The September Issue (2009)

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

(On DVD, September 2010) The September Issue does something very clever in its first minute: it confronts viewers who dismiss the world of fashion with sweeping statements that just betray their ignorance.  (“people are frightened about fashion. Because it scares them or make them feel insecure they just put it down”) Thus challenged, viewers can settle down to enjoy a behind-the-scene look at the making of “the bible of the fashion industry”: The deeply influential September issue of Vogue magazine, which has the power to set trends for an entire season.  This is one of those silent-narrator films (although the cameraman gets dragged into a photo-shoot late in the film, with hilarious results), leaving enough space for Vogue magazine’s staff.  The two dominating figures are quasi-legendary editor Anna Wintour and creative director Grace Coddington: both squabble over the magazine’s layout, Wintour seemingly dominating for much of the film but eventually accepting Coddington’s advice by the end.  (Given the contrast between the haughty Wintour and the earthier Coddington, this also stands as the viewers’ vindication.)  There aren’t any big revelations or apologies about taste-maker Wintour, but that’s almost OK given the need to keep such figures on a quasi-mythical level. (Those who come to The September Issue with her caricature in The Devil Wears Prada in mind won’t be surprised or disappointed.) Otherwise, it’s a peek at the prodigious style factory that is Vogue, where considerable time and effort goes into making stunning pictures that may be discarded on a whim.  Not enough time is spent on the actual graphic design of the magazine, but we get enough of models, photographers and editors trying to make sense of such a logistical undertaking.  The end result isn’t much of a critical exploration of Vogue or its industry, since The September Issue is unarguably sympathetic to the world of fashion: after seeing so many people working hard at putting out such a beautiful product, how could it be otherwise?

Get Him to the Greek (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Get Him to the Greek</strong> (2010)

(On DVD, September 2010) This movie pushes a lot of my anti-humour buttons: I’m still sceptical about a good chunk of the latest British comics, and Russell Brand’s fame seems as unexplainable to me as that of Steve Coogan or Sacha Baron Cohen.  (To say nothing of Jonah Hill, who feels like a less-funny Seth Rogen… and I don’t think of Rogen as particularly funny.)  Raunchy comedies aren’t my favourite sub-genre either, and I’m getting too old to play the spot-the-pop-references game in which Get Him to the Greek often indulges.  Those biases exposed, I still had quite a good time watching the film, in part because of its go-for-broke willingness to throw just about everything at the screen and hope some of it will be amusing to viewers.  Much of the celebrity cameos were wasted on me, except for Paul Krugman’s deliciously unexpected appearance.  Who would have thought?  Brand’s grander-than-life portrait of a rock star living to the maximum is enough to make us pine for the decline of mass-marketed music, while Sean Combs turns in a equally-enjoyable performance as an overblown music executive.  The film’s R-rated language and themes creates an atmosphere in which nearly anything can happen (including some things that you hope wouldn’t) and that kind of dreamlike no-limits feeling is something that’s relatively rare in today’s PG-rated comic landscape. Get Him to the Greek is undisciplined and scattered, but there isn’t as much grossing-out as you may expect… and even some overdone sweetness by the end.  Too bad that the more responsible plot elements end up looking so dull and worn-out compared to the film’s excesses: a script polish may have been able to smooth out some of those edges.  What’s there, however, is at least funnier than most other comedies on the shelf.  It may even surprise those of you who don’t expect much.

Time Odyssey 2: Sunstorm, Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter

<em class="BookTitle">Time Odyssey 2: Sunstorm</em>, Arthur C. Clarke & Stephen Baxter

Del Rey, 2006 reprint of 2005 original, 356 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-45251-8

Freakishly obsessive readers of these reviews have probably noticed a shift in my attitude toward Science Fiction over the past few years.  I read less of it (non-fiction seems more interesting to me these days), I don’t look at it so uncritically and I get less and less patient with its self-indulgences.  Anyone would be forgiven to conclude that I’m slowly moving away from the genre.

But that’s not true: SF is still my favourite genre, and I’m going to use Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter’s Sunstorm as my proof.  Because the real test of a fan is whether they can still find something worthwhile in an otherwise average genre novel.  Sunstorm won’t go down as any kind of classic (in fact, barely five years after its publication, it has already faded away) and yet I was able to sink into it like a warm comforter.  It’s a book that I can read on auto-pilot, almost without any effort given how close the novel’s assumptions are to my own.  From the moment the dumb premise is explained and the real meat of the novel is exposed, it’s pure classic old-school SF, and it made me smile even though I can acknowledge that I have already forgotten/forgiven most of its dull or ridiculous parts.

