Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Fighter (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) I have no specific interest in boxing movies or family dramas, but even I can recognize that The Fighter is about as good as those kinds of films can ever be.  Based on the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, the film focuses on a period during which family problems and lack of focus are threatening to derail his career.  Part of the appeal is the film’s unusual message of reasonably distancing oneself from one’s family in order to succeed –a far cry from the usual family-at-all-costs message in American films.  While the film does end up with a happy reunion… it’s suitably nuanced by sacrifices and bad personality traits from everyone involved.  Although Mark Wahlberg is credible as a boxer, he doesn’t have much to do dramatically here but portray a solid hero; Christian Bale gets a far more interesting role as a washed-up addict waking up to his faults, whereas Amy Adams throws herself in a role that could have easily gone straight to cliché.  David O. Russell’s direction is often documentary-style; more-so at first, and then later on during the boxing sequences.  Those boxing scenes are solid enough to actually catch the nuances of who’s winning and why (which turns out to be essential once the protagonist starts winning fight unexpectedly).  Given the film’s close ties with the real people it portrays, don’t expect to see Ward’s true story (read the news clippings instead).  Still, even if The Fighter doesn’t have any surprises and plays with clichés, its portrayal of lower-class characters is honest, its payoffs are earned and its blend of sports and family drama is satisfying.

Rigged, Ben Mezrich

Morrow, 2007, 294 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-125272-3

What?  Another heavily-fictionalized account of an East-Coast young man making a lot of money?  It must be time for the latest Ben Mezrich book!

Oh I kid, but I kid with the Stockholm-syndrome grin of someone who now owns all of Mezrich’s non-fiction bibliography.  I may have issues with his repetitive use of fictional narrative devices to dope otherwise perfectly interesting non-fiction accounts, but when truth-seeking confront entertainment, I usually break in favour of having a good time: Mezrich’s books are a lot of fun to read.

Faithful readers will be happy to note that Mezrich expands his horizons a bit with this latest entry Rigged, which tells the sort-of-true story of a Brooklyn-born finance analyst who gets hired by the New-York based Mercantile Exchange, where he gets to put together a proposal to create the Dubai Mercantile Exchange.  The protagonist is named David Russo, but he’s loosely based on John D’Agostino, who gets to minimally fact-check the narrative in a signed afterword.

This being Mezrich’s fourth non-fiction book, it’s interesting to note how carefully he now acknowledges the novel as having heavily fictionalized components.  Unlike previous works, which tried to elide the fictive manipulations, Rigged recognizes up-front that some things have been changed or added, from an amalgam of antagonists to a tightening of events to, most likely, a number of ominous threats made against the protagonist.  There’s also quite a bit of lowest-denominator exposition-setting: It’s a bit insulting to read about two finance professionals discussing the basic point of mercantile trade; while readers don’t necessarily know those details, it’s ridiculous to pass the exposition as on-the-job training between two guys who really should know better.  (On the other hand, oh, that’s how oil is traded.)

But if it’s so fictionalized, is it better, then, to consider Rigged primarily as fiction?

Not really, because if Rigged is dramatized as a novel, it doesn’t necessarily make good fiction.  The plot threads are coarse, the characters are dull, the threats are strictly low-grade (the blackmail scheme is particularly obvious) and the book doesn’t quite know what to do with its second viewpoint protagonist, a young Dubai trader from who proposes a project to our lead character.  As financial fiction, it would be weak beer, and not even Mezrich’s rapid pacing, anecdote-heavy plotting and pleasant prose could patch up the lack of substance and simplistic structure.  No, the book has to somehow convince us that it’s about something real if it has any chance of surviving in our minds.

Too bad that there isn’t more to Rigged (a dull title, barely alluding to oil rigs and not at all to market manipulation) than a description of the trader life and a look at Dubai that feels repetitive to those who have already read other similar non-fiction accounts.  There’s plenty of yuppie macho posturing in the book and an allusion to the increasingly computerized nature of exchanges, but it seems like a throwback to a time where the trading floor reigned supreme.  (1983’s Trading Places is referenced more than once).  Modern finance is a game of automated high-frequency trading where even the physical location of computer servers can be crucial –it would be interesting to see Mezrich write about that, but in order to do so, I suppose that he’d have to find a way to feature a Boston-educated whiz kid making tons of money.

