The Matador (2005)

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

(In theaters, February 2006) On paper, this has all of the characteristics of a quirky black comedy: An ordinary man accidentally meeting a neurotic assassin, joining forces in order to solve each other’s problem. It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of riotous material that could come out of this premise. Alas, The Matador falls flat more quickly that you can imagine, neither stretching nor embracing the limits of its own tunnel vision. While Pierce Brosnan turns in a fabulous lead performance as an amoral assassin on the precipice of self-destruction, his character transcends the film around it, making the rest look hollow and faded. Hope Davis makes the most out of a thin character, but she and Greg Kinnear are pretty much the average couple they’re supposed to portray, and that’s part of the problem: For all the uncouth world-weariness of Brosnan’s anti-hero, The Matador grinds to a halt whenever Kinnear is involved. More sarcasm, more self-awareness might have helped, but instead we’re stuck in low-budget, low-imagination limbo. The film chuckles over its last bit of edginess, not realizing that it had created higher expectations for itself.

Junebug (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Junebug</strong> (2005)

(On DVD, February 2006) I’m sure that some people, somewhere, like this film. They call it “a touching portrait of family values”, “a small-scale American tragedy”, “a heartfelt meeting between city and country” or even “a complex drama in shades of complexity”. Fine. They had a good time; I can only envy them, because as far as I’m concerned Junebug vaults at the top of the pile of the dullest movie experiences of the year. More boring than even Aeon Flux, if that’s possible. Granted, I really don’t go for small-scale family drama films: It took the film’s lone Oscar nomination to convince me to seek it out. Still, you would at least expect a plot of some sort, or even a way to stay awake. Instead, the film drips heavily like molasses, featuring scene after scene of uncomfortable bonding experiences and small-scale miseries. No wonder one character spends the entire movie sleeping on the couch: it doesn’t take much time for us to identify with him. By the time Something Horrible happens, we’re way past caring. It ends without a conclusion, with people driving away from the havoc behind them, saying something like “I’m glad this is over.” Seconded.

Hustle & Flow (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hustle & Flow</strong> (2005)

(On DVD, February 2006) Don’t be surprised to see the MTV film logo at the beginning of the film, seeing how it’s all about the power of music in getting someone out of the ghetto. It’s a bit more complicated than that, of course, but not by much. The protagonist may be a middle-aged pimp seeking a last chance at past dreams (in an exceptional performance by Terrence Howard) and the ending may be a touch unconventional, but the underdog story remains intact. What’s different are the details, from the characters’ squalid lives to the way they put together their shot at glory. A long but enjoyable sequence depicts the making of a demo tape while later, talent has to be complemented by a bit of hustling in order to triumph. MTV movie indeed. The film itself isn’t particularly pleasant (it’s hard to be a pimp without some misanthropy) and some sequence run for too long, but the strength of Howard’s performance and some of the background details make it all worthwhile.

The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil

Viking, 2005, 652 pages, C$42.00 hc, ISBN 0-670-03384-7

Let’s get something out of the way: I’m a singularitarian. I believe in technological acceleration and its effect on society. The historical evidence seems clear enough: I hop in anticipation of the upcoming impact of what Joel Garreau calls the GRIN technologies (Genetics, Robotics, Informatics and Nanotechnology) I may not believe in the strong version of the Singularity (the so-called “Rapture of the Nerds” after which everything is supposed to be sweet and perfect), but I’ve read too much SF not to anticipate fundamental changes in my forecast lifetime. Even before cracking page one, I approached Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near as confirmation, not persuasion.

But that book is not written for me. It’s written for well-educated people who may understand how technological progress is accelerating, but don’t read Science Fiction and aren’t familiar with Vernor Vinge’s concept of the ever-accelerating technological singularity. It’s written to convince politicians, entrepreneurs and other decision-makers that there’s a new future knocking at our doors, a new future that has nothing to do with the weak beer of STAR TREK or, for that matter, most of the conventional visions of things to come.

It’s no accident if almost half of The Singularity is Near is spent looking at the historical evidence of technological acceleration. Kurzweil’s background is in computer science, and arguments derived from progress in transistor size, density and cost make up a backbone of his thesis. See Moore’s Law, for instance, which lives on despite ever-dire predictions of its obsolescence. See the rapid adoption of cell phones, the Internet, DVD and MP3 players in far less than a decade, compared to dozens of years for television and automobiles. Everyone knows that technological progress is increasing. The only question is; what’s the destination?

