Month: September 2007

Radio Freefall, Matthew Jarpe

Tor, 2007, 318 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7654-1784-1

As a reviewer, I’m not too fond of using “It’s a first novel” as an explanation. After all, I don’t know how many previous novels sleep in the trunk of the author. Excusing something as “a first novel” seems to trivialize the effort of the author who has worked so hard on a book, and sets up expectations for follow-ups. It ignores the efforts and knowledge of the book’s editor, and presupposes a bunch of easy fixes that more experienced authors could see –as if even first-time authors didn’t know how to read. So I try to avoid the expression, except as a strict description.

And yet, and yet, the first thing that comes to mind when I want to write about Radio Freefall is… it’s a first novel. It’s a likable and engaging mess of a book that shows why Matthew Jarpe will be one to watch even if he has trouble putting the pieces of his story together. It’s full of surprises, and some of them leave a better impression than others.

The first surprise is set up by the book’s marketing. From the cover blurb, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a novel in the Moon is a Harsh Mistress mold, with a plucky bunch of orbiting rag-tag rebels showing one or two things to an overbearing Earth regime thanks to the power of rock-and-roll. Allen Steele blended with Heinlein, or something like that.

Now imagine the shift as you realize that this is really a rock-and-roll novel with a third act set in space.

I’m not complaining. Not at this point, anyway. I’m unaccountably fascinated by rock-and-roll novels, and seeing Radio Freefall turn into one is like finding a particularly enjoyable prize in a cereal box. The trials and tribulations of the Snake Vendors as they instantly become the world’s biggest rock band (led by a mysterious bluesman known as “Aqualung”) make up for instantly compelling reading. Despite rock-and-roll’s declining stature in today’s pop-culture, there’s still something quasi-mythic about touring rock bands, and that’s even before they start battling evil world governments.

It follows that as a good rock-and-roll novel, Radio Freefall is also a story of revolution. In Jarpe’s thinly-imagined future, someone has taken control of the Internet, and that logically leads to a stifling and unaccountable world government that must be defeated. But I’m getting ahead of my snark: for the moment, it’s enough to imagine a renegade rock band led by a man with elite tech skillz, facing down an all-powerful enemy. Concept albums have been put together for lesser reasons.

Before getting into the reasons why Radio Freefall doesn’t work as well as it should, let’s take a look at what does work: The rock-and-roll theme certainly brings a lot to the novel, and gives it a unique feel that’s not to be found elsewhere in recent SF. It helps that Jarpe knows how to write clean and compelling prose: On a sentence-by-sentence writing level, this is probably the most steadily interesting debut novel I’ve read this year. The characters are generally likable, even when they turn out to be unreasonably heroic figures. (It fits into the bigger-than-life rock-and-roll aesthetics.)

There’s so much to like here that it’s doubly frustrating to see when some elements just don’t work.

The most obvious problem is structural: After a bit more than half the novel spent on Earth, things change and abruptly bring us in orbit. The transition plot point is botched (remarkably, few people think of asking “where’s the body?”, and Jarpe’s hand-waved riot isn’t much of an explanation), but the entire novel does little to prepare readers for the venue change. Freefall should be a place we should be looking forward to visiting; instead, it feels like a surprise that’s not entirely welcome.

But the most grating problem is the ham-fisted way Jarpe provides antagonists for his story. The cheap shots at world government don’t bother me; after, the novel is written by an American. But the “Unification” model is so badly broken in concept that it never feels like a credible threat. Worse yet; it’s controlled by a single person who has found a way to take control of the Internet by stealing someone else’s work. Uh-huh. Compound the cartoonish villains with the pocket-universe problem (where all power in held by a handful of people who all somehow know one another) and Radio Freefall suffers from a severe credibility problem. It’s never too clear how much of the novel we’re meant to take seriously, and if we’re not, why the satire isn’t better handled.

And so I end with a diffuse impression of a novel with qualities that are overwhelmed by other parts of the novel running in all directions, a confused impression that is best described, for better of for worse, by the expression “a first novel”, immediately followed by “I’m looking forward to the next one.”

