Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Nut Job (2014)

(On Cable TV, August 2014) The good news are that the universe of computer-generated movies is expanding, allowing newer players to compete against the Pixar/Dreamworks powerhouses of the field.  Of course, this is an unfair comparison for most of the new players out there: it takes time, money and expertise to develop animation studios and the best one can hope from new payers is a decent showing.  Which is why even if Toonbox/Redrover’s Canadian/South Korean collaboration The Nut Job may not amount to much more than a semi-successful attempt to deliver an animated animal adventure for kids, it’s perhaps more interesting for what it promises next than for what it delivers now.  There’s certainly a number of dumb decisions built into the script itself: While the need for a protagonist that emotionally evolves along the course of a story is understandable, there’s no reason to make this protagonist as purely unpleasant as he is.  The script has occasional moments of brilliance (interweaving scenes, cleverly exploiting the elements initially set up), but it doesn’t quite have the flow and sustained build-up of better animated films.  The Nut Job opens itself up to all sorts of second-guessing from an audience wondering why the characters don’t use other means to get to achieve their goals, and the roughness of its edges doesn’t gain it any sympathy points.  By the time the credits roll, we’re more confounded by the instantly-dated decision to include a computer-animated Psy dancing to “Gangnam Style” alongside the film’s animal characters than anything else.  As an avowed fan of squirrels, I’m all for movies featuring one of them as a main character –but it would be even better if I could cheer for him throughout rather than wait for the last-act redemption.  Still, let’s see what’s next from Toonbox/Redrover.

Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolf Von Bitter Rucker, Rudy Rucker

Tor, 2011, 336 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-765-32752-X

Despite having head more than half a dozen of Rudy Rucker’s books, I can’t say that I’m much of a fan of him as an author: While I have enjoyed the first half of many of his novels, Rucker writes weird and there’s usually a point somewhere in the narrative where my suspension of disbelief smashes against his surrealism and breaks, after which I can’t (or won’t) make sense of the rest.  I’ve seen the pattern repeat all the way from Master of Space and Time to Hylozoic, and even within his best-known Ware tetralogy.  I suspect that I’m far too square to be the ideal audience for his novels, and I’m fine with that.

Still, it’s hard to come away from a Rucker novel and not feel that the author himself is a character sorely in need to be the hero of his own book, and that’s exactly what we get with his autobiography.  Motivated by a cardiovascular near-death experience in early 2008, Nested Scrolls is Rucker’s attempt to make sense of his experiences so far, a warm and wonderful trip through a rich life.

Going into the autobiography, I didn’t know much about Rucker beyond his back-cover blurbs and that’s for the best as it allows for surprises, fortuitous discoveries and the basic suspense of wondering what would transform Rucker from an underperforming student to an elder SF-writing Computer Sciences professor.

It starts out leisurely enough, with a lengthy section detailing Rucker’s childhood and adolescence –a section that many biographies usually skip out of irrelevance.  But Rucker’s memories of growing up in a small Midwestern city hold some nostalgic value, and the deceptively simple prose (“It was great.”) sets the tone for the rest of the book.

Things do get more interesting as Rucker enters university and gradually develops an ambition to become a beatnick SF writer, more interested in SF because of its innate potential for surrealism than anything else.  The first few years of Rucker’s post-graduate career take us to a few places within the US and Germany before he comes to settle down in Silicon Valley just in time for the nineties high-tech boom.  Along the way he becomes a punk rocker, a professor, a popular science writer, a computer programmer, a father of three children and (oh yes) the beatnick SF writer he wanted to become.

I was most interested by those chapters set in the early nineties where he becomes involved with the geek culture of the time.  Rucker, as it turned out, was involved in many of the things that fascinated me back then, from cellular automata, fractals, virtual reality and cyberpunk. (He even edited the Mondo 2000 book that I so distinctly remember reading back in 1993!)  That, plus the chapters in which he discusses his perennial outsider status within the SF genre community, were the sections of the book that spoke the most directly to me.

