Monthly Archives: February 2006

The Dark Wing, Walter F. Hunt

Tor, 2001, 468 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34069-0

[January 2007: I wrote the following while cranky. This is one of those reviews that tell you more about the reviewer than the work being discussed. While I stand behind my disappointment with the novel, I acknowledge that the sarcastic riffs below are unfair to the author.]

Now here’s an interesting achievement: A military Science Fiction novel that isn’t, and a book with plenty of annoyances that somehow kept my interest until its increasingly dull ending. I still wonder how that happened.

At first glance, Walter F. Hunt’s The Dark Wing is straight-up military SF with all the obvious clichés of the sub-genre: Bad aliens, imperial government, military heroes, big space navies and so on. Comparisons with the Honor Harrington series are too obvious: It took an entire sub-genre to raise this novel, and at first there isn’t much to distinguish it from countless other run-of-the-mill SF adventures.

The imperial system of government is particularly grating, especially given how it seems to accompany every single “space navy” series: To heck with representative democracy! One yearns for Victorian England all over again as the good old macho way of fighting wars. But that’s also lazy wordbuilding: Why bother with the complex accountability mechanisms build into our modern governance systems when it’s much, much easier to set up an emperor thanks to some nebulous historical event, and give that emperor a big shiny navy to play with? No one will be surprised to learn that right-wing politics are also featured as a necessary plot point: As The Dark Wing begins, those pesky unreasonable aliens have just invaded human space again, thanks to the wussy “peace agreements” signed by the cowardly hippie politicians, clearly showing that the only good alien is a dead alien. This is familiar to the point on contemptuousness, especially when an admiral is tasked with the final solution: complete xenocide to get rid of the problem. Hey, it’s the only way to be sure.

But The Dark Wing is a long book. A very long book. Eventually, most of the novel’s early assumptions are overturned. The human campaign of extermination against the aliens, for instance, is entirely too successful, leading the aliens to believe that a long-held prophecy is taking shape. (…sigh… what is it with those alien prophecies in SF? Heck, what is it with those nice square alien monolithic societies in which pretty much every single alien believes the same thing, without any differences in sub-culture, age or education?) Before you know it, the human characters have to play nice so that the entire alien race (no kidding: the entire alien race) don’t commit ritual suicide out of dishonoured spite.

More alien characters also mean more alien passages with nouns that seem randomly pecked on the keyboard. I often speed-read those passages and this habit didn’t do me any harm in The Dark Wing, where dozens of pages are wasted on things that could be summarized far more interestingly from the human point of view. (I call it the italics skip: If it’s longer than two or three lines and it’s in italics, chances are that it’s not useful material, probably duplicates the human-side information and can thus be skimmed with minimal loss of context.)

Of course, the more the aliens become familiar, the less the author will be willing to blast the living smithereens out of them. And in an unusual switch from my usual goody-goody yearnings, I ended up mourning this lack of xenocide. I’ve read enough stories in the past in which big bad aliens suddenly become our fuzzy friends that I’m in the market for a novel that promises and delivers a full, undiluted, even-the-alien-dogs-and-chickens massacre. If they’re so bad, let them stay bad and let’s indulge in our basest instinct of extermination. Worked against the Neanderthals, I believe: let’s try it again.

(Oh yes, I’m being inconsistent in the very same review. Try it; it’s pure joy.)

To heck with Ender’s guilt, to heck with my objections to standard military SF: Let’s kill some bugs. But then the novel has this wonderful moment in which part of the rug is pulled under our feet, and all we’re left wondering is What, what? What just happened here? How is that possible? Lighting-fast reflexes of deduction honed by years of reading SF quickly allow us to deduce that there’s a third player in this game, one pulling off a neat game of solitaire with humans and aliens as puppets. This is also the point where The Dark Wing switches gears from military to mystical –not a switch that I fully endorse (I use “mystical” as a reliable synonym for “gibberish”), but one that certainly realigns the novel in another direction.

