Monthly Archives: March 2010

Imperial Life in the Emerald Palace aka Green Zone, Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Vintage, 2010 movie tie-in re-edition of 2006 original, 365 pages, ISBN 978-0-307-47753-8

It’s bad enough that the 2003 American invasion of Iraq was an exercise in imperial power projection legitimized by spurious intelligence reports and an orchestrated public-relations campaign: it wouldn’t have been so bad if the whole thing had been neatly wrapped up in a few weeks, followed by a tidy “Mission Accomplished” ceremony.  But no; as history rolls on, the country is still dangerous seven years later, with American soldiers still fighting it out with local insurgents.  Aside from the whole issue of not invading countries unless there’s a good reason to do so, what went wrong?  Why were Americans unable to foster a smooth transition from Saddam Hussein’s regime to a peaceful Iraqi democracy?

Journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran was on the ground for much of the first year of the American occupation of Iraq.  With Imperial Life in the Emerald Palace, he describes the tragedy of errors that characterized the initial efforts to run the country after taking military control of it.  Winning a war is easy when you have an army that get more than half of the world’s total military expenditure.  Keeping the peace, though…

The best chapter of the book remains the first, “Versailles on the Tigris”, which describes the surreal life in the Green Zone surrounding Saddam’s Republican Palace, an area of Baghdad reserved for the foreign nationals taking over the country.  This oasis of Americana had Doritos, alcohol, sunbathing, DVDs, bacon, American flags –everything to remind staffers of home, “home” often being the southern USA.  Even in faraway Baghdad, US politics remained omnipresent: Staffers were often political operatives associated with Republican interests, sometimes young enough to allow enthusiasm to triumph over experience and knowledge.  (“More than half… had gotten their first passport in order to travel to Iraq.” [P.17])  Many of them spent their entire stay in Iraq within the fortified walls of the Green Zone.  If they weren’t working directly for the US government or military, then they were employed by the many corporate sub-contractors.  And yet they had electricity, running water, relative peace and security… quite unlike the Red Zone outside.

Such contrasts go a long way to explain how Americans exhausted the initial supply of goodwill that accompanied their invasion of the country.  But as Chandrasekaran describes, the year in which the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) led Iraq simply made things worse.  The blame starts at the top, with the ideology leading the so-called reconstruction of the country.  Led by neoconservative leadership, the CPA set out to remake Iraq as a beacon of what a pure market economy would be, ignoring local customs in trying to install a right-wing system at all costs.  Never mind that you shouldn’t trust anti-government people to run a government: One of the most pernicious impacts of this top-down mission to remake Iraq at the image of the Bush-era Republican Party was that fairly competent reconstruction experts were sidelined and replaced by people whose biggest credentials were ideological.  Loyal staffers, often far too young to have any experience in the areas they were asked to manage, came from Republican political ranks and often went back to the Bush/Cheney 2004 re-election campaign once their tour of duty was done.  (Interestingly, some of the most capable people on the ground in Iraq were military personnel: regardless of rank, they knew their area of expertise and –whenever allowed to act– were generally able to complete their assigned tasks.)

Everyone on the ground meant well, of course; Chandrasekaran’s portrait of CPA staffers involved is generally sympathetic, even when it’s clear that they’re out of their depths.  But meaning well and doing well isn’t the same, and much of the book is a description of unbelievable blunders caused by a lack of expertise, ideological straightjackets, overuse of for-profit contractors and US partisan political considerations.  When a country is crying out for stable electricity, water, government and police, it’s not such a good idea to start by privatizing everything in sight (especially when no one is interested in buying), trying to implement a high-tech stock exchange, getting rid of competent military personnel and copying US State traffic laws.  But ideology often makes people do strange things…

Perhaps the biggest strength of Chandrasekaran’s book is how clearly it manages to present a complex set of issues, through mini-narratives reconstructed from documents, interviews and his own work on the ground.  There’s a great passage in the chapter named “A Yearning for Old Times” that manages to vulgarize the complicated mess that was Iraq’s electrical infrastructure problems, and how it was made worse by greedy contractors, dumb budgeting and an emphasis on short-sighted repairs rather than infrastructure renewal.  Much of the book is just as easily readable, helped along by a strong streak of black comedy at the ineptitude of the American effort.

It goes without saying that, as easy to read as Imperial Life in the Emerald Palace can be, it’s also an upsetting experience.  There’s a basic trust from citizens, whenever the government spends a few trillion dollars doing something, that a basic level of administrative competence will be met in working toward the project’s goals.  It’s one thing to disagree with neoconservative on the need to transform Iraq into a free-market heaven.  But if it works, then the debate becomes moot.  Alas, what happened in Baghdad in 2003-2004 was a failure of governance: the occupation was so incompetently mismanaged that it burned through the reserves of Iraqi patience after the fall of Saddam’s government and ignited a good chunk of the insurgency that followed.  (De-Baathification, which drove thousands of experienced soldiers in the cold rather than try to contain them in the existing hierarchy, was one of the biggest mistakes of the occupation’s first year.)  One can point at Iraq circa 2010 and claim that it’s finally working (something still very much under discussion), but there’s a credible claim that if the CPA had actually listened to its reconstruction experts, exerted greater control over its subcontracting, embraced local talent and respected Iraqi customs, then far less money, hardship and lives would have been required to get to a better result.

