Edge of Darkness (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Edge of Darkness</strong> (2010)

(In theatres, January 2010) It’s been a long time since Mel Gibson has simply acted in a film, and his choice of vehicle for his come-back really isn’t a stretch: As a Boston cop who seeks to avenge his murdered daughter, Gibson relies on tics developed for Payback and the Lethal Weapon series, although in a far darker context.  What seems like a botched criminal revenge killing eventually develops into a conspiracy involving politicians, state secrets, eco-terrorists and professional assassins.  It doesn’t end well for anyone.  While all of the above sounds pleasantly crunchy, the result feels curiously uninvolving.  The story (adapted, updated and condensed from a mid-eighties BBC series) advances in jolts, with the political angle feeling particularly disconnected and superfluous.  Gibson himself does better as the vengeful father, his grim (and increasingly creased) face lending a bit of gravitas to the shootouts that pepper the film.  Director Martin Campbell brings a few good shocks and suspense sequences to compensate for mawkish flashbacks to the daughter-as-a-girl and an over-the-top final sequence that marks the fourth big movie in three weeks to make heavy use of pseudo-Christian mythology.  Edge of Darkness doesn’t embarrass itself, but neither does it achieve narrative velocity.  It’s a thriller for post-teenage moviegoers, but even with its grim atmosphere, it’s not even up to the equally-adapted-from-the-BBC State of Play in terms of effectiveness.

Game Change, John Heilemann & Mark Halperin

<em class="BookTitle">Game Change</em>, John Heilemann & Mark Halperin

Harper, 2010, 448 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-173363-5

If politics is showbiz for ugly people, then Game Change is its quadrennial gossip rag, dishing saucy un-sourced dirt on the celebs of the field.  Nominally a behind-the-scenes exposé of the events leading up to the 2008 US presidential elections, Game Change thus follows in the footsteps of an entire political non-fiction sub-genre, the “Making of a President” campaign memoir based on candid anonymous interviews (in this case: 300 of them, the authors claim) and released well after the events.  By purporting to offer a look behind the political high point of 2008, it’s definitely a book aimed at political junkies who can recall just about every mini-scandal of the campaign.  But it also offers a portrait of the candidates that’s often quite different from their stage-managed podium personas, or the superficial media coverage that passes for political news in the US.

After a dramatic prologue set the night of the Iowa caucuses, Game Change really begins four years earlier, with the fallout of the Bush/Kerry contest and the election of a young senator named Barack Obama.  Running for president isn’t something done on a whim, and the book documents how Obama and Hilary Clinton each come to the conclusion that they would be running for president in 2008.  This sets up more than half of the book: as observers of the 2008 campaign remarked, some of the most interesting moments of the year happened during the Democratic party nomination process as the old-guard faithful to Clinton slowly came to realize the potential of Obama, and how Obama’s strategy gradually chipped away at the perceived inevitability of Clinton’s nomination.  This rivalry, often far more intense than the one opposing Obama to Republican candidate John McCain, ends up being part of the book’s conclusion –which closes on Clinton’s decision to accept the post of Secretary of State after almost rejecting it.

In-between, well, we get it all: John Edward’s abrupt fall from grace following an infidelity scandal, Sarah Palin’s embarrassing rise to national prominence, McCain’s impulsive decision-making, Joe Biden’s gaffes, views from the campaign staffers (many of whom hate each other), private doubts and poignant vignettes.  Heilemann and Halperin reconstruct pivotal moments, give internal monologue to their characters and try to contextualize events in the vast flow of information that every campaign generates.  Some stuff falls by the wayside (“Joe the Plumber” is never mentioned, for instance), but much of the book is an instant-replay of 2007-2008 American politics, with added revelations of what the people involved were thinking at the time.

Naturally, everyone gets dirtied along the way.  Hilary Clinton’s bad management skills account for part of her campaign’s failure, including her husband Bill’s unhelpful contributions.  Sarah Palin’s awful reputation is bolstered by even-stranger episodes of her practically turning catatonic on the campaign trail (“They began discussing a new and threatening possibility: that Palin was mentally unstable” [P.401]).  Surprisingly, though, it’s not Palin who suffers the most from Game Change’s revelation as much as John Edwards and his wife: While he’s portrayed as a candidate whose self-entitled narcissism ends up with self-immolation (after ignoring repeated interventions by his staff), Elizabeth Edwards is revealed not as the quasi-sainted figure of cancer survivor legend, but as “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman” [P.127]  To think that Edwards was once a viable candidate is to fully appreciate the bullet dodged by American voters.

In the same vein, it’s probably not an accident if the only ones who emerge from Game Change with their reputation intact are Barack and Michelle Obama.  Sure, there’s a sense that history is written by the winners; but there is also sufficient evidence that Obama’s already-legendary calm behaviour made converts out of many sceptics, including the Clintons.  In discussing the impact of the September 2008 financial crisis on the campaign, the authors conclude that “The crisis atmosphere created a setting in which [Obama’s] intellect, self-possession, and unflappability were seen as leaderly qualities.” [P.393].  Sure, the new President is quoted (even on the book’s flap-jacket!) as being quite a bit more profane than we would expect –but that’s the kind of thing that only erupts in a scandal if there’s a microphone present.

