The International (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The International</strong> (2009)

(In theaters, February 2009) Such is the randomness of filmmaking: Five month’s worth can make all the difference between banks-as-invincible-entities and banks-as-bailout-beggars. Which is unfortunate, because a thriller based on the idea of a bank going rogue and severely punishing anyone looking into it isn’t necessarily bad (heck, it even happened with BCCI, which shares a suspicious number of letters with this film’s IBBC), and The International is as it bests when it realistically grapples with how to expose international money-for-weapons schemes. Clive Owen is irreproachable as the rumpled hero in the middle of it all, but one can’t say the same thing about a film that doesn’t quite know what to make of itself. Rumors of extensive re-shoots may explain the abrupt and inconsequential action sequences, including a spectacular-but-nonsensical shootout at the Guggenheim museum. At least the rest of the film offers a few real-life visual thrills as it hops between Europe and New York, delivering a procedural thriller whose flaws don’t quite match its strengths. A few ideas are wasted, and the conclusion is a bit of a downer. It all makes up for a middle-of-the-road thriller, promising but ultimately too scattered to be efficient. It may be respectable for what it tries to achieve, but sadly it doesn’t seem determined to get there.

Final Destination 3 (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Final Destination 3</strong> (2006)

(On DVD, February 2009) You would think that a teen horror series’ third installment would have sucked all of the thematic enjoyment of the premise, leaving little but a string of cheap kills and generic characters. And you would be right, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Final Destination 3 is a complete waste of time. Despite the overly familiar nihilism of the premise (which was charming in the first film, but meaningless by the third one), the set-pieces of the film are conceived with a certain degree of ingenious cleverness, and the direction isn’t completely incompetent. There is a bit of nudity to redeem the over-the-top gore, and the writers have a better-than-average understanding of the cat-and-mouse game between the audience and the movie that the series has set up for itself. (The film is strong in Rube-Goldbergian machineries of death, and they generally work more surprisingly than anyone would expect) Don’t go into this film expecting more than a standard teen horror gore-fest and you’ll be fine. This isn’t anywhere near the original, but it sustains at least a bit of attention. The 2-discs DVD edition has a pretty nice array of features, from a cute animation short on everyday dangers to a self-aware discussion of “Dead Teenager Movies” to an excellent making-of documentary that is far too good and entertaining for the kind of film this is: it’s actually liable to make you fonder of the film than you’d think.

Rolling Thunder, John Varley

<em class="BookTitle">Rolling Thunder</em>, John Varley

Ace, 2008, 344 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01563-4

Varley fans who complained about Red Thunder and Red Lightning aren’t likely to feel much better after reading Rolling Thunder, the newest installment in a series that seems intent on showing how ordinary the author has become. It’s not a terrible novel, but it’s intensely familiar, leads to a conclusion that seems pasted from Varley’s previous work, and it survives only thanks to Varley’s usual gift for compelling narration.

A generation removed from Red Lightning, Rolling Thunder‘s narrator is one Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond, daughter of the previous book’s Ray. As the novel begins, she’s stuck on Earth, serving her time in the Martian Navy by acting as an immigration officer. It’s been a few years since the Martian Revolution of the previous volume, and Earth hasn’t quite adjusted to the change. The situation around the world is worse than ever, in part thanks to the disaster descriped in the previous novel, but Mars isn’t ready to let everyone immigrate en masse.

When Podkayne’s great-grandmother is suddenly scheduled for bubble stasis for medical reasons, it’s a mandatory ride home and family reunion for her, then a reassignment to the entertainment division of the Mars Navy where she becomes a jazz singer. (Don’t worry: she justifies why the music she sings is all made out of classic numbers. As usual with writers of Varley’s generation, the future doesn’t belong to pop music —or anything made after the sixties.) A tour to Jupiter’s Moons doesn’t go as planned, though, and the consequences are dire both for Podkayne and for the human race.

Like its predecessors, Rolling Thunder is grossly chopped into two relatively independent sections, separated by time. A disaster leaves Podkayne unchanged, but affects everyone else’s perception of her, with dangerous results for the young woman. It all leads to a conclusion that seems to borrow equally from The Ophiuchi Hotline and Steel Beach.

Also like its predecessors, the saving grace of Rolling Thunder isn’t to be found in its overarching plot, but in its moments or line-by-line narration. The homages to Heinlein are just as blatant as in the previous books, but the clear-voiced narration holds up things better than you’d expect, with lengthy yet appealing digressions on how things are done at that time. This being said, I wonder if Heinlein could have pulled off the dark ending of this novel, in which the characters basically run far far away in order to avoid the apocalypse threatening the rest of humanity.

