Monthly Archives: October 2010

Awake in the Dark, Roger Ebert

University of Chicago Press, 2006, 476 pages, $18.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-226-18201-8

A few months ago, I concluded my review of Roger Ebert’s bad-movies-reviews compendium Your Movie Sucks by promising that I would follow up with a book about his great movies.  Hence Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert, a retrospective collection bringing together forty years of interviews, reviews and opinion pieces about cinema.  If nothing else, this collection shows the depth of material available from someone who’s been writing about movies for such a long time.  Even devoting large sections of the book to specific material (such as reprinting his “best movie of the year” reviews), there are enough treats here to surprise and delight.

The introduction sets the tone, as Ebert describes his first experiences with cinema, and early adventures in the newspaper trade.  A number of interviews follow, most of them from the earlier part of Ebert’s career when he spent more time doing feature pieces.  (An explanation for that is found later in the book, in discussing the stranglehold that press agents now have on serious film journalism.)  Then it’s off to a selection of Ebert’s favourite movies of every year, from 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde to 2005’s Crash.

I skimmed over the next two sections, about foreign films and documentaries, and didn’t read everything in the overlooked and underrated films segment –but the following “Essays and think pieces” are all interesting, and present a sampling of issues that have infuriated Ebert over the years: the inequality of black actors, colorization of black-and-white films, the lack of a truly-adult film rating in the United States (with consequent infantilization of American cinema), and the appeal of celluloid over digital projection.  The last section, “on film criticism” features a virtual symposium between critics Richard Corliss, Andrews Sarris and Ebert on the future of film criticism.  The coda of the book discusses the early stages of Ebert’s cancer that would eventually rob him of his voice and give him a new one as a top-notch online writer.

It’s not exactly useful to rate the book on whether you agree with Ebert:  I certainly don’t, especially when he starts feeling nostalgic about the quality of celluloid films over new digital projection technologies.  And I just have to browse the list of his “films of the year” to start rolling my eyes at some choices.  (Crash?  Ergh.)  But the true mark of Ebert’s value as a professional writer is how pleasant to read his pieces remain even when they present disagreeable viewpoints.  It helps that despite decades of experience reviewing films, Ebert still sees them with the eyes of an ordinary filmgoer: It’s not difficult to understand why he still likes the movies, why some of them work better than others, and how much he wants every film to be successful.  Reading a selection of the films he loves is reading about a fulfilled Ebert –quite a different experience than reading one angry pan after another in Your Movie Sucks.

Trying to fit a forty-year career between two covers is a tough assignment, but the editors responsible for selecting the pieces in Awake in the Dark have done a good job, and while this won’t be the final word on Ebert for a while (especially given the astonishing quality of his current online writing), it’s about as good a career retrospective could be as of 2006.  There’s a lot of fine reading in there –although, since much of the book is made of short reviews or essays, Awake in the Dark is best read in small chunks spread over a long period of time.

For movie lovers, film reviewers, Ebert fans and anyone interested in critical cinema commentary, Awake in the Dark is an eloquent achievement: An entire life spent watching films, glimpsed throughout hundreds of short essays. It may not be as bitterly amusing as reading six years of awful movie reviews, but it’s far more interesting –and it shows Ebert at his best while discussing the best.

Jonah Hex (2010)

(On DVD, October 2010) “Not as terrible as rumoured” isn’t much of a positive review, but given how Jonah Hex was savaged upon release as one of the worst big-budget release of 2010 (with rumours of a very troubled production), it’s almost a relief to watch the film and notice a few worthwhile things.  Much of those, alas, are conceptual rather than actual: It’s a movie that sounds a lot better than it plays largely because it ineptly executes its most interesting ideas.  Part of the problem is the script’s middle-of-the-road commitment to the Hex comic book mythology’s most outlandish aspects: The resulting film feels as if it never commits to full-blown fantastical concepts, and its occasional anachronism feel like weak sauce in today’s steampunk-knowledgeable media universe.  It’s not often that Wild Wild West is held up as an example to follow, but it –at least- didn’t forget to have some fun in introducing anachronistic concepts in a Western setting.  Worse yet is Jonah Hex’s execution of what it chooses to embrace: Thanks to the scattered direction, It’s not rare to figure out after the fact what the film was trying to do, and think that there was a far more coherent way to achieve it.  It’s violent without being gory, and yet displeasingly so in a film that otherwise seems suited for an escapist romp.  As such, Jonah Hex limps along from one semi-interesting scene to another, and it ends (after a mere 80 minutes) with an underwhelming, overly-familiar whimper.  So, what are its good points?  While Megan Fox’s character is useless and John Malkovich is wasted as the antagonist, Josh Brolin does a fine tortured Hex.  There are occasional flourishes of direction in, say, resorting to comic-book panels to show what would have been unbearable to watch as live action, and there is some interesting twisted western imagery in the mix.  But even with those advantages, Jonah Hex goes in the “almost” category: almost interesting, almost good and almost worth watching.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve, William H. Patterson Jr.

