Clubland, Frank Owen

<em class="BookTitle">Clubland</em>, Frank Owen

St. Martin’s Press, 2003, 323 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-28766-6

One of the reasons why I can’t stop reading non-fiction books these days is the renewed realization that the world is vast and contains an infinity of interesting things.  No matter how tightly the subject is defined, there are more than enough interesting narratives out there to keep anyone reading forever.

For instance, you wouldn’t necessarily expect the mid-nineties New York club scene to be be interesting enough to sustain a hardcover book… and you’d be tragically wrong.

Frank Owen was there at the time, and Clubland is a fascinating report on what he witnessed.  He’s not a big part of the story that plays out, but he’s not entirely detached from it either.  It starts as he buys a new popular drug, Special K, from a distinctive dealer.  This scene is important, but it takes about a hundred pages to understand why.

For Clubland is, in many ways, structured like a drug trip.

The first third is the high.  Here, Owen takes his time to clearly identify his subject.  Within mid-nineties New York club culture, he focuses on four different individuals: One-eyed Canadian-born club owner Peter Gatien, imaginative promoter Lord Michael Caruso, unhinged party animal Michael Alig, and shady small-time thug Chris Paciello.  All four men intersect in oft-surprising ways during that time.  But for the first hundred pages of Clubland, everything feels like a great night out: Gatien’s clubs are the toast of the town, and the rave culture of the mid-nineties seems to herald a happy kind of lifestyle the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Disco’s heyday.  Esctasy is the drug of choice, and uninhibited self-expression on the dance floor seems to be without consequences.

Unfortunately, this temporary reprieve soon turns dark.  The second third of Clubland is where the high peaks and transforms itself in an acute case of paranoia and madness.  Gatien’s successful clubs attract enough drug dealers to interest federal authorities.  Caruso helps Alig become his own exuberant self after a repressed childhood, but Alig ends up accidentally killing the very same dealer who sold Special K to Owen during the prologue.  For a chapter or two, Clubland changes gears: After a lengthy stretch of objective reporting, Owen comes back to the forefront as he describes his own efforts as a journalist for the Village Voice to find and expose a murderer.  Nightmares abound as the club culture turns sour, sometimes with hilariously awful results:

…the most notorious of Alig’s outlaw events took place in the back of a moving eighteen-wheel big rig outfitted with a sound system, a bar, and a disco ball. “Rudolph and Michael Alig dare you to ride the Disco Truck,” read the invitation for what would become a nightmarish journey around lower Manhattan.  Two hundred partygoers climbed into the back, and, as they soon discovered, the truck had little in the way of suspension.  As a consequence, the disco ball fell and smashed.  Then the sound system toppled over.  There was precious little air, so people started to faint, while others began to cry.  Partygoers pounded on the wall of the truck, begging to be let out, but the coked-up driver in the front failed to hear their cries for help.” [P.132-133]

As horrible as this excerpt sounds, I can’t help but giggle uncontrollably at the idea of an out-of-control Disco Truck.

While this is going on, Chris Paciello begins his unlikely rise from New York mob relations to the top of the Miami club scene, befriending a number of celebrities (including seemingly-wholesome Sofia Vergara, who even tried to help him pay bail when he was arrested) and changing the nature of East Coast music along the way.  The last third of Clubland feels like the letdown phase of a drug trip as the crazy stories and violent excesses all turn to numbing series of accounts and consequences: Gatien, Alig and Paciello all do time in the courts, some of them landing in jail for what they have done.  Meanwhile, the New York club scene dissolves and the temporary scene that Owen chronicles in his book seems to disperse.  (Whether this is truly the case I’ll leave to the partygoers who were there, and are better able to talk about what else was going on at the time.)

