Month: August 2005

Market Forces, Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2004, 386 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07567-8

Anyone who has read Richard Morgan’s previous Altered Carbon already knows that the man’s not afraid to pull punches when it comes to sex and violence. Morgan may not appeal to more delicate sensibilities by successfully combining science-fiction elements with big boy toys, but he has managed to carve himself an impressive readership. Now with Market Forces, Morgan one-ups himself and delivers the equivalent of a big Hollywood action blockbuster in book form.

The comparison with a big-budget film is no accident: As Morgan acknowledge in his preface, Market Forces was a script at one moment in its checkered history, and the central premise owes more to studio high-concept thinking than to serious sober extrapolation. What if, in a world where ultra-capitalism is dominant, one takes “corporate warfare” to its logical conclusion… on the roads?

This is not such a new idea. ROLLERBALL 2000 and MAD MAX 2 are also mentioned in the preface, while more experienced readers will remember satiric works such as Alan Dean Foster’s “Why Johnny Can’t Speed” or Harlan Ellison’s “Along the Scenic Route”. Morgan’s newest entry in the infernokrusher canon attempts to be somewhat more sophisticated, reflecting current concerns about globalization, runaway corporations and the widening divide between social classes.

As the novel begins, renowned carfighter Chris Faulkner joins a new employer in their Conflict Investment division, in which he makes deals with third-world civil war leaders in exchange for considerations once the dust settles. Dirty stuff, but not all that detached from current practises. What is different is the way companies vie for contract and corporate climbers eliminate their competition: On the road, with cars and guns. Whoever wins, suggests Morgan, brings back the other driver’s plastic cards.

If that sounds like a perfect excuse to include car chases, gun battles and hot women, well, you’re absolutely right. The universe of Market Forces is one where corporate executive go joy-shooting poor people in the disenfranchised zones, where every woman is either a bland wife, a hot mistress or an icy ball-breaker. It’s hard to take it very seriously, and that eventually becomes a problem: Morgan’s satire is earnest about its left-wing stance (this may be the first guns-and-babes action novel ending with a bibliography suggesting works by Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore), but it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief to work. When Morgan gets down to explanations in the pivotal Chapter Thirty-Four, he doesn’t give the reader a believable rationale as much as an excuse to go along with the whole carfighting concept.

But don’t thing that this makes Market Forces any less than a bang-up read. Morgan writes with an unbeatable narrative energy, and as a result you’ll be hard-pressed to tear yourself away from this novel even as you roll your eyes and mutter that this is all very unlikely. Faulkner’s corporate struggles with competitors, enemies and friends are gripping, and so are the various incidents on his road to moral redemption. A twisted example of Morgan’s skills is found in Chapter Thirty-Three, as an incident of unbelievable violence is felt as a cathartic triumph, and then becomes a comic punchline for the rest of the book.

The book falters near the end, as it tries to reconcile dramatic inevitability and moral considerations with its action-driven atmosphere. The way Morgan is willing to criticize ultra-capitalism and yet deliver an ambiguous conclusion is admirable, but it may also strike some as trying to sell a cake and eating it too. Too bad that in the process, a number of threads are cut abruptly, or left unresolved.

There is no doubt that Market Forces is a remarkable book. At a time where “left-wing” often means “wimpy”, it’s unusual to see a vigorous political argument taking a form more appropriate to the bloodthirsty young males. It’s a fascinating study in the contradictions of satire, with serious themes supporting silly concepts. It’s almost wonderful in its capacity to make fascinating characters out of repellent people, and in creating narrative interest even as the events unfolding are almost unbearably awful. It certainly solidify whatever credentials Morgan has established with his first two novels, and is making hard to wait until his next.

Saucer, Stephen Coonts

St. Martin’s, 2002, 340 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-28342-3

There are no perfectly sane writers.

There is always a little trapdoor in every author’s mind, a trapdoor that normally blocks dumb ideas, stupid beliefs, sexual kinks, wrong impulsions and other things we don’t really want to know. If the author is reasonably self-cognisant and if his agent/editor is at least mildly competent, the trapdoor stays closed and readers never have to hear about any of the silliness hidden behind it.

