(In theaters, May 2011) I went into this film not understanding why it existed, and came out of it just as baffled. Granted, I’m not a fan of the comic-book character: I don’t even recall reading an issue of the source material. But unlike better comic-book movies, Thor has no point, no thematic depth and no reason for existing other than setting up the upcoming Avengers film. (At best, those looking for a message will find out that it’s anti-adoption agitprop.) As the film sets up its background in the fantasyland of Asgard, I found myself wishing that the film could go back to Earth, to Natalie Portman (as little as she has to do here) and to something I could care about. Otherwise, it’s all pompous accents, aliens, palace intrigue and invented mythologies that (I’m guessing) teenagers will love a lot more than I do. Am I losing the ability to care about fantasy movies? Maybe, but it’s not as if Thor gives me any reason to care. I’ll grant at least one thing, though: it’s got a certain visual style, and some of the Asgard sequences are pretty. Chris Hemsworth is also very good in the title role: Few other actors could have pulled the arch dialogue and regal bearing without looking ridiculous. Otherwise, it’s more interesting to see how the film exists in continuity with the other Marvel-universe movies, from the return appearance of a few SHIELD agents to Jeremy Renner’s cameo as Hawkeye to the now-requisite post-credit sequence. While I wouldn’t go as far as calling Thor dull or uninvolving, it does feel like a low-expectation, low-results kind of film: the scaled-back main-street fight scene is a clear example of that. Thor does brings back to mind the kind of underwhelming comic-book films that we used to get before filmmakers realized that they had to put some depth into it. To say that Kevin Branagh is behind it all almost boggles the mind.
Pyr, 2010, 358 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-61614-204-9
I was about to begin this review by writing that I didn’t know when Ian McDonald went from “an uneven writer” to “buy-on-sight” in my reviewer’s mind, but that’s not true: I happened sometime in 2005 during my reading of River of Gods, a novel that has since gone on to become a minor SF classic of the last decade. River of Gods took MacDonald’s interest for non-western cultures and combined it with a more disciplined reader-friendly approach than many of his more experimental novels. Taking place in future India, the result was also billed as the first in a loose thematic “emerging superpowers” trilogy. Brasyl followed in 2007 by doing justice to the South American country, and now The Dervish House takes on the growing importance of Turkey as a bridge between Europe and Asia.
From the novel’s first moments, we’re thrown into near-future Istanbul, during a torrid week in which six characters will see their entire lives change. Through McDonald’s sure-footed narration (which begins with a literal bird’s eye view of the city), we’re introduced to the six characters and subplots that will form the strands of the novel’s plot. It’s obvious from the get-go that MacDonald has done his research, and that he’s able to weave it into a compelling number of narratives. Before long, we’re asked to care about emerging nanotechnology, corporate malfeasance, century-old legends, terrorism and everything else in the characters’ lives. MacDonald seems equally at ease telling honey-infused fables or describing how a corporation can be shut down by the state. The Dervish House is a novel that’s wider than it is deep, and it’s this variety of mood, styles, stories and characters that make up most of the book’s interest.
After the stylistic and subject matter pyrotechnics of Brasyl, The Dervish House feels quite a bit more grounded in reality. Turkey, after all, is not Brazil, and MacDonald’s stylistic approach tries to be appropriate to the Turkish future he’s describing. (The Dervish House isn’t about plot as much as it’s about setting.) So it is that The Dervish House shows a country trying to embrace both a proud tradition and the possibilities offered by new technologies. Istanbul not only bridges two continents, it acts as a passage from the past to the future.
This being said, my praise comes with a few slight caveats. For one thing, the unconnected six-strand narrative means that not all sequences are equally interesting –a number of readers will find themselves flipping impatiently through some passages while they await the next one to interest them. (More than once, I found myself waiting to go back to the art-dealer’s quest to find the possibly-mythical Mellified Man.) I also wonder if the broad nature of the novel makes it more difficult to follow than one that focuses on a strong plot line. Not every reader is going to react as positively to a novel that features a city more prominently than human characters, and some SF fans will be disappointed at the novel’s low-octane technological speculations. By taking on a near-future world dealing with the first practical applications of nanotechnology, MacDonald reins in his extrapolations and tries to ground them to a believable reality: it does feels like a mild let-down after the strong-AI speculations of River of Gods and the wild parallel universes of Brasyl.
