No End In Sight (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">No End In Sight</strong> (2007)

(On DVD, January 2008) This brainy documentary takes on a tough subject (the way the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq was mishandled) without much in terms of eye-candy: It’s mostly Baghdad footage and talking heads for the entire duration. But don’t let that stop you from watching this intelligent explanation of how and why the United States has really dropped the ball and exacerbated existing problems after its invasion. A lot of this material will be familiar to observers of the situation over the past few years, but No End In Sight does a fine job at piecing it together in a coherent picture that goes beyond the easy headlines. It’s a matter of policy decisions and adapting to the fact on the ground –and in there like in the rest of its administration, the Bush II regime is completely incompetent. The film shows over and over how capable people are ignored, sidelined or fired and replaced with ideologically malleable people who don’t have a clue. It adds up to a profoundly depressing portrait, a methodical argument without much in terms of overt partisan polemic. (Though Rumsfeld act as the film’s own bitter comic relief.) It’s not documentary-as-entertainment like we’ve seen so frequently over the past few years, but it’s a clever, remarkable piece of non-fiction cinema. It certainly deserves its Oscar nomination.

Mad Money (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mad Money</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, January 2008) If you want to understand Hollywood, why not avoid the best, ignore the worst and take a look at what falls right in-between? Take Mad Money, for instance, a middle-of-the-road criminal comedy that does nothing particularly well but still manages to entertain as long as you don’t ask too many questions. The setup is elegant: Three women in menial jobs at the Federal Reserve unite to smuggle out dollar bills on their way to the shredder. The details are dull and asinine (I can think of five practical objections to the scheme without thinking too hard: serial numbers; job rotation; truly-random searches, money laundering and volume handling), but this is not a detail-oriented movie. It’s really an excuse to see Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes play their own demographic stereotypes and spend some time thinking about what we would do in a similar situation. Never mind the weird ethics in which the movie tortures itself, the inner moral contradictions, the cheap ending or the broad physical comedy that never feels even connected to reality. It’s not such a bad time at the movies: in fact, given the dearth of female-driven movie out there, it’s almost a welcome change of pace. Mad Money‘s script is clumsy, from a flashback-driven structure to a disappointing number of modest laughs here and there. But its main problem is the film’s lack of overall ambition, mordant wit, ethical concern or sustained tension: it doesn’t do much with what it has in stock. Oh, fans of the three lead actresses will be happy, but no one will be overly impressed. And that can very well stand for most of Hollywood’s mid-list offerings.

Pacific Edge, Kim Stanley Robinson

<em class="BookTitle">Pacific Edge</em>, Kim Stanley Robinson

Tor, 1990, 326 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-85097-2

Compulsive readers like myself often end up focusing on volume more than retention. Too many books! Not enough time! Trying to remember specific details of a story weeks after reading it can be a struggle. Fortunately, the best novels rise above this limitation: The mark of a good book can be how well it sticks in mind, fighting its memory pointers against so many forgettable titles.

And so it is that as I revise this, weeks after reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, I still have vivid memories of it. Which is curious, since this is not a conventionally action-packed novel. Taking place in a pleasant near-future where humanity has largely managed to find balance with nature, this is the third novel in Robinson’s “Three California” triptych. After post-nuclear (The Wild Shore) and overheating-dystopian (The Gold Coast) scenarios, Robinson tackles the old “there is no drama in utopia” nonsense by showing us how love and pride can still matter at a time of peace and abundance.

Like its predecessors, Pacific Edge follows the adventures of a none-too-bright young man living in Orange County, along with his friends and family. It also features an older “Tom Barnard” to coach our protagonist and a shadow narrative that stands halfway outside the novel as counterpoint and explanation.

Plot-wise, Pacific Edge is chiefly concerned about environmental issues and sentimental matters. Our characters live in a sustainable community, so ecological issues constantly hover above their heads as vital elements of their lives. Half of the novel’s plot strands revolve around the protagonist discovering and fighting against a corporate takeover of water rights, a battle that earns him the enmity of several powerful opponents. To complicate matter further, romantic complications arise when an old flame takes an interest in him after leaving an influential member of the city council who is also part of the takeover. This may be utopia, but there are still important issues to get passionate about.

