The Machinist (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Machinist</strong> (2004)

(On DVD, August 2005) Another entry in the overly-clever sub-genre of “everything you know about this story is wrong” movies, this film is perhaps best considered as a showcase for Christian Bale’s dedication wrapped in a side-order of unusual plotting. The deliberately dark and foreboding cinematography quickly creates a nightmarish quality to the film that underscores the protagonist’s self-alienation. The star of show, of course, is Bale, who lost a significant portion of his weight in order to portray his emaciated character. Unlike a good number of twisty movies, the film ends on a hopeful note, making the experience look like redemption more than deception. Yes, I’m being vague; but you’ll appreciate the coyness when you see the film.

Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle</strong> (2004)

(On DVD, August 2005) Being one of the world’s most unrepentant fan of director Danny Leiner’s Dude, Where’s My Car?, I expected to like this film. I didn’t expect to like as much as I did, though. Tapping into the same absurd vein than Leiner’s previous “vehicle” (although with far more raunchiness), Harold And Kumar slam-dunks a silly laugh-a-minute comedy mini-classic. It’s about two stoners looking for burgers, sure, but it’s also a fine metaphor for modern man’s search for meaning in a darkened wasteland faintly illuminated by the neon signs of enlightenment. Nah; forget I said that: It’s all about hots chicks, dope jokes and sticking it to The Man. Part of the film’s success rests on the considerable appeal of its two lead actors, John Cho and Kal Penn, as they effortlessly win us over. But it’s Neil Patrick Harris who steals every single scene he’s in, thanks to a madcap caricature of himself, tearing recklessly in a role that demands nothing short of a daredevil comedic streak. (Ryan Reynolds makes a similar impression in a brief cameo). It’s also refreshing to see that the film earns its sold R rating thanks to nudity, profanity and drug usage, giving a black eye to so-called “edgy” PG-13 comedies scrupulously avoiding all three topics. The film’s sly but substantial take on multiculturalism is also noteworthy, and worth celebrating. Superbly entertaining, almost unbearably funny and with its own special brand of wit. Not for everyone, and that’s just great!

The Great Raid (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Great Raid</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, August 2005) I see a good number of films per year, but seldom do I have to face such a self-consciously retro film as this WW2 war drama. Everything about The Great Raid feels as if it escaped from the sixties. The bland camera work. The workmanlike quality of the acting. The by-the-number plotting. The languid pacing. The complete lack of modern distance about war. It’s as if director John Dahl set out to make a film as if shot in the 1960s and sent forward in a time capsule. It’s not bad, but it’s certainly slow and old-fashioned. It’ll probably find an audience on video and be replayed once every veteran’s day. I recall falling asleep sometime during the film’s “third day” and waking up on the fourth and seeing so difference in my understanding of the plot: make of that what you will. Otherwise, not much to say: if you like old war movies and thought that the post-Saving Private Ryan wave was too gory (read; realistic), then this may be the one for you. If nothing else, it’s a good story that deserves to be told widely. I just wish the narrative could have been more compelling.

Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang

Tor, 2002, 333 pages, C$21.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-30419-8

It’s a fact of today’s Science Fiction publishing environment that successful writers, almost by definition, write novels. Short stories may be where authors begin, but they’re not where authors make money. For every short-story specialist like Harlan Ellison, there are ten Robert Silverbergs who put food on the table thanks to novels. At best, you get people like Greg Egan, whose excellent short-story output complemented a steady stream of novels.

In this context, Ted Chiang is a bit of an oddity. In a career now spanning fifteen years (The earliest story in the volume was published in 1990), Chiang has found a place as an important writer of short stories. His first three published pieces alone netted him a total of two Nebula Awards and one Hugo nomination! At a time where short story anthologies by trade publishers are rare, his debut book was an anthology of eight pieces put out by no less a publishing house than Tor. With Stories of Your Life and others, Chiang reaches those SF readers (including your humble scribe) who would rather pick up a book than a series of magazines.

It’s one heck of an introduction. While claiming that “there’s not a bad story in the bunch” would over-estimate the impact of a few average pieces, there’s a lot to like in Stories of Your Life and Others. It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s more to like here than in several “best of” annual anthologies out there. Chiang makes up in quality what most others can’t do in quantity.

For instance, the very first piece in the book (his first published story), is a treatment of the “Tower of Babylon” myth in as realistic a fashion as would be possible. How could you build a tower to the sky? What if the sky was, could be breached? What would be mechanics of such a thing? Chiang treats the subject with a superbly entertaining mix of details and suppositions. Even guessing the end pages before it happens isn’t enough to sour the story’s considerable reading pleasure.

