Monthly Archives: July 2010

Seagalogy, Vern

Titan, 2008, 396 pages, C$16.95 tp, ISBN 9781845769277

A quick look at this book’s cover blurbs confirms that I’m not the only one surprised that Vern’s Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal even exists.  For so-called serious cinephiles, Steven Seagal has stopped mattering about ten years ago, when his movies stopped showing in theaters and started going straight to DVD.  Even before then, Seagal’s movies were usually B-grade action films, the occasional exceptions (Under Siege, Executive Decision) often being hailed in spite of Seagal’s presence.  Somewhat savvier filmgoers can point at 1994’s poorly-reviewed On Dangerous Grounds as the film that broke the back of Seagal’s reputation as an actor/director, highlighting its earnest environmental monologue awkwardly inserted as a coda.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.  For Vern, though, all of Seagal oeuvre is worth scrutiny.  His thesis, quickly stated, is that Seagal’s influence on his own roles and films has been markedly stronger than many other contemporary action stars: That most movies featuring Seagal are, in fact, best considered as “Steven Seagal movies” rather than belonging to their screenwriters or directors.  Vern highlights Seagal’s pet themes and obsessions, and then charts how they are reflected in the vast majority of his work.  To top it off, he also reviews Seagal’s music CDs and energy drink.

Everyone’s first reaction at a 395-pages book covering all things Seagal is likely to be similar to mine: No, really? Is there a subject of more trivial importance?  Couldn’t this be settled in a quick and cheap blog post?  Aren’t we wasting time, energy, paper, etc, even contemplating such matters?  Go ahead and wonder the same things.  I’ll wait for you to realize that in the end, the only valid appreciation of this book is based on results, not intent.

Because the damning thing is that Seagalogy is a lot of fun to read.  It even convincingly proves its thesis: By the time we reach 2008’s Pistol Whipped, there’s little doubt that Seagal returns again and again to themes of official corruption, blowback and environmental degradation.  His characters are largely cut from the same clothes, featuring the same taciturn attitude, fascination for other cultures and fleeting family ties.  His methods frequently include improvised weapons, bars fights and people being thrown through glass.  No matter his screenwriters or directors (who range from video-directing pseudonyms to Oscar-nominated Hollywood veterans), Seagal remains Seagal.  For an actor often dismissed without a thought, he has shown remarkable resilience at a time where other actors simply disappeared: More than half of Seagalogy covers his direct-to-video (DTV) films, with as much attention as his theatrical releases.

This means that Vern has gone through each movie with a fine comb, unravelling the shaky plotting of incoherently-made DTV features and telling us about scenes that barely make any sense on-screen.  He doesn’t review those films as much as he rebuilds them to see how they work (or don’t).  His commentary on DTV features is enlightening in that he has seen far more of them than most of us, and he can spot production flaws that set them apart from their more respectable theatrical brethren.  Even in structure, the book shines by its clear sections, careful interludes, meticulous appendices about minor and never-seen projects, with a poignant ending in which the author finally meets Seagal.

It helps that Vern’s style is a straightforward mixture of straight-ahead writing, well-chosen details, self-deprecating humour and a keen understanding of the action film genre.  I’ve known of Vern ever since he started writing for aintitcool.com almost a decade ago and while I have often suspected his “Writer who is trying to go clean after a life of crime, alcohol, etc.” shtick to be indulgent performance art by either a bored film student or a struggling screenwriter, I still treasure in my archives an in-character email from him acknowledging my congratulations for a piece he’d written.  I’m not sure I would ever want to know the truth behind the pseudonym.  Much of his profane, consciously-illiterate online style is barely reflected in Seagalogy, though: At the exception of a consistent mistitling of “The Ain’t It Cool News” that plays as an in-joke, the entire book is scrupulously written and edited to the usual standards.  This isn’t a complaint: As much as I want you to read outlawvern.com on a regular basis, a book written and designed like his site would be practically impossible to read at length.

Because, oh, yes, Seagalogy eventually becomes addictive reading even if you haven’t seen a Seagal film in a decade: For a book with a less-than-respectable subject, it quickly becomes an intelligent trip throughout the clichés of action cinema, and a fascinating discourse on all things Seagal.  It may even make you respect him for the first time.