As the second entry in the as-of-yet-unfinished “Time’s Odyssey” series, Sunstorm is supposed to be a follow-up to Clarke/Baxter’s Time’s Eye (2004), but save for a very loose tying of both novels together by common antagonists and a viewpoint character, there’s little link between the two stories.  While Time’s Eye imagined a showdown between Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan on an Earth littered with slivers of its own past for no greater rationale than alien amusement (talk about a fanboy premise run amok), Sunstorm features the same plot-justifying aliens destabilizing the sun.  After an initial catastrophe early in the novel during while the sun pulses once with devastating results, scientists discover that within five years another building pulse of energy will essentially fry all of Earth.

That’s when the fun begins.  Because while nearly every other non-genre writer would jump on an opportunity to write about a world coming to grip with its imminent destruction, both Clarke and Baxter hail from the old can-do school of SF as an hymn to human ingenuity.  Rather than roll over and wait for the ultimate sunburn, much of humanity unites behind a grandiose project to build a planet-sized shade that will deflect enough of the radiation.

I have always been very susceptible to engineering-fiction, and so within pages of the project’s inception, Sunstorm was making me purr with details of how such a shield could be launched, built, assembled and steered.  Scientists come up with a series of solutions to bewildering technical problems, religious fundamentalists mount attacks on the project, hardy blue-collar workers assemble everything in orbit, governments mount last-ditch defenses to further alleviate the effect of the impending sun-storm and readers gets to enjoy a classic SF novel.  The prose is direct, the conflicts aren’t complex, the resourcefulness of the characters is considerable and the enemies are clearly identified (so are the fools, who deservedly burn after disregarding helpful scientific advice): Sunstorm can’t claim to sophistication, and that’s part of its charm.  As comfort reading for people having grown up on a certain type of Science Fiction, it’s hard to beat.

As a follow-up to Time’s Eye, it’s too disconnected to be of much use: It solves no questions and just uses the alien threat as another plot driver.  But as a reminder of how much fun SF can be when it gets down to the essentials of why it exists as a genre, it’s a highly enjoyable read even though it’s not much of an elegant piece of fiction.  SF fans will love it, non-SF fans will dismiss it, and sometimes that’s exactly how genre novels should be.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, September 2010) As someone who’s on record as writing that the original Wall Street was “the definitive film of the eighties”, it goes without saying that I had been dreading the idea of a sequel: why mess with quasi-perfection?  As seductive as the idea was to revisit those characters in the context of another financial meltdown, there’s no need to say that the idea of a sequel was entirely useless.  After seeing the film, I still feel the same way: While director Oliver Stone’s film (he didn’t write it, curiously enough) is a lucid treatment of the 2008 financial crisis and has some interesting things to say about the shared hallucination that are today’s financial markets, it merely plays on the existing Wall Street brand and quickly becomes bogged down in a superfluous romantic drama featuring perhaps the blandest young couple in contemporary cinema.  (Shia LaBeouf’s continued acclaim remains a mystery to me given his lack of on-screen personality, but he’s a charismatic powerhouse compared to Carey Mulligan.)  With serial numbers filed off, Wall Street 2 is a lucid high-stakes drama skillfully dramatizing a difficult subject… but as a sequel, it lacks some oomph and magic.  Still, occasionally, it shines a bit brighter than usual.  One fascinating facet of the film’s direction is the blatant use of infographics to illustrate what the characters are saying, reflecting the way our world has become far more abstract since 1987, to a point that we even think in information being presented as computer graphics.  While Gekko’s character has been considerably softened (a good creative choice, given the character’s age and his prison experience), Michael Douglas’ august performance still makes him one of the film’s chief attraction –to say nothing of a delightful cameo from another character in the Wall Street universe.  What may be missing from the film, however, is the kind of dripping popular outrage that keen observers of the recent meltdown have felt at the way corruption, sociopathy, greed and sheer criminal behaviour are endemic in the financial sector.  Wall Street 2 never gets angry the way the original did, and seems content to play with money as long as the right people get some.  But wouldn’t that, in itself, be the most damning indictment of our times as seen from 1987?