Kurzweil then continues his exploration of What We Know in biological science, establishing to his satisfaction that there is nothing special about consciousness, hence the inevitability of its recreation in an artificial medium. My lack of familiarity with neurobiology made this chapter significantly less accessible than the others, but its intent remains crystal-clear: it clearly establishes the background for Kurzweil’s vision of the Humans 2.0: Re-written DNA, redesigned bodies, enhanced intelligence, transferable consciousness, artificial intelligence and so on. Whew.

This is old stuff for SF fans, but what’s important about Kurzweil’s book is how it’s developed from the ground up, from real-world headlines onward. The Singularity is Near bridges the gap between SF fantasies and real trends, grounding speculations in palpable trends. (iPods as drivers for the Singularity. Discuss.) This is a book that can dropped in boardrooms, one that plants stakes in the consensus vision of the world.

And an optimistic vision it is. At a time when the space age is historical, when the coming energy crunch is so worrisome, when ecological collapse seems all too likely, the idea of ever-increasing progress seems quaintly anachronistic. It won’t be an easy road, warns Kurzweil (amongst many other chills, The Singularity is Near posits a positively alarming solution to the gray goo problem), but it’s an inspiring one.

Richly argued and accessibly written, The Singularity is Near takes its place alongside (and building upon) previous futurology books such as Future Shock, and The Engines of Creation —along with a dash of The Physics of Immortality. It has already sold widely and created its own talkstorm of argument for or against the Singularity, recoming a standard reference text on the subject.

As previously stated, I’m already convinced. Belief in the Singularity often boils down to, well, faith: Do you believe in progress, or not? There are certainly enough hints and trends pointing away from the Singularity, not the least of them being the Fermi Paradox: If intelligence is so common, if the Singulariy is so inevitable, why haven’t we seen any evidence of alien Singularities? Kurzweil’s pat answer (“We’re obviously the first! Ta-da!”) is one of the most unsatisfying aspects of the book.

But the Singularity can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Books like this one, by suggesting what can happen, are an important part of how we collectively define where to go next. Have a look.

Grizzly Man (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Grizzly Man</strong> (2005)

(On DVD, February 2006) Timothy Treadwell died in 2003, mauled and then eaten by a bear. A self-professed environmentalist with a flair for the dramatic, he left behind almost 100 hours of video footage, showing him in close proximity to the bears he was studying. An easy documentary approach would have been to mourn Treadwell and dismiss the death as a freak accident. But there’s a lot more under the surface, as director Werner Herzog discovers once he starts tracking down Treadwell’s life. A failed actor with problems relating to the human world, Treadwell becomes a study in manic complexity, with perhaps a streak for self-destruction. Herzog doesn’t buy into Treadwell’s own video mythology, and the film becomes a fascinating psychological study shot in beautiful nature footage. Grizzly Man is unique in how it presents a narrative that would be impossible in a fictional format: well worth a look, though some moments are not for the squeamish.

Freedomland (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Freedomland</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, February 2006) Frankly, I’m still not too sure what to make of this film. An uneasy hybrid between drama and thriller, with a sprinkling of social issues that never completely melts into the main plot-line, Freedomland attains a remarkable middle ground between quality and boredom. Some parts are so familiar that they play on auto-pilot: Samuel L. Jackson turns in another effortless performance as a intense policeman, and Julianne Moore delivers yet another performance as a bad mother who can’t find her child. The dialogues are similarly cut from other films of the same genre, while the direction, especially when it works, has no distinguishing characteristics. But it doesn’t always work, and Freedomland ofter veers into self-serving stylistic moments that seem consciously tacked-on. It doesn’t help that Julianne Moore’s character immediately evokes feelings of loathing: that the film then spends its duration proving us right is no recipe for surprising twists. But worse is the feeling that some weighty issues about racial tensions, middle-aged alienation and criminal tendencies are raised in service of an insubstantial story. Freedomland brings to mind weighter fare such as Mystic River or L.A. Confidential is how it does not manage to successfully integrate wider social issues in a thriller template. Indeed, Freedomland feels somewhere between drama and mystery, not as a successful hybrid, but as a failed attempt that couldn’t commit to either one of those storytelling poles. Even Crash, as wildly preposterous as it was, ended up being a far more satisfying film.

