Month: December 2007

The Arrival, Shaun Tan

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007, 128 pages, C$24.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-439-89529-3

It’s easy to talk in clichés when discussing Shaun Tan’s The Arrival: Pictures are worth a thousand words; Form follows function; Silence is more eloquent than words; The true meaning of a Graphic Novel.

And that’s not even discussing how good it is. Then it’s all about sui generis; a minor masterpiece; a visual feast; a young adult title that will appeal to adults and so on.

But, to use one more cliché, you can believe the hype.

The object itself leaves an impression before even opening the cover. It’s gorgeously designed as a faux-vintage photo album, all in sepia tones and tattered edges. The cover illustration would be a perfect match for archival photography, if it wasn’t for the strange white animal looking up at the man with the suitcase.

Confusion only continues with the first few pages. The endpapers show sixty mugshots, presenting people of different ethnicity all looking at us. When the book itself begins, it does so with a mixture of writing in a strange alphabet, with official-looking stamps bearing the usual publisher’s information. Somewhere in a box stamped “Inspection”, we find the following summary for library cataloguers: “In this wordless graphic novel, a man leaves his homeland and sets off for a new country, where he must build a new life for himself and his family.”

But words quickly become irrelevant as The Arrival truly starts. In small silent portraits, Tan efficiently sketches the portrait of a family on the brink of a major change. A man packs his belongings in a suitcase, embraces his wife, says goodbye to his daughter. Overhead, gigantic spiked tails suggest a gathering threat.

The boat journey to elsewhere is uneventful, but the man’s arrival in his new country leads him to an Ellis Island-inspired sequence where he is herded, processed, inspected, evaluated, photographed and then freed in a bustling metropolis where everything is beyond strangeness.

And that also goes for us, because The Arrival is quite simply not taking place in any world we can recognize. Beyond the received stereotypes of what it must have been like to immigrate to New York in the early twentieth century, Tan’s imagined world escapes easy understanding. The immigrant doesn’t understand anything, and neither do we: not only is the alphabet different, but animals have strange unusual shapes, foodstuff isn’t recognizable as such and social conventions have to be learnt anew. It’s hard to imagine any other approach doing better in presenting to us the culture shock that immigrants must feel after their arrival in their new countries.

It’s a tough life (being effectively illiterate has surprising disadvantages), but Tan is careful to avoid any meanness in his work. The immigrant protagonist keeps on meeting people and making friends, lending to The Arrival an atmosphere of pleasant optimism that works better than the required gloom that seems to accompany just about any tale of immigration nowadays.

Beyond the story, it’s difficult to say enough good things about the exceptional quality of Tan’s art. Pages of small photo-like drawings often alternate with gobsmacking page-sized art that can work as stand-alone pieces. (Indeed, that’s how I first saw Tan’s work: As part of the Art Exhibition at the 2007 World Fantasy Convention, where he won a Fantasy Award in the Best Artist category.) Fantasy fans will be particularly amazed at some of the imagery used to represent the strange new world. The gigantic machinery and sculptures surrounding the characters are impressive (especially seeing how they fit the voluntarily retro style of the drawings) but it’s the small details, the alphabet, the food and the pets, that really clinch the impression of something truly strange. That it works within Tan’s story of lessening alienation is what makes this book such a success, between art-book and graphic novel. The art is fantastically well detailed, and the story is compelling in its own right: the result benefits from the strengths of both forms.

That The Arrival also works equally well with younger and older readers is just another reason to take a look at it. The Arrival has already started to get a decent following, landing on several Year’s Best lists, and there’s no reason to avoid following the crowd about this one. It’s one of those books that sticks in mind, impresses visitors, shows good taste and will be re-read regularly.

Our Dumb World, The Onion

Little Brown, 2007, 245 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-316-01842-2

Every year, just in time for Christmas gift-giving, the fine folks at the satirical weekly newspaper The Onion come out with a big, thick tome of goodness. Since 2000, that has taken the form of a yearly compilation of The Onion’s best pieces, but 1999 saw the publication of Our Dumb Century a faux-retrospective of The Onion’s front pages through the twentieth century that proved to be one of the finest humour book of the last hundred years. This year, The Onion skips the yearly anthology in favour of another massive all-original tome: they take on the entire world with Our Dumb World, a flawlessly-designed parody of an educational geography textbook.

