Monthly Archives: June 2008

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, Minister Faust

Del Rey, 2007, 390 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-46637-3

This, dear readers, is the decadent era of the superhero in pop culture. There are now so pervasive, such a part of the entertainment-retail complex that there is nowhere for them to go but down, preferably in a cloud of ridicule. The symptoms are clear, and clearer as I re-write this in September 2008: After HANCOCK, it’s clear that it’s a free-for-all in the superhero field, and notwithstanding oddities like BATMAN RETURNS, it’s clear that humor is one way of dealing with a now-overly familiar topic.

That’s tying Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain to a heavy conceptual framework, but it’s also true that Faust is perverting the comic-book superhero tradition in two ways in his second novel, one of which is obvious from the get-go, with the other becoming apparent only as the novel goes on and maintains a facade of false humor.

(Readers overly sensitive to spoilers may want to skip ahead to the last paragraph of this review.)

The first of Faust’s hacks on the superhero form is well-presented in the packaging of the novel. Written as if from the pen of “Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman”, psychologist to superheros, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain is re-titled Unmasked! When Being a Superhero Can’t Save You From Yourself and presented as a self-help book for the average hyper-hominid. If you’ve read any pop-psychology book before, this will feel instantly familiar, as Dr. Brain can’t help but structure her narrative around common super-heroic psychological issues, and pepper the narrative with a thick cloud of well-titled syndromes and cute acronyms.

It’s not your average self-help book though, because it does tell a story. As Dr. Brain is tasked with treating the dysfunctional relationship of the top members of the Fantastic Order Of Justice (FOOJ), some of whom are not meant to be riffs on existing superheroes. Who would associate Batman with pro-fascist The Flying Squirrel? Who could recognize Superman in the quasi-moronic Omnipotent Man? There isn’t any link at all between Wonder-Woman and Iron Lass! Well, oh, okay. (Other winks to superhero canon are peppered through the narrative, two of the earliest ones being “the city of Los Ditkos” and the “Crisis of Infinite Dearths.” )

But as Dr. Brain deals with her super-powered subjects, another external threat emerges, linked with the escape of super-villains, an upcoming election within the FOOJ and the death of one of the greatest superheroes of all times. What happens as the novel goes on become stranger and stranger, as one of the story’s most lucid character is systematically belittled by the narrator. The character’s racially-charged rhetoric may be overt, but it’s strange to see him marginalized, especially given Faust’s own minority-friendly first novel.

But nothing is an accident, and the unreliability of the narrator eventually becomes a window through which we understand that Faust’s building an entirely different critique of the superhero genre, one that obliquely discusses the nature and social ramification of the power fantasies implicit in the superhero genre. Brain herself may be either evil or clueless, but that doesn’t change anything to the way the novel says one thing and means another in its closing chapters. It does place readers in a curious position, though: After a fun start, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain becomes less and less amusing, until the smiles become bitter with resentment.

As a novel, it’s a clear step up from the occasionally-messy The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad. The style is snappy, the characters all have distinctive voices, the twists are striking and the entire novel seems far more controlled. It’s a mystery why Faust hasn’t received more attention for this unnerving, but worthwhile second novel. As a decadent take on the superhero genre, it’s about as good as it gets.

Heaven, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen

Warner Aspect, 2004 (2005 reprint), 428 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61103-4

I may blow my entire Science Fiction credibility out of the room by mentioning the following, but here goes: I’m not a big fan of alien-centric SF. Strange, isn’t it? But put down those pitchforks and allow me thirty more seconds to explain that one. I’m more interested in the extrapolative aspect of SF; in its ability to illuminate the familiar with the unfamiliar. The problem with alien-centric SF is that is too often feels like a self-satisfied series of tricks that are of interest to the author and few others. “Card tricks in the dark”, to cite the Turkey City Lexicon again.

Add to that my lack of interest in SF that tackles religious themes (it’s been done before, folks) and that explains why I never really bothered seeking out a copy of Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s Heaven. Both authors, respected scientists in their own fields, had previously shown an impressive ability to match scientific speculation with adequate fiction in their first novel Wheelers. I had to wait until I saw a paperback copy of Heaven deeply discounted at a used book sale before committing to their follow-up.

