Avatar (2009)

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

(In theatres, December 2009) Expectations ran high for Avatar, James Cameron’s first fiction film since 1997’s blockbusting Oscar-winning Titanic.  Promises of revolutionary 3D technology and one of the biggest budgets of all times did nothing to calm down fans and foes.  Fortunately, the film lives up to most of the hype.  If it isn’t quite a revolution in the film business, it is still an unprecedented and astonishing piece of work on many levels.  First and most impressive would be the world-building shown in the film: up until now a pleasure left to written-SF fans, Cameron manages to produce a completely new environment in a film with no media tie-ins: Much of the stuff on-screen actually holds together at a glance, which is more than most other “Science Fiction” films manage to do.  The immersion into the world is helped along by innumerable small details that reinforce the tactile reality of the world, and by a fully mature use of 3D cinematography: Cameron simply moves his camera through 3D-space and tickles our sense of place rather than repeatedly poke us in the eyes.  The production design of the entire film is a source of wonder, and so is the confident way in which Cameron directs the action: After years of shaky-cam confusion, here’s a film that does it right, maintaining our sense of space while delivering the action and explosions.  Every single dollar spent on the film is on-screen, and the result is as good as blockbuster entertainment can aspire to be.  Visually, it’s irreproachable.  Which makes the relatively simplistic nature of the story a bit harder to tolerate: Gleefully adopting the overused “contemporary stand-in learns all about the noble savage” plot template, Avatar usually feels obvious and unsurprising –especially when the characters start talking.  (Where to start?  The human caricatures?  The new-age pablum spoken by the Na’Vi?  The way our hero become The Leader rather than An Advisor?)  It’s not an entirely bad script (structurally, it’s competent to a level that would leave less screenwriters crying) and it does manage to make the most of what it’s given as premise, but it is a tired and sometimes-exasperating plot template.  But story is less important here than spectacle, and so there’s more to see here than a single viewing can appreciate, which is just as well, because Avatar looks destined to do brisk business and earn a solid place in genre film history.  There’s a lot more to say about the film and how it works, but the conclusion seems unavoidable: Avatar is one of the best SF films of the decade, a remarkable visual achievement and a movie experience so comforting in its professionalism that it raises the bar for everyone else.

The Brethern, John Grisham

<em class="BookTitle">The Brethern</em>, John Grisham

Dell, 2002, 368 pages, C$45.00 hc, ISBN 0-385-49746-6

Since I’m already on record as being a big fan of Grisham’s post-Runaway Jury career largely because of Grisham’s experimentation with new ways of telling the same stories, I might as well take apart The Brethren and explain why it doesn’t work as well as it should even if it does playfully experiment.

Like many Grisham novels, it largely takes place in the south-eastern United States.  This time, we’re off to Florida, to a minimal-security federal prison in which three incarcerated judges (the titular brethren) have decided to be proactive in their forced retirement.  We first meet them as they dispense courtyard justice to their fellow convicts, but it doesn’t take a long time until we’re shown their real game: an extortion scam in which they entrap rich men through personal ads placed in newspapers of interest to the gay community, then threaten them with exposure once the pen-pal relationship deepens.

So far so good, but there’s another more surprising side to the novel as well: While the judges are conducting business from prison, a young federal congressmen is tapped by the CIA to become a presidential candidate on the single issue of national security.  They provide him with funding, and the assurance that national security will be a hot topic in the coming months.  The candidate simply has to go through the motions, and pretty soon he’s seen as the favourite come election time.

There’s a snag, though: As you may expect, the judges have snagged the congressman in their scheme, and the attempts of the CIA to protect their handpicked candidate ironically make matters even worse.  Pretty soon, the CIA is trying to exert leverage on the incarcerated judges, but it’s not clear who’s got the advantage…

As the above plot summary may suggest, the book’s biggest problem is that there are no obvious characters to cheer for.  Sure, the congressman is being exploited for minor personal foibles; but he’s solidly at the mercy of his CIA puppet-masters.  The CIA characters are far too powerful to be interesting, while the Brethren are just con artists with fancy résumés and their pet lawyer is too corrupt to be pitied even when bad things happen to him.  This accumulation of unlikable characters doesn’t make the novel uninteresting, but it certainly lessens the readers’ involvement in taking sides and hoping that it wins at the end.  Which such unpleasant forces at play, it feels like a demonstration of clever plotting more than an actually story to enjoy.

