Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life, Christopher Monks

Tow Books, 2008, 238 pages, C$14.95 pb, ISBN 978-1-58297-534-4

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Christopher Monks’ The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life, except that it was sitting cheap on the remainder cart, was billed as humor and anything with a subtitle like “The Video Game as Existential Metaphor” interests me.  Flipping through the book showed a few cute illustrations; what else could I hope for?  Life’s hard enough –don’t we all need a comforting walkthrough?

For a while, though, it looked as if I may have made an error in picking up the book.  The first few pages are a tough slog, as the game/life metaphor initially fails to gel, and the putative protagonist of the walkthrough hasn’t yet been developed enough to sustain the comic narrative that later emerges.  There are a few good lines about you, the baby, not yet being too sure about “mom’s friend”, and how the game’s control at this early stage aren’t just unlabeled but don’t do the same thing.  Still, the first chapter seems like a fairly conventional way to talk about infants and toddlers.  Where’s the substance?

Things show some clear improvement in Level II (“Your Childhood”) as the rules and complex meta-fictional devices of the narrative start settling down.  Suddenly, the life being described becomes a story of sorts, with recurring characters emerging through the successive narratives (that darn Dennis!).  By Challenge Eight (“Losing your sister at the Huddy Sizzlebolt Happy! Fun! Learn! Show!”), the book loosens up and finally benefits from a protagonist old enough to have adventures and feature more darkly absurd material.  By this time, we’re also becoming more familiar with the conventions of the book, as The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life isn’t just a gaming walk-through, but an unauthorized one that sometimes second-guesses what the designers were thinking.

Like life itself, the book reaches a certain narrative velocity as it hits the protagonist’s teenage years.  Making it through high school is amusing, and the fun doesn’t stop by the time the character reaches college and then takes a job at the donut store.  Hilarious bits include high school cliques, a memorable reunion with a high-school crush that somehow involves freeing minks, and using hostage crises at the donut shop as an advancement mechanism.  There are also a few throwaway gags about an optional robot war.  The first chunk of the early adulthood stage ends with the hero becoming a father…

…and without getting too personal, this is where the book sucker-punched me.  You’d have to be at my place in life and read pages 169-172 to understand why.  Maybe I suspected something in picking up the book.

Much of the rest of The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life seems to be downhill from that moment, as (and this is where the book’s existentialism becomes obvious) much of life also seems to be.  Kicking back from the content of book for a moment to indulge in a bit of idle thoughts about video-gaming and life, there’s some wisdom in realizing that most people never get a satisfying dramatic arc; that lives go on after their main stories end, and that preparing another generation to play is the closest we’ll ever get to “winning the game”.  No wonder new parents give up gaming… at least as they focus on something else.

Back to The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life, it’s not much of a surprise if the last third of the book seems to turn grimmer as the end approaches.  Despite the jocular consistency of the game’s challenge, it doesn’t take much of a subtext to cringe during the last challenge set in an Assisted Living Facility.  As the line goes, “Old age isn’t for Sissies.”  Appropriately enough (this isn’t a spoiler), the book ends at the end of the protagonist’s life… that is, Your Life.

One thing is for sure: I wasn’t expecting such a kick in the pants from a humour book making parallels between gaming and an ordinary life.  It’s enough to make you sit quietly in a chair and ponder the meaning of it all.  We all, I suppose, create our own mythological frameworks for what happens to us, and the future we can reasonably expect to have.  At the moment, it’s a surprisingly effective tactic to draw upon the modern mythology of the age, video games, to tackle the question.  Uneven but amazingly effective when it works, The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life is a memetic wolf in sheep’s trade binding.  Open it carefully if you’re going through one of life’s big transitions.

