Month: January 2009

The Rum Diary, Hunter S. Thompson

The Rum Diary, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 1998, 204 pages, C$15.50 tpb, ISBN 978-0-684-85647-6

Published in 1998, in the waning dusk of Hunter S. Thompson’s career, The Rum Diary is nonetheless a formative work for the American writer/journalist: The first draft of the novel was completed in the early 1960s, as Thompson himself bounced around New York, Puerto Rico and Big Sur. Finally published (and somewhat re-written) in the late nineties, The Rum Diary offers a curious bookend to Thompson’s career. Conceived early but finished late, it offers a parallax view into the writer’s head.

The plot, unsurprisingly, concerns the adventures of an American journalist, Paul Kemp, as he makes his way from New York to San Juan as a small newspaper staffer. There are, as you may expect, a number of complications: Kemp is fascinated by a Caucasian women who flew in on the same plane as he did, and then there’s the free-flowing atmosphere of San Juan during the late fifties, a barely modernized land where rum flows as freely as water.

Let’s be blunt for a moment: If it wasn’t for the fact that this novel was written by Hunter S. Thompson, there wouldn’t be many reasons to read it. The prose is fine, but hardly transcendent and nowhere as explosive as latter-day Thompson. The plotting is generally aimless. The characters aren’t worth caring about. The Rum Diary trades on the reputation of its author as a hard-drinking rabble-rouser: Could this novel be autobiographical? Can it offer clues regarding the rest of Thompson’s work? Does it contain a Rosebud! moment when we suddenly understand the rest of Thompson’s life?

Well, no. In most aspects, it’s a fairly ordinary, aimless novel of a young man trying to survive after drinking too much in a quasi-foreign land. Puerto Rico may be American territory, but Kemp’s life in San Juan is one of an expatriate, congregating with the other English-speaking Caucasians and looking at the native population with a heavy dose of, well, fear and loathing. If the novel has one thing that can stand separate from the reputation of its author, it’s the description of San Juan as a place: Thompson clearly establishes the atmosphere of the time, the peculiarities of an environment so far away from everything else, and the bonds that form before fellow cast-offs. Still, Thompson isn’t particularly kind to Puerto Ricans, and occasional racial slurs make it through the novel. (Raw excerpts of The Rum Diary, before re-writes, can be found in Thompson’s Songs of the Doomed collection: in them, he’s even less kind.)

But it’s far more interesting to compare Kemp and Thompson, or rather Thompson before the legend and Thompson after. The Rum Diary only has a little of the madness to be found in works like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Kemp can be moody and contemplative, whereas latter-day Thompson was belligerent and manic. (Their drugs of choice at the time may have something to do with it.) It’s tempting to go back to Kemp and see there the potential not just for latter-day Thompson, but what would have happened if the younger Thompson had been taken seriously as a writer of fiction, if he had avoided the drugs of late-sixties San Francisco, if he had found himself just as Kemp narrowly seems to find himself at the end of The Rum Diary. But that’s asking a lot of a novel that is, after all, just one that describes a not-so-young-man living it up in an exotic land. Yet that may be the only thing worth asking about a novel where drunken episodes substitute for plotting.

It goes without saying that The Rum Diary‘s first audience should be those who have considerable knowledge and sympathy for Thompson before even cracking open the first page. This is a filler in the grand tapestry of Thompson’s work, and it may even best be read at the end of his bibliography rather than at the beginning; until the first San-Juan-era version of the manuscript is made available, who’s to say how much of what we’re reading from from Thompson-the-novice and what’s from Thompson-the-veteran? His biography, Gonzo, makes it clear that publishing the novel was not a grab at literary respectability as much as it was a way to make money: a more solvent Thompson wouldn’t have allowed the publication of the novel. Doesn’t that perfectly place The Rum Diary in Thompson’s oeuvre?

The Shell Game, Steve Alten

The Shell Game, Steve Alten

Sweetwater Books, 2008, 512 pages, C$33.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-59955-094-7

(Read in translation as La Conspiration de l’Or Noir, City, 507 pages, ISBN 978-2-35288-186-5)

Fiction writer are prone to various work-related illnesses, but one of the most debilitating one is believing in their own genre tropes. There’s a reason why Science Fiction writers are a bunch of hard-core skeptics who are never invited to speak to UFO conferences: The moment they start believing in Little Green Men, their credibility is toast, and their fiction is next. The equivalent for thriller writers is to start believing in their own conspiracies, and it’s just as damaging: Ask anyone about Payne Harrison’s Forbidden Summit (a UFO-conspiracy novel that seemingly destroyed his fiction career) and you’ll see what happens to those who put footnotes saying It’s all true!

Alas, the Bush years have fueled all sorts of paranoid reflexes even in the most reasonable citizens, which may explain a recent influx of deeply grim novels in which stalwart heroes are stuck between bloodthirsty terrorists and a government ready to do even worse things on behalf of national security. Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire is only the best-known of this new breed of novels where the government is just as dangerous as terrorists, and I don’t see this trend going away despite the inauguration of a new administration. We’ll get quite a few novels like Steve Alten’s The Shell Game until the wave crests.

