Monthly Archives: June 2010

Knight and Day (2010)

(In theatres, June 2010) A breezy summer action comedy doesn’t have to do much to charm me, but the mess that is Knight and Day tests the limits of my indulgence when it comes to those kinds of would-be summer blockbusters.  It’s not that the film isn’t enjoyable: It’s good-natured, leaves its stars free to grin madly and does present an enjoyable escapist fantasy.  There are interesting things to see in the action sequences, and a few laughs here and there.  But something feels off about the way the film is directed and edited: Director James Mangold has an intriguing way of showing (or rather, not showing) what happens in the film, but this kind of experimentation doesn’t fit with the far more conventional thrust of the movie and is hampered by some fairly obvious CGI work.  Furthermore, the editing is so choppy that it feels as if crucial connective tissue has been left out of the script or the final cut: Knight and Day feels rushed and borderline incoherent, in-between zippy changes of scenery, abrupt shifts in tone and characters whose unhinged nature seems more forced by dialogue rewrites than anything like psychological complexity.  (Even the title almost defies explanation, and you have to squint really hard at the last lines of dialogue to figure it out.)  So far removed from the moviemaking process, it’s tough for viewers to know where to assign blame: the script was reportedly re-written almost a dozen times, passing through a number of proposed stars before settling on Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz.  Neither do too badly, although Cruise overdoes his preening while Diaz seems happy to squeal dizzily through much of the film.  The result is about a third good, a third charming and a third mystifying: not exactly the ideal mixture for a formula movie that should have been an easy slam-dunk.

Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2009, 413 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1971-5

We’re all familiar with the disappointment when a book we were primed to like doesn’t live up to expectations.  But what about the surprise when a book that didn’t look all that good turns out to be quite a bit better than expected?

I steeled myself before reading Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock.  Even though I quite like most of what Wilson writes, the recent duds of Axis and the not-growing-any-fainter trauma of Darwinia temper certitudes about any new book of his.  Then there’s the fact that Julian Comstock is an expansion of a previous novella that had left me cold, along with my general lack of enthusiasm for post-apocalyptic futures.  None of this amounted to any burning desire to read the book, which helps explain why it was the last of this year’s Hugo-nominated slate to be taken off my shelves.

Most of my apprehensions were justified: Julian Comstock is, after all, an exercise in using a Science Fiction framework to tell another kind of story.  Set in a post-apocalyptic 2170s where America (and presumably much of the world) has regressed to late-nineteenth-century levels of technology and political sophistication, Wilson’s novel is really an old-fashioned Victorian adventure set in a future engineered to foster those kinds of stories.  Any attempt to criticize the world-building, the regression of current social values and the almost-complete lack of technology beyond 1870s sophistication takes a back seat to the realization that Wilson is manipulating his future to tell a story, not writing a dour prescription for everyone foolish enough to ride in an SUV.

It helps a lot that the story is told in a sympathetic faux-naif style that makes even the cruellest deprivations sound like just another character-building obstacle.  Julian Comstock may be the hero of the novel, but it’s being told by Adam Hazzard, a young man with literary ambitions who rides alongside his friend “Julian Conqueror” as major events happen to them both.  The style, entertaining and funny, polishes a depressing setting into a far more interesting second-level read.  This blend of ironic narration and bleak world-building is what prevents Julian Comstock from falling prey to the same air of déjà-vu that makes other earnestly catastrophic books so unpleasant to read –I’m looking at you, Hugo-nominated The Windup Girl.  For a future in which most of us would be condemned as heretics, it’s a surprisingly charming and funny novel.

So it is that within pages of starting Julian Comstock, I found myself unexplainably enthralled by the power of its prose, slowing down my usual reading speed in order to appreciate the subtleties of the sly humour, offhand references to hideous bits of future history and stone-faced put-downs of contemporary values (“Business Men, Atheists, Harlots and Automobiles” [P.211])  There’s nothing fun about much of Julian Comstock’s world, but the adventures narrated are gripping, and faithfully follow the form of classic adventure novels.  The story spends a bit of time in Montréal (with funny snippets of French) before setting out to the Saguenay and Newfoundland after a detour in New York.  In the background, weighty issues of political infighting, dynastic succession and church/state conflict play out: It’s quite a balancing act to put those into an otherwise light adventure of wartime heroics and coming-of-age discoveries.

But balance and subtlety are, after all, what Wilson does best, and the result this time around is an odd novel that dares to do things that others wouldn’t even consider.  There are allusions here to historical figures and genre literature that I’m ill-equipped to evaluate, but those won’t slow down readers who suspect nothing about Julian the Apostle and William Taylor Adams.  It’s also, again in the Wilson tradition, quite a bit different from anything he’s done before.  And while I don’t quite love the result (see above regarding residual concerns about the world-building), I respect it quite a bit more than I expected from early reports about the novel.  Considering a 2010 Hugo Best Novel nominee slate dominated by books with significant problems, Julian Comstock is the best-rounded of them all, with the added advantage of considerable charm.  Guess where my vote is going?