The Skinner, Neal Asher

Tor, 2002, 424 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-35048-3

There are a number of early clues about the gruesome nature of The Skinner, but perhaps the clearest sign of the novel’s true nature comes midway through Chapter 1:

Peck, the 180-year-old mechanic, had been attacked by a leech and it had unscrewed a fist-sized lump of flesh from his leg —a lump of flesh he had, after beating the leech to pulp, subsequently screwed back into place. The wound had healed in minutes. [P.10-11]

Yes, Spatterjay lives up to its back-cover blurb as “the most dangerous planet in the galaxy”. Given that it’s set in Neal Asher’s typically gruesome “Polity” universe, you can imagine that this one goes up to eleven on the yuck-scale. The rationale goes like this: In an ecosystem where things get nastier and nastier, nearly everything on Spatterjay is a super-predator, and the only effective way for prey to exist is for it to develop super-regenerative capabilities. That means being able to survive severe damage and regenerating quickly. In another scene, the human characters gnaws a chunk to eat out of the local wildlife, then throw it back in the ocean knowing fully well that it will likely grow back what’s missing. The key is a virus that radically changes one’s inner biology, with the added complication is that it’s possible for a human to be infected with the virus. In that case, the human stops being human and effectively becomes immorbid.

And that’s just the setting. As The Skinner begins, a motley crew of opponents have converged on Spatterjay, from semi-enslaved operatives to a woman contemplating her impending immortality, to war criminals, aliens, robots, at least two sets of post-human intelligences and various representatives of the planet’s native life-forms. Not surprisingly, nearly everyone wants to kill everyone else, which makes for bizarre alliances and a final battle that runs on for entire chapters and follow several characters to their destruction. Notice that I haven’t said anything about the sentient hornets or the still-alive head in a box. The most amusing character ends up being a war drone with a tenacity of its own.

It’s a lively novel.

It’s also one of the most blackly amusing book I’ve read this year, constantly hovering somewhere between disgust and a few winks at the reader. It’s hard to deny the over-the-top nature of the novel’s excess. Anyone who has glanced at Asher’s other work already knows that this is an author who’s not afraid to throw ichor and sharp-teethed worms at the reader, but The Skinner almost approaches self-parody. It’s not always easy to read: besides the “ick!” factor, there’s a density of complicated piece-shuffling that discourages casual reading. As planetary adventures go, this is an above-average one, though not one that will win unanimous applause. Patient readers with strong stomach will be rewarded.

The Nanny Diaries, Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus

St. Martin’s, 2002, 368 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-98307-7

Who thought chick-lit could be a battleground for the war between the classes?

Actually, that’s not much of a stretch. Accepting the all-encompassing definition of check-lit as being fiction about the struggles of contemporary young women, it would be difficult to avoid issues of wealth or status, or lack thereof. Genre poster girl Bridget Jones had to choose between money and, er, more money. The Devil Wear Prada‘s Andrea Sachs is seduced away from her humble life by the high-flying pace of work at a fashion magazine. Even genre grandma Jane Austen had one or two things to say about class and privilege.

But few novel cut so deeply into big-money satire as The Nanny Diaries: by delving into the child-raising habits of the New York upper-class, McLaughlin and Kraus go straight to what made F. Scott Fitzgerald say “The rich are different from you and I.” As the unnamed narrator (always called “Nan”, but presumably as a diminutive for “Nanny” rather than “Nancy”) gets more deeply involved in the life of a jet-setting Manhattan family, she comes to discover the nasty secrets and deep-seated callousness of those who surround her. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but there are sharp claws under the smiles.

In some ways, it’s also a novel of anthropological discovery. Narrator Nan is not a newcomer to the New York upper set: herself raised in a comfortable middle class family, Nan goes into the nanny business knowing fully well what’s going on. The first chapter is a generic description of how those interviews usually go and which characteristics are most prized by the client parents:

I am white. I speak French. My parents are college educated. I have no visible piercings and have been to Lincoln Center in the past two months. I’m hired. [P.5]

It’s not as if Nan is being hired to take care of the kids while the mother is working, though: She’s been hired by a family whose mom is more interested in the socialite game than in the dirty business of raising a child. In fact, Nan is being hired as a surrogate mother, and therein lies the seething rage of the novel. Forget about the strict rules, the impossible schedules and the ridiculous pay: What really makes Nan furious is that the kid she’s been hired to supervise has no family ties to speak of: Dad’s working, Mom’s busy trying to recapture her beauty-model past and the kid’s just going to be a chore to them until he graduates college and makes enough money for the parents to brag about. The rich are different indeed, and if the largely middle-class bus-riding child-raising readership of the book isn’t seething at this abandonment of parental responsibility, then the authors haven’t succeeded. There’s also a bonus question: If Nan leaves, who’s going to keep the young one from growing into exactly the same person than his parents?

