Ottawa, the Unknown City, rob mclennan

<em class="BookTitle">Ottawa, the Unknown City</em>, rob mclennan

Arsenal, 2008, 173 pages, C$22.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-55152-232-6

I may spend most of my waking weekday hours in downtown Ottawa, but there’s always something new to learn about the city. It’s in that spirit that I grabbed a copy of Ottawa, the Unknown City, the type of tourism guide that’s more interesting for locals than fly-by tourists.

Don’t look for a street-by-street guide of where to eat, sleep or shop: While Ottawa, the Unknown City does contain a few of those classic guidebook standbys, it’s best approached as a loosely structured book of anecdotes, historical facts, local wisdom and old-timer recommendations. If you ever wondered what a guide book designed for bathroom reading would look like, then have a look at “The Unknown City” books. (Arsenal Press has published such books for eight cities from Montréal, Toronto and New York to Vancouver and San Francisco.)

Even for local residents, it’s filled by fascinating stuff. Perhaps the best parts of the book are the historical anecdotes and suppositions: “since they used soil taken from a landfill across the river, an Aboriginal burial site (…) some say it is entirely possible that the second Parliament Buildings include fragments of Natives’ bone in its structure” [P.25] An entire chapter is dedicated to the bad kind of “Notoriety”, including Ottawa’s 19th-century gang riots, Canada’s first political assassination or why some say that the Cold War began in Ottawa. It’s amazing how quickly some events fade from memory: I had no clue, for instance, that the Heron Bridge’s construction was interrupted by a fatal collapse in 1966, or that a $750,000 gold heist happened at the Ottawa Airport in 1974. There’s a great index at the end of the book to track down the anecdotes or do name-spotting.

Other areas covered by mclennan (himself a well-known local literary landmark) include Transportation, Shopping, Sports, Entertainment (ie: which celebrities are from Ottawa), Nightlife and so on. Cleanly, even amusingly written, it doesn’t take much effort to keep reading this book, which is more than you can say about many guide books.

Alas, there are a few errors. I’m not surprised that Rivière des Outaouais is mis-translated as Rivière de l’Outaouais [P.15] (even though that’s something that could have been fact-checked with Wikipedia or a simple comparative Google search) since it affects nothing and will only bother us francophones in the kind of slight so-the-Anglos-also-screwed-that-one-up exasperation we’re learned to laugh about. As a cinephile, however, I was far less happy to see mclennan write “Sam Raimi, who directed Superman Returns” [P.113] since Bryan Singer directed Superman Returns, and that breaks the cute “six degree of Lorne Green” chain of connections that he was propping up. And that’s not counting the slight exaggerations that are used whenever someone wants to claim local fame for everyone who’s had an extended stopover at the nearest airport. But, hey, that’s the way the game is played: Tom Cruise is from Ottawa! The Rolling Stones shot a video at Zaphod’s in 2005!

The focus of the book is toward the not-so-young-yet-restless: there isn’t much about the city’s technological or official side. As with any project talking about Ottawa, it seems contractually bound to keep saying “Ottawa isn’t just about government! We’ve got culture, too!”, somehow missing the point that a good chunk of Ottawa’s charm is largely financed by its status as Canada’s capital. But feel free to ignore me: after all, I’m only one of those gray-faced federal public servants who represent everything that’s baaad about the city, never contribute to The Culture and who never ever spend money, oh buying books written by Ottawa authors. (But never mind that.)

A book with “the unknown city” in its title is expected to reveal a few secret, and few will be disappointed by what mclennan has managed to discover. While tourists who fly in and out of Ottawa for a few days may not have the time to appreciate the anecdotes in Ottawa: The Unknown City, this is a perfect book for those who will stay for more than a few days, including those who have been here for decades.

Born Standing Up, Steve Martin

<em class="BookTitle">Born Standing Up</em>, Steve Martin

Scribner, 2007, 209 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4165-5364-9

There’s an admirable purity in stand-up comedy, which remains one of the most direct art form out there: a guy with a microphone, making a crowd react by the sheer power of his words alone. Jokes are easy, but comedy is hard and it takes a long time to learn how to do it well.