I shouldn’t have waited that long. Despite a back-cover blurb that suggests a worst-case-scenario of alien-centric SF crossed with pure religion-bashing (“…mariner Second-best Sailor leans this his planet is discovered by evangelists…”), Heaven turns out to be a lot more palatable than my own prejudices had led me to believe. Oh, it’s not an immediately compelling read, at least at first: I ended up re-reading the first fifty pages once I realized that if I hadn’t been hooked by the first few pages, there really was something intriguing going on.

Once properly set up, Heaven flies by with a succession of neat ideas and better-than-expected plotting. Stewart and Cohen won’t be mistaken for great prose stylists anytime soon, but their affection for their imagined aliens shows through, and it’s a minor marvel that they can make a deeply alien life form so compelling. Their specialty is xenobiology, and it shows in their portrait of a aquatic life-form with a strong kinship to coral. Comfortable with the language, the common assumptions and the writing quirks of genre science-fiction, the authors then proceed to deliver an unusual adventure that plays with the usual tropes of SF.

It’s not a book that I would suggest to someone who’s new to Science Fiction, since it fills a very intriguing niche in the SF ecosystem: The kind of novel written by practicing scientists, far more comfortable with ideas and conceptual issues than in delivering a standard reading experience. Fans of Hal Clement, Charles Pellegrino or John Cramer’s regrettably few novels will understand what kind of SF this is: the pure bedrock of the genre, crammed with speculations while unburdened by notions of literary respectability.

And yet explicit comparisons with Cramer and Clement do a disservice to the considerable reading pleasure offered by this novel once the basic language of the novel is established: There are a few neat tricks in Heaven‘s prose, the coolest of which being a discussion between chunks of a planet-spanning intelligence. The novel doesn’t always make sense, but it usually sacrifice logic for hard-hitting visuals: The scene that illustrates the titular “heaven” is nonsense, but it’s an utterly memorable image nonetheless.

All in all, Heaven ends up being a small surprise. It doesn’t try to be for everyone and so will probably appeal to those who are already familiar with genre SF, but it’s an overlooked delight for that readership. The lesson learned here is that authorship should trump subject matter in choosing a book to read. If you loved something by an author, don’t be afraid to disregard what you think you know about the subject of their next book. You may be pleasantly surprised.

The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams

Bantam Spectra, 2008, 409 pages, C$14.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-553-38541-0

I didn’t like this novel and it feels like a defeat.

I started it with the best intentions, after all: I love high-tech SF thrillers, and everything about The Mirrored Heavens suggested the equivalent of a techno-thriller kicked a hundred years in the future, with super-powered operatives, competent terrorists, tensions between global power blocks and spectacular disasters. It’s got effusive blurbs by authors I like a lot, leading with a front-cover blurb from Peter Watts. I like SF, I like thrillers. What could possibly go wrong?

Indeed, from some angles, The Mirrored Heavens still feels awesome. The complex power dynamics within the dystopian world described by Williams are credible and unpredictable. The relentless pacing of the book, where crises barely resolve themselves before there’s another rushing at full speed, is the type of breathless rhythm that’s missing from several novels. Some of the set pieces are spectacular in the way only wide-screen action sequences can be. Heck, even Williams’ staccato prose is among the best I’ve read this year. Try this early paragraph for a taste:

Marlowe opens up on the two suits at point-blank range, his wrist-guns set for flechette swarm. The armor worn by Marlowe’s targets is good. It’s nowhere near enough. Marlowe cuts through it like he’s wielding a giant buzzsaw. The figures he’s facing suddenly aren’t figures anymore. Marlowe fires his thrusters, plunges down the shaft toward what’s left of them. He lands on the roof of the elevator car. He leaps through the open doors from which the dead men emerged. [P.34]

Now imagine 400 pages like that.

And that’s part of the problem: As the book’s events accumulated, as the four main characters dispatched entire armies of faceless opponents, destroying chunks of cities and changing the history of their world by their actions, I found myself increasingly numb to the novel’s impact.

This isn’t normally a problem: My number-one complaint about novels these days is that they’re too long and too dull. 400 pages of action ought to have been a plus, not a minus.