Fans of Robinson’s writing will be delighted to read his usually skillful prose, which navigates a tough path between plot, characterization, political speculation and sweeping description. Robinson takes risks that would destroy a story in the hand of lesser writers, and the result is just as compulsively readable as his other books. The particularity of Pacific Edge is how it’s set in a future where the fate of the planet is never in doubt. This is a local story, taking place between a few participants, where baseball games, bicycle rides, community projects and ersatz families carry much importance. The way Robinson holds our interest with those comparatively small stakes is astonishing.

In fact, some of the best moments of the book are nothing but characters experiencing their own world. The book opens with a radiant sequence in which the protagonist of the book cycles down a mountain, feeling as if nothing bad can happen: “Man! What a day!”. At the other end of the story, the same protagonist laughing after realizing that “he was without a doubt the unhappiest person in the world.” [P.326] Small moments, but exactly the kind of writing to stick in mind for a while.

I may prefer The Gold Coast for its manic narration and its sense of redemption, but Pacific Edge seems to be the strongest volume in Robinson’s triptych. Eighteen years after publication, it’s still relatively unique in that it touches upon environmental issues without too much preaching, tackles emotional issues not often found elsewhere in Science Fiction and presents such a sense of utter serenity that even being the unhappiest person in that world seems preferable to many happy lives in this one.

It doesn’t take much more to wonder where all the utopias have gone, and whether we’ll ever build one of our own. Humans born when this novel was published are now able to vote, but it hasn’t aged a wink since then. Great books do more than stick in mind: they keep their own relevance even as the years go by.

Ma Fille, Mon Ange [My Daughter, My Angel] (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Ma Fille, Mon Ange</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">My Daughter, My Angel</strong>] (2007)

(On DVD, January 2008) there’s something hilarious about the film’s self-important message about the dangers of letting your daughter go to the big city. Hard drugs, abusive boyfriends and Internet pornography are inevitable consequences of parental indulgence! The upper-middle-class paranoia of the script plays doubly false given the film’s own titillation factor and goody-goody characters. The murder mystery ends up being a false front for a hypocritical feature-length reactionary tract that resolves itself in a bitterly unsatisfying twist. While the pacing is generally satisfying and the production value hold up well, the film itself is a hollow shell. Too bad; the actors do generally well with what they’re given, and it’s always a pleasure to see Michel Côté get in a fist-fight.

Juno (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Juno</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, January 2008) There are a number of really nice things about this film, and it’s a shame that some of them work at cross-purposes. Juno may begin as a tart-tongued indie comedy with a lot of cynicism, but it gradually transforms itself into a relatively better-mannered romantic drama with a lot more heart than you’d expect from Rainn Wilson’s initial rapid-fire smart-alec riffs. It works, in part because it mirrors the transitions of the characters themselves: Coolness is a variable quality in Juno, and the better people can often be the ones you don’t expect. It earns its heartfelt ending. On the other hand, the crunchy dialog gets more and more ordinary as the film advances, and it’s easy to pine for the earlier flurry of quotable material. But a better case of instincts running aground can be seen in the typical “indie” feel: the minimalist soundtrack, the endearing goofiness of the characters, the jerky pacing, the basement-cheap cinematography and the deliberately off-the-wall opening credits. It works more or less well: Juno wouldn’t be the film it is had it been adulterated by a slick marketing department, but the rough edges of the film still feel off-putting. But I’m really being far more critical than I should: Out of a lengthy list of indie comedies that have caught on mainstream audiences lately, Juno stands far above Napoleon Dynamite and is generally more consistent than Little Miss Sunshine. Ellen Page shines in the title role, and the script is pure savvy writing. Characters act in refreshing fashions (no cheap histrionics here) and stick in mind long after other films have faded in memory. Oh, just see it, all right?