But that may remain a matter for alternate historians and partisan bloggers.  Until we can get trans-dimensional media reports, there’s Chandrasekaran’s book to detail the mistakes that were made, hopefully so that nothing like that can ever be allowed to happen again.

[March 2010: One final note on the relationship between the book and the Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone movie: As Greengrass’ foreword in the movie tie-in edition of the book states, Imperial Life in the Emerald Palace provided the context in which the original story of the film takes place.  Sharp-eyed readers will spot a number of background details in the film that are taken straight from the book: So it becomes a rich contextual briefing for the film if you happen to read the book first, or an expansion of the setting of the movie if you read it afterward.  Either way, it’s a well done adaptation that fully exploits the strengths of both medium.]

Kick-Ass (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) Every year, there are now a few movies that make me feel old.  Old, as in having finally escaped the sociopathic, bloodthirsty, surface-obsessed 16-32 age bracket.  Old, as in rolling my eyes at conscious attempts at shock spectacle.  Old, as in not being overly amused by films catering to the comic-book crowd that thinks that R-rated films in which they have to sneak into are necessarily better than anything else.  Old enough, in short, to be left cold by Kick-Ass’s deliberate crassness, buckets of spilt blood, titular profanity and general hypocrisy.  Nominally a “realistic” attempt to fit super-heroes in the real-world, Kick-Ass ends up in the same super-heroic fantasy world it claims to avoid in the first few minutes.  Compared to Mark Millar’s original comic book (which is quite a bit harsher, although not that much more respectable), the film is generally lighter, often better-structured and ends on the kind of conclusion fit to leave anyone exit the theatres whistling happily.  Never mind the sociopathic 12-year-old girl that murders without remorse, the convenient Mafioso villains or the jaundiced view of an alternate world where super-heroism is needed.  There’s a reason why I never fit into comic-book culture, and Kick-Ass only reminded me of about a dozen of them.  And yet, despite everything (and the blood-thirsty jackals braying for gore and laughing inappropriately during my screening at the Brighton Odeon), I still found a lot to like in this film.  The rhythm is energetic, Matthew Vaughn’s direction shows moments of inspiration, Chloe Moretz is more adorable as a tween killer than you’d expect and the movie features not one, but two tracks from The Prodigy’s Invaders Must Die album.  When it works, Kick-Ass is a darkly comic film that almost has something to say about superhero power fantasies.  When it doesn’t, though, it’s just another reminder that I’m now over the hill in terms of pop entertainment.  Now let me shake my fist at those lawn-trampling younglings and mutter unintelligibly in my creaky rocking chair.

The City and the City, China Mieville

Del Rey, 2009, 312 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-345-49751-2

Every China Miéville novel is an experience, but I don’t think I was expecting what I got from his latest The City and the City. For the book answers one question that I’ve been reluctant to ask: Is it possible to enjoy a novel during which disbelief is never suspended?

Funny thing, disbelief: While we can probably agree that fiction should strive to represent the human condition as best as it possibly can, those ideals of realism quickly seem to go flying out of the window once we’re dealing with speculative fiction.  After all, suspension of disbelief becomes a necessity and a prerequisite to get any enjoyment out of stories set knee-deep in aliens, elves and blood-sucking fiends from other dimensions.  Not that SF/Fantasy elements are the only thing that require disbelief: In recent years, I have found myself increasingly unable to get into stories with strong libertarian or even right-wing worldviews: Once I start muttering “It doesn’t work like that!”, it’s hard to follow without nit-picking everything in sight.  But while SF readers have long been conditioned to accept whatever premises authors require of them for the rest of the story, what happens when the premise can never be accepted?

So it is that The City and the City first appears to be a standard murder mystery: A woman’s body has been discovered, and it’s up to our hero to puzzle out the events leading to her murder.  Soon enough, though, we get to realize that this isn’t a simple mystery: Our protagonist is not living in one city, but a city that is intermingled with another one, each with separate zones that can be accessed though controlled entry points.  Different languages, different cultures and different laws: Citizens of the two cities are trained from the youngest age to consciously ignore each other until they become blind to the other city.