But that direction is to be found in another novel, because for all of the book’s 450+ pages, its latter half grinds to an anticlimactic halt. It all becomes setup not just for another volume, but for three more books in a series that may or may not end there. At this point, I just don’t know if I’m tempted to go further. The story so far has too many twists and turns to dismiss out of hand. But the annoyances are real (if contradictory) and I doubt that they’ll smooth over in the course of a four book series. What little I’ve read about the other books doesn’t inspire confidence either. I suppose I’ll let the power of used book sales guide me in making a decision…

The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi

Tor, 2006, 317 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31502-5

Writer/blogger John Scalzi made quite a splash in early 2005 with the release of Old Man’s War, a straight-up military Science Fiction novel that went on to very successful sales and favourable critical acclaim. Barely a year later, the sequel The Ghost Brigades is already available on bookstore shelves, raising all sorts of questions about Scalzi’s superhuman writing skills.

Not the least of which is “how does he manage to keep it up?” Old Man’s War wasn’t cutting-edge SF, but it could boast of compulsively readable prose and a roaring rhythm. At a time where unputdownable is as overused as it’s ungrammatical, Scalzi is the real deal: someone who can deliver a fast, fun SF story that remains accessible and doesn’t take you for an idiot. With Old Man’s War, he showed that he could do it once; with The Ghost Brigades, he proves that he can do it again.

Set in the same universe as Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades takes a step deeper into the inner workings of the Colonial Defence Forces first introduced in the earlier book. A minor character gets a more substantial supporting part here, though the hero is entirely new in more ways than one: Jared Dirac is a force-grown clone, originally meant for a top-secret imprinting experiment, but then recycled in the CDF’s special forces . Meant to be someone else, he has to confront who he’s supposed to become.

While The Ghost Brigades can’t duplicate the delicious feeling of discovery that so characterized Old Man’s War (this time, we’re familiar with the universe and with Scalzi himself), it’s easily just as good in terms of narrative efficiency: Jared’s training is less military than social, and his subsequent combat adventures are enhanced by a different personal dimension than Old Man’s War‘s John Perry. Scalzi is skilled in quickly raising a number of issues related to his chosen theme of identity and consciousness: while some of them will feel old-hat to a number of veteran SF readers, they’re discussed so briefly that they don’t linger too long..

As is the case with nearly all of Scalzi’s writing to date (and here I’m lumping together his fiction alongside things like his blog and The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies), the prose is crystal-clear. Moments of humour are well-handled, along with a number of sly reversals —such as a good part of the first chapter. But don’t think that The Ghost Brigade is one big funny romp: One of the most satisfying aspects of the book is how it explores the darker side of the series’ universe, with its unforgiving realities (ie; let’s kill them before they kill us) and complicated politics. Doubts are raised as to the righteousness of the CDF (and never quite dismissed), simultaneously taking in account some of my problems with Old Man’s War and showing the way toward a third volume in the series.

Scalzi shows a good grasp of the genre’s gadgets and conventions, acknowledging a number of authors here and there while manipulating techno-military jargon with fluid ease. It’s important to note that Scalzi, while immensely respectful of the military, doesn’t share the rigid right-wing politics of many military SF writers: As a result, his fiction is filled with nuances and caveats that simply make it more interesting to read. Alternatives are discussed and characters genuinely anguish over their actions. As a result, even liberals come to understand when it’s time to lock up any doubts and fire at full automatic.

As good as it is, The Ghost Brigades comes with a few caveats: It is a bit on the thin side and may be more appropriate as a paperback than a full-price hardcover. As entertaining as it is, it also raises an interesting question: When will Scalzi try his hand at a more ambitious project? As coldbloodedly professional as he appears to be in his approach to his career, I doubt that he will suddenly drop everything else to produce an insanely ambitious 500-page work of art ready to challenge, say, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. But I wonder. I wonder because I’ve seen what he’s capable of doing (twice) and I can’t wait to see him tackle bigger and better things.

The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold

Harper Torch, 2001, 502 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-81860-4

I approached Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion by reminding myself of the old conundrum about an irresistible force encountering an immovable object. Regular readers know that I’m not a fan of generic fantasy. Books in that genre first have to convince me to overcome my usual prejudices and only then can they start being evaluated on their own merits. On the other hand there’s Lois McMaster Bujold, who has rarely written something I haven’t liked. Even her most ordinary efforts, like Diplomatic Immunity, are comfortably above the average SF novel. She masters characterization like few others and her prose style is so smooth as to be irresistible.