It may be that Mezrich’s formula is wearing thin.  Rigged uses so many of the same narrative devices (the threat; the mentor; the money-fuelled excesses) that it feels familiar even when it tackles a different kind of money-rich environment.  The foundation of the Dubai Mercantile Exchange is an important moment in financial history, but it seems like an afterthought to the kind of material already covered in movies like Boiler Room or plenty of other non-fiction titles of the past few years.  Mezrich’s money-is-interesting formula dissolves in meaninglessness if you don’t subscribe to its core value.  Add to that the uneasy balance between fact and fiction (Do I want information, entertainment or a disappointing mixture of both in which the presence of one nullifies the other?) and Rigged, albeit readable, still ends up feeling like the slightest of Mezrich’s non-fiction.

One notes, with some amusement, that his next book, The Accidental Billionaires, would leave the financial world behind to tackle the newest social media zeitgeist.  The one after that, Sex on the Moon, goes on to describe a moon-rock heist.  As you may expect, I have already bought them both.

Fanboys (2009)

(On DVD, December 2010) I’ll be one of the first to bemoan the increasing cooptation of geeks from social outcasts to lucrative market segment, but even I have to admit that Fanboys is a fun comedy aimed squarely at that audience.  The story of four Star-Wars-loving friends racing to steal an early copy of The Phantom Meance from Skywalker ranch, Fanboys gleefully indulges in geek references, inside jokes and enough re-quoted dialogue to qualify as a derivative work.  I’m not sure why I was expecting something cheap, because the end result is polished B-movie, low-budget but not necessarily unpleasant to look at.  The actors do their best (Jay Baruchel shows up in a decent early role, even showing his maple leaf chest tattoo), but it’s really the geekery of the film that takes center-stage in reflecting in the state of fandom circa winter 1999, still hoping that George Lucas would pull off a new trilogy of classic Star Wars films.  (Part of the film’s humour is in the knowing references to the post-1999 reputation of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar Binks or Harrison Ford)  The geek stereotypes are extreme, but good-natured and even endearing when it comes to the five heroes of the story.  If nothing else, fans should see Fanboys for the succession of cameos and bit parts for notables such as William Shatner, Danny Trejo, Seth Rogen (in three different roles), Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and many more.  (Only Kevin Smith’s cameo feels rushed and incoherent.)  There’s also a snappy pop soundtrack.  Fanboys isn’t much of a comedy without the geek references (people without knowledge of the Star Wars universe, in particular, will miss out on much), but it’s good enough to exceed low expectations.  [Classification note for metadata nerds: The film was shot in 2007, pushed back numerous times during the film’s troubled production history and eventually released in theaters and DVD in 2009.  IMDB thinks it’s a 2008 film, but I’m listing it here as a 2009 release.]

The Fall (2006)

(On DVD, December 2010) Writer/Director Tarsem Singh’s first full-length directorial effort was the somewhat simplistic The Cell: great visuals, underwhelming story.  Much of the same can also be said about The Fall, which presents fantastic images from the very first moments but doesn’t quite wrap up its story as efficiently as it could have.  Balancing on the screen performance of a very young actress, The Fall tries to go back and forth between a base reality set in a 1920ish Los Angeles hospital and a globe-spanning tall tale spun by one of the characters.  Allusions go back and forth between the two realms, and The Fall’s fantasy-world climax may be unique in that it depends on the mental state of a suicidal narrator for a happy ending.  What rankles a bit about the film is the way it will teeter back and forth between finely elliptical dialogue and a dull-as-dirt repetitive exchange between protagonist and child (eg; “Are you trying to save my soul?”).  The back-and-forth between the two levels of storytelling suggest far many more opportunities than are shown on-screen.  Fortunately, there’s a lot more to The Fall than story: the film really stretches to its fullest potential in presenting the fantastic vision of an imaginary quest taking place in a landscape coming from two dozen countries.  “Visually spectacular” doesn’t quite come close to describing the splendour of the film’s visuals, not when the Taj Mahal is one of the least impressive sets…