That’s the best reason to read Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, an autobiography that tackles Martin’s career from his days as a Disneyland employee to the point when he decided to quit stand-up in favor of film comedy. Nowadays, Steve Martin has a very different reputation than he had at the end of the seventies: His movie career has degenerated in easy safe self-parody (CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN? BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE? THE PINK PANTHER?), while his work on projects such as Shopgirl has earned him serious literary accolades.

But by the end of the seventies, Martin was one of the best-known stand-up comics in America, presenting to sold-out arenas. He held top billing for only a few years, but it took decades to get there: Born Standing Up tells how it happened, following Martin through small acting jobs, early stand-up gigs and how he gradually developed his style of comedy.

Martin has earned accolade for his writing projects, and Born Standing Up is a fine example of his skill as a writer. The book is short and breezy to read, even when tackling the earlier years that are less interesting to audiences than Martin’s stand-up success. He chooses to end the book by a heartfelt chapter talking about his relationship with his parents. (Though I doubt it, there may be a second volume in the works: Martin chooses to focus this book on comedy, and it seldom mention the events of the past twenty-five years, and practically ignores his movie work after THE JERK.)

Students of comedy will be pleased by the material in this book. (Though poor students of comedy will have already read the essay in The New Yorker that reprints almost all of the book’s best chapter.) We get a sense of the life of a would-be comedian as he learns how to deal with the crowd, chooses a comedy style that runs counter to people’s expectations and becomes better-known through various jobs and occupations, from live theater to scripted television, Johnny Carson appearances to Saturday Night Live (which gets less of a mention than you’d expect.)

As a memoir, it’s what we would expect from “a Steve Martin autobiography”: it’s frank, it’s detailed, it’s revealing and it gives a good idea of the life he’s lived. Those who missed Martin’s stand-up years may want to hit YouTube and experience a number of his routines for themselves, just so to put everything else in a proper context. Humor theorists will get a kick out of Martin’s self-conscious attempts to undermine the very idea of stand-up comedy by disregarding the expectations of the crowd –a trick that, in good hands, leads to even more laughter through audience desperation when faced with non sequitur.

This being said, people with tighter budgets and fainter affection for Martin may want to check this book at the library, or wait for the paperback: at barely more than two hundred airy pages (albeit with numerous pictures), it feels overpriced at nearly C$29, especially for those who have read the New Yorker article, which contains most of what readers will remember from the book. Readers who skip biography chapters until the person becomes successful (a group I’m always tempted to join) may not find all that much meat here; neither will those who expect a tell-all airing of dirty laundry. Particularly picky readers will bemoan the lack of an index.

But there’s still a kick to Born Standing Up, especially if you want an inside look at the live of a touring comedian, and the dues that have to be paid before mastering the craft. Because, in the end, it’s still one guy with a microphone and a few carefully-chosen words versus a crowd of people who expect a good time.

21 [Bringing Down the House], Ben Mezrich

<em class="BookTitle">21 [Bringing Down the House]</em>, Ben Mezrich

Pocket Star, 2002 (2008 revision), 340 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-1-4165-8564-0

Probability mathematics and compulsive risk-aversion have forever cured me of gambling urges, but that doesn’t lessen my fascination for casinos and Las Vegas. Things are always interesting whenever large sums of money are involved, especially when it’s about places designed to take money away from people… and when people figure how to turn that system against itself.

Indeed, for a book revolving around blackjack at Las Vegas casinos, there isn’t much gambling per se at the core of Ben Mezrich’s docu-novel Bringing Down the House, now adapted to the big screen as 21: This is about a system, a business so simple that even disciplined students could be hired to follow its instructions. It’s about finding order over the chaos of card-dealing, and using a bit of cleverness to exploit a flaw in how casinos operate.

The story begins in the mid-nineties, when a brilliant young MIT student is recruited by two of his friends who show him a weekend of lavish excess in Atlantic City. Intrigued, the student learns that his friends are part of a small group led by a mathematician who has refined a method to improve the odds in blackjack games. It works using spotters, who keeps a running count of how a given table is likely to produce high cards, and gamblers, who come in and exploit “hot” tables having an idea of how they should bet. It only works using groups of disciplined specialists, discreet communications and hit-and-run weekends.

