Monthly Archives: March 2011

Let me in (2010)

(On DVD, March 2011) Like most people who enjoyed the Swedish horror film Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In), I really wasn’t looking forward to its American remake: why trifle with such a recent and solid film?  But as (re)writer/director Matt Reeves shows, it’s possible for big-budget American films to understand what works in their source material and make sure that the same quality is preserved in the remake.  Purists will be happy to note that few of the essentials have been changed in Let Me In: The story beats are similar and the imagery is familiar.  The adaptation is more accessible to American audiences, but not necessarily blunter or more exploitative.  From time to time, the remake even improves on a few sequences: The remake’s highlight is a spectacular in-car shot leading to a crash, Reeves finds comfort in yellow sodium-vapour streetlamps and both young actors are very good in the lead roles.  In fact, the only thing I really miss from the original is the finale’s haunting underwater one-shot, here replaced by a far less effective series of more conventional cuts.  Taken on its own, Let Me In remains a good horror film, effective in part because it differs from genre conventions and doesn’t bow to expectations.  The relationship between hero and vampire is disturbing in its own right, while the coda suggests that the pair’s future reflects another pair earlier in the film.  While this remake was still largely unnecessary, it’s good to see Reeves succeed at another genre-horror outing after the spectacular Cloverfield: he did the best anyone could be expected to do with a difficult project.

One of our Thursdays is Missing, Jasper Fforde

Viking, 2011, 362 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-02252-6

Jasper Fforde is not what we’d call an ordinary writer, and his novels are not what we’d call ordinary fiction.  Euphemistically called a “writer of humorous fantasy”, Fforde is constantly willing to engage in a playful exploration of genre fiction.  His novels feature characters breaking out of their novels, communications by footnotes, time-travel from one volume to another, an exploration of genre fiction as a grand library, cheerfully absurd parallel universe and more meta-fictional jokes than can be listed on a single bibliography.

The fifth entry in the “Thursday Next” ended, as faithful readers may recall, with a heck of a send-off: the Bookworld threatened by a serial killer, a dirigible going down in flames and Thursday radioing back to headquarters that they may have a problem.

If you were expecting a sequel to that particular moment, however, expect to be mystified: As One of Our Thursdays is Missing begins, we’re dealing with an entirely different Thursday: The written one, portraying the “real” Thursday Next’s adventures within Bookworld.  Never mind continuity, especially when Bookworld itself is remade into a geographically-based metaphorical island.  (There’s a map.)  The new plot is that the real Thursday Next is missing, and the written one feels compelled to take a leave of absence to find her.  Among other perils, the written Thursday has to leave Bookworld to go investigate in the real world… becoming a human for the first time, and trying to figure out how the real Thursday lives from the clues left to her in the fictionalized novels in which she plays the real one.

Yes, the meta is quite heavy with this one.

Fortunately, it’s all handled with Fforde’s usual light-hearted flair.  The rules of the universe having changed (there are several hilarious excerpt to “Bradshaw’s BookWorld Companion” to help us along the way), and re-learning them alongside the similarly-befuddled Thursday isn’t too painless.  Fforde’s usual invention is on display as he features a robot companion, a dangerous mimefield, a battle in micro-gravity, peace talks between warring genres, a trip upriver in a rigidly-defined subgenre and more meta-fictional games than you can quite grasp at first.  (One word: Toast.)

The highlight of the book, however, has to be the sequence in which the written Thursday is thrown into the real world.  Suddenly, life becomes far more complicated for someone who has to get used to gravity, heartbeats and the rest of real life that never makes it into fiction.  It’s not a brilliant piece of invention, but it’s a neat and revealing take on the venerable “visiting alien asking what it means to be human” trope.

It’s all amusing and eminently readable, but in-between the inventions and wordplay there’s a real question as to whether Fforde has simply given up on the continuity of his series (if continuity was ever his intent) and where the series can go from here.  But that may not be much of a concern given the twists and turns that Fforde has provided in his series so far.  It does feel like a discontinuity, though, and it will be up to the next volume to patch things up: Fans can hope to get a satisfying closure to the fifth volume, but at this point the entire series is really in Fforde’s very unusual hands.

