Monthly Archives: March 2006

Crystal Rain, Tobias Buckell

Tor, 2006, 351 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31227-1

So this is the twenty-first century. Doesn’t feel much different from the last one so far, doesn’t it? Still no giant robots, lunar bases or flying cars. But sometimes, things change profoundly even when they don’t seem to. Attitudes evolve. New ideas come in. It may be more important to shift our understanding of the world as it exist than try to change it radically. As a genre, Science Fiction is no exception. While it too is pushing forward, it’s also changing from within, opening up to cultural backgrounds other than plain old white boring Anglo-Saxon roots. Look carefully, and you can see the first young wolves of twenty-first-century Science Fiction, and they’re thinking differently even when they’re following the good old recipes.

Tobias Buckell, for instance, doesn’t stretch any definition of Science Fiction with his first novel Crystal Rain. A good old rollicking adventure across a primitive landscape littered with relics of a high-tech past, Crystal Rain is not particularly original or innovative. But it it succeeds at what it attempts and benefits from Buckell’s atypical background.

It all takes place on a planet which, as far as we know in this first volume, is inhabited by two very different civilizations: The dominant Azteca and isolated Nanagada. As the story begins, the Azteca (who, as the name suggests, have pretty much adopted everything from the Aztecs… including ritual sacrifice) launch an invasion against Nanagada’s peaceful peninsula. They’ve got number and ruthlessness on their side, but there’s more to Nanagada than a small militia and a capital at the end of the railways: There’s John deBrun, our protagonist, a man who has managed to rebuild his life after being found at sea without memories. There’s a lot more to him than the simple existence he lives, and events will soon push him from one discovery to another.

An adventure story in a somewhat pulpish tradition (though with far superior prose), Crystal Rain reads like a bucket of fun. The characters are well-drawn, their adventures rarely let up and there’s a satisfying progression to our understanding of the world they live in. The cover jacket illustration has a man with a hook and a gun, parrots, airships and plenty of colour: the novel inside isn’t much different. The cultural nature of the feud between Nanagada (heavily based on Caribbean culture) and the merciless Azteca is a welcome change of pace that does much to distinguish this novel from other planetary romances. Despite a few beginner’s missteps (such as the explanatory conversation in Chapter Two), Buckell’s writing is crisp and self-assured: Don’t be surprised to wrap up this novel in a single afternoon. One fair warning: Buckell’s characters often speak using broken syntax and while the effect is a pleasant reminder of Caribbean accents, it may be distracting to some.

Unlike superficially similar novels like Karl Schroeder’s Ventus, Crystal Rain has no aspirations at pushing the SF envelope: It delivers the goods, promises more for the sequel and then stops while it’s still ahead of the game. I’m not too fond of series fiction, but don’t be worried by this volume: There’s a satisfying end to the story in this book even as some of the implications of the background suggest a much larger canvas for latter volumes. The Aztecan gods, for instance, are very real and very inhuman: Nanagada’s centuries-long isolation portends nothing good for the rest of the human race. We’ll probably learn more about it in the sequel. (And hopefully make sense of some details that look like contrivances: The focus of this novel is so tightly focused on Nanagata that it often feels like a series of arbitrary authorial decisions: “See, there’s a chain of Wicked High Mountain here… from one sea to another. Yup. Aztecas had to dig through for a hundred years. Couldn’t go above or beside it. Sea-to-sea mountains. Wicked High Mountains.” Best not to scratch the background too deeply here: just enjoy the adventure.)

But all told, this is an praiseworthy take on the good old Science Fiction adventure genre, with enough action and gadgets to make this a fun read. It doesn’t do anything new, but it does so well, and thanks to Buckell’s own cultural heritage, provides a setting with a welcome difference from what we’re used to. Others may push back the conceptual limits of SF, but Buckell is changing it from within —making it a more diverse, more accessible, more enjoyable genre. That’s not to dismiss lightly.

Digital Fortress, Dan Brown

St. Martin’s, 1998, 430 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-99542-3

There it is. Dan Brown’s first book, well before The Da Vinci Code, and the last one of his I still hadn’t read. Closer to Deception Point‘s techno-thriller feel than either one of the Langdon adventures, Digital Fortress is still nonetheless all about codes and how to break them. Unfortunately, it also seems to be about how many stupid mistakes one can stuff in a novel and still claim to have done research.