Boneshaker, Cherie Priest

Tor, 2009, 416 pages, C$20.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-7653-1841-1

Anyone going to SF conventions this year has realized that the most popular costume themes of 2010 are zombies and steampunk.  Everyone loves zombies!  Everyone loves steampunk!  What if you tried combining both?  Ah, the possibilities…!

So it is that Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker takes place in an alternate 1870s Seattle where, sixteen years earlier, a mad science experiment has led to the release of noxious gases transforming people into… zombies.  The city core has been walled-up, but the zombies remain.  As the story begins, the teenage son of the scientist determined to uncover the truth about his father sets out to explore the walled-up city; his mother quickly follows, pursued by a healthy dose of swashbuckling adventure.  Zeppelins, zombies, mad scientists and post-apocalyptic landscapes are soon involved.

There are probably no more back-handed compliments as “fans of this stuff will like it”, but that’s still a pretty accurate reflection of what I’m left thinking at the end of the novel.

I should start by admitting that I have no particular affection for steampunk, either in content or form.  Content-wise, steampunk is a case of arrested technological development: There’s a reason why we got rid of (messy, unwieldy, dangerous) steam technology as soon as we found something better.  It doesn’t help that recent attempts to justify worlds in which Victorian technology endures are usually closer to contrived wish-fulfillment fantasy that any kind of reasonable SF.  I’m marginally more sympathetic to the aesthetics of steampunk, but my own preferences run along the clean neat lines of Apple/IKEA.  That leaves us with steampunk’s considerable potential as criticism of Victorian or contemporary social attitudes, but that aspect usually gets short thrift in the recent steampunk revival.  Add to that the idea of steampunk as a bandwagon and you’ll find me on the outside of the party, wondering when it will move on to something new.

Also: Zombies?  I’ve seen enough of them for the next ten years.  Played-out.  Give me something else.

But it’s a disservice to reduce Boneshaker to its simplest zeppelin/zombies components.  The raison d’être of the book is adventure, and I shouldn’t begrudge anyone their fun in riding hot-air machines to blow up the un-dead.  Cherie Priest is obviously having fun playing in the catacombs of Seattle and scratching a few irresistible creative itches.  If it doesn’t happen to run along my own obsessions, well, at least I can recognize the fun being had here.  My indifference to the result isn’t a reason not to mention the strong female protagonist (maternal action heroines are a rarity, and this one should be celebrated), the attention to racial diversity and the overall maturity of the prose.

On the other hand, maybe there’s an issue here if the novel hasn’t managed to reach out of its intended constituency.  At 416 pages, the book takes forever to get going and advance just as slowly once it has set up its plot.  The many peripheral characters could have been tightened, some of the early scene-setting is blunt to the point of being obvious (Oh, hello Mister Journalist; let me tell you everything readers need to know.) and the epilogue only reinforces how little has actually happened by the end of the novel.  (This may be explained by an announced sequel.)

It all amounts to a book that feels considerably less substantial than I could have wished for, which wouldn’t have been a problem if it had somehow managed to reach one of my own pet passions.  But Boneshaker remains what it wants to be, and not a lot more.  I can hear readers squeee in satisfaction at the result and am happy that they’re having as much fun as I do when I read a novel that does manage to hit my own squeee-points.  But I won’t feign enthusiasm either for something that leaves me curiously unsatisfied.

(One final note, so petty it shouldn’t even be mentioned except for the significant annoyance factor: Whoever at Tor thought that it would be a good idea to print this book in brown ink may not have spent enough time on public transit, where imperfect fluorescent lighting leads to a scatologically delightful brown-on-yellow low-contrast reading experience.  Don’t do that again.)

Harry Brown (2009)

(In theatres, June 2010) The best reason to see this art-house exploitation film is to watch Michael Caine, visibly showing his age, reprising some of his stone-cold killer mannerism.  There isn’t anything more about this film, after all, than a revenge fantasy featuring a freshly-widowed pensioner taking revenge on a bunch of teenage hoodlums.  Starting from a paranoid view of the world, Harry Brown doesn’t spare a tut-tut while describing the depravity of today’s youth.  It does get quite a bit more enthusiastic, however, in showing its protagonist use his old Marine training to take down the worst of the local teens.  Caine with a gun is always fun to watch, even though the movie around him remains an uneasy blend of art-house drama and genre shoot’em-up.  The flaccid pacing, sure-footed cinematography and attention paid to Caine’s center-stage performance are more in-line with Oscar-baiting movies than the sudden bloody violence, squalid setting and unintelligibly profane characters.  Like many modern vigilante-justice films, Harry Brown remains stuck between condemning violence and indulging into the sheer thrill of it: Different kinds of viewers will have different ideas as to what are the film’s best sequences.  While the result doesn’t escape a few flaws (including a finale that seems to reach for unnecessary connections between characters), it’s a watchable film that is perhaps most interesting in comparison with other vigilante films, other British crime dramas and other Michael Caine tough guys.