But there are other, more heartfelt passages that I also found compelling.  Rucker mentions the issues that he had with mind-altering substances (mostly alcohol, but also soft drugs) before deciding to give them up when they proved more troublesome than they were worth.  Most positively, his descriptions of family life are heart-warming, especially in describing his early days with three children, and the way they transformed into fully-independent adults with lives of their own –one of the most affecting passages late in the book describes their rare get-togethers now that they span three generations, and how Rucker himself can draw upon his memories to see across five generations, the same people occupying different roles.  By the end of the book, Rucker is retired, a grandfather many times over, happy with what he has achieved and curious to see what’s next.

SF readers familiar with his body of work will enjoy the descriptions of the creative process that led to his novels, and especially how his “transrealism” approach involves writing autobiographical passages that are transformed by the inclusion of frankly science-fictional elements.  I can testify first-hand about readers recoiling in confusion while reading his books, but Nested Scrolls goes a long way toward explaining why Rucker writes such surreal science-fiction, and why this very surrealism is at the core of the Rucker literary experience.  In many ways, Nested Scrolls exactly fulfills the ambition of all biographies: tell their lives and explain their subject, making us more sympathetic to them.  I have never met Rucker (although we’ve been to the same SF convention at least once) but if I ever do, it’s this autobiography more than his novels that would make me shake his hand and say “well-done.”

Homefront (2013)

(On Cable TV, August 2014) Another six months, another Jason Statham movie.  Here he is again in the utterly-generically-named Homefront, playing a cop with rough methods, this time with the slight twist that he’s supposed to be retired and living easy somewhere in the Louisiana countryside.  It doesn’t work out that way, of course: a bullying incident involving his daughter escalates and brings him to the attention of the local meth lord, who in turn goes and involves an even bigger mob boss with scores to settles.  It leads predictably into the kind of mayhem we expect from Statham movies.  So what is different from this one?  Not much, but Homefront has qualities to appreciate:  The Louisiana scenery is nice.  Rachelle Lefebvre gets another small but likable role as a sympathetic schoolteacher.  Statham is up to his usual standards as a dad trying to protect his daughter from harm.  But it’s James Franco who gets the most distinctive role, bringing his usual lack of intensity to a reluctant meth kingpin antagonist.  Wynona Rider also gets a small role as a waitress with ambitions.  Still, this is another one of Statham’s archetypical roles, and this continuation of his usual screen persona is successful in that it neither challenges nor undermines his position as an action star.  The workmanlike direction is good enough without being in any way impressive, which is roughly what’s to expect from Statham vehicles.  Homefront doesn’t amount to much of a film, but it’s entertaining enough in its own generic way.  Of course, it’s going to be hard to remember it in a few days, let alone after it blurs into a string of so many similar Statham films.

Rush (2013)

(On Cable TV, August 2014)  Given the speed and excitement of Formula 1 racing, it’s a wonder that there aren’t more movies about the sport.  Considering Rush, though, the wait has been worth it: Easily eclipsing 2001’s Driven, this historical bio-drama has everything we’d wish for in a racing film, and strong historical accuracy as a bonus.  Centered around the 1976 Formula 1 season in which British racer Daniel Hunt competed against Austrian legend Nikki Lauda, Rush is an actor’s showcase, a convincing period recreation, a virtuoso blend of special effects and crackling good drama.  Expertly directed by Ron Howard, it’s gripping from the very first moments, pitting a charismatic playboy and a valorous technician against each other.  Howard’s direction doesn’t stay still for long, and does a fine job at summarizing an eventful season’s worth of incidents into a striking whole.  The atmosphere of the high-flying 1970s Formula 1 circuit is impressively conveyed, including impressive race sequences with period cars. (Was is done with CGI or practical?  It doesn’t matter when the film is that good.)  Much of Rush‘s effectiveness boils down to its two lead actors: Chris Hemsworth makes full use of his charisma as the seductive Hunt, his brashness clashing against the methodical Lauda very well-played by Daniel Bruhl.  The two make for compelling rivals, and Rush makes maximum use of their conflict in allowing us a peek into the mind of top-notch race drivers.  As exciting for its dialogue scenes than for its racing action, Rush may not look like much on paper, but becomes steadily engrossing without any effort from the viewer. 

