Monthly Archives: April 2006

Rebel Without a Crew, Robert Rodiguez

Plume, 1995, 285 pages, C$22.50 tpb, ISBN 0-452-27187-8

As a certified fan of director Robert Rodriguez (I saw THE FACULTY in theatres; I’ve got ADVENTURES OF LAVA BOY AND SHARK GIRL on DVD), I had meant to pick up his tell-all non-fiction account Rebel Without a Crew for a while. The story of Rodriguez’s 1992 debut EL MARIACHI is now well-known, but anyone who has sat through one of Rodriguez’s entertaining audio commentaries already know that the man can be a show of his own: Who better to tell the story of Rodriguez’s breakout than Rodriguez himself?

Rebel Without a Crew mostly take the form of a diary detailing Rodriguez’s adventures while making EL MARIACHI, and then what happened to him as he was courted by Hollywood studios. It began as Rodriguez consciously decided to make an ultra-cheap feature film for the Spanish-language video market —as nothing more than a practise movie. Strapped for cash and free time, Rodriguez then volunteered for medical experiments (a thirty days stint in which he hoped to make money and write a screenplay), travelled south of the border and shot an entire film in two weeks without the benefit of a film crew. Most of the film’s $7,000US budget went to pay for the film stock: Rodriguez’s contacts and personal charm helped do the rest.

Strictly speaking, the story of the making of EL MARIACHI isn’t unique to Rebel Without a Crew. A trip to the local video store will net you the DVD edition of EL MARIACHI, complete with enough special features to give you a complete picture of how the movie was made. In the book, the shooting phase of the film barely takes 17 pages: the real story comes after, as Rodriguez drives himself sick editing the feature on primitive equipment, then goes off to Los Angeles to find a buyer for the feature. But then something very weird happens: thanks to an unbelievable series of coincidences, contacts and a really good film, Rodriguez caught the eye of major studios players. (As the subtitle states, this is How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player) The bulk of the story is seeing Rodriguez negotiate his way to a contract, even as things are grim at home. In a poignant moment, Rodriguez is forced to hock his prized film camera even as the studios are promising him a six-figure contract.

Then it’s the whirlwind of film festivals, audience acclaim, media frenzy and the unbelievable experience of seeing that $7,000 feature film (suitably sweetened) released nationwide. Day by day, entry by entry, we see Rodriguez stumble upon wild success, bewildered by the changes in his life. As a rag-to-riches story, Rebel Without a Crew is hard to beat. As a look inside the mechanics of the film industry, it’s invaluable. Legend has it that the book has quietly become a cult item for the last generation of independent filmmakers: it’s not hard to see why thanks to Rodriguez’s indefatigable optimism, awe-inspiring determination and personal charm. Much as I defy anyone to listen to Rodriguez’s DVD commentary without feeling admiration for the man, it’s impossible to read Rebel Without a Crew and escape the contact high of a supremely confident artist. Few of us are as brilliant as Rodriguez (who can write, draw, compose and direct), but we can all learn a lesson from his experience.

(Rodriguez makes it sound relatively easy, but it’s worth remembering that he didn’t get up one morning and decide to make EL MARIACHI: he had been shooting video, drawing and writing since childhood. It’s no accident if EL MARIACHI, even today, feels more self-assured than most of the slick straight-to-video trash you can find in video stores: Rodriguez had already mastered storytelling before shooting his feature film. This may serve to explain why there hasn’t been a glut of Rodriguez-level talent recently despite the wide availability of digital video cameras and material such as Rebel Without a Crew. For extra credits, cinephiles may want to compare Rodriguez’s approach and results with Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma-tic Make Your Own Damn Movie!)

As a straight-up narrative, Rebel Without a Crew is a great read, even for those without film-making experience or intent. Rodriguez is an enormously likable narrator, and it’s all too easy to root for him as he’s slowly noticed by Hollywood’s hype machine. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending: Today, Rodriguez reigns as a filmmaker at the threshold between niche and popular success. At 38, he already has two successful film trilogies under his belt, a handful of standalone features and seems poised for Tarantino-level stardom with the success of the first SIN CITY film. As if that wasn’t enough, a look at his DVDs shows that he’s making exactly the films he wants to make, with a home-grown studio and a low-budget cleverness that protects him against studio interference. If Rebel Without a Crew, proves something, it’s that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.

Wry Martinis, Christopher Buckley

Harper Perennial, 1997, 294 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 0-06-097742-6

April 2005, all told, was a pretty good month for Christopher Buckley: THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, the movie based on his 1994 novel, enjoyed a wide release across North American theatres. It may not have been much of a hit, (Budget: $6.5M. Box-office results: $23M), but the associated sale of the novel must have been a nice little bonus. Buckley, of course, is well-known for being a humorist, a journalist and an editor: Those who may know him only through THANK YOU FOR SMOKING may want to have a look at Wry Martinis, his non-fiction collection, to see what else he’s been writing.