I’m not doing the concept any justice by stating it as blandly as this, but you can probably see the problems already.  Suffice to say that throughout The City and The City, I kept repeating to myself that this concept was nonsense, that it wouldn’t work like that, that it had more holes than a screen door, and so on.  I won’t even try a pitiful “…but Miéville makes it work!” because frankly, it never worked for me.  Not one single page.  I kept imagining kids leaping over fences, teens sneaking behind bushes, businessmen complaining about inefficiencies and governments slapping down this nonsense.

(Which doesn’t mean that I dislike the idea, or refuse to acknowledge its grain of truth: I suspect that my mental map of cities is very different from others: My downtown is linked between bookstores, Subway restaurants, bus stops and smart shortcuts, whereas even a close friend’s downtown may be riddled by clothing stores, McDonald’s, parking spots and other things I may not care for.  How often, after all, do you walk down a familiar street and suddenly “discover” a building, store or detail that you had neglected for so long?)

And yet, I found a lot to like about The City and the City.  Its lead character is a likable hero, even though his narrative arc is intensely predictable once the mysteries of his universe are revealed.  More importantly, it features perhaps Miéville’s most accessible prose so far: While I have fond memories of the baroque storytelling of his debut Perdido Street Station, The City and the City benefits from mean and lean thriller storytelling, with a stripped-down style that paradoxically hints at Miéville’s growth as a writer.  It’s quite a bit different from anything he has written before, and that too is quite an accomplishment.

It amounts to a very strange, uniquely challenging reading experience quite unlike any other.  I may not completely appreciate what Miéville was trying to do with this novel, but I can’t say I’m displeased to have read it despite never completely accepting the reality of its imagination.  If this is a failure, it’s such an interesting one that it barely counts as a problem.  My disbelief wasn’t suspended, but any hasty judgement certainly was.

Repo Men (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) In a generous mood, I would probably praise Repo Men for its satiric vision of a future where synthetic organ transplants are common and expensive enough to warrant repo men going around repossessing deadbeats, leaving them, well, dead on the floor.  I would congratulate Jude Law, Liev Schreiber and Forrest Whittaker for thankless roles playing unsympathetic characters and Alice Braga for something like a breakthrough role.  I would say something clever about the film’s forthright carnographic nature.  I may even have something affable to say about Eric Garcia, who sort-of-adapted his own novel for the screen (the story, as described in the book’s afterword, is far more complicated) and wrote one of the most bitterly depressing movie ending in recent memory.  Heck, I would point out the numerous undisguised references to Toronto (where the movie was shot): the inverted TTC sign, the Eaton center complete with Indigo bookstore, the streetcars, even the traffic lights and suburban streets.  But I am not in a generous mood, because Repo Men is an unpleasant and defective attempt at a satirical action SF film that fails at most of what it attempts.  The characters are unlikable, their actions are despicable, the chuckles are faint and the Saw-inspired gory violence isn’t warranted by anything looking like thematic depth.  It is a literally viscerally repulsive film, and even trying to play along the grim sardonic humour gets increasingly difficult to swallow during self-congratulatory action sequences.  Once the film’s none-too-serious credentials are established, it’s hard to care –and that includes a wannabe-romantic sequence in which internal organs are exposed and fondled.  The ending wants to be witty, but it just feels absurd before it is revealed to be cheaply cynical.  The Science Fictional elements don’t even fit together and the result is a big bloody bore.  Instead, just give me another shot of Repo: The Genetic Opera!: at least that film knew how to balance arch seriousness with a sense of camp.  The irony is that Garcia’s novel is actually quite a bit better than the film –don’t let the adaptation scare you from a novel that does what the film wanted to do in a far more palatable fashion.

Repo Men aka The Repossession Mambo, Eric Garcia

Harper, 2010 movie tie-in reprint of 2009 original, 328 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-171304-0

Repo Men can be said to be a dark satire about the flesh and the inner rot of hyper-capitalism, but looking at its movie adaptation and then at the source novel, I can’t help but see both versions of the story as being about tone, the slippery literalization of metaphors and how easy it is to ruin a story by telling it badly.  Because even though the novel and the movie share the same creator, (many of) the same characters and (many of) the same plot beats, I hated the film and thought the novel was an enjoyable piece of work.  How did that happen?

First, the commonalities: In a not-too-distant future, artificial organs have become reliable and sophisticated enough that people don’t make much of a fuss in getting rid of their natural internals and getting better ones.  There’s a catch, of course: said organs are so expensive that they require financing, and if ever you don’t pay, well, the financing company feels completely justified in ripping them out of you.

(Yes, this is a very similar premise to Repo! The Genetic Opera, which has clear antecedents over Repo Men in having been an off-Broadway play about a decade ago.  But then again, there are examples of that idea in a number of older SF stories, so let’s stop claiming idea paternity.  High concepts aren’t unique diamonds that can be discovered once and thereafter only stolen: Writers can come to the same conclusion from different sources of inspiration, and as this review will keep hammering home, it’s all in the execution rather than the premise.)

