Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hobo with a Shotgun</strong> (2011)

(In theatres, April 2011) Second full feature to emerge from the Grindhouse trailers, Hobo with a Shotgun proudly embraces its exploitation raison d’être and delivers an old-fashioned schlocky action B-movie.  Shot in Nova Scotia (and partially financed with Canadian tax dollars), this conscious attempt to re-create violent movies from the eighties straddles a fine line between ironic comedy and earnest mayhem.  The title is the plot of the film, set in a city that recalls the worst paranoid fantasies about New York at its lowest point of urban decay: It’s useless to discuss narrative coherence in a film that’s not meant to have much of it.  Fortunately, the exploitation-movie tone is well-captured: While the film is extremely gory, the violence feels more absurdly ridiculous than disgusting –and considering that an element of the climax is a lead character stabbing a villain with the exposed bones of a maimed arm, that’s saying something.  In-between the overdone synth-heavy score, spitting melodrama, garish colors, buckets of blood, grainy pictures and ham-fisted sequences of gratuitous evil, it goes without saying that this film will appeal to a certain viewership: It takes a special kind of cinematographic literacy to enjoy the retro-VHS atmosphere that make up this film’s peculiar charm.  Rutger Hauer growls his way expertly in the title role, while the villains make faces at the camera and Molly Dunsworth does her job just looking cute.  The end could have used an epilogue, there are a few underwhelming sequences in the mix and it would have been nice if, like Machette, the film could have included some deeper social relevance, but otherwise, it’s hard to think of a recent film that achieves its aim as surely as Hobo with a Shotgun… even if those aims are far, far below those of respectable cinema.

Limitless (2011)

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

(In theatres, April 2011) Newsflash : Smart movie about a smart man getting smarter pleases movie reviewer who think he’s smart.  Pro-intelligence biases made obvious, here’s what works in Limitless: a clever script that has way too much fun exploring the wish-fulfillment potential of artificially-enhanced intelligence; Neil Burger’s compelling direction; Bradley Cooper’s increasing stature as an actor who can do both charm and intelligence; an ending that’s considerably more upbeat than Alan Glynn’s source novel; and an overall attitude that, yes, more intelligence can actually be beneficial.  Even in indulging in such traditional faux-pas as voiceover narration and a flash-forward prologue, the script is witty, darkly amusing and ends on a high note.  Visually, Limitless deliberately flourishes along with its characters: the opening credits zoom-in alone is a thing of wonder.  There’s no doubt that Limitless could have been better: neither Abbie Cornish nor Robert de Niro have much to do; the main character isn’t as compelling as he should be; the ending is a bit rough (albeit kind of cool); some third-act revelations aren’t surprising and there are at least two really dumb plot holes that even moderately-smart viewers will be able to spot (ie: Always pay off your psychotic bookie first and Always secure your supply chain.)  Still, Limitless remains fun to watch and, significantly, marks the second of three decent SF film consecutively shown in theatres as of early April 2001 alongside The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code.  Who could complain?

Source Code (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Source Code</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, April 2011) I wasn’t as fond of Duncan Jones’ Moon as a lot of people were, but I was really interested in seeing his follow-up effort, and Source Code does not disappoint.  The theme of the deceived protagonist is still there, the setting is just as constrained and the scientific premises is just as wobbly (not to mention a nonsensical title), but Jones here has a bigger budget, a bigger concept, bigger stars and a faster pace.  Ben Ripley’s disaster-movie premise script is ingenious, but it’s paired with other well-paced revelations and the interweaving of both plotlines is effectively achieved.  Jake Gyllenhaal is hitting his stride as a heroic protagonist, with good supporting work from Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and a halting Jeffrey Wright.  Still, the real star here is writer/director Jones, who delivers a fast, clever and entertaining film with some depth and artful gloss.  The ending manages to be elegiac and optimistic at once, and provides a surprising amount of thematic depth for what could have easily been a straight-up genre exercise.  We don’t get quite enough SF movies like Source Code, but given the boost it will give to Jones’ career, chances are that we will get a few more.

Terminal Freeze, Lincoln Child

<em class="BookTitle">Terminal Freeze</em>, Lincoln Child

Doubleday, 2009, 320 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-51551-1

After years of joint bestselling success, it’s been interesting to see the Preston/Child writing duo strike out individually.  This now gives the prolific duo an average of three books per year, and presumably the opportunity to try things on their own that they wouldn’t attempt in their collaborations given readers’ expectations for the team.  They are, after all, seasoned writing professionals who fully understand the conventions of the thriller genre, and that usually works to their advantage.