Banlieue 13: Ultimatum [aka District 13: Ultimatum] (2009)

(On DVD, July 2010) As a follow-up to the first Banlieue 13, this sequel does the expected: Bring back the lead characters to do the same things again in a slightly bigger context, while avoiding messing too much with the formula.  It works decently: David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli are just as great as the action heroes of the sequel, and while there’s a little less parkour this time around, the mix is still heavy in good action sequences.  Between a martial arts demonstration in which a Van Gogh painting is used (Jackie Chan-style) as a weapon, a chase sequence in which a character makes his way down from a tall building complex, or a video-game-inspired fight featuring the captivating Elodie Yung, Banlieue 13: Ultimatum delivers as an action movie.  Director Patrick Alessandrin keeps control of the mixture, and the budget of the piece only shows its limits in a regrettable decision not to show some of the ending explosions.  While Luc Besson’s script is its usual mix of ham-fisted populism, sexy misogyny and thin rationales, there’s something intriguing in the way it sets up a multicultural union of interest against staid reactionary “Harriburton” capitalism.  There may not be a whole lot of substance to this film, but it’s got its pulse on significant Parisian social issues.  Anyone who liked the first film will feel just as satisfied with the sequel. The Region-1 DVD comes complete with a short but enlightening making-of documentary that highlights most of the film’s high action points, and appears to reflect the fun that everyone had in making the picture.

Directive 51, John Barnes

Ace, 2010, 483 pages, $32.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01822-2

One of the reasons why I’m quickly cooling off on Science Fiction’s current post-apocalyptic craze is my nagging suspicion that not everyone sees the apocalypse (whether it’s climate-, alien- or zombie-driven) as a bad thing.  There’s a streak of wish-fulfillment in “rebuilding the world” fantasies that makes me uneasy: I love the comforts of our civilization, and anyone talking about bringing it down strikes me as an enemy more than a romantic.

Knowing this, you can probably guess why the opening section of John Barnes’ Directive 51 struck such a deep chord: As this first novel in a new trilogy begins, an uncoordinated group of eco-saboteurs, disaffected college students, back-to-the-Earth dreamers, international terrorists and other miscellaneous hoodlums spontaneously act on the belief that October 28th, 2024 is “Daybreak”: The day modern civilization dies.  Three particularly nasty pieces of work have a disproportionate impact on the story: A biological critter that disintegrates plastic and rubber, some nanotech that eats electronics, and the kidnapping of the US Vice-President.  While the breathless thriller of the vice-presidential kidnapping unfolds, our heroes from the US “Department of the Future” are introduced: a couple of brainy protagonists who desperately try to figure out what’s happening even as the world breaks down around them.

It’s too late, though: As plastics melt away, electronics are reduced to dust and the US president declares himself mentally unfit to cope with the situation, order breaks down in more ways than one.  Before long, our protagonists are stuck between an implausibly clueless acting president, an ultra-right-wing challenger, massive systemic shortages and increasing violence.  It gets even worse as evidence accumulates that Daybreak was carefully orchestrated with follow-up strikes designed to wipe out any hope of recovery.  As the book ends, the duelling Presidents of the United States have to confront one question: Is there still an active campaign against them, or are they stuck dealing with a dead man’s switch?  (We readers, having been made privy to one crucial half-page scene [P.220], know better: something is going on, and I’d be surprised if the next volumes don’t explain how Daybreak was less spontaneous than it may first appear.)

Given that this is the first volume of a trilogy, it’s no surprise if Directive 51 is all set-up with partial payoff: Much of the book is spent contemplating the rapid destruction of modern American civilization (with late and occasional glances at the rest of the world, which doesn’t do any better) through viewpoint characters who either caused part of it to happen or are desperately trying to mitigate the millions of deaths that follow.

Frequent readers of these reviews know that I’ve been a fan of John Barnes’ work for a long time and so shouldn’t be surprised if I end up soft-pedaling a number of Directive 51’s annoyances.  The first chunk of the book is more irritating than the rest: In an effort to telescope as many things as possible in his “One Day” structure, Barnes’ hand is more obvious than usual in the interlocking plotting.  Worse, though, is that much of the book’s first third is spent with the terrorists, saboteurs and fools who initiate Daybreak: There’s nothing pleasant in reading about people you just want to hit on the head (with something suitably low-tech, such as a shovel or even just a baseball bat) for bringing about the end of civilization.  This explains, in part, why the VP-kidnapping subplot feels so thrilling: here’s a chance for heroics against the impending doom that cloys the rest of the novel.

The novel gets more interesting after Daybreak is over, as our characters get the chance to be protagonists, are stuck in an impossible crisis of succession and more unusual plotting elements get their chance to shine.  The first presidential succession crisis is great good fun for political junkies readers, posing questions about personal responsibility in serving the nation even when it contradicts regulations.  Few non-rabidly political novelists ever end up writing about gunfire and insanity in the White House, so Barnes at least has that running in his favour.

But what the second chunk of the book (“Ten Days”) ends up revealing is a curiously bloodless approach to the end of civilization: Cities burn, libraries are torched, super-weapons are detonated, billions of people die and the narration barely raises an eyebrow.  It takes a while to understand that the disaster is not limited to the US, and the novel seems to be in such a hurry to tear everything down that it barely manages to give us a sense of how bad it’s getting: There are a few moments in the narrative where the characters coolly mention how Daybreak is irreversible, that it will destroy all electronics, that it will take hundreds of years to recover from it (if ever) and those one-liners are everything we get in order to realize that this is as bad as it gets.  Perhaps worse is the lack of resentment and regret from the characters at how primitive their situation has become in a matter of days: A couple of saboteurs are treated sympathetically (well, sort of; as so often happens in John Barnes’s novels, one of them gets raped –albeit off-screen in an unusual show of restraint, although see “bloodless” above.) and even the so-called heroes end up saying things of comfort to the Daybreakers.  Hard-SF is about brainy readers more than emotive characters, but even that stance be carried too far.