I won’t try to pretend that Alten’s career so far has been irreproachable: For every strong thriller like his debut Meg (about an 18-wheeler-sized shark) or Goliath (about a top-secret submarine that turns sentient), there’s been a succession of insipid Meg sequels that did little to enhance his track record. The Shell Game is a departure for him in many ways. For one thing, it’s published by a boutique publishing house best known for conservative-leaning religious-themed non-fiction and not Alten’s usual top-tier publishers. The reason for that change quickly becomes apparent from the plot summary: In 2012, a man tracking down the murder of his wife discovers a plot by US government operative to detonate a nuclear explosive in a major American city, in order to justify the invasion of Iran.

The parallels with DeMille’s Wild Fire exist, but DeMille doesn’t sink nearly as deep in conspiracy-land as Alten does. Nor does DeMille risk tying his story with real-world figures. Here, though, characters have worked with Karl Rove, have defeated Hilary Clinton for the democratic presidential nomination, are named “McKuin” rather than “McCain”, and cite reams of supporting documentation whenever they meet.

And oh boy do they cite. Pages of citations. With figures, references and reminders of historical events that should be perfectly obvious to the two people having the conversation. The first half of The Shell Game is a dull recitation of a thesis on peak oil and the ways the oil industry has a stranglehold on American society. And if you’re still not satisfied by the in-text infodumps, then you’ll feast on the citations between chapters, the plainly didactic confessions of a Republican operative that are interleaved between segments, not to mention the foreword in which Alten explains that a good chunk of the novel is based on actual verifiable facts, and the afterword which provides citations for some of the novel’s concepts.

Desperate much for validation, ya think? No, it’s not enough for Alten to re-cast, much like DeMille did, the untenable “9/11 was an inside job” ideas into a future plot involving nuclear weapons. He also drags in a bunch of other conspiracy theories, from false vaccines that are actually injections of nanochip trackers to the involvement of the Saudi Arabian government in white slavery to yet another mention of the Promis super-snooper software. But when you start looking at the Alten’s sources at the back of the book, you quickly fall into a maze of unspecified “numerous sources”, untraceable “confidential sources” and a handful of books like Crossing the Rubicon that aren’t exactly unimpeachable. This novel isn’t just steeped in conspiracy theories, it’s so deep in them that they drown the actual story. By the time the actual plot unfolds, late in the novel’s second half, it’s too little too late: An explosive twist happens too late in the story to allow for reasonable dramatic development.

The irony is that from a strictly ideological perspective, I’m probably not that far away from Alten himself: As a French-Canadian, I’m somewhere beyond the left edge of American mainstream politics, and I too have ground my teeth into dust during the eight years of the Bush administration. But as much as I enjoy the storytelling potential of conspiracy theories, I don’t make the mistake of using them as reasonable explanations for what’s going on in the world.

What’s really sad about The Shell Game‘s paranoid reliance on a oil barrel full of conspiracies and dubious sourcing is that it obscures the real strengths of the novel: Alten’s understanding of the ways oil intersects with American politics is fairly sophisticated, as is his explanation of Saudi Arabia’s influence on the US government (white slavery sponsorship excluded). There’s also something intriguing about the triangular nature of the plotting at work here, as the heroes find themselves stuck between warring terrorists and a government willing to sacrifice a lot of pawns. It’s easy to dismiss the paranoia, but it’s a valid sentiment that, especially in its milder form, was shared by a lot of average Americans during Bush’s second mandate. Still, The Shell Game does itself no favors by burying itself in sources: in begging for validation, it shoots itself in the foot, whereas a wilder approach leaving more space for fiction wouldn’t have invited so much scrutiny. (No one asks Matthew Reilly for sources, for instance.) From a storytelling viewpoint, a less discursive novel also would have avoided the interminable infodumping that kills The Shell Game early on.

In interviews promoting The Shell Game, Alten confesses that his novel has a didactic intent, but stops short of professing any belief in the 9/11 conspiracy theories. If there’s any hope left for Alten’s next few novels, it’s that thin edge of skepticism. The last thing we need is another author who starts believing his own fiction.

