Choke (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Choke</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, September 2008) Chuck Palahniuk’s novels are so extreme that any adaptation that doesn’t completely screws them up has already earned a small victory, and so Choke‘s most notable achievement is how it does remain relatively faithful to the novel, translating a good chunk of its sociopathic charm onto the big screen, graphic sexual addictions and all. Sam Rockwell is rather good as a lead character whose obsession for casual sex only matches his habit of fake-choking in high-end restaurants in order to earn strangers’ gratitude and financial help. A suitably strange cast of characters surround him, from a paranoid mother to a curiously amorous doctor to a friend who can’t keep his hands off himself. Fortunately, it remains an amusing film throughout, even when the story appears to take a turn toward the fantastic with the suggestion that the protagonist is a clone of Jesus. Fans of the original novel (one of Palahniuk’s tamest) will be surprised to find out that most of the book has been faithfully adapted to the screen, at the exception of the ending which proves to be less satisfying than the one in the book. While this film won’t make as big an impression as Fight Club did, it’s an adaptation with which Palahniuk and fans can be relatively happy… and that’s already quite remarkable.

Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi

<em class="BookTitle">Zoe’s Tale</em>, John Scalzi

Tor, 2008, 335 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1698-1

Some of the most difficult moments in a reviewer’s life come when a highly-anticipated work fails to meet certain expectations, or betrays an author’s otherwise sterling reputation. As much as I normally like Scalzi’s fiction, and as much as I was primed to like Zoe’s Tale, it ended up surprising and disappointing me: For the first time while reading a Scalzi novel, I felt impatient.

Fans of Scalzi’s work so far will immediately recognize the plot of the novel: As its title suggests, Zoe’s Tale describes the events of Scalzi’s previous The Last Colony from the perspective of John Perry’s teenage daughter Zoe. Being a sixteen-year-old girl, Zoe’s perspective on the story is different, but not too different. Exception made of a small section at the end of the book, the story beats are roughly the same –-although the last few pages of Roanoke colony’s story remains in The Last Colony.

For readers who read primarily for plot, this makes Zoe’s Tale a surprisingly unsettling experience. While it fills in the beats of Zoe’s story and explains a few passing references in its source book, Zoe’s Tale often feels like a rehash of known material; another trip around the same block in a slightly different vehicle. The Old Man’s War universe isn’t significantly deepened by this entry, nor are we getting a perspective that contradicts John Perry’s. At most, an enigmatic reference is cleared up, and events that are more important to Zoe than her father are told in more detail. (Unlike other parallax novels such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow, there’s also little playfulness with what readers are supposed to know from having read the previous book.) Readers may want, for extra credit, to compare a few scenes as told in both books to see the different perspectives of the two characters.

Fortunately, there is something else than a simple plot re-hash going on here: Zoe’s Tale is perhaps best appreciated as an attempt to re-tell The Last Colony in a YA-friendly female teenager’s voice. As a style exercise, if you prefer. As such, it’s somewhat more successful: Scalzi’s attempt to write like a 16-year-old girl cleanly evokes the confusion, thrills, quirks and friendship bonds of that demographic.

This being said, it isn’t much of a stretch for Scalzi to map his own usual sarcastic smart-ass prose style onto another sarcastic smart-ass character, even if she happens to be a 16-year-old girl on a brand-new colony world. It just so happens that her friends are, by and large, a generally sarcastic smart-ass group, and that the people she most values around her are also sarcastic smart-asses. (If nothing else, Roanoke Colony’s got a bright future in exporting comedians.) Scalzi’s has previously acknowledged his Heinleinian influences, but Zoe also echoes some of Heinlein’s teenage protagonists in that she’s the prototypical Competent Teenager; rarely wrong and of reliable judgment. It’s a typical SF character type, but the pattern can be amusing once it becomes obvious.

Plot and characterization, however, haven’t been Scalzi’s strengths as much as his easy prose style and his humor, and in that sense Zoe’s Tale is another success for him. It’s a fast and enjoyable read that won’t disappoint his regular readers who don’t mind some déjà vu. For the others, however, Zoe’s Tale is perhaps Scalzi’s most disappointing novel so far, and one that sends the Old Man’s War universe in diminishing-returns territory. More demanding readers may want to wait until the paperback and lower their expectations accordingly.

Burn After Reading (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Burn After Reading</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, September 2008) Dark comedies are a tough, tough assignment, and if the Coen Brothers have been able to do the genre full justice before, they’ve also had a few misfires along the way, and Burn After Reading skirts particularly close to that edge. Among the film’s biggest problem is a sudden turn for deadly violence after a first half that promises nothing more serious than bloodied noses. It’s a jarring misstep in what is otherwise an absurd story of adulterous urban professionals who just happen to work in intelligence operations. The rest of the film is hit-and-miss, more often amusing rather than frankly funny. All of the actors, from Brad Pitt to George Clooney to Tilda Swinton to John Malkovich, seem to have a lot of fun inhabiting seriously flawed characters. (Indeed, one of the film’s highlight is the precise way Malkovich’s characters enunciates his colorful threats and insults.) The film’s two funniest scenes both star J.K. Simmons as an Intelligence Director completely mystified by the accumulation of transgressions and violence that characterize the film. Otherwise, though, the film ends quickly and with a succession of off-screen developments. There’s little satisfaction here for those who like well-wrapped narratives, nor those who prefer more conventional comedies.

Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bangkok Dangerous</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, September 2008) It takes a lot of misguided skill to make a boring film about Nicolas Cage as a gifted assassin, but that’s exactly what this weakly-brewed action thriller ends up being. Cage looks asleep as a weary assassin coming to Thailand for one last series of jobs. Inexplicably, he lets down his usual safeguards, befriend a small-time hustler, romances a deaf local girl, botches his contracts and ends up hunted down by his own clients. There is one single flash of interest late in the film as he fends off killers while his date isn’t looking, but otherwise the film is one single monolith of exasperation. Hampered by cookie-cutter action scenes, trite dialog, glacial pacing and a complete lack of originality, Bangkok Dangerous fuses the worst of Asian and Western cinema to produce something that the whole world will unite to recognize as a bad film.

Babylon A.D. (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Babylon A.D.</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, September 2008) From a promising start, this action/adventure tale sadly devolves into an incomprehensible mess, not unlike the source novel Babylon Babies by French author Maurice Dantec. Director Mathieu Kassovitz has a certain sense of style, and that eye for strong visuals is what props up the film long after it has descended in self-contradictory nonsense. It’s too bad, really, but Vin Diesel and Michelle Yeoh walk away mostly untouched by the mess: There’s little doubt that the worst thing about the film is the increasingly silly script, which goes from a number of interesting premises to an indescribable mess. The film’s reportedly troubled production history shows up in slap-dash action sequences and an abrupt ending that defies audience satisfaction. This is one of those films whose highlights fit in a single five-minute trailer reel; the rest is entirely useless.

Bad Monkeys, Matt Ruff

<em class="BookTitle">Bad Monkeys</em>, Matt Ruff

Harper Collins, 2007, 230 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-06-124041-6

For readers, paranoia isn’t such a bad trait. Not when dealing with tricky writers such as Matt Ruff, whose unpredictable output continues to surprise even those who think they know what to expect. None of Ruff’s novels so far has been ordinary, and Bad Monkeys is no exception.

Harper Collins, at least, has done a good job designing a physical object that’s as odd as its content. Presented as a narrow yellow trade paperback with extended rounded covers, the book is meant to evoke a psychiatrist’s case jacket, which isn’t a bad choice given the content.

For the novel begins in a white room, a holding cell where a psychiatrist comes in to interview a prisoner. Her name is Jane Charlotte, and she’s been arrested for murder. As she tells her story, we go back in time, to a childhood incident during which she realized the existence of a secret organization manipulating events behind the scenes. And that’s the kick-off to a deeply paranoid novel in which the world we know isn’t as chaotic as we think. There’s a war out there between good and evil, and two rival factions are out there recruiting and setting operatives on each other. The “Bad Monkeys” of the title is a shorthand for the “Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons”, which is to say humans declared so irremediably evil that they have to be taken out —preferably by means of a Natural Causes gun with definitive but undetectable effects. The secret departments of the elusive organization all have bizarre names that allude to their nature (“Scary Clowns”, “Good Samaritans”, “Eyes Only”) but whose true nature remains elusive for a while.

This, of course, may or may not a be a psychotic delusion from a troubled individual. Jane’s life (as she tells it) has been a tough one, and she hasn’t always been the most virtuous of person. Is all of this an elaborate way to account for the murders she’s been arrested for, or is it all true? Or is the truth even stranger than she imagines?

You’re better off betting on strangeness without limits, because Matt Ruff is having a lot of fun messing with his readers’ heads throughout the novel. By the time the final twists are revealed, shell-shocked readers may be forgiven if they can’t recall what’s true and what’s not. Such mind-bending won’t be to everyone’s liking, but it does make for a lively reading experience. There’s a lot of strong scenes, a few Science Fiction elements, some good character moments, and a terrific pacing. From time to time, Ruff plays with intriguing philosophical ideas and concepts given practical form by his secret organizations, from Natural Cause guns to ant farms to Nod problems.

It’s not a particularly long book (barely 90,000 words, by my estimates) and the writing style is deliberately kept simple, so don’t be surprised if you rush through the book in a few sittings. It’s probably best read that way too, in order to fully experience the accumulation of details, confusion and contradictions that make up the novel’s conclusion.

This being said, the rapidly changing nature of the novel is liable to be a point of contention. While a neat writer’s trick, it also prevents readers from forming a deep emotional attachment to the material as presented: nobody likes to be fooled, and so a bit of detachment may be for the best while reading the story. Only the paranoids will get the most out of Bad Monkeys.