Zwartboek [Black Book] (2006)

(On DVD, August 2011) For a director who helped re-shape American popular cinema with four solid hits and one legendary failure in-between 1987’s Robocop and 1997’s Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven has been really quiet since the artistic failure of Hollow Man in 2000.  To see his only film since then, you’d have to find  Zwartboek, a World War 2 thriller in which a beautiful young Netherlander woman is stuck between the occupying Nazi forces and the local resistance movement during the last few days of the war.  While, at first, Zwartboek seems to be just another resistance film, the increasingly messy tangle of allegiances makes for a far more interesting narrative, and a striking statement on what happens after victory is obtained: Accounts are settled, resentment surfaces as aggression and accusations are more effective than doubt.  Produced with what feels like a decent budget by Netherlander standards, Zwartboek convincingly re-creates the period, and features more than decent production values.  There are even a few chases and explosions to reassure us that, yes, it’s that Paul Verhoeven.  But much of the film belongs to the actors, starting with Carice van Houten playing a merciless role as the heroine.  (WW2 cinephiles will also recognize Christian Berkel from other similar movies as Valkyrie, Downfall and Inglourious Basterds, among many others.)  Amusingly for a film featuring an unusual non-Anglo-Saxon viewpoint on WW2, Canadians get a fairly good portrait as the liberators toward the end of the story.  Weaker points include a framing device that robs the film of a bit of suspense, and a clunky first act that seems to run around in coincidental circles, meeting everyone twice in the small universe of The Hague.  Still, while the film’s solid European origins clearly show in the amount of casual nudity and the last act’s lack of moral certitudes, the overall result is an entertaining film that more than holds up to anything else in the world.

Best Worst Movie (2009)

(On cable TV, August 2011) A documentary about the revival of Troll 2 as a cult movie favourite by its grown-up child actor Michael Stephenson, Best Worst Movie is most interesting when it touches upon the lives of actors twenty years later.  It wisely focuses on George Hardy, who shelved his acting ambitions to become a dentist and discovers to his surprise that the film has grown in popularity since its financially disastrous release.  Going from his quiet Midwestern life to the film festival circuit, Hardy acts as the audience’s stand-in as he discovers the peculiar nature of cult movie aficionados.  Best Worst Movie eventually ends up speaking to nearly every major contributor to Troll 2, showing us a bittersweet diversity of fates: From a New York Times bestselling author to a self-admitted failure, a reformed mental patient, a bitter delusional director and an actress whose hard life has left her unhinged from reality, the aftermath of a low-budget film proves fascinating to explore.  At a time where film geeks can learn nearly everything about a film after its release on DVD, Best Worst Movie takes the long view and asks where minor actors can be found twenty years after a disreputable low-budget effort.  (Some of them, still working in the industry, conveniently leave Troll 2 out of their resume.)  There’s a dramatic arc of sorts to the film as Hardy briefly flirts with the idea of a revived acting career, then hits a wall at two major conventions and realizes how little he has to regret as a successful member of his community.  A cult movie success doesn’t necessarily translate into broader horizons, and few seem to miss that point as completely as Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso, who mistakes the trash-movie following for his earlier film as a repudiation of the critics’ savaging. (Admittedly, he may be self-consciously playing an Italian-director archetype here.)  Best Worst Movie is an entertaining, not-always-funny trip through the underworld of cinema; the so-bad-it’s-good upside-down universe of horror cult films, the not-so-triumphant aftermath of lives after “being in a movie” and the unsettling realization that most bad movies never get even an affectionate cult revival, but slink away from mind without a single trace in popular culture.  Despite the occasional laughs in Best Worst Movie, there’s enough in here to inspire sober reflection.  I suppose that a more dispassionate filmmaker may have been able to dig a bit deeper in the issues raised by Troll 2’s cult revival; on the other hand, Michael Stephenson got access to nearly everyone of consequence, and the resulting film is far more affectionate about its subject than you may expect.