Tor, 2010, 622 pages, C$35.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1960-9

You don’t have to be a Science Fiction historian to understand the massive influence that Robert A. Heinlein had over the genre.  His writing techniques set an example for all writers to emulate (or repudiate), his personality challenged readers to become better human beings and so it’s no exaggeration to state that entire generations of SF enthusiasts have been led by Heinlein’s example.  As a writer, a personality, and a towering figure in the SF community even more than two decades after his death, he is one of the few SF writers of the twentieth century to deserve a massive two-book biography.

What we get with William H. Patterson Jr.’s Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve (count those colons!) is… something impressive, even as the first half of a bigger project.  Alas, it’s not the single best possible account of Heinlein’s life.  Like most authorized biographies, it benefits from generous access to primary sources, but suffers from a lack of critical perspective.  The author has accomplished a herculean task of bringing together a mass of information about Heinlein, but he hasn’t always been able to condense this data into a readable or insightful portrait of the man.

It may be that the SF community has been spoiled by Julie Phillips’ extraordinary biography of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr., a fusion of fact and interpretation that remains the gold standard for SF writer biographies.  (Outside the genre, there’s also William McKeen’s biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Outlaw Journalist, to consider.)  Compared to Phillips’ work, this first volume feels flat and bloated, afraid to take a dispassionate stand about its own subject while having a hard time distinguishing between trivia and detail.  Why else spend a page detailing speeches at an Army-Navy game in which Heinlein was only peripherally involved? [P.81]

We shouldn’t be ungrateful for the sheer amount of detail: This is a “Life and Times of” kind of biography, and if nothing else, readers will come away from the book with a meticulous understanding of 1920s Annapolis, 1930s California Progressive politics and 1940s stateside war efforts.  But if you’re getting the sense that you have to be enthralled by Heinlein before reading the book (rather than let the biography do the convincing), then you’re right.

Readers without a deep-set case of Heinlein worship are advised to grit their teeth, skip the rah-rah-RAH introduction (in which the death of Heinlein is compared to the assassination of JFK, the Challenger explosion and 9/11) and start reading on Chapter One, which sets the tone for a book that is a great deal more factual that its hagiographical opening would suggest.  Not that the fawning tone entirely disappears later on: Patterson has a tendency to exculpate Heinlein from various errors and lapses of judgement, blaming his wife for a bad signature, not questioning official medical records and generally presuming that Heinlein knew best.  I’m also troubled at how much of the sourcing goes straight back to recollections by Heinlein’s third wife –that is, unchallenged hearsay by a highly biased source.

This occasional fusion of overwhelming minutia and unquestioning Heinlein fanboyism makes the book feel considerably less accomplished than it actually is.  From various reports on and off-line, I understand that the editing process for the book wasn’t simple (nor, apparently, friendly) and that the result is considerably shorter than the manuscript initially submitted for publication.  The result remains a bit frustrating… about as much so as trying to make sense of the hugely complicated man that was Heinlein.

Still, having vented my frustrations about the book, here’s why it deserves to be read widely, discussed passionately and nominated for next year’s Hugo Awards: It’s a significant piece of work, it presents new information about Heinlein and it manages to describe the broad strokes of Heinlein’s life during a very badly documented period.

Even confirmed Heinlein fans will learn quite a few things out of this biography: Heinlein’s first-of-three marriages; the particular nature of his second one; the way he got to Annapolis; his fascination with the occult; the episode in which he nearly became a Rhodes scholar; his unpleasant first Guest of Honour experience at the 1941 Worldcon; the details of his unsuccessful electoral bid; and so many others.  Even dirty gossip gets a bit of space, as we learn of a possible affair between L. Ron Hubbard and Heinlein’s second wife.  (Read the endnotes!)  There is a lot of information here that, to my knowledge, has never received wide publication.  The magnitude of Patterson’s achievement in chronicling the first forty years of Heinlein’s life is magnified by the difficulty of getting this information, by dint of historical distance or by deliberate erasure.  (Heinlein burnt much of his own personal papers in 1947.)  To find so much information unearthed (even via unreliable sources) is a minor miracle and for that reason alone, this biography is a major piece of work that will become a significant starting point to any further Heinlein assessment.