(Second viewing, On DVD, February 2011) After looking at The Fall twice more while listening to the audio commentary, I must say that film has grown a lot on me along the way.  Many of the things that bothered me about the film’s script turn out to be the by-product of a long and complicated production history that dared balance a quasi-improvisational shooting style to accommodate a six-year-old actress for the “base reality” of the film, and an extended production schedule that spanned four years and two dozen countries for the “fantasy reality” of the rest.  Considering the film’s amazing production, the otherwise disappointing making-of documentary on the DVD is mesmerizing for what it shows to be real.  Elephants can swim, amazing buildings and landscapes truly exist and Charles Darwin can be re-imagined as a fantasy adventure protagonist.  Even though the film’s story may not fulfill its full potential, the visuals certainly do: If nothing else, it’s reason enough to have a look at the film and call The Fall one of the decade’s forgotten gems: It’s a heck of a personal vision.  The DVD audio commentaries will make you like the film even more, as director Tarsem Singh tells us about the film’s amazing production, the personal crisis that led to his ambitiously self-financed effort and the perils of working with a very young actress.

True Grit (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) The Coen Brothers never do anything in a straightforward fashion, and so it is that if their homage to the classic True Grit may be as dirty and unforgiving as we imagine the West to have been, it’s also surprisingly entertaining and even, yes, amusing.  The repartee between rivals Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon is one of the film’s finest points, and the film often acknowledges the absurdity of its own premise.  But for all of its tension-defusing laughs, the film isn’t a comedy: the drama plays without ironic distancing, the characters aren’t completely softened for Hollywood effect, and the finale doesn’t pull any stops in punishing characters for going so deep in the wild.  While Bridges is magnificent as the one-eyed marshal “Rooster” that becomes the film’s true hero, it’s Hailee Steinfeld who makes the strongest impression as the 14-year-old heroine of the film capable of mouthing the Coens’ typically dense dialogue.  This leads us to the film’s main weakness in theaters: The often thick accents duelling on-screen.  Home-video viewers will have the advantage of captions: movie theatre viewers will have to tough it out on their own.  At a time where filmed Westerns are most often anachronistic genre recreations, it’s a bit surprising to find True Grit to be such a true-pedigree Western, spiced but not overwhelmed by comedy.  It’s an old-fashioned film worth watching and savouring.

Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 2010, 345 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4391-3394-1

Was Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn one of the most eagerly expected Science Fiction novels of 2010?  As far as its publisher is concerned, the only clue you need is the triumphant cover that heralds “A New Miles Vorkosigan Novel!”  The enormously popular series had, after all, lain dormant for much of the past decade, ever since Bujold followed up 2002’s Diplomatic Immunity with six fantasy novels set in an entirely different universe.

After such a lengthy real-world pause, Cryoburn fittingly picks up seven years after the events of Diplomatic Immunity: Miles has grown into a respected imperial auditor, a devoted husband and a father to several kids.  Not that the domestic aspects of his personality get much play here, as he spends most of the book on Kibou-daini, a planet noteworthy for the extent to which it has invested in cryogenic preservation techniques.  The catacombs under the city are filled with frozen people, and that’s where the novel confidently begins in media res, with Miles blindly stumbling about after a failed kidnapping attempt.

Once the dust settles down after an initial volley of typically Vorkosiganian adventures, the shape of the plot becomes clearer: Miles is investigating various corporate shenanigans on behalf of the Emperor, and solving the one he’s been sent to settle doesn’t preclude taking on another more interesting conspiracy when it comes to his attention.  Miles is nothing but a hyperactive problem-solver, and dangling further corporate malfeasance in front of him is an excellent way to get an adventure.  He is fortunate to be accompanied by his faithful armsman Roic, who gets his share of the narrative viewpoint while suffering through Miles’ elaborate schemes; and Jin, a Kibou-daini kid with a missing mother and a refreshing perspective on familiar characters.

Cryoburn is a minor Vorkosigan novel more or less in the mould of Diplomatic Immunity, with enough hard science to justify a background for Miles’ adventures but without series-changing developments until its sucker-punch conclusion.  Kibou-daini’s fascination for cryogenic preservation is a solid excuse to explore the stranger social consequences of that scientific innovation—the best one being the logical consequence of proxy voting rights transfer from the frozen many to their holding corporations.  We also get to see the thawing process in two tense sequences, with enough plausible technical details to make it feel satisfying to the harder-minded SF fans.