[Also: Francophones should be wary of reading The Shell Game in translation: While La Conspiration de l’Or Noir (which back-translates in “The Black Gold Conspiracy”) is published by first-tier French publishing house City and probably enjoys better distribution in French-Canada than its English-language original, it is also riddled with numerous mistakes that further damage its credibility. Clinton’s famous “The economy, stupid” is translated as “L’économie, c’est idiot” [P. 133: “The economy, it’s stupid”] while an awkward sentence early i
n Chapter 36 makes it look as if the U.S. Bank Tower is the tallest building in North America. Worse yet: the translation introduces small errors of fact, in which a democratic candidate is called a “sénateur républicain” [Chapter 26] and the chemical attack on Halabja is described as having occurred in 1998 rather than 1988. [Chapter 20] Reader beware…]

Goddess for Hire, Sonia Singh

Goddess for Hire, Sonia Singh

Avon Trade, 2004, 305 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-059036-X

Don’t tell anyone (especially not you, Google), but I’m not above reading some romantic fiction from time to time. That’s right: In between my hard Science Fiction and my tough technothrillers, I can find a place for contemporary women’s fiction. Here’s the even bigger secret I want you to keep: Most of the time, romance is a lot more fun to read that the pretentious twaddle that traditionally passes for leading-edge SF. Romance authors, bless their comic sensibilities, usually have a pretty good of what they’re writing, and who they’re writing for.

And even when it’s not completely successful, competent romance is almost impossible to hate.

Take, for instance, Sonia Singh’s debut Goddess for Hire. Not content to appropriate the tone of contemporary young urban female romance for use in an Indo-American family context, it also brings in elements of superhero fantasy by giving magical superpowers and a sword to the narrator, transforming her into a modern reincarnation of Hindu goddess Kali. That’s a lot of baggage to cram in a 300-page book, even when you don’t discuss the tall dark handsome love interest, the death threats against the new goddess or the less-than-helpful guru with an insatiable thirst for Coca-Cola.

The strains that the fantasy elements place on the structure of a light-hearted romance are obvious early on: Since this is a nice novel, our narrator can’t indulge too much in the whole “goddess of death” personae, and ends up using her sword for strictly non-lethal purposes. (Somehow, I don’t think swords were ever considered primarily non-lethal, but then I don’t live in California.) Never mind that contemporary superhero fiction quickly leads to questions about vigilante justice, unavoidable violence in dealing with hardened criminals or the price that heroes have to pay: These questions are all neatly, almost blatantly side-stepped in the pursuit of a comic novel. And don’t expect sparks from the romantic side of the story either: the Love Interest is telegraphed early on and is achieved relatively easy as the plot’s multiple narrative strands fight unsatisfactorily to a standstill.

If “chick-lit” is supposed to be about young urban female professionals, Goddess for Hire‘s narrator only seems to be a professional in the art of not working. At first and even second glance, Maya Mehra isn’t much of a character: Thirty-something, jobless, shopaholic, superficial and under-achieving (“of all the ninety-seven adult members of the Mehra clan spread throughout the United States, ninety-six are doctors, the sole exception being your truly.” [P.4]), she doesn’t seem like much of a catch or a heroine until she gets in touch with her inner goddess –and even after she does, don’t expect much inner development as she enjoys the attention and does practically nothing to earn whatever comes her way. (This is one of the few novels where I would have liked to sit down with the male romantic interest and ask “Seriously, what do you see in her?”) Frankly, a story about the rest of Maya’s family may have been more fun to read.

But comedy can redeem a number of flaws, even when they concern the teller of the tale: Singh’s narration is just hip and sassy enough to make the novel work well despite everything, and her use of Indian-American elements isn’t just icing on a conventional novel: Maya’s problems and opportunities stem from her particular heritage, and add a lot to what could have otherwise been a bland (and far less likable) novel despite what seems to be quite a bit of stereotyping. It’s a fast and fun read, which is all I ask from comic romances. It’s just when the novel begs to be considered as something else that the strains appear. But for those who are willing to be indulgent, this is a breeze. It’s not hard to imagine the target audience for this book, and how it aims for quite a bit of wish-fulfillment in reaching that audience. On some level, you have to admire that kind of dedication. Much like its heroine, you may not completely respect Goddess for Hire the day after, but it’s utterly charming throughout. Which is still a lot more than I can say about the other stuff I read.

[February 2009: As much as I wanted to love Sonia Singh’s Bollywood Confidential, her follow-up novel left me unsatisfied. As the story of an California-born Indian actress going to Bombay/Mumbai in the hope of a star-making turn in a Bollywood film, it’s already a bit more culturally interesting than the L.A.-based Goddess for Hire. Unfortunately, the look at India or the Bollywood industry is shallow, and the ordinary romance of the plot does little to redeem matters. Characterization doesn’t go much beyond stereotyping, and the painfully obvious plotting doesn’t add much. The worst moment of the novel, sadly enough, comes near the end with a completely unbelievable speech that diminishes the heroine. (The choice of writing the story in third-person POV also takes away the sassy narration that made Goddess for Hire such an endearing read despite its other problems.) This being said, there are a few better moments here and there as the heroine discovers the many facets of Mumbai, and Singh does show us a few promising hooks on which a far more interesting story could have been hung. But the end result is barely worth more than a shrug. Too bad; I really hoped for more.]