But as authors’ careers advance, as they become so successful as to dictate terms to his editor, or as their thirst for money grows outside all reasonable bounds, the trapdoor opens and what comes out isn’t pretty. In the techno-thriller field, take a look at the brief but spectacular flame-out of Payne Harrison’s career. Two excellent novels (Storming Intrepid and Thunder of Erebus), followed by one mildly entertaining potboiler (Black Light) and then Forbidden Summit, one ludicrous straight-to-paperback UFO-are-real conspiracy thriller complete with an afterword claiming that the conspiracy was real. Exit Payne Harrison: he never wrote a novel under that name again.

Now the brain-eating, trapdoor-opening disease has firmly lodged itself in the head of Stephen Coonts, as he trades his credibility for extra bucks with the trade-paperback original UFO thriller Saucer. To be fair, it starts promisingly, as an engineering team discovers a long-buried flying saucer in the Sahara desert. So far, so good: there’s no trace of a conspiracy, and there’s still a science-fictional thrill in contemplating alien relics left on Earth thousands of years ago. What’s more, Coonts anchors his novel around an endearing young protagonist, and if the result may not rise much above adventure fiction for the first hundred pages, it’s decent adventure fiction.

It gets more interesting when the characters figure out that the saucer has been shaped by and for human minds. Savvy SF readers immediately reach for the good old time-travel explanation, with maybe a wince when remembering Michael Crichton’s Sphere. But Coonts then takes his accumulated momentum and runs off a credibility cliff: You see, explain the book’s mouthpiece scientist, humans are the descendant of an alien race that landed on Earth thousands of years ago, and then devolved into tribalism and forgot all about their technological origins.

This, to put it too mildly, is nonsense. It flies in the face of everything we know about early human history, culture and biology. (There’s more than enough genetic linkage between humans and other animals to make it patently obvious that we share a common biological origin.)

But it gets worse, a lot worse as Saucer abandons adventure fiction to focus on the machinations of an evil tycoon, the duplicity of the US government, and romance in a “get me the super-duper MacGuffin!” plot that was better-handled in books like Dale Brown’s classic Day of the Cheetah. Even our likable protagonist loses his charm, as his characterization oscillates between boy genius, dumb teenager (“thirty-year-old women are old!”) and stone-cold killer. Saucer, in other words, gets silly, gets dumb and gets old real fast.

The cherry topping on the sundae comes late in the book, as the protagonists figure out how to hook up the saucer’s advanced computer to a plain old laser printer. Gaaah. At this point, it’s obvious that Coonts just doesn’t even care about his readers: as long as he’s got their money, it’s all good. (But now try to convince those readers to buy your newer books, chump…) This “my readers are morons and that’s a good thing” thinking extends to the mechanics of the saucer’s anti-gravity mechanism, which make no sense and, if I’m reading latter sections correctly, would even prevent the saucer from leaving the ground.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad,: Despite the considerable lengths and silly plot mechanics, Coonts still gives to Saucer a basic readability. Part of it is based in “just how dumb is this going to become?”, but part of it is also based on a scattering of intriguing characters and neat reversals. But this doesn’t change that of all of Coonts’ book, this is the first trade-paperback original, and that it’s nowhere near the quality of his latest books, even the disappointing Hong Kong.

I now see that Saucer somehow warranted a sequel (Saucer: The Conquest, which I seriously think lacks an exclamation point.), which strengthens my whole “Dumb readers! Money! Dumb readers! Money!” theory. Memo to authors: Writing fun adventure fiction doesn’t give you an excuse to ignore logic and good sense. Unless you don’t have any left, the trapdoor having sprung open.

[January 2009: Re-reading the above before tackling a cheap used copy of Saucer: The Conquest, I briefly wondered if the novel really deserved my bucketful of vitriol. After reading the sequel, I’m now worried that I may have been too lenient: The second adventure of boy genius Rip Cantrell is just as bad, if not even a bit worse, than the original. From Area 51 conspiracies to AUSTIN POWERS-grade lunar death beams to the machination of a French tycoon (who, being French in an American thriller, obviously turns out to be evil), Saucer: The Conquest is another damaging piece of nonsense for Coonts, whose recent novels have proven to be more and more erratic. It’s not enough for him and his fans to take refuge behind excuses of “light adventure science-fiction”: This is bad fiction, period.]