Whimsically illustrated around a Martini theme, Wry Martinis begins with an introduction that purports to describe Buckley’s search for a good collection title, but ends up describing nearly everything in the book before smoothly moving over to the acknowledgements. Subdivided in several sections, Wry Martinis brings together a number of Buckley’s pieces published over twenty years, from the serious to the very, very funny.

The serious pieces may surprise some: Buckley, after all, is best knows for his satirical novels. But there’s a lot of heartfelt material in Wry Martinis, and some of it is bound to trip readers who are expecting a cover-to-cover laugh riot. The serious material ranges from travel writing (“One Way To Do the Amazon”) to straight-up reportage (“I Visit the Nimitz”) to op-ed (“What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?”). Buckley is never deathly serious, of course, but some pieces do mix real-world material with a keen eye for hyperbole. “Driving Through the Apocalypse” manages to make fun of bodyguard training, while “How I went Nine Gs in a F-16” is a hilarious take-off on a day-trip most of us would pay dearly to experience. Other pieces are more somber, even reflective: “Macho is as Macho does” discusses the trappings of a manly attitude with something approaching melancholy, an interesting reflexion on some of the most testosterone-driven material elsewhere in the book.

As a mostly reformed fan of Tom Clancy, I thought that one the highlights of the book was the “Homage to Tom Clancy” section, a series of pieces about the author. It begins innocently enough with “The Ego Has Landed”, a mostly-sympathetic piece on Clancy as a new writer in the wake of the boffo success of The Hunt For Red October, and continues in a similarly affectionate vein with “Tired Gun”, a wickedly funny take-off on Clancy’s usual writing style. But Buckely then unsheathes the knives with “Megabashing Japan”, a hilariously mean review of Clancy’s Debt of Honor that hits all of the book’s sore points. This, in turn, leads to “Fax Fire”, the only piece in the book not authored by Buckley: It’s a fluffy newspaper piece detailing the acrimonious exchange of faxes between Clancy and Buckley that followed the publication of the piece (complete with Clancy’s final apology) Taken together, those pieces illustrate Buckley’s strengths in Wry Martinis: a willingness to tip over sacred cows, a ferocious sense of observation and a sense of wit that cuts to the essential.

As with most humour columnists, the shorter pieces take on a free-form quality that can go from fake new reports to bestseller list parodies. Fans of Buckley’s Thank You For Smoking will enjoy “How I Learned to (Almost) Love the Sin Lobbyists”, a description of the research Buckley undertook to write the book, up to and including portraits of the real-life lobbyists Buckley interviewed for background material. Finally, a number of portraits betray Buckley’s more serious writing, from memories of his mother (“Mom, Fashion Icon”) to a profile of the woman behind “Ann Landers”.

If there’s an problem with the collection, it’s that it remains a prisoner of the context in which its individual components were written. Topical humour seldom remains relevant for longer than the current issue of the publication in which it appears, and so younger readers may need a refresher on two decade’s worth of cultural icons before making sense of some material in here. (I recommend a healthy usage of Wikipedia for the Reagan years.)

But all in all, there is a lot to sip in Wry Martinis for both Buckley fans and newcomers. While the inclusion of more serious articles can be surprising to those who know the author solely for his humour pieces, it’s a testimony of Buckley’s writing that the serious pieces can be just as fascinating as the more overly humorous texts.

A Paradigm of Earth, Candas Jane Dorsey

Tor, 2001, 366 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87796-X

As regular readers of these reviews already know, I’m not much for fuzzy-huggy Science Fiction that deals with grand statements on what it is to be human. I’ll leave that to others who are fascinated by the idea: they’re probably as uninterested in what does fascinate me, and that’s perfectly okay. Science Fiction is big enough to accommodate all type of readers, and the only mistake lies in criticizing what is obviously best suited for others.

No, I didn’t expect much from Candas Jane Dorsey’s A Paradigm of Earth: Her previous Black Wine had left me shrugging, and there wasn’t anything in her latest novel’s premise to get me interested. In some way, A Paradigm of Earth is yet another variation on the old “first contact with alien serves to illuminate human nature” SF story. In this case, a dozen alien infants are left on Earth (roughly distributed around the globe) to learn everything they can about humanity. As it happens, one of them ends up in Edmonton, Alberta, where it’s assigned to a social worker named Morgan. Morgan, as it happens, is a woman with a number of unsettled issues: the recent death of both of her parents has left her without any clear goal, and even the vast house she has inherited isn’t much comfort. But when the alien decides that he’d rather stay at her place rather than at the government facilities, she realizes that she’s humanity’s representative… no matter how ill-prepared she feels for it.