Look at any randomly-chosen page, and you will see that every country is listed, along with their flag, representative photos, quick facts and an annotated map. But look closer, and you will realize that nearly every single line in this folio-sized 245-page book is a joke of some sort. Every single country in the world is put through the wringer, starting with the USA (14 pages of self-deprecation so acid, it feels as if foreigners wrote it) and ending with Greenland (“The Largest Land Mass on Earth”). The completeness of the coverage sometimes become a joke in its own right, with some countries grouped under the headings “A Bunch of God-Damned Islands”, “The Who Cares Islands”, “The Seriously Who Cares Islands” and “Three Countries You Thought Were in Africa”. The book is rarely funnier than when it reflects the image of a bunch of burnt-out comedy writers struggling to find anything to say about a country. (Hence the hilarious low-content take on Suriname: “Why do you insist on torturing yourself? You don’t have to read every page in this book. Who are you trying to impress?” [P.60])

But people looking for a fun and innocuous gift for the entire family may want to read the entire book beforehand and double-check that the recipients have a well-calibrated sense of humour: Despite the jokey front-cover promise of “Better-Veiled Xenophobia”, Our Dumb World often feels like a book-length collection of stereotypes. Self-aware, self-parodying stereotypes, of course, but still rough on whoever is expecting more sophisticated humour. In the grand Onion tradition, countries often become extended riffs on a single joke, which can either play well or become repetitive.

Some high concepts work better than others. Considering Andorra as “The Outlet Mall of Europe” is amusing, and looking at the Central African Republic as a generic no-name nation is a stroke of absurd genius. One of the biggest laughs of the entire book is the page about Jordan, which becomes a junior high-schooler’s love note to Queen Rania. (“Things about Queen Rania That are Beyond Belief: All of Them”) North Korea’s entry is “as if written by the North Korean Ministry of Information”, complete with type-written text glued in place.

Other riffs don’t feel as funny, and often skirt platitudes: Nigeria as a con haven. Bolivia/Columbia as drug factories. The Netherlands as a gigantic red light district. More nuanced portraits are generally more interesting, such as in countries like the United Kingdom or Canada –not coincidentally, countries where Our Dumb World can be purchased as-is. Other concepts work because they go against the grain: There’s a brilliant entry on Switzerland as being “Neutral… Too Neutral” with ominous overtones: “2007: The Swiss enter ‘Phase Three’ which in no way involves relaying secret orders to the Papal Swiss Guard on Aug. 1, 2009 at exactly 4:17:03.29 p.m.”)

And then there’s the stuff that’s just too dark to be funny. The writers at the Onion never forget that comedy feeds upon tragedy, but sometimes their good intentions run away from them. Most of the African entries are thinly balanced between rough humour and moral outrage, and the balance sometimes doesn’t hold: If you want to see the worst of it, turn to “Congo” and grit your teeth. But fans of The Onion already know what to expect.

Sometimes pitch-black, sometimes repetitive, sometime merely amusing rather than truly funny, Our Dumb World falters and doesn’t quite offer what we may expect from the idea of “The Onion doing the World”. But it’s big book, and even if you take out half the jokes as being ordinary, there’s still enough here to be worth a look, as long as you don’t object to The Onion’s trademark mixture of sometimes-offencive humour and deconstructive methodology. It’s nowhere near the excellence of Our Dumb Century, but it’s still a heck of a deal. Or one hell of a gift if you’re not careful about your recipients.

The End of Harry Potter?, David Langford

Gollancz, 2006, 196 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-575-07875-8

Some writing assignments are impossible. Imagine that in the lull between the publication of Harry Potter (Book 6) and Harry Potter (Book 7), someone writes a book billed as an attempt to predict how the Potter series will end. It’s a lucrative proposition ripe in potential embarrassment: Five minutes past the publication of the final volume, who’s going to even glance twice at a book attempting to guess what has finally been given form?

There’s one catch, though: this “someone” ends up being David Langford, the award-winning fan-writer, Ansible editor and all-around fabulous author. I have praised the merits of his books before, from the nuclear comedy The Leaky Establishment to the essay collection The SEX Column… and Other Misprints. Ask anyone who’s ever voted for Langford at the Hugo Awards (he’s got more than twenty of them) and they will tell you this this isn’t just any other Potter cash-in: this is “David Langford takes on Harry Potter”.

So what happens when you let loose former nuclear physicist, constant wit and forever critic Langford on one of the most celebrated series of our time? You get a good time.