Olympos, Dan Simmons

EOS, 2005, 690 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-380-97894-6

Well, it’s over and it was about time it was.

It’s not that I disliked Dan Simmons’ Ilium. But even ambitious novels trying to tie together science, literature and the human condition can leave some lingering resentment after lasting about twice as long as what they should have. Obviously, mine was a minority view: Ilium went on to earn critical raves and was nominated for the 2004 Hugo Awards. But it was still, after all, half a story and now that Olympos is out, we can learn how it all ends.

It ends well, fortunately. Olympos is not without its own considerable lengths, but at least it ties everything together and enlightens us as to the nature of Simmons’ artistic and thematic choices for Ilium. Picking up a few months after the Iliad-changing conclusion of the first volume, Olympos continues the adventures of the humans, moravecs, post-humans and even stranger entities of a far-away future. At last, issues are settled and questions are answered. (Not the least being “why the parallels with classic works of literature?”)

Olympos is an epic work not especially because of the subject (which is ambitious, but still small-potatoes compared to some of the most overblown space-operas out there), but because of the amount of time readers are expected to sink into the entire 1,100-pages story before getting a good payoff. The “eloi” plot thread never started cooking for me until well into the second half of Olympos, and given the density of the book’s 600-odd pages, that’s a long time awaiting. (Simmons fan will note that a similar problem affected the Endymion diptych: The first volume wasn’t terribly useful, but the second one was the whole point of the setup.)

This being said, it’s entirely possible that the Ilium/Olympos series may be too big for my own little head to contain. The references to classical literature kept eluding me (heck, says “Achilles” and I picture Brad Pitt in TROY.) and the thematic underpinning of the book seemed a lot more obvious after reading an interview in which Simmons himself explained what he was trying to do.

Still, none of my perceived inadequacies at understanding the text invalidates my feeling that it ought to have been much, much shorter —say, the entire story in a slim 500 pages. There’s a notably jarring sub-thread about a doomsday submarine that I found particularly out-of-place, especially given how it relates to one of the book’s most egregious plot-cheats, a honking big coincidence that ties two threads together. Neat stuff, but it may have been better as a stand-alone novella than a part of the series.

On the other hand, there are a number of lovely images and concepts here and there, from the nature of genius to a road sliced through the ocean. The moravecs are interesting characters (some will say that they’re more human than the humans) and the reconstructed twentieth-century human observer Hockenberry is still a dependable viewpoint character. There’s also a pleasing complexity in the levels of technology exhibited by Olympos‘s assortment of gods, demi-gods, robots and humans of all descriptions. This isn’t a simple side-A-versus-side-B type of arrangement, but something scaling all the way from plain humans to the functional equivalent of world-altering magic, and all points in between.

Obviously, this isn’t quite enough to overcome my lack of patience with the book’s length, and for that reason alone I would suggest to leave it out of the Hugo Award ballot next year. There are already a number of faster, more interesting works out there this year, and Olympos certainly isn’t a perfect candidate. (It’s a candidate from a well-respected, well-known writer, however, and that changes things.) I suppose that readers with patience and a classical education will have another take entirely.

Jarhead, Anthony Swofford

Scribner, 2003, 260 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-7432-4491-5

Even at this politically-charged time where “support our troops!” has become a hollow synonym for “shut up!”, the first requirement for supporting our troops would be to understand them. And we won’t do that by listening to journalists, bloggers or self-important pundits: the troops themselves remain their own best advocates. Fortunately, every generation produces its share of able witnesses, and one of the latest ones is Anthony Swofford with his blisteringly honest autobiography Jarhead.

Swofford, we quickly learn, was an odd Marine. Equally prone to spending his time reading classics or drinking to excess, Swofford was an insider and an outsider at the same time, completely part of the Marines Corps and yet (especially with hindsight) capable of stepping out and describing the Corps as an observer. This dual perspective, as a participant and an bystander, is invaluable in describing his experience to us.