Paul (2011)

(In theatres, March 2011) The mainstreaming of geek culture over the past decade has meant as many mainstream products aimed at the geek demographics than geek attitudes adopted into the mainstream.  So that’s how we end up with Paul, a broadly-accessible comedy about two geeks encountering an alien while road-tripping through the US.  Working without director Edgar Wright, comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost pair up with Greg Mottola to deliver a comedy that’s surprisingly less geeky than either Shaun of the Dead or even Hot Fuzz.  Given the change in director, it’s no surprise if the cinematic grammar of the film is far more sedate, more conventional and not quite as bitingly funny: As one would expect, it’s closer to Mottola’s Adventureland than Wright’s Scott Pilgrim.  But this different kind of atmosphere reflects the different nature of the plot: Featuring a charming and foul-mouthed gray alien, Paul works as an amiable road trip film, featuring two spacey heroes and one down-to-Earth alien who may be more human than the humans.  Sometimes, though, the film missteps: some of the violence is surprising, the profanity and media references can be tiresome and the two lead actors are far too old to play such socially retarded characters: A comparison with the similarly-themed Fanboys shows that what’s charming at age 18 can feel just a bit sad at 40.  Yet it’s hard to remain disappointed for long at a film that generally works as it should: if it’s not quite as funny, insightful or surprising as it could be, it’s still a generally good time at the movies, and a welcome comedic counterpoint to the slew of other alien-invasion films we’re seeing at the moment.

Gideon’s Sword, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2011, 342 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-56432-8

We all know that book reviewers are useless: nobody pays attention to them, they’re wasting their time writing for little artistic or commercial reward and they wouldn’t exist at all if books went away.  Still, it doesn’t mean that they’re always wrong.

When reviewers started muttering that the Preston/Child thrillers featuring Aloysius Pendergast had grown stale and repetitive, they were probably echoing something that Preston/Child themselves knew.  Thriller readers thrive on a moderate amount of novelty, and after ten novels featuring the character (eight of them published yearly between 2002 and 2010), a creatively refreshing break seemed in order.  As it happens, Preston/Child aren’t giving up on Pendergast (an eleventh novel is slated for later in 2011), but they are broadening their horizons a bit, not only through their individual novels, but also through a new series featuring brand-new character Gideon Crew.

Crew exists in the same universe as Pendergast (they’re linked by eccentric billionaire Eli Glinn), but he’s a substantially different protagonist.  Whereas Pendergast is the archetypical wizard, Crew is a trickster: He manipulates people like others hack computers.  Whereas Pendergast will gain entry to a building by showing his FBI pass, deducing something amazing and blustering through, Crew will dress up, impersonate someone else and sneak past security undetected.  There’s probably an interesting crossover event in the future for both characters, but for now Gideon’s Sword is a chance for Preston/Child to focus on a new protagonist.

As with many origin stories, it takes a while for the throat-scratching to end.  A lengthy prologue sets up Crew as a genius with a burning desire to avenge his betrayed father.  Once the vengeance is complete, however, he gets both an offer and a sentence: Eli Glinn has noticed the subtlety of Crew’s vengeance, and wants to hire him as a freelance operator on complex cases.  At the same time, Crew is told that he’s got an incurable medical condition.  One that will likely kill him within a few months… a few years at most.

But there’s little time for Gideon to reflect on his death sentence.  Before long he’s involved in a breathless race around New York City to find out what he can about a mysterious Chinese scientist and the string of numbers he whispered after a car crash.  Taking full advantage of their NYC playground, Preston/Child end up taking a closer look at a lesser-known feature of the city; Hart Island, where unidentified bodies and body parts from all of New York City are buried.  (For some extra adventure, go to the authors’ web site for an unauthorized tour of the area.)

The result is a novel that feels lighter and faster-paced than the last few Preston/Child’s Pendergast novels.  Crew, being younger and unencumbered by Pendergast’s upper-class upbringing, is more impulsive and fallible.  His methods are different, and by renewing their cast of character, the authors also clean up the atmosphere of their book.

It’s not a complete success, though: Gideon’s Sword is designed to be less weighty than the Pendergast novels, and it does feel less substantial.  While the streamlined plot moves faster and prevents Preston/Child from overusing some familiar plotting devices, it also makes Gideon’s Sword feel a bit lightweight compared to their other novels.  Story-wise, there’s a bit of unpleasantness when Crew gets someone else killed by his actions –since the series is to continue (Gideon’s Corpse is scheduled for January 2012), one would expect a bit of remorse to surface.  But when it comes to future installments, one has to wonder about Gideon’s built-in expiration date.  Either he’s slated to die, bringing an unsatisfying end to the series, or Preston/Child will find a rabbit in their bag of tricks to save Gideon from his timely end.  Let’s wait and see which way it will go.

In the meantime, despite a few odd criticisms, Gideon’s Sword does feel like a welcome break from the Pendergast routine.  It’s not entirely a triumph, but it’s not a failure either, and it does provide the kind of entertainment that thriller readers are expecting.  But really; seeing the Preston/Child name on the cover, you don’t need the dubious advice of a book reviewer to tell you so.