I finally realized what had been bothering me upon reading the novel’s Appendix, which presents a time-line of world history for the next hundred years. The amazing thing about it is that year by year, item by item, things get constantly worse in order to lead to Williams’ nightmarish future where even the U.S. is under martial leadership. There have been a lot of SF thrillers in the past few years (indeed, they make up most of the output of acclaimed new authors such as Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds and Richard Morgan), but their menagerie of secret agents and super-powered operatives are usually fighting to preserve or bring about a desirable world: they’re the wolves guarding the sheep with whom the readers are supposed to identify. But there’s no such thing in The Mirrored Heavens: The entire world is bleak and whatever the characters will do won’t change a thing in improving everyone’s lot. It’s like having gunfights and car chases on the deck of the Titanic: they’re all doomed anyway.

The novel’s other annoyances (a punchy style that never lets up; ridiculously over-powered characters; humorless tone) would not have been problems in other circumstances, but here they feel magnified by the novel’s lack of success in earning at least a bit of empathy.

On of the toughest skills in being a reviewer is trying to dissociate a personal distaste from a more dispassionate consideration of a work’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s an admirable but futile quest since all reviews are subjective, but trying to explain where The Mirrored Heavens goes astray raises an uncomfortable doubt: The fact that I don’t like it right now doesn’t mean I may not like it in other circumstances; once I won’t be overdosing on SF thrillers, for instance. Fortunately, everything about this book screams of a sequel: we’ll see then if there’s any improvement.

You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (2008)

(In theaters, June 2008) It’s easy to be harsh on Adam Sandler and the crude messy vehicles he chooses. But there’s something else going on with this generally harmless comedy about a libidinous Israeli agent faking his own death to become a New York hairdresser, subsequently falling in love with a Palestinian. It’s a big dumb populist comedy using very serious themes as comedy fodder, exploiting the evening news as a baseline against which to deviate. Sure, the Sandler character is still dumb as bricks (albeit ridiculously gifted in the finer point of counter-terrorism) and the hummus/Fizzy-Bubblech/hacky-sack shtick can wear thin, but a large chunk of the film can also be spent wondering how serious geopolitical issues can end up with Rob Schneider playing an Arab terrorist sympathizer. It’s a reasonably funny film in a lazy and easy way (the sequence in which Sandler and friends play hacky-sack using a curiously willing pet cat as a ball is pure whimsical fun, for instance), but it works more than it doesn’t, even when it veers away from normal comedic unreality into sheer fantasy. Props be given to the man, Sandler actually comes across as a believable action hero in the film’s most outlandish scenes, and manages to old ladies seduction look endearing rather than creepy. But even his better-than-average performance takes a back seat to the audacity of the film’s concept, and the almost schizophrenic way it boils down complex issues to matters that could be settled with inter-cultural dating, American integration, competitive sports and a bucket of hummus. One wonders how much better Munich would have been had it had it adopted the same viewpoint. At the very least, it got me started on a hummus binge.

Wanted (2008)

(In theaters, June 2008) Perhaps the best and biggest surprise of this film is how it manages to remain faithful to a certain facet of the source material despite changing nearly everything else about it. The comic-book super-villains (and their associated powers, quirks and backstory) are out; instead we get super-assassins controlled by a magic loom. Yeaaaah. But the first two minutes are nearly word-for-word recreation, and the adaptation even finds a way to spark the memory of the comic book’s infamous last two pages. (Sadly, the leads are not played by Eminem and Halle Berry.) The next-best thing about Wanted is Timur Bekmambetov’s insanely kinetic direction, which picks up where the Wachowski Brothers left off: Plenty of CGI-boosted sequences with long tracking shots, wild camera tricks, subjective point-of-view and variable-speed shots: The film defies the laws of physics with gusto, making one appreciate the attempt even as it trips up every single nonsense detector: The “curving the bullet” shtick (overplayed until exasperation) is a perfect example of style over credibility: Makes no sense, but sure looks cool. And that goes for much of the film itself, which is borderline trash on paper (binary code generated by a thousand-year-old loom that predicts the future?) but manages to keep things hopping through constant eyeball kicks. Alas, what feels pretty cool in the theater disaggregates soon afterwards, and ends up feeling far less substantial a short while later. Even Angelina Jolie seems wasted here, playing a surface caricature of herself as a sex-symbol while not actually doing anything sexy beyond showing up in the film itself. The biggest irony of those statements, of course, is that a script is cheap to fix early on, while all of the stylistic refinements that cover up the hollowness of the film are expensive to perfect. What could have this film been with a little more cleverness? Consider this: While a surprising amount of the comic has been kept intact (considering the comic book’s ultra-violence), very little attempt has been made to apply to the action movie genre the same critique than the book did: It’s all surface escapism, with a last-moment dash of wish fulfillment. What if Wanted-the-movie had gone after the action-movie geeks the same way Wanted-the-comic-book wiped the floor with comic-book fanboys? Ah, but that would have required the intent to question the assumptions of action movies…