The Town aka Prince of Thieves, Chuck Hogan

<em class="BookTitle">The Town</em> aka <em class="BookTitle">Prince of Thieves</em>, Chuck Hogan

Scribner, 2010 movie tie-in re-edition of 2004 original, 364 pages, C$18.99 tp, ISBN 978-1-4391-9650-2

Sometimes, I wonder if movie adaptations somehow ennoble their source material.  Having been made subject to multi-million dollars films and subsequent marketing campaigns, source novels may be given a patina of respectability that would have completely escaped them had they stayed un-adapted.  Even unconsciously, readers may be tempted to approach them in a better frame of mind.  The movie provides images and sound to the novel’s prose, and so readers may feel as if they’re reading with a subtle wind at their back: they can easily picture characters, read through scenes knowing the overall shape of the plot and enjoy the extra richness of detail that comes from having access to non-spoken exposition, inner monologue and evocative prose.  Reader who, like me, have a habit of holding off on books until they’ve seen the movie always benefit by getting more out of the novel after the movie rather than being disappointed by film after the novel.

Those screen-to-page comparisons usually work best when the adaptation is reasonably faithful and when both film and book are worth a look.  Pairs like Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves and Ben Affleck’s The Town, for instance.  Renamed on-screen, most likely to avoid any confusion with memories of Kevin Costner’s 1992 Robin Hood film, Hogan’s novel is decently adapted, with enough differences to make happy viewers out of happy readers and vice-versa.

Set in 1996 Boston, Prince of Thieves studies a professional bank robber named Doug MacRay, a once-promising hockey player who has since recycled himself in the criminal underground as the planner of elaborate bank robberies and armoured-car assaults.  Hailing from the North-shore neighbourhood of Charlestown, Doug and friends are the kind of robbers who do a job every few months, supplementing their cover jobs with extra cash.  But as the novel begins, one member of the group decides during a heist to take hostage a young manager named Claire, a decision that puts extra pressure on the FBI’s robbery unit to track them down and leads Doug to check up on the freed Claire days after the robbery.  Romantic complications soon ensue.  Doug, as it turns out, really wants to escape the criminal lifestyle… but first he will have to come clean to Claire, and find a way to leave his friends behind.

Criminal thrillers are a dime a dozen, but Prince of Thieves is better than most.  Its most obvious advantage would be the satisfyingly complex plot, which mixes friendships, romance, drama, thrills and procedural details about bank robberies.  Hogan can rely on a plot that allows him to touch upon a number of sub-themes, and the novel is compelling for the way the characters are stuck between mutually contradictory emotions as they try to manoeuver between their loyalties and their true desires.  It’s a rich, old-fashioned narrative, occasionally peppered with a few action scenes.  The criminals moving the novel forward are experts at what they do, and so are the FBI agents tracking them: the result is a detailed look at the state of bank robberies as of 1996, perhaps the last great era for grabbing physical money.

Hogan can write as well as he plots, and there are a number of turns of phrase in Prince of Thieves that are good enough to appreciate on their own.  His writing isn’t pared-down, but it’s straightforward and evocative.  Needless to say, the novel has a strong lower-class Boston-based atmosphere that ties the characters and plotting together.  It’s the written equivalent to a well-edited film: it just flows forward, rewarding the audience along the way.

Comparisons between both forms of Hogan’s story will note that the film is lighter on technical explanations, and for some mysterious reason avoids replicating the movie theatre robbery that is one of the book’s standout sequences.  Much of the structure of the book is otherwise kept intact, save for a greatly reduced subplot involving the FBI agent character.  Both versions of the story end up with a daring robbery at Fenway Park and a thrilling chase down nearby streets.  The one significant difference that audiences are likely to remember, however, is that the film has a vastly more optimistic ending –one that delivers full satisfaction on the story’s central emotional conflict.  Seeing the film will allow readers to select their own favourite ending, which is another unfair advantage for adapted works: It’s easy to blend both takes in memory and think about a hybrid version that incorporates the best dialogue, the most striking moments and the most satisfying ending.  When a good novel begets a good film, it’s like getting the best of both medium… and there’s no artificial ennobling involved.