To be fair, The End of Harry Potter? doesn’t spend all that much time trying to second-guess J.K. Rowling’s series finale. After a perfunctory introduction in which Langford explains the limits of his thought experiment, the book settles into a comfortable examination of the Potter phenomenon from a variety of angles. Only a polymath like Langford could take us through the literary antecedents of the series, track down the mythological signification of character names, dismantle Rowling’s favourite plot devices, point out bloopers and blind spots, try to fit the Potterverse in reality, or pick apart the ethical problems inherent in the series’ overuse of memory charms.

The best chapter remains “Casting Spells”, in which Langford speculates on the nature of magic in the Potterverse. On the menu: how new spells are created, whether they refer to a “central spell registry” and the way Occlumency is absolutely vital to upper-order magic: “…a mind-reading wizard who is an expert in Legilimency can see your idea for a spell taking shape before you begin to think the incantation.” [P.67]

That’s why you ask a science-fiction writer to look at a fantasy series.

It may not be an all-inclusive look at the Harry Potter universe, but it’s a fast, fun read. Langford is unable to resist the lure of familiar alternate endings to the series (“VOLDEMORT: No… I am your father” [P.173]), and jokes abound throughout the book. Don’t expect to spend a lot of time reading this book: It’s up to the usual Langford standards in delivering an addictive reading experience. He navigates a careful path between dismissing elements of the series end embracing its quirks, delivering a book which should appeal to the bright kids and adults who appreciate the series without necessarily pandering to them.

A test of the book, of course, comes after reading Volume 7 of the series and matching what happens to Harry and his friends versus what Langford was brave enough to set in type. Since Langford doesn’t actually stretch his neck too far (and neither does Rowling, to think of it), he does fairly well: A number of his more confident predictions are to be found in the authorized ending, and what he gets wrong are usually smaller details. But even those don’t matter much: As it stands, the biggest problem with The End of Harry Potter is not what it gets wrong, but that it’s missing what Langford would have found to comment in the seventh volume of the series. It feels curiously incomplete. Is anyone pondering a revised and updated edition?

Ha’Penny, Jo Walton

Tor, 2007, 319 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1853-4

Don’t expect this to be a completely objective review of Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny. In reviewing her Farthing last year, I made a few hasty remarks and eventually ended up on an “Issues in Farthing” panel alongside the author, her editor and fifty of their closest friends. I learned a lot from the experience.

Fortunately, even the pickiest readers will find plenty to like about this second volume in the “Small Change” trilogy. The series, taking place in an alternate England where WW2 appeasement has led the country to a negotiated peace with the Hitler regime, remains an exploration of how so-called “good people” can come to support reprehensible policies. But whereas Farthing was about an unconscious slide into fascism, Ha’Penny goes even further by describing how people reach a willing accommodation with such situations.

The novel brings back Inspector Carmichaels, a capable Scotland Yard investigator who is once again assigned to a case with political implications. This time, a deadly bombing in an expensive neighbourhood triggers the investigation. Early on, the matter is settled as an accident, but that conclusion only raises more questions: Why would a relatively well-off actress be involved in the delicate business of bomb-making? If it’s part of a campaign, who’s the target?

As with Farthing, a female character narrates the other half of the story. Viola Lark, née Larkin, broke away from her upper-class family in order to strike it on her own as an actress. Things are going well for her, but family has a way of reaching back and before even realizing it, Viola is blackmailed in helping a terrorist plot. The target: Adoph Hitler, on the opening night of Viola’s new play…

And so the duelling begins, with a delicious inversion of the usual thriller structure: Usually, we hope for the inspector to catch his prey, and for the plotters to fail. This time, things are different –an irony that eventually isn’t lost on the characters themselves. The twist is further deepened by the tangled loyalties of the characters, Carmichael gradually making compromises to fit in a fundamentally hostile regime even as Viola is manipulated by weak family connections and a reprehensible thug to do something that some readers may consider noble. Both characters are sympathetic and competent in their fields. They just happen to be stuck in an impossible situation, and unable to say no.