Zima Blue, Alastair Reynolds

Night Shade, 2006, 280 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-59780-079-2

The stories in this Alastair Reynolds collection have two things going for them when compared to the rest of the author’s work: They’re short, and they’re not part of his Inhibitors future history.

Given that the vast majority of Reynold’s work so far is made of thick fat novels all taking place in the Inhibitor universe, this may sound like damning with faint praise. But my problem with Reynolds’ fiction is simple: His novels are far too long, and they keep happening in a universe that I don’t find particularly interesting. In fact, some of my favorite Reynolds stories so far (Chasm City and The Prefect) and quasi-standalone stories that explore outskirts of the Inhibitor universe. Reynolds is a capable author, but he’d be even better if he showed some control over his prodigiously lengthy output.

Considering those objections, Zima Blue seems tailored for optimistic nay-sayers like myself. A collection of Reynold’s non-Inhibitor short stories so far (the Inhibitor short stories are in Gollancz’ Galactic North) they offer a look at what he can do with a smaller freer canvas. It’s an ideal introduction to his work, and it may even please those who couldn’t stand the verbiage of his novels. Every one of the collection’s eleven story is accompanied by notes giving a glimpse into Reynolds’ life and inspirations. An introduction by Paul J. McAuley completes the content.

The two stories that bookend the collection offer a good way to go from the Inhibitors stories to the more varied universes in this collection. The last story, the titular “Zima Blue”, is a meditation about memory and art placed over an imagined universe that teems with possibilities. It’s a companion to the first piece “The Real Story” in that both take place in a fairly optimistic universe in which a journalist named Carrie Clay goes around trying to understand celebrities. (In his story notes, Reynolds hopes to write more of those stories, but warns us not to hold our breath.)

It’s not the only pair of linked stories in the collection: “Hideaway” and “Merlin’s Gun” share a common character and a baroque space-opera setting, but I regret to say that neither particularly grabbed me. Perhaps the next time I re-read them…

Given that most of Reynolds’ short-stories so far have been published in the United Kingdom, most of the stories collected here will be unknown to American readers. Of the two exceptions collected in Hartwell and Cramer’s year’s-best anthologies to date, only “Beyond the Aquila Rift” is reprinted here, and it’s just as good now as upon a first read –perhaps even more so, given the big twists. (The other year’s-best story, “Tiger, Burning”, was published too late for inclusion.)

One story is original to this volume. “Signal to Noise” is a strong and memorable narrative of parallel universes and lost lovers, a rare near-future story that shows a promising direction for Reynolds should he choose to step back from the far-future space opera that has been his specialty until now.

The other standout piece in the book, “Understanding Space and Time”, neatly encapsulates its goal and appeal in its title. I suspect that this is one of the pieces that immediately serve to distinguish those who love SF for its aspirational attitude toward knowledge from those who just like the stuff for other reasons: It’s both overwritten and simplistic, but I’m reasonably certain that it will leave other SF fans thrilled with a glimpse at the unknown.

On the design side of things, Night Shade Books should be praised for having been inspired by the design of Reynolds’ Gollanz/Ace books to deliver a cover that fits well on the shelf with the rest of the author’s work. It’s a small detail, but the kind of service that makes Night Shade such a dependable publisher both for readers and authors. Zima Blue is the kind of single-author short story collection what too often gets forgotten by major publishers, much to the detriment of everyone. If it can manage to make me look more favorably upon Reynold’s works… imagine what it can do for you.