So it’s relatively good news to find out that, despite an uninvolving plot, The Brethren remains as readable as anything else Grisham has done.  There are some amusing plot turns as the CIA’s own incompetence (and acts-of-God such as a plane nearly crash-landing) ends up making a fairly simple situation even worse.  It’s not as much of a page-turner, but it sustains a definite narrative momentum, and readers won’t have any trouble following the twisted conclusion as unlikely characters are rewarded for their brinkmanship.  Ironically, this may be one of Grisham’s happiest ending yet… at least for the characters in the story.

For those following the evolution of Grisham’s career, there are a few points of interest in The Brethren.  For the first time, Grisham tackles political process issues: much of the novel is dedicated to a demonstration of how massive campaign contributions can alter the course of a presidential candidacy, how the CIA deals with the political apparatus (or rather how it would like to deal with it) and how a political campaign goes.  This novel spends a lot of time in Washington, and that in turn sets the stage for later more overtly thriller-oriented novels like The Broker.  Meanwhile, the emphasis on money once again reflects one of Grisham’s perennial themes.

For those who criticize Grisham for “the same old plot” over and over again, The Brethern seems custom-designed to earn the author a bit of leeway, prefiguring the even more dramatic departures from formula that would follow this novel.  It may not rank as one of his finest efforts, but it manages to be interesting, which is already not so bad.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sherlock Holmes</strong> (2009)

(In theatres, December 2009) It had to happen sooner or later: a retelling of Sherlock Holmes (suspiciously absent from the big screen since 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes) in the mode of the action thriller.  No, it’s not even trying to be an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories: This Sherlock Holmes knows how to fight, has abandoned deerstalker hat restraint for debonair nonchalance and enjoys the company of a hot ex-girlfriend.  Pre-made for slash fiction writers, explosion connoisseurs and steampunk enthusiasts, Sherlock Holmes has little to say about its character, and a lot about modern blockbuster filmmaking.  It generally works, despite Scooby-doo plotting and inconsistent use of dramatic devices.  At least we’re spared an origin story, as the story picks up well into Holmes’ career.  Robert Downey Jr. seems to be channelling Tony Stark with an irresistibly arrogant portrait of a super-genius (it works because he’s charmingly roguish rather than super-nerdy) while Jude Law does his job as the level-headed foil.  Rachel McAdams, for some reason, always look better in historical movies (must be costumes), while Mark Strong turns in another performance as the bad guy.  Director Guy Richie reigns in some of his usual tricks but manages to deliver a satisfying action film.  Only the sound seems a bit soft (the mumbling doesn’t help): viewers without an ear for soft English accents may want to wait for DVD subtitles or sit closer to the screen.  The CGI-enhanced portrait of 1880s London is suitably grimy, mechanical and interesting.  Sherlock Holmes may be a travesty of the original stories and a by-the-number mainstream thriller, but it’s pretty good as such.  Bring on the sequel, and let’s see Holmes square off against Moriarty.

The Game, Neil Strauss

<em class="BookTitle">The Game</em>, Neil Strauss

Harper, 2005, 452 pages, $C46.50 tp, ISBN 978-0-06-055473-6

I seldom think twice about buying books I want to read, but even after loving Neil Strauss’ Emergency, I admit that I hesitated a bit before getting his best-known work The Game.

Sure, it’s an expensive book.  But the way it looks did more to drive me away than its cover price.  Dressed in imitation leather, clad in gilded rounded edges, sporting a red cloth bookmark and cover silhouettes of exotic dancers, The Game affirms its personality before you even crack open its golden-edged pages.  If it was a person, The Game would be your mysterious and seldom acknowledged uncle from San Francisco who picks you up on your 18th birthday, slaps you heartily on the shoulder, stuffs a lit cigar in your mouth and says “Let’s go to the strip club, son.  Tonight, I’m gonna teach you how to be a man.”

This, as it turns out, is pretty much what The Game wants to teach you anyway.  Billed as an exploration of a secret society of pick-up artists, it’s an autobiographical memoir of Neil Strauss’ years in the seduction underground.  Learning from the masters, Strauss sheds his geeky writer’s persona to become Style and eventually becomes a master of seduction.  It’s a lively story filled with hilarious anecdotes, a compelling narrative, sharp characters, celebrity cameos and growing doubts about the power of picking up women at will.  He even cracks the threesome code.