It’s isn’t strictly illegal, but casinos definitely don’t like it, which may serve to explain why the group’s leader won’t play, and where the story is eventually headed. At first, nothing is too excessive for the protagonist of the tale, who accumulates more money than he imagined. School soon becomes a memory when bekons a more lucrative way to spend his time. People leave and join the group. And then, well, obviously something happens to make them decide to stop…

It’s never too clear where reality ends and fiction begins in this book: Mezrich, a gifted novelist, is not the protagonist of the story, and there’s an element of a twice-told tale in how neatly the dramatic tension of the story rises with every passing chapter. The dialogs, structure and dramatic choices are presumably punched up for maximum effect, but that’s okay: It does become a terrific story of money, choices, villains, intimidation and close escapes. By the end of the book, the casinos have figured out how to close the loophole (it’s easy for dealers to switch decks or start over, thus destroying the card count) and every player’s face has been included in the big book of miscreants who are not welcome in casinos.

But the whole reality/fiction thing takes a step backward in Bringing Down the House mostly because it’s such a terrific, compulsively readable book. Fans of Vegas and casinos will sip it up in a single sitting, while others will be taken by this mixture of fact and fiction. There are tons of details about the way casinos operate, and author Mezrich himself becomes part of the story as he follows his friend to try out The System and delve deeper into Las Vegas lore.

In the end, paying ten dollars for Bringing Down The House is a surer bet that feeding slot machines. Not that anyone will rely on simple games of chance when the blackjack tables seem far more interesting…

The Book of End Times, John Clute

<em class="BookTitle">The Book of End Times</em>, John Clute

Harper Prism, 1999, 240 pages, C$44.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-105033-4

This is a very strange book.

Unless you haunt the dealer’s tables at specialized conventions, you’re unlikely to ever see a copy: It was published in millennium-feverish 1999 and disappeared almost completely from view shortly afterward, just as fast as most other Y2K-themed books did. It’s not rare (abebooks has 37 copies, only one of them priced higher than list), but it’s not something that’s ever likely to see print again.

I myself had to travel to Florida to an academic conference, spot one of the last remaining copies in the dealers’ room and get it autographed by the author, who commented that This is a very strange book.

Indeed. Commissioned to mark the big Y2K, it wrestles with millennial fever in a skeptical but not entirely dismissive tone. (Clute recognizes Y2K fever as unreasonable hysteria, but is concerned that the hysteria is keeping people from seeing more serious problems.) A large-format coffee-table book, it was designed with the best early-Wired visual aesthetics, a style that seems irremediably dated not even ten years later. And it also marks John Clute’s foray into social criticism, using the same tools that serve him so well in literary criticism.

Clute is best known, of course, for his genre criticism: he is widely acknowledged as one of the top reviewers in his field, has shaped the language of SF criticism and has even co-written landmark encyclopedias. To see him grapple with social commentary is an interesting side-step into a slightly different, but not unrelated field: Criticism is about making connections, and here Clute is free to link just about anything he wants into this study of “The End Times”, imagined or possible.

Not that he can stay away from literary commentary for long. I had to smile when Clute uses almost an entire chapter to riff on the Fall 1997 issue of Life magazine: the critic is never bereft of material. Later, Clute goes back to Science Fiction and studies its place in creating the hysterias of the end times. Through the book, there are quotes and nods to SF authors from H.G. Wells to Ken MacLeod. At the end of the book, the bibliography takes two pages; the Sources, five, with another page-and-a-half of copyright acknowledgments.

Clute has become famous, or infamous, for his unabridged vocabulary and the complexity of his prose, and this book is up to his usual high standards. The content of the book also holds its own as a piece of social commentary. If some of the structure can be suspect, such as the overuse of the Life magazine commentary, the book is well-informed from a variety of literate sources. Clute has intriguing ideas (just wait to see what he does with the notion of a Tamaguchi), and reading the book today is an interesting experience given everything that has happened since 1999: Without too much effort, we’re left to wonder whether the state-encouraged mad responses to 9/11 became an outlet for all of this untapped hysteric energy. 2008’s developing crises only bolster Clute’s notions of unstoryable end times: death by oil price shock, mortgage foreclosures, food riots and global warming.