Firewall (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Firewall</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, February 2006) Action grandpa Harrison Ford is back throwing punches in this limp thriller, at a time where even his stunts doubles are more likely to worry about broken pelvises than landing a good hit. Yet another suspense film in which a man must save his family from ineffectual criminals, Firewall gamely tries to get on with today’s technology, but only succeeds in highlighting how silly it is. The technical details are wrong (Hurrah for continental wi-fi coverage!), but even nit-picking IT jargon pales in comparison to the script’s other problems. Paul Bettany’s villain is weak enough to be stopped by a good spanking, but Ford himself doesn’t look so dynamic at an age where he should be contemplating retirement-home hobbies. (We’ll let the whole marrying-a-woman-twenty-years-younger shtick slide on the basis that Hollywood producers are always fond of wish-fulfilment fantasies, and that Ford himself seems to be having no problem dating younger women.) Actually, Ford isn’t half bad as either a security expert or an older family man, but it’s when he starts playing the action hero that Firewall becomes very amusing: a better script would have recognized the problem and played the character to his strengths. But that’s a tall order for a script that simply goes through the motions of a thriller without much conviction, peppering the dialogue with technical terms it doesn’t understand and making only the most cursory efforts at drawing credible characters. Some twists happen too late for us to care, which is to say that Firewall can’t hold anyone’s interest for more than a few minutes. It may do if all you’re looking for is a very conventional thriller… but otherwise, forget about it.

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room</strong> (2005)

(On DVD, February 2006) The Satirical journal The Onion once ran a story titled “Americans Would Be Outraged If They Understood Enron Collapse”. Well this it it, the film that ties everything together and does its best to enrage you. Embezzlement, machismo, political connections, lack of auditing, amoral executives, deliberate suffering, culture of excess, refusal to admit responsibility: everything wrong about American capitalism seems to be on display here. Best of all, it makes sense of a complicated scheme, tracking Enron’s rise and fall in a limpid fashion. As financial vulgarization, it’s top-notch, with both the script and the direction keeping things moving along at a fast clip. But beyond a simple expose of criminal numbers, the film also shows the real consequences for some ordinary people whose pensions were essentially wiped out by the Enron collapse. Make sure you don’t have any Enron business literature left lying around, otherwise you will find yourself burning it in sheer hopping anger. 2005 was another excellent year for feature-length documentaries, and this is only one of the flagship titles.

The Charm School, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 1988, 630 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35320-5

As we uncertainly make our way through this fifth year of the current self-proclaimed “war on terrorism”, it’s good to remember that it wasn’t always so. That barely twenty years ago, everyone was looking anxiously at the Soviet Union as the potential source of nuclear Armageddon. Now, of course, we know better: The Soviet bear turned out to be a paper tiger, a third-world country with a nuclear arsenal and not much else.

But as of 1988, paranoia and cold war thrillers were still hot viable commodities. The Charm School, an espionage thriller set deep behind Russian borders, may seem a charming antiquity today —but it must first be viewed through its historical context before being criticized as a relic of another era.

It begins with an American student, as he makes his way through Russia on his own set of wheels. A chance encounter allows him to see something he shouldn’t know about, rolling the plot into motion. Before long, intelligence officers inside the American embassy are alerted to the horrible secret, and plunge neck-deep in a vast conspiracy. DeMille being DeMille (see Up Country), he can’t resist the temptation of using his novel as an excuse to travel and probe the depths of late-Cold War Russia.

The Charm School has both its good and less-good aspects, but one of the highlights of the book -indeed, one that has survived intact through what we now know of the defunct Soviet Union- is to be found in its depiction of the USSR as a joyless place barely subsisting above poverty levels. Through its investigating protagonists, DeMille takes us deep in Russia, from the tourist spots of Moscow (which, I gather, DeMille visited) to the rural countryside. DeMille nails down two important aspects of the experience; first, the sheer backward nature of a place where electricity is still a tenuous privilege; second, the domination of a totalitarian regime where anything can happen to anyone on a whim from the upper hierarchy. Nearly twenty years later, The Charm School is a time capsule dedicated to a defeated enemy: Let’s just hope that things are better over there today.

The not-so-good parts of the novel come when the Vast Conspiracy is exposed, the one that directly threatens America’s very own social fabric. Knowing what we know about the relative strengths of both societies, especially given the problems described by DeMille elsewhere in the novel, it seems unlikely that the Charm School could have had even a minimal impact on America. (Heck, some will say that home-grown Americans are far more likely to behave stupidly on their own than due to a Vast Conspiracy. Indeed, it remains to be seen if a Soviet-penetrated US would end up more like Canada than Russia.)