Let’s not try to pretend otherwise: The sole reason why The Game is so expensive and as over-packaged as a peacock is that it’s being sold as a summary of the rules of seduction.  Pick it up, promises everything in the book’s physical appearance, and you too will learn everything you need to know about seducing women.  It’s all about confidence and interesting patter, but members of the pickup-artist community tend to be from geeky backgrounds and so many of the hints become about routines and scripted encounters –as if you could hack the human interaction algorithm.

Amusingly enough, it seems to be working: As Strauss details techniques and openers and steps to follow, it’s easy to deride those who attempt to boil down seduction to a flowchart… but no one will deny that the traits meant to be bolstered by the routines are those that do make you a more interesting person: A bit of fearlessness, a few useful talents, some verbal wit and a lot of self-confidence.  The Game is geared toward singles bar pick-ups and I’m definitely not a player, but I can recognize that when I’m at my most charming (whether it’s one-on-one or giving speeches to an entire room), I end up independently running through many of the techniques that Strauss outlines.

But I’ll let other AFCs (Average Frustrated Chumps, in The Game’s highly specialized jargon) take advantage of the book’s didactical aims, because the real reason to read the book isn’t the bag of tricks as much as Strauss’ storytelling and the unbelievable adventures in which he finds himself.  His path from geek-writer to a model for an entire community is richly told, compulsively readable and frequently hilarious.  The community attracts its share of characters and since much of the action takes place in Los Angeles, celebrities sometimes pop up in the narrative: Tom Cruise ends up teaching Strauss a few lessons in natural pick-up ability, while Courtney Love has an extended role as a mad dervish.  Meanwhile, Strauss finds out that his seduction techniques serves him well when comes the time to interview Britney Spears, while one of the book’s secondary characters successfully picks up Paris Hilton using Style’s scripted routines.

Better yet, though, are Strauss’ clear-eyed epiphanies about the monster he has helped create.  After everyone comes to adopt his techniques, after anti-seduction mechanisms start being used against him, he comes to the most basic realization of all: Learning how to pick up women is supposed to be a mean to an end, and no rote repetition of bar encounters will help him in building a stable relationship.  The Game may end on a strikingly traditional note, but it does manage to sweeten what could have been an unbearably misogynistic book.  (Not that Strauss has given up on the game: A look at his web site shows that he’s still involved in teaching other how to improve their pickup skills.)

There’s no use pointing out that The Game is very much a young man’s book or that it outlines ways of handling interpersonal relationships that may curdle into dishonesty and exploitation.  It is borderline reprehensible (especially if you stop reading before the end) and can empower twisted minds.  Which is why my recommendation for the book comes with a kilogram of salt: Try to think of it as a book of good stories, not a way of life.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus</strong> (2009)

(In theaters, December 2009) A film by Terry Gilliam is usually quite unlike anything else, and so it is that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is, at the very least, unique in its own way.  The title is probably the most normal aspect of a film that allows the writer/director to fully indulge in his obsessions, from skewed images to wide-angles to midgets to stylized animation.  The story may be about choices and imagination, but the result is pure visual spectacle for fans of special effects, imaginative dream worlds and cinematic fantasy.  There are more than a few visual and thematic links to previous Gilliam films from The Fisher King to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. This being said, there are a few strong performances to admire as well: Much has been made of Heath Ledger’s final role and the way other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) are used to complete his scenes set in imaginary worlds, but the result feels both appropriate and seamless.  Also worthwhile are Verne Troyer (given surprisingly level-headed dialogue), Tom Waits (as, appropriately, the Devil), Lily Cole (an unconventional beauty balancing out the rest of the male-dominated cast) and Christopher Plummer as the titular doctor.  Alas, the story is a bit more muddled: As with his latest Brothers Grimm, Gilliam delivers fantasy that seems to make it up as it goes along, never setting out rules or sticking to them: it makes the experience of seeing the film a bit tortuous if viewers are trying to do more than admire the pictures.  But for Gilliam fans, this won’t be much of an issue:  Overall, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a worthwhile effort, perhaps the single best Gilliam (and Gilliamesque) film in more than a decade.