Jarhead is structured in an non-linear fashion, alternating between Swofford’s experience in the Marines with flashbacks to his personal history. Training, initial postings, difficulties with his family are all covered here, up to and including Swofford’s posting in the Gulf. As a Marine Sniper, Swofford could reliably be called one of America’s elite soldier. But the reality he reports is nothing like the spit-polish image of the army that some people would like you to believe. We all suspect that boys together will do some pretty stupid things, and this book confirms whose suspicions. We all know that war is hell, and being paid to go to war doesn’t leave much room for mellowness, even in horsing around. But what Jarhead does better than any other military book is portray the absolute boredom of being a soldier most of the time.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s in Gen-X genes to consider boredom to be a pervasive yet intolerable state of mind. Maybe it’s a modern affliction to say “but I was bored!” as if it was worthy of compassion. But maybe it’s what happens when you take thousand of soldiers and put them in a desert, waiting, waiting, waiting for what they were trained to do.

Suffice to say that in time, Swofford gets what he wants: He gets to shoot and be shot at, even though his active participation in the Gulf War may be more underwhelming than you’d expect. Fortunately, Swofford writes with an eye for the killer detail and an excellent sense of place. Jarhead pulls no punches and presents the military life with all of its problems and whatever glory it offers.

Clearly-written, this is a book that demands to be read almost all at once, page after page, chapter after chapter. Swofford knows how to write a story, and he’s got plenty of them to tell. Funny, direct, profane, sometimes infuriating in kind of a “what-are-you-doing-you-moron?” fashion, this autobiography can’t be confused with another era or another generation.

I will let others debate the accuracy of Swofford’s depiction of Marines service. From my perspective as a civilian (and a Canadian one at that), Jarhead rings true, maybe a bit truer than I’d like to believe in an effort to keep some of that “support our troops!” feeling. It certainly made me re-evaluate BUFFALO SOLDIERS as a mite more plausible than I initially thought, what with Swofford’s tales of pervasive drug usage and self-destructive peacetime behaviour.

It’s impossible to read Jarhead today without at least a passing thought about the current American-led occupation of Iraq, and the hardships endured by the military personnel stationed over there. Even if the Gulf War was a lightning romp compared to the lengthy nightmare of Iraq, even if tactics and equipment have changed, it’s hard to avoid linking the two. Swofford doesn’t exactly encourage us to think otherwise with his cynical view of oil as being the honest reason behind Desert Storm. Swofford had plenty of time to think about the reasons why he was stuck in the Arabian desert, and some of his conclusions can be jarring when juxtaposed against the mundaneness of wartime experience. Old men sending young men to die so they can profit…

But even as candid as it becomes, Jarhead doesn’t do much to diminish a civilian’s awe for professional soldiers. At a time where one hears about war in clinical terms, as if it was yet another corporate challenge to be managed, it’s good and just to be reminded that war is a deadly matter, fought between men who curse, and bleed, and cry, and suffer. Support our troops; try to understand what they’re really going through.

Wedding Crashers (2005)

Wedding Crashers (2005)

(In theaters, August 2005) I’m really not a fan of frat-boy comedies, so please excuse my bemusement as Wedding Crashers goes on to shatter every R-rated comedy box-office record. Womanizers triumphant? Meh. It’s the kind of box-office success that leads one to think dark thoughts about the collective intelligence of the American ticket-buying public. It’s not that Wedding Crashers is bad as much as it’s featureless. Obvious. Dull, sometimes. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play their own respective typecast roles, and if I’m still a sucker for Wilson’s brand of surfer-type laid-back smoothness, Vaughn’s usual loudmouth shtick is getting thin. Ironically, Wedding Crashers is never as good as when it’s behaving badly: the film seriously tanks in the third act as it discovers a conscience and attempts to reconcile itself with mainstream values. Boring! Speaking of which, Rachel McAdams makes no impression as the lead girl whose role is to shut up and look pretty. Meanwhile, Isla Fisher steals every scene she’s in as the not-so innocent sibling. (Heck, she even steals every scene she’s not in given how badly we wish she was in more of the film.) There are a number of good gags and some inspired set-pieces, but in most ways, it’s a perfectly ordinary film. But then again, it’s made for other people.