While I can respect the quality of Dorsey’s writing, she is obviously writing for a very, very different type of reader. A Paradigm of Earth is the type of quiet and contemplative story that, most days of the week, would send me running to faster-paced works. But great writers can be recognized in how they can cross boundaries and reach readers of all type, and so I felt myself sucked into A Paradigm of Earth almost despite myself, gradually wondering what would happen next to the characters.

There is a very comforting Canadian-ness to A Paradigm of Earth, a quiet matter-of-fact quality that seems almost calculated to trump traditional genre expectations. No explosions, no “aliens are going to destroy the planet unless we show them how worthy we are” histrionics. The alien decides to live in a boarding house, and the Prime Minister thinks it’s a splendid idea; how much more Canadian could this novel be? Heck, one of the protagonist is even a bureaucrat with tremendous depth of personality. Despite the murders that pepper the narrative (!), this novel has a comfy feel: call it a “cozy first-contact” novel. Dorsey’s stripped-down style chugs forward despite some plot lulls, leaving no barrier between reader and story.

Readers of Theodore Sturgeon’s story will feel at home with this book: Though well-labelled as Science Fiction, A Paradigm of Earth uses aliens as an excuse to explore humanity and how they react to this new situation. Love of people permeates this novel from beginning to end. But Dorsey’s slice of humanity, as is happens, is not the type of overachieving clean-cut atomic stereotypes so prevalent elsewhere in SF: They’re a diverse bunch of misfits, rebels and dissidents. Even the policemen and bureaucrats, defenders of the orthodoxy, often prove to be as unusual as their charges.

Gender issues are raised (the alien has no specific gender, which makes an odd match given Morgan’s own preferences), although the impact of those issues remains diffuse: The quiet intensity of the novel tends to make the gender issues disappear in the background of the novel, as just another piece of the alien’s education. As a reader who’s not particularly interested in gender issues, I remain unsure how I was supposed to be affected by this material, or if I was supposed to have strong reactions to a number of scenes that, to me, just blended with the rest.

But as I said, I’m not the kind of reader who’s supposed to be enthusiastic about this type of novel. That it worked well enough on me is enough of a compliment: Imagine what an effect if could have on you, if you think you wouldd enjoy this type of stuff!

The Summons, John Grisham

Dell, 2002, 373 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24107-3

For a writer often decried as a populist hack, John Grisham sure stretches his grasp a lot wider than some critics may be willing to acknowledge. After a few debut novels so similar in tone that they made Grisham a sitcom gag, readers were delighted to find a slightly different style following The Rainmaker: Novels that were as much characters studies as social critiques, coming at the “southern legal thriller” label from very different directions. Then came even looser works such as the straight-up family drama A Painted House or the holiday comedy Surviving Christmas. The Summons is another successful entry in Grisham’s post-Rainmaker renaissance, still a southern legal thriller, but with yet another emphasis.

It starts as law professor Ray Atlee receives a letter: His father, a well-known judge in a small rural Mississippi community, is dying and wants to see his two sons. Summoned to his childhood home, Ray makes two shocking discovery: First, that his father died before he could meet his sons a last time; second, that there are millions of dollars in cash hidden away in the house. Where does the money come from? And who else knows about it? As a comfortable academic, Ray doesn’t really need the money… but it sure would be handy. But it’s not simply a matter of picking up the money and depositing it at the nearest bank: as the threats pile up and the mystery of the money’s origin becomes more dangerous, Ray may have to do a lot of hard thinking in order to keep the money… or his life.

But there’s more to The Summons than just a thriller about a man and three million untraceable dollars in cash. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the novel (beyond its awesome page-turning appeal) is how it engages in a moral discussion about money and how it affects people. Ray Atlee is a decent man, but his first thought at the sight of millions of dollars is to hide and keep it all. Potentially complicating his actions are his doubts about the origins of the money: was his father part of a criminal ring? Was he bribed for a decision? Was he holding on to the money for a shadowy acquaintance? As Ray takes stock of his own life (divorced, comfortable, perhaps a bit lonely), the money -even left unspent- starts having an influence. For the reader, a lot of time is spend on the razor’s edge, wondering about Ray’s likability. Much like Scott B. Smith’s A Simple Plan (which is even acknowledged in Chapter 19), The Summons is an attempt to square off morality against or alongside money. Unlike Smith, however, Grisham isn’t so dark or so blunt to assume that money is evil: His thinking leads to a conclusion that twists without snapping believability and brings along an interesting moral reversal. Not since The Partner has Grisham played so well with expectations.