The Godfather: Part III (1990)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Godfather: Part III</strong> (1990)

(On DVD, December 2009) This “Part III” has a bad reputation only when it’s compared to its two classic predecessors.  While it’s pretty good filmmaking, it’s just not up to the standards set by its prequels.  It’s not bad when considered as a straight-up epilogue, but then it runs into the vexing issue of being nearly three hours long, which really isn’t appropriate for the type of story it tries to be in the Godfather universe.  Part of the problem is that by going to Italy and spending a lot of time dealing in Vatican business, The Godfather III gets farther and farther away from the all-American core that made the success of the first two films: The issues get more abstract and diffuse, and the plot seems to over-complexify itself.  There is a noticeable lull near the middle of the film, and all of it contributes to the feeling of an overlong experience.  Acting-wise, it’s Al Pacino and Andy Garcia’s show: Sofia Coppola may be the most attractive performer in the entire trilogy, but her much-derided performance, all mushy-mouthed and indifferent, is another of the reasons why she’s become a far better director than actress.  More happily, though, the film works more often than it doesn’t, and while some elements that made the first film now feel familiar (the opening celebration/introduction scene; the final operatic barrage of violence), it’s handled with a lot of lavish skill by director Francis Ford Coppola.  Conventional wisdom is correct: Not a bad film, but a let-down compared to its lineage.

The Godfather: Part II (1974)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Godfather: Part II</strong> (1974)

(On DVD, December 2009) I may not entirely agree with assessments that this sequel is superior to the first film (which seems just a bit more focused that the follow-up), but there’s no denying that the two Godfather films feel inseparable: The first flows into the second one with fewer differences than one would expect, and the second one actually makes the first one feel even better when taken together.  Once again, a really young Al Pacino runs the show, although he’s joined (in entirely separate sequences) by an equally-young Robert de Niro.  Acting both as a prequel and sequel to the original, this “Part II” creaks at more than 200 minutes: the entire prequel alone could have been spun off in its own film.  The Godfather II itself has the feel of a vast epic, with multiple plot lines, grand lavish scenes (including another lengthy party sequence that acts as essential scene-setting), multiple locations, a bit of historical drama and a large cast of characters all headed for destruction.  Even then, there’s a lot that simply isn’t shown, and when the film ends, it feels as if it does so a few scenes too soon.  It’s the nature of the charm of the films that betrayal and violent death is always somewhere in the assumed background of the character’s action: one wrong answer and goodbye!  What may be The Godfather II’s most astonishing achievement is that it actually makes its predecessor even better, by presenting a story with even-bigger implications, digging into the characters and tying off a few grander arcs.  This is big, big-scale filmmaking by Francis Ford Coppola, and it’s a bit of a shame we don’t get such movies anymore.

The Godfather (1972)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Godfather</strong> (1972)

(On DVD, December 2009) It’s easy to think that you know The Godfather without having actually seen The Godfather: Few movies have become as integral to American pop culture as this one: You have seen the parodies, heard the references, watched the rip-offs, caught bits and pieces of the TV broadcasts, maybe even played the video game.  But nothing replaces a good lengthy sit-down with the film from beginning to end: Clocking in at slightly less than three hours, The Godfather is a sumptuous piece of work.  Finely mastered, superbly written and featuring a cast of characters that directors would kill for (most notably an impossibly young Al Pacino), it remains an impressive piece of work even after nearly forty years of cultural impact.  Although the innovation of presenting gangster protagonists can’t be properly felt now compared to 1972, The Godfather keeps making an impact through sheer film artistry: All the pieces selected by director Francis Ford Coppola click together in a satisfying fashion, and the much-quoted segments only add to the film.  With a large cast of character and a story that sprawls over a decade following WW2, the script makes few concessions to inattentive viewers.  (It also takes risks that would doom other films, such as setting much of its first half-hour at a wedding reception.)  Most curiously, it’s also a film that feels more rounded by its equally masterful sequel.  Why is it that they don’t make movies like that anymore?