Not always, though, and Lincoln Child’s Terminal Freeze is another example in his bibliography that shows how writers can combine original settings with familiar plot points and yet end up with disappointing novels.

To Child’s credit, it does take a long time for the disappointment to set in: As is often the case with high-concept thrillers, the first hundred pages are more interesting than the rest.  We find ourselves deep in Alaska, at a research facility loosely guarded by the US Army.  The first set of characters we meet are a group of scientists making the best out of global warming in studying the composition of retreating glaciers.  But a sudden break in the ice reveals something far more interesting: a creature of some sort, encased in a gigantic ice cube.  It doesn’t take much more to get a documentary film crew to land, taking over the camp in the name of TV entertainment.  Meanwhile, vague mystical portent of doom from the local native population and a few shocking documents discovered in a long-classified official archive set the stage for the inevitable upcoming doom.

The setting and its atmosphere are a good chunk of Terminal Freeze’s early interest.  The idea of a group of scientists working high above the Arctic Circle in one of the most isolated places in the world is good for a suspense story, and the sequence in which a character goes into a recently-declassified government archive to uncover an unexpected secret is the type of good foreboding sequence that any thriller ought to have.  Even as the plot pieces slowly come together, the arrival of a documentary crew and the subsequent look behind the scenes of a supposedly “documentary” shoot are good to keep up our interest.  (“You, scientist: look amazed!  Everyone else, act as if you’re seeing the creature for the first time!”)

Then it gets really familiar really quickly.  The large frozen cat that the scientists think they can glimpse in the ice proves to be something far more dangerous, and before long we get characters dying left and right, pursued in a military station by… a monster.

That’s the point where readers can be forgiven for thinking “Really?  Another monster thriller?” and losing interest in the novel.  Because, despite the interesting setting, Terminal Freeze soon succumbs to the theorem of converging premises and ends up feeling like countless monster movies of the past, with a small group of humans (scientists, soldiers, entertainers) doing their best to kill something that escapes the usual laws of nature.  A too-quick look at ice-trucking (a topic which would probably sustain a novel of its own) isn’t enough to save the latter half of Terminal Freeze from terminal boredom.  It’s trivially easy to guess who’s going to become monster-chow; it’s considerably harder to actually care about it.  The epilogue contains a revelation that will only be interesting to readers who aren’t used to Science-Fiction –which, to be honest, is probably most of the book’s audience: Child keeps writing SF novels disguised as thrillers, but uses those elements so loosely that they become frustrating to genre fans.  (It also helps if Child’s readership has a short memory, because Terminal Freeze ends on a note similar to the epilogue of his own previous Deep Storm.)

Terminal Freeze completes its dramatic arc by ploughing into the ground after a promising launch.  After four solo Child novels, this isn’t much of a surprise.  As a writer, his gift is for scene-setting… not plot development: Child follows genre conventions so faithfully that he doesn’t have room to breathe once he starts developing his stories.  All of his previous novels, from Utopia to Death Match to Deep Storm are blessed with great premises, but they all falter into more conventional novels by the time the second act rolls around.  The narrative momentum created in the first half of the book is usually enough to sustain readers through the less-interesting conclusions, but only just so.  Maybe there’s something to be said for the combined strengths of collaborations.

Son of Rambow (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Son of Rambow</strong> (2007)

(On DVD, April 2011) I was probably expecting a bit too much of this one.  Son of Rambow got great reviews and good word of mouth, but ultimately remains a kind of film that doesn’t really do much for me: a coming-of-age adventure in filmmaking featuring an irritating pair of characters and a love of making movies that feels more self-centered than infectious.  When a flamboyant minor character takes over the film to a degree that feels as if the movie should revolve around him, it’s a sign that the main attraction isn’t working.  Son of Rambow feels unpolished, scattered and even unpleasant at times: the gags play on nostalgia for the early eighties and a particular affection for the first Rambo film, neither of which I have in abundant quantities.  What remains is a tepid comedy, sometimes enlivened by welcome cinematic flights of fancy.  I suspect that Son of Rambow will strike a deeper chord with other viewers, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a bit of a snoozer.  The DVD supplements, including a making-of and an audio commentary track in which everyone and everything is brilliant or excellent, don’t do anything to make the film feel any better.