Clubland may not be a deep and meaningful examination of world-changing events, but it’s certainly an entertaining look at a unique culture that briefly blossomed and fell apart.  It’s a terrific read, and a powerful reminder that all sorts of horrible and beautiful events are taking place around us, even when they escape our notice at the time

Drive Angry (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Drive Angry</strong> (2011)

(In theatres, February 2011) I wish I liked this film a bit more.  After all, what unholy union of escaped-from-Hell supernatural characters, muscle cars, evil cultists, William Fichtner and Nicolas Cage could fail to ignite the interest of any self-respecting geek?  Yet Drive Angry feels a lot less interesting than it should: flat dialogue, familiar action scenes (Another mid-coitus shootout?  Shoot’em Up did it better!), wasted actors, bland script, dull direction and unappealing cinematography all compete to undermine the potential of the film.  While it’s always good to see William Fichtner on the big screen and Nicolas CageCage is always at least kind of cool to see, Fichtner isn’t given any kind of exceptional material and Cage tones down his performance a bit too much.  The scripts and its associate mythology are both filled with holes and hazy rules: there’s little concision to the story, which hurts a lot given its self-professed intent to ape old-school exploitation pictures.  The action scenes feel a lot more ordinary than they should (even the exploding tanker just doesn’t get the blood racing) and Drive Angry never completely clicks.  The mixture of demonic characters, cult sacrifices and American muscle-cars never amounts to much more than a collection of buzzwords: A perfect example of how good B-movie are usually identified by pleased audiences, not deliberately put together by technicians.

The Five Greatest Warriors, Matthew Reilly

<em class="BookTitle">The Five Greatest Warriors</em>, Matthew Reilly

Pocket Books, 2011 reprint of 2010 original, 574 pages, C$9.99 pb, ISBN 978-1-4165-7758-4

Consistency is usually a good thing for authors and their readers.  Writers accumulate fans thanks to their particular set of strengths, after all, and the path to popular success is capitalizing on the reason why buyers will pick up books by authors they like.  Matthew Reilly has developed a reputation as the novelistic equivalent to a big-budget action-adventure movie director: He writes novels as if they were action movies with an unlimited budget, and dangerous spectacle is his stock in trade.

Still, there’s something to be said against too much consistency.  The Five Greatest Warriors is the third novel in the “Jack West Jr.” series, but while I reviewed first volume Seven Ancient Wonders a few months ago, I found nothing interesting to say about sequel The Six Sacred Stones given how similar it was to its predecessor.  This third entry isn’t all that different from the second one and what had been a lack of variety now becomes a bit of a problem.

Tough audiences that readers are, there’s a fine line between consistency and self-repetition, and The Five Greatest Warrior tiptoes a bit too close to the edge.  The blend of high-tech action theatrics with mysterious ancient fantastic settings and low-grade mysticism that seemed so interesting in The Seven Deadly Wonders now seems like more of the same, repeated again.

The biggest problem of the Jack West Jr. series so far is the inherent problems in having a sequel to world-saving heroics.  Once characters have saved the world once, what’s to do for an encore?  Save it again?  Reilly’s oft-stated wish to go faster and bigger with each successive novel runs into self-defeating diminishing returns.  Little can surprise these characters now, and rehashing yet another set of ancient mysteries coupled with mystical cosmic alignments can get less and less forgivable.

The formula that seemed so crazy (in a good way) at first glance can now seem crazy (in a bad way) when it’s repeated again with minor variations.  Lessening the blow somewhat is that The Five Freatest Warriors is a wrap-up of the plotline introduced in The Six Sacred Stones: Nobody really relieved that Jack West Jr. was dead when, at the end of the previous volume, he leaped into a pit.  Not only is he alive and healthy in this sequel, but he wraps up the adventure even though, at nearly 1200 combined pages, it feels far too long for its own good.

At least the action set-pieces are, as usual, ingeniously constructed.  As West and his group keeps unearthing fantastic ancient sites, we get to go inside a tower set in a Mongolian crater, run around a massive Japanese complex, and give a spectacular send-off to the 747 that starred in the series so far.  Massive inverted pyramids are found everywhere, and helpful diagrams will make it easier for readers to keep up with Reilly’s videogame-influenced imagination.

Sceptics should be warned that The Five Greatest Warriors is definitely not the book that will change their minds about Reilly’s work: His narration is still just as full of exclamation points, one-word paragraphs and cliffhanger chapter endings (If you want to speed-read Reilly’s work, simply glance at the last sentence of each chapter.  All action, no filler.)  Maybe there’s an argument to be made for readers to let a generous amount of time elapse between every book of the Jack West Jr. series: Its thrills operate on a too-similar level to sustain close comparison, so a bit of distraction can work wonders for those coming back to Reilly’s universe.