On the other hand… this novel has haunted me more than most of the others I’ve read this year.  I’d acknowledge my unusual attachment to civilization if it wasn’t for the fact that you’re reading this on a website, maybe from devices that didn’t exist as recently as five years ago.  Everyone has their particular nightmares, and when my own Maslowian hierarchy of needs is nicely fulfilled, I worry a lot about the fragility of our contemporary way of life.

Then there’s the entertainment value of the scattered political outlook of the novel.  Barnes is a professional contrarian, and it’s amusing to see how he tweaks current partisan outlooks as the world of the novel changes around its characters.  There’s some sympathy for ultra-rich libertarians as they finally get to make use of their “Castles” enclaves built during the Obama administration even as the novel concerns itself with the (re)establishment of a national government.  A right-ring evangelical politician initially disliked by the book’s progressive heroes ends up rising to the occasion and being a preferable alternative to a delusional old-school Democrat.  Part of Directive 51‘s effectiveness lies in showing how crises can change our certitudes, so it’s no surprise if hyper-partisan readers will be upset at the novel’s shifting political sands.  More independently-minded readers will have more fun –especially when reading the amazon.com reviews accusing the novel of being a mouthpiece for whatever extremism is convenient.

There’s also the fact that John Barnes is a seasoned SF writer, so that even when he errs, he’s able to deliver what his SF-reading public wants.  Directive 51 cleverly combines science-fictional concerns with a techno-thriller narrative mode to deliver a novel that’s up to the latest SF gadgets while delivering the thrills we expect from such a large-scale canvas.  When it gets ripping into the mechanics of pure fusion bombs, it directly scratches the sense of wonder that his readers are looking for.  (It’s also an eloquent piece of evidence for critics who argue that techno-thrillers and hard-SF are basically the flip sides of the same storytelling impulses.)  I happen to be unusually susceptible to the kind of narrative strategies used in this novel, so that purring sound you hear from my frantic pre-ordering of the book’s sequels may not necessarily translate into any similar affection from anyone else.

Ultimately, though, the flaws and virtues of Directive 51 will be best appreciated once the story it’s starting to tell will be over.  Barnes has often upset the narrative certitudes of his previous series, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the upcoming Daybreak Zero ends up telling a different story than what we can predict.  In the meantime, Directive 51 is a flawed but fascinating end-of-the-world narrative that does a few new and interesting things.  It’s good enough to satisfy even those who are tired of SF’s current depressive phase.  Unlike all of the zombie or post-oil catastrophes, it asks the far more disturbing question: What if some people actually worked toward the end of the world as we know it?

The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11 ½ Anniversary Edition, Mike Krahulik & Jerry Holkins

Del Rey, 2010, 164 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-345-51226-0

One of the great things about book collections of web-comics is that I can use them as an excuse to talk about some of my favourite on-line destinations.

I’m not much of a gamer any more, but I still pay enough attention to the field to appreciate the genre criticism barely disguised behind the often-profane humour that the Penny Arcade guys offer three times per week.  You can read all of the archives at any time, or get the six annual collections covering the strip up until 2005 so far, but for a truly good look at Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins‘s Penny Arcade empire so far, you can’t do better than The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11 ½ Anniversary Edition (take off the dust jacket for a slightly coarser alternate title)

The book brings together a number of pieces written about Penny Arcade, its creators, the massive PAX gaming events and (more responsibly) the Child’s Play charity dedicated to providing games to sick children.  Essays describe how PAX first began (and the mistakes along the way), and how the usual “games are bad for kids” articles led Krahulik and Holkins to throw back clichés in the face of their critics by raising the social responsibility of the gaming community.  Another highlight is Penny Arcade Manager Robert Khoo’s article “Breaking the Law”, detailing Penny Arcade’s run-ins with American Greetings, now-discredited Jack Thompson and “Publisher X”. But for long-time readers of the series, much of the book’s value is in (re)reading the lengthy Wired profile about the two creators.  Penny Arcade is, in many ways, an accidental success: the article clearly establishes how everything began and then evolved.