Easy A (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Easy A</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, September 2010) I have a big soft spot for clever bubbly teen comedies, and those aren’t as frequent as you may think.  Never mind how long it’s been since Clueless, Bring it On or Mean Girls: Easy A is now here to make us believe again in the power of a good script, decent direction and capable actors having fun in redeeming a high-school setting.  Paying explicit homage both to classic works of literature and to John Hugues’ work, Easy A’s starts out with a witty and literate script, but it’s the actors that really bring it to life: Emma Stone is immediately compelling as the picture’s lead character, a sassy/cynical/smart teenage girl who takes on lying about carnal trysts as a path to social success.  Around her, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci shine as an endearing mature couple who can’t stop trading sarcastic barbs: the rapid-fire delivery of their lines is one of the film’s sustained pleasures, and it show how confident Easy A can be in unloading its polysyllabic dialogue.  There’s a lot of really funny material in here that doesn’t call attention to itself, and that will reward viewers with enough attention to keep up.  Director Will Gluck showcases the script with zippy direction, but his technique wisely keeps the focus on the actors.  While the film has a bit of a third-act problem in trying to bring everything together (the real-life answer would be “nobody will care as soon as you graduate”), the rich writing more than makes up for whatever longer moments can be found on the way to its conclusion.  This is one teen film that everyone has a decent chance to enjoy.

Tell-All, Chuck Palahniuk

<em class="BookTitle">Tell-All</em>, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday Canada, 2010, 179 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-66631-2

Sometimes I wonder how many books it takes for an author to get scratched off from my “buy on sight” list.  I don’t have a definitive answer yet, but I will soon going to have another data point to consider if Palahniuk keeps going like that.  I’m not sure what happened after Rant, but everything he’s done since then has been underwhelming: Snuff couldn’t out-weird its own porn-star inspiration and Pygmy was an unreadable mess.  Tell-All manages to be a bit better than Pygmy, but not by much… and not enough to escape the feeling that Palahniuk may be due for an extended holiday.

The novel is written as a tell-all from a woman who has spent her life caring for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.  The stylistic devices that accompany this conceit are a deliberate appeal to movie-script lingo (“Act II, Scene One: For this next scene, we open with a booming, thundering chord from a pipe organ” [P.149]), direct addressing of the reader, repetition of a few barnyard noises, as well as the gossip-column-inspired boldfaced name-dropping of every new person, title, brand or group.

It’s a measure of how disappointing Tell-All can be that none of the devices seem all that original; that the story itself seems familiar; and that it all feels like a faded black-and-white copy of earlier Palahniuk novels.  The opening sting of the book is “Boy meets girl.  Boy gets girl. Boy kills girl?” and even then you can hear the weary sigh of fans realizing that Palahniuk hasn’t reached any deeper in the bag of plots that the one that drives nearly any romantic suspense ever made.  A quick read through the book only confirms the impression: this is weak stuff and no amount of tepid stylistic tricks can masquerade that lack of interest.

The execution isn’t entirely dull, but that’s not really high praise coming so soon after the unreadable Pygmy.  It’s not that Palahniuk has been lazy: The novel, taking place around 1960, is peppered by references to long-faded fifties stars.  That does have its own educational value (it reflects badly on me that I had to look up Lillian Hellman to realize that she wasn’t a fictional character), but Tell-All’s historicity offers little other than plenty of whooshing references, wasted winks and further distancing from the novel.  The appeal to nostalgia is undermined from the very first few pages by Palahniuk’s Gen-X sarcasm: I suppose that it makes sense to go back to pre-Technicolor days for a well-mannered story of fatal screen glamour, but he displays too little affection for the time and too much mean-spirited sniping to qualify for the nostalgia bonus.

For better or for worse, Palahniuk has conditioned his fans to expect more.  Clocking in at a bit less than 200 pages, Tell-All feels both insubstantial and overblown. There isn’t much to gnaw upon, and at the same time it feels too long even midway through.  It’s a short story that has been padded to (barely) novel-length… for which we’re supposed to pay thirty dollars.  Clearly, Palahniuk’s entertainment-for-money ratio has declined precipitously in the past few years.  A quick curious look at the novel’s Amazon rating shows three-stars-out-of-five (with a histogram that peaks at two-stars-out-of-five), which is really scraping the barrel as far as Amazon rankings go.

At some point, maybe now or maybe next book, it will be useful to start thinking about whether Palahniuk himself is in irreversible decline.  His shock-shtick has peaked in Haunted, and one wonders if the young post-adolescent males most likely to go nuts for his books aren’t turning to uncensored online forums for savage satisfaction.  Sometimes, a writer runs out of things to say and starts coasting on his reputation, and soon it will be appropriate to start wondering if Palahniuk is at that point.

But now, though, it’s enough that Tell-All is better than Pygmy, in much the same way that a clearly suicidal person has at least taken a step away from the ledge.