There’s also quite a bit of merit in how Patterson is able to trace Heinlein’s formative influences, from the rigour of his naval background to his liberal politics within Upton Sinclair’s faction of the California Democratic Party to his post-war reassessment of his political affiliation given the threat of nuclear warfare.  Heinlein’s fiction can argue opposite sides of issues in successive novels, and this biography does a fine job at showing how widely Heinlein’s experience differed from the American norm of the time.   For SF fans, I suspect that the last section of the book, after Heinlein starts selling fiction professionally, is a fascinating look at the development of the SF field at a crucial period.  There are familiar names (Campbell!  Pohl!  Hubbard!  Asimov!) and a strong sense of what the community must have been at the time.

I also suspect that quite a few early Heinlein devotees will be astounded to read about the genesis of some stories.  One of my first significant SF reads was Heinlein’s Space Cadet, for instance, and I was stunned to learn of the circumstances in which the novel was written –Heinlein practically living as a nomad, in-between marriages, fighting rumours spread by his second wife and desperately trying to make ends meet in difficult circumstances.  Who knew?

One thing is for sure: This book has created a lot of brisk discussion within the SF field, and will continue to do so for a while.  As with all things Heinlein, the biography is attracting passionate commenters from all persuasions, and some of the best results of the online fur-ball are a good erratum for the biography, and an informed reassessment of Heinlein’s stature within the field.  It’s a significant reminder of Heinlein’s influence still.

The end result is a complex, meaty, substantive biography that has a number of weaknesses, but still represents the best and most complete look at Heinlein’s early life than we’ve been able to read so far.  It’s not the best Heinlein biography imaginable (I challenge anyone to do better), but it’s assured of a spot on next year’s Hugo Awards short-list, and a long half-life as an significant work of SF scholarship.  Better yet; it prefigures a second volume that will really dig into Heinlein’s fully-matured period.  That one will be a heck of a read, even –especially- if it’s as frustrating as this first volume.

The Reversal, Michael Connelly

Little, Brown, 2010, 389 pages, ISBN 978-0-316-06948-9

The sheer number of Michael Connelly book reviews on this site will confirm that I’m a fan of the author: Connelly writes crisp, efficient crime thrillers, and even average efforts from him feel like top-notch novels compared to the work of other authors.

For fans, the good news is that The Reversal once again pairs up two of Connelly’s lead characters.  If “Mickey Haller works again with Harry Bosch on a case!” means nothing to you, then go read other Connelly books first (I recommend The Poet).  But if that tagline means everything, then The Reversal is written just for you.

It starts with, well, an unusual reversal of roles, as defense attorney Haller is offered a temporary prosecution job: An old case involving the kidnapping and murder of a child is being re-opened decades later due to new evidence, and Haller is the best chance to try the case from a fresh perspective.  This soon turns into an extended family affair as Haller gets to collaborate with his ex-wife and gets his half-brother Bosch as lead investigator.  As usual in Connelly thrillers, complications soon pile up.  Haller realizes that his case is tainted and that he’s being set up for a failure.  Meanwhile, Bosch keeps a close track on the newly-freed suspect given the troubling nature of his night-time habits.  It all leads up to a courthouse drama, but one that won’t go according to accepted procedures…

As with other Connelly thrillers, The Reversal features a mesmerizing mixture of solid plot mechanics, credible procedural details, well-sketched characters and clean prose.  As would suggest the hybrid nature of a novel starring a lawyer and a policeman, The Reversal is somewhere between a courtroom drama and a police thriller, drawing upon each subgenre to complicate the action.  The interaction between both half-brothers seems a bit more hopeful than most of Bosch’s previous collaborations–which inevitably ended with enough bad sentiments against Bosch to make further collaborations unthinkable.  This time, both step-brothers get along reasonably well and even discuss how their daughters could play together.  Other characters such as Rachel Walling briefly show up as reminders of the expansive nature of the Connellyverse.  Meanwhile, Haller’s musings about being on the other side of the courtroom are fresh enough to bring another angle to the usual police-driven Connelly perspective.

Where The Reversal falters is in its final fifty pages, when the meticulously constructed courtroom drama abruptly goes down in flames as the suspect does something unpredictable.  Abruptly, the novel switches gears to a disappointing ending in which gunplay takes precedence over procedure, and enough action happens off-screen to make us feel as if the novel was concluded in a rush.  A number of threads are left untied, adding to the unfinished impression.  This disappointing finale, added to a novel that doesn’t really attempt anything new, is enough to make even enthusiastic readers conclude that this isn’t one of Connelly’s best efforts.