Weightier material aside, the chief attraction of The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade remains the comic strips, here selected and presented out of chronology for various purposes.  Even though I can’t imagine Penny Arcade picking up new readers from this book (it’s got “for existing fans” all over it, down to an impressive gallery of tribute pieces by other geek-favourite artists), this would in fact be an ideal way to ease oneself into the universe of the strip.  There’s an introduction to the recurring characters (including a few minor ones that only fans with long memories will remember), various continuity highlights (“Paint the Line”, “Cardboard Tube Samurai”, “Twisp and Catsby”, “Armadeaddon”, “On Sorcelation”…) and a few strips selected by Krahulik and Holkins as being “the best”, with commentary throughout.  While some of the references remain obscure to people who didn’t play a particular game at the time of the comic’s publication, it’s about as quick a refresher on the various in-jokes, conventions and overall atmosphere of the strip.  (Much to my dismay, I realized during the best-of retrospective that many of my favourite pieces either featured extreme profanity or obscure geeky references that I may not even remember in five years.)

It’s all handsomely collected in a full-sized hardcover with generous margins and plenty of incidental illustrations.  Unfortunately, a lot of the filler consists in blown-up, sometimes-edited comics panels.  (You can see the pixels!).  Another relatively low point is the unedited transcript of the Q&A section.  It’s needlessly hard to read; some editing would have been a judicious choice.

But all in all, this is a perfect gift for the Penny Arcade fans.  Whoever is seduced by this book can already look forward to six annual collections already on shelves, and the entire run of the series on the web.  Don’t worry if some of the references are obscure: Only Gabe and Tycho understood them all in the first place, and they may have forgotten many of them already.  Just go on to the next strip and wonder in amazement at how the web has made such high-quality niche content possible.

Salt (2010)

(In theaters, July 2010) There is something both successful and not quite satisfying in this Cold War espionage thriller throwback.  The straightforward revival of Russians sleeper agents as antagonists in Salt is amusing (even more so given recent news items seemingly custom-made to market the movie), whereas the good old suspense mechanics of assassinations and chases are competently handled.  After The Recruit and Law Abiding Citizen, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer is quickly becoming a reference for thrillers with just enough twists to be interesting, whereas director Phillip Noyce is good but not great as an action director.  (Sadly, the post-Bourne editing is often too frantic to be effective: There’s one over-the-shoulder shot of the heroine jumping down from one vehicle to another that would have been gripping as a one-shot, but is stupidly cut in two by a meaningless insert.)  As for the actors, the three lead characters seem ready to play according to type: Angelina Jolie as the capable action heroine no matter the hairstyle, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the stand-up guy you can depend on, and Liev Schreiber as the one you can’t completely trust.  In terms of pacing, Salt’s forward rhythm is undermined by unexplainable lapses: What should have been a full-speed-ahead action spectacular is slowed down by moody pauses and too-lengthy flashbacks that approach parody at times.  Preposterous plot problems can be forgiven in the name of pure thrills, which is fortunate given how the cheats become bigger and bigger as the film moves in its final act.  When it works, Salt is pure summer entertainment, going back to solid stunts rather than an overuse of CGI.  It’s fun rather than ambitious, solid rather than innovative, and just insane enough to make something palatable from Cold War plot elements we thought dead and buried.  Expect a sequel.

The Walls of the Universe, Paul Melko

Tor, 2009, 383 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1997-5

One of the charges most commonly made against the written Science Fiction genre these days is that much of it doesn’t look like the type of SF on which readers first got hooked on the genre.  This is either a good or bad thing, depending on your opinion of old-school SF: If your model of excellence was Asimov’s uncluttered prose, then the new stuff is pretentious and unreadable.  If you’re hoping for literary excellence, then the genre has never been healthier than it is right now.  Most of all, it’s an acknowledgement that Science Fiction has changed a lot since the pulp magazines, and that it can accommodate plot-driven and literary-minded readers, to say nothing of those who enjoy both.

But from time to time, it’s worth noting that some books feel as if they have escaped from a previous decade.  So it is that Paul Melko’s second novel, The Walls of the Universe, could have been published at any point during the past forty years with very few changes.  It tackles the well-worn subject of parallel universes in a way that doesn’t rely on any recent innovations, and does so in a style that feels almost transparent once the story gets underway.

Knowledgeable SF magazine readers will remember that the first part of the novel was published in Asimov’s in 2006, going on to be nominated for a number of awards including the Hugo and Nebula.  With this novel, Melko delivers an expansion and conclusion to his novella, taking the story further along in the same direction.  The premise is simple: A young man named John is accosted by another version of himself (“John Prime”), and receives a device that allows him to travel to parallel universes.  Unfortunately, it’s a trick: The device only works one way, and John Prime only gave away the device to get rid of the other John while he takes his place.  The novella ended with hero-John promising to investigate the mystery and return to his home universe.

The novel eventually expands the scope of this premise, but first spends a lot of time following the parallel Johns as they learn to settle in their chosen universes.  Hero-John chooses to settle in a universe much like his/our own, intending to study enough physics to figure out the inner workings of the parallel-universe device but accidentally ending up inventing pinball.  Meanwhile, John Prime unsuccessfully tries to bring Rubik’s Cube to his new world, but ends up attracting the wrong kind of attention in addition to accidentally murdering his high-school nemesis.