Stealth (2005)

Stealth (2005)

(In theaters, August 2005) Damn you Rob Cohen! Just as I was ready to tear this insipid script apart, here you come with those fantastic action sequences, virtual cinematography and the good sense to cast Jessica Biel! How can I resist your film, even if it’s one of the dumbest thing I’ve seen all year? As a big fan of military techno-thriller, I can point at the screen every five seconds and darkly mutter “Mistake!” (That whole survival-and-evasion sequence ought to be shows at SERE courses as tutorials on what pilots should not do.) But why bother when I know that the film will reliably knock my socks off with a boffo action sequence every fifteen minutes? Curse you and praise you for that refuelling sequence, both moronic and exhilarating. Every time I thought about leaving the theatre in disgust, you showed more of Jessica Biel’s curves and I stayed. I hope your career implodes, because otherwise every other director will learn how to shore up a bad script with cool directing tricks and fast-paced editing. It took a while, but fortunately you relented and delivered a truly awful last ten minutes, minutes during my brain re-surfaced and managed to get some perspective on the film. Did you really go into one of those silly “humans are better than machines” speech, or was I hallucinating that? Did the film argue for the intelligence and decision-making power of humans even as the United States are stuck in Iraq? Did you even try to stuff an MP3-downloading killer A.I. zapped by lightning in the oldest and lamest of all Frankenstein plot rip-offs? Surely I should be tracking down every copy of this film for destruction purposes. And yet I feel the need to buy the DVD to watch it again…

Sky High (2005)

Sky High (2005)

(In theaters, August 2005) Every summer has a pleasant surprise or two, and to my mind this is the sleeper film no one was expecting. Made with a tight budget, cheap special effects and a decent script, Sky High shares a number of common preoccupations with The Incredibles (especially the “superhero family” vibe) but stands on its own as a witty hybrid between superhero films and teenage comedy. It goes along much better than expected thanks to some good supporting roles from Kurt Russell, Dave Foley, Bruce Campbell and Lynda Carter. The script has weak patches (especially the “yearbook reveal” slip-up, which pretty much gives away the rest of the film), but its sharp dialogue and steady rhythm keeps it chugging along nicely. The lead actors are suitably sympathetic, and the film at least has a rudimentary sense of its place in genre history. Is it any accident if the only worthwhile superhero films these days are those which tinker at least a bit with the concept, from The Incredibles to Batman Begins? In any case, I tend to think of Sky High as this year’s Bring It On or Mean Girls: a fun teen film fit for more demanding audiences, with plenty of charm and good jokes to tell.

Silver City (2004)

Silver City (2004)

(On DVD, August 2005) Long, slow and dull political thriller that is nevertheless smarter than most of what you’ll see in theatres this year. John Sayles is, of course, an independent film-maker’s legend, and the quality of Silver City‘s execution clearly shows why: Not only has he crafted a good script and filmed it in a clean, sparse style, but he has also managed to attract an impressive number of known (and semi-known) actors on the sole basis of the project. Sayles intention with this film is (among other things) to expose the modern pseudo-conservative ideology in which politics is but another mean for businessmen to further their ambitions. It’s certainly no accident if Chris Cooper, playing a puppet candidate, acts and sounds exactly like a certain current American president… But perhaps the most impressive thing about Silver City is how it manages to cover so many themes in scarcely more than two hours. It exudes an Chinatown aura of hopeless corruption, a contemporary society built on lies and exploitation. Sure, the pacing could have been improved, and a meditative thriller is no excuse to put viewers to sleep. Still, there’s more good stuff than bad here, and it’s just too bad that the film is such a hard sell to mainstream audiences.

King Rat, China Mieville

Tor, 1998, 318 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-312-89072-9

Quick: Name China Miéville’s first novel.

No, it’s not Perdido Street Station. Miéville may have stormed the world of fantasy with his first Bas-Lag novel, but his true first novel was an urban fantasy novel set in London. Before becoming a Hugo-nominated, world-renowned literary superstar, Miéville wrote King Rat.

I won’t try to be one of those snotty critics disdainfully pointing out that an obscure first work of a famous artist is totally better than the big hit that made him known to the mainstream (assorted with a contemptuous mention of how said artist “sold out”). King Rat isn’t up to Perdido Street Station‘s level of ambition and accomplishment. The prose is leaner, the characters are simpler and the plot is more derivative. It is, in many ways, the work of a young author.