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi

Night Shade Books, 2009, 361 pages, $24.95 hc, ISBN 978-1-59780-157-7

Two definitions submitted for your consideration:

  • Spring-loaded cat: In horror movies, a moment during which audience and characters alike are momentarily horrified by the sudden appearance of what turns out to be a cat.  Essentially: a cheap scare.
  • Spring-powered future: In science-fiction novels, a moment during which the reader realizes the hollowness of a dystopian future thanks to a telling detail that turns out to be nonsense.  Essentially: a cheap scare.

Over the past few years, Paolo Bacigalupi has become the hot new Science Fiction writer of the moment.  A string of Hugo nominations for dour and depressing short stories paved the way, but in 2010 he finally hit the big time thanks to Nebula and Locus Awards for his first novel The Windup Girl (set in the same world as many of his short stories), along with a Hugo nomination for the same novel.  As I write this, he is the odds-on favourite to win the award.

It’s probably impossible to discuss Bacigalupi’s stature in the Science Fiction field without dwelling on the fact that the genre, as a whole, has grown much bleaker in the past decade.  Year’s Best SF anthologies filled with catastrophe stories, a fascination for fascism and environmental collapses, as well as a sharp uptick in both post-apocalyptic stories (often with zombies) and retro-looking steampunk are some signs of the times.  In this context, Bacigalupi’s bleak post-peak-oil stories and depressing themes fit with the contemporary tune of the genre.

Being temperamentally opposed to gratuitously downbeat futures, I had no plans to read The Windup Girl until it swept the awards raffles.  I did so out of duty, and mention this so no one gets any false ideas about my prejudices going into the novel.  The best that I can report is that Bacigalupi’s first novel is exactly what it attempts to do, and isn’t uninteresting to read.  Alas, it’s also a pile of nonsense that never engaged my suspension of disbelief.

The problems start early on: In The Windup Girl’s post-oil Thailand, humanity is forced to scrounge for energy sources having conveniently forgotten all about nuclear power.  So much so that we’re asked to believe in a “kink-spring the size of [a] fist that hold a gigajoule of power” [P.5]  Except that such a gadget is impossible: I had been warned about those magical springs by other savvier readers, but elementary calculations confirm how ludicrous an idea this is:  A gigajoule of power is equivalent to about 26.5 litres of oil, and would be enough to send almost 20 kilograms in geostationary orbit.  (Thank you Wikipedia.)  You can’t stuff that amount of energy in fist-sized metal springs, no matter the amount of hand-waving about revolutionary coating: the only way to get that type of energy density would be with a fist-sized fusion reactor.  But impossible springs charged through inefficient animal labour are only a symptom of bigger world-building problems.  This is a book that features bioengineering good enough to synthesize quasi-human characters, but nothing like biofuel-producing algae.  A book in which zeppelin shipping is somehow cheaper than barges.  A book in which bioengineered plagues that somehow escape national retribution co-exist with carbon taxes that are paid because (one presumes) national retribution still works pretty well.  Other contradictions multiply, but I would simply be repeating myself:  Coherent world-building, obviously, is best reserved for optimistic people.  Then again, I have higher standards for unreasonably pessimistic political viewpoints with which I disagree.

Not that the thin coherence of this bleak future is any surprise.  Bacigalupi has obviously tricked the deck in favour of his preferred outcome (which, to repeat, would be that we’re doomed, doomed, doomed) and written a novel around this thesis.  If humanity was as stupid as it’s made to be in The Windup Girl, then it would deserve to die.  Anyone who needs convincing only has to make it to the grim end of the book, which manages to pull off a downbeat ending out of a resolution that could have gone otherwise.  Oppressors and victims jostle for attention as characters, and it’s no accident if the most sympathetic of them is taken out early on.  The titular character’s role is to suffer abuse until she can’t take it any more… and given the leisurely pacing of the book, that means a lot of abuse.

This being said, readers who enjoy depressive episodes and bleak visions of the future will be charmed by the novel, in part because despite its other faults, it’s decently written and manages to fulfill every single one of its own objectives.  The prose is above-average for a genre that values simplicity, and some of the dramatic sequences have a good narrative kick to them.  (Great cover, too.)

Still, this is a novel that is carried by the quirks of our time, and will suffer for them as well.  Readers with long memories may recall a similar vogue in downbeat eco-catastrophism in the seventies –those novels haven’t aged very well, and despite the success that The Windup Girl may enjoy at the moment, I doubt that it will survive as freshly in a decade or so.  (About the time we will all go “Hey, remember the fuss about peak oil?  Wasn’t that a lot of short-sighted panic?”)  The Windup Girl is a novel of its time, but then again our times suck.