Closed Circuit (2013)

(On Cable TV, August 2014)  It may or may not be a trend, but I’ve now seen three post-9/11 British thrillers about terrorism in the past 18 months (Dirty War, Cleanskin and now Closed Circuit), and they all eventually end up concluding that their secret services are to be feared just as much as the terrorists.  The setup, in Closed Circuit‘s case, promises a bit less than full-blown paranoia: As the case against a terrorist heats up, two lawyers are asked to take the suspects’ defense, one operating publically while the other one defends the client in secret court.  The suicide of a previous lawyer assigned to the case weighs heavily in the picture.  When both lawyers (previously romantically involved, in a twist that initially promises much) discover increasingly troubling details about their client, they too become the target.  The first half of Closed Circuit has a good escalation of thrills as our lawyer protagonists discover far more than expected about their client and his connections to the British Secret Services.  But it all tips over to a fairly standard conspiracy/chase thriller that, in the end, doesn’t do much than shrug and deliver a weakly comforting epilogue.  It’s all well and good to point at the British establishment and argue that they are all-powerful, but that’s not much of a conclusion –I expected a bit more.  Still, Closed Circuit does have a few assets.  Eric Bana makes for a fine protagonist, while Rebecca Hall once again plays brainy heroines like no others.  Jim Broadbent is unexpectedly menacing as a political force warning our heroes against overstepping unspoken boundaries, while Ciaran Hinds once again ends up as a powerful character who can’t be trusted.  (Julia Stiles is also in the film, but almost as a cameo.  Anne-Marie Duff is far more memorable with even fewer appearances.)  The direction is competent (with an expected visual motif of surveillance cameras), the focus on legal proceedings is fascinating in its own way and the first two-third of the script are built solidly.  It’s a shame that after such a promising and unusual beginning, the conclusion disintegrates to so much generic pap that we’ve seen countless times before.  At least the British pessimism is enough to keep it distinct from what a typical American thriller would have gone for.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

(On Cable TV, August 2014) My current life circumstances mean that I usually see movies 6-9 months after their theatrical release.  In order to “stay current” and understand much of the ongoing conversation regarding movies, I often spoil myself silly on movies I haven’t seen but eventually will.  This usually works pretty well and doesn’t ruin movies as much as you’d think.  But there are exceptions and Inside Llewyn Davis shows the limits of the spoil-yourself-rotten approach in tackling plot-light interpretation-heavy movies.  Having read many descriptions of what made Inside Llewyn Davis so interesting a while ago, I now find that most of the theories about the film are more substantial than the film itself.  A ramble through 1961 Greenwich Village before the folk-music explosion, Inside Llewyn Davis is about a talented but prickly musician who may be at the end of his moribund career.  The film follows him during an eventful week, but don’t expect much in terms of plotting or conclusion: As with many of their previous movies, the Coen Brothers don’t settle for neat dramatic arcs, fully-tied subplots or self-contained screen characters: they hint, leave plenty to the imagination, play with chronology and cut to the credits five minutes before other directors would.  It’s maddening and yet in my encroaching old age, I don’t find it as frustrating as I would have years ago.  (But then again, if you follow the Coen Brothers you’ve already seen No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man)  The music is great if you like folk (I don’t, but the artistry is remarkable and then there’s “Please Please Mr. Kennedy” to amuse us uncouth barbarians.), and as a look at a specific time and place, it’s fascinating in its own right.  The cinematography is remarkable, as this is a cold winter movie and there’s no visual comfort for anyone here.  Oscar Isaac is fascinating as the titular protagonist while Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan have short but striking roles.  While I like individual elements, themes and sequences of Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m not sure I like it as much as the idealized version I had made up in my head while reading the chatter surrounding the film.  You can probably figure out that this is a problem with me rather than the film itself.

Scarecrow Returns aka Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves, Matthew Reilly

Pocket, 2013 reprint of 2012 original, 496 pages, ISBN C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-1-4165-7760-7

There are a few thousand reviews on this web site, and only a handful of them contain the word “escapism”.  Being mainly a fan of genre fiction, I think the word is not only derogatory to most readers, but based on false premises: genre fiction at its best should be a way to understand the world a bit better by studying how people behave under extraordinary circumstances.  But it’s also true that until recently, I simply did not understand the concept of escapism: Reading was a large part of my life and trying to escape from reading by reading led to irresolvable tautological conundrums.

