Monthly Archives: April 2011

Fast Five aka The Fast and the Furious 5: Rio Heist (2011)

(In theaters, April 2011) My unexplainable love for The Fast and the Furious series suddenly gets a lot more explainable with this surprising fifth segment: Reaching well beyond the street-racing antics of the previous volumes and deeper into the criminal action/thriller mode, Fast Five manages to satisfyingly weave together plot threads and a dozen characters from the four previous films, while delivering inventive action sequences.  The prologue effectively sets the tone and the film’s lack of regard for physics: thus reassured, we can enjoy the rest of the film, the over-the-top action sequences, the reunion of the series regulars and the colourful Rio de Janeiro locale.  This has to be one of the best pure-action movies of the past few years: It’s snappy, it’s competent, it doesn’t take itself seriously and when it clicks, it really works.  Vin Diesel growls as well as he can, and he’s joined by Dwayne Johnson for a head-on collision between two of the most credible action heroes of the moment.  While the script isn’t perfect (a few lulls; a few nonsensical plot development; little refinement by way of dialogue), it’s pretty good at giving a few moments to everyone in the cast, at setting up the interesting action sequences, and even at winking at the audience: There are a number of inside jokes for series fans here, perhaps the biggest being a cut that skips over the film’s usual street-racing sequence.  The cars may not be as nice at the previous films, but the action sequences are quite a bit more striking.  I wish, however, that director Justin Lin would open up his action sequences a bit more, lay off the crazy editing and let the long-shots speak for themselves.  (Fortunately, he’s already much better now than in the previous two films.)  Don’t leave during the credits: there’s a short scene that will please series fans while setting up a promising sixth instalment.

Legends of Flight [IMAX 3D] (2010)

(In IMAX theaters, April 2011) I don’t see enough IMAX-3D films on the really-really big screen to be jaded, but not even the glorious 3D picture could manage to overwhelm my growing reservations about the Legends of Flight.  A thinly disguised promotional piece for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner as seen from the designer’s point of view, this documentary suffers from a number of annoyances that distract from its better moments.  On the plus side, there’s footage of the 787 in flight and a Harrier take-off; technical details about the evolution of aviation; and some stunning shots of a Boeing plant.  Alas, the rest of the film features photo-realistic CGI planes superposed over real-life landscapes, painfully cartoonish birds and bees, as well as some dizzying cinematography made worse by the 3D (Legends of Flight has a number of computer-generated transitions moments where the eye tries to focus on objects not meant to be focused on, and the effect can be a bit painful.)  Anyone hoping for a journalistic look at the 787’s conception will be disappointed, as everything is filtered through the Boeing marketing department: the Airbus 380 is dismissed, the 787’s problems are minimized and the entire thing is pompously titled Legends of Flight.  I still had a good time (that’s what not being jaded to IMAX-3D gets ya), but I’ve seen far, far better, starting with director Stephen Low’s own Fighter Pilot – Operation Red Flag.

Sensation, Nick Mamatas

PM Press, 2011, 198 pages, $14.95 tp, ISBN 978-1-60486-354-3

One of the things I most enjoy about Nick Mamatas’s writing (fiction and non-fiction alike, including his blog) is a sense of being challenged.  He sees outside mainstream conventions, whether you’re discussing genre fiction protocols, market expectations, political beliefs or social niceties.  To faithful Mamatas readers, Sensation reads exactly like the kind of novel that only he could write, which is to say something different from anything else he’s done so far.

A plot summary does no service to the book: If you need plot, Sensation is loosely about an age-old war between spiders and wasps in which humans are dupes, and a woman leaving her lover to become the vanguard of a radical yet indefinable political movement.

But frankly, Sensation is about other things than plot.  It’s about political revolutions and internet memes.  It’s about relationships and the way people hurt each other.  It’s about first-person narration from the viewpoint of a vastly-distributed hive intelligence.  More than anything else, it’s about prose and how it doesn’t necessarily have to be a support for plot in order to be interesting.

As an old-school genre reader, I’m not typically a good public for that kind of experiment.  But Sensation somehow works, in part because it’s a rollercoaster of good bits and in other parts because it goes fishing so widely for its references.  Like one of the good-old spoof comedies in which the plot served as a clothesline for the choice gags, Sensation goes from one striking piece of writing to the other, using just enough plot to make sure it still hangs together.

But even as an old-school genre reader, I also found plenty to like in Mamatas’s display of ideas, set-pieces, form-shifting and other kind of narrative experimentation.  Sensation’s straight-ahead base narrative occasionally breaks into text messaging, interview transcripts, news articles, screenshots, typographic play and other unconventional ways to tell a story.  Mamatas is able to write fluently about matters technical, political and emotional: detailing the breakup of a relationship in one passage, explaining how to marginalize dissent in another, or describing how the World Wide Web is taken down in a third.  Deeply steeped into the pop culture references of the net-savvy, Sensation does feel like a novel that couldn’t have been written ten years ago or ten years from now.