But it’s a constant strength of DeMille’s writing skill that we’re more than able to overlook this dated piece of hysteria. (If there’s something to overlook, naturally; readers with a good knowledge of Cold War clichés and rumors will just read the back cover blurb, guess the conspiracy, raise their shoulders and read on anyway.) The first half of the book is a quick and impeccable espionage thriller full of trade-craft details and slices of life in an embassy. Protagonist Sam Hollis is a tough-guy that clearly represents the early prototype for such latter-day DeMille heroes as Plum Island‘s John Corey or The General’s Daughter Paul Brenner, minus the polished sarcasm. The relationship he has with Lisa Rhodes is also emblematic of DeMille’s male/female character dynamics, though Up Country keeps coming back to mind thanks to the “travelogue in a totalitarian regime” aspect. (This being said, I keep going back up DeMille’s early bibliography and finding those elements over and over again. Don’t be surprised if an upcoming review ends up saying something about earlier characters being early drafts for Sam Hollis.)

If the novel suffers from a third-quarter slowdown (in which description takes the place of action), DeMille’s terrific prose is delicious enough to keep us reading without pause. Fans of the author already know all about the addictive nature of his plotting: The Charm School is no exception to the rule. It helps that the ending is both suspenseful and mournful, allowing both personal triumph and political hard edges. As a novel, The Charm School has aged relatively well, especially when compared to other similar novels of the era: It counterbalances its wilder moments with enough careful accuracy to make the final result seem worthwhile. Even today, it remains an essential piece of DeMille’s work.

Crash (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Crash</strong> (2004)

(On DVD, February 2006) Seen from the perspective of a French-Canadian, life in Los Angeles often takes on an alien quality that makes it hard to distinguish reality from exaggeration, especially when it’s seen from the distorted prism of cinema. Small surprise, then, if this tale of racism in modern L.A. often feels too unbelievable to be entirely credible. I don’t know the state of race dynamics in today’s southern California, but Crash paints a damning portrait that leaves few ideals standing once it’s done smashing all its characters to pieces. Unfortunately, the way it does so smacks of arbitrary plotting and authorial intent: It’s as if characters, in-between scenes, traded an instruction card saying “You’re now going to do something incredibly stupid.” The result is a film that may aspire to much, but ends up playing the same note over and over again, resulting in a melodrama that can’t be taken too seriously. (Indeed, by the end of the film, I was referring to character in term of their standing on the “Wish They’d Be Hit By a Bus” scale.) What’s unfortunate is that there is some very good material in here, from the ambiguous characters to the chaotic nature of their interaction to the film’s deep acting talent to the cinematography. A number of scenes, as unlikely as they are, still resonate well after the end of the credits. But that’s not nearly enough. The film may self-consciously rely on the vagaries of chance and coincidence, but it only ends up making the experience frustrating and, yes, ridiculous. There aren’t any easy answers here, but there are a lot of silly questions.

Cinderella Man (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cinderella Man</strong> (2005)

(On DVD, February 2006) I’ve seen this film before, except that it featured a horse and was called Seabiscuit. I know, I know, but what can one say about two depression-era sports drama released two years apart, especially when they’re both meant to represent an elusive “triumph of the American spirit?” As you may guess from the premise (down-on-his-luck boxer gets a second chance), this is old-fashioned Hollywood movie-making in more ways than one: sweeping period recreation coupled with solidly conventional moral values. Thankfully, Ron Howard’s workmanlike direction is efficient, and once you get past the inevitable “ooh, we’re poor” moments to get into the sport sequences, Cinderella Man becomes surprisingly effective. Russel Crowe does fine in the title role, and “Da Vinci” Nicholas Campbell has a crunchy supporting role as a sport journalist. Perhaps too conventional to be worth more than a good look, this is nonetheless a professional work of mainstream cinema. Yes, it’s still Seabiscuit in a ring. But don’t let that dissuade you from this film if ever you find yourself in the mood for something so classic it could have been made at any moment since the seventies.

Les chevaliers du ciel [Sky Fighters] (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Les chevaliers du ciel</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Sky Fighters</strong>] (2005)

(In theaters, February 2006) Oh yes, baby: Top Gun, French Mirage style! As a shameless attempt to replicate the boffo success of Hollywood blockbusters, Les chevaliers du ciel is more successful than most: Fast planes, competent protagonists, attractive female characters and superb cinematography… what could be better? Sure, the script is filled with howlers (the rationale behind the cannonball run, for instance, is ludicrous), but the rest of the film holds up so well and we almost know when the screenwriters are playing with us. While the ending is disappointing and some details don’t make much sense (of course, the American pilot paid her way through school by stripping; how kind of her to have kept up in shape), they don’t hold a candle to the fabulous aerial scenes. This is where the film shines, with eye-popping footage of fighter jets doing what they do best. Reportedly filmed without digital trickery, this techno-thriller kicks Stealth in the teeth and makes a proud statement for the French Air Force. As a certified plane nerd, I geeked out several times during the plentiful aerial sequence, including a deeply effective moment during which the beauty of multi-million supersonic flight is explored. It’s a welcome change to see some European hardware on-screen. Les chevaliers du ciel may have been conceptualized as a French answer to Top Gun, but it ends up as a challenge to Hollywood; now let’s see the Americans top that!