The Town (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Town</strong> (2010)

(In theatres, September 2010) Who would have thought that barely seven years after the nadir of Gigli, Ben Affleck would re-emerge as a significant director of Boston-based crime dramas?  Strange but true: After wowing reviewers with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck is back with another Boston thriller in The Town, this time taking a look at a gang of professional bank robbers as one of them begins a relationship with an ex-hostage of theirs.  Deceptions accumulate alongside complications as the gang keeps planning heists, the FBI is tracking them closely and the lead character wants out of his own life.  It’s the complex mixture of crime, action, romance and drama that makes The Town work, along with a clean direction, a good sense of place and a few capable actors.  Jeremy Renner is once again remarkable as a hot-headed criminal, whereas Jon Hamm gets more than his fair share of good lines as a dogged FBI agent.  The script feels refreshingly adult, full of difficult entanglements, capable performances and textured moral problems.  The adaptation from Chuck Hogan’s novel is decent, although most readers will be amused to note that a movie theatre heist has been replaced by something else entirely.  More significant, however, is the flattening of the FBI agent character and the far more optimistic conclusion of the film –in the end, the movie feels more superficial in general but also more satisfying in its closure.  The Town isn’t flashy, though, and this may be what separates it from a longer-lasting legacy.  No matter, though: it’s a good a satisfying film, and one that confirms what Affleck is now capable of accomplishing.

The American (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The American</strong> (2010)

(In theatres, September 2010) Art-house character drama and audience-baiting hit-man thriller collide unhappily in this glacially-paced adaptation of Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman.  (The re-titling of the adaptation as The American is hilarious in itself, as the book’s narrator pays painstaking attention to not revealing his precise nationality.)  While the book is a study of a character who happens to be a recluse gunsmith for assassins, with little in terms of action or thrills, the film rearranges, changes or adds elements in order to pump up the suspense (even flipping the book’s character to suggest that he is primarily an assassin with a sideline in gunsmithing), a manoeuvre that doesn’t manage to overcome the loose plotting, lengthy silences and static shots of Anton Corbijn’s direction.  The American feels like a very European film thanks to its contemplative mood and frequent female nudity, but it’s lessened by attempts to momentarily turn it into a genre picture when it’s most comfortable at a slower pace.  George Clooney is good and slightly atypical as the lead character, but it’s Violante Placido who’s the film’s revelation in a somewhat friendlier role.  The American is far better as a placid character piece than a limp action thriller: Either adjust expectations accordingly, or skip the film entirely.

Divine Misfortune, A. Lee Martinez

<em class="BookTitle">Divine Misfortune</em>, A. Lee Martinez

Orbit, 2010, 307 pages, C$24.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-04127-0

I have read practically everything by A. Lee Martinez, but only reviewed a few of his books: While his premises are almost always interesting, what he does with them isn’t always worth talking about.  He seems to have one favourite plot structure in his bag of tricks: show a few ordinary oddball characters in amusing genre situations and reveal one of them to be a hidden god fit to do battle against a terrible enemy beyond space and time in a bid to control all of the multiverses.  It’s not a bad plot per se –but like so many other overused things, it really starts grating when it happens over and over again.  A Nameless Witch particularly suffered from this plot device overuse, as did Monster.  Adding to the problem is that Martinez is never as enjoyable as when he’s writing about ordinary people stuck in extraordinary situations: the moment he reaches for the overblown, the metaphysical or the multiversal, I could hear my interest in his books falling to the floor… to remain there.

With Divine Misfortune, he revisits this familiar plot, as our lead characters are once again stuck in-between warring gods.  But wait!  The premise is, for once, used effectively.  There are fewer surprises on the way from mundane strangeness to all-out divine combat.  Our ordinary character courts divine intervention from the get-go and the framework of the novel’s universe is suitable to such things.  After all, Divine Misfortune takes place in an alternate dimension in which gods are real and can be courted by mortals.  Their influence comes directly from the number of worshipers they have and if everyone wants a piece of Zeus or Yahweh, there are thousands of other gods willing to pay just a bit more personal attention to you if you can prove to be an effective worshiper.  There aren’t many differences between our contemporary North America and theirs, except for video-matching services for suburban go-getters looking for an extra advantage in life.

People like Teri and Phil, for instance: ordinary white-collar workers looking for a bit of help for their commute and mortgage.  Teri’s never been one to worship a domestic god, but Phil thinks it’s a splendid idea, and before long the couple has settled upon Raccoon-shaped Luka, a minor god of prosperity who will make things go their way… as long as he can crash on their couch for a few days.  The welcome-in party, at least, gets epic as soon as Luka invites his friends…  and some of them start hanging around.  Divine Misfortune may be the only novel so far in which we get a laugh out of Hades being beaten at Death Ninja 3, and at Quetzalcoatl lounging on the couch, “watching telenovellas”.