Ice Quake (2010)

(On cable TV, August 2011) There isn’t much to be said about Ice Quake besides “made-for-TV science-fiction disaster movie”.  From that curt description, everyone should understand that the film’s low-budget doesn’t allow it to match its own ambition.  A small number of cookie-cutter characters, truncated action sequences, slap-dash special effects, stupid science, straightforward plotting and surprise-less drama quickly follow.  Still, compared to the standards set by previous “Syfy Channel Specials”, Ice Quake is a bit better than most.  The quality of the images is fairly nice: some Alaskan stock footage helps, but there are a few BC location sequences that are pretty in their own right.  Thanks to the actors (including Brendan Fehr), the characters are somewhat sympathetic despite the ham-fisted screenwriting.  More significantly, the film dares to attempt things like snow-bound location shooting, snowmobile stunts, CGI helicopter sequences and a kind of disaster (methane build-up, released in super-frozen geysers) that hasn’t yet been overused on film.  It doesn’t really achieve complete success, but the attempt is ambitious and the level of quality could have been far worse.  For hard-SF fans, the plot to the film is in the comforting template of scientists seeing a problem, understanding a problem and resolving the problem (also see: the joined-at-the-hip Movie Network/Super Écran made-for-TV disaster film Metal Tornado).  The Christmas theme should play big around the holidays.  Don’t expect much, and you just may be not entirely disappointed.

Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold

As second half of Cordelia’s Honor, Baen, 1996, 596 pages, C10.99, ISBN 0-671-57828-6

I first read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar more than a decade and a half ago, as I was making my way through the long list of Hugo award-winning novels.  At the time, the only copy I could find was a French translation, and I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the Vorkosigan universe in which Barrayar is such a keystone.

Recently, though, I happened to pick up a copy of Cordelia’s Honor, an omnibus containing both Barrayar and its prequel Shards of Honor.  Filling the blanks in my Vorkosigan series, I read Shards of Honor and then, while I was at it, started on Barrayar to see if there was anything I’d forgotten in the meantime.

It turns out that I had forgotten quite a bit, and didn’t know about many other things.

The first thing that struck me going from Shards of Honor to Barrayar is how seamlessly the story flows from one book to the other.  Barrayar picks up pretty much where Shards of Honor leaves off: Cordelia’s Honor makes for a far more justifiable omnibus than the other collections of Vorkosigan material that Baen has been throwing together for a while.  There’s a five-year difference of writing experience in-between both books, and it shows: While I had some trouble staying interested throughout Shards of Honor, such unevenness isn’t as apparent in Barrayar as the novel starts out strong and stays that way: Bujold’s prose flows more easily, and her gift for portraying characters get better and better.

The second thing I noticed is that even if Barrayar is chronologically one of the first volumes in the Vorkosigan saga, it’s quite a bit more enjoyable for veteran readers of the series.  Dramatic irony abounds for those who know where the universe is going and what the fates of the characters introduced here will be.  It’s amusing to see familiar characters during their younger years and heartbreaking to see doomed characters get their moments of glory.  It’s also hard to overstate how crucial the events of this novel are to the rest of the series: Globally, Barrayar describes how Aral Vorkosigan is designated as regent and takes over the reins of power during a difficult civil war.  More personally for the characters of the series, this is where a pregnant Cordelia Naismith suffers from a neurotoxin attack, something that will forever shape her unborn son (and series protagonist) Miles.  Less seriously, it’s intriguing to see here the first seeds (Ivan’s birth; the Kou/Drou romance) of plotlines that will keep going through much of the series so far.  I don’t, as a rule, tend to like long-running series, but Bujold does it better than anyone else, and setting a novel a generation before the main body of the series allows her to bring the most out of her overarching plotlines.  It’s one thing to read through the Vorkosigan series and hear about the history of the characters; it’s another to directly experience it here.