Fortunately, it’s still good enough to keep most readers happy and satisfied.  Connelly’s latest few books, however, have generally been underwhelming as well: There’s a limit to what he can do with Bosch (Nine Dragons showed how far he could push it) and few of Connelly’s experiments with other protagonists, including a return engagement for Jack McEvoy in The Scarecrow, have been particularly successful.  While there’s no cause for alarm yet, it’s probably best to put Connelly on some kind of advance-warning watch-list for authors stuck in their own formula.  Sure, he’s doing well with routine entries… but how long can he maintain this streak?

Never Let Me Go (2010)

(In theaters, October 2010) Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is generally acknowledged as a Science Fiction novel coming from outside the SF genre, and as such pays more attention to fine prose, character development and inner monologue than SF devices, coherent word-building or narrative excitement.  As an adaptation, Never Let Me Go feels a lot like that, with a thin plot, leisurely pacing and constant focus on the three lead actors.  (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and -to a lesser extent- Keira Knightley all do well with their roles.)  The muted colors of the cinematography reflect the restraint with which the characters react to their fated lives, and the lack of urgency in the telling of the story is designed to let everyone reflect at lengths about the situation.  It’s one of those rare (and largely mythical) SF movies without obvious special effects, and as such should earn a bit of respect from the genre-reading crowd.  On the other hand, that genre-reading crowd will be more likely to recommend the film to others as accessible-level SF than to appreciate the film for themselves, given how it vaguely sketches the alternate-reality of the story’s universe, and features largely passive characters whose role is to stare into the face of inevitability.  There is, however, something very interesting in the film’s emphasis on sub-culture mythology, with a series of ill-informed rumours (all of them knocked down one after another) forming a good chunk of the characters’ inner landscape due to the absence of more reliable information.  (The final revelation perfectly fits into this motif.)  Does the world of the film hold together?  Absolutely not, but it doesn’t even try to address plausibility, betting instead on the real emotional core of the trio at the middle of the film.  Never Let Me Go will be a bit too slow and thin for some, but it’s a success in the same way that Atonement and other middle-brow character dramas can be.  Don’t let the “Science Fiction” label create false expectations…

61 Hours, Lee Child

Delacorte, 2010, 383 pages, $34.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-34058-8

Lee Child’s eminently capable hero Jack Reacher has been in a number of desperate situations before, but I don’t think he’s ever been as cold as in 61 Hours.  Taking place in wintry South Dakota, this fourteenth Reacher novel does for sub-zero temperatures what Echo Burning did for the Texan heat.

The set-up is ingenious: A lawyer is instructed by his incarcerated client to set up a series of events that will end up shaking a small community.  But in his driving haste, the lawyer causes an accident that strands a busload of passengers in the nearby town of Bolton.  Among the passengers is Jack Reacher… and he quickly concludes that the local police force is no match for what’s about to happen.  Asked to protect a crucial witness, Reacher realizes that there’s a lot more going on in this community than anyone could expect… and that many of the answers lie underneath a mysterious military installation not too far away.

As with previous Reacher thrillers, the chief attraction of 61 Hours is in seeing the hero react to his environment, understand the situation, call upon new friends, use his prodigious powers of deduction, and being slowly led to confront the real threat.  It takes a while for the true plot to reveal itself, and the masterful way in which it takes shape is one of the reasons why Child remains one of the best thriller writers currently in the business.  Lesser authors will envy the skill in which the first chapter is set up, with enough procedural detail, purposeful mystery, powerful narrative hooks and ticking clock.  It’s all there in the first few pages, and Reacher fans will just want to let themselves sink in a good chair and enjoy the rest of the book.

Most of what follows is just as good as other novels in the series.  After the frantic urban frenzy of Gone Tomorrow, Child is back to heartland America with his depiction of a cold small Dakotan community.  The presence of a supermax prison not too far away sets up a few delightful complications, whereas the nearby abandoned military base is also a rich magnet for revelations.  It climaxes in a fight in which Reacher’s usual advantages are negated, further proof that Child is still interested in mining all sorts of possibilities from his series.

Barely worth noting is a brief reference to Reacher being identified by the Army as an aggression child prodigy; that, like his freakish gift for numbers in Bad Luck and Trouble, probably won’t ever be referred to again.   Also worth forgetting is the revelation of a criminal informer within friendly ranks: Either Child is getting predictable or he tips his hands way too early, because the mole is far, far too easy to identify even as events are occurring.