Some scepticism is in order, obviously: un-sourced interviews are all about axe-grinding and selective memories.  But much of what is in Game Change is just elaboration on known themes.  Those who read the November 2008 Newsweek special edition on the campaign already knew quite a bit about the dynamics confirmed here.  It also turns out that bloggers at the time had a pretty good handle on the Obama strategy.  Much of what Game Change does is to confirm rumours that few people were willing to acknowledge at the time.  Significantly, as the book is being read and picked apart by highly knowledgeable participants in the events described, there doesn’t seem to have been any detailed challenges to the factual accuracy of the book: In fact, a mini-scandal about Harry Reid’s off-the-cuff remarks reported in the book occurred because the quote was true.

But what we get in exchange for this murky lack of sourcing is a picture of the politicians as human beings: It’s fascinating to peek at the personalities involved, the rivalries and friendships between political figures that would never even hint at their true feelings while there’s still a chance that they may run for office again.  The extraordinary nature of Obama’s win is never more obvious when considering the way that he was casually dismissed as an unworthy opponent early on by the Clinton and their allies.  (It’s no exaggeration to say that Clinton and McCain got along better together than either of them did with Obama.)  Meanwhile, we also get an idea of the considerable toll that presidential campaigns can take on candidates, who have to rush from one event to another for months before even getting the nomination of their party.  Though it amounts to cliché, families are never too far away from their minds.

Game Change also offers a credible answer to the increasingly pertinent question of whether books are still needed at a time of always-on cable shows, blog commentary and Twitter feeds.  The authors manage to squeeze out and contextualize quite a bit of material that would be impossible to grasp from short and frequent updates: They can look at the big picture, and form a narrative about the events.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a made-for-TV movie adaptation at some time or another.

It helps a lot that Game Change is an absolute joy to read.  Readers without the political junkie gene may beg to differ, but I read every page with rapt attention, slowing down my usual reading speed to be sure to catch every line.  The authors know how to structure their narrative in dramatic ways, and their smooth prose style makes it easy to flash back to the news of the time.  Of course it’s a book that rewards political trivia knowledge.  Yet it’s also one that offers a lot more than discussions of policy and polls.  It may be a package of gossipy hearsay, but gossip has the advantage of dealing with human beings.  If nothing else, it’s a useful reminder that as the TV news show us nothing more than crafted sound-bites without the benefit of context, the people saying those lines have lives of their own.  We’ll never know the true story as it occurs, but Game Change does manage to explain a lot about the crazy, cool, unprecedented and unique 2008 US presidential campaign.

The Lovely Bones (2009)

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

(In theatres, January 2010) For viewers unfamiliar with Alice Sebold’s novel, Peter Jackson’s take on Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones has two major problems: First; its determination to beef up an elegiac tone about the aftermath of a brutal murder with suspense sequences that aren’t just jarring, but drawn-out to an extent that they become more ridiculous than gripping.  Second; its utter refusal to provide conventional closure on both the thriller as the dramatic elements of the picture.  There are several small flaws (such as Mark Wahlberg’s unremarkable “say hi to your mother” performance, the difficulty of literalizing heavenly metaphors, or Stanley Tucci’s over-the-top performance as a character who screams serial-killer), but those two stick out badly.  The second is actually a feature, especially for those who have read the book: The point of The Lovely Bones is not vengeance from beyond the grave (even though the narrator is the murder victim speaking from heaven) nor police procedural success despite the fixation on tracking down the serial killer.  It’s reaching that final Kubler-Rossian step of acceptance, letting go of horrible things and accepting with serenity the idea that some things are never avenged, explained or satisfied.  Still, this leaves us with the troubling tonal problems in transforming a dramatic novel that uses genre elements into a genre picture that seems stuck in inconclusive drama.  The differences between book and movie are both profound and trivial: the chronology is compressed, one dramatic climax is toned down to a simple kiss, various lines of the novel are rearranged wildly.  Some of this is due to the demands of presenting material on-screen, while others are simple prudishness.  Still, Jackson does make a few sequences last twice, maybe three times as long as they needed to be, and that simply reinforces the sense that his approach to the material is fundamentally flawed.  The best thing about the film, in fact, may be that those who go read the book afterwards will enjoy hearing Saoirse Ronan’s voice as the narrator.

The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

<em class="BookTitle">The Lovely Bones</em>, Alice Sebold

Back Bay Books, 2004 reprint of 2002 original, 328 pages, C$19.95 pb, ISBN 0-316-16881-5

I’m really not the right person to comment on this book.  This won’t be news to anyone who’s read more than a few of my reviews, but even after years of solid counter-examples, I’m still faintly dubious about mainstream fiction books that take up some aspects of genre fiction.  The reading protocols are often too different to mesh together, and the plot density is generally too sparse to keep me interested.  I am not, after all, a reader interested in prose for prose’s sake.

But The Lovely Bones received its share of acclaim, was once featured on CBC’s long-lamented Open Book TV book club, and can now be purchased second-hand for next to nothing.  When Peter Jackson announced he was shooting the movie adaptation, the book went on my embargoed-until-I-see-the-movie waiting list.  Such an embargo usually proves beneficial in that the book is (almost) always better than the movie, and given the disappointment that was Jackson’s adaptation, there was a lot to enjoy about the carefully-controlled original work.

But we’ll talk about the book/movie comparison in a moment.  What you need to know about The Lovely Bones is simple: It’s narrated from the hereafter by the victim of a brutal crime.  Suzie Salmon is, in most respects, your happy mid-seventies teenage girl: stable family, fine neighbourhood, doing OK in school, on the verge of experiencing her first romantic relationship.  Then she is murdered.