Since this is a coffee-table book, the visual aspect of The Book of End Times is an integral part of the experience. A disjointed, exploding mess of colors, words, pictures, indenting and graphic elements, it’s a strange showcase for Clute’s words, which are usually seen in far more sedate company. It looks like a long Clute essay laid out over a twentieth century retrospective tossed in a blender. The first fifty pages are mystifying and the last fifty are repetitive, but the strident chaos of it lends to Clute’s words an uncanny urgency. It is not, however, a transparent design job: sometimes, thanks to poor contrast choices and ever-varying font sizes, it’s a struggle to read. The relationship between all elements of the design can often be a mystery, the kind of enigma that can only be put together by over-caffeinated designers with a shaky understanding of the text and tight deadlines to meet.

For Clute fans, The Book of End Times proves to be an essential puzzle piece in an understanding of his critical framework: It clearly outlines a notion that would later seep into Clute’s literary criticism: the idea of the world as Story, and the problems we face in dealing with times that cannot be told as stories. (The obvious case here is environmental issues: Many of them can only be solved by routine, unexciting actions by many -carbon taxes, say, or lifestyle changes- rather than flashy and spectacular acts of heroism by one or a few heroes.) Clute’s work is a mosaic of recurring themes, and so The Book of End Times leads directly to essays in The Darkening Garden, and most likely to the content of the reviews to be published in the upcoming collection Houston do you read. (I wonder if it’s possible to get a copy of the Little Book of Aphorisms of the End…)

From a brief chat with the author, I understand that the making of the book was chaotic and punctuated by radical changes in editorial directions. The result may not strike anyone as a must-read classic, but fans of Clute’s work, or sociological studies, will find fascinating material here. It’s dating itself fast, but not in the ways you’d expect. Perhaps, one day, we’ll get an updated plain-text version.

Contest, Matthew Reilly

<em class="BookTitle">Contest</em>, Matthew Reilly

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 1996 (2003 rewrite), 334 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-28625-2

I have praised Matthew Reilly’s madness before, but it turns out that I really had no idea of what he was really capable of writing: Contest, his true first novel, provides a look at Reilly’s least-controlled, most chaotic self. The book’s publishing history itself has become a bit of a legend among Reilly fans: Written while Reilly was still in university, the book was rejected by numerous publishers before being self-published. Some of those copied were snapped up by an editor who commissioned Ice Station, and the rest has become publishing history.

This edition of Contest is not the original version: It has been re-written with more characters, set in a slightly different location and presumably americanized for its intended audience. But it clearly does show an undisciplined, hyperactive writer who cares a lot more about breakneck pacing than originality or even plausibility.

The premise itself is the kind of nonsense from which B-movie parodies emerge: In an intergalactic tournament where warriors from alien races battle each other for the prize, the latest iteration takes place… in the main branch of the New York Public Library. After careful consideration, a humble New Yorker doctor/dad has been selected to represent the human race. After dark, let the game begin!

It’s tough to take the novel seriously after that, especially given the weak and far-fetched justifications used to set an alien rampage inside the NYPL. No amount of hand-waving or advanced technology can make this premise work well, and it’s further evidence of Reilly’s insanity that he never seriously tries: we quickly gather that he’s really writing a B-grade movie, and whatever exposition would be too troublesome to put on screen is simply discarded. It’s worth noting that the book jacket blurb never mentions the word aliens, or even alludes to the novel’s science-fictional nature.

Fortunately, there are plenty of plot complications to keep us busy: Despite the so-called ironclad rules of the tournament. Our hero is actually stuck in the NYPL with his daughter, and at least one contestant is cheating like crazy. (The alien context overseers really don’t come across as particularly competent.) Some of the plot developments can be seen well in advance (say, as soon as the character is informed that “if you leave the Library, you have fifteen minutes until your bracelet explodes”), while other plot developments are sheer authorial bravado: As usual, never assume someone’s dead until you can conclusively identify the body. And always leave room for the possibility that the author is lying to you.