Then life happened: I became a husband/father, took on more responsibilities, went on a reading semi-sabbatical and eventually realized that I hadn’t taken holidays in years, nor sat down to read a paperback from beginning to end in roughly as long.  Taking a week off for summer holidays “doing nothing around the house”, I build my schedule around a number of key activities such as “reading a paperback sitting outside”.  Stars aligned and I eventually found myself with some free time, a big jug of ice tea and favorable weather.

Of course, I picked a Matthew Reilly novel.  Reilly, after all, is the very model of a dependable genre writer: He delivers more or less the same kind of experience to his readers, book after book after book.  The Michael Bay of techno-thrillers, he builds his novels like videogames, high on action-movie set-pieces, a series of increasingly difficult levels, mapped-out settings and bare-bone characters largely distinguished by their call signs.  Reilly may not be deep or literary, but he is clever and astonishing good at what he chooses to do: He’s a natural choice for anyone looking to reconnect with notions of escapism.

So it is that this novel returns to the character of Shane “Scarecrow” Shofield, indestructible hero of four previous high-tech action novels.  This time, he happens to be up in the Arctic Circle just as a terrorist group takes over a Russian base and threatens the world with wholesale destruction.  Grabbing on to a small motley group, he boldly heads toward more dangers and insane action sequences than you can count.

Readers of the series so far will be completely comfortable with this new instalment: High-tech weapons, large-scale geopolitical premises, nick-of-time escapes from certain death are all featured here, along with the usual in-book diagrams, in-prose exclamation points and usual bon mots from the characters.  Reilly still manages to make me chuckle out loud at the absurdity of his action sequences, and he’s never too shy to tell you how to feel at any given moment. (i.e.; it’s not enough for the characters to swing heavy objects from cables in unlikely configuration: you will be told explicitly that “it was an incredible sight”)  The more you know the series, the more amusing it is: at one point, a character in desperate circumstances asks herself “what would Scarecrow do?” and the answer is to go for the most insane explosive alternative… and it works.  Scarecrow Returns also comes back to the enclosed-environment settings of early Reilly novels (unlike the globe-spanning of his last few books), and actually nods heavily toward continuity by taking in account the psychological trauma suffered by its protagonist in previous novels.

None of this is meant as a recommendation for those who are not already familiar with Reilly’s brand of explosive fiction: It takes a special kind of reader to appreciate the relentless pacing, crude plot mechanics and bang-bang prose.  Still, there’s respectability in consistency, and Scarecrow Returns is exactly what fans would be looking for in a new Reilly novel.  It’s so over the top that it creates its own reality, sucking readers out of their usual lives.  Escapism?  Yes, please.

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

(On Cable TV, August 2014) It feels vaguely improper to take apart a film as well-intentioned as Machine Gun Preacher.  It is, after all, the inspiring story of a junkie criminal who finds religion and embarks on a quest to save children in war-torn Africa.  How can you possibly criticize something like that?  But as noble as Machine Gun Preacher can be, its intentions don’t matter as much when the film itself proves to be so disappointing.  Even at nearly two hours, much of the film feels like a half-baked sketch, filled with diversions that are never explored and not particularly good at hitting its specific emotional targets.  Gerald Butler gets another thankless role as the titular preacher, with a script that doesn’t do much with the various ethical issues of seeing an ex-criminal taking up arms in the cause of peace.  A few secondary characters voice objections (as in “you should focus on your family first”, as in “if you take up arms, you may become part of the problem”), but those are ignored or blown away like so many troublesome subplots.  What’s maddening is the amount of material at the edges of the film, begging to be used more effectively with just a little bit more introspection.  The subject matters deserves better than this strange mix of gritty drama and action-movie heroics –to say nothing of the uncomfortable way Africa is saved by Yet Another White Hero. Machine Gun Preacher feels as if good intentions were mangled by Hollywood story meetings and possibly someone with a hankering to make an exploitation film along the way.  The result just feels limp despite its potential, and badly serves its inspiration.