It’s not difficult to come up with a few objections to the organ-ripping nonsense: There’s the slight issue of murdering people by removing their innards that defies a bit of common sense even in a satirical future.  But here’s one crucial difference between novel and movie: Whereas the novel can gloss over the messy business of organ extraction with a few wry sentences and allusions, the director of the film felt it necessary to show the removal in all of its glistening gory glory, along with a smirking narration that felt more psychopathological than amusing.  That’s one way to turn off an audience in less than five minutes and never get them back.

Prose, for all of its deficient audio-visual qualities, is actually quite a bit better at presenting satire, context, justification and depth.  So it is that even after disliking Repo Men quite a bit, I found myself enjoying Garcia’s novel even as it covered the same ground as the film, except with quite a bit more detail and a number of significant changes to the third act.

(It would be handy to criticize the film for being a ham-fisted hack-and-slash job on the novel, but the real story, as revealed in the movie tie-in edition’s afterword of the novel, is more a case of parallel development.  This being said, I suspect that films become worse when they’re developed over years of studio interference, whereas novels can only benefit from their writer’s sustained vision.  Still, it is surprising to find out that the film is quite a bit darker in its ending than the book.  This may be a first.)

Readers coming at Garcia’s novel without preconceptions will find an energetic, tangentially-told dark satire.  The narrator’s story keeps looping back to his marriages, his war experiences, his anecdotes as a Repo Man, the events that have landed him in such a desperate situation, and what happens after that.  Happily, this isn’t a confusing novel even as it hops all over the entire life of its main character: the narration is crisp, the voice of the narrator is enjoyable and the reading experience is top-notch.  As Science Fiction, the details don’t quite make sense (which is to be expected from a satirical novel by a writer seen as working from outside the genre), but this isn’t quite enough to harm Repo Men’s odd charm.

The lesson may be that I’m a far more lenient reader than a viewer: Perhaps I’m more patient with dense novels than simple movies.  But perhaps it’s also a lesson in how too much is too much, how a dark smile works better in written fiction than on a screen where there’s little wiggle room left to imagination.  But the result is the same: Eric Garcia may have scripted the adaptation of his own novel, but the book is clearly the winner here.  At the very least, it’s got all of its original guts.

The Ghost Writer aka The Ghost (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) Roman Polanski may be a runaway convicted pedophile, but he sure knows how to direct a movie.  Faithfully adapted by Robert Harris from his own unusually accessible novel, The Ghost Writer starts with an intriguing premise and then accelerates into a full-blown political thriller.  As a ghostwriter asked to help a former British Prime Minister finish his memoirs after the untimely death of his predecessor, Ewan McGregor is sympathetic enough to hold our interest.  Meanwhile, Pierce Brosnan is convincing as the conniving politician.  The fascinating aspects of ghost-writing are strong enough to allow us to settle in the film’s increasingly frantic pacing.  Once our protagonist starts finding clues about his subject’s past, palace intrigue develops and modern accusations come to besiege their quiet beachfront house.  Added interest can be found in The Ghost Writer’s not-so-subtle political allusions to Tony Blair’s administration.  The film’s plot is nearly identical to the book, but it’s really Polanski’s deft touch with suspense that ties up the film in a neat bow.  A number of showy sequences present familiar developments in refreshing fashion, and the deliberate pacing keeps things neither too slow nor too fast.  Some plot kinks are best explained in the book (which is also a bit more aggressive in political themes), but overall The Ghost Writer is a well-made thriller for adults, bringing back memories of classic seventies movie paranoia.  You can say what you want about Polanski, but the result up on the screen is unarguable.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) The good news with Tim Burton is that he is guaranteed to put a vision on screen.  Alas, it may not be the vision you would prefer.  So it is that this loose sequel to the classic Alice in Wonderland is an affront to my aesthetic preferences: At the exception of the oh-so-cute Cheshire Cat, I found the film’s artistic choices ugly.  This is partly intentional; after all, the point of this follow-up is that Wonderland has grown tainted; the magic has fled the land and been replaced by corruption.  {Insert heavy-duty genre fantasy narrative schematics inspired by John Clute here.}  No wonder everything is so repulsive.  The showy use of 3D makes moments of the film look even more incomprehensible and overdone to 2D audiences.  But as hard as it is to ignore Alice in Wonderland’s visuals, the real snore comes from the plot, which feels as Alice filtered through the Lord of the Rings plot template that has informed almost a full decade of genre cinema fantasy by now.  It’s dull, and the overdone shot of the two armies running to clash together has become almost parody.  Alice in Wonderland becomes duller as it goes on, and not even Johnny Depp’s increasingly active Mad Hatter (or Anne Hathaway’s regal presence, for that matter) can do much to redeem the rest of the picture.  It’s a middling fantasy film at best: when “dull” and “ugly” crop up in the same review, there’s little room for favourable quotes.

Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

Mariner, 2008, 242 pages, $14.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-547-08590-6

Decades after C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, the so-called divide between art and science continues to fascinate.  Are the two “cultures” still so completely incomprehensible to each other?  Why does this gap persist despite a wide acknowledgement of Snow’s thesis?  Is a true “third culture” even possible?

With Proust was a Neuroscientist, science journalist/editor Jonah Lehrer proposes that the work of artists through the ages has long hinted at natural truths that science has only recently acknowledged.  Marcel Proust’s exploration of the power of memory within In Search of Lost Time largely reflects what we have since learned about memory: how it interconnects with everything else, how it’s directly affected by smell and taste, how it mutates as it’s recalled, overwriting original memories with memories of the memory.  In eight successive chapters, Lehrer uses the work of a different artist as a springboard to discuss new developments in neuroscience, and then back again to an appreciation of the artist’s work.  It all makes for a serious, informative and compelling work of popular science/culture.

That’s why and how Proust was a Neuroscientist goes from Stravinsky to dopamine, from Walt Whitman to phantom limbs and from Gerdrude Stein to the structure of language by way of Chomsky.  The references in the book are as artistic as they are scientific, with literary quotations and historical overviews of the artist’s career alongside research paper summaries.  Getting the most out of Lehrer’s book involves knowing a lot about many things, but even those who may not know their Emerson from their Escoffier won’t have any trouble understanding most of it, Lehrer’s easy-to-read style betraying his experience working at mass-market periodicals.

Not every chapter is created equal, however, and so Lehrer really hits his stride in discussing George Eliott, leading to a luminously clear description of brain plasticity and how science has recently come to accept the once-heretical notion that neurons could reproduce in adults.  The Marcel Proust chapter is good enough to provide the book’s title, while discussing Paul Cézanne tells us a lot about vision, or more precisely how the images caught by our optics are then heavily post-processed by the brain.  But the best chapter of the book discusses turn-of-the-nineteenth-century chef Auguste Escoffier, which gently takes us from the codification of French cuisine to a discussion of umami and the mechanics of taste, recently up-ended after centuries of simple belief in sweet, sour, salty and bitter.  It’s good enough to read twice, especially if you have an interest in food.  (It also provides one of the book’s best lines in “Umami even explains (although it doesn’t excuse) Marmite, the British spread…” [P.60])  It’s enough to make us realize that Escoffier was a scientist in his own way, refusing accepted wisdom and only trusting the results of his experiments: there isn’t much of a humanities/science divide in a chef who relies on repeatability of experimental results.

But the same can’t always be said about the other seven artists discussed by Lehrer, from writers who instinctively knew things about the human condition to artists whose processes mirror latter discoveries.  Overly sensationalistic descriptions of the book (see how artists scooped science by hundreds of years!) do it a disservice: It’s far more satisfying to approach Proust was a Neuroscientist as another piece of evidence supporting perhaps the most obvious conclusion of all: Both artists and scientists are aiming at a common description of natural truth, and both toolsets, when best deployed, will end up describing the same thing from complementary perspectives.

The book closes on a meditation on C.P. Snow’s two cultures, and how even after more than fifty years, the gap between both remains significant.  More controversially, Lehrer writes that the current best-known examples of a “third culture” is essentially scientific vulgarization, which is essential in its own right, but often prone to the same pitfalls as scientific culture itself.  (Interestingly, while Lehrer does discuss Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday in favourable terms, he never mention Science Fiction at all.)  Perhaps there is a need for a truer third culture to stand aside and explore links between science and art without the preconceptions of either.  Readers, of course, are invited to find out for themselves how such a discipline would be helpful, starting with Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

Fast Food Nation (2006)

(On DVD, March 2010) Adapting a book to a movie is a gamble even in the best circumstances, but adapting a well-regarded non-fiction classic into an ensemble drama is really asking for trouble.  To its credit, Richard Linklater manages to touch upon much of Eric Schlosser’s critique of the fast-food industry: We get a taste of its reliance on students and migrant workers, the bloody mass butchery required to keep those burgers flowing, the external costs inherent in cheap food and even details such as made-in-laboratory flavours.  What the film doesn’t do as well is in dramatizing those issues: Often, Fast Food Nation feels like a talky issues show in which every scene mentions a problem or two.  (Even a quick walk through school corridors can’t help but feature metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs.)  Some characters are more interesting than others (there are plenty of cameos and small roles for familiar faces, the best of which being a single-scene semi-villainous turn for Bruce Willis), but the film shuts down before it can tie up most situations adequately: it’s all setup and little payoff, although it leads, Heart of Darkness-style, to a revelatory climax showing the gruesome nature of the “Killing Floor” discussed so often during the rest of the film..  This unflinching moment, filmed in a real Mexico butchery said to be cleaner than US ones, is meant to disgust –but it may not be the film’s intended climax for viewers who already understand that animals become meat become burgers.  Still, Fast Food Nation generally sticks close to reality, and its failings as a piece of narrative fiction are profoundly linked to its strength as a semi-documentary exposé.  It could have been much stronger by including a third act, presenting its messages more carefully (although, thanks goodness, it avoids the most obvious “fast food will make you fat”) and sticking closer to its characters.  But even with its flaws, it’s a worthwhile film: the issues are there to ponder, and there are a handful of scenes good enough to make the film compelling.  Don’t plan on eating much fast-food right after, though.  Appropriately, viewers may come to appreciate the film more after listening to co-writers Linklater and Schlosser on the audio commentary track: they discuss what material was kept from the book, the nature of low-budget moviemaking and some of the themes they were tackling.  A handful of other extras round up the DVD, the most memorable of them being the now-classic Meatrix Flash animation short films.