There are other treats here and there in The Summons, of course: Ray is an amateur pilot, and so we get a glimpse of life at ten thousand feet aboveground. Ray’s brother is what could be called a professional addict, with all the consequences and detox details that this implies. The portrait of the elder Atlee’s lingering influence in a small town is a nice piece of atmosphere that probably owes much to A Painted House. A late-book visit to a multimillionaire lawyer nicknamed “The King of Torts” oozes contempt.

As a thriller, The Summons isn’t Grisham’s best, but that’s unlikely to be much of a bother: it wouldn’t be a Grisham novel without the author’s usual terrific style. The Summons reads at two hundred pages an hour, propelled forward by an easy prose style, solid structure and a good bunch of characters.

Still, there is a bothersome aspect to the final revelations, which satisfy on a moral standpoint but leave a lot to be desired in terms of plausibility. Worse; a number of questions about the how of the deception are casually dismissed by a reference to two hoodlums conveniently kept off-stage. After the red herrings raised earlier in the book, it all seems a bit quick, a bit pat in order to bring along the last few pages on which Grisham wanted to end. A slight problem in a book otherwise so fun to read it’s hardly worth the trouble to complain.

What more satisfying is the constant appreciation of how Grisham is leveraging his strengths and limits into a series of highly enjoyable books. After his blockbuster success during the nineties, it’s good to see that Grisham is still stretching the envelope, still playing along with his chosen areas of expertise, still delivering good entertainment to fans and readers. The Summons may not be anything more than a good thriller, but it’s satisfying enough as it is.

Air Battle Force, Dale Brown

Morrow, 2003, 426 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-009409-5

Let us resolve, from the onset, that people in the military are, as a group of people, worthy of our admiration. After all, they’re doing dangerous jobs that would make most of us readers cower in helpless fear. Let us also maintain that military hardware is often a thing of beauty, marrying human ingeniousness with fearsome power. (Like power tools, except cooler). Furthermore, let us state blandly that military fiction, when properly written, can combine the best of several traditions, marrying slam-bang adventure with clever commentary on the nature of power and competition between nations.

This being stated, let’s now turn our attention to why Dale Brown’s Air Battle Force is not just a career low for Brown (which takes some doing after stinkers like Fatal Terrain or Wings of Fire) but is also one of the most inept piece of military fiction I’ve had the misfortune to read so far.

Most of the book’s problem stem from Brown’s now-ridiculous obsession in continuing a series that should have been put of of its misery a long time ago. Having locked himself far away in his imagined universe, Brown now finds himself unable to engage meaningfully with the issues of the day: Explicitly set in 2003, Air Battle Force declines to even recognize the events of 9/11 (save in the acknowledgements) despite mentioning here and there that the American government has spent years and millions of dollars chasing down the Taliban. Beyond the cartoonish dullness this gives to Brown’s “Air Battle Force” military unit, this refusal to acknowledge contemporary geopolitics betrays an author that may be unable to engage with current reality.

His skills as a storyteller certainly aren’t improving. While he doesn’t repeat some of Wing of Fire‘s stupidest moments (no nine-year-old PhD. in Air Battle Force), Brown here struggles to even define an exciting story. In boldly examining the US Air Force’s future in unmanned vehicles, Brown has also taken his heroes out of the action. Protagonist Patrick MacLanahan only get in danger once in the prologue, and that’s following Yet Another Dumb Command Move. Otherwise, Brown’s series is becoming a series of fancy technological demonstrations in which the back-room boys look on as their unmanned weapons remotely kick whatever anti-American ass there is to kick.

This doesn’t help Air Battle Force‘s pacing one tiny bit. For a 426-page novel, not a lot happens: Despite the interesting rumblings of an upcoming presidential campaign between Thorn and Martindale, Brown loses himself (and his readers) in dull back-water geopolitics that can be skipped one chapter at a time. Brown has never been an elegant stylist, but even his low standards are slipping with passages in which character viewpoints switch from one paragraph to the next. Brown has struggled with plot even since Storming Heaven, but Air Battle Force marks an even bigger failure than usual. By the end of the novel, all that remains is the impression of having read an extended prologue to the next novel. Brown shows no sign of actually being willing (let alone able) to fix what’s wrong with his fiction. Even by the undemanding standards of military fiction readers, Brown has reached the bottom of the barrel and seems intent of clawing his way even further down. His characters are as bland as ever and he can’t even write a decent action scene with whatever new toys he has. Add that to his inability to adapt his fiction to the new shape of the real world and one question remains: Why would anyone want to read anything by Dale Brown ever again?