This being said, most readers coming back to the Vorkosigan series with Cryoburn will read it for the characters, not the fictional science.  Miles is thankfully back in full form, plunged in the kind of complex power-play that allows him to be as devious as he likes.  Roic’s viewpoint is most useful in feeling the impact that Miles can have on people who know him best, whereas Jin’s viewpoint is played for the emotional impact of characters who aren’t necessarily indestructible by virtue of being series protagonists.

Yet notions of invulnerability inevitably lead us to the abrupt epilogue of the book, in which an amiable but minor Vorkosigan adventure suddenly becomes something else.  It’s not an entirely unexpected development: Thematically, Cryoburn is about death… and Vorkosigan fans will be able to piece together the upcoming revelation solely on the basis of what a series protagonist of Miles’s age should experience.  But while the development is intriguing, it still makes Cryoburn feel unbalanced, far more so that previous adventures in the series.  This isn’t a major entry in the Vorkosigan series, but the ending suggests that the next novel will be.  Until the next Bujold novel shows up in bookstores, there’s no avoiding the wait and assorted speculations.

Fannish expectations will vary enormously: Those who care deeply about the Vorkosigan series may find that Cryoburn feels like light throat-clearing before another major entry.  People without that much attachment to Miles and company will find it to be an entertaining adventure with intriguing elements and an accomplished writer’s deft touch with plotting and characterization.  It may have been one of the SF’s most eagerly-awaited novels of 2010, but it’s not likely to remain one of the year’s major works (although, knowing Bujold fans, a few award nominations are definitely possible.)  One thing’s for sure: I can’t imagine any fan of the series not wanting to read the next novel as soon as they’re done with Cryoburn.

Black Swan (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) The difference between genre horror and “psychological drama” is often that in the latter case, much of the monsters can be explained away by the narrator being completely crazy.  That’s certainly one plausible interpretation for Black Swan: In this high-class horror film, a ballerina driven mad by the pressures of performing the lead role in Swan Lake gradually lets themes of repression, doppelgangers and mirror images get the better of her.  It doesn’t end well… or does it?  This murky conclusion is only one of the ways in which Black Swan acts as a companion to director Darren Aronofsky’s previous The Wrestler: Same grainy flat cinematography, same fascination for the psychological impact of intense passion, same look at a performance-driven sub-culture.  Visually, Black Swan looks ugly (with exceptions whenever the performers are on-stage), but it constantly reinforces the visual themes of opposite doubles: the grainy super-16mm cinematography has enough depth to sustain a film-school paper.  It also strips all glossy moviemaking glamour away from Nathalie Portman’s mesmerizing lead performance, instantly credible as a ballerina with enough issues to sustain a film’s worth of delusions.  Mila Kunis also acquits herself honourably in her third significant role of 2010, whereas Vincent Cassel is as deliciously slimy as ever.  But the star here remains Portman, and if Black Swan works, it’s largely because of her dedication to her craft.  As for the ending, well, it grows with time: If, initially, it seems as if the film stops about thirty seconds and a coroner’s report too soon, it also fully commits itself to its unreliable narrator, and eventually lends itself to about three interpretations spanning the entire length of the genre horror / psychological drama spectrum.  Aronofsky may never direct a comedy, but his dramas are growing ever-more finely tuned to their subject, and viewers may as well endure the ride.

Megamind (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) Comic-book culture is so pervasive by now that films such as Megamind can just file the numbers off the subgenre’s most familiar archetypes and run with the concept.  The derivative nature of such premises is obvious –but given that derivation is Dreamworks Animation’s specialty, it’s perhaps better to be happy at the end result than to expect fresh premises and concepts from them.  Surprisingly enough, Megamind actually has one or two things to say about super-villainy and its need for super-heroism: Our protagonist isn’t evil as much as he’s misunderstood and bored: by the time he’s had a few weeks to rule over Metro City, his lack of challenges is such that he sets out to reinvent a superhero… with hilarious results.  The action set-pieces have a welcome kinship with Monsters Versus Aliens; unfortunately, the angular character designs owe more to the Madagascar films in that they are distinctive but not particularly appealing.  Fortunately, most of the film feels bright, bold, clean and contemporary: The action sequences have a fondness for large-scale destruction, and the film moves at a pleasantly rapid pace.  There are a few twists and turns: nothing shocking, but a pleasant reconfiguration of dramatic situations every twenty minutes or so.  In doing so, Megamind manages to be the best think-piece about superheroes since The Incredibles and The Dark Knight, and it’s partly that vivaciousness of ideas that makes it so much fun to watch.  In this context, the derivative nature of its premise isn’t as much a problem as it is scene-setting for second-order questions… and that’s not bad, especially for a film supposedly aimed at kids.