Nine Dragons, Michael Connelly

<em class="BookTitle">Nine Dragons</em>, Michael Connelly

Little, Brown, 2009, 377 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-16631-7

Michael Connelly likes to do something a bit different with every novel, but in Nine Dragons, the master of police procedural takes on a well-worn thriller plot and gives it a whirl.  Not simply content to give recurring protagonist Harry Bosch a murder investigation in an Asian-dominated area of Los Angeles, he eventually sends him around the world to track down his kidnapped daughter.

It’s a busy novel, and it starts efficiently.  Ten years after the climactic riots of Angels Flight, Bosch is back in the ghetto to investigate a liquor store murder.  It looks like a robbery gone wrong, but Harry is trained to look beyond the obvious: Soon, elements of the murder don’t add up, and a few crucial clues lead Harry to think that the murder may be gang-related.  Working through the cultural barriers of a murder set in L.A.’s Chinese community, Bosch eventually comes to arrest a suspect.  That’s when his real problems begin: by phone, he gets threats to back off and a video clip suggesting that his daughter (now living in Hong Kong with her mother, recurring character Eleanor Wish) has been kidnapped.

Through the wonders of modern air travel, Bosch takes a very long day off work to investigate in Hong Kong.  That’s when Nine Dragons surprisingly turns into a thriller, as Bosch teams up with his ex-wife and a local operative to track down his daughter.  Harry is out of his element, and Hong Kong is far less friendly to a Los Angeles policeman than Harry is used to.  It’s no big spoilers to reveal that things don’t go well for anyone.  They even get worse when Bosch gets back home.

One of the dangers in writing serial fiction is that novels may come to blend together.  There’s little risk of that happening for Nine Dragon, which will probably be remembered as “the one where Harry goes vigilante in Hong Kong”.  The whole kidnapped-daughter plot device has become a bit of a cliché, even when it’s handled in a somewhat muscular fashion (such as the recent film Taken) and so one hopes that Connelly has used his once-in-a-decade opportunity to try that particular story.  On the other hand, it is handled relatively well.  Throwing Bosch in an alien environment where his badge isn’t worth anything is something different, and the pacing of the novel does seem more urgent in this middle section, not-so-subtly named “The 39-Hour Day”.  The back cover photo shows Connelly standing in front of the Hong Kong skyline, and his field research definitely lends some flavour to the result.  Even before getting to Hong Kong, Nine Dragon already has a lot to show about conducting criminal investigations in the insular Chinese LA community.

On the other hand, one can’t forgive every single annoyance of the novel.  Aside from the somewhat arbitrary nature of the premise (Bosch is supposed to investigate special homicides, but it’s a quirk of fill-in scheduling that gets him to the same liquor store that protected him at the end of Angels Flight), Connelly makes a few choices that are bound to annoy readers.  Two recurring characters don’t make it out of the novel alive, and the second death is handled in a detached flashback that describes a bad character making a mistake and paying for it.  More troubling is one of the novel’s closing ironies, which does goes against the grain of standard thriller plotting, but end up cheapening many of the story’s consequences, and giving Bosch an extra load of guilt.  All of these quirks are intentional, but they don’t necessarily make the novel more pleasant to read of satisfying to think about.

This being said, Nine Dragons does offer much to the faithful Connelly readers.  When Bosch requires some legal help late in the book, he turns to his half-brother Mikey “Lincoln Lawyer” Haller.  Journalist Jake McEvoy is briefly mentioned, and the consequences of Bosch’s troubled relationship with his newest partner continue to play out.  One thing that gets almost no mention, though, is that Bosch is getting old: Perhaps Connelly didn’t think it useful to mention this again in a story where Bosch gets to play a thriller action hero, but it marks a bit of a discontinuity with previous instalments that acknowledged that fact.

As a first full Bosch novel since 2007’s The Overlook, it’s a solid comeback for one of the best-known characters in contemporary crime fiction.  The idea to switch genre gears for the novel’s middle third will not please all readers, as is the decision to rely on the old kidnapped-daughter plot driver, but both of those choices give a bit of energy to the instalment at a time where the series’ biggest potential issue is stale repetition.  Given how Connelly manages to keep things interesting and not affect his usually readable style, the net result can’t be dismissed.

Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Trick ‘r Treat</strong> (2007)

(On DVD, December 2009) This straight-to-DVD horror feature may not aspire to sophistication, but It does manage to hit most of its targets as a horror film made for horror fans.  Trick ‘r Treat’s most distinguishing featuring has to be its playful non-chronological interweaving of separate short stories (four main ones, plus a prologue), into a tapestry of Halloween-themed gags.  Some of them are trite and obvious, while others have one or two surprises in store, but they’re all handled with a decent amount of skill, and the visual aspect of the film is as good as anything else in the genre.  Don’t look for redeeming social values, though: The “morals” of the film are ones that only gore-hounds will like, what with serial killers being set against each other, and people apparently being killed for not following a set of entirely arbitrary social conventions.  This being said, c’mon: It’s a self-consciously exploitative horror film about Halloween: it would be surprising if it wasn’t about gruesome deaths first, and everything else after.  Nonetheless, there are a few nice touches here and there as the acting talent slums a bit: Anna Paquin and friends are cute as not-so-innocent girls on the prowl, while Brian Cox and Dylan Baker turn in worthwhile performances.  Special credit also goes to midget scarecrow “Sam”, as close an iconic creation as the film gets.  Trick ‘r Treat all wraps up to a slickly-made, somewhat genre-centric horror film, not noteworthy in any way, but competent enough to warrant a Halloween party viewing or somesuch.

Making Mr. Right (1987)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Making Mr. Right</strong> (1987)

(On DVD, December 2009) This romantic comedy may feature a fully-working android built for the purpose of space exploration, it’s really a disservice to call it a science-fiction film.  To do so subjects Making Mr. Right to much higher scientific scrutiny than it deserves as a fluffy comedy about a woman dealing with an emotionless nerd and his trainable invention.  The SF elements are so wrong that it’s hard to know where to start, so let’s avoid the issue entirely and focus on the comic results of the premise.  Ann Magnuson delivers a fearless performance as a PR expert who has to sell an android to the world at large, which also means interacting with the android’s inventor –a frighteningly plausible Frank Malkovich.  The screenplay itself is generally by-the-numbers, instantly familiar to anyone who has ever seen an “alien discovers human society” society: a succession of idiot moments briefly interrupted by excruciating sequences of social humiliation.  But the performances are charming enough, and the increasingly retro charm of mid-eighties Miami (wow, those clothes!) does a lot to heighten the absurdity of the entire film.  There are enough hints of mild subversion (such as a tropical beach photo backdrop used on a beach) and unusual screenwriting choices to set Making Mr. Right apart from other fantasy-based romantic comedies.  It could have been worse.

Food, Inc. (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Food, Inc.</strong> (2008)

(On DVD, December 2009) The past decade has seen an unprecedented boom of interest in the way we eat, and after conquering TV networks and bookshelves, those ideas are dripping onto the big screen as well.  In this case, the kinship between books and documentary is obvious: Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) are two main interview subjects and if Pollan is merely credited as a special consultant, Schlosser also co-produced the film.  Food, Inc takes on the task of exploring the less attractive aspects of the secretive food production industry, from corn to cattle to burger.  Along the way, it explains a number of troubling realities that will be familiar to Pollan and Schlosser’s readers: How family farms are a charming relic of the past; how (de)regulation is having a disproportionate impact on our health; how food production is being controlled by very few entities; how those entities have captured governmental agencies and are given extraordinary rights to silence their critics.  Discussing food, it increasingly becomes obvious, quickly comes to touch other crucial social issues such as migrant work, copyright reform, and the role of government in industries.  As a documentary, Food, Inc is up to current standards, with a mixture of interviews, infographics, location footage and archival footage.  It’s not always pleasant to watch, but it’s informative, and gives added context to the growing amount of information about the food supply.  Though heavily US-centric, it describes issues at play in Canada as well -although I’d be curious to see a comparative examination of our regulatory regimes.  Well-made, provocative, stirring and (eek) important, it’s well worth watching as another warning light on our modern dashboard.