In between divine domesticity, we get glimpses at other gods, some of them definitely nastier than others.  So when Phil starts fighting off unusually violent squirrels and being used as a Job-like figure between warring gods, we’re ready for the escalation and the result feels like a logical plot development rather than something thrown in there to lead the story somewhere.  The big finale uses so many gods that it starts feeling like a comic-book cross-over event, but Divine Misfortune never quite completely loses its connection with its ordinary characters, and that’s one of the reasons why it succeeds at the exact point when some of Martinez’ other novels became less and less interesting.

It goes without saying that the novel is joy to read, in-between the light-hearted details of a universe in which gods can directly influence human destiny.  It’s not a laugh-riot, but it’s good enough to keep up a smile during most of its duration.  While Divine Misfortune doesn’t have the mythological weight of more ambitious fantasy such as Gaiman’s American Gods, it’s after a different kind of impact and it succeeds quite a bit better than many of Martinez’ other books.  It’s probably still a bit too scattered (some of the scenes involving the antagonist felt too long and laugh-free compared to the rest) and the last act gets a bit too dark, but it’s better-handled than most of the author’s other novels –and there’s more basis for comparison there than the usual.  This is Martinez’s best since The Automatic Detective and Gil’s All-Fright Diner; I just hope that he’s got the sense to realize that he’s done the “fights between gods” shtick as well as he possibly can, and that he can now move on to something else.

Takers (2010)

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

(In theatres, September 2010) Keeping expectations low is one way to best appreciate Takers given how this surprising California-noir crime thriller recycles a bunch of familiar elements into a watchable whole.  The story, about a crew of Los Angeles professional bank robbers pulling off one last heist even as the FBI is closing on them and dissention strikes within their ranks, is so generic as to approach cliché: You can pick bits and pieces of Heat, Cradle 2 The Grave and even The Italian Job out of the finished result and it’s not as if the dialogue is anything special.  Worse yet is the direction, which feels forced to use an incoherent shaky-cam style every time something interesting is happening, undercutting our ability to make sense of what’s going on.  But despite the problems, it works: Takers features a fine multiracial cast (with special mention of Idris Elba, Michael Ealy and Paul Walker), a snappy rhythm, a few surprising stunts and a compelling sense of place for Los Angeles.  What may sour the impression left by the film is a curiously off-balanced moral center, with fairly unpleasant cops taking on glamorous criminals with crime-financed luxurious lifestyles: The ending provides plenty of bloodshed and little reassurance as to who, if anyone, actually fulfilled their objectives.  Still, if Takers may not be original… it’s entertaining enough.

Machete (2010)

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

(In theaters, September 2010) When a trailer for then-fake film Machete appeared attached to Grindhouse three years ago, the joke worked pretty well.  But would it survive being turned into a feature-length film?  As it turns out, Machete the film is what Machete the fake-film trailer had promised: A fully entertaining mixture of exploitation filmmaking, populist indignation and self-aware cinematic winks.  Bolstered by one of the most amazing cast in recent memory, Machete finally gives a much-deserved featured role to the mesmerising Danny Trejo, with fun parts for such notables as Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Lindsey Lohan, Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez.  Everyone looks like they’re having fun, which is in keeping with the film’s mexploitation theme: if you’re going to make a movie that plays to the audience’s bases desires for nudity, action and revenge, why not do it well?  Writer/Director/Editor Robert Rodriguez certainly knows what he’s doing: the editing lingers on the nudity, stays long enough on the action and flashes past the goriest violence so that we can enjoy the film’s dark humour without being repulsed by its excesses.  (Rodriguez may not have been the film’s sole director, but it’s unmistakably his film.)  It’s a terrific piece of grindhouse cinema, but it comes with quite a bit of populist decency.  The Latino diaspora is colourfully represented by food, more food, Catholic symbolism and a distinctive aesthetics: Add to that a striking case for respecting immigrant rights, and Machete becomes a film that speaks loudly about basic human rights while still delivering a hefty dose of disreputable entertainment.  In short, it’s a film that works on a number of levels, not the least of which is a considerable amount of sheer movie-going pleasure.  Knowing Rodriguez’s considerable personal charm and fondness for explaining the movie-making process, I can’t wait until it comes out on video.

