Lady In The Water (2006)

(In theaters, August 2006) I have written elsewhere that with every passing film, M. Night Shyamalan’s directing skills grow better even as his scripts are getting worse. Lady In The Water may present a pause, but it’s certainly no improvement of either aspect. Billed as a modern fairy tale, it may be more appropriate to call it a modern mess: All sorts of mythical allusions, but hardly any substance under the surface. While the direction is still effective (though missing the cleverness that so bolstered The Village and Signs despite everything else), the script goes nowhere and can’t be bothered to deliver an epilogue to wrap everything up. It opens with dispensable narration and thrives on minutiae, blithely passing by moments that should be important. It recycles the old “traumatized protagonist must do something good to redeem himself” shtick that Shyamalan has seemingly adopted as his leitmotiv. There isn’t much suspense, and whatever sympathy we have for the characters seems deliberately forced by Shyamalan’s heavy-handed touch. It’s not a complete failure: the multicultural cast is great (w00t for Sarita Choudhury), the images are often nice and it’s hard to fault any of the actors –including po-faced Shyamalan himself. A number of the film’s ideas have potential, and the character of the Film Critic is a lot of (wasted) fun. But in the end, it comes down to Shyamalan and his own self-indulgence. When it works, it works but when it doesn’t… –hey, look at the pretty pictures!

Gunner Palace (2004)

(On DVD, August 2006) There really isn’t much to say about this film beyond the simple facts: It’s a documentary about a bunch of American soldiers (most of them young), stationed at what was Uday Hussein’s pleasure palace. The filmmakers behind the camera spent a year with the soldiers and filmed everything: Gunner Palace is best seen as a collage of life over there, without much in term of narrative structure or documentary development. As a demonstration of what life is like for the men out there, it’s unbeatable: War, from the trenches, is about boredom footnoted by death. Garbage bags that may explode. Allies that turn into enemies overnight. Living in the ruins of excess, trying to help people who would rather throw stones at you. I suspect that Gunner Palace is so close to its subject that it’s likely to be seen as a triumph regardless of one’s political affiliations. Alas, it’s already gaining in historical stature as, two years later, the situation over there hasn’t really improved… and thousands of Americans have come back in body bags. Ultimately, reviewing the film isn’t necessary, not when they (or people much like them) are out there, and we’re over here… not understanding what they’re going through.

Soundings, Gary K. Wolfe

Beccon, 2005, 415 pages, US$35.00 tpb, ISBN 1-870824-50-4

As a dilettante critic/reviewer/guy who likes to sound off, I simply can’t get enough book-length collections of SF&F reviews. Yes, I’ve got the entire John Clute oeuvre on my bookshelves: but what else is out there? The audience for such works of SF criticism probably numbers in the hundreds, which is about the size of the print runs for the rare books that are published on the subject.

Fortunately, small presses are made for that sort of narrowly-focused special-interest publication. After the critical and (slight) commercial success of John Clute’s Scores, small British publisher Beccon is at it again with Soundings, a collection of Gary K. Wolfe’s reviews for Locus Magazine between 1992 and 1996. Wolfe, of course, if Locus’ reviewer-in-chief: He gets his pick of whatever interests him, and spins a monthly column that leads off the magazine’s criticism section.

Amusingly enough, one of the book’s least fascinating aspects is to illustrate his growth as a reviewer, mostly because there is very little here that could be considered a beginner’s mistake: coming at reviewing from academia, Wolfe hit the ground running and even his first reviews are solid pieces of work. Perhaps the only remaining hints of early jitters are Wolfe’s protests as he’s asked to sum up the year and how he’s unqualified to do so: pages later, he’s busy knocking down the trends and clichés emerging from the genre.

Wolfe’s tenure at Locus is well-deserved: He can talk intelligently about any genre or sub-genre, he’s got the intellectual muscles to go head-to-head with John Clute (his argumentative reviews of Clute’s encyclopedias are a wonder to read, as most reader -myself included- are content to simply gawk in awe at them) and his columns are frequently enlivened with touches of dry humour that cuts deep as much as it amuses. (A typical example: “Even though none of us are very good at articulating what SF is, we don’t hesitate for a moment when it comes to selecting its best examples.”)

Wolfe may not be as dazzling as Clute, but the underpinning of his reviews are just as solid. His usual approach is to combine reviews of several books in a single column, sometimes developing a common theme and sometimes not. This allows for a format that adapts to the material, through the column’s expanding length also accounts for some of that flexibility. His approach is incisive, and his academic background gives him the vocabulary and rigour required to get to the essence of a book. (Compare and contract that to the seat-of-the-pants “Did I like this or not?” approach practised by yours truly.)