Wall·E (2008)

(In theaters, June 2008) Even at its worst, Pixar makes better movies than 95% of what’s out there, and if Wall·E leaves too many uncomfortable questions open to debate, its willingness to raise such questions is enough to make this cute-robot movie one of the best SF movies of the year. There’s something admirable in how it manages to present a complete (even surprisingly deep) story with two main characters that barely share a twenty-word vocabulary: Lengthy moments pass without much more than sound effects, the plot building up through an accumulation of visual clues. When Wall·E expands to reveal a very different setting, more characters and a more urgent rhythm, it’s a minor miracle that it holds together. Beyond cute robots and slapstick gags, you’ll find a criticism of consumerism and at least three references to 2001. While some quieter bits are overdone, the rest of the film showcases Pixar’s trademark self-confidence in squeezing all potential out of their premises, flashing by the implications almost faster than anyone can catch. But by the end of the film, we’re left with a few issues that still haven’t been solved: There’s little indication that the errors of the past won’t be repeated and that the decision to come back won’t prove to be a pain for most: all of this is glossed over with an elaborate (and rather clever) epilogue-as-a-credit-sequence. Hm. But never mind that: It’s still one of the best movies of the year.

The Silent Partner (1978)

(In theaters, June 2008) Both good enough to be entertaining and bad enough to be amusing, this drama benefits from a good script by Curtis Hanson (who would later achieve notoriety with L.A. Confidential), capable actors, and a very Torontonian setting to overcome thirty years of bad editing, ridiculous replies and stiff direction. This low-budget film has definitely aged, but more in individual moments rather than overall story: The plot (about a bank clerk who matches wits with a robber) still works wonderfully well today, as the protagonist (Elliott Gould) proves both resourceful and sympathetic in a cornered-sad-dog fashion. A slick-faced scenery-chewing Christopher Plummer plays the devilishly evil antagonist, while John Candy makes an appearance as another bank employee. People familiar with Toronto will get plenty of small thrills as the film is largely set in the Eaton center, features shots of City Hall and the CN Tower, and even has its characters talking while driving a convertible down the Gardiner Expressway. The film isn’t so successful in its shot construction, reflecting the stiff pre-digital low-budget conventions. But once that’s past (and once given the indulgence to laugh over some unexpectedly terrible moments), The Silent Partner remains an effective little crime drama, with unexpected twists, a better-than-average duel between protagonist and antagonist, and a uniquely Canadian flavor.

Rituals (1977)

(In theaters, June 2008) There are good things about this low-budget exploitation film: The idea of putting five medical professionals far away in Northern Ontario, then making them face against a mysterious killer in a grueling contest of survival horror, definitely has potential even through the Deliverance and Blair Witch Project flashbacks. Hal Holbrook makes a capable hero, and the scenery can be breathtaking. Unfortunately, this grueling contest of survival horror soon extends to the viewers as the film drags on, and on, and on. The increasingly unsatisfying ending (which is content not explaining anything) does little to explain the terrible coincidences that would be necessary to make the story work, and provide more strangeness than satisfaction in how it stages the final showdown between survivors and tormentors. There are reportedly no plans to make this film available on DVD: despite a few good things here and there, I’m not sure that this is much of a loss.

Philadelphia (1993)

(On DVD, June 2008) I avoided this film for years, convinced that it was “just” a big-issues tear-jerking drama with little more to it. But, hey, I was wrong: Despite the familiar themes and the goody-goody preachiness, there’s a solid drama in here, ably supported by Oscar-worthy acting by Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. Director Jonathan Demme keeps things moving swiftly until the last act, where the film collapses upon its own dramatic weight from the aria sequence onward. Still, it’s a good script with some effective time-compression techniques: it’s a pleasure to watch until the lengthy final twenty minutes, and Washington’s character ably anchors the drama through a rough portrait of a Man Who Learns Better (But Not That Much). What’s perhaps most interesting, watching this film fifteen years later in a Canadian society that has evolved a lot since then, is that a number of the issues presented in the film are now self-obvious: homophobia is wrong, AIDS can be managed (especially with the newer drugs) and the controversial aspect of the film may not play as well among ever-larger progressive audiences. And that’s the way big-issues films should run: presenting aspirational ideas that eventually become mainstream. Well done.

Hippo Eats Dwarf, Alex Boese

Harcourt, 2006, 278 pages, US$14.00 tpb, ISBN 0-15-603083-7

My idealistic streak would dearly love to see a world where truth and accurate information would triumph over lies and nonsense. Alas, the human brain isn’t wired this way, and the mass of disinformation that clogs the Internet is just a reflexion of how, as a species, we’re just not very good at this whole idea of an “objective reality”

Billed as “A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S.”, Alex Boese’s Hippo Eats Dwarf is most fascinating as a punchy compendium detailing some of the ways humans lie to each other. It’s profoundly depressing even when it’s hilarious, and it’s an eye-opener even for those who think they’ve seen everything, on or off the Internet.