Hard Landing, Lynne Heitman

Onyx, 2001, 424 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-40972-8

I have a strange sense of humour, so when I looked over my stack of things to read in order to stock up for an imminent series of plane flights, my eye naturally gravitated toward Lynne Heitman’s Hard Landing, a book whose covers promised plenty of airborne mayhem.  (“Fasten your seat belts.”)  Where better to appreciate the white-knuckle thrills of aviation gone wrong than from within a plane?  As you can guess, I’m not a nervous flyer…

But the first surprise of Hard Landing it how little of it takes place on planes.  Sure, there’s an airplane crash distantly mentioned in the prologue.  Otherwise, though, this is an aviation thriller with both feet planted on the ground: It begins as thirty-something narrator Alex Shanahan lands at Boston’s Logan airport.  She’s supposed to start as the manager of operations for Majestic Airlines the next day, but the local union has decided to show her a lesson, and before she can even take off her high heels, Alex abruptly has to manage a crisis manufactured by her own employees.

It doesn’t get any better as the crisis is resolved and Alex formally takes on the reins of her new job.  Not only is she taking over from a predecessor who committed suicide, there are plenty of reasons to believe that it wasn’t suicide.  The union seems controlled by professional slackers; higher management is less than helpful; there are probably traitors in her office; Majestic Airlines’ recent history is both complicated and troublesome; and her efforts to find the truth are putting her in danger.

In-between the rest, her efforts to settle, make friends and deal with a failed romance also take up their share of time.  Alex’s first-person narration goes from one crisis to the next, credibly portraying a good woman thrown-in well over her head.  By the time she’s plotting with some disgruntled workers to expose a conspiracy with far-reaching impact within her own company, Hard Landing has managed to become a gripping tale without many of the usual plot drivers of airline thrillers.  Even by limiting her plotting to the ground, Heitman manages to wring a considerable amount of narrative energy from a sympathetic narrator, major problems and an unusual look at an aspect of commercial flying that most of us forget about.

Because, let’s face it: few travelers actually think about the complex logistics of airlines operations until they go wrong.  But Heitman (herself a writer with considerable experience in the airline business) is able to quickly sketch the enormous amount of stress in coordinating the activity behind the counter and under the planes.  Hard Landing should appeal to fans of procedural thrillers and docu-fictive novels such as Airport: It’s a painless and fascinating look at an entirely new world, and it’s almost instantly credible.

It’s also effective at setting an actual story within that world.  Hard Landing may not be quite the hard-edged thriller promised by its cover:  It does blend in quite a bit of romance, manages its private investigation in a distinctly feminine fashion (a chunk of the mystery hinges on discovering that Alex’s predecessor dealt with a lonely-hearts operation) and, as previously mentioned, spends very little time in the air.  But the result is a pleasant surprise rather than a disappointment: It’s an unusual, pleasant low-key thriller, and it more than held up my attention on four successive commercial flights.  I may even have smiled a little bit more than usual at the folks behind the counter.

Cowboy Angels, Paul McAuley

Pyr, 2011 reprint of 2007 original, 363 pages, C$20.00 pb, ISBN 978-1-61614-251-3

Like most enthusiastic readers, my overall tastes may not change much, but there are definite ebbs and flows at the edges.  Freakishly attentive readers of these online reviews have probably noticed how much non-fiction I’ve been reviewing over the past two years, and that does reflect a broad tendency in my reading habits. As I may have explained elsewhere, SF is a bipolar genre currently undergoing a depressive phase, filled with cookie-cutter copies of the same impending apocalypse, or the same retro-idealized alternate realities.  Unsurprisingly, I’m having a harder time even identifying five good SF novels per year.

Still, I’m always willing to acknowledge that I haven’t read everything, and here Pyr runs to the rescue by reprinting Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels, four years after its original British release.  Since I hadn’t been able to secure a final copy of the novel in the years since its publication (A trip to the UK netted me an autographed edition I latter discovered to be an Advance Reader’s Copy, and I tend to avoid reading those as a matter of principle), I was really looking forward to this one.  McAuley may be an uneven writer, but when he’s good he’s really good.  Fortunately, this is one of his good books.  From the very first few pages, I was hooked: Writing in a style best described as a muscular revival of cold-war espionage thrillers, McAuley grabs on to a good idea and uses it to explore a fascinating theme.

In the world of Cowboy Angels, a sliver of the multiverse in which Alan Turing moved to the USA has managed to discover the secret of travel between parallel dimensions.  Letting no good imperialistic opportunity go to waste, this has led to an aggressive program of American power projection.  Bringing democracy, technology and favourable trade deals to other version of itself, the “Real” United States has spent most of its time between 1963 and 1980 using a mixture of special personnel and military forces to impose its idea of freedom over other worlds.  As the novel begins, however, the appetite for such adventures has run out: Jimmy Carter has been elected on a platform of gradual retreat, and the veterans of The Company are looking at semi-voluntary retirement.