Stylistically, 61 Hours is notable for the dramatic countdown announced by its title: All chapters end up with a reminder of the current time, and how many hours/minutes are left before… something.  That something, alas, ends up being a cliff-hanger ending.  And if you don’t want to hear more about the biggest misstep in the Reacher series since the hypnosis nonsense in Running Blind, skip the next two paragraphs:

It’s not entirely a cliff-hanging ending: The main plot is wrapped up, the antagonist is punished and the revelations are exhausted.  The only thing left hanging, in fact, is Reacher’s fate: The story concludes with him desperately racing toward an exit, whereas the epilogue describes in rich and meticulous detail why no one could have survived his predicament.  The novel ends without Reacher in sight, most surviving characters concluding that he’s definitely dead.

But is he?  Peeking ahead to the next Reacher novel, Worth Dying For, reveals an infuriating answer: Reacher is alive (no surprise here), but the explanation of his survival is so vague as to be useless: the various obstacles described in 61 Hours’ epilogue are not acknowledged, and so we’re left with an unfulfilled mystery.  A latter book may fill in the blanks (there are indications that Reacher sets out to meet a character introduced in 61 Hours) but who knows?  Why conclude the book in this way if it’s not going to mean anything?

If readers can stomach its meaningless cliff-hanger, 61 Hours is another decent entry in the Reacher canon, and further proof of Child’s ability to wring thrills out of small American towns.  The chills felt by readers won’t necessarily be caused by the novel’s glacial setting.

The Time that Remains [Le Temps qu’il Reste] (2009)

(On DVD, October 2010) What an odd, odd film.  It starts by tackling a subject from a perspective unfamiliar to most western viewers: The occupation of Palestine during the 1948 foundation of Israel, and the life of Palestinians ever since as seen by the Palestinians themselves.  Writer/director Elia Suleiman chooses to divide his film in four distinct periods (1948, 1970s, 1980s and 2000s), following a family in attempting to describe the impact of Israeli rule over Palestinian culture.  By the last period, the last links to the past are dying, people can’t get out of their houses without a tank tracking their every movement and criminals are leading the police around.  It’s fiercely political, but in a way that shies away from outright confrontation: The Time that Remains rather adopts a curiously comic tone that defies description.  There are enough stylistic choices here to fill a much lengthier review, but the two that stand out the most are the obstinately static camera and Suleiman’s absurdly one-note performance as a silent man constantly stuck in the same body language.  There is little here in terms of conventional movie-going enjoyment: The rhythm of the film is mortally slow (something that the fixed camera doesn’t soften), the comedy refers on cultural references that feel completely lost in translation, and the off-beat script means never having any idea how to react to the film.  But it does have a lot to say, even though you may need to trawl smarter people’s reviews of the film to figure them out.  It is, in other words, quite an experience: I don’t think there’s any film quite like it, and that’s already a divisive recommendation in itself.  The Region-2 French DVD features an equally-mystifying short film and an interview that gives a glimpse in Suleiman’s artistic process.  (Note that the film’s production origins are a hodgepodge of financing and production companies: I’m not sure what the real title or country of origin of the film actually is, and have tagged it as an English-titled film from Israel as an ironic convenience.)

Zatôichi [Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman] (2003)

(On DVD, October 2010) Even though it’s hard to mistake a film in which dozens of people get killed by a katana-wielding swordsman as anything but an action movie, Zatoichi is so off-beat in its approach to the genre that it escapes clear-cut designation.  This difference starts with the lead character, a blind masseur who is quickly revealed to be a supernaturally gifted swordsman, with other senses giving him all the edge he needs against his enemies.  Though the film does itself no favours with a deliberately slow first act, it eventually moves on to present an alliance between the blind swordsman and two orphans trying to find their parent’s killers.  The historical recreation of rural Japan is convincing, but it’s the film’s constantly unconventional nature that provides much of the entertainment in-between CGI-enhanced bloody deaths.  I’ve been meaning to see anything by writer/director Kitano “Beat” Takeshi for a while now, and this film is as good an introduction as I needed.  Eschewing traditional action movie pacing and tone, Zatoichi often whimsically stops its plot for a contemplative moment or two, going back and forth between high art and low comedy (and even lower violence) as it chooses.  Even fans of more traditional Asian action cinema will be caught off-guard by the film’s refusal to play by the usual genre conventions.  Still, there is a lot to like here, in-between striking images, a compelling title character and the charming out-of-nowhere final dance number that wraps up the film more effectively than any triumphant finale.