And yet, most of her fiction output has been set in the “Miles Vorkosigan” SF universe. How would she do in a brand-new setting? While The Curse of Chalion is not her first foray in full-length fantasy (her little-known novel The Spirit Ring claims that honour), it seemed to mark not just a change of genre, but a new step in her career. (From Baen, she switched to Harper Collins for this novel and all latter ones; plans to return to Baen and Miles Vorkosigan, are as of yet unknown). So how did she do? How did I do?

Turn out that the immovable object was moved: The Curse of Chalion easily overcame my usual objections against fantasy in mere pages, and got better as it continued. It starts and ends with great characters; the rest naturally takes care of itself.

The standout hero of this story is Cazaril, an experienced warrior with plenty of scars: Abandoned by his own side, he returns to familiar grounds as the story opens, trying to find a new place for himself with scarcely nothing more than rags on his back. Fortunately (and “fortunately” is a word that plays heavily in a story dominated by gods), he still has a few friends: Before long, he finds himself assigned to be secretary-tutor to a princess. But there is a reason why his own side left him rotting in a foreign country: secrets that influential people still don’t want made public…

For its first half, The Curse of Chalion isn’t much more than palace intrigue with fantasy trappings. I write this as if it’s a bad thing, but it means a compulsively readable thriller thanks to Bujold’s capable hands. Cazaril is many things, but he is first a dependable character: The novel revolves around him (indeed, he’s the only viewpoint character) because he’s such a bedrock of common sense. Strong, battered, seasoned to the point of flippancy against impossible odds, he makes his choices and sticks to them whatever the consequences. It’s page-turning stuff, even if the “fantasy” label seems a bit weak.

And then something quite wonderful happens, turning the entire novel into something else. It’s not really a twist given how we don’t learn anything that overturns previous assumptions. But The Curse of Chalion suddenly delves far more deeply into the nature of its mythology, with very real religions and associated magical powers. Cazaril himself is transformed by this turning point, elevated to a position that is at odds with everything he’s known this far. And yet, he keeps pushing back, always fighting for what he swore to do. Romantic themes are gradually weaved into the story, alongside some more intrigue and high-level strategy. It ends as you may wish for, with a battle and a triumph.

Still, I remains of two minds about the book’s (over)use of chance and coincidence as plot drivers. On one hand, it becomes a real thematic element of the novel’s meditation over the role of gods in a world where their influence cannot be denied. What are mortals but mere puppets? On another hand, some of the plot developments still stretch credulity and do knock some structural supports out of the story. On yet another hand, most of those coincidences would have been perfectly fine in a novel twice its length showing the details preceding The Curse of Chalion… but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would have enjoyed reading it all. In the end, it’s better to nod along and consider all of it as divine intervention.

What’s not so attributable to divine intervention, however, is Bujold’s gift for characters and effortless prose. The Curse of Chalion is professional-level fantasy, attractive to even non-fans of the genre. In the age-old question, we now know that irresistible is stronger than immovable.

When A Stranger Calls (2006)

(In theaters, February 2006) Some movies don’t have a reason for existing, and this is one of them. A limp thriller that takes far too long to get to the point and then does nothing with it, When A Stranger Calls is mass-produced entertainment for the undemanding teenage audiences. Don’t worry, though; even the stupidest teenager won’t be fooled by this slick and lifeless rehash of a punchy urban legend. Audiences nowadays are familiar with the “…inside the house!” punchline, and making them wait 65 minutes for it is just another mark of incompetence in a long list of problems for this film. Director Simon West has done some acceptable work before (Con Air, The General’s Daughter), but even a good grasp of technical fundamentals can’t mask the lack of thrills in this thriller. While the set design is fabulous (When A Stranger Calls is yet another film where the house is more interesting than all the characters put together) the rest is so obvious that audiences are constantly smarter than the screenwriter. The discovery of an underwater corpse is more likely to evoke a sense of expectations fulfilled than anything approaching horror. Don’t worry if you’re reading this and can’t remember even hearing about this remake: given how it failed to find a reason to exist, how can it even find a way to aspire to posterity?

On, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2001, 388 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07177-X

What little that I’ve read of Adam Robert’s fiction so far has been heavy with two distinguishing characteristics. First; some gentle stylistic exploration (the implicit ur-narrator in Stone and Salt, for instance) and second; a thirst for world-building. While On doesn’t do much in terms of stylistic experimentation, it’s certainly side-heavy with one strange environment.

In young protagonist Tighe’s life, everything revolves around the Wall. The Wall on whose ledges he and his village live, seeing the sun ascend all day long, not knowing much about what’s above, below or to the side of them. Gravity is paramount, especially when cattle (or people) fall off the ledges. This is not a prosperous life: humanity, in this novel, has been reduced to subsistence living, clustered in theocratic tribes. Tighe is supposed to be quasi-royalty in this village, but the first few chapter only show us a teenager unable to fit in a group that can’t afford secrets or dissent. Perhaps inevitably, he comes to fall off the edge of the Wall.

And so his picaresque adventure begins. Miraculously saved from a hard landing lower down the Wall, he heals and is then sent off to war, soldier in an army bigger than he could ever imagine. Through his adventures, we come to understand the world, discover its secrets and go through a number of most excellent adventures. Precariousness, Adams tells us in an accompanying note, is the keyword of this novel: Tighe’s position is never secure, never stable, never comfortable. He is thrown from an adventure to the other: few of his companions stick around for more than a few pages. Many die horribly.

I wouldn’t so far as to say that world-building is one of Science Fiction’s unique pleasures (Fantasy does it too, in addition to countless historical novels, or even stories set in unfamiliar societies), but On certainly plays the game with a lot of energy: You get used, eventually, to a vertical world and what it implies. This being said, I was never particularly convinced by elements of the basic premise, despite a laborious technical appendix detailing the how and why of On‘s particular situation. (In particular, I kept wondering where water would come from: On horizontal worlds like ours, aquifers are replenished by gravity, which just isn’t possible in On.) Vertical worlds aren’t completely new (K.W. Jeter’s Farewell Horizontal comes to mind, for instance, though that was set on an artificial environment where verticality definitely wasn’t normality), but they have rarely been as all-encompassing as this one. Despite my resistance to stories set in primitive settings, I actually went along with the ride, oohing and aahing whenever Adams wished.

It helps that Adams is a slick professional whose prose clicks effortlessly. There is good forward momentum, and a number of very good scenes: I’m still quite creeped out by a sequence in which one of Tighe’s friend is eaten alive by a Very Large Bug. Sure, On often has the disconnected feel of a novel made out of various vignettes, but it’s reasonably fun to read and seems to be heading somewhere. The prose is uncluttered and it’s almost short enough to avoid overstaying its welcome.

Almost, I said. It may be just a bit too short and leading a bit too far, in fact: the last fifty pages turn into a very different story, one that starts, then stops, then starts again. The last chapter has a curiously unfinished feel to it, almost as if we’d reached the end of the book but not the story. It’s a arguable choice given how the rest of Tighe’s adventures also carry this unfinished feel, but it still feels incomplete. Maybe even silly, if you look at it the wrong way.

This ambivalence may serve to explain how I’m left neither disappointed nor impressed by the novel. Original premise aside, it’s a competent story that is well-handled without any pyrotechnics. Pure mid-list SF, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But the lack of stylistic flourishes makes me yearn for Adams’ other efforts. Maybe Polystom, the next one on my list, will be more ambitious.

Walk The Line (2005)

(In theaters, February 2006) Oh yawn, you may say at first glance: Another musical biography in which the hero abuses substances and sleeps with too many women. Cue the childhood flashbacks, the musical number, the early touring recreation, the celebrity cameos, the rise to glory, the detox. What usually gets left by the wayside is the whole musician angle: why do these people choose to be musicians? What makes them tick? In the case of Johnny Cash, the question is more than academic, given how he portrayed himself as an outlaw despite a tepid personal background. This aspect of the man, unfortunately, takes a back seat to the drugs and adultery. But the usual caveats aside, when Walk The Line clicks, it does so enjoyably: The musical numbers are fit to leave you humming Cash tunes for a few days (with a particular nod toward “Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire”), and there’s a fabulous fifteen minutes sequence in which Cash shares a tour with other budding superstars such as Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and (if I caught that moment correctly), Elvis Presley. (Can you imagine seeing such a show?) The early rockabilly stuff is pure toe-tapping enjoyment, and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is fabulous. Then the film slides into a more conventional self-destructive spiral interrupted in time for a graceful climactic salvation. Eh; I’d rather learn more about Johnny Cash than just the usual dramatic arc.