The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto, Ed. Nate Garrelts

The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto, Ed. Nate Garrelts

McFarland, 2006, 256 pages, US$35.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-7864-2822-9

Yes, it’s true: I dearly love the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series of videogames. I have been playing them on PC since the demo of the first game, and they’re the only series that can get me to show up in stores on their release date. But I love them for more than the automobile mayhem and the top-notch storytelling: They’re among the most brilliant virtual experiences on the civilian market, and I have come to look forward to new GTAs as fondly as real-world trips to other cities. And that’s without counting the subversive satirical content, the ways the series meshes gameplay with storytelling, or the ramifications of the series free-form playing over the realism/gameplay balance.

It turns out that I’m hardly the only person to enjoy seriously thinking about GTA. I didn’t know about The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto before getting in by mail as a Christmas gift, but it quickly shot up to the top of my pile of books to read: A collection of 14 critical essays about the series and its relationship with contemporary society, it’s a book that could have been written just for me.

The first thing one notices about Nate Garrelts’ anthology from a quick flip through the book is how important the Hot Coffee controversy of early 2005 has turned out to be in defining GTA as a serious subject for study. The public furor over a relatively tame sex mini-game hidden in the source code of the application turned out to mark an important turning point in the evolution of video games, argue several of the authors: By clearly forcing outsiders to see GTA: San Andreas as an adult gaming experience rather than get another game “for the kids”, the Hot Coffee episode signaled a belated turning point in gaming. It also brought a lot of academic attention to the significance of the series, partly leading to this essay collection.

But don’t let your eyes glaze over the prospect of academics writing about video games: One of the greatest strength of this collection is how nearly every essay seems to have been written by a gamer-turned academic, with obvious benefits for the accessibility of the content. Despite a few hermetic pieces toward the end of the book, each essay here can be read without too much knowledge of academic jargon (although, as is usually the case, some sympathy for the way pop culture is formally dissected can be useful in shaping one’s approach to the essays.) If you’re expecting a denunciation of the series, you’re also up for a surprise: all the essays here have a strong sympathy toward GTA, even when pointing out the failings of the series so far.

In fact, some of the most interesting material concerns the links between GTA and the rest of society at large. GTA: San Andreas (GTA:SA) was particularly interesting in that, for the first time, an audience predominantly composed of young white suburban men could live vicariously as a black ghetto hero trying to fight against a corrupt system. This, suggest some authors, may not have been coincidental to the controversy surrounding the game. Other good moments come when authors dissect GTA:SA’s politics as it briefly tackles US foreign policy (the same “Mike Torrino” moments are cited in two successive essays) or the racial ramifications of the game’s storyline, through both easy stereotyping and more textured characterization. Other installments consider GTA’s satirical radio stations, and how they become a way to criticize American society. (Though few essays highlight the fact that GTA comes from an overseas developer.) Several essays suggest new and exciting directions in which future GTA installments could evolve.

On the other hand, there are a few disappointments. One of my least favorite aspects of the series has been the misogyny of its universe, and there’s preciously little commentary on this issue here. Meanwhile, the last few essays seem to be wasting time talking about “the semiotic self” and “narrative agency”, dragging the reader kicking and screaming in dull analytical pastures.

Still, there’s usually something interesting to be learned even when the essays get deep in academic references. One of my favorite essays in the book, “The subversive Carnival of GTA:SA”, stretches the “game-as-carnival” metaphor until it snaps, but not before presenting an intriguing look at how games are played. Two other essays about urban aesthetics and experiencing place managed to articulate a number of things I felt after playing GTA heavily, then visiting the cities in which they were based.

I’m still amazed that despite a few years of GTA fandom, I still hadn’t learned about this book until recently. But that may be more a problem with my information sources (let’s just say that gaming blogs aren’t big on serious critical analysis) than with the book itself: The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto is a perfect choice for every GTA gamer with more than half a brain to bear on the issues raised by the games. As gaming become a bigger part of culture (keeping in mind that Grand Theft Auto IV‘s first week of release saw sales bigger than the opening weekend for The Dark Knight) and comments that culture more aggressively, there will be more and more of a place for critical analyses and serious thought about those games. GTA may be the first gaming series to earn that kind of attention, but there will be many more in the future.

[January 2009: Published in 2006, The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto can obviously only comment on the series up to and including Graft Theft Auto: San Andreas, completely missing out on 2008’s GTAIV. But one of the best compliments one can pay to Nate Garrelts’ anthology is that its points are reinforced rather than undermined by GTAIV: The series has evolved but not changed dramatically in this latest installment, although Rockstar’s obvious pursuit of “realism” can be seen as a conscious reaction to embrace the “mature gaming” reputation earned in the wake of the “Hot Coffee” episode. In other ways, it’s sad to see that GTAIV has not managed to push the series in other and more subversive directions: There’s still a strong disconnect between the game’s liberal politics and its misogyny, and the lack of scope sabotages some of the social gains made during GTA:SA. On the other hand, GTAIV’s relentless realism introduces new questions about the balance between realism and gameplay that could be pursued if ever McFarland pursues a sequel to this critical anthology.]