But this doesn’t mean that it’s not worth reading. While it withers in comparison to its younger, more vigorous siblings, King Rat is a perfectly serviceable example of contemporary urban fantasy, riffing off modern culture and ancient myths. Under any other name, it would be a book worth considering without unfair comparisons to the author’s other works.

It begins as a young man, Saul Garamond, comes back home to London after a weekend of camping. A confrontation with his father is narrowly averted, but worse is to come: Shortly after waking up, he discovers that his father is dead, most likely killed, and he finds himself in prison as a prime suspect. But that’s not counting on a mysterious figure called the King Rat, supernaturally springing him from jail and bringing him in London’s underground. London’s real underground. Meanwhile, drum-and-bass DJ Natasha meets a strange flutist with a keen interest in overlaying rhythms…

What gradually emerges from the story is a modern analogue to the Pied Piper fairy tale, although far more violent. There’s a war, you see, a war between the rats and the piper. Now that the story takes place in mid-nineties London, who is to say which technological advantages can change the equation? Poor Saul, stuck with serious paternity issues to solve in the middle of a city-wide fight.

There’s a lot to like about King Rat, and not the most insignificant of those is the fabulous atmosphere that Miéville gives to his semi-imaginary London. His domain is not the tourist London, or the financial or political heart of the nation. His is a London of warehouses, of sewers, of ravers and teenagers.

The novel also comes complete with some cool stuff about updating the Pied Piper myth to modern standards: Mixing in drum-and-bass music in the book’s plot is a minor stroke of genius. King Rat‘s final showpiece is the kind of thing you’d dream up after watching HELLRAISER and listening to too much Prodigy. And to think that we colonials are missing half the local references…

You can also find the book a number of the ingredients that would later make Miéville’s work such a success: Careful prose, downtrodden characters, a fascination for urban spaces and a taste for the grotesque. (A chapter ends with “The glass front of the train burst open like a vast blood-blister. The first Northern Line train of the day arrived at Mornington Crescent station and plowed to an unscheduled halt, dripping.” [P.142] Hardcore!) No one could have predicted the Bas-Lag universe from King Rat, but the points of similitude are there.

Also present, alas, are some of Miéville traditional weaknesses. As short as it is compared to his latter books, King Rat is still a bit overlong and under-plotted. The middle sections, in particular, have a hard time bridging the terrain between the intriguing opening and the dramatic conclusion. Fortunately, you won’t need a thesaurus to read the book: Miéville avoid florid touches and keeps the vocabulary appropriately close to the street.

Fans of urban fantasy shouldn’t miss this book, nor should fans of Miéville’s work in general. It’s interesting even in its problems, and may show where the author will go once he’ll close the books on the Bas-Lag universe. It’s not as successful, nor as ambitious as the tales he’s best-known for, but it’s a good choice for urban fantasy readers. For Miéville’s fans, it should already be regarded as a must-read.

Shi Mian Mai Fu [House Of Flying Daggers] (2004)

Shi Mian Mai Fu [House Of Flying Daggers] (2004)

(On DVD, August 2005) Taken by itself, this is perfectly entertaining, visually exciting piece of cinema. Unfortunately, it comes on the heels of both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and unfortunately covers much of the same territory in much of the same fashion. Slightly pretentious, far too long, maybe a bit too deliberate in how it tries to distinguish between every scene, House Of Flying Daggers seems too familiar to have an impact. The twists in the tale also seem too deliberate to feel interesting: at the end, the only things missing are an alien and a split personality. And that’s truly too bad, because House Of Flying Daggers shows an ambitious aesthetic sense that puts most other films to shame. In trying to figure out how this film may seem too familiar even as dozens of Jackie Chan film can all have their individual appeal, it may be useful to consider the element of fun: Chan, at least in his best early-nineties period, broadly appealed through stunts and easy jokes: Yimou Zhang, on the other hand, has evacuated all humour out of his film, trying for high-end romantic drama with a tragic twist. There very well be a limit to the number of films appealing to that particular corner of the mindspace: Too bad that House Of Flying Daggers had to end there third.