Bienvenue chez les ch’tis [Welcome to the Sticks] (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bienvenue chez les ch’tis</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Welcome to the Sticks</strong>] (2008)

(On DVD, December 2009) It’s probably best not to focus on the fact that Bienvenue chez les ch’tis is one of the highest-grossing French films of all times, otherwise it’s almost de rigueur to question what makes this film so special.  The answer is close to “not much”: As with so many fish-out-of-the-water comedies in which sophisticated characters are thrust in rustic locations for an extended period, you can almost see the clicks of the well-worn plot mechanics at work in this film as scene after scene does its job.  Of course, the much-derided place is full of heart-warming characters with real qualities and problems.  Of course, the lead character comes to love the place.  Of course, there are a few complications.  Perhaps the most amusing element of Bienvenue chez les ch’tis is the excessive setup in which “Le Nord” is depicted, via the usual stereotypes, as a horrible place; the flip side of that setup is the elaborate deception that the lead character ends up entertaining in order to placate his incredulous south-bound family.  Props also go to the willingness to show the epilogue of the tale, something that other films would have avoided.  Otherwise, it’s by-the-number comedy filmmaking.  Well done, amusing and mechanical.  Kad Merad and Dany Boon make up a decent comedic pair, playing off southern/northern stereotypes with energy.  This isn’t a strikingly original film, especially not when every regional cinema seems to have a variation of the same story (For French-Canada, check out La Grande Séduction).  But reasonably well-made films can be a joy to watch even when they follow familiar templates, and this is another one of them.  Millions of Francophones can be unadventurous, but in this case they’re not necessarily wrong.  (But they will want to turn on the subtitles.) The DVD contains an overly long blooper reel, and a slightly amusing featurette in which the film’s two leads try to go back incognito to the village where the film was shot.

Låt den rätte komma in [Let the Right One In] (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Låt den rätte komma in [Let the Right One In]</strong> (2008)

(On DVD, December 2009) “Cold and restrained Swedish film” may seems like an oxymoron, but when it comes to vampire movies, ice-cold restraint can work wonders at telling us a vampire story we haven’t seen before.  There’s no glamour or sublimated eroticism here in the snows of wintertime Sweden, alongside a troubled boy-protagonist who befriends a tween vampire who looks about 12 (but acts 200).  There’s little comedy either as we follow a caretaker who kills strangers to get blood for his vampire protégé, or the bullies who pick mercilessly on the lead character.  But there’s a lot of skill in the way the story is presented, sometimes obliquely, sometimes ironically, sometimes brutally.  (The ending is a pure nightmare, simply due to a camera angle.) At a time where vampire films glitter in the sunlight, Let The Right One In is a welcome reminder that it only takes a bit of imagination to rekindle interest in the sub-genre.  While the film isn’t an unqualified success (it’s slow, it has its share of silly scenes such as the cat-attack one or indeed that entire subplot, and I can’t imagine willingly re-watching this film for fun in anything less than five years), it’s good enough to be noticed, and striking enough to earn modest praise from genre and non-genre audiences alike.

The Mist (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Mist</strong> (2007)

(On DVD, December 2009) Stephen King’s “The Mist” having been a favourite story of mine ever since reading it in Skeleton Crew, I was apprehensive about seeing a big-screen adaptation.  Despite the track record of screenwriter/director Frank Darabont, what would become of the story?  As the film gets going, a number of things don’t quite seem to work: The dialogue seems forced, the intensity of the drama seems to jump prematurely, seemingly driven by anticipating the next plot beat rather than evolving organically.  But at the mist engulfs the characters and the monsters slowly appear, The Mist settles down and the bigger problems fade away.  Smaller problems remain: characters make stupid decisions (why, gee, golly yes: insects are attracted to light during night-time), keep making stupid decisions (when you hear “something” in a murderously monstrous environment, the time has come to run) and then make some more stupid decisions.  I also had mixed feelings about the film’s human antagonist, which goes so far into pious-evil territory that she becomes exasperating more than threatening: there’s a difference between hating a character and wanting other characters to hit her on the head with a shovel.  But the film gradually redeems itself with better and better material as it goes along, culminating in a pitch-dark ending that manages to one-up the novella’s original conclusion.  It all amounts to a fairly decent horror film, filled with disgust and terror and bleakness, not to mention tentacled monsters jousting for disgust with dangerous humans.  As an adaptation, it respects the original despite a few early issues.  While those flaws are a bit too annoying to make The Mist anything more than a modest success, the overall result is a respectable entry in the Stephen King adaptation canon.  The DVD has a charming audio commentary by Darabont as well as a featurette on artist Drew Struzan that eventually becomes quite pretentious, but skimps short on the special effects documentaries.