We can also see in this novel the beginning of Bujold’s middle-period Vorkosigan era: From 1991’s Barrayar to 1999’s A Civil Campaign represents, to date, the peak of this series, past the initial throat-clearing and before the relatively minor exercises of Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn.  It’s during that time that she’s at her best blending SF plot devices, strong character development, pitch-perfect transparent prose and ingenious plotting with whatever tone any particular novel mar require.  Few other SF writers have ever reached the kind of sustained excellence of that series, and Barrayar is without a doubt one of the major novels in that cycle.  Never mind the Science-Fictional trappings and the accumulated knowledge of the series you need to have in your head in order for the book to work best: This is one great novel, beautifully conceived and skilfully written.  It’s worth a read if you’re not familiar with the Vorkosigan saga, and well-worth a re-read if you are.

[August 2011: Let me hide in a footnote another difference in reading the novel that should have headlined the review if I wasn’t so reluctant to discuss my private life on-line: Reading Barrayar, with its embryonic neurotoxin subplot, as an older teenager is one thing.  Reading it while my wife and I are experiencing the first trimester of our first pregnancy is positively terrifying.]

30 Minutes or Less (2011)

(In theaters, August 2011) As a criminal comedy, there are a lot of similarities between this and Pineapple Express.  Not only does Danny McBride has a prominent role in the two movies, but both are criminal comedies starring underperforming slackers in the lead roles.  Here, a pizza delivery guy in his twenties is kidnapped by two other slackers, put in an explosive vest and told he’s got no other choice by go rob a bank.  What follows is a quick 80-minutes tale of criminal stupidity and plucky heroes.  Forget about social commentary, wholesome family entertainment or mind-expanding revelations: It’s pure comic character work set within a thriller template.  Despite the film’s similarities to the Brian Douglas Wells criminal case, 30 Minutes or Less doesn’t claim to be based on a true story, and fortunately doesn’t try to remind aware audiences of the real-life drama.  Jesse Eisenberg is a bit more tolerable than you’d expect as the lead, but it’s really Aziz Ansari and Michael Peña who steal the show in enjoyable supporting performance.  The script is peppered by high-energy moments –including a car chase that plays with the conventions of the genre and a quick ending that’s over almost before we know it.  The humour to too crude to be fully enjoyable, the violence is too gory to be forgettable and the rhythm is inconsistent, but 30 Minutes or Less still manages to score a few hits, and the tone is just controlled enough to avoid the exasperating immaturity of, say, Pineapple Express.  While it’s a step down for Zombieland director Ruben Fleisher, it’s nonetheless an acceptable summertime crime comedy.

The Efficient Society, Joseph Heath

Penguin Canada, 2002 reprint of 2001 original, 339 pages, C$22.00, ISBN 0-14-029248-0

From time to time, I find myself wishing that I’d read some books earlier.  Part of it is a reflection on my stack of things to read: Even if I completely stopped buying books right now, I would still have about two years’ worth of stuff to read.  Part of it is the vertiginous realisation that the universe of good books is vast, and there are still thousands of them to read.  The Efficient Society is one of those; a book that, in 2001, first brought philosophy professor Joseph Heath to national attention.  Heath would go on to write The Rebel Sell with Andrew Potter, which is the book that made me realize that I should be reading more of Heath/Potter’s work.  Going back in time to The Efficient Society, I end up cursing myself for not reading it ten years ago.

The basic thesis (“Why Canada is as close to Utopia as it gets”) is that our country is one of the best in the world largely because of its pragmatic efficiency.  This may be surprizing, even worrying to some: after all, most people frown at least a little when “efficiency” is praised.  Trained by decades of cost-cutting exercises presented as the epitome of efficiency, all-too-aware that “efficient” usually means cutting away the extras, fat, lubrication and slack time that make life worthwhile, readers may be forgiven for not being entirely well-disposed toward the notion of “an efficient society”.  But Heath isn’t using the word in that sense.  In his mind, efficiency means finding the best way of co-existing, the best way to deliver services, the best way to live.  It means not caring about the proclivities of other people (because being nosy is inefficient), finding a balance between private and public service delivery (because ideological approaches are usually wasteful) and understanding how social forces compel us toward common lifestyle decisions (because society works like that, and understanding why is the first step toward changing it).