You don’t need to know much about the plot, especially if you’ve read other Brown novels: It’s about an unbreakable code, a disabled assassin, a honest man and a honest woman trying to uncover a conspiracy and enough twists and turns to make anyone’s head whiplash. Oh, and it’s also about how, in Brown’s novels, the mentor is always the bad guy. No, seriously.

But what you do need to know is that the technical details are completely ludicrous. I don’t know much about cryptography, but it doesn’t take much knowledge to realize, not even fifty pages in the novel, that Brown is simply ignoring some of the most fundamental axioms of the field. The idea that you can brute-force any unidentified encryption algorithm without understanding its inner workings is moronic. (Hey, what if they’re using one-time pads, hm?) Cryptography experts will suffer while reading this book, but computer specialists won’t do any better: Brown mis-uses elementary concepts (“virus” instead of “worm”, for instance) and still believes, poor child, that computers can ignite when they overheat. (Free hint: fuses.) And that’s not even talking about the hideous security mechanism that seem to be standard procedure at Brown’s NSA… yow.

While a number of those details get overturned by latter plot developments, they still don’t make sense in the story’s internal logic: Our characters, super-brainy cryptography experts they are, should know much better: That they let those things pass without comment only serves to highlight plot holes and deliberate authorial mistakes, not clever hints or deliberate gotchas. What’s worse is when the so-called smart characters blindly flail around trying to pierce together clues that are blatantly obvious to the rest of the readers.

Where those glaring technical problems really hurt is that Brown is trying to position himself as a trustworthy Knower of Stuff, and yet anyone who knows the stuff can clearly see that he’s deliberately making it up. This faux-geek dissonance is enough to break any suspension of disbelief that is a large part of the unspoken pact between reader and writer. You can compare and contrast, if you wish, Brown with authentic nerd-chic authors such as Neal Stephenson: they rarely mess around with the basics, and there’s usually a good reason when they do, as with Cryptonomicon‘s “Finux”.

If you do get past the nonsensical technical details, the novel isn’t particularly well-written or refined. Plot-wise, it seems to be made up of random plot beats taken out of a hat, regardless of sense and plausibility. It just keeps going on until the very last page, which features a “twist” that serves no purpose whatsoever. As far a characters are concerned, it’s all surfaces and clichés: If you want fat Germans tourists, obese computer hackers, well-groomed university teachers and workaholic spinsters, don’t look any further than this book.

But I’ll give one thing to Brown: Like his other novels, Digital Fortress is impossible to drop down once it starts heating up. The short chapters carry along a delicious sense of “just one more…” compulsiveness and Brown’s habit of ending them in false cliffhangers is crudely effective. (One eventually gets the sense that Digital Fortress is plotted like those cheap comic books, with a page ending with “Look out!” and the next one continuing “…isn’t that a pretty flower?”) Brown may have a number of faults, but creating forward momentum is one of his strengths. The writing is simple, the prose is uncomplicated and to undiscerning eyes, the techno-babble must sound impressive. (Much like, I fear to think, the historico-babble in The Da Vinci Code sounded plausible to me.)

It’s unfair to point out that the book flopped when it first came out in 1998 and that it only lives on today on the coattails of its far more famous sibling. And yet I have to wonder who was the original audience for the book: Clumsily written down to what seems to be a broader audience, Digital Fortress is untenable for technical readers, and barely-palatable to techno-thriller fans who know enough about this stuff. (You can’t seriously try to sell the NSA as an ultra-secretive organization to thriller readers; that Brown tries to do so on page 9 either smacks of naiveté or condescension.) But, hey, it’s by that guy who wrote The Da Vinci Code!

Polystom, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2003, 294 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07179-6

Part of the reason why I’m still blathering reviews on this web site after ten years (what, you didn’t notice our ten-year anniversary? Aw.) is that I remain fascinated by the mysteries of reading. I’m not an overly analytical reader, so I always end up discussing a variation on So, how much did I like it? Even after years of voracious reading, there are always a few surprises in store. For instance, why I can go nuts for dull thrillers that don’t do anything new (see above for John Grisham) yet feel dissatisfied by ambitious novels.

Which brings us to Adam Roberts’ Polystom.

I’ve been following Roberts’ work with some interest this far: Salt On Stone were imperfect novels, but short and quirky enough to warrant a bit of admiration. Additionally, Roberts is a keen critic (I still haven’t found any of his paper-based critical essays, but his annual examinations of the Clarke Awards short-list for Infinity Plus are always a joy to read) and his pseudonymous work writing literary parodies such as The McAtrix Derided are simply a lot of fun. Would Polystom be Roberts’ big breakout novel?

No.