Transamerica (2005)

(In theaters, February 2006) The rather silly quest to see every single Oscar-nominated film of the year can lead to some unusual situations, and so that’s how I found myself, five minutes into Transamerica, wondering if I’d ever make it to the end of the film. Felicia Huffman may turn in a fabulous performance as a pre-op transsexual (a woman playing a man playing a woman, to be crude about it), but her character starts out as one of the most pitiful and unlikable character of the year. Things don’t really start getting any better as we meet her son, a small time junkie teen prostitute whom she takes on a road trip from New York to California. Uncomfortable situations follow one another in picaresque fashion mixed with a strong blend of low-budget griminess. Fortunately, the movie started to work just as I was contemplating the EXIT sign with some interest. The protagonist finally exhibits a few likable qualities and the humour emerges to the forefront. By the end of the film, starting from its dysfunctional-family third act, it’s easy to feel a rough sympathy for all characters. The film redeems itself right before the credits, leaving us with a positive impression despite the early rough going. Not a transcendentally moving film, but it eventually comes together: I’m glad I stayed for the entire thing.

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2007) I almost hated this film in theatres, but I must say that it plays a lot better on DVD. Knowing where the story is going frees up the comedic elements of the film, and the director’s commentary is truly interesting to hear as it details the ways a low-budget film is made, and what elements went into the conception of the film. This hasn’t suddenly sprung up to the top of any of my lists, but I now carry a much fonder impression of it than before.

Running Scared (2006)

(In theaters, February 2006) This film is trash from beginning to end and I loved it. Seemingly written by an European screenwriter whose only understanding of America comes from true-crime stories and Tarantino films, Running Scared drops us in a pocket universe of roughly twenty awful people who never, ever sleep as their destinies clash on a night where a stolen gun is the object of all desires –and the root of all evil. Nice description, but even I don’t believe it: it’s easier to see this as an exercise in style, loosely hung together with some of the most outrageous writing in recent memory. Gun-runners, killer couples, child abusers, sadistic hockey players and two kinds of mafias abound in this dark fairy tale: even a chance slip into a van to avoid danger bring a character to horrors scarcely imaginable. It works only because the execution is as wild as the script, with plenty of delicious shots to keep things hopping. The film is as manipulative as it’s exhilarating, reaching for Domino-style excess well after it has pummelled its viewers in insensibility. There is a particularly affecting scene involving snuff-making pedo-serial killers (no less) that is unbelievably preposterous, yet gripping even as you realize you’re being played. It’s easy to dismiss this film as nothing more than a self-indulgent mess, but it’s a lot more fun to go along with the ride and whoop it up as the atrocious coincidences and the impossible twists just keep piling on. Throw a challenge at the film: dare it to lose you. I may be a minority of one on this, but I would rather be prodded by a bad film than bored by a good one. Running Scared certainly won’t be for everyone; I can only hope you’ll be one of the lucky few who get the joke.

The Producers (2005)

(In theaters, February 2006) A triumphant return to the old-style movie musical comedy without any of the trappings that made Moulin Rouge! or Chicago so distinctive, The Producers‘ post-modernism is derived solely from its tortuous history as a movie adaptation of a musical from a film lampooning musicals. Everything about this film is practised, with even Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane reprising their Broadway roles. Though the pratfalls and asides must have been considerably more effective in a live setting, this film does carry over an effective sense of fun and spectacle. The jokes are all well-worn, but they still work even despite, or because, their broad delivery. Uma Thurman makes a surprisingly funny Ulla (“Now, watch Ulla dance!”) and the songs are finger-snapping good. There’s no depth here, nor anything approaching subtlety, but it’s a fine time at the movies and that’s not so bad.