Still, it works.  Reilly can stuff more imaginative concepts in a disappointing novel than most other reality-bound writers can manage in a handful of theirs.  (In this volume, his idea for “living human tombs” manages to strike a nerve.)  The series may look like a bunch of dumb action thrillers, but Reilly repurposes a lot of historical research, trivia and coincidences for his own purposes.  For all his faults, he knows what he’s trying to do and reading his self-interviews at the end of each book is worth the trouble if only because he manages to pre-empt most of the basic criticism about his own novels.  Referring to the Jack West Jr. as contemporary epic fantasy pretty much says it all, really.

The interview also outlines the rest of the series, down to “The One Something Something”.  I’m not in any hurry to see the rest of the sequence, but keep in mind that this may be about satiation more than disappointment.  Let Reilly write something else for a moment, and in a few years, who knows, I may be in the mood again for that kind of spectacular blow-em up action thriller.

Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love</strong> (1994)

(On DVD, February 2011) By the time a fourth installment in a comedy series rolls around as a TV movie, much of the magic is gone and so there isn’t a whole lot to say about Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love other than it makes for a pale epilogue to an already low-flying series.  Even the plot feels like “a very special episode”, as a long-running character gets married and hijinks ensue.  Lazily opposing nonconformist heroes (who become less and less nerdy as time goes by) to straight-laced villains, Nerds in Love takes the cheap and easy way forward every time.  The villains are bigger caricatures than before, the plotting is dumb to the point of insult and the film is so desperate for laughs that it ends up featuring a food fight and a birth scene in the middle of the usual antics surrounding movie weddings.  Robert Carradine does his best to keep up the spirit of the previous film and, to his credit, actually anchors a cast (including a guest appearance by James Cromwell) that doesn’t completely ruin it: Nerds in Love may not be much of a film, but it’s endearing to those who have stuck with the series so far, and it keeps up the charming nerdiness that made the first film such a fond memory.  The DVD contains a deleted scene but no special features of note.

Unknown (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Unknown</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, February 2011)  I suspect that any overall appreciation of the film will hinge on the reaction to the shift from the Hitchcockian beginning of this B-grade thriller to its far stranger ending.  The premise is solid suspense gold (an American traveler in Berlin has an accident, suffers from some amnesia, but isn’t recognized by his wife once he finds her again) but as the film progresses it shifts while adding assassins, car chases and characters curiously versed in espionage lore.  It’s all nicely tied up, but more importantly it’s delivered with a solid regard for thriller conventions.  While Unknown may not qualify as a top-quality suspense film, it’s quick and dirty enough to serve as a respectable typical genre exercise.  In a solid performance, Liam Neeson reminds us of his turn in the seemingly-related Taken and carries much of the film on his shoulders.  The cinematography is Berlin Winter-harsh and if Jaume Collet-Serra’s directing is a bit too jumpy to be more effective, the entire film feels like a straight-ahead delivery of expected thrills.  Never mind the plot holes or the mid-film lulls: You want a thriller?  Here’s a thriller.  Curiously enough, this exploitative genre piece is adapted from a far more introspective 2003 French novel by Didier van Cauwelaert, Hors de moi, which delves into metaphysical possibilities before delivering pretty much the same twist as the film, without car chases.  The movie, for once, is far more satisfying.

Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation (1992)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation</strong> (1992)

(On DVD, February 2011) While it would be easy to dismiss this as a quick straight-to-video follow-up to a series that saw better days, there’s actually a mixed bag of tricks in this third entry in the Revenge of the Nerds series: As botched as the execution can be, there’s some interesting material in seeing nerds grow up, a new group arriving on the scene and the ambition of a film to feature a general strike for nerd’s rights.  James Cromwell has another hilarious cameo appearance as an elderly nerd, which Robert Carradine has the focus thrust on himself as “a self-hating nerd”.  The nerdiness of the characters is less often technical and more similar to a veiled point about minority rights.  Sadly, it’s in the execution that Revenge of the Nerds 3 falls flat: None of the new nerds are as interesting as the senior generation; the production values of the film are limited and the quality of the writing just doesn’t support the premise: Everything is handled with a disgraceful lack of subtlety, especially the protagonist’s never-believable inner-conflict.  This, like most third installments in comedy series, is really for the fans… but even they may be annoyed with the result. The DVD contains no special features of note.

Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography, Katherine Ramsland

<em class="BookTitle">Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography</em>, Katherine Ramsland

Harper, 1997, 508 pages, C$7.99 tp, ISBN 0-06-105351-1

I’m in a confessional mood at the moment, so here goes: I’ve got a shelf full of Dean Koontz novels at home, and I you won’t find any evidence of that based on the reviews available on this web site.  They were a gift; I read them all (I had a lot more free time back then) and decided that I didn’t like Koontz’s fiction that much.  Based on a somewhat representative sampling of 21 books published between 1973 and 1995, I finally decided that Koontz’s fiction was a low-grade blend of tepid genre elements, featuring overwrought prose, slow pacing, stock characters and even more familiar moralizing from a somewhat conservative perspective.  If pressed, I will acknowledge some affection for Intensity’s madcap go-for-broke forward momentum.  Otherwise, well, I can recognize (without any snark) that Koontz is writing bestselling fiction, aimed at the middle of the road and quite successful at that.

So why read an entire biography about the guy?  Because I happen to think that writers can be interesting independently of their output.  I’ve been to countless SF conventions, and stories about writers are like catnip to me.  Some people dream of becoming rock stars and Oscar-winning movie idols.  But whenever I picture the idealized life of the rich and famous, I always picture myself as a bestselling author.  Call it aspirational reading, then.

But it turns out that Koontz’ life is far more eventful than most other writers.  Despite what you may think, most writers come from the same stock: middle-class upbringings, some schoolyard ostracism and life-long love for reading translating into writing skills.  Most horror writers that broke into print during the past ten years learned to love horror while watching movies on their parent’s VCR in the basement.  No complex life story; not much hardship; certainly no trauma.  Attend the World Horror Convention and, despite the sick sense of humour, you’ll find a fairly dull bunch of slightly-overweight overgrown white kids from the suburbs.

But not Dean Koontz.  Born in a very-low-class family, from a victimized mother and an abusive father, Koontz quickly realized the darkness of the world.  Katherine Ramsland’s biography may have a lot of problems, but it clearly show how tough an early life Koontz had.  If you ever wondered why “Dean R. Koontz” became simply “Dean Koontz”, realize that the R stood for his father’s name Ray… and that the death of Ray Koontz was felt as liberation more than loss.

But to reduce Koontz’s biography as a simple escape from an abusive alcoholic father is to minimize the energy with which Koontz honed his craft.  The first half of the biography shows just how relentlessly prolific he was, especially during the first ten years of his career.  Writing in different genres under a variety of pseudonyms, Koontz once looked like a promising SF writer before eventually finding his own path as a suspense novelist borrowing both from supernatural and realistic elements.  (Speaking of which, the SF&F community doesn’t fare well in this biography.  While Silverberg, Ellison, Powers and Blaylock all get compliments -the first two as mentors who encouraged Koontz to find his way; the last two as latter-day friends-, Damon Knight and Forrest Ackerman are both portrayed as distant boors.)  Koontz, more than many, earned his bestselling status after a lot of hard work.  Reading about the choices he faced as an increasingly popular writer is exactly the reason why I wanted to read this book.

Alas, much like there’s a difference between a writer and his work, there’s also a difference between someone’s life and the way it’s chronicled.  There’s a terrific book to be written about Dean Koontz, but Katherine Ramsland’s Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography isn’t it.  Several annoyances all combine to take away from the book’s impact.  The first and most annoying of those is Ramsland’s tendency to look at Koontz’s life and works through a psychological analysis lens.  Here, nearly every event of significance in Koontz’s life seems to be linked to his fiction, and while that’s not exactly a stretch for some of his work (especially the ones dealing most directly and explicitly with his father), it’s a tendency that grates over 500 pages, especially when the parallels get more and more tenuous.