Under a different form, it could have been Robert’s big breakout short story. But as it stands, it’s simply too problematic to be anything more than a disappointment.

Oh, the setup is interesting. Taking place in an alternate pocket solar system where the rules of physics allow air travel between planets and moon, the world of Polystom is one that seems charmingly stuck between Victorian England and World War One. Our eponymous hero is one of the upper classes, owner of a vast estate and absolute master over a population of servants. But Polystom is an unlucky fellow even in love: his new wife turns out to be unbalanced (though what part Polystom plays in the unbalancing is left to the reader) and the marriage flounders. Further shocks are to come when his uncle, a genius-level scientist, is murdered by parties unknown. Soon enough, Polystom finds himself stuck on Mudworld, dodging bullets and leading his own servants to serve as cannon fodder.

If the above sounds interesting, reflect upon the fact that it’s about as exciting as the novel ever gets. Some novels draw in their readers from the first few pages and never let go; others tempt the audience with cryptic events that will hopefully make sense later on: Polystom is definitely in that second category, though it doesn’t exactly make sense once it’s all over. Worse; it’s actively disjointed. Consciously divided in three parts, Polystom moves from love to murder to war with picaresque abandon, only to end with a metaphysical twist that is not without raising memories of The Robertski Brothers’ work. I don’t begrudge the final twist: the four pages appendix is a neat little literary/scientific joke, easily the most amusing thing about Polystom. But said twist can seem to exist simply to distract our attention from all the frayed threads: One gets the mental image of confronting Roberts with explanations, only to be answered by “Oh, look at that comet!”

There is another possibility, of course, one that I am far too proud to consider at length: that all the answers are there, that Polystom is a tight little piece of literary Science Fiction and that I’m simply too dull/stupid/ignorant to get the references. Maybe the hand-shaped hole means something. Maybe the uncle/father slip-up means something (well, beyond the obvious). Maybe the names are all highly significant in a literary tradition I’m ill-equipped to follow. Maybe the late-third ghosts all make perfect sense. Maybe the metaphysical twist brilliantly ties everything together. Maybe.

But my first feeling after closing the last pages of the book is that Polystom is the chatty first draft of something else. That Cleonicles’s info-dump is a clumsy re-thread of On‘s wizardly explanations, although without that book’s interesting adventures. I’m glad to see that Adams’ usual world-building prowesses and gentle stylistic experimentation are back, but I’m sorry to find out that they’re not used to significant impact. And that’s too bad, because I keep hoping that Adams will turn out a book that I will be able to enjoy whole-heartedly. As it stands, I’m still partial to Salt and Stone: Maybe The Snow will be a step in the right direction.

The Street Lawyer, John Grisham

Island, 1998, 452 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-29565-3

Oh, that wily John Grisham. That clever, manipulative, populist, puppy-like John Grisham. No wonder why he’s said to be one of the nicest guys in the business. No wonder why he sells books by the truckload. No wonder why he’s been at the top of the game for ten years.

A flat description of The Street Lawyer would make you shake your head in sorrow: It’s about a young lawyer! Who rebels against the system! And sues big bad corporations on behalf of the people! And fights crime! It’s like all the other John Grisham novels ever published so far! It’s packed with coincidences, familiar plot structures and an ending you can see coming from half the book away! Plus, it’s written with short sentences and a vocabulary of less than a thousand words: it’s guaranteed to be understandable by 95% of reading-age Americans!

But boy, does it work.

Forget your yearnings for fine literature, break out that Nietzsche dust jacket you use to camouflage your commuting reading and jump head-first in The Street Lawyer. You will know within pages if this is going to be a good ride.

It certainly starts on a high note, as our young lawyer protagonist is taken hostage by a homeless man with a grudge against his legal firm. The siege soon ends thanks to the timely intervention of a sniper, but the impact lingers on for our protagonist who, thanks to a hideous series of coincidences we rarely see outside the movies, finds himself divorced, laid-off and somewhat on the run. Tell no one, but The Street Lawyer is a keenly disguised mainstream novel about a character undergoing a major life crisis: dissatisfied by his money-grubbing career, he descends through society to find himself helping the poor through his mad legal skillz. A street lawyer is born, but this being a Grisham novel, you can bet that there’s a major civil lawsuit just waiting to make an appearance. Will our hero find a way to stick it to the man, help improve his city and find love in entirely expected places? Well of course: we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Street Lawyer is a cleverly manufactured book that gives us exactly what we expect, and it’s hard to disrespect something like that. Every step of the character’s changing life is carefully telegraphed, described and significant: If it takes a random car accident to make sure that the protagonist finds himself painted in a corner, well, why not? But what could have been exasperating in the hands of a different writer here comes across as par for the course. The attraction of the book is not in its conclusion, but in the way it hits the appropriate beats with exact timing.