Unit Omega, Jeff Rovin as Jim Grand

Berkley, 2003, 277 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-19321-7

As the year grinds down to a halt during the December holidays and as I reflect on the number of books I have read and reviewed this year, I find myself fascinated not by a big thick meaty masterpiece, but by a trifle of a thriller.  Part of the attraction is due to surprise: Packaged as wide-scale military fiction, Unit Omega turns out to be a small science-heavy adventure that almost works better when its two protagonists are just talking to each other.  It’s charming and refreshing, and it’s completely unlike what I was expecting when I purchased the book.

Unsurprisingly, I got it from a used book store: Long out of print and now unavailable except through specialized sellers, Unit Omega was apparently published in late 2003 and quickly sank without a trace shortly thereafter, leaving in its wake a scant six customer reviews on amazon.com.  None of them were particularly positive, much of the hostility having to do with a misleading cover promising military action from a United Nation unit specializing in “investigating unusual scientific phenomena”. (“The military is facing an enemy like none ever seen before.”)

The true nature of the novel, after a perfunctory mysterious prologue, quickly becomes something of a laugh.  Because the “unusual scientific phenomena” unit of the United Nation ends up being one lone young scientist holed up in the basement of the United Nations headquarters in New York, idly contemplating writing science-fiction novels on the job while his putative boss tries to get him a real budget.  Harold Collins is bright and enthusiastic about pushing back the frontiers of science, but he’s stuck in a miserable situation.  Opportunity strikes when a phone call is patched to his office: A once-respectable scientist has reason to believe that the Loch Ness legend has a grain of truth to it and wants a third-party to investigate what she has found.  Bored out of his mind, Collins spends his yearly travel budget on a trip to Scotland, and manages to convince a young and attractive magazine editor to come along.

Number of transatlantic flights spent stuck in coach: One.  Number of military helicopters in the novel: Zero.

Their investigation unfolds as a deliciously low-tech affair, with consumer-grade camera equipment and wet suits rented from the local dive shop.  The plot is just as threadbare: Collins does discover something, figures out what it is and comes back.  A comfy epilogue quickly follows, complete with the promise of another novel in the series.  If you were expecting explosions, fighter jets or even a military uniform, you may spare yourself some trouble and reset your expectations accordingly: Unit Omega is one of those rare techno-thrillers with no military involvement whatsoever.

It’s best to call it low-grade science-fiction: The “Loch Ness anomaly” is a natural scientific phenomenon, implausible but generally well-developed.  The protagonist seems to have absorbed the ideas and attitude of classic genre Science Fiction, and a shortened version of his simple adventure wouldn’t have felt out-of-place in as a novelette in Analog magazine.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s part of the appeal: Collins is a likable nerd, and his budding romance with his travel companion (obviously designed to reach fruition much later in the proposed series) is conventional but entertaining.

In fact, most of Unit Omega is just plain fun to read.  The undermining of the “elite United Nation unit” trope is fit for giggles and the novel plays up those subverted expectations throughout the rest of the narrative.  As a story, it has a substantially more likable personality than the usual generic military thrillers it’s meant to evoke, and it reminded me of the kind of boyish adventures that SF used to do so well.  It’s not, in other words, a particularly deep or meaningful novel… but it’s rewarding and memorable in its own fashion.