Warrior Class, Dale Brown

Berkley, 2001, 473 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-18446-3

As long as Dale Brown will continue to write more novels in his increasingly unworkable series, his fiction will continue to suffer. Warrior Class, like Brown’s last few books, is no exception to this trend: at best, it’s a grab-bag of ideas made weaker by the necessities of serial fiction. At worst, it showcases why Brown has lost the place he enjoyed at the top of the techno-thriller writers’ pantheon.

Plot-wise, it’s another re-thread of the usual: Once more in this comfortably post-Cold War Browniverse, US interests and world peace are indissociably threatened when a Russian gangster seizes an advanced warplane to ensure his own plans for private economic supremacy. It’s up to Patrick McLanahan, again, to fight the good fight using his high-tech toys and a complete disregard for the protocols of military engagement.

But in what feels like a breath of fresh air, there are consequences to this type of cow-boy mentality. As the novel slowly opens, we’re introduced to a new US President: Thomas Nathaniel Thorn is Kevin Martindale’s successor and as befits his name, he proves to be quite a thorn in the heel of the US military. A third-party governor from eeevil liberal Vermont, Thorn is not much for official ceremonies but truly enjoys Transcendental Meditation. What more, he’s ready to sharply reduce the size of the armed forces and reveal confidential information to the public. Surprisingly enough, Brown resist the temptation to paint him as a foolish villain (though this may come later in the series).

Meanwhile, Patrick McLanahan is sitting pretty in Nevada as the operational chief of the top-secret high-tech “Dreamland” facility. When tensions erupt in Eastern Europe, he’s fast up on a plane trying to do what he does best: breaking direct orders. When things turn sour, only a presidential gambit saves him from certain death. Unsurprisingly, he finds himself nudged toward the civilian life as soon as he lands. This, of course, just won’t do…

From the above, you may suppose that this is a significant entry in the McLanahan saga, and you would be half-right: On some aspects, Warrior Class shows some promise and excitement. McLanahan has often defied orders without consequences, so it’s only too fitting to see him suffer from the fallout once in a while. His trajectory out of active service surely won’t be allowed to stand for more than a volume or two , but it’s a development that could be interesting. (Indeed, by the end of the novel it’s only too obvious that Brown is indulging into one of the favorite fantasies of many right-wing writers: A private armed force that can pretty much kill whoever it wants without any kind of paperwork.)

But there are problems, and many of these spring from the uneasy interaction between reality and Brown’s universe. It’s bad enough that an author’s note at the beginning of the book has to explain what fictional constraints were introduced in previous books, only to be followed with three pages of “real-world news excerpts”. A significant problem is, of course, that Brown gets to keep what he likes and ditch what’s inconvenient; there’s a mention of what happened in Day of the Cheetah even despite the fact that Brown’s 1988 novel was clearly a story that took place in a world where the USSR made it intact to 1997!

But even overlooking the problems in trying to stick to a series well beyond its best-by date, Warrior Class has problems of its own. As with most of the latest Brown novels, it spends too much time with “the enemy” even as the emotional strength of the novel is with the American characters: Little of what’s discussed by the antagonist is relevant to the rest of the novel. McLanahan himself doesn’t make an appearance in the first fifth of the novel, a delay that highlights the narrative’s padded nature more than anything else. A number of subplots go nowhere and do nothing, bringing along a few supporting characters: You really have to work hard at extracting the good from the bad in this bloated excuse for a military novel.

It doesn’t get any better later on, as fancy gadgets work alongside realistic military hardware. Brown has never been at his best portraying realism: Chains of Command tried to stick as closely as possible to reality, and it was a singularly dull novel. On the other hand, Brown’s earlier deftness with fancy hardware has lately metastasized into an unwieldy habit of reusing the same gadgets over and over again. Here, the silly “Tin Man” suits make a return appearance and the result is more ridiculous than exciting.

As callous at it may sound, Brown’s next, Wings of Fire, should be worth a read if only to find out how he’ll handle 9/11’s major reality reset. How will he square Bush, al Quaeda and the rest with increasingly fanciful tales of big bombers and super-powered suits? Of course, he could choose to ignore it completely and go even deeper in his dead-end universe… which wouldn’t be surprising.