It helps a lot that the writing is so crisp. Many of Grisham’s contemporaries could learn from the way he shapes his scenes and consciously avoids any stylistic flourish: the non-nonsense first-person narration echoes The Rainmaker, while the interest in an odd corner of the law (here, lawyers for the very poor) recalls his previous Runaway Jury (though without the intensity of that previous work.) Here again, we find dozens of small and telling details about the life of an everyday lawyer, bolstered with eloquent pleas in favour of greater social equality. (But not too eloquent: In a telling scene, the protagonist finds himself commiserating with a homeless man whose life story suggests that homelessness can happen to anyone… only to find that he’s a fake.)

Compared to previous Grisham novels, The Street Lawyer fits comfortably in the middle of the pack: It doesn’t have the clockwork elegance of The Partner, but remains more polished than Grisham’s first few books. What’s obvious, though, is that Grisham will have a long and successful career as long as he can keep delivering books like this one. The point is not that he’s better than other writers working in the same field (you and I can both name at least a dozen authors who somehow “deserve” as much success), but that he can deliver what’s expected of him, year after year. As far as I’m concerned, this is another successful entry in Grisham’s post-Runaway Jury revival: Expect more reviews of his books here, continuing with The Kings of Torts.

Grave Secrets, Kathy Reichs

Pocket, 2002, 366 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02838-3

Condemning with faint praise is a favourite sport of reviewers everywhere, and so let us start by saying that I come to talk about Kathy Reichs’s fifth novel with no intention of burying it. For once.

It’s no secret that I’m not Reich’s biggest fan: After a promising start in Deja Dead, Reich’s next few novels took a rapid turn for the worse, repeating themselves and ripping off headlines with less than admirable grace. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and so it grew tiresome to see Quebec-area headlines being recycled almost wholesale in her novels. Worse yet was Reich’s lazy approach to plotting, in which newly-introduced relatives of the heroine inevitably found themselves in mortal peril before the end of every single novel. There were other things too, but my memory has since thankfully blanked them out.

So imagine my surprise in saying that Grave Secrets is not entirely horrible.

For one thing, Reich leaves Quebec to set her story mostly in Guatemala. This is not a sudden abandonment of her “stealing from real-life” strategy as much as it’s a displacement: Reichs (for all her flaws as a writer) is a real-life forensic anthropologist, and she has worked in Central America to resolve past crimes through cadaver examination. From a French-Canadian perspective, it makes her fiction just a touch stranger, and stronger for it. (On the other hand, Guatemalans are probably reading her stuff and shaking their heads in much the same way that Quebecers are wont to do with her previous novels.)

What Reich’s perennial narrator/protagonist Temperance Brennan discovers in Guatemala, beyond the ubiquitous maggoty corpses, is evidence of a small-scale conspiracy. Expression-du-jour “stem cells” is brought up and then never go away, along with the expected stuff about conspiracies in high places, abusive local officials, a Canadian connection and a small trip back to Montreal that actually feels refreshing in the middle of the rest. The protagonists’ so-called love life is once again unearthed as a fake source of sexual tension that is as ridiculous as it’s ineffective. Unsurprisingly, Brennan finds out that her police partner in Guatemala turns out to be (hear this!) an old high-school chum of her perennial lust interest Andrew Ryan. No less.

But that last clumsy misstep aside, Grave Secrets at least has the decency to avoid actively insulting its readers’ intelligence with nonsensical developments. The superficial thriller mechanics are in place, and Brennan’s own moment in jeopardy late in the novel is feebly justified, but mercifully brief. The techno-thriller part of the plot is too obvious to be credible –and comes along with a half-hearted defence of Bush’s stem-cell ban.

Still, it’s worth noting that “not being bad” is still some distance away from “being good”. In this case, we still get a novel that’s far too chatty for its own good (often inanely so, especially when it comes to the attempt at a romantic sub-plot), erring in too many red herrings and the usual contrivances.

Reich may have produced a novel that doesn’t make me want to claw my own brain out, but Grave Secrets will not be mistaken for anything more than an average piece of criminal fiction. Beyond the premise, the different setting and the broad strokes of the plot (not to mention the convenient coincidences), there isn’t much worth remembering in the novel. You may argue that rapid forgetfulness is the best that Reich can hope for at this point in her career, is it not better to be talked about badly than not talked about at all? All I know is that I’ve got an entire bookcase of books to read, and there’s not a single Reichs left in it.