It’s worth noting that “Jim Grand” is really (as per the Copyright page) Jeff Rovin, a professional writer with one of the most diverse bibliographies you’re likely to see.  It’s a shame that he doesn’t seem to have a permanent web presence: I’d love to read him talk about his work, and how he manages to write a few books per year.  Unit Omega has exactly one follow-up to date, the similarly mis-marketed Operation Medusa published a month later.  I think I’ll start lurking in used book store to find a copy.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) I’ve had a particular lack of affection for the Narnia series so far, and while this third entry is a bit better than the first two, it’s not enough to make me think any more fondly about the trilogy: it’s still a colossal waste of resources in the service of fantasy adaptations that have been hammered in a generic Hollywood fantasy-film plot template.  This time, it’s less Lord of the Rings and more Pirates of the Caribbean as the adventure shifts locales to a boat going from island to island.  Taking the two most annoying Pensieve children and adding a quasi-insupportable twerp of a cousin to the mix, Dawn Treader, like its predecessors, patiently waits for Aslan to show up so that the series’ usual deus ex leo and religious allegory quota can be neatly fulfilled.  What saves the film from a complete lack of interest are the more diverse nature of the adventures at sea and on land, culminating in a familiar battle between heroes and sea monster.  Numerous nods to the two previous volumes help wrap up the Pensieve trilogy of the Narnia series, leading one to hope that this may act as a natural stopping point for any effort to adapt more of C.S. Lewis’ novels to the big screen.  Dawn Treader already creaks under a complete re-structuring of the novel’s plot in order to fit a standard Hollywood plot formula.  There’s no need for more.

Tron aka Tron: Legacy (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) Given the impact of the original Tron over the generation that went on to build the Internet, it’s a wonder that it took so long for a sequel to arrive.  It’s not much of a surprise, however, to find out that the follow-up is best appreciated as a visual-arts piece than a narrative film: special effects have advanced enormously since 1982’s original, and the impact of all-computerized imagery isn’t what it used to be.  On the other hand, Tron: Legacy puts most of its budget on-screen, and it’s the visuals of the action pieces that hold them together more than the narrative tension.  Never mind the tedious many-against-one videogame battles: just enjoy the swooping lines and cubic destruction.  The plot, merely serviceable, is just an excuse to keep together an exercise in nerd nostalgia.  While that occasionally works (there’s something retro-cyberpunkish in contemplating late-1980s technology creating fully-virtual worlds), it’s not quite enough to offset the tedium of the film’s neon-on-black visuals in which the character’s faces literally fade to dark.  Ironically, perhaps Tron: Legacy’s most achieved visual effects is the way Jeff Bridges manages to play two roles, including one with the face he had almost thirty years ago.  Also worth noticing: Daft Punk’s distinctive electro-synth soundtrack.  Otherwise, this sequel suffers from an overstuffed plot (only explained if you get the graphic novel and the video game), hazily-motivated character actions (let’s hope they understand why they’re doing things, because we don’t), dull dialogue and a merely-satisfactory effort in sketching out the virtual world and why we should care about its liberation.  Tron: Legacy certainly adds up to something interesting, but not in the conventional sense: it’s a film to be stared at rather than enjoyed, and while that’s good enough for a casual viewing, it may not be what’s required to ignite nerd audiences as much as the original did.

Old City Hall, Robert Rotenberg

Touchstone, 2009, 372 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4165-9285-3

Like many Canadians who don’t live in Toronto, my feelings about the city are a mixture of envy and distrust.  Toronto is, in some ways, Canada’s most important city –which is fine: after all, it’s tough to be anything else when about a sixth of the country’s population lives nearby.  (What’s less endearing is Toronto’s tendency to assume that anything not within commuting distance of the CN Tower might as well be on another primitive planet.  But I digress.)  Toronto is an order of magnitude bigger than my Ottawa hometown and I can never completely get used to its scale and density.  On the other hand, recent years have taught me that Toronto can be a lot of fun when approached the right way, and that while I could never live there, it’s an awesome place to visit a few times a year.

These considerations aren’t completely foreign to Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, a crime-fiction debut that lavishes attention on its characters –the most important of them being Toronto itself.  For everyone who wished the Torontonian equivalent to Robert B. Parker’s Boston or Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, don’t look any further than Old City Hall.

It begins with a celebrity radio host accused of murdering his wife.  The evidence against him is overwhelming, not the least being the seemingly-incriminating statement “I killed her”.  But don’t jump to early conclusions: Old City Hall soon reveals itself to be an old-fashioned mystery/procedural that describes almost everything about the subsequent trial.  Witnesses, policemen, lawyers, and journalists all become involved in trying to discover the truth behind the crime.