Not being a regular reader of even mildly experimental fiction, I suspect that Sensation isn’t all that daring: It’s still understandable, for one thing, it’s remarkably funny at times, and thanks to its core premise there’s no denying that it’s a Science Fiction novel.  Not that I’m complaining –in fact, I think that by setting Sensation in a middle ground between genre and experimental fiction, he’ll be able to grab readers from both spheres without scaring them with too much weirdness.  (I suspect that the hard sell won’t be the SF to the experimental readers, but the experimentation to the SF readers.)

But as funny, insightful or clever as Sensation can be, it’s not exactly a comfort read, or something to mindlessly whittle away the minutes spent on the morning commute.  I found myself reflecting on my own assumptions and biases along the way, recognizing myself in the duped masses that Mamatas describes in Sensation’s margins.  It’s engaging, smarter than its average reader and immensely self-confident in its willingness to dare audiences to keep up.  (Kind of like Mamatas himself, actually.)  Could it have been stronger in its plotting, easier to follow or less flashy in its tweaking of conventions?  Sure, but then we wouldn’t have the novel that Sensation wants to be.

Your Highness (2011)

(In theaters, April 2011) I was pretty sure I would loathe this film: After all, I really didn’t care for Pineapple Express, and this follow-up seemed to be heading for the same coarse stoner humour.  But I had forgotten that I dislike bad self-important heroic fantasy even more than I don’t care for stoner fantasy.  So that’s how I end up feeling relatively warm regarding Your Highness, which seems happy stuffing drugs, profanity and coarseness into a bog-standard fantasy premise.  It works better than anyone would expect, in no small part because the framework of the film itself works fine, and it features decent set-pieces (a coach pursuit action sequence more than holds its own when stripped of comic elements).  Otherwise, we get a deeply reluctant hero, a perverted mage, pervasive swearing, nudity, crudity and far too much gore for what’s supposed to be a light-hearted film. (As with Pineapple Express, there’s a feeling that a film as juvenile as Your Highness doesn’t actually deserve the level of gore that it features.) As a comedy operating at the edge of good taste, You Highness often over steps into material that goes beyond humour and into bad taste, hitting sexism, homophobia, immaturity and lameness along the way.  Danny McBride bears the brunt of the film’s humour as the foul-mouthed cowardly protagonist while James Franco is fine as the always-smiling hero, whereas neither Natalie Portman nor Zooey Deschanel embarrass themselves through their performance –although, mind you, Portman is playing the straight-woman, while Deschanel doesn’t have much to do except being the classic damsel-in-distress.  Otherwise, it’s not much of a film for the ages (I suspect that seeing it at the legendary Alamo Drafthouse helped a bit in assessing the film above its true value), but it’s certainly an interesting oddity in the movie landscape: Given the cost of fantasy films in general and their inconsistent level of commercial success, it’s almost mind-boggling that anyone took enough chances on the concept to see the film through to completion.  I suspect that Your Highness will appeal mainly to those who can’t take another ponderous high-fantasy film.  It’s not much as itself, but as an antidote to worse films, it’s almost refreshing.

Soulless, Gail Carriger

Orbit, 2009, 365 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-316-05663-2

Consider, if you will, the notion that reading fiction is like living in a big city.  Each genre and subgenre maps out to a neighbourhood where people choose to live, visit or avoid.  Everyone, sooner or later, goes downtown to have a look at the bestsellers.  The classics make up most of the old city near the docks.  Award-winning literary fiction holds the classy neighbourhood.  Genres make up most of the suburbs.  And while most people have their own habits and favourite haunts, it happens from time to time that some readers take a turn into unfamiliar territory and so find themselves in unusual neighbourhoods.

So it is that I ended up taking a walk down a strange alley in reading Gail Carriger’s Soulless, the first volume in a series blending elements of Victorian science-fiction, supernatural romance, fantasies of manner, gentle humour and suspenseful adventure.  As the novel begins, spinster heroine Alexis Tarabotti gets involved in a conflict between the vampires and werewolves living in London.  In her world, both types of creatures are commonly accepted even as Alexia herself is regarded with suspicion as she is said to have no soul, granting her a few special powers over unnatural creatures.  As the plot thickens, Alexia gets to know a darkly handsome vampire, uncover a plot against the Empire and do the things that common steampunk romance heroines are expected to do.

Being neither an ardent fan of steampunk, Victorian-era comedies of manner, urban fantasy or supernatural romances, I found myself far from my comfort zones in reading Soulless.  Dawdling down the streets of paranormal romance, I couldn’t help but notice and be left unconvinced by the unsubtle shape of the plot, the manufactured oppression of the heroine, the unadventurous re-use of familiar genre elements and the forced humour.  I shouldn’t have been surprised: Every genre neighbourhood operates according to its own broadly-accepted set of rules, leaving bewildered outsiders wondering how, exactly, did such flimsy assumptions become accepted part of the scenery.