Because, oh yes, the parents are a walking collection of problems. Lady X is a predictable collection of neuroses, while Mister X isn’t particularly concerned with plebeian moral values such as fidelity. When Nan literally walks into those secrets, the tension cranks up. She may have taken the job for the money, but she’ll be lucky to escape with her grades, her morals and her sanity intact.

Plot-wise, there isn’t much going on here but the typical innocent-discovers-perversion storyline we’ve seen in so many permutations over the years. On the other hand, that template is a perfect canvas on which to paint scenes of New York upper-class madness. Nan is asked to do plenty of truly stupid jobs during her time serving the Xs, and every single one of those is a further glimpse into the casual cruelty of those used to exploit other people as a matter of day-to-day living. The prose is clean, the details are telling and the characters are effectively caricatured.

Ironically, it’s the protagonist herself that stops the novel from being completely successful as social commentary. Nan’s family is relatively comfortable, and yet the narrator seems to have a blind spot when it comes to that particular facet of her existence. Does she need the money so desperately when she could borrow some from the rest of her family? Is there such a gap between her clients and her family? Would the novel have been improved or diluted with a lower-class protagonist?

Of course, the danger with an even more rational protagonist is that she may not have lasted more than a week and a half as a nanny, and that would have been a much shorter novel. Never mind, then: Have a look at The Nanny Diaries if you’re looking for a glimpse at an alien subculture, or if you want to see how genre fiction can tackle bigger issues with a smile and a stiletto. That nanny in the corner may be working for you, but no amount of money may be enough to make her like you.

Ragamuffin, Tobias S. Buckell

Tor, 2007, 316 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1507-6

Isn’t it great when authors write second novels that exceed the expectations set by their first ones?

It’s even better when it happens to genuinely nice guys. Even in a field where I wish every new author the best of luck, I’m in the grandstands cheering for Tobias Buckell: I think that he brings something new and vital to the SF genre and I genuinely enjoy reading his writing. His debut, Crystal Rain, was a promising start, highly enjoyable but consciously restricted in scope. As a planetary adventure on a far-away planet with intriguing aliens and plenty of derring-do, it was a success and promised even better things.

Now Ragamuffin blows open the doors unlocked by Crystal Rain. Suddenly, we’re not stuck on the backwater planet of Nanagada; We’re in space, deep inside the Satrapy Hegemony where humans eke out a subsistence living in the cracks of an empire that doesn’t particularly care for them. From planetary adventure, Buckell moves on to space opera, setting up a fascinating universe filled with powerful alien forces, plucky resistance heroes and allies to both sides.

Our anchor during the first half of the novel is a powerful woman named Nashara, a specially-trained operative with dangerous secrets and even more powerful capabilities. On the run after killing a member of the ruling class, she’s looking to make contact with the rebel forces. There are complications along the way, including space battles, a trip through a decaying space colony and a multiplication of Nasharas.

As a reading experience, that first half is everything one could ask from a contemporary space opera: It’s fast-paced, it presents intriguing characters, it features interesting scenes and ideas, and it’s packed with action. The set-piece of that first half is pictured on the cover: A thrilling chase/shootout sequence in the microgravity environment of a spinning space colony that’s as much fun as SF ever gets. It helps that Nashara is one of the most interesting characters to pop up in recent SF.

Things change slightly past the half-point mark, as Buckell interrupts the action to rejoin the protagonists of Crystal Rain on their home planet, and brings both sets of characters together. This is where the narrative stumbles, as the flow of Nashara’s story is completely halted and readers are asked to stretch their memories back to Crystal Rain in order to catch up with the story. It takes a while for the characters to get up to speed, and I wonder if there wasn’t a better way of blending both plot strands together.

But thing soon accelerate again as various factions are brought together and set against each other. By the end of the book, the stage is set for even bigger adventures in the Satrapy universe, along with Nashara and the terrific Pepper, who’s back from Crystal Rain. This is very much a transition volume, and while readers of the first novel will be pleased by the way things a getting bigger and more important, those who want to read a complete story may want to wait until the third novel comes out to dive in.