One of the book’s best qualities is how it doubles as a critical capsule studying SF&F in the mid-nineties, as the genre was trying to redefine itself in the wake of cyberpunk. The whole New Mars movement occurs almost in real-time, the book being practically bookended by reviews of Red Mars on one side and Blue Mars on the other. Some writers don’t fare too well in this compressed format: We get the sense, for instance, that Wolfe doesn’t think as highly of Orson Scott Card in 1996 than he did in 1992. This is practically a half-generation of SF under the microscope, in a relatively comparable format that allows for easy comparison. (Even John Clute doesn’t have this luxury: aside from the one-shot encyclopedias, his reviews are scattered over dozens of periodicals and use different approaches that aren’t so readily unified.)

One thing that did bother me about the book was the inclusion of Wolfe’s year-in-review pieces before the columns for that given year: It previews the coming attractions, but also lessens the surprise of some judgements. Perhaps worse, it introduces a number of temporal loops in the reading, and can complicate the summation or a few arguments developed over the year. I think that I would have preferred a strictly chronological approach, even with the inevitable repetition. (Of course, nothing was stopping me from reading the book in that order.)

But what I really want are the next volumes in the series, all the way to 2006 and beyond. Wolfe is still writing monthly columns for Locus and while I’m now a happy subscriber, I really would appreciate more collections of critical essays from him or others. If Beccon is good and lucky, Soundings will turn a better-than-modest profit, and the series will continue. Where can I pre-order my copies?

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

(On DVD, August 2006) Oh my: this is a juvenile, frat-boy glorification comedy that never hesitates to go for the cheap gag and the gross sight. And yet, I pretty much loved it from beginning to end. Good supporting characters, inspired lunacy, some shamelessness and plenty of unpretentious attitude can carry you a long way, and so Dodgeball manages to suceed despite characters you would almost certainly hate in real life. The way that “dodgeball” is formalized with rules that would never make up a real sport and then hyped up as a Vegas sport is particularly endearing. The ending does fall apart, but that’s part of the fun: This film has one of the most outrageous good-guys-win-everything finale I can recall, but look closely at the screen and you can see the winking deus ex machina. There isn’t much more to say about the film though: Instantly accessibly, instantly forgettable. But it is funny enough.

The Descent (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Descent</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, August 2006) The advance hype of this film was frightful, so let us correct one misconception from the start: This is not one of the greatest horror films of all times. It is, on the other hand, a very decent entry in the genre, and that’s not bad considering the adolescent dross that usually gets released in theatres as “horror” nowadays. As far as premises go, writer/director Neil Marshall knows where to go: By locking up his feuding heroines in a cave along with a bunch of monsters, he gets claustrophobia, paranoia and terror all wrapped up in a neat package. People who are afraid of the dark should stay away: once the rocks fall, the monsters emerge and old feuds are uncovered, don’t bet on anyone making it to the end credits without severe damage. Alas, if the film may work as a thriller it’s somewhat limited in other aspects. While the script designates Shauna Macdonald as the recipient of our sympathies, my own affections lay firmly with can-do Asian cutie Natalie Jackson Mendoza, dividing the impact of the inevitable face-off between the two. I also suspect that I’ll be in a minority in shaking my head at the ecosystematic unlikeliness of the monsters and how their population is completely unsustainable in this given environment. Then there’s the growing repetitiveness of the last act: monsters, girls, death, repeat. Still, while these flaws may damage my enjoyment of the film, they don’t take away from the fact that Marshall has crafted a better-than-average horror film. The Descent may be completely humourless, but it’s earnest in its intent to do anything to scare its viewers. Some jump-scares are effective and others aren’t (much like the quick-cutting works in some instances and not in others). While The Descent won’t leave any lasting chills (for that, the North-American distributors may have considered keeping the original longer ending), it’s a respectable entry in the horror genre and not one of those made-for-retarded-teens films that can be dismissed even as they’re rolling. It certainly makes me curious about Marshall’s next effort.

Archangel, Robert Harris

Arrow, 1998, 421 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-09-928241-0

Robert Harris’ early reputation was based on Fatherland and Enigma, two thrillers that delved deep into history for inspiration. Fatherland, of course, is the poster cover for accessible alternate history (Nazis triumphant! Fear the thought!) while Enigma used WW2-era Bletchley Park as a handy setting for a thriller. With Archangel, Robert Harris gets further away from WW2 by setting his story in the present, but don’t think for a minute that he has shrugged off historical research: While contemporary, Archangel pretty much revolves around the legacy of Joseph Stalin.

The putative protagonist of the tale is one “Fluke” Kelso, a historian with credibility problems who, while passing through modern-day Moscow for a conference, finds himself the recipient of an unexpected barroom confession: Incredibly enough, a man tells Kelso about Stalin’s secret diaries and where they may be buried. As Kelso gulps down information that could lead to a significant historical discovery, the plot is set in motion. It’s hardly surprising to find out that other people are very, very interested in those diaries, and that their goals are dramatically opposed to academic research and publication.