The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

<em class="BookTitle">The Pillars of the Earth</em>, Ken Follett

Signet, 2007 reprint of 1989 original, 983 pages, C$8.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-451-16689-0

This isn’t quite an application of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (“the phenomenon where one happens upon some obscure piece of information– often an unfamiliar word or name– and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.” to quote, but once I started hearing about Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, I started hearing about it everywhere.  Idle musing on which “big thick paperback” to carry along with me on a two-week trip to Australasia netted me two independent recommendations for the novel.  Then the TV miniseries went on the air, which probably in turn explained why I spotted another airplane passenger reading it in the next row.  For a book I hadn’t noticed until a few weeks ago, that’s quite a series of coincidences.

Oh, I did know about Ken Follett –but until then, I had him pigeonholed as a writer of not-overly-interesting suspense novels, many of them featuring characters for which I couldn’t feel any sympathy.  But The Pillars of the Earth is something very different: An epic historical novel taking place from 1123 to 1174, featuring a large cast of characters all somehow involved in the building of a massive cathedral.  Not my usual kind of novel either but hey –it was big, thick and looked as if it could keep me interested during no less than eight plane flights in seventeen days.

The risk, of course, was that the novel would prove to be a dud, and that it would fall from my hands after a few dozen pages.  Then I’d be stuck with it for a seemingly endless time.

I shouldn’t have worried: From the very first pages, Follett does an exemplary job at establishing his characters and throwing them into difficult situations.  In the first chapter, in fact, one of our characters has his most precious property stolen, kills the thief, loses his wife in childbirth, abandons his child, sleeps with another woman and discovers that his newborn has been rescued by a monastery.  This is hard-core shock plotting, and it works unbelievably well at establishing the tone of the novel: The Pillars of the Earth is epic, harsh and pulls no punches in its depiction of twelfth-century England.  There’s as much violence as there are sex scenes –and a number of those sex scenes are violent as well.

As with many good historical novels, The Pillars of the Earth is a mixture of modern values and historical attitudes.  The strong female characters clash with the restrictions of the era, the powerful church routinely interferes with the weak kings (it’s not as if there’s just one of them either) and a number of the things we take for granted (say, the rule of law) are still hundreds of years in the future.  Follett gives a good idea of how it must have been to live at the time, and the result is absorbing from beginning to end.

As far as plotting is concerned, it’s a mixture of dastardly villains, pure-hearted heroes, sins committed for pure reasons and spiteful accidents.  Many characters die (some of them unexpectedly), but pretty much everyone gets what they deserve in the end.  The cathedral around which the plot revolves is built, abandoned and rebuilt more often than you’d think.  There are some coincidence-dependent plot junctions, but they don’t feel as arbitrary as predestined.  The pacing only flags during the last section of the novel, which tends to diffuse itself rather than end on a high note once the plot-lines are resolved.

But it all amounts to an extraordinary reading experience, indeed one that is only available from big thick books such as this one: The Pillars of the Earth is an epic in the unadulterated sense of the term, and readers will be able to be comfortably absorbed by the novel until it ends.  It lives up to my friends’ hype as an amazing novel… and one that’s well worth taking along on a lengthy trip.

For Follett, it also represented a radical shift from his more familiar cookie-cutter thrillers, and one that he still seems to enjoy: The Pillars of the Earth was only followed by sort-of-sequel World without End in 2007, but Follett now seems to be in the middle of writing a trilogy of historical novels covering the entire twentieth century.  It’s heartening to see an author taking such a chance and being rewarded for it: Another proof, if any other was needed, that it’s a good idea to write whatever you want and worry about market expectations later.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Exit Through the Gift Shop</strong> (2010)

(In-flight, September 2010) The facts, as presented by Exit Through the Gift Shop, seem to be these: Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles starts following graffiti artists with a video-camera as the “street art” scene gets going, gathering the trust of such notables as Banksy and Shepard Fairey.  Challenged by Banksy to make art, our hero-videographer reinvents himself as “Mister Brainwash” (MBW) and designs his emergence on Los Angeles’ art scene through a staggeringly deliberate show in which most of the actual art is sub-contracted to a team of artists working to his specifications.  The impression left by the film is one of tables being turned; the videographer making a film about Banksy turning up as the subject of a Banksy documentary.  It’s a terrific story, but is it true?  There are enough niggling details to make a sceptic out of even the most forgiving viewer: This is, after all, “a Banksy film”, and the horror-show of a sufficiently driven non-artist manufacturing themselves as a major talent in today’s contemporary art scene has a very Banksyan quality of subverting bourgeois artistic assumptions.  The film asks us to believe in a uniquely driven amateur videographer assembling footage in bulk, but who is truly making the documentary?  The result, on screen, at least has an irresistible quality, both as a privileged look at the street art scene, as a cautionary tale about the insanity of commercializing art, or even (if rumours of a hoax–or at least engineered performance art–are confirmed) as an ambitious piece of faux-cinema.  Guerra alone is a character in maybe two senses of the term, and his antics alone are a reason why Exit Through the Gift Shop deserves a look.  It’s certainly eloquent: I pretty much hate graffiti, yet still ended up purchasing Banksy’s first art book after seeing the film.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland)