The best part of the novel for anyone reasonably familiar with Toronto is the care and detail through which Rotenberg describes his hometown.  From the Don Jail to the titular Old City Hall, though details about traffic to the city’s fascination for the hapless Maple Leafs, Toronto comes alive and those who have wandered around its downtown district will be able to picture the backdrop to many of the novel’s sequences.

But even for readers without much knowledge of Toronto, Old City Hall shines for its lavish attention to characterization.  Nearly every character of significance is sketched with skill and depth, providing full backgrounds to even the most inconsequential witnesses.  I was particularly struck by “Albert Fernandez”, a young Crown attorney who’s insanely ambitious, yet strangely likable and, ultimately, honourable in his own fashion.  It helps that Rotenberg writes clearly, with constant narrative momentum and mysteries.  Why isn’t the radio host talking?  What are the policemen missing?  Who’s lying?  Will the Leafs win the Stanley Cup?

Unfortunately, the last fifty pages of the book feel like a messy let-down once the various parts of the plot are resolved.  Rotenberg’s problem is in attempting to do too much at a time where readers could have been satisfied with far less.  Not content with revealing the crucial circumstances of the events, he piles up overly complicated family drama far past the point where readers will care.  From a careful and enjoyable procedural crime thriller, Old City Hall becomes a jack-in the-box of unneeded and useless revelations; the novel would have ended on a stronger note without most of them.

But that’s a late and minor sour note to a debut novel that promises much from Rotenberg’s next efforts.  The ensemble of characters introduced in Old City Hall seem rich enough to warrant a continuing series, and Toronto can always use one more high-profile crime series.  In the meantime, Old City Hall is a joy to read, and it’s a decent paean to Canada’s largest city.  Even for those of us who don’t live there, and never intend to.

Burlesque (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) Burlesque does quite a few things blandly or badly, but the real test of musical comedies is whether they deliver the expected music, laughs, dance choreographies and smiles whenever the final credits start to roll.  So it is that we can’t really fault the film for an intensely familiar structure, predictable plot developments, weaker tunes or a very PG interpretation of “burlesque”; not as long as it has enough song-and-dance.  There are plenty of good news: Christina Aguilera proves to be a credible actress, Cher looks amazingly good for her age (and you can see this as an invitation to cue all of the usual cosmetic surgery jokes), Stanley Tucci is as good as he usually is, the somewhat better-than-usual banter probably comes from Diablo Cody’s screenwriting and in terms of choreography, Burlesque has more or less what we can expect from a contemporary musical.  Unfortunately, there is little here to set the film apart from more notable musicals: The songs are instantly forgettable (the one exception, a maudlin solo number by Cher, stays in mind because it uses the flimsiest of pretexts to stop the entire film dead in its tracks), the plot offers few surprises, the choreography of each number blurs into an indistinct mush, and the choice to play much of the story earnestly rather than as ironic camp seems like a modestly wasted opportunity.  There’s no risk-taking here, and the film’s family-friendly take on neo-burlesque is a telling clue as to what kind of middle-American target the filmmakers were aiming for.  Fortunately, there are still enough fancy fishnet stockings on display to resort to sheer sex-appeal when the film’s other qualities prove defective.  No matter what, there is at least some redemption in the mud: Burlesque may be ordinary, but it’s not often boring.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) For years, I’ve been watching Harry Potter films and commenting that the films are essentially critic-proof.  Fans of J.,K. Rowling’s series will see the films no matter what the reviewers say, and the films have been produced with such a consistent level of quality that one review says everything about most of the series.  This, however, doesn’t turn out to be true in this self-indulgent first half of a seventh instalment.  It’s probably the worst Potter yet, in part because it has been split in half with a final instalment still eight months in the future.  The problem isn’t as much the cliff-hanger as the lackadaisical nature of the film’s middle third, while cries out for aggressive editing as the lead trio goes gallivanting across England in search of… something or another. (I didn’t care.)  There are, to be sure, a few things worth noticing about this seventh-and-a-half instalment: The tone is as dark and adult as the series can become, the action never makes it to Hogwart’s, the totality of the budding Voldemort regime is nightmarish and the film dares to present a brief stylish animated segment.  Alas, much of the film is spent waiting for the next thing to happen, with brief squabbles to break up interminable moments in the wilderness as the lead trio figures out the clues handed to them.  There is, as you would expect from the first half of a broken-up film, not much of a climax: most of the action has been deferred to the second film… which everyone will see anyway.  So, in a sense, the film is critic-proof: final judgement on Deathly Hallows Part 1 will have to wait until we see Part 2.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu

Pantheon, 2010, 239 pages, C$27.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-37920-7

It used to be that Science Fiction was something best enjoyed by a small self-selected bunch of geeks.  Nothing wrong with that; in fact, I’m often tempted to argue that SF in its purest essence is best when it’s meant to be literature for nerds who otherwise wouldn’t crack open any fiction.  Every genre serves a purpose, and SF’s reason for existing may have been to provide entertainment to the techno-scientific subculture.

That, however, stopped being true a long time ago.  As SF movies got more popular, as SF television series multiplied, as SF took over video games, Science Fiction has diffused itself into the world, earning some permanent space in the mind of every reasonably-socialized citizen of the western world.  SF won; hurrah!  Call it a snowball effect: as SF becomes more popular, it becomes more accessible to more people; as it becomes more accessible, it grows even more popular.

But there are consequences to such pervasiveness, and the biggest is that people will use Science Fiction for their own purposes.  While a common snotty stereotype among the SF fans is that popularity will invariably dumb-down the material, there is also a possibility that it will spur some truly oddball creation using SF tropes in ways that would never be imagined by old-school SF fans.

I know nothing about Charles Yu except that he’s under 35, and that’s enough to make a few safe predictions: He has lived in the American cultural matrix all of his life.  No surprise if his brand of literature is influenced by a boiling cauldron of SF-flavoured references.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is one of those increasingly common novels that use Science Fictional elements with a good understanding of how they work, but don’t quite fit the straightjacket description of genre SF.  Unlike previous generations of SF novels written by mainstream writers with a distant, incomplete or dismissive view of Science-Fiction, Yu’s cohort simply picks what they want to use from SF’s bag of tricks in the service of what they’re trying to do.  Yu’s first novel is playfully meta-fictional, intensely self-reflective (to the point of having a narrator sharing his name with the author), doesn’t attempt to deliver a fully-imagined reality and doesn’t really want to play by the stylistic or narrative guidelines of the genre.

It’s nominally about a time-travel machine repairman who gets in trouble when he kills a future version of himself, but that’s really just a narrative framework on which to hang reflections on personal destinies, a process of self-growth, funny snippets about the nature of science-fiction universes and an interesting look at a protagonist who knows that something very unpleasant is about to happen to him.  There are plenty of nods to classic SF writers in-between “Holy Heinlein” [P.160], a “Niven Ring” [P.162] and “Holy Mother of Ursula K. LeGuin” [P.213], plus some cleverness in skewering the narrative conventions of SF world-building with the titular passages.

The meta-fictional games (referring to the novel by its own page numbers, or as a book to be written by the narrator who’s aware that he’s writing one) are the extra proof that Yu’s novel is meant to be taken as literary diversion rather than hard-edged speculation.  As such, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe works more often than it should: If the novel feels shorter and les substantial than narrative-heavy classical-mode SF novels, that’s a prejudiced reading from a genre-SF perspective.  It may be more fulfilling to consider the book as a playful mainstream novel that fully engages with a science-fictional trope.  It’s certainly a joy to read –not for the story, but for the moments, digressions, references and new ways to look at familiar issues.  Despite the novel’s emo-mopey attitude, I smiled quite a bit more than I expected, and I’m going to carry the amusing bits longer than the maudlin ones.

For those taking a wider-spectrum view of the novel and what it means, I note that it fits well between Michael Ruben’s  The Sheriff of Yrnameer, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife and Larry Doyle’s Go Mutants! (not to mention Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) as hip quasi-mainstream novels that take a somewhat light-hearted approach to blending genre or genre-friendly elements into a literary framework.  The generation that grew up on VHS horror movies, Nintendo gaming, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Gulf War is finally finding its voice… and it has a vision of the present that’s influenced by Science Fiction.  Gernsback and Campbell wouldn’t necessarily approve of the result, but they’re not around to complain.