It’s what happens next that makes The Lovely Bones so special: Suzie tells us about what happens to her family, her friends and her community as the echoes of her murder continue to reverberate.  There is a police investigation, but it is not a mystery.  There are details about the afterlife and some proof of interaction between the living and the dead, but this is not a fantasy story.  Sebold is really using genre devices to explore a mainstream drama of grief and acceptance.  In the wake of Suzie’s disappearance, people cope in various ways with the wrongness of her death.  The murderer escapes detection for a while; her family is driven apart; her friends commemorate her and then eventually forget.  Even Suzie herself has a few unresolved issues, and the novel doesn’t end until she can let go of her own existence.

Now that the book has been brought to the big screen, a new group of readers will come to the book having seen the film, and pleasantly discover how much better the written version is.  This is interesting to discuss in the ways it shows how finely Sebold controls her material compared to Jackson’s ham-fisted heightening of every conceivable melodramatic hook.  In the book, Suzie’s death is minimally described; after all, we don’t need the details to fill in for ourselves that it’s a terrible thing: the rest of the book does that.  In the movie, though, Jackson milks the tension leading to her death to a degree where it becomes overdone and ridiculous.  Sebold seldom insists and her book is both subtler and stronger for it.  Meanwhile, Jackson rearranges events to milk a suspense that will never be satisfied, heightens the sentimental meaning of a few details (such as the pictures that Suzie takes, never a strong plot point in the book) and doesn’t seem to realize the importance of tonal unity.  As a result, the movie version of The Lovely Bones is at times sad, horrific, comic, suspenseful, wondrous and dramatic, with little thematic unity between its emotional moods.  But the worst thing about the movie, which is directly relevant to the book, is how it tries to create a genre picture out of a mainstream novel that is not really interested in being a genre novel.  The police investigation is heightened to a point where viewers feel cheated when it doesn’t conventionally pan out; whereas Sebold doesn’t really dangles this possibility in front of her readers in the first place.  The same thing goes for the ghost-story elements: While the film plays with the idea that Suzie can have some influence in leading her family to her murderer, this isn’t as much of a concern in the book.

Amusingly, while the movie fails by being more extreme than the book, the book actually contains at least two strong scenes that were deemed unsuitable for the film: Without spoiling anything outright, let’s just say that the police investigator serves another purpose than not catching the killer, and that Suzie’s final reunion with her boyfriend doesn’t stop where it does in the film.  It’s easy to see the screenwriters looking at those scenes and deciding that there was no way they could work on-screen.  They were probably right, but it’s a shame that didn’t realize that the same was true for a number of other things.

But talks of “ruining” the book are only valid if, somehow, you don’t recognize that the book is still there, waiting for readers just as it did before the film was released.  In fact, reading the novel made me understand better why the film wasn’t working, and who to blame.  (As a bonus, you will “hear” the novel’s narration in Saoirse Ronan’s voice, probably the best thing about seeing the movie in the first place.)  Sebold intentionally withholds the kind of closure that you would see in genre stories.  Suzie’s ghost doesn’t tritely lead police investigators to the killer, for instance.  The closure in The Lovely Bones is of a different sort, not the heightened artificial closure that screenwriters are told to put at the end of their third act, but the Kübler-Rossian fifth stage of acceptance and letting go.  And it works in ways that genre novels usually don’t, thanks to clean prose and mature storytelling.

So it is that I’m still struck by the quiet dramatic power of the novel, even a novel for which I was thoroughly spoiled and more interested in taking apart narratively.  The Lovely Bones, so twee and overdone on the big screen, is better seen as a novel that leaps across natural readership boundaries, making use of genre conventions to its own purposes and, along the way, delivering a reading experience quite unlike anything else.  This coming from someone who’s so far away from the intended audience of the book, imagine how it may work on you.

Legion (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Legion</strong> (2010)

(In theatres, January 2010) The second religious-themed action/fantasy thriller in as many weeks in North American theatres, Legion has the elementary decency not to be terribly serious about its usage of Christian mythology.  God has decided to wipe out mankind, angels are out to zombify humanity and only one renegade can save the world by protecting the mother of an unborn child.  No, it doesn’t make any sense: Legion’s screenwriters would rather spend five interminable minutes setting up character relationships between cannon fodder than actually making sense.  But some of the character time is worthwhile: For a cheap B-grade horror film that blends zombies with angels and demons, it’s unusually generous with the patter, and that almost makes it better than average.  It’s a good thing that all of God’s forces are well-mannered enough to line up zombie-style for maximum usage of conventional firepower by our small band of survivors, and that we’re never asked to think too much.  Which is sad, really, because in-between the tattered script and the conventional execution, there are glimmers of a terrific concept, character set-pieces and several cool scenes.  (Paul Bettany is better than expected as a renegade angel, while Dennis Quaid provides a dependably gruff presence as the owner of the small lonely diner where everything happens.)  But the banal dialogue, indifferent scenes and dumb mistakes keep ruining the fun: For such a self-aware, borderline-camp film, Legion never fully realizes its potential.  What remains isn’t much more than the type of genre picture that sinks to the bottom of the remaindered bin, and becomes an unfair trivia question within years of its release.