It doesn’t take much more than this lack of familiarity to foster a sense of irritation and alienation.  I seldom notice stylistic tics, but by the third chapter I was ready to climb up the walls as the narration itself kept switching back and forth between “Alexia” and “Miss Tarabotti” in designating the protagonist.  Soulless keeps trying to jam modern prose into a Victorian framework, and the results either feel grotesque or half-hearted, depending on your mood of the moment.  By the time the mad scientists are uncovered, the fantastic machines have been deactivated and the empire has been saved, the impression left is one of insubstantiality –a trifle of a novel, unambitious and solely meant to entertain.

Still: Even without Bookscan numbers, there are at least three good hints that Soulless has done exceptionally well commercially (Sixth printing; hundreds of reviews on Amazon; “New York Times bestseller” status from the second novel onward) and that, clearly, a lot of people are enjoying these books.

Indeed, looking around Soulless’s neighbourhood, it’s obvious that this is a popular part of Fiction-town: There’s a lot of foot traffic and discussion, a growing body of work, plenty of marketing and signs that the area is booming.  For reviewers from other part of town, it’s a gentle clue that paranormal romance, or urban fantasy, or low-grade steampunk, or whatever it’s called, is fulfilling a number of expectations for many people… and that those who are unwilling or unable to accept the rules of subgenre may want to leave it alone and visit other areas of Fiction City.

So, as this reviewer leaves the neighbourhood behind, it’s hard not to notice that it seems like a perfectly welcoming place, and even a comfortable one for its residents.  I may not read any of Soulless’ sequels any time soon, but I appreciate that they exist… and I hope they’ll take good care of their part of Fiction-city.  I may not belong here, but other readers do, and they deserve the best they can get for their own tastes.

Middle Men (2009)

(On DVD, April 2010) Some worthwhile films fall through the cracks, and this is one of them: A slick mixture of laughs and thrills set against the turn-of-the-century internet porn rush, Middle Men features slick editing, a snappy soundtrack, plenty of nudity, some good screenwriting, a surprising number of recognizable actors and slick cinematography to deliver a fairly enjoyable film.  The voice-over narration wraps up a film that pleasantly jumps back and forth in time (sometimes for mere seconds), explains the way pornography has been a significant factor in the internet’s popularization and reaffirms why doing business with the Russian mob is always a bad idea.  (The unrated DVD also has a bravura long-shot set at an orgy that actually manages to make a narrative point.)  Luke Wilson is the film’s likable protagonist, a businessman who accidentally becomes a porn mogul.  Surrounding him are such notables as James Caan as a crooked lawyer, Kelsey Grammar in a memorable one-scene sketch, Kevin Pollak as a sympathetic FBI agent and a near-unrecognizable Giovanni Ribisi as a paranoid inventor.  Taken on its own terms, Middle Men is a fast-paced film that feels considerably bigger than its small budget, with enough good narrative moments to leave a good impression.  It has a few flaws, like a few unnecessary emotional flashbacks, a too-innocent hero and a script that could have been tightened, but nothing major.  But the film isn’t the whole story: the behind-the-scenes drama is almost as interesting as the end result.  Some digging quickly reveals that Middle Men is not only based on a true story, but that the businessman whose story it is actually financed the production of the film itself… and lost most of its money when the movie failed at the box-office.  The post-film real story features accusations of fraud, broken bones and other unpleasantness… enough to set up a sequel or two.

Fuzzy Dice, Paul Di Filippo

PS Publishing, 2003, 296 pages, $50 hc, ISBN 1-902880-66-8

What a stroke of genius for PS Publishing to ask Rudy Rucker to write the introduction for Paul Di Filippo’s Fuzzy Dice.  It makes every reviewer’s opening statement “This Paul Di Filippo novel is a lot like a Rudy Rucker novel!” feels trite and obvious.  On the other hand, well, who else but Rudy Rucker to appreciate Fuzzy Dice?  It’s a lot like Rucker’s novels: anarchic, playful, grounded in hard SF concept while being almost completely unhinged.  It plays not only with Science Fiction concept, but with SF itself.

The basic set-up of the novel couldn’t be simpler: A down-on-his luck bookstore clerk is contacted by advanced intelligence and given a way to travel to parallel universes of his choice.  It doesn’t take much more to provide di Filippo with excuses to romp through a series of richly-imagined parallel realities, while putting his narrator through various adventures.