Wake, Robert J. Sawyer

Viking, 2009, 356 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06741-1

[The usual disclaimer: I’ve known Robert J. Sawyer since 1995.  He knows me well enough to know that I take it as a compliment when he teases me in front of a crowd at one of his book launches.]

Every time I read a Robert J. Sawyer novel, I have to brace myself for frustration.

I know that I’m going to find enough fascinating material to justify reading the novel.  I also know that Sawyer’s writing techniques will run counter to my own preferences.  The usual suspense is whether the fascinating will outweigh the frustrating.  I’m usually left focusing on what’s interesting about any given novel rather than try to balance the positive against the negative.

So it is that the most interesting thing about Wake is its emphasis on its protagonist, a bright blind teenager named Caitlin.  As a budding nerd in the best sense of the word, she’s not completely dissimilar to the middle-aged scientists who usually form the bulk of Sawyer’s protagonists… but her blindness and young age set her apart.  Freshly emigrated from Texas to Waterloo, Caitlin is in many ways a typical high-school girl.  In others, though, she’s a Science Fiction fan’s favourite: an inquisitive geek who suddenly gets a chance to try an experimental procedure that may restore her sight.  Things don’t turn as expected, though, and before long she’s communicating with an entity that lives in the lost packets of the web, a brand-new intelligence who has to learn how to see the world at the same time as Caitlin.

Compared to previous Sawyer novels, what’s different about Wake is the time it spends playing around with a more restrained idea.  In what is almost certainly a symptom of a first volume of a trilogy, this novel explores a relatively limited premise in greater detail, and takes its time in developing its storyline.  It’s not exactly slow, but by the end of the book, not much has actually happened and at least one subplot doesn’t lead anywhere yet.  Readers looking for traditional conflict may have to wait until the sequels.

On the other hand, that pacing allows Sawyer to fully sketch out the process through which Caitlin learns to see, and the precise steps his native web intelligence uses to develop its own consciousness.  It’s not always credible (the reams of colloquial English writing available on the web makes it unlikely that an emergent web intelligence would speak in older public-domain cadences, however amusing the idea) but it occasionally leads to impressive scenes: Caitlin’s vision breakthrough is a fine piece of scene-building, compensating for a number of overdone first-person passages best read using William Shatner’s voice.  (“Being… but not becoming.  No marking of time, no past or future—only an endless, featureless now, and, just barely there in the boundless moment, inchoate and raw, the dawning of perception…” [P.1])

Of course, many of Sawyer’s usual tics remain obvious: As with many of his latest novels, it’s deeply stepped into cultural references (both pop and geek) that immediately date it to 2009.  Sawyer’s obvious nationalism also pops up thanks to a heroine whose seemingly sole reason for being American so far in the trilogy is to provide a running commentary on what’s different between the US and Canada.  Furthermore, Sawyer’s tendency to not just make lousy jokes, but explain them immediately betrays a grating amount of hand-holding for readers who may not be familiar with his references.  This, to me, is the most frustrating aspect of Sawyer’s writing these days: I don’t doubt that it’s a conscious set of techniques to appeal to a far larger readership than just the core genre SF readers, but it does make the reading experience far more frustrating for those who are already a step ahead of others.

Still, who am I to complain about techniques that have obviously proven successful?  Sawyer seems to be outselling most of his core-genre colleagues, and earning far more mainstream attention than genre-oriented writers usually get.  He’s also, significantly, earning quite a bit of popular affection within the SF genre community as well –Wake won the Aurora Award, and is now nominated for the Hugo as well.

All of this is a useful reminder that even if Sawyer’s writing style is often annoying enough to send me gnawing on the nearest chill-pill, his core strengths remain unarguable: Intriguing speculations, accessible prose style, optimistic outlook (something that Hugo voters can only appreciate this year) and an addictive quality that makes even frustrated readers coming back for just one more book.  Or two more, as this new trilogy would have it.

Your Movie Sucks, Roger Ebert

Andrew McMeel, 2007, 338 pages, C$20.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-7407-6366-3

As a reviewer, I’m not sure how I feel knowing that unfavourable reviews will be more popular than favourable ones.  Roger Ebert has made significant contributions to film criticism, but why is it that the first book of his I’ve bought new is a book of the film he hates?  What does that tell me about the value of reviewing in an entertainment-driven world?

Still, such doubts don’t last long once racing through Your Movie Sucks, an anthology of nearly 150 of Roger Ebert’s least-favourite films of 2000-2006 from Battlefield Earth to The Hills Have Eyes.  (For earlier stinkers, refer to Ebert’s similar I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie) The blunt title and Ebert’s hangdog expression cover photo set the stage for seven years of terrible films, each rated one-and-a-half-stars or less.  The selection is generally made of dumb comedies and terrible horror films, but it also has its share of art-house misses, big-budget action stinkers and manipulative dramas.