The Book of Eli (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Book of Eli</strong> (2010)

(In theatres, January 2010) Genre-hopping movies are fun if the genres mesh together, which is why no one will bat an eye when The Book of Eli crosses back and forth between action and post-apocalyptic science-fiction, reminding viewers of Mad Max and The Road along the way.  But (spoilers!) when the movie takes a sharp turn toward evangelical apologia in its third act, it’s as if the rules of the picture change abruptly: the invincible hero has divine protection, the lousy world-building becomes an intentional sop to a certain audience and you can hear an audible crack as individual suspensions of disbelief break down.  It’s not helped by a sepia-tinged self-important tone (complete with persecution complex) that makes it impossible to claim special camp-craziness dispensation.  Aw well; it’s not as if The Book of Eli is a complete loss: As crazy as the last act turns out to be, much of the film has a few qualities worth noticing, from capable direction by the Hugues brothers to a handful of well-presented action sequences, to a capable performance by Denzel Washington.  It’s a shame, then, that Denzel (who also co-produced the film) should use The Book of Eli to reveal his evangelical complex to the world at large.  It could have been a far better film without the last-minute slide in fantasy.

Cooking Dirty, Jason Sheehan

<em class="BookTitle">Cooking Dirty</em>, Jason Sheehan

FSG, 2009, 355 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-374-28921-8

Anyone looking for another hit of that crazy professional kitchen attitude can stop re-reading their Anthony Bourdain: Jason Sheehan is here to tell his story as a cook in America’s kitchens, and he has both the life experience and the writing skills to produce a memorable book.  Unlike Bourdain, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and eventually demonstrated enough supervisory skills to assume leadership positions in his kitchens, Sheehan’s biography remains that of a professional kitchen cook, occasionally climbing up then sliding down as Sheehan goes through the rough life of an American line cook.

Because working in a kitchen is similar no matter where you go: It’s about working in an environment that tolerates no weaknesses, about beating the dinnertime rush, about lasting as long as you can and then stepping away.  It’s a tough life, and Sheehan’s description of his years in the kitchen is unflinching.  The book’s subtitle is “A story of life, sex, love and death in the kitchen” and only the death part is over-promising.  (On the other hand, we get plenty of gruesome injuries, including what happens to hands when they reach into a vat of boiling oil.  Nightmares guaranteed.)  Sheehan is a spokesperson for an entire class of working cooks who find the rhythm of professional kitchen to be compatible with their scattered lives.  They may live paycheck-to-paycheck on a string of cheap drugs, easy partners and low-rent apartments, but their cooking skills are good enough to carry them no matter where they go.  Over and over again (until Cooking Dirty’s last third), Sheehan is able to walk out of kitchens when thing aren’t working out, set out for another restaurant or even another state, and pick up working when he wants.  This is expected: No matter where he is, the kitchen atmosphere remains the same, with colleagues that largely share his own ambitions.  And that may be the crucial difference between Shehan’s book and Bourdain: When Bourdain talks about his kitchen crew, it’s with the knowledge of someone who fit there for a while, but had the potential to grow into increasingly senior positions.  Sheehan’s identification to the lifestyle is much stronger: if it wasn’t for an accident of relationships, economic recession and luck with an editor looking for another Bourdain, Sheehan may very well still be in the kitchen.

He is also just as good as anyone in describing the hectic rush of dinnertime in a crowded restaurant.  His description of a kitchen battered to the breaking point is unforgettable: the craziest passage (in chapter “Will Work Nights”) involves a new guy, sabotaged frozen fish on a busy Friday night, and a natural gas build-up that results in an explosion in the kitchen.  They kept cooking; the new guy never came back.

All the while, we get another reminder about the nature, temperament and personalities of people working in kitchen to serve food to, well, you.  There is little new in learning this (as readers of other restaurant memoirs will find out) but the difference is the vividness with which Sheehan can tell his story.  His career as a cook is peppered with odd and amazing stories, from being the bartender at a swingers’ night to working in an industrial kitchen, to serving catered food in a convention hotel.  Incidentally, Science Fiction and Fantasy fans will even recognize in Sheehan one of their own, as he peppers his narrative with geek-chic references –and even gets beaten up for reading Michael Moorcock.

When Sheenan’s self-destructive streak finally catches up with him in late 2001 in Albuquerque and he finds out that he can’t get a job in the kitchen, there’s only one escape: writing.  One stroke of luck follows another, and so Sheehan finds himself in Denver reviewing restaurants and winning the James Beard Award for food journalism.  And that’s how, improbably, a food mercenary ends up telling his story: not just as a Bourdain clone, but as a writer with an authentic voice and a terrific sense of narration.  While Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential remains the top example of the form, Cooking Dirty is a look in the trenches that some cooks never escape, partly by lack of opportunity, drive or talent, but also sometimes by choice, however misguided they may sound to others.  As a look in kitchen culture, it completes Bourdain’s book and makes for a heck of a read.  The Amazon recommendation engine has seldom served me better than when it coughed up that title.

Shopportunity!, Kate Newlin

<em class="BookTitle">Shopportunity!</em>, Kate Newlin

Collins, 2006, 240 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-088840-4

There are many ways in which a given book can fail to achieve its potential, but Kate Newlin’s Shopportunity! is one of the rarest blend of misguided intentions, flagrant elitism and inane chatter.  It’s easy to read, written by a smart person, filled with interesting factoids and yet fails to cohere in a fascinating fashion.  It frustrated me in ways that simply-bad or dull books simply can’t even dream of.