Along the way, we see narrator Paul stuck in 1970s hippie utopia; in a two-dimensional universe written as homage to Conway’s game of life; in a matriarchy; in an old black-and-white kid’s TV show; in universes where individuals are parts of a predefined group personality; in even weirder universes where learned traits are passed to kids, or where ideas are contagious.  (Hilariously, one of the late-novel comments by the entities that enabled Paul to travel at will between dimensions are that his choices have been appallingly unimaginative.)

Like Rucker’s fiction, Fuzzy Dice is very, very weird.  And yet, unlike much of Rucker’s fiction it still makes sense throughout, and isn’t overly mean to its characters.  This may not sound like much, but it’s enough to give me a warm fuzzy feeling about Fuzzy Dice, whereas most of Rucker’s fiction somehow leaves me feeling confused and misanthropic.  Di Filippo seems compassionate even in sketching a remarkably self-deprecating protagonist.  Throughout the novel’s adventures, Paul grows, learns, and even makes progress of some sort.  His companions along the way aren’t simply discarded, and some of them even show signs of having actual independence.

The sustained progress from one adventure to another is important in avoiding the trap so common to picaresque novels like Fuzzy Dice: Once it becomes clear that this twelve-sided adventure is going to go through twelve universes, each one given twelve sub-chapters, there’s a real risk that the novel becomes an imposed exercise.  And while Fuzzy Dice doesn’t avoid built-in repetitiveness thanks to its rigid construction, it makes the most out of it by carrying some characters from universe to universe, and allowing Paul to revisit some past choices toward the end of the book.

Like much of Di Filippo’s fiction, it’s very playful, not only in storytelling voice (which is loose and not to be taken seriously at all), but also in the elements it chooses to use.  There are quite a few metaphysics, mathematics and computer science-related gags along the way: The opposing sides in the great AI war that Paul dimly discovers are the Moraveckians and the Minskyites, with a throwaway mention about Drexleroids.  Much of the novel’s quirkiness is in presenting literal representations of purely theoretical concepts.  The overarching metaphysical conflict in which Paul becomes a player is based on a perennial debate within the AI community, and part of the fun is seeing DiFilippo taking down hallowed concepts by having the character understand them through a puff of mind-altering substances, or referring to things like “Artificial Insanities” or the all-important “Ontological Pickle”.  I’ll leave smarter scholars tackle how, as a genre, Science Fiction is unique in allowing a writer like Di Filippo full opportunities to play with such specialized scientific concepts.

Fuzzy Dice’s somewhat rarefied audience may be reflected in the novel’s unconventional publication history: Until recently, it had been difficult to purchase in its limited editions, but a recent mass-market re-edition ensures that it will be available once more.  It’s not as if the book is about to date itself out of meaning: Who doesn’t want to have a few laughs while reading a science-fiction novel that not-so-seriously ponders the nature of the multiverse?

Planet of the Apes (2001)

(On DVD, April 2011) It’s not as if I deliberately waited ten years to see the Planet of the Apes remake, but considering that there was no reason for this “re-imagining” to exist and how savaged the film was upon its release, it’s not as if there was any reason to see it sooner.  No reason except filling up a spot on Tim Burton’s filmography, maybe: For all of his duds, Burton can usually be relied upon to present an original vision on-screen.  Alas, what ends up on the screen in Planet of the Apes feels like a cheap and dumb cardboard fantasy rather than a fully-developed universe.  The script itself has a number of problems, from a lack of complexity to ideas that were best abandoned in fifties Science-Fiction.  But it’s in the presentation of the apes that the film stumbles into the uncanny valley, with characters that sometimes look fine, sometimes look wrong and so never completely convince.  (I still don’t know what it means that I could recognize Paul Giamatti in full ape makeup)  The ape social system (and attendant human slavery) feels like a fable rather than a convincing concept, and the by-the-numbers nature of the film’s plotting is both convenient (apes can talk but they never learned how to swim!  What luck!) and numbing.  As if that wasn’t enough, Planet of the Apes ends with an epilogue that means to evoke chills in the Twilight Zone tradition, but only ends up sealing the film’s nonsensical lack of appeal.  Ten years later, well, there’s not much left in the remake: It may have been the tenth-grossing film of 2001, but the original still remains the cultural reference.  Anyone who hasn’t yet seen this one shouldn’t be in any hurry to do so.