Absolute Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Absolute Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

DC Comics, 1987 (2005 revision), 464 pages, C$86.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-4012-0713-7

If all goes well, 2009 is going to be the year of Watchmen. Twenty-two years after its groundbreaking 12-issues 1986-1987 run, this graphic novel classic is finally coming to the big screen, and everyone who has thus far managed to avoid it soon won’t have any excuse for picking it up.

I won’t be among those. In the past fifteen years, I’ve read Watchmen several times, in two languages and three different editions. It was one of the first graphic novels I ever owned, and it’s still one of the best. With the movie coming out and the holiday sales around me, I decided to be the ultimate fanboy, and finally get myself a copy of the ultimate, no-expense-spared, re-colored Absolute Watchmen, even if it would prove to be one of my costliest purchases of the year. What can I say; at some point, it’s good to admit being a fan.

It’s even better when considering what one gets from the Absolute Watchmen package: Not only the graphic novel itself, but a handsome full-page slip-cased hardcover edition, along with notes regarding the making and impact of the series, glimpses at the script and miscellaneous bonus artwork. As an extra hefty bonus, the entire series has been re-colored, keeping the old-school style but with the precision of the latest digital technology. (This re-colored version has been kept as the source of the latest reprints of the book, even in cheap paperback editions.) If you’re a real fan with some money to spare, this Absolute Edition is likely to remain the definitive edition of the book for a while longer.

As for the graphic novel itself, well, it’s still just as good as it ever was. A blend of increasingly-alternate history (now that the story’s 1985 seems farther away than ever before, Watchmen is slowly gaining a patina of historical fiction), superhero-fiction, literary sensibilities, action and crackling dialogue, Watchmen marks the turning point of an era in graphic storytelling. It’s the end of the old-school superhero tradition and the “nine-panel grid” era and the beginning of the graphic novels movement and ambitious new thematic vistas for superheroes. The skill in constructing the series, issue by issue, page by page, is still inspiring after all those years. The references, allusions, symbolism, character moments and background complexities of it all remain the standard by which other comparable work is judged. It may not be perfect, but it’s close.

No, the movie won’t be as good: Reading the comics, it’s striking how what the most impressive thing about Watchmen is how fully it exploits the peculiarities of its format, from the nine-panel grid to the type of transition and interleaving that are only possible with comics. Despite the film-makers’ best intentions, I doubt that they’ll do half as well.

But no matter: Regardless of how the movie turns out, Watchmen-the-book is going to stay on the shelves, ready for another generation of readers. As for me, I’ve found my favorite edition of the story, and that’s the one that’s going to stay in my library until I get an itch to re-read the story again. Most probably moments after seeing the movie’s end credits.

[January 2009: Watchmen already selling like hotcakes, the biggest literary movie tie-in product is a companion book called Watching the Watchmen, co-written by the series’ artist Dave Gibbons. The bulk of the book is a series of sketches for the series, straight from Gibbons’ archives. But the most interesting things about Watching the Watchmen are scattered in-between the sketches, as Gibbons writes about the process of creating Watchmen, and its impact. It’s interesting, but hardly earth-shattering: For anyone who’s less than a convinced fan of the series, there’s nothing truly essential about this companion book, especially if you have already read the back pages of Absolute Watchmen. It may be a cool gift, or an extravagant indulgence, but otherwise I’d recommend investing in a copy of the definitive absolute edition.]

Where The Buffalo Roam (1980)

Where The Buffalo Roam (1980)

(On DVD, January 2009) There are many ways of portraying the legend of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and I suppose that making him the anarchic spirit in the middle of an episodic comedy is just as good as another. But what have looked like a great idea nearly thirty years ago doesn’t seem quite so successful today: Where The Buffalo Roam doesn’t have the right pacing for a comedy, and seems to place far too much confidence in the viewers’ knowledge of Thompson’s antics to fully establish itself on its own merits. Thompson (played by Bill Murray, sometimes unrecognizable under the Thompson mystique) becomes as side-character in his own movie, most often playing a Tasmanian devil wreaking havoc on the uptight men and women of the narrative. But even that becomes a problem when the film tries to get some sympathy from the viewer, setting up a conflict between two friends that seem incapable of living in the rest of the world. Those with a good knowledge of Thompson’s checkered history will recognize a number of episodes from his best years, although the heroic amount of mind-altering substances consumed on-screen distracts from the fact that Thompson could be a truly kick-ass writer if he set his mind to it. Today, the film becomes a footnote for fans of either Murray or Thompson, but its interest remains limited to a curio, not a particularly enjoyable film.