Buckell’s prose in this second book seems even cleaner than the first book; it helps that things move along more quickly, and that the scope in inherently bigger. Thematically, Buckell deals well with themes of oppression and alienation; I particularly appreciated the way humans are portrayed as being very minor player in a known universe otherwise controlled by far more powerful players. This is the kind of things that helps break SF out of its current doldrums.

All told, it amounts to a second novel that’s better than an already quite enjoyable first novel.

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)

(In theaters, September 2007) Both wonderful and reprehensible, this newest entry in the “fast and furious cheap action movie” sub-genre (after Running Scared, Crank and Smokin’ Aces) is the kind of film I hope Decency Leagues never discover. The first few minutes set the tone, with barely thirty seconds before the first car crash and ninety before the first gunshots. A pregnant woman is involved, after which a baby becomes the bouncing ball around which the carnage of the film takes place. The very definition of a guilty pleasure, Shoot ‘Em Up will simply be unbearable for many, yet compulsively hilarious for others. Clive Owen looks fantastic as the laconic hero of the piece, a man with infallible shooting skills and a bulletproof aura. But Monica Bellucci has the naughty darkness required to play a milkmaid prostitute (!) and Paul Giamatti is a scenery-chomping delight as a villain who, for a change, is just as smart as the hero. Seeing the body-count whir up steadily during a series of delirious action set-pieces, it’s hard not to feel ashamed and dirtied about the experience. But Shoot ‘Em Up never takes itself seriously as it piles up preposterousness over ludicrousness in an effort to top just about every standard for bad taste. But at the same time, it’s deliriously fun as a nervy action thriller. No, the plot doesn’t add up and there’s far too little nudity given the excesses of the film in matters of violence. But it’s meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed. (Whatever symbolism it features has the subtlety of a 2×4, and you’ll groan at the one-liners.) While not quite up to Hard-Boiled‘s standards (too quick, too close, too jokey), it’s certainly one of the most unapologetic pure action films in a while. If it makes you feel any better, let me assure you that the baby and the hooker make it to the end of the picture completely intact and unharmed. Trust me: you’ll appreciate the spoiler once the action gets going and Clive Owen starts sliding through the air in slow-motion, mowing down villains with one hand while clutching a baby with the other. It doesn’t have one death-by-carrot: It has two of them. It’s that kind of film, and I almost hate myself for loving it.

City of Bones, Michael Connelly

Warner, 2002, 421 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61161-1

Reading series fiction offers a number of pleasures and complications that just can’t be replicated in single novels and, indeed, may owe more to TV series structure than to traditional prose characteristics. There can be macro-plot and micro-plot considerations, for instance, as narrative elements can be developed over several volumes even while each book offers a complete story. Balancing character growth against the need to offer a continuing dramatic environment can be a challenge, especially when the two start working against each other. Is it any wonder if series structure breakthroughs are often featured in sub-standard standalone stories?

Michael Connelly, for instance, is best known for a taciturn LAPD detective named Harry Bosch. Bosch is smart, determined, secretive, rough and has a problem with authority. But one of the continuing dramatic driver of the series so far has been the paradox between Bosch’s distrust of authority versus his inability to exist in an environment without a clear hierarchy. Bosch’s been badly treated by the LAPD, but has put up with it so far. City of Bones tests this tension to the limit.

It starts horribly, as most Bosch investigations usually do. A body is discovered in the hills of Los Angeles and Bosch is put in charge of the investigation. The body of the victim, a teenage boy, has been left undiscovered for two decades. The murderer seems long gone. But as in most Connelly novels, the path to the truth can be strange, twisted and damaging.

Alas, City of Bones is a frustrating novel in that it blends the good and the not-so-good in a story with major consequences for Bosch. It often feels like a novel rushing to a predetermined conclusion, and the nudges required to push Bosch toward particular story points are often done in less-than-graceful fashion.

For instance, there’s a rushed quality to the romantic subplot that is tacked to Bosch’s life in this novel. The detective, of course, has never been terribly lucky in his romances (we even see him deal badly with an ex-girlfriend early in the book), but this one is easily the worst. Unfortunately, the fate of this book’s girlfriend seems written on her head as soon as she walks into the novel: it’s almost a cameo appearance with an all-too-obvious ending. Such lack of skill is unusual for Connelly, and it’s troubling in how it unsettles his normally rock-solid plotting.