Its biggest problem is that it simply doesn’t know what it’s about.  From the cover blurbage, we get the impression that this will be, in the footsteps of Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy and Call of the Mall, an exposé of the contemporary American shopping experience and how it fools the average shopper into making suboptimal choices.  But then again, it may be an instruction manual for shop owners: Newlin, after all, works for a consulting firm that specializes in retail business advice.  A quick look at the first paragraph tells us that the contemporary shopping experience has become soulless and mechanized: Is Shopportunity! an ironic title meant to propel an acid critique of today’s big box stores and their devastating impact on the nature of consumer choice?

This confused, perhaps even schizophrenic impression grows stronger as the book advances.  Because it’s possible to find all three messages in Shopportunity!, along with brain-damaged passages in which Newlin summarizes her main arguments in bullet-points meant to enhance our shopping experience.  (“Rule #17: Break Out of the Big Box” [P.165])  As if what we really needed was a retail consultant telling us how to become a better, more satisfied shopper…

Oh yes; in between the looks at the psychology of the modern shopper, savage anti-Wal-Mart diatribes, explanations on how bad stores drive away customers and a lament on the terrible cost of “cheap”, Newlin actually aims part of her book to people who love shopping and want to make it even more fun.

It’s not necessarily a contradiction in term, although my own prejudices are having trouble coping with that concept.  I’m not, after all, a happy shopper.  Like many men, I see retail stores as places for hunting, not gathering: I know my prey, I’m a busy guy, and my ideal store minimizes the nonsense between me and what I want.  So when Newlin flies in a rage against Costo/Price Club, I take it personally: I love Costo in ways that airy discussions about the chain’s efficiency, logistics and force concentration can’t fully convey.  (But I don’t always shop there.)

On the other hand, I do boycott Wal-Mart and love my upscale(ish) neighbourhood grocery store.  Yet when Newlin blasts a suburban (read; poor and lower-class) IGA while praising Whole Food, I can’t help but twitch an eyebrow.  That reflex is confirmed pages later when Newlin talks about a simply wonderful, dahrling shopping afternoon in trendy upscale Manhattan boutiques.  It then becomes reasonable to suppose that Newlin has lived the Manhattanite life for too long to be able to relate to most of her shopping readership: much of the (short) book isn’t about shopping as it seems to be about pure class exhibitionism, and the demonstration that Newlin’s tastes are unarguably better than those poor schlubs trucking it to their local IGA.  There’s a difference between having the means to consume better products and rubbing one’s self-designated superiority in everyone else’s faces, and Shopportunity! comes revoltingly close to the second.  As a result, I found myself disliking the book long after Newlin moved on to other topics.  In fact, I found myself disliking the author (who, I’m sure, is a perfectly nice person when she’s not writing books), and there’s little coming back from that point.  I hope it burns her to learn that I got the book at a remainders table.

But even ignoring the class issues, Shopportunity! is just a mess, destined at about four different and incompatible audiences.  Those looking at business advice will resent being treated to incoherent “Shopping Tips” like brain-damaged Valley Girls (“Rule #3: Let Brands Transform You” [P.40]), while socially-conscious shoppers will be put off by Newlin’s effortless arrogance.  While there is substantial insight buried in-between the dumbed-downed bullet points and the shoppier-than-thou arrogance, Shopportunity! never gels, and comes across as an unsatisfactory mixture of material found elsewhere in purer, more coherent fashion.  There are so many fundamental social problems in the way retail outlets are set up nowadays that building about around how it’s “not fun to shop anymore” is the dumbest possible way to approach the issue.  Shopping technicians are better off reading Paco Underhill’s books; shopping activists are better off with Naomi Klein or Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap and shopping fans are better off at the mall.

The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, Rebecca Keegan

<em class="BookTitle">The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron</em>, Rebecca Keegan

Crown, 2009, 273 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-46031-8

Admitting that James Cameron is one of my favourite directors is endangering my movie-reviewing license and exposing myself to endless mocking.  Somehow, the more successful his films become, the most acceptable it is to dismiss his achievements.  But as someone whose mind was blown away by Aliens and Terminator 2, someone who still likes Titanic and Avatar despite the faux-chic scorn they attracted, it was hard to pass up Cameron’s latest biography, one that picks up twelve years after Christopher Heard’s poorly-sourced Dreaming Aloud.

Rebecca Keegan has one big advantage over Heard, and it’s that she wasn’t limited to newspaper clippings and a few meagre interviews: she reportedly had full access to Cameron, his family and his long list of friends and acquaintances in Hollywood.  As a result, The Futurist is a rich and well-researched book, one that remains interesting throughout and not just when its subject hits the big time.

Of course, the notion of “big time” for Cameron starts early, as he’s been helming his own celluloid visions since 1984’s The Terminator.  Every subsequent Cameron film after that is a study in increasingly complex endeavours, with making-of stories that rival the film itself.  “Just another day on a Cameron set” may include everything from hanging off a plane suspended by a crane over the Miami skyline, nearly drowning in an abandoned nuclear reactor cooling tower, building a near-full-scale model of the Titanic with period detail, or inventing new technology to get unprecedented visuals.  From its very title, The Futurist aims to show how much of a visionary Cameron truly is; how he has the mind of an engineer, the hands of an artist and the eye of a filmmaker.  Tales after tale show Cameron doing things no one else has ever done before, winning large bets against those who said it just couldn’t be done.