Rio (2011)

(In theatres, April 2011) The possibilities of computer animation are in full bloom in this high-spirited, fizzy, highly enjoyable adventure starring talking songbirds.  The story has chases and romantic comedy plot points that we’ve seen dozens of times before, but they’re executed in such light-hearted fashion that it’s hard to be overly critical.  (Although there are two spitting gags that don’t really fit.)  From the spectacular opening musical number to the closing credits, Rio does honour to its namesake by being as vibrant and colourful as Brazil often feels.  And yet, for a film aimed at kids, it still manages to slip in a few socially-relevant mentions of animal smuggling and poverty in the favelas.  Still, the emphasis is on the animals, and that’s where the vocal performances matter.  Jesse Eisenberg is good as the socially-mystified hero, but his voice is, by now, so closely identified to an nebbish archetype that it can be distracting.  Meanwhile, wil.i.am and Jamie Foxx have the chance to sing a bit, while Anne Hathaway is generally unobjectionable as the other main character.  While Rio gains to points for audacity, it does the now-familiar animated-feature characteristics well: A few fast-paced action sequences, cute anthropomorphic characters, a humorous tone, some singing and dancing and a finale that wraps everything up.  It may not push the envelope like many of Pixar’s films, but it’s good enough to be pleasant and satisfying both to kids and adults.

The Life, Steve Paikin

Penguin Canada, 2002 paperback reprint of 2001 original, 326 pages, C$24.00 tp, ISBN 0-14-029370-1

As I write this, Canadians are in the middle dog-days of a federal election, and the first of the political party leaders’ debate is playing on the TV screen.  By this time in the process, even die-hard political junkies such as myself are nearing exasperation.  The modern electoral campaign is a carefully staged ritual designed to minimize surprises.  Since the beginning of this year’s election, the leaders are saying the same things, polls haven’t moved an inch and we’re left to contemplate politics at their most partisan, which is pretty much the same as saying politics at their dullest.  The debate is a case in point, as leaders once again trot out the same tired arguments, cross-talk without engaging in meaningful “debate” and manage to use many words to say very little.  The kabuki ritual of elections isn’t fooling anyone, and it’s enough to make you wonder why anyone would ever want to go in politics.

It’s exactly at times like these that Steve Paikin’s The Life becomes essential reading.  Paikin, who has long worked for Ontario’s public broadcaster TV Ontario, is not your usual pack political journalist: He hosts current-affair shows, interviews guests, writes books and produces feature length documentaries.  He’s respected enough to have been asked to moderate the federal leaders’ election debate three times.  A long-form journalism specialist, Paikin has the advantage of studying politicians without being caught in the trap of daily news cycles.

In The Life, Paikin deliberately steps away from the cynicism with which most people regard politicians to ask Why would anyone want to get into politics?  Most of the book is a series of linked profiles, based on interviews and press clippings, describing the political life of Canadian politicians no matter their level or political affiliation.  Since Paikin is based in Toronto, it’s no surprise to see that most of the profiles are about Toronto and Ottawa.  In the opening chapter of the book (“The Crusaders”), for instance, Paikin discusses the careers of Lewis MacKenzie (PC/Federal), Frances Lankin (NDP/Ontario), Pam Barrett (NDP/Alberta) and Derwyn Shea (PC/Ontario).

Each politician’s life and career is told crisply, with readable prose and a storyteller’s skill.  Don’t be surprised if everyone in the book comes across as a better kind of politician than you may expect: Paikin may not completely indulge in hagiography, but his aim is to present the politicians’ side of the story.  The long hours campaigning, the unfair reversals of fortune due to no fault of their own; the bitter choices faced by people in power…  The Life aims to present politicians as regular people stuck in a high visibility job with considerable downsides.

It’s useful to note that ten years after publication, The Life may be more interesting now than ever before.  Paikin’s examples are drawn from 1960 to 2000, which may reduce the partisan sting of some of his subjects to 2011 readers.  Ten years is practically forever in politics, and Paikin is careful never to assume too much political knowledge from his readers: he provides balanced context and tells stories as if readers were reading them for the first time –not an unreasonable assumption for a work of long-form journalism.  I was particularly interested by the stories surrounding Bob Rae’s NDP government in the early nineties: while I may have lived through the era, Paikin presents it according to the people who lived through the tough choices of the time –his description of the anguish of NDP backbenchers forced to vote on a “Social Contract” many didn’t believe in is particularly poignant in presenting the kind of impossible choices that regular politicians must face… and pay for.

Other highlights of the book are a joint comparison of the lives of provincial premiers William Davis and Peter Lougheed; a chapter on unelected “backroom boys”; the inspiring story of Alvin Curling, first black MP in Ontario’s history; and a momentous description of how Brian Mulroney gave “Eighty Minutes” of his time to Paikin.

It goes without saying that The Life presents politicians at their best and their most amiable, but their story often kept going after the book was published.  From 2011, we know the Alvin Curling’s tenure as Speaker of the House wasn’t without controversy; more crucially, we now know quite a few more things about Brian Mulroney and the Airbus/Schreiber affair than we did in 2001.  (Three words: “brown paper bags.”) Do these latter-day developments invalidate Paikin’s book?  Absolutely not.  The point of The Life is to make us consider the possibility that politicians may be human.  That despite our resentment for the power they hold (however tenuously) over our lives, they too can be regular people trying to do a job in trying circumstances.  It’s to Paikin’s credit that he’s able to deliver this thesis without appearing to fawn over his subjects, by simply telling their story from their point of view.