I’m also not terribly happy with the semi-rigid way the book is structured, every chronological year introduced through a summary of events.  Ramsland’s matronly conservatism show often in her editorializing, but worse than that are the several mistakes of fact in describing events taken from an almanac.  “In 1977… the first manned space shuttle took flight” [P.220] is only true if you count atmospheric gliding: the first real space shuttle orbital flight was in 1981; more seriously, “1990… was the year when United Nation forces liberated Kuwait from Iran’s aggression” [P.367] is so wrong that I can only wonder how many people didn’t proofread the book correctly.  Neither mistakes seen on a casual read directly impact Dean Koontz’ narrative, but I don’t know Koontz’ life at all, whereas I know a bit about world news –if the book can’t get Iran/Irak right and misreads shuttle flights, then what mistakes are in the rest of the book?

It doesn’t really help my suspicion that the book is missing chunks of Koontz’s life by virtue of being semi-approved by Koontz himself.  While the biography isn’t explicitly authorized and Koontz reportedly had no say in the final manuscript, it’s a book that clearly depends on Koontz as a primary source, and so avoids a number of touchier issues while putting the best face on others.  Koontz rarely makes mistakes in his own biography: he changes agents often due to their incompetence or fails in business thanks to other people’s problems, but we never hear about Koontz from adversarial sources.  From time to time, clearer gaps emerge from the narrative.  The worst is probably the way the Koontz are described as having to leave Las Vegas.  The sum of what’s written about this is…

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Dean, “and I witnessed a major crime.” The investigation moved slowly, and given the nature of the crime and the way everyone in that town seemed to know everyone else, Dean and Gerda decided they would feel safer somewhere else.  Their friend hated to see them leave, but agreed that they should. [P.212]

Details?  Forget about it.  Now that’s why you want biographers to be sympathetic but impartial.  (And never mind asking embarrassing questions such as why Koontz went from balding to a head full of hair.)  While Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography serves as a good introduction to Koontz’s life and is filled with exclusive information, it does fall off the mark as a serious biography of the man –there’s little journalistic rigor, many errors of fact, not enough diversity of sources and curious gaps in the narrative.  It’s this close to a hagiography, and even a quick look at other reviews of the book on Amazon unearths a few narrative threads left unexplored.  To contemporary readers, Ramsland’s 15-year-old biography also leaves out a good chunk of her subject’s career –although an uneventful one, as Koontz has continued selling steadily in the meantime.

And yet, despite those troublesome issues, I come away from the book with more respect for Koontz, despite my conviction that I still wouldn’t like his fiction.  Ramsland may not have delivered a particularly good biography, but it’s serviceable enough.  It may even act as a precious source for whoever decides to write a real biography.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Age of Innocence</strong> (1993)

(On DVD, February 2011) Subtle, nuanced and character-driven, The Age of Innocence nonetheless never has to struggle to keep our interest.  As a piece of American Victoriana, it’s almost endlessly fascinating: the New-York upper-class of 1870 had issues to work through, and director Martin Scorsese lavishly places us in the middle of that society.  As a drama of manners, The Age of Innocence carefully establishes the rules than bind the characters, then follow them as they try (or don’t try) to rebel against them.  Given that this is a Scorsese picture, both script and direction are self-assured and surprisingly timeless.  Even the voiceover, usually a sign of lazy screenwriting, here adds another layer of polish to the film.  Production credentials are impeccable, with careful costuming, set design and even split-second glimpses at elaborate dishes.  Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as a deeply conflicted man of his time, while Michelle Pfeiffer reminds us of how good she was in her heyday and Winona Rider turns in an underhanded performance as a constantly-underestimated ingénue.  It all builds up to a quiet but shattering emotional climax that amply justifies the picture’s sometimes-lazy rhythm.  Worth seeing and pondering as one realizes that the protagonist pays for the right crime but for the wrong reasons.

Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise (1987)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise</strong> (1987)

(On DVD, February 2011) Considerably inferior sequel to 1984’s original Revenge of the Nerds, even though it’s quite a bit more assured in terms of budget and direction.  This time, the action moves south to Florida for spring break, but the script becomes dumber in a hurry.  If the first film was silly, this one is just stupid, and you can tell by the amount of time characters act like their own caricatures rather than real characters.  None if it is meant to be taken seriously, but the laziness of the script is such that even lame gags (like a metal detector finding a buried… metal detector) look like genius among the rest.  Much of the first half of the film is spent re-hashing the best moments of the first film, and while it’s fun to see Robert Carradine and friends laughing it up and James Cromwell return briefly as an unrepentant elder nerd, that’s not quite enough to make up for the rest of the picture.  There is, at least, enough colourful mid-eighties fashion to look at whenever the rest of Revenge of the Nerds 2 fails.  The DVD contains no special features of note.

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Revenge of the Nerds</strong> (1984)

(Second Viewing, On DVD, February 2011) The early-to-mid-eighties saw their share of college-set comedies, but few of them became part of popular culture.  If Revenge of the Nerds is any exception, it’s probably because of its outright pro-nerd message: Nerds have the fortunate tendency to take over the world’s technical infrastructure, and so it’s no accident if the film would be fondly remembered during an era where the Internet has made intellectuals kind of admirable.  (Nah, I kid: it’s all about the underdog, and everyone thinks they’re the underdog.) As a film, Revenge of the Nerds isn’t much to celebrate: everything about the production shows its age and low-budget origins and the direction is no better from countless other B-grade comedies.  In terms of subject matter, however, the screenplay is clever enough to marry geekery with college debauchery and underdog plotting (sometimes coming a bit too close to trivializing the plight of other minorities): the result hasn’t aged well, but it has held up a lot better than other films of its era.  There are even a few surprises in the casting, from John Goodman as a bullying coach, to James Cromwell as the protagonist Robert Carradine’s very-nerdy dad.  Dramatically, the film falls a bit flat toward the end without a clear climax (the beginning of the third act seems tighter than its end), but with such an amiable film, who’s to nit-pick?  Die-hard nerds may quibble at the questionable nerdiness of some of the members of Lambda Lambda Lambda (and their readiness to take up ordinary college antics), but that’s part of the film’s inclusiveness: Everybody’s a nerd now!  The “Panty Raid Edition” DVD contains the kind of audio commentary track that reflects the good times the filmmakers had in making the film, as well as a few featurettes to reinforce the feeling.  More amusingly, it also has a wretched sitcom pilot from the early nineties that shows everything that’s wrong with cheap scripted TV comedy.

Broken Arrow (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Broken Arrow</strong> (1996)

(Second Viewing, on DVD, February 2011) I hadn’t seen Broken Arrow since its opening weekend in theatres, but I’m not really surprised to see that it has held up so well as an action film.  The mid-to-late nineties had some fantastic examples of the form (Speed, The Rock, Face/Off, etc.) and Broken Arrow still holds the distinction of being one of John Woo’s better American features.  Structured around a script by Graham Yost, Broken Arrow features a pleasant mixture of military technology, criminal activity and all-out action indulgence.  Christian Slater is forgettable as the hero and baby-faced Samatha Matthis looks completely lost as an action heroine, but John Travolta steals the show as a charismatic scenery-chewing villain, coolly charming as a killer with the best dialogue in the entire film.  (From the seminal “Ain’t it cool?” (dot-com) to the clenched-teeth “Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons?”)  Planes, helicopters, trucks and trains are all destroyed along the way, but the clarity of the film’s action sequences still holds up as a fine example of the genre, especially after the erosion of action filmmaking during the last overly-edited decade.  Here, every shot seems meaningful, and we get to appreciate both pending dangers and minute developments.  A few of the night-time effect shots look dated, but the rest is still technically impressive.  Broken Arrow doesn’t make too much sense and definitely feels contrived, but it still carries an action-packed charge with a smile and presents B-grade action films as they should be more often.  The 2010 DVD re-release, sadly, is not even enhanced for widescreen TVs and offers no other features than the trailer –a real shame considering the documentary material available to a logistics-heavy action film.