Green Zone (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) Politically-motivated action films are rare and precious, so I am unapologetic in liking Green Zone a lot more than I should given my distaste for Paul Greengrass’s shaky-cam style.  His politics are in the right place, but his habit of giving jobs to spastic cameramen can be tough to tolerate, especially in early dialogue scenes.  Yet despite the firefights, this story is largely about the way a loyal soldier comes to realize the ways the US government has lied about WMDs in Iraq.  It’s also a damning portrait of the way the US acted during its first year as an invader: Using Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City as inspiration for its setting leads to one of the best digitally-enhanced portrait of occupied Baghdad so far.  Matt Damon is surprisingly credible as the soldier whose questions lead to unpleasant realizations, and one action sequence featuring helicopter surveillance feels as uniquely contemporary as Greengrass’s own Bourne Ultimatum London chase sequence.  Still, this may be a film not only for those who can spot the Judith-Miller-inspired patsy journalist or the not-Ahmed-Chalabi puppet figurehead, but those who can both explain De-Baathification and why it was so badly implemented.  For savvy political observers, Green Zone feels like a swift Cliff’s Notes version of recent history, or a version of No End in Sight with far many more gunfights.  While the dramatic arc of the script feels ordinary (although the American-on-American conflicts are a nice touch), it’s its dramatization of recent bleeding history that’s most rewarding.  It so confidently states what many Americans are still reluctant to affirm despite piles of evidence to the contrary that it becomes a minor revelation of what filmmaking can still do –especially in non-American hands.  In this context, trolling the politically-driven negative reviews for the film becomes entertainment in its own right.  In the meantime, Green Zone goes to join The Kingdom and Lord of War as examples of how enjoyable action filmmaking can back up a socially-conscious theme, and not be much more than half a decade behind current events.

The Ghost aka The Ghost Writer, Robert Harris

Arrow, 2010 film tie-in reprint of 2007 original, 400 pages, C11.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-099-53852-3

I completely missed this novel when it first came out.  Like many thriller readers, I had pigeonholed Robert Harris in the limited-interest “historical thriller” subgenre and opted out after Pompeii when he announced an entire trilogy of classical Roman thrillers.  It didn’t help that I found his novels a bit too slow and generic to catch my attention.

Fortunately, The Ghost is a welcome change of pace.  It’s decidedly modern, decently paced, easily accessible and a joy to read.  While it also mines history for inspiration, it only goes back a few decades, and could only have been written in the past few years.  It deals with contemporary politics, the craft of writing, cutting-edge conspiracies, sordid spying between friends and combines it all in a classic thriller framework.

It starts amiably enough: A London-based professional ghostwriter, a not-to-be-named scribe for the stars, is suddenly offered an important job: He is to drop everything, fly to an estate on Martha’s Vineyard island and help an ex-British Prime Minister write his memoirs.  So far, so good:  He’s a professional, and if the job is high-profile, it’s nothing he’s not prepared to handle.  The politician is so polished that no humanity can escape from him?  No problem.  He sees evidence of marital problems accompanied by hints of an affair between the ex-PM and his assistant?  Whatever: Our hero has a job to do, and after working with rock stars, vapid actresses and illiterate football players, it’s not a high-profile politician that is going to be a challenge.  Even formal charges of war crimes by the International Court against the ex-PM are more interesting than troublesome when our writer gets drafted in writing a statement that is immediately repeated around the planet.