The opening section of the book has a few of Ebert’s greatest feuds, from the slam-dunk that is his infamous review of Rob Schneider’s Deuce Bigalo: European Gigolo that titles the book (“Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.” [P.xi]), to the spirited exchange after Ebert’s no-star review of the horror film Chaos, to “The Brown Bunny Saga” in which an Ebert pan of a preliminary cut shown at Cannes ends up becoming a three-star review of a much-improved film.

It’s impossible to read through Your Movie Sucks without gaining an appreciation for the elements of a good movie, even if only by opposition to what Ebert describes here.  Movies that have no redeeming qualities past their shock value; movies so ill-conceived that they lower the entire level of moviemaking; movies that don’t work despite their intentions, and movies made for a crass buck rather than any artistic or popular worth.

As it happens, I have been reviewing films fairly consistently during the period covered by the book, and it’s a particular experience to be reminded of films that I hadn’t thought about in years (or, worse, being led to wonder if I had in fact seen said movie before a quick check of my own web site cleared that up.)  It doesn’t prove or even mean anything, but Ebert and I don’t often completely disagree: At most, he’ll hate pieces that I consider to be decent little genre pictures (such as Resident Evil or Behind Enemy Lines).  But even in disagreeing, we often see the same flaws: we just weigh them differently.  (On the other hand, I wouldn’t dare compare “Best movies” list with Ebert.)

As you may expect (and as every reviewer knows), it’s far easier to be cutting, sarcastic and plain-out funny when slamming something worth hating.  So it is that Your Movie Sucks could have been subtitled “More than a hundred of Ebert’s funniest reviews” without missing a beat: There are quite a few gems in his invectives (ah, that Freddy Got Fingered passage about finding the bottom of the barrel and then digging even lower… “This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.” [P.111]) and there’s nothing quite like reading him rip into a film that deserves it: I had forgotten a good chunk of his classic Battlefield Earth review, but reading it again made it all come back.

While the gimmick of the book may wear thin after a while, there’s no denying that it’s interesting enough to read cover-to-cover, and makes great bathroom reading.  Now, to atone for my sins of only paying attention to Ebert’s bad reviews, I have ordered Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert from Amazon.  It seems the very least I can do.

The A-Team (2010)

(In theatres, June 2010) Having no particular knowledge or affection for the eighties TV series from which this film is adapted, I can only judge it on how well it performs as an action movie.  Fortunately, The A-Team delivers all the expected thrills: Writer/director Joe Carnahan finally gets a decent budget, and the if the result frequently mocks plausibility, it’s good enough to make The A-Team a perfectly acceptable action movie.  While a few longer shots would have been helpful in keeping the tension high, Carnahan’s visual style here is heavy on anachronistic back-and-forth between planning and an execution that places a lot more emphasis on speed than grace.  It benefits from grand-scale CGI stunts: how else to portray a bunch of shipping containers falling down like matchsticks?  By the time the characters are flying a tank via its main cannon, I couldn’t have been happier: Action insanity plus echoes of Grand Theft Auto 3!  This intensity, combined with an engaging ensemble cast of characters, does a lot to compensate for a script that never quite seems certain when to start: The A-Team delivers two successive origin stories before we get the sense that the film is truly underway, and even then the entire film seems like a pilot episode for its own sequels.  But why complain when Liam Neeson is slumming with cigars and cackling grins?  Why nit-pick when Bradley Cooper makes for an irresistible con-man?  Finally, what about Jessica Biel, back on the big screen as a competent military investigator?  I’m always on the market for an over-the-top action comedy if it’s made with intelligence, speed and charm.  The A-Team at least gets good grades on speed and charm, and substitutes kinetic cleverness in lieu of intelligence.  I’ll take it.  After all, I love it when an action movie comes together.

Killers (2010)

(In theatres, June 2010) Likable actors, a promising high concept, action-packed plotting and the ever-enjoyable absurdity of an assassin trying to settle down in bland suburbia.  What can go wrong?  Well, start by explaining why this so-called comedy struggles so much to earn even indulgent chuckles.  Killers starts slow with an overlong prologue that tells too much and wounds the picture before it even gets going, only to restart again three years later.  Overstaying its welcome before it even starts, this film simply never clicks. It doesn’t help that boy-hero Ashton Kutcher is never believable as a potentially murderous psychopath: even in action sequences, he seems to be preening in front of the camera, too self-absorbed to make us believe in his character.  If you ever want to know what went wrong with Killers, start with the lead casting.  On the other hand, there are a few good actors elsewhere in the movie trying their best to deal with what they’re given: Tom Selleck is great as a moustachioed dad, Catherine O’Hara does what she can as a boozy mom (how droll…) while Katherine Heigl –in-between high-pitched squeals—gives viewers a splendid excuse to look at her in low-cut outfits and gratuitous lingerie.  None of them can save the film, but they rescue it from a complete lack of interest.  The script is about one rewrite away from passable, placing far too much trust in actors who don’t have good comic timing.  With so many problems, it hardly seems fair to nit-pick the plausibility of the plot, the horrible moral evasiveness of the conclusion of the preposterousness of the setup.  The direction isn’t any better, wasting two otherwise promising suburban car chase through lawns and backyard fences.  Killers is so good-natured that it does escape variations on “I hate this movie”, but it’s so bland, unfocused and a waste of its own potential that it can’t even reach the level of a marginal recommendation.