There are few other ways to say it: Contest is often a ridiculous excuse for a novel, a cheap B-grade exploitation action movie somehow written in prose. But it does have energy, some misguided cleverness and a three-pages-a-minute pacing. It’s bad, bold and yet good, certainly a promising work from a thriller author who would learn much in his latter novels. But I feel safe in saying that there hasn’t been a thriller set in a library quite like this, and even if I think that the premise would have been just as interesting in a more realistic context (say, with criminals and mercenaries as the contestants in a crazy game-show: see MEAN GUNS for a version of this), the finished product remains a better-than-average commuter read. Latter novels have shown Reilly forging himself a reputation as a fast-paced, low-realism, go-for-broke writer, and Contest shows him at his least polished, most visceral state. It’s a must-read for Reilly fans, and memorable experience for others.

Superhero Movie (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Superhero Movie</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, April 2008) The comedy sub-genre of the spoof has fallen on hard time recently, and if Superhero Movie won’t do much to raise the bar, at least it has stopped digging deeper than the most common denominator: it does contain a number of laughs, and won’t disappoint indulgent audiences even despite its general lack of cleverness. Detail-oriented cinephiles will note that the lineage of this film takes on from the not-so-awful Scary Movie 3 and 4 rather than the Epic Movie creators. The big obvious target here is Superhero movies (imagine that), with a plot line taken straight from Spider-Man with occasional references from the X-Men and Fantastic Four trilogies. The humor is dumb, crude, gross and slap-sticky, but sometimes it works: seeing a Stephen Hawking caricature repeatedly swear after bodily harm is funnier than expected. Drake Bell isn’t too bad (ie: escapes the film with most of his dignity) as the protagonist of the tale, while Leslie Neilsen has long passed that point and even cameos by Regina Hall fail to create excitement. There are a few up-to-the-second pop-culture gags (the most inspired being the parody of Tom Cruise’s already-loopy Scientology video), but the bodily secretion gags eventually overwhelm everything else, leaving little that’s funny for high school graduates. The only way this film looks good is that there’s been much worse in the genre lately. Otherwise, this doesn’t even reach the level of High School High which, ten years ago, was considered an unfunny mess.

Street Kings (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Street Kings</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, April 2008) If, during this film, you suddenly feel that this is a cracked-up insane version of LAPD corruption thrillers like Dark Blue and Training Day, do not be alarmed: It is, after all, directed by David Ayer who also wrote both of those movies. Better yet, the film is co-written by crime novelist James Ellroy, who contributed the story to Dark Blue and L.A. Confidential. It’s familiar territory for both men, and it shows: Street Kings moves swiftly through a fairly basic story of high-level police corruption, but not quickly enough for us to point at a specific connection and wonder how the characters are all unwilling to see a crucial piece of evidence. The answer, of course, is that they’ll do that at the most dramatically opportune moment. Still; there’s a lot to like here for people looking for a crunchy (if slightly deranged) police thriller, from a more energetic performance than usual for Keanu Reeves to enjoyable turns by Forest Whitaker and Naomie Harris. It’s not great art, but it’s adequate entertainment, and people who are predisposed toward L.A. Noir will like it well enough.

Stop-Loss (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Stop-Loss</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, April 2008) There’s an annoying lack of focus and commitment to this film that ultimately doom it to irrelevance. As an exploration of the impact of the Iraq invasion on ordinary lower-class America, it’s an intriguing film. It even gets provocative as it portrays a good young man reaching for exile rather than being pressed back in service under “stop-loss” directives. It gets even more interesting as the war claims more victims at home, as the young returning soldiers are unable to cope with peacetime and self-destruct in various ways. But the loose and scattered feel of the film, especially as it re-invents itself as a botched road movie, constantly diffuse the impact of a story that should have been much stronger. The slow pacing doesn’t help, and the last-minute embrace of traditional American values (like, oh, doing one’s part for family pride and business imperialism) feels like a step back from what could have been a far stronger conclusion. If you’re going to toy with the idea of sedition, do it properly. Otherwise, well, you pretty much deserve the wars in which you get to die.

