(On DVD, November 2011) The problem with some movies based on TV shows is that if you haven’t seen the TV show… good luck. In this case, it took me a while to understand the basic core assumptions of the film (something that the deliberately over-the-top opening sequence doesn’t help) and then be disappointed that it was so sloppy. Language, violence and sexual references are all used indiscriminately in Reno 911!: Miami, and the result is definitively hit-and-miss. The low budget mockumentary aesthetics occasionally lead to interesting choices (such as having confrontation scenes all play within one long shot from a distance, or the uncut hotel room sequence), but most of it just recalls low-budget TV show cinematography. The humor isn’t necessarily accessible for those who haven’t seen the original TV show, although there are a few good gags here and there. The succession of big-name cameos can be interesting (Dwayne Johnson’s appearance even leads to an “alternate ending” elsewhere on the DVD where the film ends after twenty minutes) and the Miami locations are used effectively. But the film, even at 80 minutes, feels overlong: The main story too-effectively wraps up after slightly more than an hour, leading to an extended epilogue that saps the film’s energy. It’ll do if all you’re looking for is a police comedy… but Reno 911!: Miami is amongst the dumbest of them.
Norstrilia Press, 1983, 200 pages, ISBN 0-909106-12-6
Authors who publish at a very young age (that is; before they’re ready) should be aware that anything they’ve written remains in their bibliography forever. I’m not a big fan of holding earlier works against authors who later went on to write more polished works (everyone is allowed a few youthful indiscretions, and mine happen to be available elsewhere on this web site), but it’s certainly interesting to go and have a look at early works and draw links with what followed.
Ask around, for instance, and most Science-Fiction fans will tell you that Australian hard-SF superstar Greg Egan’s first novel was 1992’s Quarantine, published after Egan made a name for himself as a writer of fine short stories. The truth, as more knowledgeable bibliographers know, is that Egan’s real first novel publication dates back to 1983’s An Unusual Angle, a novel that straddles the line between psychological drama and deniable fantasy. Egan having being born in 1961, it would mean that the novel would have been written and published in his early twenties.
From the plot summary, we can guess that this is a novel by a writer barely out of school: It’s about a young man going through Australian high school and commenting on the inanity of what surrounds him. Our narrator tells us that he has a camera in his skull, but that he can’t get the film out. Much of the novel allows for some artistic discretion as to whether this is a literary device, a delusion or the truth. (The final chapter, if taken literally, settles the question more conclusively.)
The point of the conceit is to allow Egan to describe four years of high school with a strongly detached narrator and movie-based metaphors. Our narrator is brighter than anyone else around him, and seems passionate about film. He describes school assemblies on a shot-per-shot basis, with occasional flights of fancy disavowed a few lines later. Strongly isolated in his own head, the narrator has few (if any) friends, certainly nothing as conventional as a girlfriend and actually seems to despise both everyone and everything that’s not from him. The cumulative impact of such an attitude against the world is toxic; the narrator becomes obnoxious, as the narrative can’t seem to find any joy in the world. (And I say this as someone who often regarded high school in much the same “I’m bored; when does the real world begin?” attitude as our narrator here –twenty years of perspective works wonders at being embarrassed at our younger selves.)
Here and there, mind you, we can find glimmers of Egan’s later motifs and techniques. Our narrator is unusually quick to explain the world in scientific concepts that wouldn’t be out of place in much of Egan’s later fiction. The way he explains the camera in his skull is the kind of exotic biology that would pop up in his latter short stories. Furthermore, the impulsion to dismiss much of the imposed events of the ordinary world and seek excitement in outlandish fantasies is common to many hard-SF readers, regardless of their age.
All of these quirks and hints make An Unusual Angle an unusually interesting read, especially for those who have read nearly everything else by Egan. Even by SF standards, Egan often stands alone (his hard-SF novels often earn the distinction to be too hard for even dedicated hard-SF readers) and this sense of exceptionality permeates his first novel from beginning to end. While Egan hasn’t disavowed this novel, he may regard it as non-essential work: a trawl through his extensive web site reveals only two mentions of An Unusual Angle: Once within his official bibliography, and another within an interview discussion of early publishing efforts. So let us regard this first novel as a curio, and celebrate Quarantine as the real start of his body of work.