Fortunately, Connelly does as well as usual elsewhere in the novel: his chapter-by-chapter plotting is solid, his prose style is still a model of clarity and it’s hard to stop reading even throughout the weaker moments.

But there’s a new elements at play here: a foreboding feeling that something truly unsettling is about to happen. By the end of the novel, our worse suspicions are confirmed, as Bosch finally takes a decision that had long been coming. Where this will leave the series is a question to be answered in the next volume.

As for City of Bones itself, we’re left with a lopsided novel, one where the smaller plot elements are rushed in order to advance the evolution of the larger series. It would have been less obtrusive had the character of Julia Brasher had been introduced in an earlier volume (or even given a less-obvious family name); more room to let the character breathe would have allowed it to be more than a cheap plot device among others.

But in the end, we’re left with a new series framework, another closed case for Harry Bosch and a superior reading experience for procedural mystery fans. Connelly fans will tune in for the next exciting episode, whatever it may be.

Saints-Martyrs-Des-Damnés [Saint Martyrs of the Damned] (2005)

Saints-Martyrs-Des-Damnés [Saint Martyrs of the Damned] (2005)

(On DVD, September 2007) The good news is that this is a genre picture made in Quebec. It’s a visually gorgeous piece of work, it sports a terrific atmosphere and it’s more or less in the lineage of Silent Hill and other small-town atmospheric horror film. The bad news is that it’s written and directed by someone who doesn’t have a clue about logic, pacing or payoff. The tale gets more and more ludicrous as it rolls along, eventually heading into unconvincing Science Fiction and ignoring a good chunk of everything that came before. Continuity and coherency are obviously not this film’s strong point, and the result starts well but then crashes down. Given the slow rhythm of the film, though, simply getting to the end will be an achievement of sorts. It’s too bad that all of the considerable talent involved in making this picture simply didn’t come together to produce something worthwhile. While the images may make a cool music video, it simply doesn’t hold together as a feature, and the script is the first thing to blame.

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

(In theaters, September 2007) At least this this entry is better than the previous one. That’s not saying much, but Extinction takes a few chances by moving the action after the zombie apocalypse and killing a recurring character. As B-grade action/SF films are concerned, it even manages a few good scenes: I liked the bird attack, the “Alice dumping trench” and the tanker explosion, not to mention another hit in the series’ habit of excellent prologues/epilogues. Milla Jovovich continues to be the heart of the series.  On the other hand, well, the writing is lazy and the direction isn’t much better: Ashanti gets killed far too quickly, most of the action scenes are dull, the ending is strictly routine and there’s a limit to the number of mutants zombies you can stuff in a truck container. I’m not exactly thirsting for a fourth instalment: This lemon’s been squeezed dry.

Que Dieu Bénisse l’Amérique [May God Bless America] (2006)

Que Dieu Bénisse l’Amérique [May God Bless America] (2006)

(On DVD, September 2007) What a mess. Take September 11, add a serial killer, add castration, add suburban angst, add pseudo-profound musings on the nature of North-American suburbia and stir. Yeah, you won’t like the result either, especially when, visually, it looks like something you could have shot with a bunch of middle-aged friends in your nearest suburb. Attempted profoundness quickly leads to achieved pretentiousness, and the film seems to implode on itself as all the plot threads are brought together. But don’t give up on that rental just yet: The DVD comes bundled with a short making-of film that is, I believe, the real worthwhile film on the platter. I won’t say any more: You will have to watch it to believe it.

OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions (2006)

OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions (2006)

(On DVD, September 2007) What a strange, strange concept: Adapt an old French spy thriller to the screen and poke fun at its outdated assumptions. Jean Dujardin is magnificent as “Agent OSS 117”, but it doesn’t take much for his high-wire performance to turn sour if you’re not in the right frame of mind. His old-school French parochialism is either amusing or irritating, and that pretty much speaks for the entire film: it’s a satire, but often a frustrating one as the clueless protagonist can being either charming or infuriating. At least the period recreation is convincing (down to cinematic techniques that call back to the early James Bond era), Aure Atika is gorgeous in her too-short turn as Princess Al Tarouk and a few gags stick in mind far longer than they should. It’s definitely a curiosity, and as such warrants at least a look even if it doesn’t quite work all the time.