The Walls of the Universe spends a lot of time trying to keep this initial situation boiling before finally committing to expanding the canvas and sketching out the fuller implications of travel between parallel universes.  When it does, it leaves enough unanswered questions to suggest the possibility of either sequels or spinoffs; fortunately, it feels like a complete story by itself.

But what this plot summary only suggests is the truly old-fashioned feel of the novel, which seems written from the same reservoir of wonder and imagination that characterised old-school SF.  Our hero is an engineer (of sorts) who eventually Figures it Out (in a grandly implausible display of reverse-engineering skills), tries to make things better and get along with everyone.  There’s a romance, a conflict with unsympathetic stranded world-travelers and an epilogue that corrects the book’s worst wrongs in a typical SF fashion.  The Walls of the Universe may have been marketed as an adult book, but it’s just as adequate for young adults (much like Steven Gould’s best novels) or adults who prefer a more straightforward kind of SF.

Even with its mid-book lull and rushed ending, The Walls of the Universe remains too charming to resist.  It’s a very different novel from Melko’s debut Singularity Ring (which carried all the hallmarks, good and bad, of contemporary Science Fiction), but it’s likely to be far more accessible even to readers who are generally unfamiliar with SF.  It’s a good, traditional read that leaves readers satisfied.  If that’s what we mean by old-school SF, then we could use a lot more of it.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)

(In theaters, July 2010) There’s a lot of generic familiarity in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but don’t despair yet: Under Jon Turteltaub’s sure-footed direction, genre-aware script and quirky performances, this fantasy film actually manages to save itself from embarrassment.  Nicolas Cage fans won’t be disappointed by his portrayal of an eccentric sorcerer, while Jay Baruchel more than holds his own as a sympathetic science nerd turned magician.  (Plus: Monica Bellucci, even in a too-brief role.)  There is a lot of special-effects eye candy, and as many different magic tricks as the first four Harry Potter movies combined.  New York locations are effectively exploited, whereas the editing finds a good pace.  But never mind the technical credentials: The real charm of the film is to be found in the script, which correctly assumes that we’ve seen a lot of movies of this type: as a result, a significant portion of the required exposition is sarcastically telescoped.  (The best instance of this happens during the obligatory but well-handled car chase, as Cage’s character quickly deals with his apprentice’s questions without even waiting for him to ask them.)  The one sequence that really doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a too-goofy clean-up scene that pays homage to the Fantasia animated segment of the same title without bothering to rein in the CGI excesses.  Both Baruchel and Cage are oddball enough that they can do justice to their respective characters and if their delivery could occasionally be improved, the net effect is a film-long smile.  Baruchel, in particular, has an irresistible puppy-dog charm –especially when he comes to enjoy his magical talents.  Frankly, it’s hard to resist a protagonist who charges into the final battle shouting something like “I came armed with SCIENCE!”  For a film that could have been considerably dourer, there’s a refreshing competence at play in this latest Bruckheimer vehicle that is enough to make us forget about the familiarity of it all.

Old School (2003)

(On TV, sometime around July 2010) If anyone wonders why I’m not much of a Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn fan, let me point at Old School and shrug. Their chosen screen personae are that of overgrown men-child prone to temper tantrums and a shocking lack of self-reflection, and this movie allows that persona to run wild without constraints. It is, literally, about thirty-something adults regressing to an earlier stage of development, starting a fraternity to relive their college glory days. Is it fitfully entertaining? Of course. Is it a reprehensible anthem to the arrested man-childs? Somewhat. Is it designed for me? Absolutely not. In retrospect, this may be most notable as an early prototype of the kind of movie that would come to dominate American film comedy by 2009 (the link to The Hangover, with common director Todd Phillips, is certainly not accidental.) Otherwise, there isn’t much to say about Old School: It’s pretty much what you can expect from the premise or trailer, for better or for worse.

Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain

Ecco, 2010, 281 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-171894-6

Anthony Bourdain will be the first to recognize the unlikelihood of his accession to the ranks of celebrity cooks.  After two unsuccessful novels published in the late nineties while he was still working in New York restaurants, Bourdain wrote the now-classic exposé Kitchen Confidential with hopes that it would be read by other local kitchen professionals.  Much to his surprise, the book rode the wave of popular interest in all things foodie, became a perennial bestseller and (with some help from a TV show) made Bourdain a foul-mouthed star.  Unlike other celebrity chefs, his place has always been that of the hard-working professional scrapping away in ordinary restaurants.  Bourdain will acknowledge that his culinary talents were average, and that his unusually good fortune leaves him just as surprised as anyone else.