But not all Company personnel are willing to go gently into the night, and when protagonist Stone is asked to come out of peaceful retirement to apprehend an ex-colleague gone rogue, he eventually learns of an ambitious plot to move the “Real” United States back to empire-building.  It gets quite a bit wilder after that, with big ideas thrown around in-between obvious parallels between the Real and the faltering imperial ambitions of modern-day America.  No wonder the novel took a while before being published in the US…

If nothing else, Cowboy Angels reached me at the exact right time, as I was thirsting for a novel of that calibre.  It’s a well-handled SF thriller, with big ideas, plenty of real-world thematic resonance, tough-guy characters and a few vertiginous twists that put the sense of wonder back in science-fiction.  For all of its world-weary tough-guy cynicism adapted from Cold War thrillers, Cowboy Angels is also packed with intriguing riffs on SF concepts, blending them into a series of revelations and ironies fit to activate the cognitive rush characteristic of the best Science Fiction.  The ending is a bit too abrupt to deliver full satisfaction to the bruised characters, yet perfectly-timed from a thematic point of view.

The rapid pacing, tough characters and high stakes won’t fail to please readers looking for old-fashioned Science-Fiction adventures.  McAuley, whose fiction is usually dour, has a bit of fun in this novel (the version of reality closest to ours is called the “Nixon Sheaf” and it doesn’t look quite as bad as some of the alternatives) and the result is refreshing.  While I don’t expect most readers to be as receptive to this novel as I was while reading it, Cowboy Angels now easily finds a place on my list of the top-five SF novels of 2008.

[Coda: I seldom blend creative discussions with my reviews, because my own novels are both unpublished and unpublishable, but I happened, in 2008, to write a novel that tackled many of the issues raised by Cowboy Angels using more or less the same starting premise.  As a result, I thought about that parallel universe/imperialism combo a great deal more than the average audience for this novel.  Reading Cowboy Angels, I was amused to see that we’d used some of the same devices and rationalizations to limit the scope of our multiverse.  I was even more pleased to note that we both went in different directions from the same premise, and that as a result I didn’t spend most of my time thinking “Aaargh, he’s doing it better than I did.”  It made the latter-book twists even more fun given that they sprang from more or less the same place.  Trust me; there’s no higher praise that praise coming from someone who worked on something similar.]

Battle Los Angeles (2011)

(In theatres, March 2011) Some movies are difficult to appreciate on their own rather than as references to something else, and since Battle Los Angeles is so derivative, it feels natural to keep rubbing it against other movies to see how it compares.  There’s such a glut of alien-invasion films at the moment that seeing marines fighting alien invaders in Los Angeles feels more redundant than interesting: Even in trying to blend the attitude of Independence Day with the aesthetics of Black Hawk Down, Battle Los Angeles basically becomes a hackneyed collection of war movie clichés with alien taking over the role of the unrepentant enemy.  It certainly doesn’t qualify as serious Science Fiction: The film buries itself in nonsense every time it tries explaining what’s going on, from alien coming to Earth for its water to them having military tactics so naïve that they would get them kicked out of West Point freshman year.  From a thematic point of view, it’s tempting to put Battle Los Angeles in a cultural zeitgeist in which Americans are realizing the limits of their imperial reach and transposing this fearful guilt against an enemy as powerful to them as they are to countries that they have invaded, but that subtext is lost in the film’s gung-ho hoo-rah attitude.  The emphasis here is on the combat scenes, the shakycam feeling of being in a firefight and the nobility of its warrior-characters.  Threadbare narrative arcs, largely indistinguishable characters, functional writing and incoherent editing don’t do much to make this film likable.  Other than the end battle and an interesting freeway sequence, most of the action scenes are too grimy and disconnected to sustain interest: Like many contemporary action directors, Jonathan Liebesman needs to know when to calm down and provide sustained long shots.  Meanwhile, Aaron Eckhart is solid as the square-jawed hero, while Michelle Rodriguez does what Rodriguez does best –and there’s nothing wrong with that, even though it reinforces the feeling that we’ve seen all of this before.  On the other hand, especially measured against recent downbeat alien-invasion films such as Monsters and quasi-brethren Skyline, Battle Los Angeles has the considerable merit of ending on a triumphant note, and delivering much of the good old-fashioned heroics that we’d expect from this kind of film.  It doesn’t make the film any good, but it makes it satisfying once the end credits start rolling.

Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball (2010)

(On DVD, March 2011) Direct-to-video sequels aren’t usually good news, especially when their connection to the original film isn’t much more than a few minor characters and a rehash of the premise.  The original becomes the sequel’s worst enemy in becoming the standard against which the latter effort is evaluated.  So it is that Joe Carnahan’s original Smokin’ Aces may not have been much more than a cheap and slightly insane action thriller.  P.J. Pesce’s sequel doesn’t fly any higher, although it’s a bit better than many other DTV features.  It’s easy to see the limits of the film’s budget: the CGI explosions whose destruction isn’t seen in latter scenes, the limited number of locations, the unfamiliar actors, etc.  The script is similarly poorer, going straight from explaining the premise to blowing up the sets without much in terms of writing refinements.  Plot-wise, nearly every scene feels like a contractual obligation, and few of the characters earn our sympathy along the way.  Worse: the excessively gory mean-spirited nature of the film (why simply kill someone when you can send chunks of flesh fly?) makes it feel even cheaper and less enjoyable than the original: there’s an ick-factor to the R-rated gore that doesn’t mesh well with the amiable way such action films best present themselves.  Even the various assassins feel more annoying than anything else –especially compared to the original.  On technical grounds, the film is sometimes on thin ice with its occasionally-incomprehensible dialogue mixing and an overly stylized visual design that feels incoherent.  Still, there’s a lot worse in DTV land, and Smokin’ Aces 2 has a few positives going for it.  It’s not very long; it’s got an ambitious visual style that clearly aspire to match Carnahan’s work on the original, and some of the forward rhythm can be interesting.  But even singling out a number of interesting elements -the film’s attempt to claim some political relevance, Martha Higareda, the surprising final shot- is really a cue to complain that they weren’t executed as well as they could: The political relevance feels late and pretentious compared to the rest of the film; Higareda’ character is unceremoniously taken out of the film, and the last shot is best appreciated as a nod to other, better movies.  But even with occasional moments of energy, this is still a better-than-average direct-to-video sequel.  Call it a middle-grade exploitation film: It won’t appeal to many more people than the fans of the original.

It’s the Crude, Dude, Linda McQuaig

Doubleday Canada, 2004, 346 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-66010-3

As the Bush years recede in the back-mirror like a feverish nightmare, much of the activist non-fiction of the time is starting to date.  Or is it?  Because the factors that allowed the Bush administration to overreach still exist.  Society hasn’t changed all that much; the same people are still active in other roles; and it’s not as if the new US administration has made spectacular changes to correct many systemic excesses.  The United States is still an imperial economic power (a soft one, but still…) no matter the party in the White House.

So when Linda McQuaig, from the vantage point of 2004, asks whether oil was the reason the United States invaded Iraq, it’s not a provocative question that somehow stopped being relevant the moment Obama took office; it’s a prism through which we can look at the global oil industry, how it reached its position of political prominence and whether there’s anything to be done before the oil runs out.

(The answer to the original question, to just about any non-Republican, is: Of course it was about the oil.  Just as the invasion was about power projection, about shock capitalism, about ideological proof-of-concept, about showing off military capabilities, about daddy issues, about pure domination after the humiliation of 9/11: All of those reasons are true (including “bringing democracy to the Middle-East”)… and there’s no reason that only one of them would be valid.)

The title of the book gives away McQuaig’s answer, and her demonstration runs through the book along three lines of argument.  The first and strongest thread details public evidence that oil was very much on the White House’s mind when it planned the invasion of Iraq.  A map, showing Iraq’s oil fields in great detail, in unearthed from the documents prepared by the task force on energy formed during the summer of 2001 –a task force headed by none other than Dick Cheney, perhaps pointing the way to a quick and easy way for the US to assert direct control over vast reserves of oil.  Few non-Americans ever really believed the official reasons for going to war; McQuaig’s book (published in the US two years after first appearing in Canada) may be preaching to the converted, but it does so with evidence.

The second line of argument demonstrates the western world’s complete reliance on oil.  A chapter dedicated to the SUV may seem like an odd digression, but it, too, is a way to study the way North-American political interests have been subservient to the oil lobby.  The SUV, born out of a regulatory loophole allowing those vehicles to avoid the energy-efficiency standards set for cars, is a symbol not only of the excesses of its host society, but also the way the oil industry usually gets what it wants in preserving its sources of profit.  Nothing new here for those who have paid attention (McQuaig’s mention of Canada having passed the Kyoto accord echoes sourly considering what happened since 2004), but still well-argued.

Finally, the third strand of the book is a historical overview of how oil has been used politically since its rise as an energy source.  From the takeover of Middle-Eastern energy reserves by parochial western interests to the rise of OPEC, McQuaig describes in detail the kind of nasty realpolitik that happens once you strip away all pretence at kindness from diplomacy: When oil becomes essential to the survival of a nation, it will do whatever it takes to control it.  In this light, the invasion of a country for its oil reserves seems like a continuation of foreign energy policy by other means.