The Shark Mutiny, Patrick Robinson

Harper Torch, 2001, 493 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-103066-X

Faithful readers of these reviews already know how little I think of Patrick Robinson’s so-called military thrillers. Bad plotting, lousy characters, awful prose: Frankly, I just keep reading them because they make me laugh and point. And so it struck me, a third into The Shark Mutiny, how much better the whole series would be as a sitcom. One thing led to another, and pretty soon I was writing an episode for…

CRAZY NAVY!

Episode 4: The Guppy Mutiny

We open on ADMIRAL MORGAN, the lovable old coot who’s the hero of this series. MORGAN is snappily dressed in a red, white and blue suit made out of American Flag fabric, an outfit that blends seamlessly with the decoration of his office. His white beard is cut in a fashion halfway between Uncle Sam’s and Colonel Sanders. Reading the newspaper, he sees something that makes him look up abruptly.

Morgan: Kaaathy!

From the cheers and clapping from the audience, we know it’s already a series catchphrase.

Kathy enters the office. She is a “spectacular redhead who, for three years, have refused to marry him.” [P.58]

Kathy: Oh Admiral! Have you called me to ask me in marriage?

Morgan: Yes, damnit!

Kathy: I told you before, darling; not before you’re retired!

Morgan: Grrr! This flirting is making me want to nuke someone!

Kathy: And how is that different from your usual sunny disposition, darling?

Morgan: Good point, but I still want to nuke someone. Who’s our enemy today?

Jimmy Ramshawe enters the room. He is a young earnest intelligence Lieutenant with a slight Australian accent.

Jimmy: Sir! I have uncovered evidence that the Iranians and Chinese are planning to mine the strait of Hormuz and block the worldwide transport of oil!

Morgan: Hot diggity dawg! What’s your evidence, lieutenant?

Jimmy shows a stack of invoices.

Jimmy: Receipts for Russian underwater mines, sir! It stands to reason that if they bought it, they’ll use ’em!

Morgan: What an enlightening insight in contemporary tactics! But wait- you speak like a foreigner!

Jimmy: I’m from Australia, sir! But I’m good enough to be privy to American secrets! My father is a kick-ass Admiral! I’m dating the ambassador’s daughter!

Morgan: Do you want to nuke someone too?

Jimmy: Er… what normal boy wouldn’t, sir?

Morgan: Good stuff! You’re all right! Kaaathy! Get me a secret camera in the Chinese navy briefing room!

Behind him, the wall reveals a video screen. It lights up to a meeting of Iranian and Chinese officials.

Chine Official: Death to America! Bwa-hah-ha!

Iranian Official: Whee! Death to America!

The screen is replaced by a view of the globe between China and Iran.

Morgan: Damn! I’m “always completely mistrustful of the men from the Orient!” [P.138] What fiendish plot are they planning? Where will they strike next?

A courier brings a message to Jimmy, who reads it before shouting out.

Jimmy: Sir! A tanker just exploded in the strait of Hormuz!

Morgan: (shrugging) Eh, that happens.

Another courier.

Jimmy: Sir! Another tanker just exploded in the strait of Hormuz!

Morgan: (shrugging) Well, what can you do?

A third courier.

Jimmy: Sir! Another tanker blew up!

Morgan: It’s war! Yay! Send the entire American fleet to the Persian Gulf! We’ll teach them to mess with our imperialistic stranglehold on the world supply of oil! Kaaathy!

Kathy: All done, darling. Anyone can now walk from the UAE to Iran on top of our carriers!

Morgan: But I still haven’t nuked anyone today. Why can’t I get any satisfaction? We’ve gone too long without nuking someone! Let’s hit that oil refinery! Get me the bestest of the best SEALs!

Kathy: How about just a good one?

Morgan: No! The bestest of the best!

Kathy: How about any one of the US Navy’s superbly trained SEALs?

Morgan: NO! I SAID I WANT THE BESTEST OF THE BEST!

Kathy: All right.

A tall blond Aryan man is delivered in the room with a forklift. He remains ramrod-straight throughout.

SEAL #1: US NAVY SEAL! SIR YES SIR!

Morgan: Soldier, “these guys are not just stepping lightly on our toes! They’re running us over with a fleet of [flippin’] rickshaws, and I’m not having it!” [P.158] So go ahead and nuke’em.

SEAL #1: SIR YES SIR!

The forklift retreats along with Navy Seal #1.