That’s how we end up with Medium Raw, a collection of original essays about Bourdain’s life during the decade since Kitchen Confidential first appeared on the shelves.  Tackling a diversity of subjects from fatherhood to the quality of fast-food meat to the requirements for being a chef to the impact of the 2008 financial crisis over New York’s high-end gastronomy scene, Medium Raw is like spending an evening hearing Bourdain discuss a variety of subjects.  There’s so little structure that the book could have been a collection of magazine articles, but much of it either revolves around food or Bourdain himself.  It’s obviously a book for fans, and even those who have read Kitchen Confidential recently may feel left out if they haven’t experienced his other books and TV shows.

Equally introspective and controversial, Medium Raw spends as much time meditating upon Bourdain’s selling-out than in designating heroes and villains.  (Heroes?  Working-class cooks like the one Bourdain profiles in “My Aim is True” or iconoclastic chefs like David Chang, discussed in “The Fury”.  Villains?  Alice Waters, as described in “Go Ask Alice” and Alan Richman in “Alan Richman is a Douchebag”.  For more, there’s an entire chapter called “Heroes and Villains”.)  A crucial difference between this and Kitchen Confidential is how stepped into foodie culture Medium Raw can feel: Bourdain not only name-checks other TV chefs presuming that we can recall who they are, but acknowledges the work done by Michael Pollan and Eric Schloesser in raising food quality issues in popular media.  For anyone even casually acquainted with contemporary food writing, it feels like a part of the mainstream.

The best pieces of Medium Raw touch upon a variety of subjects and tone.  “The Sit Down” begins the book with a vaguely foreboding description of a confidential Ortolan tasting that will lead curious readers to Michael Paterniti’s incredible article “The Last Meal” (summary).  “Selling Out” describes Bourdain’s changing opinions about celebrity chefs and his own relationship to fame.  In “Meat”, Bourdain is horrified at the declining quality of hamburger meat and makes sombre predictions about the future of this all-American staple.  Bourdain’s expertise about the New York scene is obvious in “The Fear” (regarding the changing restaurant environment once the bankers lost their expense accounts in late 2008), while “Lower Education” includes a hilarious description of the psychological warfare that Bourdain is waging against McDonalds in his daughter’s social circle.

Alternately funny, profane, touching, heartfelt, analytical and descriptive, Medium Raw is a grab bag of food-related pieces that shows how Bourdain has developed not just as a celebrity, but also as a writer.  It’s fully self-aware, and generous in how it gives us (still) a glimpse in the author’s life now that he’s moved up in the world.  It may be disconnected and scattered and unequal, but it’s also a fast and pleasant read thanks to Bourdain’s engaging style.  Even those who bought it with the intent to read it later may find themselves captivated after only a few pages.

Inception (2010)

(In theaters, July 2010) It’s tough to review Christopher Nolan’s Inception without sounding like a gushing fanboy, but here goes: One of the finest SF movies in years (even so soon after Avatar and District 9), Inception cashes Nolan’s Dark Knight chips and goes on to deliver a masterful cinematic experience that combines big-budget entertainment, thematic depth, weighty characters and splendid action sequences.  Good enough for you?  While it’s not a perfect film (lengthy snow sequence, insufficient exploitation of dream logic, some weak actors/roles), Inception wipes the floor with other big-budget action films thanks to unusually ambitious goals, pitch-perfect sequences, savvy storytelling and multiple levels of understanding.  It’s a measure of how successful it is that much of it appears simple, even obvious.  But when the film starts with “it’s a dream within a dream” and works its way to five (maybe six) levels of overlapping reality without losing its audience, it’s hard not to be impressed.  Ever since Memento (with high points at The Prestige and The Dark Knight), Nolan has proved himself to be an unusually skilled writer/director with a gift for infusing popular entertainment with weighty thematic consideration.  So it is that Inception effortlessly touches upon dream logic, moviemaking shortcuts, personal grief, human mythmaking, memetic madness and subconscious sabotage without seeming to break a sweat, all the while delivering a heist film according to the well-worn conventions of the subgenre.  Watching the film is like falling into a pleasant trance, emerging from the experience a lot like the characters coming back to reality.  Subtle and not-so-subtle touches add to the experience, such as a deliriously effective shifting-gravity fight sequence, an iconic sequence in which Paris serves as an exposition background, and a frame-perfect last shot that will please both those who want a definitive ending and those who don’t.  Brainier viewers will be pleased to watch a film that finally dares viewers to keep up.  Science Fiction fans will be particularly satisfied to see a film that uses SF devices for their emotional power while delivering some good old-fashioned sense-of-wonder at interlocking realities.  While the actors are a bit hit-and-miss (I’m still not convinced by Leonardo DiCaprio, nor by Ellen Page’s mushy-mouthed lack of affect, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic as the picture’s lead action hero), the real star is Nolan as screenwriter and director, because Inception is beautifully controlled from beginning to end, combining the precision of The Prestige with the non-linear storytelling of Memento and the action rhythm of The Dark KnightInception is, in a carefully chosen word, amazing, and a shoo-in for year’s end top-10 lists.  Expect to see it more than once.