V For Vendetta (2005)

(In theaters, March 2006) It may be too early in the year to talk about 2006’s best films, but it’s certainly not too early to say that this is the first good movie of the year. I’m always a sucker for tales of insurrection against totalitarian government, and this one is slicker than most. Somewhat faithfully adapted from the graphic novel, V For Vendetta remains faithful to the spirit of the original, and delivers a tighter, more cohesive take on the basic story: the film is likely to become my preferred version. (Alan Moore may pout and fume about Hollywood betrayal, but this one’s really not that bad.) From a cinematographic standpoint, the film is gorgeously designed and directed with a great deal of self-confidence: James McTeigue may be overshadowed by the Wachowski producers, but his work is crisp and clean. Blessed with capable lead actors, V For Vendetta showcases some fantastic mask work by Hugo Weaving and one of Natalie Portman’s best role yet. Despite the lack of action set-pieces (don’t believe the trailers), the film has considerable forward momentum and only falters slightly late in the film. Politically, it’s a loud scream against the dangers of totalitarianism, and successfully manages to integrate the Thatcher-era fears of the original with current-day concerns over the so-called War on Terrorism: If it touches a nerve, it’s only because there is something to be concerned about right now. Otherwise, unfortunately (and there’s my biggest problem with the film), it remains quite literally a comic-book fable that tackles ideas in a stylized fashion, but falters on the follow-up: Totalitarian regimes never spring up completely without popular roots, and are seldom defeated by a grandiose gesture. V For Vendetta, hobbled by the necessities of a feature film’s running length and the low bandwidth of cinema, does not seriously engage with the demands of political thought, or the solutions required by real-world trade-offs. It’s all well and good to scream revolution, but it’s not going to do much good unless there are solid alternatives behind the reform. (And it’s what distinguishes comic-book-reading teenagers from adults used to the real world). But I’m being overly harsh: After all, I didn’t say such things after Equilibrium, right? But if V For Vendetta is going to propose itself as a bold political thinking piece, it better withstand the scrutiny it invites. That rabid political point aside, there’s little doubt that V For Vendetta is going to be one of 2006’s good films. Now let’s see the competition before deciding if it’s one of the best.

Wings of Fire, Dale Brown

Putnam, 2002, 446 pages, C$37.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14860-4

The problem with Dale Brown’s work is not that it’s incompetent: The problem with Dale Brown’s work is how inferior it is to what he’s capable of writing. Wings of Fire, for instance, is a frustrating mixture of the good, the bad and the silly. Brown has a few good ideas, but wastes them in a story that struggles to be interesting.

While I’ve often criticized military thrillers for being inextricably tied to American foreign policy, I had forgotten to consider the alternative: American military forces fighting a meaningless made-up conflict between two other countries we struggle to care about. Here, Libya takes on Egypt for oil interest, but Brown tips the scale by making Libya’s leader (not Qaddafi) a fundamentalist poseur and Egypt’s president a beautiful Egyptian/American ex-fighter pilot with a background in intelligence operations. Uh-huh. Not that this is the most unlikely character in the novel: Ubergeek protagonist Jon Master here faces his match thanks to a precocious nine-year old with a bunch of doctorates. If you’re laughing, just wait until she gets to teach Masters about the finer points of high-energy physics: The dialogues alone are fit to make you howl (or hurl). Or at least seriously consider whether Brown is just screwing with his readership.

As usual, most of the problems stem from Brown’s insistence in continuing a dead-end series that has gone on for too long: The accumulated weight of the series’ established continuity is now so burdensome that Brown has to cheat and selectively forget elements of his background to raise dramatic stakes. A subcutaneous gadget allowing personal private communications between protagonists of the series is conveniently forgotten, except in one scene where the president thinks nothing about chatting up protagonist Patrick MacLanahan for a while. Alas, other gadgets are not so quickly forgotten: The quasi-magical “Tin Man” armour suit is almost always on-screen, recycling a one-book idea far past the point of no return. All of Wings of Fire, of course, is supposed to take place somewhere near 2002. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that despite a mention in the book’s dedication, there is no mention, nor even an acknowledgement of the events of September 2001. We’ll have to read the next book in the series to be sure, but it’s entirely possible that Brown’s has retreated so far in his imagined universe of super-powered gadgets that even the real world won’t be able to reach him.