Ha’Penny resembles Farthing in that it’s a fascinating look at another time, slightly skewed through the perspective of an alternate history. The world of London theatres at the end of the 1940s is fascinating, and Viola’s routine as she prepares to take the leading role in a cross-cast production of Hamlet accounts for much of the novel’s early interest. But we already know, from the novel’s first chapter, that things are not going to go well for her. Ha’Penny shares with its predecessor a slow-burn pacing, as pieces are put in position and the duelling plot-lines gradually comes closer. The last few chapters pull out the stops as the story reaches its grim conclusion.

If Ha’Penny isn’t as striking as Farthing as a consequence of being a sequel in an already-established universe, it’s generally more interesting: I’m more partial to assassination thrillers than cozy murder mysteries and Ha’Penny moves slightly faster than its predecessor. Viola is a more interesting narrator than Lucy, while Carmichael’s increasingly tainted morals are worrisome. Meanwhile, the character of Walton’s diverging world is also getting more sophisticated. While Ha’Penny takes place too soon after Farthing to present important divergences, the London focus of the book allows readers to see how things are going in the more politically charged atmosphere of the capital and how the new Normanby government is assuming its newfound totalitarian powers. The parallels between that world and ours aren’t as angry or obvious as in Farthing, but they’re more pernicious in that they reflect how people often shrug off bad regimes and rationalize that things will be better… and that nothing is ever their fault.

Newer readers are advised to start with Farthing as this follow-up spoils the first volume and has often-intricate links with its predecessor. (No, we don’t learn what happened to the Khans… but we get a good hint.) But then again newer readers are advised to pick up all Jo Walton novels on general principles. (See, that’s me not being objective.)

The “Small Change” trilogy concludes in Half a Crown, due August 2008, and it’s going to be a long wait.

The Last Juror, John Grisham

Dell, 2004, 486 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24157-X

I often have trouble convincing people that John Grisham is a far more interesting author than most so-called serious readers are willing to concede. Detractors will point at his first few books as being the epitome of repetition. Meanwhile, I keep pointing at his post-Runaway Jury novels as the proof of what happens when an author starts self-consciously stretching the boundaries of his own pigeonhole. And The Last Juror is another perfect example of the process.

Like most Grisham novels, it does include some element of crime in the southern states. But even marketed as any other Grisham novel, it’s actually about something else: life in a small town.

The narrator of the story is one Willie Traynor, a young hotshot journalist who comes to Clayton, Mississippi in 1970 and unexpectedly becomes a part of the community: Smelling an opportunity, Willie buys the local newspaper employing him and starts making changes. As he learns more about the community and becomes part of it, The Last Juror becomes the story of a man and a town changing over the years. Willie himself narrates the story from the perspective of an older man who now knows better.

I can’t help but admire the way this novel suckers readers with back-jacket copy promising a tense thriller, and then serves them a quasi-mainstream story of southern comfort. Oh, there is a criminal plot all right: The sordid murder of a young single mother, with a suspect that comes from the rural county’s most suspicious clan. The murder is shocking to the small community, but no one wants to tackle the accused’s family except Willie himself. When the murdered is convicted and placed behind bars, everyone breathes easier… at least until a set of circumstances and corrupt officials end up shortening the murderer’s sentence to a few years followed by an early parole. Trouble soon follows when members of the jury that convicted the murderer start dying shortly after his release…

But this plot-line is just the clothesline on which hangs the rest of the novel. The bulk of The Last Juror is a description of how Willie becomes part of Clayton, ingratiating himself to the locals, befriending some extraordinary characters, attending community meetings and measuring his liberal urban attitudes against long-held local opinions. Clayton changes during the seventies: Vietnam divides the community, mega-department stores come to town, racial prejudice quiets down and Willie does his best to change with the times. His newspaper business goes well, but the real battle is in how the community regards him. He know he’ll never be accepted as a native son, but he does his best to become a part of Clayton.

Through him, we also learn a few lessons in southern hospitality. The pacing of a rural community, the ways alliances grow between members of a small group, the burden of reputations that can be established early on, and so forth. Grisham’s always been a gifted storyteller, but The Last Juror is amazingly more interesting as a novel of atmosphere than a tale of crime fiction. This isn’t to diminish the role of the mystery in the novel: It provides a baseline of mysteries and tension that does much to launch the narrative and keep us reading. But the flavour of the story comes from the vignettes, the unusual incidents and the characters that revolve around Willie’s stay in Clayton.

Grisham arguably cheats in his resolution of the story by providing resolution-by-coincidence, but it’s not as problematic as you may think: The pieces finally come together as we understand that Willie cannot remain in Clayton, and that the ties linking him to ten years in a small town have to be severed somehow. It doesn’t end happily, but it ends well.