The flip-side of this incredible forward drive is Cameron’s abrasive personality, one that has annoyed a number of award-watchers, left film crews rebellious and broken four of his own marriages.  Cameron delivers fantastic movies, but he’s a demanding master in making them.  But then again, he has paid his dues: One of the best-known stories about him involve feverish sickness in Rome while fruitlessly re-editing his first film (an episode that would lead, as fans know, to the genesis of the Terminator films), but Keegan also reports on a lesser-known story about his first shoot that involved Cameron literally mopping up blood on the set and trying to keep the rest of the lunching crew from finding out what happens when you shoot in a real morgue.  Keegan doesn’t shy away from describing Cameron at his worst or identifying who has said they would never want to work with him again, but she does her best to show how the same facets of his personality can lead to good and bad.

The rest of the book is just as skilful.  With deft and clear narration, Keegan moves from project to project, weaving industry facts with recollections from Cameron acquaintances.  For moviegoers, The Futurist is a lot of fun to read.  I don’t follow gossip much, and so there were a number of new anecdotes to me here and there, including one in which Cameron helped arrange for the safe release of Guillermo del Toro’s father after a kidnapping.  Perhaps the most revelatory section of the book follows Cameron in the twelve years between the release of Titanic and Avatar.  Flush with cash and acclaim, Cameron chose to step away from Hollywood and spend a decade indulging in his passions, from deep-sea diving to space exploration and setting up the new technology that we would need to deliver Avatar.

Given all of this, the flaws of The Futurist are slight, obvious and inevitable.  Released to coincide with Avatar’s release, it hopes for another Cameron success but really has no idea how big the movie would become, and how warmly it would be greeted by audiences.  Then again, updated material is what paperback editions are meant to feature.  (One wishes, though, that some of Keegan’s most ridiculous claims about Cameron’s predictive powers would be toned down: Using Arab terrorists in 1995’s True Lies doesn’t make him anticipate Al Quaida any more than did contemporary thrillers such as Executive Decision and Air Force One.)

It’s not quite the ultimate Cameron biography (one hope that he still has a few great movies in him), but it’s a very good one.  It’s certainly the best and most complete book about Cameron’s life so far (even though Paula Parisi’s Titanic and the Making of James Cameron remains a resource for Titanic minutiae) and a pretty good compendium of arguments for those willing to argue that Cameron is among the most important directors of the past quarter-century.

Daybreakers (2009)

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

(In theatres, January 2010) Every genre fan comes to develop a fondness for “the B-movie that could”, the twice-a-decade film that comes along with a little budget and big brains to take the genre in a newish direction.  While that’s a lot of praise to dump on Daybreakers all of a sudden, consider that it manages to combine horror and science-fiction to imagine a future society that has adapted to the fact that most people are vampires.  Add a few action scenes, Willem Dafoe playing a redneck with a fondness for crossbows and muscle car, tons of special effects and a script that doesn’t devolve into total silliness and the result is an impressive piece of work, especially in the doldrums of January.  It’s a savvy piece of work, one that privileges quantity of special effects, little details and genre-blending to deliver a mean and lean movie.  The direction is pretty good, the thematic underpinnings are solid, the pacing always accelerates and we have the sense of watching something that hasn’t been done before (no, Ultraviolet doesn’t quite compare).  It’s not a perfect piece of work: Ethan Hawke is a bit dull, some of the details make no sense, and the revelation on which the third act depends seems quite a bit… convenient.  Nonetheless, Daybreakers is a vigorous, stylish, entertaining B-movie that will earn quite a few admirers.  It’s probably my favourite vampire film since Blade II, and it pumps some blood back into what was becoming a tired monster.  I’m not sure what the writer/director Spierig brothers will do next, but I’m already interested.

The Rebel Sell, Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter

<em class="BookTitle">The Rebel Sell</em>, Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter

Harper Perennial, 2005 updated edition of 2004 original, 374 pages, C$19.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-00-639491-4

Shortly after reading Naomi Klein’s virulent No Logo, I ended up buying myself a copy of Adbusters magazine despite Klein’s own misgivings about the publication. It was the first time I purchased the magazine since high school: I wanted to see what I had been missing in the years since then, and gauge the current state of the anti-consumerism movement.  I wasn’t impressed: In-between spastic graphic design, incoherent articles and a message that didn’t seem to have evolved since the early nineties (and which may, in fact, have regressed into further insularity), Adbusters seems more self-satisfied than relevant, a charge that also broadly applies to a number of activists on the left end of the political spectrum.

So imagine my pleasure in finding kindred spirits in Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s The Rebel Sell. –also known as Nation of Rebels in the US market.  The book’s subtitle promise to tell us “why the culture can’t be jammed” and the demonstration is more than a discussion of co-optation.  Indeed, the authors demonstrate, there was never a need to co-opt, since counter-culture does nothing better than reinforce culture itself.  Their argument is complex and I’m not up to the task of summarizing their dense tapestry of ideas, but it generally breaks down in the realization that the mainstream doesn’t really exist.  Mass culture is made of many sub-cultures, including the counter-culture.  Nothing really stops anyone from adopting counter-cultural ideas as part of their individual identity, and there is a lot of money to be made selling ideas of rebellion.