And that raises a paradox: Brown has seldom been better than while being profoundly unrealistic: Re-read Day of the Cheetah or Silver Tower for proof. And yet he here manages to make even the extraordinary seem commonplace: Airborne lasers vapourizing anything in sight? Bah, whatever. It doesn’t help that Brown seems to have forgotten how to write dramatic action scenes: Most of his books are now taken up by gadget demonstrations in which the character just gosh themselves to contentment by staring googly-eyed at the destruction they’ve wrought.

To raise dramatic tension in the middle of this snore-fest, Brown kills off a few character, wasting what could have been affecting moment in Patrick MacLanahan’s evolution to a few throwaway scenes lost in the desert. It struck me that even as Brown seems to be writing his novels on autopilot, I’m reading them through similar inertia. The problem is that I’ve long since stopped caring about any of the characters: killing those faceless names just doesn’t do anything, even if I find myself thinking that they deserved a better send-off than what happens to them in a book as insubstantial as Wings of Fire. The last Brown novel to kill off main characters was Fatal Terrain: It may not be a coincidence that it was also the worst Brown novel until Wings of Fire.

I’m skipping over a lot of my problems with the book just because I don’t want to bore you even further with the details. There’s the silly presidential stuff; the unrealistic depiction of middle-eastern politics; the padded narrative; the lazy approach to characterization (once, just once, I’d like to see a foreign leader whose moral alignment is not rigidly mapped to their attitude toward American hegemony. Just once.); the lack of soul-searching from our mercenary heroes; the casual use of neutron bombs; bad dialogues; and so on. What’s worth remembering is that this is an unremarkable novel, even by Brown’s increasingly indistinguishable standards. Given how tightly integrated it is to his previous Warrior Class, only self-identified Brown fans will get anything out of the book –and dissatisfaction is likely to be what they’ll take away from it.

Ultraviolet (2006)

(In theaters, March 2006) I really wanted to love all of this movie; I’ll settle for liking parts of it and ignoring the rest. Writer/director Kurt Wimmer’s follow-up to the fabulous Equilibrium ends up feeling like a self-indulgent remake that has forgotten all about pacing. The opening comic-book-covers credit sequence sets a tone that, unfortunately, isn’t sustained by the failed earnestness that follows. Oh, the design is terrific, the gadgets are lovely and the action scenes are pure lightning. Sadly, the dialogues are fit to make anyone howl, and the story is instantly familiar –and not in a good way. Too bad; Milla Jovovich turns in an iconic performance… but the rest of the film around her is often too repetitive to be interesting. I really hope that Wimmer gets some solid supervision before his next project… which I’m still anticipating with some interest.

(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2006) Well, I’m not watching this film again anytime soon. Though I could recognize a number of flaws during the original theatrical viewing, another visit to the DVD edition really doesn’t enhance anything. The dialogue is still as trite as ever, and the action scenes don’t seem any better once you start picking apart their mechanics. The design does hold up, but that’s about it: The rest of the film flops aimlessly and fails to engage. Though billed as “the director’s cut”, this DVD edition adds preciously little in terms of enjoyment, and the disappointing making-of material never gets past the “huh, interesting” level. Worse yet is the sparse insight-free audio commentary by Milla Jovovich, who seems far more interested in her dog than in filling any space on the commentary. I still think it’s a better film than Aeon Flux, but let’s just say that the distance between the two is a lot smaller now.

Nochnoy Dozor [Night Watch] (2004)

(In theaters, March 2006) Hurrah for Russia! Just as Hollywood urban fantasy is crumbling under its own lack of interest, here comes a dark and grimy kerosene-fuelled tale of good versus evil. Oh, it’s derivative all right, with enough common fantasy elements in one film to make anyone wonder how that particular internal mythology is going to hold together. It doesn’t, not really: but Night Watch is so much fun that it doesn’t really matter. Part of the appeal, despite such well-worn tropes as vampirism and Big Evil, is to be found in the contemporary Moscow setting: grimy, unpleasant and naturally different, it’s almost naturally suited to urban fantasy. The other big strength of the film is in its pedal-to-the-metal style, with overactive cuts, loud rock music and idea-a-minute visual inventiveness. Even the excellent English subtitles of the American version get in the act, with font changes, interaction with on-screen material and other occasional flourishes. After a long revving-up period, Night Watch attains its own cruise speed, but watch out: It’s setting itself up as the first volume in a trilogy rather than a complete volume. I’m still not sure that it all holds together, but I like it nonetheless. I want to see the rest of the story; I want to see more of Olga; I want to see more of that crazy everything-included mythology. Frankly, I just want to see the next two segments of the trilogy. Volume Two (Day Watch) is already screening in Russia; Volume Three (Dawn Watch) is planned for next year: Bring’em over, Fox Searchlight, and I’ll be there on opening day.