Colourful, amusing and entertaining, The Last Juror is an unexpected delight from Grisham, who continues to prove that he’s a far more interesting writer than one would assume. Popular opinion of his worth as a writer largely dates back to his first novels and the films that were adapted from them. But unlike other writers, Grisham has since moved on to more interesting and diverse material. Without severing the links to his past work, Grisham continues to set out in new directions. The Last Juror feels like an hybrid between one of his legal thrillers and his mainstream novels: Genre-aware without being genre-specific, but using the strengths of a good mystery as a backdrop on which to paint an engrossing story of small-town America. Not bad at all.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

(In theaters, December 2007) Bio-pictures like Walk The Line and Ray certainly deserve to be parodied, but half-hearted efforts like Walk Hard will either work or not depending on the mood you’re in. On the surface, everything is there: The scene parodies, the musical content, the rehab episodes, the celebrity encounters, the ridiculousness, the cheap deep-seated childhood traumas… and yet the film elicits more grins than laughs. The only undeniable success of the film is John C. Reilly, who finally gets a good top billing after years of quieter efforts. Part of the problem is the film’s tightrope act between surface credibility (as a parody of merely two films) and unabashed silliness as a broader comedy. The rare laughs are usually in recognition of a specific music joke or allusion. It doesn’t help that the ending sorts of peters out without much of a climax. A recommendation: The film may work better in the middle of award season, as an antidote to all of those self-obsessed Oscar contenders. And don’t even rent the film if you haven’t suffered through both Ray and Hold The Line.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007)

(In theaters, December 2007) Count on Tim Burton to deliver an odd mixture of musical comedy and gory horror. This story of a serial murdering barber and meatpie-making accomplice is pure goth opera, with spraying arterial blood and ghoulish nutriment. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter don’t have particularly impressive voices, but it’s the visuals, the atmosphere and the deep unease of the film that make it such a memorable experience. As with many musicals, the plot is predictable and the songs can stop the action dead in its tracks; unlike many musicals, most viewers will remembers the visuals long after they can recall the songs. It’s certainly a unique experience at a time where Hollywood is often accused of timid audience-pleasing, Sweeney Todd takes odd chances and if the result isn’t something to be watched over and over again, it’s a definite curiosity… for strong stomachs.

The Gold Coast, Kim Stanley Robinson

Tor, 1988, 389 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-55239-3

The United States stuck in a series of small wars, everyone terrified of terrorists, commercial sprawl taking over parks and natural preserves, California mired in gridlock sixteen hours a day, defence industries becoming all-powerful, teenagers swapping meaningless sex and designer drugs. Sounds like today’s world?

Too bad, because Kim Stanley Robinson wrote it as a dystopia twenty years ago.

The second volume in his “three Californias” trilogy of alternate futures, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast isn’t meant to be a fun or glorious place: The portrait of the world it portrays is one of a hothouse running out of control. Stress is destroying people from within, society has gone trigger-happy in several non-metaphorical fashions, there is no end in sight and hope is dim. As the novel unfolds, it’s unclear whether something big is about to happen, or if -worse- nothing ever will.

A young man named Jim McPherson is the nexus of the story, but The Gold Coast goes beyond him to present a kaleidoscopic view of the world in which he lives. The viewpoint regularly shifts to his family, his friends, and the people that they encounter along the way. Along the way, Robinson’s prose acquires a choppy, manic quality that reflects the way the world is over-revving. McPherson think of himself as a poet, but what he does is chop up word fragments and think it’s art. Nothing in his life is working: He’s not too bright, not too skillful, not too close to his father. His friends are his only source of happiness, and even that is being generous since no one can understand what he’s up to. When he gets the chance to help a small home-grown terrorist group, it’s a welcome distraction more than a political statement.

Meanwhile, Jim’s overworked father is being pressured by his manager to lead a crucial weapon development effort for his corporation. An honest engineer, he finds himself trapped between complex rules of Pentagon weapon procurement and a boss that consciously flirts with psychopathology. Despite a superior product and honest estimates, he is soon hanging on to a losing bid.