The Ramen Girl (2008)

(On DVD, October 2010) Stop me if the story sounds familiar: A well-intentioned but generally clueless westerner goes to a foreign land they are forced, through various circumstances, to learn an exotic trade despite language problems and inner struggle.  The Ramen Girl is a film on auto-pilot, a slight trifle that has enough script problems to explain why it went straight-to-DVD and why I had never even heard of it before a friend loaned it to me.  Exasperating, conventional, awkwardly-staged and almost empty of content, this comedy still remains surprisingly charming.  While Brittany Murphy’s untimely 2009 death now lends an unfortunately gravitas to the entire film, The Ramen Girl allows her to play her usual airhead stereotype with a bit of energy… which is pretty much what the script needed.  But the best thing about the film is the luscious way is presents food, and the ever-fascinating portrait of Tokyo.  These glimpses at another culture more than sustain the film through a ridiculous setup, another annoying carnival of linguistic frustrations and behaviour that would have any rational person calling the police.  What’s unfortunate, though, is that despite a few quasi-fantastic scenes, The Ramen Girl never completely embraces the magic realism tone in which the story would have been far more satisfying.  Still, my attention was gripped… and I made it halfway through the film before the abrupt realization that I had some instant noodles just waiting for me in my cupboard.  This is a film made to be accompanied by its culinary equivalent.  Don’t watch it without a bowl of steaming ramen on hand.

Creation (2009)

(On DVD, October 2010) I’m far too cynical to label any film as a “public service”, but the nature of Creation in today’s hyper-politicized controversy over evolution is such that I can’t help but admire the contribution that a well-made drama can bring to the public understanding of the man behind one of the most fundamental ideas of all times.  A heavily dramatized account of the years Charles Darwin spend perfecting the manuscript for On the Origins of Species, Creation delivers a portrait of the icon as an immensely fallible man, tormented by visions of a dead daughter and debilitating convictions of heresy.  It is, in many ways, a depiction of Darwin influenced by his critics, and yet a revealing look at a time where people thought very differently.  The film wasn’t widely screened in theaters for reasons that soon become obvious to casual viewers: This is a film not of outer action, but inner struggles and the clash of new concepts.  Like many works of primary interest to intellectual audiences, it presents ideas as inherently interesting and studies how people are affected by them.  (Don’t tell anyone, but that’s as good a definition of Science Fiction as any).  It’s not really helpful to add that the film is slow, contemplative and occasionally grating from a contemporary perspective.  At times, overly-dramatic Creation seems to play more as a pre-emptive answer to Darwin’s critics rather than a celebration of the scientist himself.  But there are a few standout sequences in the mix (an accelerated view of how species interact in nature is particularly good), while both Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly are effective in their roles.  It all amounts to a film that will be presented in classrooms for a long time, and serve as a reminder that cinema can occasionally rise to the occasion and deliver a compelling celebration of human thought.

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

(On DVD, October 2010) Medium-budget films featuring a cast of known actors but popping up unexpectedly on DVD shelves always present a challenge for viewers: Is it possible to guess why the film wasn’t given a wide theatrical release?  In the case of The Killer Inside Me, the truth gradually dawns that in-between the period setting, awkward staging, rough sex and unconvincing script, the film would have been savaged by reviewers looking for a middle-of-the-road thriller.  And yet, the cast remains impressive, with a few standouts being Jessica Alba as a prostitute who gets the worst of a bad deal, whereas Kate Hudson is strangely credible as a white-trash woman and Casey Affleck becomes as repulsive as he can be as a deputy sheriff gradually revealed as a full-blown psychopath.  The period setting is a hint that the film is adapted from a classic noir novel by Jim Thompson, but a bigger clue is found in the strikingly clumsy staging and character motivations as portrayed on-screen: Novels allow for inner monologues that don’t always translate harmoniously to the big screen, and The Killer Inside Me often feels forced in its graphic violence against women, unexplainable character motivations and repellent protagonist.  A novel getting in the head of a criminal is something that a film simply portraying that violence can’t aspire to.  Numerous decisions, such as the graphic brutality directed at women, the loathsome protagonist and the slow pacing, end up grating more than they convince.  As such, the adaptation can’t aspire to much more than a curiosity for noir fans, even though the period detail is convincing (except for the anachronistic trailer-tanker that shows up during a chase sequence) and the acting talent does the best with the script it’s given.  By the end of the film, there’s no doubt that its proper place is on DVD shelves, and then on to oblivion for most viewers.

Zero History, William Gibson

Putnam, 2010, 404 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-399-15682-3

I can just imagine a conversation between myself and a time-traveling SF fan from the late eighties.

Fan: Is William Gibson still writing?
Me: He sure is.  In fact, he’s famous; people pay to go see interviews with him, and his latest novel Zero History just came out.
Fan: Oh wow!  That sounds interesting!
Me: Actually, it’s a novel set two years ago in which a recovering addict and an ex-rock star go investigate the makers of a mysterious brand of jeans.
(Lengthy pause)
Fan: You’ve got to be kidding me.
Me: No, that’s actually the truth.
Fan: Your future sucks; I’m off to play D&D with my buddies.
(poof)
Me: Aw, and I didn’t even have time to tell him about the iPad.