The Lost World (1925)

(In theaters, March 2006) Yes, it’s silent, black-and-white and older that most of your grandparents. Get past that and have a look at what, at the time, must have been a pretty amazing film. The special effect are crude, but it’s fun to imagine how they must have been perceived at the time. Before even the original King Kong, this was the state-of-the-art of effects cinema. Even today, some of the crude character details is textbook stuff for Special Effects artists. What’s heartening, once you dismiss the threadbare plot (read the novel for a more enjoyable experience) is the realization that years before Godzilla madness, there was a healthy appetite for monsters wreaking havoc in big cities. Not an essential film, but a significant piece of cinematic history. (Semi-privately screened.)

Inside Man (2006)

(In theaters, March 2006) Once past the initial shock of surprise (No way! Spike Lee is trying for a mainstream movie! And look at that cast!), the best things about Inside Man is how it doesn’t disappoint. Oh, the script is generously riddled with embarrassing holes and arguable developments, but it’s so well-rounded with spicy characterization that it’s hard to care. What’s more, the dream-project cast is a sheer pleasure to watch, from the sheer coolness of Denzel Washington and Clive Owen to the brainy iciness of Jodie Foster all the way to head-turning screen-melting performances by newcomers Samantha Ivers and Florina Petcu. (The cast is so top-heavy that even solid players such as Willem Dafoe and Christopher Plummer get barely a passing mention.) The accumulation of details and quirky character moments is what truly makes this a solid thriller, helping in overlooking a familiar premise and story problems. It helps that both the script and the director wholeheartedly embrace New York in all of its cosmopolitan quirkiness, lending a very modern feel to the whole thing. For the first ninety minutes, Inside Man is a thriller at the top of its genre, moving quickly and efficiently with considerable wit and charm. It does lose a lot of energy during its last thirty minutes, bogging down in details that seem redundant and laboured after its excellent start. But no matter: Despite the flaccid last act, all that remains is a solid thriller, a fabulously entertaining movie and some of the best work in a while for all the names involved in the film. This is top-notch studio entertainment: I’ll let other decide whether Spike Lee has sold out or not, but as far as I’m concerned, I can only ask for more.

Make Your Own Damn Movie!, Lloyd Kaufman

St. Martin’s, 2003, 329 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-28864-6

In the world of independent, low-budget cinema, Troma enjoys a solid reputation as, well, a purveyor of schlock. It specializes in films made on a shoestring and often regrettably unbridled imagination. Troma’s subject matter, as the name suggests, is not for everyone, though everyone will be offended at one point or another: Grotesque monsters, nude actresses, gory violence and foul subject matter are where Troma films start: it may be best not to imagine where they end. You may not have seen any of Troma’s films (indeed, I had to seek them out to see what the fuss was all about), but don’t feel too bad about it: Troma’s entire business strategy is to gain a cult following, not mainstream acclaim. If SOUTH PARK is too rough for you, then consider that Matt Stone and Tray Parker’s CANNIBAL: THE MUSICAL is one of the tamest things in Troma’s distribution inventory.

But you don’t have to know Troma, or even to enjoy it in order to get quite a kick out of Make Your Own Damn Movie!, an inspirational tutorial on how to make your own low-budget film. Troma owner/director Lloyd Kaufman has more than thirty year’s worth of experience in the field, and every single page of the book contains some hard-won experience that is of interest to any amateur filmmaker: Far from Hollywood’s excess, most film-making is a matter of sweat and perseverance, not star trailers and personal assistants. You don’t need to be anywhere near New York or Los Angeles to pick up a video camera and make your own damn movie… and that’s the point of the book.

Co-written with Adam Janhke and Trent Hagar (who both play the role of long-suffering assistants to Kaufman’s dictatorial megalomania), Make Your Own Damn Movie! is far, far away from a dry film-making tutorial. Thanks to Troma’s patented tastelessness, the book is crammed with unsavoury allusions, bad language, rollicking anecdotes and a parade of jokes. From a relatively solid structure and useful advice, Kaufman and company have crafted a compulsively readable homage to low-budget film-making. While I can guess that the pressures of making a film on a nonexistent budget aren’t always a treat (let’s just say that the making-of documentaries on Troma films can be more harrowing than the movies themselves), they make for excellent conversation points, and the chatty style of the book makes it hard to stop reading.