It amounts to a book that, well, may make you look at politicians differently.  As I edit this review weeks after the surprising end of the 2010 federal elections (in which Conservatives won an unexpected majority, the NDP became the unexpected official opposition and both the Liberal and the Bloc Québécois unexpectedly lost a significant chunk of votes), I do so with the renewed appreciation that elections can be exciting and campaigns may produce unexpected results.  As a number of brand-new federal MPs (one of them still in his teens) swear allegiance and take on a four-year term, I can’t help but think about the lives in The Life and wonder how they feel as ordinary people thrust in the spotlight.

[June 2010: Steve Paikin’s follow-up The Dark Side purports to tell us about the less-glamorous side of the political life, and it’s reasonably effective in doing so as it tells us about political betrayals, losses and scandals.  The style and tone of the book is very similar to The Life, presenting linked profiles in successive chapters.  But don’t let the title lull you toward false expectations: Paikin is too much of a nice guy to present the darkest stories of Canadian politics: many times, he’ll follow the defeats of his subjects by their redemption or their success in other fields.  While the book features the powerful story of Paul Dick (who attended 144 job interviews after losing his seat in the 1993 federal elections before re-entering the workforce as an entry-level stockbroker), most of the other stories seem far more optimistic.  Since the book remains interesting no matter what, this isn’t much a criticism.  Other the other hand, there’s a feeling that there remains a more scathing book to be written about the dark side of Canadian politics.]

Sucker Punch (2011)

(In theatres, April 2011) Zack Snyder’s first fully-original film after four successive adaptations of existing material isn’t a disaster as long as you have a short attention span.  Sucker Punch is, like 300, quite a bit of fun to look at: Nearly the entire film seems post-processed to a smooth deliberate gloss, hopping between two levels of reality and four fantasies in an attempt to say something about female empowerment in-between scantily-clad women.  At times, it works: The first few minutes shows a great example of wordless storytelling, blunt but effective in telling us how a young woman lands in an insane asylum, headed for lobotomy.  After that, Sucker Punch periodically presents us with elaborate visual fantasies in which our heroines take on Japanese samurais, World-War-One Germans, dragons and robots.  (That last sequence ambitiously attempts to combine a continuous series of action into a continuous-but-blurry shot.)  Taken by themselves, snippets of the film show to which extent movie reality can be altered for storytelling purposes and, at the very least, can be enough to recommend the film on a purely visual level.  It’s when those elements are meant to be combined together that Sucker Punch becomes less impressive than the sum of its parts: While the film wants to be a female empowerment statement, it still does so at a rudimentary level where the heroines are infantilized (“Baby Doll”, “Sweet Pea”), sexualized, armed and asked to show a lot of skin.  The film is also annoying, on a structural level, in how it sets itself up in a series of levels that have to be endured before anything dramatically interesting happens.  (Attempts to avoid referring to video games in discussing the film usually end in failure.)  Rumours of fifteen minutes of deleted scenes may explain the gradual incoherence of the ending, but they’re unlikely to address the gulf between the empowerment fantasies we’re asked to enjoy, and the horror at the center of the plot.  While Sucker Punch really wants to be like Brazil, it doesn’t have the maturity to pull off the dramatic ironies necessary to an owl-creeking, nor the discipline to make use of its levels of reality.  See the film for the pretty pictures if you must, but don’t expect anything particularly interesting –the most remarkable thing about Sucker Punch being how dull it can feel after a while.

Blink, Malcolm Gladwell

Back Bay, 2007 revised paperback reprint of 2005 original, 296 pages, C$19.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-316-01066-5

Quick!  What kind of book climbs up the bestseller-charts, earns more than a thousand user reviews on Amazon, gets people arguing back and forth about its relative value, spawns at least two book-length responses and becomes the darling of mid-level executives everywhere?  To be fair, that’s not a lot of information to go on, but if you’re guessing “pop-sociology vulgarization with some application to business”, then you’re in the right intuitive ballpark to discuss Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

Six years after publication, there’s little about Blink that hasn’t already been discussed endlessly.  Its central premise, that some judgements are best made in split-seconds rather than careful consideration, is counterintuitive enough to earn initial interest.  After that, it’s Gladwell’s knack for readable prose that takes over: Readers are charmed by the mixture of anecdotes, selected studies, links between various disciplines and easily-digestible thought experiments.  Blink is a prime example of the mini-boom in pop-sociology books that followed the success of Freakonomics, their most significant virtue seemingly being in dispensing cocktail-chatter material to middle-blow readers.