Flickan som lekte med elden [Millennium 2: The Girl Who Played With Fire] (2009)

(In theaters, July 2010) Fans of Stieg Larsson’s massively successful trilogy will be reassured to find that the second film adaption from his novels is almost as good as the first one.  “Almost” because a bit of the originality of seeing two unusual characters fighting crime in modern Sweden has faded a bit.  But what The Girl Who Played with Fire has over its prequel is character familiarity, and much of the pleasure of this second entry is in seeing past plot threads being weaved into a complex thriller.  Millennium 2 is slightly more traditional in form than the first film (one character is framed for murder and must fight to find the true murderer, helped along by the other protagonist), but don’t presume that it’s all back to formula: The structure of the film is cleverly manipulated (even modified from the original novel) so that the two lead character only meet at the very end of The Girl Who Played with Fire, while the mid-film car chase and fight sequence are amusingly delegated to secondary characters.  Screenwriters should study the choices made in bringing the novel to screen, because an amazing amount of careful streamlining took place to fit the novel’s procedural excess into barely more than two hours’ worth of film: It’s no accident if much of the novel’s first half is abstracted.  Many of the pacing issues of the first film also carry over, although the lengthy coda of Millennium 1 is here truncated into an abrupt ending that leads viewers straight to the third film.  But plot aside, this is still Noomi Rapace’s show as the longer-haired but no less mesmerizing Lisbeth Salander; Michael Nyqvist is reassuring as the boy-scout journalist Mikael Blomkvist, but it’s Salander who’s the compelling core of the story and its protagonist.  It’s a solid film, maybe a bit too slow although surprisingly nimble compared to the original book.  Fortunately, viewers won’t have to wait a long time before the third film comes out.

Predators (2010)

(In theaters, July 2010) Given the indefensible mess that were the two Alien vs Predator movies, it doesn’t take much to reboot the Predator franchise with a mean and lean action follow-up to the first film.  Anyone complaining about Predators’ thin story, unimaginative extension to the franchise or routine structure may want to step back from keyboard for a moment and acknowledge that this late follow-up isn’t too bad: It certainly doesn’t waste any time dropping us in the thick of the action, with its rapid assembly of human warriors being hunted by aliens on an equally-alien planet.  SF fans will be disappointed by the lack of substance of the film’s SF elements (It takes a surprisingly long time for the characters to look up and notice that they’re not on Earth anymore, even after passing through a rocky plain), so it’s better to focus on Predators as an action film with a few fancy trappings.  But even there, the film struggles to distinguish itself: a few sequences are badly staged and rely on unbelievable spatial coincidences.  (For a film that takes place on an entire alien planet, everything seems to happen within two or three city blocks.)  It’s marginally more successful at establishing each characters and giving them even a modicum of respectability: We know they’re going to be picked-off one by one, but at least we can enjoy their presence while they last.  Adrian Brody credibly growls his way to a buff action hero, but supporting players such as Danny Trejo and Louis Ozawa Changchien (in a nearly-silent role) also get a few good moments.  Nimród Antal’s direction is slightly more ambitious than the usual stock action film, and that’s how the film allows itself a few better moments such as a swordfight seen from overhead.  Predators does last a bit too long, muddles into a mid-film lull and can’t really escape the shadow of the first Predator film, but at least it’s clearly in line with the first film, and that’s something that none of the sequels have been able to claim so far.  Not a bad result for something that falls into a generic action film slot.

Fever Dream, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2010, 405 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-55496-1

The very last page of Fever Dream’s hardcover edition is an important announcement from the authors (now listed without first names on the cover) telling us that they are about to launch a new series of thrillers.  That announcement couldn’t have come at a better time, since anyone who makes it to the end of their latest novel will understand the creative fatigue plaguing the Agent Pendergast series.

Fever Dream isn’t a bad piece of work as far as summer thrillers go… but it’s certainly generic enough to make anyone wonder what happened to the creative team that hopped so brilliantly from one set of character to another in their first few novels.  Now that they have spent seven successive novels writing about Pendergast, everything is starting to feel like routine.

Granted, Fever Dream is a bit better than their previous Cemetary Dance: They don’t kill off a major character, they avoid much of the pseudo-supernatural hocus-pocus of their last few books and even advance one or two overarching subplots along the way.  By digging into Pendergast’s history, and in particular the events surrounding his wife’s death twelve years earlier, we also get a chance to understand what makes his character tic while he stomps around his regular haunts.  Leaving behind New York for the bayou, the normally-cool agent is also quite a bit more emotional this time around… in his own fashion: the point is not just to find who killed his wife, but to avenge her as well.