So far so good; but what really sold me on the book were Heath and Potter’s demonstration that the current (Canadian) system, albeit imperfect in countless ways, actually works better than anything else tried so far.  Whereas the far left thinks it will settle for nothing less than revolution, the author point out that small incremental changes have, historically, been the surest way to chip away at social inequity… not to mention the losing gamble that is the complete replacement of an established system.  It seems like a common-sense point, and yet one that’s not often taken seriously.  Of course, small incremental changes are boring.  They require work, tenacity and, at the very least, some involvement in the messy real-world conflict of interest that is organised politics.  The Rebel Sell may be a triumph of conventional thinking, but it’s also far more reasonable than anything it criticizes.

Not always reasonable, though: The Rebel Sell is, in many ways, a sneering dismissal of left-wing power fantasies and at times it can’t avoid the trap of acting like the smartest kid in the class.  While most of the book is solid, it sometimes becomes wobbly in specific criticism.  They authors point and laugh at Naomi Klein’s musings about the gentrification of her neighbourhood in a way that almost makes me suspect that they must have had an argument with her at a Toronto social event or something.  (Not to mention their dislike of Alanis Morrissette!)  They also, regrettably, sketch a bit hastily over the point that not all No Logo-inspired left-wing activism is posturing: criticizing third-world sweat shops is about improving lives, not simply selling counter-culture merchandise.  (Maybe that point seemed obvious to the authors who, despite their targets, actually hail firmly from the left side of the political spectrum.)

But none of this changes the fresh thinking in this book.  It’s articulate, a bit smart-alecky, almost daring in its embrace of middle-of-the-road progressivism.  It’s very Canadian in how it speaks from the middle against forms of excess, and uses the ideals of the left to police its own worst excesses.  (In a formula I’m adopting from now on, they point out that the left has trouble differentiating dissent from deviance.)  This review barely scratches at the fizzy intellectual fireworks of the book, but it’s a joy to read and great way to complete the picture painted by Klein and company.  It’s perhaps most useful as an antidote and vaccine against some of the most inflamed rhetoric that starts to sound so good after eight years of the Bush administration.  Most people are, after all, reasonable people.  They don’t all subscribe to Adbusters magazine and would rather live well than climb to the barricades.

(Bonus Trivia: You can scour early-nineties Adbusters magazine and spot my name once in their letter columns.  If my memory of what I wrote there is correct, you will find out that I haven’t changed much since then.)

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

<em class="BookTitle">Oryx and Crake</em>, Margaret Atwood

McClelland & Stewart, 2003, 378 pages, C$37.99 hc, ISBN 0-7710-0868-6

When a talented mainstream author tackles a science-fiction novel, quite a few interesting things start to happen.  The novel is read by two largely distinct audiences (the author’s audience, and the genre SF audience as well), leading to what can be hilariously divergent takes on the result.  Historically, mainstream authors writing SF did so without the bag of tricks drilled into the heads of budding genre writers (consistent world-building, incluing, social complexity, etc.) and without any lifelong affection for the genre either.  The result tends to read like well-written, but substandard science-fiction: The background doesn’t hold together, the extrapolation is superficial and there’s a suspicion that everything is supposed to be a metaphor standing for something else.

But Margaret Atwood is not just a “talented mainstream author”: In fact, despite her occasional protestations, she’s perilously close to qualifying as a true science-fiction writer.  She has written at least three SF novels so far, and one of them, The Handmaid’s Tale, remains a minor landmark of the genre.  Mainstream fiction novel The Blind Assassin even included a subplot about a hack SF writer in mid-twentieth century New York.  Atwood has apparently read a lot of SF in her formative years (which may explain her familiarity with an often-outdated notion of the genre) and clearly understands how it can be used to do things that mainstream fiction can’t explore.

So it is that Oryx and Crake is a return to Science Fiction for her: While the framing device is about a man, a quest and a post-apocalyptic world, the meat of the story is the imagined biography of three people growing up in an increasingly unpleasant future.  Jimmy (later Snowman) is the main viewpoint character, and his experiences growing up with his friend Crake, and then meeting Oryx, form most of the bulk of the novel.  It’s not a pleasant future, what with deadly violence figuring prominently in popular entertainment, and genetic manipulations resulting in ever-stranger life forms.  When humanity is wiped out in the last third of Jimmy’s narrative, just in time to make place for the post-apocalyptic landscape Snowman has been inhabiting in-between telling the story of his life, we feel as if it’s a deserved end.  After all, it has already engineered its better descendant to inherit the Earth once they’re gone.

Genre readers poking at Atwood’s imagined future won’t be impressed by the originality or depth of the SF elements.  Much of it appears recycled wholesale from other post-apocalyptic genetically-engineered nightmares.  Atwood loves portmanteau words and can’t resist the impulse to label everything in cute fake trademarks, surrounding her characters with a blizzard of consumerist tags.  Her future society, pre-catastrophe, seems to be one in which everyone is gleefully complicit with competing corporations, unchallenged pornographic entertainment and rotten “human” behaviour.  It’s not a nice novel, and even pointing out that it’s supposed to be dystopian satire doesn’t do much to quieten thoughts that we’ve seen all of this before, in more fully imagined settings.  This being said, Atwood does not embarrass herself with paper-thin future elements like so many of her mainstream colleagues: There may not be a lot of SF here, and it may not go far, but it’s good enough to suspend the disbelief of the average SF genre reader.

But reading Oryx and Crake for the SF elements is like using a Ferrari to commute to the nearest bus stop: It’s a bit of a waste, and it denies the book’s greatest assets.  An Atwood novel is meant to be read for the writing, the sly humour, the deadpan take on human weaknesses.  Never mind the obviously converging plotting; it’s a book meant to be appreciated line-by-line.  Reading it is, if you want to go back to clumsy car analogies, like experiencing a performance engine put in an otherwise unassuming beater: The writing is polished to a level that would cause lesser writers to weep openly.  It doesn’t amount to much in the end, but it’s a ride to get there.