(Second viewing, on DVD, September 2009) Months and a few dozen books by/about Thompson later, the movie hasn’t improved at all: It’s a disjointed, unfunny, unfaithful mess. The dramatic arc between Thompson and “Lazlo” never makes sense (since to do so, Thompson would have to become the responsible one), and Thompson’s character never earns any sympathy through his actions: Where The Buffalo Roam thinks it’s enough just to say “you squares don’t get it, man”. On the other hand, Thompson fans will have a moderate amount of fun spotting the references to his history or bibliography, telling when separate incidents are conflated, or when particular quirks of the writer are used for a few seconds. This being said, it’s a meager return for a rather poor film: There’s no doubt that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remains the best Thompson film yet.

Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990)

(Third viewing, On DVD, January 2009) I hadn’t seen this film in a while, and so was pleasantly surprised to find that it had appreciated in the meantime. Oh, sure, it’s easy to bash the film’s lousy physics, too-gory violence and often-convenient plotting. But there’s a lot to admire in the twists and turns of the generally strong plot, with the multiple layers of questions regarding the events’ reality. (I recall being quietly horrified, in the early nineties, upon learning of the “it was all a dream” interpretation. Now it’s one of my favorite things about the entire film.) SF-wise, it may still be pretty basic stuff, but it’s better than most of what we’ve seen on the big screen for the past few years. Even the special effects generally hold up to scrutiny, which is remarkable for one of the last big analog effects movie before digital compositing and CGI animation. Schwarzenegger is great in the lead role, Rachel Ticotin is cute and even Sharon Stone is remarkable in a pre-Basic Instinct turn that suggests a different career path for her. The DVD “special edition” has an entertaining 2001 commentary track with director Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger, plus a smattering of documentary features that are starting to show their ages, DVD-wise.

Roman Holiday (1953)

Roman Holiday (1953)

(On DVD, January 2009) This romantic fable about a princess finding temporary romance in the arms of an American journalist would be unremarkable if it wasn’t for a few crucial elements. Good use of Roman locations is one of them (unlike many movies of its time, Roman Holiday has a generous amount of material shot on location), but the real star of the film is and will remain Audrey Hepburn in her first screen role: even with little knowledge of her work, it’s hard to watch the film and avoid being charmed by her first major role. She went on to win herself an Oscar (cementing this film’s pedigree), but the performance itself is mesmerizing. A strong performance by Gregory Peck as the lead actor doesn’t hurt, and neither does a capable script that manages to write itself in a satisfying bittersweet corner. The pacing is a bit slack by modern standards, but as a time capsule of studio film-making in the early fifties, it’s a worthwhile choice.

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

(On DVD, January 2009) As the saying goes, this may not be good, but it’s certainly interesting: In a dystopian future where organ transplants have become the norm, an all-controlling company is wracked by succession drama as their organ repossession operative has family problems of his own. Hybridized from many genres, Repo doesn’t work if considered from the usual perspectives: As Science Fiction, it’s implausible, simplistic and phantasmagorical. As horror, it low-balls the gore and is seldom scary. As a musical, it stumbles with its on-the-nose lyrics and forgettable melodies. As a comedy, well, it’s more peculiar than amusing, most of its humor value coming from strange things blended together. (After all, how many movies feature Paris Hilton in a singing sequence in which her face keeps falling off? That’s some quality post-modernism right there.) Alas, most of the film’s first half is more odd than satisfying as the screenwriters and lyricists seem unable to find their groove. It’s only in the film’s second half that some of the musical numbers seem to click and hold the rest of the film together. Few of the actors hold their own musically (Sarah Brightman is the obvious exception), but that doesn’t matter as much as you think, because more than trying to be a musical, there’s a sense that Repo really loves being odd, and that it doesn’t care about large audiences. The path from this attitude to a cult film is clear, which makes the film doubly difficult to criticize: Even when it’s doing its own thing, someone else, somewhere, is probably loving it. Until then, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to see a trash horror musical float up alongside bouncier fare such as Mamma Mia! and Dreamgirls, targeting another audience and hopefully breaking down barriers for other experiments of the type.

Without Fail, Lee Child

Without Fail, Lee Child

Jove, 2002 (2003 reprint), 401 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-13528-3

Every Jack Reacher adventure is slightly different, and so it is that Without Fail‘s distinction is to put Reacher in a situation that’s closer to official power than ever before. Having left behind the small Texas towns of Echo Burning, he finds himself on the East coast, hired by the US Secret Service to find ways to assassinate the Vice-President-elect of the United States. Or rather, to find ways in which the VP could be assassinated so that it doesn’t actually happen. Reacher is good at that; in fact, he’s pretty good at anything a thriller requires from a protagonist.

This being said, it’s a bit of a stretch for involve perennial loner/drifter Jack Reacher into the middle of official operations. So Child reaches way back in Reacher’s history to create a link between Reacher, his estranged brother (killed back in Killing Floor, the first book of the series) and the brother’s ex-girlfriend, now in charge of the Vice President’s security details for the US Secret Service. It’s a tenuous connection, but it almost doesn’t qualify as a coincidence unlike a few of the series’ preposterous setups so far.