But the situation gets more problematic when our narrator begins accumulating details about his predecessor, who died in an increasingly mysterious fashion after finishing a poorly-written first draft of the biography in question.  Left almost alone in an isolated house, our protagonist is seduced by the ex-politician’s wife, and discovers documents that suggest even deeper secrets.  Left to his own devices while his subject is off confronting international public opinion, the ghost writer soon finds himself trapped in a series of long-repressed secrets that go all the way up…

No doubt about it: Thriller readers are in for a treat with The Ghost.  The perfectly paced rhythm of the novel is initially kept slow: We’re charmed into the story via the titular ghostwriter as he goes about his job and gives us a look at an inglorious profession, with plenty of tricks, tips and revealing anecdotes along the way.  The narration is clean, engaging and effortlessly takes us from one chapter to another.  When the mystery starts, we’re ready for it; when it flips over to thrills, it’s also at the right moment.  By the last act, which takes places between high-stakes power-brokers and tackles weighty geopolitical issues, The Ghost is already a success.

For followers of British politics, there are plenty of extra thrills in contemplating a barely-disguised portrait of Tony Blair leading to a conspiracy theory at once implausible and revelatory.  Among other things, The Ghost is an eloquent demonstration of the possibilities of vengeful writing, as Harris seems to be channeling a fair amount of rage at recent history and uses that emotional power to shape a novel that criticizes key British policy decisions.  In that fashion, The Ghost is not too far away from John LeCarré’s equally-compelling The Constant Gardener.

Readers who have seen Roman Polanski’s well-made movie adaptation will be pleased to find few noteworthy differences between the novel and its big-screen counterpart.  The most notable change come late in the book, which features scenes set in New York that were relocated somewhere else in the movie to accommodate the director’s travel restrictions.  Otherwise, a good chunk of the novel’s events, tone and rhythm are faithfully adapted, in large part due to a script co-written by Polanski and Harris himself.

For disenchanted Harris fans such as myself, The Ghost is a reminder that he can do a whole lot more than write about Roman history.  For thriller readers, it’s a perfectly mastered genre exercise, and for readers in general, it’s a really enjoyable novel –not to be missed now that it’s widely available in a movie tie-in edition.

The Crazies (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) On paper, this film doesn’t look like much: A remake of a 1973 Romero film about people being transformed into zombies, er, crazy psychotics?  Another take on the good old “Government will KILL YOU the first chance it gets” paranoia?  Yet another familiar ZOMBIE ZOMBIER ZOMBIEST film like 28 Days/Weeks Later?  Not interested.  And yet, even though most of The Crazies plays like a dirt-simple genre horror film, it is –for all of its conceptual lack of originality- well-made enough to hold attention even when it indulges in well-worn clichés and nonsensical set-pieces.  Despite a second act lull and a predictable late-film eruption of zombies, the direction is snappy, the writing is adequate and the actors do what they can with what they’re given.  Unlike the original, the film is sparse with explanations, and (at the notable exception of a few ominous satellite shots) limits its perspective what the protagonists can learn: the minuscule amount of exposition happens at a frantic pace.  The subtext about government intervention is far, far less important that the genre chills and thrills, and takes a back-seat to a convincing portrait of small-town Midwestern America.  Timothy Oliphant turns in a fine performance as the sheriff-protagonist, while director Breck Eisner may end up proving that there is life after the underwhelming Sahara.  Until his next film, though, The Crazies is a rare competent horror film remake that rises above a hum-drum premise to deliver a decent entertainment experience.

Brooklyn’s Finest (2009)

(In theatres, March 2010) Brooklyn’s Finest is a profoundly ironic title, but there’s little sly humour in the rest of this deliberately gritty and down-beat police drama that follows three variously-corrupted Brooklyn policemen.  This isn’t director Antoine Fuqua’s first corrupt cop drama (remember Training Day?), nor the first corrupt cop drama in recent memory (Dark BlueStreet KingsPride and GloryRighteous Kill?), so viewers may be spared a sentiment of déjà-vu.  Where this film distinguishes itself is in structure: The three stories rarely intersect, except for a bit of tragic cross-fire at the very end.  In the meantime, we get Richard Gere (far too proud and well-coiffed for his own role) as a disillusioned veteran marking down his last days, the always-fantastic Don Cheadle as an undercover informant with stronger ties to criminals than his own superiors, and Ethan Hawke as an overwhelmed father-of-many who resorts to stealing drug money in order to supplement his pay check.  Brooklyn’s Finest has a patina of unpleasantness that is supposed to transmute into authentic grittiness, but this illusion doesn’t sustain the steadily-increasing body-count as criminals are gunned down in police raids by the dozen.  Few of the film’s characters can be expected to live until the credits.  This sombre tone, alas, creates expectations that the unfocused, moralistic ending can’t match: Since this isn’t a popcorn picture, we look in vain for a deeper message and a stronger conclusion than a final hail of bullets.  The script, while interesting throughout, fails to cohere in its third act and the result is a mild disappointment.  Like many of its corrupted-blue brethren, Brooklyn’s Finest will be another forgettable DVD in the crime section; adequate to satisfy those looking for that kind of film, and insignificant for everyone else.