Black Snake Moan (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Black Snake Moan</strong> (2006)

(On DVD, April 2011) The marketing of this film scream southern exploitation, but the end result is more concerned with blues music and moral redemption than it is about tough-love cures for nymphomania.  Samuel L. Jackson turns in an impressive performance as a retired-bluesman gentleman farmer who sees himself obligated to reform a deeply troubled girl who ends up in his front yard.  (Christina Ricci, with a performance that’s both convincing and topless.) The surprise of the film however, is to see to what degree it manages to incorporate music as a guiding theme: Jackson himself is credible as a bluesman, and the soundtrack of the film holds up by itself.  But that’s not as much of a surprise when considering that Black Snake Moan (titled from a classic blues number) is written and directed by Craig Brewer, whose previous film was Hustle & Flow: The two films share a number of similarities going beyond southern atmosphere and setting, to disgraced protagonists finding redemption in music.  While Black Snake Moan doesn’t have many surprises and seems to move just a bit too slowly at times, it’s a success in presenting unusual characters in desperate situations and making us care for them.  Jackson is a force of nature in this film, and the nature of the character lets him show a little bit more of his range than usual.  The film isn’t nearly as offensive as the marketing would let you believe, and even if it cuts dramatic corners once in a while (the ending is a bit weak), it does feel a bit deeper than its first few minutes would suggest.  A few tonal adjustments may have helped make it a bit easier to consider… but would it have destroyed the film’s voice?  The DVD’s supplements (a few documentaries and an engaging commentary by director Brewer) lay to rest some of those questions as they explain the film’s origins in the director’s panic attacks, the weaving of musical and religious themes, as well as the advantages of shooting a film “at home” near Memphis.

Among Others, Jo Walton

<em class="BookTitle">Among Others</em>, Jo Walton

Tor, 2010, 302 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-2153-4

I have the good fortune to count Jo Walton amongst my acquaintances, and I only name-drop because I want to establish some credibility when I say that Among Others is a book much like Jo Walton herself: Smart, kind, funny, perceptive and unapologetically in love with written Science-Fiction and Fantasy.  The book itself is a subtle fantasy, a tribute to the power of reading as self-actualization and, I suspect, a fair chunk of autobiography as well.

Taking place in-between Wales and England, Among Others brings us back to the savage days of 1979-1980 in diary form.  Our narrator/heroine, Mori, is not in the best of circumstances.  She and her twin sister may have saved the world from the evil that is their mother, but not without consequences: her twin sister is dead, her mother hates her, and she’s been exiled to a boarding school in accursed England, far from home and the fairies that have come to be her companions.  Mercifully, Walton doesn’t go back in time to explain the backstory, instead focussing on Mori’s life at the boarding school and the difficult process of reintegration as she comes to grip with the death of her twin sister, one diary entry at a time.

As a fantasy novel, Among Other is subtle to the point of being almost deniable.  The fairies that occupy post-industrial Wales are neither good nor bad, but they certainly use Mori for their own end.  When she completes a ritual to shut down a poisonous factory near her town, it doesn’t crumble to dust as much as it closes down the next day, causing thousands to lose their jobs in the process.  Later, when Mori wishes for a group of like-minded people to ease her loneliness, she ends up discovering a local SF book club.  Magic, in Mori’s world, may be about rejigging cause-and-effect as much as it may be a metaphor for taking control one one’s destiny.  (Daydreaming between chapters of the novel, I found myself tangentially wondering about those people for whom everything seems to go right –it doesn’t take much to imagine them as unconscious magicians in a universe that allows for subtle nudges to destiny.)

A sufficiently blinkered reader could read Among Others as fanciful realism, but that’s missing the point of Walton’s affectionate blend of teenage memoirs, genre references and non-metaphorical fantasy elements.  While the paper-heavy ending has enough thematic resonances to make any book-lover purr aloud, it’s a real, albeit unconventional fantasy.  Any other kind of reading is being wilfully obstinate.