Yet the result in an impressive entry in a bibliography that only seems to become stronger with time. MacDonald has, in-between River of Gods and this most recent novel, re-established himself as one of the most interesting SF writer currently working. The Dervish House is a prototypical Big Science Fiction novel: Dense, well-researched, well-written and intellectually hefty. It’s a good example of the kind of worldwide horizons the genre has taken on over the past decade, and not even its built-in flaws can distract pundits from affirming that it’s one of the best novels of the year. It got a well-deserved Hugo Nomination and outclasses the other novels on the ballot. Few “Best-SF books of 2010” lists won’t include this novel.
(On DVD, May 2011) As much as writer/director Christopher Guest’s ensemble improvisation mockumentaries have produced some gems in the past (Best in Show), the format can also be a recipe for an unfocused mess, and that’s pretty much what happens with For Your Consideration. Another Hollywood home movie that probably feels funnier to the filmmakers than the filmgoers, For Your Consideration depicts the sudden accession to stardom that veteran actors can face. As their film earns favourable buzz and increased media attention, the protagonists react in different ways that show variations on Hollywood’s fundamental insecurities. So far so good; alas, I never completely bought into the film’s reality: Awards buzz starts once the film is completed and shown to audiences, not while it’s shooting; furthermore, actors who run good chances of being Oscar-nominated usually end up with a slew of other awards and nominations, making the film’s downfall moments ring a bit hollow. It really doesn’t help that For Your Consideration seems to be running everywhere without focus, lame scenes flashing by without necessarily making a point. (Tellingly, the DVD contains a number of deleted scenes that don’t appear any more or less funny than what’s in the film itself –the sole exception being more of Nina Conti’s delightful ventriloquism.) Even the film’s lack of time/space unity (jumping months forward in time after a lengthy first segment) seems just as sloppy as the rest of the picture. The actors are fine (Fred Willard is hilarious as usual), some of the material is admirable and the glimpse behind the Hollywood mythmaking machine is amusing, but it just doesn’t cohere into anything as good as it should be. At least the DVD audio commentary makes it clear that the largely-improvised filmmaking process is to blame.
(On DVD, May 2011) Will Ferrell’s usual kind of comedy leaves me cold, but various people kept telling me that Anchorman wasn’t just “any other Will Ferrell movie.” They’re right, but not by much: While Anchorman does indeed feel like a more fully-featured comedy than “any other Will Ferrell movie”, in large part due to the comic intent to revisit the TV news universe of the seventies, it doesn’t stray too far away from the arrested adolescence, casual misogyny and profane nonsense that seems to characterise his career. While Anchorman seemingly wants to be making some kind of statement about dumb patriarchy facing the rise of professional women, it does seem to enjoy making sexist jokes quite a bit and for the entire duration of the film. What it does have running for it, however, is a large streak of absurdist comedy, a fair number of catchphrases (“Stay classy, San Diego”), the sense that there are a few attempts at characterization (Ferrell’s “Ron Burgundy” goes beyond being Ferrell to an actual comic character) and an all-out brawl that serves a better purpose as an on-screen reunion of several film comedians from Ben Stiller to Vince Vaughn to Tim Robbins. Christina Applegate also holds her own against the boys of the picture, which isn’t a small achievement given how often she’s the butt of the jokes. It’s not exactly a bad film, but it’s largely a useless one, and trying to listen to the DVD commentary only highlights that point. The irony is that there’s a good film to be made about the golden time of “Action TV News” in the seventies… but Anchorman isn’t really interested in more than low comedy.