Morgan: Good thing done.

A moment passes, and then: Another courier.

Jimmy: Sir! The raid is a complete success! Parts of the refinery are headed for orbit, and the other parts are going straight to the center of the earth! We’ve created a new volcano and killed thousands of civilians!

Mrogan: “Consider the sound made by a cupful of gasoline on a bonfire just before you toss a lighted match into it –and then multiply that sound by around 40 million. That’s loud.” [P.54]

Jimmy: But two of our SEALs died! Including the bestest of the best!

Tears fill Admiral Morgan’s eyes.

Morgan: That devastates me. I loved that man like no others, at the possible exception of Ted Kennedy. In a strictly heterosexual way, of course.

Jimmy: Of course, sir.

Morgan: This makes me so angry, I just WANT TO NUKE SOMEONE!

Another courier.

Jimmy: Sir! China has invaded Taiwan!

Morgan: Yes! Nuke’em!

Kathy: But darling! All of our forc
es are near the Persian Gulf!

Morgan: Curses! The mines were a trap! Foiled again by these devious foreigners!

Jimmy: Um, sir? What about our forces in Japan, the Philipines, Diego Garcia-

Morgan: Shut up, Jimmy! I’m trying to figure out why China would invade Taiwan.

Jimmy: Because this ends what they see as forty years of internal rebellion from a rebellious splinter group they never formally acknowledged because it also claimed to be China’s official government?

Morgan: That’s poppycock, son! It’s obvious to everyone that they invaded Taiwan for the precious treasures in their national museum

Jimmy: What- what? Treasures? Where did that come from?

Morgan: Hush, little boy! Look at the screen!

Another view of the Chinese and Iranian officials.

Chinese admiral: “WANT TREASURE BACK! WANT TREASURE BACK!” [P.278]

Morgan: See?

Jimmy: I humbly stand corrected.

Morgan: You better be. Kathy, anyone else to nuke?

Kathy: Well, the Chinese are still in Taiwan.

Morgan: Right! Let’s nuke Taiwan! Kathy, get me the red button!

Jimmy: Sir? Wouldn’t it be better to sent a SEAL team?

Morgan: You’re right son! I loves them SEALs! Get me the bestest of the best SEALs!

Kathy: Dead, darling. Don’t you mean the second-best of the-

Morgan: BESTEST OF THE BESTEST MEANS STILL ALIVE, KATHY!

Kathy: Working on it.

Another SEAL is hauled in the office.

SEAL #2: SIR YES SIR!

Morgan: Go destroy stuff. Try not to get killed.

SEAL #2: SIR YES SIR!

He exits.

Morgan whistles, waiting for a big boom. Finally, a communication comes onto his screen.

SEAL #2: Admiral Morgan! We’ve got a problem, sir!

Morgan: Have you destroyed stuff?

SEAL #2: SIR YES SIR!

Morgan: Then what’s the problem?

SEAL #2: The commander of our submarine had gone nuts! He thinks he’s the reincarnation of some French loser!

Morgan: Wow, that’s crazy.

SEAL #2: What should we do, sir?

Morgan: Ask him if he can nuke part of China for me.

A pause.

SEAL #2: He says no.

Morgan: Crazy! Shoot him!

A gunshot is heard.

Morgan: Outstanding work, sailor! You just saved us eighty pages of a stupid last act that has nothing to do with the rest of this story.

He closes the screen and wipes his hand.

Morgan: And that’s another triumphant day for American hegemony.

He puts his hands on his hips and strikes a triumphant pose.

Jimmy: But Admiral! Taiwan is still held by the Chinese!

Morgan: Who cares? It’ll all be forgotten in time for the next episode.

A final courier.

Jimmy: But sir! 9/11! Afghanistan! Iraq! Terrorists are the new enemy! Our imagined world of 2008 as seen from early 2001 doesn’t even make sense any more!

A pause as Morgan thinks it through.

Morgan: Yay, a new enemy to nuke! Come on, Jimmy and Kathy, let’s bellow our favourite song!

They lock arms and begin high-stepping, singing the series’ signature FUN-DAMENTALIST ANTAGONISTS! musical number.

Curtains descend.