Fortunately, this weakness soon becomes irrelevant once the action starts. The would-be assassins that are gunning for the vice president are kind enough to call their shots, providing plenty of investigative opportunities for Reacher and the Secret Service. Although the story doesn’t contain quite the number of conceptual twists and turns that other Reacher novels have managed, it does have a surprising development midway through, and manage to turn the initial expectations on their head: As it often happens when Reacher is around, the motivations are often more personal than political, even in assassinating a vice president.

If the twists are muted down, that’s thankfully not the case for the series’ attention to procedural detail: As usual, Reacher knows a lot about everything and a lot of this knowledge proves essential when tracking down suspects, whether it’s penetrating security protection or figuring out how a sensitive message was placed on a desk under constant video surveillance. To those procedural details, Child adds a lot of information regarding the protection of VIPs: The United States Secret Service has a thankless job when it comes to protecting its charges, but the details of how it tries to do so are almost endlessly fascinating.

In Reacher’s world, some things don’t change no matter the adventures, and so he once again finds himself romantically entangled with a female character. What’s slightly different is her connection to Reacher, and the reasons why she falls in love with him. Also slightly different is the fact that Reacher spends a good chunk of Without Fail working with a partner —someone who can actually give him some serious competition in the usual skills required to track down his opponents. What this means for future installments of the series can only be guessed at.

But Without Fail‘s overall success isn’t something left to guesswork: While it won’t stand out from the series as a particularly strong entry (there’s something amusing at the on-the-nose symbolism of the number of suits that Reacher has to wear during the novel), it does play with the formula a bit, and delivers the expected clean prose, strong plotting and tough-guy action we’ve come to expect from Jack Reacher. For those who wishes they could see Reacher in a suit with some official status, it’s a welcome entry, and few fans will be disappointed.

Man On Wire (2008)

Man On Wire (2008)

(On DVD, January 2009) Telling the story of a tightrope walker’s odyssey to walk between the World Trade Towers in 1974, Man On Wire combines humor, suspense, archival material, dramatic re-creation and talking heads in order to give life to its subject. Left unsaid through it all is the sobering thought that the WTC is gone, but it’s hard not to feel that weight on the film as is portrays the towers as pretext to something noble. As a story, Philippe Petit’s daredevil act is unlikely to the point of preposterousness, an impression that is further reinforced by the incredible incidents and setbacks met along the way. Reality, obviously, can be stranger than fiction. Fiction there is, alas, in the use of actors to re-create and simulate the events of 1974 as the original protagonists tell the story in voice-over and shot footage. It all wraps up in an unusually satisfying documentary, one that hits dramatic points as surely as fiction does.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Frost/Nixon (2008)

(In theaters, January 2009) What an odd and fascinating film. Staging a series of conversations as if they were confrontations, Frost/Nixon is quiet without being dull, and relatively demanding in the knowledge is presumes from its audience. A number of the film’s more amusing lines, for instance, come from catching ex-president Richard Nixon saying things at odds with his behavior during the Watergate events: those without a certain knowledge of the time may not fully appreciate those moments. But even for younger viewers, Frost/Nixon spends enough time introducing its subject that most of the dramatic importance of the interviews between Nixon and journalist Frost is obvious early on. It’s also hard to avoid thinking about the parallels between the Nixon and Bush administrations, and to wonder if ever there will be a television interview to replace “the trial that he deserved”. While Frank Langella’s “Richard Nixon” doesn’t really look like the original, his portrayal of the man as a canny opponent is something of a revelation to those raised on thirty years of caricatures. The film is too dramatically enhanced by pseudo-interviews and artificial dramatic moments to be fully credible, and places far too much importance on its original subject, but that’s not really a serious problem for a film that does most the rest right, from good dialogue to lively pacing. Those who were waiting for intelligent adult cinema to come back to cineplexes may want to have a look at this one.

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Jann S. Wenner & Corey Seymour

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Jann S. Wenner & Corey Seymour

Back Bay Books, 2007, 467 pages, C$17.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-316-00528-9

Some will be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of writer/journalist Hunter S. Thompson. After all, there’s no comparing our prose styles, and I couldn’t be farther away from Thompson on the drinking/drugs/bad-behavior spectrum. (I make straight-edgers look like boozy degenerates.) But what keeps me coming back to Thompson’s work is his strong prose and the strength of the convictions that shine through his articles. For most people, though, Thompson-the-writer remains a second to Thompson-the-man, still the stuff of legend decades after his best work and his worst excesses.

It took a chance theater viewing of the documentary GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON to rekindle my interest in Thompson’s work: For years, I accumulated his books but never committed to a chronological read-through. Well, no more: This is the year of the Thompson, and there’s no better way to begin than by a look at the man, the life and the legend with Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour’s oral biography Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson. (The movie is arguably adapted from the book, but both stand as different works in their own right. The midium is the message, and so the film doesn’t offer the depth of the book, while the book doesn’t have the archival material showing Thompson at work or play.)