(On DVD, May 2011) The mismatched-traveling-companion thing has been a comedy staple for years, so it’s no real surprise if Due Date immediately feels familiar, and if its strengths lie elsewhere than originality. Here, the premise seems custom-tailored for exploiting the comic personas of its two lead actors: Robert Downey Jr. as a high-strung professional prone to bursts of pure anger; and Zach Galifianakis as yet another supposedly-lovable loser. The plot takes them on a transcontinental journey from Atlanta to Los Angeles, but that’s really an excuse to set up one comic situation after another as two men who can’t stand each other eventually learn to –well, no big surprise there. Whether the film works hinges on how much you like those characters and the situation they get into: While Downey’s physical aggressiveness can be amusing, Galifianakis’s comic persona is more annoying than anything else, whereas the film’s constant drug-related jokes is enough to remind audiences that the current flavour for R-rated comedies seems to be frat-boy arrested development (Significantly, Due Date is billed as being from “the director of Old School and The Hangover”). The film doesn’t have plot-holes as much as it has rigidly predetermined sequences in mind: There’s enough plot-fairy dust in there to choke anyone wondering why these two characters would keep staying together, or how long it takes to “detour” by the Mexican border. There are, to be fair, a number of good sequences here and there: Jamie Foxx makes an entertaining cameo, and there is some impressive car stunt work for what is, after all, supposed to be just a regular comedy. As a “regular comedy”, though, it falters in reaching for deeper emotional meaning: Attempts to raise tears don’t really work when the rest of Due Date feels so childish, and particularly fade when compared to Planes, Trains and Automobiles which is still the most relevant reference in the traveling-horrors comedy genre.
Orbit, 2010, 574 pages, C$12.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-316-08105-4
Hugo Nominee season can be tedious, frustrating or surprising, depending on one’s expectations about the actual nominees. I was primed to dislike Mira Grant/Seana McGuire’s Feed almost from the time I held it in my hands. Count the strikes: Not only is it another gosh-darn zombie novel, it’s also the avowed first in an trilogy and is printed in the more expensive tall-paperback format that I irrationally dislike so much. Three strikes, right there.
Hence my surprise, a few dozen pages in, to realize that I was actually enjoying the novel. Never mind the tall-paperback format, which is an idiosyncratic antipathy of mine; I can even deal with the first-in-a-trilogy factor when a novel is reasonably complete by itself. But even the zombie aspect eventually won me over. While this isn’t a new World War Z, Feed manages to do a few interesting tricks with its concept. For one thing, this is a science-fiction novel as much as it’s a horror one. In practical terms, this means that Feed takes place twenty years after a world-wide zombie outbreak (caused by a mutant virus that still courses through everyone’s veins), and that it shows us a world that has reached an accommodation with the fact that just about anyone is liable to turn into a zombie at a moment’s notice. Feed takes the time to describe how its teenage protagonists have gotten used to the constant threat, and the ways in which society has implemented the necessary safeguards. There’s a fair amount of speculative content here that goes beyond what a routine horror novel would have been expected to deliver, and much of my appreciation of the novel is based on the resulting world-building.
The other facet that works relatively well is the characterization of the story’s protagonist. Our narrator is Georgia Mason, an articulate blogger who has managed to earn media credentials for the 2024 presidential election. Along with her impulsive brother Shaun and a number of collaborators, they get to follow a candidate, suffer through random acts of violence and expose a massive conspiracy. What fun!
Still, Georgia is an engaging narrator, and Shaun proves to be a competent foil once we go beyond his daredevil façade. The other characters are handled with a decent amount of skill, and the novel is almost utterly readable from beginning to end. Strong sequences punctuate the novel at regular intervals, whereas the mechanics of a post-zombified blogging network prove more interesting than expected. There are a few unusual plotting twists toward the end of the story that both kick it up a notch and raise structural questions about what should have been kept in stock for the second novel. I closed Feed with the surprised satisfaction of a reader who got more than expected out of an unpromising title.
Don’t think, however, that I’m completely happy with the novel. The blogging triumphalism of the novel would have felt fresh and fascinating in, say, 2004. In 2010, however, it feels dated, ignoring the way blogs have been re-integrated in mainstream media and how little original content is actually being produced by the blogosphere. I understand that Feed exists at the borderline between a Young Adult novel and an adult one, and that the blogging conceit is a really smooth way to land teenage protagonists into a high-stakes political showdown. Still, bit and pieces of the novel’s background don’t feel as credible as the rest, and small dings like those accumulate, especially in a novel that depends so much on the illusion of a credible world. I was also less than convinced at the way some of the background came together, some unquestioned assumptions clashing with what we were told about the nature of the world. (Think real hard about either restaurants or political rallies in a world where people are liable to spontaneously turn into zombies.)