I have long considered Brown’s post-Hammerheads output as being inferior to what he’s capable of writing (which truly dates us), but now has come the time to consider (reluctantly) that this may be as good as it gets; that Brown will never again be able to write the kind of stuff he did so well earlier in his career. It speaks volume that in sinking lower and lower, Brown has never acquired the kind of inspiring right-wing craziness that now makes Clancy so much fun to read: He has simply become a rambling, boring writer coasting on the laurels of better books long past gone (and possibly a percentage of Dan Brown’s new fans.) I’ve got two more books by Brown on my shelf, bought well before he went in his current death spiral: I can’t wait until I’m done with them.

The Snow, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2004, 297 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07181-8

Canadians enjoy a worldwide reputation as easygoing, unflappable, even dull people. It’s long been a national contention that our long winter have something to do with this placid nature. Good government and central heating really do sound like excellent ideas in a country that spends at least four months per year in freezing temperatures. But don’t think we can’t be scared out of our wits. If you want to give nightmares to a Canadian, just start talking about a winter that never ends.

That’s exactly how The Snow begins. Snow starts falling on September 6th… and never stops. Our narrator for most of the novel, Tira Bojani Sahai, is a young English woman of Indian descent that manages to survive the snowfall as London gets buried under a blanket of snow of glacial thickness. Not that the rest of the world has done much better, she finds out once she’s rescued after this harrowing first section: As far as anyone knows, the entire globe is now encased in an icy shell. And yet humanity endures. But to what purpose?

As the stuff nightmares are made of, The Snow is top-notch. Straight in the conceptual footsteps of J.G. Ballard’s catastrophe novels, Adam Roberts’ fifth novel starts off by killing billions of people. Promising start, delivered with matter-of-fact prose that only makes the horror more obvious. But those of you expecting the hard-SF version of THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW may be disappointed: In Roberts’ typical fashion, this is a novel about precariousness, weird environments, unreliable narrators, ludicrous plot twists and unsatisfying developments. As with the author’s previous novels, it’s both lovely and frustrating in equal fashion, praiseworthy and damnable for never doing the expected thing. One thing is for sure: this is not a boring book.

The narrator alone is a piece of work: While it’s easy to feel a lot of initial empathy for Tira as she struggles through a situation that would kill most of us, latter developments refine her personality in increasingly complex fashion. We come to doubt her narrative, a doubt that is rewarded late in the novel as her unreliability is exposed in a short heartbreaking conversation. As far as characters are concerned, Tira is one of Roberts’ most achieved creation.

A shame that one can’t be so complimentary about the story that surrounds her. The Snow may be a clever metaphor for many different things, and that’s part of the problem: Readers flail around like Canadians without snowshoes, sucked into a bottomless pile of fluffy stuff.

Reigning in my runaway metaphors, it suffices to say that The Snow goes nowhere for a while, spends some time describing yet another repressive regime, spends more time doing nothing, backtrack to a current-day narrative (a first for a Roberts novel) then goes on a wild tangent in which the real story behind the real story of the Snow is exposed. The end takes a loony turn that is as endearing (in a “Whee!” fashion) as it seems clobbered out of thin air. Lengthy delirious passages leading to the conclusion don’t do much to prepare anyone for the last few twists.

By this point, you can figure out that The Snow leaves a scattered impression. Parts of the novel are brilliant, and other parts feel like filler. (A digression about skin colour never quites gels, even as an instance of the narrator’s unreliability) As with most other Roberts novels, there is a hidden narrator between the text and the reader: Here, an unseen censor peppers the text with [Blank] character names and a few [expletive deleted], warning the reader of dire consequences if those top-secret pieces are read by unauthorized personnel. Interesting, although the tell-all epilogue takes away part of the fun.

In some ways, The Snow is the best thing that Adam Robert has done. The initially endearing narrator, the suffocating first fifty pages, the layering of an unseen layer of interpretation are all top-notch. Heck, even some of the disappointing elements are pure genius. But the final result lacks cohesion even as the novel works overtime to drive readers away. While it’s easy to appreciate Roberts’ constant refusal to do the easy thing, how hard would it be, once in a while, to throw a bone to his audience? Could that explain why, even after a string of disappointing novels, I keep coming back to his stuff in the hope that this, finally, will be his novel that truly satisfies all expectations?

The Toxic Avenger (1984)

(On VCD, April 2006) Troma films have acquired a very special reputation in the low-budget movie industry, and this is the prototypical Troma film: A mixture of horror and comedy on a shoestring budget, with plenty of gore effects and a sense of humour that’s best described as wide-ranging. Most straight-to-video films have more maturity than this film, but the unabashed looniness of Troma film is part of their charm. In fact, one could say that Troma has managed the singular feat of turning every single potential problem into an advantage. Nonsensical plot; lousy production values; exploitative nudity; interminable fight sequences: who cares? Even more than twenty years later, you can still watch the film with some interest, which is more than one can say about some of 1984’s Oscar-nominated films. It goes without saying, though, that you have to be able to tolerate a considerable amount of silliness to make it to the end of this film. This version of The Toxic Avenger is the (legal) “Gametek cinema digital movies” one that was converted to Quicktime format and sold in computer stores in the mid-nineties. Audiovisual quality: atrocious, but at least you can make up most of the film.