<em class="BookTitle">The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest</em>, Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland)

Viking Canada, 2009 translation of 2007 original, 563 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06903-3

The story surrounding Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is often as interesting as the trilogy itself: Larsson, a left-wing Swedish journalist known for his anti-fascism investigations, turned to fiction writing late in life and delivered the first three books of a series before dying of a heart attack.  The books became a sensation throughout the world, finally landing in North America in 2009-2010 alongside their own movie adaptations.  While rumours abound that a fourth semi-finished manuscript exists, it does so on a computer belonging to Larsson’s long-time partner, who is now locked in a legal battle with the rest of Larsson’s family for a piece of the author’s estate.

This has little relation to what a review of the third volume of the trilogy should be talking about, except for the open-ended question of whether this is truly the final volume of Mikael Blomvkist and Lizbeth Salander’s adventures.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest picks up moments after the events of the second volume, as a badly wounded Salander is airlifted to one of Sweden’s best hospitals.  Drama follows when her equally-wounded father/enemy ends up in a room not too far away.  If the previous volume The Girl Who Played with Fire was about revenge, this one is about the consequences of going after one’s enemy with an axe, as the question of whether the Swedish state considers Salander capable of acting on her own comes back to the forefront.  It doesn’t help that she has earned the attention of a powerful faction within Sweden’s own secret services, and that they won’t stop at anything to eliminate the threat…

Readers who have made it this far in Larsson’s series will be pleased to note that this third volume delivers everything they’ve come to expect from him: A lavishly detailed procedural novel written from an activist point of view, criticizing the underbelly of the Swedish Social-Democratic model –particularly the way it treats women.  Blomvkist once again feels like a Gary-Sue idealized representation of the author (he manages to seduce another female character without doing much more than showing up), and even gets an action scene of his own.  Salander is up to her usual tricks, except for having forgotten her Fermat Theorem Proof in the aftermath of surviving a bullet in the head.  (It’s amusing how insane this sounds once summarized from Larsson’s multi-page explanations.)  It all leads to courtroom drama, and a conclusion that not only provides a happy ending for Salander, but obliterates all of her enemies.  Given the black-and-while nature of the series so far, few will be surprised when it’s revealed that people who oppose her are all violent, stupid, and/or guilty of horrible other offenses.

The conclusion is curiously satisfying when it shows the Swedish state activating its own self-policing mechanism: the conspiracy is taken down by the proper authorities, and not through some American-style idealized personal vendetta.  It’s one of the challenges of left-leaning writers to portray an effective and compassionate state when the unspoken rule of thrillers is that official corruption always runs deep: Larsson manages quite a deft success in portraying how even the heroes can benefit from some official help.

Fans of the films will note once again note how much more material is in the book, from a top-level meeting for Blomvkist to an entire subplot taking place at another newspaper.  But that amount of new material also betrays Larsson’s biggest problem: An inability to tell a story efficiently.  There is no need, for instance, to begin the book by spending two pages describing how an American neurosurgeon is asked to assist in Salander’s brain surgery.  At times, the book feels like a lengthy third act to a story that could have been published as a single volume.  It’s exasperating, and the amount of stuff never shown and never missed in the leisurely-paced films adaptations suggests how much fluff there is in the series.

Alas, we’ll never know for sure if Larsson would have written the other planned volumes in his series in a more economical fashion.  It’s ludicrous to believe that this will remain the final Millennium volume: At a time where napkin premises from long-deceased Robert Ludlum are being expanded in entire trilogies written by other authors, there will be other adventures for Blomvkist and Salander.  They may even be based on Larsson’s actual notes.  But they won’t have the surprise kick that propelled them to such popular attention.

Considering that Larsson’s books were reportedly the first translated novels to hit the top of the English market’s best-selling list, it’s not as if he has anything left to prove, even posthumously.