As a philosophy professor, Heath is well-equipped to vulgarized grand ideas.  For instance, in the section of the book which concerns itself with moral efficiency, he proposes that old-fashioned morality is based on an ideal of human perfection.  Living up to these expectation is practically impossible; hence, the more efficient idea of tolerance; as long as others aren’t actively interfering in our lives, as long as everyone’s actions aren’t harming others, what’s the point of measuring others against an ideal that is impossible to reach?

The book is on even firmer ground in discussing economics and efficiency.  Canada, argues Heath, has found an ideal balance between European pro-state and American pro-business ideologies.  The United States, after all, seems perfectly happy wasting a few percentage points of GDP to health care billing services that a single-payer model doesn’t even need.  Europe, on the other thand, wastes GDP points by over-nationalizing businesses that should be handled by the private sector.  This efficient Canadian equilibrium between the state and private enterprise is to everyone’s benefit.  Many other examples abound, exploring the delicate interaction of the market in its modern, efficient form.  Eventually, the narrative becomes an argument for improving the status quo rather than burning everything down –a theme that Heath carries through to The Rebel Sell.

From this promising start, The Efficient Society wanders a bit during a last third notionally dedicated to social efficiency: While there are a few striking passages –the deconstruction of typical gender roles in couples raising young children seems particularly implacable- the book seems to become an anthology of Health’s ideas without much of a guiding theme to carry it along.  It’s also in this segment that The Efficient Society most clearly shows its age.  The technological references are obviously a decade old, and developments since then (particularly in democratization of web publishing, and the increasing universality of web access devices.) would be interesting to study through the efficiency prism.

Still, The Efficient Society easily contains more thought-provoking material than most other non-fiction books of its length.  Heath interrogates economics from a philosophical viewpoint (a left-wing one, albeit a more sophisticated left-wing perspective than the activist fringe) and the rest of his investigation can be just as revealing as any of the Freakonomics-style books that have been published since then.  I wish I’d read this book upon publication; maybe the world would have made a bit more sense.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

(In theaters, August 2011) Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much from Rise of the Planet of the Apes: I have no particular affinity for apes, would have left the Planet of the Apes series left for dead, and wasn’t overly impressed by the film’s trailer.  But there’s no substitute for watching the movie, and the story’s slow, emotional build is ill-suited to be presented in a two-minute trailer.  The best way to appreciate Rise of the Planet of the Apes is to ignore that it’s meant to be part of a larger story –not only will you avoid knowing the end of the story in advance, but you will also appreciate the somewhat more dramatically ambitious aims of this new film.  There’s an easy answer to anyone wondering why the film needed to exist: the advances in computer graphics have enabled some amazing acting to be captured digitally and re-rendered as completely convincing simian creatures.  No more men-in-suits: The newly-intelligent apes of this film are not only undistinguishable from the real thing, but have impeccably-controlled dramatic performances.  Andy Serkis, in the lead performance as “Caesar”, steals the show from a sympathetic James Franco.  Quite a number of sequences are not only wordless, but take place entirely between computer-generated creatures.  The fact that most people won’t notice either particularity is testament to Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ success.  Also worth mentioning is the good use of the San Francisco location, and the way the progressive dramatic build-up engrosses the audience.  It’s hardly a perfect film (the end climax on the Golden Gate bridge seems almost too implausibly contrived to be credible, the theme is a bit too obviously “humans are scum” and the SF elements are conventional enough to appear as quasi-mainstream now) but it’s a great deal better than anyone would have expected ten years after the underwhelming Tim Burton remake.  It’s been a while since special effects alone dictated a should-see movie, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes earns that accolade by using the technology to do something emotionally gripping.