The second story of the volume, “Understand,” is a look at the possibilities offered by unlimited intelligence. Unlike the classic Flowers for Algernon, Chiang has little patience for sentiment, and more than a passing interest in showing us how unbelievably cool such intelligence could be. Mix in a few fascinating philosophical question and a bewildering accumulation of details and the result is almost too good for words. (Though it proved good enough for a Hugo nomination) More than that however, is the sentiment of having read an exhaustive story: if someone wants to write another story about heightened intelligence (or another story about the tower of Babylon, for that matter), they will have to write in reaction to Chiang’s work.

I didn’t find the rest of the book as fabulously interesting as its first two stories, but there are still plenty of great pieces later on. “The Evolution of Human Science” is a perfectly-paced text about post-singularity science. “Story of Your Life” made more sense to me the second time I read it, which is a strangely appropriate thing to say if you know about the story’s non-linear sense of time.

Even the fantasy stories contain a treasure trove of originality. I wasn’t so fond of “Seventy-Two Letters” in general, but the magical system explored in great detail throughout the novella is enough to make your mind go out for a spin. The Hugo-winning “Hell is the Absence of God” takes fundamentalist Christian mythology and runs away with it to literal extremes. What if the appearance of angels took on a terrifying arbitrary quality? Not bad at all, especially when it gets down to the fine distinction between religion and faith.

Even Chiang’s lesser stories still have a kick to them. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” runs about twice too long on an empty middle section, but the basic concept (what if there was a neural tweak to make you insensitive to beauty or lack thereof?) is well-explored. I may not care too much for the deliberately challenging end of “Division by Zero”, but the otherwise clean writing and the awe-inspiring premise makes it a joy to read.

I may have been sceptical about this collection’s hyperbolic reputation, but the end result is a very good anthology, well-worth reading for any fan of the genre. It remains to be seen whether Chiang will continue to release stories at the quiet rhythm of his first decade of work, or if he’ll go ahead and commit to a novel, but whatever he decides to do, I’ll be standing in line to buy his next book.

Four Brothers (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Four Brothers</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, August 2005) There isn’t much about this film that is in any way remarkable or exceptional. (Well, I’m a fan of Sofia Vergara, but that’s just me.) But when considering that this is a modern-day western, the very model of a B-grade crime movie, being good-enough is indeed good enough. There’s no need to be fancy with a straightforward tale of urban revenge and sibling drama. The four brothers of the gang are tough hombres, and watching them tear up Toronto (oops; Detroit) in order to find out who had their adoptive mother killed is packed with good crunchy fun. Standout sequences include a brutal winter car chase and a brick-breaking shootout at the family house. Mark Wahlberg carries his tough role effortlessly while André Benjamin shows that he may have a future in acting. Otherwise, it’s just a good urban drama, and that’s more than enough to be satisfying.

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Charlie And The Chocolate Factory</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, August 2005) As a confirmed Tim Burton fan and a complete newcomer to the whole “Willy Wonka” stuff (hey, not all of us had a childhood versed in English-language pop-culture), I’m oddly pleased by this remake. The inspired lunacy that usually characterizes Burton’s films is in full display here, and I don’t have any emotional stakes in either the original film or the source novel. The energy of the film is uneven (and I can’t help but think that ten of the last fifteen minutes go nowhere), but it’s efficient in creating a sense of “what am I going to see next?” I was sold at the squirrel sequence; the rest of the film is just a bonus. The oddball performance of Johnny Depp as Wonka is endearing, and the kid actors are suitably annoying. Meanwhile, Missi Pile is as compelling as usual, riffing off her “hideously beautiful” Soul Plane platinum look. There’s plenty of good stuff in John August’s script, but I cheerfully admit that the usual look of Burton’s work overwhelms the rest of my usual critical filters. Up to a certain point, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory escapes any attempt to review it and just becomes something worth looking at.