There’s little doubt that the end result is engaging from a reader’s perspective.  Gladwell manages to explore uncanny pockets of knowledge in his effort to explore his subject, and so readers are given mini-primers on art history, music marketing, military war-gaming, marriage counselling and much more along the way.  There’s a deluge of factoids in Blink, but it feels manageable thanks to Gladwell’s journalistic instincts in presenting information clearly and frequently referring back to previous material.  Blink is a joy to read, and this ease certainly helps the reader become sympathetic to the book’s thesis.

After all, “blink” judgements are a particular instance of intuition, and it doesn’t take much to be fascinated by things nobody quite understands.  Nearly everyone has powerful intuitions about various things (many of them are rarely formally disproved) and yet few people can actually explain why they’ve been able to come to this conclusion.  Blink circles this subject and interrogates it from various angles, some of them even contradictory.

Gladwell doesn’t forget, for instance, that blink judgements can be wrong or lazy.  There’s a chapter on stereotypes and unexamined judgement that weakens the book’s thesis.  Gladwell also glosses over the relationship between expertise and intuition, or how some of the most powerful intuitions are product of years of experience, reactions, course correction and re-evaluation.   (Many of us are blink-experts in our own fields of work; Gladwell doesn’t insist on how intuition is not necessarily transferable across pockets of expertise.)

The relationship between unconscious decision-making and newer theories of the mind could have made for interesting material, especially when linked to practised expertise.  Isn’t the goal of practice to drive skills deep in the unconscious where they can be used without conscious interference?  Aren’t blink-judgements evidence for some of the most radical theory of consciousness portraying the conscious mind as a rubber-stamper of unconscious processes?

This, alas, takes us in territory that Gladwell is not interested in exploring.  (Heck, in the paperback afterword of the book, Gladwell admits that he deliberately refused to use the word “intuition” in the main body of the book.)  To anyone looking for a more ambitious thesis, Blink seems stuck at a basic level, delivering entertaining anecdotes without wrapping it up in a coherent theory.  Latter chapters seem to disprove the worth of blink-judgements, leaving the readers to wonder where this is leading.  It’s a fun book, but it quickly feels unsubstantial, even when compared to The Tipping Point.

This may server to explain why there are at least two book-length responses to Blink.  Michael LeGault Think! takes the relatively more orthodox view that thinking long and hard has its own merit.  But the most entertaining answer may very well be “Noah Tall”‘s Blank? The Power of not Thinking at All, a parody that overstays its welcome at 86 pages, but still pokes a few holes in the reverence with which some people still consider Blink.

But, hey, read the book and make up your mind… in three seconds or three days.

Hanna (2011)

(In theaters, April 2011) Strange things happen when dramatic directors take on genre filmmaking, not the least being unique takes on genre conventions.  Joe Wright is best known for Oscar-baiting dramas such as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, so to see him take on the tale of a teenage assassin facing down rogue CIA operatives is a bit of a stretch.  The end result is definitely unconventional, as Wright tries to reconcile mainstream dramatic techniques with the demands of a genre thriller.  Some of the result works well: Wright wisely eschews frantic editing, and one of the film’s highlight is a continuous shot that brilliantly depicts a fight between a character and four antagonists.  The film makes effective use of a creepy abandoned park for its climax, and Saoirse Ronan is very good in the title role.  Unfortunately, viewers will have to be patient in-between the film’s rewards: Hanna’s pacing is lethargic, deadened by failed attempts at comic relief (never mind Hanna’s “fish out of water” subplot: I kept hoping for the irritating family of tourists to be terminated with extreme prejudice) and sunk by its own self-importance: The plot is slight, simple and inconsequential enough to be silly, except that Wright seems convinced that he’s telling An Important Story.  The film splats when it should zip along, and seems to call attention to its own cleverness: not bad as an experiment, but not much of a success as a stand-alone thriller.  Much like The Chemical Brother’s unusual score, Hanna is different and sometimes intriguing for what it brings to the standard thriller formula, but it never feels as compelling as straight-up genre entertainment.

I Am Number Four (2011)

(Hotel pay-per-view, April 2011) Most movies are at least as much commerce than art, but for some films, the balance is so obviously tilted toward making money that it becomes difficult to see it as anything but a cynical cash-grab.  It’s impossible to watch I Am Number Four without being reminded that studios are still trying to mine popular teen/children’s series for a Twilight/Harry-Potter-like franchise.  (Count the failures that have not been followed by sequels: Eragon, Spiderwick Chronicles, Golden Compass, Lemony Snickett, Percy Jackson, etc…)  This case is even worse given how the film comes from a first volume in a book series cynically designed by James Frey’s “Full Fathom Five” creative factory as a deliberate attempt to cash in on the young-adult market.  It’s easy to see how the franchising mindset affects the product: The sub-literate SF premise of the series is soft fantasy executed through aliens, the writers going through ridiculous lengths to contain their stories within an American high school.  Everything is set up to lead to the next instalment, the usual teen-fiction narrative buttons pushed without subtlety along the way.  Perhaps the only saving grace of the finished product is that it’s reasonably well-made.  Director D.J. Caruso has done some good work before, and if this kind of for-hire work is a step down from clever thrillers like Disturbia and Eagle Eye, he’s able to give enough energy to the film to carry it past the laborious setup and the most predictable plot turns.  Only the CGI looks particularly overdone, without physicality or subtlety of movement.  As blatantly manipulative as it can be, I Am Number Four has a few good moments, and an antagonist that seems to be played with some self-aware irony –quite a change from the po-faced human characters all trying to be as blandly serious as possible.  While I Am Number Four is not particularly good, it’s not terrible either, and if you can ignore the blatant “first in a series” annoyances, it’s an average entry in the teen-fantasy genre.  Odds aren’t high that it’ll lead to a franchise, though.