The Silver Bear, Derek Haas

<em class="BookTitle">The Silver Bear</em>, Derek Haas

Berkley, 2010 reprint of 2008 original, 215 pages, C$9.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-515-14763-6

Reviewing books is one of my favourite things in life, and the evidence for that is everywhere you can click from this site, which has seen something like eight book reviews per month for years.  There are times, however, where even the fun hobbies can feel oppressive.  You’re not seeing any sign of the problem here because I’m back-dating my reviews like crazy, but I spent most of February 2011 reading one unreviewable book after another: Lengthy tomes that left me feeling nothing; non-translated French novels with no audience for an English-language review; humour books that I enjoyed but couldn’t comment at length.  As I found myself reading without reviewing, my backlog grew and I entered March without having finished by reviewing quota from January.  I lost patience with lengthy books that had no obvious reviewing hooks; was exasperated by pleasant but vapid comic books that couldn’t sustain 600 words of commentary; and started wondering why I was reaching so far in my stacks of books to read when I could just go grab something new and comment-worthy.  (The answer to that last question, incidentally, is “reading old stuff to make way for new stuff in the piles.”)  Suddenly, spending a week and a half to finish a single 1,600-page French novel in two volumes didn’t feel like such a good idea.

At some point, in bleary existential anguish, I started remembering the wisdom of more grizzled reviewers.  Which White Dwarf reviewer had made a comment about his brain shrinking to the size of a white dwarf after so many routine Science Fiction books?  Who was it who said that after reviewing for pay for years, short books looked more and more attractive?  Was it the same reviewer who said that after a while, they stopped grabbing the fat books if they had deadlines to meet?

In any case, I found part of my reviewing-mojo back in Derek Haas’s The Silver Bear.  Picked up a year ago partially because it had been misfiled in the SF section, partly for the novelty of seeing such a thin book published as a mass-market paperback, The Silver Bear is a short thriller with a lot of attitude.  It’s not that good, but it’s an entertaining read –and you can polish it off in two commutes even if you read slowly.

While The Silver Bear is a first novel, Derek Haas isn’t a first-time author: His credits as a screenwriter include familiar action films such as 2 Fast 2 Furious, Wanted and the somewhat more respectable 3:10 to Yuma.  That his name is recognizable and marketable explains why such a short novel made it to bookstores: Given contemporary publishing economics, few publishers would take such chances in publishing a slim, expensive novel from an author with no track record.  In fact, the last time remember such a slim book in paperback, it was Steven Bochco’s Death by Hollywood.

(Intermission note, since I’m padding this review: Reviewers shouldn’t make assumptions about publishing, fame and marketing.  A lot of stuff happens when Hollywood and New York publishers intersect, and only a minority of them actually make sense.  Agents can do wonders, as do promises of returns against favours.  Less cynically, there’s also the possibility that, you know, good novels get published no matter who wrote them.)

But what The Silver Bear doesn’t have in length, it has in attitude.  A first-person narrative detailing the formative years of an assassin in-between his preparation for a high-profile hit, it’s a novel that chooses to be snappy and efficient.  The antihero’s no-nonsense narration is clipped and to the point, while the plot moves swiftly in-between the flashbacks and the details regarding the life of a professional assassin.  Organized crime; the use of a contact point; forbidden romance; affectless professionalism; rivalries between competing assassins… On some level, this is very familiar stuff: the kind of building blocks many movies (including Haas’ Wanted adaptation) have used in the past.  But the down-to-earth nature of the details is convincing (our assassin’s path through the Chicago underworld is gritty enough) and the very dark world Haas needs as a backdrop to his novel is credible enough.

It makes up, for the sketchy nature of the novel’s plot to be found in-between the flashbacks and the conventional nature of the entire plot.  The been-there-done-that feeling of The Silver Bear weakens a final revelation that doesn’t seem all that consequential.  It’s always tempting, when considering novels written by screenwriters, to speculate as to whether the story would have been best-served on-screen, or if there’s a shelved screenplay somewhere with the same title.  Chances are that, at a different time, The Silver Bear wouldn’t have seemed as compelling as it does to me at the moment.  But I’ll take the small reading pleasures I get, and right now this novel is exactly the length I needed, with pretty much all the ingredients I needed for a punchy read.  Now let’s go on to weightier material.