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

(In theaters, February 2006) No one really asked for another interpretation of Jane Austen’s classic novel so soon (relatively speaking) after either the now-definitive BBC miniseries or the Bollywood take-off Bride & Prejudice. But there is now another version, and it’s not bad at all. Kiera Knightly can’t fill a dress, but she does looks cute as a bookish brunette. Fortunately, she manages to tie the whole film together. Given that most viewers are likely to be familiar with the story, it all boils down to how well the interpretation is handled. Here we see that the director has fun with a few fancy camera moves and occasional flights of fancy. (The ballroom scenes are particularly good in this regard.) Less pretty but just as distinctive is the often-unromantic view of life during that period, with omnipresent dirt, soiled dress hems and a definitive lack of modern medical facilities. Clocking in at a relatively springy 127 minutes, this story is focused on the romantic comedy, with a side-helping of wonderful dialogues. Otherwise, well, you already know what you’re going to get from this film, don’t you?

Murderball (2005)

(On DVD, February 2006) You have thirty seconds, tops, at the start of Murderball to feel sorry for the wheelchair-bound stars of the movie. After that, it’s a macho sports fest until the end. A documentary about the sport of Quad Rugby, Murderball features trash talk, intense competitiveness and unbelievable action. There’s plenty of conflict to go around (Canadians even get the bonus of seeing “their” team beat the Americans) and the film is snappy from start to finish. The sport sequences themselves have a good energy to them and the rest of the documentary is as slick as you want it to be. The film definitely doesn’t allow you to “forget” that its protagonists are in wheelchairs, but it certainly goes past that simple evidence to something far more interesting, and definitely enjoyable. Yet another solid documentary in a very strong field, Murderball is worth a good look.

Mrs Henderson Presents (2005)

(In theaters, February 2006) It’s a musical with naked ladies: what else can I say? Judi Dench has a fine turn as a matriarch with a flair for controversy, presenting a nude musical revue in WW2 London. (Nervous viewers can relax: she does not disrobe in this film.) It’s a slight comedy that would go well with Calendar Girls in tone and subject matter, which is to say so innocuously naughty that it could very well pass for family entertainment. The nudity certainly isn’t anything to be concerned about, given how unremarkable it quickly becomes. Otherwise, the script is fine (despite an ill-advised tragic subplot and a last-minute speech that overlays higher motivation over a crass business decision) and the film is nicely wrapped up. A minor film, but a good show.

Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005)

(In theaters, February 2006) Saying “I wasn’t bored!” is the very definition of faint praise, but expectations ran low for this historical drama seemingly more concerned with cinematography and costumes than intrigue or suspense. The trailer itself just looked like a bunch of fancy images. And yet director Rob Marshall should be given more credit: He doesn’t lose any time in making this story of female servitude become interesting: Power plays, historical re-creations and a good sense of plotting all make this a far more interesting tale than it first appears. Ziyi Zhang is fine as the lead character, but it’s Michelle Yeoh who steals the show as her mentor. The film is hardly perfect, of course: The third act feels superfluous (though the sense of dread in seeing all of those American faces suddenly invading the screen is very effective) and the film often gets caught up in its own aesthetics. Then there’s the very real and uncomfortable idea that this film is all about a form of female exploitation, and that’s difficult to forgive even with the historical context. But even though the film may not arouse more than minor admiration for its lush set design and costumes, it’s not a bitter pill to swallow. There are certainly worse films on the Oscar-nominated list.

Match Point (2005)

(In theaters, February 2006) Few people expected Woody Allen to tackle a crime/romance thriller as his next project, but he did so, and Match Point is the honourable result of the experiment. Far from the kind of whiny self-referential comedies that have become a staple of Allen’s oeuvre for the past decade, Match Point tackles luck and rotten characters underneath sociable exteriors. The romance gradually cedes way to drama, and then to suspense as Chekhov’s rule comes into play. It’s not bad at all, especially given the lack of such drama on big screens these days. Acting credentials are all good, as would befit a character study. The directing could use some tightening-up, but there are a few good suspense sequences, and some awfully confident camera shots throughout. Devotees of funnyman Allen won’t be surprised to note the wry humour running through the entire film, or the superbly ironic final twist. Despite a few lengths, this isn’t a bad time at the movies at all.