But things are seldom simple, especially in contemporary Moscow. In the hall of dark mirrors that is post-communist Russia, who’s being manipulated by who? In due time, Kelso find himself tracking down an man who has disappeared, running away from the state police along with two untrustworthy allies: a dangerously bitter woman and a journalist with an agenda of his own. Worse yet: what started out as a search for a historical document eventually becomes a confrontation with the ugly possibility of a resurgent Soviet empire.

It won’t surprise anyone to find that Harris’ third novel is heavy on historical research, and a bit softer in the thriller department. Even casual Soviet history buffs will find much to contemplate here, as Harris is able to dig down deep in the murk of Soviet history to wrap up an entertaining historical mystery with grave contemporary implications. The desperate atmosphere of present-day Russia is well sketched, with plenty of evocative details and believable characters, some of whom taken from the pages of history.

The more conventional thriller elements of the novel, unfortunately, aren’t so satisfying. Harris often lets his sense of detail and his research overpower the need for forward momentum, and Archangel leaves the reader with the impression of a short book padded with too many side tangents. The beginning takes its time to heat up, and the ending is particularly long in coming after the final secrets have all been exposed, with an extra-special character who seems clearly too far-fetched to be credible given the authenticity of the rest of the novel.

More significantly, Harris is a bit too glib in supposing how his historical menace could become a future peril for all of Western Civilization: Politics have a way of never turning out how you would expect them, and it’s not as if modern history isn’t crammed with “sure-fire candidates” who ended crashing down with a whimper, especially if they’re not quite sane.

Archangel also ends up on an abrupt ambiguity that doesn’t really matter one way or another, so low is our attachment to the characters. Harris’ novels are most notable for their Big Ideas rather than their talking-heads, and this one is no exception: Readers are more likely to raise their shoulders as the final shot goes off, sufficiently satisfied at the way the historical treasure box was unwrapped.

Generally speaking, it’s a solid thriller –sufficiently interesting not to be forgotten the next day, but too plodding and generic to really make an impression. Harris doesn’t step all that far away from his area of expertise with this story, so his regular readers are unlikely to find themselves in unfamiliar territory. It’s probably a little bit more interesting than Enigma (time will tell), but still a distance away from Fatherland, which is likely to remain Harris’ best-known novel for quite a while. But who knows? Maybe Harris’ following book, Pompeii, will change everything…

Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006)

(In theaters, August 2006) As a good little bilingual Canadian, I’ve been waiting for this film a long, looong time: A fully-bilingual crime comedy buddy-movie featuring a Québecois and an Ontarian, solving a case about a serial murderer going after those who ruined our national sport of hockey. Scripted and shot with fully naturalistic dialogues, Bon Cop, Bad Cop was distributed in Canada in two flavours: One has French subtitles and another has English ones, but bilingual moviegoers will lap up the dialogue without looking at the bottom of the screen as the film fluently switches back and forth, playing on stereotypes and promoting national unity with plenty of action. The film does miracles with a minuscule budget, but it’s the characters and the dialogue that makes the film more than the gunfights or exploding cars. There are tons of regional references throughout the film, from one-liners referencing October 1970 to inside jokes about recent hockey history. Don’t miss Rick Mercer playing Don Cherry, a jab at George W. “Arbusto” or how a character with accents in both languages is linked to former prime minister Jean Chretien. It’s hardly a perfect film, mind you: the plot mechanics don’t make sense, the film is predictable from start to finish and the clichés fly fast and low. More annoyingly, the film definitely lacks an epilogue, loud music often drowns out the sound during the cheaply-shot action scenes and there is a lack of tone consistency as the film goes from lighthearted cop comedy to gory serial killer thriller. But the film’s central conceit is fabulous enough that audiences (especially bilingual ones) are unlikely to care even if they notice: I saw the film in a sparsely-packed theatre, and the handful of viewers was collectively out-laughing many fully-crowded audiences I’ve heard. Bon Cop, Bad Cop takes the crowd-pleasing techniques of Quebec films and applies them to a broader framework: the result is well worth watching. Uncharacteristically enough for a Canadian-branded film, this one’s a crowd-wowing winner.