If Chins Could Kill, Bruce Campbell

L.A. Weekly Books, 2002 updated edition of 2001 original, 344 pages, C$19.95 pb, ISBN 0-312-29145-0

If you’ve read one actor’s autobiography, you’ve read them all.  They’re all ghost-written, self-serving and bland enough not to offend any fans, no matter their political or social persuasion.  Dull childhood narrative until the actor gets his first major role; a few plates of photos sandwiched in the middle of the volume; a conclusion that always makes it sound as if success was inevitable and the best is yet to come.  It’s entirely possible that they’re all coming from the same factory, a search-and-replace program being used to insert the proper names, small towns and movie titles

But as Bruce Campbell tells readers in the introduction, If Chins Could Kill isn’t that kind of book.  For one thing, the pictures are generously scattered throughout.  For another, it’s really not boring.  You know how those celebrity biographies are usually dull until they hit the big-time?  Not so here, as Campbell talks about making home movies (with, among others, Sam Raimi), entering the world of theatre, struggling through a variety of menial jobs and raising money for a film that would eventually be known as The Evil Dead.

The shoestring shooting of the film itself is detailed in all of its masochistic glory: A tiny budget and a lengthy backwoods late-fall shoot involving a bunch of nonprofessional actors can only end in painfully amusing anecdotes, and Campbell’s skills as a storyteller get a workout in telling us about fake blood, freezing conditions, an ever-smaller crew and the perils of balancing ambitions versus a budget obtained from dentist investors.  Those who primarily know Campbell as the square-jawed hero of the Evil Dead trilogy will learn a lot more about his role behind the scenes of the films.

But Campbell has the added advantage of being a cult celebrity, which means that his approach in “telling all” is quite a bit closer to ordinary readers than most stratospheric superstars.  His self-effacing charm and constant outsider’s relationship with Hollywood (even today, he lives one state away from Los Angeles) lead him to talk frankly about the meagre financial rewards of acting, the scourge of studio interference and the tradeoffs in the business.  The highlights of the book are the making of the three Evil Dead movies, but there’s a lot of fascinating material about other projects and almost-projects.  His description of shooting the Hercules and Xena TV shows in New Zealand is just as entertaining to read as his big-budget features experiences. (Although he tends to be more scathing in telling us about studio projects from Crimewave to Congo, including his almost-was starring role in The Phantom.)

Campbell’s style is superbly entertaining, unpretentious and has the hallmark of a seasoned raconteur.  There’s seldom a dull moment, and the feel from the book is very different from the usual celebrity “autobiography”.  This being said, there are still a few noteworthy lapses here and there: we know that Campbell doesn’t live near Hollywood, for instance, but the book doesn’t dwell a long time on the reasons that led him to Oregon –or the issues that such a home location presents for him.  But he’s writing to please fans, and the book does tackle most of the subjects that they must have been wondering about.

The autobiography is considerably enhanced by the savvy design of the book, which blends photos, mementoes and diagrams alongside the text.  (As the back-cover claims, “If the book sucks, at least there are gobs of pictures, and they’re not crammed in the middle like all those other actor books.”)  This paperback edition includes a one-year-later afterword about the hardcover’s publicity tour.  Unfortunately, from 2010 the book itself doesn’t have the extra nine years’ hindsight over Campbell’s career, a decade that saw a typical mixture of B-movie roles going from the critical acclaim of Bubba Ho-Tep to the somewhat less successful Alien Apocalypse.  I’m sure that Campbell must have another decade’s worth of stories in him: I’d read a sequel without asking any questions.