Thank You For Smoking (2005)

(In theaters, April 2006) Christopher Buckley’s satiric novel had me pleased, but hardly bowled over. The film adaptation produces a similar effect, though the sardonic tone of the narrator seems to work better in a cinematic context, especially when it’s strengthened by some clever direction. But after a promising start, Thank You For Smoking gradually settles in a comfortable groove, a move that’s not helped by changes bringing this film away from the thriller plot-line of the book to a more conventional “moral redemption on the kid’s behalf” third act. But even those changes fail to do much damage to the film: Aaron Eckhart does really well with a role that allows him to caricature his squared-jawed all-American looks; other supporting players do just as well. While Thank You For Smoking fails to make any lasting impression, it’s a pleasant time at the movies and plays well enough to satisfy anyone.

Slither (2006)

(In theaters, April 2006) Horror/comedy hybrids aren’t rare, but given how they tend to flop at the box office, seeing such an unabashed monster comedy like Slither is always something of a wonder. Boldly indulging in the limits of its R rating (except, alas, for the nudity), writer/director James Gunn delivers a movie that would make his old Troma pals proud. (It’s no accident if there’s footage of The Toxic Avenger on a TV screen midway through the film) Slither isn’t really interested in horror, but it’s keen on grossing you out; indeed, one could argue that it’s even more interested in showing gore than in making you laugh: This is a film where the one-liners are tossed off with negligent verve, but where every single gunshot takes off a chunk of flesh. The overall impact of the film will be amiable for gore-hounds, but a bit puzzling for civilian moviegoers: too much yuck, not enough yucks. Otherwise, well, Nathan Fillion retools his Firefly persona to good effect and Elizabeth Banks does her best to be as innocuous as possible. Frankly, it’s a measure of the film’s good-natured tone that it doesn’t leave much of an impact despite some truly stomach-churning visuals. But don’t get too excited: in the genre, it’s not up to Eight-Legged Freaks, and nowhere near the classic Tremors.

Counting Heads, David Marusek

Tor, 2005, 336 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31267-0

2005 has been an embarrassingly good year for high-end science-fiction: Stross’ Accelerando, Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes… Gee! And now, like a cherry on top of an excessively rich sundae, here’s Counting Heads, David Marusek’s long-awaited first novel. While it doesn’t completely live up to its advance expectations, Marusek’s novel is a head-spinner of the first degree, a vision of the future with three times the idea density of other solid SF works. Despite a number of misfires that would doom a lesser novel, it’s also a lot of fun.

Counting Heads spins rather directly from Marusek’s excellent 1995 novella “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy.” Slightly revised and included as the first part of the novel, the original story tells of one Samson Harger and his union with an unbelievably powerful woman named Eleanor K. Starke. Ten years after publication, the novella doesn’t seem so fresh (signs of evolving genre expectations, now that people like Charles Stross are writing entire novels in that exuberant style), but it’s still a delight to read. I compared the revised version with the original and the changes, at one searing exception, seem limited to a stream of line-editing corrections that neither add nor subtract much from the 1995 version.

The real plot of Counting Heads begins nearly thirty years later, as a assassination plot kills off Eleanor and severely wounds her daughter Ellen. In a deliciously intense scene, Ellen’s skull is preserved in its own crash-proof helmet, setting in motion the rest of novel: In a few words, Counting Heads is a treasure hunt in which the prize is Ellen’s cryogenically preserved head.

But the book can’t be reduced to a few words, because Counting Heads quickly takes on the quality of an amusement park ride. In a world where nanotechnology is a fact of life, life isn’t as easy as you’d expect. Unemployment is prevalent, money is hard to come by, and being poor in a society of abundance can be even more maddening than living in a backward society. (Plus, there are good chances that you’re genetically identical to thousands of other clones bred for personality quirks) The threat of rogue nano-bugs (“blooms”) makes today’s fears about terrorism seem laughable, leading straight to the book’s humourless “HomCom” police forces. Eleanor Starke’s assassination turns out to be the opening salvo of a “correction” among the affluent populations of the novel, with consequences that are still very much in play by the end of the novel.

Because, oh yeah, Counting Heads is the first volume in a series, even through you’ll find no hints of this anywhere in the book. While the story reaches a resting point of sorts, most overarching threads are left dangling, with the identity of Starke’s enemy still a point of contention by the last page. (Careful readers will have a rough idea of who’s to blame, but there are no definitive answers here.)