As a science-fiction novel, it’s a minor work. It’s even more disappointing coming from Varley, although none of the three books in its series have been particularly impressive. With a bit of effort, this could have been a novella: the plot density is laughable, especially when the bulk of the novel seems to be Podkayne telling us about her day-to-day life.

If readers have made it thus far in the series, they might as well keep going: It’s an amiable entry in the series and the fact that it’s slight and negligible doesn’t make it less than entertaining. What’s more, it’s a stepping stone to what Varley says is the fourth and final tome in the series, Dark Lightning, to be written and published in a few more years. Not that we’re in any hurry.

It’s a sign of the novel’s minor impact that it’s not particularly interesting to dissect or even comment: If Varley’s your thing, this will do while you await for his next novel. But there’s no denying that Varley’s best works seem more and more distant.

Defiance (2008)

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

(In theaters, February 2009) In time, no single aspect of World War 2 won’t be turned into a movie, and this little-know story of resistance in the Polish backwoods is often more interesting than you’d expect. When small-time bandits turn their survival skills to the protection of Jewish refugees, the film becomes an amalgam of war drama, small-scale action and survival Robinsonade. Daniel Craig is effective in the lead role, lending his increasing Bondish gravitas to a film that sorely needs it. Elsewhere, the heavy hand of Hollywood movie-making can be seen rewriting history for maximum thrills (such as a tank battle with a nick-of-time rescue) and buffing up small characters into exposition mouthpieces. Defiance seldom shies away from underscoring whatever mood the film wants audiences to feel, and the result often ends up feeling forced. The interplay between the various groups involved in the story (Nazis, sympathizers, Polish-Jewish elders, Russian resistance, etc.) merely hints at the complexity of the true story. But even discounting the manipulation, Defiance still manages to feel like solid entertainment with a dash of history: Edward Zwick is comfortable with historical dramas, and the result is not too unpleasant once you stop identifying with the horrid conditions in which the characters spend most of the film. There are worse films out there, even in the limited “footnotes of WW2” sub-genre.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button</strong> (2008)

(In theaters, February 2009) Every crop of Oscars contenders includes overlong weepy dramas, and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is 2008’s entry in the sweepstakes. Based around the fantastical premise of a man aging backwards, the film feels free to explore issues about youth, aging, living and dying. With intentions like those, you won’t be surprised to find out that the end of the story is solid weeping time, the film sparing no effort in lining up every single piece of symbolism it has accumulated during its considerable length. From the first few moments, it’s obvious that this film goes from scope and length rather than any single conception of narrative efficiency: The scenes drag on with unrelenting digressions, bit players, slow accents and separate set-pieces. This is a life epic told as watered-down fable (Fans of Big Fish will find something familiar in Benjamin Button‘s off-beat sweep through the twentieth century), a mode that will charm certain viewers and leave others riffing on the melodramatic weight of the film’s every moments. For some, the irony will be that the film comes from director David Fincher almost ten years after the hyper-aggressive Fight Club: the technical polish of the film is just as considerable, but the narrative style is almost half as dense. There’s something admirable in the way the film so obviously reaches for tears in its final thirty seconds, even when the manipulation is all perfectly obvious. Acting-wise, there’s little to say except for Brad Pitt’s measured performance through the ages, and the able supporting work from a diverse cast. Don’t be surprised that the film plays better at home, with ample leisure time, than in the cramped seats of a movie theater.

Coraline (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Coraline</strong> (2009)

(In theaters, February 2009) There are two big reasons why this film is worth seeing, but the most obvious one is the visual polish of the piece, which blends flawless stop-motion animation with computer-generated enhancements and, if you’re lucky or rich, can even be experienced in showy 3D. Yes, the 3D thing is a gimmick: There are a number of shots in the film that make little sense in 2D, although director Henry Selick is smart enough to avoid the old unsubtle poke-the-audience-in-the-eye shtick. 3D aside, though, Coraline is a gorgeous piece of visual imagination, with enough spectacular design to keep you coming back to the film even on a 2D screen. That, in large part, is due to the second big reason why you should see Coraline: The quality of Neil Gaiman’s oddball imagination, which (despite a few changes from the original novella) powers the unusual fantastic elements of the story. It’s familiar without quite being like anything else seen before, and this originality is what separates it from so many run-of-the-mill juvenile fantasies. It’s not an unimpeachable film (dig a bit, and plenty of vexing thematic problems arise), but it’s different, confident and competent. Too bad that the technology won’t allow 3D projection on small screen for a few years: Unlike many other examples of the genre so far, Coraline earns some extra credits with another dimension, even while it’s perfectly good in 2D. But don’t wait or fret: just see it.

Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson

<em class="BookTitle">Hell’s Angels</em>, Hunter S. Thompson

Ballantine, 1967 (1996 reprint), 273 pages, C$17.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-345-41008-5

Let’s face it: most books have a useful life measured in years, if not months. Once they’ve been removed from bookstore shelves, put out-of-print and remaindered, books quickly fade away from public attention. Non-fiction withers away even less gracefully than fiction: The world outside the book evolves, leaving the subject behind as a historical curiosity.

Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels is part of a tiny minority of enduring non-fiction titles. Still in print forty years after publication, it’s still being purchased and read today. Two reasons explain why: First, it’s a book by Hunter S. Thompson, a writer whose legend burns just as brightly today than in 1967. Second, it’s a crackling good read about a fascinating subject that remains of interest today.

For if the hippies of San Francisco’s mid-sixties have faded away, the Hell’s Angels that flourished at the same time are still very much active today. Their outlaw legend has shifted somewhat: People (especially in French Canada) now tend to associate their illicit activities with organized drug-running and biker wars rather than the anarchic hooliganism of their early years. But the mystique endures just as it did in 1965, the year when Thompson wrote his first article on the San Francisco-area Hell’s Angels and ended up up riding with them for another year while researching his book-length narrative. (The ride ended when, as Thompson describes in the gut-punch last chapter, he himself was “stomped” and beaten by the Angels.)

One of the reasons why Hell’s Angels remains so readable today has to do with Thompson himself: Though he calls the Angels stupid and ignorant, there’s no doubt that he has considerable sympathy for the outlaws and the way they can get away with what they do. Thompson himself wasn’t an entirely straight arrow at the time, and fans will recognize typical Thompson stories as he describes how he “somehow” ended up firing a shotgun outside his apartment at night. Thompson, in fact, spends more time decrying mainstream treatment of biker gangs (calling the contemporary media coverage woefully ignorant, sensationalist and patronizing) than he does condemning the Angels.

By living with the gang for a year, Thompson also manages to understand and describe them better than anyone else at the time: His exploration of the psycho-sexual dynamics of the Angels is brutally frank (even today) and completely engrossing. The portrait he draws up is that of a familiar type: men who can’t find a place in mainstream society, hanging together in a mutual support group. When Hunter ends his book with dire predictions that motorcycle gangs are part of the way American is going to become in the future, history proves him right.

But socio-political analysis aside, the best moments of this great book end up being the first-hand descriptions of a Hell’s Angels run on a small California community, as both Angels and local authorities are practically begging for a confrontation. It ends up being a non-story, with Thompson stuck in the middle, but it’s also a segment that would mark a turning point for him: Hell’s Angels may not be completely gonzo journalist, but it’s certainly a prototype of articles in which the process of getting the story becomes the story.

In-between, you get passages describing the pure thrill of pushing a motorcycle so close to the edge that you can’t see beyond the next turn in the road. You get a sense of San Francisco during the sixties. You get Hunter S. Thompson as a young man trying out his full powers as a writer. But more than that, you get a crackling good read, even forty years after publication. This is a book that has endured for good reasons: It’s a minor classic in its own way, and it’s well worth picking up.

[June 2009: I wouldn’t go so far as to call Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test an essential companion to Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, but it does offer another look at mid-sixties San Francisco and in discussing Ken Kesey’s psychedelic lifestyle, often overlaps with Thompson’s motorcycle gang. (In fact, Thompson is acknowledged as having provided audio tapes to Wolfe.) But modern readers will trip over the most annoying thing about The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is Wolfe’s stream-of-altered-consciousness prose style: Impressionistic at beast, unreadable at worst. If it does a fine job at portraying a particular mindset, it also graphically shows why the hippies went away since then. Still, patient readers will find a few nuggets of interest in the depiction of the times, as well as random factoids and references. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is referenced casually, as is Clarke’s (unattributed) Childhood’s End. Plus there’s the fascinating etymological tidbit that “bummer” (as in: “a bad trip”) was adopted by the hippies from the Hell’s Angels slang for, yes, “a bad trip” –you can figure out what part of the anatomy hurts after a bad motorcycle ride. Ultimately, though, much of Wolfe’s book is simply too difficult to read to be truly rewarding. Of historical interest.]