None of this sounds particularly promising on paper. It’s not even particularly heavy in SF concepts. But in Robinson’s hands, it quickly becomes compelling material. Pentagon bureaucracy has never been more mesmerizing. Slice-of-life plotting has seldom been more engaging. Even as The Gold Coast threatens to leave without delivering a story, the portrait of the world created by Robinson and the way he describes what happens to his characters is enough to make us care. There’s actually a certain perverse elegance in the way he sets up a portrait so intensely nihilistic that the ending, when it does shift the status quo for a few characters, comes as a welcome surprise. It’s not made of earth-shattering insights (in a crooked game, the only way to win is to walk away), but it’s a ray of hope in a novel that didn’t seem predisposed to them.

There’s a good deal of echoing material to be found between this novel and The Wild Shore, Robinson’s previous “Three California” book. “Uncle Tom” is clearly meant to stem from the same person as the Tom in the previous novel, though in a different alternate world. Both novels show a willingness to avoid the easy clichés of dystopia, even allowing characters to find a measure of happiness in terrible environments.

Meanwhile, Robinson scholars will note that the young McPherson shares a number of similarities with the author himself. As we discover who writes the long historical interludes about Orange County’s urbanization, the links become apparent.

It may be too easy to find parallels between the novel and the way this world has turned since 1988. Sharp-eyes readers will note that the Cold War is alive and well in the book, and that some pieces of slang (such as “allies”) don’t fit well. But that’s missing the point: as we’re sliding into 2008, the world of The Gold Coast remains immediately understandable to us, and what it has to say about it remain just as relevant to us today. The Gold Coast has weathered the past two decades admirably well. Too well, actually.

National Treasure: Book Of Secrets (2007)

National Treasure: Book Of Secrets (2007)

(In theaters, December 2007) It’s not high cinema, and it’s not even great genre entertainment, but National Treasure 2 manages to hit the same sweet spot than its predecessor in terms of contemporary adventure, historical lore, Nicolas Cage craziness and sarcastic quips. As this adventure trots around Washington, Paris, London and Montana, it’s hard to resist being swept up with this infectious brand of blockbuster slickness. There are a number of clunkers in the mix (Ed Harris sleepwalks through the film with a Southern accent; some of the early setup is laborious; Geek-boy isn’t as geeky, nor as amusing, as in the first film) and the action scenes don’t work as well as they should, but then there are a handful of scenes that redeem the entire thing: The “book of secrets” concept is rich in possibilities, the London car chase is fun and the series’ overall passion for history is a refreshing change of pace from the usual brand of mass-market anti-intellectualism. The biggest problem with the film is that it occasionally suggest how much better it could be with just a few tweaks: An action-minded director, a more memorable female lead and a screenwriter with more attention for coherence could have brought much more to the film. But while we’re waiting for National Treasure 3: Page 46, there’s still plenty to like here. It’s a perfect end-of-year chaser after so many self-important Oscar-bait motion pictures.

Mensonges et trahisons et plus si affinités… [Lies And Betrayals] (2004)

Mensonges et trahisons et plus si affinités… [Lies And Betrayals] (2004)

(On DVD, December 2007) Romantic comedies from a male point of view are unusual by definition, but this one has a little more than curiosity going for it: As a thirtysomething ghostwriter undergoes a life crisis in pursuing an old flame at the expense of an existing relationship, the film’s first act is hilariously funny, with numerous crash-cuts, fantasy sequences, flashbacks, bons mots and cutting dialogue. (But then again, I’m always partial to writer protagonists.) For a while, it feels like a film that can do no wrong. Alas, that feeling disappears with a car crash of monumental coincidence, and a descent from comedy to melodrama. There are still a few really good sequences here and there (including a fantastic montage of a writer at work), but the romantic resolution feels cheap and easy, and it comes along with a wildly implausible climax to anyone who knows anything about publishing. (A novel written and published in less than a year? No way!) Still, Edouard Baer is appealing as the protagonist, and the rest of the cast (some of whom will be familiar even to French-Canadian viewers) does good work. Not bad, though probably not a hidden gem begging for translation.

Karmina 2 (2001)

Karmina 2 (2001)

(On DVD, December 2007) I suppose that there’s a market for everything, including French-Canadian suburban vampire comedy. This weaker follow-up doesn’t have the grandeur and universal appeal that the original Karmina had (and Yves Pelletier’s grandstanding is more annoying than ever before), but it still has a number of giggles and smiles going for it. The script keeps going places that would be unthinkable for mainstream American fare (including infidelity and mass murder from the so-called protagonists) and the technical qualities are up to acceptable standards. I suppose that non-French-Canadian audiences will have a hard time understanding any of it, which either works in favour of the film, or makes you wonder why anyone would take that kind of financial risk with a film that’s basically unsellable in foreign markets. Oh well; at least there’s a bit of a thrill in seeing vampires arguing over suburban concerns. And Isabelle Cyr’s in it, which is a recommendation enough as far as I’m concerned.