Cloverfield (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cloverfield</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, January 2008) It’s too early in the year to start thinking about best-of-year lists, but I’ve got a feeling that I’ll have to keep a spot for Cloverfield. Sure, it can be instantly dismissed as “Blair Witch Gojira”, or a “Monster movie for the YouTube Generation”. The story is short and simple, the characters are sketches and the shakycam cinematography isn’t as clear as it should be. But that’s missing the point. Cloverfield is a modest triumph of concept, taking a popcorn monster movie and bringing the audience so deep into it that it becomes a full-blown horror film. There are clear visual references to 9/11 early in the film, and it’s hard to avoid thinking that this is the first good pop-culture film to completely internalize the chaos, the confusion and the terror of that day, transposed into something (monsters!) that had become innocuous through endless B-movies. As a movie geek, I was impressed at how well the filmmakers integrated the camera as a character in the film, how the continuous filming felt natural in the context of the piece and yet how they ended up capturing exactly the images they wanted. (Although I think the tower sequence is ill-served by the lack of visual detail.) The suspense works; the subway sequence is terrifying, but the death that it sets up is brutal in its execution. Oh, I can quibble with the best of them about the plot’s logistical problems (walking long distances in minutes, getting off a snapping bridge far too easily, running without shoes and a gaping wound), but I can’t deny that when this film works, it really works. One thing is for sure: It’s so much better than the American remake of Godzilla that it’s like talking about different art forms.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Charlie Wilson’s War</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, January 2008) The once-sparse subcategory of geopolitical sarcastic comedy is certainly picking up steam: After Lord Of War and The Hunting Party, here’s Charlie Wilson’s War, a “comedy” with more political savvy than most so-called “political thrillers” (not to mention documentaries) out there. Little surprise, since Aaron Sorkin is writing it: his mastery of Soviet weaponry and the Washington political process shows through. Better yet is the acting talent, with Tom Hanks having fun as a philandering Texas congressman and Julia Roberts hamming it up as a larger-than-life Houston socialite. And yet it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman who walks away with the best lines as a riot-nrrrd CIA operative who finally gets a chance to do something. The script deftly takes us around the world, making a comedy out of a foreign policy move that blows back hard. And that, ultimately ends up being the uncomfortable elephant in the room: How can you make a snarky comedy about arming people who would later come back and become one of the USA’s many number-one enemies? Well, you don’t, and you tag the conclusion in an epilogue. Which may be the truest, unkindest joke of all.

Debatable Space, Philip Palmer

<em class="BookTitle">Debatable Space</em>, Philip Palmer

Orbit, 2008, 479 pages, C$14.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-316-06809-3

I admire the audacity of the marketing experts who allowed Debatable Space to be titled as such. Surely they must have sensed the potential here for easy jokes by silly reviewers? Debatable as in arguable, as in mixed, as in two-and-a-half-stars our of five? One imagines the lolbookcovers: “Debatable Space is debatable”. Allowing a first novel to carry that title is like duct-taping a “kick-me” sign on a kid and sending him off to recess.

But then again, perhaps someone at Orbit had a buzz-baiting moment of candid honesty. For Philip Palmer’s Debatable Space has quite a few good things running in its favor, even if most of those good things carry along a number of less-pleasant aftereffects. It’s a dynamic, exuberant novel that lacks control and never quite knows when to cut it short. It’s a novel with the disadvantages of its very own qualities: It’s likely to be remembered as much for its problems as its virtues.

It doesn’t start promisingly, as the daughter of a tyrant is captured by pirates and held for ransom in a far-future universe where post-human humanity has colonized a fraction of the galaxy. The style is slightly sharper, slightly hipper than usual, but it still feels like a familiar story. The sexual tension and the gory violence is up to the moment’s excessive standards, but the rest is familiar, as if the author was merely playing with generic SF elements to tell a standard space-pirates story.