Much of the plot, unsurprisingly enough for a Preston/Child thriller, is an investigation trying to piece together a decade-old mystery.  From smoking guns to hidden art caches, redneck confrontations and southern mansions contaminated by madness, Fever Dream even manages a few thrills along the way.  An unexpected plot development midway through the book even forces NYPD agent Laura Hayward to team up with Pendergast despite having little personal liking for the man.  There’s a touch of The Cabinet of Curiosity’s urban archaeology in seeing Pendergast deduce the existence of a hidden crypt under a Louisiana doughnut shop, while an ugly scene between Hayward and rednecks late in the book leads to a supremely satisfying revenge by the normally-imperturbable Pendergast.  While his long-dead wife was scarcely even mentioned in the previous novels in the series, she here has a faint presence that does nothing more than reinforce Pendergast’s mystique.  Elsewhere in that fictional universe, Constance Greene also gets a small part in one of the book’s subplots: Depending on its follow-up, it’s either a disappointing resolution to a promising story thread or a set-up for something even more intriguing.

Combine those particular traits with Preston/Child’s usual clean prose, high-tech/historical plot drivers, limpid scene construction and ongoing plot threads and you have the makings of a capable thriller, if not much more: Despite improving on the previous two novels, Fever Dream is still just another minor entry in the Pendergast series, and one that can’t even be bothered to wrap up its plot threads: while the story reaches a natural stopping point, there are at least two unanswered questions leading into the next book of the series…  almost as if readers couldn’t be trusted to come back to Pendergast once Preston/Child’s new “Gideon Crew” series is launched.  Fortunately, reading the industry trades tells us that the February 2011 publication of the first Gideon Crew novel will be followed in the spring/summer by another Pendergast novel.  As a signal that the Pendergast novels aren’t anything special any more, this one is hard to miss.  Hopefully, the break will help the two authors find another creative outlet and keep Pendergast employed doing what he does best.  If that means he can take an extended break while Preston/Child go about working on other projects, then that may be for the best.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

(In theaters, July 2010) The problem with Eclipse is that while it’s just good enough to avoid much of its predecessors’ most unintentionally hilarious moments, it’s not good enough to make it a compelling film experience if you’re not already part of Twilight’s target audiences.  Much of it stems from the thinness of its plotting, especially when compared to the languid pacing of its execution: By the fifteenth minute of the film, we know that vampires are coming to attack and that poor confused Bella isn’t any more decisive than before.  And that’s where things remain stuck for the next hour, the script seemingly happy to remind us of both plotlines until it’s time to wrap it up.  To director David Slade’s credit, the short fights between teen vampires and fluffy werewolves actually feel interesting.  Alas, there’s isn’t much else to enjoy elsewhere in Eclipse: even the hilariously awful dialogue of the first two films seems a bit better-behaved here.  There is still, fortunately, a bit of romantic universality in seeing Bella struggle between two pretenders who really want to kill each other.  The acting isn’t much better, though, and the casting may be a bit worse: It’s not just for French-Canadian pride that I regret Rachelle Lefevre’s replacement by Bryce Dallas Howard as Victoria (Go, Team Victoria!): Howard doesn’t quite have the feral intensity required for the role and a number of the latter scenes feel like she’s meowing a lioness part.  Ah well.  In terms of genre-bending, Eclipse continues the series’ tradition of being romance under dark fantasy masks: Forget this film’s value to the horror crowd since there’s nothing original to see here in genre terms, even though a scene featuring a snowstorm, a freezing human, a frigid vampire and a warm werewolf is good for a cute chuckle.  (It’s one of the only chuckles in a film that’s as dour as the rest of its series so far.)  But, at the risk of repeating myself, I’m so far away from Twilight’s audience that the only thing left to do is admit that this film isn’t for me.  That it doesn’t manage to go beyond its own fans isn’t much of a problem as far as box-office receipts are concerned… but those films will age quickly once its audience grows just a bit older.  No film immortality in store, here.

Despicable Me (2010)

(In theaters, July 2010) Seeing Despicable Me a bit too soon after Toy Story 3, I can’t help but notice how thin it feels compared to Pixar’s instant classic: It’s much simpler visually and even more simplistic from a story standpoint.  The backgrounds feel empty, and the scatter-shot writing seems all too ready to sacrifice tone and continuity for cheap gags.  (Seeing that much of the film was developed in France, I wonder if some of this inconsistency is a cultural artifact.)  Fortunately, Despicable Me finds its worth in earned laughter: Some of the most absurd slapstick is ridiculously funny, while the entire film is so good-natured that it’s easy to keep a smile in-between the laughs.  I’m never too fond of kid characters, but the three girls who (very) gradually come to change the mad-scientist antihero’s mind are surprisingly likable, which makes the overused “bachelor finds his inner parenting abilities” sub-plot far more bearable than you’d expect.  The same goes for the minion creatures, who hold up far better than their “let’s have an iconic toy” origins may suggest.  Much of the 3D is unobtrusive to a 2D audience, at the exception of end-credit sequences that feel tacked-on after a rush decision to re-render the film in 3D.  Despicable Me may not be much of a classic, but it holds its own as an entertaining feature for the entire family.

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