From the viewpoint of 2011, not much has invalidated McQuaig’s conclusions.  Numerous oil shocks and a steady rise in the price of gas have shown the western world’s overreliance on the stuff.  At long last, however, we’re finally seeing the first glimmers of hope.  Kyoto may be dead, but the electric-powered Chevrolet Volt won “Car of the Year” awards.  The results of America’s adventure in Iraq may not have been a success for US oil interest after other countries snapped up Iraqi oil contracts in 2009… but this would be the first time US efforts in Iraq didn’t quite turn out like first intended.

If this sounds preachy, well, it is.  But you can guess from the irreverent title that It’s the Crude, Dude is not dry nor too pretentious for a book of its kind.  Both the first and the last page of the book contain well-chosen profanity, and McQuaig, a journalist/columnist with six previous books to her credit, knows how to write entertainingly.  Sure, it’s a book for left-leaning readers… but as such, it does its job.

Inside Job (2010)

(On DVD, March 2011) Don’t go near this film unless you’re ready for a concentrated dose of seething rage.  A thorough and intelligent exploration of the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job steers clear of MichaelMoorish grandstanding and keeps an even tone throughout, but it’s this reasonable delivery that allows viewers to be outraged on their own cognition.  Directed with surprisingly high visual ambitions for a talking-head documentary (the opening credits alone, featuring aerial photography of New York, are very impressive), Inside Job works hard at making a complex subject accessible, and succeeds through the usual mixture of info-graphics, interviews, voice-over narration (from Matt Damon) and a tightly-constructed script.  Following No End in Sight, Ferguson confirms how adept he is at presenting public-policy issues in an accessible format.  Keep up with the dense accumulation of facts, and you will learn something about the way the financial industry has managed to escape regulation and avoid any effective policing of its actions… with consequences for the rest of us.  Spanning the globe, Inside Job draws clear connections between the obnoxious cowboy mentality of the financial class and the repeated crises that they engineer through shared greed.  It’s also clear that the US political system has been systematically corrupted by its influence –especially when other government prove more adept at responding to the situation.  Unfortunately, Ferguson isn’t able to offer much in terms of comfort: the picture comes closest to accountability when, challenged by a defensive Glenn Hubbard to “Give it your best shot”, it brings down a damning accumulation of conflict-of-interest charges against an academic seduced by money and political power.  It’s only a small illustration of the collusion between finance, government and academia (Even disgraced ex-prosecutor Elliot Spitzer has a poignantly ironic moment in reflecting on how the personal flaws of finance workers haven’t been used to get them to turn state’s evidence), and viewers shouldn’t feel surprised if they feel as if something has to be done in order to avoid another crisis.  The DVD contains engaging supplemental material, describing how to make an ambitious global documentary on a small budget, and what goes into tightening hours and hours of footage in a finished product.  This is one documentary DVD that has the intellectual heft of a good book: don’t miss it.

Rango (2011)

(In theaters, March 2011) From a distance, Rango feels like a family western: a stranger comes to town, fights evil and drives the bad guys away.  Plot-wise, no need to look for a complex structure or a complicated sequence of twists and turns.  But everything’s in the details and it’s in its execution that Rango becomes interesting to older viewers.  Director Gore Verbinksi has an unusual track record for off-kilter projects, and this one is no exception: Filled with references to other films, torn between comedy and action, often breaking the fourth wall and leaving full place to Johnny Depp’s equally-offbeat personae in a scrawny animated chameleon body, Rango surprises as much as it delights in surrealistic interludes, caricatures (most will recognize Clint Eastwood; nearly as many will catch the quick reference to Depp as Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), throwaway gags and quirky character portraits.  ILM’s first fully-animated film features top-notch animation; it’s a shame, however, that the cinematography and character design are often a bit too busy (and brownish) to be instantly enjoyable.  Still, it’s the film’s constant oddness that makes it a small delight to watch, keeping us alert rather than carried along comfortably by a well-worn plot.  It’s the first film of 2011 that’s not only worth watching, but re-watching a few months later.

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes

Angry Robot, 2011 reprint of 2010 original, 413 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-85766-055-8

Given the tottering stacks of stuff to read that I’ve got looming over me like so many unfulfilled obligations, it’s not as if I’m actively looking for reading recommendations.  I’ve got enough reading fuel in the basement to last me for years; why should I pick up something new?

Because new is cool, that’s why.  When the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke shortlist was announced, the only book on the list that intrigued me was Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, and the drumbeat of a few fervent fans within the SF blogosphere was enough to convince me that I should check it out.

The number one reason given by its fans was that the book was different, and they’re not exaggerating.  Set in an alternate world’s Johannesburg, Zoo City is a fresh take on urban fantasy: In a world where serious criminals are made conspicuous thanks to the visible presence of an animal familiar that grants them special powers, our narrator investigates the disappearance of an up-and-coming pop-star.  Narrator Zinzi December is neither wealthy nor virtuous: not only is she confined to the titular ghettos where despised “zoos” end up, one of her many sidelines involves writing 419 scams for credulous first-worlders in order to pay her drug dealer.