The point being that Gibson, perhaps more clearly than any of his Hugo-winning mid-eighties contemporaries, isn’t writing the same kind of fiction than he did.  Why should he?  People grow old, change, become interested in different things and that’s perfectly fine.

The problem may come when we insist on reading Gibson in the same way we did at first.  It’s not exactly a revelation to say that Gibson is still writing about the same things he did in Neuromancer, except that they are now all around us rather than in some unspecified future.  In many ways, his writing style hasn’t changed: It’s still heavy in visual descriptions, brand names, fashions and attitude.  Behold this sentence:

After Clammy had decided to go back to the studio, her white plastic bottle of Cold-FX wedged precariously into a back pocket of his Hounds, departing the Golden Square Starbucks during an unexpected burst of weak but thoroughly welcome sunlight, Hollis had gone out to stand for a few moments amid the puddles in Golden Square, before walking (aimlessly, she’d pretended to herself) back up Upper James to Beak Street. [P.47, with reluctant thanks to the Russian hackers who put the entire text of Zero History on-line where it was indexed by Google, so that I could copy-and-paste the passage rather than re-type it in.]

I went to a live Gibson interview at an Ottawa writer’s festival shortly after reading Zero History, and it’s clear that he hasn’t been interested in being perceived as a Science Fiction writer for a while.  Maybe it’s time to do both the author and the genre a favour and start distancing Gibson from SF: If he still sees the world through a prism shaped by SF, that makes him a genre-friendly mainstream author… but a mainstream author nonetheless.  Gibson would rather write the kind of fiction that Gibson finds interesting than being stuck in genre conventions.  If you squint, you can almost see Zero History as a thriller, but an unusually limp one: Like Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, this novel isn’t really interested in trifles such as narrative tension, plotting, suspense or action sequences.  It may have a laboriously set-up climax in which a hacked Festo floating penguin zaps a villain through a Taser activated by iPhone, but that duct-tape cyberpunk is all of the techno-excitement that Zero History has to offer.

In fact, the “Bigend trilogy” he’s been working on since Pattern Recognition shows to what extent he is now recasting in fictional form what catches his attention as he surfs the web.  His novels have become inseparable from the Internet in that we’re practically asked to Google his references in describing the world of his novels.  That’s a particular form of reading pleasure, I suppose, but one that’s quite distinct from his eighties fiction.  Let’s appreciate it for what it is.

Buried (2010)

(In theaters, October 2010) Anyone who admires a bit of cinematographic audacity should flock to see Buried, a minor tour-de-force in thriller moviemaking.  It has one rule, and it’s daring: The entire film features one character, stuck in a coffin.  There are a few refinements, including a high-tech smartphone, but that’s essentially it.  Not cutaways to outside shots, no flashbacks, no fantasy sequences.  At most, there are a few bright lights and cuts to the phone to show some video.  As a device, it’s remarkably effective at leashing us alongside the character as he attempts to understand what’s happening to him, and contact the outside world to help him get out of there.  Claustrophobic to the extreme, Buried has the luxury to fully explore its options, milk its premise for all it’s worth and create a deep sense of unease for its audience.  As the quasi-sole actor in the film, Ryan Reynolds is up to the mesmerizing nature of the premise, and easily holds the audience’s interest throughout the experience.  The film is more interesting for longer than anyone would expect, in no small part due to Chris Sparling’s clever script and Rodrigo Cortés’s inventive direction.  Low-budget but high-impact, Buried may falter a bit during an obvious and disappointing climax, but otherwise escapes judgement to become a pure cinema experience.

The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich

Doubleday, 2009, 260 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-52937-2

I suppose that The Accidental Billionaires was inevitable: In his previous non-fiction work, Ben Mezrich has shown how much he loves to write about Boston-area young men who go on to make a lot of money, and so one could only count down the minutes until he turned to the Harvard-educated founders of Facebook.  As the book’s sub-title proudly announces, what’s not to like about “A tale of sex, money, genius and betrayal”?  That’s as good a shorthand as any to describe Mezrich’s chosen specialization.

As usual, it’s best to approach Mezrich’s non-fiction novels without any expectations of journalistic rigor.  Even though The Accidental Billionaires may be better-documented than any of Mezrich’s non-fiction so far, it’s still largely told from the perspective of a single primary source, that is Eduardo Saverin, the Facebook co-founder who was shut out of the company as it grew to become today’s behemoth.  Mezrich acknowledges this connection up-front, as well as the fact that the better-known Mark Zuckerberg “declined to speak with me for this book despite numerous requests.” [P.2] The Accidental Billionaires may rely on court documents, newspapers articles and public records, but it remains Saverin’s story –the truth, if ever it comes out, will no doubt be considerably less colourful than what’s presented here.