Oryx and Crake even fans the deep and undying crush that mainstream-friendly SF genre readers may have on Atwood, who will always remain Canada’s hottest writer no matter how much we can take her for granted.

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder</strong> (2009)

(On DVD, January 2010) Every one of the four straight-to-DVD futurama features has been less interesting than its predecessor, and so it is that Into the Wild Green Yonder in the least interesting of them all.  It’s still worth a look for confirmed Futurama fans, but there isn’t much here that sticks in mind: While the early Mars Vegas sequence is promising, the mini-golf throwaway joke becomes a stretched subplot, the environmentally-focused theme becomes overbearing (the eco-feminist subplot?  Eh.)  and by the time we’re supposed to realize that the film may be the last Futurama episode ever (thanks to an ending that wraps up a few romantic threads, and sends the entire crew somewhere else), it’s a bit of a relief that the thing actually ends.  There is a surprising amount of continuity with the entire series, another proof (if it was needed) of the intricate nature of the Futurama series, where nothing is quite a throwaway joke.  The best thing about Into the Wild Green Yonder may be the sales figures pushing toward another season of Futurama, hopefully in episodic 20-minutes installments for suited to the show’s nature.  The DVD adds an audio commentary that is up to Futurama’s entertaining standards, as well as a few other short features, the best of which being a hilariously misleading “making of” documentary that should satiate even the most rabid Amy/Lauren Tom fans.

From a Buick 8, Stephen King

<em class="BookTitle">From a Buick 8</em>, Stephen King

Pocket, 2003 reprint of 2002 original, 487 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7434-1768-2

At this stage of his career, Stephen King can take risks that a younger writer wouldn’t dare.  Risks like a novel that consciously withholds complete satisfaction from the reader, wrapping everything in a preachy blanket of “there are strange things we’re not meant to understand”.  No, I’m not talking about The Colorado Kid, but From a Buick 8, an uncanny novel that does things in ways few genre readers would expect.

Which is just as well, because a very superficial look at the novel immediately summons memories of another King novel: his Christine is the first example that comes to mind whenever talking about “evil car horror novels” for instance.  But the similarities end there: In From a Buick 8, things are far more complicated than just a car haunted by evil spirits.

After all, it’s not even a car.  When Pennsylvania State Troopers are called to a gas station to pick up an abandoned vehicle, they quickly find out that the object that looks like a Buick Roadmaster really isn’t: Not only do the details don’t match (extra decoration elements, oversized wheel, etc.) but the car won’t even move by itself.  Never mind how it got there, or where its driver has gone: Soon enough, the Troopers discover that the materials used to build the car are quite unlike anything they know, and that the car self-repairs when damaged.

But wait: it gets worse.  Periodically, the car starts bending reality.  Temperatures next to it drop by several degrees and the inside of the car lights up with eerie electrical light.  Soon after those events, things either disappear or appear next to the car.  One trooper goes missing.  Repulsive plants and animals pop up next to the car.  Faced with such phenomenon, the troopers safely shutter the car in a shed.  Years pass.

Don’t expect a tidy chronological third-person telling of the tale.  From a Buick 8, also much like The Colorado Kid, is a novel in which a younger protagonist is told things by older, wiser people who have seen it all happen.  In this case, a young teenager, whose recently-killed father knew the secrets of the Buick, prods and asks his father’s colleagues about the car he discovers hanging around the barracks.  Their tale goes from 1979 to the early years of the new century, in bits and pieces given how they don’t want to acknowledge all at once the piece of pure strangeness in the back shed.  The narration is one filled with regional expressions, jaded details, blue-collar vocabulary and homespun turns of phrase.  The teenager wants to know everything as soon as possible, and have it make sense, whereas the older folks know that it’s impossible: The car has been in their lives for decades, and it’s unexplainable as far as they know.

In many ways, it’s a novel about storytelling and how it’s neater than messy reality.  The Buick becomes an irrational part of the characters’ lives, to be locked somewhere in a shed and occasionally confronted as it takes out another piece away from their orderly reality, or spits out something that has no right to exist.  It’s not a scary novel as much as it’s a quietly terrifying one as the characters come to terms with something that will never be explained.  In that regard as well, it’s a precursor to the dirty trick that King would spring on readers with The Colorado Kid, presenting them with a tantalizing mystery that the author refuses to solve.

Yet From a Buick 8 is somewhat friendlier to genre readers than The Colorado Kid in that it does feature a decent amount of chills and thrills even before the conclusion, and that it does offer enough of an explanation and a conclusion to mollify most readers.  The central mystery itself remains, but most of the smaller details are tied together in a final vision, and the epilogue offers a surprisingly reassuring way out of the strangeness.

It amounts to a strange and uncanny novel that works in ways that horror novels usually don’t.  It’s a pleasure to read thanks to the narration and the accumulation of details about the life of state troopers, but it does eventually leads somewhere with its steady freak show of small-scale terror.  The framing device works in large part because the conclusion jumps out of the frame and starts messing with the people telling the story.  Writers will recognize the risks taken by King here, but readers should feel blessed to be in the hands of such a good storyteller.  From a Buick 8 is not your average horror novel, and it’s all the better for it.