As far as contemporary fantasy takes on noir plots go, Zoo City is a bit of a gem.  Beukes being South African herself, the setting of the novel is vividly rendered, and quickly comes to become one of the novel’s most appealing aspects.  Her journalistic training also serves her well in depicting the various overlapping classes that make up Johannesburg, and how they interact.  Our heroine Zinzi may not be wholly original in the urban fantasy subgenre, but she comes close: poor black South African women with attitude aren’t exactly familiar protagonists, and her inner monologue is refreshingly different from anything else published lately.  Even considered purely on its non-fantastic aspects, Zoo City does very well as a thriller set in an unfamiliar environment.

But the point of the novel is that it’s fantasy, and it’s Beukes’ treatment of her premise that makes Zoo City equally satisfying as a genre novel.  Not much of the premise is over-explained, but thanks to hints left in the narration and pieces of world-building scattered in the interstitial pieces between chapters (including one of the most creative use of a fake IMDB listing I’ve seen so far), we gather that something strange happened during the nineties, and that semi-sentient animal companions suddenly started appearing next to criminals.  The specifics of the change remain poorly understood (something that may annoy readers unwilling to completely let go of their disbelief), but two things are clear: familiars give their owners special powers, and if the familiar dies… the owner dies as well in a spectacular fashion.  For SF&F readers who enjoy playing with an idea in their head, there’s plenty of interesting material here to think about.  (Worry not; genre precedents such as Pullman are explicitly name-checked in acknowledgement.)

Fortunately, Zoo City doesn’t make the mistake of letting the concept being the novel’s sole reason for existing.  This isn’t one of those pocket-universe SF novels where the plot ends up tied to the fantastic premise and where mysteries about the world are solved at the same time as the protagonist finds the solution to a smaller scale enigma: Zinzi just deals with the world as it affects her, even as her investigation lands her in dangerous situations.  She’s got plenty of complicated relationships, and those play out convincingly even in a world where animal familiars are commonplace.

Still, there’s little else to say here but: Good story, well told.  Plenty of imaginative elements, slick writing, interesting plotting and a satisfying combination of unusual setting, clean prose and matter-of-fact social relevance.  It’s both new (in atmosphere and ideas) and comfortingly familiar (in plotting mechanism and writing style): I had a really good time with this novel (despite a far more conventional ending than I expected) and gladly join the small army of Beukes fans.  I’m thinking that Zoo City deserves a few nominations, that Beukes is fast coming up as a writer to watch, and that I ought to read her first novel Moxyland in a hurry.  And that, fellow readers, is why we shouldn’t let our stack of things to read dictate what we actually end up reading.  There’s a lot of new stuff out there, just waiting to be discovered as soon as we step off the beaten path.

Monsters (2010)

(On DVD, March 2011) Some movies are best admired than enjoyed, and someone simply watching Monsters won’t get as much out of it than after finding out how cheaply the film was made.  Reportedly shot for under half a million dollars with mostly-improvised dialogue in existing settings supplemented by computer imagery put together by the director, Monsters is more impressive for what it achieves under the circumstances of its production than what it actually delivers to a demanding audience.  It’s also more interesting as another of the no-budget SF thrillers made possible by cheap digital cameras and cost-effective CGI: Following Paranormal Activity and Skyline, we’re seeing a reinvigorated line of B-movies that allow individual creators far more creative freedom in presenting their concept on the big-screen with decent production values and fantastical thrills.  What’s more unfortunate is that their scripts are often even less polished than their blockbuster brethren: While improvised dialogue allows directors to shoot fast, cheap and “fix it in post”, the trade-off is a thin plot that meanders along a generic story with little depth and none of the intricate payoffs that strong scripts can deliver.  Writer/director/effects-supervisor Gareth Edwards’s Monsters features some breathtaking cinematography, an intriguing look at the normalized aftermath of an alien invasion and some arresting visual effects… but it also feels repetitive, inconclusive and even meaningless.  (The film takes its alien-invasion cues from pandemics and environmental degradation rather than failed imperialism, making “victory” an illusion from the first few moments.  Even survival is a dicey proposition.)  Those who realize that the first scene is the climax of the film won’t necessarily feel better than those who see the film as open-ended.  The protagonist couple may be married in real-life, but little of this chemistry carries through to their performances: even by the end of the film, they still feel like two strangers thrown together by circumstances, and this standoffishness doesn’t help make the film better.  It all amounts to an interesting, but not really enjoyable film.  Science Fiction fans interested in the increased democratization of SF movies will certainly want to take a look at the film and then lose themselves in special features of the two-disc DVD set.  Anyone else may want to ask themselves if they really want to spend 90 minutes watching a meandering and pessimistic look at an alien invasion that nothing is ever going to stop.  On the other hand, keep an eye on Gareth Edwards’s next effort, whatever that might be.