Oral biographies are basically snippets of personal recollections artfully edited in a coherent whole. It allows for many descriptions from different perspectives, sometimes strengthening the theme, sometimes contradicting it. Given Thompson’s legendary excesses, an oral biography is just about the only way to do him justice, as only the accumulation of first-hand witnesses can convince us

Like most biographies, this one starts at the beginning –Hunter’s troubled childhood, running around making trouble until his arrest and expeditious referral to the army in lieu of incarceration. The tone having been set early, the rest follows almost naturally: the wild early years in New York, Puerto Rico and San Francisco, followed by the breakthrough success of Hell’s Angels, the Aspen sheriff race that brought him to the attention of Rolling Stones magazine, then the two Fear and Loathing books about Las Vegas and the Campaign trail ’72. After that, Thompson-the-man recedes and makes way for Thompson-the-legend: As the contributors allude to, Hunter took comfort in living the myth that he and others had created for himself. Alas, it made him even more uncontrollable and indisciplined. His work, not so coincidentally, also began to slide after that point: The testimony of the participants makes it clear that it took heroic efforts to bring a Thompson piece to print, but left unsaid is how much of Thompson’s published work really owes to the editors who put everything together at the other end of Thompson’s crises, substance abuse and unwillingness to act as a professional.

This dovetails nicely into the foremost lesson of this biography: Thompson was a nightmare to live with. The same hard drinking, copious substance abuse, pranking and womanizing that made Thompson-the-legend so impressive also made Thompson-the-man impossible to tolerate on a daily basis. Even close friends have stories of awful episodes. The accumulation of such incidents, contribution after contribution, also make it clear that Thompson’s eccentricities were a lifestyle. The book’s second half, once past the early seventies, make it hard to avoid thinking that Thompson could have, should have been a far more active participant in American culture if it wasn’t for his strong streak of self-destruction. (There’s something blackly humorous in reading a doctor’s opinion that “Hunter had a superhuman liver.” [P.396]) For him, the end came ingloriously by way of self-inflicted gunshot in 2005.

As a tribute to Thompson, Gonzo is essential: It shows that the legend was based on something real, but never sugarcoats the price that Thompson and his friends paid for his excesses. The worst thing that one can say about the book is that it’s too short (“Freak Power” is only mentioned twice, for instance). Thompson may have the last laugh over his biographers, having lived a life too rich to be contained between two covers.

[March 2009: After binging on several more Hunter S. Thompson biographies, I have a slightly better perspective on the book: Gonzo may not be the best in-depth Thompson biography (for that, I would recommend William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist) but it deepens our understanding of Thompson in ways that are difficult to explain in a straight biography: By allowing people to tell stories about Thompson, Gonzo strengthens the legend, but also relays the impact of the legend on others. On the other hand, The lack of a unified thread can also be a problem at times; as I read other biographies, I found places where Gonzo skipped over important events, and failed to connect them with others. It may be best read as a companion to a more conventional biography, as a way to extend the Thompson experience.]

Disaster Movie (2008)

Disaster Movie (2008)

(On DVD, January 2009) The Friedberg/Seltzer writing/directing duo is well on its way to the Comedy Hall of Fame in that everything they’ve done is almost purposefully unfunny. With a track record that spans everything from Date Movie to Epic Movie, the only reason to see their films is to check if they’re still just as painfully dull as the last time. Most of Disaster Movie is reassuringly awful, showing no comedic talent whatsoever, and even less writing/directing skills. They still think that a reference equals a laugh, that abusive violence is always funny and that vulgarity is the height of subversion. They also don’t have a clue about pacing, or when a joke is best left alone. Clearly, the under-12 crowd has lower standards than the rest of us. Still, there are occasional signs of life in Disaster Movie, and they usually occur whenever Friedberg/Seltzer reach away from their usual shtick: The parodies of Juno and Enchanted‘s Princess work about half the time because the characters do more than beg for recognition by offering genuine criticism of the originals. But trying to salvage something out of this mess is a bit desperate, because the lame gags outnumber the tolerable ones by about ten to one. It’s probably best to skip this film, and even preferable to avoid thinking about why Friedberg/Seltzer are still getting work in Hollywood after a career as terrible as theirs.

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995)

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995)

(On DVD, January 2009) It turns out that I had avoided this film for nearly fifteen years for a good reason: It’s really not very good. The first few minutes are the worst, as they show everything that can go wrong in a comedy sequel that believes its own hype without understanding why the first film was a hit. We get the mannerisms, the same catchphrases, the goofy faces, but little of Ventura’s skill or a sense that the quirks are coming from the same core: it’s all surface imitation without any depth, and it’s the difference between spending 90 minutes with a fascinating person, and knowing them for a week and finding out that they constantly recycle the same jokes. Fortunately, things improve a little bit in the film’s second half, what with a too-short early role for Sophie Okonedo, more complex plotting and some original comedy. Still, there isn’t much here to recommend, especially for those who liked the first film.