Sixty Days and Counting, Kim Stanley Robinson

<em class="BookTitle">Sixty Days and Counting</em>, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 2007, 388 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-80313-6

Little about Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy has been conventional so far, so it fits that the third volume, Sixty Days and Counting, also defies usual trilogy protocols. Mind you, it fits the subject: Critic John Clute often talks about the challenges of fiction in representing today’s “unstoryable” concepts that cannot have clearly-defined heroes and dramatic climaxes (such as environmentalism). This book puts the notion to the test, and though it may bore readers looking for more excitement, it does manage to remain true to its ideals.

By the time thir third volume begins, the flashy battles have been won: Pro-environment Phil Chase is the President of the United States, the NSA has gained enough favor with him to be able to lead the massive new governmental programs required to deal with global warming, and the Gulf Stream has been rebooted thanks to a massive saline injection. In another context, this would mean the end of the story. Here, though, there are still plenty of small issues to consider. Frank Vanderwal is still brain-damaged and unable to make decisions, which gets more and more dangerous as a shadowy group sets its sights on him. Meanwhile, Charlie Quibbler returns to political life, leaving behind his son, who may still be affected by the influence of the Khembali monks.

On a conventional plot level, only Frank’s struggles with brain damage, his lifestyle, his dangerous girlfriend and her unsavory, all-powerful ex-associates keep things moving. Frank struggles with decision-making following his assault in the previous book, but by the time he decides to have an operation that may solve the issue, he’s fighting for his life, chasing down covert agents and trying to uncover the identity of those who try to manipulate US elections. But even he can’t do it alone, and the ultimate resolution of that plot line is another one of Robinson’s attempts to defy expectations. Frank is a hero for how he reacts more than what he does. (Amusingly, the novel’s best moments are just as counter-intuitive: A moment in which Charlie verbally eviscerates World Bank representatives is a highlight, while an assassination attempt is completely under-played.)

But chases and special agents all seem a bit silly given the series’ continuing reliance on domesticity, utopianism and the scientific method as plot drivers. Neither of those elements can be achieved with dramatic gestures and extraordinary heroes: they are built day after day, with an accumulation of small actions. And so Sixty Days and Counting (which refers to the grace period after a presidential inauguration) is a novel of phase transition, as Robinson suggests a way to turn the country around towards a better society. Heady stuff: readers interested in Robinson’s liberal politics are sure to appreciate the blueprint for change.

The flip side of that argument, of course, is that readers looking for stronger dramatic plot drivers are going to be sorely disappointed. If people were still expecting something different this far ahead in the series, it’s too late to change course. Sixty Days and Counting is a logical follow-up in the course of Robinson’s career and a piece that echoes a good chunk of the author’s work so far, from the utopianism of Pacific Edge to the political musings of the Mars series, to the environmental message of Antarctica and the Buddhist themes of The Years of Rice and Salt. Readers who didn’t like any of that, well, should know that there’s another book that they’re not going to like…

As for me, I continue to be surprised at how much I enjoyed the series even if it does a lot of things in ways that I shouldn’t enjoy. Granted, I tend to be more generous toward Robinson’s work that other readers (though not early on, nor always: I tried reading A Short Sharp Shock recently, and it practically fell from my uninterested hands.), so you may adjust expectations accordingly. I’m constantly on the lookout for true science-fiction and this series really does stick close to the ideals of fiction about science, even if in doing so, it risks short-changing its fictional interest. On issues such as global warming, unstoryable by definition, that may be the only defensible choice.

Never Back Down (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Never Back Down</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, April 2008) There’s something both endearing and reprehensible in the way this film re-shapes the world to justify teenage fight clubs. It’s really a plot-driven excuse to drive the protagonist to bigger and better fights, but along the way we’re asked to cheer for an entire culture of blood-thirsty teenagers constantly shouting “Fight! Fight! Fight!” and filming the results for immediate distribution on YouTube. Yes, the American indoctrination to violence begins early in Florida… and we can even recognize the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the national character when the protagonist is portrayed as a reluctant brawler who is forced, yes forced to beat up others. But who am I to complain? As a purely American martial-arts film, Never Back Down works relatively well and flows relatively well from one expected set-piece to another. It may have all the appeal of an id laid bare and hypocrisy run wild, but it’s seldom dull. Djimon Hounsou once again manages to escape from a movie mess with his dignity intact, but he’s pretty much the only one.