If this story sounds very familiar, you may have seen David Fincher’s The Social Network, a 2010 movie reviewer’s darling partly due to a snappy screenplay penned by Aaron Sorkin.  While the film is officially adapted from the book, a number of clues suggest that Sorkin used Mezrich’s sources and storyline, then went in his own direction –indeed, even a cursory read of the book after seeing the film will reveal a number of differences: The film is tighter, uses a convenient framing device, and is filled with symbolism that reality (or even the book’s version thereof) would be hard-pressed to provide.  For instance, the book suggests that Saverin’s then-girlfriend did set one of his gifts on fire… although not quite in the way the film presents it: Saverin wasn’t there speaking on the phone as his room nearly went up in flames.

If nothing else, The Accidental Billionaires is quite a bit more up-front than Mezrich’s other books in acknowledging its loose connection with reality, beginning with an author’s note that admits up-front that a portion of what we’re about to read is fantasy.  But questions of veracity eventually take a back seat to pure entertainment.  Anyone who has read Mezrich’s other works of docu-fiction can assume that he spiced things up in rewriting the story.  He recasts the events in the form of a quasi-novelistic narrative, providing us with scene-setting, dialogue, inner monologue and poignant scene endings.  The only question becomes… is the story interesting to read about?

It does works well in building a compelling narrative: The Accidental Billionaires is readable in a blink.  Saverin’s betrayal as his former friend Zuckerberg allows him to be replaced at the core of Facebook is well-portrayed even though more sceptical readers will want to consider the source and Mezrich’s tendency to favour drama rather than reality.

There’s a debate to be had, I suppose, about what standards of dramatization we’re ready to accept, and whether readers are complicit in accepting fanciful tales if they find their presentation enjoyable.  One of the biggest lies told by fiction is that there are such things as narrative arcs, momentous decisions, good or evil motivations, sharp dialogue and consistent personalities.  The Accidental Billionaires is enhanced reality, not a faithful portrait of history.

Doubts about Mezrich’s work are complicated by a fog of legally binding settlements and greedy motivations: at this time, even solid journalistic work may be unable to reveal the real story.  Considering that Facebook isn’t even ten years old and that all of the principals are still alive, this is both troubling and temporary: Troubling in that we can’t even get a straight answer at this time; temporary because sooner or later, tempers will cool down and we may then finally understand the complex web of motivations behind Facebook’s foundation.  In the meantime, there’s at least an entertaining book to attempt making sense of it.

The Social Network (2010)

(In theaters, October 2010) I will admit my scepticism regarding the idea of this film.  A drama about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s early days?  Why would David Fincher waste his time doing that?  Granted, I find Facebook more interesting as a socio-technological phenomenon than as the hub of my online life, but still:  Isn’t it a bit early to start making films about such a trivial subject?  What I should have figured out is that five years ago is forever in Internet time, that Fincher knew what he was doing and that there was an interesting story at the heart of it all.  Very loosely based on Ben Mezrich’s docu-fictive The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network does manage to tell a compelling drama in an entertaining way and even comment on a few contemporary issues along the way.  The heart of the piece is in the story of how intellectual arrogance and runaway success can ruin friendships, but the real delight of The Social Network is in the ever-compelling script penned by Aaron Sorkin, from a fast-paced first dialogue that sets the tone, to a structure that jumps back in forth in time (the latter chronology being nowhere in the book), to the clever weaving of themes between old-school social clubs and new-style social media.  As an acknowledged nerd, I was stuck at the picture’s fairly accurate portrait of how some very smart people behave, as well as the accuracy of some technical details early in the film.  Fincher’s direction may be less visually polished here than in his other film, but it’s effective and coherent: this is a solid drama, and it deserves a flat and grainy picture.  (The film’s most striking bit of visual polish, at a regatta, echoes the miniature-faking tilt-shift focus meme that briefly fascinated internet photographers a while back.)  The Social Network also benefits from a number of striking performances, from Jesse Eisenberg’s deliberately stunted portrait of Zuckerberg to Justin Timberlake’s magnetic Sean Parker to Armie Hammer’s Winklevii.  Part of the appeal is seeing high-powered people interacting (the script uses a “that’s the famous person” joke at least twice to good effect.) in ways that are at least plausibly based on reality.  It all amounts to a film that’s quite a bit better than the sum of its parts would suggest –true moviemaking alchemy that leaves viewers wondering how and why it all worked so well.