This being said, Among Others is most rewarding as a novel aimed at genre readers.  Mori, seeking reintegration in the absence of her twin sister and isolated by her exile to a boarding school, soon turns to the local library and the available genre fiction.  As a diary of an omnivorous teenage reader, Among Others is filled with in-jokes about classic Science Fiction and Fantasy as Mori reads a book every two days and jots down notes to herself.  It’s also, perhaps more crucially, an uplifting homage to books and to readers and how even lonely introverts can find a community and a place in the world.  Mori is a tough, resilient, sympathetic protagonist –the things she brushes off would traumatize most so-called “normal” people, and her genre-influenced mindset is another tool she uses to understand her environment.  Among Others will be a comforting read to anyone who spent a lot of time in libraries as a teenager, and those who even today, as fully-functional adults, can recall how they were shaped by their reading.

It all amounts to a lovely novel, fascinating in the details as much as it’s interesting in its overall dramatic arc.  I suspect that Among Others is designed to appeal first and foremost to avid readers; casual fans of fantasy may not find as much here to love as those who have undergone extended loneliness like Mori.  At the same time, it’s a fantasy novel that deals in shades of meaning, subtle moments and complex characters.  It’s satisfying from beginning to end, and it lends itself to fascinating conversations.  It’s an ideal novel for book-clubs and book lovers.

But don’t tell Jo I wrote that, as I have a contrarian reputation to maintain.

Ocean’s Eleven (1960)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Ocean’s Eleven</strong> (1960)

(On DVD, April 2011) Remakes should seek to improve on their originals, and the best way to do that is to remake something that failed to fully deliver on its promises.  So it is that if the 2001 remake Ocean’s Eleven is quite a bit better than its original 1960 incarnation, it’s in no small part due to how flawed the first film was.  The idea of robbing several Las Vegas casinos at once is good, but the limits of circa-1960 filmmaking and the indulgences of the film’s production combine to ensure that the film never fully takes off.  Part of the problem is seeing a fifty-year-old film: expectations have risen dramatically in expecting a film to reflect reality, and watching Ocean’s 11 now is a reminder about soundstage filming, languid pacing, unconvincing blocking and non-naturalistic dialogue: The film feels fake even without getting into the very different reality of 1960. Never mind the fashions: how about the casual racism and sexism?  Adding to the film’s very distinctive nature is the nature of the production itself, mixing musical numbers with then-celebrity cameos, often to puzzling effect such as when Shirley MacClaine stops the film cold for two minutes’ worth of drunken lushness, or when Sammy Davis Jr. allows himself a tune or two.  Still, even a flawed Ocean’s 11 is worth watching: “E-O-Eleven” sticks in mind, the time-warp effect is fascinating (from 1960, keep in mind that World War Two was less than fifteen years distant –shorter than the Gulf War is to 2011), the coolness of the characters still works and if the film itself feels artificial and interminable, some individual moments stand out.  The remake is sufficiently different (and better) that it doesn’t spoil the original.  The “Danny Ocean box-set” DVD comes with a welcome assortment of extra features, including an audio commentary.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Lincoln Lawyer</strong> (2011)

(In theatres, April 2011) There’s been a dearth of courtroom drama over the past few years, and The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t just a good return to the form, it’s about as good an adaption of Michael Connelly’s original novel as fans could have hoped for.  As with most readers of the book learning about the film’s casting, I wasn’t sold on Matthew McConaughey as protagonist-lawyer Mickey Haller: I had always envisioned Haller as more mature and cynical than McConaughey’s typical romantic-comedy laid-back persona.  So it’s a surprise to see him return to serious drama as an older, wiser, far worldlier presence, fully comfortable in the role of a professional defence lawyer operating from his chauffeur-driven car.  Brad Furman’s direction fully embraces the California-noir style of the novel, Los Angeles’ broad avenues offering as many dangers as tiny back-streets.  The cinematography is bright, sunny, energetic and compelling.  Rounding up the main cast are good supporting performances by Ryan Phillippe (detestable as always), Marisa Tomei and William H. Macy.  While the twists and turns of the plotting are familiar, they’re well-handled and make up for a refreshing legal drama that proves that execution is often more important than fresh concepts.  The Lincoln Lawyer may be less reflective about the role of defence lawyers than the book, but it still delivers enough legal manoeuvres to keep things interesting.  For some, it may be the start of a franchise (there are now three further Haller adventures on the shelves); for most, though, it’s a solid, well-paced, well-made crime drama with a cynical smirk: Exactly the kind of film that’s always welcome.