented with any new situation: look everywhere, try to click on everything, try to manipulate every object I encounter in every way I can think of, keep a mental checklist of unsolved puzzles so that when I find a new item I can immediately try it on every one of them.
It means that a lot of the gameplay is more like 'turning the crank' than it is lateral thinking — which is a shame, because they really do hit a high point with creating a variety of puzzles that require a variety of solutions. The Room Three pulls the "hide the final puzzles in plain sight at the start of the game" trick — I'm only just now realizing what a common trope this is in modern puzzle games — and does it admirably, creating a satisfying sense of "oh, *this* is what I was supposed to be doing the whole time." And Old Sins does a phenomenal job of making its individual "puzzle rooms" interrelated, such that you have to solve something in the kitchen to make something else solvable in the 'weird objects' room, and so on.
They continue to deliver on tone, creating more elaborate canvases for creepy Lovecraftian dread. Its sense of time is somewhat displaced — I think they're aiming for the 1920s, but they're clearly bringing in some objects that are much older. (I think I saw several artifacts the London-based developers cribbed from at the British Museum.) But it does a good job of being steadily creepy, and implying, now, a larger world of malevolent creepiness.
As for the storytelling: you kind of want to pat the storytelling on the head and tell it it's trying really hard and isn't that the important thing? The Room Three features a mysterious "Craftsman", briefly seen in a shadowy vault surrounded by black tentacles, who keeps promising you that you're both going to do a really cool ceremony later and it'll be really rewarding for you. At which point, I'm thinking, "Okay... is the plot twist that he's *not* going to kill me? 'cos he's totally going to kill me." The game has multiple endings, and the hardest-to-reach ending is one of the least satisfying moments I've had in gaming in years.
Old Sins makes an even more noble effort, detailing a story about a marriage falling apart because the husband is working with a sample of "the null element", which is of course, love. No. It's a blobby thing that recurs throughout the series that (1) looks ominous and (2) does whatever the game needs it to do.⁶ And writing out the slugline like that, Old Sins *sounds* like a good story. But really, that's the whole thing. You read letters where their marriage is getting worse, and none of it's better than what you or I could dash off in a day or two. Then at the end there's an arbitrary plot twist that is... unsettling, I'll grant it, but also arbitrary and meaningless.
Basically, these games are the canonical example of "great puzzles — just ignore the story". (See also: The Talos Principle.)
Old Man's Journey, Monument Valley 2, Framed 2, and Tengami
Yeah, I played a lot of games while I was on vacation. I wanted to describe all four of these together because they all feel like a new genre that I wasn't really aware of before. They are all (1) short games with (2) striking and unique design work, both with audio and graphics, and (3) a unique play mechanic.
To run down the list: Old Man's Journey is about distorting the various layers of a landscape to make it traversable; Monument Valley 2, like the original, has you shifting architectural elements in an Escher-like universe; Framed 2 is a bit like Gorogoa, except it has you move comic panels around a screen to make the story turn out well; and Tengami is manipulating elaborate pop-up books.
If we overlook Monument Valley 2's similarity to the original, each of these mechanics is completely novel, and you have a satisfying, wrong-footed period of "wait, how do I even play this?" And none of these games overstay their welcome — you explore more and more complicated variations on the mechanic and then you're out. Framed 2 is especially impressive on the "simple mechanic/complicated puzzle" axis — by the end of it you're basically solving complicated programming puzzles centered around elaborate state machines.
But the real surprise here, for me, is the storytelling. These tell simple stories but do so exceptionally well. Both the endings of Old Man's Journey and Monument Valley 2 moved me to tears — which is all the more impressive, because the storytelling in Old Man's Journey is just a series of photographs, and the storytelling in Monument Valley 2 just has a couple of stick figures on an adventure. Even Framed 2, while it lacks real emotional investment, does tell a fine little spy story with its own bit of heartbreak.
It was fascinating to play these after the Room games. I went from "well, maybe games just aren't a good medium for storytelling" to, "nope, nope, the Room games are just crap at this."
And the art design was brilliant for creating individual worlds: Old Man's Journey has its hand-drawn landscapes; Monument Valley 2 has its austere, isometric Escher constructions; Framed 2 has its snazzy spy comics; and Tengami has its delicate papercraft shrines. Each one has an excellent score to match.
I don't know if I really have much more to *say* about this, beyond that I'm happy this format exists. I'm glad tablet games are exploring "the four-ish-hour puzzler", where we hit on some new play mechanic and hash out a solid set of engaging variations on it. And I'm ecstatic to see the design work going into tablet puzzlers — when AAA gaming is more and more a cesspit of blandly photorealistic sports and jingoistic dirt-strewn landscape shooters, it's lovely to see creativity be a little less shackled in smaller projects.
Please send recommendations for more of these sorts of games my way!
For next week: Black Swan is my next DVD, and I'm watching season four of Veronica Mars (please no spoilers). I'm reading some Spanish-language Marvel comics and listening to another audiocourse about medicine.
¹ Further seasons with new cases that are not centered on white dudes could be fascinating.
² My favorite concise example is in Community, where Dean Pelton, in one of his ridiculous outfits, suddenly says, dispirited, "What am I doing? I have to go to the bank today."
³ Theoretically dramas can pull this move as well — I like to think of Hamlet as a 'classic revenge plot' that asks, "Wait, what would you *really* do if the ghost of your dad showed up and told you to start murdering people?"
⁴ I've talked to some viewers who gave up quickly on the show, thinking it wasn't properly committed to being a straight romantic comedy.
⁵ ... which is basically like 'unobtainium' for TV writers.
⁶ Usually: compelling people to build puzzle boxes for you to solve.