Splice (2009)

(In theatres, June 2010) This may be a horror movie featuring a monster, but it’s not just a monster movie.  Taking the well-worn science-fiction and horror clichés of scientists creating artificial life and then seeing it do horrible things, Splice is noteworthy for the thematic weight it manages to carry around, and how rarely it succumbs to cliché, starting by a delicate inversion of movies premises where scientists engage in mad science to substitute for parenthood.  While Adrian Brody is fine as the male half of the protagonist couple, it’s Sarah Polley who gets most of the attention as his girlfriend/lab partner: Few actresses can play smart in a convincing fashion, but Polley can just act as her own bright self.  Neither of the protagonists comes out particularly heroic during the events of the film, but it’s interesting to see how each one alternates in the “who’s acting most despicably” derby.  That, added to how Splice delves decisively into unpleasant plot developments, make it both a good horror film and one that many won’t want to watch a second time.  The grimy depressing Toronto snowy outdoors won’t help either.  It all amounts to a film that sounds like just about every single other straight-to-DVD monster movie ever released, but really isn’t: Splice isn’t quite as cheaply anti-science as you’d think (there’s a montage that actually makes bioengineering look hip and fun), it goes places that lesser scripts wouldn’t dare touch, it incorporates some really good special effects, and does quite a bit with a small cast.  While it can’t escape a few predictable sequences (including an ending that is telegraphed well in advance), the result amounts to an unpleasantly good little surprise, and another small success for Toronto-based writer/director Vincenzo Natali after a fairly lengthy absence from the big screen.  Hopefully, this will pave the way for more films from him.

Party Favours, Warren Kinsella (writing as “Jean Doe”)

Harper Collins, 1997, 227 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 0-00-224562-0

As a political junkie working in Ottawa, I’m more interested than most in Canadian politics and the idea of a roman-à-clef describing mid-nineties power struggles in the capital is the kind of thing I’m predisposed to like.  That it comes from one of my favourite political operatives is a bonus… although it wasn’t possible to know that at the time the book hit bookstores twelve years ago.

Party Favours was published in 1997 as from one pseudonymous “Jean Doe”.  It describes a civil war inside the then-reigning Liberal Party of Canada, between the factions of a populist French-Canadian Prime Minister and a scheming “Liberal-in-name-only” upstart who wants to be the PM in lieu of the PM.  Any half-aware Canadian political observer could see that this was a thinly-veiled fictional take on the rivalry between the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin camp as of the mid-nineties.  Given the novel’s overwhelmingly positive portrait of Prime Minister “Bobby Laurier”, it seemed obvious to most that Party Favours came from a Chrétien loyalist.  But which one?  When it was revealed that “Jean Doe” was none other than the “Prince of Darkness” Warren Kinsella, a Liberal strategist and staunch Chrétien loyalist often compared to the US’s James Carville, few were shocked.

The Canadian political/journalistic complex being so small and vicious, the book was savaged upon publication.  And, in some ways, it deserves its knocks: From a purely narrative viewpoint, Party Favours isn’t all that refined:  An umpteenth political thriller about a semi-innocent protagonist who comes to understand how things truly work in the world, the novel doesn’t break any new grounds nor narrative twists.  Our hero is a likable young journalist who works on a government-shattering scoop, finds love and manages to bring down those who deserve it.  In the conclusion of the story, he is apparently naïve enough to be shocked –shocked!– at the way he has been used by political antagonists… after spending an entire novel cynically explaining the nature of what happens to journalists in Ottawa.  Elsewhere in the book, the narrator takes an actual guided tour of the city to tell us about it (subtle!), large portion of the narrative just give way to exposition and the identity of a mysterious source is so obvious that it’s embarrassing that a mystery is made about it at all.  This is not an accomplished novelist’s masterpiece.

But where Party Favours shine far more brightly is in its insider’s commentary about Ottawa and the people who go there to seek power and/or glory.  Kinsella has a lot of fun taking on lobbyists, journalists and politicians, not to mention public servants in one of the book’s most amusing passages:

“The pools [seen from the airplane] conjured up an image of the classical Ottawa bureaucrat: an overweight white male killing time as an information systems analyst somewhere deep in the shadowed recesses of Statistics Canada, let’s say, scrambling home at 3:30 P.M. every July afternoon to slouch by his pool.  He carried a briefcase, purchased at the Bay, that almost always contained little more than his lunch and the Ottawa Sun.  He drove to and from work in a dented three-year-old Pontiac Sedan.  He voted Liberal. He earned much more than I did.  And he had a swimming pool nestled alongside his suburban split-level, where he and his wife and their offsprings congregated in the muggy Ottawa summer.” [P.16]

Perfection itself.  (And I refuse to tell you how much this description matches me, because it’s too close for comfort.)

The above paragraph being the worst thing in Party Favours about me and my place in the national capital, I was free to enjoy the rest of the novel for what it was: a splendidly entertaining chainsaw job on political Ottawa.  For a country with a vigorous publishing and political industry, it’s surprising that there haven’t been that many political thrillers and satires –although the grants that most Canadian publishers receive from the government may be enough of a cynical answer for that mystery.  Suffice to say that Party Favours in an entertaining book, even when it doesn’t work as a novel: Kinsella had fun writing it, and readers without grudges (and with a good working knowledge of mid-nineties Canadian politics) will enjoy at least good chunks of it.

The added advantage of reading it now is that we now know who, in the great Chrétien/Martin face-off, ultimately won.  Hint: It was the guy who won three successive majorities.