Cop Out (2010)

(In theatres, March 2010) The most profound irony about Cop Out, as directed by Kevin Smith from someone else’s script, is that the film’s direction is quite a bit better than its screenplay.  This should surprise Smith fans: after all, hasn’t it been a trademark of his movies that their writing frequently rises above their often-pedestrian direction?  Here, through, Smith has a budget and presumably the time to present a more visually ambitious vision.  Alas, the script just isn’t there: As a pair of policemen bumble their way through a dull storyline involving Latin gangsters in Brooklyn, Bruce Willis does well as the veteran leader of the pair but I remain unconvinced by Tracy Morgan’s comedic style.  Worse, though, is the script’s fondness for police intimidation as a plot driver: in Cop Out’s reality, it’s hilarious for heroes to jam pistols and tattoo needles in civilians’ face to extract information.  As for the rest of the film, it’s more miss than hit.  Seann William Scott has an intriguing character that’s played for senseless giggles.  Other characters come and go, with a dramatic plot heavy-handedly jammed in the middle of the comedy.  There’s a noticeable lack of flow to the proceedings, and the spot-the-references-to-eighties-action-movies game quickly grows tiresome.  For a comedy, Cop Out has a noticeable lack of laughs: even what is supposed to be amusing just feels dumb.  On the other hand, the direction feels undistinguishable from most cookie-cutter cop comedies, which marks a step up for Smith.  He’s still not doing it well, but at least it’s not as blatantly bad as in his first few films.  Hopefully it’s a lucrative enough project that he’ll be able to work on something else soon.  Still, even in mercenary work-for-hire projects, he may want to pick material that’s stronger than Jersey Girl.

Beyond Heaving Bosom: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan

Fireside, 2009, 291 pages, C$19.99 pb, ISBN 978-1-4165-7122-3

I don’t read a lot of romance fiction, but I don’t look at the genre unsympathetically: What little I have read in the genre was entertaining, and given my affection for a number of other literary genres from science-fiction to thrillers, I tend to see dedicated romance readers as kindred spirits: they read what they like, I read what I like, and the combined sales figures of popular fiction genres are good enough to puncture the pretentions of those who think that fiction ends at the literary aisle.  So you could say that I was receptive to the idea of an irreverent guide to romance novels, and I couldn’t have dared hope for a better one than Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s Beyond Heaving Bosom: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels.

Wendell and Tan are minor internet celebrities for writing the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog, which covers romantic fiction in a way that makes some cheer and others blush.  Their hip, intelligent and foul-mouthed commentary on romance fiction is one of the many reasons why the web is fostering one of the golden eras of reviewing: This is contemporary commentary on fiction being written now, and it’s as entertaining as it is brutally honest.

With Beyond Heaving Bosoms, they get to go beyond quick blog posts and make a sweeping judgement about the entire field.  Part introduction to the field, part affectionate satire, part advocacy in favour of the genre, this guide packs the romance genre between two covers and tells you why you should pay attention.  I read it as a complete outsider and got in three hundred pages the accumulated wisdom of years of genre reading.  New-skool/old-skool divide; typical characteristics of the protagonists; cover illustration analysis; familiar plot devices; bad sex clichés: Wendell and Tan have it all figured out, so pay attention.

Not that you’ll have any trouble staying interested: Fighting for eyeballs in an oversaturated web of review blogs, our authors have staked themselves a place as the genre’s irreverent hipsters.  Their foul-mouthed style is as frank as it’s hilarious, and it definitely makes romance look far more contemporary than its sometimes-stodgy reputation would suggest.  It helps that the authors are passionate about their subject: they love romance while recognizing its faults, and their passion for the material shines though.  So much so, in fact, that the chapter dedicated to explaining why smart people would love romance ends up feeling oddly defensive when the rest of the book is such an eloquent illustration of why the genre is worth so much to its readers.

The best part of Beyond Heaving Bosoms is how quickly its blend of insights and snark leads to a compulsively readable experience.  In attempting to explain the core of romance, the authors provide a helpful flowchart to help readers decide whether they’re reading old or new-skool romance (“Does the hero ever rape the heroine?” [P.14]), a list of thirteen ways for a heroine to be virginal before meeting the hero, a “Big Misunderstanding” board game, a revealing interview with a real male cover model (along with a prototypical “Ultimate Cover”) and a pick-your-own-romance adventure that keeps its funniest payoff for its last entry.

Smart and funny, Beyond Heaving Bosoms has something to offer to fans, foes and bystanders of romance.  It’s a successful and entertaining overview of a genre that doesn’t get nearly enough respect, and it does a fine job at discussing romance’s clichés without losing touch with what makes it so compelling… and does so in a way that should convince even newcomers.  I’d like to see a similar approach to other genres.  How about a Smart Bastards’ Guide to Thriller Novels?  Can I interest any publisher in the Smart Nerd’s Guide to Science-Fiction Novels?