The Art of the Steal (2013)

(On Cable TV, August 2014) I’m a sucker for fast-moving crime comedies, and so it is that Canadian low-budget The Art of the Steal manages to hit all of the right buttons.  From the get-go, it presents itself with narration-heavy stylish grace, zipping along its plot points while keeping a pleasantly cynical tone throughout.  Kurt Russell stars as the protagonist/narrator, a master thief who’s been burnt once by an accomplice (Matt Dillon, as slickly slimy as he can be).  When both of them are reunited for One Last Caper, you can guess where the story goes.  Jay Baruchel becomes another good neurotic oddball (alongside veteran Terence Stamp for an added touch of class), but it’s writer/director Jonathan Sobol who delivers the most stylish performance.  While The Art of the Steal liberally borrows from other similar films down to the expected twist ending, the result is pleasant enough to excuse any familiarity: sometimes, comfort is what we’re after, and fans of caper films should be more than happy with the result.  Best of all; this is a cheerfully Canadian film both in origins and in setting: For something shown partially to fulfill CanCon requirements for home-grown cable channels, it’s surprisingly entertaining and slickly made as a bonus. 

The Wolverine (2013)

(On Cable TV, August 2014) The good news are that this take on comic-book superhero Wolverine is quite a bit better than the dismal 2009 Origins film.  Taking place almost entirely in Japan, this Wolverine digs a bit deeper into the character’s traumas, attempts a more respectable kind of story and manages once or twice to deliver action sequences that make full use of Wolverine’s special powers.  The bad news are that for all of the characterization, exotic setting and occasional thrills, The Wolverine is a bit… dull.  Hugh Jackman is the character but the script doesn’t give him much range to show: he’s still the same stoic figure, slashing and dicing as soon as he’s repowered.  The Japanese setting is unusual enough to be interesting, but it suffers from a bad case of occidental gaze: by the time the film is through, we’ve been served the same exotic-yet-familiar cocktail of samurais, yakuza, ninjas and pachinko.  (That last in an arcade parlour where people are curiously unconcerned about the destructive mayhem surrounding them.)  At times, the film promises more than it can deliver: while the bullet-train sequence is original enough and the cardiac self-surgery reaches into character-specific thrills (after a too-long interlude in which the character is depowered), much of the rest is generic in the way only superhero movies can be, including a third act that rushes back to tired old superhero movie clichés.  The plot twists are seen coming well in advance and while Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper initially promises to be something more striking than usual, the script eventually relegates her character to the usual villain.  By the time The Wolverine is over, it has retreated to a comfortable middle-ground, neither silly enough to be dismissed like its predecessor, nor exceptional enough to be considered as anything more than a competent summer spectacle. 

Prisoners (2013)

(On Cable TV, August 2014) I approached Prisoners reluctantly.  Sure, it got great reviews… but it also came along with the reputation of being a dark and unpleasant thriller.  I kept putting it off, constantly reasoning that I wanted to see something lighter in my short free time.  Well, now that I have finally sat down to watch Prisoners, can I acknowledge that I was wrong in delaying watching it?  This has to be one of the finest films of 2013.  Sure, it’s dark.  Really dark, as stories about child abductions and psychopath criminals usually are.  But it’s temporary darkness at worst: The film wraps up to a fine conclusion that strikes a perfect balance between hard-earned light and unforgiving consequences.  There are a few unfortunate coincidences within the plot, but much of Prisoners has the satisfying heft of a good crime novel. (Remarkably enough, it’s an original screenplay.)  Moral dilemmas abound, and the sense of barely-repressed darkness is constant.  As a no-fun crime drama, it allows actors to shine: Hugh Jackman turns in one of his best performances as a grief-stricken family man taking justice in his own hands when the police won’t hold a suspected abductor while his daughter is missing.  Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal also has a career-best role as a driven investigator trying to make sense of a convoluted web of back-stories and shadowy criminals.  Paul Dano is also remarkable as a punching-bag character.  Still, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve gets the credit for a film that manages a satisfying conclusion out of a bleaker-than-bleak film.  (Significantly enough, the film either takes place at night, or during overcast/snowy days.)  The film may not be fun, but it is strangely uplifting and shows what happens when viewers are trusted to handle more than the usual Hollywood pap.