So it is that even though I like Feed quite a bit more than expected, I feel almost forced to qualify this recommendation with a dash of indulgence and warning. A good read; sure. A Hugo nominee? Well, 2010 wasn’t such a good year… and Feed easily outclasses at least three of the five other current nominees. It’s been a weak enough year that any half-satisfying book is good enough for me. I will even read the sequel.
Blackout: Bantam Spectra, 2010, 491 pages, C$18.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-345-51983-2
All Clear: Bantam Spectra, 2010, 640 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-80767-7
I had little intention of reading Blackout/All Clear before it was nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards. I quite like Connie Willis as a person (one of my proudest achievements as a panellist at SF conventions was making her laugh at the other end of the table), but I’ve had mixed reactions to her fiction and the sight of a story big enough to run over two thick separate volumes wasn’t reassuring to me after her overlong 2001 novel Passage.
Then it got nominated for the Hugo Awards, as Connie Willis fiction usually is.
But now that I’ve read the diptych, I trust my first instincts more than ever. Another rethread in her “Fire Watch” universe in which innocent time-traveling historians get lost in history due to academic incompetence (and subsequently have terrible things happen to them), Blackout/All Clear showcases the British experience during World War 2. It plays in a sombre key and, judging by its length and scope, is clearly meant to be a major entry in Willis’ bibliography.
The set-up will be familiar to anyone who has read Willis’ 1992 Hugo-Winning Doomsday Book: By 2060, the Oxford History department may have a time machine, but they’re woefully disorganized, can’t seem to get the knack of twentieth-century wireless communication devices, and seem content to let academic incompetence run the show. The rest of the story is just as obvious: When three historians are sent to World War 2 and seem to be prevented from making it back to their rendezvous point to return to 2060, something is afoot. Is it simply coincidence or the fabric of time getting unravelled? Are our protagonists stuck forever in the 1940s or will they find their way back home?
Not to spoil anything, but there are three possible answers to what can happen to misplaced time travelers. They can either come back home the easy way (via time machine), come back home the hard way (which involves a lot of waiting) or they can die. There are three historians. You can guess what’s likely to happen to each of them.
What’s harder to figure out, however, is how or why an established institution like Oxford can’t arrange a time-travel post office somewhere in its vaults for stranded travelers to send messages forward in time. But then again, idiot plotting has often been a staple of Willis’ fiction, and we get a lot of it stretched over the story’s 1,200+ pages. People not communicating essential information to each other; so-called trained historians not knowing basic facts about their era of study; woefully misused technology; fake suspense due to authorial intervention… Blackout/All Clear often shows the not-so-hidden hand of the writer moving her pieces on the chessboard, not out of organic plot development, but out of arbitrary decree. The lengthy result, properly edited, could have been much shorter.
But Willis has clearly researched her subject in detail, and seems determined to make readers suffer for that accumulation of knowledge. The day-to-day details of life in WW2 London are described at length, almost as if Willis couldn’t decide whether she wanted to write a Science Fiction novel or a historical one. In light of this over-accumulation of detail, it’s ironic that a number of other online commentators have commented (also at length) about the various inaccuracies in the book. As a Canadian who traveled to London exactly once, I couldn’t make the difference most of the time… but even the colonial bumpkin that I am raised an eyebrow at the mention of the “Jubilee line” [All Clear, p.315], which wasn’t finished until 1979 and named after an event that took place in 1977!
The pacing of both books is glacial, and the suspense in following the characters as they seem to have been stranded in time through the whims of a capricious universe feel increasingly hollow as the plotting rests on a heap of contrivances. One character seemingly dies so many times that by the time the Big Finish finally happens, we feel incredulous, cheated and unsatisfied. The big cosmological question that obsesses our characters about their time-traveling slippage deflates to almost nothing by the end, while the romantic opportunities offered by time-travel and a mismatched couple seem to disappear underneath the rest of the novel’s endless course. There is, to be fair, a good novel buried somewhere in Blackout/All Clear: A short 400-pages novel, ruthlessly edited to actually focus on something. Willis, alas, has now escaped most editing rigor. While I can’t say that I disliked Blackout/All Clear that much, I did feel as if it was purposefully wasting my time.
[August 2011: Well huh: Blackout/All Clear won this year’s Hugo Award for best Novel.]