The central conceit of the book is to teach readers how to distinguish between hoaxes and reality. (The title refers to a widely-known urban legend in which a set of circumstances lead a hippo to swallow a dwarf. It usually involves a circus cannon.) So each chapter of the book is peppered with “Reality Rules” (eg: “Reality Rule 11.1: There’s nothing real about reality TV”) that are meant to guide readers but actually introduce the next set of anecdotes, incidents, hoaxes and outright falsehoods (mixed with the infrequent truth) that Boese brings together in one handy hyperactive package.

Generously illustrated and printed in bi-chromic black-and-green, Hippo Eats Dwarf is as entertaining as it’s useful. The structure of the book unpacks itself in bite-sized segments peppered with short definitions, “Case Files” sidebars, question-and-answer “Reality Checks” and sub-categories, along with pictures and illustrations. One can argue about its bilious shades of green, but the design of the book is up to its content in terms of making it as reader-friendly as possible. It’s great bathroom reading, something that the book itself explicitly encourages: “Should you find yourself reluctant to put down this book despite a burning need to go to the bathroom, there is a perfect solution. Read the book on the toilet. You have my permission.” [P.175]

Such an unpretentious tone works well given the subject, especially when readers are tempted to ask who Boese thinks he is to slice between truth and fiction. As it happens, Boese is a former science history student whose abandoned doctoral dissertation led to a rather interesting career as a self-taught “hoaxpert” whose web site remains a reference point for anti-hoaxers. Hippo Eats Dwarf is the second of his three books so far, but Boese’s slightly-sarcastic tone occupies an interesting mid-point between credibility and sympathy: he may snark, but the acid never overwhelms the wonderful aspect of the things he brings to our attention. The entire thing is remarkably funny.

Even for those who think they’ve reasonably well-informed about the quasi-infinite weirdness of modern human society, Hippo Eats Dwarf has a number of new stories to tell. Some of them are amazing; others are just depressing as we wonder how, exactly, do people fall for this kind of obviously silly stuff. Despite Boese’s protestations late in his introduction (“the question of why our world has become so hippo-eats-dwarf is an interesting one, but that’s another topic I don’t address at length.” [P.3-4]), this book is a lengthy collection of the variety of reasons why people will prefer to invent, and believe, outright falsehoods. Best of all, it demonstrates such things by an encyclopedic enumeration of practical cases rather than dry academic discussion.

Contrarily to other books that look good upon browsing and end up flat on close reading, Hippo Eats Dwarf is a solid and content-filled book that delivers upon even its own outrageous back-cover promises. It looks good and leaves an even better impression. It won’t do much to fight against the human propensity to believe nonsense, but it may set a few things straight in your mind. Can you afford to let this book slip by?

The Onion Movie (2008)

(On DVD, June 2008) After years of being hidden on studio shelves, the long-rumored The Onion Movie has finally been quietly released on DVD and the final result is… uneven. Blame the structure of the film for some of the problems: The screenwriters have chosen to build the movie as a series of sketches loosely held together by a dull story about corporate interference at a news network. (The ending, which tries to bring it all together, is far too long for its own good.) Some sketches are better, and some of them aren’t (the whole “rape mystery party”, for instance, is a long resounding thud.) But I suspect that the fault is also due to the source material: The Onion’s usual shtick is to present the punchline first in the headline, then work out its implications in the following article. This works in a scannable medium like text, but it’s deadly on-screen. Here, whole sequences drag on and on until the final joke: The “Wizards and Warlords” segment is particularly awful in this regard. It’s too bad, really, because the production values of the film are surprisingly good and a lot of the material does work –including a slickly-produced cute/raunchy take-off on Britney Spears which, along with the Rodney Dangerfield cameo, shows the late-2003 origins of the film. Like its source material, the film isn’t afraid to let loose with profanity, violence and glimpses of graphic gay sex: This is one of those movies that really tries to offend everyone. (Including movie reviewers, in amusing self-referential segments.) It’s a bit of a problem that the “deleted scenes” on the DVD are just as good, or bad, as the rest of the film. Otherwise, well, it’s a curious rental for those who already like The Onion. And frankly, it’s still far better than stuff like Epic Movie.