You’re Next (2011)

(On Cable TV, August 2014) I’m not much of a slasher/home-invasion horror fan, but You’re Next is a fine, well-executed example of the form.  Working from a familiar let’s-kill-all-characters-until-only-one-survives template, writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard wring competent thrills out of the proceedings, and deliver a story that’s more interesting than the usual psycho-killer standby.  Sharni Vinson makes for a capable last-girl heroine that anchors the film by going beyond the damsel-in-distress archetype.  You’re Next cleverly makes use of its limited budget by taking place in one location with a limited (and dwindling) number of characters.  Interestingly enough, the film keeps the more extreme gore under control until well into the third act –alas, the last few deaths feel as gratuitous as they are sadistic.  Still, the rest is a knowing example of the genre, crafted well enough to remain interesting even for those who are not horror movie fans.  It’s single-mindedly dedicated to entertainment for the audience, and that’s what makes it worthwhile.

The Rhesus Chart (The Laundry Files 5), Charles Stross

Ace, 2014, 368 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-4252-5686-2

One of the hidden benefits of having taken a bit of time away from reading favourite authors in the past three years is that, suddenly, I had two Laundry Files novels to read back-to-back.  Ha!  Take that, interminable wait in-between volumes!  Go away, unfulfilled addiction to one of my favourite ongoing series!  Hello, instant gratification!

At first glance, fifth volume The Rhesus Chart looks like a romp.  Discussing the series on his blog, Charles Stross has announced that while the first four volumes of the series had been homages to spy thrillers, the next three-book cycle would take on aspects of urban fantasy.  So it is that The Rhesus Chart starts off modestly with series narrator Bob Howard discovering a nest of vampires set in London’s financial district.  Now wait: Has someone said “vampire”?  In the Laundry universe?  Why yes: While the novel begins with “everybody knows vampires doesn’t exist”, Stross ends up doing some fancy foot-tapping in order to justify their existence within the framework of the series, and it works pretty well.  When investment banking quants end up thinking a bit too much about the nature of new fiscal instruments, they end up ridden by extra-dimensional parasites that demand consumption of human blood for quantic-cognitive purposes.  When Bob discovers what they’re up to through data mining, he declares an emergency, loads up for bear and…

…and that’s when, mid-way through, The Rhesus Chart takes a most unexpected and delightful plot detour, letting go of the expected fang-hunt in favor of something far more in-line with the series’ satiric approach to occult intelligence.  I’m sitting on my hands not to say more, but I’ll add that right after I was openly musing (in reviewing The Apocalypse Codex) that The Laundry Files was worth reading for world-building more than plot, here is a novel that brings plotting back to the forefront.  Characters in The Laundry Files are far more competent and reasonable than would be expected from similar urban fantasy series, and Stross doesn’t miss an occasion to poke fun at other vampire fiction (most notably by featuring a vampire-hunter demonstrated to be even worse than the vampires).

Throughout, The Rhesus Chart keeps up the fine (and sometimes dizzying) game of spot-the-references, blending geek jokes with pop-culture references, technical wizardry and genre references.  I suspect that The Laundry Files is a narrowcast series: very enjoyable to those who happen to fall within the parameters of its premise, a bit less comprehensible to others.  As a whole, the series is steadily getting grimmer even though The Rhesus Chart certainly seems to be a bit more comic (at times) than its two predecessors: Stross indulges in lame bureaucratic humor in describing how the Laundry forms a committee to deal with vampires (or PHANGs, as they are designated), but scores a few smiles in describing vampires using trendy software development methodology and project-management techniques to figure out what’s happening to them.

Some plot threads are launched that will hopefully pay off in future installments (including a new cat, and a conversation that suggests that Bob’s relationship with Mo is of high interest to the upper management of the Laundry).  The editing is a bit slack in that the same plot points seem hammered home a few times (although, to be fair, the plot does get so convoluted at times that it seems as if even the narrator isn’t too sure what’s happening and why) and the usually heavy-handed exposition risks alienating those who aren’t already fans of exposition, although few of those will have made it to the fifth book of a series that delights in its exposition.