Now, don’t worry: I have no intention of making my own damn movie. But I do enjoy looking at the inner workings of cinema, and Make Your Own Damn Movie! carries its own weight as an unflinching examination of the lower rungs of movie-making. While DVD special features have been a blessing in looking behind the scenes of major Hollywood productions, those studio films are only a tiny percentage of the total number of films made every year. Most productions do end up like a Troma shoot: tiny budgets, ill-paid cast and crew, baling-twine production values and a rushed schedule designed for nervous breakdowns. Make Your Own Damn Movie! may be cracking wise with jokes and masochistic suffering, but it’s a great deal more realistic than the average Hollywood shoot. As an insight in what goes into making average films, it’s invaluable.

It’s also uniquely inspiring for any aspiring filmmaker: By the end of the film, even I felt empowered to grab a digital camera and go shoot a first reel. (Fortunately, I reminded myself in time that all I want to do is write.) For cinephiles, Make Your Own Damn Movie!‘s vivid writing is a pure treat, and possibly the beginning of an invigorating discussion. Low-budget filmmakers, having nothing to lose from current conditions, are constantly looking for the next technological innovation. So it comes naturally that among many other things, Kaufman and Haaga entertain a book-long argument about the merits of digital video (which hilariously devolves into name-calling) and Kaufman offers a worthy digression on the current state of copyright and the studio’s overreaction to digital file-trading.

Of course, the book is also a good promotional pitch for Troma movies. But while you may or may not like Troma’s offerings, there is a lot more to this book than make-up tips on how to fake gory effects. Every page contains a joke, a minor revelation, a fun anecdote and a tip to make you own damn movie: it’s impossible to resist.

Mystery Of The Nile [IMAX] (2005)

(In IMAX theaters, March 2006) As a real-life adventure, running down the Nile from its source to Cairo is unparallelled. As an excuse for an IMAX film, it’s a source of fabulous images. As a documentary feature, though, it has its lengthy moments. The fault isn’t with the characters: Pasquale Scaturro and his merry crew of adventurers are a lot of fun to follow through unimaginable adventures and arresting images. Part of the fun is wondering how they managed to get those pictures. But after a while, the film meanders a bit and gets bogged down in religious and spiritual reflexions. But no matter: it’s all part of the adventure, from rapids to lost civilizations to friendly natives to portages and natural dangers. Good fun, well-served by the advantages of Omnimax. (In Omnimax theatre)

Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag [IMAX] (2004)

(In IMAX theaters, March 2006) As a certified military hardware buff, I had a number of dropped-jaw moments during this documentary. Covering (and re-creating) the annual “Red Flag” training tournament, director Stephen Low’s Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag gives us military planes on glorious 70mm negatives and kick-ass surround sound. Just wait until you see a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber slide into view, or hear the heart-stopping rumble of an A-10 Warthog main gun. While the structure of the film can be a scatter-shot of cool scenes that only aviation geeks will love, the quality of the pictures more than makes up for it. It generally improves by the end of the film, even concluding with a rescue sequence that easily belongs in a Bruckheimer action movie. A lot of stuff blows up. It’s all good. Given the international nature of the “Red Flag” exercise, Canadians even get to hear a snippet of Québécois. Albeit limited by the nature of the venture (This film would have not existed if it wasn’t for the collaboration of Boeing and the Air Force), Fighter Pilot is a lot of fun for aviation enthusiasts. What for sure is that this isn’t the usual Omnimax nature film. (In Omnimax theatre)

16 Blocks (2006)

(In theaters, March 2006) There is something old-fashioned in this straight-up thriller by veteran director Richard Donner. The trailer may try to sell you an action film, but there’s little in the actual film to reflect that: Much closer to traditional crime thrillers, 16 Blocks even indulges in a considerable amount of character development between its leads, a burnt-out useless cop (Bruce Willis), and an annoying criminal (Mos Def). There are few highlights in the film, but on the other hand it’s solid throughout its entire duration (with a number of third-act slip-ups) and doesn’t waste the elements in hand. Willis is especially solid as a terminal case seeing a last chance at redemption; it’s great good fun to see him go one-on-one with David Morse. There isn’t anything particularly memorable about this film, but it doesn’t matter as much as you’d think: at a time where even solid thrillers are rare, this isn’t bad at all.