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, April 2008) Wow. Who could have thought that a stoner comedy could lead to such a politically-charged sequel? A surefire reflection of the times we live in, this sequel to the unexpectedly hilarious Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle features our two protagonists being mistaken for terrorists, tortured in Guantanamo Bay, escaping to the mainland USA and being chased by overbearing DHS agents until they befriend a stoner George W. Bush. And I’m not mentioning the agent who wipes himself with the Bill of Rights, the fierce anti-racism, Neil Patrick Harris as “Neil Patrick Harris” and the triumphant romanticism of a mathematical poem. Unexpected delights in what is, after all, a teen stoner comedy that could have been perfectly happy showing the two protagonists going to another chain of restaurants. While the film doesn’t scale the absurd heights of the original, its mixture of political content and low-brow comedy is utterly fascinating. The film seldom shies away from comic reversals (the sequence in which the two protagonists interrupt a street basketball game is a highlight) and re-reversals, but it’s the caricature of Bush as a frat-boy stoner that sticks in mind, both savage and yet oddly sympathetic at the same time. Fans of the first film may not be blown out of their minds, but they’ll be satisfied, and cultural critics won’t stop thinking about the ways this film uses the legacy of the Bush administration as comic fodder, blatantly assuming the audience’s prejudices regarding DHS paranoia, Guantanamo torture and Bush’s weaknesses. Utterly fascinating… plus it’s got nudity.

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Forbidden Kingdom</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, April 2008) What a shame that the first (and probably last) on-screen pairing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li comes ten years too late and has to be stuck in a painfully americanized wish-fulfillment fantasy. For fans of Asian martial arts movies, this film is a thoroughly mixed bag of references and pretentious myth-making, with an American protagonist who really doesn’t belong there. Ignore the yadda-yadda about a Boston teenager magically traveling to a land of fantasy and mystical nonsense: The real worth of the film, as usual, is in the fights. The standout is obviously a battle between Li and Chan, the straightforward rigid style of the first one meeting the goofy looseness of the second: It’s a purely enjoyable ten minutes of generously uncut physical movement, far away from the annoying kid and the even more annoying mythology. As for the rest, well, it’s both good and bad: while Yifei Liu and Bingbing Li are The Hotness (white long hair, rwwwr), their characters, like everyone else, are ill-served by a threadbare plot that seldom exploits the possibilities offered by its premise. The scenery is nice. The special effects don’t add much to the story except for some shiny combat rays and hair extensions. Throughout, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the filmmakers are gosh-wowed by the elements at their disposal rather than ready to make use of them. It doesn’t help that the tone remains juvenile throughout. At least the film remains pleasant from beginning to end, offering just enough to keep everyone happy while not enough to strike any lasting impression.

Deception (2008)

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

(In theaters, April 2008) The only thing worse than a bad film is a pretentious bad film that assumes that its audience has never seen another thriller in their lives. What starts out as an intriguing erotic drama featuring an exclusive club for professionals looking for unattached sexual relations turns out to be yet another coincidence-laden blackmail drama. The disappointing deception leaves a bad taste, especially when the film starts going through well-worn plot “twists” in a self-important ponderous fashion that can quickly sour anyone’s good intentions. Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams are capable actors that can do much better, but even their contribution can’t match screenwriter Mark Bomback’s trite script and director Marcel Langenegger’s leaden touch. The film is never worse than at the beginning of its overextended third act, when it dawdles for almost ten minutes while waiting for a not-dead character to come back in the story, spinning its wheels even as everyone with half a brain knows what’s going on. By the end of the film, I was muttering the litany of “I hate you. I hate youuu…” that I keep in reserve for specially flawed films that make me loathe the filmmakers, the cinematographic art form and the universe in general. Once past Maggie Q’s smoldering appearance, there’s nothing entertaining left about Deception, and a whole lot of drawn-out torture in the hands of people who shouldn’t be allowed near a film script ever again. This is not even straight-to-video fodder: this is straight-to-video trash that’s convinced of its chances for the Oscar.