Then there’s the ending, which turns The Rhesus Chart from a romp to a significant installment in the series: The vampires bite where we least expect, several recurring characters die and one of the most comforting relationships in the series is badly damaged.  Some of this could have been predicted from the overall series arc: other than the typical Campbellian plotting tropes, narrator Bob has, as demonstrated in the ways the narration has progressively gotten away from him, grown significantly in power and now knows too much to remain the sole viewpoint.  In order to grow, The Laundry Files needed to shake up some of the foundations of the series, make Bob more miserable and find itself a few other narrative entry points.

It’s that kind of willingness to upset the status quo (as also shown most spectacularly in the conclusion to his initial Merchant Princes cycle) that makes Stross an interesting author even when he’s cold-bloodedly engaged in the mercantile tradeoffs of a continuing series.  The Laundry Files could have stayed in stasis, featuring Bob Howard fighting the newest tentacled evil-of-the-book, but The Rhesus Chart show that Stross is actively reshaping his series as he goes along.  Keeping in mind that the series started from what was meant to be a one-off short novel and that Stross’ game-plans keep evolving as he goes on (with a seven-book cycle now planned to hit nine volumes), this is a series that’s going to be worth reading for a while.

The Heat (2013)

(On Cable TV, August 2014)  It’s almost liberating to realize, shortly into a film, that you’re not the target audience.  It’s a realization that frees you from the burden of trying to like the movie: Once you realize it’s aimed at someone else, you can become as dismissive as you can.  So it is that comedy The Heat is really aimed at another kind of audience.  While I’m left uncharmed by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, I can remind myself that the movie is for someone else.  I can criticize the dumb humor, unlikable characters, simplistic plot points and lazy witless approach and who’s going to stop me?  The movie is made for someone else.  Overlong, repetitive and unnecessarily gruesome?  Not. For. Me.  I can find peace with The Heat as long as I remind myself that I shouldn’t be watching it.  This isn’t meant to be a solid procedural cop drama: it’s a high-concept (Bullock reprising Miss Congeniality!  McCarthy being as rude and foul as she can be!) executed just well enough by director Paul Feig to ensure that the target audience feels that it got what it wanted.  It turns out that I like McCarthy a lot less in lead roles than in supporting turns such as Bridesmaids, and the tonal problems with the script frankly pale besides its unpleasant atmosphere.  I suppose that I should feel satisfied that this is a female takeover of a typically masculine film genre.  I should probably be happy that a performer as unorthodox as McCarthy gets a big leading role.  But somehow, as The Heat plays out, I’m left out in the cold and unsatisfied by the results.  But, oh yes, this isn’t for me.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

(In Theaters, August 2014) At a time where superhero films are in real danger of being overexposed, it’s refreshing to see that Marvel Studios are doing their damndest to avoid resting on their laurels.  Their “Phase 2” slate of movies has branched off in interesting directions so far, from quasi-improvised comedy (Iron Man 3) to far-out geekery (Thor 2) to almost-serious political thriller (Captain America 2) to an irreverent space opera with Guardians of the Galaxy.  From a plotting standpoint, this ensemble-cast action caper isn’t anything new: we’ve seen more or less the same thing half a dozen times before from Marvel Studios alone.  But from the 70s pop-fueled title card onward, it’s obvious that this is a successful attempt to stretch the envelope of superhero films in a new stylistic direction: bold, brash, colorful and with a clear emphasis on fun that feels refreshing after the stone-faced dourness of Nolan’s Batman trilogy (to say nothing of Man of Steel.)  The result is never less than highly entertaining.  Much of the credits for this success goes to writer/director James Gunn, who manages to ride herd on a good ensemble cast, a somewhat esoteric mythology, complex SFX-laden sequences and surprising pop-culture references (including pleasingly dissonant musical cues).  With this film, Chris Pratt makes a strong bid for superstar status, while Dave Batista proves to be an unexpectedly gifted performer and Zoe Saldana shows why she rose so quickly to stardom.  Guardians of the Galaxy was an insanely risky project on paper, but the result is pure blockbuster entertainment.  Particularly exemplary are the film’s occasional moments of seriousness (tempered by un-ironic fun) and its satisfying coda which takes pains to deliver its payoffs and make sure that everyone is happy.  Such crowd-pleasing instincts are a good way to ensure that the audience will come back for more, and a sign that Marvel Studios truly understand what business they’re in.