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

(In theaters, June 2008) Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about this film is what’s missing from it: Pop-culture references. As PDI/Dreamworks progresses beyond the Shrek franchise, its animated films are becoming more universal and less rooted in their own place and time. Kung Fu Panda isn’t there yet (the first few moments of Jack Black’s “Awesome!”-heavy dialog are jarring), but it’s an improvement over past PDI films, and the result is generally pleasant. The script includes quite a few nods to fanboy wish-fulfillment (much like the recent The Forbidden Kingdom, this film proves that kung-fu has now reached referential mainstream consciousness) and if Black’s deliberately-irritating shtick as a lovable doofus is starting to wear thin, there are a few good moments in this film. Sadly, the film focuses too much on the titular panda and not enough on the other characters, some of whom are stunt-cast with famous voices… that barely get more than five lines and twice as many grunts. (Seriously: did Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan spend more than half a day in the studio?) The best sequences involve training-by-dumplings, a prison escape, a fabulous-five bridge fight and a final brawl that leave no buildings unscathed. In the background, the quality of the CGI is spectacular enough to pass unnoticed. Not that the film will pause long enough to let anyone appreciate the scenery. Kung Fu Panda may be too blunt and simple to be transcendent like Pixar’s features, but it’s good enough for lazy summer evenings.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

(In theaters, June 2008) The good news are that this “reboot” is much better than the dull yet repellent Ang Lee 2003 film. Of course, that’s a low bar, and the best that this one can do is to score near “better-than-average”. Edward Norton may or may not be better than Eric Bana, but his Bruce Banner is compelling, and in fact more interesting than The Hulk itself. Much like Iron Man (also produced directly by Marvel rather than licensed to others), The Incredible Hulk‘s main strength is its thorough knowledge of the character and its familiarity with the basics. As a result, we skip past the whole origin story in an efficient credit sequence, then pick up later on with a more interesting plot about keeping things under control (or not). The Brazilian favelas make for fantastic scenery that set the tone for a well-controlled, well-delivered experience despite occasional blips of confusion caused by enthusiastic over-editing. (The tie-in novel reportedly covers the missing bits.) The action scenes, ironically, are where the film breaks down most visibly: They go on for a while, but always seem to end too-quickly, without much by way of resolution or built-up climax. But having mastered the art of delivering a satisfying Hulk film, Marvel may want to look at making up something that goes beyond that: Since “the cure” would destroy the character, it’s obvious that this is a goal that will always be frustrated. This particular instance of The Incredible Hulk may be okay, but it doesn’t go beyond that. At least it blurs memories of the previous attempt at the character, and sets up a next one.

The Happening (2008)

(In theaters, June 2008) Sometimes, one has to step back and admit error. But after Lady In The Water and the mess that is The Happening, there is not shame in saying that M. Night Shyamalan has blown whatever credibility he had accumulated so far as a writer/director. As a writer, everything has been downhill since Unbreakable. As a director, it’s been a steady decline since The Village. With The Happening, Shyamalan takes his self-importance and applies it to a silly conceit, burdening a B-Movie with A-level pretentiousness. The result is hilarious, but not in a good way: There’s only so much you can do with ominous shots of wind blowing through trees: “Oh no! The trees are going to kill someone else!” Trite, dumb, predictable and empty, The Happening‘s plot isn’t nearly as flawed as its individual scenes: Characters never react like human beings (Watch Mark Whalberg do science!) and never take rational decisions –even granted that this is the point. Even my growing crush for Zooey Deschanel and her mesmerizing big blue eyes aren’t enough to hypnotize me into liking this film. The Happening is like an endurance contest between a power-mad director convinced of his brilliance and an audience looking for a good time. Instead, we get an unconvincing premise, awful staging (Those suicides? Funny rather than creepy) and insipid dialog voiced by incompetently-directed actors capable of far better. Intensely predictable (I defy you not to think “uh, oh, someone’s going to get shot!” before its happens) this is one of those movies that let you wonder how it ever got made without adult supervision. In almost any other hands, it might have been interesting (the idea of humans forced to separate in smaller and smaller groups, if followed rigorously, could have been narrative dynamite). But this is M. Night Shyalaman we’re talking about, someone who’s still coasting on long-gone fumes and wasted opportunities.