Shrek Forever After [Shrek 4] (2010)

(In theatres, June 2010) I practically wrote off the entire Shrek series somewhere during the third film (which I can barely remember seeing), so it’s a bit of a surprise to see that the franchise still had a enough life in it for a fourth instalment.  Shrek Forever After even begins on a self-awareness binge, as Shrek realizes the price to be paid in boredom for a “forever after” ending: Always the same days, always the same jokes, always the same comic frustrations.  His character and the series have become one in looking for something different.  One parallel-universe reboot later, we get a sideway look at a few familiar characters (including a Fiona that looks quite a bit like an R. Crumb woman), more action and enough sentiments to hopefully wrap up the series.  There are a few clever moments in the mix, including an energetic Pier Piper sequence that brought back the fun of the series’ musical high points, and an ingenious chain contraption late in the film that visually reinforces a partnership theme.  Also notable is the relative lack of pop culture jokes, even though the musical choices still sound like a mix tape.  The familiarity of Shrek Forever After (including its predictable character arcs) does little to bring it up above adequacy, but the result feels like a way to save the story’s dignity and just enough of an echo of past glories.  Now, can we agree that there’s no need for a Shrek 5?

The Trade of Queens (Merchant Princes #6), Charles Stross

Ace, 2010, 303 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1673-8

When Charles Stross says he’s going to destroy something, believe him.

If The Trade of Queens is notable for something, it’s the finality with which this sixth volume upsets the nice fantasy universe introduced at the beginning of the Merchant Princes series.  As the narrative has moved away from comfort-fantasy elements to a harder-edged techno-thriller mode (not your usual genre-shifting progression!), Stross seems determined to eradicate his starting premise with a vengeance…

…but a more general assessment seems appropriate before touching upon spoilerrific considerations.  As the sixth entry in the Merchant Princes series, and the fourth-and-final volume of the current story arc, The Trade of Queens is pretty much all payoff for the various subplots launched in the series so far: It begins with the nuclear destruction of a large portion of downtown Washington, and then moves on to bigger things as the US government, motivated by the political calculations of a surprisingly influential figure, moves to definitely retaliate against the Gruinmarkt.

As an arc-closing volume, it ties together a number of threads while leaving readers begging for a follow-up a few years down the line.  The most immediate problems are resolved (sometimes less-than-favourably), even though larger issues still have a lot of potential for exploration.  There’s an offhand description of a few new parallel worlds that packs a lot of ominous ideas in a few sentences, but those new universes will have to wait until another volume for exploration, as The Trade of Queens seems justifiably preoccupied with taking care of what’s happening in the known ones.  The techno-thriller tone of the series grows even stronger this time around, as it tackles political fiction and a strong critique of US foreign policy during the past decade.  As a nod to savvier Nobel-winning fans of the series, its thematic underpinning (the “development trap”, or what enables some societies to advance more quickly than others given the availability of superior technology) is even explicitly stated late in the narrative.

Even though Stross has to juggle dozen of characters, a handful of parallel Earths, an apocalyptic scenario and the conclusion of a four-book cycle set in a six-book series, most of the characters of the series get a payoff of sorts.  Miriam finally comes a little bit closer to the forefront as the one who best understands what’s happening and how to react: it helps that she grows more comfortable in the new identity that has been pressed upon her for the last few volumes.  The conclusion is satisfying in a very dark fashion, and it does mark a reasonably comfortable stopping point for readers wondering if they can start reading the series so far.

Now that the entire cycle is available, one notes a weaker third quarter (The Revolution Business) due to overwhelming plot-juggling and a somewhat linear fourth quarter that inexorably leads to its concluding passages.  Still, the overall success of the series is undeniable: I found it impossible to let go and finished most volumes of the series on the same day I began them.  This is delicious high-end SF, smart and compelling.

In more spoiler-laden territory (turn around now if you don’t want to guess), I was gobsmacked at the way Stross goes about destroying the comfortable fantasy universe he could have milked for several more volumes.  Or, as I thought toward the end of The Trade of Queens: Wow, I’ve never even imagined a thermonuclear carpet-bombing before.  The science-fiction fan that I am can’t help but impose a gleeful reading of “fantasy worlds delentia est” over events that upset the nature of this series forever.  For all of the apocalyptic nature of this fourth volume (there’s an affecting side-show description of a major nuclear exchange midway through the book), it’s satisfying in its uncompromising nature… and it helps that a good chunk of the series’ sympathetic characters don’t exactly win, but certainly live to fight another day.  The scathing criticism of the Bush administration mindset is another layer of enjoyment that may not be equally appreciated by US readers, making it all the more amusing for everyone else.

While I wish the second arc of this series would have been delivered as one massive book (which may have helped with some pacing issues), The Trade of Queen is a volume that wraps things up as well as it can, while promising much for an eventual follow-up.  There’s a reason why I look forward to every new Stross book, especially if they leave entire worlds destroyed in their wake.