I Am Legend (2007)

I Am Legend (2007)

(In theaters, December 2007) This isn’t the first time half a rotten movie is bolted to half a good one, but it never gets less frustrating. What’s good here: Will Smith as a haunted man who may be the last person alive on Earth; the portrait of a plague-emptied New York three years after catastrophe; some details of post-apocalyptic survival. What’s not so good: Nonsense ecosystem; suicidal details of post-apocalyptic survival; inconsistent monster behaviour; Smith not convincingly going nuts. What’s truly wretched: Anti-Enlightenment fear-mongering and pseudo-religious appeasement used as an excuse for incompetent storytelling: “Let’s go to Vermont, because God told me to.” The film is most successful on a visual level, looking at one of the most convincing post-apocalyptic vision in a really long time. But as soon as you start asking questions (the “line of sunlight”, the awful coincidences explained as divine intervention, the behaviour of a so-called researcher who can’t figure out the effect of cold on the virus any sooner; the conspicuous absence of chilly Canada as a haven), the film doesn’t just fall apart: it reassembles itself as a cheap manipulative sop to the dumber members of the audience. Enjoy the first fifteen minutes, fast-forward through the next hour and stop once the protagonist rams monsters with his SUV.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill

America’s Best Comics, 2007, 208 pages, US$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4012-0306-1

This is quite a remarkable… thing.

It’s not a novel, and not quite a comic book. It plays games with the reader and works better as a multi-format trans-genre kick than a cohesive narrative. It’s certainly a paean to the mad genius of Alan Moore, but I doubt that it will be fully understandable by anyone but him. It’s a stunning, almost electrifying demonstration that publishing is still, in this digital era, a process that results in a tangible object. It makes you wonder why such playful pieces of multi-format meta-fiction aren’t more popular. In short, I’m pretty excited about it, but I’m not sure if my recommendation will convince anyone else, or if I will even be able to convey why I’m so enthusiastic about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier despite its flaws.

The first thing to understand is that this is definitely a book best read by those who have followed, dissected and obsessed over the first two volumes of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book series. (Never speak of the movie. There was no movie. If you think there was a movie, you are wrong.) The first volume was about construction in showing how a group of special characters was brought together in an alternate Victorian-era England to combat a terrible menace. The second was about destruction in detailing how the League, in fighting the Martian invasion, fell apart after violent squabbling between its members.

This third volume is about reconstruction, or maybe deconstruction. We still begin in London, but the plot has moved forward, past the second volume’s description of the “further adventures of the League” and into the nineteen-fifties. Very different nineteen-fifties, taking place shortly after the ten-year reign of the Big Brother regime. As the book opens, Wilhelmina Murray (now sporting a fetching shade of blonde) allows herself to be seduced by an arrogant so-called “spy” named Jimmy. But there’s more to this than a tryst with an unflattering caricature of James Bond: Before long, Wilhelmina and companion Allan Quartermain have knocked him out of commission, and used his access to the MI6 files to retrieve a “Black Dossier” filled with information about the Leagues over the centuries. The rest of the book is spent reading over their shoulders as they study the dossier and try to escape from London to another realm entirely.

But the plot is not the point. The point is allowing Moore to reposition the series’ mythology in anticipation of the next entry in the League’s saga. Readers may have thought that Moore had said it all when his concluded his second tome with an atlas of the League’s discoveries, but it turns out that he was just scratching the surface: Once Black Dossier is over, it becomes obvious that he has redefined his imaginary world to include everything imaginary.

Part of this freedom can be explained by the fact that Black Dossier was never serialized as a series of comic books: It was conceived and delivered as a single unit, and that has allowed Moore and illustrator Kevin O’Neill to take dramatic liberties with the format of the book. Beyond the usual comic book pages, the titular black dossier is presented in a dramatically different sections that would have been impossible to fit in the usual comic mass-market booklet: A naughty sequel to Fanny Hill is presented on thick linen paper, a Big-Brother-era “Tijuana Bible” is presented on cheap postcard-sized pulp stock… and that’s not even discussing the amount of nudity that O’Neill has allowed himself to draw in a book that won’t be carelessly picked up by the superhero crowd. (My edition of Black Dossier came shrink-wrapped. Other editions reportedly have uncut pages for the naughtier bits.)