The Last Colony, John Scalzi

Tor, 2007, 320 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1697-4

At a time when most new writers in the SF&F field are writing fantasy rather than science-fiction, John Scalzi has quickly become a reliable value for top-quality SF. Since his first professionally-published novel in 2005, Scalzi has already produced a remarkable and distinctive body of work: The Last Colony is his fifth novel, and the third in the universe launched by the Hugo-nominated Old Man’s War. All of Scalzi’s novels so far have shown an entertaining blend of competent SF, crystal-clear writing, snappy dialogue and terrific pacing. Scalzi’s gone from hot new talent to reliable pro in a ridiculously short amount of time, and The Last Colony is another strong entry in the list of reasons why Scalzi belongs on your reading list.

Not simply content in repeating past successes, The Last Colony evolves the “Old Man’s War” universe rather than try to repeat a familiar formula. The first novel attempted a straight-up military SF formula. The second, The Ghost Brigades, meshed special forces heroics with musings on personal identity. This third entry more or less abandons the swords in favour of the ploughshares, as it follows past protagonists John Perry and Jane Sagan while they establish a new colony on Earth’s behalf.

This is a risky proposition. Readers of the series so far will recall how the galaxy is filled with competing alien races and how most of them wouldn’t mind seeing the humans disappear. It’s a tough Darwinian universe out there, and the humans are not among the most powerful hunters in the neighbourhood. Since colonization is so rigidly controlled by the galactic powers in charge, a new colony is almost an act of aggression. From the onset, it’s not too clear how official this effort is meant to be, or who’s telling the truth to the protagonists.

Scalzi’s tendency to pencil in details of his universe in previous books here comes handy, as he’s able to extend the reach of his world-building to include savvy diplomatic brinkmanship. Hints and allegations and ominous details finally pay off here, as potentially-silly details from previous volumes (such as the lack of communications between Earth and the colonies) are explained away in a reasonably coherent fashion. It eventually culminates in a joyously bridge-burning conclusion that will radically change the shape of the future books in the series. (As I revise this, Scalzi is reportedly at work on a fourth volume, Zoe’s Tale, due mid-2008.)

Fortunately, the prose and chapter-to-chapter pacing of the novel are up to the structural success of the novel. Scalzi’s most distinctive writing trademark is a compulsively readable style and The Last Colony is no exception. Despite the less militaristic focus of the story, Scalzi has no trouble pulling in his readers; the mystery surrounding the colony is enough to get the narrative started, and the procedural aspects of colonization are intriguingly described. Science Fiction has often played around with the concept of planetary colonization, but aside from The Legacy of Heorot, I can’t recall such a detailed nuts-and-bolts approach to the first few moments of such an event. It’s surprisingly engaging, and holds out interest just long enough for the third-act betrayals and explosions.

Scalzi’s ability to pose relatively complex conceptual and ethical issues in accessible language also remains intact. Like few other working SF genre writers, Scalzi is able to combine state-of-the-art speculation with a prose style that can reach much wider audiences than seasoned SF fans. And yet he’s able to do so without dumbing down anything, which is a harder trick than you’d expect.

Picker readers will probably ask a few questions about the rationale for 18th-century colonization equipment when “wireless communications” is the thing to avoid: the state of today’s mechanical design (especially for third-world environments) is such that better solutions could be used for 2Xth century colonies. But what’s a Science Fiction novel without at least one detail left to pick for argumentative fans?

What’s unarguable is that Scalzi is already an utterly dependable writer, one who keeps stretching the boundaries of his universe while delivering the same qualities that have attracted readers to his earlier work. Scalzi’s not just a hot new SF writer; he’s a model to follow if SF has any chance of surviving as a cohesive genre category in the twenty-first century.