Red Eye (2005)

Red Eye (2005)

(In theaters, August 2005) I have some admiration for “high-concept” movies, or films that actually dare to take a risk in the quest for a few more thrills. Red Eye is one of those films, deliberately locking itself in an airliner and reducing the drama to a series of conversation between two people sitting next to each other. It’s pure thriller stuff, well-handled through the crafty professionalism of director Wes Craven. Not coincidentally, the film’s interest level goes down along with the plane, and the post-landing segment steadily degenerates into another crazy-killer-in-big-house sequence stolen straight from the Scream series. That part isn’t so good, but if you can leave before the movie’s last ten minutes, you’ll come out with the pleasant feeling of a slick and well-handled thriller. Rachel McAdams finally gets a good role beyond looking pretty, and Cilian Murphy is less annoying than usual as the smooth-talking “operator”. Sure, the plot is packed full of holes. But they’re not so annoying when you’re caught up in the on-screen tension. Could have been better, but it’s not too bad as it is.

The Pacifier (2005)

The Pacifier (2005)

(On DVD, August 2005) When considering a comedy/action hybrid explicitly produced by Disney, the only possible encouragement is a bland “well, what did you expect?” Yup: poopy jokes, awkward physical comedy, a plot that manages to waste ninjas and a chance for Vin Diesel to try “The Schwarzenegger Manoeuvre” in which an action star attempts a kid-friendly reputation. Vin is cool, even irreproachable, but the same can’t be said of a film that is quite obviously aimed at kids. That there’s violent gunplay, wrestling and a few deaths will no doubt strike a few as excellent training about today’s world for today’s kids. But even this said, the “action” in the film has been neutered almost beyond blandness, leaving most of the audience wondering who, exactly, is this film destined for. It doesn’t help that the script shows no signs of even occasional wit, and that the directing never improves on the screenplay. While there is enough in The Pacifier to keep us entertained, there isn’t really enough to keep us from saying “well, that wasn’t really good, now, wasn’t it?”

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

(On DVD, August 2005) To say that this is a cult movie is to abuse understatement. Much as saying that this will appeal to a select number of viewers. Even I, as a self-professed uber-nerd, as a guy for can love even the stupidest films, had a hard time making it to the end of this one. The eponymous character is a nerd without skills, living in what seems to be a town similarly devoid of normality. Everyone in this film, with very few exceptions, behave in orthogonal ways to what people usually do: while that would have been amusing in a five minutes short film, here it drags on for 82 long and painful minutes, like nails being scratched on a blackboard. Believe me; the joke gets old quickly, backed-up with the most intentionally lifeless acting ever committed to film since Ed Wood. There is no interface between Napoleon’s weirdness and the normal world: naturalism (or, heck, realism) never really intrudes in this film. (Even writer/director Jared Hess’ aggressively dull direction offers no respite: The best we get are shots of girls being horrified.) It sort of pays off at the end with a glorious dance number and the unexpected escape of a character to a ghetto-gangster life, but there is no shame at stopping the film after only fifteen minutes if you suspect it won’t get any better. I suspect that my reaction to the film is shaped by my own experience of geekness: All of the nerds in my life may be socially inept and prone to weird and obsessive behaviour, but all of them had some superb skill or two. Technically, socially inept people without skills are called “retards”, and that may or may not sum up my final reaction to Napoleon Dynamite.

The Big Over Easy, Jasper Fforde

Hodder & Stoughton, 2005, 398 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-83568-0

If you have read any of Jasper Fforde’s previous books, you know what to expect from The Big Over Easy: zany fiction espousing genre-bending meta-fictional tricks, utterly readable prose, good gags and sharp characters embracing their clichéd (or counter-clichéd) nature. After four book in the Thursday Next series, The Big Over Easy is the beginning of a new series, very loosely connected to the previous one. (By this, I mean that the connections are one-way: readers of The Well of Lost Plots will have a blast reading The Big Over Easy, but there are no explicit references in the other direction) In this volume, detective Jack Spratt and his newly-transfered assistant Mary Mary investigate the unfortunate death of Humpty Dumpty, found cracked near a wall.