I could say that nothing can prepare you for the last surprise, but that’s not true: The book comes bundled with a pair of 3D glasses for an excellent reason. Wilhelmina and Allan’s last stop is the legendary Blazing World alluded to in the second volume, here portrayed in deliciously amusing red-and-blue 3D over seventeen detail-crammed pages. Jokes and vertiginous details abound, and everything ends on a meta-speech (delivered by a thinly-disguised Moore avatar) about the importance of fiction in shaping reality.

And I’ve skipped over some of the best bits, such as the detour via a British spaceport, the lost Shakespeare play featuring the beginnings of the first League, the leggy presence of Emma Peel and a hilarious tale in which P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertram Wooster comes face-to-face with the League and a Lovecraftian horror.

It’s hard to be too disappointed with this grab-bag of brainy fun, but I can make a good case that Black Dossier‘s appeal is far more cryptic than its predecessors. Big Brother aside, the cultural references are more opaque and the on-line companions are more essential than ever before. The slight chase story is a pleasant framing device for including all of the fun stuff, but it’s still a disappointment after the more interesting plots of the first volumes. There’s also a clear sense that this is an intermission, that the real third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is still to come.

For established fans, this is unlikely to be a problem. This is more of the stuff we’ve liked so much, and it definitely whets the appetite for another volume. The inclusion of more daring pieces, the carefully crafted design of the book, the extra freedom that Moore has enjoyed in making this book as a single unit are all exciting portents of things to come as the graphical novel weans itself off the tyranny of monthly periodical distribution. But these are esoteric areas of excitement, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Black Dossier feels incomprehensible to newcomers. But that’s all right; newer readers should start at the beginning (remember: the movie doesn’t exist), bookmark Jess Nevin’s site and they’ll become converts in no time.

The Golden Compass (2007)

The Golden Compass (2007)

(In theaters, December 2007) There are time when even a sub-standard adaptation can serve an original novel, and this is it: Throughout the film, as disjointed elements appeared on screen without much of an explanation, I kept thinking that I should rather be reading the book than watching the film. Oh, it’s not as if the movie is without merits: the special effects are fine, the images are arresting and the polar bear wrestling match really gives the bass speakers a workout. But the film feels disjointed, as if half the necessary explanations had been left on the editing room floor. Nicole Kidman looks as if she doesn’t even want to be in the film. At least the bare bones of the original story’s anti-dogma stance have been preserved, along with the main plot and enough hints to suggest much more. The flavour of the fantasy universe shown here is also a welcome departure from the quasi-clichéd medieval setting that most fantasy films seem stuck to. Could have been worse, I suppose.

Shut Up & Sing (2006)

Shut Up & Sing (2006)

(On DVD, December 2007) Three years after the storm of controversy that was heaped on an all-girl country band that dared joke about president Bush, this documentary chronicles both the controversy and the follow-up as the Dixie Chicks suffers from the fallout, refuses to “make nice” and rebuilds a career after a highly visible boycott. It feels like a triumph: not only have events (and the rest of the population) caught up with their opinions in the three intervening years, but they emerge from the ordeal with a brand-new audience and a renewed fire for their music. As a band documentary, it’s fascinating, as the controversy touches upon every aspect of modern showbiz, from publicity to marketing strategy to show ticket-selling. As a (mercifully brief) musical, it will have even non-country fans humming along. But it’s as a political documentary that Shut Up & Sing really shines, as it explains and dissects the ways the musical group was attacked by right-wing interests, and give enough rope to the protesters to make them look like complete idiots. (The tag-line of the film, “freedom of speech is fine as long as you don’t do it in public”, is adapted from a quote from a protester.) Though a documentary favourable to the group, it doesn’t make them saints: behind doors, they struggle visibly with the controversy, toy with how to appease the crowd, call psychics for reassurance and are often associated with less-appealing fans. But they endure, and what’s missing from the Blockbuster-branded DVD release may just be an epilogue about the critical and commercial success of their more accessible comeback album, and their newfound fandom far outside country music.