Waiting… (2005)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Waiting…</strong> (2005)

(On DVD, February 2011) There’s been a welcome eclipse for gross-out comedy since the turn of the century, and Waiting is enough to remind us that even a foul-mouthed slacker comedy can dispense with references to genitalia.  But since one of the first significant laughs of the film comes from the line “If you want to work here, in this restaurant, I really think that you need to ask yourself one simple question: How do you feel about frontal male nudity?” it’s not as if we haven’t been warned.  The nominal plot engine is how a slacker-with-prospects (played by Justin Long) comes to reconsider the time he has spent working at the local “Shenaniganz” chain restaurant outlet.  But the ensemble casts brings together a bunch of oddball characters all having their own fun.  Ryan Reynolds is the most compelling as a hilariously deviant waiter who’s seen everything: It’s a scum-ball character, but he plays it with a winning smile and the film weeks weaker during its third act when it has to spend time away from him: few other actors could have earned such sympathy with that role.  Luis Guzman is another highlight as a restaurant worker obsessed with his own kind of fun and games.  Chi McBride, Alanna Ubach and Vanessa Lengies also make an impression in smaller roles, but everyone has their role to play in making sure that this workplace comedy ends up clicking.  Never mind the inevitable spitting-in-food scene (whose best laugh comes from the relatively innocuous “We almost had to switch to the ten-second rule.”): there’s more fun to be had in the acerbic repartee between workers and the blank-faced realization that much of the served food in America is handled by people waiting for a better life.  The two-disc DVD seems ridiculously loaded with extra features given the triviality of the film itself, but they’re good for a few extra laughs.

Haeundae [Tidal Wave] (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Haeundae</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Tidal Wave</strong>] (2009)

(On DVD, February 2011) One of the dangers in trying to review a foreign film is trying to figure out what’s a real weakness and what gets lost in translation.  To western reviewers used to firm tone unity within films, Asian cinema’s genre-blending can be a struggle to appreciate.  While South Korea’s Haeundae aspires to present an experience much like the typical American disaster movie, this may not be obvious from the first hour, which feels like an incoherent comedy featuring far too many ill-defined characters.  Comedy doesn’t always travel well, and it’s an even more difficult sell when the film doesn’t seem in any hurry to get to the disaster, or even tell a story efficiently.  The titular disaster strikes after 70 minutes, and the next fifteen are remarkably enjoyable in depicting a coastal city battered by a tsunami: There’s a series of sequences featuring a cargo ship and its containers that makes no sense, but is awe-inspiring in the ways only stupid action movie sequences can be.  But don’t count on any lasting triumph, because the closing moments of the film are taken up with lengthy body counts of characters that don’t necessarily deserve any retribution.  The end result feels like an incoherent blend of broad comedy, manipulative drama and dumb action: Haeundae lacks focus and direction.  The relatively copious DVD supplements of the US edition are hit-and-miss, but they reveal the filmmaker’s comedy backgrounds and their intentions to do something different.  The result, alas, speaks for itself: sometimes entertaining but generally incoherent, leaving audiences guessing.  How much of this is due to cultural differences and strange translation choices is something else worth reviewing.

Carriers (2009)

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

(On DVD, February 2011) One of the best things about Carriers is the way it wisely dispenses with the usual first act of most post-apocalyptic thrillers.  As the film begins with public displays of bad driving and other asocial behaviour, the ultimate pandemic has already happened, leaving only a few scattered survivors fearing for their lives.  While the tricks you in thinking that this is Chris Pine’s film due to a flashy performance, Carriers is really the story of someone else in their four-people group as they travel and see how badly society has deteriorated.  There’s not much of a point to the film but a few disconnected adventures and a gradually decreasing list of characters: as another example of how nihilistic the post-apocalyptic genre can be, it’s hard to do better.  Still, for such a low-profile horror thriller, Carriers is generally well-executed (some of the camera work is very good), and written with a few flourishes of interest: The misdirection in terms of protagonist is gradually revealed and (somewhat unusually for the zombies/infected genre) the film leaves behind more characters than it kills graphically.  Heck, it’s probably the first time I have liked Piper Perabo in a film.  While Carriers never becomes anything more than a disposable, redundant post-apocalyptic film, but it’s not too bad within the confines of that genre.