The Eyes of the Dragon, Stephen King

Signet, 1995 reprint of 1987 original, 380 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-16658-2

When it was first published in 1987, Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon seemed like a significant departure for the author.  Occasional exceptions aside (such as the first novel in the Dark Tower cycle, or The Talisman), audiences had been conditioned, through the first fifteen years of King’s career, to expect adult horror fiction, not a fantasy fairy tale seemingly aimed at younger readers.  Now, of course, King’s brand is associated with a variety of dark fantasy subgenres; The Dark Tower did much to expand his perceived repertoire, and it’s no accident if that series is closely related to The Eyes of the Dragon, all the way to a common antagonist.

And yet, nearly 25 years after its first publication, the distinctiveness of The Eyes of the Dragon remains, and so does its interest.  From the first sentence (“Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons”…), we understand that this is going to be a different kind of reading experience: The story is told as a fairy tale, by a narrator whose presence couldn’t be more obviously felt.  Taking place a long time ago in a country far away, this is a story of a weak king, an evil magician, and two princes.  Tired of waiting for his chance at power, the mage eventually frames the good prince for his father’s death, sets up the weaker prince on the throne and set about to take from the kingdom of everything of value.  Fortunately, a cunning plan is in the works…

But plotting isn’t the main feature of this novel, which is best appreciated as a storytelling exercise.  Reportedly adapted from stories King told his children, The Eyes of the Dragon sometimes feels like a self-imposed dare: different subject matter, different tone, and different rhythm.  The narration becomes its own reason to read the book, as King spends the first half of the book providing us with the backstory, the characters and the motivations.  The narrator is omniscient, but only to a point: He frequently addresses the readers to tell them that he has described everything as it happened, but the audience should make its mind as to what it means.  Meanwhile, the story is told with its own special charm, and the novel quickly gains the trust of its readers from the start.  It is, in other words, a lot of fun to read.

It’s also misleading to keep referring to this as “a fairy-tale for kids”: While the setting, vocabulary and sentence structure may seem destined to a younger audience, King doesn’t limit himself to simple sentiments or emotions in the telling of the story.  The words are simple but the thoughts aren’t, and The Eyes of the Dragon may work better as a fable for grown-ups, creating a sentiment of nostalgia for bedside storytelling while managing to address adult concerns.  There’s more depth to the book than expected, and a lot of sympathy for the fully-sketched characters.

Where The Eyes of the Dragon doesn’t work so well is in its pacing: Ironically, the novel gets a great deal less absorbing once the plot moves forward.  Rather than focus on the protagonists and the palace intrigue, it dissipates by changing focus and following minor characters.  Those characters aren’t so minor in that they are reportedly meant to portray King’s children in the story, but they do send the novel in another, less interesting direction just as it should move toward its conclusion.

Still, the overall impact of the book is strong, and it cements the notion that Stephen King is not just a gifted writer, but one who has continued to try new things along the way.  King scholars will better understand the relationship between The Eyes of the Dragon and the rest of the King universe (most particularly his fantasy work) but you don’t need to be a King aficionado to appreciate this book and what it attempts to do.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

(In theaters, March 2010) At first, this umpteenth adaption of Philip K. Dick’s work seems to be following the usual template: Grab an idea from the Dick short story cupboard and expand it in a middle-of-the-road science-fiction film.  The premise seems shaky at first, with too many unanswered questions and plot holes to be wholly convincing: There’s a stretch between the way the film convincingly presents modern politics and the hazy nature of its deviation from reality.  Matt Damon is fine, but the film itself seems wobbly.  Things then get quite a bit better during the second half, as the film’s overall fable-like atmosphere becomes more comfortable, as some of the haziness disappears, and as the film starts playing off the elements of its setup.  Damon makes for a sympathetic hero and the film keeps its wilder reality-bending sequences for a third-act climactic chase sequence all around New York landmarks.  At the same time, the temporal jumps in the plotting allow for some heavier meditations on the nature of fate, choices, happenstance and predestination.  While the result still isn’t as seamless as one could wish for, The Adjustment Bureau ends up being a reasonably effective Science Fiction film, one that surprisingly cares more about romance and drama than death and violence (in terms of violence, the film only features two car accidents, none of them fatal and the second of them handled with a great deal of compassion for the wounded victim).  Writer/director George Nolfi manages to bring a lot to Dick’s sketchy short story, and while the result doesn’t achieve its full potential, it’s good enough not to embarrass anyone, especially not its audience.  It’s not a disservice to anyone to lump it with the slew of other good low-key science-fiction films (also; Never Let Me Go) that recently appeared on-screen.