Le Battement d’ailes du Papillon [Happenstance] (2000)

(On DVD, August 2006) I didn’t expect much from this film, but it does eventually manage to pull itself together, though right before falling apart again. In a way, that’s fitting for a film that’s all about randomness, chance and the impact of seemingly small actions. The original title of the film is a wink to Chaos Theory and “The Butterfly Effect”, and so the film is a succession of mini vignettes in which characters almost meet up, are separated by chance, see their innocuous actions hurt someone else or find themselves in impossible situations that are completely incomprehensible except for the all-seeing audience. It’s very, very scattered by design, but the various interactions between the characters can be fun to watch, with occasional moments of shallow philosophy exposed. (Gilbert Romain is particularly interesting in his brief scenes as “The Destiny Man”, practically standing in for the screenwriter.) Available in North American solely due to the presence of Audrey Tautou, this film inevitably evokes memories of Amelie De Montmartre. But there’s a world of difference between those two films: Amelie (beyond obviously benefiting from a far more accomplished sense of direction) succeeds where Happenstance doesn’t in tying all threads together and imposing an overarching sense over a tapestry of details. Here, a few plot threads get tied up while the others are just left to scatter: It simply leaves a feeling of incompleteness, of selective conclusion. While the film as a whole leaves a pleasant and fuzzy feeling, it seems to forget its own objectives right before ending.

Jennie, Douglas Preston

Tor, 1994 (1997 reprint), 312 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56533-9

This is definitely not the first novel you would expect from Douglas Preston. Now firmly established as a thriller writer (usually, but not always collaborating with Lincoln Child on yarns such as The Relic, The Ice Limit or The Cabinet of Curiosities), Preston can command a sizable audience and a regular spot on the bestseller lists: his readers can rely on his name for slick thrills and mass-market entertainment.

But his first novel, published one year before the runaway success of The Relic, proves to be a very different book. Though it’s concerned about death, it’s hardly a thriller. Its form and execution is very different from the rest of Preston’s work.

Taking the form of an oral history, Jennie starts by putting its readers in a frame of reference that may or may not be our real world. Though careful pseudo-historical references and self-insertion in the story as the researcher pulling together the accounts of several witnesses, Preston manages to create a reasonable doubt that the story he’s about to tell is historical truth.

It begins in 1965, as an anthropologist goes to Africa and brings back a chimpanzee, the titular Jennie. Thanks to the circumstances of Jennie’s birth, the anthropologist decides to raise her as a member of his own family, applying his theories about primate intelligence to an authentic subject. As the book advances, we follow the family’s efforts in dealing with Jennie’s maturation, and the effects she has on the people surrounding her. People may not forget that Jennie isn’t completely human, but what if Jennie herself doesn’t realize it?

The real intent of the novel, of course, is to tug at readers’ hearts and make them feel that the differences between animals and humans are far thinner than they can expect. You can probably fill in the blanks of the plot yourself, especially if you’re familiar some of the more sentimentalist fiction about primates. Yes, Jennie proves to be just as smart as her human siblings. Yes, some humans act in a cruel and despicable fashion. Yes, the tale ends on a very somber note. Few will be surprised to find that the Author’s Note at the end of the book has pages of contact coordinates for organizations dedicated to the protection of primates. I suppose that some readers will either find the “provocative questions about our relationship to, and treatment of, other species” (thanks, Library Journal) either trite or self-evident, depending on their own preexisting prejudices. Some of the story beats are repetitive or contrived (it’s a handy thing to have a minister as a neighbour when you want to discuss matters of death and faith), especially given how the tale progresses toward its inevitable ending.

But if I’m less than enthusiastic about the novel’s overall dramatic arc, there’s no use denying that it’s effective, in large part due to the way it’s told. The fictional “oral history” of Jennie’s life allows Preston some room for literary games and showy prose. The characters of the story don’t speak the same way or reflect upon the events in quite the same manner. There’s a fun sense of triangulation in trying to piece together the “real” story from the different viewpoints of characters who can’t stand each other. Dr. Pamela Prentiss, the driven behaviourist who comes to act as a foil for the rest of the characters, is a particularly entertaining character to follow.

While Jennie is based on numerous case studies (and, in a sense, could be viewed as a romanticized compendium of such experiments), it helps a lot that a certain “Douglas Preston” is, from the beginning “Note to the reader”, a character in his own book: a writer who tries to interview as many people as possible about Jennie, making significant efforts to track down and meet his subjects and (eventually) occasionally being shut off from any further contact. (“Turn that goddamn tape recorder off. I mean it. Now.” [P.290]) The sense of two stories mixing together is very satisfying, and adds another level of interest in the book.

I may not personally understand the fascination with primates, but the book will find a natural audience with those who love stories featuring chimpanzees. And yet, while I’m obviously no fan of sappy “Aren’t those animals just like us humans? Aren’t us humans just like animal?” stories, Jennie still manages be a gripping read with a conclusion that is far more affecting that I would have thought from a description of the book alone. In that particular respect, at least, Jennie exhibits the qualities that would late make of Preston a best-selling authors. While Jennie is very different from his best-known thrillers, it’s more than worth a look for fans of good popular fiction: even if you know where it’s going, it’s a memorable ride.