The Brothers Grimm (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Brothers Grimm</strong> (2005)

(In theaters, August 2005) Given Terry Gilliam’s considerable talents and his heart-breaking lack of success in delivering his visions on screen, it’s hard to avoid seeing The Brothers Grimm as anything but a considerable disappointment. There is a spark of postmodern interest in a story following the adventures of the young Grimm brothers as they confront elements that would later be incorporated in their famous fairy tales. But the actual execution of this premise on-screen sucks all energy out of it, leaving us with an ordinary fantasy tale with few redeeming values. Sure, Monica Bellucci is in the film. But her role lasts for roughly five minutes, and that mostly comes at the very end of the story. The rest of the time, the film goes through the motions, crawling forward at an unacceptable pace and struggling (unsuccessfully) to make an obvious sound stage set look more interesting. Visually, it’s not your average film, but it shows more mud and grime than any of Gilliam’s visual imagination. I had a lot more fun watching Sleepy Hollow, which inevitably comes to mind when thinking back on The Brothers Grimm. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are unremarkable as the eponymous brothers, through the muddled script doesn’t really help in distinguishing them from countless other protagonists. The fantasy elements are handled poorly, once again relying on mystical “I know what to do!” convictions to resolve the action rather than actual rules we can understand. An underwhelming result, and that’s really too bad: Are we going to have to wait another seven years for Gilliam’s next film?

Dark Matter, Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Doubleday, 1990, 375 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-24756-7

While Garfield Reeves-Stevens is now best-known for his work on various media properties, most specifically his involvement with the Star Trek franchise, he has also produced a small but significant stream of original projects earlier in his career. (And then -along with his wife Judith- a number of very good techno-thrillers, the latest of which is the excellent Freefall.) Dark Matter is one such early work, combining criminal horror with scientific content and ending in far-fetched Science Fiction. It’s not an excellent book, but it’s suitably entertaining and it’s definitely worth a look if you like horror/crime/science hybrids.

The very first scene sets the tone, describing a gruesome murder that makes the “last supper” scene in Hannibal look like a charming romp. Someone, somewhere, likes to kill young blond students while educating them about quantum mechanics. Coincidentally (but not really), the very next scene takes place in Stockholm, as three American scientists are set to receive the Nobel Prize for Physics. Soon after, a mysterious man makes them an offer they can’t refuse: A fully-financed lab, and the promise that all of their wishes will be catered to. All of their wishes…

Flash-forward three years. A dismembered body is found in a Los Angeles apartment…

Perhaps the best thing about Dark Matter is how it combines a procedural crime novel with hard-science content. On one side, scientists explore the mysteries of quantum mechanics, speaking well over the head of the average reader. Meanwhile, a policewoman with plenty of personal problems investigates a stomach-churning string of murders. We know they’re linked (in fact, Reeves-Stevens waits far too late to make explicit a link that is patently obvious from chapter two) and so the fun of the novel is in seeing these two universe intersect. The investigation is well-handled while the scientific content is as flawless as can be determined by laypeople.

While most of the scientific content will be lost on readers without specialized knowledge in high-energy physics, Reeves-Steven’s gift for clear prose and steady narrative rhythm is enough to keep turning the pages. His ability to write scientific vulgarization is astonishing. His characters are well-developed, and whoever still believes that fictional scientists should behave like robots are in for a refreshing dose of (in)humanity. Among the book’s best moments is a demonstration of a high intellect at work, solving a complex problems in a matter of seconds, each step carefully described. Reeves-Stevens tackles complex characterization issues with Dark Matter, and he’s more than partially successful in achieving what he’s trying to do.

There are also a number of interesting thematic issues raised by the characters’ willingness to do unspeakable things (or allow unspeakable things to happen) in search for inspiration. The link between genius and madness often leads to trite ethical dilemmas (“What’s one life compared to an innovation that could benefit billions?”, etc.), but Reeves-Stevens navigates a hard course and avoids on-the-nose moralizing.

But none of that will prepare readers for the last third of the book, as the the novel abruptly jumps tracks from criminal scientific fiction to far-out science-fiction. Even hard-SF readers are liable to feel that the book goes too far, too wide-scale at once. The protagonist’s quasi-magical abilities take the novel well beyond the realistic parameters followed by the novel thus far, and it doesn’t help that the pacing suddenly slacks (and takes off for Boston) in the middle of what should be an acceleration of events. The ending predictably veers into the usual metaphysical nonsense, trying too hard for enlightenment when denouement would have been enough. Weird choices for a novel that, up until then, had been kept under control.

The irony, of course, is that from a critical standpoint, the novel’s late slide into more fantastic territory makes it a lot more interesting to discuss. It’s up for debate whether a tighter, more focused version of Dark Matter would have warranted a review. (Probably, given the successful melding of horror, crime and science) As it stands, Dark Matter isn’t really recommended, but it is interesting enough to be worth a look if ever a copy should falls in your hot little hands. And not just as the early work of an author who went on to become a best-selling Star Trek co-producer!