Yup; After lampooning the entire genre fiction establishment in his previous four books, Fforde returns with a crossover between crime fiction and nursery rhymes. Jack Spratt’s world is just as likely to include three murderous pigs and women with really long hair than bad cars, office politics and forensic evidence. The Nursery Crime Division of the Reading Police Department isn’t glamorous (in fact, it’s pretty much the local laughingstock), but Spratt is too conscientious a cop to let that drag him down. Still, he too would like to be part of the Guild of Detectives, and submit his thrilling adventures for inclusion in Amazing Crime Stories magazine…

Oh yes, the patented weirdness of Fforde’s funny fantasy is back. While The Big Over Easy is generally more grounded and a touch more controlled that Fforde’s previous books, no one will mistake this for conventional fiction. Not when sight gags include nursery rhyme characters trying to fit in the real world, or a spiritual leader called “The Jellyman”. Fforde has a gift for heightening the fantastic with a good dose of the mundane, and so Jack Spratt’s affection for his troublesome car tend to be cute rather than annoying. (Well, cute to us and annoying to him)

The Big Over Easy, as the title suggest, is perhaps more effective when it’s riffing on the conventions of the crime fiction genre. There is a lot of wonderful material about the convoluted nature of mystery plots in here, as well as how master detectives would be seen (or adulated) by their peers. Fforde’s plot itself cheerfully goes down a tremendously complicated route, so don’t be afraid to let go and not be too frustrated at the solutions pile up.

Fforde’s sense of sly humour and limpid prose also remains intact. Reviewing one of his books tends to be an exercise in picking favourite gags, which I’m trying to avoid. What is certain is that next to The Eyre Affair, this is his most accessible book. Readers who haven’t tried any of his fiction yet will find much to love if they start here. (I doubt, however, that readers frustrated with Fforde’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to plotting will be any more pleased here, though The Big Over Easy is a bit more restrained in real-world matters.) A fair warning: Don’t be too surprised if, once firmly in the novel, you don’t want to stop reading.

One thing that did trip me up, in the interest of full disclosure, is that my knowledge of nursery rhymes is sub-par: Having been raised in a francophone environment until way past the weaning age for comptines (and not being a parent myself), I don’t have the instinctual knowledge of nursery rhymes ingrained in native English speakers. Those for whom English is a second language, or who may have forgotten even the most basic nursery rhymes may want to sneak into a young nephew’s room and read up on his documentation before diving into The Big Over Easy.

Otherwise, this book is all gold. Good solid concept, smooth execution and the usual Fforde laughs. Who could ask for more? Oh, wait, me! I can’t wait until Spratt’s next adventure, already announced as The Fourth Bear

La marche de l’empereur [March Of The Penguins] (2005)

La marche de l’empereur [March Of The Penguins] (2005)

(In theaters, August 2005) There’s something a bit dumb about paying to see an animal documentary in the theatres when it would so much simpler to turn on the TV and channel-surf until there’s one on-screen. But March Of The Penguins‘ triumph is one of marketing as much as of content: who doesn’t love penguins? Just counting on the Linux-users segment is enough to ensure a niche audience, and once you throw in the aaaaw-inducing romantic angles of penguins walking through seventy kilometres of snow uphill both ways, well you’ve got yourself a film targeted straight at today’s family-loving Bush voter. I’m being deliberately sarcastic because it’s hard to avoid being so after the film’s syrupy anthropomorphism. Morgan Freeman may turn in his best voice-of-God impersonation as the all-knowing, infinitely kind narrator of the film, but the constant attempts at making good little sentimental humans out of animals being driven by hard-wired instincts is difficult to take seriously. One suspects that biologists in the audience are laughing themselves silly at the deliberate white-wash of penguin mores in this film, along with the sentimental mawkishness at what is, after all, cycle-of-life stuff. I ended up cheering for the sea lions at some point, just out of family-values overdose. I’d love to keep on going on this cynical tangent, but what’s keeping me from doing so is the frank admission that there’s a lot of good stuff here, including spectacular images and a mind-boggling reproductive cycle. Then there’s a rumour floating around that the original French version of the film was, if possible, even more manipulative and sentimental with voice-over narration from the penguins’ point of view. Yikes. I’ll stick with Morgan Freeman’s soothing narration, and I’ll read up on the subject if I want to know the whole story.