This impression never completely goes away, but fades quickly once the book delves deeper in its own plot. It turns out that the “daughter in distress” isn’t what she seems, and that the pirates have other plans in mind once the ransom doesn’t show up as expected. The flashier aspects of Debatable Space also become more obvious: The typographical tricks hearkening back to Ellison and Bester; the copious amount of sex and violence, the increasingly ridiculous odds faced by the characters; the intriguing references and concepts casually tossed off.

But Debatable Space has a streak of weirdness that makes it difficult to predict. At three junctures, the story is interrupted to cover the back-story of the kidnapped “princess”: Lena is revealed to be a long-lived contemporary of ours, with a biography crammed with every possible adventure and occupation, from mousy academic to hard cybercop to despondent girlfriend to dictatorial president and much much more. It’s too flamboyant to be taken seriously (a theme that characterizes Debatable Space as a whole), but it’s certainly fun to read. As the novel unfolds, it also becomes more interesting in purely SF terms: I was particularly taken with the vision of a remote-controlled empire combining the worst aspects of cultural imperialism and consequence-free proxy usage. The “Dyson Jewels” are also a cool addition to the Big Dumb Object repertory.

But even as Palmer does his damnedest to impress the peanut gallery, he also let slip a few curious inconsistencies. His future never quite holds up for scrutiny, let it be the incompatibility between his future’s advanced medicine and his stunted characters, or someone casually using a CD-Rom a thousand years in the future (“I slip the CD-Rom in the Quantum Beacon’s computer”… [P.250]) as if they weren’t already obsolete in 2007. Lena ability to escape media attention through her laughably numerous careers except when it suits the needs of the story also stretched the bounds of credibility.

In short, Debatable Space feels raw, prickly, audacious and visibly flawed. As entertaining as it can be (and Palmer’s writing style is vivid enough to carry along its own narrative momentum), it’s also too scattered and too far-fetched to be particularly credible. The author acknowledges as such in an afterword appropriately called “Debatable Science” (“Alby after all is a super-intelligent ball of flame with a lisp”… [P.478]), but it doesn’t make the novel any easier to recommend without reservations. But keep an eye on Palmer’s next few novels: with more control and fewer distractions, he could be part of the next generation of good British SF writers.

Call Northside 777 (1948)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Call Northside 777</strong> (1948)

(On DVD, January 2008) Even sixty years later, James Stewart is still The Man: As the lead in this semi-documentary drama about a journalist working to free a man unjustly accused of murder, he’s the mesmerizing rock upon which everything else depends. His impassioned speech at the end of the film evokes memories of other great Stewart performances, but it also stands on its own. Six decades later, it’s easy to be amused by the dramatic devices in what must have felt like a techno-thriller back then: The lie detector, the photographic processes, the remote transmission process: yeah technology! But the film itself is solid: Even if the film shows its age, the characters are interesting, the rhythm compares well to other films of the time and the look at then-Chicago has its own charm. But most of all: James Stewart. The guy isn’t one of the greats for nothing.

Atonement (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Atonement</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, January 2008) How fitting that a film about life-long guilt should seem to last forever. If you thought The English Patient wasn’t long enough, then Atonement is the movie for you: stiff-lipped English romantic drama against a WW2 backdrop, with self-important cinematography and lengthy meaningful pauses. It certainly aims for a particularly forgiving segment of the public, and it’s no accident if I was the youngest member of the audience at the screening I attended. The opening manages to be both enigmatic and dull, with enough time-shifting to make anyone wonder if the reels have been wrongly put together. Then it’s off to war, and the single best reason to see the film: a lengthy shot flying around three characters as they make their way on and off a beach where English troops are waiting to be evacuated. It’s a show-off piece –just like most of what’s distinctive about the film, up to and including the ending which slaps the viewer on the face and tells them they shouldn’t have bothered. This is pure Oscar-bait, and it exemplifies the type of excruciating cinema that audiences have to inflict upon themselves if they want to stay current during the Awards season.

AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, January 2008) Sixth (or eighth?) in a series of instructions on how to stomp two franchises deeper into the ground. By now, aliens and predators are so familiar that they could be making plushies of them for all the non-terror they inspire. This film doesn’t add much to the mythos (barely a look at the Predator planet and a late Yutani cameo) and doesn’t do much with the now-generic monsters. The human characters aren’t particularly interesting either, and their gory deaths are far more ordinary than you’d expect. (Only a scene in a maternity ward actually stretches the boundaries of good taste and earns some begrudging kudos.) There are some okay special effects, but the men-in-suits shtick is all too obvious here. There’s really not much to say about this film: it’ll fade in memory even faster than the first Alien vs Predator, and that’s a telling fact in itself.

The Closers, Michael Connelly

<em class="BookTitle">The Closers</em>, Michael Connelly

Little Brown, 2005, 403 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-73494-2

Rejoice: Harry Bosch is back on the job, and so is Connelly. After a few uneven adventures featuring Bosch as a none-too-comfortable Private Investigator, there’s a sense that everything is back on the right track as Bosch re-integrates the LAPD after the events of the previous volume. He’s not being put back on the homicide table, though: this time, he’s been assigned to the “Open-Unsolved” unit that seeks to close historical files left open. Partnered once again with Kizmin Rider, Bosch is asked to use his experience and his dogged determination to close the book on unsolved mysteries.

This initially seems easier than expected: As Connelly explains, investigative techniques and tools have gotten much better in the past few decades. It’s now possible to analyze evidence kept in storage and match it against suspects. Thousands of such pieces still haven’t been processed in the labs, and as The Closers begins, it appears that one such piece has produced a match: a flesh scraping taken from a gun used in the murder of a teenager fifteen years earlier. The DNA matches that of a known criminal with ties to the girl’s neighborhood, which is even worse considering that the girl was biracial and the criminal has avowed neo-nazi sympathies.

But, of course, nothing is that simple in a Michael Connelly novel. There will be complications.

From the first few pages, Connelly proves that he’s back in top shape. As skilled as ever in entertainingly presenting exposition, Connelly quickly puts together Bosch’s new life: The office he works in, the easy partnership with Kizmin Rider, the renewed antagonism with Irving (“You are a retread. But you know what happens with a retread? It comes apart at the seams.” [P.41]), the atmosphere inside the LAPD and, perhaps more importantly, the numerous details of an investigation abandoned before a satisfactory conclusion. The DNA match may be suggestive, but Bosch wants to make sure that they’re after the right person.

Unfortunately, they find out that there’s a lot more riding on this case than a simple unsolved murder. The case attracts political attention, which puts Bosch right where readers like him best: in the middle of a fight for his professional life, stuck between factions inside his own department. Not that this is the only kind of difficult situation that Bosch encounters during the investigation: a lengthy sequence following him as he goes undercover as a white supremacist proves to be one of the book’s highlights.

The twists and turns are solid, and it’s interesting to see that the number of violent sequences is kept to a minimum: The Closers creates its suspense through sheer procedural suspense, as clues are tracked, details are uncovered and suspects are interrogated. It ends as many Connelly novels do, with Bosch as the chump of someone else’s deals.

But even as it brings Bosch out of the cold, The Closers feels like a return to top form. Faithful readers won’t be surprised to find out that this novel is back to a third-person narration, leaving Bosch’s inner monologue to his off-LAPD career. It’s not a bad thing, since one of the complaints about Bosch two retirement novels was that it brought us perhaps a bit too closely inside the mind of Connelly’s taciturn character. The narration properly places Bosch farther away from the reader, where he can be cloaked with an intriguing sense of mystery: we don’t need to know what he’s thinking.

And yet, it’s a sens of belonging, of righting past wrongs that ends up playing an important role in The Closers. Using Bosch to the best of his abilities as a mystery-solver, Connelly touches upon the nature of criminal-fiction closure and shows that he hasn’t run out of stories to tell about his best-known character.