This unfinished quality severely harms the novel’s impact. For all of its clever details, cool ideas and amusing sight-seeing, Counting Heads leaves the impression of an unfinished work. The high-flying virtuosity of Marusek’s speculation carries along its own dangerous possibility: that it may fail in the next instalment, that the ride may not lead anywhere. As it stands Counting Heads‘s last fifty pages betray a lot of movement and not much development: any further evaluation will have to wait until the conclusion, whether it comes in the second volume or much later.

This makes me hesitant to recommend Counting Heads as a standalone unit. I certainly can’t get enough of that type of Science Fiction, but I freely acknowledge that cool ideas can often overshadow more significant problems in my appreciation of any work of fiction. I’m not sure what less dedicated readers may think of the novel: This is a dense piece of work both conceptually and visually (to save money, the designers crammed an extra 20% of text on every single one of the book’s 336 pages). My unconditional love for the result is, well, unconditional: not everyone will be so taken with the result.

What is certain, however, is that I’ll be one of the first in line to buy the sequel. Counting Heads may only leave half an impression, but it’s one heck of an impression.

The Sentinel (2006)

(In theaters, April 2006) It had been a long time since the last thriller set in the White House, and The Sentinel is a good return to the sub-genre with a welcome emphasis on Secret Service characters. While the film can never completely shake off the shadow of In The Line Of Fire, it’s not a bad take on the same elements. What is a bit more distracting is the presence of two TV mega-stars in important role. “Desperate Housewives” Eva Longoria is Teh Cuteness, but her casting here seems more like a stunt given how that role could have been played by just about any actress in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Keifer Sutherland reprises a role very, very similar to the one he plays on “24”, constantly welcoming comparison to the TV show’s intensity. Alas, it’s a comparison that often works to The Sentinel‘s disadvantage: loosely adapted from a novel by Gerald Petievich, the film moves well but doesn’t have the same breakneck pacing nor surprising plot twists. Which isn’t to say that the script holds together: There are a number of troubling implausibilities through the entire film. Almost entirely bereft of humour, The Sentinel will still amuse Canadians given how the last act is spent shooting and running near the Toronto City Hall. Director Clark Johnson does an unspectacular job: whatever stylistic flourishes there are in the movie disappear once the film’s second act is well under way. While this certainly won’t go down in history as anything more than an adequate thriller, The Sentinel delivers what’s expected from a genre B-movie: It’s the cinema equivalent to a decent beach-side page-turner.

Scary Movie 4 (2006)

(In theaters, April 2006) Roughly similar in tone to the previous Scary Movie 3, this one is a comedy grab-bag that chiefly goes after (in decreasing order of importance) War Of The Worlds, The Grudge and The Village, with other assorted pokes and tweaks at other films (Saw, Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain) and pop-culture icons. Scary Movie 4‘s biggest problem is that it’s quite happy to pastiche other films, but seldom goes for the jugular: Movie critics had funnier jabs at War Of The Worlds during the summer of 2005 than the parody ever manages to put together. (The constantly-screaming little girl shtick isn’t even mocked.) Scary Movie 4, alas, is almost completely bloodless in its parodies: it recreates the original with some goofiness but seldom more. (This being said, the production values are often impressive, especially considering the short shooting schedule) Even the rare political gags only make us wish for much more. It’s no surprise, then, if some of the film’s cleverest moments stand completely apart from previous films. As for the actors, well Anna Faris is still cute in an increasingly irritating clueless shtick, while Craig Bierko does well with the thankless task of parodying Tom Cruise. Still, it’s Regina Hall who steals the show as the insatiable Brenda: her arrival in the movie kicks it up another notch (plus, doesn’t she look unbelievably cute in founder’s-era clothing?) Yes, Scary Movie 4 will make you laugh. Dumb, cheap, easy laughs but still; consider it your reward for slogging through endless mainstream horror films.

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

(In theaters, April 2006) There are two good films in this movie, but their union is far less impressive than the sum of their parts. First up is a sympathetic crime comedy, in which an amiable protagonist (Josh Hartnett, playing up his usual lack of passion) see himself stuck between two competing crime-lords. As a fluffy premise, it works well and earns a few laughs, bringing to mind some of the least-annoying post-Tarantino criminal comedies. Plus it’s got Lucy Liu: I could watch her in just about anything, but she’s particularly appealing here as the frazzled-hair girl next door. But this seemingly amusing caper is leading toward a twist loudly foreshadowed by curious ellipses and a number of nonsensical details. When the plot twist comes, it changes the nature of the film, turning it in a story of violent revenge that leaves few threads untied. Taken in bits and pieces, Lucky Number Slevin isn’t bad at all. The impressive cast (featuring Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, Ben Kingsley, etc.) often makes it appear as being much better than it actually is, as do the occasional good lines and arresting set design. There is enough quirkiness in the first half to give the impression that it’s leading somewhere fun. But in the final analysis, Lucky Number Slevin looks like a twist in search of a script. Whatever good ratings it gets are mostly based on potential, because the execution can’t fulfil initial expectations.