(In theaters, November 2011) Brett Ratner has never been accused of being an elitist director, and his latest Tower Heist is populist in more ways than one. A rob-the-rich comic thriller with the luck of being released just as the United States are developing their first wealth-equality protest movement in a long time, Tower Heist is just as mainstream-minded in the way it unfolds. The happy coincidence of showing up alongside various “Occupy” movements may not be an unqualified plus: The antagonist of the piece is sufficiently arrogant, cruel and unrepentant to qualify as a terrible human being without even invoking the populist rhetoric. Nonetheless, this is still a story about working-class ordinary people taking justice against rich people who stole from them –no matter how we may try to treat this as a standalone story, it does find a special resonance in a post-Madoff, post-financial crisis, post-recession American society. Fortunately, the film is entertaining enough on its own merits to avoid depending solely on current events: Ben Stiller is just fine as the savvy leader of the bunch trying to take away millions of dollars that Alan Alda’s super-rich character has stolen from their pension funds. Eddie Murphy is in rare form as an unrepentant criminal asked to use his skills for a slightly-greater goal. Supporting players such as Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe and Téa Leoni all get a few moments to shine. As for the rest of Tower Heist, it’s a slick big-budget heist film: clean cinematography, steady forward rhythm and a suitably hair-raising action climax set against a festive backdrop. Only the coda has the power to annoy in its insistence that the poor stealing from the rich must face the consequences of bucking the system. Still, the movie itself is entertaining enough, and the populist message is matched by its tone. Don’t expect anything out of the ordinary and you should like it.
(In theaters, November 2011) I’m glad to see that writer/director Andrew Niccol is back on-screen after a lengthy hiatus following the memorable Lord of War: With high-concept science-fiction thriller In Time, he recalls his even-more-memorable Gattaca in delivering an intriguing retro-futuristic allegory. In Time’s premise makes no sense, but it’s bluntly delivered within moments of the opening credits: All humans are genetically engineered so that they live “freely” until 25; after that, you have to purchase your own life… to immortality if you have enough time. Never mind how that happened; In Time picks up in a distant future where the system has been operational for centuries and where people never stop to question the artificial nature of the entire construct. That is, until a young day-to-day worker (played with some energy by Justin Timberlake) gets an unexpected gift of centuries and decides to go against the system following the death of his mom. There isn’t that much more plot to the movie than a slide into Bonnie and Clyde territory during the second half, but like Niccol’s own Gattaca and S1m0ne, In Time works far better as a fable than an attempt at realism. The stylised visual design of the film (which mixes influences from the forties to the seventies in a Los Angeles that feels out of time) is a clue that this is not meant to be take entirely at face value. Indeed, it’s a happy accident of release timing that In Time arrives in theaters during the first significant wealth-equality movement in a long time. “Occupy Wall Street” and “We are the 99%” happens to coincide strongly with the film’s populist leanings, and its make the film feel more satisfying in consequence. From a science-fictional perspective, In Time makes little sense either in conception or execution. It does, however, manage to extract quite a bit of mileage out of its premise, and feels like another decent SF movie in a year where (witnessing films such as Source Code, Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau) the genre has been blessed with a few competent outings. I suspect that many non-SF-fans will feel that In Time is a bit too cold and intellectual (a constant in Niccol’s films so far) to be truly satisfying, and they have a point: Still, it’s a decent, thought-provoking film –and let’s hope that Niccol’s next project won’t take another six years to arrive on-screen.
(In theaters, November 2011) Since Alexandre Dumas’ Les Trois Mousquetaires endures as a perennial adventure novel, it makes sense that every generation would seek to adapt it to its own liking. In 2011, this means an action-adventure film heavily influenced by steampunk tropes, blending cheerfully anachronistic machines with swordfights and derring-do. It won’t work if you’re predisposed against big dumb action B-movies. But if you do enjoy big dumb action B-movies, then this is a fine example of the form. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is a competent visual stylist, and his instinct for action sequence is better than most of his contemporaries. Holding back the quick-cutting out of concern for audiences watching this film shot in 3D, Anderson gives a good kinetic kick to The Three Musketeers and does justice to the fast-paced script. (Which is surprisingly faithful to the plot beats of the original novel, action movie theatrics being considered.) A number of capable actors hold their own in iconic role, whether it’s Anderson-favourite Milla Jovovich as Milady de Winter, Matthew Macfadyen as the deep-voiced Athos, and Christoph Waltz as the Cardinal Richelieu the film deserved. A number of well-executed action beat enliven the picture, all the way to the swashbuckling finale in which two lighter-than-air warships battle it out over Paris. Classic French literature has seldom felt so dynamic; there’s a definite Resident Evil tone to the film, all the way down to an epilogue that sets up the next installment. I’m game for any sequel, but keep in mind that I’m an indulgent viewer when it comes to action pictures. And before anyone asks, I am atoning for this good review of The Three Musketeers by finally reading the Dumas book.