The Mistress Of Spices (2005)

The Mistress Of Spices (2005)

(On DVD, September 2007) Faithful readers of these reviews already know that I love Ashwarya Rai like few other actresses, and I really should let that stand as my review of the entire film. She’s gorgeous, she’s the star of the film and frankly, is there any other reason to see it? Well, okay: if ever they perfect smell-o-cinema, this would be the first movie to re-master. There is such an accumulation of details and images about spices that the film practically cries out for a cooking kit bundle. Fans of sumptuous exotic flavours will be able to overlook the lacklustre magical realism romance that runs at the heart of the film and just enjoy the film on a scene-per-scene basis. The rest doesn’t always hold together very well, and the mechanistic nature of the script is a bit too obvious to be completely entrancing, but with a title like The Mistress Of Spices, at least you get both the mistress and the spices.

Kung Phooey! (2003)

Kung Phooey! (2003)

(On DVD, September 2007) I have a soft spot for earnest low-budget parodies, and Kung Phooey! is a shining example of one. Writer/Director/Actor Darryl Fong does a few nice things with good intentions, a low budget and scattershot comedy: While the film’s editing is too lax to truly punch up the film’s gags, it generally gets better as it goes along, and the film’s puppy-dog charm eventually makes it easier to forgive. Watching the film once won’t be enough: For a greater appreciation of the movie, re-run it with the commentary track to hear Fong talk about the process of making a low-budget film. Yes, it’s cheap and raw and occasionally unfunny and frequently eye-rolling awful. But I like them like that, and once you’re in the proper frame of mind, it’s even curiously enjoyable.

The Kingdom (2007)

The Kingdom (2007)

(In theaters, September 2007) I like political thrillers and I love action movies, so imagine my anticipation at a movie that promised a mixture of both. The Kingdom certainly gets cracking early with a dynamite opening credit sequence that lays out decades’ worth of American/Saudi history in eye-catching infographics. Then it’s down to the nitty-gritty of a mass-murder investigation as a small team of FBI operatives is sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate an act of terrorism in a Western enclave. Jamie Foxx easily takes control of the film, but he’s ably supported by good performances from Jennifer Garner, Ashraf Barhom and Chris Cooper. As a procedural, it’s a bit dull and linear, but the strangeness of the Saudi environment is enough to keep everything interesting as police work takes a back-seat to politics and cultural differences. It’s an easy sip of a film, one that never requires any prodding to go from one scene to another. Then the last half hour kicks in, and from that point on The Kingdom shifts gears to become one continuous thirty-minutes-long slam-bang action film that rolls from car crashes to shootout to car chase to more shootouts to hand-to-hand combat. It’s exhilarating, well-shot and does a lot to reconcile the film’s geopolitical goals with its willingness to entertain a crowd. What’s missing, unfortunately, is a willingness to go beyond a certain level and truly start scratching at the uncomfortable reality set up in the film’s opening minutes: The Kingdom, as enjoyable as it can be, only skims the surface of what could have been possible with those elements, and smothers its epilogue in an abrupt flood of cheaply-bought sentiment. Too bad. Too damn bad, because for a few moments, this could have been an equal to Syriana with even more kick-ass explosions.

In The Valley Of Elah (2007)

In The Valley Of Elah (2007)

(In theaters, September 2007) After the collective war-lust that led the United States to invade and pillage Iraq in 2003, the uncomfortable reality of a prolonged quagmire has led a number of Americans to confront Yet Another Generational Sacrifice. It’s no accident if In The Valley Of Elah is written and directed by Canadian-born Paul Haggis, seeing how it tries really hard to be both non-partisan and blatantly political. At first glance, this is a soft-edged procedural thriller about a father’s investigation in the death of his son, recently returned from Iraq. At second glance, it’s a slow-paced character portrait of grieving father and a community in shock. At third glance, it’s a meditation about the price to pay for war. But little of that will be obvious if you allow yourself to be swept into the low-key investigation that forms the film’s backbone. Tommy Lee Jones is at his laconic best as an ex-Military Policeman using his experience to put together his son’s last few moments, with the help of a embittered Charlize Theron as a policewoman in a male-dominated environment. It’s smooth, but ultimately a bit dull: One jolt of action can’t mask the flat cinematography and the lengthy pacing. The end also gets a bit too obvious, though nowhere near as annoyingly so as in Haggis’ previous Crash. It’s a long sit (and as such, won’t please everyone all the time), but it’s got a certain dramatic heft and finds a place in the pack of meditative thrillers to emerge from contemporary Hollywood cinema. It could have been tighter, leaner, better, but it’s already halfway there.