Word of Honor, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1985, 738 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-30158-2

Every book review presents its own special challenge, but taking on Nelson DeMille’s Word of Honor presents challenge of its own. Simply put, this is a book that shouldn’t work. Describing it will send you in a coma and make you wonder how it can possibly be a pleasant reading experience. And yet it is. And yet it works.

For fans of DeMille’s books, this won’t be much of a surprise: While most of his books could be cut by half without much sacrifice, DeMille seldom deliver anything less than excellent novels. Despite the lengths, the indulgences and the sometimes tepid pacing, DeMille means entertainment. Word of Honor may be a bit less interesting than his other books, but it’s still crackerjack good stuff.

Writers are often advised to “start the story at the beginning, but no earlier” and the first page of Word of Honor is a textbook example of that axiom as Manhattan middle-manager Ben Tyson sees a fellow commuter reading a nonfiction book about Vietnam. Upon verification, Tyson is in the book, highlighted as a commanding officer who allowed a wartime atrocity.

And so it begins. The book outrages a segment of the American population and forces the US military brass to do something: before long, Tyson finds himself recalled to duty and in serious danger of being court-martialed. The obvious question, of course, is just what happened back there and then: what is the truth behind those so-called atrocities? Could there be some more to the story than wholesale massacre?

Of course there is. This is a DeMille novel, after all, and anyone who’s read works such as The General’s Daughter knows that the author can spin quite a yarn from the most ordinary beginnings.

But frankly, Word of Honor is more about soul-searching than plot. DeMille has been to Vietnam and if his latter Up Country remains a classic exploration of the conflict’s lasting legacy, Word of Honor can be seen as the first draft of his feelings about the war. War makes losers of everyone, seems to be saying DeMille, and there are no statue of limitations on atrocities. Ben Tyson may have become a well-adjusted, moderately successful all-American protagonist after Vietnam, but Word of Honor is the story of consequences for what he’s done. The perfunctory plot is just an excuse to think about what happened and continues to happen.

Doesn’t sound too riveting, right? Can you imagine more than seven hundred pages of that stuff? Contrarily to other DeMille novel, there aren’t too many crazy twists in here: The story progresses linearly to its conclusion, with the expected revelation late in the book and the protagonist’s just punishment. Even The Explanation, when it comes, seems underwhelming.

And yet Word of Honor is never boring. DeMille’s natural storytelling abilities are such that every page is a delight, that every character is worth understanding. Tyson may be a bit rough around the edges (the sarcasm so prevalent in DeMille protagonists seems muted here, often taking the form of anger rather than flippancy), but he’s worth caring about throughout his entire odyssey. As a Vietnam novel, it’s tremendously effective.

This 1985 book has aged a lot, but not in the way you may think. In these brave early days of the twenty-first century, it’s impossible to read without making parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. As with Up Country, reading Word of Honor brings along the certitude that the American invasion of Iraq is another national traume in full bloom: We know that there will be further stories of atrocities in the years to come. We know that in some ways, many people have learned nothing from Vietnam. Word of Honor has not aged in twenty years. If anything, it has become even more current.

So don’t let the lack of plot of the book discourage you. Just sink into the novel’s easy narration and enjoy, if that’s truly the appropriate feeling, DeMille’s sure-handed storytelling. It’s an unconventional novel, but one that delivers solid satisfaction. It shouldn’t work, but it does so magnificently.

Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986)

(On VCD, April 2006) Troma film; what more is there to say? Actually, this is a bit more interesting than The Toxic Avenger, with a touch of social commentary, decent special affects (for 1986) and the unbelievably cute Janelle Brady as the heroine. The plot is a mess of radioactive goo, monsters, bodily changes, teen sex, potent soft drugs, student unrest and motorcycles. You can’t call this film good, but you can say it’s spirited, with almost enough energy to make anyone ignore the wall-to-wall inanity. Compared to The Toxic Avenger, this film is less linear, somewhat denser, a bit funnier and generally more competent from a technical standpoint. (There are a number of arresting scenes that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a better film.) Still, it goes without saying that this form of film-making is for a very specific type of viewer: It probably loses half its charm per year once you’re older than 15. This version of Class Of Nuke’em High is the (legal) “Gametek cinema digital movies” one that was converted to Quicktime format and sold in computer stores in the mid-nineties. Audiovisual quality: atrocious, but at least you can make up most of the film.