Limitless aka The Dark Fields, Alan Glynn

Picador, 2011 movie tie-in reprint of 2001 original, 336 pages, $15.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-312-42887-7

Something very strange happened in early April 2011 at the local movie multiplex: After years of meagre offerings, you could watch three relatively original –and good!- Science-Fiction movies back-to-back-to-back in a first-run theater.  In-between The Adjustment Bureau, Limitless and Source Code, SF fans were treated to three decent SF movies, none of them based on big “intellectual property franchises”.  It’s not entirely fair, however, to call those movies entirely original: Source Code may have been an original screenplay, but The Adjustment Bureau took its premise (and nothing else) from a Philip K. Dick short story, whereas Limitless is a halfway-faithful adaptation of Alan Glynn’s techno-thriller originally published as The Dark Fields.

The distinction between “Science Fiction” and “techno-thriller” here is a thin one: The premise of Limitless/The Dark Fields has an underachieving thirty-something protagonist discovering a secret miracle drug dramatically boosting his intelligence.  Stuck with a limited supply of pills and in-between business rivals, Russian mobsters and shadowy government operatives, our hero gulps down his drugs, performs amazing feats of cognition and discovers that the world is his… if he can first take care of his biggest problems, and if the drug’s after-effects don’t kill him first.

Much as the movie is a zippy, often exhilarating portray of a mind boosted to its theoretical limits, Glynn’s novel has a snappy forward rhythm that makes it difficult to stop reading.  Our narrator isn’t just endearingly flawed, he’s also smart enough to know how to use his newfound capabilities.  The prose of the book is pleasant, and The Dark Fields more than provides that sometimes elusive “reading pleasure” so desired of genre thrillers.  The first-person narration portrays extreme intelligence with wit and well-chosen details: the capabilities of the protagonist are almost always credible in the context in which they are presented.

The novel, set in 2001, has also aged relatively well.  Now that we’re in a post-post-9/11 world, the exuberant nature of the story’s New York setting feels once again natural.  Some of the technology has aged a bit during the past decade, but most of the financial lingo still holds up to a casual reading, and there are few things to immediately date the setting.

But as in most of my reviews of books adapted to the movies, I’m more interested in the differences between both interpretations of the story.  For about two-third of Limitless, both the book and the novel are significantly the same.  There may be a few tweaks here and there regarding the relationships of the protagonist and the presence of mysterious operatives, but the story beats remain in-sync.  Amusingly enough, the film’s two big plot-holes (never borrow from Russian mobsters; always secure your source of drugs) are also softly reflected in the novel.  Then the interpretations diverge: The novel takes a far darker turn, whereas the film manages to end on a triumphant note.  (Before blaming Hollywood, consider this interview with both writers and their shared camaraderie.)

Many Science Fiction fans will prefer the film’s take on the subject.  The topic of intelligence enhancement has often been done in SF, but usually following the Icarus plot template: That there is inevitably an accounting for artificially-obtained superpowers.  That idea, at this point, is trite puritanical moralizing; isn’t it more interesting to wonder what if, indeed, you could have it all?  The movie eventually chooses this path, and it feels considerably more satisfying than the increasingly paranoid descent to hell that becomes the book’s conclusion.  Genre prejudice may influence readers, though: technophiles coming from SF may have no trouble with the idea of an artificial intelligence-booster leading to a better life; readers coming from the more pessimistic thriller genre may feel that the dark ending feels more natural.  In either case, comparing film to novel show how a simple last-act spin can radically change the impact of a work.  After seeing the fulfilling film, the novel seems to run out of ideas toward the end, ending with a whimper rather than making the most out of the elements in its possession.

But that’s the great thing about interpretations.  You get to pick and choose whether you liked the original or the adaptation best.  It doesn’t take super-human intelligence to create a composite story in your head that incorporates the best of both versions.  In my case: The novel’s backstory and fully-researched details, with the film’s casting, pacing and triumphant ending.  You may prefer different results.