The Merchants’ War, Charles Stross

<em class="BookTitle">The Merchants’ War</em>, Charles Stross

Tor, 2007, 336 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1671-4

Things never get any less complicated in this fourth volume in Charles Stross’ ongoing “Merchant Princes” series. Readers should be advised that in addition of being a fourth-in-a-series, The Merchants’ War is the second in a tightly-linked four-book sequence: They will be lost if they haven’t read the previous tomes, and few of the plot lines are resolved by the time the last chapter ends. Since, as of early 2008, the remaining books in the series still haven’t been published (that will have to wait until 2009), readers may want to stock the books for later reading.

But if you’re reading this in 2010 (lucky you!), here’s where things stood at the end of the third volume: Series heroine Miriam Beckstein, a journalist having discovered her talents for walking between the worlds, narrowly escaped a terrible wedding via an ever more terrible coup against the world-walking Clans. Lost on the unfriendly streets of Third-Earth New London, it’s time for her to take back control of her own destiny, even at the risk of making waves against the authoritarian regime of New Britain. There are a lot of dueling plot-lines by this point in the series, and it’s a mind-bender to try to keep up with them all. Even Miriam, after being in the spotlight for the first books of the series, is becoming just another character among many even as her role in this book is a little more active than her forced isolation in the third tome. A fourth reality even gets added to the mix this time around, proving that things can never get too complicated. But Stross’ clean style, combined with his usual humor and hard-edged understanding of economic realities, is enough to keep things hopping.

The series also keeps shifting in tone. The Merchant Princes have never been completely fantasy, but as the US government starts studying world-walking after being tipped off at the end of the second volume, Stross is bringing the series ever closer to Science Fiction: There is a superb sequence set in top-secret government laboratories in which the jargon flies as thickly as in Stross’ more conventional SF novels, and that in return promises even more interesting developments in latter books.

In parallel, a team of explorers from Miriam’s clan has also set out to explore the possibilities of world-walking as a science, discovering a fourth Earth that hints of a long-gone advanced civilization. That sequence is also one of the highlights of the book, and also promises much in latter novels.

At the same time, The Merchants’ War also keeps the series firmly set in the techno-thriller genre. After the incidents of the third volume, everyone is racing to find where the Clan’s “nuclear insurance policy” is located in Boston, and the scene in which they do find out is second in horrified interest only to the scene in which they discover another bomb they didn’t know about. Oh yes, this is a lively book.

The twists and turns keep piling up, as do the ideas and character revelations. The mix of technologies that the Clan uses against the Nobility’s aggression is intriguing, even as it’s an excuse for a few laughs—such as transporting “re-enactors” forces in a schoolbus.

But trying to review things at this point is like seeing half a movie and being asked for comments. The best thing to say so far is that the rhythm, inventiveness and quality of The Merchant Princes is intact after four books, and that all signs point to even more fascinating follow-ups. Sadly, these follow-ups still have to be published, and there are at least two of them to go before a natural breathing point.

So there’s really no news to report: if you like the series, this book isn’t going to change your mind, but any further development will have to wait until everything is out.

So, reader-from-2010, how good was it?

88 Minutes (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">88 Minutes</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, April 2008) Al Pacino can chew scenery like anyone else, and his oversize persona, when finally unleashed very late in the film, is probably the only thing that saved 88 Minutes from a quick and merciful straight-to-video release. Well, that and the film’s fake real-time premise, which gets relatively dense once the show is firmly on the road. Until then, however, it’s a long slog through a far too lengthy prologue, a laborious set of character introductions and far too many scenes dedicated to a villain that’s more exasperating than interesting. A better film would have taken the hint of the title and run with a real-time thriller the likes of which TV series 24 was made so popular. Here, alas, the film seldom has the courage of its own concept, and in fact blows part of its conclusion early by giving a seemingly minor role to a major thespian: what’s that person doing in such a small role unless it’s meant to become… something else? Still, the film doesn’t need external encyclopedic knowledge of actors to fail on its own merit: Despite being set in Seattle, it’s visibly shot in Vancouver (watch for the newspaper boxes and the known intersections!), a lax attitude to the product that carries over to just about every other aspect of this potboiler thriller. Pacino remains the only rock of watchable quality in this film, especially at the conclusion, which makes less sense that anyone can figure out given the tight time constraints of the story. Oh well; call it a second choice for a rainy afternoon when you’ve seen just about everything else at the video store.